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Diane Lane and John Malkovich star in Secretariat, about the Triple Crown champion horse.
John Bramley
Diane Lane and John Malkovich star in Secretariat, about the Triple Crown champion horse.

The best of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival

A look at this year's opening film, Secretariat, and our picks for this year's must-see movies and documentaries.

Secretariat

Director: Randall Wallace

Stars: Diane Lane, John Malkovich and Nestor Serrano

It's a measure of the extent to which Secretariat captured the imagination of the American public that, in one week, the horse was the cover star of Time, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated. That was in 1973, the year he became the first Triple Crown champion for 25 years, winning the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes.

Nonetheless, let's face it: horses aren't the easiest animals to put on screen. They don't bark, or make any cute noises, but it's their relationship to humans and the lore that surrounds them that makes them so fascinating. Playing the horse trainer Penny Chenery is Diane Lane, who raises a family, takes over her dad's business and overcomes her rival Pancho Martin (Nestor Serrano). Anyone looking for realism will be severely disappointed, as the movie aims for the nostalgic and cute story fuelled by the American dream - even if it's historically and factually inaccurate.

It is saved from mediocrity by its equine star, however. And like films such as National Velvet and The Black Stallion, the enduring appeal of the horse is enough to elevate the movie from average to good.

 

Fair Game

Director: Doug Liman

Starring: Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Sam Shepard

There is much to admire in Doug Liman's movie about how the advent of the Iraq war and the compromised position of the US intelligence on weapons of mass destruction affected the life of Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts), a CIA operative specialising in nuclear proliferation.

Sean Penn tries to steal the movie as her husband Joe Wilson, who is employed by the CIA to investigate whether Niger could have contributed substances that would have helped Saddam Hussein build WMDs. His answer in the negative doesn't sit well with an administration hell bent on attacking Iraq, and they ignore the report. Wilson writes a New York Times editorial, at which point the US government decides to out his wife as a CIA agent, despite the fact this would immediately compromise her position and cause obvious danger to her contacts, forcing her to quit.

This is all traced in the movie with aplomb and if watching the film feels at times like being preached at that's because the message, that the US government lied about Iraq, is a strong one. Yet Fair Game struggles when it enters grey areas, for example, when it speculates as to how the protagonists' marriage may have been affected. At these points, there is some irony to be seen in the fact that a movie version of a true story condemns the US government for preferring fiction to fact.

 

Metropolis

Director: Fritz Lang

Starring: Alfred Abel, Gustav Frohlich, Rudolf Klein-Rogge

This 1927 classic has always been admired as the seminal science-fiction movie, with amazing set designs and visuals that showcase German Expressionism, Art Deco and Modernism. The story, of a city divided into intellectuals who have ideas but no practical knowledge, and workers able to build and construct but lacking vision, strikes a powerful chord.

And yet there had always been a frustration with the version of Metropolis that had been made available to cinema audiences: there were too many gaps and jumps in the story for it to hang together. In fact, this version of Fritz Lang's classic is one that was altered and re-edited after its German premiere in 1927 and is not the epic that Lang envisioned. Theatre managers wanted to keep films to a tight 90-minute length and so the movie was cut. In 2008, however, an almost full-length version was found in Buenos Aires.

The first major new scene appears after Freder (Gustav Frohlich), the son of the broken-hearted leader of the city, Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), has fallen in love with Maria (Brigitte Helm) and has discovered just how terrible life is for the workers inhabiting the underground factory. All the new sequences enhance the pacing in what is a brilliant romantic tale. Metropolis in this near-definitive version becomes an almost perfect movie.

 

Cane Toads: The Conquest

Director: Mark Lewis

Imagine an entire continent invaded by toads. It sounds like a no-budget schlock-thriller from the 1960s, but it's reality in Australia. Like rabbits in the 19th century, the population of cane toads is now out of control (to put it mildly) since they were brought from Hawaii to Australia to counter pests. In Cane Toads: The Conquest, Mark Lewis has now made his second documentary on the beasts - this one in a tactile and slimy 3D that's a perfect fit for its subject. Both films are something rare - environmental documentaries with a sense of humour. Cute as bulldogs, and far more adaptable (and fertile), the toads have a deadpan hilarity to them as they turn up everywhere.

Be amused. Be very amused. Yet be afraid, too. Cane Toads is also a deadly serious tale of scientific blunder. Before the toads were introduced to Australia, no one seems to have recalled that, in Hawaii, where the amphibians were also introduced to farms, they never ate cane-field pests. Add to that conundrum the fact that the toads' poisonous skin means they are without their own natural predators in Australia, and you end up facing an army of interlopers that can overrun a continent. There are far more cane toads in Australia than kangaroos. So far, the tourist board hasn't taken them under its wing.

In balancing the laughable images of toad-terror with the consequences of biological engineering gone awry, Lewis presents an amusing backyard apocalypse. Virtuosic cinematography gives you the toad's eye view of the landscape that the varmints have conquered, whether it's a vast desert or a suburban patio.

 

Incendies

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Starring: Lubna Azabal, Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin, Maxim Gaudette

Incendies examines the effects of war on generations who never experienced it. Denis Villeneuve's adaptation of the Canadian-Lebanese writer Wajdi Mouawad's play turns a brother and sister's search for relatives into a tour of the scorched landscape of the Lebanese civil war of the 1970s and 1980s. Upon the death in Montreal of their immigrant mother (Lubna Azabal), the twins Jeanne (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette) begin digging through the past. The journey takes Jeanne to a country that looks a lot like Lebanon, where no one wants to talk.

Villeneuve's film, a hit at the Toronto International Film Festival, shifts back and forth across time as its story evolves from a revenge saga, to a search for family, to a gothic twist on the haunting wounds of war. Shot in Jordan (to replicate a country that is never named as Lebanon in the film), Incendies uses mountainous locations to portray a landscape from which refugees can't escape. Villeneuve, who adapted the original play, directs with an assurance and a feel for the fierce emotions that tore a beautiful country apart. The film points to great things to come from him.

 

The Ditch

Director: Wang Bing

Starring: Lu Ye, Lian Renjun, Xu Cenzi, Yang Haoyu, Cheng Zhengwu, Jing Niansong

Wang Bing has made a speciality out of the secret history of Chinese prison camps in his previous documentaries. In this, his first feature, The Ditch explores another grim chapter of the Maoist years. Here the title says it all. The ditch is a shallow cut in the vast Gobi Desert where political prisoners are sent and largely forgotten by anyone but their guards, "sheltered" from one of the world's most inhospitable climates by only fabric and scrap .

The era is the time of the Great Leap Forward (1958-61), a state-drive economic surge when educated city folk - mostly intellectuals and "Rightist" bureaucrats - were sent to distant provinces to be re-educated. Three thousand of them ended up in the Jiabiangou camp, which was set up for 50 detainees. Most of them starved to death. For those who lived, surviving was a day-to-day uncertainty. Directors try to reinvent the prison film every week, but Wang Bing has done it in the starkest of visual terms. In the world's most populous country, men are left to the elements and themselves.

Even with its slow deliberate rhythm, The Ditch has a dramatic tautness that draws you in as characters fight against all odds to live. And the understated acting makes it all believable.

 

Carlos

Director Olivier Assayas

Starring: Edgar Ramirez, Alexander Scheer, Alejandro Arroyo

Commissioned by French television as a five-hour, three-part mini-series, what is being shown in Abu Dhabi is the two-and-a-half-hour version that includes the most gripping sequence of all: the seizure of the OPEC headquarters in Vienna in 1975, where 11 people were taken hostage.

At the centre of the film is a fantastic performance from Edgar Ramirez. His appearance changes throughout the film, and we see the actor grappling with changing emotions as well, over the span of the two decades depicted. Ramirez impresses with his linguistic abilities too, delivering dialogue in Spanish, English, Arabic, French and even Hungarian. The film claims to be a fiction because holes still remain in the life story of Venezuelan Ilrich Ramirez Sanchez, more commonly known by his media moniker Carlos The Jackal (although he's never referred to as The Jackal in the movie). Indeed, the film manages not to romanticise Carlos, instead showing a man who begins to believe in his own myth.

This is far more of a history lesson than Che, Mesrine or The Baader Meinhof Complex, all films of a similar ilk. It scrutinises its central character with journalistic rigour and is easily the best of the raft of recent biopics on notorious 1960s and 1970s underground figures.

 

Let Me In

Director: Matt Reeves

Starring: Chloe Moretz, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Richard Jenkins

Not unlike the current glut of pop-culture vampires, filmmakers are determined to get every last drop from John Ajvide Lindqvist's novel Let the Right One In. Two years after the release of Thomas Alfredson's hit Swedish adaptation comes the Hollywood treatment. The best news is that this is one of those rare examples of a very successful American remake.

Director Matt Reeves has done a remarkable job in staying true to both the heart of the novel and to Alfredson's adaption, while still putting his own stamp on the tale of a young loner (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who discovers his teen neighbour is not all she appears to be. The boundaries of the relationship between the young heroine (Chloe Moretz) and her older male guardian (Richard Jenkins) is more straightforward, and there is also far less child angst featured here - changes possibly made to ensure the movie has broad mainstream appeal in the US. One area where Reeves improves upon Let The Right One In: satisfying period detail, including arcade games and the Rubik's Cube.

The major minus point is the CGI, which is a bizarre mix of the sinister and the truly abysmal, especially in the vampire-attack scenes. Nonetheless, this is a remake that bites in all the right places.

 

China, The Empire of Art?

Director: Sheng Zhimin, Emma Tassy

Sheng Zhimin and Emma Tassy scrutinise the surge in the market for Chinese art in China, The Empire of Art? The filmmakers note that Chinese artists now create one-third of the world's highest-priced works of art, and their prices keep rising.

In their survey of studios, galleries and museums that reminds you of a tour of a booming economy's construction sites, the future seems rich, but not entirely rosy. Artists fret over whether they are simply imitating hot dominant styles from the West. In a country where the market hadn't existed, artists who began as underground critics now find buyers speculating on their works. It's a problem most western artists wish they had.

But it's a disruptive process. True to form, European and US dealers follow the money. Chinese artists trained rigorously in academic styles watch those standards go out the window, even as the documentary shows party officials celebrating culture as a new mainstay of the economy. The good news, economically at least, is that China has become a consumer as well as a producer of its own art. Rising internal demand shielded the country and its artists from the recent crash of the world art market. "I'm not a collector, I'm a shopaholic," says one new Chinese dealer.

The tradition vs modernity identity crisis seems likely to persist among Chinese artists. Yet, for better or worse, money is likely to heal many of those wounds. Wasn't it always that way in the art world? As the ex-underground painter Zhang Huan says: "Every master is a smart thief."

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