Faith Can Move Mountains... But Dynamite Works Better

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

An Embassy In A State Of Siege

Every once in awhile a film comes out that one misses. In some cases, they get a theatrical opening in one part of the world, while not such in another part of the world. This is the case with 6 Days, a 2017 action-biography that is a British/ New Zealand co-production. I don’t recall a theatrical release here, but came across the movie in the express DVD section at a library here some days ago. The film concerns itself with the 1980 hostage taking incident in Britain at the Iranian embassy, and follows the points of view of several people involved. It is directed by Toa Fraser, a New Zealand director with some British roots.

The film starts out with a small group of armed men seizing the Iranian embassy in London on the 30th of April, 1980. Their leader, Salim (Ben Turner), issues demands for the release of Arab prisoners in Iran. The police set up a perimeter to handle the crisis, with one of their best negotiators, Chief Inspector Max Vernon (Mark Strong) taking the lead. The SAS regiment is called to be on standby; among their ranks is a tenacious lance corporal, Rusty Firmin (Jamie Bell). And of course the press descends on the scene; by chance, BBC reporter Kate Adie (Abbie Cornish) and her cameraman are on scene just as the crisis starts to unfold. Over the next six days, the tension slowly builds as the terrorists make demands, the powers that be debate the crisis, the SAS devise scenarios to storm the embassy, and Vernon and his colleagues struggle to bring the crisis to a close.

Despite the film’s poster, this is not particularly an action film. Instead it is a methodical film, efficiently run, building the tension slowly but continually as events unfold. The screenplay, by New Zealander Glenn Standring, follows the events of those six days closely, weaving in and out of perspectives as the movie moves briskly along. What humour might be found tends to lean towards both the dry British type and the gallows kind of humour- the SAS soldiers biding their time waiting, or the friendly rivalries between reporters. Much of the story is serious, and rightfully so. We see the security chiefs meeting from time to time to discuss options, including what’s not on the table. We look in on the terrorists themselves as they hold their hostages and debate what to do. And we see Vernon and his officers work to keep the crisis contained, even while the eyes of the country and the world are on it, all the while knowing that sooner or later the army might well end up taking over.

Fraser takes the screenplay and handles it in that efficient, methodical way, giving time to each of the perspectives, ratcheting up the tension and suspense, but done in a way that’s never forced (I can just imagine someone like Michael Bay handling this and going way over the top with explosions). The whole tone of the film plays more to the resolute keep calm and carry on attitude of Britain. There’s a good deal of attention to detail that grounds it in its time- the unseen Prime Minister Thatcher is new to power, and has her own agenda, which does not include giving terrorists what they want. Iran, meanwhile, is a pariah state at this point whose leader doesn’t mind making martyrs of those inside the embassy, and won’t be moved to intervene. And Arab ambassadors in Britain refuse to get involved.

The SAS look rather rough and tumble and not particularly like soldiers. This makes perfect sense when you remember that they’re not supposed to look like soldiers in real life, so there are no crew cuts among them, but the actors carry themselves with the precise energy and movement of the regiment, reminding you that the British SAS are about the last people on the planet you want to pick a fight with. Their practice drills, planning for contingencies, and tactics and techniques occupy part of their time leading up to the climax of the film, and it’s interesting to watch them at work. And the London police, both in terms of those outside the embassy (and one lone officer who’s among the hostages, wondering if he should take more direct action) come across as steadfast throughout.

Turner, it turns out, is a British actor with an Iranian background, and his take as Salim is a good one. The actor has done work mostly in Britain, including stage and television. The leader of the terrorist group, Salim speaks English, and soon finds himself speaking directly with Vernon. Their interactions, almost entirely by phone, are back and forth, the two sparring, with demands on Salim’s side and countermeasures on Vernon’s side. And yet there’s more to Salim than your typical terrorist as the film unfolds. His cause is at least understandable: the freedom of Arab prisoners from the harsh treatment of Iranian captors, and even in the present day, who’s going to root for Iran? His dispute is with Iran, not Britain, something explicit in the group’s statements. And there are times we see doubt and uncertainty in the man, even in how he’s dealing with his comrades. He’s not sure he’s done the right thing, and that makes him more than just the usual Middle Eastern villain that you’d see in an Americanized film.

Abbie Cornish has done a lot of film work all over the world, and this time out she plays Kate Adie, a young BBC journalist who first comes to the embassy for a completely different story with her cameraman, and then finds herself watching the first stages of the crisis unfold. The real Adie is one of British journalism’s leading voices, and Cornish plays her with competence and a professional air, calm as she reports back live during the crisis. She and her fellow journalists, others working for other media outlets, banter with each other while watching events unfold, becoming effectively a kind of Greek chorus for the film.

Jamie Bell has been around as an actor for a long time, rising to prominence first as his debut in Billy Elliot. He’s had roles since then in productions like King Kong, Fantastic Four, and The Adventures Of Tintin. He plays Rusty Firmin, the most prominent of the SAS soldiers on stand-by in the area as the crisis unfolds. When we first meet him, he’s in the midst of a training drill with the others. Bell plays the character as rough and tumble in personality, something of the working class in him. Yet Firmin is also a professional, always learning from errors, memorizing countless faces, looking for possible problem areas, just like those around him. The actor captures that in his performance, making the man believable.

It's Mark Strong who gives the finest performance of the film as Chief Inspector Max Vernon. The actor has often played the villain or the heavy in films like Stardust, The Young Victoria, or Sherlock Holmes. My favourite role for him is the scenery chewing, brother-murdering prince Septimus in the first of those films. His take as Max is much more sympathetic. A professional well trained in negotiation, Max is methodical and psychological in his techniques, working to establish a rapport with the terrorists. He says he wants to resolve the crisis without loss of life, and we believe him. Over the six days, he’s the lead negotiator in the crisis, taking leave only to go home and get some rest (and see his wife just for sheer emotional relief). The actor keeps that resolute, calm steadiness in the character throughout the film, until at last with the crisis behind him, he can come to grips with the sheer tension he’s been in. It’s a compelling performance to watch.

6 Days turned out to be a surprise. Taking an incident in history that I was not familiar with, weaving in between perspectives, the film turns out to be well worth watching. It lacks the overkill that we would see in a Michael Bay film ( this is a good thing) and instead goes for the measured, steady tone of a British character study, blended in with action just in the right dose.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Rise Of The Panther King

“Tell me something. What do you know about Wakanda?” ~ Ulysses Klaue 
“It’s a third world country. Textiles. Shepherds. Cool outfits.” ~ Everett K. Ross 
“All a front. Explorers have searched for it, called it El Dorado. They looked for it in South America, but it was in Africa the whole time. I’m the only one who’s seen it, and made it out alive.” ~ Ulysses Klaue

“I want the throne!” ~ Erik Killmonger

“Only you can decide what kind of king you want to be.” ~ Nakia

“What happens now determines what happens to the rest of the world.” ~ T’Challa

Marvel’s cinematic universe has been around now for a decade plus, bringing to vivid live heroes on the big screen in a way that hasn’t faltered yet. Now attention is turned to give the spotlight to one of the most formidable and enigmatic of its characters- T’Challa, king of Wakanda, in the new film Black Panther. Indie director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) takes the helm for a story that mixes together heroics, high tech, race and class, and a man coming to grips with his destiny… while thinking six moves ahead.

The film opens with a bit of history of the mysterious country of Wakanda, where a metal called Vibranium has blessed the country, which has kept its secrets hidden behind a smoke screen of isolation as a supposed Third World Country. In the wake of the death of King T’Chaka (as seen in Captain America: Civil War), his son T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) assumes the mantle of the throne and the tribal chieftainship as the Black Panther. He faces challenges from within- a rival tribal chieftain, an arms dealer with history with his country, and a distant relative with a grudge and his own ambitions.

The Black Panther has a long history in comics, first appearing in the pages of Fantastic Four in 1966 before getting a solo title of his own. Balancing between heroics as an Avenger and his responsibilities as a king, T’Challa has often been an enigmatic character. When written at his best, he is the sort of person you don’t want to start a fight with; he’s the chess player thinking several moves ahead of how he’s going to best you, essentially the Batman of the Marvel Universe. There have been plans for years, going back to 1992, for adapting the character to the big screen, with Wesley Snipes initially expressing interest. When the Marvel cinematic universe became a reality beginning with the first Iron Man film, the idea of bringing this character to life started to take shape.

Ryan Coogler not only directed, but co-wrote the script with Joe Robert Cole. Their script gives nods to the history of the character in the comics, as well as what’s been previously established in the Marvel cinematic universe. There is a good deal of influence from a run on the title by the writer Christopher Priest in the story- a wise decision, given that Priest’s extended run with these characters rates as one of the best comic book runs ever done. Their story weaves together the futuristic yet tribal culture of this fantastic world with themes like duty, responsibility, and ambition- themes that play themselves out in multiple characters, in different ways. Race and society status are also examined- something that might appear unusual in a superhero adaptation, but it feels done in a natural way.

Marvel’s cinematic offerings have, especially as of late, taken chances with unusual directors, and have paid off. Coogler might seem at first an odd choice for an epic like this, given his previous experience in what are best described as character dramas. He works quite well in the job, grounding the film in the characters themselves, while handling the epic scope of what is part grand sets and part CGI as a supporting element, not the focus itself. The cinematography of the film is beautifully done, but not in an overwhelming way, and the director keeps the audience on the personal level in terms of how things are filmed.

The production values by the crew are exceptional; the MCU has already shown us fantastic worlds like Asgard and the alien planets of the two Guardians films, and Wakanda’s presentation in the film builds on that. It’s a blend of technology and African landscapes rendered in a breathtaking way- something unique in its manner. This is a part of Africa that in the MCU was never colonized, that developed in isolation, and so Wakanda’s look is something quite different from what we know here.

Some of the cast return from previous films, but much of them are new to the Marvel cinematic universe, and they’re all well chosen. John Kani plays the ill-fated King T’Chaka, who died in Captain America: Civil War, in a flashback that plays to the duty the king has to his country, as well as his dignity and wisdom as a person. Florence Kasumba likewise reprises her role from that film as Ayo, a member of the Dora Milaje, an order of women who serve as a special forces group and bodyguards to the king. Andy Serkis returns as Ulysses Klaue, the mercenary arms dealer from Avengers Age Of Ultron. Klaue is a ruthless, vindictive man with ties to Wakanda and his own ambitions, something that Serkis gets to play to in his return.

Winston Duke appears as M’Baku, a character well established in the comics as an adversary to T’Challa. Here he is a rival tribal chieftain, fierce and ruthless, but with something of a moral code. Angela Bassett appears as Ramonda, the Queen Mother of Wakanda and mother of our hero. She’s freshly grieving the death of her husband, and yet is insightful where her son’s new role has to be. Forest Whitaker gets a lot to do as Zuri, something of a Ben Kenobi to T’Challa, the wise elder statesman and advisor who is central to the spirituality of Wakanda. Letitia Wright appears as Shuri, the younger sister of T’Challa. She gives the role a headstrong but funny take at times, as her character is an exceptionally bright and gifted tech innovator. Her performance reminded me somewhat of Q from the Bond films.

Martin Freeman reprises his role as American operative Everett Ross, more capable and less comic relief than his counterpart from the comics, though the character does give us some levity as things go along. Ross is calm under pressure, a bit wide eyed and fish out of water when he gets to see the wonders of Wakanda, but a professional through and through, and I like the dynamic of respect that develops between Ross and T’Challa as the story goes along.

This is the first time I’ve seen Danai Gurira in anything. She’s a big part of The Walking Dead, and the actress has quite an eclectic background herself. She plays the pivotal role of Okoye, the head of the Dora Milaje, a traditionalist in her thinking. She’s a capable leader, a fighter but also a tactical and strategic thinker, thoroughly dangerous when she must be, stoic much of the rest of the time, but with spirit. Her take on the character feels very grounded with where the character’s roots are. The character is one resolute in her duty and responsibilities, and the actress makes her compelling to watch.

Lupita Nyong’o gets a great role as Nakia. The character has a romantic history with T’Challa, but has taken a different path in life, into the world of the spy as a War Dog. She’s undercover in a neighbouring nation when we first meet her, undertaking a mission that’s personal and principled. The character is someone we get invested in as another strong woman- really, the film is peopled by a lot of strong women- and the actress gives her a lot of depth in how she plays her.

For a film with technically three villains tied to the Panther’s history (I would love to see how they handle Achebe in a sequel), the one with the most to do is also one whose agenda is not so black and white, but understandable. Erik Killmonger has history and ties to Wakanda, both in the comics and in this film, and has had a rough life of his own. He’s a strategic thinker, patient in what he wants to do, but at the same time forceful when he sees the need. Killmonger believes that Wakanda’s advances should be used in a more revolutionary, forceful way, skewing racial politics, than T’Challa, whose perspective is a peaceful one. It’s a fascinating counterbalance between characters, rather like the Charles Xavier-Magneto dynamic. Michael B. Jordan, who previously played the Human Torch in the misfire that was the last Fantastic Four film, and who’s worked with Coogler before, gives the character a ruthless, menacing energy, yet also allows us to see and appreciate his perspective. This is not a world conquering tyrant, but someone with legitimate concerns, whose tactics are what crosses the line.

Chadwick Boseman has already had an outstanding record in film, having had played Jackie Robinson in 42, James Brown in Get On Up, and Thurgood Marshall in Marshall. He debuted as T’Challa in Captain America: Civil War, making quite an impression as the enigmatic young prince thrust into the leadership of his country as a result of the events of that film. Here the character is new to the role of king, freshly grieving the death of his father, facing the responsibilities to his country and the challenges of other interested parties. He captures the qualities of T’Challa perfectly- the wise and principled man of peace who plays his cards close to the proverbial vest, keeping his options open and thinking ahead. T’Challa finds himself dealing with kingship and the direction of his country- does he continue its quiet isolation from the rest of the world or does he engage with the world? Boseman’s take on the role strikes the right balance of a man coming to grips with the weight of power and responsibility, and coming into his own as a result of it. It’s a masterful performance, one that continues the actor’s track record of exceptional work.

Black Panther is yet another exciting entry into Marvel’s cinematic universe, and one that is thoughtful in how it carries out its story. It doesn’t shy away from elements like race, class, social status, and ideology, but instead uses those elements as foundations for its narrative. With cinematography and production values that bring a fantastic hidden kingdom to vivid life, the film nonetheless strongly depends on an exceptional cast and their spot-on characterization of their roles. It’s a splendidly entertaining film in and of its own.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

A Day In The Life Of A Cat

It is time, once more, for the point of view of the resident cat....

7:09 AM. Waking up at home. Yawning and taking a big stretch. Feeling well rested. Dreamed of chasing the red dot, and finally catching it.

7:12 AM. Gazing out at the vastness of my domain. Flying lunches around the feeders. If I was out there right now, I’d be in the midst of pouncing, so consider yourselves lucky there’s glass between me and you.

7:16 AM. Sounds from upstairs. The staff is getting ready for the day. Very well then. I shall wait for my breakfast. But don’t leave me waiting too long, staff, because I swear to Isis, if you do, there will be hell to pay.

7:24 AM. The staff finally comes downstairs. It took you long enough, you know. Now then, to breakfast. I have specific requirements that you should be seeing to. One of those, had you woke up a half hour earlier, would have been to place a plate in the fridge for a good chilling. We can’t have you do that the night before, it would be too cold. No, the optimum culinary experience requires slightly chilled plates for my breakfast. But as we’ve already established, you weren’t down here a half hour ago to prepare that. So we’ll just have to make do with what we’ve got.

7:25 AM. Making demands of the staff as she gets things going. She’s taken a can of tuna out from the pantry, so I know I’m getting some of that. A bowl of milk too, staff, and would it kill you not to bother with the field rations?

7:27 AM. The staff has set down my breakfast. I approve of the bowl of milk and plate of tuna. She persists in putting down a bowl of field rations too.

7:28 AM. I content myself with eating my tuna. I shall wash it down with milk, and ignore the field rations.

7:30 AM. Licking my chops and heading off into the living room to let the staff have her breakfast in peace. She’s got one of those work days again today, so I’m on my own. Well, I can get plenty of naps in, and as we all know, there is no such thing as too much napping.

7:38 AM. Hearing the sounds of distant barking. It’s that foul hound again, running around like the idiot he is, waking up the entire world, it seems. What purpose dogs serve in the universe is beyond me.

7:42 AM. Bidding farewell to the staff as she’s on her way out the front door. Now then, staff, if it’s not too much trouble, buy me another cat toy on your way home. Something bouncy and fluffy that I can bat under the piano with the rest of my cat toys.

7:44 AM. Watching the staff’s car pull out the driveway. Okay then, I’ll have to entertain myself for the rest of the day. In between naps. Naps are essential, after all.

8:22 AM. Hissing at the top of my lungs as that irritating mutt walks on my property. Hey! Get lost, you rotten dog!

8:23 AM. The annoying dog stares at me as if confused, while I curse his name. What part of go away do you not get?

8:24 AM. The foul hound takes his leave of my property. And don’t come back, you hear me? Don’t come back!

8:57 AM. I think that a nap is in order. Say three or four hours?

12:08 PM. Awake again. Feeling a bit hungry. As I finished off all of breakfast this morning, I shall have to go for some of those field rations.

12:44 PM. Watching some of those Winter Olympics on television. Will someone please explain to me what demented escapee from a lunatic asylum makes figure skaters dress like that?

1:31 PM. Distant barking down the road. The mailman is obviously on time as usual. And that foul hound is pissed off about it. Good.

2:21 PM. More of the Olympics. Downhill skiing. Thus far nobody’s suffered a catastrophic leg breaking fall. Too bad.

4:55 PM. Waking up from another nap. Dreamed of winning an Olympic medal for tangling up a ball of yarn.

5:32 PM. The staff arrives at home. Well, it’s about time, staff, I was about to send a search party out for you. Now then, have you put any thought into my dinner? Because between you and me, I’m feeling quite hungry right about now.

6:03 PM. Patiently supervising the staff while she’s making dinner. I smell the welcome scent of lamb chops.

6:41 PM. Dinner with the staff. She’s cut up a chop into nice bite sized pieces for me, and I am busy savouring it. I don’t know why she insists on having sprouts with hers, but then again, as I’ve observed before, human beings are quite strange at times.

8:02 PM. The staff is watching some of the Olympics coverage. I am busy calculating the velocity of someone hurtling head first down a course on a small metal frame. No doubt they call this sport skeleton because the athlete is increasing their chance of becoming one much sooner.

9:46 PM. My staff is caught up in watching curling. I don’t get it. Loud pants, loud players, and brooms and rocks on ice. Someone please explain the point of this whole thing to me. Is this some sort of bad joke?

11:26 PM. Bidding goodnight to my staff. Very well, staff. Good night. Keep the door open, though. I might be inclined to come up around four in the morning and scream lots of line into your ear.