World War Two remains a rich source of inspiration to be mined again and again by storytellers. But even for those that love watching Nazi asses getting kicked behind enemy lines (like me) the same old bland tales that we’ve all seen a thousand times before can get extremely tiresome. It was refreshing then to find something slightly different and mostly enjoyable in the shape of Swedish film Beyond the Border.
It follows Lieutenant Aron Stenström who at first appears to be an authoritative officer and loving fiancé. He greets his brother Sven at the station before driving him to his new home, a roadblock 5km from German occupied Norway. As Sven settles in with his comrades it gradually becomes clear that our mustachioed protagonist is conducting frequent secret missions across the border, much to the frustration of his pregnant beloved, who wants to marry him before the bump starts showing.
These forays into forbidden territory are not just secret from those on the other side of the border. Officially Sweden is out of the war, with nothing to fear from Hitler’s all conquering mechanized army. Aron’s superior, Major Adolfsson, is suspicious of the Nazis though and sets about ensuring his country is prepared for the worst. He orders his Lieutenant to mine bridges over the border so that they can be blown if needed.
It’s perhaps the Swedish setting of Beyond the Border that most sets it apart from other films of its ilk. Apart from anything else you are reminded of the sheer scale of the conflict. There are so many untold or rarely told stories from smaller nations that were occupied, in Scandinavia and elsewhere in Europe. They all had their own life or death battles to overcome. Not everything of importance played out in France, Britain or somewhere tropical with American soldiers swaggering about. It appears that in Sweden the political climate was particularly complicated, which makes for compelling and mysterious viewing and adds to the heroism of the central characters.
Meanwhile Aron’s brother Sven has a heated and alcohol fuelled argument with fellow sentry Bergström. Sven believes passionately that Sweden should prepare to stand against Germany, whilst Bergström is a mild sympathizer, pragmatically suggesting he’d prefer Hitler to Stalin. Later we find out that there is history here; many men in the Swedish ranks have fought the Russians in the past, whereas there are obvious shared links to German culture.
Sven is shaken by the ideological spat and unable to sleep in such close proximity to Bergström. He heads off to scout out the border in the dead of night, joined eventually by a reluctant colleague who thought better of leaving him alone. They stumble upon a Nazi truck searching for a fleeing Norwegian, who ends up collapsing studded with bullets at their feet in the snow. Sven returns fire in a desperate attempt to help the man and he is captured.
Elder brother Aron finds that Sven has disappeared on his way to a clandestine rendezvous deep into Norway. His orders go out the window and Aron begins to lose his cool in the Arctic cold as he and his men discover evidence of his brother’s capture. Sven’s reluctant escort is dead, tied to a tree as a trophy. Any subtlety and ambiguity as to whether the Nazis are “evil” or “bad” is abandoned when we meet the stereotypically sadistic Captain Keller. However the Swedes remain rounded human beings rather than chess pieces to be shunted around in action sequences.
Even as the plot thickens and wanders off in several directions through the striking, oppressive snow-scapes of Norway and Sweden, Beyond the Border’s heroes remain grounded. Richard Holm’s direction must be praised for handling scenes of moody introspection as well as modern and exciting gun fights. Indeed this is a film that manages to be brutal, bleak, bloody and thrilling all at once at times.
Further variety is thrown into the mix as Aron experiences some arty and stylish hallucinations in the search for his brother. He and his wife-to-be parted with an argument, which he regrets as he feels light-years away from her in the harsh heat of war. He sees her and a Nazi he killed in disorientating flashes; even though he is a trained military man and the Swedes know the terrain, they are not practiced killers like their opponents. Only Antti Reini’s character is a hardened and knowing veteran of real conflict.
For all Beyond the Border’s strengths however there is something unsatisfying about it. Maybe the characterization feels forced rather than developed. Maybe it does just feel like another war film despite the accomplished execution and refreshing themes. Maybe it’s too long. Just as the characters need to take breaks from their cold and disheartening surroundings, it might help to take lighthearted breaks from Beyond the Border’s 117 minutes when it’s released on August the 8th. Mostly though it’s a decent watch.
I tweeted earlier this week when David Fincher’s English language remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo got a leaked teaser trailer online. Daniel Craig stars as Steig Larsson’s investigative journalist, and looks on terrifically brooding form, despite getting no dialogue.
That’s because the trailer is dominated by a remix of Led Zeppelin classic Immigrant Song. The man behind that remix is Trent Reznor, who also worked with Fincher on The Social Network, to produce a stunning techno score that was crucial to underlining the film’s modern feel.
From this teaser alone it seems certain that when this remake hits screens on Boxing Day, it will only improve upon the original, based upon the bestselling books. An irresistible Fincher/Reznor combo will be unstoppable once again.
Here’s that tune from the trailer:
I don’t normally love techno remixes, but Reznor’s work on The Social Network blew me away, as does this song. Make sure you see the trailer for the full wow factor.
A final mildly interesting aside: Craig will have two films going up against each other, Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson’s The Adventures of TinTin, in which Craig plays the villain, and this Dragon Tattoo remake, come Christmas. Both films ought to be successful and it’s clear at least that Craig is making the most of his break from Bond to work with the best directors available today.
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The world lacks a female super spy. Angelina Jolie has perhaps come closer than most to filling the void with her all action portrayal of sexy video game Tomb Raider Lara Croft, but this was ultimately more Indiana Jones than James Bond. Last year Phillip Noyce’s Cold War conspiracy thriller Salt, originally earmarked for Tom Cruise, morphed into a very different project altogether with the casting of Jolie as CIA agent Evelyn.
I may be veering into sexism here, but because of Jolie’s casting my expectations were drastically lowered. However I’ll defend myself with two qualifications; firstly I think of Jolie as more than merely an internationally coveted sexual icon, but as a fine and capable actress, particularly after her powerhouse performance in Clint Eastwood’s excellent Changeling. Secondly I believe I expected disappointment because of the film industry’s own sexist view of women playing action leads, rather than my own narrow and intolerant perspective on the “fairer sex”.
What I mean by this is that women rarely seem to be cast in serious mainstream action films. They’re a common feature in action comedies, such as the dire Knight and Day and Jolie’s own light-hearted romp with her equally famous and sexy spouse in Mr and Mrs Smith. But there’s no realistic and gripping female equivalent to the Bourne series, for example. Filmmakers are reluctant to showcase women, even today, as ruthless and professional killers without elements of fantasy. Watch a film about what is essentially a paid, female murderer (a “hitwoman”) and expect lots of ninja style, silly high kicking and unbelievable martial arts, alongside tight costumes, to offset such a horrific notion.
Sadly this is a formula that Salt eventually and perhaps inevitably, conforms to. The opening of the film is promising. Once we get some god awful dialogue out the way, probably ripped straight from the “how to script a film in the espionage genre” handbook, along with some forced flashbacks, we get Salt interrogating an apparent Russian defector. He drops the bombshell that there’s a sleeper agent in the CIA, and that agent is called Evelyn Salt.
Salt is dismissive at first, but all the high tech brain scans and probably some ingenious pad questioning his balls from his seat, says that he’s telling the truth. After a bit of dithering Salt decides to run, apparently out of concern for her husband, but it still seems rather daft if she really is innocent. Once she does run however, it looks as if Salt is going to be a decent film.
With the shadowy, backstabbing premise of the plot and some tense evasion of security cameras by a grey suited Jolie, Salt seems very Bourne-esque at first. And a female Bourne film would not have been such a bad thing. Boxed into an interrogation room, Salt constructs a makeshift weapon from chemicals and chairs and table legs to allow her to escape. She then flees for home to look for her husband and just avoids capture by climbing around the outside of her building. Finally she escapes the city after a standoff by jumping from truck to truck on the freeway.
During all of this action it’s easy to get swept up and the character remains believable. You sympathise with her apparent innocence and will her to succeed. But once Salt heads to New York based on information that someone will attempt to kill the Russian President at the Vice President’s funeral, the plot completely loses its way. It utterly surprised me on several occasions but purely because it becomes so absolutely ludicrous. You can no longer relate to Salt as a character and the action degenerates into ninja Jolie implausibly kicking the asses of trained security personnel in seconds.
At first I thought it was refreshing that Salt was a spy thriller based on the old Cold War rivalries and tensions. Cinemagoers could do with a little more entertainment courtesy of grand, evil schemes, rather than grim and realistic takes on Al-Qaeda. There’s nothing wrong with fantastical plots based on extravagant conspiracies and the destruction of the world, providing they’re executed plausibly. But Salt is just too farfetched and has too many holes, mainly surrounding the believability of its characters. It also strays into the absurd and hilarious; supposedly a “master of disguise” Salt looks fairly obviously like Angelina Jolie dressed as an effeminate man infiltrating the White House.
As usual with Blu-Rays, there’s a whole host of meaty special features to devour about the making of Salt. There’s a baffling section on Salt’s supposed genius as a “master of disguise” and a separate “in screen” interview with the costume designer explaining the selection process behind Jolie’s grey suit earlier in the film. Apparently it was really beneficial to visit the CIA and presumably discover they wear boring and generic corporate power suits like everyone else. The most revealing sections are interviews with Noyce and Jolie about the fact Salt was originally written for a man, which might account for some of the script’s rough and unfinished feel.
There are some pleasing references to classics of the genre in the film, for example when “defector” Orlov escapes using a blade concealed in his shoe, like Rosa Klebb in From Russia With Love. But in the end Salt resembles a mishmash parody of everything it has taken influence from. It lacks originality, quality and entertainment for most of its thankfully brief 100 minute runtime.
THE AMERICAN is the sort of serious and sombre story that sadly wouldn’t get made with a woman in the title role. It’s a slow-burning meditation on the nature of being an assassin and on loneliness itself. It’s an exercise in minimalist storytelling from writer Rowan Joffe, adapting Martin Booth’s novel A Very Private Gentleman, and particularly, director Anton Corbijn. With the lightest of brush strokes he paints what was, for me, an incredibly evocative and captivating picture.
I had meant to see The American on the big screen but sadly its lack of success at the box office resulted in a short stay at my local multiplex. For critics the problem with The American is that it never truly ignites following such a tantalisingly drawn out simmering of tension. Many find it boring to sit through. But for anyone that loves the genre, the intoxicating idea of the lone assassin, or anyone that likes understated and subtle films, The American is wonderfully watchable.
In many ways George Clooney shouldn’t work in the title role. He is such a recognisable face across the globe, a brand rather than a name, that he shouldn’t convince as an unknown and elusive assassin. But Corbijn needed someone who could act without words and Clooney delivers a master class. When there is dialogue Clooney enthuses it with charisma; it oozes enigmatic intrigue. When the camera is entirely reliant on Clooney’s movements a pained expression, a cold glance or a precise gesture speaks more than a page of script ever could. This has been hailed by some as the best performance of Clooney’s career for a reason. We’ve never seen him laid bare like this; robbed of the charm and the cheeky grin.
More than anything else The American is beautiful. Its soundtrack is haunting, atmospheric and touching. Every other shot would make an arty still in a gallery; in Corbijn’s second picture after the acclaimed biopic Control, his background as a photographer is constantly evident. Clooney’s character chooses photography as his cover and there’s something about the parallels of precise skill and solitude between pictures and killing that’s endlessly fascinating. Indeed the subtlety of the storytelling really lets you think about its themes whilst enjoying the gorgeous visuals and the sexy girls.
The loneliness of existence is there in every furrow of Clooney’s focused face; the life of the assassin is the perfect lens for examining anyone’s existential angst. His character makes meagre relationships that wouldn’t satisfy many human beings, and yet they prove too much and too risky for his secretive profession. Despite the reports of boredom and never-ending build-up, I thought that the restrained action punctuated the plot well and the climax of the simple story was suitably engrossing.
In many ways Salt and The American both take “old school” approaches to a familiar genre; Salt with its outlandish Cold War plot and The American with its focus on an age old character, complete with soul searching scenes with a priest. The undoubted difference between the films though is a sumptuous and sexy style and quality that makes The American infinitely more interesting than Jolie’s briefly entertaining foray into the world of espionage.
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