29 June, 2009

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Angst Lee

Well, this ever-so ‘umble critic is putting his reputation on the line – Brokeback Mountain really isn’t quite as good as everyone else seems to believe. There, I’ve said it. Accusations of hard-heartedness may follow, but that doesn’t change the fact that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) director Ang Lee’s simplistic, overindulgent work is little more than a competently made ode to nature and male-bonding.

Clearly, though, it was a perfect opportunity for America to get back in touch with its feminine side while its troops were still busy ’saving’ villages in foreign lands.

The year is 1963: cowboys Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis Del Mar (the late Heath Ledger) are hired and sent together to Brokeback Mountain to herd sheep for the summer. The work is arduous, the terrain and conditions unforgiving, but a friendship quickly grows between the two men, who are dependent on each other for survival in the wilderness.

Things go deeper, however, when Jack takes Ennis into his tent one cold night, and the companionship goes a step further. In the macho world they must inhabit, theirs is the love that dare not speak its name, so the men reluctantly go their separate ways once summer is over, finding wives (Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway, both excellent) and raising families. But they revisit their deep, complex love during the following 20 years, and it becomes clear that accepting their feelings might drive them apart forever.

Sounds moving, doesn’t it? In parts, it is; Ledger takes acting honours for his struggle, etched painfully on his features and his life, to suppress his emotions for Twist. Gyllenhaal, on the other hand, while seemingly more willing to make a life with his soul-mate, ultimately lacks the courage to do anything about it.

But the film disappoints – perhaps its Ang Lee’s obsession with breathtaking natural cinematography, or maybe there simply isn’t enough story to fill the running time, but boredom set in for this reviewer after the first 90 minutes.

Sure, you’d have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by the men’s plight, but the agony is piled on to such an extent that the result is bludgeoning, not enlightening.

Awards: Click here for details.

134 mins.

The Last King of Scotland (2006)

Monster performance

How can the inhuman be humanized? It's a difficult line to tread - a very successful attempt of recent times came with Oliver Hirschbiegel's marvellous Der Untergang (2004), which chronicled the last, pathetic days of one Adolf Hitler (Bruno Ganz).

Acclaimed documentary film-maker Kevin MacDonald (Touching the Void (2002)) here turns his attention to the life and times of brutal Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland (2006). True, the central, Oscar-winning performance from Forest Whitaker is as good as you've heard and better, but MacDonald's film as a whole is undermined somewhat by its juxtaposition of fact and fiction.

Whereas Der Untergang was rooted very much in the eyewitness account of the real-life last secretary of Der Führer, MacDonald's account opts for the somewhat tired-and-tested perspective of a fictional character caught up in the real-life horrors.

The fictional witness this time is Scottish doctor Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), a naïve but sharp medical graduate practicing in Uganda to escape another tyrant, his dad. A chance encounter with the recently 'elected' Amin (he's actually come to power via a military coup), in which the young doctor impresses the dictator after he treats Idi's sprained wrist, brings Garrigan into the not-so great dictator's inner circle as personal physician.

Amin's charisma, charming personality and his ambitious plans for Uganda keep Garrigan's conscience at bay for a time, but as the number of kidnappings, murders and atrocities committed by Amin and his men grow by the day, Garrigan attempts to make a difference but, in doing so, puts his own life in grave danger. Time is running out...

Based on the acclaimed novel by Giles Foden, The Last King of Scotland is a marvel to behold from an acting perspective, with Whitaker delivering a performance that by and large eclipses all previous big-screen incarnations of megalomaniac villainy. Trust me, you will not be even remotely prepared for what Whitaker does with his turn of a lifetime - so deep does he dig into the paranoid dictator's marrow, and so far does he take the audience with him. McAvoy too puts in a display of remarkable range - from entirely believable would-be playboy to a haunted, haggard wreck of a human being.

On the flip side, unfortunately, the screenplay by Peter Morgan (The Queen (2006)) and Jeremy Brock seems to skim the surface somewhat, with particular reference to a lack of depth concerning the extent that the Ugandan people suffered under Amin. Perhaps the fictionalization is at odds with the historical horror?

But The Last King of Scotland will stand as a testament to a period in history that should never be forgotten. Whitaker's breathtaking portrait is never less than mesmerizing - with a little more focus, the film as a whole could have soared to similar heights.

Awards: Click here for details.

121 mins.

27 June, 2009

Donnie Brasco (1997)

Family values?

To call Donnie Brasco a ‘gangster movie’ would be like calling Dawn of the Dead (1978) ‘a film about some sick people wandering about’ – this has so much more to offer than the usual Mafiosi stereotypes (although they are there in spades).

The story is based on true events in the life of FBI Agent Joseph Pistone (Johnny Depp), who infiltrated the Mafia posing as a crooked jewel specialist, Donnie Brasco. The real focus of the film is how his job – which rapidly becomes his way of life – interferes with his family commitments as he struggles to keep his identity a secret and stay in the lives of his wife and children. The other side of Joe is revealed too, as he becomes emotionally closer to his target, Lefty (Al Pacino). The bond between them is tangible and excellently portrayed by both leads.

The plot ticks along at a brisk pace, even though there is a distinct lack of the violence and gun-play normally associated with the genre. There is one scene that is particularly unpleasant but it serves to accentuate the lifestyle and make it more real, rather than to glorify it.

For me, the film is about love, loss and betrayal. The trials and tribulations of the lives of both Lefty and Joe – both struggling to keep their heads above water and maintain some dignity and honour – are writ large across the plot’s seedy backcloth. The defining moment for me was the shouting match between Joe and his wife. She screams that Joe is "becoming like them", to which he replies: "All my life I’ve tried to be the good guy… And for what? For nothing. I’m not becoming like them; I am them." His love for his family and his affection for Lefty create an almost-inescapable situation, that’s resolved only by the tragic payoff.

If you don’t have a lump in your throat or a tear in your eye at the end, put your hand on your chest and see if there’s still a heart beating in there.

Awards: Click here for details.

127 mins/147 mins (Director's Cut).

24 June, 2009

Sexy Beast (2000)

Beast at bay? Er, no…

Jesus Christ! What got Ghandi in such a bad mood? Sexy Beast (2000) was a film I came to very late (eight years late, in fact) and only watched on the insistence of James, who would ideally like me to see every film in the world, as he seems to have, but sometimes I do heed his recommendations, if only to stop him banging on about them. It turns out he was right about this one, though. (Thank you, Colin – JD).

Another London-gangster heist movie, complete with crappy, incomprehensible dialogue and lots of swearing? Well, yes – except the dialogue is not crappy, it is very sharp indeed, and drives most of the film. Incomprehensible? Not if you come from the ’sarf-east’ of England, as I do, but non-native English speakers be warned – do not watch without subtitles. Just another gangster movie? Again, no. It’s a far cry from the formulaic (if fun) Guy Ritchie output.

Directed by Jonathan Glazer, hitherto a director of music video for such stars as Massive Attack and Blur, Sexy Beast has all the glossy, slick, scenes and vivid colours of a music promo, but as the bulk of the story is set in a Spanish villa, you could reasonably expect the light to be different from the UK. Indeed, as the film moves to London, the bad light serves as a reminder of why ex-gangsters decide to go and live in Spain, aside from the feeble extradition laws.

I always have a lot of time for Ray Winstone, who takes the lead role in Sexy Beast. He has forged a career similar to that of Sir Sean Connery, in which every part he plays is essentially Ray Winstone. This is not a criticism – he is just the sort of bloke I’d love to have a pint and a chat with – but here, he is very much Ray Winstone.

Gary ‘Gal’ Dove (Winstone) is living the good life in Spain, having retired from the London gangster scene. He’s pretty much got the complete retired gangster kit: trophy ex-porn-star wife, DeeDee (Amanda Redman), money to splash out on restaurants and good living, a nice villa and generally the life of Riley. When he hears from fellow retired mobster Aitch (Cavan Kendall in his last film role) that he’s about to be recruited for ‘one last job’, he and DeeDee get nervous and very, very disturbed. The reason for their panic is that the messenger being sent to persuade him is one Don Logan (Sir Ben Kingsley). Logan is a middle-tier gangster, not quite the big cheese, but not a foot-soldier either. The other thing about Don is that he’s crazy and extremely violent.

As much as I love Winstone, he is totally eclipsed in this by Sir Ben, who of course is famous for his appearance in many costume dramas, Shakespearean move adaptations, Schindler’s List (1993) and, naturally, Ghandi (1982). A more gallant and gentlemanly person you couldn’t wish to meet. It is a testimony to his extraordinary acting skill that he can scare the pants off you in this. He is, in fact, a complete bloody psycho. Anyone who can make hardened gangsters quake with fear is surely a force to be reckoned with - and Sir Ben won the 2000 European Film Award for Best Actor with his work here.

In the scenes in which he appears, Kingsley has the lion’s share of the dialogue. I say ‘dialogue’ but it’s often him ranting a stream of invective and nearly exploding with rage. This is essentially a dialogue-driven movie, although some of the second unit work really stands out – the underwater safe-deposit heist for one.

There are some solid (if a little predictable) supporting roles for Ian McShane and James Fox and more than a little humour, even if sometimes it’s a bit edgy and dark. The one thing that jarred for me a little was the Donnie Darko-style rabbit dream sequences. This was foreshadowed by Gal and Aitch hunting (and completely failing to shoot) rabbits, and I guess it was meant to mean that Gal was being hunted, but it was a bit odd. The rabbit does make a reapperance right at the end of the movie, so keep your eyes peeled. A bit weird but quite amusing.

Overall, a very good watch. If you’re not a fan of frequent, very strong, language, you probably won’t like this, but in my opinion, you’d be missing a good film. I’ll never be able to watch Ghandi again…

Awards: Click here for details.


89 mins.

Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain (2001)

Amazing Amélie

Pre-Iraq II, Time magazine ran a cover story rationalizing the ‘freedom fries’ line – WHY FRANCE IS DIFFERENT. Interestingly, the cover star was Audrey Tautou, which was a pic ed’s nice take on softening the editorial frog-bashing. This was indicative of the unarguable fact that nobody could quite rationalize – beyond Tautou’s indescribable beauty – what made Amélie (2001) (as it was known in the anglophone territories) such a sensation in spite of its unashamedly atavistic celebration of a dying Frenchness, right down to Amelie’s clogs, the Catholic notion of charity, the Proustian notion of nostalgia.

The premise is simple – a bright but offbeat girl embarks on a mission of charity for the lost and marginalized of Paris, and acts as an avenging angel to the harsh and horrid. But Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s sly trick was to use the swashbucklingly brilliant technique that made Delicatessen (1991) and La Cité des enfants perdus (1995) such breathtaking pictures and place it in the service of a humdrum urban France in a social transition as laboured as a slow panning shot.

Few living directors have a better sense of visual dynamics than this maverick; how could the commander of Alien: Resurrection (1997) make a sweet, oddball love story in Montmartre into an international hit? That he did will perhaps be the ultimate monument to his genius. It should be.

Mathieu Kassovitz had known infamy in France for his role in the classic of racism La Haine (1995) makes his presence as Amelie’s love interest all the more poignant.

Amelie’s France never existed. But Jeunet’s gift is to make a watertight case that it did, in a visual language that combines lingering facial shots with biff-bang pop-video jumpcuts. Stunning, ravishing, you know the drill. It’s a sensation; one of those films you always promise yourself you’ll see. Don’t put it off any longer.

Awards: Click here for details.

Paul Stump
129 mins. In French.

The Wind That Shakes The Barley (2006)

Striking back against the Empire

Ken Loach’s controversial, Palme d’Or-winning study of Republicans v the Brits in 1920s Ireland raised the hackles of several well-known UK critics (who, customarily, didn’t feel the need to actually see the film) as well as Irish commentators. It’s normally a sign that an artist has got something right when he angers both sides of a debate and claims of bias seem moot when a film comprises such lyrical beauty, steadfast portrayals and a marvellous, articulate script.

For a British viewer, Loach’s film should leave an unpleasant taste in the mouth and a more-than nagging sense of shame at the atrocities committed by the British Empire in its most troublesome of ‘colonies’.

Accusations of exaggeration miss the point; there is doubtless historical truth portrayed here, and what would be the Empire-apologists’ argument, exactly? That the British army and Black and Tans ‘weren’t that bad, not really’? Oh, so they were only a little bit brutal and murderous in the name of Empire, were they? That’s alright then…

Except it isn’t, obviously. Loach, collaborating seamlessly with his scriptwriter Paul Laverty and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd, has at once captured the beauty of Ireland without resort to chocolate-box imagery, the articulate rage of the oppressed Republicans without need of obvious tub-thumping and the tragic horror of the attendant violence in the growth of the armed IRA campaign.

Cillian Murphy plays Damien, a young medical graduate bound for a career as a doctor in London who is urged, following the brutal killing of a 17-year-old in front of his mother by thuggish British soldiers, to stay and help the cause. At first unwilling, even mocking of his peers (”What are we going to do? Fight the British with our hurling sticks?”), his viewpoint and life are changed forever when he witnesses the violence of Ireland’s unwelcome guests at the train station from where he is about to leave.

Swearing allegiance along with his brother Teddy (Padraic Delaney) to the IRA, the pair are transformed into charismatic, unswervingly loyal leaders. But their loyalties carry them towards different paths and the heaviest of prices to be paid…

Murphy and Delaeney carry the movie, with brilliant support from Liam Cunningham as the older and wiser Dan and Siobhan McSweeney as Damien’s tragic lover, Julia. In fact, there is rarely a mis-step from any of the cast and it is remarkable the extent to which the film informs the viewer of the political turmoil at the heart of the struggle – achieved largely through very long sequences in which the characters do little other than express, passionately, their respective stances. In lesser hands, these sequences would have been dirge-like, but Loach and Laverty make them riveting.

Loach’s characteristic wry comedy, such as the opening game of hurling, a teenage message-boy who loses his message concerning a truce (”I was told there was a ‘T’ word that was the most important”) and a melodramatic pianist who accompanies the silent newsreel that announces the momentous news of the creation of the Free State provide welcome relief from the grim reality on display, but there is only ever one way this can end. Shame, perhaps, on us all.

Awards: Click here for details.

127 mins.

Låt den rätte komma in (Let The Right One In) (2008)

‘Will you be my girlfriend?’
‘Oskar, I’m not a girl.’

Regular readers will hopefully forgive this review's inclusion - Tomas Alfredson's Låt den rätte komma in (Let The Right One In) (2008) has not yet made the nominations for this year's European Film Awards but, if it does not, something is going very wrong somewhere. You heard it here first - we have a winner. :-)

Vampires – they just won’t stay dead, will they? Please forgive the clumsy segue, and allow me to tell you why Tomas Alfredson’s film (which lifted the Golden Raven at this year’s BIFFF) is perhaps the finest ever made about the undead.

The last really scary vamp flick was David Slade’s excellent 30 Days Of Night (2007). But, whereas that was based on the high-concept, comic-book notion of an Alaskan town that’s plunged into darkness for 30 days every year, and is therefore the ideal ‘holiday’ destination for feral, flight-of-foot bloodsuckers, Alfredson’s film (scripted by John Ajvide Lindqvist from his own novel), as with all the very best horror, is set entirely in the world of the prosaic.

Specifically, small-town Sweden – the Stockholm suburb of Blackeberg, in 1982, where we find Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), a bright, sensitive but overlooked and bullied boy, whose teenage friendship with his beautiful but peculiar 12-year-old next-door neighbour Eli (Lina Leandersson) dovetails into love. Trouble is, we know that something is very wrong with Eli – as Oskar is set to discover. There’s no explaining it, it is what it is – Eli is a creature of the night, who needs blood to live.

And it is this matter-of-fact approach that truly sets the film apart from its kin. With the possible exception of George A. Romero’s Martin (1978), vampire mythos doesn’t tend to go into details about how difficult it would actually be to keep up a facade of normality while being forced to drink from the living – when we first join Eli (truly, a superb, heartrending performance from Leandersson that combines pathos, even innocence with shocking savagery), she is being cared for by an older, unsavory middle-age man named Håkan (Per Ragnar). It’s doubtful if he’s her father – her familiar, maybe?

Whatever the case, he takes care of her blood supply, killing people at random and draining their life essence. But his capture and suicide results in Eli having to fend for herself, as, all the while, she grows closer to Oscar. And, when you’re being badly bullied, it really helps to have a friend who’s a vampire…

Alfredson’s film can of course be properly described as horror but, what makes it an absolute marvel is the fact that, for the first time, the two long-recounted aspects of vampirism (the tragedy and terror) are seamlessly blended, while the traditional vampire mythos is both respected and subverted. We never know whether a crucifix will be effective, Eli, while unable to come out in daylight, is not staked through the heart, but she must be invited into a home (hence the film’s title) or else, as we discover in one truly shocking sequence. And, as is demonstrated in an awe-inspiring coup de cinema, she is clearly a supernatural being, able to scale a multi-storey hospital in seconds.

And the tender love story at the narrative’s core, a precise observation of teenage amour that’s complicated by factors beyond belief, is what will also make this a film for the ages.

Scary, sad, breathtaking.

PS. Christ, this news just in. Guess what, there’s going to be a US remake. FFS, just don’t, capisce?

Awards: Click here for details.


115 mins. In Swedish.

17 June, 2009

Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others) (2006)

Secrets and lies

In what was, quite remarkably, German writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's first feature, we are taken inside the dark heart of East Germany in the mid-1980s. Communism still rules with an iron grip, the fall of the Berlin Wall is still five years away, and Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) is a high-flying member of the Stasi, the secret police agency of the former German Democratic Republic.

Seemingly dedicated to his job to the point of cruelty, Wiesler's secret surveillance activities, keeping an eye and ear on so-called enemies of the state, are nevertheless beginning to take their toll, as he finds himself becoming increasingly absorbed by the lives of his latest subjects, award-winning author Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and popular stage actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck). While the pair are perceived as potentially dangerous subversives by the powers-that-be, Wiesler comes to realize the price that everyday citizens are forced to pay living under the totalitarian regime and sets out, at great risk to himself, to buck the system. But his efforts are set to bring terrible consequences...

Rarely, with the possible exception of Francis Ford Coppolla's The Conversation (1975) has the question of who watches the watchers, and the human costs of spying been addressed in a more humane, adult and poignant fashion. Mühe's gradual transformation from 'The Law Is Not Mocked' implacability to Everyman is a startling triumph of script and acting ability - a sense of impending tragedy pervades from the outset and, when it comes, rare will be the viewer without hand to mouth.

But that's not to say that doom is all that the film deals in; there is room still for a denouement as sincere as it is satisfying. Truly, this is the kind of film that makes it a pleasure to be a critic.

Awards: Among a host of other gongs, Das Leben der Anderen took Best Film, Best Actor (Ulrich Mühe) and Best Screenwriter (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck) at the 2006 European Film Awards. Click here for details.

137 mins. In German.

03 June, 2009

Vera Drake (2004)

Mother. Wife. Criminal.

He's never had a problem with handling difficult subjects, has our Mike Leigh - the director of Naked (1993) and Secrets & Lies (1996) turned his hand here to one of western societies' most controversial issues, namely that of abortion and how mothers, morality and the law are expected to navigate the minefield.

And a minefield it most certainly was during the era of Vera Drake (2004) - early 1950s England was no place to be if you couldn't cope with the burden of motherhood and couldn't afford to be referred by a psychiatrist for an abortion.

We join the title character (a simply wonderful, heartbreaking Imelda Staunton, who won the 2004 European Film Award for Best Actress) in the middle of her daily 'duties' - she's a devoted, caring mother-of-two, happily married to car mechanic George (Philip Davis), whose days are spent keeping her home and family happy, meals on the table, her invalid mother and other less-fortunate members of her community company, and the homes of the local gentry spick and span.

In addition, there's the small matter of the pregnancy terminations for which Vera takes responsibility - a rudimentary procedure involving warm water, carbolic soap, disinfectant and a Higgson's syringe. Drake takes no payment for her services - she is motivated only by her desire to help girls in desperate situations - but that's more than can be said for her friend Lily (Ruth Sheen), who organises Vera's schedule and takes money on the sly from the pregnant girls. The near-death of one of Drake's 'customers' brings the law knocking at the door...and grief intrudes upon the tight-knit family's life.

There is perhaps no better director alive than Leigh when it comes to capturing the unmistakeable ring of truth with dialogue; written by the director, but also largely improvised on by the very talented cast, the script takes us into the heart of a society in which family is very important, but where social mores still hold sway, sometimes at tremendous cost. Drake's family, while not grindingly poor, nevertheless live in a community in which being poor is commonplace - a sharp contrast to the full doctor-and-hospital care that is (somewhat snootily) offered to society girl Susan (Sally Hawkins), who is left pregnant after being raped by her 'gentleman' friend David (Sam Troughton). Of course, she can pay - so what of those who can't?

Typically, Leigh does not take a stance on the issue, trusting instead to the intelligence and inclinations of his audience. For this reviewer, it is simply a tragedy that a so-called civilized society ever allowed such a situation to exist, but I am grateful to the director for opening my eyes.

Awards: Click here for details.

125 mins.