Sunday, 8 November 2015

The Matrix

The Matrix (1999) 

Starring Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne
Written and Directed by The Wachowski Brothers  

Call it Pre-Millennial Tension, call it what you will, but it can't have been a coincidence that there were a number of films prominent in the latter part of the 1990s that took the idea of "false reality" and ran with it.  Closely inspired, no doubt, by the works of Philip K Dick (author of "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep", which was artfully mangled into the great film "Blade Runner") Alex Proyas' magnificent "Dark City" led the way, followed by David Cronenberg's "eXistenZ" and the less auspicious but still enjoyable "The Thirteenth Floor" from Josef Rusnak.  But the daddy of them all, in 1999, was "The Matrix".  As one reviewer said at the time, "I bet George Lucas never saw that phantom menace coming..." as this sleeper hit stole a march on the first "Star Wars" prequel.  This film takes that concept - that reality as we know it is all a big lie - and spins around it a fantastic metaphysical martial arts based action film.  It centres on a computer hacker, Thomas Anderson - aka Neo (played by Keanu Reeves) - who works as a programmer for a giant software company by day, but hacks and delves deep into the depths of cyberspace by night.  He's been searching for a man called Morpheus, whose name recalls the Greek God of dreams, when a message pops up on his computer screen... and he's contacted by a woman named Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) who hints at the knowledge on offer...

Such is the enticing entry into the world of the Matrix.  Through the aforementioned Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) Neo discovers that the world around him is actually just a computer crafted simulation.  Offered the choice between the blue pill - after which he will wake up none the wiser - or the red pill - following which the truth will be revealed, Neo takes the red pill, and decides to see "how deep the rabbit hole goes"...  

The Alice metaphor will be played to the full. but for now the truth, as it is revealed to him, is that a war erupted years before between humanity and the sentient machines - AI - whom they had created. Humanity lost, and were doomed to be enslaved and farmed by the machines for power; living batteries, as it were.  A human resistance movement has been formed, which fights the machines and seeks to "free" new minds.  Neo is one such mind, and it turns out that Morpheus has been looking for him too, as he believes he is "The One" - a person who can fulfill a prophecy of ending the war and bringing liberation back to mankind.  One of the main attractions of the film is sharing Neo's journey of discovery, as he learns that the physical restrictions of the "real world" need not apply in the world of the Matrix.  At first plagued with scepticism and self doubt, failing to make a death-defying building-to-building jump on one of the simulators, but surrounded by a group of fellow freedom-fighters who believe he will accomplish amazing feats, he gradually learns - under Morpheus' tutelage - to achieve more and more incredible actions.  Martial arts training, which will play a key role as the film, and eventually the trilogy, pans out, as a key first step for Neo in overcoming his disbelief.  "Stop trying to hit me, and hit me!" encourages Morpheus, with a new famous and oft-parodied hand gesture, which says to the opponent, "Come forth..."  It's fast punching, air-walking, utterly exhilarating stuff, with mind bending, gravity defying wire-work choreography by Yuen Woo-Ping, the legendary Hong Kong fight action maestro.    

The cast are all highly impressive, balancing the need for straight-faced gravitas with athletic action chops.  Moss and Reeves make for an eventually sympathetic couple, Keanu dealing especially well with the action scenes.  Fishburne gravely intones his education of the simul-world and beliefs about Neo's status as 'The One' as if he's still playing Othello, but brings significant weight to the piece.  Hugo Weaving, in a role a million miles away from "The Lord of the Rings" brings a humorous malevolence to the part of the disgruntled enforcer program Agent Smith.  A special mention must go to Joe Pantoliano, who, as Cypher, a man sick of the 'real' world and keen to return to the ideal life offered by the Matrix makes a deal with the Devil which gives the film a genuine dramatic tension.  The visuals are impressive and distinctive, from the lines of green texted code scrolling down the screen seen by the "Operators" in the real world, representing the code behind the Matrix, to the highly stylized look of things inside the Matrix itself, where individuals choose how they want to appear - invariably decked out in tight leather, flowing black coats, and with ever-present shades.

It doesn't all work perfectly however. The most interesting parts of the film take place within the Matrix, or in any number of "simulation" programs run by the protagonists to educate Neo in the ways of the constructed world.  In reality, things are grimy and tough.  Clothes are tatty and the only food is essentially a bland protein gruel; when Cypher makes his deal with Smith to return to the Matrix he's eating a beautiful juicy steak in a fancy restaurant, and the stark contrast puts his decision into context and makes it believable and sympathetic.  He remarks that he knows it's just the simulation, but that "ignorance is bliss".   Morpheus and crew live aboard The Nubuchadnezzar, a hovercraft which roams the scorched earth, constantly under threat from Sentinels, nicknamed 'Squiddies', search and destroy drones created by the Machines.  The craft is equipped with an Electro Magnetic Pulse which will disable the Sentinels, but it can't be used whilst anyone is plugged into the Matrix, which leads to some tension during the climax.  However these external scenes are all very dark, as the sky has been scorched by the conflict between man and machine, and the movement generally quick, so whilst it's not exactly hard to figure out what's going on, it feels a bit messy.  The design of the Squiddies is odd, and a little distracting.  It feels fairly generic - laser shooting robots, and is much less interesting that what goes on in the Matrix.. As the finale plays out, cutting between the two worlds, the fight between Smith and Neo inside the Matrix is infinitely more compelling than the Sentinels descending on the Nebuchadnezzar.  This problem was to become more pronounced, and problematic in the sequel, "The Matrix Reloaded", and particularly the final part of the trilogy, "The Matrix Revolutions".

Every few years a film comes along which deploys a Special Effect which is genuinely revolutionary, in that it pioneers something original which is then embraced by the film making industry as a whole. For example "2001: A Space Odyssey" in the 1960s and "Star Wars" in the 70s with their model work, "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" in 1991 with the "Shapeshifting" effect which cropped everywhere in that decade, more recently "Avatar" with it's use of 3D CGI.  At the turn of the millennium, that film was "The Matrix", and the effect in question is known as "bullet time".  Whilst experimentation with camera effects has obviously been going on forever, it was this film which popularised the slow motion / variable speed, moving camera effect.  Crucially here the effects serve the story, as they represent the characters' ability to grasp the artificiality of the Matrix world, and manipulate it.  The Cinematography by Bill Pope ("Spider-Man 2", "Spider-Man 3" and, bizarrely, "The World's End") is fantastic, colouring the scenes inside the Matrix with green, whilst denying almost any vivid colour in the real world.  The music also works effectively.  Don Davis' score is perfect, the opening alternating notes are now instantly recognisable.  Use of bands' tracks in films is always hit and miss, and the option here for metal / thrash (Deftones, Rammstein etc) was largely lost on me, in fact I'm not even sure how many tracks on the soundtrack CD were even in the film, and if they were it was background music at best.  However, this film features three of the finest examples of employing music for as long as I can remember.  The use of Rob Dougan's "Clubbed to Death" during the 'Woman in the red dress' construct scene, hearing the Propellerheads "Spybreak!" in the lobby scene, in which Neo and Trinity acrobatically wreak havoc, are both inspired.  The final scene and end credits play to the sound of Rage Against the Machine's "Wake Up", a track which has one of the coolest intros around and suits that scene and credits to a tee.

So while it's slick, inventive, innovative, well acted and extremely entertaining, what marks the film as in a slightly different class to the average Joel Sliver produced action film is the vein of philosophy running through it.  What is the Matrix?  What is reality? Is it preferable to accept something pleasurable even if you know it's not real (the Experience machine problem)?  It brilliantly plays with our own mental concepts, such as when it suggests that the sensation of deja vu is simply "a glitch in the Matrix".  There is a significant level of religious mysticism; Neo visits an Oracle, who cryptically tells people "what they need to hear", and of course there is the theme that he is "The One" and will fulfill a prophecy.  And there are also clear implications of Messianism - Neo dies at the hands of Agent Smith in their ultimate confrontation but is resurrected by Trinity (itself a name with Christian connotations).

"The Matrix" is unique.  It's a millennial, metaphysical, philosophical, pseudo-religious, sci-fi Kung-fu action movie, with cool outfits, very cool shades, and to quote Neo himself, "Guns... Lots of guns."  What's not to like?

Monday, 19 October 2015

Raising Arizona

Raising Arizona (1987) 

Starring Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter
Written and Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen 

Whilst it is not generally a good thing to rely on the opinions of others before formulating ones own, there are a very select few film critics whose views I tend to seek, out of curiosity, after watching a movie, regardless of whether I intend to write about it.  The late, great Roger Ebert, in his review of "Raising Arizona" at the time of the film's release in 1987, was, a little surprisingly, rather bearish, criticising it for not knowing what it wanted to be, saying that it "cannot decide if it is about real people, or comic exaggerations."  Humour, in other words, doen't work if the viewer can't grasp its setting.  Having always regarded this second feature from the Coen Brothers fondly, I saw it recently for the first time in many years, and was pleasantly surprised still to find it very funny.  Evidently, I just "get" it.

Vastly different in tone to their debut, the modern-day noir "Blood Simple", which in itself might have confounded some expectations, this is a fast-paced, surreal, dream-like comedy, about a serial Convenience store holdup man H.I McDunnough (Nicolas Cage) and his eventual wife, Police Officer Ed - Edwina - (Holly Hunter).  I say eventual, because there plays out a hysterical 10 minute prologue which documents a good few years of their relationship, as H.I repeatedly shows up at prison, is paroled, only to return again every few months and inch their relationship further along. It contains some awesome scenes of H.I in prison ("We ate sand"), before true love takes its course ("I'm walkin' in here on my knees Ed, a free man proposin'").  The couple are childless ("Edwina's insides were a rocky place, where my seed could find no purchase"), living in a trailer in the Arizona desert; they learn one day that one of the wealthiest businessmen in the state - Nathan Arizona, of "Unpainted Arizona" furniture - has just fathered a veritable brood of children, sextuplets, so they hatch a plan to steal one for themselves.  He won't miss one, surely?

What follows is a series of hilarious and frankly timeless set-pieces.  H.I's attempt to steal a child is initially thwarted when the various babies escape from their cot and he has to chase them from cupboards and out from under beds, giving rise to the first instance of "baby-cam", the camera shooting along the floor at ground level from the baby's eye view.  He eventually gets them all back to their cot but returns empty handed to Ed, whose furious reaction is a sight to see.  When they finally do procure an "offspring" there are a hatful of great scenes and great lines as they try to get to grips with parenthood.  Things are complicated when two of H.I's old prison buddies, the wonderfully named Gale and Evelle Snoats (John Goodman and William Forsythe) break out of the joint ("We felt that  the institution no longer had anything to offer us") and turn up at the trailer, covered in sewage, and immediately dubious as to the origins of H.I and Ed's new addition to the family.  Throw into the mix an avenging, cigar chomping biker bounty hunter, Leonard Smalls (Randall 'Tex' Cobb), the kind of guy who throws hand grenades at innocent roadside critters as he barrels down the highways, and you have quite a cocktail.  

The set pieces are brilliantly staged, such as when the Snoats steal Nathan Jr and head off to rob a local Savings & Loan bank, reluctantly arguing and then agreeing that they have to take the baby with them rather than leave him in the car.  The gags have legs - in the robbery, the brothers burst into the bank and yell "Alright you hayseeds, it's a stickup.  Everybody down on the ground! Nobody move!" to which, after an embarrassed silence, a crusty octogenarian-looking farmer embarrasses them by saying "Well which is it young feller? You want I should freeze, or get down on the ground? Mean to say, if I freeze I can't rightly drop.  And if I drop, I'm a-gonna be in motion.  You see...?"  So the comedy is eccentric, but it's human and affords an unusual affection to its targets, and - like the parole board H.I. repeatedly faces in his series of prison spells - deeply and inherently tolerant of a string of flawed individuals.  It's impossible not to like, if one has a heart.  Perhaps the standout is another extended sequence in which a desperate and downcast H.I. reverts to his ways of larceny, holding up a 24 hour store for a packet of Huggies.  Pursued by a pistol-wielding pimply store employee, a vicious dog, and some trigger-happy cops, H.I. runs around the neighbourhood and even through homes, in a funny and thrilling foot-chase which recalls the one from "Point Break".  But it's jaunty.  And the best part is that H.I. manages to retrieve the Huggies, previously dropped, as the getaway is finally made.  

I have generally found that the Coens' "serious" films - "Fargo", "No Country for Old Men" - are mildly weaker than when they play this oddball comic sensibility to its extreme, such as here, or in "The Hudsucker Proxy", or "O Brother Where Art Thou?".  Not entirely true, of course, as "The Man Who Wasn't There" and "True Grit" are fantastic, and even "Inside Llewyn Davis" was amusing, but I think they're better when indulging their off kilter sensibilities.  "Raising Arizona" has a frenetic sensibility, a sense of roughly ordered chaos which leaps out from the screen.  It's paced so superbly that it seldom lets up, and sweeps one up in the mayhem.  Hunter is beautifully uptight throughout, intolerant of those around her in her desperate need to have the perfect family.  Nic Cage is often described as "hangdog" and perhaps never more so displays that characteristic than here; he conveys the sense that H.I. really wants to do well and be a good man, husband and father, but that fate confounds him at every turn, as he tolerates the asinine humour of his supervisor Glen (Sam McMurray), browbeating at the hands of Ed, and repeated misfortune.  Goodman and Forsythe are so un-selfaware that they're hysterical, Trey Wilson is such a no-nonsense, fast-talking businessman that it would be easy not to feel sympathy for his loss - in fact that almost seems encouraged at times, but one does (particularly in the final scene, and also because he has many great one-liners) - whilst Cobb is a brilliant beast seldom seen on screen. 

Of course, this is all horrendous.  Stealing a baby?  Inhuman.  But somehow, with its jaunty banjo soundtrack, it doesn't seem so bad.  It's like "Gone Baby Gone" -  but with jokes.  And banjos.  Years before that film was made.  But you get the point.  As Cage's wistful voiceover plays out over the final scene, in which he imagines a family he might have with Ed in the future, and how Nathan Jr might grow up playing high school football, the film is lent a poignancy it might otherwise not have had.  It's moving and funny, and makes the film well worth catching.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015


Macbeth (2015) 

Starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard
Directed by Justin Kurzel 

Whenever a new film version of "one of the classics" comes around one often can't help but ask, what's the point of this exercise, and does the cinema really need yet another re-telling of a story which is probably (begrudgingly) known to almost every school-leaver in the country?  For every new "Emma", "Pride & Prejudice", "Great Expectations" and so on, if you're not going to make it better then why bother (in the latter case, by the way, it's never going to be better than David Lean's 1946 version)?  Perhaps nowhere more so does that apply than to Shakespeare's plays.  Although whereas the aforementioned classic novels are generally adapted "as is" - ie period pieces, costumes of the time etc - the Bard offers greater scope for "re-imagining".  Perhaps because they're plays rather than books, so are performed rather than simply read, artists have reacted by aiming for every part of the spectrum when presenting them in all media.  On film we've had everything from Richard III as a fascist dictator in an alternate 1930s Britain, Hamlet as a member of the 18th Century European elite, to "Romeo and Juliet" played out as an all singin' all dancin' 60s musical in "West Side Story" (and let's not even get started on Baz Luhrmann!).  So the door is clearly wide open. 

As one of Shakespeare's best known works, "Macbeth" has had its fair share when it comes to screen versions.  The most notable, though, are Orson Welles' outrageous if obviously low-budget 1948 version, shot in 23 days on a single set, with funny costumes and gloriously ripe accents, and Roman Polanski's, from 1971, infamous for its violent content, which was felt to be Polanski's  reflection of events surrounding the murder of his wife, several years previously.  So this latest version, from Australian director Justin Kurzel, maker of the harsh Adelaide serial-killer film "Snowtown", has certain standards to meet.  And against those two vastly different interpretations, he offers us a version which adheres to the modern vogue for upping the "reality quotient", most notably evident in war films, but which does so in a manner which is both startlingly visceral but also surprisingly quiet and perceptive as it opens out the text.

Starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, supported by David Thewlis, the ever excellent Paddy Considine, Sean Harris, Elizabeth Debicki and the up-and-coming Jack Reynor amongst others, the film comes with a cast with a weighty pedigree.  But arriving to fanfares such as "Fassbender was born for this", the expectations seem on the high side.  As if to acknowledge that, the film opens with what amounts to a smack in the audience's face; but it's essential to the story as much physically as emotionally.  We see Macbeth and his wife burying their baby - unwritten in the play but possibly implied - in silent grief which screams volumes, and informs much of the couple's forthcoming troubles.  There follows a vicious battle scene, in which a war paint streaked Macbeth leads King Duncan's army to see off the treacherous Macdonwald.  It's highly stylized, mixing chilling, bloody action with moments of slow-motion, which effectively serve to focus in on particular characters.  Notably, at one point Macbeth appears to stand still as the battle rages around him, and the dead child soldiers he sees on the battlefield will come back to haunt him.  The witches - Weird Sisters - appear in a very downplayed manner; there's no "eye of of newt and toe of frog" type sorcery here.  When they make their prophesy to Macbeth, that he will become King, it's matter-of-fact.  Although their words are ultimately true - if selective in how and when they reveal that truth - it's never hysterical.  Macbeth seems entranced, and it's cleverly implied that they could be a figure of his battle-weary imagination.  

Indeed as the story unfolds, Macbeth is played as if he's suffering from shell-shock, post traumatic stress disorder, which would tally with the violence he, and we, have witnessed.  A military man numbed by slaughter, he's incapable of rational thought, let alone sound decision making.  So when Lady Macbeth hears of the prophesy and urges him to act, it's almost as if he's too tired to resist.  The scene in which he tells her he can't go through with it but she retorts by questioning his manhood is riven with sex; she pulls him into her whilst urging him to have the mettle to carry out the deed.  Sex and death, what mix more potent? 

Familiar readings have Macbeth as a simple tyrant, with his wife as a power-hungry schemer.  But as with the best productions it is much more subtle here.  Fassbender's noble Thane virtually sleepwalks into an act he admits is wrong, and over which he agonises; Cotillard's Lady appears more opportunistic, egging her husband on but safe in the knowledge of protection of his status if things go awry.  After the tragic consequences of their act - the blood curdling, brutal slaying of Duncan, and subsequent murder of his guards - begin to play out, and the roles within the marriage reverse, both actors produce some sublime work.

The increasingly paranoid Macbeth has scorpions in his mind, and whilst he wildly hallucinates - the ghost of Banquo appearing at the feast is played simply, coldly and brilliantly - his wife takes charge. When things do change, the actors come into their own.  Fassbender's portrayal of Macbeth's slide towards tyranny is stunning; the more he rediscovers his self confidence, the more it begins to compensate for a string of erratic brutal acts, including the murder of his best friends and allies. As an audience member one can feel for him as much as one abhors what's happening.  Cotillard,  in the often thankless, more measured role of Lady Macbeth, turns sympathy on its head.  Whilst definitely encouraging her husband towards his crime with slithery malice, and steadying him when he starts to lose the plot, her portrayal of a woman eventually confounded by grief, anguish and regret is nothing short of immense. Her final soliloquy, delivered in single, unbroken take, with a lone tear running down her face, is devastating, all the more so when it's revealed how and to whom  it's addressed. 

And for all the terror, paranoia, and escalating bloodshed, certain themes come strongly through.  The horrible actions of the central couple are cast in a light which, whilst not justifying them, at least comes some way to explanation.  Fassbender has said in interview "I don't think Macbeth is evil.  I think he's damaged".  This plays out as much about two people seeking a new opportunity to save themselves from their circumstance - and each other - as it does about a couple hungry for power.  Lady Macbeth seems desperate to re-connect with her husband after his long absence at war.   Children play a haunting, key role, from the absent infant buried at the start, to the youthful soldiers killed on the field of battle.  Few things can be as affecting as the loss of a young life.  Cinematically, light and dark have seldom been better employed.  The flickering candles in Macbeth's camp and his chapel, as Duncan is dispatched, are eerily numinous and beautiful; and once the new King and Queen move into the spectacular Royal seat at Dunsinane Castle the shafts of sunlight and shadow shining down through the majestic chambers seem to resemble prison bars.  The screenplay, credited to three writers in addition to William Shakespeare, makes hefty but economic cuts to the play.  But Kurzel articulates the visual poetry so effectively that much of the original descriptive verse isn't missed. The actors emote their lines instead of declaiming them and convey everything necessary.

The setting of this version is not modern, but the context in which it's depicted is - and urgently so.   The final battle, played out in a haze of smoke, illuminated a hellish orange (cleverly) by the fire burning as "Birnam Forest comes to Dunsinane", resembles something from "Apocalypse Now".  This picture is a worthy addition to the filmic canon of "the Scottish Play"; violent, passionate, visual, visceral, compelling, brilliantly acted, and perhaps crucially, easy to follow, it's a must see.  A certain favourite of Eng. Lit students for the foreseeable future.

Friday, 2 October 2015

I Was Monty's Double

I Was Monty's Double (1958) 

Starring M.E. Clifton James and John Mills
Directed by John Guillermin 

This remarkable, if somewhat curiously inauspicious film, tells the true story of a remarkable episode  from the Second World War; British Military Intelligence, who displayed something of a penchant and particular accomplishment for subterfuge and deception in their quiet war with the Abwehr (German Military Intelligence) during the conflict, hatched a plot to try to convince the Nazis that the inevitable invasion of Europe would come from the South, rather than from France in the North, by having British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery sighted in the Mediterranean just days before the assault was launched.  As a favourite to be a senior figure in the Allied assault, if not Supreme Commander, surely it would be inconceivable that "Monty" wasn't with his troops on the eve of invasion.  A fortuitous sighting brought one Clifton James, known affectionately by his comrades as Jimmy, (not the chap who played the Sheriff in "Live and Let Die"!), a lowly Second Lieutenant in the Royal Army Pay Corps and an amateur actor, to their attention.  He bore a striking physical resemblance to the feted Field Marshall.  If he could play the biggest role of his life he could be sighted in various Mediterranean, North African and Middle Eastern locations in the days leading up to D-Day - June 6th 1944 - in the slim chance that the Germans would buy into the "open-topped secret" and could not be certain where the invasion was coming from.  Might this crazy plan just work?

The film, scripted by Bryan Forbes from James' own 1954 book, is notable for casting James as himself - playing Monty.  One might think that since he'd pulled off the ruse in real life, and would be playing himself, it wouldn't be a great challenge.  But the drama of the stage is very different from the drama played out in the theatre of war.  Clifton James is by far the greatest thing about the movie.  His performance is nuanced and breathtaking.  Bubbling and giddy when first approached about the job, anxious to please as he thinks he's up for a role in a recruitment film.  He displays touching uncertainty and nervousness when the scheme is laid before him, knowing the potential dangers.  And ultimately, monumental courage, which he - the man - doesn't milk.  But as he grows into the role the viewer can see that he gets a taste for it.  Being treated as a renowned Field Marshall, a warrior who has won victories over the estimable Rommel in North Africa, starts to affect him.  Jimmy bluffs his way through a series of tensely played potentially disastrous encounters, having to meet people who know the real Montgomery, under constant threat of exposure, with potentially fatal consequences, especially in the Iberian Peninsular which is riddled with enemy spies.  He grows in strength and confidence, most notably in the scene in which he has to give a speech to a group of less than impressed U.S G.I's about the coming "party".  Given a pre-approved script by Colonel Logan (Cecil Parker), he is instructed not to deviate one word from it.  But he goes down his own track.  His vision swims and he is clearly racked by stage fright.  But gradually he wins his skeptical audience over with jokes about cricket and baseball, and he's motoring.  It's an inspiring scene.

Many triumphalist scenes of "Monty" rallying the troops follow, and the tone is suitably rousing.  It's a typical 1950s British war film; the war had been one, but at a heavy price.  Empire had been lost and times had been hard.  John Addison's score, preformed by the London Sinfonia, is at times almost unbearably stirring.  But it's purpose is to rouse the audience of the time.  Things might be tough at the present time, but look what we did.  We defeated Nazism.  These men are heroes.  But heroism is a mighty task.  There's a pair of wonderfully touching scenes in which, firstly Jimmy is told that the big show is on the way, and his gig is over.  The sadness is visible in his face, as he realises he won't be able to tell anyone what he's done and will have to return to his old drab life, despite being comforted by his minder / companion Major Harvey (the utterly incomparable John Mills - what would a British WW2 film be without John Mills?!) that the Germans have held back a horde of troops instead of sending them to Northern France to repel the landings.  Latterly, in a tiny moment, he chats with a Sergeant, head of Security where he is, and asks if perhaps he might be permitted to share a drink with him.  In that moment his humanity and humility are back on show.  It's deeply affecting. 

 Director John Guillermin, who went on to make "The Towering Inferno" and "Death on the Nile"  amongst many others, and who sadly recently passed away, juggles bombast and melodrama with a surprising amount of humour, and some standout moments.  There's a vastly over-wrought final act, in which Monty is target for kidnap by the Germans, thanks to some nefarious spies (not sure about the historical validity of this part!).  But the scene in which they approach the house in which he's waiting to depart, features a great shot where the camera passes through the bushes outside and up to the door of the house.  When they get inside, he is listening to a gramophone, and the short scene plays out with no dialogue, no thundering score, but just with the loud music playing out.  It feels slightly more interesting than most films of the time.  There's just enough time for John Mills to perform his customary heroics in rescuing Jimmy from his abductors in time for an inspiring, flag-waving climax.  This story has been widely written about, but coincidentally I just read the excellent book "Double Cross" by Ben MacIntyre - highly recommended to all.  Whilst largely that's about equally outlandish history of the network of Double Agents run by Britain and later the US against the Germans and expounds on the various deceptions (building a "fake army" in Kent so that German spotter planes would be convinced the assault would come in the Pas-de-Calais, for example) , it does talk about the plan depicted in this picture.  I have yet to track down Jimmy's book but from what I understand, much of it is truthful, but then truth is often stranger than fiction.
This is a solid film, by turns funny, enjoyable, tense and exciting.  Clifton James was an ordinary fellow, thrust into an utterly surreal and unpredictable scenario, asked to perform a virtually impossible task under huge pressure.  The movie - known in the US under a few different titles I believe - is a huge tribute to the courage of such ordinary men who played such a large part in winning the war.  If you come across a copy or a showing on television, please do check it out.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015


Prometheus (2012)

Starring Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender
Directed by Ridley Scott

SPOILERS, SORRY (but it has been out since 2012)

Back in 2012 there were rich pickings to had when it came to blockbusters arriving in cinemas.  Near the top of the heap of those most keenly anticipated was Ridley Scott's "Prometheus", and with good reason.  From the outset it was touted as a prequel to that same director's own classic "Alien", which had been released back in 1979. If true to any degree, this was a wildly exciting prospect, given the high regard in which that film is held and the influence it still weilds over science fiction and horror films today.  But that franchise had somewhat fallen into disrepute.  Mistreatment of epic proportions by the studio, 20th Century Fox, had seen just one superb sequel, James Cameron's "Aliens" in 1986, followed by a string of increasingly sad disappointments, culminating in 2007's "Aliens vs Predator: Requiem", the second of a pair of ill-judged attempts to spawn a crossover series with Fox's sci-fi action franchise "Predator".  A prequel seemed to be the ideal solution, as it could allow the "Alien" universe to be imagined in new and interesting ways.  Unencumbered by the events and timelines of those unfortunate sequels, hirtherto unexplored stories could be told.  And Scott, despite some misfires in his portfolio, had attained an 'elder statesman of cinema' reputation; surely if anyone could pull things back from the brink and reinvigorate both the series and the genre it would be him.

The publicity campaign was cranked up a few gears for this one.  On-set "exclusives", reports, interviews and features popped up in seemingly every magazine and on every website going, albeit with journalists sworn to secrecy regarding all but the scantest plot details.  Viral videos and websites appeared, including a special TED Talk by Peter Weyland, a character in the film.  But not much was really given away.  Even the advance trailer was wordless, mimicking the quickly-cut glimpses of scenes from the clip which had trailed "Alien", and used the same eerie soundtrack of screeches, as the letters of the film's title gradually take shape across the screen.  The parallels were obvious.  Sir Ridley, however, did his best to dampen down the prequel rumours, admitting only that the two films would share "strands of the same DNA".  A word he used often to describe this movie was "fresh".

But the hype might not have been wholly necessary, because on the face of it, even without the potential heritage and the attachment of one of the great modern directors, "Prometheus" was a good prospect.  The plot, what was know of it, had a team of archaeologists discovering a prehistoric cave painting on the Isle of Skye showing a humanoid figure pointing to the stars, to a particular constellation, far out of sight of the people of the time.  They surmise that it is an invitation from an alien race of creators - dubbed "Engineers" - and duly find themselves, a few years later, halfway across the universe in search of answers.  Things are not guaranteed to go smoothly.

Now, even those with a steely resolve can find it hard not to buy into the anticipation for a film, or any entertainment, when it reaches these sorts of levels.  And in the quest for info, what was true in the past [ Find out what Michael "Batman" Keaton likes to read on long-haul flights, only in this weeks issue! etc etc. ] seems more intense nowadays; what has been lost in terms of print media has been replaced by use of the internet, social media and scrolling entertainment news.  Even after a film has passed through cinemas, there are the "dvd extras", double-disc "collectors editions", and alternate cuts.  The hunger for every last detail is created and then fed to consumers who may not even have known that they wanted it.  But once they have the taste for it the prelude has become as important as the headline act.

So what of the film itself, on its own terms?  Well, to give it its due, it comes out of the traps pretty sharply.  After a short promotional video for the Iceland Tourist Board, we find a giant, white-skinned, hairless humanoid figure, naked save for a loincloth.  This, we discover, is to be one of our Engineers, and standing on the top of a volcano by the stunning vista of an enormous waterfall, he promptly sets about engineering; that is, he drinks a vial of black liquid, which very soon causes him to convulse, disintegrate, and eventually dissolve into the waterfall, dissipating his DNA - strands of which are shown in Fincher-esque CG - through the planet's waters.  In the skies above, a huge spacecraft flies away.  It's clearly hinted that this is pre-historic Earth, although never explicitly stated as such.  This directly precedes the discovery of the cave markings which spark the interstellar jaunt, implying equally that the alien race planted the seeds for life on this planet.  It's a visually striking scene, which posits an interesting idea, and poses epic questions; who made us? And why?

Once we catch up with the future, the year 2193 to be precise, we learn that the good ship "Prometheus" is on its way to planet LV-223 (so in the same system as LV-426, setting for "Aliens") with our passengers in hypersleep (a trope of the "Alien" series).  We are introduced to the obligatory "artificial person", David, who spends the voyage riding around the empty ship shooting hoops, spying on the dreams of his passengers, learning ancient languages, and watching his favourite film, "Lawrence of Arabia".  As he styles his hair after Peter O'Toole's blond flick, he watches the famous scene where Lawrence extinguishes a match with his fingertips for the amusement of his fellow soldiers; "certainly it hurts... the not minding that it hurts."  After a cursory introduction to the wakened crew, of whom only 5 or 6 have any meaningful dialogue, and a mission briefing from a dead hologram, they set off to explore the giant structure found on the planet's surface.  Inside, they find the dead bodies of several Engineers, one of them decapitated, and a cavernous chamber overseen by a massive sculptured head and filled with cylinders of viscous black liquid.  With a storm rapidly approaching they take the Engineer's severed head back to the ship, whilst David removes a sample of the liquid.  Fun and games ensue...

At first look, the film is solidly entertaining.  The story, whilst treading very familiar ground, bowls along relatively briskly.  It throws out questions, some of them narrative related, one or two philosophical, but moves on to the next scene and the next question before anyone has much of a chance to realise the previous one hasn't been answered.  There are some good shocks, and a suitable amount of gloopy gore.  The cast are really playing second fiddle to whatever terror they've unleashed.  Noomi Rapace as lead scientist Dr. Elizabeth Shaw makes a fair fist of playing the plucky heroine (even at one point recovering in double quick time from a rather atypical medical procedure).  Permanently cool Idris Elba as ship's Captain Janek seems intentionally disinterested until the final reel; Charlize Theron plays the superbitch Meredith Vickers to requirement, although her tightly pulled back hair and space age power dressing chic do some of it for her.  Most of the rest of the crew, including Rafe Spall and Sean Harris, are essentially marked for doom from the start.  Unsurprisingly rising above all is Michael Fassbender as David, somehow managing all at once to be subservient and supercilious, innocent and scheming.  Where (Ian Holm's) Ash was coldly no-nonsense, and (Lance Henriken's) Bishop was exasperatedly normal, David is different, suave, multifaceted and harder to read.

As one would expect from Scott, the film looks amazing.  The Cinematography is by Dariusz Wolski, veteran of, amongst many other things, "Dark City", one of the most striking sci-fi films of the last 20 years; even without the 3D offered on its cinema release, the film's look is deep and textured, with cool greens and blues layered beautifully over bedrock grey, and properly does justice to Arthur Max's grand Production Design.  Double Oscar winning Editor Pietro Scalia keeps things tight and snappy, and whilst Marc Streitenfeld's theme sounds like it belongs in a World War 2 score, it at least is reaching and epic-sounding.   Strictly by the rules laid down within itself, not to mention the "Alien" series at large, the film contains severe gaps in the logic of what the intentions of the Engineers are - particularly in the last act - and what the oily substance actually does.  This suggests, rather presumptuously, that people will have to wait for the / any sequel to find out, if they're still interested.  Ideas wise, there is some interesting stuff floating around.  Shaw wears a cross and clings to a faith in God and Heaven because "that's what I choose to believe", the same reason she gives as justification for the mission.  If science shows that the Engineers did create life on Earth - their DNA is indeed shown to be a match for human - the question remains, who made them?  David and Holloway (another scientist, and Shaw's lover) debate creation; why did men make him, an android?  How would they, humans, cope if they found their creators but discovered equally trifling motives for their own existence - "we made you because we could"?  There's obviously the film's title, too, which invokes the Greek myth of the Titan who created mankind and then stole fire from the Gods, for which he incurred eternal punishment at the hands of Zeus.  Do the Engineers equate to Gods, with Humans equating to the mythical Prometheus, creating life in the form of androids like David, and giving them the "fire" - the gift of thought, self awareness, and intelligence?  It's diverting, and a little more than you'd find in your average blockbuster, but it's hardly "2001", and certainly is never allowed to get in the way of the marauding alien life-forces.  It feels a little too pat, though, simply to throw all this into the mix without having anything firmer to offer.  So, first impressions are that the film is a pleasing, almost overwhelming, but ultimately a little unsatisfying, entertainment.

But any film, particularly one of this type, should probably stand up to multiple viewings, even more so when it has offered itself up for as much scrutiny as this one did.  This is where "Prometheus" starts to unravel.  Freed from the necessity of having to follow a story, the viewer can pick up on any of the multitude of things in the film which are either factually incorrect, irrational on the part of its characters, or otherwise nonsensical.  Red flags are raised almost immediately with the calendar placement of the narrative, 2189 for the discovery of the star map, 2193 for the main action, less than two centuries hence.  In the grander scheme of things this means nothing, but it's generally better when an it's an unspecified future (as in "Mad Max", set "a few years from now") and not inherently obsolete ("2001", say, or Scott's own "Blade Runner", set in 2019).  There are plenty of niggles, some trivial - David's description of the passing of time (x years, x months, x days, and 36 hours - not one more day and 12 hours?), Vickers' description of how far they've traveled ("half a billion miles from earth") - some just annoying.  The geologist gets lost, despite operating a mapping device; the biologist loses the plot at the first sign of alien life; the man who bankrolled the mission pretends to be dead, only to turn up at the end demanding eternal life from the EBEs (and why was Guy Pearce even cast as an old guy, to suffer under dodgy prosthetics, when a genuine older actor could have played the part?); the ship just happens to come down, apparently randomly, right next to the structure they want to investigate; despite the cost and importance of the mission, half the personnel hadn't met each other or even been briefed prior to taking off; the trained scientists throw procedure to the wind and think nothing of bringing the alien head onto the ship without any checks, and then decide to try to spark it back to life; no-one thinks to check whether there's a massive storm brewing as they head out; David deliberately infects a human with the alien substance, with unknown consequences, and for no apparent motive; the black gooey stuff infects Holloway but doesn't grow inside him, it grows an entity inside Shaw after they have sex; Shaw conducts an emergency caesarean section on herself (!) but is running around the place moments later; Elba seems to have lost the American accent he perfected on "The Wire" and sounds more Balham than Baltimore; the Engineers, we've been led to believe, created life on earth but at the end seem hell-bent on destroying it  (why?); two supposedly intelligent people don't seem to realise that the way to evade a rolling obstacle coming towards them is to run in a different direction out of its path (although Theron's death is brilliantly played); and in virtually the final shot, a fully grown Xenomorph alien emerges from an infected Engineer, which makes for a great image but belies the carefully crafted life-cycle of the creature previously seen.  It's just nonsense.

Excessive scrutiny?  Perhaps, but there are so many things which could have been rectified without much effort.  The unsatisfying nature of the script has drawn criticism to one of its scribes, Damon Lindelof, a key contributor to the tv series "Lost", which many felt lost its way and posed more questions than answers.  As a tv veteran, it certainly seems he has drawn inspiration from the great "The X Files", which wrote the book on posing the rolling-question.  The film is certainly full of "X Files" lifts, from the black oil onwards, but it doesn't carry them off with the same class.  But what works on tv, when an audience can always tune in next week in the hope of answers, just isn't good enough in this medium.   The nicest thing to say about the film is that it's entertaining.  Perhaps it suffers the misfortune of having been made in 2012, and is thus subject to the kind of film-making necessary for "big movies" now, rather than in the 1970s.  As a "team in space on a mission" film it makes one yearn for "Sunshine", "Event Horizon" (yes, even), and of course the original "Alien", which is a masterclass in characterisation and tension in comparison.  It's beautiful, but it's still a mess.

So, unfortunately, given the huge potential, high expectations, and ties to other films, "Prometheus" hurts.  Of course, the trick is not minding that it hurts.

Friday, 28 August 2015

Kelly's Heroes

Kelly's Heroes (1970)

Starring Clint Eastwood and Telly Savalas
Directed by Brian G. Hutton

Whilst it would make few people's "All time top ten" lists, I'm hard pressed to think of a film which is so relentlessly enjoyable as "Kelly's Heroes". Part war movie, part comedy, part bank-job caper flick, the different elements combine seamlessly to produce a distinctive and memorable film.

Clint Eastwood, who owns the screen arguably more than anyone in American Cinema in the last 50 years, gives in an unusually subdued but nonetheless commanding performance, playing the leader of a platoon of restless GIs in the chaos of post D-Day France. When he captures a German officer who just happens to be in possession of a solid gold bar, Kelly (Clint) extracts the necessary information and before you can think of an appropriate war-based robbery movie, he's hatched a plan to make it 30 miles beyond enemy lines to nab the $16 million stash.  He can't do it alone, of course, but has no trouble in convincing his fellow troops that if they're going to be killed in this war, the reward for them should be worth the risk.  Enlisting the help of Quartermaster "Crapgame" (Don Rickles) Sergeant "Big Joe" (Telly Savalas) and Sherman tank driver "Oddball" (Donald Sutherland) among others, Kelly and his platoon of ironic "heroes" are soon on their way to an eventual showdown with the German Tiger tank unit guarding the bank...

All too often cross-genre pictures can be let down if the balance isn't right, but that's not the case here because each element is as good as it can be. The action and battle scenes are well executed, especially that in which Oddball and his delapidated Shermans attack a German depot. The comic relief is genuinely funny rather than cheesy, and includes a beautiful scene at the climax of the movie which gently parodies Clint's spaghetti-western days, complete with the strains of cod-Morricone music. The suspense is well maintained where necessary, such as the scene where the platoon is caught exposed in the middle of a minefield with a truckload of Germans bearing down on them. And of course there is the ensemble cast, which is uniformly excellent. Keep an eye out for a young Harry Dean Stanton, and Len Lesser, who is better known as Uncle Leo in "Seinfeld". Sutherland's proto-hippie, and Carroll O'Connor's manic General Colt are just two performances which live long in the memory, alongside the ever-reliable Eastwood and Savalas.  Eastwood, of course, maintains an understated control of proceedings at all times.  It's also dripping with quotable one-liners, mostly from the mouth of Sutherland's Oddball.  "Why don't you knock it off with them negative waves...?"

There are a few points made about the madness and futility of war if that's what you're looking for.  Bearing in mind that the film was mad right in the middle of the Vietnam War.  Anti War films would be easy to pull off and strike a chord, but cynical and funny anti war films are a different matter.  People think of Altman and "M*A*S*H", still 2 years off, and rightly so, but this is arguably up there.  Accordingly, allied bombers knock out bridges by day, German mobile engineers rebuild them by night... neither the Americans or the Germans seem to know what's going on or where their lines are supposed to be... behind the lines our heroes are attacked by their own aircraft... General Colt mistakes Kelly's gold-inspired push for a patriotic determination to end the war, and mobilizes his army to follow him, chastising the staff officers around him for failing to show the same spirit...

But ultimately, this movie is about entertainment rather than political comment. And as such it is one of the most successful examples of its type, coming near the end of a procession of highly successful "guys on a mission" movies (both warbound and not). The script by Troy Kennedy Martin ("The Italian Job") is tight, and direction by Brian G Hutton ("Where Eagles Dare") equally assured. Perhaps regarded as lightweight in comparison to other, more serious "men on a mission" movies such as Robert Aldrich's "The Dirty Dozen" or Hutton's aforementioned "Eagles", the film has nonetheless been influential. For example, although David O Russell's "Three Kings", a sharp vehicle for George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg and Ice Cube, veers off on a tangent and makes more of a serious comment on the US role in the Gulf War, its matchbook plot (ie that which can be written on the back of a matchbook) is the same as "Kelly's Heroes".  And in the speakers mounted on the side of Oddball's tanks, used to blast music at the enemy and freak them out, there is more than a hint of the Wagner-playing helicopters in Coppola's "Apocalypse Now", still some nine years hence at the time of this film's release.

Operation Overlord, the liberation of Europe, the Second World War as a whole, are not to be taken lightly.  But every once in a while it pays to take a breather from the horror and laugh at the stupidity of it all.  "Kelly's Heroes" does just that, and is a supremely enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours.  It doesn't intrude on the legitimacy of something like "The Longest Day", nor in retrospect does it diminish a film as straightly aimed as "Saving Private Ryan".  You will be doing yourself a favour if, next time you get the chance, you take a look.  It's rare that I see a film and don't think at least once that I'd change something about it, but if there is something to change in "Kelly's Heroes", I don't know what it is. 

"To a New Yorker like you, a Hero is some kind of weird sandwich, not some nut who takes on three Tigers."


Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Starring Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron
Co-written and Directed by George Miller

When is a sequel not a sequel?  When is a remake not a remake?  When is a "reboot" not a reboot?  Come to think of it, what exactly constitutes a reboot anyway?  "Mad Max: Fury Road" is all of the above, but also none of the above - only turned up to eleven.  It doesn't directly follow on from or refer to the events depicted in the last film in the series, "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome", which was released 30 years previously.  It doesn't retell the story of 1979's original "Mad Max", nor does it embark on a different version of that tragic 'origin' story.  It simply exists in the same fictional universe as that first trilogy, features the same eponymous hero, and drives the same violent dusty highways.  Tom Hardy takes on the role of Max Rockatansky, the part which gave Mel Gibson his big-screen break, and there are no contrivances to link this directly with the originals, suggesting that this is the other Max's son, for example.  We're just given the character and it's up to the filmmakers to convince us that this is the same person.  Largely, they succeed.

Complexity of plot was never a hallmark of this series.  Emphasis was instead placed on atmosphere, tension, exhilaration, and a vivid creation of a desperate environment and existence.  Latterly the films became celebrated for their elaborate, extended vehicular chase scenes, akin to automotive running battles.  "Fury Road" most resembles "Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior" (see review below).  Or, more specifically, the final third of it.  This film opens with a thumbnail introduction to the protagonist, roaming the wastelands alone, dishevelled, and reduced to eating raw lizard.  His world, he tells us in voiceover, is one of "fire and blood".  He is a "road warrior, searching for a righteous cause... it was hard to know who was more crazy, me... or everyone else."  Almost immediately he is set upon by a band of white-skinned scavengers, dragged away, and taken to their base location, a miniature city of sorts.  This is the Citadel of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played the Toecutter in the original film), a ruthless overlord who rules over a community of survivors.  Encased in a respirator mask decorated with animal teeth, and body armour which hides his pox-scarred body and face, Immortan keeps the populace in check by rationing their water, warning them against becoming addicted to it, whilst he and his lackeys live in luxury.  The white-skinned young men are the 'War Boys', Immortan's troops, whom he controls with tatantalizing promises of eternal glory at the gates of Valhalla.  As a physically healthy universal donor, Max's fate is to be used as a 'blood bag', as he is hooked up to a sick War Boy, Nux (Nicholas Hoult).  Immortan has dispatched Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) in a 'War Rig', a fearsome, heavily armoured tanker, to collect precious gasoline from the neigbouring refinery at Gas Town.  But she has turned off her course, heading into hostile territory, smuggling Joe's five breeding-wives with her.  An army of War Boys sets off after her to reclaim the women, one of whom is pregnant; Max, still plugged into Nux, finds himself along for the ride too.  Thus, pursuit is essentially the order of the day for the rest of the film.  But what spectacular pursuit.

Were it simply a lengthy car chase movie, there wouldn't be much to take from this film.  Certainly, those chase scenes are amazing, a wild storm of flamethrowers and firebombs, crossbows and bullets, grinding wheels, fearsome juggernauts, and an incredible array of hybrid vehicles.  But these sounds and images are broadcast in the context of a unique, thrillingly realised world, one that is utterly bizarre.  It's a world in which a man washes his bloodied face not with water, but with mother's milk.  Where the chasing pack has room for a bank of drummers beating time like slaves on a Roman galleon, and for a masked musician called The Doof Warrior (iOTA back in the real world) whose electric guitar shoots jets of flame as it booms out through phalanx of speakers mounted on the back of the truck, augmenting the techno-laced score by Tom Holkenborg (aka Junkie XL).  And where the last-act allies turn out to be a gang of geriatric bikie chicks.

This emphasis on visceral thrills and spills does not discount that this film belongs to the actors.  Tom Hardy, yet again, shows why he is unquestionably one of the finest actors working today.  He fully invades this role, and within minutes the thought that it was made iconic by another actor is gone.  He invokes Gibson just enough and at just the right times, but this Max is all his.  He doesn't have much to say, no great soliloquies here, but Max never did (16 lines in all, in "The Road Warrior").  So when he does speak, it counts.   But it's typically nihilistic; "hope is a mistake", he tells one character.  "If you can't fix what's broken... you'll go insane".  It could be argued that for all Max's minimalism, the true protagonist is Theron's Furiosa.  One-armed, sporting a mechanical prosthetic, crew-cut, black grease smeared in a mask around her eyes like war paint, Furiosa is a sight to see and a force to be cautious around.  She's the instigator of the action and the dominant presence, especially in the first movement of the picture, at a time when Max is largely impotent, muzzled and chained.  There's a wonderful game of oneupmanship (onewomanupmanship?) between Max and Furiosa shortly after he is brought on board the rig, as they both by turns seek to dictate the terms of their common flight.  A gradual shared arc develops between them, as they go from outright animosity, to cautious acceptance, to determined collaboration in search of a mutual goal.  Furiosa's driving aim is to return to the place where she was born, the 'Green Place', from which she was taken as a child, and to provide sanctuary for the unfortunate young enslaved girls; Max... well his is just to get to the next place, wherever that is.  Nic Hoult, superb and barely recognisable as the wild and frantic Nux gives an amazing performance (to add to his brilliant turn in "Warm Bodies").  His character is probably the one that thinks and changes the most over the course of the story.

And then there are the wives.  They may be somewhat under-dressed (it is the desert, after all) but this is no glamour magazine photo shoot.  They are, essentially, sex slaves, but these ladies are hardened by their environment, as they have to be, and use their wiles to survive.  At one point, The Splendid Angharad (Rosie Huntington-Whitely), heavily pregnant with Joe's child, thrusts her bulging belly at her pursuers, shielding and protecting her companions.  The film's feminist credentials have understandably become something of a talking point.  Certain - male - critics have dismissed "Fury Road" as nothing more than "Trojan Horse" feminist propaganda, gatecrashing the testosterone party.  "No one barks orders at Mad Max", bleated blogger Aaron Cleary, impotently.  Other commentators, such as Sasha James take a different perspective, one which feels much more appropriate.  Ultimately it gives pause for thought, which is always an added bonus in a summer blockbuster, but it's not worth obsessing over because it doesn't interrupt the rush of blood to the head that this movie provides.  So what if Furiosa uses Max's shoulder as a rest for her gun (when he's just wasted vital bullets on a missed killshot)?  It's essential to the story that it's she who leads the wives towards their liberty, not Max; he never was a knight in shining armour, no matter how much other characters might have wanted him to be.  His gradual acceptance of the people around him here speaks volumes.  Hardy's is a mellower Max than Gibson's; maybe he's just wearied now that he's further down the road.  

As is to be expected from a film in this franchise, the off-kilter nature of this world is enlivened no end by the deliciously off-the-wall character names, from the Wives - Angharad's companions are Cheedo the Fragile (Courtney Eaton), The Dag (Abbey Lee), Capable (Riley Keough) and best of all, Toast the Knowing (Zoe Kravitz) - to Immortan's array of underlings, Rictus Erectus (Nathan Jones), Slit (Josh Helman), The Organic Mechanic (Angus Sampson), The Bullet Farmer (Richard Carter) and The People Eater (John Howard).  Max, it seems, is the only sanely named character on show.  All are set against an almost tangible backdrop.  The stunning cinematography by John Seale (whose credits range from "Witness" and "Rain Man" to "The English Patient" and beyond) renders the desolate Namibian landscape, standing in for Australia, in vigourous ochre by day, and electric blue by night.  To say that the film is slightly too long is not the point; it's doesn't feel too long, and the pace barely lets up - even in the quiet moments it's tense.  Rather, given its comparatively slender narrative, it feels as if there are many more ideas bubbling away here which could have borne closer inspection.  Presumably - hopefully - the worldwide box-office takings have secured a future for this incarnation of our anti-hero, in which further corners of his world can be explored.  "Mad Max: Fury Road" is unlike anything else seen in cinemas this year.  Counter-intuitively, its DNA is familiar, but at the same time it is utterly original.


Friday, 21 August 2015

Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Starring Jessica Chastain and Jason Clarke
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow

Telling the story of the decade long search for Osama Bin Laden following the terror attacks on September 11th 2001, "Zero Dark Thirty" is an interesting film, in many ways.  It's interesting on one hand because there was always going to be a significant level of attention paid to what the first female winner of the Best Director Academy Award would choose to make next; Kathryn Bigelow won in 2009 for the Iraq-set bomb disposal drama "The Hurt Locker".  It's interesting because although there is obviously a narrative threading through the film, it's told by necessity in a very different manner from most "mainstream" films.  And it's interesting because it could potentially serve as a historical document of some sort in years to come, depicting as it does, with the usual disclaimer about the names being changed and certain characters being fictional composites, the quest for the most wanted man on Earth; this was the closing of a significant chapter in contemporary American history.  Bigelow, along with her "Hurt Locker" screenwriter Mark Boal, had originally been planning a film about the battle of Tora Bora, the allied offensive of December 2001, an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to capture Bin Laden from his suspected hideout in a cave complex within the mountains of Eastern Afghanistan.  When news of Bin Laden's death was announced, the script was completely re-written to tell that story.  It's an achievement in itself that the film premiered on December 19th 2012, barely 19 months after Seal Team Six's successful mission.

Considering the subject matter it's unsurprising that a certain controversy abounded.  The debate mostly centred around the CIA's use of torture, or "enhanced interrogation techniques", to obtain information vital to Bin Laden's eventual location, the film's depiction of it, and the question of whether it justified or even glorified that use.  To a lesser extent there was discord that the film opens on September 11th, with a mosaic of audio clips from the day, civil authorities interspersed with recordings of victims' frantic phone calls to loved ones, playing over a black screen.  On this point, the objections and accusations that this is needlessly manipulative are understandable, but dramatically and factually it feels necessary in providing a stunning context to the narrative set to unfold.  From that brief 9/11 exposure the viewer is thrown immediately into the first of many of said torture sequences.  A young, female CIA operative named Maya (Jessica Chastain) observes an interrogation carried out by Dan (Jason Clarke) on a terrorist financier.  These scenes are not for the squeamish, and they are curiously rambling and unfocused; but this points to the CIA, despite the bluster, essentially having no viable leads and no idea what they were doing.  Maya watches, devoid of emotion, a counterpoint to Dan's (nervous?) constant chattering and air of confidence and superiority.  It's an in-the-room-out-of-the-room apparent long game, but comes over as quite desperate.  There can be little doubt that waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and other methods of torture employed by the U.S. in recent years are unethical or barbaric, but the fact that they were used is not the question.  What is in question is whether the film's depiction of them implicitly or explicitly condones those methods.  Many argue that it does, because the eventual success of the mission relies largely - but not solely, it should be noted - on them.  The counter argument, on a moral and political level, says that they were a necessary evil.  The "artistic" view is that they are depicted as a matter of fact, without any moral standpoint.   Bigelow herself stated that "confusing depiction with endorsement is the first step toward chilling any American artist's ability and right to shine a light on dark deeds, especially when those deeds are cloaked in layers of secrecy and government obfuscation"; essentially, she's saying, don't shoot the messenger.  Unless one brings a political agenda to viewing, this has to be the approach to take.

Maya, based, by some accounts, on a real agent, named as "Jen" in the book "No Easy Day" by Mark Bissonette aka Mark Owen, is the closest the film comes to offering an emotional touchstone for the audience; but even then it's a struggle, because she's an emotional blank page.  She calmly takes in the happenings around her and sets about her task with ice-cold abandon.  It's only much later - years later, in the timeframe of the film - that she starts to show stress, frustration, exhaustion and anger.  So to that effect it strengthens the claim that the film doesn't endorse torture, it just shows it happening.  Having the characters treat the whole process so matter-of-factly backs this up; they don't stop to debate the morality of their actions, the makers leave it to the viewer to take away and consider.  There is even a case to be made that the film hints at the pointlessness of the whole process, or at least the need to employ other methods of information gathering, as a key clue is discovered as having been on file all along, but on the back burner.  Potentially the case could have advanced without the need for "enhanced interrogations".

Wisely, the story is broken into chapters, marked by title cards.  This is no Tarantino-esque indulgence, however, it's a skillful way of marking the distinct phases of the ongoing quest.  Starting with "The Saudi Group", and progressing through "Abu Ahmed" (bin Laden's courier), "The Meeting", and "The Canaries", the latter referring to the SEALs who will carry out the raid.  The film also uses place and time-line captions, marking out the passing of time and location with forensic detail, creating a documentary-like air of realism.  Such a sense is heightened further by the predominance of hand-held camerawork, not in a distracting "shaky cam" manner, but just enough to imbue in the viewer a vaguely unsettling sense of being a hidden observer. 

Aside from the torture, moments of physical violence are few and far between, and come mostly, shockingly out of the blue; only the London bombings of July 2005 are given any obvious visual signpost in the moments before the explosion, although another scene depicting a suicide bomb attack is agonizingly, grimly foreseeable.  These moments are all the more unnerving because, for the most part, the narrative depicts very slow progress in the investigation.  That's not to say it's hard to follow, but it does feel slightly bogged down, particularly in the middle section.  However, this is offset to spectacular effect by the final segment, in which the compound in Abbottabad is identified, argued over, and eventually attacked.  Mercifully, the build up to the mission is largely glossed over.  When the go-ahead is given, there's an exchange between Maya and the SEALs; Justin (Chris Pratt) and team leader Patrick (Joel Edgerton) express their skepticism as to whether it really is bin Laden they'll be going after, as they've chased ghosts before, and lost friends and colleagues on similar mission.  Maya bluntly says she'd have preferred to drop a bomb on the compound, but has to send this group of soldiers in as "canaries", to find and kill bin Laden for her, and has stated that she is "100% certain" it's him.  

The raid sequence, when it comes, is nothing short of breathtaking.  Some of it is hard to make out, shown in almost total darkness, some sections are shown in the bright green images seen through night vision goggles.  Only a few of the SEALs have been given any degree of characterization by this point, so the viewer isn't particularly given an anchor from which to experience the action, rather a number of men sweeping through the buildings with swift efficiency.  It's disorientating, chaotic, and frenetic.  The only real criticism seems to be that the troops talk too much, and that no-one called out Osama's name, but surely this can be forgiven for the sake of dramatic license; total silence and hand signal communication only may have been more authentic, but would have made the events much harder to follow.   Despite the outcome being foregone knowledge, there's a sense of danger - as when a crowd of locals gathers, advancing on the compound - and an increasing apprehension as room after room is cleared with no sign of the ultimate target.  And when, at last, the kill shot is taken, it's almost an anticlimax.  The body is photographed so it can be identified, but the dead man's face remains tantalizingly unseen.  There's no valve to release the tension, as the unit has limited time to gather as many files and as much information as they can in the few minutes before they have to evacuate.        

And then it's all over.  Back at base, Maya nervously makes the ID, and seems to go into a state of shock.  Later, she boards a transport plane, and sits, numb, as the crewman calls out to her; "You must be pretty important, you've got the whole plane to yourself", and asks "Where do you want to go?".  Maya starts to cry.  There are no flag-waving triumphalist scenes of patriotic Americans wildly celebrating the death of their greatest foe.  Nothing.  The film has shown her obsession, and presented a wide range of supporting characters along the way (including Mark Strong as a CIA superior, the Kyle Chandler as the Station Chief in Pakistan, James Gandolfini as the CIA Director, and - bizarrely - John Barrowman, in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo), but none of them are there at the end.  Indeed, none of them, with the partial exception of Dan, are indulged with anything approaching backstory or character-arc; they are purely functional.  Having progressed through the film becoming gradually more animated - frustrated, angry, determined - Maya is suddenly deflated, and blank again.  Is she shocked that her actions have landed a dead man in front of her (Bisonnette writes "people at (her) level never had to deal with the blood")?  Is she grieving for the sudden hole in her life and purpose, or something more?

One can choose to focus on the negative aspects of what occurred during the period addressed, and indeed many commentators were positively outraged by what they took from the movie, whether conservatives complaining that President Obama is presented in an overly favourable light (he's not) or liberals decrying its glamourization of torture (which isn't there).  Ultimately, it's unlikely that this film, or any other, will decisively sway anyone or settle the argument on such a divisive topic.  To focus on this element is to overlook that "Zero Dark Thirty" is a rare achievement.  Politics should be left at the door, if at all possible.  Technically brilliant, it is by turns, compelling, absorbing, vaguely depressing,  thrilling, slightly overwhelming, but never less than thought-provoking.  It's a cold, essentially heartless film, about a grim, unpleasant matter from start to finish.  As such, it's a film which has a great deal in and about it to admire and appreciate, but one which is very difficult actually to like.  But then, that's the point.

A last word: "Violence is taboo.  Not only does it produce answers to please, but it lowers the standard of information." - Colonel Robin 'Tin Eye' Stephens, Commandant of Camp 020, British Interrogation Centre, Latchmere House, World War 2.