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Monday, 28 July 2008

The Band's Visit


‘Once, not long ago, a small Egyptian police band arrived in Israel. Not many people remember it – it wasn’t that important.’ So goes the unassuming blurb for this utterly charming and absolutely memorable little Israeli film, the debut feature for director Eran Kolirin. The story opens as the musicians – in fetchingly outdated powder-blue uniforms – arrive at the Tel Aviv airport. They need to catch a bus to a nearby town to play music at the opening of an Arab Cultural Centre. Due to various language barriers and scheduling mistakes, the band ends up in a desolate Israeli town, where there’s no cultural centre – and seemingly no culture at all, as the sexy cafĂ© owner Dina (Ronit Elkabetz) laughingly tells them.

The band must spend the night waiting for the next bus, and they’re billeted out to various townsfolk. It’s the small moments of humourous connection and subtle miscommunication that make this film a treasure. Band conductor Tewfiq (Sasson Gabai) conveys a universe of sorrow in his solemn face, but there’s also joy. It’s clear that for him, music, however humble, is the answer and the consolation for everything.

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Standard Operating Procedure

Documentary maker Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line) is usually a name you can trust when it comes to getting to the heart of the matter. But Standard Operating Procedure, his look at the stories behind the torture photos taken inside Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison in 2004, presents a surprisingly blurry picture.

There’s no doubting his rigor in approaching the subject: there are extensive interviews with almost everyone involved, plenty of atmospheric re-enactments and dozens of the often distressing photos. Gradually a picture builds up of a prison under constant attack from outside, and one where the guards had little idea of where to draw the line. Their superiors were happy to keep it that way.

It’s powerful material and Morris tells a gripping story with it, but he’s severely undermined by the soldiers involved in the torture. They’re basically a collection of – let’s say it – dim-bulb army recruits barely able to understand that bashing and sexually humiliating prisoners is wrong – after all they hadn’t been explicitly forbidden from doing so! Their moral blankness is so unlikable and their actions so unpleasant that it swamps any larger moral to be learnt from their actions.

Anthony Morris

Salute

Everyone knows the iconic photo of the two African-American athletes on the winner’s podium at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics raising their fists in a black power salute. The third (white) man on that podium was an Australian sprinter, Peter Norman, and this documentary, made by Peter’s nephew Matt Norman, tells his story.

Salute is an engaging and well-paced mix of history lesson (vital to explain the racially charged atmosphere surrounding the Men’s 200 metre sprint finals), sports drama, and personal history. Peter himself retells much of the story, and while the many interviews with the two other runners, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, are occasionally of rough quality (they were initially done as background material for a dramatization), the power and humour of what they say comes through clearly.

It’s soon obvious that a): Peter was very much part of the protest alongside Smith and Carlos; and b): everyone on that podium paid a heavy toll career-wise for speaking out. Peter (who died in 2006) never ran for Australia again, despite holding the 200 metre Commonwealth record to this day. This film is a fitting tribute to his life.

Anthony Morris

Sunday, 27 July 2008

Wanted

Wanted is an easy movie to admire but a hard movie to actually like - unless you're an angry 19 year old stuck in a crap job, which is pretty much everyone who'll go see this - because while it does have more than its fair share of insanely exciting action sequences, pretty much everything here that isn't an insanely exciting action sequence is as dumb as dirt. Loosely based on a comic by Mark Millar and J.G. Jones (who should take no pride in the fact that everything apart from part of the opening assassination sequence and the schlub central character from their comic was considered not worth 'porting over to this extremely silly movie), the set-up is pure wish-fulfilment: Wesley (James McAvoy) is an a-grade loser with a fat pig boss and a best friend who's sleeping with his bitchy girlfriend. Then Fox (Angelina Jolie) turns up, tells him his father was the deadliest man in the world but now he's dead and Wes has to step up to the top slot before he too gets killed. Which is a worry because he's never even held a gun before, but under the guidance of Sloan (Morgan Freeman) and his gang of killers who get their orders from a loom - yes, a thing that weaves carpets is telling them who to kill - before long he's making bullets curve around corners with the best of them. The first half of this film is great. Wesley's crap life is laid on with a heavy hand but you can't really fail with a downtrodden guy who rises up, and Angelina Jolie (who really should stop trying to play actual human beings) has a lot of fun as a murderous fantasy brought to life. But clearly a film that's blatantly saying that learning to murder other people is the path to happiness can't actually take this idea anywhere coherent or logical. Saying murder is bad takes away all the fun, and saying it's good just might get some people believing you out in the real world. So once Wesley learns to be a man through murder the story fizzles out into a mass of double-crosses that don't really mean anything. Still, the action is often brilliant; seeing cars flip through the air in graceful arcs so the drivers can shoot other people never gets old.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #433)

Saturday, 26 July 2008

The X-Files: I Want To Believe

The X-Files seems like an odd franchise to revive: after nine seasons and a fairly muddled movie, audiences were (for the most part) glad to see the now diminished show vanish, especially as most of its key elements (the unresolved sexual tension between the leads, the intricate conspiracy plotting) had happily been taken up by other shows that could put them to better use. But it doesn't take long to realise that this movie isn't so much leading on from the series as taking it back to its roots. For the first few years the show was basically a low budget, small scale mix of The Silence of the Lambs and JFK (there's not so much of the JFK this time around) with a slice of Twin Peaks (the weird Northwestern atmosphere mostly) thrown in, and this movie - written and directed by series creator Chris Carter - follow the formula to a tee. For those expecting aliens and UFOs and vast government conspiracies, prepare for a let-down: Scully (Gillian Anderson) is now a doctor at a Catholic Hospital , Mulder (David Duchovny) is still a conspiracy nut but now with a beard, and out in the wilderness a psychic ex-priest (Billy Connelly) is leading the FBI to body parts buried in the snow. Trouble is, the FBI is after a missing agent they think is still alive, and so they contact Scully to get her to contact Fox about helping them focus the psychic on the task at hand. What follows is more low-key unsettling rather than scream-inducing, ticking all the boxes from the series heyday (Scully's religion plays a big part) and serving more as a reminder of what was so good about the series than an attempt to take it anywhere new. It's not afraid to get a bit unpleasant in parts (there's a lingering theme of child abuse and redemption that might irk some), but there's also a nice run of comedy from Fox early on that keeps things grounded. Clearly made for almost no money, this feels like an attempt to turn the franchise into a semi-regular series; based on this first outing, it deserves to succeed.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #433)

Monday, 21 July 2008

The Love Guru

Michael Myers knows what he likes, and what he likes is pulling cutsey faces, making bad puns, going for the obvious joke and then pulling it back with a joke about how obvious the last joke was. Which doesn't automatically make for a bad movie, but in The Love Guru's case, the brief attempts to give Myers some background to do his act against are overwhelmed by Myers desire to, well, do his act. Put another way, there's enough clues in The Love Guru to suggest that the other characters in the film find Myers character - The Guru Pitka, an intensely silly relationship councillor driven by the desire to take over Deepak Chopra's position as the number one guru - as annoying as the audience does. But despite that, Pitka just keeps on pulling faces and making bad puns while the story lurches on around him. Even the fairly basic story could have been okay if Myers had toned it down a bit: Pitka is called in by the new and insecure owner (Jessica Alba) of a Canadian hockey team to get her star player Darren Roanoke (Romany Malco) back with the love of his life, and get the love of Roanoke's life out of the clutches of his over-endowed rival (Justin Timberlake). So far so good, until Myers starts setting midgets on fire and flinging the mops soaked in piss around while a cross-eyed Ben Kingsley (as the guru's guru) watches on. To be fair, while this is largely a waste of time, at least it's a waste of time that's consistent with the trajectory that Myer's career's been taking for the last decade or so. So if you liked the last Austin Powers movie but thought it wasn't stupid and gross enough, this ones for you.

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #432)

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Mamma Mia!

Let's be honest: if you're not already an ABBA fan, there's pretty much zero chance you'll be interested in a musical comprised entirely of ABBA tracks. So for you, this review is brief: stay away from Mamma Mia! It's so stuffed full of ABBA tracks by the end your ears will be bleeding and the cheeseball story built around said tracks isn't going to compensate you for the trauma of Pierce Brosnan's not-that-good-at-all singing voice. If, on the other hand, you're an ABBA fan, or just a fan of cheesy musicals in general, then the good news is that Mamma Mia! does pretty much everything right - and when it does get something wrong it doesn't linger at the scene of the crime. The story, which by the way has nothing to do with ABBA the band, involves a young woman (Amanda Seyfried) who's about to get married at her mother's shabby holiday resort on a Greek island. Her mother (Meryl Streep) never told her who her father was, so when she discovers her mother's old diary - which suggests three possible candidates for the job (Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard) - she invites them all to the wedding thinking she'll know her father on sight. She doesn't, and many, many, many ABBA songs ensue. Musically the singing isn't always great (Brosnan is no good at all) and a few of the songs seem shoe-horned in, but mostly the story manages to fit the right ABBA track in at roughly the right point. The performances are high energy and not at all subtle - which means they fit the tone perfectly - and in the end the whole thing is one big hunk of campy fun. Unless you don't like ABBA, in which case why would you even bother?

Anthony Morris (this review appeared in Forte #432)