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Day 31: Oslo, August 31st (2011)

We reach the end of the road with this poignant, slow-moving and very personal tale of Anders, a recovering drug addict who is about to emerge from a term of rehab. Aptly enough in a month of film (which stretched out to a year), it’s a story about journeys, of making sense of relationships, and trying to find your place in the world.

As the title suggests, the city of Oslo plays a prominent part in the film, providing a backdrop for Anders’ journey home, his attempts to confront the past and come to terms with his future. Given a day release from his treatment centre for a promising job interview, Anders takes the opportunity to call on a number of old friends. Ranging from a sympathetic old school-friend with a seemingly idyllic family life, to an old girlfriend traumatised at hitting 30, his encounters chip away at the facade of his generation’s societal ambitions and expectations.

In terms of structure and plot, it resembles 25th Hour in its depiction of a man trying to re-connect with his life. In both cases, there is a strict time limit for this journey of re-discovery, but the sentences are entirely of their own making. Oslo is less heavy-handed in its symbolism; this is not a state-of-the-nation type allegory; it exists on a much more personal level, while still undermining the aspirations and pretensions of the cultured middle-class. The men are either trapped in a sexless marriage, or having it off with girls ten years their junior, while the women are either struggling to conceive, or noticeable in their absence (his ex-girlfriend doesn’t answer his calls; his sister removes herself from his problems).

It also reminds me of The Swimmer, a 1968 film starring Burt Lancaster as a character who swims his way back home through the back gardens of his affluent neighbours. Starting off with all friendliness and smiles, people become increasingly more hostile the closer he gets to home, indicating a dark secret that gradually bubbles its way to the surface. Water is a recurring image in Oslo, as Anders tries to drown himself in the opening scene, then ends up in a public water park with a group of shallow friends. To quote Stevie Smith, he is “not waving, but drowning” in his over-riding sense of depression. Far from cleansing his sins, the water only seems to weigh him down further. He succumbs to alcoholic temptation after ten months dry. Water turns into wine, which turns into gin, which turns into heroin, and it all goes to pot.

With a quietly powerful central performance, the film challenges the social structures that allow talented, intelligent people to fall through the cracks, while never fully absolving Anders from his own, personal responsibility for his predicament. But in a bustling capital city, full of his childhood friends, he spends most of his time alone, walking the streets, or sitting in cafes listening to other people’s lives happening around him. Like Maya in Zero Dark Thirtyhe ends the film framed in a doorway, returning home but utterly alone. In this instance he chooses to draw the curtains, electing to spend his final moments looking inwards, shutting out the world one last time.

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Day 30: Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Zero Dark Thirty is the most recent film on the list, released in January 2013. Originally a story about the failure to find Osama Bin Laden, it was hastily re-written after he was killed in May 2011, providing a dramatic climax to a complex and politically charged chapter of US history.

Jessica Chastain plays Maya, a dogged CIA operative whose sole focus over the course of ten years is to find (and, ultimately, kill) Bin Laden. From overseeing the torture of Al-Qaeda operatives to tracking mobile phone leads in Pakistan, she is unswerving in her dedication. The loss of a friend and colleague in a botched operation adds a personal motivation to her obsession and she goes out on a limb to prove that her path is the right one, and she’ll be damned if anyone tries to stand in her way. When the leads point to a fortified house in Abbottabad, the stage is set for the final assault.

The film stoked some controversy on release, mostly due to the depiction of torture as a means to gain information from detainees. It wasn’t so much the graphic nature of the scenes, rather, the suggestion that solid intelligence derived from illegal methods was a determining factor in the success of the mission, and therefore justifiable. The film weighs up both arguments; in an early instance they fail to stop a terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia as the information gleaned proves unreliable. But the techniques ultimately serve to unearth the central line of enquiry: identifying and locating the courier who will lead them directly to Bin Laden, lending credence to critics of the film’s ambiguous moral message.

The film is very clinical in its approach: there is no room for small talk, idle chit chat, or indeed, much of a social life. The small flashes of relaxation and downtime are swiftly interrupted by a blast of reality. Almost immediately after Maya joins her friend Jessica for a meal, the restaurant is rocked by a car bomb. Jessica bakes a cake shortly before an arranged meeting goes disastrously wrong. Dan, the CIA interrogator, feeds his ice cream to some monkeys. A few scenes later he tells Maya they’ve been killed by the troops. It’s almost as if the characters are being punished for displaying these brief moments of humanity in amongst the brutality they both mete out and endure. Sentiment has no place in this world.

Maya’s role is both central to, and removed from, the action. She drives the narrative with her single-minded obsession, but when the goal is finally achieved, she is unable to share in the cathartic celebrations. While the troops whoop and high-five each other, she stands alone by the corpse, seemingly unemotional. The final scene echoes The Searchersas she is framed in the opening of a plane’s cargo hold, the only passenger in an otherwise empty carrier. Returning to an uncertain future, she dwarfed by both the mechanism of war, and the vast expanse she is leaving behind.

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Day 29: Track 29 (1988)

Boy, this is a weird film.

I usually quite like narratives where the mysterious stranger disrupts the natural order of things (Six Degrees of Separation being a case in point), but whereas the latter made some interesting points about the use of language as an unreliable social unifier, I’m really not sure whether there’s a coherent central metaphor here. Maybe that’s the point, but I do like my surrealism to have some semblance of consistency (if that’s not a complete contradiction).

Gary Oldman is the mysterious young man who appears (literally) out of thin air, hitching a ride on the bridge of Cape Fear River. This doesn’t bode well. After thoroughly pissing off a trucker with an unhealthy mother obsession, he is summarily deposited at a truck stop, where he encounters Linda (Theresa Russell) and develops an instant, disturbing fascination.

Later that night, Oldman appears, Exorcist-like, under a street lamp outside her house she shares with her husband (Christopher Lloyd), a model railway enthusiast with an interest in extra-marital spanking. The young man continues to dog her every move, revealing himself to be the son that she conceived from an ill-advised sexual encounter as a teenager, and who was forcibly taken from her at birth.

As mother and son begin to bond with increasing levels of intimacy, Christopher Lloyd surfs the orgasmic levels of “intellectual hygiene” at a model railway convention. He returns to a home destroyed by the re-emergence of the past, and the manifestation of his wife’s hidden, traumatic secret.

It’s evident from quite early on that the mysterious stranger is a figment of Linda’s disturbed imagination, embodying her deteriorating state of mind with his increasingly childlike and violent babble. Throughout the film, he ages in reverse, reverting from a grown man to a baby,  His final frenzied burst, naked, from a foetal position in a cupboard to stab her husband to death, mirrors the ending of one of the director’s more famous films, Don’t Look Now. His action also serves to absolve her of the memory and trauma of the conception and birth; in essence, the film ends before it begins. The mysterious stranger erased from her life, she leaves the house a contented woman, totally ignoring the pool of blood that’s gathering across the ceiling.

I’m really not sure what the film is trying to say. It’s left deliberately ambiguous whether the baby was conceived through rape or consent, and whether is was the sex or the birth that provided the most trauma. Either way, the subsequent depiction of Linda as a bored, mentally fragile housewife obsessed by dolls  and desperate for a baby with her uninterested husband is lazy and, despite the visual flourishes, unimaginative storytelling. At the beginning, Gary Oldman provides appropriate menace as the sinister man-child, but any intrigue falls away as the madness sets in and his performance becomes increasingly over-wrought, making the film as unbalanced as the characters it portrays.

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Day 27: Chapter 27 (2007)

Today, it was a choice between a film about weddings and bridesmaids, and a character study of a sociopathic loner assassin. No contest.

Although they really should try combining the two genres. A succession of blushing brides gunned down every time they go to a dress fitting? I’d be up for that. Call it “Blood in the Bridal Shop”. Or wasn’t that a radio play?

Anyway, Chapter 27 follows three days leading up to the killing of John Lennon by Mark David Chapman. Focusing solely on the killer-in-waiting and his obsession with The Catcher in the Rye, this is a reflective, meandering film that relies heavily on the performance of Jared Leto. Virtually unrecognisable from his close encounter with a bucketful of eye-liner in Alexanderhere he’s piled on the pounds and ambles around like the bloke out of the BT ads who turned up in last week’s Miss Marple.

I didn’t really know much about the death of John Lennon. It was, literally, just before my time. When there was a thing a couple of years ago about finding out the No.1 single at the time of your birth, I remember being quite chuffed that it was Woman by John Lennon rather than Shaddap You Face by Joe Dolce, which snuck in a week later. I didn’t even connect it  with the he’s-just-died-so-let’s-buy-all-his-records effect.

So, if nothing else, it was quite interesting to find out a bit more about the circumstances surrounding his death, notwithstanding it being in the company of the world’s most unreliable narrator this side of Keyser Soze. A bumbling misfit with the voice of Hannibel Lecter and the words of Holden Caulfield ringing in his ears, David Chapman is a man adrift. You get the feeling there’s a Travis Bickle in there somewhere too, waiting for the “real rain to come and wash all this scum of the streets”.

The films throws up a whole number of half-baked reasons, asides, justifications for his actions, but nothing strikes home. In his eyes, John Lennon runs the gamut from Christ-figure to phoney to devil-worshipper (he’s staying in the building where they shot Rosemary’s Baby – incidentally the funniest line in the film: “What, the movie?” “No, the baby.”)

It’s difficult to latch on to a sense of character in amongst all this. Maybe that’s the point – David Chapman doesn’t actually exist apart from a sum of pop culture references that he’s imbibed and which inform his entire sense of self and perspective. At the end he’s Gollum-like, openly arguing with himself in the street before the car draws up and he’s forced to follow through with the reality that he’s created for himself.

It’s a painful study of idolatry and hate, and the permeable line that connects them. It’s not a film that I would watch again in a hurry, which is not to do it a disservice. Just that it’s very uncomfortable being in the company of a character so unsure of his place in the world that he ends up latching onto someone else’s fame, in the worst way imaginable.

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Day 26: L.627 (1992)

You know that feeling when you get to the summer solstice and wonder where the hell the year went?

Yeah, that.

Welcome back to THE LONGEST MONTH IN FILM HISTORY.

There are no films with 26 in the title. Nil, nada, nichts. Well, there wasn’t when I started the challenge. There’s now a film called Special 26, released in February. But I didn’t know that, so I opted for this French procedural cop drama instead.* All the right numbers. just not necessarily in the right order.

It was a good choice. L.627 (a reference to an article of drug legislation) has the aura of a 70s police investigative drama like Serpico – a lone crusader tackling an immoral world with nothing more than a by-the-book attitude and an impressive abundance of facial hair.

Following droll cop Lulu as he negotiates his way through a ramshackle (and nigh on psychotic) drug squad team, the film is at turns gritty, hilarious and tragic. The main obstacles to success (however that’s defined) is a crippling lack of funds, chaotic bureaucracy and colleagues more interested in ticking boxes than solving crimes.

There is no real plot as such – the film lurches from one drug bust to another with little sense of achievement save for Lulu’s dogged determination to do the right thing. He’s fighting a losing battle. Whether it’s boozy colleagues having a few too many glasses of wine over a long lunch (no national stereotypes there then), or trying to avoid the station prankster (a Clouseau-esque running gag), it’s clear that his fellow officers don’t share his enthusiasm.

Between the crumbling portakabin of an office and the sleazy dives of backstreet Paris, this is an evocative social commentary on the insidious and never-ending inner city drug problems. It should be depressing, but there’s a very witty undercurrent that borders on the absurd, and which highlights the ridiculous lack of resources available. In the age of austerity, departments are stretched to the point where nothing useful can be achieved, save for the efforts of a single maverick with a natty moustache.

*I’ve just been reliably informed by someone nerdier than me that I could have gone for “LV-426”, which is, apparently, the planet in Aliens. But a) it’s not the title of a film and b) I’ve already seen Aliens, so ner.

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Day 25: 25th Hour (2002)

There weren’t too many options for Number 25, but this seemed like a decent punt. Directed by Spike Lee and starring Ed Norton, the film charts 24 hours in the life of a post-9/11 New York drug dealer, who is enjoying his last day of freedom before being sent down for seven years. Glossing over the prudence of this judicial quirk (just how many people fail to turn up to jail the following day?), it makes for a quiet, contemplative study on life, freedom and the character of the city.

Ed Norton’s Monty (named after his mother’s penchant for Montgomery Clift) seems a decent bloke – you know that because he rescues a badly injured dog in the opening scene. Skip to a few years later (he’s grown a beard), he’s doing the rounds of the neighbourhood, visiting his old school, meeting up with family and friends, loyal dog by his side. It’s like  Grosse Pointe Blank, without the humour or the 80s music, but double the angst. Actually scratch that, that makes it sound crap. It really isn’t – a slow burner of a film that resonates on many different levels. It’s almost a state of the nation type reflection – skewering certain sections of society for their flawed ethics and self-righteous complacency.

So you have the uptight college teacher lusting after his seventeen year old student, the hotshot Wall Street banker playing the stock exchange in the aftermath of the Enron scandal, the firefighter father from the Marty Crane school of decent blue-collar roughnecks, and the middle-class coke-pusher with a fancy apartment and a top table at the best club in town. It’s at once a celebration and a perforation of the American Dream, showing us the building blocks of society and the emptiness that comes with realising your ambitions. Conversations take place above the gaping hole of the World Trade Centre, as the bulldozers and trucks remove the remnants of this once mighty structure, a symbol of prosperity and commercial power.

At times, the film strains too desperately for meaning – the five-minute “Fuck you” monologue feels out of character and more like the authorial voice breaking through. Too much exposition, as the dramaturg would say. Very nicely written, but show, don’t tell – move on. And the ending is very weird.

But at least the dog doesn’t die. That’s the main thing.

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Day 24: Twenty Four Seven (1997)

Yeah, anyway, so Day 24…

It was a toss-up today between this and 24 Hour Party People Twenty Four Seven shaded it (just), mainly because it got 5 stars in Empire. I’m shallow like that. It also had the added bonus of a rare starring role for Bob Hoskins, who recently retired from acting due to the onset of Parkinson’s Disease. He’s a bit underrated, is Bob Hoskins. Particularly for someone of my generation who knows him mainly for Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Smee in Hook and the ubiquitous BT adverts from the mid-90s. I haven’t seen The Long Good Friday or Mona Lisa. Based on this evidence, I’ll be adding them to the list.

Twenty Four Seven is the directorial debut of Shane Meadows, and charts the efforts of a middle-aged loner (Bob Hoskins) to set up a boxing club for disaffected youths. With recruits ranging from rival gangs, weed-addled druggies and actors soon to be regulars in The Bill, the film is set up to be a traditional, life-affirming, triumph-against-the-odds-type tale.

Luckily, it’s a bit more nuanced and complicated than that. Bob Hoskins, as the driving force behind the youth empowerment scheme, is a sad, lonely bloke whose good intentions and cheery disposition mask a life of disappointed ambition and  thwarted love. All the training montages in Wales can’t hide the depressing lack of prospects for this disparate group of youths from an unexceptional Midlands town.

You’d expect the final competition to provide a sliver of hope and triumph for the individuals involved, as a vindication of their efforts, and as a reward for the audience’s attention. Unfortunately, the ensuing punch-up has little to do with the art of boxing. The foibles come to the fore, not least of which those that have been buried for decades. It’s a downbeat conclusion, only afterwards reflecting on and acknowledging the ties that bind this community together.

It’s a sophisticated and challenging debut, with cinematic flourishes that speak to a certain time and generation, and which hint at a more ambitious film than the plot can ultimately deliver.