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Another Year (2010)
Deep, intense and compassionate slice out of life
21 October 2010
In Mike Leigh's new slice of life, Another Year, a married couple who have managed to remain blissfully happy into their crumbling autumn days are surrounded over the course of the four seasons of one seemingly average year by friends, colleagues, and family, many of whom appear to suffer some degree of unhappiness or at least confusion. The film is nicely segmented into chapters, following the seasons. All of life is there - from birth, to a funeral. Strangely, or conveniently, given the apparently troubled lives all round, She works as a psychotherapist, while He builds things, but both spend their spare time together growing vegetables in their allotment. Mary, the secretary in her clinic, takes over the centre of the story as she gradually moves into more of everyone's lives. Or perhaps it's just that the film gradually opens up the relationship that was already there. Just as it is with all the extra characters. As it's a Mike Leigh film, all the actors will all have been living "in character" for maybe six months before breezing through, stirring up the plot with their back story and emotional infrastructure.

Lesley Manville, as Mary, the lonely and unstable girl of a certain age - 40, going on 17, really steals this in the final part, which gets even more intense than the rest of it. One thing I noticed right away was that adding to the intensity of the Mike Leigh close-ups, it's all shot in high-definition digital. But in the end it's the total effect that works. The apparent non-acting. The marvellous thing about Leigh is the way he shows really ordinary people doing really ordinary things and makes them really important. He is so compassionate towards everyone in his stories. You just can't help caring, too.
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Lowlife bohemia collides with 50's Hollywood
21 October 2010
The life story of Serge Gainsbourg had to be filmed, and as he's one of the famous Frenchmen who aren't in fact Belgian, it's only a surprise that it took so long. That his life spanned the Nazi occupation to the rise of Disco would stretch credibility if this were fiction, but as it's all more or less true the director, who is already an accomplished graphic artist, manages to lift it to the level of slightly absurd fiction. Mixing in animation, self-consciously stagey sets and a life-sized puppet as Gainsbourg's dreaded alter ego.

Even the sordid lowlife is given the big treatment, and the early days in the garret look unashamedly glamorous as they would if re-imagined for an opera set or a Salvador Dali dream sequence, as director Joann Sfar lays it on with a trowel.

The episodic nature of the story gives it a rather patchy feel though, and I couldn't help thinking that one or two episodes, especially the cute Hollywood-style musical scene with Brigitte Bardot, could have been shorter. Bardot was just one of the high-profile women Gainsbourg captured, and so was the muse of the existentialists, Juliette Greco.The casting is pretty uncanny with the possible exception of Greco, who was never that model-thin.

Gainsbourg has always been, at least outside France, more famous for being cool than for his music. But his reworking of La Marseillaise which so upset the rightwing patriots of the Seventies was nothing but excellent. I'll go back just to hear that Sly and Robbie riddim one more time.

Quite a substantial feast but it's worth building up an appetite in advance. And of course, you get Jane Birkin and... That Song.
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Delicate but vibrant, hand-carved charmer
21 October 2010
The long-awaited follow-up to Belleville Rendez-Vous is out at last, and director Sylvain Chomet must be the number one in a field of one, when it comes to contenders for making a long-lost Jaques Tati script into a feature-length animation.

The underlying premise of the story here is the same as in all Tati's films: Old is Good, New is Bad. Variety theatre conjurer Monsieur Taticheff is one of the last of the old troupers as TV and rock 'n' roll kill off music hall in the late 1950s. In search of gigs, he takes his grumpy old rabbit and leaves Paris for London, then heads north to the Scottish isles and finally Edinburgh. Along the way he is joined by bored and lonely little Alice, who believes his tricks are the real thing. He has to take on menial jobs to keep up the illusion of magically producing yet more gifts for her.

The Paris, London, countryside and Edinburgh of the Fifties are lovingly recreated in charming detail, always bathed in the warm light of nostalgia, and all people - and even the animals - are extreme caricatures while being totally sympatico. The hand-drawn, hand-carved feel of the whole film is greatly added to by some amazing special effects, and not surprisingly with Chomet, there is some genuine magic tucked in there, too. There's just too much in almost every scene to grasp at one sitting, from the crowded country pub to the busy, aerial views of Edinburgh and, like Belleville, it will bear several return visits. It's a truly fantastic ode to the theatre, pre-motorway Britain, Jaques Tati himself and the bitter-sweet meaning of life.
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Mother (2009)
Funny, horrifying thriller with multiple twists
21 October 2010
Warning: Spoilers
Right from the start, the new film from Korean director Boon Joon-hu is fairly unsettling, as the Mother of the title performs a lonely dance on a hillside. We can't see if it's a dance of joy or a dance of sorrow as she keeps changing sides. Is she dancing for herself, or for someone else? It turns out that the whole film is like this. Each time you think to yourself that, Oh, it's an eccentric, off the wall but charming tale with echoes of the Coen brothers, or - Aha, it's Hitchcock at his most seductive and alarming, you find it taking yet another twist.

The mother is obsessively devoted to her childlike adolescent son. When he gets into trouble she becomes a detective to clear him of the charges against him, but she goes beyond that in her determination to get him home. As she hires thugs and chases suspects the plot dives into deeper and darker places in a mystery worthy of Agatha Christie or Raymond Chandler, regardless of genre. By the end I was speechless and aghast, not only because I had no idea about how to review this without giving it all away.

Mother is funny, aggravating, sexy, horrifying and tragic. Pure theatre in its grandest form, translated to cinema.
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The Concert (2009)
An explosion of desperate comedy, melancholy drama and passion
21 July 2010
The Concert is a French/ Italian/Romanian/Belgian production shot in Moscow and Paris. The publicity blurb says that the musical finale is worth the ticket price alone, but I would say even reading the list of exotic names floating over the opening credits is worth a good percentage of the price.

We travel back 30 years to when Andrei, talented young conductor of the Bolshoi Orchestra, was humiliated and sacked by Breshnev for refusing to get rid of his Jewish musicians. Fast forward to the present, and we find him still working at the Bolshoi - but as a cleaner. One lucky day he finds himself alone with the office fax machine. What follows is an audacious plot to get his old sidekicks to Paris, using borrowed instruments, hired suits and fake passports, posing as the real Bolshoi for a concert at the Theatre du Chatelet. If you can imagine a story as full of colour and drama as the TV rock 'n' roll serial epic Tutti Frutti, jammed into just one cinema experience, this could be it. It's rare to see so many set pieces in one film.

I laughed out loud once or twice - and if you know what a grumpy old man I am you would realise what that means. I was also moved to tears, but I'm not telling you why. That would spoil it all - just saying that under its layer of manic fast-cut comedy the story carries a deep, dark and passionate secret which gradually reveals itself as the comedy peels off. The music is, I have to add, beautiful - whether it's Roma dance jigs in the street or Tchaikovsky in the concert hall. Bring a hanky!
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Sophisticated and powerful thriller
12 April 2010
After Roman Polanski's unfortunate experiments with digital effects in The Pianist and Oliver Twist, he has apparently returned to making movies that look real. Although perhaps it's just that we can no longer see the joins. There is something about that sea sky, though...

Anyway, The Ghost looks at first like the kind of extremely edgy, semi journalistic film Michael Winterbottom has practically made his own. Ewan McGregor is a ghostwriter, hired to sex up the memoirs of former Prime Minister Pierce Brosnan. The previous writer has already died in mysterious circumstances. To say that Brosnan's character is loosely based on Tony Blair would be a gross understatement. He even manages that Blair grin, and once actually says that he "honestly believed" he was right. His after-life is extremely lucrative and his public appearances are met with angry placard-waving crowds. Most of the banners contain the word, LIAR. This might look at first glance, a wee bit polemical, but whatever its driving force is, it's a powerful film in its own right. After the ghost writer is driven, planed and boated to a top-secret hideaway to complete the memoirs, the plot starts unravelling as the fictional ex-PM is accused of war crimes and of having links with the CIA in acts of torture and murder. The Ghost slowly goes from being a hack writer-for-hire to being an investigative journalist.

His problem is that as he is a writer by nature and not a private eye, he just can't keep his mouth shut when he stumbles on ever more enormities even when he's on the run.

It's a wry, sexy and gripping thriller, full of joined-up thinking, easily as complex as anything by Raymond Chandler and framed in a production of rare sophistication.
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I Am Love (2009)
Passion without the blood
3 April 2010
If grandiose melodrama about big, unimaginably rich families are your bag, I Am Love is just the film for you. It's very much like Antonioni's studies of how dreadfully boring it can be to be fabulously rich and cut off from the real world. This tale takes a little while to find its direction, and at first the camera just seems to follow anyone around like a stray dog, as long as they are on-screen, but Tilda Swinton, as the blonde Russian who married into this extended Italian family, comes to dominate the picture as her attraction to her son's best pal grows in intensity. Certainly not the kind of movie ideally seen on a tiny screen, this would have been most at home in the giant three-tier cinemas that led the golden age of the Forties and Fifties. The camera is outrageously adventurous in ways hardly possible in those bygone days though, apparently floating unsupported through doors and down stairwells in spectacular long takes, topping the kind of tricks Alfred Hitchcock used to play with less sophisticated technology. The story's not bad, too; if just too much like its subject - passion, buried under propriety.
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Lourdes (2009)
Ambiguous, finely acted drama of motivations and convictions
17 March 2010
Warning: Spoilers
Surrounded as we are with noisy and highly coloured new films, not least Avatar, it comes either as a balm or an intense irritant to see one like Lourdes, depending on your attention span.

Not surprisingly, this is set in the major pilgrim attraction of Lourdes, and as it opens to the strains of the most beautiful song ever written, Ave Maria of course, with nurses helping disabled and elderly pilgrims to their dining tables, you can guess there isn't going to be much rock'n'roll in this.

Christine, the central character, is wheelchair-bound due to multiple sclerosis. She is on the trip with a church group although she isn't all that sold on religion. She shares a room with another woman, who may be her long-time carer or just another traveller. Early in the visit she has a mysterious half-conversation with the handsome uniformed alpha male. Several other sub-plots are hinted at through fleeting glimpses of the action.

Christine apparently becomes one of the lucky few to enjoy a miracle cure at Lourdes, which is the turning point for all within range including the officer, the inept priest, her room-mate and a couple of fellow travellers whose attitudes become less than charitable.

The story is told through Christine's face much of the time, and could almost work as a silent film. It inevitably has touches of satire, given the setting, but it's cloaked in so much ambiguity that it resembles a David Lynch work. According to my friend, the theme must be the interplay between substance and appearance(both in themselves Catholic obsessions); the difficulty in finding a literal absolute in either, being echoed in the ending. If you can see Lynch's Mulholland Drive as black coffee, this is the Earl Grey tea.

And whatever your poison is, you will have a lot to talk, even argue, about after the Lourdes experience.
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Micmacs (2009)
Exhilarating bag of tricks
16 February 2010
By the director of Delicatessen and Amelie, this is closer to the earlier one. It's that mad jumble of images and daring camera-work again. And again it turns out to be a film quite unlike the one you were expecting. I'm sure someone has said this somewhere already, but it's worth repeating. I'm talking about Fellini on acid.

After an electrifying prologue in which our hero is orphaned, the screen explodes into a big-budget retro Hollywood opening and the story begins.

Almost right away our man Bazil, played by star of the French screen Danny Boon, is wounded by a stray bullet, losing his job after a long spell in hospital. He's saved from oblivion by a family of freaky misfits who live underground, surviving by rescuing the junk society throws out and giving it new life.

What Bazil really wants is to get his own back on the two arms manufacturers who messed up his life, and his new friends are the perfect mates for carrying out such a scheme. They include a human cannonball, a numbers genius, a circus contortionist and a robot inventor, and their plots are just as wacky as they are.

Talking of plots, the story, packed though it is with fantastic imagery as if it were a story about bad adults written by very clever children, races along regardless. The scene where Bazil gets shot is itself so much more than a simple zap with a bullet. It's a short film in itself, and the whole thing is full of chunks like that. It really is too much to eat at one sitting, and I would recommend a second look. You'll probably see me there, in the front row, my jaw in my lap.
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The return of big cinema
12 February 2010
The Last Station is described as a melodrama - and I would say that's a fair description. It's the kind of film they don't really make any more. The spirit of David Lean lives on. It's beautiful to look at, for a start, and the music is genuinely incidental, lushing away in the background. We all know that Leo Tolstoy wrote a book, although few of us have the nerve to actually sit down and get to grips with War And Peace. But there was more to the great man than that - in his time he was regarded as godlike, and enjoyed a fairly big cult following, the Tolstoyan Movement, devoted to goodness, purity and equality - as long as it didn't mean the end of the deferential lower classes.

Tolstoy's young secretary Valentin is dropped into this, at the deep end. The 19th century Russian hippies, the fanatically devious disciple Chertkov who wants the great man to sign away the rights to his work, to the Russian People; the hard-pressed but manipulative wife determined to keep it in the family. And the girl who introduces the young man to the pleasures of the flesh. It's a great cast, headed by the unrecognisable Christopher Plummer, and the always marvelous Helen Mirren. The constant undertone in Tolstoy's saga is the disparity between his wish for a good life for the peasants, and the sight of those peasants beavering away in the background while the upper classes get on with their lives of pampered angst.

It's the growing struggle between the disciple and the wife, with the secretary pulled between new and conflicting loyalties, that will grab your attention. You really will care about these people. And what follows is the melodrama. I will say no more, except that it's a big story, told big. Just what Norma Desmond told us we had lost.
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Ponyo (2008)
A great artist in the service of pink fluffiness
12 February 2010
Well, call me a grumpy old sod, but I found the new animated feature by Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki, who brought you Howl's Moving Castle, just a little too pink and fluffy for my taste.

It's a marvelous piece of animation though, apart from the sketchy backgrounds, and crammed full of so much more life than you would expect in most hand-carved movies. It's loosely based on the story of the Little Mermaid. Ponyo is a tiny goldfish who escapes from the sea and befriends a little boy, Sosuke. Their friendship builds on Ponyo's desire to become a human, but her magic making to achieve this results in the sea rebelling against the land. The question is then: how to get the natural world back in balance, so that we can safely return to burning fossil fuels. Yes - that's how the tale is told - I'm not being an old cynic here.

It's beyond being cute, though, and the American version adds to the sweetness by giving all voices a gloss of warm suburbia, and although the menacing sea is convincingly frightening, the overall feeling is of a world where everything will turn out for the best regardless. Not as Terry Gilliam would do it!

Worth seeing, though, for the truly masterful artwork. Great stuff for the kids, although whoever you are I recommend leaving in haste before the slappy-happy end credit music. Hrrmph!
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A beguiling 'trojan horse' full of deep unease
14 November 2009
The White Ribbon is the latest from that master of creepy unease, Michael Haneke. But where Funny Games and Hidden were very much set in the urban present, this takes place in a vanished world, an Austrian farming village just before World War One.

The village is dominated by three men, the unlovable Baron, the despicable doctor and the convincingly monstrous village minister. They are surrounded by a web of apathy, malice, brutality and envy. As the Baron's wife said! But in the midst of all this innocence blossoms, as the narrator, the young schoolteacher, falls in love with the even younger nanny in the big house.

It's been shot in colour and printed in near monochrome, making each shot as worthy of framing as in any film-noir, and it benefits from the richness and subtlety of texture you'll only get with colour.

Added to that is the sheer intensity of the story telling, beyond Ingmar Bergman at his least stagey. There are hardly any extras; half of the characters get to be fully dimensional, and there is never any sense of acting. In this sternly protestant village they are all trying to keep their emotions buried but we, the fly on the wall, get to see the subtle signals in their faces.

The village is galvanised by a series of mysterious accidents and crimes, and these dramatic incidents link the whole thing together, but it's the fascination the camera has in these people that will hold your attention. It loves them all, the utterly vile as much as the sweet and tender. The White Ribbon is bookended by the longest fade-in and fade-out ever, and it felt just right at the end as we had been buried so deep in this other world.
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An Education (2009)
Precocious 60s schoolgirl collides with oily conman
30 October 2009
Warning: Spoilers
Most of us are aware of Lynn Barber as the occasionally controversial columnist and interviewer in the posh Sunday papers. But whatever she creates has to compete with her own life story for hair-raising melodrama. An Education is based on her autobiographical piece and the screenplay is by none other than Nick Hornby. Right from the opening credits, the impeccably chosen soundtrack date-stamps each episode in the rite of passage of only-sixteen Jenny, west London surburban jailbait. Carey Mulligan in the starring role is probably a little older than the character she's playing, but that fits well, as she has to be a sardonic would-be sophisticate in the body of a bright-eyed, babyfaced schoolgirl. English life in 1962 is perfectly recaptured: streets empty of parked cars, with demographic changes and slum landlords in the background. What really brings out how times have changed is when we see a major collectable work of art selling at auction for little more than £200, which was an average annual wage at the time. Alfred Molina as the all too impressionable Dad gave a performance to die for, although it was Emma Thompson as the headmistress who got the best line in the whole drama. The tiny audience at the local preview filled the room with hoots of horrified laughter. But to begin: young Jenny becomes seduced by a much older David, the convincingly oily Peter Sarsgaard. Before this, she was trying to excel in her life by sticking at school to get into Oxford University. Her parents, living through her as parents often do, are also seduced by the rascally David as Jenny turns her back on all thoughts of the academic life. After an unspeakably romantic visit to Paris she gradually comes to see the other side of the coin. It's as much a rake's progress as it is a young girl's loss of innocence.
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Creation (I) (2009)
Slightly Gothic insight to Charles Darwin, the man.
24 September 2009
As you sit there, quietly evolving, spare a thought for Charles Darwin. He was more than the venerable man with beard you may remember from your schoolbooks. He had a wife and children, and spent much of the long hiatus between writing his big theory and actually publishing it, coping with his wife, beautiful Emma, who, if she looked at all like actress Jennifer Connelly, was beautiful, but not at all ready to give up on God. She was also having to deal with Darwin's all-consuming guilt over the fatal illness of his eldest daughter, for which he seemed to have believed he was responsible in at least one way.

This, Charles Darwin's homelife, is colourfully evoked in the slightly Gothic new film, Creation. As it opens with a flashback to a failed attempt to steal 'savage' children from a Pacific island and take them home to convert them into Good Christians, it has us on its side from the start; even more as it nods to Francois Truffaut's 'L'Enfant Sauvage'. Paul Bettany as the man himself is on-screen most of the time, like a contestant in the Channel Four 'big brother house' permanently in close-up. The way the story jumps backwards and forwards in time gives it the feeling of a ghost story too. And there are other pieces of Darwin's life we rarely get to think about, such as the relationship he built up with the female ape, stolen from her jungle family and living in solitary confinement in an English zoo until her death.

All in all, it's quite an emotional roller-coaster, although not at the expense of recreating the world of the late Victorians very convincingly.
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Away We Go (2009)
We're all normally a little crazy
18 September 2009
Warning: Spoilers
Just when you think you've had enough of road movies with a difference, here comes -another one! Sam Mendes, who created that instant classic, American Beauty, brings you this one, so you can expect the unexpected.

Daft but likable Burt finds his parents deciding to leave the country, and as he never completely left home, he and his slightly more mature and pregnant girlfriend Verona feel they have no reason to remain in Colorado.

So, looking for the best new place to set up home, they hit the road. They meet a mixed bunch of old friends and relatives, most of who are dafter than they are. Including Verona's manically mad old colleague and her worn-out husband, and Burt's militantly dreadful and freaky cousin, convincingly played by Maggie Gyllenhall.

The point of the story is that there is no point. It's a study of normal and crazy people doing normal and crazy things, and every character is so well drawn that you can't help getting involved. The result of this odyssey is a beautiful ending of the sort that people are always complaining they don't make any more.

Definitely one that will bear a second look despite, or perhaps because of, the downright ghastliness of some of the characters. Perhaps there is a point. We're all normal; we're all crazy.
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Transylvania (2006)
Impressionist take on the Road Movie
21 November 2007
Gatlif has created a montage of peoples, places, music, life, death and religion which grows thrustingly into this tale of the darkly beautiful Zingara (Argento), determined to find the musician who made her pregnant. This takes her into mysterious depths of Romania where she abandons her sister to hit the road with a street kid in tow, before falling for itinerant junk trader Tchangalo (Unel). Whether it's an explosion of dancers at a street festival or an explosion of feathers in a pillow fight, the screen is constantly buzzing with swarms of images - say, if Marc Chagall, instead of painting flying fiddlers, designed Bollywood movies. But the camera-work, by Celine Bozon, also uses the deep-focus option of Noir as much as the wide-screen close-up, and makes the best of the cities, markets and broad, bleak landscapes. So it's comparable to Gatlif's previous work, as well as having echoes of Serbian director Emir (Black Cat, White Cat) Kusturica. In addition to the wild traditional music there is a lot of additional music, some quite haunting, written for the film by the director with Delphine Mantoulet. There have been complaints from some viewers that costumes are being worn by the wrong people, or one country's music is being played by foreigners; but this is an impressionistic film, and should not be judged as a documentary. In the end it's the story that matters. Until you get to the end, it's the barrage of imagery and the music of life that matter. I'm talking about the film, of course.
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Last Days (2005)
Black comedy in opiate's clothing
20 November 2007
Last Days is an in-depth exploration of how it would be to be someone like Kurt Cobain, whose success has cut him off from real life. By examining the final few hours of this confused and lonely musician, Blake, in take after take Van Sant gradually reveals the pressures and weaknesses, and the blurring effects of a crazy lifestyle which would have begun as a pragmatic step up, progressed to a support for life/work and ended as a terminal anaesthetic. The combination of absolute sordidity and extreme riches is graphically set out - Kornflakes are kept in the fridge, milk on the table beside the drugs, shiny musical instruments and recording equipment are all around. The disorientating technique of repeating major episodes from varying points of view, with no signs of chronology, and no overt attitude, carries on from Van Sant's last, Elephant, and like for instance David Lynch's Mulholland Drive would repay multiple viewings. The story telling is all the more hilarious, when it gets funny, for its deadpan style; like the scene where an earnest Yellow Pages salesman makes a point of treating the heavily stoned, unshaven and cross-dressed Blake like a normal customer. It begins with a less successful escape as Blake fends for himself in the forest, only to be brought back to his reality by the Amtrak express roaring through the trees. From there it's back to Blake's own Xanadu. And we are allowed to piece the jigsaw together for ourselves.
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Rendition (2007)
Political thriller tells it like it is - with a twist
8 November 2007
Warning: Spoilers
In 2002, a Syrian/Canadian, Maher Arar, was abducted by the CIA while en route from Switzerland to Toronto, flown to Syria and tortured for a year to obtain information he did not possess. Gavin Hood has constructed an excellent political thriller which follows a very similar line and by the way rips away all the glossy packaging of euphemism that attends the US/UK foreign policy and War On Fright. Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally), an Egyptian resident in the USA, is captured on his return to New York from a business conference in South Africa, while travelling back to his family in Chicago; his journey removed from the record. After being questioned by the CIA about calls allegedly made to his mobile, he is flown to a north African country for further questioning on the authority of the CIA anti-terrorism boss (played with blood-curdling nastiness by Meryl Streep), and complains there, shivering and terrified, to the inexperienced young CIA man (Gyllenhaal) that there's been a mistake: he should not have had his clothes removed. This scene is vital in making it clear to any audience just what a difference a little change can make to your normal life. By increments, the detainee's life jumps further away from normal life, just like the prisoners in the Nazi extermination camps. The secret police chief in charge of torture is played, formidably, by Israeli actor Igal Naor. Simultaneously, the victim's pregnant wife (Reese Witherspoon) is making waves in the States, and manages to get as far as speaking to the CIA boss, who denies all knowledge of 'her problem' but justifies the 'we don't torture (we franchise it)' policy because it allegedly saved lives in London. While this is happening, the police chief's daughter has run off with her only true love, disobeying her evidently brutal father's arranged betrothal. Her lover is revealed as a would-be active fundamentalist; the thread of his dichotomy and their escape pulls the whole narrative together, while giving it an extra layer as a mind-spinning play on our perception of time and place. (Also allowing the torturer a shred of humanity) The thriller works as well as any thriller can possibly work, with the pace building up to an edge-of-the-seat climax; though not quite where you would expect it. The ending, although it rounds off the story well, and feels right, could have been left out to make the whole work stronger.
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Brick Lane (2007)
Closely observed lives
8 November 2007
This adaptation of Monica Ali's best-selling novel follows the conflicts in the little world of Nazneen, a Bangladeshi girl who leaves behind happy days playing with her sister round their village for an arranged marriage in 1980s London. At first she is almost living a life of purda within the walls of her East London council flat with her oafish middle-aged husband, fearing her life is over. Director Gavron balances intimate moments against the increasingly tense atmosphere in Brick Lane as the tightly knit community reacts to the events of 11 September 2001, and public attitudes towards Moslems or anyone who just looks 'different' afterwards. To emphasise the smallness of this community and of the family within it, many of the shots are close-up or taken through gauze, hanging clothes or glass; the camera-work is practically all steadycam, sharing rooms, balconies and stairwells with the protagonists. Struggling to play the 'good wife', Nazneen one day discovers a measure of independence in a borrowed sewing machine, which allows her to fill some of the gaps made by her husband's erratic employment; through this she collides with life again, as the clothing delivery lad Karim knocks at her door. One night, husband and wife are in front of the TV as 'Brief Encounter' is showing. On the other hand, we could just be seeing into Nazneen's head as she struggles to cope with her dilemma. As time passes, it becomes obvious that no decision she makes will be simple and easy, especially as her well-meaning but foolish husband gradually reveals himself to be a philosopher, and a man who feels pain. It's a closely observed film about closely observed lives, and probably will repay repeat viewings.
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Psychological tail -wister buried in cultish gangster nightmare
6 November 2007
In a hairdressers' shop in Brick Lane or maybe Essex Street, the happy and relaxed customer has his throat sliced through to the windpipe.

A master of darkness, Cronenberg manages to get today's London to feel like an amalgum of the city of Holmes and Jack the Ripper, and the Vancouver, say, of the Mafia. A midwife, Anna (Watts), tends to a pregnant and haemorrhaging child prostitute who leaves in her death a diary that incriminates the local Russian gang boss (Muller-Stahl) ; Anna's plucky investigations, prompted in part by her own loss of a child, lead her to the avuncular restaurant owner Semyon, near Smithfield Market. He is, of course, more a Family man than a family man. Anna becomes involved with his drunken and violent sex-trafficking son Krill (Cassel) and the 'driver', 'undertaker' and family enforcer, the quiet and mysterious Nikolai (Mortensen).

Steven Knight, who wrote 'Dirty Pretty Things', the one about the invisible and mostly illegal immigrant workers in London, scripted this one. The camera work, by Cronenberg's regular conspirator, Peter Suschitzky, makes the most of London's gritty darkness and seedy opulence. There are several key scenes, including the 'chosen one's induction clad in nothing but meaningful tattoos before a group of gang leaders, but the one which is bound to be included in even the shortest film histories will be the climax in the public baths, as the enigmatic but naked Nikolai fights for his life against two black leather Chechyen hit men, leaving the room like an abattoir.

The most interesting aspect of this plot is how the 'me' figure, Anna, sails through relatively unchanged in her self and life, while all those in 'supporting roles' especially Nikolai, become steadily more rounded, and their lives are the ones we are left caring for.
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A new drama out of old wine
30 October 2007
This documentary follows the American side of the space race, allowing the surviving astronauts to tell their stories, and in fact one of them makes a reference to Tom Wolfe's 'The Right Stuff' - having read the book and having hoped he really 'had it'. The film of Wolfe's book does cover the same territory, though this has gone into a lot of it in much greater depth - hours of painstaking effort must have gone into matching film of, for instance, one guy at Mission Control mouthing ''Yeah!' as we hear his voice in the recorded exchange with successful spacemen. The director has done his best to put it all in historical perspective, as Stateside apartheid came to a violent end and planes poured bombs and chemicals down on the Vietnamese. This last footage accompanies astronauts' talk of having it easy while their buddies were fighting for their country. The sub-plot of the space-race being the vanguard of the arms race is somehow threaded in there, too. For a while, popular feeling in the States was turning away from space and Kennedy's promise, as if talking to children, (not included here) to put a man on the moon; but that was until it happened. So between 1968 and 1972, nine American 'modules' were rocketed to the moon, and twelve men walked upon it. The newly unearthed footage of space, the earth, the moon and 'home movies' of inside the spacecraft have been spliced together with the astronauts' reminisces to create quite a new drama, and perhaps never before has it been so well described just how enormous the Apollos were; looking here as broad as football pitches, and with their tiny peashooter payload. It makes sense on seeing this to forget about starmen for a while. Mike Collins had as much to say about the background, the mission and the result as anyone. He said that just for a while everyone was saying ''we' did it" instead of "they did it" - it was 'ephemeral' but it was there. Ultimately, this is a beautifully crafted movie, able to drop jaws in the age of digital blockbuster fantazoom effects, and the lead up to the Moon-shot is still able to recreate that old tension.
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A singer in singer's clothes
22 October 2007
Warning: Spoilers
Depardieu has been rather untrustworthy in his choice of film roles; the occasional gems like Le Dernier Metro and Tous Les Matins Du Monde being unbalanced by strings of ordinaire throwaways, but with Alain Moreau (et son Orchestre) he has a character that really fits him in every way. Alain, as in 'Tous les Matins', is a musician who cares about his craft and feels under threat by changing fashions and by his own diminishing abilities. Supported by his faithful wife/manager (Christine Citti), he is just keeping his band scene going despite the rise of karaoke and younger, smaller, rock-based combos, when he meets Marion (Cecile de France), sparky but fragile, an estate agent. The aging and corpulent singer is used to having women swoon over him, so he gives Marion the big treatment when her boss (Matthieu Amalric) brings her to the dance hall. She resists at first, but spends the night before running off without stopping for coffee. Although Alain is not as sure of himself as he once was, he decides to pose as a house-hunter so that he can get close to Marion again - barely credible, as he already has a large rambling, crumbling house in its own grounds, with a live-in goat. She disappears for a while, as does his voice. Despite the stop-start relationship, they continue to connect somehow, and it falls into place after he decides to walk out of his chance at the Big Time in a stadium concert. There are no certainties, really, although they end up together; and the film's strength is really in recreating the tiny provincial world where Music elevates the people to a better world for just one evening at a time. Alain, in his white suit and streaked hair maintains his dignity, believes in the songs he sings for his customers, be they ever so corny (but life is corny), and Depardieu fills the skin so well. The original French title, Quand J'étais Chanteur, is better than the one we have here, with its bittersweet overtone. I'm looking forward to a CD featuring Depardieu singing Brel, including, of course, Jackie.
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The more wars change...
21 October 2007
Warning: Spoilers
Just as the Americans decided which of the Nazies were 'good' after the war (Verner von Braun etc), the Nazies themselves took a pragmatic view of the Jews. A 144-strong team of artists, forgers and printers was assembled to manufacture first pounds then dollars, the plan being to undermine the enemy economies. The counterfeiters were spared the worst of the privations in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, although they inevitably struggled with their consciences as they helped the German war effort within hearing of the cries of their fellows being tortured and shot. It's the same sub-theme as with 'Bridge Over The River Kwai', but a good deal more visceral. It was difficult to stifle a laugh when, after the team has done its best in reproducing the Bank of England's finest, their reward is unveiled, in the sordid, muddy, blood spattered surrounds of the camp…a ping-pong table! Stefan Ruzowitzky based his film on 'The Devil's Workshop', the book by Adolf Burger, one of the three surviving members of the team. Burger appears as a lad in the film although it is another prisoner, a colourful forger and playboy, Salomon 'Sally' Sorowitsch, who is the central figure. One telling scene, before his arrest, has a good-time girl backing off, twisting her face in an ugly scowl when she hears his Jewish name.

The entire story is shot in washed-out colour; starting after it's all over and flashing back to explain how Sally found himself here on this beach. The 'past' is even closer to sepia, and grainy with it - appropriate as a recreation of the contrast in now/then, warm/cold, safe/insecure.

One of the strongest things about the drama is its acceptance that the Germans, the 'Nazis', would have been under pressure to close ranks. Some took considerable pleasure in making life intolerable for others and others were by default with their fellow soldiers. That is a timeless situation (as is the concentration camp),and could apply to all uniformed policing organisations.

Just one carp about the sub-titling: Sally says to one other forger, 'I saved all our butts by making pounds.' - This, to some of us, is about collecting cigarette ends. It was very kind of the director to give us a happy ending ( and the company that prints Jack Vettriano's posters will be even happier) although despite Sorowitsch's final promise of riches and comfort to his new lady, we can be sure that he would never, in his mind, have really left the camp.
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Once (I) (2007)
Like the best songs
13 October 2007
The story of this little film, made on a budget of fifty quid, apparently, (most of the crew were doing it as a favour) is the stuff of film itself. One of the few prints made was playing at little cinemas round Ireland as a double bill with the two stars in performance, who then sold as many CDs as possible at each gig. This was 'big time'; until, at least, the film was shown at the Dublin Film Festival, and one of the Sundance Festival committee members happened to wander in while on holiday, saw it, fell for it, and took it home to Sundance, where it won a big gong. In a step further away from 'real life', the lead's band found themselves opening for Bob Dylan. I can imagine it: "Uh, hi. This is Bob…" "Bob who?"

Glen Hansard, front man of The Frames for 17 years and 'the guitarist' in The Commitments was approached by Carney after a Frames gig in Dublin in 2005, with an idea about building a story around some songs. And in fact, the film remains true to that idea: a few times, the guy, instead of speaking to the girl, picks up his battered guitar and croons, or yells, an 'impromptu' verse. So in a way, it's as much a traditional musical as an Elvis vehicle. None of the gloss of Hollywood production in this, though, and everyone was playing a version of themselves with only the most rudimentary idea of a script, or a good deal of improvising. That can have its drawbacks: the two central characters are so natural that they sometimes seem to forget to include the camera when talking, so much of their dialogue is lost, especially in the street scenes.

The Guy is working in his father's hoover repair shop and busking on the side, while nursing a broken heart after his girl ran off to London. The Girl is a Czech immigrant with a little girl, a mother to support and a fighting spirit. They are obviously wrong for each other, but their little orbits keep colliding, and they make beautiful music. Literally. Others play their parts - fellow musicians, the bank manager, but it's a tale of loving and longing which never really finishes. Just like the best songs. CLIFF HANLEY
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Control (2007)
Signalling a Kitchen-Sink revival?
8 October 2007
Warning: Spoilers
Anton Corbijn polished his craft as a stills photographer, and this film's greatest strength lies in its visual quality. Nearly all of it works as a series of animated stills. It certainly could not have done so well in colour: the director's experience shooting in mono for the music press (the 'inkies'), including of course the real-life Joy Division, and his professed admiration for early Ken Loach films, especially 'Kes', comes through clearly.

Michael Winterbottom has already covered a little part of the Ian Curtis story in '24 Hour Party People', including his suicide when 23. Matt Greenhalgh has said he was sorry to have missed the opportunity to write the script for it. As he is a Manchester guy he was the director's and producer Orian William's popular choice to write the screenplay for this one. The curious link here is that Craig Parkinson, who plays impresario Tony Wilson, the central figure in 'Party People', looks more like his impersonator Steve Coogan than the man himself, who, although he died before this film was finished, co-produced it with Curtis' widow Deborah. Toby Kebbell, truly unrecognisable from 'Dead Man's Shoes', puts so much meat into his portrayal of the band's manager, incidentally, that it's possible to re-imagine the whole saga being told from his point-of view, as some kind of very black comedy.

Much is made of the extraordinary contrast between musicians' day-jobs and rock 'n' roll stage personas: Curtis worked, neatly brushed and keen, in an employment exchange until the sun went down and he made his dreams of Gothic, sci-fi and beat poet imagery come alive on stage. Sam Riley has been touted as a 'non-actor' (another nod to Loach) but he handles the Jekyll and Hyde task very well. The gig scenes are convincingly handled, (something Antonioni, for instance, made such a mush of in 'Blow-Up') although a brief appearance by John Cooper Clarke the 'punk poet', playing his much younger self, just about blows everything else off the stage. Curtis got married young, to a local girl (Samantha Morton in yet another sublime disguise) but fell for Annik (Alexandra Maria Lara), a skinny and dangerous Other Woman from Belgium. It was being torn between these two beauties that inspired his most famous song, and combined with epilepsy and chronic stage fright that contributed to his suicide.

Before he became epileptic himself, he witnessed a job-seeker he was interviewing, suddenly having a major seizure. It's shown mostly from his point-of-view. It's an important event to include - he wrote 'She's Lost Control' about it - although misunderstanding about epilepsy is so widespread that it's feasible to expect some of the audience to go home thinking he 'caught' it.

The overbearing feeling of this film is of a Kitchen-Sink revival, albeit widescreen, and that's not just because of the monochrome. Just to top that, the final scene, as Ian Curtis leaves by way of the crematorium, of oil black smoke rising up to fill the sky, may be a reference to the milieu where the original concentration camp joy division had to work as sex slaves; although it has strong similarities with Charles Foster Kane's big finale.
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