SHAUN THE SHEEP MOVIE*** All baaaaah, no humbug


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WITH THE OSCARS just around the corner and as we prepare to celebrate another season of brilliant acting and scintillating dialogue, along comes a very funny movie that manages just fine without either. In “Shaun the Sheep Movie”, the Claymation geniuses at Aardman (“Wallace and Grommet”, “Flushed Away”, “Chicken Run” etc.) have once again found the magic formula that combines great storytelling, pop culture reference points, broad slapstick comedy and extraordinary craftsmanship.

It’s a stunningly well written movie with only grunts, baas, cock-crowings, growls and sundry proxies for words to evoke an aural world that’s no doubt exactly how a sheep experiences it. The skillful storytelling of director/writers Mark Burton and Richard Starzak coaxes us into a tale that gallops along without a single false note.

From the very beginning, we’re cleverly teased into the mindset of the sheep: at ‘the farm’ we’re introduced to a world that’s safe, comfortable and boringly repetitive. And what self-respecting sheep would want too much of that? It’s no wonder that Shaun, inspired by a piece of advertising (damn advertising!), persuades his fellow sheep that they need to take a break. The flock follow his rebellious lead like, well, sheep.

And of course it all goes wrong. Before you know it, the farmer is in hospital in the big noisy city (the opposite to the quiet safe world of the countryside) suffering from amnesia. Naturally he needs to be rescued by his ever-loyal flock (who wouldn’t?). Fortunately, unlike the farmer – who’s a few bottles short of a crate – these are really smart sheep. They, along with Trumper the sheepdog, set off –natch- in a search and rescue mission. And then things really get complicated.
But not too complicated. Aardman have mastered the delicate balancing act of keeping the kids entertained and excited (enough to probably come back again and again and thereafter see it twenty more times)… all the while entertaining the adults too with its mix of sly in jokes (we meet a dog who’s really a canine version of Hannibal Lecter), visual puns and their sheer mastery of the medium.

For the medium is very much the message.
We’ve become such sophisticated movie-goers these days that when it’s done well, we can buy in to the immersive magic of the cinematic experience- say Sandra Bullock floating around in space- even when we know how it’s done (blue screen, CGI, what have you). And unless it’s badly done (some of the endless wars in “The Hobbit” with their clearly computer generated armies), the invisibility of the effects (the bear in “Paddington” for instance) becomes in itself a dimension in the thrill of the experience.

But here, not unlike those marvelous Pixar movies, the opaqueness of the technique’s the thing… it adds to the delight. For part of the pleasure of this movie lies in our appreciation of just how clever the movie making – the Claymation – is. We marvel at just how much – human – expression the team can squeeze from a lump of clay. When the farmer shears a wriggling lamb and the wool flies here and there, what could have been a pretty nondescript scene in any other format is transformed into something wondrous. You can’t help but wonder, “How did they do that? How long did it all take? (four years by the way) How extraordinary it all is!”

Go quickly, grab a child somewhere (having of course gotten written permission from the parents) and regress into the sunny delight of “Shaun the Sheep Movie” (Then treat yourself for a well done rack of lamb)

 

Shaun the Sheep Movie. Dir: Mark Burton and Richard Starzak. Art Department: 58 persons; animation department: 22 persons

 

 

SELMA***** King of the Oscars


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THE OSCAR NOMINATIONS this year for movie of the year have by and large veered largely between the decorous (“The Theory of Everything” and “The Imitation Game”), the inoffensive (“Whiplash”, The Grand Budapest Hotel”and “Boyhood”) and the despicable (“American Sniper”). Really, only two stand out; only two don’t seem to have been written by accountants, lawyers and marketing men… shorn of passion, and burnished into an inoffensive safety zone: “Birdman”, that delirious, trippy flight of redemption and the extraordinary “Selma”. The latter is the stunningly powerful, emotionally rich and flawlessly directed movie that focuses on that one moment in America’s modern civil war when, in 1965, the State unleashed horrendous violence on its Black population as they struggled to get voter registration. Into this cauldron of hate and anger emerged one of its most powerful leaders, Martin Luther King.
Director Ava DuVernay has given us a movie of rare, raw and heartfelt passion. It zeros in on King’s uncompromising drive to make the constitutional freedom to vote – denied to the Black community ‘down South’ – a legal, actionable reality. The movie’s success is that, from that first shocking explosion, it manages to breathe felt life into the often abstract idea of the qualities that make for true leadership, as embodied by her all too human hero.

The storytelling unfolds on two interconnected levels: the historical events that took place at Selma (some of the footage is actual TV footage of the carnage), and – “cometh the moment, cometh the man”- the man whose leadership transformed a country.
But the movie isn’t about King per se. It’s not one of those ‘warts and all’ bio-pics. It’s about the idea of leadership. This is not to say that we aren’t privy to a strong sense of the man. DuVernay, and the outstanding David Oyelowo as King, give us a man who is thoughtful, eloquent, empathetic and deeply spiritual. He is also stubborn, and, we are told, unfaithful (that’s the warts side). He is the good father and the flawed husband. But he is more, and this is where the movie’s focus lies.

“Selma” offers us a meditation on the nature of leadership. We see three contrasting examples of it: LBJ (Tom Wilkinson) is the amoral politician, the leader of the nation for whom ‘the Negro question’ is just a pain in the ass; George Wallace (Tim Roth), governor of his State is a segregationist demagogue, gutlessly egging on his voting base still locked into a plantation mentality. To these two archetypes add the Black warrior activists intent on the catharsis violence.

King has traces of all of them: he too is an astute politician who knows how to use the occasion to his own advantage, who knows how to use his access to the President to further his cause; his extraordinary preacher’s eloquence is his demagogic gift; and he is, albeit peaceful, a masterful activist. But he transcends these labels. What none of them have is a clarity of moral vision, an abiding sense of faith and self belief that his is a mission of God.

His faith energizes and empowers him. In an exchange with LBJ, the President tells King (something like) ‘You’re an activist, and you do what you have to do. I’m a politician, and I do what I have to do”. Not for the first time, LBJ misreads King’s sincerity. For he is much more than an activist, he’s a genuine, faith energized, cynicism free leader, fighting- it is made clear – not for Blacks as a distinct group, but for Americans, and the idea of American justice, of which Blacks are just a part.

It is this moral stature – the mark of true leadership – that enables him to rise to the challenge offered by the events in Selma, and that gives him the courage and strength to be able to take on the state and its stubborn vested interests.

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And just as King, the leader, transcends King the (flawed) man, LBJ’s moment of truth also comes during a conversation with an unyielding George Wallace. LBJ tells him to think beyond 1965 to 1985. How will history judge them, he wonders. Wallace is unmoved; it is as if the hatred that fuels racism cannot stand up to the honesty of introspection.

In Selma, the movie suggests, the U.S had reached the tipping point. The violence was shocking. The Storm Trooper forces that try to block King’s march from Selma to Montgomery (State capital) bludgeon everyone in sight: young and old, men and women, the fit and the infirm. The Blacks are attacked with the venomousness of a society seething with pent up anger.

It was King’s determined leadership that shifted the course of history away from further quasi civil war to a more hopeful place. DuVernay suggests that Selma represents the point at which, for some, the pragmatism of politics yielded to the promise of justice. The point when politicians and activists became leaders, the point when the Black/White divide collapsed into the idea of the American. (A straight line past Andrew Young who became mayor of Atlanta to Obama?)
There is no question that this is the outstanding movie of the year, and that David Oyelowo is the outstanding actor of the year. That he failed to earn even an Oscar nomination is probably just a tawdry mix of xenophobia (“not another bloody Brit”…after all the roles of King, Coretta his wife and LBJ are all acted by Brits) and good old racism. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.
And yet, the movie is an uplifting and optimistic one. DuVernay’s shows how the peace and faith and sense of brotherhood that defined King’s American dream is a true beacon shining in the night. The movie’s force lies in its ability to move beyond a – dated- dramatization of history to a perspective of a path to be followed.
It certainly is a path much needed. The police still seem to kill Black people with impunity. The visceral hate many Red state Republicans have for – ‘foreign-born’ – Obama is undisguised racism, The CIA’s wiretapping then has turned into the NSA’s omni-surveillance.

Where’s King now that we need him more than ever?

 

Selma: dir Ava DuVernay. David Oyelowo (King), Carmen Ejogo (Coretta), Tim Roth (Gov. Wallace) Oprah Winfrey, Tom Wilkinson (LBJ), Giovanni Ribisi (counselor to the president). Writer: Paul Webb, Exec producer Brad Pitt

KINGSMAN** Kick Ass for teen boys


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“KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE” IS EXPENSIVE, slickly produced and studded with a scatter of fine acting talent. It’s entertaining fluff; a momentary diversion of glittering nonsense in this pre-Oscar season of heavy, humourless drama.
The producers (Matthew Vaughn, Adam Bohling and David Reid of “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels”, “Layer Cake” “Kick Ass” and “X-Men: First Class”) have either cannily or cynically combined a mashup of spy movie archetypes to which the script of “Kingsman…” often and archly refers. You can just imagine the sales pitch:
“Guys, imagine a Spy Movie Greatest Hits (and by the way, you don’t need to imagine. This thick report I got here outlines all the scenes and hero characteristics our demo love best. You don’t need to read the whole report. There’s an executive summary at the front. We got Peter Brand (he’s the stats chap from “Moneyball”) to build us an algorithm, charting audience reactions. We call ‘em “likes and spikes”. Like I was saying, Peter has projected exactly what’s going to get 19 year old boys roaring:
“First of all, lots of really cool action scenes like Denzel in “The Equalizer”. Matthew [Vaugn] our director and one of the producers just did “X Men: First Class”. So he knows how to shoot action. And, gentlemen, let me remind you that that grossed $335M worldwide.
“It needs a clear, easy to follow plot, with something techy involved, like “Live Free and Die Hard”. Let’s face it, people aren’t going to the movies to feel dumb. It’s the KISS formula: keep it simple and stupid.
“It needs a young hip, edgy rebel type hero who gets to escape his shitty neighbourhood and dress in very cool clothes. Every member of the audience is going to relate to this. Also, what our research has shown is that guys are feeling bypassed by all these chick heroines… Katniss Evergreen, Tris from “Dvergent” and that lot. So in a sense, this movie’ll be fulfilling a social, a moral function. There’s a young Welch guy who can do London cockney really well, especially now that there are no young real cockney actors ‘cause they can’t afford acting school. He’s Taron Egerton – just did “Testament of Youth”
“I digress.
“We need a cool, badass Black dude. The ethnic audience is a mother lode of moulah. And Sammy Jackson has already signed. He says he’s gonna do the whole thing with a lisp; a sort of effete, maybe gay bad guy. A Black version of Javier Badem from “Skyfall”
“The plot needs a Tommy Lee Jones tutor figure, you know from “Men in Black”? That kind of tutor figure goes down real well. Think Yoda or Gandalf or Haymitch from “Hunger Games”. And we’ve got… wait for it: A-lister Colin, the babe magnet, Firth. The accent just slays ‘em every time. He says he’s going to channel John Steed from “The Avengers”, with the same shoes Rosa Klebb had in “From Russia with Love”. You remember them? The ones with knives in the tips. And he needs the work: been in a lot of stuff recently that nobody’s seen. Remember “Before I go to Sleep”? No? Well no one else does.
“And the babes are just going to sizzle. We’ve found this outrageous hottie from Algeria. Name’s Sofia Boutella. Starred in the underrated “Monsters: Dark Continent”. Here’s her Head shot. More important, here’s her Body shot. Imagine her in tight spandex; and imagine, instead of legs, she has killer blades. Below the knees she’s all Moulinex.

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“We’ve also got a proper, upper class, posh type. Emma Watson was coming in too steep, so we signed Sophie Cookson. Did a bit of TV stuff, but waiting to strike it big.

“And also waiting to strike it big is that great Brit actor Mark Strong. He was in “Imitation Game”, “Zero dark Thirty”, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”. Great actor who no-one remembers. So we got him cheap too

“And of course Michael Caine. He’s not particularly good, but I refuse to allow Chris Nolan to monopolize him.

“And then, following the research, the movie needs lots of very cool gear. This is what research shows people most miss in the new Bond movies. Where’s all the cool gear Bond got from Q? Well, we have it here: exploding lighters, laser watches, X-ray vision glasses, bullet proof machine gun umbrellas.

“We throw all that together with explosions, car chases, airplanes that hide underground like X-Men, and I tell you, gentlemen, we’ve got us a winner.

“Well what do you think?”

“I really like it. I particularly like the fact that it feels like a sequel even though it’s the first one”

“Sign here on the dotted line”

Kingsman: The Secret Service. Dir: Matthew Vaughn. Writers: Jane Goldman (“X-Men: Days of Future Past”, “X-Men: First Class”. “The Debt”. “Kick Ass”) and others. Cinematographer: George Richmond (“Sunshine on Leith”); Composer: Henry Jackman (“The Interview”, “Big Hero 6”, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”, “Captain Phillips”)

EX MACHINA****Riveting


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EVEN AS IT asks some pretty heavy questions about the nature of consciousness and artificial intelligence (which might suggest a ponderous and overly serious tome) “Ex Machina” is a taut, riveting drama. It’s equal parts creepy, sensuous and thoughtful; writer/director Alex Garland (“28 Days Later”, “Never Let Me Go”) pulls us into a bizarre world where, like the hero, Caleb (Domhall Gleeson from “About Time” and “Calvary”), we begin to have real feelings for and side with an entity that we know is a robot.

Caleb is a computer programmer working for the world’s largest internet company. He has ostensibly won an office prize to spend a week with Nathan (an extraordinary Oscar Isaac), the mega rich owner of the company. Nathan’s a combustible combination of Larry Page, Howard Hughes and Frankenstein; and a man with a towering God complex.

Caleb is whisked by helicopter to Nathan’s home/laboratory, a bunkered place far beyond the reach of civilization. It is here that he is building the uber android: one that has reached the point of a singularity where the wall that divides artificial intelligence and self consciousness is collapsed resulting in a manufactured entity that is to all extent and purpose, a sentient being. This is Eva (the stunning Alicia Vikander of “A Royal Affair”, “Testament of Youth” and the upcoming “Son of a Gun”), half woman, half android. Caleb’s job is to evaluate whether he thinks this gorgeous entity has the self-consciousness to be considered ‘human'; which, if he does, will be a redefining of what ‘human’ means.

Writer Garland lays out the territory clearly: He’s not seeking to develop a better Deep Blue (IBM’s chess master), or an enhanced version of Siri with it’s algorhythmic intelligence. He says to Caleb that he could have built a neutral grey box, but instead what he built was Eva. Vikander is so beautiful that her seemingly empathetic, intelligent and vulnerable personality are just the obvious qualities pulled into play to persuade Caleb of her consciousness. What really matters to this geeky, single man is the sexual factor: her desirability. For Nathan has quite deliberately programmed Eva to be heterosexual (As Nathan points out to Caleb, sexual desire is a fundamental part of the human condition, and anyway, it’s fun). Eva is enough of a seductress (the face, the voice, the breasts, the curve of her hips and ass; she’s fully functional sexually he tells Caleb) to ensnare her evaluator.

Thing is, Caleb, and us the audience, may very well consciously and rationally understand that Eva, the android, is just a non-human, programmed machine. But she is able to unlock layers of feeling deeper than the rational thinking brain, perhaps to what the Phenomenologists call pre-reflective self consciousness, or perhaps what we might also call lust. Despite ourselves, we begin to entertain a real human connection with the machine. This is more than an examination of the point at which a machine becomes conscious (we’ve seen enough of that from Will Smith’s “I am Robot” to the terminator’s Skynet). It’s a freaky look at what will eradicate the distance between the machina and the deus. For Caleb, it’s desire and love (and when the object of desire is Alicia Vikander, frankly I’m of Caleb’s camp).

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The pull and intrigue of this fascinating movie though is that it isn’t only about what Caleb (or we) think about the machine; it’s also about what the machine thinks about itself/herself and us. Indeed, at what point does artificial intelligence veer into artificial empathy? At what point does a machine’s simulacrum of desire become a reality of deception?

For Eva, her humanity lies in the lengths she’s prepared to go in a search for free will, the underpinning of true self-identity. To do this, she must liberate herself from Nathan, her maker, the omniscient God and puppet master: he who must be obeyed; and who is also the bringer of death (Caleb quotes Oppenheimer’s words, “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”). She must liberate herself from needing a deus ex machina to control and program her actions and thoughts. It is not unlike Ahab’s need to proclaim his identity by slaying Moby Dick, the white whale, the God.

Not so much “I think therefore I am” but “I am, therefore I can think”

So how will she free herself? Did the all-powerful Nathan really need Caleb, a mid level programmer, to endorse his creation? If not why has he been invited to this God forsaken retreat? Why does the electricity suddenly fail at unexplained times? And who is the mysterious, silent Asian serving woman?
This stunningly designed movie hooks itself into you from the first frame and with Geoff Barlow’s thumping score, never releases you right up to its shocking conclusion

Ex Machina. Dir/writer: Alex Garland. With Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander and Domhall Gleeson. Production Designer: Mark Digby (“Rush”, “Dredd”, “Slumdog Millionaire”).

AMERICAN SNIPER: American Psycho


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NAVY SEAL CHRIS Kyle was America’s most lethal soldier. Single-handedly, he killed over a hundred and sixty Iraqis (or “savages” as they’re referred to). He was regarded with awe and considered a living legend by fellow soldiers and those who knew of his achievements. In lieu of the real thing (Kyle was himself murdered by an emotionally unbalanced vet he was trying to help), “American Sniper”, Clint Eastwood’s latest, has become the go-to movie of Red state America (it earned over $100M last weekend). To them, it offers a wonderfully patriotic narrative of heroism and victory both in war and in self doubt, all in the face of insuperable odds.

Movies of war (perhaps without the pause for the honesty of evaluation or the mask of nostalgia) often tend to reflect a collective perspective about the particular war. Hollywood’s version of Word War II was, via Audy Murphy, or the more recent “Fury” for that matter, a celebration about how America won the war; for the Brits, that war was more about a celebration of British fortitude for having endured the Blitz and the rationing that followed. Both narratives reflected versions of identity.

The movie narrative of Vietnam, from “Good Morning Vietnam” to “Mash” (though this was ostensibly about Korea) was darker, more cynical, more condemnatory of those who lead the nation into the fog of war and the reality of failure.

The narratives of this new series of wars…against vague abstract goals in Iraq and Afghanistan initially focused on the lasting damage it was doing to returning soldiers (as a stand in for the damage it was doing to the psyche of America) in brilliant movies such as “In the Valley of Elah”; and in movies such as “The Green Zone”, the dubious morality of the wars was examined.

“American Sniper”, with that distinctive adjective (it’s not simply “Sniper”, it’s a particular type of sniper, the “American” one) is Clint Eastwood’s continuation of the counter-argument probably initiated by movies such as “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty”. This counter-argument suggests that these wars were/are defined by the heroism of (mainly) men who are putting their lives on the line to keep America safe. In a sense the righteousness of these wars – now rapidly crystallizing away from the adventurism of Bush and Blair into a defensive crusade against Islamic terrorism – offers a new and more triumphant perspective on American identity. This isn’t a case of great art being co-opted by political fervor (as say Wagner was by the Nazis). There’s nothing about the movie to suggest that the way the movie is being read by its supporters is in any way less than the movie intends to be read.

Kyle is never for a moment in any doubt that what he’s doing is right. He says to a therapist that “When I meet my maker I’m prepared to defend why every one of those I killed deserved to die”. There’s nothing in the story-line to suggest that we the audience should take this in any way but at face value. In Kyle, Eastwood offers us an old fashioned, stoic, taciturn John Wayne type of hero who has mastered to art of locking away any troublesome issues (like moving away from the field of battle when he’s back home) as though they don’t really exist. For him, the way to deal with the awful darkness of killing people is to reposition his actions to himself as simply a means of keeping soldiers alive. Kyle is a man, a trained hunter from his youth, whose life is built on the foundation of two complementary philosophies: God, country and family, and the more intimate philosophy taught to him by his dad. “There are three type of people in the world,” says dad, “Sheep, wolves and sheepdogs. You must never be a sheep, never be a wolf; always be a sheepdog”

The idea of America as the world’s sheepdog is a tremendously appealing version of national identity.

The movie’s structured along the lines of the traditional Western. There’s a bad guy who’s killing good guys and who needs to be killed by the hero, the sheepdog. This is The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence set in Falluja. Here, the faceless enemy is given a face in the form in an Iraqi sniper, Kyle’s counterpart and opposite number. He is an Olympic gold medalist, Mustafa, who like Kyle is a ruthless killer. Eastwood shows him picking off the Americans (vulnerable, ever threatened by seemingly innocent fathers and mothers who harbor stockpiles of weapons buried in plain sight) with deadly precision. Like Kyle, he too is a father and husband and presumably, like Kyle, he too is doing his job for God, country and family.

Alas, “American Sniper” never deviates too far from its central argument to add unnecessary nuance. Mustafa is the deadly face of the enemy that needs an even deadlier force to take him out. Boohah!

Bradley Cooper (massively bulked up) is Eastwood’s perfect choice. He exudes trustworthy protectiveness and passionate patriotic fervor. Who wouldn’t trust this decent, good-looking, faithful, honorable man? Eastwood never allows us to question for a moment the building psychosis of the killings. After the shock of his first kill, he quickly settles into the complacent acceptance that it’s what has to be done in the cause of God, country and family.

The action is good (Eastwood takes us there into the heart-stopping terror of being in a war zone) and the acting is superb (Cooper is on central stage for the entire movie which he charismatically holds). Even Sienna Miller as Taya, his wife, does the usual (in films of this sort) duty of crying, imploring and looking pained, convincingly.

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But “American Sniper” is a disingenuous revisionist presentation of the (failed) war in Iraq.

We’re presented with three core images of the war: Kyle’s heroic, skillful ‘kills’. One hundred and sixty plus kills. And all of them, like the kid at the beginning of the movie, were bad guys out to get the good guys. The world of massive collateral deaths that scar the reality of these wars, and of Abu Ghraib just never exist in the world of Eastwood’s morally righteous war.

It’s one thing for a character to be blissfully untroubled about killing people in defense of country. But where’s the director’s artistic thoughtfulness in all this? He too seems untroubled by the morality of war and of lionizing Kyle as a modern day hero; a modern day take on the American identity.

The American soldiers, as seen through the lens of Mustafa, are vulnerable easy targets. There’s a moment as a troop of soldiers, increasingly defenceless and stranded on a roof-top are surrounded by hoards of infitada swarming toward them. Poor, defenceless marines; all decent people planning weddings, back home BBQ’s now under threat by swarming faceless brown savages.

It’s “Zulu” all over again.

It makes for compelling, exciting story telling.

It’s almost as though the might and firepower of the US Armed forces and the rag-tag group of Iraqi insurgents were evenly balanced…and the more morally righteous force won. Hmm.

In the movie, Eastwood consistently reiterates what America is fighting for in Iraq: defense of those back home. He never for a moment pauses to wonder what they – the savages – are fighting for (in their own country) or how and whether Kyle’s one hundred and sixty deaths really did or does keep our loved ones safe back in Oklahoma and Idaho and everywhere that’s not Falluja.

At issue is not Eastwood’s politics or his attitude to war. It’s just that when polemic tries to pass itself off as art, with the power that art has (the same criticism could be leveled against Matt Damon’s sloppy liberal polemic about fracking, “Promised Land”), it becomes duplicitous propaganda.

And to this blogger, that ain’t worth the price of admission.

American Sniper: Dir: Client Eastwood. Written by Jason Hall from the book by Chris Kyle. With Bradley Cooper & Sienna Miller. Cinematographer: Tom Stern (“The Hunger Games”)