Good Kill (US, 2014)

The end game

New Zealander Andrew Niccol has been responsible for some excellent films: he scripted The Truman Show (US, 1998) and both wrote and directed Gattaca and In Time (US, 2011). These science fiction films were all thought-provoking and Niccol tries to raise issues whilst entertaining us. His Lord of War (US-Germany-France, 2005) was less successful but it did show how the international arms trade works. Good Kill examines the moral quagmire (no let’s call it what it is: evil) of drone strikes that proliferated under the apparently saintly Obama. Ethan Hawke plays Major Thomas Egan a fighter pilot reduced to flying drones and blasting suspects in Afghanistan, Yemen or wherever else America perceives a threat. Whilst it’s true that the threat is real but, as the film points out, the ‘war on terror’ is counter productive. The more America indiscriminately kills the more ‘terrorists’ will be manufactured.

Some reviewers have complained the film is too preachy; each character in the drone team offers particular viewpoints on the events. It’s unclear how else Niccol is supposed to explain the mechanics and morality of this particular theatre of war without resorting to this technique. The escalating carnage, which occurs when the CIA takes over the operation, is enough drama to engage and appal. It’s true that the film loses some momentum toward the end which was inevitable as there can be no happy resolution whilst these inhumane strikes continue. Niccol, and the excellent cast, convey the dehumanising effect of killing by proxy (though of course killing in reality is similarly damaging). There’s no doubt that war as a video game, the drone technology was based on the Xbox, where reality takes place in virtual reality, has severe repercussions on what makes us human.

Helen Fry’s book Hello World: How to be Human in the Age of the Machine (2018) examines how the use of logarithms in everyday life is polluting the world and there are regular moral panics about youngsters ‘screen time’. There’s little doubt that Silicon Valley is driving fundamental changes to our way of interacting with the world and often not in a good way. The latest poisonous story about Facebook shows how dehumanising the platform can be – see here. YouTube is also full (well it actually isn’t ‘full’ the scale of the platform is such that even a relatively small number of videos amounts to a massive number) of appalling material – for example. We have slept-walked into a surveillance dystopia and most people don’t even know about it, which is a failure of education and the news media. Good Kill is a microcosm of what can happen when we lose touch with reality through the distancing effect of computer-based perception. The disembodied voice of the CIA giving orders that appal Egan is so far divorced from the consequences of his decisions that empathy, the key emotion that makes us human, is lost.

Despite Hawke’s presence (Bruce Greenwood also stars) Good Kill took little more than $1m worldwide. Maybe audiences are happier with their head in the sand.

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Divines (France-Qatar, 2016)

Friends

Divines is a banlieue film and the expected ingredients of feisty youth being crushed by the forces of the state whilst living in poverty are present. However, there’s enough difference in the film to make it stand out and I preferred it to the similar Girlhood (France, 2014): they both boast female directors and highlight the female experience. Camera d’Or winning debutant, Houda Benyamina who also scripted, has directed a bravura film that welds melodrama to social realism.

Key to the film’s success is the performances of the protagonists, Dounia (Oulaya Amamra, sister of the director) and Maimouna (Déborah Lukumuena), as teenagers full of life but who are compromised by poverty. Dounia lives in a shack on a Roma camp and Maimouna’s father who is the local Imam. In a great scene the pair imagine they’re driving a Ferrari around the estate and, in a Spike Lee ‘double dolly’, they move with the camera with added sound effects. In an uncomfortable scene for an ex-teacher, Dounia demolishes her teacher who’s trying to get her to role play the a receptionist. The youngsters are seen, by society, as nothing more than low paid workers so a life in crime is a sensible option. The local drug kingpin is female, a suitably scary Jisca Kalvanda, who takes Dounia on because she’s got ‘clitoris’ (ie not balls). In another scene that feminises the genre, Dounia voyeuristically gazes at the naked body of a male dancer she fancies.

Unsurprisingly in a first feature the film loses its momentum at points, particularly toward the end. However, the incendiary finale wrenches back the drama. The vicious cycle of living in the world of the underclass is illustrated when Dounia, in a fit of youthful mischievousness, throws a bottle at a fire engine crew so later they refuse to enter the estate without a police escort. The audience is encouraged to understand why such things happen but, as a melodrama, is not offering answers (and there’s no reason why it should).

Benyamina seems to be suffering from the difficulty of getting a second film funded, not withstanding her Cannes award. According to imdb.com she’s directed the pilot of Tell Me Your Secrets, an American TV series and an episode of The Eddy (UK) – both 2019. Of course television is not the ghetto it was and these could be interesting. Divines was snapped up by Netflix, after it played the festival circuit, rather than being distributed beyond France. I guess the money on the table is irresistible to filmmakers when faced with the vagaries of international film distribution for a non-Hollywood film.

 

Aquarius (Brazil-France, 2016)

Invisible woman

Ralph Ellison’s great novel Invisible Man (1952) showed how people of colour weren’t seen for who they were; that problem has not gone away. Another invisible group are old women and writer-director Kleber Mendonça Filho makes visible this group who, because they are not deemed sexy, are not viewed as women and, because they are old, are often thought of as irrelevant. Sônia Braga plays Clara a sixtysomething widow who’s the only one standing out against developers in her beachside apartment in Recife, Brazil. There’s more, however, as the film shows her social life and relationships with her family and the conflict with the developers is often sidelined. The two and a half hour running time, which never drags, gives plenty of space for character development and the performances give us believable people.

Braga is brilliant in the lead as we see a determined personality dealing with adversity, age and body deformity. A short prelude, set in 1980, shows Clara as a young woman but the key moment here is a flashback of her aunt’s as her 70th birthday is celebrated. When a youngster eulogises the aunt we see a very short sequence of a couple having sex; presumably this is her memories of when she was young. I say ‘presumably’ because Filho doesn’t signify the scene clearly as a flashback; there are other abrupt switches in the film. It seems to be suggesting what the aunt would rather be doing rather than listening to her great niece praising her. Sex intersperses the film and is explicit.

Like the unclear flashbacks, there are other arty touches. A gust of wind is shown via magazine pages suddenly fluttering, followed by a door banged shut; this heralds the arrival of the construction company. These are ‘heartless developers’ with a particularly Brazilian air of politeness that (sort of) resolves in the climactic confrontation. Before that we get to see the travails of Sonia’s family and her rather matriarchal way of dealing with them. It’s unnerving that the corruption portrayed, no doubt this happens the real world, is even before the current right-wing Bolsanaro got elected so things will get worse in Brazil.

By prioritising the family melodrama strands, as well as her battle with the builders, the film sometimes loses focus. However, that is not a criticism as there’s no reason why narratives shouldn’t sprawl and eschew the goal-driven structure of mainstream films. The film was shown at Cannes and won the Cinema Brazil Grand Prize; it was distributed internationally and it’s now arrived on Netflix.

Burning (Beoning , South Korea, 2018)

Twilight youth

This is the first Lee Chang-dong (he directed and co-wrote) film I’ve seen so I’ve obviously been missing out. It’s a slow burner that trades in ambiguity on many levels. If your protagonist, Jong-su played by Yoo Ah-in, is a writer (even if he doesn’t know what he wants to write about) the possibilities of a meta-fiction are raised, particularly when it’s based on a Murakami Haruki short story, itself based on William Faulkner’s ‘Barn Burning’. Faulkner’s Jong-su’s favourite writer and if it sounds like we may dealing with postmodern stupidity then I’ve misled you. Lee’s film is resolutely political as it deals with the travails and three youngster’s suffering, like many millennials because of globalisation, from ennui well before their time.

One of the characters, Ben played by Steven Yuen known particularly for The Walking Dead (US, 2010-), is rich and runs a Porsche. The source of his riches remains unexplained as does the exact nature of his relationship with Haemi (debutant Jun Jong-seo), the free-spirited young woman who seduces Jong-su at the start of the film. Being ‘free-spirited’ requires, apparently, dancing topless in front of the young men though the way it is shot is certainly more spiritual and sexual. Possibly to mitigate the potential sexism of the scene, there’s a brief conversation with another young woman who bemoans South Korean society’s vilification of females who are always ‘too much one thing and not enough of the other’. However, despite the fact Haemi has more ‘go’ than the men about her as she seeks the Great Hunger (the meaning of life), she is less the focus than Jong-su and Ben; boys’ stories apparently being more important.

The film doesn’t praise men but interrogates tangentially their existential angst: Ben is an empty shell surrounded by affluence; Jong-su has nowhere to go having been effectively abandoned by his parents and unable to parlay his creative writing degree into a career. In one scene he’s being interviewed for a job with six others and they are referred to as numbers; no wonder he walks away.

Hong Kyung-pyo’s cinematography is great: I’ve never seen desiccated plastic look so good (one of Ben’s apparent pass times is burning dilapidated greenhouses) as is the music; it includes Miles Davis’ for Lift to the Scaffold (Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, France, 1958) when Haemi dances at twilight. I say ‘apparent’ because this may be an example of Ben’s braggadocio; he also claims he has superior DNA so never gets ill. This sounds big headed until we find he’s talking to his mum and so could simply be playfulness.

The 148 minute running time doesn’t drag and although the film’s cerebral it’s not difficult. Despite feeling slightly uncomfortable with the trope of ‘the female as a catalyst that helps men to understand themselves’, that doesn’t compromise the film. Haemi reminded me of the character Meimei/Moudan in Suzhou River (Suzhou he, Germany-China-France, 2000), which was a riff on Hitchcock’s Vertigo to which the Sight and Sound reviewer compares Burning. The film is allusive as well as elusive. The way these men ‘find themselves’ is not American style ‘self discovery’ but one that’s entirely in keeping with the mess humanity has got itself in by worshiping the god of profit – capitalism.

I always try and avoid spoilers in my posts and so won’t deal with the ambiguity mentioned at the start. There are plenty of what might be half-trues throughout the film and my reading is Lee is emphasising that, in life, if we think we know what we are doing, or what’s going on, then we are, at least in part, deluding ourselves. Like capitalism, bourgeois ideology trades in certainty; hence it cannot deal with the trauma of climate change which repudiates its basic principle of economic expansion. We would all be better off assuming we might not know what we’re doing rather than determinedly charging down a path that might lead to self-destruction. Many on the right accuse millennials of being ‘snowflakes’ to ensure older folk don’t need to feel guilty about the mess we’ve made of the world. They would do better to look in a mirror and consider themselves without certainty.

Get Cracking (UK, 1943)

The cool of uncool

George Formby was the top box office star in the UK every year between 1938 and 1944 an unequalled achievement and, I was surprised to see, Get Cracking stood up very well to viewing beyond nostalgia. The plots of his films were mere vehicles for Formby’s brand of gormless humour where it always ‘turns out nice again’ – his catchphrase. In fact he starts Get Cracking with it, a testimony to how well known he’d become. It’s no stretch to say that Get Cracking has avant garde elements with several minutes at the start featuring a voiceover that, he says, is reading the script and has a conversation with George.

Formby, and massive ’30s star Gracie Fields, both had working class backgrounds and were from Lancashire. No doubt they were seen as fresh in comparison with the Received Pronunciation that infected much of British cinema at the time. There are plenty of regional accents on show though George’s love interest, played by Dinah Sheridan, has unnerving cut glass pronunciation.

Much of the humour, derived from Music Hall, consists of slapstick and daft line, that never fail to tickle me, delivered absolutely straight:

“He has to be on guard on Thursday to stop the Germans if they invade.”
‘What! On his own?”
“No there’ll be six of us.”

Irene Handl (uncredited) is great as a character that’s even more dim than George. The sexual politics of the film isn’t too bad: Vera Frances, a child actor who made her last film in 1948 and is still with us, plays a teenage Cockney evacuee who works in George’s garage and she’s one of the brightest characters in the film.

No doubt people needed cheering up in 1943; as we still do in the UK now.

My Happy Family (Chemi Bednieri Ojakhi, Georgia-Germany-France, 2017)

Missing mum

My Happy Family is a quite brilliant melodrama predicated on a mother, Manana, who leaves her family that has three-generations living together, apparently common in Georgia. She gives no reason as to why she’s going and as the family descend upon her to demand an explanation, motivated in part by the suffocating fear of social embarrassment, it soon becomes clear why she needs to be free.

Nana and Simon, credited as directors, are Nana Ekvtimishvili (who also wrote) and Simon Groß, and My Happy Family is a follow up to their debut In Bloom (Grzeli nateli dgeebi, Georgia-Germany-France, 2013). The visual style is primarily a mix of long takes with an immobile camera and a fluid handheld movement following Manana both in the home and on the street. The long take puts great emphasis on performance and all the actors are superb. The latter, in the home which is often crowded, relies upon skilful blocking (the position of actors in relation to one another and the camera) to allow the camera to carve a way through to keep up with Manana. Nana and Simon direct brilliantly and they prioritise showing over telling allowing the audience to pick up clues about the characters from their body language. At a school reunion one character, who insists Manana sings (the diegetic [in the film not the soundtrack] music in the film is quite fantastic), is succinctly characterised as a ‘dominant male’ through little gestures such as putting his hands on her shoulders.

I recognized Merab Ninidze, who plays the hapless husband, from the TV series McMafia (UK-US, 2018) where he had a mesmerising presence as a Russian mob boss. He’s similarly excellent in this more subdued role. Ia Shugliashvili, in the central role, is new to me and she plays the mother with a mixture of strength and resignation. There are many narratives were an unhappy woman leaves the marital home but there’s invariably a man who appears to reaffirm the need for patriarchy. My Happy Family avoids such cliches and ends with marvellous ambiguity.

Once again I have to thank Netflix for the opportunity to see this film which was feted at Sundance a couple of years ago. Up until recently Netflix seemed to be prioritising television series as a way to hook viewers but it has increased its slate of films. Many are Spanish speaking, which obviously has a wide audience across the world, but it’s great that nations who haven’t had much of an impact on western film culture get a look in too; the Georgian documentary short The Trader (2018) is also available. Apparently it has been argued that Nana and Simon’s films are heralding a Georgian new wave. I hope so as it’s great to see familiar tropes reworked in a different cultural setting.

 

The Candidate (US, 1972)

There’s no business like politics

It’s striking that, although it was made 40 years before The Ides of March,The Candidate is almost as up-to-date. The cynicism, alongside extraordinary naiveté, that characterises American politics is beyond satire with The Trump in the White House; I should say the same is true for the UK with our on-going Brexit-driven stupidity. The only striking difference I noticed in the film is the Republican candidate keeps emphasising how they need to keep America great; nowadays Trump’s tagline is ‘make America great again’. Otherwise the bullshit remains the same.

That isn’t to say that there isn’t a difference between left and right politics (the former is far preferable of course!). Robert Redford’s ‘candidate’ is an idealist who, despite is best efforts, gets enmeshed in the ‘machine’ of party politics. However, he would be a far better senator than his opponent. One of the exciting things at the moment in American politics is Senator Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who brilliantly emphasised the corruption inherent in the American democratic system – see here. She, single-handedly it seems, has shifted the Overton window (which frames what can ‘legitimately’ be discussed) to get a progressive taxation on the agenda.

Jeremy Larner’s script for The Candidate reeks of authenticity which isn’t surprising as he was principal speech-writer for Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 presidential bid; he won an Academy Award for his effort. Michael Ritchie’s direction complements the script brilliantly, shooting in Academy Ratio (to give a televisual feel thus mimicking the way many watch political campaigns?), the camera moves in a documentary style seemingly chasing the action rather than shooting action staged for it. I’m not sure whether Ritchie counts as a New Hollywood director as I haven’t seen Prime Cut, released just before The Candidate; his debut was a Redford vehicle Downhill Racer (1969). The Candidate, though, certainly fits into New Hollywood as it’s a thoughtful film with a ‘message’ and was distributed by Warner Bros. Redford and Ritchie made the film through their own company; presumably constituted solely for this film as they didn’t produce another together.

I saw the film nearly 40 years ago and could remember the ending clearly, an indication of how effective it is in a low-key way. I doubt Redford was ever better (I have little to say about his recent The Old Man & the Gun (US, 2018) other than Sissy Spacek was great): his star charisma is undercut by uncertainty in his eyes as his doubts about what he’s doing dog him throughout. I love his puzzled expression when an old mate, from his ‘eco-warrior’ days, congratulates him on doing well whilst knowing it’s ‘bullshit’. The candidate has clearly been taken in.