“What Happened, Miss Simone?”

Review: 'What Happened, Miss Simone?'

LIKE JIM MORRISON or Janis Joplin or Kurt Cobain, Nina Simone deserves to be talked about as one of the artists of the 20th Century who as nearly as possible changed the culture with her artistic talents and force of personality. And like Morrison and Joplin and Cobain and, I suspect, many other creative geniuses––and I use that word sparingly––who never left the dive-bars and entered the mainstream, Nina Simone often burned far too brightly.

The Netflix original, What Happened, Miss Simone?, directed by Liz Garbus, is an attempt to get at why, precisely, everything fell apart for this towering personality, whose music alternately broke hearts and inspired revolution. The film opens with a performance from a later stage in Nina Simone’s career––a jazz festival, in Switzerland, where Simone looks out at an expectant audience with a hard expression for what becomes an almost uncomfortable length of time before breaking into a broad smile. ‘I have decided,’ she says, ‘to do no more jazz festivals . . .’ It’s a clip that gives the viewer an early taste of Simone’s extraordinary magnetism, but also the complexity and inner conflict that so deeply affected her later in her career.


Even the songs from Simone’s body of work which were not explicitly provocative or subversive or political––for instance the civil rights anthem ‘Mississippi Goddam’––carried within their melodies or their lyrics or within Simone’s performance a defiance of, and desire to be free from, the prisons of race and gender and oppressive relationships.


Garbus tells Simone’s story from her childhood in an Alabama marked by severe racial tension, where she showed the work ethic, ambition and desire for freedom which were characteristic of her career. Simone, it becomes clear, placed a premium on freedom––what she defined as ‘living without fear’––and which she experienced only infrequently and usually on-stage, and as her story unravels it’s plain to see how many different forces were exerted on her from an early age all the way through to her death at the age of seventy. Even the songs from Simone’s body of work which were not explicitly provocative or subversive or political––for instance the civil rights anthem ‘Mississippi Goddam’––carried within their melodies or their lyrics or within Simone’s performance a defiance of, and desire to be free from, the prisons of race and gender and oppressive and unhealthy relationships.

The interviews with Simone’s longtime bandmate, Al Schackman––who Simone herself describes as an intensely ‘sensitive man’––are particularly touching and illuminating. Schackman remained one of the constants in the life of Simone, who she described as sharing a kind of symbiosis with her: he was able to adapt instantly when Simone changed key––as she did often and without warning––and there’s a clear suggestion that Schackman was in tune with her emotionally as well as musically. Fittingly, some of the best insights into Simone’s life and character come from him. He and another friend of Simone, the Dutch photographer Gerrit de Bruin, nearly as possible saved Simone’s life in the 1980s when her behaviour became increasingly erratic. (She was subsequently diagnosed as bipolar).


The interviews with Simone’s longtime bandmate, Al Schackman are particularly touching and illuminating. He was able to adapt instantly when Simone changed key and there’s a clear suggestion that Schackman was in tune with her emotionally as well as musically.


Like Mitch Winehouse in Asaf Kapadia’s excellent documentary, Amy, or the tabloid journalist Nick Pisa in Amanda Knox, Nina’s abusive husband Andrew Stroud emerges early on as the designated villain of the story. But while the charge levelled at Mitch Winehouse was neglect, and at Nick Pisa a sort of callous opportunism, the sins of Simone’s husband, as described in the documentary, seem infinitely more direct and deliberate. Simone described in one interview how, after being handed a slip of paper by a man at a nightclub, Stroud beat her ‘all the way home, up the stairs . . . I couldn’t open my eyes for two weeks.’ It is to the credit of Stroud that he agreed to appear at all in the documentary, which casts him as a cruel and manipulative man who wasted no time in taking over Simone’s career and whose sole intention was to make as much money as possible, even if that meant working his wife into the ground. But the lives of complex people are invariably complex themselves, and it is Simone herself who emerges in the latter part of the documentary as a ‘villain’ of sorts, abandoning her family for Liberia and then, upon her return, beating her daughter Lisa so badly that she contemplated suicide.

Lisa, for her part, neither condemns her mother completely nor exonerates her for her shortcomings, choosing instead to remember her in her totality. Garbus, too, tells Simone’s story without bias. The resultant picture which emerges of the woman dubbed the High Priestess of Soul is neither idealised nor degraded. Instead, it is a picture of a brilliant and complex woman with some very dark demons who it seems was never quite able to find the ‘freedom’ that she was seeking.

Continue Reading

‘Tale of Tales’

Tale of Tales

IN THE OPENING FIFTEEN minutes of Tale of Tales, a hunched old man in a black cloak tells a king (John C. Reilly) and a queen (Salma Hayek) that in order for the pair to conceive, they must kill a sea monster and have a virgin cook its heart. And without any further ado, the king straps on a steampunk diving suit and sets off to do just that.

This is the mad and fantastical sixteenth-century Italy of Matteo Garrone’s Tale of Tales, in which elements of the magical cannot be said to be purely incidental, but are opaque enough to reassure that this is a film not about monsters but about people. And–what’s more–there is a suggestion that Garrone is making clear his disdain for the sort of magical realism that excuses lazy writing.

The plot comprises three stories lifted from the tales of the Neapolitan poet Giambattista Basile about three Royal rulers. In the first, the Queen of Longtrellis (Hayek), who is unable to bear children, takes the advice of a necromancer in return for a child. The eccentric King of Highhills (Toby Jones) develops an unhealthy obsession with a flea and starts to neglect his loving and obedient daughter (Bebe Cave) in the second. Meanwhile, the womanising King of Strongcliff (Vincent Cassel) pursues a hideous old woman after hearing her singing in the street and mistaking her for a beautiful teenager.

Tale of Tales, then, revolves around institutions and power, and the mad delusions those things inspire. Garrone grants himself a great deal of artistic licence in his take on Basile—Basile wrote the earliest versions of Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty, and influenced both the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen—but he doesn’t quite pull it off. You wonder, as the film draws to its unsatisfying close, what its point was.

The film’s principal faults are its confused structure and Garrone’s failure to push forward with more forceful pacing during each individual story. It is just as each tale draws you in that Garrone chooses to shift the narrative to the next. It isn’t until at least the midway point that the three tales begin to gather traction (when they do the film improves immeasurably) but there is too little time left. A linear approach, in which the stories are told back-to-back, might have suited better.

Visually, however, Tale of Tales is striking. Its setting is surreal and sometimes sinister, partly derivative of—yet achieving more than—Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods while at the same time borrowing darker features from Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. Set designer Dimitri Capuani and costume designer Massimo Cantini Parrini concoct some gorgeously ornate visuals to contrast in stark fashion with the grotesque elements of the film.

The film’s little humour comes almost entirely from the severity with which all mad matters are treated by its eccentric characters, beginning with the dutiful slaying of the sea monster.

The flea is delightfully revolting (and I say this as someone who sat, stoney-faced, through The Human Centipede and Antichrist). The scenes which Toby Jones shares with the flea are easily the film’s best, and Salma Hayek is excellent as a suitably lugubrious queen. John C. Reilly, however, is bizarrely cast as the king of the film’s opening.

These are fables for lovers of the macabre, and weird and wild antidotes to cleaner takes on similar material and the moralistic fairy tales of Disney. Nevertheless, Tale of Tales rarely surprises or jars or delights, and lurches from story to story in an apparently arbitrary way. It simply doesn’t quite work.

Continue Reading

“Mad Max: Fury Road”

'Mad Max: Fury Road'

IN A DIESEL-punk dystopian desert, white-faced ‘war boys’ huff spray paint and drive weaponised coupés, tankers and bikes across the wasteland as if the most savage travelling circus ever conceived is coming to town. It’s a Shangri-La for sociopaths and sadists, and a nightmare for everyone else, and it’s here, after three decades in development limbo, that George Miller sets the adrenaline-fuelled Mad Max: Fury Road.

After a short preamble running through the various events which led to the sorry state in which the world presently finds itself, Max looks over the dusty wasteland of what used to be Australia and then bites the head off a two-headed mutant lizard. Shortly after that he’s on the move with a convoy of weaponised cars and trucks in hot pursuit, and for the rest of the film’s two-hour running time, it hardly ever slows down. Fury Road is as crazy as its haunted, hallucinating hero.


Miller shows and doesn’t tell, and just what he shows is breathtaking. Miller resists the temptation to desaturate the colours of his universe as most dystopian films tend to do. Instead he oversaturates, turning the dusty, desert wasteland vibrant orange; at night it’s a rich mid-blue.


Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a tumour-ridden warlord who holds power over a small community by rationing water and repurposing Norse mythology (‘Ride with me eternal on the highways of Valhalla!’), dispatches his best driver, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) to Gas Town to bring back ‘guzzoline’, in this hellish world a rare commodity over which wars have been fought. But Furiosa has other plans, and soon she deviates from the route and heads for hostile territory. Among those in the automobile ‘armada’ Joe sends to bring back Furiosa is sick Nux (Nicholas Hoult), who has Max strapped to his car to supply him with fresh blood.

This insane arrangement is set up with next to no dialogue. Miller shows and doesn’t tell, and just what he shows is breathtaking. Miller resists the temptation to desaturate the colours of his universe as most dystopian films tend to do. Instead he oversaturates, turning the dusty, desert wasteland vibrant orange; at night it’s a rich mid-blue. A toxic sandstorm is an impossibly dazzling mixture of reds and oranges and bright-white lightning, and when Furiosa kills a bike-riding mook with a flare gun, the smoke seems to plume from the screen. All of this adds to an immersing, overwhelming, stimulating cinematic experience. For much of the film Miller and his director of photography John Seale take down the frame rate so that the film runs at a disorientating frenetic pace. Other times they crank it up so we can revel in colourful slow-motion explosions and grisly killings.


Tom Hardy in particular stands out because he spends the first act of the film largely unable to move and masked like he got too deep into the Bane role, but Charlize Theron is exceptional as the fierce, one-handed Furiosa, channelling Alien 3-era Ellen Ripley chic.


This sort of visual storytelling relies a good deal on the physical acting and non-verbal charisma of the main actors. Tom Hardy in particular stands out because he spends the first act of the film largely unable to move and masked like he got too deep into the Bane role, but Charlize Theron is exceptional as the fierce, one-handed Furiosa, channelling Alien 3-era Ellen Ripley chic. (It’s worth mentioning here that despite the film’s title, it’s Furiosa who provides the plot’s inciting incident and Furiosa who drives it afterwards. Max is more of a supporting protagonist). Nicholas Hoult serves up a solid performance as the brainwashed, drug-addled mook Nux (‘If I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die historic on the Fury Road!’) in what’s probably his most ambitious role to date and definitely the role that required the most makeup.

Mad Max: Fury Road is high-concept, low-budget, Aussie New Wave B-movie pumped full of ephedrine and steroids. Miller mixes souped-up murder-cars, flame-throwing electric guitars and pole-vaulting junkie mooks in a manic chase sequence set against a spectacular blood-orange backdrop. Add to that heady blend a lean script and a simple, linear plot and the result is deliriously entertaining cinema.

Continue Reading

“Ex Machina”

Ex Machina

THE CASUAL FILMGOER MAY never have heard of Alex Garland. If they have, they might see him—unfairly—as a sort of side-kick to Danny Boyle, Garland having written the scripts for 28 Days Later, The Beach (based on his novel) and Sunshine among countless other successful films. It is ironic, really, because Garland––novelist, screenwriter, producer, video game writer and now, director–is everywhere––provided you know where to look.

Whether his reputation for elusiveness, which followed the huge success of his zeitgeist book, The Beach, had any bearing on Garland’s decision to step behind the camera we can’t know, but what we do know from his directorial debut, the cerebral thriller Ex Machina, is that Mr. Garland’s talents extend far beyond the realms of pen and paper.

Caleb (Domhall Gleeson) is a programmer at the technology giant Blue Book, a search engine responsible for ninety percent of the world’s Internet traffic. In a company lottery, he wins the chance to spend a week at the sprawling estate of the reclusive Blue Book CEO and founder, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who wrote the search engine’s code when he was thirteen. Caleb discovers that his host doesn’t simply want to drink beer and talk coding: Nathan wants Caleb to conduct a face-to-face version of the Turing test—a test of whether an artificial being can show intelligent behaviour indistinguishable from that of a human—on his robotic creation, Ava (Alicia Vikander).

It is typical for something written by Garland to more about its characters and concepts than its plot. Ex Machina consists of a series of conversations—between Nathan and Caleb and between Caleb and Ava—for the best part of its running time, during which Caleb, as the vehicle for the viewer, tries to determine the motivations of both his drunken yet dauntingly intelligent host and his enchanting robotic test subject, and soon enough he comes to suspect that both may be misleading him.

Through these exchanges we come to know the characters, and though each conversation is revealing, the revelations are never disclosed in an obvious or heavy-handed way. The conversations are refreshingly intelligent; Garland has the trio freely discuss ideas and concepts without consideration for the viewer with no knowledge of that world. Every conversation is engaging—thrilling, even—and at the conclusion of the film there is the wholly satisfying feeling that no stone, so to speak, has been left unturned.Ex Machina

What makes Ex Machina more unsettling than other works of science fiction is its plausibility. It leads us to wonder: if we were to learn tomorrow that a reclusive Silicon Valley programmer had created something close to artificial intelligence, would we be so surprised?

Domhall Gleeson is ideally cast as Caleb, starstruck by the brilliance of his host, undeniably intelligent, but equally naive. Oscar Isaac, who is is fast becoming one of the best actors of his generation, turns in another excellent performance. It is Alicia Vikander, however, who really shines as an android on the very cusp of humanity. It is a role that necessitates a great deal of physical and verbal subtlety, but Vikander navigates this dramatic minefield imperiously.

To write much of the praise I have for this film would be to give too much away. What I can say is that this is a stylish and intelligent film with few flaws, and that Garland’s directorial career is off to an impressive start.

Continue Reading

“A Most Violent Year”

A Most Violent Year

ITS NAME ISN’T EXACTLY misleading, but if you went to see A Most Violent Year in the hope that you would see two hours and five minutes of violence, you might leave sorely disappointed. J.C. Chandor’s excellent period crime drama is a gripping and solemn account of an honourable man’s attempt to maintain his integrity against a backdrop of corruption and moral decay, and an exercise in subtlety and restraint.

The film concerns Abel Morales, played by Oscar Isaac, a fuel supplier and up-and-coming businessman who struggles to deal with the hijacking of a number of his trucks in the midst of a negotiation for a shipping terminal that would permit his operation to expand significantly. Abel’s enterprise isn’t entirely legal, strictly speaking, but neither are those of his competitors and in spite of the apparent contradition Abel sees himself as a decent man and benevolent employer determined to resist a seemingly inevitable descent into gangsterism. He learns, meanwhile, that his problems are not severe enough to merit the attention of the police department in New York City, where it is one of the most violent years on record. His underhand dealings, however, are.A Most Violent Year

The dramatic title of the film betrays its subtlety: throughout the film there is little violence but an unending sense of dread punctuated–to great effect–by brief action. Director J.C. Chandor, who also wrote the screenplay, prefers terse dialogue and veiled threats to shoot-outs and explosions; consequently when the action comes it comes loudly and it comes without warning: every gun-shot, or shattering window, or screeching of tyres is forceful and jarring.

The cinematography, courtesy of Bradford Young, depicts in gorgeous fashion a city in physical and moral decay. Alex Ebert lends low-boil tension with an understated synthesised soundtrack respectful of the film’s Eighties setting. But it is Chandor’s direction which is principal success in A Most Violent Year. He has rendered here a film that moves slowly enough to tease out the tangles of a complex narrative but never becomes dull. To say something is never dull, however, is not necessarily to say it is exciting, and what the film lacks is a little cinematic panache. The ending in particular is wholly underwhelming.

The film belongs to Oscar Isaac’s character, who wrestles with his responsibilities as a father and husband and employer, and all the while bustles about striking deals with loan sharks and police chiefs. But it also belongs in a large part to Jessica Chastain, who, in between lazy drags of a cigarette turns in a fine performance as Abel’s wife Anna, a sort of consigliere-meets-Lady Macbeth who is willing–and eager–to do the things her husband will not. Their white-hot exchanges in the immaculate rooms of the mansion that symbolises their success are the best scenes of the film.

A Most Violent Year is a strong entry in the filmographies of Isaac and Chastain, both of whom have established themselves indisputably as two of the best actors of their generation. It is also very weighty offering from director J.C. Chandor, who is marking himself to be an expert executor of truly gripping cinema.

Continue Reading

‘The Drop’

'The Drop'

APPARENTLY, THERE ARE bars in parts of Brooklyn that function as drop points for a given night’s mob money, which is bound to cause all sorts of problems for the poor souls who work there. In Michael R. Roskam’s lean and atmospheric thriller The Drop––based on Boston crime scribbler Dennis Lehane’s short story––those poor souls are owner Cousin Marv (James Gandolfini) and quiet bartender Bob (Tom Hardy), who complicates matters further when he decides to adopt a beaten, abandoned puppy previously owned by a drug-addled psychopath.

The story revolves almost exclusively around Bob Saginowski, a shy and soft-spoken man who seems a little on the slow side. Bob is tending bar with Cousin Marv when a couple of masked robbers take them for five grand one night; soon he’s an object of interest not only for the gang of greasy Chechen crooks who own the bar and the faux-affable detective investigating, but the junkie former owner of his scene-stealing pit bull, Rocco. There are early hints, however, that our humble hero might be more competent than he lets on. He gets to work on the disposal of a dismembered forearm like he’s done it ‘a thousand times before’, and Detective Torres (John Ortiz) notes with interest that he never takes communion. There’s one memorable shot in which Bob, his shoulders hunched, stands in a corridor under the red lights of the bar, and it does nothing if not suggest that there might be more to the man than meets the eye.


There’s one memorable shot in which Bob, his shoulders hunched, stands in a corridor under the red lights of the bar, and it does nothing if not suggest that there might be more to the man than meets the eye.


The Drop, despite having a few grisly moments, is more drama than thriller, and it burns away slowly. Roskam, who received an Oscar nod for Belgian crime flick Bullhead, puts character development and mood at the forefront of this film, which makes those infrequent moments of action all the more forceful. His direction is neat and technical, and he owes a lot to Lehane’s lean script, which rarely gives room for an unnecessary sentence. There is depth to The Drop, but the clues are subtle and easy to miss.


Roskam’s restrained direction and Lehane’s taut script are underpinned by excellent acting performances and a natural chemistry between Hardy and Gandolfini and Hardy and Noomi Rapace.


Roskam’s restrained direction and Lehane’s taut script are underpinned by excellent acting performances and a natural chemistry between Hardy and Gandolfini and Hardy and Noomi Rapace, who plays love interest Nadia. There’s a charmingly awkward exchange between Bob and Nadia while the former is out walking Rocco in a local park. ‘Where’s a pen when you need one?!’ he says uneasily, fumbling for something Nadia can use to write down her number. Gandolfini serves up a typically solid performance as a hot-headed bar owner dining out on a degree of local fame, while Matthias Schoenaerts, Roskam’s lead in Bullhead, is suitably swaggering and sinister as the dog-abusing junkie Eric Deeds.

The Drop is in many ways a simple film that rises above similar movies thanks to a taut script and a string of rich and complex performances. Gangsters and drug-addled killers always loom threateningly in the background, and though it feels thematically vague at times, its ending is its redemption. It’s a fitting final film for James Gandolfini, who died shortly after its completion.

Continue Reading

“Valley Uprising”

'Valley Uprising'

‘YOU CAN’T JUSTIFY rock climbing,’ someone says during the preamble to Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen’s Valley Uprising. ‘It doesn’t pretend to be anything useful.’ This, you feel, is probably quite true of all sports before they turn professional. But rock climbing, for various reasons, still hasn’t taken that step completely, and as a result it remains a uniquely fascinating activity for study. And of course, there’s also the small fact that you might die doing it.

The subject of Valley Uprising is rock climbing, but more accurately the rock climbing tradition of Yosemite Park, with which the sport’s recent history is inextricably connected. The film tracks modern rock climbing from its birth as a ‘counter-cultural’ activity in the hippy communes of Yosemite valley to its present incarnation as a sport, though undeniably still on the fringes of the mainstream, known and practiced around the world. Along the way, Mortimer and Rosen introduce the most important figures in the sport, from straight-laced climbing purist Royal Robbins and his arch-rival, the carefree Warren Harding, to the inimitable Jim ‘The Bird’ Bridwell, who was known for scaling the El Capitan rock formation while high as a kite on acid.


The film tracks modern rock climbing from its birth as a ‘counter-cultural’ activity in the hippy communes of Yosemite valley to its present incarnation as a sport, though undeniably still on the fringes of the mainstream, known and practiced around the world.


Valley Uprising places its attention on personality and image rather than, say, the technical aspects of rock climbing, which widens the film’s appeal without alienating its main audience. The filmmakers repeatedly call attention to the early climbers’ tastes for drugs, alcohol and ‘dirtbag’ living, and paint the modern rock climbing tradition as having been born out of opposition to the risk-averse culture of post-World War Two America, which manifests itself in the overzealous Yosemite Park authorities; later, Mortimer and Rosen set rock climbing against the increasing commercialisation of the park.

In place of footage, Mortimer and Rosen use a mixture of photos, graphics, understated sepia-coloured reconstructions and the accounts of various talking heads during the early part of the film, which deals with the birth of the Yosemite rock climbing tradition in the ‘sixties and ‘seventies. In those first scenes the directors make their subjects admirably vivid given how little they had to work with, and in the second half of the film they take advantage of the footage available to inspire enough vertigo to make your head spin.


There’s a sense of nostalgia for the freedom of those early climbers which permeates the film, and that sense owes a lot to the storytelling of its writers and to the score, which evokes alternately the rebelliousness of the climbers, the boldness of the climb and the serenity of the mountains and forests around them. It’s a sort of rock climbing Paradise Lost, only the problems came from outside the community, rather than from within, and of course, there are fewer talking snakes.


There’s a sense of nostalgia for the freedom of those early climbers which permeates the film, and that sense owes a lot to the storytelling of its writers and to the score, which evokes alternately the rebelliousness of the climbers, the boldness of the climb and the serenity of the mountains and forests around them. It’s a sort of rock climbing Paradise Lost, only the problems came from outside the community, rather than from within, and of course, there are fewer talking snakes. It’s this nostalgic and perhaps rose-tinted remembering of days gone by that leads the final half an hour of the film to feel underwhelming by contrast. The characters Mortimer and Rosen highlight necessarily seem more ordinary and more straight-laced––though just as technically able, if not more so thanks to advancements in equipment and conditioning methods––than the pioneers of thirty and forty years ago. Nevertheless, the superhuman skills of free solo climber Alex Honnold are enough to keep a watcher interested.

Valley Uprising’s greatest achievements are in using computer graphics to bring a largely unrecorded period in the history of modern rock climbing to life, and in making a sport that to this day remains on the fringes of the mainstream an absorbing subject even to the most convinced couch potato. It’s a comprehensive look at the culture and history of modern rock climbing and as quirky and entertaining as the colourful characters at its centre.

Continue Reading

“Particle Fever”

'Particle Fever'

AT SOME POINT during Particle Fever, one of the CERN scientists involved in the first round of experiments at the Large Hadron Collider describes the finding of the Higgs boson or ‘God’ particle as having equal importance to the first moon landing, which might strike anyone who has stared into the sky at night as something of a bold claim. This scientist suggests the reason why the experiments weren’t seen that way by the public at the time is because they were a lot less glamorous than stepping out onto a foreign celestial body and plunging a flag into the dust and then, there was the small matter of trying to explain to a public largely uninformed on the subject what the hell they were doing. There isn’t much we can do to remedy that now, of course, unless time travel is next on the to-do list at CERN. If you see Particle Fever, it’ll occur you to at some point that if director Mark Levinson and the merry band of physicists he speaks to had got together before those scientists started smashing protons into each other, the public impression might have been a little different. And maybe they would later decide that scientist was right.

There are two main narrative threads that run through the film. The first concerns the team of experimental and theoretical physicists at CERN involved in the experiments at the LHC and their attempts to get it working after the 2007 helium leak complicates things by damaging the electromagnets. In the second, Nima Arkani-Hamed and his mentor, Savas Dimopoulos––both war refugees, both brilliant, both charming, and both claiming to be able to predict the mass of the Higgs boson––offer up and argue the case for two rival theories.


The film’s main success is that it makes complicated concepts relating to physics simple and understandable even to those least interested in and least comfortable with science. Take, by way of an example, the running, rowing, cycling postdoctoral fellow Monica Dunford’s description of the LHC.’It’s what any child would design as an experiment,’ she says, ‘you take two things, and you smash them together.’


Neither of these two threads sound particularly thrilling, and they aren’t; they are, however, absolutely fascinating. Particle Fever is a film in which the subject is so interesting that it simply needs to be revealed and allowed to shine, and any departure from this process––and there are departures in Particle Fever––are largely unwelcome.

The film’s main success is that it makes complicated concepts relating to physics simple and understandable even to those least interested in and least comfortable with science. Take, by way of an example, the runner-rower-cyclist and postdoctoral fellow Monica Dunford’s description of the LHC.’It’s what any child would design as an experiment,’ she says, ‘you take two things, and you smash them together.’ She goes on to explain articulately how this famous seventeen-mile ring allows two beams of protons to gather speed until they almost reach the speed of light; the beams are then smashed together at four different points and voila, out tumbles the Higgs.

Monica emerges as the star of Particle Fever, but there are various scientists worth mentioning. Our guide during our little adventure into the depths of the LHC is Mark Kaplan, the witty, wild-haired film’s producer; other characters include rock-star scientist Nima Arkani-Hamed, who says, memorably, that the hype surrounding the LHC is ‘approximately accurate’, and Renaissance woman Fabiola Gianotti, a trained classical pianist who oversees one of the LHC’s main experiments. All of these figures are hugely likeable and have the sort of enthusiasm for their field that is infectious. They explain concepts like multiverse and supersymmetry theory without so much as a hint of academic snobbery, and when their words fail completely to illuminate an idea, Levinson fills the gaps with colourful visualisations that only rarely cross the line and find themselves in the tacky random-floating-equation territory of films like A Beautiful Mind.


Levinson fills the gaps with colourful visualisations that only rarely cross the line and find themselves in the tacky random-floating-equation territory of films like A Beautiful Mind.


Sometimes Particle Fever drags. Scenes, for instance, in which scientists sit around tables and have discussions could be axed, and though the film owes a lot to the towering talent of Apocalypse Now editor Walter Murch, it never really develops into the dramatic feature that it would like to be. If there is a single glaring weakness it’s director Mark Levinson’s insistent attempts to create tension where there really isn’t much to work with or try to evoke a sense of ecstasy or awe by resorting to overused, uplifting classical staples such as Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, which frankly hasn’t recovered from its use in the trailer for Die Hard: Why Aren’t You Dead Yet?.

But there’s a lot to like about Particle Fever, importantly, I think, the fact that it shows the world of scientific research to be as reliant on creativity and curiosity as on the hard empirical stuff.

Continue Reading

“Mitt”

IT MAY WELL BE the case that Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts and one-time presidential candidate, will be remembered for his denunciation of Donald Trump as “the very brand of anger that has led other nations into the abyss” as much as for his unsuccessful run for president in 2012.

Romney is, to the shame of his party, one of the few prominent Republicans to condemn publicly Trump’s rampant demagoguery and politics of hate. He has also called for the Libertarian Party candidate, Gary Johnson, to be included in the presidential debates.

Gregg Whiteley’s Mitt follows the campaigns of the man in 2008 and in 2012. In the first, Romney failed to secure the Republican Party nomination for president and in the second, he secures the nomination but lost the race to Barack Obama.

But Mitt is a film about Mitt Romney the man rather than Mitt Romney the politician, and Mitt Romney the man is really very charming. He is for the most part optimistic and self-deprecating and smiles easily. In fact, when the news breaks that Barack Obama has won the presidential election it is Romney himself who, surrounded by a group of devastated family and friends and advisors, is the first to break a smile and ask, “Hey—does anyone know how to write a concession speech?”

The main criticism levelled at Romney—and it is a fair one—is that he is robotic. On camera he is stiff and awkward, and seems even more so when he finds himself next to Barack Obama, who has that unhurried, ice-cool style of speech and movement. But off camera, or at least in his more candid moments, he’s an easygoing family man.

“Family man” is one of those journalistic descriptors that has come to mean “man who has a family”. This is not the case with Romney. Romney’s brood are his motivation and his support and his happiness. The best part of the film consists of footage of Romney with his family discussing strategy, or lamenting a poor showing in the polls, or celebrating a good debate performance. They share their victories and defeats.

For all its charm, Mitt gets a little repetitive. You can only tolerate so many scenes of the Romneys eating microwave dinners or discussing how best to attack President Obama in the latest debate. There are no real twists and turns here other than those that are a matter of political history.

Romney’s Democrat counterparts spent millions of dollars at the time of his campaign caricaturing him as an unfeeling cheerleader for the ultra-rich. But as Donald Trump closes the gap on Hillary Clinton, those same Democrats are beginning to acknowledge publicly for the first time that whatever his convictions, Romney was—is—a competent and principled and honourable man.

Stephanie Cutter, Obama’s 2012 deputy campaign manager, said this week: “He truly believed in wanting to make this country better. We just differed significantly on how to do that.”

Mitt is a worthwhile watch to see what Ms Cutter and those like her are talking about. But if it is entertainment you’re after when you look for a political documentary to watch, see Weiner instead.

Continue Reading

“The Master”

Review: 'The Master'

THE PRESS MADE MUCH of the supposed subject of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. According to reports, Hollywood Scientologists even tried to prevent the film ever from being made. But though the film’s mysterious, cultish group is Scientology in all but its name, Paul Thomas Anderson’s film is a slow meditation on faith and meaning in post-war America rather than a hit-piece, and loses nothing either by failing to call a spade a spade or in its offering more questions than answers.

Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), an awkward and volatile Navy veteran with sex on his mind and a taste for strong drink, accidentally finds himself at sea with the members of a cult named The Cause after he boards a ship leaving port. There, he meets the enigmatic, charismatic “Master” of the film’s title, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), with whom he forms an instant bond.


The comparisons drawn between Joaquin Phoenix and a young Robert De Niro might seem premature, but they are entirely justified.


It is a simple enough plot, but The Master is not so much a story as a character study with a level of depth rarely seen outside of the world of literature. Anderson divides his film into three acts, each of them beginning with an extended shot of the wake of a ship, the water alternately appearing calm and violent, and it’s an image which corresponds to the outer lives of the two central characters.

The comparisons drawn between Joaquin Phoenix and a young Robert De Niro might seem premature, but they are entirely justified. Phoenix gives a brilliant performance as the rake-thin Freddie Quell, who swings wildly between awkward odd-one-out and something approaching violent man-child, particularly after a drink of his famous paint-thinner cocktail. The outstanding success of the film is the depiction of Quell’s relationship with Dodd: in the most memorable scene of the film, the pair go to a party where Quell stands around awkwardly, with both hands placed on his lower back––an unusual, strange pose––while the brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman charms the hostess and the other guests before giving an impromptu “processing” psychotherapy session, reminding us at every step what an absolutely crushing loss to cinema his early death represents. The contrast, yet also their symbiotism between Quell and Dodd makes fascinating, compelling cinema: Quell finds in Dodd a father figure, sympathy, and meaning bordering on the spiritual; Dodd, in turn, finds his muse in his “brave boy” Freddie, who serves too as a form of narcissistic supply for Dodd that is addictive and incomparable, even among the doting members of his family and his followers.


The contrast, yet also their symbiotism between Quell and Dodd makes fascinating, compelling cinema


The brilliance of the central pair is only made better by the supporting performances of Amy Adams, as Dodd’s quietly zealous, fearsome wife, Jesse Plemons, who play’s Dodd’s son, Val, and Rami Malek––now a household name thanks to Mr. Robot––who plays Dodd’s son-in-law, Clark. The film is also notable for its presentation in 70mm (that dog-whistle for film aficionados), which means, to cut through the whole technical explanation of the thing, that the cinema audience sees more colour and more detail, and––most importantly, perhaps, given the subject matter of The Master––sharper contrast. The events of the film largely take place indoors, but the high-resolution which comes through the use of 70mm film is nevertheless clear to see throughout, particularly during the recurring shots of the ship’s wake.

The Master is not about a cult, Anderson has said (repeatedly)––and he is, of course, correct. Rather, The Master is a study of Freddie Quell, a man physically able but purposeless, horny, drunk on homemade booze, haunted by the past; his woes are a metaphor for the strange grimness that pervaded post-World War II America. Freddie is a traumatised overgrown child whose sense of place has been worn down to dust, and into this vacuum steps Dodd, also a fugitive (albeit in a different way). The film’s success, then, rests nearly exclusively on the narrow shoulders of Joaquin Phoenix and the supporting hands of Philip Seymour Hoffman, and they do not––do they ever?––disappoint.

Continue Reading