Goodbye Christopher Robin: a surprisingly substantial film with some disturbing themes

Simon Curtis, “Goodbye Christopher Robin” (2017)

A film about English playwright / author A A Milne and the circumstances in which he was inspired to write the “Winnie the Pooh” series of books based on his son Christopher Robin and the child’s toys could have been a very tedious nostalgia-filled flick with more saccharine sickliness than substance and style. Parts of the film are too sugary and it does come out at a time when the British movie industry delves ever more into a mythical early 20th-century past for want of original stories. (Maybe if the British government put more money into tertiary education and encouraged more working-class and lower middle-class students to take up writing and scripting for films, there would be good original films with meaty stories and British actors would not need to compete with other non-American actors for work in Hollywood.) Surprisingly, “Goodbye Christopher Robin” turns out to be more substantial than it would at first appear, given its biopic subject matter: the film tackles quite a few disturbing themes – the impact of war and shellshock on a family and the relationships within that family; the disturbing treatment of children by their parents in upper class English families; the effect of sudden fame and celebrity on people ill-equipped to deal with being famous, and the resulting loss of childhood innocence replaced by pain that can last life-times – which leave viewers with much food for thought about whether Milne should or should not have mentioned his son in the books at all and whether the books would have achieved as much fame as they did if the son had indeed been left out.

The film is cleverly framed by two major wars that in their own way led to the decline of the British empire and British influence on a global scale. We meet Milne (Domhnall Gleeson),  just returned from fighting from the Western front in the Great War, tormented by severe flash-back experiences that affect his social life and ability to write, even function normally. His wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) experiences her own trauma in giving birth to their son, whom they name Christopher Robin: Daphne had wanted a girl and was unprepared for the extreme pain of childbirth. Right from the outset Daphne rejects the baby, nicknamed “Billy”, and the couple hire Scottish nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald) to care for the child.

Determined to write a book decrying war but experiencing writer’s block and continual flash-back episodes, Milne takes his family down to a country house in southern England which becomes their primary residence. When Billy reaches primary school age, Daphne flees back to London to catch up with the social set and Olive must return to her sick mother: this leaves Milne and Billy alone together and father and son start to forge a friendship. This has the effect of inspiring Milne to write and publish a series of poems and stories based on Billy and his toys, with illustrations provided by Milne’s friend Ernest Shepard (Stephen Campbell Moore). The poems and stories prove to be immensely popular in Britain and overseas, and suddenly the Milnes are inundated with fan mail, demands for interviews and public appearances, and intrusive press and fans. Billy is quicker than both his starry-eyed parents to realise that his life and toys are not his own anymore.

The scripting is smooth and very flowing, jumping across gaps in time to suggest Billy’s angst, pain and eventually anger as he is thrown into boarding school at a tender age where he faces constant bullying from other kids for his fame in a children’s story series and comes to believe that his father exploited him. Will Tilston gives a good performance as the child Billy in conveying a full range of emotions and feelings about fame and the pressures it places on him. Alex Lawther takes up the baton as the teenage Billy, eager to serve as a private in the British Army so he can forge his own identity, and makes the most of his limited role. Gleeson plays a traumatised, emotionally restricted and (at times) conflicted Milne very well. Macdonald provides the warm-hearted balance to the dysfunctional parenting of Milne, often at sea in the events swirling around him, and his shallow, hedonistic and ultimately mercenary wife Daphne.

Perhaps the best part of the film is its beautiful cinematography which captures the soft light and magic of the English countryside and of Ashdown Forest in particular where a child’s imagination can open up and perceive a fairy-tale world of snow and snowflakes that float upwards. The middle part of the film where Milne begins to create the world of Winnie the Pooh is perhaps the best and most beautiful and uplifting part.

For a film juggling a number of themes, inevitably some get short shrift and viewers never find out whether Milne was able to deal with his wartime experiences and shellshock. What Milne himself thought of the way in which his “Winnie the Pooh” creation overshadowed the rest of his writing career (including the anti-war book “Peace With Honour” that he did eventually write) and subtly implied that his other writing might be mediocre is also not known. Near the end (spoiler alert) of the film, a reconciliation between Milne and his son appears unnatural, mawkish and emotionally manipulative, as though despite all the unresolved problems the Milne family has – one notes all the way through that Daphne is extremely distant from her son and he has no time for her either – the film has to end on an upbeat note with all loose ends tidied and tied and all characters determined to forge ahead on one bright and shining path as one.

While the film might be inadequate in resolving its themes, at least it has been brave enough to approach and suggest them. The issue of war and the cost of keeping the peace is one that continues to bedevil human beings, as does also the issue of how much young children should be exposed to constant publicity before it threatens their right to privacy and sense of identity, and brings unexpected and painful consequences to them (such as stalking and bullying, as Billy was to discover). The Milne couple’s frightful parenting is part of another larger and more grave problem revolving around Britain’s class hierarchy and how its reliance on boarding schools for upper class and middle class children stunt their development and help reinforce mediocrity, incompetence, indifference and lack of compassion among its elites. That’s probably a subject for another film or a TV mini-series.

Ghost in the Shell (dir. Rupert Sanders): generic origin story makes anime adaptation tired and formulaic

Rupert Sanders, “Ghost in the Shell” (2017)

In adapting a major Japanese anime series into a potentially lucrative movie franchise, Hollywood opted for a standard origin story in which a main character, turned into a cyborg for a counter-terrorism unit, has recurrent memories of her past and tries to trace these memories in order to understand where she has come from and what she was originally. In the process she discovers she has been lied to by the very people who remade her and who employ her as a counter-terrorism operator. For some reason the knowledge and awareness the cyborg gains as a result of knowing her ancestry and where she comes from make her dangerous to her employers so they set out to destroy her.

That’s the live-action film “Ghost in the Shell” in a, er, nutshell and a very boring and generically Bladerunner-esque nutshell it is too. The actors do what they can with the material and the cyborg Mira Killian (played by Scarlett Johansson in sleepwalking mode) is far more robot than human but the plot narrative they have to grapple with shows signs of having been worked over so many times in other films that what should have been an exciting first film of many to come ends up looking rusty and in need of panel-beater treatment instead. The usual devices of gunfights, a buddy relationship with another cyborg Batou, a plot twist in which a supposed villain reveals his true nature and Killian’s true nature to the astonished Killian herself, and ham-fisted attempts to use a generic Japanese megalopolis as a major character in the film pad out the story but ultimately the film comes across as very tired, formulaic and – horror of horrors – outdated.

While the plot brings up themes deemed to be relevant to American mainstream movie audiences – the notion of memories being part of one’s identity and individuality, Killian’s eventual determination not to be defined by her memories but by her actions, the idea that self-awareness, self-knowledge and knowing one’s origins can be dangerous in a society where people can be owned and lied to by corporations – it doesn’t leave much room for an investigation of how humans augmented with cybernetic attachments endowing them with superhuman abilities might cope and even change and adapt to their attachments and abilities psychologically so that the boundaries between what is human and what is artificial disappear and a true cyber-human fusion is born. This is probably one of the things that fans of the original anime series were hoping for. Even so, Mira Killian / Motoko Kusanagi’s origin story deserves a much better treatment by being combined with the philosophical speculations that the anime series is known for and following the implications and consequences of such a combination.

Murder on the Orient Express (dir. Kenneth Branagh): a lavish and brisk remake turns out to be an ego trip

Kenneth Branagh, “Murder on the Orient Express ” (2017)

At least superficially this film is quite enjoyable to see Agatha Christie’s famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (played here by Kenneth Branagh who also directed the film) solve the whodunnit mystery in brisk and no-nonsense style amid lavish surroundings and a dramatic (if computer-enhanced) Alpine mountain landscape. Branagh preens his way through nearly every shot and scene as the famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot at the expense of his co-stars, many of whom are equally as illustrious as he if not more so. Viewers keen on solving the mystery before Poirot does are given plenty of clues and a back-story to the shenanigans on board the famous Orient Express train.

Summoned by London to return from the Middle East, Poirot meets Xavier Bouc, the son of an old friend, who is the director of the Orient Express and who promptly offers him a place on board. After meeting a number of passengers – who, oddly, total no more than thirteen – Poirot is approached by an American art dealer, Ratchett (Johnny Depp), who wants Poirot to be his bodyguard: Ratchett has received some threatening letters and fears someone on the train is out to kill him. Poirot senses that Ratchett is an unpleasant fellow and refuses to protect him. During the night strange noises emanate from Ratchett’s compartment and in the morning he is found dead from twelve stab wounds. Poirot and Bouc set about solving the mystery of Ratchett’s death and Poirot discovers from a clue left at the crime scene that Ratchett is in fact John Cassetti, a criminal who years ago had kidnapped and murdered a child, Daisy Armstrong. The kidnapping and murder led to the death of Daisy’s mother and the eventual suicide of her father, John. The family’s housemaid Susanne was wrongly arrested and charged with the murder and the trial judge was under pressure to convict her. Susanne later committed suicide in prison.

Armed with this information, Poirot eventually discovers through interviewing all the passengers on the train, plus one of the train conductors, that every single person aboard (save himself, Bouc and the train staff) is connected to the Armstrong family in some way. Alert viewers can guess which of these people will have had a hand in Ratchett’s murder before Poirot makes his announcement in an anti-climactic climax in which all the accused are assembled in a tableau resembling Leonardo da Vinci’s painting “The Last Supper”. Poirot subsequently finds himself in a dilemma torn between his excessively neat and tidy rational worldview, in which humans behave in ways that are logically transparent, and the real messy world in which people, governed by emotions and motivations they often cannot understand in themselves, perform criminal acts without regard for the consequences … and yet if they do not perform such acts, they may end up trapped in a depressive limbo or resort to the comfort of addictive painkiller drugs or even suicide.

The film has no easy answer for Poirot’s dilemma and he is forced to back down before a very minor character’s pragmatic decision regarding the fate of the guilty party / parties. At the end of the film he is left angry and discontented by the events on the Orient Express and only a new summons from London directing him back to Egypt and a trip down the Nile River (which means that Branagh may be coming back with his version of “Death on the Nile”!) holds out a promise that his universe will neatly resolve and repair itself back into tidy order.

While Branagh walks a balance between comic silliness and in-your-face seriousness for much of the film, and Depp oozes genuine menace in the few scenes he has, other capable actors have very little to do: the characters played by Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench and Derek Jacobi could have been played by lesser actors and Penelope Cruz has great difficulty playing a guilt-ridden missionary. Michelle Pfeiffer puts on a bravura performance as Mrs Hubbard towards the film’s end but by then viewers will think this is too little, too late.

Various tweaks have been made to the plot and some of the characters for the insertion of unnecessary and annoying identity-politics issues (such as making one character black so that Poirot is forced into solving the murder mystery before police authorities catch up and arrest that black character for the murder) that add nothing to the plot or to the overarching theme of Poirot encountering a chaotic and irrational universe and pushing back with deductive reasoning and logic. An unnecessary opening scene in which Poirot presides, god-like, over an incident involving the three Abrahamic religions in Jerusalem comes across as prejudiced against religion and racist to boot. The film also delights too much in overhead shots, long panning and CGI-generated shots of the Orient Express stranded on a bridge in an artificial-looking montane landscape.

If, as seems likely, a sequel is to be made – Hollywood being intent on cannibalising all its old movies, turning away from contemporary story scenarios that might reveal a United States in cultural as well as political, economic and financial stagnation and decline – please someone stop Branagh from directing the film: on “Murder …”, he just gets too carried away by his character Poirot and the film’s visual and technical aspects to care about the rest of the cast and the story.

The Quiet American: a slow and unassuming film with parallel plots of a love triangle mirroring post-colonial Cold War struggle

Phillip Noyce, “The Quiet American” (2002)

A beautifully made film with much atmosphere, even if it is slow and unassuming in style, and its acting uneven, “The Quiet American” nevertheless makes quite an impression with its parallel plots that reflect and comment on each other. The people in the love triangle can be taken as metaphors for the geopolitical context in which they find themselves. Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine) is a jaded and world-weary British journalist working for The Times newspaper in 1950s-era Saigon (Vietnam) who submits little work on the French war on Vietnamese resistance to French rule while enjoying a hedonistic life-style with his young mistress Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen). Phuong’s older sister disapproves of the liaison because Fowler is already married – his estranged wife back in London refuses to give him a divorce because of her Catholic faith – and on top of that, Fowler does not have the money or connections that could get Phuong, her sister and the rest of their family out of Vietnam and into a Western country, preferably a rich one.

One day Fowler gets a message from his newspaper recalling him back to London over the little work he has done. Unwilling to return to a loveless marriage and at the prospect of losing Phuong, Fowler is in something of a quandary until he meets Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), an idealistic young American doctor working with a humanitarian US mission. Pyle is an enthusiastic follower of a scholar who expounds that colonial Vietnam cannot be saved by either the French or the Communists under Ho Chi Minh, but rather by a Third Force which Pyle earnestly hopes to be part of. By his words and deeds, Pyle challenges Fowler to re-examine his detached relationship to his job as a reporter, stop sitting on the fence with regard to his attitude on Vietnam’s war against France and start seeing Vietnam less as an exotic escapist playground and more as a real country of real people struggling and fighting for self-determination and independence between an old colonial force (France) and a new one (the United States).

Eventually Pyle meets Phuong and quickly falls head over heels in love with her. Unlike Fowler, Pyle comes from a wealthy East Coast background, has good career prospects and a clean marital slate, and Phuong’s mercenary sister starts pressuring the younger sibling to leave Fowler and hitch herself with Pyle. The love triangle that forms with Fowler, Pyle and Phuong becomes a metaphor for Vietnam’s struggle to break away from its old European past and determine its own future. What further complicates the love triangle – apart from Fowler’s anguish at losing Phuong and his rage at Pyle for taking her away – is Fowler’s discovery that Pyle is actually a CIA agent working secretly with Vietnamese army officer General Thé, backed by rich businessman Muoi, to wrest power away from France and Vietnamese Communists using violence and mass murder that can conveniently be blamed on the Vietminh.

Caine may be too old to play Fowler but his performance is subtle and suggests a character troubled by many past demons that force him and Phuong to live their lives in limbo amid an opium haze. At the same time this character is forced by changing circumstances to re-evaluate his life and his life’s purpose, and he is challenged to give something back to the country and the people who have been generous enough to host him. Caine portrays Fowler with all his troubles and the dilemma facing him brilliantly even if he is not fully absorbed into the character but plays Fowler as an extension of himself. The real surprise of the film is the casting of Brendan Fraser – who is usually better known for his comedy films and “The Mummy” franchise of low-brow films – as Pyle: Fraser smoothly pulls off playing a character who initially seems idealistic and missionary-like, innocent and bumbling at the same time, yet who turns out to be devious and sinister. Pyle is no less complex than Fowler in his motivations and cynicism, and Fraser expresses the more brutal aspects of the character fairly well. The weak point in the love triangle turns out to be Hai Yen’s Phuong who has very little to do except look very pretty in stunning clothes and obey others’ orders. She does not come across as someone whom two mature men would fight over just for her sake.

The supporting cast help pad out the complex plot against a background of picturesque city scenes and beautiful serene tropical landscapes where scenes of violence, mayhem and bloodshed unexpectedly erupt. Vietnam is suddenly no longer a playground where people like Fowler, fleeing complicated past lives, can escape to in order to play out fantasies of hedonistic freedom. Fowler discovers that to survive, and to stay in Vietnam, he must commit himself to a definite path and purpose in life. He will have to trample over someone and disappoint someone else – and he will have to live with the consequences and his conscience for the rest of his life – but the choice is one he is forced to make.

At the time of release, the film was subjected to censorship in the US by its own main producer Miramax and would have languished in a vault were it not for efforts by director Phillip Noyce and Michael Caine, with support from film critics in the US, to get it released. Fifteen years later, one of the film’s messages – that the US will resort to supporting warlords and favour terrorism and violence resulting in mass deaths if such actions are in its interests – is more relevant than ever as US foreign policy in widely separated countries such as Syria, Iraq, North Korea, the Philippines and Venezuela, in which the forces of thuggish violence and chaos are aided and abetted by Washington, becomes more widely known and criticised.

Blade Runner 2049: an absorbing and leisurely film on future societal trends despite a thin plot and lack-lustre characters

Denis Villeneuve, “Blade Runner 2049” (2017)

In its own leisurely way, “Blade Runner 2049” is a very absorbing, even hypnotic film with stunningly beautiful sets that describe a post-modern Western society on the edge of collapse and obsolescence as it plunders and cannibalises its own past with hyper-technological bombast. Decay abounds whether it is in the breakdown of law and order, the casual mix of peoples from previously different societies reducing so-called “diversity” into a bland and artificial mono-cultural blur, and that false heterogeneity’s parallel in the uneasy blend of humans, replicants and anthropmorphic holograms, none of which has a greater claim than the others to possessing anything equivalent to or symptomatic of a soul. The pace is slow enough that viewers can take in the vast urban and semi-urban vistas of a futuristic society and (with their imaginations) fill in the gaps in the thin plot and make allowance for the superficial characters played by workman-like actors.

Ryan Gosling plays K, a replicant blade runner of a new breed made strictly to obey, who is employed by the Los Angeles Police Department to retire old-model replicants in the Los Angeles of the year 2049. During one such retirement of a farmer, Gosling discovers a box buried beneath a tree. When the box is collected by the LAPD and the skeletal remains within are examined by its forensic investigators, an astonishing secret is revealed: the skeleton is that of a female replicant who apparently gave birth to a child and died during its difficult delivery. Since such a technological achievement has remained secret for decades, K’s superior Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) orders him to seek out and kill the child that was birthed. K visits Wallace Corporation, the company that has acquired the old Tyrell Corporation and its intellectual rights to manufacture replicants. Wallace Corporation founder Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) discovers in the old Tyrell Corporation archives that the dead female replicant is Rachael, an experimental prototype who disappeared with a former blade runner known as Rick Deckard. Wallace desires to know more about Rachael and the child she had, as such knowledge will benefit his production of replicants, and orders his assistant Luv (Sophia Hoeks) and his minions to secretly follow K wherever he goes.

This sets in train two searches, K’s search for the child which turns out to be linked to his own origin, his purpose in life and another search for Rick Deckard himself, with Wallace Corporation hot on his heels tracking wherever he goes through his hologram companion Joi (Ana de Armas), herself manufactured by Wallace Corporation subsidiary Joi. K’s journey turns out to be a subversive Hollywood comment on how everything that appears in films ends up being linked to the plot: a bit depressing for this viewer, because it means various aspects of the film’s plot become predictable. Suffice to say that K’s discovery of the child (now adult) is mind-blowingly banal and that once he fulfills his mission, he becomes superfluous to the police force, his society and an underground revolutionary movement that had uses for him but which have all now dispensed with him. After all, he is just a replicant whose purpose is to do as he’s told.

While the plot is thin and the characters are not all that memorable, they do serve to highlight the film’s themes and messages which are many and various. Climate change and its effects are significant for part of the film’s plot and its look as is also the futuristic society’s inability to be sustainable as it continually generates waste. Significant also is the society’s two-faced attitude towards women: while Wright may play K’s boss, Hoeks’ character Luv is as menacing and vicious as villains come, and women lead an underground rebel movement, the film also presents women as commodities to be exploited by corporations for profit. Joi (the hologram) exists purely to pleasure men and K’s trip to a dead Las Vegas reveals the city as a bizarre hyper-erotic Babylon pleasure-dome for jaded billionaires before its collapse. The society’s complete control over its citizens has an unexpected result: true originality and innovation in culture are no longer possible, and society is reduced to plundering its past for inspiration. Even Hollywood understands satire as it ransacks its own old movie archives for ideas. The original “Blade Runner” film’s themes about what being human means and the paradox that replicants have more vitality than humans do are still present but are less significant.

The film’s open-ended conclusion suggests another sequel may be in the works as not all loose ends have been tied. Some minor characters in “Blade Runner 2049” are clearly under-utilised and may return in a third film. If a third film is made, and then a fourth, and so on (!!!), at least viewers can enjoy the views and atmospheres of a never-ending franchise past its use-by date if not increasingly thread-bare plots and one-dimensional characters.

Final Portrait: a character study that doesn’t delve deeply into the nature of friendship and artistic endeavour

Stanley Tucci, “Final Portrait” (2017)

Best seen as a character study and a superficial investigation into an artist’s creativity and what motivates him, “Final Portrait” is noteworthy for its lead actors Geoffrey Rush and Armie Hammer and the zest they both bring to their performances. For those looking for a plot with some excitement, an exhilarating climax and a satisfying resolution, they should look elsewhere: what passes for a plot in “Final Portrait” is Swiss-born Paris resident sculptor / painter Alberto Giacometti (Rush) inviting a friend, ex-spy and writer James Lord (Hammer) to his studio to sit for a portrait which Giacometti claims will just take up two to three hours of Lord’s time. Those two to three hours end up taking over two weeks of Lord’s time as Giacometti fusses over the portrait and keeps erasing, re-doing and re-erasing it. The old fella continually beats himself up over his apparent failure to capture Lord’s inner soul even though he spends a lot of time gazing into the American’s eyes and studying his features. (Someone probably could have told Giacometti that American spies don’t have much in the way of an inner soul.) He also spends a lot of time flirting with prostitute Caroline (Clémence Poésy) which puts him and Lord in danger from her violent pimps. While Giacometti battles with his perfectionism that prevents him from finishing the portrait properly and his chaotic personal life with his long-suffering wife (Sylvie Testud) and Caroline, Lord also spends his time with the painter observing his erratic ways and habits, trying to understand what makes Giacometti tick, and having to keep cancelling his return flight to New York just so he can see how his portrait turns out when Giacometti finishes it – if the old guy can finish it.

Rush’s performance as Giacometti is sharp and energetic if very repetitive as the film trudges on. Hammer’s clean-cut and rather conservative character acts as a perfect foil for the artist’s unconventional and messy ways. Unfortunately the way the film jumps from one day to the next, and then from one collection of days to the next, means that the evolution of the two men’s friendship and respect for each other ends up fragmented and audiences have to assume a great deal about how it progresses. Somehow all the early fighting about how Lord can’t afford to spend extra time sitting for the painting ended up on the cutting-room floor. Giacometti’s relationships with his missus and the mistress don’t make for very substantial sub-plots either; the entry of the pimps late in the film seems like an after-thought to give it much-needed frisson. All the same, the minor characters do a very good job in filling out Giacometti’s support while he agonises over his work and leaves a mess in his wake.

The Paris of the mid-1960s looks very picturesque as does the messy and dusty atelier where Giacometti paints his pictures and reworks his sculptures endlessly (and stashes all his money because he, a Swiss, doesn’t trust banks). The Hollywood stereotyping looks quite thick in parts and some of the music soundtrack is also very twee.

The film’s repetitive structure and resolution parallel the painting’s ongoing creation and eventual completion (of a sort), and just as the painting itself does not capture the perfection Giacometti seeks, so the film also doesn’t completely explain Giacometti’s fascination with Lord as a subject for a portrait or Lord’s interest in Giacometti’s work to the extent that he would willingly sit for nineteen days, sometimes in pain, when he was told he would only have to sit a few hours. The most we see is a lukewarm meeting – it doesn’t come anywhere near to being a clash – of two opposed Western cultures: the jaded, layered and convoluted culture represented by Giacometti and what it values, and the sleek, shiny capitalist culture represented by Lord. While the two men become fast friends, the film gives no indication of what each man really thinks of the other and of the world that he comes from. What does Lord really think of Giacometti’s two-timing and his chaotic home, and what does Giacometti really see in Lord’s sleek style of dress and presentation? Does each man see in the other man something that he lacks and yearns for?

A theme of mortality and staving off death is present: one gets the impression that Giacometti desperately needed to keep painting and re-painting Lord’s portrait to hold physical deterioration and death at bay. If only Tucci had realised that Giacometti’s quest for perfection was his way of holding his personal demons in check, the result could have been a darker and more interesting film.

 

 

Paths of Glory: leading viewers on a path about the place of honour, duty, truth and justice in war

Stanley Kubrick, “Paths of Glory” (1957)

A simply and tightly made film with a powerful message about honour, duty and how war degrades men and masculinity, “Paths of Glory” is a fine example of how Kubrick was hitting his stride as a director. The film was the start of a fruitful relationship with lead actor Kirk Douglas who would go on to appear in another Kubrick film (“Spartacus”). Based on a novel which itself was based on a mutiny by the French army during World War I, the film revolves around a scheme cooked up by two senior French generals Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) and the professionally ambitious Mireau (George Macready) to throw a division of soldiers at a German-defended position known as the Ant Hill. Initially Mireau protests at the hare-brained idea but when Broulard mentions that success in taking the Ant Hill would lead to a promotion for Mireau, the other man quickly changes his mind.

Mireau informs Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) of the attack that Dax’s men will have to carry out and despite Dax’s protests at the sheer lunacy of the idea, Mireau dumps the responsibility for planning the details of the attack onto his subordinate. In the meantime, a night-time scouting mission to ascertain the chances of success in attacking the Ant Hill results in tragedy when the scout is killed by a grenade lobbed by his superior: the corporal (Ray Meeker) accompanying the scout finds his body and confronts the superior who denies any wrongdoing.

Next day the attack on Ant Hill takes place and as expected by Dax, ends disastrously with huge numbers of casualties. Meanwhile Mireau orders his artillery to fire on B Company when those soldiers refuse to participate in the suicide mission. After the attack, Mireau orders a court martial of 100 soldiers for cowardice but Broulard convinces him to reduce the number to three men selected at random. Of the men selected for court martial, one of them is the second scout. While Colonel Dax – a criminal lawyer in civilian life – acts as defence lawyer in the kangaroo court, the three men are swiftly judged guilty and sentenced to face a firing squad.

The action is brisk, the plot uncompromising and the acting is crisp and meets the challenge of the plot and the issues it poses about how corrupt generals play with the lives of soldiers and about the place of honour and integrity during war. There is some over-acting from actors playing minor characters but the context in which this occurs can be justified: knowing that you’re about to meet your maker much sooner than you realise does concentrate the mind and the emotions too well. In this world of ongoing grinding trench warfare there is no place for compassion, truth or justice. Mireau does get his comeuppance but only because of Broulard’s further manipulations, not because he gets caught out for having ordered his artillery to kill his own men. The hellishness and brutality of war are highlighted by Kubrick’s masterful use of tracking shots which when used in the trenches also convey a strong sense of paranoia and fear. Dax and his men are treated as no more than machines; at the end of the film, they are all called back to the front, presumably to carry out yet another foolhardy mission as directed by remote generals.

The film’s conclusion highlights the common humanity of both the French and their German enemy but at the same time underlines the role of the foot soldier as cannon fodder.

 

Atomic Blonde: anaemic bland fallout from this plutonium blonde bombshell that fails to ignite

David Leitch, “Atomic Blonde” (2017)

I confess I had very low expectations of this spy action thriller film. I was pleasantly surprised that the acting was half-decent even though the script gave the cast very little to work on and sacrificed character development and motivation for violence of a relentlessly brutal and bloody nature. Charlize Theron plays the titular character in an assortment of stylish monochrome clothes (and red stiletto-heeled shoes that come in handy in smashing someone’s face to a pulp) as she stalks the streets of West Berlin and East Berlin in late 1989. The East German government has been more or less hung out to dry by the Soviets under Mikhail Gorbachev and crowds in East Berlin are baying for reunification with their brothers and sisters in West Berlin. In the meantime, an expensive watch containing a list of double agents and their details, provided by an East German Stasi agent called Spyglass, has been taken by Soviet spy Yuri Bakhtin from British spy James Gascoigne. US and UK intelligence agencies scramble to get the watch and rescue Spyglass by despatching the plutonium blonde bombshell Lorraine Broughton (Theron) – well at least she has a normal jolly-hockeysticks name, not a suggestive Bond-girl monicker – to the divided city. An additional assignment is to find and get rid of a mysterious double agent called Satchel who has been selling secrets to Moscow. Broughton meets up with British agent David Percival (James McAvoy), in charge of the Berlin spy station for MI6, to trace the whereabouts of the watch. While the two have various adventures clobbering KGB agents and Broughton manages to fit in some nooky with young rookie French agent Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella), the watch itself changes hands between Bakhtin and Percival. Broughton and Percival try to spirit Spyglass out of East Berlin but after more fistfights and car chases resulting in a long list of casualties both human and machine, Spyglass ends up being killed and Broughton eventually realises that Percival is out to bump her and new girlfriend Delphine off.

The action is fast-paced with new incidents following hot on the heels of the last incident (whatever that was) to keep the ketchup flowing. Theron keeps busy pounding the pavements in her high-heeled boots and pounding enemy agents with her fists which I suppose is some compensation for the frustration of having to work with a lightweight script and a one-dimensional character. McAvoy and the rest of the cast do what they can to support Theron and John Goodman as CIA supremo Kurzfeld is always a scene-stealer. The film’s setting in West and East Berlin in 1989 provides the necessary ideological / political contrasts between the gritty and desperate East Berlin city-scapes and the more slick and glamorous West Berlin side to give the movie that needed counter-cultural hipster hard-edged cool to haul in the Generation Y audiences. A soundtrack of popular if banal songs from the 1980s punctuates the film so loudly and brashly that all the songs end up sounding trashier than they did originally 30 years ago, and any meaning or significance they might have had then completely evaporates: this applies even to New Order’s “Blue Monday” and Nena’s “99 Luftballons”. What does the culture of 1980s East Berlin have to offer? Well, it offers Andrei Tarkovsky’s moody and contemplative “Stalker”, a film now recognised as a classic by film critics and audiences on both sides of the former Iron Curtain. Someone’s having the last laugh somewhere.

In a film that really has nothing to say, apart from gawping at German post-punk youth culture without understanding the political background that made it so attractive to Germans and non-Germans alike, Leitch has to pad out the script with thuggish violence, car chases, icky music (good thing David Bowie’s albums “Tonight” and “Never Let Me Down” were never chart-toppers in the 1980s or a song from one of those albums would have been included) and silly plot twists that add no depth to the narrative or the characters themselves. The ultimate identity of the mole Satchel ends up being elusive and in itself a ploy by the CIA to provide falsified information to the Soviets. What does all the double dealing and triple dealing ultimately prove about the nature of espionage and intelligence gathering done by government agencies? When the body count finally stops for lack of fresh meat and all the wreckage has been hauled away and the streets cleaned with a new layer of asphalt, little has been gained by opposed spies and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall replaces one truth understood by Western and Communist spy agencies with another: that such organisations and the nature of international espionage are but veils of illusion obscuring reality.

When a film milks aspects of late 1980s German youth culture as cynically and superficially as “Atomic Blonde” does, that surely tells us that the film-makers have failed to understand that culture and its music, let alone the political and ideological context that underpins them.

The Promise: a slurpy romantic melodrama overshadows significant historic events

Terry George, “The Promise” (2016)

A film about the Ottoman Turkish genocide of Armenians and other Christian minorities (1915 – 1918) is probably never going to succeed with a wider audience than the communities involved – and especially as the genocide is still denied by the Republic of Turkey – so one resigns oneself to a retelling of that horrific period in 20th-century history through a melodramatic plot revolving around a complicated love triangle. In 1914, young Mikael Boghosian (Oscar Isaac) aspires to become a doctor in his backwater community of Sirun in southeast Turkey but needs money to travel to Constantinople and pay his way through medical studies there. He is betrothed to local girl Marta and her dowry money helps get him to Constantinople and enrol at university. He boards with Uncle Mesrob and his family and almost immediately falls for his young cousins’ dance tutor Ana (Charlotte le Bon). If you think young Mikael will have problems juggling his affections for Marta and Ana, there’s more to come: Ana herself has been in a long-term relationship with American news reporter Chris (Christian Bale) so, er , the two young people have their hands and heads preoccupied with conflicting emotions and guilt. Unfortunately for them – and maybe fortunately for us having to sit through 133 minutes of film – events in southeast Europe drag Germany and Ottoman Turkey into war against Britain, France and Russia, and almost straight away (as if on cue) the dastardly Turks start rounding up Armenians and throw them into prison camps (to be forced into hard labour, dying of malnutrition and maltreatment), forced marches into the mountains and deserts, and cattle trains going into the wilderness. As the war drags on – and the Ottomans are failing badly, though the film makes no references to how the Turks are faring in the war – the government resorts to mass slaughter of the Armenian people.

Through the tumultuous events, Mikael, Ana and Chris endure personal and shared hardships and sufferings: after escaping a prison camp, Mikael is briefly reunited with his family and marries his betrothed in Sirun while Ana and Chris manage to rescue a group of orphans and take them to safety with an American Protestant missionary. The three main characters reunite again and try to save Mikael’s parents, wife and nieces. They are too late and only manage to rescue his badly injured mother and young cousin Yeva. Chris is captured by Turkish soldiers and incarcerated in a prison where he is sentenced to death as a spy. He is rescued by the US ambassador to Turkey Henry Morgenthau and a mutual playboy friend (Marwan Kenzari) of his and Mikael’s (whose life was also saved by the friend) but the friend pays for his generosity by being executed by a firing squad.

Mikael and Ana take the orphans to a refugee camp and the camp moves to Musa Dagh mountain where the men vow to fight the Turkish army following them. Chris boards a French war cruiser which arrives at the bay beneath Musa Dagh. While the refugees try to fight off Turkish bombardment and board the life-boats that will take them to the cruiser, the tension that naturally arises from the scenario gets an artificial lift from the tension surrounding the love triangle: out of the three – Ana, Chris, Mikael – someone will meet his/her kismet in a most tragic way.

The slurpy melodrama just manages to stay mildly annoying thanks to good acting performances from the leads, though there’s hardly any chemistry between le Bon and Isaac. The plot piles cliché upon cliché with stock characters like the token good Turk who starts out dissolute spoilt playboy son but redeems himself by saving Chris and Mikael’s lives, and with often unnecessary action thriller scenes that add nothing to the plot save one miraculous escape after another. The Musa Dagh stand-off and subsequent rescue of refugees by the French cruiser are worth a film in themselves and should not have been overshadowed by the love triangle’s resolution.

The film’s concentration on the romance leaves no room for a wider investigation into why and how the Ottoman Turkish genocide against Christian minorities in the empire started: no context is provided as to why all of a sudden ordinary Turkish people who had previously been friendly with Armenians should turn on them. Nothing is said of European powers’ intentions to dismember the failing Ottoman empire which would have been enough to give any tottering, unstable empire paranoid thoughts as to whether its minorities were being encouraged from outside to revolt against it. The Turks and their German allies are tarred with a black villain’s brush while the Americans and the French at least are treated as saviours. Audiences are basically brow-beaten to accept the genocide as given, and not to question why it should have happened late in the history of the Ottoman empire, decades after it embarked on Westernisation / modernisation, and not earlier in its 460+ years of existence.

The Mummy (directed by Alex Kurtzman): action thriller / horror film with no horror, few thrills and silly action

Alex Kurtzman, “The Mummy” (2017)

Somewhere in this hokey action blockbuster film is a story about flawed humans acting for purely selfish reasons and the consequences that result from the idiot decisions they make: destruction, loss of human life and ultimately the loss of their own immortal souls. The plot has more holes than Swiss cheese, not that you’d notice very much because the material is so paper-thin as to be transparent. Whatever character development exists is very superficial because the characters are secondary to the digital special effects, the action and violence, and the need to pack in as much of those as possible so viewers don’t notice the film’s other flaws. Tom Cruise is very miscast as adventurer Nick Morton – he’s meant to be a dodgy thieving treasure hunter of dubious morality but ends up being another variation of action hero with a heart of gold – and his character generates no chemistry with archaeologist side-kick Jennifer Halsey (Annabelle Wallis). Really the only decent acting performances are those of Russell Crowe as the dualistic Dr Jekyll / Mr Hyde head of mystery organisation Prodigium and of Sofia Boutella as the eponymous monster.

Five thousand years ago, evil scheming Ancient Egyptian princess Ahmanet, miffed at being displaced as heir to her father’s throne after a half-brother is born, summons the help of Egyptian death god Set and with his special knife slaughters Dad, Step-Mum and Baby Brother. Her crime is so heinous and her union with Set so blasphemous that the high priests banish her to an underground prison deep down in … Mesopotamia of all places. (Could they not have buried her beneath the Valley of the Kings in the Sahara?) Centuries later, the special knife with the glowing red gemstone falls into the hands of Christian Crusaders who take it back to England where the gemstone is buried with one Crusader and the knife hidden in a statue in a cathedral. More centuries pass, the US invades Iraq and treasure hunters like Nick Morton and pal Vail (Jake Johnson) flood into the country seeking archaeological artefacts to sell on the black market. Under fire from terrorists, Morton calls for help, the US air force responds with a bomb drop and uncovers the tomb of Ahmanet. At the same time, the Crusader’s tomb with the red gemstone is uncovered under London during excavations for a new underground train tunnel.

“Coincidence” builds on “coincidence” and Morton discovers, with the help of Halsey and Henry Jekyll, that he is possessed by Ahmanet who seeks him so they may enter into union and through that Ahmanet can sacrifice Morton to Set and give Set a human form. Evil would then be incarnate upon Earth and the future of humanity and life itself would be in danger. From here on in, the plot focuses on Morton’s attempts to escape the influence of Ahmanet and at the same time save Halsey from the mummy’s clutches and save himself from Jekyll and Prodigium’s plans for his dissection. Ahmanet herself seeks out the knife of Set by manipulating Morton and various English folks whom she turns into zombies.

For a supposed horror film, the first in a “Dark Universe” series of films by Universal Studios resurrecting famous monsters of Hollywood legend, “The Mummy” has very little horror, and for an action thriller, “The Mummy” is as thrilling as paint drying on walls. There’s not much fun to be had, even in scenes sending up Tom Cruise’s past films in which he escapes car crashes and explosions with naught but a scratch on his handsome visage or in scenes featuring Vail as Morton’s comic foil. One doesn’t hold too much hope for what’s next in the Dark Universe.