‘Who Took Johnny’

Who Took Johnny

DAVID BEILINSON, MICHAEL Galinsky and Suki Hawley noticeably chose not to end the title of their gripping documentary thriller, Who Took Johnny, with a question mark, in doing so implying that their film will provide an answer to the question posed for the first time when a twelve-year-old boy disappeared during his paper-round in West Des Moines, Iowa, in 1982. But no answer––no concrete answer, at any rate––is offered. What the film does instead is prompt more and more questions, at the same time both becoming something of a cultural history lesson and a tale about the extraordinary determination of a mother (and where that level of determination––and perhaps desperation––can lead.)

The film opens with John Gosch’s disappearance which, it quickly becomes clear, was almost certainly a kidnapping. This belief is derived from the fact that a neighbour reported seeing Johnny talking to a man in a two-tone blue Ford with Nebraska registration plates and then being followed home shortly before he vanished. The police response was inadequate, to say the least, even during a time that predates the media-driven paedophile ‘hysteria’, as some would call it, of the modern day. (More than forty years after the event, by the way, the cops who worked on the case still maintain that they acted in the right way). In the absence of what she deemed to be appropriate police support, Johnny’s mother, the relentless Noreen Gosch, took matters into her own hands, and stirred up such a frenzy as to keep Johnny’s disappearance in the news almost indefinitely.


Who Took Johnny belongs to the same genre as films like The Imposter (which is a slightly better film if only because of the peculiar charisma of its narrator and its dramatic re-enactments) in that ‘true crime’ mutates into mystery as the story gets weirder and weirder and goes off on tangents.


Who Took Johnny belongs to the same genre as films like The Imposter (which is a slightly better film if only because of the peculiar charisma of its narrator and its dramatic re-enactments) in that ‘true crime’ mutates into mystery as the story gets weirder and weirder and goes off on tangents. Like The Imposter, Who Took Johnny also asks the question of how readily grief and desperation might lead you to believe something that might not be true. As the story becomes more complex, the line between what’s real and what’s not real (and what might be real) becomes blurred. Beilinson, Galinsky and Hawley follow the events leading up to and following Johnny’s disappearance in a straightforward, linear fashion, drawing on the wealth of newspaper articles, news reports and interviews from the time to craft a cohesive and satisfying narrative. The story grows in scale as Noreen’s investigation draws various figures out of the woodwork: a fair share of crackpots, certainly, but enough information plausible enough to be worth looking into. The film abandons the central thread periodically to discuss such things as the American attitude towards leaving children unattended and the birth of ‘stranger danger’. It also hints at grand conspiracies and political cover-ups and vaguely references ‘the rich and powerful’. Noreen, who is the film’s main character and shepherds the story along, speaks with such conviction that somewhere along the way you all of a sudden realise that you’ve lost all objectivity. Who Took Johnny drags you all the way in and before you know it you’re hunched in the corner of your room wearing a tinfoil hat and yelling ‘Grassy knoll! Grassy knoll!’

The film’s main strength is that when the lights come on you aren’t quite ready to dismiss the film’s suggestions entirely. After all, in this swirling, disorientating vortex of police incompetence, grief and finger-pointing, there are still details that it seems would be impossible to dismiss. Who Took Johnny might be frustratingly ambiguous for some viewers but it’s nonetheless fascinating, non-exploitative and tastefully, skilfully made.

Continue Reading

‘The Invitation’

'The Invitation'

THE MORE SOCIALLY awkward among us will enjoy The Invitation more than their more confident counterparts because a large part of the dread and discomfort that pervades the film is derived from that silly and powerful force of social life, peer pressure. That isn’t to say that there isn’t also the very legitimate fear of the characters on screen being chopped up into little pieces by the smiling cult members who invite them to their home in the hills of Los Angeles, but it’s the stress of being the odd-one-out and the oppressive self-doubt that accompanies holding a different opinion that is most responsible for The Invitation’s foreboding atmosphere, at least in the first half of Karyn Kusama’s film.

Will (a bearded and hirsute Logan Marshall-Green) and his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) drive to the Hollywood Hills to attend a dinner party hosted by Will’s ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband, David (Michiel Huisman). The house has special significance for Will, who lived there with Eden before the accidental death of their young son, Ty. Throughout the film, Will is haunted by memories of the life he shared with Eden and Ty. Also invited to the party are Will’s friends Tommy, Miguel, Ben, Claire and Gina. Another friend, Choi, is running late; Eden, who floats around the house in a white dress that’s begging for a big splash of red, has also invited Sadie, a wide-eyed girl she and David met at a grief support group in Mexico who now lives with them at the house. Eden and David have also picked up a few strange ideas from their Mexican venture that Will in particular doesn’t have much time for.


Will lurches wildly from being an object of sympathy to an unsmiling and paranoid guest determined to spoil the fun for his friends, and as he does this you’re tempted to believe that maybe there isn’t anything especially sinister about Eden, David, or the impromptu party they’ve decided to throw after years of silence and a trip across the border


In fact, Will doesn’t seem to want to be there at all, and this is part of the film’s subtlety and cleverness. Kusama and writers Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi don’t make their main character (and he is very much the main character: Kusama rarely bothers to train her camera on any other individual) all that likeable, unless you happen to find that sort of deadpan, cynical worldview amusing (I admit that I do). At any rate Will lurches wildly from being an object of sympathy to an unsmiling and paranoid guest determined to spoil the fun for his friends, and as he does this you’re tempted to believe that maybe there isn’t anything especially sinister about Eden, David, or the impromptu party they’ve decided to throw after years of silence and a trip across the border. Will’s grief allows him a certain degree of flexibility regarding social graces, but he soon sails over whatever line has been drawn and starts to test the patience of his hosts, friends and even his girlfriend who, despite being a newcomer to the group, is quick enough to take the side of the majority. Needless to say, all this (along with Kusama’s intelligent use of the different rooms and levels of the house) makes Will’s isolation more perceptible. And so the tension builds.


It probably isn’t too much of a spoiler to say there’s a resolution to all this unease––a brutal resolution, as it happens, and one that probably moves The Invitation away from the realms of the thriller and into the horror genre––but you have to admire Ms. Kusama’s restraint in delaying it until the tension is at its absolute zenith.


It probably isn’t too much of a spoiler to say there’s a resolution to all this unease––a brutal resolution, as it happens, and one that probably moves The Invitation away from the realms of the thriller and into the horror genre––but you have to admire Ms. Kusama’s restraint in delaying it until the tension is at its absolute zenith. Kusama allows the vague and mundane social fear that might arise from the modified game of ‘I Never’ that Eden and David have their guests play mutate and evolve into a more specific form and only then, once the atmosphere is at perfect pitch, does she let the finale play out. She chooses her cast well. Logan Marshall-Green’s brooding performance is good, but the performances of Blanchard and Huisman are better. There is a distinct suggestion of menace beneath both their amiable exteriors and yet the pair differ in crucial ways. Eden’s cheerful and passionate demeanour fails completely to conceal a dangerous level of instability, and in every concerned look and offer of expensive wine David conveys aggression. Someone in this trio, you decide early on, is going to snap; the question is who and when and why.

The Invitation is well-paced and ultimately very satisfying. It’s also highly acute in its portrayal both of the mundane social horrors of the dinner party and of the various roads, so to speak, that a person can take in response to serious grief. The typical genre scenes might be reserved for the final act, but this is a film that is more about the tension than the resolution. Putting the awful The Hateful Eight to one side for the moment, there’s something a little Tarantino-esque in Kusama’s direction.

Continue Reading

‘Ghost in the Shell’ (2017): A Little Too Much ‘Shell’

'Ghost in the Shell'

IT’S HARD TO deny that the adaptation of the 1995 anime masterpiece Ghost in the Shell––itself an adaptation of the Masamune Shirow manga of the same name––is a pleasure to look at. The pan-Asian metropolis that’s part-Hong Kong, part-Shanghai and is, as in the original, the setting of the story, is a sprawling neon nightmare of tightly packed and highly stacked buildings, and rising up between those buildings are nightmarish holograms so large that they could look Godzilla in the eye. At street-level, the suffocating advertisement-filled world conceived by director Rupert Sanders and concept designer Monika Bielskyte calls to mind the dystopian Los Angeles of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. These visual flourishes, however, are no substitute for substance, and Rupert Sanders’ film is, ultimately, a shallow copy of its predecessor. You might say that it’s a little too ‘shell’ and not enough ‘ghost’.

In a dystopian future, and in a neo-noirish Asian city, the cyborg commander of the government counter-cyberterrorism task force Section 9, Major Mira Killian, is tasked with investigating the hacking of artificial intelligence belonging to the Hanka Robotics corporation. In this world almost everyone is at least partly cybernetically enhanced, but the Major is the first person to have an entirely synthetic outer body or ‘shell’, which gives her superhuman abilities. She and her team, which includes the hulking, white-haired Batou (Dane Pilou Asbaek) and the completely human Togusa (Singaporean actor Ng Chin Han) set off to find who or what is behind the hacks.


The many flaws of the film are apparent right from the beginning. Admirers of Mamoru Oshii’s original––and the original Ghost in the Shell is one of those films that inspires a quasi-fanatical degree of devotion or nothing at all––will tell you that a large part of its appeal is its opacity, which Sanders and writers Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger in the remake begin to do away with in the preamble


The many flaws of the film are apparent right from the beginning. Admirers of Mamoru Oshii’s original––and the original Ghost in the Shell is one of those films that inspires a quasi-fanatical degree of devotion or nothing at all––will tell you that a large part of its appeal is its opacity, which Sanders and writers Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger in the remake begin to do away with in the preamble. Any hope afterwards of retaining a modicum of mystery is swiftly crushed by dialogue that far too often inspires embarrassment even when the characters aren’t trying to sound thoughtful. The repeating line ‘I am Major and I give my consent’ springs to mind. Some of the most awkward pseudo-philosophical musings in the ‘95 film––Kusanagi and Batou’s conversation on the boat, for example, though there are a few instances––seem subtle in the context of this remake.

The writers seem to have taken various elements of the original––the chain-smoking scientist of the second GTS; the acrobatic fight in the ankle-deep water of the city’s bay; the body-horror of the battle with the spider tank (one of the better scenes of the film)––and reproduced them in the remake without consideration for the film as a whole. Consequently Ghost in the Shell ‘17 feels absent of feeling, and Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe’s score—which, incidentally, has a hard act to follow in the haunting orchestral music of Kenji Kawai—suggests a depth and emotion that the actors fail to convey on the screen. The sequence in which a rubbish collector learns that his son and wife, whose perceived betrayal drives him to carry out a criminal act, do not exist, should be overflowing with emotion in a way that the scene in the animated original necessarily couldn’t be. Instead the scene comes and goes and carries even less emotional weight than the original did.


The sequence in which a rubbish collector learns that his son and wife, whose perceived betrayal drives him to carry out a criminal act, do not exist, should be overflowing with emotion in a way that the scene in the animated original necessarily couldn’t be. Instead the scene comes and goes and carries even less emotional weight than the original did.


The press made much of the decision to cast the white Scarlett Johansson rather than an Asian actor in the lead role—Major Kusanagi was, after all, Asian—but putting all that to one side for the moment, her performance is uncharacteristically weak. She plays the role as part-Black Widow, part-Under the Skin alien, with a little of her performances in Her and Lucy thrown in for good measure. She stomps around in a way that is presumably a tribute to the animated movement of her predecessor but looks ridiculous and is impossible to ignore; it leads you to wonder why the mechanical triumph that is supposed to be Major Killian’s synthetic body can leap gracefully off building-tops and yet remains unable to mimic ordinary human locomotion. The Major also communicates none of the rising detachment from her body in the way that Kusanagi does, nor the vulnerability that her doubts about her humanity inspire. (Consider, by contrast, Alicia Vikander’s masterful portrayal of Ava in Alex Garland’s sci-fi thriller Ex Machina).  Pilou Asbaek, who’s best known for playing the cynical spin doctor Kasper Juul in Borgen, is good as Batou but veteran Japanese actor Takeshi Kitano is wasted in the role of Aramaki, who, strangely, speaks to his international team in Japanese and then hears back from them in English.
Ghost in the Shell, to return to my original point, is visually beautiful. It’s even stunning. But it bears remembering that Mamoru Oshii’s film was also beautiful and more. There are scenes in Oshii’s film which not only evoke the spiritual in a purely intellectual way but inspire a sense of the spiritual as, for those who aren’t religious, only art is able to do. Maybe that’s why I found this film, which had the potential to be a more vivid and real version of the extraordinary ’95 film, a crushing disappointment. Mamoru Oshii’s film was about emptiness; Sanders’ film is empty.

Continue Reading

‘City of Tiny Lights’

'City of Tiny Lights'

WEST LONDON ISN’T the place that normally springs to mind when you hear the term ‘film noir’, although if you’ve seen The Third Man or Night and the City you’ll know that femme fatales and moody monologues aren’t unique to American cinema. Either way, there’s something odd about seeing a teenage Londoner walk through the frosted-glass door of a dingy study belonging to a chain-smoking private investigator and then kiss his teeth.

Tommy Akhtar (Riz Ahmed) is the Sam Spade of Pete Travis’s City of Tiny Lights, which was adapted for the screen by the book’s author, Patrick Neate. Local prostitute Melody (Cush Jumbo) asks Tommy for his help finding her missing flatmate, Natasha, and our hero quickly finds himself entangled in a web of intrigue that involves an old friend and property developer, a fundamentalist mullah and the CIA, and to complicate matters further, an old flame, Shelley (Billie Piper), is back in London and looking for closure.


In the first part of City of Tiny Lights the film is maybe a little too proud to show its noir influences. There’s Tommy, first of all, who rarely turns down an opportunity to pour himself another whiskey or light a cigarette; his hardboiled narration and night-time wanderings punctuate the film. 


In the first part of City of Tiny Lights the film is maybe a little too proud to show its noir influences: there’s Tommy, first of all, who rarely turns down an opportunity to pour himself another whiskey or light a cigarette; his hardboiled narration and night-time wanderings punctuate the film. Then there’s the constant rain (although you could put that down to the setting) and the shadowy mise-en-scene. There are the requisite femme fatales, prostitutes, drugs and other underworld staples. In Tommy Akhtar’s study there are even Venetian blinds, and his father has prostate cancer, which will ring a bell for anyone who’s read James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia.

These constant reminders are distracting, and take away from the film’s better qualities. In part thanks to Neate’s lean script. City of Tiny Lights is legitimately funny, for instance: the exchanges between Tommy and Melody, and Tommy and the scowling, streetwise Avi are brilliant; Tommy’s ailing father Farzad (played excellently by Roshan Seth) is a source of comedy all by himself. There’s also an admirable weaving-in to the narrative of contemporary issues facing Londoners such as the buying-up of city housing by property developers, social integration and religious fundamentalism, the result of which is that the film feels both very modern and very homegrown.


There’s something about City of Tiny Lights, however, that leads you to feel as if it’s just a Sunday night and you’re watching a BBC miniseries with a cup of tea in front of you. To put it another way, there’s nothing original about a drink-sodden, streetwise detective haunted by his past, and there’s nothing fresh in neo-noir.


Riz Ahmed, on whose narrow shoulders almost the entire narrative rests, is as watchable in this more understated role as he was when he played sidekick to Jake Gyllenhaal’s gaunt and psychopathic stringer in Nightcrawler and portrayed a college student accused of murder in The Night Of. Without his contribution City of Tiny Lights might be a far less watchable film. The supporting cast, meanwhile, simply don’t have enough to do.

There’s something about City of Tiny Lights, however, that leads you to feel as if it’s just a Sunday night and you’re watching a BBC miniseries with a cup of tea in front of you. To put it another way, there’s nothing original about a drink-sodden, streetwise detective haunted by his past, and there’s nothing inherently fresh about neo-noir, which the Scandinavian countries have appropriated so well that there’s even a “Scandi noir” sub-genre. The central thread of the film, which isn’t particularly interesting in itself, is too often put to one side, so to speak, to make room for scenes which seem to serve little purpose except to add to the ambience. And in the absence of a truly gripping central plot or a truly unusual central character, City of Tiny Lights can’t be said to shine, if you’ll excuse the pun.

Continue Reading

‘Trespass Against Us’

'Trespass Against Us'

‘HELL HATH NO fury like a locked-up super-goat,’ says Colby Cutler, the surprisingly sinister and infinitely quotable patriarch of Trespass Against Us. It makes some sense in context, but it’s still vague, and the same might be said of the film.

In the opening sequence, Chad, a chain-smoking Gloucestershire traveller and small-time crook, is driving through a field after a dog and a rabbit. His son Tyson sits on his lap and steers the car. The pair and the others in the overfilled hatchback are coursing, which is when a dog chases a hare. If the hare fails to outrun the dog, well, to quote another film involving a hard-to-understand traveller community, ‘the rabbit gets f***ed’.


Chad and his family are members of a small outlaw community who live on a tumbledown caravan site in Gloucestershire. This band of misfits also includes the rabid Gordon (Sean Harris), Samson (Kingsley Ben-Adir) and Norman (Tony Way), thought these characters are barely developed. The group are shambolic, ignorant and ridiculous, but somehow capable of pulling off grand heists. 


This first five minutes of first-time director Adam Smith’s film tell you a good deal about where the film is headed. Chad, an illiterate thief and getaway driver, wants to teach his son how to get by in the world, but is constantly undermined by his father, the small-time crime lord Colby. Like the dog, local police officer P. C. Lovage, played by Rory Kinnear, is in relentless pursuit of Chad, to the extent that the pair are on first-name terms. The animal metaphors in the film really are heavy-handed.

Chad and his family are members of a small outlaw community who live on a tumbledown caravan site in Gloucestershire. This band of misfits also includes the rabid Gordon (Sean Harris), Samson (Kingsley Ben-Adir) and Norman (Tony Way), thought these characters are barely developed. The group are shambolic, ignorant and ridiculous, but somehow capable of pulling off grand heists. This is in a large part thanks to Chad, who’s a gifted and icy calm driver in the mould of the central character in Drive, although he will stop mid-chase for a pack of cigarettes. He knows no other life than the criminal one, but he wants something else for wife Kelly (Lyndsey Marshal) and children Tyson (Georgie Smith) and Mini (Kacie Anderson). But his main problem is that he can’t stand up to his father, a flat-earth- and intelligent design-believer who rattles off colourful idioms and sits in a big red leather swivel-chair like a Viking king on his throne. Colby thinks up the criminal schemes that risk Chad’s freedom and threatens him when he hints at wanting a different life, and all the while grows in influence over his grandson.

Trespass Against Us should belong to the same genre as London Boulevard and Layer Cake, though the music probably isn’t as good as that of the former and everything else is definitely less stylish than the latter. Chad wants to leave the criminal world behind but of course it pulls him back in, as the criminal world tends to do, even if, in this case, ‘criminal world’ seems hyperbolic. But Trespass Against Us can’t really decide what it’s about. On some level it is about giving up the criminal life, but on another, it’s about family. Tonally it’s also confused. It seems director Adam Smith couldn’t decide between the small-scale realism of, say, Shane Meadows and a grander crime drama. The score reflects this identity problem. The music which plays during the early scenes at the caravan site evokes rural idyllic bliss, to the degree that you start to half-expect to see a couple of hobbits wandering past, pipe and pint of ale in hand. But during genuinely gripping and inventive chase sequences, thumping electronic tones supply the accompaniment.


The best thing about the film is the two central performances. Gleeson and Fassbender have a genuine on-screen chemistry that loads their verbal jousting and physical intimacy with emotion. That the film doesn’t offer a more satisfactory resolution to their conflict is a crying shame. 


The best thing about the film is the two central performances. Gleeson and Fassbender have a genuine on-screen chemistry that loads their verbal jousting and physical intimacy with emotion. That the film doesn’t offer a more satisfactory resolution to their conflict is a crying shame. Rory Kinnear gives a solid supporting performance as a cop who’s not so much sinister as petty: during his confrontations with Chad, he acts like a schoolteacher, barely containing his glee at having caught a particularly difficult schoolboy red-handed. Trespass Against Us is funny, too, much of that humour coming from Colby’s primitive musings and the result of combining traveller slang with a broad Gloucestershire dialect, yah dinny.

The film has some charm but it’s confused and, ultimately, unsatisfying.

Continue Reading

‘Certain Women’

'Certain Women'

THERE ARE LINGERING shots of the vast open expanses of Montana in Certain Women. In some cruel way those expanses and the freedom they seem to promise mock the three under-appreciated and frustrated women whose ordinary tales are told with empathy and intensity by writer and director Kelly Reichardt.

The three stories intersect in passing. Lawyer Laura Wells (Laura Kern) is having trouble with a client, Fuller (Jared Harris), who, after nine months, still refuses to take her advice; humourless Gina (Michelle Williams) is building a house from scratch with her husband Ryan (James le Gros), and feels he constantly undermines her: meanwhile lonely ranch hand Jamie (Lily Gladstone) takes an instant liking to law grad Beth (Kristen Stewart) after stumbling into a class on education law.


What unites these vignettes, which are based on the stories of Maile Maloy, is a sense of alienation and isolation, and the perceived powerlessness of the independent women at their centre to change their circumstances. In the very first scene, the camera lingers on the image of Laura, lying in bed after having sex with her married lover, reflected in a mirror, and throughout the film the motif of glass repeats itself. Over and over again Reichardt films her actors reflected in mirrors or through glass, illustrating an absence of connection.


What unites these vignettes, which are based on the stories of Maile Maloy, is a sense of alienation and isolation, and the perceived powerlessness of the independent women at their centre to change their circumstances. In the very first scene, the camera lingers on the image of Laura, lying in bed after having sex with her married lover, reflected in a mirror, and throughout the film the motif of glass repeats itself. Over and over again Reichardt films her actors reflected in mirrors or through glass, illustrating an absence of connection. Laura’s construction worker client, whose frustrations threaten to mutate into violence, sees her as something approaching a mother, and fails to take her legal advice seriously until he hears the same thing from a male lawyer. Fuller fails to respect Laura’s determination to maintain a professional distance from him, while at the same time exploiting her compassion. For Gina, the sandstone rocks with which she wants to build her home symbolise the stability and reliability she yearns for and fails to get from her barely-there husband and unappreciative teenage daughter. But no better is the sense of isolation and powerlessness that permeates the film depicted than in Jamie’s nervous pursuit of Beth, and newcomer Lily Gladstone, whose strikingly expressive face betrays a thousand thoughts, is the best thing about the film, though her scene-stealing fat corgi comes a close second. This arc, which owes a lot to an exhausted-looking and self-deprecating but nevertheless magnetic Kristen Stewart, is brimming with unspoken tension, and is the film’s best vignette.


For the all the empathy with which Reichardt treats her characters and the skill with which she captures both the stark beauty of the Montanan landscape, the minimalism of Certain Women slips at times into monotony. The film is incredibly slow, noticeably during the second arc, and the three narratives, though united by theme and by location, are lined up gracelessly in a row and dealt with methodically, rather than interwoven in the fluent and forceful way that, say, Crash or Pulp Fiction are.


But for the all the empathy with which Reichardt treats her characters and the skill with which she captures both the stark beauty of the Montanan landscape, the minimalism of Certain Women slips at times into monotony. The film is incredibly slow, noticeably during the second arc, and the three narratives, though united by theme and by location, are lined up gracelessly in a row and dealt with methodically, rather than interwoven in the fluent and forceful way that, say, Crash or Pulp Fiction are. The temptation is to judge the film by its parts rather than as a whole, in which case Certain Women would seem to have few glaring faults other than the narrative slightness of the second act, but taken in its entirety it feels a lot longer than it is. And there’s a deliberate ambiguity that sometimes crosses over into a frustrating vagueness: even the title is open to a wealth of different interpretations. Does the ‘certain’ denote that the story’s central characters are ordinary and random, for example, or does it suggest confidence and assertiveness? Or is it the sort of disparaging sexist ‘certain’ as in ‘there are certain women who . . .’?

In the solemn atmosphere and bleak countryside surroundings of Certain Women, Reichardt–surely one of the quietest directors working today–charges the barest of details with a level of emotion which elevates this from indie flick to film with mainstream appeal. But Certain Women will be too slow, too ambiguous and altogether unsatisfying for any impatient viewers.

Continue Reading

‘The Promise’

'The Promise'

TO SAY THAT The Promise is instantly forgettable would be to be too kind to Terry George’s film. It’s perfectly memorable, only for being interminably boring. It could have been the Doctor Zhivago of the 1915 Armenian Genocide; instead, it’s cliché-filled, colour-by-numbers tedium.

In 1914, Michael Boghosian (Oscar Isaac) is a young apothecary in a small village in Turkey where, for the time being at least, Christians and Muslims live alongside each other in relative harmony. In order to realise his dream of going to cosmopolitan Constantinople and studying medicine, Michael marries a local girl and uses the dowry to fund his education. He’ll come home, he says, as soon as he’s a qualified doctor. Michael, as you can probably guess, never becomes a doctor because history had other plans.


For most of its running time, The Promise is the cinematic equivalent of scanning a to-do list, ticking off the items one by one. It rushes from event to event and from scene to scene at such haste and with such mechanical, lifeless efficiency that it’s rarely engaging and almost never allows for the development of even an iota of empathy for its central characters. 


When he arrives in Constantinople, his father’s cousin introduces him to dance instructor Ana (Charlotte le Bon) and her bearded beau, Associated Press journalist Chris (Christian Bale). Michael, it turns out, is a brilliant medical student, but the war cuts his studies short, as wars tend to do. And though a wealthy Turkish med-school friend saves him from having to do military service, anti-Armenian violence soon spills out in the streets. Michael and Ana go into hiding in a hotel, and his determination not to break his promise to his betrothed is severely strained. While Michael gets closer to Ana, Chris travels the country documenting the suffering of the Armenians.

For most of its running time, The Promise is the cinematic equivalent of scanning a to-do list, ticking off the items one by one. It rushes from event to event and from scene to scene at such haste and with such mechanical, lifeless efficiency that it’s rarely engaging and almost never allows for the development of even an iota of empathy for its central characters. What you’re led to feel instead is an intellectual, detached sort of sympathy: you know what you’re seeing is tragic, but you don’t feel it. The score’s transparent attempts at emotional manipulation, meanwhile, don’t so much fall flat as come across as vaguely ridiculous; it’s as if all you need to tease a tear or two out of the average audience is an orchestral piece and someone sobbing on a large enough screen.

When The Promise finally slows down, it’s to focus not on the horrors taking place but on the dynamic between Michael and Ana, and Ana and Chris, and Michael and Chris. You do wonder how a slushy love-triangle ended up at this story’s centre, when what’s happening elsewhere is so much more interesting and so much more horrifying. Equally, you wonder why director Terry George feels the need to waste screen time lingering on the lush landscapes of rural Turkey when so little time is allocated to the deep development of the characters in that love triangle.


When The Promise finally slows down, it’s to focus not on the horrors taking place but on the dynamic between Michael and Ana, and Ana and Chris, and Michael and Chris. You do wonder how a slushy love-triangle ended up at this story’s centre, when what’s happening elsewhere is so much more interesting and so much more horrifying. 


The sins of The Promise are many, but there are an obvious two. The first is Terry George and Robin Swicord’s decision to put sugary melodrama above the largely untold story of the Armenian Genocide itself. When Kill Your Darlings was released in 2013, one reviewer pointed out that it was hard to care much about whether the Beat philosophy had any mileage when people were being offed in their millions across The Pond. It’s much harder to care whether a medical student will keep his promise to his betrothed when people are being butchered in the same frame. The second sin is to waste the towering talents of Isaac, le Bon and Bale (not to mention Jean Reno, Shohreh Aghdashlooin and James Cromwell in supporting roles) by having them follow a script that is, at best, underwhelming, and by failing to develop the characters they portray enough to prompt even a twitch of emotion from the audience.

All this is a crying shame, for obvious reasons. The mass-killing of Armenians at the outbreak of the First World War has been referenced in the music of Charles Aznavour and System of a Down and in various novels––Kurt Vonnegut’s Bluebeard, for instance, and Edgar Hilsenrath’s The Story of the Last Thought––but it remains largely untold or under-told on-screen: The Cut and 1915 spring to mind, but neither film was particularly good. You’re tempted sometimes to admire a film because of its subject matter, but The Promise only lets down a story that deserves to be told in a far more engaging way.

Continue Reading

“Kong: Skull Island”

Kong: Skull Island

THERE’S AN EXCHANGE in Lucky Number Slevin––a film, incidentally, that thinks it’s far more clever than it is––between Josh Hartnett’s eponymous Slevin Kelevra and the designated love interest, Lucy Liu’s Lindsey. The pair are walking down the street, talking about the actors that have portrayed the Bond villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld. At some point Slevin mentions that he prefers the Blofeld of From Russia with Love because “that’’s when the villain is most effective, when you don’t know what he looks like.”

He’s right, of course: the less you see of the villain (or the monster in this case), the more effective it tends to be. After all, the products of the imagination are far more terrifying than those of reality. Anthony Hopkins, for instance, playing Hannibal Lecter, had a paltry sixteen minutes of screen time in The Silence of the Lambs (for which he won an Oscar, incidentally), while Jurassic Park, a film that I don’t need to tell you is about dinosaurs, has just fifteen minutes of dinosaur screen time. And where would we be without mentioning the brilliant Alien, in which the Xenomorph is on screen for a mere three-and-a-half minutes.


In the case of Kong: Skull Island, in which the titular giant ape appears briefly early on and then again half an hour later (after which he doesn’t really go away again) how you wish the creators had subscribed to the Alien and Jaws school of filmmaking.


The creators of successive versions of King Kong have never really paid much attention to this idea, and, if we are to be fair, Deep Blue Sea and similar movies prove you can make a good film in which the monster remains front and centre, so to speak, throughout. Various King Kong films, including the 1933 original, achieved that feat. But in the case of Kong: Skull Island, in which the titular giant ape appears briefly early on and then again half an hour later (after which he doesn’t really go away again) how you wish the creators had subscribed to the Alien and Jaws school of filmmaking, and how you wish that they also hadn’t decided to make the same Kong supposedly featured in Jackson’s 2005 attempt so many times larger.

The film begins in 1944 and in the middle of the Second World War. Two fighter pilots––one American and the other Japanese––parachute onto an island in the South Pacific after a dogfight. They start to continue fighting on the ground, only for the enormous figure of Kong to appear. In 1973, U.S. government agent Bill Randa (John Goodman) hires a veteran tracker, Captain James Conrad of the S.A.S. (Tom Hiddleston), to lead an expedition to the mysterious “Skull Island” and map it out. It’s a fairly clumsy and pointless allusion to Joseph Conrad, author of Heart of Darkness, which was the inspiration for the Vietnam War film based on the story, Apocalypse Now. Also part of the group is photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) and a Vietnam War helicopter squadron called the Sky Devils, led by Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). Immediately after arriving on Skull Island, Packard and his merry band begin dropping bombs, which rouses a very irritated Kong.

When a character has been around long enough––in this case for more than eighty years––the films or books of which they are the subject start to become less and less surprising. This need not be too much of a problem, but in the case of a character so lacking in nuance as Kong, it tends to become one. To put it another way, it seems unlikely that Kong will, say, develop a drug habit or decide to rob a bank; you know straight away that anything involving Kong will include a division of the characters between those sympathetic to the giant ape on one side, and those hell-bent on destroying it on the other (with plenty of half-baked philosophy about Montaigne and his so-called noble savage implied throughout for good measure).


Kong is repeatedly and tediously revealed until the sight of him looming over the building across from your flat wouldn’t prompt so much as a raised eyebrow. His island surroundings, meanwhile, are overfilled with assorted CGI monsters which range from enormous buffalo to the sort of slimy, tentacled abominations you might see if you were to peer through the mist of Stephen King’s novel of the same name.


Kong is repeatedly and tediously revealed until the sight of him looming over the building across from your flat wouldn’t prompt so much as a raised eyebrow. His island surroundings, meanwhile, are overfilled with assorted CGI monsters which range from enormous buffalo to the sort of slimy, tentacled abominations you might see if you were to peer through the mist of Stephen King’s novel of the same name. There’s a lazy subplot involving a particularly nasty species of creatures vying with Kong for control of the island that is also needlessly introduced. Jordan Vogt-Roberts and writers Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly, in other words, make the amateurish mistake of trying to make Kong interesting by telling us as much as they possibly can about his history and the history of his peculiar surroundings, and in doing, strip away all remaining mystique. And you have the sense at any rate that the entire history and mythology of Skull Island was devised over a heap of cocaine in a dorm-room one night. By comparison, Peter Jackson’s 2005 reboot seems tastefully restrained. And what really is a crying shame is that the Skull Island creators couldn’t conceive of anything that makes the most of a formidable cast that includes Brie Larson, John Goodman and Tom Hiddleston. The script is stripped bare, so to speak, of any humour and any subtlety.

There are, if we are to be fair, one or two good things about the film. The consistent Toby Kebbell, who plays both a helicopter pilot and, in motion capture, the giant ape himself, is very good, while Brie Larson does the best she can with what she’s given, which isn’t much. The scenery is the film’s best feature, and the scene in which the helicopter squadron rouse Kong when they first arrive at the island is just about engaging enough, but the fact remains: future offerings featuring King Kong will have to be a lot better than this.

Continue Reading

‘Ghost in the Shell’

'Ghost in the Shell'

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

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


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


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

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


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


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

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

Continue Reading

‘Logan’

'Logan'

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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

Continue Reading