Format: Cinema

Release date: 23 January 2009

Venues: Vue West End (London) and nationwide

Distributor: Universal

Director: Ron Howard

Writer: Peter Morgan

Cast: Frank Langella, Michael Sheen

USA/UK/France 2008

122 mins

Ron Howard’s latest film, an adaptation of Peter Morgan’s successful 2006 stage play Frost/Nixon, was an intelligent, entertaining and ultimately riveting choice to kick off this year’s London Film Festival. The screenplay, penned by Morgan, dramatises the events that led up to a series of notorious interviews held in 1977 between the celebrity talk show host David Frost and the disgraced president Nixon – interviews that garnered a record television audience and landed Frost on the cover of Time magazine.

Frank Langella, who won a Tony award for his part in the Broadway production, reprises the role of the president, delivering what is undoubtedly one of the performances of his career as the ousted, almost fanatical politician hell-bent on using the interviews to clear his name and stage a political comeback. Langella’s performance is so impressive that it tends to over-shadow that of his British co-star Michael Sheen, who, although he was also an original cast member in both the UK and American productions, doesn’t quite possess Langella’s stature.

Sheen’s David Frost is a likeable but lightweight entertainer (rather than a journalist), with a playboy reputation and a television career on the brink of imploding. Morgan imagines the interviews as a gloves-off contest between two men both desperate to come out on top, and in the process salvage their reputations and careers (as well as make a wad of cash). It’s one of Frost’s researchers, the author James Reston Jr, (Sam Rockwell), who passionately demands that Frost use the interviews to secure an admission of guilt over the disgraced president’s role in the Watergate scandal, rather than merely as a vehicle to restore his faltering fame.

The witty, insightful script is handled deftly by an impressive ensemble cast that also features Kevin Bacon as Nixon’s Chief-of-Staff and the always engaging Oliver Platt as the journalist Bob Zelnick. While some theatre-goers may see little point in watching the adaptation on the big screen, the medium offers Langella the perfect opportunity to really capture up close the physical weaknesses (a sweaty upper lip, for example) that so famously made Nixon unsuited for television – a victim, in Reston’s words, of the ‘reductive power of the close-up’. It’s only a shame that more time isn’t devoted to the blistering interviews; instead, a little too much attention is paid to Frost’s vanity and personal life, including a distracting, seemingly unnecessary love interest (typical of Hollywood).

Ultimately, it’s the film’s parallels with the current Republican administration that make it such a powerful political work. Nixon’s attacks on the ‘liberal’ media – in a great scene he refers to them as the ‘sons of whores’ – were being repeated across America in the run-up to the 2008 election. And Nixon’s abuse of executive privilege (‘if the president does it, it’s not illegal’) has been more than matched by the secretive Bush/Cheney team. While the film is undoubtedly a slick, commercial feature, it’s encouraging to see successful directors like Howard use their influence to take aim at the White House in a smart, captivating way.

Sarah Cronin


Better Things

Format: Cinema

Release date: 23 January 2009

Venue: ICA Cinema, Renoir (London) and key cities

Distributor: Soda Pictures

Director: Duane Hopkins

Writer: Duane Hopkins

Cast: Tara Ballard, Betty Bench, Frank Bench, Emma Cooper, Liam McIlfatrick

UK 2008

93 mins

Emotional depth comes wrapped in bleakness in Better Things, a visually striking and thoughtful feature debut by the British writer-director Duane Hopkins. Just as in his award-winning short films (Fields, Love Me or Leave Me Alone), the former artist and photographer devotes most of his filmmaking energy to unfolding a fragmented narrative through a lucid and almost nightmarish pace, with the aim of creating a film that ‘truly evokes rural England’. However, although Better Things reaches for the sort of complexity demonstrated in the director’s shorts, it doesn’t quite manage to convey the same poignant intensity.

Somewhat prudently, the film has been billed in its journey around the international film festival circuit as a painterly view of rural existence rather than as a drama about substance addiction, yet at its heart lies the shattering impact of a young woman’s death from a heroin overdose. Much of the story follows her boyfriend Rob, a junkie himself, who, like most of his friends, uses drugs to escape the unbearably grim monotony of everyday life while his little brother experiences the equally devastating very few highs and many lows of first love. The multi-layered narrative also encompasses the parallel stories of an elderly couple unable to forgive each other for a stale betrayal, and of a girl named Gail who struggles to overcome her agoraphobia and her addiction to the romance novels that keep her safe from the harsh world outside.

Switching between several plot strands set during the same miserable days and nights in the rural boredom of the Cotswolds, Better Things follows innocuous and utterly repressed characters pushed to extremes of emotional despair, tracing their personal journeys through very little dialogue and a lot of moody posturing. Rob’s existential crisis, for example, is hinted at but never properly explored, which makes his character increasingly irritating, especially as he is – more or less – the leading role in the ensemble. The result is a series of character snapshots enhanced by Hopkins’s ability to capture the essence of unhappiness in this particular setting with impressive exactitude. But the film’s style, located somewhere between a poetically shot documentary and the observational approach of Belgium’s Dardenne brothers, isn’t backed up by enough substance. There is a strong suggestion that fertile associations connect scenes together but key details that would help tighten the links and elucidate the mystery at the heart of the film are withheld, preventing the film from ever developing into something more than the sum of its parts.

From an aesthetic point of view, Better Things is intoxicating and haunting in equal measures for the austere, self-enclosed world Hopkins creates with a palette reduced almost to monochrome. There is an aching, yearning quality mixed with pent-up frustration and anger, much of it communicated through an impressive sound design and the world of stillness and near-silence, of forbidding yet alluring landscapes.

Better Things is a problematic film, in its structure and narrative approach, but it carries a great deal of the directorial strength and emphasis of Hopkins’s earlier work, most notably, a devotion to form over narrative. Although the film is flawed and may be too stark to convey Hopkins’s poetic-realist style in a convincing way, it offers a powerful evocation of the desperate, tongue-tied helplessness that sets its various characters in motion, and which, in the film’s riveting moments, echoes uneasily in the mind.

Pamela Jahn


Hansel and Gretel

Format: Cinema

Release date: 16 January 2009

Venues: ICA (London) and key cities

Distributor: Terracotta Distribution

Director: Yim Pil-Sung

Writers: Yim Pil-Sung, Kim Min-sook

Original title: Hansel gua Gretel

Cast: Cheon Jeong-myeong, Sim Eun-kyung, Jang Yeong-Nam, Kim Kyeong-ik, Park Hee-soon, Eun Won-jae

South Korea 2007

117 mins

Sensible kids know that some of the scariest stories come in the form of fairy tales. In the original Brothers Grimm story, Hansel and Gretel are abandoned by their starving parents in the woods where they encounter a cannibalistic witch who fattens them up with cakes and sweets. This South Korean adaptation recasts the children as the villains of the story, making them the cake suppliers who dispose of unwary strangers unlucky enough to chance upon their home in the forest. Cannibalism only gets a slight (visual) mention in this modern retelling, in the form of a dubious, bloody joint of meat in the over-stocked fridge, but the other memorable elements of the story – the house full of cakes, the abandoned children and the impenetrable woods you cannot escape – survive intact.

Creepy children are a safe bet for horror movies, as are crash victims who foolishly wander away from their wrecked cars instead of waiting for emergency services. These two horror staples have been over-used, and combined with such a well-known fairy tale, could have made for a film too familiar to be engaging. But Hansel and Gretel comes in a decade that has seen a renaissance in Korean fantasy cinema, and these elements have been remixed and given new vitality by a modern Asian sensibility. Appropriately, director Yim Pil-Sung starred in The Host (2006), a sort of Korean retelling of St George and the Dragon that mixed fairy tale tropes with modern concerns about pollution and eco-terrorism. Here, alongside the expected elements of witchcraft and hauntings we have child abuse and a paedophiliac priest.

At 117 minutes, the film is overlong and the script could have been sharper, but the atmosphere, the direction and most of the performances keep the audience engaged even during the longueurs. The paedophilia subtext is not entirely successful; the dodgy priest is the least convincing character in the film and sticks out like a sore thumb. However, Deacon Byun and the extended running time are the only weak aspects of Hansel and Gretel, and throughout the film there are enough remarkable images – the bucolic cottage surrounded by snow, an attic that extends further than the eye can see (reminiscent of JG Ballard’s short story ‘The Enormous Space’) and a toy angel that comes to life and flies away – to make this a memorable, unsettling film that will disturb adults who only vaguely remember the creepy fairy tales that scared them as children.

Alex Fitch

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia

Format: Cinema

Release date: 10-15 January 2009

Venues: BFI Southbank (London) and key cities

Distributor: Park Circus Films

Part of the Sam Peckinpah season at the BFI Southbank, 10-31 January. More info here.

Director: Sam Peckinpah

Writers: Frank Kowalski, Sam Peckinpah, Gordon T Dawson

Cast: Warren Oates, Gig Young, Isela Vega, Kris Kristofferson

USA 1974

112 mins

Lionised by a particular kind of (mostly male) film fan, Sam Peckinpah’s accomplishments as a director are often overshadowed by his legendarily disordered personal life. And much like the man himself ‘Bloody Sam”s 1974 film Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is loved and loathed in equal measure.

Critically savaged on release (Harry Medved included it alongside clunkers like Santa Claus Conquers The Martians in his book The Fifty Worst Films of All Time), its reputation has nevertheless lived on in some curiously varied places: David Lynch is a fan, while it’s almost certainly the only movie to be both an influence on Quentin Tarantino and the punchline to a running joke on Radio 4 panel show ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue’. Famously one of the few Peckinpah films not to be subject to studio intervention, this peculiarly lurid B-movie is also his most personal. It’s for this reason that Peckinpah himself loved it more than The Wild Bunch, Junior Bonner, The Getaway or any of his more commercially successful or accomplished movies. ‘I did Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia and I did it exactly the way I wanted to’, he said in 1975. ‘Good or bad, like it or not, that was my film’.

An odd and at times uncomfortable mix of Western, noir, horror, black humour and genuinely tender love story, it follows Warren Oates’s loser bartender Bennie as he travels through rural Mexico searching for the Garcia of the title. Bennie isn’t alone, though: a million-dollar bounty has been put on Garcia by an aggrieved patrí­Â³n whose daughter he has impregnated, so various professional bounty hunters are also seeking to find Garcia and return with very physical proof of his death.

What follows is a customarily bloody and unusually funny Peckinpah curio, redeemed almost totally by Oates’s performance. Peckinpah scholars claim Bennie is a thinly-veiled self-portrait of the director – right down to the constant drinking and permanent sunglasses – and Oates’s depiction of flawed, desperate masculinity is built on equal amounts of sadness, rage and frustration. The essentially pointless chase for Garcia’s severed head is Bennie’s last chance at achieving some kind of redemption. Ultimately, Bennie manages a kind of nobility amongst the moral squalor of his surroundings, but only after his girlfriend and scores of others are killed and he has contended with the practicalities of transporting a rapidly decomposing human head through the Mexican heat.

The BFI’s Sam Peckinpah season offers the chance to see the film in a much better print than the notoriously poor one shown very occasionally on TV – which means that the dialogue will be audible for a start – but although the picture quality may be good, it can’t stop this from being a pretty grimy film. Indeed, your appreciation of it will largely depend on whether you trust Peckinpah enough to spend two hours with him jettisoning the Big Themes of his best work for a kaleidoscopic mix of gay hitmen, shallow graves, Kris Kristofferson as a bashful would-be rapist and Warren Oates having a one-way conversation with a dead man’s head in a calico sack. Because, like Peckinpah himself, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is a mixture of the very very good and the very very bad. In this respect, it’s probably the director’s ultimate movie.

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is released with a brand new 4K restoration on Limited Edition Blu-ray by Arrow Video on 23 January 2017.

Pat Long


The Broken

Format: Cinema

Release date: 30 January 2009

Venues: London and key cities

Distributor: The Works

Director: Sean Ellis

Writer: Sean Ellis

Cast: Lena Headey, Richard Jenkins, Asier Newman

UK/France 2008

85 mins

The British-born writer and director Sean Ellis made a name for himself with his 2006 debut feature Cashback, which he adapted from his funny, original and slightly disturbing 2004 Academy Award-nominated short of the same title about an art student working in a Sainsbury’s who can stop time. His second feature, The Brí¸ken, is a stylish psychological thriller set in a chilly, grey London that wears its debt to Edgar Allan Poe on its sleeve.

Lena Headey (who proves that she can excel at serious, thoughtful roles after her B-movie turns as the matriarch in 300 and Sarah in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles) stars as Gina McVey, a composed, elegant woman working as a radiologist at an anonymous London hospital. At an intimate birthday party for her father, an American diplomat played by Richard Jenkins, a mirror suddenly crashes to the floor, with the promise of bad luck setting off a frightening chain of events. The next day, Gina sees a woman who looks like her drive by in a car identical to hers. She follows her doppelgänger to a flat where she is shocked to find a photo of the mysterious woman with her father. The film cuts to a horrific car crash, with Gina waking up in hospital, lucky to be alive, but unable to remember any of the events leading up to the accident.

As Gina tries to piece together fragments of the events, and as mirrors continue to shatter all around her and her family, she realises that reality – and the people closest to her – may not be what they seem. Ellis keeps the audience wondering whether Gina is mentally damaged or possibly the victim of some kind of sinister conspiracy, with her enigmatic father and boyfriend (played with icy stillness by the French actor Melvil Poupaud) somehow privy to the dark secret that she’s trying to unravel.

There are a few false notes in the film; writing dialogue is not Ellis’s strong point and the movie is at its best when he lets the visuals do the talking. Much of the film’s strength lies in its measured pacing and perfectly composed shots, and Ellis uses Gina’s job at the hospital as a source for the sterile atmosphere and clinical colour palette of steely greys and flickering green hues. The film is given a retro feel by its impeccably stylish use of mansion blocks as locations, and by details like old rotary phones that suggest a 50s, Hitchcockian sensibility (a tribute made all the more obvious by a seriously disturbing take on the shower scene). Scenes shot in an impossibly empty London help reinforce Gina’s feelings of terror and isolation, while the score crucially creates a palpable sense of tension, with shrill strings and white noise often reaching an ominous crescendo.

Ellis has successfully crafted a grown-up, sleek thriller that explores the sinister side of split personalities, using suspense rather than gore to frighten his audience. Refreshingly ambiguous, the film doesn’t provide any neat answers to its supernatural questions.

Sarah Cronin


Memories of Matsuko

Format: DVD

Release date: 26 January 2009

Distributor: Third Window Films

Director: Tetsuya Nakashima

Writer: Tetsuya Nakashima

Based on the novel by: Muneki Yamada

Original title: Kiraware Matsuko no isshô

Cast: Miki Nakatani, Eita, Yusuke Iseya, Teruyuki Kagawa, Mikako Ichikawa

Japan 2006

130 mins

On paper, a quick scramble through the most memorable moments in the life of Matsuko would make for an unredeemably bleak read. Matsuko is unfairly sacked from her job as teacher, shacks up with a series of abusive lovers, ends up a massage parlour girl, completes an eight-year stint in prison for murder and descends into lonely madness, before her untimely end as a murder victim, at the age of 53.

It sounds dark and then some. But director Tetsuya Nakashima (of Kamikaze Girls fame) has a neon-bright vision, and his love of super-saturated colour, moody lighting and musicals gives this self-aware melodramatic weepy a slick, inventive cartoon dreaminess that is luminously arresting.

The film opens with 20-year-old Sho, played with slacker aplomb by Eita, being dumped by his girlfriend with the brutal announcement: ‘Life with you is a terrible bore.’ Direction-less Sho with mordant nihilism mumbles that ‘at any rate the future’s hopeless’ and heads for a fast-paced video life of clubbing, beer and porn.

His dad, who he hasn’t seen for two years, turns up at his place with a casket of ashes and the surprising news that his estranged and strange elder sister (Sho’s aunt) has been found dead. And Sho has been assigned the job of heading to her apartment to clear up the detritus of her ‘meaningless life’. Discovering a photo of his young aunt, dressed in a kimono, and pulling an absurd face, Sho gradually begins to unravel the mysteries of Matsuko’s life – the tragi-comic tale of a woman who went looking for love in all the wrong places.

Miki Nakatani is given the hard task of playing out the masochistic Matsuko, who seems to have adopted The Crystals’ song, ‘He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)’, as her romantic mantra. Chameleon-like in appearance – changing from a trimly besuited teacher with a prim hat to a bobbed-haired barber’s girlfriend to a cloudy-haired yakuza’s moll, Nakatani is surprisingly convincing, despite the outré-ness of the plot. She seems full of an uncontrollable needy passion, crying out, ‘with him I’d gladly go to hell or anywhere. That’s my happiness’, as she’s punched, yet again, in the eye by her latest (fucked up) beloved.

Nakashima continually ramps up the emotion, and then slyly twists it with a canny visual joke, or a quirky musical interlude. There’s a hip-hop prison song, where the inmates sing the jailhouse blues, or the absurdly perky ‘Happy Wednesday’, a whimsical skip of a song that infects everyone in the scene with a viral chirpiness, as Matsuko plays house for her married lover. The film is full of these kinds of visual delights – Lynchian swathes of hyper-real flowers, glittery Disney-ish birds, the black rubbish bags that turn into a murder of crows, wings beating frantically in Matsuko’s gloomy riverside apartment as her madness takes hold.

The film has its flaws: it’s overly long (130 minutes) and occasionally self-indulgent with its Hollywood ‘weepy’ references – there’s a truly cringe-worthy scene with a Bing Crosby-style priest – and the acting sometimes veers from the dramatic into teeth-clenching hysteria. But overall, Memories of Matsuko is funny and sad, and hugely inventive. It is bonkers, but mostly in a good way.

Eithne Farry


Dead Man

Format: DVD

Release date: 5 January 2009

Distributor: Optimum Releasing

Director: Jim Jarmusch

Writer: Jim Jarmusch

Cast: Johnny Depp, Gary Farmer, Crispin Glover

USA/Germany/Japan 1995

121 mins
Part of the Jim Jarmusch Collection Vol 2

Titles: Mystery Train, Night on Earth, Dead Man

As its title implies, Jim Jarmusch’s existential Western is preoccupied with death, an event which a Native-American character describes as ‘passing through the mirror’. Although it is the director’s most ambitious film to date in terms of its period recreation, Dead Man is, like Stranger than Paradise (1982) and Down by Law (1986), another film about social outsiders, their travels, and the people that they encounter before arriving at their destination. Beautifully shot in black and white by the great Robby Mí¼ller, and accompanied by a jangling guitar score by Neil Young, this is perhaps the film that most perfectly encapsulates Jarmusch’s directorial persona, aligning his credentials as the New York ‘hipster’ who put American independent cinema on the map in the early 1980s with his personal fascinations with foreign cultures and the erosion of the American dream.

William Blake (Johnny Depp) is a recently orphaned accountant from Cleveland, who travels West by rail to take a position at a metal works in a town called Machine, a nightmarish melting pot of environmental pollution and moral corruption, which is appropriately located at ‘the end of the line’. Upon arrival, he is informed by the proprietor of the works, Dickerson (Robert Mitchum), that the position has been filled, and that his services are not required. Finding solace in a bottle of whisky, Blake encounters former prostitute Thiel (Mili Avital) when she stumbles out of a saloon, and ends up in bed with her, only to be interrupted by her lover Charlie (Gabriel Byrne), who also happens to be Dickerson’s son. Charlie murders Thiel, and wounds Blake, but the accountant fires back with Thiel’s pistol and kills Charlie with a shot to the neck.

After making an amusingly inept getaway by falling out of the window and riding away on Charlie’s horse, Blake awakens in the woods to find Nobody (Gary Farmer), a Native-American outcast, trying to remove the bullet that is lodged close to his heart. Nobody points out that, because the bullet cannot be removed, Blake is already a ‘dead man’, as the wound will eventually prove to be fatal. The two men become riding companions, and Blake accepts his situation whilst wandering through the wilderness, while Dickerson dispatches three bounty hunters to bring his son’s killer to ‘justice’.

Jarmusch adopts the genre of the Western to comment on the state of contemporary America, and it’s often intertwined obsessions of violence, fame and money. ‘Why do you have this?’ Blake asks Thiel after discovering that she has a gun beside her bed. ‘Cause this is America’, is her reply. Most of the white characters are opportunistic hired killers, or want to attach themselves to the ‘celebrity’ of the outlaw that Blake unwittingly becomes, while Dickerson demands revenge for the murder of his son, but is more concerned about the return of his horse. Deadpan humour abounds, from a running joke about tobacco, to Mitchum delivering a speech to a stuffed bear, and Jarmusch achieves a haunting coda in which narrative trajectory meets spiritual transcendence. Buried by Miramax on its theatrical release in 1995 when Jarmusch refused to succumb to the editorial demands of Harvey Weinstein, Dead Man is a sublime experience that rewards repeat viewings.

John Berra



Format: DVD

Release date: 24 November 2008

Distributor: Eureka Entertainment

Director: Marcel L’Herbier

Writers: Arthur Bernède and Marcel L’Herbier

Based on the novel by: Émile Zola

Cast: Pierre Alcover, Marie Glory, Henry Victor

France 1928

168 mins

One of the ways Marcel L’Herbier’s L’Argent blazed a trail for cinema was in its unashamed updating of literary source material. It is commonplace now for a novel or play to be mined for its plot while leaving the inconvenience of the period setting behind, but L’Herbier’s 1928 treatment of Émile Zola’s 1891 novel outraged members of the French dramatic establishment. Certainly the modernisation is opportunistic, with Guyana substituted for the Middle East as the secondary location, in order that the character of Jacques Hamelin can be not only a pioneering engineer but also a daring transatlantic aviator. But the central subject is, of course, not adventure but money, not Guyana but Paris, and a contemporary setting surely helped L’Herbier to give his story bite.

Dramatically, it remains a distinctively 19th-century story, of a pure-hearted young woman at the mercy of greed and lust, her dashing husband led astray by his ambition. It is hard now to see the Jacques character as heroic or glamorous, perhaps because the appeal of Henry Victor’s style of manly suffering has faded. Line Hamelin is played with sass by Marie Glory (now at 103 one of the last surviving silent stars), but the real fun comes when the bad guys are on screen. Pierre Alcover and Alfred Abel are highly entertaining as the rival financiers Saccard and Gunderman, contrasting personifications of greed, violent and icy respectively. But even they are outdone by supporting actors. Brigitte Helm (of Metropolis fame) is the slinkily depraved Baronin Sandorf, writhing in satin and feathers, who will do what it takes to support her gambling habit, even to the extent of allowing the grotesque Saccard to free up her assets on the zebra-skin rug. Best of all, in an eye-catching minor role, is the pioneering lunatic and junkie Antonin Artaud, inventor of the Theatre of Cruelty.

The film is made with more vigour than precision. To a large extent, it seems to have been filmed on the hoof, though prepared with great care and planning. The settings (often spectacular) are arranged and lit, the actors go for it, and the cameras do their best to capture it as it happens, often sacrificing clarity for excitement. I am inclined to take the view that cinematographer Jules Kruger did a valiant job just getting this big mess of action on film. The approximate focus, bumpy camera movements, and inconsistency of lighting and texture make L’Argent incoherent as a visual work of art, but this is perhaps a small price to pay for the energy, scale and vividness of the scenes captured. Visually, L’Argent is a splendid study of the temples of power, animated with considerable narrative energy. For spectacular set-pieces L’Herbier took over the Bourse, Le Bourget airport, and the Place de l’Opéra, without stinting on the extras. The swift succession of lively and varied scenes and tableaux (often just a few seconds, and the more effective for their brevity) are edited together with considerable fluency and zest into an enjoyable yarn.

Ultimately, I don’t think that L’Argent works in the way L’Herbier intended it to. The film doesn’t present a very deep or enlightening critique: it is as unsubtle as L’Herbier’s description of it as ‘a fierce denunciation of money’ suggests. But it does vividly evoke how the wide world of commerce depends on the relatively small world of the financial entrepreneurs, how deceit and guile alike underlie financial stability. Further insight from the past into our current woes? Well, there are some interesting suggestions early on about the relations between propriety, public opinion, and financial success. But in the end, I think L’Argent is too successful as entertainment to work as a didactic piece. The moral is presumably supposed to be that love of money is wicked, but Alcover plays the villain with such straightforward brio that it is hard to despise his greed as we are meant to. Baronin Sandorf is supposed to be another case-study in the depraving effects of love of money, but she seems to enjoy her vice so much that it comes to look rather enviable. What the film actually seems to end up showing us is that cool pursuit of money triumphs over vulgar love of money, but that vulgar love of money might be more fun.

Peter Momtchiloff

This review is based on the 2008 DVD release by Eureka Entertainment.


Winter Soldier

Format: DVD

Release date: 5 January 2009

Distributor: Stoney Road Films

Director: Winterfilm Collective in association with Vietnam Veterans Against the War

USA 1972

95 mins

Staged by Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and funded in part by celebrities like Jane Fonda (aka Hanoi Jane) and Donald Sutherland, as well as other anti-war activists, the Winter Soldier Investigation was an attempt to heighten awareness of the alleged war crimes being committed by American soldiers in Vietnam, and in the words printed on the invitations, ‘preclude the further scapegoating of individual soldiers for what is in fact Official United States Military Policy’. Held over three days in early 1971 at a Detroit Howard Johnson hotel, the investigation saw over 100 veterans give testimony of atrocities they claimed to have either committed or seen during their tours of duty in Vietnam.

The event was documented by a coalition of filmmakers, who credited themselves as the Winterfilm Collective. Using donated equipment and film stock, they shot the documentary over four days and nights in Detroit, and spent eight months editing the footage, which included interviews with some of the veterans, interspersed with colour photographs taken in Vietnam. The result is a shocking anti-war film that strives to demonstrate that atrocities committed against civilians – from murder to rape and torture – were ‘standard operating procedure’, tacitly approved by the government as a means of conducting the war against the Viet Cong. Although Winter Soldier won the International Critics’ Prize at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival, it failed to secure a release in the US and was largely ignored by the mainstream media.

For the veterans involved, the investigation was a chance to lay blame at the feet of a military machine accused of encouraging brutality. One angry and ashamed veteran shows a photograph (eerily reminiscent of some of the images to come out of Abu Ghraib) of himself smiling over a dead body, urging the audience ‘not to let your government do this to you’. The litany of atrocities cited in the documentary paints a portrait of a vicious war that dehumanised both the young soldiers and their civilian victims, who, according to the testimony, were little more than animals, faceless ‘gooks’.

The stories recounted by the vets in the film are truly horrifying. But while Winter Soldier is a seriously disturbing film, it’s also extremely controversial. Critics (including veterans) have long claimed that many of the so-called vets who testified had never served in Vietnam; that the accounts of atrocities were either fabricated or exaggerated; and that the whole exercise was a case of anti-war propaganda that unfairly demonised veterans (see for an elaborate rebuttal to the investigation). John Kerry’s involvement in the hearing (although he appears only briefly in the film, he was a spokesman for VVAW and gave testimony in front of Congress later in 1971) explains the animosity he encountered from veterans during the 2004 US presidential election.

Winter Soldier is a powerful documentary that needs to be watched with a critical mind; most soldiers in Vietnam were not the monsters portrayed in the film. But regardless of the controversy, it’s a fascinating record both of an era and of a protest movement which, although well-intended, may possibly have used the same kind of heavy-handed propaganda tactics as the power it sought to criticise.

Sarah Cronin


Christmas on Mars

Format: Cinema

Screening date: 12-14 December 2009

Venue: Barbican, London

Also exists on DVD

Distributor: Warner Music Entertainment

Directors: Wayne Coyne, Bradley Beesley, George Salisbury

Writer: Wayne Coyne

Cast: Steven Drozd, Wayne Coyne, Steve Burns

USA 2008

82 mins

For a completely different take on the traditional Christmas movie, The Flaming Lips’ psychedelic, surrealist oddity Christmas on Mars falls somewhere between the slapdash, space-kitsch of Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space, the seasonal hope of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and the bizarre shockfest of Lynch’s Eraserhead.

Filmed over seven years in singer Wayne Coyne’s backyard in Oklahoma, it is the quintessential DIY movie, making use of household objects to create Christmas on a space station on Mars. A thinly disguised oven was used as the control centre, covered in personal mini electric fans rotating and spinning like the whirring cogs of a machine. Huge, disused oil tankers were transformed into 2001-like space tunnels to rather good effect, helped by the fact that the film was made to look as grainy as possible so as to make everything look otherworldly. Indeed, the print shown at the special screenings at the Barbican on December 12-14 (with Q+A with Coyne), had so many lines in it that it looked like it had been dropped a few times on the way.

Despite the jarring amateurishness of the set-up, some hammy acting and clunky dialogue, the film does manage to give an impression of what life might be like in a remote space station during the holiday season, as isolation and boredom send the mental state of the crew downhill. With the oxygen system on the blink, the crew member designated to play Santa in the forthcoming Christmas celebrations suffers demented hallucinations and commits suicide by exiting an airlock without the adequate space attire. The main protagonist, Major Styris, also starts experiencing a series of surreal visions, mostly involving a spaceman with a large vagina-like head holding a dead baby. Coyne himself appears as a benevolent, wordless green alien (in stark contrast to his real-life loquacious self) and later dons a Santa suit. He helps bring hope to those trapped at the space station, alongside a forlorn-looking Christmas tree and the seasonally significant birth of a baby.

The project was a labour of love and a family affair, with Coyne’s wife playing mother to the first human baby born on Mars and the other band members appearing as various and sundry characters in the space station. Thought to have the best acting chops, Flaming Lips’ guitarist Steven Drozd plays Major Styris. His weight fluctuates drastically throughout the movie: when shooting started seven years previously he had been a gaunt heroin addict and filming continued right through to his full recovery, which resulted in him being able to go through one door and come out the other side 10 pounds heavier.

Whilst the DIY, low-budget nature of the project could endear the film to Flaming Lips fans, who are already familiar with the band’s whacky stage shows, offbeat pop and fantastical lyrics, even Coyne himself admits that the regular cinema-goer might not quite take to the film so well. The fans, he hopes, will suspend disbelief and be caught up in the magic, wonder and fantasy of the movie. For a band who have spent the last 25 years making some of the most innovative and bizarre music to have nearly crossed into the mainstream, the film should really come as no surprise – the band directed numerous music videos themselves for albums with titles such as ‘Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots’. Yet, to other, ‘regular’ viewers the film might seem like a self-indulgent, pretentious vanity project where the only decent thing is the music. However, hearing Coyne talk at the Barbican about this project, which was so personal to him, you can’t help finding all that is endearing, hopeful, joyous and optimistic within the film. Perhaps the magic of a Mars Christmas and the mysterious green alien has spread some cheer after all.

Lucy Hurst