Category: Literary adaptations

American Sniper (US 2014)

american-sniper

I had warnings about this film beforehand – not that great reviews and less than positive word of mouth. The film lived down to my expectations. Mainly this was because of the reactionary politics that provide its basis. The film is based on the actual career of a SEAL sniper, nicknamed ‘the legend’, fighting in Iraq where he scored over 160 kills. We follow gun-toting yanks riding round Iraq shooting down the hapless natives – be they civilians, collaborators or the opposition. The battle scenes were rather like a computer game, with bodies falling everywhere: the amount of firepower makes the film rather loud. This is nothing new: US films tend to present body counts of something like 50 or a 100 to one in their own favour. And the stereotypical and negative representation of the ‘other’ has a long track record.

On top of this the film was not that engaging. The production values are pretty good, but the protagonists do not seem to engender much sympathy or identification, though both are clearly intended.

When I returned home, as is my habit, I read the review in Sight & Sound (February 2015). This was one of the longer reviews; by Nick Pinkerton. It stimulated me to think again about the film. The comments on the film are really interesting, though finally I found them not fully convincing.

Pinkerton’s main point is to argue that:

He [Eastwood] has made a movie that embodies, with awe and horror, the national romance with firearms.

In arguing this point of view Pinkerton fails to address the main point – that the Iraq military adventure was a neo-colonial assault on an oppressed people. One of the main characters, Taya (Sienna Miller) tells her husband Chris Kyle (the sniper of the title – Bradley Cooper) that

This is about us, not them.

This appears to be the stance of a large proportion of the US population, of the book from which the film is adapted [Kyle’s bestselling memoir], of this film version, and the review itself.

The nearest the review approaches to the violence inflicted on the Iraqi people is,

While in the country, Kyle witnesses – and inflicts – horrors untold. Many people die and die badly, women and children first.

That is as close as Pinkerton gets to addressing the major silences of the film. It is clear that Kyle has little comprehension of the politics of this war. The film itself is mainly silent on these, and whilst we see atrocities committed by the Iraqi opposition, there is no mention of those perpetrated by the US military, despite much of the film being set in Fallujah.

There is a hint of criticism in the film, (overlooked in this review). Kyle’s friend and fellow SEAL is Marc (Lee Grimes). At one point he starts to voice his doubts about the war: Kyle silences him. Marc is killed in action and his last letter home is read out at the graveside by his mother. The letter appears critical of the US war: however, you cannot be sure because the mother’s voice is racked with sobs that make her words inaudible.

The review is stronger in its focus on the US gun culture. Guns are endemic in this film: not just toted by yanks in Iraq but also in the flashbacks to Kyle’s childhood and in his parenting of his own children later. However, Pinkerton’s emphasis on the film’s treatment of guns seems to me to overstate the case. The aspects of the film that he points to are mainly in the mise en scène, cinematography and editing. He may be correct in attributing this to a conscious stance on the part of Eastwood; however, I rather doubt that with a film intended for a mainstream audience that visual style alone is sufficient to carry messages. The audience has already contributed over $250 million at the box office.

One point that Pinkerton’s picks up on is the commencement of a flashback:

We are on the rooftop in Fallujah where Kyle is lining up his first kill. Then, with the sound of a rifle report, we are in a patch of wood in Texas some 20 years earlier, with Kyle – not much older than the boy he is about to kill – and his father.

His comments on the father-son chain in US gun culture are pertinent: but the equation of an Iraqi child and a deer is troubling.

Then he points out a sequence late in the film, with Kyle and Taya married with two children.

Kyle, on the morning of his death, prowls around his house with an upholstered six-shooter, playing a game of stick-‘em-up desperado with his wife . . .

This scene is disturbing. But it is followed by the onscreen title explaining how Kyle died – shot by a Vet he was helping to rehabilitate. Kyle has been working with disabled Vets, mainly taking them to shooting ranges. The prior sequences where we see a vet shooting at target seems to be played entirely straight, no hint of irony. The film implies that Kyle’s work with Vets helps him resolve his own post-conflict traumas. Cooper plays Kyle as tight-lipped; not revealing his inner troubles. The sequence where they surface is at a family garden party. Typically of Hollywood we are shown Kyle attacking, not a human, but a playful border collie: the dog survives, apparently unscathed.

We see over the final credits the funeral sequence that follows his death. It shows Kyle honoured as a hero, with innumerable Stars and Stripes visible. The endings of films usually have a special privilege in endorsing particular values in the film. Here we have the endorsement of the US adventure in Iraq and [it seems to me] Kyle’s obsession with and use of guns.

Pinkerton thinks that

American Sniper is a movie that says one thing and shows another …

He compares the film to Flags of Our Fathers (2006)

Examining the apparatus of myth-making as it applies to real human lives. First you print the legend, then you bury him.

It seems to me that Flags of Our Fathers is a much better and more critical film than American Sniper. The latter film uses the flashback mode, the earlier film set around the battle for Iwo Jima, is constructed around a complex series of sequences that range back and forth between past and present: pointing up the contradictions embodied in the story. The first depiction of the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima turns out to be a re-enactment. It is 70 minutes into the film that we finally see the actual event. Eastwood allows us to see the price that the characters pay in that film: and indeed to see their own awareness of the cost. Moreover, Flags of Our Fathers presents the social and economic context in the USA at the time. The film does focus on the experience of the US military and citizens, as does American Psycho. In both films Eastwood’s sympathies are clearly with the ordinary ‘grunts’: but American Sniper fails to move beyond this. And Flags of Our Fathers was accompanied by a fellow film, Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), which presented (less successfully) the Japanese experience. It is a shame that Eastwood did not care to provide a film that presents the experience of the Iraqi people during the war.

Gone Girl (US 2014)

Amy (Rosamund Pike) and Nick (Ben Affleck)

Amy (Rosamund Pike) and Nick (Ben Affleck)

Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl was an immediate bestseller on its appearance in 2012, generating considerable discussion in mainstream and social media. Now she has written the screenplay for David Fincher’s film adaptation, her ideas about modern marriage and her presentation of an array of female characters – most of them perhaps unlikeable but nevertheless dominating the narrative – are again at the centre of public discourse.’Gone Girl the film’ is being hailed as one of the possible saviours of the 2014 box office in both the UK and US. It has also become the focus of a number of hostile reviews and claims that it is in some ways ‘anti-feminist’.

I decided to run a public event on Gone Girl on the basis of the initial interest in the novel. I’m not a David Fincher fan, though I respect his filmmaking skills. My reactions to his last two cinema features, The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo were not particularly positive. I’m aware that Fincher has many fans but I’m not really clear what it is that is supposed to distinguish his approach. His previous films have often been relatively expensive productions which haven’t always attracted audiences in the numbers that might be expected. Box Office Mojo suggests that Fincher’s second feature Se7en remains his most popular film so far (when adjusted for inflation). I wondered therefore if Gone Girl would be a box office winner and if Fincher’s style would suit the material. Given that most of Fincher’s films have been ‘action’ orientated, including the two with female leads (Aliens 3 and Panic Room) I did further wonder if Fincher was the most appropriate director for a film which is ostensibly about marriage.

Having watched the film twice (all 149 minutes of it!) in two days and discussed it with several regular local filmgoers, I’ve come to some conclusions. First, my overall opinion of David Fincher as a director hasn’t really changed. Gone Girl is well-made. It looks good, it moves at a good pace, the performances are very good and it provides genuine entertainment (although if you have read the book, the film narrative of course doesn’t offer the same level of surprise). For me, Gone Girl was a ‘clever’ book – and I mean that in a complimentary way. Gillian Flynn knows what she wants to do and she does it skilfully. It’s also a long book with many characters and several sub-plots. There is no way that everything in the book could arrive on screen – or that the central ideas in the book could be thoroughly explored in a film that wants to include all the exciting action. Fincher himself said this about the book in a Screendaily.com Interview (20/9/2014):

“The thing I thought was profound and has not been articulated in this way is that we construct a façade of ourselves, an image for people to deal with us and understand us and hopefully we learn from teachers, parents, siblings how to present the best version of ourselves.

“Then we go out into the world as adults and mate, couple and seduce people with this projection of ourselves. Often, completely oblivious to the fact that that person is doing that too, and there comes a point where one who enters into this contract says I can’t keep it up. I’m not interested in being the man of your dreams or the woman of your dreams anymore. I don’t know what to tell you. This movie was about the resentment that might engender.

“A marriage is hard and really hard under the glare of 10,000 watt magnified 24-hour a day news cycle. No one can survive it.”

I agree with him. This is an interesting observation and that should be at the core of the film. Unfortunately, I think it takes second place to the psychological thriller/noir mystery aspects of Fincher’s film. All the ingredients are there but they didn’t have the impact I expected. Overall, my small group discussing the film concluded that it was an entertaining film, but it didn’t really tell us much about marriage – and it didn’t project a sense of Fincher’s personal style (whatever that might be). It felt like it could have been made by any mainstream experienced Hollywood director.

I’ve purposefully not mentioned the plot so far since the film has been so heavily promoted. Let me just point out that it is a story about a married couple told throughout by each marriage partner in turn from the moment when the husband discovers that the wife is ‘missing’ with some evidence suggesting that she has been abducted. He is immediately under suspicion and a tabloid media storm ensues in which he is effectively accused of her murder. The narrative twist is that Amy (Rosamund Pike) tells her story through diary entries that start seven years previously when the couple first met – she disappears on their 5th wedding anniversary. Nick (Ben Affleck) tells his story starting from the day of her disappearance. Amy is an ‘unreliable narrator’ via her diary entries. Nick’s version is told in the third person in the sense that we watch him and his actions – but we also listen to what he says to the police and others.  A second and third part of the story are narrated in a similar style but with the time differences between the two narrations shifting. I won’t ‘spoil’ the narrative twists.

I suspect that our discussion group is not representative of the mainstream audience. Mark Kermode in the Observer offers a much better analysis of how the film might work with a popular audience. He links it to the popular/populist successes of Paul Verhoeven/Joe Eszterhas in the ‘erotic thriller’ stakes, naming Basic Instinct to go alongside Fatal Attraction and references to Hitchcock, Clouzot etc. I think he is probably right. I think he is also correct in this observation:

Shooting in handsome 6K digital widescreen, cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth keeps the visual tone cool and detached even as events heat up, eschewing the tics and flashes of yore. This is a picture-perfect world, presented with the untouched clarity of a crime scene, fine-tuned and framed by Fincher . . .

Gone Girl is a conventional American thriller that should please mainstream audiences. I think that in its presentation it comes across as more of Flynn’s film than Fincher’s. I’m not a fan of Ben Affleck but in some ways he was well cast and he played the role well. But he typifies a problem with American leading men. He’s so buffed up with bulging muscles in arms and thighs that he just doesn’t look or feel right for a man who seemingly does very little and eats badly. Rosamund Pike is just terrific in every way.

In the end the important debate about Gone Girl should be about the array of great roles in the film for female actors – and the debate about the importance or not of so many female characters who are presented in a ‘negative’ way. But then, apart from Nick’s sister Margo, the investigating detective Rhonda and the lawyer (played by Tyler Perry) almost every other character is there to be the subject of criticism. As a Guardian reader I’ve been taken aback by the ‘op ed’ pieces by Guardian journalists online and in the paper – they don’t seem to have seen many films and read this one in very black and white terms. I wish they would think a bit more before they submit copy.

Gone Girl won its first weekend in North America. Nothing is certain these days, but I’d be surprised if it wasn’t still around in a few weeks time, going on to be Fincher’s biggest hit.

Satantango (Sátántangó, Hungary, Germany, Switzerland, 1994).

In the beginning ...

In the beginning . . .

Fans of long slow movies can enjoy what is probably their ultimate cinematic treat with this film. It is screening at the Hyde Park Picture House on the 21st of September courtesy of Scalarama, which runs across the UK through September. As an added treat for real purists the screening will be using 35mm prints. Presumably these will be the same ones screened at the Leeds International Film Festival a few years ago. On that occasion the exhausted but completely satiated audience emerged into the grey light of evening. This time it will likely be twilight as the event starts at 11 a.m. It then runs for over seven hours, 435 minutes of films plus two intermissions.

The film is structured in two parts, the first being the longest: however, these break down into 12 chapters, which are the more important organising principle. The ‘tango’ in the title refers to a complex narrative structure, which like the fabulous Argentinean dance, moves in an intricate forward and reverse motion. The ‘Satan’ refers [along with other aspects] to a strain of millenarianism. The story, [and there is one], is challenging to follow. But filmgoers familiar with the other work of the director Bela Tarr will know that his films are as much about parables and metaphors as they are about stories. The Turin Horse (A torinói ló, 2011) was his most recent [and sadly his last] feature released in the UK. Satantango is adapted from a novel by László Krasznahorkai, which, apparently, is as complex as the film adapted from it.

A recent innovation in film studies is the concept of ‘slow cinema’. Tarr is the master of this form. After 90 seconds of credits Satantango opens with a sequence shot, running just over seven minutes, that tracks round a quiet and dilapidated village as cows in the early morning meander out into the field for grazing. This is folowed by a blank screen and a voiceover [subtitled] that opens the story. This style dominates the rest of the film. However the film uses parallel editing to set up counterpoint among the characters and situations; complicated by overlapping time frames. The sound design is equally complex, often seemingly naturalistic but evocative. The film is clearly an allegorical critique of changing face in Eastern Europe over the 1980s and early 1990s. It references the earlier system of state control and the new free-market capitalist economy, which replaced it, with strong parallels to the work of Miklós Jancsó.

Whilst this is an epic screening I think the film deserves viewing the complete chapters and running time. As we move into the reverse sequences of the later chapters [for me when I saw it] both characters and the contradictions in their situations started to achieve some clarity. It is also a film that one will need [and I think want] to consider and discuss for a considerable time after a viewing.

With the distance of time since I saw the film I think Werkmeister Harmonies (Werkmeister harmóniák, 2000) and The Turin Horse are Tarr’s finest achievements. However Satantango, partly because of its epic length and complexity, is a unique and masterful cinematic creation.

The Invisible Woman (UK/US 2014)

Felicity Jones as Nelly Ternan and Ralph Fiennes as Charles Dickens

Felicity Jones as Nelly Ternan and Ralph Fiennes as Charles Dickens

This film is based on the study by Claire Tomalin of Charles Dickens’s (Ralph Fiennes) illicit relationship with Ellen Ternan (Nelly – Felicity Jones). I decided to see it a week after its UK release. It turned out to be quite difficult. The two independent cinemas in Leeds may screen it, but that is not yet certain. None of the multiplex listings I checked has the film in their programme. Finally I found it programmed at Bradford’s National Media Museum: though even here it was in the smaller of the Museum’s auditoria. The larger had Her; which had a dozen or maybe two dozen punters. The Dickens’s film had over fifty. I put this down to the dead hand of the distributors, accentuated by it being the Awards season. Our distribution companies clearly have little sense of British culture: Dickens may not be the celebrity focus he was in his own lifetime, but following on from his bi-centenary he remains a popular figure and writer.

The film’s title refers to the hidden nature of the relationship between Dickens and Nelly: hidden from the prurient gaze of the dominant Victorian public discourse. The film has been adapted from the book by Abi Morgan and directed by Ralph Fiennes. It has the expected graces of a British period film: beautifully composed and authentic looking production design and a sterling cast, including Kristin Scott Thomas as the Ternan matriarch and Tom Hollander as a delightful scapegrace Willkie Collins.  The plotting however is less conventional. The presentation is elliptical, not just in the use of flashbacks but also in the ellipses from the description of the affairs development. I did wonder if the limitations of a commercial running time, 111 minutes, had not had an effect. There were several missing emotional developments, including aspects of how Dickens bought his passion to fruition. This fits with the sense of the title, the woman hidden from view: but I was aware of these lacunae whilst watching the film.

It is Nelly’s viewpoint that pre-dominates as she provides the main narrative voice. There are however sequences which she will not have seen. One is when Dickens has the connecting door between the rooms of himself and his wife Catherine (Joanna Scanlon, another fine performance) boarded up. One imagines that Dickens never told Nelly of this incident.

The absences in the film are not just down to discretion. We see sex scenes between Dickens and Nelly and also between Nelly and her later husband, George Wharton (Tom Burke). These throw an interesting and unexpected light on sexuality in the Victorian era.

Claire Tomalin has an excellent piece in The Guardian Review (01-02-2014). She describes how she persuaded Ralph Fiennes not only to direct but also to take the part of Dickens in the film – clearly she is a fine judge of actor and character. She also comments on some differences between her study and the film. These have affected the ending of them film, making it less downbeat. However, it also has the effect of making Nelly a less interesting and less complex character.

This is an excellent production and deserves better than the ‘limited release’ accorded it.