Colonel Redl

Klaus Maria Brandauer as Colonel Redl

 

 

 

Colonel Redl is an adaptation of John Osborne’s play A Patriot for Me and charts the rise and fall of a soldier with opportunism where principles should be. It’s a sumptuous affair set in the dog days of the Austro-Hungarian empire and builds slowly towards a painfully frenzied climax, as did the previous collaboration between director István Szabó and actor Klaus Maria Brandauer. And as in Mephisto we’re following a man of few scruples making his way from relative obscurity to the top of his tree – the secret service in this case. Redl was a real man, an officer in the espionage wing of the Austro-Hungarian army who sold his country’s war plans to Russia on the eve of the First World War, thereby condemning thousands of countrymen to their deaths. The Hungarian Szabó doesn’t set out to condemn a traitor. Instead he’s delineating the mindset of someone who doesn’t know who he is. Szabó claimed in interviews when the film first debuted that his reason for making the film was that identity was one of the key drivers of the modern psyche – Redl is ashamed of his homosexuality, his poor background, his ethnic outsiderdom. But Szabó must also have been thinking about identity closer to home – the ethnic fallout from the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian empire was yet to produce the war in former Yugoslavia but the tensions were already there (and still are, all over the former empire).

After Mephisto, made four years earlier, Brandauer had seemed set for international superstardom. He’d turned up as the stooge husband to Meryl Streep and Robert Redford’s lovers in Out of Africa. And he was a Bond villain in Never Say Never Again. Between then and now he has regularly popped up in English language films, often playing the villain, but has seemed happier to work on a broader canvas in German-speaking countries. It’s our loss. Here, as in Mephisto, his performance is a thing of wonder. He conveys every turn of the coat by Redl with a subtle shift of demeanour. If Szabó has given Brandauer all the canvas an actor could want, Brandauer has responded by delivering a beautiful performance of sympathetic villainy – not a white cat in sight. Szabó’s film is undoubtedly a masterpiece and Brandauer is one of the key reasons why.

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

Colonel Redl – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

C’était un Rendezvous

Paris, dawn, August, in the long hot summer of 1976

The story goes that after wrapping on a film starring Catherine Deneuve, having come in under budget and with a day of shooting time left, as he often managed, director Claude Lelouch decided to do something mad and foolish, make a guerrilla short. All you need to make a movie is a gun and a girl, is how Lelouch’s New Wave colleague Jean-Luc Godard had put it. Lelouch set out to show you didn’t need even that, just a fast car and a camera strapped on the front.

And that’s what C’était un Rendezvous is, a single shot from a slow-slung camera, as the car it’s attached to (a Ferrari?) hurtles through the streets of Paris at dawn, urgently changing up and down through the gears, tyres squealing on the corners, odd hazards such as other cars, a delivery vehicle, the rare pedestrian rushing into and out of shot, the car squeezing through the tightest of gaps, lurching from one side of the road to the other, on and on past famous landmarks, through wide boulevards to scarily narrow avenues, before it finally comes to rest with a final shot that explains it all (sort of).

Lelouch was right, a car and a camera is all you need. The low camera and the engine’s growl have the effect of placing the viewer in the car. It sounds almost stupid but this simplest of simple films, no CGI or effects of any sort, has you gripping the arms of chairs, pumping non-existent brakes, shouting “get out of the bloody way” when postmen nervously stick a toe out into the street.

There are so many myths surrounding the film it’s hard to know where to start. But look closer and it’s clear that the car isn’t travelling as fast as you at first think. It’s also entirely likely that those angry gear changes have been post-dubbed. Certainly Lelouch has recently claimed that the car being driven wasn’t a Ferrari 275 GTB but was his own more sedate Mercedes 450SEL (and the blog automobilesdeluxe.tv claims to have proof this was the case). And that the man at the wheel wasn’t a Formula 1 driver but Lelouch himself.

Whether the myths are true or not, Lelouch was arrested by the police for his bit of dawn bravado. This restored version of his original film delivers simple thrills of the most visceral sort, transports us back to Paris when it looked like Paris at ground level – almost all the cars on the street were French, McDonald’s was still tucked up on the other side of the Atlantic – and for the scant nine minutes that the film endures (the camera could only hold ten minutes of film), we’re back there, the car angry as it tears down the innocent streets in the half-light. Doesn’t it look great.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

C’était un Rendezvous – at Amazon

McCabe And Mrs Miller

Warren Beatty and Julie Christie in McCabe & Mrs Miller

 

 

As Ang Lee now redefines every genre he touches, so did Robert Altman three and more decades ago. Here’s his remodelling of the western, an “anti-western” according to him, though these days what Altman was doing decades ago has mostly been incorporated in the mainstream – the “anti-western” is now just a western. Warren Beatty and Julie Christie take the leads – he a lousy entrepreneur with a plan to build a whorehouse, she a Cockney madam with an opium habit and a determination to make McCabe succeed in the enterprise they agree to jointly undertake. They sleep together but she charges him top dollar. It’s that sort of relationship and that sort of town. This is the American West as it is being made, a building site of half-dug holes and half-built buildings where such niceties as manners and morality have yet to arrive.

McCabe & Mrs Miller is a painfully elegiac film, and thanks to Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography, and Leonard Cohen’s songs on the soundtrack, beautiful and fragile too. It plays out in a landscape where it’s always just about to rain, or sleet, in a town called Presbyterian Church. It’s the sort of film where little is said outright. At one point McCabe is offered money for his land. He suggests a price that’s way too high. It’s only later that he, and we, realise that by doing that he’s effectively signed his own death warrant.

Like Altman’s Mash, Altman’s western gives us characters who arrive on the screen fully made and situations we feel privileged to be overhearing. It’s probably Altman’s best film, Christie’s and Beatty’s too.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 McCabe & Mrs Miller – at Amazon

 

 

Human Traffic

Shaun Parkes and John Simm in Human Traffic

 

 

 

Human Traffic made a hell of a feature debut for its writer and director Justin Kerrigan at the back end of the 20th century. A pill-popping tale of a mad weekend among McJobbers in Cardiff, Wales, it’s a film unashamed, delighted in fact, to bring us drug-taking as it is experienced by those who do it most – from Friday night euphoria to Sunday comedown – as fun, an escape, a lark.

We’re talking about ecstasy, this being 1999, and the film was so of the moment that the UK newspaper The Guardian called it “the last great film of the nineties”. The paper was rushing on its own euphoria but there is an undeniable freshness to the film. Kerrigan wrote it when he was 23, living the life, and it has the urgency of despatches from the front line. As to the “great” label, there’s nothing that ages as quickly as a film about youth culture, May’s “block-rocking beats” being staler than “Hep cat daddy-o” by December. Ah yes, “block rocking beats” – the soundtrack, includes Underworld, Fatboy Slim and Orbital and was supervised by Pete Tong, a DJ so famous at the time that his name had become rhyming slang.

But there is timelessness in here too. Look no further than the performances of the cast. John Simm and Shaun Parkes are the real standouts, and I think this was the film debut of Danny Dyer, who’s managed since to parlay that druggy hangdog thing he delivers here into an entire career.

Kerrigan is, if anything, a better writer than he is a director. Among the inspired scenes in Human Traffic is one in which a TV news reporter does a drugs expose speaking in jive-talk he reckons is “street”. It is a piece of grade A observational comedy. Which brings us to the real reason why the film hangs together – it wrings comedy, pathos and drama out of character, rather than soap-style psychological exposition or the standard set-up/pay-off gag structure. Which is very unBritish, almost French even. And it does, quite unashamedly, love its drugs.

A word on versions. For authenticity, go for the UK original version. The US retread doesn’t do terrible things to the language, merely clearing up a few chin-scratchers that just don’t translate, but it does make some visual cuts on moralistic grounds, which surely is just plain wrong. As for the 2002 rehash, Human Traffic Remixed, this has been disavowed by Kerrigan and his star John Simm.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

Human Traffic – at Amazon

 

 

 

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Zhang Ziyi in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

 

 

 

He (Chow Yun-Fat) loves her (Michelle Yeoh); she loves him, but they cannot be together until the fabled jade sword has been returned to its rightful owner. This they seek to do, hindered by an assassin and a mystery figure whose martial arts abilities rival their own.

All that plot business is entirely secondary to the working of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon though. It has just enough connective tissue to lead from one breathtaking display of martial arts magic to the next. It was the film of 2000, taking the most autistically male of movie genres, the martial arts epic, and broadening its appeal by adding a balletic twist. By a similar sleight of hand director Ang Lee also took the chickest of chick-flick romances and added a thriller chase. Both elements of a date-movie night out now satisfied, Lee then complicated things still further by filming most of the martial arts fights in near darkness, whereas the more usually moody love stuff was shot in blistering sunshine – out in the desert in fact. Which is where the porcelain beauty of Zhang Ziyi comes to the fore, in scenes with outlaw lover Chang Chen. If you have not seen it, then you have truly missed out – but there will be plenty of people who will envy the fact that you are still yet to witness the occasion when our combatants in love and life first leave the ground and run up the walls onto the roof, where one of the most beautifully choreographed fights (arranged by the Matrix’s Yuen Woo-Ping) plays out, to astonishing effect. Breathtaking, beautiful, tender, tough and magical, Crouching Tiger is all the more remarkable when you consider that it’s not even made by a martial arts director. Lee’s previous film was an undervalued western, Ride with the Devil. His next was an undervalued comic-book adaptation, Hulk.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Thin Red Line

Nick Nolte in The Thin Red Line

 

 

In the mid-1990s it was more or less universally accepted that Terrence Malick had given up making films. He’d made Badlands in 1973 and Days of Heaven in 1978, both of them the sort of films that have critics coining new superlatives, but that was that. Then, 20 years after Days of Heaven, he came back as if from nowhere with his version of The Thin Red Line – there’d already been an adaptation of James Jones’s novel in 1964. And like Badlands and Days of Heaven it took a familiar genre – the war film in this case – and gave it a typically reserved Malickian treatment.

Malick’s WWII actioner is not exactly an exercise in turning war-film conventions on their head, though it certainly does do that. Instead of concentrating on one Rambo-style character while everyone and everything around is being blown into the next world, Malick shoots the film as if he were a visitor from that next world. Drifting from soldier to soldier, his camera glides through the landscape and makes as if to enter the soldiers’ souls. The soundtrack is spookily calm, sometimes silent, particularly in the big action scenes. Like all good war films, The Thin Red Line is not about moments of great heroism or dick-measuring hardware face-offs (though it does that, too). It’s about the equation that all wars turn on: how many soldiers is it worth losing in order to win? And what is the personal price of victory?

The film is also, as all Malick films seem to be at some level, about humanity’s fall from grace – paradise lost. Audiences who first saw it were perhaps not ready for such a meditative war film. They probably weren’t ready for Malick’s casting decisions either. There are lots of big names in the credits to The Thin Red Line – Sean Penn, John Travolta, Woody Harrelson, John Cusack, Adrien Brody – though the focus of the drama is on lesser known names such as Jim Caviezel and Ben Chaplin. Though special mention in despatches must go to Nick Nolte, brilliant as the rabid lieutenant-colonel hungry for war glory, and one of the few carry-overs from the more traditional war epic.

Was Malick’s return welcomed with open arms? The answer is mixed. Critical reaction ranged from “cliched, self-indulgent” (Salon.com), and “heartfelt but not profound” (Roger Ebert) to “a genuinely epic cine-poem” (Time Out London). Whichever way you look at it his film made an interesting counterblast to Saving Private Ryan, which for six months had been the war movie everyone was talking about. And it broke the logjam – Malick, one of the great stylists of cinema, was back.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

The Thin Red Line – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Cape Fear

Robert De Niro as Max Cady in Cape Fear

Robert Mitchum as Max Cady in Cape Fear

It’s compare and contrast time. Max Cady, a psychopath recently out of stir after a long stretch for rape, sets out to terrorise lawyer Sam Bowden who he believes withheld information about his case at the trial which resulted in him going down. The original, directed by cult British director J. Lee Thompson in 1962, starred Robert Mitchum as the avenging psycho (a role he’d perfected in 1955’s Night Of The Hunter) and Gregory Peck as the apparently decent lawyer. Both turn up again in cameos in Martin Scorsese’s remake, in which things aren’t quite so clear cut. This time around Bowden (now played by Nick Nolte) is a lousy lawyer, and a philandering husband to boot, and Cady (Robert De Niro) isn’t just bad, he’s positively evil. The later version amps up the sex, too. Remember the infamous scene where Bowden’s daughter (Juliette Lewis) sucks the finger of Max Cady in the empty school theatre? And of course there’s Scorsese’s wham-bam hurricane-tossed ending. But sex, a big budget and lots of special effects to one side, the consensus seems to have it that Thompson’s is the better film, that drama as stormy as this works best when set in an age of innocence. As well as an elemental good versus evil thrust, Thompson also has Bernard Herrmann’s jangly score to help him along too, plus his instinct for the pace of a scene. Scorsese is, to be fair to him, after something more nuanced. His isn’t a clear-cut world of good v evil – everyone has done something that stinks in his Cape Fear. But does his finessing of moral positions make for a more satisfying, more humane drama, or a less dynamic film? Or both? Coming one year after Goodfellas Scorsese’s Cape Fear was fighting not just Thompson’s film but his own reputation.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

Cape Fear (1962) – at Amazon

Cape Fear (1991) – at Amazon

 

King of New York

Christopher Walken surveys his kingdom in King of New York

 

 

 

I used to work at a magazine and would get a lot of DVDs in for review purposes. King of New York was the one that really got all my co-workers misty eyed. They started quoting lines from the script, remembering the best bit of the film, asking me if I could have the disc after I’d finished with it. No wonder. It’s a hugely influential piece of work and you can see its impact on almost every mob drama since. It was made when Christopher Walken was in his pomp, here he plays the self-styled King, a classically ruthless gang boss with a strangely benevolent streak, a man who tries, in his own odd way, to wash the scum off the streets. The scum, unfortunately for them, being his business rivals. Being late Eighties, King of New York is big on gold chains, stretch limos, huge restaurant menus, rap music and, of course, Vivaldi. Walken works his shtick of unpredictability to the max, and has a mesmeric effect on the audience and his co-stars – Wesley Snipes, David Caruso, Laurence Fishburne, none of them slouches, all raise their game. In any debate about Abel Ferrara’s best film, people usually come down on the side of King of New York or Bad Lieutenant, another film that Ferrara drenches in unglamorous grunge – there is no Goodfellas Scorsese sheen here. King of New York also has one of the squeakiest death scenes you’ll ever see in a mainstream film. Time Out London called it “quite easily the most violent, foul-mouthed and truly nasty of current gangster movies.” When it was first screened in New York it got an incredibly hostile reception – among those who walked out were Ferrara’s own wife. Come on, you know you want to watch it now…
© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

King of New York – at Amazon

 

 

 

The Blue Angel

Emil Jannings and Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel

 

 

This is the film that made Marlene Dietrich a household scandal back in 1930. It’s the story of how a pompous but respectable schoolteacher is lured on to the rocks by Lola-Lola, the nightclub singer in a Weimar-era club who can’t help “Falling in Love Again” (which Dietrich sings here). Poor Emil Jannings, who played the professor, thought he was the star of the film – as well he might since he’d won the Best Actor Oscar the year before, at the very first Academy Awards. He resisted director Von Sternberg’s choice of Dietrich, then a nobody, as the temptress. Von Sternberg had discovered her acting in a stage play quite by accident. “She was a perfect medium, who with intelligence absorbed my direction, and despite her own misgivings responded to my conception of a female archetype,” Von Sternberg later wrote. “I … took a beautiful woman, instructed her, presented her carefully, edited her charms, disguised her imperfections, and led her to crystallise a pictorial aphrodisiac.” He created an icon, in other words, and Jannings “the perfect actor… opposed me every step of the way.”

None of this opposition is visible on screen, where art is imitating life and the teacher’s human weakness is being swamped by Lola-Lola’s balls-out sensuality. The Blue Angel was one of the first major talkies shot in Germany and was made in both German and English versions – shot twice, not overdubbed or anything so simple. The German version is longer and more satisfying and it’s also better preserved. Indeed the English version was considered lost for decades. Restoration can do wonderful things but the sound is “restricted” as the technical types would describe it (it sounds like a tin-can-and-string telephone in other words). Top tip: watch the German version with English subtitles.

Why see it? It’s an early talkie from Germany’s Weimar period before the Nazis arrived, a classic story of a foolish humbug brought low by his own lust and a chance to see a legend in the process of being created, Dietrich in her breakout role, still slightly hausfrau-ish but already in top hat and black stockings, a performance that Madonna must have watched a thousand times.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

The Blue Angel – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Finding Forrester

Sean Connery in Finding Forrester

 

 

A young ghetto kid (Rob Brown) breaks into the local recluse’s house only to discover it’s his literary hero, an author whose one novel has been followed by nothing except a mysterious silence for 40 years. The gruff old codger doesn’t bark at the kid and send him on his way. Nor does he shoot him with the gun he keeps on his bedside table. He doesn’t do either of these things because we’re in master-and-protégé territory, a fact which director Gus Van Sant cunningly seems to have made us fully aware of before the film has announced that that’s what it is. And he’s done that maybe to dial down our expectations.

This is not an action movie, not a plot-driven film either, it’s an exercise in gentle elegiac storytelling, a soul-warming stew concocted from muted visuals, a plaintive jazz soundtrack (lots of Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman), bucketloads of Americana and as much sentiment as the body can tolerate. It’s also, like Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting, the story of a gifted young person being encouraged to let their light shine. Speaking of which, Matt Damon turns up in a small role, part of a useful and eclectic cast including F Murray Abraham, Busta Rhymes, Anna Paquin and Michael Pitt. In the role of the aged writer is Sean Connery, who gives it all the leather and walnut of a stately civic library. He’d only make one more film after this before retiring, and that was the relatively disastrous The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Here, playing what everyone fancies is a crypto JD Salinger, is late-era Connery at his best.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 Finding Forrester – at Amazon