Aris on a child's bike

Apples makes clear that, even in 2021, the Greek Weird Wave continues to roll. A retro-scifi story of a world afflicted by an illness that robs people of their memories, it stars Aris Servetalis as Aris (handy), a man who leaves his home one day and then, suddenly, is sitting on the bus unable to answer basic questions like “where are you going?” or “what is your name?”

The prognosis appears to be bad. In this world, once the memory has gone it can’t come back. And so Aris winds up in a medical program designed to give him new memories. He’s given a place to live and is asked to follow a strict regime of tasks – he goes to a fancy dress party as a spaceman, to a cinema to watch a horror movie, and so on – obeying instructions issued via cassette tape and taking a Polaroid of himself each time to prove he was there. Milling about at these events are other people with his affliction, also taking Polaroids and working through the same list.

Aris likes apples. Is that a memory? One of his doctors, looking over his apartment while Aris is out and tucking into some soup Aris has made, declares approvingly that Aris can obviously cook. Is that a memory? Or a kind of muscle memory, like the apples? Later, at a dance, Aris seems to be able to do the Twist. That, surely, is a memory?

One thing films in the Greek Weird Wave – going back as far as Dogtooth (2009) and Attenberg (2010) – have in common is the almost documentary-like tendency to present the world of human interaction shorn of the meanings bring to it as participants (Attenberg is named after the British wildlife documentarian David Attenborough). GWW films are cool to the point of chilliness, devoid of emotion, matter of fact. And as last year’s remarkable Not to Be Unpleasant, But We Need to Have a Serious Talk demonstrate, there’s plenty of powder left in the keg even after a good ten years.

Aris at a fancy dress party as a spaceman
Space suit entirely appropriate

As well as being something of a mystery – what’s with the program of new memory-building? what is the actual extent of Aris’s memory loss? what is memory anyway? – Apples adds a layer of apocalyptic sci-if, except that the film takes place in what looks like the 1970s. It seems odd that this isn’t done more often – much easier to delineate a world full of old tech than design an entire futureworld, surely? But with the exception of Aleksey German’s medieval sci-fi masterpiece How to Be a God, which is a fish of a very different colour, the apocalypse in movies generally arrives around about now or at some point not too far into the future.

Like many GWW films, the tone is deadpan throughout – comedy drama says the IMDB, though the comedy was lost on me – with Aris Servelatis giving a performance of Buster Keaton-like impassivity, his beard barely twitching as he visits one new “memory” event after another, even when he starts to form a relationship with another amnesia victim, albeit a rather minimalist one. Actually, there is one laugh-out-loud moment that arrives courtesy of this relationship – no spoilers.

Like other GWW films the colour palette is flat, the lighting also – this is again a Greece where the sun doesn’t shine, even though the orange trees growing on the city streets tell us that sun isn’t unknown in these parts.

And so, what’s it all about, where is it leading? Again, spoilers, though something happens about halfway through which changes the entire complexion of the film, and to an extent makes what follows slightly redundant. Our entire take on Aris has been altered. And possibly our understanding of what we’re watching. Is this a Greek Weird Wave film at all, or is Apples masquerading as one in order to blindside?

© Steve Morrissey 2021

100 Years of… The Three Musketeers

The musketeers and D'Artagnan join swords

You’d have thought that the silent The Three Musketeers from 1921 would be the first film adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’s novel but it wasn’t. Depending on how you count these things it was around the seventh or eighth film version since 1903. It wasn’t even the first of 1921. That honour went to a French serial shot in 14 episodes, Les Trois Mousketaires.

But this one, directed by Fred Niblo and starring Douglas Fairbanks Sr, eclipses all the forerunners and most of the successors, largely thanks to the presence of Fairbanks, cusping 40 when he made this but leaping around and larger than life from the moment he hits the screen.

This happens once Niblo has got all his intrigues and plotting in place – the king (Adolphe Menjou) and Cardinal Richelieu (Nigel de Brulier) playing chess, the Queen (Mary MacLaren) being surreptitiously passed a billet doux by Lady Constance (Marguerite de la Motte) on behalf of the libertine the Duke of Buckingham (Thomas Holding), an exchange noticed by Richelieu’s accomplice Milady de Winter (Barbara La Marr), and which Richelieu intends to use to his advantage. The Queen isn’t interested in Buckingham but who cares about the truth when you’re trying to get a scandal going?

A historical aside. Buckingham really did get about. The English noble known as “the handsomest-bodied man in all England” at one point became Gentleman of the Bedchamber at the court of King James I, a role he too incredibly literally, according to court gossip.

But back to the French court of Louis XIII, where it’s obvious why the Dumas adventure has been adapted so many times. The characters – Louis, Richelieu and Milady in particular – are big, the story is very well known already (handy for a silent film) and the questions it asks about the ruling elite aren’t too troubling. If things have gone wrong it’s not because of the man at the top but instead is the work of some sibilant adviser pouring oil in his ear.

Richelieu is the pivot on which it all turns, in other words, as he is in all the adaptations that follow, and Nigel de Brulier is so good in the role he’d play it another three times – erect, slim-hipped, too courtly, too fastidious and with a tendency to stroke things malevolently, he’s the archetypal Bond villain from top to toe.

D’Artagnan gets one of the most laughable introductions in film history, Douglas Fairbanks sitting on the floor in D’Artagnan’s father’s house as if her were a limber teenager, when in fact he’s nudging 40 and already jowly. In fact Fairbanks’s attempt to hide his incipient double chin throughout is one reason why we remember him in a particular pose – face forward to camera, chin lifted high as if in a defiant “hah!”.

D’Artagnan now introduced, off he heads to Paris, having adventures along the way – all of them familiar from all the other Musketeer films – challenging everyone he meets to a duel, in essence, until he arrives in the capital and winds up doing the same with each of the Musketeers in turn, not realising they are the king’s finest swordsmen. All of which flip-flops when D’Artagnan and the Musketeers join forces after the Cardinal’s men arrive at the duelling ground where they were about to face off. “Four against three?” shouts one of the outnumbered Musketeers towards the Cardinal’s men. “Four against four!” D’Artagnan corrects, in a bit of dialogue that makes it intact into nearly every version.

The cast with Mary Pickford
The cast with Mary Pickford (bottom second from right)

It’s all done at breakneck speed, and Fairbanks is remarkable throughout. It’s in this first “D’Artagnan and the Musketeers join forces” scene that Fairbanks pulls off his famous one-handed vaulting spring. Though just watching him doing anything – like running up a vast flight of stairs – is to watch a very fit man in action.

Though the image is softish on the 95th anniversary edition I watched, and Niblo isn’t much of a director for close-ups – so much of this film is in long and semi-long shot – we are never in a moment’s doubt as to what’s going on. It helps that intertitles pop up regularly (too regularly for some) to fill us in on the latest plot turn.

The actors respond in kind. These are big, “back of the gallery” performances, declamatory, static, barely a nuance (though notice the king fingering his sword nervously at one point, Menjou managing one of the rare bits of proper film acting in the entire production).

It all, eventually, hinges on a piece of jewellery given to the Queen by the King. If she doesn’t wear it at a court ball it will be a sign that she has given it to Buckingham (she hasn’t, but that’s court intrigue for you) and D’Artagnan and the Musketeers need to race to England, rescue the jewellery and race back to Paris in time to save the day. England is a long way from Paris, and though the pace is breathless, the film slows right down here, as one scene of horses pounding along the highway gives way to another.

There have been plenty of Three Musketeers films since, the most famous being the Gene Kelly 1948 version (no need for Kelly to borrow Fairbanks’s pantomime physicality because he’d already done that), and the Dick Lester 1974 version. Less auspiciously there are the 1993 Bratpack one with Charlie Sheen and Kiefer Sutherland and the 2011 one with Logan Lerman, but all are united in sticking absolutely rigidly to the Dumas story and to the atmosphere of this 1921 version. Knockabout comedy, knockabout action, knockabout intrigue, romance and swordplay. It’s exactly the same tone of deadly earnestness with a wink and technical virtuosity with a shrug that the Mission: Impossible films are still pulling off today. Talking of which, Tom Cruise for D’Artagnan?

The Three Musketeers – Watch or buy the 95th anniversary edition at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

© Steve Morrissey 2021

The Last Vermeer

Claes Bang and Vicky Krieps

The Last Vermeer is the true story of Han Van Meegeren, art forger extraordinaire, who knocked out old masters by the likes of Frans Hals, Pieter de Hooch and Johannes Vermeer, among others, during the Second World War and even managed to sell a “Vermeer” to Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring for a fortune. Van Meegeren was initially brought to trial in the Netherlands after the War for having sold Göring what was supposed to be a real Vermeer, as a collaborator who had facilitated the expropriation of the cultural property of the Netherlands. But when he eventually admitted that the picture was fake, those charges were dropped. However, because of the skewed logic of a state barely able to come to terms with itself, the trial still went ahead, on the lesser charge of forgery. Van Meergeren became a national folk hero, which is an odd position for a convicted forger to find himself in, though Van Meegeren was no ordinary forger – he’s often claimed to be the best of all time.

The problem for a film like this, which wants to deal in heroes and villains, is that Van Meegeren was far from a hero. At the very best he was a selfish opportunist who managed to do very well out of the war. At worst he was a Nazi collaborator. And so, rather than tell Van Meegeren’s story straight up, the film inserts a decent character with whom we can all sympathise – an investigator got in by the occupying allies to restore looted art works to their original owners, and who just happens to run into Van Meegeren along the way.

Van Meegeren addresses the court
Van Meegeren’s moment in court

Captain Joseph Piller (Claes Bang) is a Dutch Jew who spent the war fighting with the resistance against the Nazis. He’s a decent, though understandably angry man, cultured, fair, determined not to use a victor’s advantages to ride roughshod over justice. On the domestic front his wife, Leez (Marie Bach Hansen), has spent the war getting along famously with the higher echelons of the Nazis, and Piller’s marriage is now if not in ruins then extremely precarious.

However, all this set-up is thrown right into the background by the eventual, far-too-late revelation that Van Weegeren is more than just an art dealer who acted as middle man in the sale of a few dodgy works to some very dodgy people. In fact, this failed artist has been conducting a parallel career as a master forger, and doing it quite possibly for decades.

That’s the interesting story, Piller’s not so much. As for Piller’s assistant (Vicky Krieps, underused, having been so commanding in The Phantom Thread), his aide-de-camp Dekker (Roland Møller, brusquely oikish) and Ministry of Justice rival De Klerks (August Diehl, dressed as if playing a comedy Nazi), they all also get in the way of Van Meergeren, fine actors though they all are.

Though there’s too much Piller, Danish actor Claes Bang is a gift to the role, a commanding, urbane presence capable of being silky and threatening (as he was again in the BBC’s Dracula a year later). As for Guy Pearce as Van Meegeren – foppish, preening, effete, dandyish, prissy – we’re never left in any doubt about what we’re meant to feel about him, even when he’s beginning to look like one of the good guys, which is an unlikely switcheroo for someone in a silvery page-boy hairstyle.

It’s a really good story told in a bafflingly obscure way, though if I were first time director Dan Friedkin I’d be congratulating myself on the solidity and movie-ish-ness of the finished product. For all its peek-a-boo attitude to Van Meegeren, it’s an otherwise admirably straightahead telling of the story – fine Amsterdam locations, a cast that’s solid all the way down, evocatively lit and scored, without ever tipping too far into heritage film-making cliche.

Two other films about looted Nazi art and restitution spring to mind – 1962’s The Train, starring Burt Lancaster, and 2014’s The Monuments Men, starring George Clooney and his pals. This tends to the latter, tasteful rather than urgent.

Qualms to one side, it’s still a good-looking and fascinating film, and it’s to a large extent redeemed by its the big courtroom finale – experts exposed, Piller vindicated – done with a flourish. And, finally, we start to get as much of Van Meegeren as the story really needs, though we’re also still getting plenty of Piller. So there is such a thing as having too much Bang for your buck.

The Last Vermeer – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

© Steve Morrissey 2021

Teen Spirit

Violet gets her moment on TV

It doesn’t take much exposure to TV talent shows to realise that success with the voting audience or expert panel isn’t so much about the performance and talent as about the story the contestant tells. Teen Spirit takes that idea, the story, and turns it into a story of its own.

In what could almost be a series of filmed inserts for a talent show we meet Violet (Elle Fanning), the bilingual daughter of Polish immigrant single mother Marla (Agnieszka Grochowska). Dad’s gone. Picked on at school. Loves animals. Works hard in a series of dead end jobs. But the girl loves to sing, as we can tell from the glimpse we catch of her putting her heart into a Tegan and Sara song in the almost empty bar where she works.

This last bit isn’t just a vignette, though, it’s the beginning of Violet’s “journey”. The hobo-looking guy who is the only one to applaud her turns out to be a one-time opera singer from Croatia, Vlad (Zlatko Buric), who takes Violet under his wing when she confides in him that she wants to take part in the Teen Spirit competition. All Vlad has to do is convince Violet’s mother Marla that his intentions are honourable. All Marla has to do is tell Vlad definitively, once and for all, that a 50-50 split on any possible future career earnings is absolutely out of the question. Managers get 15%, end of.

Violet and Vlad
Violet and manager Vlad

This is the directorial debut of Max Minghella, son of Anthony, and he’s really more interested in the “story” than he is in pouring cold water on a staple of shiny-floor TV entertainment. Violet’s slog through initial auditions, proper auditions, qualifying rounds, styled, primped, one hoop after another, is handled in a perfunctory way. He knows we know that Violet is going to sail pretty uneventfully to somewhere near the final, at which point the crunch is going to come. Which is exactly what happens. The TV talent game is tough, it’s glam, it’s fairly dog eat dog, people want to have sex with you all of a sudden, it’s all handled in a brisk and businesslike way.

The focus is on Violet not the paraphernalia, and we root for her as she takes her frail personality onto the stage, overcoming stage fright and general shyness to inch her way to the big prize – a record contract with a big company.

Fanning doesn’t have a big voice but it is a nice voice. She sings in tune. As the film goes on she seems to develop more power. As operatic Vlad teaches Violet one trick or another, a voice coach must have been doing something similar with Fanning. Violet develops a wider range, as the judges have told her to do in her very first audition. We don’t have to believe she is the best in the competition necessarily, since the story is what we’re being sold, not the performance.

We never hear Vlad sing, Zlatko Buric (a Nicolas Winding Refn favourite) not being an opera singer in real life, but even so he feels a bit underused in a drama whose focus is perhaps a bit excessively on Violet. Grochowska, too, feels like a depository of talent it would have been interesting to see a bit more or. However.

We have seen this story before, in the film One Chance, in which James Corden played Paul Potts, the shy nobody who really really wanted to sing. True story.

Minghella’s dad (director of The Talented Mr Ripley and The English Patient) had visual flair and the son seems to have it too. This is in many ways a cautious debut but there is style to spare on display, not least in the broodingly dark shooting style that Minghella and DP Autumn Durald have chosen to illustrate a story that seemed to be crying out for the opposite – the bright lights of TV and music-biz fame and all that.

Minghella also does something interesting with Fanning. Having noticed that there’s often something held back in her performances, he’s somehow – team talk, drugs, hypnotism, no idea – managed to wring a performance out of her towards the end that’s uninhibited, as if (nearly) all the inner restraints have been let go.

This isn’t a brilliant film but it is a good one, entertaining, touching, perky and bright. Just what you want from a Saturday night TV show really.

Teen Spirit – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

© Steve Morrissey 2021

Made in Italy

Liam Neeson and Micheál Richardson

Made in Italy feels like it’s based on one of the books by Peter Mayle, the British advertising executive who tired of the life and lit out for France, where he set about writing lighthearted sun-dredged reports on his new life. A Year in Provence was the first and it sold very well.

That became a TV series of the same name, starring John Thaw and Lindsay Duncan as the expatriate couple making a new go of it, and another Mayle book, A Good Year, later became a Ridley Scott film starring Russell Crowe as a Brit in Provence learning to be a bit less of a bull at a gate about life.

Writer/director James McAvoy clearly has Mayle in his sights for his Tuscan version of the same thing – Brits abroad, charming vila, a beaker of the warm south, daffy locals, life lessons learned, the soul restored.

And, as if to make a connection to Mayle’s books, Lindsay Duncan turns up, as an estate agent, McAvoy clearly not remembering that A Year in Provence on TV got a critical hammering.

What A Year in Provence did with a husband and wife, Made in Italy does with a father and son. Liam Neeson and Micheál Richardson (Neeson’s actual son) play the pair. Robert (Neeson) is a once well known painter who hasn’t actually produced anything for years. Jack (Richardson) is the son travelling to Italy with his father to sell the family’s holiday home in Tuscany to raise money after a messy divorce in which “she got everything”.

Off they go, grumbling curmudgeonly Robert and lightly simmering Jack, old beefs kept on the back burner so they can do the necessary, patch up the house neither has visited for years and then carry on with their separate lives.

We know with a certainty strong enough to wager a kidney on it that this is not going to happen. And so Robert and Jack arrive and the film takes wing – those Tuscan landscapes, the fabulous villa looking like (broken down) property porn, the obligatory romance (for Jack) with a stunningly attractive, warm smart Italian (Valeria Bilello), the montage sequences of the house being licked into shape, including the simple glorious meal of bread, cheese and a glass of rustic red. McAvoy spares us the idiosyncratic locals – maybe they got lost in the edit.

Natalia and Jack
Natalia and Jack

In the background lurks the dead wife of Robert, the local girl Robert married all those years ago, and whose death lies ever-present in the life of both him and his son – dad won’t talk about it, won’t paint, won’t drive. All three are connected and at a certain point this emotional boil has to be lanced, in scenes that jar not because the acting is bad – it isn’t – but because they upset the prevailing tone.

Up till now nothing has really had any emotional consequence – dad’s painting, son’s broken marriage, their bad relationship, and on top of that we’ve been introduced to Natalia (Bilello), struggling single mother with an ex husband (Gian Marco Tavani) who looks like he’s being lined up to be a proper villain. But that goes nowhere. None of it really goes anywhere.

In fact in Made in Italy nothing really happens, while the tone swings around wildly – comedy, romance, drama, melodrama. Neeson struggles manfully with an underwritten role, his comedy-curmudgeon dad flashing on and off like a distress beacon, while there’s enough of a romantic subplot between Jack and Natalie (she runs a local restaurant, naturally) for us to realise that there is no chemistry between Richardson and Bellilo.

Still, there’s Pavarotti on the soundtrack and plenty of fabulous views of Tuscany. Valeria Bilello emerges relatively unscathed, somehow embodying what the film is meant to be full of, but isn’t. As a picture-postcard movie for a wet Sunday night, Made in Italy might fit the bill.

Made in Italy – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

© Steve Morrissey 2021

Blue Story

Stephen Odubola and Micheal Ward

Scrappy but powerful, Blue Story is also known as the film that got briefly banned by some UK cinema chains, because some people going to see it were arriving armed to the teeth.

Blue Story, a violent gangster movie, made by the BBC,” is how one British newspaper, never happier than when playing the race card and trashing the “woke” BBC, described the film in its reporting on the violent skirmishes at Star City, Birmingham, when the film opened. What was doubly unfortunate, from the film’s perspective, is that the other film showing that day was Frozen II, so the kids lining up to see that got a lot more than they bargained for.

But the publicity payback from those headlines? Who knows. Does notoriety translate to bums on seats? Or do you alienate more people than you attract?

What’s doubly or even triply unfair is that the film does not glorify violence. In fact it is bending over backwards to point out how cowardly and indiscriminate a gun is compared to, say, physically fronting up to an adversary.

There is plenty of that, too, in the story of timid Timmy and more swaggering Marco, schoolfriends who get caught up in the postcode gang warfare of South London. Timmy’s from one bit of town and goes to school in another (just down the road, but over a crucial gang border), and it’s this fact alone that forces him to have to eventually make a dramatic choice – my “end” or my friend.

Blue Story is a film about love not violence,” said writer/director Andrew Onwubolu (as Rapman) in a statement when the violence erupted in Birmingham. True, it is love that propels the story – Timmy’s for Leah, a sweet relationship of a mutual nerdiness (both love Game of Thrones) upended by the ongoing running battles between different gangs.

The gangs of mostly black youths have no raison d’etre – they don’t seem to run drugs and their beef with each other seems to have nothing behind it beyond territory, but both sides are fiercely and vividly drawn by Onwubolu’s screenplay in scenes that verge on the incomprehensible they’re so thick with street slang – subtitles on for this old white guy.

“Furthermore,” a word regularly used by the gangs – “get the fuck out ma face furthermore” – tickled me as a go-to, but while various gang members possibly spend a bit more time attitudinising than seems strictly necessary, the demands of on-the-hoof acting on a budget being what they are, Onwubolu’s intention, received loud and clear, is to point out that a) these are just kids, really and b) they’ve admirably got their teeth stuck into something – feckless they ain’t – it’s just the wrong something.

The gang tooled up and ready for action
The aftermath…

It’s a classic three act structure. We meet the players, we learn about the beef (no spoilers), and then the consequences of that play out in a bloody and unpleasant finale also going out of its way to avoid the “glorifying” tag. In Blue Story the biggest props go to the smallest acts by its characters. So facing down a bully in a shopping mall is shown as being much more the action of the big man than shooting someone almost haphazardly from a safe distance while they run like hell hoping to dodge the bullet.

The acting is really top notch – I’m sure there’s a more street way of putting that – and the film is absolutely rammed with faces of the future. Stephen Odubola as the timid-to-terrifying Timmy, Micheal Ward as the conflicted tough guy Marco, Khali Best as the psychotically wild-eyed Killy and Karla-Simone Spence as Timmy’s sweet but street girl Leah are the most obviously deserving of praise but there is real depth here – Kadeem Ramsay, Eric Kofi-Abrefa, Junior Afolabi, Sean Sagar – I could just write the whole cast list off the imdb, they are that good.

Onwubolu (as Rapman) turns up himself at various points, Greek chorus style, offering rapped summaries of what’s just gone down, occasionally filling in a bit of missing background, and summing up, most notably in his concluding round up – “There really ain’t no winner when you’re playing with them guns”. And that, in a phrase, is what this fast and furious film is all about.

Blue Story – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

© Steve Morrissey 2021

The Kingmaker

Imelda Marcos at home

Lauren Greenfield’s new documentary is called The Kingmaker but it looks at first glance like nothing more than a film about a woman whose days in the sun are long behind her.

Greenfield you may remember as the director of The Queen of Versailles, a film about a trophy wife of a very rarefied sort. Imelda Marcos, subject of The Kingmaker, you might remember as another trophy wife, of Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos. She of 3,000 pairs of shoes.

Watching it I was reminded of Errol Morris’s 2013 documentary about Donald Rumsfeld, The Unknown Known, in which Morris managed to lay not a single glove on the old fox, who had absolutely no need to do the interview and seemed to be engaging with Morris in a spirit of catch-me-if-you-can.

Marcos, on the other hand, does have skin in the game. But Greenfield structures her film so as only to reveal gradually what’s afoot, and why she’s called it The Kingmaker.

First up, Imelda the beneficent. The once-exiled wife of the deposed Marcos now back in her home country and being feted wherever she goes. Handing out money to street children, ostentatiously visiting the embalmed body of her dead husband, housed mausoleum-style in a Lenin-alike glass case until the Philippines government agrees to his burial in the Heroes’ Cemetery.

Then Imelda the gracious, interviewed at home, worried in a touching way that her stomach is going to look big on camera, alluding in an aggrieved tone to the 3,000 pairs of shoes, adamant that the country was better off in the Marcos years – breathtakingly she talks of freedom, democracy and human rights –  and was never better than under the martial law that lasted for eight years, until the Marcoses were chased from the country by a genuine street revolution.

En route we learn of Imelda as her husband’s special envoy, meeting Mao and Nixon, Prince Charles and Hirohito, Gaddafi and Saddam. A great diplomat, a servant, the “mother of the country” in her own estimation.

Imelda at her dead husband's glass coffin
Imelda and the embalmed Ferdinand

And then we get to it – Imelda the dynast. We’re introduced to the next generation of Marcos hopefuls in the shape of Imelda’s son, Ferdinand Jr, who goes by the name of Bongbong and is standing for the vice-presidency in the 2016 election, the presidency having been ruled out on strategic grounds. Slowly slowly, Imelda seems to suggest, her eye fixed on the Malacañan Palace.

Up to here the film has looked like a walk down a rosy memory lane with a woman capable of self-delusion on a grand scale, a real-life Norma Desmond bemoaning the smallness of politics since she and Ferdinand took their final bow.

Before it changes into something completely different, there’s a little refresher course on the last days of the Marcos regime, the rise of the challenger Benigno Aquino, his assassination, the rise of his widow, Corey Aquino, and the subsequent presidential election which Ferdinand Marcos claimed to have won and which led to him and Imelda being chased out of the country in 1986.

There’s enough on the billions of embezzled dollars now hidden around the world, and the routine torture and killings under Marcos for the continuing support of the Marcos name – particularly in the shanty towns – to be mystifying. Or it would have been if we hadn’t seen worldwide the odd alliance of the dispossessed with “populist” leaders. “Perception is real and truth is not,” Imelda says, à propos something else, but answering in a soundbite how come corruption and the loss of the rule of law can command so much support – people love a show.

From here fast-forward to 2016, the election contest, hotly fought between Bongbong (whose heart seems only to be half in it) and Leni Robredo. Meanwhile, in the foreground politically but so far in the background of Greenfield’s film as to be invisible is the presidential election, which sees Rodrigo Duterte elected.

Without wishing to spoil the entire narrative push of the film, Duterte has been kept deliberately at the back for dramatic effect. There are last minute reveals of an eye-opening sort, which say all you need to know about the role of mega-money in 21st-century politics, reveals that force a new appraisal of this old woman whose mask of sublime serenity never slips. Greenfield has handed Marcos and her family a rope, hoping, as in The Queen of Versailles, that her subjects will hang themselves with it. In fact it looks like they might be using it to help them haul themselves ashore.

The Kingmaker – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

© Steve Morrissey 2021

Made in Hong Kong

Sam Lee as Moon

Finished in time for the handover of Hong Kong from the British to the Chinese in 1997, restored in 2017 as yet more waves of protest against that regime convulsed its streets, Made in Hong Kong is as much a celebration of the city’s energy as it is the guts-or-glory story of one of its residents.

Director Fruit Chan builds out from its hero and in from its frequent cityscapes, the total effect being a portrait in the round of a time and a place. The human focus is Sam Lee, as a gangster called Mid Autumn Moon who is so low-level that his whole gangster status is moot. With his wiry physique and fitted shirts Moon looks more like a naughty boy earning a bit of pin money by playing debt collector. However, we never see him collect any actual debt and his skinny malink frame doesn’t seem to inspire dread. He still lives with his mother. He’s soft-hearted. As the film opens he’s saving lumbering local simpleton Sylvester (“not as in Stallone”, he deadpans) from a beating. Within minutes he’s fallen for Ping (Neiky Kim), the pretty daughter of a woman he’s meant to be shaking down.

Nor does his crime boss – operating out of a crummy office – seem much like a crime boss. A rival boss, Fat Chan, also doesn’t seem particularly scary. Other street-punk gangsters – floppy haired, dressed in schoolboy white shirts, perhaps riding a skateboard – even less so.

There’s barely a plot. A girl called Susan throws herself from a tall building and dies. Moon wants to find out who she is, a detective strand that’s picked up and dropped as convenient. Ping joins his investigation. We’ve since discovered that she isn’t much of a thing either – she is in need of a kidney and carries a dialysis bag about with her when she’s away from home. The kidney, like Moon’s investigation and his debt-collecting, also doesn’t seem particularly urgent.

Fruit Chan is particularly keen on catching the sort of Hong Kong we don’t often see. The streets, the tenements (where Moon and most of his clients live), the traffic jams, the 7/11 store, newspaper stand, restaurants. The same applies to the script’s frequent mention of Moon’s wanking habits. It’s one of those everday things that happen but people don’t usually talk about. Cue another shot of Moon rinsing out his underwear.

Moon and Ping in a cemetery
Moon and Ping in a cemetery

If some films are about plants, then Made in Hong Kong is about the weeds, plants growing where they shouldn’t, hanging on at the edge. It’s entirely, almost ridiculously appropriate that it was made with the butt ends of reels of film left over from other productions – Chan had no money. Da Sica did the same thing making Rome, Open City 30 years before and you can see some influence of the Italian neo-realists’ interest in everyday life, though the street style of the French New Wave is more obvious, especially as the relationship between wiry Moon and gamine Ping takes flight.

The cast is largely amateur and in fact Neiky Yim never made another film. But she’s as good if not better than many of the professionals and her scenes with Lee are full of spontaneity and nervous energy. It all hangs on Sam Lee’s performance though. Wiry he may be – and he’s frequently barely clad as if to reinforce the point – but he’s got the swagger of someone who feels no fear. He’s good.

What also impressed people in 1997 and is still impressive now is the film’s look. It’s beautifully composed, a flickerbook of images, some static, others daynamic, with montage sequences and slo-mo’s also reminding us that the mid/late 1990s was the era of the first successes of Quentin Tarantino and the last of France’s Cinema du Look.

This welding together of an absolutely matter of factness about gangsterism with a keen aesthetic sense isn’t that unusual, but this isn’t the world of Goodfellas but of absolute nobodies working for criminals who aren’t even really criminals. Which makes the violence, when it erupts, all the more shocking.

Made in Hong Kong – Watch/buy the 4K restoration at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

© Steve Morrissey 2021

Boss Level

Roy puts an opponent to the sword

For those days when you just want something entertaining – Boss Level, a new Joe Carnhan movie that gives us the familiar Carnahan formula, action plus buffoonery, delivered with a deadpan rictus by a new arrival in geri-action heroics – Frank Grillo.

Grillo plays Roy Pulver, a guy who wakes up every day to the same scenario – a “machete wielding asshole” trying to kill him, followed by an encounter with a helicopter gunship, followed by a deadly explosion and a fall from a high window, after which he’s chased down city streets in fast cars by gun-toting bad guys determined to kill him.

That’s if they haven’t already killed him. Because Pulver has lived through this day before and will live through it again. He’s locked inside a Groundhog Day with extreme prejudice, or closer to the mark is the Tom Cruise film Edge of Tomorrow (whose subtitle: Live Die Repeat is the plot of Boss Level), learning as he goes, surviving just a bit longer than he did the day before – wisdom is power etc.

The reasons have to do with a machine that “unmakes” time, developed by the love of his life but now estranged partner, Jemma (Naomi Watts), and owned and wielded by asshole uberlord Colonel Clive Ventor (Mel Gibson). Or at least Ventor thinks he controls it – in fact things are way out of his control and unbeknown to him Jemma has inserted Roy into the machine and… 

Frank Grillo and Mel Gibson
Badass meets bad guy

You don’t need to know, though you might ask yourself the question at one point, how come all these people are after Roy in his die-rinse-repeat life if Ventor hasn’t got wind of something.

No, no, we really don’t need to go there. Instead let’s marvel at Grillo’s abs, which are fab for a guy in his 50s and look like the result of some human growth hormone dare. Grillo is in fact a hugely likeable lead, trying to be cool so hard that you start feel for him. In a brief interchange with his estranged son at a gamer convention (Grillo’s real son Rio making his screen debut), son Joe asks dad Roy if he’s a badass “like Liam Neeson”. Roy laughs at the comparison, and we laugh back, since that’s pretty much the sort of film this is, just with more hardware and a higher bodycount, the “particular set of skills” being the same.

The screenplay – Carnahan plus Chris and Eddie Borey – knows how to write to our prejudices, in other words. Like the slow turnaround intro it gives to Gibson, the sort of thing designed to raise a round of applause or chorus of boos – either way it works as theatre.

There’s a totemic aspec to Gibson too, since Carnahan is the inheritor of all those 1980s cocaine fuelled actioners of the Lethal Weapon sort, and in film after film – like Smokin’ Aces, Stretch and The A Team – has never allowed plausibility to get in the way of a bit of out and out entertainment.

There’s also a debt owed to the trashier side of Tarantino – the esoteric music choices (Badfinger, at one point) and the characters’ tendency to never shut up.

There are good films, there are important films and there are films like this – pure kinetic entertainment with lots of gadgets, lots of action and an understanding that if it’s worth doing at all, it’s worth doing fast.

Good also to know is that Carnahan’s next film, Cop Shop, is already in post-production, and teams Grillo up with Gerard Butler for what will surely be an artery-clogging knuckle-feast of badassery, and after that Carnahan is taking on a remake of Gareth Evans’s epic action spectacular The Raid.

Boss Level – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

© Steve Morrissey 2021

The Mauritanian

Tahar Rahim and Jodie Foster

The man at the centre of The Mauritanian, Mohamedou Ould Slahi, is a real person. Wikipedia spells his last name Salahi but its facts otherwise agree pretty closely with Kevin Macdonald’s film – picked up in Mauritania, extraordinary rendition to Guantanamo Bay, where he was held for years, suspected of being Al Qaeda’s chief recruiter.

Was he? Macdonald earned his stripes making documentaries and went big time with Touching the Void. Since then he’s had his biggest successes with films cleaving close to the factual (The Last King of Scotland, about Uganda tyrant Idi Amin), while the more overtly fictional The Eagle (Roman legions in Scotland) and Black Sea (submarine jeopardy) caused less overall excitement. The Mauritanian wants to have its cake and eat it – to be factually true yet dramatically intense – and does it by playing peekaboo with Slahi’s guilt or innocence.

Early on, Macdonald shows us Slahi deleting all the contacts on his phone. A later revelation – that he’d taken a call from Osama Bin Laden’s satellite phone – also seems to point the finger. This last in particular could easily have been cleared up in a flashback (there are plenty), but Macdonald leaves things vague. Suspicions are allowed to grow.

I’m getting ahead of myself. Slahi in Gitmo being questioned about his past activities. The prosecution got in to ensure he goes to death row is headed by buttoned-down establishemnt guy Stuart Couch (Benedict Cumberbatch), one of whose friends was flying one of the planes that powered into the Twin Towers. Ranged against him is doughty unsmiling defender Nancy Hollander, an activist lawyer professional to her cuticles assisted by slightly gosh-wow rookie Teri Duncan (Shailene Woodley).

Prosecutor Stuart Couch
Benedict Cumberbatch as Stuart Couch

Hollander’s “defence” of Slahi isn’t a defence of him at all but of a principle. It’s essentially a call to the US government to put up or shut up – charge Slahi or let him go – using the most basic legal principle of all, Habeas Corpus.

From here there’s a good slab of very familiar material – Hollander petitioning the authorities for its evidence, the authorities responding either with pages of material so redacted as to be useless, or attempting to swamp the defence with boxes of papers which can only be read by her and Duncan and only in this one secure room, an impossible task.

Crouch, meanwhile, is ploughing his own furrow. And while Hollander’s takes her away from abstract involvment in the case into a more personal interest, Crouch’s takes him in the opposite direction – from hot emotion to a much cooler appraisal of what’s going on at a legal level. The liberal Hollander’s story is the more obviously glorious and crusading, but Crouch’s story is also important and interesting and he is in many respects the hero of this tale, especially after he visits Gitmo to find out first hand what goes on there.

Crouch, Hollander, Duncan – these briskly written characters are tight, bright people with no time for messing around. Cumberbatch (voice slung slow), Foster and Woodley respond by playing them as written, crisply. Their interactions together are fascinating to watch. Macdonald has clearly picked up a thing or two from the walkie-talkie-ness of Aaron Sorkin’s dramas (from A Few Good Men to The Social Network).

Slahi, on the other hand, in the hands of Tahar Rahim, is expansive, warm, engaging, personable, a presence whose charm, and Rahim’s skills, are used to keep the glimmer of a suspicion alive. “The Forest Gump of Al Qaeda” as one interogator puts it? Still a possibility.

If you know Slahi’s story then some of Macdonald’s dramatic crescendoes just won’t work – I didn’t, so they did. More generally, The Mauritanian tells a story that’s no surprise – man arrested on no charge, held for years, confession extracted by water-boarding, sexual humiliation, sleep-deprivation, heavy metal, stress-positions and the full Rumsfeld-sanctioned bag of tricks.

Out of 749 detentions at Guantanamo Bay there have been only seven convictions. While putting a human face on one of those stories, the familiarity of what happens to Slahi, who remains opaque to the end, robs this politically important film of some of its dramatic power.

The Mauritanian – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

© Steve Morrissey 2021