The last thing you expect to feel when watching a documentary about an international arms trader dubbed the ‘Merchant of Death’ is much empathy for him – but this remarkable film lays bare not only the man himself, but the mysterious marketplace he worked in. Viktor Bout’s story is most notable as the basis for the 2005 Nicolas Cage movie Lord of War, and as expected the reality is far less glamorous and two-dimensional.
Coming across as a thoroughly decent bloke who loves his family and wants to pursue legitimate business interests, we follow the young Soviet Army translator’s savvy decision-making of his early twenties – setting up an import company to Russia after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and moving on to Belgium and the United Arab Emirates, continually following the money and the emerging markets. At this stage he is certainly no ‘Merchant of Death’, just a slightly scruffy guy from Tajikistan with a tash. But as his business expanded to war torn African states his old soviet carrier planes became perfect for transporting vast arsenals back and forth around the globe – the title begins to fit. Roll on decades of the high life, making millions, travelling the world and opening business after business. But ultimately this arrogance and naivety developed over years of unqualified success proves his downfall – as he guilelessly embraces the media limelight and stumbles into the most laughably inept CIA sting imaginable in 2008.
Although directed by Tony Gerber and Maxim Pozdorovkin, the standout material in The Notorious Mr. Bout comes from Viktor himself. His aspirations of being a filmmaker lead him seemingly to videotape almost every second of his life. The gift of these tapes from his wife Alla to the directors must’ve been beyond their wildest dreams. They allow his story to be told visually with sparing exposition, and perhaps most importantly capture a fantastic sense of the period of the narrative. We witness Bout meeting with African generals, celebrating his birthday and snapping photos as a wide-eyed tourist. “I wanted to travel, see world, make documentary film,” he states in an email from his current prison cell. The unbelievably frank footage rarely feels like the coverage of a master criminal.
There will be no shortage of voices claiming the film gives Viktor a mercifully easy ride for, intentionally or not, he has fuelled conflicts and death with a morally bankrupt approach to his cargo businesses. But by no stretch of the imagination is he the all powerful head of the arms trade – he’s more a publicity hungry fool. The real evils are the laws that allowed these weapons to be freely shipped around with no punishable crime being committed. Unquestionably a scapegoat for a murky billion dollar industry, Viktor Bout has been morally suspect, but seldom criminally so.
The Notorious Mr. Bout is an unexpectedly absorbing watch. From the opening grainy CCTV footage of the sting it appears to be taking us on a tabloid path – but here is a far more rounded, ambitious film that delves into the human side of the story, not just the evil deeds and sensationalisation. It’s a documentary that instantly encourages debate – and a reassessment of media driven snap judgements.
[ 2014 — Dir: Tony Gerber, Maxim Pozdorovkin — 90 mins — 15 cert — IMDb ]
You’d think after 100-odd years of cinema we’d have had enough climatic scenes of bad dudes stalking good kids around the pipes and machinery of deserted factories while over-explaining their grisly fates – without ever actually killing them. Feature debutants Simon and Zeke Hawkins obviously disagree, serving up We Gotta Get Out of This Place, a quite literally run-of-the-(cotton)mill Texan thriller underscored with a decent helping of teenage angst and genre predictability.
The aforementioned angst comes in the unlikely love triangle of Sue (a bookworm with a map of the world on her bedroom wall), her boyfriend B.J. (a hotheaded farm worker in cut off t-shirts) and Bobby (a curly haired, soft featured wannabe college boy). With Sue (Mackenzie Davis) and Bobby (Jeremy Allen White) about to set off to college, B.J. (Logan Huffman) careers off the rails stealing stacks of cash and a handgun from the wrong guy – Mark Pellegrino doing a passable Woody Harrelson impression as roughneck Giff. Tasked with nicking some money back to replace the cash the three of them blew on booze, the trio formulate a plan to break into B.J. and Bobby’s work – but tensions fray further as B.J. begins to suspect the infidelity right under his nose.
We Gotta Get Out of This Place plays out like an episode of the OC, but set in Texas and with a few more guns. The characters are wildly two-dimensional and suffer through the increasing melodramatics of a made-for-TV movie. The love triangle, pickup trucks and vast desert landscape are appealing up to a point, but as the plot holes grow our interest diametrically shrinks. If B.J. really loves Sue, why does he so casually drag her into it? Why do the boys have next to no reaction to the death of a colleague? And why the hell don’t they do what the title says and drive as far away as possible? There’s never any prescribed threat to stop them. The minute you’re forced out of a film to consider these moments, it’s clearly already failed. The performances are solid – aside from an extra slice of ham from Pellegrino – and it’s decently gritty and washed out to look at, but it just doesn’t do enough.
Although the final double (double?) crossing is signposted clear as day – and the film leaves us under no illusions who’s going to be walking out to the safety of the Texas night – there is still a modicum of enjoyment to be garnered in witnessing the conclusion. It doesn’t atone for the lack of originality and zeal but there’s at least something to get your teeth into late on. We Gotta Get Outta of This Place feels every inch the debut feature – rehashing dialogue, narrative and tone from an endless list of predecessors. The Hawkins brothers don’t offer anything new just yet, but it demonstrates they understand the meat of putting a piece of genre entertainment together. Next time hopefully they’ll bring some fresh ideas with them.
[ 2013 — Dir: Simon Hawkins, Zeke Hawkins — 92 mins — 15 cert — IMDb ]
Glimpses of Swastikas in old photos, heavily bandaged plastic surgery patients, an enigmatic mustachioed German doctor in black leather gloves – something ain’t quite right in rural Argentina. Lucia Puenzo’s 1960-set thriller – based on her own book – takes the true story of the infamous Josef Mengele’s post-war time in South America while avoiding extradition to Israel, and interweaves it with an apparently real, outlandish encounter. The ‘Angel of Death’, hiding as a travelling doctor under the name Helmut Gregor (Àlex Brendemühl), becomes imbedded in the life of an Argentinian family and particularly their diminutive 12-year-old daughter Lilith (the sensational large-featured and eager-faced newcomer, Florencia Bado). Eyeing the underdeveloped youngster as the perfect subject for a continuation of his Auschwitz growth experimentation, he doggedly attempts to persuade her parents of the potential benefits. While her father remains sceptical, Lilith becomes enamoured with Helmut and will happily follow him anywhere. But as this odd friendship grows Mengele’s identity and dark motivations are always on the verge of being discovered.
Part thriller, part coming-of-age tale, Wakolda is never really able to settle and find its tone. While the sweeping Argentine vistas are handsomely photographed and performances are reliable, it retains this uncertainty of direction that stunts its impact. An urge to launch into full blown conspiracy thriller is always below the surface, but the desire to play up to its more human elements – and in particular Lilith’s naive fascination with the ‘Angel of Death’ – constantly cut this short. Wakolda – like the awkward, imperfect doll it shares its name with – is left imbalanced.
Much of this frustration comes from the heavy handed symbolism it brings to the screen – not a problem of itself but, counterpointed with a slow, thoughtful pace, the wholly expected events and big unveiling of Mengele’s identity take an age to play out. Case in point, Lilith’s father is a doll maker who will never make two dolls alike, believing beauty comes from their imperfections and differences, a fact Mengele can’t grasp, offering to mass produce his dolls with immaculate Arian perfection. I mean, come on.
Wakolda begins to feel piecemeal and slightly ripe in its latter stages, but from its fiercely taut opening the true potential of the story is apparent. With Brendemühl’s stern face transfixed by Lilith in a playground, and then proceeding to follow her family through stormy wasteland, there is something ominous and deeply uneasy swirling around them. At these moments when the film’s mysteries are kept out of reach, and it resembles a naturally played thriller, there is something of real interest at work, but the mounting contrivances and histrionics devalue almost all initial intrigue as the events unwind.
[ 2013 — Dir: Lucía Puenzo — 93 mins — 12A cert — IMDb ]
Notable for being one of the last films of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman and the directorial debut of Mad Men’s John ‘Roger Sterling’ Slattery, God’s Pocket arrives with a considerable heft of expectation. Blue collar lyricism in dark, curtain-drawn rooms is the order of the day as Slattery writes and directs an adaptation of Pete Dexter’s novel of the same name. In the tightly knit community of the titular Philadelphia neighbourhood outsiders are treated with suspicion, and local newspaper man Richard Shellburn (Richard Jenkins) is celebrated as a hero who truly ‘gets’ the hard-drinking, hardworking town. Even Mickey (Hoffman) who has married local girl Jeanie (Christina Hendricks) and established a life there is never accepted as one of their own. Told in hushed tones and the broadest of strokes it’s a film of raw meat, gambling and booze, with dialogue coming from the side of mouths to allow a cigarette to rest in the other.
The catalyst for the turmoil in the Pocket is the death of Jeanie’s scumbag son on a construction site. With the incident chalked off as an accident, the grieving mother rightfully suspects foul play and enlists the erudite journo, Shellburn, to uncover what the cops failed to. All the while Mickey attempts to thieve and gamble – with a little help from John Turturro – to earn enough to pay for the boy’s funeral, and pay off his various mounting debts. It’s grim in the Pocket, is the general gist.
A mournful soulfulness hangs in the air, but abrupt jolts of black comedy frequently prove to disrupt any rhythm that forms. Every line shouldn’t be a killer one delivered with a full stop, but that is very much Slattery’s approach here – an eagerness for every moment to be ‘the’ moment, at a detriment to the whole piece. Oddly, it also seems to have a real disdain for its dishevelled working class characters, driven by Jenkins' narration that paints the town as a rabble of lowlifes and morons. It’s a conflict that sits uneasily throughout: Slattery has realised the period 80’s details and boozy lives with real affection, but drives us further away from empathy with this central dissenting voice. Jenkins is arguably the most interesting character – by virtue of having more depth than the catalogue of two-dimensional crooks and barflies – but even he is left a little neglected and never fully explored.
Lacking in character it falls to the plot to draw us into God’s Pocket – however, having exposed the decisive act on the construction site in the opening movements it misses the bite of a whodunnit and instead gives itself over to predictability. A horse that won’t come in, a nervous kid we know will talk. We are left leaning on the sticky bar with the rest of the schlubs, waiting for events to play out.
To give Slattery his dues, God’s Pocket is a solidly put together debut that benefits from a sharp script overflowing with witticism and the poetry of despair. So while it may fail to register on the sincere emotional spectrum its snappy dialogue is never less than entertaining. But the true saviour of the film is its cast, all frankly so talented they could provide some class and the illusion of weight to any flawed production. Awash with definite soulfulness, it is tricky to distinguish whether this poignancy comes from Hoffman’s real life passing or the effect of the film itself – the suspicion being the former. An entertaining if wholly unremarkable crawl through small town misery.
[ 2014 — Dir: John Slattery — 88 mins — 15 cert — IMDb ]