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An intimate and moving insight into her life
14 November 2015
Most people know her name and she has become a recognized figure throughout the world since winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014. But very few know anything about 17 year-old Malala's new life in the UK since she was flown over for emergency medical treatment after her school bus was ambushed and she was shot in the face by the Taliban in the Swat Valley in Pakistan in 2012. The director Davis Guggenheim followed Malala and her family for a year as she travelled the world to speak about her conviction and passion to promote the rights of girls globally to have an education. This took the film maker to Nigeria and Jordan where she spoke to Syrian refugees and to the UN where Malala addressed the Congress. But it is the insight Guggenheim has into the every day home life of the Yousafzai family in Birmingham that is such a charming and magical revelation. He was enchanted by the family and taken into their confidence and trust as is apparent from scenes around the kitchen table and particularly with the deep and very intense relationship between Malala and her father Ziauddin. He named his daughter after the Pashtun heroine Malalai of Maiwand who was assassinated for speaking out. Malala's dignified but shy mother and her cheeky younger brothers are asked about their views on what has happened to their life and how they feel about it. The family has a lot of fun and laughter and Malala is very much a young girl, giggling as she looks at magazine pictures of young cricketers and insisting it is only the cricket she is interested in. Traumatic images of Malala's treatment at the Birmingham hospital where she spent many months, when it was not known if she would survive, let alone be able to speak again, firmly remind us of how the odds were stacked against her and how very miraculous her recovery is as well as the dedication of the team who attended her rehabilitation. Images of the idyllic region of the Swat Valley are re-created by animator Jason Carpenter of Carpenter Bros Animation, an inspired choice, as their delicate creation evokes the beauty and simplicity of the life that the family have had to abandon. Previously unseen news footage of areas where the Talban burned down schools and collected television sets and videos which were burned on a pyre like so many witches, are a brutal reminder of the insanity that has caused such misery to so many. Malala's father condemns their actions and their brand of Islam as evil and clips of him speaking out against them to his compatriots are shown which are scorching in their audacity and bravery. What stands out like a tower of strength is the unbending determination and dedication of Malala to devote her life to the education of all girls everywhere. Her voice is like a spire of light, strong and daunting and she seems to have no fear of speaking to prime ministers and Presidents alike. When Guggenheim asked her if, when she met President Obama she had challenged him about drones killing villagers and women and children she replied with indignation "Of course!". When Malala's name was announced as the recipient of the Nobel Peace prize in 2014 we see her back at home flinging herself into her father's arms and they hug and weep silently, not just with relief and joy but with a love and mutual understanding that knows no bounds. This wonderful insightful film should be shown in all schools all over the world and shines like a beacon of hope to all of us. She is right: one person can change the world.
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Angela (1995)
A devastating and brilliant portrayal of the dreams and imaginations of two young sisters.
23 July 2012
After a slow start this film was like throwing a pebble into still waters and watching the ripples widen. Written, produced and directed by Rebecca Miller with insight, sensitivity and humour there are strong overtones of the magical and the sinister, the angelic and the devilish and performances from the two child actors which are entrancing. The sisters, aged nine and six, create a world of fantasy which is partly induced by longing for a happy family life and partly by a desperate desire by the older girl to find salvation through spirituality. Their mother, a pale and ravaged shadow of her former self, with distinct similarities to Marilyn Monroe (who was married to Arthur Miller, Rebecca Miller's father) barely notices the girls as they drift in and out of her line of vision and her drunken haze. Their father is totally focused on her unpredictable behaviour and his job in a car scrap yard. There is a strong sexual frisson between the two. When the film starts we see the family move in an old pick- up truck to a rambling and abandoned house with metal beds and dirty curtains. Through a grill in the floor the girls watch their parents making love below, a scene of mystifying and disturbing violence. "It looks as if it hurts", the older sister says to her little sister when she tries to prepare her for when she has to kiss boys and "do it" in order to have a baby. The little sister is, as is the case with siblings, in awe of her big sister and hangs on her every word, believing the increasingly bizarre and black rituals that she is told she must perform in order to "Go into the Big Nothing". There are terrifying moments, funny moments and wonderful cameos - like the next door neighbour who sleep walks every night and looks for a letter in her mail box, always dressed in her nightie and with curlers in her hair. There is a wonderful scene of a baptism in the nearby lake and a night time visit to a fairground where a young man with dangerous intentions almost gets his way. I found it riveting, worrying, delightful, believable and a completely brilliant portrayal of the power of the imagination that children have, which is sadly so little encouraged.
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Into Eternity (2010)
A futuristic fable of mega-proportions
23 January 2011
A white and eerie endless tunnel blasted out of the rock leads us in to the sinister yet strangely lyrical world of nuclear waste storage. The frozen trees of Finland lead us along icy tracks to something which must be beautiful, but no, it is the wicked giant who lives below the earth. We must never ever disturb him. Michael Madsen has produced and presents this film for the future with great love and concern for his fellow humans and the planet. Striking a match from within the dark and deep tunnel, a permanent tomb for nuclear waste, his face partially lit by the diminishing flame, Madsen speaks like a prophet/poet as he addresses the future and explains the dangers of disturbing this alchemical product entombed beneath the rock. He interviews the Finnish and Swedish scientists of the Onkalo project whose job it is to lock this stuff away and their philosophical dilemma about its whereabouts. Should we leave a marker warning DANGER KEEP OUT or should the site be unmarked and forgotten in the hope that it will truly never be disturbed. In this case never means, 100,000 years. Filmed across a large shiny desk with harsh lighting these poor men look anguished and disturbed by their responsibilities, almost to the point of nervous collapse. The footage of clear icicle-like rods containing the waste being lowered into shafts and water pools is like watching a ballet performed by gigantic molecules operated by an invisible hand. Everyone should see this film. It is a disturbing testament to our brightly lit lives which we continue to take for granted at our and the planet's peril.
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Requiem for Detroit? (2010 TV Movie)
Apocalypse Now - the collapse and decay of Detroit
14 March 2010
Julien Temple's film about the construction and destruction of Detroit, America's fourth largest city, is a shocking and mind-blowing vision of Man's pursuit of Utopia - in partnership with the Devil. As with much of the American Dream the city was built on a greedy and sinister lie. Lured by the General Motors Company and the promise of work and housing and a regular salary on the production line, people flocked to Detroit from the 1920's onwards in their thousands - many were poor black country folk from the Deep South. Out of the prairie a vast factory was born with high rise buildings, grand houses, five- star hotels, stadiums and theatres, schools, churches, highways and fancy stores selling furs and diamonds. The ownership of a car became not just a dream but a necessity and thus the Consumer Society was born. Segregation was part of the plan and the black folk lived in an area named Black Bottom and the white folk lived as far away as possible. Temple has the facility to educate with images and does not use any political jargon or persuasion. He lets archive footage of the assembly line workers, the race riots of 1967, the huge-finned cars and the society functions speak for itself, and it sure does, with a vengeance. Detroit today is a shambolic ruin, crumbling, gaping, overgrown, broken and battered. It is hard not to believe that Hurricane Katrina has passed by here. The once orderly production like is just a track among columns stripped of copper by local people desperate to earn a few bucks. Trees grow from the fractured roofs of the stately old Department store and theatre. 50,000 homes have been destroyed and thousands remain burnt and vandalised carcasses. But, and this is the most extraordinary thing about the film, out of the ashes a Phoenix is rising. The local people are making a fresh start and some of these people as they talk honestly and with great dignity and wisdom, make one's heart soar and feel hope for mankind. If all the people in Detroit are as remarkable as those found by Temple then a truly wonderful thing will have come out of the dark and deadly times.
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Emotionally starved teenager in brilliant character study
8 March 2010
This is the story of a disturbed adolescent, Laurel, played with frightening conviction by 18 year-old Hayley Mills, and her battle with herself and all those who come into contact with her. A subtle study of the havoc that can be let loose when all you want is your mother's love and it is absent - apparently. Cleverly adapted by John Michael Hayes from the play by Enid Bagnold, the script is brilliant and compelling. Set in a large traditional English house above the white cliffs of Dover where the garden is equally chalky and barren the overall feeling is one of continual frustration and loneliness. Into this incendiary climate a cool and severely beautiful new governess appears, Miss Madrigal, played to perfection by Deborah Kerr. She is the most recent of many who have come and gone as Laurel systematically drives them all away with her outrageous behaviour and aggression - regularly released by lighting a bonfire in the garden and screaming as the flames ignite. Laurel's grand-mother and guardian, supremely played by Edith Evans, is determinedly blinkered as to the severity of Laurel's incipient psychosis and is more concerned with the smooth running of the house, relying on her over-worked butler, John Mills, to keep tabs on the day to day chores and duties as well as being Laurel's main companion. Laurel and Miss Madrigal meet their match in each other as Laurel delves and pries into the governess's mysterious past and Miss Madrigal identifies with and warms towards the unhappy girl. Hayley Mills gives an astonishing performance where the sinister and the vulnerable sides of Laurel's character are shown with great skill and emotion.
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Summer Hours (2008)
A family dilemma in rural France
16 January 2010
An idyllic French country house and garden, summer, a family gathering with several generations eating and playing al fresco. The occasion - the mother's 75th birthday. Beautiful, elegant and stylish, Edith Scob masterfully manages to show us the vivacious and sophisticated woman she once was as well as the elderly widow she now is, facing her own mortality, without doing a thing except being there - the matriarch whose memories are her expression and her purpose. Her preoccupation is what will become of the house and its contents after her death? Her uncle, whom she adored, was a famous artist and his collection of furniture, glass and paintings, including two Corot's, have huge emotional value, as well as being valuable collectors items and museum pieces. Her three modern grown up children each have their own busy lives and only her eldest son, played by Charles Berling, has the time and nostalgia necessary to contemplate keeping the house and its content for future generations.

A subtle lesson in how art and beauty outlive us all in this family tale of death and inheritance. There is no drama, no quarreling, just the unspoken sadness at the inevitability of one era ending and another beginning.

The film was made in co-operation with the Musee d'Orsay and the Louvre and the characters who come to the house to assess the contents are all real museum personnel.

There is some fine acting from Juliette Binoche as the distracted slightly ruthless daughter, unusually blonde, and a poignant performance from Isabelle Sadoyan as the housekeeper, Eloise, whose involvement with the house over many years was such that she barely noticed the works of art as such, and has the healthiest attitude of all to precious objects.

This is not just an enchanting glimpse into the lives of others but also a philosophical tale.
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Revealing and fascinating insight into Chanel's early life
2 January 2010
For anyone remotely interested in the history of fashion this film is a must. Audrey Tatou is hypnotically watchable and has mastered the art of becoming Coco Chanel in all her moods. The child Gabrielle later to be called Coco, played silently but powerfully by Lisa Cohen, is abandoned with her sister by their father at a convent orphanage, dumped on the doorstep with not so much as a backward glance as he drives his horse and cart away, never to see his daughters again. This character forming event hovers in one's mind as the film unfolds and explains much of the adult Gabrielle's behaviour and psyche. Her determination to be independent, to stand alone and to never be anyone's wife stems from this abandonment. With a natural ability to sew and adapt garments we see Coco, who adopts this name after a song she and her sister sang together, evolve into the creative genius that she became. Style, simplicity and the freedom to move without constriction, the physical liberation of women no less, were Coco's aims. Stubborn, proud and indelibly marked by her father's actions, love affairs for Coco are conducted with the wariness of a scalded cat, so strong is the fear of being hurt. Little touches of inspiration are very subtly revealed, such as when she notices the blue and white striped jumpers that the French sailors are wearing when she visits the Coast, later to be one of her trade mark garments, and her immediate interest in her lover's jersey sweater, a fabric that she later used. She notices everything everyone wears and shows up the ridiculousness of much of it. Like a chef's pot of stock simmering for hours to get the flavour right Chanel was an expert at reduction. Vast hats, mountainous frills, restrictive corsets were all attacked with equal energy and stripped down to an acceptable size and simplicity. Slowly the little black dress and the Chanel suit are born and the rest, as they say, is history. Bravo Chanel! Bravo Anne Fontaine, who directed this film with such delicacy and insight that one wonders if she had a direct line to Chanel herself.
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Night Mail (1936)
A unique glimpse of postal services in 1936
27 February 2009
Made in 1936 (in black and white of course) NIGHTMAIL has become an icon of the British documentary movement. The budget was only £2,000 and the film was made as a promotional film for the Post Office services. The GPO film unit deserves a posthumous Oscar.

The quality of directing, lighting and camera work in this documentary beats that of many of today's films and brings an almost Hitchcockian atmosphere and tension to the screen.

This is the story of the Travelling Post office from Euston station in London to Glasgow in Scotland, in the days when the railways were efficient, frequent and run by proud workers who wore waistcoats, ties and hats and spoke politely to one another like the team that they were. It is surprising how old the men all seem now, in these days of youth culture, gentle character-full faces bearing no guile, tired and lined but proud and honest. The journey begins with the great spoutings of steam and turning of oiled wheels and the sound of banging doors, cries and whistles that emanate from all mainline stations and follows the trains from station to station throughout the night as they pick up mail along the way. A weird and wonderful Heath-Robinson device had been invented whereby bundles of post could be hurled onto a moving train as it passed through the station, propelled from a rope net on a pulley with such precise timing that it would land with a forceful thud onto the moving train. Long before emails and mobile phones had been dreamt of the only means of co-ordinating the system and ensuring safe delivery was the telephone, and this was used to perfect effect as the arrival of the Night Mail train would be phoned through from one station to the next down the line, accurate to the last minute, this being essential for the bundle to be aimed and "fired" at the right moment by those on the look-out. Rushing through sleeping towns and landscapes, main stations and rural ones, the efficiency of the Travelling Post Office and the men who worked on it throughout the night to get the post to its destination is awe inspiring. There is nothing mundane about it – it almost has a spiritual quality about it not dissimilar to the night-life photographs of Brassai.

The ultimate section of the film is positively inspired, when the score by Benjamin Britten is combined with the words of W. H. Auden in time to the sounds and rhythms of the train, making one want nothing more than to be on that train, to be part of the workforce, to be part of the team that works for the Night Mail that delivers the post to letterboxes all across England. It evokes the England of John Betjeman and of Alan Bennet, of strong tea and washing on lines, of lonely sheep and flint walls, of industrial chimneys and cloth caps, of invention and hard-work, of grand-fathers and family reunions, of childhood and of old age, when the work is done and stories are told of how it was.
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Brick Lane (2007)
A loving portrait of a Muslim woman
14 November 2007
From the opening scene of two young sisters chasing one another through a sunny field in Bangladesh (actually shot in India) to the very last poignant shot of the older sister as a mature woman looking back on her life and forward to the rest of it, I was captivated by this film. The performance of Tannishta Chatterjee as the wife is so touching that it is almost embarrassing to watch her, as if one is a Peeping Tom. Trapped in a tiny flat, and in an arranged marriage, with two teenage daughters, silently bearing the loss of her first born, a son, dreaming of her sister and family in Bangladesh and living for her sister's letters, she is detached from the world outside, alone, isolated - despite being in the midst of the Bengali community in Brick Lane, London. I accompanied her as she went out, crossed the concrete yard, did her shopping, straightened her headscarf, avoiding the white tattooed lady next door and the old Bengali widow, a debt-collector. The claustrophobic flat, piled high with daily necessities, the overwhelming presence of her husband, rather charmingly pompous, and brilliantly played by Satish Kaushik, the two depressed and bored daughters, is tangible, as is her husband's corpulent body when he rolls on top of her with wheezing breath in their depressingly small bed. Longing to earn some money so that she can fulfill her dream of returning home to visit her family, she takes on piece-work, sewing up jeans and glitzy tops, and finds herself attracted to and then having an affair with, the young British Muslim who brings the work every week. Sarah Gavron, the young British director, gets beneath the veil, beneath the skin and into the heart of this woman, delivering a portrait, not of a community, but of self-discovery and ultimately of love equalling the work of Satiyajit Ray. We should look forward to her next feature film.
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