Archive for August, 2014

The Keeper of Lost Causes (2)

Director: Mikkel Nørgaard

Writers: Nikolaj Arcei (from the novel by Jussi Adler-Olsen)

Country: Denmark / Germany / Sweden

Runtime: 97 mins

Cast: Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Fares Fares, Sonja Richter, Ernst Boye

A taut, efficient police thriller, but hardly original

The Keeper of Lost Causes is a rather curious film. It is enjoyable enough (though not for the squeamish), but doesn’t really offer anything more than you would expect from television dramas such as Wallander or Waking The Dead. Based on the first of Jussi Adler-Olsen’s “Department Q” detective series, the key characters are an odd-couple pair of cops who are the sole operatives in a cold case unit (whose status is indicated by its location in a dusty basement).

Nikolaj Lie Kaas plays Carl Mørck, a taciturn former homicide cop who no-one will work with, following a disastrous operation. He finds himself relegated to Department Q, where he is expected to do no more than shuffle through cold case files and to close three of them every week. Mørck’s partner is Assad (Fares Fares), a big friendly Muslim of middle-Eastern origin (in the book he is a Syrian refugee). Aspects of these men’s lives are hinted at but not developed, presumably allowing scope for treatment in any sequels. For example, Mørck has the obligatory family problems (separated from wife; a wayward stepson), and we never discover what misdemeanour has led Assad to be assigned to Department Q. 

Rather than simply closing the files as directed, Mørck begins investigating a case that he is familiar with. This concerns the disappearance, believed to be suicide, of politician Merete Lynggaard (Sonja Richter). However, Mørck’s boss is far from happy to discover that his officers are going round upsetting people with their questions, not to mention exceeding their meagre budget. Thus, drawing on another familiar trope of cop movies, our men are suspended but carry on anyway, before the ultimate redemption. 

The one pleasingly novel element in The Keeper of Lost Causes is the inclusion of a sympathetic Muslim character (as opposed to the usual crazed villains of Hollywood movies). On the negative side, however, is the lack of any significant female characters other than the victim (Wallander and Waking The Dead managed to create significant parts for women).

Presumably this is meant to be the first of a series of Department Q book adaptations, but really this is television rather than cinematic material.

Rating: 6/10

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West_Beirut

Director: Ziad Doueiri

Writer: Ziad Doueiri

Country: France / Norway / Lebanon / Belgium 1998

Runtime: 105 mins

A funny and moving account of growing up in a conflict zone

My first exposure to Ziad Doueiri’s directorial work was his excellent 2012 film The Attack (reviewed here on 27th February 2014), the story of an eminent Palestinian surgeon whose wife – unbeknownst to him – carries out a suicide bombing. Thanks to the British Film Institute’s “Discover Arab Cinema” strand, I have now had the opportunity to  catch up with one of Doueiri’s earlier films, West Beirut. Unlike The Attack, however, this film has a number of comedic elements that offset the more serious underlying themes. The story concerns the experiences of two friends, Tarek and Omar, growing up in the Beirut of 1975, the year in which civil war broke out and the city became divided into the Muslim west and the Christian east. Doueiri himself grew up in Beirut during this period and it is perhaps this experience that gives the film a sense of raw immediacy. HIs own son Rami plays Tarek the bigger (and possibly older) of the two boys, with Omar played by Mohamad Chamas. 

Tarek is a typically impulsive and rebellious teenager. In an early scene that is perhaps an ironic nod to Casablanca, we see him undermining the teacher at his French-run school by singing the Lebanese anthem through a bullhorn as she is leading the others in the Marseillaise. After giving him a lecture in the superiority of French civilisation she sends him out into the corridor, from where he witnesses gunmen ambush a bus in the street. The next day, there are militias on the streets and Tarek’s parents are unable to deliver him to school. They learn that Christian militias have blockaded routes into the eastern part of the city. 

As the civil war envelops Beirut tensions rise between Tarek’s parents. His mother wants to leave the city, but his father is adamant they should stay, pointing out that they aren’t guaranteed a warm welcome elsewhere. He notes that the Lebanese are regarded as “deluxe” refugees in Switzerland and that sniffer dogs are set upon them at Heathrow Airport. 

Meanwhile, Tarek himself is motivated by other concerns. After shooting some sneak footage of the attractive girlfriend of Omar’s uncle he is determined to get the film developed. Unfortunately, the processing shop is now behind a militia checkpoint and Tarek is not allowed to pass. Tarek hardly seems aware of the danger that he is putting himself in, but Omar has a greater political awareness and tries to restrain his friend. Omar is also exasperated when Tarek makes friends with a Christian neighbour, May (Rola Al Amin), who openly wears a crucifix. Omar considers that this friendship is putting them both in danger. A turning point comes when, by a quirk of fate, Tarek inadvertently finds himself in the one location where people from both the east and west can still congregate: Madame Oum Walid’s brothel. Here, militia men check their guns at the door and mingle freely inside. Tarek discovers that there is even an agreed-upon code that allows patrons to pass through otherwise hostile areas – they need to fly a bra from a prominent place, such as a car aerial.

As if to remind us how real these events were for the inhabitants of Beirut, the film is interspersed with archive documentary clips from that period. However, Doueiri does not involve us with political arguments and, indeed, there is a lot of humour. What is brilliantly conveyed in West Beirut is that most people caught up in the conflict are just ordinary people trying to lead ordinary lives. They could be living anywhere. Tarek’s mother is a lawyer in the local courtroom. His father is currently trying to find work. The boys like pop music and Tarek has a Western sci-fi movie poster on his wall. One indication of the way in which people under duress might change comes from Omar, who tells Tarek that his father has decided their family should regularly attend the local mosque. In other words, this is religiosity arising from insecurity.

West Beirut is a hugely engaging and enjoyable film, ultimately very moving, and is one to look out for.

Rating: 9/10

Lucy_(2014_film)_poster

Director: Luc Besson

Writer: Luc Besson

France 2014

Runtime: 89 mins

Scarlett Johansson develops superpowers in a movie that’s as enjoyable as it’s preposterous

Lucy is a big dumb action flick that features the world’s biggest female star right now. Ironically, though, the plot revolves around an intellectual conceit, the idea that people only use ten per cent of their brain’s capacity. As any psychologist can tell you this is baloney, but as long as you don’t mind overlooking such nonsense then Lucy is a lot of fun.

The story begins at a Taipei hotel where the title character finds herself coerced by a dodgy boyfriend into delivering a package to some terrifying Korean gangsters. At gunpoint Lucy ends up having some sort of packages inserted into her stomach, one of which bursts following an assault by a guard. The chemicals released into her bloodstream lead to some dramatic changes whereby Lucy begins to utilise previously dormant cerebral capacity. Fortuitously, these changes turn Lucy into a kick-ass warrior, enabling her to escape her captors.

Meanwhile, in the world of academia one Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman) is giving a presentation on the next steps in human evolution which, he tells us, will hinge upon accessing the brain’s hitherto untapped capabilities. Once again, scientists in the cinema audience will be holding their heads in their hands as the Professor’s powerpoint slides depict the entirely fallacious “Great Chain of Being” – the idea of an evolutionary progression from beings crawling on the ground to humans standing upright (contrary to the idea of linear progression we did not, for example, evolve from the Great Apes; rather we share a common ancestor with them).

Professor Norman speculates on what human abilities will be untapped if and when we are able to use twenty per cent of the brain’s capacity. Elsewhere, Lucy is already going beyond this figure. She is heading towards using one hundred per cent of her brain’s capacity, but the downside is that her body will not be able to survive beyond twenty-four hours. Whilst fending off the bad guys who are hunting her down Lucy needs to contact the Professor and find a way to transfer her newly-acquired knowledge for the benefit of humankind.

In essence, Lucy is The Matrix meets Lawnmower Man via 2001: A Space Odyssey. Scarlett Johansson’s is, as ever, a magnetically watchable presence. Her performance here as the otherworldly Lucy, who has abilities no-one else can even fathom, is not a million miles from the alien she plays in Under The Skin. Happily, the potential for the film to be overwhelmingly portentous is offset by some moments of fine humour. In one such moment Lucy is driving a car at breakneck speed through oncoming traffic. In the passenger seat a terrified police officer, Pierre Del Rio (Amr Waked), cries out “You’ll get us killed!” Channeling her brain’s expanded wisdom, Lucy says in a throwaway manner: “We never really die”.

Lucy is a straightforward summer action movie. Don’t expect too much. Leave your brain at the door, sit back, and enjoy.

Rating: 7/10

Directors: Tim Newton and Bob & Roberta Smith

Writers: Tim Newton and Bob & Roberta Smith

UK: 2014

Runtime: 83 mins

In defence of art: a scattershot blast at Michael Gove

Watching Art Party brought back memories of my own art master at Bexley & Erith Technical High School, now rebranded as BETHS Grammar School (skip ahead a couple of paragraphs if you aren’t interested in this personal digression!). To me, Mr Wilson was one of the most inspiring teachers, not just because of his obvious enthusiasm about visual art but because of the way he dealt with his disability. At some point in his life Mr Wilson had lost an arm. He didn’t talk about it and I never knew what had happened, but the story that had filtered down to us (true or false, I don’t know) was that Mr Wilson had lost his preferred arm and subsequently taught himself to draw and paint with his remaining arm. But to my young self, who had never encountered any form of disability (other than a neighbour with a glass eye), what most struck me was the matter-of-fact way Mr Wilson behaved in regard to his bad arm. He never tried to hide the stump. On the contrary, he would walk confidently around the classroom in short-sleeved shirts with the stump protruding, including a stringy flap of skin that hung down. When he was demonstrating aspects of painting or sketching to us he would tuck brushes, palettes, or drawing pads under that stump. Back then, in the 1970s, this struck me as quite bold and I think it seemed to represent the idea that art and artists have a freedom that isn’t apparent in other areas of life. 

Mr Wilson didn’t just teach, but he would also produce his own art. There was one year when structural problems at the school forced us to temporarily decamp to a recently-vacated convent. In the hall of this building Mr Wilson undertook a large mural depicting some sort of battle scene (as I dimly recall, it was a middle ages kind of thing, with swords and suits of armour). Once we had relocated back to the proper school buildings I used to walk past the convent, which was in my home town, and still see the mural through the window. Until now, I hadn’t really stopped to appreciate the incongruity of having a battle scene on a convent wall. I like to think that the picture hadn’t been commissioned by the headmaster and that Mr Wilson was driven by his own inner inspiration.

Although I didn’t end up pursuing an artistic career, several years ago I took up photography and didn’t need to be taught the rule-of-thirds because I remembered this from my school art class. All of which brings me to Art Party, a film made in response to the apparent downgrading of arts within schools by UK Education Secretary Michael Gove. In 2011 the artist Bob and Roberta Smith (real name: Patrick Brill) wrote an impassioned letter to Gove about the importance of arts in schools. This was followed, in 2013, by a large gathering of artists at Scarborough for an “art party”, described in The Guardian by Adrian Searle as “a continuation not just of Brill’s campaign, but of Bob & Roberta’s art. Everyone became unwitting accomplices. With its seminars and performances, films, lectures and comedy acts, stands, podium speeches and fringe meetings, the conference was at once the real thing and masquerade, serious and silly, amateurish and passionate. It was also part-exhibition, part cringingly bad craft fayre, part gig and am-dram talent night, part immersive installation”.

The Art Party film is partly a documentary account of the Scarborough event, including Bob & Roberta Smith reading out his letter to Gove, performances from musicians, and interviews with various participants about the value of art in schools and in society generally. There are several performances from one of my favourites, Flameproof Moth, a busker who can often be seen playing artfully ramshackle songs on the beach at London’s Bankside, even as the tide comes in and the waves start lapping around his legs.

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This is all interspersed with fantasy segments involving a fictionalised version of the then Education Secretary, “Michael Grove” (played by John Voce), and his entirely fictional aid Hettie Nettleship (Julia Raynor). In truth, these scenes were a bit hit-or-miss, and the resolution of the Grove story wasn’t entirely coherent. During the Scarborough event there is a kind of redemption for Grove, as he suddenly sees the light and joins in the party. However, having struck this note of optimism, the writers then serve up a rather mean-spirited ending for Grove that seems to fly in the face, not just of his change of heart, but of the positive advice sung by Flameproof Moth (to Nettie) only moments earlier to “Reach for your best available thoughts”. Given that Michael Gove himself is also no longer the Education Secretary, having a fictionalised version of him in the film does make it already seem somewhat dated.

According to the final credits, several politicians – including Gove – were “unavailable” to take part in the film. This means that Art Party ends up being a rather one-sided affair, a piece of agitprop for art rather than a wider exploration of educational values. However, the spirited contributions by the various artists, in both interviews and performances, are by themselves pretty convincing arguments for the cause they wish to support.

Note: Just prior to seeing Art Party I discovered that I work at the same institution as one of the writer-directors. In addition, several students contributed to the film. As that might be construed as a conflict of interest I haven’t rated this film.