The Deer Hunter (1978)

2016 #181
Michael Cimino | 176 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | UK & USA / English, Russian, Vietnamese & French | 18 / R

The Deer Hunter

One of the first movies about the Vietnam war made after it ended, The Deer Hunter was controversial before it was made (no American company wanted to touch it, leaving British group EMI to put up the initial funding), controversial when it was released (Peter Arnett, who won a Pulitzer for his coverage of the war, called the use of Russian roulette “simply a bloody lie”), and remains controversial today (Mark Kermode called it “one of the worst films ever made, a rambling self-indulgent, self-aggrandising barf-fest steeped in manipulatively racist emotion”), but is cited by some as one of the best movies ever made.

The plot concerns three Pennsylvanian steel workers (Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and John Savage) who have been conscripted. It follows their final days before joining up, then some of their time in the conflict, then how they react once home — this is a Vietnam movie where under a third of its running time actually takes place in ‘Nam. But, as per producer Michael Deeley, the film “wasn’t really ‘about’ Vietnam. It was something very different. […] It was about how individuals respond to pressure: different men reacting quite differently.” It takes its time getting there (this is a long movie that feels long), but that’s what the famed Russian roulette stuff is all about, really — a way of coping with some kind of mental collapse; of leaving suicide up to chance.

Walken a fine line

It’s certainly a problematic film, with its depiction of the Vietcong particularly tin-eared — they’re an old-fashioned baddie, cruel and evil without any apparent provocation. Coupled with a final scene that sees the cast singing God Bless America, it comes across a bit too right-wing to be wholly palatable. It’s also a slog, particularly the first third and its never-ending wedding sequence.

These things can’t completely negate the qualities Deeley highlighted in the above quote, or that many viewers clearly see in it. That said, if I’m completely honest, I think Kermode may be closest to the truth.

4 out of 5

The Deer Hunter was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

The Pianist (2002)

2016 #175
Roman Polanski | 143 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | France, Poland, Germany & UK / English, German & Russian | 15 / R

The PianistRoman Polanski’s semi-autobiographical biopic of Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody), who survived the Warsaw ghetto in World War 2 primarily through luck and good fortune, is a subtly powerful work. It may not poke at your emotions quite so readily as, say, Schindler’s List, but that’s because Polanski and screenwriter Ronald Harwood dodge histrionics or an operatic envisioning of events. Instead this feels like a grounded relation of the facts, with everyday heroism (and cruelty) the order of the day — but, of course, there’s nothing “everyday” about it.

If this were fiction it would seem improbable; because it’s true, it’s extraordinary.

5 out of 5

The Pianist was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

Rogue One (2016)

aka Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

2016 #187
Gareth Edwards | 134 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

This review contains major spoilers.

Rogue OneThe first live-action non-saga movie to take us to a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, this initial entry in what is sure to be a never-ending series of so-called “Anthology” movies really puts the “War” into Star Wars.

It begins without the traditional opening crawl, which is somewhat ironic when you consider that, of all the Star Wars movies, this is the one that would most benefit from some scene-setting — fans are on a fairly sure footing, but casual viewers who still expect to see the further adventures of Rey, Finn, and BB-8 may be a little baffled. (And if you think the saturation media coverage will have prepared everyone, you’re underestimating Normal Folks’ capacity to be completely oblivious to movie news.) Anyway, where we actually are is 30-something years before The Force Awakens… but as this is a spoilery review you don’t need me to recap the plot, because you’ve not read this far if you haven’t seen the movie. Right? Good.

As I was saying, Rogue One is really a war movie, and is at its best when it’s consciously riffing off other (i.e. non-sci-fi) genres, like gritty World War 2 epics or daring heist thrillers. These are some new flavours for a franchise which has produced seven films in the action-adventure mould. Rogue One doesn’t deviate so far from that path — it’s a bit like Disney stablemate Marvel in that it mixes other-genre spice into the familiar recipe rather than striking out in a wholly different direction — but it’s enough to taste different.

HeistUnfortunately, the plot starts off almost as jumbled as my mixed metaphors there. “Jumbled” may be unfair, but it’s a little scrappy, initially jumping around all over the place in a way that’s tricky to follow even if you’ve read up on the film and have an idea who you’re being introduced to and why. It must be a right pain for neophyte viewers. There can be a fine line between praising a film for requiring its viewers to pay attention and do some work, and criticising it for being disarrayed and not making things clear. Personally, I thought Rogue One was sat right on that line for much of its first act, until a few big expositional infodumps come along to explain the storyline.

A primary cause of this is the number of characters we need to be introduced to. Presumably aiming for a Dirty Dozen / Magnificent Seven / men-on-a-mission people-on-a-mission beings-on-a-mission vibe, it leaves things occasionally a little scattered until the team comes together. The resultant volume of heroes means the movie is arguably a little short on the kind of memorable characters Star Wars is loved for, although that doesn’t mean there isn’t good work here. Felicity Jones makes Jyn a likeable, moderately complex heroine, at least when she’s not delivering cheesy speeches. Ben Mendelsohn produces a reliably snake-like villain as Imperial Director Krennic, while Riz Ahmed once again injects a lot of personality into a somewhat underwritten supporting role. Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen make a solid double act who it would’ve been lovely to see more of in a sequel, and Alan Tudyk gets all the best lines as snarky droid K-2SO. Most ill-served are Diego Luna as a conflicted Rebel captain whose internal struggles aren’t fully brought out, Forest Whitaker as an ageing extremist, and Mads Mikkelsen, who is lumped mainly with exposition. The latter two at least bring extra-textual gravitas to their smaller roles.

KrennicThen we come to perhaps the film’s most discussed character: Grand Moff Tarkin, played by Peter Cushing’s computer-generated face overlaid on the motion capture and voice of Holby City’s Guy Henry. Leaving aside the ethics of the enterprise, I found the character’s presence to be pretty distracting: you know it’s CGI and you can’t stop focusing on just Tarkin’s face, trying to judge how effective or not it is. For me, it proves that CGI isn’t yet quite up to creating a fully plausible human being. Your mileage will vary on whether it’s suitably competent nonetheless or an ill-conceived failure.

Elsewhere, there are tons of little nods to the wider Star Wars canon, including the animated series: Whitaker’s character actually comes from The Clone Wars, where he appeared in four episodes; and there are half-a-dozen background references to ongoing series Rebels, most prominently the ‘Hammerhead’ ship, which was introduced there. Lucasfilm do seem very keen to emphasise that all these different media really are one interconnected universe, unlike so many other cross-format franchises, which accept everything as canon until the main series decides they want to contradict it. For example, while I was on holiday recently I visited the Star Wars exhibition they current have at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, which features various displays of, say, villain’s lightsabers or pilot’s helmets that put real-life recreations of ones from The Clone Wars and Rebels right alongside those from the original trilogy and the prequels as if that’s exactly where they belong. I must commend Lucasfilm for such an unusual commitment to institutionally tying these things together, rewarding the investment fans will inevitably make in doing the same. It does mean I feel I need to get on with watching the six seasons of Clone Wars and three (or more) seasons of Rebels, though.

Donnie Yen: badassContinuing such comparison to the wider Star Wars galaxy, some have said Rogue One is the Empire Strikes Back of Disney-era Star Wars, because it’s the darker second (on the release schedule) film. Of course, the main reason it’s dark is that every major (new) character dies. You know what’s unique about Empire in the context of the entirety of live-action Star Wars movies? It’s the only one where no major character dies. Death isn’t the only signifier of darkness, of course, but my point is rather that I think people are grasping at straws if they think anyone inside Lucasfilm has consciously positioned Rogue One to serve an Empire-like role in their revived franchise. That doesn’t mean they’re not treating it seriously, mind: director Gareth Edwards has already revealed that the first draft had Jyn and Cassian survive the battle of Scarif, purely because the writers thought the execs would never agree to all the heroes being killed off, but those execs immediately suggested that everyone should die and that element was never questioned again. Yes, sometimes studio suits are actually on the side of narrative truthfulness.

Even if that got locked early on, other things certainly didn’t. The film’s reshoots made big news for no particularly good reason (it’s par for the course on blockbusters these days), but their results are easy to see thanks to the film’s trailers: there are a number of significant shots present there that didn’t make the final cut, suggesting some radically different events in the third act. You can watch a short compilation of those here. As far as I’m aware neither Edwards nor anyone else has said what was actually changed by the reshoots, but it would be interesting to find out. Considering the Scarif-set portion of the film is probably its most successful part, and that’s where the reshoots seem to have been focused, it might make a good defence of a process that is often seen as a sign of disaster (sometimes for good reason).

Star of deathMuch discussion of Rogue One seems to have revolved around whether it’s better than The Force Awakens. At the risk of sitting on the fence, I can see both sides. On the one hand, Edwards is a much more interesting filmmaker than J.J. Abrams. The latter is adept at aping the work of others, having now been in charge of multiple movies that are mostly derivative but nonetheless entertaining. Edwards’ career is still a little fresh and blockbuster-centric to risk describing him as an auteur, but his debut film was more indie than anything Abrams has even thought of creating, and his take on Godzilla attempted to be more interesting than the rote monster blockbuster it could’ve easily been. He brings similar qualities to Rogue One. On the other hand, that riskier take has resulted in a few fumbles, whereas The Force Awakens was a polished, crowd-pleasing entertainment. I’d hesitate to say I prefer one to the other because they provide slightly different thrills, but on a first viewing I did find Force Awakens more satisfying. Given time and distance, however, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find Rogue One leapfrogging it in my estimations.

4 out of 5

Three Kings (1999)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #90

They’re deserters, rebels and thieves.
But in the nicest possible way.

Country: USA
Language: English & Arabic
Runtime: 115 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 1st October 1999 (USA)
UK Release: 3rd March 2000
First Seen: DVD, c.2001

Stars
George Clooney (Batman & Robin, Ocean’s Eleven)
Mark Wahlberg (Boogie Nights, The Fighter)
Ice Cube (Boyz n the Hood, Ride Along)
Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Where the Wild Things Are)

Director
David O. Russell (Flirting with Disaster, Silver Linings Playbook)

Screenwriter
David O. Russell (Spanking the Monkey, American Hustle)

Story by
John Ridley (U Turn, 12 Years a Slave)

The Story
After ceasefire is called in the Gulf War, a group of American soldiers discover a map to a stash of gold stolen by Saddam Hussein’s forces. Setting out to steal it for themselves, the soldiers encounter a group of rebels who need their help and find their priorities changing.

Our Heroes
Army reservist Sergeant Troy Barlow and his friend, the comically naïve Private Conrad Vig, are the first to discover the map, which they take to Staff Sergeant Chief Elgin to translate. Then self-serving, disillusioned Special Forces Major Archie Gates turns up and convinces them to follow it to the gold. (Yes, despite the title, there are four of them.)

Our Villains
The war may officially be over, but the Iraqi Republican Guard are still the enemy.

Best Supporting Character
I know I mentioned him in the heroes bit, but Conrad is the de facto “fourth king”, so… He gets the lion’s share of either the best lines or the lines that set up the best lines.

Memorable Quote
Chief: “I don’t want to hear ‘dune coon’ or ‘sand nigger’ from him or anybody else.”
Conrad: “Captain uses those terms.”
Troy: “That’s not the point, Conrad. The point is that ‘towelhead’ and ‘camel jockey’ are perfectly good substitutes.”

Memorable Scene
Archie explains what actually happens when you get shot in the gut, complete with an explanatory cross-section of the human body, and bile.

Making of
The stories of behind-the-scenes conflict between director David O. Russell — still a relative newcomer, making his biggest movie so far — and George Clooney — dividing his time between E.R. three days a week and the film on the other four — are legendary. If you want a lengthy-ish full account, check out this trivia entry on IMDb.

Awards
1 Blockbuster Entertainment Award (Favourite Action Team — it beat Will Smith and Kevin Kline from Wild Wild West, and those were all the nominees)
1 Political Film Society Award (Peace)
2 Political Film Society Award nominations (Democracy, Exposé)

What the Critics Said
“[an] emotionally and politically responsible movie set in Iraq during the immediate aftermath of the gulf war — a damning yet idealistic satire about the motives behind U.S. foreign policy. The visuals are wild, the sound track has the audacity to underscore the subtext instead of just echoing the obvious, the comedy is irreverent and occasionally slapstick, and the metaphorical details are consistently strong. The movie even examines the conventions of star-studded actioners without stripping the leads of the charisma and apparent immortality of full-blown action heroes.” — Lisa Alspector, Chicago Reader

Score: 94%

What the Public Say
Three Kings, at its core, deals with serious themes and serious subject matter surrounding the end of the first Gulf War, and is therefore a war narrative before anything else. That being said, it’s refreshing how Three Kings doesn’t drown in its cynicism, isn’t exploitative in terms of gore or shocking violence, and isn’t hitting its audience over the head with either jingoistic propaganda or hamfisted pacifist social commentary. Moreover, Three Kings is funny enough often enough to be qualified as a comedy in its own right. It’s the humanist, dare I say, heartfelt combination of the two, that makes it a bonafide winner.” — The Celtic Predator, Express Elevator to Hell

Verdict

Writer-director David O. Russell may have become increasingly acclaimed this decade with Oscar-nominated movies like The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle, but for me this is still his best work. It mixes laugh-out-loud comedy with serious points about war and an ultimately emotional storyline, created with a filmmaking verve that is frequently exciting and inventive — something I’d argue is less present in Russell’s more widely-acknowledged work.

#91 never… lies dies.

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #79

The mission is a man.

Country: USA
Language: English, French, German & Czech
Runtime: 170 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 24th July 1998 (USA)
UK Release: 11th September 1998
First Seen: TV, c.2001

Stars
Tom Hanks (Big, Cast Away)
Edward Burns (She’s the One, 15 Minutes)
Matt Damon (Good Will Hunting, Jason Bourne)
Tom Sizemore (Natural Born Killers, Black Hawk Down)
(The lead cast includes since-famous people like Vin Diesel, Barry Pepper, and Giovanni Ribisi, and the supporting cast even more recognisable faces, but, still, Edward Burns is second billed.)

Director
Steven Spielberg (Empire of the Sun, War Horse)

Screenwriter
Robert Rodat (Fly Away Home, The Patriot)

The Story
In the immediate aftermath of D-Day, a group of soldiers are tasked to locate and rescue just one man: Private Ryan, whose three brothers have been killed in action, earning him a free pass home. As the squad trek across France, mindful of the waste of resources, they encounter first-hand the early days of the Allied invasion of Europe.

Our Heroes
Just a regular bunch of soldiers, co-opted into a PR mission that isn’t that easy. They’re commanded by Captain Miller, their respected leader with a secretive past… a past which is actually thoroughly mundane, and just highlights the bizarre, heightened world of the war.

Our Villains
Nazis!

Best Supporting Character
Matt Damon was cast as the eponymous soldier because Spielberg wanted an unknown with an all-American look. Unfortunately for that plan, before Private Ryan came out Damon won an Oscar for Good Will Hunting and became famous overnight. It certainly changes the effect to have the team rescuing Movie Star Matt Damon rather than Some Unknown Actor, but, on the bright side, he’s good.

Memorable Quote
Reiben: “Hey, so, Captain, what about you? I mean, you don’t gripe at all?”
Miller: “I don’t gripe to you, Reiben. I’m a captain. There’s a chain of command. Gripes go up, not down. Always up. You gripe to me, I gripe to my superior officer, so on, so on, and so on. I don’t gripe to you. I don’t gripe in front of you. You should know that as a Ranger.”
Reiben: “I’m sorry, sir, but uh… let’s say you weren’t a captain, or maybe I was a major. What would you say then?”
Miller: “Well, in that case, I’d say, ‘This is an excellent mission, sir, with an extremely valuable objective, sir, worthy of my best efforts, sir. Moreover, I feel heartfelt sorrow for the mother of Private James Ryan and am willing to lay down my life and the lives of my men — especially you, Reiben — to ease her suffering.’”

Memorable Scene
The opening half-hour, which recreates the Normandy landings in shocking, brutal detail, and is supposedly very true to the actual experience. Surely the definitive modern combat sequence from any war movie.

Technical Wizardry
The heavily desaturated cinematography by Janusz Kaminski instantly lends the film a grim veracity, very appropriate to its tone. Such extreme colour palettes are commonplace nowadays, mainly thanks to digital grading, but when Private Ryan came to US TV providers had to deal with numerous complaints from viewers who thought there was a problem with their signal — which the broadcasters fixed by just upping the saturation of the film, of course.

Truly Special Effect
The involvement of ILM was downplayed so that the film didn’t come across as “an effects movie”, but they still had a key role — for instance, providing most of the bullet hits throughout the D-Day sequence. Not remarkable effects work in itself, maybe, but it’s appropriately invisible.

Making of
The D-Day sequence alone cost $11 million. It was filmed over four weeks (almost half the entire shoot), gradually moving up the beach to film the whole thing in chronological order. Spielberg personally operated the camera for many shots, none of which were storyboarded. The shoot involved up to 1,000 extras, 20 to 30 of whom were amputees fitted with prosthetic limbs to simulate them being blown off. Reportedly, many veterans have congratulated Spielberg on the sequence’s accuracy, including actor James Doohan, aka Star Trek’s Scotty, who participated in the Normandy landings.

Next time…
HBO’s Band of Brothers is basically Saving Private Ryan: The Series, taking the film’s visual style to tell the true story of a company of soldiers from their training, through the invasions of France and Germany, and right up to the end of the war. Often topping lists as the greatest TV series ever made, it certainly belongs in consideration.

Awards
5 Oscars (Director, Cinematography, Editing, Sound, Sound Effects Editing)
6 Oscar nominations (Picture, Actor (Tom Hanks), Original Screenplay, Score, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Makeup)
2 BAFTAs (Sound, Special Effects)
8 BAFTA nominations (Film, Actor (Tom Hanks), Director, Music, Cinematography, Editing, Production Design, Make Up/Hair)
1 Saturn Award (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film)
1 Saturn nomination (Special Effects)
3 MTV Movie Awards nominations (including Action Sequence for the Normandy landings. It lost to Armageddon.)

What the Critics Said
“hands-down the best film of 1998. Spielberg has clearly stated in recent interviews that he made the film as a monument to the brave men who fought and died in that terrible war (and on D-Day, in particular), but he’s also done something morally heroic in the process. Private Ryan clearly illustrates, once and for all, that war — the real, appalling thing, not the flag-waving glorification that you usually see at the movies — is hell on earth. Spielberg accomplishes these goals with a technical virtuosity that no other director, arguably in the history of the cinema, can even approach. […] He’s a director whose work has grown right before our eyes from that of a precocious whiz-kid to the complex, humanistic statements of a true artist. Whether or not you always appreciate how he utilizes his skills, the man is an undeniable genius.” — Paul Tatara, CNN

Score: 92%

What the Public Say
“the opening 25 minutes of Saving Private Ryan – where [Spielberg] thrusts us into the 1944 D-Day landings of Omaha Beach – is arguably his most impressive and certainly his most visceral work. It’s absolutely exhausting in its construction and sense of realism and the realisation soon sets in, that this cinematic auteur is not about to pull any punches in portraying a time in history that’s very close to his heart. The opening is so commanding that some have criticised the film for not living up this grand and devastating scale but Spielberg has many more up his sleeve. He’s just not able to deliver them too close together – otherwise, the film would be absolutely shattering and very difficult to get through. To bridge the gap between breathtaking battles scenes the film falls into a rather conventional storyline about men on a mission but its only purpose is to keep the film flowing and allows Spielberg the ability to make the brutality of war more personal.” — Mark Walker, Marked Movies

Verdict

Is Saving Private Ryan the greatest war movie ever made? Maybe. The relatively simple story allows it to explore the mindset of the soldiers making the first forays into Europe after D-Day, both their camaraderie as a group of men and the actions they took to function through the experience. It’s certainly the most influential World War 2 movie of modern times — nearly 20 years later, its desaturated colour palette remains de rigueur for films set in the war. So too its realistic depiction of combat, which is more plausible than some of the Boy’s Own adventures that came before, though not so ridiculously gruelling as some that have come in its wake. Personally, the only superior WW2 ‘film’ I can think of is Band of Brothers, and considering that has ten hours to explore its characters and situations, it’s not really a fair comparison.

#80 will be… a very different Spielberg/WW2 story.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 (2015)

2016 #59
Francis Lawrence | 137 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & Germany / English | 12 / PG-13

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2The artificially-extended Hunger Games trilogy-turned-tetralogy climaxes here. Presumably you’ve seen the first three and so know what you’re into by this point — either you’re invested or you’ve given up. Unless you want to know “does it end well?” before embarking on the whole thing, of course. While Mockingjay Part 2 is not the series’ finest instalment, it brings things to a decent head… eventually.

In my review of Mockingjay Part 1, a film much criticised for feeling like half of a whole — or, rather, half of a part of a whole — I argued it does actually function as a film in its own right. I mean, all of these films are part of one long narrative, so that’s par for the course, and I didn’t feel like Mockingjay Part 1 was any less a ‘standalone’ chunk of that narrative than the two films that preceded it. Specifically, I asserted that “the focus on using Katniss as no more than a propaganda figurehead… has been fully explored — and so I think this instalment will feel much more like a fully-fledged film in its own right if they just move on. I hope the final film give us new themes, new subplots, new arcs to follow”.

With that in mind, Part 2 begins with a degree of disappointment, as it tackles some propaganda-related holdovers from the last movie. Maybe I was putting too much stock in the idea of them moving on from that theme and establishing something new, though — especially as it does soon do that anyway. What develops is a “men on a mission” war movie, as Katniss and a small band of soldiers make their way through the deserted-but-boobytrapped Capitol on a mission to assassinate President Snow.

K and P, nutsWhat follows isn’t perfect — in particular, the storyline could’ve done with tightening up — but it does have a lot going for it. There’s strong characterisation: Katniss is as confused, conflicted, and incapable of engaging with her emotions as ever, while Peeta’s PTSD is well-handled, with an effective device where he repeatedly makes a statement before asking, “real or not real?” There are other nicely developed thematic points too, like expanding further on the rebels not being perfect good guys (as initiated in Part 1), which plays a central role in the denouement. The action sequences are well staged and occasionally inventive, but best of all is that the climax doesn’t lean on being the biggest fight scene yet — it’s driven by the story, and the characters and their decisions, rather than being a ginormous shoot-out.

Speaking of the film’s finale, complaints that the endings go on too long bug me, just as they bug me when people bring it up about Lord of the Rings. In both cases, you’re getting a capstone to a 9+ hour saga, not the 2- to 3-hour section of it you just watched. Rings’ endings feel completely suitable if you watch all 12 hours of the extended editions in one sitting, and I’d wager Hunger Games’ do too. Rush it and you end up with something like Harry Potter’s finale, which comes to a crushing thud of an ending as soon as the battle is won. What both Rings and Hunger Games are doing, actually, is showing that these characters are people who exist outside of the context of their war. They’re not just combatants, who evaporate into thin air once the battle’s lost or won; they’re people who have to either return to their old lives or establish new ones.* It’s a richer, more realistic, more human way to end a story than “plot’s over, action sequences are finished — we’re done here!”

Ready for the endMockingjay Part 2 is not the best instalment of the Hunger Games, a series whose second half didn’t quite live up to the developed potential of the excellent Catching Fire. That said, I think it largely works as a whole, with conflicted and complicated characters living in a world that initially seems straightforwardly dystopic but develops many moral greys. That’s particularly welcome from a Young Adult series, a sort-of-genre where some of the most famous examples are lacking in intellectual — or (considering the target audience) educational — heft. In fact, based on the scores and comments I’ve seen on some websites, Mockingjay Part 2 may yet turn out to be the most underrated of the Hunger Games films.

4 out of 5

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 is available on Netflix UK as of this week. Mockingjay Part 1 is also on there; the first two films are not.

* Potter does do the “back to a life” thing, but the details of it are found in ancillary texts. ^

Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

aka Hotaru no haka

2016 #67
Isao Takahata | 90 mins | DVD | 16:9 | Japan / Japanese | 12

Grave of the FirefliesOne of the most praised animated films of all time, this Studio Ghibli feature tackles grim subject matter: it’s the story of Seita and his little sister Setsuko, a pair of Japanese children who are orphaned and eventually left to fend for themselves in the closing months of World War 2. It begins with Seita dying of starvation and joining the spirit of his dead sister, so you know it’s not going to end well. A Disney movie this is not.

It’s kind of hard to avoid the praise Grave of the Fireflies has attracted, which is why it ended up on my Blindspot list this year. It’s the third highest-rated animation on IMDb (behind Spirited Away and The Lion King), which also places it in the top 25% of the Top 250, not to mention various other “best animated” and “great movie” lists. I mention all this because I fear the weight of expectation somewhat hampered the film for me. It’s by no means a bad film, but, despite the subject matter, it didn’t touch me to the same degree as, say, My Neighbour Totoro (which, coincidentally, it was initially released with).

So where did it go wrong for me? Perhaps my biggest issue was with Seita and the choices he made. I guess part of the point is that he is still a child and so unable to adequately care for himself and Setsuko, but I don’t get why he resorts to stealing, looting, and allowing them to starve when, as it eventually turns out, they still have 3,000 yen in the bank — enough to buy plenty of hearty food when it comes down to it. Why didn’t he turn to that money much sooner? Why did it take a doctor telling him his sister was malnourished and refusing to help before he thought, “you know what, I could always use that money we have saved up in the bank to feed us so I don’t have to steal and nonetheless be short of food”? When he does eventually withdraw that cash and buy some decent supplies, it’s a very literal case of doing too little too late.

Another thing is that the film is often cited as a powerful anti-war movie, because it depicts the ravaging effects on innocents. However, director Isao Takahata insists it isn’t, saying it’s about “the brother and sister living a failed life due to isolation from society”. I’m inclined to believe him, because, from what we actually see on screen, these two kids are the only ones to be so badly affected! Okay, we do see people have died, and we’re told that food is running out… but there’s a gaggle of kids who seem to be having a fun day out when they stumble across the siblings’ makeshift shelter; or, right at the end, people who merrily arrive home and pop their music on. The film doesn’t try to claim that only these two kids suffered, but — aside from a few other destitutes at the start, and the bodies we see after the first bombing (later bombings don’t make any casualties explicit) — we don’t really see anyone else suffering. I’m not arguing that Takahata is saying no one else suffered, nor that these observations make it pro-war (I mean, any children dying, even if others are surviving, is not a good thing), but I didn’t get an anti-war message that was as powerful or as overwhelming as other viewers seem to have.

I’m an advocate of animation as a form (which must sound like a ridiculous position to have to take in some countries, but in the West “quality animation” begins and ends with Disney musicals and Pixar’s kid-friendly comedy adventures), but I think the fact this particular story is being told with moving drawings is detrimental. I’ve seen online reviews that say it makes the film more bearable because it creates a kind of disconnect from the real world — and, really, this story shouldn’t be “bearable”. That’s not to say you can’t feel an emotional connection to animated characters, but, as a medium, animation regularly deals in fantastical subjects, so with material this gruelling it does make it seem less real.

Despite these issues, Grave of the Fireflies does still pack a punch, but I wasn’t as bowled over as I’d expected to be.

4 out of 5

Grave of the Fireflies was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

The Imitation Game (2014)

2016 #125
Morten Tyldum | 114 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Oscar statue
2015 Academy Awards
8 nominations — 1 win

Winner: Best Adapted Screenplay.
Nominated: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, Best Editing, Best Original Score, Best Production Design.



The Imitation GameAlan Turing was a war hero: he led a team of cryptologists who managed to break the Germans’ Enigma encryption, thereby giving the Allies access to tonnes of vital information that (historians estimate) helped shorten the war by up to four years. This information was beyond top secret — so much so that they created a new designation for it, “ultra secret” — so when the war was over, Turing & co’s contribution went unrecognised for decades. Alan Turing was also a homosexual in an era when that was illegal. When he was caught, he was sentenced to chemical castration, which caused (or at least contributed) to him taking his own life. Fine way to treat a war hero, but that’s what you get with discriminatory attitudes.

Discrimination is surely one of the major themes of The Imitation Game, a film that it’s apparently easy to mistake for a drama about the deciphering of Enigma, but which is really a Turing biopic. It takes place across three eras: the 1920s, when Turing (played by Alex Lawther) was a bullied schoolboy; the war years, when Turing (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) faced discrimination across the board, including a commanding officer who thought he was a Soviet spy and teammates who flat out didn’t like him; and the 1950s, when Turing (played by Cumberbatch in gentle older-age make-up) is uncovered as gay and gets the persecution already discussed. As if that wasn’t enough, the best person he recruits for his team during the war is female (played by Keira Knightley), who of course is also pre-judged by some as capable of nothing more than being a dimwitted secretary.

The screenplay by newcomer Graham Moore topped the Black List in 2011, so it’s probably of little surprise that it went on to win an Oscar, but I think it’s fair to say its quality, while good, isn’t that good. The use of three concurrently-told timelines seems to be too much for Moore and/or director Morten Tyldum to handle at times, occasionally flitting to a different era with little purpose beyond “it’s about time we told more of that storyline”. That’s not to say a wholly chronological telling would’ve been more effective — though perhaps it would’ve placated critical viewers who expected (and retrospectively demand) a cryptography-based wartime thriller — but the period juggling clouds the point as often as it illuminates it.

Regardless, it blusters through with a relatively brisk pace (for what is essentially a heritage drama), supported by several excellent performances. Oscar-nominated Cumberbatch is the obvious headline — he’s Alan Turing in the Alan Turing biopic so of course he is, but it’s a very strong performance. His Turing is surely somewhere on the autistic spectrum, which at best has speculative historical basis, but Cumberbatch embodies well that social awkwardness with hidden inner genius. It would’ve been easy for him to slip into familiar traits from that other antisocial clever-clogs he plays, Sherlock Holmes, but at worst there are only vague and infrequent nudges to our memory of that performance. Rather, I’d argue he fully subsumes himself into this role. Surely that Oscar would’ve been his were it not for Eddie Redmayne’s even more remarkable turn as Stephen Hawking. (Well, Oscar voters might’ve plumped for Michael Keaton instead, but they’d’ve been wrong.)

Also up for the golden man was Knightley, who does give one of her better turns as Turing’s sort-of-sidekick. The pair have a fairly complex relationship — both halves are key to conveying that, and they both do. At least as remarkable as either is young Alex Lawther, who arguably gets the film’s stand-out acting moment in his final scene, where a tumult of emotion is contained beneath a stiff-upper-lip surface in a tight close-up. On the strength of this, an actor to watch out for. The rest of the cast don’t get the same depth of material, but Charles Dance and Mark Strong provide exceptional value, as always, and Rory Kinnear does his best to bring some nuance and interest to a part he’s overqualified for.

To return to the issue of the film’s reception, some people seem to be angry with or offended by the notion that the war was won as much — maybe even more — by men in rooms breaking codes than by soldiers on the ground doing the actual fighting. However, I can’t help but think that’s actually one of the points the film is making — that soldiers are the obvious ‘heroes’, because they’re there doing the shooting, but the people behind the scenes telling them where to go do that shooting are just as important to the overall victory. I mean, if you watched this film and still think the boots on the ground are the only thing that won the war, and by extension that intelligence isn’t all that important, then maybe you missed something.

Perhaps that just stems from a frustration at some of the film’s other issues. It clearly has a flexible relationship with historical accuracy — well, what biopic doesn’t? Without wanting to spoil plot developments, some viewers feel the film suggesting Turing knew of the spy at Bletchley Park is insulting to his memory, because in real-life he didn’t even know the individual. Alternatively, is it not a way to integrate that part of the Enigma story into a film that otherwise wouldn’t have a satisfactory way to touch on it? Everyone’s mileage will vary on whether that should’ve been done or not.

And let’s not even get into opinions on how the film dealt with Turing’s homosexuality, which swing wildly between “it was just a footnote, why didn’t it get more attention?!” and “why did they allow that to dominate a film about codebreaking?!”

There’s no denying that The Imitation Game contains an interesting story about an important aspect of the war, starring a fascinating and complex central character. How well it handles those aspects if more a matter for debate, as it doesn’t develop some elements as well as it perhaps should have, and the heritage stylings always turn some off. If you ignore or gloss over some of those faults and take the film at face value, it’s a 5-star effort with a well-told primary narrative and strong performances. If you do listen to the niggling faults and the “what could have been”s, it sinks back down a little.

Without meaning to sound too judgemental (though when has that ever stopped me?), those factors making me think this is the kind of film “normal people” will probably love a lot more than “film fans” — which probably explains why it’s in the IMDb Top 250 but all the most-liked reviews on Letterboxd have exceptionally low scores. Personally, I’m going to side with the populous: not everything has to be a groundbreaking feat of Cinema to be a story worth telling and told well, and if it is indeed some kind of “historical revisionism” to say that there’s nothing wrong with being gay and the way Turing was treated post-war was horrendous, well, I’m OK with that revisionism.

4 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of The Imitation Game is on Channel 4 at 9pm tomorrow.

Gone with the Wind (1939)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #41

The most magnificent picture ever!

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 233 minutes
BBFC: A (cut, 1940) | PG (1988)
MPAA: G (1971)

Original Release: 15th December 1939 (premiere in Atlanta, Georgia, USA)
US Release: 17th January 1940
UK Release: 18th April 1940 (premiere)
First Seen: TV, c.2005

Stars
Clark Gable (It Happened One Night, Mutiny on the Bounty)
Vivien Leigh (Fire Over England, A Streetcar Named Desire)
Leslie Howard (Of Human Bondage, 49th Parallel)
Olivia de Havilland (The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Dark Mirror)
Hattie McDaniel (Show Boat, Song of the South)

Director
Victor Fleming (The Wizard of Oz, A Guy Named Joe)

Screenwriter
Sidney Howard (Arrowsmith, Dodsworth)

Based on
Gone with the Wind, a novel by Margaret Mitchell.

The Story
The American South, 1861: wealthy teenager Scarlett O’Hara spends her days attending parties and flirting with her many admirers, though she only really has eyes for her neighbour, Ashley. After he declares his intention to marry his cousin Melanie, a furious Scarlett meets Rhett Butler, a practically-minded gent who only serves his own interests. When the American Civil War breaks out, Scarlett has to apply her manipulative nature to survival, as down the years she engages in a love/hate relationship with the similarly-tempered Rhett.

Our Heroes
Scarlett O’Hara is the perennial belle of the ball in her Southern community, until the American Civil War comes and she’s forced to grow up. Her innate selfishness and tendency to manipulate people (or try to, at least) helps her survive the conflict in more-or-less one piece. Equally self concerned is Rhett Butler, a gentleman not afraid to stand up to Scarlett, which is why they clash, and why they’re probably made for one another.

Our Villains
Those damn Unionists, with their trying to get rid of slavery and everything!

Best Supporting Character
Hattie McDaniel is memorable, likeable, and Oscar-winning as the O’Haras’ maid, Mammy. Whether her performance was a good thing for the African American community or just an ‘Uncle Tom’ is another matter.

Memorable Quote
“As God is my witness, as God is my witness they’re not going to lick me. I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over, I’ll never be hungry again. No, nor any of my folk. If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill. As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.” — Scarlett O’Hara

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” — Rhett Butler

Memorable Scene
In the streets of Atlanta, Scarlett comes across the casualties from the battle. First we only see her face as she comes upon a shocking sight. Then it cuts to a long-shot: Scarlett stood by some soldiers, a couple of wounded men on the ground before her. The camera tracks back as Scarlett walks forward, gradually revealing the field of wounded soldiers she’s walking among. It continues to pull back, up into the sky, for a full 55 seconds, the injured stretching as far as the eye can see as a damaged Confederate flag flutters into view in the foreground.

Technical Wizardry
The Technicolor photography by Ernest Haller is absolutely gorgeous, and looks better than ever nowadays thanks to new restoration techniques developed in 2004 (12 years ago?! Where does time go?) That restoration is where the real wizardry lies. Gone with the Wind was shot with Technicolor’s three-strip process, in which a prism split the light entering the camera into its green, red and blue parts, which were each exposed on a strip of black-and-white film. These strips were then dyed the appropriate colour, before being combined onto a new film to create the final full-colour print. Naturally this process was liable to human error: misalign one of the strips by even the slightest amount and you get errors; small and almost unnoticeable, maybe, but less than perfection. In 2004, they went back to the original three strips and, using complicated new computer programs, realigned them from scratch. This perfect alignment revealed details that have always been on the film but would never have been seen before, meaning these movies (they also did it for the likes of The Wizard of Oz, Singin’ in the Rain, and The Adventures of Robin Hood) literally looked better than they ever had. Magic.

Letting the Side Down
There are a raft of criticisms that can be levelled at Gone with the Wind, from its depiction of black characters, to making the South seem not so bad, to the faithfulness of its adaptation (too much). The second half is certainly less focused and less memorable than the first, but the whole overcomes that, for me.

Making of
The search for an actress to play the leading role of Scarlett O’Hara is legendary — it was even dramatised in an Emmy-winning TV movie in 1980. In all it lasted two years, including an open casting call that interviewed 1,400 unknowns (useless for casting, great for publicity), and the formal screen-testing of 31 actresses, including the likes of Lucille Ball, Clara Bow, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Barbara Stanwyck, and many more. In the end, it of course went to a young British actress, then unknown in America, called Vivien Leigh. The rest is screen history.

Next time…
Fans and filmmakers alike tried to get Margaret Mitchell to write a sequel until her death in 1949. In the ’70s, her brother agreed a deal with MGM and Universal under which a novel would be written and simultaneously adapted into a film. Despite a 775-page manuscript being produced, the deal fell apart. Numerous sequel novels have been published, and in 1994 one of these, Alexandra Ripley’s Scarlett, was adapted into a miniseries starring Joanne Whalley as Scarlett and Timothy Dalton as Rhett, with a supporting cast that includes Sean Bean, John Gielgud, and Ann-Margret. Apparently it’s not very good.

Awards
8 Oscars (Picture, Actress (Vivien Leigh), Supporting Actress (Hattie McDaniel), Director, Screenplay, Color Cinematography, Art Direction, Editing)
1 Honorary Award from AMPAS (for “outstanding achievement in the use of color for the enhancement of dramatic mood”)
1 Technical Achievement Award from AMPAS (for being “pioneering in the use of coordinated equipment”)
5 Oscar nominations (Actor (Clark Gable), Supporting Actress (Olivia de Havilland), Score, Sound Recording, Special Effects)

What the Critics Said in 1939
“There has never been a picture like David O. Selznick’s production of Gone With the Wind. It is so true to Margaret Mitchell’s novel of the Civil War, as it was fought in and around Atlanta, that the film is of the same epic quality as the book. […] Vivien Leigh, the little English girl imported to play the role of Scarlett, gives a magnificent performance. No other actress in Hollywood, or on the New York stage, could have come close to equalling it. […] She is pert and beautiful, lacking in erudition but the possessor of all the arts and allure of the vital female. She is quick-tempered, selfish, untruthful, sturdy and wilful as a lioness. No attempt has been made to gloss over Scarlett’s weaknesses and sins. As she is, she dominates the picture from its gay and light-hearted beginning to its tragic close.” — Kate Cameron, New York Daily News

What the Critics Said in 1973
“The most interesting way to consider GWTW today is in comparison with the film that may eventually surpass it in profits, The Godfather. Look at the similarities. Both originated in best-selling American novels. Both are very long. Both are about predators. Both are ultra-American yet are very closely allied to Europe (Walter Scott and Sicily). And, most important, both live within codes of honor, and both codes are romances. William R. Taylor has shown, in Cavalier and Yankee, that the ‘Walter Scott’ antebellum South was largely a literary fabrication, concocted at the time, not retrospectively; as for The Godfather, our newspapers show us daily that ‘They Only Kill Each Other’ is just another escape hatch to allow us to blink facts. ‘Us,’ by the way, means the world, not just the United States, since the whole world flocks to both films. And that’s interesting, too, because it leads to a difference, not a likeness. In a new age, when the ‘realistic’ Godfather is packing them in, the romantic GWTW is still popular. There’s a crumb of comfort in that: at least culture is still more pluralist than some of our propagandists would have us believe.” — Stanley Kauffmann, The Atlantic

What the Critics Said in 2015
“Its stereotype of happy slaves and kindly masters has never been more wince-inducing […] But no one watches Gone with the Wind for historical accuracy. What keeps us coming back is four-hours of epic romance in gorgeous Technicolor. Slavery, the Civil War, the burning of Atlanta, a street knee-deep in dead soldiers—all just a backdrop to the main event, Scarlett ’n’ Rhett. The feminist jury is still out on Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh). Nothing but a serial husband-thief? Or a resilient modern woman doing what she can to survive? You decide.” — Cath Clarke, Time Out

Score: 94%

What the Public Say
“What’s striking almost 75 years on is how fresh and modern both Rhett and Scarlett remain. Gable’s eyes twinkle as he rolls Sidney Howard’s dialogue around his mouth, but there’s also a sadness there and a resignation that, no matter how hard he tries, he and Scarlett can never last. Leigh, who came through a tortuous audition process to land the part, positively crackles. Although still one of the feistiest and most driven female parts committed to screen Scarlett is, for the most part, pretty damn annoying and does little to enamour herself as the film progresses. […] Rhett sums Scarlett up perfectly when he remarks that she’s ‘like the thief who isn’t the least bit sorry he stole, but is terribly, terribly sorry he’s going to jail’.” — Three Rows Back

Elsewhere on 100 Films
I briefly reviewed Gone with the Wind after a re-watch way back in 2007, when I assessed that “the direction is brilliant, displaying styles you think weren’t invented for another 20 years; all of the design work is gorgeous; and the story is epic and expertly told, moving across genres (romance, war, melodrama, comedy) with ease. It’s easy to see why this is the most popular film ever made.”

Verdict

Last week I wrote about the enduring mass popularity of The Godfather, and here’s another case in point. Gone with the Wind may not rack up the ratings in the same circles as Coppola’s opus, but it has consistently been voted America’s most favourite movie, and its numerous massively successful re-releases mean that, adjusted for inflation, it’s still the highest grossing movie of all time. It’s an epic in the truest sense of the word, with a story spanning many years and many miles, passing by historical events in the process. However, at its core it’s the story of a tumultuous romance between two people, who may love each other or may hate each other, but who, with their unique, selfish, manipulative perspectives, are surely perfect for each other.

#42 will be… #42 will be… #42 will be…

300: Rise of an Empire (2014)

2016 #78
Noam Murro | 98 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Taking place before, during, and after the events of Zack Snyder’s surprise-hit graphic novel adaptation 300, belated follow-up Rise of an Empire tells the wider story of what was going on in the war between Greece and Persia. In particular, it follows Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) as he commands a series of sea battles against the Persian navy, led by Artemisia (Eva Green).

300 was known from the off as a case of style over substance, both in terms of its visuals (the ultra-heightened colour palette at a time when extreme digital grading still felt new; the slow-mo/fast-mo/etc editing) and its storytelling (taking an historical event and ramping it up to the level of legend; dialogue more concerned with being readily quotable than sounding plausible). But it committed so thoroughly to that methodology that it kind of worked, in its own ridiculous way. It helped that, as I said, it was all quite new — 300 was a visual revelation back in 2007, and that was enough. Now, plenty of films look like that, leaving 300 2 in search of a hook. It doesn’t find one.

It doesn’t help that the CGI this time is terrible, making the whole thing look like a computer game with real people occasionally dropped in. It’s not just the low quality of the graphics (calling them “effects” or “visuals” seems generous), but the way the camera moves and frames things. And the gore is gorno-level outrageous. In one shot early in the film, we see a horse rise up in fright, slow motion emphasising how its whole body is lifting into the air on its hind legs, its front hoof flailing, its eyes wild… before it comes crashing down, its hoof smashing into a grounded man’s head, the not-even-vaguely-plausible CGI blood exploding everywhere — in slow motion, of course.

It’s also terribly obvious that it was shot for 3D. I’m not normally one to criticise a film for that — I think when some critics know a film is being released in 3D they see that in its shot choices, even if they’re perfectly valid choices for 2D. But Rise of an Empire screams that it was made for 3D from the start, with all manner of things thrust towards the camera, usually in slow motion, and the constant explosions of blood (to call them squirts or sprays implies a more liquid-like quality than they actually possess) which go nowhere else but camerawards. Presumably the only reason it’s not an 18 for violence is because it’s all so bloody silly.

There is no point discussing or analysing any other aspects of the film. In every respect — from the clunky structure, to the leaden dialogue, to the poor performances, to the cheap visuals, to the fake CGI — this doesn’t feel like the $110 million blockbuster it is, but like a direct-to-Syfy TV movie.

1 out of 5

300: Rise of an Empire is available on Amazon Prime Instant Video UK as of yesterday.

It featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2016, which can be read in full here.