FESTIVAL FARE : ‘Going Through Splat’ / ‘Under The Ice’ / ‘Who The Hell’s Bonnie and Clyde’

Jon Steven Ward's Going Through Splat : The Life and Work of Stewart Stern [6/10]
    Though it could do with a bit of a trim, and as a result isn't always the most absorbing of viewing experiences, Going Through Splat is in the end a commendably honest and tough view of the creative process – specifically, the travails suffered by even the most ostensibly successful of Hollywood scriptwriters. After a filmography including Rebel Without a Cause, Rachel Rachel and TV's Emmy-laden Sybil, Stewart Stern 'walked away' from his career in the early 1980s – but the wonder isn't that he 'quit the business', but that he hadn't done so years, perhaps even decades before. 
    Because despite spells of success and industry fame, the mostly-downbeat Stern never comes across as having been particularly happy within the 'system' – this somewhat ironic, as he's from one of Hollywood's oldest and most powerful families (uncle Adolf Zukor founded what became Paramount Pictures). Having survived a deeply traumatic Second World War – where he saw brutal action during the Battle of the Bulge – Stern found little help when seeking a foothold in the business from his illustrious relatives. But his luck turned for the better when he discovered a mentor in the shape of A-list director Fred Zinnemann – and as his credits accumulated, his work found some high-profile fans including Marlon Brando and Paul Newman. 
    Newman is one of an impressive gallery of famous, semi-famous, and not-so-famous faces who line up to pay tribute to Stern's gifts – some of them almost frothingly enthusiastic about his talents. Going Through Splat (a cute-sounding title which is explained, in one of the movie's nicest moments, very late in the day) is in effect an extended (perhaps over ­-extended), glowing tribute, compiled and directed by one of Stern's own close friends (and, one suspects, biggest fans). From the evidence available here, Stern's own work is decidedly grittier and more complex: with such intimate access, Ward could perhaps have asked for a little 'polish' on the script…

Aelrun Goette's Under the Ice [5/10]  
    'Spare the rod and spoil the child' might be the motto of this sombre, intense German psychological drama – 'Keep it in the family' most certainly doesn't fit. It's interesting chiefly in the light of dwindling family-sizes in a European Union where women expect (and are expected) to work: one byproduct of which result is profusion of one-child families, even in Catholic nations such as Italy and Spain (whose falling birth-rates are now becoming a cause for concern).
     As its ominous title implies, Under the Ice takes place in the chilly, Protestant north – an affluent, wooded Berlin suburb where young Timmy (Adrian Wahlen) is raised under the watchful eye of his mother Jenny (Bibiana Beglau). Dad Michael (Dirk Borchardt) isn't such a visible presence – he's a cop working long hours with promotion within sight. Michael is keen to get the extra wages, as this will mean he can relieve himself of his debts to Jenny's brittle, haut-bourgeois mother Hilde (Barbara Focke). Hilde's money enabled Jenny and Michael to buy a smallish but fancy modern bungalow, all stark right-angles and expansive glass frontage looking out on the big back garden. An ideal setting to raise a child? Seemingly not: Timmy is wilful and, thanks to Jenny's indulgence, spoiled. Kids will be kids, of course – but Timmy's behaviour quickly gets out of hand… with tragic consequences.
    Yes, Under the Ice is a kind of Teutonic Bad Seed: the latest in a long run of movies featuring angelic-looking children who turn out to have a violent, even a homicidal streak. And Wahlen – who from certain angles resembles the haunted kid in Kubrick's The Shining – is well up to to the impressive standard of, say, Cameron Bright in Godsend. He's rather more consistently impressive than the one-note Beglau, who too often relies on a phoney-looking smile as Jenny makes excuse after excuse for Timmy's antics.
    It's clear fairly early on – perhaps too clear, too early – that Michael is the only member of this family who isn't mentally disturbed, and even he struggles to contain his anger on occasions. Then again, he has our sympathies: by any standards, Jenny is blinded to an astonishing degree by her maternal instincts – her behaviour strains our credulity from start to (abrupt) finish.
    Add to this the fact the complications raised by Michael's profession, and we have a screenplay (by Thomas Stiller) where contrivance and melodrama seem the motivating forces ahead of psychological factors. As it is, the claustrophonically tight focus on the family-group means we have more time to dwell on the script's shortcomings.
    This wasn't such a problem in another German release of 2005 which featured a policeman named Michael confronting the possibility that his son had committed murder: Christian Alvart's Antibodies chucked in a demonic serial killer and sprawled to 130 thrillerish minutes. And while Goette and Stiller aim rather higher in terms of ambition – one of their templates would seem to be Ang Lee's The Ice Storm – they fall short in terms of achievement: Under the Ice is within tantalising reach of being a solid, intelligent, chilling film, but doesn't quite manage to break through and fulfil its potential.

Neil Young
January 5th/13th, 2006

GOING THROUGH SPLAT – THE LIFE AND WORK OF STEWART STERN : [6/10] : USA 2005 (copyright-dated 2004) : Jon Steven WARD : 106 mins (timed) : recent film festivals include Austin and Palm Springs. Seen on DVD at home in Sunderland (UK), 5th January 2006 (with thanks to Laura Bobovski)

UNDER THE ICE : [5/10] : Unter dem Eis : Germany 2005 : Aelrun GOETTE : 93 mins (timed) : recent film festivals include Hof ('German Film-Days'). Under the Ice on DVD, 8th January (with thanks to Nina Heyn and Ernst Ludwig Ganzert)


(Hungary 2004) aka A Miskolci Boni es Klajd – a feature by Krisztina Deak. Runs 94 mins (approx) and has been shown at the 'Hungarian Film Week' Film Festival. I watched 30 minutes of it on VHS in Sunderland on 31/12/05. Rating: 4?/10.

Clunky low-key lovers-on-the-run drama: a young couple flee with the proceeds of a bank raid, and are pursued by cops through the Hungarian countryside. Their adventures are awkwardly intercut with what seem like flash-forwards to their grim incarceration and interrogation in jail – or are these protracted interludes merely a visualisation of their fears? I wasn't sufficiently engaged or interested enough to stick with the picture and find out – from the half-hour I saw, it seemed to be a distinctly undercooked enterprise, the director unable to find/maintain the right tone/mood. And putting Bonnie and Clyde in the title is a silly hostage to cinematic fortune if ever there was one. 2.1.06.