Category Archives: Film reviews

Film review – Ex Machina

Main cast

Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb

Alicia Vikander as Ava

Oscar Isaac as Nathan

Sonoya  Mizuno as Kyoko

Directed by Alex Garland

This is yet another film exploring the potential of digital technology to radically change our lives. The  subject  here is the relationship between advanced humanoid robots and humans, but with a twist, namely,  can sexual attraction arise between a human and a robot and can that attraction move on to something resembling deep emotional attachment?

The basic  plot is simple. A young  computer coder, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) thinks he has won a competition at his workplace, the prize being  a week  on an isolated  research station with Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the boss of  the company for whom Caleb works.   In fact, there is no competition and he has been chosen simply as an experimental subject.

When Caleb reaches the research station he finds it occupied  by  Nathan and what he thinks is a female  Asian servant  Kyoto.   There are no other people on the research station. In fact there are only two humans for Kyoto is a robot.

Nathan asks  Caleb to  perform a Turing test. The classical version of  the test  consists of a human interacting with an artificial intelligence (AI) without knowing whether they are dealing with an AI or another human being.  The test is passed if  the human is convinced the AI is human. But this is a Turing test  with a twist.   Caleb knows what he is dealing with, a humanoid robot called  Ava (Alicia Vikander).

Caleb’s ostensible task is to see whether Ava convinces as a human interlocutor, despite the fact that he knows she is a machine.    But his real function is to see how readily  a human being will accept a machine that he or she  knows to be a machine  as a quasi-human being, or at least an intelligence which a human can relate to  as they would relate to another human being.

To make matters more complicated  Ava is physically  portrayed  as  a machine.   She , for want of a better word, is humanoid, but her  non-human   status is made only too visible with every part of her but  the  face, hands and feet  being   rather obviously  those  of a robot rather than a human,  for example, by having some of her machine components nakedly exposed.   As a further barrier to emotional involvement  there is no physical contact between Caleb and Ava because  a transparent screen separates  them.

As the film progresses Ava becomes more and more human to Caleb not only because of the developing relationship between the two f, but in the  way Ava  presents herself physically. She puts a wig over her skull and wears a dress which obscures her machine structure.  With these accoutrements she resembles an attractive woman.

That Caleb should develop  an emotional relationship with Ava is extremely plausible. Just think of the emotional investment that people make in their pets. Reflect on the habit  humans often  have of adorning inanimate objects with some of the qualities of they respond to in humans and animals or on their  sentimental attachment to objects which are associated with those they care about or of events which are important to them.  Humans have a strong innate desire to form  relationships with the external world.   That they might form  deep emotional relationships  with intelligent machines is utterly believable.  (The recent film Her which featured a highly intelligent operating system forming a relationship its male owner covers exactly this ground.)

Caleb learns  more and more about what is going on. He discovers  that Kyoto is a robot and  sees  unanimated bodies of earlier model robots. He finds out that he did not win a competition but was chosen by  Nathan not for his IT skills but for his personality and personal  circumstances, for example, Caleb  is heterosexual and   single (which makes him vulnerable to female attention). Nathan  has also used  developed Ava to appeal to Caleb by basing  Ava’s general physical appearance on Caleb’s  Internet  pornography searches to make her attractive to Caleb.

Caleb is fascinated by Nathan’s AI techniques but disturbed the way he  is being manipulated. After he has already become seriously  emotionally involved with Ava, he  is naturally upset when Nathan tells him that if Ava fails the Turing test  she will  be updated  with her memory wiped. This  will destroy her as the  personality he knows, in fact, be the AI equivalent of death.  Consequently,   Caleb plots with Ava for the pair of them to escape .  In fact, this is the  real  Turing test which Nathan has devised, namely to see if Ava can be convincingly human enough to trick Caleb into helping her escape, an escape Nathan smugly but wrongly believes is impossible.

Ava makes choices for herself in a way which is both human and inhuman. Her final actions at the research centre would be seen as  psychopathic  in a human because she single-mindedly seeks  her ends without regard to what she has to do to attain them. Ava  has  manipulated Caleb without any emotional  investment on her part.  But at the same time she has  a fundamental  component of consciousness, namely, her  own  desired ends  which go beyond mere mechanical programming. Ava wants to escape to satisfy her curiosity as well as to retain her existence as Ava.  She is not a quasi-human but something new, neither insensate machine nor  organic life.

The film ends with Ava showing what a difference there is between a machine intelligence and a human one. Caleb does not escape nor Nathan live to see the end of his experiment. Only Ava  leaves the research station and leaves it without any sense of loss or shame at her betrayal of Caleb.  But because the character is a robot her behaviour does not seem heinous as it would do in a human. It merely seems as innocent of blame as a predatory animal killing its prey.

The performances of  Gleeson, Isaacs and Vikander are all strong, not least because the film is very well cast. . Gleeson has an  appropriately  shambling geekiness  and clumsiness in his relationship with other people and   Isaac is a  dominant brooding psychopathic  presence.   But the real star  is Vikander . She  is weirdly convincing as a being who is at least half the way to being human.   Her realisation of the role  makes the robot flicker in and out of her performance. Vikander, a professional dancer, gives Ava a fluid grace of moment which does not seem quite natural; she speaks in a pleasantly modulated and controlled way but with little variation of emotion; her face is not expressionless but there is a very  restricted range of expression. The overall effect is of an  ethereal other-worldly being. The film is worth seeing for her performance alone.

The Emperor’s New Clothes (2015) – It’s the rich wot has the pleasure and the poor wot gets the blame.

Robert Henderson

Narrator: Russell Brand

Director:   Michael Winterbottom

This documentary shamelessly mimics  Michael Moore  with a large dollop  of  “The smartest guys in the room” thrown in for good measure.  The end  product is a tepid imitation of Moore’s style   and a rather better pastiche of The smartest guys in the room.

Like a Moore documentary there is much in the film which is shocking: the greed and irresponsibility of the bankers:  the overt or tacit  collusion of  politicians which allowed  bankers to be effectively unregulated  in the run up to the 2008 crash; the failure to punish  with the criminal law any of those who were responsible for the banking crash; the ability of the likes of  Fred Goodwin  (the erstwhile CEO of the Royal Bank of Scotland)   to walk away with a pension worth hundreds of thousands a year after wrecking  through his megalomania for expansion  one of the largest banks in the world. More generally the film also makes much of the  growing inequality in Britain.

Sounds intriguing? But the problem is Brand, unlike Moore, never manages to get to quiz any of those responsible or even to  embarrass them  by getting close enough to shout questions at them.   This is in large part simply a consequence of Brand /Winterbottom choosing a subject – bankers’ recklessness –  where getting to speak  to the culprits was a  obvious non-starter.  But  that makes a large part of the  film’s  approach  an anticipatable and hence avoidable  mistake.

A fair bit of the film features Brand arriving at the head of office of, say,  a high street bank, daringly entering the  public foyer  and then hitting a brick wall of indifference as he is left to grill receptionists and security guards on the wickedness of their employers.   The result  is  underwhelming the first time he uses the ploy, but moves from underwhelming to  irritating as the  device is repeated several times.  The nadir of this  “beard them in their lairs” tactic  is  Brand’s  arrival at the home of  Lord Rothermere  (whose family own amongst other publications the  Daily Mail) to tackle Rothermere about his non-dom status. After  Brand  had vaulted over a wall to show his rebel devil-may-care  tendencies, the scene ended with him conducting a meaningless conversation with a bemused housekeeper via an answerphone.  There was a vapidity about all these scenes which robbed them of their potentially humorous situational content based on the incongruity of what Brand was asking rank and file employees.  In the end it was simply Brand behaving boorishly.

All of this tedious , ineffective and self-regarding guff is wrapped within an ongoing theme of  Brand  “going back to his roots”   to  his childhood  town of in Grays in Essex.  (Brand is part of what Jerome K Jerome  called “Greater Cockneydom”).   He is  certainly much  friendlier  in his dealing with the  white workingclass than the vast majority of those on the Left these days who  tend to approach them  with all the delight of someone trying to avoid dog excrement on a pavement,  but there is a cloying quality to his relationship with those he meets as though he is playing in a rather ham fashion  the  part of a cockney sparrow returning  to its  long deserted nest.   He is also rather too keen to prove his street cred- there is an especially  cringeworthy episode where Brand  vaults a underground barrier and claims he has dodged the fare.  More damagingly perhaps, was that  hanging over his  words on the state of the have-nots and the misbehaviour of the haves hung  the fact that Brand is a rich man, a fact he tried  to address by trying to make a very feeble  joke indeed  about the fact.

Ironically Brand  displays a strong conservatism with a small ‘c’  when he laments the change from the Grays of his youth as a place where  the shops were run by local people and  “all the money spent in the town stayed in the town” to a modern Grays of boarded up shops and multinationals who suck the money and by implication the sense of community out of the place.

That is too black and white a view of then and now, but I can sympathise with Brand’s general nostalgia for the not so distant past. My memory tells me  that people were generally more content  forty years ago.  The trouble is that Brand completely fails to do is address the thing which has most dramatically changed places such as Grays namely, mass immigration, which of course is all part of the globalist ideology he purports to loathe.    That he should avoid the immigration issue is unsurprising because it is part of the credo of the modern Left that it is nothing but an unalloyed boon, but it does undermine horribly the credibility of the film as  an honest representation of reality .

The most nauseating part of the film involved Brand using an audience of  primary school children (at his old school) to  get his message across  by feeding them with the most intrusive sort of leading questions along the lines of  “Bankers earn zillions of pounds a year while the person who cleans their boardroom takes home fifty quid a week: is that fair?”  The children were charming, but using children as ideological props is a cheap shot at best and abusive at worst.

The film is at its best  when Brand is working from a script with  crisp graphics and commentary  in the style of The Smartest Guys in the Room. The  cataloguing of  the excesses of the financial industry and the stubborn refusal of the authorities in Britain to bring criminal charges against any board member of  the institutions which were responsible,   even the banks  which required  bailing out by the taxpayer, was  angering. Comparing this escape  from punishment  by high ranking bankers (who invariably  left  loaded with huge amounts of money on their departure from the offending banks)   with the many, often quite severe,  custodial sentences handed out to the 2011 rioters for stealing items worth at most a few hundred pounds and often for much  less  showed a reality that lived up unhesitatingly to the old refrain  “It’s the rich wot has the pleasure and the poor wot gets the blame” .

There is also some strong stuff about the growing inequality in Britain and the thing which with frightening speed is creating a massive generational divided, namely, the grotesque cost of housing which has removed from most of this generation any chance of buying a property  and forcing people  increasingly into extremely expensive  private rented accommodation.   But here again, the immigration issue was left untouched.

The film missed  several important ricks.  One of the scandals about the way bankers have been able to walk away from the 2008 crash without any serious action being taken against them is  that there has been no attempt to apply  the provisions in the Companies  Act  relating to directors behaviour. These provisions  allow the removal of personal limited liability  from  directors  where they have behaved in a reckless fashion. Remove their limited liability and creditors, including the government on behalf of taxpayers,  could seek  every penny they hold.

Then there is the extraordinary fact that the shareholders of the bailed out banks  still hold shares worth something.  The banks  were irredeemably insolvent when the Labour government bailed them out. The shareholders should have lost everything.  This fact  went unexamined.

But the film’s greatest  failure is to spend far too  little time role that politicians played in the economic disaster through their lack of regulation and the aftermath of the 2008 crash.  For example,  there was nothing on the  Lloyds TSB’s  takeover of  the HBOS which ended up capsizing Lloyds.  This takeover was done at the behest of Gordon Brown  and turned Lloyds TSB from a solvent bank with a reputation for prudence and caution into a bank which had to be bailed out by the British taxpayer. The bank is now the subject of a civil action by disgruntled shareholders who claim they were misled by  Lloyds about the state of HBOS.

Much of what Brand dislikes  I also dislike. Like him I deplore  globalisation because it is destabilising at best and dissolves  a society at worst ; like him I think it a monumental scandal that neither the main actors in the financial crash nor the politicians who had left the financial services industry so poorly regulated  were ever brought to book; like him I am dismayed  at the growing inequality in Britain  and the particular  disaster  that is the ever worsening British housing shortage.  But the film offers no coherent or remotely practical  solution to the ills of the age. It is simply a rage against the machine and like all such rages ultimately leaves its audience dissatisfied after the initial adrenal surge of sympathetic anger.

Politically incorrect film reviews – Selma takes the wrong road to watchability

Robert Henderson

Main cast

David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr.

Tom Wilkinson as Lyndon B. Johnson

Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King

Dylan Baker as J. Edgar Hoover

Tim Roth as George Wallace

Director Ava DuVernay

Selma is the latest in an ever lengthening list of  propaganda films in the politically correct interest. It is Alabama 1965. Martin Luther King is already internationally famous after his “I have a dream “ speech   in 1963 and  the award of the Nobel Peace prize in 1964. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is meeting with resistance and black voters  are  finding they still cannot  register to vote because of the application of local electoral regulations  in ways which are comically restrictive.   King goes to the city of Selma with a clutch of supporters from the  Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)  to protest  about this thwarting of the law, but their  attempts to help  blacks  register in the city   fail.  As a consequence  a protest march  from Selma to Montgomery , the Alabama state capital, is planned.  The first march is stopped brutally, the second aborted by King and the third allowed to happen.

That is the skeleton of the film.  There is precious little solid  dramatic flesh put on the skeleton. To be brutally frank Selma   is boring. It is too wordy,  too cluttered with characters,  too  didactic and unremittingly earnest.  These are qualities guaranteed to lose any cinema audience.  The problem is particularly acute when, as here,  there is an large cast.   Disputes and debates between King  and his supporters or between King  and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) are so extended and detailed that anyone not familiar with the story would not know what to make of it  and, in any case, as anyone who has ever been involved with an ideologically driven political group will be only too aware,  of little interest to anyone who has not been captured by the ideology. Reflecting life too exactly  on film is not always the best  way to keep people’s attention.  Propaganda films do not have to be boring, although  they often are. The black director Spike Lee would have made a much less sprawling and vastly  more watchable film whilst keeping the ideological message.

There is also a woeful and wilful  lack of historical context.  This one has at its core  a  vision of wicked Southern good ol’ boys  oppressing  blacks.  White involvement is restricted to racists with a penchant for violence,  a few white sympathisers with the civil rights movement who  appear peripherally,  adorned with looks of sublimely smug  unquestioning  utopian naivety not see on film since the initial sighting of a hippy commune in Easy  Rider and Lyndon Johnson who  is shown as sympathetic to King’s views but not interested enough to risk his political future by wholeheartedly embracing the legislation which King says is necessary .  There is  no attempt to see things from the viewpoint of the whites who opposed integration, unlike, for example, a film such as In the Heat of the Night in which  Rod Steiger’s sheriff  attempts  to explain why whites in the South are as they are because of their circumstances,  for example, their  widely held and not unreasonable fear that a black population which has been suppressed may turn on whites . Instead  Selma just rushes in and  points the finger of moral shame at any white who does not uncritically embrace what King advocates with a complete disregard from the fact that  every human being  morally and sociologically has  to start from the  situation into which they are born.

The concentration of the film on a specific time and place is also  problematic, because King’s  ideological  career was a far more complex  thing than the film can show. It also  removes the embarrassment which would have hung around a straightforward biopic of King, such as  the  plagiarism which gained him a doctorate and  his marginalisation as a civil rights leader which eventually saw him reduced to going to support sewage workers at the time of his assassination.  Mention is made of his gross  womanising, but only in the context of a sex tape recorded by the FBI which was sent to King’s wife  Cora. The fact that some who were close to him said  he had a particular  liking for white women – which could be taken as evidence of racism in King if his motive was to revenge himself on whites by abusing their women –  goes unmentioned .  Indeed, it is rather odd that a man as celebrated as King is in the USA  and with a worldwide reputation should never have had a full blown biopic. Perhaps the answer is that King’s private life was too messy to deal with in a film depicting his entire public  life rather than a short period of it devoted to a specific subject.

More importantly the tight focus in Selma  means that the fifty odd years since Selma  go unexamined.  No honest  person  would deny that the position of blacks in the USA and particularly those in the Old South was demeaning at the beginning of the 1960s,  but is what has  replaced segregation and Jim Crow laws  really that much better for most blacks or, perhaps more pertinently, anywhere near what King hoped would happen? Perhaps  the answer to the first question is a tepid  yes, at least for  blacks who have benefitted from  “positive discrimination”,  but it has to be an unequivocal no to the  latter.   Segregation by choice has replaced segregation by law. Illegitimacy  and crime amongst  blacks has rocketed. A fair case could be made for  the  individual  personal relationship between whites and blacks being worse now that it was fifty years ago.

Tom Wilkinson is very decent  LBJ but  David Oyelowo  does not quite cut it as King. It is not that it is technically a bad performance, it is simply that he does not capture the charisma that King undoubtedly had.  His  portrayal of King keeps a question nagging away at one: why would any one have followed this rather drab character?  The rest of the cast do not really have time to develop their roles, although Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King and Tim Roth as George Wallace have their moments.

The insubstantial quality of the film can be judged by the  meagre  Oscar recognition and  its  popularity with the public by the money it has taken.   The film was nominated for  Best Picture  and best song but for nothing else, which is a rather remarkable thing.  Nor did it win as best picture. A public  fuss was made about Ava DuVernay and  David Oyelowo being left out of Best Director and Best Actor categories,  but only in the context of no black actors and directors being nominated.  Considering the public political correctness the American film business emits,  it is rather difficult to imagine that the tepid response to Selma by the Oscar granting Academy voters was the result of racism.  In fact its nomination as Best Picture despite having no nominations in the directing and acting categories suggests that the opposite happened, Selma was nominated for Best Picture regardless of its mediocrity as a sop to political correctness.

The public also responded in less than passionate fashion. As of 16 April Selma had taken $52,076,908 worldwide which placed it 57th in the top grossing films of the previous 365 days.  Not  bad in purely commercial terms  for a film which cost $20 million to make, but distinctly underwhelming  for a film lauded to the skies by most critics and many public figures.  The truth is that people both in the States and abroad have not been that drawn to it, whether  because of the subject or the indifferent quality of the film.  One  can  take the browbeaten horses of the Western world to the politically correct water but they can’t make many of them drink.

The pernicious nature of a film like this is not that it casts whites as the villain,  but that it gives blacks and excuse for anything that goes wrong in their lives, the prize of an inexhaustible victimhood

Film reviews – 50 Shades of Grey (tedium)

Main cast

Dakota Johnson – Anastasia Steele

Jamie Dornan  – Christian Grey

Eloise Mumford  –   Kate

Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson

Running time 125 minutes

Imagine a script written by Barbara Cartland  after she had developed an  interest in  bondage and sado-masochism and you will be well on the way to understanding  exactly how dire this film is as  both a dramatic vehicle and a piece of pornography.

Anastasia (Dakota Johnson)  and her  best friend Kate (Eloise Mumford)share a flat.  They are university students well into their courses but behave like excitable fifteen-year-olds, gushingly and obsessively  talking about men whenever they are alone.  Sadly, for the politically correct, this means they fail the  Bechdel Test in traumatically emphatic fashion.  (The test was devised by  the cartoonist Alison Bechdel and judges the feminist credentials of a film by the number of occasions female characters talk together about something other than a man).

The film religiously follows the romantic tosh novel plot-by-numbers template.  Grey (Jamie Dorman) is  depicted as a self-made millionaire at the age of 27, a pianist of concert standard, a helicopter pilot and a glider pilot.  This is par for the romantic tosh novelist who loves nothing more than a  fabulously rich, ridiculously talented hero.  Amazingly, the man has achieved  all this despite being the son of a whore with a crack habit who died when he was four.  Another tick goes against the romantic tosh checklist, the troubled object of female desire.

When Anastasia  (classic romantic tosh writer name) is introduced by Christian ( classic romantic tosh writer name) to his family  the trouble object of female desire theme is ramped up with Grey’s  step mother  making  jolly clear that she is so glad to see Christian with such a nice girl because he needs a rock in his life.

Sadly, in view of the film’s racy reputation,  50 Shades of Grey  engages in what can only be described as  overly extended foreplay  with audience as it crawls so agonisingly slowly towards any erotic action that nothing happens for the first hour. Not to worry,  there is an inordinate amount of staring into one another’s eyes  with what are  meant to be meaningful looks.   Again, this  is absolutely in accordance with the romantic tosh template because  love or even raw desire  is not meant to rush headlong to its conclusion.

The dialogue is screenplay writing by numbers with no cliché or hideously obvious banality safe from  molestation. Here is a sample:

I have died a thousand deaths since Thursday.”

“I want to give you the world, Anastasia.”

“You’re the only person I’d fly three thousand miles to see.”

“Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit”

“I’m fifty shades of f*cked up”

The ending is classic romantic tosh novelist. Anastasia rushes from Christians flat to a lift.  Christian follows.  Anastasia enters the lift and looks out at Christian who has not entered the lift . Just before the lift door closes Christians says “Anastasia” and Anastasia cries “Christian” (accompanied by some some especially meaningful staring) before the lift  doors close and Anastasia sinks from view. There we have the frequently used  romantic tosh novel of  false lost love  ploy which experienced readers of romantic tosh novels  will realise is simply a signal for a future reunion of the ill-starred lovers.

As for the sado-masochism, this consists primarily of  Anastasia and  Grey looking at a roomful  glutted with  whips, canes, belts and so on  all neatly stacked on racks,  a few tentative smacks of Dakota Johnson’s bottom  and one short strapping sequence which was very obviously faked.

The real  pornography  in the film is not the sex but the unashamed vulgar material  excess , with Grey’s apartment and office  both in scale and the  self-conscious interior décor  falling effortlessly into the category of megalomaniac  chic.  His supposed desire for dominance is primarily displayed in inappropriately lavish and embarrassing  gifts.  When they barely know each other  Grey  sends Dakota first editions of nineteen century English writers such as Jane Austen because she has casually expressed an interest in such work.  Later he arranges to sell her  old banger of a car without telling her and replaces  it with a new and expensive vehicle.

Rather damagingly for the film, sexual chemistry between Johnson and Dornan is unambiguously absent.  Johnson lacks sexual excitement. Judged by Hollywood standards she is not ultra attractive which is what the role required as a bare minimum.   Worse,  her  character  has had  a vivacity bypass.   She is just dull, dull, dull.

As for Dornan’s Grey,  far from  depicting a dominant, charismatic man he gives the character  the persona of a petulant self-absorbed adolescent with a  most irritating  addiction to  moron’s profundity, namely, the emitting of pretentious banalities in a tone which suggests they are plumbing the most sonorous depths of  insightfulness.

The best that can be said for the rest  of the cast is that they valiantly manage to keep  straight faces whilst delivering  dialogue  which in common humanity   should have been labelled  as unfit for thespian use.  One can only hope they have not been permanently damaged by the experience.

The film fails both as a drama and as a piece of pornography, it being as  sexually arousing as an Enid Blyton story with much the same level of psychological complexity  but considerably  less development of plot.

Film review – Still Alice

Main Cast

Julianne Moore as Alice Howland

Alec Baldwin as John Howland

Kristen Stewart as Lydia Howland

Kate Bosworth as Anna Howland-Jones

Hunter Parrish as Tom Howland

Shane McRae as Charlie Jones

Stephen Kunken as Benjamin

Directors:  Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland

I am decidedly wary of films which revolve around  disability because they all too often dive into a morass of self-conscious sentimentality.   Just Alice avoids this fate  because of the excellence of Moore’s performance and the often selfish and neglectful  behaviour of her family, although, sadly,  there is a sentimental ending wholly out of keeping with the rest of the film.

Alice (Julianne Moore) is a  professor of linguistics at Columbia University   who  finds herself struggling with her memory and concentration.  At first it is just the odd word or name which escapes her, something that happens to all of us as we get older. But soon she is forgetting appointments and social occasions, finding herself disoriented in familiar surroundings and being unable to lecture coherently.  She meets people then a few minutes later has forgotten that she has met them. Worried, she sees a specialist and finds that she has early onset Alzheimer’s .

From that point onwards Alice stumbles  ever  further  into a world which  is increasingly  both incomprehensible and unmanageable.   At first she devises strategies such as writing three or four words  on a board and then covering it up for a time before trying to remember what she has written. She gives a talk to the Alzheimer’s Society which she is only able to do by highlighting each sentence as she speaks it to tell her what she has already said. She puts questions about people she knows such as their names and relationships on her phone and tries to answer them. But these exercises and stratagems become increasingly redundant as time passes as we watch a personality  shrinking as faculties are remorseless subtracted from her.

The diagnosis adds a further complication: Alice has a form of Alzheimer’s which is hereditary.  She  has three  adult  children, one of whom is pregnant with twins.  Her  eldest daughter, Anna (Kate Bosworth), tests positive for the Alzheimer’s gene;  her unborn twins test negative, as does her doctor son Tom. Alice’s youngest daughter, aspiring actor Lydia (Kristen Stewart) refuses to have the test.

While Alice still has most of  her marbles she tries prepare for  the time when she will not be able to look after herself. Under the pretence that she is looking for a place for her father she visits a retirement home which specialises in dementia cases  to get an idea of what the future will hold and comes away dismayed by what she sees, a host of  people defrocked  of their dignity and purpose.  Perhaps prompted by this dismal future she leaves a message for herself on  her computer  giving her future self instructions  about what to do when she can no longer answer questions such as Who is your eldest daughter?  These instructions consist of telling her where to find  a bottle of  pills (which will kill her if they are all taken in one go) and  to swallow the lot.

As her state worsens Alice forgets the recording giving her the instructions to kill herself, but inadvertently clicks on the computer file containing it when she is already well advanced in the decline of her mental powers. She  makes  several  abortive starts to find the pills because she keeps forgetting the instructions to find them on her way to the pills.  Eventually Alice  finds the bottle,  but just as she is about to take the pills someone returns to the house and the sound of them causes her to spill the pills onto the floor. The  interruption causes her to forget  why she  was holding the pills and her chance of escape from an increasingly undignified existence is lost without her even knowing that it existed.

Alice’s family are not outrageously   unsympathetic , but most of them display a greater concern for their own lives which leads  them to behave selfishly   in the face of   Alice’s growing needs.  Her husband John , a medical research scientist is negotiating a deal with the Mayo Clinic and eventually leaves his wife to take up a post a couple of hundred miles away,   the elder daughter Anna  is preoccupied with her pregnancy and  the  youngest daughter Lydia   displays the selfishness  and lack of patience of  a moody teenager, although in the end she  returns to look after her mother.

The acting is uniformly good with  Moore unreservedly first rate in her portrayal of someone shrinking from a confident adulthood to something less than a child. Just by her facial expressions she manages to give the impression as the film progresses of a mind becoming less and less functional until at the end there is little left other than vacancy.

It might be objected that by concentrating on a high performing individual the film misrepresents, even in a strange way  glamorises  Alzheimer’s,  because  someone  like Alice seems to have more to lose than most dementia sufferers , her diminishing to be of greater consequence .  This strikes me as a complaint without  substance.  It is true that the vast majority of Alzheimer’s patients will be people without any special intellectual distinction and perhaps the classic patient will be someone who is poor  with little education, but  there are plenty of  people in Alice’s situation, Iris Murdock being  a recent famous example.  Alice is not an anomaly  in the world of Alzheimer’s.

If the film has a weaknesses it is the very heavy handed  over egging of the poignancy of Alice’s situation.  Her background story is just too facile,  containing as it does the grand and obvious irony  that someone who knows so much about the workings of language is being stripped of that knowledge  and in the end of language itself . I think it would have been better if she had been an historian. The irony of her position would have still been telling  but more subtle and probably more apt, because she would have been a woman whose life involved knowing a great deal of the past having that knowledge eroded to nothing.

Then there is the making of the disease Alice carries hereditary.  Alzheimer’s can be inherited but the odds in real life are very much against it, with perhaps 5% of cases involving heredity.  By introducing the  chance of the disease being carried by the children the focus is unnecessarily  moved away from Alice’s  plight which is all that really matters here.

But these  are small quibbles  when placed in the context of the general excellence of the film.

American Sniper misses  the target – film review

Robert Henderson

Main cast

Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle

Sienna Miller as Taya Renae Kyle

Max Charles as Colton Kyle

Luke Grimes as Marc Lee

Kyle Gallner as Goat-Winston

Sam Jaeger as Captain Martens

Jake McDorman as Ryan “Biggles” Job

Sammy Sheik as Mustafa

Mido Hamada as The Butcher

Director Clint Eastwood

This is a frustrating film.  Eastwood as the director  guarantees that it is technically well made. It moves at a good pace, taken individually the action scenes in Iraq are dramatic  and  the subject  (the role of the sniper) is interesting in itself  and has novelty because  it is  not often extensively examined in film. And yet, and yet ….American Sniper has an emptiness, the sum of its parts being decidedly less than the parts.  The film ends up teetering on the edge of boring.

The large  majority  of the film is devoted to Kyle’s four tours of Iraq, with much of that screen time devoted to sniping and house-to-house searches.   Therein lies the first problem with the film as drama. The action  scenes become  repetitive because there is not that much difference from watching Kyle shoot one person from the top of a building and him doing the same thing to quite a few people.  Similarly, the house to house searching has a sameness about it when the streets look the same and the outcome is always  either dead bodies after an exchange of gunfire or the taking of prisoners.

There are attempts to vary the emotional content of  the sniping , for example the first people Kyle  shoots are a young boy and  his mother who are attempting to use a grenade against US soldiers. There are  also subplots involving an Iraqi sniper known as Mustapha  who is portrayed  as having a  duel with Kyle  (which Kyle wins)  and a search to find the  al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi which involves track of   al-Zarqawi’s second in command who known as the Butcher for his delightful habit of torturing people with an electric drill.

But all this generates a  most curious lack of tension because the events are rarely develop into  more than snapshots. Nor is there any sense that anything Kyle or his  comrades has any real purpose beyond the immediate end of preventing American troops from being harmed.  Ironically, what the film unintentionally does  is to provide  a depressing essay on  exactly how futile not only the Iraq war but any war fought by Western Armies in Third or Second world countries is fated to be.

The sniping action scenes are rather strange. Often Kyle is shown shooting from the same position on more than one occasion. This is a no no for a sniper unless he really cannot help it. Understandably snipers are both hated and feared by the other side for the constant threat they offer not only in reality but in their enemy’s mind.  Consequently, the enemy will  make great efforts to locate and kill snipers and the most likely way of doing that is if a sniper stays in the same position and shoots more than once. Modern sniper rifles come with equipment to dull and distort the direction of  sound  and suppress the flash of a round being fired but it is not a complete solution to the problem of giving away your position. To remain in the same position and fire other shots after the first round has been fired is just asking to be located and killed.  There is also an absurd episode towards the end of the film when Kyle shoots the sniper Mustapha at well over 1,000 yards range and in doing so alerts Iraqi insurgents to Kyle and his fellow soldiers’ whereabouts who immediately attack the building in which Kyle and his comrades are hiding.

Another baffling part of Kyle’s behaviour in the film was when he left his sniping position on his own initiative to join in the house to house searching and suffered no disciplinary action. I would have thought that going from his sniper’s position without orders and leaving the soldiers without sniper protection would have been a court martial offence.  (The idea of sniper protection in this situation is that a sniper is put on a high building overlooking the area  being searched by troops and shoots anyone who appears to be ready to attack the soldiers).

Because the film is trying to pack so many  action scenes in there is little opportunity for character development  even of Kyle who is rushed from one action scene to another  with breaks every now and then for a return to the States for leave with his wife. Apart from Cooper the only other character with an extensive part is Sienna Miller as Kyle’s wife Taya.  She is adequate in the part but it really does not demand much of her beyond  her agonising over how Kyle “isn’t here”  even when he is home.  The rest of the cast does what it has to do well enough  in the very  limited and unvaried scenes  in which they appear.

There is also a frustrating   lack of  context  for Kyle being in Iraq. Kyle’s motivation is ostensibly a simple unquestioning God-fearing  patriotism built upon the Bush Administration’s  line that the USA was in Iraq to protect Americans in America. That is reasonable enough  for Kyle’s character but there is nothing to balance that mentality, no character to challenge his imple faith.

Finally, then there is the problem of Cooper as Kyle.  Cooper  strikes me as one of those actors who can only play himself. That is not necessarily a problem as many film stars have shown, but the person must have a quality which makes them interesting such as  charm, menace, sexual  attraction.   For me Cooper lacks any exciting or engaging quality.  In American  Sniper he is seriously wrongly cast for this requires not only a convincing tough guy but a character with some emotional hinterland.  Cooper is unconvincing as a hard man  and displays  as much psychological subtlety as a brick wall. His limitations are  particularly exposed   in those parts  of the film where Lyle is home on leave. These   are designed to variously show Kyle’s detachment from ordinary life and addiction to living in a warzone, but these are very cursory and unconvincing.   Ryan Gosling in the role would have made the film much more interesting because he has both psychological depth and is a convincing hard man.

The ending of the film is deeply unsatisfactory from a dramatic point of view.  Originally the ending  was going to be centred around Kyle’s shooting to death by a disturbed ex-marine Eddie Ray Routh who has just been found guilty of murder and sentenced  to life in prison without parole. But Kyle’s wife asked them to drop the scene  and the director substituted a tepid ending showing Kyle leaving with Routh  to travel to the shooting range where the killing took place with a very  anxious Sienna Miller looking on as if she had a premonition of what was to happen, something which must  surely have been a post hoc addition to the real-life  story.  One can understand the wife’s reluctance to have the murder scene  removed but presumably she must have originally given it the thumbs up.

Judged by  the box office takings American sniper has been immensely  in the USA and criticism  of the film’s subject matter  has generated violent responses in the mainstream and social media . In particular, there has been ill-judged criticism from the likes of Michael Moore that snipers are cowards because they kill without putting themselves in dange. This is double-dyed nonsense. To begin with snipers are always having to guard against being spotted and shot themselves.  In a war such as that in Iraq the risk and fear of being seen and killed is  enhanced  because it is a war fought in towns and cities where there is no readily recognised enemy who may be anywhere and come in any human form from  a young child to trained soldier.

To that rebuttal of the charge of coward can be placed a  more general  exculpation of snipers.  War has never been anything but ugly and unchivalrous.  When the crossbow was introduced in mediaeval times it was condemned  as illegitimate by the nobility because the armoured knight was vulnerable to its bolts. The weapon  also had a range   much greater than that of a conventional bow which introduced death meted out from a serious distance. Later the same sorts  of complaint were levelled at firearms.  Long before modern breech loading artillery was devised muzzle loading guns could send their shot miles.  By the late 19th century the machine gun had arrived with the capacity to mow down dozens of men quickly.  By the middle of the twentieth century  bombers were delivering  huge payload from a great height onto  civilian populations. Sniping is no more or less cowardly, no more or less brutal than war is generally.

More pertinent perhaps  are the criticisms that the Kyle of the film is a sanitised version of  what Kyle was, that Kyle was far from being the simple God-fearing patriot of the film. Indeed there are strong reasons that he was both a braggart and a fantasist who made up stories such as claiming to have gone down to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and killed many of the  “bad guys” who were looting.  Yet in the film he is shown as being intensely  embarrassed when an veteran of Iraq who has post a leg stops him in a store and praises him effusively for what has  done in Iraq.

Overall the film has a nasty whiff of being a propaganda film, not intentionally but in effect.   If you go to see it bear that in mind and treat it a primer for an understanding  of the ordinary American’s mind these days.

 

The Imitation Game – film review

Main Cast

Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing

Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke

Matthew Goode as Hugh Alexander

Mark Strong as Maj. Gen. Stewart Menzies

Charles Dance as Cdr. Alastair Denniston

Allen Leech as John Cairncross

Matthew Beard as Peter Hilton

Rory Kinnear as Detective Nock

Alex Lawther as Young Turing

Jack Bannon as Christopher Morcom

Director:

Like the recent Mr Turner this is a flawed  film which is worth seeing only because of the performance of the central character, in  this case Benedict Cumberbatch  in the role of the English mathematician, pioneering computer theorist and code breaker  Alan Turing. Moreover, it is worth seeing not because it represented Turing’s  personality and life faithfully,  but because the character on the screen was an eminently watchable antisocial monster, who generated both humour and pathos because he was unaware of his psychological deformity.

The main action takes place during  Turing’s time at the World War 2 Bletchley Park code breaking unit, with this topped and tailed by flashbacks to his schooldays at Sherborne where he forms an infatuation for a boy called Christopher Morcom who dies in  his teens  and flash-forwards to  his arrest and prosecution for indecency.  The schooldays and police  scenes add little to the film, indeed could be said to get in the way of Cumberbatch’s  portrayal  of a man breaking all the social rules not on purpose but simply because he does not understand how the game is played.

There is a good deal of humour in the film, most of it resulting from Turing’s supposed  extreme  antisocial personality traits.  This begins early on. When he meets  the head of Bletchley Park Commander  Alastair Denniston (Charles Dance) . Turing is his usual socially dysfunctional  self. After a few minutes Denniston  looks at Turing’s CV and says sardonically, “Ah, you’re a mathematician. Now why doesn’t that surprise me.”  Turing replies without a shred of awareness  at his literal mindedness  “Because you just read it on that paper?”  he ventures pointing at the CV in Dance’s hand.  The look on Dance’s face is  priceless.

One of the  most telling and saddest  scenes in the film is where Turing tells a joke. He tells it awkwardly which is doubly poignant, because of his extraordinarily clumsy  reaching out for normal human interaction  and because  the nature of the joke is such that it is easy to see why it would have been accessible to a mind like his who would generally have great difficulty in understanding jokes because of his l his lack of psychological awareness.  The joke is this. Two men are out in the wild and a bear spots them.  One of the two starts putting on his shoes while the other says in amazement  what on earth on are  you doing that for, you will never  outrun  the bear?   I don’t have to, replies the other, I only have to outrun you.  The joke suits the onscreen Turing because it presents  him with a binary choice: two men, one bear equals only one person caught and eaten and requires absolutely no psychological insight.

But entertaining as these aspects of the film are there is the problem of veracity. The primary difficulty is the character of Turing. A certain emphasising  of character traits is legitimate as a dramatic device,  but there is always the danger that the emphasis will become so exaggerated that the essence of a person is lost.   I suspect that is what happened here. The film  represents  him as  having a startling directness which could be hideously rude,  literal mindedness, childlike egotism and manic single-mindedness.    Whether Turing’s antisocial tendencies were so pronounced is dubious . He was certainly not the easiest person to get along with,  for example, his  habit of wanting to be hands on with machinery – he was never happier than when he had a soldering iron or  a pair of wirecutters in his hands  – regularly drove engineers mad as he fiddled  with what they made or set up. He was also undeniably single-minded when he was working on an intellectual task.  Nor did  he have a deeply rooted social life which suggests introspection. There was also his excruciatingly annoying high pitched laugh, a  behavioural trick the film surprisingly fails to utilise.  However, none of that adds up to someone  with whom it was  utterly impossible to work.  The Turing of the film would have been desperately difficult to tolerate at the personal level and very disruptive of work such the codebreaking because it requires intense concentration and the exclusion of  distractions.  The Turing of the film is a past master at creating emotional chaos.

The misrepresentation of reality does not stop there. The film is essentially a biopic and as so often with such films  the director and screenplay writer take very large liberties with the truth. A few important examples.  There is no evidence that  Turing ever had much if anything to do with  Stewart Menzies, head of the British Secret Intelligence Service Mark Strong) , but there’s was a relationship of some importance to the film.  Turing is also shown working with  closely  the traitor John Cairncross, discovering Cairncross’ treason  and Cairncross  gaining Turing’s silence about his treason for some time by blackmailing Turing  over his sexuality.  There is also no evidence for this. The mathematician  Joan Clarke is shown as meeting Turing for the first time when she answers a newspaper  advert Turing has placed asking  for people who were good at crosswords to attend an assessment interview where they are asked to do the Times crossword in eight minutes. In the film  Clarke does it quickest in six minute. The reality is that Clarke was recruited to Bletchley by her old  Cambridge   academic supervisor, Gordon Welchman.  The casting the very attractive Keira Knightly as Clarke who  was  something of a plain Jane is also problematic , because it alters the relationship between Clarke and Turing in the viewer’s mind.  One of the codebreakers in the film Peter Hilton (Matthew Beard ) is shown distraught when a German message is decoded and shows a convoy on which Hilton’s brother is travelling to be the target of coming  U-Boat action. Turing argues that the message must not be used to warn the convoy for fear of alerting the Germans to the fact that the code had been broken. In reality, Hilton had no such brother.  There is also the general point that perhaps Turing was given too much prominence with  contributions by others at Bletchley underplayed or ignored completely, for example, the Post Office engineer Tommy Flowers who designed  ‘Colossus’  – the world’s first programmable computer.

Does all of this matter? It depends whether the viewer treats the film as a biopic/historical drama, a fictional thriller or merely as a vehicle to display, whether accurate or not,  the character of Turing.  As  a biopic or historical drama  it is difficult to treat it seriously because of  the  liberties taken with facts.  As a thriller it never really takes off, not least because we know the ending and  little is made of Cairncross’ treason.  As a vehicle  for an arresting realisation of a complex, highly unusual  and fascinating character it succeeds.  It might even be described as a good if bizarre comedy of manners.

The actual work at Bletchley was by its nature  difficult for the film to make much of as drama  both because the work is esoteric and because a main thrust of the film was to show Turing’s intelligence. Portraying an educated  intelligence is one of the most difficult things in acting because  simply having a character spout a few  academic facts or theories   seems trivial to those  who understand the subject at which the intelligence is directed  and meaningless mumbo-jumbo to the  majority who come to the subject cold.  (Because of this the Eureka! moments in the film when breakthroughs were made clanked in a decidedly forced manner ). The quality of intelligence needs to be shown in the quickness and certainty of a character . Amongst  modern  British actors Ralph Fiennes and Cumberbatch are probably the best exponents because both have a donnish look and manner about them.  Here Cumberbatch’s natural reserve  also played to the isolated and distracted nature of the character.

The rest of the cast are , as one would expect from an ensemble  of British actors,  all good insofar as their roles allow.  But they are all, even Keira Knightly as Joan Clarke, utterly dwarfed by Cumberbatch.  They  simply do not have much chance than to be rather one-dimensional, although Charles Dance splenetic Commander Denniston  is an amusing turn and Mark Strong is his usual satisfyingly  sinister self.

Importantly the film does not spend an inordinate amount of time focused on Turing’s  homosexuality.  It  would have been very easy to make a film which was a piece of politically correct propaganda, full of angst about the treatment Turing received after being charged with gross indecency with a total disregard  for the context of the time when this occurred. But to make such a film would have been  to greatly diminish Turing as a  person, because what was really  important about him was  not his sexuality but his great  intellect and the  use he made of it. However, the film did mistakenly try to show Turing as suffering from a loss of intellectual power when Clarke visited him after his conviction for indecency. (Again, there is no evidence for this event).  The film implied that the diminished intellect was due to the hormonal treatment Turing had agreed to rather than go to prison. In fact, Turing retained his mental powers right up to his death ,  publishing an important paper on biological mathematics  The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis in 1952.

To read of Turing’s immense and broad ranging intellectual achievement, which covered mathematics, computing, code-breaking and  biological-related  mathematics  is to inevitably think of  the loss resulting from his death,  but the fact that he was prosecuted despite having like Othello  “done the state some service”  is reassuring because it shows no one was above the law.

Film review – CitizenFour

Main appearances

Glen Greenwald

Ewen MacAskill

Edward Snowden

Director: Laura Poitras

Running time : 114 minutes

Robert Henderson

This documentary about state surveillance revolves around Edward Snowden as interviewee  and the journalists Glen Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill  as interviewers . The interviews were primarily conducted in Hong Kong  to where Snowden fled before moving to Russia.

As a man who has been much in the news  since June 2013 but little seen and heard,  it is naturally intriguing to see what Snowden is made of when interviewed at length i with a further enticement to watch  being the  possibility that he might reveal some dramatic new details of state misbehaviour.  Consequently, it might be thought  the  film  would contain plenty to interest and alarm anyone worried about the imbalance between the power of the state and civil liberties.  Sad to say  there is little to excite  the  viewer because Snowden comes across as a distinctly colourless  personality  and there are no startling important new revelations. Worse,  there is something essential   missing: nowhere is there any serious  attempt to test either the veracity of the information Snowden made public or his declared motivation.

Whenever someone whistle blows on a  state apparatus those receiving the information are presented with what might be called the “double agent” problem. Is the whistle-blower what he seems? Is he telling the simple truth or is he working to his own or  another’s  agenda?  Snowden   could logically  be in any one of these situations:

  1. He is telling the truth about the information he provides and his motives.
  2. He is acting voluntarily as a covert agent of the US state.
  3. He is acting voluntarily as an agent of a foreign state.
  4. He is acting voluntarily on behalf of a non-state actor.
  5. He is acting under duress from any of the actors in 2-4.

I did consider  the useful idiot option but could not see how it  could exist in this case. Snowden is clear as to his ostensible motivation – horror at the gross breaching of personal liberty by his government – so it is difficult to see how he could have been duped in any way. He strikes me as politically naive but that in itself does not make him a useful idiot.

Possibilities 2-5 went unexplored. They did not even press  Snowden strongly on how he was paying his way since his flight. (Always ask about the money. I once badly threw David Shayler at a public meeting simply by asking how he was funding his life). Being on the run is an expensive business. Snowden  had quite a well paid job but not that well paid. It is possible that he might have stashed away, say, $50k but that would not last long when he is living in very expensive places such as Moscow and Hong Kong, especially as people would know who he was and be likely to bang up things such as rent. Unless he is getting help from the Russian government, a surrogate for the Russian government or from the media how would he survive? Until  we have solid proof of how he is existing his bona fides cannot be established.

That left only possibility 1, that   Snowden  was simply telling the truth. However, the film failed even there. The two interviewers simply asked Snowden questions and accepted his answers at face value.

How plausible is Snowden as the selfless idealist he portrays himself as?  In the film he  appears to be surprisingly little troubled by his  predicament.  This could be reasonably interpreted as someone who had his present position worked out in advance of his whistle blowing  (All the shuffling about in Hong Kong  before going to Moscow  could have just been to substantiate his claim that he was acting of his own volition or, less probably, perhaps China had agreed to give him sanctuary and then changed their minds).  Not convinced, then ask yourself how likely it is that anyone would have been willing to blow the gaffe on US state secrets without having the assurance that afterwards he would be in a place safe from the US authorities?  After all, If Snowden is  ever brought to trial in the US it would be more or less certain that he would get a massive prison sentence and , in theory at least, he might  be executed for treason.

Then  there  is Lindsay Mills, the partner  Snowden ostensibly left behind without explanation. She has  joined him in Moscow.  When Snowden speaks in the film of his decision to leave Mills  without explanation,   he tells the story with an absence of  animation that would not have disgraced a marble statue.  All very odd unless the story that he left her in the dark was simply a blind to both protect her and provide a veil of confusion as to his whereabouts immediately after the initial release of information.

As for Mills she made a number of entries to a blog she ran after Snowden’s flight to Hong Kong.  . Here’s an example:   “As I type this on my tear-streaked keyboard I’m reflecting on all the faces that have graced my path. The ones I laughed with. The ones I’ve held. The one I’ve grown to love the most. And the ones I never got to bid adieu.”  Would  someone who is supposedly seriously traumatised  produce such a studied attempt at what she doubtless sees as “fine writing”?  Anyone care to bet that she was not in on the plot all along?

Snowden also engages onscreen  in some very unconvincing bouts of paranoia such as covering his head with a cloth  in the manner of an old time photographer  to avoid a password he is putting in to his computer  being  read .  He also shows exaggerated  at a fire alarm going off repeated and unplugging a phone which keeps ringing on the grounds that the room could be bugged through the phone line. Well, it could be but so what? Provided  Snowden only said  what he was  willing to have included in the film it would not matter if his conversations with the documentary makers were  bugged. It all seemed very contrived.   I am an experienced interviewer and to me  Snowden’s behaviour was unnatural throughout and seemed to be  Snowden self-consciously  acting out what he believed would be the behaviour of someone in  his position.

The fact that he went untested by hard questioning in itself is  suspicious. One can allow a certain amount for the ineptness of the questioners (see below), but the only reason he was not pressed at all can only be that the makers of the film and Snowden agreed in advance that he would not be pressed.

Apart from the stark failure to press Snowden adequately, the questioning of Greenwald and  MacAskill’s   was  woefully inept.  Neither had any idea of how to build a line of questioning or how to play a witness.  For  example, one of the most difficult disciplines an investigator has to master is to allow the person being questioned to do as much of the talking as possible without being prompted .  That necessitates  being patient and tolerating  long periods of silence when the person being questioned  does not reply to a question quickly.  Those who have seen the film American Hustle  will remember the Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper characters.  The Bale character understands the art of taking your time, letting a mark come to you rather than you going to them. Cooper’s character is for ever messing up Bale’s plans by rushing in and pressing matters.  Obviously in a documentary you cannot allow silence to continue for very long, but even allowing a minute’s silence  can be very revealing of a  person who is failing to answer. Irritatingly, Greenwald would not let Snowden stew in silence for even a moment.

Greenwald’s  other major shortcoming is that he loves the sound of his own voice far too much and has an irritating habit of delivering platitudes in a manner that suggests he is offering ideas of the greatest profundity.   MacAskill  was palpably nervous and  routinely asked innocuous questions and,  after they were asked, seemed pathetically relieved that he had put a question, any question.

Apart from the interview with Snowden, there was little of interest to anyone who is seriously concerned about  state surveillance because it was all widely known material bar one item. This was a recording of a remarkable  court hearing in the USA which AT&T phone customers took action against the state  over unwarranted surveillance which showed the US government lawyer arguing in effect that  the case court had no jurisdiction over the matter and being soundly slapped down by one of the judges.

Is the film worth seeing?  Probably only as a documentation of Snowden’s personality.  It reveals nothing new about the extent of the misbehaviour the US state or properly examined why and how Snowden did what he did. Nor would the film  be likely to educate someone who was ignorant of the subject, because the details of what the US government  had been up to were offered in  too piecemeal a fashion for a coherent idea of what had happened to  emerge  for someone starting from scratch.

 

Film Review – Fury

Main cast

Brad Pitt as US Army Staff  Sergeant. Don “Wardaddy” Collier

Shia LaBeouf as Technician Fifth Grade Boyd “Bible” Swan

Logan Lerman as Private  Norman “Machine” Ellison

Michael Peña as Corporal  Trini “Gordo” Garcia

Jon Bernthal as Private First Class . Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis

Jason Isaacs as Capt. “Old Man” Waggoner[

Director:  David Ayer

————————————–

Robert Henderson

“I am tired and sick of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation. War is hell. “General William Tecumseh Sherman

A director making a film about war should reflect Sherman’s simple truth that it is hell.   Anything short of that  is no more than  cruel propaganda. Fury does fall short in the end, although it contains much that rings  true.

It is Germany in April 1945. Staff Sergeant  Don Wardaddy Collier (Brad Pitt)  is captain of a Sherman tank nicknamed Fury.   Collier  and his crew of  four  of Swann, Garcia, Travis and Elllison  (respectively played by  LaBeouf,  Peña, Berthnal and Lerman ) are taking part  in the snuffing out of the last desperate throw  of  Nazi Germany.  All but Ellison have been with Collier fighting their  way from North Africa to Germany.

Whatever pity there  may have been in them has been leeched away by the brutality they have seen  and the primal desire to stay alive, the latter  fact made unusually pressing because  Sherman tanks were no match for the German Tiger tanks and had a nasty reputation for going up in flames with little provocation. (The Allied troops satirically named them Ronsons after   a popular lighter of the time which sold itself under the slogan “Lights up first time, every time”).

For an hour the film is just what a war film should be: full of the harsh dark humour of soldiers who live with  fear as their constant companion,  cruelly violent, horribly destructive of  men  and  a sentimentality  free zone.

Collier  displays a Patton-like harshness to  the new recruit  Norman Ellison.    He  is a very young soldier who is  replacing Fury’s  newly killed  assistant driver. He has zero experience of tanks, his  previous role in the army being  that of a clerk/typist . Why is he assigned to a tank? Because casualties make him Hobson’s choice.

Unsurprisingly Ellison’s is unfitted for the work not merely through inexperience but  psychologically.    His  first task is to clean up the mess in the tank left by the dead man’s wounds.  He vomits as he scrapes some flesh off his place in the tank.  In his first taste of real  warfare  he fails to fire on Germans which results in another  tank being destroyed.  The commander  of the tank falls out of the tank in a ball of flame and shoots himself in the head  with his pistol to stop the agony.

Collier slaps Ellison  around and tells him he has to learn to kill Germans or he is worse than useless . Soon  forces Ellison to shoot a defenceless  SS officer who has been captured, which Ellison does with the greatest reluctance  and only with Collier holding Ellison’s finger over the trigger and forcing him to fire the gun.   After a few more engagements  Ellison gets the message: kill or be killed and even admits that he enjoys slaughtering  Germans and becomes an accepted part of the tank crew, although he never quite seems to be at home in the tank as the other four crew members are unselfconsciously at home.

So far so good, but around  the hour mark sentimentality crashes into the action.    Collier and Ellison enter a German  home and find a woman in her thirties and her niece.  At first their meeting  is all tension. Then  Ellison sits down at a piano and starts playing music  from some German sheet music.  Unasked the niece comes across and sings the song  which belongs to the music. Before you  can say knife  the niece and Ellison disappear into a bedroom from which they  emerge  later as instant  sweethearts, having, it is implied, had sex.    This implausible nonsense is thankfully cut short by further fighting in the town which results in the niece being killed.  But the sentimental marker has been put down and stays with the film.

The final half hour or so is the plot of the Alamo adapted for  World War 2.   Fury hits  a mine, sheds one of its tracks and is immobilised.  Unable to move with the tank,  the crew find themselves  in the path of  a group of  SS  soldiers several hundred in number.  They are  seen  coming from a fair way off so tank crew have plenty of time to decide what to do. The sensible thing would be to retreat on foot.  Collier orders his crew to get going  whilst making it clear that he is staying to attack the column using the immobilised Sherman tank’s guns.  In true Boy’s Own fashion the other four men agree to stay.

The tank then  takes on the role of the fort in the Alamo.  The SS soldiers arrive and the tank crew are able to spring a surprise attack.  So far so realistic. We are then treated to some of the most preposterous  battle  scenes ever filmed.  SS men keep popping up obligingly to be machined gunned, shot with small arms or obliterated by the  tank’s cannon. For most of this action Collier is standing exposed on the top of the tank using its heavy machine gun.  But this being Hollywood he does not get hit until all but the one of his tank crew (Ellison) have been killed . Then, incongruously , in view of his long exposure to the enemy without a sniper taking a pot shot at him, he is shot twice by guess who, a sniper.

With Collier wounded  and now inside the tank , Ellison slips through  an escape hatch in the bottom of the tank and hides underneath it.  Collier is finally killed in the time honoured way infantry deal with tanks, namely, by climbing onto them, opening the command hatch, tossing a grenade in , closing the hatch and jumping off the tank before the grenade explodes.  Ellison hides  under the tank until the SS column has moved on, although not before a very young SS soldier sees him there but does not raise the alarm.  Ellison is found in the morning by  American troops and his survival is complete.

If the film ends  disappointingly by relapsing into Hollywood vacuity, there is sufficient in it to make it watchable. The main actors all give strong  performances.  Pitt is convincing as a tough as teak  tank commander ; the   LaBeouf character is one of those quietly  competent people any group in a tight corner is glad to have with them,  Peña  is louder but just as reliable  while  Berthnal  has something of the savage about him but nonetheless he is someone  would be glad to have by your side when there is danger about.    Lerman  is  the least likeable main character, not least because even when he has got over his reluctance to kill,  he always appears to be on the edge of  losing his nerve and in the context of the lives the tank crew are living his fear in some curious way seems to be a kind of disloyalty to the rest of the group.

The battle scenes are convincingly  done apart from the final “Alamo” stand. The most intriguing sequence is of the Sherman  Tank and a German Tiger  tank performing a two dimensional dog fight, with the more manoeuvrable  but inadequately armoured  Sherman desperately trying to get behind the less agile but much superior in armour and gunpower  Tiger to attack  the Tiger’s one weak spot ,  the rear of the tank. Shades of the old fighter pilot’s tactic of getting above and behind an enemy before attacking.

You will not be bored by this film, but a much superior tank centred story  is the Israeli film Lebanon (2009). This is set in the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2002. The entire action is filmed from within the tank with any outside action being shot through the bombsight.  The film gives you much more of the claustrophobic  reality of being part of a tank crew.  All the good things about Fury are there  without the distraction of implausible battle scenes and unwonted  sentimentality .

Film reviews – The drama of the everyday – Locke and Last Orders

Robert Henderson

Locke main cast – Tom Hardy as Ivan Locke,  Ruth Wilson as Katrina (voice),  Olivia Colman as Bethan (voice), Andrew Scott as Donal (voice),  Ben Daniels as Gareth (voice),  Tom Holland as Eddie (voice),

Director:  Steven Knight

Last orders main  cast – Michael Caine as  Jack Dodds,  Tom Courtenay as  Vic Tucker,  David Hemmings  as  Lenny,  Bob Hoskins as Ray Johnson,  Helen Mirren as  Amy Dodds, Ray Winstone as  Vince Dodds

Director: Fred Schepisi

Perhaps the rarest of  films are those which make gripping dramas out of ordinary life. Unsurprising  because everyday existence does not obviously lend itself to drama. Locke and Last Orders are two  films which show how wrongheaded this idea is by producing gripping and in the case of Last Orders poignant stories from the everyday.

They are very different films. Locke concerns a few hours in someone’s life: Last Orders encompasses a period running from just before the Second World War to the 1990s.  Locke has only one actor on screen: Last orders  follows the lives of half a dozen characters.  Yet set apart as they are on the surface both share a  general similarity of being about  things which could happen to anyone.

Apart from a minute or two at the beginning and end  of the film the entire on screen action  of Locke consists of the eponymous character Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) in his car driving and making and receiving phone calls about his work and private life.  Sounds tedious and limited in dramatic scope with precious little opportunity for  character development?  Don’t you believe it.

Locke is in circumstance Hell. He is a foreman in charge of a building site.  The next day he is due to supervise a huge concrete “pour”, that is  concrete  poured  on site to create a large structure, a very demanding technical task. . But  Locke will not be at the “pour” because he is headed for a hospital where a woman (Bethan) with whom he had a one-night-stand is about to give birth to his child. To add to these  worries his wife Katrina knows nothing of the other woman or impending child and she and their son are expecting him home where Locke  and his son are supposed to  watch a football match together.

Why has he sacrificed so much for a woman he barely knows and a child he has not wanted?   Locke was abandoned by his father soon after his birth and did not meet him until he had reached adulthood and with whom he never came to terms when they did meet as adults. This provides the impetus for  Locke behaving in this quixotic  way because he does he does not want this child to be deserted by its father.  His uneasy relationship with his father also provides a hook for Locke to have imaginary conversations with his father while he drives.  These are  the only weak and sentimental  things in the film.  They  would have been better left out and the circumstances left to speak for themselves .  But  they are  a small blemish.

So far so traumatic, but it gets far worse.   Locke rings one of his workers at the site to get him to do the last minute checking he should have done and to prepare him to oversee the “ concrete pour” in Locke’s place.  But the worker Donal has a drink inside him and does not feel confident of taking Locke’s place.   Locke rings Bethan to say he is on the way.  He speaks to his son and wife saying he will not be home in time for the match.  He discovers that a road he needed closed to allow the concrete to be delivered  has not been closed. He  speaks to his boss  who pleads with him to be there to supervise the concrete “pour” and  eventually  fires him when he realises that Locke will not be at the site to supervise the “pour”.

As Locke  drives he also has the stress of breaking  the news to his wife that he is going to see a woman who is having his child and tries desperately to explain to his son why he will not be home. After several phone calls his wife  decides to throw him out of the house.

As this  seeming never ending barrage of stress hits Locke he keeps his cool and   provides solutions to the practical  difficulties he faces but fails with his relationships. By the end of the film Locke has lost his wife, his home and his job but gained a son and a resolution in his mind of his relationship with his father.

The role of Locke is as demanding a part as could be imagined because the character is centre stage throughout and has to carry the film utterly  for the rest of the cast, which includes some fine actors,  cannot in the nature of things make much  impact because they are simply disembodied voices who appear only in short bursts . Hardy carries it off  immaculately. In fact, this film is made for him because he has great screen presence and exudes self-possession.

This is a  gripping film made from what looks like on paper extremely unpromising  material.  There is no disaster to keep up the tension, just the net of  circumstances remorselessly closing.

Last orders (released 2001)  is centred around as starry a cast of British actors as you are likely to find in a film, namely,  Michael Caine,  Tom Courtenay, David Hemmings,  Bob Hoskins,  Helen Mirren,  Ray Winstone. Often when a cast has so many heavyweight  actors it just does not work either because the actors’  egos clash or the roles they have are too small for them.  Not here. Probably because they are all actors brought up in the English repertory tradition they know how to play as a team.

Vic ,  Lenny ,  Ray  and Vince are on a sentimental journey to scatter the ashes of their old friend Jack Dodds  in Margate.   This is a story with solid  workingclass roots. Jack was an East End butcher ,  Ray  (Bob Hoskins) is a professional gambler and  Jack’s best friend  since they fought together in the second world war; Lenny (David Hemmings) is  a still belligerent  former  boxer;  Vic (Tom Courtenay) a quiet character who is an undertaker and Jack’s adopted son Vince (Ray Winstone), a car dealer whose real family  perished in a wartime bombing .

On the journey they stop at various places which were significant in Jack’s life. They reminisce about Jack and the times they had together.  This leads  to flashbacks to various times in their lives and in the lives of  Jack and his wife Amy.   We see the characters in their vigorous hopeful youth before the second world war and  their  subsequent messy way through their lives , lives  full of disappointments and betrayals as well as friendship, love and loyalty.   Old tensions  gradually emerge  and arguments break out, but  these are superficially smoothed over and  Jack’s ashes are scattered  amongst forced sentimentality.

Counterpoised to the four on the trip is Jack’s wife Amy on a journey of her own. For fifty years she has unfailingly  visited her mentally retarded daughter  June (Laura Morelli) in a home, while her husband could barely acknowledge the daughter’s existence, a fact which has tainted their marriage.  The daughter is so severely handicapped she does not even recognise her mother.  At the end of the film Amy decides that 50 years of visiting is enough and sees June one last time.

By the time they have scattered the ashes Vic ,  Lenny ,  Ray  and Vince are all  diminished.  The journey has not been about Jack but themselves.    They have tried to fill their lives  with significance but  either circumstances or their own weaknesses and limitations have prevented it.   They are left only with a sense of unfocused regret.

Little needs to be said about the  acting other than it is uniformly first rate with Caine producing one of his very best performances  with  Helen Mirren  deeply sympathetic as Jack’s wife.

More than a century and a half ago, the American idealist Henry Thoreau said “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.”    That is as true today as it was when Thoreau said it,  although  the desperation will have different causes and effects in different times and places.  Locke and Last Orders are,  in their  very different ways,   studies in desperation, of people living lives which are not in their control or even worse potentially within their control but not controlled.

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