‘Baywatch’

'Baywatch'

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


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


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

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

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


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


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

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‘Jawbone’

'Jawbone'

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

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


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


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

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


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


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

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

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‘Alien: Covenant’

'Alien: Covenant'

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

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


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


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

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


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


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

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

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‘Unlocked’

'Unlocked'

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


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


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

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

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


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


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

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“Get Me Roger Stone”

Get Me Roger Stone

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


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


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

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

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


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


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

3/5

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‘Who Took Johnny’

Who Took Johnny

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

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


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


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

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

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‘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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