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

Superman IV: The Quest for Peace 1987 ***

superman

The wheels had come off the Superman franchise for some time before Sidney J Furie’s final entry in the Christopher Reeve era; what’s notable here is how many of the original cast are on board for this famously awful film. Of course, Cannon were desperate for respectability, and the Superman franchise was one expected to generate a family friendly hit, even if Superman III was considerably bent out of shape by being reworked to showcase Richard Pryor. The fourth movie has an interesting premise; what is Superman took an interest, not in costumed foes, but real world issues like the nuclear arms race? The discussion about real world violence in Todd Phillips’ Joker movie has some echoes here, but Superman IV doesn’t go down that road at all. In fact, the movie doubles down on ludicrousness as Superman gathers all the world nuclear weapons, rolls them into a ball and shot-puts it into the sun. He does this after making a speech at the United Nations, which, for reasons which can only be to do with penny-pinching, is evoked by using the brutalist exteriors of Milton Keynes shopping centre in England. The real drama, if that’s the right word, doesn’t kick off until Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) takes advantage of the absence of nuclear weapons to create Nuclear Man (Mark Pillow) who looks like Trey Parker circa 2002. Superman and Nuclear Man fight on the moon in a blaze of sub-standard special effects; co-star Jon Cryer felt that the film was unfinished, and on this evidence, he’s right, Spotting Jim Broadbent, Mareiel Hemingway and Robert Beatty amongst the cast adds to the fun, and it’s strange seeing such an iconic cast phoning it in for a pay-check. Superhero movies have come a long way from this low-point, but for bad movie fans, Superman IV is a bottomless pit of amusement.

Hunter Killer 2018 ****

There’s not much hunting, but a whole lot of killing in Hunter Killer; the subject is submarines in modern warfare, and Gerry Butler is the man with the answers. He’s Commander Joe Glass, a maverick who doesn’t play by the rules; he does things HIS way! Pretty much everything about Joe is a cliché, but Donovan Marsh’s thriller attempts to make up for in incident what it lacks in originality. Glass takes command of the American USS Arkansas at the Faslane nuclear base in Scotland; he’s sent on a secret mission deep into the Arctic where another submarine has gone missing. Glass ends up teaming up with Russian sub Konek and it’s captain Sergei Andropov (Michael Nvqvist) to foil a Russian coup d’etat and rescue the deposed Russian president, while back in the US, weasely Admiral Charles Donnegan (Gary Oldman) watches as the action escalates. Oldman is playing a character who ducks responsibility, but he seems to take the role quite literally, rarely clearly in shot and usually scurrying out of frame; rarely has an actor looked like they didn’t actually want to be in a film. Given the manliness on show, that’s no surprise; Hunter Killer is a big, beefy Tom Clancy-type thriller that takes no prisoners. The action is decent, but unfortunately the star is stuck in a tin can for most of it. It’s becoming a modern phenomena that big, reality based action movies (Mile 22, Patriot’s Day, Deepwater Horizon) are struggling to find an audience; Hunter Killer’s straightforward, gung-ho action should pick up a few fans on streaming, with Butler a gruff centre and plenty of entertainment to be drained from the hair-trigger plotline.

The Charge of the Light Brigade 1968 ****

charge

Having won an Oscar for his previous period piece Tom Jones, expectations were high for Tony Richardson’s take on the famous British military catastrophe; so much so that it was the most expensive British film ever made when released in 1968. It’s clear where the cheques were cashed; there’s an all-star cast including David Hemmings, John Gielgud, Trevor Howard and Vanessa Redgrave, plus notable cameo roles for Peter Bowles and even Donald Wolfit in a walk-on as Macbeth. The battle-scenes are also striking in that the use of special effects to create large armies had yet to be invented back in 1968; the action involves large groups of extras, and somehow their plainness is more suggestive of the drabness of failure than the more vivid pictures which might created today. The script, written by John Osborne and Charles Wood, plays fast and loose with history, but it does relate to real incidents, like the infamous black bottle affair. The mood changes once the action moves oversees, although it was apparently the result of budget restrictions that Richard Williams was pressed into service to create animated bridges to inform the action; using political cartoons of the time, Williams creates wonderfully vivid tableaux that say just as much about the vain-glorious mind-set of those involved that rest of the the film itself. Made at a time when the Vietnam war was raging, this version of The Charge of the Light Brigade is a politically astute look at failure and blame, and deserves better than a rather musty reputation suggests.

The Rise and Fall of Idi Amin 1981 ***

amin2018’s rather drab Entebbe casts minds back to fondly reminisce about mass –murderer Idi Amin, whose genocide made exploitation fodder for this lurid 1980 feature. Played by Alien star Yaphet Kotto, Amin is a mischievous, brutal presence, seen at one point casually opening a fridge to take a bite of human flesh cooling within. There’s no whitewash here, just the dramatization of tabloid headlines. And yet, a plotline about Amin’s relationship with a British journalist, arrested and imprisoned by Amin’s regime in defiance of the UK, feels authentic, not least because the character is played by the journalist in real life. Such a Paul Greengrass-style verisimilitude adds a certain vividness to the proceedings, but there’s also an admirable directness to the way Amin’s hubris and downfall are captured. Whether this happened or not, it’s compelling to watch a film so contemporaneous as a primary source.

 

Dunkirk 2017 *****

It’s a rare thing for a director to make nothing but masterpieces; a film like Insomnia would be the crowing glory of most director’s careers, but for Christopher Nolan, it’s just a rehearsal. Films like Memento, The Following, Interstellar and Inception have established Nolan as a brand name that can attract an audience just on his reputation; Dunkirk shows him at the height of his powers. There are plenty of films dealing with the mechanics of war; Nolan’s summer blockbuster has the mind-set of a student film, splitting three narratives (elementally themed as air, sea and water) and sculpting in time to bring them together as the British army looks for any way home from the beaches of Dunkirk as the Germans close it. Tom Hardy’s Spitfire pilot has the biggest wow factor, even if his face is largely obscured, while Kenneth Branagh and Harry Styles from One Direction wait anxiously to be rescued. Dunkirk is a challenging and original war film that reaches for the mythic rather than the practical; it’s a stunning demonstration that a big, popular movie can have brains as well as brawn.

Cold War 2018 *****

Paweł Pawlikowski is a man whose name critics love to invoke, even if they have to to cut and paste it. He seems to have given up wrestling with the text of his Vernon God Little adaptation, but that’s no great loss; the Polish director has a style of his own that doesn’t need to be piggy-backed on another property.  The standard-issue information, that Cold War is shot in black and white, and got an 11 minute ovation at Cannes, would make any prospective viewer’s heart sink; it sounds like the kind of three hour ‘Latvian people arguing at a kitchen table’ snorefest that provides good reason to hate art cinema. Cold War tells, in simple, stunningly composed images, the story of a love story between a musician and the singer who auditions for him. They meet and separate in various countries, across borders, through concerts and dances, until fate finds a way to bring them together ‘until the end of the world’. This is cinematic poetry of the highest order, plain yet lush, riddled with subtle yet jaw-dropping compositions. The black and white photography, so often the banal choice of an art director on a perfume commercial, is truly lustrous, and the leads are luminous; the director discovered Emily Blunt amongst others, and Joanna Kulig and Thomasz Kot should return to our screens again again before long.  The late John McCain’s line about not ‘hiding behind walls’ is relevant here; it’s a timely story about how borders, and politics, can bend and shape our most vital relationships. Given that the same director’s previous film, Oscar-winner Ida, felt more worthy than entertaining, Cold War is a huge personal statement by the director and a scintillating film to watch in HD.