Author Archives: Ryan Gilbey

Jonathan Demme obituary

US film director whose 1991 thriller The Silence of the Lambs won five Oscars

Jonathan Demme, who has died aged 73 from complications from cancer, rose from his colourful if tawdry beginnings under the aegis of the exploitation maestro Roger Corman to become one of the most eclectic, delightful and original film-makers in Hollywood. He also happened to be one of the nicest: the compassionate sensibility that lent his work its warmth and musicality was no put-on. Plainly put, he loved people.

Even his darkest work, such as the hit thriller The Silence of the Lambs (1991), which gave him his first taste of box-office success nearly two decades into his career and also brought him a best director Oscar, had a beguiling tenderness about it. For all that film’s gruesome frights, it was the connection between the FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) and her macabre mentor, the serial killer Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), that lent the film its emotional bite.

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The Mad Max effect: why cinema is having a monochrome moment

The new colour-free version of Mad Max: Fury Road is leading a renewed charge in black-and-white filmmaking

Take a look at the latest Mad Max movie and you will notice that it isn’t, in fact, a new Mad Max at all. That’s still Tom Hardy strapped to the front of a speeding jalopy, while shaven-headed kamikaze drivers zigzag around one another bellowing their war cries. And they’re still in hot pursuit of Charlize Theron, as she ploughs her juggernaut across the post-apocalyptic desert. But the fireballs and flame-throwing guitars look subtly different now; subdued, even classical. It’s the faces and the landscapes, both equally craggy, that have a surprising new texture and prominence in George Miller’s colourless version of Mad Max: Fury Road (subtitled “black and chrome edition”), which reaches cinemas this month, two years after the success of the eye-popping original. It had been Miller’s wish all along to make the picture in this form, but major studios don’t generally pour $150m into black-and-white action movies. After six Oscars and a worldwide gross of $358m, however, he is finally being indulged.

The relationship of colour to black-and-white cinema used to be analogous in some respects to the one between talkies and their silent predecessors. Black and white represented the drab, superannuated past. Colour, intended to supersede it, was the vibrant present and the limitless future. But the ubiquity of colour eventually lent the senior format greater cachet – or at least made shooting in black and white a statement, like using a typewriter instead of a laptop. To choose black and white at any point since the 1960s is to advertise your film as either historically evocative (The Elephant Man) or experimental (Pi), an homage (The Last Picture Show) or a spit-and-glue indie (Clerks). “Something about black and white, the way it distills it, makes it a little bit more abstract,” Miller has said. “Losing some of the information of colour makes it somehow more iconic.”

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Olli Mäki, Neruda and Raw: the best films out now in the UK

A lighthearted Finnish comedy-drama about a real-life boxer, a biopic of Chile’s national hero and a gruesome yet beautiful cannibal horror

Gentle Finnish comedy-drama about real-life featherweight contender Olli Mäki (Jarkko Lahti) who in 1962 challenged the US title-holder. If only he could take his eyes off the delightful Raija (Oona Airola), he might actually be in with a chance. Like Olli himself, this whimsical film is as light as a feather without ever feeling inconsequential.

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Michael Ballhaus obituary

Cinematographer who brought dynamism to the films of Scorsese and Fassbinder

The cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who has died aged 81, helped to realise the work of two visionaries: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, with whom he made 15 films, and Martin Scorsese, for whom he shot seven, including the gruesome gangster drama Goodfellas (1990), which tested this exceedingly gentle man’s tolerance of violence. “I wouldn’t have done this movie with another director,” he said in 2010. “These discussions – whether there is enough brain in the blood – are so absurd that you almost want to throw up.” Their other pictures together included the lustrous Edith Wharton adaptation The Age of Innocence (1993), the grand-and-grubby period piece Gangs of New York (2002) and the thriller The Departed (2006), which won the best picture Oscar.

Much of the visual dynamism associated with Fassbinder and Scorsese must be credited also to Ballhaus. There are the complicated but elegant compositions in Fassbinder, for example, where closeups, reaction shots and the simultaneous movement of actors are often incorporated into a single frame without recourse to cutting – a style exemplified by one of Ballhaus’s heroes, Max Ophüls. There are the accelerated zooms and dolly shots in Scorsese’s films, where the camera rushes toward a face or an object to afford it special emphasis. “It was Michael who really gave me back my sense of excitement in making movies,” Scorsese said. “For him, nothing was impossible.”

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The muse and the monster: Fassbinder’s favourite star on surviving his abuse

He tormented his actors, threw drinks at his cameraman, and died of an overdose at 36, leaving behind two dead lovers – and an extraordinary body of work. As a Fassbinder season begins at the BFI, Hanna Schygulla reveals how she survived

It is 35 years since the magnificent and monstrous director Rainer Werner Fassbinder died from a drugs overdose. His addiction to alcohol and cocaine was as widely known as his bisexuality, and his propensity for cruelly manipulating anyone who entered his orbit. Though he was just 36 years old at the time of his death, he had already made more than 40 features: most famously Fear Eats the Soul, a melodrama about a German widow who falls for an Arab immigrant more than 20 years her junior; Fox and His Friends, starring Fassbinder himself as a gauche carnival worker exploited by his boyfriend; and The Marriage of Maria Braun, in which a single-minded newlywed in the chaos just after the second world war claws her way to prosperity, declaring herself “the Mata Hari of the economic miracle”.

When Fassbinder wasn’t spearheading the New German Cinema along with Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders, he was writing plays or mounting ambitious television series such as the 15-hour Berlin Alexanderplatz. His dominant theme was the manifestation of power at every level of society, whether between lovers, families or a country and its citizens.

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Lars von Trier aiming for Cannes return after 2011 Nazi comments ban

Six years after he was declared persona non grata, Von Trier is negotiating with Cannes for The House That Jack Built, a film starring Matt Dillon and Uma Thurman about a decade-long murder spree

Six years after he was declared persona non grata by the organisers of the Cannes film festival for jokingly announcing his affinity with Hitler, the brilliant and provocative 60-year-old Danish director Lars von Trier is in negotiations to unveil his next project at Cannes in 2018.

The House That Jack Built charts the development of a serial killer called Jack, played by Drugstore Cowboy star Matt Dillon, over the course of a decade-long murder spree in 1970s America. Among the actors cast as his victims are Uma Thurman (Pulp Fiction), Sofie Gråbøl, best known as Sarah Lund in the Danish crime series The Killing, and Riley Keough (Mad Max: Fury Road). In February, Von Trier said the film was inspired by the rise of Donald Trump, the “rat king”.

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Six surveillance films to make Trump paranoid

From All the President’s Men to the Bourne series, wiretapping is widespread in Hollywood. No wonder Trump is twitchy …

Between the first two Godfather films, Francis Ford Coppola knocked out this small-scale but wide-reaching thriller about a master surveillance expert, Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), who is memorably described as “the best bugger on the west coast” – a line that always gets an unintended laugh from British audiences. This is the sort of film that could make the most easygoing viewer feel twitchy, so imagine how it might inflame the paranoia of a blowhard like Trump; the whole picture only proves his assertion that “there are a lot of bad ‘dudes’ out there”. Of course, Harry goes nuts by the end, and destroys his entire apartment in the search for bugging devices, althoughTrump may see this not as cautionary but as a metaphor for “draining the swamp”. What’s more, there is even a little inbuilt cheat in the plot: when we first hear the secretly recorded conversation on which the entire film hinges, it sounds one way (“He’d kill us if he got the chance”). Played back at the end, it has an entirely different emphasis (“He’d kill us if he got the chance”). Creative licence or fake news? Either way, it’s an object lesson in the art of Trumpian spin, where “truth” means whatever he happens to be saying at that particular moment.

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Mr Gay Syria: ‘A beauty contest in this crisis? It’s a way of surviving’

Gay Syrians have suffered horrific persecution under Isis. But a new documentary by Turkish director Ayşe Toprak about a beauty contest, Mr Gay Syria, hopes to follow Moonlight in changing perceptions

When the Oscar for best picture can go to a low-budget film with a gay protagonist and an entirely black cast, there is perhaps a temptation to assume that the struggle to tell diverse or unfamiliar stories must be over at last. The new documentary Mr Gay Syria should serve as a corrective to any such complacency.

Its title has about it the whiff of a tasteless joke. So successfully has Islamic State disseminated its doctrine of hatred that the mere idea of gay Syrians calls to mind gay men and boys being thrown to their death from rooftops. But that was one of the reasons why Mahmoud Hassino, who works with LGBT refugees in Berlin, set up a contest last year to find a Syrian entrant to compete in Mr Gay World 2016. That process is now the subject of Ayşe Toprak’s insightful and sensitive film. “Mahmoud was so fed up of everyone associating gay Syrians with those killings,” she tells me on the phone from her home in Istanbul. “He wanted to say: ‘Look, we live. We fight.’ He wanted the world to know about the living gay Syrians, not just the dead ones.”

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Bill Paxton obituary

Actor known for his roles in Aliens, Titanic, Twister and Apollo 13

Bill Paxton, who has died aged 61 from complications following surgery, was a lively and endearing character actor. Stocky, with a knack for conveying bareknuckle vitality as well as a more considered intelligence and tenderness, he cropped up initially in some of the sparkiest pulp films of the 1980s, including Kathryn Bigelow’s highly original vampire movie Near Dark (1987).

After James Cameron had an unexpected hit with The Terminator (1984), in which Paxton appeared briefly as a blue-haired thug, he took the actor with him on to future projects, casting him as one of a band of rough and ready deep-space marines in Aliens (1986), as a dopey car salesman in True Lies (1994) and as a treasure hunter in the framing story that bookends Titanic (1997). As one of the beleaguered astronauts in Apollo 13 (1995) and the chief tornado-chaser in Twister (1996), Paxton was for a time Hollywood’s favourite down to earth good ol’ boy.

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Return to Montauk review – beached affair takes time to connect

Past lovers Nina Hoss and Stellan Skarsgård border on the unlovable in this slow-paced drama, but Volker Schlöndorff’s film rewards patience for its final twist

Volker Schlöndorff’s scalding film of The Tin Drum shared the Palme d’Or with Apocalypse Now in 1979. The director turns 78 next month and is no longer at the peak of his powers. But Return to Montauk proves that he still has it in him to startle and wrongfoot an audience.

What appears to be a clunky, tasteful, middle-aged rehash of Before Sunset, with two former lovers reunited after one of them writes a novel about their affair, turns out at the eleventh hour to have a sting in its tail. Schlöndorff and the novelist Cólm Toibín wrote the screenplay, which is adapted in part from the memoir Montauk by the late Swiss playwright and novelist Max Frisch, to whom the picture is dedicated. All three men have in one sense taken a leaf out of another book – or, to be precise, a short story, since the picture owes its killer ending to James Joyce’s The Dead. Irishness makes itself felt also in a perky turn by Bronagh Gallagher (The Commitments, Pulp Fiction) and a cameo from Toibín himself, who is seen grinning on the steps of the New York Public Library.

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Return to Montauk review – beached affair takes time to connect

Past lovers Nina Hoss and Stellan Skarsgård border on the unlovable in this slow-paced drama, but Volker Schlöndorff’s film rewards patience for its final twist

Volker Schlöndorff’s scalding film of The Tin Drum shared the Palme d’Or with Apocalypse Now in 1979. The director turns 78 next month and is no longer at the peak of his powers. But Return to Montauk proves that he still has it in him to startle and wrongfoot an audience.

What appears to be a clunky, tasteful, middle-aged rehash of Before Sunset, with two former lovers reunited after one of them writes a novel about their affair, turns out at the eleventh hour to have a sting in its tail. Schlöndorff and the novelist Cólm Toibín wrote the screenplay, which is adapted in part from the memoir Montauk by the late Swiss playwright and novelist Max Frisch, to whom the picture is dedicated. All three men have in one sense taken a leaf out of another book – or, to be precise, a short story, since the picture owes its killer ending to James Joyce’s The Dead. Irishness makes itself felt also in a perky turn by Bronagh Gallagher (The Commitments, Pulp Fiction) and a cameo from Toibín himself, who is seen grinning on the steps of the New York Public Library.

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Beuys review – Andres Veiel’s disjointed film fails to cash in on the artist’s riches

The higgledly-piggledy format of this archive-based film offers little reflection or analysis about the charismatic art joker

The success of Asif Kapadia’s films Senna and Amy, which dispensed with talking heads in favour of generating narrative from archive footage alone, has opened up a new avenue for documentary. It is one along which the makers of Beuys proceed with some uncertainty.

They have at their disposal an abundance of material. After all, the groundbreaking German sculptor and performance artist Joseph Beuys, who died in 1986, was no shrinking violet. He staged numerous art happenings, such as the 1965 work How to Explain Paintings to a Dead Hare, for which he caked his entire head in honey and gold leaf and cradled the eponymous creature while whispering lovingly in its ear. Nine years later, an animal took a more active part when Beuys was placed in a room in New York with a coyote for several days for I Like America and America Likes Me. He had only a shepherd’s crook to defend himself once the animal started ripping at his protective felt covering.

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SS-GB review – London is falling in chilling alt-history of second world war

The BBC’s five-part miniseries, adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, holds up handsomely on the big screen, favouring film noir style over pulp content

The alternative history genre is built on “what ifs?”. The 1931 essay collection If It Had Happened Otherwise contains one piece wondering how history might have been different had John Wilkes Booth’s gun had jammed, leaving Abraham Lincoln to enjoy a perfectly pleasant evening at the theatre; another essay, written by Winston Churchill, imagines the world following a Confederate triumph at Gettysburg. There also exists an entire subgenre conditional on an undesirable outcome to the second world war. Robert Harris’s Fatherland and Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle have been filmed for television. Now Len Deighton’s SS-GB, which shows the Metropolitan police adopting a business-as-usual approach in London after Britain’s capitulation to Germany, has been turned into a five-part BBC miniseries by the Bond screenwriting duo Neal Purvis and Robert Wade.

The Berlin film festival hosted the premiere this week of the opening two episodes. Television can look stranded and exposed on a cinema screen, but it bodes well for SS-GB that the production values held up handsomely in the larger format. The decision by its director Philipp Kadelbach to prioritise its film noir potential over pulp content has helped, and there is a stylistic authority to the piece that was missing in the BBC’s most recent second world war miniseries, the ridiculous Close to the Enemy. Kadelbach throws in some piercing shocks early on: the sight of Buckingham Palace crumbling at the end of a Mall draped with swastikas, or a naked woman protecting her modesty by wrapping herself in the nearest Nazi flag.

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The Other Side of Hope review – Syrian refugee story honours Aki Kaurismäki’s legacy

The Finnish screenwriter employs his usual sensitivity to highlight the experiences of two men who flee their homes and form an unlikely friendship

“Always different, always the same”: John Peel’s famous description of The Fall applies equally well to the work of the melancholy Finnish minimalist Aki Kaurismäki. The 59-year-old has been writing and directing for more than 30 years, scarcely tweaking his formula of woebegone absurdism. His films, which include the knockabout Leningrad Cowboys Go America and the poignant Cannes Grand Prix-winner The Man Without a Past, are mostly set in the Finland that time forgot, where there is scant evidence that things have progressed beyond the 1950s. Vodka, rockabilly, Brylcreem and smokes are the order of the day; they are the only things that lighten life’s load. Along with kindness and companionship, which sprout unexpectedly in the gloom like spring daffodils in February.

Related: Le Havre – review

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A Fantastic Woman review – timeless trans tale stands alongside Almodóvar

Rising Chilean director Sebastián Lelio celebrates the endurance of a woman under suspicion of murder in a film that could bring the first major acting award for a transgender performer to Daniela Vega

The dynamic Chilean comedy Gloria went down a storm at the 2013 Berlinale where Paulina García was named best actress for her portrayal of a divorcee hitting the Santiago singles circuit. Now its director, Sebastián Lelio, is back at this year’s festival with another story of a resilient female refusing to live her life according to the demands of others. A Fantastic Woman has emerged as the mid-festival favourite for the Golden Bear, with the newcomer Daniela Vega likely to get her hands on the same prize as García. Such a win would be not only deserved but unprecedented, since it would make Vega the first transgender performer to scoop a major acting award.

Although A Fantastic Woman reunites the Gloria team, including Lelio’s co-writer, Gonzalo Maza, and his ambitious cinematographer, Benjamín Echazarreta, the tone of the new film is moody, even Hitchcockian in places, with precious few of the depressurising laughs of its predecessor. That’s only to be expected when the opposition faced by Marina (Vega), a young transgender singer in a relationship with an older man, is so brutal. She has only just moved in with Orlando (Francisco Reyes) when he suffers a fatal aneurysm. Before his body is even cold, she is being treated with suspicion and contempt by the authorities.

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California Dreams review: docu-drama crosses line between art and exploitation

Mike Ott’s semi-documentary, about delusional people with dreams of making it big in Hollywood, is beautifully filmed but snickering and uncomfortable

Cory is an aspiring actor who is holding a yard sale to raise the cash he needs to fly to Berlin for an audition. Patrick is 28 and has never kissed a woman, unless you count his mother or grandmother. Neil is a budding screenwriter obsessed with Taco Bell. Carolan lives in her car but has already written her Oscar acceptance speech. And Kevin, who sports a custard-coloured mullet and runs a storage company, is confident about his own star quality. “When I walk into a room of 1,000 people, 999 of them are looking at me,” he says. “The one who isn’t is blind.”

This is the cast of California Dreams, a bittersweet comedy that occupies the grey area between documentary and scripted reality, and comes across like Napoleon Dynamite meets American Movie. (Mark Borchardt, the subject of the latter, puts in a cameo here.) The writer-director Mike Ott devised situations that would reveal his performers’ personalities and longings, including an acting class where the ingenuous and mildly camp Cory has to play a tough cop, and a series of auditions in which each participant delivers a monologue from a favourite film. Neil chooses Harold & Kumar Get the Munchies; Patrick picks Forrest Gump because “it shows how powerful cinema can be”. He should know: he used to think it was a true story.

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From Sean Connery to Harrison Ford: actors who secretly played roles gay

The sexual orientation of film characters isn’t always what it first seems – some leading men have reinterpreted their parts as they move from page to screen

Gus van Sant’s feel-good drama Finding Forrester, which arrives on Blu-ray and DVD this month, has been forgotten with good reason. It recycles from his earlier film Good Will Hunting the story of a wayward teenage genius nurtured by an older mentor, only this time the boy’s talents are literary, not mathematical. But it does have some curiosity value thanks to its title character.

The reclusive novelist William Forrester, played by Sean Connery, has a secret that is never mentioned on screen. I discovered it by accident when I met Van Sant in 2008 while he was editing Milk, his film about the openly gay politician Harvey Milk. It was odd, I suggested, that despite being out himself, Van Sant hadn’t made a picture with gay characters since My Own Private Idaho 15 years earlier. He looked mildly startled. “Wow … uh … I guess you’re right.” Then he put me straight: “Well, there was Finding Forrester.” I wracked my brains. Who was gay in that? “Sean,” he said, matter-of-factly. “It wasn’t in the script. The studio didn’t want us to advertise it. But Sean wanted to play that part as gay.”

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Lost in London review: Woody Harrelson’s live movie is a miraculous oddity

Shot in a single take and broadcast live to 500 cinemas, Harrelson’s directorial debut is a unique work that fuses technical wizardry with self-deprecating satire

Even at its liveliest, cinema can only ever be a refrigerated medium, relaying images to us that were shot months, years even decades earlier. But this week there was an exception to that rule. Woody Harrelson’s directorial debut, Lost in London, was broadcast live to more than 500 cinemas in the US, and one in the UK, as it was being filmed on the streets of the capital at 2am on Friday.

As if that were not impressive enough, the picture was shot in a single unbroken 100-minute take with a cast of 30 (plus hundreds of extras) in 14 locations, two black cabs, one police vehicle and a VW camper van festooned with fairy lights. Actors who try their hand as a director typically start off with something small-scale – a sensitive coming-of-age story, say, such as Jodie Foster’s Little Man Tate or Robert De Niro’s A Bronx Tale. With Lost in London, Harrelson went as far in the opposite direction as one can imagine. This was edge-of-the-seat, seat-of-the-pants film-making. He didn’t just jump in at the deep end: he did so into shark-filled waters.

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Live-shooting with Woody Harrelson at 2am: ‘There’s something about the terror of it I love’

In 2002, the star ended up in jail after being chased through London by police. Now he’s turning that wild night into a single-take movie starring Owen Wilson and Willie Nelson to be beamed live into cinemas. What could possibly go wrong?

It is almost midnight on Monday evening and Woody Harrelson is showing me around the set for his directorial debut, Lost in London. An unused building in the centre of the capital has been commandeered to house assorted locations including a club with burlesque trimmings where gold statues dangle from the ceiling and a police station complete with cells and interview rooms.

There’s just one problem: Harrelson doesn’t seem to know where he is. “Hold on,” he mumbles. “I lost track of what floor we’re on. Where’s the …?” His bleariness has always been a considerable part of his charm: that sleepy Texan drawl, that quizzical gaze, half-amazed and half-sceptical. But padding around in tracksuit bottoms and a fleece, his eyes faintly bloodshot, the 55-year-old actor looks positively somnambulant. He smiles as he recognises his cinematographer, Nigel Willoughby. “Nigel, where’s the room where I get booked by the cops?” An affectionate chuckle: “Next floor up, Woody.”

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Om Puri obituary

Film actor successful in Hollywood and Bollywood, best known in Britain for East Is East

The actor Om Puri, who has died aged 66 from a heart attack, exuded a reassuring warmth and gravitas over a long career divided largely between Bollywood and Hollywood. His Hindi hits included the political comedy Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983), the Macbeth-inspired drama Maqbool (2003), the action romp Singh Is Kinng (2008) and the thrillers Don (2006) and Don 2 (2011). Appearances in two Mike Nichols films – he shared a scene with Jack Nicholson in Wolf (1994) and starred with Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts in Charlie Wilson’s War (2007), in which he was very wry as President Zia-ul-Haq – were among the US roles that followed his brief English-language debut in Gandhi (1982). He credited his more prominent part in Roland Joffe’s City of Joy (1992), where he was a struggling farmer who befriends a doctor (Patrick Swayze) in Calcutta, with increasing his opportunities in Britain and the US.

It is for his performances in two low-budget British films about immigration and assimilation, however, that he will be most fondly remembered by UK audiences. East Is East (1999) explored the tensions between George (Puri), a Pakistani patriarch, and the family he is raising with his English wife (Linda Bassett) in Salford at the start of the 1970s. The picture was marketed as a Full Monty-style comedy about poor but happy northerners. Despite featuring gross-out humour (a frisky Dalmatian and a rubber vagina made an appearance alongside gags about bodily fluids), it took a darker turn when bumbling, well-meaning George descended into domestic violence. If East Is East felt at times like two different films welded together, it was the Bafta-nominated Puri who gave it weight and consistency. He reprised his role in a disappointing sequel, West Is West (2010), in which George returns to Pakistan with his youngest son.

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