Sunday, 19 February 2017

Android

Aaron Lipstadt, 1982, USA

A hugely enjoyable excursion into 80s B-movie sci-fi from the Roger Corman stable: an android lives obliviously with his master on a space-station until three escaped convicts appear and change everything. With the winning directness of a short story and as a product of the 1980s, ‘Android’ is of course going to look dated – look at those computer games Max plays! – but the effects are mostly decent and, more importantly, the set design is no-nonsense and convincing in its limitations; they avoid looking too futuristic and trying too hard (it’s a case of budget restrictions being an asset) and with the company colours and strips all over it resembles living inside a canister bearing a logo.

Android Max 404 (Don Opper) is a blank slate, a technological medium only as good as his programmers, his innocence and mildness a means of making him compliant, but nevertheless this is unable to stop his natural curiosity for pop culture. There are undertones of film noir not only in Max’s aspirations but also at times in the lighting. This leads him to want to go to Earth and in the three new arrivals, he sees his chance. In fact, Max 404’s malleability is his major asset. It’s another plot with robots that cannot help but anthropomorphise – the who/what is human? is a staple intrigue of the android narratives – but it’s more a part of the pulp conceit rather than investigative as in something like Alex Garland's ‘Ex Machina’. This is a coming-of-age story for androids.

Don Opper, who wrote the script, is riveting and naturally charming as Max 404. Opper is a likeable and knowing presence that should have been one of the era’s genre cult heroes but didn’t really develop this promise. Klaus Kinski is admirably level as Dr Daniel in a role that could have easily introduced over-acting; having said that, perhaps that’s just how Kinski is – in constant deluded-and-mad-scientist mode and he’s just dialling in the performance. He’s busy trying to kick-start his supreme female android – which, it turns out, can be triggered by a dose of android sexual energy. But indeed, all the cast manage to step back a few steps from complete hamminess even if it is clunky at times. The convicts are the type immediately recognisable from the Eighties with only Crofton Hardester being straightforward villainous without nuance, and it’s fun that as the audience you can see they don’t realise what they’ve stepped into.
As with ‘Ex Machina’, the queasiness of the gender politics are somewhat mitigated by the overall exploitation aesthetic and moreso by the obvious intelligence and wit of the script. 


Monday, 13 February 2017

Amusements

"Under the Shadow": article on influences and Q&A with director Babak Anvari. How pleasing that such a great little horror film is getting such recognition.


Vic Pratt on his love for "Night of the Demon", which is a more-or-less just an excuse to post this picture.









Favourite songs #1


Favourite Songs #2

Thursday, 9 February 2017

St Vincent

Theodore Melfi, 2014, USA

Antisocial old guy babysits a bullied but bright kid for selfish reasons and, after hijinx, is redeemed by this friendship.

Ah, you know this one. A comedy based upon the premise that it is inherently funny to have an antagonistic older guy teach an innocent kid about name-calling, booze, gambling, prostitutes, etc. So the bar isn’t set very high but the main actors are a likeable bunch so it takes some time to realise that there aren’t enough gags to elevate the shenanigans before they give way to an uninteresting sentimental denouement where the full saccharine potential of the title is reached. Of course, although many characters call him such, we don’t really believe Vincent is an irredeemable asshole because he’s played by Bill Murray (or Bill “Fucking” Murray to give him his full chive.com name). His assholishness is put down to a broken heart and it is all resolved with social recognition, a hug and a makeshift family unit. But he’s also been rude, selfish, thieving, irresponsible, manipulative, etc. As Bill Murray the celebrity is a symbol for a kind of counter-culture japester devil-may-care machismo, Vinnie’s general unacceptable behaviour gets quite a pass, but this isn’t so much sticking-to-the-man as it’s taking advantage of and insulting working people.  

Elsewhere, Jaeden Lieberher as the kid Oliver has an appearance and manner that manages to mitigate his obvious precociousness into something more vulnerable and appealing, but like ‘Midnight Special’ there is the sense that this doesn’t use the most of him.
Naomi Watts has fun hamming it up as a Russian tart-with-a-heart and Melissa McCarthy grounds things immensely as if she’s stumbled in from a more earnest film – but of course this is Murray’s show and it’s a shame that it’s in the service of such slush. Beneath its bright superficiality, director Theodore Melfi’s script is only moderately funny with the kid mostly gets the best material (even with the amusing deleted scene where he and his pal discuss the origins of acting-up; his introduction to his new class struck me as perhaps the film’s funniest scene): Murray insulting and manipulating everyone isn’t instantaneously hilarious in itself, surely (?). You’re left with the feeling that there’s an emotional reconciliation because *shrug* that’s just what this stuff does. It’s all so by-rote (this is the bit where Vinnie tries to sabotage their friendship; here is where the kid overcomes the bully; here is a stroke overcome by a montage, etc) that it’s hard to be genuinely moved as the film seems to desire. 

Saturday, 28 January 2017

X the Unknown

Leslie Norman, 1956, UK

Hammer Horror drawing on the Quatermass formula, the title even trying to bait the infamous ‘X’ certificate, just like ‘The Quatermass Xperiment’ (Nigel Kneale would not allow them to use his renowned scientist at the time). Something unspeakable is unleashed from the ground during a military training exercise and wrecks mild havoc on a quiet English town. There is a pleasing 1950s old-school black-and-white ambience and an adequate face melting to mitigate some obvious padding as well a smart if conventional script by Jimmy Sangster. The basis is the era’s paranoia that radiation is everywhere – the creature feeds on it like an all-devouring primal fear – and this “even becomes the background to an assignation between a doctor and a nurse in a nearby hospital.” 

Dean Jagger is the somewhat baffled and wildly-conjecturing scientist here, a more amenable personality than Quatermass, an American ingredient for the overseas market: he too is stolid but a routine eccentric. The creature itself is vengeful radioactive mud so the whole adventure does become a kind of “Wot The Blob Did In Scotland” but this pre-dates the more infamous ‘The Blob’ (1958). Unlike that film, ‘X The Unknown’ maintains a eeriness and a mean edge – imperilled children is a motif – and although it remains minor fare, fans of this era’s B-movie shivers are unlikely to be disappointed. 


Sunday, 22 January 2017

Manchester by the Sea

Kenneth Lonergan, 2016,USA

I saw ‘Manchester by the Sea’ straight after A Monster Callswhich made it obvious how much they were kindred spirits in themes of loneliness, loss and grief, guilt and anger. But if the latter is about using imagination to cope with tragedy early in life, the former is about having tragedy strip that ability from you. It made for a emotionally thorough double-bill.


Central to the success of ‘Manchester by the Sea’ is Casey Affleck’s performance as Lee Chandler, his demeanour, attitude and eyes always seeming to intimidate people, always implying something repressed. Is he scary because he might just flip over into violence? Well, he does that too, yet he never does that to the people closest despite losing his temper at times, however much we might anticipate and fear that he will. But the answer is more that he scares people because of what happened to him in the past, and therefore it is what he represents that is more daunting. It’s that he represents something irreparable, that he’s a broken soul, that he’s a walking symbol of unbearable guilt and loss. So when he does flip into violence it is something more akin to a fatalist bid to punish himself rather than being obnoxious.

But this is not obvious at first, for the story takes it time with revelations, interspersing flashbacks then memories triggered by what is currently happening. For example, discussion of Joe’s will where Lee discovers he is meant to be the guardian of Joe’s teenaged son, Patrick, not only triggers flashbacks but also strays away from the immediate scene the same way Lee’s mind is wandering. Rarely have flashbacks been so naturalistic. Lonergan’s direction may be devoid of superficial trickery but its fluidity and clarity are its strength and achievement, allowing the story and actors to grip the attention whilst conveying other layers with the framing of scenes. Lonergan’s script and style also fleshes out the secondary of characters to capture the waves of influence this drama has on the most incidental of characters (acquaintances, doctors and nurses, policemen, lawyers, etc.). It feels very much like life in that way.

It is the relationship between Lee and Patrick that provides the core of the film: Lee having to carefully battle with the impenetrable shell he has built around himself to try and do right by his nephew, which he wants to do. Patrick is a decent, fiery and horny sixteen year-old in a tremendous performance by Lucas Hedges.
The crux of the drama is the question of will this relationship bring Lee out of his detachment. Lonergan says, “I don’t like the Hollywood idea: ‘It’s all OK.’”* And if you don’t totally subscribe to the idea that cinema should be totally escapist reassurance, or perhaps you find so much feel-good material is condescending, then you likely think “Amen” to that. It’s a chance run-in with his former wife that proves the true test, and it’s a phenomenal scene where Michelle Williams reaches a complexity of raw feeling and reaction that is truly heart-breaking.

A lot of reviews imply it is miserablism and yes it’s dour, with the washed-out colourscheme setting the tone, but it never feels gratuitous. Indeed, it is often funny. It’s the tale of a man unable to overcome himself, although he tries, and that is a rare thing in a medium where overcoming is a dominant agenda. He carries on and there are hints that he is, indeed, changed and hopeful but the film refuses to condescend by elaborating to an ending where all is rectified. It’s a truly adult drama built on a supple script and tremendous performances.




·         Jonathan Romney, “A Winter’s Tale”, Sight and Sound, February 2017, vol. 27, issue 2,  pg. 51

A Monster Calls

J.A. Bayona, 2016, USA-Spain

So, before the film starts, I’m wondering if its reputation as a weepy is due to it using proper emotional content or the contrived stuff – the kind often called Spielbergian – that manipulates and ultimately leaves me cold. And then there are the ‘trailers appropriate to the film’ and they show the trailer for ‘Trainspotting 2’ and I am thinking How is that at all appropriate? But then I am predicting that the tone of ‘A Monster Calls’ is probably going to be more mature than ‘Trainspotting 2’ which I haven’t seen but it’s Danny Boyle and I know the type. How’s that for knee-jerk unreasonable criticism?

Anyway, I anticipated that ‘A Monster Calls’, an adaptation of Patrick Ness's book, would be mostly successful as soon as I heard that J.A. Boyona was directing: Boyona’s ‘The Orphange’ was a winner, visually lush and provided me with one of those proper scares (the game to summon the ghosts). As soon as the opening credits for ‘A Monster Calls’  rolled under stylised close-ups of pencils and paint splashes at work, I had the immediate impression that I need not worry about schmaltz, that I was in good hands; something about the tone and the aesthetic reassured me. A friend said the trailer made this look like something between ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ (which I need to see again because something about it left me unconvinced) and ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ (which I love),  and this isn’t a bad summary. It’s like Terence Davies filtered through Guillermo del Toro, just to give a sense of its equal dour English melancholia and faith in the fantastical. The trailer seemed to imply to me more unleashing-of-the-Id, but it’s something more nuanced than that and not nearly as hampered by triumphantism as I anticipated.

IMDB synopsises like this: “A boy seeks the help of a tree monster to cope with his single mother’s terminal illness.” And that is fine, but it doesn’t convey the loneliness and alienation it conveys beneath its gee-whizz monster effects and animated digressions. Beneath these flourishes – elegant and vivid but always playing second-fiddle to the emotional content – it’s a sad tale of a boy struggling to cope with his emotions at the worst of times. Boyona allows the monster – voiced by Liam Neesan to rattle those bass levels – to be both scary and liberating without quite leaning too heavily on either side (even if you might think of ‘Guardian of the Galaxy’s Groot). He’s an intimidating ally, frequently boiling from the inside one moment, encouraging Conor like a bad influence then being steely but empathic at others. He's a typical embodiment of children's affection for  and fear of humungous monsters. As such a manifestation the monster is less a denial of reality, as with ‘Pan Labyrinth’, and more an extension of the boy’s imagination as in ‘Penda’s Fenn’ or Bernard Rose's 'Paperhouse'. It’s well-trodden ground but it’s still valid.* It is, as Tim Robey says, “…a film which keeps devising ever-more-epic collisions between an angry boy and his own sorrow.” 

The performances are uniformly strong and nuanced and the message that people like all things are ambiguous, that they might not be what they seem. is strong. Such ambiguity and complexity carries over to other details such as when Conor’s mum tells him that it’s all right if he’s too angry to talk to her, or the refrain that punishment would be no use for Conor, or in the hints of guilt crossing the bully’s face, or in Conor’s dad’s (Toby Kebbell) trying to overcome the dad-that-left baggage. 

Lewis Macdougall as Conor is more than capable of carrying the whole film without grandstanding, as dominated as everything is by his alienation, but be prepared to be truly heartbroken when he finally has “the talk” with his mum. For this moment alone one could see why he was cast. Boyona knows not to spoil this with a score that tells you to be sad, just as the final revelation is silent, and this allows real heartbreak to come through. The whole film brims with respect for the conflicts and feelings of its young protagonist and this is its genuine triumph. Perhaps its saddest revelation is that for all the fireworks and vivid creativity of his internal life, the loss that Conor is experiencing is rendered as starkly mundane and ordinary. It is a true verdantly conceived weepy, then, and earns it.


It reminded me that as a boy in bed, I used to image giants were outside my house walking up and down and I was nervous that they would look in and see me trying to sleep.

Monday, 16 January 2017

The Final Girls

Todd Strauss-Schulson, 2015, USA


Another post-modern horror playing with the themes the genre is built on, this time Carol J Clover’s “Final Girl” trope. Since the success of ‘Scream’ the genre has been eating and regurgitating itself in this way to varying effects, and there is a lot of fun to be had. It’s like gently pranking a friend.  Unimaginatively, it’s packaged on the cover with another selection of pouty young people in a line-up (yes, you came for carnage but you also came for the some cheap prods for your libido, kids) and another killer derived from ‘Friday the 13th’. This one begins strongly with a girl mourning her scream-queen mother – lost in a car accident – when there’s a fire in the cinema and she and some friends try to escape through the screen but find that they escaped into it. They’ have, in fact, entered the 1980s summercamp slasher flick that made her mother cult-famous. Initially this provides jokes at the expense of that particular sub-genre and, because it’s all bright and breezy, it’s all good. The best gag is perhaps that the characters can tell when the killer is coming by the Jason Vorhees-like musical cue on the soundtrack (ch-ch-ch-ch). Every now and again it shows some of the vitality it began with – a car crashing through the title that displays when and where the flashback is, for example – but it runs out of steam by the end, veering into tired emotional outpourings to try and achieve some resonance. By the time the end credits are full of outtakes of goofs, the meta-horror comes across as enjoying itself behind the scenes more than onscreen and not being as clever as it thinks it is.



Saturday, 7 January 2017

best of home-watching 2016

Here’s a list of  the top films I saw at home during this year.


Eastern Boys
Robin Campillo, 2013, France. 
A fascinating gay drama that moves into thriller motifs without losing focus. The early party invasion scene is brilliantly elongated and credible, a thorough masterclass on how to play out a moment in all its tones. It’s cool, slightly detached approach leaves many questions unanswered and thereby capturing an open-ended realism.

Song of the Sea
Tom Moore, 2013, Ireland-Denmark-Belgium-Luxumbourg-France.
A dazzlingly beautiful animation mixing the modern with Celtic Myths. With loss as its central theme, it avoids patronising its potentially young audience and bears a pleasing melancholic tone despite its exuberance and constantly startling with its visuals. 

           Aleksei German, 2013, Russia
Overlong, maybe, but this is the kind of film-making that is haunting, surreal and hallucinatory and bizarre without any use of cinema trickery, just divining those qualities from the oddness of humour behaviour and set design.

Alan Clark, 1974, UK
A film that captures the variety of overlapping themes that characterise many bildungsroman in literature but often abridged in cinema. Baffling and dated it may be for some, but rarely has the complex shifting of a young person’s delusions been so richly captured.

And

Leviathan                            
Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2014, Russia
Where Zvyagintsev’s ‘The Return’ bore immediate emotional resonance, ‘Leviathan’ is far more insidious. Small town politics prove an insurmountable obstacle and overwhelmingly mean-spirited force that destroys anyone that gets in its way. 

Slow West
John  Mclean, 2015, UK-New Zealand
Possibly the opposite of the more naturalistic style of modern Westerns such as ‘The Homesman’ and ‘Bone Tomahawk’, nevertheless ‘Slow West’ has an artiness that comes across like a perfectly contrived short story. With the excellent closing shoot-out, the narrative reveals its true colours.

       Radu Jude, 2015, Romania-Bulgaria-Czech Republic-France
Not so far from ‘Embrace of the Serpent’ in conjuring up another era to explicate on a lost culture and the timelessness of prejudice.





ALSO


Microbe and Gasoline
          Michel Gondry, 2015, France
Wherein the rough and sensitive nature of adolescence finds perfect juncture with Gondry’s magic realism, inventiveness and sad-sack humour. A film whose attitude doesn’t seem to care what the adults think.

Coherence
         James Ward Byrkit, 2013, USA-UK
A sci-fi horror story about reality failing you. A triumph of low-budget film-making where the puzzle-box narrative dominates.

      John Favreau, 2016, UK-USA
Nope, it’s not as cuddly as the original animation and there be objections to the differences, and maybe I felt it more threatening than others did (but then it’s been called ‘The Revenant’ for kids by more than one reviewer), but I was beguiled at its oddness and the rendering of talking animals. One can also see a message of hope with the ultimate all-coming-together-to-defeat-a-common-foe. It doesn’t quite fully gel all its elements but it cheekily cherry-picks the best from the original animation while staking out more of a tone that feels closer to ‘The Lord of the Rings’.


The Assassin
  Hsiao-Hsien Hou, 2015, Taiwan-China-Hong Kong-France
Another film that won me over due to its oddness and elusive qualities, as well as being lush and literary. Another film where multiple viewings will reveal more and more.

Force Majeure
  Ruben Östlund, 2014, Sweden-France-Norway-Denmark
Against the backdrop of brochure cleanliness and clarity plays out a tale of the more undesirable attributes that make up a personality: attributes like cowardice. That clean look and the precise style make this fell like a dissection of a family where being on holiday can't protect you from your flaws.


The Firm
           Alan Clarke, 19890, UK
Clarke’s no-nonsense portrait of a community of football hooligans, unable to band together to beat a perceived common foe because they can barely express themselves beyond insults and posturing. 

Evolution
      Lucile Hadzihalilovic, 2015, France-Belgium-Spain
Another triumph of oddness, the kind ordinarily relegated to short films and all too rare in horror cinema. Surreal, mysterious and disturbing.

Nevermore
       Toke Constantin Hebbeln, 2006, Germany
A small tale of a boy losing it all and then getting out of town dressed up in a fairy-tale like atmosphere and the appearance of magic-realist diversions, even if fantastical things don’t really happen. 


Captain Phillips
        Paul Greengrass, 2013, USA
Where Greengrass’ hand-held style proves ideal for the claustrophobia of a ship being hijacked. Tom Hanks has probably never been so good: earnest, trained, afraid and smart. Those final moments where he can finally let go of the composure he has shown all along are riveting and exemplary, the camera joining in with the professionals around him by never letting him alone.   


Re-uniting with:
Films I watched again and found better than ever

The Brood
        David Cronenberg, Canada, 1979
The pinnacle of domestic drama finding such chilling expression through horror. There's something furiously aggrieved in here. Oliver Reed’s quiet, silky tones prove the film’s secret weapon, never allowing his character to overbalance the whole thing into trite melodrama of “mad scientist” tropes.

Network
Sidney Lumet, USA, 1976
Prescient, chilling and insightful, now more than ever.



I should know better, but…

       Eduardo Sanchex, 2014, USA
Despite everything, that final close-up of the sasquatch meant I forgave so much.

        Noel Marshall, 1981, USA
It’s been called the most dangerous film-shoot of all time… well, it’s certainly a pinnacle in the WTF files of film-making. It doesn’t even come into the so-bad-it’s-good pile– it’s something else.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Cinema Favourites 2016

Of what I saw in the cinema this year, this is my "best 10", in no particular order:

1. The Revenant
2. Bone Tomahawk
3. The Witch
4. Victoria
5. Embrace of the Serpent
6. Under the Shadow
7. Paterson
8. American Honey
9. Train to Busan
10. High-Rise


‘The Revenant’ - For the tracking shots and long takes and the bear attack if nothing else. Alejandro G Inarritu, 2015, USA-Hong Kong-Taiwan 

‘Bone Tomahawk’ - Because it paid attention to character and then unleashed genuine horror. S. Craig Zahler, 2015. USA-UK

‘The Witch’ – For being genuinely haunting and uncanny. Robert Eggers, 2015, USA-UK-Canada-Brazil

‘Victoria’ – For being a great example of how everything can happen to you in a short space of time and for the bravado of its one take. Sebastian Schipper, 2014, Germany

‘Embrace of the Serpent’ – For being so otherworldly. Cira Guerro, 2015, Columbia-Venezuela-Argentina

‘Under the Shadow’ – For being such a great example of genre tropes done right and explicating on real world themes as only Horror can. Babak Anvari, 2016, UK-Qatar-Jordan-Iran

‘Paterson’ – For revealing such warmth and respect for routine and the everyday expression of art. Jim Jarmusch, 2016, France-Germany-USA

‘American Honey’ – For capturing an expression of freedom and for its ultimately joyous loose-limbed feel. Andrea Arnold, 2016, UK-USA

‘Train to Busan’ – For being so much genre fun. Rarely have I felt an audience enjoying itself so much. Sang-Ho Yeon, 2016, South Korea

‘High-Rise’ – For revealing its true boldness on a second watch, for being such an often brilliantly rendered oddity. I’m ware I’m probably the odd-one-out on this. Ben Wheatley, 2015, UK-Belgium



And:

Unexpected & undeniable treats:
Love & Friendship - Whit Stillman, 2016, Ireland-France-Netherlands
The Hunt for the Wilderpeople - Taiki Waititi, 2016, New Zealand
Edge of Seventeen - Kelly Fremon Craig, 2016, USA
Rogue One - Gareth Edwards, 2016, USA
Deadpool - Tim Miller, 2016, USA 
Broken - Shaun Robert Smith, 2016, UK
Tale of Tales - Matteo Garrone, 2016, Italy-France-UK

All these films were funny, except ‘Rogue One’ and ‘Tale of Tales’ and  ‘Broken’, of course. ‘Deadpool’ genuinely captured the anarchic nature of comic books even if ultimately its storyline was conventional. It showed how by-rote so much else in the superhero world is. ‘The Hunt for the Wilderpeople’ was thoroughly winning and quirky. ‘Edge of Seventeen’ possessed a great trilogy of central performances with a script which managed to be cutting but not mean-spirited. ‘Love and Friendship’ proved – despite a potentially terrible title – to be slick and sly satire. Actually that can also be said of the splendid horror-comedy ‘The Director’s Cut’ (Adam Rifkin, 2016., USA). ‘Tale of Tales’ was elegant and possessed a lot of agreeable weirdness and ickiness. ‘Broken’… see below. 

Also:

‘Hail, Ceasar’ proved an often joyous trifle. (Coen bros, 2016, UK-USA- Japan)
‘Midnight Special’ was good minor genre fare. (Jeff Nicholls, 2016, USA-Greece)
‘Dheepan’ seemed to be deeply misunderstood as a vigilante drama: it wasn’t, it was about a man being dragged back to the worst of himself. Jacques Audiard proved again that he is a masterful director, even if this was one of his lesser works. (Jacques Audiard, 2016, France)


Old school treats: 
‘The Big Short’ (Adam McKay, 2015, USA) and ‘Spotlight’ (Tom McCarthy, 2015, USA-Canada) showed how cinema can tackle real stories, through a box of cinematic tricks (the former) or straightforward and austere narrative flow (the latter). Both proved up to the task and both were commendable in their tackling of difficult subjects. Of the consummate sort, ‘Hell or High Water’ (David Mackenzie, 2015, USA) was a winner for being an old school film that was well acted and written. 


Rising somewhat above its stock: 
‘Creed’ proved better than its Rocky Balboa stock material, mostly due to Michael B Jordan’s and Sylvester Stqallone’s performances and a great one-take tracking shot for a fight. 
‘Rogue One’ too.

In retrospect… meh: 
I enjoyed ‘The Hateful Eight’ (Quentin Tarantino, 2015, USA) very much at the time but find myself more indifferent upon reflection, although I’m sure another watch will remind me of its worth when watching.  I found the same growing indifference for ‘Hardcore Henry’, but I was never really invested even though I enjoyed it superficially at the time.   And despite my initial Hey-it’s-not-that-bad response to ‘Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice’ and ‘Suicide Squad’, I concede that they are both bad. But it was Duncan Jones' 'Warcraft' (2016, USA_China) that left me most cold.


Yeah, but hmm: 
I know ‘Room’ (Lenny Abrahamson, 2015, Ireland-USA-UK-Canada) was an emotional winner for many but it seemed to me to be remarkably conventional for Lenny Abrahamson when it could have been ideal for the odd and striking effect of his ‘Frank’ or the chilliness of ‘What Richard Did’.


I knew at the time that I needed some distance to really know what I thought of Ken Loach's ‘I, Daniel Blake’ after my knee-jerk response of approval of its intent. I was conscious at the time that it had problems, that everything in it was aimed at the agenda without real nuance, but its ultimate message of “this system kills” meant that I glossed over its weaknesses of contrivance because it was agitprop that I endorsed. There is no doubting Ken Loach’s humanitarianism and that film because a touchstone for political debates, providing a reference to open up the subject of how the welfare state operates. All this contributes to the argument that film can be instrumental in societal change, something that Ken loach has proved pivotal to ever since, say, ‘Cathy Come Home’. But there’s no doubt that Paul Laverty’s script does take liberties of contrivance to get where he’s going and this proves a fundamental weakness. A kind of ends-justifies-the-means scripting and usually I wouldn’t be taken in by. I tend to be in line with Michael Koresky’s clear-headed review and concur when he says it is “A frustrating watch on levels intended and not.” I find myself willing to forgive its weaknesses – as we do for films we favour – because it’s capturing of a certain realism is considerable and as a slab of humanitarian agitprop its worthy and angry.

If you are looking for a character piece on how the rickety nature of institutions causes damage on individuals, then ‘Broken’ was a solid example. Its argument came to lack-of-proper-care-leads-to-horror-stories and that isn’t so different to ‘I, Daniel Blake’. The performances are exemplary and it certainly has more nuance than Laverty’s script. 


‘Swiss Army Man’ (Dan Kwan & Daniel Scheinert, 2016, USA) won on oddness and fartiness but
there was something I still needed to work out about it. Yes, it’s a great meditation on depression but when I saw someone read it as a “love story for the ages” that I raised an eyebrow. A second watch will definitely resolve what I think of it: as it is, it’s a must-see for fans of the surreal and a-bit-out-there cinema.

The same with ‘Your Name’ which was at the very least a gorgeous piece of animation. (Makoto Shinkai, 2016, Japan)

Similarly there was plenty of good in ‘Nocturnal Animals’ (Tom Ford, 2016, USA) but I found in retrospect I couldn’t quite fully commit. A second watch will resolve.


Guilty pleasure
‘The Accountant’ (Gavin O'Connor, 2016. USA) was probably the most guilty pleasure: it was half good and half crap and didn’t quite gel, but I can’t deny it was enjoyable nonetheless.

Monday, 2 January 2017

Rogue One

Gareth Edwards, 2016, USA



I found myself going around disparaging ‘The Force Awakens’, or at least indifferent to its ‘Star Wars’ charms. When I have heard people say “It’s shit,” I’m half in agreement and half thinking that I wouldn’t quite go that far. I know that people enthuse about it, but then I remember its overall clunkiness and unwillingness to move beyond fanboy call-backs, its neglect of key implications so that all the fun of sci-fi hardware and swashbuckling becomes vacuous. I can just about live with its humanising Stormtroopers (but why?) but Han Solo’s martyrdom is surely ill thought-out in its rush to be emotional. By putting his personal drama first and sacrificing himself, isn’t he ensuring the evolution of the new Death Star (or whatever) and therefore condemning entire planets to death and doesn’t this make him a selfish dick? And its a narrative built on self-reference that doesn’t transcend its reliance on nostalgia.

Luckily, ‘Rogue One’ is here to show how it’s all done. I liked Gareth Edwards’ ‘Monsters’ a lot (a sci-fi version of ‘Before Sunrise’ perhaps) but was not impressed with ‘Godzilla’ (effects strong; narrative weak). I was anticipating this expansion of the ‘Star Wars’ universe would similarly tip over into disappointment but that wasn’t the case. There will be nothing new story-wise but that isn’t what we came for: a certain predictability and simplicity is surely why these films have such mainstream appeal. And there’s enough details to satisfy fans that like to argue and make theories over minutiae (like what is  Forrest Whitaker actually doing?). It was never possible to predict as a kid that the opening crawl of the original of ‘Star Wars’ would lead to ‘Rogue One’ decades later, or indeed that it would have such a grip on popular culture. I mean even as I write this, I am drinking from a ‘Rogue One’ tie-in mug my sister bought me at Christmas.

Despite being well over two hours, Chris Weitz’s and Tony Gilroy’s screenplay keeps things brisk so that the action breezes along until the final battle: it hardly seems that length. It probably has the least clunky dialogue of any ‘Star Wars’ film and it carries the most mature tone since ‘The Empire Strikes Back’. The overriding theme is of self-sacrifice which is a far more tangible focus than the abstract born again resurgence of The Force. This also widens the naive black-and-white morality of the earlier entries in that it casts the Rebels as also having to follow an end-justifies-the-means agenda, making things a lot greyer than they have been previously.*  It’s also more fitting for the template it derives from war films. Also too, it’s devoid of Muppets so that is a bonus. 

Star Wars’ is known to make even an esteemed, capable actor look crap, but there is none of that here. It benefits from having someone as great as Ben Mendalsohn to flesh out an otherwise rote villain, and the commitment of Felicity Jones, Diego Luna and others to enliven the protagonists. But what it does have, which throws a spanner in the works and takes you out of the flow, is a CGI Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin. We have actor Guy Henry walking about but the face is all CGI, giving a new Peter Cushing performance. Apparently. What is this new thing, a performance from a long respected and deceased actor, by a digital effect? I’m a Cushing fan – rarely could an actor bring such dignity to so much silliness – but I don’t feel on side with this, regardless that I can see why they would choose to do so (hey, gotta please the fans - callback!). It’s not quite the same thing as using a deceased celebrity’s likeness for advertisement purposes (that being nakedly about making money whereas at least this can be seen as in the service of story), but this is not a performance by Cushing. It’s being framed as enhanced make-up, but it’s beyond that: if IMDB ever puts ‘Rogue One’ as Cushing’s final performance, that would be a wrong-doing. “'Morbid and off-putting' or 'convincing'?” asks The Telegraph: I would say both.** And it’s also true that the sardonic robot K-2SO gets the best lines and proves the film’s break-out star, and that tells you something.

But back to the positive: Edwards’ incidentally breaks out some genuine beauty, which is not quite an ingredient quickly associated with ‘Star Wars’: the shadow-half of the Death Star, or the natural coastal beauty of planet Scarfi, for example. The reveals are mostly artfully done, with an eye on how they will have most impact: the AT-ST Walker appearing through the fog of war, for example. But then there is also C3PO and R2-D2 shoehorned-in briefly and one can see why detractors complain about the cameos (for me, they were not as cumbersome and pandering as those in ‘The Force Awakens’).*** 

Scarfi is where the final battle takes place - and what a battle it is. It’s multi-levelled but always fluid and coherent. Anyone looking to be awe-inspired will find it here: anyone inclined to marvel at spaceships and the swash-buckling end of sci-fi will not be disappointed. Rarely has the sheer size-of-things in such a space-based battle been evoked. And then there is some of the best saved for the last few minutes, showing how Darth Vader can take on a whole army without breaking a sweat. B. Alan Orange does have a point that this is so successful a moment that segueing into ‘Star Wars: A New Hope’ is going to make Vader look more subdued and disappointing. Nevertheless, so thrilling and epic is this battle that it may cause some to see this as the best in the series. For me, it’s alongside the Hoth battle.****

I did come away knowing that I had gone “Wow” a number of times. Even Chirrut Îmwe’s (Donnie Chen) first melee struck me as a touch above standard choreography for the series (yes yes, there is the fight with Darth Maul, but there is a fluidity here with action and editing that seemed attuned with the heightened expectations of contemporary action fans). As this review attests, whereas ‘The Force Awakens’ had the opposite effect, with ‘Rogue One’ I find myself lingering on all the positives and ready to defend it. I’ve always thought that the truly interesting ‘Star Wars’ material was in the secondary details – the Sand People; Boba Fett; Chewbacca (always secondary to Han); scavenging from a Star Destroyer crashed in the desert, etc. – which implies that it’s the Extended Universe of ‘Star Wars’ that interests me more, and I am sure I am not the only one: George Lucas’ true master-stroke was to let fans make ‘Star Wars’ their own, which is why it has lasted so long and we have the Extended Universe. ‘Rogue One’ is a great action flick that doesn’t let the inherent weaknesses of the ‘Star Wars’ franchise get in the way of exceptional set pieces. 


 *   The humanising of John Boyega’s Stormtrooper doesn’t particularly provide a grey area as it’s all about redemption; and the tone of ‘The Force Awakens’ isn’t really interested in investigating his conflict to any great depth. He’s an innocent that’s been indoctrinated into something bad and wants out.
**   There is no such ethical debate about the same techniques rendering a younger Carrie Fisher cameo as she was alive to give her consent at the time. Nevertheless, this too is jarring, our familiarity with this uncanny valley perhaps leading us to see the other effects as just a glorified video game. Indeed, the game adaptation will probably look just like this. Anecdotally, I was overhearing a conversation where a guy was saying the Grand Moff Tarkin and young Leia cameos were the film highlights, and I don’t think he was being totally ironic.
***   When does this moment occur: two-thirds of the way in? The point is that it was just before this gratuitous cameo that I realised the bulky profile of the man along the row was actually obscuring his son who couldn’t have been more than five years old. The boy had been totally quiet all this time sot that I hadn’t even known he was there, only climbing onto his dad and being restless for about ten minutes of the film at this point: when C3PO and R2-D2 appeared. He yelped with delight. Then he climbed back into his own seat and was quiet for the rest of it. Despite the questionable fact of whether he should be watching, the fact that it kept him quiet surely attests to how engrossing it is for even such a young audience.
**** It occurs to me that the Star Destroyers colliding is the manifesting of kids playing with their toys and bashing them together.