Archive for October, 2014

Director: Naji Abu Nowar

Writers: Naji Abu Nowar and Bassel Ghandour

Country: United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Jordan, UK

Runtime: 100 mins

Cast: Jacir Eid, Hassan Mutlag, Hussain Salameh, Jack Fox

An outstanding desert survival drama from a talented first-time director

It is 1916. A group of Bedouin sit around a nighttime campfire in the Arabian desert. A stranger approaches on a camel. He is a British Army officer (Jack Fox), trying to catch up with his regiment. The Bedouin welcome him into their group and the next day two of them set out to accompany the soldier across the desert. However, young Theeb (meaning “wolf”) refuses to be left behind by his older brother (both of them are orphans) and chases after the group on his donkey. The older Arabs are reluctant to take Theeb (Jacir Eid) along with them, but it is a long way back to their camp and the boy is persistent. They all travel together, but eventually tragedy strikes when they are attacked by other Arabs.

As the story develops it becomes more than just a tale of a small group trying to survive a journey in the desert (although it is very much about this too). It is about how encroaching modernity, exemplified by the Ottoman’s desert railway, threatens the survival of nomadic peoples.  The Bedouin in the film are all non-professional actors, drawn from the last remaining Bedouin tribe in Jordan. They turn in quite exceptional performances. Unfortunately, as neither the London Film Festival programme, nor iMDB, connect the actors’ names to the characters I don’t know who to praise for his portrayal of a black-clad Arab bandit that Theeb encounters. By turns desperate, angry, trusting and friendly, this is a performance that dominates the film. For a first-time feature-film director to obtain such performances from non-professionals is really quite something special.

An obvious point of comparison for Theeb is Lawrence of Arabia, especially in relation to the blond-haired English officer seeking assistance from the native Bedouin. Writing in Sight & Sound magazine, Nick James wrote that he saw Theeb as “an antidote to the imperial swagger of Lawrence of Arabia”. However, whilst it is difficult not to make the comparison, in reality these are two entirely different movies. I don’t even consider that Lawrence has “imperial swagger”, which strikes me as a fundamental misreading of that great film, whose protagonist sought to champion the autonomy of the Arab peoples. In fact, to the extent that the two films have any connection it is the way they invite the audience to side, or at least sympathise, with the Arabs rather than the British or the Turks. In conversation after the film, Director Naji Abu Nowar explicitly stated that he did not consider his film to be an “antidote” to Lawrence, and went on to express his great regard for David Lean and that movie.

The opening segments of Theeb lull the audience into a false sense of security. For about fifteen minutes or so the film moves along quietly at a fairly sedate pace, showing hospitable Bedouin conversing with each other, looking after their English visitor, drinking from wells, and also depicting the slow careful pacing of camels through the desert. Then, just as you have convinced yourself that Theeb is going to be some sort of arty meditation on desert living, there is a shock that had many of the people around me cry out and raise their hands to their faces (OK, I admit it, I did this too). A few minutes later there is another shock that will most likely make you jump up in your seat. At one point the woman in the seat next to me was covering her eyes with her hands, like a child watching the Daleks circa 1973. From hereon in the film becomes a gripping drama.

Theeb is one of the most memorable pieces of dramatic cinema that I have watched this year and has deservedly won plaudits for director Naji Abu Nowar, including director prize at the Venice Film Festival Horizons section and Arab Filmmaker of the Year prize from Variety at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival.

Rating: 9/10

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Director: Ana Lily Amirpour

Writer: Ana Lily Amirpour

Country: Iran / USA

Runtime: 99 min

Cast: Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi, Marshall Manesh, Dominic Rains

Judging by the feedback of the London Film Festival audience for A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, there is a pretty good chance that this first full feature by Ana Lily Amirpour is going to become a cult classic. The story concerns a female vampire (“the girl”) who wanders the streets of an imagined Iranian town, Bad City. Her appearance is striking: she wears a chador open at the front to reveal a striped T-shirt, and her blank, uncomprehending eyes are ringed with dark mascara. In an early scene we get a glimpse of her fearsome power when she kills Saeed (Dominic Rains), a frighteningly thuggish pimp/drug dealer.

Subsequently, the film follows her developing relationship with a young man, Arash (Arash Marandi), who previously had his luxury car stolen by Saeed as payment for his father’s drug debts. There is a sense that both of them are lost. Arash is a typical young man, trying to forge an identity for himself, but being muscled aside by bigger, more confident men whilst trying to attract girls at a party. The girl encounters him whilst he is lost in the city at night, high on ecstasy. We do not know anything about her past or where she has come from, and she herself seems confused by her own existence. Strangely, though, although she does kill again, she seems only to kill those whose lives she judges to have little or no value.

Although I enjoyed A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, it is somewhat flawed. On the positive side, much of the imagery and cinematography is beautiful. Sheila Vand is utterly captivating as the girl. The first 15 minutes or so are really quite enthralling, with a clearly-identified “good guy” (Arash) coming into conflict with an obvious scary villain (Saeed). However, having established Saeed as a seriously frightening bad guy, he then gets bumped off. The girl, who is also a deeply sinister presence to begin with later becomes a much softer and likeable presence. What starts out as a horror-drama gradually develops into a kind of comedy romance. The change was a little confusing for this viewer, at least.

After Saeed’s death the film drifts along a little, and there are some longeurs, but somehow it gets by on charm. Part of the charm comes from Vand’s lost and lonely vampire, who I just wanted to give a big hug, but much of it comes from Arash’s pet cat. Yes, you heard that right – a cat. Just as some suggested that Inside Llewyn Davis was an ironic comment on Blake Snyder’s screenwriting classic “Save The Cat”, writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour seems to have unironically implemented the entire cat concept in this film. It does make for enjoyable viewing, but ultimately I wondered if perhaps I had enjoyed the film rather more than it really deserved.

Rating: 6/10

Shown at the 2014 BFI London Film Festival

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Director: Jean-Marc Vallée

Writer: Nick Hornby

Country: USA

Runtime: 115 minutes

Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski

A potentially Oscar-worthy performance from Reese Witherspoon in a woman-against-the-wilderness drama

You wait ages for a film about a woman trekking alone through the wilderness and then two come along at once. The obvious comparison for Wild is Tracks, another single-word title that appeared earlier this year (and reviewed here on 23rd April). I think Tracks was very underrated, but those who couldn’t relate to its somewhat abrasive protagonist, especially given the almost non-existent backstory, might be more warmly disposed towards Tracks. Scripted by Nick Hornby, and based on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail”, this is a story where the heroine’s past is a prime motivation for the journey she undertakes.

Reese Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed, in what is her most substantial part and performance since Walk the Line. The film opens with her partway through the journey, sitting on a rocky outcrop, peeling off bloodstained socks and then ripping off one of her toenails. Glamorous it isn’t. This is about as far away from the ditzy blondes of Witherspoon’s early roles as it’s possible to get.

From this point we flash back to the journey’s starting point, which builds sympathy for Strayed in a comical scene where she struggles to stand up in the huge overfilled backpack that she is wearing. We then follow her along the journey, but with regular flashbacks to her earlier existence. Laura Dern appears as Cheryl’s mother, Bobbie, who has escaped a relationship with an abusive husband and is now enrolled as a student in the same university as her daughter. There is also an ex-husband Paul (Thomas Sadoski) who Cheryl does not seem to have got over. However, tragic events lead to Strayed’s life going off the rails. In undertaking her ambitious trek she is trying to become a different sort of person.

Needless to say, there are hardships, mishaps and dangers that have to be faced, although nothing as extreme as in films such as 127 Days or Touching the Void. But this is less an adventure film than a film in which adventure plays a part. What really matters here is the transformation of the heroine, a change that is brilliantly, and movingly conveyed by Reese Witherspoon in a performance that could stand her in contention for the Oscars.

Rating: 9/10

Wild was shown as part of the London Film Festival. The UK release date is January 2015.

Director: Abel Ferrara

Writer: Maurizio Braucci

Country: France / Belgium / Italy

Runtime: 86 mins

A disappointing and confusing portrait of the late director

Pasolini begins with the controversial director viewing a scene from his as-yet-unreleased film The 120 Days of Sodom, in which some youths are subjected to sexual and mental torture by the fascist gang that has kidnapped them. It ends with Pasolini being murdered by a gang on a beach where he has taken a male prostitute. This symmetrical topping and tailing of the film with sex and violence is about the only structure to be found in this disappointing attempt to paint a picture of Pasolini through a kaleidoscopic view of the last day of his life.

Willem Dafoe is a compelling presence as Pasolini, demonstrating again that he deserves to be given more lead roles. However, the film never really gets to grips with the character of Pasolini or what he achieved, and is likely to be especially bewildering to a viewer who knows little or nothing about the man. During the course of his final day Pasolini meets friends, family, colleagues, an interviewer. There are also some fantasy scenes depicting parts of the story he is currently working on. However, none of this really amounts to very much. I lost track of who some of the people were (or possibly it was never made clear in the first place), and it didn’t help that some long passages of dialogue in Italian were not subtitled.

For some reason most of the characters are dimly lit in the interior scenes. When daylight is streaming through windows no attempt appears to have been made to light the faces of inward-facing characters. The same is true when the only light is the lamps in the room. Together with a somewhat desaturated colour this contributes to a slightly sombre atmosphere, and perhaps that is the point, but I’m not sure this really worked for me. Also, in the scene where Pasolini is interviewed, I found the camera movements quite distracting. They didn’t seem to serve any purpose. At one point, as Pasolini is speaking, the camera slowly pulls back from his face until he seems to be several feet away, but then we suddenly cut to an extreme close-up. Why?

I was really hoping to like this film, but I’m afraid I came away feeling quite dissatisfied.

Rating: 5/10

Pasolini was shown at the London Film Festival

Director: Eran Riklis

Writer: Sayed Kashua

Country: Israel

Runtime: 105 mins

This review reveals significant plot developments

Prior to the showing of Dancing Arabs at the London Film Festival, actor Laëtitia Eido conveyed a message from the director (Eran Riklis) to the effect that, whilst this film portrays some complex issues there is nonetheless a message of optimism within it. I have to say that, much though I thought this was a very good film, I struggled to see that it had anything positive to say about its main theme, the struggle for a peaceful existence among the Arabs and Israelis. It is interesting to note that Eran Riklis is an Israeli who lives in Tel Aviv, whereas writer Sayed Kashua – an Israeli Arab – recently left Israel for Chicago, writing in Haaretz that “the lie I’d told my children about a future in which Arabs and Jews share the country equally was over. I wanted to say to my wife that this is really the end, it’s finished. That I’d lost my small war, that everything people had told me since I was a teenager was coming true before my eyes”.

Dancing Arabs is based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Kashua, although there have been some substantial modifications for the screenplay. Like Kashua, the film’s protagonist, Eyad (Razi Gabareen), grows up in Tira, a mainly Arab city in Israel’s Triangle region, which is a group of Israeli Arab villages near to the Green Line. His father is Salah, played by Ali Suliman, who also played the key figure in Ziad Doueri’s excellent film about Arab-Israeli relations, The Attack (reviewed here on 27th February this year). Salah is a political activist who has spent a year in an Israeli prison without ever being charged. Eyad is highly intelligent and as he grows older Salah decides to send him to a prestigious Israeli boarding school in Jerusalem, telling Eyed that he wants him to be better than his Israeli classmates.

At his new school, Eyad (played as a teenager by Tawfeek Barhom) experiences some initial teasing from his classmates, but things settle down, especially after Eyad is befriended by Naomi (Daniel Kitsis), with whom he falls in love. Nonetheless, for a long time they keep their affair a secret until, one day, Eyad makes a passionate speech in class about Arab stereotyping in one of the books they are discussing. At this point, Naomi leans over and kisses him, to the approving roars of their classmates. However, out on the streets Eyad is still bullied by other boys and hassled by soldiers. When he tries to get a job as a waiter he finds that the only Arabs in the restaurant are working in the kitchen, away from public view. One of the kitchen staff tells him that the only way to become a waiter is to die and then ask Allah if you can come back as a Jew.

Eyad’s best male friend is Yonatan (Jonathan), who has muscular dystrophy and is confined to a wheelchair. Tonatan (an excellent performance by Michael Moshonov) teases Eyad with stereotypes about Arabs, but clearly doesn’t mean it – with only an early death to look forward to Yonatan presumably is above classifying people according to their ethnicity or religious background. Whereas Naomi feels unable to tell her parents about her relationship with Eyad (her mother says she would rather her daughter be a lesbian than date an Arab), Yonatan’s mother Edna (beautifully played by Yaël Abecassis) is grateful for the support that Eyad gives to her son.

Despite the subject matter, early in the film there are many comic moments, some genuinely laugh-out loud funny. But as the story develops things gradually become more serious and quite dark. Realising that Yonatan’s passport photograph bears a resemblance to himself, Eyad uses it to open a bank account without encountering any questions from officialdom. Edna discovers what he is doing, but doesn’t mind. Bit by bit, Eyad assumes Yonatan’s identity, a transformation that is completed when Yonatan dies. Yonatan is buried as Eyad, in a Muslim funeral that is attended by both Eyad and Edna.

However, Eyad does not just lose his best friend. Naomi announces that she has signed up to join the Intelligence Corps. She is required to declare whether she has any professional or personal relationships with Arabs. Her silence when Eyad asks her how she answered communicates only that this is the end of their relationship. With his own identity submerged in order to fit into Israeli society, but with no close friends left, Eyad is lost. In the final scene we see him driving down the road, distraught, closing his eyes and going faster. Just as with every failure to achieve lasting peace in the region, we are left to guess what might happen next.

Rating: 9/10

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Director: David Cronenberg

Writer: Bruce Wagner

Country: Canada / USA / Germany / France

Runtime: 111 mins

“Bad Babysitter” reads the lettering on Agatha Weiss’s (Mia Wasikowska) sweatshirt, as she lies asleep in a coach driving through the night towards Hollywood. These words turn out to carry a heavy weight of significance in this dark, Gothic nightmare from writer Bruce Wagner and director David Cronenberg. Wagner’s script draws upon his own experiences as a former Hollywood limousine driver who would often give fake tours to visitors. According to Wagner, Maps to the Stars “doesn’t have a satirical bone in its elegiac, messy, hysterical body. I’ve given you the lay of the land as I see it, saw it, and lived it”.

Jerome Fontana (Robert Pattison) is the first person that Agatha encounters when she arrives in Hollywood. He is a wannabe script writer working as a hire driver. As they motor in the sunshine past the palm trees, Fontana points out the homes of the stars. When he mentions Juliet Lewis Agatha remarks that she is a scientologist, to which Fontana responds “I was thinking of converting – as a career move”. This level of self-absorbed ambition is characteristic of almost everyone we meet during the course of the film.

Agatha, who is badly scarred from a fire, gets a job working for actress Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), who has reached that age when the parts start to dry up for women in an industry obsessed by female youth and beauty. Segrand is desperate for a role in an upcoming movie remake, a role that was played by her mother in the original. But she is also troubled by the memories (possibly false) of sexual abuse that she suffered at the hands of her mother. These memories were recovered with the assistance of a bogus therapist, Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), who claims that life traumas reside in the body (“I’m gonna press on a personal history point – it’s stored in the thighs”). Dr. Weiss is married to Christina (Olivia Williams), who is the pushy mother/agent of troubled teenage TV star Benjie (Evan Bird), whose career is just getting back on track after a period in rehab.

None of these people are happy. They are all weighed down by unsatisfied ambitions, dark secrets, or ghosts. In fact, the story really starts to take off when Havana Segrand literally sees a ghost (or is it all in her mind?). Benjie then also starts to see apparitions. But it is the arrival of Agatha that provides the catalyst for people’s lives to unravel. The film ends as it began, with a journey into darkness.

By the very nature of its subject matter, Maps to the Stars doesn’t have any characters that we can easily empathise with from the outset, which might account for its rather mixed critical reception. However, the performances are uniformly well-delivered, there are some fine flashes of dark humour, and my own attention was easily held by the gradual revelations leading eventually to the uncovering of the thread that connects all the characters.

This is a fine addition to David Cronenberg’s oeuvre, perhaps closest in mood to Dead Ringers, except where that movie followed in the director’s early tradition of body horror the darkness at the heart of Maps to the Stars is purely psychological.

Rating: 10/10

Members of AP Films / Century 21 Productions gathered at the British Film Institute for the premiere of Filmed in Supermarionation

Members of AP Films / Century 21 Productions gathered at the British Film Institute for the premiere of Filmed in Supermarionation

Director: Stephen La Rivière

Country: UK

Voices: Sylvia Anderson and David Graham

A wonderful feel-good documentary about a unique slice of television history

It is not often that you get to append the term “feel-good” to the word “documentary” but that seems like the best way to sum up Stephen La Rivière’s wonderful two-hour film about the works of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson. To most people who are old enough to remember shows like Stingray, Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet and Joe 90 the story of the rise and fall of this unique strand of television will no doubt be familiar, but it is enthusiastically retold here with great charm, verve and wit, and with contributions from many of those involved.

The various interviews and clips are introduced by Lady Penelope and Parker, voiced as they originally were by Sylvia Anderson and David Graham, respectively (an early laugh comes when Parker puzzles out loud about “a hexistential crisis”). The late Gerry Anderson appears in archive footage to tell of how he “nearly vomited on the floor” when he was first assigned the task of producing a puppet show. Anderson wanted to direct real people, but needed to earn a crust so took the work that came his way. But it was his very ambition that drove the improvements in the successive puppet programmes  (the word “Supermarionation” was coined to distinguish the lifelike marionettes whose lip movements were synched to speech from the puppets that went before them). The pinnacle, of course, was Thunderbirds, in which the puppets, the characterisations, the plots, and Barry Gray’s incredible music came together like never before.

Mary Turner, Puppetry Supervisor at AP Films and Century 21 Productions, demonstrates the Lady Penelope puppet at the British Film Institute

Mary Turner, Puppetry Supervisor at AP Films and Century 21 Productions, demonstrates the Lady Penelope puppet at the British Film Institute

We also get to meet many of the technicians, puppeteers and voice artists who contributed to the shows, including Nicholas Parsons who played Tex Tucker in Four Feather Falls. David Graham, who played the voice of Parker in Thunderbirds, reveals that the real-life inspiration for Parker went to his grave not knowing about his role in TV history; he was a proud cockney who had worked to better himself, but in speech he dropped his ‘H’s and inserted them in the wrong places. Graham thought the man might have been insulted to discover that his speech patterns were being used for comic purposes.

Filmed in Supermarionation tackles a few of the less happy moments, most notably the box office failure of the two Thunderbirds films and Sir Lew Grade’s cancellation of Secret Service, the final show that was made for ATV. However, at least for those of us who lived through this amazing period of television, the feeling that you are left with by the end of the film is one of joy. This is a fantastic celebration of some of the greatest television (not just children’s television) to grace our screens.

Rating: 10/10

Filmed in Supermarionation is on national release from 10th October and available on Blu-ray/DVD from 20th October

Director: Karen Stokkendal Poulsen

Writer: Karen Stokkendal Poulsen

Country: Denmark, Serbia and Montenegro, UK, Serbia, Belgium

Runtime: 58 mins

When newspapers first began to publish the revelations that had been passed to them by Wikileaks, there were many who remarked that international diplomacy would be impossible unless those involved could be assured of secrecy. However, in what must be one of the most important negotiations of recent times, the peace settlement between Serbia and Kosovo, writer and director Karen Stokkendal Poulsen managed to obtain both fly-on-the-wall access and interviews with the key participants. The psychological warfare between the two sides, and the steady hand of EU Chief Negotiator Robert Cooper in steering them towards an agreement, make The Agreement a fascinating and gripping documentary.

The negotiations take place in a small office in Denmark, where Cooper wonders if it is best to sit looking towards the window where you can view Danish architecture, or to sit facing the wall upon which hangs a Goya painting of two cats engaged in a stand-off. Kosovan negotiator Edita Tahiri wonders, with heavy metaphorical intent, if perhaps one cat has not recognised the other. Serbian negotiator Borko Stefanovic wonders if one cat might end up dead.

It is the blond Tahiri who, superficially at least, presents the more friendly figure, but there is no mistaking the steeliness behind her smile. Stefanovic, for much of the time, is harder to read, rarely smiling, and is the more easily provoked of the two, at one point launching into a rant about how he objects to being lectured. However, at other times Stefanovic seems genuinely warm, and you wonder how much both negotiators must be feeling the weight of expectations on their shoulders. We get a glimpse into the backgrounds of Tahiri and Stefanovic, too. Tahiri, more directly involved in politics when she was younger, had spent a period of time hiding in the basement of a house during the Serbia-Kosovo conflict. Stefanovic had played in a rock band called Generation Without A Future, for which he has to put up with a certain amount of ribbing in the Serbian parliament.

Roger Cooper is every bit the experienced urbane diplomat, though not beyond displaying irritation when he considers that one side is behaving badly. He notes that at the point when important negotiations are settled, it is always late at night when everyone is tired and no-one cares anymore; thus, they don’t realise that they are making history.

It is quite an achievement that writer-director Karen Stokkendal Poulsen should have managed to capture this piece of history.

Rating: 8/10

Shown at the 2014 Raindance Film Festival