Coverage of this year’s Edinburgh Film Festival should be along shortly. A preview of the festival was commissioned by a commercial but non-paying site and written by me, but subsequently spiked; the kind of occurrence that makes the whole unpaid film “journalism” charade sound even more ridiculous than it does when I’m explaining it to my team of accountants and the man who polishes my bullion.
Meantime: I reviewed The Purge here for Critic’s Notebook. The staging is a mess and characters do inexplicable things just to fit in with the plot, so the most interesting aspects are the borrowings from Manson-ology, which paint the film’s One Percenter outrage in a most disconcerting light. But that’s such a knotty issue that the film opts not to get stuck in – a missed opportunity having got halfway there, and not the only hint of solid conservative values. The campaign to get Lena Headey into a Marvel super-villain role rolls on, though.
And: I have a lot of time for Neil Jordan films, and although limited resources cause Byzantium to puff somewhat on its way up the hill, there are still enough subtexts about the historical plight of women living and undead alike to raise it out of any vampiric rut it looks like it might be settling into. That review is here at the same venue.
Better very late than very never:
Getting new medical tests out into the field where they are needed is getting easier in some scenarios – tying diagnostic methods into smart phones and crowd-sourcing the results is one approach – but it usually involves developing novel optics systems able to operate in unusual situations. A team at KTH in Stockholm have done something slightly different, and tweaked a standard DVD drive to allow it to image blood cells with its standard laser. It does need an extra photodiode fitted and the blood samples have to be held in a custom-made DVD-like disk, but in principle this could make HIV testing a practical proposition in environments where lab work is out of the question. I asked them about it for Optics.org.
And: a camera lens based on the designs employed by arthropods is certainly a striking looking thing.
Everyone knows what a Tricorder is supposed to do; Star Trek’s cultural influence has spread far and wide. Designing a device that could actually do the job is another matter entirely, although the people behind the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE had enough faith to put up $10 million as an incentive to pull the idea further towards reality. One hand-held system that’s definitely along the right lines is called the Cyclops, and uses LEDs to shine different wavelengths of light onto an unknown substance and rapidly analyse the reflections it gets back. For now it’s limited to surface and only slightly sub-surface analysis, but it turns out there’s a lot you could do with just that functionality, and developers Visualant are working on ways to build into a medical probe too. I interviewed their CEO about it, and what the ramifications might be.
Biophotonics is a growth area and likely to stay that way for a while, especially at places like University College, London, which is becoming one center for UK research in the field. I wrote about three of their projects for Optics.org, including some near-infrared imaging technology that’s already left the lab; and more on that potential use of optogenetics to switch off epilepsy, an approach where the regulators will need some further convincing.
Star Trek rolled up in 2009, a year without a serious Marvel movie (the useless X-Men Origins: Wolverine does not count), so the chance to directly compare two current juggernauts in the same space didn’t come up. Now it has, with results not so much striking as… well, what is that sensation? Relief, perhaps, that for all the multiple TV-derived weaknesses of this crop of writers and JJ Abrams’s odd faith in Simon Pegg, someone with a grasp of the Spielberg section of the manual is prepared to put up not shut up. Abrams doesn’t have his inspiration’s touch for actors at rest who aren’t really resting, but he shares the feel for how the technological sublime works, and the inclination to use colour and sight-lines to guide a viewer onto tracks rather than pummel them in the face until they opt for loving submission.
For the most part Star Trek Into Darkness fizzes, shoved along jointly by Dan Mindel’s cinematography and Michael Giacchino’s score. The look of the thing is even more rigidly controlled than last time; all those supposed excesses and pointless lens flares and scintillating surfaces plainly working as the tight Soderbergh-ian motivational tactics they always were. While you’re chewing on that lot, Giacchino gives Benedict Cumberbatch a more versatile villain theme than the guy in the last film got, and earns his wage almost immediately with a track that nearly builds some Nyman-esque piano motion. Both departments are so innately cinematic, rather than just run-of-the-mill dramatic, that I’m sticking with my theory: the JJ Abrams trick is a grafting of tv onto cinema, unlike Joss Whedon’s instinct to try and make the converse procedure fly. Abrams’s ability to use the fences to his advantage rather than smack into them is almost radical, compared to Marvelution’s current stiff template and conservative restraint. (Marvelution’s previous incarnations are a different matter, especially Bryan Singer’s semi-detached contributions; ten years on, X2 remains better than any Star Trek.)
Savvy enough to make the Federation’s war room look like Dr Strangelove‘s while they cook up a remote drone-attack battle plan, Into Darkness is also a late reminder that Star Trek was never knowingly apolitical. The film is many miles from flawless: Alice Eve looks a bit embarrassed; Cumberbatch is the Bad Brit from a template even older than Marvel’s; and the modern theory that momentum can take the place of story rather than serve it is in the end a terrible error. But hiring a director who can do pastiche properly now looks an even smarter move than it did four years ago. It gifts New Trek with a natural glance backwards at its roots even while it roars forwards into some drastically well-lighted future; Marvel’s more ambivalent attitude to its own past would short-circuit that kind of maneuver even if they showed much sign of being interested. Abrams will be lucky to get away with this approach many more times, and some new iteration of the counter-culture Feds will be along tomorrow to throw the manual away. But today, this one will do.
I reviewed I’m So Excited, the new film by Pedro Almodóvar, here at Critic’s Notebook. Although I didn’t hate it, it’s possible that Pedro and I might be through (again). However, those keen to spare me from it by having the film cast out of polite society for romanticising rape can kindly stop doing me favours. No one ever killed an idea by leaping in front of it every time it drove around the corner, having dug out their Censor’s hat and cape for the occasion. Ideas become extinct precisely because people are allowed to see them, think about them, and decide them to be toxic. To be even having this discussion about a Spanish film maker such as Almodóvar seems somehow very Anglo-Saxon.
Also at the same venue, a review of The Look of Love, whose recreation of Soho and the Revue Bar seemed skin deep at best – presumably for a reason.
And while we’re here: Iron Man Three. Ten years after I decided that Brian Tyler was the key to any decent DC Comics movie, there’s real juice in seeing the Marvel universe operate under his characteristic muted string layers; he even gives the hero a memorable theme tune, which neither of the previous composers seemed very bothered about. But seeing these stories squashed into this tiny inviolable template is now officially a chore; myths cheapened, rather than soap-operas elevated. Marvel’s movie juggernaut, gurning Stan Lee and all, has become a vast engineering project devoted to hollowing out America’s electric mythology and turning it into crack. At some point the cost becomes too high, even while the Brian Tyler big-band plays you off at the end.
I reviewed Danny Boyle’s Trance and also Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion for Critic’s Notebook.
And briefly noted:
Proving that it’s probably better to have an eye for genre and approach fantasy material from a certain detachment, rather than just build on remembered youthful delight and some kind of weird faux-nostalgia, Bryan Singer’s Jack The Giant Slayer beats Sam Raimi’s Oz all ways up. The sound of a big fantasy film with a pretty fine John Ottman score answers the same question from a different direction. Surely Singer saw this as a training exercise, a way to try the toolbox on for size before returning to the X-verse? A relatively risk-free excuse to run the current template up the flagpole and see if he could bring himself to salute?
Carlos Reygadas has confounded me before, and he still seems too keen to deny his characters grace for my liking. Post Tenebras Lux is easier to swallow than some of his films – for one thing it’s oddness is mostly text-book surrealism rather than holy terror – but it still resonates with his colossal indifference towards things that don’t deserve his disdain.
Meanwhile Olympus Has Fallen resonates with the screams of innocent tourists mown in half by gunfire and a national gnashing of teeth. The whole thing is wall to wall self-flagellation, not least when a plane cuts the Washington Monument in half and Castrates America. Gerard Butler’s producer credit makes this look like a calculated attempt to un-rom-com himself by ripping a North Korean’s arm off and hitting someone with the wet end, but then I always liked him as emo-Dracula and won’t be heard complaining.
Some eye diseases have a nasty habit of being all but untreatable by the time the patient is aware of the symptoms; a dirty trick on the part of the designer. Age-related macular degeneration is one, but AMD spends a long time brewing in the tissues of the retina before making itself known as actual vision loss. Now it turns out that it might be detectable during that gestation period, through a simple test of how a patient’s eyesight adjusts to darkness. I wrote about that test for Optics.org.
Also in the eyesight department: retinitis pigmentosa is being tackled through electronic implants of two different types, the epiretinal and subretinal varieties. Each sits in a slightly different position in the retina and does its job in slightly different ways; neither is guaranteed to succeed nor to be hassle-free for the patient. Intriguingly, the two approaches ultimately stem from a fairly fundamental difference of opinion about what AMD does to the retina.
Robotic surgical systems are becoming more advanced all the time; the top-of-the-line ones already have a distinct air of science-fiction production design about them. The overlap with the equally rapid advances in biomedical imaging techniques seems obvious, but the synergies are not materializing as fast as you might think. I spoke to Intuitive Surgical to find out why, and what benefits will follow once the two camps get in sync.
And: a report from a conference on biophotonics held at University College, London. Among other things discussed, a potential use of optogenetics for turning epilepsy off in the brain as soon as it starts to manifest itself.
Two more technology stories left over from my trip to San Francisco:
A team at UCLA have spent the last few years developing microscopes that don’t use lenses to do their magnifying, relying instead on something closer to holography to get the job done. Among other advantages, this allows a functional microscope to be small enough to be slotted onto a modern cell phone and use the phone’s camera to record the images; and that in turn allows meaningful microscopy to potentially be done on a cell phone just about anywhere. This is “telemedicine,” and it could be huge. Case in point: images of malaria-infected red blood cells taken in the field, fed into an online system and presented to volunteer observers around the world for them to visually sift through. The real trick is making people want to get involved in such an exercise, and accommodating the fact that they might not be any good at it. The answer: turn it into a game.
OCT is not recent technology; it’s already ubiquitous for looking at the structure of the retina to a depth of a millimetre or two, among other things. But millimetres was more or less the technique’s limit. Tweaking things so that the same method can image over distances measured in centimetres, taking an image of, say, the entire eye from front to back, is a big step forward. The idea of extending the range even further, over meters of free space, seems almost ridiculous; but that could be on the way too.
Mila Kunis: that ’30s show.
As a warm-up for my grapple with Jack the Giant Slayer and subsequent sacrificing of a pigeon for Bryan Singer, the two hours and change spent with Oz The Great and Powerful were not unbearably horrid; it’s a mark of where we are with fantasy cinema that poster quotes like that will have to do, even while lovers of The Wizard of Oz rummage for their pitchforks. My affection for The Gift is undying and I blame the Spider-Man franchise for the damage done since then to the vigour of the old-model Sam Raimi, but that gentleman’s endearingly messy love of the movie-making tool box crops up in Oz intermittently. A nostalgia for Technicolor and zoetropes breathes behind Oz’s opening ten minutes of Academy-ratio sepia, a prologue that feels like the work of a man directing from an armchair. Plus there’s the sight of the broom-propelled Wicked Witch given a black smoke trail of the purest diesel, the kind of thing Raimi’s earlier demons could have sported while putting the wind up Bruce Campbell.
The rest occupies that dodgy ground where parody and market-forces coincide. Old Oz was about home and childhood and parents and innocence, even if you don’t subscribe to any of the thousand theories concerning cinema and politics and Jung and the Universe. Modern cinema has no truck with all that, so New Oz is stuck with the Hero’s Journey template in its thirty-something form, the one about angst and parentage and the kind of atonement which barely atones for anything. It’s about getting the thirty-something blonde and withstanding the wrath of the brunettes, and it’s conspicuously about never ever going home again. It’s about itself and its own potency; Onan the great and powerful.
I reviewed To the Wonder here for Critic’s Notebook; at last the chance to use a Cramps reference carbon-dated to 1976.
The visual language in To the Wonder, as in Tree of Life for that matter, is so comfortable and lacking in radicalism that the films seem blithely, happily conservative. Both films are in the poetry business and I’m all for that – it beats being in the cartooning business – but the verse is traditional and rhymes flawlessly. A long way from abstract and teetering on the brink of self-parody, these extended sonnets are built from images of nature and humanity and grasp for the sublime. But the sublime never comes within reach, barring those miraculous shots of Jessica Chastain floating in mid-air in Tree of Life. Something about this approach actively stops the films from lifting off the ground in a similar fashion, resulting in two of the most beautiful films ever to sit dispassionately on the floor. Could the un-magic ingredient be, whisper it, just good old-fashioned pedantry?