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a curate's egg from a national treasure
4 September 2002
Respect is definitely due to Mr Meadows. He has made films about Britain that qualify as top notch cinema. He is a true artist - he portrays conflict both within and between people with his own style and bizarreness. He is making films about the people that fill British streets but do not on the whole have their own biographical art. His insistent use of everyday public and private space (the yellow brick semi, the grubby flat, the suburban street, the dilapidated bunch of in-town shops) gives his films a hyper-realistic, hallucinatory quality, like memories of childhood made flesh again.

The kaleidoscope of humour that dazzles the viewer of `A Room For Romeo Brass' or the first half of `Once upon a time.' is a gorgeous normality - a concentrated sniff of the glue that keeps working people and families together. These films know that this humour is an art form - akin to any other kind of oral culture through history, its purpose is to give its user's lives meaning, be it while fighting predators, invaders or the daily grind.

Meadows' plots are more overtly psycho-political than socio-political: the evil and darkness in his film comes from the past, from childhood. The families affected by that darkness tend to be the source of light and laughter which combats the darkness. Parents on-screen are loving and nurturing - it is orphans, or offspring of violent parents that bring this darkness from their off-screen histories to the films. This is where the dramatic power comes from - when Morrel in `Romeo Brass' alludes enigmatically to his violent father, our imaginations are left to their own devices. Similarly, though with less dramatic import, we are informed briefly in `once upon a time' that Jimmy is Carol's foster brother, and again we get that sense of how a fractured childhood creates a damaged adult.

Unfortunately Meadows cannot keep the dramatic quality up in `once upon a time' in the same way that he did to such devastating effect in `24-7' and `Romeo Brass'. The cowboy conceit that is one of the strands of amusement and pleasure in the film's first half gets strangely discarded just as it might be most effective - when Dek the cowardly geek finds his manhood. It is replaced by a strangely witless and conformist soap opera seriousness as the two dads tussle for one family. The surrealist streaks are still there (for instance Jimmy's penchant for haircuts, which I'm sure says a lot about his character) but the overall feel is that Meadows and his co-writer Paul Fraser repressed what had previously made the characters interesting in a kind of commercial dumbing-down attempt. `If Eastenders can get 19 million people watching it 3 times a week', they seem to have reasoned, `Then surely we can get some of that Ganesh magic to rub off on us'.

In the light of public indifference to Meadows' previous two glorious films, though, you have to be sympathetic to this. And it's worth watching for the first two thirds, some lovely acting (particularly by Rhys Ifans) and a kind of existential glow that I seem to get from Meadows' films and which makes him a top director in my book.
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Summer (1986)
Better film than my review
19 June 2002
Something new on the screen! The sun shines, the wind blows, the clouds scud but it never rains. The treetops shiver in the melancholy gusts, the people gasp and murmur and gesticulate, and tears run down our heroine's cheeks. Again and again her face contorts as her fragile boat grinds on the rocky bottom.

A frustrated secretary lives for love. When a chance encounter informs her of the green ray, she is enamoured, thinking that this controversial phenomenon will bring the psychic clarity she so needs. She has so little self-esteem that she identifies with everything around her, she is somehow somewhat egoless, a pair of eyes, a pair of ears, a tortured heart. Her frame is delicate, almost skeletal. Fear is eating her soul.

She cannot reciprocate the robust friendship of one group of people due to her delicate vegetarian outlook (which she paradoxically defends with great vigour and the most articulacy she summons in two hours on screen). But she is excluded also due to the delicacy she cannot control (her sea-sickness, her love-sickness...) Wherever she goes, in fact, she cannot make friends. The ski bums of the alps treat her with relaxed cool cordiality but she leaves immediately because, she says, "I know that place". The implication is that she thinks she's leaving because the place is decadent and full of one night stands but that the underlying reality is of her not being able to stomach any reminder of herself. She wants to be reborn with a childlike clarity in the last miraculous light of the dying sun. This emphasises a cycle of small deaths and rebirths - falling into and out of love, leaving home, coming back again, leaving again.

This film is deeply concerned with one person and may seem obsessive, but it's one way of looking at life and has of course many resonances for our self-obsessed selves. Of course we cannot escape from ourselves, though we can expand that self so that it is not so claustrophobic to live in.
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Kárhozat (1988)
Unified Field of Mud Theory
16 March 2001
Hey! Crazy movie! Oh Gaad it was so boring and depressing! Actually I felt quite privileged to have watched this film. Some people are NOT making films with the intention of being popular, and Bela Tarr is one of them. Satantango is 7 and a quarter hours long, and this one stretches an existential eternity across its 2 hours, bringing us 2 hours closer to death but hopefully nearer to life.

I was looking for symbolic significance from the first achingly long shot, but we were lucky enough to have Tarr interviewed in the cinema afterwards. He scuppered any suggestion of symbolism in his films, insisting that the fact of pointing a camera lens only at things that exist means that metaphysics and allegory are impossible in film. More than a hint of his totalitarian background in his didactic description of his work.

I felt like I had learned something from this film. I thought it showed how life in Hungary can be depressing, a struggle, apparently hopeless, but that the hopelessness only really comes from inside the person. A desperate, selfish man lurks around the drab industrial landscape, fixated on his one motivation, the woman who is his object of desire. He hatches a plan to get rid of her husband. Afterwards the director stated explicitly that the plot is deliberately simple and even banal - the main character delivers one monologue about how all stories dissipate and all heroes dissipate and die away. He stated that the dogs and the rain which both haunt the film are characters and have stories as much as the people.

If you get the chance, go and watch it. It's a proper work of art, there's nothing wrong with it!!!!!!!!!!!
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Blackboards (2000)
4 January 2001
This film is flawed in any number of ways - stories are unresolved; scenes of military oppression are unconvincing; and more generally I was left with a somewhat unmoved feeling when the lights came up. I thought "The apple" was a fantastic film in its challenging combination of documentary and fiction, but perhaps that an over-simplicity in "Blackboard"'s storyline was exposed by the same honest, basic direction and storytelling that made Ms Makhmalbaf's previous film really powerful.

There are definitely many positive aspects to this film as well. It fearlessly deals with one group of people (nomads who I think are Kurdish) people who really are vulnerable and at the mercy of powerful and highly suspect governments on both sides of the border. It shows that these people have a cultural strength that seems to transcend their harsh circumstances. In its other story strand it shows movingly how children, even more vulnerable, are exploited by a deregulated commercial system. Beetle-browed, bowed beneath heavy loads in the hot sun, self-defensively referring to themselves as 'mules', the kids are old before their time.

The film also has a (more or less) powerful sense of transcendental storytelling to it. The nomads are all oppressed people, looking for a promised land. The children are mythical also: the kid's story about the rabbit has an air of antiquity about it.

Neither group of oppressed people has time for the education that the main characters offer. They are too busy surviving. The use of non-actors in the film is a strength and a weakness. In a story that is more obviously fictional than "the Apple", some performances are a little wooden. But I think the emotional punch of realism, the feeling that we may in effect be watching something that is happening today somewhere in the world, more than makes up for this formal, actorly problem.

Hurriedly, then: a flawed diamond in the dust.
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