“The Girl with All the Gifts”

The Girl with All the Gifts

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

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


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


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

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


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


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

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“Voyeur”

Voyeur

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

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


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


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


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

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

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“Los Secretos en Sus Ojos”

Los Secretos en Sus Ojos

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

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

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

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

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“Wonder Woman”

Wonder Woman

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

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


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


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

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

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“Murder on the Orient Express”

Murder on the Orient Express

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

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


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


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

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

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“The Death of Stalin”

Death of Stalin

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

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


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


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

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


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


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

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

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“Hunt for the Wilderpeople”

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

EACH FRIDAY IN Auckland, the city council arranges for a film to be projected onto one of the enormous factory chimneys that give their name to Silo Park. It was there, on a balmy night in January, that I saw the exceptional Kiwi-made horror-comedy What We Do in the Shadows for the second time. In spite of an Academy Award nomination for Two Cars, One Night, the co-director (and co-producer, co-writer and starring actor) of What We Do in the Shadows, Taika Waititi, has historically received relatively little fanfare outside of his native New Zealand. That changed, of course, when he was announced as the director of Thor: Ragnorok; now, he’s being touted as a future Star Wars director. “Taika Waititi is here to save the blockbuster,” ran one gushing GQ headline.

Waititi’s follow-up to What We Do in the Shadows was Hunt for the Wilderpeople, an adaptation of Barry Crump’s adventure novel Wild Pork and Watercress. Thirteen-year-old Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is a juvenile delinquent who was abandoned by his mother and is taken to live on a remote farm in the New Zealand bush with “Aunt” Bella, his new foster mother, and her bad-tempered husband, Hec (Sam Neill). Just as Ricky (and his new dog, Tupac) are settling into their surroundings, however, a sudden tragedy threatens to ship him away once again; rather than allow himself to be taken into the custody of the strangely aggressive and persistent child welfare services, he and Tupac head off into the bush.


Taika Waititi has something of a knack for creating memorable and sharply defined characters in down-to-earth settings, and a signature directorial style that has shades of Wes Anderson but is unquestionably his and his alone.


Taika Waititi has something of a knack for creating memorable and sharply defined characters in down-to-earth settings, and a signature directorial style that has shades of Wes Anderson but is unquestionably his and his alone. In Hunt for the Wilderpeople the deep-heartedness that is such a trademark of Waititi’s films takes precedence over the silliness and dry humour that dominates What We Do in the Shadows. Which, I hasten to add, is not to say that Hunt for the Wilderpeople isn’t funny. It’s hard to imagine a Waititi film that couldn’t coax a laugh out of even the most miserable cinema-goer. Paula (Rachel House), the social services zealot desperate to “bring in” our chubby hero is particularly deserving of a mention. “I’ve been in this game a long time,” she says, stoney-faced. “‘No child left behind’ is our motto. Well, it’s not, you know, the official motto, but it’s definitely mine.” (In point of fact errant Ricky himself, meandering around the New Zealand bush in his oversized hip-hop threads, is funny without having to try.)


Paula (Rachel House), the social services zealot desperate to “bring in” our chubby hero is particularly deserving of a mention. “I’ve been in this game a long time,” she says, stoney-faced. “‘No child left behind’ is our motto. Well, it’s not, you know, the official motto, but it’s definitely mine.”


For what is essentially an odd-couple flick with an emotional thrust that is impossible to ignore, Waititi does a commendable job of maintaining a light tone that is only rarely punctured by allusions to Ricky’s past (and to Hec’s, for that matter). It’s partly because these characters don’t indulge their sorrows or offer them up to each other in lengthy sob stories that Hunt for the Wilderpeople is so watchable: underpinning it all is realism. Accordingly none of the main characters fit any recognisable archetypes. The caricatures are reserved for the (largely incompetent) pursuing police and child welfare services.

If nothing else, Hunt for the Wilderpeople illustrates that coming-of-age cinema doesn’t have to be mawkishly sentimental, but that’s not to say it’s lacking in humanity. In fact it’s really quite charming and touching in places, which is also to the credit of Dennison and Neill, who are the heart and soul of the film. There are flaws, of course––most of them in the final third of the film, which owes something to Thelma and Louise, and the plot itself gradually thins as the story progresses. But the way in which Waititi develops character and balances humanity and comedy makes his films exceptionally watchable, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople is no different.

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“Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS”

Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS

OVER THE COURSE of a film in which the makers show the charred bodies of young children killed and air strikes and the public beheadings of perceived violators of Shariah Law, it might come as a surprise to hear (or read) someone say that the most memorable part was Sebastian Junger’s narration at the end. As he laments––not without sympathy, I might add––the awkward political situation and cultural anxieties the refugee crisis has produced in Europe and elsewhere, he reminds us that ‘whether or not you care about human suffering, human suffering affects you.’ It’s a truism, perhaps, but one cheerfully forgotten, and reminiscent of Christopher Hitchens’ advice that “you can’t give up politics, it won’t give you up”. Our distracted culture might bear Mr. Junger’s words in mind.

Matthew Heineman’s exceptional City of Ghosts is limited only by the perspective of its central players, most of whom are based in the then-occupied Syrian city of Raqqa. Hell on Earth has no such shortcoming, and in point of fact its makers go to pains to provide political, social, cultural and historical context for the rise of the Islamic State. Junger and his co-director Nick Quested chronicle Bashar al-Assad’s declaration of war on his own people following the revolutions in Egypt and Libya, and the subsequent topplings of Hosni Mubarak and Muammar el-Qaddafi during the Arab Spring. Assad’s deeply held belief that he was next to go, the filmmakers argue, was the motivation behind the strategy of uncompromising and brutal repression that he pursued, and it was into this swirling vortex of blood and smoke and rubble that a Salafi jihadist militant group, following a fundamentalist Wahhabi doctrine of Sunni Islam, moved.


Matthew Heineman’s exceptional City of Ghosts is limited only by the perspective of its central players, most of whom are based in the then-occupied Syrian city of Raqqa. Hell on Earth has no such shortcoming, and in point of fact its makers go to pains to provide political, social, cultural and historical context for the rise of the Islamic State.


But Junger, you feel, is a journalist first and a filmmaker second. He isn’t afraid of pointing fingers at the U.S., for example, for its foreign policy blunders, including the de-Baathification law put forward by L. Paul Bremer, Iraq’s American leader in 2003. Echoing Middle East correspondents such as Liz Sly of the Washington Post, Junger suggests that the upper echelons of the defeated Iraqi army were to find employment, if that’s the word, in the nascent Islamic State. (The second cataclysmic error in American judgement, as Junger sees it, was Obama’s failure to follow through with his promise of intervention were Assad to use chemical weapons.) But the filmmakers are equally critical of foreign involvement from elsewhere. There is no good-and-evil narrative here. Iran, the Kurdish people, Turkey and Russia have all pursued their own interests in Syria, and as Junger himself says, “Once you get involved in a proxy fight, so many people have so huge a stake in the outcome that it’s almost impossible to stop.”


The filmmakers are critical of foreign involvement from elsewhere. There is no good-and-evil narrative here. The U.S., Iran, the Kurdish people, Turkey and Russia have all pursued their own interests in Syria, and as Junger himself says, “Once you get involved in a proxy fight, so many people have so huge a stake in the outcome that it’s almost impossible to stop.”


Junger and Quested were denied access to Syria for filming, but dramatise the implosion of Syria using a range of talking heads, including the British writer Robin Yassin-Kassab, author of Burning Country, and the footage of Middle Eastern news outlets, activists, witnesses and citizen journalists. The effect may in fact be superior to that which would have been produced were the pair to do the filming for themselves: there is a brutality to Hell on Earth that is separate from the destruction and misery it depicts. The filmmakers do not shy away from that misery. “Hard-hitting” seems a woefully inadequate way of describing the scale and violence of the murder and torture––both physical and emotional––that Junger and Quested depicts.  When an image of three-year-old Alan Kurdi lying dead on a beach in Bodrum prompted an international outcry and renewed debate over the refugee crisis, the boy’s aunt said that “God put the light on that picture to wake up the world.” Junger, whose film Restrepo was praised for ‘forsaking narrative structure for pure visceral power’, has a deep understanding of the force of an unsparing image.

In September last year, headlines declared that Bashar al-Assad had finally “won the war” in Syria, citing heavy Russian involvement and U.S. “indifference”. But the fighting is still ongoing, and a refugee crisis still exists. If there is a single thing that Junger and Quested wish to convey in their depiction of the victims of both, it’s that those people could be us or our families or our friends, and we should treat them accordingly.

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“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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