27 July, 2009

Persona non grata (2005)

Ode to friendship

Prolific Polish director Krzyzstof Zanussi has made around 75 much-respected movies, and is considered to be in the same league as Andrzej Wajda and Krzysztof Kieslowski. The witty and affecting Persona non grata (2005) is, along with the German TV movie Wege in der Nacht (1979) (Ways in the night or Nightwatch) probably his best film. In addition, both films feature the brilliant music of Wojciech Kilar, the actor Zbigniew Zapasiewicz, and are scripted by the physicist-turned-philosophy student Zanussi.

At the elementary level, the film is about diplomats and their lives, but, go deeper, and you'll see Zanussi exploring the relationship between Poland and post-Glasnost Russia and the denizens of both nations. The director also touches on the subtle differences between the orthodox Christians and Catholics - which also featured in the late Kieslowski's work. There are more Catholics in Poland, while Orthodox Christians dominate Russia - Zanussi differentiates the spirituality of the two in the rich verbal sparring that the film unfolds between a Polish and a Soviet diplomat. Finally, Zanussi teases the viewer by leading one to suspend disbelief in the main character - for some time, even the astute viewer is led astray, reduced to the level of a 'persona non grata', believing that the film is merely about a diplomat who is about to lose his diplomatic powers at the embassy.

Great performances from three great Polish actors - Zbigniew Zapasiewicz (Zanussi's favorite), Jerzy Stuhr (Kieslowski's favorite), and Daniel Olbryschsky (Wajda's favorite) adorn the film, but the most striking is the acting performance of Russian actor-director Nikita Mikhalkov, who can do a great turn as a restrained comic (for example his performance in his half-brother Mikhalkov Konchalovsky's Siberiade).

Persona non grata is an ode to friendships, to friends who remain loyal, friends who are not seen as such when times are good, but are recognized for what they are when tragedy strikes, and friends who dislike being insulted, even by mistake. Thankfully, the film proves that Polish cinema is alive and well, and shows a director who's clearly back at the top of his game.

Awards: Click here for details.

In Polish, Russian, English and Spanish. 117 mins.

25 July, 2009

Fehér tenyér (White Palms) (2006)

Tough training

Gymnastics - not perhaps the most obvious subject for a genuinely engrossing, sometimes harrowing and uplifting drama, but there's no doubt that Hungarian writer-director Szabolcs Hajdu's Fehér tenyér (White Palms) (2006) has all of the above in spades.

Hajdu, who also made the excellent Tamara (2004) draws a stark contrast between the East-West traditions in East and West for training gymnasts - based on autobiographical elements involving his brother (who is the film's star, Zoltán Miklós Hajdu), brings us his tale of Olympic gold-medal standard gymnast Miklós Dongo, whose training begins at the age of ten (when he is played by Orion Radies) under a brutally strict, corporal-punishment backed regime of brutal corporal punishment from his trainer, Ferenc Szabó (aka 'Puma'), played with frightening realism by Gheorghe Dinica, and how this affects his later life when he has to adapt (with great difficulty) to far more liberal, holistic attitudes in Calgary, Canada.

His mother and father (Oana Pellea and Andor Lukáts) too seem authoritarian and distant, showing affection for their son only when they have a chance to show his athletic skills off to relatives, and Dongo is forced to 'perform' while, in the Canadian section of the film, the Western's system's shortcomings are also laid bare, with too little in the way of sanctions available to teachers to control unruly students. But, thanks to his growing friendship with a younger athlete, Dongo not only learns to look at the world through new eyes, but finds a part of himself that he thought had been lost forever.

It's emotion-laden, which is surprising considering its fairly dry subject matter, but never overplayed - a very enjoyable contribution from Eastern European cinema.

Awards: Click here for details.

97 mins. In Russian, English and Hungarian.

14 July, 2009

Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005)

The best of British

This is getting silly. Revisiting this film on St George’s Day was a curious inversion of time and space. Wait a minute here…the English/British aren’t supposed to be that good at anything any more, declinism fuelled by lack in the NHS and public services, the Millennium Dome, the scandalous Olympic overspend. It is thus perhaps perverse (or maybe salutary) to stand up and shout for two plasticine models as the vessels of greatness, but Wallace & Gromit refuse to be anything but standfasts for standards in 21st-century UK.

No ifs, buts or maybes – this is a very, very good movie, judged by whatever criteria you care to mention. One almost now yearns for Nick Park and the whole bally Aardman crew to trip up (although Shaun The Sheep might yet prove their Achilles heel). Not here though, not yet. Put it this way – what other cultural franchise in the UK can have grumpies and tinies alike in fits of laughter?

The allaince with DreamWorks, the dalliance with CGI – neither really harms the daffy conceit of the whole. Master and pooch have hit the big time as human pest-controllers – until, that is, thanks to Wallace’s intervention, a terrifying, outsize rabbit is set loose among the cabbage patches and cold frames.

A great rock musician this writer once talked to spoke of British music-making as shamateurism meeting amateurism, comparing it to Churchill building his brick wall at Chartwell. Park gets this. Wallace is the well-meaning, occasionally inspired meddler, whose intention is to make dull, quotidian actuality much more efficient and exciting and less demanding, but whose means are constrained by those very faultlines. From the Morph animations and A Grand Day Out (1989), Aardman has been essentially a cottage industry but loved planetwide, as class a marque as Barbour macs and Tiptree jams. What those concerns do is take the veneer of amateurism and turn it by sleight of hand into super-professionalism. The toy train sequence in The Wrong Trousers (1993) is a case in point. It could not have been simply knocked up. Its flawless borrowing – but always with integrity maintained – from Tom and Jerry remains one of the funniest pieces of British film-making. Half-assed dilettantes don’t do that.

There’s more of the same in this recondite whimsy in which the pace becomes so fast at times it feels more like a PE lesson than watching a film.

Much is always made of the ‘typical Britishness’ of the settings, of Peter Sallis’s salt-and-vinegar delivery as Wallace, but the series’ gift is to subtly elide a whole mess of pop-cultural references that makes modern Britishness what it is. This is done with such elan and sheer entertainment value that isolated villagers in the hills of Sarawak or Paraguay may one day yet come to regard Wallace & Gromit, and not David Beckham or Bobby Charlton, as the ideal avatar of Britishness.

Awards: Click here for details.

Paul Stump
85 mins.

08 July, 2009

Romeo + Juliet (1996)

Hard on Baz’s Bard

It was with great interest that I learned about Australian soap actor-turned director Baz Luhrmann's latest - it’s called Australia, and the early reports indicated it might be good. (Unfortunately, it wasn’t, not really – James). That’s a relief, because since Strictly Ballroom (1992), his movies have been – how can I put this – nauseating, over-produced crap.

‘But, but, what’s wrong with Romeo + Juliet? It’s bringing Shakespeare to the people,’ I hear you cry. Before I explain, I need to declare an interest, as they say in politics. I don’t ‘get’ Shakespeare. Never have and most likely never will. This makes me, according to my esteemed colleague James, an ‘utter Philistine’ – but then, he’s always been a fellow of infinite jest…

For a kick-off, the whole thing’s about showing off. Ooh – look what I can do with this camera! Isn’t it cool? Frankly, no. It’s bloody annoying – stop jiggling the damn thing around and concentrate on actually shooting something worth seeing. ‘A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life’? Not bloody quick enough to stop me feeling like I’ve been on the business end of a vibro-massage chair on the highest setting for what is actually around two hours but seems like six.

If you’ve ever heard Luhrmann’s truly awful single Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen), you’ll know just how desperate he is to be cool. The fact is, it wasn’t even his voice on the recording, which says a lot.

And what’s with the title of the film? Romeo plus Juliet? If we’re talking equations, the formula would be (romeo+juliet)-directing talent=overblown trash. It’s Romeo and Juliet, Baz. Another reason to dislike it, even before I opened the DVD box.

Before you ask, yes – I did sit through the whole 120 minutes of it. I’ve also read the play and seen it performed on stage. I never saw someone make quite such a hash of it, though. I’ll agree with James that Pete Postlethwaite put in a good performance, but the rest of the cast seemed very under par – even the usually dependable Leonardo Di Caprio. Di Caprio’s career started a bit hit-and-miss, but with films like The Basketball Diaries (1995), The Aviator (2004) and The Departed (2006) he’s more than proved his mettle, and the fact he did this after The Basketball Diaries makes me wonder if he wasn’t a bit short of cash at the time. As I have admitted, I don’t get Shakey – but I’m prepared to try. I have actually enjoyed parts of it, but as a whole, I find the language and the cultural references a bit beyond me, and sometimes quite overwhelming. Watching R+J (hey, that’s even cooler!) made the whole thing worse by dragging it kicking and screaming into the 1990s. Not only was any potential cultural reference swamped in unnecessarily garish visuals, ‘modern’ settings and irritating camera work, but the dialogue was often shouted so loud it became incomprehensible. If this had been my introduction to Shakespeare (as it seems to have been for many of today’s under-30s) I doubt very much if I would have invested any more time in his work.

In short, it is a music video with words by DJ Will S., the only saving grace being the soundtrack – and that’s only if you like early-ish Radiohead. Distorted, dissonant and disproportionate. I now sit back in my comfy chair and await all those people out there with an axe to grind to pop in and tell me how wrong I am – bring it on.

James, you always said I should someday write about a film I didn’t enjoy – so here it is. A review of something irredeemably crap. Happy now?

Awards: Click here for details.

120 mins.

Alatriste (2006)

A hero’s reign in Spain

It’s been a while since your faithful correspondent watched a proper historical romp and, what’s more, it’s been longer still since I enjoyed one as much as Alatriste (2006) by Agustín Díaz Yanes (Sin noticias de Dios (2001)).

Mortensen, a quite superb character actor, as his recent work in David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007) proves, is Diego Alatriste, a former soldier and mercenary who becomes a hero of Spain’s 17th century Imperial wars.

Immensely popular in Spain, thanks in large part to the popularity of Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s series of novels on which the film is based, Alatriste as depicted by Mortensen comes across very much like an Iberian equivalent of d’Artagnan, as created by Alexandre Dumas.

The film was the most expensive ever produced in Spain, and took almost five years for Agustin Diaz Yanes to write and bring to the screen. Compressing the principal episodes of the six-book saga, we join ‘Captain’ Alatriste (it’s a nickname at this stage, rather than an actual rank) during the reign of Philippe IV, whom he serves as a soldier and mercenary. Courageous and loyal, Alatriste is nevertheless a tormented man, with his worries for his adopted son, Inigo (Unax Ulgade), who, little by little, is becoming exactly like him and his great love, the Maria de Castro (Ariadna Gil), a fading beauty who is also attracting the king’s attentions.

Alatriste by Mortenson does come over at times rather like a Hispanic ‘Man With No Name’ – an anti-hero with swagger. The actor’s Spanish is somewhat Latin-American inflected (it was where he learnt to speak the language, in his childhood), but this does not detract from his performance.

The film’s visuals are superb, with much reference made to Spain’s great artist Diego Velazquez, who is referred to several times. The violence at the story’s core is authentically portrayed, with much use of hand-held cameras, and the swashbuckling sword-play is very exciting, choreographed by veteran sword master Bob Anderson.

Definitely one for a long Sunday afternoon – you won’t regret it.

Awards: Click here for details.

145 mins. In Spanish, Flemish, Latin and Portuguese.

01 July, 2009

The Road to Guantánamo (2006)

Road to Hell

It would appear that the mud really does stick. Returning from the 2006 Berlinale Film Festival, at which The Road to Guantánamo won the Silver Bear award, two of the actors (Rizwan Ahmed and Farhad Harun) and two of the ex-detainees were temporarily detained and interrogated by UK police. According to BBC News, a Brit bobby asked Ahmed if he intended to make any more political films. The Thought Police are closing in…

Not that it was surprising to find …Guantánamo courting controversy; Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross’s film focuses on the ‘Tipton Three’, a trio of British Muslims who were held in Guantanamo Bay for more than two years until they were released without charge. For Shafiq Rasul (played by Riz Ahmed), Ruhel Ahmed (Farhad Harun), and Asif Iqbal (Arfan Usman) and their friend Monir Ali who ‘disappeared’ in Afghanistan just prior to the trio’s incarceration and was never found, a spur-of-the-moment trip from Pakistan to Afghanistan, allegedly to offer help to civilians during the US’s first retaliation attack for 9/11, turns into a nightmare when they are grabbed by the authorities, transported and detained in crowded, sub-human conditions then transferred into US custody. This, according to their story and the film, is where things got really bad.

A little time has passed since seeing the film and the opportunity I had (for which I am very grateful) to meet the Tipton Three in person. This is just as well, because both experiences left me with those least objective of emotions, rage and pity; a brief cooling-off period was required to gain some balanced distance.

As far as the ex-detainees are concerned, there was no sense that they were concealing anything. At the time of their imprisonment, all were obviously nothing more dangerous than angry-ish young men. All had been involved in petty crime in the UK, and that was it. Much has been made, by the film’s detractors, of the ‘actual’ reasons behind the young men’s reasons for going to Afghanistan – the fact that this was the only reason for their incarceration – "What are you doing here? We don’t believe you." – does not seem to have discouraged said critics from taking an equally ludicrous stance.

They were clearly not terrorists. They were not jihad. As the film is at pains to make clear, during its recreations of Q&A sessions with interrogators whose methods range from terrifying brutality to chilling impassivity, the men had rock-solid alibis for all the occasions when they were supposedly caught on camera at jihad rallies – they simply weren’t there. As Asif told me: "For Christ’s sake, you know, I was working at Currys [at the time of the rally]. I knew that there would be documentation in the UK to prove that, but nobody checked it out."

The film is relentless and harrowing. As with United 93 (2006), Paul Greengrass’s take on the passengers and crew who fought back on 9/11, questions will inevitably be asked as to whether there are certain areas of human experience into which cameras should not be allowed for ‘entertainment’. This, despite the film’s obvious sincerity as a social record, is a valid argument, one that stands head and shoulders above "Ah, but were they innocent really?".

Regardless of whether the Tipton Three were responsible for 9/11 itself and any exaggeration (which there of course may be) of what the men suffered, "the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons," as Fyodor Dostoevsky so rightly said. So, some might say, the film’s only half accurate. It’s only a quarter correct. This reviewer cares not.

This, it would appear, is America. And the bad news starts here.

Awards: Click here for details.

95 mins.