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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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.

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.

The Beguiled (US, 2017)

My eyes were dim

Another low-medium budget US film (after me complaining about their decline) but in spite of the rave reviews, and Cannes recognition, this remake of the Clint Eastwood 1971 version, of Thomas Cullinan’s 1968 novel, did not hit my buttons. I’d be interested to see the earlier version again, directed by testosterone-fuelled Don Siegel, to compare with Sofia Coppola’s adaptation. I remember enjoying the original film but not why I did. Is it the feminine sensibility of the remake that disengaged me? (Hope not).

One problem I had was with the extremely low light levels, many of the interiors are (apparently) only candle lit; I kept nodding off (end of term exhaustion). The cast is great: Kidman and Dunst in particular. I like the way Colin Farrell appeared to be cast against type, at least for the first part of the film. However, I struggled to understand his motivation: was he flirting with the women ‘naturally’ or calculatedly? I couldn’t connect his ‘second part’ melt down (though it was understandable that he was angry) with the charmer of the first part. Was that the script or performance? Either way, Coppola is responsible.

The opening shot looked fake to me. It’s a Southern Gothic forest that appears to be out of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ but it looked stylised. It may have been (mostly or all) real but one of the problems of modern CGI is the plasticity of digital effects (though The Beguiled was shot on film that doesn’t preclude digital manipulation) have corrupted (in my eyes) the contract of film that asserts the pro filmic image is real. Of course special effects have been a part of cinema virtually since its inception, however CGI has lost its ‘wow’ factor through its ability to show anything. I rarely find any ‘visible’ special effect awesome. Most effects are ‘invisible’, such as eradicating a jet’s stream from the sky, but when a scene doesn’t look real it’s easy to think CGI is to blame and so from the first shot of the film I was (slightly) disengaged because I didn’t believe the image. That is, the image’s verisimilitude didn’t convince me. I apologise for the meandering paragraph but CGI has changed the way I watch films and I’m trying to understand how.

At the conclusion of the film, where Southern Gothic was writ largest, I did start to enjoy the movie. Kidman’s a fine actor and her shift between ladylike and malevolence was virtually imperceptible. It’s great to see her getting great roles again.