Son of Saul – Review

Published May 1, 2016 by tootingtrumpet

_46751064_gateI looked out on a perfect summer’s day, as the fields rolled by outside the window of a rickety train heading from Krakow to Oświęcim. I fell into conversation with a couple of Dutch lads and we speculated on which countries’ athletes would do well in the upcoming Barcelona Olympics if they had to compete in the costumes worn in the Opening Ceremony – I told them I didn’t fancy Holland’s chances in the sprints, you know, with the clogs and all. We bought some beer from the conductor’s stash – as you did then – and the time passed quickly.

There were maybe a dozen more tourists who made their way towards  the gates, the chilling message “Arbeit Macht Frei” crowning them in wrought iron, as they had nearly 50 years earlier. The banter had already left our lips, but we were still talking, though a stillness, even a coldness, had started to slowly drive the air from our lungs. We found a guide, stared at the red brick buildings that went on as far as the eye could see – the word “camp” is really too small for what is more a town than anything else – and braced ourselves for what was to come. We said a few words as we looked at displays of teeth fillings, walking sticks, hair and the endless records that catalogued human beings turned into commodities.

The words stopped. And soon we stopped and looked at one another, pausing outside the low brick structures into which so many thousands were led for the showers that did not cleanse with water, but murdered with Zyklon B. We did not go in – we did not need to see the endgame we knew, the inevitable conclusion to the depravity we had seen over the previous hour or so. We walked back through the gates and the words slowly returned with each step towards the railway station.

The combination of the vast scale of the murders and the tiny details of its administration defeated language and, hence, thought. I had something of that feeling again, years later, when I read Primo Levi’s memoir of the camps, If This Is A Man. That masterpiece also crushes with its accounts of the life or death imperative of finding shoes to the sheer effort required to extinguish industrial volumes of human beings. Opening up a space in language, in imagination, in imagery to tell the story of the camps, is one of the great artistic challenges of the last 70 years.

László Nemes, a first time director, finds his space in the tight frame that gives us Saul’s face and, sometimes, what Saul can see – and nothing more, at least not in focus. The camera never lingers for long on anything other than Saul’s empty eyes, Géza Röhrig  brilliantly, and with great subtlety, showing us disgust, disdain, fear, obsession, hope, selfishness and much, much more, even, eventually, reconciliation. It is an acting performance that deserves the very highest praise delivering a complete realisation of Nemes’s aesthetic decisions.

The film follows Saul’s quest to give a boy (whom he suspects is his son, but whom we suspect is more a symbol for an innocence utterly absent from his world) a funeral that may restore some humanity to a child murdered in the most depraved way imaginable. He seeks a rabbi to say Kaddish, perhaps to place religion in the role of a science that has foresaken its moral compass. He clings to this quest and to the boy as a revolt is plotted and executed pathetically, even the camp’s relatively privileged Sonderkommando, broken in mind and spirit as death suffuses every breath they take.

The director has cited Elem Klimov’s epic Come And See (which left the cinema audience as dumbstruck as Son of Saul when I saw it in the late 80s at the Scala) and that was my reference point too. As is the case with that Soviet masterpiece, there are times when you can’t look, but you can’t not look either. Watching the film becomes, like reading Primo Levi’s book, an act of bearing witness, an act rooted in duty, in honouring those whose stories are told.

I expect to gain a fuller appreciation of the movie on a second viewing, when the mosaic built up at the edges of the frames will complement the expressions of Saul, the film digging deeper into my mind. But I don’t need a repeat to recognise this film as important, as utterly relevant and, at this very moment in politics, critical to an understanding of the ultimate consequence of dehumanising human beings. It will be in my mind when I read newspaper headlines and hear the increasingly shrill demagoguery that passes for political discourse – you cannot blink it away.

 

 

Look Who’s Back (Er ist wieder da) – review

Published April 18, 2016 by tootingtrumpet

 

LWBShaking the earth from his greatcoat and pulling his cap down over his eyes, Adolf Hitler stands up and looks at what has become of the site of his Berlin bunker. He sees the grim concrete blocks of postwar reconstruction and the kids playing football, one in a Ronaldo 7 shirt. He ponders his fate, but not for long, secure that his convictions about Germany and politics and believing that his brand of agitprop is universally applicable.

Oliver Massuci is devastating as Hitler. A montage early on reminds us of how the Führer has been played by others, but Massuci carves out an interpretation all his own, from his historically inaccurate height to his charismatic wit (both conscious and unconscious). Sometimes he makes people laugh the nervous laugh of those who aren’t sure if violence is just a step away; sometimes he makes people laugh because he’s funny; and sometimes, critically, he stops people laughing at all. This is the power of Nuremberg brought down to a human level, but just as dangerous.

This Hitler recoils from the excesses of 20th century television, so when he finds a home as an Ali G figure on a struggling commercial channel, he foregoes the demagoguery and peddles his message of hate through a polite, even charming, insistence. In these moments and in the scenes on public streets and in meetings, and, brilliantly, on teenagers’ YouTube channels, the satire really bites down hard. In this Hitler’s appeal to the self-defined disenfranchised, the inchoately angry, the Little Man of Wilhelm Reich’s imagination, we see not the bogeyman of the past, but a thoroughly 21st century operator. In his scapegoating of The Other, we see fascism’s divide and rule philosophy, but we also see the popular Press of today cheerleading for morally bankrupt politicians.

Filmed in eye-bleeding HD, though David Wnendt’s camera also carries echoes of Leni Riefenstahl’s cinematography in Triumph of the Will, we’re never in any doubt that Hitler’s ideology is establishing a home in the 21st century. If that’s the engine of the plot, less successful is a rather pedestrian subplot concerning a failing documentary filmmaker working on a failing TV station (but it does, at least, allow everyone to enjoy a drop dead perfect Downfall parody which the cast got through, somehow, without corpsing).

If you do keep catching yourself wondering “Didn’t that happen in  Borat?”, it doesn’t matter. Because, though this black comedy is often very funny,  this film is about a chillingly realised, horribly credible resurrection of a uniquely evil man, but one whose narrative of evil is gaining ground every day. Just look at the papers in Britain and the television in the USA: Look Who’s Back could easily be titled Look What’s Back.

THE MAN WHO KNEW INFINITY – REVIEW

Published April 10, 2016 by tootingtrumpet
It's not 42 Hardy, it really isn't!

It’s not 42 Hardy, it really isn’t!

One of the best biographies I’ve read was Robert Kanigel’s The One Best Way: Frederick Winslow Taylor and the Enigma of Efficiency, the writer’s rehabilitation of a man whose methods (if not motivation – Taylor wanted to make work more efficient to improve the lot of workers as well as managers) influence much even today. I’d always intended to read Kanigel’s well received biography of another figure whose thinking sits beneath so much work today, the Indian mathematician, Srinivasa Ramanujan, but well, I needed to find the time to do so. But first time feature film director, Matthew Brown, did read the book and used it as the basis of his film of the same name, The Man Who Knew Infinity.

Brown’s camera is unafraid to linger on the glorious locations where Ramanujan spent his tragically short  life, with Madras and Trinity College Cambridge vying to be the more exotic. The Indian scenes are gorgeously lit and largely forgo the easy options of the elephants and the poverty for a portrayal of his early life in a colonial accounts office as tough, but not impossible, his home life influenced but not determined by caste and religion. I could not help think of his near contemporary, Albert Einstein, who also spent time in a drudge job (at the Swiss Patent Office) whilst being rejected by an academic establishment who could not see his genius for what it became.

That genius is still not recognised when Ramanujan, having had a letter read by Cambridge don, GH Hardy, and an invitation to visit extended, arrives in Trinity’s famous quad to be met with The Academy’s healthy methodological scepticism and its unhealthy overt racism. Like cricketer Basil D’Oliviera forty years on at another pillar of The Establishment, MCC, his rustic technique (Ramanujan hasn’t much time for the proofs needed to buttress the work prior to publication that Hardy implores him to write) and his untutored, intuitive approach make him a poor fit with a culture that stretches back to Isaac Newton and beyond. There’s plenty of bigotry and a touch of envy too in those men who cannot accept that an vegetarian Indian in sandals is pushing back the boundaries of a discipline built on thousands of years of history with ideas that just come into his head.

Jeremy Irons plays Hardy as a chain-smoking atheist doyen, with a lifetime spent managing an undiagnosed autism, but with enough vision to see what Ramanujan could become and enough tough love to get him at least part of the way there. Hardy is contrasted with Jeremy Northam’s foppish Bertrand Russell, already showing the radical streak which would overwhelm his philosophical brilliance as his life’s work and the many harrumphing colleagues who believe he’s being indulged once too often.

Brown doesn’t flinch from engaging his audience with the mathematics (and gets some negative reviews in the Press as a result). We get plenty of blackboards filled with incomprehensible symbols and definitely no Margot Robbie in the bath, and there’s due respect shown to the hard work required by mathematical enquiry, even when it comes from its most mercurial practitioners. There’s no Eureka! moment staged to underline Ramanujan’s revolutionary achievements, just papers being read by middle-aged men in glasses with a mixture of doubt and wonder – like real research in other words. There is a particularly well written and delivered speech towards the end of the movie in which Hardy gives us an unimpeachable summary of Ramanujan’s greatness – a setpiece in a film that largely eschews them, tempting though they are to directors working in such environments.

Dev Patel gives us a Ramanujan whose eyes tell the tale of his discomfort amongst the accounts clerks in India and also amongst the racists (conscious and subconscious) of England. He misses his wife (Devika Bhise) whose conflict with his mother is an understandable, if slightly overdone, sub-plot, and makes the kinds of social faux pas that anyone from an accounts office in Manchester would make at Trinity, never mind one from Madras. Patel is at his best in his conversations with Hardy, where there is just a hint that the older man may have felt his attachment to his protege to have a romantic dimension were the times more enlightened. Patel’s performance may be short of the histrionics that can garner award nominations, but it’s probably true to a man whose interior life of the intellect and the spiritual drove him rather than a willingness to become a symbol for tolerance or Gandhian political radicalism. Brown should be commended for not shoehorning easy options like those into Ramanujan’s story.

Possibly the result of his strict vegetarianism maintained through wartime rationing, possibly the product of the cold Cambridge winters or maybe the consequence of an undiagnosed liver condition brought from his homeland, Ramanujan is carried away by tuberculosis at just 32 years of age, but not before his achievements were recognised at Cambridge and beyond. Though widely known in mathematical circles, this film, at least as watchable as last year’s multi-award winning biopics of Stephen Hawking and Alan Turing, will bring his name to popular audiences and underline yet again that intellectual power can come in packages that don’t fit into preconceived boxes. It’s a lesson those who wish to reduce Higher Education to league tables and box ticking research exercises might do well to reflect upon.

Dr Strangelove – Review

Published April 5, 2016 by tootingtrumpet
Ride 'em Cowboy

Ride ’em Cowboy

Somehow, I had never seen Dr Strangelove. For a while, that state of affairs was just laziness, then it became a reluctance due to fear of a letdown (the same attitude that stops me venturing into “Curb Your Enthusias” or “The Sopranos” – absurd really). Then, browsing Netflix and approaching the familiar dull conclusion that there were just too many choices, I clicked on the monochrome still of a crazy looking Peter Sellers and… well, it’s every bit as good as everyone says. 

What impresses first (and last) is Kubrick’s mastery of the lens. It moves continually, especially around the cigar chomping visage of Sterling Hayden’s mad General Jack D Ripper, instigator of the B52 attack on Russia. The lens may be restive, but it’s never moving just for the sake of visual stimulus – it’s always revealing another aspect of each character, image and script in harmony. This is the opposite effect of the literally nauseating camerawork in Les Miserables (and many other recent films) in which you can feel as though you’re watching the action at sea, so unsteady is the viewpoint. I also caught more than a touch of Leni Riefenstahl’s work on Olympia and, particularly in the still astonishing Flying Fotress scenes, Triumph Of The Will, lending a touch of Nazi aesthetic to the work long before Strangelove’s Touretteish right arm offers a whole lot more.

Ken Adams’ War Room is justly celebrated as one of the great sets in film history, a pre-cursor of that used in You Only Live Twice and countless other films as the lair of maniacal megalomaniacs (up to and including Mike Myers’ Dr Evil). Long before the supercasinos of Las Vegas constructed their vast gaming rooms, Adams’ captured their ambience for the highest stakes game of poker played between the American military and the Russians in an environment uncannily similar to those you find on The Strip, 50 years on.

Kubrick, not always entirely ethically, gets great performances out of his cast, led by Peter Sellers, who delivers as masterful a display of black comedy acting as Alan Arkin gives as Yossarian in Mike Nicholls’ underrated adaptation of Catch 22.

It’s hard to know where Sellers is at his best. His upper middle class RAF man, Mandrake, never quite loses his English reserve even as Armageddon is literally just over the horizon, the accent, moustache and rhythm of speech wavering, but always held by a man who reported Japanese torture as if it were a late reverse in the Varsity Match at Twickenham. It’s lovely stuff.

His President Muffley is played straight, but to hilarious effect, especially in his interactions with George C Scott’s completely overacted General Turgidson (Kubrick told Scott that the takes were only warm-ups, so he would let rip, and then used the footage – and who wouldn’t, so magnificently wild-eyed is the man who went on to win (and refuse) an Oscar as General Patton). His improvised telephone conversation with his Soviet counterpart is beautifully controlled too.

Sellers finally gets his chance to go to 11 in his cameo as Strangelove himself, a mad MAD scientist inspired by any number of MittelEuropa types, but most obviously Wernher Von Braun, architect of the Nazi V1 and V2 weapons and de facto chief of NASA’s rocketry programmes (and hence, ICBMs). Strangelove is barely a character at all, but his type, fiercely intelligent, but full of zealous commitment to ideas rather than people, are present wherever powerful people gather. It’s why the name has become a shorthand embedded forever in popular culture.

Stealing the show is a man who didn’t really know what the film was about, having not been privy to the full script. Slim Pickens pretty much played himself when acting as Major “King” Kong, commander of the rogue B52 and man utterly determined to carry out his orders. Kubrick got a good ‘Ol Texas Boy off the set and so he simply asked Pickens to be himself on the set – and he is in a piece of largely unintentional comic genius.

That the film is so good to look at gives a timeless feel to the experience of watching it, but, in a year when the US Republican Party seem in thrall to demagoguery and bombast, the satire is terrifyingly contemporary – indeed, it’s with a shiver that one is forced to acknowledge that, 53 years on, it’s barely satire at all.

  

Eddie The Eagle – Review

Published March 29, 2016 by tootingtrumpet
I believe he can fly

I believe he can fly

What, then, is “the truth”?

Such philosophical diversions crossed my mind as Eddie The Eagle slid towards its predictable, if satisfying, conclusion with the accidental hero greeted by hundreds on his return to England and embraced around the world as a man of great courage and determination, if not great skills and success. Because what we see in Dexter Fletcher’s feelgood movie is not a succession of scenes that “happened” building to a History Of Mr Folly, but a more holistic truth about spirit, about heart and about the consolation one can find in participating rather than winning – which is the fate of almost all of us after all. It does its job well.

Tarun Egerton follows up his role in the almost unwatchable Kingsmen with the much greater challenge of portraying our hero, a turn he pulls off with great aplomb. Though Eddie was not as hapless a sportsman as written here: in fact, he was gifted in a number of sports – how else could he even have reached the level he did as a skier, never mind landed jumps off the 70m hill after so little practice? Egerton moves and looks an athlete, so the potential to be competent is never in doubt for all his rustic technique. Though consistently rejected by the blazers, Egerton refuses to play Eddie as a victim, literally jutting his chin out and standing tall, a shy, but articulate man, full of plain-speaking humility. It’s a considerable acting feat to stay just the right side of caricature.

Hugh Jackman’s Coach Peary is a caricature, but ol’ Wolverine has charisma to burn and goes through the motions as the man who coulda been a contender pleasingly enough. (Though the less said about Christopher Walken’s walk-on cameo at the end the better). Jackman is a deus ex machina (there was no coach, at least not this kind) but, with the film making no pretentions to documentary status, why not?

Best of the rest in a cast not required to do much more than play out types with whom we can be comfortable, are the two women in Eddie’s life, his mother, Jo Hartley delivering a rare underplayed performance in a movie that doesn’t leave much unsaid, and Iris Berben, who has much of Nigella Lawson’s er… presence as Petra, the bar owner who takes Eddie under her wing.

(There’s a clever little nod to Cool Runnings in one scene and (I hope) a nod too towards another hapless trier, Richard Dunn, the Bradford boxer who traded punches with Muhammad Ali. And was Tim McInnerny styled to look like Giles Clarke, former Chair of the England and Wales Cricket Board, the sports administrator who features in the film Death of a Gentleman? Maybe it was a coincidence).

Try though I did to be cynical (with incidental music is well up the John Lewis Christmas Advert scale when it comes to enhancing the sentimentality, you feel the cynicism welling up), I couldn’t quite manage it. I knew I was being manipulated, I knew that things weren’t quite like that, but I knew that Eddie walked the walk (or, rather, jumped the jump) and that alone took real cojones, never mind his struggle to get the chance to stand at the top of that hill in Calgary. I also knew what you saw was what you got from the flying plasterer – and that, ultimately, is also the case for the film. It’s no Raging Bull, but if you slide alongside, it will, like Eddie himself, make you that little bit happier with the world. And that’s no bad thing.

PANTANI: THE ACCIDENTAL DEATH OF A CYCLIST – REVIEW

Published February 28, 2016 by tootingtrumpet

MPAbout 20 years ago, Marco Pantani, the Italian cycling star, was the most captivating sports star on the planet, a force of nature who would seize the moment and, with a passion that crossed frictionlessly to his huge fanbase, deliver superhuman feats. I was a fan – a big fan. In July 1998, at my parents’ house, with my one year old son toddling and playing with bright plastic things in front of me, I watched all six hours of Eurosport’s coverage of his evisceration of Jan Ullrich in stormy weather en route to Les Deux Alpes. I was there in Paris a week or so later, to see him in yellow on the Champs Elysees too.

But that Tour is not remembered for that most epic of all epic stages, nor for Pantani’s GC victory just three years after a head-on collision (in which he was blameless) threatened his life, never mind his career. It will be remembered for The Festina Affair – the moment cycling (and its fans) had to acknowledge its endemic, systemic doping problem, the endgame (of sorts) coming nearly 15 years later with Lance Armstrong’s 2013 TV confession.

Pantani: The Accidental Death Of A Cyclist (available on Netflix) tells the tale of the man through highlights, interviews and reconstructions. There’s Marco as the bike-bonkers boy, washing his machine in the bath and furtively tinkering with the derailleur in the middle of the night (echoed later in scenes showing cyclists training in hotel rooms at 3.00am to thin blood thickened to heart attack danger levels by EPO). There’s the amateur successes – Marco with hair – and a fierce will to win emerging from the short, slight, shy kid. Then, after metal pins held his leg together in hospital and the learning to walk again, there’s his re-invention as Il Pirata, and with it the adulation, the girls and the girlfriend and the Giro and the Tour.

But Marco’s eyes never really change. There’s a melancholy there, a window on to a soul that was most at home pounding out the training miles, flying uphill past, and not with, team mates, a man who both longed to be alone yet could barely cope when left to his own devices. He could endure physical pain – that’s pretty much the first line of the pro cyclist’s job description – but he couldn’t deal with the mental pain of defeat, but also, perhaps,  the burden of doping deceit. Cycling, with its curious combination of an emphasis on individual endeavour within a strong team framework, its weeks on the road in grim cheap hotels with the aircon blocked for fear of catching a cold and its routine monastic lifestyle punctuated by wild celebratory blowouts, does not lend itself to preparing its heroes for retirement. Like cricketers (who have to cope with many of the challenges listed above) too many cyclists find the adjustment to the outside world too disorienting much after they hang up  their cleats.

He’s been gone 12 years, but would only be 46 now and, in that way that those who look 40 when 20, would almost certain look exactly the same if he were around today. Cycling, sport in general, hell even I, miss him, because the likes of Il Pirata don’t come round very often and they leave huge gaps when they go.

And yet, cycling, sport and even I have plenty of culpability in his demise at his own hand in a dingy hotel room on a cold dull day in February 2004. Cycling didn’t (and maybe hasn’t) grasped the nettle of doping and rooted it out from top to bottom – or at least as far as it can. Sport demands more and more of its heroes, especially those who transcend mere winning and losing and become icons, their every move photographed, filmed, dissected. And I, and millions of fans like me, bought the magazines (I subscribed to Cycle Sport and Procycling soon as not to miss anything Marco) and looked on amazed, but knowing that what looks too good to be true probably is too good to be true. But we still thought of the Marcos and the Frankies and the Jose Marias as winners (in the game of cycling) and not losers (in the game of life). The film’s title may nod in the direction of Dario Fo’s play, but there was nothing accidental about this death.

That said, Marco bears some responsibility for his fate, but there’s plenty of faceless men with money and a vicious amorality who constructed a culture in professional cycling that destroyed many of its brightest stars and countless others down the ladder of success. The film Pantani shows much of the beauty of this most beautiful of sports – and plenty of the ugliness of this most ugly of sports too.

 

The Revenant – review

Published January 17, 2016 by tootingtrumpet

What would Werner Herzog have done with a Go-Pro and a drone to play with?

LdC

Surely I can have that Oscar now? 

That’s really too facile an opening gambit for an epic film that owes much to Aguirre – The Wrath Of God and a little to Bertolucci’s The Conformist. (Of course, I need not say that this is praise of the very highest order.)

Hugh Glass, a guide in the early stages of America’s infatuation with its Manifest Destiny, having been ripped to shreds by a bear, is left by his party of fur trappers to die in a shallow grave, his son already murdered by Fitzgerald, the amoral egoist who always seems to hitch a ride in a group like this. Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio, not so much acting as enduring) somehow survives that ordeal – something he makes a habit of – and doggedly (that is, on all fours) sets off to exact revenge on Fitzgerald (a wild eyed Tom Hardy, whom you would think had had enough of this sort of thing in Mad Max: Fury Road).

The plot hardly matters though – the star of this show is the American landscape. Filmed by Emmanuel Lubezki (with a love touched by sadism) by means – I can only presume – of steadicams mounted on drones, nature’s malevolence is shown in both the most gruesome of close-ups and the widest of panoramas. There are times when you want to freeze the screen and question whether a frame was inspired by Southern Comfort, Badlands, Deliverance or the paintings of Casper David Friedrich. There’s nothing really new in the landscapes themselves, but the urgency with which we move through it, is exhilarating and (literally) awesome.

As is the case with Herzog’s cinematic battles with soil and water, the music (by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Carsten Nicolai) adds much to the otherworldy feel of the movie, at once viscerally felt, but also mythic. It’s another reason why this film demands a visit to a cinema – its epic scale will inevitably be diminished on even the largest of domestic screens.

I’m going to see it again, but second time round, I’m not going to bother much about following the plot and worrying a little about the clunky introductions of one or two characters inserted, like Chekhov’s Gun, because the story needs them later. I’m going to let the images and the sounds wash over me, treating it like a visit to the Musee D’Orsay and trying not to be overwhelmed. Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s previous movie, Birdman, I felt too nervous, too dependent on fussy showy long takes and ultimately disappointing, but his control in The Revenant is complete, the long takes bringing back memories of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalgia and The Sacrifice. Such confidence is rare to see so fully realised – if anyone beats him to the Oscar for Best Director, they’ve done bloody well.

And, as I reach for a word and come up with “bloody”, I guess that underlines just how the film, like Leo and his dead horse, has got under my skin.

 

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