The Outfit

Leonard slumped over his cutting table

Why didn’t someone think of it sooner? The Outfit – could be a criminal organisation, could be something you’d wear. How about writing a drama that conflates and confuses the two, and make it about… er… a tailor who somehow gets caught up in the work of a criminal establishment.

The conceit is worn transparent in Graham Moore’s debut as a feature director. Like a bespoke suit this is a handsomely assembled item, made from fine materials and put together with care and a conservative eye. It’s also more than slightly theatrical, and it would be easy to imagine events playing out in a darkened small theatre.

Events? A bit of plot. We meet Leonard, aka “English”, a Savile Row cutter (he disdains the word “tailor”) somehow now based in 1950s Chicago, where he acts as something of a front and dead-letter drop for a local mob, whose mooks, Richie (Dylan O’Brien) and Francis (Johnny Flynn) pay him regular calls. It hasn’t escaped Leonard’s sharp if downcast eye that Richie and his secretary-cum-surrogate-daughter Mable (Zoey Deutch) have something going on. Richie is the crime boss’s possibly over-advanced son, Francis the newboy upstart who might… you know… like newboy upstarts tend to in gangster movies. But that all happens later on. For the moment we’re enjoying Rylance playing his scenes with Deutch full of “if I were 30 years younger” pathos.

Later, there is gunplay, some scores are settled, it turns out that the FBI have planted a bug in Leonard’s shop, and there might be a rat – Leonard? Mable? Richie? Francis? Surely not Roy (Simon Russell Beale), the boss kingpin?

Richie and Mable
Something between Richie and Mable?

There is death and tension but mostly there is a lot of talking, in scenes which Moore and co-writer Johnathan McClain design as one-on-one encounters. In turn each of the actors gets a little masterclass with Mark Rylance. They all do well – Deutch as the sweet, sexy possibly more-dangerous-than-she-looks Mable, O’Brien (suddenly no longer the eternal teenager) as the weak young man hiding in his father’s shadow, Flynn as the smart, ambitious lieutenant… until eventually Simon Russell Beale turns up in scenes where Roy is wondering where his son Richie has got to, leading to what’s designed as the film’s high point. An acting slam between Rylance and Beale. It’s interesting to watch, each man edging the other towards a charge of upstaging by underacting. A kind of theatrical “After you!” “No, after you.”

Three of the five big roles are being handled by Brits – Flynn (born in South Africa, raised in the UK), Rylance, Beale – and along with the theatrical atmosphere generated by the slightly heightened acting style, the performative soundtrack by Alexandre Desplat and the deliberately nicotine/sepia cinematography by Dick Pope, the impression given is of a film flying its theatrical flag proudly.

It’ll come as no surprise to anyone watching that the meek tailor, sorry, cutter, has a bit more backstory than at first appears. There’s a reason why he fled “the Row” and, going back even further, a reason why he found himself on Savile Row in the first place, the home of bespoke tailoring/cutting/whatever. And it helps explain how come a weary and defeated-looking man can actually be one if not two steps ahead of the bad guys most of the time.

It is all very well tailored and finely crafted and the total effect, possibly intentionally, is of being held at arm’s length for the duration. A bit like being fitted for a suit and being turned this way and that as an expert runs a tape measure over your body.

The Outfit – watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

100 Years of… Grandma’s Boy

Sonny in shrunken suit being laughed at

A prime slice of Harold Lloyd, Grandma’s Boy isn’t as famous as Safety Last! (the one where he dangles from a clock), but it is just as good as an example of his skills.

Like the other two members of the Big Three of silent funnymen, Lloyd, like Chaplin and Keaton, often found himself tangling with men much manlier than himself. But whereas Chaplin’s Tramp and Keaton’s Stoneface had a steely puckishness and an aggressive intelligence, Lloyd’s “Glasses” character (as he called the guy in the specs) did not. He was generally speaking more the have-a-go Ordinary Joe. In Grandma’s Boy, “Glasses” is also a weakling and a coward, a Mummy’s Boy squared, and not the sharpest knife in the drawer.

The film is important for helping to popularise the feature-length comedy. Chaplin’s last film as a hired hand, 1914’s Tillie’s Punctured Romance, was the first, but comedy shorts had continued to reign supreme in the interim and longer comedies didn’t really take off until the 1920s, when The Kid (Chaplin), The Saphead (Keaton) and Grandma’s House broke through.

It’s ironic, then, that Grandma’s House started life as a short, about a cowardly and weak soldier (no prizes) and his adventures in the American Civil War. That short forms a central part of the film, where it becomes a reminiscence by the grandmother of Sonny (Lloyd) about the exploits of his grandfather and how a magical talisman gave Sonny’s ancestor the courage he naturally lacked. All this related to Sonny by his grandma because he’s been found wanting in all the manly departments. Not only has he failed to get the girl (Mildred Davis, who later became Lloyd’s wife), but he’s been bullied (thrown down a well!) by his rival in love (Charles Stevenson) and has also balked at evicting a violent hobo (Dick Sutherland) from grandma’s garden.

Mildred Davis and Harold Lloyd
But will he get the girl?

As feature-length films go, it’s short at just one hour long, but there are a number of elements you still see in Hollywood comedies today, like the montage backstory opening sequence following Sonny (wearing glasses even as a toddler) trying and failing to exhibit any of the right stuff growing up. There’s a forerunner of the ironic/comic voiceover (intertitle cards, in fact, but these do jokes!). Plus the sort of sight gags you might associate later on with Adam Sandler, hapless, hopeless Sonny getting his finger stuck in a knick knack he’s nervously playing with while attempting to court His Girl (as Davis is billed). Or the sequence when His Girl’s kittens becoming overly interested in Sonny’s shoes, on account of grandma (a spry 77-year-old Anna Townsend, who also turned up in Safety Last!) having accidentally polished them with goose grease. Simpler times.

(Slight digression but Sandler’s comedy The Waterboy got sued by Harold Lloyd’s grand-daughter, who reckoned it was too close to Lloyd’s 1925 hit The Freshman. She lost the case, but someone else clearly saw the Sandler/Lloyd read-across.)

Lloyd is not as inventive as Chaplin or Keaton, but he does have a few things they don’t have – he’s less “back of the room” in his performing style, and he’s more emotionally nuanced. His eternal-optimist persona and regular-guy clothes (he’s a dapper 1920s fellow) also set him apart.

Unlike Chaplin and Keaton, Lloyd didn’t generally speaking write or direct his own films, though he did, crucially, own the company that made them and was much more actively involved in the creative side of things than the credits suggest. He also knew how to surround himself with good people. A case in point is his cinematographer here, Walter Lundin, who isn’t much of a name when it comes to the greats of the craft but gives Grandma’s Boy a picturesque look here and there that was uncommon at the time. In most films of this era, just getting something in the can was the main concern.

Is Grandma’s Boy still funny? It has its inspired moments and Lloyd’s athleticism is something to watch, even though pratfalls are used a bit too often and there is even the odd instance of a joke that’s used once and then used again not long afterwards. Something neither Chaplin nor Keaton would ever have done.

Enjoyable certainly, admirable definitely… but laugh-out-loud funny? Not as such.

Grandma’s Boy (as part of The Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection) – watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

BAC Nord

Greg Cerva draws his gun

BAC Nord (released by Netflix as The Stronghold) tells the story of a case that’s notorious in the annals of French policing, when a unit of Marseille cops was hauled in and accused of drug trafficking and dealing. Their defence? They were part of an undercover and slightly off-limits operation ordered from higher up and now being officially denied.

Whether that was or wasn’t the case is what the film is about, though it makes it clear from the beginning that it clearly was. And in the characters of the three main characters – granite-tough middle-aged leader Grégory Cerva (Gilles Lellouche), new family man Yass (Karim Leklou) and charming playa Antoine (François Civil) – it takes great pains to present us with three musketeers who sail into the toughest of situations, all for one and one for all, and who usually come through victorious, though the odd rule might have been bent on the way.

Tough situations demand tough responses, Dirty Harry style, is the idea. Director/co-writer Cédric Jimenez starts his film with a series of brilliantly shot, tightly edited action sequences, full of energy, with edits that cut right into the meat, while the sound design – epecially at Brigade AntiCriminel Nord base – suggests chaos, and life on the streets and in the high rises on their beat is the same. We are with these guys. We see life from their point of view. We’re in their soup.

The actual detail of the contentious operation – scare up as much cannabis as you can by stealing it off smalltime dealers, then use that to buy information from a grass (Kenza Fortas) about where the big guys are – is actually secondary to the genre stylistics, with Jimenez moving from a verbose Tarantino homage early on (the guys talking shit), then into something closer to Miami Vice (the guys trying to play both sides) and on into the all-action, us-against-many dynamic of The Raid (the guys launch their attack on the drug kingpins) before finally an Internal Affairs/Line of Duty storyline develops (the guys are accused of being criminals themselves).

Yass, Antoine, Greg and Nora
Yass, Antoine, Greg and Nora

Midway between genre and something more, the film found itself caught up in the middle of a political debate. Suddenly BAC Nord was being repurposed from something it was about (cops undercover) into something it wasn’t (a state of the nation drama). Some commentators wondered why it took the police’s side and presented the residents of the projects as a baying, masked and undifferentiated mob (answer: the film isn’t about them). Others, the right-wing presidential hopeful Éric Zemmour, for instance, held up BAC Nord as a proof of the problems Muslims cause in France (to this: nice try. Karim Leklou, playing one of the good guys, has Muslim ancestry).

Put simply, the film cannot take this kind of scrutiny. Jimenez may have risen to the bait when the pile-on started, but really he shouldn’t have. This is a story about cops doing their best in a tough situation, and then getting hung out to dry.

Along the way we’re reminded how good Gilles Lellouche is at playing rock-hard guys with a short fuse, that Civil has movie-star chops as well as movie-star looks and that three’s often a crowd when it comes to this sort of thing. For all Leklou’s abilities, he’s sold short by the screenplay, while Adèle Exarchopoulos, as his new-mum wife, trails along as an afterthought, part of the screenplay’s indecision about how “genre” it wanted to be.

Watch it for Lellouche. Watch it as a cautionary tale about helping out a boss who wants something done off the books. Watch it as a fine piece of film-making at a craft level (lovely cinematography, sound design and soundtrack – all of them urgent). Don’t watch it as a film about France in the 21st century, though no one’s stopping you.

BAC Nord aka The Stronghold – watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

The Souvenir: Part II

Honor Swinton Byrne as Julie

The Souvenir: Part II makes sense of Part I, which seems like an obvious thing to say. But some sequels genuinely are sequels (The Godfather: Part II), fleshing out and adding to the original. Others are merely retellings of a story that’s already been told (The Matrix Reloaded). Joanna Hogg’s film fits into a third camp, of sequels whose purpose can only be understood as a part of a whole. Which is a long-winded way of saying that if you didn’t quite go the massive appreciative bundle on Part I, as many in the commentariat did, Part II might finally convince you.

A refresher: the story is essentially Hogg’s own, of going to film school and finding herself in thrall to a dangerous charming man called Anthony (played by Tom Burke in the first film and glimpsed in flashback again here), who turns out to be a junkie, with tragic consequences.

Part II takes up the where Part I left off, with Julie (as Hogg’s avatar, played by Honor Swinton Byrne) recovering from the trauma of her relationship, dusting herself down and starting all over again by setting out to make her graduation film, which turns out to be all about a doomed relationship with a wildly charismatic man. Hey ho.

So, in a sense, the student film is The Souvenir: Part I all over again, which is not just a novelty but also – as things start to fractal into infinity – an indicator of how deeply the relationship affected Hogg.

As Jule makes her film (and Hogg makes hers), along the way some scores are settled. With the sexy but obviously exploitative Anthony most obviously. With various “types” of film folk who may be still students but their dies seem already cast. The handsome actor who thinks he can have whoever he wants, because he can, nicely played in wham-bam fashion by Charlie Heaton. The up-himself director who’s all “my art” and “my process”, a return by Richard Ayoade. The lighting cameraman who oversteps the mark. The friend and actress who automatically assumes she’s going to be cast. She isn’t. The film school’s senior staff, who tell Julie she’ll never get anywhere making a film that is obviously precisely the sort of film that Hogg has made a career out of – see Unrelated, Archipelago and Exhibition – because she has no real script.

Julie's parents William and Rosalind
Meet the parents: William and Rosalind

But that’s how Julie wants to do it, and how Hogg works. The actors get some instruction as to what the scene contains, a bit like the way a “scripted reality” TV show operates, at some level, and then Julie/Hogg leaves them to get on with it. This necessitates a certain style of shooting – long takes, fairly static camera, unfussy (if any) lighting.

It works every time, in terms of squeezing something out of her characters that might not come otherwise. Hogg’s films are full of people struggling not to say the thing that should be said, or vice versa.

For fun Hogg throws in some half-hearted genre pastiche – glimpses of other students’ films, a dream sequence – to show she can make “proper” films, and some classically beautiful Ozu-like pillow shots of trees in blossom and flowers dappling backlit meadows, to show she can do that too.

The entire thing is, in a way, a tongue-out justification of her “process”. And as the film progresses, The Souvenir: Part II becomes more about film-making, and its collaborative nature, than it is about Julie’s journey back to wellness, though they go hand in hand.

Good cast. Tilda Swinton (mother of Honor Swinton Byrne) and James Spencer Ashworth as Julie’s one-notch-below-nobility parents and Ariane Labed and Harris Dickinson as the actors who play out Julie and Anthony’s doomed story in Julie’s graduation film. Again, things start to fractal off into infinity.

Cineaste bolthole Sight and Sound magazine loved it to the point of calling it the film of the 2021. To an extent that’s understandable. This is a film that’s not just about film-making but also about the importance of cinema (in a streaming world that’s a hard corner to fight). But don’t let an arthouse imprimatur put you off watching it. Static and subtle The Souvenir: Part II might be, but it’s also entirely gripping, an exercise in deferring the gratification of closure to the point where the sensation becomes exquisite.

The Souvenir: Part II – watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

Paul Is Dead


Paul Is Dead. Depending on your age, most likely, the title of Henk Handloegten’s debut feature might suggest an entire landscape, maybe tickle a vague memory somewhere or pull up a complete blank.

The Paul in question is Paul McCartney and the phrase refers to the bizarre conspiracy theory suggesting that at some point in the Beatles’ career, McCartney died, forcing the Beatles to get in a lookalike McCartney in order to keep the band going. The fact that the doppelganger also had the original McCartney’s ability to knock out million-selling tunes is not something the conspiracy theorists ever explain, but then, in the way of these things, who needs facts when you’ve got hocus pocus? (Maybe the “real” Paul had a secret stash of already written songs – like the Live and Let Die Bond theme, for instance, a film that wasn’t even on the drawing board when “Paul” died. Fabulists gonna fabulate.)

The time is 1980 and the place West Germany, where cusping-puberty Tobias, his older brother and friends are all Beatles obsessives who not only know every fact, but every factoid about the Fab Four’s existence, and regularly quiz each other on the more arcane details. So when Tobias one day happens upon a White VW Beetle in his hometown, one with the registration LMW 281F, it’s only a matter of time before the pfennig drops. Of course! That’s the car that features on the cover of the Beatles Abbey Road album, the one on which Paul is bare foot (hence dead) walking across the zebra crossing, the one on which he’s out of step (hence dead) with his bandmates.

The white VW Beetle from the Abbey Road cover
Does this Beetle mean anything to you?

In voiceover/gumshoe style anticipating Rian Johnson’s Brick by five years, Tobias goes into junior detective mode, having first had the scales removed from his eyes by a record store owner who lays out the whole “Paul is dead” thesis and runs him through some of the proofs – signs and symbols on album covers, backwards voices on records, John Lennon apparently singing “I buried Paul” on the outro of Strawberry Fields Forever.

A thriller plays out, of sorts, though really Handloegten is giving us a coming-of-age story in disguise. Not even in that much of a disguise, to be honest. But he does it with a light touch that had me wondering how such a talented writer/director could not have had more of a high-profile career. It turns out that Handloegten is one of the triumvirate of creatives (along with Tom Tykwer and Achim von Borries, who turns up in a cameo here as “The one and only Billy Shears”) behind Babylon Berlin, one of the most satisfying TV shows of recent decades. I bet everyone at Netflix answers his calls.

Like Babylon Berlin, Paul Is Dead knows how to conjure a time and a place, but it’s also good on teenage lads, situating us inside the mindset of Tobias – girls becoming an interest but not so much that Tobias is diverted by whatever it is that his older brother Till is doing with his girlfriend Tessa – in a way that is reminiscent of The Wonder Years, or Stand by Me, or Spielberg with his lads-on-bicycles hat on. The almost insanely warm cinematography of Florian Hoffmeister amplifies the impression.

It’s a snug and cute film, brief too, at 75mins (not even that, excluding credits) and with entirely winning performances from the entire cast, particularly Sebastian Urzendowsky (who was then going by the surname Schmidtke) as the wide-eyed Tobias, most particularly when Tobias, alone in his room, is imagining himself as a successful rock star being interviewed by a famous DJ, switching brilliantly between louche artist and engaged interviewer as he asks and answers questions.

All this – mixtapes, first sex, obsessive fan worship, conspiracies, claims to specialness – and Beatles music on the soundtrack, enough so we know it’s them, not so much that massive rights payments had to be made. What an adroit, atmospheric and clever movie this is.

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

Brother 2

Danila with a gun

The gang’s all back together for the sequel to BrotherBrother 2, unsurprisingly. That includes the writer/director Aleksey Balabanov, star Sergey Bodrov, key members of the support cast, notably Viktor Sukhorukov as the titular brother, plus cinematographer Sergey Astakhov, editor Marina Lipartiya, composer Vyacheslav Butusov and even the chunky knit sweater that Bodrov wore through most of the first film.

Amusingly, Balabanov starts off his sequel with a direct callback to the first film – a scene in which Bodrov’s Danila, an ex-soldier and hitman of the cool, unassuming sort, wanders on to a film set, just as he did first time out. This time, though, Danila is in Moscow rather than St Petersburg. This time he isn’t instantly hauled off the set for being a persona non grata. This time, their statuses now switched, brother Viktor is at home with mamma, having had his assed saved at the end of the first film by his younger brother. Viktor won’t remain there long.

It’s worth remembering, watching this sequel, how successful the first film was, particularly with a certain youthful demographic who saw the Russia they inhabited – the “shock treatment” suggested by western economists having collapsed the economy – reflected in a story set on the streets where life was fighting back against the collapse, often in ugly yet vital ways.

It’s now three years later, in 2000, and Russia is getting back on its feet. That newfound optimism suffuses this sequel. In early scenes Danila meets up with some old Chechen veterans like himself, for a TV interview, he befriends a pop star (Irina Saltykova playing herself), he hangs out at a spa where beers are drunk and naked girls are glimpsed. Things are looking up.

Until an army buddy of Danila’s is killed, and Danila finds himself caught up in a complex war between the Russian mafia, its Ukrainian counterpart, and a crooked American ice hockey entrepreneur hoping to milk assets in Russia, with mafia help.

Irina Saltykova and Sergey Bodrov
Irina Saltykova plays herself

Up to here the film is fine, a reminder of how smartly made and played the original was – it’s lean, evocative, drily funny, drole, violent when necessary, a bit like Get Carter in fact. And then Balabanov, hoping to make wider points about the rise of Russia by comparing it to the old adversary, America, shifts the action to Chicago, where Danila and his crew, including the similarly cool Ilya (Kirill Pirogov) and Danila’s recently arrived buffoonish brother Viktor, head to avenge Kostya, their dead comrade.

Here Balabanov gets expansive, with sweet subplots about Danila being taken under the wing by a truck driver (Ray Toler) and a TV presenter (Lisa Jeffrey), and adds sprinklings of Crocodile Dundee fish-out-of-water comedy of the “THAT’s a knife” sort.

Bodrov remains a cool presence and his character Danila, a mix of luck and charm, holds the film together. But it’s not as pacey as the first film. Balabanov starts taking patriotic detours designed to convince the home audience that America too has its deficiencies. The gap between white and black, have and have-not. Add that to what has already become perilously close to a travelogue (complete with sightseeing montage sequences) and things really start to silt up.

The soundtrack charges forwards regardless, with music designed to appeal to the youthful audiences of 2000. Viktor – a sexist, racist homophobe of the old Soviet school – is milked for his comedy value. A Russian expat prostitute Dasha (Darya Yurgens) adds street smarts. The needle between Russian and Ukrainian mafias is explored in a way that seems more significant over 20 years later (as I type the Russian war on Ukraine is in full flow).

There’s lots to get hold of. But more isn’t always better. At least Danila’s knight errant persona holds true and the film remains as charming and likeable as its star, but it’s undeniably flabby. A Brother 3 was mooted. It never got made.

Brother 2 – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022


Nitram and a burning car

Nitram is a tough sell: a film about the Port Arthur shooting in 1996 – 35 dead, 23 wounded at the hand of a lone gunman called Martin Bryant – it was controversial in Australia, where the shooting occurred, and unsurprisingly several politicians were particularly vocal in campaigning against it.

The fact that Australian’s gun laws were changed in the aftermath of the shooting might suggest culpable hostility on the part of politicians who had clearly been asleep on the job if a man with restricted intelligence, with a history of reckless behaviour and with no firearms licence could easily buy enough weapons to supply a small army.

It’s a tough sell, though, not because it’s about watching a disturbed man warming up for the slaughter of innocents but because we’ve all seen this sort of thing before – excluded loner gets gun, goes crazy.

Writer Shaun Grant and director Justin Kurzel famously broke through with the remarkable Snowtown and are back, to an extent, on the same ground – Australian suburban murder. Snowtown had sodomy, animal body parts and obvious good and bad guys to add a certain melodramatic glamour to its story. Nitram is a much more subtle affair, a hunt for a bad guy where it’s possible that no bad guy actually exists.

At the centre of it all is Caleb Landry Jones as Nitram (it’s “Martin” backwards), a mentally challenged man who lives with his parents – the too-cool mother (Judy Davis) and the too-emotional father (Anthony LaPaglia), a couple who are both getting on a bit and have over the years been ground down by their son’s hyperactive shenanigans.

Son, mother and father sitting in a row
Happy families?

Things seem to swing in Nitram’s way (he hates the fact everyone calls him that, but we never hear him called anything else, tellingly) when he befriends a rich eccentric dog lady (Essie Davis), who buys him a car and moves him into her house, where he becomes half son, half lover.

It seems obvious that this is just a respite on a journey towards something unpleasant because the nervy, restless camera of Kurzel and cinematographer Germain McMicking has painted Nitram as trouble from the off – he’s picked out on his own on the beach while surfers bobbing about in the sea laugh and banter together.

In an early scene at the doctor’s, the doctor asks if Mum’s request for a renewal of her son’s medication is to make his life easier or hers. The finger of blame momentarily points at her, before moving on to the father, then back to Nitram, who maybe was just born bad, before momentarily alighting on dog-lady Helen, who should perhaps know what she’s dealing with, and eventually the guy at the gun store, who is ironically the only person who actually treats Nitram as a regular guy, which is all he ultimately wants.

Blame shifting comes in the performances, too – Caleb Landry Jones has garnered accolades for his snot-and-screaming performance but he’s actually more impressive in the quieter moments when, with a flick of an eye, he can suggest whether Nitram is on or off the meds.

Davis and LaPaglia can do no wrong in my book and with the poker-faces of seasoned experts flick us this way and that in our assessment of Nitram’s parents – good ones or bad ones, the verdict varying from second to second.

Death, thankfully, is kept off the screen. Nitram’s first shooting we watch as he walks up to the front door of a house. The door opens, he goes in and there are a series of bangs. With the second shooting, the main event, Nitram is glimpsed as if from the back seat of his car as he sets off jauntily with a big holdall over his shoulder. This is a “just sorting out a bit of business, won’t be a tick” shot, icy in its irony.

Mechanically, in terms of production skills, technique, storytelling etc, it’s hard to fault Nitram. The big question remains: how much do you want to watch a serial killer warming up for the main event? And if there’s no real insight into how and why he acted the way he did – apart from the fatal concatenation of a series of everyday events – what’s the point?

Nitram – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022


Elinore and Avatar

A 1977 movie featuring Mark Hamill about the cosmic struggle between the forces of good and evil? Wizards is of course the answer, maverick animator Ralph Bakshi’s freak-flavoured adventure, which only incidentally features Hamill, though he makes for a useful gobbet of trivia if you’re a quiz compiler.

Actually, the parallels with Star Wars are more than incidental in this one, since it really is a good v evil, tech v magic (and what was the Force, if not magic?) showdown waged between family rivals in a world far, far away – in time at least. Wizards is set on a post-apocalyptic Earth that’s still, millions of years in the future, recovering from a nuclear disaster.

In a bit of scene-setting that’s all static 2D imagery over roiling backgrounds, Bakshi sketches in the calamity, the consequences and the origin of what will become the ultimate showdown (the Darth v Skywalker moment, if you like) – two babies born to a fine woman, a yin and yang pair called Avatar and Blackwolf, who will go on to become arch rivals. No prizes for guessing which one will grow up to be the baddie.

Bakshi switches tack for the film proper – static backgrounds with some fairly basic 2D animation in front, the sort of stuff Disney was abandoning in the 1930s, with some multiplane-camera moments thrown in to suggest depth. Connoisseurs of Bakshi know what to expect – big blocks of colour used boldly, scarlets, and oranges and vibrant greens against monotone/monochrome backgrounds that are barely there in some cases, sketched rather than painted, aerial perspective to a minimum. This really is comic-book art come alive, though comic-book art of that late-60s/early-70s sort – sexualised women, guys who tend to lope, a suggestion at all times that the artist might have ingested psychedelics, the possibility that the wizard you see in front of you might turn into a bat, a cat, or a fantasmagorical doormat.

Blackwolf does some research

Thematically, Bakshi is on the side of magic against technology, and makes this overt with footage lifted from Nazi rallies, over which characters directly address the audience – “the ancient dictators used technology to enslave the populace,” Avatar tells us at one point (hello, Mark Zuckerberg), his never-quite-stable character switching between wise Obi Wan utterances and George Burns wisecracks out of the side of the mouth (Peter Falk was the idea, apparently), though neither of those two ever used the word “bummer”, which locates Wizards precisely both in time and cultural space.

Other vocal shadows flit. Was that one of the voice artists trying to do Winston Churchill? Wasn’t that a Beatles-y nasal twang in another character?

It’s better as a snapshot of a moment than as a film. There’s a distinct lack of dramatic tug, and Bakshi’s animation priorities now look perverse. Look at the massive amount of energy he’s put into Avatar’s youthful companion, Elinore, the buttocks, the breasts, the suggestive tilt and sway of it all.

Promising so much yet not quite delivering is a Bakshi thing – having done journeyman work on the Spider-Man TV series in the late 1960s, his feature debut, an adaptation of Robert Crumb’s cult comic Fritz the Cat, didn’t even go down well with the stoners who were its target audience. Again here, Bakshi’s sledgehammer humour counts against him, and he struggles even to stay on board with his main idea, that tech is bad and magic good.

In all, Wizards is better as a moodboard of animation styles and techniques – that’s posterised chunks of Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky you can see towards the end, as the great battle commences, alongside bits of Zulu and El Cid – Bakshi has talent to burn and knows his stuff when it comes to visuals, it’s the storytelling side of things that wanders, though it’s noticeable that the film is at its most forceful when Bakshi pares everything right back to Ralph Steadman-style angsty pen and ink.

As for Mark Hamill, he’s in there, somewhere, about 30 minutes in, says the IMDb trivia page. Hitler, he’s a lot easier to spot.

Wizards – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022


Sergey Bodrov

Brother (Brat, in the original) is unusual because it’s not only a film made in the teeth of Russia’s economic collapse in the 1990s following the “shock treatment” prescribed by neoliberal economists from other countries, but it reflects the day-to-day reality of that treatment. Without anyone actually sharpening a political axe for the whole of its 96 minute running time, Aleksey Balabanov’s film nevertheless has a very clear point to make.

There’s a clear generational aspect, too, with the focus firmly on the younger inheritors of a broken Soviet system that’s now been broken even further by western intervention. In particular it’s on Danila (Sergey Bodrov), a drifter who’s just finished his conscripted stretch fighting the Chechen war, and winds up being arrested by the police after wandering uninvited onto a closed video shoot for the band Nautilus Pompilius.

Given little more than a talking-to by the police, on account of his military service, Danila is also given a talking-to by his mother, who suggests he goes to Leningrad (as she is still calling the newly renamed St Petersburg) to stay out of trouble with his older brother. Neither the cops nor the mother are aware that Danila is in fact a hitman for hire, and that once he gets to Petersburg it’s his brother who’ll need his help not vice versa.

A familiar, almost Get Carter style story develops, with Danila as the man of few words sliding around in the Petersburg demi-monde, making friends and acquaintances from the edge-dwellers of a shattered economy – a street hustler called German, a tram driver called Sveta and Kat, a local punk with an extensive interest in drugs.

Danila and friend get drunk
Go with the flow… of vodka!

Meanwhile, Danila’s mission needs to be carried out – there’s a Chechen mafia boss to be wasted, but unbeknown to Danila he himself is also being followed by goons hired by the man who hired him.

Balabanov understands that a lot of this material is familiar and moves at pace. Scenes last no longer than they have to, the editing is brisk, and Sergey Bodrov’s performance as the taciturn and almost diffident Danila is of the charismatic/enigmatic sort. Surely a great international career would have been in prospect for the 25-year-old, if only he hadn’t died aged 30, in an avalanche in the Caucasus mountains. This film was enough to make him a star in his homeland, and spawned a sequel in 2000.

So, yes, the film was a huge success on its home turf. Some of that is down to its pace, some of it down to the star quality of its lead actor, the rest must surely be because, in an unshowy way, it is a state of the nation movie – shot entirely in a restricted range of browns, out on streets where it’s clear the infrastructure is falling apart and the people are scavenging to make ends meet.

Young people are the heroes of the movie. The older generation are too in hock to the old Soviet system, or the gangsterism it spawned. Only in scenes where Danila goes out clubbing with Kat for the night – though he’s having an affair with the older (and therefore “guilty”) Sveta – does anything like normal life intrude. They take drugs, they dance, for a moment they are free.

There’s a lot of ugliness in this film, not least in the way people die – in contorted shapes, legs jittering as life tries to cling on – a lot of vodka drinking, desperation, depredation and yet it’s not a depressing movie. Social networks – of kinship, crime, old political affiliations, of common human decency – are strong, as if humanity had been reduced to its basic building block. Not the individual – neoliberal economists take note – but the functional unit. It might be family, but it might be a group united in some common purpose, like a band – Nautilus Pompilius provide more than just the backing music to this downbeat but engaging and (if you’re not Russian) educational drama.

Brother – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

Double Lover

Chloé with Paul, or possibly Louis

Made in 2017 but with its heart firmly in 1947, François Ozon’s Double Lover (L’amant double in the original French) takes a pretty young woman, Chloé (Marine Vacth), and subjects her to a brutal gaslighting at the hands of a male psychiatrist. Two male psychiatrists, in fact, twin brothers (both played by Jérémie Renier) so alike that they can pass for each other. Except one is kind of nice and cuddly, the other is tough and sexy.

Maybe Rosemary’s Baby (another film with its heart in the late 1940s) was also in the mind of Ozon when he set about adapting Joyce Carol Oates’s Lives of the Twins, since gynaecology is at the heart of Double Lover, which opens with a shot of Chloé’s cervix right up the speculum of an examining doctor. There’s nothing wrong with you physically, the doctor opines, and so Chloé winds up in the hands, and eventually the arms, of hunky shrink Paul, only learning later on, after a bit of noirish subterfuge and pavement pounding, that he has a twin, the dark and brooding Louis, also a shrink.

From here things take a misogynistic and misanthropic turn (no one in this is particularly nice) as the film poses the age-old question – is Chloé losing her mind or are there really two shrinks who look the same but are in fact brothers? If she isn’t, then maybe her pregnancy isn’t a phantom, and if it isn’t who’s the father? Again – if she isn’t, then why do Chloé’s mother and the mother of one of Paul or possibly Louis’s ex girlfriends also look exactly the same?

As Chloé pings between the two brothers, Ozon tells a serpentine story that would be funny if it weren’t played with a straight face, and ladles on the gothic extravagance much as Philippe Rombi’s score works the thriller soundtrack angles – jangling, groaning, shrieking, shouting.

Vacth, a skinny former model playing a skinny former model who might just be in need of a decent meal, a good fuck, or a wee baby – misogynist taunts all – displays barely a shred of feminism 2.0 in a scaredy-cat performance that connects her up through Geneviève Bujold (in David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers – again the twin shrinks) back to Ingrid Bergman in 1944’s Gaslight (or Diana Wynyard, if the original British Gaslight is more your touchstone).

Jacqueline Bisset and Marine Vacth
Jacqueline Bisset and Marine Vacth

Handsome Jérémie Renier’s big square head does double duty as Paul and Louis, the yin and yang shrinks, and it’s a carefully judged performance which, unusually in a film full of gargoyles, doesn’t go for absolute broke. When Louis at one point pretends to be Paul, he’s a plausible Paul, Renier just nudging us with a gesture at a given moment, so we realise a second before Chloé does just what’s going on.

Jacqueline Bisset again demonstrates her uncanny star power in a small double role as Chloé’s estranged mother, and the mother of a girl Paul or Louis might have raped and driven to a suicide attempt (depending on who you believe), dragging the entire film in her direction while she’s on the screen. The doubling doesn’t end there, and there are regular visual reminders – via mirrors, mostly – that what you see might be the opposite of what you get.

There’s lots of nudity, and sex that’s either warm and cuddly or rough and brutal, depending on who’s involved. There’s even a scene with a strap-on – no spoilers as to who’s wearing it.

Which is another way of saying that this film is more or less scaring away potential audiences from the get-go – feminists spoiling for a fight might not spot that Ozon clearly thinks this is all nonsense, prudes afraid of the odd nipple will also stay away, as will the army of Ozon’s arthouse fans who don’t do horror. Be warned, there’s a distinct shift to the gory late on, when things get much more overtly Cronenbergian.

However, for all the viscera and vulva on display, everyone in it behaves throughout as if they know they’re characters in a film not real flesh and blood humans, as if the formal experiment rather than the drama is the main thing on offer. As with the bulk of Ozon’s films, it makes for chilly watching.

Double Lover – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022