Lucy Popescu

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Film Review – The Two Faces of January

Posted by lucypopescu on September 16, 2014

the two faces of januaryHossein Amini’s directorial debut, The Two Faces of January (2014), based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel, is an atmospheric thriller set in Greece and Turkey during the early 1960s. Chester Macfarland (Viggo Mortensen) and his glamourous wife Collette, (Kirsten Dunst) are holidaying in Athens when they run into Rydal (Oscar Isaac), a young, Greek-speaking American working as a tour guide.

Rydal, we discover, likes to con clients unsure of the lingo or local currency. He doesn’t even draw the line at short-changing his date Lauren (Daisy Bevan), an American tourist. But Rydal finds he’s met his match when he becomes entangled in Chester’s shady affairs. Chester is on the run after making a fortune selling fake shares in the US. Things come to a head when he is tracked down by a private detective who demands payment at gun point. Rydal agrees to help the couple flee their luxury hotel and arranges for them to purchase forged passports. They decide to wait out the time it will take to prepare their documents in Crete.

Better known as the screenwriter of The Wings of The Dove and Drive, Amini proves his skills behind the camera in The Two Faces of January. It’s beautifully shot and Amini exploits his locations to the full – key scenes takes place at the Acropolis and the Cretan site of Knossos while the denouement is played out in the winding back-alleys of Istanbul. There is also careful attention to detail from Collette’s figure hugging dresses and the timeless appearance of the Greek tavernas to the endless cigarette smoking and consumption of Ouzo. The Macfarlands’ cream suits perfectly complement the Grecian columns.

The best scenes in the film involve the shifting affinities between the three main characters. Amini is adept at drawing out the tension between the two men as they compete for the notice and affections of Collette. Rydal is evidently attracted to Collette but keeps us guessing at to whether it money or loves that he really wants. Although this ambivalence works well to build suspense, Rydal’s motivations for helping the couple, at risk to his own freedom, are rather less credible.

As the title suggests, The Two Faces of January explores notions of duplicity and double identities. January is names after Janus, the god of transitions, beginnings and endings, and is often portrayed with two faces, one looking to the future and the other to the past. The tension so carefully built up in the film’s first half falters, however, when the two men are reduced to playing a game of cat and mouse with one another and it becomes fairly predictable how things will end.

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Theatre review – Eye Of A Needle

Posted by lucypopescu on September 16, 2014

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Film review – Tracks

Posted by lucypopescu on August 19, 2014

TracksTracks (2013) John Curran’s award-winning film, starring Mia Wasikowska (Lawless, Stoker, Jane Eyre), tells the true story of Robyn Davidson, a young woman who in 1977 trekked across almost 2,000 miles of Australian desert with only four temperamental camels and a dog for company. Adapted from Davidson’s bestselling book, Marion Nelson’s screen adaptation opens with Robyn attempting to find work training feral camels. Her plan is to earn her own dromedaries for the trip. She also needs to be financed and this comes in the form of a deal with National Geographic magazine who agree to fund the trek in return for exclusive photographs. These are taken by American Rick Smolan (Adam Driver) who meets Robyn at various stages of her journey and manages to irritate and comfort her in equal measure.

Robyn’s mammoth, nine-month journey takes her from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean. She encounters various obstacles including dehydration, sunstroke, a dust storm, loneliness and the near loss of her camels. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn of her tragic past— the death of her mother at an early age and Robyn’s ambivalent relationship with her father who was also an adventurer. Asked about her reasons for the trek Robyn claims “I just want to be by myself.” She is clearly wary of close human relationships and prefers the company of her beloved dog Diggity.

It’s a rite of passage of sorts as Robyn comes to terms with bereavement and discovers that she needs human companionship and the support of others as well as having to draw on her own inner strengths. Rick proves surprisingly sensitive and thoughtful, depositing vital water canisters along her route, and offering her encouragement when she becomes overwhelmed by doubt. Driver and Wasikowska work exceptionally well together on screen. The aborigines Robyn meets also prove kind and helpful. There’s a wonderful encounter with one, Mr. Eddy (Rolley Mintuma), who accompanies her part of the way across sacred ground and scares off some overly inquisitive tourists. It’s Wasikowska’s film, though, and she carries it with panache.

Inspired by Smolan’s photographs, Tracks is skilfully shot. Mandy Walker’s cinematography perfectly captures the parched terrain and heat haze of a desolate landscape. Her framing of massive expanses of red earth is contrasted with close-ups of Robyn’s blistered, sun-burnt face while the aerial shots of the scorched environment serve to accentuate her isolation, the hazardous nature and true scale of her endeavour.

DVD released 18 August 2014

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Book Review – Literary Freedom

Posted by lucypopescu on August 19, 2014

literary freedomHeather Katharine McRobie’s political-philosophical exploration of “literary freedom” is a worthwhile addition to a lively debate. McRobie begins by framing literary freedom as a cultural right that “entails a conceptual shift away from the classical liberal, negative liberty approach…[and] the rights of the individual”. The main thrust of her argument is that civil and political rights cannot be adequately protected without economic, social and cultural rights.

McRobie writes about International PEN’s commitment to free speech sitting uncomfortably with Slovakia PEN’s condemnation (in April 2009) of the publication of Serbian ultranationalist Radovan Karadzic’s poetry. She suggests that “the incident – in which an organisation that campaigns for literary freedom called for, in effect, censorship – opens up the conundrums and unresolved tensions latent in the concept of ‘freedom of literary expression’.”  The solution, McRobie argues, is to adopt the capablilites approach developed by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum. This outcome-oriented view determines that “substantive freedoms”, such as education, the ability to live to old age, and participate in political activities, can only be secured “by enabling true access and participation, not merely through state abstention from persecution and the denial of civil and political rights”.

Literary Freedom emerged from McRobie’s research into Karadzic’s poetry and hate speech literature at the University of Sarajevo. As well as the capabilities approach, McRobie draws on the work of Theodor Adorno, Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag, among others, and analyses various theoretical strands, from the importance of culture to the state funding of “high art”. She makes a good case for substituting censorship of hate speech with a “contextualisation” of it and fostering a culture of “speaking back” in order to neutralize its affects.

Although her book is diligently researched and insightful, some of the threats to literary freedom that McRobie examines have been overtaken by new, more pressing issues for writers. For example, many Mexican journalists now self-censor for fear of being murdered by members of a drug cartel while citizen journalists in Syria are at risk of being silenced by terrorist agents. Nonetheless, the author’s central thesis is sound: by safeguarding the freedom of the writer we ensure freedom for wider society.

Originally published in the TLS


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Film Review – Who is Dayani Cristal?

Posted by lucypopescu on July 25, 2014

who is dayani cristalMarc Silver’s award-winning documentary, Who is Dayani Cristal? (2013), co-produced by and starring Mexican actor Gael García Bernal, explores the identity and tragic fate of one economic migrant after he attempts to forge a life for himself in the United States. Every year, thousands of Mexicans, Central and South Americans illegally cross the Mexican-US border in search of work and at considerable risk to their own lives.

One of the most inhospitable terrains that the desperate migrants have to navigate is the Sonora desert in Arizona, known as ‘the corridor of death’. Here, decomposing corpses or body parts are regularly picked up by the border patrol. A team of experts then have to set about trying to identify the victims in order to notify their families and return the bodies to them. This is no easy task – sometimes they have only bones and of the 2000 bodies recovered from the desert over the last decade, 700 remain unidentified.

When yet another anonymous body is brought into the Medical Examiner’s Office in Tuscon, Bernal and Silver decide to follow and record the forensic investigation and their attempts to discover the man’s identity. The only clue is a tattoo on his chest bearing the name ‘Dayani Cristal’.

After the man’s origins come to light, the film’s team use the testimony of his family and friends, to retrace the dead man’s journey. Bernal joins a group of migrants travelling across Central America before they attempt to cross the notorious Mexican-US border. The cinematography is superb. The reconstruction of the journey includes breathtaking imagery of the harsh landscape the migrants are up against as well as stunning footage of young men riding atop a train known as ‘La Bestia’. Footage from their journey is combined with interviews with various border officials and the forensic experts who are clearly determined to discover the identities of the dead.

At the heart of this moving film is a firm rebuttal of the demonisation of migrants and the usual rhetoric surrounding ‘aliens’ and ‘illegals’. The US border officials are unexpectedly compassionate, focusing on the humane rather than political issues, and the dedication of the forensic team is truly impressive. Silver and writer Mark Monroe draw out the universal themes of hope, aspiration and love and underline the fact that the majority of impoverished migrants, like the tattooed ‘Dayani Cristal’, risk their lives on a daily basis to provide for their families.

Wisely, they choose to reveal the man’s origins, his personal story and reasons for travelling north only at the end. This is documentary filmmaking at its best – one that delivers a definite message and packs a powerful punch.

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Film Review – The Sea

Posted by lucypopescu on June 29, 2014

The SeaStephen Brown’s debut feature, The Sea (2013), is a compassionate rendering of John Banville’s Man-Booker prize winning novel. After losing his beloved wife Anna (Sinéad Cusack) to cancer, Max Morden (Ciarán Hinds) returns to the Irish seaside town where he spent summers as a child. He stays at a boarding house owned by Miss Vavasour (Charlotte Rampling) and shares mealtimes with permanent resident Colonel Blunden (Karl Johnson). He is utterly overwhelmed by grief and shows no signs of healing. “Fleeing one sadness by revisiting the scene of an old one doesn’t work”, he tells his landlady.

Max is an art historian and is supposed to be writing about French artist Pierre Bonnard. Instead he drinks himself unconscious, gets thrown out of bars, baits Blunden and walks at night along the beach while all the time reliving his last few months with Anna. Through flashbacks we learn of the childhood friendship he had with the Grace family. Led by their raffish and flamboyant father, Carlo (Rufus Sewell), they were everything his plain, hard-working family was not. The Graces rent an expense holiday home, while Max’s family live in a two room “chalet” with no proper toilet facilities. Max is bowled over by the Grace’s exuberance, their familial feuds and boisterous charm. He is proud to be taken into Carlo’s confidence, is secretly in love with Connie (Natascha McElhone), while shyly courting their daughter Chloe (Missy Keating). He is also insistently curious about their young minder Rose (Bonnie Wright).

Banville’s screen adaptation perfectly distils the essence of his novel’s main themes. It is no mean feat to capture the interior musings of one man on celluloid. The Sea is as much about the nature of memory as it is about loss and Brown has produced a quietly affecting film that is not afraid of using silence to great effect. In Banville’s script, often what is left unsaid is as important as what is spoken.

Brown is well served by a stellar cast – Hinds delivers a terrific performance as a man who falls apart and gradually puts himself together again. John Conroy’s superb cinematography, set against the dark roiling sea is also particularly memorable. The scenes from Max’s childhood are shot through with a sun imbued glow whereas the present is muted in colour reflecting Max’s perspective – he seeks solace in the past when faced with an uncertain future. The Sea is a poignant meditation on love, grief and loss, a slow burn of a film and an impressive debut.

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Film Review – Chinese Puzzle

Posted by lucypopescu on June 22, 2014

Chinese puzleCédric Klapisch’s lively romantic comedy, starring Romain Duris and Audrey Tautou, is the final chapter in his ‘Trilogy of Xavier’s Travels’, which began with The Spanish Apartment (2002). As the name suggests, Chinese Puzzle (2013) is a colourful mishmash of different characters’ stories, sub-plots and intersecting timelines. There’s also a clever meta-textual commentary running through the film.

Writer Xavier Rousseau is approaching 40 when his wife of ten years, Wendy (Kelly Reilly), announces that she is leaving him and moving to New York City with their children. Inconsolable without his family, Xavier decides to follow them to the Big Apple, where he hopes to finish his latest book. There he is offered a place to stay with his old friend Isabelle (Cécile De France) and her lesbian partner Ju (Sandrine Holt). Just to complicate matters, Xavier has recently donated his sperm to the couple and Isabelle is now pregnant.

Xavier’s difficulties begin when he has to find an affordable apartment near his children and learns that marrying an American citizen is the easiest route to live and work legally in the US. After saving a taxi-driver’s life, Xavier is presented with a willing Chinese-American ‘wife’ but they have to convince the immigration officers that they are for real. Then an old flame, Martine (Tautou), comes to visit and romance is once again in the air.

Klapisch’s has created a nuanced portrait of one man’s mid-life crisis and his complex relations with three different women. The four characters have a shared history, having first met as students in The Spanish Apartment and then reconnected in Russian Dolls (2005) and there’s a wonderful honesty about their interactions with each other. One of Chinese Puzzle’s main themes is the characters’ different response to aging and parenting as they approach forty. There are some lovely comic scenes such as when Xavier meets Wendy’s new partner who towers over him and is wealthy, handsome and completely charming. Another memorable moment is Martine’s work presentation in perfect Mandarin to a group of Chinese businessmen.

Inevitably, Chinese Puzzle will be compared to Richard Linklater’s ‘Before Sunrise’ trilogy. It’s lighter in tone but what raises it above the average romcom is Klapisch’s playfulness with form and visuals. At the same time as trying to sort out his new life, Xavier is pursued by his publisher who comments on the action and questions where the plot is going. Xavier also enjoys some fantasy conversations with philosophers such as Hegel and Rousseau. Inspired by photographer Alex Webb’s work, Xavier’s chaotic lifestyle is conveyed through imaginative framing and the clever manipulation of colour and image. Entertaining, uplifting and visually arresting French fare.

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Theatre review – The Roof

Posted by lucypopescu on June 22, 2014

The Roof

For their latest show, The Roof, presented by Fuel as part of the London International Festival of Theatre, choreographer Frauke Requardt and David Rosenberg (co-founder of artist collective Shunt) have transformed the open air car park across the road from the National Theatre into a thrilling performance space.

As night falls, we are led into a round stony pit. Designer Jon Bausor has created an urban skyline that encircles the audience. We quickly discover that we are in the middle of a live video game. But we are merely observers, unable to predict or change the outcome. An avatar (Danilo Caruso) dressed in a red jump suit pops up out of a box and attempts to leap across a chasm. He is met by a yellow-masked monster and falls. He has two lives left, we are told. The next time he makes it round the circuit leaping across chimney pots, negotiating sloping roofs, and scaling gables and all the time having to dodge would-be assailants. He is allowed to move up a level.

The creative team make some interesting connections between the avatars in a modern video game and the wanderers of antiquity. I was reminded of Odysseus and the various monsters and obstacles he had to overcome in order to return home. The drum majorettes that entice the avatar are like the Sirens and the different masks of the monsters he encounters recall Hercules’ struggle with the many-headed Hydra. During one level, the avatar has to surmount the doubting voice of his mother, in another he has to meet brute force with violence. The circular nature of a daily routine, interspersed with random encounters and events, small triumphs and feats of endurance, is cleverly evoked.

The Roof lacks a coherent narrative and carries no central message but that is partly the point. For one hour, we can immerse ourselves in a multi-sensory experience. We are given Binaural headsets, through which we are fed a commentary of sorts, music and sounds that are brilliantly synchronised with the action (Dave Price), while the visuals and acrobatics, set against a darkening sky, are equally stunning.

Although it loses momentum slightly towards the end, the main power of The Roof lies in the way it blurs the boundaries between theatre, performance art and screen images and invites multiple readings. The colourful balaclavas and twerking are reminiscent of Pussy Riot’s acts of protest. The lone woman enclosed in a glass box suggests a character trapped behind a computer screen. At one point I thought I was watching a film projection of rabbit-eared dancers and then realised it was live performance. Playful and provocative.

Running until 28 June at 9.30pm
Additional performances Fri and Sat 7pm
Doon Street Car Park
Opposite the National Theatre, London SE1
Book via

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Book review – Syria Speaks

Posted by lucypopescu on June 19, 2014

Syria speaksSyria Speaks is essential reading for anyone interested in human rights or a better understanding of the current conflict. Comprising essays, stories, poems, songs, photo- graphs and cartoons, this impressive collection shows how artists and activists operate under repressive regimes and how their work can become “tools of resistance” in war.

Four decades of rule by the Assad family has wreaked untold havoc on Syria and its people: dissidents describe horrific methods of torture and claim that the testing of chemical and biological weapons on political prisoners was routinely practised by Syria’s Air Force Intelligence.

When Dr Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father in July 2000, he appeared keen to modernise Syria and expressed a desire for “creative thinking”, “constructive criticism” and “transparency”. The “Damascus Spring”, was short-lived, however. As the accounts and artwork in Syria Speaks amply demonstrate, Bashar has not only matched but far surpassed his father Hafez’s brutality in the past three years alone.

Given the silence that followed Hafez al-Assad’s devastation of Hama in 1982, it is fitting that the anthology begins with a veiled photomontage of victims of the massacre. Since the start of the revolution in 2011, many artists have revisited the events of 1982 in their work and compared the killing in Hama with current atrocities. A poster from the anonymous arts collective The Syrian People Know Their Way, depicts a child underlining the words “It will not happen again” next to a waterwheel, a landmark symbol of Hama. This also powerfully recalls the fact that it was the arrest of schoolchildren for painting anti-government graffiti in the southern city of Deraa that sparked the first protests in March 2011.

The difference between the uprising in Hama and the current conflict is that ordinary Syrians now have access to mobile phones and the internet. However, people quickly become inured to images of violence and, as the academic Miriam Cooke observes, the opposition needed to find new ways to retain the outside world’s attention. Many Syrian artists have risen to the challenge. After one massacre, the filmmakers’ collective Abounaddara posted a piece that depicted corpses wrapped in shrouds and joined by flowers. Artist Sulafa Hijazi vividly contrasts life and death in her illustration of a pregnant weapon.

Interviews with former political prisoners sit alongside work from the raft of citizen journalists who have come to the fore in recent months. Yassin al-Haj Saleh, a prominent writer imprisoned for 16 years, compares the role of the intellectual then and now. Meanwhile, the Syrian activist Assad al-Alchi talks to co-editor Malu Halasa about the role of local  co-ordinating committees. This network grew out of the early protests in March 2011 and serves to teach activists non-violent civil disobedience.

Much of the writing explores the effects of imprisonment and torture. Especially poignant is “Lifetimes Stolen” by Yara Badr who was imprisoned like her father before her. After listing “the dictionary of torture techniques” she describes what it means “to live on the verge of death … you are lost, as though drifting in the sea, waiting for the wind to bring you a sail that will take you back to life”. Her husband, Mazen Darwish, remains in detention and Syria Speaks includes an extract from his “Letter for the Future” smuggled out of jail, in which he wishes his torturers “happy lives for your children, with no fear and no torture”.

The anthology also documents the importance of revolutionary songs as a means of resistance – the popular Syrian singer Ibrahim Qashoush was murdered after inspiring crowds in Hama with his song “Come on Bashar, Get Out!”. As one activist explains, folk music has largely escaped censorship and “has therefore become a means by which street protesters have proclaimed their Syrian identity in the face of government claims of an ‘international conspiracy’.” Similarly, cartoons and comic strips can convey “subversive narratives” and, like mobile-phone images, are easily uploaded to social media sites.

This then is the central message of Syria Speaks. Artists and activists have had to find new ways to communicate and protest from the frontline. One of the most humorous and imaginative creations must be the popular internet series “Top Goon: Diaries of a Little Dictator”, available on YouTube and described as a “modern-day morality play”. It’s reminiscent of the British satirical television series Spitting Image, although far braver – finger puppets are used so they can be smuggled through checkpoints. Syria Speaks pays tribute to many extraordinary acts of courage and shines a light on the dark deeds of a brutal regime.

Originally published by the Independent on Sunday

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Book Review – In the Name of the People

Posted by lucypopescu on June 14, 2014

In the name of the peopleIn 1961 Peter Benenson, a London lawyer, launched a worldwide campaign calling for the release of six political prisoners. One of them was Agostinho Neto, an Angolan poet and doctor held without charge or trial by the Portuguese authorities. This action led to Neto’s release and the founding of Amnesty International. Neto went on to become Angola’s first president after independence in 1975. His then-Marxist party, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), had the support of the Soviet Union and Cuba, while the United States and South Africa backed its rival, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA).

Neto swiftly established a one-party state and the MPLA continued to have close links with Cuba. On 27 May, 1977, Neto’s government brutally suppressed a demonstration, claiming that it was an attempted a coup by ‘factionalists’ led by the former interior minister, Nito Alves. Thousands of Angolans were executed in the aftermath – estimates range from 2000 to 90,000 – leading to a culture of silence and a fear of protesting that persists today.

Lara Pawson, a former BBC correspondent, seeks to unpack and understand this ‘climate of terror’ which helped to shape modern Angola. She discovers that Cuban forces participated in the crackdown, killing dissident members of the MPLA, and argues that respected British journalists have remained silent on the subject because of their socialist sympathies.

Part of what makes Pawson’s account so compelling is her continual questioning of her own motivation for wanting to write about events little known outside Angola, that happened long ago and which have, in large part, escaped substantial, objective scrutiny. She meets various witnesses, from those who lost relatives in the purges to those who survived. She also interviews fellow journalists, including Ndunduma Wé Lépi, former director of Jornal de Angola, who fanned the flames of violence in a series of inflammatory articles exhorting readers to ‘strike while the iron is hot’. Writing about a massacre is always a difficult undertaking but Lara Pawson’s conversational tone, her musings and lively descriptions, make In the Name of the People as engaging as it is informative.

Originally published in the TLS








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