“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

‘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.

Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman” (2017)

WHEN IT WAS announced that Gal Gadot was to be cast as Wonder Woman in the frankly terrible Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, there was no shortage of comic-book fans left frothing at the mouth and thrashing out angry posts on Internet forums. You might say that was it was an inevitability, whoever was to be chosen for the part, but even Patty Jenkins––at that point already set to direct Wonder Woman––said her “heart sank” when she learned that Gadot had been offered the part. All that changed, however, when she learned that Gadot, who was crowned Miss Israel in 2004 at the tender age of eighteen, had done a two-year stint in the Israel Defence Forces before studying law, and was therefore about as well positioned to play Diana Prince as anyone could be.

Of course that didn’t make Dawn of Justice any good. And though Wonder Woman is better than the vast majority of the comic-book adaptations to have graced (if that’s the word) our screens in the last few years, it still isn’t the Oscar-worthy superhero film Hollywood has been waiting for, and at any rate, the bar really had been set rather low. The film begins in Paris, where a photographic plate taken during the First World War and showing Diana Prince and four men prompts her to remember her past. Diana was raised on the hidden island of Themyscira, where a tribe of Amazonian warrior women created by the god Zeus to protect mankind from Ares, god of war, reside. After initially forbidding Diana to train as a warrior, her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) eventually yields, and has her sister Antiope (Robin Wright) train her daughter on the condition that the training is more rigorous than it is for the other Amazonians. Some years later, American pilot Captain Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crash-lands off the coast of the island, and sets the plot in motion.


Very early on in the film, it becomes clear that Wonder Woman, despite the gushing praise for the film from some quarters, is not immune to the ailments that have blighted previous DC and Marvel cinematic efforts, not the least of which is a convoluted and implausible and altogether stupid plot.


Very early on in the film, it becomes clear that Wonder Woman, despite the gushing praise for the film from some quarters, is not immune to the ailments that have blighted previous DC and Marvel cinematic efforts, not the least of which is a convoluted and implausible and altogether stupid plot, which throws Diana––curiously, the sobriquet “Wonder Woman” is never once used––into the killing fields of World War I-era Europe. And this theatre of war, in addition to just about every other thing depicted in the film, feels like an exhausting special effects showreel, proving, it seems, that the powers-that-be at the larger Hollywood studios can’t make a superhero film without bludgeoning the thing to death with CGI. Nevertheless Wonder Woman also succeeds where DC films have historically failed. Diana Prince is both funny and glamorous, naive and self-confident. She isn’t haunted by vague and nebulous inner demons relating to some childhood event or other, and refreshingly, she doesn’t suffer from an acute case of the messiah complex. Gadot shares a screen chemistry with Pine, meanwhile, that is palpable in their verbal back-and-forth long before the inevitable locking of lips.

These points alone are enough to make the film worth a watch. Only by depicting Marvel’s signature hero, Wolverine, as an old and cynical mutant in a dystopian world did the X-Men franchise succeed in creating a really interesting and watchable standalone superhero, and most of the time, it seems, those who give the orders at both DC and Marvel have been content simply to throw together a handful of superheroes and hope that the whole yields something more interesting than the sum of the parts. Diana Prince is interesting all by herself, even if the story in which she is the main character has been force-fed CGI and descends into the same dull clichés at its climax. The test for Patty Jenkins and writers Zack Snyder, Allan Heinberg and Jason Fuchs is to build on a decent origin story and create something exceptional in Wonder Woman 2.

‘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.

‘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.

‘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.

“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

‘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.

‘The Invitation’

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

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


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


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


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


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

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

‘Athwart History: Half a Century of Polemics, Animadversions, and Illuminations’ by William F. Buckley, Jr.

SIX YEARS AFTER his death by oesophageal cancer, you still hear an awful lot about the brilliant Christopher Hitchens, the various descriptions of whom––journalist, public intellectual, ‘drink-sodden popinjay’––could probably fill this page. You hear far less about the equally prolific and many-faced journalist who gave Hitchens his first appearance on television. To a Brit the name William F. Buckley, Jr. might not ring any bells. He never ‘broke’ the United Kingdom in the sense that Hitch ‘broke’ the U.S., despite his having gone to school in England for a period and having an affectionate relationship with Margaret Thatcher. Across the Pond, however, he was a household name known equally for founding the conservative weekly National Review before his thirtieth birthday and for his long tenure as the host of the combative public affairs talk show Firing Line. WFB, as he was sometimes called, energised a sluggish American right-wing through the fusion of laissez-faire economics and anti-communism, the culmination of which was the election of Ronald Reagan in ’81. The American conservative historian George H. Nash calls Buckley ‘arguably the most important public intellectual in the United States in the past half century’–not a small feat by any means, considering the competition.


The American conservative historian George H. Nash calls Buckley ‘arguably the most important public intellectual in the United States in the past half century’–not a small feat by any means, considering the competition.


Buckley’s weekly columns for National Review, not solely on the political issues of the day but on subjects as eclectic as his love of peanut butter and his distaste for rock music, are collected in the sizeable Athwart History: Half a Century of Polemics, Animadversions, and Illuminations, which traces nearly sixty years of Buckley’s writing from the mission statement of the first issue of his magazine through to the articles that made him something like Republican kingmaker. We see, too, Buckley in his various guises: the ideologue, the anti-communist, the staunch Roman Catholic and the devoted friend. Some of the book’s best entries, in fact, are his affectionate obituaries for various members of his diverse social circle from Princess Grace of Monaco to the liberal-turned-conservative novelist John Dos Passos.

At its best Buckley’s distinct writing style, which reflects in almost every sentence his love of archaic and unusual words and passive-voice constructions, has a musical quality. The tone of that writing is nearly always cheerful and often playful; Buckley’s zest for life was, in fact, a large part of what made him the ‘Saint Paul of the conservative movement’, to quote Best of Enemies: he made conservatism ‘cool’––something which, and I’m sure conservatives would agree, it isn’t called often. Buckley’s passion can be felt in many of his columns, on skiing or Bach or sailing, for example, and it’s very difficult not to feel a sort of personal relationship with the man himself, in that curious way you will often do with a certain columnist or novelist, long before you finish the book. (That, by the way, is regardless of whatever you might think of the many opinions he articulates throughout). When Buckley’s writing is bad, however, it’s really very bad. There are sentences so confused and pretentious that they wouldn’t so much cause Orwell to roll over in his grave but to spring out, come back to life and promptly kill himself again. But these sentences are quite rare, and usually buried deeply in passages which otherwise sparkle with wit and energy regardless of whether the subject is the latest perceived sin of liberalism, his love for skiing or The Beatles, who Buckley wasn’t particularly fond of. ‘An estimable critic writing for National Review, after seeing Presley writhe his way through one of Ed Sullivan’s shows suggested that future entertainers would have to wrestle with live octopuses in order to entertain a mass American audience,’ wrote Buckley in 1964. ‘The Beatles don’t in fact do this, but how one wishes they did! And how this one wishes the octopus would win.’ It’s to the credit of editors Roger Kimball and Linda Bridges that the collection reads so well. The pair choose a rich variety of Buckley’s columns and separate his various dispatches into topics such as ‘The Cold War at Home’ and ‘Heroes and Villains’.


‘An estimable critic writing for National Review, after seeing Presley writhe his way through one of Ed Sullivan’s shows suggested that future entertainers would have to wrestle with live octopuses in order to entertain a mass American audience,’ wrote Buckley in 1964. ‘The Beatles don’t in fact do this, but how one wishes they did! And how this one wishes the octopus would win.’


Buckley, you might have seen, has once again been in the news over the past year. The first time it was due to the release of Best of Enemies, the excellent documentary about Buckley’s televised debates with Gore Vidal during the Democratic and Republican national conventions in 1968. The second, memorably (and amusingly), when then-presidential hopeful Donald Trump, apparently unaware that Buckley had written in less than favourable terms for National Review about the possibility of his one day running for president, claimed he would have had his backing. For those interested in politics or recent American history, Athwart History is something you simply have to read, and a worthy addition to two other essay collections produced by eloquent and witty polemicists: Arguably by Christopher Hitchens and State of the Union by Buckley’s long-time nemesis, Gore Vidal.