Category Archives: Historical drama

Ich bin ein Netflix-binger: Babylon Berlin (***½) & Mute (*)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 3, 2018)

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How do I describe the genre-defying Netflix series Babylon Berlin?  Does “cop-on-the edge” / conspiracy thriller/ historical drama/ musical-fantasy pique your interest? Nein? How about: The Singing Detective meets Seven Days in May at the corner of Berlin Alexanderplatz and Cabaret? Does that help-or does it at least make your ganglia twitch?

You see, it’s very simple to follow:

It is 1929 Weimar Republic-era Berlin. There are contingents of German Communists, Monarchists, and National Socialists fighting among themselves; meanwhile the German police are investigating contingents of Russian White, Trotskyite, and Bolshevik emigres, who are fighting among themselves. The German police are also investigating a porn film ring…and themselves. There’s an Armenian crime lord with an interesting variety of ways to make you talk.

Nearly everybody is jockeying and scheming and blackmailing each other to get dibs on a train car believed to contain a fortune in gold bars. Oh-and there’s something about the possibility of a military coup, and a magic ring.

There’s actually nothing about a magic ring, but as “Babylon” in the title infers, there’s lots of sex and drugs and Reich ‘n’ roll to hold your interest, should the byzantine political milieu make your eyes glaze over. Truth be told, the politics take a back seat to an array of fascinating characters to follow, led by two terrific lead performances from Volker Bruch and Liv Lisa Fries. Bruch plays vice squad Inspector Rath, a WW1 veteran suffering from PTSD (he keeps ampules of morphine handy for countering “the shakes”).

Rath’s fate becomes significantly intertwined with that of Fries’ character, Charlotte. Charlotte is a “flapper” (she dances a mean Charleston!) who lives with her highly dysfunctional family in the Berlin slums. She scrapes by as best she can while she yearns to one day break the Berlin police department’s glass ceiling by becoming a homicide detective (needless to say, that’s an uphill battle for an ambitious young woman in 1929).

There are nearly as many characters to keep track of as in a Tolstoy novel. However, with the luxury of 16 episodes, most are nicely fleshed out. I do want to mention two more standout performances. First, Peter Kurth’s turn as Chief Inspector Wolter, a complex, morally ambiguous career cop who could have popped right out of a James Ellroy story.

I’ve become an instant fan of Severija Janušauskaitė, as Countess Sorokina, a Mata Hari-like character who spies for the Soviet secret police when she’s not busy performing her drag cabaret act or juggling love affairs with a Trotskyite leader and a right-wing German industrialist. It’s a meaty role, and the Lithuanian actress tackles it with aplomb (speaking of the cabaret acts…Roxy Music fans should be on the lookout for a Bryan Ferry cameo).

It was a bit of a coup for Netflix to secure the domestic broadcast rights (it premiered last October on Germany’s Sky 1 Network). Co-directed and co-written by Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run, The International, Drei), Achim von Borries, and Hendrik Handloegten, the production is based on the first volume of Volker Kutscher’s “Gereon Rath Mystery Series”.

Babylon Berlin is also said to be the highest-budgeted non-English language TV series to date. The lavish sets, stylish production numbers and large-scale action sequences seem to bear this out, giving the narrative a Dr. Zhivago-style historical sweep.

Still, it’s the intimate moments that are most absorbing. While the viewer never loses sense of the huge sociopolitical upheaval in Germany at the time, the filmmakers wisely remember that whether the story’s characters are good or bad, rich or poor, it’s those teasing glimpses of our shared humanity (flawed or not) that compel us to keep watching.

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Unfortunately, one could say exactly the opposite of Mute, another recent addition to the Netflix catalog: in this case, the story and the character development takes a back seat to the slick, shiny production design. The sci-fi mystery-thriller is the latest feature film from Duncan Jones (son of David Bowie and the director of the 2009 cult favorite Moon).

Oddly enough, this story is also set in Berlin; however we now move forward in time 100 years from the 1920s (give or take a decade or two). In the umpteenth take on Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner model, we are presented with an eye-filling cityscape of deco-futurism, replete with flying cars, vaguely punkish fashionistas, and an overdose of neon.

Alexander Skarsgård plays Leo, a (wait for it) mute bartender working at a Berlin strip joint. A brief flashback in the film’s opening attributes his condition to a childhood mishap, in the course of which Leo received a serious throat injury and nearly drowned. Leo is dating one of the waitresses, Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh). We get the impression right off the bat that Leo may be a little more devoted to the relationship than Naadirah; while she is affectionate, something about her demeanor when she is with Leo seems tentative.

We don’t get much time to mull that over, as Naadirah suddenly and mysteriously disappears. We don’t get much time to mull that over either, because the narrative abruptly shifts to a pair of shifty American surgeons (Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux) who run a black market clinic (most of their clients appear to be mobsters who require the odd slug to be removed, with no questions asked).

The pair are suspiciously reminiscent of Hawkeye and Trapper John in the movie version of M*A*S*H. Not only do they crack wise while cutting into patients, and go by similar nicknames (“Cactus Bill” and “Duck”), but Rudd constantly wears a parka and sports a 3-day growth and 70s-style ‘stache-all clearly modeled on Elliot Gould’s “look” in the aforementioned Altman film.

Frankly, keeping myself amused with playing “spot the influence” was the only thing that kept me from dozing off from that point forward…otherwise, I kept waiting for something to happen. Like a cohesive narrative. The two story lines meander aimlessly until eventually converging in the 3rd act. While it does bring a symmetry to the story, it’s too little, too late.

It’s like Jones was afflicted by ADD while constructing his screenplay (co-written with Michael Robert Johnson). It roars out of the gate like it’s going to be a character study (with no character development), quickly shifts to a mystery (but with no tension or suspense), then toys with Tarantino-esque flourishes (sans any of the flourish).

It is pretty to look at; but great production design alone does not a good story make. Skarsgård is a fine actor (he filled his mantle last year with a Golden Globe, an Emmy, a SAG award, and a Critic’s Choice Award for his performance in HBO’s Big Little Lies), but he is given little to do (much less anything to say, as he is playing a mute) aside from staring into space…and occasionally beating the crap out of someone. The same goes for Rudd and Theroux; both good players, but they’re stuck with a poor script.

It’s puzzling why this has been positioned as “sci-fi”. Aside from the futuristic vision of Berlin, and the flying cars, there’s no sense of integration with the setting-it is simply a backdrop. There is a reference to Jones’ aforementioned Moon, with that film’s star Sam Rockwell doing a cameo (he pops up, in full Moon character, as part of a court hearing playing on the TV in the bar where Skarsgård works). The only good news about Mute is that I didn’t have to buy overpriced stale popcorn, or circle endlessly for a parking space.

Shadowy men on a shadowy planet: Wormwood (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 30, 2017)

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“Sir, I am unaware of any such activity or operation, nor would I be disposed to discuss such an operation if it did in fact exist, sir.” – Captain Willard, from Apocalypse Now

 “Boy…what is it with you people? You think not getting caught in a lie is the same thing as telling the truth?” – Joe Turner, from Three Days of the Condor

“Conscience doth make cowards of us all.” – From Hamlet, by William Shakespeare

When you peruse the history of the CIA (wait a sec…did I just hear a “click” on my phone?), at times it is indistinguishable from a campy 60s TV parody of the agency. Was there really a CIA psychotropic drugs research program called “MK-Ultra” (aka “Project Artichoke” and “Project Bluebird”) or am I conflating it with an episode of “Get Smart”?

Unfortunately, the MK-Ultra program would prove all too real for bacteriologist and former military officer Frank Olson. Olson had served as a captain in the Army’s Chemical Corps in the 1940s, which helped him snag a post-service civilian contract job with the Army’s Biological Warfare Laboratories (based out of Fort Detrick, Maryland).

Eventually Olson was recruited by the CIA to work with the agency’s Technical Services Staff, which led to his acquaintance with some of the architects of the aforementioned MK-Ultra research program. While on a retreat with a group of CIA colleagues in November of 1953, Olson was offered a drink that was spiked with an early form of LSD (unbeknownst to him). Just 10 days later, on the night of November 28th, 1953, Olson fell to his death from the 13th floor of a Manhattan hotel.

The NYPD called it suicide. And that was that. At least…that was the story at the time.

There is a lot more to this tale; specifically regarding what ensued during those critical 10 days between Olson’s LSD dosing at the retreat, and the evening that he died at the hotel.

Uncovering the details behind Olson’s demise has become an obsessive 60+ year quest for his son, Eric Olson. Eric’s relentless pursuit of the truth, a long slow white Bronco chase through the dark labyrinth of America’s clandestine community, makes for a hell of an interesting story in and of itself. This was not lost on documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, who delves deep into the mystery with his new Netflix docudrama, Wormwood.

Wormwood is essentially a 4-hour film divided into 6 episodes; with this sprawling running time, Morris has given himself lots of room to “delve”. Now, I feel that it’s my duty to advise you up front that “delving” into a mystery is not necessarily synonymous with “solving” it. So if you go in expecting pat answers, wrapped with a bow, I’m saving you 4 hours of your life now (and you’re welcome). However, if you believe the adage that it is not about the destination, but rather about the journey, feel free to press onward.

Morris has made many compelling documentaries, from his crtically acclaimed 1978 debut Gates of Heaven, to other well-received films like The Thin Blue Line (1988), A Brief History of Time (1991), and The Fog of War (2003).

Interestingly, in this outing Morris eschews his trademark “Inteterrotron”, which gives  a sense that the interviewee is “confiding” directly to the viewer. Instead, Morris plunks himself across a table from his subjects and grills them, like they’ve stumbled into Sam Spade’s office. However, he does reprise his “reality thriller” formula (mixing interviews with speculative reenactments) which he essentially invented with The Thin Blue Line; although it has been so-often imitated that it now seems cliché.

While Morris’ penchant for this Rashomon-style construction in past projects has drawn criticism, it’s a perfect foil for Wormwood; because if there is one central takeaway from the series, it is this: when it comes to plausible deniability, the CIA has 50 shades of nay.

The “official” story as to what happened in that hotel room in September 1953 has been, shall we say, “fluid” over the years (all versions are recounted). Adding to the frustration for Olson’s surviving family members (as Eric Olson points out in the film), under current laws, any citizen may file a lawsuit against the U.S. government for negligence, but never for intent. Oops! Please pardon our negligence, just never mind our culpability.

The question of “culpability” feeds the conspiracy theory elements of the film; which Morris relays via the dramatic reenactments. These segments feature a melancholic Peter Sarsgaard, whose almost spectral characterization of Frank Olson haunts the proceedings like the ghost of Hamlet’s father.

This is no accident, as Morris and Eric Olson himself make frequent analogies to Shakespeare’s classic tragedy about a son who investigates the truth behind his father’s suspicious death (hence the title of the film, taken from an aside by Hamlet, who mutters “Wormwood, wormwood” in reaction to the Player Queen’s line in the play-within-the play “None wed the second but who killed the first.”).

The Bard would be hard pressed to cook up a tale as dark, debased and duplicitous. Morris sustains a sense of dread recalling Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View, and The Conversation. Of course, those were fiction; Olson’s story is not. Shakespeare wrote: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Wormwood not only confirms this, but reminds us why we need folks like Eric Olson and Morris around to cast light into dark corners where the truth lies obscured.

Blu ray reissue: Barry Lyndon ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 9, 2017)

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Barry Lyndon – The Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Stanley Kubrick’s beautifully constructed, leisurely paced adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s rags-to-riches-to-rags tale about a roguish Irishman (Ryan O’Neal) who grifts his way into the English aristocracy is akin to watching 18th-century paintings come to life (to its detractors, about as exciting as being forced to stare at a painting for 3 hours, strapped to a chair).

This magnificent 1975 film has improved with age, like a fine wine; successive viewings prove the legends about Kubrick’s obsession with the minutest of details regarding production design were not exaggerated-every frame is steeped in verisimilitude. Michael Hordern’s delightfully droll voice over work as The Narrator rescues the proceedings from sliding into staidness.

Criterion’s superb 4K restoration is a vast improvement over Warner’s 2011 Blu-ray release; finally giving full due to one of the most visually resplendent costume dramas of all time. Criterion also packed in the extras on this one, including new and archival interviews with cast and crew, as well as featurettes covering everything from cinematography, production design, costume design to critical reappraisal. A must-have.

He was a human being: R.I.P. John Hurt

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 28, 2017)

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Man of 1,000 faces: 1940-2017

Maybe I should just trash this whole movie review gig and become a full-time obit writer. I can’t keep up. I realize that this is all part of life’s rich pageant…but Jesus H. Christ.

When Digby texted me last night about John Hurt, I hadn’t heard about it. After reeling for a moment or so, I mustered up all the eloquence that befits my métier and texted back:

“No! Fuckity-fuck.”

I know. Style under pressure, right? But seriously, there are no words. He was one of the good ones. He was a master thespian with an embarrassment of rich, immersive performances. He was one of those actors who was so damn good that “he” wasn’t there.

But his characters were. Wholly present. In the moment. Fully human. And unforgettable.

Here are five performances I will never forget:

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I, Claudius – While an opening line of “I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus…” could portend more of a dull history lecture, rather than 11 hours of must-see-TV, the 1976 BBC series, adapted from Robert Graves’1934 historical novel about ancient Rome’s Julio-Claudian dynasty, was indeed the latter, holding viewers in thrall.

While it is possible that at the time of its first run on Masterpiece Theater, my friends and I were more in thrall with the occasional teasing glimpses of semi-nudity than we were with, say, the beauty of Jac Pulman’s writing, the wonder of the performances and complexity of the narrative, over the years I have come to realize that I learned everything I needed to know about politics from watching (and re-watching) I, Claudius.

With such a huge cast of heavyweight actors (many hailing from the Royal Shakespeare Company), it’s no small feat to steal the show…and John Hurt did just that, without blinking, as the mad emperor Caligula. This was my introduction to his work, and I’ve been a fan ever since.

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Midnight Express– If you can get through the first 15 minutes of this 1979 Best Picture nominee without experiencing even the slightest little anxiety attack, well then you are a much bigger man, or woman, than I. Which brings me to my next question: Have you ever been in a Turkish prison? Alan Parker’s almost unbearably intense drama is the next worst thing to actually being there.

Oliver Stone won an Oscar for his adaptation of the screenplay from the eponymous book by Billy Hayes and William Hoffer, which recounted Hayes’ harrowing, real-life experience as an American student who got busted at the airport while attempting to smuggle some hash out of Turkey. The late Brad Davis is nothing short of astonishing as Billy Hayes, but it was John Hurt who caught the Academy’s eye; he earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination (no win, but he did snag a Golden Globe) for his portrayal of a long-time inmate who befriends Billy and becomes a father figure (or junkie uncle?). The film did win an Oscar for Giorgio Moroder’s score.

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The Shout– For some unknown reason, Robert Graves and John Hurt go together like soup and sandwich. This 1978 sleeper was adapted from a Graves story by Michal Austin and its director, Jerzy Skolimowski. Hurt is excellent as a mild-mannered avant-garde musician who lives in a sleepy English hamlet with his wife (Susannah York). When an enigmatic vagabond (Alan Bates) blows into town, their quiet country life begins to go…elsewhere. This is a genre-defying film; somewhere between psychological thriller and culture clash drama. I’ll put it this way-if you like Peter Weir’s The Last Wave, this one is in your wheelhouse. Look for an uncharacteristically low-key Tim Curry in a supporting role.

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The Elephant Man -This 1980 David Lynch film (a Best Picture nominee) dramatizes the bizarre life of Joseph Merrick (Hurt), a 19th Century Englishman afflicted by a physical condition so hideously deforming and upsetting to people that when he entered adulthood, his sole option for survival was to “work” as a sideshow freak. However, when a compassionate surgeon named Frederick Treaves (Anthony Hopkins) entered his life, a whole new world opened up to him.

While there is an inherent grotesqueness to much of the imagery, Lynch treats his subject as respectably and humanely as Dr. Treaves. Beautifully shot in black and white ( by DP Freddie Francis), Lynch’s film has a “steampunk” vibe. Hurt deservedly earned an Oscar nom for his performance, all the more impressive  when you consider how he conveys the intelligence and gentle soul of this man while encumbered by all that prosthetic. Amazing work from the entire cast, which includes Anne Bancroft, Freddie Jones and John Gielgud.

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The Hit– Directed by Stephen Frears and written by Peter Prince, this 1984 sleeper marked a comeback for Terence Stamp, who stars as Willie Parker, a London hood who has “grassed” on his mob cohorts in exchange for immunity. As he is led out of the courtroom following his damning testimony, he is treated to a gruff, spontaneous a cappella rendition of “We’ll Meet Again”. Willie relocates to Spain, where the other shoe finally drops “one sunny day”. Willie is abducted and delivered to a veteran hit man (Hurt) and his “apprentice” (Tim Roth). Willie accepts his situation with a Zen-like calm.

What exactly is going on in Willie’s head? That’s what drives most of the ensuing narrative. As they motor through the scenic Spanish countryside (toward France, where Willie’s former boss awaits for a “reunion”) the trio engages in mind games, taking the story to unexpected places. The dynamic becomes even more interesting when an additional hostage (Laura del Sol) enters the equation.

Hurt’s performance is sheer perfection;  I love the way he portrays his character’s icy detachment slowly unraveling into blackly comic exasperation.While this is essentially a drama, and not a “funny ha-ha” romp, there are black comedy underpinnings revealed upon subsequent viewings. There’s a great score by flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia, and Eric Clapton plays the opening theme.

After my date with tragedy: Jackie ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 24, 2016)

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In his 2009 Vanity Fair article, “A Clash of Camelots”, Sam Kashner gives a fascinating account of the personal price author William Manchester ultimately paid for accepting Jackie Kennedy’s invitation to write an authorized account of JFK’s assassination. Death of a President sold well, but by the time it was published in 1967, Manchester had weathered “…a bitter, headline-making battle with Jackie and Bobby Kennedy.” Among other things, Kashner’s article unveils Manchester’s interesting take on Jackie K. herself:

On April 7, 1964, Jacqueline, dressed in yellow Capri pants and a black jersey, closed the sliding doors behind her in her Georgetown home, and Manchester came face-to-face with the president’s widow for their first official meeting. “Mr. Manchester,” she said in her soft, whispery voice. Manchester was struck by her “camellia beauty” and thought she looked much younger than her 34 years. “My first impression—and it never changed—was that I was in the presence of a very great, tragic actress.… There was a weekend in American history when we needed to be united in our sadness,” he later wrote, and Jacqueline Kennedy had “provided us with an unforgettable performance as the nation’s First Lady.”

That particular aspect of Jacqueline Kennedy’s persona – the “very great, tragic actress” – is a tragedian’s dream, an opportunity seized by director Pablo Larrain and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim, who take it and run with it in the speculative historical drama, Jackie.

The film is fueled by a precisely measured, career-best performance from Natalie Portman in the titular role, and framed by a (fictional) interview session that the recently widowed Jackie has granted to a probing yet acquiescing journalist (Billy Crudup), which serves as the convenient launching platform for a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards.

Most of the narrative focuses on the week following the president’s assassination, as Mrs. Kennedy finds herself immediately thrown into the minutiae of moving her family and belongings out of the White House, planning her husband’s funeral, and preserving his presidential legacy; all while still reeling from the horror and shock of what happened in Dallas just days before (which I’m certain would be enough to completely crack anyone).

Therein lays the genius of this film. Who among us (old enough to remember that day) hasn’t speculated on what it must have been like to be inside Jackie’s head on November 22, 1963? You wake up that sunny fall morning, you’re beautiful, glamorous, admired by millions, and married to the most powerful leader in the free world. By that night, you’re in shock, gobbling tranquilizers like Pez, standing in the cramped galley of Air Force One in a daze, still wearing that gore-spattered pink dress, watching the Vice President being sworn in as the new POTUS…while realizing you are already getting brushed to the side.

No one but Jackie herself will ever truly know what it was like to be inside her head in the wake of this zeitgeist-shattering event, and she took that with her to her grave. That gives the film makers much creative leeway, but there are still many points grounded in reality. For example, it’s no secret that Jackie fiercely (and famously) guarded her privacy; so the insinuations that she shrewdly cultivated her image (in one scene, she demands the right of final edit for the journalist’s article) are not necessarily exaggerated.

That said, the narrative (and crucially, Portman’s performance) is largely internalized; resulting in a film that is more meditative, impressionistic and personalized than your standard-issue historical drama. Two films came to mind while I was watching Jackie that I would consider stylistic cousins: Francois Girard’s 1993 Thirty-Two Short Films about Glenn Gould and Satoshi Kon’s 2001 Millennium Actress; the former for its use of episodic vignettes from its subject’s life to construct a portrait, and the latter for doing the same, but with the added similarity of using a journalist’s interview for a framing device.

Larrain also evokes Kubrick, in his use of classical-style music, meticulously constructed shots (with lovely photography throughout by cinematographer Stephane Fontaine) and deliberate pacing. The film ultimately belongs to Portman, who may not physically resemble Jackie, but uncannily captures her persona, from her “soft, whispery voice” and public poise, to her less-guarded side (replete with chain-smoking and sardonic wit). There is excellent supporting work from the aforementioned Crudup, Peter Sarsgaard (as Robert F. Kennedy), and a cameo by the always wonderful John Hurt (as Jackie’s priest).

Understandably, the question of “why now?” could arise, to which I would reply (paraphrasing JFK)…why not? To be sure, Jacqueline Kennedy’s story has been well-covered in a myriad of documentaries and feature films; like The Beatles, there are very few (if any) mysteries about her life and legacy to uncover at this point. And not to mention that horrible, horrible day in Dallas…do we really need to pay $15 just to see the nightmare reenacted for the umpteenth time? (Spoiler alert: the President dies at the end).

I think that “we” do need to see this film, even if we know going in that there was no “happy ever-aftering” in this Camelot. It reminds us of a “brief, shining moment” when all seemed possible, opportunities were limitless, and everything was going to be all right, because Jack was our king and Jackie was our queen. So what if it was all kabuki, as the film implies; merely a dream, invented by “a great, tragic actress” to unite us in our sadness. Then it was a good dream, and I think we’ll find our Camelot again…someday.

Forward, into the past: A timely reissue of Peter Watkins’ Culloden ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 26, 2016)

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“For some time, [United Kingdom] constitutional nerds such as myself used to float this kind of nightmare scenario, in which one or more parts of the U.K such as Northern Ireland or Scotland [votes to stay in the E.U.], while England, being the largest group [votes to leave the E.U.]…basically those other parts of the U.K. are out-voted. […] Now this has actually happened; this isn’t a nightmare scenario any longer, it’s the reality.”

– Andrew Blick, lecturer in politics and contemporary history (from an interview on CNN, June 24, 2016).

There’s been a substantial amount of speculation among the chattering class over the last 36 hours regarding a possible “contagion effect” on the nations who remain allegiant to the European Union, following the U.K.’s voter-mandated breakaway this past Thursday.

While no one with a modicum of sense and/or logic is expecting World War III to break out next week as a result of the “Brexit” referendum decision, there remain a number of compelling historical reasons why the possibility of profound political and socioeconomic instability in Europe down the road is concerning to those who keep track of such things.

For a continent that encompasses a relatively modest 3,930,000 square miles altogether (for perspective, the United States by itself is 3,806,000 square miles in size), Europe has a densely complex history of political volatility, avarice-driven disputes, willful military aggression and generations-spanning (ruling) family squabbles that boggles the mind.

I’m not saying we haven’t gotten our own hair mussed once or twice here in the good ‘ol U.S. of A; after all, 620,000 people died in the Civil War. That said, 17 million people died in World War I, and an estimated 60 million souls slipped the surly bonds of Earth in the course of World War II. Yes, those were “world” wars, but volatility in Europe was the primary impetus. I guess what I’m saying is, the fact that we have known the existence of a unified Europe in our lifetimes is a blessing that we have taken for granted.

However, as implied by the quote at the top of the post, what makes the Brexit decision even more fascinating to me is the possibility of the U.K. itself splintering apart eventually as a result. Which in effect would be history repeating itself, particularly in the case of Scotland, which voted almost overwhelmingly in favor of remaining in the E.U. In fact, Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon has already announced a plan to keep Scotland in the E.U., as well as noting that drafts are in the works for legislation proposing another vote on Scottish independence from the U.K. (there was one in 2014).

To say that the history between England and Scotland is a “bloody” one would not be overstatement. Consider a particularly nasty bit of business generally referred to as the “Jacobite Uprising” or “The Forty-five Rebellion” (1745-1746). Depending on which historian you’re reading, the conflict was either a clan war betwixt Scottish lowlanders and highlanders, a religious civil war, or a Scottish war of independence against England. For the sake of expediency, I’m going to split the difference and call it “all of the above”.

The culmination of the conflict occurred on April 16, 1745 with the Battle of Culloden:

(from The National Trust for Scotland website)

Towards one o’clock, the Jacobite artillery opened fire on government soldiers. The government responded with their own cannon, and the Battle of Culloden began.

Bombarded by cannon shot and mortar bombs, the Jacobite clans held back, waiting for the order to attack. At last they moved forwards, through hail, smoke, murderous gunfire and grapeshot. Around eighty paces from their enemy they started to fire their muskets and charged. Some fought ferociously. Others never reached their goal. The government troops had finally worked out bayonet tactics to challenge the dreaded Highland charge and broadsword. The Jacobites lost momentum, wavered, then fled.

Hardly an hour had passed between the first shots and the final flight of the Prince’s army. Although a short battle by European standards, it was an exceptionally bloody one.

Culloden was not only “an exceptionally bloody” battle, but holds distinction as the last such pitched battle to be fought on British soil. Although the slaughter did not stop there:

(from The New World Encyclopedia website)

After their victory, Cumberland ordered his men to execute all the Jacobite wounded and prisoners, an act by which he was known afterwards as “the Butcher.” Certain higher-ranking prisoners did survive to be tried and executed later in Inverness. […]

Immediately after the battle, Cumberland rode into Inverness, his drawn sword still covered in blood, a symbolic and menacing gesture. The following day, the slaughter continued, when patrols were sent back to the battlefield to kill any survivors; contemporary sources indicate that about 70 more Jacobites were killed as a result…

[…] 3,470 Jacobites, supporters, and others were taken prisoner in the aftermath of Culloden, with 120 of them being executed and 88 dying in prison; 936 transported to the colonies, and 222 more “banished.” While many were eventually released, the fate of nearly 700 is unknown.

The Rebellion left a profound cultural impact on Scotland as well. From the same article:

[The ’45 Rebellion] had enormous psychological impact upon the Highland Scots, and severe civil penalties thereafter (for example, it became a criminal offense to wear tartan plaid). What followed can be described as cultural vandalism, with the destruction of a way of life that many had found meaningful, giving them a sense of identity and kinship.

So how does this all tie in with the Brexit vote? In a well-written 2011 Daily Kos piece inspired by the (then) 265th anniversary of the Battle of Culloden, OP OllieGarky notes:

Cameron and Thatcher’s recent ruthlessness towards Scottish public institutions is nothing new. It is a pale relic of previous attempts to rebuild Scotland into a properly British province, according to whatever fashion the current leaders took. […]

Culloden and its aftermath is an emotional issue for the Scottish Diaspora. Depending on your definition, how you include or exclude individuals from the Diaspora, the Diaspora outnumbers the population of Scotland by no less than 12 to one. This loss of people has been disastrous for Scotland in recent years, leading to the rise of the Scottish National Party. […]

The Scottish Nationalists are Nationalists in name only. They don’t espouse any of the ethnocentric bile typical of traditional Nationalist groups like the BNP, or White Nationalists in the US. Indeed, the music of Scottish Nationalism is disgusted with the ethnocentric ideas that are themselves an integral part of the BNP’s British Nationalism, or its predecessor the National Front’s English Nationalism.

It’s no secret that there was an undercurrent of anti-immigrant nativism streaking through rhetoric spouted by some of the high profile spokespersons in the “leave the E.U.” camp.

Which (finally) brings us to writer-director Peter Watkins’ largely forgotten, yet somewhat groundbreaking made-for BBC-TV docudrama from 1964 entitled Culloden. The film has been newly remastered for a beautifully-transferred “two-fer” (Region “B” only) Blu-ray release from BFI that also includes Watkins’ more well-known (and controversial) 1965 BBC docudrama The War Game (****), which is an unblinking, startlingly realistic envisioning of the after-effects of a nuclear attack on the city of Kent.

Truth be told, the primary reason I ordered the set was to snag a copy of The War Game; I was previously unaware of Culloden (it never aired outside of the U.K., unlike The War Game, which gained its higher profile from international cinematic distribution in 1966, subsequently earning it an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature back in 1967).

It is by pure kismet that I just happened to view Culloden for the first time about 2 weeks ago, so it’s fresh in my mind; otherwise I likely never would have connected this relatively obscure battle that took place 270 years ago with the results of the Brexit referendum just this past Thursday. At any rate, I was happy to discover this gem, which is very much in the vein of Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. While he shares Kubrick’s eye for detail and neorealist capture of the horror of battle, Watkins does him one better:

(From David Archibald’s essay, written for the companion booklet to the BFI Blu-ray)

“Culloden” emerged at the high point in British television. In 1956 Bertolt Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble toured Britain for the first time, and the company’s non-Aristotelian, distanciation techniques, which attempted to highlight theater’s constructed nature and, in turn, politicize the spectator, were becoming increasingly popular among leftist theater-makers […]

The experimental and constructed nature of [“Culloden”] is all-too apparent: on-location shooting; fourth-wall breaking direct address to the camera; repeated, shaky camera work; tight close-ups on the protagonists’ faces and the presence of a narrator who describes events as if reporting on the daily news.

The anachronistic conceit that Watkins employs cannily presages the advent of the “mockumentary” (although you will discover nothing “funny” is going on in the course of the film’s 69 minutes). Yet there is nothing “gimmicky” about it, in fact, the overall effect is quite powerful and involving. As Archibald goes on to conclude in his essay:

Yet this is not simply an adaptation of [John Prebbles’ eponymous 1962 book] but stands in its own right as a legitimate historical representation of an important chapter in Scottish and British history. […]

[Peter Watkins] never returned to television [following “The War Game” in 1965], but he leaves behind a brace of innovative yet accessible, provocative yet popular documentaries, which remain strikingly fresh and politically potent.

Here are 2 things I know to be true: Culloden is strikingly fresh. And history is cyclical.

 

(BFI’s Blu-ray is Region “B”; it requires a region-free player for viewing!)

Shaker meets Quaker: Elvis & Nixon **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 23, 2016)

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While the line dividing politics from show-biz has always been tenuous, the White House meeting between Elvis Aaron Presley and Richard Milhous Nixon in 1970 remains one of the more surreal moments in United States presidential history. From Smithsonian.com:

Around noon, Elvis arrived at the White House with Schilling and bodyguard Sonny West, who’d just arrived from Memphis. Arrayed in a purple velvet suit with a huge gold belt buckle and amber sunglasses, Elvis came bearing a gift—a Colt .45 pistol mounted in a display case that Elvis had plucked off the wall of his Los Angeles mansion.

Which the Secret Service confiscated before Krogh escorted Elvis—without his entourage—to meet Nixon.

“When he first walked into the Oval Office, he seemed a little awe-struck,” Krogh recalls, “but he quickly warmed to the situation.”

While White House photographer Ollie Atkins snapped photographs, the president and the King shook hands. Then Elvis showed off his police badges.

Nixon’s famous taping system had not yet been installed, so the conversation wasn’t recorded. But Krogh took notes: “Presley indicated that he thought the Beatles had been a real force for anti-American spirit. The President then indicated that those who use drugs are also those in the vanguard of anti-American protest.”

“I’m on your side,” Elvis told Nixon, adding that he’d been studying the drug culture and Communist brainwashing. Then he asked the president for a badge from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs.

“Can we get him a badge?” Nixon asked Krogh.

Krogh said he could, and Nixon ordered it done.

Elvis was ecstatic. “In a surprising, spontaneous gesture,” Krogh wrote, Elvis “put his left arm around the President and hugged him.”

I’ll bet you thought E was going to say, “Thank ya, sir…thankyahveramuch.” Amirite?

He very well may have, but since there is no verbatim transcript, it’s up for conjecture. Which brings us to Liza Johnson’s featherweight yet passably entertaining Elvis & Nixon.

Co-writers Joey Sagal (who, interestingly, played an Elvis-like character for the premiere run of Steve Martin’s play Picasso at the Lapin Agile), Hanala Sagal, and Cary Elwes frame their screenplay with the most oft-recounted anecdotal lore surrounding the meet, shored up by a fair amount of creative license. Of course, this device (nowadays referred to as “fan fiction”) is nothing new. There have been a number of such explorations done on both figures; at least one featuring them together (the 1997 TV film Elvis Meets Nixon).

What makes this romp eminently watchable are its two leads: Michael Shannon (as Elvis) and Kevin Spacey (as Nixon). While this is far from a career highlight for either, they both have the chops to rise above the uneven script and carry the day. It does take a bit of acclimation to accept the hulking Shannon as Elvis; but he is subtle enough as a character actor to convincingly transform himself into The King, despite the fact that has no physical resemblance to his real-life counterpart (neither does Spacey, for that matter, but he utilizes his gift for voice mimicry to really capture Nixon to a tee).

The film is  farcical in tone, but there are brief flashes of pathos. In a scene recalling De Niro’s “who am I?” dressing room soliloquy in Raging Bull, Shannon gazes into a mirror and laments about how disassociated he feels from “Elvis” the legend. It’s a genuinely touching moment. Spacey gets to flex his instrument in a monologue where he reflects to Elvis on their commonalities; how both men rose up from humble roots to achieve greatness (yes, I know…depends on how you define “greatness”).

It’s based on historical fact, but not don’t expect any new revelations. You may forget what you’ve just watched by the time you get back to your car, but political junkies will get some laughs. There are stretches where the film threatens to morph into a glorified SNL sketch, but at a short running time of 87 minutes, it’s over before you know it. If only I could say the same for the 2016 election…

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Wolves, bison & bears…oh my: The Revenant ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 16, 2016)

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“Nah, man…I gotta remember: NEVER get outta the boat!”

-from Apocalypse Now

If there’s one thing I’ve learned reading Jack London and Joseph Conrad and watching countless adventure movies over the years, it’s this: never get out of the goddamn boat. Remember what happened in Apocalypse Now, when they got out of the boat? Aguirre, the Wrath of God? The 7th Voyage of Sinbad? Uh, Deliverance? It very rarely ends well.

Latest case in point: Alejandro Inarritu’s sprawling survivalist epic, The Revenant. Once “they” get out of the boat, everything goes to hell in a hand basket; in this case, an authentic, hand-woven hand basket crafted by authentic First Nation peoples, in an authentic rustic setting. Inarritu’s film is not only steeped in gritty and authentic Old West verisimilitude, but tells its tale in real time. OK, I’m exaggerating-it’s only 3 hours.

The story is set in the early 19th Century, “somewhere” in the Rocky Mountain region of the Louisiana Purchase (I assume, as there are Frenchmen wearing fur hats lurking about). Leo DiCaprio stars as a crackerjack woodsman named Hugh. He and his half-Native American son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) have hired on as guides for a pelt-hunting expedition.

After the party is ambushed by Indians, Hugh leads the survivors into the deep woods. While temporarily separated from the party, Hugh is severely mauled by an actual “grizzly mom” (it is the film’s most harrowing scene, which is really saying a lot).

His compatriots find him, barely alive, and begin to carry him along. However, they soon find the terrain too daunting to navigate with a stretcher. Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), one of the more mercenary members of the party, suggests putting Hugh out of his misery so they can make tracks.

The party’s Captain (Domhnall Gleeson, son of Brendan) briefly considers the option, but decides to leave Hugh in the care of Hawk and a young volunteer named Jim Bridger (Will Poulter…playing who I can only assume is the Jim Bridger of legend, since the screenwriters take no pains to elucidate). One more man is needed, but the Captain has to first sweeten the pot with the offer of a reward. Guess who steps up? If you guessed our mercenary friend with dubious motivations, you are correct.

What ensues earns what I like to call my “3G” rating (Grueling, Grinding, and Gruesome). It’s a quasi-biblical, “to hell and back” tale of betrayal, suffering, fortitude and (drum roll please)…redemption. It’s also a bit of the aforementioned for the viewer, as he or she is required to channel the patience of Job while awaiting the redemption part.

Which reminds me of a funny story. Around halfway through, I had to excuse myself for a few minutes (hey-let’s see you try making it through a 3 hour flick with a 59 year-old prostate…and fellow sufferers be warned that the sights and sounds of babbling brooks, surging rivers and roiling rapids abound throughout).

Anyway, as I left the auditorium, I noted that the recovering but not yet fully ambulatory Leo was slowly, painfully, crawling through brambles. I go do my thing; when I return to my seat several minutes later, I note Leo is still slowly, painfully crawling through brambles. I whispered to my friend, “So I take it I didn’t miss anything?” He confirmed that my intuition was spot on.

While I stand by my conviction that the film would not have suffered from judicious trimming, it still has much to recommend it, particularly for fans of adventures like Black Robe, The New World, The Last of the Mohicans, Dances with Wolves, Never Cry Wolf, or The Naked Prey.

In context of its striking visual poetry, there is one film that must have inspired Inarritu and/or his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, and that is Letter Never Sent, Mikhail Kalatozov’s tale about a squartet of Russian geologists who become trapped by a wildfire while diamond-hunting in Siberia. The 1960 film was breathtakingly photographed by Sergey Urusevskiy, also renowned for his work on Kalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying and I Am Cuba (my review).

Like Urusevskiy, Lubezki fuses natural light wide-angle photography with classically composed long shots and audacious hand-held takes that make you scratch your head and wonder “how in the hell did the camera operator shoot that without running into a tree?!”

The director and screenwriter Mark L. Smith co-adapted their screenplay from Michael Punke’s 2002 book The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge. I didn’t realize until doing a little research after seeing the film that Hugh Glass was a real-life trapper and frontiersman (how I know who Jim Bridger is, yet have never heard of this guy…is one of life’s mysteries).

I also learned this is not the first film based on Glass’ exploits; that honor goes to a 1971 western called Man in the Wilderness, directed by Richard C. Sarfian (how I know and love Sarfian’s 1971 classic Vanishing Point, yet have never heard of his other 1971 film…is another of life’s mysteries).

What isn’t such a mystery are the 12 Oscar nominations, which include Best Actor and Supporting Actor for DiCaprio and Hardy. DiCaprio earns his statue for the al fresco dining alone (you’ll know when you see it). Hardy is perfect playing a character who could be an ancestor for those mountain men in Deliverance. And I can’t emphasize this enough: Never, never get outta the boat.

Gall Street: The Big Short ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 2, 2016)

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In my 2010 review of the documentary Inside Job, I wrote:

I have good news and bad news about Charles Ferguson’s incisive parsing of what led to the crash of the global financial system in 2008. The good news is that I believe I finally grok what “derivatives” and “toxic loans” are. The bad news is…that doesn’t make me feel any better about how fucked we are.

Remember 2008? That financial crisis thingie? Well, it’s time to dust off the pitchfork. Good news first? Writer-director Adam McKay and co-scripter Charles Randolph have (somehow) adapted Michael Lewis’ 2010 non-fiction book The Big Short into an outstanding comedy-drama that doubles as an incisive parsing of what led to the crash of the global financial system. The bad news…it made me pissed off about it all over again.

Yes, it’s a bitter pill to swallow, this ever-maddening tale of how we (meaning your everyday, average hard-working American taxpayer) stood by, completely unsuspecting and blissfully unaware, as unchecked colonies of greedy, lying Wall Street investment bankers were eventually able to morph into the parasitic gestalt monster journalist Matt Taibbi famously compared to a “…great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”

However, what differentiates McKay’s film from the aforementioned documentary is its surprisingly effervescent candy-coating, which helps the medicine go down. For example, he sprinkles his narrative with helpful, interstitial tutorials that annotate some of the financial vernacular that gets tossed about. And as far as helpful, interstitial tutorials go, one could do worse than watching lovely Australian actress Margot Robbie take a bubble bath as she delivers an authoritative dissertation as to how junk bonds are created.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. There are other elements that help the film work as beautifully as it does; for one the impressive number of A-list cast members (shocking, when you consider the subject matter wouldn’t likely strike your typical Hollywood green-lighter to be as bankable as, let’s say…a story that is set in a galaxy far, far, away).

The narrative has several threads, encircling a quirky, Oscar-baiting turn by Christian Bale as Dr. Michael Burry, a hedge fund manager (and possible Asperger’s sufferer) who appears to be a savant with numbers and financial trend spotting. He is one of the first to not only spot the needle heading for the “bubble”, but to figure out how investors, armed with such foreknowledge (and bereft of conscience) could become incredibly filthy rich.

Initially of course, everyone thinks he’s nuts. But as word gets around that the big banks (through oversight and pure greed) may have created an Achilles heel for themselves that could be exploited by a savvy few (at the expense of, oh I don’t know…the rest of us?) a few other players enter the story (played with equal aplomb by Steve Carrell, Ryan Gosling, and Brad Pitt). What makes these four primary characters compelling is that while each has disparate motivations, they all share one trait: thinking outside of the box.

McKay cleverly employs a variation of the network narrative; all of the primary characters may not literally cross paths, yet once all is said and done, you come to understand how each of them represents (if I may extrapolate on Mr. Taibbi’s cephalopod theme) a mutually exclusive tentacle of that great vampire squid, jamming and sucking.

Ew. I think that’s the most disgusting sentence I’ve ever written. Anyway…see this film!

Blu-ray reissue: Breaker Morant ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 5, 2015)

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Breaker Morant– The Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Few films have conveyed the madness of war more succinctly than Bruce Bereford’s moving 1980 drama. Based on a true story, it recounts the courts martial of three Australian officers (Edward Woodard, Bryan Brown and Lewis Fitz-gerald) by their British higher-ups during the Boer War. The three are accused of shooting enemy prisoners (even though they did so under orders from superior officers). They are hastily assigned a military lawyer (a fellow Australian) with no previous experience in criminal defense (Jack Thompson, in a star-making performance), who surprises even himself with his passion and resourcefulness in the face of stacked odds. Marvelously acted and tightly directed, with an intelligent script by Beresford, Jonathan Hardy and David Stevens (from Kenneth G. Ross’ play). It’s a perfect film in every way.

Criterion’s Blu-ray sports a sharp transfer and extras that lend deeper historical context.