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Block C (1994)
Stark Depiction of Life in Contemporary İstanbul, 3 October 2015

The title C BLOK refers to a tower-block set in a modern development in İstanbul. Ostensibly a series of luxury apartments designed for the nouveaux riches as well as the bourgeoisie, in Zeki Demirkubuz's film they are equated with prisons. On the front door of the block small signs are posted saying "No Tradespeople" and "No Strangers." The security locks on the door prevent anyone from entering unless authorized.

For rich wife Tülay (Serap Aksoy) and janitor's sun Halit (Fikret Kuşkan) life in block is well nigh unbearable. This is signaled through a series of point-of-view shots stressing the size of the blocks stretching up to the sky and excluding any daylight. At one point director Zeki Demirkubuz photographs the blocks at an angle to suggest how they can affect the characters' mental state. A series of repeated shots - for example, of a satellite dish outside the blocks - shows how technology assumes much more importance in the public consciousness as compared to individual psychology.

Life in this environment is portrayed as aimless. The film is full of shots of the characters driving their cars aimlessly along endless main roads, the scenery flashing by. No one quite seems to know where they are going; driving is just a means of passing the time. For the most part Demirkubuz places his camera outside the cars, showing the characters driving behind their windshields, to emphasize the remoteness of their experiences.

Tülay and Halit try to discover various solutions to their problems. Tülay spends a lot of her time looking at the Bosphorus, its gray waters stretching into the horizon. At one point she dreams of the water carrying her away into a new life - or perhaps into oblivion. Halit spends much of his time observing Tülay, as well as Tülay's maid Aslı (Zuhal Gencer), as trying to control them through his glances. The only alternative he can find is to have brief sexual flings with both of them; but that brings little or no permanent satisfaction.

C BLOK is a complex film that deliberately plays with past, present and future. For most of the second half we learn that Tülay is telling the story of her life to her best friend Fatoş (Ülkü Duru), which is dramatized through flashback. Yet it seems that little has actually changed for her as Tülay and Fatoş are shown talking together, while the reflection of a New Year's party is shown at the right of the frame. Quite literally we are hearing the narrative told through a glass darkly, once again emphasizing Tülay's alienation from the world around her.

In the end Halit is condemned to an asylum and Tülay visits him. The sequence begins with a visual irony, as we see a shot of a bust of Atatürk in the background while Tülay gets out of her car. While founding the Republic Atatürk desired equality of opportunity for all; it's clear that this aim has not been fulfilled. Tülay goes into the asylum, and sits together with Halit. Although from quite different socio-economic backgrounds, they share the same hopeless plight.

BLOK C offers a bleak portrayal of life in the Republic of Turkey's largest city. Although made over twenty years ago, its depiction of life in the so-called "luxury" tower-blocks assumes even more significance today in light of the building explosion that has ruined most of the country's major urban centers.

Intriguing Piece that Nonetheless Seems Uncertain About its Moral Priorities, 3 October 2015

Jailed for twenty-five years for arms dealing in 2011, Viktor Bout became a media celebrity as the so-called "Merchant of Death," dealing in arms across the globe and thereby contributing to the continuation of bloody civil wars in the Congo, Angola and Rwanda, amongst others. When finally arrested as a result of a deliberately staged "hit" operation, Bout was agreeing to a deal that could have resulted in American civilians being slaughtered.

Tony Gerber and Maxim Pozdorovkin's documentary profiles Bout, an entrepreneur of quite extraordinary aptitude, who built up his business empire in the wake of the liberalization policies introduced by Boris Yeltsin in Russia during the 1990s. Bout's primary interest, it seems, was in cargo; bringing in hitherto unobtainable commodities into Russia while transporting other goods from place to place. He set up his sphere of operations in Sharjah, where be built up a huge empire. It did not matter what was transported; Bout built his reputation on flying goods expeditiously using his own fleet of airplanes.

As the Nineties progressed, so Bout expanded his operations into some of the trouble-spots of Africa. He had a small airport in the Congo in the midst of civil war operations; and enjoyed good relationships with military leaders all over the continent. The documentary works hard to portray him as a business person interested solely in making money, but it seems that he was largely indifferent to the morality of arms-dealing.

What makes THE NOTORIOUS MR. BOUT most interesting is the amount of home movie footage Bout shot during his business career. Everything, it seemed, was worth filming, from rebuilding his aircraft to the most ordinary domestic scenes such as the birth of his daughter. We get the sense that his real desire was for some form of celebrity; to be remembered for what he did, regardless of why he did it.

In the end Bout achieved his aim as he was deported from Thailand to New York to face a high-profile trial. Through interviews with Bout's wife Alla, as well as some of his closest business associates, the documentary works hard to suggest that Bout was more sinned against than sinning; there are legions of arms-dealers from all countries who are still at large and making huge profits out of other people's suffering. Nonetheless we feel that the prison sentence he received was somehow justified, if only as a means to show what would happen to any arms-dealer, whether great or small, should they be brought to justice.

Slickly filmed with the use of voice artists speaking some of Bout's words, THE NOTORIOUS MR. BOUT is an entertaining piece.

Envy (2009)
Uncompromising Depiction of Imprisonment Both Physical and Emotional, 2 October 2015

Based on a novel by Nahid Sırrı Örik, KISKANMAK (ENVY) is a powerful depiction of the ways in which people's lives are hemmed in by class, gender and emotional preoccupations.

I cannot comment on the adaptation's relationship to the source- text, but as it stands Zeki Demirkubuz's film, although set in the early Thirties, offers a powerful comment on inequalities within contemporary Turkey.

The action opens at a celebration in the Black Sea town of Zonguldak. Couples dance idly round the floor until the band-leader calls them to order and invites everyone to sing the National Anthem in praise of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The action takes place only seven years after the Republic was established in 1923; and we are reminded once more of the principles upon which it was founded - equality, fairness, and opportunity.

Unfortunately what follows completely subverts that impression. Mine-owner's wife Mükerrem (Berrak Tüzünataç) leads an aimless existence dominated by tea-parties and social occasions. Sharing her house with her husband Halit (Serhat Tutumluer), and her sister- in- law Seniha (Nergis Öztürk), she orders her servants to wait upon her hand and foot. Eventually Mükerrem falls in love with Nüshet (Bora Cengiz), the youthful son of a local society family; together they spend clandestine evenings together, while Halit apparently remains oblivious.

Mükerrem's actions enrage Seniha, who hitherto has enjoyed a close relationship with Halit's wife. Seniha ends up taking a decision that ultimately leads to the destruction of all three protagonists.

Shot in washed-out colors, with the lighting focused deliberately on the characters' faces, Demirkubuz's film creates a self-enclosed world in which outward show matters: preserving one's honor counts above everything else. Within this world women are kept as virtual prisoners: the film is full of repeated shots of them either looking out of the window from inside, or photographed inside their houses from the outside. The sense of imprisonment is enhanced by repeated close-ups of lattices, grilles and covered lights.

The idea of female confinement is nothing new; it is characteristic of any patriarchal society in which men like Halit come home from work expecting their dinner, and prepare for business trips by having their suitcases packed for them. As portrayed by Tutumluer, Halit is a very passive person, despite his apparent power: everyone, it seems, is prepared to do all his work for him.

What gives Demirkubuz's film added bite is the way he shows the characters experiencing emotional as well as physical imprisonment. Neither Mükerrem nor Seniha can see beyond their limited field of self-interest; and hence destroy themselves as well as those closest to them. In a highly socially stratified society, they have been brought up to observe certain mores; and when these mores have been traduced, they have no means of coping. Their reactions are almost childlike, but entirely coherent in a society whose inhabitants are almost entirely prevented from thinking for themselves.

KISKANMAK is a domestic tale but carries substantial political undertones. In any world that curtails self-determination, few people can survive for very long. The film ends with Seniha photographed alone on a cruise-ship, biting into a sandwich and admitting her faults in voice-over. While understanding that she has acquired self- knowledge, we hardly feel sympathetic towards her, in light of what has previously taken place.

The mood of melancholy is cleverly underlined by the use of a musical leitmotif from Albinioni. KISKANMAK is a mournful yet memorable piece of work.

Historical Documentary Constructed by Numbers, 1 October 2015

If you want to make a historical documentary for the BBC, you must have a few essential ingredients. You need some good locations, preferably bourgeois ones, which the camera can pan to the accompaniment of period music - the factual equivalent of an effect characteristic of historical dramas. You need plenty of experts; if they have appeared in other historical documentaries, so much the better, as you can be sure they will say the right things. And you need the all-seeing presenter, who should be photographed in a variety of locations, either addressing comments direct to camera or walking across the frame up stairs, across historical sites or being photographed in crowded streets.

BOUGHT WITH LOVE contains all these familiar tropes. There are shots of Wilton House, the Banqueting House in Whitehall, and the National Gallery, as well as several close-ups of paintings by Van Dyck and Rubens, among others. Among the experts called to give testimony are Jerry Brotton (who has had his own series on the BBC), as well as sundry professors and museum curators. Presenter Helen Rosslyn talks direct to camera, waving her arms around expressively as she tells us the story of the earliest patrons of the arts in seventeenth century Britain who transformed the country from a cultural wasteland into one of the main centers of art collection and/or exchange.

Does the program tell us something that we don't know already? Partly yes. We learn about the Earl of Arundel whose philanthropic activities ensured the development of British art collections during the reign of Charles I. Yet there is an underlying ideological message about this episode, pointing to the survival of aristocratic values in a society apparently dedicated to egalitarianism. They can be seen in the expensive interiors of Wilton House and Arundel Castle, and in the treasures of the Royal Collection. We understand just how powerful those with family money can be.

To be honest, this viewer has become rather tired of documentary series that keep retreading familiar historical territory in an attempt to emphasize Britain's past glories. One yearns instead for more contemporaneous material.

Rather Confusing Gangland Mystery, 1 October 2015

Compared to the other episodes in the series, "The Family" turned out to be a little confusing. It involves the murder of a gangster (Cedomir Djordjevic) who is at first shot at in the street, then killed in cold blood at home. Beck (Peter Haber) and Gunvald (Mikael Persbrandt) uncover a complicated plot involving the gangster's widow Charlotta (Marie Robertson), her father (Björn Andersson) and a dentist who turns out to have a rather shady past. The resolution turns out to be rather complicated and slightly illogical; there are too many set-piece scenes involving the police where information is exchanged very quickly - so quickly, in fact, that it becomes difficult to viewers to grasp what is going on.

Nonetheless there are incidental pleasures en route to the denouement. Director Mårten Klingberg focuses more on Gunvald's personal life, as he becomes romantically involved with Charlotta but finds to his cost that business and pleasure do not mix. We also see him becoming highly jealous of computer whizkid Ayda Çetin (Elmira Arikan), who becomes very useful to Beck in solving the case. As a more traditionally- minded cop, believing that cases can only be solved through trudging the streets and visiting suspects, the idea of crimes being solved solely through virtual means is anathema to him.

The production also focuses on Beck's personal life as he discovers that his grandson Tomas (Daniel Sjöberg) continues to receive abusive texts from a fellow-learner at school. Unsure as to whether to exercise his authority as a police officer - and thereby incur his daughter's ire - Beck tries to solve the case in a softy-softly manner, but finds to his cost that circumstances are very different from what he anticipated. We also see that pathologist Gunilla (Anu Sinisalo) develops an attraction towards him; at present, however, Beck feels emotionally incapable of responding.

BECK is a cut above other detective thrillers in the way it focuses on the protagonists' personal lives, even while showing them solving crimes. What a shame, therefore, that the complications of the plot tended to divert our attention away from the characters.

Understated Mystery Thriller That Makes Significant Social Criticisms, 1 October 2015

In this episode, the second in BBC Four's season of BECK mysteries, our intrepid heroes (Peter Haber, Mikael Persbrandt) investigate a murder case at a Stockholm hotel involving a seventeen-year-old girl, a teenage brat (Filip Berg), his father (Niklas Hjulström) and a couple of car thieves. The denouement is satisfyingly surprising in the way it frustrates our expectations as to who the murderer actually is.

What makes this episode so interesting is the way in which director Mårten Klingberg uses the material to make some significant social commentary on contemporary Swedish life. The police try to find the car-thieves by going into a rundown housing estate, and by doing so incite a riot. The responsibility for this lies with Beck's boss, who decides to send in police with full protective gear rather than adopting a softly-softly approach, which might have worked better. Such bungled operations only serve to make Beck's task of solving the case that much more difficult.

In investigating the murder, Beck becomes involved in the sleazy underworld of the night-club. Presided over by a good-for-nothing owner (Ulf Stenberg) who spends his day-times training in a gym, the club willingly tolerates underage party-goers who end up getting stoned and hence not in control of themselves. It seems as if the sole aim of such people is to squeeze as much money as possible out of youngsters. In this mind of hedonistic environment it's hardly surprising that teenagers put their lives at risk. Gunvald Larsson (Persbrandt) discovers this in the nick of time, as he rescues his teenage niece from the club.

BECK contains some of the clichés associated with the detective genre - the lonely cops going back to empty homes and trying to cope with complicated personal lives. Nonetheless there are some amusing variations on familiar themes; in the evening Beck comes out on his apartment balcony to exchange pleasantries with an aging eccentric who might be fantasizing about his daily experiences. Beck's expression remains deadpan throughout, although it's clear that such moments provide him with much-needed comic relief.

The Gamechangers (2015) (TV)
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Taut Drama That Reveals the Destructive Consequences of Fanaticism, 30 September 2015

The basic plot of THE GAMECHANGERS is straightforward, as crusading Florida lawyer Jack Thompson (Bill Paxton) takes on the video-game producers, notably Rockstar and its CEO Sam Houser (Daniel Radcliffe), in the belief that video-games have a destructive effect on child psychology. The inspiration for the case comes from the killing of three police officers in Alabama by teenager video-game player Devin Moore (Thabo Rametsi).

Owen Harris's production is built round a series of oppositions. Thompson believes that video-games are destructive; Houser advocates free choice. Rockstar's lawyers believe that Houser is exploiting the case for his own ends, and mount a series of counter- accusations. There is a nationalistic subtext running throughout the film contrasting the more liberal Brits (led by Houser) with the more overtly moral Americans, whose censorship laws are apparently far more stringent than those practiced within the United Kingdom. On the other hand Thompson resent Houser and his fellow-Brits for making money out of the American market with little concern for family values.

As the drama unfolds, however, we discover that its focus centers more and more on the consequences of extremism. Houser is so obsessed with novelty, with producing the ultimate video game, that he resists any possible criticism from his fellow-workers. Likewise Thompson's obsession with indicting Rockstar, in the belief that God is on his side (the side of 'right' in his view) that he does not realize the destructive effect his actions have on himself and his family. Although loyally supported by his wife (Fiona Ramsay), he might have been better advised to pause and consider the plight of son Johnny (Garion Dowds). Director Harris stresses the links between the two protagonists through repeated shots showing their faces in close-up superimposed on video-game action.

Much of the action takes place in darkness, or semi-darkness illuminated by computer screens. We are in a nether-world, one in which light seldom enters. Houser talks a lot about the "adaptability" of his new video-game; in truth both he and Thompson are profoundly un-adaptable insofar as they cannot see any other alternative to life than the contrasting causes they espouse. At one point Thompson asks the question "Who are you?" in close-up; we might interpret that statement as a metaphor for the entire film in which human beings are deprived of their identities.

In the end Harris refuses to take sides; on the contrary, he shows how both protagonists are ultimately destroyed. They might have enjoyed "success" in terms of achieving their various ambitions, but at what cost? Perhaps the only way out would have been to follow the example of Houser's colleague Jamie (Joe Dempsie) and leave the whole affair behind. Yet this is something that the obsessive protagonists cannot do.

Tightly Constructed Detective Thriller with a Surprise Ending, 30 September 2015

Already familiar to British audiences from the Radio 4 dramatizations (under the title THE MARTIN BECK KILLINGS), this was the first episode broadcast in a season of the Swedish versions on BBC Four television with subtitles.

Harald Hamrell's production clearly delineated the relationships between the main protagonists. The eponymous hero (Peter Haber) is a cerebral type favoring patient investigation and cool calculation. His sidekick Gunvald (Mikael Persbrandt) favors a more direct approach involving violence both verbal and physical. The two have an antagonistic relationship lightened somewhat by the odd wry joke.

Set in and around the streets of Stockholm, the production creates a world of corruption in which everyone seems out for themselves. In this episode the two police officers have to track down a crazed killer who buries his victims alive and leaves messages designed to attract Beck's interest. In the end Beck is placed in deadly peril, with his inquisitiveness getting the better of him. Even the police force are not above a certain degree of self-interest.

Stylistically speaking, this episode contains a lot of patient deduction interspersed with some genuinely scary moments. At one point a middle-aged woman living on her own is placed in deadly peril by an unidentified stalker; the camera pursues her through her bungalow as she tries to find out what the problem is, with the sequence ending with an abrupt cut as the stalker comes up behind her and places a hand over her mouth.

The ending deliberately subverts our expectations, drawing us into a world of revenge and murder. Imprisoning the criminal does not promote reform; on the contrary, it breeds a festering resentment that spells danger for anyone responsible for incarcerating the criminal in the first place.

Somewhat Padded-Out Story of The Beatles' Debut Single, 30 September 2015

Sometimes it's difficult to detach truth from fiction. When thinking of The Beatles and the origins of their debut single "Love Me Do," it's difficult not to think of Philip Larkin's lines referring to the growth of worldliness that took place "between the trial of Lady Chatterley and The Beatles' first LP."

"Love Me Do," wasn't a great success. It did not reach No. 1 in the charts, but it signaled The Beatles' arrival on a music scene which at the time seemed rather tame. At the beginning of '62 "Moon River" (from BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S) was top of the hit-parade, and while young people had the freedom to go to clubs and indulge in the twist should they so wish, the choice of hits available was a little limited.

In this documentary produced to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the release of "Love me Do," presenter Stuart Maconie retraces the familiar steps round the Cavern Club to tell the story of how the song originated. There are some familiar guest appearances from Gerry Marsden (of Gerry and the Pacemakers fame), "Whispering" Bob Harris, plus archive footage of The Beatles being interviewed.

The documentary includes some familiar material to set the release in context - of the Cuban War crisis, the growth in youth cultures, CND, plus unemployment. None of this material seems especially relevant to the central argument, which could well have been shortened into a half-hour slot.

Nonetheless we learn some fascinating things about The Beatles: their audition for Decca Records proved catastrophic, and they were dismissed as just another guitar group. At that time Parlophone Records was a small division within the EMI empire; it was The Beatles themselves who transformed it. There was a fascinating interview with Pete Best - the fifth Beatle who was unceremoniously junked in favor of Ringo Starr as the drummer. Although Best insisted otherwise, it was clear that he still harbored resentment at the decision. There was also an interview with Stuart Sutcliffe's sister; Sutcliffe was perhaps the most talented member of the original Beatles, who died of a brain hemorrhage at the age of twenty-two.

LOVE ME DO adopted a reverential approach to the material, but it could have been constructed better.

Straightforward Bio of a Scientific Genius, 29 September 2015

Marie Curie had a life packed with incident. Born in Poland, she showed an early aptitude for science, but was prevented from pursuing her studies by an archaically minded educational establishment. She moved to Paris and changed her name; not only did she become highly qualified, but she achieved an almost immediate reputation as an innovator and radical thinker.

However her reputation was soon lost by a scandal involving her private life. In a closed society women were not supposed to have feelings of their own; hence to be unfaithful to her spouse was considered tantamount to a heinous crime.

Curie was nothing if not tenacious. Having married Pierre Curie she not only restored her reputation but increased it by discovering radium. From then on till her death in her mid-sixties she became an international figure, regularly lecturing in Europe and the United States.

This documentary does not tell us anything new about Curie's life, but serves as an ideal introduction to her work and why it is so enduringly significant.

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