The upshot of this has been that many of us who, for some time, have been quite used to feeding our film fix via our smaller domestic screens with screeners and streamers and (if you’re old school) the occasional DVD, suddenly found these other screen experiences competing for our eyeballs – works that we would ordinarily have seen live in theatres and concert halls and galleries.
So, what’s this got to do with the Taub Brothers’ film EXTERNO? Well, while watching this visually rich and highly conceptual film I found, quite often, that I had to remind myself that this was indeed a film and not one of these interlopers - a virtual version of a kind of hybrid performance-visual-art installation piece that I was accessing on my flat screen in lieu of the actual experience. It’s out of this dichotomy (of my own making) that my two minds about the film formed and, by the time the end credits rolled, left those two minds with opposing feelings about how the film affected me.
Externo is the first feature outing for Argentinian brothers Leandro and Jonathan Taub. Whilst they share the producing and directing credits, Leandro picks up an extra couple of nods as both screenwriter and actor. Between the two of them, what they come up with resonates with Jonathan’s background in works that rely on an immersive experience heavy on visuals and music and Leandro’s extensive work as a novelist. But it’s not so much a story they tell as it is an idea or a response to the big issues that face the world.
Leandro plays Joseph, a driven and focused but somewhat spiritual man who is presented to us as a solitary and hermit-like figure rattling around in an abandoned and cavernous structure somewhere in an isolated wildness of bushland. Joseph has a plan for the world, a mobile phone and two thousand dollars in capital. With seemingly benevolent or well-meaning intensions, Joseph’s goal is to leverage the cash into a personal commercial fortune that provides him with global power. He achieves this one transaction at a time with the aid of Zeta (Christian Bargados) a disembodied voice on the end of his mobile phone. Into the endless routine of commercial transactions comes a woman (Elisabeth Ehrlich) known only as She, who interrupts Joseph’s focus on the accumulation of wealth and power by reminding him how his success can impact on humanity and the havoc his plan can easily wreak if he allows himself to deal only with the end goal, rather than the means by which he gets there. Joseph’s progression towards world domination is marked by title cards with ‘chapter headings’ and single, provocative words projected onto surfaces in both the internal and external spaces as well as visuals intrusions of stock imagery of the human impact on the world and environment.
It's here that I found myself alternating between seeing this work on the one hand as a film and on the other as a multi-media artwork. If I view it as a narrative work with some semblance of a beginning, middle and end, then I find it very quickly makes its point about global corruption and abuses of power and the influence of wealth and then has little more to offer than the same point repeated over and over. In this sense, I was engaged early but soon tired of the sameness of pace and setting and dynamic in the way it kept me essentially the same thing in slightly different ways. However, when I released myself from narrative expectations and started to consider the visual, performative and artistic aspects of the film, I found I engaged with EXTERNO on a very different level. I could imaging being immersed in the environment of this decaying structure surrounded by lush vegetation and encountering the performers as living visual elements of a highly conceptual installation (not unlike Punchdrunk Theatre’s astoundingly good, site-specific, multi-sensory installation-promenade-performance Sleep No More based in New York – if you’ve never heard of it, look it up).
The thing with this latter interpretation of EXTERNO is that it gives you permission to drop in and out of your artistic engagement and, to a large extent, make of the work what you will. For me, this kind of relationship with what the Taub brothers have created – like setting your iPod to shuffle mode – can still achieve the overarching goal of the concept without having to work your way through the plodding narrative. Viewed in this way, EXTERNO works a lot better for me than if I view it (as, no doubt, intended) as a more traditionally structured film. Either way there are provocative and interesting ideas embedded in EXTERNO, even if they don’t successfully coalesce around a narrative thread.
Hutch Mansell (Odenkirk) is a middle-aged man stuck in a rut. He wakes, commutes to a dreary accounting job at his father-in-law’s factory, comes home, wonders when his wife and kids begin to drift away from him, and repeats. As title cards crash unrelentingly through days and weeks in this opening montage, Odenkirk perfectly wears Hutch’s pathetic resignation; he’s a far cry from John Wick or Bryan Mills. However, after a home invasion threatens his family, something in Hutch snaps. Seeking revenge, he resorts to skills gained from his previous career as a contract killer for government agencies, only to inadvertently start a feud with a Russian mob boss.
If you’ve seen a trailer for NOBODY (or John Wick, or most Liam Neeson films from the past decade), Hutch’s secret past probably isn’t a twist. In fact, Kolstad’s script is keenly aware of this trope and subverted my expectations, instead choosing to slowly, and nonchalantly, reveal details and trust viewers to put the pieces together. This culminates in the wonderfully morbid recurring joke of Hutch telling his story to wounded mobsters, getting lost in his monologue, only to look back and realise his audience has already bled out. You hear enough exposition dumping in other films, so why waste time?
Odenkirk’s casting puts a fresh face on the familiar premise and is the clearest reason for the film’s success. NOBODY requires an actor that makes you sit up giddily and say “Really? This guy?” much like the first Taken film did with Neeson years ago. While his long-running TV stint as Saul Goodman has seen him associate with criminals, I doubt anyone has ever seen Odenkirk this close to the action. Nevertheless, he delivers a carefully measured performance capable of turning from submissive white-collar worker to stoic, world weary ass-kicker on a dime, and handles himself well during the expertly choreographed fight scenes (see below). Odenkirk’s comedic background also suits Kolstad’s at times tongue-in-cheek dialogue, like demanding that robbers return his daughter’s prized ‘kitty cat bracelet’ while somehow keeping a straight face.
Speaking of fresh faces, English-speaking viewers likely won’t be familiar with Russian actor Aleksei Serebryakov, though his eccentric turn as Hutch’s newfound nemesis Yulian makes a somewhat underwritten role memorable. There are plenty of archetypal displays of his sociopathy, such as beating up associates who are already in hospital, where Serebryakov is suitably intimidating. But I preferred the scene of him entering his nightclub and just singing and dancing on stage for over a minute without interruption. The song is in Russian (I think) and there are no subtitles, so it can’t be important for the plot. Did Naishuller include this scene purely to show that Yulian is a charismatic, if odd, figure? If so, it clearly worked on me, and I would’ve loved to learn more about him.
NOBODY is a tightly paced film, relying on MacGuffins and, as previously mentioned, viewers’ awareness of action tropes to keep the time between flashy setpieces to a minimum. In a film without much genre expertise behind the camera, this narrative slightness could’ve been an issue. Thankfully, the action is so infectiously fun that it simply doesn’t matter. From a claustrophobic five-on-one brawl on a public bus, to a climactic factory showdown featuring Home Alone-esque booby traps and a literal Chekhov’s gun, I was in awe of the impressive stunt work and Naishuller’s virtuosic direction. Notably, the camera is often close enough to see that Odenkirk is doing the hand-to-hand combat himself, a testament to his willingness to truly go out of his comfort zone for this role.
Consider this my plea to Hollywood that Bob Odenkirk be allowed to try any genre he wants, provided he’s surrounded by the right people. NOBODY wouldn’t work without such an experienced team behind it ensuring that its simplicity didn’t equate to lowered standards. The action sequences here are unlikely to live on in genre fame, but will easily live up to the expectations of anyone who loved John Wick or Taken. Nevertheless, the real draw of this film is its star, who demonstrably proves that you can teach an old dog new tricks and make it look effortless.
So, I give you the same advice. Even though it’s no longer in cinemas, seek it out by whatever means possible and try not to read up on it at all before you see it. In the meantime, I’ll try and say as little as possible about the film whilst offering my thoughts about why I think it’s so good.
I can tell you some things. It’s set in August 1943, so a couple of years before the atomic bomb would bring the war to an end in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In an opening credit sequence we get to see a black and white cartoon training film in that WW2 era American animation style. It’s a cartoon that reminds us that USAF aircrews often blamed what they called ‘gremlins’ for those inexplicable mechanical failures that took place from time to time. The action that follows (and there’s plenty of it) takes place aboard a B-17 Bomber on a flight from New Zealand to Samoa. The crew is your stock standard band of oddballs, loudmouths and misfits with one exception – late entry, Maude Garrett (Chloë Grace Moretz) a mysterious woman carrying a top-secret parcel. No-one seems to know why she’s on board, some question whether she’s really who she says she is, and most of them flex their misogynistic muscles by giving her a ribald hard time; all except nice guy Walter Quaid (Taylor John Smith). I think that’s about all I want to tell you about the story, except to say that before long some pretty scary things start to happen that are as much to do with an encounter with Japanese fighter planes as they are to do with the possibility that there’s something else on board that no-one was expecting. Oh, and of course, we’re all wondering what’s in that top-secret package.
Moretz, who often plays vulnerable or damaged young women in films like The Equalizer (2014), The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018) and the remake of Suspiria (2018) is perhaps best known for her superhero work as Hit Girl in Kick Ass (2010) and Kick Ass 2 (2013). In this film, she brings both these sets of skills together in a character that is reminiscent of Geena Davis as Samantha Caine in Renny Harlin’s The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996). She’s a terrific actor and this performance is compelling, especially during a long sequence where she has to carry the film on her own with almost no space for physicalisation. It’s a cracker of a sequence, but it’s not the only one.
This film is a real surprise. On the surface it’s a World War Two adventure but that genre is laced with generous servings from both the thriller genre and the horror genre PLUS it’s pretty funny when it wants to be. The cast (many of whom are not familiar faces) work well as an ensemble but it’s worth noting that in addition to great performances from both Moretz and Smith, there’s a standout role for Byron Coll as the curmudgeonly, hard- bitten Sergeant Major Terrence Taggart. They’re helped along by a tight and well paced screenplay co-written by Liang and Max Landis (although I was surprised not to see a nod to Richard Matheson in there for what this screenplay owes to a rather famous short script of his from the Twilight Zone days (along with several remakes). There’s also some impressive cinematography from Kit Fraser who is completely undaunted by the limitations of the tight and claustrophobically small spaces the set offers to the camera.
Of course, as you might expect in a film like this, plausibility is often put to the test, but Liang strikes such a deft tone with her direction that events and sequences that might otherwise pull the rug out from under, become moments of sheer delight and, in some cases, edge-of-your-seat suspense.
In the end, this is a hard film to pigeon-hole in terms of style and genre and an almost impossible film to talk about in any detail without spoiling the ride. But underneath all this it’s also a celebration of the contribution women made to the war effort and the roles and responsibilities they took on. Within the narrative, that aspect of the film may fall solely on the shoulders of Maude Garrett, but during the end credit sequence it’s amplified by some great images of real women doing real jobs in and around flying war mahcines in the forties.
Sadly, I suspect the timing of this film’s release – one of the first films to be thrown up on the screen for real live audiences who were keen to make their way back into cinemas after such a long closure – will have meant that it won’t have been seen by anywhere near the audience it deserves. But isn’t that what the streaming service are for? See it when you can but, more than not just giving away the end... make sure you don’t give away any of the surprises that happen along the way.
Using the premise that all animals are anthropomorphic 2-D cartoons, the film revolves around Tom trying to get revenge on Jerry for the mouse ruining his grift as a blind piano playing busking cat (with dreams of making it in the music industry). Jerry sees Tom’s act and decides to get in on the action so he can make enough cash to find a decent place to live – it seems that rents in NYC are restrictive even for mice. After ruining Tom’s gig and equipment Jerry finds himself at the upscale hotel The Royal Gate where co-incidentally a young woman named Kayla (Chloë Grace Moretz) is running her own grift, that of being a highly skilled hotel employee when in fact she’s found that she’s not really suited to even basic casual jobs in the big city.
The Royal Gate is hosting the celebrity wedding of the year with Instagram famous couple Ben (Colin Jost) and Preeta (Pallavi Sharda) planning an extravagant event that requires the hotel to take on extra staffing to ensure it runs smoothly. Hotel manager Mr Dubrous (Rob Delaney) hires Kayla who has somewhat unintentionally used someone else’s credentials to help manage the event under the supervision of middle management Terence (Michael Peña). Terence is immediately suspicious of Kayla and takes a small level of dislike to her which sets up and cat and mouse game between the two characters as he tries to undermine her efforts.
Meanwhile Jerry has moved himself in to the hotel and has no plans of leaving. When it is discovered that a mouse is living in the luxury building it falls to Kayla to try to remove him humanely (although the threat of exterminators is bandied about more than once). In response she officially brings Jerry on to the hotel staff, much to the consternation of Terence. Hijinks ensue. Or to be more precise, they don’t, at least not to a level that will satisfy younger viewers.
For most kids the pleasure of Tom and Jerry is seeing them fight in ridiculous ways. The rivalry is so well known and understood that it’s the basis of the meta comedy in The Simpsons with ‘The Itchy & Scratchy Show.’ There are flashes of the dynamic that run through the film, but so much potential for slapstick cartoon action is wasted by the framing narrative involving the human characters. Tom and Jerry have an entire hotel and city to work out their famous rivalry, yet for most of the film’s runtime they are chaos producing characters that tend to make life difficult for the humans in the film. It’s a shame that director Tim Story (The Fantastic 4) doesn’t just allow them more time to run their absurd shenanigans as the major plot focus.
Although the narrative does a disservice to the animated characters, visually the film is quite rich. The 2-D animation works and is in many ways quite impressive. The production design is effectively the best thing about the film. Tom and Jerry both look as they should. Avoiding creating 3-D animated versions of the classic duo was a smart move as the film already seems miles away from what made the characters work – hence changing their appearance would only serve to further alienate the audience.
Chloë Grace Moretz commits to her role as Kayla, the human who Tom and Jerry interact the most with. Like Brendan Fraser before her, she’s aware of what kind of film she’s in and gives it her all without irony. Michael Peña seems less comfortable with the role and often his well-established comedic talents are wasted. Almost completely wasted is Ken Jeong who could just as easily been played by a number of actors with the same lack of effect. Writer Kevin Costello tries to throw in some amusing one-liners for the human actors but almost inevitably the jokes fall flat for both kids and adults alike.
The biggest mistake TOM & JERRY makes is to not invest in the formula that made the original cartoons successful. Over the top antics should trump stories about human beings listening to each other and finding their place. The lessons in the film aren’t aimed at the intended audience and they’re also not interesting or meta enough for the adults accompanying the children to screenings to find amusing or care about. In effect the film could have done with more rubber mallets and fewer set pieces with uninteresting and generally underwritten human characters. A lacklustre effort that will please few.
2020 | DIR: BEN MOLE | STARRING: SAM GITTINS, MICHAEL ELKIN, JOE EGAN | REVIEW BY DAVID NAGLE.
BEHIND THE LINE is a flyweight film with heavyweight ambitions. Despite the clear limitations of budget and experience, Behind looks to emulate some of the best World War II, sports, and World War II-sports movies around. From The Great Escape and the recent Dunkirk, to Triumph of the Spirit and Escape to Victory (and even Rocky IV), director Ben Mole’s film has a rich vein of cinematic history to mine. But it’s a shame that it never grasps which seams to focus on, which nuggets to keep and which to discard. Instead it becomes too much of a mashup of ideas and threads that would have benefitted from a tighter focus. A tight focus befits and benefits a tight budget.
Behind follows two members of the British Expeditionary Force who find themselves lost in France during their army’s retreat to Dunkirk in 1940. Former champion boxer Danny (Sam Gittins) and Billy (James Haynes) run into a local French villager and her father, seeking help to find their way home. But a tense standoff soon ends with the ever selfless Danny suggesting they surrender to the surrounding Germans. To await transfer to Germany the pair are taken to a nearby makeshift prison, where the commander notices Danny's name and spots the chance to make things a bit more interesting for himself. Commander Drexler (Tim Berrington) forces Danny into fighting for his and his superior's entertainment, all while he and the other prisoners plot a way to escape.
Drexler is an attempt at the ‘sophisticated’ Nazi villain, one who sees himself as only part of the war for his own purposes, above his “more zealous colleagues”. The shoots are there and Behind could have developed this more, could have given the audience something on the path of the iconic Hans Landa of Inglourious Basterds. He's not the only character that could have done with more development. While Gittins brings an easy, cockney wide-boy charm to Danny, he doesn't have quite the presence to hold the screen. Antonio Burstoff meanwhile, playing a French-Algerian prisoner, only gets one short scene but brings more emotional depth than any of the rest manage – maybe they should have focused the story on him.
Mole allows himself a few filmic flourishes – shadow boxing in the shadows, a stylistic introduction to Danny’s final opponent – but overall his direction is simple and would have gained from more play with lighting and varied lens choice. The fight scenes are tight but they don’t make the most of the inherently cinematic nature of boxing. It’s easy to lose the pattern of the fights, the rhythms of the round. The film also flies through its last 15 climactic minutes, while it paradoxically drags out earlier less hefty or necessary scenes. But it actually finds a confidence in those final moments that ironically brings the flaws of what’s come before into sharper focus. Had that confidence been extracted and extrapolated over the rest of the running time we might be talking about a wholly different level of film.
Overall, if you’re looking for a rough and ready movie made with the same boys’ own energy that the film tries to hark back to, then Behind the Line: Escape to Dunkirk might be for you.
Melinda (Tilda Cobham-Hervey) is a lonely gas station worker regularly feeling unnoticed and unappreciated. Early scenes provide the viewer with ample evidence for why Melinda has become so unhappy: her co-worker Sheila (Suki Waterhouse) coerces her into performing the most degrading, physically demanding jobs like cleaning toilets, while the customers refuse to thank her and lavish attention on Sheila instead. When the mysterious and troubled Billy (Josh Hutcherson) suddenly attempts to rob the station at gunpoint, Melinda finally begins to show other people how far she’s unravelled.
BURN is at its best when making inventive use of its claustrophobic setting to ramp up tension and back characters into often-literal corners. For instance, the cramped employee break room initially hosts awkward back and forths between Billy and Melinda, only for this to suddenly become a disturbing sexual assault, then a frantic game of hide and seek. Later on, as a police officer walks down a long corridor between the shop floor and the scene of a crime, the viewer feels Melinda’s heart beat faster with each step.
In the broadest possible sense though, Melinda is a weird and frustrating lead. The sheer specificity of her idiosyncrasies and obsessions make me sure that Gan had quite a specific vision in mind for her, but not enough of this ultimately ended up onscreen. As it stands, Cobham-Hervey delivers a suitably creepy performance to pique the viewers’ curiosity, but is too vague and icy for us to care what happens. Even if Gan didn’t want to show backstory, at least making passing references could’ve gone a long way to capturing a more precise characterisation. A key example of this is her long-standing obsession with Officer Liu (Harry Shum Jr.) which, while intriguing, isn’t explained in detail.
Furthermore, BURN struggles to come up with links between its more dynamic sequences, rendering the second half less satisfying. Hutcherson is absent for much of this stretch of the film (I won’t spoil why), a void which Gan fills by having Melinda largely resume her nightly work duties and try to keep cool about the preceding events. The result is surprisingly formulaic: a one-off character approaches Melinda with a query, a stray line of dialogue makes it seem as though all might inadvertently be revealed, but then it isn’t. It all simply feels like it doesn’t matter whether the audience is paying attention to these ‘scenes between scenes’, a problem exacerbated by the lifeless, smalltalk-esque dialogue.
Despite its shortcomings, BURN is a solid proof of concept for Mike Gan’s directorial style, showcasing his talent for both the genre, and coaxing unique performances from actors. I suspect that Tilda Cobham-Hervey is the main aspect of this film that viewers will remember, but I would also argue that the structure underneath her oddball turn is even better.