One busy night in downtown Moscow
* Moscow Never Sleeps (15A, 101mins), 3 Stars
* The Land of the Enlightened (15A, 86mins), 3 Stars
Filmed on location and conducted entirely in Russian, Moscow Never Sleeps is written and directed by an Irishman. Johnny O'Reilly is a long-time resident of Russia's capital, and certainly seems to know the place: his lively drama interweaves the stories of rich, poor, young and old inhabitants with considerable skill. Set during Moscow City Day, which looks like a rather dour but equally drunken version of Paddy's Day, Mr O'Reilly's film revolves around the failing health of Yuriy (Grigoriy Baranov), a famous TV actor.
As the film opens he comes to in hospital and asks a passing nurse if he's in Heaven, or Hell. Moscow, she tells him: "Hell then", he replies. Yuriy, an enthusiastic drinker, has been given just months to live, but flees at the earliest opportunity to go in search of alcohol. He's chugging back the vodka in a café when a pair of delinquents recognise him, and force Yuriy to accompany them on a social call.
Meanwhile, Yuriy's son Ilya (Oleg Dolin) is pining after his ex-girlfriend Katya (Eugenia Khirivskaya), a willowy pop singer who's taken up with an oligarch called Anton (Aleksey Serebryakov), but doesn't seem too thrilled about it. Anton has problems of his own, as he's being squeezed by a corrupt official and may have to leave the country. And in the film's most touching story, a lazy gaming enthusiast has second thoughts about dumping his grandmother into a tatty old folk's home.
You get the idea: following the lead set by films like 'Crash' and 'Short Cuts', Mr O'Reilly uses a series of interconnecting stories to paint a portrait of life in contemporary Moscow. Some of the performances are excellent, particularly that of Grigoriy Baranov, who looks a bit like Zero Mostel and has the resigned melancholy of a clown. And overall it's a brave attempt to catch the mood of a mysterious and intimidating city. But whatever it was shot on, the film looks a bit muddy, and O'Reilly might have made the city of Moscow itself more of a character.
Photographer and film-maker Pieter-Jan De Pue spent seven years in Afghanistan putting together Land of the Enlightened, a strange hybrid of documentary and drama that offers intriguing snapshots of life in that most unfortunate country. It's built around the story of a group of seemingly homeless children (real kids playing versions of themselves) who live in an abandoned Soviet outpost and rob passers-by of their money, opium and guns. In their free time the children play with fallen shells, philosophise like 80-year-olds on the state of the nation, slaughter goats and chew on the heads (I'll have the vegetarian option please).
Elsewhere, Mr de Pue follows American soldiers stationed in the Kunar Valley. Hawks hover hunting in the air above US troops who share unsophisticated geopolitical insights while shooting shells at a hidden enemy across the valley. They don't want to be there, most Afghanis don't want them there, but the dusty country seems doomed to remain at war with someone or other, and is lumbered with the added curse of the opium trade.
Mr de Pue's slow and dreamy style emphasises the stubborn ancientness of the Afghan landscape, and his narrative, such as it is, celebrates the cheerful pessimism of the locals, who have stubbornly resisted countless foreign invasions since the dawn of time. But his film would have been stronger without the clumsy dramatisations, his heavy-handed visual metaphors seem to compare the Americans to Genghis Khan, an odd analogy, and he makes sweeping political generalisations he never expands on.
Last time I checked, the Taliban exist, and Afghanistan was hardly enjoying a golden era of peace and prosperity before the Yanks arrived.