Kursk: the Last Mission

Kursk: The Last Mission,
Directed by Thomas Vinterberg,
Starring Matthias Schoenaerts, Léa Seydoux, Peter Simonischek, August Diehl, Colin Firth, Max Von Sydow, Bjarne Henriksen, Magnus Millang

The K-141 nuclear submarine Kursk was laid down in the early 1990s, but by the time she was fully commissioned the former Soviet Union had collapsed. She became part of the Russian navy’s Northern Fleet, a class known to worried NATO observers as the Oscar-II class, larger than her predecessors at some 154 metres, a truly massive beast, stealthy, hard to observe even with NATO’s sophisticated submarine detection equipment, and heavily armed (this class was designed to makes holes in entire enemy battle groups all by herself), with a hull and conning tower reinforced so she could even surface through the Arctic ice. But by the end of the last millennium, with Russia essentially broke, much of this once-huge and impressive fleet is lying at anchor, rusting in the sea air.

For all the power Kursk and her sister ships had, we see a sadly depleted, run-down force – as the film opens we follow a group of shipmates from her crew, lead by Mikhail Averin (Matthias Schoenaerts), desperately trying to raise money for the champagne for one of their fellow’s wedding reception; none of them has been paid in ages, a common occurrence during this part of Russia’s history, wages not being paid by the state, little money even for fuel for regular sailing patrols. They each barter their prized submariner’s watches with the quartermaster to get supplies for the wedding, a warm act of brotherhood for one of their own, an act which leaves the new bride in tears.

And the next day she sails into the frigid northern oceans – for the first time in years the run-down, post-Soviet Russian navy is holding a major exercise, and Kursk is joining it, tasked with launching sneak mock attacks on several of the surface vessels. Despite the lack of pay and resources this crew was still reckoned to be one of the best in the submarine fleet, and their ship a tremendous achievement of engineering and power. As we see her leave her base, watched by their families, the gargantuan scale of this ship is quite clear, and you understand the pride her crew have in sailing on such a vessel. Sadly, of course, for those of us familiar with recent history we know this will be Kursk’s final voyage. On the 12th of August, 2000, an explosion was detected beneath the waves around the exercise fleet. The worst had happened.

You may ask what mileage there is in a disaster film based on real history, when we all know what the outcome is, and it is a legitimate question. I have to say it entered my mind early on, but Thomas Vinterberg crafts his film in such a way that you get to know the men and their families. We see their strong bonds at the start as they try to find supplies for their crewmate’s wedding, we see their families, we see a group of elite sailors who live and work in close quarters at sea and whose families live next to one another on shore, they are all one extended family, and it is clear they would do anything for one another. As we get to know the men on the ship and their families back home we become enmeshed in their lives – I found myself wanting, against the odds, against real history, for some of them to make it, even though I know that all of her crew perished down there, in the deep, cold northern waters, far from the light. But Vinterberg made me want that to happen, his Kursk really does pull you in emotionally to this desperate struggle for survival.

The explosion destroys the forward compartments of the ship – it is generally believed that a badly-made torpedo leaked the unstable hydrogen peroxide fuel (similar to that used in some rockets), causing an explosion, which in turn lead to a bigger explosion as it set off some of the other torpedoes. You can imagine the devastation this wreaks on the stricken ship. The crewmen we follow survive only because they were in the rear section. They are now stuck on the bottom of the sea in the last few sealed compartments, water leaking in, air thinning, waiting, hoping, praying for rescue. But the cutbacks in the Russian fleet have also affected their search and rescue teams – the British Royal Navy (in the shape of Colin Firth’s Commodore David Russell) and Norwegian navies monitor the situation and offer their own far better technical resources to rescue the men they think may be trapped aft, but a proud and suspicious Russia refuses the offers of help, until it is too late.

We’ll never know for sure now if those twenty three men surviving in the aft compartments could have been rescued if Russia had accepted that help more quickly. One officer there made a list of the surviving men, so we know they were there for some time after the explosion, hoping for a rescue that came far too late (Firth has his British officer down perfectly, the obvious despair and resignation mixed with that classic stoic and professional in public persona we expect of an RN officer). The rescue attempts by the Russians, the help offered by the British and Norwegians, the cutting back and forth from the slowly filling compartments of survivors to their frantic families on land, demanding information and being given little by the authorities, all builds to a tremendous if tragic emotional climax. This is all handled in a very realistic, down-to-earth manner, a million miles from the action of the likes of Hunt For Red October, in many ways it has the feeling of one of those classic WWII submarine films, when all the men can do is wait in their ship, deep below the surface and hope.

Yes, we know the outcome here – this event only happened nineteen years ago, we all saw it on the news, we all heard of the Royal Navy’s offer of help, the standard forgetting of enemies when in trouble at sea, because then all sailors are fellow sailors and the code is always to help, and the wait to find out that it was all too late. And yet Vinterberg’s film draws you into the desperate emotions of these men and their families so effectively you find yourself longing for a Hollywood happy ending that you know never happened and cannot be, but he ensures these men are not just some stereotypes, he gives them depth, families, makes us emote with them until we feel their struggle. And he gives them honour, heroism and professionalism as they face their end together.

Kursk: the Last Mission is released by Signature Entertainment in cinemas and on Digital HD from July 12th

Submergence

Submergence,
Directed by Wim Wenders,
Starring Alicia Vikander, James McAvoy, Hakeemshady Mohamed, Alexander Siddig

Submergence, based on the novel by J.M Ledgard, has what on paper sounds like a straightforward plot structure – two people, Danielle Flinders (Alicia Vikander), a scientist exploring the deepest parts of the ocean for life, meets James More (James McAvoy), a former Scottish soldier turned water engineer, both taking a break in a beautiful Normandy hotel before their next missions, she off to sea on the research vessel L’Atalante (a nod to the famous film of the same name, I would imagine), and he to Africa for a new water project. After some playful banter the two start to fall for each other, Danny at first reluctant, mostly married to her research, but drawn to James, with what could have been a brief, happy fling flowering into something far deeper. And then they are pulled apart to go their ways, but both now eager to meet once more, to develop their relationship further.

Except that while James did tell Danny he was a former soldier turned engineer, he didn’t tell her that his water engineer life is a cover for spy work for British intelligence, and he’s not going to dig wells in Kenya, but to Somalia, where he is soon taken prisoner by Jihadist terrorists. The film cuts back and forth between James, held prisoner in Africa, and Danny at sea, James clinging to warm memories of her face, her voice, her touch and dreaming of seeing her again, Danny, oblivious to his plight is growing increasingly anxious about not being able to contact him on his phone, their thoughts and dreams cross-connecting the two strands of their stories as they are separated.

As I said, the lovers brought together then pushed apart by fate is a fairly simple narrative device, but veteran director Wenders is not noted for sticking to the plain and simple – I must confess I have a huge admiration for his work such as Paris, Texas, Until the End of the World and, of course, the achingly beautiful Wings of Desire. And I appreciate that he rarely takes the obvious path, although I think perhaps this film is less unusual than many of his other works, in some way more straightforward and accessible to the non-Wenders initiate than some of his earlier films.

It is, unsurprisingly for one of Wenders’ movies, beautifully shot, be it the Normandy coast, the landscapes of Africa, the open ocean or the deepest, darkest places of the vast oceans. Even the prison cell takes on a strange beauty and symbolism – dark save for one shaft of light from a window high, high above, reached by a sloping shaft, it echoes Danny’s descent into the lightless ocean floor, and James finds himself musing about how he too has found himself in his own deep abyss, just like his lover. Orpheus and Eurydice, perhaps, except here it is Orpheus who is lost in the gloom of the Underworld.

I did have some issues with the film though – some of the dialogue felt rather stilted, something that should have been worked out better in rehearsals and editing, I feel, and for such a career-driven person it sometimes felt a little off that Danny becomes so emotionally churned up from not being able to contact James and wondering why he won’t reply to her. But I mostly forgive the film the flaws, because it is, as always with Wenders, a beautiful piece of work to watch, the gorgeous cinematography matched by having two very attractive actors in the lead roles, the music (by Fernando Velazquez) is wonderfully atmospheric, and a luscious compliment to Wenders’ rich visual tapestry. It’s an unusual love story, mixed with elements of the spy thriller, exploration and environmental change, with two gifted and very beautiful stars and luscious cinematography. While not ranking with Wenders’ best, this is still worthy of a couple of hours of your time. And let’s be honest, if you are already a Wenders fan, you know you’re going to have to see it, just because it is by Wenders…

Submergence is available from Lionsgate on digital download from March 4th, and on Blu-Ray and DVD from March 11th

Tehran Taboo

Tehran Taboo,
Directed by Ali Soozandeh,
Peccadillo Pictures

Pari (Elmira Rafizadeh) is a single mother in Tehran, struggling to look after her mute young son Elias (Bilal Yasar), while her worthless husband is in jail on drugs charge, and refusing continually to sign consent forms for a divorce to let her go free. Meantime she is forced into sex work to try and make ends meet, leading to a pretty interesting opening scene in Ali Soozandeh’s intriguing look at the sides of life in modern Tehran that the religious rulers of that country like to pretend only exist in morally corrupt other societies, but of course regardless of what supposed standards they might claim exist people are people in any city anywhere.

We first see Pari being picked up by a middle-aged man cruising the streets; soon she is in his car (her young son in the back, as she has no-one to look after him), and her John is haggling over price (Pari is pretty good at standing up for herself), until she tells him firmly the best he is getting for that money is fellatio. This proceeds as the car is driving through a busy evening in the city and any hints of exploitation or titillation are quickly dispelled between, shall we say, performance issues for the John, then he catches sight of a young woman walking the busy night-time streets with a boyfriend. He realises it is his own daughter and moves to Indignant Protective Dad mode (despite having Pari’s head in his lap), the boy is – gasp – holding her hand! “Pervert!” he shouts. Raising her head from his groin Pari can’t help but comment “look who’s talking.”

This very much sets the tone for Soozandeh’s film – looking at the intimate, hidden sides of life (in a society where unwed couples holding hands in public can be arrested for indecency), but doing so with a nicely irreverent touch (not so much broad comedy, more the sort of humour that just often comes out of situations in everyday life). The film follows several characters like Pari, Sara (Zahra Amir Ebrahimi ), the daughter-in-law of her neighbours in the new apartment she is moved into (the same judge who refuses to sign her divorce without the husband’s papers is happy to arrange to have her as a sexual partner on the side), and Babak (Arash Marandi), a young musician. Pari pretends her husband is a long-distance truck driver to explain his absence and that she works as a nurse, hence her regular night-time excursions, but they all have secrets to keep hidden.

We start to learn those secret lives in the individual strands, which then cross lines with Pari’s story throughout the film, a little like Short Cuts, all of which is delivered with Rotoscoping animation over the live actors, giving the film a very interesting visual style, like Waltz With Bashir or A Scanner Darkly. This approach allows for some interesting visuals – Babak, attempting to take an intimate phone call on the train where you never know who may be listening (and happy to report you to the religious police), turns towards the window, and the camera moves outside the carriage to look in at him on the other side of the window, or Pari and Sara having an evening out eating in an open-air cafe in a beautiful, colourfully-lit square at night, or a view from the apartment over an animated, nocturnal cityscape of Tehran.

Running throughout these tales of hidden lives and secrets is a strong theme of hypocrisy, of those standing up and pretending to be ultra-moral while content to indulge in any number of prescribed acts, most especially the men in positions of authority who continually try to control the women in society (they can do almost nothing without having a form signed by a husband or father), who act as if such moral “deviancy” is beneath them (one is reminded of the string of high profile televangelists in the US who condemn “sin” then we find out they’ve been indulging in endless extra-marital affairs and drugs).

It’s a theme that could have been delivered in a grimmer, darker fashion, but Soozandeh’s lighter touch manages to bring over these serious subjects (ones rarely discussed openly in such a conservative, highly monitored society) without wearing down the viewer; there are some upsetting and emotional scenes, but the humour of the everyday, and the satirical touches riffing on the hypocritical nature of a society pretending these problems only happen in decadent Western countries when in reality the same troubles happen to people, well, everywhere, no matter what any politician or religious leader likes to say.

Peccadillo Pictures has a reputation for bringing us intriguing films from different countries, often dealing with hidden, moral, sexual or taboo subjects, and Tehran Taboo fits very nicely into their stable of films, with the added bonus of giving us a glimpse into a society most of us don’t see in cinema too often, from a very human, everyday life perspective.

Tehran Taboo is out now on DVD and VoD from Peccadillo Pictures

It’s not over till the fat lady screams: Opera

Opera,
Directed by Dario Argento,
Starring Cristina Marsillach, Urbano Barberini, Ian Charleson, Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni, William McNamara,
CultFilms

A young understudy, Betty (Cristina Marsillach), gets her big break when the temperamental diva storms out of a rehearsal of the opera of Macbeth, slap into an oncoming car outside the opera house. In a bizarre mixture of elements of Phantom of the Opera with the Giallo serial killer sub-genre, this accidental promotion to leading lady on a major production proves to be more of a curse than a blessing, as attacks and bodies start to mount rapidly, all happening around Betty in a deliberate and sadistic campaign of terror.

So much for the plot: this is, after all, a Dario Argento film, and as such the narrative is neither the strongest or most important element for the most part. And I don’t mean that in a snarky way; like many of my fellow horror-hounds I have long loved Argento’s films, but most really are frequently bonkers on the logical story front. Not that it matters, as, in my opinion anyway, Argento horrors are far more about the experience, the dream (or nightmare) imagery and sounds, the emotional reactions these draw, and it is part of what makes his body of work so distinctive and visceral.

Opera is one of Argento’s more lavish works, making great use of the grand opera house location, but doing so in a very Argento manner. The opening scenes of the rehearsal give us great views of the interior of this grand theatre, but from perspectives that are unusual, even distorted, while the collection of ravens being used in the production caw ominously, followed by a long reverse tracking shot, all seen from the diva’s perspective, as she storms out. Another (handheld this time?) tracking shot takes us through young Betty’s apartment in an almost Sam Raimi-esque fashion, intimating an immediate threat to her, only for the tension to dissipate when we see it is just her friend visiting.

The film is replete with clever camera moves like these, or shots which go through the claustrophobia of a ventilation duct out into the vast, baroque space of the opera house interior and swings around the stage, creating not only some stunning visuals but also generating a disturbing sense of dislocation, of things being out of kilter, of someone or something watching, just out of sight. When not indulging in some skilfully mobile camera moves Argento also creates some more close-up, intimate moments of tension and horror, such as the killer’s point of view perspective (just those iconic Giallo killer’s leather gloves visible).

And then there is that scene – many of you will know the one I mean, it has passed into horror movie history as an incredibly inventive, disturbing and iconic shots. Betty, tied up by the killer (again only glimpses of his leather gloves), but she is not the main target, rather she is the sadistic victim, restrained, needles taped to her cheeks below her eyes so she dare not blink, forcing her to watch as the killer waits for her boyfriend to enter and be slaughtered.

From Un Chien Andalou onwards film horror has often had a fascination with the eye – even for those of us brought up on the body horror of Cronenberg and others, there remains something compelling and sickening about a threat to the eyeball. And of course it isn’t just about the Giallo killer’s desire to torture Betty by making her watch him kill the victims before her helpless, captive gaze, it is, by extension including the audience, our perverse thrill at watching such scenes, a feeling reinforced by often shooting from the killer’s perspective, placing the audience in his shoes (or in this case his leather gloves), giving us both the thrill while also disturbing us with the thought we are virtually complicit in these horrors.

CultFilm’s loving 2K restoration gives these astonishing, bravura locations and inventively shot scenes the lustre and beauty they richly deserve, allowing the viewer to glory in that partly-insane, dream/nightmare trip that is Argento’s mind.

Opera is released by CultFilms on dual-format Blu-Ray and DVD on January 21st, and includes several tasty extras such as an interview with Argento himself

“These are the days of our lives…” – Bohemian Rhapsody

Bohemian Rhapsody,
Directed by Bryan Singer and Dexter Fletcher,
Starring Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Joseph Mazzello, Ben Hardy, Gwilym Lee, Tom Hollander, Aiden Gillen, Allen Leech, Aaron McCusker

Alright, before I start I should hold up my hand and say I am a massive Queen fan. Always have been, so much so that I had to restrain myself from standing up and joining in the actions for some of the musical numbers on offer in Bohemian Rhapsody (nobody needs to see that in public and besides, save it for the special sing-a-long screening). I’m not sure if that means I was likely to be more critical of any film about Freddie and the boys or more easily accepting though. The film, as many of you will know, arrives with a somewhat troubled production history, not least the departure (willing or forced, gossip still circles) of Bryan Singer and a pause on filming, before Dexter Fletcher came on board to finish it. That’s the sort of signs that a movie may be a turkey; I’m glad to say that I didn’t find this the case here.

We open with the band about to get ready to appear on stage at one of the great music events of history – the global-audience of Live Aid, now a legendary gig, with, many would argue, Queen’s electrifying performance being the boost the massive live show needed – before looping back to the early 70s. Young Farrokh Bulsara (Mr Robot’s Rami Malek) is working a low-end job at Heathrow Airport and subject to racial slurs from his colleagues. At home he’s restless, chafing at elements of his Zanzibar and religious upbringing and eager to embrace music culture, escaping at night to watch gigs. It’s there he sees Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) and Bryan May (Gwilym Lee) playing with their three-piece band Smile.

When their singer leaves the band, commenting it is going nowhere, Farrokh – now calling himself Freddie – introduces himself to the band and charms his way into joining them through a mixture of self-confidence and bravado, the embryonic elements that Freddie, when he adopted the Mercury surname, would later channel to such fantastic effect on stage to capture live audiences with some huge success. With bass player John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) joining, and the band changing its name to the grander (and outrageous, as Freddie said) Queen, the classic quartet is set to take on the world, with the film taking in chunks of their career in short bites, recording that first album, the iconic Night at the Opera, the eponymous Bohemian Rhapsody epic track itself, through to the mid 80s and the triumphant Live Aid appearance.

Of course there are flaws, some I would argue are pretty much unavoidable – this is a feature film, not a documentary, so some elements are a little different from parts you may have read in biographies or seen in documentaries, and there is simply no way to do justice to every part of the Queen story, they had a twenty year career at the top of the charts, and you can’t cover everything that happened (for instance we don’t see anything about those post Live Aid albums made as Freddie was dying), you can’t even cover the making of every album and still have a watchable feature film, that’s more for a multi-part documentary. You may argue at some of the moments they decided to include over others, but that would be the case whichever periods of their story they put in or left out.

The film picks out some moments from that career and tries to keep a balance between the show-business moments and the personal lives, including Freddie’s growing realisation that he was gay or bisexual (although it also makes clear how that never changed his lifelong love for Mary Austin, played by Lucy Boynton, including his touching dedication to her of the song “love of my life”), the arguments between the band members, management, labels, the press. But it also includes the good personal moments, most notably the friendship of the four band members that survives fame, success, ego trips, drugs, manipulative hangers-on and more, and remained the core of their identity right to the end of Freddie’s life. We get snapshots of their albums being worked on or their tours, including that amazing moment in Rio (then the largest audience for a live show) where the huge audience sang back to the band, a wonderful moment when they realise how much their fans have taken them to their hearts, with the lion’s share of time given to the Live Aid performance. And it includes nice touches such as Freddie’s beloved cats.

While Hardy, Lee and Mazzello do sterling work essaying Taylor, May and Deacon very well, the film concentrates unashamedly on Freddie, understandably given the wonderfully flamboyant front-man’s theatrical persona and his personal life. And whatever you think of which parts of the band’s career that they chose to show or any other aspects of the film, it is hard to deny just how damned good Rami Malek is as Freddie. It isn’t just the strong physical resemblance (aided by some prosthetics such as the extra teeth Freddie had which gave his mouth that unusual shape), or adopting Freddie’s unique voice, it is right in the core of Malek’s performance, he channels his inner Freddie, the mannerisms, expressions, movements, to a remarkable degree. I’ve read that Malek was determined to do justice to such an amazing performer and was aware how important he was emotionally to a massive number of fans, and by god that determination is there in every frame. It is an astonishing piece of acting, and as with his powerful work in Mr Robot is marks Malek as a young actor we should all be keeping an eye on. He looks as if he could command an audience just like the real Freddie could.

And yes, I did manage to restrain myself to the end, I didn’t stand up and join in the actions for We Will Rock You or Radio Ga Ga. But I think if there is a sing-a-long screening (and I am sure a number of places will do that, somehow!) then I may have to go along and join in unashamedly.

Smile-inducing Brit horror-comedy with The Snarling

The Snarling,
Directed by Pablo Raybould,
Starring Julia Deakin, Joel Beckett, Chris Simmons), Laurence Saunders, Ste Johnson, Albert Moses

Ferocious killings and stroppy actors, who knows which is worse?!? A small village is hosting a movie crew, currently shooting a zombie film, with the star, Greg Lupeen (Laurence Sanders) driving the director and producer mad as they strive to remain calm with a forced “okay, luv at each of his self-obsessed, self-important “I’m the star rants and screaming bouts. Meanwhile in the local pub Mike (Chris Simmons), Bob (Ben Manning) and village idiot Les (Sanders pulling double duty) are discussing the film shoot in their not exactly busy boozer (which is also being used as one of the movie’s locations), and are excited at the thought of playing extras in the film, a wee bit of unusual fun in their quiet small town. And they’re all amused to find that Les looks remarkably like the movie’s star, Greg.

But there’s more going on than the excitement of a movie shoot in a wee village – there’s the little matter of the grisly murders. In fact they don’t look so much like murders as wild animal attacks, the victims ripped apart. Except this is Britain and there aren’t exactly a lot of wolves or bears running around to cause that kind of death, so it must be a murderer, right? And the fact they happened during the full moon and seems similar to other incidents which happened in Wales when the same film crew was working there, that’s just coincidence too, isn’t it?? And the fact the leading man was bitten by a wild animal while filming a scene in a zoo in Wales, and now sufferers strange headaches and more mood swings than usual?

This is an absolute hoot of a Brit comedy-horror, and it clearly knows its audience and plays to it. The puns and jokes are mostly the so-bad-they-are-good variety (deliberately), and like a Carry On movie you can pretty much see the punchline coming, and it doesn’t matter a jot, because you want that punchline, heck you’re probably joining in with it and then laughing happily anyway. The Snarling mines a treasure trove of puns and clichés, such as the hapless, always stuffing his face detective (played by director Raybould) or the lead actor’s name Lupeen (sounding like “lupine”, leading Les to conclude he must be the werewolf, only for his pal to remark yeah, but my dad’s called Leonard, change a letter in his name does that make his a leopard?). This would make a grand night’s fun entertainment as a double bill with Carry On Screaming or Shaun of the Dead.

It’s low-budget and clearly they can’t afford top of the line CG effects for a werewolf, or a Rick Baker practical effects lycanthrope, but they get around, using what they do have, humour, clever editing and cross-cutting, and the dark (one scene involving cyclists being attacked is lit by their bike’s strobing light, which was a clever way to give only glimpses of the monster and also give us another bit of humour at the same time). There’s some really nice attention to detail too, always a good sign of a film crew really trying to go that extra mile – for example, after one of the elderly pub regulars is attacked by the mystery beast you can see a collection tin for him on the bar, and for all the glorying in obvious puns (which I have to say I loved, I mean they had me at that punning title, to be honest) this is also a clever tale, wonderfully threaded with good-natured humour throughout and paying homage to the greats (including American Werewolf) but with its own irreverent yet loving approach. A perfect Saturday night slice of horror-comedy to watch with a bunch of friends.

The Snarling is available on DVD and Digital from November 5th from Left Films

Der Hauptmann – The Captain

The Captain,
Directed by Robert Schwentke,
Starring Max Hubacher, Milan Peschel , Frederick Lau

Written and directed by Robert Schwentke (The Time Travelers Wife, Flight Plan, Red, Insurgent), The Captain – Der Hauptmann, to give it it’s original title – is a compelling tale of the closing days of the Second World War. Shot in a beautifully crisp, glowing, silvery black and white the elegance of the cinematography is, right from the start, at odds with the brutality at the heart of The Captain, as we see a terrified and oh-so-young German soldier being chased through a winter landscape and woods by his comrades. They are not just hunting him and aiming to kill him, they are clearly enjoying it, especially the officer in charge. Hubacher’s soldier is a creature of pure fear, seeing his violent death just a few footsteps behind him, his uniform and boots torn and ruined, his face so filthy only his astonishingly clear eyes looking out of that mess look human.

It is the final days of the war and German has turned on German, no longer just fighting the invading Allies but devouring their own, all civilised restraints are gone, years of the hard-edged Nazi regime coupled with the grinding brutality of warfare has cracked the veneer of civilisation, even the vicious rules of warfare are disregarded. Schwentke’s film, like Apocalypse Now, shows how that red-toothed animal is set loose by endless brutality, and even more alarmingly, how while some refuse that dark call and others try to turn away, some men are seduced by it. They come to like it, revel in that dark freedom that comes when they think there are no more rules, no more consequences.

Hubacher’s Willi Herold doesn’t quite start this way, he is the terrified soldier – a deserter, perhaps, broken by the relentless enemy attacks – being chased and shot at by his former comrades. After eluding them he trudges across country, finding an abandoned staff car, with a suitcase containing a captain’s uniform. Swiftly removing his own ruined uniform this private gives himself an immeadite promotion by donning this found uniform, but more than that, as he looks at himself in the car’s mirror he starts to assume the pose, the attitude he expects from a Nazi officer. This is a very young man, remember, who has been brought up in Hitler’s Germany, even before the shock of the war; imagine the role models he has had in his youth, those roles he is now assuming.

When Peschel’s Freytag comes stumbling down the road and reacts to him as if he was a real captain, Herold starts to play the role for real. Taking Freytag as his driver they stop at the nearest village, Herold playing the quiet, icy Nazi officer so well that the locals in the inn are soon too scared of him, providing them with food and lodgings. But there is a price – desertion is now rife as it is clear the Third Reich is doomed, and many of those deserters have been looting and raping their way through the countryside. After catching one those same locals he cowed with his act earlier now call on him to walk the walk for real, to “pay for his roast dinner” as one puts it. As the horrified Freytag watches helplessly Herold agrees with the locals, draws his gun and shoots the deserter right in the street. It is the start of a slide into brutality and depravity.

It isn’t long before Herold encounters more men separated from their units like Freytag – or perhaps they have just given up and deserted – and again he uses his newly borrowed authority to overwhelm them, again playing the arrogant, cold Nazi officer to perfection, exactly the sort of officer they expect. Encountering a group of military police rounding up deserters to take to a nearby camp, Herold expands his authority, telling them all he is on a special mission by order of the Furher himself, to investigate the reports of low morale and desertion behind the lines, snowballing his lies and actions into ever greater levels of brutality and atrocity.

This is not an easy watch, despite the quite beautiful black and white photography; The Captain lays bare and ugly fact of human nature – brutality begets brutality, violence more violence, Herold like one abused who then goes on in turn to become an abuser, a chain of vile cause and effect poisoning the soul. And worse still he starts to enjoy it, to relish it even, and so do a number of the men who fall under the spell of the Captain. And this is very much a man’s world, the only women seen briefly here are at a couple of celebrations, companions for the soldiers, the rest of the time it is men and other men committing acts normal society would repudiate, reminiscent of Hemmingway, perhaps.
The fact that the film is apparently based on a real person and events makes the events all the more horrific.

Hubacher as Herold and Peschel as Freytag both give up some incredible, intense performances in what must have been pretty emotionally-draining roles. Herold takes us from frightened, filthy, dishevelled soldier on the run to the overbearing, cold-faced Nazi officer, face impassive, his clear eyes. He falls so easily into this role the young man must have seen acted out before him throughout his youth in Nazi Germany, but Hubacher also throws in subtle changes in expression and body language early on, as Herold is unsure of himself, waiting to be found out and exposed, and you can see him changing as he realises others are following his assumed authority, no matter how vile his orders. It’s a damned fine bit of acting. Similarly Peschel’s Freytag as the everyman, just an ordinary guy who wants the war to be over, to go home, terrified of being shot by his own side, relieved when Herold takes him in, then the mounting horror in his expression as he witnesses the monstrous acts Herold brings the other soldiers to commit, another superb piece of acting , the two men’s performances playing off one another perfectly to bring emotion, sorrow, fear and utter horror to the viewer.

The Captain is released on September 21st

Kangaroo: a Love-Hate Story

Kangaroo: a Love-Hate Story,
Directed by Kate McIntyre Clere and Mick McIntyre

Kangaroo has been doing the rounds on the international film festival circuit, receiving quite a bit of acclaim, and now with it being eligible for the 2019 Oscars they are making a push to get it noticed a bit wider by cinema-goers (and the Academy, the old “for your consideration”), which is how yours truly managed to get a screener to watch. And although this is very, very hard to watch in places, I am glad I had the chance to see this Australian documentary. As the film-makers and others point out early on there is a real dichotomy in the image of the kangaroo – it is the national symbol of Australia, it’s on their coat of arms, that sports-mad nation nicknames many of its teams after roos. And yet they slaughter millions of these animals every single year.

Not just slaughter, but killed often in the most disgustingly inhumane ways. Make no mistake, although this is a compelling documentary, you will need a strong stomach in certain parts of this film, it does not pull many punches in depicting just what goes on, nor should it – one of the central points here is that so many, in Australia and around the world where roo products (meat, leather) are exported, are totally unaware of what is happening, aided by a complacent government that seems to be in cahoots with a wealthy, multi-million dollar industry (and isn’t that something we’ve seen all too often in many different industries in many different countries? Strange how easily morality and decency can go when big money is involved). There are some stomach-churning scenes filmed by activists who are determined to break that cover, bring these practises out into the light – literally, as most of the hunting is done at night.

The law says any kangaroos “harvested” need to be killed swiftly and humanely, as you’d expect from similar standards in any animal food industries – we all, rightly, get sickened and outraged if cattle, pigs and sheep are made to suffer before the inevitable abattoir date and we have built up laws to protect the animals from such needless suffering. But shooter firing at night from a truck bumping over rough terrain and firing at a moving target often miss. Many roos are hit but not fatally, some take hours, days or in one case the crew documents, two weeks to die. Two weeks of agony and suffering. And that’s not the worst – there are the baby Joeys, the mothers shot, the baby still alive but helpless. The hunters take the baby animal and swing it by its hind legs, dashing its head on the nearby Ute (that ubiquitous Aussie truck), or in one especially sickening scene, the man stands on a tiny infant Joey after pulling it from the pouch of the dead mother. Yes, I did warn you, there are some stomach-turning scenes here. I’m an old horror fiend, grew up in that first wave of unregulated “video nasties”, and can take all sorts of gore on film. If it is fictional. Seeing it inflicted on an animal for real. Not so much.

The film doesn’t use these tactics just as shockers to get your attention and raise your awareness though, it is quite clear how stressful and disturbing this is to the film-makers and to the activists who are gathering this evidence, often at the risk of their own life. One couple who film and collect evidence bought land as a preserve for wildlife, but the law allows neighbouring farmers to drive onto their land and kill roos legally. Yeah, imagine a bunch of gun nuts on a truck in the dark of an outback night driving right past your house on your ground firing away and imagine not just the animal slaughter on your own property but how easily that could end in a human tragedy too. They gather evidence in film and, gruesomely, in body parts, that are then examined by vets to prove violations of the hunting rules. The government has largely ignored such evidence before, but with green politicians getting into office now they have politicians who are able to highlight this evidence, and as well as taking it to Aussie authorities, media and people to expose the reality, they take it to other countries who import kangaroo products, which hits the industry where it hurts (suddenly big sports stars like Beckham find out their footie boot leather came from kangaroos and how they were killed, and the major companies like Adidas, unsurprisingly, soon also decide this is not good).

Maybe you aren’t an animal lover and are wondering why you should be bothered. There is more here than just respect for nature and animals though – the big industry sways government policy (you know, governments, who are meant to represent the people, not corporations) and attempts to do similar abroad (one sequence shows some rather underhand shenanigans as they try to influence Californian politicians to lift a ban in imports). And then there is the health question – the roo meat for human consumption does not get the same strict hygiene rules that beef or pork does. The shooters drive through the outback at night, shoot a roo, hang it on the back of the Ute, gut it then and there (another pretty awful scene to watch – blood, knife, innards and bolt-cutters for those strong legs. Yes, shudder), then drive on looking for more. They all have to be shot between dusk and dawn when it is cooler, but as this is allowed at night it can regularly be over 30 degrees centigrade. And it takes all night to fill the truck, so imagine all those corpses hanging in that heat for hours before being driven some distance to the nearest refrigerated storage chiller. Driven in heat on dusty, fly-ridden roads while exposed to all of that contamination and heat, spoiling away. Independent studies of roo meat on sale in shops showed high levels of salmonella and e.coli. So even if you don’t care about animal welfare and enjoy your red meat, you should be worried about this.

It’s often a hard film to watch, there are some truly disturbing scenes, but that’s part of what makes this such a powerful documentary, and the way it covers the other strands, from the big industry-government collusion, the media buying unquestioningly into the much-peddled lies (“they are vermin and need to be exterminated”, “upsetting the natural balance”), the clearly dodgy “science” government agencies use to “prove” animal numbers (which don’t stand up to even basic logical scrutiny) and the public health threat is well handled and gives a rounded picture, rather than simply dwelling on the hideously huge slaughter. The fact much of this is beautifully shot, taking in that astonishing Australian outback and the gorgeous, iconic animals themselves adds a powerful contrast to the more disturbing scenes, while the film itself lays bare not just the monstrous slaughter (millions of animals a year) and the inhumanity of it, but asks upsetting questions about just how humans, as a species, see the natural world as a resource to be used and consumed.

This review was originally penned for Live For Film

Creeping folk horror in Dogged

Dogged,
Directed by Richard Rowntree,
Starring Sam Saunders, Debra Leigh-Taylor, Nadia Lamin, Philip Ridout, Jo Southwell, Aiysha Jebali, Toby Wynn-Davies

Richard Rowntree has being paying his dues in the movie business for years, working on all sorts of productions large and small, crafting some of his own short films, and now his directorial feature debut, Dogged. And it is a rather tasty, creepy slice of British folk horror at that.

Young Sam (Sam Saunders) returns to his home, a small island whose causeway is submerged twice a day at high tide, leaving it isolated. The opening montage of rural and coastal scenes would normally be restful, but Rowntree picks angles and perspectives that right from the start convey an impression of something wrong, something out of kilter, of leaving the regular world behind and entering somewhere that conforms not to society’s wider norms but to its own, secretive rules. Just to reinforce the unwelcoming atmosphere, his father picks him up by the causeway without so much as a “hello”, just a bad-tempered “hurry up, the tide is coming in”, while the signs where causeway meets the island all make clear visitors are not welcome here.

Sam was born and raised on the island, but escaped its cloying, inward-looking small community to go to university. He’s only returned now, reluctantly, to attend the funeral of the young daughter of one of their neighbours, supposedly killed in an accidental fall from the cliffs. Except Sam finds it hard to believe this was an accident, all the local kids know to avoid the cliffs… At the memorial service in the small local church the vicar (a superbly, quietly menacing and creepy Toby Wynn-Davies) gives a sermon which seems more of a veiled warning to the mourners than it is a message of hope or comfort. The padre clearly has some power over his local community, more than just a spiritual leader, and he is less than happy to see Sam return as he knows his daughter is fond of Sam, and this is a man who obviously does not like challenges to his authority.

Rowntree litters Dogged with some inventive camera angles and perspectives that make even a leafy country lane or what should be a comforting house becoming filled with menace, along with other nice little touches (the young couple walking into the local tearoom sees all conversation stop as they are stared at, like a scene from a cowboy saloon in a Western). Figures are glimpsed in the woods, one even knocks Sam from his bike before running off, another is lurking near his gran’s house, and for some reason these young men all run around topless sporting animal head masks. It all builds tension throughout the film – it is clear some in the village are not who they seem, that there are secrets, but what secrets, and are they related to the death of the young girl?

Sam is as far from the pro-active horror hero as you can get, a young man who has been under his strict father’s thumb for so long that although he tries to investigate he is often fairly passive and pushed along by events and other characters, although it is hard not to feel sorry for him – he has escaped what he thought was an overbearing, isolated community, come back briefly and found himself not only drowning in it once more, but being submerged into darker, hidden depths that he hadn’t known were there.

I’m guessing Rowntree didn’t have access to a big budget, but he marshals what resources he has quite effectively. The aforementioned clever use of odd camera angles and perspectives, the expressions on the faces of the locals, the simple sight of half-naked male figures in animal head masks lurking in the woods, all combine to raise the tension steadily, leading to a satisfying final reel. Rural horror often plays on the sense of the small, isolated community, and by having this on an island cut off twice a day Rowntree increases that sense of isolation and difference, as well as adding a feeling of claustrophobia, both generally (across the whole community) and more personally (Sam’s own family) and that “you don’t really belong” sense. I was put in mind numerous times of the original Wicker Man, which I think Rowntree was channeling very well here, offering us a creepy, disturbing slice of Brit horror.

Dogged is out now from Left Films

Lights, camera, music! Score: a Film Music Documentary

Score: a Film Music Documentary,

Directed by Matt Schrader


Music and cinema, two of my favourite things in life, and when combined those visuals flickering on the screen, the narrative, the actors, the dialogue and the music create something which is, when it really works, far greater than the sum of its parts. Can you imagine Star Wars without John Williams’ score? Or the magic he brought to Jaws (Spielberg often remarked with all the effects problems with the mechanical shark models Williams’ iconic theme became the shark the visual effects couldn’t give him)? Or that Superman theme, that dum de de dum dumm dumm building rapidly to that triumphant, suitably heroic theme that makes you want to “do the Superman”, rip open your shirt to show that big S, so empowering, magical, inspiring, so perfectly in symbiosis with the visuals. Just a few bars from any of those themes is instantly iconic, we hear it and the magic of that film moment fills us. A few notes of it added to a comedy sketch works the same magic, it’s instantly recognisable and comes with a built-in recognition and series of memories and emotions.

And that’s only three examples from one – albeit masterful – composer. Score talks to, well a score or more (sorry) of contemporary composers, and this includes a large number of have worked on some of our favourite sci-fi, horror, fantasy and comics-based movies, from Bear McCreary to Hans Zimmer, about their work, their inspirations, how they collaborate with directors and other musicians, from rousing themes like Gladiator or Pirates of the Caribbean to musicians who are generally seen as working outside the soundtrack composition world but who have been invited in, like Trent Reznor, bringing fascinating new ideas, rhythms, energies and passion to the world of film music, to its betterment.

(Hans Zimmer discussing his craft in Score)

That notion of change and evolution is strong in Score; while much of the running time, understandably, talks to contemporary composers – John Williams, Danny Elfman, Trent Reznor, Quincy Jones, Rachel Portman and many more – about their craft, and commenting on the works of others they admire, past and present, the film also takes in the ever-changing nature of film music. From the mighty King Kong in the 1930s, a pioneer not just in visual effects but in using a full symphony orchestra to score the movie (that fabulous music as Kong scales the Empire State Building) – bear in mind at that point the “talkie”, the sound movie, was only a few years old, this was inventing new ways of storytelling for a new medium (although as the film also points out, even the preceding “silent” movies were never truly silent, there was always at least a piano playing along to them, or the famous Wurlitzer organ, or a small chamber orchestra in some cinemas, while some silent films had visual cues for those musical accompaniments – think Buster Keaton in Steamboat Bill Jr, for example).

Like many things today we are so used to the notion of a film with carefully composed music being part of its fabric that it is easy to forget someone had to come up with these ideas originally, then others developed them, they became the standard approach. Then others would come along and shake that approach up with something new and fresh – that fabulous, then contemporary jazz score for A Streetcar Named Desire replacing the notion of the symphonic suite to huge effect, a burning, modern, sexual, jazz that went with the story and visual so perfectly evoking and enhancing the mood, the feeling on levels that work beyond those paired with the visuals.

(the Air Studio in a converted London church)

The methods used for inspiration, for creation and recording are discussed, from hearing natural sounds and wondering how they might translate into music for a piece to feeling their way through how to translate that sound in their head into something tangible, experience and artistic intuition telling them how to continue, be it a simple, short piece that may be best on a solo piano to some great, iconic theme that requires a full orchestra (and then how to set up and record that orchestra, which space to use, how to deploy it, the changes in post production, so many choices that can make totally different sounds and feeling to the resulting music), or something new, digital electronica or contemporary jazz or rock or dance beats. There’s technical discussion, but mostly what comes across from all of these musicians is passion for their work, for what it adds to the cinematic medium, and the respect and admiration many of them show for the work of other musicians, contemporary and those who went before.

(Bear McCreary experimenting with different instruments and sounds)

This takes in a huge swathe of film music history, and of course it includes many of our beloved fantastical genres that have featured score which have become iconic – think on that intricate music for Inception, the big, brassy, sassy, swaggering music for James Bond, that Jaws theme, Mad Max, Close Encounters, Psycho, the Avengers movies, that great, swelling Lord of the Rings theme (and all the smaller character themes that weave through key moments). I play a lot of soundtracks when working in the Blogcave, and even divorced from the film they still inspire me, enthuse me, play with my emotions and the best ones, even played on their own, evoke memories of some of my favourite film moments, from Star Wars to Dunkirk. Score captures that feeling the music creates in us as the audience, how the finest soundtracks live in our heads afterwards, and that wonderful magic that happens when amazing musicians and remarkable film-makers come together.

I could easily have sat through much more of this, Score is by turns fascinating and inspiring, a glimpse into some of the creative processes that bring out favourite films to life, to the power of music to enhance the emotional experience.

Score: a Film Documentary is out on DVD and  available via Video on Demand from Dogwoof on April the 2nd

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Music in film

It’s probably not surprising given I am a huge cinephile that I also really enjoy a lot of film soundtrack music. The other day I was listening to Gershwin when the album reach Rhapsody in Blue and right away I was mentally visualising that wonderful monochrome opening to Woody Allen’s Manhattan “he adored New York… for him it still pulsated to the great music of George Gershwin…”

And it made me think how sometimes certain pieces of music can become eternally associated with a scene from a film. I don’t just mean original soundtrack music – like John Williams’ opening for the original Star Wars, for instance, conjuring up that amazing (for the time, young me had seen nothing like these gigantic ships thundering across the screen after the opening crawl of text) opening of that saga, or Hans Zimmer’s powerful Inception soundtrack. No, I was thinking on music which had existed in its own right before being borrowed for us in a film – sometimes it can be a little known piece of music, or at least little known to the wider public, such as Barber’s Adagio in Platoon or Strauss’ waltz in the famous space docking sequence in 2001. Obviously classical music admirers knew those, but the films brought them to a wider audience and also indelibly linked those pieces forever in most people’s minds with those scenes in the movies.

Of course there is Herman Hupfeld’s “As Time Goes By” which originally dated from the early 1930s, but really became better known – any by better known I mean immortal – in the 1940s when used in Casablanca. If not for that I doubt most of us would ever have heard of the song, whereas now if we hear it we connect it to one of the best films of all time right away.

Sometimes it can be a well-known track a lot of folk had in their collection from years back, which suddenly leaps back into the pop-cultural landscape, fresh for a new audience, a nostalgic flashback for older fans. Iggy Pop’s Lust For Life suddenly gained a second lease of life when used in the pounding opening of the film version of Trainspotting:

Or Gary Jules’ cover of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” for Donnie Darko:

And arguably these days for a lot of folk these days those songs will always be associated with the films. And then there’s the great use of Queen’s mid 1970s hit Bohemian Rhapsody for 90s cult hit Wayne’s World:

And Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock & Roll” with a very young Tom Cruise dancing around in his socks in Risky Business:

And the Pixies’ brilliant “Where is my mind?” for the closing of Fight Club:

And a personal favourite of mine, Goth classic “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” by Bauhaus used in the opening to The Hunger – this one going so far as to actually use Pete Murphy and the boys in the film:

And there are hundreds more – think Steppenwolf’s rock classic “Born to be Wild” in Easy Rider, the Doors and even Wagner in Apocalypse Now and goodness knows how many more, classical, jazz, pop, rock that either existed before but were little known until selected for use in a film scene or else they had enjoyed their moment of success and suddenly found themselves with a second bite at the cherry (Quentin Tarantino has done both numerous times in pretty much every film soundtrack he’s ever made). I’m sure you can think of plenty of other similar examples off the top of your head.