“Terror”

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.

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“Europa Report”

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.

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Alan Watts, “The Way of Zen”

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.

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“City of Ghosts”

City of Ghosts

THE THREE YEARS that I churned out stories for the online arm of London’s Metro newspaper coincided with the rapid rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the brutal Salafi jihadist offshoot of al-Qaeda that is intent, among other things, on establishing and expanding a caliphate governed by seventh-century law and confronting the ‘armies of Rome’ at Dabiq before the Day of Judgment.

What makes ISIS quite so terrifying is that the human rights abuses they’ve committed on such an appalling scale in the Middle East and North Africa are driven mainly by ideology. In other words these are not your garden-variety psychopaths: the members of ISIS are highly devoted to a Wahhabi doctrine of Sunni Islam followed so closely that every major decision made or law created is faithful to, in the group’s own words, “the Prophetic methodology”. But there’s something else that bears noting. ISIS are media-savvy––far more media-savvy than any terror group that has come before them. They have actively recruited and sought to recruit jihadists with media training, filming expertise or production skill in order to wage (and win) a “media war” against those that would defy them.

And this is where Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, the journalist-activist group operating out of the proclaimed capital of the Islamic State, comes in. R.B.S.S. is the subject of Cartel Land director Matthew Heineman’s jarring and uplifting documentary City of Ghosts, which had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival early this year. For me and the other journalists at Western newspapers covering life under Isis in Raqqa, R.B.S.S. was the source of nearly all our information; these impossibly brave and resourceful citizen journalists were the only reason that the wider world knew what was taking place in a small city that until 2014 had been, in the words of the Syrians, ‘the hotel of the revolution’ against the authoritarian regime of Bashar al-Assad. Into the power vacuum that the Syrian Civil War created had stepped the assassins of that revolution. By 13th January, 2014, ISIS had complete control of the city, and set about executing Alawites and supporters of Assad, and destroying the city’s Shia mosques and Christian churches.


These journalists strike you as ordinary souls forced to become something else entirely by appalling circumstance. Aziz, the spokesman of the group, was a university student studying biology; Mohamad was a maths teacher.


It’s at this point in recent history that the main thread of City of Ghosts begins. The film, which has as its introduction the giving of the International Press Freedom award to R.B.S.S., traces two stories: the rise of ISIS in the city that was the seat of the Muslim Empire under caliph Harun al-Rashid, and the development of the network of journalists and activists committed to recording and exposing the group’s crimes.

We’re introduced to three activists––Aziz, Hamoud and Mohamad––who have fled the city and work mainly on the Turkish border to distribute the images and information collected by their anonymous counterparts in Raqqa itself. These journalists strike you as ordinary souls forced to become something else entirely by appalling circumstance. Aziz, the spokesman of the group, was a university student studying biology; Mohamad was a maths teacher. You get the impression from these men that R.B.S.S. developed organically, out of necessity and an instinctive collective understanding that what was happening in Raqqa could not go un- or under-told. It is the intention of Heineman himself, who showed in Cartel Land his tendency to favour the emotive over the intellectual, to paint this picture, so to speak. He explores his characters in such detail as to make you concerned for their survival, and in this so you have the opportunity to understand a little something of the worry and the pain the members of R.B.S.S. feel when they lose someone, as they often do.


Despite the daily headlines and reports of the horrors taking place in Raqqa and elsewhere in the Islamic State, we seem collectively to be losing interest. What we’re lacking is not an intellectual understanding but a deeper emotional connection with those being crucified or burned alive or stoned to death by ISIS or drowning in the Mediterranean in their efforts to flee


More than one reviewer has criticised Heineman for his perceived reliance on “visual shocks” and the absence of ‘in-depth analysis’ in City of Ghosts, but it seems to me that the latter is something we have seen and read enough. Despite the daily headlines and reports of the horrors taking place in Raqqa and elsewhere in the Islamic State, we seem collectively to be losing interest. What we’re lacking is not an intellectual understanding but a deeper emotional connection with those being crucified or burned alive or stoned to death by ISIS or drowning in the Mediterranean in their efforts to flee; Heineman understands perfectly our ‘capacity for empathy’, as Manohla Dargis puts it, and perhaps appreciates equally that for some, the savagery of it all needs to be depicted in full in order to force action, whether it is compassion or anger that motivates that action.

It’s to the credit of Heineman that he doesn’t add much to the film in terms of raw content. To put it another way, his aim is to hold R.B.S.S. up for the world to see and to appreciate, and in doing so, also to shine a light on Raqqa, its beleaguered civilian populace and the throat-cutters and rapists who hold it hostage. Heineman collects and repurposes the footage available to him extraordinarily well in order to tell the story while allowing time to humanise its main characters and permit them to share their wisdom: ‘when one group falls, another will rise upon its place.’

Yesterday three men inspired by ISIS were charged with plotting attacks on landmarks in New York City. The war against the “armies of Rome”, as the terrorists perceive it to be, has well and truly moved beyond the boundaries of North Africa and the Middle East. It’s in part thanks to the work of people like Aziz, Hamoud and Mohamad, operating out of a city that has religious and cultural significance to those that would do us harm, that we are prepared for them. But more importantly, I think, City of Ghosts forces on us a sense of empathy for our fellow man diluted or eroded by distance and perceived difference.

5/5

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‘Baywatch’

'Baywatch'

IN CERTAIN CIRCLES––and you’ll know what I mean if you’ve ever volunteered the information that you can’t help liking, say, Borat, or Dead Snow––the suggestion that not all films have to be high art is met at best with undisguised disdain and at worst with slow backing away. Maybe the fear of those who reflexively shun those films is that if they sat through something that wasn’t made by someone living, say, in the wilderness with only a Super 6 camera for company they might enjoy the film, and from then on be unable to take themselves so seriously. At any rate such an approach to film is fine by me, as it is those people, and not me or you, dear reader, who end up depriving themselves of such examples of stupid but hilarious cinema as 21 Jump Street, or Seth Gordon’s recent take on Baywatch.


You have the impression that in the second half of the film the plot accelerates because the first half of the film is something like a long music video. It’s filled with an impossible number of impossibly attractive people and the soundtrack is a medley of feel-good summer anthems from Major Lazer’s Get Free to Notorious B.I.G.’s Hypnotize.


The set up is this: Mitch Buchanan (Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson) and his colleagues Stephanie (Ilfenesh Hadera) and CJ (Kelly Rohrbach) are about to host the annual tryouts for the Baywatch team. This year there are three places for the taking rather than one, and one of the potentials is the arrogant, selfish and stupid two-time Olympic gold medallist Matt ‘The Vomit Comet’ Brody (Zac Efron), who wastes no time in irritating and exasperating Mitch and his team. While Brody and two others potentials, Summer (Alexandra Daddario) and Ronnie (Jon Bass) try to force their way into the Baywatch ranks, shipments of the drug flaca are washing up on the beach, and a particularly pouty and sinister upmarket resort owner called Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra) is gliding in and out of the picture. Could these two things possibly be related? This semblance of a plot, written by Michael Berk and Douglas Schwartz, is a more than an adequate platform for the Baywatch team to run around in slow-motion or do other ridiculous things.

You have the impression that in the second half of the film the plot accelerates because the first half of the film is something like a long music video. It’s filled with an impossible number of impossibly attractive people and the soundtrack is a medley of feel-good summer anthems from Major Lazer’s Get Free to Notorious B.I.G.’s Hypnotize. Of course this by itself wouldn’t be enough to hold anyone’s attention for all that long, but it doesn’t have to, because in a stupid, guilty, teenage sort of way, Baywatch is hilarious. Jon Bass’s luckless Ronnie earns his fair share of the laughs but the best moments of comedy come courtesy of Johnson and Efron, who have an easy comic chemistry even among a well-cast and well-matched group of actors. Johnson, with his 100-megawatt smile and natural charisma seems as nearly as possible to perfectly cast while Efron continues to prove not only that he can act but that he’s self-effacing as well.

Like other comedic entrants to the TV-to-film genre, Baywatch is as much a spoof of its hugely popular predecessor as it is a tribute or reboot. It’s self-aware in a way that many reimaginings or sequels like to think they are but typically aren’t. When Captain Kirk mentions that ‘things have started to feel episodic’ in the overrated third instalment of the most recent Star Trek franchise, for instance, it comes across as empty and falsely modest. When Brody tells Mitch that the idea of lifeguards leaving the beach to investigate crimes ‘sounds like an entertaining but far-fetched TV show,’ it’s self-deprecating, and supported by countless other lines and enough unnecessary slow-motion to make Zack Snyder blush. (The action scenes – to put the gratuitous slow-mo to the side for a moment – aren’t even all that bad, thanks to intimate and disorienting camerawork and frenetic jump-cutting, not to mention the athletic talents of Johnson.)


Like other comedic entrants to the TV-to-film genre, Baywatch is as much a spoof of its hugely popular predecessor as it is a tribute or reboot. It’s self-aware in a way that many reimaginings or sequels like to think they are but typically aren’t.


Part of the success of Baywatch is that it updates its comedy for the modern day. It is by necessity a call-back to the past, but outside of the slapstick and crudeness the material is surprisingly modern, and there is humour that wouldn’t seem too out of place in a film by Edgar Wright or Nick Frost or Simon Pegg (who, incidentally, co-wrote the Star Trek film quoted above.) It’s stupid and juvenile, but Baywatch is more than a worthy successor to its soap opera original. And it’s so much funnier.

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‘Jawbone’

'Jawbone'

THE TITLE OF Thomas Napper and Johnny Harris’s Jawbone comes from the Book of Judges which, I’m sure you’ll remember, contains the story of Samson, the famously violent and hirsute Israelite warrior who battered to death a thousand Philistines with part of a donkey’s face. The point of that tale is that it was neither Samson nor the jawbone which won the battle: it was the spirit of God, and Harris chooses to display this quotation––only without the reference to the divine––at the beginning of the film, setting the stage, so to speak, for an extraordinarily human tale of suffering and redemption against the backdrop of London.

Former Amateur Boxing Association champion Jimmy McCabe (Johnny Harris) has fallen on hard times. His day begins and ends with a deep draught from a bottle of Russian vodka, and to make matters worse, the authorities are on the verge of evicting him from the Lambeth council house he shared with his mother before her death. At the local council, his frustration at losing his home boils over into anger, and several members of London’s Finest half-carry, half-drag him out. He spends the night in a prison cell. In search of the relative stability he drew from his home, Jimmy returns to the Union Street Boxing Club, where his former trainer and gym owner Bill (Ray Winstone) agrees to let him train, so long as he avoids booze and unlicensed bouts.


Former Amateur Boxing Association champion Jimmy McCabe (Johnny Harris) has fallen on hard times. His day begins and ends with a deep draught from a bottle of Russian vodka, and to make matters worse, the authorities are on the verge of evicting him from the Lambeth council house he shared with his mother before her death.


Much of Jawbone is eerily quiet. When Jimmy does speak he almost always does so in surprisingly gentle, deferential tones which makes his occasional explosions of anger all the more impactful. The distorted guitar tones of Paul Weller only start to come in only about half-way through the film, on the one hand suggesting a gathering of momentum, and on the other, evoking aggression, confusion and the oppressive nature of Jimmy’s alcoholism.

When Jimmy doesn’t speak––and he often doesn’t––his extraordinary physical acting conveys a wealth of emotions. Director Thomas Napper, who is known more for his second-unit directing in films such as Atonement and Pride and Punishment, pays incredibly close attention to Jimmy’s face, which is a picture of vulnerability and sadness. Jimmy is most of the time the only person in the frame, and this doesn’t only highlight the fact that Jawbone is a deep character study of Jimmy; it also communicates Jimmy’s powerlessness against his addiction and his circumstances, and his loneliness and isolation in the huge and beautiful city that towers around him. All this creates a sense of intimacy with Jimmy in the viewer and narrative intensity on the screen; more importantly, perhaps, it builds empathy for a character in the throes of alcohol addiction. (It bears noting, while we’re on that point, that on multiple occasions supporting characters mention how bad Jimmy smells: this is not a film that glamourises substance addiction, and there are many that do).


Boxing is a fitting sport for Harris to base his story around. It’s largely solitary and yet reliant on others in important ways, and it is unusually punishing on the mind and body. Frank Bruno famously called boxing ‘the toughest and loneliest sport in the world’ and it has a long history of offering damaged souls a way out of crime or addiction. 


Boxing is a fitting sport for Harris to base his story around. It’s largely solitary and yet reliant on others in important ways, and it is unusually punishing on the mind and body. Frank Bruno famously called boxing ‘the toughest and loneliest sport in the world’ and it has a long history of offering damaged souls a way out of crime or addiction. Bernard Hopkins found boxing while serving an 18-year prison sentence; Lamont Peterson was 10 years old and homeless when he snuck into a boxing gym with his brother; Miguel Cotto started boxing to lose weight. The preparation of Harris for the role by boxing royalty Barry McGuigan and his son Shane, coach of Carl Frampton and David Haye, shows in the training and fighting sequences, which are some of the best scenes of the film.

Harris’s masterful acting performance is supported by the excellent contributions of Ray Winstone, who lights up his scenes with tough-guy charisma, Luther’s Michael Smiley and John Wick actor Ian McShane, who worked with Winstone in Sexy Beast and Snow White and the Huntsman. Harris, however, who also wrote and produced Jawbone, is the beating heart of this brilliant, down-to-earth film; the story is based on Harris’s own experiences with boxing and alcoholism, and the sadness painted across his face might well be real.

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‘Alien: Covenant’

'Alien: Covenant'

‘MAN IN HIS arrogance,’ said the astronomer and cosmologist Carl Sagan, quoting Darwin, ‘thinks himself a great work, worthy of the interposition of a deity. More humble, and, I think, truer to consider himself created from animals.’ If there’s a central thread that runs through Ridley Scott’s reboot of Alien (other than ‘Xenomorphs are not to be trifled with’) it’s something like this: man is so narcissistic as to consider himself a creation of something greater than himself, with the only addendum being that he also wants to create something in his own image. There are evocations––most of the time heavy-handed––of the divine throughout the new franchise, from the Prometheus of the last film to the Covenant and Ozymandias in this one, and you might argue this theme of creation is an interesting continuation (and subversion) of the rape, pregnancy and birth themes of the original Alien. What a crying shame it is, then, that Covenant feels so shallow.

The film begins in a large and sunlit room, and with the first moments of David (Michael Fassbender) the creepy android of Prometheus. His creator, the elderly Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), instructs him to play some Wagner on the piano, which he does, and the pair discuss creation. On board the Covenant, a ship carrying more than 2,000 would-be colonisers of a new planet, an accident promotes the uncertain and religious first mate Oram (Billy Crudup) to captain, and his first major decision is to investigate a nearby planet impossibly well-suited to sustaining human life (an Eden, if you like). Terraforming expert Daniels (Katherine Waterston), makes it known that she doesn’t agree with Oram and thinks the ship should continue on to its original destination. She’s right, of course.


It won’t have escaped your notice that the promotional images of Daniels call to mind the unbreakable Ellen Ripley, the heroine of the first Alien and forerunner of female action leads like Mad Max’s Imperator Furiosa. Ridley Scott’s new film is not so much peppered as packed with references to the original, to the extent that anyone who’s seen the original could sit through Covenant, inwardly playing a game of Alien bingo, and in all likelihood do pretty well.


It won’t have escaped your notice that the promotional images of Daniels call to mind the unbreakable Ellen Ripley, the heroine of the first Alien and forerunner of female action leads like Mad Max’s Imperator Furiosa. Ridley Scott’s new film is not so much peppered as packed with references to the original, to the extent that anyone who’s seen the original could sit through Covenant, inwardly playing a game of Alien bingo, and in all likelihood do pretty well. These call-backs go beyond mere tribute to the iconic ‘79 film, and lead you to wonder if in his eagerness to improve on the lukewarm Prometheus, Scott consciously reproduced some of the more successful elements of the first film. And it works––to a point.

Those who enjoyed and remember Alien well will find the narrative of Covenant predictable, but unlike Alien, which was notable for its suspense (famously, the Xenomorph only had three-and-a-half minutes of screen time), Covenant is more of a straightforward slasher set in space, with so much blood that it ceases to have a major effect relatively early on. The pop-philosophising comes intermittently in the form of a line of dialogue here or a flashback there, and at any rate you could find those quotations and allusions in the inventory of any old moustache-twirling villain. But this isn’t to say that Covenant is dull. The action is engaging, and the way in which Scott, alongside cinematographer (and long-time collaborator) Dariusz Wolski, bring about an atmosphere both awe-inspiring and pessimistic in Covenant remind us that he is still one of the world’s best directors. Meanwhile the designs of Steve Burg, who, thanks to his work on Interstellar and Ridley Scott films The Martian and Prometheus is making something of a name for himself as the go-to designer for ambitious sci-fi, are typically impressive.


Scott’s knack for visual grandeur went some way to compensating for his failure to answer the big questions of Prometheus. So too did the superb performance of Michael Fassbender as the android David, and in Covenant, it’s Fassbender, playing David and an android successor, the American-accented Walter, who, so to say, steals the show once again


Scott’s knack for visual grandeur went some way to compensating for his failure to answer the big questions of Prometheus. So too did the superb performance of Michael Fassbender as the android David, and in Covenant, it’s Fassbender, playing David and an android successor, the American-accented Walter, who, so to say, steals the show once again. (The robotic precision with which he pours a cup of tea in the first scene is extraordinary.) Waterston, Crudup and Amy Seimetz, who plays Faris, are also worthy of a mention.

Covenant isn’t the deep and thoughtful film its creators would like it to be, but it’s nonetheless a visually impressive, atmospheric, and altogether soundly executed sci-fi action-slasher, and a worth entry to the franchise.

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‘Unlocked’

'Unlocked'

A FAR MORE established (and distinguished, and probably more likeable) film reviewer than I likes to call Orlando Bloom ‘Orloondo Bland’, a designation that nearly always causes me to smile, or at least to try hard not to smile. Like all the best jokes, the name’s amusing because it carries within it an element of truth, and this thought occurred to me as I watched Orloondo––excuse me, Orlando––struggle through several scenes in the guise of the mockney-accented marine Jack in Unlocked.


Alice Racine (Noomi Rapace) is a French-born CIA interrogator posing as a social worker in East London. She left France for the United States when she was 12 years old, but she speaks with an English accent, and we can only assume that she watched a lot of Monty Python during the first dozen years of her life and those cut-glass English tones stuck.


Alice Racine (Noomi Rapace) is a French-born CIA interrogator posing as a social worker in East London. She left France for the United States when she was 12 years old, but she speaks with an English accent, and we can only assume that she watched a lot of Monty Python during the first dozen years of her life and those cut-glass English tones stuck. At any rate, Alice is haunted by the mistakes of her past. Specifically, she blames herself for the deaths of dozens of people in a terrorist attack in Paris because she couldn’t ‘unlock’ a prisoner (and obtain the necessary information to prevent the attack) in time. Her relatively uneventful sabbatical doesn’t last long. The world of international espionage and counter-terrorism pull her back in, as these things somehow always tend to do, and Alice is called upon to extract information from a young radical set on blowing up part of London.

Everything goes wrong. The story jumps from London, Alice and the office of the head of MI5 (Toni Collette channelling Annie Lennox) to Langley, Virginia, where the bored and irritable CIA chief (John Malkovich), tries to keep everything under control. At some point, when she isn’t beating the pulp out of London’s Finest or fleeing relentless and unsmiling hitmen, she encounters Jack, a cheeky and cheerful veteran marine who has the sort of cockney accent that might be spoken by someone who has never heard a cockney accent, and who more or less forces her to take him on as her accomplice.

There’s something very Bourne about all this. There’s something very Mission Impossible about it, too, and in fact, if you happened to be feeling generous you might also add to the mixture a handful of 24 and a dash of London Has Fallen. To put it another way, the whole thing has been done before, and usually it’s done much better. It’s refreshing to see a female action lead and accent aside, Rapace proves––as she did in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo––that she’s a serious and compelling actress. This, however, is the wrong engine for her talents. And the others––Collette, Malkovich and Michael Douglas, playing Alice’s station chief based in London––also fail to weather Peter O’Brien’s hackneyed plot and the frankly stupid dialogue.


There are enough twists to make even the most iron-stomached audience members feel slightly sick.


There are enough twists to make even the most iron-stomached audience members feel slightly sick. And naturally after the third twist or the fourth (or the fifth––it depends on your patience, really) you go into every subsequent scene thinking that nobody is who they say they are, nobody can be trusted, and why on earth didn’t you simply stay at home and bang your head repeatedly against a wall, because then at least you might eventually become dizzy and confused enough to see something original. Unlocked is a weak film and one in a genre (or sub-genre) that is rapidly filling up with weak films.

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“Get Me Roger Stone”

Get Me Roger Stone

POLITICS IS SO full of unsavoury characters even at the best of times that it can become something of a hard task to separate the real villains from the demagogues, the narcissists and the ruthless careerists. But few people could fail to notice the exceptionalism of political operator Roger Stone, a man involved in the ascent to the presidency of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump, and the eponymous subject of a new and highly entertaining documentary on Netflix, Get Me Roger Stone.


Roger Stone is the man who defined what it is to be a political operative today. ‘Stone’s Rules’, which directors Morgan Pehme, Dylan Bank and Daniel DiMauro show on the screen to divide the various chapters of the film, include ‘unless you can fake sincerity, you’ll get nowhere in this business’ and ‘it’s better to be infamous than never be famous at all’.


It won’t have escaped your notice if you watch as many films as I do that political documentaries––or rather, documentaries about those who work in or around politics––are in vogue. In 2016 this trend reached its peak with the release of Best of Enemies, which concerned the now infamous debates between arch-conservative commentator William F. Buckley, Jr. and the left-libertarian writer Gore Vidal at the National Democratic Convention in 1968. Our TV sets and screens have also been graced by films like Weiner, whose fascinating, larger-than-life subject was accused of having an affair with an intern after sending her a lewd (and unflattering) image of ‘himself’ over Twitter, and Mitt, the flattering portrayal about the former Republican presidential hopeful. Among a mass of films about individual campaigns, secrets and scandal, Get Me Roger Stone somehow stands out, in part because of the peculiar magnetism and obvious, unapologetic and breathtaking dishonesty of its central character, and in part because for Stone, campaigns, secrets and scandal are the foundation of his entire existence.

Roger Stone is the man who defined what it is to be a political operative today. ‘Stone’s Rules’, which directors Morgan Pehme, Dylan Bank and Daniel DiMauro show on the screen to divide the various chapters of the film, include ‘unless you can fake sincerity, you’ll get nowhere in this business’ and ‘it’s better to be infamous than never be famous at all’. He is, as Matt Labash of the Weekly Standard put it, the ‘lord of mischief’ and the ‘boastful black prince of Republican sleaze’. To put it another way, he’s a colourful character, even without the tailored suits, the tattoo of Richard Nixon and the diamond horseshoe ring that sparkles on his little finger. But he’s also highly effective: he (allegedly, though he himself claims it) helped to arrange for John B. Anderson to get the nomination of the Liberal Party of New York in order to split opposition to Reagan in the state. He was later accused of threatening the father of the embattled Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Eliot Spitzer, with prosecution if he did not implicate his son in wrongdoing.

In Get Me Roger Stone, however, the writers concern themselves not only with the idiosyncrasies of the titular character but also with a specific suggestion: that if there is one architect of the Trump presidency, it’s Roger Stone. Stone was a lobbyist for Donald Trump on behalf of his casino business for many years, and was involved in fighting expanded casino gambling in New York State. He was also the campaign manager of Donald Trump’s short-lived campaign for president in the Reform Party primary. As ‘advisor’, which covers an abundance of sins, to the 2016 Trump campaign, Stone was implicated in a tabloid story about Senator Ted Cruz’s alleged extramarital affairs and, according to the Washington Post, ‘organised [Trump] supporters as a force of intimidation’ at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. ‘He has … threatened to publicly disclose the hotel room numbers of delegates who work against Trump,’ the article continued. He also encouraged conspiracy theories including the ungrounded claim that Huma Abedin, a Hilary Clinton aide (and, as it happens, the wife of Anthony Weiner) was attached to the Muslim Brotherhood.


In Get Me Roger Stone, however, the writers concern themselves not only with the idiosyncrasies of the titular character but also with a specific suggestion: that if there is one architect of the Trump presidency, it’s Roger Stone.


Pehme, Bank and DiMaurio’s film doesn’t celebrate Stone but there, you feel, an underlying and grudging feeling of respect for the man purely because of his potency. This is a man who has tried (and does try) to court controversy (during the 2016 campaign he called Roland Martin a ‘stupid negro’) and yet he’s so charismatic, and so seductive, that even the journalists interviewed for the film admit that they have to be careful around him so as not to, so to speak, spill the beans. If the filmmakers were attempting journalistic objectivity then they didn’t quite achieve it, but then, not many journalists do either. What remains is nevertheless and engaging and thoroughly entertaining depiction of a master manipulator and a modern-day super villain who might just be behind one of the most dramatic political movements of the last half-century.

3/5

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‘Who Took Johnny’

Who Took Johnny

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

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


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


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

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

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