Their Finest – a review

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Gemma Arterton stars in ‘Their Finest’ – oblivious of double yellow lines in the 1940s

A choice of two films this weekend both annoyingly and unimaginatively navel gazing. They are obsessed with the movie trade. One is British, one American. To irritate all the more they have a women as the central plucky talent trying to make it in the profession.

To be honest neither are inviting if subject matter, cast, and PR blurb are anything to judge by. They read as middle-of-he road slight productions, both destined for late night television before the year is out.

Coincidentally there are other similarities though only one is based on a novel.

Aging Warren Beatty’s look at a year in the autumn of Howard Hughes life as Hollywood movie producer is a love story he has co-written. The other film, how women were allowed into script writing on the British side of the industry, is also a love story, based on Lisa Evans Their Finest Hour and Half. I’ve no idea why the title was shortened, other than easier to get on a poster.  Maybe they thought critics would exploit it for a cheap gag – too long a running length.

A piece of British war nostalgia or a Hollywood vanity project? Hmm.

When I think back to Warren Beatty’s best films none are those he directed such as the seminal Bonnie and Clyde. He did direct Reds and took everybody by surprise, but generally he’s relied on other directors to propel his career.

His problem, it seems to me, is two-fold, behavioural and physical. He carries an air of vanity about him, too self-regarding in whatever character he performs – maybe Carly Simon’s song was ‘about him’. Secondly, his eyes are too close together and beady to be truly expressive. Now enjoying the status of Hollywood royalty, Beatty’s eyes have disappeared to the point of seeming two grains of rice on a terracotta tile. That must be a handicap in a profession where close-ups can make your face 20 feet tall on a screen.

In the event, I plumped for the British version of making movies though anything ‘British’ at the moment has unfortunate overtones of colonial propaganda, and misplaced patriotism. It’s a wonder Their Finest wasn’t entitled ‘The Best British Finest’.

Sure enough, in keeping with the barrage of British propaganda that has Scotland the unfortunate recipient these last years, Their Finest is actually Our Finest, a group of filmmakers finding a story to ‘inspire our nation’ – that is, England.

Released now, during a General Election that the British Tory party hope will wipe out all dissent for the next twenty years, it sticks in the craw. What a coincidence. No wonder we Scots fall foul of paranoia.

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Arterton sleep walks scenes but is attractive in blouses, cardigans and wrinkled stockings

Let’s get one thing out of the road, this is not about the pains of being a script writer. Hardly anybody suffers for their craft. There’s a lot of stiff upper lippery. The film has characters sit at a typewriter, scroll in a sheet of A4, think for a few seconds, hit the keys clackety-clack, and hey presto, out comes a fully formed script. (If only it was like that!)

There are two kinds of script writers. There are those who work from inspiration, usually politically driven, think of Spartacus, Lawrence of Arabia, and I, Daniel Blake, and undertake the occasional adaptation, and there are hacks who write cliché to a formula. I’ve done the first two and also ‘doctored’ poor scripts written by others where a character development is missing, or some humour.

The best screenplays tend to come from good novels, the screenwriter knowing what to leave out and what dialogue to add. Usually they leave out a lot of both, films are primarily visual. There are exceptions. Six writers worked on Casablanca, the first the novelist himself. Somehow it still ended as a piece of cinematic art.

In this tale of British filmmaking during World War II, Gemma Arterton – a so-so actress who keeps popping up to no great effect but a lot of chatter – plays Catrin Cole, a plucky young woman who finds work as a propaganda film screenwriter. She’s soon bored by the daily grind of “Britain and the Empire are good for mankind” informationals full of Hooray Henry drivel she has to write. She yearns for something of substance. The task of writing these scripts is presented grandiosely: Catrin receives the directive “We need a story to inspire a nation.” So off she goes to create a spirit of Dunkirk saga.

I can think of half-a-dozen propaganda films churned out by the Hollywood machine, often by some of the best directors, and Their Finest deserves credit for exploring a woman’s role in such an effort. Far too many WWII films are strictly tough, square jawed masculine stories in which women exist as quick-study love interests.

Catrin is more than that, though disappointingly her romantic trajectory is predictable. She’s pretty, empathetic, intelligent and quite witty, delivering her script ideas with enthusiasm.

It might surprise readers to learn that the writer was considered the lowest of the low in any production. They carried less status than the Best Boy, who brought the coffee. Not until the mid-Nineties were they allowed on a set. Directors felt constrained to have a writer sitting at their elbow complaining his work was getting crucified.

A woman screenwriter in the Forties was considered a novelty, and while the film addresses this, (she’s hired to capture “the feminine experience” – yuck!) Catrin’s struggles, sweat and hopes, never play like anything more than a jolly ramble.

Their Finest makes the long process of writing look easy. As I said, typewriter keys get clicked, a paper of two is balled up in frustration and tossed away, but soon enough – kazzam! – a script appears. (I refused computers and stuck with a typewriter until almost the Millennium. When my daughters insisted I use one it was a revelation – but I still can’t get the Snowpake off the screen.)

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It’s not the best film this year, and it not a charming comedy

The film does have a certain  warmth. It’s what’s called, slightly disparagingly, very tasteful. The best moments are those that lovingly show the process of filmmaking.

In one scene, set on a beach, a large piece of painted glass disrupts our field of vision until the shot pulls back and reveals it’s a piece of the set designed to create a cinematic illusion. Such visual invention is mostly kept to a minimum, though, as director Lone Scherfig’s (Lone?) aesthetic is in keeping with English period pieces of the last few years. And he has the smarts enough to engage the considerable talents of Rachel Portman as composer of the film’s music.

Like The Imitation Game and The King’s Speech before it, the film largely relies on small, enclosed rooms, double-breasted jackets, and a muted blue-grey colour palette as a means of tastefully conveying the past.

There’s comic relief in the hoary gestures of the normally droll Bill Nighy, enjoying himself as he plays the vain aging Ambrose Hilliard, the star of the film within the film. Richard E. Grant and Jeremy Irons make welcome appearances as higher ups, which pretty well guarantees Their Finest is nothing if not terribly English.

Playing the lead screenwriter is Sam Claflin. His Tom Buckley is bespectacled and awfully sensitive, and working close to Catrin in a chatty, one lump or two, creative atmosphere inevitably leads to that kiss.

The specter of war is always present, the blitz rages around their heads, delicately muted of course, and loss too becomes inevitable, but tension there is none, and very little conflict either. This is a B movie, and we ‘Brits’ have been churning them out for eons.

In a late scene Catrin finally watches her film with an adoring crowd. The moment and the composition is surprisingly poignant: The colors on the screen within the screen are a welcome burst of brightness, and the audience is rapt. In the world of Their Finest, at least, propaganda works.

Their Finest is a disappointment. It offers very little other than a jolly jaunt in Forties costumes, among Bakelite telephones, and cars with headlights masked. It could have delivered something more. I really should be angrier about the waste of time and talent on a television film, but there are bigger targets to fire at in London at the moment.

  • Star rating: Two and a half
  • Cast: Gemma Atherton, Sam Claflin, Bill Nighy
  • Director: Lone Scherfig
  • Writer: Gaby Chiappe, based on the book by Lissa Evans
  • Cinematography: Sebastian Blenkov
  • Music: Rachel Portman
  • Duration: 1 hour 57 minutes
Posted in Film review | 1 Comment

England The Oil Thief

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The Bank of England. It will shoulder all debts when Scotland opts out of the UK. And it’s as flaky as any bank, implicated in approving manipulation of LIBOR rates

One of the most pernicious lies plied on Scotland by British nationalists is the one about Scotland being a poverty-stricken country, perpetually on the brink of bankruptcy, begging for hand-outs. Considering Scotland’s been ruled by Westminster almost 300 years yet apparently none the better for it, that’s quite a con-trick.

England, not Scotland, is the nation prone to bankruptcy, not only economically, but with a Tory party ushering in policies more right-wing than the BNP, it’s fair to add it’s bankrupt ideologically and morally.

The saddest part is how many intelligent, patriotic Scots – as far as they dare be without impediment to their ambitions – actually believe Scotland has little or no wealth of its own sufficient to exist as an autonomous state. Their only answer is the lie they are taught to repeat: “We can’t afford it”.

False Accounting and GERS

How wealthy is Scotland? To squeals of pain from Scotiaphobes, we learn from an eminent, non-partisan English economist and chartered accountant that the UK Treasury system of calculating Scotland’s annual wealth called GERS – Government Expenditure and Revenue, Scotland – is pure hogwash.

Professor Richard Murphy explains most of it is estimation based on conjecture. One might as well ask a blind granny to stick a pin into a bingo card.

The figures are a faux summary inapplicable to the calculation of Scotland’s income and expenditure as an autonomous state. They were conjured out of thin air to befuddle the Left, particularly the nationalists, ensuring neither get near the truth. That some aspects are endorsed by a brow-beaten Scottish Government is neither here nor there. They have nothing else to go on, and the UK Treasury is in no mood to provide the true figures. But think of the logic: you only con a nation when its wealthy enough to steal from it. If poor find an easier mark.

Professor Murphy goes further. He suggest they do not help England to know better how it should shape its annual expenditure in the modern world. Both nations deserve far better. Murphy is not the first to show GERS is so much nonsense, but his report comes from the intellect and reputation of an expert who does not vote SNP, nor advise the SNP.

Thus a central shibboleth of Unionist dogma collapses.

Darien – myth and facts

Darien was Scotland’s attempt to set up a trading post unfettered by English interference. It was never the case Scotland was bankrupt as an outcome of three failed Darien schemes. Money circulation dropped by about a third. Some historians place it at a quarter of money lost to circulation. That isn’t bankruptcy.

After Darien, circulation was strong enough for the English parliament to raise taxes to pay for the loan they provided to bail out the few nobles and clergy who sold their country to the lowest bidder. The Treasury made a fine profit for it provided only half the loan promised, the other half worthless company debentures. England needed Scotland docile, paying for protection. It had wars with Europe to conduct.

The First Great Bankruptcy

Having fought Germany in World War II and the Japanese in Burma, England arrived on the day peace was declared pretty well bankrupt. Churchill himself records that if the Germans had sent a second wave of bombers we might all be speaking German as our first language. The public purse was empty.

America came to the recue. It had a plan, the Marshall Plan. It was an ideological strategy. The plan offered billions of dollars in loans to war torn European countries so long as they dropped socialist policies. The money had the expressed aim of buying allegiance and gaining trading territories.

The Marshall plan also used money for ‘dark’ operations. It helped finance the corruption of Italy’s 1948 elections, and that agency later moulded into the CIA. The political nature of this plan was not only to keep communists out of the cabinets of Italy and France, goals which were mainly executed through covert means, but also as then-Secretary of State Dean Acheson put it, “a matter of national self-interest.”

The creation of the system is connected to another goal: building up markets for American exports, which George Marshall, who the plan is named after, expressed in a State Department bulletin in early 1948:

“It is idle to think that a Europe left to its own efforts … would remain open to American business in the same way that we have known it in the past.”

It should be apparent to readers why so many right-wing American politicians dislike the existence of a  European Union. It’s a threat to US trade routes.

America to the rescue with strings attached

To avert bankruptcy Britain took as much as it was offered, and contrary to popular belief didn’t pay it all back until as late as 2006 – 61 years later – having failed six times to repay it’s annual instalments of over £60 million plus interest. Britain’s ‘special relationship’ with the USA almost wholly rests on that loan. Scotland too poor to bail out the collapse of the RBS is bull crap. The UK Treasury paid out from Scotland’s taxes.

For over twenty years the majority of money loaned to the UK and European countries was used to buy American goods, including armaments, all of which benefitted the US economy. American corporations began to appear all over the UK and Europe.

Air bases appeared on Scottish soil as the US ramped up the Cold War with the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc states. At one point there were over 200 military installations in Scotland pointing at the USSR. The MOD still governs large tracts of land. Try asking for Edinburgh’s Pentland Hills back as a public park.

So long as the USA and puppet England warned of evil commie infiltration so long was the UK happy to have US protection. When the Soviet Union collapsed the influence of the US on British life waned. It isn’t for nothing right-wing forces are again doing their level best to make Russia the big bad bogeyman.

Britain grabs another nation’s oil

The Marshall Plan had a secondary agenda. A hidden aim was to displace British power. The USA also needed oil.

In 1953 Britain had about 100 per cent of Iranian oil – called Persia back then, a 2,000 year old civilisation – the oil held by a company called Anglo-Persian. The contracts were complete extortion, a joke.

Persians got next to nothing. England laughed all the way to the bank. Anybody studying that time of English history will see familiar parallels with the way Scotland’s oil was hijacked and then ring-fenced.

But Persia was a rebellious nation. It had a long democratic tradition. Persia’s prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegha, nationalised the oil industry – the right thing to do. It advanced the cause of Persian national sovereignty. As far as he was concerned Persia’s resources belonged to its population.

The US was angry with what it saw as an uprising against British approved theft. In cahoots with the English cabinet and British Intelligence Service, the US arranged a coup – a dab hand at regime change – and installed the authoritarian Shah to the throne. He gave 40% of the oil to the USA as a thank you. The UK got next to nothing.

England was furious. Just as British nationalists talk of Scotland as a poor house, the USA and the UK addressed Persia in disparaging terms as a backwater, its people uneducated. Does that sound familiar?

A New York Times editorial praised the coup. “Underdeveloped countries, [ouch!] with rich resources now have an object lesson in the heavy cost that must be paid by one of their number which goes berserk with fanatical nationalism.”  [My emphasis.]

England has never stopped addressing other nations as inferior – except the USA.

The Second Great Bankruptcy

When the British Government handed over billions in state savings to bail out corrupt banks and financial institutions, instead of keeping the prosperous parts and jettisoning the criminal parts, the UK faced bankruptcy a second time. “There is worse to come” said one politician after another, probably after switching their investments to a tax haven. Without Scotland’s taxes England is economically vulnerable.

A Third near miss

Incidentally, the Marshall Plan was not the only time London has had to look West for a bailout. In 1976, the UK borrowed £2.3bn from the Washington-based IMF – the International Monetary Fund, after a slump in the pound threatened to turn into a crisis. By that point it did not realise how much oil was under the North Sea, but a civil servant called Gavin McCrone did in 1974. He advised the British government to stay schtum in case they caused the pesky Scottish natives to rebel.

His report was supressed for 30 years.

Scotland’s oil

“It’s Scotland’s oil” ran the posters in the seventies, eventually sending 11 SNP MPs to Westminster.

Back in the eighties a Department of Energy report stated “The discoveries of North Sea Oil off Aberdeen is probably the most important event since the Industrial Revolution.”

How to keep it? One: play down reserves. Two: play down Scottish wealth without it.

This they did to great success, and still do despite vast new fields discovered in the last two years. They are still doing it, “deliberately”, to quote an old joke.

Alas, the SNP under Willie Wolfe gradually wound down the campaign to regain our oil reserves. They were embarrassed at the slogan ‘Scotland’s oil’ feeling they might be seen as selfish in not sharing it. (I share reader’s exasperation over that climb down.)

The ultra-right-wing Tory, Sir Bill Cash, a chief propent of getting the UK out of the European Union stated, “North Sea oil is in significant decline and it’s not producing the revenues. Even supposing they [the SNP] can get their hands on North Sea oil because there is an issue about territorial waters, which doesn’t seem to get discussed – they belong to the United Kingdom.” When a Tory says the oil is dwindling you know the opposite is true, there is wealth to harness.

The UK needs Scotland’s wealth, desperately. There is lots more oil to plunder. It’s on the path towards another bankruptcy if it goes on the projected borrowing spree that lifts real debt to over £2 trillion.

Taxes will be increased again. And VAT, and National Insurance.

England needs Scotland’s wealth

England’s scrofulous behaviour is unforgivable. It removes not only the wealth of friendly nations, but also their civil rights. Everything is done in England’s interests.

When the clunking intellect of Gordon Brown proclaims the United Kingdom stands for “pooling and sharing” it’s card shark speak for fooling and scaring.

So precarious does the world finance houses think UK to be that they withdrew its hallowed triple A status. At various points in our history Scotland was a wealthier nation than England, vastly so when oil arrived.  We are probably as wealthy today, per capita.

I repeat: England needs Scotland’s wealth. If it sounds eerily like 1707 it is because it is.

Who in their right mind would cosy up to a nation state that has a record of conducting endless wars, causes multiple-bankruptcies, and steals the wealth of other nations?

Post script: The largest recipient of Marshall Plan money was the United Kingdom (receiving about 26% of the total), followed by France (18%) and West Germany (11%). Some 18 European countries received Plan benefits. Although offered participation, the Soviet Union declined, and blocked benefits to such as East Germany and Poland.  It recognised the USA’s hidden agenda.

Posted in Scottish Independence Referendum, Scottish Politics | 31 Comments

The Ineptitude of Theresa May

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I’ve just got here, but don’t shed a tear, because I fear, I must … be going!

Unable to face Her Majesty’s opposition and like Erdogan of Turkey wants unlimited autocratic powers? Playing games with the constitution, or plain feckless?

Donald Trump’s buffoonish reputation for changing his mind from one day to the next depending on who is whispering in his ear is now emulated by Theresa May. As if May’s glad-handing of Trump wasn’t enough to cause us to shiver.

“No general election until 2020” her mantra for months on end, but today it’s time for a general election. The date is June 8th. “Brexit means Brexit” she repeated moronically, as if selling hot cross buns from a stall, “the British people have voted”.

And yet it doesn’t mean that at all. It means the United Kingdom is divided and needs united. But wait, no, it also means “The country (she means England) is united but the House of Commons is divided.” Remember, this is the woman who originally advocated we ‘remain’ in Europe. And she’s already planning to use taxes to pay for systems that were once free – foreign workers will have to get a visa. We’ll need an entire new infrastructure to service that void.

How can you trust May’s word? Theresa May’s certainty is reversed tomorrow.

Not so long ago Westminster voted overwhelmingly to place on the statute books the Fixed Term Parliament Act to avoid just this sort of cavalier approach to governance. May must now overturn that Act – an indication of how easy Westminster can annul Scotland’s Parliament.

Her calculation is uncomplicated: with Tories showing a 44% popularity in English ratings against other parties in the lower 20% she aims to capitalise on the surge of admiration for ‘Maggie reborn’ with a bigger majority than the shaky one currently, giving her power to ramrod through Westminster the most authoritarian, uncaring, retrogressive legislation imaginable. Neo-liberal conservatives love fox hunting.

She needs a two-thirds majority in the Commons to activate a general election. Labour, led by salty sea dog Jeremy Corbyn, instead of resisting the stupidity, promise May full support. Once more England’s Labour party offers its mortal political enemy a helping hand back to power. It could well mean Labour reduced to a rump party. As it is, if all opposition parties joined forces they could block May’s attempt at right-wing sainthood.

Theresa May politics are all over the place one hour to the next. “Now is not the time”, “No one wants it”, “Get on with the day job”, empty slogans she’s thrown at the Scottish electorate and its government. What she is attesting is what we have known for generations: England rules the United Kingdom of nations. Whatever is in England’s interest is in all our interests. Whatever suited its agenda yesterday can be altered today, and tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow if necessity is the cover for prevention.

Only an inept prime minister would dump a vulnerable territory, Gibraltar, with its 98% vote to remain EU citizens, and next day say she will protect Gibraltar from the Spanish despite no longer having EU membership behind the UK to block Spain’s intervention.

As I write May has announced she will not take part in televised debates. That’s how much she respects the electorate. Will she change her mind at the last minute? Does it matter? Tories own the game board, the dice, and the score card.

An early General Election is a cynical throw of the dice. “We should stop playing games with politics” was her statement of intent that politics must be treated with respect. Today she plays games as only an extreme right-wing administration dare.

It’s dangerous to take the electorate for granted, to manipulate it, but that’s what May is doing. The only way to describe the move is blatant political opportunism. But inept she is for the election guarantees there will be a second Referendum on the right of Scotland to make its own choice about Europe, the very thing she hoped to avoid.

“Scotland is currently a one party state” opined an idiotic BBC journalist oblivious to the fact that it cannot ever be so under the voting system imposed on it by Westminster, and oblivious to the fact Theresa May is planning on exactly that situation to rule the United Kingdom for … shall we say … a generation, whatever that means, but we can suppose it means twenty years or more.

Can we trust the Tory party not to engage again in creative accountancy with its electoral funds? Can anybody trust a political party that has made tax evasion a billion dollar legal business and starved its own public services in the process? Does the Tory party think voters are stupid. The answer surely is yes.

Perhaps, and there’s a chance of this happening, perhaps England’s electorate have had enough of all the machinations and power playing. Maybe they see her doing as Turkey’s Erdogan did – demand more power. They might just give her the shock she deserves.

Faced with a House of Lords that wants EU nationals protected, MPs that know pulling out of Europe instead of joining with other member states to reform it is a disaster, a Northern Ireland ungoverned, and a Scotland that’s given its only dedicated party a mandate for a second Referendum on autonomy, May decides a General Election is the answer. She’s the least astute prime minister since Neville Chamberlain waved a letter in the air as he disembarked from his plane shouting “Peace for our  time.”

This isn’t about greater democracy, this is about junking the constitution, the Tory party ruling till the sun sets on a new empire. Forget an election. It’s a coup.

What’s the old Scot’s saying again about warm clothing? Never cast a cloot till May’s oot”.

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Posted in Scottish Politics | 17 Comments

The Handmaiden – a review

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Koreans Min-hee Kim and Jung-woo Ha having an intimate painting session

The Handmaiden is one hot, sizzling beautiful movie to look at and to listen to. You watch its most erotic scenes either wondering what sort of man is the director – it’s essentially a lesbian parable – or you accept there are genuine, fearless artistes at work here, author, director, photographer and actors as interpreters, in perfect harmonious collaboration. There must have been any number of closed sets to create privacy while the actors got on with the job of acting whilst naked.

As a man I found a lot of the sex scenes cringeworthy, too long, too hackneyed. The joy of this film is in the affectionate and then loving relationship between two strong-willed and smart women, not in the bonking. We revel in their unspoken moments and their secrets. The soixante-neuf sequences are straight out of a yellowing Playboy magazine.

Handmaiden shouldn’t be confused with a much earlier film of a similar title, the 1987 The Handmaiden’s Tale, an all-Hollywood affair, an indifferent adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s speculative Utopian novel. This Handmaiden is of a wholly different order.

Though I didn’t read it, I recall the hullabaloo when the novel, set in London, was published in 2002, a gothic lesbian suspense entitled Fingersmith. Lesbianism was becoming a topic for the chattering classes, but not a subject for the commercial silver screen, and not full-blooded one-on-one love-making.  

The novelist, Sarah Waters was on a crusade about the lack of normalized lesbian affairs in literature. When the 2014 year’s movie list circulated showing projects ready for production I was surprised to see director Chan-wook Park (Oldboy) was adapting the novel to his tastes – a man, and one usually obsessed with torture and violence.

What can a man add to this story? Well, he adds tremendous artistry, sensibility, suspenseful twists, and a whole skip-load of male fantasy sex scenes. Perhaps the ninety-per cent good bits is why it was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the 2017 Oscars but didn’t win because of the ten per cent wriggly bits.

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Victorian Gothic, mixed with Korean, mixed with Japanese – but somehow it works

Park transplants Waters’ story from Dickensian London to 1930s Korea. Park offers us a visually exquisite, dazzling, darkly comic story about two women fed up with patriarchy. For once Park ditches his signature cartoonish violence to give us restrained story telling, and just a little bit of gory violence.

Soo-kee, (Kim Tae-ri) is a brash young Korean pickpocket, a fingersmith, and resident of a “baby farm,” where orphans are taken in to learn the craft. When the Count, (Ha Jung-woo) saunters into the old house with an elaborate plan to trick the shy Japanese Lady Hideko, (the  marvellous Min-hee Kim) out of her wealth and into an insane asylum, Soo-kee’s eyes light up at the thought of a fortune. The Count, who can pass for Japanese, plants her as Hideko’s new handmaiden to help in his wooing of her.

Soo-kee is the perfect opposite of prim and proper Hideko, who’s practically a prisoner on the sprawling estate of the uncle, (Cho Jin-woong) she’s supposed to marry. If you accept the patriarchal class system you will accept she is betrothed to a rusty old gent more keen on listening to pornographic literature read, than actually getting into bed with the exotic lady at his feet.

The story begins of two intelligent, but stifled women. The first part is told from the villain’s point of view, the second part is told from the women’s point of view.

Most of Hideko’s time is spent “studying” in a secret, dusty, off-limits library. Hideko’s fascinated with this new woman who can’t even show up to work with both shoes on, and as Soo-kee longingly describes Hideko’s beauty in voice-over, the film quickly turns sensual. These offer some of the best, most erotic moments. The naked writhing’s on various horizontal surfaces destroys eroticism. Sex is what we carry in our imagination. What we anticipate, the journey and release delayed, is the most sensual part, not the graphic final thrust.

Soo-kee dresses her mistress, fingers lingering on the silk-wrapped buttons running the length of Hideko’s spine – a fingersmith of a different kind – while the air is filled with a smoky silence and expectation. It’s all bottled passion amid a warm glow of innocence.

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The plot to ensnare takes more twists and turns than a snake on ecstasy

From a quick glance on Amazon you can tell the original novel has many more characters in it, but here Park gets snippy with scissors to remove extraneous characters and scenes so we are left with the most interesting core material. If only he had done the same with his over-indulgent director’s cut.

Nevertheless, he gives us many  a memorable moment: Soo-kee bathing Hideko, scattering blush-pink rose petals in the tub, fingers of steam rising from the water; Soo-kee rubbing an aching gum with her finger to soothe away the pain; Hideko, desperate to slow down the advances of her male suitor, drinking his drugged wine herself and spitting it into his mouth while they kiss; a garden sequence dappled in sunlight when repressed love is comingled with devious ambition.

As in any good suspense story, happiness must get a kick up the behind. We soon get sucked – if that is the right verb – into the ménage é trois, but from a man’s point of view, that is, the director’s.  It would be enlightening to hear a woman’s point of view, lesbian and heterosexual. That limitation, however, doesn’t stop us seeing the story’s illumination of men’s false perceptions of women and their motives.

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Director Chan-wook Park on the set, probably wondering how women do it

Park allows the two main characters a sense of joy and adventure. And even with all the sex and intrigue, the dialogue is freely littered with humour – especially in a hanging scene of all things – just when the tension needs to be cut, allowing the handmaiden of the title, Tae-ri Kim time to impress with her comic ability.

Despite the many, mostly implausible, garish sex scenes, Park still manages to depict a loving relationship between two women in the middle of a gripping, snaking, humorous suspense film. I’d award it four-and-half stars had it been twenty-five minutes shorter. There’s nothing to bore us, for Park catches us just before we think a scene is too long, but it is far too self-indulgent a director’s cut to be perfectly balanced – sadly, a vain director’s ailment, the inability to leave edits on the cutting room floor.

A final observation: if you keep the analytical side of your mind working throughout the film’s two hours and 25 minutes, and you wish dearly for Scotland’s freedom to make its own decisions again, you’ll spot familiar tropes in this fabulous fable of skulduggery and sublimation. Handmaiden is a quiet lesson in the humiliation that is known as… submitting to colonial rule.

  • Star rating: Four
  • Cast: Min-hee Kim, Tae-ri Kim, Jung-woo Ha
  • Director: Chan-wook Park
  • Writer: Seo-Kyeong Jeong, from the novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters.
  • Cinematographer: Chung-hoon Chung
  • Music: Yeong-wook Jo
  • Duration: 2 hours 25 minutes
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Hollywood Sting

 

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The gates to heaven … or hell

“If you’re going to Hollywood, go for fun … and get a bloody lawyer!”

That’s wise advice from Sean Connery. You can be at the top of your fame and still get stiffed. Even he got cheated out of fees. In fact, you’re more likely to be swindled if a successful artiste than a beginner. If ambitious but untalented there’s a shortcut: steal the other guy’s work.

Money, money, money

The annual sales output of Hollywood to all world territories and ancillaries is reputed to bring more inward investment than any other industry in California outside weapons manufacturing.

With big money comes big temptations, the reason California is home to twenty-five percent of America’s lawyers. Money means power. The unwary are brought down, vultures and jackals skilled at picking the bones clean.

A rookie abroad

A never-ending line of scumbags waits to pilfer work and wages at the drop of a paperclip. Master filmmaker Akira Kurosawa was revered by Hollywood types yet wasn’t too big or too famous to be ripped off. A studio remade the Seven Samurai as The Magnificent Seven without paying him. They simply stole his copyright. He sued and won, but it took years to get justice. Visiting Hollywood, writer, composer, cinematographer, director, Bengal’s own polymath Satyajit Ray, mentioned his children’s story of a little alien coming to earth befriended by a small boy and, hey presto, it appeared as ET.

With those examples in mind I took Connery’s advice and got an entertainment lawyer, one with her own firm, honest, robust, and caring. But having a signed contract doesn’t protect you from theft or a court case. Lawyers can’t stop you from getting ripped off .

The Sting

The ‘Hollywood Sting’ consists of luring, bribing, or blackmailing a victim to hand over his screenplay, and before the victim has time to recover, sell it to another person, or actually put it into production having engineered legal rights to it. That process requires patience, anything from three to six months.

Tools of the trade

To conduct a successful sting you have a few things in place. You have some sort of industry track-record, a back-catalogue of projects that can be traced. A high profile is good because status always impresses the easily impressionable.

You should have an office, and meet at an expensive eatery where you pay the tab, the waiter greeting you as a long-time valued diner. A glamorous female assistant to flatter helps with the seduction.

The Mark, the Flake, and the Scumbag

The victim, the man or woman with the original, commercial screenplay, is called The Mark. He is the rookie in the story, Mr Everyman.

Chief villain is the man with money who makes money, the executive producer, the power broker, The Scumbag. He has the mentality of a mole-strangler. He has no artistic ability whatsoever. Making money is his forte, not being humble. Materially he has everything except parents.

The Scumbag is easy to spot. He has a face like a squeezed teabag. He never wears his jacket. He carries it draped over his shoulders. He talks of employee loyalty but offers none himself. He has photographs of idiot movie stars in bed with hookers, and boasts they work for him at half their normal salary.

A fox in wolf’s clothing

The Scumbag has a willing go-between to do his dirty work, a flaky producer trusted to deliver the Mark. He is The Flake. The Scumbag is plastic, the Flake is elastic. He’s pliable because he has a weak personality. His private life is usually a mess, two divorces, short-stay girlfriends, rented digs, and a predilection for the booze, an unreformed alcoholic. He’s adept at skating on thin ice, but never there when it breaks.

Working boozers hide their illness well; ask any battered housewife. That’s a skill borne of years of practice, as is the Flake’s ability to worm a jammy donut from the mouth of a crocodile.

I met my first industry Flake on a project in Scotland; drunk by midday, obnoxious by mid-afternoon. The soak came highly recommended by a famous English filmmaker whose name rhymes with Button ‘Em. I often wonder if the sly sod had it in for me.

Preparing the Mark

Scouts bring production companies news of writers uninitiated in Hollywood’s nefarious ways. This is where the story really starts: The Scumbag offers the Flake a large fee to groom the Mark to steal his screenplay.

The Flake befriends the Mark by a series of apparently spontaneous social meetings, lunches, and invitations to industry parties, eventually expressing praise for the Mark’s work, and offering to do his level best to find a backer.

Though cautious and perceptive, the Mark dismisses his private qualms of the Flake’s character. After all, the Flake must have good judgement; he praised the script and has made movies. The Mark, by now energised by hope, ignores the warning signs in pursuit of a production, and his name established.

The Steal

The Flake, a man without conscience or dignity, sets up a meeting for the Mark with the Scumbag. The Mark is given a guarantee of production. He leaves the building elated. At this point a rookie might be tempted to go out and buy a car. Stop! Where is the contract?

While negotiating his contract the Mark is given expenses-paid preproduction duties to undertake. It might be location work, or actor auditions to conduct. This creates a false sense of security. The grooming is almost complete.

Next, with impeccable timing, the Flake suggests the screenplay needs some fine tuning. He tells the Mark he can fix it in a jiffy. Though he thought the script endorsed, the Mark drops his guard and hands over his original work.

The Flake gives the screenplay to the Scumbag and collects his thirty pieces of silver. He then withdraws from the project isolating the Mark.

The Scumbag closes down preproduction abruptly. The scam is successful. The screenplay is extensively rewritten by some low-grade hack until barely recognisable from the original, copyright effectively in dispute. The Mark is left confused and angry.

A true story

There are many Hollywood scams to wheedle work from its rightful owner. The scenario I relate is one of the most sophisticated. It happened to many writers. I am one. Sigh. But here’s the thing: crooks are good at intimidation, crap at administration. Detail doesn’t interest them. About a year later, and a lot of grieving, I got a call from an advertising agency out of the blue. They wanted my curriculum vitae or résumé as they call it.

“We have everybody résumé, sir, but yours is missing. And we can’t release the DVD until we have all the publicity material.”

The Scumbag’s lackeys forgot to take my name off the purloined, rewritten script. My lawyer called the Scumbag. “My firm is placing an injunction on your company to halt distribution of all 10,000 DVDs to stores and other outlets. Your film is based on my client’s original invention. My client wants all of his fees plus ten percent interest, and my costs. You have one hour to comply.”

A kinda happy ending

The cheque was couriered to my Los Angeles bank, cashed on the spot. Later, facing multiple law suits, the Scumbag got jail and a $70 million fine for improperly inflating his movie budgets, a fraud to sell his ill-gotten projects to distributors at artificially high prices.

As for alcoholic film crew: I learned to take interviewees out to lunch. If they order a whisky or a gin after two pints they do not get the job. And before anybody says that’s sleazy Hollywood for you, I should add I’ve had original work stolen by scammers in the British film and double-dealing television industry, but that’s another story of liars and betrayal altogether.

“They all steal from you” said Connery. Aye, they do, Big Man, they do.

[A version of this essay appeared in iScot magazine, the thinking Scot’s periodical]

Posted in Art, Media | 1 Comment

My Country to Govern

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The association of achievement and a Saltire sits ill with some Scots

If a Scot anywhere says, give me my country to govern again, he is judged a fool, and everything is done to demean him and mock him.

When an Englishman says he wants his country back to govern again, and shouts freedom into the face of Europeans, his countrymen praise him and applaud.

The only freedom the people of Scotland can get is through the struggle to regain the civil rights we don’t have but English do, and all those they have lost and don’t care a damn that they have forfeited.

Handball not football

Scotland is allowed the small things, the also ran, the junior event, the touring production, the amateur show, the provincial television station, a parliament with next to no economic power. The charade does not make us feel we are a proper nation.

Westminster warns they will punish us if we use the very pound sterling we helped create, or they will place border controls to corral us if we resist their rule, or they will fine us, reduce the allowance they give us from our taxes if we do anything they dislike. And then they have the effrontery to demand they know what it is that makes us say we are constrained or oppressed.

We have an England that saw fit to use Scots men and women in two world wars and have them fight and die for liberty and freedom but they will not allow us to govern ourselves. What kind of freedom is that? We have an England that saw fit to use Scotland as a guinea pig for unpopular policies. What kind of friend is that? We have an England that destroyed a nation’s industry rather than support it. What kind of ally is that? And they say, and still say, stay with us for together we are Utopia.

A different reality

The English have a set of assumptions, a reality, that is different from Scotland, shared by some Anglophile Scots. Their reality is based on a century of empire, wars and battles, heroes made, territory captured. And they ask, why we do not see things as they do?

What that means is, the Scotsman or woman standing before them, protesting, holding  a placard, is stupid to resist their system to which they owe their identity.

They defend an English system, an English reality. It isn’t one constructed by Scotland for Scotland. They dislike what they see as European supremacy imposed on England, but think nothing of English supremacy imposed on Scotland.

Once we were warriors

There was a time last century when the Labour party, always a Unionist party committed first and foremost to England’s might and ambitions, that actually fought hard for Scotland’s corner. There existed Scots who felt Scotland had a right to a share in the United Kingdom’s wealth that Scotland helped create. But here’s the rub, they had to fight for it. It wasn’t Scotland’s without asking, it wasn’t Scotland’s by right or by deed.

Back in the 1960s even the Conservative party recognised they had ignored Scotland’s material and social plight for too long. Too long was two hundred years. The British Treasury was draining Scotland of its earnings and squandering it on imperial wars and weapons to enhance the status of greater England they liked to call Britain

The British Treasury gave Scotland £600 million to help clear our city slums, to rebuild, to create outer city communities, to encourage entrepreneurism. The Highlands and Islands Development Board was set up. The whole of Scotland – except Edinburgh – was considered a priority development area. We got a fast breeder reactor, an aluminium smelter, a second Forth Bridge, a Tay Bridge two years later, and the promise of 10,000 jobs created at a monster coal pit called Longannet. Life looked good.

Our new found hyper-activity was mirrored in our culture. The Edinburgh International Festival of the Arts grew in all directions in activity and fame. Our artists were feted in London. BBC Scotland adapted and produced some of our greatest novels. New, bright filmmakers and writers were everywhere. James Bond was a Scotsman.

And there’s more

The flow of money didn’t stop there. A brace of universities sprang up, or perhaps a mortarboard of higher education: Heriot Watt, Dundee, Stirling, and Strathclyde. And following the new elite there came the intuitions to teach the teachers to teach, Ayr, Hamilton, and Falkirk, the dominies who would attain a lectureship in the new universities one day and a few be principals. The working class were still called the working class but saw a ladder to middle-class if they were willing to take it.

What happened next?

None of those advances did any good for Labour in Scotland. They won Westminster but at each general election they gained no more than a handful of seats from the Tories.

England’s parliament couldn’t sustain the expenditure. They took them all away one by one except our bridges, and they might have removed them too had they not been cemented down hard, pile driven into Scottish bedrock.

An incontrovertible harsh reality opened before them. Their struggle for their nation’s equality, for parity, was never ending. Those who gifted it took it away again.

Running even the remnants of an empire is a costly business. By handing largesse to the Scots Westminster had raised expectations they could not sustain, nor could their local staff, the Scottish Labour branch. Labour had no alternative means of income. They had no power. Every gain evaporated, or regressed.

The British government discovered they couldn’t balance their books. So they took to stealing Scotland’s oil. Sticking their name on it doesn’t make it any the less theft, no two ways about it. Only, when it’s billions upon billions of pounds it’s grand larceny on a scale hitherto unknown between two nations.

Same old, same old

Unemployment did not reduce, talented youth did not stop emigrating. In 1967 over 47,000 left Scotland. Scotland’s social problems were  unsolvable by showering short-term money at each problem. Scotland’s ills were as unmanageable  as Cromwell’s parliamentarians said they were, before setting Scotland free again.

The Scottish electorate became disillusioned, disaffected. They looked at the SNP and its policies as a potential champion for Scotland’s needs. That is where we are today, with a rump Tory party none actually elected to Scotland’s parliament, and a useless, spurned Labour party still holding tight to Britishness.

But one compensation emerged: we have food banks for the destitute.

What of the individual?

By the time a person was mature, in their thirties, they saw themselves as not quite part of the English fraternity. They felt somehow second-class, not wearing the right school tie, never part of the right rugby club, second-rate in some painful cases, or just not worthy. And they began to consider what that would do to their children.

It affects us all in unconscious, subliminal ways in our daily lives. We might not notice it, but others do when we cringe on hearing some Scot make good, be accepted, praised, or merely speak in a Scottish accent. “That can’t be so”, we say. “I kent his faither.”

Where are we now?

We are witnessing another awakening of English imperialism and the intolerance that rides with it at the expense of the people of Scotland. Next comes calls for more taxes to be spent on more weapons of mass destruction, and the rekindling of the Cold War – there has to be a constant enemy to keep the nation in perpetual anxiety ready to do the power elite’s bidding. Add to that more neo-conservative austerity and Brexit and we –  democrat and unionist – are in a serious fix not of our making.

But there is hope, real hope. The youth of Scotland want absolute change and see it through the SNP. Whilst a proportion of the elderly are locked into nebulous Britishness, fearing a mythical loss of pensions, they are passing on. Our optimistic youth grow in number. And just as the Catholics in Northern Ireland will in short time be far greater in number than British loyalists and so make Ireland what it should be, a united land, so will Scotland’s youth throw off the claustrophobic weight of inferiority by voting Yes.

England, your England

Our English cousins have to ask themselves, why they want to keep hold of Scotland in the first place when so many of them think we are a stupid people, a burden on their state, persistent litigants. If all they want is our oil – and they do – then let’s sit down at the table and make a deal over who gets what oilfields, agree, call it a day, and each go govern our great nations as equal friends, not one as mendicant and the other as thief.

It comes as a surprise and sometimes a shock to a person borne and living in Scotland that the flag they have sworn an allegiance to, the Union Jack, the same they and their elders salute on ceremonial days, and their forefathers before them, doesn’t have a place for them as an equal person in British Utopia. And perhaps they are looking at England now aghast, wondering what the hell it is turning into.

On the days you wonder what your role is in Scotland, and what your future is in it, and the future of your children, remember this: you are not and never will be English. But you might just be accepted if you say you are British. When you say you are British you have given up the fight for political and social equality. You are saying it is a consolation, at least you are not completely Scottish.

If you are happy to kneel before inane, irrational, grotesque colonial cruelty, ready to die for another nation’s wars, no one but you chose that destiny.

The rest of us have had enough. We choose to govern our nation again.

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Posted in Scottish Politics | 40 Comments

Ghost in the Shell – a review

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Scarlett Johansson pretending to be a Japanese cyborg and almost getting away with it

In the world of graphic comics I never graduated beyond Batman. I’m happy with that. There’s great literature out there; adult comics are not a substitute for challenging novels or poetic literature, certainly not the bulk of science fiction comics.

To me, Batman was plausible, he needed wires and grappling hooks propelled by a flick of his wrists to swing him around buildings, unlike Superman with his 1928 Brylcreemed quiff, and underpants on over his skin-tight suit, or Spiderman with his silly tight suit, and inexhaustible extrusions of silk. If Batman ever got sexually excited at least he could hide his tumescence in his rubber suit.

Japanese comics have a passing fascination, their aesthetic perception of a European face decidedly Japanese. On the other hand, Japanese architecture, ceramics, art, gardens, Samurai films, oh, yes, in a heartbeat. And I can appreciate gifted graphic artists create the most stunning visuals packed into a small box in a magazine. (And video games.)

That introduction is an apology for not knowing much about the cyborg heroine in Ghost in the Shell. Essentially, it’s Scarlett Johansson in a skin coloured body suit as close to soft porn as a commercial film can get without an ‘R’ rating. I’ll come back to that later.

Ghost in the Shell is a big-budget adaptation of the Japanese manga-anime classic created by Masamune Shirow. His comic premiered in the late 1980s, Mamoru Oshii’s highly influential first film version in 1995. In this new Hollywood version, a thumping vehicle for voluptuous Scarlett Johansson, director Rupert Davies has managed to replicate the surface trappings of the post-human world of the source material. But it’s so hollow you can hear a dropped pin echo before each scene. It’s all cyborg and no humanity.

Ghost keeps reminding  you of a sub-Blade Runner on ecstacy, or in storyline – a cyborg desperate to know her real human identity – a steal from Jason Bourne. Or maybe it’s a cut-down Robocop. In the middle of the film I fought off sleep. It was the 3-D version, torpor inducing, nevertheless.

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The creation of a city filled with moving advertising is truly impressive

Ghost looks good, more than good, the inner city vistas massively impressive digital work, but the confrontational fight scenes less eye catching, and extremely repetitive. A shame, too. There is a universe in which Ghost in the Shell might have worked marvellously.

Like Matt Damon heading a Chinese story, Johansson heading a purely Japanese yarn takes a lot of  consent. Quite frankly, it really ought to be an Asian actress in the lead of a well-known property that originated in Japan.

Does Johansson nail the part of “Major,” a military operative whose very human brain has been implanted inside a lifelike robot? I’m still trying to analysis that in case it’s bias on my part. She’s never convinced in any role, there’s a languor about her technique, a feeling we’re watching an also-ran in the role a more accomplished actress could have  expressed with ease. Here she’s needed for her youthfulness and her gymnastic ability. The skill Johansson has is in expression. She can twinkle an emotion with the barest of facial movements. The story calls for that skill, robots don’t emote, not even HAL in 2001 – even if this one has a soul (or a “ghost”) hovering inside her synthetic body “shell.” But like Frankenstein, the actor has to inject a humanity to gain our sympathy.

Director Rupert Sanders and his screenwriters don’t do her any favors. Johansson looks dumb half the time and bemused the rest. She does a lot of posing. (Maybe readying herself for a perfumery deal.) She strides into some of the most belaboured, uninspiring action scenes put on film in a long time. I might well have snored during those moments.

In good film noir fashion Major has a sidekick, Batou, (here played by Danish actor Pilou Asbæk). There is next to no chemistry between them.  I’m not au fait with the politics on the set, but I sense they didn’t get on well as co-actors. They’re an odd physical match, he large and square, she small and doll-like. In any event, the plotting is crude and simplistic. This version, being a Hollywood super-production, holds our hand to an embarrassing degree, spelling out every plot detail and nuance, not that it contains nuance to any degree.

The story is a familiar smorgasbord of action-movie plagiarism. Major and her fellow soldiers go in pursuit of a cyber terrorist named Kuze, (Michael Pitt), who seems to hate anyone who worked for Hanka Corporation, the company that built her. If he has you in his sights you’re dead, machine gunned a few hundred times in front of witnesses, no police to be seen, no police car sirens heard. People murder each other with impunity.

The chase to catch Kuze is one long bore, but at least it’s often visually and sonically captivating. To be fair, the production design is marvellous, and the more time I spent in this urban kaleidoscope of giant dancing holograms and neon billboards, the more I was engrossed. Those graphics are award winning, the story set among them, pretty dire.

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Director Rupert Sanders – with a  camera that looks like a cyborg

Borrowing isn’t always cheating inspired by another artist’s work. Quick research unearths evidence its strongest elements are lifted directly from prior iterations of Ghost in the Shell – from the robo-geishas to the spider-tanks to the invisible fights, but in the end, it can’t be called original.

One stand out attraction: Clint Mansell’s throbbing score makes a great rhythmic correlative to the grim neon vista of the cyborg’s world. And on that subject…

We’ve seen any number of dystopian panoramas and I never fail to wonder why the people inhabiting them don’t leave, so miserable and oppressive are their surroundings, so constrained and forced their lives. Yet they hang on, shopping in lashing rain, black skies, eating junk food from stall holders in the street, dancing around skyscrapers dodging a thousands air-borne vehicles charging in all directions, including vertically.

So, what of Johansson’s cyborg, do we care about her? Speaking for myself, the answer is no. For a voluptuous woman she’s too cold. When she’s injured, her complicated arm technology exposed, we realise she could be blown to smithereens but we know her creator, a moany-faced Juliette Binoche, can put her together again in a morning between coffee break and lunch. She doesn’t get our empathy. You just wonder what she’s doing running around in a skin suit as if completely naked. Exhibitionist – moi?

Which brings me to the one thing that is innovative from the original – Major’s brain was taken not from the dying body of a drowning refugee, as we were initially told, but a young Japanese woman, an anti-technology activist named Motoko Kusanagi – which just so happens to be Major’s name in the original manga and anime series. Her rebellious future is set, she’s Jason Bourne trying to discover she’s Janey Bourne.

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An arresting image, but soon they pall in novelty and an attitude of ‘who cares?’ sets in

In other words, this is another film about loss of memory, or more accurately the erasing of memory. Strange how horrendous experiments done in Nazi camps are now the stuff of Hollywood. We accept them as science fiction, Star Wars stuff. And here’s the rub, there comes a point when you expect some elderly woman to appear who says, “Major Cyborg, I am your mother”.

  • Star rating: Two and a half
  • Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbæk, Takeshi Kitano
  • Director: Rupert Sanders
  • Writer: Masamune Shirow, Ehrin Kruger
  • Cinematography: Jess Hall
  • Music: Lorne Balfi, Clint Mansell
  • Duration: 1 hr 47 min
Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments