Last year Peter Weir made his directorial return with The Way Back, a star studded and old fashioned tale about the possibly true and possibly grossly exaggerated escape of a group of Polish prisoners of war from a Siberian gulag. Its critical reception was mixed, with some praising the film’s ambition and visuals, whilst others bemoaned its fatal lack of emotional engagement. However a German film, As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me, beat Weir’s epic to the broad concept by nine years.
Released in 2001 As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me, now available on DVD, follows a German officer fleeing from imprisonment on Siberia’s easternmost shore. And for this reason its ethical foundations are considerably flimsier and more controversial than The Way Back’s.
This is saying something because The Way Back was based on a bestseller by Slavomir Rawicz, which since publication, has been disputed and branded a fake from a number of sources. And yet Weir’s film is unlikely to be attacked for historical bias of any kind. The story of Poles and Jews getting one over on their persecutors, be they German or Russian, is a common and acceptable one. Make your hero a German who has fought for a Nazi controlled state and buying into the character becomes far more complex.
Some might say that the way in which As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me is told twists and distorts historical fact. We see Bernhard Betterman’s Clemens Forell hug his wife and young daughter goodbye on the platform in 1944 Germany. Then we cut swiftly to Forell being sentenced to 25 years forced labour in Siberia. He is charged with war crimes but the implication is that Forell is being unfairly condemned by corrupt and vengeful Communists. Then there is a long and grim train journey across the cold expanse of Russia, with glimpses of the grim hardships to come. Finally, exhausted from malnutrition and a hike through the snow, they are thrust into life at a camp.
Throughout all of this we discover nothing about Forell’s war record and his potential sins and little too about his political sympathies. He is shown to be a compassionate and brave man though; in other words a typical hero. He treasures the picture of his family and uses it for galvanising motivation that replaces the sustenance of food and drink. It is never explicitly mentioned during the camp scenes and moments of inhumane, cruel punishment but the shadow hanging over the story the whole time is that of Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps. You can’t help but feel uneasy as your sympathies inevitably gather around Forell in his struggle.
Of course the debate about the moralities of the Second World War and the balance of its sins can hardly be squeezed into a film review. Indeed the sensible view is probably to admit that it’s an unsolvable problem; evil was committed on both sides on an unimaginable scale. Stalin’s Russia was carrying out atrocities throughout the 1930s, long before the worst of Hitler’s cruelties were inflicted and on a larger scale than the Holocaust. It’s impossible to reason with or categorize such statistics of death and horrific eyewitness anecdotes. But this is a film that unavoidably makes the viewer think about such issues and not necessarily in the best of ways.
I don’t object to a story from a German soldier’s perspective. In fact I find it refreshing and necessary to witness an often overlooked point of view. But As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me glosses over too much at times, so that it becomes ethically dubious, compromising and limiting your investment in the narrative. The filmmakers will probably argue they are simply telling the story from Forell’s viewpoint alone. I think this argument falls down because of the film’s other weaknesses in plausibility though.
As Forell slowly makes his way back, first through Siberian snow, then Siberian summers and on through other outposts of the USSR, in a muddled route elongated by the help and hindrance of kind (and not so kind) strangers, we are continually shown glimpses of his waiting family in Germany. These scenes are so unconvincing that they spark the questions about the rest of the film.
The lives of his family are completely unaffected by the war, with only two exceptions; one is his ever present absence and the other a throwaway remark by the son Forell has never met, which his mother labels “Yankee talk”. Presumably they have therefore encountered American occupiers in some way. Forell’s daughter is only ever shown getting upset or dreaming about her lost father. I’m not being callous but the girl was young when her father left and her reaction is so simplistic that it punctures the believability of the entire story. I’m not saying she wouldn’t be absolutely devastated by her father’s absence but she would perhaps have moved on in some way. The possibility of Forell’s wife finding another man is never raised and they never give him up for dead.
All of this, coupled with the chief of security from the Siberian camp pursuing Forell across Russia like an ultimate nemesis, transforms As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me into am unrealistic fairytale. Forell is helped by a Jew at one point but the issue is merely touched upon. The period elements of this film are so secondary that they become redundant, but then the film does not claim to be “inspired by true events”.
It’s possible to enjoy this film if you look at it as simply one man’s impossible journey back to his impossibly perfect family. At way over two hours long, As Far As My Feet Will Carry Me is hopelessly brutal at times but somehow snappy too. It’s an engaging enough example of traditional storytelling, despite my doubts, but the only truths to be found are symbolic and stereotypical.
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Sperm donation is an ethical and emotional minefield. It’s one of those sensitive issues with equally passionate and valid views on both sides of the debate. Even bystanders not directly involved or affected will have a strong opinion on its morality. The consequences and motivations of such anonymous, industrial giving of life can be dissected and analysed again and again, for positives and negatives. Endless reams could be written on the subject without resolving the issue one way or another.
It’s also one of those topics that often only interests people when looked at from monstrous and extreme angles. For example a few years ago a documentary called “The Sperminator” about a man running a clinic who provided all the samples himself, when he told prospective parents that there was an extensive bank to meet their specific requests and requirements, caused a lot of controversy and generated a lot of interest. People enjoy being shocked by grotesque scandals such as this, simultaneously intrigued and repulsed by the potential for ignorant incest. The human side of this relatively new phenomenon is usually overlooked.
Donor Unknown is almost exclusively about the very human effects of sperm donation. It’s an extremely admirable and accomplished piece of filmmaking. Over the course of its engaging and economical 78 minute runtime, this film gradually and thoroughly explores the sperm trade by maintaining a tight human focus. Hollywood blockbusters lack both the heart and surprising plot twists of Donor Unknown and it deserves a grander home than TV screens. With its editing and pacing and diverse locations across America, this is a film that shows off the art of documentary storytelling at its best.
Much of the film is seen through the lens of JoEllen, a girl on the cusp of pretty womanhood, who has come to terms with her lack of a father throughout childhood. Her mother has always been honest about the way in which she was conceived, with a little help from “donor 150”. But although she’s grown up with the affection of a loving family and lived a privileged, seemingly happy existence, there is always something missing. A great big “what if” is constantly nagging at JoEllen’s wellbeing and sense of identity.
Meanwhile on Venice Beach in LA, Jeffrey lives with his four dogs and the occasional pigeon. He’s quite clearly a hippy, living a simple life in a RV, loving his dogs and being kind to those he meets. With his long hair and tanned, excess wearied face, it’s difficult to imagine he was once a muscular model in Playgirl who once made a living from stripping. He explains that he was asked by a woman he met at the hairdresser’s during those years of his prime, whether or not he’d like to donate sperm so she could have a baby. Obviously he was taken aback but after speaking to a close friend who was a loving mother, he decided to give this relative stranger the opportunity of motherhood and hope that fate rewarded him for his good deed.
Donor Unknown also talks to the staff at the Californian Cryogenic Centre, that aims to have the largest collection of sperm donors in the world. We see the specimens stored in huge vats and we have numbers like 200 billion fired at us. We’re assured that this centre alone could repopulate the world in the event of some disaster making such measures necessary. We’re shown the “masturbatory emporiums” with walls colourfully adorned to aid the donation process, with the more sample provided the better. The chambers increase in eroticism along the corridor, we’re told.
And so we are eased gently into sperm donation, with a balance of real human effects and the technology involved. JoEllen’s hole in her existence is contrasted with the motivation of mothers to turn to donors like Jeffrey, along with his reasons for helping out.
Then we’re hit with the bombshell of JoEllen finding a sibling. Her half sister lives in New York and they meet after discovering each other via an online register, where you simply register your donor number. Her identity issues are even deeper than JoEllen’s because she has been lied to until the age of about 14. She resents her parents for the deception and feels immensely confused and hurt. As a teenager it’s a lot to take onboard and extremely destabilising. Desperate for a link to a missing 50% of her, she finds JoEllen and then gets a story onto the front of the New York Times, without her parents’ knowledge.
At this point Donor Unknown becomes extremely uplifting, as more and more siblings come forward who were fathered by “donor 150”. Via the internet an unconventional patchwork family forms across America’s very different states, bringing absent intimacy, connection and love into the lives of more than a dozen children. JoEllen methodically keeps track of all her lost brothers and sisters, meeting most of them and forming attachments, filling in the missing side of her family tree slightly. The genetic quirks and likenesses are touching and fascinating to behold, as the screen flits rapidly through the faces and mannerisms of all the “150” siblings.
But then Donor Unknown changes gear to look at yet another aspect of the trade. After gently gaining your attention and emotional investment, we finally come to the really dark side of sperm donation. One of the siblings, Rachelle, expresses her constant doubts and worries about dating. She has specifically stuck to foreign guys or people that for other reasons definitely could not be related. An interview with the founder of the online register, a mother of a donor child herself, reveals that there are no limits on the number of children a donor can father, despite the claims of clinics.
The Californian Cryogenic Centre is also at pains to point out their range of choice and the extensive information they offer. But the answers of donor questions can be as misleading as they are informative. Jeffrey for example, said he was a dancer when he was a stripper and said he studied philosophy when he spent little time in college. His spiritual waffle won over scores of prospective parents but he is in reality something of a waster, an idealistic hippy and eccentric weirdo. He believes in worrying conspiracy theories and has an unnatural attachment to animals after a troubled childhood.
Beneath it all though he is a kind man and the ending to Donor Unknown is unquestionably back in the uplifting zone. Whatever the dangers and wrongs of the sperm industry, it has the power to create the amazing gift of life. Without the fakery of actors to bring it down, Donor Unknown soars to interesting and touching heights, telling the modern, interconnecting tales of real people.
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After things really seemed to be getting somewhere with episodes 2 and 3, last night (the first time I have watched The Shadow Line as scheduled, 9pm BBC 2) things once again became a blend of baffling plot lines and bad dialogue, punctuated by the odd superb scene. This is one of those programmes so determined to keep us guessing that no sooner are we given a clutch of answers, a bucket full of more questions is splashed into our bemused faces.
The answers come in the form of customs officer Robert Beatty, who was the guy sultry sidekick Honey had a fight with last time. He’s one of these deep cover types working beyond the police, doing things they can’t like he doesn’t give a shit. It turns out that the drugs murdered Harvey Wratten used to get his rare Royal Pardon were already his. Beatty also reveals there was a second requirement for the Pardon; saving the life of a cop. In this case information was given to save him and his family from a car bomb. But it quickly emerges that the bomb was probably planted by Wratten too. So Wratten arranged a get out of jail free card for himself. Well mostly free, just minus millions of pounds worth of drugs.
Obviously Gabriel thinks this is getting somewhere with the case, that he’s been given three extra weeks to save. But it’s difficult to say where this breakthrough leads or what it means and his boss has a problem with that. Even though they’ve got a blurry picture of Gatehouse on CCTV too AND they’ve linked him to a big drug deal, where Gatehouse appeared to be acting on behalf of the vanished but ever present Glickman, who was in turn acting for Wratten because he was banged up. Confused much?
And that’s just the professional side of the police case. We haven’t even mentioned Gabriel’s personal problems. He didn’t have any agonising moments staring at that inexplicable briefcase full of cash this week but the mother of his secret child told him to tell his wife of their existence, who is finally pregnant. This is the cue for just one of many terrible lines in this episode. Gabriel, clearly in a sticky situation, blankly says “I’m in hell” only for the mother of his child to hit back with “No, we’re in limbo”. She then says she won’t have her son growing up in the shadows, which is far too forced a reference to the show’s title.
On the criminal side of the case, Bob Harris is sweating his hairy backside off because one of his supply lines has been compromised by customs, which is how the police know about Glickman getting the drugs for Wratten. How do I know he has a hairy backside you ask? I don’t for sure but I’m judging by the rest of his portly, sagging, ageing body. We’re treated to a scene with Harris and a gay lover, with Harris sporting a pair of very tight pants and awkwardly resting on his side like a beached whale, and the lover wearing nothing at all. He is sprung from a police station by an anonymous benefactor at the beginning of the episode and ever since has been stuck in camp seductive mode. He also gets some terrible lines and provides Harris with the information that apparently Jay Wratten is responsible for the busting of his line.
Jay of course, has been told by Andy Dixon the driver, that Harris killed Harvey. So he has a reason to piss him off. But Christopher Eccleston’s Joseph Bede interrogates Jay and he insists he didn’t do anything. We see very little of Bede this week, apart from when he’s questioning Jay and Glickman’s girlfriend, but Jay does get to pay another over the top, intimidating visit to Glickman’s son. And this is where we see the mysterious, deadly Gatehouse again.
Perched atop a mountain of office furniture, Gatehouse is across the street from Glickman’s son with some very fancy tech for listening to phone conversations etc. Eventually he decides to pop round to the home of Glickman’s son and play the kindly old fashioned gentleman card. Glickman’s sceptical daughter-in-law is won over by his harmless demeanour and Gatehouse gains access to the downstairs loo. After opening and closing the window briefly, he lets himself out. After calling her husband about the visitor, the wife goes upstairs to check on the wailing baby, prompted by the baby monitor. Their little girl is not there.
I was glad when Gatehouse showed up eventually last night because the rest of the episode had been poor. With Gatehouse though you know things are going to be suspenseful and tense and that something is going to happen, even without him doing very much. Here he’d magically whisked the baby outside, simply by opening and shutting a window in the toilet. Surely he must have had help? After dashing about the house absolutely distraught, she finds her baby and then Gatehouse, who chillingly tells her to call her husband “NOW” via the baby monitor. Glickman is then told Gatehouse wants to hear from him.
This episode has time for one more confusing but majestic scene. The journalist, otherwise known as that bloke from Casino Royale, who has been investigating police corruption throughout the series, features strongly in this episode asking people questions without really getting anywhere. Then he’s given the job of city editor at his paper, along with a far from feasible pay rise. Prior to this Gatehouse calls him up for an anonymous meeting but does nothing; not even speaking to him. Instead he gets hold of his home address pretending to be a deliveryman. Then comes the outstanding scene.
McGovern (name of said journalist) rides out of the city in his leathers and into the countryside towards home and his wife, where he can tell her the good news of his promotion. The tension slowly builds as it’s evident something will happen. Then we see a car in the distance on a straight road, with McGovern heading towards it. Both vehicles, bike and automobile, disappear into a dip in the middle of the road. We hear a screech and only the car emerges on the other side. The episode ends with a close up of our fallen journalist, in the middle of a sun drenched road, blood dripping in vivid drops from his helmet against a background of bright blue sky.
Scenes like that are the reason I continue to watch The Shadow Line. Some of them use too much style but most are refreshingly well executed, subtle and classy. This episode was full of irritating performances, including McGovern/Casino Royale man’s intonation that made everything sound like a question, hardly a subtle portrayal of an investigative journalist. It also had some of the worst dialogue so far and perhaps more of it. And the plot development became frustratingly unsatisfying too. But occasionally I am still gobsmacked, even in this mostly bad episode, and I am still intrigued.
With some questions answered new ones arise. Why kill the pestering journalist when he appeared to know very little? More interesting still, why did Gatehouse kill him, when he was investigating police corruption? Do Gabriel and Gatehouse know each other? Perhaps Gabriel simply can’t remember with that bullet inconveniencing his brain. And how exactly did it get there? Was Gabriel responsible for the death of partner Delaney? Can Chiwetel Ejiofor put in a good performance despite increasingly ludicrous plot twists for his character and sledgehammer emotional dialogue? Will Bede and Glickman’s girlfriend get together? Will next week be more enjoyable and make more sense? Will I get to see Bob Harris completely naked?
I’ll keep watching for the answers.
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Prior to watching Another Year I was not in awe of Mike Leigh’s track record, but rather shamefully ignorant. I was keen to watch the film though because of some glowing reviews last year, promising trailers and that wonderful artwork and logo. I remember seeing said tree sprawling massively across an Odeon in London’s West End way back in the halcyon days of 2010, and thinking that was the type of thoughtful British picture I wanted to see.
The central idea behind the story, which Leigh scripted as well as directed, is tender, realistic and probably true to life. Happily married couple, Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) are lucky and they know it. The people in their lives, who seem far less blessed, gravitate towards them for kindness and warmth. Their son Joe (Oliver Maltman) is taking his time to find love as his friends get hitched left, right and centre, Gerri’s co-worker Mary’s (Lesley Manville) bubbly energy conceals her loneliness and Tom’s childhood friend Ken (Peter Wight) is trapped in Hull watching his precious roots wither away. The narrative plays out with a chunk from each of the year’s four seasons.
The opening scene was just what I had been hoping for and what Leigh’s reputation guaranteed. Imelda Staunton plays an insomniac pressing her GP for sleeping pills but understandably her doctor seeks out the true, underlying causes. Staunton’s character is clearly completely miserable; crestfallen at her lot in life and the realisation that this is all she’s likely to get. The scene lasts a full five minutes, uninterrupted; Leigh really lets it breathe and grow. For most of the scene we don’t see the GP’s face, helping us truly inhabit Staunton’s excellent performance. We’ve all felt like that at the doctors, like you’re just another appointment to be checked off by a faceless health drone.
The GP refers our dejected and menopausal patient to a counsellor. It turns out that Gerri is a counsellor. And this is where the problems begin with Another Year. Gerri continues to be a counsellor for the duration of the story, always behaving as though maintaining professional standards, even alone in bed with soul mate Tom. Ruth Sheen’s tone of voice never varies more than a fraction, making her seem either mildly interested or not that bothered. Whilst Broadbent’s range of reactions to the various problems of friends are different and human, Gerri deals with each situation on dull auto-pilot. Sheen’s performance genuinely seemed mechanical and totally robotic, which was a real shock after all the talk of quality acting.
The passing of the seasons is beautifully shot and there are moments of heart warming dialogue that is convincingly ordinary and recognisable from everyday life. Do I really want to watch a film with conversations startlingly similar to the small talk I run away from in reality though? It all gets rather dreary, with next to no drama in the first two seasons and not a pinch of escapism. Leigh’s script also has some awful expositional dialogue, particularly for Lesley Manville’s character Mary, Tom and Gerri’s desperately clingy friend. I cringed at the clumsy manner her myriad but dull problems were introduced and grimaced later at Manville’s caricatured portrayal of an overzealous eccentric going off the rails. Her drunkenness at BBQs is amateurish.
Or is it? I honestly don’t know if I fell into the trap of mistaking the annoying traits of a character for bad acting and storytelling. This is because the last two seasons, autumn and winter, went a long way to redeeming the failures of the first couple. As Mary reaches rock bottom her character becomes far more bearable and Manville’s performance finally makes you empathise and feel pity, sympathy, and even sadness. David Bradley puts in a fabulous performance as Tom’s grieving brother who is a man of few words. Some of his scenes with Broadbent, and an extended one with Manville, are superb.
I don’t want to mimic the idiotic readers of the X-Factor age who throw away a book they’re reading in disgust because the characters are not “likeable”. Novels and films are not about providing you with brief friendship. But Another Year is hard to get into. As I’ve said I was really surprised by how irritating I found the performances of Ruth Sheen and Lesley Manville. In Manville’s case I think I judged her too quickly and her character was simply a vibrant pain in the neck, well realised. However I maintain that Sheen was simply two dimensional, which is disappointing given the importance of actors to such an ensemble piece. By the time Another Year ended I was starting to enjoy it but there’s no doubt that this is a film with the potential to frustrate as well as reward.
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There are instructional guides for everything nowadays. Bright sparks and academics compile recipes for far more than just food. Type the word “instruction” into Amazon and you get back motivational guides, martial arts handbooks, “Traditional Patchwork Quilt Patterns” and even “The Baby Owner’s Manual”.
Personally, I’ve never owned a pet. As a child I would recoil at bounding dogs, repulsed by their drooling eagerness. I’d love a canine companion now, my very own incarnation of man’s best friend to walk and pamper and pat, but I wouldn’t know the first thing about caring for an animal. Well I’d like to think I wouldn’t kill it too swiftly, but it would be handy to avoid charges of animal cruelty or worse, incur the brutal intimidation and mudslinging of animal rights activists. So another scan of Amazon and perhaps “The Dog Owner’s Maintenance Log” is for me or “Dog Grooming for Dummies”.
I can’t help but think that, given my inept fondness for dogs, I’d be even more out of my depth with a creature that’s much harder to love. A tarantula or iguana for example. I know for a fact that should I bump into a dragon in a dark alley or atop a windswept cliff, a pocket sized book entitled “How To Train Your Dragon” would be of considerable use.
There are countless books and “must have” guides to the film industry as well, with everything from screenwriting to lighting covered somewhere in print. I’m willing to bet that somewhere there’s a section on the importance of a title for your Hollywood Blockbuster. Get that name wrong and nothing else will matter. The title of your story should be an instant hook, with an air of mystery and definitely not so dull as to repulse potential viewers before they’ve so much as glanced at the rest of your poster. At first How To Train Your Dragon seemed a poor idea for a film title to me, despite the inevitable quirky interest around that last word. It’s a name for a user’s guide not an all conquering family movie phenomenon.
How To Train Your Dragon became something of a surprise hit though last Easter, and had not only sizeable audiences but unanimous critical praise. Rotten Tomatoes carries a 98% critic rating and 90% audience satisfaction for the film. For me this was initially surprising, given that How To Train Your Dragon contains hearty helpings of a foul smelling ingredient most recipes for good films would advise strongly against.
How To Train Your Dragon is completely predictable. And predictability, it’s easy to learn watching, writing and reading about films, is often just another word for bad. Samey storylines you’ve seen before, nine times out of ten stir up nothing but annoyance in the mind of an audience, and if not audiences then almost certainly reviewers. If the trajectory of a film is obvious and its ending plain from the opening scene, it doesn’t usually make for engaging entertainment.
But How To Train Your Dragon has flagged up an important truth for me. Some films thrive on the predictable, namely family films. There has to be a certain satisfactory happy ending, a particular sense of bonding and struggle, a recognisable group of relationships between characters. And I was wrong to say that How To Train Your Dragon is completely predictable. It’s got a refreshingly non-American setting for a start and a reasonably original twist on a familiar premise.
There’s something of a 3D trend in films at the moment, specifically in animation. I get the feeling that a handful of moments in this film, spectacular flying sequences and fluid fire, would be as good as anything yet seen in 3D. But as it was I made do with the small screen, DVD experience. And How To Train Your Dragon is still a pretty little film.
It kicks off with a funny and adrenalin pumping action sequence, with a Viking village under attack from marauding dragons swooping from above. Buildings explode and burn vividly in the night, illuminating the dark coastal scenery. We’re swiftly and efficiently introduced to all the main players with considerable humour and the set-up of age old conflict between two races is established. For an animated film it’s a surprisingly impressive start. And best of all the ending trumps this memorable beginning.
We meet Hiccup, voiced by Jay Baruchel, working out of the way in a Blacksmiths. He’s the weak son of Viking leader Stoick the Vast, voiced by Gerard Butler as an essentially family friendly version of his Spartan king in 300. Hiccup’s a disappointment and an outsider. But as the film progresses he finds he has a strange affinity with the dragons and begins to uncover the reality of their nature. He’s guided along the way by sympathetic Gobber (Craig Ferguson), a Viking trainer, and finds a love interest in Astrid, voiced by America Ferrera. Astrid is cleverly and amusingly introduced in the opening action scene, walking away from an explosion in a satire of typical action films, to the sarcastic, smitten voiceover of Jay Baruchel.
In my opinion How To Train Your Dragon, a Dreamworks production, lacks the heart wrenching sentimentality and visual wow factor and beauty of a Pixar film. But as other films like the Shrek franchise show, Dreamworks do funny, tongue in cheek, successful animation, with good characters, really well.
Two interesting DVD extras delve into the casting process behind the film and its technical processes respectively. I find the process of characterisation and casting when there’s only a voice to work with extremely interesting and it’s intriguing to hear the filmmakers’ thoughts on how they got that right. In the visual production segment of the extras there’s a wonderful explanation of the various types of dazzling fire used to help distinguish between the wide varieties of dragons on show.
In short How To Train Your Dragon is a perfectly cooked family meal. It’s hardly dining at the Ritz but no one likes a snob and sometimes there’s nothing more fun than well executed comfort.
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