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Posts Tagged ‘Asa Butterfield’

The First World War shows no signs of losing its grip on our collective imagination, even as it inevitably recedes beyond the realm of living memory. Part of this may be due to the fact that we are currently living through the centenary of the war, with regular reminders in terms of the specific commemorations of individual battles and other events, but it may also be because the war in a way marked the death of a particular notion of how the world was, and the birth of another. And there is the fact that it is popularly remembered as the archetypal example of a futile, pointless war, whereas the Second World War is virtually celebrated as the proof that such a thing as a just war is possible. In other words, if you want to make an anti-war war movie, you’re probably going to set it in the trenches, and this is certainly the case with Saul Dibb’s new adaptation of R.C. Sheriff’s famous play Journey’s End.

The film is set in early 1918, with British soldiers on the western front living in anticipation of a major German offensive, intended to break the deadlock between the two sides. Each company of soldiers is required to spend five days a month on the actual front line, and scheduled to be there when the German attack is expected is the company of Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin). Stanhope has been worn down almost to nothing by the stresses of command and the war, and is drinking heavily, relying on the counsel of his older second-in-command Osborne (the ever-watchable Paul Bettany). He is less than delighted when his fiancee’s young brother Jimmy (Asa Butterfield) has himself posted to his company as a second lieutenant.

Nevertheless, the company takes up its position in the front line trenches – squalid, dangerous, horrible – and is settling into a kind of routine when word comes down from the top: the German offensive will be coming in a couple of days, on their watch, and no help will be available. Adding to this, Stanhope is ordered to launch a dangerous raid on the German lines just a few yards away, in order to secure a prisoner for intelligence purposes. Being considered too valuable to risk himself, Stanhope is obliged to send Osborne and Raleigh on this insanely perilous and poorly-planned mission – but is there really any point to it…?

So, to coin a phrase, not a lot of laughs in this one – although there is a welcome touch of rather black humour courtesy of Toby Jones’ somewhat put-upon trench chef. The danger here, of course, is that any jokes about dubious cooking in this kind of context will invariably remind audiences of a certain ilk of Blackadder Goes Forth. Is it too much to say that this sitcom played a major role in reinforcing perceptions of the First World War for a whole generation of viewers in Britain and beyond? I’m not sure, but what this film really seems to suggest is that Blackadder Goes Forth is, at heart, a rather liberal adaptation of Journey’s End with a lot of jokes added to it.

The danger here is that the movie might appear to be simply dealing in the tropes of this kind of story, when the truth is that the original stage play (first put on in 1928) probably played a significant role in creating them in the first place. All the stereotypes are here – careworn protagonists, bright-eyed newcomers (a useful device for introducing the set-up to an audience), unfeeling top brass, and so on. This movie actually does a heroic job of keeping you invested in the characters and emotions of the piece, especially when so many of the actual moments are so firmly at odds with our more emotional times: the various characters restrict themselves to simply saying a stolid ‘cheerio’ as they prepare to await the enemy onslaught, for instance.

There are moments when the story and the manner of its telling can seem rather familiar – the callousness of senior officers is made clear when it is established the raid is to take place in daylight, when it is horrendously dangerous, simply because this is less likely to interfere with the dinner plans of the generals who will be considering the intelligence it provides – but on the whole this is a film which manages to feel contemporary and relevant rather than something too dry or retrospective. Mostly this is because of the quality of the performances, which are uniformly extremely good – none of the acting is particularly showy, but the characters come to life, and you are drawn into the story. The build-up to the crucial raid creates a queasy sense of dread which is genuinely uncomfortable, while the action itself is staccato, confusing; characters simply disappear in the chaos and are never seen again. If I have a criticism it’s that the film’s decision to go for a box office-friendly certification means the battle sequences are relatively anodyne – this is the kind of film where a touch more gruelling horror would not have felt out of place.

This is a highly impressive film, well-performed and written, and not showing obvious signs of what one assumes must have been a fairly modest budget. And I suspect the tendency will still be to dismiss it as another piece of heritage film-making, a period piece or a kind of heritage movie. Partly this is down to the subject matter, while the fact that virtually every speaking role is played by a white male means it might also feel a little out of step with the modern world. I’m not really sure what to say about this: it’s a film about British army officers in the First World War, so how diverse can it realistically be? Does its attempt to be authentic make it necessarily flawed?

It would be ironic if Journey’s End didn’t reach an audience solely because it is perceived to be about a vanished milieu that has little in common with the world today. This film does work on a personal level, and bravery, compassion, fear, and all the other human strengths and frailties with which it is concerned are still very much with us. Maybe anti-war films are old-fashioned and redundant today, even ones as well-made as this one. But there are things which I think we will always need to be reminded of, and this film discharges that duty in a highly commendable manner.

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A few months ago I had a curious and somewhat exasperating experience on one of the world’s premier social networking websites (you know – the one which had the thing about the thing). Someone who I used to know quite well made a rather grave announcement along the lines of ‘For anyone planning to see Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card has announced he will donate some of his profits to anti-gay marriage lobby groups‘ (or words to that effect), the unspoken assumption being that no humane person could now possibly consider going anywhere near the film.

Well, I happily go and see movies by all the big studios (as you may have noticed) which means that some of my cash ends up in the profits of people like Rupert Murdoch, who no doubt have views to which I would take exception. Bearing this in mind I suggested to my friend he was being a bit naive and over-reacting by singling out Card for this sort of boycott (Ender’s Game alone has seven other producers). I didn’t really mind the days of wrangling which followed, just the fact that after having repeatedly criticised Orson Scott Card for refusing to respect the rights of others, my friend concluded by casually mentioning he was going to illegally download the movie anyway. Sigh. Is this what counts as the moral high ground nowadays?

I don’t agree with Card’s socially conservative personal beliefs, but I don’t think that having such beliefs automatically makes one a homophobe, and I don’t think that this necessarily makes anything he’s associated with a valid target for picketing and criticism. Nevertheless, this seems to have been the case with the movie adaptation of Ender’s Game, certainly earlier in the year, and this may be why the film’s release feels to me to have a faint sense of lack of commitment. This is a big old lavish SF blockbuster, which could surely hold its head up amongst the typical crop of summer films, or the slightly-more-critically-respectable bunch showing up around Christmas every year. And yet it has been snuck out at the beginning of November, and at a time when it is likely going to get hammered by the latest Thor.

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I find this a bit of a shame. Written and directed by Gavin Hood, this is the story of Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), a child prodigy attending military academy at some point in the future. To begin with we are in Backstory Voiceover Mode, as we learn how the world was devastated by an assault by insectoid aliens (in the book these are known as Buggers, but for fairly obvious reasons the movie has opted to change this to Formics). The aliens were driven off, but the threat of another invasion continues to loom. As a result, the government of Earth is training its young people to lead battle fleets should hostilities resume.

Senior military figure Graff (Harrison Ford) identifies Ender as a tactical genius, and potentially the one great leader Earth’s navy has been waiting for. So he gets shipped off to an orbital training facility, which is basically a very stern version of Hogwarts but with ray guns, where he is forced to participate in all manner of zero-G battle simulations and other training scenarios. But does Ender have it in him to do all that the high command require…?

Okay, so on one level it is a bit like Harry Potter in space – there are competing houses, various fraught relationships between the pupils, strict teachers, and so on – but I found it rather more reminiscent of something else. The incipient threat from alien arthropods, the authoritarian global culture, the militarisation of the young – very soon I was thinking ‘this is like the movie version of Starship Troopers, but played straight’ (so rather more like Heinlein’s original novel, then).

Having said that, where the novel of Starship Troopers is an unapologetic manifesto for a certain kind of muscular libertarianism, the movie of Ender’s Game always seems aware of the implied morality of its characters and story – indeed, it’s central to the film. This is, I think, a film with an undeniable awareness of its own morality, and that morality is by and large a laudable one. And it’s sophisticated, for a lavish SF movie – this is a movie about child soldiers, and the morality of conflict, but it doesn’t deal in terms of moral absolutes. It’s quite ironic, then, that this film has been subject to a boycott on ethical grounds when rather more dubious, brainless ones have sailed onto the screen unopposed.

Technically it’s proficiently done too. The visual effects have that immaculate, heftless quality we’ve come to expect from big productions, but it’s well performed by a strong cast – Butterfield is very good indeed, and Ford is pretty good value too. Hailee Steinfeld doesn’t quite get the material she perhaps deserves, though. Popping up in the closing stages is Ben Kingsley as a tattooed veteran warrior. Kingsley has a bit of a reputation for being, perhaps, self-regarding and pretentious, but regardless of this the fact remains that he is simply a very, very fine actor and all that is on display here as usual.

Throughout the film one gets a sense of a big book being hacked down for the screen, but what emerges is a film with a coherent storyline that is pretty involving throughout. I haven’t read Ender’s Game, and I must confess I don’t plan to, but simply judged as a film I think this works rather well.

One of the annoying things that happens to you as a hack critic now and then is coming up with a snappy line in advance of seeing a film and then having to discard it because it doesn’t fit the facts. In this case I was all set to go with ‘You shouldn’t avoid Ender’s Game because of Orson Scott Card’s political beliefs. You should avoid it because it’s a lousy film’, but obviously that’s not going to work now. Okay: whether or not you boycott Ender’s Game because of Orson Scott Card’s political beliefs is between you and your conscience. But if you do, you’ll be missing out on a quietly superior SF movie.

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Well, the Christmas blockbuster season is descending upon us as usual, and it’s interesting to consider how it compares to its larger summer cousin: fewer films, obviously, perhaps slightly more aimed at a younger audience (not that many summer movies aren’t utterly juvenile), sometimes more of an aura of quality (no doubt due to the overlap with the release of Oscar-bait movies). But apart from that the big Christmas releases aren’t that different from the summer ones – there’s the usual reliance on sequels, series, and big-name properties (skewed more towards the traditionally literary than comic books, though).

Which makes Hugo a bit of an anomaly, in some ways – while this is a big, lavish movie with virtually an all-star cast, it’s based on a novel that I’d never heard of (and I suspect most other people haven’t, either). So what are the makers relying on to draw in the crowds? Well, it seems to me they’re relying on something rather unusual – not just the use of 3D, which is not the novelty it was even last year, but 3D in the hands of a master director, an acclaimed film-maker not usually associated with what is – let’s face it – still a gimmick.

The man in question is Martin Scorsese, someone with a stellar reputation but not much associated with family entertainment. Parents need not fear: no-one’s head is put in a vice, no pimps are executed, and no-one gouges one of their own eyes out with a knife. What we get instead is the classically-told tale of Hugo (Asa Butterfield), an orphan living in the main railway station of Paris in the late 1920s. Hugo is the last of a family of clockmakers – his mother died when he was very young (i.e., off-screen), and his father (Jude Law, briefly) in a museum fire. Now in the nominal care of his boozy uncle (Ray Winstone, even more briefly), he is maintaining all the clocks, while trying to avoid the station Inspector Gustav (Sacha Baron Cohen) and repair the automaton (a clockwork man who basically looks like Maria from Metropolis‘ grandad) he and his father were renovating when he died.

Hugo’s quest for parts for the automaton leads him to meet the proprietor of the station toy booth (Ben Kingsley) – well, basically he steals clockwork toys. The old man, when he learns of Hugo’s obsession, is inexplicably appalled, and confiscates Hugo’s notebooks about the mechanism. Hugo is forced to ask the old man’s god-daughter (Chloe Grace Moretz) for help, and together they set out to discover the secret of the automaton and its connection to the toy store owner…

Well, as you possibly tell, there’s not a huge amount there that screams ‘big movie potential’ – but if Hugo proves anything, it’s that it’s not what you’ve got, but what you do with it. In almost every department this is a film made to the highest possible standards. Scorsese demonstrates his usual utter mastery of composition and camera movement, John Logan’s script is dense with imagery and detail, yet still always unfolds cleanly and clearly, and the production values are faultless.

The actors are all impeccable too, for all that there is something inescapably odd about a film set in Paris, featuring an almost exclusively British cast, who all speak in an American idiom (so ‘figure something out’ rather than ‘work something out’, ‘get mad’ rather than ‘get angry’, and so on), but this is only a minor distraction most of the time. Possibly more of an issue is Sacha Baron Cohen’s very broadly comedic performance – very much Basil Fawlty meets Inspector Clouseau – which seems to have wandered in from a rather less subtle movie.

There is real strength in depth amongst the supporting cast, too – popping up here are the likes of Richard Griffiths, Frances de la Tour, Helen McCrory, Emily Mortimer, and – a total surprise to me – Christopher Lee, as potent a screen presence as ever (and still obviously knowing his own mind: he’s the only person present who actually does a French accent).

And what about the 3D? Well, it’s an integral part of the conception of the movie, as far as I can see, but the strange thing is that after a while I barely noticed it was there. The even stranger thing is that, for me, if 3D has a future then Scorsese has shown us the way to it – not intrusive or gimmicky, but considered and understated. It’s a fundamental element of the movie – the opening sequence of this movie is a stunning piece of work, and nothing that follows quite matches it – but it is only an element, rather than the sine qua non of the film.

The 3D is also pertinent to one of the themes of the film, which is the story of the birth of cinema – Scorsese is using cutting-edge 21st century movie technology to illuminate the earliest history of 19th century films. A number of these very old films are referenced in the course of the narrative, which will doubtless please other movie geeks. Then again, already being aware of the massive achievements of the first great movie directors, I was perhaps more ready than most to indulge the film in what at times feels like a slightly didactic and digressive commentary on the subject. Certainly the second half of the film, though finishing strongly and satisfyingly, lacks the involving narrative drive of the first.

If I had to describe Hugo concisely, I would have to say that it rather reminded of a live-action Studio Ghibli movie. This may sound strange, but this movie has had the same meticulous attention to detail lavished upon it, it has the same eye for the baroque and mildly grotesque, and the same classic narrative virtues. It also has virtually no trace of an American sensibility beyond a few idiosyncrasies amongst the dialogue – not in and of itself a good thing, of course, but refreshingly different from most films of this size. But then this is a refreshingly different, very well-made, and consistently interesting and enjoyable film.

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