Archive for November, 2016

Arrival

Posted: November 18, 2016 in Film reviews, science fiction
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Directed Denis Villeneuve. Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker.

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I can’t believe they said that! How rude!

When a dozen alien spacecraft land at random point across the Earth humanity wonders what this means for the future. Is this the prelude to an invasion, or are the aliens here to help us? No one knows, and though every eighteen hours the ships open up so that humans can converse with the aliens, communication is problematic due to just how, well alien, the aliens’ language is.

Colonel Weber (Whitaker) recruits top linguist Louise Banks (Adams) to form part of a team that will try and communicate with the aliens who’ve landed in Montana. Also assigned to the team is theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Renner).

Banks quickly realises that it will be impossible to communication verbally with the aliens due to the nature of their spoken language, but she does determine that she might be able to communicate using written language, even though the aliens’ writing is very different to anything on Earth.

Progress is slow but eventually the two species begin to communicate, the process aided by cooperation between the scientific teams in China, Russia, the UK and the other nations where a ship has landed. As time passes however distrust between nations, and paranoia over the aliens’ intentions grow, to the point where communication between the different scientific teams is cut off.

With time running out, and with the Chinese preparing for war, Banks must find a way to communicate with the aliens in order to determine their true intentions. What do they mean when they talk about a weapon, and why is Banks plagued by dreams of her young daughter, who we saw die at the start of the film?

 

Some films are great, and some films are lucky, arriving at just the right time to catch a zeitgeist, and some films are a little of both. There’s something very meaningful about watching Arrival at the tail end of 2016, in a year that’s seen us in the UK vote for Brexit, and Donald Trump blag his way to the Whitehouse via a campaign of division and outright racism. At a time when right wing parties are gaining influence in France, Germany and Austria, Arrival’s themes of communication and cooperation feel incredibly resonant.

Directed by Villeneuve, the man who gave us Sicario, and based on an award winning short story by Ted Chiang, Arrival is a proper science fiction film, but not only that, it’s a proper science fiction film done well. Too often hard sci-fi films can be cold, clinical, inaccessible, but Arrival is none of those things, grounded as it is by an incredible performance by Amy Adams as Banks, a warm, empathetic and utterly human character who has to go beyond what any human has done before in order to prevent tragedy, and one who will have to make a horrible choice for the most human of reasons.

Which isn’t to say Arrival is a fast paced thriller. It isn’t. This is a slow burning film, and I’ll admit, to begin with I was wondering what was supposed to be the big deal. It was ok, well-acted and interesting at least, but then… oh my…

Precious few films really surprise me anymore. I’m not trying to be smug and oh-so-clever Starkey about this, it’s just when you’ve seen a lot of films you tend to pick up on turns in the plot before they happen. Arrival genuinely surprised me. There comes a point—you’ll know when it is—when the film transcends what has gone before and becomes magnificent. Actually transcends is a poor choice of words, because what it really does is make you reappraise what you’ve witnessed up to this point, and I can’t wait to watch the film again knowing what I know now.

I won’t tell you what the twist is, and again twist is a poor choice of words (maybe I need Banks’ help with my language) because it isn’t some cheap parlour trick. Instead what you have is a tightly woven plot that makes complete sense, a film that works on every level and whose internal logic is completely watertight, which is a rarity. We’re talking 12 Monkeys here, or The Prestige.

For a film of big ideas it isn’t a film with a long run time. It’s less than two hours and Villeneuve does not waste a second, nor does he blind you with science or introduce concepts that fly high above your head. There’s some mind-bending stuff at play in Arrival, yet Villeneuve never patronises, yet also never overloads you. Linguistic and scientific concepts are explained in straightforward, though never condescending, ways. This is a film that understands most of its audience won’t have studied theoretical physics or linguistics to degree level, yet also understands that most of its audience are capable of appreciating the concepts the story revolves around. This is a film that treats its audience like grownups.

For a film about first contact with an alien species, it’s a surprisingly intimate film, with much of the action taking place within the alien ship, or within an army tent, and for a film about a global event the cast is sparse. Whitaker is good as the man in charge, portraying an officer who’ll follow orders without every tripping over into the cliché of a man who puts his orders above everything else. Michael Stuhlbarg’s CIA agent is unfortunately far more stereotypical.

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You can tell this man is a scientist because he’s wearing glasses.

Renner is good value as the physicist trying to balance Banks’ intuition, though you never quite feel the chemistry that the two characters should share.

This is Adams’ film however and I think the only thing that’s going to stop her getting Oscar nominated for this is if she’s Oscar nominated for Nocturnal Animals instead. She’s brave, nervous, confused, inspired, brilliant, loving…a fully rounded character in fact, and we almost don’t need to see the aliens or their ships, seeing Banks looking at them is almost enough because Adams’ acting is that good.

The effects are sparse, yet all the more impressive for it. For starters it’s a while before we see the alien ships, and when we do everything about them is genuinely alien, from how they look to even how they hang in the sky its clear these fellows aren’t from around here, and the final shot of them is wonderful.

Yes the aliens themselves do seem a trifle familiar (in particular their shadowy appearance behind glass in a smoke filled room reminded me of Torchwood: Children of Earth) and the film does seem to riff on other films a little, but I don’t think this was intentional, rather there are just certain things you expect from a film like this: longshots of alien ships hovering above the earth, hazmat suits, computer screens, whiteboards and sharpies, plus its increasingly difficult to come up with a wholly original alien character. Where the film excels is in the little things, like the aliens’ language, and seeing them write a single word/sentence in the air with black smoke is way more impressive than anything in, for example, Dr Strange.

Add in some genuine humour, including a joke about Sheena Easton and Donnelly’s amusing nickname for the aliens they’re trying to talk to, and you’re left with a film of big concepts that’s as accessible as the average romantic comedy.

It might lack the visual splendour of Sicario, but Villeneuve still keeps you glued to the screen, and it might lack the visceral horror of Sicario too, but it isn’t that kind of film. And whilst Emily Blunt is brilliant, her character in Sicario is eventually side-lined to become nothing but a spectator, whereas Louise Banks is given a lot more agency, for all that this is a film about determinism it always seems that Banks is author of her own fate.

Warm, sad, hopeful, magnificent. An awe inspiring film and absolutely one of my films of the year.

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“Is that an Oscar I can see?”

 

 

Doctor Strange

Posted: November 11, 2016 in Film reviews
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Directed by Scott Derrickson. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Tilda Swinton and Mads Mikkelsen.

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“You’ll like this, not a lot, but you’ll like it.”

Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) is a genius. He’s the best neurosurgeon in the world, but his brilliance is matched only by his arrogance. After a car accident his hands are left in ruins, and though the doctors try to put them back together they lack Strange’s skill, and it’s clear he’ll never perform surgery again.

His fellow surgeon and former lover Christine Palmer (a somewhat wasted McAdams) tries to help him come to terms with his new life, but Strange becomes obsessed with regaining full use of his hands and reclaiming his eminent position, and he spends his fortune on one procedure after another, yet at the end his hands remain broken.

Finally, in utter desperation, he hears about a man whose recovery from a broken back that should have been impossible. The man advises Strange that he was healed by a place known as Kamar-Taj in Nepal. Strange uses the last of his money on a one way ticket, but what he finds, rather than a research facility, is a temple dedicated to sorcery, ruled by the Ancient One (Swinton), a Celtic woman who’s supposedly lived for centuries.

Initially sceptical the Ancient One proves to Strange that magic is real. He chooses to stay in Kamar-Taj and learn the ways of the forc…sorry, the ways of magic, including access to the astral plane and other dimensions. His learning is slow, and his arrogance continues to worry those around him, including his newfound friends, fellow sorcerers Karl Mordo (Ejiofor) and master of the mystic arts Wong (an amusing turn by Benedict Wong).

When the peace of Kamar-Taj, and by extension the world, is threatened by the Ancient One’s former pupil Kaecilius (Mikkelsen) Strange will find himself thrown into the heat of battle, and will have to decide what is more important, his hands or the future of the world.

 

The first thing that struck me as I watched Doctor Strange was that I’m really wearied by superhero origin stories now. The second thing that struck me is that Marvel could probably make a decent superhero film even if everyone involved was half asleep.

Doctor Strange is a decent superhero film, and I suspect people weren’t sleeping on the job, certainly the effects people and the actors don’t seem to have been (but more on them later). It’s a curious entry into the Marvel canon however, at once far too familiar, whilst also being far too different to the rest of the Marvel oeuvre, and this contradictory feel knocks it down a few notches. It’s not the worst superhero film of the year (I’m looking at you Suicide Squad and Batman vs Superman)  but it’s nowhere near as good as Civil War or Deadpool.

Strange isn’t a character I know very well from the comics, and the first bombshell is that now magic is a certifiable part of the Marvel universe. This isn’t a major problem, but as with Thor you can feel there was a little trepidation about going for something more fantastical (power armour, radioactive spiders and super soldier serums are one thing, Gods and magic something else. Yes there’s Scarlett Witch but her powers seem more telepathic than magical) It also brings into question why these super powerful sorcerers didn’t help out when Earth was under threat before now. The Ancient One gives a handwavey explanation about them being charged with protecting Earth from more magical threats, but really would it have been that much trouble to transport yourself to New York (instantaneously) and down a few Chituari with some spells?

Some of the magical scenes are far too reminiscent of Inception, they’re done well but they don’t feel new, and nor do the trippier bits that seem to have escaped from a 1970s’ sci-fi film directed by Ken Russell. The effects are well done however.

The origin story itself is pedestrian and follows story beats we’ve seen multiple times. Training montages, corner cutting, and an eventual showdown with the villain before the hero is remotely ready—thankfully once Dr Strange properly becomes Doctor Strange the film does get better. There are some nice fight scenes and, best of all, a finale that plays on Strange’s intellect for a resolution rather than him simply hitting things. That really made a pleasant change. But for far too longer early doors you might as well be watching Iron man. Arrogant genius with facial hair who suffers tragedy and in an attempt to rebuild himself finds the hero inside himself, albeit still a somewhat snarky hero? Check! Really the only difference is that Strange has a cape and magic rather than power armour.

What rises the film up from just being mundane (apart from the originality of the ending) is the casting. Cumberbatch is great. Yes he might be doing a variation on Sherlock, but whilst Strange is arrogant and sarcastic, he’s far less advanced along the autistic spectrum than Holmes. Cumberbatch’s American accent takes a little getting used to, but pretty soon you hardly notice, and he plays the various iterations of Strange well. The hubristic genius, the broken, desperate man, the smart alec apprentice and the honest to goodness hero, and whilst Strange might still be arrogant at the end, he does come across as a better person into the bargain, though I suppose you could argue that his potential sacrifice might be the ultimate display of arrogance rather than the ultimate selfish act, but that uncertainty definitely adds to the film.

Swinton is great as the Ancient One, and despite claims of whitewashing you can see the benefit of this take on the wise old mentor as opposed to a far more clichéd Mr Miyagi style venerable one. There’s something genuinely ethereal about Swinton, even before you shave her head, and she plays the complexities of the character with great subtlety.

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Bloody fancy dress marathon runners!

 

Ejiofor’s one of those actors who couldn’t give a bad performance if he tried, and similarly Mikkelsen is a consistently strong presence in anything he does, even if Kaecilius isn’t the most three dimensional of characters. Have I mentioned how much fun Benedict Wong is? And kudos for the filmmakers taking the clichéd manservant Wong is in the comics and giving him a broader and more equal role.

The only person who loses out is McAdams. She’s a great actress but, much like Portman in the Thor films, she’s lumbered with being the love interest whose main role is to keep the hero grounded. She plays the part well, you just know she could do so much more, but sadly the nature of a predominantly male heroic pantheon is against her. Hopefully she’ll get more to do in upcoming films.

And clearly we’ll be seeing Strange again, the two post credits sequences imply Cumberbatch will be back at least twice, and I recommend you stay right to the end, even after you’ve seen the mid credits sequence where a familiar face shows up.

The direction and script are solid if uninspiring, and the effects are very good, again though I think I’m tiring of cgi, and though it’s strange to say given what else we’ve seen in the Marvel universe, but a lot of the magical stuff just felt too preposterous.

Still it’s funny, action packed with some nice fight scenes, and the cast are uniformly excellent, so now Cumberbatch is Doctor Strange I’m quite looking forward to seeing him again.

Pardon the excruciating pun but it’s a Strange film to quantify, and I think it might take a second viewing before I can decide whether it’s just a bit average, or whether there’s more to it than meets the eye (of Agamotto).

 

Nod

Posted: November 2, 2016 in Book reviews, Post-Apocalyptic
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By Adrian Barnes

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One night, out of the blue, the majority of the population lose the ability to sleep. As the days without sleep pass people begin to undergo mental and physical breakdown that will see most dead within a few weeks, but long before then any semblance of civilisation will have been eroded as insanity becomes mankind’s default setting.

In Vancouver Paul is one of the few people left who can sleep. As his girlfriend Tanya becomes increasingly unhinged by permanent insomnia Paul sleeps soundly and dreams golden dreams. As the days pass Paul, a somewhat misanthropic etymologist, struggles to survive and documents the end of the world.

 

This book lured me in on two levels. Firstly as anyone who knows me will attest, I love a good post-apocalyptic story, but secondly as someone who at times has trouble sleeping, the notion of apocalypse by insomnia was especially intriguing.

And the first thing to do is to give Barnes props for originality. Sleep is something we all take for granted, but as anyone who’s ever experienced just a couple of night’s interrupted sleep in a row will tell you, the lack of sleep is not pleasant. In a world full of apocalyptic fiction it’s always nice to see something other than zombies/nuclear war/pandemics/alien invasion as the reason behind the fall of humanity.

The trouble is that Barnes’ apocalypse quickly comes to resemble all those others. The cause might be different but the symptoms are all the same. So we get roving bands of crazed psychos, people fighting over food, charismatic individuals creating their own cults, unscrupulous soldiers and scientists and…well you get the picture.  What sets Nod apart from other similar books is something that might be a breath of fresh air, or which you might find infuriating, because it’s a more literary take on the end of the world. It’s told in the first person from Paul’s perspective, and as he is an intelligent man prone to philosophising (plus an etymologist who knows all manner of old words) it might come across as pretentious and rambling, and I have to say I lean more towards this camp.

It might have helped if Paul was more sympathetic, but as already stated he’s something of a misanthrope. The notion of someone who doesn’t like people yearning for company at the end of the world could have been intriguing, but instead Paul just seems so dispassionate about the whole thing. Other characters don’t fare much better. We don’t get to know much about Tanya before she falls apart, so whilst her mental disintegration is quite horrific, it doesn’t quite hit home as much as it might have done if we knew the person she was better, as it is what we’re left with is something of a clichéd female character which is a shame. The only other major character is Charles, who isn’t remotely sympathetic, but is at least interesting, initially at least. As a vagrant already living outside of society, he adapts better than most to the new, sleepless world, even if pretty soon he’s just A.N. Other cult/gang leader.

Plot wise the book starts strong but gets weaker and weaker as it goes a long until it limps to a conclusion. Perhaps this was intentional to provide a mirror to the collapse of society, but if this was the case it doesn’t make for a great read. I don’t think a story has to be explained, but Nod takes vagueness to a whole new level, to the point where people don’t even seem to hypothesise about why the majority stopped sleeping, let alone why there are still Sleepers, why they have golden dreams, and who so many children continue to sleep but have become mute. Paul encounters a group he refers to as Cat Sleepers, people who feign sleep, pretending they’re ok. There’s vague allusions to them experimenting on the child sleepers, but this plot point is quickly jettisoned, and there’s a meander against time to prevent nuclear meltdown that makes most damp squibs seem exciting.

I wouldn’t say I hated it, and in fact it would feel kind of mean to say that given the novel is bookended by an essay from the author detailing his likely terminal brain cancer, but I can’t in good conscience say I loved it. It has the feel of a book written by someone eager to let you know how clever he is, which is of course quite annoying.  If you find the premise intriguing then by all means take a punt, just be prepared for the latter half of the novel not to live up to that premise, which is a shame as it really is a knockout premise, it’s just saddled with a mundane execution. It won’t exactly send you to sleep, but it won’t keep you awake at night with excitement either.