18 February, 2010

Bloody Sunday (2002)

No going back

Nominated for Audience Award European Director (Paul Greengrass), European Cinematographer (Ivan Strasburg), European Film (Arthur Lappin, Mark Redhead), European Screenwriter (Paul Greengrass), European Film Awards 2002.

Paul Greengrass has proved himself to be a world leader when it comes to the blending of fact and fiction - he is perhaps cinema's most adept exponent of the 'docu-drama' approach, as he went on to prove with United 93 (2006), which was a far superior account of another day on which the world changed, namely 11 September 2001, than Oliver Stone's World Trade Center (2006).

Only with The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) did Greengrass's first-person, eye-witness stance fail to work - the slickness of the narrative did not sit well with a gritty, faux-realist take.

But he certainly scored with Bloody Sunday (2002) - anything less than the documentary style that was adopted to recount the events of that terrible day would have been more than insulting to the memory of those who died and those still alive who bear the scars.

A dramatization of the Irish civil rights protest march and subsequent massacre by British troops on January 30, 1972 in Derry. Recounting the peaceful protest march to oppose British laws of the time that allowed internment without trial, the film charts events from the night before to the night after - lead activist Ivan Cooper (James Nesbitt) is at great pains to ensure that the march goes ahead peacefully, along with young Kevin McCorry (Allan Gildea), who has a prison record but who believes in the cause and also wants to avoid conflict. On the other side, Major General Ford (Tim Pigott-Smith) is arranging for a heavily armed troop of commandos in fatigues and face paint to be ready to intercept, should things turn violent. The march proceeds, chaos ensues, and the British militia opens fire onto the unarmed crowds, shooting 27 and killing 13. Tragically the rest, as they say, is history - there was no going back, and no hope for decades of a non-violent resolution to the Irish 'Troubles'.

As with any historical document, truth must be sought on a personal level - it is of course impossible to say exactly what happened when, who fired the first shot, or whether any one side can be held completely responsible.

Greengrass wisely presents both sides of the story without resort to saintly martyrs or pantomime villains - tremendous pressure had been applied to all involved, with British forces having to be seen as tough on terrorism, and the peaceful Irish activists also having to attempt to placate the IRA. Nesbitt in particular is excellent as the driven though compassionate march leader, and the credible sense of events spiralling out of control, thanks to a determinedly understated approach from all concerned, is a marvel.

Happy viewing it isn't, but educational? Certainly.

Awards: Click here for details.

107 mins.

13 February, 2010

Vincere (2009)

Benito Mussolini - what a fascist!

Nominated for European Actor (Filippo Timo) and Prix d'Excellence (Editing, Francesca Calvelli) European Film Awards 2009.

And I'm not talking only about his political ideology.

Nowadays, the term 'fascist' gets thrown around indiscriminately, especially in political circles. But in Marco Bellocchio's 2009 Cannes-nominated film Vincere, we go back to its roots, and Mussolini's personal fascism was clear in his attitude towards his first wife and their son.

As it happens, 'Vincere' or 'to win, overcome' was a favorite word in Il Duce's public harangues, giving Hitler a run for his money on the bombastic front.

It's hard to say who wins in this movie, but I suppose that the truth coming out about Mussolini's secret wife and son, after years of fascistic suppression, is a final victory for the unfortunate Ida. Back in the 1920s and 30s, when much of the action of the film takes place, this film might have been entitled The Ida Dalser Story.

Writer/director Bellocchio, other than brief end notes, doesn't dwell on the final fate of Ida and little Benito, Mussolini's firstborn. Most Italians were unaware of their existence until 2005, when a documentary, Mussolini's Secret, was shown on Italian TV. The documentary, along with the publication of Alfredo Pieroni's book, The Secret Son of Il Duce: The Story of Albino Mussolini and His Mother Ida Dalser, provided Bellocchio with the historical background for his screenplay.

And then there is the period newsreel footage. As Jay Weissberg wrote for Variety from Cannes last May:

"Rarely has actuality footage been used so superbly, not merely for period flavor but as integral to the storyline: Once Mussolini renounces Ida, he's only seen as she sees him, through newsreels."

Some viewers may be put off by the recurrent use of black and white period footage, but as Weissberg writes, it really does work. The music, and even the 1930s typeface on the titles, all contribute to the sense of the period, when an ideology based on nationalist violence ruled Italy and spread throughout Europe. The confusion of the era, spanning pre-WW I through the eve of WW II, with Mussolini's evolution from socialism to nationalism to fascism, is accurately rendered.

Award-winning actress Giovanna Mezzogiorno plays Ida with remarkable passion, contrasting with the cold indifference of Mussolini, played by Filippo Timi. Ida's protracted travails underscore just how long Mussolini's rule lasted (in contrast to the 12-year '1000-year Reich'). You can watch it as a remarkable human tragedy or grand historical drama. It works on both levels.

Awards: Click here for details.

Gerald Loftus
128 mins. In Italian and German.

12 February, 2010

Interview: Paco Plaza

Talking terror

European Film Awards Reviews had a chance to catch up with Spanish director Paco Plaza for a brief chat - he was in Brussels recently, busy promoting his and Catalonian fellow director Jaume Balagueró's [Rec] 2) (2009). A fine chance to talk to a man who really knows what scares you...

The horror cinéma-vérité sub-genre is enjoying a whole new lease of life - it's a concept that was set in motion by The Blair Witch Project (1999) and which, after an absence of some ten years, has been well-served recently by fake documentary flicks such as George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead (2007), and in 2008 by Matt Reeves’ and J.J. Abram’s Cloverfield (2008).

But, for this reviewer, the big daddy, in terms of unapologetic scares, was [Rec] (2007), which was nominated for the EFA Audience Choice Award for Best Film in 2008, and is an experience that akin to spending a night in a haunted maze, with stuff-of-nightmares images and a veritable flood of chaos, claustrophobia, and ‘Oh-my-dear-God-NO!’ moments, culminating in what is perhaps the most terrifying ‘resolution’ ever filmed.

While the monsters may now be almost perceived as 'traditional', a horror ethos suitably informed by the brilliant work of George A. Romero, the approach was anything but, and, as the sequel makes clear, there is in fact a lot more going on with these ghouls than meets the eye.

And it is this departure from modern horror norms that most interested Plaza: "We wanted to give our 'zombies' a different aspect - to mix elements of the genuinely supernatural in with the idea of a viral infection. So, in effect, our zombies are demons as well."

A twist that was, to be fair, set up very near the climax of [Rec], with Ángela (Manuela Velasco), the TV reporter who is shooting a documentary series on firemen’s night work, discovering a religious, perhaps even apocalyptic, explanation for the horror.

I'm being deliberately vague there, but that would be my point - while [Rec] 2 is still an excellent sequel, doesn't Paco perhaps think that some of the scares have been traded in because of the 'explanation', no matter how creepy or intriguing it is?

"That's an excellent point, but Jaume and I really wanted to introduce the genuinely supernatural elements, to make our film different from other horrors of this kind. I don't think we give too much away - I believe there is still enough that's left open, left unexplained, to keep it scary."

And the huge resurgance in excellent horror from Spain, with El Orfanato (The Orphanage) (2007) being another recent example? Is darkness very much a part of Spanish culture?

"It's difficult to say - I don't know if there are any special reasons, but I do know that me and Jaume and our fellow Spanish directors, we are all, more or less a group of friends, as we have all known each other since we were making short films, so we have grown up together. At a certain age, too, we were all huge fans of a Spanish TV show called Mis terrores favoritos (My Favourite Terrors), which was hosted by the great director, Narciso Ibáñez Serrador, who made the renowned horror film ¿Quién puede matar a un niño? (Who Can Kill A Child? ) (1976).

"Anyway, this was at a time when there was only one TV channel in Spain - so if you were watching TV, you were watching this channel, and you had this amazing guy who, like Alfred Hitchcock, was introducing horror classics, so we were all introduced to horror like this, and it made a huge impression on us. We were able to see horror as something exciting and entertaining, and it therefore became a huge part of our culture."

For our review of [Rec] click here, and for our review of [Rec] 2 click here.

09 February, 2010

Danish Short Nominated For European Film Awards

The European Film Academy (EFA) and the International Film Festival Rotterdam congratulate the Rotterdam Short Film Nominee for the European Film Awards 2010, Ønskebørn (Out of Love), directed by Birgitte Stærmose (Denmark 2009, 29 mins, documentary fiction)

The film is now nominated for European Film Academy Short Film 2010. It was selected by the festival’s international jury, which was made up of Jeremy Rigsby (programmer of Media City Festival in Windsor, Canada), Shai Heredia (director of Filter India Festival, Mumbai, India) and filmmaker, writer, visual artist and teacher Albert Wulffers (the Netherlands).

The film tells a gripping story, in an unorthodox way, about the experiences of children in an unreal-looking Pristina, the capital of Kosovo.

The short film initiative is organised by the European Film Academy in co-operation with a series of film festivals throughout Europe. At each of these festivals, an independent jury presents one of the European short films in competition with a nomination in the short film category of the European Film Awards.

The European Film Academy is also happy to announce that the Locarno International Film Festival has just joined the EFA Short Film Initiative, so that the programme now includes a total of 15 festivals (see list below).

Ønskebørn joins the following nominees: Amor by Thomas Wangsmo (Norway 2009, 14 mins, fiction), selected at the Flanders International Film Festival - Ghent; Der Ampelmann by Giulio Ricciarelli (Germany 2009, 14 mins, fiction), selected at the Valladolid International Film Festival, Les Escargots de Joseph (Joseph’s Snails) by Sophie Roze (France 2009, 12 mins, animation), selected at the Corona Cork Film Festival; and Blijf Bij Me by Paloma Aguilera Valdebenito (Netherlands 2009, 24 mins, fiction), selected at the Premiers Plans: Festival d’Angers.

The next nomination will be presented in co-operation with the Berlin International Film Festival. When the annual cycle is completed in September, the nominees will be presented to the over 2,000 members of the European Film Academy and it is they who will elect the overall winner - the European Film Academy Short Film 2010 which will be presented at the 23rd European Film Awards Ceremony on 4 December in Tallinn/Estonia.

The short film initiative now includes 15 festivals:

- Flanders International Film Festival Ghent/Belgium (October 2009)
- Corona Cork Film Festival/Ireland (October 2009)
- Valladolid International Film Festival/Spain (October 2009)
- Premiers Plans - Festival d’Angers/France (January 2010)
- International Film Festival Rotterdam/the Netherlands (Jan./Feb 2010)
- Berlin International Film Festival/Germany (February 2010)
- Tampere Film Festival/Finland (March 2010)
- Krakow Film Festival/Poland (May/June 2010)
- Norwegian Short Film Festival Grimstad/Norway (June 2010)
- Edinburgh International Film Festival/UK (June 2010)
- Curtas Vila do Conde - International Film Festival/Portugal (July 2010)
- Sarajevo Film Festival/Bosnia & Herzegovina (July 2010)
- Locarno International Film Festival/Switzerland (August 2010)
- Venice International Film Festival/Italy (September 2010)
- International Short Film Festival in Drama/Greece (September 2010)

08 February, 2010

Mar adentro (The Sea Inside) (2004)

A right, but not an obligation

Won European Actor (Javier Bardem) and European Director (Alejandro Amenábar) and was nominated for European Film, European Screenwriter (Alejandro Amenábar/Mateo Gil) and European Cinematographer (Javier Aguirre Sarobe), European Film Awards 2004.

Alejandro Amenábar (The Others (2001), Agora (2009)) took on the daunting challenge of the life story of Spaniard Ramón Sampedro (Javier Bardem), a former sailor who was tetraplegic for 28 years, and who successfully fought in court for his right to euthanasia.

Ramón gets to know the lawyer who is defending his cause and who has a degenerative fatal disease herself, Julia (Belén Rueda), and also becomes close to Rosa (Lola Dueñas), a lonely social worker who has been abused by the men in her life and who tries to convince him that life is still worth living. Through Ramón's love, the two women are inspired to accomplish what they previously never thought possible and, despite his wanting to die, Ramón nevertheless taught everyone he encountered the meaning and preciousness of life. An uncanny ability to move others, though he could not move himself.

As written by Amenábar and Mateo Gil, and performed by Bardem and Co., this never once sinks into the maudlin morrass that could so easily have resulted from such an emotive story - rather, we are presented with a firebrand who, while not selfish, nevertheless demands that his right to choose must, by its very definition, outweigh the pain that he knows he will cause others when he leaves life.

It's a film of great set-pieces - despite the obviously static nature of the setting and action, Amenábar nevertheless pulls off some breathtaking cinematic coups, not least of which is the moment when we see, for the first time, just how capable Ramón is of movement, even if it's on a different plane from that which most people understand. Not for nothing is the film called The Sea Inside...

And there is life-affirming joy here, too, helped enormously by Bardem's biting, caustic but always witty performance - the scene in which he argues with another tetraplegic (a priest, Padre Francisco (José María Pou)), who's trying to convince him that all life is sacred, is both profane and paralyzingly funny.

And perhaps the film's greatest achievement is the conviction with which it leaves the viewer - you're sad to see Ramón go, no question, but you know that this way, at least his life and death had meaning. What more could any of us ask?

Awards: Click here for details.

125 mins. In Spanish, Catalan and Galician.

03 February, 2010

La môme (La vie en rose) (2007)

No regrets

Nominated for People's Choice Award (Best Film), European Film Awards 2007

Some films sort of sneak up on you - while I had obviously heard of singer Édith Piaf before watching Olivier Dahan's La môme (2007) and while I was aware that, despite her remarkable voice, nearly everything she sang sounded very, very depressing, I had not the first clue concerning the extraordinary life led by one of France's all-time divas.

And so it was that I settled in for an evening with Édith and, thanks to the remarkable performance from Marion Cotillard (which combines tenderness with snarling savagery, and which deservedley won her the 2007 Best Actress Oscar) and the remarkable sincerity of Dahan as director and co-writer, along with Isabelle Sobelman, I was by turns intrigued, amused, moved and ultimately transfixed by the rags-riches-rags-riches story of a woman who lived so intensely every day of her life.

Dahan, whose previous work such as La vie promise (Ghost River) (2002) and Le petit poucet (Tom Thumb) (2001) only hinted at his range, presents a non-chronological look at the life of 'The Little Sparrow', Édith Piaf (1915-1963). Born to an alcoholic street singer with her father a circus performer and her paternal grandmother a brothel madam, Piaf was discovered at 20 by club owner Louis Leplée (Gérard Depardieu) who was murdered, then coached by a musician who introduced her to concert halls, with fame following quickly. But her life's only true constant companions are alcohol and heartache, with the tragedies of her love affair with Marcel Cerdan (Jean-Pierre Martins) and the death of her only child belie the words of her signature song, Non, je ne regrette rien.

Piaf's overwhelming sadness, coupled with her defiance of life's injustices, have been absolutely nailed by Cotillard - rarely, if ever, has there been a biopic so ultimately life-affirming, so ultimately tragic. Absolutely, one for the ages.

Awards: Click here for details.

140 mins. In French and English.