Arrival (US, 2016)

The arrival of the uncanny

Arrival was one of the few films I saw in the cinema last year when I seemed to be incapable of enjoying movies. Thought-provoking science fiction; what’s not to like? And I enjoyed it even more on a second viewing.

First contact (with aliens) narratives is a staple trope of SF but what Arrival does differently, based on Ted Chiang’s short story ‘Story of Your Life’, is focus on the mechanics of communication. Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1978) imaginatively used music to cross boundaries; Arrival, though, deals with how language makes meaning. If that sounds dry, Amy Adams’ linguist protagonist ensures we’re interested. I’m not meaning that Adams’ looks are what grab our attention, it’s her character.

The film also uses memories in a particular way that I can’t describe without spoiling; but it is utterly fascinating. Jeremy Renner’s a fine side-kick playing a physicist also deputised to try and understand the aliens. It is interesting to speculate how different the film might have been if they gender of the roles had been reversed.

Unsurprisingly, governments’ first responses are to wheel out the military; in an increasingly belligerent age I’m sure that would happen if only because they have spent too many years of watching ‘first contact’ movies where it’s necessary to ‘kick the aliens’ assess’ – assuming there is one. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) still has plenty to tell us about humanity.

Arrival, relatively, was a box office hit which surprised me because it’s far more a cerebral film than the popular SF that rely on special effects; though they are great in the film. After a summer where Hollywood’s artistic bankruptcy is threatening its domestic box office, though not the rest of the world’s (yet), it’s heartening that an interesting, medium budget, independent film can still find an audience.

Canadian Denis Villeneuve, who directed, is undoubtedly a talent  (Sicario and Prisoners are both worth seeing) and the forthcoming Blade Runner sequel suddenly becomes an enticing prospect.

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The Handmaid’s Tale (US, 2017)

Piece of resistance

We are living in extraordinary times, politically; this is particularly obvious in the Trump presidency and the openness of neo Nazis in America. Canadian Margaret Attwood’s 1985 novel seemed to me, when I read it at the time, to be out of its time. How naive of me and how prophetic of her. Like all SF (I don’t care she doesn’t like the term that’s what this is) Attwood wasn’t prophisizing but writing about trends in the contemporary world. Bruce Miller’s adaptation, he’s credited as series creator and wrote some of the scripts, obviously updates the source material but Attwood’s premise, of how patriarchy is based on ownership of women and violence, is horrifyingly of the moment. Beware spoilers ahead.

Many of the 10 episodes are written and directed by women, a smart move by Miller for this is a story of oppression of, and ultimately rebellion by, women. Especially powerful were the scenes of sexual exploitation and, without having closely analysed the making, I suspect this is because they were shot from a female perspective. Similarly, in the final episode, when Moira reaches Canada her experience as a refugee is brilliantly realised.

The ability of art to place us in others shoes, and hence encourage empathy, is ‘soft power’ that enrages those on the right, when the texts are liberal, and encourages them to march with their hard power – guns and violence. The monolithic and individualist world view of the right seems to express a mental fragility that cannot cope with anything different to themselves.

The acting is superb throughout; even Joseph Fiennes, who I usually find insipid and weak, has been superbly cast. The direction and cinematography is superb, which is increasingly the case in ‘quality TV’. The dull palette, and freezing weather, contrasted by the blood red cloaks of the handmaidens, is a perfect setting for a world empty of love and passion. I doubt I’ll see anything better on television this year.

Ghost in the Shell (Japan-UK, 1995) and (US-India-China-Japan-Hong Kong-UK-New Zealand-Canada-Australia, 2017)

What am I?

It was great to be able to see the original on the big screen. Apart from the ability to see the awesome detail of the cityscape more clearly, it was Kawai Kenji’s score that had significantly more impact when compared to TV viewing. As I understand it, Ghost in the Shell was a prestige (expensive) production that attempted to rekindle the west’s (relative) enthusiasm for anime that had flared with Akira (Japan, 1988); hence Manga Entertainment’s UK involvement in the production (it’s now owned by Lionsgate). Whilst Studio Ghibli’s productions continued to have a fanbase in the west, there was a gap in the market for a more action orientated film (presumably for fanboys). Whilst anime remains a minority enthusiasm this side of the globe, anyone who saw The Matrix (US, 1999) was seeing the fruits of Ghost’s impact on the Wachowski brothers.

Ghost in the Shell continues to be influential in 2017 not only because of its visuals but in its portrayal of a society where the division between humans and technology is becoming extremely blurred. It wouldn’t have been surprising if this aspect of the film had dated because of the rapid pace of technological development over the last 20 years. However, if anything, it’s even more telling now because although we are not yet able, as humans, to exist online, many people don’t feel they are whole unless they are on the network. Young people, in particular, are wedded to mobile social media. The division between AI and humans, a topic that is ever more relevant as the Internet of Things invades our homes, is central to the film’s concerns.

I can’t, however, say I entirely understand the film; and its brilliant sequel Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (Japan, 2004) is even more opaque. Philosophy is difficult but it isn’t so much the ideas Ghost that perplex, rather what is going on for some of the time. Whilst the complexity may be wilful it can also be read as being about an increasingly incomprehensible world where actual news may be ‘fake news’; for example the fact that Britain and America are complicit in atrocities in Yemen is barely reported. In the UK we voted to leave the EU for reasons not based on truth (and there are many arguments why the EU is not fit for purpose) but on lies. However, Brian Ruh’s detailed plot summary in Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii confirms that the narrative is entirely coherent.

Although there is plenty of narrative drive in the film, it is a three-minute montage of cityscape that is most mesmerising. Colin Marshall offers some interesting analysis of this sequence (here); he explains that the emphasis on the space of the city is linked to cyberspace and shows how the boundaries between the real world and virtual reality is blurring; I’ve yet to look as his other videos. What Marshall doesn’t mention is Kusanagi is present in some of the montage, on her own , in parts of the montage giving us, I think, a sense of her loneliness.

You can see what I am

The first buzz I heard about the American remake was that the film offered another example of Hollywood ‘whitewashing’: Caucasian actors taking the role of minority ethnic characters; as for example in Doctor Strange (US, 2016) and Aloha (US, 2015). In this case it was the casting of Scarlett Johansson as Major Kusanagi. The charge is potent, the white dominance of executive positions in the film industry guarantees a monocular view of what audiences want: BAME, not to mention female characters, won’t appeal to a wide audience’ goes the ‘logic’ despite the evidence to the contrary – see Hidden Figures and Moonlight. See also: ‘Screenplay analysis shows that even in films with strong female leads, the number of lines by men far outweighs those by women’. However, the charge is weak in this case. Japanese anime conventionally doesn’t necessarily draw its characters as Japanese; the one obvious Japanese character in the original, Arimaki, is play by Kitano Takeshi in remake. There’s also a plot point that emphasises Kusanagi’s ethnicity.

Although I’d liked the trailer I was doubtful whether Ghost in the Shell would benefit from the Hollywood treatment and so it proved. Ironically, given the original’s purpose was to appeal to western audiences, the necessity to appeal to a very wide audience to justify the $100m+ budget drains the narrative of its fascination. The philosophy is barely present and the ending is ridiculous. The producers are looking to produce an ‘origin story’ to make the Major, as she is known in the film, as a new superhero. Fortunately poor box office returns suggest this won’t happen.

As noted above, Hollywood has already remade the original in The Matrix that managed to weld gung-ho action to philosophical questions. 1995’s Ghost in the Shell, though, through its eerie beauty and embrace of the human/AI interface, is the film for the 21st century.

PS Cineworld managed to leave us in the dark at the end: excellent. However, the masking was incorrect; this site suggests the problems endemic.

High-Rise (UK-Belguim, 2015)

The depths of civilization

Director Ben Wheatley has a big reputation but I’ve never warmed to his work; however this adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel is quite brilliant. I am a fan of Ballard, though I did most of my reading of him during my teenage years. At that time even though I found it difficult to make sense of, what has come to be known as the Ballardian, the strangeness of his worlds obviously attracted me. I read High-Rise recently and, as far as I can remember, the film makes the themes of the book more obvious. It may be the nature of the filmic image that necessitates pulling what’s on the novel’s page more into focus. This could also be a consequence of Amy Jump’s adept adaptation. If this sounds like I’m playing the book against the film then that’s not the intention; the film is a great interpretation of the book.

Central to the film’s success is setting it in the time in which it was written. The high-rise flat itself, in Ballard’s particular design, did not exist in the ’70s however it was typical of his novels to take familiar bourgeois tropes and intensify them to show their destructive nature. Mark Tildesley’s production design ensures the mise en scene reeks of the decade, as does the costume design, replete with killer sideburns; the latter most befitting Luke Evans’ character, Wilder.

Wild thing

Ballard’s names are melodramatic. Wilder is, as his name suggests, a wild card that rails against restraint, not for political reasons but for the macho fun of it. Tom Hiddleston’s protagonist is Robert Laing, which references psychiatrist R.D. Laing who gained some fame in the 1960s with his suggestion that the (bourgoise) nuclear family created mental illness. The film’s Laing is a physiologist but the parallel is clear. Jeremy Irons plays the high-rise’s architect and lives on the top floor: he’s named Royal. His swept back, greying hair, and hobbling gait (except when he plays squash) give him the ghoulish look of Boris Karloff; a suitable monster to oversee the descent into chaos the building causes. It was during the 1960s that the failure of high-rise flats, as a cheap form of accommodation for the working classes, became apparent: they were soulless, lacking in community and often unsafe. Ballard’s high-rise, however, is home to the bourgeoisie: on the upper floors the posh reside (Laing attends a fancy dress party where everyone, except him, is dressed as 18th century aristocrats); lower down the aspiring middle classes try to buy their way into perceived sophistication through consumer culture.

Laurie Rose, Wheatley’s regular cinematographer, gives the film’s colour palette the look of a polaroid photograph (a ‘must-have’ gadget of the time) its shot in impressive 2.39:1 widescreen. The roving steadicam (not of its time) is reminiscent of Kubrick’s pioneering work in The Shining (UK-US, 1980) adding to the surreal spookiness of the atmosphere.

It’s an excellent cast also including Sienna Miller, Elizabeth Moss and Keeley Hawes. The women are somewhat marginalised; but that was the ’70s. I particularly liked the line, delivered by Moss when she’s having sex with Laing, that he is a good utility; not sure that was in the original but well done to Jump to putting it in. Miller’s very good at conveying the slightly vacant beauty that the patriarchal 1960s expected of its attractive women.

I’ve mentioned that the film’s relatively straightforward to follow but there are some fabulous montages of the decadent chaos the high-rise descends into. I liked the final touch where we hear Margaret Thatcher espousing that only with private sector capitalism can we have true freedom. She probably believed it but Ballard didn’t.

A final plaudit must go to producer Jeremy Thomas, who was also responsible for Crash (Canada-UK, 1996), the only other film that has managed to come close to staging Ballard’s SF brilliance.

The Matrix (US, 1999)

They needed gun

They needed guns

The Matrix was a landmark special effects film; I still remember my awe when Trinity (above left) leapt in the air and froze as the camera tracked around her. Bullet time had arrived just before the turn of the century and CGI started its rule of Hollywood. The Matrix was more than a special effects extravaganza though, its subversive plot was seamlessly integrated with the digital wizardry and the knowingness of the action sequences justified their hyperbole.

I hadn’t seen the film for a number of years but it has stood up well. It was the Wachowski Brother’s second feature (after the superb Bound, US, 1998) and they integrated their cinephilia superbly into the mise en scene. The noir narrative is fully complimented by the set design. They haven’t managed much since unfortunately.

Privilege (UK, 1967)

Some targets hit

Some targets hit

Peter Watkins’ first feature followed two brilliant drama documentaries made for the BBC: Culloden (1964) and The War Game (1965). The latter so convincingly showed the consequences of nuclear war, and Britain’s ridiculously inadequate preparations for it, that it was banned and was only broadcast on Channel 4 (if memory serves) in the 1990s. He’d clearly not lost any of his anti-Establishment fire in Privilege, a dystopian world (‘in the near future’) where government and businesses manipulate pop music to control the masses. Paul Jones, of Manfred Mann, plays a suitably catatonic, or is it ’60s’ ‘cool’ indifference, pop star whose show consists in him being chained and beaten by the police. This stimulates manic ‘Beatlemania’ style screaming from young women. Fashion icon of the time, Jean Shrimpton, plays his ‘love interest’ who might redeem him from his alienation (if such a thing can be done). Add to the mix the Church getting involved in a quasi-fascist rally at the National Stadium and it’s clear Watkins is not holding back in his critique of late ‘560s Britain. Predictably the film was rubbished, as are most works of art aimed at a mass audience that challenges Establishment values, and Rank pulled it from distribution. This Bright Lights article gives excellent detail on the film’s reception.

As to the film itself… Whilst I admire Watkins’ determination to challenge the status quo I think his conflation of pop music with ‘mindless entertainment’ is as reactionary as the Establishment targets he takes on. At the start of the film the vapid close ups of women in tears suggest they are being dehumanised by their adulation of a pop star. Whereas, in the early sixties at least, embracing pop music was an, if not radical, oppositional position to take. Primarily it was an embracing of youth culture as reaction against their parent’s generation. Of course, by the mid-sixties this had been thoroughly commodified though music has managed to go through a variety of anti-Establishment reactions since – Punk, Acid House, Grime – it has always been recouped for the dominant ideology. Such is the logic of capitalism.

I was struck, haven’t recently visited Krakow, Vienna and Prague, how youngsters in the UK seem, more than their Eastern European counterparts at least, to be fashion conscious in a conformist way. On a recent visit to Liverpool (though I did spend some time in the prime shopping area Liverpool 1 so it was a self-selective sample) I was gobsmacked by the uniformity of look (‘C’m on Liverpool! Rebel!’). Maybe Watkins had a point…

Privilege, another of the BFI’s superb ‘flipside’ series, is certainly worth a look. Although it’s not a dramadoc, Watkins uses the same faux documentary voiceover (himself) as in his previous two works. Whilst this was effective on television, its rather intermittent usage, and lack of a particularly realist visual style, works against the immersive effect of film (particularly in cinema). It doesn’t appear to be a Brechtian device, to alienate the viewer from what they’re watching so and engage their thought, as the film would have worked better if it had engaged the emotions more directly. It is difficult to care for Jones’ Steven Shorter who seems to be as alien as David Bowie’s in The Man Who Fell To Earth (UK, 1976). Privilege is an interesting contribution to Britain’s science fiction cinema (notwithstanding Durgnat’s attempt to deny the genre’s qualities – mentioned in the Bright Lights article) and a sidelong glance at the Swinging Sixties though nowhere near as potent as films like Performance (UK, 1970) and Deep End.

Mad Max: Fury Road (Aus-US, 2015)

What's cookin'?

What’s cookin’?

‘It’s a long time since I enjoyed a Hollywood summer movie,’ says the jaded fifty-plus blogger who’s seen too many samey films. Mad Max is samey; the originals were made 35 plus years ago and I vaguely remember them. However, Mad Max: Fury Road is different because it’s a fabulous, unironic two hours of action with dashes of character development and a hugely welcome dose of sexual politics that sees women on top (at least some of the time). Charlize Theron’s fantastically named Imperator Furiosa harks back to Ripley of the alien series with her haircut (from Alien3) and her indomitable refusal to let men get in her way.

The original Mad Max creator, George Miller, returns and uses Warner’s millions to get it right spending the dosh on old skool stunts, though there are obviously also lashings of CGI. It takes a lot to get me excited in action cinema, but Miller pulls it off by ensuring we are always clear who is where and doing what to whom. My only quibble is the 3D – though that’s my fault for choosing the format – as it made all objects and characters look flat in a three-dimensional narrative world. It was no better than the way Georges Melies created the waves 110 years ago.

It’s not just positive about women, we can see Furiosa’s disability in the picture above, old age gets a welcome action cinema re-write too. These differences, alongside great stunts (those poles are fantastic), make Mad Max: Fury Road a go-to movie for anyone who likes chase movies.