The Antepenultimate Jedi

Have you seen it? Read on. If not, and spoilers bother you, stop.

The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson, 2017)

There’s a moment in Reign of Fire where a story is being acted out for a group of rapt children — and we in the audience should recognise the story, since it’s a version of the original Star Wars trilogy. Those first three films — episodes IV to VI — have the quality of the fairy tale, the orphan who battles monsters, who reaches the happily ever after moment and then is heard from no more, until he has to give half his kingdom and his daughter to whomever will slay the dragon. There is always another child — and it should have been more interesting than it was that Anakin was that child and grew up to be evil Darth Vader. Think reading The Magician’s Nephew after The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. And then there was Rey, in The Force Awakens, of mysterious birth, a wild untutored phoenix in the ways of the Force who this time was a girl (and there was a great perturbance in the Force….)

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Hard Stares

Paddington 2 (Paul King, 2017)

And inevitably — for reasons that need not detain us — I was looking back to all those long drives to holiday destinations and family in the north east, and the five tapes that passed the time: two Winnie the Pooh, two Paddingtons and a Beatrix Potter. The first two (four) were the loved ones, sharing Bernard Cribbins as a reader. And I’m pretty sure that the first theatre I saw, aside from panto, were adaptations. I’m not sure why I missed the first movie — feeling some trepidation — but I could see Ben Wishaw would be perfect for the voice.

As far as I can recall, with the exception of Paddington Abroad, the books were all short stories: Paddington would attempt to do something (sell Mr Curry a vacuum cleaner) and it would go wrong (Mr Curry had no mains electricity), but everything would turn out ok. There would be a visit to Mr Gruber and sticky buns and there’d be a hard stare. I think I have about ten books, Armada Lions, battered and fading orange.

But here we need a feature length narrative: Paddington saving up money to buy a rare pop up book of London for his Aunt Lucy’s hundredth birthday. Only someone else is after the book and will stop at nothing to get it.

In a prologue, we learn that Paddington’s Aunt Lucy was about to go on holiday to London when she found Paddington — revealing in the process that Paddington was adopted before the Browns took him on. I am shocked that Aunt Lucy is not a blood relative — is this canon? Mind you, it took me a long time to realise that Pike’s Uncle Arthur wasn’t a blood relative.

And so we are in Notting Hill, which presumably has come up in the world since the original stories, but here at least is infinitely more multiracial than the last time co-star Hugh Grant appeared in a film set there. There is a neighbourhood of lovable eccentrics, almost all charmed by Britain’s favourite illegal immigrant, and each played by the gentry of television comedy. Occasionally, this can be distracting. Mr Curry, who I’d always assumed to be Scottish, is played by Peter Capaldi, better known for Local Hero and the Oscar-winning Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Gruber, meanwhile, is Jim Broadbent, slightly confusingly as Hugh Bonneville (Mr Brown, Paddington’s reluctant adopter) has played a younger version of Broadbent in Iris.

The build is slow, as Paddington begins cleaning windows, in a borrow from the books (surely) and from a Hoffnung monologue where it was a barrel of bricks. But as the birthday approaches, Paddington finds himself behind bars with a choky full of dodgy characters. Paddington weaves his magic, setting the scene for a geographically dodgy train chase.

I assume writer-director King is a Wallace and Gromit fan, as it borrows from Nick Parks’s heterotopia and his style of piling up sight gags. I think this is a film to rewatch on DVD, pause button to hand, to unpick the notices and headlines. It’s a long film, but it doesn’t feel long. Paddington is utterly convincing, although perhaps at times he’s not sufficiently in the landscape, and I could have done without quite so many fantasy sequences. The pop up book perhaps allows homage to the Ivor Wood animated series, that never quite sold me. Meanwhile, even though I’d avoid Hugh Grant movies like the plague, he steals this film gloriously and effortlessly.

And, spoilers, it’s pretty obviously worth watching the closing credits, for one more set piece.

Perhaps it’s an air of exhaustion, but this might be my film of the year, watched through teared up eyes, eucatastrophically or for those endless drives on the A1 or the M1 all those years ago.

Now is the Time For All Good Women to Come to the Aid of…

The Party (Sally Potter, 2017)

I so nearly didn’t go to see this — I’ve twice felt too tired this week to do an 8.30 Blade Runner 2049 rewatch, and I do need to subject myself to Thor: Ragnarok and I’d not quite twigged that this was a Sally Potter film. That being said, it’s a long time since I saw Orlando and The Man Who Cried and I really need to fill in those gaps. But the fact that I ran late despite an event being cancelled meant the 5.00 screening was perfect and I could have been home for The Archers if I’d not called into Aldi.

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Cupid Stunt

eCupid (J.C. Calciano, 2011)

In one of those it’s my blessing and my curse moments, I keep realising 90% of the way through a film that I should have been taking notes because it is relevant to my Research Project.

Most of the time the film is pants.

Valerian, say.

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And the Real Thing is the Best Thing Yet

Detroit (Kathryn Bigelow, 2017)

Some time ago I was doing some research into the history of Detroit, and read that this was an integrated city with little disturbances over racial lines. It was the heart of the American motor industry and then a music industry, which have since collapsed and moved elsewhere. Julien Temple’s extraordinary documentary Requiem for Detroit (2009) documents its collapse and attempts at reconstruction. Having done further research, I’m not sure what the author was talking about — and this film centres on a reconstruction of a devastating event at the heart of a disturbance, at the Algiers Hotel.

An illegal drinking venue is raided by largely white police men, arresting largely African American patrons. This leads to unrest on the streets, which the film labels a riot, over a number of days. An aspiring male vocal group, The Dramatics, have their performance cancelled just before they are due to go on, thanks to the curfew, and they try to find their way home. Larry Reed and Fred Temple book a room at a motel and try to pick up two white tourists, Julie Ann and Karen, who introduce them to Carl Cooper and Aubrey Pollard. Pollard fires a starter gun out of the window, attracting the National Guard, the police — including Philip Krauss, who has shot someone dead in the back — and a security guard, Melvin Dismukes. Krauss starts interviewing every one left in the motel, with sadistic glee, staging mock executions. Then things go really wrong. When the night is over, the white cops and Dismukes are put on trial, with an all-white jury.

There has been a certain amount of fuss about whether this was a story that Bigelow, as a white director can tell this story. It would be interesting to see a John Singleton or Spike Lee version, of this film, but cautious Hollywood rarely gives big budgets to African American directors. Equally, they rarely do so to women — Fifty Shades of Grey, Twilight and Wonder Woman being rare exceptions — so perhaps we should celebrate a woman being given a $34 million budget, although that is not huge. Bigelow is the only woman to win a best director Oscar, so perhaps has the chops to swing the gig for an African American director and act as producer; on the other hand she has had a lot of flops, in the arcane world of film accountancy her films are rarely in profit, making about three times the budget at best. At the moment, Detroit is a flop.

It is not an easy film to navigate, as we take a long time to get to the motel and then we have the aftermath to deal with. All of this is necessary. There are a bewildering range of characters in the first half hour, before the set piece kicks in, and this gives us a portrait of a city in crisis, if not the mundane every day life. The context of unrest in 1967 Detroit is sketched in with drawings and captions — the move of workers from the south to work in the car industry and the slow exodus of the white population (the words “white flight” are not used). We don’t get the fall out from Jim Crow laws, the Civil War and slavery, but that was more in the south anyway. We are told that change is inevitable, although it is not clear when or how. Bigelow slips between documentary footage and reconstruction.

In a sense the film is all reconstruction; we are told that it is not clear what happened, even with court testimony and the memory of survivors. Characters will be compressed into composites, dialogue will be invented, people were on their own. This matters because this is an event of political importance — but the story has to be told. There is violence, but we can’t be sure it is the right violence. Above all, we can never quite get into the heads of Krauss and his fellow cops — of what made them racist. Or to behave as they did. Their interrogation is tactical, but we don’t know who set that up.

Sometimes there is a sense of punches being pulled. John Boyega as Dismukes is a Good Man, and no doubt he is, but I wonder whether the actor is in danger of becoming a British Denzel Washington, a guarantor of uprightness. Equally, there are moments of good deeds by white people just in case we have wanted to insist #notallwhitemen. It is telling that the two central characters are played by British actors. Was it too much of a hot potato?

Bigelow has always been a director of contradictions, a female director who had tried to inhabit supposedly male genres, more likely to create meaty roles for men than women (but don’t forget Jamie Lee Curtis in Blue Steel (1987)). Her background is in painting and film theory, with auteurial signatures of night shoots and neon lights, often viewed through smoke, but she has worked with and was married to James Cameron. She has worked in art house and television, with a small role in the extraordinary intersectional sf film Born in Flames, but she’s also had big budget. Repeatedly she makes radical films that end up with a whiff of neoconservatism — her vampire film Near Dark (1987) blurs boundaries of sexuality and gender, but white patriarchy and home wins out; her sf Strange Days (1995) has a female African American protagonist, but a white old man saves the day. Detroit was inspired by events in Ferguson, but the dots of true integration still not being achieved are not filled in.

I think this is a film to be seen — even if it’s not a film to like or enjoy — but perhaps on the level that a flawed attempt to tell a story is better than not to tell it. But perhaps the canvas of a thirteen part television series might have been more suitable.

Casey the Nietzschean Ghost

A Ghost Story (David Lowery, 2017)

Your response to this film will depend on whether you can buy its central conceit: when a husband dies in a car accident he haunts his wife in a white sheet. In the next house along there is another ghost, in a rather more fetching design. The cumulative effect is it is not certain how seriously you are meant to take the film — is it a comedy, a tragedy, a bitter sweet comedy, a comedy with tragic overtones? Much of the film is in silence, the husband staring, first at his wife, and then at the various later, or perhaps earlier, inhabitants of the house. The cynic is me suspects that they could only afford Casey Affleck for a couple of days, and a stand in plays the ghost, but apparently it is him.

One of the incomers, present at a party, has a speech longer than all the other dialogue put together. Oddly, when a Spanish-speaking family move in, they are not subtitled — perhaps the ghost does not understand them — but the dead neighbour is.

Lowery works within an almost square ratio, something like 4:3, the same as used in silent films, and this adds a sense of voyeurism to the proceedings. The Curzon’s policy of not closing curtains — maybe there are no curtains — to cover the blank screen draws attention to the empty space outside the restrained diegesis. The ghost is often at the edge of the frame, just in view, with the camera held on the tableaux for longer than we are used to and certainly more than is comfortable. I was reminded of the great southern American photographer, William Eggleston, with his focus on the determinedly mundane. It is ordinary, but there is a beauty in it.

Whilst in Manchester By the Sea delayed the final revelation of what the trauma and guilt at the heart of the film was, this is more circumspect. There is tension between the married couple, over whether they should move or not, the chain of tragic events is less laid out for us. Whilst that film denied us catharsis, this one is even more frustrating of audience desires. The pace is glacial at first, but slowly builds, never less than watchable even as it toys with us. The mourning wife, Rooney Mara, binge eats a chocolate pudding, in spoonful after spoonful after spoonful and I hope this was achieved in a single take for the sake of her waist line.

It is not clear whether it is told in linear time — in a sense it isn’t, as we have flashbacks — but the years that the house lies empty should be stretching out from more or less the present, even as a modern metropolis encroaches on the house. They have laptops. Mobile phones. And we also loop back to pioneers. The film’s epigraph is taken from a Virginia Woolf story, “A Haunted House”:

”Whatever hour you woke there was a door shutting. From room to room they went, hand in hand, lifting here, opening there, making sure — a ghostly couple.”

and Woolf repeatedly plays with duration in her work.

On a couple of occasions the husband loses patience with his squatters and haunts them — exploding light bulbs, throwing books around. We see some of the titles: A Farewell to Arms, some Nietzsche. They mean something. Probably. You may lose patience. You may surrender to the film. You should probably cry.

Falling to Earth Again

Every so often, a contribution gets spiked or falls into limbo, and the text hangs around not being read on the harddrive. I ended up writing about The Man Who Fell to Earth in Solar Flares, “Unimportant Failures: The Fall and Rise of The Man Who Fell to Earth”, Science Fiction Across Media: Adaptation/Novelisation and “The Man Who Fell To Earth: The Messiah and the Amphicatastrophe”, Heroes, Monsters and Values: Science Fiction Films of the 1970s. I discuss the more famous, 1976, version here.

The Man Who Fell to Earth (David Gerber Productions/MGM Television, 1987)
Adapted from Walter Tevis, The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963)

(Dir. Bobby Roth; Sc. Richard Kitter; Pr. Christopher Chulack; Cin. Frederick Moore; P.D. John Mansbridge; SFX. Charles E. Dolan; starring Lewis Smith (John Dory); James Laurenson (Felix Hawthorne); Robert Picardo (Agent Richard Morse); Bruce McGill (Vernon Gage); Wil Wheaton (Billy Milton); Beverly D’Angelo (Eva Milton))

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