Tag Archives: tense

The Tunnel (Der Tunnel)


Film fans love a good tunnel. Whether it be the ingenious method for a daring bank robbery or the claustrophobic road to freedom from a tightly fenced POW camp, they are a vital ingredient of many a cinematic classic. Tunnels are a striking but simple storytelling device, that place the focus of the narrative firmly on the characters of people getting from one place to another, usually against the odds and at a snail’s pace. And what are all stories but snappier versions of the long and slow journey of life?

Sitting just a hay-fever induced sneeze away from surprisingly sizzling Easter sunshine with the windows flung open to the fresh spring air, I doubted my ability to fully inhabit the journey of the characters in Der Tunnel, a German film finally released on DVD on the 25th of April. In the comfort and luxuries of a 21st century room, blessed with the freedom to liberally gulp countryside air, I felt a million miles away from the damp, stuffy, volatile tubes carved torturously through the soil by countless characters in tunnel based films of the past. Not to mention feeling a world away from the 1960s Berlin setting of Der Tunnel.

Berlin is a constant inspiration for superb historical drama. It’s a fascinating city and just a glance at the ingredients that comprise its vibrant whole tells you why it’s so popular for storytellers. It’s steeped in history of all kinds, even before the rollercoaster the 20th century put the place through.  It became a radical melting pot for cultural and political change, ravaged by wars and economic turbulence and enriched by the presence of artists, writers, intellectuals and dancers.

Then with the division of the city via its infamous wall, the eyes of the world came to rest on a stark clash of cultures. When JFK declared himself a spiritual resident of the city he confirmed its status as a symbol of the Cold War, the tense conflict in microcosm. The West stood for freedom and the East for brainwashed or enforced conformity. Whilst Der Tunnel is ultimately pro the West and anti the Eastern regime, it does make you consider such simplifications more carefully. Standards of living do not change magically because of a move, and state intrusion can be replaced by the media. The West is no sure-fire ticket to happiness.

 Of all the tales inspired by the city though it’s perhaps those of suspicious spies and elusive espionage that endure with the widest and most thrilling legacy. Set a film in Berlin and it’s almost guaranteed shorthand for the audience that secrets will lurk and loom at the centre of the plot. Der Tunnel is no exception to this rule. There are a number of features that could be ripped straight from a Cold War thriller, with a manipulative East German Colonel using relationships and blackmail to protect the regime a superb example.

And yet this isn’t a tale of meddling foreigners but a story based on the truth of real Berliners, trying to escape meddling and ideological interference in their private lives. It’s principally the tale of champion swimmer Harry Melchior, who gives up a comfortable and celebrated lifestyle in the East to flee to the West before the wall is completed. He’s unable to get his beloved sister out in time though and he sets about finding a way to “bring her across”, and is joined by others cruelly parted from family, friends and lovers.

It’s a dramatic scene between two separated lovers, one of them also Melchior’s love interest, that really stood out for me from Der Tunnel. One of many emotional moments in the film, this rises above the rest because of superb acting and high drama but also due to the visual presence of the wall: painfully, physically and unavoidably denying the lovers a precious moment together. The tender scenes after this event are also moving, and the standout scene itself certainly has the potential to pluck tears from the coldest of eyes.

At just twenty minutes short of three hours long, I was worried about the wearisome effects of Der Tunnel. Would I need to scramble to the surface for air? In many ways this isn’t very creative or original storytelling, but it’s undeniably well executed, from the acting to the direction. I was engrossed by the lives and loves of the characters throughout. Crucially the tense and exciting climax delivers a classic, satisfying conclusion that’s fitting for such a classic premise.

Kick Ass Assassins: Salt on Blu-Ray and The American on DVD


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.

Unconventional style: Inglorious Basterds, Juno and The Ghost


(some spoilers)

The most stylish person in a room looks different to everyone else. Often the first step to style, the boldest move towards quality, is doing something different and distinctive. A lot of the time these risky moves will end in tears but some people just have the knack for it.

Three such people are directors Quentin Tarantino, Jason Reitman and Roman Polanski. Recently I’ve watched some of the best known, latest works of all of these men and it’s clear they’re endowed with the lucky gift of success when embracing the unconventional.

Firstly Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds is such a fascinating, intriguing picture. Events within the plot and elements of the execution bear Tarantino’s sensational touch – leading Nazis weren’t slaughtered in reality in a cinema in Paris – but that does not mean there aren’t serious elements to this film too. On the surface it’s a simplified, warped version of history, with a non-existent band of American Jews exacting revenge for the Holocaust, which wasn’t widely known about until the discovery of death camps at the end of the conflict. But at the very least it’s a sumptuous exercise in the best of filmmaking and with its faithful use of various languages, does say something factual rather than fictionalised about the misunderstandings and deceptions of war. It’s also, somehow, hilarious.

As the film’s star Brad Pitt says in one of the interviews on the Blu-Ray disc, this film plays out more like a novel. It’s broken into chapters, the first handful of which establish the characters and the rest bring them together for an explosive, visually stunning finale. Only a few of these characters are typical and expected for the wartime context; the French farmer in the marvellous opening scene for example. But the rest are Tarantino creations. They’re extremely vivid and engaging but also wild, sometimes implausible extremes, almost as if plucked from the pages of a striking graphic novel. Somehow the director/writer makes them wonderfully believable and then gives them bags of room to play in his chapters, which often consist of one, long and extended scene.

The opening scene establishes the marvellous character of the “Jew hunter” played by Christoph Waltz. There are some splendid, picturesque shots of the French countryside, followed by a wonderfully tense dialogue scene indoors. The interrogative German is sinister through his politeness, only to reveal the true nature of his visit. Other scenes in the film get similar space to breathe and come to life, in particular another edge of the seat, tense encounter in a tavern. This is the film’s longest scene and is incredibly realistic and satisfying as the spies, including the wonderful Michael Fassbender, attempt not to blow their cover. Language again plays an important role, and does so throughout, becoming almost another character. Often Inglorious Basterds feels more like a play, only for some explosive action to remind you that only a film could deliver such thrills, laughs and intrigue. Ultimately the spot-on dialogue, lengthy scenes, exploration of language and sensational characters and events, is not only stylish but says something worthwhile about the war.

All of these films say something worthwhile. Juno chips in with messages about taking people at face value and what really makes relationships work, as well as challenging views of young people. And The Ghost, whilst being primarily an impressive exercise in storytelling rather than a substantive study of politics, does have some underlying messages about identity and ethics.

If you had one word to describe Juno, chances are it would be “quirky”. Anywhere you look online you’ll find this label plastered to the film’s witty face. Personally it seems an unfair, limiting term for such an intelligent, funny, well-acted production. But I guess it is undoubtedly true. Juno isn’t your average teenager. She’s witty, quick and cynical. She wasn’t used by some sex mad male but got knocked up by banging the best friend who’s crazy about her out of boredom. She sets about helping a deserving couple, rather than unthinkingly obliterating the fledgling life inside her.

The couple she decides to “donate” her child to are almost as important to the story as Juno. Played by Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman, they are the grown-up heart of the film, the crucial counterpoint to Juno’s usually happy exuberance. All the cast deal superbly with fast, funny dialogue, including Juno herself, Ellen Page, as well as her Dad and Step-Mom, J.K. Simmons and Alison Janney. And of course the love that suddenly blossoms at the end with Michael Cera, is wonderfully touching and encompassed by the duet which ends the film.

Of all these films it’s The Ghost with the most stylistic flourishes, perhaps ironic given the everyman Brit accent adopted by Ewan McGregor. There are no jaw-dropping stunts in this film; all the drama comes from the story and suffocating, tense locations. When crucial, potentially stunning events occur in the plot, Polanski deals with them with the utmost style. The film starts by simply showing an abandoned car to heighten the mystery surrounding the death of the previous Ghost Writer, rather than showing a spectacular murder scene. At the climax of the film McGregor’s character is abruptly hit by a car out of shot; we only see papers scatter and swirl in the traffic, littering the street.

Rich in detail, in The Ghost we learn surprisingly little about anything ever. Polanski somehow captures the Dan Brown like, page-turning twists of the novel and distils them on film, whilst also adding a layer of intelligence to the swerves of the plot. You are gripped, determined to keep watching for the big reveal. A reveal cunningly disguised throughout and then stylishly unveiled with an anticipation building close-up of a gradually passed note. The Ghost is immensely enjoyable and stylish; I couldn’t take my eyes off it.

So filmmakers do something different, unpredictable and restrained if you want to make it big and be lavished with praise.

The Disappearance of Alice Creed


The Disappearance of Alice Creed is the sort of film that it’s almost impossible to talk about or review without puncturing and spoiling the drama for those yet to experience it. And an experience is what the film provides; even if some berk lets slip a key plot detail there are more than enough twists, turns and unforeseen, sudden plunges on this tense rollercoaster ride to keep you entertained and constantly clueless. It’s the sort of film that has you on the edge of your seat, scanning every scene for minute details that might seem insignificant but will later prove to be vital hinges around which the hyper plot will pivot. Just when you reckon you’ve cracked where things are heading, something totally unexpected will grab you by the lapels and catapult you back to square one. Here you’ll lie briefly, dazed in the dust, before picking yourself up eager for more.

That’s not to say that every swerve woven into the script is a surprise, as in most films some will loom obviously in the distance, with the audience merely asking themselves “when” and “how” as opposed to “what” will happen next. This is a largely original thriller that also loses much of its unique edge at the end as all the indecipherable good work that has gone before must somehow be wrapped up. But on the whole this is an accomplished directorial debut from J.Blakeson, who also wrote the ambitious and resourcefully realised script. Not only is this a movie that delivers as a thriller but working with limited possibilities and an enclosed space it also develops fascinating characters that are for the most part captivating enigmas impossible to unravel.

The reason that the characters hold our attention so intensely and for so long is the steadily racked up tension, combined with only a meagre drip of information about who they might be. Crucially there are also only three characters in the entire film. The first five minutes are completely dialogue and mostly noise free, with only the soundtrack beginning to wind up the intrigue. We watch as two men methodically and meticulously transform a dilapidated flat into a prison, with some slow and beautifully shot scenes at a DIY store and car park contrasting impressively with more frenetic scenes later on. Then the near silence explodes into noise, with the Alice Creed of the title bundled into the back of a van, squirming and screaming. She is then stripped naked, still screaming, on a bed back at the newly fortified containment cell. The sound of her tearing clothes and panicked breathing dominates.

Gemma Arterton, as the title character, gets considerable opportunities to show off her acting chops, despite most of the dialogue going to her kidnappers, Eddie Marsan and Martin Compston. Marsan is often called upon for minor roles in big Hollywood productions, such as his recent Inspector Lestrade in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, and it’s refreshing to see his full impressive range on show here as the key kidnapper Vic. Arterton too has been confined to generic female roles in big budget movies, with a brief and comic turn in Bond movie Quantum of Solace perhaps her most famous appearance so far. In the BBC’s latest adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbevilles she took the lead role and had the space to prove her ability but in many ways her performance here is more convincing, as we watch her do so much with so little. With only three characters for the complex story to work with none is really more important than the other, but if anything Compston’s Danny is the most central figure, and like his fellow cast members he produces a superb and powerful performance.

The Disappearance of Alice Creed is a reassuring tribute to the raw power of narrative when all the luxurious additions of blockbusters are peeled away, leaving the bare essentials of storytelling: character and plot. These are the only ingredients talented directors and writers like J.Blakeson really need.