Deepwater Horizon (Hong Kong-US, 2016)

Disaster movies as reality

During the early 1970s there was a cycle of disaster movies including the Irwin Allen produced The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974). In the 21st century disaster movies have moved into reality with Grenfell Tower and Deepwater Horizon reconfigures The Poseidon Adventure. The ’70s films relied on big budgets, all star casts and state of the art special effects for their appeal; Deepwater Horizon was modestly budgeted at $110m with a B-list cast (Wahlberg, Malkovich and Hudson – who were all great) and superb CGI; however, most importantly, its focus is on the human cost of corporate corruption rather than spectacle.

Mark Wahlberg’s Everyman persona fits his Mike Williams perfectly. We’re introduced to him as a doting family man and if, at first, this might seem padding, getting audiences impatient for the spectacle, its payoff is the ending were we see him suffering PTSD. Unusually for a mainstream film about heroics, rather than just focusing on the physical damage, the psychological cost is not ignored. I wasn’t expecting to shed tears watching a disaster movie.

It’s a pity the film didn’t do well at the (US at least) box office because it has an important message about how capitalism encourages profit above anything else. Malkovich, in villain mode as a BP executive, is suitably slimy and cowardly but also utterly believable. Peter Berg’s direction is skilful and the CGI, for once in my eyes, unimpeachable. The scriptwriters, Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand, do a great job of making the technical details digestible and the scene where an oil covered sea bird wreaks havoc the control room of a ship succinctly summarises the ecological consequences of the oil spill.

Deepwater Horizon must have been one of the best films released last year.

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Arrival (US, 2016)

The arrival of the uncanny

Arrival was one of the few films I saw in the cinema last year when I seemed to be incapable of enjoying movies. Thought-provoking science fiction; what’s not to like? And I enjoyed it even more on a second viewing.

First contact (with aliens) narratives is a staple trope of SF but what Arrival does differently, based on Ted Chiang’s short story ‘Story of Your Life’, is focus on the mechanics of communication. Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1978) imaginatively used music to cross boundaries; Arrival, though, deals with how language makes meaning. If that sounds dry, Amy Adams’ linguist protagonist ensures we’re interested. I’m not meaning that Adams’ looks are what grab our attention, it’s her character.

The film also uses memories in a particular way that I can’t describe without spoiling; but it is utterly fascinating. Jeremy Renner’s a fine side-kick playing a physicist also deputised to try and understand the aliens. It is interesting to speculate how different the film might have been if they gender of the roles had been reversed.

Unsurprisingly, governments’ first responses are to wheel out the military; in an increasingly belligerent age I’m sure that would happen if only because they have spent too many years of watching ‘first contact’ movies where it’s necessary to ‘kick the aliens’ assess’ – assuming there is one. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) still has plenty to tell us about humanity.

Arrival, relatively, was a box office hit which surprised me because it’s far more a cerebral film than the popular SF that rely on special effects; though they are great in the film. After a summer where Hollywood’s artistic bankruptcy is threatening its domestic box office, though not the rest of the world’s (yet), it’s heartening that an interesting, medium budget, independent film can still find an audience.

Canadian Denis Villeneuve, who directed, is undoubtedly a talent  (Sicario and Prisoners are both worth seeing) and the forthcoming Blade Runner sequel suddenly becomes an enticing prospect.

I Am Not Your Negro (Switzerland-France -Belgium-US, 2016)

Plus ça change

This superb documentary on James Baldwin, who died in 1987, is timely in the light of the neo Nazi demonstrations in Charlottesville earlier this month. Baldwin was an important figure in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. He refused to align himself with the radical Black Panthers, Martin Luther King, NAACP (which he deemed middle class) or Malcolm X but, through his articulate arguments and his feted novels, offered an intellectual perspective on racism. Raoul Peck’s film intermingles archive footage, much of it of Baldwin speaking for himself, with Samuel L. Jackson’s (beautiful) voice over speaking Baldwin’s words.

The film uses the unfinished Remember This House as its starting point. Here Baldwin was trying to come to terms with the deaths of King, X and Medger Evers who was murdered by white supremacist, Byron De La Beckwith; it took 30 years for Beckwith to be convicted. Whilst this may seem to be dilatory justice the American judicial system, as the Black Lives Matter campaign illustrates, is still highly reluctant to convict when the victim is black. One of the most notorious incidents in recent years is Trayvon Martin, shot in the chest by a vigilant, George Zimmerman, who was unbelievably found ‘not guilty’ of murder. Peck intersperses the film with examples such as Martin’s to illustrate that racism is still destroying lives. At Charlottesville, social media footage shows, a supremacist shouted “Nigger” and then fired a gun at protestors; the police did not intervene.

During the 1960s it must have seemed that, through the Civil Rights protests (see Selma for example), things were going to get better for minorities. However, what has become clear, although there have been improvements in equality with the abolition of Jim Crow laws, racism is still endemic (see 13th) and the increased profile of neo Nazis is symptomatic of this. In the film there is footage of 1960s racist protests which include banners emblazoned with the swastika . I’m not sure what is most shocking, the neo Nazis of today or those of the ’60s, just 20 years after the end of the war in which Americans had died fighting against fascism.

Baldwin’s sophisticated analysis of racism, including much on cinema from his book The Devil Finds Work (1976), concludes with the statement that black people know more about whites than whites do about black because white people don’t see blacks as people. Whites are the ones who invented the ‘nigger’ and, Baldwin asks, what is it about white people that led them to do this? What is their problem?

 

Love (France-Belguim, 2015)

You don’t know what you’re doing

Gaspar Noé does provocation more that any other director I know; even Lars von Trier. Love is a hardcore art movie that focuses on the consequences of Murphy’s (Karl Glusman) ‘sleeping around’. Like the musical, pornographic films use the narrative as a frame on which to hang the sex scenes; the story takes us from one routine to another. Although Love is pornographic it’s not pornography because the sex is necessary to the investigation of the male, or some male’s, psyche. It’s motivated by the narrative not the other way around.

The other reason it’s not pornography is, despite the sex being totally explicit and ‘real’, the relationship between the characters is always important. The sex is an expression of the characters’ feeling for one another.

I didn’t see the film in 3D (it’s on Netflix) and was also part of its provocation; one shot included an ejaculating penis with semen flying at the audience. There are various ways of responding to this: disgust being one, laughter another. But it also is a point of view shot from a female perspective that puts many of the males in the audience in a position they’ve never experienced but may expect their partners to be placed.

Noé’s humour is also apparent in the jokey references to naming a child Gaspar and Noé is a character played by  himself. The funniest moment, for me, is the ending when Murphy tells Omi (Klara Kristin) that, “I’ll love you to the end.” At the moment ‘The End’ title appears. It’s funny until you realise how cruel that humour is.

At first I was irritated by Murphy, who self-regardingly blames his penis for his misdemeanours, but as the film progresses he becomes more sympathetic. Hilariously when he’s arrested in Paris for assaulting Noé he finds the investigating officer invites him for a drink to discuss sexual desire and relationships.

It’s telling, perhaps, that I’m reluctant to state too clearly my feelings about the film as in its graphic depictions of sex, and laying bare the tortured/pathetic (delete as applicable) male psyche, its revelation of what’s usually in the private sphere are maybe too truthful for me to share in the public sphere of this blog.

Dheepan (France, 2015)

What’s it all about?

I was enjoying Dheepan‘s representation of migrants on a French estate dominated by drug dealers until the end. Director Jacques Audiard seemed to be drawing parallels between the outsider status of both and the precariousness of drug dealers’ existence being not entirely dissimilar to the Tamil Tiger’s civil war. At the start of the film we see Dheepan escaping Sri Lanka at the end of the war, the Tigers having been defeated. He is thrown together with a woman, Yalini, who we meet trying to find an orphan child to complete their ersatz family.

Most of the film portrays the ‘family’s’ integration, of sorts, into French society and gives a powerful perspective from the outsider’s view. When one of the drug dealers explains to Dheepan, who’s the caretaker on the estate he’s living in, that he’s not from around here and he’s brought in because he has no connections, the film seems to be showing the two group’s similarity: neither belongs to where they are. Similarly, Yalini finds herself looking after a debilitated old man whose son is the local ‘drug lord’, Brahim. Vincent Rottier is sympathetic as Brahim but not sentimentalised. That fact that Jesuthasan Antonythasan, playing Dheepan, was actually a Tiger adds to the realism.

However, at the climax of the film this social realism is replaced by a ‘worm turns’ thriller narrative as Dheepan’s Tamil Tiger is reignited by an encounter with ‘the Colonel’ who, dementedly, is determined to continue fighting, and anger at a shoot out on the estate. It’s interesting to mix two seemingly unrelated genres although I didn’t find it convincing. And as to the ending… (won’t spoil) but it’s so far fetched that I don’t believe Audiard believes it either. Even if it’s not meant to be true but a fantasy I still don’t find it convincing. I was more interested in Yalini’s story anyway for her oppression was greater than Dheepan’s.

The Handmaid’s Tale (US, 2017)

Piece of resistance

We are living in extraordinary times, politically; this is particularly obvious in the Trump presidency and the openness of neo Nazis in America. Canadian Margaret Attwood’s 1985 novel seemed to me, when I read it at the time, to be out of its time. How naive of me and how prophetic of her. Like all SF (I don’t care she doesn’t like the term that’s what this is) Attwood wasn’t prophisizing but writing about trends in the contemporary world. Bruce Miller’s adaptation, he’s credited as series creator and wrote some of the scripts, obviously updates the source material but Attwood’s premise, of how patriarchy is based on ownership of women and violence, is horrifyingly of the moment. Beware spoilers ahead.

Many of the 10 episodes are written and directed by women, a smart move by Miller for this is a story of oppression of, and ultimately rebellion by, women. Especially powerful were the scenes of sexual exploitation and, without having closely analysed the making, I suspect this is because they were shot from a female perspective. Similarly, in the final episode, when Moira reaches Canada her experience as a refugee is brilliantly realised.

The ability of art to place us in others shoes, and hence encourage empathy, is ‘soft power’ that enrages those on the right, when the texts are liberal, and encourages them to march with their hard power – guns and violence. The monolithic and individualist world view of the right seems to express a mental fragility that cannot cope with anything different to themselves.

The acting is superb throughout; even Joseph Fiennes, who I usually find insipid and weak, has been superbly cast. The direction and cinematography is superb, which is increasingly the case in ‘quality TV’. The dull palette, and freezing weather, contrasted by the blood red cloaks of the handmaidens, is a perfect setting for a world empty of love and passion. I doubt I’ll see anything better on television this year.

Dunkirk (UK-Netherlands-France-USA, 2017)

Wishing you weren’t there

I’ve admired Christopher Nolan’s filmmaking, Memento (US, 2000) and The Dark Knight (US-UK, 2008) in particular, but his previous films did not prepare me for the brilliance of Dunkirk; I almost felt literally blown away. I was certainly hanging on to my seat as the visceral representation (without needing gore) of the evacuation of Dunkirk was utterly gripping.

Nolan has spoken about his desire not to make a conventional war film (see interview in August Sight & Sound) but to show what it was like to have been involved in the evacuation, either on land, sea or air. At first I was confused by the titles telling us that land (‘the mole’) story was ‘one week’, the sea ‘one day’ and ‘the air’ one hour not realising that the film was collapsing three time scales into a 106 minute narrative. Inevitably, toward the end, they increasingly overlap and we see the same events from different perspectives. I can’t think of any film that has done this and it is dramatically daring and effective.

I was unfortunate enough to see a tweet by Nigel Farage urging everybody to see this film (he had pictured himself in front of the poster) even thought Dunkirk was a ‘great’ British defeat. As David Bordwell points out:

‘A cynic could call the movie Profiles in Cowardice. Tommy flees German bullets and instead of helping the French hold the barricades, he keeps running. The French boy steals boots and an identity in order to get off the beach sooner.  He and Tommy try to slip on board a departing Red Cross ship as stretcher bearers. When that fails, they hide among the pilings. When the ship is hit, they leap into the water, the better to pretend to have been among the survivors and get a new ride. The Shivering Soldier wants to cut and run, and the soldiers who drift beyond the perimeter plan to use the blue trawler to carry them to safety, jumping the evacuation queue. All too often, despite acts of aid and comfort, it’s every man for himself.’ (‘The art film as event movie’)

Maybe Farage was overwhelmed by the immense evacuation, Zimmer’s score morphs momentarily in Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ for the arrival of the civilian flotilla, and Churchill’s ‘on the beaches’ speech we hear at the film’ conclusion. Although the Dunkirk story plugs into the myth of Britain’s greatness, Nolan’s Dunkirk isn’t interested in that, as Bordwell’s comment shows. His film portrays raw survival in all its ugliness as well as the bravery of the RAF pilots, in particular, and Mark Rylance’s Dawson, who represents the stoic civilian response.

The sound design was particularly effective in conveying what it was like to have been there, especially Hans Zimmer’s score which exploits the Shepard tone (and Shepard-Rissot glissando) a clever way of generating tension (see here for an explanation).

The editing between the three narratives works well; for example, an RAF pilot fighting to get out of his ditched Spitfire as the water flows in is cross cut by men scrambling to get out of a sinking ship. The chronology also allows us to understand the trauma of war: Cillian Murphy’s ‘shivering soldier’ is introduced as  suffering from PTSD but we see him later in the film, but earlier in the story, calmly telling men that they can’t get on an overfull rowing boat and they should swim back to shore. The contrast between the two, from authoritative to useless, strikes home.

At the climax, though to be honest most of the film felt climactic, Tom Hardy’s Spitfire pilot saves the day in an impossible way; his plane is out of fuel but he still manages to down (off screen) a Stuka. Given the realism of what’s gone before this might have struck a sour note however I read it as foretelling what happened over the next five years. Britain won the war against impossible odds… Except, of course, it didn’t. The allies won the war for Britain would likely have lost if it had had to stand alone: we were all in it together and isolationism has no role in greatness.