Reviewed today: Old Czech Legends, Rattle The Cage, The Sky Trembles And The Earth Is Afraid And The Two Eyes Are Not Brothers.
What's the saddest Wikipedia page in the world? For my money, it may well be the one titled Cinema of the United Arab Emirates, simply because it's so pitifully short. As I've noted previously in the various Monoglot Movie Club articles I've written on the region, Arabic language cinema tends to mean Egyptian cinema nowadays. Everyone from Hollywood to Bollywood uses Dubai as a location, but nobody who lives there seems to be able to get a film of their own off the ground. In his debut feature, Emirati director Majid Al Ansari believes he's made a film that's a microcosm of the multicultural nature of Dubai – meaning that he shot it in Jordan with Palestinian actors and an international crew from an American script.
The opening caption – 'somewhere in Arabia, 1980s' – has an awful lot of work to do. The vagueness about where the story takes place means that we don't need to identify which particular Arabic state considers alcoholism to be a poor lifestyle choice, rather than a corporally punishable offence – something which turns out to be incredibly crucial to the plot, as does the absence of mobile phones and computers. In this vague place and time, we meet Talal (Saleh Bakri), currently sitting in a police station's cell after getting arrested for fighting. Gradually, he builds a friendship with the cop who's guarding him, and starts to persuade his estranged wife to bail him out. And then a second cop called Dabaan (Ali Suliman) joins them, at which point all of Talal's plans go straight out the window.
Imaginatively confined to a single room, but managing to stay utterly cinematic with it, Rattle The Cage is a smartly constructed thriller, where every single element eventually dovetails with everything else. It's unapologetic pulp cinema, with the soundtrack in particular nodding towards the direction of the spaghetti western: a genre with which it shares a love of sudden callous violence, as well as a villain with absolutely no redeeming features apart from being massively charismatic. Having said that, there's a lot more narrative sophistication than you'd see in the equivalent thrillers coming out of Egypt. The twists and turns are satisfyingly unpredictable: or, even better, they're ones that you twig just a second or two before they happen.
It's nice to finally see a decent film come out of the UAE, and the only real disappointment is that there's nothing distinctively Arabic about this particular Mediterraneopudding. When it was revealed during the post-screening Q&A that Al Ansari had started with an American-written script and beaten it into shape with improvisation work from the cast, it was a bit of a surprise, but ultimately not that much of a shock. Still, the fact that any films are being made there at all is pleasing, and I'd like to see a few more now. Maybe even in local cinemas when I'm next in Dubai, if that's not too much trouble.
3.45pm: Old Czech Legends [clip]
Yesterday we discussed how when I was a lad, you'd get old Laurel and Hardy shorts shown on television in prime time. This never happens now, not even on those really cheap channels built entirely out of public domain material. It's a similar story, only more so, when it comes to the use of Czech animated films to fill in the gaps during children's programming. (I've always wondered if American TV ever did the same, and if this would explain that Simpsons episode where Krusty used the cartoon Worker And Parasite for similar reasons.)
Jiří Trnka's 1952 feature feels like it would have fitted into that sort of slot very nicely indeed: however, as was noted in the introduction, it's not really aimed at children at all. As the title suggests, it's a series of stories from the early days of Czechoslovakia. Each of the rulers from that period is introduced chronologically, with a huge array of euphemisms for death used along the way. (“After Vnislav took a dirt nap, it was Křesomysl's turn to take the throne,” that sort of thing.) Every so often, we pause the conveyor belt of rulers to actually find out a little about what some of them did. We hear the story of the first band of settlers to live in Czechoslovakia, led by the eponymous Čech. We also learn about Princess Libuše, who was the first female in charge until the men told her to shut up and make them a sammich, a move that would have messy long-term consequences. We finish up with the reign of Neklan The Cowardly, which proves that it's always a bad idea to give your throne to someone with 'the cowardly' in their name.
There's a very unreconstructed sense of morality in these tales - for a while, it looks as if Princess Libuše's demotion is intended as a hilarious punchline, rather than the lead-in to another story. And to be honest, they probably mean a lot more to a Czech audience that's already familiar with the source material. But the visuals are universal: the animation, puppet design and subtle use of colour are all astonishing to look at. They've been carefully preserved in this restoration, which doesn't clean up the images so much that we lose the human fluffs that stop-motion puppetry is prey to. It's perfect Saturday afternoon viewing, and if I did hypothetically nod off part way through that's just down to it being a long festival, honestly.
Intermission: BrewDogging #24: Dog Eat Dog Islington [Previously: Bristol, Camden, Newcastle, Birmingham, Shoreditch, Aberdeen, Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Stockholm, Leeds, Shepherd's Bush, Nottingham, Sheffield, Dog Tap, Tate Modern, Clapham Junction, Roppongi, Liverpool, Dundee]
Just in case there's anyone reading who only comes here for the LFF stuff: this is a digression into one of my other regular features, and has nothing to do with cinema at all. Feel free to skip down the page to the next picture if you must.
As for the rest of you, I'm afraid that this is going to get a bit complicated. The last published episode of BrewDogging – a series documenting the quest by The Belated Birthday Girl and myself to visit every single BrewDog bar – was number 20, where we went to Dundee back in June this year. Since that article, we've paid our first visit to three more bars. Within the next month, we have plans to call into at least three more, possibly four. So there's a lot of activity waiting to be written about: and the tricky ones are turning out to be bars number 21 and 22, which have a lot of supplemental material associated with them.
So we're going to have to get non-chronological here and tell you about bar 24 before 21-23, just to ensure this keeps moving. Besides, this is a somewhat unusual case. Because Dog Eat Dog is the opening salvo in the next phase of BrewDog's campaign for world domination, and it isn't actually a bar at all. It's a gourmet hot dog restaurant that happens to serve BrewDog beer on the side. This branch at Angel Islington is potentially the first of many. Is it as insane an idea as it sounds? Well, we had a three and a half hour gap between films, and Dog Eat Dog literally opened just the other day, so it seemed like the ideal time for our visit. Besides, hot dogs and movies seem like a combination that might just work.
The location looks slightly off the beaten track on a map, but once you get there you realise it's just a couple of minutes away from Islington Green, which means we now have somewhere new to eat whenever we visit the Screen On The Green. The menu (just about readable if you click on the right place on here) has three basic hot dog types – beef, pork & beef, and veggie – and a variety of toppings, either in pre-defined combos or mixing and matching your own. To drink, you get the usual decent range of beers on tap and in bottle, plus something that claims to be a craft soda fountain serving artisanal colas and the like. The restaurant interior itself is a cleaned-up version of the BrewDog bar house style: some slightly distressed furniture, but not much else in terms of quirky décor, and the most conventional toilets of any BrewDog location we've visited to date.
So: the food. I went for the Chicago chili beef dog with potato fries, while The BBG had the standard veggie one with sweet potato fries. I must admit, years of eating cinema hot dogs when there wasn't time to have anything else had made me nervous about the actual first bite. But the meat dog here is actually pretty damn tasty, and miles away from the compressed tube of rat anuses you normally find at your local Odeon. The cheese and chili beef topping combined with the sausage nicely, too. The BBG reports that her veg dog was a similar success: presumably made from some sort of soya substitute, the texture was fine, and the smoky flavour an unexpected bonus.
If Herman Ze German can build a small empire on hot dogs, I don't see why BrewDog can't do the same but with better drinks. In discussions on the secret BrewDog shareholder messageboard that the likes of you aren't allowed onto, it's been suggested that the design of Dog Eat Dog is geared towards persuading punters to eat up and go, rather than settle in for the evening. But this isn't a fast food joint with Formica tables and overly bright lighting: it's a cosy place which, on the opening weekend at least, had a busy and buzzy atmosphere. We certainly didn't feel the need to go as soon as we'd finished our dogs and pints of 5AM: we were quite happy to relax into the vibe of the place and have another beer. Only a Nanny State, though: we'd still got another film to see.
9.00pm: The Sky Trembles And The Earth Is Afraid And The Two Eyes Are Not Brothers [official site]
“It's not a film.” That was The BBG's excuse for not coming to Mark Lewis' Invention with me last Monday, and going to see The Idol instead. She doesn't get on with art cinema at the best of times, but once she'd discovered that Lewis had just taken a bunch of short films he'd made for installations and cobbled them together into a feature, she definitely put her foot down. To a degree, that's what Ben Rivers has done in his latest feature, but he's put a bit more thought into it: also, there's a bonus in the fact that we've actually seen the installation that overlaps with this film.
It was called The Two Eyes Are Not Brothers, and played in London last summer – in fact, I wrote about it here. It consisted of a collection of short films he'd shot in Morocco over a period of two years, mainly looking at the way the desert had been used as an exotic film location by directors coming from overseas. Part of the appeal of the installation was down to where Rivers had installed it: these films were showing in the abandoned ruins of the old BBC Television Centre, in screening rooms actually constructed out of bits of old scenery. The location and the films played off each other nicely, looking at different aspects of storytelling and what happens to stories after they've been told.
It was made clear during the exhibition that Rivers also had plans to make a feature out of the footage he'd shot: and now here it is. The Sky Trembles And The Earth Is Afraid And The Two Eyes Are Not Brothers – or, as some of the cool kids are calling it, TSTATEIAATTEANB – is at the very least a unique combination of styles: part travelogue, part making-of documentary, part surreal thriller based on a Paul Bowles short story.
The travelogue aspect is mainly confined to the early part of the film, as Rivers revels in the Moroccan scenery but falls prey to that tedious art cinema trope of having people enter a long shot from the left of frame, and holding it until they exit to the right. Gradually we realise the people we're watching are making a film – to be precise, real-life director Oliver Laxe shooting his movie Las Mimosas – and we get a fascinating view of some of the trickery involved in the creation of cinematic images. All of this is very free-form and plotless: but around halfway through, as Laxe goes for a late-night stroll, the thriller element suddenly kicks in with a bang, and things get both narratively clearer and more strange at the same time.
Having seen the installation – which is effectively a series of disconnected short films, plus a chance to get close to the most important costume in the artwork – it's gratifying to see that Rivers actually has a story to tell here, because that wasn't immediately clear from the earlier version. However, it's a very broken-backed story, with virtually no narrative drive in its first half and barely enough to keep it alive in the second. An art film with a slow-moving story is just fine, as long as it's got images that keep your attention, but Rivers doesn't really give us those either: there are a few stunning shots (the final one is particularly splendid), but not really enough of them. And the biggest surprise is realising that some of the sequences that impressed the most in the installation version of the piece fall rather flat on a cinema screen. I couldn't have told you at the time how much of the power of The Two Eyes Are Not Brothers came from the interplay between the film and the place where it was screened: that's become a bit clearer now, unfortunately.