Wednesday, 11 December 2019

Contenders: A mixed bag

Here are four more films I've caught up with lately as I get ready to vote in a few year-end awards. There are three very different kinds of docs and an animated movie I somehow missed when it was released last spring...

For Sama
dir Waad Al-Khateab, Edward Watts
with Waad Al-Khateab, Hamza Al-Khateab, Sama Al-Khateab, Afaa, Salem, Wasim, Zain, Naya, Omar, Gaith
release US 26.Jul.19, UK 13.Sep.19
19/Syr C4 1h40 ****

There's a staggering immediacy to this documentary, shot by Syrian journalist Waad Al-Khateab as she documents her life in war-ravaged Aleppo. The personal, firsthand approach adds a powerfully emotional kick, as does the fact that she addresses the film to her young daughter Sama, born in a city under siege by its own government while the rest of the world either stood by doing nothing or dropped bombs on their heads. The situation in Syria is staggering, and it has been documented in many films, but it never gets easy to watch people who live rather a lot like we do have their whole world blown to smithereens. And it shouldn't.

Waad's story is presented out of sequence in a sometimes awkward attempt to create a thematic narrative. The earliest scenes are from 2012, as Waad is studying at university and becomes involved in peaceful protests against the violent, corrupt tyranny of President Bashar Al-Assad, who replied by torturing and murdering scores of protesters then launching all-out military warfare on his own citizens, assisted by Russian bombers. "We never thought this would happen in our city," Waad says at the start of the film. The constant attacks leave public services destroyed, including hospitals and emergency response systems. Meanwhile, Waad falls in love with Hamza, a doctor who builds makeshift hospitals wherever he can. As they marry and set up house, they try to have some semblance of a normal life with their friends, including birthday parties and school (in a basement). And Waad finds herself pregnant, giving birth to Sama in between bombs (one later demolished the hospital, killing 53 people). And when they have to finally make a run for it, the film becomes a tense thriller with real-life peril.

All of this is shot through Waad's eyes, up close and very personal, often capturing extremely harrowing scenes, such as young boys mourning the death of their tiny brother or the struggle to deliver and resuscitate an infant after his mother dies. For these people, there's no time to grieve, and as an audience this isn't always easy to watch. But Waad and Hamza create a lovely home for Sama, including moments of sweetness that are infectious. Chillingly, little Sama doesn't even flinch at the sound of a bomb blast (while Waad jumps in horror).

The film captures the everyday trauma of life in a war zone with matter-of-fact earthiness and a proper sense of moral outrage. "We'll live in dignity or die," is the battle cry of these young professionals fighting for freedom against huge odds. Posted from Aleppo, Waad's video clips have been seen by millions around the world, and she wonders why no one has offered help, instead leaving a vacuum for fanatical Islam to flourish. But Waad has no regrets. "We have done this for our children," she says. They need to know that their parents didn't just accept injustice. Movies don't get much more powerful than this.

Missing Link
dir-scr Chris Butler
voices Hugh Jackman, Zach Galifianakis, Zoe Saldana, David Walliams, Stephen Fry, Matt Lucas, Timothy Olyphant, Amrita Acharia, Ching Valdes-Aran, Emma Thompson
release UK 4.Apr.19, US 12.Apr.19
19/US Laika 1h33 ***.

Laika's wonderfully detailed approach is beautifully deployed in this animated adventure about a frightfully English explorer who yearns to prove the existence of legendary creatures like the Loch Ness monster and bigfoot. While the astonishingly smooth stop-motion imagery is full of humorous detail, the script is just as jam-packed with sharply intelligent gags, including some hilariously well-aimed innuendo.

It opens in 19th century London, as the womanising Sir Lionel (Jackman) discovers a lead to the missing link, which is hiding in the Pacific Northwest. The hyper-posh members of an adventurers club are furious ("We are descended from great men, not great apes!"), so he makes a wager with them that if he finds proof they'll let him into the club. Then in the depths of the Washington forest, Lionel discovers that the creature, Mr Link (Galifianakis), is startlingly erudite and charming, longing to meet a Yeti, who might make him feel less alone. Wacky mayhem ensues, as they are joined by Lionel's angry ex Adelina (Saldana) on their elaborate voyage to the Himalayas. Meanwhile, Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Fry) is determined to quash this unwanted reality, hiring a vicious hitman (Olyphant).

The film knowingly skewers social and cultural issues of the period, which of course also resonate now, including everything from class divisiveness to the fear of outsiders. Neither Sir Lionel nor Mr Link feel like they fit anywhere, so their blossoming friendship is charming, adding an emotional kick to the free-wheeling plot. Jackman and Galifianakis are recognisable by their voices, and some clever animated tics, which only brings out their personalities even more forcefully. Saldana's Adelina is more simplistic, as is everyone else, but the actors have a lot of fun injecting jagged jokes everywhere. While the comedy is genuinely amusing, mixing it in with action violence sometimes gets rather awkward, with slapstick that's absurdly silly and also eerily deadly. But even if the big action climax feels rather oddly conceived, the film remains thoroughly engaging.

It does help that the animation is flat-out gorgeous, with tactile fabrics and sharply stylised characters in settings that are washed in light and colour. As the story traverses the globe, the animators create a range of spectacular landscapes and set-pieces, from lush forests to expansive oceans to the ice-capped peaks surrounding Shangri-La. And as the story develops, the characters deepen just enough to make us hope a sequel is in the works.

Diego Maradona
dir Asif Kapadia
with Diego Armando Maradona, Maria Maradona, Claudia Villafane, Cristiana Sinagra, Gennaro Montuori, Ciro Ferrara, Fernando Signorini, Corrado Ferlaino, Alberto Bigon, Danel Arcucci
release UK 14.Jun.19, US 20.Sep.19
19/UK Film4 2h10 ****

British filmmaker Asif Kapadia completes a trilogy about iconic figures (after Senna and Amy), taking on the Argentine footballer known as much for his colourful personal life as his sporting success. He's a mythical player, loved as much as he's been hated. Again using archival footage, Kapadia paints a riveting portrait of a person we thought we already knew. The documentary centres on his career in Naples, where Maradona transferred in 1984. Within two years, he took them from the bottom to become Italian champions. Meanwhile, he indulged in cocaine and women, and he refused to claim his illegitimate son with Sinagra, born while his wife Villafane was pregnant with the first of their two daughters. Then his drug use put him in the pocket of Naples' notorious Camorra family.

The narrative flickers back to his childhood in the impoverished slums of Buenos Aires, illustrated with amazing old footage that vividly captures how his life changed at 15, when playing football made him able to support his family. It's fascinating to watch the trajectory to success in Italy and global fame leading Argentina to triumph in the 1986 World Cup, after that epic Argentina-England quarter final just four years after the Falklands war (including his notorious "hand of god" goal). Kapadia never shies away from these kinds of controversies, but he resists dwelling on them. Clips abound of his theatrics during matches, from over-dramatised injuries to dirty play. And of course the next World Cup had its own scandal, as Argentina took on Italy in the semifinal right in Naples itself. It was like war in the stands and on the pitch, and Italy turned against him as a result, including the press, public and police, who caught him in a drugs and prostitution sting when the Camorra stopped protecting him.

Footage is narrated by Maradona, and seeing events through his eyes makes them strikingly personal. He comes across as an observant, cheeky guy who lost control of himself. As Villafane says, "He wasn't Diego anymore, he was Maradona." Accompanying voiceover interviews with friends, family, teammates and journalists reveal how, like most big stars, he was ruthlessly manipulated by people for their own gain, which adds a surprising emotional kick to the film. His fall from grace is wrenching, as is a clip of him crying in a 2004 TV interview about his life.

The film is expertly edited by Chris King, who gives the narrative a quick pace that echoes Maradona's electric personality, enormous attitude and athletic physicality, even as he certainly didn't have the standard physique to be perhaps the best player in history. As one journalist notes, his brain made him a star, not his body. It's an extraordinary documentary that takes the audience on an unexpected journey. And you get the feeling that Maradona would learn a thing or two watching it.

QT8 Quentin Tarantino: The First Eight
dir-scr Tara Wood
with Christoph Waltz, Samuel L Jackson, Jamie Foxx, Robert Forster, Bruce Dern, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Zoe Bell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kurt Russell, Diane Kruger, Lucy Liu
release US 21.Oct.19, UK 13.Dec.19
19/US 1h41 ****

Described as "an overzealous geek", Quentin Tarantino is such a singular filmmaker that it's unusually revealing to watch a documentary about him. The film is packed with fun details for fans, insightfully shared by a large range of people who have worked with him on his first eight movies as a director. He only appears in this documentary in archival footage and on-screen quotes.

Interviewees include iconic actors who have made a massive impact on cinema by appearing in one or more of his films. They walk through Tarantino's career movie by movie, sharing reactions to the material and a lot of great backstage anecdotes, some of which were captured on film while others are hilariously animated. They begin with the shock of Reservoir Dogs in 1992, the dawn of a bracing new cinematic voice, and conclude with the sophisticated nastiness of The Hateful Eight. These two films echo each other intriguingly, with similar set-ups that also show his evolution as a filmmaker. Several people remark that reading a Tarantino script is like reading a novel. Indeed, his films exist in his own universe, and each moves to its own rhythms and logic. There are also comments on how the characters in his movies are secretly interlinked through their off-screen backstories.

The film is packed with never-seen backstage footage of the films being made, including the scene in which Uma Thurman was badly injured filming a driving stunt for Kill Bill. This leads into an extended section about Tarantino's long working relationship with Harvey Weinstein, which is unnerving on a variety of levels and haunts the film right to the end. Of course, Tarantino is known for making films about very strong women who don't put up with any abuse at the hands of men. There's also a section about Tarantino's film festival in Austin, which explores his overpowering passion for genre cinema. He refuses to play to audience expectations. And he certainly knows the difference between historical accuracy and the magic of cinema.

Tarantino is above all a romantic, notes producer Stacy Sher. Each of his films includes action, thrills, comedy, drama and passion. As the documentary moves through his career, it's intriguing to see how Tarantino has put his stamp on cinema, from the pulsing comical intensity of Pulp Fiction to the impeccable storytelling of Jackie Brown to the bravura expertise of Inglourious Basterds. The doc ends with a very brief glimpse of Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood, the perfect next step for such a film-obsessed filmmaker. And the fact is that Tarantino makes all of us love the movies even more.

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