Sunday, 6 March 2016

GODARD: Les carabiniers (1963)

Godard has always been a filmmaker who pays as much attention to the politics behind his work as the images in his work. Les carabiniers (The Riflemen), his fifth film, displays this dualism at work, criticizing the act of war and the politics of nationalism and imperialism while at the same time interrogating the aesthetics of the war and anti-war film.

The story of Les carabiniers is fable-like in its simplicity. Ulysses and Michelangelo are two peasants living on a wasteland with a mother and daughter, Cleopatra and Venus. Two riflemen come to their shack and convince Ulysses and Michelangelo to join the army and fight for the King, seducing them with all the riches in the world. They go to war, sending letters home to Cleopatra and Venus. However, when they finally get home, they find that their rewards are not quite how they imagined them.

Les carabiniers did not do well on release, and it isn’t hard to imagine why. It is gritty, nasty, plotless, ugly, the characters are vulgar stereotypes, the events are shocking, the soundtrack is a constant barrage of explosions and gunfire. It is an angry, abrasive little film, but it chooses its targets with intelligence and its critique and the way this critique is made are fascinating.

Ulysses and Michelangelo are promised everything, from money to the monuments of the world to any sadistic little wish they may want to carry out. The criticism is obvious – any horror is permissible in war – but it also alludes to colonialism in its acknowledgement of the gleeful seizure of lands and property regardless of the human toll it may take and to nationalism in the blindness with which Ulysses and Michelangelo gets suckered into signing up for the war. Given these characters’ grotty and aimless existences at the beginning of the film, it is clear that king and country have not done anything for them so far, and is unlikely to do anything in the future. Indeed, the extended punchline of all of this is that the two soldiers return home only with photos of their promised rewards – pointing towards the illusionary nature of all nationalism and, by extension, colonial gains. By the end of the film, the country has erupted into what seems like several distinct civil wars between the republicans, the democrats, the communists, the anarchists, the state and the army. The film ends on a disused, ugly bus shelter in which Ulysses and Michelangelo are shepherded and gunned down.

The film’s critique of war suggests that the men and women who fight are not those who receive the rewards and the acclaim and that it is not in their interests to fight their king’s wars. But the film also holds a critique of the aesthetics of the war film. The film is fractured, loud, uncomfortable viewing and the war scenes are intentionally choppy and confused. Godard opts for short scenes of sadistic war crimes rather than some grand narrative of war. Godard’s point is that war films, like action films, entertain an audience when they should be horrifying them. Compare the battle scenes in Les carabiniers to the same in Saving Private Ryan, in which the violence is certainly horrible but the film does allow the war to have a heroic and redemptive quality. War films tend to validate war even as they criticize it. Les carabiniers then, because it denies the audience a fluid narrative line with which to understand and digest the war on screen (even down to the simple cutting between weapon fired and damaged caused), can be said to be a truly anti-war film.

It even goes so far as to suggest, in the scene inside the cinema in which Michelangelo is fooled by the projection while everyone around him silently imbibes whatever the screen throws at them, the brainwashing nature of cinema and the need to engage intellectually with what is being shown. As such, Les carabiniers is a distancing and confrontational film, a bombardment of ugliness and noise, but all to an extremely moral purpose. There is nothing enjoyable or aesthetically pleasing about this war, nothing cathartic, nothing whatsoever to validate the horrors onscreen – because this film is truly a pacifist one.

With Les carabiniers, Godard unites form and message to create one sustained and powerful critique, which will make one rethink one’s opinions about wars past, present and future as well as rewatch war films looking for the signs that they are as much pro- as anti-war. It is one of Godard’s most difficult sixties films and one of the hardest to like, but it is one of real intellectual rigour - with this film, Godard could not be dismissed as just a stylist. Despite being one of Godard’s least financially successful films, it is one of his most important early films.

Up next was Le Mepris

See other Godard reviews

Friday, 4 March 2016

REVIEW: Room (2016)

Lenny Abrahamson has often had a fondness for outsiders (excepting his best film, What Richard Did, which focusses on an insider, albeit one who accidentally ousts himself) – indeed, to the level of fetish with his painful Frank. This has continued into his most mainstream film so far, Room, based on the novel by Emma Donoghue (here adapting her own book) itself in turn based on the Josef Fritzl case.

Ma (Brie Larson) and Jack (Jacob Tremblay) lived in Room, a small garden shed fitted as a domestic prison. Ma has been imprisoned in Room for eight years and Jack, who is five, was born there. The film charts their ability to cope and survive.

As off-putting as it is to consider a film, particularly one coming with all the bells and whistles of awards season marketing, based on so specific a case, in which there were real victims and real pain, Room largely manages to feel sincere and respectful. Donoghue and Abrahamson pursue their version through the eyes of a five-year old child who has no knowledge of the real horror of their situation. Any real abuse is seen by misdirection – seen through Jack’s perspective, we know what is going on even if Jack does not. Since the focus is so much on Jack, we can often forget that Ma (we find out her real name later in the film) is also a victim. Again, these scenes come through a degree of misdirection. When Ma, now Joy, comes home and back to her bedroom, untouched for eight years, Abrahamson knows to put the camera on her in this instance, bringing home sharply Joy’s own stolen years. It is a powerful little moment, done without show, but one that reminds us that Abrahamson does have his heart in the right place.

Even in one sequence in which the film slightly starts to lose its way, Abrahamson and Donoghue pull it back. In one extended sequence, Joy’s mother Nancy (Joan Allen) opens the house to a TV crew for an exclusive interview with Joy. The film takes pokes at the media, suggesting that they might be immoral scavengers after any kind of marketable human misery that might give the viewing public a little emotional kick (if not full-on freak show) to mull on over with their dinner. The thought is inescapable: the film itself could be tarred by its own brush. However, the film addresses instead the responses of those disinterested observers, which are often as damaging and traumatic as any kind of media intrusion. The interviewer chastises Joy for keeping Jack with her, suggesting that a better parent would have convinced their captor (Old Nick, played by Sean Bridgers as a very sad and lost human rather than as a monster) to anonymously leave the child in care where it could have a normal life. This, though a morally valid argument, is a cruel and coldly logical view of the situation and is not one that Joy ever considered. What the film is then calling for is not so much a renewed attempt to understand the victims of abuse, but merely that we remain compassionate and accepting. It is, again, a suggestion that the film is not just a shocking, headline grabbing cash-in, but one that actually addresses its subject matter in a constructive and positive way.

The performances are fantastic – Larson and Trembley keep the film feeling human rather than grandstanding. Even the film’s biggest moment – Jack in the back of the police car – is, although pure trailer fodder, sincerely focussed on the characters and the performances. Room feels compassionate as much for their performances as for Abrahamson’s distanced and empathic camera. Room’s greatest success is that it feels like a caring and human film for the majority of its running time, rather than a potentially damaging cash-in. It is a film about a mother’s love and the power and resilience of the human spirit, though one wonders why a version of the Fritzl case was such a necessary angle to address these fairly common themes, if indeed these themes were the primary motivations for writing the book and making the film. That said, Room is a film about the victims, preferring scenes of strength, weakness and recovery over empty histrionics. If one can’t fathom why anyone would make a film like this, it is equally difficult to fathom what cast and what filmmakers could have done it better.

Monday, 1 February 2016

REVIEW: Spotlight (2016)

Any film about investigative journalists will always have to survive a comparison with All The President’s Men – not least Spotlight, which features Ben Bradlee Jr, as played by John Slattery. Where other films revel in a clash between heroes and villains, Spotlight is a lot more subtle and a lot more engrossing.

Spotlight follows a group of investigative journalists for the Boston Globe as they uncover a huge scandal within the Boston establishment, which ends up uncovering a history of abuse inside the Roman Catholic Church on a global scale. The focus of the film is less on the crimes themselves, but more the efforts to uncover them. The team breaks into different tasks, each developing an element of this tightly constructed film’s chief target. Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton) battles an establishment who would prefer that the story go away, while Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) chases the evidence and a seemingly doomed victim’s lawsuit headed by embattled and disgruntled lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci). Meanwhile, Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) tracks down and interviews some victims.

After one film in which the filmmakers toned down their own material and another in which a filmmaker openly did not trust his own material, it is a relief to see a film of such confidence and skill.  Spotlight is as much a procedural as anything else, a slow burner that is nonetheless engrossing, not unlike, apologies, All The President’s Men. Every stumbling block and sudden revelation that comes Rezendes’ way is dramatic and interesting and Ruffalo runs around gamely. But the film is most disturbing when it tackles the ways in which the conspiracy of silence is maintained – decent men who suggest that there is nothing in the story, keeping the voices low so their wives don’t hear. There is even a mystery in the film as it is revealed that someone on the paper suppressed evidence of the abuse years ago. This, however, is not played up as a twist, but more as a disturbing and subtle portrayal of how easily the Church was able to get away with it for so long.

The film is not about the victims, though scenes of Pfeiffer interviewing some victims are presented with tact and respect. It is a film about investigative journalism and the ease with which the status quo can be maintained in the face of systematic abuse. The film dabbles with the tropes of the conspiracy thriller. Richard Jenkins plays Richard Snipe, an ex-priest and psychotherapist who states, chillingly, that the abuse is endemic within the priesthood, who is never seen and only heard through a telephone – being this film’s Deep Throat (another comparison). We frequently see shots of the homes of the victims with a massive church steeple towering imposingly over them – hardly subtle, but undeniably effective. One scene, in which a retired priest gladly admits his crimes to Pfeiffer, is as close as the film gets to thrilling, and it is nail-biting. Equally, the power of the Church, the resources they have to fight back, the good old men who are on their side, the silence and disinterest of the parties that should have revealed everything and the sheer scale of the abuse (shown starkly at the close of the film in a long list) give the film a sense of eeriness and danger.

Tom McCarthy, who played a journalist a lot less troubled by integrity in The Wire, films tightly and confidently. Spotlight is a rare film that relies on its material without fear or the misguided belief that the audience will understand the film better with an over the top score, a recognisable villain, a false dramatic arc. Indeed, the film doesn’t really have a villain and there is little in the film that is directly threatening, but that is what the best investigative journalism is – a chase, requiring patience and integrity, but in the end revealing something about all of us. Indeed, anger is ultimately not the film’s response, more a stunned sadness. What is ultimately so sobering about Spotlight in its representation of how the Church’s crimes were revealed, is how it took so long for the cover-up to break. Spotlight is as much a tribute to good journalism as it a warning about the secrecy and silence that surrounds any powerful social organisation.

Monday, 25 January 2016

REVIEW: The Big Short (2016)

Adam McKay may seem like a strange filmmaker to opt for an awards season biopic of the beginnings of the global economic meltdown of 2008, given his previous form as the director of Anchorman, Step Brothers and The Other Guys. Though it is clearly something close to his heart (remember the serious animated lecture that acted as an appendix to the not-awful The Other Guys), can a filmmaker like McKay pull off something so dense and complicated and, yes, serious.

The Big Short, a title that recalls more The Big Easy or The Big Lebowski than The Big Sleep, is about a few (all-male) groups who saw evidence of a housing bubble and who bet against the seemingly rock-solid housing market, reaping millions as millions lose homes and jobs. We have Michael Burry (a largely restrained Christian Bale), a solo financial wizard, who first sees the inevitable collapse due to the precarious way in which all of the banks had tied their money and capital up in potentially worthless mortgage bonds. His plan inspires others including Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) and Mark Baum (a quite good Steve Carell), who all tie up their funds in betting against the housing market.

The film traces the risks that these characters take, the pitfalls and the dark moments in which bankruptcy looms before the ultimate pay-off. Here, particularly in the Burry storyline, the film is closest to that other Michael Lewis adaptation, Moneyball, about the lone innovator who takes a serious risk and ends up triumphant and vindicated in the end. All fine with baseball (though that film was rather dull), but more troubling in the case of The Big Short. The film’s primary focus is on these financial traders who saw the fall coming and bet on it, making a quick buck in the process, which is not the greatest angle from which to address the serious greed and avarice that led to the economic collapse that ruined lives. The film does sort-of address this upside-down morality with Baum having doubts about what he has done, but ultimately the film strives to get an underdog triumph storyline out of something that can only be negative, if not fully misanthropic. Surely that misses the point about what this purely-financial collapse ought to represent.

The film does try to offer a serious critique of what brought about the collapse and the leniency of the response of the world’s governments. There is a running sense of disbelief at the stupidity of the bankers (how did they not know that this was going to happen? Did they really think this kind of policy was going to be sustainable?), that is nicely countered when we hear from Baum about the government’s bailouts, i.e. they knew that there were doing damage, but they were confident that the taxpayer would foot the bill and so simply didn’t care. The film does rouse your indignation, possibly even more effectively than the too-often misunderstood The Wolf of Wall Street. However, the film is not enough of a sustained critique. Though it will inspire a new ire in people who find the news boring, it is just not serious enough, working too hard to be an entertainment with heroes, an underdog storyline and a damaging, slightly desperate comedic strain that does it no favours. So we have Margot Robbie in a hot tub and Selena Gomez playing blackjack to explain CDO’s, stupid jokes that are wholly out of place and stupid pop culture montages. McKay seems to believe that too serious a critique will only confuse and irritate audiences, so he has tried to make the film as entertaining as possible, but it only makes it look foolish, hysterical and jumpy. Sadly, the filmmakers simply do not have enough trust in their material.

And that is it. The Big Short is a story of the outsider vindicated, which severely misses the point; it largely avoids the darker side to this story (the homelessness, the poverty) in favour of out-of-place comedy and easy pokes at villainy and greed; it lacks the intellectual heft to truly tackle its subject. It may be a good primer for the initiated, but with its hot tubs and poker games, it may feel like an insult to one’s intelligence. Though given how the collapse came about and the ease with which a stunning critique like The Wolf of Wall Street can be taken as a celebration and an inspiration, maybe that is what we deserve.

Thursday, 14 January 2016

REVIEW: The Danish Girl (2016)

The Danish Girl was always going to be a well-meaning but ineffective work, a boring modern day Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner that will shock few and will look ridiculously tame and safe to future audiences (if indeed there is any). Directed by Tom Hooper, the man behind a tin eared, emotionless musical and a WWII film in which the crowds cheer the King’s ability to announce a coming mass slaughter, it was even going to feel a bit underwhelming. But it is a surprise just how cack-handed a film The Danish Girl ultimately is.

Eddie Redmayne chases acclaim as Einar Wegener, or Lili, a man who suddenly realizes that he is actually a woman trapped in a man’s body. Einar is happily married to Gerda (Alicia Vikander), and there are both painters. Einar stands in as a model for Gerda and starts to develop an affinity for women’s clothing. This leads to an implausible prank in which Einar attends a social gathering as ‘Lili’, his female cousin from the country. However, Einar starts to realize that he can’t leave Lili behind, leading him to question who he really is. As Lili takes over, Einar and Gerda’s marriage becomes increasingly strained.

First, I don’t have a problem with the casting of Eddie Redmayne as a trans character. It is a choice that does show a prejudice against real trans performers, but it is also clearly a pragmatic choice, given that the majority of the running time, if not all of it, is taken up with Lili in a man’s body. Where the film does feel more problematic is in the fact that it has been made by a cis cast and crew, dealing with an issue that is not, forgive the term, theirs. One wonders will there be any trans people on the stage if The Danish Girl wins any of the awards that are so clearly its raison d’ȇtre. Add to this the fact that certain details of the real-life Wegener couple’s relationship have been omitted to avoid being too shocking (or too confusing to an audience less well-versed in trans issues), and we have a film on trans people, but made for a cis audience.

But none of that really matters all that much since the film is so hopelessly made you are left wondering how it ever got off the ground. Hooper, an odd director at the best of times, has created a leaden, bewildering film that feels avant-garde in its inability to emotionally engage the audience, so refined you pray for someone to throw a chair. And there are things here that should have worked. Gerda’s predicament – seeing the man she loves slowly disappearing, and yet accepting that she (Lili) is the better for it – is rich in dramatic possibilities, and Vikander does try her best, but the film never develops this enough. The reason for this might be that Hooper and writer Lucinda Coxon were too wary of showing Lili in a less than favourable light and so have tried to underscore Gerda’s pain. Gerda is never nothing but understanding, in case, presumably, a more bitter or angry Gerda becomes an audience surrogate. It means that any scene that is clearly intended as a dramatic pay-off (particularly one scene in which Gerda tells a doctor that she believes that her husband really is a woman – one already spoiled in the trailer) passes almost unnoticed. Other scenes ought to be just as powerful, but the film is somehow so inane that they don’t show through. A scene in which Lili strips in front of a mirror should be sad, but it is so drowned in tragic score and so rushed that it lacks subtly. A scene where she is beaten in a park by two thugs is so familiar and structurally inevitable (given that there is little enough conflict elsewhere) and done with so little spark, that it is thoroughly possible to forget it while you are watching it. The camerawork is frequently very poor and the framing is bewildering - Hooper decides during one dramatic moment to place a rather happy dog centre of the frame and staring into the camera. But bad form aside, it feels as if Hooper doesn’t think his audience can take a film like The Danish Girl without some sort of crutch – an overbearing score, an intensely familiar story set-up, characters entirely rid of their foibles and messiness. Hooper tells us to feel sad, but his film is so lifeless and ineffectual, that he can’t make us.

By the end, Hooper settles for Lili’s scarf flying off with the breeze, an image of freedom from restraint, a tragic death made triumphant, and surely a trick that can’t possibly still be fooling audiences. The Danish Girl is a drama that wants to be rewarded for tackling a trans subject, but it is so afraid of its subject that it rids it of all human complications and conflict. As such, it fundamentally does not trust its audience, feeling the need to deify trans issues in an effort to convince. An already understanding, compassionate audience will feel insulted, but mainly they’ll feel bored and, yes, disappointed. Meanwhile, those out-of-work trans performers and filmmakers are left to watch in silence, their own work undermined by industry disinterest, low budgets and uninspired niche distribution.

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

ARTICLE: The Top 10 Films of 2015

Another new year and another list of best films. Unlike last year, in which I felt that there were not enough films good enough to make up a top ten, 2015 has enough films for a decent list. But first the ones that missed out.

Blackhat was a well-made thriller with a serious intensity that made it feel like it mattered. The same went for horror films with It Follows. For throwaway comedies, Shaun The Sheep Movie and Mistress America were both surprisingly enjoyable. Force Majeure was a rather cruel film, but its glee at some very human failings was infectious. Equally, Brooklyn was a sober and well-presented drama, as was Miss Julie, albeit less successfully. And 2015 was not missing a true, and difficult, art film to challenge how we watch films and respond to them thanks to Lav Diaz’s From What Is Before.

10. West was another excellent drama just slipping in ahead of Brooklyn, another film about immigration. It is also anchored by a great central performance from Jӧrdis Triebel and an authentic and interesting outsider view of our history and ourselves.

9. Another excellent drama was Far From The Madding Crowd, a more feminist reimaging of the Hardy novel and the Schlesinger film. I have since seen the older and much-loved film (but still not read the book) and while Thomas Vinterberg’s version is missing some of the grit of the original, it has a greater feeling of sincerity and respect for the characters, as well as pace. Mulligan, Schoenaerts and Sheen all shine with thoroughly believable and likeable characters.

8. Almost despite myself, I thoroughly enjoyed Bridge of Spies thanks largely to Spielberg’s direction, Hanks’ performance and the classical storytelling – looking now at this, Far From The Madding Crowd and Brooklyn, it seems a good year for old-fashioned filmmaking. The film gets nearly unbearably tacky in its final moments, but it is great way to spend two hours in the hands of a filmmaker and star who know exactly what they are doing.

7. Less classical was The Tribe, which was another film to challenge how we watch and understand films and how we identify with disability in cinema. The film is a nasty, harrowing crime film and is unrelentingly bleak, but it is as riveting and new as it is shocking.

6. Whiplash was another great drama, though less because of the performances, though both Miles Teller and J. K. Simmons do fine work. This is a film intended to be taken in one sitting and it has a forward momentum unlike any other film this year, making everything else look sluggish. It is the fastest film of the year and one in which the direction and editing and sound are fantastic.

5. Glassland was another powerful drama, but one that seeks to unsettle where others may tend towards quiet enjoyment. The film challenges our concepts of alcoholism, saintliness, self-sacrifice and the modern day capitalist Ireland. Though a great critique, it is also a powerful drama with even more fantastic performances (a good year from performances too) – this time from Jack Reynor and Toni Collette. It promises that Gerard Barrett will be one of our most serious and committed filmmakers.

4. Like the other two documentaries in the top 4 (a great year for documentaries), Sean McAllister’s A Syrian Love Story matches the importance of its subject matter with the humanism in its approach. A Syrian Love Story is an important film about Syria today, but it is also an involving story about how revolution, imprisonment and exile can effect a family. The documentary intercedes in a cruel story that is too often represented in dehumanised terms and should work as a corrective to any other narrative about Syria.

3. Equally The Look of Silence, which challenges the status quo in modern day Indonesia by excavating some hidden truths about the country’s past and making the perpetrators face up to them, is as much about the human victims left along the way. It is a film of very real risk and daring, but it makes the case for the proper care of the victims of a government still largely in control and still scaring its citizens into silence.

2. Dreamcatcher is another documentary that defies the common narrative, this time about sex work and the economic and emotional challenges that throw people into it. By focusing on a grassroots movement, the Dreamcatcher Foundation, the film gives a voice to victims and, again, acts as a powerful corrective. Dreamcatcher, like A Syrian Love Story and The Look of Silence, achieve so much because they make their points underneath the real stories of real victims and they approach these victims with the respect and compassion that they deserve. All three are about the power and importance of resistance – and all three might actually make a difference.

1. Sometimes, however, a fiction film can capture the desperation and horror of a situation in such a way that it leaves its mark just as well as any factual telling might. It seems slightly disrespectful to place Timbuktu ahead of such important documentaries, but I still cannot forget the final few seconds.

Thursday, 31 December 2015

ARTICLE: 2015 Round-Up

I have been a little better keeping up with this year’s films – probably thanks to seeing a lot less of them. Some I didn’t review were:

Fear Itself was an interesting documentary that charts a thematic history of horror cinema exclusively through a parade of film clips. There is a nominal plot about an insomniac who has been the victim of a traumatic experience who now finds solace in the catharsis of old horror films. Clips are often chosen to match her voiceover throughout the film, which usually fit quite well. However, it is difficult to pay attention to the wandering voiceover, as interesting as it sometimes is, when there is so many clips playing out in front of it. The clips are helpfully titled so that you don’t waste time trying to figure out the films. It is a nasty, relentless and effective montage, but it is hard not to think that little has been gained.

Listen Up Philip is another film that achieves little. At the beginning of the film, we hate Philip. In the middle of the film, we hate Philip. At the end of the film, when it finally relents, we still hate Philip. Alex Ross Perry’s script is literate alright, but it isn’t particularly human. Its target is clearly a kind of literary snobbery but, unlike Scorsese’s gleefully shameless and inventive challenges to audience identification, Listen Up Philip simply wallows in bitterness and nastiness. It ends up if not a hateful film then at least a very boring one.

Another film that bores with one idea throughout is (and I will be trying to link each film as thinly as I can) The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out of Water. Unlike Shaun the Sheep Movie, which has as many mad ideas as good, solid jokes, Sponge Out of Water’s primary register is shrill craziness and it remains so throughout. It isn’t that it is never funny (there are a few small moments) but it is so overblown and strange that it rarely has time to make us believe in any of it – all right for a fifteen minute episode but barely survivable for ninety minutes. It doesn’t help that the few actual jokes are pretty lazy. Any good will you might have toward Spongebob will be exhausted.

Another film that might leave you incredulous and exhausted is Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye To Language, which defies all categorisation, all simplistic synopsising and most first impressions. The first viewing leaves you clueless, the second gives you a slight thread and in the third, you lose that thread but find another one. It is an examination about the way we think and the way we are brought up to think through language, challenging the conventions of language by some highly complex editing. It is a political film, an historical film and a modern paean to love and nature. And the main character is Roxy, a dog. Most reviews of the film, which went straight to DVD in the UK, focus on the critic’s own incomprehension, but I believe that it is a film to be studied and that each subsequent viewing reveal more. I fully intend to review it properly when I get to it in my ‘Les politiques de Godard’ series.

Last of all was the mini-series Show Me A Hero, The Wire in miniature and an excellent drama about housing, local politics, race, class and the media. The anger of its critique, the honesty of its drama, the power of the performances, the cleverness of the script, even the final shot, all make it the best thing on TV in 2015.

Monday, 28 December 2015

REVIEW: American Sniper (2015)

Having seen this film long after it was released and long after the media attention has passed, it is difficult to watch it without some of the critical commentary staying in mind. Most reviews – apart from the mainstream ones, for which the quality of a film is how exciting it is as a thriller or how moving a drama – dealt with the politics of the film, and seemed fairly split down the middle about where the film stood on its subject, Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL sniper with 160 confirmed kills, and the Iraq war.

The reviews on this blog have of late verged into political commentary – particularly where war films set in Afghanistan or Iraq are concerned – and so American Sniper would seem to be the perfect film to indulge in further political ‘whingeing.’ Though, with this film, there is a stumbling block. Clint Eastwood has kept things fairly reserved in this film, the commentary or critique is essentially in the eye of the viewer and whether one finds American Sniper a glorifying or tragic and accusing spectacle is down to one’s own prejudice. As mine falls towards a distaste for this war, I will empathise the critique supposedly at the heart of the film.

Clint Eastwood is not a great filmmaker, though he is a very good one. His aesthetic (I imagine he would grunt derisively at the word, just as John Ford would have) is easy and unrushed, giving his films, particularly the later ones, a feeling of cool confidence. Where a film like Mystic River didn’t really work, its subject matter too traumatic for such level-headed treatment (this issue was somehow resolved by the time we get to Changeling), something as daft as Hereafter can be elevated by a convincing sadness and a judicious and effective use of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto #2. His best film as director is, of course, Unforgiven, but Eastwood has always had a fondness for debunking myths and questioning how they come about and impact on reality from the time of his apprenticeship with Leone and Siegel (to whom Unforgiven is dedicated). This is present in Flags of Our Fathers, J.Edgar, Jersey Boys and now American Sniper (though a lot less visible in Invictus). Chris Kyle was even named ‘the Legend’ by his army buddies.

American Sniper, then, may take a less patriotic and optimistic look at Kyle and the Iraq war and America’s fascination with violence. Remember again that Eastwood has lately avoided any idea of redemptive violence – the final shoot-out of Unforgiven is a psychopathic bloodbath, the hanging at the end of Changeling is ugly no matter what the characters onscreen think, the promised shoot-out in Gran Torino is slyly taken away from the audience. The opening scene, in which Kyle’s sights are trained on a young boy running towards US soldiers with a grenade, is suddenly replaced by a sequence in which Kyle’s on edge father teaches him to hunt, drawing a parallel (and here I am reading the film as I want to) between America’s warmongering abroad and their glorification of guns and strength at home. We see Kyle’s pre-army days – all machismo and guns and faux-cowboy silliness – as being essentially leading to his signing up for the army – the direct causal link is, awkwardly, the advent of 9/11 but the seeds had been sown earlier. The film does not condemn Kyle for what he does, but more subtly criticizes a culture that too readily puts men in war without the support they need to survive it.

The depiction of the war is rightly ugly and violent and largely without context. Kyle’s different tours are numbered 1 to 4, but we are not given an insight into specific dates or events, making the war appear confused and seemingly endless. Eastwood never allows his audience to enjoy the action, instead making war hellish. Scenes of Kyle’s life on tour and back home on leave are intercut, creating a jarring shift in registers. Kyle’s confusion is heightened in a great sequence when, on leave, he suspects a jeep with closing in on him and his wife Taya (Sienna Miller) – a sequence shot and cut as if we really are back in Iraq. Eastwood does not hold back on the gruesomeness of the war, but he also never makes it heroic or positive. We are always aware that it is having a negative effect on Kyle.

The film complicates the audience’s enjoyment further by having Kyle’s first killing be a child. Further talk of Kyle having ‘popped his cherry’ in the next scene only feels thoroughly crass and further emphasises the issue of a culture that can normalise the murder of a child (later, an injured veteran will hit a target on a firing range and say, in triumph, “Damn, if that doesn’t feel like I got my balls back”, drawing another parallel between guns and sex). Another great sequence acts as a further counterpoint – a child approaches a murdered man’s rocket launcher and picks it up, Kyle, the child in his sights, begging him to drop it – a horrifying moment, brilliantly made. Where the previous scene had ended negatively, this scene ends positively, only further emphasising the horror and the loss that could have been. However, these critiques are not limited to the culture around Kyle. The final scene in the film – incongruously given a date - has Kyle approaching his wife with a gun. We are clearly set up to think that there is about to be some kind of horrible accident. It is a frightening scene and again emphasises the dangers of being so comfortable around a gun.

The film ends with this scene, making the tactful decision to not depict Kyle’s recent death, and actual footage of his funeral and a procession of American flags hung from overpasses, revealing that the film is primarily a tragedy of a man trapped by a gun-loving culture and its result, an endless war. American Sniper, then, is an anti-war film, in that war is only depicted as damaging. It suggests that the war is as much to do with the American gung-ho character by showing how perverse this character is. Too often misunderstood as a celebration of slaughter, it is more a grim attempt to show that America’s problem abroad have roots at home. That said, American Sniper continues the long tradition to American war films of showing the damage wrought on the American side and no other. For all its critiques, American Sniper remains a film that ignores the horrors of war for non-Americans – an ethno-centric view that is arguably just as damaging as an outright bloodthirsty celebration.

Monday, 21 December 2015

REVIEW: Macbeth (2015)

‘Macbeth’, the play, is difficult to get right. It isn’t that it’s a bad story – the warning about ‘vaulting ambition’ is, of course, still relevant, the trickery of the witches feels cruel and modern in its existentialism, the endless cycle of suspicion, jealousy and murder. But the play is not flawless. In place of character development, the play favours soliloquys about the tasks to be done – Macbeth too quickly turns to murder where most of us would not. The best film versions of the play are distanced. Orson Welles’ adaptation is Brechtian in how obviously stagey it is, while Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood is heightened beyond all recognition. Justin Kurzel’s new version strikes a balance between modern re-reading and overblown supernatural spectacle and doesn’t come off at all.

Michael Fassbender is a grieving Macbeth, who has just lost his only child (thus robbing the brutal, vengeful ambiguity of Macduff’s line “He has no children” in Act 4, Scene 3). He and his wife, Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) then fall on the plan to assassinate King Duncan (a clueless David Thewlis) and set themselves up as king and queen, taking the idea from some deeply suspicious witches. Once crowned, however, the couple descend into bitterness and madness.

There isn’t much that really works with this new Macbeth. Fassbender plays the character mostly as a raving sociopath – the line ‘full of scorpions is my mind’ has never before sounded so sinister – but it doesn’t hold the film together, getting instead repetitive. We understand that the witches’ prophecy gives hope to a man who has lost an heir, but it isn’t convincing – especially when we see Macbeth putting Macduff’s family, including some youngsters, to the stake. Cotillard has one good scene, where she performs the ‘out damned spot’ soliloquy more as an act of sheer despair than of anything else. This works, but the film doesn’t have the material to make a believable transition from her earlier talk of smashing a baby off a wall (how this line works with a grieving parent is anyone’s guess) to this depression. Equally, Malcolm (Jack Reynor) and Macduff (Sean Harris) are left with little to do.

The battle scenes are admirably grotty and unheroic, but there is a feeling of dullness about them. They resemble too many other films (Braveheart, Gladiator, The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones and on and on) and they are not peopled with enough characters that we care about. The orange-tinting of some sequences and the sudden slo-mo don’t help, giving more a feeling of stylistic desperation.

Finally, the film emphasises the play’s secondary subtext about violence begetting violence (a cheap theme that has been used to praise such tawdry films as The Last House on the Left) over the warning about ambition, but it doesn’t do much with it beyond suggesting that all this violence and murder is a bit extreme and offering a silly ending with Fleance. This new adaptation then offers little that we haven’t seen before and many of its chief innovations don’t really work. Fassbender and Cotillard do fine work, but it is hard to credit them, given that they are playing characters that fundamentally do not make sense. By the end of the film, the characters are exhausted and fed up and it is not hard to feel their pain.

Saturday, 19 December 2015

REVIEW: Bridge of Spies (2015)

Is there another filmmaker quite like Steven Spielberg, where something painfully tacky is largely forgivable because it feels sincere, where even blunt, icky American patriotism can be taken as nothing worse than a paean to more innocent times (even if times were never innocent)? Nearly everything wrong with a good number of the serious Spielberg films is forgivable in some way or another. Saving Private Ryan is a very pro-war film (the focus on the horrors of war is there only to increase the sense of the heroic sacrifice made), but it is a very well made film and its nastier view of WWII, so often sentimentalised, is genuinely powerful. Lincoln is a talky film about the political process and virtually ignores all contributions towards the abolition of slavery by African-Americans and it is hopelessly patriotic and sentimental at others – particularly the beginning and the ending – yet it is thoroughly compelling. Bridge of Spies is a film you can pick apart, but it keeps you largely on-side while it plays out.

The film begins with the arrest of Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance, clearly told to do Wolf Hall again), who is charged with being a Soviet spy. In an effort to make the American legal process look fair, insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) is hired to defend him before he is found guilty and killed. Donovan, almost despite himself, keeps Abel out of death row and they both become key players in a significant spy exchange between East and West Berlin.

Bridge of Spies works because it is a very well made film with a very well told story. It is a very classically told film, slow and reflective with well-rounded characters and a clear series of oppositions. Hanks gives a great performance, doing his normal everyman shtick with an element of tongue in cheek, near improvisatory glee. Rylance and Scott Shepherd, as Donovan’s CIA minder, have less to do, but stand out anyway. The rest of the cast is largely filled with less well known people (Alan Alda and Amy Ryan have tiny roles, too tiny in Ryan’s case), most of whom make a great impression. The film is well paced and holds your attention throughout, even when the story rambles between Abel’s trial and the introduction of Francis Gary Powers and the U-2 spy-plane in the middle section. The script is good, keeping the themes clear and interesting, and with enough humour to keep it reasonably funny throughout (the Coens doctored the script, but to pinpoint the best bits and suggest that they are their lines would be a disservice to Matt Charman and probably inaccurate given their invisible work in the awful Unbroken). One initially tacky early spiel about what makes Donovan and Hoffman (Irish and German respectively) American is saved by some nice anti-CIA ribbing.

Indeed, the film is somewhat ambiguous about where it stands on the Cold War. The film is clearly opposed to the Soviet Union – at one point, even using an ‘evil empire’ score that sounds like something written for Star Wars, at another, the public trial for espionage of Francis Gary Powers looks very Nazi. The Soviet and East Berlin negotiators are also clearly much more taciturn and untrustworthy than the American counterparts, and there is little talk of America’s aggression against the Soviet Union even as far as the U-2 spy-plane. That said, America does not come across as entirely virtuous. There is an element of mob rule about the reactions to Donovan defending Abel, saving Abel from the death penalty and their newfound fondness for Donovan after the spy exchange. The CIA are represented as sinister and a tad useless and their eagerness to abandon a second American prisoner in East Berlin, Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), is clear. As with Lincoln, it is the ending that really lets Bridge of Spies down, with an overlong and painfully sentimental return to America, family and esteem for Donovan that is too self-congratulatory and twee. Depending on your sensibilities, this ending will be unforgivable, destroying all that came before, or it can be taken and, well, left.

However, the film, despite the patriotic presumptions barely offset by some few Cold War ambiguities, works. It is funny and likable and it looks fantastic. Early shots of Abel in his painting studio/ apartment/ headquarters are so well controlled and composed that they look instinctual, not intellectual. Even if the film’s story and characters hadn’t been as compelling as they were, the film would have remained watchable. One moment of a shooting at the Berlin Wall is genuinely shocking in its brutality and the final exchange on the bridge itself is remarkable.

It is possible to enjoy a film that one might disagree with totally, politically speaking, and yet still like it for other reasons. Bridge of Spies is a fantastic example of modern classical filmmaking, more sincere even than Carol, whose ‘50s aesthetics are lauded while those of Spies were met with rolled eyes. A real success for Hollywood, then, and worth celebrating because there hasn’t been one of those since, well, Lincoln.