As he proved (yet again) in Spielberg’s unsurprisingly sentimental, but still eminently watchable, Cold War drama, Bridge Of Spies, Tom Hanks has long since become the all-purpose quiet hero of American cinema. From its dream-sequence start-up, that re-writes the intro for Talking Heads’ Once In A Lifetime (1980), A Hologram For The King is an offbeat comedy-drama, very much in the style of Coen brothers picture. The movie tackles a hurry-up-and-wait storyline as demoted salesman Alan (Hanks) visits a kingdom in Saudi Arabia, to present his company’s demo of holographic technology for the monarch’s use as over-ambitious teleconferencing suite.

Alan seems written like a failed middle-class liberal anybody, baffled but not offended by Arab culture’s alien weirdness, with all its crazily patriarchal, obsessively religious, dogmatically repressive paranoia that – in the region’s recent history – has resulted in distinctive detached realms of grossly obscene wealth and hellishly medieval poverty. Writer-director Tom Tykwer (adapting Dave Eggers’ novel) explores disruptive hassle and professional anxiety in Alan’s daily routine with grindingly farcical scenes where our American manager abroad faces the increasingly inconsequential nature of US influence, in new global structures of science and commerce under Chinese industrial dominance.

While the movie is not specifically pro-Muslim or anti-American, its notable lightness of touch is quite different to the scary changes in sociopolitical landscapes as depicted in Tykwer’s crime thriller The International (2009). Its comedy is broad enough to be almost crowd-pleasing, and includes a stereotypical but funny cameo by Tom Skerritt as Alan’s old crusty dad. What weakens the impact of its commentary upon the many troubling issues usually caused by middle-east politics/ culture/ religion all being the same thing, is that – following a romantic encounter with topless snorkeller Dr Hakim (Sarita Choudhury) – the storyline abandons any pretence at political relevance, dramatic resonance, or philosophical confrontation, and it lapses into a fairytale ending that is very disappointing although, of course, we are supposed to feel happy for the re-motivated Alan, who has found a new love and ‘won’ a fresh start in life.

Where the movie works, and does so quite splendidly, is the finale’s clever depiction of hologram tech as a shiny new toy; promoted by an American corporation as if it offers a time-saving and world-changing system enabling international business for the 21st century, even though it’s clearly and merely another gimmicky exercise in special effects. This delivers a savvy punch-line for that common joke that America is now a country with no future beyond trivial concerns.The film mainly focuses on how to take life as it comes to you and go by the tide. Their explanation about the life of the hero shows the twists and turns in one’s life. This is definitely a must watch in the list of good movies of the year.

Johnny Cool DVD

cast: Henry Silva, Elizabeth Montgomery, Telly Savalas, Sammy Davis Jr, and Elijah Cook

director: William Asher

103 minutes (NR) 1963

MGM DVD Region 2

RATING: 6/10

review by J.C. Hartley

Johnny Cool

I first saw this movie on late-night TV, probably sometime in the mid-1970s. Bizarrely, I remember it being in colour, despite not owning a colour set until 1995! I think it must be something to do with the sun-washed Hollywood locations. It stuck in my mind then and if it doesn’t quite live up to that memory it still holds a certain amount of interest.These locations are indeed awesome that urges us to visit them, at least, once in the lifetime! Perhaps, this option would have seemed impossible before the availability of the Bitcoin Loophole, the reliable crypto robot to invest in the cryptocurrency and make some fortune! But, now that it is available, visiting these places is on my to-do bucket list! Let’s talk about the movie now!

In wartime Sicily, a young boy rescues his mother from an assault by a German soldier by blowing him up with his own grenade. The boy’s victory is short-lived, however, as German troops shoot his mother before the boy is himself rescued by partisans. Fast-forward, and the child is now Salvatore Giordano (Henry Silva), a Sicilian Robin Hood, guest of honour at a local wedding, interviewed by the American media, before the Carabinieri gatecrash in a couple of helicopters. Wounded and captured by the military police, Giordano’s body is replaced by a disfigured corpse while he is spirited away to Rome.

In Rome, Giordano is given an offer he can’t refuse by exiled gangster Johnny Colini, alias ‘Johnny Cool’ (Marc Lawrence). Colini will groom Giordano in American cool, give him the inside straight on the Mob’s activities in the USA, and make him his heir. In return, Colini wants Giordano to travel to the ‘States and rub out his former associates who betrayed him.

Now in America, Giordano, calling himself Johnny Colini, introduces himself to the mob with some rough stuff in a drinking and dining club, used as a front by the gangland hierarchy. The new Johnny Cool also catches the attention of bored divorcee socialite Darien ‘Dare’ Guiness (Elizabeth Montgomery). Johnny gives the mob his ultimatum: total control of activities in the USA, otherwise his army will proceed with a series of assassinations. Johnny makes some time with Dare but is then invited to meet some of the mob while they check him out. Unfortunately for Dare, a couple of hoods are despatched to her apartment masquerading as cops to see what she knows about Johnny. Realising she knows nothing, the two toughs call in a report and are advised to use some ‘muscle’, and “leave her something to remember them by””; while the scene suggests she receives a beating the inference is obviously that she is raped.

Meanwhile, Johnny has got the drop on the mob during a crap game, holding a gun on ‘Educated’ (a cameo from Sammy Davis Jr, who also sings the theme and an incidental number), while he rolls the dice to clean them out. Leaving the club, Johnny overhears the two thugs who have attacked Dare gloating about their night. After discovering Dare in tears back at her apartment, Johnny returns to the club and stabs the hoods, mutilating the bodies in the Sicilian manner to indicate a revenge killing.

Johnny meets with the new mob boss Vince Santangelo (Telly Savalas) to lay down his ultimatum, total control of mob operations in the USA. Rebuffed, Johnny sets off across the ‘States, carrying out a wave of killings. Murdering Oscar Hinds (John McGiver) and Ben Morrow (Mort Sahl) in their casino, Johnny is taken aback when Morrow reveals that Colini promised him a share in his empire and that Colini is bound to betray Johnny. Morrow says that Johnny is merely Colini’s “delivery boy of death.” Johnny is ready to abandon the mission but an aroused Dare urges him to carry on and be a man, and the pair set off together to bring the plot to fruition.

Johnny kills Lennart Crandall (Brad Dexter) with explosives, then he and Dare split up while Johnny goes to execute Santangelo. Dare panics when her rented car is spotted by police, and accepts an invitation from some friends to spend the weekend partying on their yacht. Discovering that Crandall’s children narrowly avoided being killed in the explosion that killed their father, Dare gives the mob details of her rendezvous with Johnny before giving herself up to the FBI, telling them that she has killed Johnny. Johnny has shot Santangelo and keeps the appointment with Dare only to find the mob waiting for him. He is captured, strait-jacketed, and informed of the torture that awaits him to extract the details of mob activities that he was given by Colini.

A curiosity, the obvious parallel that Johnny Cool evokes is with John Boorman and Lee Marvin’s Point Blank of four years later. But, while Point Blank is cool, immersive, metaphoric, and mythic, with a killer colour palate, and clearly late 1960s, Johnny Cool is black and white, with one foot in the 1950s, hamstrung by the Hays code and trying to make amorality hip while saying that crime doesn’t pay. Having said all that, while Johnny Cool isn’t Kiss Me Deadly, it is slightly shocking with its automaton hero and Stockholm syndrome heroine embarking on a killing spree.

Some stuff, like the FBI briefing on mob activities seems added on, and the ending, with Johnny’s capture and imminent torture – while emphasising that he is to be paid back for his swathe of slaughter – rather puts the gang-bosses in the role of society’s judiciary, emphasised by their presentation of corporate respectability! Henry Silva comes on like Jack Palance junior; the very next year to this release, Elizabeth Montgomery would be Samantha in ABC’s Bewitched. Director William Asher was better known for the ‘beach party’ genre of teenage movies, often featuring Frankie Avalon. In fact, Johnny Cool appeared between Beach Party (1963), and Muscle Beach Party (1964).

Dead Or Alive is one of those films that features an unexpected ending you are so unprepared for that the only sane thing to do is immediately watch it all again from the start. This begins with a frantic montage of grossly violent and perverse imagery before settling down a bit, into a steady build up of familiar crime genre incidents exploring the deep-seated antagonism between corrupt cop Jojima (Sho Aikawa), and ambitious gangster Ryuichi (Riki Takeuchi).
Although the slickly edited, in-your-face opening sets the overall amoral tone for what follows, its sheer feverish quickening conflicts with the more stately pace of later dramatic scenes – to such an extent that it seems like an entirely different movie. (Imagine fast-cutting rock promo video footage preceding a tediously slow European art house flick!) Questions of its curiously unbalancing pace aside, this is a remarkably poetic visualisation of scenes from the proverbial urban hellhole.
Sometimes purposely blurry cinematography uses frequent handheld cameras to guide us through smoky nightclubs and claustrophobic alleys, where standard neighbourhood canvassing by detectives leads to the tiger-like fury of machine gun slaughter at a big deal-making feast for Chinese mafia and Yakuza chiefs. A slow motion Reservoir Dogs styled walkabout by armoured-car thieves, punctuated by sudden death, is admittedly clichéd, but you are likely to find the comedy scenes in a flood plain cemetery as compelling and unforgettable as visiting an eerie grey planet. Later on, the deliriously absurd comicbook style mayhem in the truly wild climax is such an abrupt change, from classic hoodlum antihero disorder – to the spectacular imagery of bizarre manga fantasy mania, the finale is magnificently transcendental.
As he proved, conclusively, with the mesmerising ending of Audition, young Japanese director Miike Takashi is no respecter of cinema’s narrative traditions, linear storytelling. To pigeonhole him as just another world cinema auteur is, of course, an unnecessarily restrictive label. This peculiar filmmaker is a genuine artist for the 21st century. Just when you think it’s all over – and you have sussed his latest play – Miike changes all the rules, the teams and playing field, restarts the game with new laws of physics, then reveals these characters are not ordinary men at all…
Already, there are two or three further Dead Or Alive films completed, and yet, avoiding movie world conventions yet again, these productions are ‘sequels’ only in title. They may have one or more of the same cast, but that’s all that links them to this fascinating triumph of aesthetic wit over unadventurous wisdom.
DVD extras: anamorphic widescreen transfer, Dolby digital sound in Japanese with English subtitles, text filmographies, interview with director, film notes by Chris Campion, trailer, Asia Extreme promo reel.

cast: Isabelle Huppert, Annie Girardot, and Benoit Magimel

director: Michael Haneke

125 minutes (18) 2001
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Artificial Eye DVD Region 2 retail
Also available to buy on video

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Gary Couzens

In Vienna, Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert) works as a piano teacher. Unmarried, she lives at home with her domineering mother (Annie Girardot). Outwardly, Erika is harsh and strict; but she has a secret. Erika’s darker side manifests itself in visits to porn shops, voyeurism. She meets a promising young student (Benoit Magimel) who attempts to seduce her, and they enter into a sadomasochistic affair.
The Piano Teacher was Michael Haneke’s second film to be released in Britain in 2001. Code Unknown used a deliberately fragmented structure and long takes to express his film of the interconnectedness of people and their responsibilities to each other. The Piano Teacher, based on a novel by Elfriede Jelinek (apparently largely autobiographical, which is disturbing news in itself), is much more classical in style, though as before it demands considerable input from the viewer: Haneke deliberately avoids making any comments on the film’s action,

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letting the audience judge for themselves. This detached style is matched by a brilliant, considerably risky performance by Huppert, who expresses considerable emotion with the minimum of facial expression. She deservedly won the Best Actress Award at Cannes for her performance here and should have had an Oscar nomination if the Academy were inclined to reward ‘controversial’ films. Since her breakthrough role in 1977’s The Lacemaker, Huppert has proved herself one of Europe’s finest, and most prolific, screen actresses.
Difficulty in interpretation is matched by difficulty in content – to be precise, many people will find much of this hard to watch. Haneke doesn’t spare us much: we see brief extracts from the hardcore porno loops Erika watches, and this progresses to her urinating in excitement as she spies on a couple making love at a drive-in cinema, to a seduction scene that takes place in a public toilet. Needless to say, this isn’t remotely suitable for children or anyone squeamish or easily offended, but none of it seems gratuitous: it seems impossible, but Haneke films his extreme material with some taste and discretion. Haneke remains one of the few European practitioners of the morally serious, challenging art movie, of which The Piano Teacher is very much an example. In an increasingly insular, not to mention dumbed-down, British film distribution environment, we need more films like this.
The Piano Teacher was shot with a mixed French and German/Austrian cast, speaking their own languages, and dubbed accordingly. As the three leads are French, we get the French language version (La pianiste) rather than the German one (Die Klavierspielerin), even if does give the odd result of Vienna being a Francophone city. There are two soundtracks, Dolby digital 5.1 and Dolby surround, with optional English subtitles.
DVD extras: interviews with Huppert, Haneke and Jelinek, a behind-the-scenes look at the film’s post-synchronisation session, and filmographies.

cast: David Boreanaz, Charisma Carpenter, Alexis Denisof, J. August Richards, and Amy Acker

created by Joss Whedon and David Greenwalt
917 minutes (15) 2001-2002
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
20th Century Fox DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Jeff Young

Without a doubt, Angel is the most surprising and consistently enjoyable fantasy TV show in production today. There are duff episodes, as with any long running serial, but the overall quality of scripting, performances by a highly talented cast playing well-rounded characters, varied locations shot with an avid sense of noir atmosphere, and general production values (with special regard to the sets and props, which are often superior to the show’s digital visuals and makeup effects) is exemplary. With this third season, the actors further develop their roles within the main group. In particular, stars David Boreanaz and Charisma Carpenter – as Angel and Cordelia – display an engaging and comfortable assurance during their lively banter, and within ensemble dialogues, that’s constructively reminiscent of the best ‘pre-romance’ TV couples. In particular, the relationship between Angel and Cordy is like the rapport between the stars of Moonlighting or The X-Files.
Characterisation aside, perhaps what Angel does best of all are the intriguing story arcs that span multiple episodes, or the full season. Featuring 22 episodes of approx 45 minutes each, this season involves the birth of Angel’s son, Conner (played in closing episodes by Vincent Kartheiser), the ultimate fate of Angel’s ex-lover, Darla (Julie Benz), the mysterious appearance of embittered and vengeful vampire hunter, Holtz (Keith Szarabajka, of Stephen King adaptation The Golden Years, 1991), fresh developments in the adversarial connection between Angel & Co. and their darkest enemies at devoutly evil law firm Wolfram & Hart, budding romance between the youthful supporting characters, and lots of mystical wonder and exciting action scenes, with or without assorted weapons. And, in fact, as far as the show’s crime fighting and monster slaying goes, Angel easily outdoes Buffy nowadays, to reign supreme as the best plain clothes’ superhero adventure on TV.
However, in spite of the elaborate telefantasy fun and games, and Dungeons & Dragons inspired role-playing (champion, seer, wizard, oracle, demon, etc) Angel still manages to create and explore a serious, philosophical side, which generates an edginess that every other comparable TV show lacks. Here, the show’s writers are not afraid to address issues of trust, freedom, honesty, conscience and mercy. Not to mention the changing nature of what is right and wrong, or good and evil, in a deeply troubled postmodern society where an individual’s sense of morality is just as much a handicap as a virtue. Any network TV series that questions the ‘humanity’ of contemporary America and, in doing so, critiques the global media establishment that has produced it, while examining such hot issues as parental responsibility and racial tolerance, in a refreshingly imaginative way, really does deserve wider attention and greater acclaim. If you have yet to catch Angel, here’s what to do about it – get thee hence to your chosen shopping site and order all three DVD or VHS box sets immediately. You will not be disappointed, and you can thank me later, okay?
The presentation has Dolby digital surround 2.0 sound, in English and French plus subtitles in seven languages. DVD package extras include featurettes Season Three Overview (30 minutes), Page To Screen (15 minutes), Darla: Deliver Us From Evil, plus an outtakes reel, trailers for both Angel and Buffy, screen tests for Amy Acker (who plays young physicist Fred, and is great as such a charmingly wacky character) and Vincent Kartheiser, and a stills gallery of approx 50 images. You also get commentary tracks on the episodes Billy, Lullaby, and the otherwise lacklustre Waiting In The Wings, and deleted scenes from Birthday and Waiting In The Wings with optional commentaries.

Back when the postwar monochrome had started to bleed into counter-culture Technicolour, back before VHS, before DVD, before LoveFilm, and Amazon, and TV on demand, back then the high school water-cooler moment, before high school water-coolers, was ‘did you see that film on the telly last night?’ And, with only three channels, the chance was the answer was ‘yes’.

In those days, films stayed on the theatrical circuit for much longer; I’m talking years. I think a film had to be at least six years old before it could be shown on television. Consequently, in the 1970s, when I started to take a more individual interest in television viewing, a host of films came onto television from the 1960s. I was able to enjoy films from the likes of Ken Loach, Richard Lester, Lindsay Anderson, Tony Richardson, Karel Reisz, Billy Wilder, Neil Simon, John Boorman, Ken Russell, Sam Peckinpah, Stanley Kubrick, and uncle Don Siegel et al. The BBC used to do ‘film seasons’ on specific directors and, because BBC 2 was a bit arty, there were the joys of foreign language films, the nouvelle vague, and all the glories of European cinema, introducing me to Truffaut, Fellini, Wim Wenders, Chabrol, LeLouch, Antonioni, and Bunuel.

The zeal of the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s meant that America’s loss was Europe, and particularly the UK’s, gain, as blacklisted writers and directors came over the Atlantic to find work in an industry less concerned with someone’s politics. Although never officially blacklisted, the director Joseph Losey made the trip to Britain and soon forged a prominent and successful career in the resurgent British film industry. In Annus Mirabilis, Philip Larkin noted that “Sexual intercourse began/ In nineteen sixty-three/ […] /Between the end of the ‘Chatterly’ ban/ And the Beatles’ first LP.”

Teamed with the playwright Harold Pinter, making his first forays into screen-writing, Losey made The Servant (1963), following it with Accident (1967), and The Go-Between (1971). He had already made the curious 1963 blend of social comment and science fiction thriller (These Are) The Damned, but a run of films, such as those with Pinter, and others like Secret Ceremony (1968), and the later The Romantic Englishwoman (1975), seemed to mark him as a director with a particular felicity in expressing the layered angst of class and sexual relationships. He also made the bonkers adaptation of Tennessee Williams (from Williams’ own screenplay) Boom (1968), with Richard Burton as the Angel of Death, and the great Noel Coward as the Witch of Capri. This overwrought drama is a guilty pleasure; Burton has a speech about something, which ends with the word ‘Boom’, the sound of the waves against Liz Taylor’s island fortress retreat, that I memorised in an attempt to perfect my Richard Burton impression. Although the films mentioned are marked by the microscopic scrutiny of sex, class, and gender, Losey also made the sparse blend of running and helicopter-porn that was 1970’s Figures In A Landscape.

In 1966, in the eye of the hurricane of British pop culture, Losey took the reins of Modesty Blaise, a film based upon Peter O’Donnell’s syndicated newspaper comic strip adventuress. It’s taken me a massive cultural digression to get to the meat of this review, and what can I say about this film? Back in school, after its airing on TV, I think I tried to enthuse, but I had been wrong-footed. Science fiction wasn’t such a big deal for me then, I had slipped into the espionage genre, and was reading Fleming, Le Carre, Len Deighton, and Alistair MacLean. Of course, post-Bond, the tendency had been to spoof the genre, as The Man From Uncle, The Avengers, and the Derek Flint films, all sought to offer spy-fi thrills with a knowing aside to meta-fiction.

Modesty Blaise came hot on the Cuban heels of the Beatles’ Help!, and seems to want to instil some of that hip camp tomfoolery to proceedings, while encouraging us to believe there is a plot of sorts. Sadly, the film tumbles between stools; it is neither thrilling nor very funny; but that is not to say it is completely devoid of charm. In order to secure its oil supplies from the Gulf, her majesty’s British government proposes to deposit a fortune in diamonds with friendly Sheikh Abu Tahir. The conundrum is how to get the gems to the Sheikh, while avoiding the attentions of super-criminal Gabriel?

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Well, given that the representatives of HMG meet with the Sheikh in his London hotel early in the film, the answer would appear to have been hand them to him in a box, however that would have severely curtailed the two hours running time. Hiring ex-criminal and international adventuress Modesty Blaise, after their man in Amsterdam has been blown up while on the trail of Gabriel, the British government in the person of their man Sir Gerald Tarrant employ a host of distraction techniques in order to deflect both Modesty and Gabriel’s attentions onto each other and away from the diamonds. Needless to say, no one is fooled and it is better to ignore the plot and enjoy the performances.

Standout turn is long-term Losey collaborator Dirk Bogarde as the blond-wigged Gabriel. Camp as a field full of girl guides, in an op-art monastery island lair, Gabriel agonises over the death of the family-man pilot in the shooting-down of the RAF jet supposedly carrying the diamonds, “Why can’t they ever be single?” Aided by his troubling female henchman Mrs Fothergill (Italian actress Rosella Falk), and his parsimonious aide McWhirter (Clive Revill in a double role; he also plays Abu Tahir), Gabriel seeks either to eliminate Modesty or draw her into an alliance. Harry Andrews plays Modesty’s controller Sir Gerald Tarrant with a fine disregard for the nonsense he has found himself in, and Michael Craig enjoys himself as British spook and Modesty’s love interest, as you would.

Modesty’s sidekick, reformed cockney crook Willie Garvin, is played by the great Terence Stamp, one of the triumvirate of pretty-boy English actors who came to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s, the others being David Hemmings, and Ian McShane. Still busy in major roles to this day, Stamp and McShane kept their looks and good billing while, arguably the prettiest of the three, Hemmings bizarrely blew up to the size of a barn, grew unkempt eyebrows, and ended up with paltry cameos in The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Vinnie Jones’ remake of The Mean Machine, before his untimely death in 2003. Having said that, Hemmings did have a parallel career as a TV director particularly on The A-Team, and Quantum Leap.

The star of Modesty Blaise, in her first English-language role, is Italian actress Monica Vitti (La Notte). What can you say? The camera loves her. Not conventionally beautiful, she is beautiful and flirtatious in this; for her serious acting go to the films she made with Antonioni, in fact if only they could have got him on board for Modesty Blaise, as he was no stranger to the unconventional thriller. O’Donnell wrote a screenplay for the film but it was almost totally abandoned in the rewrites by Losey and his collaborator. O’Donnell claims only one line survived. O’Donnell did have something of the last laugh, as he produced a novelisation of the screenplay, the success of which encouraged him to write a further series of best-selling Modesty novels.

In a couple of instances in the film, O’Donnell and artist Jim Holdaway’s comic-strip appears, and blonde Monica Vitti dons a brunette wig and Modesty’s tight-fitting black clothes, adopting the Modesty persona like a superhero’s secret identity. Willie Garvin and Modesty even have a song, in which they consider the fact that in all their adventures they have never found the time to hop into bed with one another. Such pop sensibility sits uncomfortably at times with the film’s attempts to be an adventure story, as there are deaths by strangulation, by stabbing, and a hanging. If you want to see how to do this sort of thing better watch Mario Bava’s Danger: Diabolik, made a couple of years later.

Still, despite my considerable reservations, and despite the fact I would not rush to watch this again, I feel it says something about the times, and it does not diminish the stature of O’Donnell’s creation of Modesty Blaise. There have been a couple of more attempts to bring the divine Modesty to the screen, an Americanised TV pilot starring Ann Turkel in 1982, and the Tarantino produced direct-to-DVD My Name Is Modesty in 2003. It seems she may be one of those characters who defy successful adaptation, but arguably Modesty Blaise was a reference point for Lara Croft, although clearly the same proscription applies. I am now waiting for the release of a re-mastered DVD of that other cult phenomenon, fumbled in its cinematic execution, Robert Fuest’s 1973 take on Jerry Cornelius in The Final Programme.

The BAFTAs and the Oscars
have already been and gone.
However, if you need a strong
film fix, don’t despair as the
European Film Academy awards
are still to come. This year it will
feature in Wroclaw, Poland, in
December. The ceremony is
streamed live every year but if
you really are a film fanatic and
plan on heading over to Poland
don’t forget to ensure you get
your E111 card and your
passport sorted before you go.
Every year, the European Film
Academy celebrates a total of 22
categories which include
European film, European
director, European actress and
actor, the biggest award
supports the greatest
achievements in European
cinema. The nominations for the
award will be announced in
November but we have made a
list of the best European
independent movies of 2016, so
far, which could feature on the
nomination list – watch this
space.
Vanitas
Oscar Spierenburg’s drama has
already won the best European
independent dramatic feature at
the ECU Film Festival and it has
a good chance of winning other
awards this year too. It is a
gripping fiction film
commenting on the modern artworld,
and the film addresses
how important it is to know
what is authentic and what is
fake, what is real or unreal. The
film centres on a young woman,
who has followed in her father’s
footsteps as an art-restorer and
is then confronted with the
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forging of masterpieces. With
her discovery she goes about
finding the truth surrounding
the world of art, something she
once adored.
The Session
This short film is directed by
Edouard de La Poeze, and it
portrays Paris in 1988. It
features Fanny Ardant as the
Countess of Castiglione who
requests her favourite
photographer to create her last
portrait. Throughout the session
the two are closely watched by
the aristocrat’s servants, and the
session then proves to be far
more disturbing than ever
expected.
Refugees
This gripping experimental film
is directed by Eduardo
Hernandez Perez and Hans Jaap
Melissen. The film comments on
the largest forced migration
since the Second World War,
and places it in a unique
perspective. Real life drama is
incorporated and portrayed in
revolutionary and astonishing
virtual reality images.
Dennis Rodman’s Big
Bang In Pyong Yang
This film directed by Colin
Offland follows Dennis Rodman
who is on a mission. He has an
unlikely friendship with North
Korean leader Kin Jong-un and
wants to improve the relations
between North Korea and the
US. He does this by creating a
historic basketball game
between the two countries. It
then follows the story of what
happened when Dennis Rodman
took a team of former NBA
players to North Korea. It’s a
strange film but a strong
contender.
The Chicken
Directed by Una Gunjak, this
short fiction drama centres on a
young girl who receives a live
chicken for her sixth birthday.
After realising the creature is
going to be killed to feed her
family, she sets it free. She then
suffers dangerous consequences
for her actions. Although this
film was initially released in
2014, it will be released to a
wider audience this year so still
counts as 2016.

Reportedly the
most expensive
media production
in Norway’s
history,
Occupied (aka:
Okkupert) is a TV
series of ten
episodes, each
one taking place
in a narrative of
consecutive
months. It’s shot
mostly in
Norwegian, but
with some English
dialogue.
At a new thorium
power station,
designed to
replace oil as a
viable alternative
to the near
future’s climatechange
problems
and solve the
global energy
crisis, the Green
Party’s Prime
Minister Jesper
Berg (Henrik
Mestad) is briefly
kidnapped to
warn him of the
European Union’s
backing for a
Russian-led
invasion of his
nation by
countries
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unwilling to shake
off their
dependency on
fossil fuels. Soon,
PM Berg
surrenders his
executive power
to spare the
Norwegian people
the certainty of
death and
bloodshed if their
armed forces
provoke a conflict
over national
security and selfdefence
issues.
Police bodyguard
Djupvik (Eldar
Skar, in his first
starring role)
heroically chases
the hijacked
helicopter to save
Berg, and his
promotion to
investigator
means a rapid rise
so he becomes
involved in highlevel
situations,
like a
Scandinavian
Jack Bauer, that
include
assassination
plots and an
inevitable
Norwegian
resistance
conspiracy. Sadly,
Occupied lacks
the tremendous
pace or energy of
24, trying for
brooding
atmosphere and
slow-burning
tensions instead
of action setpieces
with a
more leisurely
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story-arc that
runs for nine
months.
As has often been
observed,
international law
only exists in law
books.

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The basic
idea here is a
genre notion, but
Occupied is not
particularly
science fictional
although it’s a
futuristic,
speculative drama
trading upon
Norge fears of
Putin’s
aggression, while
the TV show itself
prompted outrage
in Moscow.
There’s a doomed
reporter who is
desperate for
scandal and
notoriety as he
struggles to
uncover state
secrets of
euphemistic
‘European
disaster relief’
efforts by
Russians, and
Occupied explores
many of the
fourth estate’s
ethical concerns
(“The Russians
have eliminated
journalists
before”)
previously
charted by
investigative
news-hounds in
Scandi-noir
movies like the
successful trilogy
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that started with
The Girl With The
Dragon Tattoo.
Unfortunately,
this is drama that
lapses into
sentimental soap
opera routines of
domestic strife,
family problems,
and health
worries, so it
rarely misses an
opportunity for
hand-wringing
with optional
hankies.
Even when the
plot diversions
are mere sundry
crimes, it affects
the main
characters, with a
grim inevitably, as
if for the sake of
giving them all
something else to
do during the
unfolding
situation’s bigger
picture of
realpolitik – in
which, of course,
they are so often
otherwise
technically or
actually quite
powerless. As the
solemn Berg’s
earnest leadership
falters, a coup
seems likely, and
challenges to his
comprised
authority are
certain when the
social contract is
so obviously
broken, with a
progressive
democracy of
environmentalism
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crushed between
train-wreck
collision and a
collusion of
greedy
international
capitalism and
myopic Euronationalism.
An extradition
order for a
Chechen terrorist,
and other
destablising
actions, continue
and escalate a war
of nerves between
Berg and his far
mightier
opponents, led by
Russian
ambassador
Sidorva
(winningly
portrayed by
Ingeborga
Dapkunaite, who
played Lecter’s
mother in that
prequel movie
Hannibal Rising).
Dim-witted ‘Free
Norway’ terrorists
claim to believe
that car bombs
create hope not
fear.
Noisy street
protests in August
become a violent
riot in September
as, for both major
and minor
characters in this
impending
tragedy, questions
of ultimate loyalty
lead official
gamblers to
further personal
confrontations
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when a diplomatic
solution looks
impossible
without American
participation.
With another
hostage crisis
looming for the
beleaguered Berg,
events lurch
towards the chilly
December climax
in a two-part
finale. So, the
only vital
question
remaining is: “are
you ready to fight
for your country?”

Long before Christopher Ray’s Mercenaries
(2014) – an imitative movie that almost revived
the careers of Brigitte Nielsen and Cynthia
Rothrock, and tried hard to beat Sylvester
Stallone’s vanity ensemble franchise The
Expendables at their own game – Hired To
Kill was also a formidable mash-up of British
movie Wild Geese (1978), and German
exploitation flick Jungle Warriors (1984).
Frank (Brian Thompson, perhaps best known
for playing an alien bounty hunter on The XFiles)
assembles a team of women for a
Mediterranean ‘mission: impossible’, where
they are glamorous enough pose as fashion
models before going full tactical on location.
Their task is a jail-break, intended to free a
revolutionary leader named the Brother (Jose
Ferrer, the Emperor in Dune), but does the
local rebellion really need a martyr?
George Kennedy is the big boss of this
enterprise, smartly suited, and gentlemanly, if
only in the manner of a corporate Bond villain.
Oliver Reed is the chief villain Bartos, toasting
“the new magnificent seven,” molesting his motherless trophy-daughter and, in one
notorious scene, snogging the hero. It’s just the
kind of cheesy action movie so effectively
parodied by Andy Sidaris, and it’s pretty good
fun, overall.
Beautifully restored for its blu-ray debut, the hidef
picture and sound quality on this disc are
quite superb. In the extras, the director gives us
the full story of how a tragic helicopter crash –
that occurred during filming on location in
Corfu – almost killed his latest production.
There’s also a new interview (17 minutes) with
star Thompson.

I hate to be
judgemental but I
hated this film.

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After about an
hour, I was
thinking ‘this is
the worst film I
have ever seen.’
Not worst as in
Mrs Henderson
Presents (2005),
or that other one
my late Mum
asked me to take
her to, or
Matthew
Vaughan’s
Kingsman: The
Secret Service
(2014), but just
really bad when I
had such high
hopes.
It seems
appropriate to
note here that
many
commentators
consider this to
be some kind of
masterpiece. The
trailer, included
as part of the
extras package,
includes a
selection of
quotations ripe
with fulsome
praise: ‘jawdropping’
comes
to mind. Peter
Bradshaw in The
Guardian gave it
five stars, made it
his film of the
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14
2015 2016 2017
2 captures
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14 Apr 2016 – 18 Mar 2017 ▾ About this capture
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week, and
awarded epithets
such as ‘aweinspiring’
and
“beautiful,
brilliant and
bizarre.” When I
watched it I
thought, ‘this has
all the shit from
Jabberwocky and
none of the jokes.’
Shit is the least of
it. There’s shit,
piss, snot, blood,
puke, and
entrails. If we
needed
confirmation of
the noisome
nature of the
medieval world of
Hard To Be A
God (aka:
Trudno byt
bogom), the cast
are perpetually
smelling things –
food, mud, faeces,
clothes, each
other, and then
announcing them
to be ‘stinky’.
After about two
hours I was
pleading for the
film to ‘just end’,
beyond that I
passed into the
sort of quiescent
state Daniel
Craig’s James
Bond achieves in
Casino Royale
(2006), after
having his
testicles lashed to
a pulp. I had
finally become
immersed in what
we are told was
director Aleksei
German’s
ambition, to
provide an
immersive
experience. Then
I watched the
extras.
I have a problem
visiting art
galleries. I
consider myself
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to be visually
literate, I can
respond to
pictures and
images on their
own terms, but I
come from a print
culture; I have to
read the label.
Some images I
can enjoy for
their own sake, I
responded
immediately the
first time I saw
works by Dali,
Miro, Magritte,
Max Ernst, and
Kazimir
Malevich; other
times I have had
to read the label.
That always
bothered me;
shouldn’t an
image, as art,
work on its own
terms? If you
have to read the
label, to have that
‘ah, now I see’
moment, hasn’t
the art and the
artist failed? I
didn’t anticipate
an epiphanic
revelation
watching the
extras package to
Hard To Be A
God, and I’m
pleased to say I
didn’t have one,
but I did feel I
had a better
understanding of
what German was
attempting to
achieve, even if I
remained
sceptical about
the merit of the
enterprise or its
realisation.
The kingdom of
Arkaner exists on
a planet not
unlike Earth, but
while Earth
society has
advanced,
Arkaner is stuck
in the middleages,
a
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renaissance has
been stalled, and
an oppressive
regime is
interring and
slaughtering
intellectuals or
‘smartarses’. The
medieval society
depicted is not
contained within
a Hollywood
image of ‘Merrie
England’, bosky
parkland
interrupted by
thriving market
towns and
dominated by
noble castles, it
exists in a rainsoaked
mire
where the
grotesque
inhabitants wade
through shit,
inflicting various
degrees of
violence upon
each other. A
couple of dozen
Earth scientists
are in situ,
observing the lack
of progress and
reporting back to
their home
planet, an early
image viewed
through a circular
lens suggests that
what we see is
being filmed, and
presumably
broadcast back to
Earth. Embedded
within this
society, and
posing as a local
feudal baron, is
Don Rumata
(Leonid
Yarmolnik), an
Earthman who
has gone native.
Unassailable, due
to his fighting
skills and his
adopted status as
the descendent of
a god, he
attempts to
assuage some of
the perse
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and brutality
within Arkaner by
protecting
scholars and
offering them
sanctuary. A brief
narrated
exposition, which
director German
was reluctant to
include, sets the
scene, but, it has
to be stressed,
nothing which
occurs on screen
is clear or
obvious,
relationships are
obscure and
narrative
progression
excursive to say
the least.
Hard To Be A
God is based on
Arkady and Boris
Strugatsky’s 1964
novel, set in their
‘Noon Universe’,
a utopian society
which imagines
the victory of
communism on
Earth and the
elimination of
most social evils
through
technology and
moral evolution.
Less-enlightened
worlds are
‘progressed’
through gentle
intervention,
although such
intervention is
seen as highly
controversial.
Iain M. Banks’
‘Culture’ novels
seem an obvious
successor. The
Strugatskys,
along with the
Polish author
Stanislaw Lem,
are probably the
best known of
Soviet bloc
science fiction
writers, thanks to
their
championing in
the west by the
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likes of Theodore
Sturgeon,
influential film
versions of their
famous works,
and the sheer
quality of their
output.
Soviet science
fiction has always
had a certain
cachet, perhaps
derived from the
reasonable
assumption in the
west that it was a
literature of
resistance,
smuggling
libertarian ideals
and oppositional
politics, under
the guise of
fantasy, within a
society marked by
oppression and
curtailments on
free speech.
Russian literature
has a history of
influence in the
west, the ‘Golden
Age’ in the 19th
century saw the
likes of Turgenev,
Chekhov,
Dostoyevsky, and
others, having a
profound effect
on nascent
literary
modernism in
England and
Europe (although
the exiled Ezra
Pound apparently
admitted to
Hemingway in
Paris that he had
never read the
‘Rooshians’).
Russian literature
seems to fully
embrace the
speculation and
fantasy that
typifies romance
writing, “fiction
that owes no
allegiance to The
God of Things as
They Are” as
Ambrose Bierce
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defined it in his
Devil’s
Dictionary in
1911. The whole
Russian
experience seems
to have entranced
the European
intelligentsia, an
image of Russia
and the Russian
people as
somehow in tune
with a spiritual
mystical world
denied to the
materialistic
west. Of course
one can be overly
romantic, “if you
are going to tell
me that any
aspect of Russia
psychological,
mystical,
practical, or
commercial seen
through an
English medium
is either Russia as
she really is or
Russia as
Russians see her,
I say to you,
without
hesitation, that
you don’t know of
what you are
talking”, as Hugh
Walpole put it in
his novel The
Secret City
(1919).
The Strugatsky
brothers’
Roadside Picnic
is my favourite SF
novel. It appealed
to me because it
seemed to deal
with the concept
of the ‘alien’ in a
new way. An
awful lot of
science fiction
takes the ‘man in
a reptile suit’
approach to
presenting alien
life, that’s
understandable,
how do you
imagine, let alone
describe,
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something which
is unfamiliar or
unknown?
Roadside Picnic
postulated the
impact on our
society of the
casual discovery
of alien artefacts,
explained
throu
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beauty, a
particular scene
in Stalker used to
pop into my head
like an oneiric
flashback
whenever I
jogged up a lane
which regularly
flooded with runoff
water from
surrounding
fields.
Tarkovsky and
German shared a
mutual respect,
although
German’s hyperrealism
seems a
world away from
Tarkovsky’s
romanticism.
German’s early
films, pre-Hard
To Be A God,
were set in the
Stalinist era. An
earlier attempt to
film Hard To Be
A God was
stalled, as it
coincided with
the Soviet
invasion of
Czechoslovakia.
In fact, the
depiction of a
society in which a
hoped for
renaissance has
been replaced by
state terror, and
the internment of
intellectuals,
seems pertinent
to the early
decades of postrevolutionary
Russia.
Tarkovsky’s
Mirror (1975)
also deals with
incidents of
Stalinist terror
but in an elliptical
way. While
Tarkovsky was
clearly an
influence on
German, the
latter’s debt to
Fellini is clear in
his busy mise en
scene.
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In the first film in
the extras
package,
German’s wife
and collaborator
Svetlana
Karmalita
explains
something of his
technique. She
concedes that it is
hard to follow
which characters
are talking in
Hard To Be A
God, a deliberate
policy derived
from an edit on
Trial On The
Road (1971), in
which the camera
focuses on the
non-speaker in
order for the
viewer to gauge
his reaction to
off-screen
dialogue. In fact
this technique, in
which the speaker
is obscured, and
the mise en scene
is fouled by
obstructions,
hands, weapons,
serving-vessels,
and flowers, and
we struggle to
attach the
random names
we hear to
particular
characters, has an
alienating effect
which evokes
Brecht, except
that German’s
avowed intent is
to immerse the
viewer in the
hyperrealism of
the world of
Arkaner, not to
emphasise the
theatrical
unreality of the
staging. Bizarrely,
I was reminded at
times of John
Boorman’s
attempt at a late
British nouvelle
vague, in his film
Leo The Last
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(1970).
German’s filming
of Hard To Be A
God took six
years, from 2000
to 2006, the
lengthy editing
and postproduction
outlasted the
director, and the
film was
completed by his
widow Carmelita,
and their son
Aleksei German
Jr, a noted
director in his
own right. The
extras package
includes an
interview with
German Jr about
his father’s work,
and Hard To Be
A God in
particular.
Michael Brooke
reviews German’s
career in The
Unknown Genius
as part of the
extras package on
the blu-ray.
In The History Of
The Arkaner
Massacre, again
among the extras,
Daniel Bird
provides an
explanation of the
film which, it has
to be said, owes
more to a
familiarity with
the source
material than
anything which
could be derived
from a viewing of
the film itself.
Bird also provides
an introduction
to science fiction
for SF virgins, in
which he
distinguishes
between ‘hard’,
physics-based
science fiction, a
term he doesn’t
actually use, and
sociological or
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psychological
‘soft’ science
fiction. Bizarrely,
he cites Carl
Sagan as an
exemplar of a
hard science
fiction writer.
Bird sees
German’s film as
fulfilling
Bakhtin’s notion
of ‘carnival’
whereby the
established order
is overturned; in
fact I think Bird
misinterprets
Bakhtin in
relation to Hard
To Be A God,
there is little in
the way of satire
or anarchy,
although there is
a Rabelaisian
emphasis on
scatology. The
irony within the
Strugatskys novel
is that the avatars
of the
communistic
state of the Noon
Universe must
become members
of a bourgeois
hierarchy to
function in the
primitive worlds
they investigate.
Driven to
distraction by the
cruelty he
witnesses Don
Rumata
eventually
interferes in the
world of Arkaner.
He quotes Boris
Pasternak’s poem
Hamlet, and
Hamlet is clearly
a reference point.
The Prince of
Denmark,
informed by the
ghost of his dead
father that his
uncle is guilty of
his murder, is set
on a process of
revenge, but he
hesitates. The
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hesitation in
Shakespeare’s
Hamlet provides
the drama. In
Hard To Be A
God, Don Rumata
hesitates,
hamstrung by the
non-interference
policy of his
Earth culture.
Unfortunately
there is little or
no drama, the
only signifier of
tension is in the
verbalisation of
the dilemma; the
quandary of nonintervention
in
the face of
atrocity and
injustice has been
better portrayed
in episodes of
Star Trek dealing
with the
Federation’s
Prime Directive.
In Hard To Be A
God, a force
known as the
Greys commit
atrocities until
they are replaced
by an invading
force known as
the Blacks, who
are equally cruel.
Rumata explains
that any
intervention he
makes will, by
removing one
generation of
tyrants, simply
clear the way for
another set of
despots.
Ultimately,
Rumata does act,
although we are
denied witnessing
the massacre of
Arkaner we see
its aftermath.
Overlong and
ultimately
pretentious; I’m
reluctant to fall
into a trap of
hating what I
don’t understand;
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my late Mother,
confronted by
something on
television that
disturbed her,
would respond by
condemning
these ‘so-called
intellectuals’. I’m
not averse to
witnessing the
messy underbelly
of life, and I’m all
for challenges to
traditional
narrative, but this
film left me cold.
An earlier version
from 1989 is
described as a
poor man’s Dune,
although the
screenplay was by
the great JeanClaude
Carriere;
I’d quite like to
see it. Although I
bridled having to
sit through the
extras, I found
them informative,
and German’s
1998 film
Khrustalyov, My
Car! sounds like
something I’d like
to see; so not a
complete waste of
time.