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Too much talk, not enough action, leads to unsatisfying documentary
1 March 2009
It's late and I'm tired, so I'm going to cheat and quote from the 2009 BigPond Adelaide Film Festival program notes for this one.

"If you know bikes, you need no explanation of Paris-Roubaix, the greatest and the toughest one-day classic in world cycling. The famed 260 kilometer race over a brutally difficult cobblestone surface … is a race known as the Hell of the North which requires, as one competitor puts it, "an immense appetite for the physical toll the race can take." And there is this: "Here's your testosterone hit for the festival: the poor hopeful fools in the breakaway, the implacable peloton, the dreams and bikes broken on the cobblestones, the vanquished riders coated in blood, dust and sweat."

Unfortunately, the program promised much – but Road to Roubaix delivered little.

OK, maybe I am being too harsh, but this is definitely one for the aficionado's. At 75 minutes, this documentary spent far too much time talking to the riders, officials, and other key players in international cycle racing, and far too little time on the real action taking place on the cobbled Paris to Roubaix route.

Maybe the co-directors, Dave Cooper and David Deal didn't have permission to get close enough to the action to film the actual event, and had to make do with a mix of television footage, historical photographs, and other vision to fill out their story.

Not that the story isn't compelling.

Stars of the past and present, including Lance Armstrong, Sean Kelly, George Hincapie, and Tom Boonen, all give insights into the grueling ordeal. One star who was not interviewed, was Adelaide rider Stuart O'Grady, who threw everything at the 2007 Roubaix – the background to this film – and went on to win it.
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Che: Part One (2008)
Honest biopic of revolutionary Ernesto 'Che' Guevara
1 March 2009
What on earth was director Steven Soderbergh thinking when he decided to tackle the story of Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, the Argentinian born doctor and revolutionary who joined Fidel Castro's campaign to take Cuba back from the American backed dictator, Fulgencio Batista? What motivated the director of Oceans Eleven,Twelve and Thirteen… to make this amazing 4½ hour biopic. Why Che Guevara, and why now? How did he even manage to get the funding for a film about a communist revolutionary in the first place? What was the pitch? Not that there is anything wrong with the film. Far from it. Soderberg tells Guevara's story with loving attention to detail, and without resorting to sentimentality or melodrama.

This is not the first time Che's story has been turned into a movie. The 2004 film, The Motorcycle Diaries, examines the formation of Guevara's early politicization, and … But Soderberg's film (with Benicio Del Toro in the lead role as Che Guevara), is the first to try and tell the whole story of Guevara's involvement in the Cuban revolution, and his subsequent attempt to spread the revolution to Boliva, where he was eventually caught and killed in October 1967.

Part 1, deals with the fight against Batista. The long hard slog of waging a guerrilla campaign is covered in great detail as a boatload of 82 revolutionaries head for Cuba during November 1956, and the struggle to win Cuba back for the Cuban people begins.

The first film draws extensively on the Guevara's own writings, especially his memoir "Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War". The months and years of protracted guerrilla warfare are inter-cut with beautifully recreated scenes showing Che addressing the United Nations in 1964, and conducting numerous interviews with a range of media outlets.

Soderberg uses these scenes to explain some of the history and 'back story' to the Cuban revolution, and to give the audience some insight into Che Guevara – the man and revolutionary. Part 1 of Che ends in 1959 as Batista flies into exile in the United States, and the revolutionaries under the leadership of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara are about to enter Havana.

Drawing on Guevara's 'Bolivian Diary', Part 2 of Che takes up the story as Che, going under the pseudonym of 'Ramon', lands in Boliva in 1965, and begins trying to recruit local guerrilla's with the intention of overthrowing the ruling government.

Here, his campaign to recruit local peasant farmers fails, and before he and his small band of revolutionaries are able to launch any sort of major anti government attack, they are hunted down and killed with the help of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Che Guevara was wounded and captured on or about October 9, 1967. It is a matter of record that he was alive at the time of his capture, and that he was subsequently shot and killed to ensure he would no longer be able to foment revolution either in Boliva or elsewhere in Latin America. How ironic then that his execution has sparked a 'cult of the revolutionary' that has not diminished over the intervening 40 plus years since his death.

Of course, apart from the Oceans… series of films, Soderberg has shown he is socially aware by also directing Erin Brockovich, Traffic (again with Del Toro), and The Good German, so maybe we shouldn't be surprised that he decided to tackle the story of Ernesto 'Che' Guevara.

Don't be fooled by the inclusion of other A-list cast members (Julia Ormond, Matt Damon, Franka Potente, and Lou Diamond Phillips) in Che. All of these actors have minor roles, and small support parts. In fact Matt Damon is on screen for less than two minutes! I can only assume that Soderberg needed some additional well known actors to help secure finance and distribution for the film.

However, this is without a doubt Benicio Del Toros' film. His performance is a revelation. He inhabits the role of Guevara so well, that there are times when I wasn't sure if the historical footage – recreated in black and white – didn't have the real Che Guevara in them.

According to the program notes, Soderberg is working an a middle part to Che's story. This film will apparently cover Guevara's experiences in Africa. If this is the case, then this trilogy will indeed constitute Steven Soderberg's masterpiece. I can think of no other biopic to rival it, and the finished series should help to keep the legend of 'Che' Guevara alive for at least another 40 years.
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Three Monkeys (2008)
Dark, stylish, noir thriller is definitely no turkey!
1 March 2009
I can't remember if I've ever seen a Turkish film before, which is a pity, because if Three Monkeys is anything to go by, I have missed some terrific movies.

This is a dark, stylish, noir thriller which sees a man agreeing to take the rap for his political master who is involved in a car accident. In return for doing time for a crime he did not commit, his boss will continue to pay his salary to his family, and also settle the 'debt' with a lump sum payment when the man is eventually released. While he is in prison, his wife is left to hold the family together and she and her son quickly get caught up in a web of passion and betrayal.

Director, Nuri Bilge Ceylan carried off the Best Director Award at Cannes for this, his fifth feature, and it's not hard to see why.

Three Monkeys is is a dark, brooding film, where every shot has been thought through and framed with meticulous detail. Long, intense close ups of the principal characters produces sustained psychological tension as unspoken words seem to fly through the air like knives.

The principal cast of Three Monkeys; Yavuz Bingöl, Hatice Aslan, Ahmat Rifal Sungar, and Ercan Kesal, are universally good, but top credits should go to Hatice Aslan, the femme fatale of the piece, who has the ability to convey many layers of meaning by saying little and feeling much.

Highly recommended.
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Thrilla in Manila (2008 TV Movie)
Muhammad Ali meets Joe Frazier at the 'Thriller in Manila'
1 March 2009
What's the greatest boxing film ever made? Rocky? Raging Bull? Million Dollar Baby? Up until now, I would have said When We Were Kings was the contender for best boxing film ever made, but having seen Thriller in Manila I'm not so sure.

When We Were Kings tells the story behind the George Foreman/Muhammad Ali title fight (billed as the Rumble in The Jungle), which took place in Zaire in 1974. Thriller in Manila (as that fight was hyped), recounts the story leading up to the world heavyweight championship fight between Muhammad Ali and 'Smokin' Joe Frazier. Both films use extensive footage of each title fight to drive home the power of their stories.

And what a fight the contest in Manila was. Fourteen brutal rounds beginning at 10am on a hot, humid Manila morning, just so the folks back home in America could watch it live in the comfort of their lounge rooms.

By 1975 when the fight took place, both men were at their peak as boxers. They had met on two previous occasions, each coming away with one win. Now they were going head to head, for the third and final time. What unfolded in the searing heat of Manila is now considered one of the greatest boxing matches of all time.

This documentary tells its story through the battered eyes of Joe Frazier. It makes extensive use of archival footage, and numerous interviews with many of the surviving key personnel involved in both Ali and Frazier's support teams, including Ali's ringside doctor, and one of Frazier's corner-men.

It shows Ali at his best and his worst, as he stalks Joe Frazier with racial taunts of 'Uncle Tom', as "ignorant", and through constant references to Frazier as a "gorilla". For Ali, this was all part of the 'mental game of boxing', and he was a master of it. He knew how to psyche an opponent out, and he was using every weapon in his arsenal to try and put Frazier off his game. But Frazier was having none of it.

Finally, when all the bluff and swagger, the arrogance and taunts, the hokey poems, and the hours of training are over, all you are left with is the ultimate physical contest between two men inside a boxing ring.

It was probably the first time that Ali had stood head to head with an opponent and slugged it out. No fancy dancing, no jokes or smart quips to the crowd – and no mercy or surrender. By the fourteenth round, both men were physically and mentally exhausted. Joe Frazier could barely see through his puffed and swollen eyes, and Ali's body had taken such pounding to his kidneys, heart and liver that it was beginning to shut down (Frazier states in the documentary, that his constant pounding around the area of these vital organs was a deliberate attempt on his part to inhibit Ali's ability to fight).

In the end, the fight finished not with a bang, but a whimper. Although Joe Fazier wanted to go out for the fifteenth and final round, his trainers would not let him. You can see him in the television footage refusing time and again, to throw in the towel, but his trainer, who had the final call, made the decision that gave the fight to Ali.

In Ali's corner, a separate drama was taking place. Ali had gone back to his seat and demanded that his gloves be 'cut off', a clear sign that he had had enough. Ali was prepared to give the fight to Frazier, but his trainers refused.

One can only speculate now whether Ali would have refused to fight the last round with Frazier. History on the other records that Muhammad Ali won the 'Thriller in Manila'.

One of the most poignant aspects of the film is watching Joe Frazier's face as he in turn watches a film of the boxing match. You see him re-fighting every round with Ali, adding little comments here and there; taking the blows one more time.

While Muhammad Ali went on to make millions by selling his image to a host of advertisers, and through numerous lucrative product endorsements, Joe Frazier still lives humbly above the gym that bears his name in a poverty ridden suburb of Philadelphia.

At 63 years of age (when he was interviewed for this documentary), Joe Frazier does not make a good poster boy for the sport of boxing – and Muhammad Ali even less so. Both have been ravaged, physically and mentally by the constant pounding of sledgehammer-like blows to their heads, and yet I suspect that if either men were asked today, neither of them would probably have any regrets.

This film makes the perfect companion piece to When We Were Kings, which tells the story of arguably the greatest boxer in the history of the sport. Thriller in Manila, on the other hand, looks at this myth through the eyes of one of Ali's greatest opponents, and casts an altogether different light on the man and the myth.

My only reservation about the film is that it is told almost entirely from Joe Frazier's point of view. Of course, Ali himself, is no longer in any position mentally to present his side of the story. In many respects, his own words and actions speak for themselves, and viewers will have to be satisfied with these.

Over the intervening years since that great contest, Ali to his credit, has apologised on several occasions for his racial jibes against Joe Frazier, acknowledging that he had gone too far. Frazier for his part, seems to still harbour resentment for the way he was treated by Ali, and feels that Ali is now paying the price for his arrogance.
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Los herederos (2008)
Mexico - the way tourists and visitors never see it
1 March 2009
Mexico has been on my wish list of go to places for some time, especially since I keep hearing so many good things about that country: its history and culture; its art, music and dance; and the remnants of ancient civilisations. On my next visit to North America I plan to travel through the southern states of the US, and since I will be in the area, I hope to include Mexico on my itinerary.

It's safe to say, the Mexico most tourists and visitors experience is not the one depicted in Los Herederos (The Inheritors), a new documentary by Eugenio Polgovsky which screened yesterday as part of the 2009 BigPond Adelaide Film Festival. Ten years in the planning, Los Herederos follows children as they work alongside their parents and other adults in tasks as diverse as farming, brick making, weaving, the harvest of tomatoes, chili and maize, and numerous other labour intensive activities.

You will see no sun drenched beaches here; no Mariachi bands, and no luxurious hotels. Just everyday depictions of the hard daily grind of rural Mexican life.

Where the smiles are few and far between; where farming is often still done the old way – behind a wooden plough pulled behind a couple of oxen; where if you don't work you don't eat, and if you don't eat you die; where this simple imperative forces even the most elderly and infirm to contribute something, no matter how little; where if you are 'lucky', you get to spend the day tending goats, instead of planting corn; where the 'lucky' girls get to spend their days weaving at the loom, instead of picking tomatoes or beans all day in open fields; where labour is always hard, back breaking and by hand; where any education or schooling is of the 'hard knocks' variety; and where finally, the concept of 'doing your chores' is meaningless, because in this world, you are born to work and contribute to the family table whether you want to or not.

How apt then, that in one scene we see a damaged alarm clock on which the thin hand ticking away the seconds is actually turning backwards! "Rage and awe fuel my desire to pay homage to their abilities and their courage," says writer, director, and producer, Eugenio Polgovsky.

There are few scenes of fun or rest and relaxation in this powerful documentary. Indeed, it was only the young boys herding goats who found the time to pause and look at a rainbows, or play by rolling down hills. Neither does the film show any sign of a formal education being directed towards the children in these communities.

There is very little dialogue in this film. It seemed to me that everyone was working so hard at their various tasks, they didn't have the energy to waste on idle conversation. Neither is there any explanation in the form of a voice over or on screen text, to try and place the images we are viewing in some type of context. Polgovsky is content to let the images speak for themselves, and quite rightly so.

The scenes of children, some as young as five or six toiling for hours alongside their parents, picking beans, tomatoes and chillies, says more than mere words can ever hope to convey.

This is an eloquent portrait of the lives and daily struggle for survival of rural communities in todays Mexico. While the children may have inherited tools and techniques from their ancestors, they have also inherited their day to day hardship. Generations pass, but child workers remain captive in a seemingly endless cycle of inherited poverty.
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Vacation (2008)
Japanese prison drama that leaves you with much to contemplate
1 March 2009
Another day, another Australian Premier screening at the 2009 BigPond Adelaide Film Festival, this time the film, Vacation, the latest work from Japanese director, Hajime Kadoi.

If you had to describe the way the Japanese live based on what is depicted in their films, one word would have to sum it up. Spartan.

Vacation is more spartan than most Japanese films. Much of the drama unfolds inside the confines of the tiny cell of a prison inmate. In deed, Kaneda, the prisoner, is on death row for a crime that is never mentioned or explained. We learn nothing about what the man is thinking beyond the fact that he spends every day drawing landscapes in a large sketch book.

As the drama unfolds, we are introduced to Hirai, a prison guard who is marrying a beautiful young woman with a six year old son. His only means of getting time off for a honeymoon is to act as a "supporter" at Kaneda's execution. Again, we learn little about the woman and her child apart from the fact that her husband has apparently died.

Or has he? Why does the little boy spend almost all of his time drawing in a large sketch book? And why does the Hirai, the guard say "Sorry" to the boy following the execution of Kaneda, the prisoner? Could it possibly be because the woman was Kaneda's wife, and the boy his son? We can only guess at the answers. This is a darkly sombre film – understandable given the subject matter – filled with long silences, and beautifully framed shots.

According to the program notes, Vacation was a "break-out success" when it was released in Japan in 2008. This is director Kadoi's second feature film and it bodes well for the future of his career in particular, and for Japanese film in general.
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A horrifying tale of murder and cannibalism in Van Diemen's Land
1 March 2009
Warning: Spoilers
Jonathan auf der Heide may not be the easiest name to remember, but make a mental note of it. File it away for future reference, because this young Tasmanian director has chosen for his first feature film a story so dark and grim, a tale so horrific, that you will want to keep a 'watching brief' on his career to see what he follows Van Diemen's Land up with.

The film first saw light in an early short as Jonathan's Victorian College of the Arts graduation film called, Hell's Gates, which went on to be named Best Student Film at the Melbourne International Film Festival in 2008.

Van Diemen's Land, as every adult Australian would know, is the first name given to Tasmania by British authorities during the early years of white settlement. A dreaded penal colony, with a fearsome reputation, Van Diemen's Land saw more than its share of horror and barbarism meted out to the convicts unlucky enough to end up there.

This film, set in 1882, tells the 'true' story of eight convicts who escape from a working party and head out across the Tasmanian wilderness in search of Macquarie Harbour (the Hell's Gates in the title of the original short), where they believe a ship will be waiting to carry them away from the island.

One of the escapees is Alexander Pearce, a Gaelic speaking Irishman. Pearce, was in fact, the only convict to survive the harrowing trek across Tasmania's wild mountainous peaks and valleys, and following his recapture, told a horrifying tale of murder and cannibalism that still echoes and shocks more than a hundred years after the original events took place.

Filmed entirely on location in Tasmania and Victoria's Otway Ranges, the film has a dark foreboding quality about it that doesn't let up across its entire 100 minute length. Almost all of the colour has been leached out of the film leaving almost nothing else but drab olive greens and grays. We never get a glimpse of clear blue, open sky. The air is constantly heavy with rain and damp, and one can only imagine what these convicts from England, Scotland and Ireland must have thought as they set out on foot to cross one of the harshest and most forbidding environments on earth.

The film is hauntingly narrated by Pearce, who peppers his comments with poetical insights into the human psyche that are often as shocking as they are profound.

"I've looked up at God looking down", intones Pearce in his native Gaelic, "He dances with an axe in his hand." Or this: "Let God have his Heaven. I am blood." Van Diemen's Land is a stunning debut feature from one of Australia's newest and youngest directors. If this film is any indication of the quality of writing and directing coming out of our film schools today, it augers very well for the future of the Australian film industry as a whole.
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