‘Unlocked’

'Unlocked'

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


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


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

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

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


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


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

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“Get Me Roger Stone”

Get Me Roger Stone

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


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


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

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

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


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


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

3/5

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‘Who Took Johnny’

Who Took Johnny

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

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


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


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

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

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‘The Invitation’

'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.

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

'Athwart History'

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.

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“A Hero of Our Time” by Mikhail Lermontov

'A Hero of Our Time'

ONCE THE ROMANTIC poet Lord Byron had once and for all finished travelling around Europe womanising, man-ising, running up debts and dabbling in revolutions, a fashion began in literary Russia for stories which featured a very particular sort of antihero at their centre. This ‘Byronic’ hero shared the characteristics of his creator. Like Byron himself he was often sensitive and yet cynical, physically attractive and yet solitary, born into wealth but resentful of privilege and authority, and haunted by some crime or tragic event in the past. The trope was immortalised in Byron’s description of his most Byronic of Byronic heroes, Conrad, the pirate hero of The Corsair:

He knew himself a villain––but he deem’d

The rest no better than the thing he seem’d;

And scorn’d the best as hypocrites who hid

Those deeds the bolder spirit plainly did.

He knew himself detested, but he knew

The hearts that loath’d him, crouch’d and dreaded too.

Lone, wild, and strange, he stood alike exempt

From all affection and from all contempt:

Fifteen years after Byron succumbed to syphilis in Missolonghi, Mikhail Lermontov wrote what can be said to be the first of the great Russian psychological novels, A Hero of Our Time, at the centre of which is the bored young nobleman Grigory Alexandrovich Pechorin. It’s a lean book with little in common with the weighty tomes of classic Russian literature. There are three narrators, including Pechorin himself––though unlike the others Pechorin narrates through his diaries––and a slim cast of characters including various army officers, Ossetian tribesmen and the targets in Pechorin’s game of romantic conquest.


It’s a lean book with little in common with the weighty tomes of classic Russian literature. There are three narrators, including Pechorin himself––though unlike the others Pechorin narrates through his diaries––and a slim cast of characters including various army officers, Ossetian tribesmen and the targets in Pechorin’s game of romantic conquest.


A Hero of Our Time opens in the Caucasus mountains, where a young and unnamed Russian army officer is documenting his travels for later publication. Shortly after his introduction he meets the veteran Captain Maxim Maximych, who has been stationed in the region for years, and who tells him stories about the characters he’s encountered during his time there. The narration now falls to Maximych, who entertains his young companion with tales of the enigmatic Grigory Alexandrovich Pechorin and, once finished, gives him Pechorin’s diaries. Through his diary entries, Pechorin narrates the rest of the book.

The main success of the novel, of course, is its antiheroic lead, the titular ‘hero of our time’ and Lermontov, who was acutely aware of the magnetism of such a character, introduces the reader to him slowly, and indirectly. It isn’t until mid-way through the book that Pechorin takes the narrative reigns, though the reader is beginning to form an idea of him long before. Pechorin is, to begin with at least, characterised a sort of swashbuckling romantic hero, who is undeniably arrogant and self-obsessed but also interesting and likeable and, of course, relatable: he is the ‘composite of all the vices of our generation in the fullness of their development’, according to Lermontov, and therefore the ironic ‘hero’ of the author’s time, but equally, as the director and screenwriter Neil LaBute identifies, a ‘vivid’ portrayal of the male ego. Pechorin is something of an exaggerated version of Lermontov, who was also an army officer stationed in the Caucasus, who also got into romantic adventures (albeit with less success than his creation) and who was also, famously, involved in a duel. Lermontov shrugged off this connection as a ‘sorry old ruse’ but it’s impossible to deny the similarities between the pair.

Lermontov maintains an ironic tone throughout his novel, but it nevertheless gets steadily darker in the novellas Taman, Princess Mary and The Fatalist, which Pechorin narrates. His arrogance mutates into callousness and then cruelty; Pechorin becomes involved with smugglers and contrives to seduce a princess while attempting to maintain an affair with someone else.


Lermontov maintains an ironic tone throughout his novel, but it nevertheless gets steadily darker in the novellas TamanPrincess Mary and The Fatalist, which Pechorin narrates. His arrogance mutates into callousness and then cruelty; Pechorin becomes involved with smugglers and contrives to seduce a princess while attempting to maintain an affair with someone else.


A Hero of Our Time is also exceptional for Lermontov’s rolling descriptions of the Caucasus, which is as much a character as Pechorin. Take the following passage from the first page:

What a glorious place, this valley! On every side there are unassailable mountains and reddit promontories, hung with green ivy and crowned with clumps of plane trees; there are yellow precipices, covered with the lines of gullies; and right up high: a gold fringe of snow. Below, the Aragva River, having gathered another nameless rivulet which noisily unearthed itself from a black and gloomy chasm, extends like a silver thread, glittering like a scaly snake.

And this description, from page twenty-eight:

Indeed, it is likely that I shall never again see the likes of this panorama: the Koyshaursky Valley lay below us, intersected by the Aragva River and another small river, like two silver threads. A light bluish mist was crawling along it, fleeing the warm rays of morning to the neighbouring canyons. On the left and the right, the hackles of the mountains, one higher than the next, were criss-crossing and stretching along, covered in snows, bushes. In the distance, there were similar hills, where no two rock-faces were alike––and the snows burned with a rosy luster, so uplifting, so bright, that it seems you could live here before. The sun was just showing itself from behind the dark-blue mountains, which only an accustomed eye could discern from the thunderclouds; but there were blood-red streaks above the sun, to which my comrade was paying particular attention.

Lermontov later became known as the ‘poet of the Caucasus’. After he published Death of the Poet he was exiled to the region for allegedly accusing the ‘pillars’ of Russian high society of complicity in Alexander Pushkin’s death and later wrote that ‘all spleen has gone to hell’ since his arrival. The landscape Lermontov describes in A Hero of Our Time is at once beautiful and wild, and made almost as vivid as the sublime landscapes and seascapes of the Romantic period. The Caucasus, of course, is also as opaque and unknowable as Lermontov’s moody protagonist, who, you feel, might just be as much a hero of our time as well as of Lermontov’s.

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‘Ghost in the Shell’ (2017): A Little Too Much ‘Shell’

'Ghost in the Shell'

IT’S HARD TO deny that the adaptation of the 1995 anime masterpiece Ghost in the Shell––itself an adaptation of the Masamune Shirow manga of the same name––is a pleasure to look at. The pan-Asian metropolis that’s part-Hong Kong, part-Shanghai and is, as in the original, the setting of the story, is a sprawling neon nightmare of tightly packed and highly stacked buildings, and rising up between those buildings are nightmarish holograms so large that they could look Godzilla in the eye. At street-level, the suffocating advertisement-filled world conceived by director Rupert Sanders and concept designer Monika Bielskyte calls to mind the dystopian Los Angeles of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. These visual flourishes, however, are no substitute for substance, and Rupert Sanders’ film is, ultimately, a shallow copy of its predecessor. You might say that it’s a little too ‘shell’ and not enough ‘ghost’.

In a dystopian future, and in a neo-noirish Asian city, the cyborg commander of the government counter-cyberterrorism task force Section 9, Major Mira Killian, is tasked with investigating the hacking of artificial intelligence belonging to the Hanka Robotics corporation. In this world almost everyone is at least partly cybernetically enhanced, but the Major is the first person to have an entirely synthetic outer body or ‘shell’, which gives her superhuman abilities. She and her team, which includes the hulking, white-haired Batou (Dane Pilou Asbaek) and the completely human Togusa (Singaporean actor Ng Chin Han) set off to find who or what is behind the hacks.


The many flaws of the film are apparent right from the beginning. Admirers of Mamoru Oshii’s original––and the original Ghost in the Shell is one of those films that inspires a quasi-fanatical degree of devotion or nothing at all––will tell you that a large part of its appeal is its opacity, which Sanders and writers Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger in the remake begin to do away with in the preamble


The many flaws of the film are apparent right from the beginning. Admirers of Mamoru Oshii’s original––and the original Ghost in the Shell is one of those films that inspires a quasi-fanatical degree of devotion or nothing at all––will tell you that a large part of its appeal is its opacity, which Sanders and writers Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger in the remake begin to do away with in the preamble. Any hope afterwards of retaining a modicum of mystery is swiftly crushed by dialogue that far too often inspires embarrassment even when the characters aren’t trying to sound thoughtful. The repeating line ‘I am Major and I give my consent’ springs to mind. Some of the most awkward pseudo-philosophical musings in the ‘95 film––Kusanagi and Batou’s conversation on the boat, for example, though there are a few instances––seem subtle in the context of this remake.

The writers seem to have taken various elements of the original––the chain-smoking scientist of the second GTS; the acrobatic fight in the ankle-deep water of the city’s bay; the body-horror of the battle with the spider tank (one of the better scenes of the film)––and reproduced them in the remake without consideration for the film as a whole. Consequently Ghost in the Shell ‘17 feels absent of feeling, and Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe’s score—which, incidentally, has a hard act to follow in the haunting orchestral music of Kenji Kawai—suggests a depth and emotion that the actors fail to convey on the screen. The sequence in which a rubbish collector learns that his son and wife, whose perceived betrayal drives him to carry out a criminal act, do not exist, should be overflowing with emotion in a way that the scene in the animated original necessarily couldn’t be. Instead the scene comes and goes and carries even less emotional weight than the original did.


The sequence in which a rubbish collector learns that his son and wife, whose perceived betrayal drives him to carry out a criminal act, do not exist, should be overflowing with emotion in a way that the scene in the animated original necessarily couldn’t be. Instead the scene comes and goes and carries even less emotional weight than the original did.


The press made much of the decision to cast the white Scarlett Johansson rather than an Asian actor in the lead role—Major Kusanagi was, after all, Asian—but putting all that to one side for the moment, her performance is uncharacteristically weak. She plays the role as part-Black Widow, part-Under the Skin alien, with a little of her performances in Her and Lucy thrown in for good measure. She stomps around in a way that is presumably a tribute to the animated movement of her predecessor but looks ridiculous and is impossible to ignore; it leads you to wonder why the mechanical triumph that is supposed to be Major Killian’s synthetic body can leap gracefully off building-tops and yet remains unable to mimic ordinary human locomotion. The Major also communicates none of the rising detachment from her body in the way that Kusanagi does, nor the vulnerability that her doubts about her humanity inspire. (Consider, by contrast, Alicia Vikander’s masterful portrayal of Ava in Alex Garland’s sci-fi thriller Ex Machina).  Pilou Asbaek, who’s best known for playing the cynical spin doctor Kasper Juul in Borgen, is good as Batou but veteran Japanese actor Takeshi Kitano is wasted in the role of Aramaki, who, strangely, speaks to his international team in Japanese and then hears back from them in English.
Ghost in the Shell, to return to my original point, is visually beautiful. It’s even stunning. But it bears remembering that Mamoru Oshii’s film was also beautiful and more. There are scenes in Oshii’s film which not only evoke the spiritual in a purely intellectual way but inspire a sense of the spiritual as, for those who aren’t religious, only art is able to do. Maybe that’s why I found this film, which had the potential to be a more vivid and real version of the extraordinary ’95 film, a crushing disappointment. Mamoru Oshii’s film was about emptiness; Sanders’ film is empty.

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‘City of Tiny Lights’

'City of Tiny Lights'

WEST LONDON ISN’T the place that normally springs to mind when you hear the term ‘film noir’, although if you’ve seen The Third Man or Night and the City you’ll know that femme fatales and moody monologues aren’t unique to American cinema. Either way, there’s something odd about seeing a teenage Londoner walk through the frosted-glass door of a dingy study belonging to a chain-smoking private investigator and then kiss his teeth.

Tommy Akhtar (Riz Ahmed) is the Sam Spade of Pete Travis’s City of Tiny Lights, which was adapted for the screen by the book’s author, Patrick Neate. Local prostitute Melody (Cush Jumbo) asks Tommy for his help finding her missing flatmate, Natasha, and our hero quickly finds himself entangled in a web of intrigue that involves an old friend and property developer, a fundamentalist mullah and the CIA, and to complicate matters further, an old flame, Shelley (Billie Piper), is back in London and looking for closure.


In the first part of City of Tiny Lights the film is maybe a little too proud to show its noir influences. There’s Tommy, first of all, who rarely turns down an opportunity to pour himself another whiskey or light a cigarette; his hardboiled narration and night-time wanderings punctuate the film. 


In the first part of City of Tiny Lights the film is maybe a little too proud to show its noir influences: there’s Tommy, first of all, who rarely turns down an opportunity to pour himself another whiskey or light a cigarette; his hardboiled narration and night-time wanderings punctuate the film. Then there’s the constant rain (although you could put that down to the setting) and the shadowy mise-en-scene. There are the requisite femme fatales, prostitutes, drugs and other underworld staples. In Tommy Akhtar’s study there are even Venetian blinds, and his father has prostate cancer, which will ring a bell for anyone who’s read James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia.

These constant reminders are distracting, and take away from the film’s better qualities. In part thanks to Neate’s lean script. City of Tiny Lights is legitimately funny, for instance: the exchanges between Tommy and Melody, and Tommy and the scowling, streetwise Avi are brilliant; Tommy’s ailing father Farzad (played excellently by Roshan Seth) is a source of comedy all by himself. There’s also an admirable weaving-in to the narrative of contemporary issues facing Londoners such as the buying-up of city housing by property developers, social integration and religious fundamentalism, the result of which is that the film feels both very modern and very homegrown.


There’s something about City of Tiny Lights, however, that leads you to feel as if it’s just a Sunday night and you’re watching a BBC miniseries with a cup of tea in front of you. To put it another way, there’s nothing original about a drink-sodden, streetwise detective haunted by his past, and there’s nothing fresh in neo-noir.


Riz Ahmed, on whose narrow shoulders almost the entire narrative rests, is as watchable in this more understated role as he was when he played sidekick to Jake Gyllenhaal’s gaunt and psychopathic stringer in Nightcrawler and portrayed a college student accused of murder in The Night Of. Without his contribution City of Tiny Lights might be a far less watchable film. The supporting cast, meanwhile, simply don’t have enough to do.

There’s something about City of Tiny Lights, however, that leads you to feel as if it’s just a Sunday night and you’re watching a BBC miniseries with a cup of tea in front of you. To put it another way, there’s nothing original about a drink-sodden, streetwise detective haunted by his past, and there’s nothing inherently fresh about neo-noir, which the Scandinavian countries have appropriated so well that there’s even a “Scandi noir” sub-genre. The central thread of the film, which isn’t particularly interesting in itself, is too often put to one side, so to speak, to make room for scenes which seem to serve little purpose except to add to the ambience. And in the absence of a truly gripping central plot or a truly unusual central character, City of Tiny Lights can’t be said to shine, if you’ll excuse the pun.

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‘Trespass Against Us’

'Trespass Against Us'

‘HELL HATH NO fury like a locked-up super-goat,’ says Colby Cutler, the surprisingly sinister and infinitely quotable patriarch of Trespass Against Us. It makes some sense in context, but it’s still vague, and the same might be said of the film.

In the opening sequence, Chad, a chain-smoking Gloucestershire traveller and small-time crook, is driving through a field after a dog and a rabbit. His son Tyson sits on his lap and steers the car. The pair and the others in the overfilled hatchback are coursing, which is when a dog chases a hare. If the hare fails to outrun the dog, well, to quote another film involving a hard-to-understand traveller community, ‘the rabbit gets f***ed’.


Chad and his family are members of a small outlaw community who live on a tumbledown caravan site in Gloucestershire. This band of misfits also includes the rabid Gordon (Sean Harris), Samson (Kingsley Ben-Adir) and Norman (Tony Way), thought these characters are barely developed. The group are shambolic, ignorant and ridiculous, but somehow capable of pulling off grand heists. 


This first five minutes of first-time director Adam Smith’s film tell you a good deal about where the film is headed. Chad, an illiterate thief and getaway driver, wants to teach his son how to get by in the world, but is constantly undermined by his father, the small-time crime lord Colby. Like the dog, local police officer P. C. Lovage, played by Rory Kinnear, is in relentless pursuit of Chad, to the extent that the pair are on first-name terms. The animal metaphors in the film really are heavy-handed.

Chad and his family are members of a small outlaw community who live on a tumbledown caravan site in Gloucestershire. This band of misfits also includes the rabid Gordon (Sean Harris), Samson (Kingsley Ben-Adir) and Norman (Tony Way), thought these characters are barely developed. The group are shambolic, ignorant and ridiculous, but somehow capable of pulling off grand heists. This is in a large part thanks to Chad, who’s a gifted and icy calm driver in the mould of the central character in Drive, although he will stop mid-chase for a pack of cigarettes. He knows no other life than the criminal one, but he wants something else for wife Kelly (Lyndsey Marshal) and children Tyson (Georgie Smith) and Mini (Kacie Anderson). But his main problem is that he can’t stand up to his father, a flat-earth- and intelligent design-believer who rattles off colourful idioms and sits in a big red leather swivel-chair like a Viking king on his throne. Colby thinks up the criminal schemes that risk Chad’s freedom and threatens him when he hints at wanting a different life, and all the while grows in influence over his grandson.

Trespass Against Us should belong to the same genre as London Boulevard and Layer Cake, though the music probably isn’t as good as that of the former and everything else is definitely less stylish than the latter. Chad wants to leave the criminal world behind but of course it pulls him back in, as the criminal world tends to do, even if, in this case, ‘criminal world’ seems hyperbolic. But Trespass Against Us can’t really decide what it’s about. On some level it is about giving up the criminal life, but on another, it’s about family. Tonally it’s also confused. It seems director Adam Smith couldn’t decide between the small-scale realism of, say, Shane Meadows and a grander crime drama. The score reflects this identity problem. The music which plays during the early scenes at the caravan site evokes rural idyllic bliss, to the degree that you start to half-expect to see a couple of hobbits wandering past, pipe and pint of ale in hand. But during genuinely gripping and inventive chase sequences, thumping electronic tones supply the accompaniment.


The best thing about the film is the two central performances. Gleeson and Fassbender have a genuine on-screen chemistry that loads their verbal jousting and physical intimacy with emotion. That the film doesn’t offer a more satisfactory resolution to their conflict is a crying shame. 


The best thing about the film is the two central performances. Gleeson and Fassbender have a genuine on-screen chemistry that loads their verbal jousting and physical intimacy with emotion. That the film doesn’t offer a more satisfactory resolution to their conflict is a crying shame. Rory Kinnear gives a solid supporting performance as a cop who’s not so much sinister as petty: during his confrontations with Chad, he acts like a schoolteacher, barely containing his glee at having caught a particularly difficult schoolboy red-handed. Trespass Against Us is funny, too, much of that humour coming from Colby’s primitive musings and the result of combining traveller slang with a broad Gloucestershire dialect, yah dinny.

The film has some charm but it’s confused and, ultimately, unsatisfying.

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‘Certain Women’

'Certain Women'

THERE ARE LINGERING shots of the vast open expanses of Montana in Certain Women. In some cruel way those expanses and the freedom they seem to promise mock the three under-appreciated and frustrated women whose ordinary tales are told with empathy and intensity by writer and director Kelly Reichardt.

The three stories intersect in passing. Lawyer Laura Wells (Laura Kern) is having trouble with a client, Fuller (Jared Harris), who, after nine months, still refuses to take her advice; humourless Gina (Michelle Williams) is building a house from scratch with her husband Ryan (James le Gros), and feels he constantly undermines her: meanwhile lonely ranch hand Jamie (Lily Gladstone) takes an instant liking to law grad Beth (Kristen Stewart) after stumbling into a class on education law.


What unites these vignettes, which are based on the stories of Maile Maloy, is a sense of alienation and isolation, and the perceived powerlessness of the independent women at their centre to change their circumstances. In the very first scene, the camera lingers on the image of Laura, lying in bed after having sex with her married lover, reflected in a mirror, and throughout the film the motif of glass repeats itself. Over and over again Reichardt films her actors reflected in mirrors or through glass, illustrating an absence of connection.


What unites these vignettes, which are based on the stories of Maile Maloy, is a sense of alienation and isolation, and the perceived powerlessness of the independent women at their centre to change their circumstances. In the very first scene, the camera lingers on the image of Laura, lying in bed after having sex with her married lover, reflected in a mirror, and throughout the film the motif of glass repeats itself. Over and over again Reichardt films her actors reflected in mirrors or through glass, illustrating an absence of connection. Laura’s construction worker client, whose frustrations threaten to mutate into violence, sees her as something approaching a mother, and fails to take her legal advice seriously until he hears the same thing from a male lawyer. Fuller fails to respect Laura’s determination to maintain a professional distance from him, while at the same time exploiting her compassion. For Gina, the sandstone rocks with which she wants to build her home symbolise the stability and reliability she yearns for and fails to get from her barely-there husband and unappreciative teenage daughter. But no better is the sense of isolation and powerlessness that permeates the film depicted than in Jamie’s nervous pursuit of Beth, and newcomer Lily Gladstone, whose strikingly expressive face betrays a thousand thoughts, is the best thing about the film, though her scene-stealing fat corgi comes a close second. This arc, which owes a lot to an exhausted-looking and self-deprecating but nevertheless magnetic Kristen Stewart, is brimming with unspoken tension, and is the film’s best vignette.


For the all the empathy with which Reichardt treats her characters and the skill with which she captures both the stark beauty of the Montanan landscape, the minimalism of Certain Women slips at times into monotony. The film is incredibly slow, noticeably during the second arc, and the three narratives, though united by theme and by location, are lined up gracelessly in a row and dealt with methodically, rather than interwoven in the fluent and forceful way that, say, Crash or Pulp Fiction are.


But for the all the empathy with which Reichardt treats her characters and the skill with which she captures both the stark beauty of the Montanan landscape, the minimalism of Certain Women slips at times into monotony. The film is incredibly slow, noticeably during the second arc, and the three narratives, though united by theme and by location, are lined up gracelessly in a row and dealt with methodically, rather than interwoven in the fluent and forceful way that, say, Crash or Pulp Fiction are. The temptation is to judge the film by its parts rather than as a whole, in which case Certain Women would seem to have few glaring faults other than the narrative slightness of the second act, but taken in its entirety it feels a lot longer than it is. And there’s a deliberate ambiguity that sometimes crosses over into a frustrating vagueness: even the title is open to a wealth of different interpretations. Does the ‘certain’ denote that the story’s central characters are ordinary and random, for example, or does it suggest confidence and assertiveness? Or is it the sort of disparaging sexist ‘certain’ as in ‘there are certain women who . . .’?

In the solemn atmosphere and bleak countryside surroundings of Certain Women, Reichardt–surely one of the quietest directors working today–charges the barest of details with a level of emotion which elevates this from indie flick to film with mainstream appeal. But Certain Women will be too slow, too ambiguous and altogether unsatisfying for any impatient viewers.

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