Mike Leigh – what can be said about this unique director renowned for his semi-scripted, semi-adlibbed films? That’s what I thought before watching this, his latest effort. Having recently watched (again) his wonderful early pieces Abigail’s Party and Nuts In May, I was feeling very generous towards him and this movie. The trouble is I had forgotten all those films in-between.

Gradually, the gentle, yet piercing, satirical observations of what are, basically, rather sad yet optimistic people has given way to emphasising how utterly horrible life can be – if you let it. The wonderfully na�ve Candice-Marie in Nuts In May has morphed into the �ber-miserable Mary in this film. No doubt Mike Leigh has his reasons for going in this direction but I find the unrelenting, depressive misery of Another Year too much to take. There seem to be no redeeming features in this film and the element of satire seems to have disappeared altogether.

The overall tone of the film is set in the first few minutes where we see depressed Janet (Imelda Staunton) looking completely wretched and desolate when trying to prise a few sleeping tablets from her GP. We then move into the story, except that Mike Leigh doesn’t really ‘do plot’ which curiously, and to me to no good purpose, is split into four chapters: spring, summer, autumn, and winter.

Mary (Lesley Manville) is a secretary at the GP’s surgery, and Gerri (Ruth Sheen), an attached counsellor, is her friend and, we discover, a quite frequent visitor to Gerri’s house, which she shares with husband Tom (Jim Broadbent). A second curiosity: why give this couple the names Tom and Gerri? No reason at all to me and just rather silly. Said Tom and Gerri are an over-smug couple living in apparent bliss (but who knows!) spending time on their allotment producing vegetables to be eaten when entertaining their little group of misery-gut visitors.

Of course, despite early light-heartedness from Mary, she soon slides into a display of manic unhappiness based on her inability to land a man. Not too surprising, if you ask me. Another frequent guest is her male counterpart Ken (Peter Wright) an overweight, alcoholic smoker, also searching for a mate and (again not surprisingly) failing to find one. Need I go on? I don’t really want to mention the virtually non-communicative widowed brother of Tom – but he’s another one. Join the gang.

All the time we are asked to contrast these unfortunates with the wonderfully content Tom and Gerri and, later on, their son Joe (Oliver Maltman) and new girlfriend Katie (Karina Fernandez). So the chapters unfold with the seasons passing and misery increasing, if that is possible. What can I say: for, me unrelenting gloom for two hours and to what end. Yes, some people are happier than others; yes, a partner can make a difference; and, yes, self-pity is a killer. Not much of a revelation that.

Acting wise, Lesley Manville is the obvious star, pulling-out all the stops and then even more (some might think rather too many) as she descends into the slough of despair. All in all, not a pretty sight and not the way I want to spend two hours watching it. On the basis of this showing, we should all feel for Mike Leigh.

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.

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.

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).

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, 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?

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.

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.

cast: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist, and Austin Stowell

director: Damien Chazelle

106 minutes (15) 2014
widescreen ratio 2.40:1
Sony DVD Region 2

RATING: 6/10
review by Andrew Darlington

Whiplash

Albert Ayler called music “the healing force of the universe.” That it can be destructive to individual lives is also part of its mythic lure. This is a jazz film. There haven’t been too many great jazz films recently, not since maybe Clint Eastwood’s Bird (1988). The TV series Fame (1982-7) follows the rise of students at the fictional ‘New York City High School For The Performing Arts’. This film, following the fall semester of jazz music students, is set in the ‘Shaffer Conservatory Of Music’ supposedly in New York, but actually filmed in Los Angeles, with some financial support from the Sundance Institute. Although set in the ballet world, Black Swan (2010) shows how Natalie Portman’s character Nina is driven to the physical and psychological limits in the quest for an impossible ideal of artistic perfection. Whiplash is all these things, sometimes more and sometimes less. And it’s a beautifully intense study of extremes.

It’s both jazz-smart, and cine-literate. When 19-year-old aspirant drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) goes to the movies with his Pennington High School writer/ teacher father (Paul Reiser) there’s Rififi on the hoarding, the 1955 French noir film directed by blacklisted émigré filmmaker Jules Dassin. When the Conservatory band takes the stage to play the Overbrook jazz competition they feature Duke Ellington’s 1936 standard Caravan (also featured in two Woody Allen films!). There’s Stan Getz on the soundtrack too. But Andrew’s particular hero is Buddy Rich, he has his inspirational monochrome Birdland photo tacked to his wall. Plus the drummer’s adage “If you don’t have ability you wind up playing in a rock band.” Rich didn’t have much time for rock ‘n’ roll. Jazz is the superior art form. It demands an intimidating level of dexterity.

When his father advises “When you get to my age you get perspective,” Andrew responds “I don’t want perspective.” Perspective is for wimps. He’s intent on taking it all the way. He fancies Nicole (Melissa Benoist) who works the cinema popcorn concession. But when he takes her out for a pizza he’s concentrating more on the jazz background music than he is on her. And when their dating threatens to detract from his rehearsals he ‘breaks it off clean’ to better concentrate on his drums. He has a path. He’s going to be great. He has bigger things to pursue.

But the real axis of the film pivots on Neiman and charismatic hard-line tutor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). The teacher-conductor humiliates and bullies, using racist and homophobic jibes to provoke and antagonise, he hurls a chair at Neiman’s head, and slaps his face. “This is not your boyfriend’s dick,” he taunts, “don’t come early.” He reduces an out-of-tune horn-player to tears, calling him ‘Elmer Fudd’. Neiman practices until his hands are raw and the tympani is blood-spattered, plunging bleeding hands into an ice-bucket. Then, when Fletcher’s former protégé dies – supposedly in an auto-accident, it later emerges that no, it was due to “anxiety and depression driven to suicide,” caused by Fletcher’s extreme methods. There’s a hearing in which Neiman gives supposedly confidential evidence.

Dismissed from Shaffer for physically attacking Fletcher, he dumps his Buddy Rich poster, and neglects his drums. Should he phone Nicole? When he does it’s too late, she’s got a new boyfriend. Then by chance he sees that ‘Nowells Live Jazz Bar’ is featuring Terence Fletcher’s piano trio. He sneaks in to watch the set. Afterwards, they talk, in a seeming human reconciliation. Fletcher admits to “pushing people beyond what’s expected,” but tells an anecdote about drummer Jo Jones hurling a cymbal at a teenage Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker, galvanising him to genius. “The truth is, I never had a Charlie Parker. But I tried. I actually fucking tried. And I will never apologise for how I tried.” And, as a parting shot, Fletcher offers him the drum-chair of his group at the upcoming JVC festival. But there are more twists, betrayals, and treachery to come in the climatic performance, with an extended drum solo to ignite it all.

This is a jazz film. There are solid music sequences, a three-cornered drum-duel taken ‘faster-faster-faster.’ It helps if you’re into that kind of thing. Jazz bible Downbeat didn’t like it, tearing apart its ‘unrealistic depiction,’ its historical and technical inaccuracies. I suspect they were being a mite too partisan, for Teller’s Neiman is convincing, and Simmons is impressively intense as the driven Fletcher. And even as a low-key indie project this film works as a beautifully intense study of extremes.

cast: Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel, Danny Huston, Paul Giamatti, and Kodi Smit-McPhee

director: Ari Folman

123 minutes (15) 2013
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Studio Canal DVD Region 2

RATING: 7/10
review by Jonathan McCalmont

The Congress

Ari Folman’s debut feature Waltz With Bashir was a glorious mess. Ostensibly an animated documentary about Folman’s experiences as a soldier in the 1982 Lebanon War, the film rapidly comes to focus upon Folman’s attempts to come to terms with the fact that his only memory of the war is of an event that could never have taken place. A flawed psychological detective story that starts to flinch and deflect the closer it gets to the possibility that Folman might have repressed memories relating to the Sabra and Shatila massacre, Waltz With Bashir uses a variety of more-or-less realistic animation techniques to muddy the boundaries between truth and memory, resulting in an almost perfect recreation of the ambiguous shadows that most of us call memory. Folman’s second film The Congress finds him revisiting blurred realities with the help of animation but, while this very loose adaptation of a Stanislaw Lem novel is certainly ambitious and technically impressive, it replaces the messy humanity of Waltz With Bashir with a meta-fictional cleverness that is just a little bit too intense for its own good.

The Congress is one of the most densely-made films that you are ever likely to encounter; every detail of the plot, characters, cinematography and art direction serves a deeper purpose and these currents of purpose draw you away from the story and towards the film’s sustained critique of Hollywood filmmaking. The film’s mechanical efficiency is evident from the very first scene, a beautifully rendered family portrait in which Robin Wright plays a fictionalised version of herself who is a devoted mother to both a spunky teenaged girl named Sarah (Sami Gayle), and an endearingly tragic and glider-obsessed little boy named Aaron (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Aside from charging the film’s emotional batteries by establishing Robin as a devoted mother facing the possibility of watching her own son go blind and deaf, this opening scene is also packed with a dense thicket of cinematic references designed to position The Congress in the same mind-bending territory as Being John Malkovich and Synecdoche, New York.

Usually, whenever critics start writing about films in purely mechanical terms (’emotional batteries’) it means that those mechanical systems failed to work. Films we like are deeply moving whereas films we don’t like are cynical and manipulative. The Congress serves as an interesting counter-example to this rule as while the film is undoubtedly cynical and manipulative, it is self-aware about these characteristics and uses them as part of Folman’s critique of contemporary Hollywood.

The plot kicks off when Robin asks her agent Al (Harvey Keitel) to approach the studios in search of a proper paycheque. Al dutifully returns with a generous offer but the offer involves Robin giving up acting for at least 20 years. The problem is that it has been decades since Robin turned heads in The Princess Bride and Forrest Gump, and her track-record of walking off sets, refusing to do PR and turning down offers at the last minute means that the studios are reluctant to work with her again. However, while the studios do not want to work with Robin, they recognise both her reputation and her skill as an actress. In an effort to square the circle, the studios offer Robin a contract that will allow them to create a digital version of Robin Wright who will appear in every film, TV series, advert, and PR stunt the studios desire. Part of the scanning process involves Robin Wright standing in a high-tech motion capture suite laughing and weeping as Al describes how he first became an agent at the age of ten and how much sadness he felt every time Robin’s fears got in the way of her becoming a star. As powerful and affecting as this image may be, it also serves to draw us away from the plot and towards the suggestion that Hollywood is a cynical institution that mirrors human emotion only to then exploit it for commercial ends. As Al shouts at Robin when she proves reluctant to sign the deal: You have always been their puppet!

The second act opens 20 years later as an elegant older Robin drives across the desert on her way to re-negotiating her contract at a studio-owned hotel. Arriving at a checkpoint in the middle of the desert, Robin is informed that the hotel is situated in an Animated Zone and that she will need to imbibe some chemicals in order to visit it. The Animated Zone is another piece of thematic signalling as it references Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, but while Zemeckis’ Toontown was a place in the real world inhabited by animated characters, and threatened by a heartless corporation trying to impose economic reality upon a magical kingdom, Folman’s Animated Zone is a chemically-induced virtual reality built and operated by the corporations with the intention of having it replace reality.

The Congress takes its name from a darkly humorous science fiction novel by Stanislaw Lem entitled The Futurological Congress. The Congress does away with Lem’s blend of caustic satire and slapstick silliness as well as his concerns about over-population and cultural balkanisation, whilst maintaining the bones of a narrative about chemically-induced utopias and someone being projected into the future by an overdose of hallucinogens. Lem’s novel is driven by the fear that governments will begin using chemicals to keep their populations under control and that this use of sedatives and mood-altering chemicals will eventually give way to the development of a chemically-induced consensual reality that would sit atop the real world allowing people to starve, freeze, and work themselves to death without ever becoming aware of the treacherous situation in which they find themselves:

“The year is 2098… with 69 billion inhabitants legally registered and approximately another 26 billion in hiding. The average annual temperature has fallen four degrees. In 15 or 20 years there will be glaciers here. We have no way of averting or halting their advance – we can only keep them secret.” “I always thought there would be ice in hell,” I said.

As might be expected of an author writing in a communist country, Lem echoes the leftist concern that escapism is an impediment to social reform as people who spend their time escaping the real world are less likely to want to change it for the better. This distrust of escapist forms combines with Folman’s cynicism about film to provide The Congress with a slightly lopsided intellectual spine.

Having arrived at the conference, Robin learns that she is one of only two Hollywood actors whose brand has survived the transition to all-digital entertainment. Still famous thanks to her digital facsimile starring in a ubiquitously popular science fiction franchise, Robin is expected to sign a new contract and deliver a speech launching the studio’s plan to extend the Animated Zone across the entire planet. Horrified by what she has seen and learned, Robin refuses to sign a new contract and delivers a stinging speech about the inhumanity of Hollywood’s corporate masters, thereby triggering a terrorist assault by those who would oppose the corporate replacement of reality. As the corporate police wade in, they fire chemical weapons into the crowd in an effort to force them back into compliance. Caught in the crossfire, Robin overdoses on hallucinogens to the point where her doctors decide to put her in suspended animation for 20 years in the hope that future doctors will be able to cure her. Just as evocative as the opening act, the second act harvests the dense thicket of references and draws them up into a critique not only of corporate Hollywood’s hegemonic tendencies but also of actors who participate in the blockbuster process by signing away their image rights allowing corporations to give their exploitative business practices an attractive human face.

Perhaps realising that his film has become rather densely intellectual, Folman spends the third act trying to humanise his narrative by drawing on the emotional batteries that were charged so efficiently in The Congress’ opening scenes. Projected even further into the future, Robin finds herself adrift in an animated world that knows no limits. Sculpted by desire and expediency, the city of New York has been redeveloped as a sun-kissed playground full of hanging gardens and effortlessly sensual cartoon citizens. Desperate to reconnect with her family, Robin asks for the help of Dylan (Jon Hamm), the animator who ran the Robin Wright brand during the 20 years she turned her back on Hollywood.

Dylan is sceptical about Robin being able to find her children and so takes her on a beautifully-animated tour of the world intended to seduce her and make her stay in the Animated Zone beside him but while Folman draws on romantic flight montages like those of Superman and Aladdin, he also replicates the inhumanity at the heart of these cinematic moments: just because an airfield explodes behind someone while they are having sex, it doesn’t mean that their love is real. Unconvinced by the introduction of a cynically contrived romantic subplot, Robin begs Dylan for a drug that will help her return to the real world in the hope that such a return will help her find her children.

The Congress is a difficult film to evaluate as it is a cynical and manipulative film designed to draw our attention to the fact that Hollywood films are incredibly cynical and manipulative. The sheer density of the text draws us up and away from the drama and encourages us to engage with the film on a purely intellectual level as Robin is never more than ballast in a film that feels more like an animated meta-textual essay than a conventional cinematic narrative. Readers of science fiction who have encountered the work of Adam Roberts will be familiar with this effect as both Roberts and Folman produce beautifully constructed and achingly clever works filled with neat little ideas and interesting things to say that really make you think but rarely make you feel.

As someone who likes clever texts and adores the work of Adam Roberts in particular, I feel that it is necessary to point out that intellectual shock-and-awe carries as much of a visceral punch as emotional shock-and-awe, but the element that does let The Congress down is the quality of its ideas. Strip away the brilliant animation, clever cinematic references and neatly introverted structure and you are left with a film whose critique of escapism is no more sophisticated than that of a 45-year-old comic science fiction novel. Folman certainly deserves credit for turning his guns on film executives and actors rather than nondescript corporations but, for all the artful cleverness of the way that Folman expresses his ideas, there is a very real sense in which we have heard them all before.

Tolkien famously said that the only people who object to escape are jailers and the traditional response to critiques of escapism is that whether or not escapism makes the world a worse place is a less important question than whether or not escapism makes people happier about their lot in life. The Congress ends amongst scenes of people queuing for soup in bombed-out factories while their chemical avatars sup fine wines in elaborate ballrooms. Defenders of escapism will point out that while these people are living in terrible conditions, they are experiencing bliss and luxury.

Surely conditions are only terrible in so far as they have an impact upon the quality of people’s lives? Lem was aware of this argument and The Futurological Congress tries to ground its anti-escapism position by invoking an ice age that will destroy humanity if humanity does not return its attention to the real world. Folman does a fantastic job of showing how corporations encourage escapism and how escapism disconnects us from the real world but he struggles to make a case for why this separation should even matter.

Instead of an ice age, Folman relies upon Robin’s connection to her kids to ground the argument and provide the film with moral substance by suggesting that real family ties could be a reason why you would choose not to plug yourself into a virtual reality that made you blissfully happy. Folman wrestles with this idea by having Robin act upon a mother’s love for her child rather than a woman’s love for a man she met in cyberspace but, rather than unpacking this choice and explaining why the real world is inherently better than a virtual reality, he concludes the film by expressing a cloud of ambiguous imagery that answers precisely nothing.

There is a very clear sense in which I am being unfair to The Congress as I am writing about a dramatic film rather than a philosophical essay but Folman’s decision to critique dramatic artifice whilst engaging in dramatic artifice means that The Congress draws your attention away from the drama and towards the film’s flawed philosophical argument. The Congress is a brilliant piece of animation and a clever piece of cinematic film criticism but in order to convince it needed to be either more humane or more intellectually rigorous. Trapped somewhere between drama and non-fiction, The Congress frustrates as it engages.

Heist movies typically come in two subgenre types: the slick thriller where lives are put in danger (whether those at
risk are thieves or cops), and the often farcical caper (which usually has bungling crooks who fail to get anything
right). This star vehicle for Robert Redford (found on his CV timeline just before he co-starred again opposite Paul
Newman – reunited five years after Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid – in classic con-game movie The Sting),
manages the nifty trick of being a comedy thriller where failure is always an option, but giving up is not. And so,
very soon into the job, hilarious mistakes are made, but the action goes on regardless, continuing to reach a point
of obsession.
The Hot Rock (aka: How To Steal A Diamond In Four Uneasy Lessons) is written by the great William
Goldman, although this movie is based on the crime novel by the prolific Donald E. Westlake. The Hot Rock was
the first of a series of 14 books about robbery expert John Dortmunder, a character who concocts meticulous plans.
The very existence of so many novels suggests that Dortmunder is a crooked character of considerable depth,
unlike the shallow geezers and empty-headed masterminds of so many heist movies, and Redford plays
Dortmunder as a career villain determined to find non-violent solutions for even the most problematic heist. It is
his defining trait; and it makes The Hot Rock a fascinating example of an unscrupulous thief pushed to the limits of
his morality and ethical judgement. He is faced with a bewildering dilemma: under what circumstances would
Dortmunder kill to get what he wants?
Dortmunder’s partner is Andy Kelp (George Segal), a habitual failure who convinces ex-convict Dortmunder to
attempt another robbery as soon as he’s out of prison. The speech that starts with: “It’s good, and it’s bad…”
signalling Dortmunder’s calculated commitment to tackle a heist leaves Kelp baffled, but it outlines the problems
of the heist, just as it effortlessly draws viewers into the daring but doomed criminal scheme. While stealing a rare
diamond from a museum in Brooklyn, not much goes according to plan, and one of the hapless gang is arrested.
The new plan involves breaking their captured team-mate out of police custody in New York, by using a helicopter
as their getaway vehicle. It is this sequence that includes some quite rare cinematic footage of the World Trade
Centre towers still under construction.
However, this action does not solve the problem, as the stolen diamond remains out of easy reach, and two further
plot twists reveal just how determined Dortmunder is to succeed. There are bluffs and betrayals, in a mix of serious
drama and jokey action scenes. The Hot Rock is rich in characters with peculiar faults, and packed with appealing
quirks. This is a movie that ensures its antiheroes are as sympathetic as any crooks seen in cinema or TV. Unlike
most heist movies where things go wrong, The Hot Rock puts our likeable rogues into an increasingly complex
situation where they cannot, it seems, win against the odds without compromising Dortmunder’s own long-held
principles of pursuing only ‘victimless’ crimes. This apparent fall from grace for the clever planner actually tests
the crook’s deviousness to a point where he risks not just blackening his conscience, but also losing the fragile
sympathy of viewers, by apparently being willing to become a vicious killer. The scene is quite savvy enough to play
the kind of con-game that anticipates The Sting, and so Dortmunder gets to have his cake and eat it, too. As the
heist movie that breaks the rules of heist movies, this is a winner; despite its main cast all playing losers.