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.

23 August, 2008

Entre les murs (2008)

Learning curve

The clear favourite to take the top prize at Cannes (and it duly lived up to expectations, scooping the Palme D'Or), Laurent Cantet's seminal study of 'the blackboard jungle' (which fully deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Richard's Brooks 1955 work, Robert Mulligan's Up the Down Staircase (1967) and James Clavell's To Sir, With Love (1967)) features former teacher François Bégaudeau (who also wrote the screenplay from his own autobiography) as himself during a school year spent with a class of 14-year-olds, trying to impart lessons in French and life.

The mixed ethnicity of the neighbourhood where the school is located (the 20th arrondissement, home to immigrants since the 19th century and which also has Paris's biggest Chinatown) is well represented in the daily cultural melting pot 'between the walls' of the classroom - François must contend not only with teenage insecurities, reluctance to learn and truculence, but also with the rebelliousness, agression even, of one of his most difficult pupils, Malian troublemaker Souleymane (Franck Keïta). As a backdrop, power struggles and bickering in the staff room are also part of the daily grind - but the children must come first, right?

Cantet's hand-held, documentary style approach works very well in the environment, helped enormously by the naturalistic dialogue/argot that is the back-and-forth between teacher and pupils. Esmeralda (Esmeralda Ouertani) and friend Khoumba (Rachel Régulier) stand out - both have a relationship with François that veers between agression, defiance and respect borne of their need to be given direction, while his own relationship with the other teachers has a verisimilitude rarely seen on film.

For this reviewer, even though French is not my native language, Cantet's greatest achievement is the conviction gained by the viewer that, in watching the day-to-day dramas, squabbles, ocassional breakthroughs and break-outs, we could be in any classroom, anywhere in the world - and also back in our own childhoods. Sensibly, while nearly all the young people portrayed are shown to be highly irritating to adult sensibilities from time to time (a teacher's lot is not a happy one, right?), no child, not even Souleymane, is cast as a 'villain', which might have been the approach adopted by a less subtle, 'mainstream' examination of teaching trials.

So, a worthy winner of Cannes' highest honour? Every year brings naysayers against the jury's decision (I was not impressed, for example, by Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne winning with L'Enfant (2005)), and there is perhaps the argument that more could have been shown concerning the children's individual backgrounds, but you are unlikely to see a more riveting and affecting take on the rites of passage that are played out every day, in every school, in any language, with the last scene (an empty classroom once the kids have departed for the summer break) saying more than words.

Awards: Thus far, only the small matter of the Palme D'Or 2008.

128 mins. In French. Released across Europe from 24 September 2008 onwards.

19 August, 2008

Kunsten at græde i kor (The Art of Crying) (2006)

The eye of childhood

This is not a film that you're likely to forget in a hurry - Peter Schønau Fog's examination of Danish dysfunctional (with a capital 'D') family life, written by Bo Hr. Hansen from Erling Jepsen's novel, pulls off the rare trick of being both darkly disturbing and perfectly charming in roughly equal measure.

Young Allan (Jannik Lorenzen) loves his Dad (Far) Henry (Jesper Asholt) very much - but Far is far from happy. He's a frustrated grocer/milkman in rural 1970s Denmark who wallows in self-pity to such an extent that his 'suicide attempts' and blubbbing threats to take his own life are an almost nightly occurence that have forced his wife (Hanne Hedelund) onto sleeping pills just to get a little shut-eye. His teenager daughter Sanne (Julie Kolbech), meanwhile, provides 'comfort' to her distressed father - at his behest and the encouragement of Allan, who is not old enough to fully understand the implications of his actions. But, as Henry's actions become ever more disturbing and damaging, Allan begins to see the light...

The title refers not only to Henry's manipulative pretences, but also to the rousing, moving speeches he provides at the funerals that are a part of everyday life in the community. And, strangely enough, despite the film's dark core, it is the strength that can be found in community life that is actually the director's central theme - and that would be the 'perfectly charming' part cited earlier.

The story is fascinating (and also, perversely enough, very funny in places) - Lorenzen gives a remarkable performance as his father's supporter, spy, even as his pimp, which is counterpointed by an equally impressive turn from Asholt as the disturbed and disturbing patriarch - his actions are appalling, but one can still sympathize with the man behind the abuser.

Only Kolbech's performance, as the abused daughter Sanne, seems a little off the mark - her transformation from acceptance of her 'duties' into teen rebel does not quite convince. Then again, Kolbech won an award for her work, so what would I know, eh?

Prepare yourself to be charmed, challenged and disturbed.

8 nominations and 26 wins, including Best Actress (Julie Kolbech) and the Slovak Television Award for Peter Schønau Fog at the 2007 Bratislava International Film Festival, plus Prime TV Prize for Best Film at the 2007 Brussels International Film Festival.

106 mins. In Danish.

17 August, 2008

Ober (Waiter) (2006)

Prepare to meet your maker!

Reality's not what it used to be - the idea of 'meta' reality, namely the displacement of characters/director/author/viewers in cinematic narrative has been done before - John Carpenter's In The Mouth Of Madness (1995) played the game for scares, with its central character slowly realizing that he is the doomed hero in a Lovecraftian nightmare that is being written by someone else, and then there was Philippe de Broca's Le Magnifique (1973) starring Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jacqueline Bisset, which played the concept squarely (and succesfully) for laughs.

Dutch writer-director Alex van Warmerdam's approach falls somewhere between the two, and the result is an increasingly surreal comedy-drama that owes more than a little to David Lynch.

Van Warmerdam is also the star - he plays hapless (and largely hopeless) waiter Edgar, who is beset on all sides by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. His mistress Victoria (Ariane Schluter) is a possessive, demanding nymphomaniac, his wife a bed-ridden harridan. His customers abuse him around the clock, and his next-door neighbours are mobsters. You couldn't make it up, right?

And there's the rub - someone is making it up, namely screenplay writer Herman (Mark Rietman), and his wife Suzie (Thekla Reuten), who doesn't like the direction the story is going in and is only too happy to make changes without permission. Things are getting out of hand - and this becomes obvious to the authors when their central, fictitious character starts making house calls, demanding that things change for the better. Understandably, this puts writer Herman at something of a disadvantage...

The humour is in fact a good deal more subtle than Le Magnifique, but there are still more than a few genuine belly laughs to be had from this jet-black confection. Appreciation comes from suspending disbelief and, to be fair, van Warmerdam's direction leaves little pause for thought (or breath) as the respective worlds of Edgar and his authors begin to unravel.

There's also pathos here, too - we're never sure if sympathy is the right reaction to Edgar's plight, as he is a piece of fiction writ very large but, thanks to van Warmerdam's laconic approach to his own suffering, one would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved. To be enjoyed with a pinch of salt, perhaps, but a refreshing break from all that ciné verité.

Awards: Golden and Platin Film Netherlands 2007 (Golden Film). Netherlands Film Festival 2006 (Best Production Design, Best Screenplay, Alex van Warmerdam).

97 mins. In Dutch.

11 August, 2008

Vikaren (The Substitute) (2007)

That’ll learn ‘em…

It would be a mistake to attempt to categorize Ole Bornedal's Vikaren as 'horror'. It’s certainly a fantasy film, and a very good one at that. I would venture that it is probably the first real family horror film. The kids have a handle on what’s going on from very early on, and the adults – somewhat unsurprisingly, don’t believe them. The story is indeed an unlikely one. In the fine tradition of fantasy cinema, an alien from an unnamed planet, whose inhabitants only know war and conflict, arrives on Earth to seek out the true meaning of love and “how to do it”. The whole thing happens on a battery chicken farm (where else?) and there’s a rather higher-than-usual amount of chicken/egg iconography throughout.

Having invaded and ‘borrowed’ the body of a hapless earthling, the alien does what any self-respecting alien would do, and gets a job as a substitute teacher in a Copenhagen school. There is a method in her, shall we say, ‘unorthodox’ style of teaching. Her aim is to find out for herself what it is in the human condition that can generate empathy for one’s fellow man, and to train the children for a trip to Paris to compete against other schools academically. She wants the children to be the best they can, and boy – does she have a strange work ethic. In a wonderful, sinister - and yet strangely alluring – performance by Paprika Steen, Ulla Harms puts the students through hell. From day one, she belittles them, insults them and puts them through gruelling physical workouts in the name of education.

The central focus of the story is a boy, Carl (Jonas Wandschneider) who has recently lost his mother and is being cared for by his father, Jesper (Ulrich Thomsen). He is the strange kid who still talks to his dead mum and is picked on by the rest of the class – until he arrives late for a PTA meeting and discovers Ulla’s terrible secret. My only problem with the setup is that Carl and Jesper get new neighbours – a single woman with a girl Carl’s age, who ends up in his class. The woman just happens to be a cop, which is as obvious a plot contrivance as you could imagine, and she lends pretty much nothing else to the film’s substance at all, save for a fairly pointless cameo towards the end.

The suspicious kids take it upon themselves to investigate Ulla’s house, and discover that she is indeed not all the adults think she might be. I won’t spoil the moment for you, but it’s ‘bloody’ funny. Unluckily for Carl, Jesper quite likes the idea of being a little more than friends with Ulla, and there’s a sublime dinner-table sequence in which Ulla tries to explain “there’s no love where I come from” and that in her culture, the females mate then devour the males. Jesper takes all this as metaphorical, and you could just slap him for being so stupid.

As I mentioned in the intro, it really is kind of a family horror film. It romps around between an early British Children’s Film Foundation ‘let’s go and get the bad guys ourselves’ caper, through Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and into some very weird places indeed – there’s even, in the biggest ‘jump’ of the movie, what simply has to be a direct homage to the character ‘Large Marge’ in Tim Burton’s Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985). Again, I couldn’t possibly spoil the moment for you, but it’s a good one.

The most enjoyable thing for me is how much fun it is. There are many good gags and some genuine creepy moments. I believe that if you have children and they’re not over-sensitive, they’d like this a lot.

It’s visually appealing, too. Shot in a monochrome-ish tint, it evokes the graininess and urgency of the 1950s schlock-horror genre, but again managing to not take itself desperately seriously.

Apart from a couple of the side plots tapering off into nothing, there’s little to fault this little Danish gem. There’s sassy kids, good gags, a few surprises and a sexy alien dominatrix – what more could you want from a film?

Bodil Festen, Copenhagen 2008: Winner, Dan Laustsen, Best Cinematography
Bodil Festen, Copenhagen 2008: Nominated, Paprika Steen, Best Actress
Fant-Asia Film Festival, Montréal 2008: Winner, L’Ecran Fantastique award
Robert Festen, Copenhagen 2008: Multiple nominations over various categories.

93 mins. In Danish.

07 August, 2008

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006)

Hell sent

Yep, well - the film title kind of gives away what the story’s about, doesn’t it? Well, I’d say yes and no, in fact. Perfume (2006) (to give its short title) was a film I came away from thinking: “I enjoyed that, but I’m just not sure why.”

The central character is a distinctly unlikeable chap from the off. Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Whishaw) had a rather unpleasant childhood, that’s for sure, but I don’t think his background had much to do with it. Whishaw, even though he is a handsome young chap, manages convincingly to play Grenouille as the kind of guy you really wouldn’t mess with. In one scene, he turns to face the camera and it’s like staring into the face of Satan. Superbly freaky.

Grenouille was born under a table in a fish market in Paris in the 18th century, a place where there would certainly have been many odours, most of them not good. From the second of his birth he references the world around him via his sense of smell, the most important sense to him, and becomes obsessed with capturing and keeping scents after a somewhat unfortunate incident with a local peach seller. He inadvertently suffocates her (in so far as you can ‘inadvertently’ suffocate anyone) and is distressed that the aroma that led him to follow her disappears after her death.

In his quest to capture the essence of everything, he pleads with the famous but past-his-best parfumier Baldini (Dustin Hoffman, somewhat strangely cast) to allow him to work for him so he can learn. Pretty soon, Baldini can’t teach him much more and sends him off on an apprenticeship to the greatest perfume-making town in France, Grasse. On his way there, he stops in a cave to rest, a place with virtually nothing to excite his olfactory sense. It is here he makes what is for him an awful discovery - he has no personal scent whatsoever. For a man whose entire life is formed of the smells of things, this is very bad indeed. Grenouille always states that the very essence or soul of a human is their smell. He doesn’t have one, so what is he?

While in Grasse, he decides the time has come to construct the ultimate scent. Armed only with the base compounds that he learned from Baldini, he soon realizes that these are not enough, and the perfume will need a little something extra. The way he goes about getting this something extra does nothing to endear him to you, either. As the full title includes the line The Story of a Murderer, you can probably guess where the vital essences come from. I really don’t want to give too much away, but by the time you get to the end (after 147 minutes) you’ll probably figure it out for yourself. Grenouille is often downright nasty, but if you feel a frisson of sympathy, I wouldn’t be surprised.

The film is very well directed by Tom Twyker (True (2004)) and, although I haven’t read the Patrick Süskind book, I’m told it’s a reasonably faithful retelling. There’s plenty of eye candy for the guys -provided you like ‘em dead within minutes of meeting them, that is. The supporting cast all do their bit just fine (Alan Rickman is always good value) and it all hangs together really rather well. Perhaps a bit of a slow starter for those with a short attention span such as I, but worth persevering with. You may find yourself laughing at certain points, but that’s just schadenfreude at work, believe me.

If you really want my cod philosophical take on it, I’d say the whole thing is a metaphor. It’s about identity and being on the outside edge of humanity. How does someone who relies so heavily on one facet of his existence cope with the fact that the very thing he uses to identify people, he himself does not possess? Perhaps why he’s completely amoral and has no respect for anything that is likely to stand in the way of his ultimate goal - either that, or he’s just a nutter.

Winner of Best Cinematographer (Frank Griebe) and the Prix d'Excellence (Uli Hanisch, production design) in the 2007 European Film Awards.

147 mins.