THE COURIER**** Tense Cold War Drama

THE IMMEDIATE COMPARISON with this superb movie is with Bridge of Spies, the Spielberg movie about an insurance agent who’s dragooned into ‘the service’ to broker a spy swap. In both films, the stories, set during the period of the cold war, centre around the idea that individuals who muster up the courage can move worlds. And here’s where Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of the smooth salesman, Greville Wynne shines: with his slicked back hair and a silly moustache, Cumberbatch’s face dissolves into the role and he convinces in a way the all too iconic face of Tom Hanks, for all his superb acting skills, simply can’t.

Based on a true story, it is a time when a mercurial, all powerful and dangerous Nikita Khrushchev is on the rise. The story begins when a whistleblower, a highly decorated colonel, Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), aware of Khrushchev’s mania to destroy the US, slips a note to the US embassy. The note speaks of the immanence of a Soviet nuclear threat. But the Americans, reeling from recent security compromises are forced -reluctantly – to lean on MI6 as the go-between with the whistleblower.

MI6 and the CIA, wary of internal leaks, agree that the go-between must be someone with absolutely no connection with any of their governments, especially with their espionage departments. Someone ‘invisible’ and impossibly unlikely; someone who the Soviets will never suspect, and who will remain innocent of the precise nature of the mission. And this is where an overweight, slightly sleazy, smooth talking, heavy drinking European focused businessman – Cumberbatch’s Wynne- comes into play.

Apart from Cumberbatch’s superb performance (during which – as seems the norm – he loses about 5 stone, morphing from a chunky self-assured, if out of his depth smooth talker, to a skinny, angular, withdrawn and introspective man), theatre director Dominic Cooke’s directing is economical and focused. He converts a tale of silence – wary watchers, secret compartments and covert photography – into two hours of tense, riveting drama.

He manages to slowly tighten the screws of tension at just the right moments to just the right levels without slipping into melodrama. Abel Korzeniowski’s note-perfect score that segues from Tchaikovsky (never has a performance of Swan Lake fueled such nerve wracking sweats) to atonal thrumming, frames and shapes the dramatic arc of every scene. Sean Bobbit’s cinematography along with Suzie Davies’ production design give the whole enterprise the feel of a 60’s news reel. As if this is no mere period drama but the real thing happening in the now.

And the real thing is that of the unfolding of the Cuban missile incident. The idea is that just these two men, Wynne and Penkovsly, bonded by the need to do what’s right for humanity, find the courage, the mutual trust and the selflessness to outwit Khrushchev’s madcap ambitions. Wynne shape-shifts from the nervous, very reluctant naïf to a person of real courage and deep moral principle. In this, increasingly dangerous, enterprise, his fecklessness and sly dissimulations slip away to reveal a person of steely determination and genuine heroic character. For, in the end, the story suggests, the shape of history all comes down, not to the decisions of cold government dictats, but to the courage and humanity of ordinary people who rise in a moment of crisis.

Wynne is managed by two handlers, Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) of MI6 and his CIA counterpart, Emily Donovan (Rachel Broshnahan who seems more Mrs. Maisel than CIA). Wright is outstanding in the minor role of the MI6 handler: all solid, stiff upper lip British civil service…without the faintest shard of trustworthiness. Jessie Buckley, Wynne’s wife, who is aware that something is amiss, and assumes he’s having an affair (another one) shines in her modest role (and deserved bigger roles in the future).

This fabulous movie’s multiple threads, rich characterization and dense historical storytelling are deftly brought together by a tight, no nonsense, and often funny script by Tom O’Connor.

The idea – call it, of the army of one driven by unwavering moral conviction – is brilliantly dramatized. Cooke (the director) creates that all too real cold war world when the ever-present fear of ‘the bomb’ loomed so large; when the narrative of having four minutes to run to safety was drilled into every citizen. I wasn’t as convinced by the cartoonish geo-politics at play: the buffoonish Khrushchev, the fearless CIA operative, the narrative of the noble West v the evil Russia.

And – mark of a thoughtful movie – one can’t help but wonder beyond the walls of the story, where were these noble voices of honour and truth in the West’s hubristic occupation and then retreat, from Afghanistan?

At this moment when Netflix dominates storytelling, The Courier is a reminder that what makes the cinema worth going to isn’t its larger than life action but its larger than TV artistry.

 THE COURIER: Dir: Dominic Cooke (On Chesil Beach). With:  Benedict Cumberbatch, Merab Ninidze, (Homeland), Rachel Broshnahan (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), Angus Wright (The Crown), Jessie Buckley (I’m Thinking of Ending Things). Script: Tom O’Connor (The Hitman’s Bodyguard). Cinematography: Sean Bobbit. Music: Abel Korzeniowski. Production Design: Suzie Davies (Peterloo, Mr.Turner)

THE NEST**** (of thorns)

RORY O’HARA (Stunningly realised by Jude Law in one of his finest performances) is the consummate bullshit artist. He lies to himself, his wife (an equally impressive Carrie Coon), his family… to everyone he meets. He bullshits them with an image of success: that of the wealthy, go-getter businessman, the big thinking, big hitter dynamo….the man you want to put your trust in and invest your money with. He’s attractive, seductive, talkative and surrounds himself with all the trappings of this image of success: a trophy wife with her trophy stable and horses and trophy children living in a trophy home and going to trophy schools.

We see behind the mask early on. Writer/director Sean Durkin (of the wonderful Martha Marcy May Marlene) doesn’t hide from us the reality that his attractive, charming protagonist is all show and no substance; a hollow man living in a fancy house of cards.

So we know from the get go that when Rory suddenly decides to uproot his family from their seemingly comfortable life in the US to return to London, to a company he left some time ago, there’s something afoot.

The return is based on the lie – to his wife- that he was called by his old boss of an investment firm to head up a new division. It’s that era of Reagan and Thatcher and the bigger lie of trickle-down economics. Rory’s returning (running away) to infuse his new found American energy into the fusty old-world conservatism of a London banking world that hasn’t as yet ‘got’ with the new world dynamism of the trickle down billions waiting to be made.

It’s really no surprise when their marriage founders, when the phone in their vast, dark, creepy haunted house of a crumbling mansion is cut because the bill hasn’t been paid; when, as the one person with an actual bread and butter income, modest though it is, Allison (the wife) becomes the truth teller to his lies. In one cringe-worthy scene, his veneer of charm and image is mercilessly and publicly peeled away by a disgusted wife.

Even then he still doesn’t seem to get it, or at least to acknowledge what has become obvious to all. He still feels the need to double-down on the pretence; as if he can shape the reality he wants purely by will-power.

Jude Law’s and Carrie Coon’s (from Widows) tremendously engaging performances infuses what is often a facsimile of real people with an authenticity the written characters don’t earn. But then, the characters are both so adept at lying to themselves and each other (She was probably ready to go along with whatever lies he told so long as the money kept flowing and she could lead her gilded life undisturbed) that what seems like narrative flaws in their relationship may just be a director shaping his theme of insincerity.

But at the heart of the tale there’s an idea more intriguing than yet another morality tale of ambition gone amuck.

The Nest is really a story of a man out of synch. His time dimension is fractured. He has neutralized his past (of family poverty; of working as a ‘simple’ trader) to live in a present which has, somehow become a threat. He prefers to live in a sort of future conditional tense: one where things are going to be great; where the markets are about to explode, where he’s forever on the cusp; where living in a make believe past – his own romantic dream of becoming the gentry he never was in a faux castle – can reflect his image of an imagined future, if only people had the vision to follow his lead and see the future with him. To him, there really is no “was” (his alienated mother) or “is” (the reality of failure and bankruptcy) only the “could have been”.

The Nest is the ultimate delusion.

THE NEST. Written/directed: Sean Durkin. With Jude Law, Carrie Coon. Cinematographer: Mátyás Erdély (Miss Bala), Production Designer: James Price


OUTSOURCING EMPIRE By Andrew Phillips and J C Sharman is the fascinating history of that cluster of profit driven enterprises called company states. For about two hundred years, from the middle of the seventeenth to the middle of the nineteenth centuries, these entities not only waved but led the flag of imperial conquest. They were the route to “conquest without cost”.

The company state, best exemplified by the most notorious and most successful of these – the British East India company – was a private, profit seeking enterprise empowered by the state with huge rights of governance and a total monopoly over trade. This public/private fusion was backed by the power of vast private and public armies. They administered civil and criminal Justice as they saw fit, waged war as necessary or conducted inter country diplomacy and, occasionally, even minted their own currencies.

At a time when instructions and replies from home office direction could take well over a year, local bosses acted with autocratic impunity; they did what was deemed necessary at their own discretion (and once the money was flowing, everyone simply turned a blind eye).

These new businesses revolutionized the idea of the corporation. Typically, having evolved from relatively modest trade guilds, commercial enterprises in the seventeenth century were made up of  loose collectives of individuals who’d pool money and resources in the hope of winning big (or often enough, losing big). These new companies introduced the concept of the limited liability company and the new concept of shareholding. It meant that the company was an entity separate from its owners: it’s failure need not affect them.

The authors demonstrate how the seventeenth century zeal for exploration and empire building was almost entirely built on the passion, organizational autonomy and nous, not to mention greed, of these state empowered enterprises. While it lasted, this was the ideal ‘win win’ formula.

There were three phases of company state expansion and success, largely based around the evolution of the idea of the state and the geopolitics of the time.

Europe in the early seventeenth century was an area of ever shifting alliances and threat. The Protestant English and Dutch countries were faced with the aggression of the Catholic Holy Roman Empire and the mighty Hapsburg dynasty, flushed with its silver engorged wealth from its Latin American conquests.

Conquest was one route to revenue; and (vast) revenue was necessary to fund the armies needed for (European) territorial defense and expansion. But conquest in lands eighteen months or so away was difficult to control and expensive. State gangsterism (via the privateering of the likes of Drake) offered ad hoc but inconsistent, revenues.

Enter the company state!

It was the Portuguese who pioneered an early version of this: the Estado da India. This sought to drive trade via a mix of diplomacy and violence based in Goa and eventually expanding all along the South and West of that continent. For a while it was enormously successful. But endemic corruption, a state that was too busy with its own domestic problems in Europe and the relentless aggression of the newly empowered Dutch (1600) and English (1602) East Indian companies forced them out.

At this period, governments assumed a power that changed and with time, ebbed. This was the power to arbitrarily empower private enterprises to act with autonomy on its behalf. It introduced a financial dynamic that was simple: the investment in making war (or, at times, the pragmatic accommodation and submission to local potentates, since what mattered was profit not patriotic pride) was outscourced to private hands. This drove unimaginably large profits which funded larger armies which resulted in greater conquest and more profit.

This was the ideal vehicle for expansion which cost the state nothing.

The VOC (the Dutch East India Company) grew from an initial force of 40 ships and 5000 mercenaries in 1608 to one of 200 ships and 30,000 mercenaries by 1700, the heyday of the company state. It controlled the produce and spices from Goa to Ceylon and even all the way up to Nagasaki.

The British began their operations in Madras and, wary of challenging the Dutch, focused its efforts on textiles, tea and opium. It insinuated itself into the sub-continent by aligning with and supplicating the powerful Mughal Empire and by a divide and rule strategy with local weaker states.

This formula, mixing power with profit worked extremely well. So much so that by the end of the golden period of the seventeenth century, France, Portugal (again), Sweden and Denmark (and later, Russia and Germany) also sought to replicate what they saw as a sure-fire route to easy money. But these countries never quite got the state/private mix right. The authors suggest that apart from the, by now fully entrenched power of the Dutch and British, which kept these ‘intruder’ countries ever wary and at an arms-length, it was the freedom from bureaucratic state control that mattered. That, along with the judicious blindness to individual wealth generation (i.e corruption) helped energise the success of the British and Dutch companies.

Distance from HQ was based on the easy philosophy of “Just send the money, but don’t let me know how you got it”.

But, as the eighteenth century saw Britain’s wealth (from sugar) grow exponentially, along with its self-confidence as an empire, it began to grow wary and jealous of a private company controlling so vast a region of ‘its’ empire. By the nineteenth century, EIC profits were a shadow of what they once were (. Funny how money can either shine a moral light or hide one! ) And understandably, Britain sought to control and shape more and more of the East India Company’s increasingly erratic behaviour. The embarrassment of the Great Bengal famine and the ostentation of the generally corrupt, enriched nabobs accelerated government oversight. The clammy hand of the state drove the EIC’s eventual decline and collapse

State interference tended to compromise this unfettered zeal to plunder profit for private gain at all cost. And this was partly responsible for the serial failures of the many other company states, such as the Dutch West India Company (bogged down in a hapless – and unprofitable – war in Brazil).

Similarly, the Royal Africa Company was defeated by the impossibility of securing a monopoly in that highly contested geography (all the main Europeans were there fighting for their share of slaves), by the virulence of disease there, as well as endemic corruption.

The only (much more modest and the longest lasting) company state was the Canadian Hudson Bay Company. This was a relatively small company, unencumbered by either state control or the expense of funding an army. It traded (successfully) with the local nations mainly in pelts and fur. The HBC learned quickly how to adapt to local custom and worked with their trading partners as equals and in peace (until the end of the nineteenth century when State aggression introduced new abuses).

What began in the seventeenth century as the ideal win-win for state and company ended by the nineteenth as a series of corrupt, violent, squalid corporate failures and state embarrassments. Thus: Cecil Rhodes juggling his own private gain via deception and abuse in the failed South Africa Company even as he expanded British claims to vast swathes of the country. Or Belgian King Leopold II who, as an individual -who just happened to be king- claiming ownership of the (ironically?) called Congo Free State. In that free state, where labour was forced and tortured, between one to ten million people were killed.

The book is often repetitive (where’s a good editor when you need one?) but it’s a fascinating look at a world that has largely slipped out of focus. The European (mainly British) empire builders were driven by no great moral or intellectual zeal. Just greed. Pure and simple. And those company states were, while they lasted, the ideal means of getting it.

BLOOD LEGACY****Follow the Money

THE MODERN SLAVE trade began with the Portuguese who ‘discovered’ two fundamentals: sugar can be very profitable (in Brazil) and free labour can really, really lower staff overheads.

Britain, a fast learner, soon got into the act. And from the beginning of the seventeenth century, for the next two hundred plus years, about 12,500,000 humans were trafficked out of Africa in 36,000 journeys. About 2,000,000 were ‘lost’ at sea (chucked overboard for matters of discipline, lowering ballast, sickness or suicide). And the rest, as they say is history.

Alex Renton’s glorious book, Blood Legacy is his act of contrition. His great, great, great, great grandfather, a wealthy Scottish aristocrat (The Fergusson’s of Kilkerran), was a slave owner. He made -some of – his money from his plantations (or, better expressed, the sweat, blood, torture and whipped labour of slaves) in Jamaica and Tobago.

Blood Legacy is Renton’s attempt to come to terms with this legacy. The existential question he ponders is, just how do you come to terms with the reality of your family’s role in slavery?

Do you simply ignore it (He personally inherited no money from their enterprise) and, like most of the other heirs to West Indian sugar and cotton fortunes, simply glibly claim that the past is the past, time to move on? (As David Cameron famously, fatuously said in Jamaica a decade ago even as he refused to apologise for his country’s and his own family’s involvement with the institution. As ‘restitution’ he offered Jamaica the cash to build a modern prison so that the UK government could send back felons there).

Or do you say, it has nothing to do with me? (There seems to be a deliberate attempt by many in power to pretend or confuse White Privilege with (white) income levels and not with the institutional preference for White over Black persons in pretty much any sphere of employment, health care etc. The “nothing to do with me” folks are happy to be beneficiaries of White Privilege without bothering to understand its roots and question its morality )

Do you turn a blind eye to the systemic racism of the country and, by throwing a warm blanket of forgetfulness over that part of its history, divorce it from its slavery past? (Richard Drax, or to give him his full name, Richard Grosvenor-Plunket-Ernie-Erie-Drax, one of the largest landowners in England and the inheritor of the vast sugar income from the notorious Drax Hall where over 30,000 slaves met their deaths, called the Black Lives Matter protesters “scum rioters”. Meanwhile the government continues to side-step the country’s role and profit from slavery by demonising those who question its slave honouring statues and institutions).

Do you pay reparations? (The British government did indeed pay reparations at emancipation… to all slave owners. It cost the country 40% of its national budget: one family, the Codrington’s of Barbados earned over £28m- in today’s money – for their ‘stable’ of slaves. Another, the Gladstone’s, (who would produce a pro-slavery PM) rec £90m. Not a single slave was paid. The German government on the other hand established a fund for all Jewish survivors of its Nazi past. And there’s the open check book of the Chinese who are paving roads and building cultural centers. The open void left by colonial indifference is swiftly being filled.)

Or do you seek to atone? (For what? How?)

Renton’s book is a record of his journey of understanding. It’s his attempt to unearth the details of his own family’s involvement in the past, as well as his attempt to fathom the effects of slavery in the present. He discovered, in the basement of one of his family’s homes, a cache of documents: letters, invoices, ledgers, diaries, shopping lists and a Schindler’s list of slave names. This was where his journey began. It did not stop at emancipation. He writes of the tortured years after emancipation, the Morant Bay Rebellion in Jamaica (or, as the Jamaican’s see it, the First war of Independence), the contemptuous indifference of the colonial masters and ends with extensive discussions with a who’s who of (mainly Black, West Indian) academics and experts.

It’s a fascinating, and heart-breaking book, not only in his detailed descriptions of his family’s slave owning activities, but in the tragic, clearly documented reality that slavery may be over, but, as they said, ‘massa day ain’t done’.

Freedom didn’t then and doesn’t now equate with equality. A race largely regarded by the white status quo as beneath it intellectually, morally, spiritually and even at the level of being fully human were the justifications for slavery. They are still the justifications for police killings, their institutional racism, monkey chants at football stadia, vast inequalities in employment opportunities, horrific newspaper attacks on Black celebrities such as Meghan Markle, the refusal of the Royal Family to employ in a position of responsibility any person of colour into its white hallowed halls until the 80’s, lower life expectancies, suicide, murder and the physical toll on the body for simply living under the strain of knowing a traffic infarction could result in state murder. Etc.

Plus ca change…

The Fergusson’s (Renton’s slave owning family) are Scottish. I was unaware that, per capita, more Scots were involved in the slavery business than English (Their names litter the directories of the West Indian countries like a stain from the past).

They weren’t very successful at it. Neither of their holdings in Tobago or Jamaica panned out well; they simply sucked up lives (about 10% of their ‘slave stock’ died – and therefore had to be replaced – every year…a slave cost about the same as a small car) and money. Poor management, which, in Jamaica was also corrupt, violent and sadistic, along with bad decision making (£4m for 300 acres of dense forest in Tobago?), financial stupidity, hurricanes, the US War of Independence (that, like Brexit, chopped off nearby trade at its knees), cotton blight, local uprisings, the capture of Tobago by the French and sundry raids from privateers, meant that the dreams of fabled riches were never realized.

This was not the norm.

Sugar was such a lucrative crop that land in places such as Jamaica was five time more expensive than land in Scotland.

Duties alone from sugar accounted for about 15% of the exchequer’s income. And over 12% of GDP (That other slave consuming crop: cotton from the US provided employment for 20% of the British workforce in the nineteenth century. Modern Britain was largely funded by American and Indian cotton, W.I sugar and the loot the Empire stole from India)

Scotland was seen as profiting even more than England in its role as the cloth maker and outfitter of the 650,000 slaves. (American slaves produced the cotton; Scottish workers produced the clothes from it and sold it back to clothe the slaves in the WI…A different kind of triangular trade). It’s easy to forget the vast army of such cloth makers, iron mongers, salt herring picklers, barrel makers etc. who benefitted from the trade and whose angry voices were as loud as the planters in their opposition to ending it.

Once it finally ended there was more to do (The process was slow and agonizing. The cessation of the slave trade was not meant to herald an end to slavery itself. The hope was that slaves would simply, willingly, self-propagate. And even emancipation in 1834 was followed by a period of continued slavery, called apprenticeship, for four more years.).

Before the psychological rot set in for the slaves, the unpopularity of the institution meant that these fabulously remunerated slave owners quickly set about laundering their reputations: they purchased aristocratic titles, built sumptuous mansions, hid their dealings by proclaiming their ‘real’ role as bankers and lawyers, became philanthropists, contributed to museums (Sackler’s OxyContin money laundering followed a long heritage of reputation restorers) and had statues erected in their honor (one of which was, mercifully, torn down a few years ago).

And then the grand lie gradually eased its way into the history books. Forget about slavery  (Simon Sharma calls it “The original sin of the British Empire”); all that was worth reading about was Wilberforce and the glories of emancipation. Trinidad historian, Eric Williams put it best:“The British historians wrote almost as if Britain had introduced Negro slavery simply for the satisfaction of abolishing it”

And what of the slaves? 

The call to “just move on” to “let the past be the past”, to condemn angry Black voices as expressions of victimization, of a chip on the shoulder, morph into the glib equivocation that “all lives matter” and the crude chants of those who see slavery as a good thing, as having ‘rescued’ Black people from the poverty and backwardness of Africa.

Renton wonders whether his research is no more than virtue signaling and quotes the wisdom of one of his interviewees (his guide) in Jamaica. “Is nah de man whe shit the road remember it, but the man whe walk pon it, cyan forget”. Or, in summary to the Cameron’s of the world who see the past as -just- the past, “easy for you to say…I’m still living the past”. The author notes that the perpetuation of colour (and its gradations from near white, or good, to black, or bad) as an indication of aptitude, honesty and intelligence is really a perpetuation of the excuses used to justify slavery.

How does this legacy affect the off-springs of the slaves? To what extent is, say, the astronomical murder rate in Trinidad (one of the highest per capita in the world), the attraction of ISIS, the sense of racial inferiority, a legacy of slavery?

He quotes the work of two professors of psychology at the University of the West Indies, Frederick Hickling and Gerard Hutchinson who write of “trans generational epigenic inheritance…“ where ancestral memory has contributed to a “psychological ravishment”…a kind of inherited PTSD. Rhoda Bharath also from UWI laments the failure to develop a “stability of identity”. It’s an hypothesis agreed to by Hickling who writes of “…the unequal problems of identity and power” that continues to haunt Black people, whose personality disorders are six times greater than world average. “European colonialism” he writes, “protected White people from schizophrenia while engendering it in ‘coloured’”

Renton’s doleful conclusion to this continuity of the past, this on-going legacy of slavery,  is that “the former sugar and slavery colonies are still transferring their wealth in people to Britain and getting even less in return”.

Reparations? Where do you begin?

IN THE HEIGHTS**** Hits All The Right Notes

A FEW MONTHS after the trauma of 9/11, Meryl Streep sought out the balm of the theatre. She went to see Mama Mia. She was so rejuvenated by the buoyancy of the play that she bought the film rights. The result: a dancing, singing James Bond (aka Pierce Brosnan) in a delightful fun filled, infectiously charming movie.

Lin-Manuel Mirands’s joyous, foot-tapping In the Heights is as equally soul-healing and life-affirming and, its release having been pushed back from 2020,  just what’s needed in these Covid dark, Trump/Boris venomous days. Two hours of sheer pleasure!

The story, centred in the Latina microcosm of Washington Heights, (literally) dances around themes of identity, belonging and the need to follow your dreams. Fortunately, this last idea is rescued from gagging cliché by the story’s sly political weave with the politicised community of aspirational ‘Dreamers’, that ‘dangerous’ group so demonised by the Right.

It’s a clever movie: the frothy fairy tale story of boy meets girl, boy/girl get each other, of ambitions realised, of friends lost and found, contain far deeper layers of thoughtfulness and insight. For one thing, the idea of a community united and looking out for each other through a sense of shared cultural rather than racial or economic identity is energising. So too the story’s understanding of belonging and its role in shaping identity…all told through Miranda’s inventive lyrics.

The key actors, Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace and Melissa Barrera all manage to combine musical theatre’s magic threesome: peerless singing, dancing and acting.

But mainly, In the Heights is its music. The movie begins, with a recurring coda, that the sound of the streets is the background pulse of its dizzyingly infectious rhythms. They’re a hybrid of Dominican bachata and merengue, Puerto Rican reggaeton, Argentinian tango, Colombian cumba,  American hip hop and more. 

What a molé!

And oh the dancing: Busby Berkeley meets hot salsa! But great movie choreography is hugely dependent on the director. Jon Chu, who directed Crazy Rich Asians, has done a marvellous job of conveying both the footwork and the fun. People seem to be having a great time

So, if you want to escape for a few hours (OK, it did drag a bit in the middle of the tale); if you want to tap your feet and groove along in this least of foot-tapping times, leave your problems on the doorstep and dance into the Heights.

They rhythm is gonna get you.

IN THE HEIGHTS. Dir: Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians). Writers: Lin-Manuel Miranda (from his play); screenplay: Quiara Algería Hudes. With Anthony Ramos (Hamilton), Corey Hawkins (BlacKkKlansman), Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera. Composer: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Alex Lacamoire (The Incredibles 2), , Bill Sherman (Sesame Street). Cinematographer: Alice Brooks (Hoe Before Dark…TV). Choreographer: Christopher Scott

FINDING THE MOTHER TREE: Tremendously informative

A few years ago, I’d read a review of a book called The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohllenben. It seemed interesting, but the premise, “What they can feel, how they communicate…” seemed far-fetched and silly, so I passed it over. My loss, having just finished Suzanne Simard’s “Finding the Mother Tree: Uncovering the Wisdom and Intelligence of the Forest

Dr. Simard is a scientist and academic (professor in the Department of Forest and Conservation Sciences at The University of British Colombia) that for the last thirty years has been doing, leading really, some fascinating research into precisely that: how trees interact with each other and the unseen network that connects them (referred to by one journalist as the wood wide web).

In short, the belief when she started her research and beloved of the timber industry (and their sponsored governments) that trees compete (for light, water, nutrients etc.) rather than cooperate, is, she found, fundamentally flawed. Thirty years ago, Suzanne set out to challenge the (Canadian) orthodoxy of a government program called “Free to grow” whereby whole swathes of land would be cleared of everything but for the chosen (i.e. most profitable) tree species…a program that essentially turned forests into wood farms.

Her research (much derided then by the government, the foresters and the Monsanto’s of the world) showed that this approach was grossly inefficient, resulted in sicklier trees, and in the long term, harmful to the viability of the land (since it drained the soil of vital ingredients).

Far from being some sort of anthropomorphic, doolally nonsense the (peer reviewed and oft repeated) science is impeccable. Using Carbon 13 mass spectrometers, radioactive markers and other highly sophisticated means of making the invisible visible, Suzanne and her teams were able to follow the journey of the connections below the soil; follow the way trees pass carbon, sugars, nitrogen, water and other disease inhibitors from root to root via an intricate network of microrisal funghi threads (She speaks of “sugar molecules traveling through the networks like milkshake through a straw”).

It’s a transformative (to me) understanding of trees.

Here are a few highlights:
Forests are an inter-dependent community that depend on each other for a mutual exchange of nutrients to help them withstand disease, cope with climate change and grow strong.
Diversity is a fundamental as each species brings something unique to the party.
There are ‘mother trees’ who recognize and deliver nutrients specifically to their offspring.
Older trees will suck water up hydraulically through their much deeper roots to feed saplings whose roots are still shallow and which, therefore, may be affected during dry seasons.
Dying trees will yield their nutrient-rich store of carbon to younger off-springs, like some sort of parental legacy. These revelations are rootedly part of how the indigenous tribes understand their forests (ancient wisdoms we’re now ‘discovering’)
With little overstatement, she reframes forests as organisms connected through a neural network as complex and life affirming as the brain.

The book’s also an engaging memoir of Suzanne’s life: the growth in her academic and scientific self-confidence ( a woman in the logging industry was easy pickings!) and the personal markers (deaths, marriage, divorce, cancer etc) that shape her perspectives and her fortitude. It exudes a wonderful, joyful connectedness with the forest (makes you want to quit the city life immediately) and a quality of observation as keen as the finest artist


Yay. The movies are back. Back to the big screen with about three people sitting masked and socially distant. During the first lock-down we were tantalized with the buzz that theatres would be re-opening with the incredible awesomeness of Tenet, Christopher Nolan’s long awaited spectacularly filmed mystery dud about time. And to herald the ending of this newest lock down, the grand re-opening of cinemas once again has been built up with the launches of not one, but two pre-summer blockbusters, A Quiet Place Part II and Cruella.

So far this re-opening is going down with the same damp squidiness as the first one.

A Quiet Place Part II. *** Shhh**

The story of AQP2 begins excitingly enough with Day 1, a brief prequel to the first Quiet Place and an introduction of when (not so much how) it all began. This is as compelling an opening as the opening of World War Z, when the easy-going quotidian of daily life turns into mayhem and horror. That first ten minutes were definitely worth a star.

So far so good.

And then we return to the present; we’re back in the world where to make a sound is to court pretty much instant death (from creatures who clearly are nearby but make no sound at all since no one can ever hear them). Problem is, having had that horror twist unfold tensely in AQP1, AQP2 feels very much like same old, same old: more moments when quietness isn’t possible (the issue of a crying baby was sorted out in Part 1) and more vague journeying in search of a place alluded to in a ghost recording of Bobby Darren crooning about  “Somewhere beyond the sea”.

The conundrum AQP2 faced is the perennial one of how to continue the excitement and the unexpected in a part 2 story so that it’s more than just repetition (Brilliantly solved in Sicario 2).

It’s not been solved here. The writers have shifted the focus to the two kids (Millificent Simmonds and Noah Jupe), so it’s more of a coming of age story (or, “How I lost my innocence and learned to kill my first monster”…instead of the more status quo coming of age of “How I first got laid”).

But really, if you’ve seen the first, don’t bother with the second (or it appears, the soon to be written third)

A QUIET PLACE PART2 Dir/Writer: John Krasinski. With: Emily Blunt, Cillian Murphy, Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe. Cinematographer: Polly Morgan (Lucy in the Sky)

Cruella** the Deville wears Prada`

Here are two of my favourite Emmas – Stone and Thompson – seeking the same unexpected thrills and box office gold of that other parallel story, Maleficent. All good so far.

And then, back to that reference to “damp squidiness”. Emma Thompson as ‘the Baroness’ and costume designer Jenny Beaven (Dolittle, Mad Max: Fury Road) are given full license to simply go for it. And that they do. The Baroness is a deliciously nasty, imperious, evil, murderous, baddie. A fabulously, flamboyantly dressed…clothes designer.

Bathos meets blockbuster to produce mere boredom.

Estella (Emma Stone) is a poor orphan child dragged up in the underworld by a trio of (kindly) fellow orphans who teach her how to pickpocket. (What the Dickens is going on here you might well ask). But it’s her passion and flair for dress-design (She’d rather patch pockets than pick them) that connects her with the Baroness and is the catalyst to her evolution into Cruella.

Clearly someone, armed with focus group insights and in charge of the purse, felt that the pattern for profit meant that we had to empathize with Cruella. The result is that the movie (astonishingly shoddily written by six persons. Six persons!!!) consistently pulls its punches. Cruella is neither particularly likeable nor particularly evil; just haughty. Call it haughty couture. As for the Dalmatians, you’d never notice their presence. The 101 have been reduced to about three. It’s more cat-walk than dog show. One not worth dressing up for.

CRUELLA. Dir: Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya) Writers: Dana Fox + 5 others. Cinematographer: Nicholas Karakatsanis (I, Tonya).  Production Designer: Fiona Crombie (The Favourite). Costume Designer: Jenny Beavan

ALL THINGS SHINING. Redefining How We Engage with the World

ALL THINGS SHINING is a treasure trove of ideas about – very loosely – (Western) man’s understanding of his/her place in the world, from Homeric times when capricious gods shaped our destinies to an unquestioning, if ever changing idea of the Christian life, culminating with what the authors regard as modern nihilism. The book takes the reader on an intellectual journey from Homer to David Forster Wallace via Aeschylus, Christ, the neo-Platonic Aquinas, the Aristotelian St Augustine, Luther, Dante, Descartes, Melville, Kant and others.

All in under 300 pages.

Their hypothesis is that, unlike, say the Middle Ages, modern man chooses whether to believe in a divinity (be it God or gods). The fact that such a choice exists at all (It was inconceivable in the ancient world) has, according to the authors (philosophers Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly) resulted in a kind of nihilistic autonomy that has separated us from the enriching, life-enhancing, intuitive spiritual reality that’s at our door. Modern man’s very private introspection has generally alienated us from the very public, transcendent communal moods of the polytheistic Greeks. That kind of shared exultant joy and uplift we still however fleetingly experience in sport stadia (or I would add, revivalist religious or political congregations…the theatre even)

We need to learn to how to free ourselves from the flattening of technology, to be able to participate, Homeric like, and be swept away in the reconnecting joy denied us by the nihilism of the times. The skill lies in our ability to separate positive moods of interconnection (say participating in King’s “I have a dream” congregation) from destructive ones (say a Hitler or Trump rally).

The insights the book offers is almost clouded by this -very American?- self-help polemic. Don’t let that proselytizing put you off.

The authors suggest that the lens through which we view and understand our lives was formed by two fundamental ‘reconfigurers’ : Christ and Descartes. Christ shifted the framework of the moral life away from action (“I commit adultery”) to intent (“I’m open to committing adultery”) and from a fatalistic view of the universe to one where the idea of goodness was bound up with ‘agape’: the joy and celebration of the Christian life. Self-realization came via belief.

Descartes upended this with his famous dictum “Cogito ergo sum…I think therefore I am”. You will note, it’s not “I believe or I pray therefore I am”, it’s “I think…”. This is a radical shift in our idea of ourselves. As a result of Descartes, we became subjects independent from God…in a sense we became our own gods. His philosophy heralded the beginning of the modern world and the drift toward the potential nihilism of the autonomous individual.

The authors also dwell on that group of persons they call the ‘archetypal articulators’: Homer, Dante, Melville, Martin Luther King etc. (I would add Derek Walcott). These articulators were able to gather up and evoke the world of their times…the zeitgeist…in ways we may be able to appreciate but, from our modern context, might find hard to fully understand.   

The book’s an easy read (once you pay attention) and its size makes it an attractive proposition (I find the likes of Hillary Mantel’s final doorstop opus maximus too daunting to even contemplate). That said, I wish they’d spent less time on Melville and more on Kant and Heidegger.

There’s just no pleasing everyone

WITHOUT REMORSE** Time you’ll never recover

WHAT A HUGELY missed opportunity. This fast-paced, often nonsensical action movie is based on a fascinating premise: that a group of nativists seek to wean America away from its divisive ideological civil war and bring the country back together by a focus on a bigger war: against Russia. So they create the conditions for such war.

The director is Stefano Sollimar who did the outstanding Sicario 2. The movie has some first-rate actors: Michael B Jordan and Guy Pearce. The brooding score is from Jon Birgisson (Pieces of a Woman); Philippe Rousselot (Fantastic Beasts) is the cinematographer and the set design is Kevin Kavanaugh (The Dark Knight Rises). Even the clunky script is from Taylor Sheridan (who wrote both Sicario movies)

So what went wrong? The actual story, the plot, is so laughably silly and hunky hero John Kelly (Jordan) is so woodenly one-dimensional that even the OK-ish action sequences feel flat. There’s a shadow of the inconsequential, the ephemeral that lingers over the whole enterprise like its (imagined) ill-conceived mission statement: “We need content! So, let’s make a super hero movie without an actual super hero and with revenge at its heart”

Tom Clancy you should be blushing even now

TOM CLANCY’s WITHOUT REMORSE. Dir: Stefano Sollimar. With: Michael B Jordan and Guy Pearce. Scriptwriter: Taylor Sheridan. Cinematorgrapher: Phillippe Rousselot

NOMADLAND***** “Where never is heard a discouraging word…”

FERN (FRANCES McDORMAND) is a recent widow. The industry that sustained her community has collapsed. The money that sustained the life she once lived has evaporated. It is cold and damp and lonely (what Melville’s Ishmael describes as “the damp, drizzly November in my soul”.) And so, in a deliberate parallel to the idea of America, Fern, like Huck Finn, lights out, heading West in her modern covered wagon and learning the ways of the road (like how to mend a flat tyre) on an odyssey of discovery…the discovery of ‘what’s out there’

At first glance, there seems to be a major contradiction at the heart of Nomadland: having had her life torn asunder, first by the death of her husband and then by the death of the industry that sustained them, Fern’s seemingly enjoyable time working as a packer in Amazon is jarring. This is Amazon we’re taking about; the arch villain of humane people-centered industrial practices. The darkest face of modern capitalism. Even the life on the road that she’s chosen to live (in a tiny cramped van), seems more tolerable than you’d expect. Yes, it’s credibly spare and basic (Director Chloe Zhao makes a point of showing us the rudimentary conditions of her toilet processes), but it seems free from the imagined squalor and poverty you’d expect.   

But to fret over these details is to miss the intent, the magic even, of the story.

Don’t be fooled by its quasi-documentary feel. Much as the original story (from Jessica Bruder) may have been based on the gritty reality of these new road warriors: this army of people fleeing loss, destitution, homelessness, the collapse of their societies etc, this is a parable of renewal and hope. It’s about the indomitable strength of the human character; about the restorative power of finding and becoming a part of a bigger community of like-minded, non-judgmental souls, as she does; about the possibility of joy, of love and of enriched happiness in the face of a society where money is the (only) accepted route to such.

And it’s all told from her increasingly open-hearted point of view. It’s not so much ‘reality’ as her reality

And it is all this without mawkishness and Hallmark sentimentality. It’s a movie that inspires optimism in a world where cynicism and despair seem to only available roads. It’s as though the director is urging her audience to rediscover with Fern, the America of the imagination, Whitman’s expansive panoramic America, his America containing multitudes (where Amazon is just one of those that can effortlessly be absorbed by the contradictions of such vastness). The wonderful cinematography of Joshua Richards (God’s Own Country) lays it all before us: the America of the endless plain, the infinity of folding mountains, the fast flowing isolated streams where it is possible to lie naked, floating without a care or fear.

Nomadland is a quasi-mythic place that is accessed only by stripping away the dross of the politics, the commercialism, the divisiveness of what I guess may be Normal-land. And once you’re there, despite her sister’s cajoling and the seductive charms of a simpatico fellow nomad (David Strathairn) and his lovely family, really, you can never go back; you can never re-settle into the non-nomadic, anchored, way of life. The -finite- past is not the place where you want to return to (as she does toward the end when she revisits her past, now an abandoned town). The present, envisaged as a moment of timelessness, is where you need to live…where we all need to get back to.

Frances McDormand (accompanied by a group of non-actors and ‘real’ nomads that texture the movie) is as compellingly believable as usual. She manages to balance all the pain and sorrow and loneliness of the very vulnerable with the weathered maturity and self-contentment of someone who, like a solo mariner, is as comfortable alone as she is with company. Her ageless, variegated face is the face of the land she travels on.

Ms Zhao is well deserving of the Oscar in this piece of almost invisible directing; it suggests a story that tells itself, as if without ideological shaping. And she invests her tale with an easy rhythm; a flow as organic as the seasons that unfold before us.

I’m leaving on a jet ‘plane… soon

NOMADLAND. Dir (and screenplay) Chloé Zhao. With: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn. Cinematographer: Joshua James Richards. Art Director: Elizabeth Godar (Us)