27 December, 2008

Gomorra (2008)

Death is a dirty business

You can forget Tony Montana, Don Corleone. Forget about it - from Matteo Garrone (Primo amore (2004)), Gomorra is not a sweeping crime opera, inhabited by the traditional 'gentlemen' gangsters - in fact, much of the story pans out in a huge, crumbling housing estate on the outskirts of Naples, a warren of apartments and catwalks where every move is watched by drug dealers' sentries.

We are thrust into five, interconnected stories - outwardly respectable businessman Mr Franco (Toni Servillo) is busy destroying the landscape around the city with the pollution from his industry efforts, and meanwhile two Scarface-obsessed teenagers (Marco Macor and Ciro Petrone) have begun their own war against the local Camorra. Then, there's a likeable, ambitious youngster (Salvatore Abruzzese, excellent) who delivers groceries for his mother’s shop but wants to become a proper mobster. At the same time, an impoverished tailor (Salvatore Cantalupo) in an illegal workshop is busy making cheap copies of designer frocks, a skill that has caught the attention of a new gang, the Chinese, who lure him away with the promise of a fortune. Finally, there’s an elderly foot-soldier (Gianfelice Imparato), a bag-man who delivers cash to mob-affiliated families, small payments rewarding loyalty or silence, but who gets caught up in a turf war between rival gangs.

Garrone proves that he is not at all bothered with the genre's archetypal grand gestures or proclamations, preferring instead to draft a catalogue of how all-pervasive and corrosive the Mafia influence has become. It's a chilling, brutal mosaic of cross-generational corruption, violence, greed and power, spiked with beautifully presented and astonishingly powerful set-pieces. Gomorra's finest achievement is that it doesn't play to the stereotype of Italy being nothing but the home of gangsters. Resembling news reports from a war zone and adhering closely to journalist Roberto Saviano’s best-selling non-fiction book (as a result of which the author has had to go into hiding, fearing for his life), Gomorra shows that, for many Neapolitans, the underworld has become the real world. Fair enough, it opens with a shootout reminiscent of Scorcese's Goodfellas (1990) or The Sopranos, but even those masterpieces are too smooth and polished next to the gritty, dirty and horrifying universe depicted in the film. A worthy EFA winner.

Aside from winning Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Screenwriter and Best Cinematographer at this year's European Film Awards, and the Grand Prix at this year's Cannes, Gomorra has been nominated for numerous gongs elsewhere. Click here for details.

136 mins. In Italian, Mandarin, French.

21 December, 2008

Love in the Time of Cholera (2007)

Endless love

A courageous or foolhardy move from director Mike Newell (Donnie Brasco (1997), Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)) to adapt Gabriel García Márquez’s El amor en los tiempos del cólera, which has already established itself as one of the greatest modern romantic novels?

Well, there’s no doubting Newell’s competency behind the camera, which translates visually into a sumptuous feast for the senses, but whether Ronald Harwood’s screenplay captures all the intricacies of the love, lost and regained, that’s at the heart of the incredibly rich and detailed prose of the original, is another matter, and one that will doubtless be fiercely debated by the book’s devotees.

The setting is 19th century Columbia – young romantic Florentino Ariza (Unax Ugalde) spies young maiden Fermina (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) promenading through the plaza and is forever, hopelessly smitten. Captivated by her beauty, he resolves to remain a virgin until they can be together but – oh, misery! – following a heated exchange of letters and a long-distance barrage of telegrams, after Fermina’s father (John Leguizamo) has taken her in country to stymie the relationship, Florentino is casually rejected, with his beloved citing the temporary insanity of youth. Enter successful young doctor Juvenal Urbino (Benjamin Bratt), who wins fair lady’s hand – and we cut to an older Florentino (now played by Javier Bardem) who, while still forever betrothed in his heart to his amour perdu, eases the pain of his heartbreak via sex with lots and lots of women. A dirty job, but somone’s got to do it…

Accusations of, ahem, ‘chick-flickery’ may follow, but they are misplaced – despite perhaps a mistake being made in the casting of Mezzogiorno as Fermina (her looks are simply not captivating enough, which somewhat undermines the original credibility of Florentino’s amour fou, particularly when one sees the ravishing beauty of many of his conquests), Bardem’s performance is a text-book account of the perils and pain wrought by the heart, and is thus the lynch-pin for a film that manages to avoid popcorn stereotypes.

The near two-and-a-half hour running time may seem extensive, but kudos, in fact, that so much of the novel’s original thrust remains, because a 12-hour mini-series adaptation would still have faced criticism over what had been removed.

Hearts of stone need not apply, but for the rest, the film can be seen as a qualified success, parts of which do resonate in the deepest places.

Awards: Click here for details.

139 mins.

12 December, 2008

Z odzysku (Retrieval) (2006)

Punchy pic

Polish debut director Slawomir Fabicki doesn't pull punches with his debut feature Z odzysku (Retrieval), about a young boxer struggling to do the right thing but finding himself being dragged ever deeper into the criminal mire. While the story takes a little time to find its rythmn, once it's ducking and diving, the result is a solid, adult and engrossing portrayal of the best that a man can do when faced with the worst.

Wojtek (Antoni Pawlicki) is a good kid from Silesa who swops his dangerous cement-pit work for a more comfortable job in security at a local disco, after the disco's boss Dariusz (Jacek Braciak), sees him box. Help is even provided to find a cushy apartment for him and his illegal Ukrainian immigrant lover Katja (Natalya Vdovina) and her son Andryi (Dimitri Melnichuk). When Dariusz takes Wojtek under his wing, he soon discovers that Dariusz also makes money as a loan shark, for which he is expected to do “security” as well, forcing the people who have not paid back in time to do so.

Fabicki, who co-wrote the screenplay with Denijal Hasanovic and Marek Pruchniewski, creates some strongly resonant scenes in the more general framework of their story of a decent man forced into criminal behaviour. Pawlicki does seem physically slight for a boxer, but he does capture the puppy-dog look that makes his character’s essential goodness utterly believable - and his character's transition from caring to ruthless is remarkable. In brief, the film emerges as something rather more than first meets the eye, even if the ending seems more than a touch abrupt.

Awards: Click here for details.

103 mins. In Polish and Russian.

El Orfanato (The Orphanage) (2007)

Children in the shadows

James Drew reviews, a little after the event, one of this year's European Film Awards' nominees. He's not saying that Gomorra didn't deserve to win (as he hasn't actually seen it yet, that wouldn't really be fair, but keep it here for his review soon), but is a little disappointed that this classic ghost story didn't lift a gong in any of its nominated categories...

A pleasure to know that the genuinely creepy, M.R. James-esque ghost story is not, for want of a better word, dead. It will come as no surprise to those who follow the genre and those who have followed the only really notable horror films of recent years, such as Fragile (2005), [Rec] (2007), both by Spanish genius Jaume Balagueró, that El Orfanato’s creator, young music-video maker turned film director Juan Antonio Bayona, is also a Spaniard, as is writer Sergio G. Sánchez. In an age of seemingly never-ending remakes and ‘torture porn’ from the US, it would appear that Spain is where it’s at for scares. Hoorah, say I…

From the outset, you know that the film’s setting promises shivers. Let’s face it, an old, previously abandoned orphanage (like a deserted hospital) is a place guaranteed to give you the creeps, whether you believe in ‘the other side’ or not. Even if it’s not haunted, it’s haunting.

Anyway, Laura (Belén Rueda) brings her family (husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and adopted son Simón (Roger Príncep) back to her childhood home - an orphanage, which she intends to reopen for handicapped children. But the house holds secrets and, when Simón starts talking and playing with his invisible new friends, darkness is fast approaching…

Those who love the genre are forever being asked as to why they like being scared by those who don’t - I’ve already presented my ‘It’s like a rollercoaster’ standby argument, so, to paraphrase, the best scary movies make you feel alive. No exception here - character and story credibility (always a problem with horror) are very well established, thanks to a straight-faced script, the universal empathy that is felt for a child (and mother) in peril, and the more traditional (but expertly executed) notions of something ‘orrible in the basement, combined with the fact that kids can be scary, period.

What’s more, the acting is first rate and, in another move away from contrived US excess, the denoument is both chilling and, paradoxically, heartwarming.

Definitely one for a cold night in front of the fire around Christmas and, if you should choose to watch it with your children, just make sure you know which ones, eh? Heh, heh, heh…

Awards: Click here for details.

105 mins. In Spanish.

10 December, 2008

Goya's Ghosts (2006)

Flawed portrait

Milos Forman’s heavily contrived plot begins in Spain, during the time of the Inquisition. The artist Francesco Goya has, because of his grotesque depictions of religious ceremonies and cruel hypocrisy, come to the attention of the Holy Office, the sinister cabal which upholds strict religious morals.

Cleverly, however, the film doesn’t turn into one about artistic persecution. Goya has a friend in the church, Brother Lorenzo, who both defends Goya’s vision, and commissions a portrait from him. In another clever twist, Lorenzo is not portrayed as a liberal reformer, but the opposite. He wants a return to the god-fearing ways of the past, and secures permission to instigate a new wave of religious clampdown.

After Inez Bilbatua (one of Goya’s muses) is arrested by the Holy Office, tortured and forced to make a false confession, her father, Tomas, also a friend of Goya, extracts revenge on Lorenzo, forcing him to make a confession of his own.

Tomas Bilbatua hopes to use the confession for blackmail purposes, so his daughter can be freed. When this fails, and the confession is made known to the church authorities, Lorenzo becomes an exile, and Inez remains a prisoner of the Inquisition. Then comes the news that King Louis of France has been beheaded.

Flash forward 15 years. The ideals of the revolution are now being upheld with the principals of terror, Napoleon’s armies have invaded Spain, and the Inquisition has been dismantled. Goya, now deaf, has observed things from afar. No longer painter to the king, his status has diminished. When Inez turns up at his door, unrecognisable from years in prison, she has a shocking revelation; she conceived a child with Lorenzo.

Conveniently at this point, Lorenzo has reappeared. He had been in France during the intervening years, become a convert to revolutionary ideals, and is back in Spain to try his old religious bosses.

The elaborate plotting is, presumably, a commentary on the vagaries of fate, and the dangers of history repeating. However, all opportunities for irony are missed, as the film applies one sledgehammer blow after another. Unsure of its tone, it opts for straight melodrama when a lighter touch is needed.

Indeed, the film never quite makes up its mind as to whether it’s a historical epic, an ironic examination of religious and political double standards, or a personal drama. This is a pity, as the principal actors all do their best, but are sadly let down by a dull script and increasingly unbelievable plot twists.

Stellan Skarsgård as Goya and Javier Bardem as Lorenzo are particularly good, with able support from Jose Luis Gomez as Tomas Bilbatua, Michael Lonsdale as Father Gregorio, and, in a neat cameo, Randy Quaid as King Carlos.

The big let-down, however, is Natalie Portman in the twin roles of Inez and Alicia. As Inez, she is decidedly uninspiring as a muse, and lacks the radiant sexuality that brings her to the attention of the Inquisition in the first place. During the second half, under heavy make-up, she fares little better, straining too hard for pathos. In the underwritten role of Alicia, she simply descends into caricature.

Despite the routine presentation, all is not lost. The relationship between Goya and Lorenzo is interesting, and a scene where the artist unveils his portrait of the monk is a small triumph of subtle acting and spare, concise writing. Indeed, this contrasts nicely with a later comic scene in which Goya reveals his new portrait of the Queen - not noted for her beauty - to the bemused royal court.

But perhaps the most telling part in the film is a vignette, in which Goya is shown methodically preparing one of his nightmarish plates, which he completes just as Brother Lorenzo arrives for the unveiling, and which neatly shows the proximity this often scandalous artist had to the establishment; and how art serves as both a tool of protest and of record.

Sadly, these touches fail to make up for the uncertainties elsewhere in the film; not least the bizarre demotion of the character of Goya as the story progresses, reducing him to little more than a plot device. Strange.

Awards: Click here for details.

114 mins.

08 December, 2008

21st European Film Awards: And The Winners Are...

Matteo Garrone's harsh, hard-hitting exposé of the Neapolitan mafia, Gomorra, took five awards, while everyone's favourite 'M', Dame Judi Dench, was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 21st European Film Awards ceremony in Copenhagen, on 6 December 2008.

Click here for the full list of nominees.


Best Film: Gomorra

Best Director: Matteo Garrone, Gomorra

Best Actor: Toni Servillo, Gomorra

Best Actress: Kristin Scott Thomas, I've Loved You So Long

Best Screenwriter: Maurizio Braucci, Ugo Chiti, Gianni di Gregorio, Matteo Garrone, Massimo Gaudioso and Roberto Saviano, Gomorra

Carlo di Palma European Cinematographer Award: Marco Onorato, Gomorra

European Film Academy Prix D'Excellence: Magdalena Biedrzycka for costume design, Katyn

Best Composer: Max Richter, Waltz With Bashir

European Film Academy Critics Award - Prix FIPRESCI: Abdellatif Kechiche, The Secret of the Grain

European Film Academy Documentary - Prix Arte Rene: Rene by Helena Trestikova

European Film Academy Short Film - Prix UIP: Frankie by Darren Thornton

European Film Academy Lifetime Achievement Award: Dame Judi Dench

European Achievement in World Cinema: Soren Kragh-Jacobsen, Kristian Levring, Lars von Trier, and Thomas Vinterberg

European Discovery Award: Steve McQueen (Hunger)

People's Choice Award: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, by David Yates

04 December, 2008

There Will Be Blood (2007)

Black gold, black hearts, bloody masterpiece

At the risk of being unbearably smug, reviewing films for a living can be an absolutely wonderful occupation. Paul Thomas Anderson, who previously gave the world Punch-Drunk Love (2002), Magnolia (1999) and Boogie Nights (1997), has outdone himself with his adaptation of the Upton Sinclair novel Oil! and, in Daniel Day-Lewis as the morally ambiguous, Machiavellian early US oil baron, Daniel Plainview, the medium itself has been elevated.

It’s that simple. You could count on one hand the performances from more than a hundred years of cinema that deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Day-Lewis’s astounding take - Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), John Huston in Chinatown (1974), De Niro in Raging Bull (1980) - he’s just that good. Thank heavens that ‘Dan the Man’ lifted the Oscar statuette this year, among the many other awards that P.T. Anderson's film won.

Still with me at the back? We were talking about There Will Be Blood, weren’t we? This epic, reminiscent of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West (1968) in its sweep and audacity, opens in 1898, with Daniel Plainview working his unforgiving silver mine in the New Mexico wilderness. When he breaks his leg after finally finding some silver ore, he drags himself to town and hires a crew, including a man caring for an infant son. By chance, Plainview discovers oil in the same mine, but the boy’s father dies in a drilling accident. Renaming him H.W, Planview adopts the young boy as his own. Nine years later: Plainview is a charismatic and modestly successful oil man with several productive wells around New Mexico and, with H.W. (Dillon Freasier), travelling the state, buying drilling rights. But his life is about to change forever - a visit from young Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) leads Plainview to the town of Little Boston, California, and ‘an ocean of oil’. But there’s a caveat - Paul’s twin brother Eli (also played by Dano) is a constant irritant to Plainview; he’s the preacher/’faith healer’ who tends to the flock at the Church of the Third Revelation. The $10,000 that the oil man agrees to pay for drilling rights is to go towards a new building for the congregation - in this pact, a blood tie has been forged between Daniel and Eli…they just don’t know it yet.

From the moment Day-Lewis opens his mouth (which takes a while - Anderson is courageous enough not to have any dialogue, save a rasping 'There she is', for nearly 20 minutes), you just know you’re in for a joy. Nailing the silken tones of a turn-of-the-century American gentleman without the hint of a brogue, the actor goes on to reveal, with no mis-step whatsoever, a man with a mask that covers his misanthropy. It’s slipping more and more as his success grows (’I see the worst in people. I don’t need to look past seeing them to get all I need. I’ve built my hatreds up over the years, little by little…I can’t keep doing this on my own with these…people’) yet Day-Lewis’s characterization nevertheless retains viewer sympathy because of the ‘moral’ (if you can call it that) battle that he conducts with the venal, utterly corrupt ‘man of faith’, Eli - a terrific counterpoint turn from Dano.

And it is in this confrontation, between two men who know themselves to be damned, that the film draws its supreme power, culminating in a denouement that is easily among the finest finishes ever committed to celluloid. Day-Lewis doesn’t merely chew the scenery - he swallows it whole. ‘Did you think your song and dance and your superstition would help you, Eli? I AM THE THIRD REVELATION! I AM WHO THE LORD HAS CHOSEN!’

Oh yes, there will be blood. You better believe it - and your life will be poorer if you don’t see this incredible dance of death.

Awards: Way too many to cite here. Click for more details.

158 mins.

29 November, 2008

Färval Falkenberg (Falkenberg Farewell) (2006)

Swede and slow

This is definitely a film you will either like or you won't. I found it very hard going for the first half an hour at least - a big investment of time considering I couldn't see what direction it was taking. Directed by Jesper Ganslandt (whose first film this is), the story grinds on at a snail's pace for a good long while - not a lot actually happens, at least by major movie standards.

The film follows the lives of several young men living in the popular seaside resort of Fälkenberg, in western Sweden. Life is pretty mundane by youth standards. There is talk of maybe going to the local club or going back to one of their houses to eat chocolate or cake mix - pretty riveting stuff. The two main characters, David (David Johnson) and Holger (Holger Eriksson) pass most of their boring days hanging around, deciding whether or not to paint the house, swimming, and getting high in the forest on 'shrooms.

It is during these mushroom trips that David becomes introspective and weeps for his lost youth and the innocence of days past - long, langorous summer days as kids growing up in a Swedish town. He yearns for the simplicity and freedom of those times, and has difficulty coming to terms with the fact he is finally growing up and is obliged to make what seem to be difficult choices.

The film is narrated by David, and follows the format of a diary, with dates and entries spoken over the action, such as it is. The reason for this becomes obvious later in the film, and the idea is used to good effect. As far as a script goes, it seems very ad-libbed, as I suppose a lot of it is, but there are many lines and statements without which the film wouldn't work at all.

As far as cinematography goes, there isn't a lot to speak of. Most of it seems to be shot on regular stock film, but there are also a lot of flashbacks to parties and family life in general, all taken on what appears to be super-8, the 8mm home video of the 70s. It also appears that the movies are genuinely those of the central characters, lending authenticity. The technique that divides many people on this movie is the heavy use of a hand-held camera. Some don't like its (over)use, but I feel that, along with the seemingly trite and mundane dialogue, it tries hard to capture the soul of the youth of Fälkenberg. This is all topped off by a very eclectic soundtrack, which does sit well with the scenes.

When things do begin to happen, and the point of the lengthy build-up is revealed, you'll come to understand the need to sit through the first 40 minutes or so. This is a film of honesty, genuine emotional depth and a strange, essential beauty but also very powerful emotions and surprising depth of characterizations. Will you like it? I don't know. I didn't at first, as it moves at the pace of a Scandinavian glacier, but it's ultimately worth the journey.

Awards: Click here for more details.

91 mins. In Swedish.

25 November, 2008

Ladrones (Thieves) (2007)

Stolen chances

A slick, well-made effort from Spanish director Jaime Marques (El Paraíso perdido (1999)) - writers Juan Ibáñez and Enrique López Lavigne offer an insight into the life and mind of Álex (Juan José Ballesta), a child abandoned by his kleptomaniac mother after she'd taught him how to 'lift' from passers-by, and the relationship he forms, now as a young man (with an uncanny resemblance to Matt Damon), with attractive middle-class student Sara (María Valverde),whom he promises to teach all that he knows about the fine art of street theft.

It goes without saying, of course, that there will be a price to be paid for both star-crossed lovers...

While the concept is far from original, what is pleasing here are the naturalistic, almost cold-hearted performances from both leads, and the elegant dialogue, intense moods and eroticism created by David Azcano's photography and Juan Botella's art direction.

In particular, Ballesta's mature interpretation of the Álex character, a young man cut adrift from normal relationships by his own childhood, who longs to find his true place in the world - yet all he knows about human interaction is 50-50, namely the basic partnership that must exist between two thieves. For him, to steal with someone is love, and it is this poignancy that drives the heart of the movie.

The young actor's intensity, with his detached and nonchalant performance, is very well accompanied by Valverde, who makes an excellent counterpart - when sharing the screen, their chemistry negates any moral doubts on the part of the viewer as to their wrongdoing - and old hand Patrick Bauchau is similarly accomplished as the evil, controlling fence who endangers Alex in exchange for information on the whereabouts of his mother.

Have no expectations, either, of an easy resolution - this sort of life, as Marques's enjoyable, engaging film makes clear, just ain't like that.

Awards: Click here for more details.

101 mins. In Spanish.

19 November, 2008

Nominations for the European Film Awards 2008

Sorry we're a little late - at the Seville European Film Festival (7-15 November 2008), the European Film Academy and EFA Productions announced the nominations for the 21st European Film Awards. The 1,800 EFA members will now vote for the winners, who will be honoured during the awards ceremony on 6 December in Copenhagen. Naturally, we'll keep you posted about who wins what on the big night...

And the nominees are:


IL DIVO, Italy
Written and directed by Paolo Sorrentino
Produced by Indigofilm, Lucky Red, Parco Film, Babe Films, StudioCanal,
Arte France Cinéma

ENTRE LES MURS (The Class), France
Directed by Laurent Cantet
Written by Laurent Cantet, François Begaudeau & Robin Campillo from the novel by François Begaudeau
Produced by Haut et Court, France 2 Cinéma

GOMORRA (Gomorrah), Italy
Directed by Matteo Garrone
Written by Maurizio Braucci, Ugo Chiti, Gianni di Gregorio, Matteo Garrone,
Massimo Gaudioso & Roberto Saviano
Produced by Fandango, RAI Cinema

Written and directed by Mike Leigh
Produced by Thin Man Films Ltd., Summit Entertainment, Ingenious Film
Partners, Film4, UK Film Council

EL ORFANATO (The Orphanage), Spain
Directed by Juan Antonio Bayona
Written by Sergio G. Sánchez
Produced by Rodar y Rodar S.L., Telecinco Cinema

WALTZ WITH BASHIR, Israel/France/Germany
Written and directed by Ari Folman
Produced by Bridgit Folman Film Gang, Les Films d’Ici, Razor Film
Produktion, ARTE France, ITVS International


Laurent Cantet for ENTRE LES MURS (The Class)
Andreas Dresen for WOLKE 9 (Cloud 9)
Matteo Garrone for GOMORRA (Gomorrah)
Steve McQueen for HUNGER
Paolo Sorrentino for IL DIVO


Hiam Abbass in LEMON TREE
Arta Dobroshi in LE SILENCE DE LORNA (Lorna’s Silence)
Sally Hawkins in HAPPY-GO-LUCKY
Belen Rueda in EL ORFANATO (The Orphanage)
Kristin Scott Thomas in IL Y A LONGTEMPS QUE JE T’AIME (I’ve Loved You So Long)
Ursula Werner in WOLKE 9 (Cloud 9)


Michael Fassbender in HUNGER
Thure Lindhardt & Mads Mikkelsen in FLAMMEN & CITRONEN (Flame & Citron)
James McAvoy in ATONEMENT
Toni Servillo in GOMORRA (Gomorrah) and IL DIVO
Jürgen Vogel in DIE WELLE (The Wave)
Elmar Wepper in KIRSCHBLÜTEN - HANAMI (Cherry Blossoms)


Suha Arraf & Eran Riklis for LEMON TREE
Maurizio Braucci, Ugo Chiti, Gianni di Gregorio, Matteo Garrone, Massimo Gaudioso & Roberto Saviano for GOMORRA (Gomorrah)
Paolo Sorrentino for IL DIVO


Luca Bigazzi for IL DIVO
Oscar Faura for EL ORFANATO (The Orphanage)
Marco Onorato for GOMORRA (Gomorrah)
Sergey Trofimov & Rogier Stoffers for MONGOL


Marton Agh for production design, DELTA
Magdalena Biedrzycka for costume design, KATYN
Laurence Briaud for editing, UN CONTE DE NOEL
Petter Fladeby for sound design, O’HORTEN


Tuur Florizoone for AANRIJDING IN MOSCOU (Moscow, Belgium)
Dario Marianelli for ATONEMENT
Fernando Velázquez for EL ORFANATO (The Orphanage)

Click here for more information on other award categories to be presented during the ceremony.

16 November, 2008

Belle toujours (2006)

Rings a Belle?

So, we're 39 years on, and someone decided to provide a follow-up to the classic cult film from Luis Buñuel, Belle De Jour (1967), without Catherine Deneuve returning to the role of Severine that she made legendary.

Instead of Bunuel's surrealism, we are shown how people change. Henri Husson (Michel Piccoli, who was in the original) spots Severine (played now by Bulle Ogier) at an elegant opera house, and his curiosity is sparked. How has her life moved on after the torturous events of four decades ago when she was secretly a prostitute at a high-class brothel?

Henri, who was the man who planted the seeds of Severine's downfall years earlier, begins to pursue his quarry relentlessly - Severine does everything she can to avoid him, but the inevitable happens and, over a candle-lit dinner, the two old would-be lovers recall their "wickedness" and choose whether or not to reveal their darkest secrets. Husson quickly discovers, however, that his psychological games are no longer effective...

In fact, while purists may blanche, 98-year-old (!) director Manoel de Oliveira (Romance de Vila do Conde (2008)) has made the right choice in replacing Deneuve with Ogier - Husson's advances towards Severine, despite his own years, are still anything but gallant, with their meeting once again not serving as a renewal or conclusion to their passion, but rather, to turn the knife in the wound of their previous 'misdemeanour', due to mischievousness, or an urgent need to be reassured on both their parts, as De Oliveira plays out the cat-and-mouse game in Paris's fashionable districts.

An interesting experiment.

Awards: Michel Piccoli was nominated as Best Actor in the 2007 European Film Awards.

70 mins. In French.

12 November, 2008

Mesrine: L’instinct de mort (2008) & Mesrine: L’ennemi public n°1 (2008)

Vive Mesrine!

Let’s face it – no one does Real McCoy, well-’ard gangster flicks like we Europeans. Of course, Stateside, you can cite Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) or Casino (1995) and, at a pinch, Coppolla’s The Godfather (1972) but sorry, when it comes to what violence, fear of violence and callous characterizations are really all about, we have (among many others) Get Carter (1971). We’ve got The Long Good Friday (1980).

Frankly, you’ve never really had a glass smashed into your face unless you’ve had it this side of the Atlantic, and there is a gritty, seamy, downright dirty side to the 70s gangster look and feel that only European pubs, bars, clubs and strip-joints can effectively convey.

And that’s why we should all be on our knees, to give thanks for Mesrine: L’instinct de mort and the follow-up Mesrine: L’ennemi public n° 1 (released across Europe on 19 November) – both have this dirt in spades. Order has been restored.

Jean-François Richet, whose previous film was the somewhat uninspiring remake Assault on Precinct 13 (2005), from John Carpenter’s 1976 original, has simply outdone himself with this balanced, and, in spite of the grim violence at its core, non-hysterical account of what drives a man to devote his entire existence to the crooked path, and the price that must be paid for taking on the system single-handed.

Although Vincent Cassel’s previous form might indicate he could play a hot-blooded, moody but intelligently motivate gangster in his sleep, his turn as Mesrine offers a whole lot more than murder and mayhem by the numbers. Helped enormously by the ensemble cast (Gérard Depardieu makes a welcome return to the classic brutish role that first made him famous, Olivier Gourmet is simply wonderful as Commissaire Broussard, Mesrine’s reluctant nemesis on the ‘right’ side of the law), plus a splendidly tight, acerbic screenplay from Abdel Raouf Dafri, which was in turn adapted from Mesrine’s own ‘novel’, written while in jail, Cassel simply IS Mesrine.

A peerless master of disguise, Mesrine, whose sworn enemies were the banks, became France’s public enemy numero un during the 1970s, but his road into crime began shortly after his return from France’s war against Algeria in 1959 – aged 23, our man comes back with a clean service record, but quickly finds, despite the best efforts of his loving mother and father (Myriam Boyer and Michel Duchaussoy) the straight and narrow of civvy street too restrictive. Gifted with a quick mind and first-class improvisational skills, Mesrine is also a man of his word, no matter what the cost to himself, as he proves when, upon breaking out of the inhumane Saint-Vincent-de-Paul penitentiary (to which he had been sentenced to 15 years) in 1972, he returns two weeks later to break his jail mates free.

The story of the two films charts his nearly two decades of legendary criminal feats (including multiple bank robberies and numerous, increasingly spectacular, prison breaks), finishing on 2 November, 1979, when his story ends, as outlaws’ stories usually do, at the point of a gun. Several guns, in fact…

There are those who may say that the story is romanticized, as much in love with the man at its centre as Mesrine so clearly was with himself. Pooh-pooh to them – what Richet and Cassel achieve is a near-peerless account of a man who became a myth in his won lifetime, let alone nearly 30 years after his death. Make no mistake – in this film, people die and people bleed. In some ways, none more so than Mesrine himself, who was tortured by his notions of neither being a good son, husband, or father. Put it this way – I know who you will be rooting for from start to finish, and it isn’t any of the representatives of the system that the ‘gangster’s gangster’ swore to bring down.

And, to boot, the films are truly thrilling, with Richet proving he is just as adept at the big action scenes as he is with the expository dialogue. Vive Mesrine!

Both films 110 mins. In French.

09 November, 2008

Klopka (The Trap) (2007)

Paying the price

Srdan Golubović,director of the critically acclaimed Apsolutnih sto (Absolute Hundred) (2001), here turns his attention to a prosaic, personal nightmare that asks the question: How much is any person's life worth?

Adapted from Nenad Teofilovic's novel by Melina Pota Koljevic and Srdjan Koljevic, The Trap is set in modern-day Serbia, post Milosevic. Mladen (Nebojsa Glogovac) is an honest construction businessman struggling to make ends meet - corruption and theft are endemic in both his profession and the country as a whole, but he has the support of his loving wife Marija (Natasa Ninkovic) and his young son Nemanja (Marko Djurovic), whom he adores, to fall back on.

Then, disaster - Nemanja is diagnosed with a rare, life-threatening heart condition that is operable, but will cost €30,000 to carry out the procedure. In desperation, Marija places an advert for help in the local paper. A man, Kosta Antic (Miki Manojlovic), offers to pay the entire sum, but there's a big catch - Mladen will have to murder Antic's business rival. With his options running out and his son's health deteriorating, which way will Mladen go, and what price will he have to pay?

Borrowing a great deal from Western film-noir sensibilities, and very well acted by all players, The Trap is an engrossing, if ultimately somewhat simplistic take on a harrowing idea.

The movie literate will not have too much difficulty second-guessing where the narrative will take you, but the overall, haunting sense of doom is very well maintained.

In short, its 'It Could Happen To You' thrust is kept credible, thanks to the straight-faced approach of all concerned. Recommended.

Awards: Director Srdan Golubović took the Grand Prix at the Sofia International Film Festival 2007.

106 mins. In Serbo-Croatian.

05 November, 2008

Die Fälscher (The Counterfeiters) (2007)

Blood money

It's always a difficult call, making movies about the greatest atrocity in the history of mankind, namely the Shoah (Holocaust). After all, it can be argued, what right do we have, as mere spectators, to be 'entertained' by the recounting of events that, quite simply, cast doubt on the very existence of the God worshipped by the Jewish community, including the six million who were slaughtered in Hitler's Final Solution?

It is a fair question, and probably why recent previous efforts (such as Spielberg's Schindler's List (1993), or The Pianist (2002) by Roman Polanski) have had their adulators and detractors.

In his written and directed adaptation of the book by concentration-camp inmate Adolf Burger, Stefan Ruzowitzky (All The Queen's Men (2001)) chooses to contrast the relative banality of a counterfeiting operation (albeit the largest such scam in history, set up by the Nazis in 1936, both as a source of funds and later with the intention of swamping enemy countries' economies with fake currency) with the horrors of the camps. Central to the story is Salomon 'Sally' Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics), allegedley the world's greatest forger, whose luck runs out and who is arrested by Friedrich Herzog (Devid Striesow).

A relatively humane man of the law, Herzog is promoted thanks to his catch, and becomes Sturmbannführer Herzog, charged with the counterfeiting operation. After surviving far worse conditions as a prisoner by the skin of his teeth, Sorowitsch is summoned to oversee the scheme, with the team involved treated to far better conditions than their camp counterparts, the screams of whom permeate the forgers' daily lives. And so the film's point becomes clear - how long can Sorowitsch turn off his conscience, faced with the knowledge of what the Nazis are doing and the righteous rage of Adolf Burger (August Diehl), a young reactionary for whom death with honour is better than life as it is?

The Counterfeiters won the Best Foreign Film Academy Award in 2008 and, for the most part, it's a worthy winner. Markovics's lead performance gives the film real heart and the horror of his daily life, while not graphically depicted, hangs over the mood like a pall.

However, it is Striesow as the camp's commandant that is the best of the film - a fascinating, nuanced analysis of how the evil that a man can do is not necessarily all that a man is.

It's a fascinating, troubling work - only its somewhat pat conclusion, which leaves the viewer as much in the dark as at the film's outset, lets it down a touch.

Awards: Click here for more details.

98 mins. In German, Russian, English, Hebrew.

02 November, 2008

Bikur Ha-Tizmoret (The Band's Visit) (2007)

Banding together

Ah, understatement. Perhaps one of the most difficult comedy nuances to capture but, when it's done right, there are riches in store.

To be honest, I sensed a discovery upon first reading the tagline to The Band's Visit (2007), by former TV director Eran Kolirin, who also wrote the screenplay. And I quote: 'Once - not long ago - a small Egyptian police band arrived in Israel. Not many remember this...It wasn't that important.'

Rarely is the tone and joy of a film captured in an ad blurb but, as the film's quiet charm began to take hold, it quickly became apparent that this was an exception to the rule, in all kinds of ways.

Egyptian band The Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra arrives in Israel for a cultural event, to find no delegation awaiting them at the airport. Led by the stuffy, stiff-upper lipped but charismatic and charming Lieutenant-Colonel Tawfiq Zacharya (Sasson Gabai), who has a particularly vexed relationship with young Lothario band member Haled (Saleh Bakri), they attempt to get to their destination town of Petah Tiqva under their own steam. Unfortunately, Haled is charged with the responsibility of sorting out the transport, and the band takes the wrong bus, arriving instead at the remote, dust-bowl town of Beit Hatikva.

Stranded until the following morning in full uniform and with instruments in tow, pity is taken on them by sexy, worldly restaurant owner Dina (Ronit Elkabetz), who offers (along with the help of one of her customers) to put them up for the night. Each of the band members has special, personal discoveries ahead - and it's Tawfiq who accompanies M'Lady for a night out that neither will forget.

Winner of the European Film Awards for European Discovery of the Year (Eran Kolirin) and Best Actor (Sasson Gabai) in 2007 (among many other gongs), what makes the film work so well is its evocation of the simple frustrations and sadness but also joy and human warmth that make up life, anybody's life.

While obvious (and very funny) character idiosyncracies are on display, Kolirin does not resort to caricature to get his point across - Gabai as Tawfiq, for example,is obviously a man with more going on than meets the eye, but the revelation as to his inner pain is handled with such tenderness and sweetness, without hackneyed excess, that hard will be the heart not moved. Dina (an excellent performance from Elkabetz) tries her very best to bring Tawfiq out of himself - and to a certain extent, she succeeds. But the show must go on...

And check out the picture used to illustrate this review - it won't mean much to the uninitiated (that's the Haled character on the right, by the way) but you can have it with authority that the scene in question is one of the funniest (and understated, appropriately enough) cinema moments that you're likely to see, period.

A downside? Yes, it's too short. Not because it isn't perfectly formed, but because you'll come to care so much for all the characters, and so quickly, that you won't want to wave them goodbye.

Awards: Click here for more details.

87 mins. In English, Arabic, Hebrew.

31 October, 2008

La Sconosciuta (The Unknown) (2006)

Dark masterpiece

As part of EFA’s ongoing commitment to the cream of European cinema, a passion that we share with our sister site Picturenose, Colin offers his thoughts on a modern Italian classic…

The main problem with Italian cinema is that most of it stays in Italy. A nation that is happy to share its cuisine, culture, style and general all-round dolce vita with the wider world is remarkably reluctant to export anything but a small percentage of its huge celluloid output to the global viewership. As a result of this, my experience of Italian cinema has been, up to now, either political polemic or Fellini-style “let’s fall in love and have some linguini vongole and a bit of a dance”.

La Sconosciuta (2006), written and directed by Giuseppe Tornatore (Cinema Paradiso (1988)), not only opened my eyes to just how powerful and torrid Italian films could be, but also moves me to say something I have never put in print: This is the best film I have seen this year, by a long way.

I am also rarely moved to describe a film as ‘flawless’. La Sconosciuta is, save for one very minor gripe, more of which later. The story centres around Irena (Kseniya Rappoport), a Ukranian immigrant, and her struggle to escape her past - a past that simply won’t go away, and is personified quite horrifically by a figure named Muffa (Michele Placido). Tornatore’s direction is extremely tight and very well measured. He takes a fairly non-linear format at the outset, making it difficult to see where it might be going. Only when he has sucked you into Irena’s world and totally hooked you, does he reveal, piece by piece, the full horror of her situation. Many aspects of her story are not revealed until much later in the film, and this serves as your ‘reward’ for paying close attention.

Irena’s story begins as she is forced into prostitution by the cruel and sadistic Muffa, the gangmaster of numerous unfortunate Eastern European girls forced into the sex trade. In flashback, we learn of happier times with her husband, and just how her life descended into hell. She arrives in the city of Verlachi, rents a surprisingly expensive apartment, and seeks work as a domestic help in the building across the street. Eventually, her hard work is noticed by the residents and she manages to secure a better position as housekeeper for the Adacher family, then finally as a nanny to their daughter Tea (Clara Dossena). Watching this progress, you could be forgiven for thinking that she is finally coming out the other side of her harsh and difficult life but, in reality, the true horror is only just beginning. The plot twists and sidesteps in many places, sometimes taking you by surprise completely. It would be impossible to give examples, as to even divulge one would spoil this complex and mesmerizing tale.

Rappoport really does give an outstanding performance, one that is thoroughly believable and displays a range of emotion many actors could study as a masterclass in the art. Calculated but fluid, beautiful, touching and thoroughly haunting. In fact, there’s not a duff performance from anyone involved. Irena, Muffa, Claudia Gerini as the aloof but kindly Mrs Adacher - they’re all so perfectly drawn and directed, but not forced. Every performance is individual and genuine. The most remarkable effort for me was how Tornatore coaxed such a superb performance from Clara Dossena, who can’t have been more than five years old. Truly wonderful.

As I mentioned at the start, there is one thing that I felt was not quite right. The score was provided by Ennio Morricone, the now-legendary composer. The problem lay not in the score itself, which, as you might imagine, was a superb piece of original orchestration, but that it sometimes overpowered the action and dialogue. Rather than being a backdrop, it was too often in the foreground - somthing I found a little unsettling. It’s entirely possible that this was done for dramatic effect, but I think it was slightly over-done in some places.

OK, so one very minor gripe in an otherwise fantastic and moving story. I’m not sure about the distribution of this film, but it’s won a good few awards now, including the 2007 European Film Awards Audience Award for Best Film, so maybe we’ll get lucky and the Italians will decide to share this gem with the rest of the world. If you can buy or rent it, do so - you will not be disappointed.

Awards: Click here for more details.

118 mins. In Italian.

22 October, 2008

LUX Cinema Prize: Winner announced

And, guess what? Our man (James Drew) got it wrong, of course, a fact that will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever read any of his Oscars predictions...

The film Le Silence de Lorna (2008), by Belgian directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, is the winner of the European Parliament LUX Cinema Prize 2008. EP President, Hans-Gert Pöttering handed over the trophy to Luc Dardennne in a ceremony in front of MEPs and representatives of the three competing films in the final on 22 October. The aim of the LUX Prize is to facilitate the circulation of European films within Europe.

In awarding the prize, Parliament President Hans-Gert Pöttering said: "The European Parliament has always recognised the pivotal role culture plays in our society and the award of the second LUX Prize reflects this. One of the objectives of the prize is to experience cultural and language differences within the EU. With this year's winner, a major social issue affecting Europe can be brought to cinemas in all European countries."

Director Luc Dardenne said, on receiving the prize: "We don't see enough of each other's films in different countries of the European Union. I think this prize is the first step in remedying this problem."

The stated aim of the LUX Prize, awarded for the first time in 2007, is to break down the language barriers that prevent European films from circulating in the EU and give a boost to cinematic work within the Union. The winner of the LUX Prize will have his film subtitled in the EU's 23 languages and one copy will be produced per member state in 35mm format. The prize also includes an adaptation for the deaf and hard of hearing, and eventually an adaptation for the blind and visually impaired.

Le Silence de Lorna was selected by the MEPs, with Delta (2008) (Kornél Mundruczo) and Občan Havel (2008) (our man's nomination and personal favourite) (Miroslav Janek and Pavel Koutecky) its competitors for the big prize.

The three films were part of a ten-strong official selection, chosen by a 17-member independent panel drawn from the highest levels of the cinema profession - producers, distributors, cinema operators, festival directors and critics.

And our 'pundit' says: Yah, boo, sucks - les freres Dardennes win yet another award they don't quite deserve. That's not to say Le Silence de Lorna wasn't well made or worth watching but, as far as entertainment value is concerned (as well as adhering to the remit of the competition), Občan Havel beats it hands down. Nothing like grace in defeat, is there? See you next year...

15 October, 2008

Dancer in the Dark (2000)

Songs in the darkness

Here's a simple question for you - did anyone NOT cry at this film, which won the EFA Best Film award in 2000 (as well as the trifling matter of the Palme D'Or and Best Actress at Cannes)? Lars von Trier, together with a performance from Björk that simply defines pathos, takes us into the heart of emotion and reworks the concept of the musical, to boot.

The plot has the simplicity of a fable - Selma Jezkova (Björk) is a Czech immigrant who lives in rural America with her young son Samuel (Vincent Paterson), eking out a bare existence as a factory worker, desperately trying to save enough money to allow her son to have an operation that will save his eyesight, as he has the same genetic, degenerative condition as Selma, whose sight has all but gone.

A lover of musicals - 'In a musical, nothing dreadful ever happens' - Selma lives largely in her own mind, finding music in the mundanity of everyday life. And it is this device that is Von Trier's stroke of genius - the fantastical, 'let's do the show right here' nature of the classic musical is thus avoided, because all the song and dance numbers are taking place only in Selma's inner world.

Catherine Deneuve provides stellar support as Selma's true friend Kathy, who wants only to protect her gentle, ragamuffin-like innocence from the harsh realities of life, while David Morse, too, is excellent as the caring, compassionate but desperate neighbour whose dishonesty brings tragedy.

Musicals always divide audiences - some people simply cannot stand them, while for others, they are joyous examples of cinematic creativity. There are lessons to be learned in Dancer in the Dark for both sides of the argument - this is nothing less than a towering achievement.

Awards: Click here for more details.

140 mins.

08 October, 2008

Delta (2008)

Following our recent article on the European Parliament LUX Cinema Prize, EFA and Picturenose, as promised, present a review of each of the three films up for the big prize on 22 October, beginning with Delta (2008), a Hungarian-German examination of 'unnatural' relationships...

Already the recipient of an award from the International Federation of Film Critics at Cannes, as well as a nominee for this year's Palme D'Or, Kornél Mundruczó's film examines the tragic consequences of a judgemental society. Mihail (Félix Lajkó) returns to the remote village of his birth (located on the Danube Delta), where he meets his sister Fauna (Orsolya Tóth), seemingly for the first time. Their new-found affection for each other (she moves in and helps him build a riverside house) embarrasses the tight-knit community, who condemn the relationship as unnatural and begin jumping to all the wrong conclusions. The couple are ostracized, and worse is to follow...

Mundruczo, whose previous work (also starring Orsolya Tóth) was the gripping, dark, sound-and-fury musical Johanna (2005), embraces a more intimate style here, in presenting a small-town malaise that is drifting inexorably towards vioence.

Kornel brings out another fine performance from Tóth, makes very effective use of his languid, violin-heavy soundtrack, and his firm compositional prowess brings truly beautiful imagery to the screen. However, the result is unfortunately rather less than the sum of these parts - seemingly happy only for his film to look striking, Kornel (and his screenplay, co-written with Yvette Biro) fails to probe any of its characters' motivation or behaviour to any significant depth, leaving an end result that feels slight, inconsequential even.

To be fair, Delta had to be reshot from the start when its original Mihail (Lajos Bertók) died half-way through the production, but the lack of content makes the whole seem distinctly pretentious, rather than portentous. It will be a surprise if this one grabs the gong.

Awards: Click here for more details.

92 mins. In Hungarian.

07 October, 2008

La Noche De Los Girasoles (The Night of the Sunflowers) (2006)

Spanish lies

Spain's reputation as a leading film-producing nation continues to grow, particularly in the dark fantasy, horror/thriller genre. In recent years, directors such as Jaume Balagueró (Los sin nombre (1999), Darkness (2002) Fragile (2005)), Alejandro Amenabar (The Others (2001)) and Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (28 Weeks Later (2007)) have established their artistic credentials - now, Jorge Sánchez-Cabezudo joins the list, with his taut, suspenseful thriller exploring the evil under the surface of small-town Spanish life.

Estaban (Carmelo Gomez) and his wife Gabi (Judith Diakhate) are looking for a cave of historic interest, when a random attack takes places, things turn strange very quickly, as revenge, misidentification and Machiavellian manoeuvres from the local police all come into play....

Sorry to be so vague, but revealing much more of the narrative would be a mistake. The acting is near-enough perfect, particularly from Diakhate, with her unsettling, credible take on confused hysterics. Small-town Spain is also imbued with its own distinct character. Showing remarkable assurance for a first-time feature director, Sánchez-Cabezudo takes the audience on a circular tour (somewhat akin to Memento (2000)), returning again and again to events, each time from a slightly different perspective - an interesting, involving technique, but strangely one that has the effect at times of diminishing the tension, rather than enhancing it.

No matter - ultimately, this is a morally ambiguous and very competently made curio - perhaps its overt intellectualism slows the pace a little, in the final analysis, but the first-class performances, plus marvellous music from Krishna Levy, more than compensate.

Awards: Click here for more details.

123 mins. In Spanish.

01 October, 2008

Börn (Children) (2006)

Suffer the children...

Börn (Children), certainly starts as it means to go on - two young troublemakers break into an older man’s home after he unwittingly answers the door. Laying his DVDs to waste, one of the pair (wonderfully acted by Gísli Örn Gardarsson) shouts: “What's this? Black and white arty-farty shit?” A referential nod...

Ragnar Bragason, who made Fíaskó/Fiasco in 2000, once again uses actors from Vesturport, a Dogma-esque theatre group that employs stylistic techniques that take their inspiration from Mike Leigh, Luc Godard and John Cassavetes. There is a revitalizing zing and sense of genuine characterizations here that's often lacking in more contrived, narrative-driven dramas.

Karítas (Nína Dögg Filippusdóttir) is a single mother of four struggling to keep her head above the water, but who has to make sideline money by stealing and selling drugs from the hospital where she works as a nurse. But her own concerns blind her to the problems of her own children, especially her oldest son Gudmundur ( the excellentAndri Snaer Helgason), who lacks a strong male role-model and is being bullied at school. The 12-year-old’s only friend is Marino (Olafur Darri Olafsson), who lives in the same building with his single mother, loves to play football, but who is nearly 40.

Börn offers a fresh approach to parent-child relations, with characters that are not always likeable, but definitely credible and, in addition, Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson's superb, crisp black-and-white cinematography gives a rarely seen perspective on Iceland.

Awards: Click here for more details.

93 mins. In Icelandic. Black & White/Colour.

29 September, 2008

Dagen zonder lief (With Friends Like These) (2007)

The past is another country...

Felix Van Groeningen (Steve+Sky (2004)) brings a determinedly un-sentimental perspective to this tale of friends re-united - combined with Arne Sierens' screenplay, the lives of a disparate group of college friends grown older but not necessarily wiser are disrupted by the re-appearance of one of their number, Zwarte Kelly (Wine Dierickx), who has come back to Belgium, ostensibly to see her mum, but who may also have a hidden agenda.

While Niek (Koen de Graeve), Blonde Kelly (An Miller), Frederic (Jeroen Perceval) and Kurt (Pieter Genard) all seem very happy to see her, the recent suicide of one of their friends, Patrick, still casts a pall over all...

It's about growing up and getting on with it, and the emotional toll that this takes - Van Groeningen wisely opts not to make any of the chracters either heroes or villains, just people tring to get their shit together from day to day.

Dierickx shines as 'Black' Kelly (who has, in fact, turned blonde), delivering a perfomance that is at once sensitive and stubborn while Genard as Kurt (who had a relationship with Kelly back in the day) is also powerful as a man on the brink of his own breakdown, despite his seemingly happy, contented life as a homeowner and young father.

It's interesting that, as the rest of Flemish film world seems still to be desperately in search of a meaningful identity, With Friends Like These seems to have achieved exactly that, in detailing the lives, loves and losses of five people who are also in search of meaning.

Overall moral? There isn't one, really, save perhaps that nothing lasts for ever, not even friendship. Sounds depressing, I know, but check it out - there is much warmth and joy to be had too.

100 mins. In Dutch and French.

23 September, 2008

European Parliament Lux Cinema Prize

We highlight the European Parliament's LUX Cinema Prize, as MEPs begin casting their votes on films selected for their talented illustration of the European integration process, topical EU issues and cultural diversity.

In 2007, the European Parliament inaugurated the LUX Cinema Prize award, to "reflect cinema as being the ideal vehicle for communication - or reflection - on Europe and its future".

Last year, Fatih Akin's Turkish-German co-production On the Edge of Heaven (Auf der anderen Seite) won the competition's first edition (it also scooped Fatih Akin Best Sreenwriter award at the 2007 European Film Awards (EFA), and was also nominated for EFA Best Director and Best Film) and, as will be the case this year, was chosen based on the votes of the 785 MEPs from a shortlist of three films.

At the time, European Parliament President Hans-Gert Pöttering praised the newly created cinema prize as "a premiere, fifty years after the signing the Treaty of Rome", declaring the assembly's intent to annually honour a film that draws attention to current social questions affecting Europe and highlighting, in particular, European integration. In addition, the award aims to highlight "the richness of EU linguistic diversity and support the artistic production of the cinema sector".

This year's three films are drawn from the competition's official selection of ten, chosen by a pan EU 17-strong panel comprising representatives drawn from the cinema world, such as directors, producers, festival organisers and critics, and are being screened for MEPs in a specially designed 90-seat cinema in the European Parliament, from 15 September-17 October. Voting will be electronic, and members will be allowed up to three votes, depending on the number of the nominated films that they watch. Each film will be screened 18 times, and voting closes at midnight on 21 October, with the LUX Prize trophy to be presented to the winning film by Hans-Gert Pöttering on 22 October in the Strasbourg hemicycle, in the presence of all MEPs and representatives of the three finalists.

And of course, EFA Reviews and Picturenose will bring you the results plus, in the interim, reviews of all three films. We'll even let you know if we agree with the MEPs' decision...

And the prize itself? As the aim of the award is "to facilitate the circulation of European films and give a boost to cinematic work within the common market", the winning film will be sub-titled in the 23 official languages of the European Union, with a 35mm format version produced for each member state. The award, which is estimated as being worth around €87,000, also includes an original language adaptation for the deaf and hard of hearing and, depending on budget, a further adaptation for the blind and visually impaired.

Click here for more information about the LUX Cinema Prize official selection, and see below for a brief description of the three LUX Prize-nominees, from the competition's website.

Delta (2008)

Director: Kornél Mundruczó
Starring: Sándor Gáspár, Félix Lajkó, Lili Monori, Orsi Tóth
Country: Hungary, Germany
Year: 2008
92 mins
Original language: Hungarian
Awards: International Federation of Film Critics, 2008

A quiet young man returns to the wild, isolated landscape of the Delta, a labyrinth of waterways, small islands and over-grown vegetation, where villagers are cut off from the outside world. The man, who has been away since early childhood, is introduced to a sister he never knew he had. She is frail and timid, but resolute when she decides to join him in his run-down hut on the shore. Together they build a house on stilts in the middle of the river, far away from everyone else. One day, they invite the villagers over to share a meal together, but it soon becomes apparent that the locals do not accept their 'unnatural' relationship...

Le silence de Lorna (2008)

Director: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Starring: Arta Dobroshi, Olivier Gourmet, Morgan Marinne, Jérémie Renier, Fabrizio Rongione
Country: Belgium, France, Italy
105 mins
Original language: French
Awards: Award for Best Screenplay, Cannes 2008

In order to become the owner of a snack bar with her boyfriend, Lorna, a young Albanian woman living in Belgium becomes an accomplice to a plan devised by mobster Fabio, who has orchestrated a sham marriage between her and Claudy. The union will allows Lorna to obtain Belgian citizenship and marry a Russian Mafioso who is willing to pay a lot of money for the same status. However, for the second marriage to be possible, Fabio has planned to kill Claudy. What will Lorna do?

Občan Havel (2008)

Director: Miroslav Janek and Pavel Koutecký
Starring: Václav Havel, Ivan Medek, Anna Freimanová, Vladimír Hanzel
Country: Czech Republic
109 mins
Original language: Czech

In the course of 13 years the crew has filmed 45 hours of images and recorded 90 hours of sound material. This truly unique material offers new looks behind the scenes of international politics in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, and also into events in a post-totalitarian country during its transition to democracy. Václav Havel was a key figure in the great changes that took place in central and Eastern Europe in the 1990s - the film material captures his work and influence both in his country and internationally. Among the unique events captured are Bill Clinton's visit to the Czech Republic in January 1994, including his private visit to the Reduta jazz club in Prague, the death of Havel's wife Olga and her funeral in January 1996, the celebration of Havel's 60th birthday in the Archa Theatre, Prague, in October of the same year, the forming of new governments after the 1996, 1998, and 2002 elections, and preparations for the historic 2002 NATO Summit in Prague.

22 September, 2008

Reprise (2006)

Back to the future

It's all looking bright up ahead in Oslo for writer best-friends Phillip (Anders Danielsen Lie) and Erik (Espen Klouman-Hoiner), in Reprise (2006) from Joachim Trier (Proctor (2002), Still (2001)).

But then, the Oslo pair mail off their first manuscripts, and the film moves (somewhat circuitously) forward to the present, where we quickly learn about the less glamorous paths that their lives take, as Phillip suffers a nervous breakdown following his book’s well-received publication and Erik learns that his work will soon also make the printed page. Phillip and Erik’s brotherly relationship, their close links with their diverse peer pals, and Phillip’s lovce for the siren-like Kari (Viktoria Winge) – which has helped pushed him over the edge – are portrayed in Reprise with a keen eye for elation and depression, the two sides of the same coin.

Trier, who co-writes with Eskil Vogt, transcends the exaggerated nature of his splintered structure (comprising jump cuts, flashbacks, flash-fowards, and scenes featuring dialogue heard over images of the speaker’s silent faces), to find a true expression of coming of age - real and reel life mingle.

However, while the narrative feels refreshing, imaginative and witty for quite some way into the 105-minute running time (a touch long), the pace does slacken off extensively towards the end and, although the impressive cinematography and razor-sharp editing ensure some engagement, there's still a sense of the whole lacking depth, as none of the characters seem to develop beyond their flash-bang-wallop beginnings.

Nevertheless, Reprise manages to hold on to its psychological incisiveness, in keeping with the to-ings and fro-ings of love and friendship in a way that is, thankfully, authentic and moving.

Awards: Nominated for the Audience Award, Best Film at the 2007 European Film Awards. Click here for more details.

105 mins. In Norwegian.

15 September, 2008

Once (2006)


Here's that rarest of treats - a perfectly formed confection of a film. Writer-director John Carney (On the Edge (2001)) takes us into the heart of a singer-songwriters dreams, in the heart of Ireland, and the star-crossed love (of a kind) that can be kindled at the rougher edge of existence.

Glen Hansard plays Guy, a talented busker still living with his Dad (Bill Hodnett)in a Dublin Hoover repair shop, who chances upon a young single-mother Czech immigrant (Markéta Irglová), who's living with her mum (Danuse Ktrestova) in the rougher side of town. She's been left holding the baby by the father, who didn't emmigrate with her, while Guy is still pained by his own beloved's betrayal - she's now living in London. But, as it quickly becomes apparent to the pair that each may have talent to offer the other, the songs that they begin to write, rehearse and ultimately record together tell their own story...

Right, OK, fine, it IS a musical, and I am only too aware how the form divides viewers. But, in much the same fashion that Lars Von Trier managed to combine artistic and narrative integrity with beautiful songs in the 1997 Palme D'Or winner Dancer in the Dark, Carney here also convinces, with the film's combination of touching, subtle lead performances and genuinely stirring, gorgeous tunes.

Its limited running time is entirely appropriate - we are given just enough chance to get to know, root for and like all the characters before life, as it so often does in reality, sets them on (divergent?) paths. The framing of the tunes (which, as with Bjork's character in DITD frequently forms an internal viewpoint) contrasts well with the always-believable, drama-doc interaction between the central and incidental players.

Too mushy, perhaps? Sentimental? You must be joking - this is about as real as it gets, and my bet is your tears will be joyful.

Awards: Click here for more information.

85 mins.

06 September, 2008

Nuovomondo (Golden Door) (2006)

Looking for America

Writer-director Emanuele Crialese (Respiro (2002), Once We Were Strangers (1997)) sets his tale of immigrants' dreams in Sicily at the beginning of the 20th century - the (at times brutal) immigrant experience is portrayed, stretching from a dirt-poor Sicilian hamlet to Ellis Island, the 'Golden Door' to the United States.

Salvatore (Vincenzo Amato), an illiterate and very poor widower-farmer, believes the pictures he has seen, depicting America as the land of milk and honey, where money grows on trees and fruits/vegetables/animals grow to an enormous size.

Salvatore sells his land, his home and his livestock and sets off for America with his two sons (one a deaf mute), daughters (who were locked into arranged marriages) and his cantankerous old mother.

During the shenanigans and corruption of the boarding process (with a four-week voyage in steerage ahead of them), Salvatore meets Lucy (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a mysterious Englishwoman who seems incongruous among the Italian bumpkins.

Once on-board ship, the women and men are split up and forced to sleep head to toe in iron cots, as the rusting, dangerous hulk of a ship rolls makes its slow, painful progress towards New York and whatever dreams may come...

Though it's clear that Nuovomondo was shot on a limited budget, Crialese's skillful direction, coupled with clever cinematography from Agnès Godard, convey the immigrant ordeal in often harrowing, disturbing detail, but lifted by the sense of hope that is the voyagers' only solace - as in the key scene where Salvatore describes the towering skyscrapers of New York to his awe-struck fellow travellers.

The only false note is sounded in the surreal 'visions' experienced by Salvatore as he dreams of America - an approach that seems distinctly at odds with the gritty realism that is to follow. Nevertheless, a moving and enjoyable look at the lengths people are/were prepared to go to in order to follow their dreams.

Awards: Nominated for Best Director (Emanuele Crialese), European Film Awards 2006.

In Italian and English. 118 mins.

31 August, 2008

Eduart (2006)

Hitting rock-bottom

Writer-director Angeliki Antoniou's restrained but powerful study of rage and redemption casts Eshref Durmishi as the Eduart of the title. Based upon true events that took place in Albania during the early post-Communist period of 1991-94, Eduart is a young man raised by an oppressive father, who leaves Albania for Greece, with the dream of becoming a rock star and living a better life.

But recklessness and the passions of youth lead Eduart to commit a murder in Athens, for which he is not caught, but is later imprisoned under the harshest conditions for robbery. With the help of German doctor Christof (André Hennicke), he learns to feel sympathy for others and guilt for his own unpunished crime. His deep remorse will lead him from darkness to light and, like the Dostoevskian hero Raskolnikov, Eduart passes from crime to punishment...

As Eduart, Durmishi strikes the right balance between bravura, painful desperation and thoughtful silence, while Hennicke is particularly fine in his nuanced role as the physician who runs the jail’s hospital even though he is also incarcerated, and the vexed relationship between the pair has emotional as well as visual validity, with their scenes together being the film's best.

Supporting actors - including Ndricim Xhepa as his army general father who turns him in for robbery, Ermela Teli as his beloved sister and Adrian Aziri as a kind inmate are also well drawn, if perhaps lacking the depth of the principals.

Cinematographer Jürgen Jürges brings an antiquated subtlety to the film that perfectly matches Antoniou’s thematic thrust and the whole, despite its disturbing setting and content, is riveting.

Awards: Too many to cite here. Check them out on

In Greek and German. 104 mins.