Wes Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs” (2018)

I HAD THE unusual but not unpleasant experience of watching Isle of Dogs, the latest effort from hipster favourite Wes Anderson, while eating a breakfast of croissants, cappuccino and orange juice in a cinema in Amsterdam, a city that caters rather well to the director’s pronounced Europhilia even if, among the lopsided canal-side houses, symmetry is hard to find.

But Isle of Dogs, unlike Anderson’s last feature-length film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, is notably lacking in pastel-pinks and European modernist interiors. Instead, the location is a dystopian future Japan, where Megasaki City Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), the authoritarian descendent of a dog-hating ancestor, signs a decree banishing all canines to Trash Island in the wake of a dog-flu virus outbreak. The first exile––the “patient zero”––is Spots (Liev Schreiber), whose owner, Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin), is the orphaned nephew and ward of the mayor.


The location is a dystopian future Japan, where Megasaki City Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), the authoritarian descendent of a similarly dog-hating ancestor, signs a decree banishing all canines to Trash Island in the wake of a dog-flu virus outbreak.


But the 12-year-old Atari has other plans, and in an attempt to find and rescue Spots he fashions a small biplane and crash-lands on Trash Island, where he is discovered by a pack of dogs: Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum). What these dogs truly want is to be reunited with their owners. The exception is of course Chief, a grizzled stray, whose experience on the streets of Megasaki is invaluable in this cacotopian wasteland, even if it comes at the cost of understanding the dog’s relationship with the human. Nevertheless, at the insistence of a female pure-breed named Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson), Chief and the pack decide to set off with Atari and help him find his dog.

In many ways, Isle of Dogs strikes you as Anderson’s most ambitious effort to date. It is, before we forget, a dystopian science-fiction film, technically speaking, that is also, somehow, a stop-motion animated deadpan comedy in the style of Fantastic Mr. Fox, and subject to all the usual idiosyncrasies of a Wes Anderson film, to say nothing of the attention to detail. (Anderson has himself said that he isn’t “particularly bothered or obsessed with detail”, which makes him either falsely modest or exceedingly talented, or both.) But it’s easy not to keep in mind the ambition of the project, because, like almost of all his films, Isle of Dogs is so playfully quaint and fanciful that it creates the impression that it was created unhurriedly and without much strain.


In many ways Isle of Dogs strikes you as Anderson’s most ambitious effort to date. It is, before we forget, a dystopian science-fiction film, technically speaking, that is also, somehow, a stop-motion animated deadpan comedy in the style of Fantastic Mr. Fox and subject to all the usual idiosyncrasies you might find in a Wes Anderson film, to say nothing of the attention to detail.


What’s immediately obvious is that Isle of Dogs shows Anderson at his funniest. The dialogue between the central “pack” and the tiny figure of the rather alarmed-looking pug Oracle (Tilda Swinton), who can understand television and is therefore a visionary in dog terms, contain much of the film’s humour, but it’s amusing throughout in a way that makes you smile if not exactly tilt your head back, open your mouth, and laugh until your sides are sore. There are funnier moments in other Anderson films––the attempted arrest of Gustave H. in The Grand Budapest Hotel springs to mind––but rarely is Anderson so consistently funny.

This is to the credit not only of Anderson but to his collaborator and fellow writer Roman Coppola, who pitched in, so to say, on Moonrise Kingdom, The Darjeeling Limited and Anderson’s first stop-motion animated effort, Fantastic Mr. Fox. The script, which is predictably peppered with plays-on-words (“Stop licking your wounds!” yells Chief, and the camera turns to Duke, licking his wounds) is lean enough, and the dog jokes age but don’t, to my surprise, quite get old as the film nears its conclusion, which is altogether pretty satisfying. Jason Schwarztman and Kunichi Nomura, who voices Mayor Kobayashi, are also credited as writers.


If The Grand Budapest Hotel was an homage of sorts to the prolific Austrian writer Stefan Zweig and the pre-war European aesthetic, then Isle of Dogs evinces Anderson’s attraction to the Japanese aesthetic. From taiko drummers to cherry blossom and haiku poetry, there are scenes in the film which seem to play with Japanese culture (or, more accurately, an outsider’s understanding of Japanese culture) and do little else.


If The Grand Budapest Hotel was an homage of sorts to the prolific Austrian writer Stefan Zweig and the pre-war European aesthetic, then Isle of Dogs evinces Anderson’s attraction to the Japanese aesthetic. From taiko drummers to cherry blossom and haiku poetry, there are scenes in the film which seem to play with Japanese culture (or, more accurately, an outsider’s understanding of Japanese culture) and do little else. This can quickly spill over into crass stereotyping, but here there is something like affection that shines through. (The nominal villain, Mayor Kobayashi, is even modelled on Toshiro Mifune, the actor and collaborator of master-director Akira Kurosawa.)

Isle of Dogs is a typical Wes Anderson film, which is to say it’s very good, even if there are some who instinctively bridle at his quirkiness and artistic proclivities. But even for the zealot it isn’t a perfect film. There is a perceptible lull in the third quarter, though that’s hardly unique to Isle of Dogs; most films could benefit from more ruthless editing. I’m also sure I’m not the only one who isn’t quite so charmed by stop-motion animation as Anderson is, and I feel moreover that it makes physical comedy (picture once again, if you will, Ralph Fiennes’ Gustave H. running through the lobby) difficult to pull off. And then there’s the small matter that, if forced to choose at gunpoint, I would come down on the side of the cat rather than the dog, and I therefore resent the idea that there is something inherently evil about felines. Some people fundamentally distrust intelligence. But Isle of Dogs is a welcome effort and worthy––almost worthy––of its slightly hysterical fanfare.

Alison Klayman’s “Take Your Pills” (2018)

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, of course) 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.

Josh Koury and Myles Kane’s “Voyeur” (2017)

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.

Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” (2017)

IT DOESN’T REQUIRE a particularly incisive mind to figure out that Mexican director Guillermo del Toro is interested in––or perhaps 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.

Joe Wright’s “Darkest Hour” (2017)

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 the aphorisms to Churchill 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, almost 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.

“Blade Runner 2049” (2017)

THE PROLIFIC SCIENCE-fiction novelist Philip K. Dick, on whose short story the original Blade Runner was based, phrased the question of what it means to be human by asking, “Do androids dream of electric sheep?” In Dick’s novel, Rick Deckard hates his pet, an electric sheep, precisely because he knows that it, like the androids of the story, feels nothing for him no matter how much he cares for it. Of course Deckard, played by Harrison Ford in Ridley Scott’s 1982 adaptation, eventually learns that androids may, in fact, be capable of empathy, which prompts an extreme change in how he understands himself and a little soul-searching, if I can put it that way.

Blade Runner 2049 picks up, as they say, where its predecessor left off. In this world, in which thirty years has passed since the events of the original film, it’s Officer K (Ryan Gosling), an efficient new-model android hardwired for compliance, who is preoccupied not so much with his own humanity (or lack of it), but with existence itself. K works, like Deckard, as a blade runner, tasked with hunting down and “retiring”, in the language of the era, rogue older model replicants.

At the start of the film K travels to a secluded protein farm as part of an investigation into a growing replicant freedom movement, and finds there the hulking figure of Nexus-8 Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista) in addition to a buried box containing bones. It isn’t long after that “Constant” K, as his superiors at the LAPD call him on account of his reliability and unflappable bearing, starts to have doubts about the nature of the work, concluding that anything born must have a soul.


K’s home life, meanwhile, is unremarkable but for the constant presence of a holographic––but highly realistic––A.I. (Ana de Armas) that can change in a moment from doting housewife to lively intellectual. Her realness is jarring, and the spell is only broken, so to say, when rain lashes down on her projected image and causes it to flicker and disintegrate.


K’s home life, meanwhile, is unremarkable but for the constant presence of a holographic––but highly realistic––A.I. (Ana de Armas) that can change in a moment from doting housewife to lively intellectual. Her realness is jarring, and the spell is only broken, so to say, when rain lashes down on her projected image and causes it to flicker and disintegrate. Her very existence asks the question that is the drumbeat of the film: what does it mean to be “real”? All the while the streets of Los Angeles glow with giant hologram women with colourful lego haircuts and emptiness in their eyes, and long outdated brands such as Pan Am and Atari decorate shop fronts and windows.

Blade Runner 2049 is a meandering, slow-burning, thoughtful sort of film that’s similar to but also distinct from the original. The probing script, which is co-written by Alien: Covenant writer Michael Green and Hampton Fancher, who wrote the first film, assures a certain feeling of continuity, as does the lugubrious mise-en-scène: like Blade Runner, Blade Runner 2049 walks a line between film noir and dystopian sci-fi. It’s hard not to think for instance, as K roams the streets of this gloomy and wet Los Angeles, silhouetted in a long coat, of The Maltese Falcon; the scenes in which K meets Niander Wallace at the vast golden headquarters of the Wallace Corporation. meanwhile, owe a great deal to Boris Ingster’s Stranger on the Third Floor, which itself draws heavily on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Special praise is due for Roger Deakins, whose cinematography pitches Officer K in all his insignificance and inner turmoil against what seems like an endlessness of bright and cheerless neon and forbidding dark clouds. But Deakins’s closer shots are also stunning: his interpretation of K’s visit to the headquarters of the Wallace Corporation is a supreme example of fascinating and attractive cinematography. In one shot, in which K walks with Wallace’s henchwoman Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) through a room lined by glass boxes containing replicant bodies, Deakins captures the darkness behind them and the golden light ahead, with the caged replicants, dangling like puppets, of course marking the way.


Special praise is due for Roger Deakins, whose cinematography places K in all his smallness and inner turmoil against what seems like an endlessness of bright and cheerless neon and forbidding dark clouds. His depiction of K’s visit to the headquarters of the Wallace Corporation is a supreme example of fascinating and attractive cinematography.


With a running time of a hundred and eighty-five minutes the film is too long and slips, at times, into a self-indulgence that risks allowing the film to sail over the line separating profundity and pretentiousness. Blade Runner 2049 also lacks the thematic subtlety of the original, though in a dramatic and visual sense it surpasses it in. Gosling’s portrayal of Officer K is icy and inscrutable, and calls to mind his performance in Only God Forgives, while supporting performances from a grizzled Harrison Ford, who reprises his role in the original, and Robin Wright, who plays K’s stoic L.A.P.D. superior Lieutenant Joshi, are predictably captivating.

Any efforts to remake the films I love the most tend to make me nervous, and the 2017 version of Ghost in the Shell left me in need of a strong drink and possibly extensive counselling. But Denis Villeneuve, who is already one of the most exciting filmmakers working today, has managed with Blade Runner 2049 to create something that is loyal to its predecessor and yet ambitious, and profound in its own way. There are shortcomings to Blade Runner 2049, but it is quite clearly a worthy sequel, which, when you consider the impact of the original, is high praise.

Sir Kenneth Branagh’s “Murder on the Orient Express” (2017)

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, only 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.

“The Death of Stalin” (2017)

IT WAS THE German-Jewish political theorist Hannah Arendt who explored the evils and absurdities of autocracy when she wrote Origins of Totalitarianism in 1951. But those who know nothing of Arendt or her work will at least recognise the phrase “banality of evil”, which was the subtitle of Arendt’s second book, Eichmann in Jerusalem. Arendt suggests not that evil itself is banal, but that often those who do evil do so for non-ideological and entirely prosaic reasons.

Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin brings this idea to the big screen in a highly effective and blackly comic way by casting the Soviet leader’s inner circle not as fanatics or sociopaths in the image of, say, Schindler’s List’s Nazi concentration camp commandant Amon Göth, but as distinctly ordinary people driven mainly by a vague desire to get ahead. The Death of Stalin might chronicle the “Soviet power struggles occasioned by the death of dictator Joseph Stalin in 1953,” as someone or other has described it, but it also tells the story of a pint-sized lunatic and the bumbling entourage trying to profit from his sudden demise.


The Death of Stalin might chronicle the “Soviet power struggles occasioned by the death of dictator Joseph Stalin in 1953,” as someone or other has described it, but it also tells the story of a pint-sized lunatic and the bumbling entourage trying to profit from his sudden demise.


The film is an adaptation of Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin’s graphic novel of the same name, in which the sudden death of the titular dictator prompts the members of the Soviet Central Committee––Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) and others––to try to seize power for themselves. None of this takes place, however, until after an amusing opening scene featuring Paddy Considine; he plays a troubled radio producer forced to tell an exhausted orchestra that they must re-perform a piano concerto because Stalin wants a gramophone recording of the event. (The mere mention of Stalin leads to a sudden outburst of lengthy and nervous applause among those in the audience).

The film is almost impossibly well cast but nevertheless two actors in particular steal the show: Simon Russell Beale, who plays Beria and simply seems to ooze wickedness, and Rupert Friend, whose turn as Stalin’s good-for-nothing drunk of a son, Vasily, is nothing short of hilarious. The former brings a deliciously dark edge to the film, even if the way in which he goes about his evildoing is so wearisome and routine (“kill her first but make sure he sees it,” he sighs) that it’s funny.


Simon Russell Beale, who plays Beria and simply seems to ooze wickedness, and Rupert Friend, whose turn as Stalin’s good-for-nothing drunk of a son, Vasily, is nothing short of hilarious.


Iannucci, who has forged a career out of showing people in power to be, essentially, incompetent clowns, takes his game to the next level, so to speak, by grappling with one of history’s most brutal and bloody regimes. The mood he creates is simultaneously Pythonesque––Michael Palin’s presence does help on that front, of course––and bleakly satirical (Iannuccian?). It has all the hallmarks of something made by the man behind The Thick of It and Veep, only in The Death of Stalin, the price of political incompetence is more likely to be a bullet in the back of a head than national obloquy. It’s for this reason that it’s made a fair few people upset, and when you consider the treatment of Hitler’s final days in the bunker in print and on screen, you can at least see what they’re grasping at. That said, you can’t help feeling that only a Trappist monk could make it through the first forty-five minutes without at least cracking a smile.

The Death of Stalin’s weakest act is its third, at which point plot, necessarily, perhaps, completely overwhelms comedy to bring the film to its conclusion. But it’s worth watching for the first three quarters of an hour alone, to say nothing of its frantic middle section, when Jason Isaacs, apparently channelling Sean Bean of all people, steals scene after scene after scene as the leader of the Red Army, Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov.

“Icarus”

YOU WILL REMEMBER that in the mythology of Ancient Greece, Icarus was the son of Daedalus, the master craftsman commissioned by King Minos of Crete to build a Labyrinth for the monstrous, man-eating Minotaur. But Daedalus himself was imprisoned in the Labyrinth after he gave Ariadne, Minos’s daughter, a clew or ball of string to help the Athenian hero Theseus survive the unforgiving corridors of his elaborate maze and its nightmarish inhabitant. Daedalus, so the story goes, fashioned out of wax and feathers two sets of wings––one for himself and the other for his son. Before fleeing Crete, he told Icarus not to fly too close to the sea, as the moisture would clog his wings, nor too close to the sun, or the sun’s heat might melt the wax. And of course Icarus, blinded by his own ambition, disobeyed his father and flew too close to the sun. The wax holding his wings together promptly melted and then, as Ovid puts it, ‘he waves his naked arms instead of wings’, and he fell into the sea southwest of Samos which today bears his name.

The story of Icarus is an enduring fable about ambition. Since Ovid’s treatment of the myth it has fascinated writers such as Shakespeare, Chaucer and Milton, whose Paradise Lost depicts the nine-day plunge of Lucifer, an exaggerated Icarian figure himself, into Hell. Centuries later W.H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” called attention to Pieter Bruegel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. He writes: “how everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster … the white legs disappearing into the green”. In the mid 20th century the Harvard University psychologist Henry Murray proposed the term Icarus complex for those who showed symptoms of narcissism, a fascination with fire and water and, unsurprisingly, a fondness for heights.


The actor-turned-documentarian Bryan Fogel is only the latest person to appropriate the tragic character’s name and Icarus, his resulting film, is perhaps the unlikeliest documentary success of the year. This is not least because Fogel sets out to achieve one thing and ends up with something quite different.


The actor-turned-documentarian Bryan Fogel is only the latest person to appropriate the tragic character’s name and Icarus, his resulting film, is perhaps the unlikeliest documentary success of the year. This is not least because Fogel sets out to achieve one thing and ends up with something quite different. Fogel is concerned at the beginning of the film only with doping in elite cycling. It’s something of an open secret that there is widespread performance-enhancing drug use in the cycling world; the aim of the game is not to get caught. In fact, as Fogel points out, Lance Armstrong was never found to have cheated: he was implicated by just one of the many people with whom he made enemies in his attempts to avoid justice.

Fogel himself is a competitive cyclist, and with this in mind he decides to take part in something of a daring personal experiment: he decides to undergo a full doping cycle in time for the hardest amateur cycling race in the world, the Haute Route. It is, in Fogel’s words, like the “hardest seven days of the Tour de France … back to back.” He wants to see how fast he can go while doped up to the eyeballs, but he also wants to get away with it. To do this he enlists the help of an anti-doping scientist at UCLA but it isn’t long until that scientist gets cold feet. And this is where the film gets interesting, because the scientist points Fogel to the eccentric director of Moscow’s Anti-Doping Centre: Grigory Rodchenkov.

Like the bizarre and brilliant Tickled, in which David Farrier’s investigation into “competitive endurance tickling” pulls back the curtain on a world of intimidation, manipulation and a grim figure better suited to a horror film, Icarus accidentally captures something its creator never planned it to capture. In this case it was an event of international significance: the Russian Olympic Doping Scandal, which prompted the Olympic Commission’s largest ever recall of medals and shined a light on state-sponsored performance-enhancing drug use by Russian athletes that goes back to the nervous years of the Cold War.


Like the bizarre and brilliant Tickled, in which David Farrier’s investigation into “competitive endurance tickling” pulls back the curtain on a world of intimidation, manipulation and a grim figure better suited to a horror film, Icarus accidentally captures something its creator never planned it to capture.


The film is all the more watchable because Fogel himself is along, so to speak, for the ride. He abandons his initial documentary idea––“Super Size Me with steroids instead of Big Macs,” as one journalist called it––and places his attention squarely on Rodchenkov and the story that is rapidly unravelling around him. Fogel and Rodchenkov form something like a friendship which is tested when the eccentric Russian scientist is forced to leave, or rather flee, Moscow for the United States out of fear of violent reprisal. In Icarus, the anxiety Rodchenkov feels is obviously acute. (His fear was later vindicated when the American government put him into protective custody).

On the whole the film is fascinating and entertaining. Strangely enough the many ancillary questions that surround the subject of doping in sport ––the ethics of the thing and its effects on health, for instance––are largely ignored. Nevertheless this is an excellent debut documentary film, even if its final manifestation wasn’t exactly planned.

“A Ghost Story”

IF YOU’VE FOUND yourself in the London Underground any time recently––no doubt crushed against three other people on a Tube that smells of sweat and makes you wish you hadn’t left your cattle prod at home––you may have noticed the distinctive posters for A Ghost Story pasted on the station walls, and the effusive praise that decorates the space around the image of its central character.

One of them reads “almost a masterpiece” and last night, as the lights came up in the screening room of the BFI Southbank, my immediate thought was that whoever wrote those words had not gone far enough. A Ghost Story is, put simply, one of the best films I’ve seen for a long time. This isn’t the post-film afterglow talking: David Lowery’s inventive film is a deeply affecting and unforgettable exploration of life, of love, and of grief, driven by a quite brilliant performance by Casey Affleck.

The film begins with a quotation from the opening line of Virginia Woolf’s A Haunted House: “Whatever hour you woke there was a door shutting.” An unnamed man (Affleck) is a struggling musician (complete with unruly mop of hair and beard) who lives with his wife (Rooney Mara) in a small house in suburbia. The house is small but spacious and contains a piano which, one night, discharges a loud noise, as if something had fallen on it.


Through the subtle fold and droop of the sheet’s fabric we understand The Ghost’s feelings: he is a sad and confused and childlike figure who seems not to understand his own existence. Lowery doesn’t invert the usual meditations on grief, which quite understandably place their focus on the living, but he does ask us to consider whether the dead are grieving too.


Later on, the man is killed in a car accident outside his home and his wife identifies his body at the morgue before covering him again in a white sheet. When no one is around, he––or rather his ghost––suddenly sits up. The sheet covers him entirely and drags along the floor, and there are two black holes where his eyes should be. In other words, he is a child’s idea of how a ghost would look.

Through the subtle fold and droop of the sheet’s fabric we understand The Ghost’s feelings: he is a sad and confused and childlike figure who seems not to understand his own existence. Lowery doesn’t invert the usual meditations on grief, which quite understandably place their focus on the living, but he does ask us to consider whether the dead are grieving too.

The dead, in Lowery’s universe, can affect the physical world in small and subtle ways––knocking a book off a shelf, for instance––but their movement is restricted to the house they lived in at the time of their death. It means for all ghosts, there is not only the immediate pain of separation from the world of the real and from their loved ones, and the frustration of being unable to communicate with them, but the added grief of watching them, in almost all cases, leave them forever for a second time.

A Ghost Story is not scary. It isn’t even creepy, because there’s something so endearing about these white-sheeted figures who straddle the worlds of the real and the supernatural. It is, however, sad and absurd and sometimes very funny in subtle ways (one of the ghosts, for instance, wears a flowery sheet).


There is a brilliant and lengthy scene in which the newly-widowed wife eats the best part of a pie left on her table by a well-meaning neighbour, the camera resting on her all the while, and if it feels like an eternity, spare a thought for our hero, The Ghost.


Throughout the film Lowery is patient (patience-testing, I don’t doubt, to some). A single shot will last minutes and he will pan very slowly from a given image. There is a brilliant and lengthy scene in which the newly-widowed wife eats the best part of a pie left on her table by a well-meaning neighbour, the camera resting on her all the while, and if it feels like an eternity, spare a thought for our hero, The Ghost. (I should say here that Mara is typically excellent throughout A Ghost Story, though she is, understandably, upstaged).

In fact, Lowery’s management of time and pace throughout the film is superb, and the events seems to run outside the particular and peculiar tempo of The Ghost himself in a subtle confirmation of his existence outside the world of the real. Time, it’s clear, is a major theme for Lowery: there is even at one point a memorable and oddly mesmerising nihilistic speech in which a character argues that humanity’s efforts are worthless because the universe will one day die.

The film grows increasingly dark and weird and thoughtful as it progresses, and concludes, or near enough concludes, with a hauntingly beautiful and music-filled scene that may or may not have teased a tear or two out of one usually composed reviewer. In a time when films about the supernatural are of the quiet, quiet, BANG variety, and designed to provide cheap and superficial thrills, this is something really, really special. It’s a masterpiece.

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