Calling the (Gun)Shots: The directorial visions of American Sniper and Selma

*WARNING: This article contains minor spoilers.*

As the awards season rambles on, its controversies add flavour to the otherwise bland backslapping to which these things boil down. Two films in particular have been criticised for their portrayal of historical events. All publicity may be good publicity but, for American Sniper and Selma, their efforts are being given short shrift, particularly from outlets that should probably know better. The debates about historical accuracy and point of view detract from the work done by two talented directors. They may be at different stages of their careers, but Clint Eastwood and Ava DuVernay show their clear abilities in their latest offerings. Their use of history is a reminder that film cannot be treated as completely true reflections of the past, though some people have clearly forgotten that fact.

A lot has already been written about American Sniper, and a good deal of it came before its record-breaking opening weekend. Most of the articles written on the film have centred on the depiction of its leading man, Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper). American Sniper is adapted from Kyle’s memoir of the same name, which details the late Navy SEAL’s four tours of duty in Iraq. The book was a bestseller, but Kyle’s descriptions and opinions on who he fought and why he fought them are not exactly nuanced. His description of enemy fighters as ‘damn savages’ seems ironic considering his kill count (160 confirmed kills, with more unsubstantiated), but it is perhaps more reflective of a mindset necessary to undertake these actions. If there’s one man who knows about putting such masculine hubris on a screen, if only to undermine it, it’s Clint Eastwood.

Bradley Cooper in AMERICAN SNIPER

As discussed by Ronan Doyle at Next Projection, Eastwood is too smart a director to let Kyle’s descriptions and point of view be the be-all and end-all. In American Sniper, we get up close with Kyle in both war and peace. Eastwood has chosen Jason Hall’s adaptation of Kyle’s memoir to function as a journey through the pains of war and its after effects. On the battlefield, Kyle is not a gung-ho hero in the vein of the Man With No Name and ‘Dirty’ Harry Callahan. He’s remarkable at his job, one that clearly demands precision. However, at home his once-happy relationship with his wife (Sienna Miller) and their children bears the brunt of PTSD. War films are almost automatically damned/praised for any perceived political stance, so American Sniper was bound to attract attention from commentators. Eastwood is known as a card-carrying, chair-talking Republican, but his criticism of American military intervention and advocacy of gun control go against popular Republican views and the image cultivated by his earlier roles. After all, Dirty Harry’s most famous scene sees him taunting a wounded suspect with a handgun. Eastwood’s views are clear in American Sniper; there is nothing glorious about the war scenes, which are shot with urgency and a muted colour palette. At their height, they come down to simple kill-or-be-killed scenarios, with plenty collateral damage on both sides. Meanwhile, any sight of a gun in the film (which, given the story, is often) comes with a veiled menace. Kyle himself is taught to shoot as a child in early flashbacks, while he shows his son his firearms later on. The boys are enamoured by the weapons, but the guns loom in the shot, eclipsing the children. A late scene shows Kyle holding his own handgun in his home, with wife and children paying it no mind. The gun gleams in the light, drawing attention to itself. It foreshadows Kyle’s own death by gunfire, not in a war zone but near his home at a gun range. Eastwood is fascinated by the threats of war, especially when they are brought home. The fallout from Kyle’s PTSD is the anchor for the scenes when he returns from Iraq. He feels surrounded by the shellshock. A mechanic’s drill can be mistaken for gunfire when exposed to the latter for long enough. Kyle finds some solace with fellow veterans, the only ones who can relate to his traumas. Eastwood is focused on Kyle as a soldier, and what that does to him. It means he’s often battling the script to inject nuance, but the intent is clear.

Clint Eastwood and Bradley Cooper on the set of AMERICAN SNIPER

The pros and cons of American Sniper can be summed up in one scene, most of which is shown in its theatrical trailer. The opening scene sees Kyle covering a door-to-door raid by US troops in a ruined Ramadi street. A woman and her child emerge from a doorway up the street, possibly carrying a bomb. The scene is incredibly tense, with Kyle considering whether or not to shoot the pair. Pregnant moments pass as he talks to a ranking officer over an earpiece, whilst the ground troops bellow orders at the mother and child. When it comes to killing these potential aggressors, Kyle is told the call is his to make. Eastwood milks the consideration Kyle gives to this call for all the tension he can get. However, the consideration he gives to this call seems at odds with the hunting of ‘damn savages’. As in the book, most of the aggressors get little-to-no character development, and other aspects are based on speculation. Kyle frequently exchanges fire with a talented Syrian sniper who medalled for shooting in the Olympics. In reality, no such Olympian fought in Iraq. Such problems are a basic issue with the script, but it’s clear that Eastwood was drawn to American Sniper by the chance to introduce even a little nuance to a story that seems myopic. It’s Chris Kyle’s story, but Eastwood’s telling gives it its edge.

Selma is not lacking in character, but director Ava DuVernay was faced with a similar problem to Eastwood: overcoming expectations. It’s a retelling of the events that led to the historic 1965 march from the town of Selma, Alabama to the state capital, Montgomery. The march was led by Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo in a powerful performance) to demand greater voting rights for African-Americans. A period piece biopic? Despite its relative lack of Academy Award nominations, Selma seems tailor-made for awards glory. Looking at fellow award-seekers The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything, one has to consider how Selma avoids the rote perils of fitting a true story into a familiar narrative arc. Crass as it may sound, it helps that Selma touches on a hot topic; a number of high-profile cases involving African-American men being gunned down by police in apparent demonstrations of excessive force have brought race relations in the US back to the forefront of social and political debate.

David Oyelowo in SELMA

The initial attempt to march from Selma was blocked by police, who used tear gas and baton charges to break up the marchers. Their heavy-handed approach was televised worldwide, leaving an indelible reminder of the struggle for integration. Wisely, Selma focuses on a particular series of events over a short period of time rather than attempt to tell King’s life story. The film has a great deal of historical records, footage and testimony from which to work. The question is: how closely does DuVernay cleave to the facts? Like Eastwood, she knows what story she wants to tell, and she knows exactly how she wants to tell it. The truth is adhered to where possible, even acknowledging King’s infidelities, but the minutiae of dialogue always require a degree of supposition. The most shocking changes might be to King’s speeches, which had to be altered slightly as the King estate had already sold the rights to the speeches for another proposed film.

Selma knows its history, and how the effects of that history are still being felt to this day. It knows that progress and recognition in such political and civil struggles come at a cost. An early scene sees King presented with the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize intercut with a depiction of the infamous church bombing in Birmingham, AL the previous year that killed four schoolgirls. The two events are not concurrent, but it pins the audience to the seat early on by declaring intent; subsequent events are framed in a context of violence and desperation. Soon after, the potential ramifications are shown, as Dr. King visits with President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) in the White House. A torrent of controversy has cropped up around the depiction of Johnson in Selma, with the New York Times suggesting Johnson becomes the villain of the piece. In Paul Webb’s script, and in the finished product, the worst that could be said about Johnson is he’s a pragmatist under pressure. The Voting Rights Act that extended the vote to all African-Americans of legal age, as keenly supported by Johnson, had already been signed into law before we meet Johnson in the film. His greatest issue is competing priorities. As he says to King, “You’ve got one big issue. I’ve got a hundred and one!” He has to balance the views and advice of all sides, though he is less than tolerant of the bigoted opposition of Alabama governor George Wallace (Tim Roth).

Ava DuVernay directs David Oyelowo on the set of SELMA

If Johnson is a reluctant ally of King’s, a more definite foe is the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Rather than displaying dates onscreen to illustrate events, Selma uses extracts from internal FBI reports that demonstrate the determination of J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) to disrupt the efforts of the ‘degenrate’ Dr. King. These reports include logs of events, meetings and phone calls, illustrating the covert lengths to which the FBI went. It’s perhaps a blunter portrait of Hoover than Eastwood gave us in his biopic J. Edgar, but it is founded in truth. More immediately dangerous is the local resistance in Alabama. The most memorable scene in Selma sees the first attempt to march thrown into chaos by a police baton charge. Tear gas and blows rain down on the protestors, while television cameras broadcast the scenes worldwide. People were struggling to breathe long before Eric Garner was put in a chokehold by police. DuVernay captures the energy and viciousness of the attack, with a power reminiscent of Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers. This scene shows her incredible skill; the horrific nature of the police resistance is clear for all to see, but it never feels reactionary or over the top. When Spike Lee used the real video of the beating of Rodney King in the opening credits of Malcolm X, the lack of subtlety used to make the point is deafening. There’s no such pandering here; DuVernay credits her audience with enough intelligence to link the past events she presents with the strife of the present.

Both Eastwood and DuVernay know what they wish to achieve. They’ve shed light on stories many might have thought they already knew. Eastwood delivers a human story in the guise of a jingoistic war film. Conversely, DuVernay offers a message wrapped in a factually-rigorous biopic. Their skill is the key to their films’ successes, at least at the level of artistry. It is interesting to note that both films are nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, but neither has been nominated for Best Director. It’s not a good sign for their chances for the biggest prize, but what does it matter when their directors are the key to the films’ successes? Let the prizes fall where they may.

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Review: Love Is Strange (2014)

Director: Ira Sachs

***

This review was originally published on Scannain.com

Love Is Strange is many things; warm, witty and charming. But strange? Once upon a time, a story of two aging gay men getting hitched would have been an onscreen novelty. Nowadays, onscreen homosexual relationships can be gifted the normality afforded to heterosexual relationships. The titillations of The Duke of Burgundy come not from its homosexual couple, but from the fantasy world around them. The normality of the couple in Love Is Strange is embraced, but it serves to deny the film the novelty suggested by its title. Love is a many-splendoured thing, but strange? Not today.

Love Is Strange opens with Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) getting up one morning. But today is not like most days. They’re putting on their fineries and preparing to tie the knot, after 39 years together. They look into each other’s eyes and say “I do.” They sit together at their piano at their Manhattan apartment and bash out old-time tunes with aplomb and joy. The tone for Ira Sachs’ dramedy is set in these early scenes; it’s full of joy and charm, with little to disrupt the party. Of course, something does come in to disrupt the lives of our central couple, but the film lets them just get on with things. The film actively refuses to grasp a nettle, which is a mixed blessing.

Soon after their big day, George is forced out of his job as a music teacher at a Catholic school because of his nuptials. The obvious story to tell would be to see what George might do to get his job back, but Sachs and his co-writer Mauricio Zacharias are not interested in swamping this lovely couple in a battle and a message. George accepts his fate, acknowledging that he knew the risks of the marriage. There’s a horribly practical resignation to George and Bob’s attitude that reflects their years. A younger man would be keen to fight, but Ben and George’s hesitance gives the film an extra dash of pathos. The resulting lack of income forces the two to find somewhere cheaper to live, but the interim sees them separated. Ben moves in with his nephew Elliot (Darren Burrows), his wife Kate (Marisa Tomei) and their son Joey (Charlie Tahan). Meanwhile, George moves in with the young gay couple downstairs. Love Is Strange is defined by a gentle grace that sees these characters have their hearts slowly, surely besieged by their enforced separation. Molina and Lithgow are wonderfully warm together, so we feel the cruelty of forcing them apart.

Conversely, Love Is Strange is also denied a certain bite because of its non-confrontational stance. The strains of living with family and friends flit between comedy and tragedy, which gives the midsection an episodic feel. The supporting cast do fine with adequate roles, but it’s nothing compared to when the central couple are together. The actors love this pair; the script loves this pair. The audience will love this pair. Everyone else just keeps the plot ticking along until they reunite now and then. Whether meeting realtors, sipping drinks at the bar together or negotiating the awkwardness of a bunk bed, Ben and George are the heart and soul of Love Is Strange. The film isn’t picking a fight; its focus is the people. More importantly, it’s about people in love, regardless of their sexuality, and the practicalities of living and loving. Its commitment to the couple means direction and plotting is banal at times, but love conquers all in the end. Love may be strange, but the innate appeal of Love Is Strange is quite straightforward: genuinely appealing characters who adore each other. It’s a gentle joy.

Review: Wild (2015)

Director: Jean-Marc Vallée

**

This review was originally published on Scannain.com

Wild opens with Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) ascending a craggy hill before stopping to remove one of her boots to see why her foot is pained. She removes the loosened big toenail therein, but not before accidentally knocking said boot back down the hill. She pauses, removes her other boot, angrily sends it down the hill after its comrade and screams in pure vexation. This scene neatly sums up Jean-Marc Vallée’s follow-up to Dallas Buyers Club; it serves up pain and anger in an effort to draw attention to itself and the worthiness of the true story on which its based. When is a true story not a true story? When it’s used as awards bait. Wild takes a potentially-interesting story of self-enlightenment and robs it of practically all interest. It means well, in the same way that Eat Pray Love meant well. Whilst not as offensively bland as that film, Wild peddles a similar message to very little effect. If someone does find this adaptation of Strayed’s memoir inspiring, that’s all good and well, but it’ll be in spite of the film rather than because of it.

In 1995, the aptly-named Strayed took it upon herself to walk the Pacific Crest Trail, a 1,100 mile-journey stretching from the US-Mexico border to British Columbia, hugging the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges. The film certainly sells the rugged beauty of the trail, brought to vivid life by cinematographer Yves Bélanger. Into the clearing, bag on back, comes our Cheryl. Adapted for the screen by Nick Hornby, Strayed’s memoir details the personal traumas that led her to undertaking the trail. We get these reasons in flashback, usually when Cheryl is at the apex of suffering. She’ll fall down or lose some vital equipment just in time for us to cut to a woozily-shot scene of Cheryl’s late mother (Laura Dern) being positiviley beatific, or a grungy scene of Cheryl’s wayward exploits with drugs and extra-marital affairs. The latter scenes are particularly jarring, as Vallée exploits Witherspoon’s on-screen nudity with a leery, judgemental eye.

It’s this award-sniffing self-awareness that renders much of Witherspoon’s valiant efforts moot. Wild is the primary weapon in an apparent peroxide-draining career reinvention for the Oscar-winner, dabbling in darker material like Inherent Vice (in which she stars) and Gone Girl (which she produced). Witherspoon opts to go withoutherspoon to play Strayed, and she suffers admirably, but the characterisation of Cheryl is best described as petulant. She whines and moans in the early stages, crawling along under the baking sun. Her whines wouldn’t be out of place in a culture-clash comedy about valley girls falling into puddles of mud. Meanwhile, Hornby is forced to resort to flashbacks to drive the narrative, but it only adds to Wild‘s episodic feel. Dern single-handedly saves these sections with her smile and laugh, even though her character is only missing wings and a halo to complete her angelic image.

In between the punctuating flashbacks, Cheryl encounters all manner of locals and fellow travellers to egg her on. Whether it’s a kindly farmer (W. Earl Brown) offering refuge, or her ex (Thomas Sadoski) sending a care package, Cheryl’s journey isn’t as solitary as it should be. An encounter with a terribly-CG’d fox on a snowy peak will leave punters either confused or amusedly muttering “Chaos reigns” into their popcorn. Wild is full of moments that aim for inspiration, but most ring false. The flashbacks are too corny and/or self-important, and Cheryl is written and played a little too annoying for comfort, hence it’s hard for an audience to truly get involved. The overly-worthy tone and message about self-discovery will only bounce off an audience in a comfortable multiplex. It’s drippily accessible, but anyone who thinks a more measured and lonely journey wouldn’t work onscreen needs to rewatch All Is Lost urgently. Wild is anything but.

Review: The Woman In Black – Angel of Death (2015)

Director: Tom Harper

*

This review was originally published on Scannain.com

When The Woman In Black was released in 2012, fans rejoiced at the return proper of Hammer horror. Whilst no masterpiece, the adaptation of Susan Hill’s novel delivered sufficient scares and atmosphere in the vein of old-school Hammer classics. It also delivered a fine box-office haul, becoming the highest-grossing British horror in two decades. Thus, in the name of a quick buck, this woman has been resurrected for The Woman In Black: Angel of Death, a follow-up that’s missing practically everything that made the first film work, not least the scares. The law of diminishing returns sees original director James Watkins replaced by TV veteran Tom Harper (Misfits, Peaky Blinders). To his credit, he does nail down the visual aesthetic from the first film, albeit shot a little too dark. Fog and damp pervade the film, contributing to an eerie location in which to stage some effective scares. Alas, that’s where we come up wanting.

From the first film’s WWI setting, we jump to London 1941. Amongst the worried and haggard faces sheltering from the Blitz in an underground station, we find the smiling visage of Eve (Phoebe Fox), a young schoolteacher. A woman asks her how she can stay smiling through all this terror. Fox does indeed possess a charming smile, but her acting chops aren’t tested too harshly here. That smile is the only distinguishing characteristic given to Eve by Jon Croker’s limp screenplay. The script is littered with premonitions, back stories and setups for the title character to go BOO! every once in a while, but identifiable characters are thin on the ground.

Eve is assisting with the evacuation of schoolchildren from London, and guess where they’re off to? The production design on Eel Marsh House is solid, even if it will eventually be reduced to a glorified funhouse full of bumps in the night. Headmistress Hogg (Helen McCrory) decries the place as decrepit, but ‘decrepit’ is a good word to describe the scares in Angel of Death. Every single scare is so cheap and so obviously signposted that eventually the audience will start to point out the plot gaps and lapses in common sense that allowed them to happen. You will lose count at the number of times Fox is forced to walk into a dark room, shouting “Hello?” whenever a clatter or thump is heard, followed by a beat and BOO! An errant bird at a window, a child running from a room and a practical joke are among the well-worn setups used to jolt the audience. It might work the first time, but after twenty or so such scares, boredom will inevitably set in.

The cast are a mixed bag. Alongside Fox is Jeremy Irvine as a young pilot who drops by Eel Marsh House for an occasional flirt. He’s all chin and charm, but not much else. McCrory, meanwhile, is reduced to playing another stuck-up bitch with little to define her besides a backstory about her hubby in the war. Everyone here has a backstory, most of them unnecessary. The main thrust of the story sees one of the children, recently-orphaned Edward (Oaklee Pendergast) becoming a bit pally with Eel Marsh House’s oldest and dead-est resident, but exposition and thin characterisations rob it of urgency. The likes of Daniel Radcliffe and Ciarán Hinds lent a respectable sheen to a solid script the first time around, but here we have substitutes called up to carry a money-grabbing knock-off. The Woman In Black: Angel of Death takes a once-promising villain and reduces her to a repetitive jump-scare machine with little personality. For shame.

Review: Exodus – Gods and Kings (2014)

Director: Ridley Scott

*

Exodus: Gods and Kings wants to be all things to all people. It’s a Biblical epic, but to make sure all those hip atheistic youngsters are on board, Ridley Scott has attempted to remove God from proceedings. Whether you’re a Bible reader or a Bible-basher, this clearly can’t end well. The feats achieved by Moses (Christian Bale) in his quest to lead the enslaved Hebrews out of Egypt are of such immensity and scale that attempts to remove divine intervention actually serve to make the story more unbelievable. The wonder has been drained from the Exodus story, leaving behind what must surely be the most boring cinematic adaptation of Moses’ life thus far.

Opening on wide sweeping shots of ancient cities on the Nile, we encounter our first problem. Exodus is drowning in CG vistas, with little sense of a grounding in reality or historical context. Moses is a general in the army of aging pharaoh Seti, played by John Turturro delivering pronouncements in his unabashed Brooklyn drawl while seeking counsel from Indira Varma’s priestess and her chicken entrails. The favour Moses curries with Seti begins to get up the nose of Seti’s son, crown prince Rameses (Joel Edgerton). In the Bible story, Moses was adopted by the royal family as an escapee of Seti’s purge of Hebrew infants, but Exodus loses a lot of emotional setup and contextualisation in excess dialogue. Most every film version of this story to date knows that the fraternal bond between Moses and Rameses is a vital lynchpin amongst all the plagues and burning bushes, but Exodus fails to make us care. An early battle against the Hittites attempts to frame their relationship, but it’s used more as an opportunity to show that Scott can still direct ancient action nearly a decade and a half after Gladiator.

Indeed, Exodus owes a big debt to Gladiator, not least in its attempts to frame a personal story within a political context. Gladiator’s script mixed real historical figures into a story that was largely gubbins, but it had sufficient dramatic and action heft to make the story work. Exodus’ story is so well known that any attempt to recontextualize the story requires steady writing and a clear directorial vision. Scott still maintains a keen eye, and retains the sterling services of cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, but his apparent weakness for half-baked scripts (Prometheus, The Counsellor) is slowly dragging the overall quality of his CV down. It’ s genuinely disappointing to see such names as Jeffrey Caine (The Constant Gardener) and Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List) attached to this. Exodus

After being outed as an Israelite, and years of banishment in Midian, Moses is compelled to go back to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt. He gets his orders from God, here represented by a small child with an English accent and a petulant attitude. Scott and the script attempt to introduce some ambiguity to this scenario by having Moses be the only one able to see the God-child, but if that is the case then the ten plagues are just a series of tragic coincidences that beset Egypt around the same time. Anyway, the plagues are CG-laden and rather forgettable as set-pieces go. It’s hard to care about CG beasties attaching a CG landscape. God may be missing from Exodus, but the exclusion of any recognisable or interesting characters is a greater loss.

Amongst the cast forced to wade through the ponderously drab script, Bale escapes with his dignity largely intact. He rarely gets histrionic, but even when he does it doesn’t match his shenanigans on the set of Terminator: Salvation. Some very respectable names come and go with very little to do, most notably Ben Kingsley as Hebrew elder Nun, and Signourney Weaver as Seti’s wife. A reunion between the star and director of Alien should offer something exciting, but Weaver gets about three lines of dialogue before scarpering to cash her paycheque. Between an unflattering head shave, some cheesy dialogue and little character development, Edgerton is left with little choice but to be awful. One scene finds him shouting out at Moses “I am the God!” As a grown man, having to bellow a line like that must hurt. At least Ben Mendelsohn has the cajones to look embarrassed as a viceroy; he camps up his performance in an effort to stand out from the depressed pile of a film around him.

A production like Exodus involves a large cast playing dress-up in awkward costumes making unlikely pronouncements; it’s unlikely to be taken seriously, so a director would be as well to go for broke and make it fun. Alas, Exodus plays it straight. The production is dour, and a particularly dark 3D conversion does not help. There’s no sense of lightness or enjoyability to the film, so audience enthusiasm is long drained by the time the climactic Red Sea sequence rolls along. (Though the 2.5 hour runtime doesn’t help either) The last major adaptation of Exodus, The Prince of Egypt, made the story both accessible and dramatically satisfying. Even at its most insane, this year’s Noah kept the audience on board. With Exodus: Gods and Kings, Ridley Scott appears to have completely forgotten the first rule of filmmaking: thou shalt not bore.