the race was fixed

For Little White Lies, I wrote about Sam Fuller’s not-exactly-lost but slightly misplaced novel Brainquake, out now after a couple of decades in the wilderness.

Sam Fuller’s personality is so firmly infused into his output that the temptation is to detect it in every turn of phrase. It duly spills across the landscape of Brainquake in all its guises, including the one of an old soldier in late-life, pragmatic about the effects of past wars on his country and everyone else’s. Hardboiled crime stories carry their own poignancy, something Fuller appreciated as well as anyone ever has.

uncool world

imageWhen film reviews start stressing the word “real” it’s time to dig out the tin helmet, since there’s nothing more fake in narrative fiction films than that battered concept. The latest cannonade accompanies Two Days, One Night, as it does every film by the Dardennes brothers, and I’m still not convinced. Odd theories have been brewed to argue that the presence of an outright movie star like Marion Cotillard somehow emphasises the precious veracity of the thing, when in fact her appearance at the sharp end of the brothers’ neorealist style is a classic case of immovable cinematic object dominating very stoppable force. I reviewed the film for Critic’s Notebook, but it didn’t shift the Dardennes’ position in my league of reality biters; some of us are on record as finding Andrea Arnold’s inner city fables overly contrived in their neorealism, but compared to the Dardennes brothers she’s as trippy as Peter Greenaway.

But then it’s been an unreal month. The Congress lost its way when it turned out that Unreal Robin Wright was actually escaping from a standard dystopian low-budget mini-mob of zonked-out hobos wearing ratty wool hats in the drizzle; reaching for profundity, it transpired that the film’s shoelaces were tied together. The dark suicidal mayhem of Cool World might have helped for once, but The Congress is really as square as Ralph Bakshi’s bank manager. Any hint of Guy Peellaert’s sensibilities making their way onto the screen is ok by me though.

Lucy is unreal from start to finish and Does Not Care. How long since a film felt no obligation to defer to a standard knowledge of science among a general audience of internet-consumers? In the tv ghetto tornados pick up sharks on a regular basis, but Lucy maintains an even Besson-ian keel while punting movie science so far it becomes a burnished version of the kind of thing Charles Band used to go in for, for which much thanks. Any side left unsplit would have to give way at the sight of Morgan Freeman, emeritus professor of codswallop at the Sorbonne, uttering dialogue in which no two consecutive sentences relate to each other.

And then there’s Basin City. More reviewing shorthand at work in the observations that Sin City: A Dame To Kill For is the same as Sin City. Apart from the absence of a Tarantino strain, which turns out to do odd things to the pacing, even a cursory glance reveals a tighter focus on male fragility and a much doomier end-of-the-century-any-century air; so more or less in line with the sources. That’s before considering the change in skin quotient and its deployment, which on its own would be a big flashing arrow. Frank Miller remains the best argument against conformity, complicity and self-conscious prudery in movies made from comics, simply by proving that the two forms will forever fly apart like magnets. A Dame To Kill For would be one textbook among many; 200 pages of imagery beyond the grasp of any performance-based art form yet devised.

bells and whistles

I interviewed Joseph Schmitt of St Jude Medical about the reasons biophotonics start-ups can now get off the ground more easily than ever; and why doing so without a decent business plan is still likely to be the kiss of death.

Also: A pair of novel technologies coming out of ICFO in Barcelona. One puts nano-scale and micro-scale structures onto glass to give both anti-glare and anti-reflection behaviour, a trick that’s piqued the interest of Corning. The other detects blood flow by decoding the speckle pattern you get when laser light hits the skin; operationally straightforward, but mathematically fiendish.

Plus: An optical technique analogous to a CT scan can detect the signs of very early-stage cancers in individual cells by spotting the anomalous DNA content; but ask different people how the field of pathology is going to adopt and adapt to these kinds of 3D techniques and you’ll get different answers.

le desordre c’est moi


Welcome to New York played at the Edinburgh Film Festival, where the accumulated static made the festival take temporary leave of its senses and eventually generated a mighty throng of about two dozen paying customers. Doubtful that any of us have forgotten it since, though. Anyone hyped for a damning indictment of other people is going to be disappointed; as seen above, Gérard Depardieu makes a point of addressing where capitalism’s problems really start.

I grappled with the film for Critic’s Notebook. It’s no Go Go Tales; but then what is?

sensor snapshot

Returning to an old topic, I wrote a piece about recent progress in smartphone camera technology for the fourth issue of the digital magazine Clarity. Sensor technology has marched on yet again since the last time I waded into the subject, leaving the usual trail of winners and losers in its wake. Apart from Facebook, which still wins under all scenarios.

The inimitable Mr Ditko, again. From the collected witzend, 7.6 pounds of fissile material.

The inimitable Mr Ditko, again. From the collected witzend, 7.6 pounds of fissile material.

in the neck

Equally belated, three recent technology interviews:

A way to take high-resolution 360-degree panoramic images and video, developed as a way to beguile potential house-buyers, duly clobbered by the recession in that sector, now re-tooled as a high-tech item for military and security uses. Its output has been accepted as evidence in a murder trial, which could be a turning point.

Imaging living cells without using lenses; not a new idea, not easy, but the algorithms are getting better all the time.

The exact way in which the artery in your neck pulses can indicate the beginnings of cardiovascular disease, and a cheap laser triangulation could be an easy way of spotting the effects. The principle is simple; the execution probably a bit less so.

made in monaco

Preposterously belated completeness-only mention of two reviews by me at Critic’s Notebook:

Grace of Monaco, a key text in the current phase of impotent biopics which dares to subvert the limitations from within; or proof that there’s nothing to be done with real people in narrative cinema any more. You decide.

The Young and Prodigious T. S. Spivet, which might be the moment at which, after many years scowling at each other in the kitchen, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and I are through.

a cave dweller


This year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival produced the following:

An attempt to parse the British narrative feature programme for Little White Lies. The moral is that the supply and demand equation is out of whack, no doubt putting UK-based festivals in a very difficult position. But the time when they just acquiesce passively to the situation must surely be coming to an end.

Reviews at Critic’s Notebook for:

A Most Wanted Man, in which Anton Corbijn and John le Carré admire each other to a standstill.

The Green Inferno, in which Eli Roth admires other films to a standstill; but if you have a talent in this world and that’s your talent, then let it fly.

The Skeleton Twins, which made a lot of folks very happy but felt to me like dead weight.

Snowpiercer, in which correctly spotting the roots of the Tilda Swinton character was apparently a function of age and time spent under the Harold Wilson government.

Far weirder than anything dreamed up by Bong Joon-ho was the debacle around Welcome To New York, two screenings of which were shoved into the festival programme later than the last minute and got roughly zero promotional push. The first screening duly unfolded before a desultory handful of people, although those sofas in the middle of the Dominion’s auditorium were as comfortable as I remembered. The second screening was the subject of whispers suggesting a truncated cut of the film at the insistence of a potentially-attending Gérard Depardieu, who then cancelled anyway.

Was the Edinburgh International Film Festival really preparing to show a drastically sawed-off version of a film to full-price ticket payers without a peep of warning or comment or explanation? Are there any witnesses to this mythical short version, since judging by the radio silence that followed it seems possible that not a single person actually went? Is this going to be the tale that film festival programmers tell their children at bedtime while urging them to take up respectable trades such as plumbing or merchant banking instead? Rarely can the circumstances of a film festival screening have been swept under the nearest available tapis more tout suite.

(pictured: Bruce LaBruce’s transgender version of Pierrot Lunaire, which drags Arnold Schoenberg back to the future and then some.)

mutant and loud


i.  Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past would have needed to split the actual atom to truly return to the glory days of 2003 when he made X-Men 2, and it can only get two-thirds of the way there. But two-thirds of X2 is more than enough to batter most recent superhero films with a large plank, a reminder of the uncinematic blind alleys that the Disneyfied end of Marvel has diligently created by making characters deliver dialogue to some outside jury of cool cats rather than each other. (DC has even bigger problems).

ii.  The shortfall is all down to the weird chain of dominoes that puts as innately specialised a director as Singer in charge of one of the biggest film projects going, alongside the eleven years of accumulated genre obligations. There must be time travel tropes, and a night-time storm-clouded dystopia that’s duller than dirt, and Sentinels with unfolding fiery faces who could all be related to New Gort. Characters must contort themselves to deliver dialogue which nods to things they’ve said in other films. How terrified of novelty we are, addicts all.

iii.  And more prudish. For a film ostensibly aimed at a similar audience as X2, there’s now zero chance of anything close to the queasy transgression of Magneto exsanguinating a hapless prison guard by the pint while Ian McKellen gives the poor bastard a catty side-eye.

iv.  Now you mention it, I miss Pervert Mystique too. DOFP makes all the right noises about Mystique being a swift and evil hellion, but Jennifer Lawrence looks as unhappy as she did in First Class, unlikely to manifest the easy-going kinkiness that a life on the catwalk gifted Rebecca Romijn before she ever climbed into the paint-spraying booth.

v.  Even $225 million still can’t buy digital compositing where the joins don’t show, or a watertight set of plot points. There’s an ugly night sequence with Michael Fassbender on the roof of a train which looks like it’s wandered in from Doctor Who, and a shot of Beast at the end for which the cameoing actor in question could have been wearing a clown suit and a tinfoil hat, so blatant is the photoshopping. I couldn’t care less that a character may have magically changed from Bill Duke into Peter Dinklage since 2006, largely since that gets funnier the more you think about it. But not bothering to line up with your own post-credits sting from The Wolverine only last summer is just bad staff work.

vi.  With a franchise of almost infinite malleability, there’s no real excuse for lack of gender parity. The film puts all its chips on Mystique, and sidelines other distaff characters by fair means or foul. Shackling Ellen Page to the mind-meld table is a waste of actor and character, especially since in the original comics she’s the one doing the time-travelling. And where exactly did she get this godly gift anyway? Even Chris Claremont knew he had to invent a new character rather than rely on arm-waving to get the job done.

vii.  As noted by everyone, the Quicksilver section works, but the instructive question to ponder is: why? It’s built on comedy rhythms very different to both Joss Whedon’s collegiate banter and David Goyer’s weary pastiche, and manages to depth-charge both of them simultaneously.

viii.  The return of Singer means the return of Newton Thomas Sigel as cameraman. I knew this film and I were going to get on when Sigel adopted a 1970s colour palette for the period scenes, or at least as close as the current digital work flows can get him. Let’s assume that the murky cloud-filled weather-plagued Matrix dystopia is the result of similar in-jokery. The proof comes at the end, when shiny happy 2023 is the colour of corn fields and rose gardens; a certain resurrected character leans nonchalantly against a door jam, lighted by the amber light of the gods, red hair practically on fire.

ix. The return of Singer means the return of John Ottman, whose editing is still as occasionally challenging as it was in 2003, and whose name on the score ensures music which dares to toy with a character’s interior life, as it’s supposed to do. The music editors get away with murder though, with the opening punch-up between disposable new mutants (all still better than Last Stand's dweebs, mind) acquiring Ottman's magnanimous recycling of Henry Jackman's Magneto theme from First Class, which the composer clearly meant for the much later moment when Ian McKellen gets stuck in. A double insult, if you happen to think that Jackman thieved a motif Ottman had intended for Wolverine in the first place.

x.  Mostly the return of Bryan Singer just means the return of that voodoo that he do and Brett Ratner don’t do and Joss Whedon can’t do.