“Legend”

Legend

BIOGRAPHICAL FILMS HAVE an irritating habit of being underwhelming, even if, as in the case of Legend, you double up, so to speak, and focus on two people instead of one. There are exceptions of course––Ali, for example––but even in that case there are times when you find yourself looking at your watch. The problem is that even the most interesting lives––and the lives of the Kray twins are nothing if not interesting––have their less eventful moments, and if those moments are relevant to the story you want to tell then you risk the story descending into incoherence by failing to include them.

In Legend, it’s the story that’s the problem. John Pearson’s book The Profession of Violence: The Rise and Fall of the Kray Twins, gave writer-director Brian Helgeland plenty to work with, and yet rather than choosing to depict, say, the rise of the twins, their glamorous and bloody heyday, or their inevitable “fall” and incarceration, Helgeland tries to tell the whole tale in a little over two hours. He isn’t the first filmmaker to do this sort of thing and won’t be the last, but the impression you get of Legend is of a film in fast-forward, with only the occasional pause for an act of mindless violence or a nice cup of tea.


Helgeland tries to tell the whole tale in a little over two hours. He isn’t the first filmmaker to do this sort of thing and won’t be the last, but the impression you get of Legend is of a film in fast-forward, with only the occasional pause for an act of mindless violence or a nice cup of tea.


At the time of the film’s beginning, Reggie and Ronnie Kray (Tom Hardy) are club owners in Bethnal Green in East London. Frances Shea (Emily Browning), who in an odd choice is the film’s narrator as well as Reggie’s love interest, meets Reggie through her brother, one of the many Kray minions who seem mainly to drive cars and stand around in pubs looking ‘ard. In her voiceover she casts Reggie as something like the more sensible, if not exactly sensitive, of the pair; Ronnie, on the other hand, is the violent paranoid schizophrenic and “one-man mob”. (Anyone who knows anything about the Krays will know that Reggie was every bit as violent as his brother, so we can put that line down to unreliable narration or creative licence or both). At any rate Reggie and Frances start a romantic relationship and soon after that, Reggie and Ronnie begin to blur the line separating gangsterism and legitimate business through the Krays’ associate, Leslie Payne (David Thewlis). Ronnie, however, doesn’t find this as appealing as his twin brother does.

Though Legend claims to tell the story of London’s most infamous pair of gangsters, it tells only half of it, and instead paints a picture of a suave and charismatic antihero whose loyalty to an unstable brother keeps his feet firmly planted in the world of the criminal. This, needless to say, has its shortcomings as well as being untrue: in an effort to portray the two twins as starkly different if not exactly opposites, the both of them grow more and more cartoonish as the film goes on. Reggie, for example, seems to mutate from a loveable rogue into, at times at least, a sophisticated London man not unlike everyone’s favourite  secret agent, albeit with a Cockney accent that M would surely never get used to. (Incidentally John Pearson, on whose book the film is based, was a biographer of Ian Fleming as well as the third official author of the James Bond series). Ronnie, meanwhile, gets more ridiculous by the scene. All this gives Tom Hardy plenty of space to flex his dramatic muscles and of course he does, but, equally, the two characters he plays are oversimplified, and an ultraviolent rags-to-riches yarn which by its nature should be gritty and involving becomes nothing more than a stage for Hardy’s undoubted talents. In Legend plot is secondary to character, and yet Helgeland still fails to offer any insight into what, exactly, made either Reggie or Ronnie Kray tick.


In Legend plot is secondary to character, and yet Helgeland still fails to offer any insight into what, exactly, made either Reggie or Ronnie Kray tick.


Helgeland’s decision to have the one-dimensional Frances narrate the film is a strange one, and her dialogue is weighed down with well-worn one-liners as appalling as: “It was time for the Krays to enter the secret history of the 1960s”. She barely if ever develops into anything more than the nagging gangster’s wife, and even when her performance is finally (and mercifully) brought to an end, it’s with a maddeningly self-satisfied farewell. It is just as irritating that Helgeland copies, or tries to copy, quite so much from the better gangster films of the last fifty years. The scene in which Reggie takes Frances to his club in Bethnal Green, to give just one example, strikes you as simply the Primark version of the famous Copacabana tracking shot in GoodFellas.

The story of the Krays is a good one, but Legend doesn’t do it justice, and wastes an excellent cast––including Peaky Blinders actor Paul Anderson, who is no stranger to playing a gangster––in doing so. Tom Hardy is of course brilliant, but even acting at his level does not make up for a weak script and––what’s far more problematic––weak direction.

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“The Wolfpack”

The Wolfpack

YOU DO WONDER what sort of man keeps––or perhaps I should say imprisons––his children in a flat for the bulk of their young lives and yet somehow has the gall to claim he did it out of love. But Oscár Angulo, the father of the immensely likeable siblings of Crystal Moselle’s The Wolfpack, is not the film’s star (though he probably wishes he was). That dubious honour goes to those same siblings who, in spite of having a childhood that might at the very least be described as unconventional, somehow grew up to become talented and charming actors and moviemakers, albeit in their own low-budget sort of way.

In the opening scene, the oldest of the seven Angulo siblings, Bhagavan, introduces his dysfunctional family. His father is or was a Hare Krishna devotee and wanted to imitate Krishna by creating his own extensive brood in his own  unremarkable image, which should give you a clue as to what kind of man Señor Angulo is. He gave each of his sons the name of a God in the oldest language in the world, Sanskrit: Bhagavan, Narayana, Govinda, Mukunda, Jagadisa and Krsna. Oscár, we learn, hails from Peru, and met his wife Susanne, a hippie from the Mid-West, on the Inca trail to Machu Picchu. Somehow she found his anti-work, anti-government, anti-“system” ravings charming, and the pair settled down to continue their micro-revolution in a small apartment in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.


In the opening scene, the oldest of the seven Angulo siblings, Bhagavan, introduces his dysfunctional family. His father is or was a Hare Krishna devotee and wanted to imitate Krishna by creating his own extensive brood in his own  unremarkable image, which should give you a clue as to what kind of man Señor Angulo is.


The rules of the apartment went like this: never go out (unless supervised by Oscár), never talk to strangers, and never go into the rooms that share walls with those of the neighbours without express permission. After all, the neighbours might be listening. In effect, these rules meant that the Angulo children only left the apartment a handful of times each year and some years not at all. Their only relief from the claustrophobia of imprisonment was each other, and Oscár’s extensive movie library, which contained over two thousand films. With little else to do, the boys (their youngest sibling, a sister, is mentally ill) developed a sort of extreme cinephilia, which manifested in their filming and acting out hundreds of films; these reproductions often involved their stars showing a fair amount of ingenuity, such as creating outfits out of yoga mats and cereal boxes.

As you might expect, their ways of speaking are not so much seasoned as saturated with references to films, which they tend to mention to qualify or clarify something they’ve said. And they regularly slip into the jargon and slang and patterns of speech of characters from, for instance, Reservoir Dogs––a film that it seems they have particular affection for. (When you consider its themes of loyalty and brotherhood, that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise). All the while, Oscár’s delusions about his own perceived divinity seem to have caught up with him, and by the time of The Wolfpack he is a drunk and pathetic and impotent figure who is no longer able to control his family.


As you might expect, their ways of speaking are not so much seasoned as saturated with references to films, which they tend to mention to qualify or clarify something they’ve said. And they regularly slip into the jargon and slang and patterns of speech of characters from, for instance, Reservoir Dogs––a film that it seems they have particular affection for.


Director Crystal Moselle, who ran into the boys on Fifth Avenue, plays the part of detached observer throughout the film, which you feel is the way it should be. At any rate the boys are charismatic and charming enough to hold their own, so to speak, in front of the camera. But if the film does has an obvious shortcoming its the way that Moselle deals with the youngest of the Angulo siblings. There are, of course, issues concerning consent and her vulnerability, but it’s not so much that she doesn’t get time on camera as the fact she fails to get much of a mention at all. It’s possible that this was something Moselle herself and the boys established before filming, but as it is she seems to be dismissed. And it bears remembering that she still has to live with a lazy and tyrannical father and a mother who appears still to be largely in his thrall.

In a film that’s altogether memorable there are scenes that stand out. A sequence in which the brothers dance to the Europop anthem Tarzan Boy by Baltimore springs to mind, as does an early venture into the outside world. (“Whoa––this is like 3D, man!” one of the boys says). What surprises you most about The Wolfpack is that you feel it should be a tragic story; instead, and though the circumstances of the boys at the centre of the film are of course tragic, The Wolfpack is really quite uplifting, and serves more as an example of how creativity, and specifically film, can inoculate against and ultimately lift you out of misery. The Wolfpack, to put it another way, is joyful, not sad, and that’s to the eternal credit of the set of brothers at its centre, who you hope––and suspect––will one day find themselves making their own thoroughly enjoyable films.

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“Black Swan”

Black Swan

THE AUTHOR WALTER Dean Myers noted after seeing a production of Swan Lake with Erik Bruhn how significant a part the ever-present threat of violence played in Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet, and in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, in which dancer Nina Sayers struggles to embody the qualities of both dimensions of the lead part, the same thing might said to be true.

An angelic Natalie Portman plays Nina, a fiercely dedicated but shy and passive ballerina at the New York City Ballet. Beth McIntyre (Winona Ryder), the current prima ballerina and darling of ballet director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), is to “retire”––that’s to say, not-so-politely asked to move on––which means there is a vacancy, and one that Nina and her fellow dancers would like to fill. Thomas, however, has reservations about Nina: she is, he says, the perfect White Swan; it’s her ability to play the White Swan’s evil counterpart, the Black Swan, that he has doubts about. Meanwhile, a new dancer has joined the corps. Lily (Mila Kunis), straight off the plane, so to speak, from San Francisco, is cheerful and reckless and fun––perfect, in other words, to play the Black Swan.


Black Swan is both a psychological thriller that draws on the doppelgänger motif of stories like Edgar Allen Poe’s William Wilson and Dostoyevsky’s The Double and an allegory for the artist’s struggle for perfection, and these two threads happily co-exist without one ever overwhelming the other.


Black Swan is both a psychological thriller that draws on the doppelgänger motif of stories like Edgar Allen Poe’s William Wilson and Dostoyevsky’s The Double and an allegory for the artist’s struggle for perfection, and these two threads happily co-exist without one ever overwhelming the other. What Aronofsky and writer Andres Heinz do so well is create conditions and characterise Nina in such a way as to allow these two things this to be the case. Nina is beautiful, artistic and athletic, but her commitment to the ballet is an inheritance from her overbearing mother Erica––played brilliantly by Barbara Hershey, incidentally––who at one stage makes a point of saying that if “I hadn’t taken you to each of your classes you would have been completely lost”. It’s a line that betrays Erica’s belief that she is to credit for Nina’s success, but one that also carries a grain of truth. The role of Erica in Nina’s life allows Nina to be at the same time as an élite ballet dancer sexually naive, vulnerable and susceptible (if not prone) to mental illness. In Beth and Veronica (Ksenia Solo) we see all the envy and aggression we might ordinarily expect of an artist and athlete with Nina’s level of ability and dedication.


Natalie Portman brings this walking and talking (and dancing) contradiction of qualities to life. Her performance as Nina is her best and one of the best of recent years. She exudes such fragility that you would not be too surprised if all of a sudden she shattered into a thousand tiny pieces.


Natalie Portman brings this walking and talking (and dancing) contradiction of qualities to life. Her performance as Nina is her best and one of the best of recent years. She exudes such fragility that you would not be too surprised if all of a sudden she shattered into a thousand tiny pieces. And you wouldn’t blame her either: every shot of Nina’s reflection in a mirror or pane of glass or water is a reminder that her very sense of identity is under attack. As much as the film belongs to Portman’s Nina, it is the kittenish Mila Kunis as Lily, determined, so to say, to unshackle Nina, and a brilliantly sinister, sexually aggressive and aristocratic-looking Vincent Cassel who play large parts in inducing this crisis. And that’s not to include the above-mentioned Barbara Hershey’s Erica, whose determination to infantilise her daughter (Nina’s room is a baby-pink nightmare of dolls and music boxes) can only end on way.

Cinematographer Matthew Libatique, who worked with Aronofsky on The Fountain and Pi, creates an intimate and even claustrophobic sort of atmosphere that reflects Nina’s utter inability to get out of her own head, while the loud refrain from Tchaikovsky’s ballet threatens at all times to make your ears bleed, (which would, in fairness, be in keeping with the film’s abundant body horror.) As Thomas introduces his new production of Swan Lake in the opening ten minutes of the film, he acknowledges that the ballet has been “done to death, I know––but not like this.” Black Swan is somehow passionate, deranged and emphatic. It meditates on the obsessive nature of perfection while portraits scream at you from the walls. Like it’s main character, it’s nothing if not ambitious, and the result is spectacular.

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“Blade Runner 2049”

Blade Runner 2049

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

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

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


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


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

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

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


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


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

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

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“Icarus”

Icarus

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

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


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


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

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

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


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


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

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

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“A Ghost Story”

A Ghost Story

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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“Final Portrait”

Final Portrait

LIKE A GOOD meal, a good film leaves you feeling satisfied long after, no matter how greedy you happen to be. Such is the case with Final Portrait, the alternately droll and intense tale of the Swiss sculptor and painter Alberto Giacometti’s attempt to paint a visiting young critic in Sixties Paris. Through a shared artistic concern, Giacometti formed something approaching a friendship with his subject, just as he had with the novelist and playwright Samuel Beckett. It was Beckett who described Giacometti as “not obsessed but possessed”, which gives us some understanding of the inner life of the notoriously eccentric artist depicted here with compassion and humour by director Stanley Tucci.

In 1964, the American writer and art aficionado James Lord (Armie Hammer) is asked to sit for a portrait by the eccentric Giacometti (Geoffrey Rush) at his chaotic studio-home in Paris. According to Giacometti the process will only take a few days, and Lord, clearly flattered, agrees. Needless to say it doesn’t, and what follows is something of a battle to finish the painting––Giacometti says art “can never be finished”––which strains both the patience and the bank balance of his subject, who is forced to make a serious of costly flight cancellations. All the while, Giacometti philosophises, agonises and allows the young writer to witness the various frictions in his life, punctuated by exclamations of what becomes his signature phrase: “Ah, FUCK!”

The cheerful plucking of string instruments and the rich and reedy sound of the accordion sets the tone for a whimsical story in a style not dissimilar from that of Woody Allen or Pedro Almodóvar, and the humour in particular, which is both shockingly dark––at one point Giacometti tells Lord that fantasies of rape and murder help him get to sleep––and absurd––“Have you ever wanted to be a tree?”, asks Giacometti––begs the comparison.


Giacometti philosophises, agonises and allows the young writer to witness the various frictions in his life, punctuated by exclamations of what becomes his signature phrase: “Ah, FUCK!”


The film pursues two narratives at the same time: the first concerns the evolution of a friendship between two starkly different people. James Lord is tall and handsome and polite; his counterpart is shabby and eccentric. Nevertheless the pair form a definite bond that is part-friendship, part-duel and part sinner-confessor over a mutual love of art and the artistic process. Lord is initially stunned when, for instance, Giacometti casually tosses a brown envelope containing millions of dollars into a corner of his filthy studio, but as the film progresses he seems to understand better Giacometti’s peculiar philosophy. That’s not to say that James falls under Giacometti’s spell, so to say: it is to Tucci’s credit that he allows the friendship to develop without either man compromising their own way of being or worldview for the sake of creating chemistry.

But Final Portrait is an examination of the equally profound and tumultuous creative process, marked out both implicitly and explicitly by the actions and words of the tortured Giacometti, who when outside his studio drunkenly prowls the streets for prostitutes and drinks enough red wine to, in the words of Christopher Hitchens, kill (or at least stun) a mule. The callous way in which he treats those around him is depicted as a corollary of a highly unusual mind, which is, if not exactly justification then at least some kind of explanation.


Cinematographer and longtime Tom Hooper collaborator Danny Cohen, who worked on The King’s Speech, Les Misérables and The Danish Girl among other acclaimed films, deserves huge credit for imbuing Final Portrait with an intimate, authentic and unrefined quality that mirrors Giacometti’s own rough and monochromatic style.


Cinematographer and longtime Tom Hooper collaborator Danny Cohen, who worked on The King’s Speech, Les Misérables and The Danish Girl among other acclaimed films, deserves huge credit for imbuing Final Portrait with an intimate, authentic and unrefined quality that mirrors Giacometti’s own rough and monochromatic style. His camera moves in a leisurely, meandering way around Giacometti’s filthy studio––impressively recreated by production designer James Merifield––and the streets of the French capital.

Armie Hammer and Geoffrey Rush are perfectly cast for their respective roles. Rush plays Giacometti with sympathy and wit. He is riddled with self-doubt but equally prone to violent outbursts. Through superb and often subtle physical acting Rush manages somehow to communicate the workings of a chaotic and relentless inner mind, and a perceptible feeling of isolation that is reflected in the emaciation and loneliness of his sculptures. His face is fixed in a permanent expression of contempt and perplexity, in stark opposition to the easy smile of Lord, who is unfailingly charming and composed. A lively Clémence Poesy plays Giacometti’s lover and muse, the cheerful prostitute Caroline, and Sylvie Testud is excellent as Giacometti’s unimpressed wife, Annette, who has taken a lover of her own.

If nothing else, Final Portrait will make an interesting companion piece to those curious, elongated figures at the retrospective of Giacometti at the Tate Modern. To this humble reviewer, however, Final Portrait is a deft exploration of what it means to be a great artist and what it means to create great art.

4/5

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“Atomic Blonde”

Atomic Blonde

AT THE CONCLUSION of Atomic Blonde, once the credits had ceased to roll and the lights had come up, a man several seats away from me and impressively wasted turned to his companion and said, or rather slurred, “bit pony, wasn’t it?” What our friend lacked in eloquence he made up for in accuracy, because bit pony Atomic Blonde certainly was. The film is a comic book adaptation that owes much to the James Bond franchise but more to the Bourne series in the sense that, like the title character of those films, our platinum-haired heroine is really quite bland when she isn’t turning someone’s face to mush. Ultimately the film is heavy on style and light on substance, despite the best efforts of a handful of those involved.

The film begins with the semiquaver kick drum intro to New Order’s Blue Monday and the murder of a moustachioed spy in Cold War Berlin. It quickly becomes apparent that the film is very self-consciously Eighties and very self-consciously Cold War. Expect, in other words, questionable choices of attire, mass demonstrations, lingering shots of The Wall, double agents, and the dulcet tones of David Bowie, George Michael, Simon Le Bon and Dave Gahan. MI6 dispatch top agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) to retrieve a list which contains the identities of various spies and is at danger of falling into the bloody and calloused hands of the K.G.B., who, in keeping with Cold War cliché, say things like, “capitalist bastard!” and all sport facial hair. Broughton’s contact in Berlin is whisky-drinking station chief David Percival (James McAvoy), who is interesting if not entirely convincing. McAvoy is reunited with Filth co-star Eddie Marsan, who plays a man with the code-name Spyglass.


Expect questionable choices of attire, mass demonstrations, lingering shots of The Wall, double agents, and the dulcet tones of David Bowie, George Michael, Simon Le Bon and Dave Gahan.


From the opening scene I was reminded of Watchmen. Like Watchmen, Atomic Blonde was based on a graphic novel––Antony Johnston and Sam Hart’sThe Coldest City––and is set during the Cold War. It also involves chart-topping Eighties tunes and regular doses of violence. But it’s the Bond and Bourne films from which Leitch and screenwriter Kurt Johnstad borrow most heavily. There’s an escape which is lifted from the opening sequence of The World is Not Enough, and a line of dialogue that that is almost verbatim what Dominic Greene tells Bond in A Quantum of Solace about the propensity of those around him to, well, die. Our heroine is far more Bourne than Bond, however. She is as nearly as possible to devoid of all emotion and expression and, when she isn’t mashing puddles of blood of someone or other, charisma. This isn’t helped by the fact that Theron’s accent is all over the shop, so to speak, to the extent that McAvoy’s own occasional lapses seem minor. Toby Jones, John Goodman and Inglourious Basterds actor Til Schweiger also feature and are typically good, and Sofia Boutella, moving on from the dreadful The Mummy, is suitably mysterious and alluring as a French spy.


David Leitch has something of a talent for choreographing a particularly gruesome demise, and in Atomic Blonde a set of car keys, and ice pick and a high heel (a killetto?) are happily employed as instruments of death.


David Leitch is better known for his stunts than he is for his direction, but he is nevertheless the man who helped to create John Wick and is hard at work on the second instalment of Deadpool. He has something of a talent for choreographing a particularly gruesome demise, and in Atomic Blonde a set of car keys, and ice pick and a high heel (a killetto?) are happily employed as instruments of death. The action sequences are brilliantly choreographed and filmed. A single-take staircase brawl and a particularly violent murder to Nena’s 99 Luftballons are particularly good. Much of this is to the credit of cinematographer Jonathan Sela, who also worked on John Wick in addition to Law Abiding Citizen. Annoyingly, however, Sela has a tendency to resort occasionally to camera gimmickry that has more than a passing resemblance to Guy Ritchie’s signature style.

Atomic Blonde is ultimately stylish but too often dull, and far too long. Once you’ve had your fill of the neon and the Berlin cityscape the tedious spells in between each action sequence become unbearable. The film might have been the sort of relentlessly violent action-thriller that is in the vein of John Wick or Mad Max, in which, it bears remembering, Charlize Theron’s excellent turn as Imperator Furiosa heralded the arrival of a new kind of female action hero. Theron is more than a worthy action lead, but the underwhelming storytelling and characterisation in Atomic Blonde makes it the wrong sort of vehicle for her acting skill.

2/5

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“The Hitman’s Bodyguard”

The Hitman's Bodyguard

YOU HAVE TO admire the bravery of Patrick Hughes for casting at the centre of his new film, The Hitman’s Bodyguard, two of the more polarising actors to be working today. For those who find either Ryan Reynolds or Samuel L. Jackson irritating, watching––or perhaps it would be better to say enduring––this film must be about as enjoyable as being punched in the face. For those who can’t stand both, it must feel like the sort of experience that you could only recover from with the help of a patient therapist and a lifetime supply of clozapine.

The story begins with the assassination of a Japanese businessmen through the window of his private jet, to the shock and professional horror of “triple-A rated executive protection agent” (or “bodyguard”, as some people insist on saying) Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds), who had, until that point, done an excellent job of keeping him safe. (That might, on reflection, have been the wrong adjective to use). At any rate, a year later, Bryce has stubble, which is cinematic language for being either washed-up or French, and I think we can probably eliminate the second option. Thanks to our troublesome mystery assassin, Bryce has lost his triple-A rating but is nevertheless as competent as he ever was.


Bloodthirsty dictator Vladislav Dukhovich, (played by the always-brilliant Gary Oldman, who is presumably in the film for ironic reasons) is on trial for assorted war crimes committed in Belarus which, we’re helpfully told, is a “former Soviet Union” country, and therefore a swirling vortex of nihilism, lawlessness and goat stew.


Meanwhile bloodthirsty dictator Vladislav Dukhovich, (played by the always-brilliant Gary Oldman, who is presumably in the film for ironic reasons) is on trial for assorted war crimes committed in Belarus which, we’re helpfully told, is a “former Soviet Union” country, and therefore a swirling vortex of nihilism, lawlessness and goat stew. The success of Dukhovich’s trial for all that indiscriminate slaughter rests on the shoulders of an elite hitman named Darius Kincaid (Samuel L. Jackson, Jr.), who is to be taken to the International Court of Justice in The Hague by a specialist protection team in an effort to prevent or foil any attempts at an intervention by Dukhovich’s killing squads. Needless to say things don’t quite go according to plan, and Amelia Ryder, an Interpol agent and one of the only surviving members of the fragmented protection detail, calls on a former flame to finish the job and get Kincaid to The Hague. Accordingly, our bodyguard comes to find himself protecting our hitman.

As I suggested in my opening remarks, the degree to which you enjoy The Hitman’s Bodyguard will rest in a large part on how fond you are of its principal players. I am, at best, ambivalent about the both of them, although Ryan Reynolds has been in my good books, so to say, since his appearance in the brilliant Deadpool. As a result I can’t help but feel that handing over the usual sum of money to see this film would have felt pretty bloody expensive. The Hitman’s Bodyguard is fundamentally a buddy cop flick, only without the cops, or what the great Roger Ebert used to call a “Wunza Movie”, as in “One’s a …, the other’s a …” These films invariably got the same way: they include a good deal of reluctant cooperation and verbal sparring between the two main characters and usually end with an understanding that both the main characters actually quite like each other. How lovely.


Hughes and cinematographer Jules O’Loughlin treat us to a variety of landscapes and cityscapes of Belarus, the Netherlands and the UK. (Fortunately we’re still told if the scene takes place in, say, Amsterdam, because the gratuitous shots of flowers, canals, prostitutes and signs in Dutch might otherwise lead you to think you were in Stockport).


The film is notable for including a lot of what you might call Europe porn, given the vast majority of the action takes place in London and Amsterdam. Hughes and cinematographer Jules O’Loughlin treat us to a variety of landscapes and cityscapes of Belarus, the Netherlands and the UK. (Fortunately we’re still told if the scene takes place in, say, Amsterdam, because the gratuitous shots of flowers, canals, prostitutes and signs in Dutch might otherwise lead you to think you were in Stockport). It would be unfair to say that there aren’t a few genuine laughs in The Hitman’s Bodyguard––a scene on a bus full of nuns might just force a laugh out of even the most composed filmgoer––and the action scenes are well-choreographed and well-executed by O’Loughlin. There’s more than one thrilling chase sequence that I’d probably remember even more fondly if Baby Driver wasn’t so fresh in my memory, although the sequences in The Hitman’s Bodyguard do run to a breathtakingly unoriginal stock action score. There are decent enough supporting performances by a foul-mouthed Salma Hayek, who plays Kincaid’s incarcerated wife, and Élodie Yung, and there’s an amusing cameo by Richard E. Grant early on in the film.

The question as to whether you should see this film could be resolved by a flow chart. Do you find Samuel L. Jackson and/or Ryan Reynolds annoying? If so, then don’t see this film. If not, then, Do you like buddy cop films? If not, then don’t see this film. If so, then, well, I mean, maybe.

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“Dunkirk”

Dunkirk

THE CINEMATIC PORTRAYAL of the 1940 French and British evacuation from Dunkirk was, unsurprisingly perhaps, the most highly anticipated film of the summer. It was the latest offering from Christopher Nolan, arguably the best filmmaker of his generation, and the director’s first “war” film (though it has little in common with Saving Private RyanThe Great Escape or any other film that might come under that description).

For Dunkirk, Nolan reunited himself with a cast and crew comprising those who have, in the past, proved to be part of a winning formula: Tom Hardy (InceptionThe Dark Knight Rises), Cillian Murphy (Batman BeginsInception) and Michael Caine (Batman BeginsInceptionInterstellarThe Prestige); Nolan’s wife and producer, Emma Thomas, and the inimitable, ubiquitous composer Hans Zimmer. But in this case it is not the cast and crew so much as Nolan’s own writing (his brother Jonathan has written or co-written many of his screenplays in the past), his direction and his unique artistic vision that is behind a film that I have no doubt will be considered a classic of modern cinema.

It was the cosmic setting and grand themes of time and the survival of humanity in Nolan’s near-future sci-fi epic, Interstellar, that were at the core of the film, while the characters were secondary to the point of expendability. Very few people who sat through the film will have left the cinema without the image of NASA pilot Joseph “Coop” Cooper driving away from his children seared into their retinas and their memories. But in Dunkirk, it’s the reverse. In other words it is the survival of the individual, in pursuit from a faceless and terrifying and quasi-supernatural enemy force that lies at the centre of the story and is lifted up.

Three intertwining narratives, taking place on The Mole, in the sea, and in the air, and taking place over the course of a week, a day and an hour respectively, run together. Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a blank canvas of a young private in the British Expeditionary Force, flees the advancing German army to the beach at Dunkirk where, along with the seemingly mute Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), he takes up an abandoned stretcher bearing a dying man so he can slip past the soldiers queuing along The Mole and be evacuated with the wounded hundreds.


The retreat from Dunkirk in 1940, which was famously supported by some seven hundred so-called Little Ships with civilians and naval officers at their helms, is perhaps an unlikely candidate for a war film. 


Back in England, in Weymouth, so close to the killing fields of France and yet safely out of reach, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) head to Dunkirk on the Moonstone to help with the evacuation rather than allow a navy crew to commandeer their boat. Their teenage hand, George (Barry Keoghan), impulsively decides to join them and tells Peter that he hopes to impress his father by doing something to make up for his poor performance at school. As the three set sail across the choppy waters of the English Channel, three RAF Spitfires flying overhead pass them by. Aboard the Spitfires are the stoic Farrier (Hardy) and the equally phlegmatic Collins (Jack Lowden) as well as their Squadron Leader, “Fortis Leader”; they have been charged with providing air support to those leading the evacuation operation at Dunkirk, which is the target of regular aerial bombardment by Junkers dive-bombers, whose deafening screams are one of the film’s most memorable and haunting motifs. (The main gear legs of the Junkers Ju 87 were mounted with “Jericho Trumpets” specifically to inspire fear in those below).

The retreat from Dunkirk over a week in 1940, which was famously supported by some seven hundred so-called Little Ships with civilians and naval officers at their helms, is perhaps an unlikely candidate for a war film. Operation Dynamo, as it was called, was a narrowly avoided catastrophe (Churchill himself called it a “colossal military disaster”) remembered with fondness and pride only by we British, who still, occasionally, find a reason to celebrate the “Dunkirk spirit” exemplified in the deployment of the fragile little boats that helped to save four hundred thousand young Britons. It’s an extraordinarily British story for the twin reasons that no description of British culture could exclude a feeling of affection for the underdog and a belief in ordinary human decency. What better example is there, you might ask, of both?


The efforts of civilians back in Blighty form only a small segment of this remarkable film, which is dominated by the attempts of our central character (but never much of a hero), Tommy, to survive the advancing Germans, the Stuka bombings, the unforgiving sea, and the countless other forces of death that inhabit the beaches and waters of Dunkirk.


But the efforts of civilians back in Blighty make up only a sliver of this remarkable film, which is instead dominated by the attempts of our central character (but never much of a hero), Tommy, to survive the advancing German forces, the dive-bombings, the unforgiving sea, and the other forces of death that stalk the beaches and wade in the waters of Dunkirk. The film is frighteningly intense, thanks in a large part to the unending Shepard tone and sound of a ticking clock (taken from Nolan’s own pocket watch, apparently) that forms the basis of Zimmer’s anxious soundtrack. There’s no manipulation of the viewer’s emotions by Nolan––which isn’t to say the film isn’t moving at times––but, simply, a story of survival told against a backdrop of chaos and horror that’s immersive in a way that can only be achieved by a master filmmaker.

And Dunkirk is filmed masterfully: Nolan tells his story through a cold, grey-blue lens that seems to call to mind a distinct sense of death and decay. The scenes look like impressionist paintings, and elicit an acute terror that feels far more real than that found in most card-carrying films of the horror genre. Characters come and go with scant characterisation while Commander Bolton (Sir Kenneth Branagh), acting like a Chorus of Greek tragedy, supervises the evacuation. Alex (Harry Styles) is a fellow evacuee whom encounters Tommy part-way into the film, and an unnamed pale and gaunt figure (Cillian Murphy) is a shell-shocked soldier found by Mr. Dawson shuddering on a capsized hull. The performances, almost without exception, are excellent, but special praise is due for Fionn Whitehead and the characteristically superb Mark Rylance, who conveys with even the smallest movements a certain spirit and sense of duty. Jack Lowden and Tom Hardy are also deserving of acclaim in their pared-down pilot roles.

Dunkirk represents Christopher Nolan’s greatest artistic triumph to date, which is to say that his latest film does not have the mass appeal of, say, the Batman films. Dunkirk is also his furthest departure from his signature style, though his usual calling signs––a fascination with time and the nature of heroism, non-linear storytelling and experiments with perspective––make it, unquestionably, a Nolan film. Its shortcomings––and there are, of course, shortcomings––pale into insignificance in what is a taut and deeply involving film, masterfully conceived and beautifully executed, and an instant classic––never mind an Oscar contender.

5/5

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