Prayers for the Stolen

Maria, Ana and Paula at school

Writer/director Tatiana Huezo drops us straight in to Prayers for the Stolen (Noche de Fuego). As a dark screen accompanied by rapid breathing yields to a daytime scene of two females digging what looks like a shallow grave, the internal interrogation starts – Who are these people? Where are they? Is it a grave? Why do they both look so frantic?

No voiceover tells us, no “useful idiot” arrives on the scene to act as a conduit from screen to viewer. Huezo forces us to work it out. She’s a director with a background in documentary-making and this adaptation of Jennifer Clement’s best-seller uses a classic technique of the observational style. What makes Prayers from the Stolen stand out is the way that Huezo allies that technique with a keen eye for the aesthetic and a strong sense of narrative drama.

They’re digging a hiding place, not a grave, and as time goes by it becomes apparent that this mother and daughter in a backward Mexican village are living under constant threat. There are only two employers in this area – the quarry and the cartel, which organises the harvesting of poppies for the production of heroin. The quarry employs a few men, who drill and set explosives and blow the sides of mountains clean off. But not enough to compensate for the obvious lack of men in the village. There are none, apart from a couple of old guys and a teacher, who seems to have been bused in from outside.

Where the rest of the men have gone is never explicitly explained, like so much in this film. And what the women are afraid of can only be pieced together from a hint here, an event there – at one point Rita (one of the two digging females) takes her pretty daughter, Ana (the other one), to have all her hair cut off, so she looks less like a girl. Ana’s pretty friend Paula gets the same treatment but the other friend, Maria, doesn’t, but then Maria has a hare lip, a cloak of invisibility when the cartel guys come calling. At another, Ana applies “lipstick” – beetroot juice – to her lips and Rita tells her that she’ll knock her teeth out if she does it again.

Prayers for the Stolen follows Ana, Paula and Maria (but mostly Ana) from the age of about eight up to puberty, doing the things young girls do – school, mimicking their elders, mock-fighting with boys – and leaves the dramatic eventuality (inevitability?) of the cartel’s recruiting sergeant’s call just hanging there. Like Chekhov’s gun, that hole Rita and Ana were digging is going to be pressed into service at some point.

Ana and a potential boyfriend in front of a fire
Ana discovers boys

Huezo has an eye for the aesthetic, and this is a good looking film, thanks to subtle beauty lighting by DP Dariela Ludlow and the use of picturesque, almost National Geographic-like, imagery – like the villagers in the evening all standing on the hill trying to get a smartphone signal, the screens glowing like fireflies. Or Ana squatting by an outhouse whose walls of faded paint and door of distressed wood are picture-postcard shabby chic – if you don’t live in the village. Just plain shabby if you do.

Making hardship, ugliness and unbearable situations look glam – poverty porn – is Huezo’s potential problem, but she largely ducks it by amplifying the sense of threat from the cartel. They swish by in convoys of cars, like displaced Nazis, or whirr by overhead in helicopters, a faceless and largely offscreen presence.

It’s an intimate film and the relationships feel real, the girls to each other, Rita and Ana. The casting is brilliant in this respect, so good in fact that when the girls all suddenly age a few years, the new actresses playing girls who were eight a minute ago but are 13-ish now, appear to be the same people a few years on – they’re not.

In a more Hollywood film the local schoolteacher, something of a firebrand who wants to help this village escape the cartel’s grip, would be worked up into more of a character and more of a story. But this isn’t that sort of film. Happy ending not guaranteed, though gripping drama is.

Prayers for the Stolen – Buy Jennifer Clement’s best-seller at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

© Steve Morrissey 2021

The War Below

The miners marching in a line

War movies cost money, but the team behind The War Below have somehow managed to produce one on the sort of budget that Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk or Peter Jackson’s 1917 probably spent on catering. And they’ve made a decent fist of it.

The fascinating and true story it tells is of the British miners recruited during the First World War to break the stalemate at the battle of Messines. Their task was to burrowing out through no-man’s-land and under German lines, lay explosives and blow the enemy position to pieces. Up against the obvious challenges such as unknown terrain and impossible deadlines, the five recruits, all mates of long-standing, are also battling the class attitudes of the army’s top brass, which range from indifference to outright hostility.

The five men are William Hawkin (the imdb is currently calling him Hawkins, which is wrong, but either way “Bill”, as he’s known, is played by Sam Hazeldine), Harold Stockford (Kris Hitchen), Shorty (Joseph Steyne), Charlie MacDonald (Sam Clemmett) and his brother George (Elliott James Langridge), though to all intents and purposes you can forget the other four – this is about Hawkin, a bluff, decent man denied a chance to fight (a “crackle” in his miner’s lung had said no) and now relieved that this opportunity will release him from the shame he felt at not doing his bit.

Representing the officer class there’s Tom Goodman-Hill as Hellfire Jack, brains behind this stout band of “claykickers” (modelled on the actual Hellfire Jack, aka John Norton-Griffith, who did indeed come up with such a plan) and Colonel Fielding (Andrew Scarborough), whose only real function is to drip condescension whenever these “sewer rats” are in earshot.

This is not the standard 20th-century view of the First World War of Oh! What a Lovely War – lions led by donkeys in an orgy of pointless killing – but the now standard 21st-century revisionist line of brave men fighting a dirty and necessary war in the defence of certain values (a reading that’s gained ground since 9/11 and the War on Terror).

You might be familiar with the story if you’ve seen the Australian film Beneath Hill 60, which approaches the same material from an antipodean angle, emphasising the involvement of Aussie miners. If not, it’s worth checking out and is also a case of a fascinating story being told on a budgetary tight leash.

Sam Hazeldine as Bill
Digging for Victory: Sam Hazeldine

Like the five men it follows, The War Below moves at speed and it lacks air. Most films could do with a 20-30 minute trim, but this one needs more space and time. Some characters barely get a look-in, and the technical detail of what these men are accomplishing and the challenges they’re overcoming would probably take on more dramatic weight if explained a bit more.

Money is clearly an issue, and experience. The DP, Nick Cooke, has a few notches on his bedpost but as for the rest of them, director JP Watts, co-writer Thomas Woods and soundtrack composer Anné Kulonen are all on their first film (first feature-length film in Kulonen’s case). The ingenuity and attack is palpable. Quite how few extras there are I’m not sure, but there aren’t many people in this film, not much in the way of sets, but careful camera angles make the most of what there is. Even so, there is the odd moment when it shows.

The result is a movie that’s busting a gut to be a movie, if you know what I mean. It’s not setting out to rework the genre, or be experimental, it just wants to get its material in the can (to use analogue terms) convincingly. The demands of the production itself sometimes get in the way of its storytelling aspect but it’s generally a case of “job done”.

The two leads really help make it gel. Sam Hazeldine’s comforting voice a representation of his character – dependable, honest and true – while the excellent Tom Goodman-Hill has the harder role, as the initially ambivalent officer who finds he’s developing a growing respect for these horny handed sons of toil planning to blow the Germans to bits.

There’s still a 70 metre hole in the ground there, apparently, out in Belgium where the real miners and tunnellers dug. The explosion was the loudest ever of the pre-nuclear era and could be heard in London, so they say. Whether it made any difference to the war effort is entirely debatable. But that’s another story.

The War Below – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

© Steve Morrissey 2021


Ivan in a dark room with two heavies

A Swiss banker arrives in Argentina in 1980 looking for his partner, who’s mysteriously disappeared. Writer/director Andreas Fontana’s debut feature Azor tracks the progress of Ivan de Wiel, which is anything but straightforward, in an oblique, tangential, mood-soaked almost-thriller that’s more about the journey than the destination.

Being Argentina in 1980, with a military junta in charge, strict class hierarchies in place and much of the “action” (there’s almost none) taking place in dark corners of colonial hotels where seedy middle aged and old white guys swap favours, the spectre of Graham Greene arises unbidden from the shadows.

Ivan de Wiel (Fabrizio Rongione) is your Greene-esque anti-hero, an old-school Swiss banker trying to track down the missing Rene Keys, his partner in the private Swiss bank set up by de Wiel’s grandfather and which now looks after the wealth of a very particular slice of Argentina’s elite, all of them twitchy about what the junta means for their money.

The structure is Apocalype Now, with de Wiel venturing further and further “up river” attempting to find the disappeared Keys, a man whose name conjures anecdotes and strong opinions from all who met him. What was Keys up to? Where has he gone? Is he safely back in Europe or tied to a chair in the basement of a building somewhere in Buenos Aires? Why is de Wiel so keen to find him? He doesn’t exactly seem upset that Keys has disappeared.

Alongside the almost entirely blank de Wiel is his wife, Inés (Stéphanie Cléau), a snob whose real attitude towards her rich but ostentation-free husband only becomes really apparent as Azor starts winding towards its close. She’s also a useful explicatory character, telling a fellow guest at a drinks party about the this banking marriage’s vocabulary of duplicity – “azor” turns out to be a code word for “careful what you say” but there are plenty of others.

Three people on horseback
Ivan does some more business

Of actual action there is very little, of suggestion that something is about to happen there is masses, right from the opening scenes. De Wiel is stuck in a car on a street where the military are shaking down a long haired youth. Violence seems imminent, thanks in large extent to the loud, clanking score of single synth notes by Paul Courlet which suggest a fanfare, or a warning. It’s an unusual and effective soundtrack throughout, and spread very thin. Courlet goes quiet for whole stretches, only to come back with a loud, alarm-style interjection to frontload an upcoming scene with foreboding.

Lit murkily by DP Gabriel Sandru, it plays out as if the audience were always eavesdropping, the camera pulled back, often static with the framing not quite as we’d expect. Peeping.

As a metaphor for the gilded and faintly vampiric class it portrays – private runways on their properties, horse-breeding, cocktails by the pool – it’s perfect. These people, even in full view, remain as shadowy as the disappeared Keys.

Across the board the actors follow suit, with poker faces maintained and duplicity traded as their existentially bored characters make smalltalk about the European cities where they have houses, and how you simply must come and visit us when you’re there etc.

How Ivan de Wiel fits in to all this is a nuggety enigma inside this mystery. For sure he’s wealthy – he part-owns a private bank after all – but beneath the featureless exterior there are flickers (emotion, irritation, ennui?) and his wife chides him at one point for being “weak”. She sits far more comfortably in this world of the gilded elite, and though it’s never really stated why he brought her along on this business trip of extreme delicacy, the suspicion grows that she’s the brains in this outfit.

That’s it – a man going from client to client enquiring into the whereabouts of his business partner, with his wife at his side, concluding little bits of business as he goes, matters of vast consequence dealt with in a moment, with a nod and a handshake. It’s sometime in the 1980s and neoliberalism is freeing up international capital. In Andreas Fontana’s menacingly cool and formidably different drama, we’re in at the birth of the global elite as they are shaking off their identities as citizens of somewhere.

© Steve Morrissey 2021


Valene Kane as Melody

Profile is a 2018 drama about a journalist who poses online as a teenage Muslim convert from London to strike up a relationship with an Islamist jihadi fighting out in Syria.

The immediate suprise of it is that this simple, high concept film rooted in political reality is directed by Timur Bekmambetov, the Russian/Kazakh director who first came to prominence with Night Watch, a supernatural fantasy conceived on a massive scale, with a sizeable cast and a broad canvas.

Profile’s first shot is of a Facebook profile, which Amy (Valene Kane) is trying to fill out – what to call herself, how old should she say she is, which part of London does she come from? She’s clearly trying to create an identity that’s easy to slip into but which keeps her true one hidden.

She checks out a couple of YouTube videos of atrocities committed by jihadists, shares them on her new Facebook profile, sends out a few friend requests at speed, all the while flicking through other apps, looking at email, screengrabbing pages containing useful background, calling her editor at work, taking a call from her househunting boyfriend, turning the volume up, turning it down again, deleting pictures, adding pictures, resizing windows, dismissing one reminding her it’s a friend’s birthday, ignoring one about the rent being due, downloading a new app and unzipping it, using Skype, using Facetime, accessing Yelp, granting computer access to the IT guy at work so he can observe her interactions with her target.

We see it all, first hand, as if we’re doing all this flicking between apps and windows ourselves. The entire film is done this way, much as the Covid horror movie Host took place in a Zoom call. A film playing out on her screen as well as ours.

It’s all entirely believeable (and incidentally explains in a direct way where everyone’s attention span went).

Melody, as she’s now calling her self, posing as a 19-year-old, doesn’t have to wait long. Within minutes she’s got a live one, Abu Bilel (Shazad Latif), his Islamist name, a grinning, charming London lad who is now fighting the good fight out in Syria, where he is getting the respect he never had as a “Paki” back in the UK. The rapidity of this hook-up is one of the very few minor questions you might have with the plausibility of Profile, which is based on the actual case of French journalist Anna Erelle, who wrote a book, In the Skin of a Jihadist, on how she baited an Islamist using precisely these methods.

Melody talking via Facetime to Abu Bilel
Melody and Abu Bilel

But back to Amy/Melody. Over the next days and weeks she gently, girlishly, builds up a relationship with Bilel, she in a head scarf, eyes demurely to the ground, he swaggering on the other end of the Skype call, showing her his Kalashnikov. Gradually, she learns more about the recruitment of Western young women, often converts, and how exactly they are spirited into Syria. While she serenely chit-chats away, flirting with Bilel, her fingers are swiping and switching and downloading and saving and screensharing away.

Valene Kane looks young for a woman in her early 30s, but possibly not teenage-young, but it’s worth remembering, before you cry “foul”, that Bilel might also be setting his own version of the honeytrap. He’s a handsome man, and compared to Amy’s slightly peevish boyfriend, Matt (Morgan Watkins), fighting a bloody war does compare favourably to house-hunting and booking a table at a restaurant in the dick-measuring world of masculinity.

Amy, meanwhile, is driven not so much because she’s a crusading journalist riding the white steed of truth into battle, but because she’s broke. The rent is due and she’s only a freelancer. Whether all of this will lead her to a Donnie Brasco conversion – she’ll go over to the other side for real – is one of the teases of this film. Another is whether, in her haste, she’s going to expose herself by leaving open a window that should be hidden.

But in the main Profile’s claim to superiority rest on the way it seemingly casually incorporates its minor themes – tech-slavery, masculinity, and the precarious nature of what used to be a “good” job like journalism – into its narrative. It’s believeably plotted and plausibly played. There’s a “But” coming, obviously. And it’s that Bekmambetov’s focus on the tech might lead you to wonder if all the screen trickery is best reserved for a spooky shocker like Host. On the other hand, what’s more shocking than young women being stoned to death or beheaded on YouTube?

Profile – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

© Steve Morrissey 2021

The Platform

Ivan Massagué stars as Goreng

In The Platform (El Hoyo, in the original Spanish) a man wakes up in a place that isn’t familiar, a place full of dread and fear located in a world that seems to operate by different rules.

He may not know where he is, but we know where we are: in one of those high concept “escape room” horror movies, the best of which still remains Vincenzo Natali’s sleek Cube, from 1997, which almost single-handedly kick-started the genre.

Almost. Because the real inspiration for these things is Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1944 existentialist play Huis Clos, which follows the discussions of three characters locked together in the same room in the afterlife for all eternity. It memorably gave us the phrase “L’enfer, c’est les autres,” or “Hell is other people.”

Goreng (Ivan Massagué) might be in hell – The Platform certainly drops hints in that direction – but as far as he’s concerned he’s in some kind of high-security vertical prison with two people per cell, one cell per floor. What connects each floor, going up and down for hundreds of levels, is a big platform which lowers into each cell each day bringing food. It starts at level one, at the top of the building, loaded with sumptuous delicacies – occasional shots of the kitchens where all this food is prepared to the very highest standards convince us of this – but it isn’t replenished as it drops down the levels. If you’re up the top, you eat, and eat well. If you’re further down, the good stuff will have gone and what’s left will be half chewed, spat on… and worse.

The food-laden platform
Here comes dinner!

There is enough food for everybody, if only those at the top took only what they needed, Goreng reasons, and will continue to reason, though the identity of his cellmate changes, from the cynical Trimagasi (Zorion Eguileor) to the highly idealistic Imoguiri (Antonia San Juan) and the all-action Baharat (Emilio Buale). Goreng’s level changes, too. He starts out on level 48 (not bad, in terms of food), then wakes one morning to find he’s on level 171 and Trimagasi has tied him to the bed, the better to eat him when the lack of food drives him to cannibalism, common in this place.

The metaphor for wider society is “obvio”, to use a Spanish word favoured by Trimagasi, and could have been lifted from JG Ballard’s High Rise, but the real attraction of The Platform is its pitiless logic and its forward dynamic. Absurdist, existentialist, Waiting for Godot-like, it’s all those things too.

There’s also the way it spikes its well conjured but familiar “escape room” set-up with pungent details – a glowing cigarette butt, the tip of a ballpoint pen completing a form. Or the recurring but fleeting presence of a wild woman called Miharu (Alexandra Masangakay), a blood-covered beauty as likely to eat you as look at you. Even the names of many characters add a shot of spice, and seem to be Indonesian (Goreng, as in the dish nasi goreng, means “fried” – make of that what you will).

Is it a coincidence that with his pointy beard and aquiline nose Ivan Massagué resembles the idealist (but possibly deranged) Don Quixote and that he has that novel with him in this Vertical Self-Management Center, as this prison is called? Possibly. David Desola and Pedro Rivero’s screenplay has allusions and half-references enough to keep the chatrooms speculating for decades.

None of that would matter if this movie didn’t work in terms of concept and execution but it does. It’s the classic good story well told, the feature debut by Spanish director Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia. I say Spanish but there are so many Basques in this movie – so many Z’s and X’s and K’s in the names of cast and crew – that Euskaldunak (the Basque word for Basque) might be a better slot to put it in. For the avoidance of doubt, it’s in Spanish, though with the usual wide choice of subtitling and language you get with Netflix, you can watch it any way you like.

Cranked out on god knows how small a budget, used incredibly effectively, it’s a dark and grungey film – shit and blood, blood and shit – and that’s just the people. Is there a relationship in here that isn’t transactional? More to the point, does Goreng manage to get out?

The Platform (El Hoyo) – Get the original soundtrack by Aránzazu Calleja at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

© Steve Morrissey 2021

Who You Think I Am

Juliette Binoche as Claire

One person stalks another person online in Who You Think I Am (Celle Que Vous Croyez). If it’s not quite as creepy as you might expect, it’s not quite as emotionally engaging as it might be either, which is deliberate. We’re held at arm’s length, while co-writer/director Safy Nebbou gets busy with the mechanics of a plot that reveals all towards the end, and then reveals all one more time.

The plot seems quite straightforward. Claire (Juliette Binoche, great as ever) is a teacher of French literature who strikes up a relationship with much younger man Alex, a friend of an ex lover, on a social network we might as well call Facebook, using the fictitious identity of a much younger woman. She’s maybe 50, he’s about 25 and devastatingly attractive (he’s played by the ludicrously handsome François Civil). A classic catfishing operation develops – she praises his photography, he responds with a “well, thanks…”, before things move on through some sharing of personal details and eventually arrive at profile pictures (she uses one of her pretty niece) and phone calls, Claire leading Alex further into a world of shared intimacy with her voice pitched high and using hastily learned 21st century argot.

Is Claire a cougar or is problematising an older woman/younger man relationship just a sexist way of looking at the world? In a classic bit of French-movie exposition, the concept is hashed out a dinner party over glasses of wine and laughter – what do you call the male equivalent of a cougar, asks one guest. “A man,” someone else responds drily.

And in another bit of classic French-movie exposition, it turns out that the book the woman is teaching her students is Les Liaisons Dangeureuses, a novel full of people pretending to be something they’re not. The title is warning enough but Claire’s job and her age situate her as someone from a different century. Alex is a 21st-century guy comfortable in the world of social media; Claire is a 20th-century girl, and one who looks backwards at that.

François Civil as Alex
François Civil as Alex

We don’t judge Claire too harshly because it’s obvious she’s a woman in trouble. Who You Think I Am carefully situates her in a frame – Claire confessing all to her shrink (Nicole Garcia), and revealing how things ultimately ran away with her and she got in too deep. She’s the victim here is the idea, a lamb led to the slaughter in the abattoir of online relationships. “Do you Insta?” asks Alex at one point. Claire has to google it.

The (dry) joke is that Alex falls for her because she’s not like the other young women he comes across online, being wise and interested in serious things etc. And she falls for him because he’s hot and young and she used to be hot and young too, and she wants that back, and everything that being hot and young gave her access to.

Nebbou shows us that Claire’s fascination with this man does have a rejuvenating effect on her. At parties Claire downs shots and dances wildly. In a scene that’s erotic rather than seedy, Alex brings Claire to a phone-sex orgasm. And Nebbou does it all with a camera that seems to have enabled its Instagram filter setting (I know there’s no such thing). Images are crisp and seem cleaned up, while the editing is sharp and quick. This has the effect of driving the story forward rather than leaving it to sit in the potential murkiness of what’s going on. Ibrahim Maalouf’s soundtrack of sweetly tinkling piano and strings also steers us away from the dark side.

Ultimately, Alex barely figures. He’s an avatar of hotness and youth. This is a story about a woman who, though an academic, has perhaps traded more on her looks than she might like to admit, and is now finding that the curtain has come down on that particular show. In a couple of brief scenes, when Claire and Alex are meant to finally meet in the flesh, he’s there and she’s there but he cannot see her, even though she’s right in front of him. The invisibility of women over 50.

Who You Think I Am offers two alternate endings, one real and tragic, the other happier though also ultimately doomed. The narrative loose ends are all tied up but in doing so the film reveals that it’s been playing the same game with us that Claire has been playing with Alex. It makes for an ending that’s satisfying logically if not entirely emotionally. Emotional reaction – just borrow someone else’s, hey?

Who You Think I Am – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

© Steve Morrissey 2021


Virgine and Bill walking

There are two stories being told in Stillwater, one well, the other other not so well. Unfortunately for all concerned, it’s the one that’s told not so well that the film insists it’s all about, from its title all the way through to its concluding scenes.

At 2 hours 19 minutes you’d have thought that there was time to give both stories a fair screw, but clearly something has happened between greenlighting and debut. That “something” might be lawyers, given what it’s about.

Because it’s a loose adaptation of the Amanda Knox story. This was the messy and unsatisfyingly concluded case of the young American woman found guilty of killing a fellow exchange student, Meredith Kercher, in Italy in 2007. Knox was found guilty, then later exonerated because she was innocent. Or perhaps she was the victim of a botched investigation by the Italian police. Or maybe she was set free simply because she was a) American and b) hot – she wasn’t called Foxy Knoxy by the tabloid papers for nothing. Messy.

Abigail Breslin plays the Knox avatar, Allison Baker, banged up in a French jail for the murder of her lover, with Matt Damon as Bill Baker, the dad who has come out to try and do some investigating of his own now that officialdom has lost interest in the case.

Breslin Schmeslin, It could be anyone playing Allison, Breslin gets so little screen time, and in fact Allison’s story is all but abandoned in the central section, when Bill leans on a single mother for help with his non-existent French language skills and winds up becoming close to the woman and her cute daughter.

The fact that it’s Matt Damon as Bill is enough, isn’t it, to suggest that the film is more about him than his daughter. It is satisfyingly about him too, don’t get me wrong. Damon is really rather fantastic as the tattooed, god-fearing, respectful (many a “yes, ma’am”), hard-working meat-and-potatoes Oklahoma rigger who’s made a mess of family life first time round and is delighted, if loathe to admit it, to be given a second crack at it with the lithe, bubbly, compassionate and keen Virginie.

It’s Camille Cottin as Virginie, who you might know from the brilliant French TV dramedy Call My Agent, where she was a tough-nut actors’ agent in dog-eat-dog Paris. Not Virginie at all, though Cottin pulls off the switch, while staying recognisably herself. (Incidentally, given how brilliant everyone in that show was, it is slightly mystifying that it’s Cottin who’s done so well out of it – must have a good agent).

Bill and Maya
Bill and Maya

Cute kid Maya is played by Lilou Siauvaud, and what a loose and plausible miracle she is as the eight/nine-year-old child who, really, takes Bill under her wing and then forces maman to do the same.

There’s a third story too, which would link the Allison and the Virginie strands, if there was enough of the Allison strand, and that’s of bluff Bill, in full “I’m an American citizen, dammit” mode, charging about banging heads, trying to interrogate locals to find out what happened to his daughter, and locate a guy called Akim (Idir Azougli), who might be the key to it all.

Meanwhile, though it’s never stated out loud, French cultural superiority is quietly asserted throughout, with Bill becoming a better, more civilised person as he drops his boorish American ways and takes on aspects of French culture – a glass of wine, a trip to the theatre, turning off the damn TV when he’s eating his dinner.

Tom McCarthy knows how to write and direct offbeat relationship dramas (The Station Agent, the film that made Peter Dinklage’s name) and he knows how to write and direct urgent procedurals (like Spotlight, about Boston Globe reporters revealing the complicity of the Catholic Church in child abuse). Stillwater has aspects of both – Bill forging a new surrogate family with Virginie and Maya and Bill private-eyeing his way round a Marseille that doesn’t want to speak to him.

Stillwater it’s called, after the town Bill and Allison come from, and it’s that one word, Stillwater, that eventually provides the key to unlocking the truth of the Allison Baker case, which McCarthy picks up again towards the end, hoping maybe that we won’t have noticed that Allison is little more than a Maguffin in Bill’s story. Given its high profile, why McCarthy went for the Knox story at all, only to use it as little more than window dressing, is a puzzler.

Stillwater – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

© Steve Morrissey 2021

The Great Silence

Jean-Louis Trintignant as Silence

One of the great puzzles about Sergio Corbucci’s 1968 spaghetti western The Great Silence (Il Grande Silenzio) is how shakily it starts. In one gruesomely unsteady shot after another, using lenses that are way too long, cinematographer Silvano Ippoliti appears to be putting on a demonstration of the genre’s technical shortcomings, with distant figures swinging wildly all over the frame, rendering action almost impossible to follow.

Stick with it, it settles down. By the end, as events build towards a climax that’s satisfying because it’s so unexpected, Ippoliti and Corbucci have relaxed into a groove and are delivering cinematic storytelling at its finest. Scenes play out in as much time as feels necessary, minor characters get enough space to develop, the weather and landscape become a more obvious part of the plot dynamics, wide establishing shots are contrasted with severe close-ups and dramatic switchback editing, while Ennio Morricone’s score soars in a sweet and ultimately ironic way.

Morricone thought it one of his best, and Corbucci also thought The Great Silence one of his best films. The settings really help. Rather than shoot on the Spanish plain, where so many Euro-westerns were made, Corbucci took off for the Italian Dolomites, which stand in for a snowbound Utah, where an elemental story plays out all the better in the stark white landscapes.

Star Jean-Louis Trintignant could speak no English and so it was decided to make his character a mute – I’ve no idea why this was a problem since the whole film was dubbed (appallingly) anyway – he is the Silence of the title, though obviously the Great Silence, like the Big Sleep, is another euphemism for Death.

So maybe not a Man with No Name, but certainly a Man with No Voice, Silence is the familiar lone, sharpshooting gunman, sucking on a cheroot as he rights wrongs in a West that is about to be civilised – “the old West is dead” , says a minor character early on. But it isn’t quite.

Wearing the black hat is Klaus Kinski as the psychopathic killer Tigrero (or Loco, depending on the dub you’re watching), leader of a gang of bounty hunters who are keen to kill as many outlaws as they can before an upcoming amnesty ruins their business, and they don’t care too much how how sloppily they go about their work, particularly Tigrero.

Klaus Kinski as the mad Tigrero
Klaus Kinski as the mad Tigrero

So when a widow loses her son, and a woman her husband, they both turn to Silence for help. Cue a series of gunfights in which Silence always “draws second, but shoots first,” as Tigrero has observed, a fact he’ll put to use when the eventual showdown between the two men climaxes the film.

It’s a case of the familiar and the slightly novel – Kinski plays the whackjob Tigrero as a slightly effeminate man, the ineffectually stupid but honest town sheriff is played by Frank Wolff, who’s usually a gruff baddie, Silence gets some love interest in the shape of the particularly effective Vonetta McGee, a black woman out West being a rare sight in 1960s westerns, one with this much agency doubly so.

The film is often described as a left wing or anti-capitalist western, on account of the outlaws being fairly benign and the bounty hunters being the bad guys. But there’s a right wing reading to be had too, since the bounty hunters are instruments of a big state that’s overreaching itself. Perhaps The Great Silence’s great strength is its elemental nature – stark figures against a white backdrop, like a version of shadow-puppet theatre, add your own ideology. As for the idea, floated by Corbucci himself, that he was addressing in some way the deaths of Che Guevara and Malcolm X… bizarre. The Great Silence does not wander far from the western’s beaten track thematically, not matter which way you squint.

Things do not end well for Silence and Pauline (McGee) and the orgy-of-killing grand finale is considered by many to be a problem. The studio didn’t like it, for one, and asked for an alternative happy ending, which they also didn’t like.

You can see those endings on the newish restorations. Film Movement do a 50th anniversary one in the US and in the UK I suspect (because most of the extras are the same) that the invariably excellent Eureka are using the same 2K scan of the original negative on their UK release.

The Great Silence – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

© Steve Morrissey 2021


Aileen and W Eugene Smith

From its title right through to its last gasp, Minamata insists that it isn’t about the photographer W Eugene Smith. But it is.

Smith was a photographer who’d distinguished himself in the Second World War and then returned to lay down many of the ground rules of photojournalism at Life magazine, he and it in a creative lockstep from the 1940s till the 1970s, when it ceased weekly publication and he went on to the great darkroom in the sky.

The film picks up Smith at the end of his career in 1971: old, drunk, broke, selling off his gear to pay his rent and barely able to command the attention of Life magazine editor Robert Hayes, who tolerates Smith on account of his reputation as one of the great figures of modern-day American photography.

Then one day, in classic redemptive style, Smith is handed a chance of “one more shot” by a young Japanese woman who’s arranged an interview with him under false pretences. She’s not there to get an endorsment for Fuji colour film – Smith only takes black and white pictures anyway and is mystified he ever agreed to the meeting, if he did – instead she’s there to talk Smith into coming to Japan to take photographs of the people of the Minimata bay area, who are plagued by diseases of the central nervous system.

These are caused, the locals are convinced, by the chemical waste being pumped into the local water courses by the Chisso Corporation. Chisso refuses to acknowledge even that there’s a problem, though the effects – children born with deformities, adults succumbing to contorting spasms – extend even to animals, hence one of the syndrome’s nicknames, Dancing Cat Disease (“dancing” being quite the euphemism, as actual archive footage of a cat contorted into hideous shapes shows).

The toxic chemical in question turned out to be mercury, a bioaccumulant, but no one knew that at the time. What they did know was that the company, responsible for the ongoing pollution, was staying tight-lipped while the situation got steadily worse.

Johnny Depp and Bill Nighy
Johnny Depp and Bill Nighy

Smith arrives in Japan, to find activists picketing the plant and organising, and he goes to work, while Chisso’s president keeps a wary eye on the American blow-in and prepares for foul play.

Three stories develop – of corporate malfeasance, environmental disaster and personal redemption – carefully woven together as if by a parent trying not to admit that one child (Smith) is the favourite. It’s a strangely old fashioned movie, in many ways, reminiscent of 1979’s The China Syndrome or 2000’s Erin Brockovich, and director and co-writer Andrew Levitas is comfortable enough with that notion to use dramatic compression (he’s probably making odd incidents up, in other words) to get across points that would simply bog down the narrative otherwise, like when Smith almost accidentally finds a dossier that handily explains the extent of the company’s guilt.

It’s a bearded, grey-haired, chunky Johnny Depp playing Smith, the film as much a redemption for him as for his character. He’s good. Very good. There’s the odd Deppish Mannerism – he’ll fill whole movies with these if the wind is coming from the wrong direction – but most of them he catches on the way out and repurposes into something Smith might do – a drunken mumble, maybe.

The adjacently named Japanese actor Minami plays redeeming angel Aileen, a woman who treats Smith like a child and will countenance no bullshit, but sweetly. Bill Nighy makes a decent fist of the American accent (mostly) and of playing Hayes, an old school editor of the All the President’s Men variety, and singer Katherine Jenkins makes her acting debut as one of his editorial team. Odd casting, both of them, but effective. And Kiroyuki Sanada does what he can with an underwritten role as the Japanese activist who’s been trying to hold Chisso’s feet to the fire.

It’s a well-upholstered Hollywood sedan of a movie, with a classic three act structure working hard to avoid the “white saviour” tag, shot by DP Benoît Delhomme with an eye on classic photographic composition – so often on the thirds – and with a soundtrack by Ryuichi Sakamoto that’s particularly good at the redemptive end of the drama.

And there is plenty of redemption being shared out. Even Chisso boss Junichi Nojima (Jun Kunimura) gets some. He’s less your scheming megacorp master villain than a man led astray by company loyalty. Whether the film can redeem Depp – those wife beater allegations were swirling when Minamata was slated to debut – remains to be seen.

Minamata: The Story of the Poisoning of a City, and of the People Who Choose to Carry the Burden of Courage. Pictures and words by W Eugene Smith and Aileen M Smith. Buy it at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

© Steve Morrissey 2021

Beasts Clawing at Straws

Jeon Do-yeon

Beasts Clawing at Straws also goes by the English-language title of Beasts That Cling to the Straw but Rats in a Sack would also be a useful way of translating its original Korean title. It’s a story about different sets of people, all connected by a Louis Vuitton holdall full of cash, which we first see in the movie’s opening shot. Then, in 1960s heist-movie opening-credit style, the camera follows the holdall at its level while an unidentified someone carries it to a left luggage locker and leaves it there. As the movie ends, the bag is once again picked up and the camera follows it, again at bag height, off out onto its further adventures, where it will doubtless be spreading more mayhem and getting a whole lot more people killed.

But that’s for another movie. To get back to this one, we meet three different people, all in the sort of trouble that money can fix. Joong-man (Bae Sung-woo) is a cleaner with an aged and difficult mother at home, where his wife struggles to take care of the abusive and cantankerous old woman. In a brothel, pretty star turn Mi-ran (Shin Hyon bin) is a married woman who is regularly taking a beating at home from her asshole husband. At the airport, Tae-young (Jung Woo-sung) is a customs official who owes a massive amount of money to a violent gangster.

Tae-young explains to Park Doo-man why he can't pay him
Tae-young explains to Park Doo-man why he can’t pay him

In six distinctive chapters – Debts, Bait, Food Chain, Shark, Lucky Strike and Money Bag – debut writer/director Kim Yong-hoon first expands and works through each of these stories individually, giving each protagonist a chance to demonstrate their poor decision-making skills as they come into contact with “the bag”, then adds in a touch of dumb luck for good measure, before starting to connect all three stories up, upping the bloodletting as he goes.

Tonally, things have shifted from what looked like a 1960s heist movie into something more like a 1940s thriller, except lit up like a Hong Kong movie from the 1990s. So – pools of shadow matching the dark motivation of people’s souls, with bright splashes of lurid colour. Primal drives in primary colours.

The Coen brothers spring to mind, in their Blood Simple/Raising Arizona homage years, or Tarantino, Kim slaloming between the tense and the flippantly comic – a touch of Bong Joon Ho’s 2003 classic Memories of Murder in there, maybe? – with a demonstration of a skilful knowledge of genre boundaries. He skips into gruesome, thrillerish territory only to skip back out a minute or two later, Nene Kang’s score indicating the change of mood – Bernard Herrmann urgency here, Lalo Schifrin flippancy there – in case you hadn’t spotted it.

Clichés abound. The loquacious gangster, the tart with a heart, the unstoppable silent henchman. But Kim plays with them (and us) while occasionally wheeling out choreographed cameras and slick editing in set pieces where he demonstrates what an accomplished director he is, if the more subtle stuff hadn’t convinced you already.

Focus hard on the opening set-ups and you will be rewarded. The scene-setting is so familiar-looking that it’s easy not to fully take in all the details about these three characters. Half-watch at your peril. The fact that the timelines appear to be slightly wonky doesn’t help at first either, but all eventually becomes clear and in retrospect everything does actually make sense.

Really, at bottom, it’s a comedy, with lots of blood and the odd bit of gruesomeness and big performances that are entirely in keeping with the film’s ethos. This is actors as chess pieces in a director’s tightly constructed, storyboard-driven scenario – “cattle”, as Hitchcock put it, perhaps deliberately to goad thespians of the Method era – not actors as storytellers seeking their truth by interrogating the text etc.

Enjoy the spectacle, in other words.

Beasts Clawing at Straws – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

© Steve Morrissey 2021