Saturday, 30 April 2016

High Rise

Starring the ubiquitous Tom Hiddleston I thought that this would be a safe bet as a good movie to watch. Besides it was a cover feature in the April 2016 edition of Sight & Sound. I should have twigged that as I watched a couple of trailers for upcoming horror films before the main feature, that High Rise was going to be a challenge. Tasha Robinson reviewing the film in The Verge said "In J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise, the metaphor eats the story and Tom Hiddleston eats the metaphor". I'm not sure I fully understand her comment - but then I'm pretty sure I didn't understand all of the film either! But it seems about right for me.

I understand that Ballard's novel is an important piece of literature that has social, historical and political capital. I thought I understood the premise of the novel going into the film - coming out I wasn't so sure I did at all. What could have been an in depth thought provoking exploration of class structure and aspiration in a free-market economy descended into a dark place that only delivered an expose of nihilism. If you value life - don't watch this film! Not even the acting performances - and they were good - redeem this film.

Dr Laing (Hiddleston) attempts to escape the rat race of the city and applies to move into the High Rise. His application is accepted and he moves into apartment 2505 in this 40 storey block. Designed by the architect Royal (Jeremy Irons) the block, built in the early 1970s, is a self-contained society with the lower classes on the lower floors and the architect occupying the entire top floor penthouse. The block contains a gym, swimming pool and supermarket - but residents still have to go out to work - all driving their late 60s and early 70s cars (wonderful nostalgia!). The basic activity is to throw parties that are resonant in style with the social status of the floor the host occupies. On the lower floors it is disco, booze and drugs. In the penthouse it is regency fancy dress! In any case, the thing they have in common is much booze and much bonking.

Laing is clearly a man who presents one thing on the outside and lives another on the inside (don't we all?). In this sense Hiddleston delivers a strong performance. His sister has recently committed suicide and he has also recently divorced. His grey suits, grey character and in time his grey flat all point to someone happy with their status in the mid levels who is merely seeking a degree of anonymity.

As the story progresses the infrastructure of the block begins to fail and sends the residents into a mirroring downward spiral. Anarchy and class wars break out and the film descends into a drunken, violent, abusive orgy.  A state it seems to celebrate and wallow in for far too long. I'm used to confronting dystopian apocalyptic worlds but they usually contain some element of hope. High Rise is devoid of hope and presents only self-gratification as a valid way to live. Some of the roles of the women in the film - and the children, offer occasional glimpses of hope of things being otherwise, but in the end everyone turns to violence. Why did the film have to end with an archive speech from Margaret Thatcher about Free Market Capitalism and the need for the government's not to interfere?

Several folk walked out. I almost joined them and afterwards wished I had. I'm all for exploring ideas that push boundaries but this film is a waste of time and effort - and the £22 I spent on tickets. Why it only had a 15 Certification I do not understand. Parts were brutal beyond belief. This is a film you do not need to see. I'm not even going to give it a score!

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Lars and the Real Girl

This film can be watched on different levels (can't they all?) For those with eyes to see that enable them to get past an oddball goofy comedy, this film is a gift as it offers an invitation to reflect on why we have become the person we are - and what we might work at - if we feel the need. It is impossible to discuss this film in any way without revealing what happens - but I think that won't detract much from seeing it for the first time as the mastery is in how it is done.

Set in a remote town on the Wisconsin prairie with a population the majority of whom seem to have Scandinavian ancestry, this is a tender tale that sees Ryan Gosling in the lead role as Lars Lindstrom. The first time I have seen him play a role I liked. What the film points out, and for this it made it an uncomfortable watch for me, is how much we are a product of our family and our upbringing. To engage with this film requires us to reflect on how we have become who we are.

Lars's mother died delivering him. His father could not escape the grief this caused and lived his life deeply affected by it. Consequently Lars and his brother Gus (Paul Schneider) had a difficult upbringing - I imagine Lars felt a strong sense of guilt. Gus left home at the first opportunity to escape the brooding darkness of a continuing grief, leaving Lars with dad. Following the death of their father, Gus lives in the former family home with his wife Karin (Emily Mortimer) and Lars, who has become a withdrawn and an almost completely socially dysfunctional internalised man, lives in the garage.

Lars is unable to touch as to him the touch of other people feels like burning - perhaps stemming from his father's all-consuming grief? He is fearful for the fate of his sister-in-law who is pregnant and in his view may die. He is unable to act within normal social parameters and at the opening of the film cannot commit to even going across to the house of Gus and Karin to have breakfast. Lars is however a regular worshipper at the local church where many of the congregation are also co-workers from his office. (It's a pity there's no exploration or explanation of how Lars is able to hold down a job.)

Lars shares a cubicle with Kurt (Maxwell McCabe-Lokos) who through the internet introduces him to an anatomically fully functional sex doll that can be designed and ordered online. Meanwhile another co-worker, Margot (Kelli Garner) clearly is attracted to Lars despite his odd behaviour, but he is unable or unwilling to see this.

Then one day a large packing case is delivered to the garage containing 'Bianca' - a former missionary, raised by nuns, very religious, who is half Brazilian, half Danish. Lars interacts with Bianca as though she were real. To begin with this is very difficult as he takes her, in her wheelchair, to have supper with Gus and Karin. Lars interacts with Bianca much as a child would bend to listen to imaginary speech which is then relayed to those gathered around. Things are okay while Bianca's existence is contained within the home but when Lars begins taking her out problems occur!

Gus and Karin arrange a family meeting with the doctor - Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson) who happens to also be a trained psychologist. Knowing the family and recognising what is going on, she goes along with things subjecting Bianca to a series of tests resulting in a diagnosis requiring a weekly treatment in her surgery - which is the pretext to help Lars process what is going on. I am told by someone who knows about such things that Bianca performs the role of Transitional Object for Lars and sure enough in time he begins to socialise, take Bianca to parties, she becomes well known around town, gets a part time job and visits folk in hospital.

The community come together to help Lars emerge from his cocoon and grow in confidence and the ability to interact socially. Love is costly and that motif is repeated throughout the film - but as is the case with love, the cost is willingly borne sacrificially both by family and the wider community.

One evening Lars declares that Bianca is unresponsive and sick, he calls 911 and Bianca is rushed to hospital by ambulance where the prognosis is not good. Some of the older women come to the house to knit, cook for Lars and keep him company. He asks them why they are there and gets the response "That's what they [people] do when tragedy strikes - they come and sit". After a while, Lars declares that Bianca has died. She is buried with all the townsfolk in attendance and so the death of Bianca enables the rebirth of Lars.

This film has so much going for it - and it's only 102 minutes long so it doesn't string things out for the sake of it. There is much to reflect on.

  • How families and communities can help those it is in their power to help. 
  • How important it can be to help on the terms of those who need the help rather than the help-giver.
  • The usefulness of psychological insight and transitional objects.
  • A positive portrayal of a clergy person in Revd Bock (R. D. Reid).
  • How honesty in relationships can establish a good foundation for growth and development.
  • The film avoids any mocking of Lars and also any smuttiness around Bianca's intended function.
  • Lars' honourable treatment of Bianca.

Alissa Simon of Variety stated, "Craig Gillespie's sweetly off-kilter film plays like a Coen brothers riff on Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon tales, defying its lurid premise with a gentle comic drama grounded in reality." That is a very apt description. This film only just clawed back its production costs at the box office and through disc sales. I'm glad I have contributed to the process and would encourage you to do the same - perhaps we have a cult sleeper here!  I'll give it 8/10.

Monday, 25 April 2016

Eye in the Sky

This is an intelligent piece of cinema that engages with a pressing contemporary issue. The film invites you to be the decision-maker as to whether or not the trigger is pulled. I saw it with a bunch of friends and the debate over pizza afterwards was intense.

Filmed in South Africa but set mainly in Kenya the story follows a British led drone surveillance operation tracking some of Al Shabab's most wanted in the hope of capturing them alive. Among their number are both British and American nationals. The mission changes and the film tracks, in real time, the chain of decision-making that tries to integrate military, intelligence and political imperatives to deliver an outcome. The plot offers an exploration of normative ethics in a real-life situation as utilitarianism is employed to justify certain actions.

The military imperative is clear but the potential for collateral damage means that political decisions are not easy. Meanwhile, a drone pilot in a cabin in the Nevada desert sits with his finger poised on the trigger taking orders from a UK Colonel in Northwood in North London while she is receiving intelligence from Hawaii and liaising with troops on the ground in Nairobi. Her General is in a COBRA meeting in Whitehall with the politicians ensuring that any proposed action is legal. Going into the meeting the General is preoccupied with buying the right doll for a little girl. It is another little girl and her playful activities that come to be the centre of the plot.

The acting is tight. The way the edits jump between the different locations demonstrate how global, warfare now is. The film also drives home how clinical and focused warfare today has become and how sci-fi has become mainstream as a man in Las Vegas targets people in one room of a house in a Nairobi suburb. In a way it makes it even more detached from my reality than 'old-fashioned' warfare with fronts and armies and arrows on maps. If we live in a democracy we are in effect asking these people to carry out these killings on our behalf. The alternative is equally distressing. The morals of war are being muddied as new technologies make surgically precise missions more possible. That surely is a good thing - isn't it?

Helen Mirren is in the lead role as Colonel Katherine Powell and in his final performance Alan Rickman gives full force to his character Lieutenant General Frank Benson. His voice as he delivers the final speech to the simpering politician Angela Northman "Never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war."(Monica Dolan) could cut through plate steel like a laser!

The screenplay offers a contrasting view of how men and women, politicians and military, Americans and Brits all approach the same difficult question. The part of Powell had originally been cast for a male actor but Mirren makes it all her own in her combat fatigues in her underground bunker barking orders at her subordinates. Had it not been for Northman's early intervention the film would have been a lot a shorter. The British politicians are depicted as being impotent and facile whilst the Americans are shown to be decisive and unwavering. For those with an interest in personality types, the main debate explores the tension between those who have a preference for being 'Feelers' and those whose preference is to be a 'Thinker'!

The film is not without its flaws but these are more than compensated for in the bravery of tackling this subject in such a direct and engaging way. I really liked it and will be adding it to my collection of discs when it becomes available. Do go and see it - and think about how happy you are that people in the Nevada Desert are protecting your safety by killing people in Kenya. Sadly a scenario becoming increasingly common around our shrunken globe. I'll give it 8/10.

Monday, 18 April 2016

American Sniper

The fact that this film was nominated in six categories for an Oscar and won only one in the sound editing category probably sums up what this film's main problem is - it somehow fails to deliver what it truly promises. In saying that I am in no way minimising the horrors of war or the sacrifice of too many (on all sides) who have fought in and been impacted by them. Bradley Cooper is in the lead role of Chris Kyle and delivers a performance worthy of his Oscar nomination. There is an even stronger performance from Sienna Miller as his long suffering wife, Taya.

The story is biographical - painfully so. There are no real winners in war. The story really begins with a young Kyle growing up with his younger brother in Texas. The film briefly and crudely shows his father instilling in him the virtue of protecting your own at all costs. It also shows the young Kyle is quite a marksman with a hunting rifle. These scenes reminded me strongly of the family dynamics in Tree of Life. Kyle grows up riding broncos on the Texas rodeo circuit - and doing well from it. He exalts that he is living the American dream. The film is Directed by Clint Eastwood who leans towards a jingoistic, patriotic view of American identity. Not something that looks altogether appealing, particularly in light of the current Presidential nomination contests!

All is well until 9/11 and Kyle's immediate response is to enlist at the age of 29 so that he can protect his own. He joins the SEALS to train as a sniper. He survives the brutal boot camp training and along the way hitches up with the intriguing, beautiful and inscrutable Taya. On his wedding day he gets the order to deploy to Iraq.

Many commentators who served in Iraq commend the film for its realistic portrayal of the horror of door-to-door close combat warfare where everyone has to be viewed as a potential enemy and where even children wield RPG launchers. The film paints a picture of a theatre of war where the individual soldier is left to make the moral judgement of when to pull the trigger. The only time there appears to be any institutional morality is when there are US casualties and an investigation is needed to discover how they happened.

The film throws up lots of moral and ethical issues and depicts a form of warfare that is messy, spontaneous and unequal. It creates a universal 'us versus them' scenario where grey doesn't exist and everything is rendered in high-contrast black and white. It also comes full circle in that Kyle's mission becomes the elimination of an Al Qaeda sniper who is becoming too successful in eliminating American servicemen. It is like a parallel rodeo or hunting confrontation. Who will win?

What the film does portray extensively and with great sensitivity is the effect that operating in such theatres of war can have on the combatants. Becoming America's deadliest sniper not only attracted a $180,000 bounty placed on his head by Al Qaeda, but through PTSD turned Kyle into a distracted, insular and absent human being. This is where Sienna Miller's performance is so good. Her patient loyalty to the husband she loves sustains her when he returns home and his behaviour is barely recognisable. Everyday sounds transport him in an instant back to the theatre of war when pneumatic wrenches are heard as weapons of torture and a lawn mower becomes the sound of an attack helicopter. War changes people.

I won't say any more about the story - I don't think I've spoiled things too much in what I've said above. What the film does show is the terrible cost in collateral damage that modern warfare seems to rack up without really trying. It also shows a self-justifying set of rules of engagement where perceiving a threat is taken to be sufficient justification for killing anyone. A sniper fights a clinically detached war 1000 yards from his victim. It also shows an 'enemy' who does not operate by traditional 'Western values' of warfare and is happy to coerce children and women into war through torture and threat. Two blind ideologies going head-to-head cannot have a good outcome.

Whilst this film has many parts that are excellent and worthy of engagement, as a piece of drama it also has many flaws. For me this makes it simply 'another war film' as Hollywood tries to justify an unjustifiable war. Great performances from the two leads but in the end not a film I need to see again. I'll give it 6/10.