‘Betting on Zero’

Betting on Zero

THE FIRST EPISODE of the Netflix series Dirty Money concerns the Canadian pharmaceutical behemoth Valeant, which grew rapidly under the questionable leadership of J. Michael Pearson by acquiring companies, laying off their employees, reducing investment in research and development to about 3% and increasing prices on live-saving medicines. Pearson and his merry band were alternately accused of asset-stripping and, in the words of Hillary Clinton, ‘price gouging’. In a New York Times article headlined ‘Drug Goes From $13.50 a Tablet to $750, Overnight’, Andrew Pollack described how Valeant acquired two heart drugs called Isuprel and Nitropress and promptly raised their prices by 525% and 212% respectively.

For a large period during Valeant’s inexorable rise, the investor Bill Ackman of Pershing Square was a vocal supporter and a financial one. (He lost close to $3 billion when Valeant eventually collapsed). Which is why I’m sure, reader, that you’ll understand my surprise, as I watched Betting on Zero, and seeing Mr. Ackman making a moral case for the investigation of the global nutrition company Herbalife, which he had short-sold to the tune of a cool $1 billion.


Betting on Zero purportedly addresses the claim that Herbalife is, in essence, a giant pyramid scheme, in which the participants––the distributors––profit from the recruitment of others rather than the sale of the good themselves. But the film in fact comprises two separate and sometimes jarring narratives, neither of which really investigate the claim.


Betting on Zero purportedly addresses the claim that Herbalife is, in essence, a giant pyramid scheme, in which the participants––the distributors––profit from the recruitment of others rather than the sale of the good themselves. (Ackman laid out this case in a 342-slide presentation given at the Sohn Conference in 2012, citing a ruling by a Belgian court that had found Herbalife to be a pyramid scheme.) But the film in fact comprises two separate and sometimes jarring narratives, neither of which really investigate the claim. The first concerns Ackman’s five-year gamble, and his alleged attempts to manipulate the stock himself through the media and by appealing to the regulator. The second revolves around the damage that Herbalife is inflicting in particular on the poorer elements of the Latino community, where individuals, some of them apparently undocumented, are sold the lie that they can make a fortune by signing up to Herbalife as distributors, only to lose thousands of dollars.

Of these two narratives, the first is infinitely more watchable, in part because of the size of the numbers and the entrance of the grizzled Wall Street veteran Carl Icahn, a longtime Ackman rival, on the side of Herbalife. But the media-savvy and telegenic Ackman is, as I found watching Dirty Money, good value for money all by himself, even if his hefty investments in Valeant and Herbalife transpired not to be. It does, after all, take some bottle to short-sell anything, let alone to put $1 billion into your hunch. When the story follows the beleaguered Latino community, however, the film loses its rhythm. The plight of those who feel Herbalife has conned them out of the life savings is moving, no doubt, but in a strictly narrative sense these scenes fail to bring anything to the story, and would be better served by a standalone film centered on Herbalife’s less fortunate distributors.

Through the story of Ackman’s bet, we come to understand Herbalife’s structure. The organisation, which sponsors L. A. Galaxy and counts or has counted both Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi as sponsored athletes, is a direct-selling company which distributes its products exclusively through a network of some 3.7 million ‘members’ around the world. These members buy Herbalife products in bulk, and may then either resell them or take them themselves. However, the real money starts to be made when members recruit new members and then sell them products, and when these new recruits sell products to the level beneath them, hence the allegation that Herbalife makes its profit from recruitment and not from its products. The catch––and there always is one, of course––is that in order for members to be eligible for the bonus that comes from sales by the members they have recruited, thousands of dollars’ worth of shakes and supplements must be sold. And if these products are not sold or returned within ninety days, they’re yours for good. Needless to say only a tiny proportion of Herbalife’s many distributors make any money.


The problem for Ackman, and the eventual catalyst for his much-publicised and humbling withdrawal from the venture, was in proving that the recruitment of new members, as opposed to a liking for the product, was the main motivation for distributors. It was generally agreed that both played a part, and for regulators, this sort of grey area is notoriously hard to navigate. 


The problem for Ackman, and the eventual catalyst for his much-publicised and humbling withdrawal from the venture, was in proving that the recruitment of new members, as opposed to a liking for the product, was the main motivation for distributors. It was generally agreed that both played a part, and for regulators, this sort of grey area is notoriously hard to navigate. Director Ted Braun, however, comes down decisively on Ackman’s side, and Herbalife clearly thought so, too: it was reported that the lobbying firm Podesta and Partners, which is retained by Herbalife, bought one hundred and seventy three tickets to an early screening in an attempt to keep the theatre empty. The evidence, and I imagine the gut instinct of most viewers, suggests that whatever you want to call what Herbalife is doing, it’s far from ethical.

Betting on Zero is a perhaps unlikely success. Films in which the nominal hero is an ultra-wealthy hedge funder seldom fill cinemas or set the stage alight, after all. But Ted Braun does an exceptional job of dramatising this clash of financial titans and, in so doing, holding Herbalife to the light for all to see. The inclusion of the stories of the victims, or at least the way in which he chose to tell the story of the victims, was a misstep, but Betting on Zero remains an interesting and supremely watchable film. Ackman, meanwhile, who wasn’t involved in the financing of the film, might find its conclusions encouraging. Braun seems to say that in the moral sense Ackman won the battle, even if he lost financially. ‘Truth, candour and transparency,’ Braun later said, in an interview with the New York Times, ‘are at odds with the measuring stick Wall Street applies.’

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‘Take Your Pills’

Take Your Pills

MY CHAOTIC DAYS at university came before what you might call the Stimulant Revolution, or the saturation of competitive institutions of higher learning with drugs like Ritalin and Concerta and Adderall, although admittedly the anti-narcolepsy drug Modafinil was beginning to do the rounds. Call my contemporaries a group of squares from the past, to quote Stewart Lee, but the prevailing poisons of choice (as far as I could tell) were weed, MDMA and good old-fashioned alcohol, none of which are particularly conducive to intellectual pursuits. But things, it seems, have changed rather dramatically, and off-label stimulants are now a mainstay in colleges and universities on both sides of thae Pond.

In Take Your Pills, Alison Klayman lays the blame for this phenomenon at the feet of hyper-competitive American culture, in which those that don’t pop pills risk falling behind. She does this by examining the history of central nervous stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin, both of which are derivatives of methamphetamine usually prescribed to those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and by holding interviews with a cast of characters from various fields and domains. Other than the college students interviewed there is also, for instance, the coder who needs to focus for long periods of time and the former NFL player in need of a competitive edge. Nearly all of those interviewed describe how they perform better in their respective jobs or tasks when they’ve knocked back an Adderall or two, and almost all of them describe rapidly increasing the strength of the pills, and the number they have to take, to accommodate their growing tolerance.


The most interesting insight refers to the work of the cognitive neuroscientist Martha Farah, whose extensive tests have yielded very little evidence that Adderall leads to any kind of cognitive improvement whatsoever. She concludes that ‘lower-performing people actually do improve on the drug, and higher-performing people show no improvement or actually get worse.’


All this is relatively interesting, but what’s more interesting is how little is said about the negative side-effects of the drug. You’d be led to believe, once you reach the underwhelming conclusion of Take Your Pills, that there aren’t to speak of. Barely a mention is made of any long-term harm to the body outside of a passing and unexplored reference to liver-damage (made, incidentally, by the sole interviewee who was put on Adderall involuntarily as a child and wants to, so to speak, kick the habit). Klayman might at least have mentioned, in the spirit of journalistic balance if nothing else, the potential for hypertension and tachycardia, if not the psychosis and sudden cardiac arrest that long-term users risk. The filmmaker’s failure to offer this side of the story is peculiar, not least because the overall tone of the documentary suggests that the popularity of the supposed cognitive enhancers discussed is generally not a good thing for the person or for the culture. The most interesting insight refers to the work of the cognitive neuroscientist Martha Farah, whose extensive tests have yielded very little evidence that Adderall leads to any kind of cognitive improvement whatsoever. She concludes that ‘lower-performing people actually do improve on the drug, and higher-performing people show no improvement or actually get worse.’ In Take Your Pills there is the suggestion that, just like your garden-variety back-alley speed, Adderall and other stimulants only make you feel as if you are in some way ‘better’; in reality you are, for the most part, just the same.


When a Silicon Valley coder describes how his Adderall habit aids his concentration, for example, orange text and keyboard symbols dance around on the screen. There are time-lapses and accelerated sequences. All this supposedly gives the layman viewer a sense of what it is like to be ‘on’ Adderall, although you can’t help feeling that Klayman might have coaxed something a little more thoughtful out of her interview subjects and had them do that for her.


Where Take Your Pills does succeed is in its aesthetics, which are frantic and fun. Intermittently but frequently there are cartoon-like animations and flashes and splashes of colour. When a Silicon Valley coder describes how his Adderall habit aids his concentration, for example, orange text and keyboard symbols dance around on the screen. There are time-lapses and accelerated sequences. All this supposedly gives the layman viewer a sense of what it is like to be ‘on’ Adderall, although you can’t help feeling that Klayman might have coaxed something a little more thoughtful out of her interview subjects and had them do that for her.

Take Your Pills, then, is a rather confused sort of film. It somehow manages to deal with its subject only superficially by focusing on the wider societal implications of this ‘epidemic’ while also relying so heavily on the subjective experiences of a handful of interview subjects (and the bland and pointless commentary of various talking-heads) as to make much of the evidence presented seem anecdotal or inconsequential. The tone, meanwhile, is tediously earnest and concerned, and yet very little is offered on the negative impact on the individual of Adderall and similar drugs. What’s more, I have no doubt that there will be parents watching in utter bewilderment that a film that purports to be about Adderall and Ritalin could not give ten minutes over to the conditions for they were designed to treat.

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“Darkest Hour”

Darkest Hour

YOU DO SOMETIMES wonder if there’s anyone more frequently cited than Winston Churchill, whose talent and taste for an uplifting maxim or a pithy put-down has been elevated to the world of legend. He is, for instance, supposed to have said that ‘continuous effort, not strength of intelligence, is the key to unlocking and using our potential’, but that particular line was in fact taken from a 1981 book by Liane Cordes entitled The Reflecting Pond: Meditations for Self-Discovery, which was written to help people overcome addiction. And there is of course the famous ‘never, never, never give up’, which, though similar to something actually uttered by Churchill, in fact went, ‘never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never.’

The dubious accuracy of his inventory of aphorisms notwithstanding, you wonder whether, while researching his role in Darkest Hour, Gary Oldman spent any great length of time meditating on the long list of things that supposedly came out of Churchill’s mouth, and whether the great man’s exhortation never to give up (or give in, I should say) gave the great actor any encouragement. It would be fitting. After all, Oldman, who until this year had only ever received one Academy Award nomination, for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and who was passed over, unbelievably, in the years of State of Grace, JFK and Sid and Nancy, finally received his Oscar for this role.


Darkest Hour is only latest film to tap in, so to say, to what various commentators have called the ‘Brexit zeitgeist’, and both follows and makes a good companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s outstanding Dunkirk.


Darkest Hour is only the latest film to tap in, so to say, to what various commentators have called the ‘Brexit zeitgeist’, and both follows and makes a good companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s outstanding Dunkirk. The titular darkest hour arrives for Winston Churchill in 1940, as the vast legions of the German Wehrmacht gather just south of the white cliffs of Dover in the north of France. The film, however, has little by way of action; it takes place mainly in the smokey rooms and corridors of the Houses of Lords and Commons and Churchill’s famous bunker. Churchill, meanwhile, is pitched not against Hitler or Mussolini but against a faction of politicians convinced of the merits of appeasement. Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) and the Foreign Secretary, the ‘Holy Fox’ Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) are the main villains of this tale, insisting that Churchill seek out a deal with the Nazis while simultaneously undermining his position in parliament.


What follows is a matter of historical record, but the performance of Gary Oldman reinvigorates this familiar narrative. And that is not, of course, to say he simply looks the part, which at any rate has more to do with the hair and costume department than it does with Oldman. What Oldman does is make the role his own.


What follows is a matter of historical record, but the performance of Gary Oldman reinvigorates this familiar narrative. And that is not, of course, to say he simply looks the part, which at any rate has more to do with the hair and costume department than it does with Oldman. What Oldman does is make the role his own. His take on Churchill is the most distinct of the recent portrayals, including by Brian Cox in Churchill, John Lithgow in The Crown and Timothy Spall in The King’s Speech. (Incidentally, director Joe Wright does not make the error, as Tom Hooper did, of suggesting that Churchill supported the abdication of Edward VIII). Rather, Oldman presents Churchill as a complicated character capable, unquestionably, of greatness, but also of self-doubt, crushing bouts of depression and the Machiavellian manipulation of rivals in the dark corners of the Commons.

Darkest Hour is a film about Churchill. The supporting performances of Kristin Scott Thomas as Churchill’s exasperated wife, Clemmie, and of Lily James as a young WAAF secretary whose relationship with Churchill takes on a filial character, are strong but the roles are largely underdeveloped. Pickup and Dillane, meanwhile, do a fine job as the closest thing to villains in the film. But Darkest Hour is really Oldman’s film, in that it’s memorable not for its direction or script, but for the downcast expression on Churchill’s face when he’s overcome with depression, or his wild-eyed ferocity as he administers a thorough dressing-down to staff in the Cabinet War Rooms. Darkest Hour isn’t exactly gripping or melancholy or thought-provoking in any way, but it is a very appropriate platform for Gary Oldman’s long under-appreciated acting prowess.

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“The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom?”

The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom?

IN HIS EARLY-1930s U.S.A. Trilogy, John Dos Passos uses a ragbag of stylistic and narrative techniques, including collages of newspaper clippings, song lyrics and short biographies of public figures, to tell the story of the historical development of American society during the first three decades of the 20th century. The influence of Dos Passos’ trilogy was far-reaching, and had a profound effect on Jean Paul-Sartre in addition to the science-fiction novelist and short story writer John Brunner. But it also penetrated and became embedded in the young mind of the documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis, who was given the book as a thirteen-year-old by his father. In a 2012 interview with Film Comment, Curtis said that you ‘can trace back everything I do to that novel [U.S.A.] because it’s all about grand history, individual experience, their relationship. And also collages, quotes from newsreels, cinema, newspapers.’

Following the publication of U.S.A. and the murder of his friend José Robles during the Spanish Civil War, Dos Passos underwent what can only be described as an extraordinary ideological transformation that flung him from far on the political left to the conservative right. He worked on the campaigns of Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon and found new friends and allies in William F. Buckley, Jr. and his ambitious team at the fledgling National Review. Dos Passos maintained, however, that wherever he found himself on the ideological spectrum he was, first and foremost, concerned with the freedom of the individual.


In a 2012 interview with Film Comment, Curtis said that you ‘can trace back everything I do to that novel [U.S.A.] because it’s all about grand history, individual experience, their relationship. And also collages, quotes from newsreels, cinema, newspapers.’


It’s this individual freedom, and specifically our understanding of what that freedom implies, that Curtis looks to deconstruct in his three-part 2007 documentary, The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom?. His hypothesis is, to put it mildly, a bold one, and draws a line that begins in the bleak and paranoid days of the Cold War and travels through the years and the economic and political thought of figures largely on the right, from Friedrich Hayek to Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. What Curtis essentially argues is that the models of game theory advanced by the Nobel-prize-winning economist John Nash and applied with zeal during the Cold War were willingly introduced into fields in which the first principles did not apply. To put it another way, these mathematical models, when applied in the context of armed conflict, necessarily operate on the basis that both sides are, so to say, out only for themselves; in the daily interactions of individuals that is not necessarily the case. This is exemplified in some of the early efforts to put the Prisoner’s Dilemma thought experiment to the test. Though the rational thing to do in each case is to betray the other party, very few, if any, of the early participants did so.

If you bring these theories to play in the economic sphere, Curtis says, the effects of holding such a depressingly bleak view of human existence are significant. The free market, which has at its heart the assumption that individuals will behave in a rational self-interested way, serves only to make the ultra-rational and the already-wealthy eye-wateringly rich; the poor and the more compassionate among us become poorer. Curtis’s central idea is high flown if nothing else, and ascribes a popular current of political thought and the administrations of figures on both sides of the Atlantic, including Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, to a handful of equations scrawled on blackboards in the depths of a Cold War nuclear facility. But nevertheless Curtis argues his point in a persuasive and entertaining and memorable way, even if he doesn’t bother to waste any time (in a three-hour documentary film, no less) presenting any alternatives to his elaborate proposition.


So formulaic is Curtis’s signature style that he at times threatens to become a parody of himself. At the very least, his taste for flat declarative sentences, archival footage and the unsettling tones of Burial, Nine Inch Nails and Brian Eno insists upon the creation of ‘Adam Curtis Bingo’.


But of course, that isn’t his style, and so formulaic is his signature style that he at times threatens to become a parody of himself. At the very least, his taste for flat declarative sentences, archival footage and the unsettling tones of Burial, Nine Inch Nails and Brian Eno insists upon the creation of ‘Adam Curtis Bingo’. When Curtis’s technique works, his films take on a dreamlike and hallucinatory quality; when it doesn’t his work seems self-indulgent: there are scenes in Bitter Lake that are almost unwatchable. Thankfully The Trap is an example of the former. Like Curtis’s best documentary film, the exceptional The Power of Nightmares, the style of The Trap glues together a narrative whose constituent parts are sometimes weakly held together while also injecting a little dark humour into an otherwise rather earnest work.

The conservative Spectator columnist James Delingpole once suggested that Curtis had created the ‘televisual equivalent of a drunken late-night Wikipedia binge with pretensions to narrative coherence’, which is not completely inaccurate. But neither is it necessarily a criticism: Curtis himself describes what he does as finding ‘new facts and data, things you haven’t thought about, and turning them into new stories.’ In The Trap, Curtis typically takes a grand and sweeping look at the shifting sands of history, but the film nevertheless represents one of the better efforts of a consistently interesting and entertaining filmmaker.

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“The Shape of Water”

The Shape of Water

IT DOESN’T REQUIRE a particularly incisive mind to figure out that Mexican director Guillermo del Toro is interested in––perhaps it would better to say obsessed––with monsters, nor does it stretch the brain too far to establish that it is depicting monsters sympathetically with which he is principally preoccupied. In his first feature film, the 1993 horror-drama Cronos, the antiques dealer Jesus Gris discovers a device which grants its owner eternal life at the small price of a little uncontrollable bloodlust, yet remains the film’s most likeable figure; it is Angel, the brutal nephew of Jesus (played with delightful thuggishness by Ron Perlman) who emerges as the villain. And then of course there’s the exceptional Pan’s Labyrinth, which pitches the likeable yet grotesque and nightmarish faun––del Toro says the image came to him in a childhood dream––against the sinister Falangist Captain Vidal, who is hunting those who fought against Franco’s régime.

In an interview with the Guardian, del Toro tells the story of how he would wet the bed as a child out of fear of stepping on the carpet, where he would imagine “a sea of green fingers, waving, waiting for me to put my foot on it so they could pull me down”. It was only once he had made friends with the monsters that the habit was successfully stopped. But in The Shape of Water, friendship with those that inhabit the world of monsters evolves, or rather mutates, into something more. If the films showing in the cinema are anything to go by, it is the early 1960s or, if you prefer, the height of the Cold War, and mute cleaner Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) works at a high-security government facility where she mops floors and cleans bathrooms largely unnoticed and utterly unappreciated by those around her. Elisa, we quickly discover, lives a life of routine, and that routine includes a little ménage à moi (in the bath, naturally). “Cornflakes were invented to prevent masturbation,” says Elisa’s neighbour, Giles, as she eats her breakfast. “Didn’t work.”


Elisa, we quickly discover, lives a life of routine, and that routine includes a little ménage à moi (in the bath, naturally). “Cornflakes were invented to prevent masturbation,” says Elisa’s neighbour, Giles, as she eats her breakfast. “Didn’t work.”


The rhythm of Elisa’s life is disrupted by the arrival to the facility of the mysterious “asset”––a creature “dragged up” from the depths of a South American river and worshipped as a god by the locals. Unfortunately, the arrival of the asset (underneath the prosthetics is Doug Jones) heralds the arrival of someone you might call equally inhuman, albeit in a very different way. Armed with an electric cattle-prod and a book about positive thinking is the impossible loathsome Strickland (Michael Shannon), the new head of security, who won’t wash his hands after going to the bathroom and has little but contempt for the mysterious creature he pulled out of Amazonia. When he isn’t showing oily deference to his immediate superior, the equally hated General Hoyt, he is making racially charged or misogynistic or otherwise crass and reprehensible remarks to anyone who who happens to be in his vicinity.

What follows is a friendship and the beginnings of a romance between Elisa and the facility’s scaly new guest. Elisa, who was found in a river as an orphaned child with mysterious scars on her neck, has a lifelong fascination with water (she often finds herself underwater in her dreams) and feels drawn towards the asset who, like her, is unable to communicate through conventional speech, but nonetheless is sensitive and intelligent; this fact is lost on almost everyone who works at the facility or comes into contact with either one. The pair communicate through basic sign language, and Elisa brings the asset boiled eggs––the first word the asset learns is “egg”––which she places on the edge of his tank. The future of their rather unique bond, however, lies in the hands of Strickland and a marine biologist who may be sympathetic to her cause.

The Shape of Water is something like the lovechild of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s magnificent Amélie and Jack Arnold’s 1958 monster-horror flick Creature from the Black Lagoon, the eponymous creature of which bears more than a passing resemblance to the asset. But del Toro’s film has little of the humour or magic that pervades Amélie, nor a great deal of originality. Once you get to grips with the fact that the object of Elisa’s desires is a monstrous fish-man, what’s left is ultimately quite bland and by the book, not to mention earnest. Visually it is beautiful, and Alexandre Desplat’s score is good if not particularly memorable. But Strickland, a white, middle-aged male Christian who drives a Cadillac, is a cartoonish figure that Michael Shannon does well to render as believable. The plot itself unfolds predictably and even ends predictably, and includes a mediocre fantasy musical sequence that makes you yearn for the conclusion of the exceptional La La Land.


Praise is due for Richard Jenkins, who, as Giles, provides much of the film’s (little) humour, and whose own subplot involving the handsome waiter of a local pie restaurant is often more interesting than Elisa’s. Octavia Spencer, meanwhile, is solid as the voice of common sense and Elisa’s friend and coworker Zelda, though she remains thinly developed.


Praise is due for Richard Jenkins, who, as Giles, provides much of the film’s (little) humour, and whose own subplot involving the handsome waiter of a local pie restaurant is often more interesting than Elisa’s. Octavia Spencer, meanwhile, is solid as the voice of common sense and Elisa’s friend and coworker Zelda, though she remains thinly developed. And of course Sally Hawkins is typically excellent, particularly in her conversations with Giles, which lose no emotional heft on account of her character’s inability to communicate verbally. However the best performance of the film is given by Michael Stuhlbarg, the facility’s marine biologist, who also has the most interesting role and character arc; it’s really a crying shame that he doesn’t feature more often.

All this is not to say that The Shape of Water is a bad film, but it does boggle the mind to figure out why it has received quite so much attention and praise. While films like Amélie deliver a dose of electric current to even the coldest and most inactive hearts, The Shape of Water does so only intermittently, relying instead on its Gilliamesque look and moments of quirkiness to engage its viewers. It was Ian McEwan, I think, who admitted to having some sympathy with the view that magical realism is really just an evasion of some artistic responsibility. After sitting through The Shape of Water, you might just feel that he has a point.

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“The Girl with All the Gifts”

The Girl with All the Gifts

IN RICHARD MATHESON’S 1954 novel I Am Legend, a pandemic whose symptoms resemble vampirism spreads by dust storms in the cities and an explosion in the mosquito population. But Matheson’s slow-moving story also spawned its own kind of pandemic, albeit a literary and cinematic one, defined by apocalyptic scenarios in which a single survivor or handful of survivors attempt to survive relentless hordes of the undead or infected.

Colm McCarthy’s The Girl with All the Gifts, which was adapted from its novel for the screen by author M.R. Carey, subverts this idea. Its protagonist is neither a lone survivor––a Last Man character in the mould of I Am Legend’s Robert Neville or 28 Days Later’s Jim––nor a member of the savage infected. Rather, Melanie (Sennia Nanua), a highly intelligent and persuasive and charming girl of around ten years old, lies somewhere in between. The story takes place in the near future, when a mutation of a fungus has transformed much of mankind into large collections of fast-moving and mindless flesh-eaters referred to as “Hungries.” Their childish and affectionate sort of name belies a savagery and grotesqueness from which director Colm McCarthy never shies away. Hungries, if locked up and absent of food, will begin to eat themselves.


The story takes place in the near future, when a mutation of a fungus has transformed much of mankind into large collections of fast-moving and mindless flesh-eaters referred to as “Hungries.” Their childish and affectionate sort of name belies a savagery and grotesqueness from which director Colm McCarthy never shies away.


Melanie is one of a group of twenty or so hybrid, second-generation Hungry children who crave flesh but retain their mental faculties. These children go to a “school” at an army base in the Home Counties, where the sinister Dr. Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close) is hoping to find a cure or vaccination by experimenting on them. Meanwhile, Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton) angers her colleagues by humanising the children she teaches and telling them stories from Ancient Greek mythology.

The various allusions and references, which run the gamut from Pandora’s Box and Odysseus’ encounter with the witch Circe to the Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment, are not subtle. From the outset, Melanie’s intellectual gifts and boundless charm make her something of an apparent paradox: she isn’t human, but at the same time she is creative, empathetic, intelligent and polite. In supporting roles, Paddy Considine, who plays the businesslike and authoritarian Sergeant Eddie Parks, and Gemma Arterton as the kind Ms. Justineau, capture in their characters’ interactions with Melanie the strange simultaneous feelings of both fear and affection that the young girl inspires. In the case of Parks, this is resolved initially by dehumanising Melanie, but it quickly becomes the case that this is no longer possible. Owing mainly to the musical talents of Cristobal Tapia de Veer, whose unsettling score calls to mind a skipping record in one scene and the numinous in the next, Melanie can also inspire awe. She is, after all, the girl with all the gifts.


Owing mainly to the musical talents of Cristobal Tapia de Veer, whose unsettling score calls to mind a skipping record in one scene and the numinous in the next, Melanie can also inspire awe. She is, after all, the girl with all the gifts.


More recent incarnations of the zombie apocalypse theme have often brought with them a broader subtext than that of Matheson’s early inspiration for the genre. While Matheson and his immediate predecessors, writing in the aftermath of World War II and at the height both of the Cold War and the civil rights movements, brought to the fore the fragility of civilisation and the unreliability of individuals to pursue the greater good when their own survival was at risk, films like 28 Days Later evoke instead global fears of an uncontrollable epidemic or supervirus. There is, I think, also a case to be made for the portrayal of zombies as addicts or, if you prefer, sufferers of addiction. (In The Girl with All the Gifts, a Hungry, having fed, slips into a blissed-out, euphoric state, its eyes rolling back in its head and a contented expression spreading across its bloody face). Nevertheless, and though it does look to subvert the genre, The Girl with All the Gifts still feels worn out. Its exceptional cast and willingness to try new ideas are really all that separate it from other genre films, but those same ideas rarely inspire any interesting kind of mental activity in the way that its creators might like it to.

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“Voyeur”

Voyeur

INTERMITTENTLY BUT FREQUENTLY, usually during those moments of evening mental vacancy, you seem to stumble upon something truly bizarre while browsing the sprawling Netflix library for something to watch. Thus I found myself sitting through Voyeur, a compelling and sinister and singular documentary by Myles Kane and Josh Koury, in which Gerald Foos, a lifelong Peeping Tom, tells the story of how he acquired a neglected suburban motel for the express purpose of watching its guests have sex.

His audience to this sordid tale is the celebrated literary journalist Gay Talese, who was most recently in the news for defending, somewhat aggressively, the actor Kevin Spacey against allegations of sexual assault of a minor. Nevertheless, Talese is a talented and diligent journalist who, for the purposes of writing a now-famous article in The New Yorker entitled “The Voyeur’s Motel”, spent considerable time and energy getting to know his rather unusual subject.


Voyeur is less about Mr. Foos than it is about Talese’s effort to write about Mr. Foos which, needless to say, doesn’t always go smoothly. It was Foos, motivated by a sort of pride and the vague feeling that he needed to share his story with the world, who approached Gay Talese in the first instance.


In fact, Voyeur is less about Mr. Foos than it is about Talese’s effort to write about Mr. Foos which, needless to say, doesn’t always go smoothly. It was Foos, motivated by a sort of pride and the vague feeling that he needed to share his story with the world, who approached Gay Talese in the first instance. And Talese, whose career reveals nothing if not an obsession with chronicling all manner of human behaviour in its most truthful state (the filmmakers dedicate considerable screen time to the scandal surrounding Thy Neighbor’s Wife), jumps at the opportunity. What follows is a story told in all its sordid detail, but also a relationship developing in parallel. There is rarely any suggestion of journalistic objectivity; instead, Talese and Foos both allow themselves to be drawn into the worlds of the other, and at times it isn’t clear whether one isn’t manipulating the other.


Kane and Koury, meanwhile, guide the good ship Voyeur with a steady hand. Both Talese and Foos seem to lose themselves more than once. While Talese flouts journalistic ethics and describes joining Foos in his “observation deck” in the early nineteen-eighties, Foos, a chronic hoarder convinced his library of baseball cards and other tat is worth millions, insists his voyeurism is in fact academic study.


Kane and Koury, meanwhile, guide the good ship Voyeur with a steady hand. Both Talese and Foos seem to lose themselves more than once. While Talese flouts journalistic ethics and describes joining Foos in his “observation deck” in the early nineteen-eighties, Foos, a chronic hoarder convinced his library of baseball cards and other tat is worth millions, insists his voyeurism is in fact academic study. Though not quite as interesting as the central story itself, the dynamic between Talese and Foos is fascinating. Together, the pair look vaguely ludicrous: Talese is tall and thin, and never seen without an immaculately tailored suit, hat and silk tie; Gerald Foos, wearing a pair of oversized Mars Blackmon glasses, at times resembles a sort of shabby Bono. It’s Talese himself who makes the suggestion that he himself is a voyeur of sorts, just like Gerald Foos, and in a story so corrupted by unreliable narration it strikes you as one of its few truths.

Voyeur is nothing if not strange tale. Its subjects are the lurid and the scandalous and the thrill of silently invading another’s private life. At its conclusion and in its aftermath there remain many questions unanswered or only partly answered, but even a brief glimpse into this strange world is titillation enough.

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“Los Secretos en Sus Ojos”

Los Secretos en Sus Ojos

AT THE RISK of sounding glib, Argentina in the nineteen-seventies wasn’t a particularly fun place to be. This was the era of the so-called Dirty War, when the Argentine Military Government and the right-wing death squads of the Triple A “disappeared”, in the language of the time, about thirty thousand suspected left-wing guerrillas, political dissidents, journalists, and anyone else believed to be associated with the socialist cause. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a group of women whose children were among los desaparecidos, still march in front of the Casa Rosada every Thursday in public defiance of state terrorism and in pursuit of the truth.

It is in that swirling vortex of paranoia and violence that Juan José Campanella’s thriller El Secreto de Sus Ojos is set, and you do wonder why more films have not been placed in a time and setting that seems almost impossibly well suited to film noir. The film begins in nineteen-ninety-nine, when retired deputy prosecutor Benjamin Espósito (Ricardo Darín) is brooding over a life of disappointments and having difficulty writing his first novel, which concerns a brutal rape and murder case that took place twenty-five years before. After a meeting with Judge Irene Menéndez Hastings (Soledad Villamil), with whom he originally worked on the case (and with whom he’s hopelessly in love), he decides to begin his book with the crime itself. In all this Espósito has a sidekick of sorts in the figure of his bespectacled clerk, Pablo (Guillermo Francella), who prefers to spend his evenings getting blind drunk with the local low-lives rather than with his frustrated wife.

Espósito’s research into the murder case, which took place in nineteen-seventy-four when Argentina was just collapsing into its dirty war and subsequent dictatorship, runs in tandem with the investigation he undertook at the time as a junior policeman. Campanella does this with great skill: the scenes depicted take place in the past, in the present and in the imagination, and in each one there is the suggestion of secrets alluded to in the title. Similarly some credit is due to the hair and makeup team who “age” Benjamin and Irene in a way that isn’t jarring. (See J. Edgar or, for an example in reverse, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). An interesting dynamic between Benjamin and Ricardo (Pablo Rago), the widower of the raped and murdered schoolteacher, develops in the early narrative and continues to exist a quarter of a century later. Both Benjamin and Ricardo are obsessed with bringing the killer that has evaded them to justice, albeit for different reasons.

Campanella’s pacing and direction is particularly impressive. His crowning achievement is a travelling shot that begins above a football stadium and goes into the stands, where Benjamin and Pablo are searching out a suspect, before ending on the pitch itself. But the film belongs, if I can put it like that, to Ricard Darín and the obsessive Benjamin Espósito, who seems to hope that he can drown, or at least choke, his remorse over what could have been with Irene by concentrating his attention on a particularly savage killing and empathising with the heartbroken widower it created.

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“Wonder Woman”

Wonder Woman

WHEN IT WAS announced that Gal Gadot was to be cast as Wonder Woman in the frankly terrible Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, there was no shortage of comic-book fans left frothing at the mouth and thrashing out angry posts on Internet forums. You might say that was it was an inevitability, whoever was to be chosen for the part, but even Patty Jenkins––at that point already set to direct Wonder Woman––said her “heart sank” when she learned that Gadot had been offered the part. All that changed, however, when she learned that Gadot, who was crowned Miss Israel in 2004 at the tender age of eighteen, had done a two-year stint in the Israel Defence Forces before studying law, and was therefore about as well positioned to play Diana Prince as anyone could be.

Of course that didn’t make Dawn of Justice any good. And though Wonder Woman is better than the vast majority of the comic-book adaptations to have graced (if that’s the word) our screens in the last few years, it still isn’t the Oscar-worthy superhero film Hollywood has been waiting for, and at any rate, the bar really had been set rather low. The film begins in Paris, where a photographic plate taken during the First World War and showing Diana Prince and four men prompts her to remember her past. Diana was raised on the hidden island of Themyscira, where a tribe of Amazonian warrior women created by the god Zeus to protect mankind from Ares, god of war, reside. After initially forbidding Diana to train as a warrior, her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) eventually yields, and has her sister Antiope (Robin Wright) train her daughter on the condition that the training is more rigorous than it is for the other Amazonians. Some years later, American pilot Captain Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crash-lands off the coast of the island, and sets the plot in motion.


Very early on in the film, it becomes clear that Wonder Woman, despite the gushing praise for the film from some quarters, is not immune to the ailments that have blighted previous DC and Marvel cinematic efforts, not the least of which is a convoluted and implausible and altogether stupid plot.


Very early on in the film, it becomes clear that Wonder Woman, despite the gushing praise for the film from some quarters, is not immune to the ailments that have blighted previous DC and Marvel cinematic efforts, not the least of which is a convoluted and implausible and altogether stupid plot, which throws Diana––curiously, the sobriquet “Wonder Woman” is never once used––into the killing fields of World War I-era Europe. And this theatre of war, in addition to just about every other thing depicted in the film, feels like an exhausting special effects showreel, proving, it seems, that the powers-that-be at the larger Hollywood studios can’t make a superhero film without bludgeoning the thing to death with CGI. Nevertheless Wonder Woman also succeeds where DC films have historically failed. Diana Prince is both funny and glamorous, naive and self-confident. She isn’t haunted by vague and nebulous inner demons relating to some childhood event or other, and refreshingly, she doesn’t suffer from an acute case of the messiah complex. Gadot shares a screen chemistry with Pine, meanwhile, that is palpable in their verbal back-and-forth long before the inevitable locking of lips.

These points alone are enough to make the film worth a watch. Only by depicting Marvel’s signature hero, Wolverine, as an old and cynical mutant in a dystopian world did the X-Men franchise succeed in creating a really interesting and watchable standalone superhero, and most of the time, it seems, those who give the orders at both DC and Marvel have been content simply to throw together a handful of superheroes and hope that the whole yields something more interesting than the sum of the parts. Diana Prince is interesting all by herself, even if the story in which she is the main character has been force-fed CGI and descends into the same dull clichés at its climax. The test for Patty Jenkins and writers Zack Snyder, Allan Heinberg and Jason Fuchs is to build on a decent origin story and create something exceptional in Wonder Woman 2.

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“Murder on the Orient Express”

Murder on the Orient Express

IT’S ALL TOO easy to dismiss Agatha Christie as a literary mediocrity whose career was built on the creation of mindless whodunnits destined only to fill any unfilled ninety-minute slots on the BBC’s television schedule. But that’s to overlook Christie’s astute treatment of women, her deep understanding of interpersonal dynamics and the sheer prowess of her storytelling, all of which are why she remains, to this day, the most widely read author ever to write. The latest reminder of Christie’s enduring appeal is the release of Sir Kenneth Branagh’s star-studded adaptation of her most celebrated mystery, Murder on the Orient Express, but what’s a shame is that Branagh fails to elevate the story from typical terrestrial Sunday night entertainment to something more fitting of the silver screen. Murder on the Orient Express is as satisfying and well-rounded as ever, but not nearly a good enough use of its cast or its veteran director.

Those who have read the novel or seen any of its (many) adaptations will likely be familiar with the plot. The film opens with a scene set in Jerusalem, where Hercule Poirot, a consummate perfectionist, measures two boiled eggs to see if they’re the same size before solving a mystery involving a priest, a rabbi and an imam. (Of course, there is the perfunctory “walk into a bar” joke). What follows––the titular murder on a train from Istanbul to Calais holding thirteen apparent strangers––is relatively faithful to the story. There are some examples of creative licence, namely a secondary stabbing, but otherwise the events that play out will not seem unknown. In the characters there is a more obvious divergence. First of all, there is an amalgamation of two characters into one, but more significantly, Poirot, a short, bald detective with a well-waxed moustache, now looks an awful lot like Kenneth Branagh––but with a moustache.


There is a slightly embarrassing string of moments in which each of the characters is introduced, solely because the actors that play those characters include Dame Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz and others. You can almost hear the sound of the audience cheering when the camera first falls on each one.


There is a slightly embarrassing string of moments in which each of the characters is introduced, solely because the actors that play those characters include Dame Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz and others. You can almost hear the sound of the audience cheering when the camera first falls on each one, and these aren’t the first times you have the impression that Sir Kenneth invited some A-list friends to come along and make a Christie, and no need to do anything too different to that which had been done countless times before. This is the film’s cardinal sin: though cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos treats us to stunning, snow-covered scenery and Christie’s original plot remains relatively intact, the characters that are so fundamental to the enjoyment of the story are woefully underdeveloped and the actors that play them woefully underused. There are plenty of unusual overhead shots and implications of Poirot’s almost Christ-like omniscience and sense of justice, but not enough else taking place for us to care.

It could have been worse, of course, but that’s hardly high praise. Murder on the Orient Express gets away with a great deal because its plot is timeless and the imagery is lavish and grand. But for its budget, its director and its cast, the final incarnation of the film should be considered a failure, even if, as I did, you expected it to be much worse.

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