Talking Movies

September 8, 2015

El Dschihad

My sometime co-scriptwriter Emmet Ryan has, in an unusual move, taken time out from reviewing beer and customised burgers to catch a play in Berlin. From Ballhaus Naunynstrasse he sends this review of El Dschihad:

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German-Iraqi actress/writer/director Claudia Basrawi takes 70 minutes of her audience’s lives and throws them into a story built around facts but delivered with aggressive and compelling storytelling. The story of El Dschihad is built around interviews Basrawi conducted to get an understanding of Germany’s historical role in the current problems in the Middle East. Basrawi, whose youth brought her to Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria, tells the story of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s efforts to get Muslim subjects of the British Empire to rise up against their colonial masters during the First World War. Germany’s ill-fated plan was to use an insurrection in Arab states to divide the attention of British forces.

The piece jumps between discussions of contemporary efforts to battle terrorism and the historical follies of the Kaiser. Despite its documentary format this is very much a drama, albeit a deliberately disjointed one. Despite being the effective lead, Basrawi deliberately takes a back seat instead essentially letting her cast, playing a multitude of roles, take their lead from her cues.

No-one makes greater use of this than Rahel Savoldelli, who is brutally intimidating in multiple formats. Savoldelli’s appearances in the multimedia elements of the performance are nothing less than an attack on the audience. Opening with her interview as a psychiatric patient of Mario Mentrup, acted live in a corner off-stage but broadcast on a larger screen, Savoldelli is aggressive in her deliberate attempts to confuse Mentrup’s supposed straight man. Mentrup does an excellent job in playing the foils to those opposite him, most notably in his primary role as Mr S, a composite character of multiple interviewees of Basrawi, where his character is more direct with his emotions in order to make the cold reality of Elmira Bahrami’s Ms K stand out.

One isn’t meant to like Ms K; she’s got too many right answers, and most of them are ugly; but her calm delivery is arguably as tough on the senses as the intensity of Savoldelli’s pre-recorded piece, reading notes on the plan to convert British POWs into agents of insurgence against the Crown. In this brief but effective monologue, Savoldelli’s head appears like Big Brother albeit with the odd harsh cut to rouse the audience as she details the plans to use Mohammedans against the British Empire.

The mixture of multimedia elements, including an opening that shows contemporary damage to an unnamed city in the Middle East, forces the audience to shift focus but not at the expense of the message. Basrawi is trying to comment on a complex issue from afar, but one that is close to her heart, and does so in a way that doesn’t play as excessively preachy. It’s a tough balance but one delivered well.

4/5

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April 14, 2015

Life-Logging or All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace

Life-logging is the subject of the current exhibition in the Science Gallery, which explores the way in which we can use data logging to track and improve our lives. HeadStuff is exploring various aspects of data and life logging, and here’s a teaser of my brief survey of life-logging in film and television.

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As a Far Side cartoon has it people have recorded data to improve their lives since the first caveman brought down a woolly mammoth with a single spear to the beast’s heart, and another caveman said maybe they should make a note of that spot for future reference… But let’s jump ahead from that implausible beginning to where we are now. The relentless, exhausting positivity that Facebook encourages is only the digital equivalent of the split between Dr Johnson’s public bonhomie and high spirits, and his private grief over the death of his wife and his agonies over the fate of her soul; which his Anglicanism did not allow him to pray for under the doctrine that as the tree falls so must it lie. But such gaps between public personae and private selves only became apparent through posthumous discoveries of journals and private letters. And for every Victorian keeping a tremendously revealing spiritual diary of their failings for the purpose of self-improvement, there was a Horace Walpole keeping fair copies of letters full of scandalous gossip and little else.

Click here to read the full article (focusing primarily on Nineteen Eighty-Four, Minority Report, CSI: NY, Person of Interest) now on HeadStuff.org.

November 10, 2014

Interstellar

Christopher Nolan redeems himself after the patchy The Dark Knight Rises with a hard tack into heavy-duty theoretical sci-fi in a mind-bending, oddly abstract blockbuster.

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The McConaissance continues as Matthew McConaughey takes on the role of Cooper, a Texan engineer and pilot turned farmer in the near future. Cooper’s is a self-professed caretaker generation, trying to eke a subsistence living from a devastated planet with a collapsed population. Indeed Cooper’s daughter Murph is subjected to some Orwellian education about the futility of technological civilisation. But among the cornfields stalked by blight and storming dust-clouds there are still some people who dream big: NASA in hiding. Michael Caine’s wise professor and his icy daughter Brand (Anne Hathaway) convince Cooper to pilot their last ditch Lazarus mission, to travel through a wormhole next to Saturn in an attempt to find a new home for humanity. But as Cooper leaves an inconsolable Murph behind him, and joins fellow astronauts Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Romilly (David Gyasi), he finds that the search for humanity’s salvation seems oddly underpinned by losing all traces of humanity…

Interstellar is a bold change of pace for the Brothers Nolan. The script, written by Jonathan Nolan and then reworked by Christopher, sketches in this future world in the manner of a John Wyndham novel; taking for granted that we know about the macro which we actually only learn about when it impacts the micro world of Cooper and Murph. This leads to some double-take moments, such as Bill Irwin’s comic relief, which are amplified by Nolan’s insistence on secrecy. Some familiar faces appear to shocking effect, which would be dissipated by mentioning them; but among them is a cheerful cameo from William Devane aka 24’s President Heller. Interstellar could best be described as a version of Sunshine written not by Alex Garland, but instead boasting a screenplay by Rod Serling based on a story outline by Carl Sagan. Hard science of a theoretical bent mixes with a soured vision of humanity’s worst tendencies being dominant.

Interstellar is unlikely to get as fond a welcome as previous Nolan movies, but it does have much in common with them; from the Twilight Zone finale like The Prestige, to simultaneous set-pieces as adult Murph (Jessica Chastain) and Cooper wrestle with similar dilemmas like Inception. Hans Zimmer’s score avoids nearing Richard Strauss’ template by borrowing Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible organ and plugging it into a million IMAX amplifiers; achieving solemnity (without melody) by dint of volume. The replacement of Wally Pfister as DP by Hoyte van Hoytema doesn’t jar, but the changeover is aided by the fact that a very different cinematic world is being captured than that of the Nolan/Pfister paradigm. Nolan wrings good performances from his large cast, with Mackenzie Foy blowing Jessica Chastain off the screen as the younger iteration of the indomitable Murph, and McConaughey counteracting the heartless science of the Brand family with the emotional sensitivity of the Coopers.

Interstellar walks a tricky high-wire, attempting to create a heart-rending family saga dependent for its emotion on theoretical physics being literalised in a way that defeats traditional blockbuster visuals.

4/5

April 10, 2012

On Saying What You Mean: Part I

I’ve been infuriated lately by language getting trapped in some Orwellian nightmare so here’s the first of three blogs that will dissect evasions and contradictions…

Headhunters
Trevor Johnston is something of a cult hero of Paul Fennessy and mine for his delirious ability to find some reason to watch even the most drivelling of films when he’s writing programme notes for them. But his take on Jo Nesbo’s Headhunters in the IFI programme this month infuriated me because of its internal contradiction, which seems to me to exemplify an entire system of thinking that is lazy and inherently ridiculous.

Aksel Hennie’s roguish, Steve Buscemi-like protagonist is about to have his life turned into a Coens-style ultra-black comedy, as confident director Morten Tyldum piles on the eye-watering moments. Head-spinning plot twists are not in short supply, yet we never lose sight of the story’s basis in male emotional fragility. A Hollywood studio has optioned it, but their version won’t be anywhere near as dark and sinewy as this.” (My italics)

Um, mightn’t it? Suppose the evil Hollywood studio were to persuade actual Steve Buscemi and the actual Coens to actually make this film that so resembles their shtick? Would that film not be equally as dark and sinewy? Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo after all improves on the Swedish version by using his substantial clout to introduce more texture and a slower pace so that you watch a mystery with compelling characters rather than sketched-in characters dashing thru a thriller plot. Furthermore I’ve written extensively about how Let Me In improved on Let the Right One In by making it bleaker and removing the disingenuous happy ending and manipulative bogus ambiguity of the original film. The idea that Hollywood is one vast undifferentiated garbage machine has to be got rid of, as does the notion that anything filmed in a foreign language is instantly intelligent and brilliant. It’s a lazy generalisation, akin to the hilarious motto ‘Anything said in Latin sounds profound.’ But more than that a whole mind-shift needs to happen, because it’s ridiculous to speak in tongues and dream in Hollywood when it comes to discussing cinema. The shorthand that we use to discuss cinema comes mostly from Hollywood and the movies that people love for the most part come from Hollywood; and I mean this globally, not just in Anglo-American land, look at DVD stores’ catalogues in South East Asia. Johnston uses Hollywood movie-making as reassuring reference points for a good foreign movie; before slamming Hollywood’s tackiness. It makes no sense…

Anonymous
Some weeks ago Anonymous attacked the Vatican’s website and left a very confused message about their motives. I’ve been hunting about for a version of that statement that didn’t look like it was either written in Italian or translated into English by someone who was illiterate in two languages because I want to give Anonymous the benefit of the doubt. I finally pinned down a reasonably coherent diatribe purporting to be from Anonymous on the International Business Times website’s report on the incident. The Vatican was attacked for preaching absurd and archaic doctrines, they said, in a rant that covered everything and anything; “You have burned books of immense historical and literary value, you barbarously executed your fiercest detractors and critics over the centuries, have denied universally deemed valid or plausible theories, have led the unwary to pay to get access to paradise with the sale of indulgences”, and so on; before ending on the muted note that the attack was “not intended to target the true Christian religion and the faithful around the world” but was aimed at the “corrupt Roman Apostolic Church and all its emanations”. Hmmm. Well, no, that doesn’t really make sense. The Church is not a different entity to the Faithful, indeed the Church Militant on earth is only part of a wider church incorporating the faithful departed who make up the Church Triumphant. So, to attack the doctrines defined by the Vatican is to attack 1 billion Catholics as being utter idiots. Which is exactly what Anonymous meant to do, only it seems that having written the bolshy part someone thought better of calling over 1 billion people utter idiots, and put in a weak semi-retraction. But this is the conduct of a weasel…. If you have the courage of your convictions then say what you mean. If you want to say that Catholics are stupid beyond belief for what they believe then say it. Don’t savour hurting Catholics by ridiculing everything that they believe, and then weasel out of responsibility for the pain you gleefully inflicted by saying that technically your words didn’t apply to Catholics just the Church. If you want the benefit of hurtful words, admit that you used them hurtfully. I had no firm opinion on whether the cyber criminals were courageous crusaders or not before this attack, but now I think they must be classified as cowardly creeps.

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