’71 **** The Fog of War


71_2815828b IT IS INTERESTING to compare “71”, the story of a British soldier who gets left behind in enemy territory during the days of the Northern Ireland “troubles”, with “Behind Enemy Lines”, the story of an American Navy navigator who is shot down and finds himself in enemy territory in warring Bosnia. DI-Behind-Enemy-Lines

The two movies start with the same basic conceit: the good guy finds himself isolated and hunted by others intent upon his death. And somewhere out there, battling against time and the odds, his colleagues try to locate and rescue him.

Both movies are well-made, grippingly well-told stories with engaging and likable protagonists (Owen Wilson as the American and Jack O’Connell as the Brit (Jack who? you may ask. He was Calisto of “300: Rise of an Empire”. Well, I guess it’s something.)

But oh what a cultural chasm there is between these two takes on war. “Behind…” offers us a modern version of an untamed Wild West and a protagonist whose cowboy character is an archetype of the American idea of the hero: the rebellious loner, uncomfortable with authority and easily able to adapt and turn the tables on his enemies, no matter how many there are. His eventual rescue is a moment of jingoistic, music-thumping triumph, both for his deering-do and the extraordinary perseverance and stolidity of his tough-love commanding officer (Gene Hackman) “Behind…” was the inaugural movie of now veteran director (of slick rubbish) John Moore (“Max Payne”, “A Good Day to Die Hard”, “The Omen 2006”) and Emmy-winning composer Don Davis (“The Matrix Revolutions and Reloaded” etc). Made in 2001, it cost $40M to make and grossed $90M. It was so successful that it morphed from movie to brand and spawned three direct-to-video sequels, “Behind Enemy Lines II: Axis of Evil”, “Behind Enemy Lines: Colombia” and “SEAL Team: Behind Enemy Lines”

“71” is cut from different cloth. The slickly manufactured excitement of rooting for Hollywood icon, Wilson, is replaced by a riveting immersion into a thoroughly credible and dystopian world of Falls Road. This was the demarcation between the Protestants and the Catholics. The feel-good cathartic escapism of “Behind…” is here replaced by the intellectual rigour of a thoughtful dissection of some of the fault-lines of Northern Ireland in1971. Nothing escapist here. Like Wilson’s character (Lt Chris Burnett), Derbyshire Private Gary Hook – the protagonist of “71”- is also resourceful and determined. But unlike Burnett’s swaggering bravado, Hook is mainly frightened, confused and finally just pissed off. He’s more a trapped, wounded animal desperate to run anywhere that could lead to safety and heavily reliant on luck and a couple of good Samaritans than a typical movie hero.

The clear binary world of good v bad of “Behind…” dissolves into the darker, murkier, more real world of this other recent civil war. For everyone around Hook (the British Army, their various shady manipulating counterinsurgents, the local police force, the IRA, the Paras who are fighting against them and the Command chain itself) is flawed, morally compromised and untrustworthy. People act not out of honor or even political ideals but upon whatever it takes to get the job done now, no matter how dirty and dishonest. Hook is a hero based not upon his heroics, but upon his sense of basic human honesty and integrity. 71-fr

The plot turns on the moment when the Private’s squadron, under-protected due to the naiveté of a posh-boy Lieutenant (Sam Reid from “Belle”), is sent in to provide back-up to the local police force in a house to house search for hidden weapons. It’s a search marked by the brutality of the army’s police allies. The search is interrupted when the squadron is confronted and attacked by a riot of understandably angry citizens, during which a fellow soldier is shot in the face. And in the melee, as the army beats a hasty retreat, Hook is left behind.

Director Yann Demange (for whom this is also a first-feature) contrasts the orderliness of training with its clear rules and leadership hierarchies with the world where Hook now finds himself. He’s not simply behind enemy lines, he’s behind moral lines. He’s now in a world where alliances are ever shifting, leadership is fuelled by an anarchic clash of interests and politics, and where the good guys are really far from good.

Apart from a lull when Hook, having been blown-up, is rescued by a couple of Catholic Samaritans (Charlie Murphy from “Philomena” and Richard Dormer from “Game of Thrones”) he spends most of the movie running. He’s running from everyone. The paras want him dead as he’s the enemy, and the Army counterinsurgents want him dead as he’s a witness to their corrupt practices. He’s also running from away from their morally squalid world. He has to get away…back to his kid brother and back to a world of simpler loves and loyalties. (And good luck with that)

“71”, written by Gregory Burke who also wrote the much applauded stage play, “Black Watch”, is an ambitious and intelligent movie. It’s both a gutsy action movie and a war movie that resonates with historical verisimilitude.

I wonder how “Fury” with its big star names and big star budget will compare

LATE TURNER AT THE TATE. The beginnings of the abstract


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WILLIAM TURNER sketched incessantly. He drew using pen and ink and graphite and with quick water-colour brushstrokes he painted everything he could see. He claimed to have been strapped to the mast of a boat in order to witness better (and sketch) waves in a storm. He showed prospective buyers small impressionistic ideas of larger, more formal oils to woo them and their money. And when he died, he left behind some three hundred paintings and nineteen thousand sketches and water-colours. The man was never more than an arm’s length from a sketch-pad and paint.

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He not only experienced the world through the lens of his art, his desire to record and by so doing, communicate everything he experienced must have been near obsessive. His art was his conversation. And what he talked about, how he taught himself to see was less about the literal visual reality, but about the mood, sensation and feel of what he was experiencing.

The exhibition at the Tate (“Late Turner. Painting Set Free”) features his works mainly between 1835-1851 or, to put this in context, between thirty to fifty years before van Gogh, Monet, Matisse or Cezanne. The world had not as yet accustomed itself to the well-lit exuberance of the Impressionists; and the Royal Academy, where he exhibited was still in the thrall of the fading gleam of the Romantics. The Romantic sense of the Sublime, the picturesqueness of artful decay, scenes of wild and stormy nature, coupled with a mandatory reference catalog of classical subjects, still held strong sway.

Turner is a sort of bridge. His art certainly romanticized nature – the face of God – and, as expected, he rifled through the storage cupboard of classical stories for suitably popular (and sell-able) narratives. But for all that, they still couldn’t understand him. His wild originality and palpably passionate canvases lacked – for his contemporaries – clear reference points. Then, the accepted canon emphasized strong, well-articulated, emotionally clear figures in an easily recognizable landscape with a symbolism that was self-evident to the well-read. But Turner’s classical subjects, like his landscapes were mere vaporous smears of paint. His figures were of secondary importance to the swirling, restless colours on his canvases; colours that cascaded off each other like waves and burst into beams of blinding light. No wonder he said, “God is light”. For him, each painting was a form of worship. What he was offering were not descriptions of landscape, but rather a perspective way beyond any Romantic idea of the sublime. He was offering an immersion into light, into heaven, into the future of the light-drenched Impressionists and the abstracts of Cezanne

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But in these almost abstract canvases, the paint turning into light that burst forth from them were regarded as outlandish. His works were mocked. And, I suspect, his works probably made people very uneasy. In this archetypal Romantic image from Caspar Friedrich, what is important is the dominance of man. In the face of implacable nature, man still stands above it all like a god surveying his dominion.

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In Turner’s later paintings, man is no longer a god, merely just another dab of paint: small, insignificant and probably irrelevant. It took the respected John Ruskin to help his readers understand what Turner was about and (semi) rescue his meager reputation. For a while anyway. The exhibition at the Tate Britain gives us a Turner that even Ruskin feared had gone off the deep end.

Balzac, who never met him and we don’t think, was even aware of him, would have understood his art. In his book, “The Unknown Masterpiece”, its hero says: “The mission of art is not to copy nature but to express it. The radiation of light is what gives the appearance of a particular body; so I have not drawn outlines; I have spread over the contours a cloud of warm and delicate tints in such a way that you cannot put your finger on the spot where the contours merge with the background. Nearby it all looks wooly and imprecise, but from two paces away everything grows clear and one feels that the air surrounds the whole”

A hundred and fifty years later, the artist Cornelia Parker offers a similar evaluation: Turner was a master of capturing the intangible in paint, increasingly pushing his subjects to the point of vaporisation, pulling them back from the brink only when they threatened to disappear. How he must have loved the moody London fogs, with their uncertain atmospheres blurring the borders between solid and void. Or the Venetian mists, with their water particles suffused with incandescent light. Or the physicality of a snowstorm, where liquid becomes unyielding, sky becomes sea and land becomes sky. He reveled in those situations, where recognisable detail was only achieved by a fleeting intensity of focus, as if it were an apparition.”

The paintings and sketches on display – and there are a lot of them – vibrate with passion and unequivocal self-confidence. What they were doing was shifting art away from the paradigm of overt narrative content as emotional signifier to one where the paint itself could evoke the emotional response the artist was seeking. This was an art that reached out to its viewers and said, “This is how I see, this is what I’m feeling, this is what I think about this topic. If you want to understand me, you need to enter my head and feel as I do.”

Dangerous stuff that

 

 

EFFIE GRAY*** Portrait of a Marriage


effie-gray-dakota-_3032489k EFFIE GRAY TELLS the story of the eponymous protagonist’s disastrous marriage to John Ruskin, the pre-eminent Victorian essayist and Art critic. Effie (a physically perfect Dakota Fanning, whose resemblance to John Everett Millais’ “Ophelia” is uncanny) is the innocent, inexperienced virgin, eager to experience the world and start on her new life as a married woman. Ruskin (Greg Wise) is the experienced one; alas also a virgin, absorbed by a world of art and ideas, but uninterested in experiencing any world beyond that one. She is the one longing to be touched. He remains untouched by longing.

The Ruskin we are introduced to is a man whose understanding of life is framed entirely through the context of art and the intellect. Apart from his Oedipal relationship with his mother, his only experience of women is via the elegant perfection of flawless classical statuary. So when on his marriage night, he is exposed to the actual nudity of a real person (and, it is said, saw female pubic hair for the first time) he is disgusted. Life does not live up to its artistic representation.

This is the beginning of his cold almost sadistic ostracism of Effie. Writer Emma Thompson (yes, that Emma Thompson, who also appears as the wife of the president of the Royal Academy, Lady Eastlake and is herself the author of several Jane Austen screenplays) probes the conundrum of how a man as sensitive to art as Ruskin (who defied popular taste and championed artists such as Turner and Millais) could be so insensitive to his wife and indifferent to life. She suggests that art can be both a lens with which to clarify and view the world, as well as an escape from its disorderly chaos…a distortion of the world it seeks to clarify.

She contrasts Ruskin, the critic, who cannot apply art to life, and for whom art and life exist on separate planes; and Ruskin’s protégé, the artist John Everett Millais who cannot separate life from art and whose art is an illumination of life. The movie integrates this perspective on art with the overriding idea of marriage not as the tender trap, but a potentially dreadful one.

At Ruskin’s age and stature in the society, it made social sense for him to take a bride. A wife could be a definite asset. For Effie, the marriage would be an enormous financial benefit for her less than thriving family. She was the eager child who had looked up to this great man of letters with an innocent’s hero worship (not unlike the relationship between Dorothea Brooke and Casaubon in George Elliot’s “Middlemarch”). He married a child and found himself wed to a woman. She married an aesthete and found there was no man there. Disaster. Theirs was a liaison of pragmatism without passion. And for her, even worse, in the tight incestuous Ruskin family group (mother, father and famous son) she remained ever the unwelcomed outsider, and – living in the home of her in-laws – even lacking the authority of running her own domestic establishment (one of the few places a woman’s authority actually could mean something)

Cut off from her family, ostracized by her bloodless husband and ignored by his parents, Effie is the embodiment of the trapped wife. Her prison is the dark paneled interiors of their grand home and the tight corset of social convention. As with so many other financially insecure, trapped wives, she is dependent on his patronage. There really is no way out.

But it does come. The dark interiors – of the house and of Ruskin’s brooding mind – yield to the bright fields and the light of passion she finds in the chaste but genuine love of Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge), the man she eventually married. We follow her journey from the put-upon child bride who matures enough to say it’s enough and to summon up the courage to force the annulment of her unconsummated marriage to Ruskin.

Ruskin and Millais form the twin poles of Effie’s constricted universe. The former is an angel of darkness, death and repression. As his unloved bride, she begins to lose her hair, even as she begins to lose her mind. The latter (Millais) is the angel of life, hope and love. He is the light that less her out of Ruskin’s dark. her salvation

Unlike the stiff, lifeless “The Invisible Woman”, another not dissimilar period drama that dwelt with the impossible relationship between Dickens (Ralph Feinnes) and his mistress, Nelly (Felicity Jones), director Richard Laxton really does breathe passion into this tale about the lack of it. So often these period dramas are content to use set decoration and costume accuracy as a prop for ‘felt life’. But Laxton is able to convincingly evoke all the agonizing tension between the heartless, emotionally dead Ruskin and the lost, drowning Effie. And in so doing he immerses us into the kind of claustrophobia Effie – and so many other trapped women – must have experienced. One central image he dwells upon is that of Millais’ “Ophelia”. It’ as though he might be suggesting that this more than merely a beautiful image of a Shakespearean heroine; perhaps more an image of an age…of an entire gender. Ophelia 1851-2 by Sir John Everett Millais, Bt 1829-1896

THE EQUALIZER ***

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IT ISN’T ALL that bad. This may seem like damming by faint praise, but, based upon the dire reviews (the reviews in the US were more positive), it was only the drumming grey rain that motivated me into the cinema to see Denzil Washington’s latest action adventure.

When we meet Denzil’s character, Robert McCall, he’s a popular blue-collar worker at a Boston DIY warehouse/Home Depot type shop. Denzel does blue-collar, everyman, well, as we’ve seen recently from “Unstoppable” and “The Taking of Pelham 123”. Robert is helpful, he’s ‘giving’, he’s well liked by his customers…and he can’t sleep at nights. So most nights he spends at a local all-night diner where he reads a book (he’s ploughing through the list of the one hundred books you must read, almost as an act of homage to his dead wife). He’s also time-obsessed and OCD-fastidious (Not particularly relevant character traits; they’re simply there to add some sort of quirkiness to his character). This character, ridiculous though it is, is executed with such panache that for the twenty or thirty minutes of character exposition and ‘backgrounding’, we’re kept gripped and enthralled. It’s the thirty-minute action movie foreplay that simply heightens our sensations for the thrills to follow once they are unleashed.

It’s at the diner where his casual non-judgmental friendliness with Teri (Chloe Grace Moretz of “Kick Ass” fame), a teenage Russian prostitute and wannabe singer, leads him into a world of danger. In response to a brutal assault on Teri by one of her pimps, McCall reluctantly decides to step in and, well, equalize things. He does so by taking out the five-man team of Russian gangsters who manage a stable of prostitutes, shake down local business etc. Alas, they are but the tip of the iceberg.

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For the rest of the film, we see McCall skillfully taking down the rest of the iceberg.

There’s nothing even faintly redeeming about this movie. Antoine Fuqua (“Olympus Has Fallen”, “Shooter”) is a highly competent director (he helped Denzil to gain his first Oscar, playing against the grain with the gritty “Training Day”), but “The Equalizer” is by no means pulp fiction turned into art. He’s no Tarantino.

Nevertheless, he, along with Denzel’s compelling screen presence have created an engagingly entertaining take-no-prisoners, ex special ops hero and a fun way to spend a wet afternoon. “The Equalizer” is on the same level of two wildly different, but not dissimilar movies: “Under Siege” – one of Steven Seagal’s best (OK, his only watchable movie) – and an old Western, “Chato’s Land” (which had that marvelous tag line: “What Chato’s land doesn’t kill, Chato will”). In both, the hero dismantles armies of baddies methodically, one by one.

McCall gets knocked about, knifed, shot, bleeds and –possibly- feels pain like real people. But he’s not, really. He’s a death-defying badass, whose nocturnal murderous good deeds are, if you enter into things with the right spirit, a delight to watch. There is no question that “The Equalizer” is the beginning of a franchise; the movie ends with a pretty explicit suggestion that a Part Two will soon be along (and especially since it’s opened at $36M, they’re probably filming Part Two even now). It’s also one of the first action movies that seems to be aimed at filling the yawning gap left by the absence of Jason Bourne.

Come back, come back Matt Damon. All is forgiven.

GONE GIRL****


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SOMEWHERE NEAR THE end of “Gone Girl”, David Fincher’s master- class in the art of constructing a tension-filled thriller, Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) says to his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike) about their marriage, “All we did was resent each other and cause each other pain,’’.

”That’s marriage,’’ she replies.

This is not the kind of dialogue you’d expect from any run of the mill thriller. But “Gone Girl” isn’t a run of the mill thriller. According to Gillian Flynn, who wrote the book and the screemplay, it’s “an adult film”

And, after waiting all year for one, what a magnificent adult film it is too. The last attempt at an adult murder mystery this year was the mannered, dreadful “The Two Faces of January”, a movie that strained both your credibility and patience. “Gone Girl” on the other hand is an outlandish story, made entirely plausible by its rootedness in its sharp, trenchant observations of marriage, deceit and the sometimes necessity of pretense.

Gillian Flynn’s best selling novel offered its readers two side of the story, a “he said, she said” mystery to unwrap. The mystery is the missing Amy. Hubby Nick returns home one day – depressed, worried about something – to find his home a scene of smashed glass and his wife missing. The lead detective (Kim Dickens) discovers blood splatters and an area where there was clearly a massive loss of blood. There is no body. But there is every sign that something dire has occurred. And then there is Nick, who seems too unfazed by it all. He does not give the appearance of the distraught man. So the police, like the media, epitomized by an attention grabbing, near hysterical newscaster, Ellen Abbot (Missy Pile) jump to the conclusion that Nick’s a murderer. Somewhere, dumped in some canal or tangled field must lie the butchered body of his, by now near angelic wife, Amy.

We follow the unfolding story both from Nick’s perspective – the absent wife, the accusative media and public, his loyal and trusting twin sister, Margo (Carrie Coon), his pragmatic lawyer, Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry) and mounting evidence of his seeming guilt – and from her’s, via a diary she’s written describing their marriage. From the perspective of the diary, their once ideal marriage had descended into a relationship of occasional violence and building dread. This is a woman who lives in mortal fear of her husband, so much so that she’s forced to buy a gun.

Fincher’s unfussy directing and Flynn’s clear, brilliant plotting pulls us into its web of mystery. It’s a mystery that delivers all the forward momentum of any great mystery as we follow along waiting for the big reveal. But this one is different. On several dimensions, the movie upends the rules of the genre. For one thing there’s no body to provide an “aha” moment for some genius forensics scientist; there’s no scatter of characters, any of whom might have done it; the clues that are found have all been deliberately placed by Amy as part of a silly game; smart sleuthing uncovers nothing; and more tellingly, in a genre that’s almost 100% plot driven, this is a densely character driven story.

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The two lead characters – Nick and Amy- are presented from entirely different perspectives: we see Nick from the outside – what he’s doing, how he’s reacting to events, where he goes to try to prove himself innocent etc. Indeed, what he’s feeling is so opaque that this view from the outside yields and entirely false judgment of his character. Because the townspeople and the choric newscaster see him as unfeeling, their pop psychology analyses jump to the conclusion that he’s clearly guilty. We see her on the other hand, entirely from the inside: what she’s thinking and worrying about as she writes the diary. We ’re privy to her fears and joys. Her empathetic relationship with a pregnant neighbor is seen as illuminating a woman who’s the good, pure and innocent victim.

For “Gone Girl”, in this world of media monitoring it’s not who you are that matters, it’s how you’re seen. Amy has grown up as a media darling via a series of books basically about a better version of her written by her parents. She understands the gap between perception and reality and how to be seen by the cameras around her, as becomes evident later in the story. Nick’s rite of passage is that he too must learn how to hide what he feels and and recalibrate how he is seen. His turning point comes when he realizes that the route to the truth must follow a path of lies. He learns how to present a version of himself leavened for public consumption. He learns how to dissimulate well enough to set a trap.

We’re all trained by now to know that things in thrillers aren’t as they seem and as one twist leads to another, no matter how improbably, we’re there to gasp along with the thrill of it all.

The two leads – Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike – carry the movie. Fincher’s casting is brilliant. Ben Affleck’s good looks add a layer of distrust to his character. He’s probably too good-looking, too smooth to be trustworthy. But though Ben (as my wife reminded me) is one helluva hunk, he still retains an endearing everyman aura. He is entirely believable as the suave smooth talking successful New York magazine journalist (and one who despite their twenty year difference can credibly ‘pull’ a beautiful student). But he’s equally convincing as a down in the mouth man who’s fallen on hard times and is now running a dive bar. Affleck’s acting mastery is such that we’re never entirely sure whether he’s guilty or not. He encourages us to empathize with him just up to a point. But really, he’s no Mr. Perfect. Indeed, he’s a bit of a scumbag. But is he that much of a scumbag as to commit murder?

As for her – though she’s been in a number of movies before (thirty six actually including TV roles) – this is clearly Rosamund Pike’s big breakthrough. After all, who remembered her in “Jack Reacher” or “Wrath of the Titans”. For that matter, who remembers “Jack Reacher” or “Wrath of the Titans”? Pike’s character is a calibrated balancing act between the sympathetic scorned woman and the femme fatale; between the intelligent, driven and successful professional and the plotting bitch. We’re never too sure whether we’re seeing the real person or a fabricated image of the person she wants us to see. Fincher plays up these surface dimensions, and Amy’s understanding of them: when we meet her, she’s the gorgeous, somewhat icy, perfectly coiffed blond beauty. Unlike Nick, Amy understands when it’s necessary to alter this image so that she can blend in and suggest the character she wants her image to convey. Like Affleck, Pike delivers a many layered, flawless performance. She knows how to use her icy beauty to deadly perfection.

These two anchor the movie. But the supporting cast is equally strong. In particular, Neil Patrick Harris as Amy’s ex. Desi. Like Affleck and Pike, the choice by Fincher (or at least casting director Lara Mayfield who also casts “House of Cards” and is part of Fincher’s A-team having worked with him on “The Social Newtork” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” etc) of Patrick Harris is perfect. He adds an unnerving creepiness; someone from whom you can expect no good to come.

So, a movie about marriage where people simply resent each other and cause each other pain. Brilliant!