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Elephant (2003)
0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Essential!, 19 February 2004

There are certain events in life that social grief and moral conscience dictate should probably never make it to the cinema screen. But, as anybody who has seen the trailer for Deny Arcand's Les Invasions Barbares, with its quick shot of the second plane impacting into the World Trade Centres towers, will tell you, such depiction is inevitable at some point down the line. Another major wound on American society that has never really healed is the spat of school-shootings that tortured the mid to late 1990s. Michael Moore's successful but flawed docu-film Bowling for Columbine does not really count in the progress of cinema casting its eye on such events. It is a piece of politically charged pseudo-filmmaking – self-promotion disguised as an altruistic crusade to tackle America's ills. It does not attempt to use the versatile medium of cinema to portray such events. Gus van Sant's latest, Elephant, does.

Elephant, if we leave aside the controversy and outcry over its subject matter, is filmmaking of the highest quality from a talented innovator, crucially working outside of Hollywood. Originally it was filmed for HBO television but the transfer to the cinema screen is so seamless and appropriate that one feels Van Sant must surely have written it with the cinema in mind.

The film looks at a fictional shooting in an unnamed high school in Portland, Oregon. It is inspired by, but not based upon, Columbine and such other tragedies. The composition of scenes is brilliantly thought-out and perfectly executed, breaking up one story into several components and interlinking them at various points – a style most reminiscent of Amores Perros' structure. As a result, the ‘real-world' clock of the main part of the film is only ten or fifteen minutes, whilst the film proper takes 81 to play out and tie-up all the stories. This is not flashy self-indulgence on the part of an `aren't I clever' director. Here, Van Sant ups the ante on his peers. We know the two gun-wielding students are in the school, as we see them enter early in the film, but we are never sure if we are in the present, or playing catch up in one of the interlinking scenes. This gives Elephant an unbelievable tension, added to by his brilliant use of silence. Cinematically it is the oldest suspense trick in the book – we see the killer come in, the victim doesn't, and now we are hanging on the edge of our seats waiting for the cupboard door to fly open. Van Sant takes this old technique, without losing sight of the issue or losing the suspense, and spins it out for the majority of the film. The interpretation that this represents America at large – the killers are there, we know it, but we don't know when they will next burst out – is a plausible reading.

When the violence does erupt it is brutal but not voyeuristic. Van Sant does not shy from the reality of gun violence but he does not exploit it either. Much of the controversy over this film comes not from our reaction to excesses of gore or torture, but rather because the subject has not been dealt with on such a graphic level since Edward Furlong was blown-away in American History X (Tony Kaye, 1998). The more negative comments largely come as a knee-jerk reaction to the issue of school gun violence in the media, rather than as a direct reaction to the violence in Elephant itself.

However, you could argue that Elephant loses points for failing to commit to detailed social comment on the issues that underlie the story of the film. Here we have to kids killing indiscriminately…why? Van Sant provides us with limited insight about the provocation for such violence, and in one scene combines images of Nazism, internet gunshops and violent video-games. It is too little background and comes across as a little obvious and forced, lacking in any substance. As a result critics could argue that van Sant doesn't care about the issues, and so this film IS exploitation, being nothing more than gratuitous description.

But, I rather think that is the whole point; van Sant does not set about on a Michael Moore-esque crusade of evangelising his thoughts on the social decline that leads to such acts. Rather he presents us, quickly and without much depth, with the simple and everyday melting-pot of violence in society. That he chooses to do this with the most obvious examples is a masterstroke. The film therefore is not so much a `how could this happen?!', but more a `look how easy this is, why doesn't it happen more often?!'.

Van Sant's smooth camera distances us from any real involvement, we are merely observers to the crime, and the uneasy parting shot of a father tentatively not-quite-embracing his son is a further implication that little comfort can be offered after these events. The parent cannot protect the child, and the filmmaker cannot protect the viewer. There is no place for a Spielberg like happy ending here. It is this that makes van Sant's film so powerful and unnerving. He does not try to penetrate society to offer closure or understanding, for that is not his job. He is not a politician, and he knows it. He simply tells the story like it is, albeit in a slightly stylised way.

This is what makes Elephant so powerful, and this is why it is so much more than Bowling for Columbine.

With only a $3million budget, a cast of first time actors and little more than fifteen minutes of ‘real-time' story, van Sant has taken a subject that Hollywood would never dare touch, and has come away with a brilliant film. Even if you criticise its obviousness and take away some credit, this is still essential viewing. Catch it while you can.


Victory (1981)
reply to below, 3 January 2004

no doubt the germans will have taken some black prisoners... the french forces in particular had a lot of 'colonial' soldiers, i.e. from french territories in africa, etc.

but pele?! maybe not

'Revolution' without resolution? Nothing to resolve?, 7 November 2003

It seems so long ago since January, when 2003 was being touted as The Year of The Matrix. The anticipation of continuing the story from 1999 was the movie hype for the new-year. There may well be The Return of the King, but there would be two Matrix sequels in six months.

And then, Reloaded came along. I think it would be foolish to dismiss it entirely, as it boasts some of the most impressive and jaw-dropping special effects sequences (the 100 Agent Smiths, the freeway chase) since, well, The Matrix. However, the story was so pompously up-its-own-arse and knee-deep in pseudo-philosophy, that somehow the 700 million dollar grossing movie was a disappointment. A big disappointment. It wasn't so much the problem that the audience 'didn't get' the Matrix Reloaded, it was that, really, there is not a lot to get. The Wachowski brothers stretched their one film idea into three, and the story in Reloaded is so incredibly thin (it is, accept it!) that trying to disguise it by giving 'clever' character-names and philosophising one-liners could never hope to hide the holes that were creeping in. And this was only part 2.

So, it was somewhat unbelievable, just eleven months down the road from the start of the Year of The Matrix, that the anticipation for the concluding instalment was, in general, lukewarm. Hotdog magazine ran a telling article title recently - `Game Over? After Reloaded does anyone still care?'. I did still care, and was no doubt one of many who hoped that Revolutions could finish the trilogy off in style.

Today, my worst fears for the long-term prestige of the Matrix brand have been confirmed. Revolutions is another disappointment. I am perfectly happy to allow the thousands of Matrix fans to type away at their message boards trying to find the meanings in this film, relating it to religion, science, and who knows what else. The thing is, by expanding a basic idea like the first film over three, we lose a lot of the clout that the original idea held for us. The realization on the part of Neo in the first Matrix was what made the film, for me. It was a journey into the unknown, a confrontation of it and the naïve nature of his existence and his coming-to-terms with it made the story of the first film a decent enough effort.

However, for all their skill as directors, although I for one would even question this (!), the Wachowski brothers are not writers. Remember the hopeless Stallone-Banderas vehicle of 1995, Assassins. Who was behind the typewriter that time? The Wachowski brothers. Bound, 1996, is similarly uninspiring. Revolutions is almost agonising. In Reloaded they tried to pull-the-wool over the eyes of audiences by patronising them by calling characters after Greek gods and goddesses, or French rulers. There is nothing clever in calling a character Persephone. If anything, it takes much of the hard work away, leaving an on-screen and on-paper one dimensional character to the claws of the obsessed, desperate to find meaning. And of course, if you name your characters as such there will always be a meaning, and someone will always be able to apply that to the film. In my opinion, the characterisation of the Matrix is one of the more arrogant and charlatanistic moves in the entire series.

Back to Revolutions in general. It lumbers on like a comatose donkey for thirty or fourty minutes, maybe longer. Sitting in the cinema desperately hoping for some saving-grace I was faced with a long wait. It only really gets going once the attack on Zion begins, and here we find another Wachowksi illusion-effect. The onslaught rages on for so long that when it is over you forget that for the first forty minutes you were being dragged along slowly and painfully. Similarly the Agent Smith scenes at the end promise much in the trailer, but come too late and are too ineffective to redeem what has already been lost in the first half of the film. The screenplay is, again, at times cringe-inducingly bad. The acting is more wooden than before. The action seems self-referrential, in a Shrek-parody way, rather than feeling natural to the series, and the action we are presented with is largely what we have seen elsewhere before. Don't be expecting the bullet-time of the first Matrix, or the 'virtual cinematography' of Reloaded (whatever this is referring to! Raoul Coutard must be sorry of what has become of his once perfected artform!).

I cannot believe that the Wachowski brothers conceived 'The Matrix' as one grand vision. After the Matrix it was talk of `well, it was always meant to be three films'. If this is true, then they need to have a serious rethink of their scriptwriting and storytelling abilities. True, they had a vision, and a very good one, but this vision could have been and perhaps should have been contained within the first film. Peter Jackson must be rubbing his hands together with glee. Now nothing stands in the way of him taking the accolades of the greatest motion picture trilogy of all time. Quite frankly it is about time something blew Star Wars away.

Remember in 1999, when Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was surprised by the first Matrix film. Back then it looked like a new-kid was in town, full of promise and confidence to lead off the most exciting movie trilogy since the early 1980s. Now, 1999 seems so long ago. The first film will always be a landmark, a classic moment when something came along and really struck-a-chord and showed us something new and exciting.

However, 2003 will not be remembered as The Year of The Matrix. Reloaded and Revolutions will no doubt make so much money that The Matrix 4, whatever, will always be a possibility, but for the sake of compromising their original vision I would say enough is enough. The Matrix concept has been so bastardised by other films and other enterprises that it would be the ultimate tragedy if those responsible for the original greatness of the original were the same responsible for later parody and regurgitation. The Matrix Revolutions is a reasonably good film, an average piece of sci-fi action. But it is not the conclusion to the saga that many hoped for. Don't be surprised if the only Oscars next year are in the Special Effects department.

The Matrix concept has been 'concluded', and I for one am glad that it has ended before doing any serious damage to the reputation of the original. Or maybe it is too late.

I am well prepared for the Matrix-philes who will rally against me for 'missing-the-point' and being ignorant. To them I say, as a piece of cinema the Matrix trilogy offers nothing besides innovative effects. I think it is far more ignorant to seek meaning that is not necessarily there and to convince oneself that the things we might not understand are therefore complex and intelligent. Accept the Matrix as what it is, what it was, not what it 'might' be about or is 'actually' about.

306 out of 374 people found the following review useful:
Cidade De Deus, 8 January 2003

The film, directed by Fernando Meirelles, tells the story of life in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, in an area known as the Cidade De Deus, the City of God. The story is told from the narration of the young photographer, Rocket. The different scenarios of life that make up the wider-story are presented in Pulp Fiction style chapters, complete with on-screen titles for each different story component. The story covers all the facets of the life, charting the growth of several key members of the gangs from childhood through to young adulthood, with their transformation from young hoodlums to local drugs barons. The final parts of the story focus on the battle within the Cidade De Deus between two different groups, when business and personal matters lead to an unavoidable confrontation. And what a confrontation it is, although details will not be given away here. The result is a powerful telling of life based around real-life events.

Martin Scorsese seems to have a heavy influence on the direction of this picture, with many moments looking familiar to fans of the legendary American filmmaker. Close ups, sweeping scene shots, freeze-and-zoom shots, and a frenzied handheld approach are all trademarks that will be recognisably traceable to Scorsese, having been used throughout his career. Many shots remind the viewer of Scorsese's narrative dialogue-camera relationship in Goodfellas, in which the camera was used to brilliant effect to highlight the main points in the script. This technique is used heavily in the first twenty minutes of Cidade De Deus, with the freeze frame trick being used to introduce the story's main characters alongside the dialogue of narrator, Rocket.

Throughout the film one cannot help but watch a scene and think, 'I've seen that in Raging Bull, Goodfellas, or Casino', and this may make some look less favourably on the film's direction. However, it is not fair to consider this 'a Brazilian Goodfellas', as one critic has observed. The story has parallels - the underlying ideas of gangsters, drugs and violence -, the direction is similar, and the story is told with narration, much like Ray Liotta's role in Scorsese's epic. But to regard this film in terms of what styles it repeats or nods it's hat to, is to be very ignorant. Fernando Meirelles, has done a wonderfully hypnotic job of blending the old styles, and bringing them up to date with flashy and sometimes dangerously kinetic direction and editing. Look only to the leaving-party scene in which strobe lighting is used to extraordinary effect, almost suffocating the story below a bombardment on the visual senses. Think of a crossover between the visual energy of the Matrix and the violence of the club scene in Bad Boys.

Cidade De Deus is much more than a directorial assault on the senses. As Raul Walsh said if you don't have a story you have nothing, and many flashy Hollywood films have fallen short in using 'ultra-modern' direction to disguise the fact that no substantial story exists underneath. Cidade De Deus is most brilliant in that it combines directorial and editorial brilliance with a story that is almost second to none in recent times. Only the true greats manage to cater to these two needs of cinema, and this is one that does. The direction is amazing, but not to disguise the story flaws, and the story is brilliant, but does not overwhelm directorial originality. But simply, Cidade De Deus is a perfect film for avid fans of cinematography, and those just in search of two hours of a bloody good story.

I cannot decide yet if I would consider this better than Amores Perros, but it is certainly not inferior. The at-the-same-time stylish and brutal visuals of Amores Perros are replaced by a grittier, more hands on approach to the subject. Whilst in Amores Perros the characters took precedent, in Cidade De Deus the location is as big a character as those who live there. As a result we get a much greater feeling of the environment in which the characters exist, and so it is perhaps easier to empathise, and/or sympathise with them. As the official press synopsis says, Cidade De Deus is a character, but is a place not a person. Amores Perros triumphs in creating relationships between the audience and the characters, as it concentrates for a long time on relatively few people, each of whom we grow to know and ultimately care about, which is important for the emotional impact of the film. Cidade De Deus deals with dozens, even hundreds, of characters, and so it is only a minority that we become attached to. This means that while the film leaves a lasting impact we are not left with the same inquisitiveness about the future for the characters that we meet in Amores Perros. Both films leave open ends, but Cidade De Deus feels closed. Whether you consider this a good or bad thing is a matter for personal choice.

Cidade De Deus is essential viewing, and is cinema at its most brilliant. It will of course feel the wrath of critics who will dwell on the almost unimaginably high body count, but there are always those who will reject violence in the movies. In fact the violence in Cidade De Deus, even the apocalyptic ending, is not as raw and bloody as many will expect. Blood spilling is a rare sight, and the violence rests mostly, but not always, on choreography rather than in your face bloodshed. The result is violence, but it is often so artistic that it looks beautiful rather than deterring. Like Scorsese's Taxi Driver the violence is abhorrent, but admirable from a cinematic perspective.

In short, this is a superb achievement, and is easily one of the best films of the year, and of the decade so far. Like it's predecessors, this is the latest film to come out of South America that indicates the emergence of major new talent in filmmaking. Hollywood beware.

Anatomy (2000)
8 out of 14 people found the following review useful:
An entertaining, but unfulfilling, German take on the Scream/'teenhorror' genre., 1 January 2003

Anatomie (Anatomy) is an entertaining and engaging film that falls short of delivering the discomfort that should be connected with the films subject matter. The idea of ethical ignorance in the medical science world is one that pushes the viewer towards discomfort, and the realism of the institutions ('Heidelberg') and the special effects make it a not-entirely easy film to watch.

However, the characters, the script, and the gloss of the film all seem too familiar with the Scream movies that repopularised this sort of genre. Sadly, then, whilst the subject is one to care about, the viewer is presented with another movie full of college student characters that we don't really get a chance to care about, unresolved subplots, and hammy stage-killings that have been reinventing themselves since the memorable Drew Barrymore opening scene in Scream several years back.

Steven Ruzowillzky makes a fair effort of the script and the direction, but pushes no boundaries other than the general theme. Whilst we are presented with an entertaining film with some reasonable performances, we are unfortunately left with the old feeling: nothing is wrong with this film, but nothing is extraordinary either.

An entertaining film, and an interesting chance to see how foreign filmmakers have been influenced by the post-scream 'horror' culture. 6 out of 10