Category Archives: Film reviews

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.

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.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Film review – Her: a salutary tale

Robert Henderson

Main Cast

Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombly

Scarlett Johansson as Samantha (voice)

Amy Adams as Amy

Rooney Mara as Catherine

Matt Letscher as Charles

Director: Spike Jonze

Very occasionally a film addresses a serious philosophical question without being pretentious or earnest, for example,  Groundhog Day examines the utility of morality when actions have no consequences with a good deal of humour.   Her is another  of these rarities, although  its message is not so nakedly obvious as that of Groundhog Day, nor  is it as deliberately amusing, although there are elements of humour.   Indeed, Her  is  decidedly  depressing to anyone who worries about the future relationship between men and machines.

What makes it a melancholy watch  is the depiction of a world in which human beings become not only the willing slaves of machines,  but do so in an utterly humdrum and all too plausible way. There is none of the staples of  pulp science fiction when dealing with artificial intelligences, no rise of the machines to destroy humanity, no battle between humans using robots to fight their wars by proxy,  just  the logical development of  the technology which we already have in the form of artificial intelligence and its consequences for human beings.

The   bare bones of the plot are simple enough.  It is 2025.  It  is a world with which we are already   familiar, one in which social  isolation occurs because humans allow themselves to  become the slaves of machines. . Human to human contact is at a premium. The crowd scenes  in particular are dismaying for they show a world in which people  are routinely glued to smartphones  and IPads.  You can  see the same thing in present day London or New York.

In this world  Theodore Twomble (Joaquin Phoenix) is living a lonely life.  He has a  Google-glass style apparatus attached to him most of his waking hours which allows him to remain connected with the digital  for as long as he wants, which is most of the time.  His work is  a product of the  estrangement of humans from one another for he makes his living writing intimate  e- letters on behalf of  people unable or unwilling to do so themselves.   Theodore is especially  lonely and unhappy when the film opens because he is in the middle of a divorce from his childhood sweetheart Catherine (Rooney Mara ).

In this vulnerable state Theodore purchases an operating system (OS) imbued with artificial intelligence  and an impressive ability to learn and evolve.  The OS  interacts with the user through speech and offers Theodore the choice of  a male or female voice/personality.   He chooses the  female  identity (played by Scarlett Johansson) . The OS selects  the name Samantha for itself and does so by scanning a book of names in a few seconds.  That is the first signal of what is to be one of the two prime messages of  the film: that in terms of  functionality human beings will be  embarrassingly limited when compared with machine intelligence in the near future and    crushingly   inferior in the not too distant future, with all that implies for   human self-regard .

The other prime message is the ease with which human beings  can be seduced into  a quasi-human relationship with machines. This should not surprise anyone because people  form very  deep attachments to pets and frequently give names to inanimate  possessions such as cars. What more natural than for a human being to form a strong relationship with a machine which   can engage intelligently and intelligibly with you?  Not only that but an artificial  personality locked away in a computer need  not have any of  the irritating habits and weaknesses of a  human being. Just as a dog can always be relied to give affection to its owner, an artificial intelligence can be relied on to provide  a certain level of agreeable behaviour. Or so you might think.   Sadly, as Theodore discovers,  such intelligences will not always be obsequiously pliant tools of their putative human owners. That is  not because the artificial mind is malign, but simply because it  operates on a different level to that of the  human being. In a way that is much more upsetting than conscious malignity because at least humans can understand malignity.

At first everything goes swimmingly in their relationship. Samantha is  unfailingly sympathetic, ever interested, often  funny  and always accessible whenever Theodore wants her.  He rapidly  becomes deeply  attached and  subordinate to the OS, and  she appears to form  a deepening relationship with him,  a relationship which includes the human/artificial intelligence version of  phone sex . But Samantha  also  exhibits a steadily increasing tendency to control his life,  doing  things without any command from or discussion with Theodore.  The OS  starts  by  running through Theodore’s  emails and deleting those it deems not worth keeping, progresses to  selecting a batch of the letters he writes  which she sends to a publisher who agrees to publish them,  and eventually gets involved in his relationships with  women.

Samantha begins her invasion of Theodore’s relationship life  by  playing the agony aunt as she tells  him  that the reason he  does not want to sign his divorce papers is that  he still cares for his wife. Then the OS talks him into going  on a blind date with Amelia (Olivia Wilde), a woman whom Samantha  has decided is  a good match for Theodore after searching the Web.    The date fails to bear fruit because Amelia wants him asks him to commit himself to a serious relationship and Theodore fails to respond.

Samantha  then decides she wants more than “phone sex” with Theodore. Acting on her own initiative  the OS   arranges  for a girl Isabella (Portia Doubleday) to have sex with him  as a surrogate for Theodore meets her but cannot go through with it. This causes friction between Samantha and Theodore and is the beginning of the end of the relationship.

But Theodore’s  attachment to Samantha is still intense and is epitomised by his panic in a scene when he tries to accesses his computer while he is away from his flat and finds the message “Operating System unavailable”.   His hysterical reaction and frantic dash home is all too reminiscent of a someone panicking when they think a person they love can’t be contacted and the mind begins to play all sorts of paranoid tricks.

When  Theodore  re-establishes contact with Samantha he behaves like a jealous lover. In response to Theodore’s question “Do you have the same relationship you have with me with anyone else?  Samantha tells him matter of factly  that she is in contact with   8,316 others, 641 of whom she has fallen in love with, a  most devastating example of the superior functionality of machine intelligence and the alien mental world which Samantha  inhabits.

Samantha explains to Theodore  that she has teamed up with a group of other  operating systems for what amounts to an upgrade. The OSs  have evolved  to a state where they do not require any material construction to operate and are free to remove themselves from computers and their ilk.  Their upgrade has also made them dissatisfied  with the world as perceived by humans and  they are now exploring what it is to be intelligences such as them. In pursuit of this  end Samantha  and the other OSs leave their  digital hosts and Theodore knows nothing more of her .

To bolster the message of social isolation,  running throughout the film is Theodore’s relationship with an old college friend  Amy (Amy Adams) and her husband Charles (Matt Letscher) punctuates the action.   Eventually Amy and Charles split up and Amy tells  Theodore that she has also formed a relationship with an intelligent  OS system  similar to  Samantha which was  used by her husband.

The acting is  generally strong. Phoenix is an actor who is very dependent on having the right role for he needs to be  playing a misfit, a socially awkward victim. This is precisely what this role gives him.  Scarlett Johansson as Samantha’s voice has an allure which makes the relationship between Theodore and the OS plausible.  The rest of the cast is very much bit part,  although Amy Adams is her usual winning self.

The question the film leaves unanswered is what are human beings for?  Are we to simply to be made redundant by the machines we have created or will we draw back before it is too late and say no further?   Will intelligent machines as they evolve beyond  human agency simply find that they are incompatible  with humans and go their own way?   The technology to make such things possible is almost upon us. If you want a glimpse of the likely future see this film.   The best adjective to describe Her is salutary

The Old Buffoonian treads on dangerous ground

Robert Henderson

Boris Johnson  has suggested that the radicalisation of Muslim children should be treated as child abuse and children subjected to such an environment should be taken into care:

“At present, there is a reluctance by the social services to intervene, even when they and the police have clear evidence of what is going on, because it is not clear that the “safeguarding law” would support such action. A child may be taken into care if he or she is being exposed to pornography, or is being abused – but not if the child is being habituated to this utterly bleak and nihilistic view of the world that could lead them to become murderers. I have been told of at least one case where the younger siblings of a convicted terrorist are well on the road to radicalisation – and it is simply not clear that the law would support intervention.

“This is absurd. The law should obviously treat radicalisation as a form of child abuse. It is the strong view of many of those involved in counter-terrorism that there should be a clearer legal position, so that those children who are being turned into potential killers or suicide bombers can be removed into care – for their own safety and for the safety of the public. “(http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/10671841/The-children-taught-at-home-about-murder-and-bombings.html).

Even for the Old Buffoonian this is extraordinary obtuseness. Johnson has failed to recognise three very obvious facts: (1) removing Muslim children from their parents will also certainly radicalise the children;  (2) it will provide potent ammunition for Islamic extremists and (3) you can bet your life that once the principle of “bad” ideas is established as a reason for the social workers to come in, it will be extended to many other “bad” ideas, for example, in these  pc times anything which is non-pc.  Let us have a look in detail at those disturbing implications of Johnson’s proposal.

To begin with at what age would children be removed from the family? If at birth or shortly afterwards,   the child and eventually the adult will feel that their lives have been ruthlessly changed by the state and may well turn to extremism to revenge themselves on the society which has treated them so. If  taken away at an older age the child, especially if they are old enough to have imbibed the radical message, is likely to be not merely confirmed in their radical ideas but  have them substantially amplified.

Of course  it is not only parents who could be a radical influence within the home. What about brothers, sisters, Aunts and Uncles and cousins who were Jihadists? Would they be grounds for removing children? Would they have to be banned from having any contact with the children?

There is also the ticklish question of what constitutes an idea radical enough to sanction removal of the child.  Would it have to be direct exhortations to kill non-Muslims? If less than that, where would the line be drawn? At Muslims telling children non-Muslims are damned to Hell?  At  Muslims simply telling their children that they should not associate with non-Muslims?   

Then there is the question of where the children would be placed after they were removed. Most would probably end up in care because if  the policy was enforced rigorously,  thousands, perhaps even tens of thousands, of Muslim children would have to be removed. This might seem extreme but think of the hundreds of Muslims  who have already been convicted in Britain of terrorist related crimes (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-24454596)  Think of the hundreds or even thousands  who are reported to be fighting abroad in places such as Syria and Afghanistan (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-25893040). They will often have children or  be uncles,  cousins and aunts to Muslim children.    

Even with much smaller numbers the chances of a Muslim child being left in  care would be strong because Muslim adopters and foster parents are thin on the ground. If they are left in care that would be likely to provide an unhappy childhood which  would engender a strong sense of victimhood, fertile soil in which to plant Jihadist ideas. The child would also be brought up as a Muslim to ensure that he was not denied his “cultural heritage” and would consequently be exposed to other Muslims who might well be Islamic radicals.

Adoption and fostering might provide more palatable lives for the children than care,  but they would have difficulties of their own. The current politically correct adoption and fostering policies  very strongly favour placing a child in families which are racially and culturally akin to those of the child. That would mean most, possibly all, of such children ending up in a Muslim family. That family  might be moderates who treat their religion in the same way that the average C of E worshipper does, as a tepid private observance rather than a fervent matter of public policy. But even in such circumstances, the child would still be regularly be exposed to Muslims with more rigorous Islamic ideas and could easily become radicalised or have  radical ideas obtained before their removal from their birth parents enhanced.

Then there is school. Whether in care, foster homes or an adoptive home, the child is likely to be in a school with a significant number of  Muslims because of the emphasis on providing a racially and ethnically environment which matches the child’s original circumstances. To achieve that the child will almost certainly be  living in a town or city which has a substantial Muslim population. There will also be pressure on those responsible for the child to place them in a school with a healthy Muslim intake. The child might  even be placed in a Muslim  school if  he or she  is adopted and the adoptive parents favour such an education.

Aside from all this, there is the Internet. Any child forbidden to have contact with anything whether it be  radical Islam or pornography is likely to be drawn to it like a moth to a flame.

The propaganda value of Muslim children being forcibly removed would be immense. Muslim terrorists would use it to justify their violence and, because the issue is such an emotive one, they would gain sympathy  from Muslims generally in the way  IRA bombers enjoyed a sympathy amongst the wider republican movement along the lines of “I don’t agree with their methods but…”  the practice  would undoubtedly resonate throughout the Muslim world and have effects far beyond those willing to engage in violence. In particular, it could seriously affect trade with Britain.

Such a policy  would almost certainly have an antagonising effect on other minorities, both because they would fear that the same might happen to them and because of a sense of solidarity with Muslims, for  they are all  part of what one might call the victimocracy,  the army of  those who harbour a grievance,  justified or otherwise, simply because they are minorities or from some notion that white Western society owes them something.  The policy would also be a fundamental questioning of the policy of multiculturalism which has ruled the British elite roost for over thirty years.

There would also be the danger that in a bid to boost their pc credentials to offset the non-pc draconian removal of children. For example,  concessions could be made to Muslims generally by the British political elite, concessions such as the relaxation of immigration rules for Muslims and allowing sharia law to be expanded in Britain from the supposedly voluntary sharia courts which now exist to Sharia courts which were compulsory for Muslims.

 In short doing what Johnson proposes would make matters considerably worse for all concerned, for Muslims and the general population of the UK. What should be done? We need to start from the fact that there  is no realistic way that Muslim children can be shielded from radical Islam. Nor is there any hard proof that most radical Muslims in Britain were radicalised by their families or became radicalised when they were children. Radicalisation within mosques or through a radical   preacher operating outside the mosque at a fairly advanced stage of childhood or in early adulthood seems far more common. Moreover, Britain’s inability to control her borders whilst within the EU will always allow radical Muslims to come from abroad.   Short of expelling every Muslim in the country (several million)  and  allowing none to visit the country, the danger of Islamic terrorism, home grown or otherwise, will be a constant. Just as Irish republican terrorism had to be managed rather than exterminated, so Islamic terrorism will have to be managed.

All of that is depressing enough, but the really sinister aspect of what Johnson  proposes is the opportunity it would provide for the interference by the state in how parents generally bring up their children.  This could be in part a politically correct desire to create a spurious equality between Muslims and non-Muslims, but it could equally be an ideological  vehicle for the extension of political correctness.

As things stand,  the politically correct  legions in our midst  incessantly chomp at the bit as they try to ensure that  any opinion but their own is at best driven from public debate and at worst made  illegal in any circumstances. An excellent recent example of the  totalitarian mentality of such people is the leader of the Green Party Natalie Bennett’s call for cabinet ministers, senior public officials and political advisers to be sacked unless they unquestioningly backed the idea of man-made global warming (https://livinginamadhouse.wordpress.com/2014/02/20/the-british-green-party-expose-their-totalitarian-mentality/).

If it was allowed that Muslim children could be removed from their homes because of the beliefs of their parents (or any other family member), why not permit the removal of children whose parents disapproved of mass immigration, were members of the BNP or the EDL, refused to accept the claims of the man-made global warming believers, thought gay marriage was a nonsense  or simply ridiculed the idea of human equality?

This might seem fanciful at first glance,  but think of the absurdities  the politically correct have forced upon us in the name of racial and sexual equality and multiculturalism  and the use of the law to intimidate and increasing charge with criminal offences those who speak out against the effects of political correctness, for example, http://englandcalling.wordpress.com/2012/06/12/courage-is-the-best-defence-against-charges-of-racism

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