'Exit Through the Gift Shop'

‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’

‘I DON’T REALLY know what the moral is,’ says the reclusive, elusive street artist Banksy at the end of his entertaining and cheerful documentary debut film, Exit Through the Gift Shop, which tells the bizarre story of how a voyeuristic Frenchman armed with a video camera became the multimillionaire artist Mister Brainwash almost overnight.

The film opens to the tones of Richard Hawley’s ‘Tonight the Streets Are Ours’ and a montage of various street artists at work in cities around the world. Banksy, his face and voice obscured, explains how the film is a sort of counter-documentary before saying, with typical self-deprecation, that ‘it’s not Gone with the Wind.’ The subject of the film is an energetic and obsessive Frenchman called Thierry Guetta, who passes off old clothes as expensive vintage items to gullible Angelinos. Thierry is obsessed with his video camera, and says as much. In fact he says the thrill filming gives him is ‘more than drugs’. His daily routine of marching around L.A. hassling celebrities like Jay Leno and Noel Gallagher is interrupted by a visit from his cousin, the urban artist Invader, who leads him into the emerging and counter-cultural world of street art.


Banksy has Guetta come across like a voyeur and fantasist––always watching and never participating, like a sort of Tom Ripley––whose constant presence seems simultaneously to amuse and alarm various street artists such as Shepherd Fairey, Zeus and Monsieur André, all of whom he somehow ends up filming.


The mood for this bizarre story is markedly light-hearted and mocking, and this is reflected in the derisive narration of Rhys Ifans, whose casting is something of a masterstroke. Underpinning this, however, is something slightly sinister. Banksy has Guetta come across like a voyeur and fantasist––always watching and never participating, like a sort of Tom Ripley––whose constant presence seems simultaneously to amuse and alarm various street artists such as Shepherd Fairey, Zeus and Monsieur André, all of whom he somehow ends up filming. The Dickie Greenleaf to Guetta’s Ripley is of course Banksy himself, the most famous and elusive of all street artists, and in an ironic twist, it’s Banksy who extends his hand. Guetta had been telling people that he was making a documentary about street art; he wasn’t, but it got him access to the biggest names in the movement, and the anonymous Banksy was convinced that Guetta’s filming might have some value.

Banksy pushes Guetta to make his film and the shambolic result (‘It was at this point that I realised that he maybe wasn’t a filmmaker. That he was maybe just someone with mental problems who happened to have a camera.’) makes him decide to re-edit the footage himself, the result of which is Exit Through the Gift Shop. Guetta, meanwhile, is sent back to Los Angeles to immerse himself in the art scene and try to put on a show and weeks later, and now calling himself ‘Mister Brainwash’, unveils ‘Life is Beautiful’. MBW’s ‘unique’ creations are a confused mixture of the signature styles of the artists he filmed, and Banksy seems to have been his main source of ‘inspiration’. And, in part thanks to the apparent misuse of endorsements from Banksy and Fairey, this hilariously unoriginal display is a wild success.


MBW’s “unique” creations are a confused mixture of the signature styles of the artists he filmed, and thanks to the apparent misuse of endorsements from Banksy and Fairey, this hilariously unoriginal display is a wild success.


Banksy pitches what he perceives as Guetta’s cynicism and commercialism against the undoubtedly mischievous and playful but largely idealistic world of street art, which, despite its polarising, is-it-art-or-vandalism? character, involves mainly serious artists who have spent their lives developing their own unique style. But Banksy stops short of moralising, opting instead, in his characteristic style, to approach the subject with humour and irony. The documentary also offers an interesting insider’s look into the world of street art with all its midnight outings and building-scaling and thrills of hiding in plain sight. But it isn’t so much about street art as about Thierry Guetta.

Since its release in 2010, Exit Through the Gift Shop and its subject have been accused of being an elaborate Banksy prank. The best argument for this that I can see is that Guetta’s wife is impossibly tolerant of his peculiar, eight-year obsession. Overall it seems unlikely, but people more interested than I am have done their own investigating, and it doesn’t really matter. Exit Through the Gift Shop is funny, occasionally sinister and illuminating glimpse at the world of street art. And if there is something approaching the ‘moral’ that eluded Banksy, it seems to be the statement ‘I am not for sale’.

'Ghost in the Shell'

‘Ghost in the Shell’

THE IMPENDING RELEASE of the live-action adaptation of Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 anime and science-fiction classic, Ghost in the Shell, has given me an excuse to review a strange and beautiful film which I count among the best of all time, and I couldn’t miss such an opportunity.

In the near future, following the balkanisation of the world’s most powerful countries by nuclear war, a sprawling electronic network connects almost every aspect of daily human life. Most people have direct access to this network through fully or partly-mechanical bodies nicknamed ‘shells’, which contain their consciousness, or ‘ghost’ and allow them to do things far outside the realms of ordinary human ability. In Japan, which has emerged from the global conflict relatively unscathed, the pressing issues of the day are international terrorism and cybercrime. Major Motoko Kusanagi, a cyborg and the leader of a government agency which specialises in cybercrime, is charged with finding and capturing a hacker known as the Puppet Master. The Puppet Master ‘cyber-hacks’ the brains of innocent people and implants their brains with false memories, turning them into unwitting accomplices in his various crimes.


Unlike other science-fiction films of the past twenty years like Total Recall or Terminator 2Ghost in the Shell has aged well. The now-iconic opening sequence in which Major Kusanagi strips and swan-dives off the top of a building to carry out an assassination is as breathtaking as it ever was


Unlike other science-fiction films of the past twenty years like Total Recall or Terminator 2, Ghost in the Shell has aged well. The now-iconic opening sequence in which Major Kusanagi strips and swan-dives off the top of a building to carry out an assassination is as breathtaking as it ever was, so too is Kenji Kawai’s haunting choral theme, ‘Making of a Cyborg’, a traditional wedding song which here symbolises the marriage of man and machine. Ghost in the Shell remains remarkable for its beautiful neo-noir setting and Oshii’s staggering attention to detail. Some of the shots of ‘New Port City’, the fictional Japanese city in which the story takes place, still inspire awe.

Rupert Sanders, who directs the upcoming live-action adaptation, has an opportunity to imbue his film with some of the tension and the horror that was necessarily absent from the animation. I had the feeling during certain scenes (memorably when the rubbish-collector realises his ‘wife and child’ don’t exist and when the Puppet Master first speaks) that I should have felt something more than I did, but didn’t on account of the medium through which the film is told. The action sequences, however, are as gripping as any from a film played with live actors.


But the overarching themes with which the film grapples––identity, Cartesian dualism, Heidegger’s “death as the key to life”––are legitimately interesting and challenging, and the deeper questions Ghost in the Shell raises about the nature of humanity are asked in subtle ways


Ghost in the Shell’s constant philosophising sometimes gets tiresome. Kusanagi and the hulking cyborg Batou, who is also a member of her counter-cybercrime team, say things to each other like, ‘If a cyber could create its own ghost, what would be the purpose of being human?’ But the overarching themes with which the film grapples––identity, Cartesian dualism, Heidegger’s ‘death as the key to life’––are legitimately interesting and challenging, and the deeper questions Ghost in the Shell raises about the nature of humanity are asked in subtle ways, such as Major Kusanagi’s conversation with Togusa over which gun he should use (‘I think stopping power is more important than personal preference,’ she says), and her lack of self-consciousness about her nakedness. You get the sense that there is always something to glean from a viewing of the film. The detached and introspective stance Major Kusanagi takes towards her physical body is typical of schizophrenia, which often involves an inability to resolve the conflict between the more mechanistic left hemisphere of the brain and the more holistic right hemisphere. Meanwhile, the exploration of the uncanny valley––reflected in the repeated imagery of dolls, glassy eyes and, of course, the name of the film’s antagonist, the Puppet Master––seems more relevant when you consider the theory put forward by Dr. Iain McGilchrist in The Master and His Emissary: that giving too much importance to the rational and the mechanistic gives rise to experiences of ‘phantasmagoria, grotesquerie, carnivalesque travesty, hallucinatory reveries, paranoia, and nightmarish fantasy’, often involving ‘dancing dolls, automata and detached body parts’––living things expressed as mechanisms.

Ghost in the Shell is as complex and opaque as it ever was, which is why it remains something of a cult classic rather than a film with broader appeal. But twenty-two years on, it still has all the intelligence, the moodiness, and the breathtaking visual beauty.

'Stories of Your Life and Others'

‘Stories of Your Life and Others’ by Ted Chiang

IT’S ENCOURAGING TO see that Denis Villeneuve’s excellent Arrival remained in the box office top-ten for so long after its initial release, because Ted Chiang, the author of the story on which it was based, is relatively unknown outside of his field. In the admittedly small world of science-fiction short stories, it might seem vaguely ludicrous that Chiang isn’t more popular, because he’s risen in a matter of years from relative obscurity to become one of the most well known writers of the genre. It’s quite an achievement given the size of his bibliography: Chiang produces a new collection only once every two or three years, but almost invariably receives a handful of awards each time he does so (a Hugo for The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate, a Nebula for Tower of Babylon, a Sidewise for Seventy-Two Letters, to name just three).

Though Chiang’s genre is science-fiction, his work has very little in common with what people tend to believe to be science-fiction, namely Star Wars, Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica (apparently, anything with ‘star’ in its title). Chiang, in response to the charge that his writing ‘isn’t science-fiction’, calls Star Wars and its like ‘adventure stories dressed up with lasers’ which are not ‘engaging in thought experiments, investigating philosophical questions’ as sci-fi ought to. Chiang’s stories might be science-fiction, but they stray into the realms of other genres: Chiang draws on theology (Hell is the Absence of God), classical myth (Tower of Babylon) and others areas of human knowledge. ‘Science-fiction author’, therefore, seems a woefully inadequate description for Chiang in the same way it does for Kurt Vonnegut or Philip K. Dick or Isaac Asimov, alongside whom Chiang will no doubt be talked about in years to come. Like the stories written by those authors (and any great author for that matter), Chiang’s work has, as nearly as possible, the potential to change the reader’s perspective on the world. Take, for instance, The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Fiction, which is about the invention of a device which allows the wearer to see specific events in their memory through the eyes of the others who were present. The central character is alarmed to learn just how much, and just how dramatically, he has misremembered significant incidents in his life, and the experience leads him (and the reader) to question how many of their ‘memories’ are part of a narrative of his or her own creation, constructed to preserve their sense of identity, if not their sanity.


Chiang, in response to the charge that his writing ‘isn’t science-fiction’, calls Star Wars and its like ‘adventure stories dressed up with lasers’ which are not ‘engaging in thought experiments, investigating philosophical questions’ as sci-fi ought to.


The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Fiction, which was released in 2013, isn’t featured in Chiang’s best collection, Stories of Your Life and Others, which was released in 2002, but the most well known short stories in his slim body of work, including Tower of Babylon, Understand and the titular Story of Your Life––on which Arrival is based––are all included, along with the triple-award-winning Hell is the Absence of God, and a story Chiang composed specifically for the collection, Liking What You See: A Documentary. All of Chiang’s writing has an understated brutality to it; he isn’t a stylist, exactly, but nevertheless there is an elegance to his prose: every sentence Chiang writes moves the story in some way. There are no wasted sentences in his body of work, then, and yet it’s still staggering just how much meaning he packs into his stories.

The singular thread which runs through nearly all of Chiang’s stories is the conflict between science and faith and the suggestion that this conflict might be resolved. In Tower of Babylon, Chiang describes a miner from Elam’s unforgiving three-month journey to the top of the obelisk of the story’s title, where he is to try to break through the Vault of Heaven of Babylonian mythology and discover Yahweh’s creation. Typically Chiang gives the reader little by way of background. The setting is revealed through the dialogue, of which there is also relatively little. It’s the weakest of Chiang’s better known short stories, and, due to its setting, the one that fans of ‘traditional’ science-fiction will likely enjoy the least.


The singular thread which runs through nearly all of Chiang’s stories is the conflict between science and faith and the suggestion that this conflict might be resolved. 


Hell is the Absence of God is set in a world in which various doctrines of Christian theology, including the existence of Heaven and Hell and angelic beings which sometimes come down to earth, are literally true. There is no dialogue in the story and therefore a sense of cool detachment from the described events; Hell is less emotionally affecting than other Chiang stories, and this is both its weakness and its strength. The impression is something like that of a documentary or thought experiment: Chiang deliberately reframes the questions of theology as questions of science, and in doing so treats the doubt and internal conflict which arise from the believer’s inevitable crisis of faith with compassion. The injustice of a serial rapist and murderer ascending to heaven because he sees the light of God reflects the Christian paradox that virtue is not necessarily rewarded and vice versa. (Chiang, incidentally, has said he found the Book of Job unsatisfying because at its end God restores Job’s fortunes, apparently undermining the Book’s overarching message that bad things happen to good people). Story of Your Life, which won no less than five awards and rightly gives the collection its title, is a story of staggering emotional depth and thematic range. The story has a simple plot consisting of two narratives and is narrated by the linguistics professor Dr. Louise Banks. In the first narrative, Dr. Banks and the physicist Dr. Gary Donnelly are hired by the military to communicate with a race of aliens that have arrived on the planet; in the second narrative, Dr. Banks describes the short life of her daughter. Through these narratives Chiang explores the relationship between thought and language popularly known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, determinism and loss, and the story is desperately sad. It’s perhaps the best illustration in all of the author’s work that in his universe it is impossible to disentangle humanism and rationalism.

A humanist science-fiction author is maybe the most appropriate description of Ted Chiang, which makes him something of a rare commodity. Whatever you choose to call him, the high-concept sci-fi Stories of Your Life and Others is sometimes eye-opening, often thought-provoking and always utterly readable.

'Into the Inferno'

‘Into the Inferno’

INTO THE INFERNO opens with a shot of a smoking volcano and the sound of chamber music. It sets the tone for a film in which Werner Herzog sets up his subject as a god or demon to be respected and to be feared, and explores the many people around the world who see volcanoes and other natural phenomena sometimes literally as such.

Herzog’s guide is the affable Cambridge volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer, and their journey begins on the South Pacific Ocean island of Vanuatu, where a small tribe living in the shadow of a volcano carry out rituals to appease the mountain, with whom some of the clan claim to be able to ‘speak’. The pair’s investigation takes them on to Indonesia, Ethiopia, North Korea, Iceland and finally back to Vanuatu; by the end of the film it’s clear to see that the heritage of any people that share their land with a volcano is irrevocably tied to that same volcano.


By the end of the film it’s clear to see that the heritage of any people that share their land with a volcano is irrevocably tied to that same volcano.


The film is made up mainly of interviews with volcanologists, archaeologists, and ordinary people who coexist with active volcanoes, and it’s something of a natural history lesson. Herzog discusses the catastrophic volcanic events of recent history and the individuals who played parts in those events. But Herzog never lets his metaphor of the volcano as a capricious and destructive god with the power to wipe entire countries clean off the face of the earth disappear from our minds. And it’s difficult not to share Herzog’s impression. In a clip of the French volcanologists Maurice and Katia Krafft, the raging river of lava that churns alongside them looks with the smallest jump of imagination like a huge, fantastical snake; the breathtaking footage of the Eyjafjallajökull eruption and the swirling neon-red magma of Erebus is enough to inspire at least a twinge of a sense of the numinous. ‘We’re chasing the magical side,’ Herzog says in his iconic accented tones.

Despite the energy and enthusiasm of the palaeontologist Tim White, the film slows considerably during the scene involving the archeological dig in the East African Rift Valley in Ethiopia. It’s interesting but it’s not great cinema, and it starts to feel like a bonus episode of Time Team; the film is far more watchable when Herzog remains ‘on message’, something he also fails to do later on, when he investigates the importance of Mount Paetku to the people of North Korea. Such is its uniqueness in our globalised world that almost anything about North Korea is interesting, but much of what Herzog discusses seems overindulgent in a film that’s already almost two hours long, and would be better placed in a separate––and no doubt fascinating––film exclusively about the hermit kingdom.


The breathtaking footage of the Eyjafjallajökull eruption and the swirling neon-red magma of Erebus is enough to inspire at least a twinge of a sense of the numinous.


The most powerful sequence of the film involves the footage of the Icelandic volcanic eruptions of 2010. The events themselves were relatively small, but nevertheless caused never-before-seen disruption to global air traffic and massive flooding which, when depicted by Herzog over haunting classical music, is hard not to describe as ‘Biblical’. Almost as breathtaking is a scene in which Herzog reads an excerpt from the Royal Codex, a single manuscript which ‘defines the spirit of the [Icelandic] people’, which describes a catastrophic volcanic eruption that seems to herald the end of the world. His words are accompanied by beautiful and terrifying imagery of volcanoes hurling bright orange lava into the sky. These sequences are all the more powerful because they punctuate an enquiry into the philosophical, historical and mythological associations of the world’s volcanoes which increasingly inspires a sense of awe in the viewer. I was reminded of Danny Boyle’s underrated Sunshine, in which it is the sun which takes on the role of a god or demon. Herzog’s footage of magma churning hypnotically and exploding mountains sending ash miles into the sky makes it if not easy to see then at least understandable that some people might feel humbled, in the most religious sense, by volcanoes. What’s more, the very real fact that there have been volcanic events in the past that have nearly wiped out all human life on the planet, and that there are dormant volcanoes in the world today which have even more destructive potential, is an illustration that it isn’t the most illogical thing in the world to view volcanoes with some degree of unease.

Herzog has a way of telling a story that causes the viewer to catch his interest in the subject, whether that subject is, for example, a triple murder in Texas (Into the Abyss) or the miraculous lone survivor of a plane crash (Wings of Hope). There is the unpretentious style and unhurried pace of his documentary films, which makes for a more thoughtful viewing and allows the viewer to immerse themselves fully in the atmosphere of the film, and there is Herzog’s choice of interviewee and interview questions––’Will the internet one day dream of itself?’ he asks his subjects in Lo and Behold. But more than those directorial qualities it is Herzog’s genuine curiosity which colours his films and pulls the viewer in. In the hands of a less interested director, Herzog’s subject would seem far less engrossing. The best way to sell Into the Inferno to the unconvinced, then, is to say that the theme of volcanoes has been explored countless times––but not like this. For some Herzog’s directorial wizardry will not be enough to make the subject appealing, but then, he isn’t a director who sets out to please anyone. For most, his own passion for volcanoes, communicated so effectively through his direction, will be enough at least to inspire curiosity, if not rapt attention.

'Logan'

‘Logan’

THE NUMBER OF superhero flicks that have played in cinemas over the past decade is so high that the announcement of a new comic book film is more likely to be met with a groan than with approval, even if the film is about a character as popular as Wolverine.

A frustration is that the role of the tough-talking, mutton-chop-sporting, adamantium-and-muscle-bound mutant has too often been reduced solely to slicing-and-dicing, even during his own film series. Logan, the new film by James Mangold, might have plenty of violence, but thankfully–and brilliantly–it bucks the trend.

At the beginning of the tenth X-Men flick, our eponymous hero is in a bad way. For one thing he looks a good deal older, and with his advancing years has apparently come the realisation that even the man who freed the slaves couldn’t pull off that facial hair, and that it really had to go. Those hair-horn things have gone too, incidentally. But better late than never, as they say.

The world’s most famous mutant is a limping, coughing shadow of his former self: he’s riddled with arthritis, his eyesight is fading, and the cynicism that the bright young things at Westchester gradually eroded over who-knows-how-many films is more pronounced than ever. He spends his nights drinking like a Hemingway character and driving prom queens and stag parties around in a limo, and his days sleeping off the hangover in a disused smelting plant on the Mexican border. With him in the plant are Caliban (played by a typically droll Stephen Merchant) and an apparently senile Professor X (Patrick Stewart), who must be dosed up to the eyeballs so that he doesn’t have a brain seizure and cause something very bad indeed to happen.


 The world’s most famous mutant is a limping, coughing shadow of his former self: he’s riddled with arthritis, his eyesight is fading, and the cynicism that the bright young things at Westchester gradually eroded over who-knows-how-many films is more pronounced than ever.


Meanwhile, the appearance of a desperate woman, Gabriela (Elizabeth Rodriguez), and young Laura (Dafne Keen), threatens to upend Wolverine’s grim existence, and brings into his life the smug and menacing Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook). Logan takes inspiration from the Mark Millar and Steve McNiven graphic novel Old Man Logan, and the very name of the film suggests a return to the grit and the realism and the humanity of the better comics and films. The revival of the superhero genre was borne out of a return to realism in films such as Batman Begins and has since lapsed into crash-bang-CGI silliness, best exemplified by X-Men: Apocalypse, a film so bad you might choose to advise others not to see it with your dying words. It was that sort of film that was mocked so deliciously, and so effectively, in Deadpool. Logan, a film about mutants set in the future, is the most grounded superhero film since Batman Begins. In the intervening periods when Wolverine isn’t earning the film its 15 certificate, Logan meditates on loss and belonging and home, and the tone is set by the beautifully minimalist score of Marco Beltrami. Meanwhile the overarching themes which have always made X-Men so relatable – prejudice and segregation, initially reflecting the civil rights struggles of the late 60s – are addressed by Logan writers James Mangold, Scott Frank and Michael Green with a subtlety that disappeared in recent X-Men efforts.Mangold and his cinematographer, long-time Ridley Scott collaborator John Mathieson, are unsparing in their rendering of the most brutal action sequences in which Wolverine has ever been involved. The camera lingers on every severed head and every chunk of flesh and every lopped-off arm.


At the centre of the film is a touching relationship between Wolverine and Professor X, whose verbal jousts subtly betray an intimacy and affection which is never explicitly acknowledged.


But at the centre of the film is a touching relationship between Wolverine and Professor X, whose verbal jousts subtly betray an intimacy and affection which is never explicitly acknowledged. Their connection is in so many ways familial, and when X tells Wolverine ‘what a disappointment’ he is, there is the sense that it affects him in a way that the words of no one else ever could. Richard E. Grant’s character, the evil scientist Zander Rice, is almost completely superfluous to the proceedings, but his underling, Pierce, is a worthy enemy for our world-weary protagonist, and his merry band of mooks are far more competent and menacing than your usual expendable superhero goons. Special praise must be reserved for eleven-year-old Dafne Keen, whose portrayal of spiky Laura is often purely physical, and who holds her own against series veterans Jackman and Stewart, who are both captivating.And so the curtain comes down on the Wolverine series. Logan isn’t so much a fitting finale for the series as a fitting finale for one of the most beloved superhero characters in the Marvel universe. Like its title character, Logan is dark and bloody and brutal, but funny and sometimes tender too. Its genre-defying and the superhero film that I–and many others–were waiting for.

'Sing'

‘Sing’

FILMS LIKE ZOOTOPIA and Inside Out have set a very high standard for computer-animated films in the past few years; both of them reaffirming that behind family-friendly stories and colourful visuals there can be a great deal of subtext that sometimes outshines the plot. And then when there isn’t too much going on beneath the surface, there’s humour and heart, as in the box office-conquering Despicable Me. But Illumination’s latest flick, the jukebox musical Sing directed by Garth Jennings, is only sporadically enjoyable, and instantly forgettable. It’s the sort of undemanding film you might watch on a long-haul flight as you tuck into a sausage that tastes like plastic.

The big-dreaming, theatre-owning koala Buster Moon, voiced by Matthew McConaughey, decides that to save his debt-laden theatre he needs to hold an X Factor-style singing contest, which is where we meet the frazzled mama pig Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), the gorilla son of a gangster Johnny (Taron Egerton) and punk-rock porcupine Ash (Scarlett Johansson), among others. And that’s about all you need to know. It’s as if someone in a room somewhere all of a sudden stopped chewing the end of their pencil, clicked their fingers and said, ‘What if we make a film about a singing competition, but the singers – wait for it – are animals?’ It’s simple stuff.


Sing is funny in places–talking animals are nearly always funny, and computer animators can create the sort of physical comedy that’s impossible to replicate with actors–but the fact is I laughed harder during the opening credits when the minions introduced Illumination Entertainment than I did during the entire film


Sing is funny in places–talking animals are nearly always funny, and computer animators can create the sort of physical comedy that’s impossible to replicate with actors–but the fact is I laughed harder during the opening credits when the minions introduced Illumination Entertainment than I did during the entire film. The montage of the various animals singing is genuinely fun and the film’s best scene (the buffalo who sings Butterfly by Crazy Town really should have won the competition) yet the film is over-confident in your interest in watching a selected few animals doing glorified karaoke, and that novelty rests on your patience for chronically overplayed chart-toppers like Katy Perry’s Firework and Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off, and it wears off pretty quickly anyway. If the film is going to poke fun at shows like The X Factor, surely there should be room for an acerbic, Simon Cowell-esque wombat or something?

Sing has none of the sharp satire of Zootopia, nor the invention of Inside Out nor even the genuinely thrilling action of films like The Incredibles, though it has a crack at all three. It feels market-tested, and and the film even attempts to own its unoriginality. When Buster tells his sheep friend Eddie (John C. Reilly) about his plan to save his theatre, Eddie replies, ‘Who wants to see another of those?’

Young children are likely to like the singing animals and won’t worry too much about the weak plot. But for everyone else, Sing dines out on its ensemble A-list cast, the current trend for many-levelled computer-animated films and the enduring popularity of shows like The X Factor and The Voice. Like Illumination’s disappointing follow-up to the hilarious Despicable Me films, Minions, Sing is colourful and energetic and sporadically enjoyable, but it rushes from scene to scene, lacks in plot and ultimately, feels flat.

'Resident Evil: The Final Chapter'

‘Resident Evil: The Final Chapter’

CLEARLY, SEVEN GAMES, seven novels, five live-action films, four animated films and innumerable novelisations and action heroes and other merchandise wasn’t quite enough Resident Evil.

The live-action films were enough for me, and I hope that Resident Evil: The Final Chapter will, as the name suggests, genuinely be the final chapter in an abysmal 15-year-long film franchise which relies on a single plot, tweaked ever so slightly with each instalment, the athleticism and charisma of Milla Jovovich and the fans of the game who fill the cinemas every few years probably hoping for something better than the last effort.


The plot is weak. Take, for example, the fact that Alice is told that for no apparent reason the 4,000 or so people left living on the planet will die within 48 hours. It’s the sort of lazy plot device that suggests that writer-director-producer Paul W. S. Anderson just doesn’t care anymore.


In the five-minute preamble to The Final Chapter, super soldier Alice (Jovovich) explains how Umbrella Corporation scientist James Marcus created the T-Virus to cure his daughter of a disease, only later to discover that there was an unfortunate side effect to the T-Virus, specifically that it turned people into monstrous members of the undead. This unsurprisingly caused a few problems, including the deaths of nearly everyone on the planet, and at the opening of the film Alice emerges from the sewers running underneath a ruined and overrun Washington D.C. to meet someone who has information about, among other things, how to save those left.

You might have gathered from that paragraph that the plot is weak. It gets worse. Take, for example, the fact that Alice is told that for no apparent reason the 4,000 or so people left living on the planet will die within 48 hours. It’s the sort of lazy plot device that suggests that writer-director-producer Paul W. S. Anderson just doesn’t care anymore. We’re reminded often that the Umbrella Corporation embodies the worst elements of corporate capitalism with religious fanaticism, and is therefore especially villainous. Not that this is done with any subtlety. In one scene some of the corporation’s various expendable mooks chant ‘unbeliever!’ and ‘cast her out!’ at our pulpy heroine, while designated villain Dr. Alexander Isaacs (Iain Glen), who was also the villain of the last film (it was a clone, if you can believe that) makes speeches about ‘a world ready for the righteous and pure to inherit.’

On the the subject of clones, someone once said of magical realism that it’s hard to sustain tension when at any moment, one of the characters might grow wings and fly out of the window. It’s far harder to sustain tension or evoke any sense of catharsis when any downed hero or villain might be revealed to be a clone.


It’s hard to sustain tension or evoke any sense of catharsis when any downed hero or villain might be revealed to be a clone.


A frenetic pace isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Both Mad Max: Fury Road and John Wick, for instance, were wild, violent and unrelenting fun. But The Final Chapter is cut so fast and so aggressively that half the time you can’t tell what the hell is happening, and that wastes the genuine physical talents of Milla Jovovich, who performs as many of her own stunts as she can and looks bored when she isn’t beating the brakes off something that looks like it didn’t make the final edit of a H. P. Lovecraft novel. The dialogue, meanwhile, is stupid, and half the time delivered with the same glazed expression that I had watching this film.

Maybe fans of the games will like the film (the franchise is about to make over a billion dollars, so clearly someone is going to see the films) but that doesn’t change the fact that Resident Evil: The Final Chapter is boring and predictable, and about as fun as a headache. And what’s worst about it is that we can’t even be certain it is the final chapter.

'Manchester by the Sea'

‘Manchester by the Sea’

IF YOU’VE EVER seen Shane Meadows’ brilliant Dead Man’s Shoes, you’ll know how unsettling it is when characters talk about someone in hushed, fearful tones. In Dead Man’s Shoes, it’s ‘Anthony’s brother’, back from the war. In the similarly bleak Manchester by the Sea it’s the tragic, withdrawn figure of Lee Chandler, who is forced to return home after the death of his brother.

Lee (Casey Affleck) is a janitor at an apartment complex in a Boston suburb who spends his days shovelling snow and scrubbing toilets and his nights knocking back pints in a bar. It’s clear that something dark has happened in his past – something dark enough to turn the funny and likeable man shown in flashbacks into the haunted, apathetic figure of the present. But there’s a strange serenity to the colourless life that Lee leads: he drifts through the day and drinks through the night and nothing really changes – that is, until the collapse of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) forces him out of his routine, and he’s told he has to look after his 16-year-old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges).


At the beginning of the film Lee is as cold as the wintry Boston scenery around him.


At the beginning of the film Lee is as cold as the wintry Boston scenery around him, speaking to no one except his boss and the ungrateful residents of the apartments he maintains. His interactions only reassert that despondency and a threat of violence that Affleck depicts so well through the hunched shoulders and the hands stuffed in pockets and the glassy-eyed gazes. In flashbacks full of colour and energy, he’s a different man. He jokes with his brother on their boat and smothers his wife Randi (Michelle Williams) with drunken, boyish affection, and all you can wonder is what unspeakable, unthinkable thing could have happened to turn this man into that one.

Manchester by the Sea is all about Lee Chandler, and therefore so much of the film’s success rests on the shoulders of its lead, and Affleck gives an exceptionally controlled performance that is very probably his best to date, never seeming stoic or sociopathic but tightly clenched and deeply self-loathing, always on the verge of rage. He’s short on dialogue for the first act of the film but is still completely engrossing.

Affleck, of course, has the benefit of a talented cast of co-stars. Michelle Williams’s role, though significant, is small – too small for her to be billed as a central character – but she plays it well. The scenes in which she appears are the most memorable of the film. Meanwhile Kyle Chandler does that gentle, paternal thing he always does so well as Lee’s brother Joe, while Lucas Hedges turns in a convincing performance as the outgoing Patrick, who spends much of the film in the passenger seat of Lee’s car, on the way to band practice or school. While Patrick is busy with friends and sport and schoolwork, Lee seems simply to have no reserves of grief left, and their scenes offer some relief from the gloominess and pessimism that pervades the film.


Most of the action in Manchester by the Sea comes mainly in the form of small, routine tasks and minor unpredictabilities which director Kenneth Lonergan uses to underscore the characters’ suffering.


Most of the action in Manchester by the Sea comes mainly in the form of small, routine tasks and minor unpredictabilities which director Kenneth Lonergan uses to underscore the characters’ suffering. When his brother dies, Lee has to fill out forms and sort out finances, highlighting the endlessness of his personal misery and the tedious everyday realities that follow a death. In other scenes Lee can’t find where he’s parked his car or has to reheat a pizza, and somehow through these minor events his every gesture betrays the deep and all-consuming sorrow he’ll never be able to overcome.

The first half of Manchester by the Sea is better than the second, and at around the hour and fifteen minute mark the pace slows to a crawl. Though it gathers in pace towards the end it still feels a fraction too long, and Lonergan is so focused on Lee that we see too little of Randi and her inner world, and the film seems weaker for it. But Manchester by the Sea is a brilliant film, because Lonergan, whose last film, Margaret, was released five years ago to critical acclaim, isn’t selling some romantic notion of grief – he’s offering realism. The wounds made by loss, Lonergan insists, never really heal. Manchester by the Sea is heartbreaking and exhausting, and a shining cinematic study of individual suffering.

'Christine'

‘Christine’

IN 1974, CHRISTINE Chubbuck, a reporter for a small news station in Florida, shot herself live on air, and that is, on the surface, what Antonio Campos’s new film is about. But that description does a gross disservice to a very empathetic portrait of a complex woman, played with unrelenting intensity by Rebecca Hall in the performance of her career.

Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) is a reporter for struggling news affiliate WZRB in Sarasota, Florida. She’s the most intelligent person there, according to her boss Mike (Tracy Letts), but she refuses to report the sort of news he wants. She’s also a perfectionist, and has similarly high expectations of the station, but she’s charmingly unpretentious, singing along (badly) to music in her car and bending down to drink through a straw rather than pick up the glass. She speaks her mind, to the constant irritation of Mike, who is pushing his team to report ‘juicier’ stories in an effort to save the station’s plunging figures. ‘It’s simple math,’ Mike says. ‘Want higher ratings? Find juicier stories.’ ‘That’s not math,’ says Christine. ‘That’s logic.’


There’s a temptation, with these sorts of things, to settle down to a little armchair psychiatry, but Campos and screenwriter Craig Shilowich seem to have treated Christine as a character study for its own sake, and the film is respectful and empathetic enough in its treatment of Chubbuck to satisfy anyone who might claim there’s anything exploitative about it.


Christine’s awkward, too, but never ridiculous. She mutters to herself in the mirror in her tiny bedroom, and interrupts a couple having dinner to tell them how fortunate they are. But she has things on her mind. For one thing, she’s worried about the stomach pains she’s been having, and she’s liable to bite her nails and stare anxiously through windows.

There’s a temptation, with these sorts of things, to settle down to a little armchair psychiatry, but Campos and screenwriter Craig Shilowich seem to have treated Christine as a character study for its own sake, and the film is respectful and empathetic enough in its treatment of Chubbuck to satisfy anyone who might claim there’s anything exploitative about it. Chubbuck starts to behave increasingly erratically as the film moves on, and knowing about her impending on-air suicide creates a constant state of tension that might not be there otherwise, but Christine is still intensely watchable because Chubbuck is so intensely likeable. A large part of that likability is squarely down to Hall, who puts in the performance of a career in a career of good, if supporting performances (The Prestige and Vicky Cristina Barcelona to name two). Every little hand gesture or line of dialogue reflects something about a woman who most people only know for a single, fatal action.


Coll Anderson’s highly effective score imbues the film at the beginning with a light-hearted atmosphere that hints that Christine is not the grim death-march you might expect it to be, and as the film trundles on the score changes to reflect Christine’s changing mood.


Coll Anderson’s highly effective score imbues the film at the beginning with a light-hearted atmosphere that hints that Christine is not the grim death-march you might expect it to be, and as the film trundles on the score changes to reflect Christine’s changing mood. And Christine looks the part, too: it’s filled with plenty of horrible mustard-yellows and browns and other sins against good taste, and the whole thing looks as washed-out and depressed as its lead character. You have a creeping sense during the earlier conversations between Chubbuck and Mike that the film might be trying to critique the sensationalism of news in the same way as the 1967 film Network (‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!’), and this crops up again and again throughout the film but fails to develop.

Most biopics deal in some way with grand or glamorous people or themes. Take Selma, for example, or The Imitation Game. Christine doesn’t, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting. Thanks to Campos and Shilowich’s sensitive approach, and the wonderful performance of Hall, you’ll feel that although you don’t know why Christine Chubbuck did what she did, you do know a little more about her and her world, and that seems to be enough.

'Hacksaw Ridge'

‘Hacksaw Ridge’

HACKSAW RIDGE BEGINS with a shot of dead soldiers lying on the battlefield and a short, slow-motion tableau of the fighting during the Battle of Okinawa, while Desmond Doss, speaking in a rural Virginia accent, talks about God. And you think to yourself that this couldn’t possibly be directed by Mel Gibson. But it’s the perfect story for the controversial director, who hasn’t directed anything since Apocalypto was released a decade ago, because it combines the sort of Christian humanism that permeates all his recent work with his taste for unfiltered violence and gore, and the result is a something that, though harrowing, is a moving tribute to simple humanity.

Sixteen years before the bloodiest battle of the Second World War, the young Desmond Doss (Darcy Bryce) hits his brother Hal (Roman Guerriero) with a brick while they fight on the front lawn of their Virginia home. His parents rush over to tend to their wounded son, and Desmond, horrified at what he’s done, runs inside the house and stands in front of a poster listing the Ten Commandments. His gaze falls on the words ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’. Killing is ‘the worst sin of all’, his mother says, which makes the war that’s about to kick off (not to mention the one that just passed) pretty sinful business. Desmond Doss, at any rate, takes his mother’s words to heart.


Hacksaw Ridge is based on the true story of the army medic and conscientious objector Desmond Doss, who saved at least fifty people during the spring 1945 battle for Okinawa.Doss was a Seventh-day Adventist who, among other things, refused to carry a gun.


Hacksaw Ridge is based on the true story of the army medic and conscientious objector Desmond Doss, who saved at least fifty people during the spring 1945 battle for Okinawa.Doss was a Seventh-day Adventist who, among other things, refused to carry a gun. He is to date the only member of the American armed forces to have received the Medal of Honor without firing a single shot.

But for a long stretch, Hacksaw Ridge doesn’t really feel like a war film. The preamble to the heroism that earned Doss his medal goes on for over an hour: Doss, now 26, has grown up to be a very different man to his drunk, abusive father (Hugo Weaving) who can’t overcome his guilt at having out-survived his friends during the First World War, and meets and falls in love with a nurse called Dorothy (Teresa Palmer).

Gibson isn’t so patronising as to let us forget that there is a war taking place; nevertheless Doss’s burgeoning relationship is developing happily and he, though fiercely patriotic, is under less pressure than others to enlist.When Doss finally shows up for basic training at Fort Jackson and announces that he won’t carry a weapon the tone shifts and the film really gets going, and in the second half, on Okinawa, it roars into life. The first battle sequence makes the iconic D-day landing scene from Saving Private Ryan look like a pleasant summer trip to the beach. Before Desmond’s unit begin fighting the camera lingers on the bloody bodies and the entrails on the floor, and the rats eating the flesh of the dead. Violence is central to Gibson’s work, and in Hacksaw Ridge he seems especially incapable of looking away from anything red and mushy. It’s grisly stuff, and if not for a very good performance from baby-faced Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge might be completely lacking in subtlety. But Gibson’s intense, unsparing camera work is nonetheless completely effective in capturing the brutality and the chaos and the intimacy of battlefield combat, which is what makes Doss’s actions so heroic. There’s one excellent tracking shot in which the camera moves rapidly backwards as the American and Japanese come violently together in front of it.


 Gibson’s intense, unsparing camera work is nonetheless completely effective in capturing the brutality and the chaos and the intimacy of battlefield combat, which is what makes Doss’s actions so heroic.


There’s humour, too, most of it courtesy of a top-of-his-game deadpan Vince Vaughn, who plays the sergeant major of Doss’s unit. In a hilarious five-minute sequence, he walks up and down the new recruits, subjecting them all to ritual humiliation. (‘How long have you been dead?’ he asks the gaunt and hollow-eyed Private Andy ‘Ghoul’ Walker). The recruits, however, never really become anything more than caricatures, which removes some of the emotion we might have felt during the later battle scenes. But Gibson does through these characters give us a sense of the cockiness and masculine optimism of the barracks – soon to be replaced by the sort of battlefield terror that causes some people to freeze completely.

A doe-eyed Garfield turns in a strong performance as a man who seems simultaneously naive and unassuming, quietly tenacious in his beliefs and yet capable of scrambling over corpses and dodging explosives to carry men twice his size to safety. He’s awkward but in a charming sort of way, and there’s a consistency to his performance even when he’s covered in blood and plunging syringes into the wounded that is a hard thing to do. There is some clumsy and slightly gratuitous religious symbolism – it is a Gibson film after all – and Doss does come across as something like a guardian angel, in the early scenes appearing almost comically childlike, and in the later ones as a figure that inspires awe and wonder. But then, Doss was a remarkable man, and though it doesn’t excuse the lingering shot of him suspended in the air between heaven and earth, it’s probably not a stretch to say that he might have felt like a guardian angel to the wounded men he dragged from the battlefield.