Archive | November, 2016

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?