• ‘The Last Man on Planet Earth’

    It’s a truism that making good speculative fiction for the screen – big or small – can ignore flashy visual effects, expansive vistas or a massive budget as long as it has good ideas. The 1999 TV movie (yes, they were still making them back then) The Last Man on Planet Earth (the awkward title seemingly designed to avoid confusion with the 1964 Vincent Price I Am Legion adaptation) is a case in point. Under director Les Landau, in charge of dozens of episodes of the Star Trek universe, there are few visual pyrotechnics and the minimal expenditure is clear, but writer Kenneth Biller, another Trek veteran yet also responsible for scripting 'Eve', one of the better X Files episodes, sets out some bold and provocative ideas in his tale of a future where the male of the species has been almost entirely eliminated and women have embraced each other – literally, for the most part.

    As with the best of the genre, near-future events are explained only as far as the characters would need to to each other in real life – the audience must fill in the gaps. Thus we learn only that a war with “the Afghanis” spurred development of weapon that targeted the male-only Y chromosome in a well-meaning attempt to bring the conflict to an end. Its unforeseen spread across the world, however, eventually wipes out all but 3% of the male population. Under the matriarchy that develops thereafter, its misandrist leanings both amplified and justified by a welcome absence of war, even this tiny number is – officially, at least – legally and culturally ostracised. With lesbian relationships widespread, cloning allowing the race to continue (albeit with daughters only) and peace reigning, all seems well. Until one woman – quietly heterosexual – decides, like Pygmalion, to create not only a perfect companion (though male here of course) but one with the violence gene removed.

    What follows deploys a number of predictable tropes, including the prototype on the run, the oppressive ruler seeking to destroy it and the initially hostile lieutenant who eventually sides with the protagonist, but also some challenging ideas, clever subversions and genuine intelligence.

    Two of the most effective concepts are the underground club for closet hetero woman called The Lysistrata, where the last remaining (and thus older) men serve their clients, and streetwalking female escorts cross-dressed as men. A United Womens Bank, a hypocritical FBI chief campaigning for Congress and a virulently man-hating would-be President are also part of this mix, which is gratifyingly couched in that other absolute requirement, to my mind, of a decent slice of spec fic – a casually convincing vocabulary of in-world terms, jargon and slang. Thus Biller’s characters talk of the Y-bomb and The Time Before, whilst the resistance movement seeking to re-establish a male population refer to their struggle as The Reclamation. Neatly, teenage girls express value judgement with the words ‘Burnt’ and ‘Frozen’ (think about it for a minute).

    Of the actors, Julie Bowen – so good in romantic comedy drama series Ed – appears miscast as the genetic engineer, the rather obviously-named Hope Chayse (‘chaste’?), and Paul Francis is frustratingly wooden as the equally-signposted Adam, but all is not lost; Tamlyn Tomita, fondly remembered from Babylon 5, is excellent as the FBI agent who ‘turns’, and the reliable Cliff de Young enjoys himself as Reclaimer John Doe (slightly cleverer naming, there).

    But what really stands out is the attempt to say something about how such a society might, given the scenario, genuinely develop. The principal question posed by that scenario – is violence genetic and sexually predetermined, or latent within all of us? – is freely but not carelessly discussed as each character finds themselves acting against type. Doe’s climatic taunt that Adam isn't "man enough" to shoot sums things up nicely.

    References can be detected to diverse other works, including James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day, especially Sarah Connor’s impassioned “Men like you thought it up” speech in the Dyson home; John Carpenter's Ghost of Mars; Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War; the script of Demolition Man by Peter M. Lenkov, Daniel Waters, Robert Reneau; P.D. James’s Children of Men; and Katharine Burdekin’s Swastika Night, originally published under the pseudonym Murray Constantine, but overall this is a thought-provoking and worthwhile film that succeeds on its own merits, despite its obvious faults. Track it down.



  • 'The Girl with all the Gifts'

    The British post-apocalyptic drama has a rich and fascinating history in literature, film, television and radio. Books from the last half of the twentieth century alone include John Christopher’s The Tripods (1967-68) and P.D. James’s Children of Men (1992). All observe the impact of a given disaster on a small group of people via a peculiarly national set of filters including class, tolerance and – less obviously – the natural landscape. Unusually but satisfyingly this new release, written by M.R. Carey simultaneously with his novel of the same name and directed by Colm McCarthy, builds on that legacy by taking an intelligent and original approach to a concept that has avowedly transatlantic roots: the zombie thriller.

    In a windowless, concrete, prison-like building, two dozen children are roused each morning, strapped into wheelchairs and mustered in a room, all under armed guard. A woman, Miss Justineau (Gemma Arterton), appears and begins what seems to be a school lesson. One of the children, Melanie (Sennia Nanua), is clearly the star pupil – bright and funny, she has obviously formed a bond with Justineau and the link is mutual. But when Parks (Paddy Consadine), the sergeant in charge of the detachment of soldiers, demonstrates why even the children’s heads are immobilised, the real nature the situation begins to become apparent. The exact goal of the coolly efficient Dr Caldwell (Glenn Close) is also a revelation.

    These juxtapositions and the confined setting immediately spark the interest and sows the seeds of tension, making the sudden move to the outside a form of release. It is also a way of expanding the story, with a pumping, chaotic sequence when the location comes under attack. With Melanie, Justineau, Parks and a couple of privates escaping into the country to find refuge, the canvas is extended once again and indeed the film becomes a road movie.

    With Britain lacking the endless expanses of the American deserts and prairies this might be thought of as an unwise move but the trope is in fact firmly embedded in many of those domestic genre works – think of Matthew Graham’s The Last Train (1999), Peter Dickinson’s The Changes (1968-70), The Death of Grass (1956) again by Christopher and H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds (1897), all of which set individuals on a journey across a green and pleasant land transformed in search of salvation.

    The trek here allows for another skirmish deep in a wood before the outskirts of London are reached. An atmospheric vista of the deserted, vine-clad city glimpsed through binoculars and a huddle beneath a similarly overgrown motorway flyover bode well for this depiction of a desolated metropolis, and indeed the scenes that follow, as the group arrives at a derelict shopping precinct and makes its way carefully through a forest of a different kind but also one swaying and loaded with menace is brilliantly handled. Rooftop scenes surveying the surrounding abandonment are also absorbing, with trees growing where they shouldn’t and an utter lack of humanity. The difficulty is that this clearly isn’t London, as anyone familiar with the capital will realise; instead it resembles the blighted town of Pripiyat, and the reader will have to trust me when I say that only when researching the film for this write-up did I discover than that is exactly where the aerial photography for these shots took place (by drone). That wobble of believability became a topple as the story advanced into London proper, or rather a ‘London’ obviously composed of streets from a rather different town and photographic panoramas that show London buildings that no longer exist, no matter how hard the prominence of the Gherkin tries to convince us otherwise. Such a jolt removes one from the film quite considerably, unhelpful generally but especially when the plot takes a step in an important new direction and the focus should this be there.

    That said, the final destination of the narrative should not be spoiled. Suffice it to say that the title of the film – derived from an ancient myth that is explained early on – proves neatly, if subversively, appropriate, and if you’ve experienced Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend (1954), seen Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or Luc Besson’s Lucy (2014), you might obtain a hint.

    The performances are all good, with 12-year-old Nanua superb in a very difficult role. McCarthy creates a background texture that is unsettling and hypnotic, though it is very unfortunate that the ruined London fails to persuade. But as ever with sci-fi it is the ideas that matter, and just as Joe Ahearne did with his series Ultraviolet (1998), this fascinating and brave film takes the accepted elements of a genre – and one not from these shores, to boot – and has the guts to upset them with a conclusion that is powerful and thought-provoking. Perhaps it took the Old World to think laterally about the New.



  • Camberwell Beauty: Forty Years of Printmaking

    There’s a degree of retrospection in all of us. To what extent we engage with it, though, depends not just on the individual but on the field in which they work. The past is, perhaps, of less importance to an athlete or a teacher than it is to a historian or an architect. For artists the past can be a place not often visited, for fear of both confronting failures and repeating previous works, but Richard Walker has found the experience a positive one. He has selected pieces from a career that began in 1976 for his new exhibition, and asked if he still likes his earlier material, he is clear: “Yes. My interests haven’t changed. I never really changed. There is a continuity.” The show at the Curwen Gallery reflects this, with a mix of old and new yet connections to be made across all.

    Always specialising in printmaking, which he studied at Kingston, Camberwell and Chelsea, and influenced initially by Pop-Art, Walker’s early productions were, he says, “like ready-mades.” The idea was set and it emerged quickly, and unchanged. The freedom to experiment, however, that he learned and which the processes of screenprinting with wet inks allowed, was fully embraced as his subjects grew. He came to relish concepts that showed a moment “just when things are about to fall apart”, using what he had discovered to make something could be “slapped down” to represent that point in time. This included adjusting things as needed; would powder stay on a print of Patti Smith, he asked his tutor? Yes, he replied, once it’s dry. Smearing and smudging, adding layers and materials – such fluidity, as he puts it, all helped Wallker achieve this goal.

    Printing also permitted Walker to become a serial offender. All of his work shows a fondness for multiples, repeats of a general theme or template but with variation inside each. “You return to things,” Walker explains, “and printmaking allows that.” A given frame or outline, he says, becomes “a tune, with lots of different versions”.

    Walker’s later urban landscapes, of London, New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere, arose from an interest in architecture that he knew from childhood and his visits to those places when older. In these can be most easily seen what Walker sets out as the single defining driver of any piece of his – that it comes from “the time, the place, the situation” in which he finds himself. With the urban realm witnessing increased stress and strain over recent years, both internal and externally imposed, Walker admits that his utopian visions have now “slightly turned” and “got darker”.

    Time, though, has also allowed him to reach a point where he can state – confidently rather than defiantly, it feels – “This is what I am; this is what I do”. It is from this solid ground that the introspection necessary to assemble such a show has been summoned without fear. If there is a recognition of self in the work, then, it is one that Walker is utterly comfortable with.

    This relaxed attitude includes his continuing employment of traditional methods. Though he has used digital media, Walker remains a declared believer in and adherent of the physicality and the actuality of making. A fascination with watching other artists work, his own painstaking simulation of masking tape purely with screenprinting techniques for one piece and the equally detailed divining and transcribing of instructions to put together another to form a personal devotional shrine (to Bianca Jagger) surely also manifest this.

    All of the above come together in the two latest groups of works, both of which feature in the show.

    A series of prints based on a police mugshot of David Bowie form not a tribute but an illustration of the singer’s importance to the student Walker, who found the clear evidence of another creative person’s continually fresh output a comfort and regular albums a soundtrack to life in the 1970s.

    The outline of the eponymous Camberwell Beauty butterfly – a rarity in Britain – serves as a master pattern for individual works of great difference, twenty in total that together symbolise a “showcase of the textures, colours and dynamics that I do, like a repertoire. It’s MY repertoire.” By having one fixed element with this particular series, it seems to this writer, Walker was freed to look into his own past in an unconscious way and may indeed have come up something even he hadn’t expected; “I thought there’d only be half a dozen but there’s more!” Each is an original, executed on the basic paper print, after pressure of time forced Walker to abandon his initial idea of producing monoprints. “But in the end I did them LIKE a screenprint would have been, using it as a stencil.”

    The results are fascinating and fragile, light but loaded with meaning. Walker quips that a butterfly is simply a moth in drag, but of course it also emerges fresh from a chrysalis. That seems appropriate to begin his next forty years.

    The show continues, free of charge, at the Curwen & New Academy Gallery, Windmill Street, London W1 until 30 September 2016.



  • 'Hell or High Water'

    Combining elements of the western, the road movie and the crime thriller, this new film by Scottish director David Mackenzie and American writer Taylor Sheridan sees brothers Tanner and Toby Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) carry out a string of bank robberies in order to pay off the bank loans on their late mother’s ranch. Two Texas Rangers, Marcus Hamilton and Alberto Parker (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham), investigate the first robbery and find themselves on the brothers’ trail. The result is a film that is alternately funny, moving and poignant, presenting two sets of opposing characters and placing them in a landscape that both confirms and subverts the American dream.

    The tone is established in the opening scene, as the brothers’ first robbery takes place. The deserted main street is explained in the script by their strategy, hitting targets in the early morning when they are quiet, but in truth this is a pretext for Sheridan’s other principal concern – laying out a state that has been devastated by the financial crisis and where everyone is suffering. The lack of people, the shuttered shops and the dusty streets are repeated throughout the film, whilst the Howards drive between jobs past roadside signs advertising debt relief and emergency loans. That almost every incidental character they or the Rangers meet contributes his or her own story of hardship, from a waitress fiercely guarding her 200 dollar tip in stolen banknotes so that she can pay her creditors to a cowboy herding cattle bemoaning what his sons will inherit, does slightly overegg the theme, but all are played well by a succession of unknown faces and it would be churlish to deny Sheridan his point.

    Past and future are also important. Toby is a career criminal, and doesn’t want to change; Tanner, who is a divorcé, has plans to safeguard his sons’ welfare. He used to work at a gas well but oil, seemingly the sole source of economic salvation, becomes important as the plot develops. Hamilton is days away from retirement, and obviously hating the thought; in an epilogue, his successor is a woman. His “half-breed” partner Parker, with a bitterness not evidenced elsewhere, notes how “These people’s grandparents took our land, and now they’ve had it taken from them, by the banks.” An elderly man at a diner bemoans the fact that the days are gone when a lawbreaker could be shot; another bystander, only half in jest, proposes hanging them. “That’d mean trouble for you,” cautions Hamilton. “Only if they find the tree,” replies the man. In this milieu, the casino where the brothers launder and boost their proceeds reads as a neutral space in which both timeframes come together and anything might be


    The dynamic between each pair of men is crucial, allowing a range of differential viewpoints on age, responsibility, loyalty and love to be explored gently but powerfully from a number of angles beyond the obvious.

    Sheridan’s dialogue drives this with great skill, from one-liners that zing to more contemplative passages.

    Hamilton’s constant ribbing of Parker’s ethnicity and competence generates the majority of the humour and invisibly sets up a moment of true pathos toward the end, even if the mechanics of this relationship are quite clearly derived from that of Schrader and Gomez in Breaking Bad (2008-13). Hamilton’s turnaround from awaiting to anticipating the brothers’ next move is subtly done and links with the issues of past and future/active and reactive seen earlier. Bridges is superb in a role that has obvious similarities with that of Sheriff Bell in No Country for Old Men (2007), though exaggeration of his natural enunciation combined with a Texan accent does make a few lines hard to decipher. His wordless performance of a man swept by successive waves of feeling at the principal climax is, though, outstanding.

    The Howards are just as carefully drawn. Tanner’s clear desire to make amends with his family contrasts with Toby’s wild self-indulgences, though some might have a hard time accepting that the sensible Tanner should have proposed their risky plan. Importantly neither man is crudely sketched – both have a depth. Pine – not the most expressive actor – is solid but it’s Foster who shines here. His banter, mood swings, horse-play and underlying commitment to his brother are beautifully essayed, and it’s his film as much as it’s Bridges’ – not least in that he shares that actor’s occasionally unclear speech patterns.

    The open spaces of the Texan prairie (though filmed, as was Breaking Bad, in New Mexico) are of course key, to mood as well as plot, and here the foreigner Mackenzie both adopts and adapts accepted framings. The long, straight roads expected by viewers familiar with Two Lane Blacktop or Vanishing Point (both 1971) are counterpointed by those that wind and twist around hills and mesas, superbly captured by aerial drone footage overseen by cinematographer Giles Nuttgens. The final shot, rather than craning up to follow a car disappearing into the distance, cranes down, into the grass.

    As the above makes clear, the film is also shot through with a distinct 1970s sensibility, from the setting and the ideas to the absence of any real technology. Mackenzie admits as much and it is refreshing to see such a vital period in American cinema once more acknowledged.

    Of that time, too, is the plotting – simple, yes, but not simplistic, engineering a coming-together of the two sides that is just as balanced in its aftermath as it was in that lead-up.

    This is not an action movie, despite what the trailers and poster would have you believe. When the action and the violence comes it is necessary and effectively handled but the film’s real value in in creating a rounded, believable, interesting group of people who one actually cares about, and in forming an elegy for a passed age. In those respects Sheridan and Mackenzie have created a small gem.



  • '15 Septembers Later'

    It is both ironic and entirely explicable that the annual commemoration of 9/11 on television has seen little that is new in recent years, either in terms of content or presentation. The very medium that allowed the horror of that day to be experienced instantly by millions and revisited repeatedly by tens of millions has beaten those few seconds of footage so hard and so thin that they are almost transparent, worn out, worked out. Inevitably, too, the most powerful assemblages of image and testimony appeared early, in the first few months or years. Now, though, Jason Sklaver’s exceptional 90-minute film 15 Septembers Later, screened on The History Channel last night, proves to be one of the most absorbing and affecting films about that day ever seen.

    The unique set of circumstances that produced the events of 9/11 has also shaped our perception of them. Yes, they occurred live on television for the most part, but they also happened when the culture was just on the cusp of the social media and digital capture revolution. Google had only been running for three years. Facebook would not launch for another two, Twitter not for another four. Mobile phones were familiar but by no means universal; pagers were still common, especially as their signal could reach places the still-expanding cell network could not.

    Sklaver’s structure is simple – in two dozen or so segments, each introduced by a simple caption over a relevant image, interviewees recall key aspects of the day. They speak either to an unseen interviewer, conventionally enough, or – more disconcerting – directly to camera, in the style pioneered by Erroll Morris with his interrotron. There is no intrusive score, no crass effects, no voiceover. The people simply talk. They range across the full spectrum of those involved on the day, but crucially a focus on the top political, media and military figures conveys a real sense of the shock and confusion that sunny September Tuesday. Vital, too, to the freshness of this production is its use of recently declassified photographs and other information that yield genuinely new insights for even the most sated student of that day. This includes the pager messages that are scattered throughout Skalver’s film like electronic ash. Taken together, the two elements are compelling.

    Thus we see for the first time some of over a thousand stills taken by a press photographer AFTER the infamous Florida school event at which former President George W Bush was told of the second plane to hit the World Trade Center, and also hear from Bush himself. That same photographer, shooting all the time, was allowed into the President’s office on Air Force One as a panicked security team sought to escape and take Bush to safety on the famous jet – which, his former chief of staff recalls, was so keen to depart that its pilot breached protocol by starting engines well before the leader was on board. Bush relates with practiced calm, now, the airbase-hopping journey that took seven hours to get him back to a Washington, DC that, even then, was not felt safe (that same chief of staff, ordered by his President to go there right away, remembers that he was given orders, but chose not to carry them out).

    This sequence dovetailed nicely with that involving former Vice President Dick Cheney, who we now see – again, for the first time – in a set of similar images taken six floors under the White House in the PEOC bunker so beloved of action film makers everywhere.

    For me the most emotional moment came when two fighter pilots of the Air National Guard, scrambled to intercept the rogue airliners, told their stories. One, despite having his target literally in sight, was forced to land as his fuel was too low. The other, Heather Penney, reminded us that none of the fighters were actually armed. She didn’t recall any order to ram the hijacked planes, she said, but it was understood that that was the only option. “I decided to go for the tail,” she explained. “I did think I could eject [after], but then wondered, what if I missed?”

    We also find out that the gates that would have allowed at least some of those trapped in the twin towers to get to the roof where an NYPD helicopter was ready to risk a rescue were discovered to have been chained shut for fear of suicides; that former mayor Rudy Giuliani and his team were trapped in a collapsed building at one point and only escaped by travelling below ground to a neighbouring structure; that Marine Jason Thomas, who helped rescue two trapped police officers, simply walked away from the site afterward, never spoke to anyone about what he had done and was not even identified until years later; that pieces of twisted steel from the towers now reside in every state in the US, mainly as memorials to firefighters; and that Cantor Fitzgerald, the brokerage firm that lost a staggering 658 of its employees in the attack, continues to collect millions in donations to charity to this day after making good on its chairman’s promise to take care of the families of those who died.

    Sklaver’s piece is elegant, restrained and fascinating. No-one should seek to assign blame for a lack of originality in such a field, but when that new approach appears, it should be recognised.



  • 'To Live and Die in L.A.'

    A violent crime thriller in which two men on opposite sides of the law circle each other in an unromantic Los Angeles of freeways, industrial lots and cheap diners until a fateful, existential confrontation… No, not the acclaimed Heat (1995), but William Friedkin’s underrated To Live and Die in L.A. (1985), which anticipated Michael Mann’s film by a full ten years even whilst borrowing elements of its look from that director’s television series Miami Vice (1984-89) and which is still fresh and meaningful today.

    At the time of its release, Friedkin’s story of US Treasury Secret Service agents pursuing a master counterfeiter was criticised for a lack of substance, epitomised by stylised visuals and a score by British New Wave group Wang Chung. The contrast with Friedkin’s blockbusters from the previous decade, The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973), both of which were praised for their realistic settings, seemed to prove the point.

    If fact this represents a fundamental misreading of To Live and Die in L.A., which takes that same concern for a grounded foundation on which to build a story and blends it seamlessly with a look (and sound) that go beyond surface gloss and mere imitation to achieve something greater.

    The work began with the experiences of Gerald Petievich, who had spent fifteen years in the Secret Service tackling counterfeiters and protecting the President (years later the Secret Service would be transferred to the newly-formed Department of Homeland Security to concentrate exclusively on this more famous function) before embarking on a writing career. His novel formed the core of the script.

    In realising this for the screen Friedkin added another layer of authenticity by engaging actual forgers as consultants, something Mann had done with safecrackers for Thief (1981). Finally, extensive use was made of locations, firmly avoiding those associated with the glamour and glitz of Hollywood. A genuine strip club, ordinary warehouses and homes and the LA river storm drain system feature heavily, and it is notable that about the most recognisable – the twin wedges of Century Plaza Towers – are glimpsed only at night as part of a helicopter fly-over. By shooting in these gritty, workaday places, and doing so with little rehearsal time and occasionally without any formal blocking, Friedkin generated a freshness and presence that contributes significantly to the final atmosphere.

    The dialogue, with its blunt one-liners, speaks of the streets, too, a legacy of Petievich’s co-writing. Actors who were on the verge of coming fame also, mostly obviously William L. Petersen and Willem Dafoe but also John Turturro, aided believability. That established actor and film-maker Robert Downey appears without the ‘Snr’ suffix that became necessary when his son achieved his own breakthrough in Less Than Zero two years later confirms what a vital time this was for new talent.

    It was with the assembly of his footage that the visual flair and sonic dissonance that so enraged critics appeared. Crucially Friedkin did not subject the entire production with its inherent verisimilitude to a shallow coating of polish, applied without thought. Rather, this was applied with real care, consideration being given as to how a given music track or editing technique would drive or enhance the pace and mood latent in the rushes.

    The success of this approach is seen in the two dazzling montages that appear at the start of the film, cut to Wang Chung’s pounding score. Astonishingly economically, they set out its fundamentals – the use of fake banknotes and the making of them – whilst also forming self-contained mini movies in themselves. The first serves also as a title credit sequence, its matted cut-outs referring back to Bullitt (1968) – the same designer, Pablo Ferro, made both – but incorporating an animated blood spatter that becomes a palm tree, a kind of brilliant, brutal haiku for a film that is even more truthfully visceral than Yates’s. Crucially, this sequence also includes multiple flash forwards in the form of shots that will appear in the next two hours, a narrative technique that Friedkin uses repeatedly but subtly throughout the film to emphasise its principal, and opposing, themes: determination and fate. The degree to which the principal characters’ actions reflect these alternates forms the essence of the plot.

    Masters, as his name suggests, is cool, controlled and in charge of his destiny, manipulating lawyers, informers and others to maintain the criminal life he chooses right to the (and its) very end. Chance, on the other hand, lives us to his name, being reckless, dangerous, and, ultimately, desperate – so desperate that he thinks nothing of kidnapping a stranger to aid his revenge. But there are similarities between them too. Both are unusual examples of their trade, Masters a fine artist as well as a forger, Chance an unconventional extreme sports enthusiast. Both have remarkably similar-looking slim, long-legged, blonde girlfriends. Both have near-identical first names. Both are unable to foresee their ends.

    Importantly, the sickly-hued Los Angeles they inhabit is itself cynical, indifferent, a city of dust and steel and water and glass that can play you as well as any opponent can. As Chance’s reluctant, fretful new partner – and through him, the audience – eventually discovers, if To Live and Die in L.A. is about surface, it’s a surface that refracts as well as reflects, bending you inexorably to its will.



  • 'Jason Bourne'

    Having only recently started to get ‘into’ the Bourne films in a meaningful way thanks to their endless rotation on television, a friend’s suggestion to see this new entry on the evening of its release seemed like a good way to pass a couple of hours, especially given some positive press reviews – this despite it being hard to envisage, almost ten years after Matt Damon last played the role, how anything new could reasonably be added to the story.

    The film picks up Bourne (Damon) living an anonymous life in Greece, albeit prize-fighting in Rambo III mode, before being buttonholed by former handler and ally Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) who has spotted something important and personal in a batch of CIA records stolen by a hacktivist. A second meeting, a night-time rendezvous in the middle of an anti-government demonstration outside parliament, turns into the film’s first major set-piece when the crowd starts to riot and the inevitable heavies – tipped off by new character Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander), a CIA analyst keen for promotion – arrive.

    An extended sequence, this segment has some merits in terms of atmosphere (though it was actually shot in Tenerife) and some of its individual elements, but very soon begins to outstay its welcome in what proves to be a valid indicator of one of the film’s two fundamental problems.

    The first, disappointingly, is the return of director Paul Greengrass to the franchise after a break to make the superb Captain Phillips (2013). Arriving for the second in the series (The Bourne Supremacy, 2004), Greengrass defined a particular style of ultra-realistic, closely-edited and -framed action that was so influential it quickly spread to inform/threaten the Bond films and many others in the genre. Often now referred to – both positively and negatively – as ‘shaky cam’, the approach certainly had and has its place, but here Greengrass seems to have felt the need to amp-up the technique to maintain its impact and that, inevitably, proves to be its downfall. The result sits at that uncomfortable point that is on the absolute limits of what this reasonably visually acute viewer could tolerate; the pace is too fast, the images too blurred and the whole is very hard indeed to comprehend. This is not helped by what appears to be some crude digital ‘enhancement’ of certain shots, discernible despite the chaos, which suggest the principals have been pasted into an artificial background even as they wheel and run. It’s bewildering, all in all, and has the ultimate effect of taking you out of rather than placing you in the narrative.

    It was also a pity to encounter yet another nameless assassin-on-call (this time played by Vincent Cassel), able to appear at any point in the world to do his master’s bidding, suggesting even at this early stage that the script has in fact little new to say, the second major flaw. The remainder of the film confirms it, with familial revelations for Bourne that could have taken the film into genuinely interesting areas and a similarly promising sub-plot of a Mephistophelean deal between social media guru Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed) and CIA Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) both frittered away as merely the background for personal revenge, executed in the same frenetic melange.

    Another meeting/evasion in London, set and filmed around the somewhat self-contained Paddington Waterside area, again has potential but is again overwhelmed, this time by the powers of both Bourne and Cassell’s character (described and credited simply as ‘the Asset’, in a disappointing literalisation of the much more menacing equivalent in The Bourne Ultimatum, 2007). Both begin to assume supernatural status, something that further distances the viewer and – given the realism the series is built upon – begins to insult him. The problem is underlined when, in an egregious example of having your cake and eating it, omnipotence is glaringly ignored to enable a crucial plot point involving concealed mics.

    With not a single scene involving any true emotion or indeed the time for the characters to even stop and think, the relentless pace is quickly draining. Indeed by the time things lead to the Las Vegas-based climax, the writer and director are apparently as exhausted as the viewer, a number of different films seeming to have been candidly mined for inspiration in this final reel. Thus an unnecessarily-complex succession of brush passes, tracking device plantings, misdirections and swipe card swiping owe a debt to Now You See Me rather than anything more grounded, whilst the frankly crass car chase is an orgy of manic destruction straight out of the rushes bin for the nth Fast And Furious. When this comes to a thankful, sudden halt, Cassel and Bourne could be mistaken for the Terminator and Kyle Reese respectively as they stomp into the basement of a hotel for the final battle.

    Significantly, the most effective scene in the entire film occurs at the end of the Greece sequence, when things mercifully halt for five minutes. Bourne and Parsons are pinned down by the Asset, who in turn uses Parsons as bait; indisputable tension builds, and its release is powerful and effective. The shame of it is that this is the first and last time this occurs.

    This, frankly, is desperate, actually quite cynical stuff. Any faint hopes of novelty are crushed as soon as they appear in a welter of trope repetition, and Greengrass seems to have abandoned the debt he owes to his journalistic routes in favour of a Marc Forster-style belief that more is always more (It is surely symptomatic that even Moby’s excellent closing theme, Extreme Ways, receives a bass-heavy remix that is messily redundant and only serves to dilute its impact too). Damon manages as best he can but is in danger of losing the goodwill the role has earned him up to now. Other cast members go through the motions for the most part, Ahmed and Lee Jones especially being wasted after promising starts. For me though Vikander is the most curious choice. Too young (-looking, at least) for the role and with a blankness of persona that may have been mistaken for detachment, she is a poor substitute for Joan Allen.

    Calling the film Jason Bourne is an acknowledgement of the franchise’s key appeal, yes, but must also be a recognition that it really has nowhere left to go, as shown already by the clever but ultimately unnecessary sidequel that was The Bourne Legacy (2012). Add in Greengrass’s bafflingly over-cooked direction, and it seems that a better title might have been The Bourne Monotony, or perhaps even The Bourne Parody. Either way, it’s time to close this particular casefile for good.


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  • Charge Sheet: The Switch House at Tate Modern

    Those who remain convinced that modern art is an elaborate con trick foisted on the public by a knowing elite must have found much to support that view in the very fabric of Tate Modern, the movement’s British high temple for the past fifteen years. From the baffling complexity of the escalator that takes people smoothly from the first floor to the basement without deigning to stop at the ground floor where the building’s riverside entrance is located to the lifts that are so slow they were finally plastered with signs urging people to use the stairs if they are able, Herzog & de Meuron Basel’s sober, not to say sombre, conversion of Giles Gilbert Scott’s power station can seem as wilfully difficult to penetrate as the art it was designed to house. With the recently-opened extension, called the Switch House and designed by the same firm, will such heretics find anything to disabuse them of that view?

    The new block is a kinked, truncated pyramid ten storeys high attached to the landward side of the building’s western end. It has been built over the underground tanks that once held oil to drive the power station and which were opened a few years ago as the first stage of the new work. It effectively duplicates the programme of the original, containing galleries, a bar, shop and restaurant and a members’ room.

    From the outside the sharp form of the new block, clad in brick like its cousin, is undoubtedly powerful and works well when seen against the neighbourhood context of spiky apartment blocks and the looming Shard. Especially impressive is the knife-edge buttress to the south, which rises from a large new plain of tarmac elevated above the street to seemingly disappear into the sky. The cladding, composed of several different shades of roughly-finished brick, is often perforated and is woven together where the façades meet like the interlaced fingers of clasped hands.

    But this is also where the problems start, with a main entrance that I quite literally walked past twice without even noticing – it’s a sloped glass door set into a sloped glass façade that appears to lead only to the shop and bar. And the quality of some of the brickwork is also suspect for a £260m building – many individual pieces are badly set, the gaps between them are by no means even and the colour matching is quite poor close-to, whether considering the new work in its own right or the junction with Scott’s.

    Fortunately the new lifts – two banks of them for the Switch House alone – seem efficient enough this time around, allowing easy access to the tenth floor ‘viewing level’.

    A single, double-height room whose floor-to-ceiling windows are part-clad with that perforated brick (a decorative device only, in that each section is backed by conventional sealed glazing units), it is wrapped with a narrow open-air terrace that was very busy even on the dull, windy day I visited. The 360° vistas it permits are certainly impressive, not least that which includes Gilbert Scott’s chimney, a third taller than the Switch House. That there was a plan in the very early days for a viewing gallery at the chimney’s summit is no doubt forgotten by almost everyone today, but the Switch House makes a fine substitute and will no doubt prove popular. The new extension also sets up an interesting opposition of towers, with the much lower central blocks of the original building – now renamed the Boiler House – lying between them.

    What appears to be a small counter area selling refreshments – not mentioned on the orientation map – will, along with the currently empty space itself, probably see more intensive usage soon, though whether for the general public or specially-invited guests remains to be seen. Closure might though come from another source since, disappointingly, the same poor quality on display ten floors below is evidenced here too; bricks pave the floor of the terrace yet are unevenly set and have no grouting, a trip hazard waiting to happen.

    Within a rectangular parapet off to the side is what proves to be the top-most level of the Switch House’s main stair. This runs down through the new building in a most fascinating way, widening as it goes, sometimes shifting to the other side of a floor and often revealing nicely unexpected moments both inside and outside the building. These include cut-back floor levels, generous vertical and horizontal observation slots and variously-angled walls.

    The materials palette throughout is as limited as that of the original conversion – smooth but otherwise unfinished concrete, blonde wood, used for the floors and general joinery, and that brick – but softer and lighter. This is welcome, but as with that earlier job the monotony becomes oppressive and the crudeness of some of the conjunctions between structural concrete walls and wooden partitioning is surprising. Elsewhere temporary safety barriers protect a shattered glass panel in the door to the staff restaurant and, rather oddly, an acute internal corner on one floor. As with the similarly-formed Saw Swee Hock centre for the LSE, the constant changes of level, plane and area mean some truly shocking interventions are necessary in the name of pragmatism, like the crude fire door mid-way up a wall that proves to be an unfortunate ‘feature’ of one flight of the stair.

    The lower levels are more successful, achieving a scale approaching the heroic, with some good spaces, a couple of curved flights and a great spiral down into the basement that complete the descent. They are though almost aggressively varied, which combines with the austere palette to make one yearn for some unifying thread – visual or architectural – to tie it all together, and those strange detail decisions continue to baffle; fitting out the deep window bays with padded seats is a great touch, but stopping them apparently at random just as the sloping floor lets them reach child height is not.

    Exploration of the galleries, the completed tanks and the high-level bridge that connects the two blocks across the turbine hall must await a further visit. Of what I saw, the Switch House has folded itself neatly into the locale and from a distance fits well with Scott’s mighty mass. Progress down the stair is lively and full of incident and movement. The project is sometimes a rather forced one, though, and much of the detail seriously disappoints in approach and quality. One would like to think that money wasn’t an issue, given the £50m or so overspend, so it must be due to the orthodoxy of the architect. Perhaps a different hand might have brought a surer touch.

    None of this will stop the complex remaining wildly popular, of course, but nor will it prevent critics of the purpose for which Scott’s building was reshaped or the Swiss duo's initial efforts from citing it in their next indictment of both.



  • '1984'

    “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” The opening line of George Orwell’s novel, one of the most famous ever written, is replicated sonically at the start of Robert Icke’s and Duncan Macmillan’s pulsating stage version of this dystopian classic, co-directed by the pair and Daniel Raggett. Yesterday’s combined official opening and press night of what is the second, recast West End run of a Nottingham Playhouse / Almeida / Headlong production was a chance to experience this new meditation on the life and death of love and trust in a Socialist dictatorship Britain after a fortnight of previews. It was a dynamic ride.

    Three conceits inform Icke’s and Macmillan’s adaptation. The first, inspired by Orwell’s appendix to the novel and apparently occurring inside Winston Smith’s mind, posits a second timeline, a century ahead of 1984, in which the Party has fallen and a lecturer and his students explore whether Winston and his diary ever existed. The second emphasises that the novel’s doubting of the actual, along with its notions of truth and fiction, loyalty and betrayal, past and present, occur firmly in the main protagonists’ heads. The third expands the totalitarian monitoring that pervades Oceania to include commentary on today’s mistrustful yet always online world of what Paulo Gerbaudo, writing in the programme notes, calls the consenting surveilled.

    Each of these framing devices allows the play to emphasise the original text’s explorations of reality and unreality and the Newspeak concept of doublethink, the ability to believe two contradictory notions simultaneously. The writers also make more explicit the parallels between the period and concerns Orwell was addressing and our own, through twists to his text and new dialogue.

    This approach is not always successful, nor even strictly necessary, not least because the novel is powerful enough to transcend its time without such complications. Links between the constant state of war that exists across Orwell’s three continental super-states of Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia and the current ‘war on terror’, for example, need little underlining and in fairness the point is not overdone, though something of the modern-day horror that is the hostage video can be seen in the various televised confessions included in the play. The ‘future’ scenes do seem largely redundant, however, despite their highly efficient staging, and serve mainly to dilute the core narrative and, sometimes, the sombre tone, as with the repetition of Winston’s concern over O’Brien’s telescreen (“is it switched off?”) by the lecturer in relation to a mobile phone.

    Nevertheless some good lines reside in these changes, as with Julia’s delight in a commitment to “tiny secret acts” of sedition, an observation that “they will not look up from their screens long enough” and – best of all – “Big Brother is you, watching”. Meanwhile very recent events ensured an admission, from the students and directed at Party members, that “we should never have trusted them” drew ironic grunts of recognition from the audience.

    Many of Orwell’s own phrases survive, and a thirty-year interval between my last reading of the book and this performance did nothing to blunt their impact or even the apprehension of that impact. That the on-stage reading stops at the penultimate line and omits what follows – “He loved Big Brother”, in turn one of the most famous last lines in literature – was therefore a disappointment, reinforced by an ill-advised decision to cut to a scene in the future timeline, but thankfully a swift return to the present saved the moment whilst a very clever alternative rendering of Orwell’s final sentiment was, frankly, a triumph.

    Several scenes or parts of scenes are repeated, an encounter in the Ministry canteen smartly showing the fate of co-worker Syme and others stressing the dullness of a life of poverty and control. ‘Slow motion’ and ‘freeze-frames’ give characters room to express thoughts and deeds, some of which are contradictory – the ‘Two-Minutes’ Hate’ scene shows this well.

    Of the eight principal cast members, Angus Wright impresses the most. His face, voice and manner are perfectly attuned to the role of O’Brien, the apparently benevolent senior Party member. Looming ghost-like throughout the play, he comes to the fore in the grimly convincing interrogation scenes that comprise the final act and Wright conveys their terrifying intimacy brilliantly. Catrin Stewart is

    appropriately sexual in her early, near-wordless scenes as Julia, and seems convincingly – even wildly – free-willed later. The solidity of this pair makes the weakness of Andrew Gower as Winston, the final pillar of the vital central trio, a frustration. Too young and too healthy-looking for the part, he convinced only in the final scenes. Richard Katz as shop owner Charrington and the lecturer renders excellent support.

    Chloe Lamford’s single set, a gloomy, wood-panelled, bookshelf-lined room with smeared internal windows lighting a rear corridor, resembles a post-war classroom or municipal library. It must surely derive from Allan Cameron’s work on Michael Radford’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984), the definitive visual interpretation of the novel to date. Throughout, the production adheres to the current orthodoxy of multi-media staging. Thus party slogans, video confessions, the computer screen used by Winston when ‘correcting’ the past at the Ministry of Truth and live camera feeds of his diary entries and assignations with Julia are all projected onto the upper portion of the set, these last subtly suggesting the hidden telescreen that will detect their transgressions and so making the audience complicit in their deceit. When the lovers’ world does indeed coming crashing down it happens literally, with masked Thought Police tearing apart the set to reveal the actual hidden room in the antiques shop which the audience – and, we feel, the Party – has until now only seen on a screen. The abrupt mood change is bulwarked by the dazzling, white-walled space within which the final act occurs.

    Powerful strobe light flashes, often accompanied by deafening crashes of sound, combined with moments of complete darkness signal mental, physical and chronological shifts very effectively, if at times a little unnervingly. The approach works particularly well in the first act (nominally; there is no interval, with the play running – amusingly – for 101 minutes), where near-instantaneous transitions between Winston’s present-day reality and that imagined future involve other cast members or characters vanishing or appearing in seconds, a very traditional theatrical trick that recalls the Almeida’s superb Turn of the Screw but is also a neat metaphor for the Party’s ability to ‘unwrite’ an enemy of the state.

    Music and sound is well used, with fragments of the crucial nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons employed as a mobile phone ring-tone, ominously circling helicopters and far-off singing haunting the theatre. Jolts of electricity in the closing torture scenes add their own charge.

    Intended in part as a tribute to Brave New World (1932) by Aldous Huxley, Orwell’s novel has eclipsed that of his former lecturer in influence and popularity, and the play helpfully prompts recall of several responses to it by other creative talents. The telepathic police and mental reprogramming of The Demolished Man (1952), the book-burning and memorisation of Farenheit 451 (1953), the ‘summarising’ of books in Rollerball (1975) and the nightmarish, Kafkaesque bureaucracy of Brazil (1984) all draw on Orwell’s ideas. More recent works that do the same include the impossible duality – enforced by the threat of Breach – of The City and the City (2009) and the omnipotent super-weaponised drones of Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014).

    Exciting and ingenious, and expertly crafted, this production stakes a perfectly valid place amongst the many interpretations of Orwell’s novel.


    ‘1984’ is at the Playhouse Theatre, Northumberland Ave, London, WC2N 5DE until 29 October 2016




  • 'Rollerball' - Excusive new insights into a classic

    On Monday 27 June 2016, the BFI Southbank are screening Norman Jewison's classic dystopian action drama 'Rollerball'. To mark the occasion, read my exclusive interview with editor Brian Smedley-Aston on how he assembled the film’s two stunning Multivision television sequences – Jonathan E's bittersweet home movies and his bone-crunching tribute broadcast. Brian explains how Rollerball game footage shot especially for these sequences was handed to him in Munich, and how he had to create the finished films-within-a-film before principal photography moved to Pinewood so that the Multivision footage could be included in the background of subsequent scenes. How did he do this, give each sequence involved not one but FOUR separate strands, one for each of the four Multivision screens? Find out…You can also read The Harmony of Havoc, my long-form piece examining the making and meaning of the film, kindly hosted on the Excuses and Half Truths blog. And finally, two reminders of previous pieces from me on aspects of the film; elsewhere on my own site, read more about how production designer John Box incorporated this futuristic broadcast system into the overall film, and over on The Big Picture, take in my imagined commentary from the last game seen in the film, as the World Championship is decided.



Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Become an architectural detective with my new book, investigating the clues that define the styles of a thousand years of building in the French capital from the Prieuré Saint-Martin-des-Champs in the 11th century to the Philharmonie de Paris that opened in 2015.

Across chapters that show how successive waves of change were as much political, cultural and technological as they were aesthetic, over a hundred buildings, from the famous to the less well-known, each receive a double-page spread with a photograph, five illustrated details and my text.

The book includes maps and addresses of all the buildings, a list of resources and a two-part introduction.

cover apr 16

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