‘Dear Zachary’

Dear Zachary

IT IS VERY HARD to write a review of Kurt Kuenne’s Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father because so much of this documentary film and its characters must be judged in the context of the events it describes. And not only hard but frustrating, because in omitting details that may ruin the enjoyment of the film for viewers I must necessarily restrain myself from expressing my admiration for some of the extraordinary people featured in this film.

Dear Zachary was conceived as something of a pet project for filmmaker Kurt Kuenne, whose close friend, Andrew “Bags” Bagby, was murdered by his former girlfriend, Shirley Turner, in Derry Township, Pennsylvania, in November, 2001. Turner abandoned her home in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and relocated with her oldest son to St. John’s in Canada, where police investigating the death of Andrew Bagby found in Turner’s rubbish ultrasound printouts which confirmed the conception of a baby with Bagby shortly before his death. The eponymous Zachary is Bagby’s son, whom Kuenne wanted to show the kind of man his father was.

Kuenne is ideally placed to undertake this task. Not only is he a documentary filmmaker who grew up with Bagby in the suburbs of San Jose, California, but Bagby appeared in nearly all Kuenne’s home movies over the years and footage taken from these films is used throughout Dear Zachary. When Kuenne became a professional, Bagby invested in his films with money he had saved for medical school.

But this film is poorly made. The narration is rushed and monotonous, far more suited to an episode of The Twilight Zone than the tragic subject matter of the film, and scenes and shots are edited together in a slapdash, wild way, jumping erratically from horrifying to comedic to heart-warming one after another. The score, which was also composed by Kuenne, is so over the top at times that it risks transforming what is essentially a very serious and very sad story into something laughable.

Dear Zachary

And yet, in spite of all this, Dear Zachary achieves precisely what is sets out to achieve, which is to paint a picture of a truly extraordinary man–extraordinary not on account of some great, singular accomplishment, but extraordinary for the way in which he lived his life. It becomes clear early on in the film that Andrew Bagby profoundly affected everyone he encountered with his kind and amiable personality. (There is a lengthy montage dedicated solely to a staggering number of Bagby’s friends saying that they wished him to be the best man at their wedding.) What also becomes clear early on is that Bagby’s personality is no accident, but a consequence of his raising by his remarkably kind and loving parents, David and Kate, whose strength is an unintended takeaway theme of the film.

The film’s B-movie style is at times jarring, but nevertheless feels deeply personal to its creator, and therefore deeply appropriate for the essence of the film–or at least for the intended essence of the film–which is the simple kindness and modesty of ordinary people. And so in spite of the myriad cinematic sins it commits, Dear Zachary is touching, tragic, and altogether a very good film.

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THE PROBLEM WITH REVOLUTION—or change of any sort, really—is that there is no guarantee that what comes next will be any better. And to the statement, Well it can’t get any worse, the correct response is, Well, yes, actually, it can. In 1978, Iran was a secular country in which women could wear what they wanted, couples could hold hands and so on. But it was very far from free—there were arrests for political dissent and multiparty rule was dismissed—and in 1978, the people overthrew the Shah. Unfortunately, as often happens at these times, the Shah was replaced by a far more oppressive figure: the Islamic fundamentalist Ayatollah Khomeini. By 1982 Khomeini had made himself Supreme Leader and Iran was an Islamic state of velayat-e faqih design.

It is this story which is told in Persepolis through the eyes of Marjane Satrapi, whose independence and strong will put her at odds with the authoritarian regime to such an extent that her parents send her away to Vienna at the age of nine. There, she lives a relatively ordinary Western life–interspersed with plenty of condescension from her peers–until, after a string of setbacks, she feels the pull of her former home and returns to Iran. It is an Iran now policed by a cadre of bearded, thuggish police, who tell Marjane’s mother, for the crime of not having headscarf pulled tight enough around her head, that “I fuck whores like you and throw them in the trash.”

Persepolis is a lo-fi animated adaptation of Satrapi’s comic book which jumps back and forth between the present, in which the adult Marjane sits in the airport, and the past. The scenes set in the past are drawn in an elegant black and white, which, though a common enough way to depict the past, reflects Marjane’s view of the world: you are either free or you are not. That way of thinking is in part imbued in her by her grandmother, a witty and fiercely moral woman who at one point chastises her teenage granddaughter for letting another—admittedly unsympathetic—person take the fall for something she has done. “In-teg-ri-té!” the woman shouts.

In many ways Persepolis is a cautionary tale, in the sense that it illustrates the rapid loss of freedoms over the course of a generation. And how much things do change: the tearful mother of Marjane—who is nine years old at the time—tells her daughter, in a memorable scene, that if she continues to show open defiance to the regime she will be arrested, raped and forced to marry a much older man.

Oscar Wilde said that artists were the quintessential individualists, and you have to wonder, as you watch Persepolis, if he may have had a point. Many of the assorted problems Satrapi faced over the course of her young life stemmed from her uncompromising desire to be free to do and think and say as she wished. But Marjane also wrestles with her identity as an Iranian in the same way that the country does. She feels the pull of a place in which she cannot be herself and stay out of prison or worse.

Persepolis is a funny and moving and authentic film, simply told and beautifully made. Like Waltz with Bashir, Satrapi finds herself with a riveting and important story to tell, and the means at her disposal with which to do so. And so Persepolis feels deeply personal: it is made in a way unique to its creator about its creator. It tells a story of the internal chaos and transformation of a person just as it tells a story of the internal chaos and transformation of her homeland.

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‘Waltz with Bashir’

Waltz with Bashir

I REMEMBER WHEN I first saw Ghost in the Shell, and having the very strange sensation that I had had an epiphany, or otherwise undergone some sort of transformation while I watched the film. I had a similar feeling when I watched Waltz with Bashir—a film which I knew by reputation but, for whatever reason, had never sat down to watch.

Waltz with Bashir is autobiographical. Its writer, director and star, Ari Folman, served in the Israeli Defence Forces during the 1982 Lebanon War, but was traumatised by the experience to such an extent that he is, at the film’s inception, unable to recall his experience. It is this inability to remember which is the mainspring of the film.

In the opening scene, a friend of Folman, now in middle age, describes a recurring dream in which he is chased by twenty-six ravenous, slavering dogs. The friend explains how this dream relates to his role in the war and Folman, to the disbelief of his friend, comes to realise that he remembers nothing of his own experiences during that period. It is quite clear the holes in Folman’s memory are not due to amnesia, however. Instead it seems to be the case that the memories are there, locked away somewhere, so with this in mind, Folman undertakes to track down some of his old comrades to see if they can help him remember.

Folman’s sole recollection is more a dream than it is a memory, and it was this scene that affected me so strongly. In the sequence, the nineteen-year-old Folman and his teenage brothers-in-arms rise out of the ocean under the moonlight, off the coast of a Beirut illuminated by rocket flares. The dream is made all the more breathtaking by the haunting electronic score of Max Richter. (Anyone who has seen Shutter Island will remember On the Nature of Daylight, the music that plays during Daniels’s dream of his wife dying in a fire.) Richter has that extraordinary ability to conjure up a sense of the otherworldly in the same way that Philip Glass does. Two tracks in particular—Haunted Ocean and What Had They Done?—have appeal far beyond the boundaries of Waltz with Bashir.

Ari Folman plays a great deal with the idea of memory and dreams. One of Folman’s friends, now a psychologist, talks with him at length about the unreliability of memory, and the way in which the mind is liable to fill in the blanks, so to speak, for the sake of its sanity. Folman’s journey–and the film–is therefore a reconstructive endeavour. The viewer, like Folman, is slowly building a sequence of events through the recollections of the characters, and until that picture is clear, everything we see remains vague and unreliable, dancing along a line between fact and fiction created in the mind. The rotoscope-animation, which is very similar to that used in Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly, is a visual metaphor for this indistinct, nebulous quality.

Waltz with Bashir is interesting, I think, in part because it concerns the young people of a country really unlike any other. Israel is a highly-developed liberal democracy in the same way that the U.S. and the nations of Western Europe are highly-developed liberal democracies, and yet it is almost perpetually at war with its neighbours, and the necessity to militarise is so great that all young people must do national service. For the most part, therefore, these young people didn’t grow up in suffering and great hardship, and yet they are expected to take part in a war while barely adults. Is it any wonder that the veterans of war have pushed their memories of it into the furthest, darkest corners of their minds, the horrors they experienced–and perpetrated–only ever let out in the dark of night, as they sleep? War, Folman says, is like a really bad acid trip.

There is a scene in which a group of new conscripts arrive on the shore of Lebanon and, in panic and fear, begin to shoot indiscriminately, killing a family driving their car. And then there is the titular waltz, an extraordinarily beautiful scene in which a soldier dances in the street as he fires at Lebanese militants positioned above in apartment blocks plastered with posters of Bachir Gemayel.

Waltz with Bashir is at once harrowing and beautiful, unmissable, and quite simply a superb piece of filmmaking. The visual style changes only once, at the very end of the film, and it is fitting, for two reasons. Firstly, because the reconstruction has come to an end and secondly, because in order to fully appreciate the horror of something, you must see it in its real form.

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‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

LET ME GET SOMETHING out of the way: I have a major issue with Superman.

He was, in his early incarnation, a villain: a deconstruction of the Nietzschean Übermensch—the man who goes “beyond good and evil” to master the whole spectrum of human potential. Somewhere along the line, creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster decided he’d better serve as a hero, which is the point at which he became wildly successful and where I think it all went wrong. My problem with Superman is that he’s a near-invincible alien (yes, the kryptonite, I know), which means, to give one example, that it is rather hard to suspend your disbelief when he finds himself at war with someone who is really little more than a supremely talented and determined billionaire engineer with a penchant for protein and press-ups. What’s more, Superman’s marked lack of imperfections—humanity, in other words—makes him, well, boring.

And then—and this a criticism that isn’t unique to the Man of Steel—there’s his alter ego, the retiring Clark Kent, whose spectacles and questionable taste in clothing could surely be noticed by a small and mildly myopic child (let alone the entire population of Metropolis) to be failing to obscure the chiselled features and Herculean physique of the world’s favourite extraterrestrial. Does nobody at the Daily Planet connect the presence of the six-foot-three, heavily-muscled superhero on television with the absence of the six-foot-three, heavily-muscled reporter, Clark Kent? They’re meant to be journalists, for goodness’ sake.

A long line of filmmakers and writers have failed to convince me that Superman can be anything more than a bland action hero, so I suppose what I mean to get across is forgive me for having sat down, Earl Grey and Kit Kat in hand, to watch the latest effort, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Jusice, feeling vaguely pessimistic.

Batman v Superman opens with a replay of the airborne, skyscraper-pinball fight scene between Superman and the Kryptonian usurper General Zod from Man of Steel, only this time it is through the eyes of Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), who looks on in horror as the Wayne Enterprises building collapses into plumes of thick grey dust, killing those inside.

Superman’s apparent indifference to the carnage his heroism incidentally inflicts ignites a nationwide backlash from the public, including the Caped Crusader. Meanwhile Jesse Eisenberg’s zany, fast-talking Lex Luthor acquires a large chunk of kryptonite with the intention to build a weapon capable of defeating Superman, all the while stoking negative popular feeling towards the Man of Steel.

Writers Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer make an admirable attempt to confront the ethical and philosophical implications of Superman’s possession of god-like power. Superman now has his own statue, for instance, and in a television report montage a selection of talking heads (cameos by Andrew Sullivan and Neil DeGrasse Tyson) discuss Superman’s actions and his role of in the world. Public sentiment and editorial denunciation build, and the Man of Steel goes before a Senate hearing chaired by Senator June Finch, played by Holly Hunter, to answer for his alleged crimes.

The film relies on the premise that Batman is angered enough by the uninhibited power of Superman and his blinkered approach that he is willing to go to war with him. It is tenuous at best that someone with the intelligence and experience of Batman could not appreciate that Superman’s actions in Man of Steel literally saved the world, the only counter-point to which is that Bruce Wayne has a particular aversion to the taking of life in any context. However, a news report informs that a Batman “brand” (the Caped Crusader has taken to searing his insignia into the flesh of the criminals he leaves for the cops) is, for the criminals, tantamount to a “death sentence” in prison, which wholly undermines that point. Superman, meanwhile, in his guise as the reporter Clark Kent, is developing a grudge of his own against Batman, and presses his editor (Lawrence Fishburne) to permit him to write about the Dark Knight’s violent forays down by the Gotham docks.

Snyder’s once again showcases his indisputable talent for filming action, but too much CGI lets hm down. The film’s best sequences involve Batman fighting other humans; the scenes involving Superman or other cosmic entities are chaotic and rapidly devolve into a competition of who can do more structural damage.

Affleck is a excellent as Bruce Wayne. His more reserved, darker, take on the role signals a departure from Christian Bale’s more social interpretation; the Batman of Dawn of Justice has no time for witty repartee with Alfred or the playboy billionaire other life. Affleck’s Batman, too, is always the underdog––not solely in relation to Superman, but to the sprawling criminal underworld as well. He exudes mortality.

It is hard to tell whether Henry Cavill is stiff or whether he does not have much to work with in the Superman character (my suspicion is that it is a little of both). Superman’s blandness might suggest modesty, but it’s very dull, and made all the more dull when he is pitched against the brutality, the style, the grittiness and, most of all, the humanity, of his caped counterpart.

Five-time Oscar nominee Amy Adams tries her best to get something interesting out a Lois Lane who is superfluous to the story, while Jeremy Irons is terrific as a hands-on Alfred, toiling away in his employer’s high-tech underground lair.

Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) drifts in and out of the narrative without having any bearing on it. Her role comes across like little more than an advert for own future film.

The theatricality of Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor, who is something of a cross between The Joker and a Silicon Valley tech executive, is a fun, flamboyant super-villain, only occasionally sinks into the mad scientist cliché. He deploys some of the best lines in the film with gleeful relish (“God takes sides! No man in the sky intervened when I was a boy to deliver me from daddy’s fist and abominations…”)

Superman writers always face a difficult challenge to elevate their hero into something more than a colourless action hero, but Dawn of Justice‘s failure isn’t so much in characterisation as it is a failure in plot. The film’s vertebral column, which is that Batman believes Superman’s recklessness and god-like power to make him a dangerous force on Earth and that he must, therefore, be stopped at any cost, never really convinces, and no number of well-crafted set pieces, gorgeous night-time cityscapes or stylish costume design can compensate for that.

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Another Champion Falls

UFC 201

IT IS REMARKABLE, GIVEN his all-or-nothing fighting style, that the reign of Robbie Lawler lasted as long as it did. That isn’t to say that Lawler lacks ability, of course, but probability dictates that it is only a matter of time until a reckless fighter such as Lawler comes off second best. And Lawler, it bears noting, has come within a hair of that on multiple occasions—against Rory McDonald and Jake Ellenberger among others—which is a testament to his heart, if not to his strategy.

The consequence of all this is that I cannot say I was surprised to see him lose in spectacular fashion at UFC 201 to Tyron Woodley. It was over, as they say, almost as soon as it began. Woodley delivered a right hand to Lawler’s chin that was almost as perfect as you can deliver one and followed it up with a barrage of punches to the fallen champion two minutes and twelve seconds into the first round. It was the fastest finish in UFC welterweight title history.UFC 201

Lawler’s loss exposes the inherent weakness of the throwback, stand-up-and-bang style, or at least reminds us that any champion serious about retaining their belt must become a thinking fighter. After Georges St-Pierre lost to Matt Serra in the first round at UFC 69, he reconsidered his fighting strategy and style, and later returned as a more cerebral fighter––one that promptly went on a twelve-run winning streak.

But it is also means another champion has fallen. In 2016, Luke Rockhold has been replaced by Michael Bisping; Fabricio Werdum has been supplanted by Stipe Miocic; Rafael dos Anjos has been dethroned by Eddie Alvarez; T.J. Dillashaw has been ousted by Dominick Cruz; and Holly Holm has been unseated by Miesha Tate, who was then herself usurped by Amanda Nunes. Only Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson and Daniel Cormier have held onto their titles this year, and in the latter case that is only due to the out-of-cage indiscretions of Jon Jones.

There is the argument that this revolving door of champions is an exciting element of the sport: if anyone—even a champion—can lose, the argument runs, then no fight is a foregone conclusion, and thus every fight is exciting. It is a valid claim, but only to a point. When championship fighting descends into a game of pass the parcel, there is a problem, because though the fan wants action, he or she also wants to see personalities, and to have heroes to rally behind. See how the darling of the UFC Ronda Rousey’s popularity fell through the floor when she was knocked out cold by Holly Holm. Sport is competition, but it is theatre too, and it is the UFC’s understanding of this fact that has led it to have the near-monopoly it holds on mixed martial arts today.

It takes time to characterise a champion enough to appeal to the casual fan and to permit the UFC to gain the exposure it needs in the mainstream sporting world. Let us hope, then, that some of the current crop of belt-holders hang onto their gold for a little while.

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‘Star Trek: Beyond’

Review: 'Star Trek: Beyond'

IT IS TO THE credit of writers Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman and director J.J. Abrams that I enjoyed the first instalment of the new Star Trek franchise despite finding the original television series about as thrilling to watch as a loading screen. It is to their further credit that I found the second instalment, Into Darkness––rated by Trekkies as the their least favourite Star Trek film ever, incidentally––to be a solid follow-up (thanks in large part to Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Khan) if not exactly thrilling. The third, however, Star Trek: Beyond, fails to go––well––beyond anything. Rather, new director Justin Lin and screenwriters Simon Pegg and Doug Jung seek out safety in the familiar, and the result is big-budget blandness.

Star Trek: Beyond, fails to go––well––beyond anything. Rather, new director Justin Lin and screenwriters Simon Pegg and Doug Jung seek out safety in the familiar, and the result is big-budget blandness.

The best action of the film comes in the first half-hour, when the U.S.S. Enterprise, which has been sent on a “straightforward” (uh-oh) rescue mission to a stony faraway planet, is torn apart by a swarm of spiked ships at the direction of the reptilian Krall (Idris Elba), a villain who, in typical Star Trek fashion, just happens to look exactly like a human but for a few added appendages and to have a good grasp of conversational English. The destruction of the Enterprise is a visually dazzling event, let down, perhaps, only by the failure of the franchise to establish the Enterprise as anything more than a very large prop, and so to give the scene any emotional weight. And it’s all downhill from there, as they say. Like their predecessors, Pegg and Jung have vanishingly little to say about the Enterprise’s cowboy captain James Kirk (Chris Pine), who, at the film’s inception, is considering handing over the reigns and taking a high-level desk job, or, for that matter, anyone else in his motley crew. (You do wonder, incidentally, how Kirk, who the franchise has established as being not quite the brightest star in the universe, would handle a desk job.) The effects, which include a gyrospherical space station in the style of the eponymous Elysium, are certainly impressive, but its all par for the course.

It seems slightly unbelievable that an actor, having been promoted to writer, might promptly give himself a greater role and all the best lines, but it appears that is exactly what Simon Pegg, who plays Scotty, has gone and done. The stranding of the U.S.S. Enterprise crew on the planet Altamid permits Scotty and his peculiar little alien colleague to leave the basement of the ship for once and roam the planet with Beyond’s plucky new alien heroine, Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), occupying screen time that might have been issued better, relatively speaking, to Spock (Zachary Quinto), or Leonard “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban), which would also save the audience from its subjection to a string of gags which, unless you believe there to be something inherently amusing about a Scottish accent, aren’t funny enough even to force a smile. And the less said about the banter between Spock and Bones, the better. (A (serious) question: Is anyone remotely entertained by Spock’s logical deadpan?) It’s a crying shame that Pegg could not think up a better script, not least because he is most of the time a comic writer of the very first rate: Shawn of the Dead and Hot Fuzz are comfortably among the funniest British films of the last ten years, and I dare anyone to disagree.

It’s a crying shame that Pegg could not think up a better script, not least because he is most of the time a comic writer of the very first rate.

If the objective of the Star Trek film reboot was to make the series appealing to agnostics such as myself, then Beyond must be seen as an abject failure, because it’s hard to imagine anyone other than die-hard Trekkies finding much to rave about with this tedious film. Star Trek: Beyond is, to put it plainly, poor stuff, and instantly forgettable. “Things have started to feel episodic,” muses Kirk in the captain’s log. You bet.

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’10 Cloverfield Lane’

10 Cloverfield Lane

WHY IS IT, I wonder, that the female action survivor lead is such a popular cinematic trope? Is it the suggestion of physical vulnerability, which renders the—likely male—villain more intimidating, and her inevitable escape more heroic? I don’t know, but it’s no substitute for meaningful psychological development, which is the area in which Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane fails miserably.

The film signals a departure both in style and narrative from its predecessor, which means no shaky handheld footage and no hysterical running away from whatever the hell it is that is taking chunks out of the Big Apple. Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes up in a concrete room with her leg chained to the wall after crashing her car leaving New Orleans following a row with her fiancé, Ben. Soon after, we meet her captor, Howard (John Goodman) who tells her, cryptically, that he is “going to keep you alive”. Michelle’s early attempts at escape fail, but she nonetheless shows herself to be highly intelligent and resourceful. She sharpens a wooden crutch into a stake and then creates a fire in the room’s air duct to get Howard’s attention. Howard tells Michelle not long after that there was a “chemical or nuclear attack” by “Russians” or, he says without humour or self-awareness, “Martians”, and the fallout could last up to two years.

Howard’s account has the advantage of corresponding to the events of the first film, of course, in which the arrival of the monster was assumed by the public to be some sort of attack, but we still can’t be certain, and if we are skeptical about Howard’s account of how Michelle came to be in the bunker, we must treat everything said by him and about him with skepticism. It isn’t long after before we see the signs of Howard’s other side. During a tour of the house he insists drinks are placed “on coasters” on the table, and VHS cassettes put “back in their sleeves” after use, and something tells us that this does not suggest a desire to maintain normality, but an authoritarian streak that may develop into something much more sinister as the film goes on.

Howard’s neuroticism doesn’t necessarily denote he isn’t telling the truth, of course, but even if Michelle concedes—however hesitantly—that he did rescue her from a grisly demise, she still faces the rather unappealing prospect of spending a year or more trapped in a bunker with him. What’s more, simply because he is telling the truth and it isn’t safe to be outside does not mean that it is safe to be locked in a bunker with him either.

The story, then, is more about Howard than it is about the nominal protagonist, which turns out to be fortunate because I never much cared either for Michelle or for her co-captive, Emmett, and during the scenes in which they are alone together Goodman’s sinister presence is notably absent. Michelle’s character arc is interesting enough, but scant attention is paid by the filmmakers to the psychology of the character and we learn so little of her inner life that she is never elevated to more than just a plucky survivor in the much-used mould of Alien‘s Ellen Ripley. The useless Emmett, meanwhile, barely graduates from being “the third person in the bunker”.

But where the film succeeds is in Goodman’s portrayal of Howard, who walks perpetually along a line between trustworthy and untrustworthy, sane and insane, good and evil, and with enough skill that early on you stop caring whether or not there is a 300-foot monster and his friends causing civilisation-ending mischief outside. It’s a performance which engenders a deep and lasting feeling of unease, intensified by a soundtrack that alternates between Bear McCreary’s dark score and upbeat pop from the bunker’s jukebox. The production and set design (by Ramsey Avery, and Michelle Marchand II and Kellie Jo Tinney respectively) is also very good: the bunker has a blandly artificial homeliness which makes it all the more claustrophobic.

10 Cloverfield Lane will hold your attention if only for finding out what, if anything, Howard is up to. It’s an improvement on Cloverfield, even if it is a spiritual successor rather than a direct one, but it never really becomes much more than a simple suspense story with weak elements of psychological horror.

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A Sorry Send-Off for Zuffa but a Good Night for Nunes

UFC 200

IT WAS TO BE the biggest event in the history of the Ultimate Fighting Championship and I, like all UFC fans, was salivating at the prospect. Conor McGregor would hope to avenge his loss to Nate Diaz in a Welterweight match at the top of a card stacked with big names and bigger match-ups.

But then that fight was cancelled, and the UFC announced the new headline bout would be a Light Heavyweight Championship rematch between Daniel Cormier, the incumbent, and Jon Jones, who was stripped of the title after a hit-and-run incident after UFC 182. And so we said, Well, that’s a shame, but that will be a good scrap.

And then that fight was cancelled too, and so the Women’s Bantamweight Championship fight between Miesha Tate and Amanda Nunes that was already scheduled was bumped up the card.

It is no surprise, all the above considered, that the event was not the spectacle it was hoped to be, nor the send-off that outgoing Zuffa, which has owned the UFC since January 2001, deserved. And if we thought that the stacked undercard would compensate for a less-than-thrilling headline bout, we were to be disappointed. Just two of the nine bouts on the preliminary and main cards ended with a stoppage, and in the aftermath of the event we all woke to the news that an out-of-competition sample provided by Brock Lesnar, who made a triumphant return to mixed martial arts with a victory over the former K-1 World Grand Prix winner, Mark Hunt, possibly violated Anti-Doping Policy.

If Cain Velasquez had hoped to show the world he still had what it takes to be a champion following his upset third-round loss to Fabricio Werdum at UFC 188, he undoubtedly did so. In the first fight of the main card, Velasquez swiftly dispatched Travis Browne with punches at the death of the first round. There was not enough action for us to tell if Cardio Cain’s trademark endurance was back to pre-injury levels. We have no reason to suspect that it wouldn’t be, of course, but though Velasquez blamed his lethargy during the Werdum fight on the altitude of Mexico City, it cannot be ruled out that he his conditioning was simply inadequate after a twenty-month layoff.

A resurgent Jose Aldo Jr., whose ten-year reign as Featherweight Champion was ended in just thirteen seconds by Conor McGregor last December, gave a lesson in counter-punching to out-point a relentlessly aggressive Frankie Edgar––on a five-fight win streak that began following a loss to Aldo in 2013––and claim the interim belt.

The Brazilian wasted little time in making it crystal clear that his “one goal” was to avenge his loss to McGregor, who he is expected to face should McGregor beat Nate Diaz on 20th August.

Anderson Silva stepped in for the banned Jon Jones to face Daniel Cormier in the next fight on the card. In spite of the best efforts of the UFC to claim otherwise, Silva is nowhere near the level he was at in his Rich Franklin-beating prime, or even before his broken leg, and it showed when he fought Cormier. That’s not to say that Daniel Cormier is not one of the world’s best fighters, but I would fancy a prime Silva to beat him comfortably. As it was, Cormier secured the win, but with a notably lacklustre performance that he puts down to “awe” at finding himself in the octagon with arguably the greatest mixed martial artist of all time. It’s a shame for Cormier, who, having finally won over fans with the way in which he reacted to Jones’s withdrawal and his insistence that he would fight his replacement, turned them against him once more with a thoroughly tactical, wrestling-heavy performance.

Cormier rightly pointed out that in his last three performances he has won fight of the night twice and performance of the night once. What’s more, the hysterical reaction to Brock Lesnar’s equally tactical showing again Mark Hunt suggests that the fans just don’t like Cormier, or, I suspect, won’t warm to him until he legitimises his title with a victory against Jon Jones, the man fans see as the rightful champ. (Which is to say that the fans may never like Cormier, since Jones cannot seem to get his behaviour out of the octagon under control.)

The former Heavyweight Champion and WWE Superstar Brock Lesnar made his return to the octagon after a four-year absence in the penultimate fight of the main card. Lesnar got the win, but it was a poor fight. There was no typical Lesnar ground-and-pound, no massive one-punch KO from Hunt. Lesnar ground out his victory over three rounds. After four years away from the sport, perhaps we can absolve him of too much blame. Personally, I’d like to see a rematch between Lesnar and Alistair Overeem, who defeated in the former within a round on his UFC debut in 2011.

Amanda Nunes proved, once again, the mixed martial arts adage that A-beats-B, B-beats-C, C-beats-A when she dominated champion Miesha Tate in the headline bout. Nunes, a strike specialist, wobbled Tate early on with hard punches before the champion took matters to the mat. It did no good for Tate, who was quickly submitted by Nunes with a rear-naked choke––the same submission with which Tate defeated Holly Holm. The Women’s Bantamweight title has now changed hands three times in nine months and will likely change again should Ronda Rousey decide that regaining the title is more important than avenging her loss to Holly Holm. UFC president Dana White said after UFC 200 that “Ronda’s going to make the decision” on who to fight next. Holm, too, will want a crack at Nunes. Both Nunes and Holm are specialist strikers, which makes for an interesting fight.

It wasn’t an ideal night for the fans or for Zuffa and consequently UFC 200 risks being remembered more for the absence of Jon Jones than for the fights. But though it was a sorry send-off for Zuffa, it was a good night for Velasquez, who looked back to his best, and Jose Aldo Jr., who put it one of his best performances to date. Amanda Nunes in particular will be satisfied with the ease with which she put away Miesha Tate, and can start preparing for a rematch with Ronda Rousey.

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‘The Neon Demon’

The Neon Demon

DO NOT BE FOOLED––Nicholas Winding Refn’s gruesome and glamorous new flick, The Neon Demon, is not your typical horror film. It is a bold, visionary and stylish work rich with allegory, and sometimes arresting in its blend of beauty and brutality.

The film opens in a strange and dreamlike non-space, where the blood-drenched, doll-like model Jesse, played by Elle Fanning, poses on a sofa for a photographer, Dean (Karl Glusman).

In an adjoining room, makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone), who evidently has amorous designs on Jesse, introduces herself, and offers to help to wipe off the synthetic blood before inviting her to a party.

At the party, high fashion models Gigi and Sarah, played by Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee, accost Jessie and bombard her with superficial flattery. Jesse reacts with surprise to Gigi’s boasts of how her plastic surgeon calls her “The Bionic Woman” on account of her countless nips and tucks, the tone changes and the women start to interrogate her: they ask, for example, who she is fucking––“you do fuck men, don’t you?”––because who she is fucking, they say, is the surest way to find out how far she will go and the surest way, therefore, that they know how big a threat she poses to them.

This is the Los Angeles fashion industry of Winding Refn’s vision, and the world which Jesse must now navigate. It is a hierarchical, territorial and savage world where the old and the new, the natural and the artificial, and the glamorous and violent clash. Mirrors, cameras and eyes are everywhere. They are a constant reminder to their subjects of their beauty and of the transience of that beauty.

The world into which Jesse enters is unyieldingly hostile, and the threats to which she is exposed are not limited solely to the models she is beginning to replace. Hank, the owner of the hotel in which she is staying, played by a gruff and bearded Keanu Reeves, looms in the background with his talk of “hard candy” and “real Lolita shit” and the suffocating kindness of Ruby, whose romantic overtures Jesse is too immature to detect, carries the menace of unwanted escalation.

And yet it is Jesse’s immaturity, her innocence––both in look and in being––which is her power. Her virginal, ethereal beauty isolates her from the others models to such an extent that she appears otherworldly. She tells Dean, who is kind and dull, and the only sympathetic character in the story, that as a child she imagined the moon to be “a big round eye”. It’s a repeating motif : another model asks Jesse what it is like to be “the sun” during the winter months and, later, the self-important fashion designer Mikey, played by Charles Baker, calls her “a diamond in a sea of glass”. In one scene, Jesse, who wears a long, flowing white night-dress, appears to hover like an apparition on the edge of the diving board of an empty pool.

The analogy of the fashion industry with the jungle, where the “alpha” model may at any time be supplanted by a younger, more beautiful version is, at times, overplayed. A cougar (or a mountain lion to Americans) enters Jesse’s dingy hotel room in an early scene, and later she walks past a large stuffed leopard displayed in a house. It is a clumsy reference. The cats, like the models, at once embody graceful beauty, independence and savagery. There is allusion to the vampiric, too. The celebrity photographer, Jack (Desmond Harrington) drags his fingers along the side of Jesse’s neck when he “anoints” her with gold paint. Ruby, in a later scene, touches Jesse’s neck when she kisses her cheek. Following the catwalk audition, the wild and furious Sarah literally tries to drink the blood seeping out of the cut on Jesse’s hand.

The teenage Fanning, who was sixteen at the time she began filming, is aptly cast as Jesse. For long stretches of The Neon Demon her performance is purely physical––this is typical of Winding Refn’s characters––and she conveys excellently the fragile, deer-in-the-headlights innocence (one character in fact says this, literally) that is of such importance to the plot. Her dreamlike, transformative scene on the catwalk is particularly memorable.

The Neon Demon threatens to fall into the same trap into which other Winding Refn films have fallen. Winding Refn tends towards overindulgence of his signature and supreme style. He may linger over a particular shot for just a fraction too long;, and his fondness for minimal dialogue can go too far. When the balance is right, it works brilliantly––in Drive, for instance––but when it is off, it can become, well, dull––see Only God Forgives. In The Neon Demon, the balance is there, more or less, but indisputably there are times when the film requires a marginally quicker pace, a shot held for just a little less time. What’s more, the narrative is certainly too long. A twenty-five-minute addendum of sorts adds little to the film.

The Neon Demon is, however, breathtakingly beautiful. Hyper-colour is Winding Refn’s signature, but in none of his films is it more apt than in The Neon Demon. Neon, though bright and colourful, is equally cheerless and empty. It is a byword for lifeless commercialism. The fashion world of Winding Refn’s vision is bright and glamorous––but it has no soul. What’s more, the contrast that distinguishes Winding Refn’s unique aesthetic (Winding Refn is colourblind and cannot see mid-colours) corresponds to Jesse’s “other”-ness: her jarring beauty.

The Neon Demon is a horror film with the hand print of Nicholas Winding Refn all over it, which is to say that it is much more than a horror film. It is a gory and glamorous allegorical take on the world of high fashion, sustained by a triumphant Elle Fanning as its porcelain-doll protagonist, and hypnotic in its alluring visuals and the scattered electronic tones of long-time Winding Refn collaborator Cliff Martinez.

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‘Zero Days’

Zero Days

IT IS QUITE CONCERNING to realise upon finishing Alex Gibney’s cyberwarfare documentary Zero Days that the overwhelming majority of people have no idea that cyberwarfare on an international scale may be taking place, or that computer code has reached such a level of sophistication as to influence the physical world.

The film concerns the emergence of the mysterious self-replicating Stuxnet computer worm, a highly complex, highly malicious piece of code now “on the loose”, and Gibney’s mission to discover why it is so dangerous and why nobody seems to want to talk about it.

The “zero days” which give the film its title are unknown vulnerabilities within software that leave that software able to be exploited by hackers but with no opportunity for detection by the developer. It is called a “zero day” because once the software’s author realises that his software carries such a vulnerability, he or she has zero days to fix the code and distribute a patch or software update. In other words, to discover the existence of a zero-day vulnerability is to find you have already been hacked; it can take months or years before a developer learns of the vulnerability.

Stuxnet was developed jointly by the American and Israeli intelligence services–neither country has admitted to this, and it is a major plot point–to infiltrate the network at Iran’s nuclear development facility in Naranz and sabotage the centrifuges which enrich the uranium oxide isotope needed to make a weapon. It uses four different zero-day exploits, which had never before been seen and has not been seen since.

But though the meat of the film may belong to Stuxnet, it is equally about the future of warfare. In a memorable scene, an Israeli intelligence operative describes how for thousands of years, combat was conducted by the army and the navy. In the early part of the 20th century, it was expanded to include the air force. Gibney makes the compelling–and concerning–case that in the future, war will be conducted from behind computer terminals with complex, attack-minded malware intended not to gather information, but to cause physical harm, and if we suspected this to be the case already, Gibney illustrates just how far along the road we are. A team of determined hackers in one part of the world may be able to disable the power grid in another and, as one talking head notes, a power grid is not something you can simply boot back up.

Zero Days is also a detective story of sorts. Eric Chien and Liam O’Murchu, who are security responders at Symantec in California, describe how after a month’s examination of the Stuxnet code they were only beginning to understand its purpose (it usually takes them “minutes” to analyse a piece of malware) and so they undertook “deep analysis”–a slow and painstaking process of unpicking the code bit by bit. Around the world, other computer security experts were doing the same. In effect, what these specialists proceeded to do was see what leads they had and pursue them from place to place. The only difference between these men and women and a private investigator or police detective was that they never had to leave their computer. The future of warfare may be cyber, but perhaps the future of detective stories is too.

The film’s assorted talking heads–among them security response teams, consultants, Mossad agents, and a composite, digitally generated character giving testimony on behalf of NSA whistleblowers–and the manner in which Gibney uses visualisations of the code, do an effective job of expounding an area of computing that tends to leave many scratching their heads, if not completely overwhelmed.

Gibney has proved himself to be one of the world’s very best investigative documentary makers and the very best at dealing with controversial or secretive subjects. The maker of the scientology documentary Going Clear and the WikiLeaks documentary We Steal Secrets interweaves footage of interviews with visualisations and archival video in Zero Days smoothly and with forceful pacing so as to create a narrative that is utterly compelling. It is an intriguing watch which leads you to arrive at the conclusion that if a cyber nonproliferation treaty is not being discussed, it certainly ought to be.

In November of 2009, nine researchers from the media lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were among eleven authors of a paper in which it was argued that to be unable to code was to be illiterate. “For those who cannot program in the 21st century,” the authors wrote, “it’s as if they can ‘read’ but not ‘write.’” Perhaps–but you do wonder, given these new and hidden dangers, if those who don’t understand programming may be leaving themselves highly vulnerable, too.

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