Detroit (2017) – Film Review

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Directors often care quite a bit about criticism, more than they let on – take for instance D.W. Griffith, whose The Birth of a Nation was correctly interpreted as a piece of KKK recruitment propaganda, and therefore followed it up with a lament against Intolerance to prove that he wasn’t a racist (the jury’s still out on that one). Or Francis Ford Coppola, who believed that critics and audiences didn’t fully understand that The Godfather was intended as a critique of the mafia, so aimed to make Part II a much less romanticised vision (I’m pretty certain he succeeded – it’s my favourite film).

I think that Detroit similarly aims to redress criticisms levelled at Kathryn Bigelow’s previous effort, Zero Dark Thirty, which controversially included scenes of torture without entirely condemning the practice, hinting that it was necessary in order to find and kill Bin Laden. Detroit, in contrast, unambiguously decries all forms of brutality used in the name of the law. The violence used by the police to extract information from suspected criminals is shown to be excessive and to yield no positive results, tied up as it is with systemic racial prejudice.

Like Intolerance and The Godfather Part II, the urgency imparted by the director’s need for greater moral clarity makes for a better, more powerful and more interesting film. Detroit is at once more gripping and cerebral than Zero Dark Thirty because it communicates a true sense of horror at how humans in a position of power can abuse it, rather than simply showing the good guys hunting bad guys. David Thomson described Zero Dark Thirty as being like a ‘John Wayne movie’, but that’s not a charge that could be levelled at Detroit – unless that movie was The Searchers.

Detroit concerns a real life incident that took place during the city’s race riots of 1967, following the unlawful arrests of African-American partygoers. A man shoots a toy gun out of a hotel in a black neighbourhood, and is mistaken for a sniper, which leads to a violent police raid and a roundup of the usual suspects, a.k.a. all the young black men. These men are threatened, intimidated, beaten, and otherwise physically abused by the bellicose local cops, with the state police quickly backing off, not wanting to get caught up in a ‘civil rights case’.

Bigelow directs these terrible scenes with a real feeling for the unfortunate people caught up in the crisis, and effectively communicates the terror of being young and black and confronted by a hostile government-sanctioned repressive force. There are two white women who also get beaten and stripped by the aggressive cops; they are appalled by the prospect of these women having possibly slept with black men, in a similar way to how John Wayne reacts to Natalie Wood being married off to an Indian chief in The Searchers. Sexual insecurities often play into racism: ‘what’s wrong with us?’ one cop asks the women, self-pityingly, pathetically.

Will Poulter plays the ringleader of the racists, acting the part of a young policeman with an intensity that belies, or perhaps is exacerbated by, the babyish nature of his face. It’s his finest performance to date, and also easily the best in the film, one that intriguingly hints at some of the psychological deficiencies that lead to racist behaviour. He remains entirely engrossing, whilst inviting zero sympathy. Bigelow never quite digs as deep as Poulter does – she generally isn’t as concerned with the roots and causes of racism as with the surface suspense that its deployment creates. Never mind: her acknowledgment of it as an unavoidable element of the American judicial system is progress enough.

Apart from Poulter, the rest of the ensemble cast is solid, but nobody really stands out – the script doesn’t quite allow them to. John Boyega does well enough as a grocery store security guard who works across the street from the hotel, and who gets caught up in the mayhem and tries to de-esculate the tension between the black citizens and the white cops. He winds up being labelled an Uncle Tom figure and made legally culpable for the brutality, the worst of both worlds. Boyega has a star’s aura, but is restrained here, not tussling for the spotlight, perhaps a more impressive feat than his turn in Star Wars. Because it allows Algee Smith to be the film’s heart: he plays Larry, a singer who auditions for Motown and winds up rejecting their offer, after the harrowing events of the film take their toll. It’s a rejection of the company’s (partially) white audience, turning his back on them metaphorically, like Miles Davis used to do in concert.

So far this challenging film’s failed to recoup its $34 million budget, whilst Zero Dark Thirty made a healthy profit of over $90 million. This is a bitter indictment of modern audiences, sadly telling us, as if we needed to be told, that there is a far greater appetite for gung-ho action flicks than for piercing critiques of the justice system in America. But then again, times haven’t really changed: Intolerance and The Godfather Part II made less money than their predecessors too.

So go see Detroit, to show studio execs that there is still an appetite for tough-minded cinema, at least amongst a few of us.

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Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie (2017) – Film Review

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Yesterday I reviewed the bleakest film I’ve seen in years, today it’s the silliest. Every bit as good in its own way, though. It’s a film so fresh and enjoyable that one critic over at Roger Ebert’s website even overexcitedly compared it to No Country for Old Men (in terms of reference for its source text)!

I like it quite a bit myself, but not that much. Based on Dav Pilkey’s series of potty-humoured novels for kids about a couple of best friends, George and Harold (an interracial bromance akin to JD and Turk in Scrubs), who accidentally turn their headteacher into the titular superhero – it’s not War and Peace, hell it’s not even The Wind in the Willows, but it breezes by with enough charm to whisk you up in its underclothed trail.

The key to Captain Underpants‘ success is one that Marvel and DC should be paying attention to: it doesn’t take itself remotely seriously, keeping the gag rate coming at a near-Airplane! level. If only Spider-Man: Homecoming had been half as funny as a few critics tried to claim, it still wouldn’t have come close to matching this kiddie’s film in terms of laughs-a-minute. Screenwriter Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Get Him to the Greek, The Muppets) does a terrific job of distilling the puerile essence of Dav Pilkey’s books. There are many laugh-out-loud moments: George and Harold contemplating life apart as best friends in different classes with ‘long distance relationships never work!’; a supervillain whose full name, get this, is Professor Pee-Pee Diarrheastein Poopypants, Esq.; the moment where one character is told ‘you have no sense of humour, like a chair or a supermodel’; a random excursion into live action sock puppets…

Unlike Marvel, the pace is kept impressively brisk – the film feels like it was made by a 5 year-old going AWOL on sugar. Character development is therefore minimal, which means that this doesn’t have the rich textures of the best Pixar films. And if you have children, bear in mind that taking them to this won’t impart any great moral wisdom beyond ‘laughing is good’.

Still, as a superhero film it never stops laughing at its own ridiculousness the entire way through, so that it can be viewed (and celebrated) as a U-rated cousin to Deadpool. Our film culture, and particularly our comic book film culture, needs to be reminded to lighten up once in a while, or else it risks becoming like a chair or a supermodel.

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It Comes at Night (2017) – Film Review

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The bleakest film I’ve seen in years, it’s taken me quite a while to digest this one. I’m finally prepared to recommend it. Peter Bradshaw described it as ‘a downbeat cousin to 28 Days Later or The Road’, which is pretty accurate, if a little offputting. Because It Comes at Night actually is worth seeking out, even if you recoil from onscreen nihilism, as I do.

It balances its irredeemably bleak vision of a post-apocalyptic future with a compelling and relentlessly pushing narrative that sweeps away all objections in its path – only afterwards does the despair of everything that you’ve seen wash over you, like the creeping ‘it’ of the title.

What is ‘it’? We are never quite sure, and that vagueness has annoyed some horror aficionados, but it actually serves to increase the lingering sense of dread in my mind. We know that ‘it’ causes black abscesses to appear all over humans, which are highly contagious and eventually cause the one suffering to die. We get the impression that ‘it’ has caused the end of civilised society, leaving families alone in the wilderness to fend for themselves, frightened to get in contact with other people, because who knows whether someone’s infected? We watch in the beginning as ‘it’ claims the life of an old man, whose son-in-law must shoot him. This is a future Wild West in which all sentimentality is banished, a frontier reached at the end of humanity. And our cowboy, the one killing his father-in-law, is Paul, played by the laconic Joel Edgerton, who must protect his family at all costs from the invisible ‘it’. Paul has a wife, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo – they’re a mixed race couple, and interestingly this is never discussed), and a teenage son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). Plus a dog – watch out for the dog.

Later on this family, who live alone in the woods, are compelled to take in another family to their abode. They’re clean, and what’s more bring farm animals for food. I don’t need to tell you that this won’t end well. Trust is a luxury that these future family units can’t afford.

It’s an impressively stark and unrelenting vision from young director Trey Edwards Shults, who never lets the tension dissipate, whilst finding time to explore Travis’ sexual frustrations in a land barren of possible procreation. The ‘it’ that comes at night is never sex, to his disappointment. Meanwhile the camera lingers on haunted faces and ruptured bodies with equal interest, displaying a clear debt to the most underrated of filmmakers, David Cronenberg, in its clear fascination with body horror’s psychological devastation. Nothing is more terrifying than an internal invader, a pernicious disease, one that even a cowboy like Paul can’t shoot at. You can only watch, in horror, as it absorbs all of those around you, even those you love.

So it is with the film: all you can do is watch, passive and exasperated, yet riveted, as bleakness slowly devours the screen.

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City of Ghosts (2017) – Film Review

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I didn’t get on with Channel 4’s recently aired The State, a fictional account of Britons escaping to Syria to join ISIS. It opted for an unlikely, in fact downright offensive, narrative of unbelievably naïve youths going to fight for their religion (like a jihadist All Quiet on the Western Front) and being shocked by the brutality of the regime they find over there. I mean, were we really expected to believe that these youngsters, one of them travelling with a child, were totally unaware of the openly perpetrated acts of violence that ISIS had long been infamous for publishing online? An early scene saw a new recruit turn away when being shown a video of a beheading, as if in disgust to show his innate goodness; it felt entirely disingenuous, a gross simplification for the sake of establishing narrative empathy.

Go and see City of Ghosts instead, if you can. It’s the real deal, or at least as ‘real’ as any film, fictional or non-, could hope to be in depicting the unimaginable horror that is the black heart of ISIS.

It’s a documentary following a group of Syrian rebels called RBSS (Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently), who were at first established to oppose Assad. But when that dictator’s troops were forced to abandon Raqqa and the vicious cancer of ISIS filled the void as ruling power, they suddenly found themselves forced to oppose an even more dangerous enemy. We all know about the nihilistic terror of ISIS and their exceptionally brutal methods of dealing with any perceived threats to their power base or ‘religion’. Most of us quake at the thought of being targeted by ISIS, yet the heroic RBSS actively seek out this very thing, confronting the group openly and risking their lives via protracted online warfare.

The keyboard warriors of RBSS publish the videos that ISIS don’t want the world to see, namely footage of the daily chaos in Raqqa, their home city, as food supplies dwindle and schools and hospitals are forced to close. ISIS want the world’s Muslims to believe that their ‘liberated’ areas are some kind of ‘paradise’, and promote Raqqa as such in their privately made videos. So RBSS are performing a crucial role in undermining the fantasies put forward by the ISIS propaganda machine. ISIS make slick, almost entirely fictional videos inspired by Hollywood action flicks and first-person shooters such as Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto in order to capture young and stupid minds; RBSS release real leaked footage from on the ground showing the daily terrors and endless suffering endured by ordinary people at the hands of ISIS.

One RBSS operative, Hamoud, even goes so far as to claim ‘cameras are more dangerous than weapons’ in this war. That’s a fascinating idea, and he may have a point: whoever controls the footage depicting warfare in Syria also controls the public perception of the ‘truth’. And distortion of the truth is how you harvest new recruits, as ISIS know full well, which is why they soon order all satellite dishes in Raqqa to be torn down.

We are shown many shocking scenes of real life barbarity in City of Ghosts, but I won’t warn you to avoid it, even if you’re weak of stomach, because I believe everyone should see it. ISIS are every bit as heinous as the Nazis, and the freedom fighters in this film, who have been forced to flee their homeland to Turkey and then Germany, are every bit as brave as members of the resistance in the Second World War. Therefore City of Ghosts is a crucial historical document, and ought to be seen. Sadly, it rather skimps over the vast complexities of the Syrian crisis and misinterpretations of the Islamic faith, both of which resulted in the emergence of ISIS. But it works well in trying to understand the men – though not the women, we don’t get a chance to hear from them, which is another significant flaw – fighting against evil on a daily basis. It also serves as a reminder that the no. 1 group in the world to whom ISIS are causing the most harm are Muslims (which is not to ignore the savagery of the acts they’ve perpetrated against the west, of course, just to point out the people currently most at risk from them are in the middle-east).

The last scene shows the deep internal damage that ISIS have wrecked upon their fellow Syrians. A spokesman for RBSS thumbs through photos of his murdered friends and is suddenly brought to a halt, lighting up a cigarette. He begins to shake uncontrollably. We realise he’s having a panic attack, a breakdown all the more shocking considering how composed he’s appeared to be throughout the rest of the documentary. In letting down his guard, he reminds me of Tom Hanks at the end of Captain Phillips, alone and suddenly confronted with the enormity of all that he’s faced.

It’s a revelatory moment, one that puts a human face on the long-term damage caused by ISIS. And that face is a quivering, haunted wreck.

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The Big Sick (2017) – Film Review

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Rom-coms are often dismissed as ‘guilty pleasures’ and fail to get much critical recognition, so it’s nice to see that this one has reversed the trend. As someone who believes that the notion of ‘guilty pleasures’ should’ve been binned the very moment that Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden (or the moment that western countries spurned Christian cultural hegemony, take your pick), I say if you like something, then you should say it loud and like it proud.

So yes, I like rom-coms: Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, Annie Hall, When Harry Met Sally…, Four Weddings and a Funeral, (500) Days of Summer… These are some of my most-cherished and -watched films; easygoing, yet with more than a smidgeon of bite, like an autumn breeze or a chilled cocktail.

And when I ask myself why I like rom-coms so much, the answer always comes easily: romance and comedy, a.k.a. laughs, are two of the things that most make life worth living. Woody Allen admits as much in that famous scene in Manhattan, and so in its own way does The Big Sick.

Comedy and romance intertwine with refreshing ease in The Big Sick, and both are elements that combine to threaten the traditional Muslim values of Kumail Nanjiani’s family in the film. Kumail is a Pakistani living in Chicago, in his own flat, but beholden to his parents, who live close by and try to set him up with a new Pakistani woman every time he comes for dinner, and who also believe that he eventually intends to enroll in law school. Law being a respectable trade, unlike the stand-up career he so craves, and arranged marriage to Pakistani women being a continuation of their culture, unlike the dating of a nerdy white chick called Emily, with whom he quickly falls in love.

The ‘guilty pleasures’ of comedy and romance in Kumail’s life are therefore kept a secret from his parents, just as we are supposed to keep the ‘guilty pleasure’ of liking rom-coms to ourselves.

Kumail Nanjiani, playing himself (this is largely a true story), is too smart and decent to really believe that he should be guilty about any of his pleasures, which of course is why he’s made a movie about them. But he’s also decent enough to worry about the ways in which his parents might hurt if they found out. Of course these secrets are partly selfish though, because he doesn’t want to lose his parents or his freedom, and unwittingly these secrets might be damaging his otherwise healthy relationship with Emily (played admirably by Zoe Kazan – unusually for a male-directed rom-com, we get a strong sense of why she likes him).

Then the film takes a darker turn, with Kumail and Emily separating, shortly before she falls ill and is put into a medically induced coma. Kumail admirably chooses to stay by her side throughout treatment, but this leads to a hospitalised Meet the Parents scenario as her mother (Holly Hunter, excellent as always) and father (Ray Romano, amusing or alarming?) air their own dirty laundry in front of him, whilst they all wait to see if Emily will ever recover.

This adds a bittersweet tinge to the usual Judd Apatow Productions antics: yes there’s lots of swearing, frank sexual talk and bodily fluids gags, mindless chatter. But there’s also a genuine, unforced tenderness exuding from these oddballs in love, particularly the way in which Kumail dutifully attends his beau in her time of need, and when he’s least wanted.

The film also tackles Islamophobia, at least in passing, and has a good stab at examining the ways in which lack of trust can sweep toxically through a relationship. So it’s meaningful, as well as frequently very funny (if never laugh-out-loud). Which altogether allows one to forgive the usual Judd Apatow-affiliated problems, from issues with pacing in the third act to one-dimensional supporting characters (leading to accusations of the film having an issue with Muslim women, which I think are overstated).

I don’t think this will have the endless replay value of any of the other rom-coms I’ve mentioned above. But it’s nevertheless a charming, engaging, and exceptionally likeable ride. I would’ve called it the best Apatow production since Bridesmaids, had I not recently caught the series Love on Netflix – check The Big Sick out first, then proceed to that little gem, if you haven’t already.

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Dunkirk (2017) – Film Review

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Christopher Nolan’s not one to shy away from big topics or Biblical running times – so it’s no surprise that his latest tackles the most spectacular and in many ways successful retreat in British military history, but it is a surprise that it lasts a mere 107 minutes.

Dunkirk’s a bit like the last half hour of The Dark Knight drawn out to feature length: lean, focused, people- rather than CGI-driven, and edited to within an inch of its life as Hans Zimmer ratchets up the orchestra to overdrive on top. It’s quite a spectacle, the sight of our finest young action director paring things down to essentials, and if you’re not thrilled, then check your pulse.

Despite its leanness, Nolan can’t resist chucking in some time-bending play, much like Inception or Memento, and the decision to cover a week on the beach, a day on the sea, and an hour in the air, crisscrossing between them, is either foolhardy or impressively ambitious, depending on your perspective. I think it’s a little of both – the film demonstrates how time appears mutable, lengthening or shortening according to where you are. In combat, an hour of fighting inside a cockpit might feel like a day, a day on a boat journeying into a warzone might feel like a week, a week of waiting onshore to be blown up or rescued might feel like a lifetime. But the jarring cuts from day to night and back again that the film undergoes thanks to its timehopping structure sometimes has the effect of distancing from the action, with thoughts leading to the construction of the film rather than the immediate peril of the men.

The film works best as a simple story of survival. The dialogue is clunky when it comes, which is not often, and when it does we long for them to shut up and carry on with the act of surviving.  So we really do hope that the soldiers make it back home, of course we do, but the script doesn’t give any impression of the men’s inner lives. Who is Harry Styles playing? Tom Hardy? Kenneth Branagh? They could be anyone, they could be cardboard cutouts, and when they speak that becomes apparent.

Nolan’s been interested in characters before – particularly the Joker, whose richness exposes the shallowness of all other comic book villains – but they’ve always come second to the relentless narrative drive of his films, and perhaps third to the pondering of big themes such as the nature of time, space and memory. Dunkirk abandons the formulating of characters altogether, and can be accused of a certain coldness. It only really displays emotion via a few tears from Kenneth Branagh, and at the end when it turns towards Spielbergian propaganda with a rendition of the famous ‘We’ll fight them on the beaches…’ speech accompanying the homecoming of survivors.

Yes, I’m aware that the lack of character development is deliberate, a rejection of the cheesy back stories that bog down so many war films. But I think the interchangeability of these men is a mistake, and that a little more effort spent colouring them in could have made for a much more memorable film. Tom Hardy in particular is wasted, playing a pilot whose performance mostly takes place behind a mask and in silence. Hardy’s an outstanding actor, and can do so much when given free rein. But here he’s only required to blink and move his hands a bit, which is a great pity, a really great pity.

Obvious flaws aside, it can’t be denied that this is an impressive film. Some of the action scenes are overwhelmingly visceral – point-of-view shots of planes being shot down are so close to the total immersion of video games that I almost had the urge to press ‘R2’ at the screen. But I can’t quite buy the argument that this film is a modern classic. I don’t agree that Nolan ‘eschews war porn’ in Dunkirk, not like Kubrick in Paths of Glory, because the way he films combat is so obviously ecstatic (although it’s stately, and at least you can’t sense Nolan jacking off by the side of the camera, like you could Mel Gibson with the dreadful Hacksaw Ridge).

Which is not to diminish either Nolan’s achievement or that of the British in Dunkirk: both are fairly wondrous success stories.

I salute it.

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Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press (2017) – Film Review

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Available on Netflix.

With the UK’s media currently under scrutiny following the release of the BBC’s staff salaries, I was reminded yesterday to check out this Netflix documentary about America’s press under siege, and have been thinking about little else ever since.

It’s an unruly film that tries to logically link together three separate cases of the US media under attack – each time from billionaires, and for reasons of vested interest. The links could have been made more clear – it’s rather shabbily edited. But the conclusion drawn is obvious: the constitutional rights of the free press have never been under greater duress than at the present moment.

The first case Nobody Speak looks at is the least morally clear. It concerns the lawsuit brought against gossip website Gawker by the wrestler Hulk Hogan, after they leak a sex tape involving him doing the naughty with his best friend’s wife. As a freedom of speech issue it’s confusing, with the filmmakers inviting us to be confused. Should a ‘news’ website have the right to put out graphic, sensitive material into the public domain, and should it be protected under the First Amendment in doing so? Is a spurious organisation such as Gawker, who smack of this country’s Daily Mail, but with even less scruples, worth defending?

Nobody Speak bypasses these issues by choosing to follow the money behind the lawsuit. Its greatest concern is finding that Silicon Valley billionaire and Facebook shareholder Peter Thiel, in an unprecedented move, is the one bankrolling Hulk Hogan’s case through the courts. Why? We can only speculate, because Thiel isn’t interviewed. But the film does reveal a number of articles that Gawker published about him, explicitly alleging his homosexuality and criticising his numerous business ventures. As such, it’s suggested that Thiel probably has a personal vendetta against them. So when Gawker are found guilty on all charges and fined $140 million, bankrupting them, we are invited to share the concern that a member of the 1% global elite has managed to fund the takedown of an entire news outlet. All on his own. Whatever our thoughts on the morality of said news outlet, the precedent set of capitalists using their influence to meddle in the media when it’s had the gall to affront them is still troubling. So sayeth the film, anyway, and I tend to agree.

The second case is a more straightforwardly abhorrent example of big money’s interference in the free press. It details the mysterious takeover of the Las Vegas Review-Journal by… an unknown buyer. The journalists working there instantly smell a rat, and like good old-fashioned heroes from All the President’s Men, they use all of their resourcefulness to uncover a conspiracy. It turns out that casino mogul Sheldon Adelson is behind it all, purchasing the company through his son-in-law in order to block certain columnists from writing criticism of him in its pages. The journalists with integrity are forced to quit, leaving behind what? An empty shell of a news journal, blocked from honest reporting by corporate interests. The title Nobody Speak continues to speak for itself.

Finally, and perhaps inevitably, we are confronted with the hideous power mogul to end all hideous power moguls: Donald Trump. If the footage of Trump’s bashing of the media at his rallies, and his miserable cronies Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway crowing ‘fake news’ at any opportunity, have somehow managed to escape your notice, well, here they are in all their vulgar glory. Trump is like any of the other billionaire bullies in this film, using his power to attempt to silence the freedom of the press when it threatens to expose his vested interests. He sees himself as above interrogation, as supreme possessor of the only ‘truth’. The man’s an almost unimaginably awful threat to the founding principles of western democracy, but the film impressively shows him as being only a symptom of the ugliest, vulgarest side of capitalism: where if you have money, you can damn well bully whoever you want, including those protected by the First Amendment.

So it’s no surprise that Trump’s planning to make it easier for people (rich people) to litigate against the media, his only real passion in life being to silence those who oppose him.

It’s a concerning time, for sure, and Nobody Speak is a compelling diagnosis of our time. Does it leave an unpleasant taste in the mouth? You bet. We need to have our noses rubbed in the scummy earth of consumer capitalism once in a while, and we should thank the global corporation of Netflix for so obliging us.

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The Lost City of Z (2016) – Film Review

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It took me a while to ‘get’ this film, but certain imagery and sequences have kept coming back to haunt me, with a hallucinatory relentlessness that recalls fever dreams and Apocalypse Now.

Like that great film, this one is largely set in the jungle (this time in Bolivia), and features out-of-their-depth westerners traveling down a river (this time the Amazon) and out of their minds. You can feel the sticky heat oozing off practically every inch of every frame as British explorer Percy Fawcett (a real-life figure who partially inspired Indiana Jones), played by Charlie Hunnam, and his team venture downstream in the early 20th century. First they go in search of a conciliation between the Bolivian and Brazilian tribes at the border, in order to stabilise the price of rubber. Then they head off in search of a lost civilisation, which at times only Fawcett and the native Bolivians believe they will find.

Is Fawcett mad? Perhaps not in the literal sense of Captain Willard in Apocalypse Now or Aguirre in Wrath of God: Fawcett is more practical, calm and collected than either of those conquistadors. He never resorts to indefensible violence against any of his co-explorers or the natives they encounter, and his thoughtful demeanour deflects accusations of delusions of grandeur. Yet there is a strange subconscious compulsion that draws Fawcett back, three times, to the dangerous Bolivian jungle in search of his lost city; just like Beowulf who fought monsters, three times, we know that it will inevitably end in tragedy. Maybe it’s a desire for prestige that drives him – we’re told early on that his father drank and gambled away their family’s reputation, so there’s clearly the concern of having to return honour to the family name. But in arguing for the existence of an intelligent tribe that predates white Europeans, Fawcett does take quite the gamble with his reputation, at the possible expense of his family’s wellbeing – remember this is stuffy, imperialist-minded Britain (MPs openly jeer him, like primates, at Westminster in one of the film’s best setpieces). Could it be that Fawcett’s interests are genuinely anthropological? Or is there something more basic about the rainforest that keeps on drawing him back, a primitivism that leans closer to God than he could ever have imagined?

So he’s a complicated chap, played with admirable reserve by Charlie Hunnam. Hunnam’s performance has unfairly been attacked for lacking charisma by some critics, presumably because he doesn’t go all bug-eyed schizoid on our asses like Martin Sheen or Klaus Kinski. But the film’s dreamlike logic tends to pull back from any literal interpretations, and Hunnam’s underacting considerably deepens both his character’s and the film’s mysteries.

The dreamlike vagueness does wonders for creating interest in the mirage personality of Percy Fawcett then, but the haziness also undercuts the efforts of the supporting cast in reducing their roles to anonymities. Robert Pattinson as a fellow explorer struggles to act his way through a stifling beard. Sienna Miller as the wife isn’t given enough time to explore the interesting oxymoron of her being a homebound feminist. And Tom Holland as the son is sullen and then suddenly in awe of his father in a way that doesn’t quite add up. They all leave only a slight impression, which I don’t believe is the fault of the actors but the fault of the director, James Gray.

Gray has shown brilliance before – take 2013’s The Immigrants, for instance – and though he orchestrates the photographic contrasts between London city life and the humid climes of Bolivia with a keen eye, and also writes dialogue with a distinct ear that holds you to the screen, I feel that his grip on The Lost City of Z is not quite tight enough. It’s easier to create an air of mystery than to offer specific answers to questions raised, particularly when filming in the wilderness of nature, and his dodging of narrative convention is sometimes intriguing but often structurally clunky. There is little forward-motion to smooth over the cracks.

In comparison, despite its many excesses, Apocalypse Now offers us a firmer vision: a delineation of human horror that is at once terrible, awe-inspiring, and exciting. Herzog’s films seem clearer on the mad pursuit of dreams. And last year’s The Revenant explores the intersection of mankind, nature, and God with greater depth.

Where does that leave us with The Lost City of Z? A somber, well-made film it most surely is, and the ending is so shrouded in the many mysteries that it has accumulated as to genuinely touch upon the unheimlich.

Yet like its hero’s quest, James Gray’s film never quite reaches its destination. Which is a shame. But perhaps it was the intention all along, for both of them.

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Risk (2016) – Film Review

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I get frustrated with those on the left – and I am on the left myself – who treat Julian Assange as some kind of anti-establishment hero, and as someone who’s somehow beyond criticism because of his imprisonment and ‘martyrdom’. We can believe in the principles of WikiLeaks, as I do, and believe in holding governments to account with absolute freedom of information, without elevating the organisation’s founders to Godlike (or at least, for radicals, Guevaralike) levels of irreproachability.

Risk comes as a vindication for those of us who have long mistrusted Julian Assange and his well-documented fascistic and sexist tendencies. Because, simply, they’ve never been so well-documented as they are here. Director Laura Poitras was granted unprecedented access to WikiLeak’s inner circle in her filming, and closely follows the team from the early days of enormous data leaks, through Chelsea Manning’s shocking arrest and 35-year prison sentence (of course she’s now freed), and Assange’s fleeing to the Ecuadorian embassy where he is still shacked up. It would appear to be a tale of courage under adversity then, and that’s what Poitras initially set out to film. However, it becomes a much darker beast when Assange’s hostility and bullying nature starts to become self-evident both on and off camera. Laura eventually acknowledges around the half-way point that: ‘I thought I could ignore the contradictions, I thought they were not part of the story. I was so wrong. They are becoming the story.’

The heart of WikiLeaks turns out to be a heart of darkness: Assange, as we know, was wanted for questioning in Sweden over four counts of sexual molestation, including the rape of two women. Although Sweden have since dropped its investigation, the allegations of the two women stand, and it doesn’t take much reading around to work out that these allegations are not fabricated by the US government, as conspiracy theorists would have you believe. Here are some revealing words, for instance, by James Ball (in a must-read article), who worked with Assange at WikiLeaks for a short time:

The details of what happened over those few days remain a matter for the Swedish justice system, not speculation, but having seen and heard Assange and those around him discuss the case, having read out the court documents, and having followed the extradition case in the UK all the way to the supreme court, I know it is a real, complicated sexual assault and rape case. It is no CIA smear, and it relates to Assange’s role at WikiLeaks only in that his work there is how they met.

I can’t, and won’t, speculate on the truth of the rape allegations either. However, one appalling moment in Risk demonstrates Assange’s misogyny in full bloom, and unequivocally on display: Assange responds to a female lawyer’s request for more conciliatory language towards his accusers by informing her that it’s all a ‘radical feminist conspiracy’ against him by women who run a ‘lesbian nightclub’. And then later, he tells Poitras in an interview that if the case ever reaches the courts, these women would ‘be reviled forever by a large segment of the population’. His victim-shaming starts to look like a Trump-level of egomaniacal delusion. Which is why, with breathtaking hypocrisy, considering what WikiLeaks represents, Assange apparently called his lawyers to demand these scenes were removed from the film and furiously texted Poitras that it was a ‘threat to his freedom’.

There are other uncomfortable truths that the film wisely covers in detail. For example, there’s the sexual abuse allegations made against another WikiLeaks operative, Jacob Applebaum, with whom it transpires Poitras once had a short affair before he abused one of her friends. Then there’s the 2016 Hillary Clinton email leaks scandal, in which Assange played a huge role, yet still denies collusion with Russia. Nobody could rationally blame the leaks for her election loss – it was likely more to do with a lacklustre campaign and already tarnished political reputation – however it does still smack of a personal vendetta against Clinton that’s disturbing. Where were the Trump leaks?

A portrait builds up of abuse of power amongst the founders of WikiLeaks that is deeply unsettling, and a far cry from the more straightforward heroism portrayed in Poitras’ award-winning Citizenfour, which was about the plight of the genuinely decent Edward Snowden. Yet though Snowden’s the better person, Risk is the better film, I think, because its moral haziness accrues ambiguities and causes all of us, and Poitras, to think hard about the efficacy of unaccountable organisations such as WikiLeaks, and not just unaccountable governments.

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Okja (2017) – Film Review

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Available to watch on Netflix. In fact, exclusively available to watch on Netflix – this film is already infamous for getting booed at Cannes, following Netflix’s decision not to have it distributed in cinemas worldwide, provoking controversy amongst the international filmmaking elite. They’re quite rightly worried about cinema’s decline as a medium: the latest projections have forecast that Netflix and Amazon Prime will overtake UK cinema box office spending by 2020, for instance. The reasons for this are manifold and too detailed to go into here, but ticket price inflation (a dozen British pounds I paid to see the mediocre Wonder Woman recently) and the distances required to travel to see films in a theatrical setting, with no guarantee of their quality, seems to me of foremost importance, and could very well lead to the cinema becoming a rarified spectacle in the near future, reserved for special occasions much like the theatre. The monthly fee for Netflix is minimal in comparison, and the risk of expending time and money on a bad film simply doesn’t exist: if it sucks, you just turn it off and move on to something else, simple as, which is a power the cinema seat will never be able to bestow.

Even more importantly, Netflix are taking enormous risks with their homegrown projects, making, for instance, Disney’s cynical ploy of rehashing their old stock into ‘live action’ CGI-fests appear exceptionally unimaginative and even desperate by comparison – and let’s not forget the relentless chains of superhero ‘cinematic universes’ that are scripted and directed with a passion closely approximating to zero. As a film fan, looking up the films at your local Odeon can fill you with despair, whereas reading about the future of Netflix projects is enticing – the company’s attracting immensely talented directors to make original works, doubtless drawn to the streaming service’s instant audience of 100 million subscribers, and also Netflix’s laudable decision not to interfere in the creative production of their visions. They trust the talent they’ve hired and let them get on with it. Why on earth would you want to make another film for the Weinsteins, producers who will constantly try to interfere in the creative process and have a hack at the final cut for the sake of ‘commercial viability’, when Netflix can and will allow a free handle on the reins?

Stop booing everyone, and start applauding the fact that a company is using its profits to take risks and release otherwise unreleasable novelties such as the multilingual Okja, a film by the incredibly talented South Korean director Bong Joon-ho. Before this, his last project was the terrific apocalyptic thriller Snowpiercer, which didn’t even get released in the UK by the Weinsteins, who couldn’t figure out a marketing strategy despite its having a cast that contained Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer, and John Hurt. Go figure why Joon-ho’s chosen to move to Netflix with this one.

A good story is a good story, no matter the medium. And Okja has all the makings of one. It’s a simple tale at heart, about a Korean girl called Mija (13 year-old Ahn Seo-hyun, tough and likeable) whose best friend is the genetically modified ‘superpig’ of the title. After an idyllic start (reminiscent of My Neighbour Totoro), she must chase Okja first across Seoul and then across America after the pig’s stolen from her by the shady Mirando Corporation, who are the company that crafted it in a laboratory in the first place, and who now plan to turn it into meat. Mija’s aided in her rescue mission by the Animal Liberation Front, a group of vegan terrorists led by Paul Dano (channeling a portion of his sanctimonious elan from There Will Be Blood, I think), who are determined to expose Mirando Corporation’s abuse and cruel slaughter of animals.

What makes this film interesting is that Mirando Corporation’s CEO, Lucy, rather than being depicted as a single-mindedly villainous entity, is actually concerned with softening her image and appearing as a do-gooder, in response to the hyper-capitalist drives of the company’s previous CEOs, her father and sister, who tarnished its reputation forever by dumping chemicals and causing a lake to ‘explode’. Lucy Mirando and her sister, Nancy, are played by Tilda Swinton (so memorably perverse in Snowpiercer), and she works very hard, and very admirably, to show the human failings at the heart of capitalism. Yes, Lucy is intending to slaughter all of the superpigs that she has cynically harvested, but with the good intention of using the meat to help feed millions of starving people around the world. It is up to you to decide whether her intentions are genuinely altruistic – Swinton gives you several clues, but the ambiguity is clearly an important part of the film, making it a more intriguing ride than just a bland ‘corporations are bad’ morality tale.

Also very sly is how the satire in this film, ably handled by Joon-ho and his cast, attacks not just the hypocrisies of the Mirando Corporation, which are obvious, but also the leftist insurgency of the Animal Liberation Front, whose mantras about not harming animals or people seem to dissolve quite quickly before the film’s end. This displays a South Park-level of appreciation that satire should tackle hypocrisy wherever it’s to be found, both on the left and on the right, regardless of the political bias of its writers. Organisations often have inbuilt double standards and moronic infighting, which dilute their impact considerably, and Okja’s beauty is of showing a 13 year-old girl, whose simple care in the world is to love her best friend, caught between the bureaucratic stupidities of two unwieldy and opposing enterprises.

On a more surface level of enjoyment, it must be said that Okja has tremendously filmed action sequences, including most especially a road chase through Seoul that’s far more exhilarating than any I’ve seen in the Fast and the Furious series. Its photography in the early sequences, of Mija and Okja roaming across the farmland and mountains of South Korea, is so stunning that, yes, you do rather wish you could’ve seen it on a big screen.

There are other reservations to be had: Jake Gyllenhaal hams it up too much as a fading alcoholic TV presenter, and although it looks like he’s having more fun than he’s had onscreen for years, his bug-eyed approach is good only for a few light chuckles, and it doesn’t justify his tendency to hog the screen.

But overall it’s a worthy experience that you will want to watch again very soon after it’s finished. And of course, on Netflix you can!

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