Da 5 Bloods (US, 2020)

Taking the knee

Spike Lee  is one of the most interesting film directors working today not only because he brings an African American perspective to the world but also he doesn’t let convention stifle his message; he’s always been a Brechtian filmmaker. BlacKkKlansman even saw Lee getting Oscar recognition (not that I believe it is an arbiter of what’s good just a signifier of what’s acceptable in the mainstream) and there’s a great line in Da 5 Bloods about the Klansman in the Oval Office. Lee doesn’t pull punches and even if he sometimes goes ‘over the top’ it’s always in a good cause. But what to say about this film which feature four vets returning to Vietnam apparently to bury a lost comrade?

By the end I hated it; it was like watching Tarantino’s Django Unchained where the brilliant representation of racism is curdled by the stupidity of the final scenes. It’s not just Da 5 Bloods ends badly but it’s totally misconceived; Kermode hits the mark:

‘What is less certain is the rather more awkward Three Kings-style adventure into which Da 5 Bloods mutates, as our antiheroes get chased, shot at and blown up in the jungles of modern-day Vietnam, selling their souls for gold like the fortune hunters in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.’

That said, he quite liked the film but the mis-steps, for me, overwhelmed all that’s good. It’s not as if mixing Sierra Madre into the politics of the Vietnam War couldn’t have worked but it is ineptly done. It’s a failure at the level of the script which was written by Lee and Kevin Willmott based on an original script by Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo; I surmise that whatever the merits of the original it doesn’t work with what Lee and Willmott introduced. Too much of what we see is risible: the land mines; Paul’s (Delroy Lindo) madness; Otis’ (Clark Peters) discovery. It’s not as if any of the narrative threads are impossible just they are not integrated comfortably into the whole.

There is much to like in the 155 minute running time: Newton Thomas Sigel’s brilliant cinematography that captures the beauty of Vietnam and, in the flashback scenes, uses 16mm to give the feel of documentary footage from the time. Lee throws in numerous references to Apocalypse Now!, the helicopters in the sun and The Ride of the Valkyries in particular, and uses footage from Civil Rights police violence and numerous black voices including Mohammed Ali and Martin Luther King Jr. All these work brilliantly but I was so alienated by the film from the time they find the gold that I had to force myself to keep watching.

In the Fog (V tumane, Germany-Netherlands-Belarus-Russia-Latvia, 2012)

Everyone loses

It’s not surprising that the non-propaganda war films that came out of the Soviet Union, and come out of the former Soviet Union (in this instance Belarus), are particularly brutal in their representations. As The Unwomanly Face of War (1985) by Svetlana Alexievich details, the reality of war was virtually unimaginable depravity and, as the eastern European war was particularly a territorial battle, it was a fertile ground for ‘hell on earth’. British and American movies, at least, tend to emphasise heroism and, in the case of the former, contribute to the myth of British exceptionalism; a myth that’s been shown for what it’s worth during the current pandemic. Indeed, the recent VE day celebrations erased the Soviet contribution as if they had never been allies. The extreme right wing newspaper, the Daily Mail, even called the day ‘Victory over Europe’ somewhat ironic as, before the war, it was on the side of Hitler and no doubt would be today.

Director Sergey Loznitsa adapted Vasily Bykov’s novel which focuses on the consequences of an act of sabotage against the occupying Nazis. It was Loznitsa’s second film as director; he’s probably better known for Maidan (Ukraine-Netherlands, 2014) that documented the uprising in the Ukraine. In the Fog did compete for the Palmes d’Or at Cannes and although the tension sags occasionally it’s a fascinating film (available until May 23 on the Kino Klassika website).

The film’s narrative unveils itself through a series of flashbacks (although there is one scene that I cannot fit into the narrative at all; I must have missed something) that piece together how we come to the opening situation where Burov (Vladislav Abashin), a partisan, has come to punish Sushenya (Vladimir Svirskiy). This is preceded by a virtuoso long take, hand held camera through the village where the Nazis are staging an execution. The characters are taciturn, seemingly doing ‘what a man’s got to do’; what is striking about Alexievich’s book is how different the women she interviewed dealt with their war experiences compared to men who had sunk into silence. Sushenya, even though he does eventually explain what happened, knows that words are useless and he’s as trapped as Josef K is in The Trial.

Oleg Mutu’s cinematography captures to glorious beauty of the forest but I found the night time scenes less credible. Other than the uncinematic virtual darkness, night time in the countryside is incredibly hard to film; however, even taking that into account, I kept expecting to see an arc light appear in the scene: it was distracting.

That didn’t distract from the power of the film and its central metaphor: the fog of war. In Errol Morris’ documentary of that title (full title: The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, US, 2003) the US Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War candidly explained his reasoning for the brutality of war. Whether you agreed with him or not probably depends upon your political orientation but the fog our protagonists deal with is not abstract, they are in it. In the UK, many on the right are telling teachers to ‘be brave’ and go back to school (Private Schools, which the elite attend, are shut until September): keyboard warriors happy to have others take the risk. In the Fog firmly places the spectator in the nightmare ensuring the film speaks to our emotions.

 

 

 

A Russian Youth (Malchik russkiy, Russia, 2019)

War child

This Russian war film is on MUBI throughout most of May and is well worth seeing. It’s writer-director Alexander Zolotukhin’s feature debut and plugs itself immediately into the Soviet ‘tradition’ of children at war; particularly Ivan’s Childhood and Come and See (Idi i smotri, 1985) (in nation state terms Russian and Belarusian respectively). The film’s protagonist, Alexey (Vladimir Korolov), even has a resemblance to Ivan (below) though he’s naive compared to the latter’s knowingness; it’s so long since I’ve seen Elem Klimov’s masterpiece that I need to put myself through that gruelling experience again.

Ivan’s childhood

Whilst the film is recycling the ‘war is hell’ trope it’s something that can never be said too often; Brexiteers spent far too much time arguing ‘we survived the Blitz, we can survive Brexit’ as if the Nazi bombing of London had been a good thing. In the UK we have far too much fondness for war metaphors; apparently we’re at war with Covid-19 and NHS and care workers without the required PPE are ‘fallen heroes’; this is despicable propaganda. So we’re ready for another war movie that shows it to be shit; particularly about World War I which was a pointless war. Zolotukhin, however, doesn’t do the film straight, he interleaves footage from the war with a modern day rehearsal of Rachmaninov with Russian youths of today in the Tavrichesky Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Mikhail Golikov. The plangent strains of Rachmaninov do sometimes merge with events of 100 years earlier and, toward the end, a dissonant mix of different music enhances the devastation we are seeing on screen. According to Anke Leweke this doesn’t ‘interrupt the narrative flow, but rather translate[s] motifs and themes into an acoustic resonance chamber.’ I wish she had explained what that meant. For me the clash of two worlds: documentary and fiction serve both to alienate and annoy.

Another device Zolotukhin uses is cinematography that looks like it was shot at the time, such is its graininess, and has been colourised in the same way as Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old (UK-New Zealand, 2018). Apparently cinematographer Ayrat Yamilov used a damaged celluloid filter to give it the ‘old and damaged’ film effect (Goi); whereas Mark Jenkins, in Bait, used post-production processes to get a similar look. I couldn’t watch much of Jackson’s film as the obvious disconnect between the actuality footage and the contrivance of colour and the soundtrack (where ambient sounds were obviously added) shrieked falsity and I didn’t feel I was getting an insight into what we were seeing. Because A Russian Youth is fiction, this artifice didn’t matter and worked to give an authenticity to what we were seeing. Clearly, for me, authenticity means a lack of overt manipulation whereas fiction, because its focus is usually ’emotional truth’ rather than on what was real, can manipulate all it likes as long as it convinces me.

A Russian Youth is a striking debut that and while it can’t hope to stand up to comparisons with the classics cited above it is worth seeing.

To the Ends of the World (Les confins du monde, France, 2018)

Retuning from the end of the world

Overall this in a impressive Vietnam film all the better for offering a French perspective albeit one infected by Orientalism that, you’d hope, would be critiqued in the 21st century. It was shown at the Cannes Director’s Fortnight suggesting artistic worth and writers Jérôme Beaujour and Guillaume Nicloux (who also directed) have produced a thoughtful consideration of the ‘hell on Earth’ the French occupation caused post-World War II.

Apparently the lead actor, Gaspard Ulliel, is the ‘face’ of the perfume Bleu de Chanel; it’s interesting that the role he plays here couldn’t be further from such frippery. We meet his Robert Tassen digging himself out of a pile of dismembered corpses and he remains traumatised throughout the film. If being embedded in fragments of bodies wasn’t enough, his brother and his sister-in-law were amongst the victims so he spends the film seeking revenge against the North Vietnamese ‘general’ (I can’t remember the actual rank) responsible. The man clearly needs to be sent home for treatment but he refuses.

He seeks solace in drink and then is enraptured by mysterious prostitute Maï (Lang Khê Tran) which is where the Oriental cliche appears. To be fair there is a little more to her character than a cipher; we do get a sense that though she cares for Robert she knows that the reality of her situation means affection is meaningless. Throughout we do not have any sense of what the Vietnamese thought about the colonial power and the civil war; they seem mostly to be shown as an untrustworthy bunch. In this it was bit like watching a film from the 1970s, such as The Deer Hunter (US, 1978). Incidentally both the violence and sex scenes are explicit and I would have expected it to have been certified an 18 if it had been released in the UK (erect penises feature). However, the Myfrenchfilmfestival suggests 16+, which shows the difference between French and UK regulation, and I have no problem with that. I do wonder, though, at the suggestion 13+ on Amazon Prime.

Ulliel is excellent as the morally emptied soldier and I enjoyed Gérard Depardieu’s ex-pat who occasionally rumbles into the soldier’s life to offer advice. I’m not sure what his character, Saintonge, represents; the first part of his name suggests ‘holy’ but I didn’t get that. I also didn’t understand why one character had to ‘come out’ as gay just before dying.

The Cave (Syria-Denmark-Germany-Qatar-US, 2019) – LFF6

Seeing and believing

A documentary set in an underground hospital regularly peppered with bombs and rockets: what’s not to like? It wasn’t as gruelling an experience as I expected because of the amazing fortitude displayed by the staff, particularly paediatrician and hospital administrator Amani Ballour. She not only has to deal with the patients, and the logistics of an under-resourced hospital in inhospitable circumstances, but also the ingrained sexism of some of her patients! The film celebrates the good in people even when they are victims of what can only be characterised as evil.

The ‘rights and wrongs’ in the world are possibly more blurred than ever as misinformation infiltrates information. The fact that this is a National Geographic presentation raises a question mark with me as America has a particular agenda in the conflict. Director Feras Fayyad was Oscar nominated for Last Man in Aleppo (Denmark-Syria, 2017), which I haven’t seen, that focused on the work of White Helmets. These appear to be engaged in criminal activities (this apparently was not the subject of Fayyad’s film); elsewhere it is suggested that they are victims of Russian propaganda… So although The Cave appears to be absolute authentic we should (always) be sceptical.

The documentary is primarily observational with occasional voiceover from Ballour. However, Fayyad’s use of sound is more in keeping with a fiction film as it uses a design that emphasises the immense cacophony of a military attack; brilliantly done – Peter Albrechtsen supervised 16 sound technicians according to imdb . Matthew Herbert’s score, too, seeks to squeeze the emotion out of the spectator. These are both extremely effective but also leave question marks over the image, as if what we’re seeing isn’t enough to make us believe the terrible events. Similarly, the end credits state the film is based on Ballour’s diaries and so the observational rhetoric of the film is tempered by subjectivity; to what extent did Fayyad stage events recorded in Ballour’s diary? I’m not suggesting subterfuge (after all the source is credited) but The Cave is clearly not a straightforward presentation of Fayyad’s experiences.

Apparently 500 hours of footage was filmed, which took a year to edit. A chemical attack in Ghouma, that took place in 2013, serves as the climax. At least I think it was a chemical attack; again we must understand that misinformation is rife, for example the apparent chemical attack last year in Douma is highly contentious. I’m not saying the attack shown in the film didn’t happen; how can I know? All documentaries are representations of reality but what’s real in Syria is nebulous at best from the perspective of a cosseted westerner in a London cinema.

The observational stance the documentary takes means we learn nothing of the logistics of supplying food and medicines to the hospital. Though it is understandable why Fayyad rarely steps out of ‘the cave’, this means the film raises as many questions as it seems to answer. One telling line, from Ballour, is when she asks ‘is there a God?’ The same question had arisen in The Two Popes, that I’d seen a couple of hours earlier, with reference to the Argentinean military junta’s atrocities. The answer given by The Cave, as I read it, is ‘no’.

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.

The Demi-Paradise (UK, 1943)

Stranger times

The Demi-Paradise was one of the propaganda films produced during World War II to ensure the ‘imagined community’ of Britain both knew what they were fighting for and that they would win. It’s particularly interesting as part of the film’s project was to emphasise that the Soviet Union was our friend and ally. Laurence Olivier plays a Russian engineer designing a revolutionary (‘geddit?’) propellor being built in England. I say ‘England’ because we are in the ‘jolly hockey sticks’ land of the middle class south; Joyce Grenfell even makes an appearance.

Being British isn’t anything to be proud of at the moment because of our humiliating government and the right-wing isolationism of Brexit. Indeed the tosspots who want us out even state that because we survived the war we can survive being outside the EU. Self harm won’t matter, it seems, as long as Johnny Foreigner keeps his distance. They might do well to watch this film as, even though it’s full of middle class paternalism, there is a real sense that ‘we are all in it together’ (a phrase recycled by George Osborne as he proceeded to screw to poor for the benefit of the rich). Felix Aylmer’s patriarch, and owner of the shipyard, rails against income tax, complaining that ’10 shillings in the pound’ (50%) should be higher! The Russians are praised of course, in stark contrast into the Russophobe propaganda we are fed these days (no I do not like Putin).

Another striking moment is when the workers insist they’ll deliver what’s required. The first to speak out is on old woman who’s later seen soldering. A bloke follows stating that ‘where women go we won’t be far behind’. That would be a pretty amazing statement of female empowerment even nowadays.

The film was produced and scripted by Anatole de Grunwald whose parents had fled the Soviet Union and he very effectively brings an outsider’s view on some of the absurdities of upper middle class life; most particularly the pageants that seemed to have been popular at the time. I’m not sure if it is a British trait that we can laugh at ourselves, a very healthy aptitude, but de Grunwald seems to think so and his satire is affectionate.

Olivier’s ‘love interest’ is played by Penelope Dudley-Ward, daughter of a socialite and so is well cast in the depths of the plummy accents that surround her. Despite my antipathy she is engaging in the role; she retired from acting after marrying director Carol Reed. There are several character actors, that run through British cinema like writing in rock, dotted about the movie including George Cole, John Laurie, Margaret Rutherford and Wilfred Hyde-White (who even manages his trademark sardonic smirk in the role of a waiter with 10 seconds of screen time).

The Demi-Paradise is nowhere near being a great film; it is a competent one. However, as a taste of fraternity between nations who are only enemies because it suits the establishments of both nations to be so, it is well worth seeing. The title’s a quote form Richard II (Shakespeare) by the way.

Chris the Swiss (Switzerland, 2018) – LIFF7

A child trying to understand

The horrors of the civil war in former Yugoslavia should not be forgotten and debut director (who also scripted) Anja Kofmel investigates the time and place through a personal journey. Her cousin, Christian Würtenberg, was a fearless journalist who was killed when Kofmel was eight years old. Twenty years later she, and the film crew, try to find out how he died.

Of course there’s no doubting the heartfelt nature of the documentary, it supplements actuality footage and interviews with animation, the visual style of which is apparently derived from a nightmare she had as a child about Chris’ death. However, although we do find out details about Chris’ demise, the detective work feels perfunctory and doesn’t reveal much about the war (except Opus Dei seem to have been involved with the Pope’s blessing). Although Kofmel wrote the script in the first person, and she appears on camera, the English voiceover is spoken by New Zealander Megan Gay in a middle class English accent (at first I’d assumed Kofmel to be English because of this). The credits also list a ‘German narrator’. I’m not sure of the point of doing this but it distanced me from the narrative, which, given its personal nature, was a disadvantage.

It was difficult to gauge the reliability of the interviewees and, although the conclusion is convincing, the reasons behind Chris’ death necessarily remain speculative. The animation, an expressionist monochrome, looks good but features evil-like skittering black things that are too close to Hollywood and they undermine the realism of the documentary. The weak script renders commonplace the extraordinary events; maybe the film suffers overall because of Kofmel’s inexperience as a filmmaker. Certainly it is worth seeing, if only to remember the terrible time, but this personal journal does little to enlighten.

The Cruel Sea (UK, 1953)

The wobble beneath the lip

As a kid I saw many British war movies from the 1950s, World War II loomed over my generation as it had had a great impact on our parents, and no doubt they inculcated me with a belief that the British are the best. Maybe Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees Mog and their ilk watched too many war movies too but have never grown up. The genre requires many stiff upper lips in the face of adversity and there’s plenty of that in The Cruel Sea but also, strikingly, tears from the hero (Jack Hawkins) as a consequence of his necessary killing of British seamen. Apparently the producer Michael Balcon and director Charles Frend had doubts about the scene; it does stand out against the conventions of the time.

Less worthy is the film’s treatment of the working classes: the faithful efficient types are there but Stanley Baker’s first lieutenant is shown to be far too uppity (and drunk) – he was a used car salesman in ‘civvy street’ – so he has to be dispensed with by the narrative. Women exist only as a virgin-whore dichotomy: Virginia McKenna’s nice girl vs. Moira Lister’s promiscuous show-biz wife.

Charles Frend had directed documentaries during the war, for example San Demetrio London (1943), as well as propaganda fiction films, such as The Foreman Went to France (1942), so he knew his onions. Documentary footage of sea battles – the film mostly focuses on ‘the battle of the Atlantic’ – are used but only serve to show up the weakness of the model work. To cavil about the (relatively) poor special effects misses the point; the film succeeds in giving us a sense of how terrifying the experience must have been. Frend also goes for some distinctive close-ups of characters to reveal their inner turmoil.

The ‘fifties cycle of war films can be seen as reassuring audiences of Britain’s greatness as it divested itself of the Empire and lost its preeminent position in world affairs (memo to Farage et. al.: ‘we no longer have an Empire’). The films celebrated the extraordinary war time effort but The Cruel Sea, at its conclusion, also reminds us of the futility of war when rescued German seaman are described as being ‘no different to us’ and Hawkins’ commander comments that they’d only sunk two U-boats in five years as they sail past numerous captured vessels.

The film was a box office hit, did good business in America, and made a star of Hawkins.

Dunkirk (UK, 1958)

Done before Nolan

In a Sight & Sound  interview about his Dunkirk Christopher Nolan suggested he was filling a gap in film history. Presumably, like me, he was ignorant of Ealing’s 1958 version and it is a good that the earlier film has now been unearthed. Directed by Leslie Norman, and based on Elleston Trevor’s novel The Big Pick Up and two historical books, the Ealing picture takes a more expansive view, following troops, led by John Mills’ working class corporal, making their way to the coast and Bernard Miles’ sceptical journalist who ends up joining the rescue flotilla. I expected a typical British ’50s war film, where the glories of the war are celebrated during a time when the country’s world status was in steep decline (a bit like now really), however it is an often subtle look at the nuances of the ‘phoney war’ and official incompetence.

Although it cannot match the spectacle of last year’s film it is a big budget movie and the Dunkirk beach scenes are superbly done. In addition to Mills and Miles, Richard Attenborough guilds the cast playing a slight variant on his ‘coward’ persona. I shall have to revisit ’50s British war films as they clearly are not all designed to make the likes of Simon Heffer stand to attention – in a BBC documentary he declared that the theme music of The Dambusters (I think) was enough to make him want to do so.