Pan’s Labyrinth

Doug Jones as the pale man in Pan's Labyrinth

It’s not every fantasy film that comes complete with a scene of a brutal fascist captain sewing his own face up, but that’s what you get in Guillermo Del Toro’s best film since The Devil’s Backbone (better, certainly, than Blade II and Hellboy). It’s a dark fantasy reminding us that the Grimm brothers’ original tales were cautionary and soaked in violence and full of the sort of dirty psychological motivation that Disney flirted with in Snow White and Pinocchio. However this youthful experimentation wasn’t to last, and as with the pot reefer and student politicians, Disney, it seems, never actually inhaled. More’s the pity.

No such cutes or evasiveness here, where things start off like some Iberian Alice in Wonderland suffused with the smell of boot leather and cordite, Ivana Baquero playing Ofelia, an 11-year-old stepdaughter (of said fascist captain) who is informed by a goat-faced faun one night that she is in fact not a poor semi-abandoned waif, but a princess. But to ascend to her underworld throne (if that isn’t a contradiction) she must first complete three tasks. The bonus is that she’ll also be re-united with her real father. Meanwhile, back in the real world, the Franco regime has won the civil war but skirmishing continues, and even Ofelia’s household is politically divided. And her mother, heavily, hideously pregnant, is struggling in an airless upstairs room to propel the progeny of the remarkably unpleasant officer out of her uterus.

Menace hangs over everything – even the apparently benign faun comes equipped with horns. Some sort of a devil? An allegory of the choice being offered to the apolitical Spaniard, maybe, who was being asked to judge between the competing claims of falangists and republicans – both of whom have killed people? At another level, Del Toro is part of a trend against realism in recent film-making. The Dogme 95 boys Von Trier (The Idiots), Vinterberg (Festen), Levring (The King Is Alive) and Kragh-Jacobsen (Mifune aka Mifune’s Last Song) until this point were one of the few shows in town when it comes to formal experimentation – Dogme 95 films being characterised by lack of artificial light, soundtrack, fancy editing.

Lack is the last thing you’ll get in Pan’s Labyrinth. It is exotic, heady and artful, unafraid of excess, a baroque fantasy informed by the overheated look of films by other Mexican directors such as Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men) and Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros) but also brushed by an almost extinct strand of European fantasy – Powell and Pressburger in the UK, Cocteau in France, Murnau in Germany, Švankmajer in Czechoslovakia/Czech Republic or the work that Francesco Stefani did on the East German TV fantasy The Singing Ringing Tree. It’s this mix of the fantastical, the bloody, the vital and the terrifying that makes Pan’s Labyrinth what it is. And not a whiff of whimsy in sight, praise be.

Pan’s Labyrinth – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

 

The Patience Stone

Golshifteh Farahani and Hamidreza Javdan in The Patience Stone

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

 

 

19 August

 

Afghanistan independence, 1919

On this day in 1919, King Amanullah Khan declared Afghanistan a sovereign and independent country. His country had been at war with the British since May of 1919, in what is now called the Third Anglo-Afghan War. Until it started, the British had been attempting to keep Afghanistan out of the Russian military sphere by paying the Afghans huge amount of money. However, the Afghans had been taking money from the Russians too, playing one side off against the other. The First World War had changed everything. For one thing it had made Afghanistan realise that with the British at war and the Russians busy with a revolution, it could be an independent country in its own right. After the assassination of the pragmatic Habibullah, his successor Amanullah sought to enhance his claim as Amir against Habibullah’s brother, Nasrullah, by invading British India. The British won the conflict, but with twice the number of men lost. In the peace treaty that was signed between them, the British gained assurances that the border between Afghanistan and India, the Durand Line, was settled, and also stopped paying a subsidy to Afghanistan. Afghanistan gained its independence.

 

 

 

The Patience Stone (2012, dir: Atiq Rahimi)

What do women know that men never know? That’s the story behind The Patience Stone, a confessional drama based on the Persian tale about a stone you can confide in, happy it will never tell a soul what it has heard. Here the stone is a man, but he’s comatose and so has no idea that his wife is pouring out her heart and soul to him, partly to pass the time, partly to assuage the fear she feels at being trapped in an Afghani village being torn apart by factional fighting, partly through frustration. At first she doesn’t say much, talks about the passing of the day, trivial jobs that need doing, his condition, their marriage… and once she hits this point it is as if a small dam has been breached and it all starts coming out.
One woman talking to herself, it could easily get boring, except that writer/director Atiq Rahimi builds these soliloquies carefully, so they become increasingly frank, increasingly shocking, and they also start to cohere into the story of the woman’s life: how her sister was given away by her father to pay a gambling debt; how when her husband was away his brothers would secretively watch her bathe and would masturbate. And Rahimi punctuates the soliloquies with two visitations. The first is by the woman’s aunt, a more worldly woman, the full extent of whose worldliness won’t become apparent until much later on in some shock reveals. The second is a group of soldiers who blunder in looking for spoils of war and find a beautiful woman. And she, to protect herself, tells them she is a prostitute, knowing that being unclean in their eyes might save her from gang-rape. It works. But later, guilty and stuttering, the youngest and most handsome of the men returns with money clutched in his sweaty hand, to conduct some business.
In stark contrasts Rahimi reveals what the life of the woman (played by Golshifteh Farahani, her character credited only as “the woman”) is like without the presence of men, and then again with it. No polemic is necessary, all is entirely clear. She is a chattel.
There are more revelations and more twists than you might think possible from what is almost a one-handed, single-person film. But the drama is bolstered by Farahani’s careful paying out of this woman’s character, revealing her nature bit by bit, her luminous eyes and darting voice managing more expression than most actors can manage with everything at their disposal. You can see both why she is a sensation in Persian-speaking parts of the world, if only to audiences – she’s officially a persona non grata in Iran, thanks to films like this. The cinematography by Luc Besson’s DP, Thierry Arbogast, helps too, adding a slick sheen to locations that, to western eyes, are usually associated with dust, dirt and the squalor of the developing world. It confounds expectations, in other words. Which, in many ways, is the whole purpose of the film.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Golshifteh Farahani’s sensitive performance
  • The Moroccan locations (standing in for Afghanistan)
  • Thierry Arbogast’s cinematography
  • A festival and awards favourite

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Patience Stone – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Grave of the Fireflies

Grave of the Fireflies

 

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

 

 

6 August

 

US drops atomic bomb on Hiroshima, 1945

On this day in 1945, about ten days after the US, UK and USSR had threatened Japan with “prompt and utter destruction”, an American B-29 bomber, Enola Gay, dropped the nuclear bomb “Little Boy” on the port of Hiroshima in Japan. The bomb killed around 80,000 people immediately and a further 10,000-60,000 in the following months, through injury and radiation sickness. It destroyed around 70% of the city’s buildings. Three days later another bomb, “Fat Man”, was dropped on the city of Nagasaki, causing an instant 22,000 to 75,000 deaths. Six days after that Japan surrendered. The Second World War was over.

 

 

 

Grave of the Fireflies (1988, dir: Isao Takahata)

Animation is for kids, right? Not in Grave of the Fireflies it isn’t. Directed by Isao Takahata, it tells the story of the dog days of the Second World War from the viewpoint of two children who live in the port city of Kobe. Their fate is not to be caught up in the nuclear blasts that brought the war to an end. Instead they’re victims of one of the carpet-bombings of cities that preceded them, which produced firestorms that turned everything to cinder. Seita is a teenager and his young sister, Setsuko, is about five years old, and in the immediate aftermath of the bombing, which they have somehow survived, their first concern is what to do with their mother, who is covered in burns and in an emergency hospital. Nothing, is the answer, they can do nothing. So they head off to the home of an aunt, who is far from happy to see them and reluctant to feed them. After some weeks, the increasingly-starving Seita and Setsuko leave her house and head for the hills. What happens next we already know much of – because one of the opening shots of the film is of Seita lying dead, the entire story being relayed by his spirit in flashback. The original novel, by Nosaka Akiyuki, was based on his own experience of the carpet-bombings, when his own sister died of starvation, so there’s a strongly autobiographical element, as well as a determination not to yield to melodrama – here, the facts are strong enough. And the decision to animate has some relevance here too, universalising the characters to a great degree; though Akiyuki’s story is his own, more or less, there must have been many many more children in towns in Japan, and in wars before and since, who have been thrown into the simple struggle for survival – find somewhere safe to sleep, water to drink, food to eat. The animation isn’t a Pixar-style struggle towards a glossy realism, it’s flat, matte and stylised, clearly Japanese, the kid’s big saucer eye owing a lot to anime.
Takahata worked alongside the legendary Hayao Miyazaki at Studio Ghibli and is as aware of the power of the very simple moment to enthral and delight. He even has time for poetry in among some of the most harrowing scenes you’re ever likely to encounter in an animated film: the fireflies of the title dancing for Setsuko and Seita one evening delivering a moment of joy and optimism that’s short-lived.
But don’t get your hopes up about the future of these two unfortunates. They’re only drawings. The film, on the other hand, is surprisingly real.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • One of the best animated films ever made
  • Deals brilliantly with the aftermath of war
  • An outstanding example of great Studio Ghibli work
  • A reminder that the end of the war in Japan was about more than Hiroshima and Nagasaki

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Grave of the Fireflies – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Bomber

Ekaterina Astakhova and Nikita Efremov on the set of The Bomber

 

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

 

 

1 July

 

SOS adopted, 1908

On this day in 1908, the second International Radiotelegraphic Convention became effective. It made standard the Morse code distress signal of three dits, three dahs, three dits, which had first been adopted by the German government three years earlier. Three dits is the Morse code for S, three dahs for O, hence SOS. It is not an acronym for anything – not Save Our Souls, nor Save Our Ship, or Send Out Succour – and the first ship to use it was the Cunard liner Slavonia (10 June 1909) or the steamer SS Arapahoe (11 August 1909), it’s not clear which. Though still widely recognised, it was abandoned as a radio distress signal in 1999, when it was replaced by automatic radio beacons and satellite positioning technology.

 

 

 

The Bomber (2011, dir: Vitaliy Vorobyov)

The Bomber started life as a Russian TV mini-series, then its eight long episodes were cut down and squeezed into a three-hour movie slot. The result is not perfect – there are clear “go to ad break” moments still visible – but the film is certainly better than a lot of Second World War movies. In fact that is damning with faint praise. Because what we have ended up with is a film of great pace and sweep, a really well cast adventure that focuses on a trio of characters – a brave him, a heroic her and a dastardly dastard who keeps changing sides in the war the Soviets are waging against the Nazis. Nikita Efremov plays the honest son-of-Russia pilot Grivtsov, Aleksandr Davydov is Linko, the cowardly turncoat navigator, and Ekaterina Astakhova is the radio operator Katya, a trio shot down somewhere over the Ukraine, whose subsequent journeys back to base will see them bumping into each other, bumping into Nazis, fighting, escaping and, for two of them at least, doing a fair bit of big-eyed amorous staring. This inclusion of a woman in a war film adds a frisson of sex to the usual mix of guns, Nazis, explosions and Messerschmitts at 3 o’clock. And the fact that Astakhova is in a more than decorative role is one of the things that mark out The Bomber. Another is the way the film both expresses the centrality of the Second World War in the Russian psyche – no wonder when you consider that the UK and US lost about 450,000 people apiece; the Soviet Union more like 25 million – and the current attempt by the Russia to pull on the uniform of the old Soviet Union.
It’s a film strong on despicable Nazis, adept at staging an action sequence, whether it’s a running gun battle, the torching of a peasant village or the blowing of a train off the rails. But it doesn’t rely exclusively on big bangs and running around (it’s not The Expendables, I mean) to rack up the tension. That comes through old-fashioned dramatic craft – the will they/won’t theys.
Some people won’t enjoy the obvious propagandistic elements. But though it’s clearly banging the drum for the Soviet Union, The Bomber doesn’t paint it as whiter than white, and in its message of cleaving close to the homeland, the power of collective action, the simple love of the soil, it’s not so far from any John Wayne war movie. The subtitling, if your Russian isn’t up to it, is a bit of problem too, though the forward thrust, the strong characters and the boldness of the story does help paper over a few of the translation’s more leaden moments. Don’t let these put you off, or the other reviews I’ve seen, which seem to focus unnecessarily on this film’s deficiencies rather than its strengths – astonishingly good casting, a great story, fine writing and well staged action. All in all a fascinating war movie, impressive, engaging and, most of all, great entertainment.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Vitaliy Vorobyov’s vivid direction
  • Its solid cast
  • The light it shines on the Soviet Union’s war experience
  • A reminder of the role women played in the war

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Bomber (aka Ballada O Bombere) – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Gone with the Wind

Vivien Leigh and Hattie McDaniel in Gone with the Wind

 

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

 

 

22 June

 

David O Selznick dies, 1965

On this day in 1965, one of the great names of Hollywood’s golden era died. David O (the O meant nothing at all) had been born into a movie family in 1902 and arrived in Hollywood in time for the talkie era, in 1926. By 1931, having worked at MGM and Paramount, he was head of production at RKO, 1933’s King Kong being one of his big successes. He moved back to MGM where he oversaw a series of prestige productions, including Anna Karenina and A Tale of Two Cities. In 1936 he had become an independent producer, his standout hits in the next four years being A Star Is Born, Gone with the Wind and Rebecca. Having made the biggest film of all time, Gone with the Wind, and introduced Hitchcock to the USA, Selznick took a break, but in 1944 he returned to producing and writing films – Since You Went Away, Hitchcock’s Spellbound, The Third Man. He spent much of the rest of his life trying to top the success of Gone with the Wind, and furthering the career of his wife, Jennifer Jones, who starred in his nearest pass, Duel in the Sun. In 1948 he took another break, this time for nine years, aware that TV was the new kid in town. His return to movie production was A Farewell to Arms in 1957. It was his last film. He died of a heart attack, his career having peaked with Hollywood.

 

 

 

Gone with the Wind (1939, dir: Victor Fleming, George Cukor, Sam Wood)

Phew. Three directors. Everything about Gone with the Wind is excessive – books have been written just about the casting of it – but nothing quite outdoes Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara. David O Selznick knew that he had to get Scarlett right or else the film would fail. And he got it right. In terms of plot GWTW is really just a straightforward journey with Scarlett as she hits one adversity after another and overcomes it – either romantic (her men), financial (her beloved Tara plantation) or political (the Civil War that throws both of the first two into flux). The film is often discussed in terms of it being an epic love story set against a backdrop of the American Civil War, but Gone with the Wind is actually best seen as the portrait of an out and out bitch. And Leigh is quite punishingly majestic as the Southern belle whose beauty and birth leads her to believe she is entitled to everything. We’re in the Deep South of the slavery years and from the interactions between Scarlett and her house slave Mammie (Hattie McDaniel) it’s clear that in all of Scarlett’s dealings with men she expects the same as with Mammie – master or servant and nothing in between. Scarlett is the domineering sort who is after a new father figure. And if the man in question can’t deliver, she has no use for him.Scarlett demands the bended knee and gets it from nearly everyone she encounters. She does not get it from Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) and as a consequence falls badly for him from the moment she first spots him lounging languidly at a barbecue and undressing her with his eyes.

This is a film about domination and being dominated – black and white, north and south, man and woman. “You need kissing badly. That’s what’s wrong with you. You should be kissed, and often, and by someone who knows how.” That’s Rhett’s big bold bid to get Scarlett in his thrall (ie bed). And Scarlett, sensing a man who will dominate her, who would rather give it all up (“Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”) than play second fiddle, yields. Look around at everyone else – feeble Southern gent Ashley (Leslie Howard), his fluttering wife Melanie (Olivia de Havilland), Butterfly McQueen as Prissy, Thomas Mitchell as Gerald and everyone around them, second fiddlers all. As for the Yankee deserter who Scarlett meets on the road – she shoots him, partly because he’s the enemy, but also because he’s a coward, a weakling.

Gone with the Wind is also one of the great technical achievements of Hollywood. It’s a triumph of special effects, physical and otherwise. Watch it just to clock how many matte drawing and in-camera effects have been used, some of them so accomplished they’re still invisible (you can’t say that about the Lord of the Rings film, for instance, where every effect looks like one). Tara, O’Hara’s beloved home, is plywood and paper mache, though you’d never know. The burning of Atlanta scene saw Selznick himself pushing the plunger that detonated the buildings of the “back forty” and burning countless old sets used by Cecil B De Mille in the silent era. That’s how you mimic the burning of a city, by burning down something huge.
And it’s all caught in glorious Technicolor. The biggest film of its era, GWTW is still the biggest film of all time when inflation is taken into account. Bigger even than Avatar. There is a good reason for that.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The biggest film of all time
  • Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable
  • 10 Oscars
  • Released in 1939, Hollywood’s annus mirabilis

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Gone with the Wind – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Rome, Open City

Anna Magnani runs after her fiancee in Rome, Open City

 

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

 

 

2 June

 

The sack of Rome, AD455

On this day in the 455th year of the Christian or Common Era, Rome was sacked. Actually, this is a touch ambiguous, because Rome had already been pillaged twice before, in 390BC by the Gauls fighting the Roman in the Battle of the Allia; and in AD410, in the attack of the Visigoths led by Alaric. In AD455 it was the Vandal king Genseric who marched on Rome, claiming a peace treaty between himself and Emperor Valentinian III had been violated when Emperor Petronius Maximus had usurped Valentinian and seized the throne. Out of deference to Pope Leo I, the Christian Genseric kept the violence and looting to a minimum. Genseric threw open the gates of Rome, allowing beaten Maximus and his men to flee, then set about a systematic plunder of Rome’s wealth, which continued for 14 days. Much treasure was taken and many people were eventually sold into slavery in the markets of Carthage (North Africa), a Vandal stronghold. Genseric withdrew to Carthage, taking the wife and children of the deposed Emperor Valentinian III with him. The word vandalism has had a cultural significance since.

 

 

 

Rome, Open City (1945, dir: Roberto Rossellini)

Co-written in a week with his friends Sergio Amidei and an unknown Federico Fellini, Rossellini’s Rome, Open City was made in the teeth of adversity. Italy was in the final days of the Second World War. Its leader, Mussolini, had fled and was about to be taken out and hung from a lamp post. Rossellini, meanwhile, was making a film that marked a kind of Year Zero (a title he’d later use in another film, Germany Year Zero) of film-making. Looked at today it can be hard to see what the fuss was about – the neo-realist style, shooting out on the streets, using non-actors in key roles, that’s becomes absolutely standard. Back then it really wasn’t – films were made in studios, with heavy cameras, lights and teams of backroom technicians oiling the wheels. Yet, even without that initial shock of the new, this film works. Some of that is down to the fact that Rossellini is shooting in a city that has just been liberated by the Americans, ravaged, bombed out, its people shaken and hungry – there’s a definite documentary aspect. Then there’s Anna Magnani, a cabaret star on her way to being the same in film, as the fiancée of a Resistance fighter hiding from the Gestapo and later betrayed by someone in the organisation. Its most famous shot is of Magnani running down the road after a truck as the Nazis take her man away. Shot being the operative word in that sentence, the first of a series of dramatic shocks that spike the film. Can you imagine the power of this film, conceived while the jackboots were still on the streets, made on the hoof, guerrilla style, necessity forcing its stylistic decisions, then shown to a populace who had been subject to the “open city” of the Nazis (it’s a German way of saying “game over”) only a few months before, and unstinting in its depiction of the brutality of the occupiers? Some aspects of the film have dated now – the broad-brush Nazis were absolutely necessary then but not so much now; homosexuality is treated in the sort of way that might make a modern viewer flinch. Even so, it is the first film of the glorious renaissance of Italian movies after the war, this and Bicycle Thieves being the landmarks of the neorealist movement. Jean-Luc Godard, when asked about the origins of the French New Wave 20 years later, declared “All roads lead to Rome, Open City.” Rossellini would never make a film as powerful again.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • An epoch changing film
  • Rossellini’s best film
  • An early sight of a future legend – Fellini
  • Anna Magnani’s starmaking performance

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Rome, Open City – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Black Book

Carice Van Houten in Black Book

 

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

 

 

23 May

 

Netherlands declares independence from Spain, 1568

On this day in 1568, the battle of Heligerlee was fought and won by the rebel army of William I of Orange, against the Duke of Alba, representative of the Hapsburg ruling dynasty. It marked the beginning of the 80 Years’ War for the independence of the Protestant Netherlands from Catholic Spanish rule. Though the rebels won the battle, they lost the campaign, due to lack of funds, and the rebellion sputtered out, only to flame up again in 1572. By 1581 the Netherlands were independent, though it took until 1648 for this to be recognised by Spain, who were at various times in the interim fighting a war against France, Turkey and England, all of whom wanted to prevent the Hapsburgs from becoming the dominant family in Europe. At a time when dynasties appeared to be the natural order in Europe, the Netherlands’ fight for independence marked a shift towards a different organising principle: the nation state.

 

 

 

Black Book (2006, dir: Paul Verhoeven)

Paul Verhoeven, born in the Netherlands in 1938, decamped to Hollywood in the 1980s, where he made a run of hugely successful hit movies. Some were powerfully imagined sci-fi numbers (Total Recall, RoboCop), others trashy teases (Showgirls, Basic Instinct), some a bit of both (Starship Troopers, Hollow Man). For his return to his native country he’s gone back to the territory explored in Soldier of Orange – the Second World War – and is using all the tricks he learnt marshalling some of Hollywood’s moodiest actors and biggest budgets to tell a widescreen story of a singer called Rachel who, after seeing her entire family killed and then, in death, turned over for their valuables, infiltrates the Gestapo to pass information back to the Netherlands Resistance. Rachel is a Jew, and the name is a giveaway, so along with dying her hair blonde, she takes a gentile name, Ellis, and dives in. This is a story of clear goodies and baddies. Well it would be if Verhoeven hadn’t made it. Rachel/Ellis is obviously on the side of the angels, but otherwise there are more shades of grey in Black Book (choice of title obviously ironic) than you get in the average war film made by someone who actually remembers the Nazis inhabiting his home country, as Verhoeven does. Disconcertingly, the baddies turn out to have redeeming features. In the case of one appallingly bestial Nazi, he has the most gorgeous singing voice. In the case of local Nazi boss Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch), he’s a cultured man, a stamp collector, obeying orders with a great deal of reluctance. The goodies, too, aren’t that great, there being something very dubious going on in the higher echelons of the Dutch Resistance. At one point, in fact, Rachel/Ellis is caught between both parties, accused by each of being a spy. What is a girl to do? Verhoeven also addresses that old saw, of the Jews being in some sense responsible for their fate, in the figure of this brave woman putting her life on the line every day to try and defeat Hitler and his henchmen.
As well as being a cracking wartime thriller, Black Book is a Verhoeven film, so there’s got to be nudity, though watch how it is used. Rachel/Ellis dyes her pubic hair – careful girl – so collar and cuffs will pass even intimate tests. There are a number of scenes in which naked Gestapo men make sexual sport with local Dutch girls. The girls are naked because they are chattels; the men are naked as a sign of their power. Yet in the scenes where Rachel goes to bed with Müntze, intending to do him injury but in fact falling for him, nudity turns into something more familiar – a marker of genuine intimacy. This lack of fear in the face of the naked body has always marked Verhoeven out, and may explain why some of the reviews for this film were a bit lukewarm; payback from the puritans. Though the critical herd mentality could be at play too – Verhoeven just isn’t hot any more. And nor are war films. Black Book is not perfect, there is a terrible squeezing of too much material into too small a space once the war ends and Rachel heads off fairly unnecessarily to a kibbutz, but Carice Van Houten’s performance is nuanced and magnetic and star-making, and Koch is as great as he ever is (you might have seen him as the lead in The Lives of Others). This is a film that deserves to be seen.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A great Verhoeven film
  • Carice Van Houten’s performance
  • Sebastian Koch’s performance
  • The Netherlands’ most expensive movie to date

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Black Book – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Platoon

Charlie Sheen in Platoon

 

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

 

 

19 May

 

Ho Chi Minh born, 1890

On this day in 1890, Nguyen Sinh Con, later known as Ho Chi Minh, was born, in Hoang Tru, in Vietnam. One of four children, he got an education thanks to the colonial French, at a local lycée, and under the direction of his father, a Confucian scholar. Realising there was little future for him in Vietnam after his father lost his administrative position – influence was everything – he boarded a ship for France, working as a ship’s cook, where he failed to get work in Marseille. Over the next few years he worked on ships, lived in New York and Boston, then skivvied in kitchens in London, where he might have trained as a pastry chef under Auguste Escoffier in 1913. By 1919 he was living in France, and was going by the name Nguyen Ai Quoc (Nguyen the Patriot), and became politically active in pursuit of the rights of Vietnamese people in French Indochina. Nguyen became a communist and in 1923 moved from Paris to Moscow, where he was employed by Comintern. By 1924 he was in Canton, China. After the arrival of the anti-communist Chiang Kai-shek in China in 1927, Nguyen returned to Moscow, then went to the Crimea to recover from tuberculosis, then travelled around Europe before arriving in Bangkok in 1928. Over the next few years he continued travelling, organising communist political groups, caballing and intriguing, interspersing political work with spells working as a waiter in restaurants. In 1938 he returned to China, where the communists were now on the rise. He took the name Ho Chi Minh – it means Ho who is Enlightened (Chi), Brightly (Minh) – and returned to Vietnam, where he led the Viet Minh independence movement against the French. During the Second World War this meant he was fighting the Japanese and the Vichy French (who were aligned with Hitler) and he was tactically but tacitly supported by the USA. Ho Chi Minh’s men, ironically, were trained by the US. In 1945, the Viet Minh took control of the north of the country and Ho Chi Minh declared himself president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (ie North Vietnam). In 1946, the French counter-attacked to regain control of their colony. The First Indochina War, which would eventually become the Vietnam War, had begun. Ho Chi Minh remained president of North Vietnam until his death in 1969, on the anniversary of the Republic’s founding.

 

 

 

Platoon (1986, dir: Oliver Stone)

Released only a few months before Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, Oliver Stone’s Platoon is often considered the lesser film. It is the better film, more coherent and authentic, though lacking an R Lee Ermey (Kubrick’s crackerjack gunnery sergeant) around which everything coheres. Stone fought in Vietnam and had already made a film tangentially about it – a short called Last Year in Viet Nam, in which Stone himself played a Vietnam veteran living on the streets of New York – but this was his big shot at the subject. It is still without doubt his best film, and one of the best “this is how it was” depictions of war, a hash of scenes that pitch us into the jungle with that rare figure in Vietnam war films, the recruit who actually volunteered (as Stone did). And we watch as this shit-scared rookie falteringly learns how to become a soldier, all the while fending off suspicious glances from his own guys, draftees who wonder what a college kid is doing here. If war is, as the old adage has it, long periods of boredom punctuated with moments of pure terror, Stone captures that as his platoon of guys hack through the jungle while the enemy – shadowy presences at best – wait and wait and wait. Boredom is one trope, but confusion is another – we’re never sure where the bad guys are, whether the villagers are innocent or whether they are harbouring the enemy, whether the American soldiers who get trigger-happy and just shoot everyone have lost their moral compass or whether, in the end, that’s just the best way to proceed. The fog of war. Charlie Sheen is our fixed point, the narrator and Stone avatar, and around him are faces we didn’t know so well back then – Forest Whitaker and Kevin Dillon and Willem Dafoe and Johnny Depp. Others we knew quite well back then, Tom Berenger and Keith David, who we know less well now. Rewatched, the film could do without a lot of Sheen’s soapy narration – Stone knows that Charlie’s dad, Martin, did the pov voiceover on Apocalypse Now so this must be some kind of poor joke – and the two sergeants representing the extreme ends of soldiering (Berenger’s scarred dog of war against Defoe’s sensitive hippie) seem more like placeholders than characters. But what Stone needs to get right – the panic of combat – he really does. Platoon came at the end of the cycle of great films about Vietnam. Kubrick would bring the era to a close later that year. The war continued to inspire films good (Hamburger Hill) and bad (Rambo III), offbeat (Good Morning Vietnam) and sentimental (Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July).

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Oliver Stone’s best movie
  • Winner of the Best Picture Oscar
  • Written expressly to counter John Wayne’s The Green Berets
  • Imagine Jim Morrison of the Doors in it, as Stone intended

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Platoon – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Lore

Saskia Rosendahl as Lore

 

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

 

 

30 April

 

Adolf Hitler kills himself, 1945

On this day in 1945, Adolf Hitler, the Führer and Reich Chancellor of Germany, also the Reichsstatthalter of Prussia, killed himself. On 22 April 1945, Hitler had railed against his generals, having discovered that his orders for SS Obergruppenführer Steiner and his detachment to attack the Red Army had been flatly ignored. On 23 April, Prime Minister Göring, in a telegram from Berchtesgaden, pointing out that Berlin was surrounded by the Russians and Hitler incapacitated, suggested that he, Göring, should assume leadership of Germany. Hitler responded by having Göring arrested and removing him from all government positions. On 28 April Hitler discovered that his minster of the Interior, Heinrich Himmler, was secretly talking to the Allies in pursuit of a surrender. It was also discovered that Himmler’s liaison officer in Berlin, Hermann Fegelein, was attempting to flee Berlin, in civilian clothes and with foreign cash in his possession. Hitler ordered Himmler’s arrest and had Fegelein shot. The following day Hitler married Fegelein’s sister-in-law, Eva Braun. After a small wedding breakfast he dictated his will. Later that day he was informed of the execution of Mussolini. The following day the new Mrs Hitler took cyanide and killed herself, before Hitler shot himself with his own Walther PPK 7.65mm. Their bodies were carried above ground, doused in petrol and burned. Two days later Berlin surrendered.

 

 

 

Lore (2012, dir: Cate Shortland)

Australian director Cate Shortland turned Abbie Cornish into a star with her 2004 film Somersault. And she’s up to something fairly similar in Lore, a film about a similarly blonde girl (Saskia Rosendahl) having a similar sexual awakening in very dissimilar circumstance. Because Somersault took place in modern-day Australia and Lore takes place right after the end of the Second World War. And it’s about a pretty young thing who has grown up in a Hitler-loving family, and who is now trekking across country with her four siblings, because her parents have been arrested, in an attempt to get to safety and her grandparents’ house many days’ walk away. Shortland deliberately gives us the wild Germany of Hitler’s imaginings – full of birdsong, sun-dappled lanes, shady glens – and contrasts it with shots of raped women, refugees, soldiers on the rampage, pictures from the death camps, the ugliness of a post-war world and the ugliness inside Lore, a girl who knows no better. Where the ideology meets reality. Taking place in a country undergoing denazification, the film is about the denazification of one single person, most obviously in the scenes where Lore – all Aryan hairstyle and dirndl skirt – meets a Jewish teenage boy (Kai Malina), who saves the entire family by taking them all under his wing. Suddenly, in the post-War world, being a Jew has its advantages. As she showed in Somersault, Shortland is a dab hand at making girls look pretty and uses sexual awakening as a metaphor for knowledge. If the lusty stuff gets in the way of the film a touch here and there, at least this isn’t yet another of a long line of Good German Movies, praise be. The Germans in this film aren’t dupes who have been taken in by Hitler; they’re complicit, and guilt is written all over their faces. Similarly, Lore’s journey isn’t from darkness to light, it’s from ignorance to the very tiniest beginnings of understanding.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • An unusually muted war drama
  • Saskia Rosendahl’s performance
  • The handheld cinematography of Adam Arkapaw (Animal Kingdom)
  • A worthy adaptation of Rachel Seiffert’s novel The Dark Room

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Lore – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Inglourious Basterds

Brad Pitt in Inglourious Basterds

 

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

 

 

16 April

 

Colditz liberated, 1945

On this day in 1945, the infamous Colditz Castle PoW camp was relieved by the US Army.

Dating back nearly a thousand years, though extensively rebuilt in the 19th century, the castle had been a workhouse, a mental asylum and a sanitarium for the well-to-do before being pressed into service as a prison for high security captives during the Second World War – often people who had broken out of other prisons.

Known as Oflag IV-C, it is the source of many myths and stirring stories about escape attempts during the Second World War. It was a camp for officers (the Of of Oflag stands for Offizier) but also became the home to what might be called celebrity prisoners – two nephews of the King of England, the son of WW1 notable Field Marshal Haig, the son of the viceroy of India etc etc.

Undoubtedly their presence helped protect the other inmates, who were treated strictly according to the Geneva Convention – attempts at escape (of which there were many) were punished with spells in solitary rather than summary execution.

Prisoners also received Red Cross parcels, which often meant they were eating better than their guards. Other notable inmates included David Stirling (founder of the SAS) and Desmond Llewellyn, who would later get James Bond out of awkward situations as Q.

 

 

 

Inglourious Basterds (2009, dir: Quentin Tarantino)

The opening sequence of Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino’s war movie, tells us a lot about what is to follow. Having led into it with some jokey Hogan’s Heroes-style intro credits – including “guest star” nods – Tarantino opens with a shot that immediately evokes The Sound of Music, all sun and alpine meadows, before moving into a long sequence in which Christoph Waltz’s extremely cultured, smart Nazi officer Hans Landa (aka “the Jew Hunter”) has an affable chat with a farmer.

Some time early on in the chat the language the two men are using switches from German to English, as often happens during these sort of films – who wants to watch acres of subtitling, after all? All appears to be normal in the Tarantino universe – pastiche is being delivered by a master of this sort of thing. But by the end of this sequence something else has happened. We’re not in the gentle knockabout of Hogan’s Heroes, the guitar-strumming nun is nowhere to be seen and the shift from German to English has been for a reason entirely to do with plot, not audience-pleasing.

The tension-ometer has gone from a gentle green to a steaming red, Waltz’s horrible true nature has been fully revealed. The farmer has been duped. And so has the audience.

It is a masterstroke, partly because Waltz is so good at delivering Tarantino’s beautifully modulated script (it’s so good, in fact, that QT essentially delivered the same opening, by the same actor, in Django Unchained), but mostly because Tarantino has reinforced our expectations of what he is about to deliver, and then confounded them.

The scene is set for a war movie that tries to have its cake and eat it throughout, giving us what you might call classic Tarantino, and then pulling back to suggest something more.

That something more is seriousness. And though Tarantino can’t help himself here and there with his playful cutaways (we learn how flammable nitrate film is, by god), there’s something about the Second World War that seems to bring out the earnest in the man.

Revenge is the theme, whether delivered by Mélanie Laurent (one of the Jews the dairy farmer was harbouring) or by Brad Pitt (with Clark Gable moustache and swagger as one of the vigilante Basterds) and Tarantino serves it over five clearly delineated, often spaghetti western-flavoured chapters, each one almost a movie in its own right, building towards two assassination attempts on the German high command. In a cinema, Tarantino’s theatre of operations.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The cast includes Michael Fassbender and a revelatory Diane Kruger
  • A-list cinematographer Robert Richardson
  • Subtitles – lots of them
  • The soundtrack – Ennio Morricone to Lalo Schifrin and Ray Charles to David Bowie

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Inglourious Basterds – at Amazon