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Strong Danish drama 'Follow the Money' proves you don't have to centre a story on murder (not that there aren't some of those) to have a strong detective drama. The Scandinavian realist approach will be familiar to viewers of 'The Killing' or recent Icelandic drama 'Trapped'; but there's less emphasis on mood-building, and more direct focus on the story (in the manner of 'Borgen'). Ultimately, it's almost an impossible task to make a drama out of a fraud, and bits of the series seem a little too simplistic to make sense, in spite of the intricacy of the plotting; likewise, one sympathises vaguely with the characters without caring too deeply. But the pace is nicely judged, and it makes for addictive viewing.
Krytsoff Kiselowski was a genius film-maker, a passionate opponent of the communism that gripped his native Poland in his formative years but oddly, perhaps the kind of intellectual who can only develop in an oppressive environment. 'Im So-So' is a documentary in which he offered his thoughts about some of his movies. For a man who inspired so many, he's a reflective but unassuming presence: there's a sense of highly restrained playfulness about his demeanour but also the sense of a man already old (and indeed, he sadly died soon afterwards, though only in his mid-fifties). If you obtain the DVD of my favourite Kieslowksi film, 'No End', there's a lengthy interview with his cameraman on that (and this) film which perhaps gives us more of a flavour of how he dealt with working under the system, and the way he impacted on those he worked with. The biography is still interesting in both accounts; but his art was divine.
Americian opposition to slavery in the south was initially mainly
founded on the fears of northerners of economic competition, rather
than lofty thoughts about the rights of man. As a politician, Abraham
Lincoln had to broker compromise with many factions to win power, stay
in power and (after a refusal to compromise led to civil war) to
ultimately lead the country on a path back to peace. As ever when
compromise has to be made, one can question whether the decision has
been made for the best. Steven Spielberg's 'Lincoln' explores some of
these questions but in a not altogether satisfactory manner: the
President we meet in this film is unquestionably both good and wise at
all times. One would learn more respect for Lincoln in a story which at
least offered us alternative narratives, ones in which Lincoln's
behaviour or motives could be faulted. That said, Daniel Day Lewis is
(somewhat predictably) excellent in the lead role, although it's not
the first film I've seen him dominate while the rest of the cast
genuflects. For a long movie, it's bravely talk-y, and as someone with
a strong interest in politics, I liked the film. What it doesn't really
do is explain why anyone else (whether abolitionist or confederate) was
ever opposed to him.
A final point: to convey Lincoln's death (he was shot in a theatre) with a scene which shows news of his assassination being conveyed to another theatre seems a decision so strange I find it impossible to understand.
Robert "Evel" Kneivel was a daredevil, a hustler, and a good-looking young man whose motorcycling jumping, attempted without any respect to what we would now call health and safety, thrilled audiences who, as he once said, "didn't want him to die, but wanted to be there if he did". He came to live his own legend, firstly by attempting insanely stupid things (for example, the Snake River "jump") because his reputation demanded it, and ultimately by coming to believe he could make his own rules (something which led him to cheat on his wife, go to prison for assault, and so on). The latter cost him his lucrative endorsements and his later life was lived in the shadow of his earlier fame. On a purely technical level, it could be said that Evel wasn't even especially talented (although his primitive equipment didn't help) - he is after all a man most famous for crashing - but in some ways, the self-promotion is the story, and for those of us who grew up in the 1970s, he remains an iconic figure, a superhero in the flesh. Consider him just a celebrity and the arc of his life, crashing to earth like the Snake River rocket-bike, makes more sense. 'Being Evel' is a fascinating exploration of a complex and iconic figure; and gives you some sympathy for the man, even though he could be a monster. There are easier ways to make a living than he did; and in some ways, simply 'Being Evel' was far harder work than any of his stunts.
Paul Wright's imaginative take on grief, 'For Those In Peril', tells the story of a young man who survives a fishing accident only to be blamed by his community for coming back alive. This could be a really powerful story, not just about loss, but also about how social normality hides the terrible reality that we do not in fact love one another in equal amounts. Yet the construction of the film is part that of a documentary, and in part mystical in affect; and the two aspects prove a slightly awkward fit: it was well acted, but I found it less moving than I felt I should have done. There's also an oddity that, perhaps because of funding, the film is set in Scotland but appears to have been partly filmed in Yorkshire, a minor incongruity, but pointless and thus grating.
Many of us remember Spike Milligan as an eccentric, grandfather-like, universally loved old man; as the comic hero of our fathers' generation, the manic author of the Goon Show; and the precursor of more modern comedy such as Monty Python. We may also be aware that the dark side of his humour (his gravestone famously reads 'I told you I was ill!') had some basis in reality. This outstanding film manages, surprisingly for a man who spent much of his life on national television, to assemble a combination of private and public material that gives a thoughtful and revealing portrait of a sensitive but wild individual, a manic depressive, alternately a brilliant and an awful father, in a way that makes him appear very much a human being not just a performer. It's interesting both for what it tells us about Spike, but also for how we might choose to see a public figure from a certain perspective and ignore much which is hidden in plain sight. Overall, I found this an unexpectedly moving and revealing program; and although it's about more than just Spike's comedy, there are moments in the clips that will remind you of his talent and force you to laugh.
From my perspective, the story of the most recent years in American politics have been extraordinary: an unusually intelligent, and moderately left-wing President, has been baulked and demonised by an opposition party whose positions on most issues lie well outside the norm for right-of-centre parties in other affluent democracies. The documentary tells the story of the Obama administration with extensive interviews with those involved, including the President himself. It's very interesting, but not perfect: it both gives you the impression that everything that happened inside the White House was driven by pure heart and common purpose, while (perhaps inevitably for a BBC documentary) not explicitly making the case quite how anomalous the Republican party has become by international standards, or exploring why it is that that party can still win sufficient Congressional seats to remain an effective political force. Compared with, say, the BBC's famous documentary series on Margaret Thatcher, there's much less of a sense conveyed of flawed human beings fighting over idealogical differences, and more one of a near-perfect leader grappling with inexplicable but honourable opponents. Still, I'm convinced that we'll miss Obama when he's gone; the insanity of the current race to replace him makes this point only too clearly.
Oliver Hermanus's 'Beauty' is a harsh film, the story of a repressed gay man in a loveless (straight) marriage prone to intermittent bouts of sexual violence. The way it is filmed is designed to echo the sense of loneliness in his life: lots of long, still shots that emphasise just how little is really going on, except for his brooding obsessions. In fact, I can't remember the last time I watched a film in which background noise is so prominent: I can see why it was shot in this way, but the on-going hum does get annoying after a while. There's only so long one wants to watch, and listen to, nothing much happening in a sawmill or cafeteria. In the end, the reductionist animal-ism of the protagonist makes it impossible to sympathise with him; indeed, his relentless calculation makes him seem chilling rather than tragic, and in consequence the film feels unpleasant rather than sad.
Con-trick films are a well-worn genre: perhaps almost every one of them recalls 'The Sting', while the ending of 'Cash' brings to mind superior efforts like Mamet's 'House of Games' or my personal favourite, Fabian Bielinsky's 'Nine Queens'. But the particular story of a glamorous investigator on the trail of an equally glamorous criminal reminded me most of 'The Thomas Crown Affair', even before the use of split-screens, surely an act of intentional homage. The movie's glamorous portrayal of smoking also seemed like a gesture to another era. But unlike the best films of its type, there's no deep character study here. The film is entirely lightweight, and even has comedy music to underscore its critical moves. The result is fun and lavish, but also utterly shallow, and none of the developments really take you by surprise as nothing is really credible even before the under-layers are revealed. Even as a comedy-thriller, it's lacking substance and it's hard to care about any of the protagonists. It is mildly entertaining, but devoid of any deeper purpose, and there's really nothing here you won't have seen before.
Teenage boys can be horrible: watching 'Play' brought back shuddering memories from my own childhood. In 'Play', the horror is made more interesting by being set against a background of differential affluence and a racial divide; the fine line between "play" and pure bullying is also nicely explored. But it's a slow film, with no rapid cutting or background music: indeed, it's shot in a strange manner with static cameras often leaving part of the subject (or even parts of the subjects, heads for example) off screen. The result gives you the feeling of an by-stander, overhearing parts of somebody else's story; eventually, the tension builds, but it feels like a deliberately off-putting way to make a movie. At the end, I didn't know quite what to think about it: one can alternatively feel repelled by, and sympathetic to, its protagonists, but the surely intentional absence of a clear moral or emotional message means the film ends nowhere. Perhaps we're meant to leave this movie pondering matters of class and race; I left it just glad I'm not fourteen any more.
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