‘Christine’

'Christine'

IN 1974, CHRISTINE Chubbuck, a reporter for a small news station in Florida, shot herself live on air, and that is, on the surface, what Antonio Campos’s new film is about. But that description does a gross disservice to a very empathetic portrait of a complex woman, played with unrelenting intensity by Rebecca Hall in the performance of her career.

Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) is a reporter for struggling news affiliate WZRB in Sarasota, Florida. She’s the most intelligent person there, according to her boss Mike (Tracy Letts), but she refuses to report the sort of news he wants. She’s also a perfectionist, and has similarly high expectations of the station, but she’s charmingly unpretentious, singing along (badly) to music in her car and bending down to drink through a straw rather than pick up the glass. She speaks her mind, to the constant irritation of Mike, who is pushing his team to report ‘juicier’ stories in an effort to save the station’s plunging figures. ‘It’s simple math,’ Mike says. ‘Want higher ratings? Find juicier stories.’ ‘That’s not math,’ says Christine. ‘That’s logic.’


There’s a temptation, with these sorts of things, to settle down to a little armchair psychiatry, but Campos and screenwriter Craig Shilowich seem to have treated Christine as a character study for its own sake, and the film is respectful and empathetic enough in its treatment of Chubbuck to satisfy anyone who might claim there’s anything exploitative about it.


Christine’s awkward, too, but never ridiculous. She mutters to herself in the mirror in her tiny bedroom, and interrupts a couple having dinner to tell them how fortunate they are. But she has things on her mind. For one thing, she’s worried about the stomach pains she’s been having, and she’s liable to bite her nails and stare anxiously through windows.

There’s a temptation, with these sorts of things, to settle down to a little armchair psychiatry, but Campos and screenwriter Craig Shilowich seem to have treated Christine as a character study for its own sake, and the film is respectful and empathetic enough in its treatment of Chubbuck to satisfy anyone who might claim there’s anything exploitative about it. Chubbuck starts to behave increasingly erratically as the film moves on, and knowing about her impending on-air suicide creates a constant state of tension that might not be there otherwise, but Christine is still intensely watchable because Chubbuck is so intensely likeable. A large part of that likability is squarely down to Hall, who puts in the performance of a career in a career of good, if supporting performances (The Prestige and Vicky Cristina Barcelona to name two). Every little hand gesture or line of dialogue reflects something about a woman who most people only know for a single, fatal action.


Coll Anderson’s highly effective score imbues the film at the beginning with a light-hearted atmosphere that hints that Christine is not the grim death-march you might expect it to be, and as the film trundles on the score changes to reflect Christine’s changing mood.


Coll Anderson’s highly effective score imbues the film at the beginning with a light-hearted atmosphere that hints that Christine is not the grim death-march you might expect it to be, and as the film trundles on the score changes to reflect Christine’s changing mood. And Christine looks the part, too: it’s filled with plenty of horrible mustard-yellows and browns and other sins against good taste, and the whole thing looks as washed-out and depressed as its lead character. You have a creeping sense during the earlier conversations between Chubbuck and Mike that the film might be trying to critique the sensationalism of news in the same way as the 1967 film Network (‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!’), and this crops up again and again throughout the film but fails to develop.

Most biopics deal in some way with grand or glamorous people or themes. Take Selma, for example, or The Imitation Game. Christine doesn’t, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting. Thanks to Campos and Shilowich’s sensitive approach, and the wonderful performance of Hall, you’ll feel that although you don’t know why Christine Chubbuck did what she did, you do know a little more about her and her world, and that seems to be enough.

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‘Hacksaw Ridge’

'Hacksaw Ridge'

HACKSAW RIDGE BEGINS with a shot of dead soldiers lying on the battlefield and a short, slow-motion tableau of the fighting during the Battle of Okinawa, while Desmond Doss, speaking in a rural Virginia accent, talks about God. And you think to yourself that this couldn’t possibly be directed by Mel Gibson. But it’s the perfect story for the controversial director, who hasn’t directed anything since Apocalypto was released a decade ago, because it combines the sort of Christian humanism that permeates all his recent work with his taste for unfiltered violence and gore, and the result is a something that, though harrowing, is a moving tribute to simple humanity.

Sixteen years before the bloodiest battle of the Second World War, the young Desmond Doss (Darcy Bryce) hits his brother Hal (Roman Guerriero) with a brick while they fight on the front lawn of their Virginia home. His parents rush over to tend to their wounded son, and Desmond, horrified at what he’s done, runs inside the house and stands in front of a poster listing the Ten Commandments. His gaze falls on the words ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’. Killing is ‘the worst sin of all’, his mother says, which makes the war that’s about to kick off (not to mention the one that just passed) pretty sinful business. Desmond Doss, at any rate, takes his mother’s words to heart.


Hacksaw Ridge is based on the true story of the army medic and conscientious objector Desmond Doss, who saved at least fifty people during the spring 1945 battle for Okinawa.Doss was a Seventh-day Adventist who, among other things, refused to carry a gun.


Hacksaw Ridge is based on the true story of the army medic and conscientious objector Desmond Doss, who saved at least fifty people during the spring 1945 battle for Okinawa.Doss was a Seventh-day Adventist who, among other things, refused to carry a gun. He is to date the only member of the American armed forces to have received the Medal of Honor without firing a single shot.

But for a long stretch, Hacksaw Ridge doesn’t really feel like a war film. The preamble to the heroism that earned Doss his medal goes on for over an hour: Doss, now 26, has grown up to be a very different man to his drunk, abusive father (Hugo Weaving) who can’t overcome his guilt at having out-survived his friends during the First World War, and meets and falls in love with a nurse called Dorothy (Teresa Palmer).

Gibson isn’t so patronising as to let us forget that there is a war taking place; nevertheless Doss’s burgeoning relationship is developing happily and he, though fiercely patriotic, is under less pressure than others to enlist.When Doss finally shows up for basic training at Fort Jackson and announces that he won’t carry a weapon the tone shifts and the film really gets going, and in the second half, on Okinawa, it roars into life. The first battle sequence makes the iconic D-day landing scene from Saving Private Ryan look like a pleasant summer trip to the beach. Before Desmond’s unit begin fighting the camera lingers on the bloody bodies and the entrails on the floor, and the rats eating the flesh of the dead. Violence is central to Gibson’s work, and in Hacksaw Ridge he seems especially incapable of looking away from anything red and mushy. It’s grisly stuff, and if not for a very good performance from baby-faced Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge might be completely lacking in subtlety. But Gibson’s intense, unsparing camera work is nonetheless completely effective in capturing the brutality and the chaos and the intimacy of battlefield combat, which is what makes Doss’s actions so heroic. There’s one excellent tracking shot in which the camera moves rapidly backwards as the American and Japanese come violently together in front of it.


 Gibson’s intense, unsparing camera work is nonetheless completely effective in capturing the brutality and the chaos and the intimacy of battlefield combat, which is what makes Doss’s actions so heroic.


There’s humour, too, most of it courtesy of a top-of-his-game deadpan Vince Vaughn, who plays the sergeant major of Doss’s unit. In a hilarious five-minute sequence, he walks up and down the new recruits, subjecting them all to ritual humiliation. (‘How long have you been dead?’ he asks the gaunt and hollow-eyed Private Andy ‘Ghoul’ Walker). The recruits, however, never really become anything more than caricatures, which removes some of the emotion we might have felt during the later battle scenes. But Gibson does through these characters give us a sense of the cockiness and masculine optimism of the barracks – soon to be replaced by the sort of battlefield terror that causes some people to freeze completely.

A doe-eyed Garfield turns in a strong performance as a man who seems simultaneously naive and unassuming, quietly tenacious in his beliefs and yet capable of scrambling over corpses and dodging explosives to carry men twice his size to safety. He’s awkward but in a charming sort of way, and there’s a consistency to his performance even when he’s covered in blood and plunging syringes into the wounded that is a hard thing to do. There is some clumsy and slightly gratuitous religious symbolism – it is a Gibson film after all – and Doss does come across as something like a guardian angel, in the early scenes appearing almost comically childlike, and in the later ones as a figure that inspires awe and wonder. But then, Doss was a remarkable man, and though it doesn’t excuse the lingering shot of him suspended in the air between heaven and earth, it’s probably not a stretch to say that he might have felt like a guardian angel to the wounded men he dragged from the battlefield.

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‘Casting JonBenet’

'Casting JonBenet'

“IT IS SUNDAY afternoon, preferably before the war,” wrote George Orwell in his essay Decline of the English Murder. “The wife is already asleep in the armchair, and the children have been sent out for a nice long walk. You put your feet up on the sofa, settle your spectacles on your nose, and open the News of the World. … In these blissful circumstances, what is it that you want to read about?” The answer to Orwell’s question––“naturally”, as he puts it––is murder. General squalor and vice have their place, of course, but it’s murder––grim and grisly and gruesome accounts of how low human nature can sink––that really captures the collective imagination.

This not-so-guilty fascination with the macabre, and the circus of speculation and gossip and crackpottery that surrounds a murder is the central theme of Kitty Green’s genre-bending Casting JonBenet, a true crime documentary less about the murder of the titular six-year-old girl in Boulder, Colorado in 1996, than the cast of actors (and would-be actors) eager for a chance to recreate the events of the night of her death. The film begins with an introduction to Hannah, who is trying out for the role of JonBenet Ramsey, and what follows is a sort of extended casting call for an unnamed and never-realised fictional movie about her murder. Green, who remains curiously detached from the events of her film at all times, auditions the local residents of Boulder for the roles of JonBenet’s mother, Patsy, and father, Jon; her brother, Burke, and the local police chief. But Green isn’t interested in whether these untrained, undertrained or inexperienced actors can act (in most cases they can’t) but in their thoughts about the case. And of course, they all have their theories. (An unsolved murder? Well, I mean, they’re the best ones).


It’s a slightly worrying (though not at all surprising) example of the confidence with which people hold their opinions once they start to play detective. (It wasn’t that long ago that a man was telling me without a trace of self-awareness how Madeleine McCann had accidentally been given an overdose of sedatives by her parents. After all, he told me, they were doctors).


The extent to which Green’s subjects were pressed to offer their thoughts, not solely on the case but on the various traumatic experiences on which they draw to try to recreate the case, isn’t clear, though there is at least one person who at first declines to explain who he found dead and later spills the beans. Even if they weren’t pushed, the members of the cast still revisit painful memories in their zeal to land the part: one discusses the murder of her brother; another talks about her mother’s diagnosis of borderline personality disorder. It isn’t really worth asking if the film’s exploitative. Of course it is, accidentally or otherwise, and the opacity of Green’s role in what the participants say and do doesn’t help matters. The editing, which involves a series of quick jumps from character to character in identical dress, is such that the film’s subjects are reduced to their quirkiest, most intimate and most idiotic soundbites. Nevertheless it’s a slightly worrying (though not at all surprising) example of the confidence with which people hold their opinions once they start to play detective. (It wasn’t that long ago that a man was telling me without a trace of self-awareness how Madeleine McCann had accidentally been given an overdose of sedatives by her parents. After all, he told me, they were doctors).

What many of the reviews of Casting JonBenet appear to have omitted is that it’s out-loud, head-back, laugh-out-loud hilarious an awful lot, despite the tragic subject matter, in part because Green designs it in that way and in part because of the terrible acting. To answer the question of whether a ten-year-old boy––JonBenet’s brother Burke––could have smashed a six-year-old’s head in with a torch, Green has the young actors try to bash a watermelon to bits (which they do with brio); there’s also a scene in which a hammy potential Jon Ramsey finds the body of his daughter that is the very definition of gallows humour. And the conclusion of the film, in which we see all the actors play out their scenes simultaneously in the Ramsey housing set, built in a large warehouse, is an effective if not exactly subtle expression of the thousands of different theories cheerfully and confidently offered up by people who know little in the wake of a tragedy.

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‘Julieta’

Review: 'Julieta'

THERE’S SOMETHING DEEPLY unsatisfying about Pedro Almódovar’s latest offering, Julieta, a melancholy, generation-jumping meditation on grief, loss and the complexing nature of personal history, which stars Emma Suárez and Adriana Ugarte as older and younger versions of the titular protagonist.

At the story’s beginning, our heroine, the eponymous Julieta, is about to leave Madrid for Portugal, where her boyfriend Lorenzo has been offered a job. By chance, Julieta runs into Beatriz (Michelle Jenner), a childhood friend of her estranged daughter Antía, who, she learns, is living in Switzerland and has three children. Julieta abandons her plans to go to Portugal with Lorenzo and instead leases an apartment in the Madrid building where she raised Antía (played first by Priscilla Delgado and later by Blanca Parés), knowing it is the only place that Antía could plausibly find her. Meanwhile, she begins to write an account of her life as an explanation for the events which led to their separation.

Like an actor’s accent that slips one too many times––so once, in other words––a distinct dissimilarity in the appearance of two people who are ostensibly the same person is really quite off-putting. As Julieta ages, her full mouth magically shrinks, her previously broad, defined jaw softens and her nose, which is noticeably wide at the top, becomes remarkably thin, and none of the other character think that this small miracle merits a passing remark, nor, come to that, does Julieta’s daughter find it strange that this change happens in an instant as she towels her mother’s wet hair. It never occurs to you that Julieta has, as the creator no doubt intended, been ravaged by time and by grief––only that she’s suddenly played by someone other than Ms. Ugarte, and for the life of you you can’t work out why.


The film’s other main fault is the speed at which it trundles along. At times Julieta limps along like some sort of wounded animal, and you will start to be convinced you’re decaying as you watch.


The film’s other main fault is the speed at which it trundles along. You can use, if you like, the hackneyed excuse that always seems to be wheeled out in defence of poor pacing––that the speed reflects a theme of the film, in this case the perceived endlessness of grief––but, really, at times Julieta limps along like some sort of wounded animal, and you will start to be convinced you’re decaying as you watch. Julieta is, however, very funny in places, but it certainly isn’t funny enough to see it on that basis alone. Almodóvar, incidentally, hadn’t intended it to be funny at all, which means, to put it another way, that one of the best things about Julieta was an accident. There are some undeniably gorgeous wide shots of the Galician coastline and the Pyrenees, but these shots are too few and too brief to count as an appealing feature of the film. And then there’s the ending, which offers only a hint of the catharsis that you as a viewer desperately want, and that the film desperately needs to redeem an otherwise tedious third act. The overall impression of the film that you get when the credits begin to roll is that you have just sat through ninety minutes of a story that wasn’t all that interesting to begin with and at any rate never went anywhere, and that, reader, is especially frustrating because already it seemed to have been dragged out to within an inch of its life and really, things didn’t have to be that way.

All that said, Julieta isn’t a bad film, it just isn’t a good one. Praise, for instance, is certainly in order for both the women who play Juliet (even if only one of them was required) and Rossy de Palma particularly, who is criminally underused, shines during her brief appearances as the comically curmudgeonly keeper of Xoan’s seafront home. Julieta’s faults, then, have less to do with the cast and the direction than the story, which is unforgivably weak, and if not for the former two things this film would have been much, much worse.

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‘Snowden’

Review: 'Snowden'

CITIZENFOUR, THE CRITICALLY acclaimed, award-winning documentary about what are now referred to, like the title of a Robert Ludlum novel, as ‘The Snowden Revelations’, is a hard act to follow, but Oliver Stone has had a good crack at it, and the result is Snowden, based on the books Time of the Octopus, by Anatoly Kucherena, and The Snowden Files, by Luke Harding.

In 2013, Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) meets with the Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and the documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) in Hong Kong to discuss the release of classified information regarding illegal mass surveillance conducted by the American National Security Agency. Snowden describes, and we see through flashbacks, his discharge from the army in 2004 after a doctor told him he was ‘walking around on two broken legs’ (the first of many hammy lines) and his subsequent enlistment at the CIA. Deputy Director Corbin O’Brian, played by a virtually moustache-twirling Rhys Ifans, determines that Snowden’s answers would not ordinarily be good enough to qualify him for the CIA, but that these are extraordinary times. The rest, as they say, is history.


In the early scenes involving Edward Snowden doing that which he does best––that is, programming––Stone shows a wholehearted subscription to the Swordfish formula, which effectively boils down to playing loud synth music, presumably in an effort to make the unglamorous task of entering long, incomprehensible strings of code into a computer screen interesting and cool to the uninitiated.


Stone and the writers are at pains to point out early on in the film, and in numerous different ways, that Snowden was––is––a patriot and a conservative who had always wanted to serve his country. There are those who believe his actions were opportunistic, or driven by a desire for fame, and it seems Stone determined Snowden’s patriotism was something well worth hammering home, and it’s clumsily done. Of course, his liberal sweetheart Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) will soon melt his cold, conservative heart, perhaps inspiring the whistleblowing that he’s famous for.

In the early scenes involving Edward Snowden doing that which he does best––that is, programming––Stone shows a wholehearted subscription to the Swordfish formula, which effectively boils down to playing loud synth music, presumably in an effort to make the unglamorous task of entering long, incomprehensible strings of code into a computer screen interesting and cool to the uninitiated. (Alex Gibney’s excellent Zero Days, by contrast, does its viewers the service of explaining how programming works and why it’s interesting.) And while Snowden does a decent enough job of explaining precisely what mass surveillance involves––how, for instance, the NSA uses it for ‘economic, political and social’ reasons––the computer visualisations aren’t simply unnecessary––they’re odd. Lines criss-cross a world map like an in-flight map of your plane’s progress, connecting various people to––bizarrely––uplifting orchestral tones that is completely unsuitable. As a result the mass surveillance that Snowden and Stone are condemning seems more like a cheerful Cerebro, tucked away in the basement of a bald mutant in New York, rather than some sinister, many-tentacled entity with access to your living rooms. If someone at the CIA is plausibly watching me have a cup of tea and tap away at my keyboard, I shouldn’t be expected to cheer.

This particular problem pervades the film. The atmosphere doesn’t seem to fit what’s being said. Documentaries generally carry less tension than feature films (this isn’t always the case, of course––Bart Layton’s The Imposter springs to mind) but Snowden somehow manages to be less dramatic than Citizenfour, and that leads you to wonder first if Snowden does anything at all better than the documentary on the same subject and second, why it needed to be made at all. Stone doesn’t entertain even the most hesitant suggestion that Snowden might not be a hero, or that his actions might have put people in danger or anything else that might have given this incredibly superficial fairy tale some nuance.


Stone doesn’t entertain even the most hesitant suggestion that Snowden might not be a hero, or that his actions might have put people in danger or anything else that might have given this incredibly superficial fairy tale some nuance.


There’s vanishingly little tension during scenes that should be as tense as a bowstring, and Greenwald’s reminders of the danger he and his fellow crusading journalists (including Ewen MacAskill, played byTom Wilkinson) are in––‘the CIA could break through this door at any second!’ he says, several times––only serve to point this out. Nick Cage turns up as the eccentric Hank Forrester, a character who adds nothing to the film. Timothy Olyphant does a turn as a cartoonishly slimy undercover agent. A hammy, hammy Rhys Ifans rolls out awful line after awful line, including ‘if 9/11 happens, it will be your fault’ and ‘secrecy is security and security is victory’, which sounds superficially profound, but isn’t. (It’s one of those lines which, if it were written down and followed by the name of a philosopher or president might solicit a knowing nod). Gordon-Levitt himself acts well and looks the part, as does his on-screen girlfriend Shailene Woodley, though together, the pair have absolutely no chemistry. Quinto, Leo and Wilkinson, too, are solid during the relatively few scenes––incidentally, the best scenes of the film––in which they feature. Quinto in particular gives some of the best lines of the film.

After an opening act in which a lot happens very quickly, the film begins to trudge along, eventually slowing to a crawl in third act. Snowden’s epilepsy becomes a main source of drama for a period, as if the NSA somehow have a role in that too, though Stone goes some way to redeeming himself at the film’s climax, during which are there a few genuinely good moments. You wish, once Snowden has finished, that Stone had been more daring. This is a man who has waded deep into controversial subjects such as the Vietnam War (Platoon) and the excess of the Reagan era (Wall Street) after all, and Snowden is very boring stuff.

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‘La La Land’

Review: 'La La Land'

I’M STILL HUMMING, as I drum away at my keyboard, the tune to La La Land’s second and, undoubtedly, best song, ‘Someone in a Crowd’, which arrives about fifteen minutes into Damien Chazelle’s charming and remarkable new film.

In the first scene, the motorists in a rush-hour traffic jam on a section of Los Angeles freeway leap from their cars and burst into a flamboyant, large-scale song-and-dance number filmed in a single shot. But La La Land isn’t, thankfully, all lively, large-scale musical numbers. Nor is it one of those films that contrives its plot to suit its songs. In the latter case, the two go hand in hand, or perhaps cheek to cheek, like the film’s shining leads, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, in a bittersweet tale of love and ambition in the City of Angels.

In that opening scene, sat behind the wheel of a Toyota Prius practicing her lines, is Mia (Emma Stone) an aspiring actress and playwright who works in a café on the Warner Bros. lot. In the shiny ’82 Buick behind her is Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz pianist who dreams of owning his own club. The cars they drive seem to reflect their personalities–Mia is practical and modern-minded; Sebastian is stubbornly traditional–but we find soon enough that what drives the both of them is a very old-fashioned dream for creative success in a ruthlessly commercial Hollywood.


The pair’s first aimless night-time stroll has the charmingly nostalgic feel of Gil Pender’s wanderings in Midnight in Paris and before that––and no doubt more fittingly–another film set in the city of love, An American in Paris.


The pair’s first aimless night-time stroll has the charmingly nostalgic feel of Gil Pender’s wanderings in Midnight in Paris and before that––and no doubt more fittingly––another film set in the city of love, An American in Paris. And like Gil Pender in Woody Allen’s 2011 film, Chavelle salutes a Golden Age: La La Land might be set in the modern day, but the feel of the film is decidedly old-school. Mia has a poster of Ingrid Bergman on her wall while Sebastian has a stool that belonged to Hoagy Carmichael, and, visually, La La Land alludes to Singing in’ the Rain and other classics of the Forties and Fifties.

But La La Land isn’t a sparkly fairy tale romance. In the second part of the film the mood darkens, (which is fitting, really, for a film made by the man who turned a small-scale, jazz-band drama into one of the darkest thrillers in the last half-decade). Like Whiplash, La La Land explores struggle of the artist, but while the tone in Whiplash is dark, the tone in La La Land is, for the most part at least, light and playful. If there is a central conflict in La La Land it is between love and artistic ambition, and what defines artistic success, and in this Chazelle asks more questions than gives answers.

If you’ve also seen Gosling and Stone act together in Crazy, Stupid Love or in the (admittedly underwhelming) Gangster Squad, you’ll be hard pressed to think of another screen couple with more chemistry or more charm, and their beautiful, if simply choreographed sequences, courtesy of Mandy Moore (no, not that one), are intimate enough as to make the viewer feel that they are in some way trespassing on a moment. Both Gosling and Stone, it’s needless to say at this point, are brilliant, moving seamlessly and naturally from song to dramatic scene and to song again, while R&B artist John Legend does a fine job as Sebastian’s friend, the commercialist musician Keith, who asks the necessary question of what exactly entails the artistic ‘selling out’ that Sebastian fears.


If you’ve also seen Gosling and Stone act together in Crazy, Stupid Love or in the (admittedly underwhelming) Gangster Squad, you’ll be hard pressed to think of another screen couple with more chemistry or more charm, and their beautiful, if simply choreographed sequences, are intimate enough as to make the viewer feel that they are in some way trespassing on a moment.


There’s a definite lull in the third quarter of La La Land that leaves you wishing for a return to the more upbeat numbers of the first act, and some of the songs have a tendency to slip into moodiness and melancholy. But Chazelle redeems himself in the last twenty minutes, which includes one of the most exquisitely conceived and perfectly executed film sequences of recent years.

La La Land is Chazelle’s love letter to Hollywood, to jazz and to the struggling artist. It’s at once a fantasy and a parable, bitter and sweet, impassioned and restrained. It isn’t the perfect film that some have impetuously declared it to be, but it is, nevertheless, utterly enchanting.

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‘Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang’

'Sky Ladder'

THERE’S AN OUTPOURING of emotion at the breathtaking conclusion of Kevin Macdonald’s documentary about the Chinese artist Can Guo-Quiang, whose impossibly ambitious celestial fireshow was finally realised twenty-one years after it was first conceived. It was the defining moment in the remarkable professional life of an artist criticised in the not-so-distant past both for his perceived endorsement of Chinese government propaganda through his involvement in national shows and for blurring the line between art and entertainment, but at the end of Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Quiang you feel that the success of the eponymous project somehow vindicates the artist of any charges that might have been directed his way.

The film begins with gunpowder, a material discovered by the Chinese more than a thousand years ago and the signature material in Cai’s work. Gunpowder, Cai says, was found while the Chinese were searching for the elixir of life. It’s ironic that something which has caused a fair amount of death was discovered during the search for something that prolongs life indefinitely, but the contrast is nevertheless an interesting one and it pervades the film. The ‘violence’ of Cai’s work is set against the sensitivity and gentleness of the man, whose artistic passions were borne out of a love for his father, a calligrapher and intellectual, and a fascination with the heavens.


The ‘violence’ of Cai’s work is set against the sensitivity and gentleness of the man, whose artistic passions were borne out of a love for his father, a calligrapher and intellectual, and a fascination with the heavens.


Throughout the film there are hints as to why Cai marries creation and destruction in his art. For one, he grew up during the Cultural Revolution, when works of art were destroyed and artists oppressed. Cai recalls burning his father’s collection of books as a child. It took three days, he says. Also a recurring motif in Macdonald’s film is Cai’s respect for his family, for his home town and for the history and well-being of his country. He’s described as a man of ‘deep social conscience’ concerned about the Chinese government’s treatment of the environment. Much of his work is a response to China’s environmental crisis. This is most powerfully evoked in The Ninth Wave––named for the last and most dangerous wave of a tsunami––the opening Explosion Event of which is the focus of the best sequence in the film. It’s an oddly moving display: Cai’s fireworks call to mind dreams and a grandness of scale, alternately alternately appearing like thick smog and blossoming flowers.


Throughout the film there are hints as to why Cai marries creation and destruction in his art. For one, he grew up during the Cultural Revolution, when works of art were destroyed and artists oppressed. Cai recalls burning his father’s collection of books as a child. It took three days, he says.


The Sky Ladder of the film’s title is made of two long strands of wire connected by ‘rungs’ which are hung from a hot-air balloon and then set on fire. It’s an enormously complex and expensive undertaking, and this is stressed over and over throughout the film, which has failed in multiple attempts. (I was surprised to learn that one of those attempts was in Bath, and the reason for the project’s failure was the rain). It’s also an intensely personal project: Sky Ladder seems in the mind of Cai to be a project that will restore the sort of creative purity, perceived or otherwise, of his early work, which was driven by passion and the desire to use art ‘as a space-time tunnel’ and wasn’t influenced by money or fame or politics. (Cai explores a collaboration with an untrained sculptor, as if to try and get back in touch with the raw, uncorrupted emotion and inspiration of the struggling artist). You feel, too, that the Sky Ladder project somehow expresses Cai’s affection for his home and for his father and hundred-year-old grandmother, who he is so desperate to have see the show. The location Cai chooses for the Sky Ladder is a fishing village which reminds him of the one in which his grandmother lived; the Sky Ladder itself ‘connects the earth to the universe’, as the pagodas in his hometown of Guangzhou do.

In many ways Sky Ladder is a straightforward documentary: it’s informative but lacks much directorial flair. Of course, it doesn’t need much flair when its subject’s work is so cinematic in its nature: the sequences which punctuate the film are the best thing about the film, which is a stimulating introduction to those unfamiliar with Cai’s work.

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“Nocturnal Animals”

Nocturnal Animals

FOR SOME REASON, I thought at times during Nocturnal Animals of the sixteen-year-old boy at my school whose response to separating from his girlfriend of two weeks was to carve her name into his arm with a compass. Clearly there are people in this world who take a break-up, well, worse than others.

Tom Ford’s second film has something to say about relationships and break-ups. At the centre of it is Los Angeles art gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), whose concerns about her deteriorating marriage to aloof businessman Hutton (Armie Hammer) is briefly interrupted by the arrival of a manuscript for a novel written by her estranged ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal) and an invitation for dinner.

Ford depicts the events of Edward’s novel––dedicated to Susan––as Susan reads in the dim glow of her bedside light. Tony Hastings, a peaceful man and the central character in Edward’s story, is driving through West Texas with his wife, Laura (Isla Fisher), and their daughter, India (Ellie Bamber), when they’re forced off a pitch-black road in an area without phone signal by three snarling, smiling, sadistic men. It’s a nightmarish scenario, and Tony is powerless to prevent the three beating him before snatching his family and driving off in his car. A shaken Susan stops reading, and then the events onscreen shift from those of the novel to those in the real world.


The film’s stylishness is not separate from its central distinction (or tension) between art and power. Susan is successful but emotionally unfulfilled. She has a statue of Jeff Koons by her pool and a palace of a home, but she is the owner, not the artist. 


Like A Single Man, and as you might expect from a fashion designer of Tom Ford’s ability, Nocturnal Animals is an immensely stylish film. Susan’s house is a Modernist dream of glass and metal and concrete, set high above Los Angeles. She herself is impeccable; her husband Hutton, who is increasingly distant and in trouble financially, is just as well turned out. Even Ray, the sadistic leader of the three depraved souls of Edward’s novel, is played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson (albeit with unruly mutton-chops). But the film’s stylishness is not separate from its central distinction (or tension) between art and power. Susan is successful but emotionally unfulfilled. She has a statue of Jeff Koons by her pool and a palace of a home, but she is the owner, not the artist. Her ex-husband, meanwhile, was the creative soul who could touch her emotionally, but his ‘weakness’ drove into the arms of someone she perceived to be more powerful.

To put it another way, Susan’s outwardly beautiful existence actually feels ugly––uglier, in fact, that she might have realised. If nothing else then, Nocturnal Animals is a pleasure to look at, and well enough scripted so as not to sail over the line between thought-provoking and pretentious. No doubt a towering ensemble cast that includes not only those mentioned above but Michael Shannon, Laura Linney and Michael Sheen helps to bring what little emotion exists out of a story that so deliberately puts style above substance and often feels cold and hard. But it seems that it was never Ford’s purpose to inspire feeling. Instead, and like Susan’s life, what he wants to convey is the emptiness of wealth and beauty and meaning––even at the cost of creating something more involving.

Nocturnal Animals therefore, despite its large budget and all-star cast, has more in common with art cinema than those aimed at commercial success or mass appeal.

4/5

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‘Arrival’

Review: 'Arrival'

ONE OF THE most tedious things you can be told upon leaving a film screening is that ‘the book is better’, and it’s always excruciatingly clear that whichever smug bastard says this does so only to convey that they’ve read the book and are therefore a literary, intellectual type of person. That said, when it comes to Arrival, the book––or rather the story––on which it’s based is better.

It’s a point that isn’t completely irrelevant because in comparing Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life to Denis Villeneuve and Eric Heisserer’s adaptation you see Arrival’s (admittedly few) shortcomings. But Arrival is, nevertheless, brilliant, and puts beyond doubt first that Amy Adams is one of the greatest actresses of her day and second that the sequel to Blade Runner is safe in the hands of Villeneuve, who has yet to make a poor film.


Arrival puts beyond doubt first that Amy Adams is one of the greatest actresses of her day and second that the sequel to Blade Runner is safe in the hands of Villeneuve, who has yet to make a poor film.


The film opens to the beautiful electro-acoustic music of Max Richter, and a series of flashbacks in which the linguistics expert Louise Banks, played by Adams, plays with her daughter, who dies in adolescence from cancer. In the present, twelve extraterrestrial spacecraft appear across the planet, prompting the U.S. Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to ask Banks to form a team with the physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and try to decipher the alien language so, ultimately, they can find out why the extraterrestrials have come to earth and whether they pose a threat.

It will appease science-fiction skeptics to read that that the film is not about aliens: it’s about Louise Banks and, by extension, her relationship with and memories of her daughter. Arrival, therefore, belongs to Amy Adams and she turns in an Oscar-worthy performance that for large tracts of the film is not only purely physical, but purely facial, because she is made to wear a hazmat suit during her meetings with the aliens. The focus on Dr. Banks is so intense that Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker, who are given second and third billing respectively, are nearly demoted to extras; nevertheless both of them––particularly Renner––turn in excellent supporting performances.

Amy Adams’s performance, then, is necessarily minimalist, and minimalism is a theme that runs through the film. The score, by Jóhan Jóhannsson, rarely moves away from a discordant, uncomfortable hum, and the representations of the alien spacecraft, the aliens themselves, and other sci-fi elements such as zero gravity are tasteful and restrained, proving––and it’s one of Villeneuve’s achievements––that to see ‘the monster’ (or in this case, the monsters) is not to un-suspend the viewer’s suspension of disbelief. Max Richter’s On the Nature of Daylight, which plays at the beginning of the film and which many viewers will remember was used extensively in Martin Scorsese’s brilliant Shutter Island, is a subtle evocation of vagueness and otherworldliness. (In fact, this is one of the distinctive features of Richter’s music: it’s one of the reasons that The Haunted Ocean played during the now-famous dream sequence from Ari Folman’s award-winning Waltz with Bashir.)


Sci-fi elements such as zero gravity are tasteful and restrained, proving––and it’s one of Villeneuve’s achievements––that to see ‘the monster’ (or in this case, the monsters) is not to un-suspend the viewer’s suspension of disbelief.


But any departure from this theme of minimalism, which incidentally is a quality of Ted Chiang’s writing and storytelling style, is jarring. Outside of the main plot of Arrival described above is a secondary thread relating to the developments at the other spaceship sites and what is going on across the United States, and not only is it unnecessary but it’s harmful to the main storyline. It seems that screenwriter Eric Heisserer felt that the plot needed more drama, but the drama is plainly artificial, and it takes up screentime that might have been better used explaining key concepts such as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, semasiography and the process of learning a new language from scratch.

Arrival is, nevertheless, smart and sophisticated, genuinely thought-provoking and deeply moving. It’s the sort of film that will re-kindle a love of cinema in the hearts of those who have been worn down by a seemingly endless string of vacuous superhero films, sleep-inducing horror flicks and big-budget, franchise trash.

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‘Amanda Knox’

Review: 'Amanda Knox'

THE REMAINING PROBLEM, I feel, with the case of Amanda Knox––or rather, the case having been concluded, the saga of Amanda Knox––is that a) we still do not know for certain who killed the British student Meredith Kercher and b) that it is very difficult to take seriously a judicial system which convicts, acquits, re-convicts, and then exonerates two people in a matter of years. It is probably why you get the feeling that the whole sorry affair isn’t quite over yet, and that those convinced of the guilt of “Foxy Knoxy” will go on thinking it.

The antidote to this particular ailment may well be the new Netflix documentary, creatively entitled Amanda Knox, in which the key figures in the case speak with a frankly alarming degree of honesty about their roles, motivations, and, in some cases, prejudices. Directors Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn reportedly spent a great deal of time attempting to convince Ms. Knox, now twenty-nine years old and a campaigner for the wrongfully imprisoned, to appear in their film. What is no doubt more impressive, I think, is that the pair were able to persuade the Italian prosecutor who brought the case to trial, Giuliano Mignini, and the English tabloid journalist who broke the story––and has since been labelled the “real villain” of the film from some quarters––Nick Pisa, to appear as well.


The filmmakers were able to persuade the Italian prosecutor who brought the case to trial, Giuliano Mignini, and the English tabloid journalist who broke the story––and has since been labelled the “real villain” of the film from some quarters––Nick Pisa, to appear in the documentary as well.


It was on 2nd November 2007 that Ms. Knox said she had arrived at the house in Perugia she shared with Meredith Kercher and two Italian women to find the front door open, and drops of blood in the bathroom. The door to Kercher’s room was locked, she said, so she went to the home of her boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, with whom she later returned to the apartment. Sollecito broke open the door to Kercher’s room and found her body on the floor. Her throat had been slit so deeply that her head had nearly been severed from her body. The documentary includes the police footage of Kercher’s body, and the bloody fingerprints on the wall and the floor. What followed was almost a decade of near continuous global coverage, during which Ms. Knox was alternately cast as an innocent young woman wrongfully accused of Ms. Kercher’s murder, and a sex-crazed, psychopathic monster, the latter depiction becoming, unsurprisingly, the prevailing one.

You could be forgiven for greeting the release of the documentary with skepticism, the case having been thoroughly chewed for nine years. There are no startling revelations in Amanda Knox, but for those with an interest in the story the film is worth seeing for the interviews with Nick Pisa and Giuliano Mignini alone. Pisa, who now writes for The Sun but wrote for the Daily Mail at the time of the case, was the first to report both the details of Kercher’s death and the earliest theories from the Italian police and, later, extracts from Knox’s prison diary. Pisa’s reports of Knox’s behaviour following her arrest, which included her kissing Sollecito and cartwheeling in the police station, played a major part in the near-ubiquitous portrayal of Knox by the media as devoid of feeling. He coined the nickname “Foxy Knoxy”; he found innocent pictures of Knox and Sollecito holding mock machine guns from MySpace and elsewhere to support the sinister portrayal. But it seems what led viewers of the documentary to froth at the mouth isn’t so much Mr. Pisa’s dispassionate description of his role but the joy he describes in doing it: “A murder always gets people going,” he says. “Bit of intrigue, bit of mystery, a whodunit… What more do you want in a story? Semi-naked, blood everywhere. What more do you want? All that’s missing the is the Pope!”

The interview footage with Mignini is equally illuminating. Mr. Mignini is still unconvinced of the innocence of Knox and Sollecito, saying that “if they’re guilty––if earthly justice didn’t get them––I hope they own their guilt because I know that life ends with a final trial––a trial with no appeals, no second chances and no revisions.” Mignini, who describes his “satisfaction” with becoming a minor celebrity in Perugia during the case, goes on to recall his first interview with Knox, saying he found her to be a person who “goes between dream and reality” and “has a very unusual way of reasoning”. Mr. Mignini also has a propensity for lurid theorising, which brings about some eyebrow-raising monologues.


If the petition for a new trial of Rudy Guede, who is currently serving a sixteen-year prison sentence for the murder of Meredith Kercher, is granted––and after the shambles surrounding Knox and Sollecito, it may well be granted––then there will have been a total of five convictions during the case, and yet no one we can definitively call the killer.


The filmmakers’ main achievement other than securing interviews with Pisa and Magnini is the dispassionate way with which they treat both the case and their subjects. All of the people interviewed, the directors said, were eager to give their side, so to speak, of the story. You can rest assured, therefore, that whatever conclusions you may arrive at at the end of the film, it is not at the insistence of the filmmakers.

But the film does not bring us any closer to answering the question, Who did kill Meredith Kercher? (The Kercher family very understandably refused the filmmakers’ requests for an interview on the grounds that it was to “reexamine this wound.”) If the petition for a new trial of Rudy Guede, who is currently serving a sixteen-year prison sentence for the murder of Meredith Kercher, is granted––and after the shambles surrounding Knox and Sollecito, it may well be granted––then there will have been a total of five convictions following the killing, and yet no one we can definitively call the killer.

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