Just been watching…(57)

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers Of Benghazi (2016)

***This was a real event, so spoilers do not apply***

I confess I was totally unaware of this film, which was directed by Michael Bay. I happened across a late-night TV showing, and thought it might while away some time. I did recall the real events portrayed in the film though, the attacks on American installations in Libya in 2012, often called The Battle Of Benghazi. On the 11th of September that year, Libyan fundamentalist radicals began attacking the US diplomatic compound in that city, where the US Ambassador to Libya was staying overnight. They later continued the assault, switching to the supposedly secret CIA headquarters, one mile away.

Over the next thirteen hours, large numbers of determined attackers fought against the small number of security guards, state department officials, and CIA agents trapped in the buildings. They were heavily armed; using rockets, mortars, and tactical vehicles against the Americans. By the time the fighting was over, two private security guards had been killed, ten other Americans wounded, and the US Ambassador, Christopher Stevens, had also died, when the residence was set on fire by the attackers. An unknown number of the militants also perished, many mown down by the return fire from the defenders. These events are all true, and the film is based on the book by Mitchell Zuckoff.

Right from the start, the film gets into the action, as new arrival Jack Silva is collected from the airport by his old army friend, Tyrone. Jack has come to work for the private security firm that has been employed to protect the CIA agents still operating in Libya. The rest of that group are all ex-military, mostly from special forces units. Even before arriving at the base, the pair are trapped in the narrow streets by militant Libyans, and are lucky to escape alive. Jack gets to meet his new comrades, and discovers that most of the work is routine; driving and escorting CIA agents to meetings, and observing the actions of known anti-American elements in the city.

It soon becomes clear that it is impossible to know who to trust. Libyan guards employed to defend the gates of the missions are unreliable, the police are corrupt, and the members of the supposedly friendly ’17-Feb’ group of Libyan allies are indistinguishable from the enemy. The local CIA Head of Station dislikes the private security guards, and makes no secret of his disdain for them. News that the US Ambassador is coming to visit throws them into turmoil, as they do not have enough men to mount a proper guard on the residence, and protect the CIA HQ too. The Head of Station also dismisses warnings of a possible attack on the Ambassador, designed to coincide with the anniversary of 9/11.

Whe the main action starts, it is full-on indeed. I found myself holding my breath at times, as the tiny garrison fought against all odds, facing increasingly large numbers of enemy militants. They were everywhere and anywhere, as were us viewers, and the tension was so fully wound, I thought I was on those rooftops with them. That never lets up, either. Despite some pauses as the enemy regroups, and the Americans try to contact home on Facetime, or take a water and food break, it is action as you rarely see it, outside of a modern war film. Meanwhile, the CIA Station Chief finally succumbs to the pressure, and requests help from US forces, wherever they can be found. But the US government is reluctant to give them support, due to the complex diplomatic issues. No aircraft or helicopters are sent, despite the frantic appeals, and the troops on the ground are left to fend for themselves as best as they can.

This is a really relentless action film that often feels tiring to watch. Remembering at all times that these are true events, my admiration for the small group of Americans knows no bounds. The stress and pressure they were under has rarely been seen in modern times, and every single one of them stood up, and did what needed to be done. The 144-minute running time is barely noticeable, even allowing for some downtime, as the group discuss families and children left at home. This is an edge of the seat film in every way, and I recommend it for anyone who appreciates such dramas. Other than Toby Stephens, the British actor, I did not recognise a single member of the cast. That added to the realism, and was far better than stuffing it with famous stars.

It felt convincing and authentic from the opening scene. You can’t say that for many films, these days. I was really surprised by this film, and I think you will be too. Here’s a trailer.


Literature: The names of characters

Some of you may have read my two-part story, ‘Southern Belle’. This was inspired by some of the outlandish names that are turning up as the names of characters in book reviews lately. Indeed, some authors are choosing pen names that are equally ridiculous, and the gradual increase in such cartoonish names is fast becoming an avalanche. To be honest, a silly name for a character, especially the main protagonist, is guaranteed to put me off any book, and why they choose to do this is just beyond my comprehension.

As I have said recently, I have almost stopped reading novels, slowing down to little more than a crawl where books are concerned. The Internet has made countless millions of new books available, from crime thrillers, to cosy mysteries, and steamy romances. I agree that this is mostly a good thing, but some authors are taking the opportunity to get very lazy when it comes to naming their characters, believe me. Most of us only know people with ‘normal’ names. Names like William, Susan, James, or Catherine. I appreciate that trends in naming children have changed, so expect to see the occasional Kylie, Chantelle, Skye, or Brandon. Then there are the ‘fantasy’ names, like Flash Gordon, Xena-Warrior Princess, and so on. In the genres of Fantasy and Science Fiction, such names are of course acceptable. But novels set in contemporary Britain or America should not be using the kind of names that are cropping up, on a daily basis.

When I wrote the two-part story, Southern Belle, it was intended to be humorous, and featured many of the names I have come across, which I write down in a notebook. I am repeating some of them here, and adding a few new ones, so you can see how ludicrous they seem, at least to me. By all means let me know what you think, in the comments. They have all appeared in recently reviewed novels, I shit you not! 🙂

Dalton Kipper
The Eighth Baron Of Wickshire
Blythe Sol
Lola Dodge
Dax Janner
Bastian Urso
Hatcher McGee
Matt Brio
Venus Black
Harlowe Brisbane
Talon Steel
Timothee De Fombelle
Robert Le Donjon
Andee Trakes
Nick Gorgeous
Rouen Rivroche
Misty Mount

And many more…
Read ’em, and weep. Come on, if those books were any good, the characters could have names like William Brown and Amanda Fitzgerald and still be worth reading.
Does anyone really believe in someone called Dax Janner?
Has anyone ever actually been named Nick Gorgeous?
This isn’t even Pulp Fiction, just bad fiction.

Rant over, notebook closed. (For today…)

Just been watching…(56)

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

***No plot spoilers***

As some of you may recall, I wasn’t going to watch this film. The original ‘Blade Runner’ (1982) has been my favourite film since I saw it at the age of 30, and it is still number one in my current top ten of all time. When I heard that there was to be a sequel, I groaned at the thought, quite frankly. I set in my mind that I was going to be an ‘original version snob’, and just refuse to watch it. I read many reviews, and all but one were glowingly positive. I had nothing against Denis Villeneuve or Ryan Gosling, you understand; but come on, this was ‘Blade Runner’ they were taking on.

But then my stepson came to stay with us for a while, and he bought the film on DVD. He has never seen the original, and despite my almost hysterical appeal for him to watch that one first, he asked me to watch the sequel with him on Sunday. As the opening credits rolled, I confess I felt uneasy…

I am not going into much detail about the plot, as it would be hard to avoid spoilers by doing so. The story takes up thirty years after the end of the first film. Gosling is a Blade Runner, doing the same thing as his predecessors, retiring renegade ‘Replicants’ (humanoid artificial beings) by tracking them down and killing them. He is also a replicant, and is called K, to denote his non-human status. The powerful Tyrell corporation that made these replicants has been replaced by the even more powerful (and suitably futuristic) Wallace Corporation, headed up by the mysterious blind genius, Wallace, played by Jared Leto.

K is given the task of killing someone, and in doing so uncovers a secret that has been closely guarded for thirty years. (Or since the end of the first film) Wallace also wants to find the evidence K is searching for, and as he gets ever closer to the truth, K is pressured by Wallace’s replicant aides, as well as his employer, the Los Angeles Police Department, with his situation rapidly becoming perilous.

So, being fair, non-judgmental, and trying to forget that the original is my number one film, here is what I think about the sequel.

1) Remember, this is a sequel. And it does follow on from events. Unlike some reviewers, I DO NOT agree that this should be viewed as a stand-alone film. WATCH THE 1982 FILM FIRST. You will be glad you did.
2) That original is referenced. The origami animals, the flying cars, the South Asian culture, they are all there. Harrison Ford appears in this film playing the same character, Deckard, thirty years older. They show small clips from the original, and some sound recordings too. Still want to see this first? Why?
3) In this new film, some of the special effects are simply outstanding, reflecting the advances in technology during thirty years. There are sequences where K’s holographic virtual girlfriend interacts with him, and a prostitute. They are just tremendous, like watching the best-ever magic trick.
4) Even on my rather tired six-year old TV, with no extra speakers, the soundtrack is actually thrilling to listen to.
5) Gosling is solid in the lead, but plays being a replicant no differently to his role in ‘Drive’. So similar in fact, I kept expecting a car chase.
6) The best bits are when the older film is referenced, though Harrison Ford still just looks tired and fed up during his sequence, much as he played it in 1982. Maybe he thought Deckard would still feel like that, I don’t know.
7) Futuristic Los Angeles looks much the same as it did in the 1982 film; but believe me, the original caught that mood so well, this one feels like it’s just a pale imitation. However, the dystopian vision of a deserted Las Vegas and its dilapidated casinos is beautifully done.
8) This film completely lost (presumably deliberately) that ‘film noir’ essence of Scott’s vision, and replaced it with the feel of a science-fiction epic. By doing so it lost the heart, and feels cold and calculated to watch.
9) It is far too slow. I am all for a deliberate and skillful ‘slow burn’ but this even slows down at the end. Come on, Denis, I could feel my eyelids drooping, and it was only late afternoon. And it is far too long. It could have lost a full thirty minutes, and we would have been none the wiser.
10) It isn’t exciting, and it isn’t witty. The original film had plenty of both, but this one tries for a sombre and serious look at the ethics of using replicants, and ends up a lot like ‘I Robot’, but with no robots. And no wisecracks from Will Smith.

It’s a good film. But not a very good film. And definitely not a great film, oh no. It has some good parts, that’s undeniable, but they do not add up to anything close to the stellar ‘Blade Runner’. Before you rush to tell me I am wrong, watch the original first. And if you have done that, and still think this one is better, then be warned that we are obviously not on the same wavelength and are never going to agree. Not about this film anyway.
Here’s a trailer.

Significant Songs (163)


Sometimes, a song can be significant because it is just plain annoying. You hear it all the time on the radio, or catch snippets of it heard from passing cars. In the case of this particular song, I only knew it from cover versions, mainly those sung by the hopefuls on TV talent shows like ‘X-Factor’ and the like. To be honest, I was heartily sick of this song long before I ever heard the original version, and was hoping never to hear it again.

However, I did hear that original, long after it was recorded in 2013, by the unusual Australian singer, Sia. She is someone who likes to present an enigmatic persona to the world. famously appearing in wigs that completely covered her face, and using other people in her promotional videos to retain her contrived air of mystery. That made her even more irritating, as far as I was concerned.

But as I often say on this blog, real talent is undeniable. Once I heard her version, I immediately wondered at the folly of anyone else even attempting to tackle this difficult and complex song. Sia sings it with a passion and skill that gave me goosebumps, and turned a hated song into one I admire more than I can say. It is simply amazing.

This is not her in the video. She’s mysterious, as I said.

Just Been Watching…(55)

Calvary (2014)

***No real spoilers***

This is an Irish film, written and directed by Stephen McDonagh. It is filmed on location in a small town on the coast of County Sligo, and also in Dublin. With a couple of exceptions, the cast is made up of Irish actors familiar to film and TV viewers in Britain and Ireland, as well as some internationally-known stars like Brendan Gleeson, who has the lead role of a priest, Father James. This priest is unusual though. He was married and has a daughter, coming late to the priesthood after the death of his wife. He has experience of life outside of the Catholic Church, and that shows in his style and demeanour.

It starts in the confessional, where a male voice is heard telling Father James a story about his childhood. How he was repeatedly sexually abused and raped by priests, from the age of seven. He makes no confession, and does not seek absolution. Instead, he informs James that he is going to kill him, to pay back the church for the sins committed on him as a child. He even gives a time and place, Sunday week, on the local beach. We don’t see the face of this man, but we are aware that the priest knows who he is, as he recognises his voice.

That sets the scene nicely. We now know that Father James has eight days to live, and that he knows the name of his assassin. After consulting his bishop, the priest decides that he will not inform the police, despite the threat not meeting the laws of the confessional. As each day appears on the screen, we follow Father James about his everyday business, visiting his parishioners, and holding church services. The locals are a disparate bunch indeed. An adulterous housewife, a cynical local doctor, a disillusioned bar-owner, a gay policeman, and an annoying male prostitute. He also has to deal with an aggressive African mechanic, and a cantankerous old American writer, who wants to commit suicide. (A lovely cameo from M. Emmet Walsh, who was around 80 at the time, and looks it)

This is no longer the old Ireland, where priests could do no wrong, and expected deference from the community. There is much mention of the sex scandals that have rocked the church in recent years. Father James is often openly mocked, and many of the inhabitants claim to no longer have any religious beliefs. His daughter arrives for a visit, from her home in London. She has recently split from a long-term lover, and has tried to kill herself, by cutting her wrists. The two take time to bond once again, and examine the changes in their relationship over the years. As Father James struggles with his family and community responsibilities, the days leading to the fateful Sunday are counted down on screen.

This film is unusual and highly intelligent. It could have taken so many familiar paths, but chose none of them. It questions religion, deals with the collapse of the European economy in 2008, and the changes in society in Ireland that have followed that country’s social and financial elevation in recent years. When Father James asks the adulterous woman what she really wants to do with her life, she answers “Nothing. Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin”. She quotes scripture back at the priest, to show him what she feels to be the pointlessness of life. Visiting a serial killer in prison, a local man who has killed and cannibalised young girls, he is told “If God made me, then he knew what I would become”. All around him, Father James’ life is unravelling, and Sunday is getting closer.

This really is a top-notch film. Brendan Gleeson, in one of his best roles by far, feels as if he was born to play Father James. English actress Kelly Reilly is just right as his troubled daughter too. As well as Walsh who I mentioned above, there is a string of impressive supporting actors. Dylan Moran as a lonely rich man, Aiden Gillen plays the cynical doctor, and Gleeson’s son, Domhnall, is the young serial killer, Freddy. One of the bigger roles goes to Chris O’Dowd, playing the town butcher, Jack. He may be known to you from parts in ‘Bridesmaids’, ‘Loving Vincent’, and the recent ‘Molly’s Game’. The scenery of Ireland plays its part too, with the rugged coast and rural setting adding to the overall atmosphere. Despite moments of laugh out loud comedy, and a witty and often sparkling script, this is not an easy film, with its dark undercurrents never far from the surface.
But I urge you to try to see it.

Here’s the trailer.

Just Been Watching…(54)

Suffragette (2015)

***These are historical events, so spoilers do not apply***

The most famous political movement in Britain campaigning for voting rights for women began in 1903, formed by Emmaline Pankhurst, and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia. Beginning as a pressure group organising protests and demonstrations, it went on to advocate violent means to get attention, including smashing windows, blowing up post boxes with gunpowder, and even attacking the home of a minister, using a large home-made explosive device. In one famous incident, caught on film cameras, Emily Davison walked in front of the King’s horse on Derby Day, in 1913. She died from her injuries four days later, and became a famous martyr for the cause.

This recent film was appropriately directed by a woman, Sarah Gavron, and features many excellent roles for women, including all the leads. Even if you know nothing about these historical events, the cast alone makes this worth watching. Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham-Carter, Anne-Marie Duff, Romola Garai, and many others all turn in convincing performances as fictional characters caught up in the rurbulent events of those times. Meryl Streep makes a brief appearance as Emmaline Pankhurst, and Natalie Press plays the unfortunate Emily Davison. Male roles are also well served, with Ben Wishaw as the conflicted husband of Mulligan’s character, and Brendan Gleeson reliable as the Special Branch policeman tasked with arresting the members of the group.

From the start, the action focuses on working-class women toiling at hard labour in a laundry, in the poorest area of London. They do all the hard work, as the men make deliveries, and act as overseers. The women (including many young girls) work in dangerous and uncomfortable conditions, for a very small wage, much less than the pay received by the men who work there. They are expected to tolerate the sexual advances of the odious foreman, and at home, their life is little more than servitude to their husbands, as they have no rights whatsoever.

One day, Maud (Mulligan) is sent to deliver a package in the centre of London. As she makes her way there, she is caught up in a Suffragette protest, with members smashing shop windows in one of the exclusive shopping streets of the city. Later, the wife of a sympathetic M. P. comes to the laundry, asking women to attend Parliament, to make statements about why they should have the vote. Maud reluctantly delivers her statement to Lloyd George, and when the women return to hear the result of the vote, a disturbance follows, and Maud is arrested. During the protest, the women are treated cruelly by the police, with many badly beaten, and dragged around. Maud is imprisoned along with others, and whilst in prison, she meets Emily Davison.

This incident, and talking to the other women involved, inspires the previously timid Maud to join the group. Along with a local Chemist,(Bonham-Carter) Emily Davison, and others, she becomes part of the militant group using explosives around the city. Another spell in prison results, showing how the hunger strikers were force-fed and restrained, leaving Maud becoming more determined to keep up the struggle. She loses her job, and returns home to find that her husband (Wishaw) has banished her from the house, and will no longer even allow her to see her young son, George. Despite not being the boy’s biological father, her marriage to him has given him total control over her life, and of that of her son. The desolate Maud is left with only the cause, and is tasked to accompany Emily Davison to the Derby, in an attempt to confront the King at the famous horse race.

This film is very good on so many levels. The conditions of the working classes at the time are accurate, and the unusual association of the poor women with their upper-class compatriots is well-handled too. Costume and sets are convincing, and some scenes are actually filmed inside The Houses of Parliament. Every one of the cast delivers a fine performance, with Mulligan on form as Maud, and Gleeson showing his displeasure at the treatment of the women with some nuance too. Even the scene at The Derby, an event familiar to most people in Britain, feels strangely chilling in colour, with the gaiety of the crowds contrasting with the sombre and shocking suicide of Emily Davison.

Here’s the trailer. I recommend this film as something different, in historical drama.

Just been watching…(53)

The Danish Girl (2015)

***This is based on a true story, so spoilers do not apply***

Einar Wegener was an accomplished landscape painter living in Copenhagen, during the 1920s. He was happily married to another painter, Gerda, but his work was far more popular than the portraits she specialised in. A novel was published in 2000 by David Ebershoff, based on their life together, and this was adapted into the film directed by Tom Hooper, starring Eddy Redmayne, and Alicia Vikander, who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role.

This film sets the scene very well. The happy couple enjoy some success, and have a wide circle of artistic friends. Denmark in the 1920s is nicely rendered, with both scenery and costumes establishing the era well. As historical dramas go, this is one that is very nice to look at.

When one of her female sitters is late for an appointment, Gerda asks Einar to wear her shoes and stockings, so that she can paint the legs of the ballet star. She also drapes a dress over him, to get the overall effect. It is immediately apparent that Einar feels comfortable in this female attire, and when Gerda suggests that he pose as a woman to attend the Artist’s Ball, he goes along with the ruse, which is intended to shock their friends. However, once wearing a wig, make up, and learning to walk and behave as a woman, Einar realises that he has always felt more like a woman inside. At the ball, he is attracted to a man, Henrik. Posing as Lili, Einar goes off with him, and ends up kissing him passionately.

That accelerates Einar’s desire to live as a woman, and he begins to dress as Lili most of the time, wandering around the city, and visiting Henrik at his home. Challenged by his wife, Einar tells her that he no longer wants to live as a man, and confesses to the relationship with Henrik. Gerda still loves him, and for a time they continue to live happily enough, with Gerda painting him as Lili, and finally achieving recognition in her own right, and success that leads the couple to live in Paris for a while.

Einar/Lili tries to consult various doctors for advice and help. But most consider him to be perverted or insane, and he has to escape potential confinement in a psychiatric hospital. Now living most of the time as Lili, he eventually meets a sympathetic German doctor who offers him experimental reconstructive surgery to become a woman. He cautions Einar though, telling him that the surgery is both painful, and potentially fatal. Despite this, Einar is determined to go ahead, and travels to Germany for the first of two operations, becoming one of the first people to ever undergo gender reassignment surgery.

I didn’t warm to this film as much as I had expected to. Although nice to look at in the main, it is by nature of the story often claustrophobic in feel. Redmayne looks the part of a woman in the 1920s, but I was never really convinced that so many others would readily accept that he was female. (Though his lover Henrik actually knew he was really Einar.) But the film is worth watching for Vikander. This talented actress inhabits the part of the disappointed yet dedicated wife so well, and she is completely convincing as a Bohemian painter too. Here’s the trailer.