Tuesday, 23 June 2020

The Artist

Writer & Director:

Michael Hazanavicius
2011, b/w

Films nostalgic about A Golden Era of film-making will always appeal to the narcissism and sentimentality of award-givers – ‘The Artist’ received 5 Oscars and 7 Baftas – but it’s easy to see why. Scorsese’s lesser ‘Hugo’ was a peer also lauded, but the affection for that feels more because of its homage to Georges Méliès, playing to the gallery, than as a standard children’s fantasy (it loses interest in its protagonist as soon as the homage takes over). 

‘The Artist’ is rooted in Guillaume’s Schiffman’s sumptuous black-and-white photography, pleasing locations and sets that effortlessly render the off-stage story in the milieu, the streets and the fancy rooms of the Silent Era. Jean Durjardin and Bérénice Bejo have the matinee idol looks and charm to convince but project with a contemporary knowingness and sensibility that allows connection for a modern audience. Oh, and there’s a cute dog. Make no mistake, this isn’t an Exposé Of A Golden Era: it’s a pure homage and in that way, it’s successful. It means you have to sympathise with the plight of a Silent Movie start losing his privilege and loyal manservant, that a girl can reach the heady heights of stardom on feminine looks and charisma alone. But neither George Valentin (Durjardin) and Peppy Miller (Bejo) are divas or brats so there’s no ill-feelings: just charm.


Its most satisfying surprises are in the playful use of sound: Valentin has a nightmare of sounds, for example, or the sudden appearance of ‘Pennies of Heaven’ on the soundtrack. The formal play with the medium produces other treats, such as the frames-per-minute slowing when a reel of celluloid is being looked at. And it’s both this knowingness and uncritical recreation of the era that surely makes it a favourite. It’s charming and winning and carefully made. There’s an overall sense of goodwill that, even if it is guilty by omission of any deeper concerns (such as class and equality), it’s not that film.


And it all culminates in a wonderful dance routine that just begs you to be giddy with the escapism of movies. It’s a pretty delightful piece of froth.

Tuesday, 9 June 2020

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

JJ Abrams, 2019, USA
Screenplay: Chris Terrio & JJ Abrams,
Story: Terrio, Abrams, Derek Connolly, Colin Trevorrow

JJ Abrams leapfrogs over the apparently contentious ‘The Last Jedi’ (Rian Johnson, 2017) to conclude the ‘Star Wars’ saga (so far) in an empty barrage of apparent Greatest Hits. By this stage, it’s just a homage to itself until it’s self-cannibalising, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun. From the start, everything is set and edited at a life-or-death pace, the kind that ‘Hot Fuzz’ parodied to such hilarious effect. This quickly becomes dull, rendering suspense insubstantial. Narrative relies upon pace and tone and, aside from some tokenistic bids for emotional engagement, ‘The Rise of Skywalker’ is nearly all the same for two-and-a-half hours. It just won’t settle down to let me enjoy it. And when it does, it offers thin character interaction.

It starts with Kylo Ren in mid-lightsabre-fight and seems scared to even slow down for a minute as that might show how flimsy it all is. But you see, it isn’t: whatever shortcomings I may personally feel ‘Star Wars’ to possess – which doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy it, just that super-fandom perplexes me and I have to make huge allowances to do so – there’s no doubt that its universe is considerable and resilient. For example: any of my criticisms about specific details will be easily refuted by fans submerged in its mythology and/or moving goalposts. For the record, I think Harmy’s “despecialised” versions of the original trilogy are gorgeous and impressive, restoring the “wow!” factor of the original series where spaceship models, shiny robots, muppety aliens and memorable hardware delight even as almost every line of dialogue spoken by the good guys is cringe-worthy. For me, it will be Lucas’ ‘THX1138’ that I truly admire, and the difference between that film’s frightening future shock, dark humour, satire and the ‘Stars Wars’ ‘Flash Gordon’ version of science-fiction is such a stark contrast.
But ‘Star Wars’ is equally strong world-building, as overflowing with details as ‘THX 1138’ is bleak. In fact, for me, Lucas’ true masterstroke is allowing others to take it and run with the extended universe. My main criticism here with ‘The Rise of Skywalker’ is of presentation and execution, not content. I couldn’t find the fun in it. Even ‘The Force Awaken’ gave me a “wow” moment when the TIE fighters appeared. For me ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ and ‘Rogue One’ work best (the Scarif finale is equal to the Hoth sequence). I found ‘Solo’ far more agreeable and fun because it wasn’t trying so hard and, for all it’s production problems, it gave the impression that someone cared even if it was no more than diverting.

Nothing lingers in ‘The Rise of Skywalker’, nothing really feels like it is gaining substance.  Nothing seems to last for more than thirty seconds. Chewbacca dead! No he’s not. Here’s a gigantic once-in-42-years alien festival – for about a blink. C3PO’s memory wiped (except, somehow, his basic programming of being annoying and camp remains). No it's not. Po’s old flame is threatening to kill him one minute and giving him a valuable deux ex machina five minutes later. Oh, and here's Lando. And that’s all in the first half. JJ Abrams is all promise and no delivery.

Now you don’t go to ‘Star Wars’ for dialogue or acting: they seem essentially to have two modes of exposition and squabbling. Although John Boyega’s natural charm does shine through despite everything. But there’s a recklessness with the story that make its flaws hard to ignore. It’s all: 

·       here! Now here!
·       Now this! No: this!
·       Chase after a MacGuffin!
·       Tokenistic emotional moment with swelling strings and famous ‘Star Wars’ musical motif.
·       Sometimes characters respond like fanboys. “They can fly now?!” Really? Doesn’t Boba Fett have a jet pack? Why would flying be so surprising in this technologically advanced world?

But that’s indicative that fans think about thoroughly about the follow-through and logic than this finished product (I don’t want to say the writers because there can be a lot of distance between script and screen and there are four credited with story here). It’s a franchise whose minutiae has been scrutinised to death. I have seen technical arguments about the abilities of the spacecraft, for example.

But to give an example of the free-for-all somewhat carelessness of JJ Abrams’ ‘Star Wars’: surely one of the misguided additions to the mythology is giving Stormtroopers backstory. When I was a child, I thought Stormtroopers were androids and was disappointed when I discovered their design by Andrew Ainsworth, which I loved, was just a suit. Now we have discovered that these First Order soldiers are forcibly conscripted kids and this bid to humanise them creates further conflict. When things do slow in ‘Rise’, we hear tales of Stormtrooper mutiny, which only thickens this moral conflict. How are we now to respond when our good guys mow down and blow up Stormtroopers? Are we to just shrug off Stormtrooper humanity and the injustice of their history? And when we’re thinking about it, what about innocent prisoners in exploding spaceships? Sometimes, giving backstories just create more questions and issues because you start to pick at details. It’s the kind of lacunae that ‘Clerks’ derived much humour from, but it does serve a purpose. (This giving backstory is a sorry contemporary trend: I mean, who cares about Bond’s childhood?) JJ Abrams’ ‘Star Wars’ doesn’t really have the agenda to deal with moral quandary so that time spent on this subplot feels like misjudgement and ill-thought through. Or another indication of carelessness. ‘Rogue One’ is where you go for a greyer kind of ‘Star Wars’.

And on top of all, the Force can do anything, really, Good and Evil, where a single individual can hinder a huge spaceship take-off, or raise an entire fleet or stop a Rebel attack, so what’s to worry? But even in the original ‘Star Wars’ with Ben Kenobi it was established that death of key characters was an arbitrary thing. ‘The Last Jedi’ probably hit a nadir with Leia fake-out space-death. And then there’s the superficial manner in which Han Solo’s death was dealt with where its full implications were just shrugged off and Chewie grieved for about a minute. But don’t worry: there’ll be ghost-cameos (And Han’s cameo doesn’t seem to be a Force-ghost, just a ghost-ghost?). But. Yeh, considering The Dark Side can raise a fleet of Star Destroyers with a rising hand and a growling voice, that it can allow a single person to directly interfere with an ongoing Rebel attack with some finger-lightning, I’m not sure Good ultimately winning through some light-sabre action truly convinces. The Force is the point where blind religious conviction that Faith can give you X-Men powers meets narrative deux ex machina.  

Eh, there’s a lot of special effects but it’s all so rapid that nothing truly leaves a mark, despite the number one enjoyment of ‘Star Wars’ being its hardware and world-building. Even ‘The Force Awakens’ had that. And so, a general sense that there’s no care for details or pacing pervades, making cynicism set in so that the pulpy silliness can’t be overlooked for sheer enjoyment. Because there’s a general air of indifference and therefore condescension.

Of course, the simplicity of ‘Star Wars’ is a part of its durability and it’s very much Goodies and Baddies-with-British accents. This is no interrogation of fascism, although it does give it an instantly recognisable John Williams marching theme. However, its distillation of tired tropes jazzed up with technology, aliens and backstory makes it a treasure trove for sci-fi wonder and key to its rabid fandom. That Good-and-Evil pretence was muddied a little by ‘Rogue One’ and has ultimately become subservient to weightless action. ‘Star Wars’, in the end, reached a stage of simultaneously being over-complicated and, in this case, careless. And therefore unsatisfying.