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Halloween

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John Carpenter’s Halloween, to give the 1978 film its full title, has an extraordinary legacy. On its release it became the most commercially successful independent film of all time; it helped solidify the elements of the slasher sub-genre that became a staple of 80s cinema, a rite of passage for many a filmgoer and a ripe area for critical study. John Carpenter’s Halloween also spawned a franchise that has continued for forty years, through multiple sequels and remakes. Any new addition to the Halloween lineage, therefore, must strike a balance between acknowledging this legacy and declaring its own identity. David Gordon Green’s Halloween achieves this balance by narratively ignoring every film in the franchise since 1978. This frees Green and his co-writers Jeff Fradley and Danny McBride from worrying about consistency, which is a relief because Michael Myers and Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) have been through so many transfigurations that consistency died a grisly death long ago. The new film can therefore focus on its own identity, closely tied to the iconic figures of the series. The latter is as implacable, relentless and silent as ever, as performers James Jude Courtney and Nick Castle convey the unknowable evil that Michael has always represented. It is perhaps a heavy-handed device that the viewer never sees Michael’s face, and the only sounds that we hear from him are heavy breathing, but this does not detract from the imposing Shape that lurks in the frame, his iconic white mask now battered and dirty but still unmistakably menacing. Green stages several set pieces that convey a palatable sense of fear. In one bravura sequence, captured in a single take, Michael enters the frame in the foreground and watches a woman through a window, his reflection in the glass standing in for that of the viewer. Then he moves out of shot, only to reappear in the background while the woman inside the house continues oblivious. The climax of the sequence echoes the beginning and is genuinely shocking, despite being clearly telegraphed. Other set pieces also emphasise Michael’s power and brutality, but the film’s master stroke is its presentation of Laurie. Curtis is fresh and exciting, a sympathetic embodiment of dealing with trauma. Halloween’s willingness to engage with PTSD from a female perspective is a development of the genre’s long-established trope of the Final Girl, as three generations of the Strode family – including Laurie’s daughter Karen (Judy Greer) and granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) – reclaim a narrative too long held by men. Whereas the original Halloween and so many slashers since (not to mention other genres and a little thing called the real world) emphasise male subjugation of women, Halloween 2018 shows female wisdom, ingenuity, compassion and the determination to take control. It might have been even more progressive were the film been written and directed by women, but by committing to this female assertion, Green shows that challenges to patriarchy and its damaging affects, neatly represented by Michael Myers and his ilk, are the responsibility of everyone that wants monstrosity to be contained and curtailed.

Laurie

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American Sniper

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American Sniper is a film that provokes strong reactions. If a viewer is opposed to machismo and militarism, they are likely to be angered. If a viewer is inclined towards firearms and US patriotism, they may find the film laudable. But the evidence for either reaction is problematic because of the film’s stripped-down, character-centred approach, typical of director Clint Eastwood’s oeuvre.

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American Sniper depicts the life and career of Chris Kyle (played by a bulked-up Bradley Cooper), the deadliest sniper in US military history. The ethics of Kyle’s actions are never questioned and the conservative upbringing that he received is not problematised. Nor is the viewer treated to a nuanced view of US military action in Iraq. Kyle joins the Navy SEALs to serve what he believes is “the greatest country in the world”; he embraces military ideology, follows orders and protects his fellow soldiers, and he has a ruthless willingness to kill the enemy. However, the film does not present Kyle’s actions as noble or profound, denying any sense of triumph in his military exploits. There are moments in the film, particularly towards the end, that are ripe for patriotic sentimentality, but Eastwood steadfastly avoids manipulative reconstruction in favour of stock footage and utilises silence rather than stirring music. War is hell, but it is not grandiose or Wagnerian, Kyle and his fellow soldiers presented as dedicated professionals doing their (extremely dangerous) job. Whatever value may be ascribed to this job comes from the viewer rather than the film. Kyle is only a hero in the eyes of other characters, and his neglect of his wife Taya (Sienna Miller) in favour of his “duty to his country” is presented matter-of-factly rather than with an emotional, ethical or political inflection. The film therefore presents Kyle’s life and career, with intricate production design, intense action sequences and powerful performances, often creating a visceral and nerve-wracking experience. The presentation, however, does not offer explicit judgement in either direction.

Combat

It is tempting to see this lack of judgment as an implicit affirmation of the philosophy Kyle lives (and, if taken as a true story, actually lived) by. But the film includes Kyle’s post-traumatic stress, his inability to leave the war behind and his encounters with other veterans who were badly injured. The film therefore depicts the cost of war and the suffering of those who fight, and barely touches on the plight of Iraqi civilians, while Iraqi combatants are largely presented as cyphers, their identities irrelevant because they are simply “the enemy”. Again, this comes back to the film’s focus on its central character – the film is about Chris Kyle, not the Iraq War or American machismo or patriotism. Nor do we necessarily gain an in-depth understanding of our protagonist, as Kyle remains largely impenetrable, only his actions apparent. This inflects the film as a whole, the events of the narrative presented without explanation or commentary. American Sniper therefore treats its audience with great respect, allowing us to decide its meaning without guidance or manipulation, offering itself (successfully) as a topic for debate and discussion.

My Views of 2013 at the Movies

On the twelfth day of Christmas

The movies gave to me

Twelve Enders gaming

enders_game_ver15_xxlg Eleven desolations

Smaug Ten victor tributes

Catching Fire

Nine iron men

IM3 1Eight men of steel

MOS

Seven rushing racers

Rush poster

Six piney places

The Place Beyond the PinesMIS-TER BANKS

BanksFour astronauts

Gravity 5Three Abe-necdotes

LincolnTwo hijackings

Phillips PosterAnd Osama Bin Laden.

ZDTThat was my top twelve of 2013, but I’m just getting started, as my post for Twelfth Night is my review of 2013, from my limited viewing record. I thought it would be fun to rank and rate every theatrical release of 2013 that I saw, with divisions within them.

Top Twelve 

Zero Dark Thirty

A known story that nonetheless pulls you in, taught direction that turns a cold gaze on shadowy events, and a final hour that had my shoulders clenched throughout.

Captain Phillips

Gripping, frightening, believable and moving. The first film to move me to tears!

Lincoln

Political history comes to life through measured direction that allows stunning performances to dazzle and delight.

Gravity

The experience of cinema has rarely been so terrifying, gut-clenching and astounding.

Saving Mr. Banks

Touching, moving, charming, funny and a wonderful companion piece to Mary Poppins.

The Place Beyond the Pines

The blue-collar equivalent of gangster epics like Heat and The Departed, fresh and surprising in its narrative structure.

Rush

Fabulous charisma meets steely calculation in visceral, terrifying races.

Man of Steel

One of the best representations of super powers I’ve seen, combining the fear, exhilaration and plausibility of extraordinary abilities and the choices of those who possess them.

Iron Man Three

A brilliant portrayal of PTSD as part of a new exploration of heroism.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

From children’s games to a growing rebellion, things get darker, deadlier and better.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

A further development of Middle Earth with possibly the greatest dragon ever committed to film.

Ender’s Game

Wonderfully realised science fiction that convincingly goes to strange dark places.

Honourable mentions

Star Trek Into Darkness

Abrams repackages The Wrath of Khan for a new audience, delighting them while seriously hacking off the original fans. Must have done something right.

Only God Forgives

A hypnotic, mesmerising vision of a mad, bad world.

Trance

Fast, smart and with more twists than a corkscrew, Danny Boyle puts the fractured mind on screen.

To The Wonder

Gorgeous, lyrical, sober and moving. Malick does it again.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Ben Stiller makes himself and the world around him beautiful and mysterious all at once.

Thor: The Dark World

One of the year’s funniest films, which balances its laughs with thrills and spills aplenty.

Pacific Rim

Guillermo Del Toro demonstrates again why he is a master of the fantastic.

Could have been better

Prisoners

Atmospheric, gruelling, thought-provoking. A disappointing final act detracts but does not completely negate two hours of superb intensity.

Django Unchained

Majestic, sprawling, grand, indulgent. When Tarantino reins it in he delivers genius. If only he would do that more often.

Les Misérables

The music was great! The film, wasn’t. So many great elements, but perhaps too much reverence for the source material.

Perfectly serviceable

Jack the Giant Slayer

A furiously fun fairy tale.

About Time

A touching if twee tale of time travel.

Oblivion

Sleek and bleak sci-fi.

Much Ado About Nothing

A decent comedy of misunderstandings. What else has the writer done?

Olympus Has Fallen

Hopelessly cheesy but in an enjoyable way.

Worst

The World’s End

A rather damp squib ending to an uproarious trilogy.

The Wolverine

When the best part of the film is the foreshadowing of the next one, you know something’s gone badly wrong.

Kick-Ass 2

A reminder that sometimes you really don’t need a sequel.

Side Effects

Lives fall apart! And no one gets excited. Mental health is a serious issue! And we’re going to cheapen it. Drug companies and medical ethics are really complicated! But more importantly, lesbians are really dangerous to patriarchy! Oh, go away.

The Hangover Part III

Not focused, not funny, not worth it.

Turkey of the Year

After Earth

So many interesting ideas; a complete lack of exploration. An unconvincing future world and no discernible tension.

Freshness and Familiarity Part One – Iron Man/Men

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To those (like me) who have watched and enjoyed the Avengers franchise since its inception in 2008 with Iron Man (Jon Favreau), Iron Man Three offers both variation and familiarity. It has the obligatory action sequences, including the pinnacle of the Iron Man movies at its climax as multiple Iron Man suits battle the super-powered minions of Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce). These build upon the technophilia established in Iron Man, with protracted shots and sequences emphasising the sleek technology and mutable digital images. These are sometimes at odds with the vague social critique that the first film performed – as one viewer described it, “Michael Moore pimps my ride”. Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Junior) is not only a master builder, or “tinkerer” as he calls himself, but also handles information and images with perfect ease.

Iron Man Three features plenty of witty repartee between Tony Stark and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), as well as between Tony and his computer Jarvis (Paul Bettany). There is also great banter between Tony and Colonel James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), which echoes the previous film directed by Shane Black, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which also starred Downey, Jnr. as well as Val Kilmer (Iron Man and Batman together!). Here is where the variation comes in, as much of Iron Man Three focuses on human exploits. This links to the darker element in the film, which is a change from the previous instalments. Since the superhero cycle began in earnest with X-Men (Bryan Singer) in 2000 and swung to dizzying heights in Spider-Man (Sam Raimi, 2002), there was a consistent presence of “darkness”, with superheroes suffering from relatable problems and sometimes going to sinister places. The peak of this tendency was Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, which went so far as to feature an anarchic psychopath, scenes of torture and the repeated failure of our favourite Caped Crusader.

In contrast to the grim exploits of the X-Men, Spider-Man and Batman, Marvel’s Avengers have been light, frothy fun. Humour has been a constant presence, especially with RDJ’s razor sharp performance of Tony Stark, but also with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) as a fish out of water and Captain America (Chris Evans) being a laughing stock. Best of all, The Avengers featured Joss Whedon’s trademark wit and irreverence, making it possibly the funniest superhero film to date.

Iron Man Three is also humorous, especially in its banter but also in character responses, such as when Rhodes says with deadpan incredulity (something of an oxymoron): “You breathe fire?!” after Killian does just that. Furthermore, the character of the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) provides very significant humour, to which I return later. But alongside the humour, there are some grim moments that make Iron Man Three the darkest entry in the Avengers franchise.

The presence of the Mandarin as the film’s big bad begins this, as the propaganda videos with his threats are reminiscent of Al Qaeda videos. These threats come home to roost when Tony’s friend and former bodyguard Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) is badly injured in an explosion linked to the Mandarin. The aftermath of this attack, in which Happy is shown hooked to monitors in a hospital bed, swathed in bandages, is a very poignant scene that fuels Tony’s anger.

Of course, Tony’s anger makes him reckless and stupid, and his TV interview in which he invites the Mandarin to a confrontation results in his Malibu home being destroyed. Tellingly, several Iron Man suits are destroyed, demonstrating Iron Man’s vulnerability, which continues as Tony himself falls into the sea and is then automatically flown away, before his remaining suit loses power and crashes (startling a digital deer as it falls). Cut off from his equipment, Tony must rely on his own wits and ingenuity. Yet his mind also poses a problem that he must confront.

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A significant development of Tony’s character is his post-traumatic-stress-disorder. The entire film features voiceover, some of which echoes the meta-cinematic voiceover of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and the (very funny) post-credits scene shows us Tony talking with Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), who is woefully ill-equipped to offer therapy for Tony’s psychological problems. These problems permeate the film, as Tony is, plagued with nightmares about his experience in New York in The Avengers, when he travelled through a portal to destroy an alien armada and almost died. Tony’s PTSD is consistently demonstrated as he suffers panic attacks whenever New York is mentioned, his trauma casting a sombre pall over much of the film. Nor is the trauma limited to Tony, as the Mandarin’s previous victims leave behind grieving family and literal impressions, as Tony finds in Tennessee, where an explosion left both a crater and seared shadows on nearby walls. The soldiers of Killian, infected with Extremis, are shown to be suffering agony as the nanoprobes reformulate their bodies, and Pepper herself is also tortured in this way. Trauma cuts deep, and cannot be hidden from in a metal suit.

Iron Man Three brings Tony out of the suit, having him build more modest devices so that he can save Pepper, the US President and half the world. At times, he seems more like 007 (or MacGyver) than Iron Man, using a gun, homemade tazers and other improvised weapons. This creates variation from the previous films, which never quite got the balance right between super-techno-heroics and human ingenuity and interactions. Whereas Iron Man and Iron Man 2 made abrupt shifts from Tony tinkering to mechanical mayhem, Iron Man Three escalates its action. Once Tony invades the Mandarin’s secret headquarters, using his various improvised weapons, he has some success but is eventually taken prisoner and only breaks free when the re-charged Iron Man suit arrives. Even then, the suit arrives one piece at a time and operates at less than full power so the ensuing battle is more comical as spectacular, featuring the very funny line from one of Killian’s minions, “I don’t even like working here. They are so weird!”

The spectacle comes later, as Tony powers the suit completely and flies after Air Force One to save President Ellis (William Sadler). He fails, but succeeds in disposing of Killian’s head henchman, Savin (James Badge Dale) and, in a spectacular aerial sequence, he rescues the passengers as they tumble towards their deaths. This sequence, like others, contains a surprise as Tony is operating the suit remotely, which emphasises his distance from the suit, which is less cocoon and more human-shaped coffin. It does not detract from the visceral excitement of the action set piece, which is spectacular and involving. Furthermore, the final spectacular battle of Iron Man Three feels like a natural progression, as multiple Iron Man suits battle Killan’s minions and Tony himself fights Killian. Whereas the action set pieces in Favreau’s films felt like departures, Black’s are escalations, making the film coherent and satisfying, with a continual focus on Tony’s personal journey.

MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW

This can also be the film’s detriment, as it is more a Tony Stark movie than an Iron Man movie. This is further demonstrated by the licence taken with the Mandarin, a major character from the comic books and Iron Man’s classic foe. Most superheroes have these – for the Fantastic Four it’s Doctor Doom, for the X-Men it’s the Brotherhood of Mutants, for Superman it’s Lex Luthor and for Batman it’s the Joker. Iron Man’s greatest nemesis has long been the Mandarin, and for many viewers the prospect of having these two great adversaries clash was one of the most exciting elements of Iron Man Three. Imagine the surprise and (in some cases) disappointment when the Mandarin turns out to be an actor playing a role devised by Killian. Some viewers were very disappointed by this, which indicates the importance of the Mandarin within Iron Man lore.

For my part, I was genuinely shocked by the revelation of Trevor Slattery, to such an extent that I didn’t believe it initially. I was waiting for Slattery to be a decoy and the real Mandarin attack, or at least be somewhere else. But instead, we get an actor whose Lear is the “toast of Croydon” (very funny for a British viewer). But the surprise worked, and Ben Kingsley’s hilarious performance meant that I was carried along for the ride.

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Furthermore, it is actually a relief that the Mandarin turned out to be a fiction within the film. The original character is a Chinese stereotype and somewhat racist, and the casting of Kingsley raised questions of why such a role should be played by a white actor (not forgetting Kingsley’s Oscar-winning role in Gandhi). The film avoided the Fu Manchu territory by making the Mandarin more of a Bin Laden figure, and in “his” propaganda videos he had an American accent (replaced with a British one when he was discovered). These elements in his character serve several functions. Firstly, it avoids racism, because the Mandarin never seems Other. Secondly, it avoids the fantastical nature of a character that possessed “power rings” in the comic books, either magical or derived from alien technology. While Thor managed to incorporate science and mythology very nicely, Iron Man has been somewhat grounded in practical science (however fanciful) and the inclusion of power rings would have jarred with the overall possible world. Thirdly, and most importantly, for the Mandarin to be a smokescreen, and the real enemy to be Killian the power-mad weapons manufacturer emphasises the contemporary concern over internal threats. Killian recognises the opportunity in giving people a figurehead to fear, in order to legitimate arms manufacture, and uses it to great effect. Tony’s discovery of Slattery demonstrates the conceit of true danger often being less exotic but no less dangerous.

As with much of the film, the climax had its surprises, both with the multiple suits and Tony, not to mention Pepper, proving to be able combatants in their own right. For Killian to be in league with the Mandarin was not surprising; for him to actually be the Mandarin is a masterstroke, as it maintains the conceit of military contractors being a threat. This may not be original, and indeed forms the conceit of more “realistic” films as Snake Eyes, The Manchurian Candidate and The Ghost Writer, but it works, maintaining the critical eye on the military-industrial complex that has characterized the Iron Man franchise since it began in 2008. Tony Stark may have learned the error of his ways, but other arms manufacturers still pose a threat.

For Killian to be the true locus of the film’s threat serves as the external version of Tony’s internal conflict – he needs to address the trauma he suffered and face up to danger, which he does by doing his fighting himself. Except that Killian is far more powerful and without his suit Tony would be finished, but fortunately Pepper is there to save the day. When Pepper fell into a fiery explosion, I thought she had been killed, and was delighted when she re-appeared, reconstructed by Extremis. While it was gratuitous to have her in a bra at the film’s climax, it was very pleasing for a woman to save a man and put down the bad guy for a change. But Tony faces up to his demons and succeeds in overcoming them, demonstrated by the destruction of all his suits and the removal of the arc reactor and shrapnel from his chest, as these defences are no longer needed.

By reworking the characters of the Mandarin and Iron Man himself, Iron Man Three departs significantly from the comic books. None of this hurt it at the box office, as its current take stands at $1,077,068,034 worldwide. It is easy to be protective about the texts we love, but reinterpretation need not devalue the original. There are multiple versions of Iron Man to enjoy, in comic book, animation and feature film. Iron Man Three builds upon the strength of what has come before, and does a very fine job of being its own model.

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Flare Path

Flare

 

Theatre and film work in very different ways, and normally I prefer the medium of cinema.  Recently though, I watched a film in the afternoon then went to a play in the evening, and was very glad to have the latter to look forward to.  The film was Catwoman (Pitof, 2004), widely reviled as a stain upon the generally admired genre of the superhero film.  That revilement is well deserved as Catwoman is a tawdry, messy, poorly edited, badly shot, horribly written, abysmally performed torture session of a motion picture.  Within twenty minutes I wanted to strangle the director; by the end, I thought that would be too kind.

Happily, that evening I went to see Terence Rattigan’s Flare Path at the Sewell Barn Theatre, performed by the Sewell Barn company.  It proved an excellent piece of theatre that highlights some of the differences between the two media, both in terms of production and consumption.  A film script is written, or adapted, for a specific release, whereas plays, though they can be written for specific productions, also exist in their own right and anyone can do a new version of it, assuming they can obtain the rights.  Therefore, I am happy to report that the only criticism I would make of Flare Path relates specifically to the play/script itself, rather than any choices or actions of the director, stage designer or actors, as it was hardly something that could be omitted or altered.

Rattigan’s one misstep is the under-developed reference to the acting profession.  The Hollywood actor Peter Kyle, played with wavering bluster by Paul Goldsmith, is a former lover of Patricia Graham (Gemma Johnston), née Warren, now married to Teddy Graham (Luke Owen).  He comes to the hotel in Lincolnshire to win Pat back, and she must choose between this romantic figure and her pilot husband.  The love triangle is a great device, but there is no reason for their romantic history to be based on the stage, as this barely informs the action of Flare Path itself.  References to playing a part and never being oneself or expressing true emotions could be interesting, but these are not related to the context of the War or the fear and concern that runs through most of the characters.  Peter’s outsider status is obvious yet under-developed, and the drama could have been heightened by Peter being less of a contrast to Teddy, making Pat’s decision more difficult.  As it is, her conflict is less a choice between duty and romance, but between a desire that is simple and one that is complex.

Not that this writing infelicity is a barrier, as Johnston is mesmerising as a woman in turmoil.  Even if a choice is underwritten, the important thing is that the character with the choice must be sympathetic to a viewer, and Pat was in clear and sympathetic turmoil throughout much of the play.  Her inner conflict serves as a microcosm of the wider conflict in which the play is set.  Director John Holden states that the “The War is like an extra character off stage, always present and threatening”, and indeed its presence is never forgotten, impacting upon the minds, hearts and souls of both characters and audience.  This is most apparent in the play’s standout emotional scene, when Owen delivers a heart-wrenching account of Teddy’s terror during his last mission.  Post-traumatic-stress-disorder is familiar to those who take an interest in war, combat veterans and their representations on stage and screen.  While it may have been called shell-shock, or a “funk” back then, it is impressive to see this difficult subject, and the cultural attitude towards it, presented with such sensitivity.  Teddy’s suffering contrasts well with Pat’s, Owen and Johnston conveying a relationship that is still in-development but can grow through further time and experience shared together, if that is what she decides.

Other performances were equally strong – of particular note is James Thomson as Flying Officer Count Skriczevinsky.  Saddled with a comedy accent and limited English, the Count could have been little more than a caricature.  Yet every time he was on-stage left me in no doubt that I was seeing a rounded, developed human being, a man out of place with a makeshift family, alienated despite the kindness and support around him.  Although he seems a minor character, the affection that the others feel for him is infectious and their concern for his safety palpable; I reacted quite emotionally when his fate was revealed.

Truly, there was not a bad note from a single performer, and Holden demonstrates what is essential about multiple points of action.  When two people are talking in one part of the stage, and someone in another area is reacting, the one who is reacting must always be worth looking at.  This is the difference between viewing film and viewing theatre: the film text directs the attention of the viewer through different shots and cuts, but such control is not possible in theatre.  Though I could focus on one piece of action on-stage, at many points I glanced over to somebody else, and never was I taken out of the drama when I did so.  Holden could have cleared the stage except for those talking, or have those not directly involved remain frozen, but instead everyone on stage felt active, engaged and relatable to.  It may be a cliché to say that I forgot I was watching actors performing, but I genuinely did.  For two and a bit hours, I considered myself in 1942 with people engaged in the War, both in combat and awaiting news of combat, feeling their fear, fortune, amusement and anguish along the way.  Definitely no strangling required.

I guess I’d better see the film adaptation, The Way to the Stars (Anthony Asquith, 1945), at some point.

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