Wednesday, 31 August 2005

Minireview - Nowhere In Africa ****

A wannabe-epic autobiographical story of a dispossessed Jewish family during the Second World War, this almost, but not quite, succeeds admirably. Father, mother and daughter, with remarkable foresight, escape Germany just before the borders are closed and attempt to set up a new life on a struggling farm in Kenya, then under British rule. Whereas the young girl fits in quickly, making close friends with the native cook and local children, the mother cannot or will not except her dramatic change in circumstance and, horrifyingly, displays towards the local inhabitants the precise sort of racist intolerance that she herself has so narrowly escaped.

With the war itself raging a continent away, the historical action is progressed in the form of a long-wave radio and a few, sparse letters from relations as they are forced into ghettoes and eventually write no more. Meanwhile, with the start of hostilities, the family finds itself rounded up by the British and placed in prison camps, although these are, at least, relatively comfortable.

They are eventually released to manage another farm, this time with more success, and the daughter is sent away to an English boarding school, costing the family nearly all that they have. At the end of the war, the family must decide whether they now belong in Africa, or whether they should return to Germany and help rebuild it. And this is very much a film about belonging. The family start by finding themselves unwelcome in Germany and arrested in Kenya; by the end, they must decide where they are most accepted. In Africa, they still do not fit in, treated with contempt by the British, misunderstood by the natives, alienated because of their religion at school. There is strong sense that nobody truly belongs, certainly not the British ruling class, nor the native underclass that are forced to serve them.

A slow, beautiful ode to home and to family with great and occasionally moving performances all round, ultimately the only let-down is the lack of a sense of real threat, even during the arrests or when the letters from home dry up.

Minireview - The Machinist ****

A fine thriller that effectively crosses the state of mind of Fight Club with the building paranoia of Arlington Road. Made in Spain (presumably because no Hollywood studio would touch it) and released under the frankly bizarre "Paramount Classics" label, the film succeeds due to a fantastic performance from Christian Bale, not to mention an unprecedented dedication to his craft (manifest in his character's emaciated appearance, achieved by Bale losing 60lbs of weight before shooting). As a paranoid, obsessive-compulsive insomniac, Bale manages to be tortured yet sympathetic, spooky and sleazy yet occasionally caring and loving. And, unlike either of the films cited earlier, the reason for his state of mind is gradually revealed and proves to be a worthy and horrific conclusion to the film.

Highly recommended for fans of psychological thrillers in the Hitchcock mold.

Thursday, 18 August 2005

Minireview - Festival Express ***

I quite enjoyed Festival Express, although I can't say I would have made a particularly good rock 'n' roller myself. Watching Rick Danko, Janis Joplin and Jerry Garcia laughing and singing together while utterly smashed may be historically interesting, particularly as they are all now dead, but it's not a particularly comfortable thing to see, any more so than being the only sober person at a party ever is.

This was one of those rare DVDs where the extra features were at least as important as the film itself, so in a way I'm glad I didn't see it in the cinema after all. The features doubled the length of the material with extra music performances and interviews which answered some of the questions raised by the film itself. Since the film was less than 90 minutes long, I'm surprised they didn't go for a longer edit - they obviously had sufficient material.

Apparently the rest of The Band and several members of the Grateful Dead decided not to travel on the train at all but made their own way from venue to venue, which seems to me to rather destroy the point of the enterprise.

Minireview - Grave Of The Fireflies ****

There's a tendency to assume that the only way that war (or, more accurately, anti-war) films can be effective is to show the horror of battle in all its gruesome detail: hence Apocalypse Now and the stunning opening to Saving Private Ryan. Only rarely, then, do we see an effective anti-war animation.

Grave Of The Fireflies is the first Japanese animation I've seen that's not directed by Miyazaki. I chose this because it's in the IMDb top 200 (#163 at the moment; Princess Mononoke is at #100, Spirited Away at a scarcely believable #41).

Fireflies is an excellent film, but a long way removed from the fantasy worlds of Miyazaki and is certainly not a children's film, despite being about two children. It's set during the final months of the Second World War and concerns a young boy, orphaned by the US firebombing of his city, as he misguidedly struggles to look after his four-year-old sister. With the film told in flashback, from the very first scene, we know it's not going to end well, as we see him die emaciated and alone in a subway just after the end of war.

The fireflies of the title feature in both a literal and figurative sense; fireflies being, as we are told, creatures that burn brightly and die too soon. It's powerful and horrifying material, definitely not the sort of thing one expects to see in an animation of any kind. In its analysis of the effects of conflict on the civilian population in general, and innocent children in particular, it turns out to be a potent anti-war film, as well as an intimate portrait of sibling love. Where once I described Life Is Beautiful as a comedy version of Schindler's List, I can now only describe Grave Of The Fireflies as a tragic version of Life Is Beautiful as the boy struggles and ultimately fails to protect his sister from the true horrors of war. In mood, the film closely resembles Raymond Briggs' When The Wind Blows. That, too, concerns two innocents - in this case, an elderly couple - failing to cope with the war being waged around them.

It's also allegorical inasmuch as the boy's blundering attempts to protect his sister are increasingly desperate, mirroring the misplaced arrogance of the Japanese military in their increasingly evidently futile attempts to win the war. Plus it is, of course, as beautifully drawn as any Ghibli film.

As devastating an anti-war poem as one could wish for, this is an essential part of my DVD collection, despite the fact that I can scarcely bear to watch it again. Recommended, but for when one is in a sombre mood.

Wednesday, 17 August 2005

Oscar Film Unit community site goes live

Andy Ga. has begun a new Blogger website for past members of Oscar Film Unit. It is intended to build up an OFU Reunited type of community around the site with photos, reminiscences and all the usual sort of abuse to which we've become accustomed. See it now at (and eventually at its own dedicated URL, too, maybe).

Meanwhile the old OFU website, written (in chronological order) by Paul Williamson, Rob Finnis, me, Jolyon Hunter and Scoot Geary, is preserved forever on the main IWroteThis website at Most of the links are broken (because they were hard coded) but I've fixed all 860 of them offline and will upload them soon-ish.