“Isle of Dogs”

Isle of Dogs

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.

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“Eddie: Strongman”

Eddie: Strongman

ANY MENTION OF “strongman” will elicit in the minds of members of my generation memories of the giant Magnus Samuelsson or Mariusz Pudzianowski pulling trucks and lifting stones and, red in the face and trembling, heaving hundreds of kilos in weight off the floor. Then and now, it was and is only on the fringes of the mainstream, but then, as now, a highly charismatic figure has emerged and seems determined to thrust the spotlight upon it.

Like the four-time World’s Strongest Man winner Jon Pall Sigmarsson, whose guttural (and questionable) declaration that “there is no reason to be alive if you can’t do deadlift” made him an instant sporting icon, Eddie Hall, through sheer force of personality, is reacquainting Britons with this most primitive sport. Anyone who watches a lot of sport will know that self-obsession is so often dressed up as “showmanship”; Eddie Hall chooses instead to describe himself as a “narcissistic prick”, which makes a nice change.

Eddie: Strongman, which was made in 2015 by Matt Bell, follows the eponymous athlete as he strives to be named “World’s Strongest Man”, a feat which he did eventually achieve in 2017. Through Hall, we come to learn about the punishing routines of men like him and the sacrifices they are forced––or rather, choose––to make to achieve their goals. Hall, and his principal rivals Brian Shaw, Zydrunas Savickas and Hafthor Julius Bjornsson, who appeared in Game of Thrones, must eat almost constantly when they aren’t training, and in Hall’s case must sleep wearing an oxygen mask in the event that, due to his considerable size, he stops breathing while unconscious. As for Hall’s family he spends as much time with them as he can afford, which isn’t much, and his wife is under no illusions regarding how much he relies on her.


There’s a suggestion that Eddie is in some way playing a character when he, for example, pauses halfway through a strongman event to give the middle finger to his competitor, but like comedians who plead the same, the line separating the two personalities is blurred to say the least. Besides, as Rachel Dawes notes in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, “It’s not who you are underneath; it’s what you do that defines you.”


All this is fascinating. What Bell does so well and yet without straining, if I can put it that way, is to explore the psychology of men like Eddie Hall. Eddie grew up in a working-class area in Stoke-on-Trent, which since the closure of its pottery factories has been blighted by crime, and excelled first as a swimmer before turning to strength sports. (In point of fact he broke one of Mark Foster’s records as a teenager.) The exception that proves the rule that strongmen are, as Eddie suggests, complete narcissists, is Brian Shaw, whose need to be strong seems to be propelled by a kind of body dysmorphia or “bigorexia”: he mentions, at one point, that he used to eat extreme amounts of food because “more food means more big”. Hafthor and Zydrunas have shades of the same kind of self-obsession that drives Eddie. Memorably, the stoic Lithuanian Zydrunas, who we are told may be the greatest strongman ever to have lived, looks into the camera and says, “I have many trophies. You need a big house to store many trophies.” There’s a suggestion that Eddie is in some way playing a character when he, for example, pauses halfway through a strongman event to give the middle finger to his competitor, but like comedians who plead the same, the line separating the two personalities is blurred to say the least. Besides, as Rachel Dawes notes in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, “It’s not who you are underneath; it’s what you do that defines you.” It doesn’t harm Eddie’s cause: these athletes are almost totally reliant on sponsorship and competition victories to support their extreme habit, and a little self-promotion might be the order of the day.

Strongman, like those who choose its path, is far more complex than most would believe, but nevertheless there is something primal, and therefore interesting, about the pursuit of raw strength. Bodybuilding, in contrast, is found somewhere like the intersection of sport and performance art, and there are multiple criteria by which competitors are judged. In strongman, there is little room for style or grace or finesse; strength reigns supreme, and it has enduring appeal for that reason. As Eddie points out, the origins of strongman go deep into the history of the species. It isn’t much of a stretch to imagine our terrified nomadic ancestors gathering around to see who could lift the heaviest rock. Eddie: Strongman is illuminating and very watchable, for the most part because of its charismatic central figure and the unusual nature of the sport. But director Mark Bell nevertheless deserves praise himself for the way in which he tells his story.

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“Silence”

Silence

IN AN ARTICLE published in the now-defunct Continuum, the Trappist monk and Catholic theologian Thomas Merton describes St. Francis Xavier’s early missions to Japan in the 16th century. Though he acknowledges that “a genuine dialogue between the Jesuits and the Zen masters was no simple matter,” the encounter, he writes, was “relatively easy on the cultural level.” In fact, Merton describes a kind of burgeoning Japanophilia in St. Francis, who wrote that “in their culture, their social usage and their mores, they surpass the Spaniards so greatly that one must be ashamed to say so.”

But whatever goodwill existed between the Jesuits and their hosts did not last long, historically speaking. A century later, during the Edo era (or what is sometimes called Japan’s Golden Age) the early converts to the Catholic Christianity of St. Francis Xavier and the missionaries who followed him were violently and cruelly suppressed, to use what seems an inadequate word, following the defeat of the Shimabara Rebellion against the Tokugawa shogunate. It’s this persecution of the Kakure Kirishitan (“Hidden Christians”) that the Japanese Catholic and “Third Generation” writer Shūsaku Endō depicted in his 1966 Tanizaki Prize-winning novel Silence.

The rendering of the novel Silence into film was a Scorsese project that went back decades. According to Scorsese, a lifelong and almost-lapsed Catholic, he first read Endō’s magnum opus when the master director Akira Kurosawa invited him to play the part of Vincent Van Gogh in his 1990 magical realism film Dreams. Thus began what Scorsese himself described as a “passion project” and later as an “obsession” when asked why, after twenty-six years, he still intended to make the film. Scorsese and long-time collaborator Jay Cocks had first written a script for Silence in 1991 but were frustrated by their inability to capture the book’s spiritual essence. After years in what is often described––perhaps fittingly, in this case––as “development hell”, Scorsese announced that production would go begin in 2014, in the aftermath of the post-production of The Wolf of Wall Street. (You feel that perhaps the excesses of that film’s characters had, so to say, caught up with the director, and inspired him to do something entirely different.)


The rendering of the novel Silence into film was a Scorsese project that went back decades. According to Scorsese, a lifelong and almost-lapsed Catholic, he first read Endō’s magnum opus when the master director Akira Kurosawa invited him to play the part of Vincent Van Gogh in his 1990 magical realism film Dreams.


Silence begins in a Japanese landscape, where steaming hot springs emit bursts of foam and fog and half-nude Japanese converts to Christianity lie battered and bloodied on the ground or hang from wooden posts. The pale and bloodless faces of other converts, recently beheaded, gape from the tops of spikes. Among these watching is the large but horrified and terrified figure of Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), whose face suggests distress not only at the barbarity itself but at his inability to help those he himself brought over to his faith. Later, at St. Paul’s College in Portuguese Macau, an Italian Jesuit priest, Alessandro Valignano (in a brief cameo by Ciarán Hinds) tells his two Portuguese pupils, the wide-eyed Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and the slight but determined-looking Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) that Ferreira has committed apostasy; he has, in other words, renounced his Christian faith. Rodrigues and Garupe, who were taught in part by Ferreira, are unable to accept that this took place and after calmly but firmly articulation their protestations to Valignano, the older man yields, and gives them his permission to be smuggled into Japan by a drunk and an outcast called Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka) so they can try and find him.

The creation of Silence, which is Scorsese’s third religious film and follows his 1988 epic drama The Last Temptation of Christ and the biopic Kundun, which was released in 1977, reflects the director’s lifelong preoccupation with matters of the spirit. It perhaps bears remembering that he himself was dismissed from the seminary as young man. He had once intended to enter the priesthood, citing the influence of his mentor, Father Principe, who “opened [his] eyes to a lot intellectually” through the novels of Dwight McDonald and Graham Greene. (Greene, incidentally, once hailed Endō as “one of the finest living novelists”.) In Silence, Scorsese is able to capture and express and represent the spiritual substance of the novel that, in his words, eluded him for so many years in the early drafts of the script. But it is a film, if nothing else, about anguish in all its forms. In Scorsese’s take on Endō’s masterpiece, he deftly depicts the dilemmas of faith and the uncertainty that necessarily lies underneath the teachings of all religions, and under a beautiful pale-blue sky masterfully made vivid by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto.


In Scorsese’s take on Endō’s masterpiece, he deftly depicts the dilemmas of faith and the uncertainty that necessarily lies underneath the teachings of all religions, and under a beautiful pale-blue sky masterfully made vivid by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto.


At the same time, Scorsese also depicts in the vulnerable form of Sebastião Rodrigues a more personal kind of crisis that is easily divorced from its religious content and relatable to all. Rodrigues undergoes an exhausting interior battle to maintain his beliefs as the pressures of the surrounding world endeavour first to persuade him not to do so and then to force it out of him. But Scorsese is only able to accomplish this because of Andrew Garfield’s own masterful portrayal of Rodrigues, which is amplified and intensified by the superb supporting Japanese cast. Credit is due in particular to Tadanobu Asano, who plays the deliciously silver-tongued and smiling and mocking interpreter to the hated “Inquisitor” (Issey Ogata)––the man chiefly responsible for the persecution of the Christians. Meanwhile the infrequent but effective musical injunctions of husband and wife Kim Allen and Kathryn Kluge suggest a disinterested and chaotic natural world and reflect the oppressive and repetitive sense Rodrigues has that his God has fallen “silent”, and is therefore watching the suffering of his children with, to steal a phrase from Christopher Hitchens, folded arms.

The film is memorable from the first for its striking tableaux and its graphic scenes of creative and sadistic torture, cheerfully administered to the assorted Christians who refuse to renounce their faith. Both of these things are filmed with great care and skill on 35mm film by cinematographer Prieto, who emphasises the striking brightness and intensity of the colour around his subjects and the natural landscape. There’s a cold and bleak and hostile quality to the scenes that take place during the day; warmth seems to come only at night, when Rodrigues and Garupe and the suffering Japanese Christians have some peace, if only until dawn.

With its quiet strength and simplicity and patience, its considerable running time and its grand themes, Silence feels like the final work of a master director and if Martin Scorsese were to hang up his director’s beret and put the camera away, so to speak, that is what it would be. In a body of work that is so rich and diverse it’s hard to place Silence, although you feel, instinctively if nothing else, that its rightful place is near the top, among Raging Bull and Taxi Driver and GoodfellasSilence is nothing less than a masterpiece of filmmaking and one that doesn’t look to capture the spirit of the age but rather to tell a story that has profoundly affected its creator. Perhaps that is why Silence carries so much power.

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“Betting on Zero”

Betting on Zero

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

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


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


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

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

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


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


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

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

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“Take Your Pills”

Take Your Pills

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

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


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


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


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


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

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

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“Darkest Hour”

Darkest Hour

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

The dubious accuracy of 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.

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

The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom?

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

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


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


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

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


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


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

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

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“The Shape of Water”

The Shape of Water

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

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“The Girl with All the Gifts”

The Girl with All the Gifts

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

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


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


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

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


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


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

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“Voyeur”

Voyeur

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

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


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


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


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


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

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

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