Tag Archives: Crying Men

At Doc/Fest: The Confessions of Thomas Quick

Has the moment arrived to call time on Scandi-noir? The new release of The Confessions of Thomas Quick might be the film where the concept finally reaches its breaking point. A documentary about a huge travesty of Swedish justice, the film unquestioningly plays out a true-crime story in the register of Scandi-noir in a deeply problematic manner. Playing fact against fiction the film switches constantly between straight talking-head testimonies and hammy crime recreations. For the un-initiated the story plays out along the familiar beats of a wintry crime drama, but as someone who has grown-up with the story unfurling over the last twenty years the whole sat very ill. To use an extreme comparison, imagine the story of the Moors murders retold as a hard-boiled Film Noir, intercut with uncritical testimonies from Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, and well, you start getting an idea of why this film felt so disturbing to this poor half-Swede.

Sture Bergwall som ung

The tale is that of the titular Thomas Quick, the assumed pseudonym of Sture Bergwall, who grew in horrific infamy during the 1990s as Sweden’s first high profile serial killer. While incarcerated in a high security mental facility in 1993 Quick started confessing to a string of murders, 30 in total of which eight led to trial and conviction. He was the boogeyman your friends warned you about, the kiddie-snatcher with the weird name and the creepy glum face. A known figure locked away for good, he dropped out of the spotlight but remained in the public consciousness all the same. That is until the whole story unravelled in December of 2008, when Sture Bergwall retracted his story on national TV, and admitted to fabricating every one of his confessions.

The absurdity of this dramatic twist is that the Swedish justice system had managed to secure convictions against Bergwall based on little more than his testimony. Countless observers had criticised the process, especially since Bergwall was unable state where he had buried the bodies, or give any evidence which only the killer could know. Instead he was held up as the examplar of a particular kind of serial killer, whose behaviour chimed in with an elaborate theory established by the team of psychiatrists treating him. The problem was Bergwall had worked out what his therapists wanted to hear, and he spent the better part of ten years playing along every step of the way.

Sture Bergwall som Gammal

The documentary is built around the candid testimony of Bergwall himself, and he is quite clear that the pay-off for his elaborate lie was a heightened degree of psychiatric attention, and a ramped up prescription of sense deadening drugs. For an attention-starved recovering addict, this reward far outstripped the risk of lying, and so he became incredibly adept at playing along with the head psychiatrist’s pet theory. Reflecting on the process almost twenty years after the event Bergwall’s personal testimony is unnerving and astute, and there is a delicious irony in the redeemed killer psycho-analysing the psychiatrists who fundamentally failed him as a patient.

The scale of the lie and the institutional failings behind this travesty shook Sweden when it first came to light, and a straight re-telling of the story would be enough to hold anyone’s attention. Sadly the filmmakers didn’t think so, as the film plays out with bridging sections of dark, wintry scenes, swelling moody music, and the bleak colour palate of ever Scandinavian crime series of the last ten years. Bergwall’s back story, an important element in understanding the motivations behind the troubled figure, are recreated onscreen but still play out like the deleted scenes from an episode of Wallander. Somehow Bergwall is both a character ripped from the pages of crime fiction, while also being the institutionalised victim of a self-perpetuating psychological myth. The film flits between wanting to condemn Bergwall, but also giving him enough screentime to let him charm the viewers, to win our sympathy for his plight.

Sture Bergwall on Twitter

The documentary struggles to make sense of the figure that Bergwall has become, and the unquestioning space, and sympathy that the film affords him is deeply problematic. The serial killer that never was is portrayed as the real victim, but what justice is there for the parents of the children whose murders Bergwall cruelly claimed and later disowned? The catharsis of the film is seeing Bergwall reconciled with his once estranged brother, surveying a glorious Nordic landscape, and making plans for the future and the new life as a free man. A life alone, away from the spotlight you might think, but if you’re curious to see how he’s doing then go find him on twitter @sturebergwall. Pictures of said Nordic landscapes, retweets from the filmmakers premiering the film, the odd link to a positive review. A serial killer no more, but no less a media figure for that, the film’s complicity in pandering to his ego with the romantic trappings of Scandinavian noir remains deeply disturbing and more than a little problematic.

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At Doc/Fest: Circus Dynasty

The show must go on. The old show business truism never fades, and the old promise is as much a cry of resilience as it is an affirmation of the status quo. From the performer gritting their teeth and riding through the pain, to the notion that the traditions of circus must live on, a quiet note of defiance holds across both. In the documentary Circus Dynasty we see this truism first-hand, and are allowed to witness the tireless momentum which carries these performers forward in life, despite the many trials they face in their chosen profession.

CassellyFamilyDocFestCircusDynastyAt the heart of the doc we find the young couple of Patrick Berdino and Merrylu Casseley, the oldest children of two respected circus families working out of Denmark. While Patrick is being lined up to inherit the ringmaster role from his grandfather, Merrylu has made a name for herself as a spectacularly agile animal acrobat. Together they have devised a spectacular act, where Patrick throws Merrylu around himself, while riding on the back of two harnessed horses. The film showcases such staggering acts, and despite their breath-taking qualities, it’s the human drama which shines above all else. Like watching spinning plates in a shooting gallery, as the circus patriarchs admire their love-bird prodigies perform in the ring, beaming at the box-office potential, you just feel the weight of the crash that’s coming. With their families futures unrealistically put on the shoulders of two 19 year olds, you don’t have to be a fortune-teller to know the relationship cannot last.

PatrickBerdinoDocfestCircusDynastyWhile the split happens off camera, countless sparks fly between the two youngsters, and the parents stand by glum faced as the rift slowly starts to pull the families apart. But the show must go on, and so it does. Despite kicks from horses, despite awkward falls off grown elephants, the tears are always held behind the scenes, and ringside they always put on their firmest smiles and their best performances. Only once do the cameras capture the facade crumbling, when in a moment of jealous fury Patrick calmly walks up to Merrylu and starts sniping at her as she sells programmes to the audience. The scene is caught in medium shot, in the hub-bub of the audience, but far away enough to not be caught by the mics. In this closed and mute drama the tensions of their unresolved relationship play out, unguarded and illcitly performed in the sacred space of the ringside. This riveting scene is the death of all lingering romantic notions still held onto by their parents, and marks the start of the film’s final act as the families professionally break from each other.

MerryluCassellyDocfestCircusDynastyThe drama sails extremely close to the winds of soap opera, but as the filmmaker himself stated in the Q&A after the screening, he did everything he could to downplay the story’s melodrama. His care in this regards is thankfully evident in the finished product, as the film avoids caricaturing either villains or victims. The story ends on a departure, and an emotional note for love lost and familial ties broken. The romance the film holds for its young couple, for the history of the circus, and for the future troupe that could have been persists throughout, yet its strength ultimately lies in the emotion it chooses it temper rather than the story it might have chosen to exploit.

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Finding Sheffield’s Loose Threads

Protect and Survive Mushroom CloudThe docu-drama you are about to witness is one of the most intensely realistic portrayals of nuclear holocaust ever seen. So daring is this British production, that it has never been scheduled on U.S. network television. Threads is not a polished Hollywood star-studded feature… it is an honest portrayal of events that could take place should there be a nuclear war. “Threads” is graphic and shocking, and may not be suitable for children. Viewer discretion is advised.

Between those who stayed up to watch it on the 23rd of September 1984, and a whole generation of children who were shown the film at school, the impact of the BBC TV play Threads seems to have left an indelible mark on viewers well beyond its original broadcast. The warning quoted above, given by the local Vancouver station CKVU, both captures the impact the film had on audiences while also overselling what is ultimately quite an understated film. It is indeed about the end of the world, but its power is its focus on two very average families and the domestic drama which ties them together. The horror is of course how a narrative so familiar from British soaps gets up-ended by thermo-nuclear war. Absurd as that sounds the film demonstrates that the abstraction of a truly global catastrophe can only effectively be told through a more immediately personal perspective.

For some audiences the horror is also inextricably wound up in the film’s use of location, and the familiarity of Sheffield plays strongly to locals, but also to a wider recognition of a location which is identifiably the North of England. As discussed a very long while back, the strength of Sheffield as a location on screen seems to consistently be that it is both visually striking yet on some level quite anonymous too. Threads bears this out, with a very limited number of wider establishing landscapes shots breaking up a string of location shooting which presses in to limit recognisable features. The trained eyes of Sheffielders on local history, and local interest forums have however done a fair bit of work identifying the city with the scant clues to be seen on-screen, and along with this information I did a rewatch recently to see what other locations I could work out. The results made for quite a satisfying google map:

The locations pinpointed are not all locked, and I’d be very interested to hear anyone’s ideas about other sites from the film in the comments section below. Threads Sheffield Radio Times CoverAdditions and corrections will of course be made to the map as suggested!

As for the status of Threads in Sheffield, it lives on with an eerie after-life that goes well beyond any form of ‘cult’ status that might be bestowed upon it. Over the years I lived in the city there was a consistent club night that took the name of the film, but which has since gone into retirement. The film also has an ever growing word-of-mouth reputation that swells with each new intake of students, and working in a university video library it was plain to see that the single copy we held got a lot of usage throughout the year as word got around about the uncanny post-apocalyptic tale set on those recognisable hills. It was after all from a battered VHS copy in the very same library that I first had a chance to see the film, and I’ll always quietly resent the friend who suggested we give this unknown film a go at ten to midnight on a weekday.

Anecdotally I’ve heard that a number of attempts have been made over the years to put the film on ‘officially’ at a cinema in Sheffield, but owing to a nasty mess of rights, and the fact that the contract wranglers at the BBC had never conceived that someone might want to show the TV play on the big screen, meant that a screening could never be cleared. Thankfully the brilliant Sensoria music and film festival in Sheffield have pulled it off this year, with a special screening taking place outdoors next to Park Hill in the city centre. Ruth in ThreadsThe fact that tickets for the event sold out 4 days before the screening stands as some testimony to the TV play itself, especially when tickets stand a few pounds North of what you might pay for a DVD of the film.

The final enshrining of Threads as a Sheffield classic has however been sealed in the week gone by the efforts of the ’30 Years of Threads’ project which deftly pulled together a number of comments and readings of the film by staging a co-ordinated twitter “live re-watch” of the film on the exact 30th anniversary of the film, down to the minute of its original broadcast! One of the curators behind the project, Rob Barker, did a good job of summarising the event and the film, and you’d do well to cast an eye over his notes and review of the event over here.

Add to this a curated film and audio work by Matt Stokes, which used contemporary performances from Sheffield locals to imagine and re-stage the long-term impact on the world well after the attack portrayed in Threads. The resulting installation, In Absence of the Smoky God, uses film and dialogue, alongside materials borrowed from Barry Hines personal archives, sounds riveting and original, and I’m gutted to be missing it. Those within reach of Sheffield would do well to get there before it closes on the 8th of November.

For a former resident stuck in another corner of the country with only a DVD to go on, the overflowing source of Youtube has proven a valuable distraction for all things tangentially related to Threads. A QED documentary from 1982 proved to be a spark which instigated the commissioning of Threads, and is well worth a look. As is the Newsnight discussion which followed the original broadcast of the TV play, which while being a bone-dry panel debate between experts on all sides of the issue, is still interesting as a historical document, in particular in showing the odd minutiae which the panellists get hung up on.

Overall it’s brilliant to see such a devastating film enshrined and lionised by the cultural establishment and the people of Sheffield itself. Unforgettable is an overused word, but the horrific images and the devastating story of Threads is not an easy one to block out.

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Staying in For A House of Cards

Beyond saying that it is just painfully good, how can I convince the undecided viewer that they really should make an effort to watch the new House of Cards? On its initial release last year the quality of the show came a hollow second to the sheer novelty of Netflix funding and debuting the show as a stream-only venture. The quality of the product itself was sold as a fortuitous matching of top film talent with unchallenged creative freedom, and a blank check from a new studio all to happy to spend. The whole exercise was of course underwritten by Netflix’s magical motion picture content algorithm/crystal-ball which showed that the Venn diagram of ‘Quality Drama’, ‘Kevin Spacey’, and ‘British Imports’ equals a surefire public and critical hit. Yet looking beyond the wild zeal of technology and entertainment reporters, and beyond the begrudging acknowledgement of TV critics, to approach the show itself a fresh is not the easiest proposition.


At first glance the sceptic might ask how I can so wholeheartedly recommend something so bitterly cold in every sense. In its visuals, in its emotional heart, or digging further down into its moral core, the whole package is an incredibly frosty sell to the first time buyer. But crack the show’s shell and you’re treated to an intricate drama that rewards your investment exponentially episode by episode. To dance artfully around describing it as a ‘grown-up’ series, (a detestable concept in its own right), what makes the show refreshing is perhaps how utterly unfrivolous it is. For all the clap-trappings, clichés, and cliff-hanger pomp of many other TV shows, the first season of House of Cards just took an assuredly good story and let it play out over the course of thirteen episodes. The greater arc of the show is drawn up to carry over into the second season, which debuts in its entirety on Netflix today, and the promise of another thirteen ‘chapters’ in a third scheduled season after that is a more than dizzying prospect in its own right.

That it’s a political drama set in the heart of the American executive may spook the more lackluster viewer, but again don’t let that put you off. As with all good political dramas or satires, the crux of the show is the viewer’s curiousity in the human and extremely petty world of personal politics which we normally only glimpse and through cracks in the noble and selfless veneer of public politics. From the flying expleitives of Malcom Tucker in The Thick of It, to the endless bumblings of Jim Hacker in Yes Minister, Kevin Spacey in the role of Congressman Frank Underwood outdoes them all as the shrewd and obscenely calculating politician who can manipulate every man, woman, or child to his every beck and call.


Kevin Spacey himself might rub you up the wrong way, and his gentle Foghorn-Leghorn Suuthern draawl might stick in the ear of someone who knows the accent, but just by the same measure he piles on the gentlemanly charm with a callous glint in his eye, the glint of a man with his eye on far higher prizes. The show’s central device of having Underwood constantly confiding with the audiences in secret yet candid asides stands out from the usual televisual convention and is thrilling as a device in its own right. The instant switch between cold public face and sarcastic and self-aggrandizing inner monologue plays right into our curiosity of wanting to know what politicians are really thinking and saying behind mask of their public face. Where the British original of the TV series saw the original Francis Underwood give nigh-on theatrical monologues straight to camera, Spacey’s approach is almost casual in comparison, addressing the viewer as confidant as opposed to spectator.


And what of the American remakes association to the much vaunted original BBC series? The passage of time makes it hard to compare the two superficially, but what the original does hold is a slightly sharper satirical edge, especially in light of its close proximity to the politics of the time. Yet where Ian Richardson acted as a lynchpin for the whole series, the strength of the newer version lies in the knockout strength of its ensemble cast. Beyond Frank Underwood, the superb counterpoint played by Robin Wright as Claire Underwood broadens the drama, and balances out the almost sociopathic tendencies of her husband, and together they form one of the most terrifying power couples ever seen on screen. Add to this a dynamite cast of characters that Frank has in his pocket, like Kate Mara as the intrepid reporter, and Corey Stoll as the troubled congressman for South Philadelphia, and the push and pull of the conspiracy makes for an absolutely brilliantly taunt drama. A cruel casting manager might very well list these characters as secondary, but in their performances they’re anything but, and Stoll and Mara to name but two, have already had me chasing down the prior filmographies of all involved to see where I can catch them. (Corey Stoll as Ernest Hemingway in Midnight In Paris being the standout example in an otherwise flim-flam flop of a film.)

What else is there to knock? Well there’s some egregious product placement, limited to maybe three occasions as when Spacey’s obliged to ask about another Congressman’s son’s PS Vita (“Oh I say, is that a portable games console? What games has he got?”), but if you can survive those sixty seconds, I’m sure you’ll live to enjoy the rest of the show.

In the middle of an awards season bogged down with films masquerading as give-me-an-Oscar actor’s workshops, the audacious prospect of a well-written TV series delivered by an outstanding cast comes as an almost rare treat. This really is not-to-be-missed television, and through the miracle of modern technology it’s always there should it take you fancy.

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Showing at the Showcase: Pusher

Growing up a child of Stockholm’s many video rental stores, the hovering presence of the Danish Pusher trilogy always stood out. The catatonic stare of round-faced Kim Bodnia seemed to glare from the walls of every cornershop, face covered in grime and blood, guns toting left and right, and garlanded in glowing praise from a phalanx of lads-mags. The film was brutal, blunt, unflinching, and Danish of all things. And yet my teenage self hadn’t even the slightest impulse to give it a second look.

That was before the WHOLE WORLD discovered Scandinavian crime drama, and here we are sixteen years and one genre phenomenon later, and Pusher (DK) has been retooled for an English language remake. Which meant I had to go rushing back to see the Danish original, with the hindsight of age and the knowledge that it was the debut of the director who made rather a success of Drive. And sure enough, Pusher (DK) lived up to its gritty profile, being the frenetic story of drug deals falling like dominos, forcing the titular middle-man into a doomed endgame of cat-and-mouse. Being the low-budget feature of first-time writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn, the whole is a bit of a rough mess, with an uneven script, but still exciting overall for its knock-about observational style. The grime of Copenhagen’s relentlessly unglamorous drugs trade is shot through a grey and dirt-speckled lens, and the moral ambiguity of the ‘Juggo’ [read: Serbian] importers helped give the film a sense of being only two steps removed from the real underworld. Which it patently wasn’t, but the complete package of Pusher (DK) holds together well enough to suck you in.

Now that we get to Pusher (UK) and the approach taken has been to brush off all the grot of the original, to polish it to a sheen to match the most expensive of adverts, and the sum total is a happily glamorous take on London’s cocaine trade. Sure, everything still goes to hell in a handbasket, but along the way we have plenty of club scenes with thick slices of ThumpThump, plenty of WubWub, and drink, and drugs, and merry times all-round. The girls! The glitz! The good times!

Where the moral and emotional vacuity of the Danish protagonist gives the original a really uncomfortable edge, Richard Coyle acting as the British equivalent refuses to fall back on this safer ambiguety. Maybe I can’t escape my liking of the actor, probably best known as the surreal Welshman Jeff in the sitcom Coupling, but his very best attempts at wringing a moral character out a not very strong script makes for some hard watching. Matching this with a cast of other wafer-thin secondary characters played by some equally lightweight acting talent, and the whole exercise just fails to be convincing on any effective level.

To put the glitzy remake in direct contrast with the bleak original is perhaps unfair, but a real opportunity to try something different has been missed here. Slight tweaks to characters and scenes have somehow managed to water down what was an obscenely taut script, missing the dramatic punchlines the Danish original hit every time. How they manage this is beyond me, but I suppose a Danish dub of Eastenders would still fall just as flat for that.

One out of Five

Pusher is showing at the Showcase Cinema De Luxe in Bristol’s Cabot Circus from the 12th of October 2012.

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Staking a Claim for Kill List

Playing ‘spot the location’ with Kill List is a pretty thankless task for a Sheffield resident. The better part of the film is set either in soul-less ring road hotel suites, if not in equally beige new-build suburbs. In a Q&A following a preview screening in Sheffield, the director even made it clear that “it’s not supposed to be Sheffield, really” and that a local audience could probably pick holes in a story that purports to stretch across a large, if indefinite, part of the country. And a near anonymous backdrop makes sense for an occasionally graphic horror film, the emotional imbalance of the hit-men set against a strangely lonely and faceless world.

In a country covered in generic branded service stations, corporate hotels, and near identical high streets, the setting almost gives the film a universal quality; a dullness any Brit could instantly recognise. And it’s hardly the first time that Sheffield and its environs have taken the role of ‘wholly generic British backdrop’. In most recent memory is the 2008 horror Hush, where the lifeless scenery of Yorkshire service stations punctuates the stalking terror of a motorway trip from hell. Finding horror in the everyday is something you might normally associate with British cultural staples like Dr Who or John Wyndham, and both Kill List and Hush do a fine job of conjuring really quite unsettling weirdness in a rather mundane world.

Those in the know will already have spotted that the common link between the two horrors is Warp Films, the independent film production company based in Sheffield. Higher up the funding chain we find Screen Yorkshire, who no doubt played a big part in selling the city as the best place for filming. One of my favourite, if somewhat esoteric, of film artefacts is a Screen Yorkshire location catalogue, a lavish picture book of sites around God’s Own Country that can represent a surprisingly broad range of settings.

It’s not quite as wildly optimistic as this location map put out by Paramount in 1927, yet the case it states is quite the same: Yorkshire’s more versatile than you might think.

Yet the degree of recognition any given audience can find in a film presents all kinds of issues. My previous post on Four Lions stirred up quite some interest in Sheffield readers keen to pinpoint those backdrops they half recognised from the film. You could even say that the local audience actually claimed some small ownership of the film, with the film screening for close to three months straight at the Showroom cinema in town, representing one of their largest ever box office successes. The fact that scenes of the film were shot on the roof of the same cinema probably didn’t hurt sales either.

Stepping back from this local perspective, even Four Lions positioned itself in a broad and non-specific setting. Its backdrop is a working class Northern city with a muslim population, which could easily be any city North of the Watford gap. Yet even this regional nuance was lost on some international critics, with the film reviewer of the Toronto Star noting that the film’s bumbling jihadists ‘live in or near London’; a misobservation a Sheffield local would likely not take lying down.

But to return to a question of audiences and ownership, what stakes can we ever legitimately claim to a film? Sheffielders took Four Lions to its heart, but in all probability won’t do so with Kill List, as there’s nothing local which they can claim as their own. Conversely a wider British audience of film critics and genre fans have already started championing Kill List as the best ‘British Horror/Thriller/Genre Film in Years’, garnering it with awards galore at FrightFest, with and four and five star reviews both left, right and centre.

Much as I enjoyed the film, it still somehow felt uneven, brilliant in parts but never with enough momentum to give the story’s twists and turns the heft to ever be convincing. The blowing of trumpets and banging of drums which has since followed all feels a bit out of proportion for a film which is good but still flawed.

Yet like a number of others who share these reservations, I still side on the concluding remark that it is worth seeing, and that we should all get behind it, more of this sort of thing, yes thank-you kindly! The ownership here is towards something broader, namely an independent British genre film with a modicum of ambition. Perhaps it’s a gross disservice to claim that people like the principle of the film more than the film itself, but I think you’d be hard pushed to ever actually separate the two.

However complicated and thorny this question is, the film is definitely worth a look. If nothing else I’m keen to hear how the film lands with others less conscious of championing or scorning the film. And furthermore and most importantly, I’m ever keen to hear from those who might be able to contribute to the location map below. As before, be warned for HERE BE SPOILERS:

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Oh, Isn’t That… Thomas Jane?

There’s a breed of actor that’s strangely recognizable by sheer dint of being a through- and-through jobbing actor. You might classify them as the more than competent character actor, others have an even simpler function as the rent-a-stock figure. Rarer still are the dashingly handsome not-quite-leading types, whose old-skool Hollywood good looks get them parts in the strangest films. For the casual film fan these actors represent a familiar but nameless presence (“oh, I know him, where do I know him from?”) For the obsessive follower of film (and increasingly TV as well) their appearance is like seeing an old acquaintance. The more you watch, the more rewarding the echo of recognition, irrespective of the feature itself. Match enough of these appearances with unheralded yet unexplainably brilliant films and you get a dangerously unquestioning devotion.

Which is to say, I absolutely love Thomas Jane and the frankly baffling films he’s been in.

He partly falls into the category of the chisel-jawed would-be leading man, having even had a crack at the BIGTIME twice, first with the shark-baiting shenanigans of Deep Blue Sea, and later with dangerously wonky yet flat comic-book adaptation The Punisher. But for his failure to launch in these hero driven action flicks, it’s in the role of the Average Joe thrust into extraordinary circumstance where Jane has really come to shine. The handsome everyman who in spite of his dashing looks is quite easy to relate to; a touch self effacing, a little world weary (but not resigned), and probably unshaven. Effortless in so far as he could not care less.

He pops up in a brilliant and rather broad range of bit parts and cameos: the bushy moustachioed drug dealing partner of Boogie Nights lead Eddie Adams; the high-fiveing officer of the Vegan police force in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World; playing himself as a method acting tramp in Arrested Development; and perhaps best of all, a soldier at the end of Thin Red Line with a brief reflection on being left behind. Some might take the fact that Terence Malick cut scenes with Mickey Rourke, Adrien Brody, Martin Sheen, Billy Bob Thornton, Viggo Mortensen, Gary Oldman and Bill Pullman from the final cut, but left in Thomas Jane in for all of minute and a half as sign that there’s something special about the guy.

My first brush of surprise came with a mob of friends in a videostore, for reasons untold picking up the unassuming Thursday. Settled architect (Jane) is caught up by his drug-dealing/guns-blazing past, with a series of increasingly inexplicable characters appearing at the door of his suburban home. The film more than lives up to its risible blurb as a ‘post-Tarantino’ film, but for all its deficiency of imagination in regards snappy camera work and shuffled narrative, the twists in the pretty daft tale keeps bubbling along.

Jane’s role is the hub around which the whole film spins, the man trying, and failing to be a suburban nobody, deflecting the increasingly bizarre procession of callers that come throughout the course of the day. He’s matched by the suitably smarmy Aaron Eckhart as his wheeling and dealing partner of old, and the clash of the not-quite-leading-men makes this a surprisingly strong pairing. The film’s pretty garish at points, and the ending’s a complete cop-out, but a conveyor belt of recognisable faces (Mickey Rourke/James LeGros/Michael Jeter) lifts a uneven script. The film barely works as a whole, but by force of a baffling cast, some disjointed humour and fair dollop of misplaced passion it sort-of pulls it off.

The second Jane-related broadside came in the nigh forgotten Stander, the embellished story of a real-life South African police officer turned bank robber. I’m sure the first  time I noticed the film was in the queue at a supermarket, the floppy wig, big sunglasses, automatic weapon, and competitive price point (~£3) more than enough to catch my eye. Cost aside, the film is rather neatly summarised as being about a man dressing in silly get ups for increasingly brazen hold-ups. Set in 1970s South Africa, Andre Stander is the cop fed up with enforcing the cruel Apartheid rule of law, and recognising the stupefying goodwill shown by banks towards white folk, decides to exploit the system. What starts off as a nihilistic dare turns into a rather elaborate scheme, with a criminal crew, nationwide hunt, and constant misleading of his police colleagues.

The exposition of the righteous political motives behind Stander’s wreckless campaign aren’t the most robust, but Jane throws himself into the role with a dizzying level of eagerness. The accents are surprisingly solid, the dynamic between the criminal compatriots a nasty mix of best-buddies and fiery contention. The disguises used in the bank heists are almost as ludicrous as the 70s fashion on parade, and the small but tight action sequences are underscored by an absolutely thumping afrobeat score. It’s one of those films where the cast are having an absolute whale of a time, and thankfully that enjoyment is incredibly infectious. By dint of being a rather small indie action film it’s probably going to be forgotten at the bottom of the bargain basket, but honestly, dig it out wherever you can.

Finally a mention has to be made to The Mist, the Stephen King short story polished to perfection by Frank Darabont with a cast of actors each of whom could readily qualify in the category I tried defining in the opening paragraph. The approach of the ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances is pretty much King through and through, but Darabont brings an edge of physical horror with some gorgeous b-movie Cold War/War-on-Terror undertones to the piece. Jane is a jobbing film poster artist living in a picturesque small town East coast USA, and following a particular bad storm gets stuck in an old fashioned supermarket with his son when the store gets swathed in an almost noxious looking mist. Panicked citizens rush in screaming of unfathomable horrors lurking in the gloom, the captured crowd stuck in two minds whether to venture out or not.

The film develops into a sort of one room drama, with die-cast characters bouncing off each other in paranoid delusion, in bickering drama, in all kinds of stupid powerplays for control of the group. Again Jane is the hub of the film, the unassuming hero that desperately doesn’t want to be leading things, but who will none the less step up in the moment of crisis. The kind of hero we flatter ourselves by relating to. There are set piece dramatic confrontations, real fireworks that play right to the strengths of a cast of character actors more used to the stage than the screen. Then the monsters actually start to appear, or at least poke a toe in, and then things get a little Jurassic towards the frankly spectacular final reel. To say its bleak would be a cruel understatement, but through the course of the film you get pulled emotionally in every direction, Jane standing as the anchor you’re left clinging to as the whole world collapses around him. Monster movies with grander subtexts rank very high on my list of odd subgenres, and this comfortably tops that list.

Sadly 2011 doesn’t hold much promise for the Thomas Jane acolyte. A rom-com starring Miley Cyrus, whose title is an explanation of what LOL means, followed by an independent project, I Melt With You, co-starring Sasha Grey (aka, the actress whose filmography is probably funnier than many a film you’ll see this year). There’s another season of Hung due on HBO, which should hopefully see Jane on run-down form as the unwitting Michigan gigolo, but that’s unlikely to set the world alight. Not that Thomas Jane ever will set the world alight, but I’m ok with that, and hopefully he is too.

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Showing at the Showroom: Never Let Me Go

Die-hard romantic? It’s a lovely notion, but one I’d be hard pushed to apply to many films. The infinitely personal applied on a dizzying and sweeping scale? It’s not something that jumps to the fore in your average with a ROM prefix. Maybe I just need to do some more dredging through the classics (who doesn’t), maybe I just need to open up a bit more (again, who doesn’t), but it’s not often I get unwittingly caught up in the emotional tumult of other-people-who-happen-to-be-fictional. Full credit to Never Let Me Go then for absolutely broadsiding me.

At it’s emotional core the tale is one of unrequited love, which against better judgement I’m an absolute sucker for. I guess it’s not that hot on the Hollywood slate of rote narrative structures, as you inevitably can’t avoid misery for at least one, if not all of the characters. This isn’t the bog-standard love triangle, with it’s obvious guilt and the promise of some kind cathartic ‘action’ but rather the agonising, needling pain of what doesn’t happen, or worse still, what almost happens. The witheringly handsome trio of Knightley/Mulligan/Garfield manage the heavy-duty thesping that’s demanded of them, going from the sweet childhood flutters of love, up to the uncertain impasse of young adulthood. It’s all too easy to be sniffy about these BrightNewActors™ especially Her of Piratey Fame, but they all come into their own bringing these strange characters to life.

The strangeness comes from the soft science fiction situation of the story, which manages to take the stark alienation of an alternate world and cast it into scenes of discomfort readily familiar to the universal teenager. To take a separate (but well worth reading) parallel from Charles Burn’s comic Black Hole, the fantastical elements act as an obvious metaphor for the frustrations and confusion of being an average hormone-addled teenager. But obviously there’s more to it than that. It’s almost misleading to describe the film as science-fiction as it’s almost tertiary to the human drama. To exaggerate a tenant of good sci-fi, it’s greater empathy found in the alienation of circumstance. Romance has to build itself up on the bedrock of empathy, and heaven knows you have enough of that when you come around to the emotional crunch of this film.

Perhaps it’s because my teachers plied me with Petrarch at a dangerously hormonal age. Maybe I got dangerously empathetic to the story as I took a shining to Andrew Garfield’s wardrobe (it’s very nice in a futuro-rustic way), but it’s really the actors who bring the goods to what is a really superb story. More than a passing infatuation I like to think, but I can’t wait to see it again.

Five out of Five

Never Let Me Go is showing at the Showroom cinema in Sheffield from the 11th of February 2011.

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Not Seen at the Showroom: Brighton Rock (2010)

It’s all too easy to cry foul when an adaptation doesn’t match your lovely and elaborate memory of fictional scenes, but the new Brighton Rock did a spectacular job of setting off on the wrong foot. Having had the novel battered over my head by a terrifyingly Anglophilic Swedish English-teacher [yes, exactly that] one of the early scenes of the novel, in a small, dingy, absolutely despondent pub on a weekday lunchtime, for some reason struck a chord with my teenage self. There’d be mould on the walls, an air of resignation as thick as the smoke, and despite all this the brash yet unequivocally human character of Ida Arnold appears.

The opening of said scene in the film puts it in a gleaming palace of brass and porcelain, the sun streaming in, the patrons elegantly propping up the bar with poised noses. They’re still drinking gin, but for all I remember it may as well have been to the clinking of dry martinis. And then Helen Mirren opens her mouth and my vague reminisces of dialogue appear to have taken the form of an Eastenders audition tape. It’s hard not to get stuck on a hundred little hang-ups, but the whole thing just sat really badly.

And then the story starts to unfurl, and well, after a while I fell asleep. It was the middle of the day, I’d had a coffee before I went in, it wasn’t particularly warm in the cinema, but still I was out like a light for a good half hour. I’m not prone to cinematic snoozing unless under certain narcoleptic duress, but this certainly wasn’t one of those instances. Boredom might be the short word for it, but I just didn’t care about the characters, their motivations, anything. A complete failure to engage on nigh on every level.

I like to kid myself that while I snoozed I dreamt of alternative approaches to the film. Maybe one set in modern Brighton, or perhaps in a completely distinct criminal subculture. Or maybe abroad, a Polish Brighton Rock could be interesting, especially as the tale of an anguished lapsed Catholic has more resonance there. Just anything that had a spark of imagination with the source material would do. Anything but what we got in this film.

Fell Asleep out of Five

Brighton Rock has been showing at the Showroom in Sheffield from last Friday (the 4th of February  2010.)

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Pistol Whipped: Part (3) in the Seagal Odyssey

Having started backwards through Seagal’s nigh neverending  filmography I’ve always managed to find a hook, a blip, or an absurdity to cheer me up. All too often I’ve got hung up on  some oblique choice of direction, some incoherent narrative leap, or just the terrifying ineptitude of production. Sometimes the degree of our man’s involvement is a sight to behold, especially in what might loosely be described as ‘action sequences’. More than a few of his films have gone to print being far short of what you might call ‘complete’, and the often numerous short comings are an insight to the pressures of independent film production beyond the arthouses. Barely a rung above the porn industry in terms of budget and artistic integrity, the blunt commercial interests of the direct-to-video sector is just a microcosm of the larger forces at work in any Hollywood production. An uncanny parallel, a dark mirror, just something to put it all in perspective.

Pistol Whipped manages to go one further by spectacularly failing to elicit anything. Pure and undiluted apathy in cinematic form. To say it’s boring would be to credit the film with a form of emotional impact it still falls short of.

Lance Henriksen’s in it. You know, Bishop from Aliens, he’s in absolutely everything these days. At one point you see the camera crew reflected in the very shiny door of a car, and that made me laugh. At another Seagal starts drumming on a car window with his knuckles, brushing dangerously close to improvisation, at least in musical form. A priest turns up a couple of times in a cod-confessional scene to help flesh out Seagal’s character, and we get a bit of exposition too. He gets killed at the end, and that’s a bit of a shame, even if he did seem to have come straight off the set of a 90s Werther’s Originals advert. And coincidentally, it has been widely observed that at no point does anyone in the film get whipped by a pistol. This might very well be the only notable thing in the whole film.

I’ve dragged myself through the film twice, rewatched bits, and that’s the sum of all I can muster in recalling the film. The DVD cover is filled with poker and gambling bits and bobs, which I guess is one way of tapping into a big obvious market. Just Googling this film leaves me with a deluge of ads trying to sign me up to Cool Lonely Manly Solitaire with Built-in Money Loss. Of course there’s not much actual poker in the game. Seagal plays a bit at the beginning and fails spectacularly, which is perhaps ironic considering the man is afflicted with a permanent poker-face. Perhaps the wind changed sharply one morning.

So, Seagal sucks at poker; he accrues a lot of debt; being an effective hitman is  good way of dissolving such fiscal obstacles, and therein a plot. There are sub-plots too, but have a guess as to what they might be and you’re probably right.

I’m tempted to say that Seagal just seems contemptuous of even having to be present in this film, but again that might suggest some undercurrent of tension in the film. Which there isn’t. It’s a complete and utter non-entity. It isn’t even bad. It isn’t anything. The whole thing is just a gaping void. I’m sorry to even have to mention it, let alone dwell on it, but this voyage wouldn’t be complete without it.

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