Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Day Seven - "You can squeal to Herzog if you want"


Low-budget council estate private eye flick, starring Sean Harris as a jailbird investigating his friend's disappearance.

The write-up for "Saxon" says "Startling UK thriller brings the grit of 70s Hollywood to a messed-up London estate". I tried to count the number of lies in that sentence but I lost count. Apparently, there were a number of walk-outs at the public screening and, based on the expectations raised by that write-up versus the reality of the film, I can't say I blame them. I freely admit it was one of the films I was most looking forward to, just from the brochure. That said, I didn't hate it, although I appear to be in the minority of people I've spoken to. It starts brilliantly: Sean Harris plays Eddie, an ex-con who gets out of jail and promptly gets his eye taken out by loan sharks, owing to the fact that the interest on his £500 loan sky-rocketed while he was in jail. Desperate to keep the other eye, he shows up on the doorstep of his ex, Linda (Sarah Matravers), who still lives on the Saxon council estate, despite her husband Kevin (Paul McNeilly) recently winning a fortune on a TV game show (hosted by a cameoing Henry Kelly). However, Kevin has gone missing, so Eddie turns private eye in return for Linday helping him out with his debts. To be fair, Sean Harris is an excellent actor and he's superb here. There's also strong support from Matravers, McNeilly (their training montage is hilarious) and Michelle Connolly as Jackie, a hairdresser / femme fatale who gives Eddie half a haircut. Apparently the script for the film was widely acclaimed when it showed up on Kevin Spacey's website and it's not hard to see why, as the private eye jokes are very well observed and the film is often very funny. Unfortunately, it falls apart horribly towards the end and it could also have used a) a better director and b) a lot more money. Basically, it looks like something someone knocked up in a couple of afternoons on a council estate with his video camera and some mates. It reminded me a lot of the Aberystwyth novels, which are also a private eye pastiche, only set in Wales. They always fall apart at the end too. Oh hell, I'm feeling generous - three stars, but only just.

The Counterfeiters (Die Fälscher)

German wartime drama, based on a true story, starring Karl Markovics as a Jewish master counterfeiter forced to assist the Nazis with their forging operation whilst interned in a concentration camp.

Film of the day. Thoroughly enjoyable German wartime drama, based on the memoirs of Adolph Burger, although, oddly, the film isn't actually about Burger and he only appears as a supporting character, albeit an essential one. Karl Markovics (who looks like a grumpy Bing Crosby) plays Salomon "Sally" Sorowitsch, a Jewish master counterfeiter who lives a fast life of women, cards and forged cash in Berlin. He's arrested in 1936 and thrown into the Mauthausen concentration camp, where he quickly uses his artistic skills to gain favours by doing portraits of the guards and murals and the like. He's then essentially head-hunted and transferred to the camp of Sachsenhausen where he's put in charge of overseeing Operation Berhard, the largest counterfeiting operation in history. However, their luxury conditions are in stark contrast to the concentration camp just over their adjoining wall and one member of Sally's team, Adolph Burger (August Diehl) resorts to sabotage, which puts Sally in an increasingly difficult position. The performances are superb. Markovics is terrific, in a performance that appears to be emotionally cold on the surface, but is gradually revealed to have hidden depths, primarily through his friendship with a young fellow prisoner from Russia. Diehl is also excellent, nailing Burger's wild-eyed desperation - he looks like he could have stepped out of a 1940s Hollywood film. There's also strong support from Devid Striesow as Superintendent Friedrich Herzog, who's responsible both for Sally's arrest and his later promotion and who turns out to be surprisingly sympathetic. The film's also beautifully shot and contains some superbly suspenseful sequences, such as Herzog gathering the men to tell them about one of their agents trying to cash the first batch of British pounds. Well worth seeing when it gets a general release in a month or so's time. Four stars.

The Interpreter (La Traductrice)

Euro thriller starring Julia Batinova as a young Swiss / Russian woman who becomes involved in the trial of a shady Russian businessman

This was watchable enough but by the end, I felt like some of it had got lost in translation. The rather lovely Julia Batinova (who looks like a cross between Charlotte Church and Linda Cardellini) plays Ira, a 20-something student who was born in Russia but brought to Geneva when she was seven and raised by her mother. When a shady family friend (Sergei Garmash as Oleg) offers Ira a job as the interpreter between a Russian businessman accused of drug-dealing and his Swiss lawyer (Bruno Todeschini), Ira finds herself dragged into some decidedly dodgy political manoeuvrings in the run-up to the trial. At one point it threatens to go a bit Hannibal Lecter, with the businessman (read: gangster) taking an unhealthy interest in Ira and urging her to go back to Russia so she can reconnect with her roots. Okay, I'll admit it. Part of the reason the film annoyed me was because I thought I'd called an early twist and that the gangster would turn out to be her father (Oleg says early on that the gangster has a daughter who "has the same eyes") but that wasn't the case. And frankly, it should have been, as the actual revelation had very little dramatic impact. It's also guilty of a serious bit of father-figure overload - I counted four at one point and she has an affair with one of them. Frankly, it was no surprise to hear the director, Elena Hazanova, confess at the Q & A afterwards that the story was "largely autobiographical". Translation: the thriller elements were secondary to the writer-director working out her daddy issues. That said, it was watchable enough and Batinova will hopefully go on to bigger and better things. Three stars.

Full disclosure I

I also went to see Riza today, a Turkish film about a long-distance truck driver stranded in a remote village. I was prepared for it to be slow-moving, but evidently not prepared enough, because I lasted about 15 minutes before voting with my eyes and deciding to have a nap instead. I think I made the right decision. The description in the brochure said "a film of slow-burning emotional force" and in future I shall give "slow-burning" movies the same wide berth I give to films described as "lyrical tone-poems". Also, the subtitles were the worst I've ever seen, with horrendous spelling mistakes all the way through. Well, all the way through all the bits I was awake for, anyway.

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