STOCKHOLM (2019)

April 13, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. The film opens with a title card informing us that it is “based on an absurd but true story”. In 1973 the Kreditbanken of Stockholm Sweden was held up by an armed man. The ordeal was unusual for low-crime Sweden and it was broadcast live on TV. It has also been credited as being the origin for the term “Stockholm Syndrome” – a term to describe the bonding that sometimes occurs between a hostage and their captor.

Writer-director Robert Budreau wisely wastes little time with setting the stage. Lars (Ethan Hawke) dons a disguise meant to trick the police, and storms the bank lobby armed with a sub-machine gun. Wearing a cowboy hat and a leather jacket with a Texas flag, he proclaims “Remember the Alamo” as he secures some hostages and presents himself as Kaj Hansson, a well-known criminal. Of course, Mr. Hawke is certainly an American, and the actual robbery/hostage event was conducted by a Swede.

Lars is loud and boisterous to the cops, while simultaneously being sympathetic and understanding to the hostages – especially Bianca (Noomi Rapace), a married woman with two kids. Christopher Heyerdahl plays Police Chief Mattison, and he employs some unexpected psychological gamesmanship with Lars that gets even more convoluted when Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme becomes involved. Lars’ real goal here is to spring his buddy Gunnar Sorensson (Mark Strong) from jail and have them both ride off to freedom in a mustang like the one Steve McQueen drove in BULLITT.

Yes, I should mention that although guns are fired and hostages are held, this is really an offbeat comedic bank heist. It focuses on how the hostages bond with their captors and how Bianca quickly realizes that not only is she smarter than Lars and Gunnar, but that the cops are more of a threat to her than the criminals. She strategizes better than either side, and Ms. Rapace (from the original Millennium Trilogy) is the standout performer in the film.

Filmmaker Budreau and Mr. Hawke previously collaborated on an intimate look at jazz trumpeter Chet Baker in BORN TO BE BLUE (2015), and they prove again that they work well together. The other two hostages are played by Bea Santos as Clara and Mark Rendall as Elov. When Prime Minister Palme refuses to negotiate or allow Lars to leave with hostages, we can sense the emotional tide turn as Clara, Elov and Bianca realize they are safest remaining with the hostages.

Of course there are some liberties with history taken for cinematic reasons, and since most of the filming takes place within the confines of the bank, we do get to know each of the participants pretty well. The similarities to Sidney Lumet’s DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1975) are unmistakable, and one of the reporters covering the story even comments that it’s “almost like watching an American movie.” The odd ending works for the film, and thanks to Ms. Rapace, there is enough heft to the characters to prevent the humor for taking over.

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BORN TO BE BLUE (2016)

April 6, 2016

born to be blue Greetings again from the darkness. Most biopics aim for historical accuracy with only the occasional stretching of facts for dramatic effect. Within the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen two that take a much different approach … fictionalized versions of jazz icons – legendary trumpeters Miles Davis (Miles Ahead) and Chet Baker. Writer/director Robert Budreau expands on his 2009 short film to deliver a feature length look at the talented and troubled Baker … with a huge assist from Ethan Hawke.

The film begins in 1966 with Baker locked up in an Italian jail cell. Bailed out by a filmmaker who wants Baker to star in his own life story, a flash back to 1954 allows us to see Baker at his musical peak. As he heads into a gig, he asks an autograph seeker “Who do you like best, me or Miles Davis?” The question could be arrogance when asked by another artist, but it’s our first insight into the insecurity that Baker struggled with his entire life. His desire to be liked sometimes conflicted with his goal to be great. But like the story of so many musical geniuses, it was the drug abuse that continually sabotaged the talent.

Carmen Ejogo (Coretta Scott King in Selma) plays Jane, a fictionalized blend of Baker’s lovers through the years. The two of them are good together, though she is as much a caretaker as a lover … keeping him on track and nursing him through the (many) tough times. Baker received a savage beating that cost him his front teeth and ability to play the trumpet for years. The movie presents the beating as drug-related, but history is unclear on the matter. Still, it’s painful and brutal to watch Baker bleed for his art.

Baker is credited as the inspiration of West Coast Swing, though it’s quite challenging to relate to yet another junkie musician – no matter how talented. He’s just not a very interesting guy as presented here. Talented, yes … but not very interesting. Additionally, none of Baker’s music is actually heard. It’s been reimagined, just like his life story.

Despite the issues, Ethan Hawke delivers what may be the best work of his career. He is tremendous and believable as both the talented jazz artist and the insecure drug addict. Director Budreau creates a dream-like atmosphere at times, which adds to the “is it real” style. The 1988 Oscar nominated documentary Let’s Get Lost is probably a better source for Baker’s life story, but Budreau’s take does capture the man’s struggles.

watch the trailer: