Anno Dominus

October 1995 saw the appearance of what may yet turn out to be the defining work of 21st Century science fiction.

Written and directed by Hideaki Anno 新世紀エヴァンゲリオ is an animated TV series that ran for 26 episodes and birthed one of the most enduring and successful franchises in the history of anime. Released in the west under the nebulously evocative title of Neon Genesis Evangelion, the series’ original title can be literally translated as “Gospel of a New Century”.

Gospels are useful things to bear in mind when approaching the Evangelion franchise as Eva is not just a TV series but a series of more-or-less consistent works that more-or-less rework the events and themes contained within the original TV series. Given that Eva is a hugely commercially and massively commoditised trans-media franchise, it is tempting to view these later films in the same way as we might view the similar properties that have emerged from Hollywood over the last ten years. Concepts like ‘remake’, ‘reboot’ and ‘reimagining’ might be useful in trying to understand the relationship between different Batman  and Star Trek films but the Eva properties are far more personal and so the relationship between them is a lot closer to that between the various Christian gospels.

While the gospels may share a setting, a cast of characters, and a message to convey, they do not necessarily line up in terms of narrative and character detail. For example, the book of Matthew claims that the Resurrection was reported by women while the book of Mark suggests that they kept the fact to themselves. More substantially, the book of Mark presents Jesus as a conduit for information about the world to come while the book of John treats Jesus as a spiritual teacher whose example we are expected to follow. Theologians may well argue that the various gospels are consistent as long as you squint a bit and deliberately misinterpret things but another way of accounting for the inconsistencies is to view the different gospels as different and more-or-less successful attempts to articulate a single divinely-inspired vision. Anno’s desire to articulate his vision has taken over twenty years and resulted in four broadly different iterations of the same basic story.

It is tempting to explore the differences between the various iterations of the Evangelion story but that would require me to write a much longer article. Suffice it to say that people who are interested in getting to grips with Eva are advised to start with the most recent run of films. The original TV series and Evangelion: Death and Rebirth are also worth checking out but they are considerably harder to find and End of Evangelion is really just an expanded and reworked version of the events described in Rebirth meaning that it will make little sense to anyone not already familiar with the themes and characters.

I’ve not written anything about Eva before but the recent UK release of Evangelion: 3.33 struck me as an interesting place to start as the current iteration of the story — the so-called Rebuild of Evangelion tetralogy — is now several years behind schedule and growing ever-more opaque with each additional volume. In fact, the development problems are so severe that Western home releases of the film were delayed by two whole years amidst rumours of demanded re-translations and re-dubbings. At time of writing, it is not clear to me that Rebuild of Evangelion will be any more successful or definitive than previous articulations of Anno’s vision but the incomplete vision we have is already more arresting and mind-blowing than any Western science fiction film in recent memory.

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Top of the Lake (2014) – #NoDads #NoMums #NoDrama

Funded by the BBC and directed by the only woman to win a Cannes Palme D’Or in the modern era, Jane Campion’s miniseries Top of the Lake is a complete dramatic failure. Beautiful to look at thanks to its New Zealand location, the series follows a detective’s attempts to locate a 12-year-old girl who goes missing after it is discovered that she is five months pregnant.

What makes this series a failure is foreground stuff like plot and character; things which we are encouraged to see as being the entire point of film and TV dramas. The plot does not work as it is poorly written and poorly paced. Having introduced us to the figure of a young girl who has manifestly been raped, the series forgets her existence for two or three episodes before suddenly remembering that finding the girl and revealing the identity of her rapist is the over-arching narrative that is supposed to provide this baggy and ill-disciplined mess with the illusion of structure. Having placed their main plot on the back burner, the writers set about weighting down the characters with an overabundance of backstory that serves only to let the writers off the hook when they decide to write themselves out of trouble by having one of their characters behave in an entirely irrational and uncharacteristic fashion: Need a ruthless patriarch and criminal mastermind to get outwitted by a terrified child? Well… it turns out that he has mummy issues and family-related plot point X caused him to have a convenient mental breakdown. Need an incredibly professional police officer to randomly shoot someone? Well… it turns out that she’s not only a rape survivor but also someone dealing with the aftermath of grief and other incest-related problems.

The novelist E.M. Forster distinguished between flat and rounded characters on the basis that rounded characters are intrinsically knowable. They seem real to us because the author shows how one event triggers an internal change that results in different behaviour patterns. According to Forster, we cannot ever really understand real people but we can understand a rounded character and see not only the different aspects of their personality but also how those different aspects interact and propel the character along a particular course of action. The characters in Top of the Lake are like planets in that they are so painstakingly rounded that they appear completely flat. Campion and her co-writer Gerard Lee provide their characters with so much traumatic backstory that they become unknowable; their melodramatic irrationality so pronounced that they are just as likely to save the day, as they are to put guns in their mouths. Unknowable and unaccountable, they are pools of unreasoning expediency that flow wherever the plot demands. Even with the best will in the world, it is impossible to relate to such creations… they are too convenient to be real.

While the main plotline of Top of the Lake may be dull and its main characters completely devoid of interest, the series does take place in an absolutely fascinating world, one that highlights the problematic aspects of gender and our perpetual need for some notional adult to come along and sort out our problems. Though Top of the Lake may not work as a police procedural, it does stumble across some fascinating ideas.

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REVIEW – The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

TDoSFilmJuice have my review of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, a film that rivals Iron Man 2 and Man of Steel for the title of Worst Film Ever Made.

Peter Jackson is a terrible loss to the special effects profession and a terrible addition to that of professional film direction. Right from the start, his films have been filled with technical excellence and entirely devoid of artistic merit. The flaw in Jackson’s approach to direction is most evident when you consider his adaptations of existing works:Regardless of whether we are talking about Lord of the Rings, King Kong or The Lovely Bones, the involvement of Peter Jackson means that the resulting film will invariably be worse than the source material.

  • King Kong took a very simple and elegant story and expanded it into a 187 minute-long monstrosity in which the elegance and drama of the original were entirely lost.
  • Lord of the Rings bent over backwards to put as much of the books on screen as possible but whenever Jackson was called upon to make an interpretative leap, his interpretations were invariably less interesting and more prosaic than those of conventional understanding.
  • The Lovely Bones made the most of Jackson’s mastery of visual effects to create an impressive vision of the afterlife but Jackson’s interpretation of the book mislaid the original horror and settled instead for a jarring combination of brutal violence and horrific sentimentality.

Jackson’s interpretation of The Hobbit is plagued by these exact same mistakes:

  • A short children’s book has been expanded into three over-long films thanks to tedious CGI action sequences that unbalance the plot and submerge the original drama.
  • Every time that Jackson is called upon to make an interpretative leap, his interpretations tend to be less interesting, more prosaic and prone to moving the film into the realm of fantasy cliche.
  • Having decided to transform a whimsical children’s story into a portentous epic, Jackson struggles with tone and so veers between horrific violence, grinding sentimentality and childish comedy.

My review of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug focuses on two particular areas: The paucity of the writing and the intense ugliness of the visuals.

Of the writing I say:

Given that The Desolation of Smaug contains much less of The Hobbit than its predecessor, the joins between source and additional materials are far less noticeable. However, while this frees us from the first film’s bizarre tone changes, it does mean that the film comes to be dominated by an array of characters and sub-plots who owe a good deal less to Tolkien’s brilliance than they do to Peter Jackson’s fondness for fantasy clichés. The additional plotlines are not only thin and crippled with incredibly cheesy dialogue, they also feature a grand total of three lank-haired white dudes with soulful eyes, tragic backgrounds and a need for redemption when even one would have been too many. With so many unconnected characters and plotlines to follow, the film haemorrhages thematic focus and dramatic energy and so keeps relying on orc attacks to jump-start the plot and keep things moving.

Of the look of the film I say:

The root of the problem lies in the first film’s revelation that traditional sets, effects and make-up tend to look absolutely terrible when shot at 48 frames-per-second. In an effort to stop his film from looking like something shot between takes with an old-fashioned camcorder, Jackson has taken to replacing sets and actors with CGI backgrounds and figures. When a scene cannot be done entirely in CGI, Jackson limits himself to superimposing CGI over the sets and actors in an effort to make them look less real and so provide a more even distribution of unreality. What this means in practice is that all the actors wind up with enormous bulbous noses but at least it doesn’t look like they’re being interviewed on the set. The real problem occurs when Jackson switches entirely to CGI and creates the kinds of figures and landscapes that only exist in videogames. Lacking the weight and reality of actors and practical effects, the CGI character bounce around the screen in a manner all to reminiscent of the Legolas sequences in the original trilogy and the monster fights in Jackson’s laughable remake of King Kong. Taken on their own and in small doses, these digital inserts are technically impressive and reasonably well choreographed but, taken in the context of an extremely long film where they are allowed to continue for upwards of twenty minutes, their cartoonish lack of realism rapidly devolves from unintentionally funny to downright excruciating.

The reason why I consider The Desolation of Smaug to be one of the worst films ever made is that I believe in grading on a curve: Whenever people talking about the WORST. FILM. EVAH. their minds turn to Ed Wood and Uwe Boll despite the fact that both men were operating with comparatively small budgets and incredibly tiny pools of talent. How many great technicians and actors would answer the call if Uwe Boll approached them about working on his latest adaptation of a shitty video game? Now how many actors and technicians would answer the call if Peter Jackson asked them to fly to New Zealand and work on an incredibly expensive production of much-beloved and hugely successful books? Works like The Desolation of Smaug, Iron Man 2 and The Man of Steel operate with virtually unlimited budgets, unlimited good will and immediate access to the best writers, actors and technicians operating in contemporary cinema. To take all of those resources and turn them into a tedious mess like Desolation of Smaug is not only an obscene waste of money, it is also a sign of true directorial incompetence.

REVIEW – Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

phantom posterFilmJuice have my review of Brian De Palma’s rock opera Phantom of the Paradise. I was not impressed.

Made in the coke-bloat years of prog rock, this musical mashes up Faust and Phantom of the Opera to produce a weirdy-beardy story about a composer who is lured into cooperating with a sinister record producer only for the sinister record producer to betray him, steal his music, get him thrown in jail and eventually try to wall him up in a room in his enormous house. Visually, the film is extraordinary as De Palma makes great use of then-emerging video editing technologies to produce all kinds of split-screen and other effects. My problem was with every other aspect of the film:

Originally a dutiful student of the French New Wave, Brian De Palma soon migrated towards populist films with a hint of artificiality: Carrie and The Fury mused over psychic powers while thrillers such as Body Double and Dressed to Kill obsessed over the appearance of female bodies before hacking them to pieces. Best known for his gangster epics Scarface, The Untouchables and Carlito’s Way, De Palma instinctively understood the swaggering pretence of the American hoodlum and how sharp suits and theatrical yelling are a neat way of masking a predator’s scent. Indeed, no film better encapsulates Brian De Palma’s strengths and weaknesses than his much-underrated reboot of the Mission: Impossible franchise: Expensive, slick and entirely populated by people pretending to be someone else, M:I is far more interested in the elegant imitation of humanity than humanity itself. True to form, De Palma’s early rock opera Phantom of the Paradise is obsessed with masks, illusions and pastiches but offers nothing in the way of emotional reality.

As a satire of the music industry, this is pretty toothless stuff not least because while De Palma is quick to point fingers at the excesses of the prog rock era, his proposed solution to the excess is an operatic rock ‘cantata’ based on the legend of Faust. As I said in my review, this is precisely the kind of portentous rubbish that punk set out to destroy and it’s very difficult for a satire to function when the ‘disease’ and ‘cure’ seem equally bad.

The more pressing problem is that the music is almost entirely hideous. Written and mostly performed by the jowly-voiced Paul Williams (of Bugsy Malone fame) this supposed ‘rock opera’ is neither musically complex enough to be operatic nor raw enough to be rock. In effect, this is pompous music theatre with additional cod-pieces. The pastiches are mildly interesting as they do sound quite a bit like the bands they’re supposed to be pastiches of but the songs themselves are neither satirical nor particularly memorable meaning that this vicious attack on soulless nostalgia is itself nothing more an exercise in soulless nostalgia. Watching this, I couldn’t stop thinking about the Dead Kennedys’s “M.T.V. – Get off the air”.

This film has evidently acquired something of a cult following as the re-release comes with a selection of interviews and extras that seems wildly out of proportion with a flabby and emotionally hollow rock opera from the 1970s. However, as is often the case in these types of situations, the interviews unwittingly reveal quite a bit about the flaws in the production process as much like the Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa DVD revealed Steve Coogan’s willingness to work without a finished script and openly countermand the wishes of the director, the interviews included on the DVD reveal Paul Williams to be just as egomaniacal and unsettling as his onscreen counterpart.

REVIEW – Ender’s Game (2013)

endsgameVideovista has my review of Gavin Hood’s cinematic adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s sinister science fiction novel Ender’s Game.

Quite possibly the single most commercially successful science fiction novel of all time, Ender’s Game tells the story of a gifted child who is groomed, recruited and trained to become the military commander who will defend Earth against an imminent and unavoidable attack by a race of inscrutable ant-like aliens known as the Formics (the novel’s ambiguously homophobic term ‘buggers’ having been dropped from the film due to the negative press surrounding Card’s activities as an anti-LGBT spokesperson and activist). Having now watched the film and re-read the novel, I am struck by the fact that Ender’s Game sits rather uncomfortably between two different stools:

On the one hand, the story (originally published as a novella in Analog) is a throwback to the golden age of science fiction where genocidal space captains were not seen as particularly problematic characters. This aspect of the novel sits squarely in the foreground and is obvious from the fact that much of the novel’s enduring appeal lies in the fact that it is one enormous Geek power fantasy about a super-smart kid who beats the shit out of his bullies, gets all the cool friends and saves the day despite being misunderstood and persecuted.

On the other hand, the story is painfully aware of the literary turn of 1960s science fiction and so tries to reflect the fact that you can no longer get away with writing a novel about a genocidal space commander without acknowledging the fact that genocide is bad (Mm’kay?) and that characters need to be well-rounded individuals with internal conflicts to resolve. This aspect of the novel is evident not only in Ender’s undirected and largely uncritical angst but also in the way that the book tries to have its cake and eat it too by building towards a climactic battle only to then suggest that climactic battles aren’t necessarily a good idea.

The tension between these sets of literary values not only explains why the more recent Ender’s Shadow (a retelling of the book from the perspective of Ender’s psychopathic and entirely angst-free sidekick Bean) is a far superior novel, it also explains why Ender’s Game is such a deeply problematic work of fiction. Had Ender’s Game embraced its golden age roots and been about a heroic kiddy space captain then it would have been nothing more than your standard piece of reactionary escapist SF fluff and had Ender’s Game been about the morally problematic aspects of military service then it would have been a pretty good revisionist MilSF novel comparable to Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War. However, by trying to write within two politically incompatible literary traditions, Card effectively wound up creating a novel that emphasises all the worst aspects of traditional science fiction.

I don’t like the politics of Ender’s Game and I don’t like the politics of this film:

The problem is not that Ender’s Game is a power fantasy wrapped in a persecution complex and fired into the faces of unsuspecting children, the problem is that this film sends a message that the only rational and intelligent response to feelings of alienation, betrayal and confusion is to conform to the demands of the institutions that caused those negative feelings in the first place. Ender’s Game is not content with telling us that there is no alternative to a life of selfish brutality, it goes out of its way to present that life as sane, heroic and oh so very clever. Gavin Hood’s film is well made and elegant to look at, as beautiful as a $110 million advert for fascism could ever hope to be.

I’m not the first person to have this reaction:

  • Elaine Radford wrote an essay entitled “Ender and Hitler: Sympathy for the Superman” in which she points out a number of moral and biographical similarities between the two genocides.
  • John Kessel wrote an essay entitled “Creating the Innocent Killer: Ender’s Game, Intention and Morality” in which he points out the problematic nature of Card’s moral system.

But I don’t think I’ve seen anyone else point out that the book is not only fascistic but also incredibly derivative as it is essentially a re-skinning of Tom Godwin’s short story “The Cold Equations”. I outline the similarities between the two texts at some length in my review but the similarities are even more striking when you read the original “Ender’s Game” novelette, which was published in 1977 in the same magazine that originally published “The Cold Equations”.

PS Not long after uploading this, I came across a recent Cory Doctorow column from Locus magazine that essentially makes the exact same point about the artificiality of TINA and how Godwin creates a particular moral scenario and then expunges all blame and concepts of moral responsibility by willfully confusing the political laws governing the pilot’s society with the laws of nature. Given that it’s written by Cory Doctorow, the piece is significantly better written than mine and makes the connection I somehow missed with the concept of moral hazard:

The parameters of ‘‘The Cold Equations’’ are not the inescapable laws of physics. Zoom out beyond the page’s edges and you’ll find the author’s hands carefully arranging the scenery so that the plague, the world, the fuel, the girl and the pilot are all poised to inevitably lead to her execution. The author, not the girl, decided that there was no autopilot that could land the ship without the pilot. The author decided that the plague was fatal to all concerned, and that the vaccine needed to be delivered within a timeframe that could only be attained through the execution of the stowaway.

It is, then, a contrivance. A circumstance engineered for a justifiable murder. An elaborate shell game that makes the poor pilot – and the company he serves – into victims every bit as much as the dead girl is a victim, forced by circumstance and girlish naïveté to stain their souls with murder.

Moral hazard is the economist’s term for a rule that encourages people to behave badly. For example, a rule that says that you’re not liable for your factory’s pollution if you don’t know about it encourages factory owners to totally ignore their effluent pipes – it turns willful ignorance into a profitable strategy.

He then goes on to talk about the moral horrors of a Robert Heinlein story and I am reminded, yet again of that author’s toxic influence on the history of science fiction.

REVIEW – The Killers (1964)

The-Killers-Blu-rayFilmJuice have my review of Don Siegel’s The Killers, an awesome character-based crime thriller starring Lee Marvin, John Cassavetes and Ronald Reagan.

Based on a short story by Ernest Hemmingway and originally made for American television, The Killers poses the question as to why someone would refuse to run when confronted by two men who had been sent to kill him. Unlike the original short story (which is minimalist to the point of being nothing but negative conceptual space), Don Siegel’s adaptation functions as a kind of therapeutic process that buries into the past of a murder victim and tries to make sense of the decisions that lead him all the way to that refusal to run.

It is difficult to watch The Killers without becoming a tiny bit obsessed with Marvin’s performance. A former marine and infamous drunk, Marvin spent the 1960s carving out a reputation as a cinematic tough guy. What made him so special is that, unlike most of his contemporaries who depicted violence as an unpleasant but occasionally necessary part of a heroic vocation, Marvin let the spirit of violence seep into his bones and tried to depict it with as much realism as possible. Fifty years on and Marvin’s interrogation of the blind receptionist is still incredibly difficult to watch… it is too real and too unapologetically sadistic. Brilliantly, Siegel embraces the visceral character of the opening scene and uses it to set the tone for the entire film; The Killers is not just about hooking up with the wrong woman, it is also about the huge psychological cost of violence and how the threat of violence can grind you down, wear you out and drive you to acts of madness in a bid to escape. The solution to Hemmingway’s question is contained in the look of terror on that blind receptionist’s face.

In the few weeks since I wrote the review, the thing that has remained with me is the threat of violence. Most thrillers wear their violence and law-breaking on their sleeves and derive most of their tension from the idea that violence and law-breaking might be deployed unsuccessfully: Will the heist fail? Will the hero walk away from the gun-fight? The Killers is very different in this respect as all of the film’s tension comes from the threat of violence. Though much of this threat is down to the film’s astonishing opening sequence, I have now come to realise that Marvin’s presence in the film would not have been half as effective if it hadn’t been juxtaposed against that of the wonderfully nervy and unconstrained Cassavetes. Done up in pitch-black shades and a steely-grey suit, Marvin broadcasts the same violent nihilism that followed him from film to film and made his career. Cassavetes, on the other hand, hides absolutely nothing: When he’s a race-winning driver, he swaggers. When he’s in love, he floats. When he’s afraid, he can’t keep still. The Killers is an incredibly tense film because we can see the fear of violence in every move Cassavetes makes. Brilliant.

Aesthetic Authenticity and Not Being a Good Cultural Citizen

To say that humans are fond of self-delusion would be something of an understatement. Lacking the sort of all-encompassing social meta-narrative that delivers us a pre-packaged sense of place and identity, many of us choose to define ourselves through what we do. Some of us sing, some of us paint, some of us write and some of us have anonymous sex with multiple partners. We define ourselves not merely by doing these things but through a process of emotional investment whereby how well we are doing as individuals becomes intimately tied to how well we are doing at a particular activity.  This process of emotional investment offers us some respite from the postmodern condition but it is also a minefield of self-delusion.

The more commonly travelled path to self-delusion involves becoming so emotionally invested in your undertakings that you become blind to your own inadequacies. This generally results in a hideous Catch-22 whereby people are doomed to mediocrity by their unwillingness to recognise the areas that would benefit from more work. The more areas of human undertaking I rub up against, the more I become convinced that this sort of thinking is endemic to the human condition. We all like to think of ourselves as special snowflakes and snowflakes tend not to fare too well in the baking heat of self-doubt. This, however, is not the sort of self-delusion that I want to write about today.  I want to write about the need to be a good cultural citizen and to, as Dan Kois put it in a piece for the New York Times, “Eat Your Cultural Vegetables”.

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Some Thoughts On… A Lonely Place To Die (2011)

Back in 2007, Julian Gilbey co-wrote and directed a film entitled Rise of the Footsoldier.  Boasting some execrable cockney dialogue, vast amounts of violence and an intent to glamorise football hooliganism that was as morally repugnant as it was artistically derivative, Rise of the Footsoldier sank rapidly, leaving behind it only a greasy slick of DVDs that clogged up the ‘3 for £10’ aisle for months on end. Four years later and Julian Gilbey returns with his co-writer Will Gilbey to offer us a film that is just as violent and unpleasant as Rise of the Footsoldier but which somehow manages to work.  A Lonely Place to Die is a lean and misanthropic action thriller that warns middle-class thrill seekers to be careful what they wish for.

Dateline Scotland where Eagles soar over rocky mountainsides of almost unbearable beauty.  As the camera swoops past outcrops and peaks, we suddenly see a series of coloured fleeces picked out against the barren greyness of the Scottish peaks.  These fleeces belong to three friends on a climbing holiday.  Well… I say friends but the tensions within the group are obvious from the get-go as Alison (Melissa George) scolds Ed (Ed Speleers) for his lack of focus while experienced climber Rob (Alec Newman) rolls his eyes at the couple’s bickering.  A potentially fatal fall narrowly averted, the group trudge back to a nearby cottage where they meet up with another couple and spend the evening getting drunk.  Unlike many films that attempt to stress the camaraderie of the protagonists, A Lonely Place To Die makes it abundantly clear that these people hate each other.  They not only hate each other but they tease and antagonise each other to the point of nearly coming to blows.  “I’d rather eat my own shit” harrumphs Ed when he is handed a fish-based sarnie after a morning’s hiking. This is a group that is tired, bored and spoiling for a bit of adventure.  Needless to say, their wish is granted.

As the group make their way through a forest, a noise is carried to them on the wind.  Is it an animal in pain? Is it a human voice? Spreading out to search, the group soon discover a pipe sticking out of the ground leading to a box that contains a young girl. Clearly, she has been buried alive… but by whom? Squabbling as they go, the group split up with the more experienced climbers taking the direct route to civilisation while the others move more slowly across country with the girl.

Forced out of comfort zone, the climbers are forced to climb fast and hard.  Gilbey’s camera spins around and plays up the sense of vertigo as Alison and Ed hang on for dear life.  However, after a nasty fall and an inexplicable rockslide, it soon becomes clear that the pair are not alone.  Someone out there is after them.

In a slick move, Gilbey holds off introducing us to the villains of the piece, choosing instead to play up the sense of oppressive paranoia gripping both sets of climbers as they move across the brutal Scottish hillside. With the identities and motivations of the kidnappers still unclear, Gilbey introduces us first to a pair of hunters and then a carload of heavies who both seem to be involved in the kidnapping in some way.  However, in the first of a series of reversals, Gilbey rapidly pulls the rug from beneath our understanding of the situation as people slowly reveal not only their true motivations but also their true character. People you would expect to be immoral speak of the need for trust while people that seem good and upstanding are revealed to be cold and calculating mercenaries.

By the time the group has made it back to civilisation, there are three different groups in play.  All of them desperate and all of them ready to kill in order to get whatever they want.  Here, the film transitions from paranoid thriller to all-out action as the three groups go to war in a small Scottish town in the midst of a spectacular street carnival populated by flame-wielding demons and strange naked figures.  As flames belch into the sky and fireworks detonate above the village, the three groups go to war, filling the streets of the Scottish town with blood and bullets in a series of well-conceived and exquisitely directed gun-fights that easily rival the climbing set-pieces from earlier in the film.

In his book The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood (2004), the film critic David Thomson speaks of the role of Californian light in helping to establish the American film industry.  Indeed, by building their studios in Los Angeles, executives were able to tap into a free natural resource that would have cost them an absolute fortune to artificially replicate.  Because of the climate and because of the environment, films made in Hollywood just flat out looked better than films made elsewhere. While there is previous light to be had in the Scottish Highlands, Gilbey’s film benefits hugely from the awe-inspiring natural beauty of its mountain backdrop.  From the opening frames, A Lonely Place to Die is a film that looks absolutely stunning.  Even when the action moves to the town, Gilbey makes brilliant use of a Scottish Winter Fire Festival to create a bizarre world of flickering firelight and sinister figures.  Add to this some beautifully devised set-pieces, some neat structural tricks, some clever use of camera filters and an absolutely flawless feel for pacing and what you have is one of the best-directed action thrillers I have seen in a long time.  Based upon A Lonely Place to Die, I would put Gilbey in the same bracket as the Frenchman Fred Cavaye whose Anything for Her (2008) recently received a Hollywood remake and whose Point Blank (2010) confirmed his status as one of the best thriller directors working at the moment.

For all of its technical accomplishment, A Lonely Place to Die does suffer from a regrettable lack of interiority.  Gilbey introduces us to characters and plays games with our attitudes towards them but at no point does any of this game-playing really result in anything that I would call a dramatic arc; the story is that there’s a group of climbers and a kidnapped girl and people are chasing them… there is no sub-text, there is no emotional core, there are no character arcs… there’s just lots of chasing, lots of excitement, lots of people falling off of things, getting shot and being blown up but nothing really beyond that.  Were A Lonely Place to Die any less technically impressive as a piece of action cinema, this lack of dramatic interiority would be a terrible problem but with pacing this good and spectacle this well constructed, I am inclined to forgive Gilbey and Gilbey their somewhat lightweight plot, particularly as the characters are well-defined and well served for dialogue despite their lack of dramatic ‘movement’. Had maybe a scene or two been devoted to giving this film some sort of ‘message’ then I would be hailing A Lonely Place to Die as one of the best films I have seen so far this year but, because of the lack of substance, I am reduced to saying that this is one of the best thrillers I have seen this year and that is still something.  A Lonely Place to Die has appeared at a couple of festivals and is slated (according to IMDb) for an autumn release, this release may be theatrical or it may be on DVD but either way, it is a film that deserves to find an audience. I would be intrigued to know what Gilbey could accomplish with a really good script behind him.


On Why I Hate Those Orange Film Adverts

Way back in the mists of time, the British mobile phone carrier Orange came up with quite a neat idea for an advertising campaign that reacted to a genuine public sentiment in a way that was not only funny but also a really intelligent piece of marketing.

In Britain, adverts for products typically appear prior to the trailers thereby forming a kind of de facto ‘buffer zone’ between the film’s advertised screening time and the point at which the film actually begins.  Because nobody wants to watch adverts when they’ve just paid over £10 for the use of a chair for a couple of hours.  Reacting to a sudden epidemic of texting and people talking on their phones during cinema screenings, Orange pitched a series of adverts to cinema chains that effectively allowed them to place an advert for phones in-between the trailers and the actual film, thereby reaching all of the people possessing the sense to not pay for the privilege of watching adverts.

The original idea was simple and effective: A series of actors and filmmakers approach the fictional ‘Orange Film Board’ in an effort to secure funding for their pet project.  However, rather than funding the projects, the good people at Orange start to suggest ways in which adverts for phones could be crudely squeezed into the film.  The moral? Don’t let mobile phones spoil your film and turn off your phone.  Boasting a very funny regular cast, some decent scripts and some great cameos, the adverts were a success and they made Orange look good for being willing to make fun of themselves whilst making a point about anti-social use of mobile phones.

Fast forward a few years and the original chairman of the board drops out of the adverts only to be replaced by a markedly less funny doppelganger.  Gradually, as the campaign grew longer in the tooth, the quality of the scripts started to decline as the adverts stopped being about great potential films ruined and started to be about terrible made-up films built around mobile phone gadgets.  It wasn’t long before the campaign changed again and the Orange Film Board was replaced by actors from real upcoming films fighting fictional battles with Orange to protect the integrity of their films.  This poses a number of problems that were not present in the original campaign:


Firstly, there is a world of difference between casting oneself as the villain who wants to spoil a potentially great fictional film and the villain who is trying to spoil a real film.  Once the film actually exists, you’re not laughing at the movie business, you’re laughing with it and that makes you smug rather than satirical.

 Secondly, there is a world of difference between casting oneself as the villain who wants to spoil a potentially great fictional film and the villain who has spoiled an incredibly shit real film.  I care about the late Roy Scheider trying to make a black-and-white noir thriller; I don’t care about whether or not someone spoils The A-Team or Gulliver’s Travels.  Those films are shit anyway.

 Thirdly, there is a world of difference between casting oneself as the villain who wants to spoil a potentially great fictional film and the villain who is spoiling a real film, as, by including a real film, you are actually engaging in a form of product placement, something that actually does harm films. It is difficult to sell the message that you shouldn’t let a mobile phone ruin your film when your advert is an example of mobile phones ruining a film through crass product placement and the co-opting of characters, actors and filmmakers for commercial ends.

In conclusion? I hate the Orange film adverts and wish with all of my heart that they would fuck off and die.

Yes, this problem is exacerbated by the fact that I habitually go to the cinema two or three times a week but I never used to hate the Orange adverts and now every time I see them, part of me wants to die but only after I have stabbed the idiots who continue to laugh at the fucking things.

I understand that these adverts help Orange shovel money at films and so help films to be made and distributed but the films that Orange uses in its adverts were (by and large) never going to struggle to get distribution anyway.  The A-Team is not some tiny indie film but a multi-million dollar Blockbuster that gets released on hundreds of screens and so, by featuring them in the adverts, Orange are just selling phones and helping Hollywood to line its already bulging pockets.  So, again, I say that these Orange adverts need to fuck off.  I hate the Orange mobile phone adverts and I wish that they would stop.

‘Ah,’ you say ‘but if Orange were to pull their campaign… how would punters get the message that they shouldn’t use their phones during the screening?’ Simple… you get your ushers to kick people out when they do and, if they complain, you do what the Alamo Drafthouse does: Take their not particularly articulate complaints and turn them into a meme.

I watch this advert and I want to give my money to the Alamo Drafthouse (who are reportedly a rather splendid chain of rep cinemas that do all kinds of seasons and interesting one-off screenings) and when I watch the Orange phone adverts, I want to firebomb their smug corporate offices. Fuck Orange, Remember the Alamo and long live the Magnited States of America!

Love Like Poison (2010) – No Escaping Christ’s Lustful Gaze

Perhaps the most depressing things about the financial crisis is that as banks collapsed, governments groaned and the wheels of global capitalism ground momentarily to a halt, nobody stepped forward with an alternative to the current system. For a moment there, the world might have changed and a new system might have been built but instead of forging a new world, governments took money away from poor people and threw it at the rich in the hope that they would return to doing whatever it is that they were doing before the global economy went tits up. This was a failure of the imagination not only on the part of governments but also on the part of political activists and theorists the world over. As global capitalism teetered, stumbled and nearly fell, Margaret Thatcher was proved right: There Is No Alternative.

The idea that there is simply no viable alternative to market capitalism and (more or less) liberal democracy is the most potent defence of the status quo imaginable. Thanks to thinkers such as Francis Fukuyama arguing that we have reached the end of history, alternatives to neoliberalism are strangled at birth. As citizens of liberal democracies, we have certain political options open to us but none of these options are radical because radical options are not viable alternatives.  And thus we are free and yet everywhere in chains…

Un Poison Violent, the first feature film by Breton director Katell Quillévéré, is an exploration of the nature of female self-determination in a world where men impose their own limits on what is and is not an acceptable mode of being. Whether in Church or a teenaged bedroom, nowhere can women escape the merciless glare of the male gaze.

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