Tuesday, 24 August 2010


London Population: 7 Million. Until Today.

The Last Seven starts with this tag line as the aerial camera floats over a city, Norman Foster’s iconic Gherkin tower identifying it as London. The lens pans down and focuses onto the figure of a man lying down in the street, then onto his arm, on his watch, which stops at 7.36 precisely, to mimic the speaking clock (in fact, this film could well have been called 7.36, as this stopped watch is one of the key clues that finally unravels the whole of the story). It looks like to be early morning. He gets up, looks around, and starts walking. There is no one around, yet all the traffic lights seem to be working normally. The city is eerily silent. The man, in his mid thirties and well dressed, just walks and walks, looking for any sign of life. At one point, he jumps in front of a CCTV camera, and vandalizes a car to attract attention. Nothing happens. There is no one. Something is not as it should be. Is he the last man on earth? The city, usually so familiar and reassuring, has become a dangerous and unknown place. A figure, no more than a shadow, runs past the top of the elevators as the man goes down into a tube station.

The hand held camera adds to this atmosphere of uncertainty, interrupted by short flashes of a newspaper cut out pinned onto a wall, depicting the smiling face of a young girl, a kidnap case, blood spills over it, then religious (Christian) symbols, and what seems to be bomb making equipment. However, the flashes are too fast for us to really know what is happening.

The man hears a voice in the distance, singing. He runs towards it, climbing the stairs until he gets onto the terrace of a building. He is not alone, he meets Henry, an older man in a pin stripped suit, drinking cognac. Then, other people comes up there, a teenager, Chloe. Then we realize that they have all lost their memories, no one is sure of who they are, or were. One of them is in army fatigues, who seems to have the rank of sergeant. He has an army issue gun in his hands. Flashes of lost memories are constantly thrown onto the screen. Something has happened that led to the current situation, as we catch glimpses of one of the survivors, who seemed to be a government minister – played superbly by John Mawson (why most government ministers are portrayed in British cinema as if they were Tories? Haven’t filmmakers heard of a home secretary called Alan Johnson?), discussing a crisis when riding in his ministerial car. We also learn that the young girl, in her late teens, only wanted her daddy to be with her for her birthday, but that was not to be, as their family was not a normal family, the country always comes first – is she the daughter of the minister?

The cleverness of this film resides in the fact that at not any moment we have a clear picture of what is actually happening. The ordinary has become extraordinary, the dramatic tension just keeps building up. Has the entire population of London been wiped out? Has the military cordoned off the city, and set up a no fly zone above it? What was it? A bio attack, or a dirty bomb?The hand held camera adds to this sense of uncertainty, this sense of the familiar having been utterly transformed into a strange and dangerous place in its ordinariness, as the group dynamic flickers between complete distrust –is the guy in the army fatigues with the gun really a soldier? – and the need to stick together as a group to face any possible threat. The bloodied image of a girl, the same girl we saw at the beginning in that newspaper cut out, flickers on and off the screen, her hand dripping blood, a sad smile on her face. Add to this mixture a deeply religious man, praying in a church, who joined this small band, and the shadow lurking in the background taking them slowly but surely one by one, the Angel of Death.

The film unravels suddenly, all the clues constantly been thrown to us fall then into their places, in an end which is completely unexpected.

The filmmakers have succeeded in creating with The Last Seven a well crafted and tense thriller which feels that every penny invested in it has been squeezed dry, touching on issues of guilt, redemption, and religious extremism, attention to detail being prevalent, the acting being particularly strong. I would have not believed that it was shot with a low budget. Not a single frame was wasted, the tension is kept throughout and beyond its duration, behind every familiar corner lurks an unfamiliar world. I find it difficult now to face the city, as I do not know what I am going to encounter around that corner.

Finally, it is good to see in a film that religious extremism is not only confined to Islamic fundamentalism. The Last Seven attempts to redress this particular issue.

Director: Imran Naqvi
Writer: John Stanley
Cast: Tamer Hassan, Simon Phillips, Danny Dyer, Sebastian Street, Daisy Head, Ronan Vibert, Rita Ramnani, John Mawson
DVD Release date: 30th August 2010
Running time: 84 minutes
Cert: 18

Stills and trailer © Metrodome Distribution.

Monday, 23 August 2010

LEBANON DVD reviewed

Lebanon is an emotionally intense film. It is about war, it is not a war film. It is a slap on the face, a tableaux about what war is like on both sides of the guns drawn from the guts. It produced conflicting emotions in me when I was watching it. If that was the intention of its director, Samuel Maoz, he certainly succeeded.

Director/writer: Samuel Maoz
Cast: Reymond Amsalem, Ashraf Barhom, Oshri Cohen, Yoav Donat, Guy Kapulnik, Michael Moshonov, Zohar Shtrauss, Dudu Tassa, Itay Tiran
Israel/France/Lebanon/Germany 2009 93 mins

Lebanon begins with a wide angle shot of a field covered with withering sunflowers, which are soon disturbed by a strong gust of wind, an indication of what is to come. The final scene depicts the same field, this time the sunflowers being disturbed by the presence of a tank.

One of the first impressions I had was to notice that this tank was a wreck, even before going into battle, as we watch the reflection of a soldier getting into it down the hatch on a mix of water, machine oil and rubbish laying at the bottom of the turret. This adds credibility to those military strategists who have argued that wars are not won by the most competent army, but by the least incompetent one.

The film follows the life of a tank crew for a few intense and claustrophobic hours in June 1982, at the beginning of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, four young men trapped in this oil stained urine smelling steel coffin that some people call a tank. We are not spared any of the brutalities of that conflict nor the savage damage inflicted not only on the hapless civilians and so-called terrorists we see through the cross wire of the tank guns, but also on the inexperienced young conscripts. The senseless destruction of a town, the wanton killing of civilians, women, children, old people with primordial hatred in their eyes, caught in the cross fire, people who only wanted to carry on with their lives, as we all do. We see how in a matter of hours gunners who had shot only blanks before are confronted with life and death decisions, the results of those decisions are not pretty. Not pretty at all: simply and plainly, they are war crimes. We also see the euphemisms employed by the Israeli army to circumvent international legislation, so phosphorous shells are called Flaming Smoke because Israel complies with international law.

The film is constructed as an interplay between what we see from the cross wire of the guns - like if we were in a video game, the stark and bloody reality beyond the confines of the tank turret, and extreme close ups of the faces of the young soldiers, their raw and conflicting emotions erupting to the surface. We practically can smell the sweat and raw despair of both the conscripts and the blood of their hapless victims. Technological warfare is no longer so clinical, as the military tries to make us believe. The reality is that the blood of a child killed by a blast of that tank would have stained the lives of its crew for ever.

To have put four young and inexperienced conscripts, complete strangers, poorly trained, and expect them to perform like a well oiled team in the madness, chaos and brutality of armed conflict was plain stupidity, the tank commander being barely able to establish any sign of authority and military discipline to his subordinates. Add to this volatile mix the fact that the tank was already a wreck before it was commissioned into this mission; it was a miracle that it managed to stumble to safety with the loss of just one member of its crew after a frantic run to end up on that field of withered sunflowers. Jalim, the commander of the platoon of paratroopers to which the tank had been assigned, leads his men into an area controlled by a Syrian army unit either by having faulty intelligence, or having misread it. This war is no longer a walk in the park, as he claimed at the beginning of the operation.

If the whole of the IDF have conducted their wars as depicted in this film, then the whole of the IDF, soldiers and officers, should be indicted of war crimes. Yet, the counter argument is that when young and inexperienced reservists and conscripts are put into situations such as this, where their options are severely curtailed if they want to get out alive, where their ways out are shrouded in darkness, they cannot behave in any other manner that they way they did, war crimes or not. The buck has entirely been passed onto the hands of the political classes, and it should stay there.

I will take this occasion to rebuke all those reviewers who criticized it for not expanding onto the wider landscape of the endless conflicts that have afflicted the Middle East. First of all, to have done so would have resulted in an extremely long and practically unwatchable film, its central and powerful narrative would have been diluted. Secondly, and more important, Lebanon fixes its gaze on the inner mechanisms and psychology of war, not on dry theorizing, by focusing on the daily lives of a bunch of complete strangers which constitutes the crew of an Israeli tank during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, one of the many endless wars that the Israeli political classes have embarked in their quest for a Greater Israel, a concept that is now as much a myth as El Dorado was in the 16th century. Wars carried out regardless of the blood spilled by their own soldiers, without counting the huge civilian body count on the other side, whichever it may be. The consequences? An ever expanding circle of fire, an endlessly enemy making machine which has made not only Israel more insecure, but also the West.

The disc also contains an optional commentary by the director and scriptwriter of the film, Samuel Maoz, a rather short but useful historical background of the conflict, and statements from Samuel Maoz, producers, photographer and actors of Lebanon. There is also the option of getting a free digital copy of the film to be watched in any portable device. The usual set up choices are also present.

Lebanon is an extraordinary psychologically gripping drama which defies the conventions of cinema making by developing story and character building in unbearable second by unbearable second. The camera follows the faces of the protagonists with a powerful chiaroscuro, highlighting the raw emotions of the actors who, by the end, had stopped acting to become the intensity of those feelings of despair and impotence, to the counterpoint of the sparse musical score. A film that kept me on the edge of my seat muttering to myself throughout its duration like a madman, a work of redemption for its director and writer, Samuel Maoz. Not recommended for those people of faint heart.

Images and trailer © Metrodome Distribution.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Baarìa reviewed

Written and directed by Academy Award® Winner Giuseppe Tornatore (CINEMA PARADISO).

Tornatore’s Baarìa, a broad brush sweep of 20th century Italian history, follows the adventures of Peppino from childhood to old age in the Sicilian town of Baarìa, his encounters with fascism and WW2. It also charts his raise, and that of the town, from poverty to relative riches as a politician and member of the Italian Communist Party (“Signora, if we, communists, eat babies, I promise I won’t eat yours” was one of his campaigning lines – alluding to the “red under the bed” hysteria of those years).

Magic realism Italian style defines this film, with cinematic references to Fellini, Bertolucci and American classic Westerns, particularly with those slow long lens panning shots on the town from a raised camera, the musical score also reminiscent of Westerns. Some of the scenes brought to my mind Fellini’s Amarcord, as the town life is seen through the eyes of the child Peppino.

An extraordinary sound track, bringing to the screen all the vivid sounds of a Sicilian small town in the midst of last century. The power of it was such that it nearly brought the smells of Baarìa to my nose (perhaps what it did was to rekindle those smells from my past, buried deep in one of the crannies of my memory), the paste being cooked, the freshly baked bread, the farm odours too, the unwashed feet.

I am sure that the film will be criticized for being somewhat misty eyed; as the fascists are characterized as a bunch of clowns, although the scenes of the inhabitants making fun of them are quite hilarious. If that criticism is made, it would not be totally fair, as it also depicts the landless farm hands being beaten and killed by the big farmers and their friends, the black shirts. There are also scenes hinting at the endemic corruption of Sicilian small town local politics. The structure of the film somewhat alludes, on this respect, to that of Bertolucci’s Novecento, although the tone of Baarìa is less politically shaded.

I laughed, I cried and I just felt good at being alive by watching this film. I feast to the senses.

The Andromeda Strain (USA 1971)

Director: Robert Wise, based on the novel by Michael Crichton
Cast: Arthur Hill, David Wayne, James Olson, Kate Reid, Paula Kelly

When I first saw this film, in the big screen, during the early 70s, it left a deep impression on me. I re-watched it again last night (a video recording going wrong), and all its potency and tension remained there, nearly 40 years later. I watched every single minute of The Andromeda Strain on the edge of my seat, although I still remembered the story line, it is that powerful, gripping, and pertinent today.

The film (and the novel I guess, although I have not read it) plays with the paranoia and the sense of cynicism regarding the secret state, the government and the cold war that permeated the American cultural life on those years: the Vietnam war was already on its last legs, the bombing of Cambodia (eventually leading to the Khmer Rouge victory in 1975), the flower revolution was on the wane and being replaced by that cynicism.

Nuclear armament (Dr Strangelove) here has been replaced by germ warfare, as a NASA recovery team in the Nevada desert search for a returning satellite, finding instead a small town deserted, all its inhabitants dead. They quickly follow that fate. The state machinery went into overdrive, on the name of “national security”, the area is cordoned off, a nuclear bombwas proposed to be dropped off on it to obliterate any sign of the epidemic, and a germ warfare team is quickly assembled. There are scenes here of armed soldiers waiting as military personnel collect the medical and scientific members of that team: the wife of one of those scientists attempts to phone her father, a Senator, to find that the communication was cut off for “national security reasons”, in other word, her being virtually ‘incommunicado’. The secret state is in action. The satellite was eventually recovered by two scientists wearing space-like suits, together with two survivors: a baby and an old man, a wino.

The race to find out what killed the population of this small town began ( what is the common link between the baby and the old man?), leading to the suspicion that what the satellite brought from space was not an extra terrestrial germ, but an experimental virus like form designed for germ warfare by the American military and its scientists. An experiment that went wrong – as usually these things go.

The film is able to sustain that tension all the way through, with humorous scenes thrown in and it dwells into the cracks appearing in that scientific team working in a secret research and containment laboratory buried deep in the Nevada desert, its entrance hidden behind an innocuous Department of Agriculture farm façade. Its subject is as relevant nowadays as it was then.

Regrettably, Robert Wise had to throw in the chase so ubiquitous on blockbusters, even then, the stage for the all American hero to shine, this time persecuted not by Russian or Al Qaida villains, but by laser guns. The ending of The Andromeda Strain has a too moralistic and closed ending. It would have worked better without it, leaving just a question mark behind... I suspect that, after all these years, my mind blanked out that ending, and just left the question mark.