Posts Tagged ‘review’

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Director: Alan Rickman

Writers: Jeremy Brock, Alison Deegan, Alan Rickman

Country: UK

Runtime: 117 mins

Cast: Kate Winslet (Sabine De Barra), Stanley Tucci (Philippe, Duc D’Orleans), Jennifer Ehle (Madame De Montespan), Alan Rickman (King Louise XIV), Helen McCrory (Madame De Notre), Matthias Schoenaerts (André Le Notre )

A stylish but undemanding period romance

Let me say right away that I think I may have enjoyed this period drama rather more than it deserved to be liked. Directed by Alan Rickman, A Little Chaos has some genuinely good qualities. The sets and costumes are lavish, the cinematography is beautiful, and there is some top class acting. Notably, Kate Winslet is in her element playing a woman striving for independence in a man’s world, smart but not overconfident.

As Sabine De Barra, a landscape gardener, she secures a position – in the face of male competition – to lead the construction of the grand gardens at the Palace of Versailles. The man who appoints her is André Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts), the head gardener to King Louis XIV. At Sabine’s first interview, however, André is not impressed by the lack of order in her designs, telling her: “In my world anarchy is by royal command and even chaos must adhere to budget”. However, upon reconsideration he decides that she can provide the kind of original eye that the gardens need.

His decision marks him out as a man of sensitivity and, unsurprisingly, an attraction develops between him and Sabine. But in time-honoured fashion there are barriers to any romance. She is widowed and with a secret that is hinted at by the visions she has of a young girl dressed in white; he is in a loveless marriage to a woman who thinks nothing of paying men for sex but who will not tolerate him forming outside attachments. Madame Le Notre (Helen McCrory) also has the ear of the Queen, so is able to exert control over her husband.

Sitting above all the courtly intrigue is the King himself, adroitly played by Alan Rickman who alternates between being fearsomely imperious and quirkily amusing. Will Sabine’s idiosyncratic vision meet his exacting requirements? And in the face of adversity will the gardens even be completed on time?

The film’s central weakness is its essentially Mills and Boon-ish plot, coupled with a certain lack of pacing. It’s pretty undemanding stuff, but may well find an audience for those who enjoy a straightforward old-fashioned romantic tale.

Rating: 6/10.

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Director: Peter Strickland

Writer: Peter Strickland

Country: UK

Runtime: 104 mins

Cast: Sidse Babett Knudsen (Cynthia), Chiara d’Anna (Evelyn), Fatma Mohamed (The Carpenter), Eugenia Caruso (Dr Fraxini), Monica Swinn (Lorna), Eszter Tompa (Dr Viridana), Kata Bartsch (Dr Lurida), Zita Kraszkó (Dr Schuller)

This pastiche of seventies soft-core movies has a serious theme at its heart

Aware that The Duke of Burgundy tells the story of a S&M lesbian relationship, the biggest surprise for me was just how funny this picture is, sometimes in a laugh-inwardly kind of way but also with quite a few laugh-out-louds (at least that was the case with the audience I sat among). There is little, if anything, by way of titillation, and in fact no nudity, so anyone expecting this is likely to be disappointed. Paving the way for the subsequent deadpan humour, the visuals accompanying the opening credits are pastiches of soft-core seventies movies, involving a series of fuzzy freeze-frames as a woman cycles through the countryside. The credits themselves include one for the provision of perfumes as well as a “human toilet consultant”.

The story begins with a primly-dressed young woman, Evelyn, arriving at a rather grand country house, where the imperious unsmiling Cynthia orders her to perform various cleaning duties around the house. The tone of command hints that this isn’t a straightforward employer-employee relationship, as does the instruction to Evelyn to hand-wash Cynthia’s panties. The suggestiveness is ramped up a bit more when Evelyn is ordered to provide a foot massage. However, when Cynthia discovers that Evelyn has failed to complete one of her duties properly the younger woman is marched towards the bathroom for punishment. The door closes behind them and the camera remains outside focused on the frosted glass, as we hear the unambiguous sound of Cynthia urinating into Evelyn’s mouth.

However, this sub-dom relationship is not quite what it seems. The apparently dominant Cynthia is actually following a script that has been written by Evelyn, a script that they seem to repeat most days. Evelyn is thrilled to have found someone who is happy to fulfil her particular desires and eager to find new ways to be dominated (such as being locked in a trunk overnight). For Cynthia, though, the older of the two women, the game is starting to get a little stale. She complains that she needs an instruction manual to get into the clothes that Evelyn buys her and rebels by dressing in baggy pyjamas. And she is less than impressed by Evelyn’s obsessive wish to carry on their sub-dom games even when she has ricked her back.

Here lies the more serious heart of the film. Director Peter Strickland poses the question of how two people can continue to fulfil each other as a relationship matures. This clearly applies to any relationship, whether gay or straight, and regardless of whether the sex is kinky or vanilla.

There are no men in The Duke of Burgundy. The title itself refers to a species of butterfly, an insect whose shape has an obvious sexual connotation. Cynthia herself is a lepidopterist and, with Evelyn, attends talks about butterflies at a scientific institution. For no obvious reason, apart from continuing the soft-core pastiche, all the speakers and audience members are women. One senior member, Dr Fraxini, gives every impression that she too might well enjoy lesbian S&M. She always stands at the side of the stage, dressed in tight-fitting clothes and tall black leather boots, her dark eyes staring down at the women. At one point she crops up as a figure of jealousy in an argument between Cynthia and Evelyn, after the former reveals that Evelyn has been seen cleaning Dr Fraxini’s boots.

As the story moves into more serious territory there is a rather dark and gothic sequence, recalling Strickland’s previous film, the giallo-inspired Berberian Sound Studio. But as the final credits roll, Strickland’s humour is once again evident as the names of various butterfly species scroll before our eyes.

The performances of the two lead actors cannot be praised enough. Sidse Babett Knudsen (familiar to many viewers as the Prime Minister in the Danish TV series Borgen) and Chiara d’Anna (who featured in Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio) play it straight – so to speak – all the way through, which makes the absurdity of their games all the funnier. But they also convey a real depth of emotion. There is no doubt about the love the characters feel for each other, which imbues the conflict in their relationship with a real sadness.

Rating: 4/5

Events have conspired to keep me away from this blog over the last week or so, but after a year of blogging about film I feel it would be remiss of me – with just a few hours to go – not to make a few comments about nominees for this year’s Academy Awards. Needless to say, there are films that I would have liked to see shortlisted for Best Picture but which weren’t. Under the Skin would be the film I’d have given an Oscar to; this, Foxcatcher, and Nightcrawler were, in my view, all vastly superior to American Sniper and The Imitation Game. However, the Academy Awards, like the recent BAFTAs, seem to exhibition a certain degree of conservatism.

The main points of controversy have been the lack of recognition for black performers and film-makers, as well as the degree of dramatic license taken in many of the films depicting historical events. I have seen, though not reviewed, all of the films nominated for Best Picture and in some cases my view of a picture has changed since I first saw it. So, without further ado, here are my brief thoughts on the nominations.

American Sniper  I didn’t for one minute think that this was a pro-war film, but in retrospect I agree with many of the film’s detractors that it was problematical to view all events from the perspective of Chris Kyle. In particular, Kyle appears to swallow the falsity that Iraq was involved in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, but director Clint Eastwood does nothing to disabuse the audience of this myth. We also know from Kyle’s own book that the opening scene of the movie is inaccurate, albeit in a way that invites the audience to share his view of Iraqis as “savages”: the woman we see carrying the grenade did not, in reality, pass the weapon to a child to carry. Nonetheless, to my eyes – if not to some other viewers – American Sniper clearly showed the American invasion of Iraq to be a futile venture. But does this film deserve its Best Picture nomination? Not in my view. By a long way, this is not even Eastwood’s best film.

Birdman (or the unexpected virtue of ignorance)Interweaving fantasy and reality, this is one of the more obviously dazzling nominees, with several terrific performances, a stirring soundtrack, and most of the film apparently shot in a single take. Michael Keaton excels in his role as Riggan Thomson, an actor who once starred as a movie superhero called Birdman, and who is now attempting to put on a Broadway theatrical production. There is obviously a degree of self-referentiality here, in that Keaton of course played Batman in two movies. Self-referentiality also appears when Riggan engages in fisticuffs with the volatile Mike, played by Ed Norton – who of course starred in Fight Club. Funny and inventive, Birdman is like Fellini’s remade by Terry Gilliam. I rather felt that the female characters played second fiddle to the men, but perhaps that simply reflects the way that Hollywood actually is.

Boyhood Richard Linklater is one of the most creative directors in the business, with films like the Before… trillogy, A Scanner Darkly, Waking Life, and School of Rock to his name. Filmed over a 12 year period, Boyhood is undoubtedly one of the most adventurous projects undertaken by any movie director. Some might question whether the slender storyline merits an Oscar, but on the other hand it is the very depiction of the development of ordinary lives that fascinates the viewer. As the winner of the Best Picture at the BAFTAs, this may have some momentum behind it.

The Grand Budapest Hotel  Wes Anderson’s latest has all his trademark visual style, as well as a range of weird and wonderful characters played by many of the most notable actors in the business. Ralph Fiennes gives a brilliant comic turn as Monsieur Gustave H., the concierge for the hotel of the title as well as a self-confessed lothario towards the female visitors. In my view Fiennes should have been nominated for Best Actor. However, like most of Anderson’s films this one amused me but failed to be as funny as I thought it would be.

The Imitation Game  I was initially very enthusiastic about this film. It is funny, thrilling, and despite its intellectual subject matter moves along at quite a pace. I wasn’t sure at the time just how historically authentic this was, but assumed that a few liberties had been taken in order to enhance the drama. That’s fine – up to a point. However, from what I have subsequently learned I feel that this is a film that has stepped over a line. Benedict Cumberbatch is terrific as Alan Turing, but the simple fact is that Turing was not the socially awkward Aspergers-like character shown in the film. He had a sense of humour and worked well with his colleagues. Perhaps even more importantly, among the film’s fictitious constructions is the suggestion that Turing failed to disclose to the authorities that one of his colleagues was a Soviet spy (for fear that his homosexuality would be revealed). In effect, this depicts Turing engaged in an act that would have been considered treasonous, had it ever actually happened. On a more positive note, Keira Knightley is fantastic as Joan Clarke.

Selma  In many ways this is a brilliant and moving film. It follows Martin Luther King Jr, in the wake of the Civil Rights Act and his award of the Nobel Peace Prize. Despite the passing of the Civil Rights Act, which gave black Americans the right to vote, many southern states contrived various illegal devices to prevent black people voting. King attempts, unsuccessfully, to persuade President Lyndon B. Johnson to tackle the problem of the southern states, but the President is resistant, wishing to focus on the wider problem of poverty. King travels to the town of Selma, where he organises a series of increasingly large demonstrations. The violent response to these is widely televised, leading the President to finally take action. It is surely a major oversight of the Academy that David Oyelowo was not nominated for his excellent portrayal of King. However, this film also is not beyond criticism. It seems to have been generally accepted that President Johnson was actually far more sympathetic to King’s cause than is shown here. It is interesting to note that three significant Americans (King, Johnson, and Governor Wallace) are all played by British actors (respectively: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, and Tim Roth).

The Theory of Everything  The story of Stephen and Jane Hawking, this could perhaps be a safe choice for the Academy’s voters. The cinematography is beautiful, the story moving, and the characters sympathetic. Jane and Stephen Hawking are said to have been very pleased with the film. Nonetheless, the film’s overarching romanticism surely airbrushes events that must have been far more difficult than is depicted here. Eddie Redmayne is brilliant as Stephen, as is Felicity Jones as Jane, and both are fully deserving of their Best Actor nominations.

Whiplash  In terms of pure entertainment, this is hard to beat. It’s the story of an aspiring jazz drummer who comes up against a teacher whose drive to create a new “great” tips over into outright bullying. As a story, it doesn’t have the same significance as something like Selma or The Theory of Everything, but the narrative construction is as tight as one of its own drumskins, and the final scene is more perfect than any of the other nominations.

My verdict:  Of the films nominated, I would give the Best Picture award to Boyhood, a film that is captivating and unique and deserves to be formally recognised as such. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Academy goes for one of the more obvious crowd-pleasers.

For Best Director, I would have to pick Richard Linklater for the above-mentioned Boyhood. To put together such an extraordinary film over a 12 year period, whilst also making some other great movies, is a monumental achievement.

I was sorry that Jake Gyllenhaal didn’t get nominated for Best Actor (male), for his role in Nightcrawler. I thought he was easily more deserving than Bradley Cooper (good though he might have been). This is a pretty tough category to choose from this year, though, with some stunning performances delivered. I rather suspect that Michael Keaton or Eddie Redmayne will pick up the award, but if it were left to me I would choose Steve Carell for his portrayal of troubled millionaire John du Pont in Foxcatcher. Some have said that this is more of a Supporting Role, but for me Carell absolutely dominates the picture.

As I haven’t seen all the films in the remaining acting categories I shall refrain from commenting on those. Possibly the most egregious omission from the Oscars, in my opinion, is Mica Levi’s soundtrack for Under The Skin. I thought this was a country mile ahead of anything else in the year just gone.

For Best Original Screenplay I would choose Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler, and for the Best Adapted Screenplay I would choose Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash.

I have seen just two of the films nominated for Best Documentary, but frankly – in terms of sheer contemporary importance – I find it hard to imagine how there could be a more deserving winner that Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour. This documentary about whistleblower Edward Snowden reveals just how badly we have been lied to by our governments about the scale of intrusive surveillance upon ordinary people. And more than anything, it shows just how brave Ed Snowden is.

Director: Frederick Wiseman

Country: France / USA / UK

Runtime: 180 mins

In Skyfall, James Bond sits at the National Gallery and studies Turner’s famous masterpiece The Fighting Temeraire. Shortly afterwards he is joined by Q, who in this incarnation is a computer whizz. Even before any dialogue occurs between the two, the question raised by the scenario is clear: is Bond even relevant in the contemporary world of hacking and electronic eavesdropping? Or, like HMS Temeraire, is he only fit for the scrapyard?

As it happens, one of the paintings that features in Frederick Wiseman’s masterly documentary, National Gallery, is in fact a spy story. One of the gallery’s guides explains to her audience that Rubens’ picture Samson and Delilah depicts a crucial ambiguity in the countenance of Delilah as she holds a sleeping post-coital Samson. Delilah, a kind of female Bond in the Bible, has been paid by the Philistines to seduce Samson in order to discover the source of his strength. As Samson sleeps, a servant prepares to cut off his hair, whilst a group of Philistines wait at the door in preparation to arrest the weakened man. But Delilah herself, in her seduction of Samson, has developed feelings for him. This is reflected in the tender look on her face as she gazes down on him. One hand gently caresses his face, but her other hand – reflecting the duality of the situation – is more rigidly posed.

This is just one of many paintings whose inner meanings are revealed to us by knowledgeable gallery staff, one of whom explains to a group of children that all paintings tell a story. Some paintings are more mysterious than others in terms of their interpretations. One notable example is Holbein’s The Ambassadors, with its anamorphous skull (although this object itself we are told, unlike many devices used in paintings, only ever means one thing – death).

At three hours in length, National Gallery, requires the kind of patience with which one must explore a gallery or museum. But the film really is quite a revelation, displaying the working life of the gallery’s staff in fascinating detail. Most of the scenes fall into one of three categories: educational activities of one sort or another, restoration work being applied to damaged artworks, and business meetings of senior staff. In terms of education, this goes beyond merely guiding visitors around key works. We also see a class of visually-impaired people exploring touch-versions of Pissarro’s Boulevard Montmartre at Night, groups of people attending life-drawing classes, and students attending lectures.

Elsewhere, restorers – often wearing special magnifying goggles – chip flecks off of damaged paintings and place them on slides to be inspected under microscopes. They dab away at tiny portions of artworks, adding either paint or varnish – and there is some detailed explanation of the effects of different types of paints and varnishes (apparently, different varnishes can affect colour differently, just like filters on a camera lens). We are told that some past restorations haven’t always been entirely helpful, but that the modern principle is that any additions by restorers must be removable. In one magnificent instance an X-ray of a painting reveals a second picture beneath the first.

Behind the scenes we get a few snapshots of the difficult decisions that need to be made, balancing the artistic goals of the gallery with the harsh economic realities that must be faced. At one point senior staff discuss whether they should allow Sport Relief to project an image onto the front of the gallery. Many such requests are received but are turned down, as the gallery -itself a charitable institution – attempts to maintain its distinctive character rather than be used as an advertising billboard for every worthy cause. However, in this instance it seems that Westminster Council has arranged for the square just outside the gallery to be used as a finishing point for a marathon (without consulting the gallery). Thus, the gallery staff debate whether they should just accept this as a fait accompli and go along with the projection idea as a way of advertising themselves. On the other hand, they are successful enough that they don’t really need to advertise themselves, the marathon itself will inevitably stop visitors coming into the gallery, and agreeing to the projection might set a precedent.

Another discussion revolves around money, as a budget for the coming year has to be set in the context of a substantially reduced grant contribution. At this point reality comes crashing in. Since National Gallery was completed, plans have been announced to privatise hundreds of staff – with the obvious implications for their terms and conditions – and the Director Nicholas Penny, and several other managers, have announced their resignations. The Director of the neighbouring National Portrait Gallery has also announced his resignation. Of course, even the necessity for commercial sponsorship of exhibitions brings with it the risk of adverse publicity, and at one point we watch as Greenpeace activists scale the front of the gallery and release a banner protesting against sponsorship from Shell because of their role in oil exploration in the Arctic.

As if to emphasize the sense of foreboding aroused by the budget discussions, Wiseman takes us next to a discussion of Turner’s painting The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire, whereby a guide explains how the artist was concerned with the broader theme of empires rising and falling, which obviously included the British Empire. Decline in this picture is symbolised by a vivid setting sun. Sunset evokes change in the next painting considered, which is Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire.

But rather than leave us on a negative note, the final third of National Gallery takes us through a range of other pictures, classes, and restoration activities without any obvious political connotations. Throughout the film the camera also roams across the visitors themselves: people lost in contemplation, sleeping, sketching, young men romantically nuzzling the cheeks of their girlfriends, and classes of schoolchildren listening attentively to the ever-knowledgeable guides. On the evidence presented here, the senior staff at the National Gallery have an enviable gender balance that is not matched in many organisations, although they are overwhelmingly white (I don’t think I saw any non-white faces). Similarly, the visitors themselves – like the subjects of nearly all the Gallery’s paintings – appeared to be mostly white, with the notable exception of some of the school classes who were visiting. One group of schoolchildren is actually told by a guide that the collection they are viewing was financed largely by the results of slavery, the one point in the film where any issue of ethnic diversity is mentioned.

There is no voiceover narration to National Gallery and none of the staff who appear are actually named. This is an approach that works well, as all the speaking that is needed is done by the people onscreen. Frederick Wiseman has put together a quite extraordinary documentary. I felt it was three hours well spent.

Rating: 5/5

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Director: Damien Chazelle

Writer: Damien Chazelle

Country: USA

Runtime: 107 mins.

Cast: Miles Teller (Andrew Neiman), J.K. Simmons (Terence Fletcher), Paul Reiser (Jim), Melissa Benoist (Nicole), Austin Stowell (Ryan Cooper).

Blood, sweat and tears in the struggle to be great

Whiplash is a terrific psychological drama about the tense professional relationship between two men. Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is a young drummer enroled at the Shaffer Conservatory of Music, where he catches the attention of jazz conductor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Andrew wants to become one of the greats whereas Fletcher is driving his players to become great. But the pressure that Fletcher applies to his musicians goes beyond merely having high expectations and tips over into outright bullying. However, his contention is that the only musicians who truly become great are those who care enough to transcend anything that life can throw at them. Fletcher continually plays mind games with his musicians. No sooner does Andrew get elevated to the role of core drummer in Fletcher’s jazz orchestra than it is cruelly snatched away again.

We also see various other musicians being subjected to degrading treatment for failing to meet Fletcher’s impossible-to-meet expectations, but it is always clear that Andrew has the greatest drive to fight for a place in Fletcher’s band and to achieve greatness. However, Andrew’s own determination leads to a disaster that threatens both his career and Fletcher’s.

It is hard to think of another film that has given such a visceral depiction of a musician’s striving to be the best there is. This is literally a struggle involving blood, sweat and tears. Miles Teller is splendid as Andrew, but the greatest plaudits must go to J.K. Simmons for his terrifying portrayal of Fletcher (he has been nominated for an Oscar, but quite why he falls into the “Supporting Actor” category I don’t know).

Rating: 5/5

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Director: Bennett Miller

Writers: E. Max Frye & Dan Futterman

Country: USA

Runtime: 129 mins

Cast: Steve Carell (John du Pont), Channing Tatum (Mark Schultz), Mark Ruffalo (David Schultz), Sienna Miller (Nancy Schultz), Vanessa Redgrave (Jean du Pont).

Steve Carell is a revelation in this magnetic real-life tale of tragedy

Full of dark foreboding right from the start, Foxcatcher is definitely not one of this year’s feel-good movies. This is a story of loneliness and family tensions, and shows that for some people no amount of wealth can bring happiness. In the opening scene we see Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), giving a lacklustre talk to a hall full of puzzled schoolchildren about what it took him to become the 1984 Olympic gold medallist in freestyle wrestling. Afterwards, he collects his cheque from the school administrator, who mistakes him for his brother Dave (also a gold medallist, and who had originally been booked to talk).

This moment is indicative of the relationship between the two brothers. We learn that Mark was raised by his older brother after their parents separated, and that Mark relies on the tactical advice of Dave (Mark Ruffalo) in order to succeed in wresting. Whereas Dave is cheerful, gregarious, and has a wife and family, Mark lives alone, is quiet, serious, and less articulate. Mark is approached by John du Pont, heir to America’s wealthiest family, to join his Foxcatcher wrestling team. He does so, but when brother Dave is also approached he declines to answer the call because he doesn’t want to uproot his family.

Subsequently, du Pont takes on a fatherly role towards Mark, deliberately playing on his insecurity that his success is owed to Dave. But underneath all his talk of leadership, du Pont is also insecure, the product of a troubled background. He only had one friend as a child, who – it turns out – was paid to be his friend. He hates horseriding, the favoured sport of his mother Jean (Vanessa Redgrave) who still lives on the estate and manages a large stable. In turn, she regards wrestling as a ‘low’ sport and looks upon her son’s involvement with disdain. Although she only makes a couple of brief appearances in the film, it is strongly hinted that the difficult mother-son relationship underpins John’s increasingly erractic behaviour, leading ultimately to tragedy. Jean would appear to be the ‘foxcatcher’ of the title, a reference to her involvement in hunting with hounds.

After some early success, everything starts to go south for Mark. Du Pont introduces him to cocaine with predictably disastrous results and Dave is offered a sufficiently large sum of money to induce him to join the Foxcatcher team. The already unsettled team dynamics worsen further following the death of Jean.

Steve Carell, best known for his comedy roles (The 40 Year Old Virgin, The Office), is a revelation as John du Pont. From the outset he appears only partly connected to reality, with a way of speaking that is strangely distant and affectless. One of the oddest moments occurs early on, when du Pont turns up at Mark’s house late at night to talk about bird-watching, a topic on which du Pont has written books. He tells Mark: “You can learn a lot from birds. I’m an ornithologist. I’m also a patriot”. The flunkies around du Pont are mostly unfriendly and uncommunicative, presumably not wanting to openly comment on their boss’s oddness but yet happy to collect their handsome salaries. Dave rightly asks just why this wealthy man would be interested in creating a wrestling team.  The answer would appear to be that he hopes to receive the recognition from his country that has been denied him by his own mother.

Foxcatcher moves along at a fairly stately pace, building an atmosphere of strangeness and slowly revealing the complicated relationships of the key characters. For those more used to a punchier kind of pacing in films, Foxcatcher might seem a little slow, but I found it utterly magnetic albeit gloomy. As well as Carell’s outstanding performance, Channing Tatum also turns in an impressive performance as Mark Schultz.

Rating: 5/5

Kajaki: Directed by Paul Katis; Written by Tom Williams; Country – UK; Runtime – 108 mins.

Cast: Mark Stanley (‘Tug’ Hartley), Malachi Kirby (Snoop), David Elliiot (Mark Wright), Paul Luebke (Jay Davis), Ali Cook (‘Spud’ McMellon), Bryan Parry (Jonesy), Grant Kilburn (Alex Craig), Andy Gibbins (Smudge), Scott Kyle (Stu Pearson), Jon-Paul Bell (Luke Mauro), Benjamin O’Mahony (Stu Hale), Connor Mills (voice), John Doughty (Dave Prosser), Liam Ainsworth (Ken Barlow), Robert Mitchell (Faz).

American Sniper: Directed by Clint Eastwood; Screenplay by Jason Hall, from the book by Chris Kyle, Scott McEwen, and Jim DeFelice; Country – USA; Runtime – 132 mins.

Cast: Bradley Cooper (Chris Kyle), Cole Konis (young Chris Kyle), Sienna Miller (Taya Kyle), Max Charles (Colton Kyle), Luke Grimes (Marc Lee), Kyle Gallner (Goat-Winston), Sam Jaeger (Captain Martens), Jake McDorman (Biggles), Cory Hardrict (‘D’ / Dandridge).

*** SPOILER ALERT: Each film reviewed here is based on real events, and these are described in my review. ***

War – what is it good for?

British armed forces have been engaged in continuous conflict somewhere on the planet for the past hundred years, and for several decades after World War Two war movies were a regular part of the film industry’s output. Even in the late seventies and early eighties good business was being done by films like The Eagle Has Landed, The Wild Geese, and The Dogs of War. However, ever since the televised images from the Falklands War brought the shocking reality of conflict to a new generation it seems as though British film-makers have lost their enthusiasm for war films. There are of course some exceptions, such as Regeneration (1997) and Enigma (2001), the former set in Word War One and the latter concerned with a mystery among Bletchley Park’s codebreakers in WW2. However, it is hard to think of any British movies that deal with our more recent conflicts. Perhaps film-makers have been cowed by the intense controversy that surrounded the TV Falklands drama Tumbledown (1988). Even representations of earlier conflicts can arouse establishment ire if they are felt to question the authorised version of history, as with The Monocled Mutineer (1986).

By contrast, Hollywood has produced several films that are based upon recent conflicts. The best-known of these are Three Kings (1999), Black Hawk Down (2001), The Hurt Locker (2008), The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009) – based on the book by British writer-journalist Jon Ronson, Jarhead (2005), and Zero Dark Thirty (2012). However, it may be that 2014 represents a turning point in the decline of the British war film. We have had another Bletchley Park drama, The Imitation Game, the thrilling adventure film ’71 set in “the troubles” of Northern Ireland, and – most significantly – Kajaki, a true story concerning the 3rd Battalion, Parachute Regiment (“3 Para”), during their 2006 deployment in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province.

The film itself is an exercise in realism, focusing on three themes: the bravery of the men in extreme circumstances, their earthy humour (Kajaki is frequently very funny) and the terrible injuries – shown in graphic detail – caused by landmines. The opening scenes are largely concerned with boredom. 3 Para have the task of guarding the Kajaki dam, and do this from their position on top of a nearby hill. In the heat of the Afghan sun all they do is watch. And watch. And when not assigned to the task of watching they read messages from home, talk, joke, drink tea, and exercise.

But these are one of the army’s elite units and the men long to fight. When a small group of Taliban (referred to throughout as “Terry”) are spotted setting up an illegal roadblock down below, a small group is assembled to go and tackle them. However, this is an unauthorised mission: the men are told they need to obtain permission from a senior officer, but never do. Presumably they regard a tiny group of Taliban as no match for their elite skills. But as they reach the bottom of a hillside path disaster strikes. One of the group steps on a mine and is severely injured. From hereon in things go from bad to worse. The men are trapped in a Soviet-era minefield that was not marked on their map. In the attempts to rescue the injured and escape, yet more soldiers are hurt. Communications equipment does not work properly and it is only when a couple of Americans arrive that there is reliable radio. When the RAF are contacted they don’t send a helicopter with a winch, as requested, but instead send a Chinook that tries to land and whose downdraft is so strong that it explodes another mine.

But remarkably, as the situation deteriorates the men continue to joke, even those who are hurt. By contrast, the quips of the fictional James Bond seem quite restrained. At one point, ‘Tug’ Hartley tries to work his way through the minefield towards an injured comrade by tossing his backpack ahead of him and then leaping on top of it. As he does this one of the lads calls from the sidelines “That’s how he mounts his missus!”

The film is a fine tribute to the bravery of these men of 3 Para, and brilliantly conveys the tight-knit bond that spurred them on through this most terrible of situations. Kajaki does not make any overt political statements about the Afghan conflict, but the fact that it was a Soviet minefield that did for 3 Para can’t help but serve as a reminder that Afghanistan has long been known as “the graveyard of empires”.

It should be said that Kajaki will be particularly tough viewing for the squeamish, and the special effects and makeup teams are surely deserving of an award for the realistic depiction of physical wounds.  In this viewer’s opinion, Kajaki stands among the best British war films to have been made, which is all the more extraordinary when you realise that it was put together through crowdfunding. The Ministry of Defence, however, withdrew their support for Kajaki during filming, perhaps because of some of the rather unflattering depictions of British military operations.

RATING: 5/5

Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper is a different kettle of fish altogether. It tells the story of Navy SEAL (Sea, Air and Land), Chris Kyle, based upon his own memoir. Kyle served as a sniper during several deployments in the post 9/11 invasion of Iraq and claims to have been the most lethal sniper in US Navy history. With an excellent performance from Bradley Cooper as Kyle, Eastwood depicts this big patriotic Texan as a man driven to save good people from evil. As a child he is told by his father that there are three types of people: sheep, sheepdogs, and wolves. The wolves want to devour the sheep, who are too weak to fight back. Sheepdogs fight to protect the sheep. Kyle senior tells his boy that he expects him to be a sheepdog.

However, at age 30 Chris Kyle appears to be pissing his life away as a womanizing wannabe cowboy. When a girlfriend dumps him with a few harsh truths in the process, he starts to reevaluate his life. Following the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center Kyle sees the opportunity to become the kind of man his father wanted him to be. He joins the Navy and becomes a sniper with the SEALS. When America leads the invasion of Iraq after 9/11, Kyle is sent to Fallujah. Working as a rooftop sniper, he is utterly driven. His kill rate is so high that he becomes known as “the legend”, although he finds the label hard to live with. Whilst home on leave, he takes his new wife, Taya, for a checkup at the hospital. The nurse there quickly spots that this is a man who is bottling emotions up inside. She takes a blood pressure reading from Chris, which turns out to be abnormally high. On each home visit Taya struggles to communicate with Chris, who seems to be lost inside his own thoughts and becomes twitchy around ordinary everyday events. When he eventually quits the service he ends up seeing a psychiatrist at the Veterans Hospital, and with his assistance (although the details are skated over) manages to re-establish his relationship with Taya.

It is possible that hawkish Americans will view American Sniper as a patriotic tale of a soldier who did a great job, at personal cost, in a just war. However, I don’t think that is the real story we are being presented with. This is not the Clint Eastwood of the Dirty Harry movies, but the more considered and questioning Eastwood of Unforgiven. Chris Kyle is essentially presented to us as a metaphor for America itself. In his attempt to be the saviour of good people, Kyle represents the America that sees itself as the world’s policeman. But whilst serving in Iraq Kyle makes promises to local people that he is unable to keep, again like America towards Iraq in general. He tells a frightened Iraqi that he will be able to protect him and his family if he provides important information. Subsequently, the man’s son is tortured in front of him and then the man himself is shot. Those responsible announce to the neighbourhood that this is what happens to people who talk to the Americans.

When one of Kyle’s close comrades is killed by an Iraqi sniper he becomes driven by revenge. During a mission he disobeys an order to “stand down” and kills the sniper from a distance of over a mile. However, in doing so he gives their own position away and his unit find themselves embroiled in a firefight with overwhelming enemy numbers. As the SEALs eventually manage to escape they are literally enveloped in a “desert storm” (the name given to the first invasion of Iraq in January 1991), symbolically representing their inability to impose order on the country. It is after this event, in which Kyle is injured, that he decides to leave the service.

Kyle devotes himself to helping other veterans, whether they are physically disabled or suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD). It is in his attempt to assist a soldier with PTSD that the final – metaphorical – irony lies. Whilst on deployment Kyle had stated that one of the reasons for fighting was to prevent terrorism back home. Yet Chris Kyle is shot dead, not by a terrorist, but by a disturbed veteran that he is trying to assist. The message seems to be that America, in trying to police the world, not only deviates from the path of justice to one of revenge, but also ends up damaging herself in the process.

RATING: 4/5

CORRECTIONS: My original review accidentally referred to Clint Eastwood’s earlier film as ‘Forgiven’, when it should of course be ‘Unforgiven’. Also, Chris Kyle joined the Navy after seeing the 1993  bombing of the World Trade Center on television, not the 9/11 attacks (though those are shown too, after which Kyle is sent to Iraq with the SEALs).

As my first year in film review blogging draws to a close, it’s time for me to  list my Top Ten of the year. I’ve restricted myself to films that went on general release in the UK in 2014, which means I can’t list one of my favourite films – Nothing Bad Can Happen (see April 5th review), directed by Katrin Gebbe and shown as part of the Bird’s Eye Film Festival. As a non-professional blogger I also can’t claim to have seen all the good (or bad) films released this year. Some of the films that have popped up in lists such as the Sight & Sound Top 20 or the Guardian Top Ten, but which I haven’t seen, are The Lego Movie, Ida, and Leviathan.

But with no further ado and in reverse order, here are my ten favourites of the year.

10. The Wind Rises.

9. Inside Llewyn Davis.

8. Pride.

7. 12 Years a Slave.

6. Kajaki.

5. Citizenfour.

4. Tom at the Farm.

3. Nightcrawler.

2. Boyhood.

1. Under the Skin.


10. The Wind Rises.

The Studio Ghibli animation genius, Hayao Miyazaki, has said this will be his last film. But I will not be alone in hoping that he has a change of heart. In my review (May 24th) I said that this was “one of my favourite films of the year so far and one of the greatest animated movies I have ever seen”. Pursuing a more adult theme than most of Studio Ghibli’s output, The Wind Rises tells a fictionalised version of the life of Jiro Horikoshi, the airplane designer who opposed Japan’s involvement in World War 2 but was also responsible for two of that nation’s greatest fighter planes used in the conflict. Miyazaki masterfully conveys how a child’s wonder at the marvels and mystery of flight never leaves Horikoshi as an adult, “although ultimately it is a very melancholy tale too”.

9. Inside Llewyn Davis.

Like The Wind Rises, Inside Llewyn Davis also has a rather melancholic feel, albeit balanced by the dry wit and colourful characters typical of Cohen brothers’ scripts. It tells the tale of a struggling sixties folk musician giving one last attempt at breaking into the big time. Some found the character of Llewyn Davis too unsympathetic to identify with, but I disagree. I found his increasing resentment all too easy to understand. A merchant seaman by trade, Davis finds himself watching inferior musicians dressed in chunky sweaters, singing songs about life at sea, and receiving warm applause from their audiences. The ending is rather splendid.

8. Pride.

The closure of industries during the Thatcher era of government, and especially the miners’ strike of 1985-6, has formed the backdrop for several British feelgood movies, including Billy Elliott and The Full Monty. In Pride, however, the politics of the time is much more to the fore. This is essentially a culture-clash story in which two very different beleaguered groups find they have a common cause. Based on real events, when the London-based group Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners make contact with a South Wales colliery, they find that acceptance doesn’t happen straight away. Eventually, though, strong bonds are formed, culminating in a group of miners leading the Gay Pride march in London. Pride features one of the year’s best supporting performances, from Bill Nighy as a closeted former miner who quietly comes out.

7. 12 Years a Slave.

Deservedly picking up the 2014 Best Picture Oscar, 12 Years a Slave is based on Solomon Northup’s harrowing account of his own abduction into slavery. It’s power lies not only in the terrible sense of injustice that is conveyed, but in the graphic depictions of cruelty that have a visceral impact on the viewer. Lupita Nyong’o collected the Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, but powerful performances are also given by Chiwetel Ejiofor (Solomon Northup) and Michael Fassbender (as the brutal slaveowner, Edwin Epps).

6. Kajaki.

Despite the fact that British forces have been engaged in conflict somewhere every year for the past 100 years, it is hard to recall any British war films in recent times. As it happens, Yann Demange’s ’71, released in October, was a very exciting story set in Northern Ireland’s “troubles” in the early seventies. But the film that makes this list is surely one of the best British war films ever made. Kajaki is a crowdfunded movie, written by Tom Williams and directed by Paul Katis. It is the true story of a group of elite soldiers (3rd Battalion, Parachute Regiment) who get caught in a Soviet-era minefield whilst serving in Afghanistan. Realism is the watchword here, from the boredom of guarding the dam (which may have motivated what was actually an unauthorised mission to engage a Taliban roadblock) to the depiction of bloody wounds and the earthy squaddie humour. Rather unflattering depictions of equipment failure and of the RAF sending the wrong type of helicopter for the rescue mission may have been the reason for the Ministry of Defence withdrawing their support. Political questions are deliberately not overtly addressed in Kajaki, but viewers might nonetheless be prompted to wonder whether we should really have been in Afghanistan. Not for the squeamish.

5. Citizenfour.

In January 2013 the journalist and film-maker Laura Poitras was contacted via encrypted email by someone using the name “Citizen Four”. This was the codename adopted by the whistleblower, Ed Snowden. Poitras makes documentaries around political themes and, at the time of Snowden’s approach, was making a film about surveillance in the wake of 9/11 (actually the third part of a trilogy, the first two being My Country My Country and The Oath). She went to visit Snowden during the period when he was holed up in a hotel bedroom in Hong Kong, and filmed Snowden’s conversations with the journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill. These conversations, during which Snowden reveals the scale of illegal surveillance undertaken by the National Security Agency and others, form the basis of Citizenfour, but are intercut with various courtroom scenes and interviews with other key figures, such as whistleblower William Binney and computer security expert Jacob Applebaum.

The film is a riveting piece of history. More than anything, the thing that sticks with me from Citizenfour is the bravery of Ed Snowden, who was fully aware of the trouble that he was bringing upon himself.

4. Tom at the Farm.

At age 25, Tom at the Farm (Tom à la Ferme) was the fifth feature film to be directed by French-Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan. It is a Hitchcockian psychodrama about a young man, Tom (played by Xavier Dolan), who travels to the rural home of his dead gay lover’s family, in preparation for the funeral. The mother turns out to be unaware of her deceased son’s sexual orientation, and Tom is bullied into silence by psychotic Francis, the brother of the dead man. The two men then become involved in a dark and complicated fashion. With its strong imagery, complex characters and bold storyline, this is a film that has really stuck in my mind.

3. Nightcrawler.

There is a long Hollywood tradition of depicting the dark side of the American Dream in its movies. The protagonist grafts hard to work his way up the ladder, but also transgresses the law by taking dodgy shortcuts (e.g. Nightmare Alley, Wall Street, The Wolf of Wall Street). Typically this figure will eventually be brought low and there may or may not be some element of remorse and redemption. Written and directed by Dan Gilroy, Nightcrawler is possibly the most uncompromising film in this tradition. Jake Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom progresses from filming car crashes on his camcorder to rearranging crimes scenes in such a way that they will obtain a higher price from the news networks he is selling to. Bloom is not brought low. There is no remorse or redemption. On the contrary, Bloom corrupts those that he comes in to contact with. Human transactions become purely economic transactions. This is Ayn Rand’s philosophy writ large and all the more terrifying for it. Gyllenhaal is one of the best actors in Hollywood right now, and his performance in Nightcrawler ought to propel him towards an Oscar nomination.

2. Boyhood.

The top of many people’s end-of-year lists, Richard Linklater’s growing-up drama Boyhood is – as the trailer states – unique in the history of cinema. The film was made over a 12 year period and traces the childhood of Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) over this space of time, so we see him genuinely age twelve years (as well as his movie parents, played by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette). Mason Jr’s parents are separated, and much of the drama comes from growing up with a mom who keeps meeting unsuitable men. It is the ordinariness of the events that matter here which, because they are covered in such detail, enable viewers to identify with and be moved by them. In retrospect, my review (June 16th) was a little ungenerous in its rating: this is ten out of ten.

1. Under the Skin.

In compiling this Top Ten I changed my mind about the rankings on several occasions, and it is quite likely that I will change my mind again once this is posted. The one film I’ve had no trouble placing, though, is Jonathan Glazer’s phenomenal Under The Skin. This is not just my film of the year, but also of this century so far. Light on dialogue and heavy on incredible imagery, it is the story of an alien (Scarlett Johansson), constructed in the guise of a female human, who is sent by mysterious handlers (men on motorbikes) to find and kill people who won’t be missed, presumably as luxury food for beings on another planet. However, certain events lead the alien to develop empathic feelings for the people she is preying on. In one of the most extraordinary scenes in any film, the alien, whilst driving around nighttime Glasgow in search of victims, engages a severely disfigured man in conversation. The encounter is variously funny, uncomfortable, and touching. Eventually, the alien gives her handlers the slip and disappears into the Scottish countryside, where she faces new challenges.

Comparisons with Kubrick are entirely justified and the title is open to various interpretations. Johansson’s performance is terrific, switching between warm seductress and dead-eyed killer, and in my opinion should make her an Oscar contender. The scenes of her driving a van around Glasgow and talking to Scottish men, some of who were genuine passersby, are terrific and not easily forgotten.

Theory_of_Everything

Director: James Marsh

Screenplay: Anthony McCarten

Country: USA/UK/Japan

Runtime: 123 mins

Cast: Eddie Redmayne (Stephen Hawking), Felicity Jones (Jane Hawking), David Thewlis (Dennis Sciama), Alice Orr-Ewing (Diana King)

Tears and laughter abound in this tale of romance, religion, and theoretical physics

It is a splendid coincidence that 2014 has seen two major movies about great British scientists, first Alan Turing (The Imitation Game) and now Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. When, as a young doctoral student, Stephen Hawking was first diagnosed with motor neurone disease he was given two years to live. Now aged 72, he continues to work on the very thing that he himself has cheated: time. The Theory of Everything is based on the memoir of Hawking’s first wife, Jane, titled “Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen Hawking”. It tells the intertwined stories of Stephen’s intellectual indomitability in the face of a debilitating, incurable illness, and his life with Jane until their eventual separation in the mid-90s.

Despite the reputation of Hawking’s bestselling “A Brief History of Time” as a book that many have bought but fewer read, The Theory of Everything doesn’t burden the audience with scientific detail. In fact, I envisage that from this point on physics teachers across the land will use a potato and a pea to explain the tension between gravitational forces and quantum forces. It is Stephen and Jane’s romance that is to the fore through much of the film. With his large glasses permanently perched halfway down his nose and hair swept across his eyes, the young Stephen appears superficially to be the epitome of the nerdy scientist. Yet his personality is a curious mix of bashfulness and confidence, laced with humour. He and Jane, who studies medieval Iberian poetry, are clearly attracted upon first meeting, despite their first conversation revealing that he is an atheist and she a Christian.

At the Cambridge May Ball, when asked about the poetry of the 1920s Jane teases Stephen with Yeats’s lines: “Seek then / No learning / from Starry Men / Who follow with Optic Glass / The Whirling Ways of Stars that Pass”. “Ouch!” says Stephen. He in turn, asked about the science of the 1920s, talks romantically about space and time in relationship terms: “People always thought they were too dissimilar, couldn’t possibly work out. But then along comes Einstein, the ultimate matchmaker, and decided that space and time not only had a future, but had been married all along”. Standing beneath a starry sky, Jane quotes the bible (“In the beginning was the heaven and the earth…”), which leads Stephen to take her hand and ask her to dance, a significant moment because he earlier said that he never dances.

Stephen’s illness manifests itself even before he has been awarded his PhD, but despite the prognosis of imminent death he continues to work. Jane determines that they must fight the disease, even though she has been warned that the only outcome can be defeat. She and Stephen get married, have children, and she does all she can to support Stephen. Over the years, however, the strain begins to tell. At Stephen’s suggestion Jane joins a local choir, only to find herself attracted to the widowed choirmaster. Later, Stephen finds himself attracted to Elaine, a nurse who has been brought in to assist with his caring. Following the publication of “A Brief History of Time” Stephen tells Jane that Elaine will be accompanying him to a meeting in America, at which point it becomes clear that their marriage is at an end.

Anthony McCarten’s sparkling script is full of wit, which adds depth and variety to a tale that might otherwise have been a standard one about triumph over adversity. Those of us who have recently seen the re-release of 2001: A Space Odyssey cannot fail to have been thrilled and amused by the first words that Stephen speaks with the aid of his voice synthesiser: “Daisy, daisy, give me your answer do…”. Although there is not a natural dramatic end point for the story, McCarten contrives a device to wrap things up that is moving and satisfying.

Eddie Redmayne gives a remarkable performance as Stephen Hawking, whose increasingly severe symptoms are displayed, with attendant frustration, in accurate detail and without exaggeration. Nonetheless, even when Stephen has become entirely immobile Redmayne is able to convey his mischievous wit with just a look. Surely Redmayne will be shortlisted for the upcoming Oscars. Alongside Redmayne, plaudits are also due to Felicity Jones for her portrayal of Jane, who is absolutely convincing as the woman whose love and devotion eventually gives way to exhaustion and resentment, but ultimately mutual acceptance.

Benoit Delhomme’s cinematography must also be mentioned. Almost every scene, both interior and exterior is bathed in glowing – often golden – light. Cambridge has surely never appeared so beautiful. This lighting not only suits the theme of romance, but also serves as a reminder of Jane’s religious belief and Stephen’s interest in the stars.

The Theory of Everything is a wonderful film that will have audiences laughing even as they choke back the tears.

Rating: 10/10

The Theory of Everything was previewed at the British Film Institute on 8th December 2014.