The Gatekeepers

Ami Ayalon, former head of Shin Bet

 

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

 

 

13 September

 

 

Rabin shakes hands with Arafat at the White House, 1993

 

On this day in 1993, Itzhak Rabin, Prime Minister of Israel, and Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, shook hands at the White House after signing the Oslo Accords. It was a historic moment. These modest proposals put in writing agreements about mutual recognition, the formation of a provisional Palestinian government, and Israel’s agreement to withdraw from some parts of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. They wisely left thornier issues (the Jewish settlements, the future of Jerusalem, the fate of Palestinian refugees) off the agenda. Though Bill Clinton was the host that day and basked in the resulting glow of publicity, much of the behind the scenes work was done by Norwegian politician Johan Jørgen Holst, who had a stroke shortly afterwards, possibly as a consequence of overwork, and never recovered. Though still officially in effect, the Oslo Accords have over time come to be seen as just more noise in the signal. The two sides remain at loggerheads.

 

The Gatekeepers (2012, dir: Dror Moreh)

A documentary comprising talking heads, almost entirely. But what talking heads they are – every living chief of the Shin Bet, Israel’s counter terrorist service. And what a story they tell – the backroom view on every significant twist in the story of Israel from the Six Days’ War to the present day. They’re an interesting mix of people, urbane, thuggish, angry, calm, the many faces of the Bond villain, in fact. But what they say is even more interesting – about the use of torture, the nature of the Palestinian foe, the trouble they had/have with terrorists from their own side, what should be done about the settlements, and so on. It is eye-opening stuff, not least because you suspect that interviewer/director Dror Moreh was asking questions in the full expectation that they wouldn’t be answered, only to find his interviewees happy (some more grudgingly happy, admittedly) to set the record straight. Regardless of whether you are Jew or not, partisan or not, interested or not, The Gatekeepers is a fascinating and remarkable film providing acute  (and even entertaining) insight into issues rarely dealt with in such a head-on manner.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Dror Moreh never expected any former or current Shin Bet head to take part. In the end they all did
  • People at the frontline of any conflict have knowledge and experience the rest of us don’t
  • In many end of year lists the best documentary of 2012

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

The Gatekeepers – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

15 August 2013-08-15

Ashley Benson, Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Rachel Korine in Spring Breakers

Out in the UK This Week

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Gatekeepers (Metrodome, cert 15, DVD)

What sort of people would you expect the former heads of Israel’s counter terrorism agency, Shin Bet, to be? This documentary takes prejudices (mine, anyway) and turns them on their head. Sure, collectively they look like they’re auditioning to be the next Bond villain – when they talk about killing, they smile, they chuckle – but they’re a lot more pragmatic than you’d expect. And their opinions on the illegal settlements, the religious zealots who drive policy in so many areas, and the occupied territories are just not what you’d expect. That director Dror Moreh got any of the surviving former heads, let alone all of them, to talk at all is amazing. What he got them to say makes this one of the most remarkable documentaries you’re ever likely to see.

The Gatekeepers – at Amazon

 

 

Spring Breakers (Universal, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD/download)

At 40, Harmony Korine is possibly getting a little old in the tooth for a teen shenanigans films. But boldly going where someone else should probably have gone before he gives us a film about the spring break phenomenon, when girls chug beer until they feel compelled to expose their breasts to the health-giving rays of the Mexican sun. The guys meanwhile, on this showing at least, seem content to grab their crotches through their pants, the international sign of horndoggery. Against this background of booze, bongs and foam parties Korine sets up a story about four girls of pretty much unassailable hotness getting into bikinis for a spring break holiday gone bad. Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine (Harmony’s wife) are the foursome, James Franco (with metal teeth and corn rows) is the gangster they get into bed with (do I mean that literally? No spoilers.). Korine tells the tale of wannabe bad girls through an impressionistic camera, swoozy lens choices, acid coloured backgrounds and lots of improv, some of which works OK, some not so well. Is it even faintly credible? It is not. But the girls look nice, Mexico looks great, Korine gives us lots of shots of real spring breakers doing their thang. It almost adds up to something.

Spring Breakers – at Amazon

 

 

The Place Beyond the Pines (StudioCanal, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD)

Hands up who’s a bit sick of Ryan Gosling? He’s really overdoing the Steve McQueen this time out, all ducking head movements, glances to the ground, odd pauses. It must be the Drive legacy. If you are bit over the whole Gosling thing, don’t worry, he’s not in this strangely old fashioned drama too long. It’s a generation-hopping meditation on the sins of the father being visited on the son, with Gosling (you know, OK) and Bradley Cooper (pretty damn good) as guys whose weaknesses and bad choices ripple down the years. Eva Mendes, as Gosling’s waitress squeeze, deserves a special mention since she’s particularly good here, doing a lot more than just standing around looking like Eva Mendes. And so does Dane DeHaan, putting in a “watch this face” turn as Gosling’s son.

The Place Beyond the Pines – at Amazon

 

 

Evil Dead (StudioCanal, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)

The seminal 1981 original was a chamber piece. This 2013 remake is a full double orchestra job, a tale of satanic possession, vaginal intromission by vegetation, chainsawing, demon voices, bloodletting on a grand scale and death, death death. The SFX team are pretty accomplished and director Fede Alvarez even manages to squeeze plot development out of the gruesome scenes, which are very well done. To the point where the bits in between feel a bit, you know, light. Top marks, a good horror, though it never really got me in the vitals, where they’re meant to.

Evil Dead – at Amazon

 

 

Papadopoulos and Sons (101 Films, cert 15, DVD)

A frustrating game of two halves with this British comedy marked out by exquisite acting, particularly by Stephen Dillane. The first half is a succession of beautifully written and played scenes following an immigrant-done-good as he realises his empire has hit the skids in the financial meltdown. The interplay between family, his cocksure financial advisers, his wise housekeeper (Selina Cadell), and finally his wayward brother (Georges Corraface) are all right on the button. Then the second half kicks off, during which Mr Big has to go back and re-open the fish and chip shop that was the basis of his fortune all those years before, and things start to wander a touch. It’s still good, it’s still nice, but it’s in need of some Richard Curtis script tinkering to wind all the separate elements already mentioned – plus Greek/Turkish rivalry, plus romance, plus father/son bonding, plus brother/brother rehabilitation – into a satisfying package.

Papadopoulos and Sons – at Amazon

 

 

The Sun in a Net (Second Run, cert 15, DVD)

From the squeaking, jazzy electronica of its opening and the shots of a forest of rooftop TV aerials, it’s clear there’s something experimental going on with this Czechoslovak film from 1962. It’s credited with breaking the stranglehold of socialist realism in the country and hustling the first chink of what looks very much like western propaganda past the censors. Telling the story of Fajolo (Marián Bielik), a young East European with hip sunglasses and a transistor radio – the harbinger of what is to come – it follows this cool youth through a summer of romance with two women and a stint on a collective farm, where Stanislav Szomolányi’s cinematography shifts abruptly and adeptly from angular expressionism into the sort of formalism beloved of Stalin – how hard those comrades work! how beautiful is the corn! A striking film, then, an interesting one too, futuristic kitchen sink, East Bloc-style.

The Sun in a Net – at Amazon

 

 

The Seasoning House (Kaleidoscope, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)

Sean Pertwee plays a nasty warlord being given the runaround by a deaf girl in a Balkan whorehouse in a gory British horror whose elements are at odds with each other. It’s a horror film, set in a grim place where grim things happen to blameless girls – one unfortunate with an already broken pelvis is literally fucked to death, for instance. You can see that the production design team have been busy at work daubing the walls with all manner of blood and excreta and whatever. Only for the cinematographer to undo all the mood setting by cast and crew by bathing everything in beautiful light – it streams through the boarded up windows, along corridors, it is truly gorgeous. Someone, director Paul Hyett I suppose, should have had a word.

The Seasoning House – at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

The Best Films I Saw in 2013

The cast of You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet
Updated 2013-12-30

 

Here they are, the best films I saw in 2013. It’s a Top Ten job with the best in no particular order, followed by a list of films that made the top ten at some point in the year, then got bounced. This is not a Best of 2013, let me quickly point out, just the best films I’ve seen this year. So a film everyone else has seen but I haven’t won’t be here (I’ve not seen American Hustle yet, f’rinstance). And there might be stragglers from 2012 in here which caught up with late. It really is “the best films I have seen this year”. If you’re wondering what to do with that Amazon voucher and your tastes generally aren’t multiplex, this might be a useful place to start.

 

1. You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet (2012, dir: Alain Resnais)

Alain Resnais, now in his nineties, proves there’s life in the new wave dog yet with an amazingly convoluted meta-drama based on two Anouilh plays, thick with formal experiment and managing to weld classical theatre to 21st century techniques. Amazing, and you can bet it made both Lars Von Trier and Todd Solondz chuckle too.

 

2. Aurora (2010, dir: Cristi Puiu)

The Romanian Cristi Puiu made The Death of Mr Lazarescu and also stars in what might be considered a follow-up, a film that tells a story while also running an audit on the current state of the homeland. The story: a very odd one, following what must the dourest hitman (Puiu) through concrete-coloured Bucharest as he goes about his often incredibly mundane business. Shot in long takes, in blue light, in the most unprepossessing of locations, with many shots half through doorways and focusing on the main character and him alone, it’s unique, remarkable and often quite baffling.

 

3. The Heat (2013, dir: Paul Feig)

Because no one is funnier than Melissa McCarthy right now, a buddy-cop comedy in which Sandra Bullock plays the uptight FBI agent reluctantly partnering a wildcat local cop (McCarthy). The plot is slender, but is just enough for Bridesmaids director Paul Feig to hang a few funny set pieces off. Better than that it gives a chance for the two actors to riff rude, with McCarthy inevitably getting the better of Bullock when it comes to being the swearier and more prepared to make herself look a fool. Fancy Bullock being in the best comedy of the year and its most popular sci-fi (which is not on my list because I haven’t seen it yet, for shame).

 

4. Angel & Tony (2010, dir: Alix Delaporte)

Big aah, a simple, short love story about a troubled beautiful young woman and the shy, fat middle-aged fisherman she rather unexpectedly hooks up with. Rather simply, this one’s all about the transformative power of love and is about as bloody lovely as films get.

 

5. I Wish  (2011, dir: Hirokazu Koreeda)

Hirokazu Koreeda’s drama is ostensibly about a kid who wants to make a wish, and believes that by making it at the exact point where two bullet trains’ paths cross, it is sure to come true. In fact he’s just the starting point for a whole series of lightly interconnected transgenerational stories, which the writer/director joins and rejoins. Everything about this film shouts genius – the placing of the camera, the casting, the acting, the editing. It’s also one of the sweetest films, so full of hope and life, I’ve ever seen.

 

6. The Kings of Summer (2013, Jordan Vogt-Roberts)

A coming-of-ager that has the raucous “fuck you” comic edge of Superbad and the elemental undertow of Stand By Me, The Kings of Summer is about a group of boys who head off to the woods one summer, mostly to escape their obnoxious, bullying, clever-clever parents, but partly just to do a bit of growing up. There they trap animals (or make out that they do), grow facial hair, invite girls over and get their hearts broken. It’s strange to find a film that intercuts comedy and heartache so well, that catches that great feeling of freedom that total irresponsibility allows, and which punctuates these switches between the two ends of the dramatic spectrum with contemplative “Ozu shots” of prairies and water and flowers, set to a soundtrack that manages to be both familiar and leftfield.

 

 7. She Monkeys (2011, dir: Lisa Aschan)

A Swedish drama that’s all about girls, power, sex and equestrian vaulting. Expect no fluffy bunnies in this one – in one of its twin-track stories we have a five-year-old girl sexually grooming her older babysitting cousin; in the other a butter-wouldn’t-melt blonde making a sumo-style All About Eve assault on a rival. Cool, unusual, brilliant.

 

8. Sightseers (2012, dir: Ben Wheatley)

A pair of incredibly dim British caravan enthusiasts set off on a tour of esoteric sites of special interest – museums dedicated to pencils or trams etc – and indulge in increasingly psychotic episodes of murder for light relief. A deadpan Natural Born Killers that will have you snorting liquid down your nose.

 

9. The Gatekeepers (2012, dir: Dror Moreh)

The best documentary I saw this year comes from director Dror Moreh, who somehow managed to get all the surviving former heads of the Israeli security agency Shin Bet to talk to him. What he have is little more than a series of talking heads explaining to Moreh how Shin Bet operates. But it is the way that Moreh structures the entirely stereotype-busting revelations dropping from these guys’ mouths – and they each look like a Bond villain of one sort or another – that makes this “jaw to the floor” viewing.

 

10. Silver Linings Playbook (2012, dir: David O Russell)

David O Russell’s sweet but never cute drama about a guy fresh from the funny farm (Bradley Cooper) and his burgeoning relationship with brassy fellow medicatee (Jennifer Lawrence). Underneath the warty carapace this is perfect Hollywood – everyone gets what they deserve, big lessons are learned, there’s silver linings all round, in fact. Or you could just watch it for the performances – Lawrence so good that she forces Robert De Niro to act. Even Chris Tucker puts in a great performance.

 

 

The “Nearly” List

The Sapphires (2012, dir: Wayne Blair)

We keep being told about the revival of the musical (clinkers like Chicago usually), so how come this one about a girl group of aborigine soul singers on a tour of 1960s Vietnam isn’t better known? It’s got songs, jokes, a bit of love and a standout Chris O’Dowd in the lead role. And it’s a true story.

 

Thale (2012, dir: Aleksander Nordaas)

Made for nothing yet looking like it cost millions, this Norwegian horror fantasy about a couple of police clean-up guys who find a mythical creature out in the cellar of a shack in the woods has plot, characters, looks, tension and, a few seconds of ropey CGI apart, is almost perfect.

 

Elena (2011, dir: Andrey Svyagintsev)

Andrey Svyagintsev’s throttled-back thriller about a woman in Russia, her boorish rich husband to whom she’s little more than a nurse, and her Soviet-throwback son and his family, a bunch of layabouts living out in the tower blocks.

 

Mama (2013, dir: Andrés Muschietti)

One of the seven thousand films Jessica Chastain made in the last year or so, Mama is a superior horror film that welds together the haunted house and malevolent-child genres and then throws a lot of switched sympathies into the mix. Watchable as an exercise in genre manipulation alone, or as an out-and-out horror movie, or as a bravura exercise in visual effects, this is one of the best mainstream horror films in years.

 

Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (2012, dir: Alex Gibney)

Close to The Gatekeepers for “well stap my vitals” revelations is Alex Gibney’s remarkable documentary about paedophilia in the Roman Catholic church, how the organisation has been aware for at least 1,700 years that the vows of celibacy and chastity tend either to attract weirdos or make people weird. And that the Church has, by virtue of its institutional power, been able to subvert secular legal systems. This is a gobsmacking documentary of the old-fashioned pavement-pounding sort whose conclusions are that, lovely Pope Francis or no, in terms of moral authority the Catholic church is a busted flush.

 

Shell (2012, dir: Scott Graham)

A star is born, in the shape (the face, mostly) of Chloe Pirrie, the focus of this lugubrious drama about a girl who works in an out-of-the-way petrol station owned by her father. Shell is the girl’s name, it’s the name of a petrol company too, a passing customer jokily quips to the girl, who responds with a deep lack of engagement. Which is what the film is about  – is she going to engage? With Adam, a guy in a hot hatch? With a passing travelling salesman? Possibly with her own father? God forbid. But on this slender “who?” and “when?” director Scott Graham hangs a powerful film as austere and dour as a low church chapel.

 

In the House (2012, dir: François Ozon)

François Ozon doesn’t make dumb films, and in In the House he’s made a film that on one level is about a superbright, sexually precocious, unsettlingly androgynous schoolboy (Ernst Umhauer) who starts writing increasingly personal stories for his teacher (the brilliantly disconcerted Fabrice Luchini). Before long the teacher is hooked, the boy has become a cuckoo in the nest, the wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) is discombobulated, and Ozon has crafted a drama of the sort you can imagine Jacques Derrida and fellow post-structuralists enjoying with beer and a pizza.

 

Byzantium (2012, dir: Neil Jordan)

Neil Jordan does something excellent with the vampire movie in Byzantium. He manages to weld the lush overheated velvet of the Hammer horror, all heaving bosoms and the male gaze, to the austere IKEA ambience of Let the Right One In. As two (possible) sisters of competing vampiric sensibilities we have Gemma Arterton (the busty, Hammer lust-bucket) and Saoirse Ronan (self-assembly vampiric waiflet). Add an abandoned seaside hotel in off season, a few luckless male victims, a couple of bounders and rotters who arrive from the girls’ past to help deliver a rousing Hollywood ending, and you’ve got a film that grips by the throat, teases, entertains and beguiles.

 

8 ½ (1963, dir: Federico Fellini)

This restoration of one of Fellini’s most famous films reminds us what a clever man he was, as well as a consummate film-maker. Taking as its starting point the non-starting Fellini after he had finished La Dolce Vita, it tells the story of a blocked director who hasn’t got the faintest idea what to do next. Which all sounds very indulgent and unnecessarily arthouse, until you actually watch as Fellini slowly starts to spin his on-screen phalanx of actors, make-up people, producers, the director’s diversions, dreams and fantasies into something elaborate, fantastical and even at times funny. Marcello Mastroianni is the Fellini stand-in, and the film is really helped by the presence of Claudia Cardinale and Anouk Aimée, about the hottest women on the planet back in 1963.

 

The Wall (2012, dir: Julian Pölsler)

A weird and wonderful re-imagining of Robinson Crusoe. But instead of a man, it’s a woman (Martina Gedeck). Instead of an island it’s the landlocked country of Austria, inside which a woman on a bit of a weekend break, or something, suddenly discovers that she’s locked inside her rural idyll by an invisible wall. And there she stays for years, making friends with various stray animals, writing her diaries, musing on what it is to be human, alone. A deceptively simple but wonderfully told story, which raises the question of how any of us might cope if suddenly cut off completely from civilisation. And Austria looks pretty fantastic too.

 

Broken Circle Breakdown (2012, dir: Felix Van Groeningen)

Bluegrass music in Belgium provides the sweetener for what looks for one awful moment like it’s going to be a film about a child getting a terminal disease and dying. A child does actually get a terminal disease but that isn’t really what this artfully shot, pungently written drama – about a much-tattooed beauty (Veerle Baetens) striking up a relationship with an ex-punk (Johan Heldenburgh) and becoming a singer in his bluegrass outfit – is about. And god can she sing.

 

Fireworks Wednesday (2006, dir: Asghar Farhadi)

Finally finding its way to some sort of release off the back of the Oscar success of his A Separation, Asghar Farhadi’s 2006 drama patrols a similar border, the one between traditional Islam and the blandishments of the West, and doesn’t so much wag his finger as point out the areas that are going to chafe. A simple story about a naive young girl who finds herself working for a family who seem to have adultery issues – and she’s about to get married herself – it is so well written, well cast and unobtrusively shot that it feels less like watching a movie more like eavesdropping.

 

Child’s Pose (2013, dir: Calin Peter Netzer)

Romania continues to come up with brilliant films, such as this dour drama about a horrible entitled mother trying to get her horrible ungrateful son off the charge of killing a poor child by dangerous driving. As much a portrait of the haves and have-nots of Romania and how justice is entirely in the service of only one of them (guess which), it is also a remarkable drama that withholds its true intentions. Hold on for the extended final sequence, when the mother goes to visit the dead child’s grieving parents, while the son waits out in the car, and remember to keep breathing.

 

The House I Live In (2012, dir: Eugene Jarecki)

Eugene Jarecki’s documentary about the sheer mess of US drugs policy points out the government has spent $1 trillion on the “war against drugs” since President Nixon initiated it, with the result that recreational drug use has changed not a jot. A well researched doc with the right talking heads, attitudinal but never strident.

 

Small Town Murder Songs (2010, dir: Ed Gass-Donnelly)

A drama that asks us to look at the character of an upstanding cop in a Mennonite community and divine the man he used to be – and it isn’t pretty. Peter Stormare’s hangdog features and impassive thousand yard stare make this hellish unusual type of film even more enjoyable.

 

The Queen of Versailles (2012, dir: Lauren Greenfield)

The documentary that asked us to feel billionaire pain, and succeeded. Starting out simply as a film about the building of the biggest private residence in the US, the enterprise somehow became something much more incisive – a story about financial mess we’ve all been going through, seen from the most rarefied of positions. Entirely fascinating.

 

Rust and Bone (2012, dir: Jacques Audiard)

Always making a bad film (Nine, Public Enemies) bearable and a good film (Inception, Contagion) better, Marion Cotillard is on absolute white hot form in this potentially blubbery drama about a woman who loses her legs and the bouncer (equally remarkable Matthias Schoenaearts) who gives her back her taste for life.

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013