“Final Portrait”

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

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

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


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


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

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


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


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

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

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

4/5

“Atomic Blonde”

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

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


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


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


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


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

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

2/5

“The Hitman’s Bodyguard”

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

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


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


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

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


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


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

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

“Dunkirk”

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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


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

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

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

5/5

“The Beguiled”

AT A CASUAL glance, Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled looks like a historical drama, with all the white dresses, corsets and maidenly behaviour that implies. It is––thank God––nothing of the sort. Instead it’s a gripping, witty and sexually-charged feminist retelling of its more overtly steamy predecessor, and, to my taste, the best film Coppola has made in years.

During the American Civil War, and in the wild, restless fields and forests of a Southern plantation house, 11-year-old Amy (Oona Laurence) comes across wounded Yankee soldier John McBurney (Colin Farrell), who fled his regiment in a spectacularly cowardly and unmasculine act when the battle was at fever pitch. The child decides to take McBurney back to the school where she lives, where Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) agrees that they should all do the “Christian” thing, and tend to their guest’s wounds before sending him on his way. It’s like this that seven women, include matriarch Martha, teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and five students, five themselves with a shirtless enemy soldier locked in their downstairs music room.


This rooster-in-a-henhouse scenario, based on the 1966 Thomas Cullinan novel, A Painted Devil, and its 1971 on-screen adaptation starring Clint Eastwood, is rendered with wonderful restraint, wit and affection by Sofia Coppola, whose film is less about the danger of sexual repression than the utter ridiculousness of it.


This rooster-in-a-henhouse scenario, based on the 1966 Thomas Cullinan novel, A Painted Devil, and its 1971 on-screen adaptation starring Clint Eastwood, is rendered with wonderful restraint, wit and affection by Sofia Coppola, whose film is less about the danger of sexual repression than the utter ridiculousness of it. What ensues is a film in which the various angelic-seeming (and looking) occupants of the house––long starved of male attention––all make a play, so to speak, on their charming guest, with predictably amusing consequences.

The Beguiled is not so much bubbling or fizzing as overflowing with sexual tension. From the mushrooms in the fields outside to the columns of the dilapidated plantation home, we are reminded of what is occupying the thoughts of the women inside, and of the stupid, placid roles they’re expected to play. Cinematographer Philippe le Sourd, in his first collaboration with Coppola, skilfully captures the isolation of our spirited if repressed heroines and the wildness of the outside. Le Sourd’s camera lingers on the overgrown Virginia plant life and on the home hidden away within it. These tableaux dictate the tempo of the film, and reminds us of Coppola’s knack for creating a dreamlike atmosphere that tells us who the characters are and implies who they want to be.


The best scenes of The Beguiled are the dinners and musical evenings the women contrive for their guest. In one brilliant scene at the dinner table, the women try to gain an advantage over one another by declaring the role they had in the making of an apple pie. This ends with the youngest girl, Marie, saying weakly, “Apple pie is my favourite.”


The best scenes of The Beguiled are the dinners and musical evenings the women contrive for their guest. In one brilliant scene at the dinner table, the women try to gain an advantage over one another by declaring the role they had in the making of an apple pie. This ends with the youngest girl, Marie, saying weakly, “Apple pie is my favourite.” Meanwhile, the events unfold to the intermittent and subtle tones of the French band Phoenix, with whom Coppola collaborated in Marie Antoinette, Somewhere and The Bling Ring. The role of music in The Beguiled is an uncharacteristically understated one for a Coppola film but no less effective, specifically in setting the scene for the two acts into which the film is effectively divided.

Events inevitably come to a head and conclude in satisfying fashion with a glorious scene oozing with tension and menace, and when the film ends it does so with no stones, so to speak, left unturned.  The Beguiled is a thoroughly effective and entertaining psychodrama underpinned––or perhaps I should say made far better––by a handful of near-faultless central performances and sculpted by the intelligent, conscientious direction of an elite filmmaker.

“Transformers: The Last Knight”

POPCORN DIRECTOR AND pyrotechnics fetishist Michael Bay once defended his style of filmmaking by arguing that he caters to “teenage boys”. It occurred to me not long into Transformers: The Last Knight, just as yet another explosion sent bodies flying through the air, that Mr. Bay might have been a little hopeful in saying so.

A more suitable audience, I later thought (this time attempting to distract myself from some insufferable inter-Transformer “banter”), might be the inhabitants of the monkey enclosure at London Zoo. After all, monkeys tend not to be too bothered if something lacks a coherent or compelling narrative (as those troublesome teenage boys can be) and at any rate, if they don’t like what they see they can hurl excrement at the screen in a way that cinema audiences are generally frowned upon for doing.

This latest monstrosity begins as you might expect it to––that is, with explosions, frantic jump-cutting and gratuitous slow-mo. The setting is England, and the time is the Dark Ages; a local army is attempting to repel an invading Saxon force, and they eventually succeed with the help of a little wizardry. In the modern day, inventor Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) accumulates a pulpy and pint-sized sidekick (Isabel Miner) after a run-in with the new anti-Transformer police, and flees to the scrapyard where he and a handful of Transformers are in hiding. The human race is now at war with all Transformers, which makes Yeager a fugitive.


 The story revolves around the interspecies war and a mysterious artefact that can save Earth from destruction by the Transformer planet, Cybertron, and its Medusa-like sorceress ruler, Quintessa. You can probably gather from that preamble that the story is lacking.


Now, for the purpose of those who had the good sense to skip the first four movies but are inexplicably reading a review of the fifth, the Autobots, usually led by Optimus Prime (a Transformer who turns into a gaudy red-and-blue truck), are at constant war with the Decepticons who, as I’m sure the keen linguists among you will have guessed, aren’t to be trusted. In this latest offering in the series, the King Arthur myth––bear with me here––is reimagined to have involved several very old Transformers. The wizard Merlin’s “magic”, meanwhile, is in fact advanced alien technology passed on by these Transformers. The story revolves around the interspecies war and a mysterious artefact that can save Earth from destruction by the Transformer planet, Cybertron, and its Medusa-like sorceress ruler, Quintessa. You can probably gather from that preamble that the story is lacking.

Art Marcum, Matt Holloway and Ken Nolan’s script sends the story backwards and forwards in time and from Dakota to Havana to London; at each stage they punctuate the explosions and slugfests with hilariously abrupt and slushy attempts at making the characters seem human. In doing so, they simply remind us that while Wahlberg can do comedy and action perfectly well, he cannot do sadness or sympathy or sincerity.


Much of the story, while we’re vaguely on the subject, takes place in England, which of course implies a Norman castle, Oxford University, cut-glass received pronunciation, an eccentric Lord in a tweed jacket and a butler, albeit a robotic one. (Look to the skies, dear reader, and you might just see Mary Poppins flying by).


Stanley Tucci, playing a hook-nosed Merlin, squeezes something vaguely resembling a laugh out of his lines. Academy Award-winner Anthony Hopkins, who plays the ditsy historian and astronomer Sir Edmund Burton, provides needless exposition not too different from his narration in Thor, while Laura Haddock plays the no-nonsense English Literature Professor Viviane Wembly and is the female lead and love interest. Much of the story, while we’re vaguely on the subject, takes place in England, which of course implies a Norman castle, Oxford University, cut-glass received pronunciation, an eccentric Lord in a tweed jacket and a butler, albeit a robotic one. (Look to the skies, dear reader, and you might just see Mary Poppins flying by).

The film goes on and on (and on). Six editors receive credit for the film, and yet between them they fail to establish anything resembling a rhythm. The shots are cut together so quickly that half the time you find it difficult to know what the hell is going on. Some of the action scenes are engaging enough, however, and there are, if we are to be fair, several arresting shots of cityscapes and the depths of outer space. In most cases, what you see on screen blows up shortly afterwards.

The highlight of the film was the surprisingly good glass of wine I was served before, thought it sadly did little to numb my senses against what was to follow; in Transformers: The Last Knight, Bay offers his audience noise and explosions, but no depth, no nuance and absolutely no hope. Maybe I’m not quite the target market for Bay’s bearing of his soul, but if you’d rather not feel like you just witnessed and assisted in your own mugging, I’d see something else.

“47 Meters Down”

EXPLAINING HUMANITY’S WIDESPREAD (but unjustified) fear of sharks, the Harvard risk communication instructor David Ropeik said: “We’re not just afraid of things because of the likelihood that they’ll happen, but also because of the nature of them if they do happen. So it may be unlikely that you’ll be attacked by a shark, but it would suck if you did.” And suck it certainly would, which is why, presumably, even within the sub-genre of so-called ‘natural’ horror films, there is a fairly sizeable sub-sub genre revolving around the “killer shark”.

The latest offering in this category is 47 Metres Down by Johannes Roberts, who burst onto the scene with the critically acclaimed “hoodie thriller” F and has since been somewhat inconsistent. You would be forgiven for taking your seat at a screening of his latest film feeling a little pessimistic, but 47 Metres Down is better than your typical summer horror flick, if not by much.

The film begins beneath the water, and with an ominous throbbing musical accompaniment; as we rise to the surface, we hear the traces of much cheerier music. The implication is clear: above the water, everything is just fine; below it, it’s a little more pessimistic. Well, I mean, we could have worked that out. Our heroines are Lisa (Mandy Moore) and Kate (Claire Holt)––two names you’re unlikely ever to forget by the end of the film––and they spend the first half an hour or so cheerfully failing Alison Bechdel’s eponymous test. Lisa has just been discarded by her boyfriend for being “boring”, and is visiting her fun and outgoing sister in Mexico to prove to herself and to her former beau that, well, she isn’t.


Our heroines are Lisa (Mandy Moore) and Kate (Claire Holt)––two names you’re unlikely ever to forget by the end of the film––and they spend the first half an hour or so cheerfully failing Alison Bechdel’s eponymous test. Lisa has just been discarded by her boyfriend for being “boring”, and is visiting her fun and outgoing sister in Mexico to prove to herself and to her former beau that, well, she isn’t.


During an impromptu night on the town replete with all the awful, overproduced summer anthems that implies, the pair meet a couple of local men, and the following day they convince Lisa and Kate to go cage-diving with them off the coast. At first, Lisa isn’t convinced, and at any rate, she says, she has no experience diving. Her manipulative younger sister reminds her why she came down to visit her, and Lisa eventually yields. This worn-out summer horror film setup gets tedious very early on but director and writer Roberts is merciful, and puts us out of our misery almost on the stroke of half an hour, at which point Lisa and Kate adjust their scuba equipment, climb into the shark-cage, and watch the rope attaching them to the boat promptly snap. They tumble forty-seven metres down and land on the sea floor out of range of their friends above water and surrounded by twenty-five-foot great white sharks lurking in the gloom. It is the closest thing sharks will ever get to Deliveroo.

The premise is simple, but Roberts is surprisingly effective at creating an atmosphere of genuine terror. There are the hungry sharks, of course, but there is also the rapidly depleting oxygen supply, the near-blackness of the water and the threat of separation as both women know that if someone doesn’t come for them soon, one of them will have to, so to speak, make a break for the surface, which poses yet another risk: decompression sickness, or ‘the bends’.


Roberts has the restraint not to flood his film with sharks, if you’ll excuse the pun, instead letting the lesser fears build to fever pitch. Equally, he doesn’t resort to the lazy and tedious quiet-quiet-loud formula that has brought so much commercial success to mediocre films and so much romantic success to teenagers on first dates at the cinema.


There’s only a little camera gimmickry from cinematographer Mark Silk, who alternately adopts the perspective of the women in the cage and the point of view of any sharp-toothed creature in the water – looking more than once at a tantalising pair of kicking legs. Sometimes he takes the detached view of a distant underwater observer to emphasise the isolation of the cage (and its temporary inhabitants) on the ocean floor. While Moore and Holt are decent enough, the script is bloody awful, and seems to consist mainly of each one of the two principal characters shouting each other’s names in between frantic breaths, or otherwise offering such illuminating reflections as “we’re going to die” and “oh my God, I’m so scared.” The final third of the film, meanwhile, slips into something like a cinematic rendering of Murphy’s law. To put it another way, anything that can happen, will happen, and that happens over and over (and over) again.

The main success of 47 Metres Down is that even though you know what will happen, it’s intermittently thrilling anyway, and at least one of the plot devices will catch you off guard. It’s for this reason that it would be unfair and untrue to pass the film off as forgettable summer horror: it may not be brilliant, but it’s more than that.

“Terror”

AT THE RISK of introducing fresh competition for seats, the Lyric Theatre, in Hammersmith, gives local residents the opportunity to get their paws on tickets for the opening night of their newest play. It was because of this that I ended up sat in the third row from the front watching an English-language performance of Terror, the wildly successful morality play by German writer Ferdinand von Schirach.

Von Schirach is one of those writers not widely known in this country despite the international success of Verbrechen (“Crime”) and Schuld (“Guilt”), both of which are based on cases he came across while acting as a criminal lawyer. Terror, which is Von Schirach’s first foray into theatre, concerns the court trial of an army pilot accused of mass murder after shooting down a hijacked passenger plane. The plane contains 164 people and we learn early on in proceedings that it is headed for the Allianz Arena in Munich, where 70,000 people are watching Germany play England at football. Does the pilot, asks Von Schirarch, have the moral (and legal) right to condemn to death 164 innocent people in order to save more than four hundred times as many? The play is, if not unique, then at least unusual in having the audience play the jury at its conclusion, and decide by remote whether the defendant is guilty or not. The question of Terror is not whether the defendant “did it”, so to speak, but whether he was justified in doing so.


The play is, if not unique, then at least unusual in having the audience play the jury at its conclusion, and decide by remote whether the defendant is guilty or not. The question of Terror is not whether the defendant “did it”, so to speak, but whether he was justified in doing so.


The central focus of the play is moral compromise and the conflict between individual and state morality. The artist director at the Lyric, Sean Holmes, said he was drawn to Terror because of its “populism in the most positive sense”. Holmes added, in an interview with the Guardian, that a play about “personal moral judgment” was “apt at the moment, given where we are politically … people are losing faith in political institutions.” The play cedes the interpretation of the law to us––the mob––in a large enough sample size to suggest at least a regional, if probably not a national, common belief system. Unlike a jury, the audience does not have the luxury to chew the issue over; neither is it at the mercy of the unanimous-agreement rule.

The set design, by Olivier Award-winner Anna Fleischle, is simple enough but effective. The judge, played in the Lyric production by Tanya Moodie, sits in the centre of the room. To her right is prosecuting counsel Nelson, played by Emma Fielding, and to the judge’s right is defence counsel Biegler, played by Forbes Masson. The defendant, Major Lars Koch (Ashley Zhangazha) sits next to Biegler, while a chair and desk that serve as the witness stand sit perpendicular to the audience at the front of the stage. The minimalism of the design brings about an intimacy with the audience and an intensity to the events depicted on-stage.

It occurred to me not long after the beginning of the play that the actors may as well have their scripts laid on the desks in front of them. But that said, and opening night or not, that would give them even less of an excuse for the many bungled or muddled lines, which were barely covered up throughout the performance. (The judge was particularly guilty in this regard: perhaps we all could have voted on that.)


I suspect that the central moral question would be received very differently in Germany to, say, the U.K. or the U.S., not only for cultural reasons but because of the differences in national experience during the 20th Century. The clear feeling at the Lyric on opening night was one of being entertained but not particularly stimulated in an intellectual way, and when the result of the vote came back, it was unsurprising.


I couldn’t help having the feeling that the play thought it was a lot more intelligent than it was. There are casual references to the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and others that don’t seem to make the central question any more easy or difficult to answer. Equally, there are supposedly penetrative points made by the prosecutor which aren’t taken to their furthest logical conclusion. I also suspect that the central moral question would be received very differently in Germany to, say, the U.K. or the U.S., not only for cultural reasons but because of the differences in national experience during the 20th Century. The clear feeling at the Lyric on opening night was one of being entertained but not particularly stimulated in an intellectual way, and when the result of the vote came back, it was unsurprising.

The performances were good enough for opening night. John Lightbody, who plays witness Christian Lauterbach, was particularly impressive, as was Ashley Zhangazha, who conveyed very well not only the militaristic look and bearing of an Air Force pilot, but also the inner conflict of an intelligent man placed in a no-win situation.

Taken as a whole the play is good, but not, I fear, the difficult philosophical and moral conundrum it would like to be.

“Europa Report”

ARGENTINE FILMMAKER SEBASTIÁN Cordero’s found-footage sci-fi film Europa Report went relatively unnoticed when it was released, in part because it was a year remarkable for the release of a number of very good sci-fi films. It was in 2013 that Gravity, Under the Skin and Star Trek: Into Darkness first graced our screens, and there were a few other sci-fi films worth mentioning. Elysium, for one, and World War Z. Despite its grand setting and subject (and budget––it cost more than Under the Skin, for instance) Europa Report lacks the gloss of the films mentioned above, but that is to its advantage: for fans of so-called “hard sci-fi”, it’s one of the better films of the past five years.

The story is narrated by Dr. Unger (Embeth Davidtz), the CEO of Europa Ventures and the financier of a mission to the moon of Jupiter that gives the film its title. The specific objective of the crew of six astronauts on board the ship was to find potential sources of life on Europa, but from the very beginning of the film, it’s clear that the mission didn’t go smoothly. The footage of the astronauts that the audience sees is made up almost entirely of “recently declassified” footage recovered from the ship. (In fact, it’s one of the better films since The Blair Watch Project to employ the found-footage technique; Cloverfield and Chronicle also come to mind).

There’s no doubt that the filmmakers take some creative liberties with the physics involved in Europa Report, but by and large Cordero and writer Philip Gelatt are admirably dedicated to creating a narrative that functions within the laws of known science, and as a result the film has the sober and unromantic air of movies like Moon or even 2001: A Space Odyssey. Cordero references the latter film when the ship takes off to Strauss’s The Blue Danube, a piece of music so iconic that its use has probably sailed over the line separating tribute and cliché. (Ironically, Kubrick chose the piece because it “gets about as far away as you can from the cliché of space music.”)

The exaltation of science is a major theme of the film. There is next to no deep character development, for instance: it’s entirely plausible that you could watch the film all the way through and know the names of only half the astronauts at its centre. The crew’s very presence on the ship––let alone the risks they take during the mission––at least implies that scientific progress (admittedly, in the service of humanity) is more important than their own individuality. The pilot of the ship, Rosa (Anamaria Marinca) says as much: “Compared to the breadth of knowledge yet to be known, what does your life actually matter?”

This scientism, for want of a better (and better-sounding) word, can be received either way, but to this humble reviewer Europa Report loses something from it. If Prometheus, with its endless sophomoric philosophising, is at one end of the spectrum, Europa Report is at the other. The sci-fi short-story writer Ted Chiang responded to the charge of failing to write “real science-fiction” by criticising the “adventure stories dressed up with lasers” that people associate with the genre. To put it another way, a story set in the future does not necessarily constitute science-fiction, or at least not good science-fiction: sci-fi developed out of a felt need to philosophise and conduct thought-experiments for which the appropriate technology did not yet exist. Cordero and Gelatt opt not to take this road, so to speak, and instead characterise the astronauts as being hyper-rational. (The science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson, who features briefly in the film, would approve: he famously suggested the creation of a virtual nation, “Rationalia”, in which “all policy shall be based on the weight of evidence”.)

All that said, the sense of isolation and the risk involved in the astronauts’ mission is strongly felt, and each tragedy is affecting. Many of the sins of Europa Report are redeemed in the cathartic final act, in which Cordero and Gelatt introduce elements of horror that quite dramatically alter the stripped-back and realistic mood of the film until that point. It isn’t particularly frightening, but these horror elements are forceful enough to bring about a satisfying climax.

Alan Watts, “The Way of Zen”

THE PHILOSOPHER ALAN Watts has fallen out of fashion somewhat in the last thirty or so years, in part due to the rising skepticism in the West towards religion––though Alan Watts belonged to no faith and was more spiritual than religious––and in part due to the death of the hippie movement in the late 1970s.  The views he expressed in innumerable essays and articles and lectures remain, in my eyes, if not necessarily life-changing then certainly worthy of consideration and discussion, and Watts, whose oratorical style is so absent of the tedious piety and gravity which you tend to associate with those who deal with the “spiritual” side of life, is still the best communicator of Eastern religions to the West. You wonder, for that matter, whether Watts’s work isn’t overdue for a revival, when you consider the rise of those who identify as “spiritual, but not religious”––those to whom Alain de Botton’s book Religion for Atheists is addressed––and who are struggling to quell the agitation of the sense of the numinous and the transcendent that the rituals and the music and the art of religion used to provide. As well-developed and considered as the conclusions at which Watts arrived and adopted are his instructive efforts on myth and religion and on individual religions, such as his bestselling 1957 book The Way of Zen.


You wonder, for that matter, whether Watts’s work isn’t overdue for a revival, when you consider the rise of those who identify as “spiritual, but not religious”––those to whom Alain de Botton’s book Religion for Atheists is addressed––and who are struggling to quell the agitation of the sense of the numinous and the transcendent that the rituals and the music and the art of religion used to provide.


In The Way of Zen Watts examines his subject far more deeply than authors such as D. T. Suzuki do in similar efforts, many of which are written by practicing and orthodox Buddhists and necessarily reflect the simplicity of Buddhist doctrine. But Watts also looks far wider outside the subject than those authors, at Zen’s origins in more orthodox Chinese and Indian Buddhism, and also in Taoism and Hinduism and Vedism, which both predated and sowed the seeds, so to speak, for Buddhism. His task is made all the more difficult by the indefinability and paradoxical nature of many aspects of Zen and the difficulty in explaining it in a way comprehensible to the so-called Western mind, but he accepts the task with characteristic patience and good humour, weaving in pithy anecdotes, quotations and lines of poetry to break up descriptions that are dense. As a result The Way of Zen is, in spite of its subject matter, immensely readable and enjoyable, not to mention enlightening, if you’ll excuse the pun.

What you will find if you sit down to read Watts’s book for any length of time is that you’ll feel a degree of the equanimity that characterises practicing Zen Buddhists, and there’s a sort of Buddhist clarity and freshness to Watts’s prose that is underpinned by his very British sense of humour. (You can take the boy out of England, but you can’t take England out of the boy.) It’s perhaps fitting that Watts seems so eager in his book to do away with the misconception that Zen is dull or sterile in some way; he emphasises not only the semi-permanent state of bliss in which the most devout Zen Buddhists live but also their––often childish––sense of humour. He tells amusing and surprising stories of Zen masters winding up their students, and dedicates a portion of the book to some of the religion’s more colourful characters such as the eccentric Sōtō Zen monk Ryōkan, who would get drunk on rice wine and “toss off a few lines of calligraphy” and once got naked so he could give his clothes to a thief disappointed to find there was nothing to steal.


What’s certain is that Watts had a gift for bringing about enthusiasm for his interests in others. To put it another way, he was, if not necessarily the most knowledgeable about the subject––which is not to say he wasn’t very knowledgeable––he was without a doubt its best communicator.


A significant departure of The Way of Zen from other introductions to Zen Buddhism is Watts’s diminution of the importance of zazen, or Zen sitting meditation––something for which Watts was almost roundly criticised by fellow students of the religion. Even those with a casual interest in Buddhism or Zen Buddhism will know that the Sōtō school founder Dōgen considered zazen to be the same as studying Zen. As he put it in the first sentence of Zazen-gi (“Principles of Zen”): “Studying Zen … is zazen.” This oversight seems uncharacteristic of Alan Watts, who was perhaps a victim of the time in which he wrote the book. (It is, ironically, partly thanks to the work of Watts that others in the West developed sufficient interest in Buddhism to educate us on the significance of zazen to Zen.) The firmly established fact that meditation is important to Zen leads you to wonder what else Watts might have downplayed or even misunderstood, although the chances are that if you’re drawn to a book like The Way of Zen you have enough basic knowledge of the subject to answer that question partly.

What’s certain is that Watts had a gift for bringing about enthusiasm for his interests in others. To put it another way, he was, if not necessarily the most knowledgeable about the subject––which is not to say he wasn’t very knowledgeable––he was without a doubt its best communicator. (You might say the same about someone like Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who is more a populariser of science than he is a scientist.) The Way of Zen reminds us that his death left a void that is yet to be filled, and is a particular loss to those who are areligious but nonetheless interested in the immaterial and the mystical.