‘Logan’

THE NUMBER OF superhero flicks that have played in cinemas over the past decade is so high that the announcement of a new comic book film is more likely to be met with a groan than with approval, even if the film is about a character as popular as Wolverine.

A frustration is that the role of the tough-talking, mutton-chop-sporting, adamantium-and-muscle-bound mutant has too often been reduced solely to slicing-and-dicing, even during his own film series. Logan, the new film by James Mangold, might have plenty of violence, but thankfully–and brilliantly–it bucks the trend.

At the beginning of the tenth X-Men flick, our eponymous hero is in a bad way. For one thing he looks a good deal older, and with his advancing years has apparently come the realisation that even the man who freed the slaves couldn’t pull off that facial hair, and that it really had to go. Those hair-horn things have gone too, incidentally. But better late than never, as they say.

The world’s most famous mutant is a limping, coughing shadow of his former self: he’s riddled with arthritis, his eyesight is fading, and the cynicism that the bright young things at Westchester gradually eroded over who-knows-how-many films is more pronounced than ever. He spends his nights drinking like a Hemingway character and driving prom queens and stag parties around in a limo, and his days sleeping off the hangover in a disused smelting plant on the Mexican border. With him in the plant are Caliban (played by a typically droll Stephen Merchant) and an apparently senile Professor X (Patrick Stewart), who must be dosed up to the eyeballs so that he doesn’t have a brain seizure and cause something very bad indeed to happen.


 The world’s most famous mutant is a limping, coughing shadow of his former self: he’s riddled with arthritis, his eyesight is fading, and the cynicism that the bright young things at Westchester gradually eroded over who-knows-how-many films is more pronounced than ever.


Meanwhile, the appearance of a desperate woman, Gabriela (Elizabeth Rodriguez), and young Laura (Dafne Keen), threatens to upend Wolverine’s grim existence, and brings into his life the smug and menacing Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook). Logan takes inspiration from the Mark Millar and Steve McNiven graphic novel Old Man Logan, and the very name of the film suggests a return to the grit and the realism and the humanity of the better comics and films. The revival of the superhero genre was borne out of a return to realism in films such as Batman Begins and has since lapsed into crash-bang-CGI silliness, best exemplified by X-Men: Apocalypse, a film so bad you might choose to advise others not to see it with your dying words. It was that sort of film that was mocked so deliciously, and so effectively, in Deadpool. Logan, a film about mutants set in the future, is the most grounded superhero film since Batman Begins. In the intervening periods when Wolverine isn’t earning the film its 15 certificate, Logan meditates on loss and belonging and home, and the tone is set by the beautifully minimalist score of Marco Beltrami. Meanwhile the overarching themes which have always made X-Men so relatable – prejudice and segregation, initially reflecting the civil rights struggles of the late 60s – are addressed by Logan writers James Mangold, Scott Frank and Michael Green with a subtlety that disappeared in recent X-Men efforts.Mangold and his cinematographer, long-time Ridley Scott collaborator John Mathieson, are unsparing in their rendering of the most brutal action sequences in which Wolverine has ever been involved. The camera lingers on every severed head and every chunk of flesh and every lopped-off arm.


At the centre of the film is a touching relationship between Wolverine and Professor X, whose verbal jousts subtly betray an intimacy and affection which is never explicitly acknowledged.


But at the centre of the film is a touching relationship between Wolverine and Professor X, whose verbal jousts subtly betray an intimacy and affection which is never explicitly acknowledged. Their connection is in so many ways familial, and when X tells Wolverine ‘what a disappointment’ he is, there is the sense that it affects him in a way that the words of no one else ever could. Richard E. Grant’s character, the evil scientist Zander Rice, is almost completely superfluous to the proceedings, but his underling, Pierce, is a worthy enemy for our world-weary protagonist, and his merry band of mooks are far more competent and menacing than your usual expendable superhero goons. Special praise must be reserved for eleven-year-old Dafne Keen, whose portrayal of spiky Laura is often purely physical, and who holds her own against series veterans Jackman and Stewart, who are both captivating.And so the curtain comes down on the Wolverine series. Logan isn’t so much a fitting finale for the series as a fitting finale for one of the most beloved superhero characters in the Marvel universe. Like its title character, Logan is dark and bloody and brutal, but funny and sometimes tender too. Its genre-defying and the superhero film that I–and many others–were waiting for.

“The Tower”

EARLIER THIS MONTH, in the aftermath of the killing of fifty-nine people in Las Vegas by a lone gunman, the Washington Post described mass shootings as ‘an American problem’. Even a child of ten will have lived through more than thirty American public shootings in their lifetime. At least one study estimates that thirty-one percent of all the world’s public mass shootings have taken place in the U.S., which is home only to some five percent of the world’s total population.

You might argue that the gruesome era of mass gun violence began with an attack eerily similar to that committed by Stephen Paddock, the sixty-something twice-divorced accountant who fired from above on concertgoers in Vegas. More than fifty years ago, on a scorching hot Monday in 1966, an architectural engineering student and former Marine sharpshooter took to the tower that rises above the University of Texas in Austin and shot more than forty people. It is this tragic event that forms the basis for Keith Maitland’s documentary The Tower, which puts the experience of those present at the shooting before––but not in place of––the hard facts of the massacre.


More than fifty years ago, on a scorching hot Monday in 1966, an architectural engineering student and former Marine sharpshooter took to the tower that rises above the University of Texas in Austin and shot more than forty people.


Maitland’s film is mostly animated in the same interpolated rotoscoping style that Richard Linklater used for Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, which gives the film a dreamlike quality that perhaps reflects not only the haziness of a fifty-year-old memory but also the bizarre and grotesque character of the shooting itself. (Both Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly explore the nature of reality; Linklater said the style of animation reminded him of his own lucid dreams). Maitland’s interview subjects are the survivors of and witnesses to the shooting at the time of the shooting. In other words, animated versions of the students, teachers, journalists and police officers present, speaking the words said by themselves years later. The effect is to take the viewer back in time to the fateful day and into the shoes, if I can put it like that, of those unfortunate enough to have been present when Whitman started firing.


What The Tower forces in any viewer is more intense introspection than empathy, involving, among other things, the ancient question, What would I do?


Maitland punctuates the animated depiction of the events leading up to and including the shooting itself with real news footage taken over the course of the day. It’s something like a reminder that what is happening was real and that the cartoonish form of a pregnant woman lying on the grass as her life drains away was a young student, an eighteen-year-old freshman named Claire Wilson whose boyfriend and baby were senselessly murdered. In this, Maitland is only partly successful. What The Tower forces in any viewer is more intense introspection than empathy, involving, among other things, the ancient question, What would do? Maitland’s film is really more about the bystanders and the spectators than the victims or the perpetrator, and the questions like the one above are made more pressing by the honesty of those bystanders, at least one of whom admits to having had to confront her own cowardice as she fled from the gunfire, leaving the wounded crying for help and vulnerable in the sights of the sniper.

Maitland’s film is nothing if not ambitious. There is a theatricality––a drama––to the events that would have led other filmmakers to be more conservative with regard to form and theme. In fact any stylisation of a story of this nature can quite easily prompt accusations of failing to treat the subject matter with the right level of respect and sympathy. But Maitland and his editor Austin Reedy, who deserves a large share of the praise rightly given to the film, have managed to create something that combines gripping storytelling with attention to fine detail and serious respect for the material; a deliberate, even principled, refusal to acknowledge the shooter until the end of the film is a touch that makes The Tower a deeply human film.

4/5

‘Sing’

FILMS LIKE ZOOTOPIA and Inside Out have set a very high standard for computer-animated films in the past few years; both of them reaffirming that behind family-friendly stories and colourful visuals there can be a great deal of subtext that sometimes outshines the plot. And then when there isn’t too much going on beneath the surface, there’s humour and heart, as in the box office-conquering Despicable Me. But Illumination’s latest flick, the jukebox musical Sing directed by Garth Jennings, is only sporadically enjoyable, and instantly forgettable. It’s the sort of undemanding film you might watch on a long-haul flight as you tuck into a sausage that tastes like plastic.

The big-dreaming, theatre-owning koala Buster Moon, voiced by Matthew McConaughey, decides that to save his debt-laden theatre he needs to hold an X Factor-style singing contest, which is where we meet the frazzled mama pig Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), the gorilla son of a gangster Johnny (Taron Egerton) and punk-rock porcupine Ash (Scarlett Johansson), among others. And that’s about all you need to know. It’s as if someone in a room somewhere all of a sudden stopped chewing the end of their pencil, clicked their fingers and said, ‘What if we make a film about a singing competition, but the singers – wait for it – are animals?’ It’s simple stuff.


Sing is funny in places–talking animals are nearly always funny, and computer animators can create the sort of physical comedy that’s impossible to replicate with actors–but the fact is I laughed harder during the opening credits when the minions introduced Illumination Entertainment than I did during the entire film


Sing is funny in places–talking animals are nearly always funny, and computer animators can create the sort of physical comedy that’s impossible to replicate with actors–but the fact is I laughed harder during the opening credits when the minions introduced Illumination Entertainment than I did during the entire film. The montage of the various animals singing is genuinely fun and the film’s best scene (the buffalo who sings Butterfly by Crazy Town really should have won the competition) yet the film is over-confident in your interest in watching a selected few animals doing glorified karaoke, and that novelty rests on your patience for chronically overplayed chart-toppers like Katy Perry’s Firework and Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off, and it wears off pretty quickly anyway. If the film is going to poke fun at shows like The X Factor, surely there should be room for an acerbic, Simon Cowell-esque wombat or something?

Sing has none of the sharp satire of Zootopia, nor the invention of Inside Out nor even the genuinely thrilling action of films like The Incredibles, though it has a crack at all three. It feels market-tested, and and the film even attempts to own its unoriginality. When Buster tells his sheep friend Eddie (John C. Reilly) about his plan to save his theatre, Eddie replies, ‘Who wants to see another of those?’

Young children are likely to like the singing animals and won’t worry too much about the weak plot. But for everyone else, Sing dines out on its ensemble A-list cast, the current trend for many-levelled computer-animated films and the enduring popularity of shows like The X Factor and The Voice. Like Illumination’s disappointing follow-up to the hilarious Despicable Me films, Minions, Sing is colourful and energetic and sporadically enjoyable, but it rushes from scene to scene, lacks in plot and ultimately, feels flat.

‘Resident Evil: The Final Chapter’

CLEARLY, SEVEN GAMES, seven novels, five live-action films, four animated films and innumerable novelisations and action heroes and other merchandise wasn’t quite enough Resident Evil.

The live-action films were enough for me, and I hope that Resident Evil: The Final Chapter will, as the name suggests, genuinely be the final chapter in an abysmal 15-year-long film franchise which relies on a single plot, tweaked ever so slightly with each instalment, the athleticism and charisma of Milla Jovovich and the fans of the game who fill the cinemas every few years probably hoping for something better than the last effort.


The plot is weak. Take, for example, the fact that Alice is told that for no apparent reason the 4,000 or so people left living on the planet will die within 48 hours. It’s the sort of lazy plot device that suggests that writer-director-producer Paul W. S. Anderson just doesn’t care anymore.


In the five-minute preamble to The Final Chapter, super soldier Alice (Jovovich) explains how Umbrella Corporation scientist James Marcus created the T-Virus to cure his daughter of a disease, only later to discover that there was an unfortunate side effect to the T-Virus, specifically that it turned people into monstrous members of the undead. This unsurprisingly caused a few problems, including the deaths of nearly everyone on the planet, and at the opening of the film Alice emerges from the sewers running underneath a ruined and overrun Washington D.C. to meet someone who has information about, among other things, how to save those left.

You might have gathered from that paragraph that the plot is weak. It gets worse. Take, for example, the fact that Alice is told that for no apparent reason the 4,000 or so people left living on the planet will die within 48 hours. It’s the sort of lazy plot device that suggests that writer-director-producer Paul W. S. Anderson just doesn’t care anymore. We’re reminded often that the Umbrella Corporation embodies the worst elements of corporate capitalism with religious fanaticism, and is therefore especially villainous. Not that this is done with any subtlety. In one scene some of the corporation’s various expendable mooks chant ‘unbeliever!’ and ‘cast her out!’ at our pulpy heroine, while designated villain Dr. Alexander Isaacs (Iain Glen), who was also the villain of the last film (it was a clone, if you can believe that) makes speeches about ‘a world ready for the righteous and pure to inherit.’

On the the subject of clones, someone once said of magical realism that it’s hard to sustain tension when at any moment, one of the characters might grow wings and fly out of the window. It’s far harder to sustain tension or evoke any sense of catharsis when any downed hero or villain might be revealed to be a clone.


It’s hard to sustain tension or evoke any sense of catharsis when any downed hero or villain might be revealed to be a clone.


A frenetic pace isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Both Mad Max: Fury Road and John Wick, for instance, were wild, violent and unrelenting fun. But The Final Chapter is cut so fast and so aggressively that half the time you can’t tell what the hell is happening, and that wastes the genuine physical talents of Milla Jovovich, who performs as many of her own stunts as she can and looks bored when she isn’t beating the brakes off something that looks like it didn’t make the final edit of a H. P. Lovecraft novel. The dialogue, meanwhile, is stupid, and half the time delivered with the same glazed expression that I had watching this film.

Maybe fans of the games will like the film (the franchise is about to make over a billion dollars, so clearly someone is going to see the films) but that doesn’t change the fact that Resident Evil: The Final Chapter is boring and predictable, and about as fun as a headache. And what’s worst about it is that we can’t even be certain it is the final chapter.

‘Manchester by the Sea’

IF YOU’VE EVER seen Shane Meadows’ brilliant Dead Man’s Shoes, you’ll know how unsettling it is when characters talk about someone in hushed, fearful tones. In Dead Man’s Shoes, it’s ‘Anthony’s brother’, back from the war. In the similarly bleak Manchester by the Sea it’s the tragic, withdrawn figure of Lee Chandler, who is forced to return home after the death of his brother.

Lee (Casey Affleck) is a janitor at an apartment complex in a Boston suburb who spends his days shovelling snow and scrubbing toilets and his nights knocking back pints in a bar. It’s clear that something dark has happened in his past – something dark enough to turn the funny and likeable man shown in flashbacks into the haunted, apathetic figure of the present. But there’s a strange serenity to the colourless life that Lee leads: he drifts through the day and drinks through the night and nothing really changes – that is, until the collapse of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) forces him out of his routine, and he’s told he has to look after his 16-year-old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges).


At the beginning of the film Lee is as cold as the wintry Boston scenery around him.


At the beginning of the film Lee is as cold as the wintry Boston scenery around him, speaking to no one except his boss and the ungrateful residents of the apartments he maintains. His interactions only reassert that despondency and a threat of violence that Affleck depicts so well through the hunched shoulders and the hands stuffed in pockets and the glassy-eyed gazes. In flashbacks full of colour and energy, he’s a different man. He jokes with his brother on their boat and smothers his wife Randi (Michelle Williams) with drunken, boyish affection, and all you can wonder is what unspeakable, unthinkable thing could have happened to turn this man into that one.

Manchester by the Sea is all about Lee Chandler, and therefore so much of the film’s success rests on the shoulders of its lead, and Affleck gives an exceptionally controlled performance that is very probably his best to date, never seeming stoic or sociopathic but tightly clenched and deeply self-loathing, always on the verge of rage. He’s short on dialogue for the first act of the film but is still completely engrossing.

Affleck, of course, has the benefit of a talented cast of co-stars. Michelle Williams’s role, though significant, is small – too small for her to be billed as a central character – but she plays it well. The scenes in which she appears are the most memorable of the film. Meanwhile Kyle Chandler does that gentle, paternal thing he always does so well as Lee’s brother Joe, while Lucas Hedges turns in a convincing performance as the outgoing Patrick, who spends much of the film in the passenger seat of Lee’s car, on the way to band practice or school. While Patrick is busy with friends and sport and schoolwork, Lee seems simply to have no reserves of grief left, and their scenes offer some relief from the gloominess and pessimism that pervades the film.


Most of the action in Manchester by the Sea comes mainly in the form of small, routine tasks and minor unpredictabilities which director Kenneth Lonergan uses to underscore the characters’ suffering.


Most of the action in Manchester by the Sea comes mainly in the form of small, routine tasks and minor unpredictabilities which director Kenneth Lonergan uses to underscore the characters’ suffering. When his brother dies, Lee has to fill out forms and sort out finances, highlighting the endlessness of his personal misery and the tedious everyday realities that follow a death. In other scenes Lee can’t find where he’s parked his car or has to reheat a pizza, and somehow through these minor events his every gesture betrays the deep and all-consuming sorrow he’ll never be able to overcome.

The first half of Manchester by the Sea is better than the second, and at around the hour and fifteen minute mark the pace slows to a crawl. Though it gathers in pace towards the end it still feels a fraction too long, and Lonergan is so focused on Lee that we see too little of Randi and her inner world, and the film seems weaker for it. But Manchester by the Sea is a brilliant film, because Lonergan, whose last film, Margaret, was released five years ago to critical acclaim, isn’t selling some romantic notion of grief – he’s offering realism. The wounds made by loss, Lonergan insists, never really heal. Manchester by the Sea is heartbreaking and exhausting, and a shining cinematic study of individual suffering.

‘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.

‘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.

‘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.

‘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.

‘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.