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.