Thursday, 28 December 2017

Last, But Not Ultimate - Some thoughts on The Last Jedi and far away galaxies

There are few cinematic experiences that can recreate the feeling of being a kid.  There is a rare thrill to be had when the Jurassic Park soundtrack for the first time in years, or when you hear the Indiana Jones theme swell (whatever the quality of the film…).  One of the few film series able to summon both nostalgia and cultural currency is Star Wars.  Once thought dead and buried under three prequels worth of George Lucas’ self indulgence, it has awoken thanks (whatever you may think of their influence) to Disney’s desire to build a new franchise.

Now this emotional connection is a huge part of the enjoyment of Star Wars; the ability to conjure childhood memories while showing you exciting new things, occurs almost nowhere else in popular culture.  It is also a huge problem, for example when filmmakers have the audacity to try new things.  George Lucas, who in fairness is free to do whatever the hell he wants with Star Wars,  was guilty of introducing ‘midichlorians’, offering a physical explanation for the force.  Swing and a miss in trying to demystify the mysterious.  New is not always welcome when you’re messing with somebody’s childhood love.

 JJ Abrams’ The Force Awakens nailed everything you would want from a Star Wars film: the light tone, the overwhelming enemy and underdog resistance, dogfights and lightsabre battles, the hint at something grander and more mysterious at work.  However, the main criticism levelled at the 2015 film (aside from pube-less misogynist keyboard warriors complaining about an all-powerful female character, and using their mother’s Wi-Fi to do so) was that it was, beat-for-beat, a cover version of A New Hope, even down to the tragic character death.  It also managed a tricky feat, which remakes, reboots, and retcons (the recent Alien films, Indiana Jones 4, any remake of a Paul Verhoeven film) tend to get horribly wrong: adding engaging new characters that you actually cared about.

Filmmakers now find themselves in a bind, tightened by competing factions of nerds, whose complaints are directly contradictory: don’t change anything about the thing I love, but make each one different to what we’ve seen before.  Rogue One, whose function was to plug a gap between episodes and not further the main story, is excused from criticism by virtue of being totally awesome.

And so we come to The Last Jedi.  After a largely positive reaction to TFA, the anticipation levels were higher than Anakin’s midichlorian count.  Speculation mounted that it would be ‘the dark middle film’ like Empire Strikes Back, that villain Snoke would be [insert ludicrous theory here], and that Rey’s family would definitely, without question, be powerful Jedi knights that we’d seen before (despite them all being dead and the 30-year time difference making no sense).

As done with the original trilogy, directorial duties had been handed off, this time to Rian Johnson; a man whose films tend not to feature much levity and have genre boundaries greyer than Skywalker’s beard.  Surprisingly, Johnson has made a very light film: from the priceless moment where Poe Dameron throws some shade the way of General Hux by pretending to be on hold and not hear his monologue of threats, to General Leia’s “what are you looking at me for? Follow him!” there are just enough funny beats.  This is important: if you don’t add levity like this, you run the risk of lengthy conversations about senates and trade embargoes.  Films about telekinetic space monks, intergalactic war, and a yeti with a crossbow, which borrow heavily from Hamlet and Kurusawa need a dose of humour. Po-faced doesn’t gel with porgs, wookies, and a goblin with poor syntax, so the humorous tone is just what is needed.  My favourite part: Chewie cooking a porg in front of horrified on looking porgs.

Plot-wise, this is a very different beast to what we’ve seen before.  A thoroughly pissed-off First Order are closing in on the remnants of the Rebellion and despite an early victory, the rebels find themselves pursued by Snoke’s ship, with dwindling fuel and an against-the-orders scheme the only way for them to get away.  It annoyed me that despite seeing several Rebel ships escape at the start of the film, we are told that there are only three remaining.  This adds an element of peril but feels cheap.  The Rebel escape plan is the film’s weakest part: John Boyega’s Finn finds himself on an opulent casino planet with an irritating sidekick, looking for a codebreaker who can facilitate the Rebel escape.  This whose sequence suffers from an abundance of needless CGI animals and a class-war subtext which just doesn’t fit.  Subsequent plot developments also render it pointless.

The film opens and closes really well but suffers from a huge lull in the middle, including the above casino planet sequence.  Part of this lull is the anticipated Rey-and-Luke part, in which Luke refuses and then agrees to train Rey as a Jedi, and his recluse status is explained.  An underrated actor – Luke had the biggest character arc of the original trilogy – Mark Hamill does his best work here as a traumatised, conflicted Luke.  Following the path taken by both Yoda and Obi Wan Kenobi, his failures and fears have driven him to seclusion and forced him to turn his back on The Force.  With hints that Rey could follow Kylo Ren’s route to the Dark Side, and Luke’s fear of that exact thing, this makes for a fascinating deepening of Rey’s story but is very dialogue heavy.  The rumoured attack by the Knights of Ren doesn’t happen but this part of the film desperately needed something like that.  Luke’s nonchalant dismissal of his own lightsabre, however, is priceless.

As Rebel plans come to a head, we see a failed mutiny, a failed stealth mission, and a semi-failed escape, all of which add to the increasing sense of peril.  The identity of Supreme Leader Snoke was the source of much rumour-mongering and those same nerds will be disappointed that he isn’t given more of a backstory.  What he is given, however, is a huge amount of power and a strange vulnerability.  His desire to recruit blank-slate Rey as his new apprentice leads to him shunning Kylo and ultimately his death.  A sucker for a great villain, I would have liked to see more from him, but his death will lead to the conflicted Klyo’s ascension to Big Bad.  His death leads to the coolest lightsabre battle seen in a good while but he feels kind of underused, in that Kylo doesn’t seem any more powerful for it.

Changes to Luke’s character have been one of the more complained-about subjects, however these make perfect sense when the full picture is revealed.  Both Yoda and Kenobi ran and hid from their fears and failures.  Luke and Kylo give slightly differing accounts of what happened (another Kurusawa reference, samurai fans), and Luke’s arc reaches a satisfying conclusion when he embraces his position and returns to the fray.  His ruse makes for a wonderful moment where he faces down Kylo with faint echoes of Kenobi taking on Vader.  Yes, Luke’s character is different and Johnson’s choices for him are iconoclastic, but that’s what makes it so good.

The best thing about The Last Jedi is its bravery in ignoring the expectations and doing new things with the characters.  There are no set rules for what The Force can or cannot do, or where this universe can or cannot go, and Kudos for Johnson for making what feels like a complete film and not just filler material between episodes 7 and 9.  The final episode can be approached with a blank slate and two opposing forces whose allegiances to Light and Dark are not 100% clear.  What he doesn’t do so well is keep the pace for the duration.  There is also the strange treatment of Carrie Fisher in what turned out to be her final role.  The decision not to kill Leia when the chance was presented remains one of the film’s weakest moments: it’s silly, confusing, has very limited foregrounding in the previous films (although it’s hinted that Leia is force-sensitive), and given Fisher’s tragic passing, now impossible to follow up.

Like Skywalker himself, it isn’t perfect, but it’s good enough to sit alongside the greats, even if there are moments of madness.  Where we go from here is, again, tantalisingly far, far away from being known.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Is It A Wonderful Life..? Ruining a Christmas classic

Newcastle boasts a fine independent cinema (The Tyneside) and one of its finest events is the annual screening of Frank Capra’s 1946 masterpiece It’s A Wonderful Life in the weeks leading to Christmas.  Massively popular, each year thousands of punters turn up to watch James Stewart’s George Bailey lose and then spectacularly recover his will to live, and in doing so help an angel get his wings.  70 years on and it has lost not an ounce of its power to fill the viewer full of hope and make them appreciate the good will of their fellow man.  For me, seeing It’s A Wonderful Life here marks the start of Christmas, and hopefully the only time of the year where I cry in public.

The gut reaction is that this is a wholly good and hopeful fable about a man who sacrifices himself time and again for the good of his town, and is rewarded for it in his time of need.  It makes you feel warm inside and makes you want to do good things; it reminds you that a kinder world is a better world.  And don’t get me wrong, this is the appropriate reaction to this film.  But I am now going to try to spoil it for you, so please stop reading if you don’t want your next Christmas ruined by a blogger who probably doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

Made after World War 2, at a time when Capra and Stewart wanted to make people feel better after the world had been devastated by Holocaust, war and nuclear bombs.  The world was in a mess and people were struggling to cope with incalculable horrors, so a film culminating in an overwhelmingly positive message really meant something.  But consider George Bailey’s character: all he wanted to do was “shake off the dust of this crummy little town and see the world!” and by the time the story ends that’s the one thing he hasn’t done.  Bailey is our protagonist; Stewart, the ultimate everyman, is noble and normal, not what you’d classically call heroic.  As our onscreen proxy, he singularly fails to achieve any of his ambitions.  He never leaves Bedford Falls, never sees the world, never does what he so dearly wanted to do.  For such a wholly good man, he is not rewarded by getting the one thing he desires.  While this self-sacrifice, and the power of the individual, is largely what Capra is promoting as important, there is something very sad about George Bailey’s geostationary life.

In cinema, America often has a problem with small towns. Davids Lynch and Cronenberg used them as settings for violent and downright bizarre events in Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, and A History Of Violence. Hitchcock used one as a murderer’s hiding place in Shadow Of A Doubt. Viewing them as a microcosm for the larger society, films like Invasion of The Body Snatchers made barely masked political statements about perceived dangers of communism.  Bedford Falls is squarely aligned with the latter, with Capra using the town to demonstrate the importance of collaboration, of sacrifice, and of seeing your own importance to the rest of society.  What this implicitly does is criticise the self-interest and ambition that goes hand in hand with American capitalism.  That’s right: the all-American, staunchly Republican James Stewart made a pro-Socialist Christmas film.

Although the equally-Republican Capra likely saw his films as demonstrating a stance against corruption and in favour of individualism, it’s possible to view It’s A Wonderful Life as promoting social endeavour (the Bailey Building and Loan a ‘thorn in the side’ of the bank).  Imagine for a moment what an individualist George Bailey would do; a fully Capitalist George Bailey would not make his raison d’etre the welfare of a small town that he sees as a millstone around his neck.  A George Bailey following an American individualist ideology would have left Bedford Falls, made a fortune, and allowed that money to trickle on down to his former neighbours. But Carpa’s film preaches that there is more moral value in helping society than oneself; the antithesis of what would become the Reaganite mantra 40 years later.

The character of Potter would surely represent Capra and Stewart’s Republican ideal.  Somewhere between the Monopoly Man and Donald Trump, he is the arch Capitalist, loathsome and alone.  Capra even presents him in a Satanic light: the scene where he attempts to buy off George Bailey only to be thwarted by a handshake, Potter’s name is kept in frame, written in reverse. The fantasy of Pottersville, a sleazy, base version of Bedford Falls, is Capra’s warning about the danger of rampant capitalism leading to moral decay.  In short, Las Vegas.  What Potter represents is thus: there is only evil in the accumulation of wealth, in living life for oneself, yet there is nobility in poverty.  In a classical sense, this is not what you would call The American Way, but a humane, socially conscious view of life.  If I were Senator McCarthy, I would be starting my witch hunt at Carpa’s office.

Politics aside, why does It’s A Wonderful Life seem better with each passing year?  It seems to be because there’s an inversely proportionate relationship between it, and how wonderful life actually is.  Life gets harder, we live under increasing pressure to earn, to do the best for ourselves, and see the increasing damage done by Potter’s progeny across the world.  Pottersville is spreading, and there is an increasing need to cling to something wholly good and innocent.  We need more George Baileys; people who will put the needs of others before their own.

So while I’m doing my best to ruin what is probably the best Christmas film for you, I still love it, love what it means, and love how for 2 hours it can transport you into a more wonderful version of life.  For you, for me, for everyone in Bedford Falls; for everyone except George Bailey. 

Monday, 18 December 2017

Gig Review: Enter Shikari, Newcastle Arena 19/11/17

I wasn’t a fan of Enter Shikari until recently.  A term which is vastly and lazily overused, ‘crossover’ music held no appeal to me when they debuted in 2007.  While by definition not a genre itself, crossover was something that had been done to death: take a dash of Genre A and add to a bowl of Genre B, simmering until the public gets bored… All I heard when their debut, Take To The Skies was released was an album of pseudo-hardcore riffs with that one keyboard sound they use in trance music played over the top.  It wasn’t until I saw the video for ‘Arguing With Thermometers’ that I saw how far they had come.  Genres now woven seamlessly together rather than just played atop one another, and the song had more bite and satire.  Debut album aside, I was converted.

As much as they are now established as one of Britain’s biggest rock bands this side of Biffy Clyro, they are still this side of Biffy and as such haven’t really sold enough records to justify playing the Arena.  I was curious.

Newcastle’s worst venue was less awful than usual tonight, with about half of the floor in use and the side seats curtained off it was more intimate than the cavernous shell that this place normally becomes.   I arrive as opening band Astroid Boys are starting and immediately wish I had stayed in the pub for another half an hour.  There are six of them on stage: 3 rappers, two of whom shout the last word of every line while the other does all the work; a guy on turntables, who seems to cue all of the music up on a laptop and never changes the record (whichever way you cut it, this constitutes cheating at a live show); a drummer, who is decent; and a guitar player who embellishes their songs with power chords and looks embarrassed to be there.  They look and sound like charvers and are truly awful.

Next up is Lower Than Atlantis, whose singer Mike Duce bounds onstage full of energy and attitude, but whose set is less than brilliant.  Their last two albums have seen a marked change of direction into more overt pop-rock territory and while 2014’s Lower Than Atlantis boasted some fine songs, this year’s Safe In Sound is dull.  Their entire set is drawn from these two albums and while the songs are made for this kind of venue, they are hardly the best material this band has produced.  They play well, but the whole things feels too polished, and I maintain that ‘Emily’ is a boyband song with the guitars turned only slightly up…

The crowd has padded out a bit when Glen Miller-style swing and a First World War-style countdown plays over the PA, announcing 10 minutes until The Spark commences.  10 minutes later, Shikari have Entered and opened with recent single ‘The Sights’.  It’s infectious, catchy, and the audience laps it up.  It’s testament to the standard of their recent output that songs from The Spark and The Mindsweep are the best on display, with a punky ‘Take My Country Back’ (probably the most uplifting chorus of the year), the flawless stylistic fusion of ‘Rabble Rouser’, and a stunning ‘The Last Garrison’ highlights of the set.

Despite a sample malfunction causing a false start during ‘Undercover Agents’, which the band handles with good humour despite the obvious complexity of restarting the song, they are impeccable.  Rou Richards is in fine voice and his livewire performance suits the large venue.  Effortlessly switching from his regular croon to rap, falsetto, and a low baritone, he is a box of vocal tricks and this adds textures and a sense of humour to what might otherwise be very dry, political material.  He’s ably supported by impeccably-dressed bass player Chris Batten.

Although they use the None-More-U2 cliché of Reynolds and drummer Rob Rolfe moving to the back of the venue for a couple of numbers (ballads ‘Airfield’ and ‘Adieu’), they have enough charm to pull this off, and when you can go straight into a song as good as ‘Anaesthetist’ (a war cry against for-profit healthcare) you can get away with such things.  Reynolds then introduces the “quickfire round”, comprising of 4 songs in 8 minutes; we get ‘Sorry You’re Not A Winner’, ‘Sssnakepit’, ‘…Meltdown’, and ‘Antwerpen’ and the place goes mental.

Despite my reservations about them playing a venue of this size, it’s clear that Shikari are a stadium band without a stadium audience.  Their stage set up and lightshow are impressive and befitting a large arena.  They create a party atmosphere while hitting you with the sort of irony and subtext that the likes of Pitchshifter used to toss out at will.  They end with a riff-heavy ‘Zzzonked’ before returning for the euphoric ‘Redshift’ and close with catchy recent single ‘Live Outside’.

Enter Shikari offer a positive message, a good time vibe, a sense of humour, a fantastic back catalogue, and a furious political message.  They are one of the few bands not to rest on their laurels and repeat themselves.  In many ways, it’s a shame that they aren’t filling venues like this but as long as they can play them at all, I’ll take what I can get and I recommend you do too.

Monday, 20 November 2017

Film Review: Justice League

It’s probably fair to say that your expectations going into something can affect your enjoyment of it.  I had super-high expectations of Warner Bros’-DC’s previous tentpole event movie, Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn Of Justice, and despite several viewings and multiple chances given I still find it dull, incoherent, with undersold drama and poor CGI.  It seemed to exist not to tell a story on its own, but to foreshadow something bigger, and that left it hugely unsatisfying.  As I mentioned in my review at the time, Marvel had earned their right to a crossover with several smaller films to introduce characters, featuring knowing nods to the camera.  Marvel were taking their time with foreplay; DC were rushing in dry.

That said, BvS had its moments; admittedly not too many of them for a long film, but enough to stop me from completing hating it completely.  Warner-DC’s endgame was Justice League.  After the clusterfuck of Suicide Squad (although I did enjoy Wonder Woman) I was going in with rock bottom expectations, but a decent spark of excitement.  I mean, how could a geek like not be excited for a film featuring Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash and Aquaman fighting together?  And I suppose world’s dullest superhero, Superman, would be in it, too.

My rock bottom expectations had been informed by the curse of knowing too much.  Firstly, the previous films DC hadn’t exactly been brilliant; Chris Nolan’s high benchmark in terms of drama and tone had not been matched.  They could surprise, while even Wonder Woman was very ‘stock’, fun as it was.  Secondly, a notoriously difficult shoot with rumours of almost daily script revisions, extensive reshoots (I tried ever so hard not to mention Henry Cavill’s moustache, but here we are…) and the tragic circumstances behind Zack Snyder’s departure and replacement.  These things don’t exactly scream cohesion.  Thirdly, the dangers of giving new characters short shrift, best demonstrated by most of the X-Men films, in which major characters are briefly introduced and given too little to do.  DC clearly have big plans for major players like Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg but the rush to their moneyshot has meant the only introduction we’ve had was Bruce Wayne watching some secret YouTube videos of them.  Justice League has a lot of work to do before it even gets entertaining.

I can’t honestly say that I enjoyed it.  I certainly didn’t hate it; like the predecessors, there were moments, but there were far more problems than there were moments.  I’ll start with the villain.  Who could DC put in the way of a team  consisting of six super powered people? Darkseid is being saved for the future, so Lex Luthor, Bizarro, Metallo, Brainiac?  They went with Steppenwolf. No, me neither.  A poorly-rendered CGI Ciaran Hinds as a dull megalomaniac with a big axe and an army of humanoid insects who feed on fear.  His motivations are sketchy, his dialogue is sub-Bond villain scenery chewing.  He’s stronger than 5 of the 6 members (no prizes for guessing which one can take him) and he looks awful.  Counting Doomsday, Ares, and whatever that thing was in Suicide Squad, he’s now the 4th consecutive characterless CGI armoured monster (with horns) to be thrown up by the DC villain machine.

Then there are the heroes.  The most interesting character, Batman, unites the team but is (perhaps rightly) left behind during much of the action as the actual super heroes do their thing.  He’s pleasingly battle-scarred and knows he’s outgunned.  Wonder Woman is the pick of the bunch; both the most interesting character, bringing Themyscerian vengeance to Steppenwolf, and enjoying the best of the set piece action.  Ezra Miler does well enough with The Flash, although his best bits are all in the trailers.  He’s fun, wide eyed and here are some touching moments between him and his father (Billy Crudup).  Jason Momoa’s Aquaman is terrible.  There is a character in pointless spoof Not Another Teen Movie who identifies only as “token black guy”, whose only job is to stand in the background and say things like “damn”, and “that shit is whack”.  That is all of Aquaman’s dialogue.  Cyborg, whose proximity to the silly-sounding ‘Mother Box’ Macguffins should have made him the heart of the film, is dull at best and so poorly-rendered he makes The Phantom Menace look like Terminator 2.

The dynamic between them doesn’t feel complete, either.  Mostly reluctant to join Batman’s super-team, they all fall into place where required and bicker over nothing much before falling into place just as the story requires.  A fight with the newly resurrected Superman is fun but still overstates his power set and ends with a predictable move.

Plot-wise, there is nothing you haven’t seen before here.  The drama is undersold and we never get a sense of threat.  Steppenwolf, we are told via flashback, is trying to unite three Ark-Of-The-Covenant boxes whose combined power will… do something bad to Earth, presumably involving the exponential spread of purple crystalline worm things.  He mentions Darkseid at one point.  In fact, I only know what he’s attempting to do because I read up on it before seeing the film.  The climactic battle is an anti-climax which fizzles where it should explode.

So as one might expect, a troubled shoot in a rushed overall project, two different directorial approaches (although I think Joss Whedon’s input as director has been overstated), and some very strange choices do not make for a cohesive film.  I tip my hat to the film giving Superman some decent one liners and keeping Wonder Woman front and centre, but there just isn’t enough here to carry what should have been the film event of this or most other years.  My low expectations have probably sullied by enjoyment, but being so low to begin with, Justice League didn’t even come close.  It’s an opportunity fumbled, made worse by poor choices in previous films and the lack of a singular vision at studio level.  And one last thing: Henry Cavill’s moustache, for fuck’s sake…

Monday, 9 October 2017

Film Review: My take on Aronofsky's mother!

When a film carries a reputation before it even comes out and then divides opinion down the middle, it’s hard to steer clear of snippets of information before you see it.  Such was the case with Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, which has gained headlines for putting star Jennifer Lawrence through the wringer and for being batshit crazy.  I’m going to attempt to get to the bottom of what this unique, difficult, and visceral film is all about.  I probably won’t be right, but one of the remarkable things about mother!, is that interpretation is not just invited, but essential to enjoying it.

My gut reaction on leaving the cinema was that it was like watching an escalating panic attack.  Cinematically, Aronofsky has outdone the gut punches he threw with Requiem For A Dream and Black Swan, adding an acute sensation of drowning in anxiety.  The entire film is set within an impressively complex octagonal house; that we never leave is important to my interpretation, but I’ll get to that later. Boasting impeccable production design, mother! is meticulously constructed with the express intention of keeping you on edge, and then sharpening the edge.  Creaking floors, unpredictable water pipes, and the unpleasant sound of glass rubbing on glass are almost constant, and this is aside from J-Law’s nameless character often seeing a decaying heart through the walls.

The ‘plot’ (loose as it is) sees Lawrence trying to restore husband Javier Bardem’s fire-damaged house.  Uninvited visitors arrive, preventing her work, while he (a respected poet) does none anyway.  An unnamed Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer arrive and befriend Bardem; drinking and smoking, they are passive-aggressive towards Lawrence and ignore her every request.  They go to Bardem’s forbidden writing room, which contains a strange, brittle crystal, implied to be his inspiration.  They break it, and then when told to leave go to their room and have sex instead.   Their children and extended family arrive and won’t leave when Lawrence asks them to (often asking if this was his decision, as though hers doesn’t count). This escalates to a point where the endless guests, mostly ignoring her or carrying out unrequested decorating on her behalf, sit on an unfinished sink and cause a flood.  Cue Lawrence going apeshit and making them leave (although they still look at her like she’s overreacting).  Lawrence and Bardem have sex and she wakes up instinctively knowing that she’s pregnant; this inspires Bardem to write like a man possessed.

Jump forward 9 months and Lawrence is ready to drop, while Bardem’s poem is finished.  Believing it to be his best work, within minutes of completion it starts to attract increasingly sycophantic and fanatical readers to the house.  He basks in the adulation, but Lawrence can’t keep them out of the house (again), and they start to become abusive.  Now… if at this point you’re taking any of the film literally, you will be thinking that mother! is baffling, annoying, and probably a little silly.  The fans, including Kristen Wiig’s publicist, start to debate the meaning of the poem, form factions over its meaning, then execute opposing factions, then a full-on war breaks out.  All the while, Lawrence is trying to find somewhere quiet so she can give birth.

Baffled by her husband’s behaviour, she refuses to hand the child over to him, fearing what he’ll do.  She falls asleep and he takes it, handing it over to the waiting mob… who proceed to kill, eviscerate and eat the baby.  Her protests result in her being called a whore and beaten by the fanatical crowd.  Angry, she retreats to the basement and uses Ed Harris’ lost cigarette lighter to ignite heating oil and destroy the house.  An unharmed Bardem pulls out her heart, from which he then finds another crystal.  The film ends with the same shot that began it: ‘mother’ waking in her bed, only this time played by a different actress.

I don’t normally describe the whole plot in these things, but in this case the details are important.  My take is that mother! roughly, loosely tells the story of the bible from Genesis to Revelations, but from the point of view of Mother Nature (Lawrence).  The house represents Earth (Lawrence states that she wants to make it a paradise), hence Lawrence can’t leave it.  Bardem’s study, the Garden of Eden.

Bardem plays God; proud, resting on his laurels, and bathing in the adulation of his followers.  His poem is the bible (or another holy text) – a throwaway line states that everybody takes its meaning differently.  Harris and Pfeiffer are Adam & Eve; entering the forbidden room, breaking something they shouldn’t have touched then popping off for a shag.  Their warring children, obsessed with inheritance and legacy, are Cain and Abel.  Those who follow are the human race; going with this reading of the film, Aronofsky clearly has little affection for his species as they ignore, destroy and abuse nature content as long as they think their God is happy and welcoming.  This phase of the film ends with a flood (his previous film, Noah, didn’t do it this well) which empties the house.

The second phase of the film, once ‘mother’ is pregnant, tells the tale of organised religion.  Factions form based on differing interpretations, they fight, and the house becomes dangerously overpopulated, all he while ‘mother’ is shunned and abused, the film becomes overwhelming to watch.  Bardem often refers to her as his Goddess; one might see this as simply affectionate but nothing else about his behaviour supports this.   The most horrific part of the film centres around the baby; the crowd stops their violence in anticipation of the 2nd coming, and then promptly resumes, and the unrepentant nastiness that follows can be read as the origins of the Catholic church.

Rather than just telling the bible story as a lengthy metaphor, Aronofsky seems intent on making a point.  That point is up for debate but here are a few suggestions:

That Lawrence’s Mother Nature character is shunned, ignored, abused, and her creation trampled by countless brainwashed humans, plays into Aronofsky’s well publicised environmental concerns.  His message may be that if we continue down this road – too much respect for a lazy, egotistical God and not enough for the goddess who does all the actual work in sustaining our world – she will turn on us and we will then be promptly fucked, and God will not care.  mother! can also be read as a warning about the dangers of an increasingly misogynistic world.  Everybody, even female characters, take Bardem seriously, love and respect him, but patronise and ignore the actual creative force.  Even when she creates life, all anybody cares about is that it came from him.  Probably the most personal reading is that Aronofsky is commenting on the creative process itself: nobody cares about the muse, only the poet, whose success causes the neglect and destruction of the muse.  The poet then moves on to another muse.

mother!, while horrific, is not a horror film.  It owes a huge debt to Polanski: the claustrophobia and ‘living’ rooms of Repulsion, and the bleak commentary on motherhood that pervades Rosemary’s Baby.  It trusts the audience to go along with the metaphor – taking it literally will mean not taking it seriously.  On an emotional level, it is a cinematic masterpiece; if you let mother! in, it will make you feel something and leave you different to how it found you.  And that is the essence of all great art, and like all great art, nobody says it has to be pretty.

Friday, 29 September 2017

Gig Review: Life of Agony - Northumbria University 19/09/17

Newcastle, despite being such a small city, boasts two universities, both of which used to have fine music venues.  Used to.  Newcastle University’s once-fine underground venue is now a homogenised plastic shell, and entering Northumbria Students Union now feels like walking through a PFI-built hospital.  There used to be two venues in here: the smaller theatre-style downstairs venue – now a café – and the upstairs sports hall-like cavern, which is modestly curtained off for tonight’s show.  It’s probably telling that the University’s once-excellent bookshop is now a branch of Santander, but I’m not 100% what it’s telling and won’t get into it here.

Life Of Agony have apparently never played here before.  Despite breaking out of the early 90s New York hardcore scene, LOA have always been more of a metal band.  Like their contemporaries Type O Negative, they threw in big Sabbath-y riffs and introspective gloom along with the occasional punk rhythm on first two albums Rover Runs Red and Ugly.  They evolved more and more into grunge territory with 1997’s Soul Searching Sun before splitting, reforming, splitting again, and then returning with this year’s patchy A Place Where There’s No More Pain.  What set the apart from their own, or any other, scene has always been Mina Caputo’s remarkable voice.  Tortured and vulnerable, but powerful enough to cut through the noise created by guitarist Alan Z, bassist Alan Robert, and drummer Sal Abruscato, it made LOA a more interesting prospect than most metal or hardcore bands of the time.

There are barely any people in the venue as I walk in.  Openers Blood Runs Deep are playing what sounds like the soundtrack to a nightmare.  Progressive, doomy, crushingly heavy and with songs that go on for about a day, they seem to enjoy themselves but probably don’t make many new fans tonight, such is the dearth of early punters.  The venue’s lack of filler material makes clear just how absolutely devoid of soul this place is.  It’s honestly like watching a band in a grim community centre.  The fucking academy is better than this place, and the academy is dogshit.

I’m always wary of bands who call themselves after a member’s name and the Somethings. Unless you happen to be Prince, Slash, or Huey Lewis, you really can’t pull it off. Local band Frankie and the Heartstrings sound like they should be shit, and are.  Even Frank Carter manages to sound like a cunt with The Rattlesnakes. So up next are Aaron Buchanan (no, me neither) and the Cult Classics.  I spent much of their terrible set Googling who the fuck Aaron Buchanan was (he was in Heaven’s Basement, apparently.  I have no idea who they were).  In possession of a powerful voice but using it to belt out turgid, sub-Guns n’ Roses drivel, Buchanan is the worst thing about his own band.  His Freddie Mercury stage moves, embarrassing stage banter, and hilarious silver jacket overpower what would be a tight but forgettable band.  He looks like a matador on a cruise ship and comes across like an absolute bellend.

LOA have attracted some very committed but not terribly numerous fans and the venue is sadly much less than full when they come onstage.  Fortunately, this doesn’t bother them one bit and 27 years of waiting turns into 50 minutes of awesome as they tear through thier back catalogue with style.

Opening with the one-two combo of arguably their best songs in ‘River Runs Red’ and the still-excellent ‘This Time’, they go on to represent every album but are wise enough to lean heavily on the first two.  We get ‘Weeds’ from Soul Searching Sun and ‘Love To Let You Down’ from Broken Valley.  Wisely only dipping a toe into the new stuff, we get pulverising renditions of ‘Lost At 22’, ‘Through and Through’ and ‘Other Side Of The River’.  It’s a crowd pleaser set and the band are enjoying it as much as any of us in the audience.

Joey Z peels out riff after riff while ain songwriter Alan Robert holds it all together on bass.  Caputo is the star of the show, though.  Vocally, moving from piercing baritone to something loser to Layne Staley over the years, she hits every note and musters all the passion you would want to see.  They make jokes about how sparse the crows is, and about firing members of the band.  The diminutive Caputo, shy and reserved at first, suddenly decides that she doesn’t like being onstage in front of so few people and decides to perform 2/3 of the show standing at the security barriers in front of the stage, sharing the mic with adoring fans.  Despite not having written their more heartfelt songs, Caputo delivers with passion, enthusiasm, and a surprising amount of humour.

Despite the low turnout, the band are appreciative and belt out handcore anthem ‘Underground’ before leaving us thoroughly satisfied yet wanting just a few more songs.  We’ve just witnessed one of the more unique bands our beloved genre ever spawned, mixing the punk aggression of hardcore and the bleak, introspective lyricism of grunge.  It’s been a long wait to see them play in our home town, but worth every second.  It may well be a life if agony, but times like this at least offer some glorious respite.

Monday, 18 September 2017

American [Blank]. Two film reviews for the price of one!

It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that a man in possession of a Cineworld Unlimited card will go and see any old crap at the cinema, just so he feels like he’s getting value for money.  I draw the fucking line at Jane Austen adaptations, by the way.  This year has seen me take in some genuinely great films (Get Out, Baby Driver, Dunkirk) and some absolute dross (King Arthur, The Mummy, Transformers).  At a loose end and with no idea of the quality of either film, I decided to see two consecutive films featuring the word ‘American’ in the title.

Cinema has a complicated recent history with this approach.  Such is America’s vast cultural influence, adding the word to the start of the film carries, for better or worse, some serious weight, either bestowing a superlative quality or suggesting a uniqueness only found in the 50 states. There are some classics (Beauty, Psycho, Movie, Graffiti and - for its time - Pie), most of which run with the unquantifiable uniqueness angle.  There are some decent but forgettable films (Sniper, Gangster, Mary, Hustle), and some which, if I’m being generous, just aren’t up to much (Ultra, Pastoral).  So how would the latest entries, American Assassin and American Made measure up

Assassin is first up.  It tries to be a Jack Bauer/Jason Bourne-like ‘living weapon’ film but suffers from ham-fisted politics (Iran wanting to nuke Israel, etc.) in the plotting, some truly awful dialogue, and logical gaps that make Suicide Squad seem coherent.

Occasional maze runner Dylan O’Brian, miscast but doing his best, plays Mitch Rapp (yes, he’s really called that), a young man whose life is torn apart when his implausibly attractive fiancé is killed by pesky Islamic fundamentalists moments after he’s proposed.  Despite being shot several times himself, he spends the next 18 months not recovering from bullet wounds, but preparing himself to be the titular assassin.  We aren’t told that he has any previous specialist training, but he becomes a skilled MMA fighter, weapons expert, and all round spy in the time it takes most people to plan a wedding.

Trying to infiltrate and kill the terrorist cell responsible for his dead girlfriend, he gets on the CIA radar and is selected for specialist Black Ops training ran by none other than Michael Keaton in the kind of role that former A-listers like him and Kevin Costner get these days (he’s better than this and he knows it, but having the time of his life being hard as fuck).  The CIA’s logic (used sparingly here) is that Rapp’s lack of army training makes him ideal for deep cover as he won’t have to “un-learn bad habits…” and won’t stand out as a boot camp graduate.

What ensues is a globetrotting search for missing weapons-grade nuclear material and Taylor Kitsch who, to the surprise of absolutely nobody, turns out to be a former protégé of Keaton’s and out for revenge.  There are a few scenes of decent enough action, a good fight scene between Kitsch and O’Brian (inventively set on a speedboat so advantages are lost and gained every time it hits a wave), and the whole film has a pleasing no-punches-pulled brutality to it.  Any indications that they were trying to attract a Young Adult audience by casting O’Brian disappear during a scene where fingernails are removed during torture.

That said, the whole thing is very silly, not terribly good, and the key plot point - Rapp’s transition from Very Angry Young Man to American hero - is too much of a leap.  As these films tend to, it makes implausible jumps, dispenses with character motivation where the plot requires.  O’Brian does his best at playing a tortured man overcoming tragedy and does ok with the physical stuff, but ultimately he looks like the member of a boyband who gets all the attention.  The action is just ok, and the plot falls apart under the slightest scrutiny.  Atomic Blonde is much much better at doing the same thing; American here offers no superlative.

Doug Liman, having kick-started the rogue assassin sub-genre with The Bourne Identity and long since abandoned his Indie roots, directs Tom Cruise for the second time in American Made.  Based on the true story of Barry Seal, a former commercial airline pilot recruited by the CIA in the late 70s to spy on revolutionary forces in Central American countries, and then by Pablo Escobar to smuggle cocaine on his return flights, American Made is a fine film.

Cruise plays seal and turns in one of his best, least showy, performances.  Smartly told by Seal in a series of flashbacks on self-recorded VHS tapes, this legitimately allows for an exposition-dealing voiceover to cover the more complex parts of the plot.  Structurally, the film follows the Goodfellas-Wolf Of Wall Street model of huge rise and sudden fall. We see Seal’s life become more and more complex as the CIA expends his operation to include guns and eventually people.  He becomes involved in the notorious Nicaraguan Contra affair, moving troops to be trained in America and weapons in the opposite direction.  Not letting facts get in the way of a good story, Liman sets a good pace and lets the insanity ensue.  He also keeps a light and breezy tone, despite the drama featuring some of the darkest actions in the history of U.S. foreign policy.  For anyone who knows anything about the bloody history of the region this may seem incongruous, distasteful even, but Liman is playing for fun; showing the American way (enterprise, capitalism) as fun, dangerous, but the only way to live.

A shady CIA is personified by Domhnall Gleeson, playing Seal’s handler ‘Schaffer’.  Cocksure when manipulating Seal’s every move but clearly under pressure when back in his office, Gleeson gives another in a string of fine performances.  Caleb Landry Jones does well as Seal’s brainless hick brother-in-law, the cause of most of the problems Seal encounters.  Sarah Wright, as Seal’s wife, er, Seal, does well with a thin part (a little too forgiving, but their family bond is sweet).

Structuring the film around several periods in Seal’s life allows Liman to tell the story in quite a loose manner, with scenes playing out like vignettes rather then connected narrative tissue: Seal’s struggle to take off in a cocaine-loaded plane on a crappy runway is brilliant; his endeavours to stow his money echoes Scorsese at his most playful; his escapes from DEA aeroplanes are fun, OTT moments.

Seal’s fate, whether you know it already or not, is inevitable towards the end of the film.  It could make for a dour ending but Liman doesn’t allow it.  More acknowledgement of legend than melancholy finale, you leave the cinema feeling like you’ve seen something so daft it couldn’t have really happened, but you’ve really enjoyed watching it happen.

And I suppose that’s the real American… meaning here, particularly these days: superlatively silly, and uniquely implausible.  And some examples turn out much better than others.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Mission: Imposspielberg Vol. 9 - Assassins and Ants

After a few consecutive films of fluff and fun, Spielberg’s next move was to tell another serious story with Munich.  Based on the book Vengeance it tells the story of actions taken by Mossad in the wake of the tragic murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.  Eric Bana’s Avner leads a team of disavowed agents to exact bloody revenge on the architects of the massacre, operating under no flag and with constant paranoia biting their heels.  I don’t fully understand them, and won’t pretend to for an article about films, so I won’t get into the politics of the situation, but Spielberg’s overall point seems to be that piling wrong after wrong will never make right.  He certainly doesn’t put an argument forward for Palestine, but at no point is Israel made to look heroic.

Spielberg does a fine job of maintaining paranoia throughout: Matheiu Alamric’s smirking informant’s loyalties and intensions are never clear, particularly when Avner befriends his father; there are tensions within the team, who are thrown together (from the world’s finest character actors) and don’t entirely trust one another; there are opposing layers of espionage at work, best exemplified when CIA spooks interrupt a rain-drenched hit; and the whole film has an air of sweaty intensity.  A weather reporter would describe Munich’s atmosphere as ‘close’.

Bana does fine work as the troubled Avner.  Not an Israeli by birth, his mission troubles him but he shows remarkable persistence, yet he fears for his family’s safety from all sides.  Moving from Jerusalem to New York, Avner voices the film’s theme of the importance of home, but also rejects the idea that his actions were in any way heroic.  Spielberg’s broken family motif is two-fold: Avner is an absentee father during his mission, but also struggling to hold together his team, which consists of Daniel Craig’s hot headed driver, Ciaran Hinds’ frustrated clean up guy and Mathieu Kassovitz’ nervous demolitions man, who may or may not have messed up one of the hits.

Munich displays a rare Spielberg feat: he doesn’t spoon feed you the answers.  Several characters have murky motivations, governments more so, with none portrayed as a good guy (the CIA is implied to be doing business with a known terrorist), and you are never given a moral absolute to follow.  Even the team, seeking revenge for crimes against Israel, question their motivations at times, and the absolute fruitlessness of their endeavours is laid bare when it is revealed that for every person they kill, somebody worse takes their place.  The one answer he gives, subtly presented in what is probably his best, most restrained ending, is that violence does not solve anything.  One of my favourite Spielberg films, just not one I want to watch very often.

Now to one I want to watch even less.  I’ll admit to being less than excited when I heard that Spielberg was to revisit his most enduring character with 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, but I was still eager to see it.  In the ensuing 9 years I had not watched it again, and there are very good reasons for this.

It’s an absolutely terrible film, with very few redeeming features, and one which merrily craps on not only my childhood but the legacy of three fine films.  Firstly, the title is bloody awful.  Where the others conjured images of adventure and danger, Crystal Skull is grandiose and doesn’t really conjure anything.

With an embarrassed-looking Harrison Ford spouting terrible dialogue, mostly exposition, where he used to fire off zingers, this lacks everything which made the others so good.  The villains are a major problem: it’s a given that Nazis were terrible and worthy of a punch, and a human sacrifice cult, while pissing off all of India, was also suitably horrible.  1950s Communists just don’t carry the same level of threat (eugenics and genocide vs. public ownership of the means of production; there’s really no comparison), and Cate Blanchett’s Irina Spalko’s is an awful waste of her talents.  Ray Winstone’s character is a waste of space: constantly changing sides for no apparent reason and using the worst cockney accent since Dick Van Dyke (I honestly don’t care whether it’s his own accent or not, but it’s awful).

Indy’s sidekicks give Temple Of Doom’s Short Round a run for his money as the most annoying in film history.  Shia LeBeouf’s Marlon-Brando-in-The Wild One cliché is worst of the lot, apparently only there to do the stunts that Harrison Ford looks too old for (which was all of them).  I couldn’t help but feel sorry for John Hurt, whose Professor Oxley seems to be a joke at the expense of the mentally ill.  In the hands of a lesser actor, you’d be able to see the embarrassment more clearly.  Only Karen Allen comes away with any credit, spitting smiley sass at Indy as only she can.  It’s a Spielberg archetype fractured family unit, but could do with a few more clean breaks.

The set pieces are weak: a needless bike chase through a university, a jungle-set escape with too-obvious Tarzan noises, some easily-evaded tribal chase guff.  There is no insane mine car chase, no bonkers tank-top fistfight.  And the Indiana Jones trademark of big scary animals is fluffed, too: after spiders, snakes, millions of bugs, and rats (all real animals), carnivorous CGI ants just don’t cut it.  Most problems the characters encounter seem to be resolved by pointing a glittery skull at them.

David Koepp’s script and Spielberg’s ‘it’ll do’ direction are particularly weak.  Much of it looks and feels cheap, from the opening CGI gopher (fucking why!?!) and obvious greenscreen sky, to the weird spinny alien nonsense that ruins the climax.  The quasi-religious Macguffins of the previous films are much more effective than some sub X-Files alien bollocks, which are just harder to care about and carry and ill-established threat.  Worst of all, is how it wipes its arse with the legacy of a great character: every time John Williams’ classic theme pops up on the soundtrack, it seems to accompany a weak nod to the original films (a breeze running through a spider web-filled tunnel, the retrieval of a hat, the Ark Of The Covenant now used as a cheap punch line).

This film is irredeemably awful, probably Spielberg’s worst (including 1941), and succeeds only in wasting two hours and forever tarnishing my childhood.  Worst of all: they’re apparently working on no. 5.

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Mission: Imposspielberg, Vol. 8 - Passports and Tripods

Like John Ford with John Wayne, or Bobby De Niro with Marty Scorsese, certain directors find a muse and go back to him time and again.  Sometimes it’s that he’s a chameleon and right for the part (De Niro), and sometimes it’s just all he can do (John Wayne).  Sometimes, for example the case of Alfred Hitchcock, he just picked whoever was the most popular at the time.  A prolific period for Spielberg, he hollowed the successful Minority Report by teaming up with two of the world’s biggest stars in Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio to make Catch Me If You Can.

Part jaunty caper, part touching family story, it follows the life of real-life con artist Frank Abagnale (DiCaprio) and the FBI agent charged with bringing him in (Hanks) and it’s easily one of the best of his late career films.  Without incongruous shifts in tone Spielberg manages to move between the funny, light moments where DiCaprio learns his trade and Hanks’ stuffy agent fails to stop him, and heartfelt moments between Abagnale and his father.  Played with Herculean pathos by Christopher Walken, their relationship is the heart of the film and it would take a hard heart not to be moved by him.

With a cool 60s setting which is never overbearing or cheesy, there are some brilliant images throughout: the camera follows the drawn guns of FBI agents back and forward; a tornado of money spills from a suitcase; Abagnale walks a seemingly endless airport corridor towards the camera.  The contrasting setting of Frank’s illicit hotel lifestyle, his family’s tiny flat, and the chaotic FBI offices keeps things interesting, and seeing the minutiae of Abagnale’s fledgling cheque fraud is a guilty pleasure. DiCaprio cements his post-Titanic determination to avoid shit rom coms with a fine performance, and Hanks plays against type, avoiding the affable everyman shtick that’s made his career.  The real star is Walken, whose doomed determination and “Where are you headed, Frank?” exit from the film are enough to make tears happen to grown men.

He followed this up with a relatively minor ($60m budget) film in 2004’s The Terminal.  Reunited with Hanks for a third outing, this is one of his stranger films.  Loosely based on the real story of an Iranian refugee who spent 18 years living in the departure lounge of Charles De Gaulle Airport, The Terminal restores Hanks to everyman duties (although an everyman from a fictional Eastern European state) as Victor Navorski.  Stranded in the eponymous airport terminal (an impressive set), the film follows his efforts to leave and see New York for reasons that become clear as the film progresses.  During his stay he selflessly helps the airport workers with their lives and attempts to woo Catherine Zeta Jones’ lovelorn flight attendant.

It’s an oddly non-narrative film, more episodic than the usual Spielberg output; light and comedic in tone, and full of his trademark gracenotes.  It is also occasionally very heavy handed, with Zeta Jones trying manfully to breathe life into a kind-of love interest role, and Stanley Tucci making a one-dimensional bureaucrat villain a wee bit more interesting. Her role is a shade too obvious; the Napoleon anecdotes not doing enough to hide a flighty (pun intended), I’m-too-much-of-a-mess-for-a-nice-guy-like-you cliché.  His is better; while solely there to offer dramatic tension, in the hands of a lesser actor we could be in panto territory.  John Williams’ scores seem to become more and more obtrusive as time goes on, and The Terminal suffers because of it.  There are some overblown scenes here and there, and Spielberg simply can’t resist a mushy ending; Barry Henley’s security chief handing Hanks a coat rather than handcuffs is too implausible to really be sweet.

I’m quite the fan of single-location films; from the sweaty confines of the jury room in 12 Angry Men to Die Hard’s iconic Nakatomi Tower, I love a film that establishes a sense of place and space.  What The Terminal does well is create a world for Navorski to inhabit; it feels like a genuine place, and this helps the sketched out supporting characters seem a bit more real.

Kudos to Spielberg for trying something new; it’s better than his last attempt at a romantic comedy (Always) and scores extra points for not being actually that romantic.  It loses points, however, for Spielberg’s inability to resist a happy ending, and every part from where Novorski moves to leave the terminal feels kind of false.  It’s a shame, because there is a lot to like in what went before.  Still not sure about Hanks’ accent, though.

Having made his name early on with films about benevolent aliens, Spielberg’s decision to adapt H.G Wells’ War Of The Worlds might have been done with a wink towards the audience.  The result, however, is bereft of irony.  Full of carnage and whipping by at a pace that Tom Cruise himself would struggle to run away from, War Of The Worlds is by turns exhilarating, bleak, exciting, unsatisfying and maddeningly slight.

Reunited with Tom Cruise (an underrated actor IMHO), who remains impressively unheroic throughout, Spielberg sketches out a decent broken family dynamic before the action begins. This adds some peril to the proceedings, although Cruise’s surly emo dick of a son (Justin Chatwin) and air raid siren daughter (Dakota Fanning) occasionally make you root for the aliens.  The plot amounts to running away and surviving through a series of increasingly desperate situations, with only elements taken from the original novel.  Dramatically-speaking, none of this would work if it was just Cruise doing his running thing (see this year’s The Mummy for evidence of that), but the addition of his kids puts something at stake.

The structure makes the film feel disjointed: they run away from a plane crash, then a ferry crash, then a battle, then a crazy man’s (Tim Robbins’ Ogilvy, one of the highlights of the book, reduced to tin foil hat and crazy eyes here but given a nicely dark ending) basement.  Admittedly, it’s a blessed relief when Chatwin’s character buggers off to join the battle and apparently die, but not really explained other than in the scene immediately preceding it.  After the suitably tense Ogilvy sequence, we move into the nightmarish Red Weed scene and after an alien tripod is downed by some nifty hand grenade action, the film kind of just lurches to an end as the aliens get sick and die.  This is, after all, how it happened in the book but Tom Cruise explaining to a marine that their shields were down feels like a cheap concession to star power.

I loved War Of The Worlds when I first saw it, but reviewed now it feels rushed, disjointed, and has a hugely unsatisfying finale.  Not his worst but far from his best.  There are some suitably horrific scenes: the opening alien attack is an impressive adrenaline rush; the bodies-floating-downstream part is suitably horrific; and the scenes where people are scarier than aliens are the best ones.  And yes, to address the elephant in the room.  Personally, I don’t think one bad element can tarnish a whole film: Batman’s voice does not spoil The Dark Knight; the rubber shark didn’t ruin Jaws; and the presence of Cruise’s son, alive and well at the end does not ruin War Of The Worlds.  It’s cheap, it’s an unnecessary piece of sentiment, and it’s something that is sadly now associated with Spielberg.  After such a strong ending to Catch Me If You Can, it’s such a shame that he did this.  But did it ruin the film? No, there were enough problems with what went before to call it ruined.

Monday, 24 July 2017

Film Review: Dunkirk

Christopher Nolan’s last two films not to feature a masked man with some serious parent issues have both been difficult.  I mean that in a good way; I am a fan of both Inception and Interstellar but both are long, bursting with ideas, and heavy on exposition.  Following a bit of success and granted some freedom by grateful studios, directors who do too much of this type of thing have a tendency to vanish up their own arses: for proof, see anything the Wachowskis have churned out since The Matrix (including the sequels), and anything Richard Kelly has done since Donnie Darko. Nolan has thankfully grounded his grandiose sci-fi forays in a Spielbergian connection to family and not allowed the CGI machine to sully his vision.  So how does he follow up a film in which Matthew McConaughey bent the known laws of space-time? He rescues soldiers from a beach.

Dunkirk tells a familiar and simple story: overwhelmed by the German army in 1940, 400,000 British troops are stranded on the eponymous beach awaiting rescue from a navy vulnerable to U-Boat attacks, and facing annihilation from German bombers and artillery.  The solution: hundreds of civilian boats sail the channel to rescue over 330,000 men.  A military disaster turned into a human triumph.

But that would be too simple a story for the man who made the thriller-in-reverse Memento or showed us dreams within dreams in Inception.  Showing us the story from three perspectives (soldiers trapped on the Dunkirk beach, a boat crossing the Channel, an RAF spitfire squadron), each occurring over different but converging time periods, Nolan shuffles his deck in a manner which results in one of the most tense experiences I’ve had in a cinema.

From the opening scene in which soldiers wandering the abandoned Dunkirk streets are fired upon by an unseen enemy, the viewer’s guts are rarely less than wrenched.  Wisely casting actors rather than stars (no room for DiCaprio, McConaughey, or Bale here) in key roles, Nolan at no time gives you certainty of anyone’s survival.  Even Tom Hardy’s stoic fighter pilot has moments of dread.  The ensemble cast is excellent: Hardy is more reserved than we’re used to, Mark Rylance continues his excellent form, Fionn Whitehead and, yes, Harry Styles are effective as the soldiers, terrified and then plagued with survivor guilt. And who could be better cast as officer class than James D’Arcy and Kenneth Brannagh, the latter giving his best stiff upper lip.

What Nolan does really well is fill each segment with pockets of suspense and then flit between them before anything is resolved.  Mark Rylance is the picture of quiet dignity (until the heart stopping moment when he raises his voice) as a civilian boat captain doing his part, but his rescue of Cillian Murphy’s unpredictable, shell shocked soldier causes tension.  Tom Hardy’s fuel gauge is damaged, leaving him (and us) guessing at how much flight time he has left for almost the whole film.  We find out early on that there is a U-Boat in the water, meaning nobody at sea is safe.  A squad decides to wait for high tide in an abandoned fishing boat; a solid strategy until German troops decide to use it for target practice, leaving a choice between being shot and drowned.  Every part of the film is designed to crank up the tension.

Probably the most effective tool in Nolan’s arsenal is Hans Zimmer’s score.  From the recurring ticking clock motif, jagged Bernard Hermann-like violins, to lengthy drone sounds, ascending in tone, it is designed to ensure that nails are bitten.  As one might expect, the film looks incredible. With Nolan admirably preferring to do things in-camera rather than rely on CGI, every bomb impact, bullet, dogfight, and sinking ship is real and visceral.  And while it may seem churlish to comment on a film’s running time, Dunkirk clocks in at a relatively nippy hour and 46 minutes, meaning there is no waste, no lulls, and nothing superfluous.

For a director who has for some time dabbled in the cerebral side of cinema, here he is as thrilling and emotive as a younger Spielberg (think the opening of Saving Private Ryan stretched to feature length, or Duel with added boats and bravery).  There are no Big Ideas on display here, just pure, edge-of-your-seat entertainment which makes the final denouement, returning soldiers feeling like failures but greeted like heroes, all the more rewarding.  That it plays out to Churchill’s famous “we shall never surrender” speech is on the nose but plays beautifully.  Victory from the jaws of defeat.