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A Conventional Though Compelling Discourse On A Long-Practiced Form Of Abuse
In veteran African film-maker Ousmane Sembene's final feature, the viewer is transported to a remote village in Burkina Faso, where one woman has dared to stand against the long-held local tradition of 'purification', the euphemistic term for circumcision in prepubescent girls. Giving sanctuary to a group of children due to undergo the often fatal rite of passage, and with seemingly the entire village against her, the woman's only recourse is to enact the moolaadé, or 'magical protection', which none dare oppose. Then her troubles really begin. While the film's anti-circumcision stance will certainly be preaching mainly to the choir and its construction fairly conventional both in terms of storytelling and production, 'Moolaadé's subject matter cannot fail to strike a chord in the viewer, dramatically bringing to life a custom that still affects the lives of many today.
Burkina Faso is not the only country where the practice continues (nor is it a practice exclusive to some Western African nations), however a 2006 study by the World Health Organization found that approximately 72.5% of Burkinabé girls and women were circumcised, making the Senegalese director's choice of location a highly valid one. In the film, the 'purification', carried out by an elite group of women in the tribe – importantly underscoring that proponents of the tradition are not wholly defined by gender – is seen to be highly traumatic and physically damaging to the victim, and frequently fatal.
The term 'purification' speaks volumes of the perception of females and sexuality held by those in favour of the custom. Other arguments supporting the practice as expressed in 'Moolaadé' speak of a long-held tradition traveling so far back into the mists of time that no-one seems able to explain the actual reason for it, and finally, that it is a requirement of Islam. Certainly there will be many Muslims who will take issue with this, and Sembene makes a point of showing Burkina Faso's complex cultural potpourri. On top of its indigenous animist roots, the society also shows traces of its French colonial past, as well as being a melting pot of many religions, the lines between which are heavily blurred. Add to this the increasing influence of modern technology and it is not hard to comprehend how beliefs have played a steady game of Chinese Whispers.
Indeed technology is seen as the greatest threat of all to the preservation of the strongly patriarchal society, with the village serving as a microcosmic stand-in for many cultures the world over. With the dreaded radio spewing forth subversive ideas from distant (and not-so-distant) lands, the local women find themselves increasingly able to articulate a 'worrying' desire for independence and opposition to values never-before challenged. A perhaps inevitable scene reminiscent of 'Fahrenheit 451' comes in answer to this rebellion, though in a wonderful display of irony, the most celebrated man in the village is the only one to have swapped the illiberal world of the tribe for the free market corridors of corporate France. Those responsible for challenging the status quo fight their corner in the flickering shadows of burning torches, mob rule and genuine fear. Not all, however, are so easily cowed into submission.
'Mooladé' has an excellent and believable cast to bring this turbulent society to life, from star Fatimouta Coulibaly as the brave Collé Ardo, to Ousmane Konaté, playing her husband's unpleasant and hardline brother, Amath. Joseph Traoré, as the victorious homecoming son Doucouré, skillfully depicts the mild-mannered success story increasingly caught between the values of two very different worlds, and special mention goes to Lala Drabo, who, though only in a supporting role, conveys the raw anguish of loss caused by the purification.
For all this 'Mooladé' is constructed in a fairly simple and conventional way. The narrative is robbed of complexity by the strong stance against female circumcision by its writer, as opposed to simply telling the story and letting the viewers decide. Instead, the protagonists and the villains are clearly drawn, and, sympathetic to the cause, the viewer takes no journey through the story – they have already arrived from the outset. How the film is perceived in nations where female circumcision is common would presumably be an entirely different matter, and it would be interesting to find out if it has altered any viewpoints.
The foreign viewer will also pay more attention to the cultural depictions of the colorful appearance of Burkinabé culture, of its tribal nature, its sounds, and the different behaviour of its people. It is as much a window into another world as it is a commentary on the struggle against a dangerous custom. This though is brought to the film by its overseas audience: its director does not go out of his way to highlight the culture as a spectacle in its own right. It perhaps does not matter therefore that on the production side, 'Moolaadé' is not an adventurous foray into film-making. While I would have preferred a less-biased and therefore more confident approach, it is not as if I didn't go into the film with a firm view on the subject of female circumcision myself. Taking a stand on the issue is ultimately, what 'Mooladé' is all about.
For this reason above all, I highly recommend the film, and of course, foreign viewers like myself will also discover one of the multi-layered cultures of Western Africa within of which it is such an ingrained part. Although not a cinematic masterpiece, 'Mooladé' is a very moving and very human drama that I hope will continue to get its point across in places where that message needs to be heard most.
Iztochni piesi (2009)
A Strong and Powerful Story Somewhat Marred by the Delivery
The long, twilight struggle of existence in a violent, directionless world is the premise of 'Eastern Plays', a Bulgarian film that comments as much about that country's society as it does about society in general. The story is told from the perspective of two brothers, Christo and Georgi, one in his thirties and recovering from drug addiction, the other young and impressionable, yet both staring into the abyss with only impenetrable darkness staring back. By turns, they fight and fall into meltdown as the chaotic world around them offers little meaning to guide them toward happiness and purpose. The premise of Kalev's tale is certainly sound, however in practice, I found the delivery fairly disjointed and listless. It is peppered with touching and thought-provoking studies of human frailty, but ultimately does not really pull together as an entertaining whole.
One of the principal difficulties I had with 'Eastern Plays' is its lethargic beginning, and a fairly rudderless one as well. A raft of characters is introduced; all pursuing their own paths to destruction, but there is no real clue as to either whom the story will principally focus upon, or what that story really is. Possibilities include a young man's descent into gang violence, nationalism and politically-supported anti-immigration riots, family breakdown, and the generation gap. Then there is Christo, an unpleasant, self-loathing, chain-smoking artist, staring oblivion in the eye and desperate to pull himself away from it yet lost as to how. Ultimately, it becomes clear that 'Eastern Plays' is his story, and as he battles his inner demons, the many layers of his character come to the fore and a more sensitive, highly-pensive character is revealed.
One could certainly argue that there is no reason why a film couldn't contain all the above elements with multiple character arcs lightly intertwined with each other and the sum of the parts being a comment on some aspect of the human condition. The Bolivian film 'Sexual Dependency', to name but one, manages this sort of approach fairly well. However, whereas 'Sexual Dependency' triumphs because all the parts slot into place within the greater commentary, 'Eastern Plays', attempting to do the same, fails because the result is hazy and the various sequences somehow more drawn out and dull in the process. In hindsight, it seems far clearer that Kalev's approach to the first half of the film was to fill the canvas with the wider problems of society so that the viewer will see Christo's pain as a microcosm of that shared by the nation as a whole. Seemingly germane, there is however too much of this, thereby causing narrative incoherence: is the film about him or is it about Bulgaria? It is in the second half, when Christo's story becomes the dominant narrative, that things begin to pick up. Love interests and family become soundboards for attempts to make sense of everything, and these prove to be the more interesting sections of the film. It is the character interactions themselves rather than merely the occasional philosophical debate that shows humanity finding understanding and balance that are especially touching, although those brief philosophical debates do sum up the themes quite nicely.
There is much to recommend on the acting front. Ovanes Torosian as gang member-wannabe Georgi does a very good job of portraying the confused adolescent whose inner turmoil is more evident in his eyes and quietude than his dialogue. Highly memorable also is the lovely Saadet Aksoy, a young and intelligent woman able to bridge the gaps between worlds despite fear and who is able to put voice to the social discord. The scenes between her and Christov are among the most engaging of all in Eastern Plays, save for some other touching moments where Christo puts voice to his fear and aspirations, and a scene near the end where he encounters an old man filled with the tranquility of understanding that Christo so desperately yearns for. The late Christo Christov is eminently believable as his namesake: bored of social expectation, longing for something more, and frustrated when it fails to materialize. It's a great shame that 'Eastern Plays' is both Christov's debut and finale to the acting world, and an even greater shame that the film's narrative disarray can't fully match up to his performance.
The character of Bulgaria itself, as depicted, is cold, lifeless and bleak. It is violently insecure as it struggles to define its own national identity, its citizens borne of both the Soviet nation it once was and the unsure republic it is today. The elderly cling to the orderly past, the young embrace the chaotic present, yet neither are happy. A line from Georgi, however, implies that the changes are for the better, implying that the Bulgaria of today is perhaps simply experiencing the birth pains of a new nation, though a generation will be lost to the uncertainty of transition as a result.
All of which brings us full circle: there are plenty of great and interesting themes explored in 'Eastern Plays', with the actors more than able to realise them within their believable and fragile characters. The lack of a tighter, more focused narrative, which dulls the pacing and fogs up the intent of the piece, is the biggest culprit. That Kalev is passionate about the subjects presented is very much in evidence, as is the fact that when it comes down to really exploring them through his characters, he is quite skilled at doing so. Here though, he tries to say too much at once, enshrouding the result in fog as a result. When he masters clarity and restraint, however, there is much to suggest his work will be something memorable indeed.
Cidade dos Homens (2007)
Entertaining and Visually Memorable, But Chiefly for Fans of the TV Series
The Rio de Janeiro landscape is nothing if not dramatic. The topography of the sprawling metropolis seems to be entirely in tune with the eclectic urban population that call it home. Pointed mountains are peppered across the landscape, and in a city where real estate struggles to meet the demands of overpopulation, many of their slopes have been cannibalized for residence. In many cases, they stand as monuments to Rio's enormous economic divide, being given over to crumbling, haphazard shanty towns known locally as 'favelas', often no-go areas for the authorities and the dominions therefore for the self-imposed fiefdoms of street gangs. In 'City Of Men', the audience is given a window into the lives of these would-be rulers and the struggling locals unfortunate enough to be caught up in their affairs.
The wider storyline, taking place primarily on the marvellously-subtle 'Dead End Hill', concerns a power struggle between gang leader Madrugadao (translated as 'Midnight' in my subtitles), disgruntled members of his group and rival gangs on nearby hills with plans to take over his territory. Caught in the middle of all this are the film's two lead characters, Acerola and Laranjinha, friends since childhood and now facing the burdens of adulthood. Driven by a shared quest to find out the identity of their long-lost fathers, they discover that the past is sometimes better left buried. The drama brings into sharp focus the personal tragedies inevitable in such an environment: children with no future drawn into gangs, the almost-impossible struggle to raise a family, and the ever-present spectre of death in a world ruled by jungle law. Yet through the close bond forged between the two friends, the fragile flames of friendship and loyalty may be just enough to help them escape the chaos.
One of 'City Of Men's strongest assets is its visual authenticity, having been shot at least partially on location at a genuine shanty town, which communicates the desperation and poverty of the world its characters inhabit with instant verisimilitude and sadness. The winding narrow streets stretching up Dead End Hill (or 'Morro da Sinuca' in the original) cut through faded blocks of sloppily-bonded iron and brick, inside which the simple and aged cheap detritus of the population offer silent indication as to the tiny fortunes and aspirations of each individual. The hill is a world apart from the wealth and stability far below, as though natural geography itself has drawn the line between them. Despite its dilapidated state and the aura of human misery, even this corner of the city manages to be picturesque. Cinematographer Adriano Goldman has striven to capture every angle of this world in all its mottled shades and succeeded brilliantly.
Robust too is the acting. Douglas Silva and Darlan Cunha as Acerola and Laranjinha respectively, do not fail to convince as the two orphans thrust together by hardship and circumstance, inhabiting their characters with ease. So too do the rest of the cast, and also notable is Pedro Henrique as Caju, the glory-seeking youth unwaveringly keen to do his bit for Dead End Hill and not at all fazed by his first firearm.
It was not until after viewing the film that I learned 'City Of Men' is actually the concluding chapter to the popular Brazilian television series of the same name, in which we see the aforementioned characters presented here at an earlier time in their lives. Indeed, the film often flashes back to scenes from the series in order to establish the longstanding friendship between the two leads. It is not, in addition, connected to the more famous exploration along similar themes, 'City Of God', which apparently sets many up for disappointment. 'City Of Men', it turns out, is the concluding chapter to the series, with a built-in audience of fans who have travelled with the cast for several years.
Which is doubtless the ideal way to approach the film, for taken on its own without any background knowledge or emotion invested in the characters, 'City Of Men' offers little in the way of original storytelling, being ultimately a fairly straightforward gangster drama with a fairly predictable ending. While its wonderfully-captured visuals have left a lasting impression with me, the unremarkable plot already fades into memory with little to stop it. Director and series writer Paulo Morelli, and scriptwriter and fellow series scribe Elena Soaraz have presented a screenplay that provides the newcomer with all the background information required to jump into their world without difficulty. The result is more than entertaining enough for the duration, but says nothing new as a film in its own right. For the fans though, 'City Of Men' will be a fond farewell to beloved characters, and the nostalgia value will be enough to take it to the next level. It just doesn't work quite so well as a stand-alone picture.
I would recommend therefore that interested parties avail themselves of the series if at all possible and hold off on 'City Of Men' until the end, which will doubtless prove more rewarding. While the film can be viewed separately, and is worth it alone for the cinematography, it will fail to resonate in the say way it does for its most ardent supporters.
Actual rating 6 1/2 out of 10.
Whistle and I'll Come to You (2010)
Whistle and I'll Rewrite You
I think it's important to begin by saying that the BBC's efforts to bring the classic ghost stories of M.R. James to the small screen have, over the years, been a continual source of joy for lovers of old school horror such as myself. While not every adaptation has been as accomplished an approach to film-making as Jonathan Miller's iconic 1968 realisation of 'Whistle & I'll Come To You' and Lawrence Gordon-Clarke's memorable interpretation of 'A Warning To The Curious', even the comparatively more pedestrian entries have evoked not only the much-anticipated foreboding and supernatural atmosphere of the source material, but a good degree of faithfulness to their underlying themes. This, however, cannot be said for 2010's apparently necessary remake of 'Whistle And I'll Come To You', wherein the terms 'remake', 'intuitive understanding' and 'source material' are applied with the same degree of dubiousness as any arguments in support of the production's validity.
For those unfamiliar, as indeed many still will be after watching the new Whistle, the plot of the original centres around the cocksure academic bachelor Professor Parkins (Parkins in the original text), who takes a vacation during the off-season at a remote Norfolk seaside village for golf and exploration, the latter prompted by a colleague's request that he inspect the remains of an old Templar preceptory to determine its archaeological worth. This he duly does, and within the crumbling ruins, discovers an ancient whistle, unable to resist putting its practical function to the test. From that moment on, Parkins is never alone, having awoken forces beyond description and quite beyond all human understanding. The heart of the story is the folly of arrogant presumption, that there will always be realms of understanding beyond mortal man, and to believe you can quantify existence is to invite downfall. James's overconfident scholar and protagonist is the perfect vehicle to deliver this message, and an archetype that the writer, who was himself a highly-accomplished academic, knew better than most. The rapid destruction of Parkins's self-assured, almost autistic world is almost as disconcerting as the unknown forces he has unleashed, for which we are given only fleeting glimpses and very little explanation.
All of which clearly flew over the heads of the 2010 production team, who presumably felt that the core elements of the story were its beach setting, the university professor more inclined to the rational than the superstitious, and the general bleakness of his existence. So long as some vague continuity with these components was maintained, it seemed perfectly reasonable to completely rewrite both story and characterization to the point where the result was a pale shadow of its former self yet could still be legitimately broadcast under the same title.
The Neil Cross teleplay, in which the action is relocated to the present day, sees a Professor James Parkin committing his wife, apparently suffering from advanced senile dementia, to a care home before taking a long overdue vacation on the Kentish Coast in order to come to terms with his loss. The seaside resort also happens to be one of their old stomping grounds, and the discovery of a ring in the sand dunes brings to life more than mere memories for Parkin. Something seems keen to communicate with him on the deserted coast, and it may not be as unfamiliar as it first appears.
Cross's script quite spectacularly manages to miss the point of the James tale, retaining only superficial vestiges of its substance. Gone is the arrogant, antisocial university mandarin of the original. In his place is the more socially-capable doting husband whose rational worldview is in no way extreme and borne of great personal tragedy – again entirely caused by the most intimate of social interaction (the original Parkins wouldn't even know what to do with a woman). The character's ultimate fate is seemingly more extreme, yet far more simplistic and obvious, undercutting the psychological ramifications of his plight.
The 'ghost' of the story is equally less subtle and, by the climax of the tale, extremely more quantifiable than its antecedent, of which one understands no more by the end than they did when it first appears. Its intangible mystery is precisely the point of its existence, being something so alien that not even the well-read professor can define it.
The whole dramatisation is, in short, comprehensively dumbed down. The rapid departure from the original narrative is, according to those behind the camera, because Jonathan Miller had already dramatised the story so well that there seemed little point in retreading the same ground. The creative reigns are firmly in the grip of Marshall McLuhan's prophesied generation wherein the televisual medium has become the message for those who work in the industry. Television is its own reference point and must now be the source material for rehashing plots with diminishing returns. Heaven forfend that the book be the wellspring of inspiration instead. Telling the same story is surely the point of the exercise: if there is little point in retreading ground well-covered in the past, this, surely, is proof that the endeavour was unnecessary in the first place.
Cashing in on a popular title is perhaps the greatest offence and indeed irony, since the Cross script under the direction of Euros Lyn does deliver its own chilling moments. Add to this the very capable cast headed by John Hurt and Gemma Jones and some excellent location shoots, and there is much to otherwise praise. More damage is done to it by being arrogant enough to masquerade it as something it is not, whereas a more favourable analysis would be quite easy if it were touted as a new work in its own right. It isn't, however, being instead an unwarranted 'Disneyfication' of a far darker psychological piece that a new audience will mistakenly equate with Britain's greatest master of the macabre. It is the same blind egotistical behaviour that Hollywood is typically blamed for. With them, however, such silliness is expected.
Go West (2005)
The Price Of Hatred
My initial impressions of 'Go West' were that it would primarily be a fairly damning commentary on the Yugoslav war – a harsh, but sobering drama that would leave the viewer in no doubt as to the futility of ethnic and religious hatred, and indeed war itself. Which indeed it us, but it is also a condemnation of homophobia, while at the same time, the sheer absurdity of the fleeing couple's predicament elevates 'Go West's discourse into black comedy and farce – something that writers Ahmed Imamovic and Enver Puska expertly mesh with the general message of social meltdown and the way it destroyed Bosnia and Herzegovina - without one theme compromising the other.
Horror and madness must come before absurdity of course, and there is definitely nothing to laugh at during the opening sequences, where the two protagonists carry on with their lives in Sarajevo before they are overwhelmed by the turmoil. Director Imamovic weaves genuine newsreel footage of the conflict into his specially-shot sequences of Serbian militia terrorising the locals and gunning down the Muslim population (with soldiers forcing men's pants down in search of tell-tale circumcisions). As Milan and Kenan's lives are quickly overturned, forcing them into flight, the audience is given a street-level snapshot of how the conflict might have been experienced firsthand.
Fuelled by such life-or-death desperation, I found myself wondering if indeed the real-life Muslim homosexuals might too have disguised themselves as married women in order to escape execution. As Kenan himself states at the beginning, "On the Balkans, it's easier to bear if someone in the family is a murderer rather than a faggot (sic)." Under pressure from all sides, much of the tension in 'Go West' therefore derives from we the audience wondering just how long he will be able to maintain his disguise while besieged by threats on all sides (some not necessarily malicious) to expose the truth. Actor Mario Drmac plays the would-be transvestite with great skill, giving Kenan a quiet strength, though portraying him on a knife-edge as the drama escalates. 'Go West' is ultimately his story, showing the lengths the natives must go through in order to survive the war: humiliation, desperation, and above all, loss, leaving only courage or madness to dictate how one lives their remaining life.
The writers are also keen to point out the ridiculousness of the predicament, not only through Kenan's constant struggle to ensure his 'breasts' appear convincing or the stubble from his face, but in the whole cast of villagers whose world ranges from witchcraft and superstition to the local priest more concerned with political rhetoric than the salvation of the soul. Some of the characters are obvious comic relief, while in other cases, the humour creeps up on you with the forced jollity of the inhabitants that causes events to spiral further out of control. Ljubo is perhaps the strongest example of this. Wonderfully played by veteran actor Rade Serbedzija, the one-time Texan rancher fights daily against resignation and melancholy in the face of so much loss, unable to see that his good intentions are making things harder. His son Milan, played by Tarik Filipovic, sits somewhere between the two people he cares about most: warm and all-embracing, yet feeling as though only he truly understands the sacrifices that must be made. In contrast, Ranka, in a strong performance by Mirjana Karanovic, has far baser desires, which threaten to unravel the entire social fabric. Tragically, only the viewer is ultimately able to see the lighter side of their predicament.
While I think the blend of drama and black humour hold together well, there are some aspects of the script that don't entirely work as well as they could. The witchcraft element, for example, seems to be there simply to build up the potential threat of certain characters, yet ultimately doesn't seem to have any other meaning beyond this. Elsewhere, the murder of certain antagonists seems out-of-character for those enacting them, and done simply to pull the writers out of a hole during the all-important climax. This may sound a little odd in a film where senseless killing would be considered inevitable, but perhaps readers will know what I mean when they watch for themselves.
Ultimately however, these elements do not cause serious damage to the film's central premise, nor fear and madness of one of the 20th Century's most brutal civil wars. It does not try to be universal commentary on the fall of the republic, but instead 'zoom in' to a snapshot of the personal tragedy and persecution of those perceived to be socially abhorrent, which of course, they were not – merely ordinary people trying to survive. It reminds me of similarly-themed Albanian film, 'Slogans', also a drama/black comedy exploring the absurdity borne of a society descending into madness and painting itself into a corner. In 'Go West' however, there is a much higher body count.
This, and the many twists and turns of the plot, may cause the viewer to wonder if anyone will ultimately get out alive. In the end, 'Go West' delivers a bittersweet conclusion and a very poignant message. Hope survives, though many will have to die first – a not incongruous ending for film with war as its subject. Definitely recommended.
Dependencia sexual (2003)
A Strong, Unsettling, and Above All Real Portrayal Of Humanity
In 'Sexual Dependency', writer/director Rodrigo Bellot delivers a stark, brutal and overwhelmingly honest portrayal of humanity as driven by their sexual urges, desires, and fears. Reduced to animals, the human condition is merely a thin veneer stretched tightly over millennia of instinct. However, the film is also about the ever-changing roles of people as determined by shifting environments and perspective, which Bellot drives home through the use of a fairly uncommon and at times disconcerting film technique.
So as to ensure the central message that sexual politics and animal group dynamics are fundamental to all, Bellot and fellow co-writer Lenelle N. Moise, rather than zooming in on one small cross-section of society as representative of all humanity, present a series of loosely-connected short stories populated with a number of different social groups. To really hammer the point home and ensure the viewer doesn't dismiss the unsettling narratives as simply the darker side of Bolivian culture, the action transfers halfway through to New York, where the same fundamentals of aggression are at work.
Another function of the anthology is to show a progression of both sexual awakening and the inevitable consequences of social groups led by dominant and aggressive leaders. Thus the first segment explores the difference between fantasy and reality as centred around a 15-year-old girl when the testosterone-filled vultures begin to circle. However, while male dominance and aggression are undeniably the driving force of all conflicts throughout 'Sexual Dependency', the young girl's unpressured curiosity and awakening sexual desires against the juggernaut of a young man whose hormones will brook no disagreement are thrown into sharp contrast with the unwitting young man forced into sexual adventure by his peers in the next segment. By the end of the film, the dominated males are no less numerous.
The third segment then shifts the focus from the weak to the sexual predator, exploring the ways in which they remain leader of the herd and how these acts impact those around them. Importantly, it also delves into the insecurity of that psyche, which plays an even greater role later on. It is here that the action relocates to New York, with one of the key Bolivian characters moving there and discovering both the true fragility of the world they have built up for themselves and that the law of the jungle is the only universal constant.
In this way, the cultural shift not only reinforces the argument that basic social behavior is the same everywhere, but also demonstrates that positions of dominance are entirely relative. Here, the hunter of one world may become the prey of another, though in a film set in two countries, cultural difference in and of itself becomes a contributing factor. Besides this, the New York half of 'Sexual Dependency' goes on to explore themes not already addressed earlier, such as homophobia, rape, and reinforcing heterosexual group dynamics north of the border. The overall progression from innocence to revelation and fall continues throughout and the final segments begin to blur together in a chaotic mess (carefully structured) so as to echo the crushing mental and physical pain brought on by fear, loathing, victimization, realization, and the fall from innocence.
Full credit must go to Bellot for choosing a cast who clearly understood what was being asked of them and performed it with absolute believability. I can't think of a single actor present who didn't deliver. The subtitles also were absolutely spot-on, with excellent use of equivalent English slang and colloquialisms to really ensure that cultural difference didn't distract from the underlying message. I was also quite impressed by the overall thematic progression and the way in which the way the film was edited together managed to match the escalating drama unfolding on screen, leading to a rich and layered experience as a result.
The most obvious example of this is the way the film itself was shot. Bellot experiments with the widescreen format to a degree not often seen before, by having two moving images at once. For the most part, this simultaneous imagery is of the same subject, with one camera filming from a different angle. However, one video is often a few seconds out of sync with the other, providing a sort of 'echoing' effect, which is most effectively used in a monologue segment later on. At other times, the two images may be entirely different, with one intended as a thematic contrast to the other, and by the time of the drama's chaotic climax-as-descent, the visual confusion rises to a crescendo. The overall success of this technique is varied, in some places proving quite effective, while at other times being quite disconcerting and overcomplicated and in some places, not especially necessary.
Another criticism I would make has to do with the murky breaking of the fourth wall that occurs toward the end of the film. Metatextuality is an art in its own right and often hard to pull off without being seemingly over-clever or gratuitous. Suffice to say, 'Sexual Dependency' is a title both of and within the film. It doesn't dampen the overall aim of the film, but it did make me feel a little cheated and emotionally 'exploited', although perhaps I simply didn't see what other viewers may regard as glaringly obvious.
The bleak nature and stark reality of the subject matter unapologetically makes for a rather uncomfortable and disturbing film at times. Two hours in the company of base human desire is certainly not an easy ride. It should cause the viewer to look at themselves and how they may fit into the social hierarchy. It bypasses our rational excuses for ourselves and holds the truth up to the mirror where we can't escape. While certain aspects of its presentation and narrative manipulation didn't always work for me, 'Sexual Dependency' is a powerful, thought-provoking work of cinema and a sobering commentary on this most fundamental part of the human animal.
Road Train (2010)
Four youths camping in the Australian outback are nearly killed when a road train turns their car into a spinning lump of metal. Licking their wounds, the unwitting group discovers the driverless vehicle parked near the scene of the accident and decides to commandeer it. But the road train has other plans for the four and survival isn't necessarily among them.
Every so often, one comes across a film that truly defines the horror genre. It rises above the formula of B-grade horror to really delight the senses with astounding ideas, a bulletproof script, brilliant practical effects, and an irresistible moreish quality that makes it an instant classic you'll want to come back to every couple of years, marveling at how deep is its rewatch value.
'Road Train', however, does not have such rewatch value, being about as irresistible as the chance to fly a hang glider held together with paper clips. The script is about as bulletproof as a KFC refresher towel, while the only formula it adheres to is that of a Molotov cocktail, bombing as it does with unsanctioned alacrity not long after the opening credits. It is the true definition of mind-numbing ineptitude, and projects an obvious contempt for the audience by its conceptual laziness.
Characterisation is probably the key offender. Certainly, it would be ridiculous to expect a Camusian exploration of behavioural absurdism in the face of demonic supernatural transport, but we should at least like the people on screen. In 'Road Train', the writer seems to be going out of his way to ensure this doesn't happen by enmeshing the loathing and betrayal of recent infidelity with the inadequately explored mood swings supposedly brought about by otherworldly possession. There is the murky implication that the road train is a sort of Amityville House on wheels, but its effect on all who go near it is sloppily handled and way too immediate, resulting in characters flying off the handle with mystifying, unexplained regularity. This completely undermines any attempts at character conflict, since the viewer is unable to determine whether their problems are caused by said possession or a manifestation of their down-to-earth guilt and loathing.
Within this disjointed narrative, we also have the age-old problem of lazily-written horror films wherein characters continually place themselves in dangerous situations common sense would normally step in to prevent. Thus, whether from psychosis or incredible stupidity, the viewer is robbed of any real chance they may have of caring overmuch for the so-called protagonists. Devoid of empathy, they have little left but their curiosity as to what the vehicle truly represents. In this, 'Road Train' stays fairly mute: as with 'The Car' 33 years earlier, the viewer is encouraged to guess, with clues in the form of a snarling three-headed dog and surreal sequences of otherworldly descent. This approach works best, however, when the major characters speculate on the horror that has befallen them. We may never know who or what Michael Myers is, but the speculation of Dr Loomis that he is the embodiment of evil sets the ball rolling, leaving space for the viewer to draw their own conclusions. The internal dialogue not only gives them something to work with as they piece the puzzle together, but faith in the characters, who have behaved as anyone would by asking such obvious questions. Yet in 'Road Train', the hapless victims are seemingly too narcissistic to even notice the madness of their situation until the climax, by which point most of them are beyond redemption. How this encourages us to care is yet another mystery.
This in turn leads to the great revelation of how the road train operates: an admittedly unusual and horrific idea that on closer examination makes no sense whatsoever within the internal logic of the film. In 'Road Train', we are encouraged to simply accept the improbable existence of the antagonist without question, for questions lead to the punishment of frustration.
If anyone may be absolved from this nonsense however, it should be the actors, who are simply performing as required by the script. The Australian film industry is not especially large, and actors there have far less opportunities for prominence. Morley, Lowe, Haig and Samuel join the likes of Melissa George, for whom the comparatively superior 'Triangle' may just keep her in orbit long enough to attract attention. Praise too goes to the setting: the wilds of the South Australian outback make for the perfect horror film backdrop. The isolation and desolate dryness, properly utilized, can lend themselves to a truly claustrophobic drama. A shame therefore that the rich attributes of this timeless, ancient land is squandered on such dreck.
Such then is 'Road Train', a horror film for the reality TV generation and no less disposable. If the challenge had been to outdo 'Houseboat Horror', then it would leapfrog over the competition into first place. There was, however, no such challenge and I would urge everyone to take inspiration from the film's U.S title and run over any copies they may come across.
The Burning (1981)
Highly Unoriginal, But Gives The Genre Fans What They Want
A group of summer campers decide to play a trick on Cropsy, the drunken caretaker of the local lakeside dormitories, only the prank goes horribly wrong and the victim is burned beyond recognition. Five years later, a new group of campers are picked off one by one in the forest near the old site. Cropsy's back, and he's got a score to settle.
Barely a year following the release of the smash-hit slasher 'Friday The 13th', the clones began to fill up the assembly line, and in tune with the genre's trademark lack of subtlety, 'The Burning' makes little attempt to disguise its roots. The isolated world of the summer camp, a lake by any other Crystal – I mean name, and counselors murdered at the hands of a silent psychopath who was himself a victim. The characters are drawn from the same canvas as well: the tight-shirted alpha male, the aggressive misfit, the goof-ball, the sniveling weed, and the usual bevy of young women cursed by an unseen virus that eats all their clothes whenever a camera zooms in. In other words, it's a rose by any other Jason – sorry, name.
None of which will be too painful for fans of 80s slash horror, and I certainly do include myself. The film studios of the time had rightly identified a popular niche, and people like me are suckers for it. Nonetheless, comparisons with the pillars of the genre are therefore inevitable, and 'The Burning' is simply too much of the same to match its competition. The end sequence seems to invite hope that Cropsy will headline his own franchise, but Jason Voorhees had already beaten him to it, having in 1981 made his first proper appearance in 'Friday The 13th, Part II'. The source material had already cornered the market.
Put all that aside though and 'The Burning' is entertaining enough for what it is. Writer/director Tony Maylam and co-collaborator Harvey Weinstein have clearly paid close attention to the trend-setters and like the first 'Friday', are careful to build up the suspense, peppering the drama with numerous false alarms and both appreciating that they can play the Cropsy card only so many times before tedium sets in. There are welcome departures from the source material as well. Conflict between the protagonists is built up to higher levels, with Brian Backer's character Alfred (the aforementioned sniveling weed) a disconcerting loner getting on everyone's nerves, yet with classic irony, the only one to see the killer ahead of time. The setting too is slightly different, with many of the murders not taking place in and around the camp site itself.
Maylam also builds up suspense very well in certain key scenes – one involving a mysterious lone canoe reminded me so much of what would end up being a deleted scene in 'The Ring' (US) that I felt sure Gore Verbinski must have been a fan. The final reveal of Cropsy's burnt appearance is also wisely kept to the very end, especially given that the prosthetics don't quite live up to the hype – something that allowed the actor a little more facial movement would have been nice and not, I think, beyond the capabilities of the time. Full credit however, goes to Lou David, the man behind the mask, who otherwise plays a very convincing relentless killer of unsuspecting teens. Elsewhere, the practical effects are quite respectable and given that Cropsy's weapon of choice is a certain sharp gardening tool, they are if anything very restrained.
Slightly different also is keyboard wizard Rick Wakeman's synth-powered soundtrack. Having long been a fan of the Wakeman sound, the musical motifs were very recognizable, but more than that, it had the feel of a soundtrack constructed not by watching the rushes, but by producing mood music to suit different levels of drama. Either way, the polished movements of the master help to give 'The Burning' its own unique character – less about the dramatic stings of 'Friday' and more to do with simply creating a foreboding atmosphere, apart from the cheerful hyperactive banjos during a canoeing scene and occasional appearance of a Hammond organ.
Yet the true way to date a film is not by its synthesizers, but by how much hair Jason Alexander has. Even here, the fringe is retreating, but the youthful Alexander turns in a very memorable appearance here as the happy-go-lucky Dave – whether or not it's memorable because he'll one day become a certain much-loved New York neurotic is something I'll let the viewer decide.
Ultimately, 'The Burning' will not fail to disappoint fans of 80s horror. It is highly derivative and suffers therefore from the law of diminishing returns, placed in the shadow of the memorable contemporaries it unashamedly ripped off for a quick and easy profit. Then again, many will argue that 'Friday The 13th' had the same relationship with 'Halloween'. It's unoriginal, but fun, and I wouldn't be surprised if we see a remake before too long. I'll certainly be watching it.
Generally Enjoyable Adaptation of Ancient Tibetan Myth
"If you are many, make war. If you are few, make sorcery!" 'Milarepa' is a film adaptation of one of Tibet's most famous ancient legends, based loosely upon the life and teachings of a Buddhist yogi and poet (in his youth known as Thöpaga) who lived in the 11th Century. Born to wealthy parents, Thöpaga's father dies young, allowing his greedy siblings to spirit away the family inheritance. Near-destitute, Thöpaga and his mother struggle to eke out a living until the mother eventually snaps and compels her son to learn sorcery so as to inflict revenge on their malefactors. However, the boy quickly discovers that revenge comes with its own price. This film chronicles the early years of this now-revered figure, and is very much within the fantasy genre, playing as it does with the myths and the melodrama surrounding the character, though his principal teachings sit at the core of the plot, which have been a source of inspiration to generations. New to the tale of Milarepa, I found myself generally enjoying this big-screen retelling, despite certain issues I had with its execution.
It seemed fairly apparent that this is a film preaching to the choir, as it were, with many sequences flying along as if obligatory shorthand for an audience already familiar with the story, but a little too rushed for anyone else. To those unfamiliar, the early sections of the film in particular seem like edited highlights that required more time and build-up to achieve maximum impact. For example, the introduction where Thöpaga's father dies and the siblings show their true colours is a very few minutes in length and family ruin consequently achieved at a whirlwind pace. Storywise, the key elements are intact, but the sometimes choppy pacing and rapid jumps forward in time prevent sufficient character development, an essential process in lending believability to what is after all pure fantasy. It's clear that director Neten Chokling is keen to get to the sorcery element, thereby relying on several sequences of over-the-top melodrama within the family to sell the desire for revenge. Again, if you're familiar with the story and know what's coming, this is doubtless not such a problem.
Indeed, once Thöpaga does set off on the road on his voyage of discovery, the fantasy element really takes over and the adventure begins in earnest. All throughout 'Milarepa', the audience is treated to some truly breathtaking Himalayan scenery – surely one of the most dramatic landscapes on earth. Here at the Roof of the World, it truly does seem as though magic could determine the fates of man, and the backdrop does much to sell the story. Yogic strongholds sit precariously atop mountains and seem to dominate the magnificent valleys below. Here, Thöpaga must travel to seek the otherworldly skills that will let him inflict revenge, which his masters seem quite keen to impart. It almost seems irresponsible, yet Buddhism is after all about passing on knowledge rather than judging how the beholder will use it.
After all, while mastery of the self is the Buddhist philosophy, 'Milarepa' is very much about karmic retribution, which its central character painfully learns must flow in both directions. The 'sorcery' of the film is realised through a surprising amount of cgi that takes the film very much into cartoon territory, but this is after all a retelling of the legend rather than a biopic, and if you're going to delve into the mythology, you may as well go all the way. Perhaps because the earlier scenes had been so 'comic book' in structure, I found myself very much in the right frame of mind when the visual effects appeared and if anything, this is where my enjoyment properly set in.
It does mean that those hoping for a deeply spiritual Buddhist epic on the folly of conflict will be disappointed – the message is there intact, but in very much the same way that it was in 'Monkey Magic'. Whether or not this makes Jamyang Lodro's portrayal of the young Thöpaga a little too close to Hayden Christiansen's Anakin Skywalker is up to the viewer to decide, as is the question of whether or not Chokling's approach to his subject matter is out of a desire to make 'Milarepa' into Tibet's answer to Tolkien. Either way, Lodro plays the troubled youth convincingly and is helped by several other good performances, most notably Orgen Tobgyal, as his willing yogic master - apparently also the film's art director.
Thöpaga's real-life alter ego would famously recount years later that he had been very foolish in his youth and faced a long path to wisdom ('How senseless to disregard one's life by fighting foes who are but frail flowers'). His voyage to maturity and enlightenment is purportedly the focus of the sequel, which at this stage, is long overdue. This therefore means that 'Milarepa' does not have a strong ending - so much of the story is yet to be told, and hopefully Chokling will succeed in bringing it to light. In that event, 'Milarepa' will doubtless be better evaluated as simply the opening chapter of a much larger tale – one of reckless youth, in which mistakes are made that lead to wisdom in the wise. This does not absolve it of its cartoon fantasy leanings, but as my introduction into the world of this highly celebrated Tibetan spiritual leader, it was an entertaining enough ride.
The Bermuda Depths (1978)
In Memory Alone
A young man returns to Bermuda hoping to discover why his father died 13 years earlier and becomes entranced by a mysterious young woman who turns out to be the childhood friend who disappeared into the sea that same day. Somehow, she is connected to his father's strange fate, but the answers lie out there, in the Devil's Triangle.
I first saw 'The Bermuda Depths' many years ago and while the plot had faded from memory long since, there was something about it that remained with me. A recent reviewing went some way toward explaining this, although it also suggested that my tastes were probably less demanding back then. What I see now is a film that has not aged well, unraveled in its designs by bad acting, dreadful special effects and a premise that proves effective only while under the influence of Valium. The nonsense of the Bermuda Triangle too was perhaps more alluring in 1978, but seems painfully artificial now, perhaps because the coast guards of the region have been trying to get it through to people that nowhere near as many ships disappear in the area as pop culture would maintain, and those that have did so with a far more mundane explanation than some want to believe.
Others may suggest I'm missing the point of course, and 'The Bermuda Depths' rides high on the wave of piffle the previous decades have built up surrounding this supposedly supernatural island chain. Throw in an emotionally-damaged young man, a family tragedy, an attractive siren in a black swimsuit and legends of archelonian leviathans, and herein is the tale intended to ensnare us from the distractions of logic. Well-done, these elements should come together to form an intriguing mystery and a haunting story of star-crossed love, but the delivery is off both before and behind the camera.
The central character of Magnus Dens, for example, is potentially the most intriguing. Dens, we learn, is an aimless drifter, orphaned by the tragic loss of his parents and direction-less as a result. Upon returning to Bermuda, he finds himself entranced by a woman invisible to everyone but the local 'wise woman' who places her existence within the framework of a centuries-old curse. Rejecting the madness of the one person who believes him, Dens is treated with pitied sympathy by his friends, certain his crumbling psychological state is torturing him with the hallucinations of an imaginary friend. This, to me, demonstrates wonderful scope on the part of the lead that should lend true anguish and drama to the conflict. Unfortunately, actor Leigh McClosky brings this complex character to life with all the energy of a deflating balloon, his languid stares and lethargic movement interrupted at times by over-the-top aggression meant to signal an unleashing of his inner turmoil, but coming across as two-dimensional over-excitement. While I have no problem with the supporting cast, their efforts cannot make up for McClosky's inability to act. Even the lovely Connie Sellecca's superior performance as the almost spectral seductress Jennie – a subtle miasma of innocence and eternal regret – can only do so much when this is whom she must play against, although it's likely no coincidence that it is with her that McClosky gives his best performances, Sellecca seemingly bringing out in him capabilities elsewhere hidden from view.
That said, William Overgard's script clearly isn't interested in being the character study it ought to in favour of a shallow pastiche of 'Moby Dick' vying for time with the elements of unrequited love. There's no reason we can't have both, but efforts to champion one direction come at the cost of another, perhaps in a desire to provide spectacle. This unfortunately is where the film's low budget really becomes evident, with some very cheap and unconvincing model shots, special effects and atrocious day-for-night shooting , which admittedly I don't recall being such glaring problems 20 years ago. 'The Bermuda Depths' is one of those films that holds together far better not simply in the distant past when it was made, but in that hazy distance of memory, which over time smooths out the inconsistencies. It's a little like being reunited with your first love and finding that much of what you recall about it has been rose-tinted in the years since.
The soundtrack too is an odd mish-mash of styles reflecting the shifting, unevenness of the plot. A haunting period theme song suggests temptation and seduction, giving way to a recurring (and indeed familiar) classical guitar motif, both of which must coexist with a strange retro thriller score that reminded me at times of orchestrations Malcolm Lockyer was creating in 60s sci-fi matinées. The final element of what one today might call 'muzak' fills out the dramatic downtime. The overall lack of coherence suggests the differing perspectives behind the scenes and a loss of clarity.
One thing that has not suffered from the passage of time, however, is the location itself. All exterior scenes were shot in Bermuda and its sleepy urban landscape, powder-white beaches flanked by picturesque rocky outcrops and azure sea go a long way toward compensating for other deficiencies. The local government, credited for assisting in the making of the film, would doubtless have seen it as an enticing travel promotion and deservedly so – it certainly worked on me. The natural landscape lends itself perfectly to the storyline and ultimately, it is only the artificial enhancements of post-production, weak plotting and character development that don't stand up to scrutiny – especially to a modern audience.
Ultimately, these are the dangers of revisiting the past and the way it is often defeated by the ravages of time and the changes we undergo as a result. Ironically, this mirrors 'The Bermuda Depths' rather well. The film itself is the beckoning siren, luring the rose-tinted memories of an ageing audience toward potential heartbreak, and like the ancient mariners, I failed to lash myself to the mast in time.
Nollywood Junk Food
Abeni and Akanni, two childhood sweethearts in Nigeria, are separated forever when an embarrassing incident at Abeni's 10th birthday party convinces her boyfriend's father to relocate the family to Benin and a new life. A chance meeting brings the two together many years later and they waste little time in picking up where they left off. The possibility of marriage however is threatened by Abeni's father, who hasn't forgotten the sins of the past and vows to stop the union at all costs.
'Abeni' was a film I decided to watch purely because I hadn't seen Beninois cinema. Technically, I still haven't, for although it is a Benin-Nigeria co-production, 'Abeni' is more accurately a product of the unstoppable Nollywood juggernaut. Nonetheless, much of the story is set and filmed in Benin, which gave me some insight into a country of which I know little. Due to the nature of the storyline, one even gains an idea of the incredible disparity of wealth in both locations, and, if the film reports correctly, a certain cultural prejudice between the two states.
And yet by analysing these background themes, I feel myself elevating 'Abeni's discourse far higher than it deserves, for beneath the colourful splendour of these West African nations lies an incredibly average romance tale of the type that Nollywood, Bollywood, and indeed those masters of formulaic rubbish in Hollywood churn out on a regular basis like supermarket-brand crackers because they know this tired and worn-out dime-store mediocrity sells. The foreign viewer may find themselves distracted by the different cultural presentation of the formula, but dross does not lose its pallor simply for wearing a different-shaped hat. A continual desire to get up and make cups of tea throughout the duration despite a lack of thirst may also indicate how little my body was willing to cooperate with the screening.
Certainly, the cultural landscape in which the conflict operated went some way towards making the story interesting, dealing as it does with a massive generation gap wherein arranged marriage is acceptable to the elders, while their Westernised descendants struggle for personal choice. Intermingled with this are the designs of wealthy families more concerned with empire-building than individual happiness. Handled in a considered, intelligent way, these themes would make for a good story and one that doubtless rings true with anyone who has ever had to face disapproving potential in-laws. However, 'Abeni' is clearly another pre-packaged entry on the production line in which if one takes even a single step backward to view the larger picture, they will find many similar such offerings.
Conflict arising from the plot elements mentioned is never built up with any real seriousness that would give it meaning and the ending doesn't even bother to follow through with the resolution that is employed. I found myself wondering as the credits rolled if perhaps my copy of the film had a scene missing. Alas, it merely seems to be an example of cheap melodrama on the part of a director who presumably can't be bothered anymore. Add to this a bizarrely-inappropriate soundtrack, which in its levity, sends the exact same message – that and the fact that it seems to be more about shoehorning in the popular chart entry of the moment. Indeed, upon closer inspection, one finds the name Abdel Hakim Amzat in the credits not only as star beau Akanni, but also as head honcho of the music department and as a producer. The priorities of this vanity project are abundantly clear.
It may come as no surprise then that much of the characterisation is stereotypical in form and annoyingly realised on screen as a result. While the two leads are probably best-served and peroxide shiny for the youth market, the script divests the antagonists of all but two dimensions – not that the others can boast a multitude of depth, either. Kareem Odepoju plays Abeni's father with a disregard for subtlety that reminds me of why pantomime is so awful, while Ayo Badmus as Ogogu, the paternally-approved rival for Abeni's affections, clearly felt the best way to depict his character's reckless behavior was to enact mental instability. Ogogu, we learn, was sent by his wealthy parents to the U.S, presumably so he could study how to be a cretin – an interesting snapshot into Nigerian perceptions of American culture that would be amusing if Ogogu weren't so expertly irritating.
Quite a shame therefore that 'Abeni' fails to be an interesting snapshot into any of the leitmotifs presented, though the Nollywood fan might perhaps argue that this would be like expecting to find the qualities of Perrier in grey water. It is ultimately little more than a hackneyed star vehicle for its leads – the filmic equivalent of a Happy Meal – no different to that one sees in Western cinema with monotonous regularity, but with that audience, the chimera of 'ethnic' unconventionality.
Three Kings of Belize (2007)
A Strong Feature Debut From A Promising Director
'Three Kings Of Belize' brings the viewer into the everyday lives of three Belizean musicians – each very different in character and outlook on life, but united by their passion for music. Now in their autumn years, Florencio Mess, Paul Nabor and Wilfred Peters have lived long, uncomplicated lives. Today, their old hands are not as confident as they once were, but all three have the same zeal for their craft despite many hardships and the passing of fame. Touching, warm and honest, the film is the triumph of a confident director sure of her material and the compelling characters she brings before the camera.
Indeed, one of the hallmarks of a good director is the ability to let the story tell itself without long periods spent in post-production attempting to spice up the end result with jump cuts and special effects for a cynical audience. Instead of this, Katia Paradis simply shows her subjects and their environment at a pace matching the sleepy perambulation of their lives. It is very likely also a function of budget, but in no way should that be a criticism, for 'Three Kings' is a triumph of the 'less is more' approach, and all the more mature for it. Whether it's the solitary quietude of Mess' and Nabor's rural lives or the comparatively active, urban adventures of Peters, there is always a sense that we are seeing the truth – almost as if we were there filming the subjects ourselves. It is a documentary without narrator, and so in between dialogue scenes, the camera simply points at the world each of the men live in, often saying far more than any verbal storytelling would. In this way, three corners of Belize come to life in vivid shades of colour without overt comment, although the love each musician has for his country comes through in their desire to uphold cultural traditions – Peters even going so far as to wonder why anyone would want to live anywhere other than the country of their birth. It is a simple nationalism, for once devoid of destructive political design.
The abundance of these quiet intersections in a 90-minute film does however make it at times a little too sleepy, though in the process giving the viewer a very telling snapshot of each man's world: gone are the days when live performances of their traditional musical styles were popular with the masses, not to mention the declining popularity of the genres themselves – as Nabor and Peters themselves lament – and thus regular employment has long since dwindled, leaving them to be self-sufficient. Yet even here, they retain their dignity, with Mess for example a successful crop farmer and craftsman. While wistful nostalgia gives them pause on what they might have been, all three are realists.
As the very human exploration continues, one cannot help but feel sorry for these men. Each is clearly aware that he belongs to a different age, and unlike the days of their youth when they themselves took the cultural baton for another generation, the modern world simply isn't interested. While all three bear this knowledge with fortitude, it is clear how saddened they are by it. After all, what is a performer without a captive audience? Yet sequences with fans both home and abroad clearly show they are still able to bring joy to others the only way they know how. Paradis has effectively documented the passing of an era – the compact disc has triumphed and pop music renders folk song alien to the common ear.
The 'Three Kings' however will live on, in this rewarding and honest journey through their lives. Aside from its occasional slowness, it has warmth and humanity at its heart brought to life with realism and dignity. It's a strong feature debut from a promising director and I will be interested to see where she takes us next.
A View From The Gallery
La Ruta Maya is a major annual Belizean canoeing competition spanning 4 days and running along the Belize River from San Ignacio to Belize City. It galvanizes not only the locals, but attracts many spectators and participants from across the Americas. Through Laura Murphy's brief documentary, we learn both the scope of the race and the many challenges and pitfalls involved in getting it off the ground, with particular focus on the contributions of the many support teams present, ie - the 'sidelines' of the title. The story is told from the point of view of some of these key participants, who all clearly have a passion for the competition. There is only so much you can do in 8 1/2 minutes, although I think it would have been more interesting to have applied a far broader focus of all things La Ruta Maya. For example, this means we don't really hear from the rowers themselves, or indeed the many dedicated Belizeans who flock to the shores of the river every year, which would go a long way toward really transmitting the excitement of the event, partly neutered by 5 minutes spent describing how problematic it can be.
Nor do we really learn much of the background to La Ruta Maya, why it came about in the first place (aside from a half-remembered anecdote about a group of canoe-loving friends that isn't explored), its cultural raison d'etre or even why it is held on Baron Bliss Day (a fact I only discovered afterward via Google). The very title of the piece makes it clear that emphasis is deliberately placed upon those necessary incumbents behind the scenes, but such an approach limits the appeal of the overall effort with a general audience. It's 8 1/2 minutes that could have formed part of the much larger tale of conquering 64 miles of river without respite. Still, for all I know, it was only intended as a vignette for those in the know rather than having such wide viewer appeal, and certainly, I have learned something of this major sporting event in the process.
Well-Crafted But Weakened By Its Own Premise
Late one evening in a quiet corner of a Brussels suburb, a body suddenly plummets from the top of a residential tower block onto the roof of a parked car below. Earlier that same day, five friends sharing a loft apartment for their extramarital conquests discover the bloodstained body of a woman sprawled across the bed where the affairs take place. Is one of them responsible or are they being framed by a jealous lover? So begins 'Loft', an exploration into the uglier side of sex and the psyche. It is as much a commentary on male attitudes to infidelity as it is a murder mystery, where the joys of conquest reign over reason and consideration for anything other than animal lust. While the championed phrase 'It didn't mean anything' is employed as the clichéd band aid over the wound of trust, the five protagonists who cling to it are not equal in their desires for inconstancy. When architect Vincent Stevens hands his four friends the keys to the sky parlor through which they may indulge themselves in secret, it is here that the unraveling truly begins and we discover whose declarations end at posturing bravado and who truly believes that adultery is an honest acceptance of male desires.
All of which give 'Loft' its light and shade. With the story told out of sequence, we flit back and forth across the lives of the five men, the choices they made leading to their current predicament, and the way in which they deluded themselves so as to justify their actions. The placing of the murder inquiry in the pre-credits teaser makes it clear that the slaves of lustful extracurricular activity cannot escape their fate, but the real intrigue lies in precisely how the drama plays out and whether or not the man sitting in the interrogation room really deserves to be there. The out-of-sequence intersections spanning several months add layers of deceit – both within the group, not so tightly-knit as they try to believe, and to all who come within their orbit. The grotesque parody of civilization held together by expensive suits and champagne cannot disguise the descent into carnal imprisonment.
Indeed, if grotesquerie is ultimately the point of the film, then 'Loft' succeeds with flying colours, for I found myself struggling to sympathise, let alone care about any of the poor fools and the fact that their clandestine infidelity had at last come to haunt them. I certainly can't fault a single character on the grounds that he is depicted unrealistically, for the overconfident Lotharios before the camera will easily remind any viewer of the expert seducers we've all met at some point whose undisputed skill at drawing women to them like moths to a flame is matched only by their deep vainglorious neglect of empathy. If redemption is on the cards, 'Loft' is not concerned with winning the audience over to their side and in the end, this is my biggest problem with it – not a desire for some tired, shoehorned play for morality before the end credits as Hollywood typically insists so as to keep the audience's fantasy of human virtue intact, but simply the fact that in human drama, a cast of unlikable characters is the true act of murder for the audience, their empathy dead and buried for the duration of a film that demands two hours of attention.
Doubtless, there are many fans of the modern crime thriller who revel in the self-destructive anti-hero, seeing him or her as the truly honest figure driven to be nothing more than earnestly human in an uncompromising world. The fun lies in watching their raw emotion explode onto the screen in a celebration of chaos and drama. Perhaps 'Loft' has simply failed to bring out the best of this premise. I admit to not being a devotee of crime fiction and my Tarantino is rusty.
There is still the mystery element, however, and in that arena, 'Loft' is compelling. As we peel the layers from our five anti-heroes, so the plot shifts and twists as expertly as the men themselves wriggle through their double-lives. Revelation follows revelation, and the final sequence is almost amusingly that last desperate attempt to redeem those still battling their consciences. Remorse sails in like a charging cavalry whose alarm clocks failed to sound on time. It feels tacked on as a last desperate twist, yet given what carnal descent into hell writer Bart de Pauw has presented beforehand, better to let the film remain in that melancholy storm of Dante's second circle where it can at least stand with its own self-prescribed dignity.
Of director Erik Van Looy, I would praise his creation of a suitably dark and forebodingly-lit story. The cold light of day has no place here and Looy confines his characters to the shadowy realms in which they belong, and yet one of the stand-out scenes takes place at a daytime wedding where the men's egos are in full flight. He also chooses a fine cast, from the confident presence of Filip Peeters as suave seducer Vincent Stevens to Bruno Vanden Broucke as the nervous Luc Seynaeve – Broucke creating within him a man whose face tells far more than his lips will. Wolfram de Marco's tense soundtrack reminded me in places of Hans Zimmer's score for 'The Ring', punctuated by earnest strings and softened by echoing piano, never overused but doing much to set the tone.
This then is 'Loft', a shadowy discourse on what happens when one succumbs to their desires and the way in which one lie compounds another. Within, all bright lights are diffuse, leaving only shades of grey, misery clawing desperately at excuses and no real victors. In amidst this gallery of the fallen stands the film itself, aiming high in terms of plot twist and drama, but sinking slowly through the ground for failing to engage the viewer on the most fundamental level: empathy.
An Entertaining, If Flawed Spin On A Well-Worn Concept
Six friends find maritime joy is not on the agenda of the fates when they go sailing one morning only to find themselves caught up in a freak storm. Barely surviving their way through the towering high seas and almost Biblical deluge, the capsized crew suddenly discovers an ocean liner in their path, providing a timely rescue. However, relief turns to bewilderment when the seemingly empty vessel proves more dangerous than any high seas-thunderstorm. And why does one of the group recognise the ship despite never having set foot on its decks? The answer seems to lie in an old Greek myth.
'Triangle' is not an easy film to review spoiler-free in any comprehensive way. Its strength lies in its level of complexity and the way in which it plays with multiple perspectives of a single viewpoint. Just how this complexity operates, however, is the crux of the whole piece and the key element that shouldn't be divulged to anyone who hasn't seen it.
This is not to say that it is anywhere near the brain-teaser it tries to be, although it bears the hallmark of decent mystery-horrors by leaving the ultimate questions of plot to the viewer while dropping hints along the way. Unfortunately, some of the script's attempts to tie together the various strands of plot that make it so multi-layered fail in key places where clarity is especially needed, raising questions more out of irritation than intrigue. While some viewers have seen this as an enjoyable challenge in the quest to unravel the 'ultimate truth' as it were, I can't help feeling that writer/director Christopher Smith simply realised his script wasn't quite as clever as he'd intended and threw in a few inadequately explored wild cards to keep the message boards alive with debate long after the popcorn had been consumed.
Neither is it terribly original, borrowing its central premise from other entries in the sci-fi and horror genres, from 'The Twilight Zone' to 'The X Files' on television alone, not to mention one very well-known mainstream Hollywood comedy film of the 90s. The viewer who tends not to be well-versed in the back catalogue of either camp will be better-served, seeing 'Triangle' as something more innovative than it is.
Yet for all this, I found myself compelled by the story enough to see it through to the end, genuinely curious as to how things would pan out. Pacing is fairly well built up and from the very outset, the brooding atmosphere makes it clear something is seriously askew. Much of this is conveyed by the acting talents of Melissa George: the actor has come a long way since her soap opera debut and really sells her alter-ego's troubled predicament through her performance. Alas, while much attention has been lavished on the plot, little has been spent developing the supporting cast, giving them a very B-movie presence. This is undeniably a tour de force for George, who, while being no Cate Blanchett or even Naomi Watts, clearly has the presence to carry the film through its 99 minutes of runtime.
The low-budget nature of 'Triangle' is most evident in the cgi, which I found suitably-placed, but terribly cheap and unconvincing where it really need to sell the drama. I tend to be of the opinion that if you can't afford good digital imagery, there is nothing wrong with practical effects. Still, the complete disinterest in hiding the fact that 'Triangle' was shot in Queensland, Australia rather than the Stateside shores of the Atlantic suggests that Smith was not terribly concerned about convincing visuals so long as they carried the plot sufficiently.
And they do, for the most part. 'Triangle' is an entertaining spin on an well-trodden concept, guaranteed to keep many viewers guessing throughout. A shame then that it lacks so much in execution across the board, from lazy writing to weak characterisation and cheap post-production. It is ultimately worth a watch for the interesting ideas it explores and manages to present them with enough suspense and mystery to see the audience through to the end.
Matir moina (2002)
A Thought-Provoking Attempt Hampered by a Lack of Clear Vision
"The bird's trapped in the body's cage. Its feet bound by worldly chains, it tries to fly but fails." 'The Clay Bird' opens a door into Bangladesh's fight for independence in the late 1960s when the soon-to-be nation state was a far-flung region of Pakistan, following the partitioning of India in 1947. Increasingly disenchanted with the distant central government due to racial, cultural and economic discrimination, Bangladeshis began taking to the streets in protest, demanding a general election as the springboard for autonomous rule. The election was cancelled and the Pakistani military were sent in to quell the uprising, murdering thousands and destroying population centres. A civil war ensued, eventually leading to independence in 1971. The film is set just prior to the prolonged and bloody uprising, as citizens find themselves galvanized along religious and political lines, with tempers beginning to fray. Rather than depict events at the heart of the capital, the story centres around the lives of a rural family in a remote village, bearing witness to the way in which the winds of change blew across the ordinary citizen. While the intent of this is sound, the end result is something of a mixed bag.
The plight of the family proves an effective allegory for the various Bangladeshi attitudes to the turmoil their world is in. Kazi, the father, a born-again Muslim, reflects the ultra-conservative stand that faith and discipline will unite the people under Allah, and is unable or unwilling to accept that the deeply fractured society around him faces problems that cannot be solved through prayer. Milon, his brother, a young political extremist, stands ready to fight for the nation with the unwavering confidence of the just. Ayesha, Kazi's apolitical wife meanwhile, is interested simply in getting through the ordinary day to day struggles of life. Asma, the daughter, is too young to be constrained by the petty concerns of adults, while Anu, the young son, is propelled unwillingly by conflicting forces and ideologies he doesn't understand. It is the nation in miniature, about to burst at the seams.
Yet there is a somewhat meandering quality to the pacing, perhaps in part because the writer has not entirely decided upon the story he wants to tell. It could very easily simply be the story of a young boy forced to attend a madrasa (Islamic boarding school) by a father terrified his son's mind will be polluted by non-Islamic ideas and therein be a commentary on Islamic extremism itself. Indeed, a large chunk of the film is just that: there is a very telling scene where the young Anu and his uncle watch a Hindu boat race, clearly enjoying themselves, only to be reprimanded for celebrating diversity. Kazi's religious fervour has him at odds with the rest of his family, incapable of being the father and husband they so desperately need. The dogma strangles the family to the point of dysfunction. Equally telling is the character of Milon, whose more secular and open-minded world view is the foundation for the forthcoming nation-state. Religious dogma is equated with denial, while the activist is the realist.
Fortunately, the Islamic discourse eventually digs deeper and there is a nice scene where two of the madrasa teachers make the point that the religion spread so successfully across Bangladesh precisely because it was a peaceful ideology. Whatever one's beliefs, there can be no denying that this sort of discourse on Islam is rarely found outside of Islamic countries. The very idea that it must be spread by force and violence is just such a question pondered with dismay by one teacher struggling to understand how religion became part of the rising civil war in the first place. That the Muslim extremists involved in acts of terrorism rivaling the invading Pakistani army might be missing the point is one of the many tragedies of that war, though it is important to remember that many factors came into play, not least cultural and economic destitution. However, director Tarique Masud does not adequately explore these factors, which if the aim is to give a snapshot of society during that time is quite remiss, suggesting that he is more interested on religious commentary. Yet the film goes beyond the madrasa, so that those set up as the main characters then disappear for long stretches like the inhabitants of a Tolkien novel. This unravels the sequences designed to build up character story lines, with the disjointed result leading to the uneven pacing. This leaves the conflicts faced by some to be either insufficiently built up or not satisfyingly followed through. Masud ultimately needed to choose one storyline and stay with it.
Nonetheless, the cast perform with the conviction and skill necessary to draw the viewer into their characters' worlds – when we are able. However, standouts for me include Russell Farazi as Rokon, Anu's one true friend at the madrasa - a likable, yet misunderstood loner, and the young Farazi is more than able to imbue the character with the complexities that reside in such a part. Soaeb Islam, meanwhile, brings to the wannabe revolutionary a warmth often without any dialogue whatsoever. And while Kazi, the stiff-necked Islamic convert, gives Jayanto Chattopadhyay not a lot of range, this does allow for a meaningful scene at the end where the horrors of war force the character to face his religious convictions. And while Nurul Islam Bablu is no Marina Golhabari, he gives Anu the profound innocence that the script requires of the character.
Ultimately, 'The Clay Bird' is not quite the tale of Bengali struggle it purports to be, due to unfortunate scripting and editing choices that take much of the wind out of its sails as a result. However, it opened up a window into a history with which I was hitherto unfamiliar, with many thought-provoking and sometimes touching sequences that still manage to shine through – even if the sum of the parts is conspicuous by its absence.
A Story of Greater Depth Than the Script and Runtime Allow
'Float' tells the story of Jonny, a nervous young artist trapped in a world where his homosexuality is condemned and his talents and timidity are unappreciated by his father. Only his art teacher seems to recognise the aptitude trapped inside and she sends him to Eleuthera to find himself. There, Jonny finds his identity through the help of Romeo, a young man confident of all but his sexuality, and discovers that he may have more courage than he realises.
Coming in at just under 35 minutes, 'Float' does not have a good deal of time to explore its chosen themes and in consequence, the human voyage of discovery and transition seem to happen just a little too quickly and easily to ring true. That aside however, the characterisation is handled with understanding and warmth. The awkward, introverted and timid Jonny, as played believably by Jonathan Murray is someone you ultimately want to see triumph when that first spark of defiance becomes evident. Similarly, the carefree and affable Romeo, as played by Stephen Tyrone Williams, elicits appropriate feelings of betrayal when he is unable to live up to the very philosophy he seemingly preaches. They may not be Oscar-winning performances, but there is an honesty and a resonance to them.
While a culture of homosexual persecution is the film's main theme, it is only really in the opening sequences where this is made manifest, through footage of anti-gay rights protesters. Although punctuated slightly further by a couple of scenes with some street kids, the real persecution, it is emphasised, is that which we inflict upon ourselves through fear. While these external and internal battles are worthwhile and form a strong basis for a tale of the struggle for personal freedom fought every day by many across the world, they are very tall pillars for such a short film to support - at least in the way the script was conceived. I'm fairly sure that many who are dealing with these very issues would argue that they are not overcome quite so easily. Doubtless budget was a constraining factor here, though it should have led writer/director Kareem Mortimer to consider what is achievable within the constraints imposed - yes, you can tell the story in half an hour, but will it have the same impact?
Nonetheless, while this leaves 'Float' feeling at times like the edited highlights of much longer story, it is still an entertaining gallop through a moving and very personal struggle. Mortimer could certainly not be accused of slow pacing - indeed, we are missing none of the story's crucial elements and each is constructed with the skill of a genuine film-maker. The dialogue is feels real enough and generates real emotion. This being the Bahamas, Mortimer is also blessed with a natural set that paints its own rich colours and only adds wonderfully to the human battle for freedom. You are almost left wondering how some people have time for such pointless persecution in the face of so much natural beauty - the human tragedy in a nutshell.
Thus, while 'Float' suffer from a lack of depth and development borne of obvious budget limitations, the parts still hold together well enough to deliver its underlying message intact and in an engaging way.
Event Horizon (1997)
Atmospheric Film Filled With Squandered Potential
Part 'The Black Hole', part 'Sunlight', 'Event Horizon' meshes the epic sci-fi 'base under siege' by mad scientists and the forces of nature plot of both while failing to achieve the greatness of either, eschewing intelligence and depth for shallow, B-grade disposable fluff that entertains just enough for the audience not to feel too cheated and earns the studio a fast buck. Top-drawer actors and well-crafted flashy effects are used to gloss over a meaningless plot and a wasted opportunity, for 'Event Horizon' explores some intriguing concepts and has several elements of a decent film.
Since I first saw it on the big screen, one thing that had always stuck in my mind about 'Event Horizon' was that eerie atmosphere. Director Paul Anderson should certainly explore the horror genre, being adept at building a climate of tension and foreboding. This accentuates the story's central premise: that the ship 'Event Horizon' itself has somehow become affected by the forces it encountered in another dimension. Anderson does a good job of actualising these indelible phenomena on the big screen, keeping the characters and the viewer on edge: we know all hell is going to break loose, but not why or how. He is helped in this goal by the tried and tested talents of an experienced visual effects team that includes department supervisor Richard Yuricich, who earlier proved himself in such greats as '2001' and 'Star Trek: The Motion Picture'. The result earned 'Event Horizon' the description 'weird' when it first came out and the viewers' inability to qualify what they were seeing was one of the film's greatest strengths - no one was entirely sure how real the unexplained anomalies were, which the ending capitalizes upon.
Unfortunately, these efforts are severely undermined by a script that has no interest in exploring the incredible scientific concepts behind the conflict, rendering all the unanswered questions and 'Shining'-style sequences meaningless. It's rather like launching into an intelligent conversation with someone who suddenly decides things are getting too 'heavy' before retreating to the safer topic of whether or not Simon Cowell deserves a knighthood. This has the knock-on effect of ensuring that much of the characters' dialogue is as two-dimensional as their characterisation: if there's a scientist aboard, the chances of him still being sane by the closing credits are about as likely as any military characters present exploring the Kip Thorne ruminations on wormhole theory. The point is not to suggest that anyone should have lapsed into a Carl Sagan lecture on the nature of the universe - those who have sat through the works of Dan Brown will, if still awake, be all too familiar with storytellers more interested in being didactic than genuinely entertaining. Rather, it's the usual desire by the studios not to alienate the meat-heads in the audience with too much of this thing we call 'thinking'. This doubtless also explains the choice of music for the beginning and end credits, which hurriedly promises "don't worry - there's gonna be shootin' 'n killin'" - although Michael Kamen's incidental score is thankfully more in tune with his usual standard.
Still, Laurence Fishburne and Sam Neill are no strangers to film work held together by more money than brains, the Matrix sequels and pointless 'Under The Mountain' remake being more recent examples. Both are capable of giving so much more, with Neill as usual the best-served out of a modest banquet. Once remembered for playing the son of Satan, this is a man who can convey a great deal without ever saying a word. His Dr Weir alter ego, however, needed far more development if we were to be sympathetic with his plight. Fishburne is never allowed to explore any facial expression other than serious concern, although this might have something to do with his polar opposite in the form of Cooper, as played by Richard T. Nelson, whom I really want to believe is not simply there to be the token 'Funny Black Man', but Cooper is really convincing in the role. Other luminaries worthy of mention include Katherine Quinlan and Jason Isaacs, but only because we've seen them act elsewhere, and Sean Pertwee follows his father into sci-fi for the first time to lesser acclaim, though he is hardly provided with much of a challenge.
Much of my annoyance at the lack of effort put into 'Event Horizon' stems from the fact that I am the right demographic for sci-fi/horror. It's frustrating to see a film that in some ways explores themes and story lines I enjoy, but stops short, terrified that it might actually become something truly decent. On the one hand, I could argue that later successes like Danny Boyle's 'Sunshine' raised the bar for the genre, leaving half-baked efforts such as this dancing the limbo beneath it with miles of clear headway up top. Yet precursors like 'The Black Hole' and 'Alien', which, while not necessarily exploring more intelligent story lines, were constructed with greater maturity by genuine film-makers like Ridley Scott, not interested in assembling a film with the help of a marketing team and interested in proper scripting over cheap thrills. Funnily enough, those are the films people still remember today.
As such, 'Event Horizon' bears up well in appearance, but falls short once you take a closer peek. It feels like a very emblematic Hollywood blockbuster, half-filled with genuinely-talented artistes, but driven by a studio anxiously matching their box-office winning formula with audience demographics. Closer inspection reveals that its high aims are in fact the shadow of a much shorter arm outstretched in front of the wall where the puppetry is being performed for short-term gain only. Do yourself a favour and dig up the classics or watch considered efforts like 'Sunlight' instead. If like me, you haven't seen 'Event Horizon' since its original release and its spooky atmosphere left you with fond memories, keep it that way.
Interesting Premise, Poorly Executed
Set in the year 2046, a powerful gang lord assembles a group of religious leaders, demanding to know what it takes to be a true messiah. Meanwhile, lying imprisoned in a garage somewhere nearby is a man who claims to be the son of God. But is this really the messiah everyone was waiting for? Such is the Andorran short film, 'Don't Take The Name Of God In Vain', which, in the very beginning, claims to be "Dedicated to those who died in the name of a god, even though his name was never spoken." The effort is based on the 1984 sci-fi novel 'The Branch' by Mike Resnick, something I have yet to read and therefore am judging the film purely on its own merits.
The storyline is certainly an interesting one, and the premise asks questions some of the more credulous among us would do well to ponder. However, even at just 32 minutes, the execution is about 10 minutes too long and cheaply melodramatic. With a subject matter such as this, it certainly ought to be stirring. The script as executed feels slightly 'Dan Brown' - excessively didactic without ringing true. The first half of the film is quite literally a group of two-dimensional stereotypes arguing about the qualities of a messiah, and it's not until 20 minutes in that we finally see what the fuss is really about. It might have been better as a two-hander between the man who calls himself divine and the one persecuting him, through which his claim to holy fame is slowly revealed. Pau Baredo as the chief antagonist is definitely reaching for the OTT trophy, when a more controlled performance would have been far more effective, although the rest of the cast are just as willing to yell into the microphone. It's fairly apparent that all involved are meant to be caricatures, but this is a story demanding of greater subtlety. On the plus side, director Josep Guirao knows his financial limits and makes good use of low lighting and simple props.
Nonetheless, while the Catalan commentary on the Second Coming may lack finesse, 'Don't Take The Name Of God In Vain' has inspired me to give 'The Branch' a spin. If it also treads the Brown path, I may just have to cut Guirao some slack.
Art Imitating Life With Frankness And Honesty
When his girlfriend is murdered during a bank robbery escape attempt, former convict Alex vows to take revenge on the man who pulled the trigger. Vengeance seems to make perfect sense until he meets his target face-to-face.
'Revanche' is a film that holds its cards close to its chest. Just when you think you have the story pinned in the first half-hour, all hell breaks loose and the film takes a wholly unexpected turn. It is a film that not only challenges you to predict what comes next, but one that forces you to decide whether revenge ever makes sense, to confront feelings of anguish and make decisions you can live with. In the character of Alex, we have a man used to dealing with the rougher side of humanity, which has hardened him in order to survive. The loss of his girlfriend Tamara robs him of the only time he allows himself to be someone else, at peace with the world. Into this world comes the unassuming presence of Robert, a policeman committed to serving the public, yet whom has never faced the hardest part of the job: taking a life. When Robert is confronted by this reality, it is then that we truly learn who he is. This, ultimately, is what the film is about - throwing ordinary people into life's darkest waters and seeing whether or not they will swim back into the light. Writer and director Götz Spielmann presents the viewer with a very compelling drama, which, through its cast of identifiably real characters, engages the viewer throughout. The lines may be drawn between those who feel wronged, but at no time is it ever easy for the viewer to take sides.
This perhaps explains the film's pacing and choice of photography. The basic storyline as described could very easily apply to a fast-paced Hollywood blockbuster, trading humanity and intelligence for cliché and car chases. Yet in the truer world of grocery shopping and household chores, moments of high drama are spaced apart by long periods of calm inactivity, leaving people to brood into the small hours over the choices they have made - the perfect environment within which feelings of revenge and misery can blossom. 'Revanche' is paced in such a way, with the principal characters having to tend to family and the ordinary demands of life while barely holding themselves together over the losses they have suffered. Yet these are their only opportunities to heal and come to terms with their pain. Spielmann accentuates these sequences with often picturesque long shots within which silence reigns and the magnitude of the suffering seems to pale into comparison with the enormity of the surrounding world.
Johannes Krisch, who some IMDb readers have intriguingly compared to Robert Carlysle, is well-cast as the hardened Alex. He not only looks the part, but conveys just the right mix of softness within a wary, battle-worn shell. Andreas Lust, as Robert, expertly portrays the policeman whose life collapses beneath him, propelling him into a world of anguish and self-doubt. Credit also goes to Johannes Thanheiser as Alex's grandfather, a man for whom life is much the same each day, yet this is no reason to complain, and Ursula Strauss as Susanne, who, as Robert's wife, must balance her role as supporter in difficult times with her needs as a woman.
Ultimately, the film leaves the viewer to tie up the loose ends, inviting comment on the drama that has unfolded. This is definitely a strong effort from all concerned, and a very mature approach to what easily could have been a simplistic action snuff piece. It's art imitating life with frankness and honesty, and worthwhile viewing. Actual rating: 7 1/2 stars.
Van Diemen's Land (2009)
A Welcome Attempt, But Lacking In Depth
"Wasn't the devil in you when you brought me here?"
'Van Diemen's Land' opens up a window into the darker chapters of Australia's convict settlement past, when the British penal colony was a harsh, unforgiving wilderness populated by struggling pioneers and convicts sent to the other side of the earth for stealing so much as a loaf of bread. Once there, repeat offenders might be confined to Sarah Island, a hellish prison camp in Macquarie Harbour in western Van Diemen's Land, now Tasmania. Conditions there were so extreme that in 1822, Irish-born malcontent Alexander Pearce and seven others, tasked with felling the surrounding forests to provide shipbuilders with high-quality wood, attempted to escape their exile. When plans to steal a moored whaling vessel fell through, the escapees, without much aforethought, plunged into the harsh Tasmanian wilderness intending to travel east to Hobart, some 225km away. Although Robert Greenhill, one of the convicts, could draw upon his many years as a sailor to provide navigational expertise, none present knew how to survive in bushland so inhospitable even the indigenous Australians largely avoided it, and when food supplies ran out, they turned to cannibalism. Few of the ill-fated expedition would survive to tell the tale. In 'Van Diemen's Land', we join the convicts on the day of their escape attempt and follow the grizzly events that ensue.
The story of Alexander Pearce is perhaps not unsurprisingly missing from the school curriculum in Australia, and it was only through this film that I myself became familiar with this dark chapter of White Australia. 'Van Diemen's Land' inspired me to fire up my browser and learn more, with the realisation that in movie terms, I was watching the middle part of a trilogy. Part 1 would have dealt with Pearce's repeated offences condemning him to slave labour on Sarah Island. There, he would continue to prove unruly for the authorities, practicing his talent for theft and disruption, ultimately finding himself on work detail felling trees in Macquarie Harbour and seeing an opportunity for escape. Part 3 would have dealt with the consequences of his actions, including one final adventure, which the last sequence of 'Van Diemen's Land' briefly covers. Director and co-writer Jonathan auf der Heide, however, appears to be fixated upon the middle part of the story, and while the moment when Pearce acquired a taste for human flesh strikes an undeniable discord with all but perhaps the Korowai tribe of Papua New Guinea, I can't help feeling that it's a little like telling the tale of Ned Kelly focusing only on the killings at Stringybark Creek. Only a few captions either side of the film quickly fill in the blanks, hinting that there is more to the story. Nonetheless, 'Part 2' is well-crafted for what it is and sheds a memorable, yet gloomy light on this hitherto forgotten saga.
auf der Heide wisely chooses a cast of unknowns to inhabit the fateful eight, which ensures the audience will accept their alter egos at face value. Oscar Redding, perhaps the best-known, creates an Alexander Pearce just possibly capable of redemption, up until the moment he agrees to sacrifice a member of the party for food, while Arthur Angel portrays a Robert Greenhill you wouldn't want to be within twenty miles of when it came time to sleep. The rest of the cast fill out the remainder of the ill-fated group with similarly creditable performances, with the Scottish characters delivering their lines in Gallic alongside the 18th Century English dialect to underscore Australia's role as a dumping ground for convicts all across the British Isles. The string-powered score, often more sound than symphony, meshes well with the bleak, washed-out picture to strongly evoke the dark mood of the piece. There are no archetypal heroes, only desperate human animals hastening the decay of civilisation's thin veneer. Filmed on location in south-central Tasmania, the authentic natural backdrop does much on its own to sell the concept that the escapees are not only at the end of the earth as they themselves suggest, but that the land is cold and unforgiving - just as much today as it was in 1822. If I have issues with the film, therefore, it's the storyline.
By focusing purely upon the escape attempt and the descent into cannibalism, the tale feels reduced somewhat into a B-grade exploitation horror. It doesn't provide suitable build-up to properly explore the choices certain characters make throughout, though the documentation for this does exist. In consequence, I felt the leap to 'the other meat' was a little rushed, reminding me of an early South Park episode where cannibalism is the first rather than last resort. In addition, the full story would be more satisfying than some of the edited highlights 'cannibalised' for the purposes of a thriller. There is far more to the Alexander Drake story than we are witness to in 'Van Diemen's Land'. Undeniably, the issue of runtime comes into play here, however as I suggested earlier, there is enough scope for more than one feature. However, auf der Heide is the first to explore it cinematically, and perhaps this will spark interest in genuine Australian Gothic from here on. It certainly captures the tone and feel of that bleak world, taking strides towards tapping into a rarely explored period of Australian history that perhaps may now be brought to light free of the nationalist veil. Certainly any proud Australian and film fan should see 'Van Diemen's Land' for this purpose, and genre fans everywhere will appreciate what it does achieve. Let's hope it's a taster of things to come.
An Unpleasant, Yet Well-Crafted Character Study
'Calendar' is a slightly unusual film offering, written, filmed, directed, performed and possibly even fixed together with Scotch tape by Atom Egoyan, with this being my first trip into his cinematic world. It is a film that builds subtly, almost voyeuristically, so that the viewer finds themselves delving into the lives of its subjects to a level of prolonged discomfort, which reaches its crescendo as their true nature unfolds, all the while within some wonderful Armenian landscapes.
The plot concerns a Canadian-Armenian photographer returned to the land of his ancestors with the job of photographing his homeland's most picturesque churches for a forthcoming calendar. He is accompanied by his Armenian wife, acting as translator for the local driver and guide they have hired to provide them with background information on all the sites visited. The unassuming beginning suggests that this is more or less the sum-total of the film, but with every new location, we slowly learn of the deeply fragmented relationship present between the married couple and the cause of the ensuing distance between them. The way in which the film is shot helps to underscore this gulf, with the photographer never seen with his wife in the same place at the same time. Indeed, we only see him some time after the calendar has been printed, while we only see her during the photoshoot, very tellingly only in the company of the driver.
In some ways, 'Calendar' is rather difficult to watch, with the characters becoming more and more grotesque as the narrative progresses, especially that of the photographer, whose mounting jealousy (which could itself be described as a grotesque emotion) is exacerbated further by his unpleasant personality, particularly evident throughout scenes occurring in the present where, still emotionally in orbit around his estranged wife, he 'auditions' a long line of potential replacements (something that is not explicitly stated, so other viewers may have a different interpretation). Yet the film is shot in a very simple and effective way, which captures the claustrophobic mood of the piece while highlighting the wonderful natural backdrop. The camera is locked off in every scene, perhaps to mimic the still photography of the calendar itself, forcing the viewer to pay close attention to the tense and unspoken decay of the relationship. The still frame, accompanied by the subjects frequently in mid to long shot, further symbolize the distance felt by the man behind the camera and only serve to heighten his sense of isolation. These sequences are intercut with handicam footage of the characters' journey through Armenia, and yet despite providing the opportunity for motion, it is no more comforting, with the bluish tint and frequent lack of sound simply another form of isolation.
Egoyan is clearly a skilled photographer, and he lovingly captures the churches with the warmth and texture you would expect to see on a professional calendar. This only serves to heighten the contrasting coldness and unease created by the characters themselves, which Egoyan as the photographer and Arsinee Khanjian as the wife expertly create. It's certainly not a pleasant cinematic adventure, but anyone who has experienced that phase of a relationship will at least know the horrible awkwardness created between two people who were once close, and the helpless feeling of loss as a result. Unfortunately, drawn as he is, it is well-nigh impossible to sympathize with the protagonist's predicament, though his wife is by no means a victim.
The deeply personal discomfort, while real, does perhaps ensure 'Calendar' is probably not something I could sit through too often, but the effective minimalist approach on the production side and the jarring juxtaposition of cold, reserved knife-edge drama against the ultimately inconsequential polychromatic background has imbued a strong sense of the Atom Egoyan style. Certainly not a crowd-pleaser, but a director guaranteed to provoke thought. I'm certainly curious enough to explore some of his back catalogue some day. Actual rating 6 1/2 stars.
El secreto de sus ojos (2009)
A Powerful and Thought-Provoking Masterpiece
"A guy can change anything. His face, his home, his family, his girlfriend, his religion, his God. But there's one thing he can't change. He can't change his passion."
'The Secret In Their Eyes' builds upon the very essence of life: a sequence of key moments that can completely change our destinies if we recognize them for what they are, held together by the long ordinary days in between where we don't feel remarkable enough to act. Yet its ultimate message is one of hope, while also challenging us to decide whether or not in certain situations revenge is justified. I am not normally a big fan of crime fiction, let alone romance, yet if 'The Secret In Their Eyes' was indicative of the way in which crime-romance cinema normally entertains, I'd have to jump the tracks and nail my colours to the mast. However, 'The Secret In Their Eyes' is simply a very good film, written and directed with confident maturity, populated with engaging characters expertly realized, and one that really makes you think long after the credits have rolled up into the screen.
As the 20th Century draws to a close, retired federal justice agent Benjamin Esposito decides to fictionalise an especially memorable case from his younger days - one that changed his life forever. However, as the memories come flooding back, the unsolved 1974 crime refuses to fade away, and Esposito finds himself compelled to solve it once and for all, in the process rediscovering his undying love for a woman he once let slip through his fingers. Along the way, he learns what truly makes humans tick and that true passion may be the strongest force in existence, although it may manifest itself in ways too hard to accept.
It will therefore hardly be surprising that I consider one of the film's prime strengths to be its study of the human condition. On one level, the commentary is nothing new: love, longing, missed opportunities, regret, fallibility, weakness, malice; yet this is humanity in a nutshell, with every generation enacting the same drama as before.
'Secret' is not intended to turn this all-encompassing portrait on its side and offer a new interpretation. Its characters are straightforward, easily-identifiable and found all around us - they may even be us. The aim is to show them in all their glory and misery and break them down into the raw emotions that make us all tick. If you've never truly loved and lost, much of the film simply won't resonate as anything more than a tired cliché. Likewise, if you don't care for a study on the mechanics of human behaviour, this isn't for you. It's not a new paradigm of the genre, rather a very open and honest one that relies very much on the viewer's own life experience for it to make impact. Others may be put off by the analysis of revenge, especially as it invites introspection on one's own character by film's end. Yet this is surely the point.
Another of 'Secret's key strengths is the choice of actors and the characters themselves. Ricardo Darin's Esposito is at turns very subdued, worn down by the realities of life, yet elsewhere a fiery champion of justice - perhaps not unsurprising given his vocation, but Darin has the feel of the character just right. In opposition, Soledad Villamil's Irene is a woman in conflict: career-driven, struggling to walk the right path, and torn by her feelings. If anyone embodied the film's title, it would have to be Pablo Rago's portrayal of Ricardo Morales, the husband of a rape victim. Rago's wide eyes says so much, yet hide even more. Perhaps especially memorable however is Esposito's friend, Pablo Sandoval, played by Guillermo Francella. It may again be unoriginal that the film's comic relief turns out to have the greatest insight (and espouse the film's central message), but the oft-ignored yet wise fool is a long-enduring character simply for what he offers the viewer. There is also something earthy and endearing about Francella's performance that keeps your eyes trained upon him. The humour also provides a welcome release amidst the darker themes of the film.
This is helped further by the touching, at times hauntingly-beautiful score provided by Federico Jusid and Emilio Kauderer, proving an excellent match for the often sombre mood director Juan Campanella aims to create. Although 'sepia' would be too strong a word, there is a definite yellowish tint awash over the flashback sequences that give the film its art-house feel and atmosphere. Running at just over two hours, Campanella has managed to set the pace just right - anything slower would lose the audience, yet to speed things up would be to destroy the important character moments, often carried by lingering expressions that say more than dialogue ever would. Yet dialogue is very much the centrepiece of the film - none of the themes are left unexplored and Campanella isn't interested in letting the visuals do all the talking. Again, I felt the balance between the visual discourse and the verbal was just right.
As my first entry into Argentinian film, I was very impressed with 'The Secret In Their Eyes'. However, to dwell on its country of its origin would be to do it a disservice, for it is simply good cinema. While its commentary on its universal themes may not work for everyone, I think many will enjoy the very touching and human tale that unfolds. If it ultimately leaves you a little unsettled and undecided as to the choices taken within the narrative, it has achieved its goal. Actual rating: 8 1/2 stars.
Momentos de Gloria (2010)
Shining A Light Into Moments Of Darkness
'Moments Of Glory' is an interesting series of vignettes depicting life in modern Angola, with the country's many conflicts, from the recent civil war to rampant street crime forming the story lines to each segment. However, the subjects are handled with a degree of humour and irony, the brief 10-minute anthology itself presented within a comic-book framework, introduced by transitional animation, a la Stephen King's 'Creepshow', and driven along by a jaunty soundtrack. The offsetting of the serious social issues by ironic humour is certainly an accessible way of delving into their darker ramifications, and with a running time of only 10 minutes, is probably a good way of creating something memorable. Each subject is deserving of dramatic commentary, but when you live with such fear and uncertainty every day, finding the humorous side is not only healthy, it's essential.
This I also found desirable, since 'Moments Of Glory' is my first Angolan film, and humour is an excellent way into a culture, with the subtle rather than overt approach washing over the end result with a good dose of maturity. Writer and producer Ze Du dos Santos is very much aware of the film's brevity, paring each script down to its essentials, with director Antonio Duarted overseeing some good camera work and acting to match. I didn't always see a connection between each segment, nor did I really understand the message of the final part (the Aldous Huxley-informed triumph of superficiality?), but this lack of coherence may well be due to my lack of knowledge on all things Angolan. However, with this sort of talent on display, and with the Angolan film industry fairly spartan at present, I hope the void will be filled before long. 'Moments Of Glory' is certainly a promising entrée.
Amor idiota (2004)
I Feel Sure There Was A Point To This
Pere-Lluc is a man unsatisfied by ordinary life. In his mid-thirties and drifting through an existence devoid of meaning, he passes his days a slave to his instincts, aware of the consequences reckless abandon brings, but entirely unmotivated by reason or common sense. A chance encounter with the striking and married director of an advertising firm one evening suddenly gives his life purpose, as he pursues her with a desperate licentiousness - aware of the consequences, but a slave to animal instinct. Inevitable misunderstandings ensue, but Pere-Lluc cannot fight his instincts - he must have the object of his desire, even if it means suffering pain and humiliation to get it.
With 'Amor Idiota', I find myself challenged to pin down the point writer Lluís-Anton Baulenas and director Ventura Pons were trying to make: 'stalking - you'd pretty much have to', perhaps? There are certainly strong indicators that the more well-trodden message of love, wandering, and sunsets will lift us through the chaotic waters of emptiness and self-loathing is the principal message. Unfortunately, the characters designed to illustrate this ideal are painted far too shallow to make any of their actions believable, let alone convince the viewer of the ending that results almost in spite of their actions. Their maladjusted behavior and fatalistic philosophies, which form much of the film's dialogue, are ultimately squandered as a result. It's interesting in turn how hard the script attempts to apologise for its lead character's impulses, with Pere-Lluc being highly self-aware of his 'idiocy', as though the idea that someone unfulfilled by ordinary life is horribly wrong - clearly they must be social refuse.
'Idiocy' here is almost a misused euphemism - acting upon impulse alone suggests a lack of intelligence, yet in human terms this does not make the principal characters stupid, merely self-centred, driven to depression and frustration by the ticking clock and their inability to subscribe to society's expectations of where they should now be in their thirties. I can easily sympathise with anyone who finds themselves in this position, yet because the dramatis personae in 'Amor Idiota' are drawn in such unsympathetic and antisocial ways, this entire avenue of middle-aged social commentary is bulldozed to rubble within the first few minutes, the remaining debris atomised by the stunning cowardice or perhaps cornball mismatch (I can't decide which) of the ending.
Yet the whole misadventure did not leave me bored, perhaps because its silliness kept me guessing. Somehow, I felt compelled to find out where Pons was going with all his maltreated philosophy, and would Pere-Lluc have evolved as a person now that stalking had given his life meaning? I wasn't best pleased with the result. The film's unpleasant characters and grotesque discourse compelled me despite myself, curious to see how it would all come to a head, but the finale made me feel an idiot for watching.
The unsurprising standouts of the cast itself are Santi Millan, whose portrayal of the bored, intellectual sleaze Pere-Lluc is right on the money, assuming that this was the intent. I probably saw a bit more of his genitals than I would have liked - that they are symbolic of Pere-Lluc's surrender to his animal instincts is more desirably clear through the several thousand lines of dialogue stating this point. Cayetana Guillén Cuervo provides an interesting contrast, with the character of Sandra slowly revealing the many layers of her troubled personality to the point where she fits right in with the rest of the gang of misfits. With Pere-Lluc baring all that he is from the beginning, this peeling of the onion provides a welcome and necessary contrast given the ultimate similarity of the leads.
While I'm not a devotee of the romance genre, I can't help feeling that it's so over-mined that the sub-oeuvre of 'misfits in love' itself is bound to have been explored to better gain elsewhere. Whether Ventura Pons will have been discovered to have been deeply misunderstood is something for future ages to ponder. For now though, 'Amor Idiota' stands as a mish-mash of valid discourse executed badly, causing at least this reviewer to wonder if he's either missed the point or been punished for thinking too deeply. Then again, the lead characters manage to achieve both without really coming to a satisfactory conclusion. That in the end, is how this Barcelona farce left me.