Arrival: thank God (or alien equivalent) for sci-fi with a brain

13 Nov
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Amy Adams attempts to communicate with the visitors in Arrival

Arrival is that vanishingly rare thing: a major sci-fi release with a brain. When was the last one? Probably Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar in 2014, and its brain was pretty small: the whole film seemed based, as I wrote at the time, on a Queen song, while its striking time-dilation planet scene will be familiar to any fan, as Nolan is, of the works of Alan Moore (Halo Jones Book 3 on the planet Hispus, I’m looking at you).

Directed by the awesomely talented Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) and based on a short story, it imagines what would happen, and how people would feel, if alien ships suddenly took up position over the earth. Spoiler-free hint: it’s nothing like Independence Day.

I don’t want to give away too much about the film, as ever, but I will just give you one example of why and how it works. Doctor Strange has several striking fight scenes in which gravity is spectacularly upended. They are fun. But they don’t make you think. It’s all just special effects. The moment in Arrival when the heroes realise that gravity is no longer working according to accepted laws is a hundred times more powerful. Communicated through the panicked breath of Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, it feels real. We’re there, with them, as the enormity of the situation takes hold. There really are aliens, and they really are changing the laws of physics.

It’s that level of realism, applied to a science-fictional premise, that makes this a great film. I had thought, coming out of a preview a few months ago, that Amy Adams would be a lock for Best Actress at the Oscars. I’ve since seen La La Land, and without question that will sweep the board, including, probably, for Emma Stone. Nevertheless, Adams is terrific: Arrival rests entirely on her slender shoulders, and she Atlases it. Go see.

David Bowie’s Lazarus musical hits London: first review

7 Nov
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Michael C Hall as Thomas Newton, with (left) Amy Lennox as the woman obsessed with him and Sophia Anne Caruso (right) as his guardian angel, in David Bowie’s Lazarus musical

Does Lazarus, the new David Bowie musical which has just transferred to King’s Cross in London from a sell-out run off-Broadway, live up to the mostly positive if faintly baffled reviews it received in New York? Put it this way: I went with four other people, three of them ardent Bowie fans, one so-so. By the end, I was the only one who hadn’t walked out. And I stayed largely on the basis that, having shelled out £75 for a ticket, I was damn well going to find something to enjoy. Then again, many in the audience gave it a standing ovation, so it hits the right note for some.

The plot – or more accurately premise, since there is nothing so jejune as a plot in evidence – is that we pick up where The Man Who Fell To Earth left off: with alien entrepreneur Thomas Newton trapped in a bare hotel room in unageing anhedonia, living off gin and Twinkies, and assailed by visitations of guardian angels and serial killers. Bowie songs begin and end pretty much at random, without troubling themselves to reflect the action.

The kindest thing one can say is that they demonstrate what a great singer Bowie was, because, delivered in musical style, they mostly sound hideous. Lyrics such as “It’s on America’s tortured brow, that Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow” are belted out as though profound rather than tossed off archly as Bowie would have done. Even Heroes, which you’d think was bullet-proof, sounds naff. Changes made me feel almost physically sick.

It’s not all bad: All The Young Dudes, The Man Who Sold the World, Valentine’s Day and It’s No Game work well, and the band, visible behind a perspex screen, are solid. Director Ivo van Hove pulls off the odd coup de théâtre, especially towards the end, making spectacular use of a floor-to-ceiling video screen. Michael C Hall of Dexter fame is in good voice as Newton, though he can’t rescue the bizarrely wooden dialogue. Michael Esper makes a convincing psycho.

But to me it’s all too little, too late, to save a production that feels like it was cobbled together in very little time from a few half-formed scraps of ideas – which, having subsequently read up on the genesis of the show, seems to be pretty much what happened in the rush to put on this “play with music” while Bowie yet lived.

Others will disagree. It’s a polarising, love-it-or-hate-it production. And in that, if nothing else, it’s a fitting testimonial to Bowie’s restlessly inventive and mercurial artistry.

 

 

Benedict Cumberbatch is Strange, but not strange enough

2 Nov
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Benedict Cumberbatch as Marvel’s Doctor Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts

“By the hoary hosts of Hoggoth, I say thee nay!” I was looking forward to hearing Benedict Cumberbatch wrap his Shakespearean diction round that catchphrase, at once ridiculous and sublime, but the new film of Doctor Strange failed to deliver – just one of several disappointments.

Doctor Strange was always an oddity in the Marvel Universe. Even Thor and his fellow Gods of Asgard sat better with the costumed superheroes than the dimension-spanning, spell-uttering, Eye of Agamotto-wielding Master of the Mystic Arts. The film goes to unnecessary lengths to shoe-horn him into that world, focusing overlong on his progression from man to mystic. Doctor Strange just is, all right? And if it gets weird, well, deal with it.

Given that Doctor Strange was the trippiest of all comics, first published in 1963 and doing as much as the Beatles to define the lysergic beat of that generation, it’s a pity to see its vaulting imagination muted. Worse, it’s derivative.

Strange’s apprenticeship in Kathmandu is like Batman’s in Batman Begins [interestingly, in real life the roles were reversed. As I wrote in my interview with Cumberbatch both on my blog and for  Canadian Buddhist magazine Lion’s Roar, he was once a teacher to Tibetan monks]; the bending space performed in the sorcerers’ battles is merely a more elaborate version of the folding cities of Inception; and if it was dumb when Superman turned back time in 1978 as an overly convenient climactic plot device, it’s much dumberer now. Even the most powerful scene in a particularly trippy journey into the astral plane is familiar from a YouTube video in which fingers sprout hands, whose fingers sprout hands, and so on.

An hour after the film, I found myself struggling to recall a truly memorable scene, original idea, or killer line of dialogue. Overall it was… adequate. I enjoyed it. There were good bits. It was well acted. But c’mon, Marvel: next time, take your foot right off the brake. Guillermo del Toro was once down to direct: now that might have been worth seeing. For a sequel, please?

Disney’s Queen of Katwe: David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong’o interview

21 Oct
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David Oyelowo as chess coach Robert Katende, with young prodigy Phiona Mutesi, played by Madina Nalwanga, in Disney’s Queen of Katwe

It’s wonderful to see Disney taking a chance on an film set in Uganda, played by an all-black cast, centring on the world of competitive chess – not a pitch to get Hollywood accountants’ pulses racing. Queen of Katwe boasts fine performances from David Oyewolo, as the chess coach who inspires slum kids to dizzy heights, and from Lupita Nyong’o as the young prodigy’s mother. The kids are very watchable, if not always wholly intelligible, and Mira Nair has gone for a realistic style, working with “real” rather than stage-school kids, which suits the true story subject matter but must have taken Disney out of their comfort zone – especially once Lupita Nyong’o’s eldest daughter falls in love with a pimp.

“The line about ‘selling yourself’ was a bit strong for Disney,” Mira Nair confirmed at a recent Q&A, which the two stars also attended. “But after a preview got a 99% approval rating, they let me put the line back in.”

Apart from that episode, the portrayal of family life in the film is a strong and loving one – particularly between Oyelowo’s character and his wife. It’s a big contrast with the other Uganda-set movie Oyelowo was in: King of Scotland, about the crazed, murderous dictator Idi Amin.

“That was a great film,” says Oyelowo, “but gosh, I remember thinking, as a person of African descent myself, that I would love to show a different side. I cannot tell you the significance of seeing [in Queen of Katwe] a black man who loves his wife, and has kids and it’s fine. These are images we don’t get to see! The healing balm that the film is cannot be underestimated.”

He worried at first that the teacher he plays was too good. “When I read the script I was slightly terrified. We as actors tend to gravitate to someone who is flawed, edgy, who grapples with the light and dark. But when I met him, I discovered how much it was costing him – he was a bright man, not just intellectually, but also very good at playing football, and he put all these things to one side for the sake of the kids. He doesn’t think twice. See a need, meet a need. It’s seeing that that gave me the edge.”

Nyong’o says that she was less than ten pages into reading the script when she decided to commit to the film. She subsequently met the chess prodigy’s ballsy single mother, whom she plays in the film, and says that “What I find in her presence is that she’s very grounded, very practical, but there’s stuff going on behind her eyes that you’ll never know. The one thing she wanted to do is to keep her family together. She’s suspicious of dreams [she at first forbids her daughter to join in with the chess classes], and her journey is to discover that love is acting out of radical hope, not fear.”

The result is a feelgood movie full of lovely moments, many of which ring wonderfully true for the simple reason that they are true. David Oyelowo’s declaration of love to his screen wife was taken from his real-life marriage proposal. Or when the slum kids attend their first big chess tournament, held at a posh school, they leave the unfamiliar beds empty and curl up together at night on the floor. “That was all true,” says Mira Nair. “Even the chess games in the film were entirely accurate, and exactly as Phiona played them.”

Queen of Katwe is in UK cinemas from today

 

Jerusalem interview tapes, #11: discover the New Gospel according to Alan Moore

17 Oct
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Alan Moore: “Don’t do anything you can’t live with forever.” Pic: © 2012 John Angerson, taken during filming of Jimmy’s End in Northampton

Following my feature on Alan Moore’s Jerusalem, I’ve been posting edited highlights from the 30,000-word interview transcript. In previous episodes, Alan Moore has joked about being God. In the last extract, he revealed how he came to the conclusion, like Doctor Manhattan in Watchmen, that time is an unchanging constant where everything that will happen has already happened and goes on happening forever, and it is only our perception that makes time appear linear.

Here, he brings the two together: his view of time effectively creates a secular eternity, and in so doing, creates a world-view that is just as compelling as any religion. Step inside the anti-Church of Alan Moore…

Alan Moore: “If you think about it, that [the idea that we are living in a time-static block universe] has got to pretty much kill religion, because there aren’t any religions that aren’t based on some kind of moral imperative. They’ve all got sin, karma or something a bit like that. In a predetermined universe, how can you talk about sin? How can you talk about virtue?

“My chapter Cornered, with the guilty council man, that was put in largely to talk about that issue. The thing is, we don’t have free will, or at least that’s what I believe, and I think most physicists tend to think that as well, that this is a predetermined universe. They don’t like it, but it is looking like that’s probably what it is. However, as long as we’ve got the illusion of free will, we’re fine.

“Also, I’m quite happy with my artistic decisions and career decisions, I’m pretty much guided by voices anyway, I couldn’t claim that I’ve got some sort of plan in all of this, I do what seems to be the next thing to do. That works just as well with free will as without it.

“It’s probably the most contentious point of the entire book, and also there’s the thing of when I first explained it to Leah, my daughter, she said, ‘yeah, I think I could live with that’. And so, sort of, when I explained it to Iain Banks [the late novelist], they were going through a painful divorce, and he said [Moore here does a passable Scottish accent], ‘Ah Jesus Christ, that’s the most terrible thing I’ve ever heard!’ He was really upset. And I can see that.

“We’re talking here about heaven and hell, we’re talking about them as being simultaneous and present, that all the worst moments of your life forever, that’s hell; all the best moments of your life forever, that’s paradise.

“So, this is where we are. We’re in hell, we’re in paradise, both together, forever.

“One of the dogma you can extract from this is, don’t do anything you can’t live with forever. Try to have a good life. Because you’re going to be having that life forever. Don’t be like my gran. She was a Christian, she had I think probably a very austere and miserable life because she was expecting that it would all be sorted out, and the first shall be last.

“Whereas if you know this is my only life, and it’s my only life forever, I’m not going to wait a moment longer before doing the things I should do to make it better. I’m not going to live my life in expectation of the very, very unlikely reward that awaits in heaven.”

Jerusalem is out now in hardback from Knockabout in the UK and Liveright in the US. For the full interview feature, click here.

The Alan Moore Jerusalem interview tapes, #10: ‘Doctor Manhattan was right on time’

16 Oct
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Doctor Manhattan in Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, published by DC. Through the God-like superpowers given to him, Doctor Manhattan sees all time as simultaneous. It took Moore a while to catch on

Following my interview feature on Alan Moore’s Jerusalem, I’ve been posting edited highlights from the 30,000-word interview transcript. The last excerpt was the weighty topic of what really happened on 9/11. Today, we get to a key part of the thinking behind Jerusalem: that we are living in an Einsteinean block universe where everything that will happen has already happened. Time is fixed, and it’s only our perception of it that makes it appear linear.

Though Doctor Manhattan in Watchmen experiences all time as simultaneous, it was only a decade later, Alan Moore says, that he realised his fiction was fact…

Alan Moore: “When I had my first what I believe to be magical experience with Steve Moore, in January 1994, I remember having this absolute crystalline understanding that time was a solid and that nobody was going anywhere. And then, almost as soon as I had thought that, I thought, ‘but you’ve been writing about this for years!’

“There’s William Gull in From Hell, there’s Doctor Manhattan in Watchmen, there’s those early Time Twisters and Future Shocks in 2000AD, one of which has got some people exploring the remote edges of the universe looking for alien life, and all of a sudden one of them seems possessed by an idea, that he keeps trying to explain to other people, and they gradually kind of get a weird smile on their face, and this is all told from the POV of one of the crew who’s watching it happening, who finally realises, what if an idea could be an alien life form? And what if it could just propagate itself, and the only snatch of conversation you ever get to hear is one of the people talking to an initiated person, and he’s saying ‘So if all of time is simultaneous, then…’ You only hear the first few words?

“And at the end of the story, all the people have converged on the narrator, because he’s the last one, and at the end he’s saying, ‘Well of course I realise how silly I was being, and it really is very very simple: you see, if all of time is simultaneous, then…’ And at that point the editor comes in and says we’re going to stop this story here because we think it’s a bit dangerous.

“At that moment in 1994, I thought, well, actually, that is appropriate. I’m only just understanding the concept now. But if time really is as I think it is, there is no reason ripples shouldn’t go out both ways, that it’s like, I suspect some of those early references might have been pre-memories. I don’t know. But it was an idea that had clearly come to me at some point.

“What with the idea of time is a solid, what I was thinking is that if Einstein is saying this a four-dimensional universe, dimensions are measurements,  they’re not like – since Mr. Mxyzptlk, Superman’s foe, came from the fifth dimension, everyone thinks of dimensions as spooky places, like the Phantom Zone or the Twilight Zone, but no, dimensions are measurements, so the fourth dimension is a physical dimension like the other three. We know there has to be a fourth dimension because Einstein tells us space-time is curved. That is to say that the three regulars have another one that they are curved in.

“Now, as I understand it, the fourth dimension is not time. Rather, time is the way we perceive our passage through time. In reality, if this is a four-dimensional universe, or a universe of at least four dimensions, what we are talking about is a solid block in which everything is eternal and unchanging, in which there is no movement and no change except that which we perceive, as our consciousness travels along the filament that is how we are represented in space-time: a kind of filament I imagine a bit like a centipede, lots of arms and legs [vividly described in Jerusalem]; one end of it is in genetic slime, the other end in cremated dust, but those are just the extremities, like your feet or the top of your head. All the other bits, we are alive.

“And when we get to the end of our filament, I would say there is nowhere for that consciousness to go but back to the beginning, so that would be something we experience countless millions of times, but each time it also felt like the first time, because that was how it had felt the first time, and that will never change, except for those brief moments of déjà vu.”

Jerusalem is out now in hardback from Knockabout in the UK and Liveright in the US. For the full interview feature, click here. Come back tomorrow to discover how Moore’s theory changes how we should think about life, the universe and everything

The Alan Moore Jerusalem interview tapes, #9: what REALLY happened on 9/11

9 Oct
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Shadowplay, by Alan Moore and Bill Sienkiewicz, commissioned by the Christic Institute and published by Eclipse Comics in Brought To Light: Thirty Years of Drug Smuggling, Arms Deals and Covert Action (1988)

Following my feature on Alan Moore’s Jerusalem, I’ve been posting edited highlights from the 30,000-word interview transcript. Yesterday, Moore talked about his dealings with Anonymous and Occupy. This week, he addresses the conspiracy theories that the CIA or similar government-backed initiative were somehow involved in 9/11.

As Moore did a ton of research to write his half of Brought to Light: Thirty Years of Drug Smuggling, Arms Deals, and Covert Action in 1988, you might expect him to have a point of view, and he doesn’t disappoint: “If you know there’s a fox in the neighbourhood, you just leave the hen house door open…”

Alan Moore: “Do I think that actually planting explosives on every level of the World Trade Center, was it a controlled demolition? I know about the Bush administration, and they are nowhere near clever enough to do anything like that – they would have screwed it up. But they wouldn’t have to. All you have to do is, if you know there’s a fox in the neighbourhood, you just leave the hen house door open. It doesn’t really require a conspiracy, but just a ‘moment’s carelessness’.

“What had happened in the case of America, as far as I can see, is Bush got in in 2000; almost as soon as he was in office, Rumsfeld – who had been secretary of state under George H W Bush – I think as soon as Bush was in, Rumsfeld stood down the simulation, the training simulation of blocking terrorists from flying a passenger plane into the World Trade Center… that simulation was stood down.

“He also changed the rules of aerial engagement over America, this was in 2000. If what happened on 9/11 happened a year before, they would have been blown out of the sky before they got anywhere near the WTC – but Rumsfeld changed the rules of engagement.

“What I’m saying is, it was in the Project for the New American Century’s interests for that to happen [the PNAC was a neo-con think tank on foreign policy]. Rumsfeld had actually written a paper before for the Project for a New American Century where it said that in order for America to pursue its objectives freely in the new century, what they would need to get approval would be a massive, catastrophic, catalysing event – like Pearl Harbour. George Bush’s diary on 9/11 said, ‘today, a new Pearl Harbour happened’.

“A massive, catalysing catastrophic event that would get public opinion behind America so that America could kind of go on the rampage and sort out things that the Bush family really wanted sorting out… Saddam Hussein… it’s not that they wanted Iraq’s oil, they just wanted him to stop pissing about with the oil price lever. Because what he would do is say ‘in support of my Palestinian brothers, I’m not going to release any oil’. And then he would say, ‘in support of something else, I’m going to release the full extent of oil’, which was sending the oil prices completely nuts – nobody could predict what was going to happen next week, that’s why they had to get rid of him.

“I mean, America had originally put him in place. He was originally a hitman that America had employed to try and assassinate the head of Iraq back in the ‘50s. It failed, and Saddam Hussein was presumably employed in other means for a number of years until 1971, when we parachuted him in, mainly because of the Iranian revolution. We needed somebody to keep an eye on those Iranians, so we put Saddam Hussein in charge of Iraq.

“I’m not arguing for brilliant supervillains, plotting all of our lives. I’m arguing almost the exact opposite – complete incompetence. They think they are supervillains, they are sitting there stroking their white cats in their swivel chairs, and they’re all cretins.

“Because of Dunning-Kruger syndrome, which is the fact that if you take a poll, and ask people to rate their own intelligence, average or above average. About 80 percent are above average. What this says is that we overestimate our own intelligence wildly. We can’t imagine anything much cleverer than we are. So we assume that we must be right at the top of the spectrum. We can imagine all the people who are more stupid than us, but we haven’t got enough imagination to imagine anything cleverer than us.

“I think that these are interesting times. They might be terminal times. I really hope not – I have grandchildren. We are at quite a delicate point here, though. The stakes have never been higher than this.”

Jerusalem is out now in hardback from Knockabout in the UK and Liveright in the US. For the full interview feature, click here. In interview extract #10, Alan Moore explains how he realised that time is not at all as we perceive it, and Doctor Manhattan was right.