Just been watching…(85)

A War (2015)
Original Danish language, English subtitles.

It is easy to forget that countries other than the US and Britain were involved in the war in Afghanistan. Quite a few films have been made about the ongoing war there, and we may have all seen at least one. But you could be forgiven for not knowing that Denmark was one small country that sent troops to fight the Taliban, as their involvement got little coverage outside of their own country. This film redresses that balance, even though it might not be well-known.

One thing about foreign-language films is that few if any of the actors will be familiar. This helps lend authenticity to the action, as we have no preconceptions about them, or memories of their previous roles. In this case, it gives the film an almost documentary feel from the start, and that start is also powerful, taking us straight into the action almost immediately. This is a war we feel familiar with. Something we have watched live on the TV news, and perhaps seen documentaries about too. The patrols in desolate countryside, lack of contact with an often unseen enemy, shocking injuries caused by isolated explosive devices, and soldiers posted to remote encampments surrounded by suspicious locals, where every person might well be an enemy soldier. All that is present here.

But this is a film of two halves, and is intertwined with the home life of a brave young officer, his wife and children finding it hard to cope back home in Denmark. In the modern world, they can make phone calls, so both are trying not to upset the other by telling the real truth about what is going on. When the company loses a man to an I.E.D., the officer decides he will break protocol by leading his men out on patrol. After a local farmer is threatened by the Taliban and asks for help, the troops are sent out to clear the insurgents from the village, resulting in them walking into a trap. Under heavy fire, and taking casualties, the officer calls for air support, and the village is bombed. This means the company can escape, and the wounded can be flown out by helicopter.

This incident changes the film into a courtroom drama, when the officer is arrested for ordering the deaths of civilians in the village, and sent home to face a civilian trial in Denmark. Not only are his actions and judgments questioned, the rules of engagement in such a war are highlighted, with the the authorities showing little regard for the safety of their troops in a war zone. The pressure on the officer to justify his actions, and the worries of his family that he faces prison, then take up the second half of the film, and we see the trial unfold.

I thought this was a gem of a film. The scenes in Afghanistan were convincing, especially the injuries shown, and although there is little action, what does happen is tense in the extreme. The everyday lives of the soldiers and the family back home are handled just right, with suitable cuts to both, and every actor, even in the smallest role, is always believable. I was completely involved throughout, and totally invested in the characters.

For a very European take on this sad and continuing war, I don’t think you will see better.

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Just been watching…(84)

Parkland (2013)

I was eleven years old when John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, in 1963. Since then, countless books have been written about it, and many documentaries and films have been produced about the events too. The Warren Commission Report might well be regarded as the greatest fiction to have been written about the murder, and Oliver Stone’s film ‘JFK’ (1991) divided critics, audiences, and historians with its depiction of his version of what happened.

So for someone of my age, ‘Parkland’ might just have been another rehash of something I have read about or watched before I was even a teenager.
But it isn’t.

Parkland Memorial Hospital was the place where the president was taken to after being shot. The place where doctors and nurses in the emergency room attempted to save the life of a man already well-past saving. Not long after, his alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was shot whilst in police custody, and he was also taken to that same hospital; to that same room, where he was attended to by many of the same doctors and nurses who had tried to help President Kennedy. The film views those tragic events from a very different angle. Not only the hospital staff working under unprecedented pressure, but also the secret service agents, FBI officers, and local police who battled out their rivalries over the shattered bodies on operating tables.

Weaving everything together based around the man who shot the famous 8 mm cine camera footage, Abraham Zapruder, the story is seen to begin from his perspective, as he is shocked to see the event unfold through his camera viewfinder. Once the ensuing chaos consumes the law enforcement agencies, a distraught Jackie, and a solemn Lyndon Johnson, we get some of the back story to an incident that shook the world at the time. Lee Oswald’s brother, appalled that his sibling could have done this, and their mother, hoping to become famous, and to cash in, as a result. The overwhelmed Secret Service agents, and the FBI officers who had been tracking Oswald, and realise they could have stopped it all happening.

I really liked this film. It is intelligent, well-constructed, and manages to show a new perspective on something we might have all thought we already knew about. The casting is restrained, with superb performances from Paul Giamatti as Zapruder, Billy Bob Thornton as the head Secret Service agent, and Marcia Gay Harden outstanding as the professional head nurse involved in both the emergency room scenes. Zac Efron impresses as the tired but dedicated young doctor, and Ron Livingston is convincing as the FBI man hiding the secret of his own mistakes. I recommend it highly to anyone still interested enough in what happened that day. But don’t expect it to reveal any truths.

Lucky 13 Film Club

It is the thirteenth of the month, and time for another entry in the film club run by my great blogging friend, Cindy Bruchman. This time, I am co-hosting, and we are looking at six films that made a great impact during the 1960s, reflecting the changing times of that turbulent decade.
Please follow the link to Cindy’s blog, read the post, and hopefully add your own thoughts and opinions too.

L13FC: 1960s British & U.S. Significant Films

Retro Review: Do The Right Thing (1989)

Thirty years on, it’s hard to believe this film is really that old. Ranked by many as the best film of the year at the time, and with cast members and screenplay nominated for Academy Awards, it now seems to have been almost forgotten, and is rarely shown on TV. I had read about the film, and had also seen Lee’s earlier success ‘She’s Gotta Have it’. So I went to see it at the cinema, additionally enticed by the impressive cast list.

I was not disappointed. I thought it was an amazing film, with perfect locations, a superb cast, and a snappy script. It was all there. An unusually hot summer, racial tensions between ethnic groups in a small area, and everyone getting hot under the collar as the temperatures soared. Lee stars as Mookie, a pizza delivery man living in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of New York City. He works for Sal, (a brilliant performance from Danny Aiello) at the local pizzeria. Sal’s son Pino (John Tuturro on top form) is racially prejudiced against black people, but his father refuses to let tensions in the neighbourhood force him to move away from his business.

This film excels in the use of minor characters to set the scene as they watch or become involved in the action as it unfolds. The marvellously-named Radio Raheem, (Bill Nunn) a sociable drunk called Da Mayor, (Ossie Davis) and Mother Sister, (Ruby Dee) who watches everyone come and go from the steps or window of her house. Trouble starts to brew when one of Mookie’s friends protests about the ‘Wall of Fame’ in Sal’s pizzeria. Sal has lots of photos of famous Italian-Americans, but none of any famous black people. Driven on by the stifling heat, protests against Sal’s wall increase, until at the end of a long, hot, and fractious day, things boil over into a dramatic confrontation.

Despite its age, this film could not be more relevant today. It examines attitudes to race, tolerance of the mentally ill, confrontational policing, and the effects of crowding people together in fast-changing neighbourhoods where some resist those changes. Aiello is outstanding as Sal, though everyone involved is nothing less than perfect for their role. This is a film that every film fan should watch at least once, and one that will undoubtedly be seen as historically and culturally significant in the future.

Just been watching…(83)

The Visit (2015)

***No spoilers***

We had fourteen hours of torrential rain here yesterday. It was relentless, and came with a cold wind too. After trudging around in it for just short of two hours with Ollie, I was ready to get home, get dry, and settle down in the warm, in front of the TV.

Other than the film ‘The Sixth Sense’, I haven’t enjoyed many of the films of M. Night Shyamalan. They are usually damp squibs; promising much, delivering little. But I had recorded this one off the TV film channel, for a time when I had nothing else to do, so went with it.

Though not a ‘found-footage’ film, it is potentially equally annoying in that the two main characters are filming themselves throughout, and this is mostly how we see the action unfold. The back story is laid out rapidly, so we are soon up to speed. A single mother, left caring for two teenage children after her husband ran off with another woman. The kids are still having problems dealing with their dad’s departure, even though they were very young when he left. They have never met their maternal grandparents, as mum ran away from home at the age of nineteen, and hasn’t spoken to them since.

However, they have been in touch, and invited the kids to visit, as they want to make contact with the grandchildren they have never seen. Mum is packing them off to Pennsylvania by train, for a five-night stay in her childhood home. Meanwhile, she will be off on a cruise ship, with a new boyfriend. The daughter, Becca, decides to make the trip into a documentary and shoots everything on a video camera. She also takes along an SLR, so her younger brother Tyler can film her filming everything. They get the train to a remote station, where they are met by the kindly elderly couple, who welcome them with open arms.

Cue granny cooking lots of delicious food, grandpa being kind, and lots of walking in snow, and playing around the house. But of course, not all is as it seems, and the youngsters soon discover some strange behaviour going on with their grandparents, especially after dark. And as this is a ‘modern’ film, there is a lot of use of Skype, laptops, and hand-held camera shots. After half of the film had played, I was on the verge of stopping it, to be honest. The supposed ‘scares’ were very much a ‘So what?’, or ‘Nothing new’, and I was weary of the two young actors, who I found impossible to like. The older girl is pretentious, and her younger brother just plain annoying. She talks about cinema techniques constantly, and he likes to try to make up Rap songs. I was not only wondering if they were going to meet a gruesome fate, but hoping they would. Maybe they were supposed to be irritating, but I suspect not.

I decided to stick with it a little longer, wondering if I would ever bother with another film from this overrated director, and then something happened.

There was a GREAT TWIST! I say ‘great twist’, because I didn’t see it coming. And the ‘reveal’ moment was very well done indeed. But if you think you might see the twist arriving, or someone has already spoiled it for you, then don’t bother to watch the film. The twist is the only good thing about it.

Just been watching…(82)

Eye In The Sky (2015)

***No spoilers***

I am late to this one, and was lucky to catch it on a free film channel. I have seen and reviewed a very similar film made in the same year, ‘Good Kill’. But this one has a cast of British heavyweight actors, alongside some popular Americans who I don’t really know. When I see a cast list including Helen Mirren, Jeremy Northam, Ian Glenn, and Alan Rickman, (in his last film) then you can be sure I am going to watch it.

Mirren stars as a British Army colonel working at the intelligence centre at Northwood, close to London. She was 70 when the film was made, so something of a stretch to believe that she would still be on active service, though she carries that off very well. She has been obsessed with destroying a fundamentalist terrorist cell, headed by two British citizens, and operating around the countries in East Africa. Using observation drones, and Kenyan undercover operatives on the ground, she is delighted to discover that all three of her targets are together in one house, in a suburb of Nairobi.

The action then splits to various locations. In Nevada, we see the American drone operating crew who will observe the area and the suspects, as well as carrying out any agreed strike. Back in Kenya, the local special forces commander has a group waiting to carry out a capture if necessary, and in far-off Hawaii, a young American army specialist is manning her facial recognition machine, to confirm identities of the suspects. In a room in central London, important government ministers and officials are gathering, to watch the capture of the suspects unfold live on screen. All of this is controlled centrally from Northwood, by Colonel Powell. (Mirren)

I caught on fairly quickly that this was to be about one event. I started to wonder if the film was ambitious in that regard, trying to maintain my interest for 102 minutes about one incident. But it did, and was very tense at times. The swapping of locations is never confusing, and the interplay between the characters and the action shown on large screens is always linear. The plot deals with the behind the scenes dilemmas surrounding authorisation of captures or missile strikes, and shows us the way that decisions are ‘referred up’ and the buck is passed, as various characters remain indecisive when faced with the possible recriminations of their actions.

The footage supposed to be from the drones is completely convincing, and the use of technology is not only very interesting, it is believable too. One example is a tiny camera disguised as a flying insect, and operated by a Kenyan undercover agent, using a Nintendo game control. Great stuff. The Kenyan/African cast all do a great job too, and the filming locations in South Africa pass off admirably for the seedier side of Nairobi. Helen Mirren is as solid as ever, but still feels a bit too ‘Mirren’ for my liking. Issues of ‘collateral damage’ are discussed, and the moral implications of drone strikes are addressed.

This is a serious film, with high levels of tension, and still very relevant in the modern world.
I recommend it, and together with ‘Good Kill’, it is a fine example of a modern war film, where a war is fought by remote control.

The trailer looks ‘blank’, but it does play when you click on the arrow.

Light and Sound

As any film fan will tell you, light and sound make up so much of the enjoyment of a film. Just think of a film-maker like David Lean, and his films ‘Great Expectations’, and ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. Or Carol Reed’s use of light and soundtrack in the superb ‘The Third Man’. You get the idea. Some films have been made by their use of lighting, and become legendary for the cinematography that resulted. ‘Cat People’ (1942) is an example of how simple lighting techniques, and use of shadows, turned what could have been an average film into an acknowledged classic.

Then things began to change. I first noticed this when I went to see the film ‘Heaven’s Gate’ (1980) at the cinema. Michael Cimino had made an expensive and ultimately flawed film that ran so far over budget, it almost bankrupted the film company behind it. It also divided the critics, and audiences stayed away. I actually thought it was a very good film, but for one thing. Cimino had decided to use ‘natural sound’. This was very apparent when characters were speaking in front of a noisy steam train, or trying to make themselves heard during a raucous party scene. As a result, those conversations were inaudible to the audience, and any plot developments resulting from the scenes had to be guessed at.

Not long after, films started to get darker, and I don’t mean their themes. ‘Natural lighting’ became the thing. If the characters were outside at night, then it was pitch black, and we had absolutely no idea what was happening, unless the script explained it. I sat in cinemas peering into the gloom, or straining to hear what was being said. And this was at a time when Dolby stereo was being rolled out, and picture quality had reached a new peak of perfection too.

I see the argument. If somewhere is dark, like a cellar or cave, or outside in a forest at night, then it is going to be dark. That’s realistic, yes I get that. But if the audience is then left to simply imagine what might be happening, and who is doing what to who, then there is no point bothering to go and watch the film in the first place. People whisper, I understand that too. If they don’t want to wake the kids, or wish to conceal a plot secret from a character in the next room, they talk quietly. That’s also realistic, I know. But if we can’t hear what they are saying, then why are we bothering to follow the story?

This has nothing to do with my age. Despite wearing glasses to read any print, I have no issues with watching films, or looking at TV shows. My eyesight is good enough for almost everything, but not ‘natural darkness’. And I am not remotely deaf. I only have my TV volume set at 17 out of a possible 30, and can hear all normal conversation, even spoken quietly. But if I can’t hear something on screen that is not meant to be heard by other characters, so delivered in a hushed whisper inaudible to normal people, I have to question why I am continuing to bother.

More recently, this has migrated to TV drama. Made worse by flat-screen LED televisions that rarely have ‘true black’, night scenes in dramas now favour ‘natural darkness’ too. As a result, us viewers are left literally in the dark about what is happening, so that the director can claim to be ‘on trend’ with his vision of the adaptation. This reached a peak when the BBC serialised ‘Jamaica Inn’. They hired a great cast, an equally good writer to adapt the story, then filmed most of it in pitch darkness, with whispered conversations. So many people wrote in to complain, we can only hope such vanity will not be repeated in future.

My tip to those film-makers and TV directors is to look back at great films and TV series of the past. We want to see the drama, not imagine it. If a room is historically candle-lit, then by all means throw in some candles. But also light the scene, so we know what is happening.

Artistic credibility is one thing, but presenting something impossible to watch is just pointless.