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Wednesday 21 September 2011

The Interrupters, Documentary film by Steve James & Alex Kotlowitz, 4* out of 5

The past Summer of the English riots has raised the issues of gangs, crime and violence in our cities high on our agendas. The Interrupters is a documentary about a tough-love approach to stopping a crime occurring based on intervention. 

The “violence-interrupters” of the title are former hardened criminals gone good. Armed only with the experiences of their past and a quick witted line in repartee they put themselves into harms way every day to save lives. Their most valuable asset is the respect they receive on the street due both to their courage and their past criminal careers. They work for CeaseFire, a Non Governmental Organisation formed in Chicago after the city had gained notoriety as a capital of youth crime. This notoriety came to a head when Derrion Albert a high school student was beaten to death in a violent incident captured on camera and broadcast throughout the US. The method this NGO employs to fight violent youth crime is to intervene on the street when an argument occurs and before it explodes into violence. It does this by employing formerly violent members of the community to intervene, by constantly gathering relevant information and intervening with the potential protagonists before the violence occurs. 

At one point, Gary Slutkin, a medical doctor in Chicago and the founder-director of CeaseFire explains that much of the violent crime committed by gang members is not gang-on-gang violence, but person-on-person violence resulting from some argument, chance encounter or a grudge that has gotten out of hand. Of course, gang members always have knives, guns or clubs at hand allowing them to act quickly on their most violent impulses. If the right people can find the right words before anger has turned to rage and rage to murder then there is a chance that a crime is prevented. This means a life is saved and another life not wasted behind bars and the pernicious impact on mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters of those involved will have been avoided. Early intervention pays big dividends. 

The film follows three of these “violence-interrupters” over the course of a full year. As a result we get to know them and their clients well. This helps us appreciate the longer term impact they have on their direct clients, their families and the wider community in which they do their dangerous work. We can also make an emotional connection with the main characters who are indeed fascinating and inspiring individuals. We get to find out about their past and their present, their successes and their failures. And we find out that sometimes even hardened ex-criminals can sometimes be fooled for some of the time by young clients faking sincerity.

The film makers and the protagonists make us forget that we are watching a documentary. The characters and their stories draw us in, hold our attention and connect with our emotions as any good fictional crime/drama would.

The interrupters fully deserves the many prizes it has won at various festivals. If you cannot catch it in the cinema get the DVD as soon as its available.

Tuesday 20 September 2011

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; Film directed by Tomas Alfredson , Screenplay Bridget O'Connor, Peter Straughan based on the novel by John le Carré, 4* out of 5

In her 2011 BBC Reith Lectures entitled Securing Freedom, the former Head of MI5, the British Domestic Intelligence Service, Dame Elisa Manningham-Buller recalls a time when a number steam-kettles were kept by her organisation dedicated to surreptitiously opening intercepted letters without the final recipient noticing.

Some may think that nostalgia is not what it used to be, but the main strand of action in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy takes us back to 1973 in MI6, the British Foreign Intelligence Service not a million miles from Elisa Manningham-Buller's reminiscences. This, however, is a time when the business of spying is a largely intellectual pursuit carried out by clever men, expert at chess and solving The Times crossword puzzle. Fluent in Russian or Hungarian, they are, rare exceptions, graduates of Cambridge or Oxford University. Adept at office politics, this is where a lot of the pent-up emotional energy goes. Their sexual orientation varies. Some are straight, some bisexual, many are gay. Having been brought up in elite English fee paying schools they now analyse coldly what their counterparts in the Soviet Union, their Cold War Adversary is up to. Each side in this very serious mind-game tries to recruit defectors and double-agents from the other. Of course, the Americans were the Soviets' main adversary. The UK government of course is keen on maintaining the much vaunted “special relationship” with the US. Promoting this in 1973 demands that the superior skills British master-spies have honed over the centuries be deployed in order to maintain Britain's position as the preferred and trusted partner of the USA.
In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy the combination of outer calmness and inner stress is slowly brought to fever pitch by the suspicion that one of the inner circle of high ranking civil servants at the Head of the British Intelligence Service is likely to be a Soviet spy. In the eyes of the coveted American partner MI6 has become a leaky ship. The main protagonist George Smiley, has recently retired after his boss and mentor is forced out of the service. He is brought back by his erstwhile political master and charged with the mission to unmask this double-agent. The presumed traitor must have been a close colleague for decades. Or is Smiley himself the gamekeeper turned KGB-run poacher?

Making an absorbing film out of a book, where most of the crucial action is the interpretation of facts found and scenes remembered by the protagonists is a challenging task. But the adaptation of the screenplay and the outstanding direction by the Swede Tomas Alfredsen (who came to international attention with Let the Right One In) succeed completely. Keeping up with the twists and turns of the plot demands close attention from the viewers. There are many flashbacks, jumps in time which are not announced or signposted; but the viewers' attention is richly rewarded. The photography with its evocation of sepia tones, the set with many fine details and the costume come together and evoke masterfully the gloomy dingy London of 1973. They contribute marvellously to the atmosphere that generates the rising suspense. What the television series Madmen did for design and fashion of the 1960s Madison Avenue's advertising men, this film does for 1970s British Intelligence agents in pre-big-bang London. The best of male British acting talent is led by Gary Oldman, restrained this time as one has not seen him on screen before. The very high quality of the understated performances by the all-talent cast round off a thoroughly successful production.
The film is not totally devoid of humour either. There is the singing of the Soviet National Anthem as a turn at the British Spies' annual office party. And at one point as Smiley and his sidekick go about their business in the bleak East End of London, graffiti on the wall behind them proclaims “The Future is Female”; which brings us back to Dame Elisa Manningham-Buller Although sadly the steam-kettles for opening letters are probably gone for good, those of us who like to believe in happy endings would like to think that they have been requisitioned for making tea. As far as the future of this film is concerned, one or more Academy Awards seem assured.

Monday 12 September 2011

Wittenberg, Play by David Davalos, Gate Theatre Notting Hill, London, 4* out of 5

In William Shakespeare's Hamlet we are told that the Danish Prince in his youth was a scholar in the German town of Wittenberg. In John Marlowe's version of Dr. Faustus part of the action takes place in the town of Wittenberg. And Martin Luther, a historical figure larger then life, wrote his 95 theses against the catholic church's practice of selling indulgences in Wittenberg, where they were nailed to a church door or two. The consequences for the history of the Church and Politics in Europe were immense.

The premise of this play by the American playwright David Davalos is that Hamlet, Faustus and Luther were in Wittenberg at the same time. Young Hamlet has Dr. John Faustus as his philosophy tutor and the catholic priest Martin Luther as his theology tutor. All three characters are as yet blissfully unaware of the roles they will play in literature and history, respectively.

Dr. Faustus represents the search for knowledge and the belief in reason and science. Martin Luther believes that all comes from god and is revealed to us through our own careful reading and interpretation of the one original text God left us with, the Bible. Hamlet represents the very sensitive and intelligent student whose station in life demands decisiveness but whose character is racked with doubt and fear of madness.

Of the three characters in Davalos' play Dr Faustus is the most multifaceted: he is not only lecturer in Philosophy but also Luther's general practitioner prescribing remedies for constipation and moonlights as a crooner in Wittenberg's student watering hole. He is also ready for the love of a good woman; but is the good woman ready for commitment.

For the enjoyment of this play it helps to be acquainted with the canon of world literature Hamlet, Faust the history of the Reformation Luther (and his bĂȘte noire Tetzel) and Copernicus. And it helps to have a passing acquaintance with key questions asked by the Enlightenment.

Davalos would not deny being inspired by Tom Stoppard and especially the play “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” which also features characters from Hamlet in an inventive and intelligent manner.

While Davalos' Wittenberg does not reach the heights of Stoppard's brilliance, Wittenberg is a funny, intelligent and interesting play, entertainingly touching on big philosophical, theological and human questions.

Christopher Haydon's production is full of energy. Oliver Townsend's set is excellent and the acting performances are very good indeed. Sean Campion as Dr. John Faust has the best lines most varied part to show off his considerable talents opposite Andrew Frame's strong performance as Luther. The long-lasting warm applause from the audience was fully deserved.