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Posts Tagged ‘Awix’s picks’

My family have always been church-goers rather than movie-goers; I of course am the opposite, usually turning up to see new movies at the cinema sixty or seventy times a year. Nevertheless, when my father likes a movie, he really likes it, and several times in my youth I recall being sat down and commanded to watch something on the grounds that it was A Really Good Film. I must confess that on some occasions I simply bailed out long before the end (Olivier’s Henry V was just a bit too much of a stretch for a fairly young teenager, while the thing about Robert Newton in Treasure Island was… well, you see, it was on at the same time that the first Christopher Reeve Superman was on the other side), but many of these movies did indeed turn out to be Really Good.

One of these was Norman Jewison’s 1967 Oscar-winner In the Heat of the Night, which I was introduced to thirty years ago and which turned up in a revival just the other day. One review of this film, written in 2005, suggested that when first made it was timely, but now it is simply timeless. Well, I’m not completely sure this film is just a comfortable period piece, but I’m probably getting ahead of myself.

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A hot night in the small Mississippi town of Sparta, and a patrolling cop finds the body of a murder victim. The dead man was planning on building a new factory in the area, providing desperately-needed jobs, but his proposal to employ white and black workers on an equal basis made him many enemies in the area. Nevertheless, local police chief Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) adopts what appears to be his standard operating procedure – namely, arresting the likeliest subject in the area and extracting a confession by any means necessary. The recipient of this treatment on this occasion is Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), a black man discovered at the rail station.

Very much to the embarrassment of all concerned, Tibbs turns out to be an elite homicide detective from Pennsylvania, literally just passing through. To defuse the resulting awkwardness, and basically because the plot demands it (this is permissible when it facilitates a set-up as perfect as In the Heat of the Night‘s), Virgil Tibbs’ off-screen superior basically lends him to the Sparta Police Department to help them solve the case of the murdered businessman, Neither Gillespie or Tibbs are exactly delighted about this turn of events, but Gillespie needs to find the killer if he wants to keep his job, and Tibbs finds he can’t resist the challenge of showing how much smarter he is than the chief and his squad of redneck good ol’ boys – even if his mere presence in Sparta puts his life in danger…

You can enjoy In the Heat of the Night on a number of levels – and this a hugely entertaining, richly enjoyable film – but, to be honest, the police-procedural murder-mystery element of the story is the least compelling element of it, and arguably the least well-developed, too – there’s something ever so slightly perfunctory about the way in which Tibbs, seemingly acting on not much more than a series of hunches, eventually figures out what the killing is really all about. (No spoilers, but let’s just say it has less to do with racial tension than another hot-button issue in the American culture wars.)

The thriller plotline is basically a hook on which to hang an examination of attitudes to race in the Deep South at the time the movie was made, and to a modern viewer some of the things in the movie are still quite shocking – ‘what are you doing in white man’s clothes?’ asks one minor character, upon seeing Tibbs in a suit and tie – and Tibbs is pursued by lynch-mobs at more than one point in the film. (Most of In the Heat of the Night was filmed in the rather more northerly climes of Illinois, mainly because Sidney Poitier had had a run in with the Klan during an earlier visit to a southern state and refused to spend an extended period there again. Apparently, during the production’s brief visit to the south, he slept with a loaded gun under his pillow, all of which just goes to show how urgent some of film’s concerns must have seemed at the time.) Tibbs is routinely called ‘boy’ or by his first name by the good people of Sparta – this of course produces the famous moment when Gillespie mockingly asks what they call him in Philadelphia and he responds ‘They call me MISTER Tibbs!’ – can’t get a motel room, can’t get served in some restaurants, and so on.

The film is always on Tibbs’ side, quite properly, but the magic of the film lies in the fact that, in his own way, Gillespie is almost as sympathetic as Tibbs. He may not be quite as talented an investigator as Tibbs, but Gillespie is still a pretty good cop who has dedicated his life to his job, for not very much reward. He’s intelligent enough to recognise his own prejudices and put them aside when necessary, and – crucially – Steiger delivers a performance with a nicely comic vein running through it. (It was Steiger who won the Oscar for Best Actor, not Poitier, who wasn’t even nominated that year despite making this film and Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner – perhaps a telling fact in itself.) The relationship between the laid-back Southern cop and the up-tight Northern detective – initially combative and adversarial, eventually approaching something like mutual respect, if not actual friendship – is at the heart of the film, driven by two terrific performances. (I feel quite foolish not to have noticed this earlier, but it’s surely the inspiration for the very similar pairing of Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle in The Guard.)

And, while the film is to some extent the story of Virgil Tibbs as a stranger in a strange land, crucial to the narrative is the fact that this is not just a film about African-Americans as the victims of racism in the South, but one about prejudice and how no-one is truly immune to its pernicious influence. Tibbs heads off down a long blind alley on his investigation, simply because he becomes fixated on collaring a wealthy, openly racist local grandee for the murder – ‘Man, you’re just like the rest of us, ain’t you?’ says Gillespie, gently, realising Tibbs is not immune to this particular human failing, and Poitier’s face is a mask of uncomprehending shock as he realises the chief is right. In the end, however, both men have gone beyond their prejudices, and justice has been served, though at some cost – the climax is an implicitly hopeful one.

Fast forward to today and hope is in short supply for many people, of course: the freedoms and progress that were won around the time this film was made seem as fragile and vulnerable as at any time in the intervening years, if not actually under attack by the rising powers in the United States. Sometimes it seems like you can’t turn on the TV without seeing evidence of the racial and ideological faultlines running through society, not just in the US but in many other countries too. In the Heat of the Night still has enormous power and relevance, as well as reminding us of a whole series of powerful, political films that came out of a desire to engage with and improve the world, rather than simply entertain or distract their viewers. Hopefully the capacity to make new films in the same vein is still there – but even if it isn’t, we still have classics like this. One for the ages.

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One can’t help but feel a certain sympathy for Liam Neeson’s personal circumstances and desire to keep working, even as one regrets some of the mankier films this has resulted in him turning up in over the last six or seven years – Battleship probably marks the gloomiest nadir, though there’s a lot to choose from. Thankfully, however, there are signs that Neeson is making a comeback as an actor of substance, for this week alone saw the release of A Monster Calls, in which he voices the title character, and Martin Scorsese’s Silence, in which he gives probably one of the greatest performances of his career, albeit in a supporting role. This seems quite apposite, for Silence is a remarkable film of the kind which does not come along very often.

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Silence is many things, but primarily a very personal story, and so the details of its setting are not systematically laid out but allowed to emerge organically in the course of the story. The majority of it takes place in Japan in the 1640s. At this time the country was under the control of the Shogunate and was attempting to isolate itself from the rest of the world in order to preserve its autonomy (this would continue until the USA effectively forced the country open in the 1850s). One consequence of this was a programme of savage persecution directed against the thousands of Japanese converts to Christianity, whose allegiance to the Pope was perceived as being a threat to the authority of the Japanese ruling castes.

Neeson plays Ferreira, a Jesuit priest, resident in Japan for many years, caught up in the worst of the persecution. The Jesuits are obviously concerned for him, and also by dark and unsettling rumours as to his eventual fate – but simply entering Japan is incredibly hazardous for any priest. Nevertheless, keen to find their mentor is the crack spod squad of Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver, young priests determined to do God’s work and minister to the needs of the Japanese Catholics, and also firm believers that the worst stories about Ferreira cannot be true.

What they encounter in Japan tests their faith to the utmost, in all kinds of ways. Many questions are raised by what they see and hear, questions which they can’t help thinking over and praying about – even when the answer to all of their prayers merely seems to be silence.

Many great directors seem to wear a number of different hats in the course of their careers, and it’s no different with Martin Scorsese. There are the films he’s made as a director for hire, some of which are very fine in their own right, and then there are the ones he’s perhaps most famous for – hard-edged crime dramas and psychological thrillers, often very violent, frequently with Robert De Niro or Leonardo DiCaprio. But then there are a handful of films which reveal a deep concern with spirituality and religion – the most controversial of these is almost certainly The Last Temptation of Christ, but Kundun (about the Dalai Lama) also caused a bit of a stir. This is the same category into which Silence goes, although it doesn’t appear to have provoked much of reaction.

I’m a little surprised by this, not least because its presentation of the Japanese authorities is very far from sympathetic – perhaps this is the reason why the film was made in Taiwan rather than Japan itself. Then again, perhaps people simply aren’t that interested in a film about the Catholic Church any more. I suppose there remains the possibility that Silence will be adopted by those who believe that Christianity is somehow being persecuted in western society and that the film constitutes a metaphor for this – but that would be a considerable stretch.

As I said, the film is ultimately more personal than that, although it has an undeniably epic scope and deals with big concerns across its very lengthy running time. At this point you may be thinking ‘Hmmm, this sounds a bit heavy’ – and I can’t honestly argue with that. This is not the kind of film you go to simply to have a good time or be entertained – while watching it, you can of course appreciate the craftsmanship that has gone into the sets and costumes, the artistry of the editing, the skill of the camerawork, and the commitment of the performances, but in the end this is at heart a serious film about profound issues of belief and faith.

It is on one level a kind of adventure, with the two priests trying to survive in a hostile landscape, witnessing the awful persecution of their flock, searching for their mentor, and so on, but it is never far away from a thorny dilemma or serious moral or theological question – are the priests right to allow the villagers to sacrifice themselves to protect them? Is the faith that the Japanese Christians imperfectly observe really the same one that the priests themselves belong to? Can one ever be really certain what another person truly believes?

As a former student of philosophy with a strong interest in Japanese history and culture, I found Silence to be mesmerising from start to finish, but I suppose there are a few people dotted about who may not find long discussions on the subject of apostasy to be quite what they’re looking for in a film, which begs the question of whether there’s anything else here for them. Well, I would certainly say so, for while the trappings of the film are steeped in Catholicism and the work of the Jesuits, I think it is ultimately about the nature of faith itself – why does someone believe something? What sustains that belief through difficult periods? What drives a person to try and share his creed? It is about people at least as much as any religion.

And it works as well as it does because of some very notable performances. It’s good to see Liam Neeson back on top form, but we always knew he was a heavyweight given the right role; what’s perhaps more revelatory is Andrew Garfield’s performance. There were perhaps warning lights flashing over his career following his sacking as Spider-Man, but this film shows he is an actor of real power and range. Also making an impression as a sardonic and cruel interpreter is Tadanobu Asano, best known in Anglophone cinema for (inevitably) his work in Marvel Comics movies.

Lots of people get rather excited about Goodfellas and Raging Bull and Casino, but I must confess that these movies have never quite done it for me – all the machismo and/or Mafia chic kind of gets in the way of their undeniable quality. For good or ill, Silence is much more my type of film. I am certain it won’t be to all tastes, for the theme, tone, and graphic violence and cruelty will probably combine to put many people off. And that’s regrettable, for I think Silence is a truly magisterial and significant piece of work which people will be watching again and again for many years to come. It asks the most serious questions in an undeniably powerful and moving way, and perhaps even changes the way you think about the world – and if that’s not the definition of great art, I don’t know what is.

 

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Whatever else you want to say about 2016, and let’s face it you’re not exactly short of raw material, it has been a bumper year for the Death of Celebrities: the glitter-spangled reaper got going very early on with David Bowie and Alan Rickman, then never stopped to draw breath (appropriately enough): Terry Wogan, Ronnie Corbett, Victoria Wood, Prince, Muhammad Ali, Gene Wilder, Leonard Cohen, Robert Vaughn… if you sat down and tried to do justice to everyone who shuffled off this year, you’d be overwhelmed. So perhaps best to just pick a couple and at least do that much properly.

So, then: a film co-starring the always-memorable Peter Vaughan, whose notices tended to focus on his roles in Porridge and Musical Chairs, when of course he was in so much more. Including something which is quite possibly my favourite specifically Christmassy film of all time (stop complaining, of course it’s not too early to do a Christmassy bit, they’ve been showing Christmas films non-stop on Channel 5 for the last fortnight) – Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.

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Brazil is about bureaucracy, tyranny, paranoia, despair, and madness, amongst other things, which may be why it does not typically feature higher when lists of the great Yuletide films are drawn up – but then it’s a film which seems to drift in and out of public awareness with the passing of time. It was released in 1985, but I don’t think I was even aware it existed until trailers started showing for it ahead of its TV debut at Easter 1988 – which, to be fair, was accompanied by some fanfare from the BBC. I remember that the trailers themselves were like nothing else on TV, even in the late 80s: monolithic skyscrapers erupting out of an idyllic country landscape towards a winged figure, a trick perspective shot where an enormous tramp’s face looms into view over a set of cooling towers, striking retro-40s design…

I made an extremely specific point of watching it, of course, for something so very different hardly ever came along, and I was very impressed by the atmosphere and imagery of the film even if the story didn’t seem quite to hang together. Impressed enough to watch it again the next time it was on a couple of years later (by this point everyone seemed to have decided it was a cult classic, whatever that means, as it was showing as part of Moviedrome), this time I managed to keep myself from getting too distracted by the art direction, realised what it was all about and promptly awarded it a spot on my all-time favourites list, which it has retained ever since.

So what exactly is it all about? Well, Brazil is, I suppose, essentially a grotesque, non-naturalistic fantasy about the horrors of life in the 20th century: but a strange, amalgamated 20th century, where computers and drones and automation exist, but the microchip hasn’t been invented (everything seems to function using valves), where baseball caps and overalls are worn alongside fedoras and suits. A faceless government, basically embodied by a labyrinthine bureaucracy, is doing battle with terrorists (apparently), and is quite prepared to brutalise its own citizens to do so.

Trying his best to ignore all this is Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), a lowly clerk in the records department, who to the despair of friends and family is doing his best to disappear – not trying for promotion, not trying to distinguish himself, just live a quiet life where can find escape in his dreams and the beautiful woman he fantasises about there. However, events conspire to force him across the path of the exact lookalike of the object of his affections (Kim Greist), and his increasingly desperate efforts to first find and then protect her lead to the destruction of his quiet little life…

A peculiar kind of nostalgia is part of the rich mixture of elements that makes up Brazil, but even so, watching it now one is reminded that thirty years ago, not only was the British film industry willing to mount a challenging, big budget fantasy film for grown-ups, but that Terry Gilliam could actually get a gig directing it. Neither of these things could happen today: I for one found it bitterly ironic that one of the Harry Potter films included a homage to Brazil, when the studio had rejected JK Rowling’s choice of Gilliam as the director of the first film in the series, due to his perceived unreliability.

Still, the 80s were a different time, I suppose: Python had been a going concern very recently, and you can perhaps detect attempts to position this film to appeal to an audience expecting the same kind of thing – most obviously, the presence of Michael Palin, cast firmly against type and giving quite probably the performance of his career as an utterly immoral government torturer. There’s also a tendency towards the surreal, not to mention a lot of extreme black comedy. The actual jokes included in the script tend to be less successful, however, and sometimes come across as a little bit affected.

The gags do feel like a bit of a sop to audience expectations, anyway, as for all that this film has a remarkable cast of character actors noted for their comic ability – apart from Palin, there’s Ian Holm, Ian Richardson, Jim Broadbent, Bob Hoskins, and of course Peter Vaughan himself – it’s clearly dealing with quite serious and indeed very nearly heavy topics. Like many British films of its time, it’s almost impossible to look at Brazil now and not conclude that it is on some level about Britain under Margaret Thatcher – not that the film has a particular political message to promote, unless it is that every system crushes somebody.

In the end what sticks with you is the extraordinarily vivid and coherent visual world that Gilliam creates for the film – like others before him, he appears to have realised that nothing dates quicker than attempts to predict the future, and quite sensibly has hasn’t even tried. It’s somewhat confounding that such an obviously stylised, abstracted world can seem so real while you’re watching it, but it does, simply because of how thought-through it all seems. No wonder the story can sometimes feel like it gets a bit lost amongst all the production designs.

Brazil is explicitly set ‘somewhere in the 20th century’ and does seem to be both a homage and a reaction to the great 20th century dystopian satires (one working title was apparently 1984 and a Half). And yet, particularly after the 2016 we’ve just lived through, it still feels like a very timely film for the 21st century too: the urge to retreat into fantasy and abandon the real world entirely is as strong as it ever was for many people, or so I would imagine. The film itself suggests that this may be the only real means of escape, although whether it actually encourages it is another question. Brazil may look surreal and peculiar, but it is at heart a serious film about a serious world, and one which looks every bit as impressive and relevant now as it did three decades ago.

 

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There are doubtless many good reasons for choosing to be suspicious of major media and entertainment companies, especially ones which spend much of their time talking about social values and positivity and hardly ever mention how machine-tooled their operations are when it comes to separating money from small people and their hapless parents. (One friend of mine eschews the avuncular diminutive in favour of muttering balefully about ‘Walter Disney’ whenever the topic of his corporation comes up.)

Still, one should generally try to keep an open mind: I was about to suggest that I rarely go and see a Disney movie, but now that they own Marvel and are making their own franchise of stellar conflict related films, that’s obviously not true. Perhaps it’s better to say that I rarely see movies made by Disney under their own marque, but I made an exception to go and see Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe, a co-production between the Mouse House and the sports network ESPN (which I am given to understand is yet another Disney subsidiary).

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As the involvement of ESPN might suggest, this is a sports movie, which would normally be another reason for me not to go anywhere near it, but it’s a fairly unusual one, as the sport in question is chess. Now, I admire chess and its players very much, but this is more of one of those from-afar kinds of admiration, apart from a brief period when I played for my university’s team, with rather variable results (probably due to my devil-may-care decision to employ the Grob Attack and Orangutan Opening on a regular basis). My current record against my laptop is rather good, but this is mainly due to steady use of the ‘undo’ key after making an unwise move.

Queen of Katwe (NB: apparently the last word is not pronounced ‘cat wee’) concerns a player who probably doesn’t need to use the ‘undo’ key at all, Phiona Mutesi. Chess prodigies are, of course, incredibly rare, female ones even rarer, and for a chess prodigy to emerge from the ghettos of Kampala… well, perhaps you can see why someone decided there was a movie in Phiona Mutesi’s story.

The story begins in 2007, with Phiona (Madina Nalwanga), her mother (Lupita Nyong’o) and siblings living in what I can only describe as conditions of extreme poverty in Katwe, a slum outside Kampala, Uganda. (Phiona’s father was a victim of the HIV epidemic, though the film doesn’t really go into this in detail.) As the film opens she is illiterate, can’t afford to go to school, and spends her days selling vegetables in the street simply in order for the family to survive.

Then she meets Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), an unemployed engineer who is running a number of sports outreach programmes for slum children. Some children are not allowed to play football, as their parents wouldn’t be able to pay the medical bills if they got injured, and so Katende is also overseeing a chess group, the Pioneers. And it is here that Phiona first encounters the magic of the sixty-four squares.

The film charts her rise to success and recognition over the next five years, and the effects of this on her, her family, and Katende. I would be lying if I said there was a great deal of originality in most of the narrative beats – Phiona’s mother initially disapproves, Katende’s team of slum players are initially disparaged and scorned by their wealthier opponents and the Ugandan chess establishment, success and failure both take their toll on Phiona, and so on – but the story is so well-told and the performances so engaging that this really isn’t an issue.

I suppose one might also suggest that a set formula has been established for how films set in sub-Saharan Africa are generally presented: anything about human rights or the Rwandan genocide has a dignified gravitas and most likely Ladysmith Black Mambazo on the soundtrack, while more mainstream, crowdpleasing fare has slightly livelier tunes, an exceedingly bright colour palette, and its credits in a font where the letters are multicoloured and jump around on the screen. And, sure enough, Queen of Katwe adheres to the latter set of tenets fairly closely – but, once again, it’s not actually a problem with the film, as it suits the tone and style of it rather well.

Much of the success of this film is down to its command of simple storytelling virtues – the script is strong, the direction extremely capable, and there are winning performances from the child actors and powerful ones from the adults. It’s not surprising that David Oyelowo is starting to draw regular attention from awards committees, for he is a gifted actor of considerable range, and his work here is no exception. Lupita Nyong’o is also good, although her part has somewhat less depth and room to manoeuver.

The film does have the issue that it is, ultimately, about chess, a game which is not necessarily always the most cinematic of pastimes. Probably sensibly, it doesn’t even attempt to teach the rules of the game to the uninitiated, beyond those which are absolutely essential to the plot, but I think it perhaps does grant a sense of how beautifully complex and at the same time brutally unforgiving the game can be. It is perhaps a bit too Hollywood in the way that it depicts supposedly good players looking visibly staggered when taken by surprise by an unexpected move from their opponent near the end of a game, but I suppose this is the nature of the beast; at least it doesn’t show every match being concluded with a surprise mate.

You could be forgiven for assuming that a based-on-a-true-story Disney film is not going to be especially hard-hitting, but I think it would be really stretching a point to suggest that Queen of Katye presents a rose-coloured or sentimental picture of life in the slums of Kampala: the film doesn’t openly grind an axe, but it doesn’t shy away from showing just how gruellingly horrible an existence this is. Some quite strong material is alluded to, and while the underlying question – how can we permit this to continue and call ourselves humane and civilised? – remains implicit, it is unmistakable.

In the end I found Queen of Katwe to be an unexpected treat – engaging, thought-provoking, surprisingly life-affirming, and in places very moving indeed. If you only go to see one film about women’s chess in Uganda this year, you should make it this one.

 

 

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Not many films this year can boast an opening as striking as that of Colm McCarthy’s The Girl With All The Gifts: we meet a young girl, Melanie (Sennia Nanua), who appears to be about twelve. She is bright, thoughtful, imaginative and friendly. So why is she being held in what seems to be a particularly grim prison? Why is she routinely placed under heavy restraint and wheeled off to a classroom where she and many other children (also strapped into their wheelchairs) receive a rather odd education? Why are the uniformed squaddies responsible for moving her about so absolutely terrified of her? What is the purpose of the peculiar tests being made by a scientist (Glenn Close) who is studying the children?

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I had the great good fortune of going to see The Girl With All The Gifts on a fairly casual basis – I had a free evening, knew this was some sort of genre movie, and so wandered along knowing very little about it. For it to prove to be one of the best SF movies of the year therefore came as a wonderful surprise, and attempting to ensure other people have the same kind of experience I had means that my ability to talk about the plot in detail is necessarily limited. If you’re the kind of person who likes SF movies, especially ones with a twist of horror, then this film should probably be on your list of things to see. But I would strongly recommend you don’t check out synopses, don’t do too much research on it, and even be very careful about the reviews that you read (even here I find myself obliged to say more than I probably should, simply in order to give the film some sort of context).

The film is part of a great tradition of apocalyptic British SF, but it most clearly owes a debt to 28 Days Later and its sequel, and the boom in a certain type of horror movie which has now been ongoing for nearly 15 years. This is not to say that The Girl With All The Gifts is simply another identikit zombie apocalypse story, but it’s certainly not afraid to take all the tropes and paraphernalia of that particular kind of story and do some new and interesting things with them. I know that some people have expressed what I suppose we must call zombie fatigue when talking about this film, and I suppose if shambling masses are not your thing then that’s fair enough, but the fact remains that the classic zombie movie bits that this film does, it does really well.

The thing is, though, that the makers of 28 Days Later were at great pains to stress that there weren’t any zombies in their movie, and the makers of this film could equally make the same claim with the same degree of honesty. The similarity doesn’t stop there, either, for in terms of imagery, sensibility, setting and theme, one could quite easily imagine a version of this film functioning as a third episode in the 28 series, albeit with a few essential rewrites.

Ultimately the film proves to be its own thing, however, although one with a debt to Danny Boyle and Alex Garland, amongst others. I detected a hint of The Day of the Triffids in its narrative DNA (though you could argue that The Day of the Triffids is the ur-text for this kind of story, as Boyle and Garland have acknowledged themselves), and a strong flavour of I Am Legend (literary rather than cinema version). What matters is that while the look of the film is that of a gritty urban horror movie, its influences are pure SF, and the story depends on a series of twists and shifts in perspective and conceptual breakthroughs that likewise are only found in true science fiction.

Similarly, while the film includes some iconic zombie imagery – hordes of figures pressed up against barbed wire, not to mention an infested shopping centre to gladden George Romero’s heart – some of its most striking sequences feature other ideas, such as the Post Office Tower festooned with alien vegetation or human survivors being stalked by… well, find out for yourselves.

The strength of the script is matched by the execution, with a strong cast all on top form. Quite apart from Close and Nennua (both excellent, with Nennua giving an astonishingly assured performance), the film is carried by Paddy Considine and Gemma Arterton, both of whom are quite as good as you could hope for – Considine’s developing relationship with Nennua as the film goes on is particularly good.

None of this would matter if the film didn’t look convincing, and thankfully it does: this is, by modern standards, a very low-budget film – it was made on one-seventh of the budget of Bridget Jones’s Baby, less than a twentieth of that of The Magnificent Seven – but it never looks it. What makes it really cinematic, in the end, is the film’s use of sound – not exactly music per se, but a strange and unsettling sound design that complements the story and its atmosphere perfectly.

The Girl With All The Gifts has done a very good job of looking like something quite generic and commercial, perhaps even to the point where it looks very much like the kind of film you’ve probably seen before. I hope this doesn’t actually harm its performance, because it repurposes everything in it to serve a distinctly original story. More than many recent movies, it uses unsettling and disturbing ideas to affect the viewer, rather than simple jump scares. It may at heart be an excellent SF movie, but it also works extremely well as a horror movie too, and if you enjoy either genre then this is a film you really shouldn’t miss.

 

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When an issue becomes grist to the mill of popcorn action movies, you know it’s achieved a certain critical mass when it comes to public awareness. So when you consider that the director of the remake of Robocop announced the film was ‘actually’ about the use of drones in combat situations, the last Gerard Butler action movie was bookended by a couple of drone bombings, the signs are clear – this topic is up for grabs as far as film makers are concerned. (You can perhaps discern this from the way that Robocop attempted to discuss the ethical implications – in an admittedly cackhanded sort of way – while London Has Fallen just used it in a specious and un-thought-through attempt to give the film verisimilitude and sophistication.)

For me, the whole issue of drone strikes, drone bombings, call it what you will – it’s one of those things that happens, and which is clearly significant in the world, but which I have no personal influence over whatsoever. As a result I sometimes feel as though I’ve recused myself from having to have an opinion about it. One almost gets the sense that this is an attitude many governments would like to foster. Hoping to achieve exactly the opposite effect is Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky.

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The use of drone strikes to eliminate terrorist suspects is an enormously big and complex issue, which Eye in the Sky humanises by starting with one very simple situation and letting the audience wonder what they would do if they had their finger on the trigger, figuratively speaking: a mixed group of American, British, and Kenyan terrorists are meeting in a house on the outskirts of Nairobi. They are being monitored by a mixture of British and American military figures, a group of UK politicians, courtesy of a Kenyan intelligence operative in the vicinity. It suddenly becomes apparent that the group are in the final stages of preparing for a suicide bombing attack. The house is in a neighbourhood controlled by the radical Al-Shabab militia, making the use of conventional forces impossible. The only way to stop the attack is to blow up the house using a drone – but a young girl is sitting directly outside it, selling bread, and she will most likely be killed in the blast. What would you do?

Helen Mirren plays the officer in operational command of the mission, and Alan Rickman is her superior, liaising with a group of government ministers overseeing the operation (Jeremy Northam is one of them). Aaron Paul and Phoebe Fox are the operators of the drone, and the ones who will actually have to pull the trigger. Barkhad Abdi is the Kenya intelligence agent on the scene. One of the distinctive features of Eye in the Sky is that most of these people don’t share any screen time together, their various interactions taking place entirely via electronic media – Mirren is in a bunker somewhere, Rickman is in Whitehall, Paul and Fox are in a US airbase near Las Vegas, Abdi is in Nairobi. The interconnectedness of the modern world is one of the themes of the film.

Most of the time this is a positive thing, as I’m sure most of us would agree, but it also means that a decision that once upon a time would have been left to soldiers on the scene is now open to scrutiny by higher-ups and politicians, as happens here. The situation in this film is perhaps a little contrived to achieve maximum complexity – there’s a change of mission objective, plus the fact that American citizens are targets, and the complication that it’s technically a drone strike against a friendly country – but not excessively so, and the tense wrangling between the various involved parties that ensues is utterly plausible and gripping. (Even if real-world politicians don’t worry about and discuss issues in quite this way, you would still like to believe that they do.)

The issues involved are of several different kinds – legal, political, and ultimately moral. But even then it’s not as clean-cut as that sounds – the decision as to whether a strike is legal is made by a politician, after all, while even ethical concerns seem to be getting warped by other considerations, such as whether a successful suicide bombing or excessive collateral damage from a drone strike would have the greater impact as a piece of negative publicity. Time and again the film returns to the fact that everyone, except those actually at risk of bodily harm in Kenya, is concerned about covering their own backside – the military need to be sure they are not legally culpable for any wrongdoing, the politicians need to ensure they are authorised by their superiors, and so on. (Here again the modern world intrudes – characters worry aloud about what will happen if footage from the drone ends up on YouTube, and so on.)

This may make it sound like the film is quite talky, and to some extent that’s true, but it never feels less than grounded and real. Partly this is because of the way Hood employs little details to sell the story to the audience – the fact the little girl’s parents have no ties to Al-Shabab and are surreptitiously giving her an education, the way that the drone operators have no idea about the arguments over how to proceed going on above their heads, and many others.

At one point it looks like this is going to be a film about how brave and dedicated soldiers are let down by self-serving political types – lions led by donkeys, again – but once more the film does not take the easy route – there’s a very uncomfortable scene in which Mirren basically bullies one of her own men (he is black, with an Arabic surname, and surely neither of these things is accidental) into manipulating his calculations of collateral damage down to an acceptably low percentage. Is she crossing the line, or simply doing what’s necessary to save dozens of lives? The film permits us to make up our own minds.

I personally did not feel this was a film with an axe to grind as to whether drone bombings are justified or not, but I can imagine how some people might find it a bit too sympathetic to the military-political establishment, who are presented as flawed but human. The film seems to me to simply conclude that this is a complex, complex issue entirely bereft of easy answers. We want our society to be safe, and yet we also want it to be just, and our elected officials and soldiers to be accountable, while still being able to do their jobs. If anything, the film suggests that we can’t reasonably expect all of those things. The final word goes to Rickman, whose final on-screen appearance this is, and he delivers it with all the subtlety and power you would expect from a performer of his calibre, aided by the script, which has been consistently thoughtful and precise throughout: technology may make warfare cleaner and safer (for some people at least), but it doesn’t make it easier. Eye in the Sky grips like a vice, while still managing to be moving and thought-provoking. One of the best two or three films I have seen so far this year.

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When it comes to attempting to write something interesting and novel about Michael Curtiz’s 1942 film Casablanca, you really are on a hiding to nothing: millions of words have already been produced about what’s quite possibly the most beloved film in the history of American cinema. Few films contain quite so many iconic moments and characters, few have spawned such an attendant industry of other films and productions that haven’t actually been sequels or prequels. When screenwriting guru Robert McKee deconstructs the perfect script to see how it functions, it’s Casablanca that he uses. This is a film as secure in its status as an unimpeachable work of art as any you could hope to find.

Casablanca-Poster

And yet still, it seems, there are people around who haven’t seen it. I took just such a person to a revival at the Phoenix the other day, and as the Marseilles faded away at the end their verdict was that ‘it was really pretty good’. Oh well, can’t win ’em all, I suppose: but it nice to see a good turn-out from people of all ages for the screening. If Casablanca comes on the TV, I’ll always try to find the time to watch it if I can, but being able to see it on the big screen still felt like a bit of a treat. Nice to see others feel the same way.

The story, it may not surprise you, is set in Casablanca at the tail end of 1941, with the city something of a melting-pot: technically still under the control of unoccupied France, it is chock full of refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe, all desperately trying to find a way north to Lisbon and then across the Atlantic to America. The cheerily corrupt local Prefect of Police, Renault (Claude Rains), is doing his best to profit from this situation, as is the gangster Ferrari (Sydney Greenstreet). Keeping himself somewhat aloof from it all is Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart), a cynical American ex-mercenary now running one of the city’s more chic nightclubs.

But all this changes with the arrival of resistance figurehead Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) and his beautiful young wife Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), also looking for a way to the States. At the behest of visiting Nazi officer Strasser (Conrad Veidt), Renault is under orders to make sure Laszlo stays in Casablanca, but Rick has come into possession of travelling papers which will allow them to escape. The complication is that Rick is in love with Ilsa, following a brief fling in Paris the previous year, and still bitter about the way she left him without any explanation.

And so the stage is set: will the Nazis find a pretext to get Laszlo back into their clutches? Will Ilsa stay with her husband, or will Rick’s saturnine charms prove irresistible? Will Rick hang on to the papers, or will his better nature make a long overdue reappearance? And will people ever stop using the most famous misquote from this movie?

On paper, there isn’t very much to distinguish Casablanca from a great many other mid-range studio pictures of this period – there’s a (somewhat spuriously) exotic setting, a strong note of romance, some slightly overcooked intrigue, a dash of wit. But nothing to suggest the legendary status that the film now enjoys. (Complete, by the way, with a whole clutch of attendant myths – like the one that Ronald Reagan was at one point considered for the role of Rick, or that the ending of the film was ever really in doubt – the censors office wouldn’t have permitted a conclusion where a wife left her husband for another man.)

Perhaps it’s partly a result of the sheer sincerity that much of the cast brought to the film. The story is a bit hokey and sentimental, but the sentiments are powerful ones, and never more so than during the darkest depths of the Second World War. The fact that Casablanca only features three American performers is, I think, a less well-known fact than it ought to be. Many of the supporting actors had themselves fled Europe during the rise of the Nazis (including, ironically enough, some of those playing Nazis in this film), so it’s entirely understandable that they would have felt a strong sense of commitment to the film.

That said, this may be a very sincere film with a (certainly by modern standards) hokey and sentimental message about self-sacrifice and standing up for the Right Thing at its heart, but this cloaked by what at first appears to be a façade about decadent cynicism – there are a few jokes at the expense of the more naïve refugees, while in many ways the film’s most appealing character is Louis Renault, whose conversion to the side of the angels at the climax is rather more arbitrary than Rick’s. Cynically and ironically witty lines pepper the film (this is, of course, one of the most quotable films in history), and they do give the impression that you’re watching something sophisticated and fashionably worldly, even when you’re really actually not.

But then again, this is a film with – for the most part – an impeccable structure and plot (you can probably quibble about why the Germans don’t just have Laszlo arrested, and how the letters of transit are just an obvious plot device), brilliantly cast, filled with memorable moments and lines of dialogue. This is one of those films where ‘the best bits’ basically comprises the entire running time – I’ve always been most taken with the genuinely moving moment where the patrons of the club sing the Marseilles to drown out a Nazi drinking song, a sequence of real feeling in the midst of some of Louis’ best comic lines.

Mark Kermode has written cogently on Casablanca’s appeal as Exhibit A in the ‘they don’t make them like this any more’ discussion, with particular reference to how modern focus groups might object to its famously self-denying ending. Is it fair to say that part of Casablanca’s magic is that it’s the product of a less cynical, more innocent era? Possibly it is, but in the same way it’s perhaps the film’s great success at being both cynical and idealistic, heartfelt and yet hokey, important and yet trivial, which has resulted in it becoming the legendary movie that it is.

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