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False Witness (2009)
Tourist Authority video-postcard posing as thriller, or vice versa?
When I watched Part I of this two-part series (sight unseen, no peeking at the newspaper blurb), my immediate reaction was that it HAD to be an international co-production, since it suffers from that curious and embarrassing mannerism of nearly all productions made jointly by two (or three) national broadcasters, namely a perceived need to show countless clichéd images of the countries and cities concerned, presumably so that the Aussies can see "what London looks like" and the Brits can see how nine kinds of wonderful Sydney is.
Hence the action was punctuated every few seconds with expensive helicopter footage of locations like the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the London Eye, the Sydney Opera House, Big Ben, the Gherkin, St. Paul's, Piccadilly Circus by night (have I left anyone out?) and we got no authentic sense of "place" at all, simply bleeding chunks of what some imagination-challenged advertising agency thinks tourists want to see, OUGHT to see.
This approach actually seems a little pathetic and lacking in national self-confidence for a mini-series made in 2009 (and not a film from 1959), as though the show somehow still felt obliged to serve up eye-candy vignettes of the places to be at all "relevant".
The British do not feel a similar need for these postcard shots when they are working alone and/or for a domestic audience, and I rather doubted the Australians would really be so gauche that they think their own grown-ups need to be treated to an open-top-bus sightseeing tour between snippets of violence or dialogue.
Well... it turns out I was dead wrong about the co-production angle. It seems to be an OZ production plain and simple (and several people have mocked the wandering accents of the cast, too), sold on to UKTV, whose involvement was thus presumably only financial and not "artistic".
I'm not sure what that says about the mindset of the makers (or perhaps after all they got seed-money from the NSW Tourism Development Office and other similar instances in the UK), but personally I found the tacky inserts immensely intrusive and annoying, and I couldn't help thinking that if they had spent less on them and more on the nuts & bolts of script and direction (and had even hired an actor with a smidgen of dramatic skills and no facial paralysis to play Ian Porter) they might instead have been able to create a thriller that held my attention.
Still, they are definitely not the first to fall into this trap, and sure as hell they won't be the last. Unfortunately.
Freedom's Fury (2006)
Hugely impressive; surpassed all expectations
I'll admit I had misgivings. Was this going to be a hackneyed, pathos-dripping American documentary with a naïve voice-over commentary, relegating the "local talent" to the role of extras and curiosities? Within two or three minutes it was obvious it was not - there is a sensitivity and an unhurried feel (though there is action enough for anyone, in and out of the water) to the making of this film that could teach many a lesson. The protagonists are given room to tell their story, and - particularly in the case of those who lived the Uprising and several very articulate and immensely likable members of the Hungarian Olympic side - they grab it with both hands and effectively take things over.
The history, and the tragedy of what went down in the fall of 1956, is also presented in detail and not in sound-bites for the attention-deficient, and you are left with a feeling that everyone involved knew that they were dealing with a subject that deserved their full attention, and that they had amazing picture material that should be allowed to speak for itself. Gripping, heartwarming, uplifting, some seamless blending of archive footage and modern recreations, and worthy of a much larger audience.
Kudos to Mark Spitz, too, for a job well done, but then again, when you read the final credits you know why - how could he have DARED to let his old schoolboy coach down?
As a side observation, it was good to see the members of the defeated Soviet water polo team in good cheer. When the Soviet Union's football team was defeated by Yugoslavia at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, just four years after Tito had humiliated Stalin politically, the players did not fare quite so well. Stalin had expected much more out of the country's first appearance at the Olympics. He immediately disbanded CSKA Moscow, who had provided most of the national side, the result of the game was not published in the USSR until 1954 (a year after his death), and many of the unfortunate players (let's face it, they only had the bad luck to come up against a very very good Yugoslav team, who took the silver medals behind the magnificent Hungarians and Ferenc Puskas) allegedly wound up in labour camps. At least Nikita Khrushchev did not stoop THAT low in 1956. There is also quite a good TV-documentary about this particularly ugly footnote in footballing history, but I cannot for the life of me find it now...
Until seeing this train-wreck, I firmly believed "Cutthroat Island" was a shoo-in for the worst hour and a half of cinema in human history. However, everything is relative, and Renny Harlin's name now ranks alongside the best of Buñuel, Bergman, Bertolucci, anyone else whose name begins with B, or indeed any other letter.
This film stank to high heaven, and is truly remarkable for not having a single redeeming feature. The fact that it can have grossed over USD 85 million in the United States or that it scores nearly 7/10 on here does not surprise me in the least, but I am shocked that it took as much as USD 5 million in receipts in the rest of the world - I had unwisely imagined that elsewhere humankind had evolved.
I hope the pooch Baxter went on to better things. This dog was a seriously bad career move for him. As for the other actors, who really cares?
Approaching "Cracker" standard
That's the Robbie Coltrane "Cracker", mind you, and not the awful American remake.
The series has tried to get there, but until now the criminals have been, well, a little second-rate, and Goren has bullied and besserwissered his way all too easily. This episode was a refreshing change, with some chinks in his armour showing up.
On the whole it was also excellently and intelligently scripted, although you could see that Moynihan crack about "academic fights being so vicious because the stakes are so small" coming a mile away. It is unlikely that the speaker would have needed to remind the person she was talking to about something QUITE so obvious...
Otherwise, congratulations all round! The concept of a 1,000-page dissertation on Dylan as T.S. Eliot's and Ezra Pound's love-child hardly bears thinking about - but it's probably been written.
Dancer in the Dark (2000)
Bergman meets Seven Brides meets Pennies from Heaven
An impressive mélange, in which early Ingmar Bergman surfaces, we get a whiff of a "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" style all-singing-all dancing lumberjack number (on the train), and the overall feel is akin to that of Dennis Potter's "Pennies from Heaven" (no, NOT the crappy film version), right down to the courtroom travesty and the tragic misunderstandings and the lead's inability to cope with the real world but her aptness for a make-believe universe of Hollywood numbers and romantic songs. Excellent casting that defies the odds - who'd have thought Björk could have pulled it off? - and a sombre mesmerising quality that persuades one to keep watching (saw it on TV) even though the beginning is a bit shaky and you know it's only going to end in tears. Easy to see how it caused such diverging opinions in Cannes, and doubly easy to see why some people prefer the spectacle and glitz of "Moulin Rouge" - a film that doesn't come within a country mile of it for power.
Moulin Rouge! (2001)
...go back to the source.
Yes, this was an enjoyable, hallucinogenic, MTV-video-and-sampling-era piece, but much of the hyperbole written by admirers here is probably from the keyboards of those so young they were never fortunate enough to have seen Pennies From Heaven.
No, not that dire 90-minute Hollywood version (what WAS Potter thinking of, anyway?), but the original 1978 TV miniseries featuring Bob Hoskins and Cheryl Campbell. Sure, Baz Luhrmann lays it all on with a trowel, with Meliés moons and even a touch of Murnau tossed in there, but he succeeded more in hurting my eyes than actually blowing my neurons.
Dennis Potter's Pennies from Heaven, swiftly followed by a dose of the even more potent magic of The Singing Detective (1986), would make this film seem very shallow. Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing much but a grasp of fast-food moviemaking and cutting for the attention-challenged. But then again, Pennies From Heaven has 48 votes, and Moulin Rouge had over 20,000 at the last count, so what does that tell you?
Beg, steal, or borrow a copy of the original Pennies From Heaven and then see if what glitters now in Moulin Rouge really IS gold.
P.S. Ewan McGregor made his small-screen début in another Potter production, the slightly iffy but still infinitely superior Lipstick on Your Collar (1993). I wonder how HE compares the two works?
A small gem
Don't let this pass you by. Evocative, funny, poignant, and tragic by turns, it leaves you with a warm feeling and a sense of puzzlement: if they can make things as good as this, how come we have to put up with so much dross? Great ensemble playing, great music, stand-out miniature performances from Christine Lahti, Mercedes Ruehl, Rosie Perez, and Gregory Hines, but the icing on the cake is a chilling song from Taryl Hicks in "Sax Cantor Riff". The musical close under the credits was also a knock-out.
Quote of the movie: "Only in New York..."
Still Crazy (1998)
"Here... I've got one - it's got THREE bits of the body in it!"
...Heads, Hands, and Feet - a band from the past, just like Strange Fruit. A triple whammy there. Those who have professed not to like this film are either heartless or under 40, and have had no experience of the real thing. Sad for them. This is an achingly well-observed little picture that is an excellent way of passing an hour or two, and will probably not even fade much on the second showing. Stephen Rae, Timothy Spall as the fat drummer (in many ways quite the most delightful figure of all), and Bill Nighy - a new name for me - as the neurotic vocalist and front man all turn in super performances, and Juliet Aubrey has lovely doe eyes to go with some sharp acting as Karen, who tries to hold the band together as they spectacularly self-destruct.
The Syd Barrett/Brian Wilson echoes are loud and clear, Mott the Hoople rear up before one in all their inflated ridiculousness, and the script is never mawkish for more than a minute. Don't compare this with Spinal Tap or The Rutles or The Full Monty - it's unfair on all of them. The nearest comparison is The Commitments, and that's no bad thing. And any film that can conjure up memories of Blodwyn Pig - a band I do not remember ever seeing, but the name lives on - well, it shows somebody in the team knew what they were on about.
A small delight, and thanks for the memory.
Oh... and I've got ANOTHER one - Stiff Little Fingers; a-a-and what about SteelEYE Span... Spooky TOOTH... Ten Inch NAILS anyone? (You have to see the movie or have been on the road)