The Birdcatcher **** 2019

One of the interesting things about the streaming revolution, or rather the tier of film-making and distribution that’s opened up alongside traditional theatrical and DVD/TV, is that some familiar genres have been resurrected back into the mainstream. There’s clearly a substantial audience for high-quality historical drama; Ross Clarke’s The Birdcatcher sits nicely alongside such recent entries at The 12th Man in offering old-fashioned bravery as a welcome central virtue.

It’s clear from the opening frames of The Bird Catcher that Esther (Sarah-Sofie Boussnina) is no ordinary girl; a camera-move around a statue of her suggests that her experience will be one that won’t be forgotten in a hurry. The Nazi occupation of Trondheim, Norway causes Esther to lose first her family, and her escape from the German forces appears temporary until she decides to find a different form of refuge; she disguises herself as a young boy.

Esther’s dreams of Hollywood are set against the grim realities and sufferings of Nordic Jews circa 1942, and The Birdcatcher manages to create a unique identity for itself by displaying considerable sensitivity to the main character’s unique situation, with a largely female crew bringing it to life. This isn’t a gender-swap film, but a heartfelt tribute to those who fought and suffered against an impossible situation; The Birdcatcher gets genuine tension from Esther’s predicament, living with a young disabled boy and his father, who sympathises with the Nazis, leading to inevitable complications and a fiery, satisfying dénouement.

Esther’s story is so remarkable that it might stretch credulity at times, as gender-swapping stories often do, but Clarke’s film gets some leeway for reflecting the intensity of Esther’s experience of her escape to Sweden. There’s melodrama here, for sure, but the film reflects an extreme moment in history, and The Birdcatcher deserves respect for spinning an entertaining story around events too dark to take centre stage. Brutal films have been made on this subject, Shoah for one; a little artifice is no great sin when attempting to lure an audience back to such painful but rewarding material.

The Birdcatcher makes for good home viewing on streaming, but is best seen in the cinema if possible, by dint of the crisp, atmospheric photography. It has also been selected to be the attractions at the Jewish Film Festival, which tours UK cinemas in November 2019; more films from the programme will be featured on this blog closer to the time.

Signature Entertainment presents The Birdcatcher in Cinemas, Digital HD & DVD from 4th October

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Two-Lane Blacktop 1971 *****

two-lane-blacktop-vintage-movie-poster-original-40x60-2989Having a car seems like a full time job in Monte Hellman’s Two Lane Blacktop, a road movie that sits neatly in the slipstream of Easy Rider and Vanishing Point. The subject is a cross-country road race, and the film was one of the inspirations for the Cannonball Run race. But we’re not talking celebrity cameos and car crashes here, and although we see several illegal car races, this isn’t franchise material either, although Fast and Furious Presents; Two Lane Blacktop is a title that potentially intrigues. Singer James Taylor and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson are two men who race their souped-up jalopy in one small-town after another; they soon pick up a girl, and get into a rivalry with GTO (Warren Oates). How GTO got his dazzling yellow sports car is never fully explained; the truth is not in him, and yet an odd friendship develops from their rivalry. All the characters are ciphers; as in Walter Hill’s The Driver, they are named for their function; Girl, Driver, Mechanic. GTO functions much like Jack Nicholson’s character in Easy Rider, an emblem of a lifestyle that the protagonists still can’t help but reject, even if he’s still pretty counter-culture. A downbeat line about the life-cycle of cicadas nails the film’s sociological ideas pretty succinctly, and the studied naturalism is something of a joy. Two Lane Blacktop has been tough to find and locate over the last fifty years, but it’s really worth the effort. Wikipedia’s plot summary says, “The film ends abruptly’ but that’s something of a dry understatement; it ends as it begins, in an unconventional style that’s rarely been bettered.

 

Once Upon a Time In… Hollywood 2019 *****

Few films have had as little similarity to expectations as Inglorious Bastards; what was touted as a ‘men on a mission’ movie along the lines of The Dirty Dozen turned out to have a remarkably meandering narrative including one lengthy scene in which characters, never seen before or again, play charades in the cellar of a bar for quite a chunk of time. Quentin Tarantino’s latest film takes a similarly picaresque approach; with two big stars, we assume a buddy comedy/bromance with the Manson family killings lurking somewhere in the background or foreground. That’s not at all what gets delivered, and that’s a good thing; alarm bells rang when Tarantino announced the setting (year, place) or this film, but Charles Manson is only fleetingly depicted and the actual killings are thankfully not within the film’s scope. That’s not to say that Once Upon doesn’t examine in granular detail exactly what Tarantino imagines was going-down between hippies, cults and conservatives in 1969, the film just doesn’t examine them in the way we expect. Instead, we have a rollercoaster ride, one that takes so long to get started that most thrill-seekers will be ready to demand their money back, then accelerates to a surprising climax so vigorous and satisfying the customers are left begging for another go round. As Cliff Booth and Rick Dalton, Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio look older and rather less cool than in previous ventures, but the coolness they embody is earned rather than cosmetic. They knock around a sun-kissed Hollywood, but their lives are less than glamorous; Dalton struggles to remember his lines on set while Booth dutifully repairs his tv antennae. The action slows to a crawl to cover non-events such as Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) going to the cinema, Dalton reading a book while chatting to a child actor, or Booth feeding his dog. But each of these scenes, long, protracted and seemingly meaningless, turn out to imbue the tale with significant value by the final scene, which like Pulp Fiction, carves out a happy ending in the face of an known tragedy. Once Upon a Time In… Hollywood has got the impacted layers of a great film; there’s a thousand minor details to be patiently unpacked, and a unique picture once the jigsaw is finally assembled. Sociologically-aware moments like Booth’s gradual realisation of the manner in which a familiar ranch as been co-opted by hippies have a haunting, original angle on history that’s completely out of tune with the shallow, derivative approach that most film-makers take to their material. If True Romance was a Greatest Hits package, Once Upon a Time…sees a lauded, popular artist finally finding their own unique voice.

True Romance 1992 *****

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The late Tony Scott was something of a cinematic powerhouse, whose work was consistently underrated; a note on his Wikipedia page says that after The Hunger, he stopped reading the vitriolic reviews his film inspired. Most of these critics are long gone now, but Scott’s canon endures; hits like Top Gun, Crimson Tide and Enemy of the State are all better than average blockbusters, but his other works are remarkable in their consistency; Revenge, The Last Boy Scout, Man on Fire or Unstoppable would be highlights in any director’s resume, whether they appeased the public or not. His best film was a flop; 1992’s True Romance gave Scott a super-hot script, and he did it proud; Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette are ideal as Clarence and Alabama, young newly-weds who scram from snowy Detroit to sunny LA after he romantically murders her pimp Drexl (Gary Oldman under dreadlocks and prosthetics). All kinds of talent are shown to their best advantage here, from Bronson Pinochet’s coke-addled flunky to Brad Pitt’s avuncular stoner Floyd via James Gandolfini’s memorable thug. Scott creates the requisite tension, but also creates two vibrant, dynamic worlds for his characters to inhabit. And at the centre is one of cinema’s greatest scenes; a confrontation between Clarence’s cop father Clifford (Dennis Hopper) and mobster Cocotti (Christopher Walken). Two experienced actors with some great dialogue; Scott gets the best out of them as Cocotti’s threats raise Clifford’s awareness of his predicament. From the moment Clifford accepts his last cigarette, the dynamics of the scene change and it becomes a meditation on defiance in the face of death. Ridley Scott has given interviews regarding the family history of cancer which throw some light on his brother’s suicide; Scott’s elegiac handling of True Romance’s highpoint throws further illumination. Unfairly derided as a man who placed style over content, Tony Scott was in the deep end while most directors were just splashing in the shallows.

The Unbelievable Truth 1989 ***

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Hal Hartley is an American auteur whose best work deserves better than being dropped into a dusty oubliette. Before the highs of Amateur and Henry Fool, his debut The Unbelievable Truth features a simple story, careful performances, a delicate air of comedy and drama, and a number of other elements rarely seen in US indie cinema until the rise of mumblecore. Audry (Adrienne Shelly) lives in a small town, and she’s just broken up with her boyfriend. Josh (Robert John Burke) arrives with charm to burn, but also a dubious reputation; he’s just out of jail, and various whispers suggest he not only killed his girlfriend, but her father too. The truth, of course, is rather more believable than that, but Hartley’s film neatly dovetails the stripping away of the lies about Josh with Audry’s modelling career, which seems to involve fewer clothes with each gig. Popping up on Amazon streaming services might bring Hartley’s offbeat approach to a new audience; his use of space and silence is somewhat refreshing in today’s post MTV world, and The Unbelievable Truth shows the strength of the US indie scene before the Tarantinos and Soderberghs arrive to shake things up.

Driven 2018 *****

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History has probably judged John DeLorean harshly; by 2019’s standards of corrupt behaviour, he looks like he had an integrity that today’s business leaders lack. Most industrialists, faced with a loss-making plant going bankrupt, automatically drain the pension fund into their personal accounts and set sail on the nearest yacht with a bevy of idiot models. DeLorean’s response was to try and save his Northern Ireland plant, and the workers’ jobs, by engineering a massive cocaine deal; not good behaviour, but it’s hard to argue that the great man didn’t put himself on the line big time to keep the dream alive. The delayed release of Nick Hamm’s drama on the subject doesn’t suggest good things, but it’s more likely that that comedy/drama tone has flummoxed bean-counters; Jason Sudeikis plays Jim Hoffman, a dubious character who finds himself living next-door to DeLorean, played with charisma levels set to overload by Lee Pace. DeLorean dreams of making a wonder car; ‘Your flying car doesn’t fly,’ someone unhelpfully points out, and Hamm’s film makes a point of exposing DeLorean as a fraud, but also refashions him as a hero. This is a Great Gatsby for the 1980’s, with Jim as a venal Nick Carraway, swept to the side-lines in the wake of DeLorean’s passage. ‘You’re not a bad man, you’re just an idiot,’ says Jim’s wife Ellen (Judy Greer), and Sudeikis correctly plays Jim broadly as a buffoon. Meanwhile, Pace does a phenomenal job of bringing DeLorean to life, railing about the detail of business copyrights, sulking about losing Ping Pong matches and generally being the man-child that most men aspire to be. The famous car is largely left off-screen, apart for a perfect, wry coda; Driven is a very entertaining film that should find a big audience on streaming; Back to The Future fans, petrol-heads and true-crime aficionados will find plenty here to draw them in, not lead Pace’s mesmerising performance.

https://www.amazon.com/Driven-Jason-Sudeikis/dp/B07VY9VY1T/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=driven&qid=1566234502&s=gateway&sr=8-1

Childless 2008 ****

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Another entry in the growing file of vanished films; writer/director Charlie Levi’s film Childless gained some traction on the film festival circuit and won a few friends in 2018. In 2015, it snuck out on limited release, yet somehow there’s no actual reviews on the imdb page from professional critics or members of the public. Barbara Hershey leads an impressive cast including Mamet regular Joe Mantegna, Diane Verona and James Naughton; the subject is dark, sure, not for everyone, but the acting is top notch in this depiction of parents struggling to deal with the loss of daughter Katherine (Natalie Dreyfuss). Hershey in particular is blistering; when given the chance (The Entity, Hannah and Her Sisters, The Last Temptation of Christ), she rules the screen, and the straight-to-camera styling here allows her and all the actors the chance to shine. Levi dares to find dark humour in this situation; coming from one of the producers of In The Bedroom, this is a fresh and original take on superficially similar material. Childless now pops up on Amazon Prime in the US, essentially free to view for anyone with a subscription. It’s a minor gem of a film that had little or no fanfare, but is deserving of both an audience and a critical reassessment. Attempting to plug films like this into an audience is one of the purposes of this blog; how else are viewers going to know these films exist?

https://www.amazon.com/Childless-Barbara-Hershey/dp/B010O7UXU0/ref=sr_1_2?keywords=childless+film&qid=1564832003&s=gateway&sr=8-2