Tag: Ben Kingsley

Bugsy (1991)

Bugsy (1991)

Old school glamour is the order-of-the-day in this luscious but slightly empty gangster film

Director: Barry Levinson

Cast: Warren Beatty (Ben “Bugsy” Siegel), Annette Bening (Virginia Hill), Harvey Keitel (Mickey Cohen), Ben Kingsley (Meyer Lansky), Elliot Gould (Harry Greenberg), Joe Mantegna (George Raft), Bebe Neuwirth (Countess Dorothy de Frasso), Bill Graham (Charlie Luciano), Lewis van Bergen (Joe Adonis), Wendy Phillip (Esta Siegel), Richard C Sarafian (Jack Dragna)

Las Vegas: the city of dreams for gangsters. As Ben (“Bugsy” – but don’t call him that) Siegel (Warren Beatty) tells a room full of gangsters when he’s pitching for their investment, like a hyper-violent Dragon’s Den: build the largest city in a state, you own the state, own the state and you own a slice of America. Imagine how the money can come rolling in then. It’s fair to say the mobsters aren’t so certain – and maybe Las Vegas would never have been a huge success if Bugsy had run it rather than being whacked – but God knows their investment paid out millions of times over.

The dream of building Las Vegas is at the centre of Beatty’s passion project (in this one he just played the lead and produced, dropping a couple of hyphens compared to Reds), a Golden-hued, romantic biopic of notorious gangster (and killer) “Bugsy” Siegel. Siegel sees what no-one else could see: how a city in a law-lax desert could become a mecca for gamblers, and crime could reap the profits. But the project goes millions over budget – not helped by girlfriend Virginia Hill (Annette Bening) creaming millions off the top. Trouble is Bugsy’s investors aren’t the sort of guys who shrug their shoulders at failed investments.

You can see what attracted Beatty to Bugsy. For all it’s about gangsters, I couldn’t escape the feeling Beatty sees Bugsy as something akin to a fast-talking movie producer. Bugsy spins elaborate stories for his backers of how their investment will pay-off, builds fantasies on a huge scale, won’t accept any compromise (a load-bearing wall should be knocked down if it’s blocking the view of the pool!), pouring his heart-and-soul into every detail of his vision. It doesn’t feel a world away from the same control-freak energy Beatty poured into Reds (Bugsy is basically financier, manager, backseat architect and marketing man for his dream).

Bugsy feeds a lot off the fascinating two-way admiration street between Hollywood and gangsters. Beatty’s Bugsy is enamoured with Hollywood, even shooting a (terrible) test reel to try and break into the movies. He’s thrilled to be hanging around with old pal George Raft (a muted Joe Mantegna), who seems equally jazzed to hook up with notorious criminals. Hollywood laps up the notoriety of criminals, both on-screen and off. For his Flamingo launch, Bugsy wants to stuff the place with stars (to his fury, bad weather prevents them arriving), and schmoozing celebrities is at least part of what is going to make the City of Sin such a fun place.

Levinson’s film is shot with a romantic lusciousness, a sepia-tinged nostalgia that wants you to soak up the glory of the costumes, sets and the cool of being a quick-witted gangster who gets all the best girls. It’s very different from the real Bugsy, a brutal killer with a huge capacity for violence. The film tries its best to match this, but can’t escape the fact that Beatty is way more suave and charming than Bugsy deserves. For all we’re introduced to him gunning down a cheating underling – and we see him brutally beat others for bad-mouthing Virginia or using his loathed nickname – he never feels like a brutal criminal, but more like a flawed, romantic dreamer with a temper.

It’s hard not to compare Bugsy with the best works of Scorsese from the same era. Goodfellas knew that, under the surface glamour, this was a dog-eat-dog world and that there was no romance at the end of a bullet. Casino (which followed a few years later, a sort of semi-sequel) sees the true vicious sadism and greed at the heart of this city-building operation, while Bugsy sees it more as a lavish dream and a tribute to a sort of visionary integrity. Even seeing Bugsy gunned down in his own home by a sniper, doesn’t carry  with it the sort of inevitability it needs. As Scorsese understands, this way of life is like playing Russian roulette forever – eventually the chamber is going to be full. For all Bugsy literally plays roulette, it never feels like he’s playing with fire, more that he’s reaching slightly beyond his grasp.

Perhaps Levinson doesn’t quite have the vision to make the film come to life or stamp a personality on it. It feels like a film that has been carefully produced and stage-managed to the screen – and Levinson deserves credit for marshalling such an array of commanding personalities together to create such a lavish picture. But it’s muddled in its message. Is Bugsy actually worth making a film about? What are we supposed to understand from this: was he a killer out of his depth, or an unlucky dreamer? Bugsy wants him to be both, but fails to make a compelling argument for either.

Beatty is impressive in his charisma though, for all he never quite seems to have the edgy capacity for instant violence the part needs. He does capture Bugsy’s desire for self-improvement, from the Hollywood dreams to the eternal elocution lessons he repeats over-and-over like a mantra. His desire for glory even manifests as a bizarre fantasy that he is destined to assassinate Mussolini. It also perhaps explains why he’s drawn to Virginia, a would-be starlet. Annette Bening gives arguably the most impressive performance (but, inexplicably, was practically the only major figure involved in the film not to pick up an Oscar nomination) as a woman who is an unreadable mix of devoted lover and selfish opportunist, leaving us guessing as to her real intentions and feelings.

There is good support from Keitel (hardly stretching himself as Bugsy’s number two Mickey Cohen), Kingsley (an ice-cool but loyal Meyer Lansky, unable to stop Bugsy destroying himself) and, above all, Elliott Gould as Bugsy’s hopeless, pathetic best friend. Bugsy though, for all it’s entertaining, feels like a mispackaged biopic that wants to turn its subject into a romantic figure, unlucky enough to be rubbed out before he could be proved spectacularly right. This soft-soap vision doesn’t ring true and misses the opportunity the film had to present a more complex and nuanced view of the era and its crimes.

Schindler's List (1993)

Liam Neeson and Ben Kingsley excel in Spielberg’s masterpiece Schindler’s List

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Liam Neeson (Oskar Schindler), Ben Kingsley (Itzhak Stern), Ralph Fiennes (Amon Goth), Caroline Goodall (Emilie Schindler), Jonathan Sagall (Poldek Pfefferberg), Embeth Davidtz (Helen Hirsch), Malgorzata Gebel (Wiktoria Klonowska), Mark Ivanir (Marcel Goldberg), Beatrice Macola (Ingrid), Andrzej Seweryn (Julian Scherner), Friedrich von Thun (Rolf Czurda)

It was the film Spielberg spent over a decade building up the courage to make. Schindler’s List not only marked a new era for him as a film-maker, it also helped a wider audience directly confront the horrors of the Holocaust. At a time when Holocaust denial was starting to rise, Schindler’s List straight-forwardly but powerfully placed the reality of this crime firmly in the eyes of the world. Schindler’s List today remains one of the most emotionally powerful Holocaust movies, the standard to which all others are judged – and peerless example of committed and passionate film-making.

Based on Thomas Keneally’s Booker-prize winning “non-fiction novel” Schindler’s Ark, the film is set in Krakow during the Second World War. As the German occupying force crowds the Jews into the overcrowded Ghetto in the first step of what will become systematic extermination, Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) arrives in town looking to make his fortune. Charming, gregarious and quick with a bribe, Schindler soon makes friends with senior SS members. Setting up an enamelware factory to supply the Wehrmacht, it is staffed entirely by cheap Jewish labour (supplied by the SS) and run by skilled Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) while Schindler handles ‘public relations’ (bribes and schmoozing) with the SS. But, over time, Schindler struggles more and more to close his eyes to the murder of the Jews – a fact made even more prominent with the arrival of brutal SS commander Amon Goth (Ralph Fiennes).

Schindler’s List is chillingly, shockingly honest in its depiction of the horrors of the Holocaust. But it’s easy to forget how cunningly and gently it eases you into the nightmare you are about to watch. This is after all a film that uses Schindler as its POV character. What we are experiencing is his perception of the Holocaust, and through that trying to grasp what could potentially have made this opportunist and profiteer into a humanitarian. As such, the film is careful to give a slow build to the monstrous genocidal fury of Nazism.

In fact, much of the first thirty minutes could almost play out as a sort of triumphant against-the-odds success of a morally flexible charmer. There are a surprising number of laughs in that opening thirty minutes, at Schindler’s chutzpah and weakness for a pretty face. The opening sequence is a delightful demonstration of his confidence: we know he has nothing but the clothes he stands up in and what cash he can scrape together when he enters a nightclub frequented by the SS bigwigs we needs to impress. When he walks in no-one knows who he is: by the end of the evening a waiter is dumbfounded another guest doesn’t know who Oscar Schindler is. Much of the first act is a chronicle of Schindler playing the angles, crossing the right palms with silver and charming left right and centre to make himself a somebody from nothing.

Imagine you didn’t know what the Holocaust was. You’d think this could be a very different film. There are clues: the unspoken loathing Ben Kingsley’s Itzhak Stern clearly feels for this man who smilingly hires cheap Jewish workers from the SS (the workers get nothing) to staff his factory. The fear any Jewish character expresses when confronted with a German officer. The desperation and dirt of the Ghetto. But, like Schindler, there is enough there for you to think “yeah, it’s tough on the Jews, but it’s could be worse, it’s not my problem”.

Schindler wants to be thought of as a good man, but deep down he knows he isn’t: you can see his discomfort when he’s thanked by a one-armed man Stern has inveigled into working in the factory. He already knows he doesn’t deserve thanks – guilt that expresses itself at anger against Stern for hiring a one-armed ‘machinist’ in the first place. After all he’s running a business here.

That one-armed man is the first death we see, executed at a roadside for not being able to shovel snow from the road. Any chance of turning your face away again is lost with the arrival of Amon Goth to liquidate the Krakow Ghetto and build a new concentration camp. Played with a bloated, dead-eyed sadistic sadness by Ralph Fiennes (Goth bitches constantly about his workload, drinks to excess and is as desperate to be liked as he is uncaringly brutal), Goth oversees acts of inhumanity that leave the viewer shocked and appalled.

Spielberg films the liquidation of the Krakow Ghetto like a documentary observer and doesn’t flinch from the brutality: summary executions, dead bodies left in the street, the late night slaughter of any hiding in the Ghetto. Doctors euthanise their patients (who drink the poison with thanks in their eyes) before SS guards can machine gun them in their beds. Spielberg embodies this in a single red-coated girl (one of the few splashes of colour in the film), who walks through this nightmareish hell, witnessed from a hill by the horrified Schindler. Later the same red-headed girl will be wheeled on a cart of twisted, exhumed bodies to be thrown onto a bonfire of rotting corpses.

It’s but an entrée into the nightmare of Goth’s camp and the later hell of Auschwitz. In the camp, Goth snipers those not ‘working’ from the balcony of his hilltop villa. Anyone can be executed at any time. Selections see naked inhabitants of the camp running in circles, the weak pulled out to be dispatched to the death camps. Mountains of corpses are burnt, their ashes falling like snow on Krakow. Later, a misdirected train of Schindler Jews arrives in Auschwitz where human ashes form a constant mist. Terrified the women are stripped, their hair removed and herded into a shower room: the terror of this sequence alleviated only when water not gas falls from the shower heads. Spielberg shoots all this with a careful but horrific immersiveness, which never lingers on horrors but always acknowledges them while moving you onto the next terror.

You can criticise Schindler’s List for focusing on the few thousand who survived this senseless barbarism rather than the millions of dead – but the film offers a cause for hope. That, even when things are at their worst, people can decide to do good. Itzhak Stern (a beautifully judged, deeply humane performance from Ben Kingsley) calls the list “an ultimate good”, with everything around it evil. Faced with such horrors, perhaps we need to know that a man like Oscar Schindler can turn the skills he used to enrich himself towards saving lives: bribing officials, spinning stories, presenting a front to his SS partners of an uncaring businessmen while saving as many lives as he can.

Played with huge charm and authority, mixed with a fascinatingly unknowability by Liam Neeson, the film bravely never offers a definitive answer as to what turned Schindler into a man dedicated to others rather than himself. There is no single moment where he makes the conscious turn, instead the film presents the shift as a gradual but inevitable change: as the real-life Schindler himself said, in such a situation there was no other choice.

Schindler’s List isn’t perfect. Despite his best efforts, Spielberg’s sentimentality creeps in. Neeson’s final scene takes things too far, culminating in a blatantly manipulative breakdown, weeping that he did not do more – as if Spielberg is worried we didn’t get the point. Some moments lean into Hollywood convention, from Goth’s gun repeatedly misfiring when attempting to execute a worker (who survives) to Goth and Schindler cutting cards to decide the fate of Goth’s brutalised maid Helene (a sensitive and heartfelt Embeth Davidtz). But what it gets right far outweighs this.

Spielberg presents the Holocaust with unflinching emotion and a carefully controlled sense of moral outrage. Beautifully (some argued too beautifully) filmed by Janusz Kaminski in cool black-and-white with a sensitive score from John Williams, it introduced the Holocaust to an entire generation. No other director could perhaps have done that.

In a sense Spielberg’s career was building towards this, his mastery of cinematic language (this is a superbly edited film by Michael Kahn) utilised not for thrills but to illuminate one of the darkest hours of history. But with that, it also provides hope for humanity, perhaps the key to its emotional impact. The acting is sensational – Neeson has never been better, Fiennes is extraordinary, Kingsley far too easily overlooked as the film’s heart. Traumatising, horrifying but vital and essential, Schindler’s List brings to life with deep respect the worst of history.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)

Simu Liu deals with father-son issues in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Director: Destin Daniel Cretton

Cast: Simu Liu (Shang-Chi), Awkwafina (Katy), Meng’er Zhang (Xu Xialing), Tony Leung (Xu Wenwu), Fala Chen (Ying Li), Michelle Yeoh (Ying Nan), Ben Kingsley (Trevor Slattery), Benedict Wong (Wong), Florian Munteanu (Razor Fist)

Thousands of years ago Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung) discovered ten rings which gave him immortality and power. Sadly, he used these powers for evil – until in 1996 he falls in love with Ying Li (Fala Chen), the powerful guardian of a mystical village he has searched hundreds of years for. They have two children – but after she dies, Wenwu returns to darkness and trains his son Shang-Chi to become an assassin. Aged 14, Shang-Chi flees: ten years later, Shaun (Simu Liu) works as a hotel valet with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina), both accomplished students with no aims in life.

All that changes when his father’s heavies attack them in San Francisco, stealing the mysterious pendant Ying Li gave to her son. She also gave a pendant to his sister Xu Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) – so Shang-Chi and Katy head to Macau to find her. But Xu resents Shang-Chi for abandoning her and has trained herself into the martial super-fighter her father would never allow her to become.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Two Rings is a curiously mixed bag. First the good: it’s a huge amount of fun. There are some cracking gags and some of the fight scenes have to be seen to be believed. In particular, an early fight scene on a San Francisco bus is an absolute belter. A whirligig of movement, flicks, kicks and punches in, on and around a bendy-bus, using bars, doors, windows and bells to imaginative effect. Hugely exciting, its something the rest of the film struggles to live up to – although a vertigo inducing scaffolding bound fight in Macau comes close.

The film is also built around engaging characters. Shang-Chi is charmingly played by Simu Liu as a very reluctant hero, an extremely polite, decent guy with a wistful wish to just mess around and not grow up, but determined to do the right thing when pushed. He’s very well matched with Awkwafina, extremely funny but also heartfelt as his best friend, great with the one-liners but handling the serious content very well. The film dances rather neatly along a line of not-quite-deciding if these old friends are a potential romantic couple as well, which actually makes for a rather sweet dynamic.

Unfortunately, where the film is a bit weaker is in making it clear exactly what the character arc, or goal, for Shang-Chi is. While this is partly the intent of the film – he has, after all, effectively been drifting through life for a decade – the lack of a really compelling story line or a powerful sense of motivation from Shang-Chi slightly weakens the story. We never really quite get a grip on him as a character, other than knowing he’s a decent guy, out of his depth.

That’s partly because the film invests so much depth into his father, played superbly by Tony Leung making his English-language debut. Wenwu is conflicted, traumatised and motivated by a desire to bring his family together, unable to see that children’s upbringing has made them confused and vulnerable rather than strong. In every scene, I always understand what Wenwu wants and where he is going in a way I don’t with the hero – and this somehow feels the wrong-way round. Effectively, Wenwu is the protagonist of the movie, and Shang-Chi never quite steps up to take his place.

Instead, Shang-Chi has a fairly conventional “Daddy’s issues” plot line – can he overcome his fear and respect for his wicked father? I’d point out that his sister – well played by Meng’er Zhang – has exactly the same issue, but the film isn’t interested in her solving them, focusing instead on the father and son confrontation. Essentially, thematically, not a lot in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is actually that new – it’s a fairly familiar coming-of-age Superhero origins story, with the loss of a parent and a clash with the surviving parent thrown into the mix.

Not that there is anything too wrong with that when it’s done well. Most of the film is done well, with jokes and fine set-pieces. Ben Kingsley enjoys himself hugely reprising his deluded actor from Iron Man 3. The film quite effectively builds in a Chinese aesthetic – large chunks of the dialogue is in Mandarin – and riffs charmingly off Chinese myths and legends and kung-fu inspirations. The Ten Rings themselves are barely explained at all, but an end-of-credits scene shows this was intentional.

Its weakest section is of course when we get to the final confrontation. This is a CGI over-loaded smack-down between two huge special effects – and carries significantly less impact than the emotional clash between father and son the film has been building towards. A braver film would have left it there without the CGI monsters – but the Marvel films have always been convinced that spectacle is what people want, and I guess they’ve not got much wrong so far.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings introduces a charming hero, but by the end of the film I still wasn’t quite sure who he was or what he wanted from life. Maybe that doesn’t matter since sequels are inevitable, but there is something amiss when the villain makes such a dominant impression that he takes over the film, as Tony Leung does here. Fun, but a little too long and a little lacking in focus.

Gandhi (1982)

Ben Kingsley excels as Gandhi in Richard Attenborough’s Oscar winning epic

Director: Richard Attenborough

Cast: Ben Kingsley (Mahatma Gandhi), Rohini Hattaggadi (Kasturba Gandhi), Roshan Seth (Jawaharlal Nehru), Pradeep Kumar (VK Krishna Menon), Saeed Jaffrey (Vallabhbhai Patel), Alyque Padamsee (Muhammad Ali Jinnah), Virendra Razdan (Maulana Azad), Candice Bergen (Margaret Bourke-White), Edward Fox (Brigadier General Reginald Dyer), John Gielgud (Lord Irwin), Trevor Howard (Judge Broomfield), John Mills (Lord Chelmsford), Martin Sheen (Vince Walker), Ian Charleson (Reverend Charles Andrews), Arthul Fugard (General Jan Smuts), Geraldine James (Mirabehn), Amrish Puri (Khan), Ian Bannan (Senior Officer Fields), Richard Griffiths (Collins), Nigel Hawthorne (Kinnoch), Michael Hordern (Sir George Hodge), Om Puri (Nahari)

In 1962, Richard Attenborough was approached by Motilal Kothari, an Indian civil servant, who believed Attenborough was the man to bring the life of Mahatma Gandhi to film. All this despite Attenborough having never directed a film. But the life of one of history’s greatest men, and passionate advocate of peace and non-violence, spoke deeply to the socially-engaged Attenborough who dedicated 20 years of his life to bringing the film to the screen, immersing himself in Indian culture along the way and winning the support of Nehru (until his death delayed the project again) and Gandhi’s family. The eventual film was a huge success, cementing the public perception of Gandhi and beautifully capturing both the importance of the story, and its emotional heart.

Opening with Gandhi’s assassination in 1948, the film covers in flashback his life from combatting anti-Indian prejudice in South Africa as a young, British-trained, lawyer to his return to India and long involvement in the campaign to win India its independence from the British Empire, stressing non-co-operation, his eventual success but also his failure to hold the Hindu and Muslim parts of the country together and his attempt as “father of the nation” to put an end to religious violence, a failure that will eventually lead to his assassination. 

Attenborough’s grand, epic film marshals thousands of extras to bring to life pages of history. At times events fly by with speed, but Attenborough never loses sight of the emotional heart of the story – both Gandhi and the status of Indians as not being masters in their own home. Attenborough directs scenes of real power, most strikingly a heart-rending peaceful march on a salt works (the tax on salt use being a major burden on many poor Indians) that culminates in line after line of peaceful Indian protestors walking calmly forward to be beaten down by soldiers. Despite being the grandest and largest of films, it allows questions of pure morality and decency to lie at its heart and, supported by a parade of British acting greats, keeps the Indians at the heart of their own story and the masters of their own destinies.

The film’s impact though may be directly connected to the gloriously transcendent performance of Ben Kingsley in the title role. For years it was believed the film could only work with a British actor in the title role – imagine how it would be received today if Gandhi had been played by (as it nearly was) a browned-up Anthony Hopkins or John Hurt (who famously told Attenborough he looked absurd). Instead half-Indian unknown RSC actor Ben Kingsley took the role. Kingsley so completely and utterly immersed himself in Gandhi – everything, the physicality, the morality, the voice, the intellectualism – that not only has he become so completely associated with the role but it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing it.

Ageing almost 50 years over the course of the film, Kingsley’s Gandhi is above-all moral, softly-spoken, observant and considerate – the very spirit of the original man seems to be up on the screen. Far from the sort of histrionics you might expect from a subject of an epic movie, Kingsley is not afraid to be quiet, gentle even underplayed. He completely understands that the charisma and power in Gandhi laid in his moral authority, not his speech-making, but his careful example-setting of even-handedness, patience and desire for peace. 

But Kingsley is also willing to show Gandhi as shrewd and stubborn, even while mixing it with both a deep pain at the loss of life. Kingsley is superbly good at the smaller quieter moments – he wrings heart-rending force from the loss of his wife (a similarly impressive and quietly authoritative performance from Rohini Hattaggadi), which partly works because the film quietly centres the truth and faith in their marriage. This is extraordinary work from Ben Kingsley, that seems to carry not just the entire film but the sense of a nation.

Attenborough though was a director who was at his best when working with actors, and his ability to coax truthful and heartfelt moments from quiet scenes are what gives the other sequences the emotional force to make them work. Attenborough seemingly called in every favour to assemble the supporting cast that backs up Kingsley, many of them juggling only a few scenes. Among the stand-outs we have a martially certain Edward Fox as General Dyer, an archly arrogant John Gielgud and a frustrated John Mills as viceroys, Trevor Howard representing decent British rule as an honest Judge and Martin Sheen as a reformist minded journalist. That’s to overlook dozens of others in small roles, all of them clearly committed to the intention of the project.

The film though allows the Indians themselves to take centre stage, even if it is easy to criticise some of the simplifications of many of the issues that would eventually culminate in partition. The film has a clear hostility towards the idea of religion, seeing it as the root of much of the violence that erupted in India in the last years of Gandhi’s life. While Roshan Seth is excellent as Nehru, the character is portrayed more as the faithful follower of Gandhi than the shrewd politician in his own right (it’s a role most of the other leading members of congress are also placed in). Alyque Padamsee carries a high level of charisma as Jinnah, founder of Pakistan – but the film can’t quite resist painting him into the corner as a semi-villain, ignoring Gandhi’s desperation to get Jinnah to invest in a united India.

It’s part of what has been seen since as the film’s more hagiographic stance towards Gandhi. Certainly later historiography has outlined a few shades of grey in Gandhi – although I would argue that seeing him as a man and not a saint only heightens (similar to Mandela) the awe at what he went on to achieve. The film’s whistle stop tour of Indian history – taking in every major event and personality, some in a matter of moments – looks particularly old-fashioned now with our current trend being biographical films that focus only on crucial moments, not the whole life. It adds a slight air of schoolboy history to the project, an unfortunate side-effect of the passionate earnestness with which the story is told.

But then even in 1982 – when it lifted 8 Oscars including Best Picture, Director and Actor and most of the technicals – it was seen as slightly old-fashioned. Attenborough has generously repeatedly said that he believed Steven Spielberg was more deserving of Best Director for ET. And it’s true that Attenborough was in many ways a producer at heart with these epics than an inspired director like Lean. His marshalling of crowds, finances and simply forcing the will together to make the picture – and to allow it to focus on Indians rather than Westerners – is a tribute to his organisational skills. His strengths as a director were more in performances, and as with many of his epic films the most memorable moments are smaller, intimate ones. The larger moments are shot with an assured professionalism rather than inspiration, but Attenborough understands how to wring emotion from moments and how to let character drive action.

Gandhi works above all because even today you can see it is a passionate labour of love, that everyone involved in clearly believed in passionately. It may well be that at times it is workmanlike or simplistic – and covers the sweep of history with an earnest completeness, even while it is unafraid to be critical certainly of the British – but it still invests it crucial moments with humanity, life and deep emotion. You can’t help but be moved by it – and you are instantly stunned by the sheer brilliance of Kingsley as Gandhi, one of those performances like George C Scott as Patton which seems more like the man than the real thing. Gandhi may be old fashioned, but that’s not a crime when the quality is still there.

Hugo (2011)

Martin Scorsese’s Hugo: a kids film in name only

Director: Martin Scorsese

Cast: Asa Butterfield (Hugo Cabret), Chloë Grace Moretz (Isabelle), Ben Kingsley (Papa Georges), Sacha Baron Cohen (Inspector Gustave Dasté), Ray Winstone (Claude Cabret), Emily Mortimer (Lisette), Jude Law (Mr Cabret), Helen McCrory (Mama Jeanne), Michael Stuhlbarg (René Tabard), Christopher Lee (Monsieur Labisse), Frances de la Tour (Madame Emilie), Richard Griffiths (Monsieur Frick)

Martin Scorsese isn’t exactly the first name you think of when your mind turns to directors of children’s films. So perhaps it makes sense that, in Hugo, he directed a children’s film aimed at virtually anyone except children. A huge box-office flop, Hugo was garlanded with awards and critics’ acclaim – but I’d be amazed if you find any child with a DVD of it. It’s a film made by a passionate lover of cinema, aimed at lovers of cinema, which just happens to have a child at the centre of it. 

Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) is an orphan, living in the Paris train station fixing the clocks, and attempting to fix a curious automaton which his late father (Jude Law) had taken from the Paris museum to repair. After being caught by Monsieur Georges (Ben Kingsley) stealing parts from his toy shop in the station, Hugo must earn back his confiscated notebook on the workings of the automaton. Hugo starts a friendship with Georges’ god-daughter Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), and together they begin to investigate the mysterious past of Papa Georges – and his connection with the early days of cinema.

Any understanding of what makes a good film for children is missing here. It’s not exciting, it’s not engrossing, it’s not particularly fun, it doesn’t place the child (really) at the heart, and most importantly it doesn’t have a story children can relate to. The characters spend a lot of time talking about the glorious adventure they’re on – but none of the excitement translates to the screen. Instead the action creeps forward uncertainly, with the motivations of Hugo himself unclear. There are half hearted attempts to aim at a universal fear children can relate to – losing your parents and searching for new ones – but the film doesn’t run with it. 

Its real interest is the power of the movies. So Hugo’s story gets lost halfway through the film, as Scorsese focuses in on the redemption of famed cinema auteur and pioneer Georges Méliès. The children’s adventure is nothing more than visiting a library to find out who Méliès was – after that, they are effectively superfluous to the story. Details about Hugo’s relationship with his father, or with his distant uncle, are completely dropped – and the automaton that seemed like it held the key to Hugo’s purpose, becomes a MacGuffin. It’s a film about a giant of cinema, made by a giant of cinema.

So let’s put aside the marketing of this film as children’s film. The only element of the film that feels remotely like it is part of some sort of kids’ flick is Sacha Baron Cohen’s slapstick, funny-accented railway inspector – and as such Cohen’s hammy mugging sticks out like a tiresome sore thumb. The rest of the film is what you would expect from a cinema enthusiast making a film about the movies – a glorious, loving recreation of old silent movies and the methods of making them, shot and told with a sprinkling of movie magic. 

The film looks wonderful. The cinematography is gorgeous, the production design astounding. It’s beautifully made and has a light and enchanting score. Scorsese goes all out to homage the shots and set-ups of old silent movies. In fact the film only really comes to life in its second half, where flashbacks show the methods Méliès used to make his films. The recreation of scenes from these old classics is brilliantly done – and Scorsese’s designers delight in filling the screen with the sort of colour that you couldn’t find in the original. The photography also goes out of its way to give these scenes the sort of colour tinted look that the hand-painted prints of old movies had. Even the editing is designed as much as possible to replicate these old films.

Truly, these sequences are delightful – and Scorsese’s joy in making them is evident in the camerawork, and the emotional force he gives to Méliès’ story (helped as well by Ben Kingsley’s sensitive underplaying as the depressed genius). It’s just a shame that he couldn’t get as engaged with the first part of the film. Hugo’s story is largely dramatically inert – in fact the whole plotline around Hugo feels like a hook on which to hang the second half of the film. As if Scorsese couldn’t make the second part of the film without making the first. 

That’s why this film doesn’t work for children, but works better for film-loving adults. The ins and outs of Hugo’s early story just aren’t that interesting – and we aren’t given any real reason to relate to Hugo or to feel any empathy for his journey (whatever that might be). In fact the film stretches this plot line long past any actual content – already I’m struggling to remember exactly what happened in the first hour of the film. This is no comment on the performances of Butterfield or Moritz, who are both very good (even if Moritz is saddled with sub-Hermione Grainger character traits). While it always looks great, it never really finds the heart to get us engaged with Hugo.

So Hugo is a film for cinema-fanatics. Scorsese directs with great invention – but it’s all too clear where his heart is: and that’s why the film failed so spectacularly as a kids’ film. Compare this to Toy Story 3say, and it’s clear which one most children are going to want to watch. However, if you want to see Scorsese make a charming film about his passions, one that is overlong but looks gorgeous, that playfully recreates the silent cinema era, even while its narrative is basically pretty dramatically inert, you’ll love it. There are moments in this film to treasure – it’s just not really for kids. Just because Scorsese made a film without someone’s head in a vice or zipped into a bodybag, doesn’t suddenly mean he’s going to find a new audience.

Rules of Engagement (2000)

Our heroes “Can’t Handle The Truth!” That’s okay though they don’t need to deal with it

Director: William Friedkin

Cast: Tommy Lee Jones (Col Hays Lawrence “Hodge” Hodges II), Samuel L. Jackson (Col Terry L. Childers), Guy Pearce (Maj Mark Biggs), Ben Kingsley (Ambassador Mourain), Bruce Greenwood (National Security Advisor Bill Sokal), Anne Archer (Mrs. Mourain), Blair Underwood (Capt Lee)

Jones and Jackson together! At least that was the cry at the time for this morally repugnant military courtroom drama. On a mission to rescue an ambassador from an embassy under siege, after a few marines are wounded (three are announced later as KIA), Jackson’s Colonel fires on a crowd of protesting civilians (a scheduled protest that has gone out of hand) killing 83 and wounding dozens more. Horrified, the suits at home decide to put him on trial for murder. Jones is his alcoholic (for plot reasons) lawyer, who tries to uncover the truth around a missing surveillance video which may (or may not) prove the crowd was armed.

This was a film that I think I’ve hated more and more since I watched it. In its defence: Friedkin directs the opening embassy siege well. The siege itself (denounced as racist at the time) comes across as enormously prescient considering the Arab Spring etc that we’ve seen since. Jones is pretty good, I guess, despite looking far too old for the part (he’s only two years younger than his supposed mother!). Jackson does the fireworks that are asked of him. It’s pretty well filmed in general.

Everything else in this film leaves a taste like three-week-old field rations. The courtroom dynamics are boring. The film doesn’t want Jackson to be a villain so repositions Greenwood and Kingsley’s characters as villains. Despite their best efforts, any sane person watching this film could not defend Jackson’s character’s actions here. The logic of the courtroom is ridiculous: a non-existent video tape overrules all other evidence, including a complete lack of bullet holes from guns from the street direction? I suppose you could argue the film wants us to make our own judgement on subjective recollections: but its stirring music and heroic worship of Jackson tell us firmly who we should be believing here. Basically the message seems to be: Embassies are American soil, raise a gun at them and you deserve everything you got coming.

The film tries to stack the decks overwhelmingly in support of its central character, but it just leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth. For a start, our hero is cleared on a technicality – “There must be a surveillance tape and that tape might have cleared the Colonel so you should let him off” – that we are meant to cheer, but is in fact exactly the sort of closed ranks, protect-our-own cover-up that the supposedly villainous National Security Adviser denounces in the first place. It’s not even a good argument: all the actual available evidence clearly shows he’s guilty and Jackson even admits it on the witness stand! Ever heard of the Amritsar massacre? It’s a comparable event to this and one of our most shameful colonial actions. On the logic of this film it should be our finest hour.

On top of that, the film asks us to believe that a proportional response to being under fire from gunmen in a crowd full of civilians (including women and children) is to fire automatic weapons directly into the crowd. But that’s fine because Jackson’s character has a dream where he sees the Yemeni civilians all shooting up at him (didn’t see that the first time you showed it Friedkin!) including the photogenic one-legged girl the film has gone back to several times. So you go Samuel! Shoot up that crowd!

I could go on with the wonky morals of this horrible little film. The first thing we see Jackson’s character do on screen was to execute an unarmed prisoner (our hero, ladies and gentlemen!). Naturally the film has to exonerate him for this, so we have the Vietnamese officer who witnessed this turn up at the courtroom and say he would have done the same, then have the two of them tearfully salute each other outside the courtroom. So that’s fine then. It’s just another part of the film’s unpleasant attitude that you can’t even begin to question right or wrong in combat because, man, you weren’t there. Well I’m sorry but that doesn’t wash.

What is the moral of this unpleasant story? Well it seems to be that you can do almost anything you like so long as you can argue you have in someway saved lives (especially if they are American lives). Oh and that by extension, 1 American Marine’s life is worth just about 28 Yemeni lives. Go figure.

Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)

Brothers in arms? Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton struggle for chemistry

Director: Ridley Scott

Cast: Christian Bale (Moses), Joel Edgerton (Ramesses II), John Turturro (Seti I), Aaron Paul (Joshua), Ben Mendelsohn (Hegep), Maria Valverde (Zipporah), Sigourney Weaver (Tuya), Ben Kingsley (Nun), Indira Varma (High Priestess), Tara Fitzgerald (Miriam), Hiam Abbass (Bithiah), Dar Salim (Khyan)

There is something quite reassuringly old fashioned about Biblical story films. They have a sweet Sunday reliability about them, an old-fashioned bombastic self importance, mixed with spectacle and often heavy-handed moral messages. They are just quite fun. Biblical epics have always been popular with Hollywood as there can never be any judgement passed on the amount of violence and sex the stories often contain as, hey, it’s all in “the good book”. It worked for Cecil B DeMille and it continues to work today.

Exodus: Gods and Men is an exception to this rule of Hollywood Bible stories because it is neither fun, nor does it have a clear message. It seems to have been made by people doing their very best to pretend the story of Moses has as little to do with the Bible as possible. In effect, if God is the star of the Bible, then this is an adaptation that tries to minimise the star as much as possible. The story has beats (probably the most interesting parts) where Moses and God warily question each other’s motives, but these scenes don’t have enough weight to them, the philosophical arguments are never clearly expressed. Bluntly, if Scott (an aethist) and Bale (a man who described Moses as “one of the most barbaric figures that I ever read about”) don’t have any connection to the story and its themes – why should we?

Exodus is instead a feeble attempt to recapture the magic of Gladiator. Firstly it is an astonishingly badly written film, full of tin-eared, clumsy dialogue (“Listen, from an economic standpoint alone, what you’re asking is problematic to say the least” is Rameses’ response to the let-my-people-go message of Moses). Secondly, it makes little or no attempt to build up its characters. It’s aiming for a “brothers divided” plotline with Moses and Rameses – but neglects to ever show these characters as friends at any point. From the start they are divided, with the introduction of a stupid prophecy plotline at the start of the film existing only to justify a dull battle, a stylistic retread of the Gladiatoropening battle. Having failed to show any reason why these two characters should ever care for each other, the film settles into familiar patterns: Rameses the jealous, petty tyrant, Moses the gruff man with a temper, hiding his morality. Not once is there the feeling of a fractured relationship.

Exodus is also highly confused about its feelings towards Christianity. God is literally voiced by a petulant child. Simultaneously Scott also seems keen to attribute as many of the plagues and partings of the red sea as he can to pseudo-scientific reasons – so some sort of meteor causes a tsunami to part the red sea, crocodiles going crazy leads to the Nile turning into a river of blood, that sort of thing. The most interesting moments involve the debates between Moses and God, the vengeful lord favouring shock and awe over Moses’ long-term guerrilla campaign. There are moments here where the film touches upon a point, questioning if God even needed Moses in the first place. But it never really tackles it properly. I suspect we are supposed to see meaning in the weight given to the point that Hebrew means “he who wrestles with God” and see Moses as a man struggling to understand God’s plans for him – but this never really comes together coherently.

Leaving aside all that, it’s a plain badly structured film. From the pointless opening battle scene, screen time is lavished on massive events, but no time is spent on the characters and motivations. Dialogue scenes seem rushed and heavily cut. As such, bizarrely, the film seems both very long and too abrupt. Characters come and go – Bens Mendelsohn and Kingsley drift in and out of the story, Aaron Paul has barely a line of dialogue and Sigourney Weaver’s character seems little more than a cameo. Bale barely moves out of first gear as Moses, Edgerton does his best with a character that is laughably one-note. The film tries to do far too much, without making us invest in anything that is happening.

Instead there are big events, beautiful photography (you’d expect nothing less from Scott) and little else going on. Plagues in themselves are not interesting – people are, and if the characters aren’t developed as people, we can’t be interested in seeing events happen to them. If the film had something unique to say about religion (as it tries to do at times) it might have survived, but instead it’s a rather portentous action film that isn’t about anything – it’s not clear what we are supposed to think of God, it’s not clear what motivated Moses, we’re not clear how he feels about his mission.

Under the surface of Exodus are the beats you need to make an interesting film. A streamlined film that chose to do one thing could probably have done it well. But the storytelling and plotting are so fudged that the film just rolls from spectacle to spectacle, with no heart.