Elephant (2003)

Elephant

Get the fuck out of here, shit is going to happen. John (John McFarland) is being driven through the suburbs to school by his drunken father (Timothy Bottoms). Alex (Alex Frost) is a talented pianist being bullied at Watt High School, Oregon. He and his best friend slacker Eric (Eric Deulen) play video games, watch a documentary about Nazis, have sex in the shower and load up on guns. On their way into the building wearing camo gear and carrying black bags, Alex warns John not to go in. Elias (Elias McConnell) goes round the hallways photographing other students before going to the school newspaper office to develop his pictures. Nathan (Nathan Tyson) leaves the football field with girlfriend Carrie. Bespectacled outcast Michelle (Kristen Hicks) runs through the corridors and escapes to the library to avoid sports. Three bulimic girls gossip and end up in the Ladies’ Room. When the boys fail to explode propane bombs and prowl the corridors and library shooting everyone on sight, Acadia (Alicia Miles) freezes and Benny (Bennie Dixon) helps her escape through a window … Damn, they shot him. Gus Van Sant’s meditative exploration of the moments leading up to a Columbine high school-like massacre looks and feels less assured than it did upon release. Perhaps because unlike its source material (Alan Clarke’s BBC film Elephant, which was about sectarian politics in Northern Ireland) it is politically rootless unless you regard teenage alienation as justification for genocide and the inclusion of a TV documentary about Nazism adequate as rationale for unleashing senseless violence upon your contemporaries. Perhaps that is the point – that children and guns are just not a good mix, teenagers are unknowable and basically ungovernable, allowing them too much time on their own is a really bad idea because literally anything could happen in those burgeoning adults. The over the shoulder tracking shots down the school corridors and their repetitive nature bring us back to the same moments again and again giving the narrative a poetic rhythm and spatial familiarity, as does the auditory track which occasionally lapses into silence and then white noise, particularly when Alex is sitting in the cafeteria and we get a hint of the killings to come. There is no doubt that the very boring nature of the scenario and the real-time pacing lends an incremental tension to the situation. The biggest problem here is that the affectlessness of the protagonists means a conventional drama cannot be constructed and a moral is hard to discern while the filmmaker is attempting to get into these boys’ brains. That is the core of the story: there are things that people simply cannot get to grips with. The moment when a teacher approaches a student who’s just been shot dead at a classroom door and treats it as if it’s normal is simply staggering. Screenplay by Van Sant with controversial ‘memoirist’ JT LeRoy and Diane Keaton credited as producers on a project that started life as a documentary. Most importantly, have fun

Zelig (1983)

Zelig

All the themes of our culture were there. In this fictional documentary set during the 1920s and 1930s a non-descript American called Leonard Zelig (Woody Allen) achieves notoriety for his ability to look, act and sound like anyone he meets. He ingratiates himself with everyone from the lower echelons of society to F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Pope becoming famous as The Changing Man. Even Hollywood comes calling and makes a film about him. His chameleon-like skill catches the eye of Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow), a psychiatrist who thinks Zelig is in need of serious cognitive analysis as someone who goes to extremes to make himself fit into society. Their relationship moves in a direction that’s not often covered in medical textbooks as she hypnotises him I’m certain it’s something he picked up from eating Mexican food. A formally and technically brilliant and absolutely hilarious spoof documentary that integrates real and manipulated newsreel footage with faked home movies, a film within a film, period photographs of the leads and interviews with contemporary personalities, real and imagined, from Susan Sontag and Saul Bellow to ‘Eudora Fletcher’ (Ellen Garrison) in the present day. Even Bruno Bettelheim shows up to declare the subject the ultimate conformist. The sequence on the anti-semitism Zelig experiences as a child (his parents sided with the anti-semites, narrator Patrick Horgan informs us mournfully) is laugh out loud funny. Of course it has a payoff – in Nazi Germany. The editing alone is breathtaking, there is not a false moment and the music is superlative, forming a backdrop and a commentary as well as instilling in the audience a realistic feel for the time in which this is set. There are moments where you will not believe your eyes as Allen transforms into everyone he meets – regardless of race, shape or colour. An original and funny mockumentary that’s actually about the world we live in, an extreme response to childhood bullying and what we do to make ourselves fit in and where that could lead. You just told the truth and it sold papers – it never happened before!

 

The Two-Headed Spy (1958)

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A man cannot control the circumstances of his birth but he can make a choice. In 1939 Alex Shottland (Jack Hawkins) has been embedded as a British agent at the highest levels of the German military since WW1 and is tiring of his role but is urged to continue by his fellow agent Cornaz (Felix Aylmer) who is posing as an antiques dealer. They carry on their meetings under cover of Shottland’s purported interest in clocks. The revelatioin of Schottland’s half-British origins raises the eyebrows of the obsessive and creepy Lt. Reinisch (Erik Schumann) who works as his assistant and he alerts Schottland’s superiors about a potentially traitorous connection to the enemy. Schottland falls in love with singer and fellow spy Lili Geyr  (Gia Scala) whose melancholic songs carry coded messages across the airwaves to the Allies.  Reinisch suspects their relationship is a cover just as the Battle of the Bulge is getting underway and Schottland struggles to communicate the plans to his real superiors I’ll come to your place any time you want me to and spend the night. The amazing true-ish story was based on J. Alvin Kugelmass’ book Britain’s Two-Headed Spy and although A.P. Scotland was an adviser on the production it’s not based on his real escapades. The screenplay is notable for being written by not one but two blacklisted writers, Michael Wilson and the uncredited Alfred Lewis Levitt. Hawkins is excellent as the net seems to be closing in and he has to endure Cornaz being tortured to death;  while Scala impresses as the slinky songstress with espionage at her heart. There are some terrific scenes at Berlin’s highest table with Kenneth Griffith emoting unseen as Hitler.  Taut storytelling, excellent characteristation, glossy monochrome cinematography by Ted Scaife and an urgent score by Gerard Schurmann combine to make this an enthralling spy thriller. Look quickly for Michael Caine as a Gestapo agent while Geoffrey (Catweazle) Bayldon is Dietz. Directed by André De Toth. Truth is allegiance

Damascus Cover (2017)

 

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When missions go bad, there’s only one rule – protect your partner.  Following the murder of his colleague in Damascus by Syrian Secret Police Chief Sarraj (Navid Negahban) Israeli agent Ari Ben-Sion aka Hans Hoffman (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is deployed to Syria by his overseer Miki (John Hurt) to exfiltrate a spy and his family and runs into American photographer Kim (Olivia Thirlby) with whom he becomes involved before realising she is part of a much bigger plot and the real target of his mission is an entirely different individual in deep cover but hiding in plain sight … It’s a real maze. Adapted by director Daniel Zelik Berk and Samantha Newton from Howard Kaplan’s 1977 bestseller this is updated to 1989, the year of revolutions, so that the action happens in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall (although they’re not exactly celebrating Christmas here). The characterisation is undercooked and the storytelling is a little clunky – you feel that Hans/Ari should have figured out a lot quicker that something bigger is going on than his purported task. It’s the textural matters that are more interesting – the maze-like construction of a city where Jews are only permitted to leave their quarter one at a time, where streets lead you to dead ends like a rat; the depicting of the secret police under the original Assad; the post-war Nazis doing business in an Islamic haven (the role of Moslems in the Holocaust has yet to be dramatised); the issue of identity in a region where anti-semitism is writ large: when Ari enters Syria he is asked, Have you ever visited Occupied Palestine? He is already displaced in Israel after moving from Germany as a child and is suffering the bereavement any father would following the breakdown of his marriage in the wake of the death of his young son (although we don’t know how that happened, there are several shots of children at play as well as his haunting nightmares about the boy).  He doesn’t exhibit true emotion until he’s engaged with Kim who herself has issues with being distanced from her young son and who has a father whose actions for his Syrian overlords has resulted in his death.  She appears to be repaying a debt to the intelligence service, willingly or not. Berk is the former talent agent who introduced John Travolta to Quentin Tarantino for which we are all truly grateful and this has a slick look and a trim running time. It’s beautifully shot by Chloë Thomson.  Despite the welcome complexities in Ari and his mistakes, and the issue of Syria versus Israel, it doesn’t plumb the resonant depths of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – the echo casting of John Hurt in the perfunctory but dramatically significant role of Miki has a sorrowfulness because it is that great actor’s final part. It is fitting therefore that he should have the last word in the film’s signing off, Goodbye my friend

Address Unknown (1944)

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The quicksand of despair – and just before we died a man pulled us out. When Martin Schultz (Paul Lukas), a German expatriate art dealer living in the US, visits his homeland, he begins to get attracted by the Nazi propaganda and breaks ties with his close Jewish friend, Max Eisenstein (Morris Carnovsky) whose daughter Griselle (K.T. Stevens) an aspiring actress is engaged to marry his son Heinrich (Peter Van Eyck) and she has accompanied Martin to Munich to pursue her career for a year. But Martin is swiftly recruited by Baron von Friesche (Carl Esmond) to work in the Culture Ministry with devastating repercussions … You can’t sit on two stools at once. At least not here in Germany. Kressmann Taylor’s 1938 novella sounded a gunshot over the ramparts about the dangers of Nazism and the screenplay by Herbert Dalmas does it justice – and then some. Director William Cameron Menzies deploys the style of German Expressionism (shot by Rudolf Maté) in the service of all that is decent and the escalating tension is brilliantly paced. The near-lynching of Griselle at the theatre is shocking and concludes in the tragic manner you know to expect. The atmosphere of intimidation and dread is expertly sustained while Lukas’ encroaching guilt over his role in the desperate developments in Germany grinds to a logical conclusion in the form of coded communication as the visuals veer from film noir shadows to straightforward horror mise en scène. A superb evocation of how two intertwined families suffer in the murderous Nazi terror. The old Juncker spirit and German arrogance are gone

Au revoir, les enfants (1987)

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I’m the only one in this school that thinks about death. It’s incredible! In 1943, Julien (Gaspard Manesse) is a student at a French boarding school run by Catholic priests. When three new students arrive, including clever Jean Bonnet (Raphael Fejto), Julien believes they are no different from the other boys. What he doesn’t realise is that they are actually Jews who are being sheltered from capture by the Nazis. Julien doesn’t care for Jean at first but the boys develop a tight bond with grudging admiration of each other – while the head of the school, Père Jean (Philippe Morier-Genoud), works to protect the boys from the Holocaust.I understand the anger of those who have nothing when the rich feast so arrogantly. Louis Malle’s autobiographical tale of his time at  school in Fontainebleau is an artful depiction of the country’s great shame – the level of collaboration with the occupying Nazis, some of whom are rather sympathetically portrayed. This is a beautifully composed, sensitively handled and measured portrait of childhood with its petty rivalries and quarrels, preceding an act of revenge, accidental betrayal and a chilling climax in an atmosphere of casual spitefulness, denunciations and anti-semitism. One of the very best films of its era, this is a perfect companion to Malle’s earlier masterpiece, Lacombe, Lucien. Those who should guide us betray us instead

Bergman: A Year in a Life (2018)

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If you look for Ingmar Bergman the only place you find him is in his films.  Jane Magnusson’s film (in Swedish, Norwegian and English) was made to celebrate Ingmar Bergman’s 2018 centenary and pivots on 1957, a year in which he made two award winning films, a TV movie and he had four theatre smashes. How did he do it? What spurred this sudden surge in productivity and arguably his career masterpieces (Wild Strawberries, The Seventh Seal on film, Peer Gynt on stage)? (The biggest surprise is that once actor who saw Gynt describes it as follows:  This is all adventure movies rolled into one! Not what the viewer would expect of an auteur known for austere and sexualised work – he knew everyone would go to see Summer With Monika if he included nude shots). He worked quickly on low budgets and hadn’t even conceived of Wild Strawberries at the beginning of 1957 but it was released by the end of the year and is examined here as a version of himself, Viktor Sjöstrom might even be perceived as dead already, looking back upon his life with that wonderful combination of wistful yearning and regret while he journeys to collect his award. Bergman’s work rate can’t be explained scientifically – he certainly had a bad temper and was plagued by a rotten ulcerous stomach. One interviewee posits that his diet of yoghurt and Marie biscuits constituted what would today be called an eating disorder (he thought vegetables were evil).  Perhaps he had all kinds of hunger issues. He didn’t believe in therapy and claims in a TV interview to have visited a psychiatrist just once. (One actress contradicts his declaration that the doctor found him healthy). His relationships were complex and unfaithful, yielding 6 offspring by 1957 (he thought 5, and he would eventually father 9 in and out of marriages, one of whom didn’t know she was his illegitimate daughter until she was 22). He was involved with three women in 1957 other than his then wife and one was actress Bibi Andersson. Apart from anything else, he had a lot of people to support financially. It seems that in 1957 Bergman realised that his best source of material was himself and the film uses his achievements in that annus mirabilis as a prism to analyse his entire life and career. Fassbinder was on amphetamine. Maybe Bergman was on sexuality. When it came to Persona, a film interpreted here as a dramatising of his two sides, he commenced a relationship with Liv Ullmann who lived with him on his island, eventually bearing him another child and she cries when recalling that he was the best friend she ever had. Bergman describes the camera as seeing more than he ever did,  a phenomenal tool for registering the human soul and it is this journey into the soul that he believes he was on through his films. Perhaps his most beloved work is Fanny and Alexander but a long-suppressed interview with his brother Dag (recorded in the 80s) deflates Bergman’s claim of bullying by his father or a horrible time at school – it all happened, just not to him, but to Dag. Bergman’s flirtation with Nazism raises troubling questions – he claimed to have been sent on an exchange to Germany when he was a young child. However it happened in 1936 when he was 18 and his support of the regime lasted until 1946, long after the camps had been exposed. His biographer is conflicted about whether or not he was claiming to be a fascist acolyte as part of his extensive self-mythologising:  the son of a Jewish refugee in his father’s home seems to think so. And Bergman determined in the aftermath of that period that he would never engage politically in his films. There is no limit to what Bergman will do to get the best out of his actors. On Winter Light he had a doctor diagnose lead actor Gunnar Björnstrand with depression so that his reaction to illness could be caught on camera (and boy did it work). His relationship with other screen actors is more heartening:  instead of words he’d give you an emotional gesture, says one, so that that if they were quick enough and inventive enough they would pick up on it and use it in their characterisation. Barbra Streisand speaks of her envy watching him direct her then husband Elliott Gould in Bergman’s English-language debut The Touch, including one scene when he actually sat underneath the camera while Gould was being shot in close up and guided his performance. Gould himself says, There’s no one like Ingmar Bergman. An artist. A craftsman. A master. In later years Bergman’s antics directing theatre productions are remembered by victims as bullying, in a period when his celebrity and indulgence by the establishment was only tarnished by a highly public tax problem; while his personal life disintegrated in 1995 after the death of his fifth wife Ingrid von Rosen (the love of his life, he said) and he withdrew almost totally, albeit his last filmed interview reveals a sense of self-deprecating humour. His autocratic persona was out of time and he seemed to be jealous of younger men. His conduct toward lead actor Thorsten Flinck in The Misanthrope at the Royal Dramatic Theatre is horrible to hear. This is a fascinating, confounding and compelling portrait of a man whose importance to Swedish art is finally declared to be more influential than that of Strindberg with some jaw-dropping interviews from actors, technicians and colleagues.  Written by Mattias Nohrborg, this is a marvellous, informative documentary about one of the most important filmmakers in cinema. The now is all that exists

The Equalizer 2 (2018)

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A piece of advice: always be nice to anyone who has access to your toothbrush.  Retired elusive ex-CIA operative, widower Robert McCall (Denzel Washington), is whiling away his time driving a taxi and delivering vigilante justice on behalf of neighbours and customers in Boston. However his past cuts close to home when thugs kill Susan Plummer (Melissa Leo) – his best friend and former colleague. Now out for revenge, McCall has to take on a crew of highly trained assassins who’ll stop at nothing to destroy him and he suspects their leader is a former colleague…  There are no good or bad people any more. No enemies. Just unfortunates. Per the law of diminishing returns, the more of these actioners Washington makes the less effective he becomes as a leading man, doesn’t he? In the first of these films, adapted from the Edward Woodward TV series, he was outshone by the astonishing Marton Csokas, who was the villain par excellence, albeit for obvious reasons he’s not back here. McCall is still working out his grief by helping out anyone he can like some kind of Fury or ninja empath. You’ll spot the troublemaker a mile off and the final shootout is inevitable and tedious. Director Antoine Fuqua has now made sadism a part of his aesthetic brand without any especially redeeming features other than the resolution of an underdeveloped subplot – care home resident Orson Bean trying to find a painting stolen from his family by the Nazis, a line of narrative mirrored in the aspiring artist who McCall is trying to direct back to the straight and narrow starting with remaking a piece of Islamic street art. Written by Richard Wenk. You died

A Woman in Berlin (2008)

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Aka  Anonyma – Eine Frau in Berlin/The Downfall of Berlin. Find a single wolf to keep away the pack.  In April 1945 the Soviet Union’s Red Army arrives in Berlin defeating the last German defence. Its soldiers rape women of any age as they occupy the city. After being gang raped by a number of Soviet soldiers, the film’s anonymous woman, German journalist Anonyma (Nina Hoss), petitions the battalion’s commanding officer, for an alliance and protection to control the terms of her rape. From now on I will decide who gets me After initially rejecting her, married Ukrainian Lieutenant Andrei Rybkin (Eugeny Sidikhin) is seduced by the beautiful battered German woman. She manifests a cool, practical approach to her life, part of an informal community that develops among survivors in her apartment building. The officer subsequently protects, feeds and parties with her and her neighbours. Other women also take particular officers or soldiers for protection against being raped by soldiers at large which works until their husbands return. Rybkin comes under suspicion and is reassigned, who knows where …  My name doesn’t matter. The book by Anonymous (Marta Hillers) wasn’t published until 1959 and even then the account of the mass rapes (2 million plus) by the Russians was hard to bear so this adaptation has a twofold problem:  not turning it into an exploitation fest; and not being so melodramatic as to remove the nature of the horror and the pragmatic decision that women took to try to survive.  On that front at least it’s a success, a clear-eyed depiction of how life was. Watching rape used as a weapon in the rubble-strewn ruins of Berlin in revenge for what the Germans did in Russia is an unedifying experience. We step over the corpses of women to get a jar of jam. Hoss is superb as the worldly woman who has travelled and lived abroad yet also been a committed Nazi who is forced to use the only means she has to keep alive – a complex portrait of ambiguity proving she’s one of the best actors around. There are moments of humorous irony – her neighbour the widow has it away for a bit of salami, as she wryly observes. Hillers died in 2001 after which the book was republished and she was identified. She didn’t live to see this, which is a great pity. It’s a tough and grim story, brilliantly constructed and performed. Adapted by Catharina Schuchmann and director Max Färberböck. War and dying used to be men’s business. That’s all over