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Che: Part Two (2008)
Part two is a great standalone film, beautifully filmed, inspiring and tragic
12 March 2009
I came to watch Guerrilla, part two of Steven Soderbergh's biopic of Che Guevara, without having seen the preceding film and without more than a cursory knowledge of Che's life. At the same time I was rather apprehensive that this would be both a heavy-going history lesson and an unrepentant love-letter to the iconic revolutionary. As it turns out, this film far exceeded my expectations.

Guerrilla works remarkably well as a standalone film. The story of Che's failed attempt to lead a revolution in Bolivia, then under military rule, is a compelling tragedy. The initial impetus brought by Che's arrival incognito to lead the guerrilla war is lost as misfortune follows misfortune. The odds stack up against the revolutionaries. US backing for the Bolivian army, hostile conditions in the rainforest, suspicious locals and Che's failing health are just some of the difficulties which beset the nascent rebellion.

Soderbergh's portrayal of Che is largely uncritical, but this film is no hagiography. The style is refreshingly undramatic, with a subtle and effective soundtrack by Alberto Iglesias adding quiet drama to many scenes. Che is undoubtedly the centre of the film but there are very few close-ups of his face and we are encouraged to see the people fighting alongside him and sometimes against him too. Where Soderbergh wishes to demonstrate Che's virtues we see it in small episodes such as the loyal acolyte who upbraids two fellow guerrillas when they question Che's leadership, and emphasises the sacrifice that he has made in leaving behind Cuba to fight again for revolution.

The direction throughout is superb. Part two feels tightly edited despite its narrow focus and is able to communicate a great deal through images without the need for a narrator to spell things out for the audience. At the start of the film we see a few short clips of lavish parties in post-revolutionary Cuba, immediately furnishing us with ideas as to why Che would sacrifice his old life to fight again in another country. Later on, the portrayal of guerrillas marching through the unending rainforests stands out as a strikingly beautiful scene and helps to create a feeling of the enormity of the task before this tiny band of revolutionaries.

If there is a problem with the film it is the distance between the viewer and Che, which, though it does allow us to appreciate the context of the insurgency and the people around him, makes it hard for us to understand him better as a person. True, Benicio Del Toro is utterly convincing in the lead role – so much so that it is difficult to remember that you are watching an actor and not the man himself. However, watching Guerrilla as a standalone film means that we are given precious little insight into what is shaping Che's thoughts, words and actions. It is to be hoped that this is more to the fore in the first part of Soderbergh's biopic (I cannot comment on that yet), and certainly the strength of part two is making me look forward eagerly to seeing the prequel.
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Poetical, polemical and romantic
17 November 2008
Of Time and the City is a very personal portrait of the city of Liverpool. Created by Liverpool-born director Terence Davies, funded by Northwest Vision and Media and released in the year that the city holds the status of European Capital of Culture, this film charts the tumultuous story of Liverpool in the time-frame of the director's life. The city's story slides from the high hopes of the post-war era to the ominous onset of the Korean War, plunging into the malaise of tower block housing and declining industries before the gradual revival and regeneration of the late twentieth century.

The film consists largely of archive footage from across the past 60 years, book-ended with some new-filmed footage orchestrated by Davies himself. The old film used in Of Time and the City is superbly edited into a continuously evolving story. There are some astonishing images here, from the vibrancy of the absurdly overcrowded 1950's waterfront to the decay and destruction of council housing in subsequent decades. What really sets this film apart, however, is the unique delivery of Davies's commentary. By turns poetical, polemical and romantic, Davies elevates this film beyond a documentary to create a stirring work of art.

Although often bitter and iconoclastic, Davies possesses a terrific dry sense of humour, which he directs against some of Liverpool's most-recognised exports, including the Beatles and the city's famous football club, as well as the current Queen Elizabeth (or 'the Betty Windsor show' as he terms it). But beyond this invective there is great warmth in Davies's film: it is much more a celebration of the people of Liverpool than the known sights and sounds of Liverpool. The emphasis of the film footage – old and new – is on the lives of the ordinary people living in the city: children playing in crowded streets, families at the seaside, great crowds at sporting events. Davies sets these ordinary goings on to a soundtrack of superb classical music and intersperses them with numerous borrowed lines from literary greats, adapting high art to celebrate the lives of the people in Liverpool. Throughout the film there are also modest fragments of Davies's own story, which emphasises the deeply personal nature of this film.

Of Time and the City is not a methodical history of Liverpool's post-war history – such a film would have to run for a lot longer – and it is shot through with Davies's strong opinions and acerbic wit. His delivery is often challenging to follow, but it makes for a vivid and engrossing film whose depth and complexity merits repeated viewing.
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Hunger (2008)
Provocative, vivid and engrossing, but at times it gets close to hagiography
15 November 2008
Hunger is a powerful and disturbing feature-film debut for the visual artist Steve McQueen. The film takes place almost exclusively within the confines of a high-security prison in Northern Ireland, where many members of the Irish Republican Army are interned. The small confines of the prison serve as a microcosm of the wider Troubles in Ireland. The conflict between the British wardens and the Irish inmates escalates steadily, with each indignity and abuse inevitably leading to another.

The conditions revealed in the prison are deeply disturbing, with the inmates fouling the jail with effluent and the guards responding with ritual humiliation and savage beatings. McQueen's camera is an unflinching witness to the squalor and cruelty, and with the vivid imagery and forceful sounds it is almost possible to smell and feel the frightening environs of the film.

Although the focus of the film ultimately falls on Bobby Sands, the IRA member and inmate who leads a fatal hunger strike within the prison, we are not introduced to the main protagonist until a third of the way through the film. This approach works remarkably well in setting the scene for the main narrative, but it is disappointing that the different perspectives on each side are somewhat sidelined thereafter, as Sands's personal struggle takes centre stage.

The terrible squalor of the prison cells provides some of the film's most powerful images, but it is the second third of the film that is the most gripping, as Sands converses and argues with a visiting Catholic priest. An unmoving camera is trained upon these two protagonists for what must be nearly half an hour, as Sands reveals his plan for a new hunger strike and defends his methods of achieving political goals, ultimately berating what he sees as the priest's despondency and inertia. This is an utterly compelling piece of cinema.

However, at the end of this gripping conversation, the director sees fit to insert a somewhat tortured analogy as Sands recalls for the priest a defining moment of his boyhood. This is an unnecessary effort to inject conventional beauty into Sands's story, and sits awkwardly with the general tone of the film.

In the final third of the film, the hunger strike is depicted in by now characteristically brutal detail. Lead man Michael Fassbender clearly underwent a very painful regime to portray the wasting and withering of Bobby Sands in his last days. Unfortunately, amidst the impressive attention to detail, McQueen goes further in romanticising his main protagonist through a series of flashbacks to Sands's childhood. This again jars with the realistic feel of the rest of the film, and points to McQueen's obsession with Sands, which he has admitted to having had since a young age.

Although at times steering a little close to hagiography, McQueen's directorial debut is still a bold and engrossing film that cultivates an understanding for the very different people caught in up in the Troubles in Northern Ireland. It will be fascinating to see what his next project will be.
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Bes Vakit (2006)
Relentlessly engaging; a beautifully filmed study of a divided society
3 September 2008
Times and Winds is a portrait of family life in rural Turkey centred on the lives of three young children: Omer, Yakup and Yildiz. The village that they live in is a slightly ramshackle affair; many houses are showing their age and the cobble roads are worn and wonky. The surroundings, on the other hand, are sumptuously beautiful, ranging from lush green woodland to spectacular rocky cliffs and the gloriously shining sea. Director Reha Erdem uses Steadycam to track the characters as they travel through the village and the countryside, creating a sense that the little settlement and its grand surroundings are a seamless, congruous whole.

The village, however, is not a harmonious place: there is great distrust between different generations, from the oldest to the youngest, and Omer, Yakup and Yildiz are caught up in this. The three young children all earn the displeasure and disappointment of their elders, and in turn become disillusioned and resentful.

Omer's father, a local imam, is ever disappointed with his eldest son, and does little to hide his preference for Ali, Omer's bright younger brother. Omer begins to devise ways of killing his father, who is already suffering under the effects of a disease. Meanwhile, Yakup, Omer's close friend, is upbraided by his father, the muezzin, for trying to steal cigarettes, but finds – to his dismay – that he is being lectured by a moral hypocrite. The women in the village are not free from this futile cycle where the old alienate the young and the young resent the old: Yildiz, an intelligent young girl, has to look after her baby sibling on behalf of her mother, and suffers increasingly under the stress of this responsibility.

It is no wonder that in their complicated, unrewarding family lives these children yearn for an escape, and so they gather together in the wilderness around their village to plot and play and dream. Recurring images show the young children lying prone – dead or asleep – out in the wilderness, a sad reflection of a world where they already feel like a disappointment.

That is not to say that this is a wholly bleak portrait of life in rural Turkey. It is cheering to see the work done by the village committee members, who gather together to discuss pressing local issues. They condemn the beating of a local shepherd boy by his acting father and they organise the building of a new roof for an elderly lady as the winter sets in. There are also some very funny moments in Times and Winds, including the scenes where the children giggle over procreating animals. Even these scenes, however, are ultimately permeated with the same sadness found throughout the film: the boys catch the girls watching a pair of copulating horses and chase them away, in the belief that girls should not be allowed to see such things. In a place where religious figures such as the imam and the muezzin fall far short of the lofty ideals to which they aspire it is sad to see the wrong-headed behaviour inspired in these children.

The film finds the perfect accompaniment in the music of Finnish composer Arvo Part. The sombre, haunting strings that swell periodically throughout Times and Winds mingle with the sounds of nature and of everyday life, and fittingly reflect the torment of human relationships against the most serene and beautiful of backdrops. Though nearly two hours long and driven by only the loosest of plots, Times and Winds does not feel like a slow film. There are so many characters and incidents that the film can be a little confusing in places, but it is relentlessly engaging. Times and Winds is all the more remarkable film for having come seemingly out of nowhere and it will hopefully win some much-deserved attention for new Turkish cinema.
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Somers Town (2008)
Funny and poignant - a great British film
29 August 2008
Shane Meadows' new release, Somers Town, has received mixed reviews in the British press. The film has received criticism for its source of funding, having been developed with the funding of Eurostar from a promotional short to a fully-fledged feature. But beyond this, Somers Town has been criticised for being short, inconclusive and too whimsical in handling its grim subject matter. I would contend that although the style of Meadows sits rather awkwardly with the involvement of Eurostar, the film itself is a triumph: funny, intelligent and poignant.

Set in an area of inner city London near the construction site of the new Eurostar train terminal, the film follows the fortunes of two young boys from troubled backgrounds. Tomo, played by Thomas Thurgoose, arrives in London on a train from Nottingham, having run away from home. He never lets on about where he came from, and when asked he says that there is 'nothing' there. When Tomo reaches London he is soon set upon by a gang of youths. The camera moves uncomfortably close to Tomo and the bullying youths and the subsequent chase and beating set a dark undertone for the rest of the film. Thurgoose is superb in this lead role, cheeky, rude even, but charming and disarming – a far cry from the youths who attack him in the film's opening.

Tomo crosses paths with Marek (played by Piotr Jagiello), a young Polish immigrant living with his father, Marius. Marius is working long hours on the building site of the future Eurostar terminal and Marek is listless in his absence, roving the streets of London with his camera until he bumps into the disruptive Tomo. The two boys, though from very different backgrounds, are essentially rootless, and soon become friends. Together they vie for the attention of Maria, the beautiful waitress working in a local café, leading to some of the happiest scenes in the film. They also help out budding salesman Graham, a slightly absurd and very amusing Del Boy character.

The dialogue amongst the characters in Somers Town is excellent, often hilarious but at times sad and moving. Thurgoose delivers his lines with a sharp wit and the film is at its funniest when the two boys compete for the affection of Maria. The darker scenes in the film, including the attack on Tomo and the falling-out between Marek and Marius, are believably portrayed and equally engaging. Where the dialogue flags is where the new Eurostar terminal – and the accompanying ideas of travel and escape – work their way into the story. It is difficult to disregard the source of funding for the film and it is at these points in the film that there is a vague whiff of product placement.

Nevertheless, it seems that Shane Meadows has used the creative licence afforded to him to re-work the original short film idea into a distinctive work. Although his film runs to only 75 minutes it does not feel insubstantial or inconclusive – quite the contrary. The wistful, poignant ending throws light on the preceding film and affirms the themes of rootlessness, despair and dreams of escape.

With the wealth of Hollywood blockbusters and fine foreign-language films being produced this year it has been easy to overlook the films emerging closer to home, but this superb film has made me sit up and look for more British cinema.
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An enthralling allegorical tragedy
24 August 2008
The story at the heart of Picnic at Hanging Rock is outlined at the film's very beginning: an introductory text describes the mysterious disappearance of three schoolgirls and their teacher in the Australian outback. Yet for all that we know about what will happen, this is an utterly enthralling film, combining a moving, mysterious human drama with rich and haunting symbolism.

The 1900 period setting is impeccable. The grandiose school for girls rises out of the vast Australian wilderness, a tiny outpost of Empire in a strange land. The costumes, from Victorian schoolgirl outfits to white imperial soldier uniforms, are brilliantly realised. Very soon we see that the schoolgirls are stifled. Some of them strain against the confines of their cosseted environment and the strict Victorian values imposed by Mrs Appleyard, the headmistress of the school. It becomes apparent that beautiful Mirandah and the orphaned Sarah have fallen in love, but Mrs Appleyard intervenes: when the girls set out for the 'Hanging Rock' for an end-of-term picnic she sees to it that Sarah is kept behind whilst Mirandah and the others set out.

It is at the Hanging Rock that we see just how alien the Australian landscape is to the Victorian ideals of colonial society – and vice versa. When Mirandah and three other girls separate from the main party to view the Hanging Rock up close they venture into an otherworldly place, where strange animals and bizarre rock formations abound. The rhapsody of the young women in the unfamiliar landscape is cleverly conveyed through the blurring between images of human faces and the great expanses of the landscape. As the girls ascend and disappear from view into the upper reaches of the rock it is hard not to feel a glimmer of their atavistic impulses.

The disappearance of the schoolgirls and the school governess are witnessed only by Edith, another schoolgirl, and we can but wonder how accurate her subsequent account is. The disappearance is ultimately a mystery: this is not a film to provide a neat ending or anything much in the way of answers to our questions. What makes the film so captivating is the combination of a moving human tragedy with powerful symbolism.

The school and the adjoining town can be viewed are an encapsulation of colonial society with its Victorian ideals. Despite the strictures of the school headmistress, the new generation are already drifting away from a society that has been newly imposed upon an ancient landscape. The Hanging Rock, an enormous rocky outcrop of volcanic origin, has stood for a million years and is described as a 'recent' geological feature. Inscrutable and uncaring, the rock embodies the timeless nature of the foreign landscape. For the transplanted society, time is running out: it is an anachronism in this land. It is no wonder that all the watches stop at 12 o'clock when the party reaches the rock.

In parallel to the vast, uncaring entity in the natural landscape is the imperial society itself. With its Victorian ideals and its ruthless enforcers such as Mrs Appleyard, this society rides roughshod over the happiness of its inhabitants. Mirandah's and Sarah's is a doomed love from the beginning of the film, but there is a further tragedy in Sarah's life: as a young orphan she was separated from her brother and whisked away to the school. Minnie, a servant to Mrs Appleyard, quite rightly remarks with pity of the poor girls at the school.

A few points of light are set against this dark tone. Michael and Albert, a young aristocrat and a young servant, present at the rock at the time of the disappearances, become furtive friends despite their very different class backgrounds. And, though in many ways a tragedy, the mysterious disappearance of the girls has a certain beauty to it. The three ascend out of oppressive surroundings into a new and unfamiliar place. Their action heralds the beginning of the end for a world that tried to smother them.
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A long, intense and masterfully produced family drama
15 August 2008
Cous Cous is set on the coast of Southern France in a coastal community where traditional industries are dying away. The void opening up with the decline of fishing and boat making industries is considerable, and the sprinkling of tourist interest in the area does little to salve these wounds. The malaise and despondency of the community is encapsulated in the person of Slimane, a taciturn divorcée who is told at the start of this film that he will henceforth receive only part-time employment at the scrapyard where he makes his living.

In the early stages of the film we are also introduced to Slimane's large and diverse family. The family – minus Slimane – is first brought together for a meal of fish and couscous at the household of Souad, Slimane's former wife. This is the first of several long and engrossing commensal scenes. The rapid, witty dialogue and the skillful close-up camera-work filmed around and among the diners create a remarkable intimacy between the actors and the viewer, so that very soon we are immersed in the family's intrigues and laughing at their bawdy humour.

However, the family is more often in disharmony. The children yearn for Slimane and Souad to resolve their differences, but Slimane is living in a hotel elsewhere in town. The proprietor of the hotel is his new partner and her daughter, Rym, is a close friend. Slimane's children disapprove openly of this situation, but at the same time they have their own problems to face up to, especially the wayward behaviour of Hamid, one of Slimane's sons, who frequently cheats on his fragile wife.

Slimane's despondency intensifies in the wake of his enforced semi-retirement from the scrapyard: he regrets that his family is divided and wishes that he had used his life to create something, to create a legacy for his children. It is in the face of this despair and with the help of Rym, the daughter of the hotel proprietor, that Slimane resolves to create a restaurant on a derelict boat – a restaurant for which his ex-wife will cook and which his children will serve in. Rather than turning the rest of the film into a modern-day fairytale, director Abdel Kechiche remains levelheaded and keeps his camera trained on the complex and often strained web of relationships amongst the family members of Slimane's divided family. It is a slow and difficult struggle for Slimane to realise his goal, but Kechiche shows little of the construction of this ship in this long (two and a half hours) film.

In the final stages of the film Slimane is desperate to secure funding for his project and decides to host a grand opening of the restaurant with many eminent local personalities on the guestlist. The dramas and calamities in the protracted finale seem somewhat at odds with the first two-thirds of the film, which is low on drama and feels unstaged (indeed there are many non-professional actors in the cast and probably a considerable amount of improvisation). Nevertheless, as Slimane struggles to ensure that the dinner reaches the diners and the grand opening morphs awkwardly into a long-drawn-out party, the film climbs to a thrilling crescendo and a devastatingly abrupt ending.
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Still Life (2006)
Achingly slow, but still an eye-opening insight into the severe side-effects of Progress
3 August 2008
Chinese director Zhang Ke Jia's latest film contains a wealth of fascinating real-life imagery. Still Life was filmed during the construction of the Three Gorges Dam in China and it reveals to Western audiences the astonishing destruction that this entailed. The submersion of the scenery and settlements of the valley floors proceeds in phases during the film. White lines are painted on buildings and cliff-faces to forewarn of the next projected rise in water levels; residents are forced from their homes at short notice. Buildings are torn down using sledgehammers and hard human labour, creating a bizarre landscape of broken masonry. Rubble, the raw material of the future, is carted along narrow city streets by overloaded lorries and dumped onto a fleet of cargo ships. In the wake of all this activity there lie towns and communities divided literally in two by the swelling waters.

Still Life is an amazing documentary of the construction of the Dam, but its narrative is disappointingly weak. So many of the characters that fill the screen are isolated or antagonistic or exploitative, from the man hawking foreign currencies to the architect proudly admiring the new bridge across town. Jia chooses to focus on two main characters, creating two loosely intertwined plots. In the first, a husband and father searches for his wife and daughter who left him some fifteen years previously, whilst in the second an abandoned wife searches for her missing husband.

These are potentially interesting stories, but they proceed at a pace that is slow even by the standards of Jia's other films. Much of the drama in these stories precedes the film itself and the camera often lingers on unmoving, unspeaking subjects. The effect is one of inertia, at first strangely engrossing, but eventually frustrating. Possibly in an attempt to alleviate the slow, slow pacing of Still Life, Jia introduces some quirky asides (watch out for the spaceship taking off), but these jar with his documentary-like approach to film-making. Rather more effective are the 'still life' moments that crop up periodically throughout the film, momentarily framing day-to-day objects such as cigarettes or tea.

Although achingly slow at times, Still Life does make some interesting observations. It is intriguing to see how pop culture, transmitted by television and radio, now provides the icons for young Chinese people, where once one might have expected the songs, the sayings and the thinking to derive from Communist figureheads. The boy singing romantic pop ballads and the young man imitating a TV cop show character are symbolic of a very different culture among the young people of China. As with Jia's other films, the ideology and rhetoric of the Communist Party are largely absent, making a sort of cameo appearance when an old-fashioned workers' song plays as the ring tone on one character's mobile phone.

On the other hand, we see very little protest against the construction of the dam under the gaze of the Communist Party. This is not a slight against Jia, however, since it would have been very difficult to portray this without the government intervening against his film. The unflattering portrayal of the Dam's construction and its debilitating influence on people are a wake-up call to the severe side effects of Progress.
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La antena (2007)
A reinvention of the silent movie and a powerful cautionary tale
23 July 2008
La Antena, an audacious film by Argentine director Esteban Sapir, succeeds both as a reinvention of the silent movie genre and a gripping cautionary tale. The setting is a city in thrall to mindless television, its people deprived of the power of speech except for a solitary and mysterious screen presence known simply as The Voice. In a bid to cement their grip on power the marvellously villainous duo of television mogul Mr. TV and mad scientist Dr. Y set out to kidnap The Voice and turn her unique talent towards their own dastardly ends. It is up to a young family and The Voice's nameless, eyeless son to stop this evil scheme. The result is a roller coaster of a story that is bewildering on occasion but never less than engrossing.

This is a silent movie that wears many of its influences on its sleeve; the overt references to silent movie greats such as George Melies and Fritz Lang will be readily apparent to anyone with a passing familiarity of their work. But more subtle references and symbolism lie behind such tributes. I particularly like the fact that Mr. TV and his henchman drive around in typical 1930s gangster cars, drawn from the decade when the silent movie era died away and a very different industry began to emerge.

La Antena mines the clichéd plot devices and theatrical over-acting common to so many silent films, albeit in a very knowing and humorous way. It is the astonishing visual style of La Antena that really sets it apart from the movies that it pays homage to. From the hypnotic TV logo to the menacing hilltop transmission station, this film abounds with dazzling visual inventiveness that is the rival of a Studio Ghibli animation – and all this using real actors and handmade sets.

Moreover, though the style is often intentionally corny and theatrical, this is still an unsettling, provocative and emotional picture. The use of religious symbolism throughout La Antena lends added resonance to the struggle between the TV Empire and the waning power of words. At the same time, many of the most powerful images are original ones, including the hypnotic swirl of the television sets and the nightmarish TV food factory.

I hate to end this review on a sour note, but I feel that the English-language release of La Antena is let down by the subtitles. The original Spanish subtitles are used to great effect, with much playing around with words on screen. However, the English-language subtitles that accompany the original dialogue are frustratingly incomplete, with omissions and mistakes at times leaving the viewer to piece things together for themselves. La Antena is nevertheless a striking piece of cinema; a visually breathtaking experience that displays great energy and humour whilst narrating a powerful cautionary tale.
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Ji jie hao (2007)
A gripping Chinese war film, by turns brutal, moving and provocative
16 July 2008
Assembly is a gripping film about the Chinese civil war and its aftermath, recounted through the story of a doomed company of Communist soldiers and the subsequent struggle of their commander, Gu Zidi, to win recognition for their sacrifice. Hanyu Zhang is superb in the role of Gu Zidi, carrying the memory of his lost and forgotten comrades, and is the focus for a film that is by turns brutal, moving and provocative.

The opening battle scene is Assembly is startlingly violent and throughout the film the portrayal of modern weaponry and its effect upon human bodies is truly frightening. The battles are impressively staged and meticulously detailed, from the soldiers' uniforms to the networks of defensive trenches. There are some eye-opening details about the nature of warfare in the Chinese civil war, including the deployment of 'political officers' to encourage Communist troops to act in line with Party doctrine.

Admittedly, much of the film's appeal stems from its foreign origins. The Chinese civil war and the subsequent war in Korea are not often portrayed in the cinema, and it is even more rare to get a Chinese perspective on these events. Certainly this makes it difficult to find a point of reference by which to assess the success of Assembly. Nevertheless, I did have some reservations, including the camera-work. The battle scenes cut frantically between different shots, unlike, for instance, the opening scenes in Saving Private Ryan, where the action relentlessly tracks the soldiers' landing on the D-Day beach. This repeated cutting and changing conveys some sense of the chaos of warfare, but I feel that the shaky camera-work was overplayed and found this a bit irksome after the first few battle scenes.

A more general problem is that this film focuses almost exclusively on the actions of the Communist soldiers. It would have been interesting to learn more about the Nationalist Guomindang soldiers, but they are barely afforded any speaking roles. Although Assembly is written from the perspective of the winning side, it does not begin to examine why the Communists were at one time so short of munitions and especially men in fighting the war against the Nationalists. The story of Gu Zidi's company of men is a battle against the odds, but the film does not delve into the root causes of their desperation.

But although Assembly is a portrait of one side in a long military conflict there is surprising depth to this portrait. The film does not follow a straightforward triumphalist narrative about Communist war heroes, but instead builds a complex tale of an individual (Gu Zidi) who struggles for the posthumous recognition of individual soldiers who made an individual sacrifice. These were soldiers who were scared and sometimes balked at the dangers before them – as would anyone – but they made the ultimate sacrifice and Gu Zidi strives to have their efforts recognised as a unique contribution to the war effort. That it is such a great struggle for Gu Zidi to secure a memorial for these fallen comrades is at least partly an indictment of post-war society and government in China.

Assembly achieves a remarkable amount in less than two hours. It is a vivid reconstruction of struggles during and after the war and is moreover a deeply moving experience, especially in its final frames. And if part of the appeal lies in the fact that this is a foreign film about a little-known war, then that is all the more reason to seek it out.
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Gripping family tragedy set in the American South
6 July 2008
Shotgun Stories, Jeff Nichol's impressive directorial debut, is an intense portrayal of a host of social ills in the Southern US: poverty, lawlessness, broken homes and guns. Set in a town in Arkansas, the film picks up the story of three brothers, all young men, named Son, Kid and Boy. The father of this unfortunate trio abandoned them when they were at a young age and they grew up in the home of a bitter, vindictive mother. Of the three, Son is the least hopeless case in a truly dysfunctional trio, but his relationship with his girlfriend and pre-teenage son is decidedly rocky due to his gambling addiction. The shared rapport between the brothers is one of the few comforts in a bleak situation and it makes the subsequent tragedies all the more painful to watch.

The tragedy begins to unfold when the three brothers learn of the death of their father. When they turn up to the funeral they confront the four brothers that their father raised after he left his first family behind. The unpleasant encounter at the funeral stokes up the resentments on each side and initiates an escalating blood feud. The reprisals become increasingly violent as new weapons are used to settle the scores: words, fists, knives and, lastly, inexorably, guns. The violent clashes are filmed only fleetingly, rather than in voyeuristic close-up detail, but the tragic consequences are felt with sickening force on both sides of the family. It is telling that the police intervene only once during a fight and do so without leaving their car – vigilantism is left unchecked. A further tragedy in all of this is that the young child fathered by Son is witness to so much of the violence.

The landscape of the American South is beautifully observed in Shotgun Stories; the fecundity of the cotton fields and the warm glow of golden sun on the fields are contrasted with images of sewage flowing into rivers and lily pads decaying in muddy ponds. The bittersweet soundtrack complements the mixed imagery, using a simple palate of acoustic guitar and cello to considerable effect and playing again and again in your ears long after the credits roll. In the final scenes, the desperately sad and tragic events wind up in a curious ending, neither happy nor sad, but about as heartening a cinematic experience as I have had this year.
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The Escapist (2008)
Grim realism and comic-book adventure meet in this superb prison break drama
28 June 2008
Rupert Everett's new film, The Escapist, is a gripping prison break drama. Beginning in explosive fashion with the instigation of the escape attempt, the film switches back and forth between two chronologically distinct narratives: the story of the escape and the story behind the escape. The result is an inspired combination of grim realism and comic-book adventure.

The escape attempt is hatched when Frank (played by Brian Cox), an elderly and world-weary inmate, receives his first letter in fourteen years, informing him that his daughter has become a drug addict and that her health is failing. When Frank decides that he must break out and see her before it is too late, a number of other outsiders fall in with him, each having their own reasons for trying to escape.

The prison is an intimidating place, effectively ruled by inmate Rizza (a menacing turn by Damian Lewis) and his obnoxious brother Tony. Drug dealing is rife and the new inmates are subjected to a trial of humiliation and catcalls. The prison guards are mostly complicit in these activities, offering little protection for outsiders and dissenters. In a brutal demonstration of power, Rizza forces a disobedient junkie to cut off his thumb with a knife as an act of penitence. This is one of several jolts delivered to remind the audience that the prison setting is not just there for their entertainment: it is frighteningly real.

There are a number of fine performances in the lead roles. Ralph Fiennes is excellent in the role of Lenny, a menacing, violent inmate who becomes a brave and resourceful hero during the escape attempt. Tony is a memorably revolting villain, played with aplomb by Steve Mackintosh. But it is Brian Cox who deserves the highest praise. The crucial, wordless scene where he comes face to face with his wife in the visiting room is powerfully understated and typifies his performance.

On the other hand from the grim reality of the prison, the escape attempt is a taut and exciting adventure. The escapists use improvised gadgets to make their way through the subterranean caverns that they hope will lead to the outside world. The scenery, from long underground tunnels, to cavernous sewers to a disused underground station is often spectacular and the camaraderie that develops between the five men is deeply affecting.

The two strands of The Escapist, the story behind the prison break and that of the prison break itself, are expertly juggled throughout. There are plenty of twists and turns throughout, and the film often segues between the two narratives at unexpected junctures. I will not attempt to spoil the final twist, but it is one of those great moments in cinema where all sorts of details in the preceding film fall into place (and continue to fall into place when it is all over).

Apparently the prison scenes in The Escapist were filmed in a prison-turned-museum that was restored to its original appearance for the film shoot. It is a superb location, with enclosed walkways criss-crossing the central space and a dramatic spiral staircase that Everett uses to great effect in several set pieces. What struck my friend who accompanied me to the cinema is that there are no windows for the prisoners to look out of, only a skylight in the distant ceiling. Daylight takes on an almost mystical property as the escaped prison inmates strive to escape the subterranean passages adjoining the jail.

The sound and music in The Escapist are also deserving of high praise. The score by Benjamin Wallfisch includes a thunderous theme tune and creates tension by use of frantic percussion. The sounds of the prison by day and by night are exceptionally well done, helping to create a stifling, claustrophobic world that encroaches on the minds of the viewers. By the end you cannot help rooting for the escapists.
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A tremendous historical epic: pray for a sequel
22 June 2008
Mongol is a film about the trials of Temudjin, the young man who became Genghis Khan, ruler of Mongolia and a great Eurasian empire. Although born heir to the Khanate, Temudjin loses his father at the age of nine and undergoes a terrible ordeal in the next two decades of his life, being hunted, imprisoned and narrowly escaping death on a number of occasions. He remains stoical and resilient through the most terrible of hardships, including being placed in shackles as a young boy whilst execution hangs over his head.

Alongside these trials of misery there develops a moving love story. Just before his father's death, the nine-year-old Temudjin chose Borte, a young girl from a neighbouring tribe, to be his future bride. After repeated escape and re-capture, the grown-up Temudjin comes back to claim his bride. Throughout the continuing hardship that follows, Borte and Temudjin remain steadfast to one another.

When Borte is captured by the Merkits, a hostile tribe of mask-wearing warriors, Temudjin looks for assistance to rescue her from their clutches. This introduces us to his brother Jamukha. Drunken, garrulous and theatrical, Jamukha is a show-stealing presence, and later becomes the almost comic-book villain whom Temudjin must defeat to become Khan of Mongolia.

The dialogue in Mongol is spare and one senses that some subtlety has been lost in translation. Yet it is the landscapes and the incredible action sequences that make this film such a success. The cinematography is simply brilliant, drinking in the breathtaking Mongolian landscape, with its vast green plains, soaring mountain peaks and unending expanses of thick winter snow. Erratic weather causes sudden torrents of rainfall, and when fork lightning and thunderclaps rupture the sky you can understand why the Mongolians worship a God of the sky. The brutal medieval battles are among the many highlights, culminating in the great clash between Temudjin and Jamukha's armies, which hinges on a dramatic intervention.

Sergei Bodrov's film is fascinating for its observation of Mongolian customs and the respect that these were accorded at the time. The offerings exchanged by travellers, the wrestling, the nomadic way of life: all of these feel remarkably authentic. Many Mongolians have criticised the use of non-Mongolian actors to play most of the major parts, claiming that the accents sound ridiculously out of place, but this is not something that will affect Western ears. I am also a big fan of Tuomas Kantelinen's soundtrack, a combination of orchestral score, chanting and some modern (rock and electronic) touches.

Mongol has also been criticised for the overwhelmingly sympathetic portrayal of the man reckoned by many to be one of the great mass-murderers. The film is apparently based on a thirteenth-century Mongolian account of the Khan's early life, which helps to explain director Sergei Bodrov's less-than-impartial treatment of his subject, but I can understand the unapologetic tone of the film, the first in a projected trilogy: this is a film about Temudjin's rise to power, a battle against tremendous odds, which surely deserves some sympathetic treatment. I can only hope that Bodrov is willing to acknowledge the darker chapters of Temudjin's life when shooting the sequels. Hopefully it will not take another four years to ready part two of this brilliant saga.
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Qing hong (2005)
A slow and insightful drama tracing the cycle of dreams and disappointments in Communist China
21 June 2008
Shanghai Dreams is a slow, insightful drama set in the 1980s in Guiyangg, a town in China's Guizhou province. During the Chinese Cultural Revolution, efforts to create a 'third line of defence' against the Soviet Union led to an influx of migrants to inland settlements. Guiyang was one such destination, but the town has since grown dilapidated and its people despondent. The opening scene introduces the central character, Qinghong, engaged in a group session of callisthenics, a façade of harmony that belies her unhappy existence and the fractured, disillusioned society that she inhabits.

Qinghong's domineering father makes her life a misery. Li Bin, young factory worker seeks Qinghong's affections, but is thwarted at every turn by her father, who is mistrustful of this locally-born suitor. The tragic consequences that ensue from the suppression of this relationship are especially troubling in that they appear to vindicate the father's negative view of country folk – that they are not to be trusted. It is unfortunate that the film focuses almost exclusively on the lives of the city folk who have moved to Guiyang and gives short shrift to the country folk living there.

The quiet rebellion of Qinghong and her friend Xiao Zhen is handled more effectively. The duo escapes the clutches of their parents and head to a party with other rebellious teenagers. The party is a slightly surreal affair, combining Westernised clothing (flares and the like), Boney M songs and some memorable disco moves. The conflicts that divide the superficially harmonious town are again apparent when the party is violently interrupted by workers from a neighbouring factory.

As the film progresses it becomes increasingly clear why Qinghong's father is desperate to keep his daughter on a tight leash. His family moved to Guiyang some ten years previously, enthusiastically backing the government's plan to strengthen the interior of China. But the dream of a successful new life in these new surrounds has come to nothing: the town is moribund and there are few opportunities for young people. The Communist Party is present only as a faint babbling on TV and radio. Qinghong's father desperately wants to move back to Shanghai, and therefore also wants to keep his daughter from becoming attached to the country folk who live in Guiyang, including Li Bin. Qinghong's parents sacrificed their happiness to embrace an ultimately hollow dream and are now sacrificing their daughter's happiness to sustain their dream of escaping back to a better life.

The malaise in the town of Guiyang is reinforced by the visual style of director Wang Xiaoshuai. Until the very end of Shanghai Dreams we see little of the countryside; the drama unfolds largely within the confines of the town and the repetition of scenery and camera angles makes for a stifling, claustrophobic atmosphere. Throughout the film, Xiaoshuai deploys unusual camera angles to considerable effect, particularly when filming the distress of the long-delayed encounter between Qinghong and her would-be boyfriend.

The enigmatic ending to Shanghai Dreams will likely cause confusion; I for one cannot fully fathom the meaning of the final scene. However, although this is not an altogether satisfactory note on which to end the film, this is still one of the finest Chinese films that I have seen to date.
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Beaufort (2007)
A thoughtful and compelling war film devoid of gung-ho sentiments
1 June 2008
Beaufort is an extraordinary portrayal of soldiers at war. This claustrophobic film charts the final days of the Israeli Defence Force's 18-year occupation of the Beaufort, a strategic hilltop fortress in southern Lebanon. Nearly all of the action takes place within the confines of this fortress (television is one of few windows onto the outside world). The soldiers in the Beaufort never once see the Hezbollah militants who are trying to kill them, but they face regular bombardments from enemy artillery. Director Joseph Cedar sets a slow and meditative pace and, though the film looks and feels very realistic from a military point of view, with unsettling explosions and startling sound effects, the emphasis is firmly on the human characters and relationships in this increasingly precarious outpost.

At the beginning of the film, the arrival of the bomb disposal expert, Ziv, allows us to enter the world of the soldiers who inhabit the Beaufort. Their boredom and indifference is palpable, from the tired announcements of 'incoming, incoming' as mortar shells rain down, to the wry humour of the soldiers on night watch. There is a sense of disillusionment with the armed forces; of the futility of guarding an outpost won many years ago and now serving little strategic purpose. Ziv, the new arrival, confesses to Liraz, the squad leader, that he sought an assignment at the Beaufort in order to follow in the footsteps of his uncle, who fought during the capture of the fortress some 18 years previously. Through Ziv's fate and Liraz's meeting with Ziv's uncle we see how generations have fought one after the other and sacrificed themselves for hollow glories. The 12th-century Crusader fort that sits adjacent to the soldiers' compound is a telling reminder of the futile perpetuity of the Middle Eastern conflict.

In the early stages of the film we see how close the soldiers are to one another. When one soldier announces that he is leaving, he receives hugs and congratulations from his fellows. However, when the first enemy missile hits the fortress it becomes clear that the enemy's strength is increasing and the film becomes much darker in tone. The soldiers grieve openly for their fallen comrades and those that survive are shaken and sometimes openly afraid. At the same time, they show quiet, grudging bravery in volunteering for the most dangerous jobs. The military response to the mounting casualties is a telling reflection of modern warfare. With enemy propaganda in mind, the IDF decides to minimise casualties by withdrawing from the Beaufort, but keeps the soldiers on tenterhooks by withholding information and delaying their departure.

The ordinary soldiers occupying the fortress look forward to their escape and often talk of re-visiting the site one day as tourists. But Liraz, the squad leader, is a man apart. An intriguing and enigmatic character, he is, in the words of one of his men, 'a man who can't believe they gave him the job.' He is oddly attached to the Beaufort in a way quite unlike his men and he struggles to imagine a life after it – indeed there are few hints of any life for him outside the fortress. He shows remarkable bravery and compassion for his men in the last days of the occupation, but he has his limits and is thus something of an outsider and a disappointment in their eyes. In one of the strongest scenes, Liraz orders Shpitzer, a budding musician, to play a song for the other soldiers; this provides catharsis for them as they grieve a fallen comrade, but Liraz assumes an oddly distant look. Oshri Cohen deserves great credit for his performance as Liraz: it is the foremost amongst many fine performances in this film.

A special mention must also go to Ishai Adar's soundtrack, one of the most effective that I have heard in a long time. The music subtly adds emotional weight to the film and creates tension by building up slowly and dropping away at the right moments.
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Kontroll (2003)
Kontroll brings a twilight world to life in gloriously chaotic fashion
31 May 2008
On the surface, Kontroll is a film about a mysterious hooded murderer haunting the Budapest subway and pushing passengers in front of tube trains. But rather than developing into a horror film along the lines of Creep, a contemporaneous film set in an underground railway network, Kontroll turns out to be something radically different and much more compelling; the film is a winning combination of comedy, murder mystery and psychological drama.

There is no daylight in Kontroll: director Nimrod Antal concentrates on creating a distinct subterranean world below the city streets. This is a world filled with strange sights and fascinating characters. The focus for the film is a team of five ticket collectors who work on the subway trains; the head of the team, Bulcsu, emerges as the central character.

Every day Bulcsu and his team face the ordeal of collecting tickets from passengers who are often contemptuous, aloof, or openly hostile towards them. The montage sequences where the team go about their daily work are fast-paced, frenetic and very funny. A rival team of ticket collectors is a further menace; the rivalry between the two leaders comes to a head in a 'railing' contest, an exhilarating race down a subway tunnel before an oncoming train.

Alongside such bravado are signs of wear and tear. Another hilarious montage sequence throws together a hapless psychiatrist with the bundle of anxieties carried by the subway staff. A member of Bulcsu's team is prone to narcoleptic fits when raging about his working life; another colleague goes further by taking a knife to a disdainful passenger. There are also dark intimations about Bulcsu himself. From a chance encounter we learn that he abandoned another life above ground, and there are indications that he is linked to the murders on the subway.

Nimrod Antal mines some remarkable imagery from the underground setting. The back-alleys of the subway and the ventilation vents are like the side streets of some deserted underground city, whilst the use of lighting effects and camera angles cast the subway platforms in bizarre and alien shapes. It is moving to see some of the main characters bedding down in the perpetual twilight of the subway and it is fascinating to see the diversity of characters passing through its tunnels, including the beautiful girl in the bear suit whom Bulcsu is drawn towards. The soundtrack by the band NEO provides a grimy synthetic backdrop to this man-made world.

I am visiting Budapest next week for a long-overdue holiday, so this is perhaps not the best film to have watched in advance (hooded murderers on the subway will be something to look out for). Nevertheless, I still strongly recommend Kontroll: it's one of the most entertaining foreign-language films that I've seen.
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A compelling social drama depicting the long-term fallout from a divorce.
26 May 2008
Joachim Lafosse's 'Private Property' portrays a family scarred by divorce. The mother, Pascale (Isabelle Huppert), lives with her two sons, Thierry and Francois (real-life brothers Jeremie and Yannick Reniere), in an isolated rural household. Though they are both young men, the brothers come across as puerile layabouts. Thierry is an indolent student and Francois is employed only in odd jobs around the house; much of their time is spent on ping-pong, computer games and playing around on Francois's bike. The two subject their mother to teasing and taunting that is on one level playful and amusing but on another level disrespectful and mean; this is apparent in the very first scene, where Pascale's new lingerie is the impetus for hurtful ridicule.

Pascale is stoical in the face of such barefaced disrespect, but we can clearly see that the mother-son relationship is extremely strained. Although the two brothers depend on Pascale for food and transport in their isolated household, they show her very little respect. At the same time, Pascale is suffocated by the continued dependency of her unappreciative sons; she has had to put her aspirations on hold in order to look after them. The furious encounter between Pascale and Luc, her ex-husband, played out before the two boys, is an early intimation of the divisions in the household; Thierry and Francois are visibly distressed by the argument between their absentee father and their struggling mother.

Pascale's only outlet is her secretive relationship with Jan, her neighbour. When she and Jan hatch a plan to open a Bed and Breakfast, she finally decides to assert herself, putting herself first after 15 years of raising her children on her own. The brothers are dismayed by this plan, which will involve the sale of the house to finance the new business. Thierry stridently denounces her plan as fanciful and angrily proclaims his and Francois's sole right to inherit the house. When Pascale invites Jan over to dinner with the boys he tries to reason with them about their mother's rights to the house, but this only exacerbates the problem. This is one of many scenes set at the dinner table, which becomes less and less a focus for the family and more and more a theatre of conflict. Thierry's taunting soon turns into persistent bullying about the rights to the property and Pascale eventually quits the household and retreats to the home of a friend.

With Isabelle Huppert away from the screen, the film loses some of its magnetism, but the conflict that emerges between the two brothers soon becomes engrossing. Francois increasingly regrets the absence of his mother; his resentment towards Thierry comes to a head when he humiliates him in front of his girlfriend. A violent argument ensues, resulting in a terrible accident. The following scenes are all the more gripping as we see the panic on the faces of the family members but do not know how serious the accident is.

The conclusion of 'Private Property' is one of the most powerful pieces of cinema that I have seen this year. Thierry's belief that his mother has caused all the family's problems, past and present, is brought into the light of day. Pascale and Luc are left to pick up the broken pieces of their family. As the sole piece of music in the entire film begins to play the camera retreats down the road, driving away from the house for the last time. It is a devastating end to a compelling drama.
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This is a wonderful, human film.
25 May 2008
Roy Anderson's film 'You, The Living' comprises a series of fifty-odd sketches, snapshots and vignettes set in a Swedish city. Some characters are on screen for just a few second, whilst others appear in numerous scenes and are sometimes seen loitering in the background while another story unfolds. Many scenes are drawn from the dreams, nightmares and fantasies of the strange but believable characters inhabiting this world. It is a fascinating approach: each of the scenes could be enjoyed in isolation, but together they contain a powerful portrait of what it is to be human.

For the first half hour or so, 'You, The Living' is gloriously funny. Much of the humour centres on the members of a brass band, whose music practice infuriates the neighbours in their apartment block. The comic highlight, however, is provided by a dinner-party track gone horribly awry. After this hilarious introduction, however, the mood of the film darkens considerably. The dinner-party dream turns grim when the hapless protagonist is put on trial for his life, setting a mixed tone of absurdity and despair for the rest of the film.

In the subsequent scenes, the unhappiness of the cast of characters becomes increasingly apparent. Theirs is a world where people are unable to connect with one another, where talk of dreams, nightmares and fantasies is widespread, but where no person can be comforted, even when others reach out to help them. The despondent woman with the 'nobody loves me' refrain and the young girl with unrequited love for the rock guitarist, Micke, are archetypal characters.

The world of 'You, The Living' is also blighted by selfishness. An elderly professor is called away the warmth of a vast banquet to answer a phone call from his impetuous money-grubbing son; a thief steals the wallet of a ruthless executive; an arrogant and impatient businessman insults a Muslim barber and receives his comeuppance. In the film's bleakest moment, a woman in church recounts the long list of human sins as her fellow parishioners shuffle out at closing time.

And yet, for all dark moments in this film, the shared refrain of 'tomorrow is another day' points to the ability of people to go on living in spite of many miseries. The soundtrack provided by Benny Anderson (of ABBA fame) seems inappropriately jovial at first but makes more and more sense as the film realises this human capacity to persevere.

'You, The Living' has an extraordinary visual style. The same washed-out, pale-green colours recur throughout, and there is nary a shadow in sight; this makes the characters appear exceptionally pallid and creates the sensation that human life is being laid bare for examination. Almost every scene is captured in a static camera frame, as if these are photographs being brought to life. The few occasions where the camera does move are all the more extraordinary; the contrast between the life and movement of the great banquet form a startling contrast with the deadness of the cloakroom scene. In the most intense moments of longing and despair, the characters transfix the viewer by directly facing the camera – they know that they are being examined and have a few moments to pour out their hearts to us, the viewers.

This is a wonderful, human film.
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Nebulous plotting, reminiscent of 'Inland Empire.' An acquired taste.
23 May 2008
Youth Without Youth seems to be Francis Ford Coppola's attempt to make a David Lynch film. The end product is in fact remarkably similar to Lynch's most recent film, Inland Empire, also released in 2007.

Tim Roth plays Dominic, an elderly Romanian man who is struck down by lightning outside a train station. As Dominic recovers in hospital, emerging from beneath layers of bandages, it becomes apparent that he is somehow becoming younger – he is re-born as a young man.

As Dominic comes to terms with his new situation, the film also flashes back to his past life. Flashbacks in time reveal two great tragedies in Dominic's past. A brilliant but flawed young man, he spurned and lost his one true love, Laura, and spent the rest of his life trying to finish a solitary book, a study of the origins of language.

Re-born as a young man, Dominic appears to have a chance to set right his miserable past. As well as finding his youth again, he finds that he has acquired magic powers, including the ability to absorb information instantaneously from books. He begins to work feverishly upon the completion of his academic masterwork.

The re-born Dominic then meets Veronica, who is essentially the young Laura re-born in this new world. When Laura suffers an accident, she begins to regress through time, imagining herself as historical figures and speaking in ancient tongues. Through her, Dominic rediscovers his happiness and steps closer towards completing his life's work.

At the same time, the darkness of Dominic's past rises to the surface of the film. His personality splits in two and he converses at length with his sinister double. Laura's health deteriorates drastically as a result of her regression through past history and language. In the emotional climax of the film, Dominic chooses to part ways with Laura, thus sacrificing his life's work whilst saving her life. This act seems to be Dominic's noble re-imagining of his past, where he failed to grasp his chance with Laura and then extinguished the rest of his life in fruitless academic endeavour.

Any meaning extrapolated from this film is inevitably shaky due to the nebulous plot structure. The scattering of the story across time and place and the blurring of real and imagined worlds has earned comparisons with the work of David Lynch, Philip K. Dick and the like, but Youth Without Youth does not compare favourably to their better work. The fragmentation of the plot is such that this film, rather than polarising opinion, will leave many people confused and dissatisfied.

That said this is still much to admire here. Tim Roth, playing Dominic's past and present incarnations, makes a commendable effort to pin together the fragmented story. Alexandra Maria Lara portrays Laura's disintegration in harrowing detail. The exotic locations, from Romania to India to Malta are dazzlingly photographed, and Coppola develops a distinctive visual style through the repeated use of upside-down shots and reflected images in glass and mirrors – this complements the unusual angles and parallels in the storytelling.

This is not a satisfying film to watch; too many loose ends are left untied. If you, however, you like films that pose lots of questions – and better still if you have seen and admired Inland Empire – then Youth Without Youth is worth your perseverance.
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Thomas Reidelsheimer reveals the work of Andy Goldsworthy in this excellent film...
22 May 2008
The Scottish artist Andy Goldsworthy fashions natural materials into ephemeral artworks, assembling rocks into egg-shaped cairns, filling riverside rock-pools with fiery flowers and stitching thorns and twigs into intricate web patterns. An original work and a few photographs of his other creations are tucked away in a corner of Southampton art gallery (near where I live), but although I found these pieces intriguing, I only realised the wonder of Goldsworthy's work when I was lucky enough to catch a re-screening of Rivers and Tides.

Thomas Reidelsheimer's film, accompanied by a beautiful instrumental soundtrack by Fred Frith, brings Goldsworthy and his art to life by showing the artist at work. The opening scene captures him fusing icicle fragments into a snake-like thread set atop a tree-stump. Working with his teeth and bare hands, Goldsworthy crafts a beautiful, ephemeral work. Before long this delicate sculpture melts away to nothing in the brilliant Nova Scotian sunlight. This scene is among the most beautiful in the film, but the breadth and inventiveness of Goldsworthy's work is remarkable. Reidelsheimer shows both the successes and the failures, capturing the frustration of pieces that collapse before they are completed as well as the glory of those that shine, even if for just a few hours, minutes or seconds.

Goldsworthy himself provides the narration, speaking slowly but thoughtfully about the themes in his work. He makes plain his need to work with nature, to be alone in it and to further his understanding of it through trying to work with natural materials, even when they seem to be working against him. At times he is down-to-earth and humorous; at other times he struggles for the words to express his purpose – something which is quite understandable when witnessing his astonishing work first hand. The 'Rivers and Tides' of the title become increasingly pertinent as we see the natural materials pass through the artist's hands, flowing from one form to the next. The capture of the creation and dissolution of Goldworthy's work is in itself a striking piece of art.

Although Goldsworthy works with widely varying materials and covers territory across North America and Europe, the presentation of artworks one after the other in this film is exhausting; it gave me the same feeling of fatigue that I get when I spend too long in an art gallery and struggle to take in anything new. A brief interval in which we are introduced to Andy's family and hometown is all that breaks the long succession of his artworks. Nevertheless, Reidelsheimer does a superb job in photographing Goldsworthy and his creations, locating them in their wider environments, from meandering Canadian rivers to rainy Scottish hillsides. Fittingly, the film ends with Goldsworthy casting handfuls of earth and snow into the sky. Fleeting patterns emerge from the dust particles even as they dissipate into the air; this is the purest expression of the beauty to be found in the work of this remarkable artist.
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Ren xiao yao (2002)
Malaise and despair amidst the changes of China.
16 May 2008
Unknown Pleasures portrays Bin Bin and Xiao Ji, two young Chinese men living in the city of Datong, several hundred miles west of Beijing. Theirs is a city in transition; crowded streets and apartment blocks back onto building sites, weird landscapes of debris and raw materials. The growing commercialisation of Chinese society is readily apparent; in an early scene the duo attend a lurid road show promotion for alcoholic drinks. The television news that punctuates the film shows the changes and conflicts in China and the effect these are having across the world, from the controversial US spy plane crash to the award of the Olympic games for 2008.

The two young protagonists are outsiders in their changing city. Bin Bin, newly unemployed, lives with his mother. Unwilling – then unable – to find new employment, he becomes increasingly despondent. His relationship with his girlfriend, Yuan Yuan, is lived out in front of a television screen: they rarely make eye contact. The cultural void in his life feels remarkably Western. Xiao Ji works for his father's garage business. Whilst Bin Bin becomes increasingly downcast, Xiao Ji dreamily pursues Xiao Wu, a dancer with the aforementioned road show, risking the anger of her volatile boyfriend.

The overlapping stories of the two friends develop a common theme of loneliness and yearning on the fringes of a rapidly changing society. The sense of despair and malaise in their lives is powerfully conveyed, but the increasing aimlessness of their activities makes for slow and often difficult viewing. The final third of the film is particularly slow, with many drawn-out scenes. Despite this slackening of the pace, an unexpected twist at the end rams home the film's message that, along with the new freedoms in China, there is disenchantment with the new shape of society.
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Xiao Wu (1997)
A film that explores the back streets of Beijing from the bottom rung of criminality
12 May 2008
Xiao Wu is a pickpocket in Beijing. Stuck on the bottom rung of the criminal ladder despite his advance into adult years, he heads a small group of thieving street urchins who haunt the back streets of the city. Xiao Wu is a surly character, prone to throwing away his cigarette ends when in other people's homes. His time is whiled away with games of Mahjong and American pool played out in the street and he has few close friends.

Xiao Wu's brother, Xiao Yong, once himself a petty thief, is now a cigarette trader and brothel-owner. Xiao Yong, shamed by his criminal roots and his brother's failure to move on from the same position, excludes Xiao Wu from his wedding invitations and refuses to accept his wedding gift of ill-gotten money. Later on, Xiao Wu also discovers the shame that his hardworking parents feel for their pickpocket son.

A sense develops that the world is moving on and that Xiao Wu is being left behind; this is increased by the ongoing police-led evictions from the street where he spends much of his time – a new building project is on its way. Xiao Wu finds a glimmer of hope in his encounters with Mei Mei, an employee at the local brothel. The taciturn pickpocket opens up a little in her presence and the two of them bond, somewhat oddly from a Western perspective, through karaoke singing. Xiao Wu suddenly finds his singing voice when alone in a bathhouse; his plain voice resounds poignantly in the large, grimy, empty room. It is a rare moment of beauty.

When Xiao Wu buys a pager (state of the art in 1997) to keep in touch with Mei Mei it seems that he is starting to open up just a little to the changing world. But Mei Mei's sudden disappearance, along with his alienation from his family, leaves Xiao Wu without direction. A grim lack of purpose takes hold again. In the final frames of the film he is publicly humiliated, bringing the story to a sad end.

The footage in this film is much grainier than many people made be used to, but this is not necessarily a weakness: the image quality suits the grey, dilapidated city streets. The hand-held camera adds intimacy to the karaoke scenes and captures the distance between the two brothers as they walk separately through the same streets. The muffled state of the soundtrack takes some getting used to, but writer-director Zhang Ke Jia was clearly working on a limited budget for his first feature. The non-professional cast, however, is surprisingly effective; Hong Wei Wang is a real find, exuding a seedy charm in the lead role.

The Artificial Eye DVD which I watched this film on did not provide subtitles for many of the voices on radio and television, nor for some of the secondary characters, but there is an enormous amount of visual detail to take in as well. China simply does not feature enough on cinema screens, but this fine film suggests hope for the future.
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History brought to life
10 May 2008
The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962) chronicles the last days of the fifteenth-century French patriot, from her interrogation by members of the Parisian clergy to her execution by burning at the stake. In the entire film there are only three locations: the courthouse, the jail and the place of Joan's execution. The words of Joan and her prosecutors, lifted almost exclusively from transcripts of the trial, take centre stage.

The clergymen probe relentlessly into Joan's religious beliefs. Twisting her words at every turn, they insinuate that she is a pagan and a heretic. Joan, parrying each thrust of their argument, appeals to a higher religious authority to prove her innocence. The clergymen, however, are mere stooges of the British, and resolve to brand her a heretic. Facing death, Joan initially recants her heresy, but then reaffirms it, thus sealing her fate. Her meagre possessions are placed at the foot of the stake, echoing the way in which her testimonies have been used against her. A clergyman holds aloft a crucifix for her but this image of Christianity is lost in the smoke from her burning pyre.

The Trial of Joan of Arc features an impressive cast of non-professional actors. Florence Delay is superb in the role of Joan, radiating defiance behind her impassive countenance. A few of the performances elsewhere are a bit wooden, but the grave manner of Bishop Cauchon and the benign gaze of the sole sympathetic priest testify to the overall strength of the casting.

Running to little more than an hour in length, The Trial of Joan of Arc might seem on paper to be an insubstantial work. Yet this is an extraordinarily intense film, thick with powerful dialogue and requiring the full concentration of the viewer. For someone not fluent in French, it is a challenge to read the subtitles and follow the images on screen, but, whether you are French-speaking or not, I highly recommend this powerful piece of cinema.
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Iron Man (2008)
Entertaining, but it could have been so much more.
8 May 2008
Robert Downey Jr. has deservedly been hailed as the star feature of Iron Man: he brings wit and warmth to the playboy entrepreneur-turned-superhero formula at the heart of this film, which would likely seem tired and clichéd without such a charismatic presence. Downey Jr. plays weapons manufacturer Tony Stark, owner of a vast fortune and an ego to match. After being captured in Afghanistan by a group of terrorists, Stark gets his first inkling of the misuse of the modern weaponry that he has helped to produce. To escape his captors and avenge the wrongdoing that he was witnessed first hand he draws upon his technical prowess and becomes a force for good: Iron Man.

The opening scene, in which the Afghan terrorists suddenly seize Stark, is brutal and gripping. The subsequent flashbacks to Stark's nauseatingly opulent lifestyle in America form a startling contrast to the misery and fear of his imprisonment in an Afghan cave fort. The bold decision to set much of the action in the modern-day battleground of Afghanistan shows that director Jon Favreau is willing to engage directly with serious issues arising from modern warfare. It is disappointing that, from this early promise, Iron Man develops as a hit and miss action film that is unable to offer much in the way of meaningful commentary.

Stark first appears as Iron Man when he escapes from his imprisonment in the cave and massacres his captors. This is a rudimentary action scene with few surprises. Other action scenes, including the final showdown with an evil Iron Man, have the same dull inevitability about them. It is only in the sequence involving Iron Man and the two jet fighter planes that the CGI and choreography combine to dazzling effect. The humour in this film is similarly patchy. The scene in which Stark's secretary (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) operates on his machine-aided heart is painfully funny. Like most of the humour, this scene owes much of its success to Downey Jr.'s personal charm. Elsewhere, the use of slapstick is far too predictable.

Where Iron Man really falls down, however, is in the decision to dabble with serious issues such as terrorism and the arms trade whilst failing to offer any real insights. The Afghan enemies develop into hackneyed villains along the lines of the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Jeff Bridges gives a darkly menacing performance as Obadiah Stane, Stark's crooked business partner, but is forced to chew his way through some clumsy lines, especially during their final confrontation. Iron Man, a film with some very strong elements, falls short in the effort to mix action, comedy and current affairs. This is an entertaining film but could have been so much more.
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The Orphanage (2007)
Frighteningly tense and devastatingly sad: this is much more than a horror film
6 May 2008
Director Juan Antonio Bayona's debut feature, the Orphanage, is a classic ghost story, frighteningly tense and hauntingly beautiful. Laura (Belen Rueda), a former inhabitant of the eponymous seaside orphanage, returns as an adult to her childhood home. Accompanied by her husband, Carlos (Fernando Cayo), and her young son, Simon (Roger Princep), she intends to re-open the old building as a care home for sick children. Soon, however, it appears that the former residents of the orphanage are haunting the building and the surrounding coastline. Simon claims to have made six new friends: the former residents of the orphanage. Then, suddenly, he vanishes without a trace.

In her desperation, Laura tries to unearth the murky history of the orphanage. She is drawn increasingly into the world of make-believe inhabited by her vanished son. The strands of the natural and the supernatural are expertly woven together in this film. As with Pan's Labyrinth (directed by Guillermo del Toro, the producer of the Orphanage), it is difficult to tell what is real and what exists only in the mind of the protagonist. Here, however, the mystery is greater still, as it is not only the child but also the adult who delves into the supernatural world.

Laura's belief in the supernatural nature of her son's disappearance is offset by the scepticism of her husband. This is most evident when she resorts to the aid of a spirit medium to try and her find her son. In an electrifyingly tense scene, the spirit medium, played by Geraldine Chaplin, attempts to contact the spirits within the orphanage; this is one of the highlights of the film.

Although billed as a horror film, The Orphanage contains only one truly grisly scene; it is the mystery and suspense which make this film such a frightening experience. The refusal to resort to cheap shock tactics and gore allows the human tragedy to come to the fore. Laura and Carlos's suffering is deeply moving and the final scenes are devastatingly sad.

The use of sound in The Orphanage is superb: the cooing of pigeons and the lapping of the sea are in stark contrast to the malevolent creaking of the old house and the disturbing echo of disembodied voices. Much of the soundtrack is suitably brooding, but the occasional surge encroaches on moments of human drama. The cinematography, on the other hand, is consistently excellent, capturing both the beauty of the shoreline setting, with its lighthouse and cliffs, and the imposing presence of the orphanage, looming into the sky.

The Orphanage is in many ways very close to The Others and Pan's Labyrinth, which are both excellent films. Despite the familiar elements, this is a distinctive work, and so far one of the finest films of 2008.
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