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.