Where to Invade Next

Michael’s Moore’s most optimistic documentary yet.

The tone of ‘Where To Invade Next’ means that in many ways it stands out against Moore’s previous documentaries. Instead of his typical approach of ‘Here’s what America does wrong!’ and ‘Here’s how America is awful compared to these countries!’ there’s a slight shift. Instead of the glass half-empty approach, ‘Look at how badly these things are done!’ he takes for the first in his career a glass half-full approach,’ Look at how good things could be!’ The result is no less powerful than his previous films and arguably by adding ‘hope’ to his vernacular he will inspire and motivate. Furthermore, the timing of its UK release (about two weeks before the referendum over whether to stay in Europe, aka. Brexit), provides much food for thought.

Under the (false) pretense that the government has asked him to advise them on ‘Where To Invade Next’  Michael Moore then’invades’ and travels around three continents to find  what they are doing well and which ideas they could steal to use in America. These include:

  • Italy: labor rights and workers’ well-being
  •  France: school meals and sex education
  • Finland: education policy
  • Slovenia: debt-free/tuition-free higher education
  • Germany: labor rights and work–life balance
  • Portugal: drug policy, and the abolition of the death penalty
  • Norway: prison system
  • Tunisia: Women’s rights
  • Iceland: women in power and the financial crisis criminal investigation

By taking the form of a travelogue – instead of being goal-oriented (Roger & Me), a rage-driven societal critique (Bowling for Columbine) or to investigate inequalities within America (Sicko) – this feels like a fresh and revitalised Moore. One who is looking forward to solutions rather than expose the crimes. Arguably one of the main criticism against Moore and his documentaries is his over-simplifying of certain elements. It would be easy to argue that yes one of the above countries does do ‘X’ rather well, but have you seen how badly the issue over ‘Y’ is?!? But that’s not what this documentary is about. Yes Moore does still utilizes the comparison between his and other nations for effect (allocated holiday, school meals, taxes and criminality are stand-out) but his true purpose here is to look for other ideas. Instead of attacking the present he looks forward to the future and how things could be done.

I’ve seen a few critiques about this film and how this different approach shows that ‘Moore has gone soft.’ No. As any teacher (secondary school teacher working in the East End writing here) will tell you, when one approach doesn’t work you have to try others. If you constantly shout at a class they will soon be able to metaphorically put you on mute and tune you out. By trying out the rose-tinted glasses and using a more positive approach he may just retain more of our attention spans.

This does lead me on quite nicely to my personal stand-out part of the documentary: its mediation on the nature of education. I will admit that prior to this I knew nothing of France and its school meals system, nor of Finland and its education policy, but if what Moore explains is truly reflective of those respective nations – I really think here in the UK we have a lot to learn. I did cry during these sequences. I found numerous tears rolling down my cheeks when I saw the meals being offered to the children of these schools in France then compared them to those I’ve seen offered (as both student and teacher) at schools here. I cried when I heard the teachers of Finland talking about how school is about student personal development – not tests, grades or levels. I cried when I saw such happy children without the worry or concern I’ve come across as both student or teacher. You could argue that this was manipulation or simplification. Maybe.

But then again there’s a reason Moore didn’t visit the United Kingdom in this documentary. There’s a reason he didn’t recognise the UK as doing one of the above things particularly well. And, just maybe, that after seeing this you will see a reason that we shouldn’t leave when we’ve still got so much to learn.

4 stars

Warcraft: The Beginning

123 minutes of beginnings and little take-off

I came out of Warcraft feeling confused. As a total noob when it comes to W.O.W I knew nothing about the material before seeing the film and the film has little provision for the uninitiated.  Whilst scowling the web for plot summaries and plot explanations to answer my questions I also came across the reviews. Two outcomes came out of this experience, 1) I still have unresolved questions that may just have been plot-holes 2) There are some really brutal reviews out there that make me feel very sorry indeed for Duncan Jones and his film. Read any of his PR for the film and it is clear this is a project of passion for him – an element that really shines through when watching. Warcraft is not horrendous nor particularly bad; just too convoluted to allow it to flow. Plus, considering the entire film focuses on introductions it still manages to leave too many gaps and lead to much head-scratching. 

Draenor, the homeworld of the orcs, is dying. A green-skinned orc called Gul’dan (Daniel Wu) controls a magical force called The Fel which allows him to open a doorway from their world to another, Azeroth the home of the humans. Gul’dan plans to send over the orcs in batches, the first being a group of the strongest warriors. Duratan (Toby Kebbell) the chieftain of the Frostwolf clan, his pregnant mate Draka (Anna Galvin) and his second in command Orgrim (Robert Kazinsky) are amongst the first to cross. Duratan has his doubts over the mysterious green magic, believing there to be a link between Gul’tan using it and  the destruction of their home. Fearing the same will happen again with this world me makes contact with Anduin Loather (Travis Fimmel), the military commander of the city of Stormwind who in turn contacts the king (Dominic Cooper), the Guardian (Ben Foster) and a young mage (Ben Schnetzer). United will they be able to stop the Fel from destroying yet another world?

That’s the plot as far as I understood it (apologies to any of the more informed if I have gotten anything majorly wrong there!) It’s not the plot itself that leads to confusing, but some of the main nuances. Character motivations often go unexplained, as are the links and relationships between them. Considering the film’s focus is to introduce it almost feels like a prior film that I had missed had already done so. When it comes to the storytelling process I’m still not sure if the film is really clever or really stupid, lumbering along from one set-piece to the next, frequently impenetrable to the viewers.

The world of Warcraft is a rather beautiful and detailed one, with lots of layers and depth. However although it has made the transition to the screen it has perhaps not been translated enough for it to draw in those new to franchise, and I suspect it it is too diluted for it’s loyal fanbase. I have no qualms in metaphorically using a glossary to understand a mythology for a Fandom, something I have regularly had to do whilst watching six seasons worth of Game Of Thrones or even the six Middle Earth films,  but this film has too quiet a soul and too dull to warrant such extracurricular research. There is also a prevailing sense, resulting from poor critical and commercial reviews along with poor box office takings, that this is a world that will not return to the screen again…

The characters that inhabit this world are fine, not particularly good nor particularly bad. Just. Fine. Kebbell is standout as the conflicted Orc, proving yet again at his great skill at using the technology to create such wondrous creatures. Fimmel is almost an Aragorn 2.0, a reminder of just how good Viggo Mortensen  was in the role of charmer with a heart of gold. A shoehorned-in romantic subplot with half-orc Garona (Paula Patton) is undercut in terms of believability both by underdevelopment and forced chemistry. The rest of the cast are criminally underused. 

Warcraft is a film that is fantastical, but far from fantastic. Although the story being told is adequately entertaining it is told in a manner that is rather butchered, dull and rushed. It’s enjoyable enough but there is a prevailing sense that this film is not as good as it could have/ should have been.

2 stars

Captain America: Civil War

Is this Marvel’s greatest hour?

To start, let’s kick off with a bit of a retrospective. In 2008 Iron Man surprised the world – a superhero film packed with action, warmth and wit was a relatively new concept. The fact this one had a brilliant storyline along with making a hero most people outside of comic book fandom did not know/care about into someone they wanted to see even more of – that was the truly incredible thing. Skipping ahead several movies we then arrive at Avengers in 2012 which managed to bring the Earth’s mightest heroes together in a way that gave the entire ensemble space to shine. Captain America: Winter Soldier shook things up in 2014, showing that comic book movies could be more than just punch ups. They could come a espionage thriller editions too. Last year’s Age Of Ultron was ultimately a disappointment (though not in terms of box office) as it was too po-face and side piece-y. Now, one week ahead of the USA, we have Civil War. Civil War fixes the problems of Age Of Ultron, takes the smarts of Winter Soldier, the high-stakes suspense of Avengers and the character driven focus of Iron Man. In many ways it is one of the best Marvel movies yet, but is it really the five star perfection the majority of reviews are touting?

One year after the events in Sokovia – Steve Rodgers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Sam WIlson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie) are in Nigeria trying to prevent the theft of a biological weapon. In the process Wanda  loses control of her powers and a building is destroyed, killing several people. It’s the final straw and the governments of nation’s from around the world demand that the Avengers be held accountable for their actions. The United Nations puts forward the Sokovia Act which would put a governing body in charge of monitoring and policing the world’s growing inhuman population. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is in favour of signing that act as he has become all too aware of the consequences of their past actions. Steve, having become distrustful of government after the fall of S.H.I.E.LD, firmly disagrees. When Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), Steve’s childhood friend who was tortured by H.Y.D.R.A and forced to become an assassin, becomes involved what was once a a fracture becomes a break – forcing the Avengers to take sides. United they stood tall but when divided who will be left standing?

This film is pretty superb. It balances humour with action, characterisation with big set pieces, superpowers with humanity. The end product is pure cinematic escapism, with some big questions being posed along with some laugh-out-loud gags. For instance that age old mantra from Spiderman’s Uncle Ben ‘With great power comes great responsibility’ – if you are the one in possession of great power and you do not use it (however unintentionally) responsibly, who should you be accountable to? If you are capable of destroying cities, constantly having to make life or death decisions, should you have permission? All of Marvel’s past films have led to this point, where tough unanswerable questions slot in with huge/gigantic/speculator action sequences.

However, going somewhat against the tide here, I don’t think it’s perfect. Though its ambition is admirable and mostly successful it is a watching experience akin to going to your favourite restaurant, having your favourite meals but for some reason there is a delay between courses. There are some wonderful/brilliant/extraordinary moments, but then there is a bit of waiting around before the next wonderful/brilliant/extraordinary moment. In many ways this just goes to show just how could the wonderful/brilliant/extraordinary moments are, that they are of such a high caliber that the momentum cannot be maintained. It could also be a by-product of the film’s running time, which clocks in at 147 minutes. Going back to my eating-out analogy perhaps the portion size is overly large, the chef’s eyes were bigger than my belly, and that skimming a bit off the plate may have made for a more satisfying experience.

Saying that does not ignore or take the shine away from the incredible fest that this film offers. It may just be Marvel’s most mature film yet, displaying its spectacle and smarts with great confidence. The central debate is hugely topical – so much so that Batman V Superman featured simillar just a few weeks back. But this film is the antithesis of the fatally flawed BVS:DOJ (which confused dark with murky). Civil War has an edge to it – the Airport fight-out sequence between the two newly-split allegiances easily earns a place in top five scenes in a Marvel movies. Then there’s the new depths added to RDJ’s Tony Stark, a man who seems to be enjoying the continuing evolution of his character. His authority plays a role in his relationships with his fellow Avengers, in his fraternal alliance with Steve Rodgers and most excitingly hints at what looks to be a legendary rapport with the latest incarnation of Spiderman (Tom Holland). Holland is a breath of fresh air to the franchise – he’s cheeky and full of energy, a blend of nerd and cool which neither of the previous film versions seemed to capture. The brewing mentor/mentee relationship between he and Tony Stark is one to truly get excited about. 

Without question this is the best Avengers movie yet – even if the name itself doesn’t lend itself to that. By having the pre-colon say Captain America it almost implies it is a stand-alone movie. It’s not. Although it is Cap’s conflicted conscience which drives the majority of the plot the film is made by the ensemble. Is it the best Marvel movie yet? Instinctively, after great internal battle, I have to say no. In terms of viewing experience I rank Guardians of the Galaxy  far higher and in terms of cerebrality Winter Soldier wins. However, this does not take away from what a spectacular is for the most part. It never feels overstuffed, joyfully introduces new heroes and pays great tribute to our existing heroes.

4.5

 

Son of Saul

A Masterpiece

When I left the mid-day screening of this film it was sunny outside. Bright rays gleamed upon the cinema and I glared at them. As I walked home there was a busker singing ‘Walking on Sunshine’. I glared at him. As I passed through a heaving farmers market I glared at the merry people chomping away. I couldn’t work out why I was reacting in this way. Ordinarily I would be thrilled by walking out of the cinema into sun. I would beam at a busker singing Katrina and the Waves 1983 seminal feel-good classic. And I’d probably only side-eye the hipsters filling the farmers market. Why was I so angry at everything? It seemed obvious that it was most likely my  response to the film and the horrors it entailed. But these were not horrors that were new to me – I hadn’t learnt anything new and the events of the film were horrifically familiar.

That’s when I fully grasped just how masterful ‘Son of Saul’ is. It’s almost a rethink of how to portray the Holocaust – by not showing it at all. Gone are any attempts at glamorization, of showy melodrama or noble heroism. Instead we are shown pieces of events – snippets of the evil that took place only feature in the side of or outside of the frame. Overt dramatization is replaced by close-up and over-the-shoulder shots with shallow focus on our central characters face. We hear the events but we don’t see them – leaving the spectator’s imagination to join the dots and fill in the gaps.  As Alfred Hitchcock said, “A glimpse into the world proves that horror is nothing other than reality.”.

It is 1944. Saul (Géza Röhrig) is a Hungarian-Jewish prisoner at Auschwitz who is part of the Sonderkommando unit. He is forced, under threat of death, to work for the Nazis in removing the “‘pieces” (the term used for bodies) from the gas chambers. Although the job delays his death it is only a temporary pardon – the job, and therefore his life, has an expiry date of five months which he is fast approaching. When clearing out the chambers post-gassing he finds a still-breathing boy that he believes to be his son. The Nazi doctors swiftly suffocate the boy and decide to have an autopost performed on him to find out how he survived. Saul desperately endeavours to stop the autopsy and find a Rabbi to lead a proper burial for the boy. 

 The events that follow are unforgettable in terms of content and portrayal – relentless and horrifying yet the carnage is skillfully implied as opposed to being explicitly shown. The two hours spent watching this film are two hours spent being a spectator in Hell. Death is not shown but instead resides off-frame – an omnipotent and omnipresent force haunting the frame. Just as one should not look directly into the sun we cannot look directly into the face of evil.

The opening sequence must be forever acknowledged in its audacity and its viscerality. We observe Saul as a sheepdog figure, one of many leading herds of bewildered people into what appears to be a changing room. An off-screen voice offers reassuring sentiments they are going for a shower and offers promises of what will follow. Our focus never leaves Saul’s face as we swiftly realise with unbearable inevitability what will happen next. We don’t see the people enter the gas chamber. We don’t see them die. But we do hear them die.

Rohrig’s performance is truly exceptional – his Saul is haunted and hollow. Grizzled by the unspeakable horror, his jaw is rigid with determination and his eyes are empty. We can only wonder how he keeps on living. The fact this is Rohrig’s first performance, as it is the director’s first feature, only adds to the remarkability of this film.

It is unbearably difficult to write this review – every word or phrase seems inadequate to fully describe the soul-altering experience of watching. It leaves you so numb you can no longer cry. Unlike any other Holocaust film there is nothing here to sweeten the devastating blow of watching this film – no beautiful musical score, no magical rescue and no story of redemption. It’s an intense and immersive experience with a the visceral immediacy it provokes that is ultimately necessary. Truly unforgettable.

five star

 

 

Eye in the Sky

A powerful and reflective examination of the cost of warfare. 

Very few films are this good. It’s well-acted by a truly terrific cast, impeccably shot with a thrillingly taut script. It also poses such incredibly cerebral and difficult questions without copping out and providing easy answers. Then again, war itself doesn’t provide any easy answers.

Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) arrives at a military base in Sussex to oversee a high-level mission, to capture Al-Shabaab extremists who are meeting at a safe-house in Nairobi. Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi) is one of numerous undercover Kenyan field agents on the scene using covert surveillance. In Nevada USAF pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) takes his seat alongside rookie Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox) to provide aerial surveillance (the Eye in the Sky). Lt. General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman) arrives at his work, an office in London, taking the seat at the head of a table with members of the government to oversee the operation. What starts of as a seemingly routine capture mission soon becomes deeply complicated when it’s discovered the extremists are preparing to send two suicide bombers into the busy city streets. The only option appears to be to drop a hellfire missile on the safe house, but a little girl is out on the street nearby who would be fatally injured in the process. Those involved are deeply conflicted about what to do, and time is quickly running out.

I do not say this words lightly, but I firmly believe that everyone should see this film. Far beyond the fact that it is superbly acted and written, things I will discuss shortly, few films about war are this suspenseful and affecting.. The very term ‘collateral damage’ is a term complicated enough when you reflect on the fact it is a label used for human beings  caught in the crossfire but having the film truly immersing the audience debate generates a new level of soul searching. This is a genuine nail-biting thriller, with moments of true edge-of-your-seat-ness and wringing your hands in despair.

The cast for this film is awe-worthy and all of their performances justify completely justify that awe. This is one of two posthumous roles for Alan Rickman and serves as a reminder of what a genuine talent we lost this year. His iconic tone and manner are both fully in display here, truly serving his character and the film itself very well indeed. Helen Mirren is wonderful and fully believable as the stoic Colonel who watches her mission escalate from out of her control yet never losing her calm or nerve in the process. Aaron Paul is extraordinary as a man with two years experience in the job who is finally being told to pull the trigger, torn between duty and morality. Barkhad Abdi is one of the characters we know least about yet the strength and depth of his performance allows the audience to truly understand his role in events.

The script, cinematography, sound and performances of Eye in the Sky align to make this easily one of the best movies of the year so far. A riveting, fully entertaining yet equally chilling study of the morality of warfare. The questions it raises are not and cannot be truly answered yet will continue to haunt long after the credits roll.

This needs to be seen by all.

five star

Sunset Song

A sure-fire contender for top ten films of 2015 lists.

There are lots of sunsets. There are lots of songs. There is a huge amount of turmoil, heartbreak and devastation. There are also bitterly-short periods of joy, bookended by tragedy. This film is exquisite and truly haunting. An adaptation of of a 1932 Scottish novel of the same name, this is director Terence Davies project of passion after years passed struggling to get funding, struggling to get his film made. The passion truly shines through.

Aberdeenshire farm girl Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn) is the daughter of a housewife and a tyrannical father (Peter Mullan), and younger sister to a brother who is constantly beaten by their father. Her mother’s life is comprised of being raped and giving birth – she does not want the same for her daughter. Chris also does not want to be fated to live a life like her mother’s. Luckily Chris is exceptionally bright, the smartest girl at her school, and is one track to move away and train to be a teacher. When her mother falls pregnant, again, and gives birth to twins, again, the family move away to a bigger house. Once they arrive in their new home, a series of events occur which cause the family to crumble and fall away. Chris must endure so aching hardship but appears to find happiness with Ewan (Kevin Guthrie). This period of her life is shattered when war (World War One) is declared. Life for Chris and her fellow residents of Kinraddie will never be the same. 

 Considering the series of devastating events that is the life of Chris Guthrie Sunset Song never crosses the boundary into melodrama. Admirably, to great success, the film and its storytelling retain a muted stoicism. It’s bitterly sad and this effect is sharpened by its refraining to rely on exaggerated displays. Deyn in particular is extraordinary. Her Chris has a captivating innocence, an innate need to endure and stand firm when all around her are losing their heads (metaphorically speaking!) Tears roll and glide down her face, even at her most bereft she has no need for frantic or guttural moaning at the continuous losses she suffers. The film opens on a sweeping pan of the farm-land, from which Chris emerges. She is a child of the land, the love she feels for it is her only constant. Peter Mullan is excellent as her father who himself is torn between his apparent religious compass and his vices. His conflicted nature never used as an excuse for his behaviour but a reason as to why.

The cinematography is breathtakingly exquisite, treated with an almost religious adulation.  The camera tracks and pans across the land almost as if it is character not setting. In many ways it is a character, playing a part in events and meaning so much to so many. The editing is crucial is creating this tone of melodic heartbreak. Those previously aware of Davies work will notice his fades, cross-dissolves and panning to mark the passing of time. Those who were not will marvel at how they are used for sublime effect. The brief intermittent use of song furthers the sense of haunting and trauma. Never is a full song uttered, merely snippets which the film and its characters cling onto, just as they are clinging on desperately to this way of life. For the sunset being referred to is the sunset of this particular time, this particular way of life, which is fated to end. For the war did not just kill people, but communities. The brutalising effect of war has repercussions both seen and concealed. It also does not discriminate in its path of destruction

A beautifully crafted film comprise of visual grace and emotional density. Truly remarkable.