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Posts Tagged ‘war’

It is perhaps a sign of the magnitude of the psychic scar left by the First World War that we can’t seem to stop making movies about it, even as the events themselves slide inevitably out of the realm of living memory. It seems to me that in recent years we’ve had more films about the First World War than the Second – the centenary of the conflict may have had something to do with this, of course, but I wonder if it isn’t also to do with the way the two wars are popularly perceived: the Second World War was a ‘good’ or just war, a battle against an undeniably evil ideology. That kind of thinking feels odd in today’s deeply cynical and morally compromised world, so perhaps inevitably we are drawn to a war which is generally regarded as a futile, pointless slaughter: industrialised murder with human beings treated as raw materials, an appropriate curtain-raiser for the modern age. I could always be wrong. Regardless of all that, here to join the ranks of First World War movies is Sam Mendes’ 1917.

As you might be able to guess from the pleasingly numeric title (I say pleasing because it allowed me to walk up to the ticket desk and say ‘One fo(u)r nineteen-seventeen in two-D at two fifty in (screen) one’ with a reasonably straight face) the movie is set in 1917. Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay play two young British soldiers who are selected for a special mission and dragged in front of a general (Colin Firth). The assignment is not the cushy food-collecting detail they are hoping for. A failure of intelligence (whichever way you want to look at it) means that a battalion has been tricked into thinking an enemy strategic withdrawal is actual a retreat, and is about to launch an attack on what is actually a heavily-defended stretch of the German lines. A message has to be delivered halting the advance before nearly two thousand men are sacrificed. Blake (Chapman) is younger and keener and his brother is amongst the endangered troops; he is highly motivated to succeed in the mission. Schofield (MacKay) is older, more jaded by his experiences, less inclined to take risks. But orders are orders, even if it means a hazardous crossing of no-man’s-land and a trek across territory where the Germans may still be operating…

The element of 1917 stressed most by its initial publicity was the decision to make it as immersive as possible, by creating a film which gives the impression of being a single very long take. There’s a little bit of disingenuity and careful choosing of words going on there, not least because the story requires a very obvious break in the narrative at one point. You do find yourself looking out for the occasional moments when the two main characters pass through a pitch-black tunnel for a couple of seconds, or there’s another moment where they’re both out of sight and a sneaky digital edit could be done – in short, this isn’t even trying that hard to look like a genuinely single-take picture.

I suppose this is comparable to what’s happened to the special effects movie as a piece of cinema: advances in technology mean that doing a single-take movie (or apparently single-take movie) is much easier now than it was even a few years ago. When Hitchcock had a go, back in the 1940s, he was limited by the fact that film cameras could only shoot for ten minutes at a time, and Rope was structured accordingly (there’s an ‘invisible’ edit every ten minutes or so). Genuine ‘one take, no cuts’ feature films still tend to originate from outside the English-speaking world – the Spanish movie Victoria got a release over here a few years ago and was the longest example of the form at the time, while the Japanese spoof Don’t Stop the Camera! also fleetingly appeared in order to spoof the form in dazzling style – and even the ‘cheat’ version preferred by American film-makers is not especially common.

One wonders as to the extent to which the decision to film 1917 in this style was a creative one and how much the critical plaudits won by Birdman in 2015 (including, let’s remember, a slightly controversial Best Picture Oscar) were an influence. In the end I don’t think it really matters, because in the end it’s not about whether this genuinely is a single-take picture, but the impact it achieves by appearing to be one. And the fact is that a few minutes into 1917 I was able to sit back and relax, confident that I was watching a very fine movie indeed (something I don’t feel I get to do nearly often enough).

The performances by the two young stars are both very good – George MacKay has been doing quite big movies for a number of years now, and hopefully this will raise his profile even further – while the structure of the piece basically means a string of other actors turn up to deliver brief cameos, usually as British officers. Apart from Firth as a stern but benign general, Andrew Scott appears as a jaded lieutenant, Mark Strong as a worldly-wise captain, Richard Madden as a brother officer, and Benedict Cumberbatch as the man they’re trying to reach (I hope that’s not too big a spoiler). (It feels like I haven’t seen Mark Strong in a movie for ages, but then at one point he was turning up in five or six films a year.)

Most of these actors, fine though they are, are to some extent playing stock types, and the film has no very new ideas to offer about the First World War – but what the style of the film does is to plunge you into the hell of the trenches and the landscape around them. It is as a visceral sensory experience that 1917 really functions, and as you stumble with the characters through booby-trapped enemy positions, with rotting faces jutting from muddy ramparts and rats skittering everywhere, you get the faintest inkling of a sense of what it must have been like for the people who were really there. Did it have to be made this way? Well, probably not – there’s a school of thought that we don’t experience the world as a single take anyway; an eye blink is nature’s version of a cut – but the thing is that it does work as a movie, making you understand and care. Someone who begins as an everyman becomes truly heroic by journey’s end. Needless to say, it is often visually startling, as well as moving and technically accomplished. Not quite entertainment in the traditional sense, but still well worth watching, especially on the big screen.

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I am not ashamed to say I have a certain fondness for many of the films of Roland Emmerich, particularly his SF and fantasy output. Let me at once qualify that by saying that I’ve never much liked Stargate, and I was in Italy when 10,000 BC came out and never got to see it, and, come to think of it, Universal Soldier was about what you’d expect from an early-90s vehicle for Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren. But I did enjoy 2012, The Day After Tomorrow was likeable tosh, his version of Godzilla was a decent monster movie (just a very bad Godzilla film), and I have very little time for people who go around bad-mouthing Independence Day (even if the sequel is rubbish).

Emmerich does have a real talent for wrangling these big, slightly bonkers special effects movies; it’s his other films that I find slightly hard work. Obviously, it’s nice to be respected and treated as a serious artist – but, you know, stick to what you’re good at. Bearing this in mind I didn’t quite know what to expect from his new movie, Midway. On the one hand, this is a big, epic film with lots of special-effects action sequences – but on the other, it proclaims it is intended as a ‘true account’ of some of the events of the Second World War.

So, nothing to do with the initial marketing of Space Invaders in the US, then (though I can just about imagine Emmerich coming up with a spin on that which would suit his talents). The film is named after, and largely concerns, the naval battle at Midway in June 1942, although it opens five years earlier with a meeting between US naval attache Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson) and Japanese navy officer Isoroku Yamamoto (Etsushi Toyokawa) in Tokyo. Yamamoto warns his counterpart that if the US leaves Japan with no other option, it will fight to protect its access to the natural resources it needs: the hawks in the ascendancy in the Japanese government will see to that.

This struck me as an unexpectedly nuanced and even-handed opening to the movie, attempting to give some context to the beginning of Japanese hostilities in late 1941. However, from here we proceed almost straight into the events of December 7th 1941 and the Japanese attack on the US Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor. There are a few things to be said here: firstly, as a movie whole and entire, Midway is certainly better than the grim Michael Bay offering Pearl Harbor, which troubled cinemas in 2001 (it doesn’t seem that long ago to me, but I am depressingly aware that movies from that period are now old enough to drink) and covered much of the same material. However, the decision to go straight into the first of several major action and effects sequences is questionable – apart from Layton, we’ve barely got to know any of the characters and so our investment in the story is still quite minimal: it’s all just bangs and flashes and fairground thrills. There’s also the problem, which persists throughout the movie, that while the special effects are lavish and a great deal of money and talent has clearly gone into them, the movie still ends up becalmed in the nautical equivalent of the uncanny valley – it looks very pretty, but never for a moment do you feel like you’re watching something actually real.

Anyway, with Pearl Harbor out of the way, Chester Nimitz (Woody Harrelson in a wig) is put in charge of the US fleet and the movie proceeds through the events of the next few months at a brisk clip: the initial American response, which is severely limited by the fact that their main torpedo would more accurately be called a torpedon’t, the air raid on Tokyo commanded by James Doolittle (Aaron Eckhart and his chin pop up for what’s not much more than an extended cameo as Doolittle), the battle of the Coral Sea, and so on. Eventually we get to the battle of Midway itself, as American intelligence analysts figure out where the Imperial Japanese fleet are going to be making their next move, allowing the US navy to set a trap for them.

And, you know, it’s never actually dull, and it does move along very briskly, as noted. Of course, the film is kind of obliged to do this, simply because it has given itself such a lot of ground to cover, as well as the actual battle of Midway. It’s good to have a bit of context, obviously, but I wonder how much sense this actually makes to people not already familiar with the events of the Pacific war – Wilson and Harrelson rattle out the exposition heroically, but I’m not sure how much of it sticks. There is a real danger of subplot overload well before the end of the movie, which honestly feels bloated and unwieldy much of the time. Cutting a lot of the Doolittle material would have been one obvious choice, but given that a lot of this concerns the aid given to Doolittle by heroic Chinese fighters, and the Japanese occupation of part of China, I imagine that keeping all this in was stipulated by the Chinese investors who I understand provided a significant chunk of the film’s budget.

The other main problem I had with the film is that I found it rather difficult to actually warm to. There are a lot of characters to keep track of, and many of them are honestly fairly indistinguishable. Most of the movie is pitched at the same level of macho, stoic, belligerent patriotism, and most of the characters are naval personnel; there is consequently a lot of blurring together which only a few actors manage to avoid. Usually this is via some kind of prop: Wilson wears glasses and looks concerned, Harrelson has his wig, Eckhart has his chin, Luke Evans has a moustache, and Dennis Quaid turns up as Admiral Halsey with a permanent growl and a case of shingles. The de facto main character is Dick Best (Ed Skrein), one of the most distinguished pilots in American history, but the issue here is that the script makes him out to be a swaggering, arrogant loose cannon, a characterisation that Skrein happily runs with. This made him quite difficult to empathise with; I was much more inclined to identify with his co-pilot, who eventually becomes very reluctant to fly with someone who seems to have a death wish. You may be wondering who plays all the female fighter and bomber pilots: well, the Progressive Agenda Committee were clearly unable to locate the offices of the production, for they have managed to get away with not including any. The only female character of any significance is Best’s wife, who is played by Mandy Moore. I have to say this is a largely decorative role and she is much more prominent on the poster than in the actual movie.

This just adds to the sense that Midway is very much an old-school war movie, although one has to wonder if we really need all the unsubtle tub-thumping patriotism – verging, to be honest, on jingoism in places – nearly eighty years on from the actual battle. It is, of course, distinguished by modern special effects, and plenty of them, but as noted the film does often feel like you’re watching someone else playing a computer game. I haven’t seen the 1976 film based on these events – however, I would be willing to guess that it has less impressive visuals but a rather better script. This film passes the time decently, it’s interesting to look at, and it does contain a bit of history. It’s just that the actual story is not that engaging or moving – it is war as an almost totally empty spectacle. Emmerich’s films are much more fun when he isn’t trying to be so respectful.

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We talk quite glibly about ‘the war movie’ as a distinct genre, and I suppose there is some truth to that – there are enough commonalities of subject matter, setting, and theme for these films to comprise a recognisable canon of sorts, after all. And yet war films are as diverse a bunch as any other, often depending on exactly which war they concern and the accepted narrative concerning it. War movies made during actual wars are usually propaganda, plain and simple; ones made in the decade or two after a war become testimonials, usually concerned with retellings of notable deeds. After enough time has elapsed they just become backdrops for rousing adventures and/or examinations of more universal themes.

John Sturges’ film adaptation of the Jack Higgins novel The Eagle Has Landed came out in 1976, thirty years after the Second World War concluded, at a point when the myth of the war and its iconography was perhaps beginning to displace memories of the reality in terms of how it was perceived. Certainly the film itself is hardly painstaking in its attempts at historical accuracy.

 

(I have to say, respect is due to an impressively imaginative poster, which features all sorts of elements – exploding churches, strafing Messerschmitts, and so on – which do not prominently feature, or indeed feature at all, in the actual movie. Not sure they’ve got Jenny Agutter’s face quite right, though.)

Things get underway in – one surmises – late 1943 or early 1944, with the result of the war no longer in doubt, only the final score. Inspired by the rescue of Mussolini from captivity in Italy, Hitler (played by the late Peter Miles in scenes which didn’t make it into the final cut) orders the kidnapping of Winston Churchill from Britain: no-one but Himmler (Donald Pleasence) takes this notion seriously, but the head of German military intelligence is obliged to carry out a feasibility study for political reasons anyway.

The job is assigned to a Colonel Radl (Robert Duvall), who – rather to his astonishment –  discovers that there is an outside chance that the trick can be turned: Churchill is due to be spending a weekend at a secluded country house close to the east coast of England. To carry out the mission, Radl recruits IRA man and mercenary Liam Devlin (Donald Sutherland) and decorated, but now disgraced Fallschirmjager officer Kurt Steiner (Michael Caine) and his men. Soon enough Operation Eagle is underway, with first Devlin and then Steiner and the others inserted into the UK in disguise. But even the best laid plans can go awry, especially given Devlin’s penchant for romantic entanglements and the presence in the area of a force of US Rangers…

The Eagle Has Landed is very much an all-star all-action mid-seventies ITC Entertainment kind of production, and it is perhaps illuminating to compare it to the 1943 movie Went the Day Well?, directed by Cavalcanti. Both deal with the same idea, of a British village being seized by enemy paratroopers as part of a wider plot, but the treatment is quite different, as is the context of the films (of course). Went the Day Well? is a propaganda movie, and an occasionally brutal one, with precious few shades of grey as the heroic villagers (including a gun-toting Thora Hird) rise up and do battle with the vicious German interlopers. At the time the threat of invasion was still a recent memory, and the war still being prosecuted, but in 1976 things were very different.

We tend to remember the Second World War as one of the ‘good’ wars, justified by the fact it was essentially a heroic battle against the darkest of evils, but there’s little sense of that watching Sturges’ movie – this is a war movie oddly bereft of bad guys. All the German characters are rather sympathetic, Himmler excepted, and the movie is at pains to establish Steiner as a decent man revolted by the Nazi doctrine of racial superiority. The structure of the movie means we get to know these people rather better than any of the British or American characters who are ostensibly the heroes who foil Radl and Steiner’s plan – the US Ranger commander played by Larry Hagman is a vain, pompous fool, his subordinate (Treat Williams) something of a cipher.

The result is that the action sequences towards the end of the film, in which the German-held village is assaulted by American soldiers, feel like a curiously empty spectacle. They’re very well staged and directed, and do stir the blood a bit, but you always know what’s going to happen, and you don’t feel particularly invested in watching the inevitable Allied victory – you will almost certainly be hoping that Michael Caine survives, and may even be hoping that (in defiance of historical fact) he succeeds in his mission.

The question is whether this moral vacuum at the heart of the movie is a deliberate choice, reflecting the fact that there can be heroes and villains on both sides in a war, or just the result of a director not quite getting to grips with the material. Certainly Caine thought it was the latter, complaining that Sturges had no involvement with the editing of the film once shooting was complete, choosing to go fishing instead. He lamented the fact that what could have been a more substantial thriller ended up as a somewhat cartoonish action adventure.

I can see what he’s getting at, because – as someone else has pointed out – Pleasence’s impersonation of Himmler is the most credible thing in the movie by quite some distance. Caine is still good, as are many of the other supporting players, some of them better known as British TV faces – Jean Marsh is in there, also Roy Marsden and Denis Lill – but possibly a bit too prominent is Sutherland. Sutherland goes all-out for the central casting Oirishman from County Leprechaun approach, and it does make you roll your eyes a bit, as does the improbable romance between him and a young local girl (Jenny Agutter).

In the end The Eagle Has Landed seems to have become one of those largely innocuous all-star movies which regularly pops up on TV on Bank Holiday weekends, usually with its gorier moments (Hagman’s death, for instance) snipped out. Which is fair enough: it is an example of the war movie reduced to the status of simple entertainment – it doesn’t have the simplistic morality of the worst kind of war film, nor the complex ambiguities of many of the best. It just doesn’t seem inclined to deal with wider moral issues at all, focusing on its straightforward action-adventure story to the exclusion of all else. And there’s not much actually wrong with that, I suppose: but with the kind of talent involved in this movie, you could be forgiven for hoping for something slightly more substantial.

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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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Another week, another film about the Second World War – on this occasion it is Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, a based-on-fact drama about the first days of Winston Churchill as the British Prime Minister in 1940 (not to be confused with the bobbins Timur Bekmambetov alien invasion movie of the same name from a few years back). We seem to be in the midst of a bunch of these at the moment – last year, after all, there was Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, which concerned itself with almost exactly the same period of history, and a film about Winston Churchill directed by Jonathon Teplitzky, starring Brian Cox as Churchill himself, the name of which momentarily escapes me. Is there a particular reason for this particular spate of films on the same subject? Well, maybe: we shall come to that, probably.

I would imagine (or hope) that the events covered by Darkest Hour are already known to most people, in the UK at least. It is May 1940, and the position of the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) has become untenable following his role in attempting to appease Hitler the previous year. The obvious candidate to succeed him, Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), is unacceptable to the Labour Party, who will be a part of the new government; the only man for them is Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman), widely considered a self-serving maverick whose main loyalty is to himself.

The King (Ben Mendelsohn) is duly persuaded to ask Churchill to form a government, and he of course agrees, having been angling for the job all his adult life. But it begins to look like a poisoned chalice, as the forces of Nazi Germany invade Belgium and the Netherlands, France begins to crumble, and the British army finds itself in full retreat towards the French coast, with no realistic prospect of escape…

Given the situation, and with the United States unwilling to involve itself in a European war, the wise old heads of the war cabinet are in no doubt as to what the situation requires: a negotiated peace, responding to the peace overtures which Hitler’s Italian allies are already making. To do otherwise would be to expose Britain to the most terrible danger. If Churchill refuses to listen, then he has to be removed from office and replaced by someone more pragmatic. Faced with opposition both at home and abroad, is he really justified in sticking to his principles?

There are, obviously, many things one can say about the less palatable aspects of Winston Churchill, and his many utterances which would (hopefully) be career-ending nowadays. This is a man who at various points in his life was a racist, a keen advocate of the use of chemical weapons and also a cheerleader for eugenics. Yet this is also a figure who seems to transcend easy categorisation: unreconstructed old brute he may have been, but his is the example that seems to prove that one man can shape the course of history – as the popular legend has it, it was Churchill alone who kept Britain defiant and fighting, standing alone against the Nazi tyranny, almost as an act of will.

The notion of plucky little Britain going it alone against the rest of the world has become somewhat more loaded in the last eighteen months of so, and I wonder if this isn’t to some degree responsible for the recent surge in movies about the British bulldog spirit (and so on). Personally I think these are dangerous parallels to draw, but everyone in this particular area is in the process of mythmaking no matter what they happen to believe, so I suppose it is inescapable.

Certainly, Darkest Hour sticks close to the popular legend for most of its length – Churchill can be a bit inappropriate at times, but is generally lovably so, and is (of course) purveyor of a nice line in scathing wit, and possessor of a mighty oratorical talent. No real surprises there, then.

What’s slightly more unexpected is Churchill’s resemblance to a famous actor-director from New Cross. Three and a half hours in make-up every morning leaves Gary Oldman looking astonishingly like Gary Oldman under heavy prosthetics, and the fact he honestly doesn’t look very much like Churchill is a bit distracting. He is on full throttle here, though, and while his turn seemed to me to be somewhat awkwardly pitched between an acting performance and an act of impersonation, he certainly keeps the film very watchable, which is just as well: he’s in the vast majority of scenes. He’s particularly good when it comes to the aspects of Churchill we’re less used to seeing – the film often focuses on his vulnerability, his self-doubt, and his occasional bouts of depression.

Not that the support isn’t good too: apart from Pickup and Dillane, Kristin Scott Thomas plays Lady Churchill and is pretty good in what isn’t a terribly big part, and Lily James plays Churchill’s secretary – it does rather seem that James’ part owes its prominence to the need to have a major character who is both female and under forty, if only for the sake of the poster.

And for the most part the film tells the story rather well, working as both a wartime drama and a political thriller. It’s not quite so well told that you completely forget how it’s all going to turn out, but it does summon up the desperate atmosphere of the time very effectively, not to mention the various pressures on Churchill.

The real question, of course, is that of why Churchill was so implacable in his will to keep Britain fighting the Nazis when victory seemed impossible and a negotiated peace of some kind was a distinct possibility. Where did he find his conviction and resolve? Why did he hold this particular belief with quite such strength? This is the reason why we remember him as a national hero and key figure in British history, after all.

And, to be honest, Darkest Hour fluffs this most crucial issue. It does offer an explanation, but it’s one that reeks of the Hollywood script unit and doesn’t remotely ring true to history. Its proposition – that Churchill was simply embodying the will of the British people – feels rather too smug and convenient, to say nothing of the fact that the very phrase ‘the will of the people’ has become rather loaded and subject to misuse of late.

In the end, this is the problem with Darkest Hour: the film is well-directed and well staged, although some may find it a little dry and stagey (most of the action consists of middle-aged men arguing in cramped rooms), but it is ultimately telling a story that most people will already be at least partly familiar with. We all know what happened and when, but the real question is why events took the turn that they did. The film does not have a convincing answer to this question.

I mean, it’s not what you’d call a bad film, and the performances are very good – it is the kind of film that wins awards, simply because of the subject matter, and you can see why Oldman would take it on – you’re infinitely more likely to win an Oscar playing Churchill than you are Commissioner Gordon, after all. But it doesn’t have anything new to bring to its material, and doesn’t offer any real psychological insights into its subject. Worth seeing, if you like this sort of thing, but unlikely to go down in history as a classic by any means.

 

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There is something odd in the English mentality that sometimes makes us more enthusiastic about celebrating our narrow squeaks and mitigated disasters than commemorating our genuine national triumphs. (I’m almost tempted to suggest this because genuine English national triumphs have been thin on the ground for some time now, but I feel besieged enough right now, thanks.) Perhaps it’s just our famous national sense of fair play that makes us want to stick up for the underdog. Especially when the underdog is us. At the moment there may be very particular reasons for this sort of thing – but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

The latest example of someone getting nostalgic about a pretty bad day is the new movie from Christopher Nolan. Having already treated us to Insomnia, Inception, and Interstellar, Nolan’s new movie is entitled InDunkirk (in some territories – specifically the interior of my head, but I digress). Oh, all right, it may actually be called Dunkirk, but it’s set in and around the town of that name, at the back end of May 1940.

The story of Dunkirk has genuinely become a part of the British national myth, but I’m genuinely uncertain as to how well-known it is around the world. Nolan wisely takes no chances and opens the film with a set of captions filling in the story so far – with the Nazi war machine sweeping west across Europe, the British army and its allies find themselves surrounded in the French port of Dunkirk. With the enemy closing in, the need to get the men off the beaches and over the channel to England is becoming desperate. But how is the miracle to be accomplished?

Nolan’s movie focuses on a handful of different storylines, set on land, sea, and in the air. A young soldier (Fionn Whitehead) makes his way to the allied enclave, and desperately attempts to get onto one of the ships taking soldiers off the beach, as discipline begins to falter amongst the trapped men. The owner of one of the ‘little ships’ (Mark Rylance) sets off across the channel, determined to do his bit and save as many of his countrymen as he can. And a Spitfire pilot (Tom Hardy) attempts to protect the ships taking off the army from the depredations of Luftwaffe dive-bombers.

As you can perhaps discern, this is not quite a traditionally epic war movie, built around a specific narrative. Instead it seems to be trying to offer up an almost impressionistic experience of what it felt like to go through the ordeal of the Dunkirk evacuation. The storyline of the movie is quite straightforward, and there is correspondingly little exposition, just a succession of set-pieces. Nolan is, characteristically, attempting to do something clever and tricksy with the film’s handling of space and time, but it takes quite a while for this to become completely clear.

It comes as no great surprise to find regular Nolan collaborators like Cillian Murphy and Tom Hardy in the movie (apparently Michael Caine also contributes a vocal cameo), nor, really, distinguished thespians like Ken Branagh or Mark Rylance. It has to be said that these gentlemen are occupying the somewhat-coveted ‘With’ and ‘And’ section of the cast list, with many of the main roles played by younger, less famous actors such as Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, and Barry Keoghan. Also making a fairly substantial appearance is the quadro-mammaried popstrel Harry Styles, who apparently used to be in some boy band or other. Styles is actually perfectly acceptable in this movie, which I fear is only going to encourage him to keep acting. You can’t have everything, I suppose. It is notable, I think, that Christopher Nolan has managed to make a major film with a cast almost exclusively composed of white men, without anyone kicking off about it – maybe he really does have magic powers. (It’s enough to gladden the heart of a thundering misogynist.)

While doing my research for this piece (quiet at the back – of course I do research), I discovered that Dunkirk is based on a script which Nolan wrote donkey’s years ago, long before his rise to prominence as a director. Apparently he put it on ice while he gathered enough experience making large-scale Hollywood blockbusters (can’t argue with a confident man, I guess), and in some ways it feels like something written in a different mode – it has some of the audacity of Nolan’s most celebrated work, but not really the narrative density or thematic strength which you associate with those films. He appears to be trying to make the film work more on a visceral level, but it is a qualified success at best in this regard.

And I have to say that, while it still feels unlikely that Nolan will ever make a film which is less than accomplished and engaging, I left this one without the same joyous sense of having had the possibilities of cinema confirmed for me that I felt after all the other Nolan films I’ve seen. Naturally, I seem to be in a tiny minority on this one (just for a change), as many professional film-watchers are announcing this is Christopher Nolan’s best film yet, and a sign of him finally realising his promise as a film-maker. I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but I do think it’s a bit suspicious that it’s Nolan’s first film in fifteen years that isn’t on some level a fantasy or an SF movie that has been hailed as marking his admission to the grown-up’s club. It seems you just can’t get respect making certain kinds of genre movie, even if they’re as exceptional as Inception or The Dark Knight.

Then again it may just be that this is one of those films which it is just unacceptable to give a negative review to, not just because of the director and cast, but because of the subject matter itself – slightly absurd though it sounds, giving the thumbs down to Dunkirk could be interpreted as disparaging one of the defining moments in the modern British narrative, along with everyone involved in those events. We are in the middle of a bunch of movies about the Second World War at the moment – recently we’ve had Churchill and Their Finest Hour, with yet another Churchill bio-pic (Darkest Hour) being trailed before Dunkirk itself. Is it just a coincidence that all these films about Britain heroically going it alone should be making an appearance at the moment? I’m sure Nolan is not setting out to make particular political points with Dunkirk, but I note that the film’s parting shot – a reminder that this muddled withdrawal of Britain from Europe was not a triumph, and should not be treated as one – is not one of the elements being lionised by its supporters in the media.

As I say, Christopher Nolan seems incapable of making a bad film, and watching Dunkirk should prove a memorable experience for virtually anyone: it is full of striking images, heart-felt performances, moments that stay with you. By almost anyone’s standards it is a good, if somewhat unconventional war movie and historical drama. But I have to say that of all the Nolan movies that I’ve seen, it’s the one I can least imagine myself sitting down to watch again and again, even if that says more about his exceptional track-record than anything else.

 

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published January 24th 2002:

There are ominous similarities between Ridley Scott’s latest offering Black Hawk Down and last year’s uber-turkey Pearl Harbor. Both are blockbuster retellings of notorious American military disasters, and both have Josh Hartnett, Tom Sizemore and Ewen Bremner somewhere on the cast list. And as I’m not a fan of Ridley Scott’s work at the best of times, I turned up to the cinema with quite a few misgivings.

Black Hawk Down is set in war-torn Somalia in late 1993. As part of an international taskforce, a mixed group of American elite troops – Rangers, Marines, etc – is attempting to eliminate the genocidal warlord Mohamed Aidid, who’s based in the city of Mogadishu. Their ability to act is hampered by the protocols established by the UN and they pass much of their time in the traditional pursuits of off-duty war-movie soldiers: doing jigsaws, playing scrabble, illustrating children’s books and listening to classic pop-rock songs. All this changes when authorisation is given for a raid on a meeting of Aidid’s senior advisors. But a series of misjudgements leads to the mission going spectacularly pear-shaped…

1993 isn’t that long ago – I remember seeing the news of these events on TV at the time they occurred. Probably because of this, the producers appear to have stuck closer to the facts than is usually the case even in ‘based on a true event’ pictures like this one. Even so, it’s still a big-budget action movie – and as a result Black Hawk Down has something of an identity crisis which it never quite recovers from.

The problem is that the characters on the screen are all instantly familiar from a hundred other war films – there’s the idealistic young noncom, the naive rookie, the grizzled veteran, and so on: Ewen McGregor plays a clerk who gets his first chance at front line duty (he suffers slightly from Wandering Accent Syndrome), Eric Bana (okay, he’s not very well-known now, but he’s toplining Ang Lee’s Hulk, one of next year’s blockbusters) is a taciturn covert ops officer who learns to respect the grunts, and Sam Shepherd plays the CO who watches his command engulfed in what’s almost literally a nightmare scenario. All verging on the stereotypical, but, that said, most of the acting is pretty good – though the most memorable performance is a cameo by George Harris as a Somali arms dealer.

But the situation at the heart of the film is absolutely not your typical well-choreographed action-movie scenario. It’s an escalating disaster as the soldiers are misdirected, split up, and surrounded by apparently limitless numbers of Kalashnikov-wielding local militiamen. The presentation of this very realistic chaos is the film’s great achievement, but it jars weirdly with the glossy Hollywoodism of the stock characters and the famous faces portraying them. Band of Brothers, which this resembles at times, got round this by hiring a cast of relative unknowns – a step Black Hawk Down‘s producers should have considered.

As it is, and credit where it’s due, Ridley Scott’s direction holds the film together. As you’d expect, it’s visually ravishing, but most of the time Scott manages to stay focussed on telling the story – an unexpected but welcome development. He does a brilliant job of communicating the confusion and panic of the troops in the streets as the mission disintegrates, while simultaneously ensuring that the viewer is aware of the situation and the positions of the various different groups involved (mainly through computer game-like aerial shots and expository dialogue from Shepherd and his staff). There are genuinely horrific and moving moments as the crisis deepens. Even so, this is pretty much a one-note movie and after a while I felt I wouldn’t have minded if I never heard another hammering assault rifle or saw another dancing shell casing ever again. There’s no light and shade here, no leavening humour or romance, and not really much of a plot. But if you like unrelenting realism, grit, military hardware and carnage you should have few complaints.

Post-September 11th, of course, any film about the American armed forces’ engagement in the Third World brings a whole load of new baggage with it. You may argue that it’d be unfair to review it in terms of its politics, and had Black Hawk Down not had its release date actually advanced to cash in on the current mood of the USA, I might have agreed. But as things stand, I don’t, so here goes.

It goes without saying that this is an unreservedly pro-American movie. It doesn’t scale quite the same heights of sanctimony as Pearl Harbor, thank God, but there’s absolutely no ambiguity on display. Well – the one exception to this is in the apportioning of blame for the debacle: armed forces overconfidence and the UN rules of engagement both get the finger pointed at them, but not as much as ‘Washington’ – a blatant criticism of the Clinton administration and thus one that’s very unlikely to irk the current residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

It’s oversimplistic. It’s not always the case of Americans suffering for the sins of the rest of the world, no matter what the film suggests. The mission it recounts may be a confused, chaotic mess, but the film’s moral and political viewpoint is cleanly and uncompromisingly black-and-white. The film itself is all right, but its attempts to promote a set agenda in this way are insultingly obvious. There’s an awful lot of spinning going on in Black Hawk Down – and I’m not talking about helicopter rotor blades.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 30th November 2006:

Hello again, everyone, and welcome to another edition of the film review column you can safely ignore. When I came out to Japan, I was assured that the time difference was only eight or nine hours — and this is mostly true. However, cinematically speaking it’s a different matter. Compared to the United Kingdom, Japan is usually a little bit behind — although this can stretch to anything up to a year. On the other hand, sometimes we’re ahead.

Reaching the Pacific several months after its UK release is Michael Caton-Jones’ Basic Instinct 2: Risk Addiction (Japanese title: Smile of Ice 2), an ‘honestly, you shouldn’t have bothered’ sequel to the notorious 1992 original. As Sharon Stone apparently negotiated herself a very juicy deal where she got paid a huge wodge of cash whether the movie got made or not, one can perhaps view the finished product as an exercise in amortising expenses rather than a proper movie. As a proper movie, it isn’t very good.

Rumpy-obsessed author and maybe-psycho serial killer Catherine Tramell (Stone) pitches up in London and finds herself banged up (not a new experience for her) on suspicion of killing a famous soccer player (Stan Collymore — no, really). Shabbily relentless cop Roy Washburn (David Thewlis) retains brilliant psychoanalyst Michael Glass (David Morrissey) to assess her mental state with a view to stopping her bail, which he does. For various reasons her bail comes through anyway, and before long Glass finds himself the unwilling subject of Trammell’s attentions…

Well, I haven’t really seen the original movie and this sequel doesn’t really make me want to. When the list of great spectator pastimes is written, watching people getting up to it will be somewhere near the bottom, just above watching people talk about getting up to it, and Basic Instinct 2 contains lengthy sequences of both. These are dull or embarrassing rather than actually erotic.

Somewhat more interesting is the thriller plotline, wherein Glass finds himself in the frame (this may even be a deliberate pun on the part of the screenwriters, which suggests they should reassess their priorities) for various murders of people from his past. This is actually quite engaging, although the script doesn’t offer an alternative suspect to Trammell until rather late in the day. This plotline thankfully features a lot less of Stone, who gives an atrocious performance throughout, and rather more of Morrissey and Thewlis, both of whom battle heroically with the rather thin material they’re given.

The London setting and British cast give this movie a certain novelty value, mostly based on the ‘ooh, it’s whatsisface off thingummy’ factor?But it’s not nearly as clever or interesting as it thinks it is and at the risk of sounding sanctimonious, the film’s morality is deeply unsound. Are we supposed to empathise with or root for a character who is straightforwardly presented as a manipulative, amoral psychotic? That seems to be the intention, but a dodgy script and Stone’s performance make that almost as unlikely as most of the rest of the events in the movie. It’s just about watchable when Stone’s not on screen, but never quite tops the unintentionally hilarious opening sequence.

Arriving from the UK late-summer timezone is Jared Hess’ Nacho Libre, another star vehicle, this time for Jack Black. Really loosely based on fact, this is the tale of a Mexican friar who moonlights as a masked wrestling star.

Regular readers will know I like to include a mini-synopsis for every movie; well, that was it. Okay there’s a bit more to it, involving Black acquiring a very thin tag partner, having rather unmonastic feelings about a nun (Ana de la Reguera, appropriately hot yet pure-looking) and… oh, you get the idea. But not a lot more.

It bowls along fairly amicably, powered by Jack Black doing all his usual schtick: silly voices, singing, falling over for comic effect, and there are quite a few laughs. But not as many as you might think, and for a rather peculiar reason — this movie is not formulaic enough.

You can’t fault Jared Hess for wanting to avoid the clichés which usually beset this kind of tale (underdogs rise to sporting greatness), but without them the story seems disjointed and episodic. This is a very mainstream, knockabout comedy, or it should be, but Hess strives for an atmospheric quirkiness that seems rather out of place.

Jack Black is good value and I did enjoy the movie, but it’s not a comedy classic. It seemed to deeply confuse all the Japanese people at the showing I went to, but that’s probably not a good thing.

From early autumn UK time arrives Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men (Japanese title: Tomorrow World 2027). This movie is supposedly based on PD James’ rather literary SF novel of the same name — but friends, I’ve read that book, and other than a couple of events and a few characters, the movie has only the loosest resemblance to the original story.

Clive Owen plays Theo, a London office worker in the near future. Life in 2027 is rather grim, partly due to draconian laws intended to keep the illegal immigrant situation under control and the activities of terrorists intent on overturning these laws, but mainly because everyone in the world has been entirely infertile since about 2009. As if this wasn’t bad enough, Theo’s ex Julian (Julianne Moore) turns up, needing his help: Theo has high-up contacts which he can use to get transit papers for a refugee girl (Claire-Hope Ashitey), who Julian and her (ahem) activist pals desperately need to get out of the country. Or so it initially appears…

The James book was written at least 15 years ago and is, as I said, rather literary. Cuaron’s version is relentlessly gloomy, frequently kinetic and concludes with an enormous gun battle featuring a couple of tanks. To say that there is a bit of political commentary in this movie is understating things — there are explicit parallels with Iraq and Abu Ghraib, not to mention some domestic British issues.

If you don’t mind that kind of thing you may well enjoy the movie. Cuaron creates a convincingly dismal and dismally plausible dystopia, with just enough of today in it, although Owen’s London Olympics sweatshirt may be a gag too far. His direction favours lots of flashy very long takes, but this doesn’t get in the way of the story, which is thoroughly well-acted by people like Pam Ferris, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Charlie Hunnam, and Sir Michael Caine. If the ending is a bit inconclusive, well, so’s the one in the book. This is a good and thought-provoking movie, even if it is a bit crashingly unsubtle in places.

Arriving from the near future (late December, to be precise) comes the war movie Flags Of Our Fathers, directed by Clint Eastwood (so it’s a thoughtful sort of war movie). When I say this movie is concerned with the battle of Iwo Jima, a bloody clash near the end of the Pacific War, you will understand why I suspect it hasn’t done very well over here, well-made though it undoubtedly is. The Japanese are not actually demonised as such, but it remains unavoidably the case that a major plot point concerns them horribly killing a likeable character played by Jamie Bell. I was uncomfortably aware I was the only European in the theatre when I saw this movie — I nearly shouted ‘now you know how it feels when we watch Mel Gibson movies in England!’ but I thought better of it.

Anyway, the movie goes back and forth between the battle (lavishly recreated) — specifically the famous raising of the American flag atop the island — and the fates of the flag raisers when they are flown home to participate in a drive to raise money for the war effort.

This is a rather slow and worthy movie, but hey — it could have been another drum-beating embarassment like Pearl Harbor, so let’s not complain. The cast features a mixture of established young stars like Ryan Phillipe and Paul Hunter and relative unknowns like Jesse Bradford and Adam Beach (who’s particularly good), together with older performers like Robert Patrick and Neal McDonough. Without being too specific, the movie makes various wise points about the difference between the myths and realities of war and the effect this can have on the participants when they return home. I suspect you actually have to be American to fully get this film, in the same way you have to be Catholic to really get The Exorcist, but I found it to be thoroughly engrossing and as well-made as one would expect from a Clint Eastwood project. I predict nominations and maybe even the odd actual Oscar.

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