Zeros and Ones

Ethan Hawke as JJ the soldier

Zeros and Ones starts with a to-camera introduction by Ethan Hawke expressing how honoured he feels to be working with director/writer Abel Ferrara. After namechecking Willem Dafoe, who’s been Ferrara’s go-to for the past few years, and asserting that an actor’s greatest gift (a well known actor, he means) is being able to champion talent, he reaches forward and clicks the switch on the camera to the off position. The movie proper starts.

This gush is all written by Ferrara, of course, as is the concluding epilogue Hawke also delivers, just the first instance of Ferrara messing with the mind of his audience, which isn’t about to get an easy ride.

Zeros and Ones is a film set during a pandemic, or something like it. It all takes place in an alternate-reality Rome where American soldiers are patrolling the streets. People are wearing masks. In the train station a lone operative is spraying surfaces and wiping things down. The city is empty. There may be a curfew.

Imagine a noirish thriller missing the beginning, where everything is set in motion, and the end, where all the ends are neatly tied up. That leaves the middle, the bit where the detective/hero goes from one situation to another, asking questions in an attempt to put the world back in its box.

Ethan Hawke plays that guy. Actually he plays two guys. One is the hard-to-read lone soldier wandering the mean streets by night. Is he part of an invading force? Or is he on a humanitarian mission? We never find out. Maybe both.

The other is the soldier/detective’s flaky brother, who’s being held against his will in a bad part of town, where he’s being asked to pay for… it’s not entirely clear what, but American imperialism maybe? The rambling speech he gives after he’s been injected with LSD references big concepts and the US Constitution, among other things. It’s all very Willem Dafoe, if not Colonel Kurtz.

Ethan Hawke as the soldier's brother
Also as the flaky brother… Ethan Hawke

“Maybe both” seems to be this film’s big idea. It looks like Ferrara is tilting at binary thinking – the basis of which is the zero and the one. Another for instance. At one point the soldier turns up at the house of a woman who might be his girlfriend. They both put on masks for the encounter, those flimsy blue ones. Having done that, they kiss, mask to mask. Makes no sense in an either/or world. This strange film is full of such moments.

The soldier moves on again, visiting some Chinese women who sell him cocaine, then disinfect the dollar bills he gives them. He meets an old woman in a church who tells him his brother “has risen – he sits with his father now.” Later, there are Russian oligarchs being dastardly and an encounter with a beautiful woman (Cristina Chiriac, Ferrara’s wife) in a hotel room. Still later various bits of tourist Rome – the Vatican, the Sistine Chapel – are blown sky high.

It’s a dark film not interested particularly in telling a story. Ferrara and DP Sean Price Williams aren’t interested in the narrative camera either. There are a lot of beautiful glides through the nighttime streets of Rome (it’s always nighttime), but then suddenly the image breaks up, grain and artefacts intrude, the colour shifts into monochrome. It all glistens, bristles with atmosphere.

The effect is of Escape from New York, The Big Sleep and The Third Man all whisked together, minus the bit that explains everything, all bolted together on a no-budget shoot in a deserted capital city with a skeleton cast and crew and then heavily manipulated in post production. Sex, drugs, Catholicism and transgressive behaviour all feature and in some respects it’s a return to the Ferrara of old, of the Bad Lieutenant era. Rock’n’roll, too, thanks to a soundtrack by Joe Delia that broods, burbles and occasionally erupts, echoes of John Carpenter. Along with Hawke, it is the thing that ties this bizarre film together.

Zeros and Ones – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

11 February 2013-02-11

Out in the UK This Week






Beasts of the Southern Wild (StudioCanal, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

It’s generated a gazillion column inches, tweets and web-posts, and you are now pretty much obliged to see what is effectively a 21st century Huckleberry Finn story, set in the entirely atmospheric waterworld of the bayou below the levees where hardscrabble folk scratch out an existence, preferring near poverty in the Gulf of Mexico to destitution in the big city. Realism and magic realism aren’t natural stylistic partners – scenes of incoming storms ravaging the bayou sit alongside shots of the mythical beast the aurochs – but director Benh Zeitlin gets them to dance using six-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis as a bridge. Her performance is Oscar-tipped, though at least 50 per cent of it is clever editing – it’s not really acting when she’s not reacting to another person, is it? Old-bugger carping aside, the acting is super-believable in this poignant one-off of a film, so good in fact that it’s fed all that “poverty porn” criticism, little more than trolling by people who can’t spot the difference between reality and stuff that’s been made up.

Beasts of the Southern Wild – at Amazon


The House I Live In (Dogwoof, cert E, DVD)

“Kill the poor – that’s what the war on drugs has become.” Former journalist David Simon, creator of The Wire, is one knowledgeable, erudite talking head among many in Eugene Jarecki’s US-focused, sober, well researched, thoughtful and opinionated documentary that should be compulsory viewing for governments the world over. Whether you buy the central thesis – that drug laws have always been about keeping certain racial groups in check – is immaterial. When the film gets down to the human nitty gritty such as the guy who’s doing life without parole for 3oz of meth (“I fucked up. But I don’t think I should die for it.”) it’s hard not to be convinced, if you weren’t already, that something is seriously wrong with US government policy. And that of the rest of the world, incidentally, since nearly everyone toes the same line.

The House I Live In – at Amazon


Elena (New Wave, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

The great Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev specialises in thrillers that look and feel like anything but. Elena, coming after 2003’s The Return and 2007’s The Banishment, is the latest, a completely gripping story of a former nurse, now the patronised wife of a rich older guy, and her entirely feckless son and grandson back in the Stalin-era tower blocks. If this sounds like the set-up to an allegory about the Soviet and post-Soviet state, you’re not wrong. But there’s absolutely no need to engage at that level at all if you don’t want to. Instead sit back and be entertained by Zvyagintsev’s expressive long shots and frugal, crystalline story-telling.

Elena – at Amazon


Stitches (Kaleidoscope, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)

Here’s a low-budget teen slasher movie full of Irish irreverence, played for laughs, and really benefiting from the presence of Ross Noble – a comedian whose surreal, stream-of-consciousness shtick can wear thin after a while. But not here, in fact Noble’s energy is vital in the role of the extremely unpleasant clown back from the dead and out for payback from the kids (now lairy teenagers) who accidentally caused his death some years before. Lots of yuks, most of them very funny, with the slo-mo inevitability and ingenuity of the Final Destination franchise at its best – though I don’t remember anyone in those films having his intestines unravelled like strings of pink sausages. As I say, very funny.

Stitches – at Amazon



Ginger & Rosa (Artificial Eye, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

Such is the prestige of director Sally Potter that she can haul in Annette Bening and Christina Hendricks, Oliver Platt and Timothy Spall to fill in tiny supporting roles in a small quiet film that really doesn’t need them. And very off-putting they are too. But once you’ve adjusted the polarising filter on your star goggles, this drama set in the bohemian 1960s London of duffel coats, Dave Brubeck and “Ban the Bomb” marches really takes hold. Elle Fanning and Alice Englert are the titular Ginger and Rosa, a pair of teenagers who have been friends since birth, each now being tugged a different way by politics and hormones. But Alessandro Nivola is the pivot of the drama, playing a 1960s chancer working the zeitgeist entirely for his own shifty ends. It’s a truly excellent performance. But then so are those by Fanning and Englert (and, alright, Bening, Hendricks, Platt and Spall).

Ginger & Rosa – at Amazon


The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Entertainment One, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

Like a throwback to those John Hughes teenage comedies full of smart dialogue and with a soundtrack to match, The Breakfast Club, say, this charming coming-of-age-in-the-80s drama is about clever teenagers learning about, you know, stuff. Pretty in Pink isn’t on the soundtrack but all the rest (Smiths, Bowie, Cocteaus, Dexys doing “Come on Eileen”) are present and correct. Logan Lerman stars as the geeky guy in the yadda yadda plot but the cultural antenna will be twitching as Emma Watson steps out in her first post-Potter role, playing someone on the cute side of out-and-out bitch. Which she does tentatively, ably, perhaps afraid to let rip in case people confuse actor and role. Am I being kind?

The Perks of Being a Wallflower – at Amazon



Sinister (Momentum, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/Download)

Ethan Hawke lends some glitter to this very familiar though undeniably upscale horror – haunted house meets Spanish gothic – about a true-crime writer swallowed by the story he’s working on, in the house where the brutal murder of an entire family took place. There’s a nice shot of the family, sacks over their heads, their legs flailing like beetles’, dying as the opening credits roll. Shot on what’s meant to be Super 8 (which features heavily) it’s a tasty opener for a film that isn’t that frightening (OK, a couple of jumps) but does know all about atmosphere.

Sinister – at Amazon


© Steve Morrissey 2013




Before Sunset

This 2004 follow-up to Richard Linlater’s 1995 Before Sunrise is a first-date movie for people who fancy themselves as having more going on upstairs. But grey matter to one side, do you need to have seen the first film to enjoy the second? Probably not, though it helps to know that in Before Sunrise Ethan Hawke had fulfilled every heterosexual male InterRailer’s wildest fantasy – by meeting the stomach-churningly beautiful, witty and, very important, French Julie Delpy on a train and having a night of flirtatious intellectual chat and wild adventure with her.

By the end of Before Sunrise both parties are agreed – it’s love and they are absolutely definitely going to meet again, time and place all locked down. That meeting never happens. Now, nine years on, they bump into each other in Paris quite by accident. Each is now in a relationship. Each is older and reasonably successful. So? Do they? Well, the joy of this sequel is that director Richard Linklater and the two stars – both of whom are more or less improvising all the way – tantalisingly hold off the outcome, leaving Hawke and Delpy to indulge in cerebral foreplay, discussing how the intervening nine years have treated both themselves and the world. As they flirt with each other, the film flirts with us.

It’s talky, it’s slightly self-satisfied but it’s undeniably romantic too.

© Steve Morrissey 2006

Before Sunset – at Amazon

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