Ex Machina marks the directorial debut of Alex Garland who wrote amongst others Dredd, 28 Days Later and Sunshine. It is a solid and confident effort that impresses less with big sequences but more with elegantly articulated big ideas and uneasy answers. It is old school science fiction released for a new age.
The premise is Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) a programmer at a tech company has won a competition to go and meet with the CEO of the company at his secluded retreat to hang out for a week. There is suitable build up to this with the retreat being remote and isolated and Gleeson having to make the last part of his journey by foot. The CEO Nathan Bateman as played by Oscar Isaac is introduced working out before grabbing a beer and speaking like a friendly college frat boy while still pulling power dynamics wherever he can. Nathan informs Caleb he has nominated him to interact with an artificial intelligence android that Bateman has built to see whether it has become a fully sentient being. He is to interview the android named Ava portrayed by Alicia Vikander daily while she remains in it’s room at all times over the course of the week and report back to Bateman each night to see what they think. The only other character present is Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) who is Nathan’s housemaid.
How each audience member reacts to each character may say as much about themselves as it does about the characters and certainly one of the pleasures of the film is seeing these very different creatures bounce off each other. The movie enjoys playing with the ideas of who is being tested, is anybody else maybe a robot, who is sympathetic or being dishonest and just where this all may lead? I wouldn’t dare spoil it, it is nice to not be sure of a film’s outcome and yet also at the end be satisfied with it. To create this balancing act you need good performances and Ex Machina has some of the most exciting young actors working today. Domhnall Gleeson as the lead and audience surrogate should conventionally have the least to hide but he gives many layers to his character. Oscar Isaac plays the alpha male here with coiled aggression and relaxed dominance but as the film goes on we see more and more this may be a mask. Alicia Vikander, with this the first of three films for her break out year of 2015 is great, is unnervingly disquieting at times and at others naïve and vulnerable. Sonoya Mizuno given the least to do is mostly a mute performance having to convey character through physicality which she does effortlessly (I’m not surprised to discover she is a Royal Ballet School graduate), one of those performances that can be underappreciated but with which the whole film would’ve suffered if she hadn’t delivered.
Set in and around the retreat for the most part with a small cast the film makes a mark with the minimalist architecture of the location clashing strongly with the imposing natural landscape. The understated and cold nature of the text is echoed in this design and also in the score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow. The design of Ava is quite compelling incorporating transparent machine parts replicating human organs, coupled with body parts often sexualised coated in rubber and then topped off with the doe eyes of Vikander. This is a design meant to confront your own ideas about gender, sexuality and what it is to be human or machine. All the effects were created in post-production with scenes being shot twice (once with Vikander and once without) to capture the background as well. For the machine parts Vikander’s body was rotoscopped out but to retain her movement camera tracking systems taken of Vikander were transferred in. Close to half of the effect shots are in service to Ava’s presence, think about that for a second, half of the effect shots for the film are in service to a character.
Apparently Garland worked hard to keep the script low key so that the budget would remain small and he could retain creative control without having to throw in a third act action sequence. That is not to say the third act isn’t exciting, the whole film is a build up to it and it’s gripping as these characters finally reveal what they’re truly capable of while coming to a head. They should make more movies like this.
Quite possibly the most heavily hyped film of all time Star Wars: The Force Awakens has hit cinemas. After being burned by the prequels long term fans just want to know one thing-is it any good? And the quick answer is yes! With expectations being raised so much by the nostalgic laden marketing we have overlooked that the new movie The Force Awakens would buy an awful lot of goodwill just by being better than the prequels. However it didn’t beat the North American Box Office records in 16 days just by failing to be bad. Yes The Force Awakens is good yet more importantly it is fun.
Picking up the story 30 years after The Return of the Jedi, different forces throughout the galaxy are in search of the long absent Luke Skywalker. Poe Dameron a pilot with The Resistance is dispatched to pick up plans which may lead to Skywalker’s location but is unfortunately captured by the First Order led by Kylo Ren. The map remains with his trusty droid the seriously cute BB-8 who makes his way marooned on the desert planet Jakku where he comes across the scavenger Rey. Meanwhile a Stormtrooper having witnessed his first battle in the capture of Poe sees the Resistance pilot as a way for them to both escape the First Order.
The three new leads of Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) are inherently good people who make you laugh and like them almost immediately. Rey has come under criticism in some circles for being good at everything. Not a complaint without merit but Ridley makes Rey very believable and likeable that it seems churlish not to enjoy the character’s success for the most part. Kylo Ren as played by Adam Driver, like Vader before him starts off as a forbidding threat and becomes more complicated and fascinating as the story goes along albeit also far less intimidating. Out of all the returning ‘legacy’ characters Han Solo and Chewbacca are given the most screen time. Chewbacca has never been used better but Han Solo still roguish is now older and more vulnerable and Ford revels in playing the same character at a different stage in his life with very real new stakes.
J.J. Abrams is a story teller noted for great set-ups of premises and reinvigorating old franchises anew. Yet he is also known for jumping ship to work on new projects. He also specialises in pacing that carries the audience along at a zippy intoxicating rate that upon reflection appears to have helped gloss over coincidences and plot holes. The Force Awakens still suffers from this but it is arguably Abrams best film. It is not a bad thing he is stepping aside for Episode 8 and how that film answers some of the questions left hanging from this one will determine how fondly we remember both.
Yet J.J. has pursued practical effects and location shooting to help match the aesthetics of the first trilogy, he’s referenced the past with the original cast and tons of Easter eggs but established a new mythology with lots of open-ends to speculate on for the next two years. Crucially he’s given us new characters to root for and sprinkled solid character based humour throughout. The highest compliment you can give this film is it makes you excited about Episode 8. Who would have thought?
Author’s Note: This review has been republished from my other site where I publish shortened film reviews of mine https://hottipsfromlloydmarken.wordpress.com/ I don’t generally get a lot of traffic on that with WordPress but it is a hit with my friends on Facebook so I’ve kept putting posts there semi-regularly. I found my longer review for The Force Awakens on lloydmarken.wordpress.com became more of a spoiler heavy dissection of the film and would like to therefore include my short piece on this site too since it is more akin to a review.
The Big Short is a comedy to be sure but like most great comedies there is a lot of anger underneath the joke it is telling. Because The Big Short is about how people get screwed over by money. Lots and lots of money, people with money, people chasing money, people valuing money too much, people taking money, people spending money and people wasting money. Don’t kid yourself money may not buy you happiness but it sure makes the world go round and we are all on the treadmill making it spin as much as anybody. The makers of this film know this simple truth. Most people just want to go to work, pay their bills, raise their families and pay off a house that will be downsized to fund a retirement. They care about the state of their world and they don’t like being ripped off but if they’ve got a job right now the global financial crisis can become a distant memory.
The Big Short wants you to remember and begins its story in 2005 before the Global Financial Crisis hit. Dr Michael Burry played by Christian Bale manages a hedge fund and notices that a majority of subprime mortgages are not receiving payments and in the second quarter of 2007 they will reach a breaking point so he bets against the market going to get deals from the big banks for pay outs if what he predicts comes true. The big banks, predicting the market will continue as is, take that bet. As the story progresses certain other individuals learn of Burry’s prediction and investigate further. These include Ryan Gosling as Jarred Vennett who works for one of the big banks but believes in Burry’s theory but needs a buy in from another group who ends up being Mark Baum’s specialist team who work with some independence at hedge fund FrontPoint Capital. The fourth group we follow are two young up and coming traders in Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) who see Burry’s forecast has merit too but lack the contacts to profit off it unless they get help from a former neighbour and retired banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt).
Most of the names in the film (based off Michael Lewis’s film) are not the actual names of the people involved and there is a lot of breaking the fourth wall to even cheekily explain if something really happened or didn’t to the point where you might still be unsure? Mostly narrated by Gosling’s Jarred Vennett the fourth wall at times seems like it may never be re-established as he pulls the audience in like an accomplice about the American banking section, how the GFC started, how Wall Street uses big words, how he is a pretty cool guy (obviously he’s Ryan Gosling). On top of the fact that the movie stars three hunks, given the dryness of the topic there are scenes where celebrities talk directly to the audience tongue in cheek to explain basic financial terms that inform what happened. Some are so quickly cut together you may want to get a Lewis’s book afterwards just to make sure you got it right. When Margot Robbie informs the audience that subprime mortgages are just another term for ultra-risky mortgages and that financiers use these terms to confuse you it draws a fine line between condescension and inclusivity.
This is the film’s greatest conceit; it’s inversion of what happened. The majority of Americans got ripped off and screwed over by the Global Financial Crisis! Then it spread to the rest of the world too! The Big Short doesn’t follow suckers or losers though, it follows winners, people smart and brave enough to see what was going down and the film makes us feel included in their wisdom and plight when we weren’t. I don’t say this cynically, I think this is the best movie ever made about the Global Financial Crisis and it will reach the broadest audience and make them feel the most about it as a result of this approach. The film is never preachy but there are few lines sprinkled throughout that hit home not just about the financial sector but maybe even our society at large. There are montages of photos to remind us of current events and major pop culture distractions at the time. One great sequence shows many characters leaving a hotel and their current wealth defined by the car they leave in. There are neat explanations of what is going on using Jenga blocks and revised figures on a white board.
What is interesting is as the GFC looms we start to worry if our heroes will succeed against a system that is so good at protecting itself. Burry’s clients baulk at paying increasing fees on the short bonds without any hint of the market failing in sight while the young Geller and Shipley are turned away at every point. Bale is often acting for the most part by himself playing a man who in many ways is introverted and single minded, he does a lot with very little.
The heart of the film though belongs to Steve Carell as Baum who leads his team to investigate Burry’s predictions before throwing in their money. Here we get a sense of real people who will be affected by the fall in Florida and also the smug financiers meeting for a conference in Las Vegas who don’t care. Carell who put on weight for the role is a bundle of simmering anger throughout the film at one point he even says he wants Vennett to be right about Burry because he wants these people to pay even though he is technically one of them. If all you’ve ever seen is Carell play nice guys or idiots you’re in for a treat in a much more understated performance than his one in Foxcatcher. In the end his sad acknowledgement that nothing will change about the system is a far better request for it to then a direct call to arms. After all there is some acknowledgement that whether these men win they take no pleasure in the downfall of the American economy or that worker bees in the financial market lost their jobs too. Women are noticeably sidelined in this story, (two men are married and we don’t see their wives) but the trades were done by these men and beyond two important character scenes with Baum’s wife (Marisa Tomei) the story is focussed on their work spaces not their domestic ones. That being said the cast is full of fantastic actors on the rise in all the speaking roles from Baum’s team to mortgage brokers to rating agents.
Director Adam McKay has directed some of the best Will Ferrell comedies of the past decade including The Other Guys which touched upon this subject with its villains reflecting already a strong interest in the subject matter from the filmmaker. With this film he steps away from broad comedies and proves there are other types of films he can make. Which is not to say The Big Short isn’t funny-it’s hilarious! I mean you have to laugh about this stuff because otherwise…
Quite possibly the most heavily hyped film of all time Star Wars: The Force Awakens has hit cinemas. After being burned by the prequels, long term fans just want to know one thing-is it any good? And the quick answer is yes! With expectations being raised so much by the marketing riffing on nostalgia for the original trilogy we perhaps overlooked that the new movie The Force Awakens would buy an awful lot of goodwill just by being better than the prequels. Yet it didn’t beat the North American Box Office box office records in 16 days by just failing to be bad. The Force Awakens is good but more importantly it is fun.
Picking up the story 30 years after The Return of the Jedi, different forces throughout the galaxy are in search of the long absent Luke Skywalker. Poe Dameron a pilot with The Rebellion-sorry Resistance is dispatched to pick up plans-sorry a map which may lead to Skywalker’s location but is unfortunately captured by the Empire-sorry the First Order led by Kylo Ren. The map remains with his trusty droid the seriously cute R2-sorry BB-8 who makes his way marooned on the desert planet Tatooi-sorry Jakku where he comes across the farm-sorry scavenger Rey. Meanwhile a Stormtrooper Finn having witnessed his first battle in the capture of Poe sees the Resistance pilot as a way for them to both escape the First Order. I may be mocking the repetition of plot elements from Star Wars but the first scene lands with a bang. It features smart dialogue, quickly establishes villains as people to fear and hate and despite being studio based feels very much like a real tactile world. Such a clear and concise set up makes you want to see this movie again before it has even really begun.
We are introduced to Rey in a fantastic sequence of economic storytelling which tells us what an average day of scavenging is like for her. She has to be tough to protect herself from others and she lives in small humble quarters where she is tallying how long she has been waiting for her family to return to her on Jakku and building toy dolls of Rebellion pilots reflecting her own dreams for a different future. Then she rescues BB-8 and we see how inherently good she is. It is a masterful sequence, quiet with minimal fuss and dialogue but wonderfully effective. We are with her from that moment on. The character Rey has come under criticism in some circles for being good at everything. Not a complaint without merit, when I think of impossibly capable heroes from earlier blockbusters I note they usually had some frailty even if it was emotional rather than physical. Rey is physically tough, morally strong and emotionally well balanced considering her backstory but Daisy Ridley gives shadings to explore later on. She is visibly in awe of the larger world that the Resistance and Han Solo represent and she loses her composure clearly during an encounter with her past. I enjoyed her defeating Kylo Ren’s attempts to mind interrogate her using the Force and that being the catalyst for her discovering her own powers. Her winning their duel at the end did despite his wounds and her natural ability with the Force and physical prowess with the staff I thought was a poor choice narratively. This has been debated on the internet a lot so I don’t know if I have anything definitive to add. You could argue it gives us a cathartic victory to see someone put Kylo Ren on his ass at the end of the movie and if somebody was going to do that it should be Rey but I feel that Kylo Ren should become more terrifying after killing Han Solo and that people should have him to fear being on the side of The First Order after the threat of the Starkiller Base has been removed. I can’t quite get over Kylo Ren having enough training to stop a blaster bolt but not enough to take down someone who has discovered they are strong in the Force in the past 24 hours. Suggestions that he hasn’t had to sword fight much with a lack of Jedi don’t fly with me. You have a lightsaber you should know how to use it. For that matter I don’t like Stormtroopers having weapons that can clash with lightsabers either. Oh okay. I’ll shut up now.
I will say this though, when Rey summoned that lightsaber and the score kicked in I smiled for every little girl out there who has ever wondered why a girl doesn’t get to fight with a lightsaber. When I was growing up Princess Leia was so cool and in charge that I never really questioned that she wasn’t really at the centre of the story and became mostly a love interest in the sequels.
Rey and Finn are undeniably cute in this movie and I do hope they get more than a hug by the end of the trilogy but Rey is going to be the central hero of this story and Finn ain’t going to be far behind. The biggest movie of all time has these two as their leads. That’s a good thing in my book. Finn at first may appear to be used an awful lot for comic relief but he at various times reveals a worldliness to his character due to the knowledge he has of the First Order and he has the best arc in the film. The last thing he says to Rey is we need to get as far away from The First Order as we can and he goes to the heart of their organisation to rescue her. When Maz Kanata sees right into his soul instead of acting guilty about his deception he fixes his own gaze and warns them all about the First Order. He’s more than comic relief and these are fantastic layers there to explore further in the sequels. We have here a male lead that in some ways is not as capable as the female lead but becomes devoted to her and as a result they both draw great strength from each other. It’s a good point when Rey points out to Finn that she doesn’t need him holding her hand to help her run but shortly after he drags her out of a tent before it blows up. In a later scene after he pushes her away he is taken by a monster and she rescues him with some quick thinking. I love these two; it’s just so cute how their faces light up around the other one.
Poe Dameron does not get a lot to do here as much as Finn and Rey but Oscar Isaac does not need much to make an impact. When Finn appears sad about Poe’s passing to BB-8 you believe it is genuine. At that point Boyega and Isaac had shared a sum total of five minutes of screen time to sell that. Kylo Ren as a design works fantastic in the movies way more than he did in the trailers. The voice under the mask sounds great and the sparks of his lightsaber reflect his unstable personality although his footsteps sound like he’s wearing solid metal platform shoes. The first real reveal about Kylo’s character comes at least 40 minutes into the film so I actually felt for once that J.J.’s typical coyness was justified in this movie. It was fun to discover the answer to these questions for myself albeit in retrospect it all seems so obvious. A villain close to the hearts of our legacy characters would be the only way to explain how Luke went into hiding and everything kind of went bad. We’re introduced to Kylo Ren long after his birth and fall to the dark side years earlier. He comes presented to us as a villain rather than a tragic figure and we see him do bad things quite early. Yet there is some inner turmoil there and we come to care about his fate a little even if that is all due to our history and feelings for his parents rather than him. Rey’s defeat of him also brings into sharper focus his inabilities. Seeing him stop the blaster makes it comical when he loses his temper and trashes things. Rey’s defeat makes you realise that beyond that all we’ve really seen him do is kill two old men, torture a tied up prisoner and get his ass handed him to by a girl. Suddenly the inability to control his temper is just another symptom of a big baby who can’t do much when really challenged. I didn’t want that for Kylo Ren but he’s still a fascinating character and his desire to measure up to Darth Vader appropriate for a new Star Wars film looking to hit with a new generation. Rey and Finn share similar sentiments when they first hop into the Millennium Falcon or discuss intently stories about the Rebellion. Can Kylo Ren be redeemed? Does the audience want that after he killed Han Solo and will it feel too much like a repeat of Anakin’s arc? “All of this has happened before and will happen again.” Other franchises have intoned. I would actually like to avoid that kind of cyclical doomed to repeat storytelling in this franchise but it was inevitable that the happy ending of 1983 would have to be ruined somewhat to create conflict in this several years later sequel.
Out of all the returning ‘legacy’ characters Han Solo and Chewbacca are given the most screen time. Chewbacca has never been used better, he gets the best lines out of the whole film and we don’t even understand what he is saying and when that already famous death scene comes Chewie justifiably lights up on the First Order. Han Solo to me is still roguish in this one but with age and a son has come vulnerability and real stakes for the smuggler. I’ve seen the film four times and every time Leia says “Luke is a Jedi…you’re his father.” I tear up. There has been a lot of talk about how Han Solo should have died in an epic way taking on many bad guys or sacrificing himself to save someone’s life. That’s the thing though he does die in an epic way to save someone’s life…to save Ben…to save his son’s. They’re about to blow up the base and Han sacrifices himself to save his son. When he walks out on that bridge he knows the odds but he does it for the woman he loves and the child they had together. His last act is one of kindness to let his son know that the light always wins, that he still loves him. I had a range of emotions the first time I saw The Force Awakens. Killing an older character has been done before with Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan and there were certainly a lot of rumours going into this movie. When Obi-Wan died in Star Wars it was sad because we’d spent an hour with him and his character was likeable. Most fans have a lifetime of memories with Han Solo going back to their childhood predominantly and by association with Harrison Ford in general. There were a lot of us worried when we heard about the plane crash earlier in 2015 because this was our hero Han Solo, Indiana Jones, Richard Kimble, Jack Ryan, the coolest President ever and we didn’t want somebody so important to our developing years to be hurt or worse. I kept hoping they were going to find Han at the bottom of that shaft and take him home but no they don’t cheat out of this and I’ve come to feel that is only right. It seems popular to say that Harrison seems to be more engaged with his performance here but I always believe Mr Ford shows up to work. I will say though that he is as enjoyable as he has ever been and seems to be revelling in the emotional aspects of the role in this film.
The last shot near the Ewok camp in Return of the Jedi shows young heroes having weathered a war now ready to live the rest of their lives and make something out of it. Find some peace and joy maybe, raise families, restore democracy. I guess it was not to be and now Han is dead but Han died how he lived, hesitant but in the end doing the right thing. Rey now has his ship and co-pilot and is setting off on a new adventure. Maybe the good guys will restore peace to the galaxy eventually. It might be a neat idea in Episode VIII to show how successful the Rebellion was in restoring the Republic and peace to the Galaxy at least for a while. “Not all of it was bad.” as Han noted even if he was mostly talking about his sex life there.
I can’t say enough about how much I liked the new characters in this film. It was a relief not to be sitting around waiting for Han Solo and Chewie to appear. None of the trailers had really revealed if the dialogue was going to be good but there are so many lines that I find endlessly quotable mostly for their humour. I enjoyed the film as it zipped along never paying attention to any plot holes or conveniences-I was having too much fun. Then around about the time it became obvious they were going to blow up the Death Star-sorry the Starkiller Base I became a little tired. I actually thought to myself in a moment where an X-Wing was flying down a trench. Gee this is a good Star Wars movie but it might be a good idea if they don’t make any more after 2019? Han Solo’s death lends some emotional investment and turmoil to the third act. I’ve heard one fellow blogger even comment that it is when The Force Awakens really steps it up a notch. What can I tell you? I could have gone with a different third act threat than the Starkiller Base and I still feel Rey should’ve been desperately fighting a losing battle to hold Ren off before being saved by the planet’s surface splitting apart. Plus there must be some significance in General Leia walking past Chewbacca to Rey (whom she has never met?) to offer comfort after Han has died. As for the ending you have got to wonder why Mark Hamill was at that table read. Actually you don’t, he was at that table read to let you know Luke Skywalker was back. Personally I’ve always had problems with unanswered questions being left as sequel baits for originals that couldn’t tell a good story by themselves. Prometheus (which I liked) left too much hanging for a follow up and the makers of Terminator Genieshit keep saying their film is good because all of the plot inconsistencies are explained in sequels I pray we never get. Here it works. They’ve still told a complete story and while we don’t know everything about Rey or Finn we know that we like them, we know we care about them and we know we want to see them again and not just because it will answer our questions.
John Williams score seems well received but no theme seems to have caught people’s imagination like say Duel of the Fates did in The Phantom Menace. It seems to be growing on me though. The production values are top notch throughout, they’ve taken the time and expense to shoot on real locations and even CGI effects echo the look of the model work from the previous films. The Falcon now freed from the limitations of those models seems to bounce around on the ground and crash too much for my liking but again minor quibbles. As a side note how many shoot-outs has Han and Chewie been in? He’s never noticed before how powerful Chewie’s crossbow is and why does he think he can keep taking it off him. Doesn’t Chewie need it?
J.J. Abrams is a story teller noted for great set-ups of premises and reinvigorating old franchises anew. It felt like he stepped away from Alias and Lost long before they finished and he only produced Mission Impossible IV, Super 8 arguably his best film still feels like the third act is weaker than the rest of the story and he famously jumped from Star Trek to do this. With that in mind he is maybe as a Star Wars fan boy the perfect director to have made this movie and also at the same time it is a good thing he won’t be the only one responsible for tying up loose ends in the sequel. If there is one common point about this film it is that it echoes too heavily certain plot elements from the original trilogy (although let it be known that The Phantom Menace saw the death of a mentor character in the third act, a young poor child without a parent discovered on a desert planet and taken away for a greater destiny and the destruction of a large space station) then as a return to the series after an absence we will forgive this since we have such wildly likeable new characters and good humour. Fans will not be so forgiving next time. If some of the answers to these questions land with a thud in the next film both it and The Force Awakens will suffer as a result. For now though, there was a scene where X-Wings came flying in over a river seen first off in the distance as Stormtroopers radioed each other to get into position. Williams made trumpets blare, Oscar Isaac smiled; some pilot said excitedly “We got your back Poe.” And I wanted to fist pump the air. It was the fourth time I’d seen it. The biggest compliment you can give The Force Awakens is…it makes you excited about seeing Episode VIII next year and it can’t come soon enough. May the Force be with you Rian Johnson. Star Wars is back!!!
P.S. If anybody would like to offer their opinion or thoughts, please feel free to comment below.
Keitel and Caine share a lot of similarities in their personas and histories. Both served in the military as young men overseas, Caine as a Royal Fusilier in Korea and Keitel as a U.S. Marine in Lebanon, both rode film renaissances of their eras on either side of the Atlantic, both are identified with rough neighbourhoods of their youth Caine a Cockney from London and Keitel a Jew from Brooklyn, both got some big breaks in films playing criminals and both have been re-discovered by hip young filmmakers who revitalised their careers. Michael Caine is 82 and Harvey Keitel is 76, these are not ages where you believe you have all the time in the world left but they thankfully still enjoy working and we are the more fortunate for it.
Michael Caine stars as retired composer Fred Ballinger who is vacationing in the Swiss Alps at a health resort. His oldest friend, director Mick Boyle is also staying there brainstorming his new film with some young screenwriters. Also present is Rachel Weisz playing Lena Ballinger, Fred’s daughter and assistant who is married to Mick’s son. There is an overweight retired soccer star, the latest Miss Universe shows up and Paul Dano as a young film star who wants to do a good picture rather than be remembered playing a robot in a broad comedy. Jane Fonda essentially has one scene where she shows up as Boyle’s former star and muse Brenda Morel to be asked to headline his new ‘legacy’ film.
The film has its own leisurely pace observing each day one by one as Boyle fusses over his film, Ballinger is hounded to return to perform for the Queen and Lena deals with the aftermath of her marriage imploding. A key scene for revealing Fred’s current state is the only weak moment in the film because the Queen’s emissary appears remarkably ignorant and insistent. A great fallacy that comes naturally to us is that the old must somehow be wise but Youth shows clearly that both Fred and Mick still have questions they can’t answer even if they understand how fleeting and poignant it all is. It is a pleasure to watch these two performers bounce off each other. Caine as far back as The Ipcress File knew the power of a silent gaze and Keitel who has remained physically in shape all his life appears with still the exuberant energy of a boy ready to take on life. Your oldest friends bring out the child in you; there is something special when you see peers interact with each other. Many years ago in a hospital ward I finally saw my grandfather wasn’t just a grandfather but a brother and a young man somewhere inside bubbling to the surface. Notice how Caine plays a scene with Keitel compared to Dano or a young boy.
The film (relatively low budget) looks fantastic, the retreat itself surrounded by beautiful pine forest mountainsides has a courtyard where hip young bands play on a lit stage at night. In the morning rows upon rows of guests of various ages move through pools, saunas and massage tables in various states of undress. There is a celebration of flesh in all its forms in this film which reflects the earthy quality of Europeans when it comes to sex. Americans get excited by the garter underneath a skirt. Europeans count all the freckles and wrinkles on a bare thigh before devouring it lustfully no matter what the number. After all the firemen are coming. Even Madalina Diana Ghenea as Miss Universe displayed on the film’s marketing for a famous titillating descent naked into a pool is introduced as a human being before being celebrated as a goddess.
Director Paolo Sorrentino is a compelling visual artist engaging in both full blown dream sequences and one compelling close up shot of Weisz as she speaks about much that has been left unsaid for far too long. After that confrontation not much else is said between father and daughter for a bit and then it is. It can go like that sometimes with family. Lena worries about Fred and Fred worries about Lena but in the end they will find their solutions to their life crises themselves. It is nice to be loved though. The whole cast is uniformly exemplary but Sir Michael Caine is here once again taking on the lead role and giving one of his best performances ever-worthy of an Oscar as anything else I’ve seen this year. Even at this stage of life Fred Ballinger has a character arc and grows. He learns there are things to be done, there is still strength in these arms and there is not a moment to lose. The firemen are coming. This is one of the year’s best.
The floor was covered in blood and human waste. Some of the children were picking up corn out of the human waste and eating it. -Sergeant Terry Pickard
There was a gap between two walls where the RPA were shooting into the compound and someone was shooting out of the compound. A few rounds came through the gap in the wall. That’s when I knew I was risking my life to save and protect others. -Private Paul Burke
We always remember that as a small victory. Despite all the [Rwandan Army] did to that mass of humanity, we got one little girl out of there. – Captain Carol Vaughan-Evans
The Rwandan soldiers were taking pot shots at him. He was confused. He didn’t know what to do. – Corporal Paul Jordan
My boots were filling up with his blood and he ended up in intensive care for a quite a while but he lived. -Lieutenant Robbie Lucas
I gave him a handover and came back up to our area to sit down and have a smoke. I really had to think hard about how to get back up again. One of the boys made me a brew and I started to shake. -Lieutenant Thomas Steve Tilbrook
The look of pure desperation and animal-like fear in the father’s dark, wide eyes will be burned into my memory forever. -Sergeant Terry Pickard
On the 22nd of April to the 24th of April, 1995, a 32 strong Australian force were witness to a massacre of thousands of people. Over the course of three days they worked under heavy fire collecting and treating victims. Men. Women. Children. Hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned with Rules of Engagement which would not allow them to intervene they instead tended to the wounded and saved lives where they could.
Rwanda is a small mountainous country in central Africa made up mostly of two ethnicities. The Hutu and the Tutsi. The Tutsi are the minority of the population but held a majority of privilege when the Rwanda was a Belgian colony. Following a long civil war which has seen numerous massacres carried out and people displaced like refugees in their own country the fighting came to an end. The Rwandan Patriotic Front defeated the Hutu government and took power in July 1994.
In August 1994 the Australian troops as part of UNAMIR II arrived. Their mission was to provide medical support to the 5,500 strong UN Mission mostly made up of troops from other African nations. Internally displaced people’s camps were scattered across the country housing hundreds of thousands of people who has lost everything due to the long civil war and were refugees in their own country. The RPF newly named the Rwandan Patriotic Army wanted the camps closed. It was said that the camps sheltered former Hutu forces and were being used as bases from which to strike the RPA. At Kibeho, site of a massacre of Tutsis only the year before was an IDP camp of approximately 150,000 Hutus. The RPA moved 1,000 troops to Kibeho on the 18th of April, 1995 and herded the IDPs into a cordoned off area. On the 19th of April 1995, 32 personnel from the Australian Medical Support Force were dispatched by the UN to Kibeho joining a Zambian infantry company already on the site to help treat people. IDPs would be screened by the RPA at a checkpoint exiting the camp. There genocide survivors from past atrocities would point out individuals who would then be taken away and presumably executed. Shots were being fired and bodies were turning up although the RPA said they were firing into the air for crowd control purposes.
On the 22nd of April, 1995 the Australians arrived at Kibeho and found that many IDPs had been killed the night before. Either shot by the RPA or hacked by machetes inside the camp by Hutu militia members. The Hutu militia members were doing this to terrorise the refugees into remaining in the camps so as to protect them. The wounded were being treated in a hospital run by Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) and the Australians set up a medical station there. ” The floor was covered in blood and human waste. Some of the children were picking up corn out of the human waste and eating it. Some of the mothers did the same, but first re-cooked the corns in tins of water heated over their little fires. The RPA had cut off all food and water supplies to the camp five days earlier. Now the refugees were showing their sheer desperation to survive.”
While the medics worked, the Australian infantry sent with them for protection went out with stretchers and retrieved casualties. At 10am shots were fired towards the hospital and the Australian infantry commander Lt Steve Tilbrook ordered the Australians to move towards the Zambian company compound for protection due to its defensive fortifications. The RPA moved into the hospital and started shooting. In the IDP camp the refugees stampeded but the Rwandese troops had set up a cordon around the nearby valley and hunted down the refugees. The Zambian compound was swamped by people trying to escape and Lance Corporal Andy Miller was caught up in the rush. A guy came out of the crowd and started hitting him with a stick. Miller had his own get back stick and the two flogged the hell out of each other until both of their sticks broke. As Miller’s stick broke someone in the crowd threw a rock at him. He grabbed his rifle and cocked it as the crowd moved in and the rock thrower disappeared. He managed to get back to his men where he ordered them to fix bayonets until things calmed down and they were able to return to stretcher bearer duties.
Captain Carol Vaughan-Evans was in charge of the medical team who continued to work calling in for a medevac via helicopter. She and her team also took casualties out to the heli-pad several times coming under fire. While waiting at the heli-pad the Australians would sit in front of casualties shielding their bodies with their own. The RPA ordered Captain Vaughan-Evans and her team not to go to the MSF hospital. Repeatedly they did this even though they were told to stop or they would be killed. While carrying out life saving work on the casualties bullets landed directly around the medical personnel. As the massacre went on they began to run low on supplies. They could no longer throw away gloves after each patient but simply had to wash them in buckets of rain water. They ran out of alcohol swabs having to use water instead and in time IV fluids, morphine and the like also ran out.
Sgt Pickard kept a personal journal and noted some of the wounded he treated at Kibeho. The following is but one example of many.
This boy had walked up from the ward and tapped me on the arm. I was a little amused at first to see him grabbing at my shirtsleeve and wondered what he wanted. Then, when he turned sideways and pointed at the left-hand side of his chest, I understood clearly what he wanted. There was a medium-sized entry wound in the front left of his chest and when I turned him around I saw he had a very large exploded exit wound in the back left of his rib cage. All his shattered ribs were well exposed and I could clearly see his damaged lung. I stood for a moment absolutely stunned and wondered how the hell this boy was still alive with half of his chest missing, let alone being able to walk around. All I could think of doing was wrapping his upper body up in roller bandages to try and keep everything reasonably in place. I tried to get a drip in but due to dehydration form the amount of blood he had lost he had venous shutdown and I could not get a vein anywhere. He was evacuated to Butare on the next available chopper…
In addition to providing protection, infantry soldiers were coming under fire as stretcher bearers. They were sent out repeatedly to pick which casualties to bring to the Critical Casualty Post making decisions on who lived and who died despite no medical training. Furthermore on occasions infantry soldiers bandaged victims and looked after bags of fluids on drips after quickly learning on the run.
Medecins Sans Frontieres staff informed Lt Tilbrook that there were still some of their staff in the hospital. The officer with two Australian diggers on foot went from the Zambian compound to the hospital in between crisscrossing fire between Hutu militia and RPA who were shooting at each other. Having successfully returned a panicked MSF doctor told him there was still one member missing. With two other diggers he went back to the hospital and found a woman hiding in a cupboard and all four returned safely again.
SAS medic Trooper Trooper Jon Church found a bawling three year old girl and carried her out. ” If you look closely at that photograph, there are tears running down Jonathan’s face.” tells photographer George Gittoes. Only able to treat the wounded another medic bandaged her arm to make it appear she was wounded and she was given a biscuit laced with Diazepam. The sedative put her to sleep and the Australians put her in one of the ambulance storage bins as they drove out stopping at each of the RPA check points. Vaughan-Evans later wrote ” We always remember that as a small victory. Despite all the [Rwandan Army] did to that mass of humanity, we got one little girl out of there.”
Small victories were few and far between. SAS Medic Corporal Paul Jordan gestured for an elderly woman to come to him. Instead she went over to an RPA soldier. He put his arm around her and walked her up a hill. Then he turned and smiled at the Australian soldier. He shoved the woman to the ground and shot her dead. Such actions were meant to goad the Australians to disregard their Rules of Engagement which would have given the 2,000 RPA troops present the excuse to open fire on the 32 strong Australian contingent. Another time an Australian soldier repeatedly forced a refugee back over the razor wire of the Zambian compound. The RPA came and got him. Such hard decisions had to be made by Australian soldiers and lived with in the years to come. At another point in the massacre Aussies behind sandbags saw a man, woman and child; most likely a family sprinting towards them. Medic Sgt Terry Pickard said they should down behind their sandbags. They did and seconds later a massive amount of machine gun fire went into the area, when they looked up all three were dead. ” The look of pure desperation and animal-like fear in the father’s dark, wide eyes will be burned into my memory forever.” Tells Pickard.
” The Rwandan soldiers were taking pot shots at him. He was confused. He didn’t know what to do. I saw that the yelling and screaming wasn’t doing any good so I ran out and grabbed the boy and brought him back.” Corporal Paul Jordan spoke of when he under fire saved a little boy named Buragaya Patera. Some shrapnel had gone straight through his chest. Lt Robbie Lucas treated him and went out with him on the medevac chopper. ” My boots were filling up with his blood and he ended up in intensive care for a quite a while but he lived. He and I became very close over that time. He would always point at a photo of my wife and family and say “Robbie, Melissa, Nathan, Joshua,” and then point to himself and say “Buragaya”, which was very heart rending.” Tells Lt Lucas.
Lt Lucas often visited the boy in the hospital and would have liked to adopt him but he had to take him to the Mother Theresa orphanage. Buragaya Patera was sent to family in neighbouring Congo by the Red Cross. There was a similar killing spree in the Congo. Despite many inquiries no one knows if young Buragaya survived.
The majority of the killing took place as a thousand refugees rushed out of the camp again as night neared. Standing on a ridge above them the Tutsis fired upon them with small arms, RPGs, and .50 cal machine guns. Then they moved through the valley and shot the wounded.
That night the Australians camped at a small village just north of Kibeho where a number of Australians had been flown in that day including a second medical team and more infantry.
In the morning the Australians returned with increased allowing them to carry out more work. Warrant Officer Rod Scott organised teams to move through and count the dead. Pools of blood and drag marks indicated the Rwandan soldiers had removed bodies overnight and the RPA prevented Australians looking in huts and latrines where bodies could have been hidden. The Australians counted 4,050 dead before they were stopped. No official estimates from the UN or the Rwandan government have ever matched these numbers.
Lt Tilbrook recalled from the day ” you couldn’t step anywhere without stepping on a body.” Pot shots continued to be taken at Australians on this day as they moved through the IDP camps. The Australians continued to treat and evacuate casualties. As before at times they bandaged unharmed children to get them out.
Tilbrook relates dealing with the RPA throughout the the massacre was extremely dangerous. ” There were other occasions when I needed to move injured people but the RPA wouldn’t allow it, so there would be yet another stand-off with weapons pointing at each other until the RPA stood back and let us what we needed to do. By the end, I was just walking past them and pushing their barrels away, telling them to fuck off and get out of the way, because I was sick of them. I had become numb to them.” A the end of that day Tilbrook handed over to the CO of another platoon and went back to the Australian area to sit down and have a smoke. Finally able to relax delayed stress kicked in. Tilbrook remembers really having to think about how to get back up again. His body simply refused to without his mind firmly concentrating on the task.
The Australian Medical Support Force that had been there during the massacre returned to Kigali that night. Kibeho is a significant moment in Australian military history and means a great many things to different people. Some of the veterans suffer from post traumatic stress disorder. It is hard for them to have stood by with loaded rifles and been unable to stop the killing. Australian Rules of Engagement on UN Missions have changed since UNAMIR II as a result of Kibeho. SAS Medic Jon Church died during the following year in the Black Hawk Training accident. Medals of Gallantry, the first gallantary decoration to Australians since Vietnam, were awarded to WO2 Miller, WO1 Rod Scott, Major Vaughan-Evans and Lt Col Tilbrook. Other awards and commendations were awarded but no group bravery award or citation has been awarded for all 24 personnel. Originally UNAMIR II personnel were awarded the Australian Service Medal with Rwandan Clasp but this was subsequently upgraded to the Australian Active Service Medal with Rwandan Clasp in 2006.
What must be remembered is the following. Thousands of Rwandans were massacred. Australians risking their own lives saved many. Their mere presence let alone their extraordinary actions saved so many. There has been a cost to them for that but they did it and we as Australian should be immensely proud of them. ” I would like to take them all back to Rwanda, as I’ve had the fortune to do, and let them meet some of the survivors whose lives they saved. There might not be many of them, but when you see their faces beaming at you and the gratitude that they had to the Australian soldiers, the love they have for them, you realise it really was worth it.” states the artist and filmmakers George Gittoes who was with the AMSF throughout the massacre.
The next morning some of the members of the Australian Medical Support Force who had been at Kibeho during the massacre took part in the Dawn Service.
It was ANZAC Day.
Trooper Jon Church was killed in the Blackhawk Training Accident in 1996. He was 32 years old.
Corporal Paul Jordan left the Army shortly after Rwanda. He now works for a security firm on high risk jobs in places like Afghanistan and Syria.
Sergeant Terry Pickard was medically discharged with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in 1997 months short of 20 years service in the Australian Army. He wrote Combat Medic: An Australian’s Eyewitness Account of the Kibeho Massacre which was published in 2008.
Warrant Office Class 2 Andrew Miller MG saw further overseas service in East Timor.
Major Carol Vaughan Evans MG saw further overseas service in East Timor and the Middle East. As late as 2006, she was in the Army Reserves and a Doctor for Careflight. Her main job was at a tertiary hospital.
LtCol Tilbrook MG has seen further overseas service in the Solomon Islands, Israel and Lebanon, and Afghanistan.
Pickard, Terry. 2008. Combat Medic: An Australia’s eyewitness account of the Kibeho Massacre. Big Sky Publishing.
Halloran, Kevin. 2012. Rwanda UNAMIR 1994/95. Big Sky Publishing.
Biedermann, Narelle. 2006. “The Kibeho Massacre, Rwanda.” In Modern Military Heroes: Untold stories of courage and gallantry, written by Narelle Biedermann, 32-84. Milsons Point: Random House Australia.