“The Beguiled”

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.

Continue Reading

“Transformers: The Last Knight”

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.

Continue Reading

“47 Meters Down”

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.

Continue Reading

“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.

Continue Reading

“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.

Continue Reading

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.

Continue Reading

“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

Continue Reading

‘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.

Continue Reading

‘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.

Continue Reading

‘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.

Continue Reading