‘City of Tiny Lights’

'City of Tiny Lights'

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

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


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


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

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


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


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

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

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‘Trespass Against Us’

'Trespass Against Us'

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

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


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


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

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

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


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


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

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

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‘Certain Women’

'Certain Women'

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

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


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


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


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


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

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

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‘The Promise’

'The Promise'

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

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


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


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

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

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


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


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

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

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“Kong: Skull Island”

Kong: Skull Island

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

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


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


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

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

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


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


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

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

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‘Ghost in the Shell’

'Ghost in the Shell'

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

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


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


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

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


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


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

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

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‘Stories of Your Life and Others’ by Ted Chiang

'Stories of Your Life and Others'

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

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


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


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

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


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


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

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

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‘Logan’

'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.

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“The Tower”

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

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‘Sing’

'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.

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