Category Archives: Film reviews

The Darkest Hour

Robert Henderson

Main Cast[

Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill

Kristin Scott Thomas as Clementine Churchill

Ben Mendelsohn as George VI

Lily James as Elizabeth Layton

Ronald Pickup as Neville Chamberlain

Stephen Dillane as Edward Wood, 3rd Viscount Halifax

Nicholas Jones as John Simon, 1st Viscount Simon

Samuel West as Anthony Eden

David Schofield as Clement Attlee

Director: Joe Wright.

This is a deeply  unsatisfactory film. It is very watchable but also infuriatingly blemished with ahistorical nonsenses .  In addition   although it gives a more positive picture overall  of Churchill’s personality  than does the other recent film portrayal of the man,  there is still much which does not fit readily  with what we know of Churchill  from contemporary newsreel, his writings and  the decisions he made. It also intrudes into the film a piece of political correctness so crude and clumsy that it takes one’s breath away.

The film covers the period  from  immediately before Churchill’s appointment as Prime Minister in 1940   and  the  weeks immediately following   his promotion  to that office.   Hitler is sweeping through  Europe. Most of the British Army is trapped in Dunkirk and  in danger of capture.   Although better equipped  militarily than in 1938 Britain is still short of planes and warships.    For appeasing politicians  like Halifax and the most senior military officers faced with this dire situation there are plenty of all too persuasive reasons to seek  terms with Hitler, not least because it looks as though most of the British Army will  be lost at Dunkirk.   Churchill  believes that   a large scale  evacuation  of the army can be achieved and insists on  overriding the doubters by  mobilising not only the Royal Navy but any private ship including  (some very small craft) to assist in the evacuation. He also orders a small  British garrison  under  Brigadier  Claude Nicholson in Calais to engage in what is effectively a suicide mission aimed at distracting the Germans from the evacuation from Dunkirk.

Amongst those who have their hands on the levers of power Churchill is alone in unequivocally wanting to fight on and is the only one who is resolutely opposed to having any truck with Hitler.  It is true that the film depicts Churchill at one point  wavering over the idea of seeking terms with Hitler and Mussolini  (there is no solid historical evidence for this)i, but whether  this  wavering was genuine or not, in the film  Churchill, boosted by the success of the Dunkirk evacuation, soon changes his mind and returns to his belief that Britain must fight on because  Hitler cannot be trusted.

Whatever the  emotional drivers  were which led Churchill to be implacably opposed to making peace with Hitler,   on purely rational grounds there were cast-iron reasons for taking such a  stand. Hitler had already shown by 1940 that treaties and promises made in speeches meant nothing to him. He had begun by moving into the Rhineland in 1934 despite this being forbidden by the Treaty of Versailes in 1919.  The Anschluss  which joined  Germany and Austria  occurred in 1938 despite this being forbidden by   the 1919 Treaty of Saint-Germain;  the Munich Agreement of 1938  which restricted Germany to the Sudetenland  was a dead letter after Hitler took possession of  all of Czechoslovakia  in 1939 and also in in 1939 Germany  overturned the 10-year non-aggression pact  between Germany and Poland signed in 1934 by invading Poland, an act which sounded  the starting gun for WW2. All of that happened before Churchill became PM.  In addition 1941  saw Germany break  the Molotov-Ribbentrop  Pact  ( signed in 1939)   by invading Russia.  The revisionist case that  Britain should have stood aside and allowed Hitler free rein  to attack Russia and thus retained both the Empire and global significance goes against all we know of Hitler’s mentality and actual behaviour . The best the UK could have hoped for was to be a vassal state of Nazi Germany and the worst would have been to be militarily occupied as Hitler broke whatever  Vichy-style  agreement he had made with the UK.

The jaw-droppingly clumsy piece of political correctness is a piece of pure fiction. It  involves Churchill suddenly deciding to travel on the underground, something he had only done once before during the 1926 general strike.  He enters a crowded carriage  where he is recognised and he  begins  canvassing opinion  from his fellow passengers  who  are all  white workingclass  people  (many verge dangerously close to being stage cockneys)  bar one, the   sole exception being  a black West Indian. Everyone is  gung-ho for fighting on.

After Churchill has finished canvassing opinion  he  begins to quote   Macaulay’s poem Horatius  (“Alone stood bold Horatius/ But constant still in mind/ Thrice thirty thousand foes before”). The West Indian  takes up quoting  the poem. Which he does flawlessly  Not impossible  but  improbable that a black West Indian  would  have been on an underground train  in 1940 and  lottery win  improbable that one would have been  in a random carriage supposedly chosen by Churchill and straightforwardly absurd that he would have been e able to faultlessly quote  MaCaulay .

This example of the obsession with the falsification of reality that is political correctness  comes from the same stable  which routinely  has blacks routinely playing  authority figures such as police chiefs, generals and judges in  American . ( Ironically  this discriminates against other non-Caucasian groups who are rarely given the same privileged status).

Does it matter that an historical drama plays fast and loose with the facts? I think it does because  in any society  human beings need to have a narrative about the place they  live in, how it got to be what it is.. This is especially so in a country  such as the UK whose elite have adopted a creed (political correctness) which runs contrary to reality.  Cicero had it correctly when he wrote that to  be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child and the thing about children is that they are very easily manipulated.

Following the fictitious underground scene Churchill goes to the House of Commons and makes his “We shall fight them on the beaches” speech, a speech which is represented as growing from his  putative experiences in the Underground carriage.  It is all rather cartoonish.

On top of this nonsense there is the unsatisfactory portrayal of Churchill’s general personality and habits.  Oldman,  with the aid of  considerable  make up has  a half-way decent   physical resemblance to Churchill  and impersonates the voice  well enough. Yet something is missing.  Oldman’s Churchill is portrayed, as he is the film Churchill,  as someone who  is  perpetually at war with other senior politicians and military men who frequently treat him as a ridiculous and dangerous adventurer at best and as contemptible at worst.  Admittedly this is early in the war when Churchill  had still to grow the reputation he had by 1945 and it is also true that many in his own party (the Tories) did not trust him , but  it is difficult to believe that he would have been treated so cavalierly when he was not only PM but also leading the country at a most difficult time.

The other problem with this Churchill characterisation is that he is portrayed as being weak at various points and in various ways.  Apart from the  supposed wavering over seeking terms with Hitler and Mussolini, the film has him engaging in a transatlantic  phone call with Roosevelt and is almost in tears whilst  begging unsuccessfully  for help. His wife reprimands him like a naughty boy.  Yet if one looks at Churchill in newsreel and still photos of the period  he comes across as a much tougher personality than that which is portrayed  and certainly not one given to panic.  Moreover, his behaviour both as soldier and war correspondent show him to  have been physically brave and his opposition to appeasing Hitler from an early stage, which alienated many in his party, showed he had moral courage.

On a more trivial level of misrepresentation  the film also depicts Churchill  as more or less perpetually lubricating himself with alcohol and satisfying  a monstrous cigar habit . Churchill did undoubtedly drink and smoke a great deal but it should be remembered that he lived to be 90  and carried the most colossal  responsibility during five years as prime minister despite the fact that he was  65 when he was appointed Prime Minister May 1940  and 70 when the war ended in May 1945. Consequently it is more than a little difficult to imagine him being so dependent on alcohol if not tobacco.

Oldman’s s role is so dominant  that the rest of the cast  are somewhat cast adrift. Kristin Scott Thomas as Clementine Churchill  has the most substantial role after Oldman and  being the fine actress she is makes the most of what little there  is.   Stephen Dillane  passes muster as Halifax, being waspishly aggressive, Ronald Pickup is a plausible Neville Chamberlain and  Samuel West as Anthony Eden  is through accident or design  appropriately s lightweight as a personality.   Lily James as Churchill’s personal  typist cum secretary  Elizabeth Layton has a fair amount of screen time  and was decorative but rather featureless. But in truth all these parts are too trivial to make much impression overall.

The surprise in terms of the substance of his role was   Ben Mendelsohn as George VI. He  has more screen time than one might imagine for a constitutional monarch, lending support and encouragement to Churchill .

Curiously,  Attlee is scarcely mentioned after the beginning of the film in which he makes a shrieking condemnation of  Chamberlain  utterly at odds  with  his known quiet ironical style .

There is one good thing to take from the film; the power of Churchill’s oratory came through.    Churchill had one of the most memorable  and distinctive of voices which was very compelling.  Add in his literary talent  and it still makes  for a heady brew.

I cannot in all conscience recommend the film but if you do go to see it bear in mind that it is predominantly  fiction not fact.

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The Death of Stalin

Robert Henderson

Directed by Armando Iannucci

Based on the comic book  Death of Stalin by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin

Main Cast

Jeffrey Tambor as Georgy Malenkov –Deputy General Secretary

Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev  – General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union

Olga Kurylenko as Maria Yudina – pianist whose family has fallen foul of  the Soviet regime

Michael Palin as Vyacheslav Molotov – Foreign Minister

Simon Russell Beale as Lavrentiy Beria  – NKVD head

Paddy Considine as Comrade Andreyev – the head of the radio station

Andrea Riseborough as Svetlana Stalina  – Stalin’s daughter

Rupert Friend as Vasily Stalin – Stalin’s son

Jason Isaacs as  Marshall  Georgy Zhukov  – the leader of the Red Army

Adrian Mcloughlin as Joseph Stalin

Paul Whitehouse as Anastas Mikoyan  – Vice-Premier of the Council of Ministers

Paul Chahidi as Nikolai Bulganin  – deputy premier and minister of defence

Dermot Crowley as Lazar Kaganovich   – Minister of Labour

Running time

107 minutes[1]

If an entire  society can become a lunatic asylum Stalin’s  Russia was  that society.  Imagine a world in which the present  is  at the forefront of your mind all the time.  No one is  safe. The most slavish devotion to  the party line and Comrade Stalin did not guarantee your  safety for the party line might change from day to day or an informer  tell a lie about  you  or simply recount an unguarded remark  you made.   If  a person said as little as possible that might be taken as a  sign that  they were secretly disloyal; if they made a great display of loyalty it could be interpreted as a subterfuge to disguise their revisionist or worse counterrevolutionary  true self. Being a senior  member of the Party  did not make someone  any safer  than a peasant and indeed  probably  made you more vulnerable to being executed, for few were the  senior Bolsheviks  from the  revolutionary days  who died of old age. It was a madhouse in which rationality  and consistency were dangerous  traits  because the norm was  a trembling neurosis  focused only on the immediate present and its precarious nature.   Arthur Koestler’s novel Darkness at Noon captures the general atmosphere  of the  time and place well.

It is important to take this historical reality  on board before seeing the film because there is much in it which would otherwise  seem absurd. The reality of Russia under Stalin’s rule was every  bit as  chaotic as the film’s depiction of it. Pathological paranoia was the norm and never more fevered was it  than in the  last years of Stalin’s life.

The Death of Stalin   manages to be both funny and sinister. It is tragi-comedy with the emphasis heavily on the comedy.   Imagine The lives of others with jokes. The all pervasive  fear  is  brought home  as the film opens. It  begins with a  Mozart  recital  being broadcast by Radio Moscow.  The performance ends and the head of the radio station (Paddy Considine) has a call from  Comrade Stalin (Adrian Mcloughlin )who requests a  recording of the performance.   But the recital has not been recorded and panic breaks out as Considine frenziedly sets about arranging for the concert to be performed again despite the fact that many of the audience have left,  the pianist Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko  ), a  woman with a  grudge against Stalin because of what has happened to her family, is reluctant to perform a second time  and the  conductor faints and   injures himself so seriously he  cannot conduct the second recital and a new conductor has to be  hurriedly found from those who have just been sentenced to the Gulag or worse.  Superficially this is Keystone Cops but the palpable fear turns the scene serious.

Stalin receives the recording but  a note from Maria Yudina  has been slipped into the record sleeve. This  lambasts Stalin for what he has done to the country. Stalin laughs  but this brings on a  brain haemorrhage which renders him speechless and immobile.  Those close to Stalin call for the best doctors to  be   brought  to treat him from motives which include  fear that he may recover and they be found wanting in getting him medical help if they just leave him to die, fear of what will follow if he does die or in the case of his housekeeper  simply  genuine concern for him. But there is a problem:  because of the so-called doctors plot all  the best doctors have been executed, sent to the Gulag or exiled.   A few of the disgraced doctors are hurriedly brought back to Moscow  but Stalin dies. Then the fun starts as the Central Committee members begin to manoeuvre either for power themselves  or simply to keep themselves safe.

It is rare when a film with a decent sized cast has no duds.  This is one of the rarities. The film  has one of the great film monsters in the shape of the head of the  NKVD  Lavrentiy Beria (Philip Russell Beale ) and probably the most feared man in Russia  after Stalin.  Beale is a compelling  actor and here he has a coach and four  to drive as hard as he wants in the villain stakes.  Looking  like a  cross between Mr Toad and a  Humpty Dumpty  laced with venom,  he dominates the film. Throughout he is a buzzing manipulator moving from one senior member of the Central Committee to another, his mere presence being a threat.  His scheme is to use Malenkov as a shield behind which he can pitch for ultimate power himself. Eventually  Beria overreaches himself by becoming too directly threatening and suffers the same arbitrary  injustice  he has meted out to others, being shot immediately after a  “trial” and his body burnt where it lay.

The real Beria was  an  especially nasty  piece of work.  Sadists with real power   are bad news at any time and Beria was one of the worst.  Not only did he have people killed without conscience ,  he liked to torture them  mentally and physically.  Suppose that  a husband and wife were to be shot, Beria  would ensure that the wife was shot first in front of the husband. Beria also had a great appetite  for rape which he indulged by taking  wives and daughters of “factionalists”, “revisionists,  or “counterrevolutionaries ”, factionalists or any other woman who took his  fancy  and could be arrested as an enemy of the state or otherwise manipulated.

Steve Busceni as Krushchev  has  the meatiest part after that of  Beria and carries it well, as a man who if seriously tainted by the horrors of Stalin’s time    is  more realistic  about the realities of human nature than most of those  who served and survived Stalin.  He acts with the minter of labour   Lazar Kaganovich   (Dermot Crowley  )  to thwart Betria, most notably by countermanding Beria’s orders that trains shall not ruin to Moscow and that the Red Army be kept in barracks leaving the NKVD to control the streets.

Michael Palin is a marvellous Molotov, the great  Soviet   survivor who outlasted the purges of the 1930s and died at the fag end of Soviet Rule  aged  ninety-six,  a man who so completely bought into the need  to be subordinate that he pathetically applauds the imprisonment of his wife  as being the “right thing”. He is a man to whom things happen, a leaf blown in the wind. Jeffrey Tambor as Georgy Malenkov  is a  nonentity  who nonetheless  gets some delusions of authority from the fact  he is the deputy first secretary  and thus legally, if one could use such a term about the Soviet Union,  Stalin’s successor.

Andrea Riseborough as Svetlana Stalina  – Stalin’s daughter – manages to be both paranoid and strangely innocent;  Rupert Friend as Vasily Stalin – Stalin’s son – is a boorish drunken   incompetent  lacking any  distinction other than being Stalin’s son.

Isaacs’  Marshall Zhukhov (the head of the Soviet army)  is a splendidly swaggering  absurdity with his torso covered more by medals than the cloth of his uniform  who announces his presence with “Right, what’s a war hero got to do to get some lubrication around here?” But the bombastic  Zhukhov is the key to preventing Beria from   gaining power because it is only when he agrees to back the overthrow of Beria (providing all the other members of the Central Committee agree)  that the act can take place.

The moment which got the biggest laugh from the  cinema audience I was part of  was  a wind up of  Krushchev   by   Marshall Zhukov.  They are having a private conversation and Krushchev  suggests   that Zhukov  should  join him and other Soviet leaders in a bid to seize  power  and do for Beria. .  Zhukov responds with  “ I’m going to have to report this conversation, threatening to do harm or obstruct any member of the Presidium in the process of…”  Krushchev looks terrified  until Zhukov bursts a out laughing and says  with delight  “ look at your fucking face!”  But there are plenty of other genuinely funny moments including the chaos of the organisation of Stalin’s funeral which Beria has manoeuvred Khrushchev into organising with the intention of neutralising him while Beria attempts to seize power.

This is indubitably the film I have most enjoyed in 2017.  Don’t rob yourself of a treat by missing it.

 

Film review of Churchill

Cast

Brian Cox as Winston Churchill

Miranda Richardson as Clementine Churchill

John Slattery as Dwight D. Eisenhower

James Purefoy as King George VI

Julian Wadham as General  Bernard Montgomery

Danny Webb as  Field Marshall   Alan Brooke

Jonathan Aris as Air Chief Marshall  Trafford Leigh-Mallory

George Anton  Admiral Sir  Bertram Ramsay

Steven Cree as Group Captain James Stagg , a Royal Air Force meteorologist

Angela Costello as Kay Summersby chauffeur and later as personal secretary to Dwight D. Eisenhower

Richard Durden as Jan Smuts   South African general  turned politician

Ella Purnell as Helen Garrett (Churchill’s secretary)

Director:  Jonathan Teplitzky

Script by Alex von Tunzelmann

This was a disappointing film in terms of its general theatrical quality which veers towards the melodramatic ,   but even more because it is a travesty of Churchill’s character. That fine actor Brian Cox might have been made for the role of Churchill and with a script which reflected Churchill’s  personality , opinions  and behaviour   accurately I have no doubt that he  would have produced a great depiction of  the man. But here he  is  bound by a script which  makes  Churchill seem like a tempestuous child, and child who more often than not could be  side-lined  and insulted to his face despite being Prime Minister  in the midst of a most terrible and threatening  war.  It is difficult to think of any scene involving  characters with power and influence  which shows him as s being the dominant character, for example, he does not chair the meetings with Eisenhower and the other military men. In real life he did.

The film is set in the four days before D-Day and the execution of t   Operation Overlord, the invasion of  Normandy.    Churchill  is portrayed as being pathologically anxious that the  invasion should not be another  bloodbath like Gallipoli in the Great War, a failure for which Churchill had been widely  held wholly or largely responsible. As a consequence the film  has him interminably prevaricating over the   D-Day landings  and after the decision is made to  invade Churchill is shown   praying  for unfavourable weather  to stop the operation: “Please, please, please let it pour tomorrow. Let the heavens open and a deluge burst forth such as has never been seen in the English Channel. Let the sea churn into peaks and troughs and tidal waves!”

That passage encapsulates the tone of the film.  Churchill is not seen as being either in command or as  a figure of authority but as a man frightened for his reputation and perhaps his soul.   So strong a part of the film was the  obsession with the failure at Gallipoli I could not help wondering if this was in some part   a consequence of having an Australian director Jonathan Teplitzky.  Australians are frequently more than a little angry about Gallipoli even  today and blame the British for the loss of Australian lives there. Film scripts are not sacrosanct and  It would be interesting to know if the subject of Gallipoli loomed  as large in the initial script as  it did in the film.

The historian Andrew Roberts has unreservedly  slated the film for its many inaccuracies relating to Churchill’s state of mind leading up to the Normandy landings, viz: “The only problem with the movie–written by the historian Alex von Tunzelmann–is that it gets absolutely everything wrong. Never in the course of movie-making have so many specious errors been made in so long a film by so few writers.” Roberts attacks the film on the grounds that it wrongly shows Churchill as dithering over D-Day, being seriously at odds with his wife, at war with the generals and being bullying to his staff.

To  the lack of historical accuracy  about events  and Churchill’s state of mind can  be added  the portrayal of  his physical state .  Churchill in real life was far from the physically lumbering man obese to the point  almost of physical handicap that was depicted in the film.  He played polo into his fifties and rode to hounds into his seventies  (in 1944 he was seventy) . This physical misrepresentation   fed into the  picture the film painted of Churchill being a man who by that stage of the war at least was a spent force at best and a positive hindrance to the successful prosecution of the war.

The depiction of Churchill’s relationship with the military is also improbable.   He is shown displaying a chronic fault of  Hitler, namely, playing at being a military mastermind  by suggesting  different strategies  such as decoy operations to mislead the Germans, tactics which fed into the film’s  Gallipoli complex.   There are also some startling and incongruous in the circumstances language involving the military with  Montgomery  calling Churchill a ‘bastard’ to his face and casting aspersions on his commitment  to the Normandy landings  by accusing Churchill of  ‘doubt, dithering and treachery’. The PM  later  describes  Montgomery (not in Montgomery’s presence)  as a ‘Puffed-up little s**t.’  It all seems very unlikely, not least because it implies that  the military not  the politicians were the real government of the UK at that time.

In fact the film plays to that idea for there is a  strange  absence of other British  politicians in the film and or   indeed of any  civilians in position of authority and influence.  For example,    Churchill’s leading scientific advisor Frederick Lindemann   had a very close relationship with him and  the two met often  during the war.. It is a little odd that he did not appear at all because apart from his value as a scientific advisor Llindemann  had a real friendship with Churchill and at a time of great stress for Churchill it is probable that he ill would have welcomed having  Lindemann around.

Then there is Churchill’s relationship with his wife Clemmie.  She is  shown as  being very ready to criticise Churchill either directly through confrontation as when she scolds  him for his drinking and indirectly by  her general  behaviour towards him which includes her apologising for Churchill’s behaviour towards his staff .  She is also shown slapping him at one point for which there is no evidence.   There is also rather too much angst from  Clemmie  about how Churchill had neglected her and a feeling that somehow her life has been unfulfilling.  Churchill is shown playing up to this, at one point  saying ‘I would understand if you left me. I’d leave me if I could.’  Real?

Even if there had been any substance to this behaviour would Churchill’s wife  have been  raising it just before D-Day?  However, again the evidence for such behaviour  is lacking.  This element of  the filmic Clemmie’s   behaviour smells  suspiciously like an inappropriate and anachronistic  feminist implant designed to show that men behaved “badly”, that is, displayed politically incorrect behaviour, in 1944 and women spiritedly rebelled against such  treatment.   The fact that the scriptwriter Alex von Tunzelmann is female may have something to do with this , a suspicion strengthened by  her  being a Guardian columnist. It would be very interesting to see Tunzelmann justifying her script in terms of historical accuracy.

Is the film worth seeing?  Probably not for  as a pure piece of drama it fails. The action flits from scene to scene  in rather stilted  fashion which robs the film of cohesion and leaves the impression  that each scene is being ticked off as having covered a particular issue as a stamp collector might  congratulate themselves on having acquired a particular stamp to add to a set.  Nor apart from Churchill and just about  his wife is there much character development for the film has a substantial number of historically  important  characters but little time is  allotted to each.  These  supporting characters are,   as one can more or less take for granted in a film manned by British actors,  adroitly executed  in as far as their very limited roles  allow. Within the  confines of this  hindrance  of Julian Wadham’s  Montgomery stood out.

That should be enough  to say don’t waste your money. However Dunkirk is one of those films which has an importance  beyond its qualities as a film. Its effect is to turn Churchill from a war hero into an irresolute,  fearful and   incompetent. In fact the misrepresentation of  Churchill  is  so complete that it qualifies as character assassination . The danger is that it will colour the public’s view of the man.   Consequently, see it  so that you can afterwards refute its view of Churchill.    In short, it should be seen  for its faults not its virtues .

 

 

Film review of Dunkirk

Dunkirk

Cast

Fionn Whitehead as Tommy, a British Army private

Mark Rylance as Mr Dawson, a mariner and Peter’s father

Tom Glynn-Carney as Peter, Mr Dawson’s son

Jack Lowden as Pilot Officer Collins, a Royal Air Force Spitfire pilot

Harry Styles as Alex, a private in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders

Aneurin Barnard as “Gibson”, a French soldier masquerading as a British Army private

James D’Arcy as Colonel Winnant

Barry Keoghan as George, a young man who helps to crew Dawson’s boat.

Kenneth Branagh as Commander Bolton the pier-master during the evacuation

Cillian Murphy as frightened soldier

Tom Hardy as Farrier, a Royal Air Force Spitfire pilot

Michael Caine appears in a spoken cameo role as Fortis Leader

Director Christopher Nolan

The year is 1940. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) has been sent to  Europe to help repel  the Germans. This fails and the BEF eventually make their way to Dunkirk, a French port  six miles from the Belgian border. Here they wait, more in hope than expectation, to be  evacuated back to Britain. But against the odds  between  27 May  and  4 June over 300 thousand, British,  colonial and French troops were evacuated, most by Royal Navy  (RN) ships but some by civilian boats, many  very small,  crewed  by  a mixture of RN personnel and civilians. (Small boats were useful  because they could get near enough to shore  for soldiers to wade out to them.  Larger boats had to either wait offshore to have soldiers ferried to them or they used a form of jetty called a mole to take people on board. )

The Germans did not press forward into Dunkirk with their army as might have been expected . Instead they attacked using  planes and submarines. Why they took this course is unclear but it was sanctioned by Hitler.  It may have been Goering persuading Hitler to allow the Luftwaffe to  gain the kudos of finishing off  the British forces.  it might have been Hitler believing  that once the British forces were out of continental Europe they would never come back. It could have been caution on the part of Hitler and his generals. Whatever the reason during the week the evacuation lasted the troops on Dunkirk beach  were  subject to bombing   and British vessels  engaged in the evacuation  were bombed and torpedoed. That is the bare bones of Dunkirk.

The brutal reality of  war has often  not been represented honestly or convincingly in films, but  the graphic opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan arguably changed that and most war films since have been much more unsparing of the audience’s squeamishness.   Indeed, modern film makers have taken to heart the American civil war general  William Sherman’s remark   “War is hell” and created Hell on the screen.   Christopher  Nolan does so here.   Consequently, the film scores very well  when it comes to the military action, giving  a graphic depiction of the multiplicity of ways of dying in action and the sheer violence and randomness  of the killing and wounding. The effect is  to  give a nihilistic quality to many of  the scenes. Whether someone lives or dies has  no particular purpose.

The aerial battles between three Spitfires providing cover to the  men on the beach and the ships taking them off   and their fights  with German fighters and bombers  are particularly compelling , perhaps because such warfare  has the shape  of single combat and the manoeuvres of planes flying fast but not at supersonic speed while  attacking with machine guns  rather than missiles  has an intimacy that the blind destruction of men on the ground absolutely lacks. The Spitfire pilot had to get close to his target and fire his guns in sustained bursts. .

All of this makes for a complicated story to tell. To address this fact Nolan has decided on an impressionistic  style rather than a straightforward chronological narrative. He does this by dividing  the film into three separate sections entitled   land, sea and air.

The  quick  flitting from one piece of action to another the film does not give great  opportunity for character development  but   Mark Rylance as Mr Dawson, the  civilian  skipper of a small boat, knits together the progress of the sea  story and as a representative of the “small ships”.

James D’Arcy as Colonel Winnant and Kenneth Branagh as Commander Bolton the pier-master during the evacuation represent  the  experience of senior officers  while Fionn Whitehead as Tommy and  Harry Styles as Alex  give a backbone  to the experience of the private soldier.

Spitfire pilots  Jack Lowden as Pilot Officer Collins  and Tom Hardy as Farrier do the same for the air action.

Rylance  oozed  calmness under fire and  brings what he always does to the screen,  an intensely sympathetic personality  while Hardy is coolness personified, with a courage which is anything but showy.  He is a man who is brave whilst doing what he does out of a sense of duty.

The one character that I found unconvincing  was  that  of Cillian Murphy,   who plays a frightened soldier  whose nerve has gone after having been in a ship which was torpedoed.   The Dawsons  pick him up on the  way to France and the soldier in a state of panic tries without success to get Dawson to turn about and head for England.  Somehow he never managed to make his mental anguish seem anything other than histrionic.

The film  has its historical  inaccuracies and omissions. Next to nothing is made of the French army’s resistance which hindered the German advance on Dunkirk and the considerable damage that occurred in Dunkirk is absent.  But neither is the British rear-guard action to allow most of the BEF to reach Dunkirk and be rescued . The   idea of the  film is to show the British experience at Dunkirk and in  the English Channel r ather than try to give  the complete picture of the action around and about Dunkirk and indeed within  Britain itself ,  where the families  of  both the stranded BEF men and of those who  had sailed their small boat  like the fictitious Mr Dawson  might have been included in the story.

Whether  the viewer finds  the limited scope of the film  satisfying or not it,  is nonetheless a legitimate dramatic  device to concentrate on the direct experience of those on the beach and the British forces by  sea and air  which facilitated the remarkable evacuation of some 190,000 British soldiers and  120,000  French ones. If the film had been expanded to take in the French and German warfare  relating to Dunkirk or the behaviour of the relatives and friends of the servicemen trapped in Dunkirk it would have been an entirely different film .

Dunkirk  has its limitation as a coherent  drama but taken as a whole it is an invigorating and exciting production. It gives a vivid idea of the immediacy  and multiplicity of danger which war brings and the sheer helplessness of humans caught in its coils. . That is reason enough to see it.   But there is also another reason .  The World Wars left their mark long after they were over  and not just in terms of the dead and wounded.  It left its mark on the survivors.  I  was born in 1947. The war loomed very large in my childhood and  even my early adult years. One regularly  met ordinary people who had done extraordinary things: landing on the beaches on D Day; serving  on the convoys to Russia;  flying  Spitfires and Hurricanes in the  Battle of Britain or  flying sortie after sortie with Bomber Command. The result  was a toughness in people generally but particularly in those who had seen  action, which is lacking today. It is a film which will speak especially to people who remember what the war was like and its aftermath.

 

The Hateful  8 – A tale told by an idiot

Main cast

Samuel L. Jackson as Major Marquis Warren a.k.a. “The Bounty Hunter”

Kurt Russell as John Ruth a.k.a. “The Hangman”

Jennifer Jason Leigh as Daisy Domergue a.k.a. “The Prisoner”

Walton Goggins as Sheriff Chris Mannix a.k.a.”The Sheriff”

Demián Bichir as Bob (Marco the Mexican) a.k.a. “The Mexican”

Tim Roth as Oswaldo Mobray (English Pete Hicox) a.k.a. “The Little Man”

Michael Madsen as Joe Gage (Grouch Douglass) a.k.a. “The Cow Puncher”

Bruce Dern as General Sanford “Sandy” Smithers a.k.a. “The Confederate”

Director and narrator: Quentin Tarantino

Tarantino is a very annoying director, not least because he is still playing the enfant terrible at an age when the thrill of provoking  adults should be long past.  The Hateful Eight contains all  his filmic outraging  stigmata: a great deal of bad and very un-pc language including oodles of “nigger” from the white characters  and  a decent helping of “cracker”  from the sole black character;  much  gory slaughter plus  a new outraging element  in the  Tarantino canon, the frequent brutal treatment of a woman including heavy  punches to her face and her  eventual  death by hanging by suspension.  If his works were classified as torture porn  he could not complain.

The annoying thing is despite his adolescent  mentality and the predictability of the general content and  style of his films, Tarantino so  often makes films  which are insidiously  watchable. We know what to expect ; we know objectively  that we should not approve   of the amoral  world he creates, we know that there will probably be no character who enlists our sympathy or liking,  but he still entices us in and we end up being drawn  to what he produces as spectators are drawn to a motorway  multiple crash.. It is a bit like watching Stanley Matthews  taking on a left back: the left back knew exactly what Matthews would do – drop his right shoulder and go round him – yet it was odds on that Matthews would  sell him a dummy and send him the wrong way.

The plot of Hateful 8  is simple in principle but complex in portrayal because the full facts of the situation are only gradually revealed.   The time is not long after the end of the American Civil War.   John Ruth  (Kurt Russell) is a white  bounty hunter who  likes to take his captures alive to stand trial not because he has any concern for justice, dearie me no,  he simply  likes to see them hang. As a consequence he has earned  the nickname . “The Hangman”.   Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) is a black bounty hunter who takes the rule “dead or alive” to be best observed  by  the “dead” part of the injunction.

Ruth and Warren  are bringing in wanted criminals with handsome bounties attached.  Their destination is  Red Rock, Wyoming.  Ruth  has  a live woman Daisy Domergue  (Jennifer Jason Leigh)  in his custody while  Warren is packing two decidedly dead bodies.  Domergue is part of a notorious criminal  gang headed by her brother, Jody.

The two bounty hunters meet when a stage coach with Ruth and Domergue in it   is stopped by Warren who  climbs aboard. Another passenger  Chris Mannix  (Walton Goggins) is picked up a little later on.  He claims to be the newly appointed sheriff of   Red Rock travelling to the town to take up his position.

The stagecoach stops at  a roadhouse called Minnie’s Haberdashery  to shelter from an ever worsening snowstorm.  Minnie isn’t there but Southern General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), a seeming drifter  Joe Cage (Michael Madsen) who claims to be a cowboy  on his way to visit his mother, and an  English conman and  part-time hangman called Oswaldo Mowbray (Tim Roth) are in residence together  with  Bob “Marco the Mexican” (Demián Bichir, ) who  claims to be  in charge  of the place because  Minnie is visiting her mother.    From the time that the stage coach arrives the  action is set  in or just outside  the roadhouse.

So far so seemingly  simple. Tarantino has created the West’s equivalent of a country  house murder mystery, a cast of characters all neatly stacked in a  tightly confined physical setting.  He even   uses the device loved by the likes of Agatha Christie  whereby there is an examination of  the suspects to a murder (in this case several murders through poisoning with a particularly toxic elixir of death)  while all the suspects are  together. However, unlike a country house murder mystery this is eventually a very  bloody and violent film which can vie with Tarantino’s  Inglorious Basterds or Pulp Fiction for its unashamed delight in gruesome  killing and the infliction of pain..

But the seemingly simple is in reality anything but simple. Apart from General Smithers  none of those who are  at the roadhouse when Ruth and Warren arrive are  what they claim to be and even  General Smithers is acting under duress. Even  Warren shows himself to be  a fantasist at best  by falsely claiming to have a personal  letter written  to him by Abraham Lincoln.

The action in the roadhouse starts relatively quietly with the characters  verbally  fencing with one another, although from the start there is a heavy mist of mutual suspicion,  before  accelerating  into the type of general mayhem  Tarantino loves.   By the end of the film everyone is dead or dying.   Goodies and baddies do not come into it because all the characters are seriously flawed moral  beings.

With the snowstorm raging unabated outside , the story  evolves  with clever use of time shifting as the true nature and circumstances of  those in Minnie’s Haberdashery  when Ruth and Warren arrive  is revealed  through flashbacks. This gives  the action  a staccato quality, especially towards the last third of the film,  as the immediate moment is increasingly  interrupted by  scenes from the recent past .  But this does not matter because the film is not  primarily concerned, as is common with  Tarantino’s films, with a conventional plot. Rather, he is offering the audience a sequence of arresting scenes to constantly capture their attention and   from which  scenes the plot eventually emerges.

There is  a high quality  cast with Kurt Russell  excelling in particular as the  type of self-sufficient frontiersman  character with a  time-beaten face who used to be a staple in Hollywood Westerns. Jennifer Jason  Leigh is stoical but also inexplicably calm until the story unravels to show the true purpose of those already at Minnie’s when Ruth, Warren and Domergue  arrive.  It is true that the main characters  have an large element of  caricature but that is all part of  the Tarantino method , something  Samuel Jackson is especially honours at as he goes splendidly over the top with his character.

Is the film an empty vessel sounding loud?  Looked at rationally the answer is yes because in the end there is no characters who enlist the sympathy of the audience and as is common with Tarantino there seems very little overall point or meaning . He subscribes to MacBeth’s lament “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.”   But the thing is  cleverly done  and intriguing spectacle has its place in the cinema.  Worth seeing as a guilty pleasure.

 

Brexit: the movie

Director  and narrator Martin Durkin

Running time 71 minutes

As an instrument   to rally the leave vote  Brexit: the movie is severely flawed.  It starts promisingly by stressing the loss of sovereignty , the lack of democracy in the EU and the corrupt greed of its servants (my favourite abuse was a shopping mall for EU politicians and bureaucrats only – eat your heart out Soviet Union) and the ways in which  Brussels spends British taxpayers money and sabotages industries such as fishing.  Then  it all begins to go sour.

The film’s audience should have been the British electorate  as a whole.  That means making a film which appeals to all who might vote to leave using arguments which are not nakedly  politically  ideological. Sadly, that is precisely what has not  happened here because Brexit the movie  has as   director and narrator Martin Durkin, a card carrying disciple of the neo-liberal creed. Here are a couple of snatches from his website:

Capitalism is the free exchange of services voluntarily rendered and received. It is a relationship between people, characterized by freedom. Adding ‘global’ merely indicates that governments have been less than successful at hindering the free exchange of people’s services across national boundaries.

And

Well it’s time to think the unthinkable again, and to privatise the biggest State monopoly of all … the monopoly which is so ubiquitous it usually goes unnoticed, but which has impoverished us more than any other and is the cause of the current world banking and financial crisis.  It is time to privatise money.

Unsurprisingly Durkin has filled the film with people who with varying degrees of fervour share his ideological beliefs. These include John Redwood,  James Delingpole, Janet Daley, Matt Ridley, Mark Littlewood,  Daniel Hannon, Patrick Minford, Melanie Phillips Simon Heffer, Michael Howard and  Douglas Carswell , all supporting the leave side but doing so in a way which would alienate those who have not bought into the free market free trade ideology. The only people interviewed in the film who were from the left of the political spectrum are Labour’s biggest donor John Wells and Labour MPs  Kate Hoey and Steve Baker.

There is also a hefty segment of the film  (20.50 minutes – 30 minutes)  devoted to a risibly false  description of Britain’s economic history from the beginnings of the industrial revolution to the  position of Britain in the 1970s.  In it Durkin claims that the nineteenth century was a time of a very unregulated British economy, both domestically and  with regard to international trade, which allowed Britain to grow and flourish wondrously .  In fact, the first century and half or so of the Industrial Revolution  up to around 1860 was conducted under what was known as the Old Colonial System,   a very  wide-ranging form of protectionism. In addition, the nineteenth century saw the introduction of many Acts which regulated the employment of children and the conditions of work for employees in general and  for much of the century  the century  magistrates had much wider powers than they do today such as setting the price of basic foodstuffs and wages and enforcing apprenticeships.

Durkin then goes on to praise Britain’s continued economic expansion up until the Great War which he ascribes to Britain’s rejection of protectionism. The problem with this is that   Britain’s adherence to the nearest any country have ever gone  to free trade – the situation  is complicated by Britain’s huge Empire –  between 1860 and 1914 is a period of comparative industrial decline  with highly protectionist countries such as the USA and Germany making massive advances.

Next, Durkin paints a picture of a Britain regulated half to death in the Great War, regulation which often  continued into the peacetime inter-war years before a further dose of war in 1939  brought with it even more state control. Finally, the period of 1945 to the coming of Thatcher is represented as a time of a British economy over-regulated and protected economy falling headlong  into an abyss of uncompetitive economic failure before  Thatcher rescued the country.

The reality is that Britain came out of the Great Depression faster than any other large economy, aided by a mixture of removal from the Gold Bullion Standard, Keynsian pump priming and re-armament, all of these being state measures.  As for the period 1945 until the oil shock of 1973,   British economic growth was higher than it has been  overall in the forty years  since.

Even if the film had given a truthful account of Britain’s economic history over the past few centuries  there would have been a problem. Having speaker after speaker putting forward the laissez faire  position, saying that Britain would be so much more prosperous if they could trade more with the rest of the world by  having much less regulation, being open to unrestricted foreign investment   and, most devastatingly,  that it  would allow people to be recruited from around the world rather than just the EU or EEA (with the implication that it is racist to privilege Europeans over people from Africa and Asia) is not  the way  to win people to the leave side.

The legacy of Thatcher  is problematic.  Revered by true believers in  the neo-liberal  credo she is hated by many  more for there  are still millions in the country who detest what she stood for and  for whom people spouting the same kind of rhetoric she used in support of Brexit  is  a  turn off. To them can be  added  many others who instinctively feel that globalisation is wrong and threatening and talk of economics in which human beings are treated as pawns deeply repulsive.

There is also a  truly  astonishing  omission in the film. At the most modest assessment immigration is one of the major concerns of  British electors  (and probably the greatest concern  when the fear of being called a racist if one opposes immigration is factored in), yet the film avoids the subject. There is a point  towards the end of the film (go in at  61 minutes) when it briefly  looks as though it might be raised when the commentary poses the question “Ah, what if the  EU proposes a trade deal which forces upon us open borders and other stuff  we don’t like?   But that leads to no discussion  about immigration,  merely the  statement of  the pedantically  true claim that Britain  does not have to sign a treaty if its terms are not acceptable. This of course begs the question of who will decide what is acceptable. There a has been no suggestion that there are any lines in the sand which will not be crossed in negotiations with the EU and there is no promise of a second referendum after terms have been negotiated with the EU or, indeed,  with any other part of the world. Consequently,   electors can have no confidence those who conduct  negotiations will not give away vital things such as control of our borders.

As immigration is such a core part of  what  British voters worry about most ,both in the EU context and immigration generally,  it is difficult to come up with a an explanation for this startling omission  which  is not pejorative. It can only have been done for one of two reasons:  either the maker of the film  did not want the issue addressed or many of those appearing in the film  would  not have appeared if the  immigration drum had been beaten.  In view of both Durkin’s ideological position and the general tenor of the film,  the most plausible reason is that Durkin did not want the subject discussed because the idea of free movement of labour is a central part of the neo-liberal  ideology. He will see labour as simply a factor of production along with land and capital. Durkin  even managed to include interviews conducted in Switzerland (go in at 52 minutes )which  painted the country as a land of milk and honey without  mentioning that the Swiss had a citizen initiated referendum on restricting immigration in 2014 and are pushing for another.

The point at issue is not whether neo-liberalism is a good or a bad thing,  but the fact that an argument for leaving the EU which is primarily based on the ideology is bound to alienate many who do not think kindly of the EU, but who do not share the neo-liberal’s enthusiasm for an  unregulated or under-regulated  economy   and  a commitment to globalism, which frequently means  jobs are either off-shored or taken by immigrants who undercut wages and place a great strain on public services. This in practice results in mass immigration , which apart from competition for jobs, houses  and services,   fundamentally alters the  nature of the areas of  Britain in  which  immigrants settle and,  in the longer term, the  nature of Britain itself .

The excessive  concentration on economic matters is itself a major flaw, because  most of the electorate  will  variously not be able to understand , be bored by the detail  and turn off or  simply disregard the claims made as being  by their  nature  unknowable in reality. The difficulty of incomprehension and boredom is  compounded by there being  far  too many talking heads, often  speaking for a matter of seconds at a time.  I also found the use of Monty Python-style graphics irritatingly shallow and  a sequence lampooning European workers compared with the Chinese downright silly (go in at  37 minutes).

What the film should have done was rest  the arguments for leaving on the question of  sovereignty.  That is what this vote is all about: do you want Britain to be a sovereign nation ? Everything flows from the question of sovereignty : can we control our borders?; can we make our own laws?  Once sovereignty is seen as the only real question, then what we may or may not do after regaining our sovereignty is in our hands. If the British people wish to have a  more regulated market they can vote for it. If they want a neo-liberal economy they can vote for it. The point is that at present we cannot vote for either . As I mentioned in my introduction the sovereignty issue is raised many times in the film.  The problem is that it was so often  tied into the idea of free trade and unregulated markets that the sovereignty message raises the question in many minds of what will those with power – who overwhelmingly have bought into globalism and neo-liberal economics –  do with sovereignty rather than the value of sovereignty itself.

Will the film help the leave cause? I think it is the toss of a coin whether it will persuade more people to vote leave than or alienate more with  its neo-liberal message.

Film review – Steve Jobs

Main Cast

Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Inc

Kate Winslet as Joanna Hoffman, marketing executive for Apple and NeXT and Jobs’ confidant in the film.

Seth Rogen as Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple and creator of the Apple II

Jeff Daniels as John Sculley, CEO of Apple from 1983 to 1993.

Katherine Waterston as Chrisann Brennan, Jobs’ former girlfriend and Lisa’s mother.

Michael Stuhlbarg as Andy Hertzfeld, a member of the original Mac team.

Makenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo, and Perla Haney-Jardine as Lisa Brennan-Jobs (at different ages), the daughter of Steve Jobs and Chrisann Brennan]

Director: Danny Boyle

Screenplay: Aaron Sorkin

Robert Henderson

The film is not about the entirety of Jobs’  life or even all of his adult life as a computer entrepreneur. It runs from the launch of the Apple Macintosh in 1984 to that of the  iMac in 1998. Consequently, it  misses arguably the most fruitful part of Jobs’  business  life which ended with his death  in 2011.

Running through the  film are two themes from outside of  the IT world. The first  is the impact of the knowledge that he (Jobs) was adopted at birth, rejected by his first would-be adopters after a few months and the adopted again.  Jobs’ inept handling of  human relations is attributed to this.   The second theme is a remnant of Jobs’ rather chaotic social life which in the film he runs on the same dysfunctional basis as his work. The remnant is his  one time girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston)  and their daughter Lisa whom Jobs tries not to acknowledge initially  as his child, but whom he  gradually accepts as his daughter.

Those are the circumstantial bare bones of the film.  The film’s distinction and energy comes from a remarkable turn by Michael Fassbender as Jobs. Fassbender  has a talent for portraying obsessive characters. He did it in magnificently in  Shame as a sex obsessive and he does it here with his portrayal of Jobs  as an unrestrained control freak with a adolescent grade  ego the size of Jupiter.  He is constantly bullying and appears to have  little if any moral  sense. When he does behave more reasonably it is invariably not because he feels guilty,  but either as a result of  Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet)  thrusting what he is doing wrong so firmly in his face that he cannot ignore it or because someone treads on his  personal territory , as when  he discovers that Andy Hertzfeld  (Michael Stuhlbarg)  has paid his daughter’s first semester fees after Jobs in a fit of temper told  her he will not pay them.  In short, Fassbender’s Jobs is very like a particularly fractious  teenager without any  adult brake on his bumptious behaviour.

Whether  Fassbender’s Jobs is a realistic portrayal  of the man is another matter. It is disputed by many who knew him  and certainly this filmic Jobs is a monstrously unsympathetic character, the sort of person who continually brings gratuitous stress into the lives of those around him.     Nor is he shown to be an  infallible  entrepreneurial wizard.  Jobs got many things  right with Apple, especially after his return to the company, but he also got a great deal wrong by relying on his judgement of what would appeal  to the public and taking little account of what his programmers and hardware engineers told him .

His worst mistake was  the original Apple Mac which he deliberately had made so that it could only take programs written for its operating system (which was incompatible with that of Microsoft),  could not readily  accommodate add-ons to improve functionality and, just to put the cherry on things, the AppleMac case could not be opened to repair or enhance except with special tools  which were not available to Apple Mc purchasers .   At the time it was launched I remember thinking it was a bonkers way of proceeding.  It was an act of supreme egotism on Job’s part because he wanted the system to be entirely self-contained, that is to be a system  he envisaged  and controlled.  With Jobs in this characterisation it was always his way or the highway.

The Wozniak character expresses his frustration at Jobs’ lack of technical knowhow most vividly when he says “What do you do? You don’t write code. You’re not an engineer.   You’re not a designer. You can’t put a hammer to a nail.  I built the circuit board. The graphical interface was stolen from Xerox Park, Jeff Raskin  was the leader of the Mac team before you threw him of his own project. Someone else designed the box.  So how come  ten times in a day I read  that Steve Jobs is a genius?  What do you do?”

Jobs’ reply is a facile “I play the orchestra, and you’re a good musician. You sit right there and you’re the best in your row.” Fine if the tune Jobs is conducting is a hit with the public but quite often it was not.

This scene is one of the best in the film. The problem is that the real Wozniak denies ever confronting Jobs so directly: “Anybody who knows me will tell you I just don’t say negative things to people, and could not have said them, and didn’t.”

There is a very strong acting performance across the board. Steve Jobs is splendidly   cast and apart from Fassbender,  there is a dominant  turn  by Kate Winslet (does she ever give a poor performance?) as Jobs’  right hand woman and confidant  while  Seth Rogen as Steve Wozniak, Jeff Daniels as John Sculley,  Michael Stuhlbarg as Andy Hertzfeld, a member of the original Mac team are all very convincing because they are just the type of personalities with just the type of looks one would expect in such jobs.  Katherine Waterston as Chrisann Brennan is, Jobs’ former girlfriend and Lisa’s mother is by turns convincing  as a single mother justifiably  angry at Jobs’ failure to acknowledge his daughter denied  and pathetic inadequate  .

The screenplay is by Aaron Sorkin who wrote the screenplay for the  Social Network.  This is not anything like as good a film as the Social Network, which retained its taut energy and constantly  evolving storyline  throughout , whereas Steve Jobs  is much more dependent on Fassbender’s  bravura scenes which in general tone do begin to have a certain sameness towards the latter stages of the film. Nonetheless Steve Jobs has much of the Social Networks quick wittedness in its dialogue and the relationship between  Fassbender and Winslet is constantly sparky.

This film is not as good as it might have been but it will not bore you.

 

Film review – The Revenant

Main cast

Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass

Tom Hardy as John Fitzgerald

Domhnall Gleeson as Andrew Henry

Will Poulter as Jim Bridger,

Forrest Goodluck as Hawk, Glass’s son

Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

Robert Henderson

The Revenant is a tremendous disappointment . Like so many modern  films it substitutes a catalogue of frequent action for character development and condemns the plot to a distinctly mechanical unfolding of one damn thing after another  as the protagonist Hugh Glass  (DiCaprio) survives the hostility of the environment, Indians, some of the men he works with and most spectacularly an encounter with a grizzly bear.

The  year is 1823. A band  of trappers  by  Captain Andrew Henry  (Domhnall Gleeson) are in what is now the Dakotas and what was then  a still wild and largely unsettled (by whites)  part of the Louisiana Purchase, populated by  Indian tribes who varied from the friendly to the warlike.  Glass is the most experienced trapper and   knows the territory best.  His half Indian son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck)  is also a member of the hunting party.

The trappers  are attacked by a band of Arikara Indians who  are armed with bows and arrows. But this being  the age of  the single shot muzzle loading muskets and pistols the trappers do not have an overwhelming superiority  in weaponry. They  suffer heavy losses and retreat from the fight by  boat down a river.   After making their escape Glass  persuades Henry that the party must come off the river and make their way back to the trading post overland.   This decision does not go down well with some of the remaining trappers including John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy).

Glass is then mauled by a grisly bear which leaves him  unable to walk or speak and seemingly on the verge of death.   After carrying him on a makeshift  stretcher  it becomes apparent that they cannot take him with them. Glass ‘s condition also worsens.  Eventually Andrew Henry  accepts that Glass will die but wants him to have a decent burial so asks for two  men   to remain behind and bury Glass properly. Fitzgerald and Jim Bridger (Will Poulter)  agree to undertake the task for  additional pay.  Hawk  also stays.

Bridger leaves Fitzgerald alone with Glass. He persuades Glass  to signal by blinking that he wants Fitzgerald to put him out of his misery. Glass  blinks and Fitzgerald begins to suffocate him. Hawk  catches Fitzgerald in the act  and Fitzgerald kills him in a struggle. Bridger then returns before Fitzgerald can kill Glass. Fitzgerald  lies that he has seen a band of Arikara  Indians nearby and persuades Bridger to flee the scene leaving Glass to die. The pair then head for Fort Kiowa. On their  way Bridger discovers that Fitzgerald not seen any Arikara and gets a bad conscience. When they reach the  fort Fitzgerald lies about Glass dying and being given a decent burial. Bridger doesn’t like it but keeps mum.

As for Glass he does not die and gradually recovers both his mobility and voice. He then engages in  a wildly improbable journey to Fort Kiowa most of which  he conducts at first by crawling, then by  staggering with  the aid of a rough staff.   Most of the  action takes place in a wintery snow filled landscape. Yet not only does Glass survive the cold on land, he has several episodes when he is in what must have been water which was close to freezing . Yet DiCaprio is frequently seen in water which must have been icecold. In one scene he is swept away by the current of a fast flowing river encumbered with a heavy fur poncho-style garment  which is his own real guard against the cold. In real life Glass  would  have  rapidly died from hypothermia.

There is also no consistency in the extent of Glass’ supposed disability following the grizzly mauling. There is one scene which is truly absurd when Glass having been moving slowly with the aid of a staff suddenly regains the full use of his legs and runs.

These types  of wildly  improbable events would not matter in a fantasy such as XMen, but it does matter here. The  Revanent (meaning one who returns and especially one who returns from the dead) is  inspired by the allegedly  true story of Hugh Glass.  Apart from the fact that it is meant to have its roots in reality, the film takes great pains to look authentic, the screen being filled with filthy clothes, unshaven faces with dirty  ill-kemped beards and hair, bad skin and  inexhaustible   amounts of mud, all this set against a bleak background of  birch  forest.  The  absurdity of much of the action is horribly at odds with the  tenor of the film which is  deadly serious.

Then there is the question of historical  veracity.   Much of the important plot elements have no solid basis in fact. There is no evidence that Glass had an Indian wife or a half Indian  son.  Hence there was no son for Fitzgerald to kill. Glass was not helped by an Indian  after being deserted by Fitzgerald and Bridger. Glass did not kill  Fitzgerald let alone that seek him out  because Fitzgerald had either vanished or enlisted in the US army,  which meant he could not be safely killed because it would be treated as murder.   Take away those parts of the story and the story has lost much of its energy.

Some of the invention is also plainly designed to fit into the politically correct envelope.  The invention of an Indian wife and half-Indian son,  the depiction of Glass’ survival as being in part due to the help of an Indian, the running thread of an Arikara  chief attacking  the  trappers not for  the simple booty of the  furs but to trade them for  horses and guns  to enable the recovery of his kidnapped daughter all have no basis even in the tale that the real Hugh Glass told.  It is also true that little is known for certain  of Glass , who was  the only witness to what happened after he was left for dead and who may well have greatly embellished the story.

But even as the story is told in the film there is a curious deadness and inconsequentiality to the tale.  The dreadful truth is  the film is rather boring. The episode with the bear and the attack on the trappers by the Indians are undeniably thrilling, but there is the lack of characters who can engage the audience’s sympathy or even interest.  DiCaprio does his best with the material he is given but the it  is pretty frugal fare, not least by the fact that he is either alone or unable to speak for much of the film.   He is neither villain nor hero  but  a drab, dour unsympathetic  personality in a perilous situation.  That does not make for sympathy and the lack of sympathy means one cannot really care about how if at all  Glass will save himself.

Of the rest of the players  only Tom Hardy makes any real  impact. He is ostensibly the villain but might be seen more as a victim of circumstance  for,  after Glass fails to die of his wounds Fitzgerald and Bridger are left in in an impossible position. They cannot carry  Glass nor is Glass in any fit state to walk.  Their lives are at risk. Fitzgerald behaves badly in one way by pretending that he and Bridger have carried out their task and buried Glass after he has died a natural death, but to leave Glass was not unreasonable. Domhnall Gleeson as Andrew Henry  is sadly y miscast because he is positively wooden and horribly far from being a leader.

This is a film which is too  self-consciously important, the sort of film which one can imagine would-be Oscar winners grasping fondly  in the belief that it had Oscars galore written all over it. It may well be such a film for it has already made its mark at the BAFTAS,  but if it is it will be a triumph of promotion over substance.

 

Politically incorrect film reviews – The Martian

Main cast

Matt Damon as Mark Watney (botanist, engineer)

Kristen Wiig as Annie Montrose, NASA spokesperson (Director, Media Relations)

Jeff Daniels as Theodore “Teddy” Sanders, Director of NASA

Michael Peña as Major Rick Martinez, astronaut (pilot)

Kate Mara as Beth Johanssen, astronaut (system operator, reactor technician)

Sean Bean as Mitch Henderson, Hermes flight director

Sebastian Stan as Dr. Chris Beck, astronaut (flight surgeon, EVA specialist)

Aksel Hennie as Dr. Alex Vogel, astronaut (navigator, chemist)

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Vincent Kapoor, NASA’s Mars mission director

Donald Glover as Rich Purnell, a NASA astrodynamicist

Benedict Wong as Bruce Ng, director of JPL

Director Ridley Scott

Imagine Robinson Crusoe without  a Man Friday  and stranded on another planet  rather than a deserted island  and you have the plot of The  Martian in a nutshell.

Botanist Mark Watney ( Matt Damon)  is part of  the Ares III mission  which has landed on Mars and set up a temporary base there. A dust storm blows up while the crew are out on the surface and Watney is hit by some flying debris. The rest of the crew are sure he is dead, but they also have a major danger  to distract them from searching for him: the dust storm is threatening to blow over the rocket that  will take them back to their orbiting Hermes  spaceship. If the rocket topples over the crew will be stranded on Mars.   Consequently, they make an emergency take off  without Watney, get safely to the Hermes and  head  for Earth.

But Watney is not dead. He has been injured by  the flying debris,  but not mortally. The facility which sheltered the crew on Mars, the Hab, is still functioning  and there is a large Mars rover vehicle intact.  Watney sits down in the Hab and does  exactly what Crusoe does, takes an inventory of what he has then sets about working himself out of the monumental hole he is in.  This he achieves  in a series of   ingenious ways   including, again mimicking  Crusoe , by scavenging equipment  from  wrecks, in this case  from abandoned equipment  left  from previous missions, manned and unmanned, to  Mars.

Most of the film  is taken up with Watney’s efforts  to overcome  one daunting  obstacle to surviving  after another long enough to have any chance of rescue.  He starts from the bleak  point of knowing that NASA  think that he is dead.  Hence his   first need is to establish contact with Earth to let them know he is alive.  He eventually does this  by cleverly  tinkering with equipment  intended for other things until eventually he has an email  link with NASA.

After making contact with NASA,  Watney’s  most pressing problem is  having enough food   to last long enough to keep him alive until Earth can attempt to rescue him. It will take several years to send another spaceship to Mars and Watney  has food for nothing like that long. Luckily he is a botanist so he works out a way of producing water and this,  with the excrement from the astronauts acting as fertiliser, allows him to grow potatoes inside the Hab with sufficient success  to allow him to survive for considerably  longer but not long enough for the next Mars expedition, Aries IV, to arrive and save  him.

While Watney is problem solving on Mars NASA is problem solving on Earth and meeting with disaster. Their attempts to   launch an unmanned rocket with extra supplies to allow Watney to survive until Aires IV can get there  ends in disaster and all looks lost.  But eventually  the Aries III mission ship Hermes ship is re-provisioned a in space and then turned around on its flight to Earth and sent back to Mars to rescue Watney. This is done only with the help of the Chinese (note the glib  internationalism and/or kotowing to the Chinese).

After further adventures including a disaster with the Hab and a long ride across the Martian surface in the Mars Rover the film culminates in a hair raising exercise to rescue Watney. Does he make it? Well, you will need to see the film to discover that.

Damon’s performance as Watney  recaptures  the engaging boyishness of his early films like Goodwill Hunting and Rounders.   He is also decidedly funny. Without him the film would be pretty dull,  for apart from Damon the plot involving the rest of the cast is rather predictable and even those with  the larger parts such as Jeff Daniels as Theodore “Teddy” Sanders,  the Director of NASA and Jessica Chastain as Melissa Lewis,   the Ares III Mission Commander, are distinctly one-dimensional.  Sean Bean is horribly miscast as Mitch Henderson the Hermes flight director speaking what lines he has with as much verve as a speak-your-weight-machine .

The Martian has been criticised in some quarters for Damon’s role being too comic.  That is a mistake. Whether  or not someone in such a desperate and isolated position  would be able to maintain such an upbeat  persona with the sense of both his utter physical isolation and desperate circumstances  pressing upon him is of course debatable . But that is to miss the point. The same objection could be levelled at Robinson Crusoe.  But in both cases what counts is whether there is a good story to be told and in both cases the answer is yes.   Moreover, the attitude of Watney  is that of those with the  “right stuff”, an epitome of American can do. Nor is he  utterly alone for most of the film. To keep him sane  he has his contact with Earth for most of the time and eventually  the Aries III ship Hermes . He also records his progress on a video blog, something which would provide a sense of purpose.   It is Boy’s Own stuff but none the worse for that. Nor is it  utterly unbelievable. Think of the tone of the diaries kept on Scott’s doomed return from the South Pole or the resolution of the crew on Apollo 13 after an oxygen tank  exploded  two days into the mission and crippled the spacecraft.    Boy’s Own behaviour is found in real life.

The  depiction  of Mars is unnecessarily sloppy.  It  looks convincing as far as the scenery is concerned, but  there are   anomalies. The gravity on Mars is one-third of that on Earth yet when Damon moves around  there is no  indication of this  in his  walk ,which one would expect to be at least mildly bouncing. Nor when Damon moves things does he do so with unexpected ease as one would imagine he should with only one-third Earth gravity.   Then there is the atmospheric pressure which is around  one-hundredth of the on Earth. Would the storm which causes the Aries Mission  crew to leave really have had the energy to hurl debris as violently as it did or threaten to knock the rocket over?  The answer is no because it is the density of atmosphere which provides the “weight” behind a dust storm. On Mars the dust storm would be a  breeze not a hurricane.  As the dust storm plays a significant role in the plot this is not a small thing.

For politically correct casting  fans The Martian provides a feast.  The commander of the Aries II mission is a woman; the Chiwetel Ejiofor is  Vincent Kapoor, NASA’s Mars mission director, Benedict Wong is  Bruce Ng, director of JPL and there  are ethnic minority and female  bodies all over the place in the NASA control room scenes.  Donald Glover as Rich Purnell, a NASA astrodynamicist, s the whizz kid who produces  the maths which allows the  Hermes to turn round and head back to Mars is black.  (The overwhelmingly  white  and male  reality of NASAtoday  can be seen here).

Despite its flaws  the film  is genuinely  entertaining.  You will not leave the cinema feeling you have wasted a couple of hours.

Film review- Legend

Main cast

Tom Hardy  as Ronald “Ronnie” Kray and Reginald “Reggie” Kray

Emily Browning as Frances Shea

Christopher Eccleston as Leonard “Nipper” Read  A Detective Superintendent in charge of taking down the Krays

Taron Egerton as Edward “Mad Teddy” Smith – A psychopathic gay man rumoured to have had affairs with Ronnie

Paul Bettany as Charlie Richardson

David Thewlis as Leslie Payne The Krays’ business manager

Chazz Palminteri as Angelo Bruno – The head of the Philadelphia crime family and friend and business associate to Ronnie and Reggie.

Kevin McNally as Harold Wilson

Director Brian Helgeland

This biopic of the East End gangsters  of fifty years ago, the Twins Ronnie and Reggie Kray,   contains a great deal of technological wizardry and an unusual  performance by Tom Hardy who plays both  twins.  The technology is so slick that it allows both Krays to appear on the screen at the same time without any sense that the scenes have been faked,  even when the twins  have an extended fight.

But technological marvels do not equal a good film and Legend has severe weaknesses.  Like many biopics it  tries to cover too much ground, thinking that by ticking off a large number of incidents in a life this in itself produces  the ideal telling of a life.    That may have some merit in a written biography but it is death in a film.  The Krays being violent to establish their claim to be hard men,   Reggie having a brief spell in prison, the murders of  George Cornell and Jack “the Hat” McVitie, and a good deal more simply  flash by. This gives precious little opportunity for character development or a proper examination of  any part of the biographical  subject’s life.

It is true that Hardy’s performance as the twins is remarkable in as much as he invents  two distinct personas  for the Krays; an almost rational albeit violently amoral one for Reggie and a declamatory  character with the hint of a lisp  for Ronnie, who spends the film in a perpetual  state of violence, both suppressed and realised, while hatching crackpot plans for the establishment of a Utopian community  in Nigeria or  saying things which utterly discompose other characters such as  his habit of loudly announcing that he is a homosexual.   Hardy also gives Ronnie a rich behavioural wardrobe of tics and bulging eyes that  seem to be perpetually on the point of shooting out of their sockets. This creates a problem because Hardy’s  Ronnie is so off the wall that he comes across not as a real human being, however flawed, but as a monster created for theatrical effect.

It is true that gangster films often  have a cartoonish element  because of the mixture of  the normal with the abnormal,  for example,  characters frequently engage  in incongruously  normal conversations about, for example, their wives and children during which they often assume a moral position, then engage in some horrific violence.  But such scenes do not dominate films and are often deliberately funny. The depiction of Ronnie in Legend  is neither amusing nor truly threatening.   It also detracts from Hardy’s depiction of Reggie – which is convincing enough when  taken in isolation – because  it is difficult to take seriously either of the characters when one is palpably ridiculous. ( Try to imagine Bond or  Jason Bourne acting against  Norman Wisdom playing  a villain in his  most popular character guise of Norman Pitkin).

But the main  problem with the film is there is simply too much  Ronnie and Reggie .The best gangster  films are those where  there is  strong ensemble playing. Think of the Godfather series or Friday the Thirteenth.  Apart from Emily Browning as  Reggie’s girlfriend and eventual  wife  Frances Shea  (the most convincing scenes are those  between Hardy in his guise as Reggie and Francis Shea)   and (just about)  David Thewlis as Leslie Payne the Krays’ business manager,  the other characters simply do not have the chance to develop because they have so little screen time.  Bewilderingly, the personality who supposedly loomed largest in the Krays’ minds in the real world, their mother Violet (Jane Wood) barely appears, while two  actors  with  substantial  film careers –  Paul Bettany as Charlie Richardson and  Christopher Eccleston as Detective Superintendent Leonard “Nipper” Read  – are variously barely used (Bettany)  or given only a series of scenes so short that their effect is  minimal  (Eccleston).

At the end of the film my thoughts turned to the  1990 film The Krays in which the Kemp brothers from Spandau ballet played  the twins.  In some ways  this was unintentionally  an extremely funny film  because it was set in an unbelievably clean East End;  Billie Whitelaw in the role of the Krays’ mother produced the worst attempt at an East End accent I have ever heard from a professional actress – right up there with Dick VanDyke’s “Gor blimey, Mary Poppins”  – and   Steven Berkoff  enjoyably went an astronomical distance over the top as George Cornell.

But the saving grace of  The Krays was  characters other than  the twins being much more developed. Moreover, the portrayal of the difference between the  Krays was less contrived. Indeed, considering their lack of acting experience at the time  the Kemp brothers  were surprisingly, indeed from their view point, perhaps worrying convincing as the Krays, with Ronnie being a much more believable  character than he is in Legend.  Hence, for all its absurdities  The Krays  is both a more convincing evocation of the twins and considerably more entertaining  than Legend , which  truth to tell becomes rather boring as the film progresses because it is all rather one-dimensional.

Legend is a not  howling flop merely  mediocre. I say this with  regret because Tom Hardy is a charismatic  and accomplished actor, probably the best English  film actor  of his generation.  The subject matter also suits him because he is a convincing hard man with a fine talent for portraying violence.  But in the end the film is too unbalanced, too unbelievable to be either a meaningful biopic or simply a first rate gangster film.

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