26 January, 2009

Hunger (2008)

Food for thought

Honoured with the European Discovery Award at the 2008 EFA gala prize-giving ceremony, Turner Prize winning Steve McQueen (he’s a war artist in Iraq and is currently campaigning to put the faces of dead British soldiers on stamps) offers his uncompromising, devastating portrait of H-block hunger striker Bobby Sands.

Already greeted with both adulation and anger, McQueen's harrowing account depicts the last months of the life of IRA Republican prisoner Sands (a remarkable Michael Fassbender performance), who starved himself to death in The Maze prison, near Belfast, in 1981, as a protest to gain political recognition.

Clearly influenced by his time in Iraq, McQueen manages to incorporate a contemporary resonance to the story, even though his artistic flair occasionally spills over into excess. No matter - the effect is still spellbinding. Hunger marks McQueen as a man to watch.

Awards: Click here for details.

96 mins.

12 January, 2009

Mongol (2007)

Khan can

Writer-director Sergei Bodrov’s Mongol (2007) fell victim somewhat to a less-than-helpful advertising campaign at the time of its release, depicting the film as being largely about Genghis Khan's military conquests, but Bodrov's work (and an epic, impressive piece of work it is) in reality takes us through the life of legendary Mongol Emperor Genghis Khan from the age of nine until the battle that would cement his position in history, showing not so much how the man rose to power, but rather (and rather more interestingly) how he in fact gained the strength to become a world-beater.

Nine-year-old Temudgin (Odnyam Odsuren) is the boy who would be Khan. Riding to take a bride from a rival clan in hopes of establishing peace, Temudgin instead is smitten by a young girl from a friendly, much less powerful tribe, and tricks his father into allowing him to choose her instead thus guaranteeing continuing strife rather than peace.

Time moves on, and Tadanobu Asano (very convincingly) now plays the adult Temudgin. While having claimed his young betrothed, Temudgin’s life becomes no easier, as his enemies grow and every victory is marred by a corresponding setback. His life becomes an epic struggle, spurred by his conviction that the Mongol people need to be united under a single rule of law even if half of them must die...

The production values are dazzling, cinematography likewise, which makes full use of the stark, natural beauty of Mongolia and Kazakhstan. Asano is utterly convincing in the role of Khan, balancing the ferocity of his character with a sly sense of humor and a deep, deep devotion to his beloved wife Bortë (played with real verve by the gorgeous Khulan Chuluun). A word of warning - those expecting an action-packed, rip-roaring adventure are likely to leave dissatisfied, as there are in fact, stunning though they are, only a few battle scenes.

Be thankful instead that Bodrov has by and large succeeded in offering something rather more affecting – an inspired, gritty take on the man behind the myth.

Awards: Click here for details.

120 mins. In Mongolian and Mandarin.

03 January, 2009

This is England (2006)

Angry young boy

Young writer-director Shane Meadows is fast making a name for himself as a social commentator in the mould of Ken Loach – his films, such as Dead Man’s Shoes (2004) Once Upon a Time in the Midlands (2002) and A Room for Romeo Brass (1999) are uncompromising and unforgiving, but have a solid respect for audiences who want to be entertained, rather than preached to.

It’s probably his earlier work in short features that’s given Meadows the ability to get the point across without flab or blur – and his talents have already been recognised, with BAFTA bestowing Best British Film 2006 on This Is England, the tale of Shaun (a very believable performance from Thomas Turgoose), a precocious, troubled lad growing up in 1983 England, who is befriended by a group of skinheads on his way home from school, after Shaun’s come off worse in a scrap with another boy who was making fun of his father, a Falklands Conflict victim.

Led by the intelligent, articulate Milky (Andrew Shim) the friendly group soon takes Shaun, with his sheer determination and defiance, under their wing as mascot. However, the frivolity comes to an abrupt end when ex-member Combo (Steven Graham) is released from a spell in prison. Combo soon causes a rift within the group and becomes the catalyst for them becoming a militant, racist force…

The film manages to balance the light-hearted with menace and tension that’s excruciating to endure, while Danny Cohen’s cinematography captures the 80s look and feel perfectly, which only adds to the realism - and what separates This is England from other similarly themed films is Meadows’ refusal to reduce matters to simply right versus wrong, left versus right. He reminds us that the skinhead movement was traditionally multi-cultural, where working-class English and West Indian kids bonded over Jamaican artists such as Toots and The Maytals and The Upsetters. Mass unemployment under Thatcher resulted in the working-class feeling threatened, which gave rise to the racist attitudes one often associates with skinheads.

Combo’s politics may be abhorrent, but Meadows takes great pains to show how his character is not necessarily a victim, but a product of the Thatcher era. Unlike the typical one-dimensional skinhead we’ve seen countless times before, Meadows exposes a few cracks in the facade, revealing a complexity of contradictions that shuns a simple vilification of the character.

Looking like a pint-sized Winston Churchill (and commanding a similar presence) Thomas Turgoose is remarkable as Sean, and there’s no doubt his own troubled childhood informs much of his performance. As Combo, Stephen Graham makes a strong case for entry into the pantheon of great modern English actors, and his performance ranks up there with the best from Tim Roth, David Thewlis, or Ray Winstone.

My only gripe with the film is the third act, where an event leads to an epiphany in a way that feels a bit forced, or at least too conventional when compared to everything that preceded it, creating a moral centre that seems superfluous to what has gone before.

Awards: Click here for details.

101 mins.