TICKLING GIANTS is a funny/serious documentary about the business of satirising corrupt politicians. In this case, it's the story of the charismatic Egyptian heart surgeon, Basseem Youssef, who started making youtube videos satirising the old dictatorial regime of Hosni Mubarak. Before he new it, viewer numbers were through the charts and he had a prime time show called The Show, in the manner of Jon Stewart's Daily Show. The two hosts are clearly sympathetic and inspirational to each other, and they have appeared on each other's programmes. But things took a darker turn after the Arab Spring. The people may have put Morsi in power but soon it was his military commander Sisi who had staged a coup and ushered in an even more repressive government than that of Mubarak. Suddenly Basseem Youssef is being summoned for arrest, his show is threatened with being taken off air, and becomes the top news story. He jumps to another channel, but Sisi's regime jam the signal when he refuses to tone down his criticism. Youssef worries about his family and employees and questions if keeping the show on air is worth the candle.
Thursday, September 29, 2016
Tuesday, September 27, 2016
Debut writer-director Mahmoud Sabbagh’s Saudia Arabian romantic comedy is an absolute delight - giving us a fascinating glimpse into contemporary society in Jeddah through the eyes of our star-crossed lovers. The first is Barakah (Hisham Fageeh) a charming young municipal enforcement officer and amateur actor whose job seems to involve keeping people off the streets and whose hobby involves him buying a bra to play a woman in "Hamleet". He's under pressure to get married from his family and has never held a girl's hand. But he's a huge fan of "Bibi", an instagram star with a million followers who always cuts off her face in photos. A chance meeting leads to a tentative romance, but the real problem is finding a place where they can meet and just chat, because public spaces are hugely patrolled and to a certain extent inaccessible for singletons.
Monday, September 26, 2016
AN INSIGNIFICANT MAN is a political documentary charting the transformation of Indian populist socialist activist Arvind Kejriwal from campaigner to mayor of India's capital city, Delhi. It takes us inside the cramped offices where Kejriwal forms a grass-roots campaigning organisation from scratch, staffed by idealist young men (rarely women) who have quit good jobs, inspired by his anti-corruption stance. At first, it doesn't appear as if he has a platform aside from lobbying for anti-corruption law, but he soon alights upon a manifesto of giving poor citizens free water and heavily subsidised electricity as vote-winners. In doing so, he is helped by his fellow party founder Yogendra Yadav. Together, the party they form unseats the incumbent politician and as we leave Kejriwal he is basking in the glory of his people. We learn in a triumphant final subtitle that he has made good on his promise to deliver water and cheap fuel.
Sunday, September 25, 2016
Acting as a companion piece to Peter Braatz' lyrical dream-like BLUE VELVET REVISITED, Jon Nguyen and Jason S's DAVID LYNCH: THE ART LIFE is a much more straightforward documentary biopic. It takes the form of extensive interviews with David Lynch complete with archive photos and videos, set against footage of him making his art today. It is Lynch's voice that tells his own story, apparently as a kind of video diary for his youngest daughter, who we see sitting on her father's lap in his studio. The resulting film is measured, patient, as one would expect form this director, but also deeply honest. Lynch recalls how his elegant but aloof mother identified something special in him from an early age, and his guilt at letting her down with his hatred of studying and going off the rails as young man. We hear how contingent his career was - that he happened to meet a kid whose father was an artist and realised that this was a thing you could actually do - and then the crucial offer of a place at the AFI Conservatory, where he made ERASERHEAD. There's something fascinating in Lynch's need to compartmentalise his life - family, arthouse crowd, lovers - and we get glimpses of his fascinating with the macabre in a trip to the morgue. The movie is also occasionally very unintentionally funny - such as when Lynch lambasts the horror of going to live in Philadelphia. But viewers looking for an analysis of his artworks of films will go wanting. This movie is very much a documentary with its firm focus on formative experiences. To that end, I found it a little disappointing or rather limited in its scope.
DAVID LYNCH: THE ART OF LIFE played Venice 2016. There are still tickets available for the Monday 10th October screening at the BFI London Film Festival, where the movie is in the Documentary Competition.
Peter Braatz' lyrical documentary is a must-watch for all fans of David Lynch's surreal, beautiful, disturbing work. As a younger film-maker, Braatz served as an intern on the iconic 1980s movie, and shot lots of photos, behind the scenes videos and interviews. Now, thirty years later, he has assembled a collage of impressions of what it was like to work with and for Lynch and how the film came together. But this isn't a conventional linear documentary, with carefully composed and edited talking heads taking us from the films conceptions to final release. Rather, in the manner of Lynch himself, the film is a kind of meditation and mood movie - carefully layering images and interviews and a beautiful sound-track to take us into the emotional world of the film.
One of the things that jumped out at me was how calm the shoot seemed to be - the union of all members of cast and crew in this strange endeavour. Lynch repeatedly claims that this is the happiest he has ever been on a shoot - going back to a low budget in exchange for artistic freedom. There seems to be a spirit of trust on set - trust in David's genius and vision. Even people who don't really like films - like actor Jack Nance - or don't believe Lynch is au courant - think the movie is going to be something special. Lynch himself, secure in the quality of each component, is quietly confidant too. It's also pretty special just to sit back and watch the man at work - his immense attention to detail - personally adjusting and trimming a wig - and the way in which movie making feeds into his larger artistic life with sketches of the day's events.
This movie is then, a wonderful indulgence for fans of Lynch - as creative in its approach as Lynch deserves, and a visual and aural delight.
BLUE VELVET REVISITED has a running time of 86 minutes. Tickets are available for both screenings.
IMPERIUM is a film that chronicles the true story of a young idealistic FBI agent who went undercover in a white supremacist movement to try to uncover Unabomber type plots to terrorise America. The agent is played by Daniel Radcliffe, his handler by Toni Colette, and the movie was written and directed by first-time feature director Daniel Ragussis. Unfortunately, the movie fails on almost every count. The script is under-written and the direction creates no tension whatsoever. Radcliffe is made to look over-geeky to the point of parody as the desk-bound agent, and is unconvincing as an Iraqi war veteran turned racist thug. The alacrity with which he's accepted by the terrorists is just too easy and the ease with which he bats away their suspicions sucks the tension out of the movie. As the movie drips along toward its flaccid final set piece the only emotion I felt was thanks that it was all over. Ultimately, it's laudable that Radcliffe is willing to handle such politically incendiary material, but given the times in which we live, this feels like a missed opportunity to really mine the motives of people to turn to such a cause, and to explore what is really going on in these movements.
IMPERIUM has a running time of 109 minutes and is rated R. The movie was released in the USA, France, the Philippines and Turkey earlier this year. It is currently on release in the UK in cinemas and on streaming services. It opens in Singapore next week.
BRIDGET JONES'S BABY is the latest instalment in the romantic-comedy franchise centred on the chubby klutzy Londoner (Renee Zellweger) trying to hook up with her real-life earnest Mr Darcy. In this film, Bridget is 43 and has finally got her life in order - she has a great job, she's hit goal weight and she's quit smoking. But after a one-night stand at a music festival with a billionaire dating app creator called Jack (Patrick Dempsey) and then with her former boyfriend Darcy (Colin Firth) she finds herself up the junction with no idea who the father is. So follows a chamber comedy with both men turning up to sonograms and ante-natal classes, and the viewer waiting for the last act reveal of who the father is and who Bridg will end up marrying.
On the plus side, the movie is pretty harmless and contains enough laugh out loud moments to get you through the over-long two hour run-time. Zellweger sells the physical comedy of being the relentlessly clumsy and awkward Bridget and Emma Thompson as her doctor provides the best laconic one-liners and disapproving looks.
But there are plenty of negatives too. First off, there's a sub-plot about Bridget and her old-school journo chums being under threat from pretentious millennial hipsters who think old journalism is irrelevant. It's a strong story but goes nowhere. At no point is Bridget's job under threat from her being pregnant - at no point does she worry about what taking a year out of work will do to her career. But of course she's not worried because - and this is the second point - this movie is deeply conservative and also, therefore, out of step with our times. Because both of Bridget's potential partners are rich, well-educated, tall dark handsome men who will provide her with a house and financial support. You can sense Emma Thompson's dissatisfaction with this as she inserts the only line regarding potentially raising the kid on her own - but that's all we get. There is no doubting the fact that we are going to end up at the altar, and that this is the appropriate aim for a single woman with a kid.
The third problem with the film is Renee Zellweger's face. This has been much written about and is a controversial point - would a man face such a raft of negative press over bad plastic surgery and fillers? Maybe not. But I wouldn't be giving an honest review if I didn't say that her face is distracting - especially given the fact that the movie chooses to show Renee as a younger less-interfered with woman in flashback scenes. I spent to much time in the slower middle of this film trying to figure out what she'd done to herself and why. Contrast this with Emma Thompson who is ageing elegantly and beautifully.
Despite my deep philosophical issues with this film, I did still have a good enough time watching it. But I'd suggest it as a dinner and DVD night film rather than something you have to rush to the cinema to see.
BRIDGET JONES'S BABY has a running time of 123 minutes and is rated R. The movie is on global release.
Wednesday, September 21, 2016
DOWN UNDER is a sometimes predictable, often very funny and continually highly disturbing film tackling heightened racial tensions between a self-described native population against immigrants. In this case, rather than contemporary America or Europe we're in Australia in the mid 2000s. Apparently, back in 2006 a bunch of Aussie racists set upon a bunch of Lebanese immigrants on Christmas day, prompting the inevitable backlash from the targeted community.
Writer-director Abe Forsythe opens his film with shocking documentary footage of the riots - shocking at least to those who, like me, had no idea they had occurred. At this point, I wasn't sure if I was sitting down for a hard-hitting political documentary. But the mood quickly shifts into dark comedy, and a satire on both sides of the racial fracas. The irony is that, to the viewer, the warring factions have a lot in common: ignorance, racial and sexual prejudice, and ineptitude. Moreover, each side has four men of differing but symmetric profile - the gung-ho violent leader; the nice guy who turns nasty; the quirky comic relief guy; and the true societal outsider who turns out to be the wisest of the lot. (In the case of the white Aussies, that's the down syndrome cousin, and in the case of the Lebanese immigrants, it's their visiting uncle - the only practicing Muslim in the group.) Along the way, the movie also pokes fun at the Aussie obsession with Gallipoli and Ned Kelly, bogan bad parenting, the idea that the white Aussies crave Turkish food, and the fact that the second generation immigrants are so assimilated as to be as feckless as the white population.
The resulting film is pretty predictable but really very funny and rightly disturbing. Even though you know where it's going, I was still tense wondering exactly how the director would get there. The film also looks good, with a really imaginative use of framing and panning to reveal a character we didn't realise was part of the scene, not to mention some of the best incidental pop music since the car-ride scenes in Wayne's World. It's just the right mix of stupidly funny and politically provocative, and if some of the social commentary is a little too on the nose, the timing of its release couldn't be better.
DOWN UNDER played the Sydney and Melbourne film festivals earlier this year. There are tickets left for all three screenings at the BFI London Film Festival 2016. It does not yet have a commercial release date. The movie has a running time of 90 minutes.
Monday, September 05, 2016
SAUSAGE PARTY is a very funny very smutty animated comedy by the team that brought you THE INTERVIEW and PINEAPPLE EXPRESS. Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen make R rated comedies that contain a lot of truth and some things you just can't believe are being put on screen. To wit, they have a Holocaust joke in the opening 3 minutes of this film, the first of many, liberal use of the C word, and a plot that basically hinges on a radical atheistic debunking of religion and breaking the fourth wall.
The conceit is that all the characters are foodstuffs being sold in a supermarket. They believe that the Great Beyond lies on the other side of the supermarket doors, with benevolent Gods (humans) caring for them in paradise. The drama begins when a jar of mustard is returned and reveals the shocking truth that humans EAT food. This prompts our hero and heroine, a sausage and a bun, to escape their trolley and go in search of the real story from a bottle of fire-water and his baked side-kicks. Meanwhile, another hot dog is trying to find his way back to the store and stumbles onto some handy scientific knowledge from a Stephen Hawking-style piece of gum.
Sunday, September 04, 2016
Woody Allen's latest offering is a gorgeously filmed love story mixed in with a rather anonymous gangster side plot. The film is just about still worth seeing for Vittorio Storaro's sun-kissed vintage Los Angeles, but there are longueurs.
The central love triangle is between Kristen Stewart's "Vonny" - a young secretary in a relationship with a married powerful Hollywood agent, played by Steve Carell. He struggles with leaving his wife and kids for her - but eventually does. Only by this point, Vonny has also fallen in love with the agent's nephew Bobby, played by Jesse Eisenberg. Together, these kids have gently mocked the superficiality and rapaciousness of Hollywood, reflecting Allen's own antipathy to Tinseltown. He is, then, shocked when she opts for the life of a rich Hollywood wife. The story is then one of two people whose lives are destined to intersect, who love each other, but aren't with each other, and the profound loneliness that this choice brings. It's very well acted and touching.
Writer-director-cinematographer Sean Ellis (CASHBACK) returns to our screens with a period thriller based on the true story of the assassination of the SS officer Reinhard Heydrich during World War Two. Operation Anthropoid had Czech soldier parachuted back into the country by the British, collaborating with what was left of the Czech Resistance, scouting out Heydrich's typical route out of Prague Castle, to gun him down. History tells us that the initial attack was thought a failure, but that Heydrich did indeed die of his wounds. The men responsible for the assassination - the only successful high-ranking assassination of a Nazi - were betrayed and after a courageous 6 hour gunfight in a church - killed. The SS razed villages and killed thousands of Czechs in reprisal. But Czecho was, as a result, seen as an ally and the Munich Agreement nullified.
It's testament to the film that despite knowing the history of Anthropoid, I was genuinely gripped by it. The tension of planning and executing the attack was painful and the final shoot-out in the Church exquisitely choreographed and genuinely emotionally affecting. Most of all, the brutal scenes of torture were truly unforgettable and a final moral confrontation haunting. I also love the fact that Ellis chooses to shoot the film in Prague, using many Czech actors to lend the film authenticity, and indeed show the source material respect. The problem is, however, that it forces his British lead actors into adopting what I am sure they must think are Czech accents. The film survives because of the force of Cillian Murphy's lead performance, which more than offsets Jaime Dornan's weaker contribution.
ANTHROPOID is rated R and has a running time of 120 minutes. The film is on release in the USA and UK.
JIM: THE JAMES FOLEY STORY is a moving and competently made documentary about the journalist captured in Syria and executed by ISIS - the first American victim of the terrorist group. The strength of the film is to take us into the emotional landscape of his family for two hours so that when we finally get the moment of his death - now so iconic - we really feel the tragedy of losing a good and beloved man. The emotional punch in undeniable. The downside of focussing so much on his wonderful family is that we almost become too reverential of James and too narrow in our focus. Questions of naivety and poor decision making are picked up but quickly brushed off. And the thorny issue of why some governments choose to successfully negotiate for their captives release and others do not - allegations of a lack of US governmental support - are not properly investigated. In other words, this is a great documentary if you want to get to know James Foley - and it's worthwhile just on that basis - but it's not totally satisfying.