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C'era una volta (1967)
A glitch in an otherwise exceptional career
As an admirer of the Italian neo-realist film director Francesco Rosi, I was delighted when a friend mentioned that he'd obtained a copy of Rosi's long forgotten film, "More Than A Miracle." Released in 1967, it only lasted for a couple of weeks (which explains why I missed seeing it back then), before quickly disappearing from sight. Now, forty-five years later, I finally sat down to watch it. I knew that "More Than A Miracle" was a fairy tale set in 17th. Century Spain. And that it starred Omar Sharif as Prince Ramon and Sophia Loren as the peasant girl, Isabella who the Prince falls in love with. I'm not a huge fan of fairy tales. However, as this was a Francesco Rosi film, I figured it would be a cut above films tackling similar subject matter. Prince Ramon has refused to choose a bride from the seven marriageable princesses whom his mother has selected as most deserving of becoming his wife. Out on his horse he comes across a monastery, and meets friar Brother Joseph who amuses the local children by leaping into the air and flying about the countryside. The friar presents the Prince with a donkey and a bag of flour and instructs him to search for a woman who will make him seven dumplings. Despite trying to remain 'engaged' with the film, I soon found myself checking how long still had to run. Seeing a peasant girl picking vegetables, he orders her to make seven dumplings from the bag of flour he gives her. Which she dutifully does, but overcome by hunger, she eats the seventh dumpling. To punish her for her disobedience, the Prince feigns death and then disappears. While I understood that it was after all just a fairy tale, my attention was beginning to wander. I must have dozed off, as I was woken up by a sharp poke in the ribs from my wife. On the TV, Isabella was being rescued from a wooden barrel by a group of street urchins. By then, Francesco Rosi or no Francesco Rosi, I'd had enough and went to bed. Next morning, my wife insisted on telling me how it all ended. Apparently, Isabella ended up marrying the Prince and they both lived happily ever after. Born in 1922, Francesco Rosi directed some of the finest neo-realist films to come out of Italy. Such classics as "Hands Over The City", Salvatore Guiliano", "Moment of Truth" and "The Mattei Affair" Those alone elevate him to the Pantheon of Italian film directors. To me, "More Than A Miracle" was just a "glitch" and in no way detracts from his reputation as a great film director.
Game Change (2012)
A truly scary film
Anyone, even those with only passing interest in American politics, should see the HBO film "Game/Change" It's 2008. The polls show that Republican presidential hopeful, John McCain, is being outspent, and out manoeuvred by the Democrats nominee, Barack Obama. Worse, McCain has yet to decide on a running mate. Nobody is happy with the names being put forward for the Vice Presidency. McCain's strategist, Steve Schmidt, tells McCain that he needs a 'game changer' Despite his being the choice of the Republican Party to beat the Democrats, his stand on the issue of abortion, is anathema to the religious right – whose votes he desperately needs if he wants to become President. Somehow, the name Sarah Palin comes up as a distinct possibility. Nobody in the McCain retinue have heard of her. Sarah Palin is Governor of Alaska. She is deeply religious, very conservative, anti abortion, and believes it's every American's right to use guns to defend one's life and property. Oh, she also likes to kill Moose. At first, it seems the McCain Camp has made the right choice. The religious right love her. It seems she can do no wrong. Sarah Palin however, is used to getting her own way. As Governor, she demands unflinching loyalty. Anyone who disagrees with her soon find themselves out of a job, ostracized, or both. Like the proverbial elephant, Sarah Palin never forgets. Every perceived slight, real or not, that's made against her: this includes the people who work for her, the reporters who write about her, in fact anybody - even those people most close to her, the day will come when Sarah gets her revenge. It isn't long before the McCain people begin to wonder whether selecting Sarah Palin was the right choice. Differences about how she sees her role as Vice Presidential and how the McCain people see her role begin to emerge, and soon, it's Sarah Palin who appears to be calling the shots. Still, it's too late now for McCain to even think about anything, except hoping it will turn out all right in the end. What makes "Game Change" really 'work', is the inspired piece of casting by having Julianne Moore in the role of Sarah Palin. Not only does she look uncannily like Sarah Palin (at times, I honestly couldn't tell the difference), but she seems to have Sarah Palin's mannerisms down to a't' - a remarkable piece of acting. Julianne Moore is ably supported by Woody Harrelson as strategist Steve Schmidt, and Ed Harris as John McCain. This is a terrific film. To my mind, the scariest about this film is that John McCain was seventy-two at the time he made his run for the Presidency. During the Vietnam War he was captured and severely tortured by the Viet Cong. He had had cancer, so his health wasn't the best – not the ideal circumstances for taking the role of President of America. If he suddenly died while in office, Sarah Palin would have instantly become President. That's what's really scary. Thankfully John McCain lost. For that I am eternally thankful.
Painters Painting (1973)
One of the best films about America's involvement in Vietnam is undoubtedly Emile De Antonio's "In The Year of The Pig." Similarly, "Millhouse: A White Comedy", is, I believe, the best film about the life of disgraced former U.S. President, Richard Nixon In 1974, Emile De Antonio turned his attention to the work of the "abstract expressionist" painters, who blossomed and flourished in New York, primarily between the years 1940 and 1970. The resulting film, "Painters Painting" has finally turned up on DVD. The film consists of interviews conducted by the filmmaker with such famous artists like William de Kooning, Barnett Newman, Jasper Johns, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Helen Frankenthaler and Robert Rauschenberg, as well as famous gallery owner Leo Castelli, art critics Clement Greenberg and Thomas Hess, plus John Hightower, of the Museum of Modern Art, Henry Geldzahler of The Met, and collectors, Robert and Ethel Scull. Unfortunately, the film is let down by some very sloppy camera-work and the conversations, especially the ones recorded in the studios of the artists themselves, is very poorly recorded – this may be due in part to the acoustics of the studios, with their high ceilings and cavernous floor space. The film jumps from colour to black and white for no discernible reason. Many of the shots appear to be repeated. The names of some of the artists have been omitted entirely. In short, what could have been a dynamite film about some of the giants of 20th. Century modern art is, overall, a travesty, which is a crying shame when one realises that the majority of them have long since died.
Ghost Town (2008)
We first see Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinnear) talking on his phone while he strides down the street. All of a sudden, Frank is run over by a bus and killed and is immediately transformed into a 'ghost.' Meanwhile, Bertram Pincus (Ricky Gervais) a dentist with appalling people skills (which might explain why he's still single) dies unexpectedly but is miraculously revived after seven minutes. When he wakes up he discovers that he has the ability to see ghosts. If that's not enough, these ghosts all want something from him. Even more infuriating, he has no way of avoiding them, either. Frank, meanwhile, is painfully aware that his widow, Gwen, is planning to re-marry. A situation Frank is extremely unhappy about, but powerless to prevent. However, Frank has a plan, Maybe, just maybe, he can persuade Bertram Pincus to strike up a friendship with Gwen, and, hopefully, break up the relationship. What Frank doesn't know is that Bertram Pincus is the last man he should have latched onto to accomplish this fraught and sensitive task. Gervais has some funny lines, but basically, Gervais is content to fall back on the routines that he first used in the English sitcom: "The Office." While Greg Kinnear as Frank is merely irritating. The denouement is as tired as it is predictable.
Matching Jack (2010)
Too serious a subject to trivialize.
Films dealing with children struck down with a life-threatening disease can either be uplifting, or, as is the case with most of the films tackling this kind of emotionally-charged subject, become un-abashed tearjerkers. Jack Hagen (Tom Russell) a previously normal, healthy child falls ill and is diagnosed with leukaemia. There is a way to stave off this disease and that is to for the patient to have a bone marrow transplant. The snag is the donor's DNA must 'match' that of the patient, hence the film's title. Jack's parent's hope against hope that the surgeon Professor Nelson (Colin Friels) will find a donor whose DNA matches Jack's. The longer they have to wait, the more dangerous the situation becomes: something the mother refuses to acknowledge. It is then that Jack's mother Marissa (Jacinda Barrett) discovers that her husband, David (Richard Roxburgh) has been unfaithful, and not with just one woman, either. From that moment on, the film shows Jack's mother's frantic attempt to track down her husband's former lovers in the hope that he might have fathered an illegitimate child, and therefore would be the perfect 'match' for her son. To avoid "Matching Jack" becoming overly saccharine, the director Nadia Tass, along with first time writer Lynne Renew, have bent over backwards not to fall into that trap. Instead they have opted to introduce large chunks of levity into the film at the expense of empathy, and in so doing, have turned "Matching Jack" from being a serious, though not necessary boring, film about cancer, into one that is risible by anyone's definition. Two films that tackle the subject of children at risk from life-threatening diseases, without in any way being tedious or un-interesting, are "Life For Ruth" where a father refuses to let his child have a blood transfusion due to his religious beliefs, and "Lorenzo's Oil" – where a father finds a cure for a disease for which no cure is known. The director of "Matching Jack" could have made a film with a strong, social message. Sadly, she didn't.
The Boat That Rocked (2009)
All at sea
When Radio Caroline began broadcasting rock 'n' roll from a boat anchored off the east coast of England in 1964, the BBC's virtual monopoly of the nation's airwaves disappeared, virtually overnight. These 'pirate radio stations' as the government so scathingly called them, played the kind of music teenagers in England wanted to hear, but had been denied to them ever since Guglielmo Marconi invented the radio. It's almost impossible to describe how 'energizing' it was to be able to turn on the radio at any time of the day or night, and hear that good old rock 'n' roll blasting out of your radio's speakers. Sadly, it couldn't last. In 1967, the government passed the Marine & Broadcasting Act making it illegal for Radio Caroline to continue operating, despite the fact that the boat was anchored in International Waters, which should have made them immune to government interference.
"The Boat That Rocked" should have been a humdinger, considering the impact 'pirate radio stations' had on the British Broadcasting Industry as well as the major record labels at the time, not to mention how popular they were with listeners. Unfortunately "The Boat That Rocked" is anything but. Actors can only work with the script they've been given: a good script, a satisfying film. A bad script, and a film, just like the boat, will sink faster than the Titanic. Excluding the remarkable Philip Seymour Hoffman, (The Count) who hardly ever turns in a less than professional performance, by comparison, the other actors are less than believable in their roles: to be perfectly frank, they come across as mere one-dimensional caricatures. Richard Curtis, the director of such light, fluffy confections such as "Notting Hill", "Bridget Jone's Diary" is here clearly out of his depth. Quick! Throw him a life jacket, someone! The bulk of the film's running time is taken up treading water, as it were, with one comic set-up after another, none of which are all that funny. Only the last half hour or so makes "The Boat That Rocks" worth watching, but by then you can be forgiven for wishing that you'd baled out long ago.
Packs a punch
Although "Tyrannosaur" covers much the same ground as Ken Loach does in his films - namely, people (usually men), who suddenly wake up one day and begin to wonder how they have ended up like they have, this film still packs one hell of a punch. It's worth noting that Peter Mullan who plays the protagonist in the film under review, also played the protagonist in Ken Loach's "My Name is Joe". Joseph is angry - very angry. Anything can set him off: rowdy pool players in a pub – frustration at accessing his money at the Post Office (he's a widower, so it might be a pension of some kind). Plagued by violence and a rage that is driving him to self-destruct, he undergoes a life change after accidentally killing his dog. More often than not he wakes with a massive hangover. This of course, doesn't stop him whiling away the hours in the local pub. For Joseph one day is much like the day before and in the days stretching ahead of him. He spends a lot of his time wandering the streets, picking fights with neighbours or drinking. He is desperate to change his ways, but doesn't know how. For Joseph the light at the end of the tunnel grows dimmer with every passing hour. One day, with nothing better to do, he wanders into the local charity shop and gets into conversation with Hannah, a plain, Christian woman who believes in the rejuvenating power of prayer – to her, nobody is beyond redemption, even Joseph. Joseph doesn't see it that way: he is automatically suspicious of anyone who offers the hand of friendship. Gradually however, Joseph and Hannah strike up a friendship of sorts. When Joseph discovers Hannah is married and lives in one of the more affluent suburbs, Joseph automatically suspects Hannah is just befriending him to relieve the boredom of standing behind a counter all day long. However, life for Hannah is far worse than it is for Joseph. When she turns up at work with a black eye, Joseph suspects, rightly it turns out, that her husband is to blame despite her repeated denials that she'd accidentally walked into a door. Inexorably, Joseph is dragged deeper and deeper into Hannah's world, a world that threatens to plunge him back into his former life. Peter Mullan puts in a stunning performance as Joseph. But the best acting honours has to go to Olivia Colman, as Hannah. "Tyrannosaur" holds up a mirror to a certain strata of English society, and it's not a pleasant picture.
Les géants (2011)
The trials and tribulations of adolescence
Bouli Lanners, a name unknown to me, directed this rather intriguing film. The story tells of a friendship among three teenagers, two of who are brothers. The other teenage has an older brother who sells and uses drugs and regularly beats up his younger brother for hanging around with the other kids. All three kids live in the house belonging to the two brother's deceased grandfather. They are bored out of their minds, whiling away the hours, smoking joints, going for joyrides in the grand father's car and when they're hungry, stealing food from the neighbour's cellar. Eventually, what little money they have, finally runs out. Later, when the older boy introduces them to a man who offers them money if they'll let him rent the house in order to grow marijuana, they reluctantly accept. In a way, "Les Geants" explores the same territory as "Lord of The Flies" – William Goldman's classic tale of children left to fend for themselves. While the children in "Lord of The Flies" eventually turn feral, the children in "Les Geants" manage to cling onto some form of normality, by rejecting their upbringing and finally, choosing adventure above familial security. Bouli Lanners gets terrific performances out of the cast, especially out of the three main characters. The film is beautifully shot – long close-ups of grasses waving in the breeze, the sun glinting off winding rivers and glorious sunsets. The pace is unhurried and no shot is wasted. This is not a great film by any means, but it's a lot better than the dross that passes for film making these days.
The World's Greatest Sinner (1962)
More a curio than a fully-fledged film
You may not remember his name, but actor Timothy Carey has one of those lugubrious faces that once seen, you're not likely ever to forget. No actor in Hollywood had a visage like Timothy Carey. His career as an actor spanned nearly half a century. His first acting part was in 1951 his last role was in 1990. In all, he appeared in a mixture of shorts, feature films and television shows: 87 titles in all. In the late fifties, Timothy Carey decided to make his own film. He would write the screenplay, play the lead character and direct it himself. That film was "The World's Greatest Sinner" In it, Carey plays a disgruntled insurance salesman named Clarence Hilliard, who quits his job to go into politics. First he forms a rock band, which in turn becomes a religious cult; where everybody has to address him as God Hilliard. Eventually he manages to form a new Political Party. Considering "The World's Greatest Sinner" was made in 1962, it was quite daring for its time, especially when it came to the scenes of older women being seduced by the Clarence Hilliard character to get them to hand over their savings. (Six years later, Mel Brooks treads a similar path in his film "The Producers" by having one of his characters romance older women for cash).
"The World's Greatest Sinner" reminded me of another, similar film, Elia Kazan's "A Face In The Crowd." which came out in 1957. The Kazan film is about an itinerant drifter named Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes, who is plucked from an Arkansas jail, and ultimately rises to great fame and influence on national television. He soon discovers that fame has a price, and eventually his world come crashing around his ears. If Timothy Carey didn't go and see this film, he would have most certainly known about it. After all, both films explore the same theme, namely megalomania. "A Face In The Crowd" was distributed a major Hollywood studio. On the other hand, Timothy Carey distributed "The World's Greatest Sinner". He also funded the film entirely out of his own pocket, so it's no wonder the film took three years to finish. And, as the film never had an official release it quickly disappeared from sight. That said I found "The World's Greatest Sinner" extremely tiresome. The main problem being that Timothy Carey the director was at a loss on how to control Timothy Carey the actor who has a penchant for over acting. So we are subjected to Carey bellowing out his lines in scene after scene, or throwing back his head and laughing maniacally: "The World's Greatest Sinner" runs for just eighty-two minutes. The camera work is appalling, many of the shots are too dark, or poorly lit the film so it seems to run for twice that length. Additionally, the editing is so erratic it is hard to follow the plot. It's just a shame that a director of the calibre of, say, an Elia Kazan wasn't given the opportunity to direct "The World's Greatest Sinner" and turn what to me is at best a curiosity, into a film of some substance.
Le gamin au vélo (2011)
A story of betrayal
The latest film from The Dardenne Brothers, "The Kid With A Bike" is once again about lower class life in Belgium, this time focusing on the story of Cyril, an eleven-year-old boy living in a state-run facility after being abandoned by his father. Thomas Doret, who plays Cyril, gives a performance that's distressingly believable. Any parent, who has taken on the onerous task of raising a child single-handedly, will no doubt empathise with the anguish Cyril is going through. Mind you, sometimes Cyril's self-destructive behaviour is enough to try the patience of a saint. The film opens with Cyril trying to call his father on the phone dialing and re-dialing his number, while one of the members of staff tries to wrestle the phone away from Cyril, yelling at him to hang up, as the phone has been disconnected. Tiring of Cyril's tantrums, two of the staff members finally take Cyril around to the apartment where he and his father used to live to prove to Cyril once and for all that his father doesn't live there anymore. Cyril ignores them and keeps ringing the doorbell, but nobody comes to the door. Angry and upset, Cyril manages to elude both men and flees the building, determined to locate his father. When Cyril meets Samantha a childless hairdresser she surprises herself and Cyril by offering to take Cyril into weekly foster care. This doesn't sit too well with Samantha's boyfriend, who suspects, justifiably so, that Cyril poses a threat to his role as the male of the household. When Cyril sees a kid riding what he believes to be is his bike, he immediately gives chase. The kid riding the bike swears he bought from of a man. Cyril doesn't believe him. What father would sell the very bike he had given his son as a present? Samantha agrees to buy the bike back for Cyril. With his bike back, Cyril is free to roam the streets looking for his father. Instead, Samantha offers to drive Cyril around to help locate his father. When she stops for fuel, Cyril happens to notice an advertisement posted in a shop window, offering a car for sale and below that, a push bike; Cyril's push bike. Cyril is devastated. Visibly upset and feeling betrayed Cyril becomes sullen and un-communicative. Samantha, unsure of just how to comfort an eleven-year-old boy trying to grapple with the fact that his father, the one person who he ought to be able to trust the most, has rejected him, holds her tongue and concentrates on driving. When Cyril and Samantha finally do locate his father working in a restaurant, Samantha waits outside while Cyril confronts his father about why he deserted him and put him in the care of a Children's Home. His hapless and immature father is clearly uncomfortable as Cyril follows him around the kitchen, demanding to know why he can't be part of his father's life anymore. His father manages to fob Cyril off, but Cyril won't take no for an answer, and returns later to plead once more for his father to take him back. When Cyril happens to see a youth brazenly steal his bike, Cyril tries to snatch it back, but the youth evades him and proceeds to taunt Cyril by letting Cyril catch up then cycling away at the last moment. The youth is part of a gang led by a local petty criminal named Wes, who watches Cyril get the better of the youth who stole his bike in a fight. Wes instantly recognises in Cyril, a younger version of himself – tough and fearless. Offered a way of making easy money by committing a robbery, Cyril accepts. The older boy instructs Cyril on what to do. Things though, don't go according to plan. Cyril is recognised by the son of the owner. When Wes pulls up in his car and sees what's happened, he refuses to take the stolen money and demands that Cyril not tell anybody that he was involved, before accelerating away. Cyril panics. Next thing, Cyril finds himself outside the restaurant where his father works. He wants to give the money to his father. The father refuses: it could get him into trouble. Samantha takes Cyril to the police. The matter is settled on the undertaking that Cyril apologises to the victims. The victimised father reluctantly accepts and they shake hands. The victimised son however refuses. Samantha is so angry and upset with Cyril she's at a loss for words. She finally demands Cyril explain himself, but Cyril doesn't have an answer for her. The son catches Cyril by himself and attacks him with the result that the latter falls from a tree. Since it looks serious, the father and son discuss what lies to tell to the police. However, the situation is not so bad as it seems, and Cyril walks away. It's a testament to the skills of filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne that they make no attempt to pass judgement on the characters who populate their films and why they act in the way they do. Their camera just observes the events as they unfold before us. It's as if the film makers have just happen to be passing through town, and have stopped to record what's going on. "The Kid With A Bike" is film making at its most rewarding.
Essential Killing (2010)
Suffering for one's art
"Essential Killing" is possibly about the so-called War on Terrorism. The film opens on a dry treeless landscape riddled with ravines and with mountains in the distance, though no clue as to where it is actually given. It is very hot. It looks to be Afghanistan – but it could easily be Iraq, for that matter. The protagonist is a fighter for the Taliban – or is he? He becomes trapped in a cave, fearful of being discovered by three soldiers on a routine patrol. If they find him, he's done for. Are the soldiers American? Well, one of them definitely is. We can hear the sound of a helicopter nearby. Attuned to the slightest noise, the soldiers sense the presence of the fighter, but they are not quite sure. When they go to investigate, all hell breaks loose. The Taliban fighter makes a dash for freedom, but is finally caught. And like any captive, he is shackled and carted off to a camp along with other suspects the soldiers have taken prisoner. The camp is chillingly like Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo Bay. Even the methods his captors use to carry out interrogating prisoners, seems to be modeled on the methods used at Camp X-Ray. After searching him and shaving off his hair, he is manacled, made to wear on orange jump suit, and a black hood, which they keep putting on and off. Then the interrogation begins. They ask questions, beat and abuse him before asking the same questions over and over again. They deprive him of sleep then beat him some more. They threaten to set the dogs on him. Then his interrogators strap him down and he undergoes water boarding - shades of the infamous Abu Ghraib Prison in Baghdad. Throughout all this the prisoner remains mute. Is he just acting dumb? Does he understand what his captors are saying? Is he a deaf mute? Eventually, along with the other prisoners, he is put on a plane to an undisclosed destination. Through a freak accident, he manages to escape. It's obvious he is not now in the desert. Every way he turns, all he sees is a landscape of snow and trees. He has no food; his clothing offers little protection against the bitter cold. On top of that he immediately realises that he is ill prepared to try and outrun an adversary who is better equipped militarily, better fed and ready perhaps to shoot him on sight. "Essential Killing' is like no other film dealing with the privations, the stress and utter futility of war. Certainly other film directors have made films about the Global War on Terrorism, from the excellent documentary "Taxi To The Dark Side", to that puerile paean to patriotism, "Saving Jessica Lynch." Ultimately, Skolimowski's film: "Essential Killing" is about one thing, the pressure of surviving in a terrain that is as alien to the prisoner as it is forbidding. That the film succeeds is on no small part due to the performance of actor Vincent Gallo. He is in practically every scene. He doesn't speak a single word of dialogue. Instead, he has to convey what is happening around him by his actions alone. No easy task. The tension is racked up several notches when his foot gets caught in an animal-trap. To cry out, would give away his position – even as we can see he's in terrible pain. In the distance he can hear dogs baying. Now, minus one shoe, he has to run barefoot in the snow, or risk getting caught, – illustrating just how cold the actor must have been on this shoot. That Vincent Gallo coped is a tribute to his dedication as an actor. Most actors, after reading the script, would probably run a mile. If Vincent Gallo did it rough, then so did the other actors, and, of course, the crew who braved these freezing conditions. The temperature on the ground was minus 35 Celsius. That's about the average winter temperature in Antarctica. The DOP, Adam Sikora, who also shot "Four Nights With Anna", deserves to be singled out for his stunning photography. In this environment it is suffering for one's art, indeed. Even though Mr. Skolimowski has gone on record to say that he will never shoot another film in such cold conditions, I'm glad he did this one. And so were the audience at the screening I attended. They broke into spontaneous applause as the end credits started to roll.
The Forgiveness of Blood (2011)
A country like no other
Back in the 15th.Century, a certain prince Leke Dukagjini gathered together a collection of Albanian traditional customs and cultural practices that came to be known as "The Kanun of Leke Dukagjini." This collection was passed down by word of mouth from one generation to the next, and has governed the way Albanians have behaved pretty much ever since. Book Ten section three of the "Kanun of Leke" as it was commonly referred to, deals specifically with the rules in regard to a dispute between one neighbour and another. It states that, should a quarrel between two neighbours, for whatever reason, escalate and turn violent then the victim can invoke the age-old ritual of the blood feud, which states that the victim has the right to kill all males in the perpetrator's family. However, in a somewhat surprising twist, there is also a tradition throughout Albania known as "Besa." Roughly translated, "Besa" means, "to keep the promise" or "word of honour." There's a saying in Albania that says: "Albanians would die rather than break Besa." So while the men remain in their home, and at the discretion of the victim and his family, they will not be killed for the first twenty-four hours the blood feud has been preordained. Joshua Marston's latest film, "The Forgiveness of Blood" – is set in modern day Albania and tells the story of two families caught up in a blood feud. Every day the father and daughter set off in their horse and cart to deliver the bread to the people and café owners in the nearby village. Obviously, they quicker they can deliver the bread the more quickly they get paid. To this end, the father uses a neighbour's land as a short cut. The neighbour resents this and has already placed large stones to deter the father trespassing on his land. The father just removes the stones and goes on his way. The very next day the father finds his access completely blocked, with the neighbour standing there waiting to see what will happen. They get into an argument, but the neighbour refuses to budge. Eventually, the father has to take the long way around. Director Joshua Marston's previous film, "Maria Full of Grace" focused on the risks of becoming a drug mule, and the consequences of putting one's life at on the line, quite literally, by swallowing pellets of cocaine for a quick $5000 once the drugs are smuggled into New York. What made this film stand out above the usual kind of film dealing with the drug scene, is that it showed what the consequences of such reckless behaviour can lead to, even though Maria's decision to become a drug mule was borne out of desperation. Similarly, "The Forgiveness of Blood" is not just a film about a blood feud. It's a film about the far bigger issue of the how the average Albanian is forever trying to escape his violent and troubled past, first under the Ottoman Empire, and then under the Communist dictatorship of Enver Hoxha. Like most despots, Enver Hoxha simply eliminated dissent, by imprisoning thousands in forced-labour camps or executing them for crimes such as alleged treachery or for disrupting the proletarian dictatorship. In fact, for the only time in its centuries old history, did the practice of blood feuds cease - brutally stamped out by Enver Hoxha's Secret Police. The Communists were finally voted out of power in 1990. Two years later in 1992, Albania became a Republic. It wasn't long before Albanians woke up to the realisation that the new government was no different from the old government. Gradually the settling of scores by blood feud began to flourish once more, even as the future for Albanians seemed bleak to the point of despair. As the film unfolds, it's hard not to believe that one is actually watching a documentary. This can in no small way be attributed to the fact that the director chose to use a cast non-professional actors, especially Sindi Lacej as the daughter, Refet Abazi as the father, and Veton Osmani as the hot-headed neighbour – indeed, all the 'actors' in this remarkable film, do an outstanding job, and help shine a light on a country that is many ways, will forever be stuck back in the Dark Ages. P.S. Should you want to find out more about the history of this country? Check out a book by Robert Carver called: "The Accursed Mountains." It is a really fascinating look into this most enigmatic of countries.
Project Nim (2011)
An experiment in futility
Imagine this. A baby is taken from her mother without her consent. The baby is reared in a Manhattan upper class household environment for five years, and then is taken away to live with someone else. Much later on, the baby, now a young man, is returned to a home for other orphaned children.
This is roughly the sequence of events that befell a chimpanzee named NIM, and is the subject of a haunting and disturbing documentary by James Marsh, who made "Man On Wire."
Behavioural scientist Herbert Terrace at Columbia University in New York, believed that as 98.7% of the DNA in humans and chimpanzees is identical, he wanted to conduct an experiment by having a chimp raised in a human family and taught to communicate using American Sign Language. And thereby disprove the foremost authority on linguistics, Noam Chomsky, whose theory was that only humans have language. Herbert Terrace called his experiment "Project NIM."
At three or so months old, a chimp is like a small puppy – frisky, playful, and much, much more destructive. Fully grown, a male chimp can grow up to 1.7 metres and weigh up to 70 kilos. They are very, very strong, and have a high level of aggression. In one scene, NIM becomes frightened and angry, and it took four strong men to subdue him.
The project was conducted in the early seventies, not long after the phenomenon of Woodstock and at the tail end of the Hippie Movement. The first family, who took on the responsibility to raise NIM, were totally unprepared for the impact NIM would have on their lives. To say they were overwhelmed is an under-statement. Eventually, it got all too much for them, and NIM was transferred to a huge house set in large grounds outside New York, that Herbert Terrace thought might be a more suitable location to conduct his experiment.
Eventually, even after NIM showed he could 'understand' sign language, Herbert Terrace finally admitted defeat. "Project NIM" was not the success he had hoped for, and the project is abandoned.
"Project NIM" was not so much about a how intelligent chimps are, but how conceited we are to think that we can mould a chimp into acting and communicating like we do.
How the mighty have fallen
If Eliot Spitzer hadn't been born into a wealthy family. If he hadn't become a lawyer, or appointed District Attorney, and then Attorney General for New York State, and finally, New York's 54th. Governor, but, instead, was just your average Joe, then Alex Gibney would have no reason in making this documentary. But Eliot Spitzer was not your "average Joe." As a man who had spent around seven years fighting crime, both criminal and White Collar, and his elevation to the most powerful position in New York State, Eliot Spitzer (a committed Democrat, whose vote would have helped Hillary Clinton in her failed run for the Presidency), could, if he had wanted, eventually become President himself. But Eliot Spitzer stumbled. Heavily. After a year as Governor, Eliot Spitzer resigned, when it was revealed he had been using the services of an 'escort agency' for sex. His enemies, of which they were many, especially those on Wall Street, wanted him impeached, but he resigned instead. The events leading up to his resignation, and why, is the subject of the new Alex Gibney documentary – "Client 9: The Rise & Fall of Eliot Spitzer" In just under two hours, director Gibney provides us with a clear, and concise portrait of what drove Eliot Spitzer to succeed, but, in the end, not why he acted the way he did. I suspect that Eliot Spitzer doesn't know, either. What must it have been like for Eliot Spitzer to have every move you make, every word you speak, subjected to the most intense media scrutiny? To be the butt of jokes on nightly talk shows. To be lampooned in newspapers. To have the people who one once counted as friends, suddenly wanting to have nothing to do with you? As Eliot Spitzer himself concedes towards the end of the film, he only had himself to blame. This is a terrific documentary. Eight out of ten.
Hai shang chuan qi (2010)
An opportunity missed
Director Jia Zhang-ke was commissioned to make a film commemorating last year's Shanghai World Fair. Population-wise, Shanghai is the biggest city in China. It sits at the mouth of the giant Yangstze River, and is therefore a major port. In 1842, the Treaty of Nanking opened Shanghai to foreign trade. And the city boomed. Shanghai suffered a decline in influence when the Communists came to power in 1949, but rose once again in 1990, when then Premier Deng Xiaoping introduced economic reforms in 1990. When my wife and I stayed with a friend living in Shanghai, it was impossible not to see that Shanghai was booming like never before. One sixth of the world's cranes it was said, crowded the city's skyline. Everywhere one looked, buildings were being razed to the ground to make way for newer, taller structures. In a city with nearly 17,000,000 people, the crowds were like nothing we'd ever experienced before. The traffic wasn't much better. However, the overall impression we took away with us was of a city that was thriving, achieving and vital Jia Zhang-ke's film "I Wish I Knew" has been described as a 'melancholic history of Shanghai", from the brutalities of the Japanese occupation, right up till the present day. Unfortunately, this film in no way gives a person watching this film the impression that Shanghai is one of the most powerful cities in the world. There was scarcely a mention of Japanese occupation Instead, we are subjected to no less than eighteen people sitting around and recounting their memories, more of their family lives than of Shanghai itself. For the most part, these people's memories were mundane and tedious. Then there was the young woman wandering around The Bund, or walking in the rain – why? Who knows, as it's never explained? Granted, things don't have to be spelled out in black and white, but for the life of me, I couldn't see the point. This film is devoid of the sense of a city on the move. The cinema-photography seemed to me well, to be blunt about it, rather amateurish with far too much "framing" The subtitling was truly woeful, with most of the background being pale, the white subtitles were often mainly impossible to read. Footage of Shanghai as it once was to me virtually non-existent and the feel of the city as if it was to me, was also virtually non-existent, too. Overall, this film was an opportunity missed, a perfect illustration of a chance squandered.
Xunzhao zhimei gengdeng (2009)
Tedious in the extreme.
"The Search" is the first Chinese production where the dialogue is spoken entirely in the Tibetan language. A film director and his cameraman travel by four-wheel drive across rural Tibet, auditioning actors to be in a screen version of the classic Tibetan-Buddhist opera "Drime Kunden. With them in the vehicle are a businessman and the driver. During their long languid journey, the businessman regales the other passengers with a tale that seems to run parallel with what is occurring on the screen. They visit remote monasteries and high-school gymnasiums, looking for an actor who can act as well as sing: many of the 'auditions' are filmed in real time, adding to the film's already snail-like pace. The director, Pema Tseden is clearly influenced by the work of such directors as Abbas Kiarostami and Theo Angelopoulos. However, Pema Tseden is not in the league of those directors. The never ending shots from inside the vehicle of the road ahead, and the businessman's constant prattle gradually gets on one's nerves, to the point where this viewer was debating whether or not to walk out of the cinema. The final dénouement was such that he wished he had.
Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo (2009)
Fascinating subject, ineptly handled
"Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo" is a documentary about the Japanese people's age-old love affair with insects Knowing absolutely nothing about why the people of Japan view insects as creatures worthy of respect, even adoration (a trait I suspect is totally alien to people in the West where the natural reaction is to tread on them), I was eager to see this documentary which is part of the documentary season at this year's Melbourne International Film Festival. The filmmaker Jessica Oreck is a lifelong insect lover, and also animal keeper at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Unfortunately, having an abiding passion for insects does not necessarily mean that one can just pick up a camera and start making a documentary. The age-old maxim about the closer one is to the subject, the less likely one is able to be objective about that subject, certainly holds true in this documentary. My main complaint about this film is the way it jumps from one subject to another, without any rhyme or reason, and then back again. Is the scene looking down on people cross a busy intersection holding up umbrellas meant to be a metaphor for how insects behave? What about the scene where all we see of a person is their foot? This film is let down by annoyingly sloppy camera-work. There are scenes that are completely out of focus. And the hand-held shots are so tight, and wobbly, one doesn't get a sense of what is meant to be happening. At the end of the day, it's down to the director to make sure that the camera-work is sharp, correctly focused and helps drive the film's narrative. Which brings me back full circle – that is, for the director to let someone with a more objective eye, make the kind of film this subject matter so richly deserves. That said, "Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo" is still a fascinating, and bizarre film that details how beetles are captured, to insect-dispensing machines and upmarket insect shops where a single purchase can set you back $90,000. Four out of ten
Not as a Stranger (1955)
Miscasting turns an interesting subject into a mishmash
Casting actors instead of 'stars', "Not As A Stranger" could have been an interesting, if somewhat typical, portrayal of the long, hard slog in becoming a doctor, and what life could be like as a doctor in a small town. Unfortunately, by casting Robert Mitcham, Frank Sinatra and Lee Marvin, as doctors, any semblance "Not As A Stranger" might have had as a serious melodrama about the life of a small town doctor is just another over-heated, maudlin melodrama, totally lacking in credibility, and typical of Hollywood's penchant of turning interesting subject matter into cinematic dross. The irony is that Stanley Kramer (who as a Producer), oversaw such highly regarded films as "Champion" with Kirk Douglas, "Death Of A Salesman" with Fredric March, "High Noon" with Gary Cooper (incidentally, John Wayne labeled "High Noon", as Un-American – presumably because of the film's pacifist leanings), and of course, "The Caine Mutiny", with Humphrey Bogart.. Kramer directed films like 'The Defiant Ones", which was about racial tolerance. Likewise, "Inherit The Wind" was about evolution, based on the Scopes so-called "Monkey Trials". But the bulk of Kramer's directorial output were such turkeys as "The Secret of Santa Vittorio", "Bless The Beasts & Children", and "The Pride & The Passion" – with another all-star cast, and, you guessed it, Frank Sinatra as a Spaniard fighting the French army under Napoleon! I award this movie 2 stars out of 10
Far superior to most films about catching serial killers
The "Red Riding Trilogy" (based on the novels by David Peace), originally screened on British TV last year. The three films clock in at just short of five hours. I found out about this trilogy of films after reading a review in The New Yorker magazine, though I can't remember whether it was David Denby or Anthony Lane who wrote about "Red Riding Trilogy", but whoever it was, gave the films a very favourable review. So good, that I wanted to see the films for myself because it's not often that either David Denby or Anthony Lane who gave this film such fulsome praise. The first film in the trilogy deals with a series of child murders and one journalist's attempts to find out who is responsible for these atrocities. The second film is set against the backdrop of the efforts of the police to catch the notorious Yorkshire Ripper, while the final film revisits what happened in the first film. Woven into this apparently simple plot-line, is a back-story about corruption in the West Yorkshire police, and its ties to organized crime. Each film is labyrinthine in their complexities, and you have to pay close attention, otherwise what is revealed in the first film, won't make much sense in the second and third films. The acting is first class, though the direction in the second film is pedestrian compared to the other two films. My only gripe is the sound quality especially in the first film, as if the actors are talking with mouths stuffed with cotton wool. Otherwise, the "Red Riding Trilogy" is a gem, and deserves a viewing.
Documentories don't get any better than this
Truth, they say, is stranger than fiction. No more so than when it comes to documentaries. Even the average documentary can be far more gripping than many a feature film. And a great documentary is a wonder to behold. Such is the case with the film "Tyson", by James Toback. Of the ten films James Toback has directed over a period of thirty-one years, only "Fingers", and "The Pick-Up Artist" have made it to DVD, at least here in Australia. The first I knew of "Tyson" was a review I had read in The New Yorker. So when I saw it was one of the films to be screened at this year's Melbourne Film Festival, I made damn sure I got a ticket. Mike Tyson, in his career as a boxer, became the youngest heavy weight champion in the world. He floored one opponent in just eight seconds! Of the fifty -eight fights he fought, he won fifty. He knocked out his opponent forty -four times, and lost just six fights, before retiring from the fight game. "Tyson" is not an objective film as such. It is 100% subjective with Tyson doing all the talking. The death of his trainer, Constantine 'Cus' D'Amato hit Tyson hard, though there is no way of telling, his public and private life seemed to go off the rails not long after, the bulk of this film is devoted to having Tyson look at the camera and tell his story the best way he can. Yes, he probably leaves out a lot (who knows how much extra footage didn't make it into the final film), but what remains is like a cinematic jolt of electricity. He doesn't pull any punches. He tells it like it is, warts and all. He comments on the 'leaches' like Don King. Then again, knowing how explosive a temper he has, he says nothing while his wife, Robin Givens, lashes out at him in front of Barbera Walters on television. He tells about growing up in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, where he was bullied by neighbourhood kids, his life of petty crime, time in jail and when his luck changed on meeting Constantine 'Cus' D'Amato, who taught him all he knew about the craft of boxing, both physical and spiritual. You have to pay close attention as many of his fights are shown on a split screen, so when one image fades, another immediately takes its place. Whether you like to see two men pummel each other into submission, or wouldn't watch a boxing match to save your life, "Tyson" is a film that you really should see.
Tenshi no kôkotsu (1972)
Koji Wakamatsu's "Ecstacy Of The Angels" runs for a mere eighty-nine minutes. After it ended it felt more like eight nine hours. Wakamatsu, known as the "Pink Godfather" (no, don't ask me why), was a pioneer of the pinku eiga genre. I had never heard the name Wakamatsu before. According to the blurb in the festival guide, "Ecstacy of The Angels" is a parable about a revolutionary organization torn apart by betrayal, its members descending into paranoia, sadism and sexual decadence. It sounded like a plot from an early Godard film, only from a Japanese perspective. This sounded interesting, I thought. It was about as interesting as having a tooth extracted. The opening sequence, in black and white, is set in a nightclub. A female singer screeches absurd lyrics, while at a nearby table three men and a woman sit in silence. Pretty soon though, I couldn't figure out which revolutionary faction was which, and by that time I was beyond caring. The actors don't just speak their lines, the bellow them at each other, as if they were all auditory challenged. In the frequent sex scenes (which are about as erotic as two storefront mannequins coupling), they go through the motions of sexual congress while mouthing absurd platitudes about fighting for the revolutionary cause. Frankly, Wakamatsu is definitely no match for Godard. Which reminds me, I need to visit my dentist for a check up. It'll be less painful all round.
RKO 281 (1999)
A brave attempt
Orson Welles was just twenty-six years of age when he made "Citizen Kane." A film regarded by many to be one of the best films ever made. As Welles quipped: "I started at the top and worked down." There is no doubt that Orson Welles was a genius (child prodigy), and that he never made a better film than "Citizen Kane." "RKO 281" (the original production number given to "Kane" by the studio), is the story of the trials and tribulations of making "Citizen Kane." By rights, a film about the making of "Citizen Kane", should pack more of a wallop than this one does. The subject has all the ingredients of high melodrama that's for sure; only this film doesn't quite live up to it. This is not necessarily the fault of the director: it's just that the topic is a far too complex one to be portrayed in a mere eighty three minutes. Still and all, "RKO 281" is not a bad little film about how one of the true geniuses of the cinema, who was treated so abysmally by the system that allowed him to make the film in the first place. Under pressure from William Randolph Hearst (whom "Kane" is a thinly disguised version), the heads of the other major studios devised a plan to ensure the film would never ever be seen again. Thankfully, George Schaeffer at RKO didn't go along with this idea. The film had its premier, but failed to engage cinema audiences, and effectively sank without a trace, no doubt helped by a total ban on advertising by the Hearst organization. Praise should go to Liev Schreiber as Welles, Roy Scheider as RKO boss, George Schaeffer, John Malcovich as Herman Mankiewicz, John Cromwell as Hearst and Melanie Griffith as Marion Davies. A special mention should also go to Brenda Blethyn as Hearst columnist Louella Parsons. In addition, Orson Welles second feature, "The Magnificent Ambersons", suffered the ignominy of having the editing of the film taken away from by RKO, who not only removed an hour of footage, but also shot a new, happier ending and tacked it onto the film. Although the extensive notes left by Welles on how the film was to be cut have survived, the excised scenes have not.
Documentary style realism besetting multiple story lines in Naples Criminal Underworld.
Gomorra is a violent and no doubt accurate, depiction of how the Cosa Nostra functions, in this instance, in the city of Naples. In America, there have been many films about the Cosa Nostra (aka The Mafia, The Mob), such as "The Godfather Trilogy", "Once Upon A Time In America" "Scarface" (in the Al Pacino version), "Goodfellas", to name but a few. All fine films. "Gomorra" is a different kettle of pasta. Such is the film's graphic and violent realism, you would be forgiven for thinking it was a documentary. Never have I seen a film that to me seems to capture what life must be like for the people who are trapped in this network of 'kill or be killed', with the certain chance of death for people who go against the wishes of their Bosses. There is one other film that tackles this subject that I have seen and that is Lina Wertmuller's film: "Camorra. Of the two, "Gomorra" is by far the best, though it's a distinction the denizens of Naples no doubt would care less about. This is not a film one enjoys. In fact it is harrowing in the extreme. I doubt if anyone who is not part of this milieu (and who would want to be?), can fully comprehend the utter desperation of the lives these people lead, when at any time, without warning, some hopped up young Turk anxious to prove his manhood, could blow people away with barely a glance at the victim. "Gomorra" has its faults: what film doesn't? It can be a trifle confusing on first viewing, with cutting between one story segment and another. This is just nitpicking on my part. "Gomorra" is a powerful and timely film about an worldwide organization that has its tentacles into very many form of business, both legal and illegal. While watching "Gomorra" I was reminded of the time I was involved with shooting a commercial in Naples. Nothing apparently goes on without the knowledge of the Cosa Nostra: their stranglehold on any business is near total. At dinner for the crew one night, a man whom none of had seen before, sat down at the head of the table, removed his jacket, took a gun out of his shoulder holster and placed it on the table in front of him. Later, we found out he was a 'soldier' in the Cosa Nostra. He was there just to get a free meal. I kid you not.
In Bruges (2008)
Another terrific film from the U.K.
This is the first feature film of director Martin McDonagh. His previous foray into film was the short, "Six Shooter" which, come to think of it, would be an ideal addition when "In Bruges" is released on DVD. "In Bruges" is a superior English gangster film, similar, but not an echo of those two other great English gangster films, "The Long Good Friday" and "Sexy Beast" Indeed, the Harry Waters character played with venomous realism by Ralph Fiennes is strikingly similar to the Don Logan character (played with even more toxicity by Ben Kingsley), in "Sexy Beast" But there is where any resemblance ends. Whereas the "The Long Good Friday" was about power and how easily it can slip through one's fingers, and "Sexy Beast" was about a retired criminal being persuaded to carry out one last job, "In Bruges" is about the aftermath of a 'hit.' Ray and Ken (Farrell and Gleeson respectively), play two hit men. The film opens with postcard scenes of the old city of Bruges in Belgium, while a voice over explains why these two men find themselves in this ancient city. Ken is the more pragmatic of the two. He is quite content to do a spot of 'sightseeing.'while awaiting further instructions. Ray on the other hand, thinks Bruges is a dump. Ray just wants to get back to the city he was born in, Dublin. But, as the film progresses, it's gradually revealed why both men have to hang around, till they receive these 'further instructions.' When the instructions finally comes, is not what we expect. Both Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell, are terrific, especially Farrell as Ray. The supporting cast is equally good Jordan Prentice as "Jimmy, Zeljko Ivanek as the 'Canadian", and Eric Godon as 'Yuri" There were a few instances in the film I found somewhat confusing but to list them would be both superfluous, unnecessary, and would spoil other film goers enjoyment. "In Bruges" is a rollicking yarn, expertly crafted, with great dialogue and many an unexpected plot twist. I recommend it unreservedly.
The best film about Ireland's sectarian violence
Director Alan Clarke knew instinctively that to make a film about the sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, could be politically suicidal. The violence was still going on when this film was made in 1989, after all. This is why "Elephant", in my opinion, was a stroke of genius. It doesn't get bogged down trying to walk the fine line of being neutral on such an explosive issue and appearing downright biased. No film about Ireland's "Troubles" will satisfy both Protestant and Catholic. The seeds of this catastrophe began when the British government decided to partition Ireland Ireland in 1921. Though the population of Northern Ireland was both Catholic and Protestant, the Catholics were in the minority, and were outrageously discriminated against by a political machine that was heavily Protestant. That's not to say that the Catholic population were not also responsible for incidents of provocation. Violence erupted on the twin anniversary of the Battle of The Somme and The Easter Uprising: the government's response was to bring in troops from Britain to control the violence. Then, in 1972, a British Parachute regiment killed thirteen demonstrators during a civil rights march, forever after known as "Bloody Sunday." From then on, the frequency of the confrontations between Catholic and Protestant, escalated and grew in intensity - in one year alone, over 500 men, women, and children were killed due to what was basically "Religious", as it was about self-rule. In thirty years, an estimated 3523 people lost their lives. Alan Clarke's answer in making a film about the "Troubles", is "Elephant." It is not the definitive film about Northern Ireland, but it is a brave, and I think successful, attempt, that Alan Clarke should be praised rather than denigrated. They say an elephant never forgets. Once seen, you'll never forget this film. It's interesting that Gus Van Sant used the same title for his film about the random act of violence at Columbine High School. Incidentally, eighteen years after his death, a boxed set of the films Alan Clarke is best known for, includes "Scum" (both the TV and theatrical release), "The Firm", "Made In Britain", and "Elephant", is finally available.