27 March, 2010

Crimen Ferpecto (Ferpect Crime) (2004)

Just 'tanfastic'

Nominated for Jameson People's Choice Award European Actress (Mónica Cervera) and European Director (Álex de la Iglesia), and European Film Award Best Director (Álex de la Iglesia), European Film Awards 2005.

Álex de la Iglesia (The Oxford Murders (2008) manages a near-'ferpect' blend of genres with Crimen Ferpecto (Ferpect Crime) (2004) - a much lauded, much-awarded comedy-thriller of the blackest pitch. Rafael (Guillermo Toledo) has the world at his fingertips - a model fashion salesman, he is confident, arrogant, and is happily enjoying the women and freedom of a bachelor lifestyle. Naturally, he's had his way with the pretty sales girls who work, er, under him, all except one - the seemingly shy, ugly-duckling Lourdes (Mónica Cervera). It's all going great, until he is pitched against another salesman Don Antonio Fraguas (Luis Varela) for the position of floor manager.

But what should have been a breeze turns out to be much tougher, and he loses the job to Fraguas - a snide remark from Rafael prompts a scuffle between the two men, and Luis ends up dead. Though it is an accident, he is forced to cover up, but Lourdes, who has designs of her own on Rafael, is a witness, and realises that she can now decide what is best for her 'accomplice', which includes marriage and all the trimmings, naturally. Rafael's life has turned into a nightmare, which is not helped by Fraguas's seeming return from the dead - and he too is only too 'happy' to help...

All involved have so much fun with the set-up, it's simply impossible not to be carried along for the ride - Cervera in particular is excellent as the wallflower with a lot more to her than meets the eye, and the scenes in which Rafael and the dead Fraguas discuss tactics are simply sublime. You'd be hard pushed to find a more enjoyable, witty romp, and its combination of genres reveals Iglesia as a master.

Awards: Click here for details.

105 mins. In Spanish.

20 March, 2010

Ajami (2009)

Victims of violence

Nominated for European Discovery of the Year (Yaron Shani and Scandar Copti), European Film Awards 2009.

An Israeli film that closely mirrors the work of Alejandro González Iñárritu such as Amores Perros (2000), 21 Grams (2003) and Babel (2006), Ajami (2009) is the directorial debut of Yaron Shani and Scandar Copti, and is an unflinching study of the nature of violence its aftermath, both on victims and perpetrators, and also a fascinating portrait of humanity struggling in one of the more volatile areas of the Middle East.

In Jaffa, a port city in Tel Aviv, the fear and frustration of the locals is growing, as continued acts of aggression from political and religious sources cut a swathe through daily life. Omar (Shahir Kabaha) is out to avenge the shooting of his uncle, Dando (Eran Naim) is a Jewish cop trying to find his missing brother in Jaffa; while Malek (Ibrahim Frege) is a Palestinian refugee desperately trying to raise the money he needs to pay for his mother’s medical care. But everyday concerns are only ever separated from the city’s criminal underclass by a hair’s breadth, as the men struggle to adhere to their loved ones as the tensions, and horrifying brutalities, escalate.

Directors Shani and Copti (the latter also has a notable role to play in the film’s narrative) accentuate the sense of disorder that frequently (and violently) tips into hostility, drawing a picture of an explosive city perpetually on the brink of bloodshed over nothing more than longstanding feuds and seemingly harmless neighbourhood disagreements. Jaffa is not an anarchy, but the daily violence splits the community into those genuinely fearing for their lives and those who choose to join the mindless cycle of revenge.

The directors have divided the film into five chapters, to accentuate the diverse perspectives and psychologies at play, with excellent performances from a largely amateur cast, who bring both feral ferocity and existential agony to their roles. A riveting and heartrending experience, Ajami is a fascinating insight into the Middle East that lies behind the headlines.

Awards: Click here for details.

120 mins. In Arabic and Hebrew.

14 March, 2010

Notting Hill (1999)

British, warm and human

Nominated for Best European Film, European Film Awards 1999.

OK, OK, I admit it - it's guilty pleasure time. I have never been a huge fan of writer Richard Curtis's rosy views of London, such as Love Actually (2003) (which he also directed) or the Bridget Jones adaptations, but Notting Hill (1999), directed by Roger Michell (The Mother (2003)) managed both to make me laugh and move me. There, I've said it.

The movie's success and sincerity is attributable entirely to the genuine chemistry between the archetypally foppish Hugh Grant as simple bookstore owner William Thacker and Julia Roberts as 'world's-most-famous-movie-star' Anna Scott, with both pretty much playing themselves but having a ball doing so, which makes it near-impossible for the audience not to join in and enjoy the ride.

I mean, you know the score, right? Can a 'normal' man and an unbelievably famous (and beautiful) woman ever get it together? Hmmm, what do you think?

Along the way, there are some excellent set-pieces - William, representing Horse and Hound(?!), fumbling his way through an interview with Anna's director, Rhys Ifans as Spike, who's a dangerous man to have as a best friend and, of course, the genuinely blub-inducing ending, combine to wonderfully warm effect.

And, of course, it looks beautiful too - Curtis and Curtis's directors always seem able to find charming locations in the 'Big Smoke', even if you don't always buy the 'Cool Britannia' overtones.

One of the more accessible EFA nominees - perfect for a date night, or a lazy Sunday afternoon.

Awards: Click here for details.

124 mins.

09 March, 2010

Qu'un seul tienne et les autres suivront (Silent Voices) (2009)

Eloquent on incarceration

Qu'un seul tienne et les autres the original enigmatic title that young French director Léa Fehner has given this "prison" drama, though it may not meet the exacting demands of genre classification set by No matter. The film kept the audience in utter silence for two hours, as we followed the trajectories of several of society's silent and invisible people, whose lives intersect with the prison system.

My one fear going into Silent Voices was that the web of stories would be too conveniently woven together, Babel-like, at the end. Not to fear - the director is going about bringing us all to the prison's visiting room, a place she knows well, to show us the human stories, the collateral damage, represented by those seated around each table. And we care about them as they reach the climatic moment of visiting day.

Oh yes, the tables. Visits here are not behind bullet-proof windows, but are in a controlled space divided into carrels. Léa Fehner spent several years as a social worker in that very environment, so her scripting and direction has the authority and credibility of an eyewitness. But, as she told Le Soir's Fabienne Bradfer recently, this is not a documentary. Hence her choice of professional actors, many of whom are at the very beginning of what promise to be long careers. Ditto for Léa Fehner.

What a team this is - and that is the term Fehner uses for a cast from the diversity of French society. The film's non-prison settings are in Marseille and Algiers, two rather similar cities on opposite sides of the Mediterranean. Veteran actress Farida Rahouadj plays Zohra, a grieving mother trying to understand why her son was murdered. If ever there was the face of Algerian stoicism masking inner pain, it is in her performance.

Relative newcomers Reda Kateb (who had a small role in Un Prophète (2009)) and Belgian Pauline Etienne are revelations, as is Vincent Rottiers, who we'd previously noticed in A l'origine (2009). Director Fehner sees her team as a keeper. Indeed she'd already cast Russian actress Dinara Drukarova in Sauf le silence, a 2006 short also about prisons.

Maybe that's no surprise. As she told Fabienne Bradfer, Léa Fehner went to a secondary school located next to a prison, and once witnessed a prisoner's wife conducting an unofficial, shouted 'visit' with her husband through layers of fences and walls. Thanks to a chance encounter, she grew up to provide us with this excellent work that merited its Cannes nomination as best first film.

If only all high-school students were so inspired...

Awards: Click here for details.

Gerald Loftus

120 mins. In French and Arabic.

05 March, 2010

Jafar Panahi Arrest: European Film Academy Protests

The Board of the European Film Academy (EFA) strongly protests against the arrest of Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi and demands his immediate release.

Jafar Panahi is an internationally recognised artist and his work has been honoured at the festivals in Berlin, Cannes and Venice. Before his arrest on 1 March, Panahi was denied permission to leave Iran in order to attend the 60th Berlinale as an honorary guest.

Panahi, 49, is a vocal supporter of Iranian opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, and is currently believed to be being held at an undisclosed location.

Panahi is known as one of the leading lights of modern Iranian cinema. He won the Camera d'Or award at the Cannes film festival in 1995 for his debut feature The White Balloon and took the Golden Lion prize at Venice for his 2000 drama The Circle. His other films include Crimson Gold (2003) and Offside (2006).

The Board of the European Film Academy encourages EFA members to join this protest by personal letters to the respective Iranian embassy.

Yves Marmion, Nik Powell, Volker Schlöndorff - on behalf of the Board of the European Film Academy.

02 March, 2010

Interview: Ken Loach

European Film Awards Reviews had the opportunity for a brief chat with director Ken Loach when he visited Brussels not so long ago - the recipient of EFA's Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009, nominated for European Director for The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006) and Sweet Sixteen (2002) and winner of the FIPRESCI Prize in 2002 (while his lead actor Steve Evets was also nominated for European Actor in Looking For Eric (2009)), Ken is no stranger to recognition for his work in the European sphere nor, for that matter, to controversy.

As far as getting off on the right foot was concerned, I couldn't have been happier: "So, Ken, given that your film The Wind That Shakes The Barley (2006) took a decidedly anti-British tone when it came to the depiction of the Black and Tans in early 20th-century, and It's A Free World... (2007) does not exactly represent the situation of immigrant workers' in the UK in line with opinions expressed by certain sections of the Fourth Estate, is your new-found aim as auteur to piss off the Daily Mail?"

"Well, considering that the Daily Mail supported Adolf Hitler in the 1930s, a fact that seems conveniently to have been forgotten, and today stands for most of what is absolutely the worst about Britain, I feel that I really must have achieved something if that paper disagrees with my work."

Once the rosy glow of contentment that suffused my body upon hearing these words had faded, I decided it might be an idea to talk to Ken Loach, 73, about something other than our mutual hatred of the Mail, no matter how tempting the idea might be. His film It's A Free World..., perhaps?

Good idea. After all, Loach was only in town for a short time - following his Palme D'Or win at Cannes for ...Barley, he was very much the man of the moment, and his film had already caused no small measure of controversy with its unapologetic depiction of Britain as a country only too willing to exploit the masses of workers arriving on its shores, desperate for a chance to work for themselves and their families. Angie, the central character played with vim and verve by Kierston Wareing, is a working-class single mother whom Loach uses to represent both sides of the issue - a recruitment specialist who branches out on her own, believing at first that she's genuinely offering foreign workers a chance, even if it is at sub minimum-wage levels, but who becomes ever more ambitious, ruthless even, as the film progresses and she realises how much money there is to be made from the misfortune of others.

Ken is strident in his defence of the film's perspective: "As far as large sections of the media is concerned, the Mail, Express, Sun et al, the UK is 'a soft touch' when it comes to immigrants. Well, I'm sorry, but this perception is about as far removed as it's possible to be when it comes to the day-to-day existence of these workers in our country. I'm interested in 'the norm' - and I could have painted a far worse picture! Paul Laverty [the writer] travelled extensively from Scotland through the Midlands to London, and the situation he found was pretty much the same all over."

And a solution? Loach is unapologetically retro in his stance: "The only answer is a genuinely socially democratic system of government in the UK. I'm not suggesting that everyone who employs these people is evil but, without strong trade unions that genuinely support the rights of workers and a decent minimum wage that is constitutionally enshrined for everyone, British born and immigrant alike, employers will always be tempted to hire workers who can be exploited."

Spoken like the social commentator that he still so clearly is.