Welcome to Sarajevo (1996)

Welcome to Sarajevo

Dir. Michael Winterbottom, 1997

Twenty years ago, the longest battle in modern human history was at a fever pitch, and western journalists were camped out in the middle of it. Welcome to Sarajevo’s greatest distinction is its immediacy– it was filmed right after the battle of Sarajevo ended, and written long before. On the one hand, this gives the film an uncomfortably Anglo-centric point of view. On the other, it keeps the events of the film on a human scale: war is simply chaos, and anything could happen.

One of Michael Winterbottom’s “histories,” the film is carried by Stephen Dillane, playing an ITN reporter embedded in the heart of Sarajevo. When his new Bosniak driver introduces him to an overflowing orphanage, Dillane begins a campaign to evacuate the orphans from the city. At one point he unintentionally promises to take one girl back to England with him, and has no idea how to do so, but a promise is a promise: he will take this girl home under the pretense that he is adopting her.

The remainder of the film shows the actions of everyone around Dillane, including his driver, ITN partner Kerry Fox, and gonzo reporter Woody Harrelson, whose role is less prominent than advertised. As so much of the film is staged to look like news footage, it is these characters that bring the battle to life, as they plot and plan and hope for a time when Sarajevo will no longer be “the 14th worst place in the world.” A-

Style Wars (1983)

Style Wars

Dir. Tony Silver, 1983

At the dawn of the 1980s, a new artform had taken form on the streets of New York– and the subways. The groundbreaking PBS documentary Style Wars captured a watershed moment in hip-hop, when it was about to make its first steps beyond The City. Indeed, quite a bit of that is due to the popularity of the film itself.

Rather than deal with the musical element of the culture, this film focused on the secret society responsible for the spectacular graffiti iconically adorning the sides of New York’s subway cars. Even as people like Mayor Ed Koch and city manager Richard Raditch can be heard denouncing the act of “writing,” their voices betray an acknowledgement of its power as an artform.

In addition to portraying a time before hip-hop culture became racially politicized– the writers interviewed are a very diverse bunch, and most of them are white– it also captured a moment when Writing was already moving out of the subway and into the art gallery. Director Tony Silver does this by faithfully recording the act of writing, as well as dozens of examples of the finished product. B+

Gosford Park (2001)

SPOILER ALERT: As these reviews are of an academic nature, they may contain spoilers. Future reviews will try to limit that, but until then, read at your own risk.

Gosford Park

Dir. Robert Altman, 2001

Supposedly, time heals all wounds, and that includes deliberately misleading trailers. Even so, the light-hearted whodunit I was promised twelve years ago was still in my mind when sitting down to watch this film, Robert Altman’s sometimes painful deconstruction of Agatha Christie-style novels.

The film features a weekend at Gosford Park, the stately home of a ruthless 1920s industrialist who married into the British aristocracy. Amongst the guests are a business partner and his charming but mysterious valet, a down-on-his-luck actor, a Hollywood producer doing research, and his manservant (who is really an actor investigating life “downstairs”). The head of the house is cruel, miserly, and all-around despised, so when he is found murdered– seemingly twice– there are more than enough suspects.

Screenwriter Julian Fellowes used the British class system and the archaic nature of this particular house to dizzy the viewer, and it comes through in the production. The nature of the set gives the sense that the characters are wandering through a maze, and nobody knows the way out. Though Fellowes has lately lionized the class system in his show Downton Abbey, his voice here is far more cynical. Gosford Park is about what happens when the system doesn’t work. A man is dead, but nobody is really bothered because he’s a dickhead. The detective is incompetent, while his more diligent sidekick is ignored. But it shows us without judging the individuals, be they upstairs or downstairs. No one person is really at fault for society, as evidenced perfectly by the double-murder of a single man. A-

Time Bandits (1981)

SPOILER ALERT: As these reviews are of an academic nature, they may contain spoilers. Future reviews will try to limit that, but until then, read at your own risk.

Time Bandits

Dir. Terry Gilliam, 1981

This film was Gilliam’s third, and is amongst his most bizarre. The film feels like a children’s book, though the story is in fact original. From the first few scenes, its not clear how anyone could’ve come up with it: a little boy who loves history is ignored by his hyperconsumerist parents, but is unintentionally rescued by thieving dwarves on the run from God. Because only the boy is pure of heart, he is charged with rebuilding history by God. But God seems indifferent, and in the end, not only do his parents not learn the error of their ways; they are unceremoniously blown up by a piece of concentrated Evil: that’s how the film ends.

As always, Gilliam excels with the visual elements. The protagonists travel through time using animated square portals, and the dungeon of Evil is reminiscent of MC Escher. Most of the scenes are ensconced in darkness, and those that don’t inevitably end badly. Terry Gilliam uses both the story and visual to leave the viewer satisfied, yet unsettled. B-