Archive | June, 2014

12 Years A Slave + Downton Abbey = Belle

21 Jun

Ever wondered what would happen if you crossed 12 Years A Slave with Downton Abbey? Oh. You didn’t? All the same, we now have the answer. You get the handsomely shot, impeccably acted British costume drama Belle.

Like 12 Years, Belle is based on historical fact. Unlike 12 Years, which adapted Northrup’s own personal diary, what little is known of the original “Belle” is given considerable embellishment by writer Misan Sagay.

We do know that, as the illegitimate “mulatto” daughter of a British nobleman and a black slave, Belle was raised as one of the family by her great uncle, the Earl of Mansfield, and that she was immortalised in a famous portrait playing with her white cousin as an equal. We also know that, as Lord Chief Justice, the Earl of Mansfield was called upon to pass judgement on a court case vital to the legitimacy of the slave trade. However the intersection of these stories, and the love interest that impinges on the politics, is pure fiction.

The result could easily have been risible. The searing drama of 12 Years is kick-started by Northrup being betrayed, kidnapped, and sold into brutal slavery. The more sedate drama in Belle hinges, for the first third of the film at least, on her mild irritation at not being permitted to dine with guests at Kenwood House, but only to join them for after-dinner drinks.

But as Belle discovers more about the brutal treatment of slaves, as gradually revealed by the precedent-setting Zong case over which her great uncle is presiding, and encounters genuine, naked prejudice for herself (at the hands of Harry Potter’s Draco Malfoy), petulance over class distinctions gives way to a slow-burning and righteous anger. In a deft piece of scriptwriting, she also comes to realise that all women, even noble-born white women, are little more than pampered slaves in the male-dominated society of the late 18th century.

12 Years, as filmed by Steve McQueen, is a genuine work of art. Belle, as expertly filmed by Streatham girl and Grange Hill graduate Amma Asante, is more a work of artifice. But it’s an impeccably realised and structured one, with a career-best performance from the always brilliant Tom Wilkinson as the Earl of Mansfield and a star-making turn from Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Belle, that by the end arouses in the viewer real fury, and real tears. To say that it comes second-best to this year’s worthy Oscar-winner is by no means a slight. Go see.

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Home again, or Homeland? What Hollywood tells us about Saving Bowe Bergdahl

3 Jun
Homeland

Spot the difference: Damian Lewis in Homeland…

Bowe Bergdahl

… and Bowe Bergdahl in captivity

I was asked this morning by the International Business Times to explain the historic release of POW Bowe Bergdahl in terms of films and TV. It turns out to be a surprisingly good way of making sense of a complex topic. My piece starts:

<<When President Obama announced the release, after five long years, of America’s only prisoner of war in Afghanistan, he must have imagined the credits rolling and the music swelling (perhaps Hans Zimmer’s Leave No Man Behind from Black Hawk Down) over a happy Hollywood ending. Saving Private RyanLone SurvivorArgo, even Forrest Gump – these are just a few of the movies that have seared into our consciousness the idea that no sacrifice is too great in order to rescue a fallen comrade.

It even fuels the plot of two Star Trek movies. “Logic dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few… or the one,” says Spock, when he sacrifices himself in The Wrath of Khan. But The Search for Spock turns this on its head, when Kirk explains the noble human instinct that caused him to risk his ship and all its crew for his second in command: “The needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many.”>>

But then the story gets murky… click here to read the rest at International Business Times.

Edge of Tomorrow: why video games are not the future for Hollywood

2 Jun

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If Edge of Tomorrow was just a big, dumb, popcorn movie about mankind’s last desperate battle against alien invaders, with only Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt to save us, I’d probably have enjoyed it more. But it also throws in a potentially intriguing time-loop in which every time he is killed Cruise repeats the same day, again and again and again, until he gets it right.

If you think this sounds like a sci-fi take on Groundhog Day, you’d be right. If you pointed out that, er, Source Code already delivered a sci-fi version of Groundhog Day, you’d be right again. So you’d expect Edge of Tomorrow to delve deeper into the psychological and philosophical ramifications of this premise – eg what does it do to you to die in agony day after day? If you die and are “reset”, are you the same person or a new one? And what happens to the other “yous” who died and where does their consciousness go? But no. Instead it turns it into a pure video game.

The movie is basically a series of “levels” in which Cruise tries and dies, tries and dies, each time progressing a little bit further as he learns from his mistakes. I Googled this, and discovered that director Doug Liman has indeed done this on purpose: “I’ve tried to bring the best aspects of video games, the most immersive aspects of video games, into my movies,” the director of The Bourne Ultimatum, Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Jumper explained to games site IGN.com.

There’s a problem with this: if you’ve ever waited for your turn while someone else plays a video game, you’ll realise they do not always make great spectator sports. And where’s the jeopardy if our action hero is indestructible? Nevertheless, it’s intriguing that as video games get more filmic, films are getting more videogamey.

The creators of Lost admitted that they constructed the series like a giant video game – eg you find a hatch; you finally work out how to open the hatch; and that takes you to a whole new subterranean level. My favourite example of the genre is Gareth Evans’ brilliant action movie The Raid, which involved the hero climbing up through various (literal) levels of an apartment building, defeating a host of baddies on his way to the climactic confrontation with The Boss.

Tom Cruise is excellent in Edge of Tomorrow, reminding us why he’s such a plausible and likeable action hero after the snoozefest that was Oblivion. Emily Blunt, who’s become one of my favourite actresses, makes the most of a one-note role. The dialogue is sparky, thanks to the writing combo of Jez “Jerusalem” Butterworth and Christopher “The Usual Suspects” McQuarrie. And the action scenes are brilliantly edited, even if the Normandy beach invasion scenes (yes, this is Groundhog D-Day) suffer in comparison with Saving Private Ryan.

But the ending – and I won’t give any spoilers here – is particularly dumb. Not only is it too easy, there is a time problem which I can’t discuss (because spoilers) but which is so glaring I thought I must have missed something till I Googled “stupid ending problem” and found a thread of puzzled fans scratching their heads over the exact same thing.

So if you like killer aliens and Tom Cruise kicking ass in an exo-skeleton – and I do, I do – you will surely enjoy this. But if you hope to exercise the little grey cells over a time-twisty sci-fi pic – and I do, I do – you will be sadly disappointed.