“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.

Continue Reading

“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.

Continue Reading

“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.

Continue Reading

“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.

Continue Reading

“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.

Continue Reading

“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.

Continue Reading

“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.

Continue Reading

“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.

Continue Reading

“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.

Continue Reading

“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

Continue Reading