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.