The Bomber

Ekaterina Astakhova and Nikita Efremov on the set of The Bomber

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

1 July

 

SOS adopted, 1908

On this day in 1908, the second International Radiotelegraphic Convention became effective. It made standard the Morse code distress signal of three dits, three dahs, three dits, which had first been adopted by the German government three years earlier. Three dits is the Morse code for S, three dahs for O, hence SOS. It is not an acronym for anything – not Save Our Souls, nor Save Our Ship, or Send Out Succour – and the first ship to use it was the Cunard liner Slavonia (10 June 1909) or the steamer SS Arapahoe (11 August 1909), it’s not clear which. Though still widely recognised, it was abandoned as a radio distress signal in 1999, when it was replaced by automatic radio beacons and satellite positioning technology.

 

 

 

The Bomber (2011, dir: Vitaliy Vorobyov)

The Bomber started life as a Russian TV mini-series, then its eight long episodes were cut down and squeezed into a three-hour movie slot. The result is not perfect – there are clear “go to ad break” moments still visible – but the film is certainly better than a lot of Second World War movies. In fact that is damning with faint praise. Because what we have ended up with is a film of great pace and sweep, a really well cast adventure that focuses on a trio of characters – a brave him, a heroic her and a dastardly dastard who keeps changing sides in the war the Soviets are waging against the Nazis. Nikita Efremov plays the honest son-of-Russia pilot Grivtsov, Aleksandr Davydov is Linko, the cowardly turncoat navigator, and Ekaterina Astakhova is the radio operator Katya, a trio shot down somewhere over the Ukraine, whose subsequent journeys back to base will see them bumping into each other, bumping into Nazis, fighting, escaping and, for two of them at least, doing a fair bit of big-eyed amorous staring. This inclusion of a woman in a war film adds a frisson of sex to the usual mix of guns, Nazis, explosions and Messerschmitts at 3 o’clock. And the fact that Astakhova is in a more than decorative role is one of the things that mark out The Bomber. Another is the way the film both expresses the centrality of the Second World War in the Russian psyche – no wonder when you consider that the UK and US lost about 450,000 people apiece; the Soviet Union more like 25 million – and the current attempt by the Russia to pull on the uniform of the old Soviet Union.
It’s a film strong on despicable Nazis, adept at staging an action sequence, whether it’s a running gun battle, the torching of a peasant village or the blowing of a train off the rails. But it doesn’t rely exclusively on big bangs and running around (it’s not The Expendables, I mean) to rack up the tension. That comes through old-fashioned dramatic craft – the will they/won’t theys.
Some people won’t enjoy the obvious propagandistic elements. But though it’s clearly banging the drum for the Soviet Union, The Bomber doesn’t paint it as whiter than white, and in its message of cleaving close to the homeland, the power of collective action, the simple love of the soil, it’s not so far from any John Wayne war movie. The subtitling, if your Russian isn’t up to it, is a bit of problem too, though the forward thrust, the strong characters and the boldness of the story does help paper over a few of the translation’s more leaden moments. Don’t let these put you off, or the other reviews I’ve seen, which seem to focus unnecessarily on this film’s deficiencies rather than its strengths – astonishingly good casting, a great story, fine writing and well staged action. All in all a fascinating war movie, impressive, engaging and, most of all, great entertainment.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Vitaliy Vorobyov’s vivid direction
  • Its solid cast
  • The light it shines on the Soviet Union’s war experience
  • A reminder of the role women played in the war

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Bomber (aka Ballada O Bombere) – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

30 June 2014-06-30

Liam Neeson in Non-Stop

Out in the UK This Week

 

 

Non-Stop (StudioCanal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/digital)

Though there are pretenders, Liam Neeson is the king of the geri-action stars, a modern Charles Bronson whose attitude to violence is, to paraphrase the mild-mannered Dr Banner, “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.” This time Neeson starts out angry and hungover, then becomes increasingly vexed at 35,000ft, playing an air marshal no one will listen to, in spite of the fact that there’s a crazy man on board who wants to blow up the plane unless a large amount of money… etc … etc. Other big names include Julianne Moore, Dowton Abbey‘s Michelle Dockery, Scoot McNairy and 12 Years a Slave‘s Lupita Nyong’o, but none of them really make much of a dent in Neeson’s usual mega-intensity. It is all highly reminiscent of the Jody Foster film Flightplan, or the Rachel McAdams vehicle Red Eye. Both of those were effective pressure cooker thrillers and so is Non-Stop. And if it takes all the clichés we’ve come to expect in the 9/11 world – good air marshals, bad Muslims, brave fighting men – and subjects them to a rude inversion, then all the better.

Non-Stop – at Amazon

 

 

 

13 Sins (E One, cert 15, DVD)

13 Sins is a Twilight Zone tale done to feature length, a high-concept story with an improbability you have to swallow at the beginning or it just doesn’t work at all. The swallowing bit comes just after we’ve met the film’s “hero” (Mark Webber), a guy whose lack of cash has made him desperate enough to accept the challenge to complete 13 tasks, each one gnarlier than the one before. But, and get this, once he’s accepted the first challenge, he will be killed unless he completes all 13. Would you sign up for this? Would anyone? This gigantic bolus of unlikelihood consumed, we’re off on an enjoyable ride, following our guy as he first eats a fly (easy), makes a child cry (nasty), takes a corpse out for coffee (effective and amusing), and onwards and downwards they go. Meanwhile, dragging along about three blocks behind the action is a cop (Ron Perlman) trying to make head or tail of a series of increasingly unpleasant and mindless crimes. No more plot, I’ll just say that the film actually comes into its own as it enters the home straight, when director Daniel Stamm and co-writer David Birke really start to get busy with the twists. Which are well worth hanging on for.

13 Sins – at Amazon

 

 

 

Ride Along (Universal, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

I believe Kevin Hart is popular. If so, Ride Along doesn’t explain why. Sure he’s a lively and clearly intelligent man working a comedy shtick borrowed from Chris Tucker, a squeaky-voiced, eye-rolling, physical routine that goes back to the minstrel shows of old. And mark me down as a big fan of Ice Cube’s Hollywood career – his Friday films, the Barbershop movies, his “suck a dick” scene-stealing in 21 Jump Street. But I’m mystified by the success of Ride Along, an update of the Jerry Lewis/Dean Martin act, with Hart as the cowardly shrimp cop wannabe riding along for the day in badass detective Ice Cube’s car. Is disdain the flavour of part one? It is. Is grudging respect the flavour of part two? Yes, also. Is it funny? Sadly, it is not. Even with Laurence Fishburne playing a very bad Mr Big.

Ride Along – at Amazon

 

 

 

Mirage Men (Perception Management, cert E, DVD)

They came from outer space, the UFOs. Whereas the documentary Mirage Men often feels like it’s coming from several directions at the same time. At its best, which is for most of it, it’s telling the story of UFO-spotting in the USA, and it gives us a bit of historical background – in 1952 the government decided to “keep an eye” on these UFO nuts, not least because they were always snooping around airforce bases, inadvertently providing great cover for Russkie spies. And then it gives us the main course, in the shape of Richard Doty, a government wonk who has spent decades feeding any old shit into the UFOlogist machine. As Doty, who features heavily, admits, some of these ingredients, to make him plausible, are true, but most of what he’s been shovelling in is just nonsense. Which is which though? Here’s where the film slightly gets its pants in a tangle. We meet Linda Moulton Howe, a seriously aerated film-maker who claims that this misinformation is part of a double bluff, and that we have indeed been visited by aliens. It would have been nice if Mirage Men had been able to stand back a bit, get some facts in order, get a timeline established, and find a few talking heads who weren’t too close to the material. It doesn’t, and ultimately this weakens it, making it another billow in the misinformation smokescreen rather than the wind of reason blowing it away. Flawed though it is, it’s still fascinating, even though, god knows, it might have been funded by the CIA.

Mirage Men – at Amazon

 

 

 

The Unbelievers (Revelation, cert E, DVD)

So it comes to this: that Reason (capital R) is now under such pressure – from creationist Christians, fundamental Islamists, and the full panoply of ultra-conservative religious groupings everywhere – that two famous scientists, biologist Richard Dawkins and physicist Lawrence Krauss feel the need to tour the globe in the defence of the fruits of the Enlightenment (capital E). Gus Holwerda’s documentary follows them, as they preach to the converted and evangelise to the non-believers. Kicking off with an array of famous-name talking heads, who all testify to the importance of Dawkins and Krauss’s message – Cameron Diaz, Ricky Gervais, Werner Herzog and Woody Allen all step up, fairly pointlessly – the doc then settles down to a rhythm of following the men onto the stage, Krauss funkier in his purple Converses, Dawkins the more combative, prickly, less inclined to take prisoners, and into the wearying round of faceless hotel rooms, radio interviews, TV studios and so on. There are some lovely moments – Dawkins discovering that the Royal Society, an Enlightenment organisation par excellence, has a patron saint and that it’s Saint Andrew. “Why not Doubting Thomas,” he twinkles, hugely pleased with the speed of his own wit. Krauss is the emollient one of the two, the one you’d rather have a beer with, though he’s equally vehement that “the legacy of civilisation is under attack.” And that’s why, in spite of the “we’re not worthy” rock-fan approach that Holwerda takes, and the fact that there simply isn’t enough of the two men at full throttle in public debate, this documentary is worth watching.

The Unbelievers – at Amazon

 

 

 

The Guillotines (Metrodome, cert 18, DVD)

The Guillotines is a Robin Hood story from China, inhabiting that mythical sword-heavy past of 95 per cent of Chinese films these days, and focusing, bizarrely, on the bad guys. It actually takes quite a while for it to sink in, in fact, that The Guillotines, a crack squad of assassins with neat circular flying blades that decapitate a foe with ease, are the bad guys. Until Wolf enters, dressed in white, fair of face, Huang Xiaoming surely heading for Hollywood at some point. Like Huang, the film is handsomely made, it’s also beautifully lit, features an abundance of fine period detail and fiendish pre-gunpowder bits of steampunk weaponry. But this undoubtedly good story is entirely ruined by a director who simply can’t get his geography straight, turns every scene, every movement in fact, into a chaotic jumble of indistinguishable cause and effect. Even allowing for the Chinese style – faster in the edit, less concerned with hand-holding us from one scene to the next – The Guillotines simply doesn’t make the cut. Ha!

The Guillotines – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

 

 

Inside Llewyn Davis

Oscar Isaac and cat in Inside Llewyn Davis

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

30 June

 

Dave Van Ronk born, 1936

On this day in 1936, one of the great nearly men of popular music was born, in Brooklyn, New York, USA, into a Catholic family who identified as Irish. Dave Van Ronk was singing in a barbershop quartet by the age of 13 but left school early to play music, hang around in Manhattan and, eventually, ship out with the Merchant Marine. He played jazz before straying upon blues, and built up a small following as one of the few white men working in the genre. And from there broadened out into folk. As the folk revival of the late 1950s gathered pace, Dave almost became part of a folk trio, which would have been called Peter, Dave and Mary. But the gig instead went to Noel Paul Stookey, and so Peter, Paul and Mary it was. Instead Dave wrote songs and sang in Greenwich Village; he became the figurehead of the scene, his syncopated finger-picking style and big bearish personality gaining him many admirers. Dave “was king of the street, he reigned supreme” as Bob Dylan later put it. However, in spite of 20 albums and five decades of performing, few people outside of the aficionados ever got to hear of Dave Van Ronk. This was partly because he wouldn’t fly, couldn’t drive, disliked leaving Greenwich Village. But it was also simple bad luck – he did a beautiful, crack-voiced version of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now”, which should have been a hit, except that Judy Collins beat him to it. And then, suddenly, the folk moment was over and the Tom Paxtons and Ralph McTells and Dave Van Ronks had to content themselves with driving on the back roads of success. Well at least he had talent, and did it his way.

 

 

 

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013, dir: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen)

The Coen brothers borrow the title of the 1964 album Inside Dave Van Ronk to tell the story of another nearly man, the fictional Llewyn Davis. Davis is not Van Ronk, and it’s pointless drawing comparisons between the two. Because Llewyn Davis is so clearly a Coen man. In other words, someone who’s doing what he thinks is his best but it isn’t really working for him. “Everything you touch turns to shit. Like King Midas’s idiot brother,” says Davis’s ex squeeze (Carey Mulligan, all over that Joan Baez look and attitude). We’re in Greenwich Village, early 1960s, folk music riding high, the clubs full of nice middle class kids in chunky sweaters, either on the stage or in the audience, while out in the wider world of music Llewyn Davis is trying to make a go of it.
The cat. We have to mention the cat, which Davis accidentally lets out of the apartment of the people he’s staying at, then chases down the road, then catches, then takes home to look after for a few days, because he can’t get back into the apartment now that the door has clicked shut behind him. And by “home” he means the couch of another long-suffering “friend”.

The strength of this film comes from its highly charged individual scenes – Davis abusing the hospitality of the Upper East Siders who have been bending over backwards to help the struggling artist; Davis being refused an advance by his ancient agent; on the road with a derisive heroin-addicted jazzman (John Goodman, nice); being told at the famous Gate of Horn club that he hasn’t got what it takes (and after singing his heart out too). And on it goes, heartbreak in instalments, to a lovely soundtrack, in venues that look lifted straight off the cover of Bob Dylan’s Freewheelin’ album.

The Coens have introduced us to Davis just as he’s obviously run out of time, credit at the goodwill bank of his various friends, couches to kip on. Something has to give. The songs Oscar Isaac tenderly sings are Dave Van Ronk’s. And they’re beautiful songs, though not quite “hooky” enough to make it. Davis isn’t “hooky” enough either, is chasing fame (or even just a living) the way he’s chasing the cat – elusive, indifferent – which actually turns out to be the wrong cat entirely.

As to whether the Coens are offering an explanation for Davis’s status as a nearly man, I’m not sure they are. There are suggestions that maybe Davis wants the prize for the wrong reason – money, rather than art – but only the vaguest hints. Instead the Coens seem intent on building a sustained mood piece in a minor key, highly polished, terribly sad. They are unusually fair to the music, make no snide digs at well brought up Americans singing in odd approximations of British folk accents, or of white kids who want to be black. And at the end, as Davis packs up his guitar having sung yet another night at the club he’s inhabited like a bad smell, and as he wanders outside into the back alley, the next act is announced. It’s Bob Dylan, we hear. But we don’t see. Success is not what Inside Llewyn Davis is about.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Oscar Isaac’s haunted performance
  • The music, including Dave Van Ronk’s songs
  • So many great performances – including Carey Mulligan, F Murray Abraham,
  • Bruno Delbonnel’s era-evoking cinematography

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Inside Llewyn Davis – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Oldboy

Josh Brolin in Oldboy

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

29 June

 

iPhone launched, 2007

On this day in 2007, Apple launched the first version of the iPhone. Until then, mobile or cell phones had been phones first, with a range of other capabilities – camera, email, mp3 player, internet access – tagging along behind. Apple’s creative breakthrough was to design the iPhone as a very small computer which also had phone functionality. This might look like a “six and two threes” explanation but what the iPhone did, which no phone had done before, was deliver a more integrated service, so the phone became in effect a Swiss army knife of the digital era: a mobile office with added leisure features which meant you could leave the house and work out where you were going, who you were meeting, how to get there and what you needed to know, all of this while en route, listening to Lana Del Rey as you went. The phone was an instant success and continued Apple’s return from the dead which had been signalled by the iMac, was continued by the iPod/iTunes, and finally completed by the iPhone. In fact the iPhone has become the tail that wags the dog, the operating system of Apple’s computers now looking like, and functioning like, the OS on the phone. To call the iPhone a success is to severely under-estimate what it has done – not only putting the two world leaders, Nokia and Blackberry, onto the critical list (Nokia phones sold off to Microsoft in 2013, Blackberry worth $82.4bn in 2008, $3.4bn at end 2013), but also creating the benchmark by which all other phones are judged, as well as the template for rivals (eg Android) to copy. When I say “copy”, I obviously mean “aspire towards”.

 

 

 

Oldboy (2013, dir: Spike Lee)

What a strangely negative reception Spike Lee’s remake of Park Chan-wook’s 2003 original, manga-based thriller got. A classic case of reviewers assessing a film for what it’s not, rather than what it is, Lee’s film certainly is not as powerful as the original – not as gothically badass in any direction – but it’s still a very good, expertly delivered, well told and periodically thrilling story that’s well worth your groats, shekels or dollars. The story – if you don’t know it from the original – is the same: a total asshole (here played by Josh Brolin) is imprisoned in one small room for 20 years. He has no idea why. He’s in solitary. Is fed, watered, taken care of, has TV access, but otherwise it’s him, the four walls and that’s it. And then, suddenly, he’s free again. And being a badass kinda guy, he heads off on a revenge jag to find the guy who imprisoned him, not for one second pausing to ask a simple question – is this sudden release all part of some wider, dastardly plan aimed specifically at punishing me further?
It is, of course, and it’s this tease of a plot that gives the film its dramatic drive. Helping it along are all manner of powerful little nuggets. Like that classic “fight in a very small space” sequence from the original. Lee chooses to reference it rather than recreate it – he’s smart, and knows that the original has been re-purposed so many times since the film debuted in 2003 that its original impact just isn’t there any more. Talking of impact, the hammer fight – I’ll just say “yes!”, with an extra exclamation mark! Modern brutalist gothic is Lee’s intention, and the cast stays on message – Samuel L Jackson in a kilt (again) and looking like some mad medieval pope, Sharlto Copley over-enunciating very amusingly as the extremely bad man whom Brolin (raw, animal, intense) eventually comes across, Elizabeth Olsen as the wafty wavery love interest who’s not what she appears. And notice that silent Chinese woman acting as Copley’s concubine (anyone know her name?), a racial stereotype lifted straight out of a penny dreadful or shilling shocker – or early James Bond films.
And on the subject of pastiche, it is often overlooked – because Spike Lee is so well known for his message films – just how in control he is as a journeyman director. And he is definitely giving us touches of Bond in among the other thriller references. Hitchcock too in his beautifully staged set pieces. As for the frequent use of the iPhone, which repeatedly bemuses the technically prehistoric Brolin – Satnav? Yellow Pages? A camera? – though it’s clearly a product placement buy-in (Apple possibly responding to Google’s slightly backfiring free ad of a film The Internship) it does at least locate us in the here and now, and confirms Brolin as the film’s ignorant underdog hero. Something the film does need, because it’s never that clear. No, it’s not as pure as the original, but Lee’s Oldboy is still a tense and intense thriller.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Who better than Josh Brolin to play a vengeful badass?
  • Copley’s excellent villain
  • The clothes (costumes: Ruth E Carter) really match the film’s mood
  • Cinematography by Sean Bobbitt (12 Years a Slave)

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Oldboy – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Fighter

Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale in The Fighter

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

28 June

 

Mike Tyson bites Evander Holyfield’s ear, 1997

On this day in 1997, during a boxing match for the WBA Heavyweight Championship title, one of the fighters, “Iron” Mike Tyson, bit off a chunk of the ear of his opponent, Evander “The Real Deal” Holyfield. The fight was a rematch, after Holyfield had knocked out Tyson in the 11th round seven months earlier, to take the title. Billed as “The Sound and the Fury”, the fight took place at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, and right from the start Tyson was complaining to referee Mills Lane about Holyfield headbutting him, which he’d also complained about at their original match. Holyfield took the first two rounds, though head-butted Tyson halfway through the second (unintentionally, he said; the referee agreed). Tyson came out of his corner for the third round without a mouthguard and was ordered by Lane to put it in. He did so, but when Holyfield got him in a clinch, Tyson responded by biting off a chunk of his right ear and spitting it onto the ground. In spite of Holyfield’s protestations, the fight was resumed, whereupon Tyson bit Holyfield’s left ear. At the end of the round, Mills Lane spotted the bite mark to Holyfield’s left ear and disqualified Tyson.

 

 

 

The Fighter (2010, dir: David O Russell)

Who is the fighter in The Fighter? The obvious answer is Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) a dumb-as-toast boxer being coached towards a big fight by his brother Dicky (Christian Bale) who himself had a go in the ring before blowing out back in the 1980s. But watch “Irish” Micky – entirely passive, withdrawn, deferring to anybody who’s asking, in thrall to his mother and sisters, but especially to Dicky, a twitching ball of ADHD, rictus-mouthed, not a bad man but certainly someone you wouldn’t want to be around for too long. Bale won the Oscar for his performance, for supporting actor, which shows that the Academy fell for director David O Russell’s (and his screenwriters’) feint too. Because the fighter, obviously, is Dicky and the lead in this film is Bale, not Wahlberg. Everyone in the cast knows it. Including Wahlberg who not once makes a bid for glory or the spotlight in his beautifully controlled performance (in a fair world he would have won the supporting Oscar). In fact, in The Fighter, every single person is fighting, except for Micky, the actual pugilist, who is cossetted and primped, stroked like a Kobe bull, walked like the lump of meat he is up to the ring, where he finally does his bit of jabbing, is then led away, has his gloves delaced and returns to his life of dumb torpor.
Even Charlene (Amy Adams), the bright spark who wanders into Micky’s life and drives an emotional wedge into the family – she’s upset their careful schedules – has to fight for her man. And, in fighting for him, she wins the grudging respect of this dim-bulb family of hard knocks operating at the shitty end of the boxing game. This family is David O Russell’s great achievement – the Greek chorus of sisters who spend the early rounds of their bout with Charlene shouting “skank” at her. Melissa Leo as the mother, all leopard skin tops, bottle blonde hair, cigarettes and a mouth that could release seized wheelnuts. She’s quite brilliant (her Oscar entirely deserved).
How many boxing films have there been? People have been turning them out since the 1890s – two actors, lots of action, a winner and a loser, an easily controlled environment, you can see the attraction. And cheap. But David O Russell has come up with a new spin on the old formula, by pointing out that a man is only as good as his team. If the team fights for him, he stands a chance. If it doesn’t, he’s yesterday’s papers. Without that novel approach this would be just another boxing film – the Rocky training sequences, the “couldabeenacontenda” speeches, the dope on the rope finish. With it, it’s something entirely different. This is the film that atoned for I Heart Huckabees, Russell’s wacky flop of six years earlier. It marked his comeback – Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle followed – and proved he was something of a fighter himself.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Full of great performances: Bale, Wahlberg, Leo, Adams
  • A boxing movie with a difference
  • The punchy, funny screenplay
  • The distinctive cinematography of Hoyte Van Hoytema (Let the Right One In, Her, Interstellar)

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Fighter – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

O’Horten

Bård Owe in O'Horten

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

27 June

 

Stratford Martyrs burned, 1556

On this day in 1556, one group of Christians burned another group of Christians at the stake, for being Protestants, in London, England. Eleven of them were men, two women (one of them pregnant), and all had been found guilty of heresy. Drawn from the skilled labouring classes – brewers, weaver, tailors and the like – the unlucky 13 had been brought in from the surrounding counties of Essex and Hertfordshire to London where they stood trial in an ecclesiastical court presided over by Doctor Darbyshire, representing the Bishop of London, Edmund Bonner (known as Bloody Bonner for his persecution of Protestants under the Catholic reign of Mary I of England). A crowd of 20,000 watched their execution, at which, according to John Foxe in his book The Acts and Monuments, “eleven men were tied to three stakes, and the two women loose in the midst without any stake; and so they were all burnt in one fire.”

 

 

 

O’Horten (2007, dir: Bent Hamer)

Here’s a lovely and offbeat film, the sort of thing that can only be made in a Protestant country, all tamped down and austere, following a dapper, well groomed 67-year-old, steady-as-she-goes, pipe-smoking train driver Odd Horten (Bård Owe) on his last day at work. Composed of often static tableaux, frequently looking like some 40-year-old Nordic furniture catalogue, O’Horten plays out through a series of small scenes set in unusual places, populated by people with characterful faces. Director Bent Hamer also made that Charles Bukowski film Factotum, and this has a similar feel – vignettes, moments, looks, shots, odds and ends gathered together until they mean something. Yes, but what happens? Not very much is the answer, as I said it’s O’Horten’s last day and the couple of strange encounters he has around it – meeting a young boy in an apartment, going for a nude swim at night, taking a drive with a man who claims to be able to see with a bag over his head – these are all emblematic of a life.
Hamer is up to something interesting and unusual, presenting a stoic, isolated man not as the flotsam of a turbid world, but as a man who has made his choices and is relatively happy to live with them. O’Horten is an individual but not the sort you usually get in films, not a guns-blazing, “I’m not going to take it any more” character. Instead, he is quietly different. Do not mistake his calm for acquiescence, the film seems to be saying, and in his own way this man, who didn’t take up skiing, he tells the baghead guy, because he didn’t have the balls, does have quite a pair – he resists, steadily, the blandishments of the mass market, the branded life. Even smoking a pipe, it’s a tiny act of odd defiance.
Can we spot the great Carl Theodor Dreyer in Hamer’s film? In the way Hamer composes shots, appreciates the still image? Maybe, though Dreyer was Danish and Hamer is Norwegian, the common link between them is Owe, who worked with Dreyer on his last film, 1964’s Gertrud. Hamer isn’t going for Dreyer’s levels of almost medieval austerity, but he is definitely angling towards it with the long takes and the fixation on the past. If Dreyer wasn’t much of a one for comedy, Hamer definitely is, though O’Horten is so bone dry that it often feels like something from another planet. The soundtrack, plinky noises played back through what sounds like a tiny transistor speaker, nudge us towards seeing it that way too, even if the visuals often seem more open to interpretation. Which brings us to the “what’s it all about” question. I think it resists an answer – it could be a man whose life falls apart in slo-mo after he loses his job, as some suggest. But isn’t Hamer also saying exactly the opposite? Anyone else who had given his life to driving a train might be left high and dry by retirement. But O’Horten isn’t. Or is he? In spite of all the simplicity on view, it’s complicated.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A beautifully austere film by the director of 2003’s Kitchen Stories
  • Whimsical but never cloying
  • Owe Bård’s puckish performance
  • John Christian Rosenlund’s muted cinematography

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

O’Horten – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Hitman

Timothy Olyphant in Hitman

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

26 June

 

First barcode scanned, 1974

On this day in 1974, a packet of Wrigley’s chewing gum became the first product to be scanned by a barcode reader for commercial purposes. The so-called Universal Product Code had been in development since the late 1940s, when Bernard Silver, a Pennsylvania graduate student at Drexel Institute of Technology had overheard a local supermarket owner bemoaning the fact that there wasn’t a system for automatically scanning items through a checkout. Drexel went to work, first using ultra-violet inks (they faded), then Morse code in which the dots were stretched to become lines, fatter ones being the dashes, thinner ones being the dots. Essentially, this is the system in use today, one hashed out by 1949, though there wasn’t affordable technology then to read the codes. Silver and his co-researcher Norman Woodland offered their patent to IBM, who didn’t offer enough money, the pair thought. Instead Philco bought it, who then sold it on to RCA. Meanwhile, coming from the scanner direction was David Collins, who had been working on a system for identifying railroad cars as they passed through certain checkpoints. Using blue and red reflective strips to act as a six-figure identifier, Collins’s system worked well enough for a New Jersey toll bridge to request something similar to log cars. Then the US Post Office asked for one for its trucks, and a pet food company, Kal Kan, asked for one for its cans. Collins decided to branch out, forming Computer Identics to work on the solution to a fast and error free reader. He came up with helium-neon lasers and a mirror as a solution. The US’s National Association of Food Chains brought the code and the scanner technology together and rolled out the barcode system nationally. However take-up was slow. By 1977 there were fewer than 200 grocery stores using it. But once it was shown that stores that used the barcode tended to have significantly higher profits (because the codes allowed them to have a better overview of their stock) there was a rush to adopt.

 

 

 

Hitman (2007, dir: Xavier Gens)

Many films are derived from computer games, but Hitman really makes no bones about it. Following the titular hitman, a cypher with a bald head bearing a barcode tattoo, as he blasts through one shoot-’em-up situation after another, Hitman is either an exercise in pure style, or a prolonged drag, depending on your attitude to console culture. Certainly Timothy Olyphant looks the part as Agent 47, a gun for hire whose upbringing – by an agency called the Agency, in some remote special ops orphanage – has uniquely prepared him for a life of repeated brutal assassination. As with all hitman films, we don’t join him to witness a series of flawlessly performed executions. Instead we pitch up at the point where it either goes wrong or he gives up or he gets killed. Or maybe all three. Avoiding obvious spoilers, what can be said is that Agent 47’s normally impeccable record is tarnished early on, as a hit against the Russian president goes wrong, it appears, which means he’s not just got the Russian secret service bearing down upon him, but his own guys, who don’t have much tolerance for failure.
It’s a chase movie, in other words, though it pauses as Agent 47 comes across a moody prostitute who has been held captive by the president’s drug-dealing (of course) brother. The prostitute is played by Olga Kurylenko, and whatever you might think about her acting abilities, there is no denying that Kurylenko is born to play a woman men will fight over. The two of them hook up, they run, they are pursued. At some point the woman offers herself to the man, perhaps more graphically than some puritan souls would wish. These early scenes between the two are fascinating because we’re watching a man trained to act like a machine realising there’s more to him than a termination program.
But never mind the emotion, what about the action? There’s lots of it. Lots. And the body count is relentless. Personally, I found this kill, kill, kill, approach strangely refreshing, liberating, as if James Bond had been released from laboured quips, raised eyebrows and unnecessary set-ups to just do what he does best. It lends the film an edginess that many films of this sort lack. We’re in the melee with our man, quick-cams to some extent borrowed from the Bourne films which, let’s face it, are at least partly inspired by video game swivels. Dialogue is minimal, peremptory, Olyphant and Kurylenko both understanding that their roles are subservient to the propulsive drive of the enterprise, to keeping it video-game real. Turn the music down if you must. It has an arcade game clamour that is entirely in keeping with the ambience director Xavier Gens is after but does start to grate after a while. And ignore Dougray Scott as Agent 47’s control. No one is sure what to do with him. He almost has a personality, for god’s sake.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Another fascinating film from talented Xavier Gens (Frontiers)
  • Olyphant and Kurylenko perfectly cast
  • Laurent Bares’s nervy cinematography
  • Jacques Bufnoir’s brilliant production design

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Hitman – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Defamation

Abraham Foxman, of the Anti-Defamation League

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

25 June

 

Anne Frank’s Diary published, 1947

On this day in 1947, a book originally called Het Achterhuis. Dagboekbrieven 14 Juni 1942 – 1 Augustus 1944 (The Annex: Diary Notes 14 June 1942 – 1 August 1944) was published by Contact publishing in Amsterdam. The annex being the place where the 13-year-old Jew Anne Frank and her family, along with another Jewish family called the Pels, hid in order to avoid arrest by the Nazis. The annex was in the upper, hidden rooms of Anne’s father’s business premises and the family hid there from 6 July 1942 until their discovery and arrest in early August 1944. Written as a series of letters to friends, the diary ranges wide, covering Anne’s thoughts about humanity (optimistic), her feelings about her family (claustrophobic), even, in the later unexpurgated version, Anne’s feelings about sex and love, these sections causing the book to be banned in some parts of the world where honesty is not prized as highly as chastity. Anne started writing the journal as a personal diary, but redrafted it from April 1944 onwards, clearly with the intention of having it published some day. It was published, and became a literary sensation, though Anne had perished of typhus in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in early March 1945, only weeks before the camp was liberated.

 

 

 

Defamation (2009, dir: Yoav Shamir)

Are the Jews overdoing the Holocaust? That’s an uncomfortable question to ask, in the light of what’s happened to them, and of the continuing eruptions of anti-Semitism in the world. Yoav Shamir’s revelatory documentary asks the question though. And thank god Yoav is a Jew, because otherwise the question could barely be asked. Setting out to dig a little, wondering why his generation of Israeli kids were taught barely anything about the Holocaust (he’s 29 when the film is being made) whereas young Israelis of today get plenty of it, Shamir’s first interesting observation is that, in schools at least, anti-Semitism has become part of the “chosen people” narrative (ie “they don’t like us because we’re chosen”). If this is true, it’s worrying, but the eyes open wider as Shamir accompanies an Israeli school trip to Poland, the kids flanked by secret service minders, the teachers feeding them with stories (“stay in your rooms, there are neo-Nazis on the streets”) that stoke the fire.
He then moves his focus more internationally, to the Anti-Defamation League. Headquartered in New York and with an annual budget running into millions of dollars, it’s an organisation whose remit is to work against anti-Semitism. Shamir buries himself almost Sacha Baron Cohen style inside the ADL, and then observes its work from the inside, noting that as with any organisation with a healthy bank balance, there are good people there for the right reasons, a lot of freeloaders, a few wrong’uns, and a number of what you might call the well intentioned but bewildered. In which camp does Shamir put the ADL’s boss, the sleek Abraham Foxman? Foxman is clearly a brilliant negotiator, a fiery and principled advocate but is he also guilty of feeding the myth of anti-Semitism in order to justify his paycheck? And Shamir’s digging seems to reveal not an organisation tireless in its endeavours to make the world a more peaceful place, but one ready to blow the tiniest spark of perceived anti-Semitism into a brush fire. Behold: the quango is fruitful and multiplies.
Meanwhile, on a wider, more contextual scale, Shamir talks to wise rabbis whose long view of history gives them a level headed attitude – anti-Semitism means nothing to practising Jews, opines one, it’s the secular Jews who are obsessed by it, possibly because they use it as some kind of cultural surrogate for faith.
Shamir isn’t the greatest interviewer – his tendency to ask closed questions is infuriating – but his access is astonishing. And his attitude is refreshing in all the debates about modern day Jewry (to use a word that seems to have slid from use). He points out that people of his generation understand entirely the distinction between being an Israeli, a Jew, a Semite and a Zionist, that the four are not the same, no matter how much the angry brigade who wheel out the ad hominem “self-hating Jew” argument against anti-Zionists insist the overlaps are more significant than the spaces between.
If, like Shamir, you want to live in a slightly more robust world where every tiny suggestion of a racial slur isn’t seen as the beginning of the slide towards the concentration camps, you’ll welcome this film. It’s also a revelatory look inside Israeli society, where the Jew/Israeli/Semite/Zionist debate is clearly more alive than those of us who live outside are given to believe, and a fascinating insight into the tendency for lobbies to self-perpetuate. I doubt it made Shamir many friends in high places.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A fascinating documentary
  • Shamir’s brilliant access
  • It’s not trying to catch anyone out, asks honest questions
  • Talks to those who are anti the Israeli lobby too

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Defamation – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Chinatown

Jack Nicholson bears the scars of combat in Chinatown

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

24 June

 

The Aqua Traiana inaugurated, 109

On this day in 109, the aqueduct the Aqua Traiana was put into service. Built on the orders of the emperor Trajan, it supplied Rome with fresh water. Rome’s appetite for water was huge and among the things the Aqua Traiana did was: help deliver drinking water for Rome’s one millions citizens; water for countless public baths including the massive Baths of Trajan overlooking the Colosseum; spectacular fountains; and other leisure uses including the Naumachia of Trajan, a huge basin used for staging naval displays; not forgetting the importance of water as the motive force in Rome’s many flour mills. Running 40 miles from the Lake Bracciano area to the north west, running overground on spectacular aqueducts and underground in brick tunnels lined with waterproof cement, it was a prime target for those wishing to attack Rome. The Ostrogoths cut the supply in 537 when they laid siege to the city. However, it remained in service for centuries. It was the last great aqueduct built in Rome and its remains can be seen to this day in the city. Indeed there are special “Aqua Traiana” tours.

 

 

 

Chinatown (1974, dir: Roman Polanski)

Chinatown is an old-school film noir about a good guy in a bad world trying to get to the bottom of some murky business. It matters not what the murky business is, pretty much, in the same way that it wasn’t very important what animated Raymond Chandler’s detectives, as long as they were out in the world, righting wrongs and cracking wise. But in this case it’s water – in Los Angeles, a town built in a desert, the person who controls the water supply is going to make a lot of money. Jack Nicholson plays JJ Gittes, the besuited private eye hitting resistance at every turn as he tries to find out why someone has turned up dead with his lungs full of water in an otherwise bone-dry area. The resistance comes mostly in the shape of John Huston’s Noah Cross, an old school patriarch given to thundering, quick with the blandishments, a powerful man with a biblical name for a reason. As many people have pointed out, one of Roman Polanski’s triumphs with Chinatown is to have made a film that (now, at least) looks to be of a piece with the famous noirs of the 1940s – The Maltese Falcon, often credited as being the first noir, was Huston’s directorial debut in 1941 and Polanski surely took a few stylistic notes off the great director whose casting is something of a coup. And yet it’s also clearly a movie from the early 1970s – Nicholson in a suit, wearing the hat, driving the big jalopy you’d expect from a man doing virtue’s work back in the day. The drama is propelled by Faye Dunaway’s Evelyn Mulwray, a damsel in distress, with Nicholson’s Gittes the white knight (when we meet him he is wearing a white suit, in fact) hoping to protect her reputation, but finding that in trying to fix something in the here and now, he’s unearthing something far grubbier back in the past.
Small details take on huge significance in this film – the way that a gangster (played by Polanski himself) sticks a knife up Gittes’s nose and slits his nostril, the fact that Noah Cross can never quite remember Gittes’s name, Evelyn Mulwray’s strangely fluttering behaviour, always nervous; what she’s nervous about we only discover right at the end of the film.
In any assessment of Nicholson’s career, this period, from Easy Rider in 1969 to The Shining in 1980 will always be seen as key: when he did his best work; before the mannerisms set solid. Chinatown was made about halfway in, a year after The Last Detail, a year before The Passenger (when he played a mysterious journalist on the run from something). Chinatown is Jack as a human first, an inquisitive operator second, a principled guy third, the last one jostling with the first two for position. Nicholson’s line readings are courtly, and it’s a logical yet different way of expressing the same character that Humphrey Bogart played – “down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero”, as Raymond Chandler once put it. Chinatown is 1974’s definition of chivalry.
As with the man, so with the place: Polanski chooses his Los Angeles locations as carefully as costume designer Anthea Sylbert dresses her actors, with an eye for the ancient – in LA ancient means a few decades – with Nicholson driving through the last remaining art deco relics in a city that is always presented as dry, harshly lit, the sun baking its wide streets.
It is in short a beautiful, desperate and almost languid mood piece, Polanski and screenwriter Robert Towne dropping in just enough exposition and colour to keep the thing moving along. Its ending, when everything unravels at breakneck speed, comes as something of a shock, yet it makes total sense – all the masks are suddenly removed and everyone is revealed for what and who they are.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Noir, or neo noir, at its best
  • One of Jack Nicholson’s defining performances
  • The Oscar for Robert Towne’s screenplay (of 11 nominations)
  • Anthea Sylbert’s great costume design

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Chinatown – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

A Gang Story

Gérard Lanvin (centre) in A Gang Story

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

23 June

 

John Gotti jailed for life, 1992

On this day in John Gotti, boss of the Gambino crime family in New York City was jailed for life. Look him up on Google images and you’ll probably find his mug shot, taken when he was arrested in 1990, smiling fit to bust. Known as the “Teflon Don”, Gotti clearly didn’t expect to be held for long by the police. He’d taken the top seat after organising the murder of the previous boss Paul Castellano in 1985, having risen from being a youthful member of a street gang (Gotti’s early exploits, stealing cigarettes and hijacking truck trailers have a distinct Goodfellas flavour). He gained the “Teflon” sobriquet in the 1980s, having been acquitted three times in high profile trials, largely because he’d knobbled the jury. However, the flamboyant style of “The Dapper Don” and his unwillingness to keep his head down made it a point of honour among law enforcement authorities to nail him, and they poured considerable resources into keeping him under surveillance. In 1991, they got their moment when they played tapes of Gotti disparaging Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano to underboss Gravano himself. Gravano decided to turn state’s evidence and Gotti was arrested for murder, conspiracy to murder, racketeering, obstruction of justice, illegal gambling, extortion, tax evasion and loansharking. Gotti’s defence in court consisted of insisting that the Gambino crime family didn’t exist, had been conjured out of thin air by the authorities as part of some personal vendetta against himself. It didn’t wash. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole, and died there of cancer in 2002.

 

 

 

A Gang Story (2001, dir: Olivier Marchal)

Currently being remade with Liam Neeson in the lead role, A Gang Story (known as Les Lyonnais in its native France) saw co-writer/director and former policeman Oliver Marchal shifting attention from cops (in the films Gangsters, 36 Quai des Orfevres and MR73, plus the TV series Braquo) to robbers. Though based on the real-life memoir of gang boss Edmond Vidal, it’s a familiar story in many senses, the decades-long rise from petty thievery to extreme brutality, with the spoils going to the least squeamish, the most nearly psychopathic. If you’re looking for snatches of The Godfather or Goodfellas or other 1970s gangster movies, Marchal is happy to oblige, as he tells the story of young guys – one a Roma, the other French, another Greek – whose early purloining of a box of cherries, and subsequent arrest for it, forges a bond that would in later life push two of them to the top of Lyon’s most famous crime outfit. And then later still, test that bond with a dramatic late-stage cry for help. Marchal takes a flashback approach, as the guys we have become acquainted with in later life, iron grey and iron hard, creased and tanned, look back at the road they’ve travelled. But it’s no idle structuring device, this flashback, Marchal is trying to make several points: about age dulling the senses and the appetite; about the absolute importance over time of loyalty when there is no recourse to law; and about how easy it is to be a gangster when it’s just you, how much harder when there’s a wife and children to factor into the equation. Plus the fact that being an outlaw is all very well when you’re young and in the moment, but that, over time, the sheer plodding bureaucracy of the lawmakers will track you down.
The casting is, as ever with Marchal, totally on the money – Gérard Lanvin as the older but still brutally handsome Gypsy Momon, on whose cool the entire film is built, Tchéky Karyo as the Frenchman Suttel, while Dimitri Storoge and Olivier Chantreau play the men as young men on the make. Jean-François Richet’s more expansive Mésrine is a point of comparison, both being true stories anchored to a time in French history when organised crime, the apparatus of the state and European terrorism movements would form uneasy and fleeting co-operative alliances. And as in Mésrine full rein is given to production designers keen to do things with their 1970s mood boards of brown, taupe and orange. The drive-by shootings and killings are handled in a stylish, carefully orchestrated way and again we’re reminded that there’s a lot to be said for the Citroen DS as a getaway car. Yes, a familiar story, but cool, well told, deliciously dressed and with something to say.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Since Bob Le Flambeur at least, the French have made superior gangster films
  • Gérard Lanvin and Tchéky Karyo’s tough, charismatic performances
  • A gangster film made by a former cop
  • Boris Piot’s production design

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

A Gang Story – Watch it now at Amazon