Down in the Valley

Evan Rachel Wood enjoys the beach while Ed Norton enjoys her

 

Ed Norton continues on his quest to become the new Sean Penn with this very unusual and initially brilliant examination of the cowboy myth and its survival into the modern world. This represents itself in a Bonnie and Clyde love story between Harlan, an itinerant cowpuncher cum gas station attendant (Norton) who immediately quits his job when young and foxy Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood) drives in for gas, and heads off to the beach with her. What a free spirit. What we don’t at first know, but soon becomes apparent, is that our Stetson-wearing South Dakotan is a nutjob. But until that is revealed we are treated to the sort of drama that Robert Redford might once have starred in – sun glints off the lens and there’s a cute singer-songwriter with a guitar on the soundtrack. Norton’s hat is an ironical white and so is his horse. He’s a man out of time roaming the San Fernando valley, where the sweep and the scrub of bits of the old west abut new housing developments. And with him periodically rides the girl’s kid brother (Rory Culkin), younger and even more impressionable than the possibly not so dumb girl.

How does the myth of the west fit in to a world driven by other concerns? Can a man like Harlan survive in this different world? Or were men like him an aberration even in the old world, a cometh-the-time/cometh-the-man period that’s now long gone and thank god for that? That’s the direction that writer/director David Jacobson’s film appears to be moseying, but it’s a half-hearted journey and the questions appear to be being raised as much to lend tone rather than to provide answers, or even considerations.

Norton is typically intense as the sad fantasist who isn’t at all the sort of man he’s pretending to be, whose slow cowboy wisdom shtick probably wouldn’t impress anyone other than a 18 year old and her 13-year-old brother. And this is certainly a film for those who like fine actors giving it their best shot. Evan Rachel Wood is a pretty but tough flower as the girl half his age who’s rebelling because it’s in the teenage script. And David Morse is perhaps best of all as her father, the correctional facility officer – a sheriff stand-in – putting things into the film that surely aren’t there on the page, such as that stiff-legged walk of the violent man who’s always aching to punch someone in the face.

For comparison, cowboys in the modern world, look at Midnight Cowboy, or 1998’s The Hi-Lo Country, a pair of imperfect movies for sure, but in style and raggedy tone they’re of a piece with Down in the Valley.

It’s an interesting set-up, propelled by a great cast, but it’s a donut of goodness around the hole of Harlan’s character – if this guy is crazy then this primarily is the story of a delusional man, not a dead-eyed coded assessment of modern America and its accommodation with its own recent myths. Satire, and this is one, is best focused on the strong, not the weak.

 

 

 

Down in the Valley – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

The Signal

Brenton Thwaites in The Signal

 

Well, I loved this. A confident exercise in genre and genre misdirection that has the balls to invoke The Matrix, Close Encounters, and Vincenzo Natali’s Cube. So, yes, it’s about aliens and a gigantic conspiracy and there’s a lot of white light bathing its clinical setups, and it cost not very much at all.

 

And the first bit of misdirection comes at the very first shot – a boy, a girl, his buddy, dappled sunlight, a piano on the soundtrack. It looks like we’re in torridly romantic Nicholas Sparks territory and we can only be minutes away from someone coming down with a terminal disease, especially as Nic, our lead, is on crutches, as a result of some not-entirely specified mishap – an injury? Cancer? Is he a soldier?

 

No, Nic’s a computer hacker, we find out early on, who along with his buddy Jonah has been delving into areas he shouldn’t and has got someone somewhere out in cyberspace very angry. None of this actually matters much, or seems to, because only a couple of minutes after this, the gooey proto-romance which morphed into a wannabe Matrix has changed again, into a haunted-house horror as the two guys break into a deserted house, and director William Eubank shows he’s also adept at making things spooky.

 

All a preamble. The film proper starts with Nic waking up from loss of consciousness in some aseptic facility, where everyone is dressed in hazmat suits and Laurence Fishburne is looming over him asking questions about “the signal”. The gist of it is that Nic, Jonah and Haley have been abducted by aliens, possibly, and are now OK, safe and sound, being looked after by the government, who are dressed like spacemen just as a precaution. Possibly, though explanations are thin on the ground. All the better.

 

This nightmarish vision of loss of control works better than I’m able to describe it partly because its cast is so good: former Home & Away heartthrob Brenton Thwaites is perfect casting as the fiercely intelligent MIT student Nic, a slightly more feral Channing Tatum with soulful eyes, a perfect profile, yet approachably blokey. A star, I’d be willing to bet. Underused Beau Knapp is also just right as Nic’s wingman, and Olivia Cooke brings what dignity she can to even less of a role for her, as the largely passive girlfriend.

 

Out on the ring road of stardom is Lin Shaye, who’s now become something of a go-to actor for wingnut roles (see Insidious), and does a magnificent few minutes as a local Christian fundamentalist who picks up the gang when they make a break for it.

 

As for Laurence Fishburne, he seems to relish rehashing a version of Morpheus, the glacial, slightly amused delivery, and the boom, of course the boom.

 

The entire film revolves around the true nature of Fishburne’s Dr Damon character, it becomes clear early on. And of course I’m not going to tell you whether he’s the good guy or bad guy. In fact to tell you any more than I already have – or that most of the film takes place in this facility, where there are a number of shocking reveals – would ruin everything. What I can say is that to that basic Matrix/Close Encounters/Cube mood board, you could add a bit of Attack the Block attitude and some of the dipshit conspiracy theorising of The Banshee Chapter, and that Nima Fakhrara’s Mogwai-esque soundtrack of Theremin squawks and aortal rumbles hugely contributes to the dread atmosphere that Eubank keeps alive right to the last minute.

 

And if there’s a lesson The Signal could teach other films like it – apart from “make sure you’ve got a good story to tell” – it’s to use special effects sparingly. That way they remain special. As is almost all of this film. Prepare to be amazed.

 

 

The Signal – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

 

 

Snowpiercer

John Hurt, Chris Evans and Jamie Bell in Snowpiercer

 

That sound? The plane taking off from LAX taking a great Asian director back home, sobbing with disappointment. It happened to John Woo, who did at least manage to crank out Face/Off, but his sad run of Hollywood films include Windtalkers, Mission: Impossible II and Hard Target. To the Pang brothers too, whose The Eye was one of the attention-grabbers of 2002. They came to Hollywood, made The Messengers for Sam Raimi, then put their tail between their legs and went home.

So what about the latest Asian import, the great South Korean director Bong Joon Ho, whose uniquely flavoured movies include Memories of Murder, a killer-thriller-whodunit whose cops get their man more by brutality and naked luck than sleuthing. Or The Host, a monster movie in which the hero doesn’t so much step forward, as find that everyone else has taken a step back. How is Mr Bong going to go down in a town where irony is a dish best served not at all?

The answer is Snowpiercer, an adaptation of the 1982 cult French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, a post-apocalyptic thriller set on board a train of 1,001 carriages that has been travelling non-stop for 17 years through a world that is entirely frozen. Outside, the passengers are told, everything is extinct. Inside, the train is run on feudal Orwellian lines, with the bosses at the front, the proles at the back, and a massive system of repression, propaganda and eventism keeping everyone, but mostly the proles, on-message.

The uneasy equilibrium is disrupted when Curtis (Chris Evans) and sidekick Edgar (Jamie Bell), emboldened by ragged spiritual mentor Gilliam (John Hurt) to make a break for the front of the train and either overthrow the Big Brother-style leader Wilford (Ed Harris) or convince him at least of the need for a little more gravy down the back end.

Post-apocalypse, little men against a corrupt leader, steampunk technology, a quest: we’ve seen films like this a lot over the decades, often starring Arnie or Will Smith or Tom Cruise, films that pause to crack a wry one-liner but are otherwise propulsive, fairly humourless and full of action and dead bodies.

The first sign that Bong isn’t quite making that sort of film comes early on, with the arrival of Mason (Tilda Swinton), one of Wilford’s henchpeople, who has come down from the front to the back to the train – and looks very unhappy about it too – to nip rebellion in the bud. In a convoluted speech Mason contemptuously tells the rear-dwellers that they should be happy with their lot, that everyone has their role and, pushing an ill-chosen metaphor beyond breaking point, that “I am the hat; you are the shoe”, all this while a miscreant is having his arm frozen off by exposure to the outside elements, pour encourager les autres. It’s the sort of scene you can imagine being in Total Recall, except that screenwriters Kelly Masterson and Bong Joon Ho have other ideas: Swinton comes equipped with a comic northern English accent, a face full of big teeth and her coat is constantly slipping off her shoulders.

The whole film is like this – familiar sci-fi tropes undermined by Bong’s oblique strategies.

I’m not going to explain the film’s entire plot, except to say that Curtis, Edgar, their ragged-trousered team and a couple of South Koreans (Song Kang-ho, Ko Ah-sung) they’ve woken from cryo-sleep do indeed make a dash for the front, each carriage a marvel of Wachowski-esque set design (one’s a classroom teaching elite kids, another is a vast glass house hydroponically growing crops, another is a bespoke tailor’s, another a dentist, a nightclub, a cocktail bar), through a train whose metaphorical purpose couldn’t be made more explicit if the word “allegory” were flashing up on screen every few minutes.

It is a fantastic, fabulous, ludicrous and lovely film to look at, and as Curtis and crew battle forwards they are assailed by bullets, bombs and even a medieval axe attack in one entirely blacked-out carriage. But one great, breathtaking and fanatically detailed scene followed by another doesn’t necessarily equal a great film. And that’s the case here. Partly this is Evans’s fault – he’s likeable but lacks heroic charisma. But mostly it’s because I think Bong wanted it that way. For example, in the middle of the medieval axe fight the combatants pause to wish each other a happy new year. Bong is deliberately subverting the heroic action blockbuster with little human touches (the slipping coat) at almost every turn.

But this deviously ironic film insisting on nuance where the genre generally goes for broad brush isn’t helped – is undermined, in fact – by its blunderbuss approach to satire. In particular the final long rambling “explains it all” speech by Wilford that more or less throws away the claims to specialness that the film has carefully wrought. Is this Bong’s doing? Masterson’s? The studio’s?

Snowpiercer isn’t boring, and there’s really nothing to touch it for production design and world-building. File it next to the Wachowskis’ Cloud Atlas in the drawer marked Mad Brilliant Messes with a Thumping Message.

Bong’s next film is being made in South Korea.

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

 

 

 

The Prestige

Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson and Hugh Jackman in The Prestige

 

 

After Insomnia and Batman Begins, big Hollywood numbers taken on to show studio willing – or so it seemed – Christopher Nolan is back to being master of his own destiny, writing with his brother Jonathan and also producing this lavish smoke and mirrors cat-and-mouser. Clearly an attempt to “do another Memento”, it’s about a pair of Victorian magicians in a “this town ain’t big enough for the both of us” London, who once were bosom buddies but fell out after a trick went wrong and the wife of one of them died. And since that day they have gone on to different sorts of glory, but as deadly rivals, each trying to out-trick the other.

The title is explained early on, by Michael Caine, playing the Ingenieur, the backstage guy who devises and builds the magical apparatus for Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), the Prestige being the ta-daa bit of the trick when the lady is revealed as not being sawn in half at all. This has followed the Pledge (the lady is a lady) and the Turn (she is two halves of a lady), and, tricksy buggers that they are, Jonathan and Christopher Nolan have a prestige of their own up their sleeves. But if you haven’t worked it out by about halfway through the film, a long, long, long way before the Nolans pull the rabbit out of the hat, then my name’s not Harry Houdini.

My gosh there are a lot of stars in this film. As well as Jackman as the more successful of the two magicians, there’s Christian Bale as his rival Alfred Borden, a more spit and sawdust character than the refined Angier, though with one devastating trick, The Transported Man, in his repertoire that baffles audiences and confounds Angier. There’s also Piper Perabo as the doomed wife, Scarlett Johansson, underused as the new lovely assistant. There’s Michael Caine, of course, and David Bowie as Nikola Tesla – proving again that he simply can’t and shouldn’t act, though Bowie’s is just one of many terrible performances that populate this weary trudge of a film. In fact Caine is the only one to hold the attention, in a bit part so well played that you yearn for the film to be, in fact, about him.

That’s also because Caine gets to do the interesting stuff – explain how the tricks work. The backstage secrets. In front of the curtain, magic is about misdirection and wit, two missing ingredients in this film. Instead there’s plot, lots and lots of it. And baffling digression – for instance, Jackman’s visit to the scientist Tesla, considered to be a modern magician thanks to his myriad revolutionary patents and experiments with AC electricity. The Nolans also bang the narrative chronologically back and forth Memento-style, which muddies things even more, the suspicion creeping in about halfway through that what something this laden with “developments” should be is a TV mini-series. Not enough prestige, perhaps.

Most of all this murky-looking film lacks lightness of touch, legerdemain, as the French say. Magic, in other words.

 

The Prestige – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

Casino Royale

Eva Green and Daniel Craig in Casino Royale

 

 

You only live twice, or so they say. Casino Royale is the old Bond song incarnate. Because we have been here before. Not titularly – though we have, in the 1967 spoof made by a gaggle of writers and directors (John Huston, Billy Wilder, Woody Allen and Joseph Heller among them) who must have been high. Tonally, I mean. After A View to a Kill, Roger Moore’s last Bond and a bad performer at the box office, moves were made to zhuzh up the increasingly tired formula. In came Timothy Dalton, out went the eyebrow, and for a couple of films, which in retrospect, look better and better, there was a return to a badass Bond. But neither 1987’s The Living Daylights nor 1989’s License to Kill did very well at the box office either. Producer Cubby Broccoli panicked and out went not just Dalton but the grittier style. In came Brosnan and back came the eyebrow. Broccoli died shortly after, leaving his daughter and Michael G Wilson (who’d presided over the Dalton Bonds) to restart the process that Cubby had abandoned. By the mid-90s the time was right. Other directors were cannibalising 007 for their own big-budget actioners – James Cameron made True Lies, a Bond movie by any other name. While John Woo with Face/Off, Renny Harlin with The Long Kiss Goodnight, Tony Scott with Enemy of the State and Michael Bay with The Rock (starring Sean Connery) were clearly all at it too.

But though Brosnan’s Bond got dirtier during his four-film run – he grew a beard! – it’s taken till now to finally reboot properly. And so here we are, with the “blond Bond” – and what a gift to the publicity machine twittering fanboys are when someone takes their pacifier away. A reboot and a reset, Casino Royale puts Bond back in a tux and back at the gaming tables for a film that’s littered with slaughtered sacred cows – there is no pre-title stunt-filled breathtaker, instead a brutal, CCTV assassination by our new favourite Bond. There’s no sign of Q, and his “I think he’s attempting re-entry, sir”, or of many of the usual gang of pantomime regulars. There’s a distinct lack of rumpy-pumpy, though Bond does get a dalliance with Eva Green, as uber-Bond girl Vesper Lynd. And 007 even seems also to be completely indifferent to the making of the perfect martini – when the estimable Daniel Craig is asked whether he’d like it shaken or stirred, he replies “Do I look like I give a damn?” Unwilling financially to match Bay or Cameron and their legions of CG technicians, Barbara Broccoli and Michael G Wilson have decided instead to deliver a great spy thriller instead. The plot is bare-bones – on his very first mission, 007 must stop Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) from winning at cards in a casino in Montenegro, because if he does… no idea… something to do with funding all the terrorist outfits in the world. Does it matter? Not really. Because the film is in fact more interesting watched as an exercise in franchise renewal – Bond slo-mo walking out of the waves à la Ursula Andress, Bond actually washing blood off himself, Bond apparently dying. As an actual thriller… it gets about four-fifths there before losing its way towards the end, as some old Bond tropes (moving the action to Venice, in this case, for little reason) re-assert themselves and that familiar “are we nearly there yet” feeling takes hold. That apart, it’s a great Bond movie, and Daniel Craig, scowling when he’s not running (even free-running), is a great 007. Welcome back.

 

Casino Royale – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

The Night Listener

Robin Williams and Toni Collette

 

When he switches off the mouth, Robin Williams can be an incredibly effective actor. This is one of those turns, yet it’s ironically about a man who is a professional mouth, a DJ with a late-night show who uses his graveyard phone-in to tell and listen to stories. It’s another of Williams’s characteristics as an actor that he’s happy, let’s say willing, to play characters who either aren’t likeable or are downright nasty, One Hour Photo being the ultimate proof of that. Again ironically, he’s neither here, though he is playing a character despised in much of society – a gay man. There’s a dark almost Hitchcockian feel to the path that leads off from this starting position, as this avuncular “listener” with relationship problems of his own one evening takes a call which knocks a sense of perspective into his own rather meagre life. He learns about a 14-year-old boy who is dying of Aids, thanks to the years of sexual abuse he has been subjected to by his parents and their inner circle – for his eighth birthday this kid got syphilis. The story is a true one – not that of the boy, we’ve no idea about the bones of that case – but about this concerned man forced by a troubled conscience into trying to find then help this poor kid. All he’s got to go on is the prompting of the boy’s carer (Toni Collette), who is blind and so isn’t as much help as she might be. Or possibly, we realise as things wander along, it’s not even beginning to be as simple as all that. The original story is by Armistead Maupin, of Tales of the City fame, who gives himself just enough space to explore the territory he wants – whether it is possible for a middle-aged gay man to reach out and help a pubescent boy without social prejudices kicking in. He concludes… well, that’s the film and I won’t ruin it, having already said a bit too much. Because it is a very slight drama, just solid enough to carry its theoretical payload, but director Patrick Stettner and cinematographer Lisa Rinzler drench everything in an oversexualised creepiness, Williams and Collette both deliver as people whose lives on the margins – his sexually determined, hers by disability and job status – have had an effect on their personalities, and there’s a welcome colour-blind aspect to the multi-ethnic casting decisions. It feels real, in other words.

 

The Night Listener – Watch it/buy it now at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

 

Enemy

Adam meets Anthony in Enemy

 

If there is such a thing as “what the hellness” then Denis Villeneuve’s latest film absolutely has it. But then the French-Canadian does have form. With Incendies Villeneuve managed to turn the conflict in the Middle East into a thriller with a reveal that disconcerted and amazed. In Prisoners he made us feel bad for suspecting that a lank haired, stuttering, educationally subnormal Paul Dano was a paedophile, and then made us feel bad for cutting such an obvious wrong’un too much slack.

The tricks are more playful in this latest exercise in duplicity. As with Prisoners, Enemy stars Jake Gyllenhaal, this time as Adam, a history professor who suddenly spots his spitting likeness in a movie he’s watching one night on his laptop when he should be snuggled up with his wife.

Instead of thinking “oh, that’s odd” and leaving it at that, Adam does a little digging, finds a few more films his doppelganger has been in, finds his agent, tracks down where he lives and then tentatively arranges a meeting, not realising that Anthony, the initially spooked actor also played by Gyllenhaal, might also have an agenda. Bizarrely, both men, when they meet, are so alike that there really is no gap between them, from the way they style their beards to the way they speak and react. And their partners (Adam’s is Mélanie Laurent; Anthony’s Sarah Gadon), each a good-looking blonde having a little relationship difficulty with her partner, seems to have the same problem too.

We’re very much in the sort of territory that late 1940s noir loved to wallow in – dark psychology, fractured personality, dreamscapes and hints of sexual deviancy. I haven’t mentioned the little vignettes that Villeneuve drops in of naked women in what looks like animal masks (it’s dark) slinking down long corridors? I have now.

At what point does the film leave reality behind? The answer is that it never really engages with it. It’s built inside a hall of mirrors – in real life there would be a thousand tells that would distinguish one person from another; here, Anthony even has a scar on his chest where Adam does. It doesn’t add up.

The plot is not the point though. It’s a vehicle for the mood of the thing. Has any recent film looked this queasily yellow? The colour of madness, cowardice, jaundice and death allied to a soundtrack of mournful clarinet, growling bassoon, honks of brass and nervous strings. The script is sparse, roads are empty, public spaces barely occupied, dialogue scarce but loaded. David Lynch is in there, in other words, though this is more “inspired by” than “lifted from”. And almost as proof here’s bizarro muse Isabella Rossellini as Anthony’s coolly unmaternal mother. Or was it Adam’s? Or are they the same person?

See it as an existential quest movie if you like – what is it that we are all searching for? Would having a doppelganger conveniently justify all our dark secrets, or scare the shit out of us? Both possibilities are examined in the closest that Gyllenhaal has got to this territory since Donnie Darko.

As for the ending, which suddenly makes all the psychological undertow overt in one laugh-out-loud shot, it’s Villeneuve’s raining-frogs-in-Magnolia moment, an abrupt full stop that signifies that he’s finished playing with us and we can all get back to whatever it was we were doing before. It’s going to irritate the hell out of people who haven’t been watching closely enough.

Enemy – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

 

 

 

The Page Turner

Catherine Frot and Déborah François in The Page Turner

 

 

It’s often forgotten how much genre output the French make, and how well they do it. This icy thriller in a Chabrolesque mould has two brilliant performances at its centre. On the one side we have Déborah François as Mélanie, a young girl from a poor family whose ambition to become a pianist is ruined at an audition which goes so badly that she gives up playing for good. And on the other side we have Catherine Frot as the reason it went so badly, as Ariane, the famous pianist who is so blithely unaware of what the audition means for Mélanie that she signs an autograph for an adoring fan halfway through, thus shattering Mélanie’s hard-won composure. Years later the two women meet again, though Ariane doesn’t know the history of the young woman who is now her nanny, and who just happens to read music, and, yes, would be delighted to be her page turner at an upcoming comeback concert. Has Mélanie spent years working to get herself “accidentally” into this position? Well, this is a film, so the betting is that she has. But this matters very little because once Ariane has wandered into the trap set by history and an icy Mélanie, the game is on and we can only hang back and watch, and remember to breathe.

Director Denis Dercourt has a musical background (as a concert viola player) and brings an understanding of the neuroses that high-level playing foster. But the skills he shows in weaving a tense thriller with an overtone of All About Eve go well beyond familiarity: this is real expertise. Realising that less is more, he gives us barely an indication of the true workings of Mélanie’s possibly pathological mind-set, keeps us pretty much in the dark about Ariane too – was her autograph faux pas a moment of thoughtlessness or the product of aloofness borne of class contempt? And he weaves a magical, sexual spell between the two women, as Mélanie beguiles and seduces her employer (and, separately, her employer’s son, who she is also enticing along a path to we know not where).

And all this in the most exquisite style, Jérome Peyrebrune’s camera elegantly swinging through Antoine Platteau’s production design, which seems concerned with reminding us of the enormous influence of the style anglais on the moneyed BCBG set in France. The women, meanwhile, all legs and dress sense, maintain a poker-face about their true feelings – is the pianist falling for her page turner; is her page turner softening as her employer’s vulnerabilities become more obvious? Add in the obvious class element, seesawing against the older/younger woman dynamic, and things seem set for something tasteful but explosive. In fact the finale comes as a bit of a “wha…?” and is one of the film’s few disappointments. But Dercourt gets us there in high style, and in a remarkably short 81 minutes. You can hold your breath for 81 minutes?

The Page Turner – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

Dead Man’s Cards

Paul Barber in Dead Man's Cards

 

 

There’s a grimy directness to the Liverpool gangster drama which substitutes Scouse sarcasm for the lairiness of the mockney geezer equivalent. Made by debut director James Marquand and starring its co-writer, James McMartin, it’s the story of a washed-up boxer with a low sperm count who takes a job as a bouncer, falls out with his wife (Samantha Janus), has a fling with a barmaid and gets on the wrong side of the local heavies, making friends with a fellow bouncer (Paul Barber) as he goes.

The “dead man’s cards” of the title are aces and eights, and they were the cards held by Wild Bill Hickok when he was shot in the back, or so says Billy the Cowboy (Tom Bell, in his final film role), owner of Billy’s Bar, the ropey boozer/club where Paul (Barber) and new boy Tom (McMartin) work the door. This overlay of a western ethos feels like a slightly desperate attempt to signal that this is a different kind of British crime drama. In fact it isn’t. It’s the familiar story of a new boy getting out of his depth and the old hand who introduces him (and us) to his new world. However, no need for apologies – in its small details the film convinces us of its Liverpudlian credentials, such as the sign on a shop doorway that reads “No Kosavo’s, Thieves or Smackheads” (grammar all their own; apologies if I’ve mistranscribed), overtones of Alan Bleasdale, the king of the grim scally comedy (see the 1991 TV series GBH). Though for the most part it’s shooters, drugs, bare knuckle fighting, gangsters, pretty much the usual. The acting is wildly variable, and it’s only when the superb Tom Bell’s mouth is operational that I felt I could completely settle back and go with the film. Dead Man’s Cards needs more actors of his calibre. Was it made in a rush? I don’t know, but Paul Barber’s line readings are so off that you wonder at times how he ever credibly held down a regular gig on a long-running soap (Brookside); he’s only periodically convincing as an ex-soldier with a few tours of Northern Ireland under his belt. In spite of this Barber (you might remember him from The Full Monty) has got a natural presence that also gives the film some bottom, allowing it to slide through on a shrug until it finally develops its own swing. This is in the final act, when Marquand and McMartin’s script starts, poker-style, to show its hand. Revealing a far more intelligent film than the acting and shaky set-up have led us all to expect.

 

 

Dead Man’s Cards – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

 

11.6

François Cluzet in 11.6

 

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

 

 

30 August

 

Warren Buffett born, 1930

On this day in 1930, the business magnate Warren Edward Buffett was born, in Omaha, Nebraska, the second of the three children of a father who was a US congressman and stockbroker.

At age 11 Warren bought his first shares. He filed his first tax return aged 14, on income earned from delivering newspapers and selling door to door. The following year he bought a pin table and installed it in a barber’s shop.

On leaving school in 1947, his report read – “likes math; a future stockbroker”. After graduating from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln he went to Columbia Business School, where he came under the influence of Benjamin Graham, author of The Intelligent Investor, one of the key works in the “value investing” canon.

By the age of 26, having worked in various stockbroking companies, he had started his own partnership. By 2008, after careful buying of unsexy stocks, he was the richest man in the world.

 

 

 

11.6 (2013, dir: Philippe Godeau)

I’m a big fan of François Cluzet, who seems to be able to do comedy (see Untouchable aka Intouchables) as well as more muscular thriller fare, which is what he’s dabbling in here.

He plays the security guard who has worked for a company for ten years, is now one of the riders on an armoured truck that does bank runs. A safe pair of hands.

11.6 tells the true story of what happened when, after years of loyal service, this guy Toni Musulin suddenly snapped and decided to heist a whole load of money – €11.6 million, in fact, in November 2009.

This is a strange kind of heist movie for several reasons. For one, it doesn’t see the heist itself as an extreme example of capitalist enterprise (see Soderbergh’s Oceans films, for example) but as part of the French revolutionary tradition of taking down institutions when the institutions no longer work for the benefit of the people.

There’s also Cluzet’s performance, as the guy just coming into the last straight before retirement, just on the verge of being treated as an old man by his joshing and very jockish colleagues, permanently seething because he, and his fellow guards, are treated as worthless pieces of shit by the employers.

It’s the story of the guy who, in the words of Freddie Mercury, wants to break free, but might have left it just a touch too late.

And all this hesitancy and doubt is etched across Cluzet’s features, who makes this a film about the loss of virility, potency, youth, the arrival of old age, just as much as one about a guy who steals a huge load of money, kind of justifiably.

The heist itself is simplicity itself, and I won’t go into it. What’s fascinating is the way that we have been primed for something by the fairly unlikeable Musulin’s increasingly odd behaviour. Where, for example, did he get the money to buy a Ferrari F430? Is it just so he can take his girl out for the night of her life, so he can feel like a man again? Little explanation is given. In fact here and there the sheer impenetrability of the film is a bit of problem, inscrutability being bearable only in small doses.

There are many compensations beyond Cluzet himself. Michel Amathieu’s stygian cinematography for one (you might remember 1997’s Dobermann, which he also shot way down in the dark register). And the soundtrack of modern chillout, club vibes, electro beats, adds a mocking layer to Cluzet’s portrait – is this the oldest swinger in town?

No, it’s not perfect, but it is worth holding out till the end of this film, because it gets around to airing the suspicion, which still exists, that the real Musulin didn’t just plan the heist, he also planned his own capture and imprisonment – Musulin received a maximum term of only three years because he pulled off the robbery without guns or violence. Which makes him a very clever man indeed, and doubly the folk hero that he became.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • François Cluzet’s performance
  • Michel Amathieu’s cinematography
  • A great story well told
  • Add to the list of “we hate the banks” dramas post 2008

 

 

 

11.6 – Watch it now at Amazon

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014