Just been watching…(99)

Beauty And The Dogs (2017)
(Arabic and French, with English subtitles)
***No spoilers***

Regular readers of my film posts will know how much I like foreign films, those ‘World Cinema’ offerings, with subtitles. I was lucky to spot this Tunisian film being shown late one night on a TV film channel, and recorded it on the PVR.

This is based on the true story of Mariam, a young woman studying at university in Tunis. One night, she organises a party for the students, and goes along with her friends to have an enjoyable evening. Whilst there, she meets a man, Youssef, and they go outside to walk on the beach.

The story that follows is told in numbered chapters, and plays out over the course of just one night, the night following the party. A night when Mariam is raped by police offers, who handcuff her boyfriend while they assault the girl. Crucially, the actual rape is not shown, not even in flashback. As viewers, we only get to hear about it through the stories of Mariam and the man she met. In many respects, the absence of any ‘shock’ footage is even more disturbing, as the lead actress uses emotions to convey her horror, fear, and disgust to powerful effect.

As she tries to get medical help, then file a police report, we see a savage indictment of the state of Tunisia as a country. Poor infrastructure, corruption, a country still ruled and dominated by men, and women treated with little respect or regard. Mariam encounters indifference, and outright hostility, even from female police officers. She is treated like a whore, and made to feel humiliated at every turn. Most of this is based on the fact that she is wearing a skimpy party dress, has make-up on, and is stunningly beautiful.

The attitudes she is faced with range from she got what she deserved, to the idea that reporting such a crime will bring shame on her family. During that harrowing night, she is steadily worn down by officialdom, and deliberate obstruction. But this treatment makes her all the more determined to seek justice.

This is an amazing film, with a central performance by Mariam Al-Ferjani as Mariam that deserved to win a crop of international awards. She is not only perfect for the role, but her acting range is there for all to see, and she must surely have a great future. Filmed mostly on location, and with a convincing cast of actors mostly playing ‘bad guy’ roles, we are rooting for Mariam from the opening scene, to the closing credits.

This may not be easy to find, but I urge you to watch it.

Just been watching…(98)

Snowden (2016)

***Real events, so spoilers do not apply***

This film had slipped past my radar, so I was happy to find it showing on our free film channel, Film 4.

Many of us remember the case of Edward Snowden, perhaps the most significant whistle-blower in history. His story filled the news for a while, as he tried to escape arrest and extradition to the USA for trial on charges of treason. This film from distinguished director Oliver Stone examines Snowden’s background, his various jobs in the CIA and NSA, and his personal reasons for leaking the huge amount of secret information to the world’s media.

I appreciate that for many people, especially Americans, his actions are unforgivable, and he is still regarded as a wanted criminal, currently living in exile in Moscow. However, Stone’s long and detailed look at his life presents us with a different view of Snowden, and his slow journey to disillusionment after a career in the clandestine agencies of the American government.

Snowden was always a conservative, and a patriot; he joined the army to train for Special Forces, completely believing in the duty of America to maintain world order, and protect the freedoms it claims to stand for. Self-taught, with no college degree, he became an expert in computers too, with a genius level on a par with the best. After a serious accident during his army training, he is told he will be discharged as medically unfit. Still desperate to serve his country, he applies for a job as an analyst with the CIA, and is successful. He is immediately noticed for his talent, and completes training as the top student.

Whilst in Washington DC, he meets Lindsey, a free-spirited liberal woman who becomes his girlfriend. That on-off relationship and the difficulties his job places on it become a large part of the film too. But we are mainly shown some fascinating behind the scenes details of just how the ‘system’ works. In collusion with the British spymasters at GCHQ, the CIA begins to monitor email, webcam, and cellphone communication around the world, in any country they choose. Using the justification of the 9/11 attacks, laws and constitutional issues are overturned in favour of the dream of complete surveillance of everyone on the planet. Nothing is beyond their reach, and I mean NOTHING.

This is where the film scored highly for me, with its detailed look at just how vast that network became, with the technical aspects clearly explained for the viewer, though breathtaking in their scale. Despite the convoluted machinations of the agencies concerned, I never felt overwhelmed by tech-speak, or failed to understand exactly what Snowden was a part of. Use of flashbacks dealt with numerous back-stories in a clear and concise way, with on-screen graphics quickly grounding the viewer in time and place. With his work for the CIA beginning to trouble him, he resigns, but eventually starts work at the NSA, as a contractor. Once there, he finds that the scale of the interference in people’s lives is increasing exponentially, and he resolves to do something about it.

Breaking all the rules, and his oath of secrecy, he copies an enormous amount of top secret information onto an SD card, and flees to Hong Kong, where he contacts a film-maker, a TV journalist, and The Guardian newspaper. The secrets are eventually revealed, as we all remember, and every country in the world carries the story in great detail. Snowden tries to escape to political asylum in Ecuador, but when his passport is revoked by John Kerry, he is stranded in Moscow, where he still resides to this day. It was hoped that the arrival of Barack Obama as president would overturn much of the shady dealings of the intelligence agencies. But when he decided to let them continue ‘In the interests of security’, all of Snowden’s efforts came to nothing.

The film has an excellent cast. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is superb as Snowden, and totally believable. Welsh actor Rhys Ifans impresses as one of the top CIA trainers, and Nicholas Cage plays against type as a world-weary code-breaker. Filmed mostly in Europe and Hong Kong, for obvious reasons, locations feel convincing, and despite a long running time, it had my attention from start to finish. This is an important film about a serious subject, and something we should all try to inform ourselves about.

And you won’t leave your laptop open after watching this, I assure you.

Retro Review: Notes On A Scandal (2006)

I have seen this film a couple of times, and never tire of the sheer quality of the acting talent on display.

This deals with the issue of a teacher abusing her position of trust, by having an affair with an underage boy in her class. But it is so much more, weaving jealousy and bitterness, betrayal and middle-class attitudes, into a modern day tale as complex as a Shakespeare play. Directed by Richard Eyre, this stars the irresistible combination of Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett as fellow teachers at an inner-London school.

One is new to the job, with little idea how to cope, despite becoming the center of attraction for not only her colleagues, but also many of the older boys.

The other is a bitter lesbian; hating her job, and despising her colleagues, as well as the children she has taught for all of her working life. When one sexual encounter is spied upon, events begin that will wreck the lives and careers of all involved, with the viewers as witnesses as it plays out.

Blanchett is Sheba. Younger than her husband, (Bill Nighy) and mother to two children. She has arrived late to teaching, and finds it impossible to cope. But the attentions of a handsome young pupil turn her head, and she cannot resist embarking on an ill-fated and illegal affair with the boy. One incident is seen by her colleague Barbara, (Dench) who decides to use it to her advantage. She dreams of becoming Sheba’s lover, and uses the knowledge of the affair to inveigle herself into the family life of her supposed friend.

As Barbara begins to exert more control over the younger woman, we see her bitter and twisted thoughts laid out on the pages of her diary, as she writes and narrates it for our benefit. Lonely, obsessive, and living a double life, Barbara believes that she can find happiness with her younger colleague, and convince her to move in with her. But when she is rejected, she leaks the information, with catastrophic results.

British drama really doesn’t get better than this. The chemistry and talent of the two women on screen is magnetic, though Judi Dench’s portrayal of Barbara steals the show. Despite solid performances by everyone else involved, tight direction, a great script, and authentic locations, the film comes down to a riveting two-hander as the women discover the truth about each other.

Unreservedly recommended.

Just been watching… (97)

You Were Never Really Here. (2017)
***No spoilers***

This film received a lot of critical acclaim on release, so I was looking forward to seeing it. I deliberately didn’t try to find out too much about it, to leave my mind open to what it had to offer.

And that is a very dark tale. One of the abduction of underage girls, for sexual abuse by the rich and influential. A damaged army veteran who has found employment in rescuing them and returning them to their families. And the violent retribution he hands out to those responsible. Joaquin Phoenix stars as Joe, scarred in both mind and body, haunted by flashbacks of his service in various wars, and the corruption he has returned to.

He carries out his job with ruthlessness, dishing out extreme violence with his weapon of choice, a small hammer. Yet he has a softer side, caring lovingly for his confused elderly mother, in the family home. His employer is a former security operative, who sends Joe out looking for the missing girls, after finding their location. Joe uses all his army training and skills to successfully save the girls, and his record is flawless.

However, when he is asked to find the abducted daughter of an influential politician, his mission becomes increasingly complicated, as he falls foul of both the criminal organisation, and the secret political agents who want to cover up the crime. The second half of the film deals with this tense game of cat and mouse, with Joe more determined than ever to take care of the girl, and hand out revenge on all involved.

Phoenix delivers an intense turn as Joe, method-acting, and completely believable. He is in every scene, and despite the brief appearances of his mother and boss, as well as the girl he tries to rescue, the film is more or less a one-man band. Unfortunately, there are many flashbacks and fantasy sequences, designed to supply the viewer with some backstory to Joe, and to look inside his mind and thoughts. They don’t always work, and I found some of them confusing. Location filming in US cities is also convincing, and there are few tricks to deal with, and no excessive special effects.

On paper, this may sound like the sort of film where we might expect to see Jason Statham or Steven Seagal rushing to the rescue of the girls, and seeing off hordes of opposing criminals. But Phoenix is no wise-cracking tough guy. In his unwashed clothes and scraggly beard, he looks more like a vagrant, something that helps him blend into the inner-city landscape. No sexual scenes are shown on film, and when the violence is dealt out, it happens fast and furious, without any undue glorification. As Joe, Phoenix gives us a completely powerhouse performance, ably assisted by every supporting actor, no matter how small their role.

But I confess I was left wondering ‘Why’? Why film such a story? I presume the film was trying to tell me something about bad men doing bad things, and damaged men doing bad things too. But I already knew that.

This is an adaptation of a novel. Perhaps the book explained it better.

Just been watching…(96)

Gangster Squad (2013)

***This is based on real events, so spoilers do not apply***

I am very late to this six-year old film. To be honest, I had little interest in it at the time, expecting it to be just another rehash of better gangster films I had seen previously. And it was exactly that, to some extent. However, great lighting, tight direction, and the borrowed theme of ‘The Magnificent Seven’, (that borrowed from ‘The Seven Samurai of course) allowed this more recent example to stand on its own in the genre.

Post-war Los Angeles, 1949. East Coast gangster, Mickey Cohen, (Sean Penn) has managed to take control of the city. He has corrupt police officers on his payroll, and bribed judges turning a blind eye to his rackets of gambling, drugs, and prostitution. It seems that this one criminal has swallowed the huge city whole, brutally resisting the infiltration of the Mafia, and other gangsters from the eastern parts of America. He is a man who deals out violence without thought, and is as tough on members of his own gang as he is on the innocents he preys upon.

But he has not reckoned with one incorruptible cop, Sgt O’Mara. (Josh Brolin) He is a war hero, and as tough as they come. Embarking on a one-man crusade, he determines to do what he can to disrupt Cohen’s criminal activities, having as much difficulty with his colleagues on the force as he does with the criminals. Seeing the men he arrests set free, and being warned not to to make waves, his frustration builds to boiling point. Along comes grizzled Police Chief, Bill Parker. (Nick Nolte) He recruits O’Mara into an undercover squad, and tells him to set up his own team. The rules of law will be ignored, and the new team will have one objective only, to destroy Cohen completely. With the help of his loyal and pregnant wife, O’Mara begins to choose the incorruptible men who will help him carry out the mission.

From there, the film follows the usual formula. Men are chosen for their skills, toughness, and the required racial mix. O’Mara sets out the rules, and in this case there are no rules. The team get to work busting gambling joints, clearing out dens of prostitution, and hijacking drug consignments. One of them, Jerry, (Ryan Gosling) even begins an affair with Cohen’s girlfriend. Very soon, a furious Cohen goes to great lengths to discover the identities of the team, determined to wipe them out. The scene is set for many shootouts, murders, and a thrilling race to the eventual climax.

As gangster films go, this is pretty good. It feels more like ‘The Untouchables’ in mood, rather that the gangster noirs of the past, like ‘Little Caesar’. Cast members take their roles seriously, with Brolin’s jaw set tight, and Nolte sounding as if he is gargling concrete. Even Gosling steps up, delivering a performance with much nuance. Scenes in nightclubs and the neon-lit streets of L.A. are mostly convincing, and there is no holding back on the violence necessary to defeat a criminal empire.

If you like films of this genre, you will probably enjoy this one.
And that makes it good enough for me.

Just been watching…(95)

Get Out (2017)
**No plot spoilers**

Courtesy of having Netflix, I got to watch this film tonight.

I want you to imagine you are cooking up something cinematic, according to a recipe.

Let’s start with the ingredients.
In a large bowl,
Splash in a nice slug of ‘Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner’ (1967).
Add just a pinch of ‘Meet The Parents’ (2000).
Stir in some essence of any ‘Two black guys in a buddy movie’.
Continue by folding in at least six ounces of ‘The Stepford Wives’ (1975).
Then reach for your box of ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ (1968), and add the whole contents.
Leave to set, and you have ‘Get Out’.

This film had good critical reception on release, and you can see why. A nice widescreen production, good lighting throughout, and even an occasional, “That made me jump!” moment. It starts off with a good-looking young couple in a modern loft-style apartment in the city. They are planning to take a trip. The reason is to spend the weekend at the house of the girl’s parents. But he is black, and wants to know if that will be an issue. She assures him it will not. He leaves his dog in the care of his fast-talking Transit Cop friend, and off they go.

As soon as they arrive, despite a warm welcome by her family, it is immediately apparent that something strange is going on. Both the gardener and house maid are black, but acting very strangely, almost like robots. Her mother turns out to be a hypnotherapist, and urges the young man to let her use her talents to help him to stop smoking. A brother arrives; manic, hyped-up, and keen to agitate his sister’s new boyfriend. Then there is the news that it is a special weekend, one when all the family friends will be arriving the next day, for the annual party. Walking around the house that night, our young hero bumps into the hypnotherapist, who invites him in for a chat. As they talk, she surreptitiously hypnotizes him.

And then the trouble really starts.

If you have seen most or all of the films I have mentioned in the ‘recipe’ above, then you would do well to give this film a wide berth. If not, then you may well find it refreshing, occasionally a little scary, and when the big (unsurprising) ‘reveal’ is finally revealed, you might even be shocked.
Or if you are me, you might have groaned, because it was so painfully obvious..

On the plus side, I didn’t hate it. The cast is good, and each one does their best with what’s on offer in the (sometimes laughable) script.

But come on, Mr film-maker, get that dictionary off the shelf.
Now turn to the letter ‘D’. Go down to ‘DER’.
Keep going until you find this word, then look at the meaning.

DERIVATIVE.

Here’s the trailer.

Just been watching…(94)

Anthropoid (2016)

In 1942, the Nazi SS ruler of Czechoslovakia, Reynard Heydrich, was killed in Prague, after an assassination by Czech soldiers who had been trained in Britain, and dropped back into the country by parachute. The outcome is a matter of historical record, so no spoilers apply here.

This is not the first film made about that event, (there have already been seven made) and I doubt it will be the last.

Heydrich had been in charge of the occupied country for some time, and his ruthless actions had earned him the name ‘The Butcher of Prague’. He had all but wiped out any resistance to German occupation by 1941, and the government in Britain was concerned that this potential ally would be removed from the equation. They came up with the plan to have him assassinated, hoping that the event, and the expected reprisals that followed, would turn the Czechs against Germany once and for all. They named the plan ‘Operation Anthropoid’, and dropped teams of soldiers close to Prague, with orders to contact the Resistance, and work out a plan to kill Heydrich.

This film is not only written and produced by Sean Ellis, but also filmed and directed by him too. So his mark is over the complete film, in every way. Added to that, the locations are completely authentic, not only shot in Prague, but also in the actual streets and corners where every incident actually took place. This gives the film an undeniably convincing feel, with period details complementing this too. That extends to the cast members, costume, and all the vehicles and street furniture.

The story plays out in real time on screen, with no need for flashbacks. (Or flash-forwards) Starting from the time the men parachute out of the plane, we follow them through tense encounters with collaborators, and fraught meetings with reluctant members of the Czech Resistance. They are aided and sheltered by sympathisers, two of whom provide some love interest for the leading male stars. Everyone looks and feels right, from the main protagonists, to the numerous German soldiers encountered throughout the film. The build up to the assassination is covered in satisfying detail, and the day of the event is incredibly tense, and handled with total realism.

Cast members include the ever reliable Cillian Murphy, and the solid Jamie Dornan. Toby Jones is as good as ever, as a weary resistance leader, and many of the other roles are wisely cast to be played by Czech actors. The German soldiers and Gestapo officers are suitably ruthless and brutal, and even crowd scenes and those in bars and cafes are well done, without the need to ‘over-stuff’ the screen. My one gripe might be that the Irish and British actors playing Czechs adopt a strange accent, but that was presumably necessary to fit in with the actors who had real ones. The Germans speak German, and where necessary, use a translator. That was a nice touch.

The film builds to the well-known climax as the team of agents are trapped inside a large church. And although I already knew what happened, it managed to keep the tension wound until those final moments. A good-looking, WW2-set film, that is much better than most of the other seven versions.