Archive for January, 2015

Director: Frederick Wiseman

Country: France / USA / UK

Runtime: 180 mins

In Skyfall, James Bond sits at the National Gallery and studies Turner’s famous masterpiece The Fighting Temeraire. Shortly afterwards he is joined by Q, who in this incarnation is a computer whizz. Even before any dialogue occurs between the two, the question raised by the scenario is clear: is Bond even relevant in the contemporary world of hacking and electronic eavesdropping? Or, like HMS Temeraire, is he only fit for the scrapyard?

As it happens, one of the paintings that features in Frederick Wiseman’s masterly documentary, National Gallery, is in fact a spy story. One of the gallery’s guides explains to her audience that Rubens’ picture Samson and Delilah depicts a crucial ambiguity in the countenance of Delilah as she holds a sleeping post-coital Samson. Delilah, a kind of female Bond in the Bible, has been paid by the Philistines to seduce Samson in order to discover the source of his strength. As Samson sleeps, a servant prepares to cut off his hair, whilst a group of Philistines wait at the door in preparation to arrest the weakened man. But Delilah herself, in her seduction of Samson, has developed feelings for him. This is reflected in the tender look on her face as she gazes down on him. One hand gently caresses his face, but her other hand – reflecting the duality of the situation – is more rigidly posed.

This is just one of many paintings whose inner meanings are revealed to us by knowledgeable gallery staff, one of whom explains to a group of children that all paintings tell a story. Some paintings are more mysterious than others in terms of their interpretations. One notable example is Holbein’s The Ambassadors, with its anamorphous skull (although this object itself we are told, unlike many devices used in paintings, only ever means one thing – death).

At three hours in length, National Gallery, requires the kind of patience with which one must explore a gallery or museum. But the film really is quite a revelation, displaying the working life of the gallery’s staff in fascinating detail. Most of the scenes fall into one of three categories: educational activities of one sort or another, restoration work being applied to damaged artworks, and business meetings of senior staff. In terms of education, this goes beyond merely guiding visitors around key works. We also see a class of visually-impaired people exploring touch-versions of Pissarro’s Boulevard Montmartre at Night, groups of people attending life-drawing classes, and students attending lectures.

Elsewhere, restorers – often wearing special magnifying goggles – chip flecks off of damaged paintings and place them on slides to be inspected under microscopes. They dab away at tiny portions of artworks, adding either paint or varnish – and there is some detailed explanation of the effects of different types of paints and varnishes (apparently, different varnishes can affect colour differently, just like filters on a camera lens). We are told that some past restorations haven’t always been entirely helpful, but that the modern principle is that any additions by restorers must be removable. In one magnificent instance an X-ray of a painting reveals a second picture beneath the first.

Behind the scenes we get a few snapshots of the difficult decisions that need to be made, balancing the artistic goals of the gallery with the harsh economic realities that must be faced. At one point senior staff discuss whether they should allow Sport Relief to project an image onto the front of the gallery. Many such requests are received but are turned down, as the gallery -itself a charitable institution – attempts to maintain its distinctive character rather than be used as an advertising billboard for every worthy cause. However, in this instance it seems that Westminster Council has arranged for the square just outside the gallery to be used as a finishing point for a marathon (without consulting the gallery). Thus, the gallery staff debate whether they should just accept this as a fait accompli and go along with the projection idea as a way of advertising themselves. On the other hand, they are successful enough that they don’t really need to advertise themselves, the marathon itself will inevitably stop visitors coming into the gallery, and agreeing to the projection might set a precedent.

Another discussion revolves around money, as a budget for the coming year has to be set in the context of a substantially reduced grant contribution. At this point reality comes crashing in. Since National Gallery was completed, plans have been announced to privatise hundreds of staff – with the obvious implications for their terms and conditions – and the Director Nicholas Penny, and several other managers, have announced their resignations. The Director of the neighbouring National Portrait Gallery has also announced his resignation. Of course, even the necessity for commercial sponsorship of exhibitions brings with it the risk of adverse publicity, and at one point we watch as Greenpeace activists scale the front of the gallery and release a banner protesting against sponsorship from Shell because of their role in oil exploration in the Arctic.

As if to emphasize the sense of foreboding aroused by the budget discussions, Wiseman takes us next to a discussion of Turner’s painting The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire, whereby a guide explains how the artist was concerned with the broader theme of empires rising and falling, which obviously included the British Empire. Decline in this picture is symbolised by a vivid setting sun. Sunset evokes change in the next painting considered, which is Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire.

But rather than leave us on a negative note, the final third of National Gallery takes us through a range of other pictures, classes, and restoration activities without any obvious political connotations. Throughout the film the camera also roams across the visitors themselves: people lost in contemplation, sleeping, sketching, young men romantically nuzzling the cheeks of their girlfriends, and classes of schoolchildren listening attentively to the ever-knowledgeable guides. On the evidence presented here, the senior staff at the National Gallery have an enviable gender balance that is not matched in many organisations, although they are overwhelmingly white (I don’t think I saw any non-white faces). Similarly, the visitors themselves – like the subjects of nearly all the Gallery’s paintings – appeared to be mostly white, with the notable exception of some of the school classes who were visiting. One group of schoolchildren is actually told by a guide that the collection they are viewing was financed largely by the results of slavery, the one point in the film where any issue of ethnic diversity is mentioned.

There is no voiceover narration to National Gallery and none of the staff who appear are actually named. This is an approach that works well, as all the speaking that is needed is done by the people onscreen. Frederick Wiseman has put together a quite extraordinary documentary. I felt it was three hours well spent.

Rating: 5/5

Advertisements

Whiplash_poster

Director: Damien Chazelle

Writer: Damien Chazelle

Country: USA

Runtime: 107 mins.

Cast: Miles Teller (Andrew Neiman), J.K. Simmons (Terence Fletcher), Paul Reiser (Jim), Melissa Benoist (Nicole), Austin Stowell (Ryan Cooper).

Blood, sweat and tears in the struggle to be great

Whiplash is a terrific psychological drama about the tense professional relationship between two men. Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is a young drummer enroled at the Shaffer Conservatory of Music, where he catches the attention of jazz conductor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Andrew wants to become one of the greats whereas Fletcher is driving his players to become great. But the pressure that Fletcher applies to his musicians goes beyond merely having high expectations and tips over into outright bullying. However, his contention is that the only musicians who truly become great are those who care enough to transcend anything that life can throw at them. Fletcher continually plays mind games with his musicians. No sooner does Andrew get elevated to the role of core drummer in Fletcher’s jazz orchestra than it is cruelly snatched away again.

We also see various other musicians being subjected to degrading treatment for failing to meet Fletcher’s impossible-to-meet expectations, but it is always clear that Andrew has the greatest drive to fight for a place in Fletcher’s band and to achieve greatness. However, Andrew’s own determination leads to a disaster that threatens both his career and Fletcher’s.

It is hard to think of another film that has given such a visceral depiction of a musician’s striving to be the best there is. This is literally a struggle involving blood, sweat and tears. Miles Teller is splendid as Andrew, but the greatest plaudits must go to J.K. Simmons for his terrifying portrayal of Fletcher (he has been nominated for an Oscar, but quite why he falls into the “Supporting Actor” category I don’t know).

Rating: 5/5

Foxcatcher_First_Teaser_Poster

Director: Bennett Miller

Writers: E. Max Frye & Dan Futterman

Country: USA

Runtime: 129 mins

Cast: Steve Carell (John du Pont), Channing Tatum (Mark Schultz), Mark Ruffalo (David Schultz), Sienna Miller (Nancy Schultz), Vanessa Redgrave (Jean du Pont).

Steve Carell is a revelation in this magnetic real-life tale of tragedy

Full of dark foreboding right from the start, Foxcatcher is definitely not one of this year’s feel-good movies. This is a story of loneliness and family tensions, and shows that for some people no amount of wealth can bring happiness. In the opening scene we see Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), giving a lacklustre talk to a hall full of puzzled schoolchildren about what it took him to become the 1984 Olympic gold medallist in freestyle wrestling. Afterwards, he collects his cheque from the school administrator, who mistakes him for his brother Dave (also a gold medallist, and who had originally been booked to talk).

This moment is indicative of the relationship between the two brothers. We learn that Mark was raised by his older brother after their parents separated, and that Mark relies on the tactical advice of Dave (Mark Ruffalo) in order to succeed in wresting. Whereas Dave is cheerful, gregarious, and has a wife and family, Mark lives alone, is quiet, serious, and less articulate. Mark is approached by John du Pont, heir to America’s wealthiest family, to join his Foxcatcher wrestling team. He does so, but when brother Dave is also approached he declines to answer the call because he doesn’t want to uproot his family.

Subsequently, du Pont takes on a fatherly role towards Mark, deliberately playing on his insecurity that his success is owed to Dave. But underneath all his talk of leadership, du Pont is also insecure, the product of a troubled background. He only had one friend as a child, who – it turns out – was paid to be his friend. He hates horseriding, the favoured sport of his mother Jean (Vanessa Redgrave) who still lives on the estate and manages a large stable. In turn, she regards wrestling as a ‘low’ sport and looks upon her son’s involvement with disdain. Although she only makes a couple of brief appearances in the film, it is strongly hinted that the difficult mother-son relationship underpins John’s increasingly erractic behaviour, leading ultimately to tragedy. Jean would appear to be the ‘foxcatcher’ of the title, a reference to her involvement in hunting with hounds.

After some early success, everything starts to go south for Mark. Du Pont introduces him to cocaine with predictably disastrous results and Dave is offered a sufficiently large sum of money to induce him to join the Foxcatcher team. The already unsettled team dynamics worsen further following the death of Jean.

Steve Carell, best known for his comedy roles (The 40 Year Old Virgin, The Office), is a revelation as John du Pont. From the outset he appears only partly connected to reality, with a way of speaking that is strangely distant and affectless. One of the oddest moments occurs early on, when du Pont turns up at Mark’s house late at night to talk about bird-watching, a topic on which du Pont has written books. He tells Mark: “You can learn a lot from birds. I’m an ornithologist. I’m also a patriot”. The flunkies around du Pont are mostly unfriendly and uncommunicative, presumably not wanting to openly comment on their boss’s oddness but yet happy to collect their handsome salaries. Dave rightly asks just why this wealthy man would be interested in creating a wrestling team.  The answer would appear to be that he hopes to receive the recognition from his country that has been denied him by his own mother.

Foxcatcher moves along at a fairly stately pace, building an atmosphere of strangeness and slowly revealing the complicated relationships of the key characters. For those more used to a punchier kind of pacing in films, Foxcatcher might seem a little slow, but I found it utterly magnetic albeit gloomy. As well as Carell’s outstanding performance, Channing Tatum also turns in an impressive performance as Mark Schultz.

Rating: 5/5

Kajaki: Directed by Paul Katis; Written by Tom Williams; Country – UK; Runtime – 108 mins.

Cast: Mark Stanley (‘Tug’ Hartley), Malachi Kirby (Snoop), David Elliiot (Mark Wright), Paul Luebke (Jay Davis), Ali Cook (‘Spud’ McMellon), Bryan Parry (Jonesy), Grant Kilburn (Alex Craig), Andy Gibbins (Smudge), Scott Kyle (Stu Pearson), Jon-Paul Bell (Luke Mauro), Benjamin O’Mahony (Stu Hale), Connor Mills (voice), John Doughty (Dave Prosser), Liam Ainsworth (Ken Barlow), Robert Mitchell (Faz).

American Sniper: Directed by Clint Eastwood; Screenplay by Jason Hall, from the book by Chris Kyle, Scott McEwen, and Jim DeFelice; Country – USA; Runtime – 132 mins.

Cast: Bradley Cooper (Chris Kyle), Cole Konis (young Chris Kyle), Sienna Miller (Taya Kyle), Max Charles (Colton Kyle), Luke Grimes (Marc Lee), Kyle Gallner (Goat-Winston), Sam Jaeger (Captain Martens), Jake McDorman (Biggles), Cory Hardrict (‘D’ / Dandridge).

*** SPOILER ALERT: Each film reviewed here is based on real events, and these are described in my review. ***

War – what is it good for?

British armed forces have been engaged in continuous conflict somewhere on the planet for the past hundred years, and for several decades after World War Two war movies were a regular part of the film industry’s output. Even in the late seventies and early eighties good business was being done by films like The Eagle Has Landed, The Wild Geese, and The Dogs of War. However, ever since the televised images from the Falklands War brought the shocking reality of conflict to a new generation it seems as though British film-makers have lost their enthusiasm for war films. There are of course some exceptions, such as Regeneration (1997) and Enigma (2001), the former set in Word War One and the latter concerned with a mystery among Bletchley Park’s codebreakers in WW2. However, it is hard to think of any British movies that deal with our more recent conflicts. Perhaps film-makers have been cowed by the intense controversy that surrounded the TV Falklands drama Tumbledown (1988). Even representations of earlier conflicts can arouse establishment ire if they are felt to question the authorised version of history, as with The Monocled Mutineer (1986).

By contrast, Hollywood has produced several films that are based upon recent conflicts. The best-known of these are Three Kings (1999), Black Hawk Down (2001), The Hurt Locker (2008), The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009) – based on the book by British writer-journalist Jon Ronson, Jarhead (2005), and Zero Dark Thirty (2012). However, it may be that 2014 represents a turning point in the decline of the British war film. We have had another Bletchley Park drama, The Imitation Game, the thrilling adventure film ’71 set in “the troubles” of Northern Ireland, and – most significantly – Kajaki, a true story concerning the 3rd Battalion, Parachute Regiment (“3 Para”), during their 2006 deployment in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province.

The film itself is an exercise in realism, focusing on three themes: the bravery of the men in extreme circumstances, their earthy humour (Kajaki is frequently very funny) and the terrible injuries – shown in graphic detail – caused by landmines. The opening scenes are largely concerned with boredom. 3 Para have the task of guarding the Kajaki dam, and do this from their position on top of a nearby hill. In the heat of the Afghan sun all they do is watch. And watch. And when not assigned to the task of watching they read messages from home, talk, joke, drink tea, and exercise.

But these are one of the army’s elite units and the men long to fight. When a small group of Taliban (referred to throughout as “Terry”) are spotted setting up an illegal roadblock down below, a small group is assembled to go and tackle them. However, this is an unauthorised mission: the men are told they need to obtain permission from a senior officer, but never do. Presumably they regard a tiny group of Taliban as no match for their elite skills. But as they reach the bottom of a hillside path disaster strikes. One of the group steps on a mine and is severely injured. From hereon in things go from bad to worse. The men are trapped in a Soviet-era minefield that was not marked on their map. In the attempts to rescue the injured and escape, yet more soldiers are hurt. Communications equipment does not work properly and it is only when a couple of Americans arrive that there is reliable radio. When the RAF are contacted they don’t send a helicopter with a winch, as requested, but instead send a Chinook that tries to land and whose downdraft is so strong that it explodes another mine.

But remarkably, as the situation deteriorates the men continue to joke, even those who are hurt. By contrast, the quips of the fictional James Bond seem quite restrained. At one point, ‘Tug’ Hartley tries to work his way through the minefield towards an injured comrade by tossing his backpack ahead of him and then leaping on top of it. As he does this one of the lads calls from the sidelines “That’s how he mounts his missus!”

The film is a fine tribute to the bravery of these men of 3 Para, and brilliantly conveys the tight-knit bond that spurred them on through this most terrible of situations. Kajaki does not make any overt political statements about the Afghan conflict, but the fact that it was a Soviet minefield that did for 3 Para can’t help but serve as a reminder that Afghanistan has long been known as “the graveyard of empires”.

It should be said that Kajaki will be particularly tough viewing for the squeamish, and the special effects and makeup teams are surely deserving of an award for the realistic depiction of physical wounds.  In this viewer’s opinion, Kajaki stands among the best British war films to have been made, which is all the more extraordinary when you realise that it was put together through crowdfunding. The Ministry of Defence, however, withdrew their support for Kajaki during filming, perhaps because of some of the rather unflattering depictions of British military operations.

RATING: 5/5

Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper is a different kettle of fish altogether. It tells the story of Navy SEAL (Sea, Air and Land), Chris Kyle, based upon his own memoir. Kyle served as a sniper during several deployments in the post 9/11 invasion of Iraq and claims to have been the most lethal sniper in US Navy history. With an excellent performance from Bradley Cooper as Kyle, Eastwood depicts this big patriotic Texan as a man driven to save good people from evil. As a child he is told by his father that there are three types of people: sheep, sheepdogs, and wolves. The wolves want to devour the sheep, who are too weak to fight back. Sheepdogs fight to protect the sheep. Kyle senior tells his boy that he expects him to be a sheepdog.

However, at age 30 Chris Kyle appears to be pissing his life away as a womanizing wannabe cowboy. When a girlfriend dumps him with a few harsh truths in the process, he starts to reevaluate his life. Following the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center Kyle sees the opportunity to become the kind of man his father wanted him to be. He joins the Navy and becomes a sniper with the SEALS. When America leads the invasion of Iraq after 9/11, Kyle is sent to Fallujah. Working as a rooftop sniper, he is utterly driven. His kill rate is so high that he becomes known as “the legend”, although he finds the label hard to live with. Whilst home on leave, he takes his new wife, Taya, for a checkup at the hospital. The nurse there quickly spots that this is a man who is bottling emotions up inside. She takes a blood pressure reading from Chris, which turns out to be abnormally high. On each home visit Taya struggles to communicate with Chris, who seems to be lost inside his own thoughts and becomes twitchy around ordinary everyday events. When he eventually quits the service he ends up seeing a psychiatrist at the Veterans Hospital, and with his assistance (although the details are skated over) manages to re-establish his relationship with Taya.

It is possible that hawkish Americans will view American Sniper as a patriotic tale of a soldier who did a great job, at personal cost, in a just war. However, I don’t think that is the real story we are being presented with. This is not the Clint Eastwood of the Dirty Harry movies, but the more considered and questioning Eastwood of Unforgiven. Chris Kyle is essentially presented to us as a metaphor for America itself. In his attempt to be the saviour of good people, Kyle represents the America that sees itself as the world’s policeman. But whilst serving in Iraq Kyle makes promises to local people that he is unable to keep, again like America towards Iraq in general. He tells a frightened Iraqi that he will be able to protect him and his family if he provides important information. Subsequently, the man’s son is tortured in front of him and then the man himself is shot. Those responsible announce to the neighbourhood that this is what happens to people who talk to the Americans.

When one of Kyle’s close comrades is killed by an Iraqi sniper he becomes driven by revenge. During a mission he disobeys an order to “stand down” and kills the sniper from a distance of over a mile. However, in doing so he gives their own position away and his unit find themselves embroiled in a firefight with overwhelming enemy numbers. As the SEALs eventually manage to escape they are literally enveloped in a “desert storm” (the name given to the first invasion of Iraq in January 1991), symbolically representing their inability to impose order on the country. It is after this event, in which Kyle is injured, that he decides to leave the service.

Kyle devotes himself to helping other veterans, whether they are physically disabled or suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD). It is in his attempt to assist a soldier with PTSD that the final – metaphorical – irony lies. Whilst on deployment Kyle had stated that one of the reasons for fighting was to prevent terrorism back home. Yet Chris Kyle is shot dead, not by a terrorist, but by a disturbed veteran that he is trying to assist. The message seems to be that America, in trying to police the world, not only deviates from the path of justice to one of revenge, but also ends up damaging herself in the process.

RATING: 4/5

CORRECTIONS: My original review accidentally referred to Clint Eastwood’s earlier film as ‘Forgiven’, when it should of course be ‘Unforgiven’. Also, Chris Kyle joined the Navy after seeing the 1993  bombing of the World Trade Center on television, not the 9/11 attacks (though those are shown too, after which Kyle is sent to Iraq with the SEALs).