March 1, 2012 6:09 pm

Enthralled and appalled by an oligarch’s fall

This week’s films reviewed: ‘Khodorkovsky’, ‘If Not Us, Who?’, ‘Carancho’, ‘Hunky Dory’ and ‘Michael’

In 2002 he was the world’s richest man under 40. By the end of 2003 he was in a Russian cell, and still is. Eight years have been served so far, as a prisoner of the state, by the human subject of Cyril Tuschi’s Khodorkovsky, a documentary that simultaneously enthrals and appals.

“Human”? Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former boss of the oil company Yukos, appears still to be that, judged by his articulate responses to Tuschi, written in letters or spoken from his cage in the courtroom that sentenced him in 2009 to a second consecutive jail term for tax evasion and embezzlement. “Subject”? Not quite. Like many tragedies, this one is about a man turning from subject to object, from controlling noun to accused accusative. The syntax of downfall.

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Tuschi collates the evidence masterfully – TV footage, documents, interviews with ex-colleagues – to substantiate what much of the world is already convinced of. Khodorkovsky crossed swords (or worse, words) with Vladimir Putin and took the toll. He rebuked him on public television; he campaigned for the political opposition. Before that K himself had turned from Russia’s leading oil tycoon to a brave, even reckless do-gooder. He funded universities, gave money to urge on press freedom, spoke up for the persecuted. It was too much: he was seized on his private plane in October 2003, landing from a business trip to America.

He now lives 4,000-odd miles from Moscow in a snow-girt fortress prowled around, in one sequence, by Tuschi’s cameras. It is an old documentarist’s trick: when you cannot get in, gawp helplessly. The audience feels as left out as you, which is exactly the purpose. Elsewhere Tuschi doesn’t waste a minute or a scene. The Khodorkovsky family is subpoena’d; likewise his friends and foes. When other resources fail, Arvo Pärt’s Los Angeles Symphony (dedicated to Khodorkovsky) is poured over the soundtrack.

The ex-oligarch of the new Russia cannot, perhaps, have been this much of a saint. But in the civil war of ideas raging across a re-democratised nation he is some kind of a secular martyr, a representative of stifled liberty canonised by a show trial. As the forces gather in the sometime Soviet Union to judge Putin and adjudicate on his return to power, this film couldn’t be more timely or more trenchant.

Khodorkovsky shows how we love a lone rebel – even a rich rebel – more readily than those revolutionary groups hidebound with their corporate, coercive dogmas. In 1960s Germany the Baader-Meinhof group fought a state’s supposed abuses of power with a mixture of Marxist cant and militant organised violence.

4 stars

One victim of a kind – portrayed in If Not Us, Who? – was Bernward Vesper (August Diehl). One-time lover of Baader-Meinhof member Gudrun Ensslin (Lena Lauzemis), who dumped him and their child for her anti-fascist mission, he lived ever after – suggests filmmaker Andreas Veiel – in a tug-of-war of contending ideological extremes: a once Hitler-supporting writer father and the leftwing hate doctrines of Andreas Baader (Alexander Fehling), Gudrun’s new lover.

The meticulous period set-dressing jostles with some weird character-dressing. Are Lauzemis’s mannish features and alien-looking hair, sitting on her like a wig, meant to groom us for the hinted themes of sexual ambivalence? Diehl himself gets a Shirley MacLaine fringe, presumably in a bid to make a 36-year-old German screen star (late of Inglourious Basterds) look 20. The themes foment, yet never quite ferment into a convincing brew. The spirit of the Baader-Meinhof era may still be too inchoate, puzzling and contradictory for even a German film to achieve consistency of tone and a cohesive conviction of approach.

2 stars

Pablo Trapero’s Carancho (Vulture), an Argentine drama-thriller about an ambulance-chasing lawyer and the sultry young doctor he tangles with, will be labelled a film noir. But its operational colour is red. You never saw such convincing blood. Its vivid, rusty ooze sparkles in the night. Its visceral tributaries are mapped on faces and bodies after road pile-ups or street punch-ups. It so looks the real thing that we think: “Where has the science of blood, or the aesthetic, been in 100 years of cinema?”

A story of car accidents – real and faked, minor and fatal, unprofitable and lucrative – has blood by the gallon. Ricardo Darín as the “hero” is a legal chancer hooked on illegality as surely as Martina Gusman’s medic is a “heroine” hooked on that word without the “e”. He strays into shoot-ups when his bid to bleed insurance firms provokes the wrath of organised crime or organised corruption (the police). She strays into different kinds of shoot-up, consoling herself with the needles she administers so caringly to crash victims. She has a beauty mildly battered by life; his face, pouchy, unslept, ill-shaven, is a document of human disaster. He looks like an owl after a million bad nights.

The dialogue, co-scripted by Trapero, whose psychodrama Lion’s Den also featured Gusman, is so cynical it betrays even its exponents into ambushing putdowns. “We’re all waiting for something better,” Darín muses in a guileless moment. She: “What are you waiting for? A multiple collision?” Passion and affirmation are reserved for love scenes and even these are shot like newsreels from an abattoir: lots of turning flesh in a torment of (self-)annihilation. The film’s bitterness of vision may owe as much to style as to content: this is not King Lear, it does not go deep. But a vision of sorts it is, harsh and haunting.

4 stars

“Let’s put on the show right here!” It is the cry of a thousand movie musical plots. Hunky Dory conjures the vision of another plot – a Stratford-upon-Avon resting place – containing a revolving William Shakespeare. “Whatever next?” the playwright may well be agonising, as The Tempest becomes a rock opera staged by a South Wales comprehensive in Marc Evans’s remembrance of his schooldays. Year: 1976 (the long hot summer). Place: a school rehearsal hall later deserted for an Edenic alfresco finale.

Ah childhood. It has always been, at least in art’s soppier outreaches, an Eden before the fall. Evans’s film never quite escapes soppiness: the puppy-loving teenagers and their adorable truancies; the eternal sunshine of freckled minds. And the music sounds like David Bowie gone winsome. Thank Heaven for biggish girls like star Minnie Driver. She at least, playing the show-directing teacher with spirit, wit and sass, gives Hunky Dory some funky-dory ebullience.

3 stars

There is a film to be made, grim and explorative, about paedophile abduction. Michael isn’t it. Austrian filmmaker Markus Schleinzer alternates between trivialisation and titillation. The boy is feebly characterised, a fresh-faced teenager with fits of truculence. The kidnapper is stone-faced and impenetrable apart from a propensity for glib word-playing. “This is my cock, this is my knife, which shall I stick in you?” The repetitive, diurnal narrative grinds on like Groundhog Day without the laughs. A study of psychopathic cruelty that doesn’t go deeper than this merely invites the prurient, transient gaze, the one bestowed on such stories by tabloid newspaper readers at their breakfast tables.

1 star

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