Mad Dash

Cohen's film is an illustration of fate and its effects. More than just time has changed the passionate young men we see on the concert stage. Though three of the four continue to perform, they look back at their ambitious younger selves with irony, as if "award-winning musician" was simply a role they played and later abandoned. Winning the Queen Elisabeth prize was not so much the starting point as it was an unnaturally high point that threw their careers slightly out of step. For the two musicians who are seen continuing active musical careers, the effects of the award were minimal: Pianist Yevgeny Moguilevsky, the 1964 winner, returned home and continued to perform and record, but any chance to break onto the international stage was thwarted by Soviet cultural authorities, angry because he had defeated one of their favorites. The film shows Moguilevsky, now living in the West, meeting with agents and record companies, still waiting for his big break. 1976 winner Mikhail Bezverkhny also cites political interference, though his own brusque temperament may have been equally devastating. The oddest of the four musicians, Cohen shows him berating his accompanist wife, rhapsodizing over auto repair and practicing alone in the back of a parked van, his rehearsal studio of choice ever since neighbors objected to the noise.

The most transformed, and in some ways the most charismatic of the four men profiled in The Winners, is Philipp Hirschhorn, the 1967 winner whose intense stage presence and brooding good looks could easily have made him a matinee idol for the concert set. Though his days as a performer were cut short by illness, he cuts a Nabokovian figure, a glamorous exile wondering why he's been banished from the exalted realm of the famous, vaguely hinting at the intrigues and rivalry that reduced him to his current state. Switching from realistic self-assessment to arrogance, he hints at a return to his former glory, but, sadly, Hirschhorn died shortly after his interviews were filmed.

Hirschhorn's opposite, and striking a good-natured balance to the ambition and accusations voiced by the other three musicians, is Berl Senofsky, who was already past 30 when he won the competition in 1955. Now teaching in Baltimore and suspicious of the professional music world, Senofsky claims to have entered the competition solely to assess his musical abilities, and gave up his modestly successful career with no regrets. When the filmmakers ask him to display the medal, he rummages through his apartment, uncertain of where he's put it. In the final scene, he's recovered it: "By the way," he tells the filmmakers, "I found this.... Funny that a piece of metal can mean so much.... "

-- Robert Hunt

Directed by Ken Loach

In the three decades that director Ken Loach has been a steadfast champion of the British working class, his films have lost none of their sting. Whether examining a brutal Belfast police incident in Hidden Agenda (1990) or the plight of an unemployed man struggling to buy his daughter a first-communion dress in Raining Stones (1993), Loach has remained constant in his sympathies and unwavering in his refusal to sentimentalize them. On the mean streets of the British Isles, he always keeps his eyes wide open.

Case in point: the plainly labeled My Name Is Joe. A deceptively simple take on survival in the brick slums of Glasgow, it chronicles the tribulations of Joe Kavanagh (Peter Mullan), a badly damaged alcoholic in his late 30s who's been off the sauce for almost a year. Jobless and on the dole, Joe throws his energies into coaching a soccer team of wisecracking delinquents who are a lot more adept at stealing new uniforms than they are at actually playing the game. Joe's special project (and alter ego) is baby-faced Liam (David McKay), who's not merely the only decent player on the team but also an ex-junkie and a young father. Another opportunity for Joe's redemption comes in the form of Sarah (Louise Goodall), a plucky public-health counselor whose neighborhood clinic is overwhelmed by needy clients.

In the hands of a filmmaker with a lesser feeling for character and place, elements such as these might quickly turn to mush. But Loach is neither a hand-wringer nor a do-gooder, and no one will mistake him for a Pollyanna. In Joe, Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty give us an imperfect hero who, despite the odds, refuses to feel sorry for himself -- this guy simply presses on into the darkness. Longtime Loach fans will likely find in Joe a hint of the filmmaker's earlier protagonists, notably the unlucky bloke in 1991's Riff-Raff -- downtrodden but working hard to shed his seamy past.

Joe, too, has reasonable dreams. A decent job. Self-respect. Relief from the demons. A shot at love. For now, though, he's got only his wits to buoy him up -- a gift for the well-timed practical joke, a knowledge of the street and a survivor's will. Herding his scruffy soccer players -- they've got names like Shanks and Scrag and Zulu -- into a beat-up van, he very nearly looks happy. The team never wins a game on their desolate, glass-strewn pitch, but for Joe the battle is almost reward enough: He's got a wry smile -- and a black joke -- for everyone in his makeshift family.

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