Redemption (2013)

In Redemption, a former British soldier who endured a tragic episode during his tour of duty in Afghanistan tries to put his life back together and gets some unexpected help from a local crime lord and a Polish nun.

redemptionUK
2.5*

Director:
Steven Knight
Screenwriter:
Steven Knight

Director of Photography:
Chris Menges

Alternate title: Hummingbird

Running time: 100 minutes

Although his name points to potentially religious overtones that could dovetail with the film’s title, Joseph “Joey” Smith (Jason Statham), who shares his name with the founder of Mormonism, never projects any measure of spirituality. In fact, the closest he comes to addressing issues of faith is his occasional but very cursory reflections on whether his behaviour is good enough to redeem him from past mistakes.

Unfortunately, given their implicit significance for Joey, Redemption spends precious little time fleshing out these past mistakes. The opening scene, which is deliberately fragmentary but whose inadequacy and bad staging is revealed in later scenes that slightly elaborate on the action, is apparently the inflection point for Joey. In Afghanistan’s war-torn Helmand Province, Western military men are shot to pieces; shortly afterwards, a Middle Eastern man is marched through a market towards certain death at the hands of his captor, a Western soldier. This seemingly random scene, the only one to take place in Afghanistan, is one of Joey’s mistakes.

But it is also one of the film’s mistakes because the parts are so disjointed that the director already loses us in the opening seconds. We tell ourselves that, “Obviously, the importance will be revealed later in the film”, but the only reason the shootout is memorable is because it looks so bad: There is no setup of place nor character, and we merely get a shot of six seated men in uniform suddenly starting to shake violently to the rhythm of gunfire on the soundtrack before they spit blood. This is gruesome, but we don’t see why we should care. When we realise much later that this was in fact a point-of-view shot, the setup (and the observer’s apparent ability to escape this bloodshed entirely) makes even less sense.

Following this prologue, the narrative quickly shifts gears to one year later on the streets of London, where we find the city’s homeless being preyed on by a small group of aggressive scoundrels. One of the vagrants hits back with some surprising skill and manages to flee the scene. He ends up breaking into a vacant apartment in the city centre, behind Soho and Temple, which he will occupy for the rest of the story as he puts the pieces of his life back in order. His real name is Joey Smith, but the time has come for him to reshape his identity – and with it, his destiny.

However, the story of the apartment is a little too ridiculous for words. It belongs to a well-known photographer who has conveniently left for six months in New York City without setting the alarm. Also, perhaps most preposterously, this man’s wardrobe fits Joey like a glove. In fact, it would not have been much of a stretch to expect a revelation that Joey is in fact the same photographer, a fellow called Damon, but with amnesia, as we never see what the real tenant looks like until the very end of the film. Such a turn of events would not have been much worse than what we get here.

Joey befriends a Polish nun who serves soup to the homeless, initially to ask about the whereabouts of Isabel, a girl with whom he used to share a cardboard box on the street. This relationship with Isabel is sorely underexplained, and it is impossible to imagine why he is so desperate to find her. On a parallel track, some people from his past turn up, but they serve as mere reminders of a life that is a world away, and aside from the vague contours of the war in Afghanistan there is no account of the twists and turns that led him to this point. 

The nun, Cristina, another character with a religion-inflected name, is another blank slate whom we know little about until late in the film when she abruptly becomes a major part of the storyline, even though Joey’s own development is shallow and has very few milestones.

Luckily, Benedict Wong brings some gravitas to the proceedings in his role as Mr. Choy, a senior figure in one of London’s triads. Word from Joey’s employer, the owner of a Chinese restaurant, reaches him that this is a man who knows how to fight back, and before long Joey works for Mr. Choy and drives around the City doing dirty work with a poker face and receiving wads of cash that he ends up stuffing in his (rather, Damon’s) freezer.

Redemption‘s visual style is as muddled as its content. At various points, there are unexplained inserts of grainy footage taken from the perspective of a surveillance camera or a drone, and while the latter refers back to Joey’s time in Afghanistan, the visuals are too infrequent, too inconsequential and too inconsistent for the film to utilise them in an effective manner, and the connection to the events onscreen is tenuous at best. By contrast, compare the masterful inclusion of surveillance and other unconventionally obtained footage in David Ayer’s End of Watch.

Although more restrained than most other films starring Jason Statham, the film does not have the talent behind it to make the most of its Afghanistan setting nor the intelligence to increase the relevance of the drone shots. Statham is a calming presence in the middle of much that is directionless, but director Steven Knight would have to wait until his subsequent film, Locke, to redeem himself.

End of Watch (2012)

Cameras are everywhere in End of Watch, a gritty take on the genre of police drama set in the City of Angels.

end-of-watchUSA
4*

Director:
David Ayer

Screenwriter:
David Ayer

Director of Photography:
Roman Vasyanov

Running time: 110 minutes

It’s all about the cameras. In End of Watch, a Los Angeles cop and his partner (sometimes in crime) patrol the city’s south side and have a lot to deal with, and police officer Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) decides to start passing the time by filming what the force does and how they do it.

This gimmick is not narratively grounded in some search for the truth behind the deeds; rather, it is all about participation, and the viewer doesn’t simply look at the events through the eye of Taylor’s camera but through multiple eyes, including those of surveillance cameras and helicopters flying high above the city.

The opening scene is shot from inside a police car, from the point of view of the dashboard camera that captures a chase, suddenly made vivid when the scene abruptly transitions from voiceover to very real-world sounds of racing through the backroads of a lower-class neighbourhood in South Central. When Taylor and his partner, Mike Zavala (Michael Peña), eventually catch up with the speeding perps, there is a shootout that ends with the runaways being shot dead, violently, in broad daylight.

Luckily, director David Ayer had the good sense not to limit his camera style to pocket-sized handheld, though we do get an awful lot of that. There are some significant problems with his choice of style at certain points in the film, top among these the music-video motif he employs during mass shootouts, undercutting the viewer’s feeling of being present at the scene of a crime.

Given the nature of the plot – large parts are connected not by story but by the central duo of Gyllenhaal and Peña, whose banter is lively, engaging and seemingly heartfelt – End of Watch‘s dependence on style is notable. However, save for the moments highlighted above, the approach and the composition of the film by means of precision editing ensure that the viewer never loses interest.

The actors were essential in this process, and their easy delivery of the lines makes for a very real feeling of camaraderie between them, a feeling that the filmmaker certainly counted on with the final moments in mind: The title refers to the death of a policeman, the end of his or her time on the beat.

Most of the day, Taylor and Zavala are out on the streets, driving from one end of their sector to the other, and spending that time talking about seemingly insignificant things that all end up tying them together as friends and partners. Making jokes about each other’s race (Taylor is white, Zavala is Hispanic) and the stereotypes that go along with the colour of their skins, they also talk about things more personal in their own lives, though the discussions are mostly limited to talk of either wives or girlfriends.

These friendly talks are woven into the situational structure of the screenplay, in which they respond to calls for help and follow their instincts, sometimes with good intentions but often with results that only demonstrate the problems produced by their unwillingness to be patient and let the law work itself out.

At times, End of Watch can be incredibly tense – a direct outcome of the film’s visual style. When Taylor and Zavala arrive at an empty house, the camera doesn’t show us any more than what the characters themselves can see. There are no surveillance cameras to warn them of imminent danger, and their (our) view is often obstructed by walls, doors and stairwells.

The process of joining the viewer to the camera is gradual, almost imperceptible, but during one of the film’s final scenes, the impact of having the images in front of us suddenly turn to noise is beyond words, as we realize what bond we have formed with the visuals and how close we have come to the situation and the characters depicted onscreen.

The film offers a novel approach to telling the story of policemen on the job, and, though End of Watch never soars to the level of Paul Haggis’s Crash, a project that also featured Peña, it certainly conveys the grittiness of being a cop and the fact that danger can lurk behind any corner. This is not a story about good cops and bad cops but about human beings who have to face not only the poverty of those they need to protect but also the inhumanity brought about by drugs and violence in a neighbourhood where these are often the only forms of stability.

The Phantom Carriage (1921)

Complex narrative structure of Swedish ghost story is easy to follow and underlines actor-director Victor Sjöström’s impact on the development of the cinema. 

The Phantom Carriage / KörkarlenSweden
4*

Director:
Victor Sjöström

Screenwriter:
Victor Sjöström

Director of Photography:
J. Julius

Original title: Körkarlen

Running time: 110 minutes

The Phantom Carriage, a 1921 Swedish feature film directed by and starring Victor Sjöström as the boorish central character, may be the most intelligent film made during the movie industry’s first 25 years. Not only does it utilise double exposure in a sustained fashion that is rooted in the material itself and comes across very well, but it also flashes forwards, backwards and inwards with a Russian doll structure that very early on produces a story within a story within a story (i.e. a second-level hypodiegesis).

Offering a slightly different take on Dickens’s The Christmas Carol and its Ghost of Christmas Past, The Phantom Carriage is based on the eponymous novel by esteemed novelist Selma Lagerlöf, first published in 1912. It tells the story of David Holm, a bitter and malicious man who is killed just before the clock strikes 12 on New Year’s Eve. Accompanied by Death, the carriage driver who collects the spirits of the dead, he has to look back over the past year and the events leading up to his demise. In his acts, he recognises how his recklessness and lack of care for those closest to him have led to desperation, suffering and tragedy, and this recognition eventually leads to a choice that could save him from eternal damnation.

The first 30 minutes of The Phantom Carriage easily constitute the most impressive part of the production, at least from a narrative point of view. Opening on New Year’s Eve, the film presents us with Sister Edith, a Salvation Army nurse afflicted with galloping consumption (tuberculosis) and lying on her deathbed. She desperately wants those around her to bring a man by the name of David Holm to her bedside, but no one – including his wife – is able or willing to find him. Holm gets quite a build-up, as his name is mentioned frequently, and the effect on the audience is one of enormous expectation.

This first half-hour contains multiple instances of parallel cutting to compare the sober scenes in Edith’s bedroom with the carousing trio of friends drinking in the town’s cemetery. Close to midnight, the focus shifts to one of the three men: He tells a story he heard about a late friend of his, Georges, who passed away one year earlier. Inside the flashback showing Georges one year earlier, yet another story is embedded, as Georges explains that Death allegedly trades places with whoever dies last during the year. And yet, the narrative hierarchy is very easy to understand, as the film eventually slides back through the different levels of narration one by one until it reaches the narrator in the cemetery.

At this point, however, the film takes another sharp turn. We learn it is David Holm telling the story, and after falling out with his two night comrades, he is killed and left for dead. Right on cue, Death arrives on the scene, snatches David’s soul from his body and then transports him (and us) back into the past to trace the journey of bad judgement that eventually led him here to the symbolically apropos graveyard. All the while, there are cuts back to David and Death (ghostly apparitions thanks to the double exposure) to remind us of the dynamic narrative hierarchy whose actions continue to move not only in the past but also in the present.

It is obligatory to mention that actor-director Sjöström would go on to star in one of Ingmar Bergman’s most celebrated films about life and death, Wild Strawberries, and it is impossible to ignore the resemblance between the two embodiments of Death in The Phantom Carriage and Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Both wear black cloaks, and their faces are covered by giant hoods. They also carry a large scythe – the physical manifestation of their function as reapers of souls.

The film is at its best when it focuses sharply on Holm, particularly because his mere presence and unpredictable nature can evoke anxiety in the viewer. However, when the focus shifts to Sister Edith, who is possessed by a wholly unreasonable desire that Holm, despite his evidently malicious and uncaring nature, have a beautiful life, it is difficult to take the film seriously. Holm is responsible for Edith contracting consumption, and yet, while they have never had a conversation, she laughably calls him, “the man I love”.

It goes without saying that Edith’s “love” for Holm goes unrequited, but while she pines for him, our empathy for her drops precipitously despite the opening scene’s very successful juggling act of creating mystery and anticipation, as well as a measure of compassion for a bedridden stranger.

The Phantom Carriage is a gem of movie. It deals with serious issues in a novel way by being formally creative, in terms of both structure and visuals, and the nearly two-hour running time flies past at a relatively brisk pace, even though the scenes are generally longer than viewers of contemporary films might be used to. Sjöström’s Holm is the protagonist, the villain and a tragic anti-hero, and he delivers a powerful re-enactment of the Damascus moment at the film’s climax.

It is no wonder this film is often considered to be among the earliest masterpieces in Swedish cinema.

A Useful Life (2010)

A Useful Life starts off as a nostalgic throwback to life at the cinema before the real world intervenes to drag the main character out of the theatre and into the streets, where he gets to experience a very movie-like romance.

Useful LifeUruguay
3.5*

Director:
Federico Veiroj

Screenwriters:
Arauco Hernández

Inés Bortagaray
Gonzalo Delgado
Federico Veiroj
Director of Photography:
Arauco Hernández

Original title: La vida útil

Running time: 65 minutes

An opening title card warns us that what we are about to see is not reflective of the real Cinemateca Uruguaya, the South American country’s 50-something-year-old institution sticking up for the seventh art. Perhaps the title card is necessary for local audiences, as the film features not only the premises of the real movie house in the heart of the capital, Montevideo, but also the real-life director, Manuel Martínez Carril, in the same capacity as a fictional character.

Straight after the title card, the film’s entire credits follow, just as they used to in the old days – generally speaking, until the mid-1970s. While we are immediately positioned in the present with the opening image (a FedEx package), the feeling of nostalgia remains, particularly because we see so little from the modern world inside the Cinemateca. It is an environment that is almost hermetically sealed to the passage of time until financial calamity threatens to topple the house of cards in one fell swoop.

The main character is the heavy-set, cream-coloured-suit-wearing, expressionless-’til-the-end Jorge, played by Jorge Jellinek. (As an aside, it is worth noting that everyone is this film is named after the actor or actress that plays them.) He is the manager of the cinema and has been with the institution for half its existence. In fact, he has devoted so much of his life to spreading the gospel of celluloid that he does not have a life beyond the building’s walls and is living with his elderly father.

But the Cinemateca, despite its celebration of the world of fiction, has to face the cold, hard reality of the present: It owes eight months in rent, has a steadily declining viewership and needs to repair its projectors, which would cost a stunning amount of money. And the foundation that has supported them does not have money to waste on what by all accounts appears to be an enterprise that will never recover.

The night of the last picture show comes much more quickly than anyone had anticipated, in spite of Jorge’s tape-recorded plea to the audience before one of its last screenings that, “You need the Cinemateca, and the Cinemateca needs you”. The halls of the cinema are decorated with reminders of the history of the art form – an artistic rendering of Eadweard Muybridge’s galloping horses. The film also contains an encomium to films from years past, such as Alexander Nevsky, in an absolutely mesmerising five-minute-long shot at the halfway mark that is static and unbroken and features Martinez explaining the difference between knowing (facts about) cinema and feeling it.

Luckily for Jorge, the end of this chapter in his life is followed by an adventure of cinematic proportions. In fact, at this point, two-thirds into the film, there should have been a switch to brightly lit Technicolor, because the contrast in tone with what came before is so sharp. But while the artifice is more pronounced, director Federico Veiroj pulls us closer on two occasions by having us see the world from Jorge’s point of view: once, comically, when he takes off his glasses, and another time, more tongue-in-cheek, when he is having his hair washed at the salon.

The Useful Life is not entirely successful at melding the two parts nor at justifying the sudden shift from the one to the other, but the film’s short running time (barely surpassing the one-hour mark) certainly works in its favour. This is a film for cinephiles who can appreciate the poster of Akira Kurosawa’s most expensive film, Ran, in the background when Jorge realises the cinema’s finances are in dire straits, who get shivers down their spines seeing the director serve as Spanish voice-over artist for a screening of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, or anyone else who has been to and experienced the joy of seeing a many-decades-old film on the big screen.

It doesn’t have the passion or the wit of a Cinema Paradiso (after all, these are drastic times for theatres all over the world that are showing non-contemporary or non-commercial films), but its focus on a tiny group of characters keeps our attention and show that movies are always a critical part of a life worth living.

Volcano (2011)

Rúnar Rúnarsson’s heart-wrenching drama about a recent retiree whose life is turned upside down when his wife has a serious stroke is eerily similar to Michael Haneke’s Amour, which was released nearly two years later.

volcano-eldfjallIceland
4.5*

Director:
Rúnar Rúnarsson

Screenwriter:
Rúnar Rúnarsson

Director of Photography:
Sophia Olsson

Original title: Eldfjall

Running time: 100 minutes

The only time we see the tragic events inflicted on the population by the titular volcano is during the opening credits. During the rest of Icelandic director Rúnar Rúnarsson’s stunning and sensitive début feature, the tragedy is much more low-key, although no less heart-wrenching, than during those opening minutes (archive footage shows scenes of people fleeing at the time of the island’s most famous eruption) set to the soaring sounds of a choir – an approach the director would repeat in his equally perceptive second feature, Sparrows.

On the whole, Volcano tells a story that is strikingly similar to Michael Haneke’s Amour (even including the emotionally shattering climax): When an elderly woman has a stroke, becomes paralysed and requires constant care, her husband, equally advanced in years, has to cope with the situation while awaiting his own inevitable demise. However, the notable difference is that Haneke was nearly the same age as his 70-something main characters. Rúnarsson, who was only in his early 30s, arguably has as firm a grasp on the subject matter as his Austrian counterpart, who had accumulated much more life and professional experience by the time he made his film two years later.

The main character is Hannes (Theodor Júlíusson), who has just entered retirement after nearly 40 years as a janitor at a school in Reykjavík. His marriage to Anna (Helga Jóhannsdóttir), the mother of his two children, is a ritualistic affair. She cooks, he complains about her cooking, and, even though they sleep next to each other, there is very little communication, understanding or obvious signs of love. That is, until Hannes’s boat takes on water, he has to be rescued, and he overhears his children asking themselves why their parents are even together. These scenes in the first half of the film are absolutely critical, as the unexpected tragedy that befalls Hannes is compounded by his realisation, only days earlier, that he has to start appreciating the woman who has remained by his side through good times and bad.

Unlike Amour, in which the stroke occurred very early on, Volcano‘s long setup establishes a fuller story with many failed relationships that ultimately nourishes much of the narrative in the second half. Because we understand the characters better, we are also more easily affected by their ups and down, and the sense of loss is far greater here than in Haneke’s film.

Júlíusson delivers a powerhouse performance as the cranky old man who recognises almost too late that he has missed out on life and now has to make up for his mistakes but has to do so alone. This intense loneliness is one that is felt in one of the first scenes, after Hannes has left the school for the last time (an awfully dreary goodbye occasion was thrown in his honour), when he drives home and we can spot tears in the corners of his eyes as he looks into the light of the setting sun. It is a loneliness he almost yields to when his boat takes on water and instead of doing all he can to bail the water out of the boat, he lights a cigarette and stares into the distance. But he resists the temptation to surrender, and this particular moment is a turning point that is fundamental to understanding his subsequent decision to care for his wife.

But the stroke leaves Anna in a state of near-constant, soul-crushing, slow-motion wailing, and Hannes tries to comfort her in vain because it is impossible to know whether she is trying to communicate, crying or producing sounds involuntarily as a result of the brain paralysis. In the meantime, he also has to deal with his children’s resentment over the many years during which he failed to show much interest in or enthusiasm for their development or well-being; it is to director Rúnarsson’s great credit that he successfully manages to shift our sympathies and allegiance from the children to the father during the course of the film.

Against all odds, Hannes finds strength and a sense for caring inside him that he didn’t know he had. The climax is a bit sudden and arrives without having laid any groundwork, but once it happens we fully understand why it has come to this, and the unbroken shot, bookended by a kiss, is absolutely beautiful.

The opening song is “Heyr himna smiður” (Hear, Heavenly Creator), a number whose history goes back some 800 years, and the performance by the Hallgrimskirkja’s Motett Choir is hypnotising.

Broken Blossoms (1919)

The beginnings of yellowface in the cinema are far less controversial than D.W. Griffith’s earlier Birth of a Nation, but Broken Blossoms lacks complexity and relies on main characters’ outsider status alone as the reason for them to be together. 

Broken BlossomsUSA
3.5*

Director:
D.W. Griffith

Screenwriters:
Thomas Burke

D.W. Griffith
Director of Photography:
G.W. Bitzer

Alternate title: The Yellow Man and the Girl

Running time: 90 minutes

D.W. Griffith’s depressing 1919 romantic drama Broken Blossoms may have the dubious title of being a pioneer in the use of yellowface (having white actors play Asians, most notably by grotesquely deforming their facial features), but it also arguably started the trend of creating a couple from two people who have very little in common and no obvious chemistry.

In the early 20th century, the placid Cheng Huan is moved by the “gentle message of Buddha” towards the West. An encounter with a rowdy crew of American sailors who use to their fists to solve problems horrifies the timid Cheng and reinforces his belief that the West needs the East’s positive and peaceful approach. He sets sail for London, where we find he has become an outcast who barely speaks to anybody but runs a tiny shop in the capital’s squalid Limehouse district, where, according to the film’s title cards, “the Orient squats at the portals of the West”.

Griffith, as he had done since at least The Drive for a Life in 1909, continues to deploy parallel editing on many occasions, although it this case one would be hard-pressed to say he is perfecting the approach. He focuses on the stories of the two main characters, Cheng and Lucy, whose lives are comparable to each other in their sorrow, and Griffith expects we would expect the two strands to be firmer tied together than apart.

Of course, that is a mistake too many directors still make today. The simplistic notion that people would not only gravitate towards each other but become intimately connected simply because they are outsiders is extremely silly. Cheng barely speaks to anyone. Lucy is equally timid, although she is also suffering tremendous domestic violence at the hands of the man who raised her, a perpetually drunk miscreant boxer, Battling Burrows, who takes out his general frustration with life on his adopted daughter. So, naturally, Cheng and Lucy find each other and immediately merge their souls.

Lilian Gish plays Lucy, and unlike the expressionless, dour face (naturally, framed under a conical hat) that the white Richard Barthelmess wears to portray Cheng, hers vibrates with a melancholy that is ever-present. A scene late in the film in which she locks herself in a closet out of fear for her own life and then writhes along the wall in anguish has justifiably been hailed for its visceral impact on the viewer.

A running visual theme that Gish utilises exceptionally well is the small gesture of using her fingers to push the corners of her mouth upwards, thus forcing a smile onto her “tear-aged” face. These are moments that could easily have come across as contrived but are instead conveyed with a real sense of desperation thanks to the actress’s skills as a performer.

This is supposed to be a romantic film, as the title cards inform us almost immediately after Cheng and Lucy set eyes on each other: Cheng’s loving care of the physically and mentally abused Lucy is “the first gentleness she has ever known”, and she “seems transformed – into the dark chambers of her incredulous, frightened little heart comes warmth and light.” Cheng is so taken with this creature of purity that he scoops up the moonlight falling through the window and places it worshipfully on her hair. And yet, the two of them almost never speak; as the film, despite its obvious intention to produce a romance, chooses to focus on scenes of action (sometimes irrelevant to the main couple) with Burrows the boxer.

Cheng, who hovers lasciviously over Lucy while she sleeps, makes for a rather pathetic hero, and we have little reason to empathise with him, except for him being such a tender fellow who is taken advantage of by a brutish boxer, and more generally, by Western civilisation. On this point, Griffith, who had made the racially insensitive Birth of a Nation four years earlier, is surprisingly broad-minded. In one scene, the obviously mild-mannered Cheng meets a missionary, about to set off for China to “convert the heathen”, who hands him a pamphlet on Hell, presumably because he assumes the Chinaman would require salvation from the Christian Trinity.

Fortunately, despite its one-dimensional characters and the utter simplicity of its central romance, Broken Blossoms does have at least two moments that stand out from the rest. One is a shot at the beginning of the extended climax, when Burrows discovers Lucy in Cheng’s apartment. The camera shoots his face looking straight at us, and we can just about see his nostrils flaring as the rage builds to a terrifying crescendo. Although there was never any risk that the viewer would be empathising with the villain, this momentary re-positioning of the viewer is clever and comparable to (though better executed than) the final shot of The Great Train Robbery.

The other moment worth considering is the complex morality at the end of the film. Here, the story seems to come full circle, as Cheng’s ineffective approach to the pugilist sailors at the beginning of the film comes back to haunt him, and either he has been consumed by the barbarity of the Anglo-Saxons he had believed he would be able to save, or he has decided to solve his problems in a different, albeit equally futile, way.

Although Broken Blossoms will be remembered for its mainstream normalisation of the practice of yellowface (even though the film opened pre–Hays Code, which prohibited the depiction of miscegenation), in terms of morality the film is a vast improvement over Griffith’s Birth of a Nation.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

Daydreams and a little push finally get one man out of his comfort zone, taking him on a wild and ever more fantastical journey from the Big Apple to Iceland to the foothills of the Himalayas in north-eastern Afghanistan.

The Secret Life of Walter MittyUSA
3.5*

Director:
Ben Stiller

Screenwriter:
Steve Conrad

Director of Photography:
Stuart Dryburgh

Running time: 115 minutes

There is always fun to be had whenever Ben Stiller steps behind the camera. From Zoolander to Tropic Thunder, his characters have been memorable in a way very few others have managed: They are oddballs, but even though they don’t arouse much sympathy, they stick with us.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is slightly different, because it is less inclined towards entertaining us and more towards thrilling us with the notion that it’s never too late to be adventurous, and that there is a Magellan inside all of us. The level of storytelling isn’t elevated far above Stiller’s previous pictures, but despite its flaws, it is certainly more mature.

The film is the second attempt at bringing James Thurber’s original 2,000-word story from 1939 to the big screen. The short story had little going for it: Basically, Walter Mitty drove his wife to the hairdresser, picked up “overshoes” because she had told him to, bought dog biscuits and then picked her up again, all while daydreaming about adventures in alternating paragraphs.

The first director to try his hand at the story was Norman McLeod, but the film he produced, released in 1947, is filled with an embarrassingly weak central character who faces farcical situations at home, while his many alter egos takes on life and death in his fantasies.

Stiller’s film is certainly an improvement on that, because the daydreams that pepper the opening act – and they do unfortunately become tedious to the extent that we no longer care what happens, since we know it is merely a temporary digression from reality – eventually morph into adventure in Walter Mitty’s (Stiller) own life, when he jumps from a helicopter into shark-infested waters off the coast of Greenland, skates down a long and winding road in the Icelandic countryside while a volcano erupts close by, and climbs a mountain in Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush where he spots the elusive snow leopard.

But let’s back up for a second – there are a few interlocking parts to this plot.

The reason Mitty embarks on the journey of a lifetime is because he is after the missing negative of a photo that is supposed to be the final cover of LIFE Magazine, where he works as the negative asset manager. The company’s product is about to be turned into a digital-only publication, and personnel cuts are imminent, but he has his eye on co-worker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), who has only just started working there.

With only three other photos as clues – one of someone’s finger, the other of a body of water with the word “Erkigsnek”, and the last of what looks like a piece of wood – he sets off on a mission to find the magazine’s nomadic photographer, Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), who was last seen somewhere close to the capital of Greenland.

It is not always clear how Mitty manages to follow O’Connell’s trail, but he is constantly on the move, being pushed ever onward by visions of Cheryl telling him to go while channelling David Bowie. And we certainly feel privileged to experience this rush of adrenaline along with him. Although it is obvious from the first moment we see Greenland that the scenes here were actually shot on Iceland, the scenes on the Northern Hemisphere’s largest island do provide a magical moment when Mitty, once again lost in thought, realises the opportunity to escape from a life of absolute safety and monotony is upon him, and he catches the flight to a destination unknown.

The scenes on these two islands are stunning and filled with unusual characters (a drunk helicopter pilot played by the powerhouse Icelandic actor Ólafur Darri Ólafsson is a particular thrill) and extraordinary situations, including the eruption of the infamous Eyjafjallajökull.

Unfortunately, the scenery and the events make us question the necessity of the action set in New York City, either at the office or out and about with Cheryl, who is clearly fond of Mitty, but having recently separated from her husband, she seems to be hesitant to jump right back into the waters of the dating world.

But perhaps that was the point all along: The real world sucks, and that is why Mitty chooses to daydream. New York City is also the scene of family drama, and thanks to his chirpy mother (Shirley MacLaine) we learn the obstacle to him embracing his wild side was the death of his father, which left the family without money and forced him to start work when he was a teenager. This back story easily explains why Steven Spielberg had toyed with the idea of directing the film back in 2003.

Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has a Spike Jonze quality to it, especially as imagination and reality often flow into each other, and the imagery of water or ripples found throughout is very fitting, beautifully captured by director of photography Stuart Dryburgh (The Piano).

There are odd digressions, including a wholly unbefitting homage to (or spoof of, depending on your perspective) The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and it is a bit of a surprise to find Mitty leaving on a flight into so-called “Ungoverned Afghanistan” at the drop of a hat without so much as applying for a visa. Even the final revelation just before the closing credits, which is absolutely picture-perfect, lacks a greater punch because it doesn’t have much of a foundation to support it, and despite the film’s best efforts at touching us, it feels like a missed opportunity.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty takes us on a wonderful ride through exquisite locations, but while the screenplay breathes life into the short story, it only hints at a well of emotions that are never explored and, sadly for us, remain a secret part of the life of Walter Mitty.

Fury (2014)

David Ayer’s Second World War film has a dose of the infernal as it shows what has usually gone unsaid: good guys also have to kill.

fury-david-ayerUSA
3.5*

Director:
David Ayer

Screenwriter:
David Ayer

Director of Photography:
Roman Vasyanov

Running time: 135 minutes

When the Allied forces disembarked on the shores of Normandy, Dante’s famous sign at the gates of hell should have informed them what they were up against: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” Of course, in the end, they prevailed against Hitler, Mussolini and their troops, and the heroism of the soldiers and their actions during the Second World War still make grown men cry. But as much as war is about conquest and defeat, the fights that have to be fought lead to death, and it is not only when you have killed hundreds or even dozens of people that you change, but when you have killed a single one.

Every time there is a war, this realisation has to dawn on soldiers, and the moment when war becomes real is when you aim your pistol and pull the trigger at someone whose ideology differs from yours but who has not tried to kill you. In David Ayer’s Fury, war is a painfully miserable experience for the viewer, because it so clearly turns people into bloodthirsty animals, often against their will. It tells the story of five men, huddled inside a tank named “Fury”, who do their best to survive, despite the odds, as they proceed across the German countryside and make their way towards Berlin in the waning days of the war.

Despite the green fields, sometimes decked with light snow, we get the impression throughout that the U.S. troops are crossing the valley of the shadow of death, and there is indeed evil to fear, because anything from a landmine to a brush-covered sniper can flip someone’s life switch in a matter of seconds. In the dark but meaningful opening scene, we get a very good sense of just how fragile life can be.

The film’s opening scene goes from ominous to gory to utterly bleak as someone we can’t see approaches on horseback, only to be stabbed through the eye, the blade presumably sinking deep into the skull, and dying instantly. The guy who did the stabbing is played by Brad Pitt, and he is in charge of a band of brothers during the Second World War who want to kill as many Nazis as they can as fast as they can so that they can go home and forget about all the people they killed. It is a vicious circle from which they can’t escape.

That opener, in which we are utterly unsure at first whether to cheer for the stabber or feel bad for the stabbee, shows this violence between individuals we don’t know, and who in all likelihood don’t know each other. It is a kind of violence of which this film is powerful but ultimately a pale representation of the large-scale moral carnage that occurs during wartime.

The main meat of the story does not involve the five soldiers as much as it focuses on the very quick growing up the newest addition to the group, Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), has to do not. Not only does he have to stand his man and fit in but also survive in this environment of threats that are as constant as they are imminent.

Besides Pitt’s Sergeant Collier, the others in the group are as varied as one can expect: There is the silent, serious and very subdued Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LaBeouf), who cites Scripture when need be, and these guys need it very often; the hedonist Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal) who has clearly been fighting too long; and the Spanish-speaking Trini “Gordo” García (Michael Peña).

Ellison goes through the predictable trajectory from refusing to shoot anyone (before his transfer to the battlefield, he used to be a clerk, and he prides himself on typing 60 words per minute) to shooting like his life depended on it, and often it does, earning him the nom de guerre “[killing] Machine”.

But it is not all moonlight and roses, and Ayer takes pains to point out the moral minefield these characters have to navigate as they commit atrocious acts so that good may triumph in the end. At one point, we realise even Sergeant Collier might not be above taking an innocent German girl by force if given half a chance.

Because of his age, his lack of experience and his much less violent worldview, Ellison does not seem to fit in with these men, and neither does the audience, but over time we get to see the humanity in each of the characters, albeit often buried beneath a layer of denial for the sake of survival.

The film itself is an odd creature: While the characters get a somber dose of humanity and texture, the story is aimless, and there is no clear goal. We know the war is winding down, but by the end of the film, we are still stuck somewhere in the German countryside with only tiny triumphs and defeats having been racked up along the way, including an unforgettable scene that involves the Nazis’ feared Tiger tank.

The acting is superb, and it is particularly inspiring to see the greatness that lies within LaBeouf when he represses his emotions. But despite its historical accuracy, the “tracers” that light up one battle scene are more reminiscent of a Star Wars battle, complete with what looks like green and red lasers on the battlefield, than a 1945 shoot-out in the real world. Ayer should have found another way to make this scene palatable to an audience not at all used to such visuals in a realistic setting.

While the story may be thin, we leave the cinema utterly drained because of an overwhelming feeling of exhaustion and a realisation that even the good guys do terrible things so that their side can win. Soldiers are human, and in situations as primal as warfare, they are reduced to their most basic instincts, and for all the honour and glory we bestow on them when they return home, many of us probably would not want to know what they did so that the rest of us may carry on.

The Feast of Stephen (2009)

James Franco applies the language of cinema to adapt an Anthony Hecht poem and produces a work of sexual intensity that nicely dovetails with the films of dedicatee Kenneth Anger.

The Feast of StephenUSA
3.5*

Director:
James Franco

Screenwriter:
James Franco

Director of Photography:
Christina Voros

Running time: 266 seconds

James Franco’s The Feast of Stephen, a five-minute short film adapted from the eponymous poem by Anthony Hecht, is about sex, violence, violence as sex and sex as violence. Its ambiguous depiction of homoeroticism makes it difficult to determine whether or not it is a fantasy woven from reality, although the director overplays his hand in the second half with an unnecessarily literal portrayal of what was already quite apparent in the first half.

This wordless black-and-white short dedicated to experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger has something in common with one of the director’s earliest films, Fireworks, released more than 60 years earlier in 1947. Anger’s film was about a teenager (played by Anger himself) who goes in search of “relief” and finds it after wading through some sadomasochism. Like Fireworks, Franco’s film touches on the issue of shame and violence but also, eventually, sexual gratification, albeit tinged with violence and scatology, but luckily The Feast of Stephen takes a more serious tack and eschews the camp so often visible in Anger’s oeuvre, as Franco spares us the sight of milk-covered flesh.

The film opens on a basketball court, where four teenage boys – two of them shirtless – are passing the ball and shooting hoops. Along the fence comes a boy, the titular Stephen, wearing long trousers, a long-sleeved T-shirt and glasses – clearly, at odds with the rest of the group. Stephen stares at them, and something they look back at him, straight into the camera. He stares at them, and they start moving in slow motion, their youthful torsos rippling in the afternoon sun. He stares at them and notices how their hands playfully touch each other’s taut bodies. Suddenly, his desire is made manifest by more carnal images of the boys’ genitals. Now, Stephen is staring even more intently, and when one of them looks back, and the camera rushes towards him, it is clear Stephen has been caught out. He bolts off, his secret now out in the open, but the violence that ensues when the quartet of boys catch up to him also makes his innermost thoughts a reality.

The pounding that he gets all over his body, experienced most acutely in his groin, gradually becomes a pounding from behind. At this point, the implication is clear, but this is also the moment at which Franco goes too far in order to emphasise beyond a shadow of a doubt that this act of violence has a strong sexual undertone, as a cut suddenly removes all clothing, and we see Stephen being penetrated by the boys over whom he’d been tripping out. Of course, this moment is as imagined as the earlier moment of nudity that had briefly revealed the boys on court in the buff, and perhaps this prior image forms a sturdy means of support for the later scene, although both intellectually and emotionally it would have benefited from much tighter editing during the sodomy scene.

Despite its last-minute overreach, The Feast of Stephen is a seriously executed film that is thoroughly enjoyable and – unlike many of Franco’s other works – never overstays its welcome. The camera work has a grittiness that fits its subject very well, and while the lead actor comes across as more of a blank canvas than an actual character, the players’ movements are all beautifully coordinated. The film doesn’t have the grace or the sensuality of, say, Jean Genet’s Un chant d’amour, but the brutality wrapped in fantasy makes for two easily accessible levels on which to process the events, and in a film less than five minutes long, that is not bad at all.

Ex Machina (2015)

Scribe of The Beach turns director and produces a dazzling, thought-provoking science-fiction film about artificial intelligence.

Ex MachinaUK
4.5*

Director:
Alex Garland

Screenwriter:
Alex Garland

Director of Photography:
Rob Hardy

Running time: 110 minutes

Not since the one-two of Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca in 1997 and Alex Proyas’s Dark City in 1998 has a big-budget, big-return film posited the kind of highly credible near future that obliges us to confront the philosophical dilemmas raised by technological advances that we find in Alex Garland’s stunning directorial début, Ex Machina.

The tale is set in a world in which the search engine “BlueBook” (the name is arguably the least creative aspect of the entire screenplay), the fictional equivalent of Google, collects and processes the data from everyone around the world with access to a communication device. The reason for this is that the head of the company – a reclusive 30-something named Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who is a prodigiously gifted programmer and wrote the base code for BlueBook at the age of 13 – wants to take human civilisation to the next level. His goal is to use all of this data to construct a creature with artificial intelligence (AI), the likes of which would be indistinguishable from an organically evolved human being.

To his credit, Garland, perhaps best-known for writing the novel The Beach, does not burden his story with theory or philosophical digressions. He uses a very small cast, centres the action in a single location for almost the entirety of the film and provides minimal but distinct signposts to track the development of the drama. His storytelling proficiency is most discernible in his use of small parables that distil the essence of the dynamics at play.

There is no big setup. The opening shots quickly convey a clinical office space full of glass – that alienating material that is both allows us to see through it but separates us from that which we see – and within a few seconds, the camera settles on a closeup of a pale, blond programmer named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson). He receives a flickering message on his screen informing him he has won the first prize, and his colleagues flock to his desk to congratulate him. The prize is a visit to Nathan on his estate, which includes glaciers, mountains and a forest. The house itself is a curious mixture of the natural and the artificial, as it is built into rock but contains an immense array of technological devices that Nathan uses to protect himself from the outside world, and perhaps even from the others inside his house.

Caleb learns that he was selected to help Nathan perform a Turing test, which establishes whether someone can tell that a creature has AI and is not organic. The test subject looks half-machine, half-human and is called Ava. It might be a coincidence that the initials of the actress playing the part, Alicia Vikander, are AV, which also make up more than half the name of the character, but perhaps not. Of course, the first woman on earth, at least according to mythology, had a similar name: “Eve”.

But from the very first moment we meet him, we sense that there is something wrong with Nathan. He comes across as a guy who is comfortable in his own skin but trying a little too hard to be friends with Caleb, an employee in his company. He always walks around barefoot, makes flippant comments about his own role in the advancement of humanity and misquotes Caleb as saying he is a god. Something is not quite right, but we can’t put our finger on it, and Isaac is absolutely mesmerising in the role of a physically intimidating (at least, compared with Gleeson) individual who also has the dominant position in the power relationship and is a little unstable.

The controversial, highly topical issue of the mass collection of data by institutions ranging from governments around the world to search companies like Google is only obliquely addressed, but those who follow the news will not fail to notice it. In this case, the invasion of privacy is shocking but does not dominate the narrative in any way. Instead, it serves to underscore how embedded such actions have become in the information and communication industry.

Ex Machina develops at a gradual pace, with chapters marked out onscreen by title cards that merely display the number of the session between Caleb and Ava, which also correlates with the days he spends carrying out the test. Garland shows a remarkably firm hand with his narrative as he gently shifts the power dynamics, never deviates from his story and never loses our interest. It was a very clever move to have Ava remain a marginal character almost throughout, as her importance is deceptively minimised, and despite our concern for her well-being, we side with the men. Isaac (and Caleb, to a lesser extent) considers her to be little more than a machine, even though both of them are fully aware that she is in some way, primarily because of her exterior appearance, less than human.

Garland’s film is dazzling, and while this is a much more commercial approach to philosophical questions of existence than, say, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, its chilling resolution will spark debate about the future of mankind and the possibility of peaceful existence with machines that are just like us. Hubris should not get the better of man when he has managed to be a creator like God. Man may have his reasons, but humanoid machines will, too, and that is essential to keep in mind.