“A Hero of Our Time” by Mikhail Lermontov

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.

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

“Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS” (2017)

OVER THE COURSE of a film in which the makers show the charred bodies of young children killed and air strikes and the public beheadings of perceived violators of Shariah Law, it might come as a surprise to hear (or read) someone say that the most memorable part was Sebastian Junger’s narration at the end. As he laments––not without sympathy, I might add––the awkward political situation and cultural anxieties the refugee crisis has produced in Europe and elsewhere, he reminds us that ‘whether or not you care about human suffering, human suffering affects you.’ It’s a truism, perhaps, but one cheerfully forgotten, and reminiscent of Christopher Hitchens’ advice that “you can’t give up politics, it won’t give you up”. Our distracted culture might bear Mr. Junger’s words in mind.

Matthew Heineman’s exceptional City of Ghosts is limited only by the perspective of its central players, most of whom are based in the then-occupied Syrian city of Raqqa. Hell on Earth has no such shortcoming, and in point of fact its makers go to pains to provide political, social, cultural and historical context for the rise of the Islamic State. Junger and his co-director Nick Quested chronicle Bashar al-Assad’s declaration of war on his own people following the revolutions in Egypt and Libya, and the subsequent topplings of Hosni Mubarak and Muammar el-Qaddafi during the Arab Spring. Assad’s deeply held belief that he was next to go, the filmmakers argue, was the motivation behind the strategy of uncompromising and brutal repression that he pursued, and it was into this swirling vortex of blood and smoke and rubble that a Salafi jihadist militant group, following a fundamentalist Wahhabi doctrine of Sunni Islam, moved.


Matthew Heineman’s exceptional City of Ghosts is limited only by the perspective of its central players, most of whom are based in the then-occupied Syrian city of Raqqa. Hell on Earth has no such shortcoming, and in point of fact its makers go to pains to provide political, social, cultural and historical context for the rise of the Islamic State.


But Junger, you feel, is a journalist first and a filmmaker second. He isn’t afraid of pointing fingers at the U.S., for example, for its foreign policy blunders, including the de-Baathification law put forward by L. Paul Bremer, Iraq’s American leader in 2003. Echoing Middle East correspondents such as Liz Sly of the Washington Post, Junger suggests that the upper echelons of the defeated Iraqi army were to find employment, if that’s the word, in the nascent Islamic State. (The second cataclysmic error in American judgement, as Junger sees it, was Obama’s failure to follow through with his promise of intervention were Assad to use chemical weapons.) But the filmmakers are equally critical of foreign involvement from elsewhere. There is no good-and-evil narrative here. Iran, the Kurdish people, Turkey and Russia have all pursued their own interests in Syria, and as Junger himself says, “Once you get involved in a proxy fight, so many people have so huge a stake in the outcome that it’s almost impossible to stop.”


The filmmakers are critical of foreign involvement from elsewhere. There is no good-and-evil narrative here. The U.S., Iran, the Kurdish people, Turkey and Russia have all pursued their own interests in Syria, and as Junger himself says, “Once you get involved in a proxy fight, so many people have so huge a stake in the outcome that it’s almost impossible to stop.”


Junger and Quested were denied access to Syria for filming, but dramatise the implosion of Syria using a range of talking heads, including the British writer Robin Yassin-Kassab, author of Burning Country, and the footage of Middle Eastern news outlets, activists, witnesses and citizen journalists. The effect may in fact be superior to that which would have been produced were the pair to do the filming for themselves: there is a brutality to Hell on Earth that is separate from the destruction and misery it depicts. The filmmakers do not shy away from that misery. “Hard-hitting” seems a woefully inadequate way of describing the scale and violence of the murder and torture––both physical and emotional––that Junger and Quested depicts.  When an image of three-year-old Alan Kurdi lying dead on a beach in Bodrum prompted an international outcry and renewed debate over the refugee crisis, the boy’s aunt said that “God put the light on that picture to wake up the world.” Junger, whose film Restrepo was praised for ‘forsaking narrative structure for pure visceral power’, has a deep understanding of the force of an unsparing image.

In September last year, headlines declared that Bashar al-Assad had finally “won the war” in Syria, citing heavy Russian involvement and U.S. “indifference”. But the fighting is still ongoing, and a refugee crisis still exists. If there is a single thing that Junger and Quested wish to convey in their depiction of the victims of both, it’s that those people could be us or our families or our friends, and we should treat them accordingly.

‘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.

‘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.

‘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.

‘The Promise’

TO SAY THAT The Promise is instantly forgettable would be to be too kind to Terry George’s film. It’s perfectly memorable, only for being interminably boring. It could have been the Doctor Zhivago of the 1915 Armenian Genocide; instead, it’s cliché-filled, colour-by-numbers tedium.

In 1914, Michael Boghosian (Oscar Isaac) is a young apothecary in a small village in Turkey where, for the time being at least, Christians and Muslims live alongside each other in relative harmony. In order to realise his dream of going to cosmopolitan Constantinople and studying medicine, Michael marries a local girl and uses the dowry to fund his education. He’ll come home, he says, as soon as he’s a qualified doctor. Michael, as you can probably guess, never becomes a doctor because history had other plans.


For most of its running time, The Promise is the cinematic equivalent of scanning a to-do list, ticking off the items one by one. It rushes from event to event and from scene to scene at such haste and with such mechanical, lifeless efficiency that it’s rarely engaging and almost never allows for the development of even an iota of empathy for its central characters. 


When he arrives in Constantinople, his father’s cousin introduces him to dance instructor Ana (Charlotte le Bon) and her bearded beau, Associated Press journalist Chris (Christian Bale). Michael, it turns out, is a brilliant medical student, but the war cuts his studies short, as wars tend to do. And though a wealthy Turkish med-school friend saves him from having to do military service, anti-Armenian violence soon spills out in the streets. Michael and Ana go into hiding in a hotel, and his determination not to break his promise to his betrothed is severely strained. While Michael gets closer to Ana, Chris travels the country documenting the suffering of the Armenians.

For most of its running time, The Promise is the cinematic equivalent of scanning a to-do list, ticking off the items one by one. It rushes from event to event and from scene to scene at such haste and with such mechanical, lifeless efficiency that it’s rarely engaging and almost never allows for the development of even an iota of empathy for its central characters. What you’re led to feel instead is an intellectual, detached sort of sympathy: you know what you’re seeing is tragic, but you don’t feel it. The score’s transparent attempts at emotional manipulation, meanwhile, don’t so much fall flat as come across as vaguely ridiculous; it’s as if all you need to tease a tear or two out of the average audience is an orchestral piece and someone sobbing on a large enough screen.

When The Promise finally slows down, it’s to focus not on the horrors taking place but on the dynamic between Michael and Ana, and Ana and Chris, and Michael and Chris. You do wonder how a slushy love-triangle ended up at this story’s centre, when what’s happening elsewhere is so much more interesting and so much more horrifying. Equally, you wonder why director Terry George feels the need to waste screen time lingering on the lush landscapes of rural Turkey when so little time is allocated to the deep development of the characters in that love triangle.


When The Promise finally slows down, it’s to focus not on the horrors taking place but on the dynamic between Michael and Ana, and Ana and Chris, and Michael and Chris. You do wonder how a slushy love-triangle ended up at this story’s centre, when what’s happening elsewhere is so much more interesting and so much more horrifying. 


The sins of The Promise are many, but there are an obvious two. The first is Terry George and Robin Swicord’s decision to put sugary melodrama above the largely untold story of the Armenian Genocide itself. When Kill Your Darlings was released in 2013, one reviewer pointed out that it was hard to care much about whether the Beat philosophy had any mileage when people were being offed in their millions across The Pond. It’s much harder to care whether a medical student will keep his promise to his betrothed when people are being butchered in the same frame. The second sin is to waste the towering talents of Isaac, le Bon and Bale (not to mention Jean Reno, Shohreh Aghdashlooin and James Cromwell in supporting roles) by having them follow a script that is, at best, underwhelming, and by failing to develop the characters they portray enough to prompt even a twitch of emotion from the audience.

All this is a crying shame, for obvious reasons. The mass-killing of Armenians at the outbreak of the First World War has been referenced in the music of Charles Aznavour and System of a Down and in various novels––Kurt Vonnegut’s Bluebeard, for instance, and Edgar Hilsenrath’s The Story of the Last Thought––but it remains largely untold or under-told on-screen: The Cut and 1915 spring to mind, but neither film was particularly good. You’re tempted sometimes to admire a film because of its subject matter, but The Promise only lets down a story that deserves to be told in a far more engaging way.

“Kong: Skull Island”

THERE’S AN EXCHANGE in Lucky Number Slevin––a film, incidentally, that thinks it’s far more clever than it is––between Josh Hartnett’s eponymous Slevin Kelevra and the designated love interest, Lucy Liu’s Lindsey. The pair are walking down the street, talking about the actors that have portrayed the Bond villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld. At some point Slevin mentions that he prefers the Blofeld of From Russia with Love because “that’’s when the villain is most effective, when you don’t know what he looks like.”

He’s right, of course: the less you see of the villain (or the monster in this case), the more effective it tends to be. After all, the products of the imagination are far more terrifying than those of reality. Anthony Hopkins, for instance, playing Hannibal Lecter, had a paltry sixteen minutes of screen time in The Silence of the Lambs (for which he won an Oscar, incidentally), while Jurassic Park, a film that I don’t need to tell you is about dinosaurs, has just fifteen minutes of dinosaur screen time. And where would we be without mentioning the brilliant Alien, in which the Xenomorph is on screen for a mere three-and-a-half minutes.


In the case of Kong: Skull Island, in which the titular giant ape appears briefly early on and then again half an hour later (after which he doesn’t really go away again) how you wish the creators had subscribed to the Alien and Jaws school of filmmaking.


The creators of successive versions of King Kong have never really paid much attention to this idea, and, if we are to be fair, Deep Blue Sea and similar movies prove you can make a good film in which the monster remains front and centre, so to speak, throughout. Various King Kong films, including the 1933 original, achieved that feat. But in the case of Kong: Skull Island, in which the titular giant ape appears briefly early on and then again half an hour later (after which he doesn’t really go away again) how you wish the creators had subscribed to the Alien and Jaws school of filmmaking, and how you wish that they also hadn’t decided to make the same Kong supposedly featured in Jackson’s 2005 attempt so many times larger.

The film begins in 1944 and in the middle of the Second World War. Two fighter pilots––one American and the other Japanese––parachute onto an island in the South Pacific after a dogfight. They start to continue fighting on the ground, only for the enormous figure of Kong to appear. In 1973, U.S. government agent Bill Randa (John Goodman) hires a veteran tracker, Captain James Conrad of the S.A.S. (Tom Hiddleston), to lead an expedition to the mysterious “Skull Island” and map it out. It’s a fairly clumsy and pointless allusion to Joseph Conrad, author of Heart of Darkness, which was the inspiration for the Vietnam War film based on the story, Apocalypse Now. Also part of the group is photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) and a Vietnam War helicopter squadron called the Sky Devils, led by Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). Immediately after arriving on Skull Island, Packard and his merry band begin dropping bombs, which rouses a very irritated Kong.

When a character has been around long enough––in this case for more than eighty years––the films or books of which they are the subject start to become less and less surprising. This need not be too much of a problem, but in the case of a character so lacking in nuance as Kong, it tends to become one. To put it another way, it seems unlikely that Kong will, say, develop a drug habit or decide to rob a bank; you know straight away that anything involving Kong will include a division of the characters between those sympathetic to the giant ape on one side, and those hell-bent on destroying it on the other (with plenty of half-baked philosophy about Montaigne and his so-called noble savage implied throughout for good measure).


Kong is repeatedly and tediously revealed until the sight of him looming over the building across from your flat wouldn’t prompt so much as a raised eyebrow. His island surroundings, meanwhile, are overfilled with assorted CGI monsters which range from enormous buffalo to the sort of slimy, tentacled abominations you might see if you were to peer through the mist of Stephen King’s novel of the same name.


Kong is repeatedly and tediously revealed until the sight of him looming over the building across from your flat wouldn’t prompt so much as a raised eyebrow. His island surroundings, meanwhile, are overfilled with assorted CGI monsters which range from enormous buffalo to the sort of slimy, tentacled abominations you might see if you were to peer through the mist of Stephen King’s novel of the same name. There’s a lazy subplot involving a particularly nasty species of creatures vying with Kong for control of the island that is also needlessly introduced. Jordan Vogt-Roberts and writers Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly, in other words, make the amateurish mistake of trying to make Kong interesting by telling us as much as they possibly can about his history and the history of his peculiar surroundings, and in doing, strip away all remaining mystique. And you have the sense at any rate that the entire history and mythology of Skull Island was devised over a heap of cocaine in a dorm-room one night. By comparison, Peter Jackson’s 2005 reboot seems tastefully restrained. And what really is a crying shame is that the Skull Island creators couldn’t conceive of anything that makes the most of a formidable cast that includes Brie Larson, John Goodman and Tom Hiddleston. The script is stripped bare, so to speak, of any humour and any subtlety.

There are, if we are to be fair, one or two good things about the film. The consistent Toby Kebbell, who plays both a helicopter pilot and, in motion capture, the giant ape himself, is very good, while Brie Larson does the best she can with what she’s given, which isn’t much. The scenery is the film’s best feature, and the scene in which the helicopter squadron rouse Kong when they first arrive at the island is just about engaging enough, but the fact remains: future offerings featuring King Kong will have to be a lot better than this.

‘Ghost in the Shell’

THE IMPENDING RELEASE of the live-action adaptation of Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 anime and science-fiction classic, Ghost in the Shell, has given me an excuse to review a strange and beautiful film which I count among the best of all time, and I couldn’t miss such an opportunity.

In the near future, following the balkanisation of the world’s most powerful countries by nuclear war, a sprawling electronic network connects almost every aspect of daily human life. Most people have direct access to this network through fully or partly-mechanical bodies nicknamed ‘shells’, which contain their consciousness, or ‘ghost’ and allow them to do things far outside the realms of ordinary human ability. In Japan, which has emerged from the global conflict relatively unscathed, the pressing issues of the day are international terrorism and cybercrime. Major Motoko Kusanagi, a cyborg and the leader of a government agency which specialises in cybercrime, is charged with finding and capturing a hacker known as the Puppet Master. The Puppet Master ‘cyber-hacks’ the brains of innocent people and implants their brains with false memories, turning them into unwitting accomplices in his various crimes.


Unlike other science-fiction films of the past twenty years like Total Recall or Terminator 2Ghost in the Shell has aged well. The now-iconic opening sequence in which Major Kusanagi strips and swan-dives off the top of a building to carry out an assassination is as breathtaking as it ever was


Unlike other science-fiction films of the past twenty years like Total Recall or Terminator 2, Ghost in the Shell has aged well. The now-iconic opening sequence in which Major Kusanagi strips and swan-dives off the top of a building to carry out an assassination is as breathtaking as it ever was, so too is Kenji Kawai’s haunting choral theme, ‘Making of a Cyborg’, a traditional wedding song which here symbolises the marriage of man and machine. Ghost in the Shell remains remarkable for its beautiful neo-noir setting and Oshii’s staggering attention to detail. Some of the shots of ‘New Port City’, the fictional Japanese city in which the story takes place, still inspire awe.

Rupert Sanders, who directs the upcoming live-action adaptation, has an opportunity to imbue his film with some of the tension and the horror that was necessarily absent from the animation. I had the feeling during certain scenes (memorably when the rubbish-collector realises his ‘wife and child’ don’t exist and when the Puppet Master first speaks) that I should have felt something more than I did, but didn’t on account of the medium through which the film is told. The action sequences, however, are as gripping as any from a film played with live actors.


But the overarching themes with which the film grapples––identity, Cartesian dualism, Heidegger’s ‘death as the key to life’––are legitimately interesting and challenging, and the deeper questions Ghost in the Shell raises about the nature of humanity are asked in subtle ways


Ghost in the Shell’s constant philosophising sometimes gets tiresome. Kusanagi and the hulking cyborg Batou, who is also a member of her counter-cybercrime team, say things to each other like, ‘If a cyber could create its own ghost, what would be the purpose of being human?’ But the overarching themes with which the film grapples––identity, Cartesian dualism, Heidegger’s ‘death as the key to life’––are legitimately interesting and challenging, and the deeper questions Ghost in the Shell raises about the nature of humanity are asked in subtle ways, such as Major Kusanagi’s conversation with Togusa over which gun he should use (‘I think stopping power is more important than personal preference,’ she says), and her lack of self-consciousness about her nakedness. You get the sense that there is always something to glean from a viewing of the film. The detached and introspective stance Major Kusanagi takes towards her physical body is typical of schizophrenia, which often involves an inability to resolve the conflict between the more mechanistic left hemisphere of the brain and the more holistic right hemisphere. Meanwhile, the exploration of the uncanny valley––reflected in the repeated imagery of dolls, glassy eyes and, of course, the name of the film’s antagonist, the Puppet Master––seems more relevant when you consider the theory put forward by Dr. Iain McGilchrist in The Master and His Emissary: that giving too much importance to the rational and the mechanistic gives rise to experiences of ‘phantasmagoria, grotesquerie, carnivalesque travesty, hallucinatory reveries, paranoia, and nightmarish fantasy’, often involving ‘dancing dolls, automata and detached body parts’––living things expressed as mechanisms.

Ghost in the Shell is as complex and opaque as it ever was, which is why it remains something of a cult classic rather than a film with broader appeal. But twenty-two years on, it still has all the intelligence, the moodiness, and the breathtaking visual beauty.

‘Stories of Your Life and Others’ by Ted Chiang

IT’S ENCOURAGING TO see that Denis Villeneuve’s excellent Arrival remained in the box office top-ten for so long after its initial release, because Ted Chiang, the author of the story on which it was based, is relatively unknown outside of his field. In the admittedly small world of science-fiction short stories, it might seem vaguely ludicrous that Chiang isn’t more popular, because he’s risen in a matter of years from relative obscurity to become one of the most well known writers of the genre. It’s quite an achievement given the size of his bibliography: Chiang produces a new collection only once every two or three years, but almost invariably receives a handful of awards each time he does so (a Hugo for The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate, a Nebula for Tower of Babylon, a Sidewise for Seventy-Two Letters, to name just three).

Though Chiang’s genre is science-fiction, his work has very little in common with what people tend to believe to be science-fiction, namely Star Wars, Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica (apparently, anything with ‘star’ in its title). Chiang, in response to the charge that his writing ‘isn’t science-fiction’, calls Star Wars and its like ‘adventure stories dressed up with lasers’ which are not ‘engaging in thought experiments, investigating philosophical questions’ as sci-fi ought to. Chiang’s stories might be science-fiction, but they stray into the realms of other genres: Chiang draws on theology (Hell is the Absence of God), classical myth (Tower of Babylon) and others areas of human knowledge. ‘Science-fiction author’, therefore, seems a woefully inadequate description for Chiang in the same way it does for Kurt Vonnegut or Philip K. Dick or Isaac Asimov, alongside whom Chiang will no doubt be talked about in years to come. Like the stories written by those authors (and any great author for that matter), Chiang’s work has, as nearly as possible, the potential to change the reader’s perspective on the world. Take, for instance, The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Fiction, which is about the invention of a device which allows the wearer to see specific events in their memory through the eyes of the others who were present. The central character is alarmed to learn just how much, and just how dramatically, he has misremembered significant incidents in his life, and the experience leads him (and the reader) to question how many of their ‘memories’ are part of a narrative of his or her own creation, constructed to preserve their sense of identity, if not their sanity.


Chiang, in response to the charge that his writing ‘isn’t science-fiction’, calls Star Wars and its like ‘adventure stories dressed up with lasers’ which are not ‘engaging in thought experiments, investigating philosophical questions’ as sci-fi ought to.


The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Fiction, which was released in 2013, isn’t featured in Chiang’s best collection, Stories of Your Life and Others, which was released in 2002, but the most well known short stories in his slim body of work, including Tower of Babylon, Understand and the titular Story of Your Life––on which Arrival is based––are all included, along with the triple-award-winning Hell is the Absence of God, and a story Chiang composed specifically for the collection, Liking What You See: A Documentary. All of Chiang’s writing has an understated brutality to it; he isn’t a stylist, exactly, but nevertheless there is an elegance to his prose: every sentence Chiang writes moves the story in some way. There are no wasted sentences in his body of work, then, and yet it’s still staggering just how much meaning he packs into his stories.

The singular thread which runs through nearly all of Chiang’s stories is the conflict between science and faith and the suggestion that this conflict might be resolved. In Tower of Babylon, Chiang describes a miner from Elam’s unforgiving three-month journey to the top of the obelisk of the story’s title, where he is to try to break through the Vault of Heaven of Babylonian mythology and discover Yahweh’s creation. Typically Chiang gives the reader little by way of background. The setting is revealed through the dialogue, of which there is also relatively little. It’s the weakest of Chiang’s better known short stories, and, due to its setting, the one that fans of ‘traditional’ science-fiction will likely enjoy the least.


The singular thread which runs through nearly all of Chiang’s stories is the conflict between science and faith and the suggestion that this conflict might be resolved. 


Hell is the Absence of God is set in a world in which various doctrines of Christian theology, including the existence of Heaven and Hell and angelic beings which sometimes come down to earth, are literally true. There is no dialogue in the story and therefore a sense of cool detachment from the described events; Hell is less emotionally affecting than other Chiang stories, and this is both its weakness and its strength. The impression is something like that of a documentary or thought experiment: Chiang deliberately reframes the questions of theology as questions of science, and in doing so treats the doubt and internal conflict which arise from the believer’s inevitable crisis of faith with compassion. The injustice of a serial rapist and murderer ascending to heaven because he sees the light of God reflects the Christian paradox that virtue is not necessarily rewarded and vice versa. (Chiang, incidentally, has said he found the Book of Job unsatisfying because at its end God restores Job’s fortunes, apparently undermining the Book’s overarching message that bad things happen to good people). Story of Your Life, which won no less than five awards and rightly gives the collection its title, is a story of staggering emotional depth and thematic range. The story has a simple plot consisting of two narratives and is narrated by the linguistics professor Dr. Louise Banks. In the first narrative, Dr. Banks and the physicist Dr. Gary Donnelly are hired by the military to communicate with a race of aliens that have arrived on the planet; in the second narrative, Dr. Banks describes the short life of her daughter. Through these narratives Chiang explores the relationship between thought and language popularly known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, determinism and loss, and the story is desperately sad. It’s perhaps the best illustration in all of the author’s work that in his universe it is impossible to disentangle humanism and rationalism.

A humanist science-fiction author is maybe the most appropriate description of Ted Chiang, which makes him something of a rare commodity. Whatever you choose to call him, the high-concept sci-fi Stories of Your Life and Others is sometimes eye-opening, often thought-provoking and always utterly readable.