Sunday, March 30, 2008

Review - The Orphanage (El orfanato)

The Orphanage is a deeply unoriginal movie, but I don't mean that as a criticism. This superb ghost story is the directorial debut of a young filmmaker named Juan Antonio Bayona, who has brought it to the screen under the stewardship of producer Guillermo del Toro, and like so many first-time filmmakers, Bayona is keen to draw on the power of classic pictures in the genre, something he does in almost every scene here. As a result, there's nothing in The Orphanage – narratively, thematically or aesthetically – to surprise anyone who has seen The Others, The Innocents, The Shining, The Omen or del Toro's own The Devil's Backbone; but just because a film doesn't take us anywhere new, it doesn't mean familiar set-ups have lost their grip. Sometimes, the old ones are the best.

Before the darkness falls, Bayona opens his film in glorious sunlight, with a group of happy children playing in the shadow of the orphanage they call home; but even in this bright prologue the building possesses a forbidding presence. Bayona certainly knows how to exploit the orphanage's eerie qualities; from the outside, he shoots it from low angles, recalling the Bates Motel, and he delights in letting his camera glide gracefully through the corridors, peering into dark corners as the superbly crafted soundtrack creaks and moans. It all generates a suitably creepy atmosphere that the director maintains quite brilliantly throughout, and the story comes straight from the classical mould. One of the children we see playing in that sun-drenched opening is Laura (Belén Rueda) who, as an adult, returns to the now-abandoned orphanage with her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) to establish a home for disabled children. This altruistic endeavour is hampered at every turn by a series of strange events, though. A visit from a mysterious social worker (Montserrat Carulla) unsettles Laura, and she is growing increasingly worried about her adopted son Simón (Roger Príncep), who claims more imaginary friends by the day. These spooky happenings gradually build in intensity until, on the day Laura's new venture is due to open its doors, Simón abruptly vanishes.

The police investigation into Simón's disappearance goes nowhere fast, and as the months wear on, Laura becomes convinced that the answers she's looking for lie in the orphanage's dark past. She calls in a medium (a fine Geraldine Chaplin cameo) who seems to endorse her belief in a spectral presence, but others aren't so sure, with Carlos and the police psychologist (Mabel Rivera) worrying for her mental state. Like so many films in this genre, The Orphanage plays on the ambiguity of its central character's quest – is Laura really straddling the worlds of the living and the dead, or are we watching the slow unravelling of a grief-stricken woman's mind? The filmmakers never give us a firm answer to that particular question, and neither does the commanding, emotionally wrought central performance from Rueda, who is utterly convincing as the desperate mother. Sergio Sánchez's screenplay is neatly put together, leaving each occurrence open for interpretation on a psychological or supernatural level, and he develops a series of motifs at the start of the picture that grow in resonance late on, with Laura having to re-enact the games of her youth to unlock the mystery of the orphanage.

"Seeing is not believing" Geraldine Chaplin's medium tells Laura, "it's the other way round", and The Orphanage is good enough to encourage us to believe in what we're seeing. The film draws us into its narrative with slow, steady rhythms, and although it offers plenty of moments that will make you jump out of your seat (literally, in my case, when Bayona pulled off two shocks in the space of a minute), the overwhelming effect of the film is one of creeping dread and anxiety; the curiosity to know what's hiding around that corner, and the fear of really knowing the truth. The final coda, tacked-on after the overwhelmingly powerful climax, feels like an unnecessary attempt to underline that which doesn't need to be underlined, but that's a minor quibble amid a superbly crafted piece of filmmaking. The Orphanage doesn't try to bring anything new to this genre, but it doesn't need to; the film succeeds because the emotions its stirs up are universal, and the fears it evokes are primal. It understands the simple power of dark corridors, unexplored cellars, and things that go bump in the night.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Review - Lars and the Real Girl


There are many stories you could tell about a lonely man and his sex doll, but you might not expect a warm comedy with a Capra-esque sense of uplift to be fashioned from such a tale.
Lars and the Real Girl, however, manages to be just that, navigating a tricky path with an assurance that makes us believers in a pretty far-fetched scenario. I must admit, the film offered up numerous plot points that challenged my willingness to swallow the tale whole, but the approach taken by the filmmakers and extremely talented cast won me over, and by the end of the film, even I had come to care a little for the plastic doll at the centre of the story.

One of the prime factors in the audience's suspension of disbelief is the lead performance from Ryan Gosling. He plays Lars, a sweet but pathologically shy loner who lives in a converted garage, just a few yards away from the house where his brother Gus lives with his pregnant wife Karin (Paul Schneider and Emily Mortimer giving excellent performances that are destined to be overlooked). Karin and Gus frequently attempt to include Lars in their lives, but he shrinks away whenever anyone tries to reach out to him, and that includes his attractive co-worker Margo (Kelli Garner), whose affection for him is palpable. Then, one day, Lars shocks everyone by turning up at his brother's door and proudly announcing that he now has a girlfriend named Bianca, who is currently sitting in his garage. "Everyone's doing that these days" Karin exclaims when Lars says he met Bianca over the internet, but not like this. Bianca is a life-size, anatomically correct model known as a Real Doll, and Lars appears to be completely in love with her.

Our first sighting of Bianca is a treat. The film cuts from the delighted, stunned expression on Gus and Karin's faces to their looks of dismay as Lars sits on their couch next to his girlfriend. Lars patiently explains that Bianca is from Brazil, she doesn't speak much English, she's confined to a wheelchair, and his hosts can only watch with mounting horror as he carefully cuts up her vegetables and engages in one-way discussions with her. She's also a devout Christian, he claims, and therefore she'll sleep in Gus' spare room rather than sharing a bed with Lars. Bianca might be a sex doll, but this is a strictly chaste relationship.

That's not such an implausible notion. I remember seeing a documentary a couple of years ago examining this phenomenon, and while the interviewees do use the dolls for their intended purpose, it was clear that for many the sense of companionship they offered was just as important. It gave these men a relationship they could control, and that's what it does for Lars, someone who seems physically incapable of dealing with other people in a normal way. After taking on roles like
The Believer and Half Nelson, this might be seen as a move towards lighter fare for Ryan Gosling, but it shouldn't be seen as a lesser performance for that. Gosling's display is detailed and full of careful observations, his movements and strained gestures expressing the torment of a man who feels physical discomfort at the very thought of human contact (he's terrified by Karin's frequent attempts to hug him). Gosling plays Lars straight and with complete sincerity, and that's why he earns our empathy.

The same can be said of the picture as a whole – first-time screenwriter Nancy Oliver and director Craig Gillespie take this wacky premise and play it as straight as possible. There isn't a hint of irony or condescension in the film's depiction of its characters, and the filmmaker's own conviction invites us to go along with the story even when it takes us into even less credible territory. When Gus and Karin ask the local doctor (a typically astute performance from Patricia Clarkson) for her opinion on Lars' delusion, she insists that everyone should indulge him and let the situation develop in its own natural way. So, Bianca is treated as one of the family, and soon she's a popular figure in the community, with everyone rallying around Lars and inviting his girlfriend to join the local church, attend parties, and help out at the local school. This is about the point where
Lars and the Real Girl almost comes off the rails, with an overdose of indie-movie whimsy on the cards at every narrative turn, but, again, the sense of belief everyone onscreen seems to have in this scenario encourages us to buy into it too.

For a film built around such a slim premise,
Lars and the Real Girl is too long, and the central character's final emergence from his shell struck me as a little pat (although I liked the visual metaphor Gillespie employed in the background of the picture; the bleak winter weather passing as Lars himself gradually thaws). But Lars and the Real Girl is genuinely funny, with Gosling displaying flawless comic timing among his myriad abilities, and superbly acted by all; and it deserves attention for the way it takes its potentially one-joke idea into a more interesting and thoughtful direction than anticipated. It's a true oddity, but the filmmakers' commitment to telling their own story is admirable, and a picture could have been a trivial fairytale, ends up feeling like something beguiling, touching and real.

Review - George A Romero's Diary of the Dead


George A Romero's Night of the Living Dead was the film that spawned an entire genre, with the subsequent forty years being full of (mostly lame) zombie movie knock-offs, and now, with Diary of the Dead, the venerable director himself has joined the ranks of those producing dull imitations of the classic 1968 horror. Diary of the Dead, alas, is not a zombiefied version of Bridget Jones' Diary (15 fags, 3 BRAAIINNSS!!! – v.bad), and instead it's just another movie in which a group of bland young nobodies tries to evade the clutches of the freshly dead. Diary of the Dead attempts to distinguish itself from the previous entries in the series through the adoption of the same aesthetic style that we saw in the recent Cloverfield, with everything unfolding through the lens of a single character-operated camera. Such visual gimmickry seems worthless, however, when the level of acting, plotting and action is so utterly mediocre.

After the relatively large budget Romero worked with on his last feature, 2005's Land of the Dead, the director has scaled things back for Diary of the Dead. The film is a faux-documentary called The Death of Death, which has been edited together by Debra (Michelle Morgan) from footage shot by her aspiring filmmaker boyfriend Jason (Joshua Close) as they and their buddies fled from the undead. She mixes this footage up with sequences plucked from the internet – like the excellent news report gone awry that opens the film – that give us a hint of the mass public panic these startling developments have stirred up. Debra believes her documentary will bring us the truth of the zombie invasion, a truth that we won't get from a media intent on manipulating it for their own ends. Noble sentiments, but Debra has also indulged in some crafty, suspense-building editing on her film, and she's added spooky music because, as her voiceover admits, "I also want to scare you". So, Romero gets to have it both ways. On the one hand he can include the set-pieces and jumps we expect from a zombie flick, and on the other hand he gets to commentate on the YouTube generation and the failings of the mass media – but whatever way you look at Diary of the Dead, the whole thing just feels so tired.

The most infuriating aspect of Diary of the Dead is the way the action is depicted through a camera supposedly wielded by one of the central characters. As in Cloverfield, this is a conceit that simply doesn't work. It limits our experience of the film – at one point, Jason is stuck in a room, charging his battery, while we hear his friends battling zombies next door – and it constantly stretches our plausibility. Jason's friends implore him to drop the camera throughout the film, and when he's standing yards from his companions, refusing to intervene as their life hangs in the balance, we don't feel the characters' fear because we're too busy wondering what this fool with the camera is doing. But would a film like this have looked good with standard shooting techniques? I doubt it. The acting is generally dismal, with the bland bunch of pretty boys and girls Romero has assembled being almost totally indistinguishable from one another, and the only mildly interesting character on show is the incongruous English professor (Scott Wentworth) who hangs around with the students and affects an air of vague indifference to the whole messy business. The other character who leaves an impression on the picture is scythe-wielding Amish farmer who comes to their aid late in the film; but odd, leftfield touches like that are in small supply (I liked the zombie clown with a bloody nose too), and instead Diary of the Dead embraces every available genre cliché. It's spoiling nothing to reveal the main characters having to kill one of their own when a zombie bites, and as they drive towards the safe haven of home, you just know they're going to encounter undead family members who they'll have to despatch.

It's nice to see Romero, at the age of 68, still trying to make movies that carry relevant messages, but Diary of the Dead is heavy-handed and limp. His attacks on our society's ghoulish desire to record and upload every tragic incident that takes place in front of us are pretty weak, and on too many occasions Brenda's narration literally spells out the themes of the picture. Throughout the course of Romero's Dead franchise the political subtext of his films has gradually been moving towards the foreground, at the expense of excitement and imagination; now, after forty years of zombie pictures, perhaps it's time he recognised that this genre has been done to death.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Anthony Minghella: 1954 - 2008


Less than two months after the death of Heath Ledger, the world of film has been hit by another sudden blow with the passing of Anthony Minghella at the premature age of 54. Minghella died from a brain haemorrhage today after a routine operation to remove a growth from his neck – a horribly arbitrary death that again underlines just how tenuous our grip on life is. After learning his trade as a TV writer, Minghella moved into cinema with
Truly, Madly, Deeply and Mr Wonderful; two romantic pictures that couldn't prepare us for the sweep of his later works. He will long be remembered for the Oscar-laden epic The English Patient, but I prefer his sleek, Hitchcockian thriller The Talented Mr Ripley; a beautifully crafted and wickedly entertaining adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's novel.

Minghella couldn't repeat the success of those two films with
Cold Mountain or Breaking and Entering, but both of those pictures were visually stunning – as his work so often was – and each offered at least a handful of memorable moments. For all of his gifts, I was never a huge fan of Minghella as a director, but whenever I saw him interviewed or making a public appearance (as he often did in his capacity as chairman of the British Film Institute), I was always impressed with him as a man. Just last week he was appearing on television to discuss his latest project, an adaptation of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency – something he described as "A labour of love, and a lovely labour" – and once again he came across as an intelligent, articulate, passionate and humble figure. His untimely death is unquestionably a great loss for cinema.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Review - The Cottage

When your debut film is London to Brighton, what do you do for an encore? When your first stab at filmmaking has seen you hailed as the future of British cinema, how do you live up to the hype? Paul Andrew Williams has decided to answer these questions by doing something completely unexpected with his second feature, taking a 180° turn from the gritty realism of London to Brighton and producing The Cottage, a gleefully silly horror film. It's a move that may well disappoint those who were expecting more of the same from Williams, but it's also a smart decision from the director – avoiding the risk of being pigeonholed at this early stage in his career – and The Cottage works well enough on its own terms to prove that Williams' first-time success wasn't just a one-off.
The Cottage is the second Paul Andrew Williams picture to be released in cinemas, but it's actually his first film, being written some years ago before the director put it to one side and focused on a more easily fundable project. The success of London to Brighton has given Williams the clout to bring some recognisable faces on board, and the budget to indulge in the kind of makeup and visual effects his story warrants. That story focuses on David (Andy Serkis), a small-time criminal who has cooked up a kidnap plan that will hopefully be the answer to his financial prayers. He has dragged his brother Peter (Reece Shearsmith) into the plot, promising to sign over his half of the house they inherited from their mother once the job is done, and when we first meet this pair they're speeding through dark country roads, heading to the titular rural house where they'll wait for the ransom money to arrive.

Naturally, their plans go awry very quickly. Tracy (Jennifer Ellison), the daughter of a London crime lord, proves to be a less-than-cooperative hostage, fighting her two captors and unleashing a torrent of foul-mouthed abuse at every opportunity. Things fall apart even more rapidly when their bumbling accomplice Andrew (Steve O'Donnell) draws a pair of Chinese hitmen to their hideout, but there's something even more dangerous than lurking in the woods. When Peter and David follow Tracey into the small local village, they come face to face with a horribly deformed farmer who has a nasty habit of mutilating trespassers.
The Cottage is a distinct film of two halves; the opening segment dealing with a bungled kidnap before Williams quickly shifts gears and takes us into Hills Have Eyes/Texas Chainsaw Massacre territory. The switch is hardly a smooth one; in fact, very little about The Cottage feels neat or slick, but that's a big part of its charm. Williams has packed his screenplay with incident, and he maintains a furious pace as his hapless characters go from one life-threatening situation to another. The increased budget has obviously given more room to play with the film's visuals than he could in London to Brighton, and his staging here is frequently inventive, with moments of slapstick and pitch-black humour all thrown into the unpredictable mix. Truth be told, Williams is more at home with the earlier kidnap portion of the film than the later horror sequences – where things wobble alarmingly at points – but you have to admire the sheer chutzpah with which he tackles everything the crazy plot throws up.

You have to admire his work with actors too. After the soulful performances he drew from London to Brighton's unheralded cast, he encourages this film's actors to play things in a higher register. Andy Serkis and Reece Shearsmith work superbly together, with Shearsmith (whose presence inevitably recalls The League of Gentlemen, an obvious influence) on particularly funny form as the useless, neurotic brother to Serkis' exasperated hard man. The biggest surprise, however, is erstwhile lads' mag favourite Jennifer Ellison, who delivers a terrifically feisty performance as the hostage who refuses to lie down. Instantly sensing that Peter and David are hopelessly out of their depth, Tracey turns the tables, screaming bloody murder whenever her gag is taken off, and managing to beat Peter up with her hands tied behind her back. Ellison's turn brings a spark and bite to a role that could have been a cliché, and the interplay between these three central characters is sharply written by Williams, who has a good ear for absurd dialogue.

As The Cottage was written by Paul Andrew Williams before London to Brighton, perhaps it's a better indication of his artistic sensibility, although it will be hard to fully determine that until we've seen what else he has in his locker. The Cottage is an uneven, frequently slapdash affair, and I'd have appreciated it if Williams had written an ending, but there's a lot of imagination on display and a real breakneck verve in the direction. What there isn't, sad to say, is the kind of emotional undertow that sucked us into the seedy underworld of London to Brighton; and despite the best efforts of Serkis and Shearsmith, the late attempt to draw some pathos from the relationship between the two brothers feels half-hearted. Our lack of real engagement with The Cottage must mark it as a slight step backwards from Williams, but at least we've seen some of his other filmmaking abilities on display, and I can't wait to see where he takes us next, as his budget and his reputation continues to grow.

Review - Margot at the Wedding

Being related to Noah Baumbach must be tough. After using many details of his own parents' divorce in 2005's The Squid and the Whale, Baumbach's latest film Margot at the Wedding is about a writer who has used her sister's problematic relationship as the basis for her work. That's just one of the revelations that comes to light during the tension-filled weekend on which Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is due to marry Malcolm (Jack Black), and Pauline's sister Margot (Nicole Kidman) is the catalyst for most of the excruciating moments. Unfortunately, it's pretty excruciating for the audience too, with Baumbach allowing his characters take digs at each other incessantly, and while there's much to admire in Margot at the Wedding, it's a really hard film to like.


When Margot and her androgynous teenage son Claude (Zane Pais) arrive at their old family home for the forthcoming celebrations, she hasn't spoken to her sister in years, after the story inspired by Pauline's marital strife appeared in The New Yorker. The siblings try to put all of that behind them for the sake of the wedding, but Margot doesn't make it easy. She can't stop herself from voicing her disapproval or making barbed comments at every opportunity, even picking up on flaws in Claude, who seems to have an unnaturally close bond with his mother ("When you were a baby, I wouldn't let anyone else hold you" she tells him, "I think that was a mistake"). As Margot wanders around sowing seeds of discord among her immediate family, other destructive elements begin to creep in from the fringes of the story. She rekindles her on-off affair with fellow writer Dick Koosman (Ciarán Hinds) while her estranged husband (John Turturro) arrives in the hope of patching things up; and she insists on riling the Deliverance-style family of weirdoes next door with whom Pauline and Malcolm have already been squabbling. All of this plays out in the shadow of a rotting old oak tree, which looms over the movie like a huge, clumsy metaphor. Inevitably, when everything comes to a head, the tree falls on cue.

As in The Squid and the Whale, Baumbach builds the drama around a prickly, condescending writer – Jeff Daniels' Bernard Berkman in that picture, Margot here – but the earlier film was a little softer in its approach, allowing us room to develop some empathy with the children who acted as our guide to their dysfunctional clan. Baumbach doesn't give the viewer any such respite in Margot at the Wedding, and instead we are thrown into the middle as this collection of equally unsympathetic characters take turns sniping at each other. One of the chief criticisms levelled at Margot at the Wedding has been the accusation that its characters are too unlikable to be worth watching – and it's a criticism that holds water – but it's not the film's chief drawback. There's nothing wrong with unlikable characters, but they have to be interesting characters, and Baumbach has failed to provide figures that meet either description.

We don't gain any insight or understanding into Margot at the Wedding's characters; the lead character starts the film as a selfish, passive-aggressive bitch, and that's pretty much how we view her in the last scene too. None of the other characters seem to develop in any convincing or compelling ways either, and when the backbiting and caustic remarks fail to deepen our sense of the people involved, it simply comes off as a shallow freak show, with all of the bitterness on display there simply for our entertainment, not our edification. Baumbach does draw some superb performances from his actors, with both Kidman and Leigh excelling (Jack Black is the exception, stretched beyond the limits of his abilities), and when he does find the right note – which he occasionally does – Margot at the Wedding works very well. But there's no sense of balance here, and the harshness of the characters' interactions with each other loses its edge when almost every scene is pitched at the same level.

The thing is, it's really disheartening to criticise a film like Margot at the Wedding because in theory it's the kind of film I want to see more of. It's a personal, unashamedly intelligent picture aimed at adult audiences, and it refuses to compromise itself in an attempt to win the viewer's approval. I'd certainly take a film like this – flaws and all – over something as bland and safe as the broadly similar Dan in Real Life; but Margot at the Wedding is perhaps too uncompromising for its own good. I couldn't find a way into the drama, and after 90 minutes of rather uninteresting pettiness, the film just finishes, declining the audience of anything like catharsis or insight. Noah Baumbach is a director who wears his influences on his sleeve, and one can find traces of Bergman, Rohmer, Cassavetes and Woody Allen in his latest work; but those directors were rarely accused of being as self-involved, opaque, and unnecessarily cruel as this.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Review - Semi-Pro


Will Ferrell is the funniest actor currently working in American cinema. Sure, there are many better actors around than Ferrell, and many who could be considered more imaginative, but in terms of film stars who have made me laugh consistently over the past five years, nobody comes close. Aside from a few forays into gentler comic fare – such as Straighter than Fiction or Melinda and Melinda – Ferrell's onscreen persona has hardly altered in that period. From film to film he has portrayed the same self-important blowhard, a clueless buffoon who thinks he's the smartest and most charismatic person in the room, and it's a character that has worked pretty well for him so far, but is the strain beginning to show? Ferrell's career has survived the odd turkey so far (Bewitched), and it will probably survive a film as bad as
Semi-Pro without too much lasting damage, but the abject nature of this picture should still serve as a warning to the star. This is the third near-identical sports-based comedy Ferrell has released in the space of two years, and it reeks of complacency.

Semi-Pro's Jackie Moon is one of Ferrell's broadest and least interesting characterisations to date. The owner/coach/player of the Flint Michigan tropics, as well as a onetime chart-topper with Love Me Sexy, Jackie is a loudmouth and an egotist, who is more concerned with staging publicity-gaining stunts than working on tactics with his misfiring team. The times they are a-changing, though, and when the ABA announces a merger with the NBA, the very future of the Tropics is placed in jeopardy. To survive, they'll need to finish in the top four at the end of the season – an unlikely prospect given their miserable form – so Jackie trades the team washing machine for a veteran NBA benchwarmer (Woody Harrelson) to turn their fortunes around.

Including the plot, everything about
Semi-Pro feels decidedly second-hand. The film has been directed Kent Alterman, an erstwhile Executive Producer making his debut, and he displays no feel for comedy or storytelling. Things start to feel a tad saggy early on, and in many scenes the set-up is so laborious we can see the payoff coming long before it arrives (Ferrell and co. playing with a supposedly empty gun, for example). With no real shape to the script, the film generally consists of various overlong set-pieces strung together in a barely-connected fashion, and the frequent repetition of various gags palls quickly, with the occasional bear attacks only serving to remind the viewer of how superior Anchorman was to this tedious fare.

The actors do the best with what they've got. Harrelson has a commendable go at building a real character, and André Benjamin is fine as the showboating Clarence "Coffee" Black, although neither actor offers any surprises. As usual in Ferrell's films, there's a large ensemble hanging around the edges of the story, with Jackie Earle Haley and Andrew Daly having a few decent bits as a stoned fan and a commentator respectively; but even their contributions are only, well, semi-funny. As for Ferrell, he's never been less amusing. He doesn't bring anything memorable or consistent to the role of Jackie Moon, and he resorts to simply shouting most of his lines in a futile attempt to breathe life into
Semi-Pro's feeble script. This is a real backwards step from last year's tight, funny and well-directed Blades of Glory, and perhaps it indicates that Ferrell should try finding a new avenue for his comedy. He may have hit upon a winning formula, but Semi-Pro shows us the danger of going back to same well too many times.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Review - The Edge of Heaven (Auf der anderen Seite)


Anyone expecting Fatih Akin's The Edge of Heaven to run along the same lines as his last film is likely to be disappointed. Head-On was one of 2004's most exhilarating and satisfying surprises, an uncompromisingly aggressive love story driven by raw passions and complex emotions; but while everything in that picture was turned up to 11, his new film is something else entirely. The Edge of Heaven is calmer and more contemplative, with deliberate pacing and down-to-earth performances, but the two films share similar thematic concerns, and after a stumbling start it grows into something just as impressive as Akin's breakthrough feature. The Edge of Heaven might not have the ability to grab your emotions and deliver a gut-punch in the manner of Head-On, but in many ways it does indicate a fascinating progression from this young director.

Like Head-On, The Edge of Heaven is a film in which the action moves between Turkey and Germany, opening with an encounter between an old Turkish man and middle-aged prostitute in Bremen. Ali (Tuncel Kurtiz) is quite taken with the stern-faced Yeter (Nursel Köse), so much so that he asks her to move in with him and allow him to become her client exclusively. Enticed by the prospect of some stability, Yeter accepts the offer, and after some initial friction she even develops a close friendship with Ali's son Nejat (Baki Davrak). In fact, their relationship is a little too cosy for Ali's liking, and after drinking heavily one night he fights with Yeter and accidentally kills her. Don't worry, that revelation is not a spoiler, as Akin has taken the curious step of opening this segment of the film with the title card "Yeter's Death", and later in the film he gives us "Lotte's Death", alerting us to the fact that the engaging German student we have just been introduced to will not survive the movie. It's an odd move, but perhaps a wise one, as the cruel and abrupt nature of their deaths might have been too difficult to take had they occurred without our foreknowledge.

In any case, this film is less about death and more about how people deal its aftermath, with Akin suggesting that death often offers us a second chance at life, if only we are brave enough to grab it. After Yeter's passing, Nejat travels to Turkey to track down the daughter she had spoken of but had lost contact with; but as he's going in that direction, Ayten (Nurgül Yesilçay) is travelling the other way. She's fleeing the authorities after acts of political activism and heading for Germany, hoping to find the mother whom she believes to be alive and working in a shoe shop. Fatih Akin's screenplay for The Edge of Heaven has picked up accolades from Cannes and The European Film Awards, and yet the screenplay is perhaps the film's least impressive facet. Akin is often unconvincing in the ways he cross-cuts his parallel storylines – on two occasions Ayten finds herself just feet away from Nejat, not knowing that he holds the information she desires – and Lotte's later encounter with Nejat can't feel like anything other than a screenwriter's conceit, a pitfall that afflicts so many "we are all connected" pictures. Akin, for all of his gifts, lacks the kind of Kieslowskian light touch that can make us believers in such cosmic coincidences, and much of his storytelling is frustratingly clunky as a result.

About halfway through the picture, however, something clicks with The Edge of Heaven, and the rest of the film just works. I found myself being drawn completely into the journeys undertaken by Nejat, Ayten and Lotte, as Akin focuses less on the contrivances bringing his characters together, and instead explores the emotions his story throws up. The performances, across the board, are excellent. Davrak is perhaps a rather bland lead, but Nurgül Yesilçay and Patrycia Ziolkowska (the ill-fated Lotte) are wonderful, and Hanna Schygulla's moving reaction to her daughter's untimely death gives some of the later scenes an extraordinary emotional punch. The Edge of Heaven tightens its grip as it progresses – making it the inverse of Head-On, a film that struggled to sustain its ferocious momentum in the final third – and the haunting final image he settles on is one of the best closing scenes of the year. Akin is a filmmaker fascinated by the boundaries of contemporary Europe and the way different cultures relate to each other, but most of all his films are built upon human emotions; both Head-On and The Edge of Heaven are primarily films about love and loss, and those themes resonate across all borders.

As a final thought, it's worth noting the way The Edge of Heaven is being released in the UK, with the film being made available to view on television, through Sky Box Office, on the same day as its theatrical release. This is a interesting move, one which might have a lasting impact on the way foreign-language films are seen in this country, and it certainly has been heartening to see a Turkish/German production being advertised so heavily on the major Sky channels (although they're still pulling that infuriating trick of only including English lines of dialogue in the trailers. Really, who are they trying to kid?). The major benefit will probably be for viewers living outside of major cities who would otherwise have no chance of seeing a film like this on its initial run in cinemas, and hopefully those who just can't be bothered to make the trip to their nearest art-house cinema will also be willing to give it a try. Anything that makes foreign-language films more accessible to a wider audience must be encouraged, and this feels like a good start.