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Fiendish song of praise
24 July 2000
Werner Herzog has proved yet again that he is as capable of making docos as he is of making narrative films. "My Best Fiend" exhibits a fluid process of exposition: between Herzog's reflections on his relationship with Kinski, his interviews with people who worked with Kinski, excerpts from Kinski's films, and amazing archival footage of Kinski's infamous histrionics.

The film does justice to one of the most powerful screen actors of the modern era: the final scene in "Aguirre" is one that will linger in your mind. Kinski was able to (when he wanted too!) evoke some of the most emotional performances ever witnessed in world cinema. Some of the anecdotes of his life - divulged through Herzog's cooly ironic style - are absolutely hilarious and make you wonder about a man who seemed to consider himself above mere mortals.

A perfect paean to a great man.
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Wonderland (1999)
Alice(s) in Wonderland...
9 May 2000
Recent trends in film narrative have witnessed the proliferation of multiple 'petite' narratives involving a series of inter-related characters who are all inter-connected in some way: pioneered by "Short Cuts" and followed by the likes of "Pulp Fiction", "Happiness", and the more recent "Magnolia". In their deliberate and manifest fragmentation, they immediately seem to offer a schizophrenic view of society and the lives depicted within it. Yet to interpret these films as such and only that would be to misunderstand the overall logic of these films. In their very diversity, they seem to offer an overall 'world view', whether it be clear-cut or oblique, in which the characters in these films are all part of the same condition.

Whether damning (as in "Happiness") or redemptive (as in "Magnolia"), their world view is ever-present. It is with "Wonderland" that we have a film which plays with this tension, I think, more skillfully than the aforementioned films. The film is primarily about the lives of three sisters (and their friends, partners, family, etc.) living in London, who are all disparate in terms of their personalities and lifestyles. Winterbottom's message, intimated by the title, is to show that they are all 'Alices in Wonderland'. It is about coming to terms with this predicament and expressing their emotions about it, that the films ably deals with.

Shooting his film on location with a shaky hand-held camera in brutally realist hues, Winterbottom reveals a London full of life - a background sharply contrasted by the three women pushed against it, highlighting their increasing loneliness and alienation, whether they accept it or not. Like "Magnolia", the first half of the film traces their predicament (each in powerfully unique ways) as it slowly reaches towards a discernible 'crisis point' in which these sisters are forced to accept fate.

Not wanting to laud the film too much on the basis of these humanist ideals, one must understand it with the notion of humanism in mind as this is the level at which it works best. Unlike "Happiness" in which Solondz wallows in the depravity of social misfits, Winterbottom valiantly offers a redemptive glimpse of humankind, in which despite all adversity, there is still hope yet.
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Human Traffic (1999)
Hits the mark...
13 April 2000
It's about time someone made a film about club and drug culture as it plays such a big part in the make-up of youth culture. The skill of Justin Kerrigan lies in his ability to portray a cross section of characters - all united to have fun - without having to attach a moralistic indictment. He approximates the true energy that the scene has to offer. From someone who can relate, Kerrigan presents us with scenes full of immense humour, yet he also imbues his film with a detached cynicism, yet it doesn't linger. He just wants us to have fun in watching the film and he made me feel complicit in the drama. There's no moral message at the end - except an implicit 'up yours' to all detractors of the drug and club culture which drives the youth of today. Fine achievement and wonderful viewing!
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Fight Club (1999)
The closest thing to a cinematic trip...
1 April 2000
Macabre, humorous, high-concept... brilliant. Mere words don't do justice to this film - just go see it - you won't regret it.
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A cinematic exercise in catharsis...
12 March 2000
Lars von Trier presents us with a masterwork in which he holds your attention from the opening title 'til the last. Set in the desolate north of Scotland, the film traces the plight of the endearing Bess and her husband, Jan, after he becomes paralysed in an accident on an oil rig. The film uses as its central theme love as transcendent over all, yet von Trier handles it with raw bravado.

Bess, a saint-like figure, is so devoted to Jan that she is willing to do anything for him. Jan doesn't want her to stop enjoying life so he suggests ways for her to be happy so that he can be happy. Her desperate actions render her ostracized from her family and the pious community in which she lives. Even her sister starts to doubt Bess's intentions as she witnesses what she does to herself. Outcast from society and with Jan's condition ever-deteriorating, Bess turns to God - the only figure in her life who she still believes in. When that seemingly fails, she resorts to the unspeakable - the ultimate sacrifice - in order to save Jan. Bells ringing from the heavens above symbolise the ability of love to triumph over all and makes for one of the most heart-wrenching endings in the history of cinema.

I have never seen a film which is so raw and confronting towards the spectator. Each sequence is framed by a title image with a chapter name denoting the theme or emotion underlying what is to follow overlade with the pop tunes approximating the film's tone. The camera is almost constantly hand-held making for a frenzy of images which draw you into the action. The montage is razor sharp: we shift from extreme melodrama to sober realism but not one image or scene is wasted in the total make-up.

Trier frames a portrait of an angel named Bess who is willing to do anything for her beloved Jan. She is a victim of circumstances: she so wants to please Jan and make him happy, but by doing this she must go against her family and the strict rules of the town church of which she once was a part. There are marginal characters, however, who slowly begin to realise that Bess is the 'good one' in the grand scheme of things. These characters a her sister, the nurse, and Jan's doctor: at first they see her acts as preposterous and absurd, but soon they come to realise that they are the result of Bess's indominatable spirit and never-ending faith. Unfortunately for all, they realise this after it is all too late.

Jan (and Bess) have the last laugh though - they have their final farewell on the oil rig where it all started where now no one can conqueor their undying love for each other.

With "Breaking the Waves", Lars von Trier has produced a film which will leave you stunned through the sheer power it conveys in its characters, their relationships and the emotions which bind them together.
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A little masterpiece...
26 February 2000
"American Beauty" is tour de force cinema. Sam Mendes' brilliant debut feature depicts a web of characters who yearn for their own 'American Dream' - yet, in the end, only one character truly attains it.

Having seen "Happiness" only recently, I could not help but draw comparisons: both films centre around a microcosm of society in which the people, in their own unique way, all strive to be successful or simply 'happy'. But here the similarities end: the characters in "Happiness" undergo a self-realisation process through which they become increasingly aware of their meaningless existence, and go on to wallow in their own depravity. "Happiness" shows no signs of redemption; whereas in "American Beauty" the audience is offered a sense of hope, of salvation, though the characters must endure a similar fate, or more accurately, they must endure the way of life in which they are trapped.

The pivotal character upon which this theme centres, is the father Lester, played impeccably by Kevin Spacey. He is presented to us as a bit of a loser who plays the subjugated figure in the home and at work. He appears resigned to an unhappy life in which he is treated badly by his wife and daughter and his boss at work. Seemingly beyond redemption, Lester transforms from being a loser.

Mendes portrays this transformation admirably well: he shows Lester on his 'path to enlightenment' pushed up against a grim background of suburbanite existence. These early scenes are well balanced, forming a steady rhythm of TV commercial-like vignettes which prove very comical, if at times unsettling. As Lester reflects in the film: "My life is like a commercial". And how this rings true: like in "Happiness", all the characters hide underneath this veneer of normality and respectability, yet they are all revealed to be nothing but the opposite: depressed, depraved and desperate.

Lester's wife, played by Annette Benning, is the most success-driven character in the story which renders her the most hopeless in the film's tone of moral conviction. "In order to be successful in life one must project the appearance of success" is the maxim she adopts from the 'king' of real estate, Buddy King. It is a phrase which resonates throughout the film: for Benning's pawn, life is all about keeping-up appearances. This is where Lester differs from her: his emancipation is enabled by him discarding the constraints of 'normal life' and following what his heart desires.

Lester is the catalyst in this narrative in which the ancillary characters either follow suit (as does his daughter and Ricky) or pay the price (as does his wife and the Colonel). The irony inherent in this film, and it grows with resonance as the film draws to a conclusion, is that the only character who truly becomes free must sacrifice everything in order to achieve it. Yet it is through his sacrifice that he is able to afford the surviving characters a glimpse of hope in life.

This film left me gasping for air: its hyper-realism conveys, at the same time, a portrait of the suburban comedy, a jolting-shock of realisation, and a cathartic sense of hope. Mendes depicts a certain people who, to varying degrees, all strive for a certain 'American Dream', yet so few actually attain it. Though whilst one may have difficulty with tagging this film with the 'feel good' label, the beauty of "American Beauty" is that it sits half-way between a desperate cry for help and a reassuring sense of happiness and fulfilment and that is cinema at its best.
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Happiness (1998)
Happiness is the title, irony is its function...
15 February 2000
Solondz's sordid feature depicts a suburbanite/urbanite American community inhabited by people steeped in their own depraved and degenerate acts. He presents his subject matter to the audience with extreme lucidity and a detached coolness which makes this film all the more disquieting to watch.

Each character in their own unique way are deluded by their desire to become 'happy'. This is where Solondz works the ironic motif of the title into his narrative: in their efforts to attain 'happiness', they become more aware of their own loneliness and alienation within the world which only serves them to sink deeper into depression. There exists different degrees of self-disillusionment through this charged web of misfits which dot the landscapes of suburbanite/urbanite America. One example being the perverted computer guy who masturbates on the phone to women; he is one who is resigned to defeat and appears somewhat dignified in his evident lack of desire to attain 'happiness'. Whereas on the opposite end of the spectrum, we are given more complex character studies: the housewife who's 'got it all' yet she really has nothing; her paedophilic husband who has a fetish for his son's friends; and the author who seems to be the film's 'winner', yet we soon become aware that she is it's biggest loser. These characters are made all the more depraved in the sense that they hide under this veneer of middle-class normality and respectability, yet they are the very epitome of all things abject. It is through his characters' duplicity that Solondz is able to convey a caustic critique of social decay.

His depiction, though unsettling, confronts you with a reality that you want so much to deny but are not able to. "Happiness" is one of the best examples of how the cinema can function as a cathartic outlet: it challenges and confronts you and makes you want to turn away, but at the end of it all after your emotions have been nearly completely drained, you are somewhat thankful that you have beared witness to a side of life in which a desperate scream for help rings true - on screen and perhaps off.
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