Da 5 Bloods
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I May Destroy You
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An aesthetic showcase that's uninterested in human beings (and what does Christopher Nolan have against decent sound mixing?)
In Tenet, Christopher Nolan is again examining the vagaries of time, a theme that's front and centre in much of his previous work. It's undeniably fascinating to see a tent pole Hollywood production engaging with issues such as entropy, thermodynamics, reversibility and irreversibility, the grandfather paradox, and T-symmetry, but the film's main problems are more fundamental, existing almost entirely at a structural level (although some of the performances don't help, nor does the abysmal sound mixing). It looks incredible and the practical effects in the action scenes are extraordinary, but there's nothing of note under the shiny veneer. It's a film with no interest in human beings.
The plot is straightforward in outline. We follow a CIA operative known as The Protagonist (John David Washington) as he is recruited into an ultra-secret international espionage squad called Tenet. His mission is simple – at some point in the future, someone has figured out how to reverse the entropy of objects, effectively being able to send them back along the timeline without having to reverse time itself. The implications of this are catastrophic and have set humanity on course for World War III, unless The Protagonist can figure out who is doing it and put a stop to their machinations.
Tenet is an event movie in every way; this 150-minute, $200m+ original idea is a massive studio tent pole written and directed by the most popular filmmaker alive. And I will say this, the budget is on the screen. No small amount of that money, of course, went on the practical effects (incredibly, there are only 280 VFX shots) – whether it be bungee-jumping onto the side of a building, a close-quarters fight where one of the combatants moves in reverse, a Boeing 747 jet crashing into a building, a highway chase where some of the cars are going forward in time and others are going backwards, or an all-out battle scene where, again, some of the soldiers travel forward whilst others move in reverse.
Along the same lines, the cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema is stunning, as he mixes 15-perf 70mm IMAX film with traditional 70mm stock and a few 35mm sequences in a manner where the shifts in aspect ratio are barely noticeable. It's the kind of film that could only exist in the medium of cinema – no other artform could even begin to approximate its aesthetic design and splendour. A celluloid purist, Nolan has always made a big stink about the artistic importance of cinema, and Tenet finds him pushing the aesthetic boundaries of what the artform can accomplish.
Unfortunately, no matter how visually unique or aesthetically impressive it may be, no amount of gloss can hide the fact that the screenplay suffers from some fundamental problems – most notably, it's bereft of emotion and populated with cardboard cut-outs that are supposed to be characters. The Protagonist isn't a person with an interiority; he's a cypher, the audience's surrogate so that Nolan can explain the plot to us. He's emotionless, void of relatable motivation, has no psychological through-line, and nothing even resembling a character arc. As for Kenneth Branagh as Russian oligarch Andrei Sator, he might be the most cliched Russian villain ever put on screen. He isn't a person – he's a collection of near-satirical tics, clichés, and elements from other, better films.
As Kat, Sator's trophy wife, Elizabeth Debicki fairs better, but her role is still poorly written. A common criticism of Nolan's filmography is that his female characters tend to be victims. I'm not saying that Nolan is obliged to write more rounded female characters. Much like Michael Mann, Nolan's films are androcentric. And there's nothing wrong with that. However, in Mann, there are strong female characters with considerable agency, whereas in Tenet, Kat is nothing more than a pawn who's defined almost entirely in terms of her role as a self-sacrificing mother.
At one point early in the film, The Protagonist is told "don't try to understand it, just feel it", which is advice that Nolan is also offering to his audience. The problem is that there's nothing to feel. Unlike Memento (which remains Nolan's best by a long way), which packed a seriously emotional gut-punch when we learn what's at the heart of the puzzle, Tenet offers us nothing more than the task of deciphering it for its own sake. There's no payoff, nothing to make us want to penetrate a story uninterested in depicting real people or real emotional stakes. More enamoured by the complexity of its own design than by any of the people contained within, it's an emotional void – all technical virtuosity and surface sheen with nothing at its core.
Never gets past the kind of introductory material you could find online
Written and directed by Ciaran Cassidy, Jihad Jane tells the stories of Colleen LaRose (the eponymous Jihad Jane) and Jamie Paulin Ramirez (Jihad Jamie), two forty-something white American women who were separately radicalised by Islamic extremists online and brought into an al-Qaeda plot to kill artist Lars Vilks. Dubbed the "new face of terrorism" by the almost comically ill-informed and sensationalist American news media, LaRose and Ramirez were ultimately revealed as two fragile and damaged women, each of whom had a history of abuse and were more interested in finding a sense of belonging than in politics. The film is a decent enough overview of the subject, but there's very little here that you can't find on Wikipedia, with Cassidy failing to engage with the more interesting sociological themes behind LaRose and Ramirez's stories.
In 2012, LaRose met a Muslim man in an elevator in Amsterdam and became interested in Islam. Watching YouTube videos of Israeli air raids on the Gaza Strip, she began to interact with a user called Black Flag, who invited her to join a jihadi chatroom, soon revealing (in unencrypted conversations) that he was the leader of an al-Qaeda cell in County Waterford in the Republic of Ireland, convincing both LaRose and Ramirez to join him. and tasking them with killing Lars Vilk, a Swedish artist who had published a series of drawings depicting Muhammad as a roundabout dog.
Jihad Jane isn't really about Islamic extremism, al-Qaeda, or even terrorism in general. Rather, it's about how radicals target damaged individuals and how easily such people can become radicalised. It also looks, rather too briefly, at the sensationalism of the American news media. Presenting an absurd scenario wherein white Americans would join al-Qaeda en masse, no one, it seems, ever stopped to ask why LaRose and Ramirez were specifically targeted – what was it in their lives that left them vulnerable to radicalisation. On this subject, Cassidy paints a picture of abuse, neglect, and a complete absence of any self-worth. That it was Islamic extremists that got to them is almost arbitrary; they could just as easily have been indoctrinated into a book club – they were vulnerable to any group that offered them a sense of belonging.
However, despite the incredible story and fascinating main players, Jihad Jane didn't really work for me. Apart from looking at LaRose and Ramirez's vulnerability, perhaps the most interesting theme in their story is the culpability of the media in fanning the fires of paranoia and promulgating the belief that without the "War of Terror", an army of white American al-Qaeda soldiers would storm the White House and establish a jihadi state in Washington, DC. Instead, the film reveals the cell in Waterford to be comically inefficient. However, Cassidy disappointingly glosses over the media's complicity, and although he does show some clip of news anchors prophesying doom, he doesn't go anywhere with it, which is a real shame, as the LaRose and Ramirez stories are tailor-made to expose the illogical grip that Islamophobia has in the US.
There are other problems as well. For example, Cassidy fails to draw much of a distinction between ordinary Muslims and Islamic fundamentalists, which is unforgivable in a documentary of this nature. He also lets Vilks off the hook during his interview. Vilks is a narcissist, an empty provocateur who seems to enjoy aggravating Muslims, but Cassidy never pushes him on why. Finally, and this is a small aesthetic thing – Cassidy leaves almost every interview hanging for a good 1-3 seconds too long; after the interviewee is finished speaking, Cassidy waits to cut away, leaving an awkward 'dead air' that really started to get on my nerves as the film progressed.
All in all, Jihad Jane will tell you little you can't find on Wikipedia or in the four-part Reuters article about LaRose. It's one of those documentaries that has no business being shown in the cinema, as it's visually bland and relies far too heavily on talking heads. I didn't hate it, and I suppose it is a decent starting point if you're interested in looking into the case in more detail, but it offers nothing beyond cursory introductory material.
Is the truth relevant in myth-making?
Based on Peter Carey's 2000 novel, written for the screen by Shaun Grant, and directed by Justin Kurzel, True History of the Kelly Gang is a film about the lies at the heart of cultural myth-making, about how every myth is a fiction, a subjective interpretation and reframing of real events. Importantly, as with the novel, True History is itself a work of fiction which invents characters and incidents, weaving such elements into what we know of the real Ned Kelly. Rugged, fierce, bleak, and exhausting, if you're looking for casual entertainment along the lines of Gregor Jordan's Ned Kelly (2003), you'll be disappointed, but if you want something complex and esoteric, you could do worse than True History.
The film takes the form of a memoir Ned Kelly (George MacKay) is writing for his daughter, so she can know the man behind the myth. Meeting him at age 12 (played by an exceptional Orlando Schwerdt), we're introduced to his mother Ellen (a ferocious Essie Davis), his drunk father John 'Red' Kelly (Gentle Ben Corbett), his two younger siblings, Sgt. O'Neill (Charlie Hunnam proving once again he can't do accents; I think he's supposed to be Welsh), and Harry Power (Russell Crowe), a notorious bushranger. Years later, the now-adult Kelly meets the hedonistic Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick (a slimy Nicolas Hoult) and the good-natured Mary Hearn (the exceptional Thomasin McKenzie), with whom he begins a relationship. However, after a disagreement with Fitzpatrick, Kelly finds himself on the run, accompanied by his friend and possible lover Joe Byrne (Sean Keenan), his brother Dan (Earl Cave), and Dan's friend Steve Hart (Louis Hewison). Recruiting young men fed up with British colonialism, Kelly forms the Kelly Gang, and as their reputation grows, the authorities determine to hunt them down at all costs.
Much of the detail in True History is fabricated, as it was in the novel. For example, Mary is a fictitious character, and as far as we know, Kelly had no children. Another fabrication is the Kelly Gang's tendency to proclaim themselves "The Sons of Sieve", a reference to an Irish secret society which Carey invented. Perhaps the most controversial fictional element concerns Kelly's sexuality. There's a strong Oedipal undertone throughout the first act, and later, Kelly is presented in a manner that suggests bisexuality. The scene where we first meet Joe, for example, sees him and Kelly playfully wrestling for a book, and later he has a conversation with a naked Fitzpatrick with unmistakable homoerotic chemistry.
The issue of lies, myth-making, and fabrication is introduced immediately, with the opening caption telling us, "nothing you are about to see is true". Subsequently, one of the first lines of dialogue is Kelly warning his daughter about people who will "confuse fiction for fact", saying that the only account she can accept as true is his own, because "every man should be the author of his own history". The irony in all of this is that in real life, Kelly never wrote such a manuscript for his daughter because he never had a daughter, thus creating more layers atop the dichotomy of calling the film "True History" and immediately asserting none of it is true.
The film falls somewhere between the two extremes of Kelly scholarship – a hero for the common man or a psychopathic murderer. Although we see his horrible childhood and years of British oppression, so to do we see the callous murder of three policemen in 1878; all unarmed, two already surrendered. The Ned Kelly seen here is a savage – he's nothing like the anti-establishment punk played by Mick Jagger in Tony Richardson's Ned Kelly (1970) nor the charming rogue played by Heath Ledger in Jordan's film – he's a violent blood-thirsty sociopath who kills because he enjoys it.
The film's greatest strength, however, is the mesmeric cinematography by Ari Wegner. She excels especially during the climactic shootout at Glenrowan - a shot of police in the dark that renders them luminescent; a confusing and claustrophobic POV shot from inside Kelly's helmet; a shot of a raging fire, the flames highlighted against the pitch-black night. It's an exceptionally beautiful scene.
In terms of problems, Hunnam's accent is hilariously bad, and the film is a little slow in places, with the narrative sagging a couple of times. And, as I already said, those expecting something in the vein of Jordan's 2003 film will be sorely disappointed.
A starkly beautiful, psychologically taxing, thematically complex film, True History acknowledges the difficulty of getting to the reality of such a widely known symbol as Ned Kelly - a process during which truth is jettisoned early. However, just how important is the truth anyway? Why not let the legend supersede fact? Does truth really matter all that much when dealing with something as significant as a national mythos?
An impressive eco-thriller that could do with more clearly delineated characters
The debut feature from writer/director Neasa Hardiman, Sea Fever examines such issues as humanity's disregard for the size of our ecological footprint, the knee-jerk argument that if something hitherto unknown can't be exploited for profit then it should be destroyed, and Mankind's utter insignificance in the face of the wonders of nature. Heavily influenced by Alien (1979), The Thing (1982), and David Cronenberg's body horror films, it could do with some refinement, especially in terms of characterisation, and the dénouement is a little anticlimactic, but Hardiman gets the atmosphere spot on, and overall, this is an impressive debut.
Siobhán (Hermione Corfield) is an all-work-and-no-play doctoral student studying marine biology who is told that she needs to get practical experience outside the lab and so her professor has organised for her to join a fishing boat - the Niamh Chinn-Óir. Owned by Freya (Connie Nielsen) and captained by her husband Gerard (Dougray Scott), the boat hasn't been doing too well recently and money is tight. However, Gerard has been tracking a huge shoal of fish and believes their luck is about to change. Upon sailing, Gerard sees that the shoal has moved into an exclusion zone, but without telling anyone, he too enters the zone. No sooner has he done so when the Niamh hits something and becomes entangled, and Siobhán is stunned to see huge bioluminescent tentacles arising from the deep and attached to the hull. Back on board, she's thrilled to announce they may have encountered a creature unknown to science, but when it becomes apparent that the tentacles are secreting dangerous microscopic parasites onto the Niamh, the crew find themselves in a fight for survival.
In a post-screening Q&A with Hardiman at the film's Irish première, she said that one of the main ideas behind the story was to offer a corrective for films which demonise or are critical of the scientific method. In this sense, there's a lot more hard real-world science than you might expect, including some fairly detailed discussions of the possible biochemistry of the creature and hypotheses as to why it behaves the way it does. In the latter half of the film, a lot of time is given over to discussions of whether the Niamh should head back to Ireland, with Siobhán trying to make the others understand the devastating ramifications that could result from introducing the parasites into a population centre. All of this doesn't quite position the film in the realm of science-fact, but it certainly helps to lend the narrative a stronger sense of real-world verisimilitude.
Science is also important thematically insofar as one of the main issues is that the creature may not be acting aggressively. In this way, Hardiman refuses to demonise it, and from the moment of its discovery, Siobhán consistently argues that the crew must protect it. On the other hand, Gerard sees it as something to be used for profit, and later as something to be destroyed.
Aesthetically, there's a merciful absence of jump scares and, apart from one scene, there's very little gore. Instead, the film's horror elements are based more in the intricate sound design, Ray Ball's production design, and Ruairí O'Brien's cinematography. The three work in tandem to make it impossible for the viewer to ever forget that we're on a ship isolated at sea – from the constant creaking and sound of lapping water to the claustrophobic quarters to the handheld and often dimly lit photography.
In terms of problems, the most significant is that even given the small cast, there isn't a huge amount of character differentiation, with the Niamh's crew largely interchangeable. One of the reasons films like Alien and The Thing are considered classics is because of how good the character individualisation is – every person in both of those films is a distinct individual with a clearly defined set of character traits that sets him or her apart from the others. Sea Fever's failure to do this makes it harder to care about these people, which makes them feel expendable. It's a shame, because with just a little more work on the screenplay, the film could really have been elevated into something special. Another small gripe I have is that the conclusion is anticlimactic; it works very well thematically, but it's weak in terms of drama or tension.
Mixing body-horror with elements of a creature-feature garnished with some eco-friendly themes, Sea Fever is a very enjoyable film and an impressive debut feature. Although its broader genre beats offer nothing we haven't seen before, it still manages to feel like its own thing with its own things to say. It could do with a better balance in terms of the plot/characterisation ratio, but the unexpected focus on science and ecological themes mean it rises above the monster movie clichés you might expect.