Category Archives: Film reviews

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

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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.

Politically incorrect film reviews – Belle

Cast

Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido Elizabeth Belle

Tom Wilkinson as William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield

Miranda Richardson as Lady Ashford

Penelope Wilton as Lady Mary Murray

Sam Reid as John Davinier

Matthew Goode as Captain Sir John Lindsay

Emily Watson as Lady Mansfield

Sarah Gadon as Lady Elizabeth Murray

Tom Felton as James Ashford

Alex Jennings as Lord Ashford

James Norton as Oliver Ashford

James Northcote as Mr Vaughan

Bethan Mary-Jeames as Mabel

Director Amma AsanteThis is a straightforward propaganda film in the politically correct interest, the particular interest  being that of racial prejudice and slavery.  It is the latest in a slew of such films over the past few years, most notably Django Unchained, Lincoln and  12 Years a slave. More generally, it is an example of the well-practiced  trick of taking of a black person  from history and elevating them way  beyond their importance simply because they are black –  the attempt to place Mary Seacole on a par with Florence Nightingale comes to mind.

Belle is set in the  middle of the eighteenth century and is based  extremely  loosely  on a true story, the looseness being  aided by the fact that information about  Dido is very scanty, resting almost entirely on entries in the accounts  of the house in which she is raised  (Kenwood House  in Hampstead) and diary entries made by the one-time Governor of Massachusetts Thomas Hutchinson who was a guest in 1789.

The story told in the film is this, around   1764 the Lord Chief Justice of England,  the Earl of Mansfield , takes into his household  a very young mixed race girl Dido Belle. She is  the bastard child of a slave Mary Belle  and Mansfield’s  nephew Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode).  The girl is legally a slave by birth, but is treated as a freewoman once she is in England.  Rather oddly Lindsay  is portrayed as absolutely doting on the child then vanishes entirely  from the film despite the fact that he lived for another quarter century.

The Mansfields  have no children of   their  own.  When  Dido arrives, they have already  taken in her  cousin,  Elizabeth Murray, great niece to Lord Mansfield.  Elizabeth and Dido grow up together, in the film, supposedly as  playmates and equals. This idea is largely derived from  a portrait painted of the two girls in their middle teens  by an artist originally thought to be Zoffany,  but now relegated to by anonymous.   The composition of the painting suggests that equality was not quite the relationship.  The picture  does have  Elizabeth resting a hand on Dido, but  shows Elizabeth ahead of the girl. In addition, Dido is carrying a basket with fruit and is dressed as the type of exotic ethnic human curiosity much favoured in paintings  in the 18th century, the exoticism being signalled not only by her race but the fact that she is sporting a  turban.  Such touches suggest subordination.   The Kenwood accounts book support this by showing Elizabeth receiving an allowance of £100 a year and Dido only £30. Her position was indeterminate, above a servant but below a unashamed relative.

The film ignores such details. Dido is  presented not merely as the natural  equal of her  cousin Elizabeth Murray, but judged on her merits and circumstances, as more desirable.  Her social status is elevated . She is described as an heiress with a fortune of £2,000 (worth £300,000 at 2014 prices)  left her by her father.  This is simply untrue. Dido  inherited  a half share of £1,000 from her father and was left £500 and an annuity of £100 pa in Mansfield’s will, but this was years after the events covered by the film – her father died in 1788 and Mansfield in 1793. In the film Dido as a girl of twenty or so  is represented as being a   prize in the marriage stakes because of the fictitious fortune, while Elizabeth Murray is portrayed  as the young woman in danger of being left on the shelf because, the film tells us, she has no fortune.  In fact, Elizabeth was an heiress  with the added lure of being the daughter of an earl.

To give substance to the idea that Dido is the better marriageable property,  the film has the son of a peer   Oliver Ashford ( James Norton) wooing and eventually proposing to  Dido.  His brother  James  (Tom Felton)  objects on the grounds of her race and (mildly) physically assaults Dido. Several other members of the Ashford family also take exception to the match. There is absolutely no evidence  for such a  romance and it is most improbable that someone of Ashford’s social standing would have thought of such a match,  let alone carried it through to the point of a proposal.

To this improbable confection is added the portrayal of the person who marries her. The name of the person John Davinier is true to life, but that is as far as reality extends. In the film Davinier is depicted as English, the son of a vicar and a budding lawyer who initially is taken under Mansfield’s patronage. In real life Davinier was French,  the son of a servant,  who worked as a steward  or possibly even as  a valet. That he was thought a suitable match for Dido points firmly to her social inferiority.

The  second half of the  film is largely devoted to Dido working  to influence Lord Mansfield over a suit relating to slaves.   In 1783 Mansfield  has to give a judgement in a case involving the slaveship  Zong and her insurers.  The insurance claim is made after the cargo of slaves are thrown overboard with the ship owners claiming necessity on the grounds that the ship was running dangerously short of water and could not make landfall to take on water before the entire ship ‘s company was put in  danger.   Davinier in the film is depicted as fervent anti-slaver who  persuades Belle to get hold of some papers from Mansfield  which proves that the Zong owner’s story is false. There is no evidence for Dido’s  involvement in the matter and as Davinier is a fictitious character as far as the film is concerned,  his involvement is a nonsense.

Next there is the dramatic  treatment of Mansfield’s denial of the Zong insurance claim as a triumph for the anti-slavers. In fact Mansfield’s judgement was a very narrow and legalistic one. He did not proceed on the grounds that a slave could not be treated as property to be disposed of at the slave-owners will. All he did was rule that the insurance claim was invalid because the ship’s captain did not have the reason of necessity for his decision to throw the slaves overboard.  The film does  include this judgment but overlaid it with anti-slavery rhetoric by having Mansfield quote in the  Zong action  his earlier judgement in a slave case – that of the slave Somerset t in 1772. There  Mansfield ruled that slavery in England could not exist because  “The state of slavery . . . is so odious that  nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law” and freed Somersett, the positive law not existing.   The Somersett case is actually a better platform on which to  put the antislavery case,  but was  foregone because Belle would have been at most ten when the case came to court and could not have been portrayed as taking a role in influencing the judgement other than by her mere existence.

There is also an  attempt to paint Britain as being greatly dependent economically on the slave trade and the use of slaves in  some of the colonies.  On a number of occasions it is stated that Britain would be ruined if  slavery was undermined. This was indeed a claim made by those benefitting  from slavery but it was not the general opinion of the country, nor does it meet the facts. Hugh Thomas in his The Slave Trade estimates that by the second half of the 18th century the returns on slaving were no better than that of many other cargoes.

Simply judged as an theatrical experience the film fails. Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dido presents  two problems. The first is  her acting which is horribly flat. Theatrically speaking,  she was no more than a blank sheet to be passively written upon, a politically correct banner to be waved at the audience. The second difficulty concerns her looks and demeanour. Frankly, to this reviewers eyes at least , she  is not  the irresistible  beauty  the film suggests and in this role lacks  feminine charm.  Ironically, her portrayal  may well be true to life, for Thomas Hutchinson describes her as  “neither handsome nor genteel – pert enough”.

To that difficulty  can be added the fact that so much has been made of the painting of Dido and Elizabeth  the filmgoer goes to the cinema with a firm idea of what Dido looked like. The painting shows her to have Caucasian features, which bear a strong resemblance to those her father  if his portrait is anything to go by.  Mbatha-Raw looks  so utterly different from the  portrait of Dido that her appearance becomes disconcerting.

There is a further point related to her looks. The painting of Dido and Elizabeth Murray shows Dido  to have been  distinctly Caucasian in her facial features  with a light brown colouring. Mbath-Raw, who has a white mother and black father, has little hint of Caucasian features and is rather darker in complexion.  Interestingly, in Twelve Years a Slave the same difficulty arises, with  the central character Solomon Northup in a contemporary depiction also  possessing strongly Caucasian features,  while the actor playing him had no such facial characteristics.   This is not a trivial flaw  because it is probable that the more like the dominant racial type in a society , the readier the acceptance  of the person by white society, even in such a status conscious time as the 18th century.   Could it be that the casting directors in films such as Belle and Twelve Years a Slave are consciously or unconsciously influenced by the idea that black actors and actresses should not look too  white?

An impressive cast of established English character actors surround Mbatha-Raw  and the film  looks  very pretty,  but it is dull, very very dull.   This is for the same reason that 12 Years a Slave is s dull.  it presents only one side of a story in  a very preachy manner. There is scarcely a moment when the viewer  does not feel they are being told what to think. The  slew of first rate English character actors do their best with the meagre fare they have been given,  but even the best of actors cannot make a dull script excite.

It is unreasonable to expect an historical film to religiously abide by the details  of a complicated story because  of the pressure of time and the need for dramatic impact. What is unforgiveable is the wilful misrepresentation of a person or event to satisfy an ideological bent.   Belle does this in the most  blatant fashion. Because racial prejudice has been elevated to the great blasphemy of our times, the film is not merely wrong but dangerous in its one-eyed nature and misrepresentations.

Film review – Transcendence

Transcendence

Main Cast

Johnny Depp as Dr. Will Caster, an artificial-intelligence researcher.

Morgan Freeman as Joseph Tagger,  a government scientist

Rebecca Hall as Evelyn Caster, Caster’s wife and a fellow academic.

Kate Mara as Bree, the leader of Revolutionary Independence From Technology (R.I.F.T.)

Cillian Murphy as Donald Buchanan, an FBI agent.

Cole Hauser as Colonel Stevens, a military officer.

Paul Bettany as Max Waters, Caster’s best friend.

Director:  Wally Pfister

In terms of pure filmmaking this is a seriously flawed film. The dialogue is often clunking, there is a lack of character development and  the storyline is  weak.   Nonetheless, it  is a work  which will repay  seeing  because it deals with the  lethally threatening potential  of digital technology, threats  which will almost certainly become reality within the lifetime of most people now living.

Will Caster (Depp) is a scientist specialising in artificial intelligence. He is married to Evelyn  (Rebecca Hall) who works in the same field.  As the film opens Caster  believes he is close to creating an artificial intelligence  that is truly sentient and  which he believes  will create a technological singularity – the point at which computer technology exceeds the capability of homo sapiens – a state  which  Caster calls Transcendence.

This hope is cut short when  Caster is shot by a neo-Luddite group,   the  Revolutionary Independence From Technology (R.I.F.T.),  who also  carry out a  attacks on his artificial-intelligence computer laboratories.  Caster survives the shot but the bullet is coated with radioactive material for  which there is no antidote.  The prognosis is that he has about a month to live.

Evelyn refuses to accept his imminent death and  with the help of Caster’s best friend  Max  (Paul Bettany)  arranges to upload Caster’s consciousness, personality, mind – call it what you will – to a quantum computer. Max  helps  do this despite the fact that he has grave doubts about the wisdom of the act. His doubts rest on the possibility that  Caster’s brain contents will not  be uploaded  uncorrupted or that a  Caster reduced to a digital form will not be Caster anymore  because of the immense change in his environment..

Once uploaded Caster appears on the computer screen looking and sounding  like his real world self, although there is a  new coldness  about him. He  immediately  demands to be connected to the Internet. Max sees the profound dangers of this if Caster in a computer is malign rather than benign  or simply inhuman for he will be able to copy himself throughout the Internet. Consequently, Max  tries to persuade Evelyn not to do it.    Evelyn,  obsessed with her desire to have Caster in any form,   shrugs aside Max’s doubts and throws him out of the laboratory before linking Caster to the Internet where he  promptly does just what Max feared and  copies himself throughout the  virtual world.

The digital Caster is,  if not omniscient and omnipotent, a significant way along the road to both,  because he now has the capabilities of both human and computer with access to the data and facilities of the entire digital world. He is not malign in the sense that he is consciously malicious or self-serving.  Rather Caster  is beset with the  sin of those who are sure they know best. His monomaniac desire to make the world a better place is suddenly released from the shackles of his emotions and the practical limitations on implementing his plans which existed when he was merely a man.   It is a cliché that with power comes a disregard for anyone else’s opinion, but  Caster not only knows better than anyone else,  he now  has the means to realise his dreams.

Using Evelyn as his instrument in the real  world, the virtual Caster makes a fortune rapidly and uses this to take  over  an isolated desert  town called Brightwood. Over the next two years  he develops  advanced technologies  in the fields of energy, medicine, biology and nanotechnology. His plan is to rid the world of the blight of disease,  pollution  and ultimately mortality. The problem is Caster intends to do this not only with no reference to anyone else but also by using nanotechnology to control humans so that they are in essence robots.

While all this is going on  forces are gathering to sabotage  Caster’s ambitions. Shortly after Max breaks with Evelyn , he  is kidnapped by R.I.F.T   and eventually agrees to  join them to disrupt Caster’s plans.  Then the  US government, in the form of  FBI agent Donald Buchanan (Cillian Murphy) a government scientist Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman) unofficially (so they have deniability) join forces  with R.I.F.T  in their  attempt to thwart Caster

Evelyn  gradually  moves from willing and committed  collaborator to a frightened and deeply  worried  woman . The process of disillusionment is completed when she  sees that Caster can  remotely connect to and control people’s minds .  Distraught, Evelyn approaches  R.I.F.T  who develop  a computer virus  which will destroy Caster’s  source code, killing him and, as a side effect,  destroy the technology on which modern society has become recklessly dependent. This happens because the digital Caster is spread throughout the Internet.  To destroy him, the Internet  has to be destroyed.

Regardless of the technological devastation using the virus will create, Evelyn agrees to upload the virus to end whatever it is that Caster has become.  But on returning to Brightwood she finds Caster resurrected in biological form, his body having been replicated, presumably, from   the digital information stored when his brain contents were uploaded .

Caster is aware that his wife  has the virus and  intends to destroy him but does not act against her.  The FBI and  R.I.F.T. attack the Brightwood base  and in the process mortally wound  Evelyn.  Evelyn persuades Caster  to save her by uploading her mind as his mind was uploaded. Caster does this even though he knows it will  end him and the Internet. The virus seemingly kills Caster and Evelyn, and  technological disaster ensues.

But all is not quite as it seems. Years later Max visits the Casters old garden.  The garden is  protected by a device called a  Faraday Cage. This stops any electrical transmission reaching what is inside the cage.    Max  sees a drop of water falling from a sunflower petal instantly cleanses a puddle of oil. The drop contains one of Casters nanoparticles, which is intact because of the protection afforded by the Faraday cage. Max thinks, logically correctly,  that  Caster  and Evelyn’s consciousness’s are contained within the active nano-particles. Perhaps Caster even knew when he wittingly uploaded the virus that there would be copies of  Evelyn and himself retained in the nano particles in  their old garden…

Depp’s performance a s Caster has  received a good deal of criticism on the grounds that it is a flat emotionless  portrayal. This is to  miss the nature of the character he inhabits  once he exists only in digital form. He is then  someone robbed  of the kernel of what makes them human.  Hence, his performance is exactly what is required.

The rest of the performances range from serviceable  in the case of Rebecca Hall to colourless  in the case of  Paul Bettany and slight in the case of everyone else simply because there was no space for them to expand their characters.

This could have been a much better film if two issues had been given much more space, namely, the general arguments against incontinent technological advance and the devastating effects which would result from a closing down of the Internet and  the ending of connectivity which is not only so much a part of modern everyday live but also vital for the maintenance of modern technological necessities such as power stations and large factories.

The  R.I.F.T  characters are anaemic and their arguments against technology do not go much beyond   the mantra “intelligent machines are bad”.  There is no discussion of how human beings may simply fail to survive because they become demoralised by the  superior capacity of machines or machines or that intelligent machines will take not only the jobs humans do now but any other jobs which arise.  As for the post-virus technological upset, this is barely touched upon.

The strength of the film is that it puts before its audience the possibilities of technology  moving beyond the control of human beings and even more fundamentally damaging calling into question what it is to be human.  The dangers of intelligent machines  are simple enough, either they replace humans by making them redundant or engender in humanity the trait seen in tribal peoples encountering   Europeans : the tribal peoples often became  terminally demoralised, presumably by the sophistication and scope of  European culture with which they were faced.

More fundamentally, until now we have known what a human being is. We are on the brink of losing that happy state. If the human mind could be copied an exist within a computer file there is the potential for immortality. The mind could exist within a robot body or  be  distributed throughout the Internet (or whatever supersedes it). If the mind can be uploaded to a computer file so  could all the data needed to create a digital replica of  a person’s body  be uploaded which could then be used to create a replica body into which the uploaded mind could be  uploaded in turn. If the technology to do that  existed, then in principle  it should be possible to upload a digitised mind into a body developed from someone else’s uploaded data….  That is not a world I should wish to live in.

See Transcendence  for its warning of the shape of things to come.

 

Wall Street, the Wolf of Wall Street  and the decline of moral sense

Robert Henderson

 

Wall Street (1987)

Main cast

Michael Douglas  as Gordon Gecko

Charlie Sheen as Bud Cox

Daryl Hannah  as Darien Taylor

Martin Sheen as Carl Fox

Terence Stamp as Sir Larry Wildman

Hal Holbrook as Lou Mannheim

Sean Young as Kate Gekko

James Spader as Roger Barnes

Director Oliver Stone

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The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

Main cast

Leonardo DiCaprio as Jordan Belfort

Jonah Hill as Donnie Azoff

Margot Robbie as Naomi Lapaglia

Matthew McCaughey as Mark Hanna

Kyle Chandler as Patrick Denham

Rob Reiner as Max Belfort

Director  Martin Scorsese,

Twenty six years lie between Wall Street and The Wolf of Wall Street (TWOWS) hitting cinema screens. Wall Street is fiction, although there are reputedly people in real life from whom the film’s main characters were developed, for example  Sir Larry Wildman is supposedly drawn from  on the British financier Sir James Goldsmith. The Wolf of Wall Street (TWOWS) is based upon the autobiography of a Wall Street trader Jordan Belfort. How much of that is fact  is debatable, although the general tone of the man’s life given in the book  is plausible.

Both films  begin their action in 1980s. Both deal with the shady world of finance. Both are vehicles for the unbridled egotism of their main characters.    There the similarity between them ends.  Wall Street is about  corporate raiders, men who seek to take over companies and then  asset strip them,  sell them on  quickly for a profit or run them as a business for a while, reduce costs (especially by cutting jobs ) and  then sell them . The main criminality involved in the film is insider dealing.

TWOWS  is simply about making a fast buck and the faster the better, with not even a show of doing anything beyond making money.   These people use   any method from the huckster selling of penny shares to insider dealing and celebrate each success in the spirit of the man successfully  running a hunt-the-lady scam in the street.  They are the masters of the universe and those who lose out are suckers.   There is zero concern for or even awareness of the greater general good of a society in the film.

The protagonists in Wall Street are a young stock trader Bud Fox, and a corporate  raider  Gordon Gecko.  Bud idolises Gecko and manages to work his way into Gecko’s circle by passing on privileged information to him, information which he has received from his father Carl who is a union leader at Bluestar Airlines.

Once inside Gecko’s circle  Bud  sheds  his morals and is content to help Gecko  engage in insider trading until the point where he discovers that he is being used as a catspaw by Gecko , who is trying to take over Bluestar  to dissolve the company in order to access cash in the company’s overfunded pension plan. Bud rediscovers his conscience after a fashion and outmanoeuvres Gecko by making an agreement with  Wildman – whom  previously he had helped Gecko to  defraud  through insider trading when Wildman wanted to take over a steel company –  to buy a majority shareholding in  the airline on the cheap  and run it as a going concern.  In doing this his  motivation is more revenge for being betrayed than suddenly being disgusted with what he had become under Gecko’s influence.

DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort is a trader who loses his job  with a Wall Street broker when the firm crashes, moves into boiler-room trading in penny shares (which are barely regulated and allow for huge commissions to be charged to naïve investors who are often buying shares which are next to worthless). He makes a small fortune doing this.

Belfort then decides to strike out on his own account in rather more up-market  surroundings. With a friend , Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill),  he sets  up  a suitably Ivy league sounding firm of brokers Stratton Oakmont.  They operate on the principle of “pump and dump”  (artificially inflating a company’s share price by tactics such as spreading false rumours or simply buying heavily and then selling the shares rapidly). Stratton Oakmont is given lift off by an article in Forbes magazine which calls Jordan a ‘twisted Robin Hood and the “Wolf of Wall Street”,  which appellations prove a first rate recruiting sergeant for Stratton Oakmont  with hundreds of young stock traders flocking to make money with him.  From that point on he becomes seriously rich.

What the films do admirably  is show the difference between the cinematic portrayal of  the American financial world  in films released  in 1987 and 2013.   To refresh my memory I watched Wall Street again before writing this review. The striking thing about the film is how restrained it is compared with TWOWS.

Michael Douglas’  Gordon Gecko is far more disciplined than DiCaprio’s Belfort.  He  has some semblance of intellectual and arguably even moral  justification for what he does, most notably in a scene where he is addressing a shareholders’ meeting of a company he is trying to take over. This is where Gecko utters the most famous words in the film “Greed is good”. The words have serious context. Gecko is peddling  the laissez faire  line that competition is an unalloyed good because it is the agency which creates natural selection amongst companies and it is only that which keeps an economy healthy. He also  puts his finger on a real  cancer in big business: the development of the bureaucratic company where the company is run for the benefit of the senior management rather than the shareholders. Gecko  rails against  the huge number of senior managers on  high salaries  in  the company he wishes to buy, a business  which has done little for its shareholders.  Whether you agree with the raw natural selection argument in business  – and I do not – at the very least it shows that the likes of Gecko feel the need to  justify what they do, to provide an ethical cloak for their misbehaviour.

There is also a serious difference in the general behaviour of  Gecko and Belfort.  Gecko  for all his faults is not a libertine. For him money is both an instrument and an end in itself. It gives him power and status, a medal of success in his eyes and the eyes of the world he inhabits.  There is purpose in Gecko.  He enjoys the material trappings of wealth but is not overwhelmed by them. In Belfort there is merely an ultimately empty grasping of licence  with drugs,  whores  and absurd status symbols such as an outlandishly large yacht , which his ego drives him to wreck by ordering the ship’s captain to sail in weather which the captain tells him is unsafe to sail in. He acquires a trophy girlfriend , He dumps his wife. There is no solid foundation to any part of his life.

The other big general difference between the films is ethical.  Wall Street has a moral voice which acts  as a  foil to Gecko’s amorality.   Bud Fox’s father Carl puts the case against capitalism red in tooth and claw. After Bud’s  discovery of Gecko’s attempt to buy Bluestar Carl’s dissenting ideological  voice  is added to by Bud. In TWOWS there is no moral voice or pretence by Belfort (or any other character) that what they are doing has any social function or ethical content. Instead the public are simply viewed as a bovine herd to be milked as ruthlessly as possible.  The fact that what is being done – whether it be selling penny stocks in a boiler room or using insider information in more sophisticated company –  is no better than a confidence trick does not cause Belfort and his fellow participants the slightest discomfort only unalloyed joy. They are getting rich at the expense of suckers. It’s all a game whose only end is to make the individual rich and to be rich is a validation of their existence.

Gecko and Belfort end up in prison, so in that respect at least they honour the old American  film tradition of never showing the criminal getting away with it, although  in the case of Belfort he ends up in a place which is not so much a prison as a country club.

Both films are strong in all the technical ways – script, plot, characterisation and acting – that are used to judge films. Michael Douglas’ is a more studied performance than that of  diCaprio who brings an amazing energy to the role.  But arresting as Douglas’ performance is  the film the film has ample space to fill out other characters. Indeed, in terms of screen time it is Bud who wins out.

DiCaprio’s   Belfort has strong claims to be the  best performance in an already  long career, but it utterly dominates the film and consequently the other characters have little room to develop than TWOWS.  They either remain one rather dimensional or like Matthew McConaughey  appear only in cameos.

The quality of the films as films is reason enough to watch them, but their primary value , as a pair,   is their charting, unwittingly,   of the decline of moral  sense between the 1980s and now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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