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12 March 2007
Warning: Spoilers
In which urbane alternative comedian Jeremy Hardy joins an International Solidarity Movement contingent in the West Bank and finds the reality of 'facts on the ground' clarifies his thinking on the Middle East issue no end.

Some criticisms of the film here are off the mark. Film is a visual medium. What counts is what we see. Hardy's narration is very understated, very self-deprecating, very English. We don't need him to express outrage at the Israeli army firing live rounds towards unarmed, peaceful demonstrators. We see it and can judge for ourselves. This works infinitely better than the sort of tendentious emoting which marred "One Day in September" or arguably Michael Moore's work.

While the film does not pretend to make a detailed examination of the conflict, there are nods towards the complexity of the situation; there is reference to suicide bombers and the Palestinian youths' "own version of the struggle" (although the latter is not spelled out). The ISM volunteers are told that reconciliation is the ultimate goal and they should not say anything to the Israeli soldiers which would make that harder to achieve. Although Hardy appears to start from a position of some scepticism regarding the international volunteers, events change this to admiration and wholehearted support.

While clearly taking sides, the film is unsensational, nuanced and yet as gripping as most thrillers. Throughly recommended.
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Yatra (2006)
Long Day's Journey
27 October 2006
Rather slow and ponderous exploration of the nature of fiction, memory and the alleged change in Indian culture from the spiritual to the materialistic (was there really ever a time when most people weren't materialistic?).

There are some beautiful moments in this, particularly some of the music, dancing and landscape shots, but much of the framing story, set for the most part in domestic interiors, moves more slowly than the content can support.

There is some interesting layering and interweaving of different levels of reality as people from the author's life appear as characters in his various fictions, and he has a long discussion with a film director character presumably intended to represent Gautam Ghose himself.

There are references to earlier films and literature which I am sadly unfamiliar with so much of the nuance would have been lost on me. Rekha for example has played similar roles in several films over the years, most notably Umrao Jaan, so her appearance here will have a resonance lost on western audiences. (However I also detected echoes of Bergman's "Wild Strawberries" and maybe even Tarkovsky's "Mirror").

Having said that, my (Pakistani) companion unfortunately lost patience about 3/4 of the way through and went out for a coffee so I was a little distracted. My advice - don't take a Bollywood fan to see this movie!
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Great idea - questionable execution.
7 June 2006
I wanted to like this.

I have an abiding interest in South Africa, I like "Carmen", and this seemed like a great idea, however in the event I found myself getting bored about halfway through.

A few of the problems:-

Carmen weighed about 200lbs. I know different cultures have different concepts of beauty, but frankly when you're up against Dorothy Dandridge's spectacular turn in "Carmen Jones" you have to raise your game a little.

I didn't buy any of the characters' attraction to each other. Carmen displayed almost no interest in Jongikhaya, or indeed in the 'Escamillo' character (here a singer rather than a bullfighter or a boxer). Jongikhaya didn't seem particularly interested in Carmen either. OK, sex is more of a private matter in Africa and public displays of affection are more subdued, but there was no discernible chemistry at all here.

Also, the Toreador song has been inexplicably cut out of the film (except for a brief excerpt towards the end). This is one of the high points of the opera, a major plot pivot, and the actor had a great voice, so this was triply baffling.

The camera-work and mise en scene also suffered badly in comparison to the grace and originality of Preminger's movie.

On the positive side, the singing was good, the township locations gritty, realistic and entirely in keeping with the spirit of the opera, and the story was augmented with flashbacks giving some characters a depth absent from the original (and injecting a bit of politics).

I'd like to see how this went down in Khayalitsha (apparently it was premiered in the sports hall where the film climaxes). You have to assume a Xhosa audience will see a lot a European would miss. Ironically most cinemas in the townships show Hollywood movies rather than anything produced locally. Hopefully films like this will begin to change that.
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So they DO still make 'em like this...
17 April 2006
The world is probably divided into those who understand why a long take of someone riding a motorbike across Bonneville Salt Flats to vanishing point can be great, exhilarating cinema and those who don't. I'm firmly in the former category, and if you are too, this is the film for you.

One of the best American films of the past decade, from almost the first scene - a dreamy, hypnotic vision of a motorcycle race - it's clear that this is going to be something special and when the race finishes and a downbeat jazz tune kicks in behind Gallo stowing his bike away this is confirmed. Genuine cinematic magic.

This has the rhythm and pace of a 60s/70's art movie like "Two Lane Blacktop" or "Zabriskie Point" - a time when Hollywood was prepared to actually take risks with the audience's attention span and take the time to look at the world properly. Gallo is the first American filmmaker in a long time to pick up that baton and run with it - or in this case drive. One of the all-time great road movies, this gives the American landscape, the sun refracted through a windshield, rain hitting a wet road, the attention they deserve instead of just using landscape as backdrop for action.

The ending arguably unbalances the movie somewhat by resolving all the ambiguities and making too much of a concession to conventional drama. Nonetheless, this is a rare poem in an age of prose and you should seek it out.
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King Kong (2005)
Flawed Giant
30 December 2005
Don't get me wrong here, I liked this film. It was spectacular, it had considerable emotional resonance, it wasn't a travesty.

Of course in reality a 25ft silverback gorilla would collapse under its own weight, and in many ways that's what has happened to the movie.

As others have noted, it is on the long side and would have benefited from resolute scissoring throughout. Just because you have the resources to show a 10-minute dinosaur stampede doesn't mean you actually have to do it, particularly when a 30-second scene would have told the story just as well. Throughout the movie, time is stretched in order to fit in all the effects - at one point several minutes pass between someone being struck by a spear and hitting the ground.

In addition I remain unconvinced by CGI generally. OK, this probably looks better than any other CGI movie so far, but I don't think we're in any danger of confusing it with reality yet. Rather, we have a spectacular and detailed cartoon.

It's ironic that while one of the central characters here is a combination of PT Barnum-style showman and Werner-Herzog-type visionary obsessive taking his cameras into the jungle, this "King Kong" itself is as far away from Herzogian 'realism' as it's possible to get. Not only do the CGI effects themselves (with the exception of Kong's facial expressions) fail to convince, the filmmakers also have people surviving unsurvivable falls, hanging onto logs and creepers in conditions where any human being would fall, etc. I know this is a Hollywood action movie staple, but it still jolts me out of any suspension of disbelief. OK, CGI is the only way we can have dinosaurs or giant gorillas, but keeping things as real as possible otherwise would help no end with the human side of the story.

Any time a film-maker puts a film-maker into his story it's necessary to consider the relationship between the two. On the one hand we have the studio-bound CGI-nerd making a movie about a seat-of-the-pants explorer-director. On the other we have the "showman" side of Carl Denham, as Driscoll points out, destroying that very "wonder" he sets out to capture by reducing it to vulgar spectacle. You have to ask yourself if that resonance wasn't at least in Jackson's mind when he wrote the theatre scene.

On the plus side, all the themes of the original are here and amplified, from the "we are the real monsters" (with added "Heart of Darkness" reference), through strong hints of ecological parable, to the genuinely tragic love of Kong for Darrow which leads directly to his capture and eventual downfall. The sadness in his eyes throughout is something to behold - as the last of his species he is doomed in any event, ironically it is his compassion which hastens his demise.
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Mr. Jones (1993)
Jones the Dream
8 November 2005
This was Mike Figgis' first film after the rather wonderful and haunting "Liebestraum" and compared to that it's a disappointment.

As others have commented, Gere's acting is magnificent. I have a good friend who is manic depressive and Gere nails the condition absolutely. As others have also commented, this performance is straightjacketed into a contrived Hollywood vehicle with a laughably pat romantic ending. I was unsurprised to discover that the film was taken away from Figgis by the studio, redited, rescored and partially reshot.

A couple of points: of course Lena Olin's character behaves unprofessionally, that's made quite clear in the movie, so pointing it out as a flaw seems a little wide of the mark. What we in fact have is a slightly more subtle than usual rendition of the "psychiatrist is as nutty as the patient" trope - she is shown earlier in the movie to be extremely vulnerable and perhaps irrational after a failed relationship. Meanwhile Gere is extremely charismatic, as manic personalities can be, she is drawn to him out of her own depressed state and the time-honoured Freudian concept of transference does the rest. In addition the choice she makes addresses the notion introduced by Gere's character in the movie - how much is she prepared to give up?

There are also serious questions about "madness" touched on in the film - where does individual personality end and illness begin? To what extent is insanity a logical response to an intolerable situation? Perhaps these were originally to be explored in a little more depth.

I suppose this "accountant's cut" didn't do well enough at the box office for there to be much chance of a director's cut and that's a shame. It seems there is a much better film somewhere in here screaming to be let out....
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27 October 2005
In which Hartley continues his exploration of the Godard cookbook. In this case, "Alphaville", with side orders of "The Man Who Fell to Earth" and various Chris Marker 'photoroman' movies.

The voice-over is not a cover for the failure to tell the story so much as a yarn-spinning technique along the lines of early Peter Greenaway or late Werner Herzog. There are some striking similarities with Herzog's recent "Wild Blue Yonder" (also billed as a science fiction fantasy).

In some ways this seems as much an exercise as an attempt to entertain; as with Godard's work the film is shot on a shoestring, with the present made to stand in for the future - Hartley tries to see how much he can say with how little.

Others have commented on the social satire; overlooked may have been the beautiful photography, the dreamlike atmosphere, the air of melancholy and loss, and the very effective music by Hartley himself (no longer trading under his "Ned Rifle" alias).

I dare say many of us miss his "early, funny, films" but that's how it goes with New York filmmakers, I guess. Where those movies were snappy prose, this is a poem.
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Third Remove
10 May 2005
First thing: this is the third part in a trilogy. You really need to see "Where is the Friend's House" & "And Life Goes On" first if you want to fully understand this. In short, this is a film about a man making a film of his own journey in search of actors in a film he made earlier. Once you know that, it's not in the least slow or simple, it's a hall of mirrors, as another commentator put it. Frames within frames within frames.

Second thing: Jean-Luc Godard praised Kiarostami's early films, but then felt he'd become too influenced by the international art movie tradition. I don't know if this is a film he liked or disliked, but it sure has a lot of Godard's influence in it - from the director interviewing sundry characters through the conflation of documentary and fiction elements to the use of music, it's like Godard crossed with Satyajit Ray. Not that that's a bad thing.

I don't know if Kiarostami is as original or as striking as some maintain - in many ways this is "Day for Night" transplanted to the Iranian countryside - but it's very watchable, often very funny and the landscape is beautiful.

There also seems to be (in the Iranian context) a subversive subtext to these films. Tradition is held up as hidebound and stupid (the adults in "Where is the Friend's House", the grandmother in this film) while the young are seen improvising their own lives and creating hope in the face of catastrophe. I can't imagine that's too popular with the mullahs, and indeed it seems that Kiarostami has been unable to get a film released in Iran in a decade.

Well worth a view, and it may even inspire you to get out into the world with a digital video camera, but do see the other films (and probably also "Homework") first.
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Abouna (2002)
African Blues
3 May 2005
On the surface a simple, affecting tale of two sons' search for their absent father, Abouna is actually a film of some sophistication.

At one point the brothers visit a cinema. The posters outside advertise the African film Yaaba, Chaplin's The Kid and most notably Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise (hardly likely to be topping the bill in Chad). Other posters which would have been apt include "Pather Panchali", "Les Quatre Cent Coups" and any one of a number of recent Iranian movies.

Jarmusch's elliptical style of story-telling seems a particular influence, all of the obvious plot points (a kiss, a capture, a death) occur off-camera and the dialogue is more about what is not said than about what is. I do wonder a little whether an audience in Chad would buy this deadpan style or whether the film is really aimed at the First World art-house audience, but for me it works well.

There seems to be a metaphor in the idea of the absent father, perhaps relating to a country that the director feels has lost its way after many years of colonialism and war. The central family is not poor by African standards, but life is still harsh.

Much of the music is by the Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure, and you can really hear the African roots of the Blues in his playing. The images of landscape, skin, children playing are beautiful.
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Rude Boy (1980)
It's not exactly One plus One...
7 March 2005
...despite copying the musicians in the studio trope, the porn-shop as symbol of capitalism and the black/white subplot. However "Rude Boy" perhaps deserves a little more attention than it seems to have received.

As a 'proper movie' it's kind of a washout. Aiming for an improvised cinema-verite feel, it's hamstrung by a fatal lack of tension, having apparently been assembled by people with little grasp of editing, narrative or any kind of cinematic style. Despite this, the concert footage of The Clash is indispensable to anyone with an interest in the era, and shows why they were one of the all-time great rock and roll bands. We have very few 70's punk bands recorded properly on film as opposed to video and the difference in quality is striking. Also, Joe Strummer's death is still quite recent as I write and seeing him here in his prime is poignant in the extreme.

In general there are very few film documents of punk. We have Jarman's "Jubilee" which was more of a neo-Elizabethan fantasia, "The Great Rock and Roll Swindle" with its McClarenite rewriting of history and come-lately nonsense like "Breaking Glass". "Rude Boy" at least doesn't fall into any narrative clichés (if only by barely having a plot) and by its very lack of creative flair may succeed best in giving a picture of the time. For example, unlike the myth-making of the likes of "Sid and Nancy", this shows punk gigs as they actually were - largely populated by lads with feather-cuts and tank tops.

By concentrating on hanger-on Gange instead of the band itself, the filmmakers turn the story into one of the relationship between the band and its fan-base - pointed up by having Strummer sing "All The Young Punks" right through in the studio without the backing track to distract us from the lyric.

The commentator who said this did not give a true picture of the politics of the time is surely wrong. I was there and it seems pretty accurate to me. We see the resurgent National Front, the Anti-Nazi League, the bullishness and racism of the police at the time (which would shortly lead to the Brixton riots) and the rise of Thatcherism out of the bankrupt Butskellite consensus. Ray Gange's character in the film seems intended to represent the British white working class at the time - confused, politically disengaged and borderline racist, the attitudes which led to the Thatcher victory we see at the end of the film. The left, variously represented by the SWP (bureaucratic) and Strummer (by turns tokenistic and diffident) fails to capture Gange's imagination and it is the right who seize on the desire for change and turn it to their own advantage.

Rude Boy is a strange curate's egg, then. There may have been a really good film struggling to get out of this morass, but we'll never know. The special edition DVD has a "Just Play the Clash" function which lets you view only the concert footage and I suspect this will get a lot of use.

Rating? 3/10 for the story, 10/10 for the music.
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Cutting the Crap
14 February 2005
I think it's first important to understand what this film is not, and hence why so many of the critical comments here are wide of the mark. It's not the Hollywood melodrama the trailer almost inevitably suggests. It's certainly not an in-depth analysis of the causes of the Bosnian war. Probably what it's most about is the role of journalists, and the media generally, in a war zone.

As an Englishman making a film about a foreign conflict I think Winterbottom's decision to focus on the (true) story of a British TV journalist was sensible - in the end Winterbottom's view can only ever be that of "Henderson" and in this way the film's integrity is maintained.

It's easy to say that only someone with local knowledge can make a worthwhile film about this or any conflict, however I think mistaken. Obviously Serb apologists like the several posting here will prefer a film which makes their side look less bad; other parties to the conflict would presumably disagree (and it is notable that the Serbian residents of Sarajevo were not "ethnically cleansed" by the government there). Nicholson, on whose book the film was based, was in Sarajevo, undergoing the siege with the inhabitants. At the end of the day if a sniper is shooting children in front of you, you do not ask whether there may be some historical justification for their actions.

Once these false expectations are dispensed with the film is surely excellent. As in his other work Winterbottom does not go in for Hollywood hand-holding or emotional manipulation; rather he aims at an Altmanesque ensemble piece with strong elements of black comedy and an open, improvisatory feel. Big stars are given only cameo roles and seem to be happy with that; certainly all the performances in the film are understated and unshowy, with the actors content to inhabit the characters and relate to each other instead of to the audience. As with Altman, we are expected to pay attention, to pick up clues and to think (and feel) for ourselves.

Where the film may fall down is on the occasions when it does stray into outright comment. Winterbottom's politics, at least judging by this film, seem to be straightforwardly liberal - terrible things happened, our governments should have done more. Unfortunately as we have seen elsewhere, too often these genuine humanitarian impulses are cynically and selectively used by politicians to serve their own agendas. At the end of the day, Bosnia was of little economic value to the West, so intervention was resisted for as long as possible.

Overall this film avoids a lot of easy traps and is a fine addition to Mr Winterbottom's growing body of challenging and inventive work.
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Influence of What?
26 January 2005
Freewheeling Cassavetes study of a marriage.

I think its a misreading to conclude that either one of the main characters is "crazy". Clearly Mabel has what you could call a borderline manic personality, but there's little evidence that she is unable to look after herself or her kids. The fact that she gets committed says less about her condition than about the position of women in the society Cassavetes is depicting. There is no sign that the visiting kids are in any danger - their father freaks out only because Mabel's behaviour falls outside his view of the conventional housewife. Nick on the other hand is not considered "crazy" despite physically attacking several people and getting his kids drunk, because men are allowed a lot more licence. In the end he is as trapped by the social pressures on him as Mabel is, except his frustration is turned outwards, hers inwards.

When the family are alone there is no problem, Nick's difficulties arise when Mabel is unable to fit the social role assigned to her - notably it is his mother who drives him to have Mabel committed. The "influence" Mabel is under turns out not to be alcohol as we first expect but patriarchy expressed via Nick, and society's limited and limiting expectations of women and of people in general. Put Mabel in a San Francisco commune 6 years earlier and she would look normal.

A word on the acting. Having known people with rather more serious cases of manic depression I can testify that Gena Rowlands' acting is actually rather understated. Falk meanwhile is a revelation to those who know him only from Colombo - his portrayal of the inarticulate, confused, occasionally violent but still very loving Nick is perfect - he just IS this guy.

Incidentally, you can see where Scorsese took many of the ideas for his most personal films from (notably "Mean Streets" which apparently he made after Cassavetes criticised "Boxcar Bertha") although he tidied them up and made them commercial. He even copied Cassevetes' lead here by putting his own mother in "Goodfellas".
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We'll Not See Their Like Again...
23 January 2005
Warning: Spoilers
A formally straightforward documentary about Da Brudders, this was really interesting, if sad - three of the band (plus interviewee Joe Strummer) are now dead after all (and the fourth appears to have morphed into an extra from "Lord of the Rings"). I don't know if the film managed to capture the reason the Ramones were so great - there was very little about the music, more about the interpersonal relationships in the band - but for those who are already devotees the film is unmissable.

Interesting that the filmmakers, and apparently the band themselves, considered their career a failure. I always regarded the Ramones as an overwhelming success - they changed music, made great records for 21 years and were one of the best live acts in the world.

I always felt that Joey was the Ramone I would have liked most as a person and that was borne out here - while Johnny was a right-wing control freak, Joey was a radical liberal and a romantic. Finding out he was Jewish puts a bit more of a spin on "Bonzo Goes to Bitburg" (his song about Reagan visiting an SS veterans' cemetery). And finding out Johnny 'stole' and then married the love of Joey's life puts a lot more spin on "The KKK took my Baby Away".

I also had no idea Joey suffered from full-blown Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Danny Fields' description of trying to get him down the stairs and into the tour bus was one of the comic highlights in a film with plenty of laughs. Much of the humour revolved around Dee Dee it has to be said, for example his attempt to become a rap artist, the account of his relationship with his girlfriend, and just listening to him talk.

It would have been good to see more concert footage - particularly a barnstorming stadium gig in Brazil and the New Year 1977/8 gig at the London Rainbow which I was at and remember very fondly. Hopefully this will become available elsewhere in some form.

Perhaps the saddest part of the film was confirmation of how much the band hated each other, particularly Johnny and Joey ("Joey could really hold a grudge" someone said, apropos of the Linda affair). Yet they knew they had something really special together and stuck at it for 21 years. It's hard enough working in an office with people you don't like...

Score - 8/10 for the film, 10/10 for the band. Shine on, guys...
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They Don't (Dare) Make 'em Like This Any More
12 January 2005
It's difficult to see why people have such a hard time with this movie. Anyone who is interested in European art cinema of the '60's or even the novel since Joyce should have no trouble reading the film on at least some levels. Hopper's method here is to try and get inside the head, to put thought and memory on the screen, not just pictures.

Part of the problem may be the sheer complexity. There are probably enough ideas crammed in here for a dozen movies, and Hopper throws them all at us, often simultaneously. There's a story about American imperialism, there's a story about the artifice of film-making, there's a story about the way audiences view cinema, there's a Christ allegory wrapped up with a general sacrificial victim theme, a story about men and women, sex, money and power, there's Hopper's own story, the story of cinema itself, there's a satire of Hollywood conventions in general and the Western in particular, very notably there's a story about the Peruvian landscape, ravishingly shot by Laszlo Kovacs. There's even the story of Hopper's gofer lost in a society he doesn't understand if you want a simple narrative to hang on to. The film combines all these facets into a structure which can only be described as crystalline.

Devotees of "folding" should find plenty to occupy them here - there's the film about Hopper's character "Kansas", the film Sam Fuller is making, the villagers' "film", "The Last Movie" itself, an on-set home movie and probably several others besides.

Hopper gaily references (and steals from) everyone from Fellini and Godard to John Huston and Nicholas Ray, and of course goes bonkers in Peru well before Werner Herzog got around to it (and appropriates tribal culture in a strikingly similar way).

Definitely not a film to be missed by anyone interested in fractured narratives, postmodernism in film or the beautiful image. Vastly underrated and well worth its Venice prize, this is to "Easy Rider" what "Pulp Fiction" is to "Reservoir Dogs". Hopper as a director has never been better.
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A long strange journey into the past in the present.
29 November 2004
This is an extremely beautiful film which inhabits a visual and emotional territory somewhere between Werner Herzog and Pasolini.

As others have stated, the actors are non-professionals and the plot is not the stuff of Hollywood melodrama. However the images and sounds are haunting and profound. Mahkmalbaf is truly a poet of the cinema.

The film does not attempt to make a political analysis of the situation of Afghanistan in 2001, but operates on a more humanistic and emotional level, showing the human consequences, the poverty both material and spiritual of life under the Taliban and the indifference of the outside world.

The "doctor" character, far from being implausible, is played by a real person with a very similar history. He is also a stand-in within the film for Makhmalbaf himself, who started as an Islamic fundamentalist revolutionary but has moved towards a more open-minded humanism.

The film itself describes a circle, the first scene is also the last, the sun shining through a burqa onto a woman's face. Between are unforgettable images, and a transit across a surreal and nightmarish landscape. Surrender yourself and you will really feel you have been on a journey.

The UK DVD also includes "The Afghan Alphabet" a similarly fictionalised documentary on the struggle to bring education to the three million or so Afghan refugees in Iran.
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O Herói (2004)
Hard times in Angola
29 October 2004
Involving story of life in the Angolan capital Luanda. Vitório is a veteran of the liberation war and subsequent civil war, has lost a leg to a landmine and has to try and get by on the streets, while looking for work and love - trying to find a way to fit back into society.

Meanwhile Manu a schoolboy has his own struggles going on; brought up by his grandmother he wants to search for his father (missing in the war), gets involved in petty crime and tries to avoid the local hoodlums. His teacher Joana does her best to keep him in school.

Eventually all the characters' paths cross in a variety of ways.

The film is basically a portrait of Luanda as it tries to recover from years of war and disruption. People everywhere are trying to rebuild their lives, find missing friends or relatives and make ends meet. Obviously life is very hard for most, but considerably easier for others - mainly those in the government and their relatives.

This is the sort of film Ken Loach might make if he lived in Africa. Through the individual stories of the characters numerous political and social issues are teased out, for the most part with considerable subtlety. Class relations, the role of politics, the situation of women (and such women - phew...), the landmine issue (70,000 Angolans have lost limbs and much of the country is still mined) and the desperate struggle to survive are all woven in.

There are some stunning aerial shots of Luanda at the start and end of the film, but in general the camera serves the actors and the story rather than the other way round. The standard of acting is generally high. There's nothing groundbreaking in cinematic terms here, but the film is a valuable window into the daily life of a society and a continent normally represented in the Western media only by images of war and famine.
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Palindromes (2004)
Solondz Has Certainly Not Taken the Easy Option
28 October 2004
Seen at the London Film Festival, 27/10/04.

I've seen a lot of strange films in my life, but this has to be right up there. Compared to this, "Happiness" was a crowd-pleasing knockabout comedy. I have to say that I found "Palindromes" hard going, even boring at times, although there was definitely a slow burn quality and by the end I was pretty much drawn in.

The film plays rather like a cross between Luis Bunuel and a live action "South Park". The multiple-actress technique pioneered in "That Obscure Object of Desire", deadpan style and flat picture quality on the one hand, taboo-breaking humour, song 'n' dance and perverse exploration of moral issues on the other.

I wonder what a conservative audience would make of this film. My guess is that it's aimed squarely at a liberal audience, but it absolutely refuses to pander to liberal prejudice, instead laying into the "pro-choice" position in a manner which can only be described as destruction testing. I get the feeling that Solondz is challenging his own opinions on the issue, as much as ours. Pro-lifers might see the storyline as vindicating their beliefs, but I dare say would be so horrified by other aspects of the film that they wouldn't make it to the end.

This is probably Solondz' bleakest movie to date, despite moments of (very dark) humour. Scientific rationalism is weighed against religious fundamentalism and both are found utterly wanting.

Incidentally there is no rape in this film, despite comments elsewhere, although there are certainly very disturbing scenes.

A brave movie, overall. I'm sure Solondz could take the David Lynch/John Waters route towards the (relative) mainstream with considerable success, but "Palindromes" sees him driving determinedly in the opposite direction, in every respect.
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Mondovino (2004)
Don't Ask About the Dogs
25 October 2004
I saw this at the London Film Festival last night, apparently the shorter version. James McNally's summary of the content of the film is very good. Nossiter very deftly blends his investigation of the wine business into wider concerns about globalisation, homogenisation, the effect of the mass media, the power of capital and the need for diversity.

The film is shot on hand-held DV which some might find offputting, but which does enable Nossiter to catch people off guard on a number of occasions which probably would not have been possible using more conventional equipment.

Despite the sprawling feel of the film, the editing is very sharp, not only giving us a parade of the world's dogs, but also undercutting a number of interviewees' comments with somewhat contradictory visual images, and giving others sufficient rope to hang themselves. To a degree this evoked Michael Moore's recent work (although Nossiter operates in a more subtle way), but probably the roots of the film go back to Marcel Ophuls' "The Sorrow and the Pity", both in the way the film is constructed and in the emergence of 'salt of the earth' French peasants as the stars. De Montille pere et fils were present at the LFF screening and answered questions afterwards. We do indeed all need a little disorder - bravo Hubert!

Overall an excellent film with implications that go way beyond the world of wine into the way we construct ourselves as people, and organise our world.
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You don't have to be Spanish...
18 October 2004 get this movie but it surely helps.

It's a bit sad to see so many reviews which so totally miss the point, and none of them from Spain. One negative reviewer even thought the film was set in Mexico which goes to show how much attention he was paying.

This film is a satire on various aspects of Spanish culture and character, primarily machismo and sexual hypocrisy, but taking in culinary preferences, attitudes to animals and those surreal brandy adverts in the shape of bulls that any visitor to Spain will be familiar with. Bigas Luna chucks it all in the stew and turns the heat up to maximum.

And why are so many people upset by the trucks? The film is set next to one of those long dusty highways that are so common in Spain. Of course there are trucks. Take my tip, go to Spain, rent a car, drive between almost any two big cities, stay in a motel at the side of the road, try and sleep - you will get the idea.
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Kaurismaki meets Almodovar
17 October 2004
Others have rehearsed the plot so here are some general comments.

The best thing about this film is Victoria Abril who is not so much a woman as a force of nature. I must admit I've not seen any of her work with Almodovar, but I was surprised to learn from the DVD filmography that she's been working in European cinema since as long ago as Richard Lester's 1976 "Robin and Marian". She was 40 when this film was made, so hardly a 'toygirl' for the fiftyish mother (although quite a catch, it must be said).

I guess Lola was changed from an Icelandic character to Spanish to draw in the European art-house audience but it's still a decision which works well as she personifies an outside force which arrives and turns Hlynar's world upside down.

The film feels very much like the novel adaptation it is - quite a lot of voice-over and exposition - but there are a number of deadpan cinematic jokes of the Kaurismaki variety, combined with sexual outrageousness in the Almodovar vein. Some of the humour only becomes apparent on repeated viewings; in all the fusion of styles works surprisingly well.

Overall, this probably won't change your life but it's a lot of fun.
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Amarcord (1973)
Sweet & Bitter
30 September 2004
Although on one level this is indeed a warm reminiscence of youth, it would be a mistake to think that's all it is. In fact there is sharp satire at the heart of the film, indicated by the punning title - "Amarcord" is the local dialect for "I remember" (used in preference to the Italian "Mi ricordo") while "Amaro" is Italian for "bitter".

There is considerable brutality among the laughs - a man is maltreated by the Fascists, a small boy tries to kill his infant brother with a rock in an aside the casual viewer might miss.

Rimini stands in for the whole of Italy as Fellini tries to get to grips with what factors in the national psyche (Catholicism, the education system, past imperial glory, sexual frustration) led Italy to invent and wholeheartedly embrace fascism.

These are some of Fellini's own comments on the film:-

"The province of Amarcord is one in which we are all recognizable, the director first of all, in the ignorance which confounded us. A great ignorance and a great confusion. Not that I wish to minimize the economic and social causes of fascism. I only wish to say that today what is still most interesting is the psychological, emotional manner of being a fascist. What is this manner? It is a sort of blockage, an arrested development during the phase of adolescence… That is, this remaining children for eternity, this leaving responsibilities for others, this living with the comforting sensation that there is someone who thinks for you (and at one time it's mother, then it's father, then it's the mayor, another time Il Duce, another time the Madonna, another time the Bishop, in short other people): and in the meanwhile you have this limited, time-wasting freedom which permits you only to cultivate absurd dreams – the dream of the American cinema, or the Oriental dream concerning women; in conclusion, the same old, monstrous, out-of-date myths that even today seem to me to form the most important conditioning of the average Italian."

One can only speculate on what Fellini would have made of Berlusconi.

Apparently the film as we see it was originally planned as part of a larger-scale project in which a man in the present day retreats into a nostalgic reminiscence of his adolescence. For whatever reason that framing device was abandoned and what we have is just the reminiscence.

Fellini described "Amarcord" as "a minor planet... not a masterpiece" but for all that it enjoyed considerable success and remains wonderful to behold. On the downside it could be considered the seed of the later plague of execrable 'adolescence' movies such as "Porky's" and "Road Trip".

Still, you can't blame Fellini for that.
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Intervista (1987)
In Which Fellini does for Cinecitta what he did for Rome in "Roma"
28 September 2004
Warning: Spoilers
"Intervista" means interview and naturally that's not at all what this is.

Fellini does start off with a fictional interview with a Japanese TV crew but the movie develops to include a recreation of his own first trip to Cinecitta (as a journalist to interview a famous actress), a look at the process of making a Fellini film, reminiscences of his own previous movies, cinema in general and the music of Nino Rota, sideswipes at TV and advertising and the silly questions asked by journalists.

We jump about between several layers of 'reality' - the fake 'interview', the '30's recreation, the creation of that recreation, real people playing more or less fictionalised versions of themselves. At one point we have Fellini-surrogates Mastroianni and Rubini, and Fellini himself, all in a car together.

The film lacks the epic sweep and spectacle of "Roma", perhaps due to its genesis as a TV film, and much of it will mean little to those unfamiliar with Fellini's earlier work. Nonetheless, there is much to enjoy, from Rubini and Mastroianni's discussion of masturbation, through the scenery-painters' rather blunt dialogue, to the rightly acclaimed and very poignant scene of Mastroianni and Ekberg revisiting "La Dolce Vita".

In fact the Mastroianni/Ekberg scene probably sums up the whole film - a wistful look back at past glories and a perhaps rather rueful look at where Fellini, and the rest of us, had arrived at by 1987.
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Care in the Community - Italian Style
27 September 2004
Not many directors would choose the end of their career to head off in an entirely new direction, but that is very much what Fellini does here. This was his first film based on a novel (Ermanno Cavazzoni's "Il poema dei lunatici") and quite a radical departure in terms of style.

In a move which apparently alienated many of his traditional audience, the film-world is almost entirely the one experienced by the central characters, Ivo Salvini and to a lesser extent Gonnella. This subjectivity of approach was of course used in "8 1/2" but in a less extreme and clearly autobiographical way. Here, Fellini makes the brave decision to keep contextualisation and explanation to a minimum, leaving the unwary viewer flailing about in search of a foothold. As Ivo's state of mind drifts between lucidity and hallucination, we seldom know what is 'real' and what is imagined, even down to the words spoken by other characters.

"Felliniesque" themes such as the love/fear of women, religious superstition and motifs like madonna statues and mountains of pasta are revisited from this rather skewed perspective, but the film overall has a dislocated feel which is far away from the likes of Roma or Amacord.

Interestingly, Benigni is asked to act here, rather than doing his usual schtick, and does well as a Chaplinesque figure who occasionally reminds one of Guilietta Masina.

This is certainly not what you might call classic Fellini (he confessed to a crisis of confidence writing it) but there is much to enjoy and to wonder at in this last work. The man himself regarded it as the "orphan" of his films and hoped it would come to be better regarded.

Devotees of Terry Gilliam will note the original of the waltz scene lifted for the following year's "Fisher King".
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Another Curate's Egg (slight spoilers)
17 September 2004
Warning: Spoilers
That is, good in parts.

The good: enjoyably twisted and unsentimental approach to disability, good acting (probably Branagh's best work in a questionable film career), some interesting images (Branagh in flying goggles!) and a cinematic sense unusual in Brit cinema. Director Paul Greengrass has done excellent hard-edged work elsewhere, notably "Bloody Sunday", and brings some of that sensibility to this.

The bad: occasional lapses into sentimentality or silliness (note to all British directors - DO NOT put 'wacky' speeded up sequences set to ska music into your films unless you want them to resemble the work of Mel Smith). A tricksy ending which didn't quite work, although kudos for avoiding a "Terms of Endearment"-style deathbed scene.

The questionable: the whole idea of casting able-bodied actors in disabled parts is a bit of a hot potato these days, in the same way as white actors blacking up. First seeing Helena Bonham Carter in the chair was a bit of a "black and white minstrels" moment, although I think she overcame it with a fine, tough performance.

We never believe Branagh's plane really flies, although I guess as it's mainly intended symbolically that doesn't matter too much.

All in all, much better than one would have expected, even if it didn't quite hang together as a movie. I caught the beginning by chance and stayed up to watch till the end so I guess that's a recommendation. 7/10.
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It is Necessary to Dream (with spoilers)
22 July 2004
This seemed quite accessible to me, at least in the context of late Godard. The title is a pun on "Il Faut Rever", setting the theme of art in troubled times. The story is about a group of young and somewhat naive actors setting off to perform the Musset play "On Ne Badine Pas Avec L'Amour" (One mustn't trifle with love") in Sarajevo and coming the inevitable cropper on the way. Meanwhile the lead actress's grandfather plays the now standard "Godard" role of an old filmmaker battling with producers and technology to get his film made.

The photography and use of music is often heart-stoppingly beautiful, the response to the Balkan conflict seems to me as serious as it should be while contrary to other comments there is certainly humour here both bible-black (a woman spouts philosophy while digging her own grave, a guerrilla shows a comrade what we assume are holiday snaps but are revealed to be photos of the massacre of her family) and knockabout (a film producer complains Lake Geneva has "not enough water", the audience for the old man's "Fatal Bolero" comments on a film suspiciously similar to the one we have just watched).

As ever there are numerous references which those of us not steeped in French literature will miss, but overall this seems the most direct and outward-looking of Godard's later films. I liked it very much.
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