We Need to Do Something

The family in the dark

There’s something of three different movie genres in We Need to Do Something. It’s an out and out supernatural horror movie featuring demonic creatures, a bit. An “escape room” thriller about the perils of not co-operating, a bit. And a fraught drama about a marriage collapsing, also a bit. Taken individually none of these genre strands does anything staggeringly original, technically remarkable or drivingly tense, but you’ve got to admire the way writer Max Booth III and director Sean King O’Grady stitch the parts together.

A family retires to a bathroom convinced a tornado is coming. It is, and within minutes of screen time the storm is howling all around them, eventually uprooting a tree outside, which topples and blocks their exit to the outside world. They can open the thick oak door a crack but nothing more. How many bathrooms give out onto the outside world? Not a question to ask right now.

Inside are Diane (Vinessa Shaw) and Robert (Pat Healy), parents to teenage pink-haired gothlet Melissa (Sierra McCormick) and her young brother Bobby (John James Cronin). In flashbacks we meet Melissa’s even more goth-like friend Amy (Lisette Alexis) – studs, crucifixes, tattoos and the self-harm scarring that comes from being a “cutter”. Also on the cast list, if you look at the IMDb, are Logan Kearney as Joe, a stalkery guy glimpsed once vaguely, Dan John Miller as the Voice at the Door, a fleeting beacon of hope, and Ozzy Osbourne as Good Boy. Don’t rent the film to watch on the strength of Osbourne, it’s a voice-only role and his contribution lasts maybe four/five words, but his name gives some idea of the territory we’re in.

I mention the other names really to point out that this is the four of them locked in the room, plus Amy briefly in flashback, but it really is four people in a room for the most of it. The electrical power tends to come and go and the family has water, but no food. Here beginneth the tormenting, and it comes at them from three different directions: outside, inside and… who knows?… below?

Dad begins to go nuts
Pat Healy as the unlikeable Robert

From outside there are manifestations of the disrupted eco-system – snakes, mostly, the sort that rattle and bite, and a distinct lack of neighbourly assistance. From inside there’s the increasingly fraught relationship between Robert and Diane. From fragments of conversation we can gather that she might have been conducting an affair, on account of Robert being unbearable. From the supernatural realm there are menacing noises, a creature of some monstrousness at the door (the one with Ozzy’s voice) and the increasing realisation by Melissa that this might all be her fault. She’s been playing teenage voodoo – we see in flashback with Amy – and now the (headless) chickens have come home to roost.

The whole thing was shot during the Covid pandemic, and though it’s never referenced explicity, there is that life-in-a-time-of-affliction aspect hanging there for the taking, and family members forced into too-close proximity in a confined space is a kind of horror scenario a lot of people can buy into right now.

The flashback scenes – shot all woozily soft, shallow of focus, pastel of hue – provide a bit of relief from these four lock-ins. That’s when Melissa and Amy do their goth-bonding, plus the bit of gape-mouthed kissing that’s spotted by stalkery Joe and recorded on his phone, for wider dissemination later, prompting them to take supernatural action against him. Blood, wax, a bit of dessicated tongue, some Latin incantation… Joe’s in trouble.

But the main source of the trouble for the incarcerated family is Robert, who starts out in Big Dad mode – his joshing banter too personal, his dad-jokes too unfunny – and gets bigger and bigger, slurping mouthwash, sucking the alcohol wipes dry and over the days working himself into a frenzy of wild accusation – his wife’s a bitch, his daughter’s a witch etc etc, while DP Jean-Philippe Bernier ramps up the lurid horror lighting and director O’Grady ups the pace until… 

Pat Healy does a lovely job as the initially peevish, eventually monstrous Robert, for whom it does not end well. But one of the most satisfying aspects of the film is that it itself really does end well. It goes out on a high, still insisting that it’s a horror, a thriller and a drama all rolled into one and still, somehow, managing to pull it off.

We Need to Do Something – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

Red Penguins

The Red Penguins

Using ice hockey as the prism through which to view Russia in the immediate post-Soviet era, that’s the USP of Red Penguins, a documentary made by Gabe Polsky, the son of Russian emigrés and a former hockey player himself, so he knows whereof he speaks.

Polsky takes us back to the 1990s, after the fall of the Iron Curtain, when the Pittsburgh Penguins decided to start a joint venture with CSKA Moscow (aka the Red Army hockey team), once a major force on the international stage but flat broke since the end of communism.

The Americans send PR guy Steve Warshaw out to Moscow to sex up the Russians’ operation. And with a raft of investor money behind him – including some from Michael J Fox – Warshaw and team set about dragging the team out of the grave. He’s a good interviewee, and is eloquent filling in the gaps in the footage from the time, telling of the rundown “ice palace” being used as a dwelling by homeless people, with its gear looted and a strip club in the basement (one of the very few sources of income).

Warshaw went about his task energetically and enthusiastically, re-designating the strippers as (very good) cheerleaders, giving out free beer, getting real live bears out on the ice to perform. Showmanship. The Russian did not approve but the circus tactics worked. Warshaw didn’t entirely approve either, calling what he created a “freak show” but reasoning that he did what needed to be done. In came advertisers, Disney got interested, things were definitely looking up.

Steve Warshaw in 2019
Steve Warshaw: he tried, he really did

And then, some way down the line, the Americans started realising that, though the merch was selling well and matches were well attended, the figures weren’t adding up. Someone at the Russian end was skimming the profits. There was also the problem of the local mafia, and the “tax police” who’d turn up and ask for money – no one really knows what official authorisation these guys had, if any.

It’s the story of Russia transitioning from one system to the other, and of brash incomers telling hick locals how to run their affairs. The unsung hero of the film is Viktor Tikhonov, the “pure hockey” coach, a relic of the Soviet era wise enough to realise that change was necessary, and happy enough to go along with any amount of razzmatazz, but who drew the line at the rinkside. Off the ice, do what you like; on the ice is my domain. All beautifully encapsulated in the story of the no-good player with a family pedigree who the new management wanted to make into a star – Tikhonov refused.

At a certain point a slightly horrified Disney pulled out and things started going south. Again, this is the story of Russia in the 90s – a rapid injection of cash followed by economic collapse. Here the mantra becomes that the Russians just did not “get it”, but reading between the lines it also looks like the Russians just didn’t particularly want it. They’d lost the Cold War and as far as they were concerned were now losing their hockey team too. You can’t blame them for being shirty.

Polsky gets good quote from Warshaw, from Howard Baldwin, who owned the Pittsburgh Penguins at the time, and from Valerie Gushin, one of the two Russians who ran the team. He’s talked to the right people and asked the right questions. Even so, a bit more from the Russian end – they seem to find the American sell, sell, sell distasteful but it’s hinted at rather than explored – might have evened things up a touch and helped lay bare the capitalist/communist mindsets. And whatever the actual players thought of the mayhem, we’re not let into that secret.

There are more plot turns than I’ve laid out in this precis, especially once the local mafia start throwing their weight about. But why ruin a fascinating documentary that’s well worth watching by tracing every kink in the pipe?

Red Penguins – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021


Maya and Dini arrive in the village

Impetigore? It’s the English title of a horror movie whose original Indonesian name is Perempuan Tanah Jahanam, so if you’re aiming for authenticity, pile right in. The Trivia section on its IMDb entry helpfully tells us that the word is a conflation of “Impetigo (bacterial infection of the skin that is more common in young children than other ages), and the word Gore (which means violence and bloodshed).” So there we have it – Impetigore – and I can report that, yes, there is a skin condition and children are involved and, yes, there’s gore, plenty of it as this initally moody, sweaty and fascinating film winds towards its increasingly scary close.

Things start very techy, very 21st century, modern, in a toll booth where an official taking payments from motorists has her evening shift interrupted by a man with a large machete who looms out of nowhere and tries to kill her. In a clear case of taking a knife to a gun fight, the man is soon dead, having been shot by guards, but before he dies he explains himself to Maya (Tara Basro), or Rahayu as he calls her, the tollbooth employee he was trying to eviscerate – I just wanted you to take back what your family had left behind. Dies.

Intrigued, not least by the fact that that the man’s used the name she did indeed used to go by, Maya decides to return to the village where shadowy family lore suggests she grew up, where there’s meant to be a big family house… and who knows what else.

And so she arrives with sidekick Dini (Marissa Anita) in a village carved out of the jungle, one curiously devoid of children, to a welcome from the locals that’s cool to the point of hostility, and sets about trying to work out what it is about her family’s past that is so unsettling.

The modern and rational meets the old and the supernatural in the shape of these two young women and the people of the village. The frosty reception might be down to Maya and Dini being representatives of a globalising metropolitan elite, it might be down to the bad juu juu that they represent, writer/director Joko Anwar keeps us guessing on this count, at least for a while. Whatever it is, in the eyes of the village the young women are guilty of something, Maya in particular.

Maya in a dark room with a lamp
“Final girl” time for Maya

The village head man Ki Saptadi (Ario Bayu) is a practitioner of Wayang, Indonesia’s shadow puppet tradition, and Anwar borrows heavily from its stylistic moodboard – the big gloomy house that might have been Maya’s family’s is full of dark corners and Anwar repeatedly uses it to deliver particularly effective scenes shot almost in silhouette.

Loading up like a greedy man at an all you can eat buffet, Anwar throws in a class element as well, when it’s revealed that the head man’s mother (Christine Hakim) used to be a servant for Maya’s father, and that she might be involved somehow in the mystery of Maya’s origin and the disappearance of all the village’s children. The two things are of course linked.

On this frame of local superstition, missing children, mysterious origins, class relations, the march of globalisation, all presented in shadow-theatre hues, Anwar repeatedly shifts our sympathies towards and away from Maya and Dini, all the while demonstrating that he’s seen a fair few horror movies – the false shocks of Alien, and the sense of threat of a Jeepers Creepers, Wolf Creek or Wrong Turn pervade this film. At one point Anwar even throws in a reference to the Texas Chain Saw Massacre. More barbecue wings? Don’t mind if I do.

For all that Impetigore has a distinctly Indonesian flavour, humid and bustling, with dark, sepulchral looks by DP Ical Tanjung. When it eventually becomes clear that Maya is this horror movie’s “final girl” it seems only right that the colour of the breast-enhancing T shirt she’s wearing – the final girl’s uniform – is not white but brown.

Moist jungly locations add extra atmosphere and the casting is absolutely right too – it doesn’t hurt that Tara Basro and Marissa Anita are both pretty, but they both also have range, and can switch from blithe and innocent to fearful and guilt-laden in a flash. As the head man’s mother – a Mrs Danvers figure around whom the whole village and movie spins – celebrated Indonesian actor Christine Hakim, in her horror debut, adds top-dollar glower.

Is it the bacterial infection impetigo that’s behind the mystery of the disappeared children and of Maya’s origins? What do you think? However, you might wish it were when the movie gets into its frenzied final lunge for a finish, which teeters on the edge of undoing so much good, mood-building work.

Impetigore is apparently the first of a three-picture deal Joko Anwar signed with Ivanhoe Pictures, with Ghost in the Cell and The Vow to follow. On the strength of this first one, that’s two movies worth looking out for.

Impetigore – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

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

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© 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

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© 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

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© 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

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© 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

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© 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

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© Steve Morrissey 2021