Meewella | Fragments

The Life of P

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Like Clockwork

Malcolm McDowell Q&A

When I first saw Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, I was immediately enthralled by this subversive gem so ahead of its time in 1971 that it still feels modern today. The opportunity to see it return to the big screen was an easy draw, particularly as it turned out Malcolm McDowell would be in town to discuss the film. I wrote after my first viewing that, “The dark satire relies on making McDowell’s electric performance relatable which is no small feat.” I was fascinated to hear more about how Alex DeLarge came about.

DeLarger than life

As a young Shakespearean stage actor, McDowell claims not to have felt intimidated by Kubrick despite his reputation and success. Rather, he saw the project as a collaboration. That is quite something for an actor who has only just entered the world of film with If…., an allegorical story about revolution at an English private school. That first feature, perhaps because of its anarchic sensibilities, led directly to his selection for A Clockwork Orange. Kubrick’s widow recently recalled that the director had screened the film at home, repeating McDowell’s first scene five times, before turning to her and saying, “we’ve found our Alex.”

“Stanley wasn’t interested in the actor’s problem at all,” McDowell explains of the struggle to find a way to perform Alex. That became liberating, giving him the confidence to improvise — particularly with physicality, such as Alex’s exaggerated chewing whilst confined to a hospital bed, which emerged largely as a reaction to Kubrick’s evident boredom with the scene’s dialogue. The actor summarises his brief as being to “play a rapist murderer who people like”. The fact Alex has some culture in his love for Beethoven helped but ultimately McDowell imbued him with a love for life, something that one has to admire on some level. Yet that is what drew such ire from many audiences, the New York Times calling Kubrick a fascist for making Alex likeable.

Alex DeLarge

Although the film makers played for humour, it didn’t take shape until they started filming. By modern standards the black comedy is self-evident, but McDowell recalls a New York audience watching in complete silence, whilst London offered only the occasional laugh — such was its uniqueness at the time. The home invasion sequence in particular could not have been done naturalistically, McDowell considers, “It would kill the film.” They spent five days shooting nothing, trying to work out how to create it. Kubrick eventually asked whether McDowell could dance, in response to which he launched into a spirited rendition of Singing in the Rain, replete with timed kicks. Kubrick was crying with laughter and, as McDowell tells it, immediately jumped into his car and drove home to purchase the rights to the song; it took them a further seven days to film the scene

Asked whether it was difficult to shoot the Ludovico technique, in which Alex is forced to watch a deluge of horrific footage with his eyes clamped open with ophthalmic forceps, McDowell responds enigmatically, “But I am Alex. If Alex is feeling pain then so was Malcolm,” before admitting candidly, “It was fucking horrible.” His eyes were anaesthetised for the shoot, meaning that he did not realise he had badly scratched his corneas until it wore off as he was driving home, in the worst pain he has ever felt. And then there were the reshoots…

The Ludovico Technique

Myth conceived notions

It is easy to forget that the film existed before punk, with a look that perhaps began to usher it in. The fashion was as improvisational as the acting, using cricket whites that McDowell had in his car, a protector that Kubrick suggested he wear on the outside as a codpiece, and a bowler as “a fuck you to the city”. The fake eyelashes began as a gag gift McDowell purchased for Kubrick, but after some experimentation they found the asymmetrical look of a single eye was suitably sinister.

McDowell recalls Anthony Burgess’ reason for writing the book, whilst noting in the same breath that the man was a pathological liar, making it impossible to know what was true. The story is that a Welsh doctor had told Burgess he had only nine months to live. Wanting to provide for his wife, Burgess rushed to write five books in that time. As publication approached and he was still alive, he realised he could not release them all simultaneously under his own name, so used pseudonyms instead. At the time he also worked as a newspaper literary critic and, as the books were not in his own name, they landed on his desk. He gave himself glowing reviews, before being fired once found out.

Addressing the mythology around the film’s limited availability in the UK until after Kubrick’s death, McDowell explains that A Clockwork Orange was never actually banned. A year after its release, as a result of several crimes allegedly copying elements of the movie, Kubrick and his family began receiving threats. Kubrick decided to withdraw the film from the UK market, a decision respected by the distributor until after his death. Invariably the lack of availability meant that people wanted it more.

He describes Kubrick as having paranoid tendencies, recalling visiting him at home to find the man sat by a stereo, intently listening to something through headphones. He silenced McDowell, who waited expectantly, imagining that he was probably listening to Beethoven for inspiration. Eventually Kubrick removed the cans and shook his head, “Another near miss at Heathrow.” He had been listening to air traffic control.

Malcolm McDowell Q&A

By the time the film was withdrawn, McDowell had moved to the USA, though he was disappointed that its cultural impact would not be experienced in the UK. American students embraced A Clockwork Orange for its style as well as the statement hidden beneath about freedom of choice. Although McDowell feels Burgess made things difficult for the audience by using an immoral man who makes bad choices, his own anti-establishment feelings ring out loudly in response to the film’s alternative of State control, “We know what happens when the State gets involved in anything. It’s a complete fuck up.” Here, its particular cruelty lay in stripping Alex of his pleasures, not just the antisocial ones but his love of music.

In closing, McDowell praises Kubrick’s genius as a film maker and waxed lyrical about 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film I consider overrated despite its visual majesty. McDowell highlights its propulsion of science fiction beyond contemporary cardboard sets, describing it as the best cinematic experience one can have on the big screen. In fact, I do not disagree at all with his final assessment: “I don’t know what it’s about. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s 45 minutes before anyone speaks. But it’s genius.”

Unplayer One: Gris

Unplayer One is a recurring feature exploring games in way that should appeal to those who enjoy art irrespective of the medium.  Unlike other review posts, these are likely to contain major spoilers so, if you have any intention of playing the game in question, please do so before reading.

Gris title screen

People often describe despair as an all-consuming black hole. Whilst that may be its crushing final act, for many people I suspect grey is a more appropriate colour than black. Rather than an oppressive force, it has a tendency to drain away the colour from the world, so that it loses its joy, its allure, and its meaning. Gris wordlessly explores this concept, following a strong-willed woman standing against the fears, doubts and depression that plague her mind.

“I slipped into a state beyond my usual grief and restlessness and anxiety and despair — one of not feeling anything at all. And when I felt nothing I became almost nostalgic for the grief; at least when you felt pain you knew you were still alive. I had tried to fight this, forcing myself into life and noise. I had gone, on my own, to a few of the new music halls, always sitting near the front, right in the heart of the noise and laughter, and I laughed or sang along, trying to feel some of the joy that filled the room. But I was immune.”

Matt Haig, How to Stop Time

At a basic level, Gris is a 2D platformer in which progression is marked by restoring colours, one at a time, to an initially greyscale world. It is rendered as a flat cartoon against a layered, parallax scrolling background with swirling inks. The beautiful world is striking in both its initial stark simplicity and its colourfully detailed ultimate form. More impressive, however, is the inner struggle communicated solely through its mechanics.

Gris screenshot - running from grief

The eponymous protagonist awakes in the palm of a crumbling statue that acts as a clear analogue to her own eroded sense of self. Gris tries to sing out but chokes up, the statue’s hand crumbling and dropping her to the earth below. She trudges through a grey world, hunched body language conveying her emotional state. She is buffeted by winds that rise and dwindle, forcing her to hide behind structures to avoid being blown backward, undoing her progress.

“There are many fools, Sorwa, men who conceive hearts in simple terms, absolute terms. They are insensible to the war within, so they scoff at it, they puff out their chests and they pretend. When fear and despair overcome them, as they must overcome us all, they have not the wind to think… and so they break.”

King Harweel, The Judging Eye (R. Scott Bakker)

After a time she gains the ability to turn herself into a squared off, stone block. This cartoonish power serves not only to allow Gris to explore further by breaking through cracked floors when falling from a height, but the additional weight allows her to withstand strong winds without needing extrinsic cover. The metaphor for resilience is clear: Gris is learning to become more robust. You are not saving this woman; she is saving herself. The wind then shifts from an oppressive challenge to an enabling experience as Gris begins to use vertical gusts of wind to access new areas, previously out of reach.

Gris screenshot - forest

There is a button that, throughout the game, does nothing but cause Gris to exhale in a plaintive sigh. The sound design is real and touching, as pointless as this feature seems to be. However, once Gris has recovered the world’s colour, the same button unexpectedly serves an entirely new purpose as that sigh is replaced by song. We realise that this button has always represented her voice: muted and weak at first, but now rediscovered and liberated. With this discovery, her voice restores life to the world, causing trees to grow and flourish, carrying her higher.

It is the rediscovery of her voice that allows Gris finally to combat the formless, inky blackness that has been pursuing her. Her earlier attempts at passive evasion merely to survive now become a defiant challenge. This antagonist adopts at times the more stereotypical mental health motifs of a huge black bird, squawking angrily, and a giant face capable of swallowing Gris whole. When this finally happens, Gris finds herself ascending a tower to escape a rising ocean of toxic black sludge. As Gris sings, her statue self reforms and, moments before Gris succumbs to the rising tide, the statue sings back. This song banishes the creature and the sea of despair.

“Most things fail with age. Our hands and backs stiffen. Our eyes dim. Skin roughens and our beauty fades. The only exception is the voice. Properly cared for, a voice does nothing but grow sweeter with age and constant use.”

Patrick Rothfuss, The Wise Man’s Fear

The transition from a sigh to a song represents, to me, a shift from a sense of despair to one of hope. Gris’ ability once more to hope forges positive changes in the world around her. However, finding her voice is not itself the end of the game. It is a tool, and it needs to be taken actively out into the world and shared in order for it to change. Hoping for change is not an excuse not to act. Hope is a reason for not ceasing to act through despair.

Gris screenshot - aural glow

Granting Forgiveness

Richard E. Grant is, in conversation, as affably charming as you might expect, garrulously spilling forth anecdotes but always to praise others rather than himself. He was visibly excited yet humbly grateful at his Academy Award nomination earlier in the day, for the performance that had just been screened in Can You Ever Forgive Me? He describes the project’s success, for which he has already received twenty-odd awards, as the culmination of many pieces falling into place. He was drawn to it by scriptwriter Jeff Whitty (who wrote Avenue Q) and director Marielle Heller (for Diary of a Teenage Girl). His only concern was whether this would be a vehicle for Melissa McCarthy’s comedy, fears that were allayed over a two-hour planning lunch with her (there was otherwise no rehearsal before filming began).

Richard E. Grant being interviewed after a screening of Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Grant realised McCarthy had not seen Withnail and I when she complimented with some surprise his ability to act drunk. Whilst he acknowledges comparison between the performances is inevitable “when you play two alcoholics in period coats”, he is glad that the roles were thirty years apart and was not consciously channelling anything of Withnail. That may come as a slightly surprise given that he plays Portland-born Jack Hock as English, but this was a directorial choice rather than his own (in fact an earlier, failed incarnation of the project had Chris O’Dowd cast in the role).

Having come off what he described as the “Testostoworld” (coming soon to theatres) of Logan‘s massive, male-dominated set, he loved the intimacy of a small picture with rarely more than three people conversing in a scene and predominantly female crew. That is not to say he dislikes working on big movies: he is enthusiastic about appearing in Star Wars at the end of the year, although he perhaps misread the room a little when looking for excitement at JJ Abrams directing.

Richard E. Grant

When asked what convinces him to take on a role, Grant prefaces his response by noting with self-deprecation that he appeared in Spice World: The Movie. Like the plethora of British talent to appear in the film, he was instructed to take the role by a family member, as his daughter wanted to meet the Spice Girls. I wonder how many others are, like him, finding on the flip-side that it now opens doors with younger talent like Lena Dunham who wrote him into Girls because of that movie.

He reminisced about acting alongside Daniel Day-Lewis in The Age of Innocence, joking that he prostrated himself in thanks that the legendary actor had turned down the role of Withnail, thus providing Grant with a career. After the first day, however, Day-Lewis blanked him on set, and it took Michelle Pfeiffer to explain that the method actor would continue this throughout shooting since their characters disliked one another. He finally broke character on Grant’s final day of shooting to envelop him in a hug and tell him it had been an honour working together. Which understandably, after weeks of being ignored, simply felt surreal.

I could not say unequivocally whether Jack Hock is Grant’s best performance, but when a long-serving character actor finally receives that elusive recognition, it is hard not to root for him to win.

The Photogenic Side of 2018 (Part 2)

Concluding the visual synopsis of 2018 with painted figurines, the BAFTA and pogonophobia.

In late 2017 Ben I each brought a couple of friends to form a monthly D&D group, having been discussing the idea for years. For all its geeky reputation, D&D is essentially a structured framework for collaborative storytelling. As our adventures continued through 2018, I decided to paint a miniature to represent my rogue Sestina (the redhead in the middle). When we adopted a pet shadowhound, whom Ses named “Goodboy”, I painted him too. And then I ended up painting the rest of our party as well. Above is the newly christened “Shadowhound Gang”. I expect to share a little more about Sestina in the coming year.
The BAFTA chose to celebrate women’s contributions throughout 2018. This included an exhibition early in the year and a series of screenings later in the year, two of which I attended. Rosamund Pike selected Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty”, with Jessica Chastain’s driven performance. Gemma Arterton veered indie with Andrea Arnold’s “Fish Tank”, with the freshly discovered Katie Jarvis in the lead. The interview afterward led to an interesting discussion about the the responsibility to support working class actors who are found in open castings but are often discarded once the film is complete.
My regular cocktail haunt continued to be Merchant House, with its two bars specialising in whiskies, gin and rum. The beautiful new menus were themed around aspects of the British Empire. The installation of a Lillet smoothie machine was a wonderful summer addition. I also tried my hand at gin infusion when Guangzhou bar Hope & Sesame took over. As is often the case, I took the most pleasure in naming my concoctions: the thyme-infused “Interesting Thymes”, and the Chinese osmanthus fruit inspiring “Ozymandius”. In addition to other Londoners, this year I introduced overseas visitors from the USA (Jeff) and Belgium (Gloria). It is with a heavy heart that I hear some of my favourite faces from the other side of the bar may be disappearing, leaving the future a little uncertain.
I like plants. I just prefer them in their natural habitat. Outside. Fifi nevertheless decided that a peace lily was an appropriate birthday present (in reference to Angel’s plant in Hot Fuzz, which was itself a reference to Léon). Conceptually I find it a little strange for a gift to consist essentially of “here’s a thing – now it’s your responsibility to keep it alive”, although I appreciate one could accidentally achieve the same result at a drunken birthday party. Anyway, I named him “Restin” or, to use his full name, “Restin Peacelily”. It may surprise you to hear that Restin remains alive and well four months later, and I will admit that he has grown on me. He has even encouraged me to open my blinds more frequently.
Probably my favourite show to shoot this year was the delightfully subversive “The Sex Ed Special”. A wonderful burst of creativity with its tongue firmly in cheek (so to speak), it featured important messages about consent, emotionally healthy BDSM, “period drama”, motherhood and more. For it to come from new performers delivering on a limited budget was doubly impressive.
Angie threw another Thanksgiving dinner for university friends this year. Despite a last-minute venue change due to the minor setback of a broken oven, it was a fabulous meal and an excellent evening. Following prior success, I was put in charge of “thankfulness” which meant effecting my concept of a “Wall of Thanks”. Rather than an American round-the-table series of declarations (which for Brits would be horribly uncomfortable rather than heartwarming) people could make anonymous submissions online which I drew up into a series of Post-it notes. More were added over the course of the evening. The results varied wonderfully between funny, touching, passive-aggressive and incomprehensible.
The environmental argument in favour of recycled and recyclable brown paper wrapping won me over easily, though I was less convinced about how it would look. I was pleased to find that some colourful penmanship made them look rather smart. I then travelled back with a bunch of sharpies on Christmas Eve and proceeded to add illustrations too. It is something that I am likely to continue.
And okay, I know I already included three pictures of David last time, but here’s another one at nine months because… just look at him. In the final month of the year, David became a little uncomfortable around family members with beards. Rather than waiting until his vocabulary improved to the extent that we could discuss pogonophobia, I decided that immersion therapy over the Christmas period was a better alternative and he noticeably relaxed. Hopefully semi-regular Skype calls will keep him on side between visits.

The Photogenic Side of 2018 (Part 1)

For a third year, here are some illustrated moments from the past twelve months. In a world creaking under the strain of social media’s artificial expectations, I want to remind readers that these are merely the pretty highlights and not representative of the everyday experience, albeit that my photography tends to reflect the way that I see the world.

I learned a few years back that London really has to be photographed with some altitude. St Paul’s Cathedral is one of those tourist attractions that, living in London, I routinely walk past without ever venturing inside. A few days into the New Year, climbing the dome provided an elevated opportunity, with a view over Paternoster Square and out to my firm’s new offices in the distance.
A recent tradition has been an annual trip to Amsterdam, usually coinciding with work events in the region. This year was particularly special as the canals froze over, drawing the locals out to ice skate.
My nephew David was born in March. Here he is pictured at roughly zero, three and six months. A long while ago Alexis and John Michael had a arranged trip to visit Romina and Chris in March, with the questionable timing of the new addition being the sort of thing that Jenna would usually accomplish. In fact, in strange synchronicity, Jenna’s new daughter Rose was born just one day after David.
Keggfest (the annual chocolate celebration) continued this year with a Keggstack taller than Angie. The destructive creativity of my friends resulted in this mutant monstrosity of chocolate that was legitimately slightly disturbing to wake up to the following morning.
The new screen at Piccadilly Circus completes the combination of all the advertising screens into a single ultra-high definition curved LED screen. It would become a familiar sight this year as I spent several evenings at both the BAFTA and Picturehouse Central.
Ravi, Angie, Nick, Leila and I attended Secret Cinema’s production of Blade Runner this year. As the price steadily increases, I am increasingly selective about buying tickets, but Blade Runner and its sequel are amongst my favourite movies, and a world in which I am happy to immerse myself. They transformed a warehouse into a rain-soaked dystopian Los Angeles, with a narrative inspired by the “Blackout” briefly mentioned in Blade Runner 2049. Sadly their camera policy means no shots inside, a space I would have loved the chance to photograph.
House of Burlesque celebrated its tenth anniversary this year, with a Revue show on the Southbank that featured a number of upgraded acts with new costumes and visuals that were wonderful to shoot. Taking some colleagues to see it later in the run, I had not counted on being dragged up on stage, although I am told I looked entirely too at home…
Just in time for summer, I purchased a finely machined glass ball to expand my photography repertoire with a phone camera, having found I was regularly shooting with my Google Pixel. Early experimentation produced some wonderful results with both portraits and landscape photography.

More to come next time…

QuickViews 2018 (part 6)

The final QuickViews compilation (before the feature moves to the new QuickViews page) touches on almost every genre, following an intensely varied December.

69. I, Tonya (2017)8/10

Tonya Harding is infamous in America as an Olympian figure skater whose rivalry with Nancy Kerrigan ended with the latter having her knee shattered in an attack. The film seeks to present Tonya’s side of the story, with a focus on the sport’s emphasis on image over athleticism (Tonya was the first woman to land a triple-axel in competition but was brash and from a poor background). Considerable focus is placed on the effect of domestic violence, at the hands of her mother (an exception supporting turn by Allison Janney) and then her partner. The film’s breezy tone makes for a more enjoyable experience, though arguably weakens its presentation of Tonya’s loneliness, yearning for affection. Given that the truth remains elusive, the film plays with its own unreliable perspective — “I never did this,” Tonya tells the camera, whilst cocking a shotgun and chasing her husband. The result, then, is conjecture but with substance.

70. Hacksaw Ridge (2016)8/10

The smarts of MIT and the glitz of Vegas sounds like a fun ride as a college professor takes a group of gifted students under his tutelage to count cards and win big at Blackjack. Despite claims to be based on a true story, this is heavily fictionalised. Rather than improving the story, however, the sloppy script is happy to rely on cliché and a predictable twist. The leads do a decent job of humanising their roles, but the supporting characters are never more than sketches. The film’s starkest failure is that its Vegas setting feels sluggish and swiftly becomes tedious rather than electric and alluring, robbing the film of even surface entertainment.

71. 21 (2008)4/10

The smarts of MIT and the glitz of Vegas sounds like a fun ride as a college professor takes a group of gifted students under his tutelage to count cards and win big at Blackjack. Despite claims to be based on a true story, this is heavily fictionalised. Rather than improving the story, however, the sloppy script is happy to rely on cliché and a predictable twist. The leads do a decent job of humanising their roles, but the supporting characters are never more than sketches. The film’s starkest failure is that its Vegas setting feels sluggish and swiftly becomes tedious rather than electric and alluring, robbing the film of even surface entertainment.

72. Mac and Me (1988)2/10

Full disclosure: I did not actually subject myself to this travesty in pure form, only through Mystery Science Theater 3000, which made it considerably more bearable. The underlying film, however, is hot garbage and unusually I am going to include spoilers because you should not watch this. There is absolutely no creativity to this low-effort rip-off of E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, with a stranded alien (MAC = Mysterious Alien Creature. How smart!) befriending a young boy (this time in a wheelchair for added emotional impact!) whilst being hunted down by the Government. This is less a film and more an exercise in excruciating product placement, with a dance number in McDonald’s and a climactic rescue demonstrating Coca Cola’s well-known restorative health properties (for aliens at least). It is fascinating that this was ever made, but it is that special kind of corporate awful which prevents it from falling into “so bad it’s good” territory. Except maybe the ending ceremony when the aliens become US citizens because my irony detector was off the charts.

73. All The President’s Men (1976)7/10

Whilst considered a classic by many, the film’s greatest strength is also its weakness. Where Hollywood typically glamourises any profession it portrays, there is courageous verisimilitude here in presenting the relentless drudgery of newspaper reporting: endless calls for quotes, hours of waiting to speak to a source, wrangling names and numbers and details, poring over notes scrawled on whatever paper is to hand. The film is often taut — through Hoffman and Redford’s excellent performances, some great camerawork, and the knowledge of how events ended — but its latter half certainly drags. The Watergate Scandal broke slowly, not all in one go, and after we see the first chink lift in the White House’s armour, to be presented with the same process repeated multiple times makes for poor storytelling. This, coupled with a lacklustre conclusion in which the dominoes eventually topple off-screen, means the film’s edge dulls as its scandal fades.

74. Pawn Sacrifice (2014)6/10

It is infinitely harder to translate a cerebral face-off to film than a physical one. The advantage to Bobby Fischer as a subject is that man’s personality and paranoia provide energy in between bouts. He is contradictory in nature, by turns self-assured and cowardly, single-minded and constantly distracted. Zwick’s film largely glosses over his worst traits, whilst not trusting the viewer enough to slow the pace sufficiently to allow games to breathe (the camera is instead as distracted as Fischer). Often it is through the eyes of Liev Schrieber as his rival Spassky that we find more nuanced understanding of Fischer. This is a film that will mean far more to those who lived through — or are at least familiar with — the Cold War, else the idea of geopolitical ramifications (on which the film frequently relies for its stakes) being attached to a game of chess seems a quaint curiosity. Merely relying on newsreels and mentions of White House attention fails to communicate how this became perceived as a battle of ideology.

75. Train to Busan (2016)8/10

The most entertaining zombie film in years, this South Korean survival horror is reminiscent of 28 Days Later, owing in part to their shared “fast” zombies (a word that neither uses) but more to their bleak outlook on human morality in survival situations. Virtually the entire film takes place on board a moving train, whilst the country collapses all around. With half the carriages swiftly infected, the constrained space keeps the danger immediate and provides us with a few creative and original set pieces. Train to Busan is ultimately a film about selfishness and sacrifice. Unusually, our protagonist begins as one of the selfish (to an extent; he cares about his family but no one else) but to protect his daughter effectively he must learn to cooperate.

76. Nocturnal Animals (2016)8/10

Tom Ford’s sophomore film is a haunting, contemplative concoction that trusts its viewers to keep pace. Although to a lesser extent that A Single Man, Ford’s designer eye remains clear in the way he frames and controls each shot. Amy Adams brings melancholy introspection to an unhappily married woman revisiting the past after her ex-husband sends a manuscript of his novel, dedicated to her. Excising his demons through a strange form of disempowered revenge fantasy, half the film is spent within this fiction, which opens with a harrowing sequence on a lonely highway at night. Although the second half is less visceral, it becomes a more intellectual study of strength and weakness. Through Susan’s memories and Edward’s fiction we see both ex-partners working through the mistakes of a failed relationship, which might finally allow for a reconciliation.

77. Atonement (2007)8/10

Keira Knightley always seems most comfortable in a period piece. Although centred around a romance in the 1930s, Atonement is more a story about perspective, misunderstanding and consequences. We see a pivotal scene at a fountain from two perspectives, allowing us to appreciate how it was misconstrued by a child. Joe Wright’s camerawork allows the audience inside characters’ heads, used most notably in a sprawling six-minute long take on the Dunkirk beach. The film’s conclusion feels slightly rushed but still maintains the book’s tragic reveal, an ending that will undoubtedly be off-putting to some but should be little surprise for an adaptation of an Ian McEwan novel.

78. Paddington (2014)7/10

Ben Whishaw voices the marmalade-loving bear from darkest Peru with an adorable charm and naiveté that Colin Firth (previously considered for the role) would have struggled to bring. Paddington is a timely immigrant story about how we all benefit from embracing our differences. Much of this rests on Hugh Bonneville as Mr Brown, as he moves from initial mistrust to concern for his family to ultimate acceptance. The film is structured as a caper story culminating in an escape sequence with enjoyable nods for adult viewers to franchises like Indiana Jones and Mission Impossible. Of particular note is the surprising calypso soundtrack (the music of Notting Hill immigrants when Michael Bond wrote his books), with a band appearing around London to mirror Paddington’s mood.

79. Tomb Raider (2018)5/10

When Oscar-winner Alicia Vikander was cast as the iconic Lara Craft, many hoped that Tomb Raider might finally crack the elusive high-quality videogame-to-film adaptation. Sadly, those hoping for more than a generic action movie will be disappointed by the results. Although it broadly follows the story beats of the 2013 videogame reboot, the script presents this as an uninspired origin story in which our orphaned heroine bizarrely spends the first half hour moping around London as a bike courier, presumably in an effort to make the heiress more relatable. Meanwhile it omits many of the scenes that demonstrate Lara’s transformation into a survivor. Vikander does what she can with the material, but apparently “this kind of Croft” is bland and largely passive until she returns to London in the film’s final few minutes. It is telling that even Walton Goggins struggles to make his villain in any way memorable. Ultimately the film is strongest in its fan-service moments, which is rarely a mark of quality.

80. Get Out (2017)9/10

Jordan Peele’s directorial debut wants to get under your skin in every sense. As is often the case with high concept horror, the less you know going in the better. Thematically, though, this is about the racial paranoia of being a minority in a white space — Chris reads into every cue, is made uncomfortable by the most casual of remarks, but is constantly second-guessing his own reading of the situation. It is an astute depiction of how exhausting such social interactions can be. The film’s opening scene is a statement of intent, with a black man walking through an affluent suburb, trying to avoid confrontation and clearly terrified of being shot. Like his comedy writing with Keegan-Michael Key, Peele is intent on confronting contemporary racial issues directly in order to provoke discomfort and conversation. In that, Get Out is a resounding success.

81. War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)8/10

Concluding Caesar’s trilogy, we find the embittered chimp no longer confident in his intelligence and questioning his decisions as he succumbs to a desire for revenge. The titular “war” is something of a misnomer, though the antagonists are soldiers. Woody Harrelson’s Colonel is driven by a specific sense of purpose which sadly, because it is delivered through monologue, never receives real examination. This series has always questioned the extent to which humanity is defined by its intelligence and what it would take for mankind to recognise and respect that intelligence in another species. The final film goes one step further and poses the question at what point one loses that humanity, although there are few answers offered. It is easy to forget that half the characters are animated, such is the quality of the emotion conveyed through motion capture, led by Andy Serkis with a clearly demanding physical performance. Despite the extent to which it is employed, this is CGI used right, in service of the story.

82. Roma (2018)9/10

Roma is an overt passion project for Alfonso Cuarón: a semi-autobiographical film shot entirely in black-and-white with virtually all dialogue in Spanish and Mixtec. Yet, not only is this an indulgence he has earned, but the results are often breathtaking. The story follows a tumultuous year for the live-in housekeeper to a middle-class family, against the backdrop of Mexico in the early 1970s. The underlying themes include love and lies, abandonment and guilt, and finding a sense of place. Doubtless more will emerge from rewatching. The monochrome cinematography is utterly beautiful, from sun-bleached rooftops to forests to rolling countryside to breaking waves to the chrome accents on period cars. Cuarón is a master of his craft turning his lens introspectively.

Critical Hit

The end of the year brings some structural changes and new content to the site. These are accessible directly from the main navigation menu above, or from the sidebar of the relevant sections. For several years the Critic section has been lacking in updates and largely overlooked, as I have little time to write longform film reviews. Last year the Reeltime Harry Potter series gave it a shot in the arm but, whilst we intend to do more Reeltime projects, they too require a considerable time investment.

QuickViews

To allow for more regular updates, we are formalising the QuickView single-paragraph reviews that grew out of last year’s film resolution. Rather than collecting them into posts of a dozen or more films (which became somewhat overwhelming for readers) they will now appear as individual posts in the Critic section. Hopefully this will also encourage more engagement on individual reviews. The final set of 2018 QuickViews will be collated at the end of the year, but after that they will no longer appear in the Fragments section, where they already felt slightly out of place.

Fives

Another new feature is Fives, a response to the routine question about my favourite films. I do not have a favourite film and a static top ten list has struck me as absurd whenever I have tried to construct one. The films that speak to me the most will change considerably depending on my mood, my current focus, and a host of factors. To reflect this, Fives presents selections of five movies within varied categories loosely inspired the weird genre classifications Netflix uses for its recommendations. The Fives page will be updated only intermittently, but feel free to suggest new categories and I will try to populate them.

Virtual Photography

Meanwhile, the Artist section now features a new gallery of Virtual Photography, featuring “photographs” shot in the virtual worlds of various videogames. Over the past year I have started applying the techniques I have learned from real-world photography to experiment with virtual images. Starting with Red Dead Redemption 2, this will gradually expand as increasing numbers of games provide tools to reduce the HUD or fully-fledged photo modes. In fact, for the first time this virtual photography provided the image for this year’s Christmas card.

Christmas 2018

QuickViews 2018 (part 5)

The penultimate installment for the year takes us to the moon and back (is that a spoiler for First Man?).

57. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017) – 6/10

Writer/director Noah Baumbach has an exceptional ear for conversational dialogue, the way it actually occurs rather than witty repartee stylised for the screen. The fractious relationships of the Meyerowitz family are evident in the way they talk at cross-purposes — sometimes engaged in entirely different conversations — or respond to what they want to hear rather than what was actually said. As fascinating as this is, the characters lack real depth despite the high-profile cast, and the film drifts weightlessly through its disjointed scenes with little to say.

58. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016) – 6/10

Lonely Island’s take on the music mockumentary is really just a thin plot to string together the band’s signature style of lyrically ridiculous pop, and the songs are undoubtedly the highlights of the film. The scenes in between rely largely on the big names who agreed to provide cameos or talking heads, but the wow factor declines as the movie drags on. Spinal Tap remains the pinnacle of this style of filmmaking because what happens off-stage is so well-observed. Here, the by-the-numbers rise and fall, with band members falling out and reconciling, cannot quite sustain an entire movie. As with most pop stars: the key to enjoyment is just listening to the music and ignoring the rest of their antics.

59. To All The Boys I Loved Before (2018)7/10

A derivative but quietly charming high school drama, its unlikely initial premise swiftly falls into a familiar “fake relationship” plot but — despite the lack of surprises — the charismatic leads evoke a genuine desire for them to acknowledge their feelings. The melodrama of high school students may not have changed much in the past few decades, but this is still a fresh update for the modern generation.

60. Newness (2017) – 6/10

After a cynical opening look at the hookup culture facilitated by dating apps, the film follows a new couple who want a more meaningful connection despite meeting after they change their statuses in exasperation to “DTF”. Concerned about boredom in the absence of new experiences, the couple start to experiment, flirting with others and then taking it further. The setup is ripe for an intriguing exploration of polyamory in the modern world and the film’s middle act seems to be leaning in that direction. Sadly, the desire for a more conventional conclusion requires it to abandon this more interesting avenue. Ironically, then, there little new here. The most compelling ideas come from the older man Gabi meets, whose transactional view of relationships is unromantic and yet more realistic than anything else on display.

61. Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011) – 7/10

Infuriating punctuation aside, this romantic comedy strives for greater quality and depth than its peers, even as it relies on familiar tropes. It is largely successful through acting talent and valuing thoughtful drama over laughs. Steve Carrell is allowed to make the newly single Cal sympathetic rather than a sad sack caricature. Where the comedy surfaces, it is typically wry rather than laugh-out-loud, with the best lines tending to have darker overtones. It is noteworthy that the central couple are a middle aged husband and wife who share remarkably little screen time. As is often the case with even the smarter rom coms, the movie struggles to find a conclusion and falls back on awkwardly saccharine displays, despite undermining the “grand gesture”.

62. Compliance (2012) – 8/10

After referencing the Milgram experiment (albeit without the more nuanced modern conclusion), we spend almost the entire film within the confines of a fast food restaurant on the day a caller claims to be police officer and convinces the staff to detain, strip-search and mistreat one of the employees. The facts are unbelievable yet this is both a true story and not an isolated incident. Writer/director Zobel shoots in a clinical style that minimises titillation, being more interested in the human interactions and how individuals could be led to act this way. It is Ann Dowd’s performance as the overstretched manager that sells this, as we can see her critical thinking and resolve gradually evaporate. Ultimately the film is an indictment of humans’ desire to cede responsibility to others.

63. First Snow (2006) – 6/10

A slow burn noir thriller as a confident salesman’s life is thrown into disarray after a fortune teller claims to have foreseen his imminent death. There is a pervasive sense of loneliness and isolation, accompanied by rising paranoia, with Guy Pearce delivering a performance reminiscent of Memento early in his career. Whilst the film serves as an interesting musing on destiny and control, it meanders more than it speaks.

64. Bad Moms (2016) – 7/10

I had expected Bad Moms to follow the Bridesmaids blueprint of a female-fronted movie setting out to prove the women can be as gross as the men. In fact, it is an escapist romp with more in common with This is 40. A stressed, underappreciated working mother ditches her conventional responsibilities and discovers a more relaxed approach, whilst set for a collision with the controlling president of the PTA. The comedy is fine; the drama is underwhelming. Surprisingly, however, hidden within are some genuine messages about parenting. It does not aid the storytelling that fathers barely feature at all and the PTA meetings are a sea of female faces. Although it is a shame not to see that particular trend bucked, it would be disingenuous to complain when this was only ever intended to be a rarer film about motherhood.

65. First Man (2018)7/10

First Man should not be mistaken for a film about the Apollo programme; as its name suggests the biopic is focused solely on the contribution of Neil Armstrong, sidelining everyone else. The claustrophobic nature of spaceflight is realistically presented through tight shots that leave us gazing into Ryan Gosling’s eyes with a regularity that eventually becomes tedious (although some viewers may disagree with this assessment). This is combined with an interesting decision to shoot the moon landing with IMAX cameras. If seen in that format the larger screen is entirely unused outside of that 15 minute sequence. Although impressive, IMAX viewing for this alone is far from essential. Gosling’s portrayal is deliberately understated whilst Claire Foy delivers the film’s strongest emotional performance as Armstrong’s wife. The most surprising aspect is an effective exploration of traditional masculinity and the burden placed on men who are left unable to share their emotional pain, with resulting impact on their families. Ultimately First Man is overlong but satisfying.

66. Tau (2018)5/10

Despite pretensions toward cererbral sci-fi in the vein of Ex Machina, this is really a derivative trapped woman thriller that is elevated only by some impressive production design. The conceit is that Julie’s captor is using an AI-controlled house to imprison her, allowing her to develop a relationship with the AI rather than directly with her captor. Although Tau raises a few interesting ideas about controlling AI and limiting its access to information, it fails to capitalise on these. That the science fiction is more about aesthetic than intellect is clearest from the way deletion of memories is used as a method of “punishing” the AI but inexplicably manifests as inflicting pain.

67. They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)6/10

Peter Jackson’s respectful World War I documentary is clearly a labour of love, dedicated to his own grandfather. For the audience, however, the reason to see this is the painstakingly recoloured footage which brings the front to life in a slightly ghostly fashion. It is a marvellous achievement in restoration of archival footage and to be applauded. However, this technical achievement is somewhat overshadowed by the verisimilitude with which filmmakers (and even game makers) have recreated the trenches in recent years, meaning that these are images we have seen before in sharper focus. Jackson eschews narration in favour of the amalgamated stories of over a hundred veterans sharing their memories in an anonymous fashion. Again these are familiar stories: boys lying about their age, excited to enlist; the bleakness of trench life; the horror shells and gas and barbed wire. Of greater note is the fondness for the German soldiers that readily comes through. They Shall Not Grow Old is a fine documentary then, but presents us with nothing new beyond a fresh coat of paint on contemporaneous footage.

68. Almost Famous (2000)8/10

Set in the early 1970s, toward the end of classic rock and roll’s heyday, this is less a story about music than William, a naive likeable youngster finding himself whilst touring with his favourite band, writing for Rolling Stone magazine, and trying to resist the allure of the trappings of fame. It touches on industry issues like rivalry between band members and the encroaching capitalist record companies, but ultimately Cameron Crowe’s script brisk and witty script is more interested in the individuals, both within the band and outside. Crossing the divide for William is the magnetic Penny Lane (apparently based on a real individual) who is romantically involved with one of the musicians, but takes William under her wing. Her espoused wisdom is catchy and yet ultimately impossible: “If you never take it seriously, you never get hurt. You never get hurt, you always have fun.”

Staying in Touch

Untitled sketch by Tim Burton, 1990
Pen and ink, and pencil on paper

Two of my favourite films, released almost three decades apart, are linked by an interesting thread: touch. Edward Scissorhands’ design was rooted in this concept. Tim Burton was looking for a physical manifestation of his isolation — bladed hands that prevent him from touching others without hurting them (“Hold me.” / “I can’t.”), or even himself as the scars peppering Edward’s face attest. In Blade Runner 2049, lack of touch is defining feature of both K and Joi for different reasons. K is a replicant (a synthentic human) who hunts down rogue replicants for the police department, simultaneously rejected by human officers as a “skinjob” and shunned by his fellow replicants as a traitor. His only real companion is the Artificial Intelligence Joi, whose holographic projection lacks physical substance. She yearns to be able to touch K, to break through his isolation, to comfort him. In one of the film’s most mesmerising scenes, Joi hires a replicant sex worker as a stand in, overlaying her projected image, in an effort to be closer to K. With nothing more than implied nudity, the scene evokes more vivid intimacy than I have seen captured on film in recent memory.

Simon Van Booy said that “For lonely people, rain is a chance to be touched”, an idea that always resonated with me. It is telling that when Joi is able to leave the confines of K’s apartment with an “emanator” upgrade, the first place she wishes to go is the roof, out in the rain. As she remains a hologram we see the water first fall through her image until she responds to it by adjusting her visual representation to make it appear that the water is splashing on her skin and settling — a facsimile of the touch she craves. This is, incidentally, why I think the lonely and depressed have a propensity to take long showers. Although in popular culture showers act as a cleansing metaphor, washing away guilt or shame, the sensation of warm water running across skin is also another chance to be touched.

Although I only came to appreciate it a few years ago, touch took on a particular significance to me as a child because of my grandmother. She lived with us and from my earliest memories she was virtually blind and had started to lose her hearing. We would spend time together sitting on the sofa and talking, with clasped hands replacing eye contact. She would recite Tamil nursery rhymes with accompanying actions — I could not understand the language, only her touch. Another game involved writing words on one another’s hands, trying to guess the letters from touch alone. Ours was a slow form of non-verbal communication, and perhaps this allowed me to be more patient with her when repeating explanations long after others had given up in exasperation. And I suspect it was touch that kept her grounded, even as her other senses failed.

The isolating nature of the absence of touch is not adequately recognised. Although we often denounce children’s communication through electronic media rather than in person, many of our real-world interactions remain staid, as if merely sharing the same general space is sufficient. What we consider to be “traditional masculinity” typically limits straight men’s access to touch to a firm handshake or a brief hug goodbye. A more intimate, lingering touch in a social context is considered inappropriate. I was fascinated by a series of vintage photographs that circulated in 2012 showing that in the late 1800s platonic intimacy was commonplace. In fact it seems to have been the sexual conservatism of the mid-1900s which drove the idea that physical intimacy between men was a sign of homosexuality and therefore to be avoided. So this is not even traditional masculinity; it is a byproduct of a more recent conservative mentality that we have already rejected.

A friendly touch lowers stress-related cortisol and increases the release of oxytocin, a neurotransmitter that promotes feelings of trust and bonding. Although its strong release from cuddling has led to it being colloquially dubbed the “love hormone”, oxytocin relates to any kind of pair bonding. Without touch and oxytocin, we are less trusting of others, and we feel less connected. Isolation and distrust are notably attributes we tend to associate with toxic forms of masculinity. This may also be a route to understanding the difficulty in adjustment experienced by those who leave a tactile brotherhood like the military.

So the importance of staying in touch with friends should be taken as literal rather than merely figurative. We need to break the social perception that conflates touch and sexuality. It is fitting that this piece was finished today, on International Men’s Day, but it is just as relevant for friendships in mixed groups, where judgments are frequently made about those who are more tactile with one another or about individuals who are more comfortable with such interaction in public. By stifling this, we are placing artificial barriers in the way of our ability to forge deeper bonds. By drawing together through touch we may find ourselves still adrift but at least less isolated.

For now, though, it looks like rain.

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"Lack of imagination is an occupational hazard for an apex predator."

(CC) BY-NC 2005-2019 Priyan Meewella

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