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Culture: Optimistic road to discovery.

Byline: Mike Davies

Amores Perros, Mexico's canine version of Reservoir Dogs

Drole de Felix

Cert 18. 97mins

subtitled

Going through his dead mother's effects, gay HIV positive French-Arab Felix discovers that the father he never knew is living in Marseilles. Telling his lover to meet him there in five days, he decides to hitch-hike down south to find him.

As he sets out he witnesses a racist murder but, having been beaten up by one of the killers, is unable to bring himself to tell the cops.

As the journey continues he encounters, in chapters headed Brother, Sister, Cousin, and so forth, a variety of strangers. An inexperienced gay art student with whom he declines to sleep; a grouchy but wise old dear; a hunky stud railroad worker; a single mother with three kids by three different fathers; and a kindly old man.

Through all these brief relationships he discovers new insights on sex, friendship and romance and begins to come to terms with himself and to understand the nature of family.

It's a meandering affair that sometimes feels like a soap opera parody and which is given over to excesses of quirkiness, for example, when he robs a car only to return it when he finds a baby in the back.

But never making a fuss about the fact Felix is dying, its self-discovery fable is infused with a remarkable sense of optimism that leaves you with a sense of a future rather than an end.

Room to Rent

Cert 15. 95 mins

For his English language debut, Birmingham-based Egyptian writer- director Khaled El-Hagar has opted to make a semi-autobiographical fish out of water comedy about a young Egyptian screenwriter trying to make a go of it in London.

It's a film about identity, prejudice, culture clashes and destiny. Or it is on paper. In reality, it is an eccentric romantic comedy melodrama that aims ambitiously high but never affords much insight into its avowed subject of 'Arabic people living in London' and rarely manages to pull together its narrative threads into a coherent whole.

Part-time waiter, belly dance teacher, voice over artist and gigolo, Ali (Hideous Kinky star Said Taghmaoui) has continuing accommodation problems owing to the fact that he bases his (frankly lousy) screenplays on the people he knows.

But, more pressingly, he has to find himself pounds 3,000 for a British passport marriage before his student visa runs out in 12 weeks and he's sent back to Egypt. So far, so amusing

Lodging with the gay photographer chum (Rupert Graves) of the housewife for whom he's providing sexual extras, he meets Linda (Juliette Lewis), an American who's taking her Marilyn Monroe impersonation rather too seriously.

She agrees to marry him, which (aside from making no logical sense) is where Ali's learning curve starts to bend and the movie begins to jump the rails. By the time it gets to Anna Massey's blind healer and talk of reincarnated lovers it's a train wreck.

Although Lewis is either inspired or excruciating, depending on your taste for her eccentric mannered acting, the performances are generally good and El-Hagar certainly has an eye for colour and the striking image.

But on the evidence of his over-cluttered story he lacks editorial judgment, allowing the narrative to run away with itself rather than pruning for focus and emotional impact.

The opening sequence as the camera offers glimpses of the rich Arabic culture of London's streets leaves you wanting to see more of this exotic, unknown world, and considerably less of the stumbling, conventional comedy that comprises the rest of the film.

Amores Perros

Cert 18. 153 mins

subtitled

Already firmly heading many film of the year lists, first time director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's debut has seen him hailed as Mexico's answer to Quentin Tarantino.

Indeed, the opening sequence is a clear homage to Reservoir Dogs as a car screams away, the man in the back seat trying to staunch his fellow passenger's gunshot wound. Only this time the bleeding figure actually is a dog.

It's a Rottweiler that belongs to Octavio, a teenager from the wrong side of Mexico City's tracks, who's raising money at illegal dogfights so he can elope with his ne'er do well brother's abused wife.

Octavio's is one of the film's three class-spanning stories, all leading up to or spinning out from the pivotal car crash that provides the fulcrum to which the narrative returns before spinning off from a new perspective. All have canine connections.

The second is that of Valeria, a supermodel whose married lover has just left his family to share her new apartment. Now confined to a wheelchair, she becomes increasingly agitated when her pampered pooch disappears down a hole in the floor.

They can hear it scurrying about but can't find it. As she becomes more hysterical, the missing dog becomes emblematic of her mental state and the rapidly deteriorating relationship.

Completing the picture is El Chivo, a former revolutionary turned tramp and occasional assassin who lives with a menagerie of strays.

About to carry out his latest hit when the crash interrupted matters, it's he who rescues the wounded dog from the wreck and takes him home.

The ferociously and bloodily realistic dogfights are probably best not suited to those of a RSPCA disposition, but the animals, like the other canines, brilliantly serve as powerful metaphors for their owners' states of mind in this dog eat dog society.

Shot on hand-held camera and edited with a wired nervous energy, it pulses with a highly charged immediacy that drags you into its emotional viscera, its unrelentingly grim accounts of despair and loss leavened by the compassionate humanity at its heart and the bittersweet ironies of its closing notes. Compared to Inarritu's pedigree filmmaking, Tarantino is pure mongrel.

Le Gout des Autres

Cert 15. 112 mins

subtitles

A Woody Allen-like French comedy of manners and culture, the latest from Agnes Jaoui features the excellent Jean-Pierre Bacri as a boorish self-made businessman in the process of hammering out a deal with the Israelis.

Ferried around by a chauffeur and bodyguard, he's reluctantly dragged to the theatre by his wife, a snooty interior decorator of somewhat dubious aesthetic taste.

However, the moment he claps eyes on actress Clara, he's smitten, arranging for her to give him English lessons and desperately trying to impress her and her arty circle with his newfound somewhat Del Boy aspiration to high culture.

She's embarrassed by his clumsy attentions while her friends just see him as a meal-ticket to milk for patronage. Meanwhile, his bodyguard's having an affair with Manie (Jaoui), a barmaid and part time dope dealer who once went out with the chauffeur.

As the shallow characters' relationships cross-thatch, Jaoui makes her points about cultural snobbery and how we should be tolerant of other's tastes.

Unfortunately she continues to make them again and again until you feel beaten about the middlebrow with a sledgehammer, negating her cast's fine performances with the gathering tedium of the narrative.
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jun 22, 2001
Words:1168
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