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Liu lang di qiu (2019)
The Dragon Boat
Based on a short story by Liu Cixin, director Frant Gwo's "The Wandering Earth" watches as humanity straps hundreds of giant engines onto the Earth in an effort to propel it out of our solar system and so escape an expanding/exploding Sun.
The film begins with the first of many missteps: a long info-dump which "briefs" us on humanity's attempts to construct giant engines, battle catastrophic climate change, launch vital stations, ships and satellites into space, and create massive underground bunkers for humanity to live in. A better director/writer would omit all this, and let the audience figure out the rules of the film's world as things unfold. Compare, for example, how better science fiction tales (Miyazaki's "Nausicaa", James Cameron's "Terminator", George Lucas' "Star Wars", George Miller "Fury Road" etc) parcel out information and engage in subtle world building.
The film's second misstep follows: a rambling first act in which our heroes (photogenic young Chinese adults, of course) barter with hoodlums, acquire special "space suits", steal trucks and bribe prison wardens. Again, a better director/writer would jettison all these scenes, condensing them into something more streamlined and/or opening the film at a later point.
But such clunkiness, a lack-of-grace, and a fondness for cliches, epitomizes "The Wandering Earth". Essentially a 1990s-early-2000s Hollywood apocalyptic movie ("Deep Impact", "Independence Day", "Armageddon", "The Core", "The Day After Tomorrow", "2012," "Transformers" etc, with a couple subplots lifted from Danny Boyle's "Sunshine") made in China and produced by Chinese financiers, this is a dumb, loud, kitschy, garish affair. Every scene is incompetently directed, Frant Gwo's employment of close, medium or long shots wholly amateurish. His compositional work, use of steady cams and crane shots are similarly thoughtless. This is art for audiences with no knowledge of good film language. It's also art which appeals to, not only post-literate, but post cine-literate audiences; "The Wandering Earth" is one of the most financially successful films in world history.
Unsurprisingly for a film about a giant planet breaking free of our solar system, "The Wandering Earth" makes heavy use of CGI. Virtually every scene is awash with special effects, most of which resemble washed out video game cut-scenes, every effect unconvincingly integrated with its live-actors, objects and locations. Despite its massive budget, there's a tasteless, cheap, schlocky look to the film, science-fiction meets Bling and graffiti.
As a work of politics, the film fares worse; like "Interstellar", this is unconsciously a hymn to inflated egos; humanity's eco-systems are under threat, and so instead of doing the hard work to build better, fairer, cleaner socio-economic systems, mores and traditions, we are instead forced by plot contrivances to jump ship (the mantra of climate denialists are made true; solar activity, not man, causes climate change!). "Interstellar" saw us sell out Earth for finding a new home-world. "The Wandering Earth" sees us pack up our homes and jump to another solar system. Both unconsciously worship to a certain egomania, fetishizing technology, industrialization, massive levels of labor, waste, production, energy expenditure and quasi-nationalistic faith ("I choose to hope!" one character proclaims). The costs of all this, be they on bodies or biospheres, are shunted aside, in favor for Maverick Heroes and their Magical Technologies.
Beyond this, the film fails as an action movie or thriller. None of its set pieces generate excitement, and most are silly, featuring characters with huge miniguns (why?), odd science (Jupiter experiences a "gravity spike"?) and much forced sentimentality. Its score, by Roc Chen, is mostly generic.
Incidentally, the film was based on a novella by Liu Cixin, one of the few Chinese science fiction authors to have mainstream success in the west. The rise of Chinese science fiction is itself no coincidence; historically, when a nation becomes industrialized and begins asserting itself on the international stage, science fiction as a national genre begins to blossom, together with various concomitant fantasies about technology and mastery. Think France and Britain in the late 1800s and early 1900s - Wells and Verne et al - and America in the 1940s, with its SF Golden Age. Smaller nations tend to have little interest in literary science fiction, and gravitate toward the genre of Magical Realism.
1/10 - Worth no viewings.
The X Files: Rm9sbG93ZXJz (2018)
Rise Against the Machines
"Technology with no philosophy behind it is a curse." - Katsuhiro Otomo
In 1967, Jacques Tati released "Playtime". A largely silent film, it watched as a man bumbled his way through a high-tech, modern city, filled with slick, glossy but sterile sets. Like Charlie Chaplin's "Modern Times", the film poked fun at alienation and dehumanization under techno-capitalism.
"Followers" plays like "Modern Times" and "Playtime" for the 21st century. Essentially a comedic silent film, we simply watch as two FBI agents (Fox Mulder and Dana Scully) deal with various techno annoyances. The tale's big joke is that all this technology exists only to get your money. Every act and action is geared toward commodifying all human behavior, thoughts and intentions, monetizing every aspect of life, and turning all interactions into a means of profit. The machines are quite literally "followers", obeying a corporate logic which mandates they harass you till you pay up. And we follow them as they follow us. An ideology of consumption becomes a consumption of ideology, machine and man learning from each other, programming each other, until - as Herbert Marcuse predicted in the 1960s with "One Dimensional Man" - both have the soul of the salesman, the opium addict.
We need to be better teachers, is the episode's final line.
8.9/10 - Worth multiple viewings.
Out of Africa (1985)
Louts in Africa
Sydney Pollack directs "Out of Africa". Based on an autobiographical tale by Danish author Karen Blixen, the film stars Meryl Streep as a middle-aged woman who journeys to Africa, starts a plantation and falls in love with a rugged adventurer, played by Robert Redford.
Beautifully shot and framed, "Africa" is at its best when milking the movie-star charisma of Redford and Streep. Otherwise, though, this is a typical bit of Oscar Bait, overlong, trite, melodramatic, and condescending in the way it reduces African's to fawning decor (it's Lean's "Passage to India" without the political/racial satire). Actor Klaus Branduaer co-stars as a sweaty land baron.
5/10 - Worth one viewing.
Some Like It Hot (1959)
I'm not a natural blonde
Set in Prohibition era Chicago, "Some Like It Hot" stars Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis as a pair of jazz musicians who dress like women in an attempt to evade mob bosses. Their adventure takes them to Florida, where they join an all-female band and drool over luscious band singer Sugar Kane Kowalczyk (played by a pouty Marilyn Monroe).
Influential, gorgeously lit, lovably acted, and wittily written, "Some Like It Hot" is regarded as one of director Billy Wilder's many masterpieces. Whilst constant imitation has lessened some of its gags, and whilst not as substantial as a number of the director's other works ("Sunset Boulevard", "The Apartment", "Ace in the Hole", "Double Indemnity" etc), the film nevertheless finds Wilder elevating what would otherwise be tawdry material.
8.5/10 – Bring back the forums, IMDb.
Written and directed by Michael Berry, "Frontera" is a well-meaning but ultimately cartoonish attempt to sketch the lives of several characters living along the United States/Mexican border. And so we watch as Mexican immigrants flock north, are shot by racist white guys, are framed, scapegoated, raped and beaten, and are occasionally treated with decency by good samaritans.
Berry's script – it recalls the work of John Sayles - means well, but never rises above clichés. Western capitalism's hunger for a constant influx of cheap labor, its grow-or-die imperative, its need for an expanding consumer base, and the effect this all has on local Americans, is likewise never substantially tackled. The usually interesting Michael Pena does little with a generic role. See Sayles' "Lone Star".
6/10 - Bring back the forums, IMDb.
Maggie's Plan (2015)
Written and directed by Rebecca Miller, "Maggie's Plan" stars Greta Gerwig as Maggie Harden, a young woman scarred by past wounds. Determined to "control her destiny" and "protect herself" from things outside her control, Maggie resolves to lead a highly structured, controlled, isolated life. This bubble extends to her reproductive organs: Maggie will fertilize herself with a stranger's semen, thereby removing men, mates and messy relationships from the reproductive process.
When Maggie falls in love with a middle-aged writer (Ethan Hawke), however, her credo fall apart. She allows herself to be in love, to let someone else take the reigns, all of which inexorably (and ironically) leads Maggie into a chaotic, domesticated, subservient role which she quickly grows to resent. Maggie, ever meddling, passes her new man off to his German ex-wife (Julianne Moore).
Funny in places, "Maggie's Plan" is typical of contemporary "indie cinema" (a misnomer, as most of these films are funded by subsidiaries of mega studios): offbeat, quirky, funny, and starring indie starlet, Greta Gerwig. Julianne Moore steals the show as a buttoned-down university professor.
7/10 – Bring back the forums, IMDb.
The Double (2011)
"The Double" boasts an interesting premise: Cassius, the greatest assassin in the world (Richard Gere), trains a gang of Russian assassins. He then joins the CIA as a double agent, where he secretly works for the Soviet Union, hunts the assassins he trained and then pretends to hunt for himself. After Cassius' retirement from the CIA, a young FBI agent (Topher Grace) resumes attempts to apprehend Cassius. To assist him on his quest, he teams up with none other than Cassius himself.
This is an interesting angle for a cat-and-mouse procedural. The drama is derived not from finding the villain, but from the villain finding ways to trick the "good guys" into finding a different villain. Late in its final act, the film then delivers another neat twist: the FBI agent tracking Cassius is himself a Russian double agent.
But despite its interesting premise, "The Double" is mostly inept, shallow and has little to say about the workings of Eastern and Western, neo-Imperialistic spy agencies. Director Michael Brandt's script wastes a good idea, utilizes unnecessary flashbacks and his picture as a whole lacks drama, movement and is far too often hokey and over-the-top. Topher Grace works well as an archetypal rookie.
5/10 – See "Demonlover".
Polite bear meets stiff upper lip
Written and directed by Paul King, "Paddington" tells the tale of a CGI bear who sails from South America to England, feels alienated, is taken in by a loving family and battles nasty taxidermists (Nicole Kidman). The bear's exodus is aligned to West Indian or Afro-Caribbean immigrants, who left the Caribbean to live and work in England during the 20th century. These immigrants, who typically arrived to fill labour shortages after and during the World Wars, faced hostilities from local, white populaces. Using various tactics, the British Government would either scapegoat these immigrants (blaming the results of economic contradictions on them), or attempt to convince white locals to accept them (again, for largely economic reasons).
"Paddington" has no serious interest in "immigration" and "economics". This is a light, simple film about "loving" people from foreign lands, all of whom "deserve a home". Along these lines, it is a very good picture; funny, sweet, cute, quite clever in places, and with that quintessentially British twang that is hard to get right. Only a rather generic villain and climax lets the film down.
Incidentally, the film was released during a wave of Euroscepticism and shortly prior to "Brexit", a movement in which the British public supposedly turned its back on "Paddington's" ethos. Here the United Kingdom opted to "cut itself off" from the European Union, an act which some read as a kind of politically correct form of "bigotry". Others defended the choice in more pragmatic ways: Brexit would supposedly mean "more jobs", "better pay", "less immigrants" and "more national control". In reality, however, the UK was never meaningfully in the EU (unlike less powerful nations, she largely made her own rules), will never meaningfully leave, will never be free of immigrants (capitalism collapses without a constant net influx of consumers and cheap labour) and the EU, a giant project chiefly set up to shuttle cheap labour back and forth, and to streamline market laws in the favour of corporations, was as brutal to both the British and the Paddington's of the world, as the supposedly "independent" laws and codes being planned to replace it.
The point is, nations tend to cycle through periods in which they either embrace the beautiful values of "Paddington", or "rationally" kick them to the curb.
7/10 - Bonus points to Paul King for casting a botox-faced Nicole Kidman as a taxidermist. Hugh Bonneville co-stars.
Rogue One (2016)
Show me on the doll where Mr Lucas touched you
Directed by Gareth Edwards, "Rogue One" is a prequel to George Lucas' "Star Wars". It opens on the planet Lah'mu, where little Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) witnesses the apparent murder of her family by the henchmen of a Galactic Empire. Jyn's father is Galen, a weapon's developer. His buddy, Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), takes Jyn under his wing.
After its generic opening scenes, "Rogue One" flashes forward fifteen years. Here a pilot called Rook defects from the Empire with vital information from Galen, whom Jyn had previously assumed was dead. Galen's information reveals plans of a super weapon known as the Death Star. Rook smuggles this information to Gerrera. Gerrea passes this information on to the Rebel Alliance, who are currently waging a guerrilla war against the Empire. The rebels respond by sending Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) to assassinate Galen. Jyn tags along. Cassian refuses to assassinate Galen, and together he and Jyn instead go to a high-security Imperial facility on the planet Scrif. They hope to infiltrate this facility and beam the Death Star plans to a Rebel fleet in orbit. A big battle ensues.
"Rogue One's" plot is needlessly convoluted. What should be a swashbuckling tale of plucky Rebels outsmarting Big Bad Wolves is instead filled with dull subplots about abandoned girls, guilty scientists, random space-Asian-force-ninjas, and generic villains who spew cartoonish dialogue in-between an endless parade of establishing shots. A better writer would have jettisoned half this material and constructed a script that moves.
"Rogue One's" plot was haphazardly cobbled together by boardroom puppets and money men. Its aesthetic is similarly soulless. Like most raised on Spielberg, Cameron and Lucas, Edwards' shtick is to replicate everything he's seen as a kid, before replacing the light-heartedness of his fore-bearers with grunge, emotional distance and a low-key tone. His awful previous films, "Monsters" and "Godzilla", pretty much play like "Rogue One": dull characters running across glum landscapes whilst big CGI objects do explosive but ultimately unthreatening things. "Rogue One" itself plays like "Saving Private Ryan" meats "Star Wars" as directed by a director of joyless pornography, Edwards rolling out yesterday's decor to appease the basest, most unimaginative expectations of an audience desperate for yesterday's murder. George Lucas may be a joke today, but his original trilogy was once weird as hell. In contrast, Edwards' version of "Star Wars", a franchise whose mysteries were long killed by millions of video games, books, comics and sequels and prequels, comes out the gate looking like a deflated balloon.
Edwards' cast is no better. Diego Luna is cool as Cassian, but Edwards has mostly obediently assembled a bland band of politically correct faces; the white girl, the Latino, the black guy, the Asian etc etc. This is casting by robots and banks, every decision dictated by spreadsheets and market researchers, all calculated to guarantee maximum demographic penetration. There's no spontaneity, creative decisions or real art here; just machine logic, up and down and all the way around. Lucas' "Star Wars" may have been white as hell, but Lando Calrissian, a disco space pimp with a private mining empire and lady-cape, didn't feel like an attempt to court black dollars. Everything in "Rogue One", in contrast, reeks of reverse engineering.
"Rogue One's" first action scene occurs at the 31 minute mark. Here, on a desert planet, Imperial stormtroopers battle rebels. Lasers fly back and forth, but there's no real danger; Edwards' stormtroopers are more inept than usual (a problem in a supposedly "gritty" "Star Wars" film). The film then climaxes with a half-hour battle on land and in orbit. A replica of Lucas' Battle of Endor, this sequence finds giant Imperial walkers missing everything in sight on land, whilst giant Imperial Star Destroyers miss everything in sight in orbit. And unlike Lucas' climactic battle, Edwards' lacks drama, danger, a cool score, good compositions, intelligent pacing and clean camera work; its mostly a blur of CGI whilst humans attempt to hack into the silliest computing filing cabinet ever conceived.
"Star Wars" was a weird independent film by a geeky kid who just wanted to make goofy B movies. Today it's only B movies which get A-list budgets, and "Star Wars" has not only become the template for virtually all tent-pole movies, but become emblematic of Hollywood's escalating drive to capture dollars and lowest common denominators; "Star Wars" as the ultimate Hollywood and so American Success Story.
Ironically, "Star Wars" was conceived as a giant middle finger to Uncle Sam. Writing of his franchise, Lucas would say: "I took concepts I was going to use in a Vietnam War picture, and put them in space. So you essentially have a large technological empire going after a small group of freedom fighters; a small independent country like North Vietnam threatened by gangsters aided by empire. The Empire is like America ten years from now, after Nixonian gangsters assassinated the Emperor and were elevated to power in a rigged election. This 'total control' police state was welcomed by the people, because the Empire created civil disorder by instigating race riots, aiding violent groups and allowing the crime rate to rise."
But of course the United States has made a career out of imagining itself the injured victim. Indeed, both the nation's Imperialism and national image hinge on it being seen as an underdog. And so somewhere along the line, Lucas' tale of Vietnamese communists and the "force" which helps them defeat Western Imperialists and their giant space gonads, got turned upside down. Thus "Star Wars" became, not just the ultimate tale of How We See Oursevlves vs The Other, but an altar to Hollywood capitalism itself; big, loud, faceless, endless, soulless, bland, impersonal, pointless, infinitely propagated for the sole purpose of profit, and completely designed by yes men, algorithms, the deluded and those fork-tongued marketing gurus on cell block 1138. And here's another one. And another one. And another one. And another one.
5/10 - Sithspawn.
It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
I'll give you the moon, Mary.
Directed by Frank Capra, "It's a Wonderful Life" stars Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey, a young man living in the picaresque town of Bedford Falls. George has dreams of becoming an adventurer, of seeing the world and travelling to distant lands, but the impromptu death of his father forces him to become the manager of a local Building and Loan company instead. George takes this job to protect the inhabitants of his town from Mr Potter, a greedy banker who keeps local workers poor and unable to purchase housing.
"Life's" first act watches as George matures, finds a wife and becomes a "responsible" member of his community. He also saves the life of a boy who goes on to become a decorated war hero, and positively touches the lives of countless other locals. Though he doesn't realise it, George is a saviour; the world is a better place because he exists. More importantly, the Building and Loan company he operates functions as a means of staving off commercial banks. The latter operate for private profit, for their shareholders, and with the ultimate goal of accumulating everything in Bedford Falls. The former, at least in theory, to do the bidding of depositors.
"Life's" final act finds George accidentally misplacing thousands of dollars. Fearing a scandal, he attempts suicide. A guardian angel then intervenes, at which point the film becomes a retelling of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol". Here George is shown how life in Bedford Falls would have unfolded had he not been around to protect its inhabitants. Shown that he positively influenced the world, and so purged of all regrets, George aborts his suicide. The town of Bedford Falls then magically rallies around George, donating thousands of dollars to help save his Building and Loan company.
Aesthetically, "Life" is a bit of a masterpiece. Snappy, carefully lit, and ambitious in the way it navigates time, the film also boasts beautiful Norman Rockwellesque sets. And then there's Jimmy Stewart. In another actor's hands, George Bailey would grate, but Stewart keeps Bailey lovable; a chirpy dude who chooses principles over personal desires and so whose life serves as a plea for social solidarity in times when fears make people selfish.
On another level, however, Capra's film is devious as hell. Prayer, Christianity and "good" communal banks are positioned on one side, and fat individualists, capitalists and "bad banks" on the other. But George Bailey, the banker-populist who altruistically exists for community and for the working poor and who "makes loans based on character and not credit", has always been a dangerous myth. Perhaps the best summation of this was made by director David Mamet in an issue of Sight and Sound: "George is as close as Hollywood can get to the notion of an equitable distribution of wealth: the reliance upon a person of character in a position usually occupied by the heartless. In this praising of individual conscience, we thus indulge a peculiarly conservative ethos: enlightened or compassionate conservatism. Such may pass muster as wish-fulfilling entertainment, but as a political aim it can be adopted only by the self-deluded. For if the worker has no power to demand other than as an appeal to conscience, he or she has nothing. And so the memory of the war and of the Depression waned and America voted for Ronald Reagan. His administration, in the fulfillment of a conservative erotic dream, broke the back of labour, and the voter was induced to vote for fantasy. And it was in those Reagan years that "Life" replaced "Casablanca" as the unofficial Favourite Film of America - the fantasy of the compassionate conservative."
And so George becomes the type of hero common in John Ford's films. Never mind that replacing all banks with mutualistic Building Societies would still lead to poverty, unemployment, debts outpacing money in circulation and all the usual contradictions of capitalism. Never mind that, at every node of the network in even an idealistic world like Bedford Falls, value would still be reaped from the ignored energies of the low-paid, unpaid and natural resources, none of which appear in the accounting of production costs, but as invisible gains to capitalists. Never mind that George is essentially in the business of sub-prime lending and that if Bedford Falls didn't bail him out he'd have taken them down with him. No, like Ford's Judge Priest, George remains a beautiful impossibility; the upstanding, god-fearing, community-saving, benign wielder of power.
And yet despite being goofy, overcooked and dumb, "Life" remains one of Capra's smartest films. The film's visions of Pottersville - a banker's paradise in which communities are destroyed in the name of The Almighty Dollar – remain prophetic. Also smart is the way the film shows how money alters relationships (Pottersville even pushes women into prostitution), breeds monopolies and systematically devalues everything decent that cannot be monetised. Also clever are the film's narrators, angelic beings whose perspectives imply that George has no free-will. George himself feels as though he has been repeatedly forced to stay and live in Bedford Falls. What George comes to realise, however, is that he has been choosing all along; he hasn't been a victim of fate, but has been making a series of very precise moral choices. In a contemporary America in which the average net worth of someone in their 20s is negative 39,000 dollars, in which over 75 percent of the populace lives paycheck to paycheck (nevermind that over 80 percent of the planet lives, and must live, in poverty), these are all quite timely, and even philosophical, themes.
8/10 – From Capra would spawn Disney and Spielberg and then a whole slew of films (Minnelli, Sirk, Lynch etc) which attempted to counter such idealized visions of 1940s/50s America.
Passenger 57 (1992)
Always bet on Black
Once upon a time there was "Die Hard" (1988), a film in which a wisecracking hero battled terrorists within the cramped confines of a skyscraper. This formula would lead to "Die Hard" on a boat ("Under Siege", "Speed 2"), "Die Hard" on a train ("Under Siege 2"), "Die Hard" on a bus ("Speed"), "Die Hard" on a mountain ("Cliffhanger"), "Die Hard" in a mall ("Point Blank"), "Die Hard" in a ski resort ("Icebreaker"), "Die Hard" in a school ("Masterminds"), "Die Hard" in a stadium ("Sudden Death"), "Die Hard" in the White House ("Olympus Has Fallen"/"White House Down"), "Die Hard" in the President's personal plane ("Air Force One"), "Die Hard" in a prison ("The Rock"), "Die Hard" in an airport ("Die Hard 2"), "Die Hard" in a city ("Die Hard 3") and "Die Hard" in a plane ("Passeger 57", "Executive Decision").
Directed by Kevin Hooks, "Passenger 57" stars Wesley Snipes as John Cutter, a butt kicking law-man who's having the worst damn day of his life. We watch Cutter beat up terrorists, do crazy stunts and wade through a film rife with 1990s mullets, epic Casio keyboard music, zany clothes, gold earrings, giant shoulder pads, Michael Jackson doubles, Arsenio Hall jokes and tons of cheese. Strictly by-the-numbers, Snipes elevates some moments with his real-life martial arts skills. The film co-stars Tom Sizemore as a guy who delivers exposition.
6/10 – Worth one viewing.
"Shall I spend much of your time pointing out the degree to which visual values influence the contemporary mood of jaded, self-mocking materialism, blank indifference, and the delusion that cynicism and naivete are mutually exclusive?" - David Foster Wallace
Sappier than a maple tree at a bukkake party, Tim Miller's "Deadpool" charts the life of Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds), a young man who is diagnosed with liver, lung and brain cancer. Seeking a cure, Wade is left permanently disfigured. Not wishing to be rejected by the woman he loves (Morena Baccarin), Wade confines himself to isolation, dons a mask, becomes a superhero called Deadpool and uses his spare time to beat up villains.
If teenage stoners directed a rip-off of Sam Raimi's "Darkman", it would probably look like Miller's "Deadpool". Most of the film's running time is dedicated to sexy white dudes fighting, sniffing crotches, swearing, doing "funny" stuff, trading "clever" wisecracks and hurling incessant non-sequiturs. Sometimes they also take prosthetic penises up the butt. Like most postmodern art, the film's tone is relentlessly ironic, snarky and by extension nihilistic. Nothing matters other than the moment, and the moment exists only to short circuit and titillate the most basic expectations of long atrophied nerve-endings. Man punches other man in crotch. Man breaks hand. Audience laughs. Repeat.
When our heroes aren't hurling one-liners, they're doing slow-motion flips, rocking out to "cool music", shooting people in the head, punching blurry CGI rag-dolls and rescuing women tied-up by evil villains. None of these sequences are done with style, or have any sense of tension, importance, pacing or weight. All rely on the cutaway - to "random" dialogue or "random" physical acts - to generate affect. This is all presented as being "edgy" and "alternative", a lie which not only ignores every other superhero movie (from R rated fare like "Kickass", "Defendor" and "Super", to the wisecracking heroes of "Spiderman" and "Iron Man"), but the entire landscape of postmodernity itself.
Most action movies become cheesy, camp and homo-erotic with time. This is largely because conventional "masculinity" constantly defines itself in opposition to a "femininity" it deems to be weak, an act of opposition which is itself an admittance of weakness and insecurity. And so the conventional action hero is de facto "effeminate". And the more it tries to assert its toughness, the more ridiculous it looks; think the muscle men of 1980s action movies, or how homoerotic most martial arts movies look today.
In "Deadpool" these insecurities take on schizophrenic dimensions. Wade Wilson is sexy and invincible but also impotent and ugly. He's ridiculously hyper-masculinised (even sociopathic), but is constantly cracking homoerotic jokes, having anal sex and salivating over Rent, Wham and the prospect of fondling balls. This has led to some fans claiming that the character represents "pansexuality", when in reality, like everything Deadpool does, or postmodernity as a whole does, such "jokes" only exist to anticipate and short-circuit sincerity. Deadpool's bro humour mocks "masculinity" to stop you from mocking it first. In this way it inscribes a new type of 21st century "masculinity"; open to all contradictions, so long as it still gets to be the hero.
"Deadpool" is based on a Marvel Comics character. Like most Marvel films, it is strictly irreverence by committee; like watching a Nike sponsored live-stream of six ADD-inflicted kids dissing each other's mothers under a YouTube video walk-through of the sixth level of "Call of Duty 14". It is currently the highest grossing R rated film of all time. Its sequel is in the works. Perhaps also a prequel. And also a spin-off. It contains a character called Negasonic Teenage Warhead.
5/10 - Worth one viewing.
Directed by Paul Weitz, "Admission" stars Tina Fey as Portia Nathan, an Admissions Officer at Princeton University. Portia's highly ordered world comes crashing down when she pays a visit to the Quest School, a small facility which uses unconventional teaching methods to educate children. Here she meets Jeremiah Balakian, a child prodigy who may or may not be her long lost son.
At its best, "Admission" contrasts the elitism of Princeton with the humble "holistic" practices of Quest, gives Tina Fey a chance to sink her teeth into a rare dramatic role and touches upon the sad, biological yearnings of mothers. Working better as a drama than a romantic comedy - Fey, primarily a comedian, handles the film's last act tragedies very well - the film co-stars the always awesome Lily Tomlin, and a puppy-dog faced Paul Rudd.
7.9/10 – Worth one viewing.
The Rewrite (2014)
"It's a Hyundai. It'll be there in the morning."
Written and directed by Marc Lawrence, "The Rewrite" stars Hugh Grant as a washed-up screenwriter who embarks upon a teaching career at a state university. Here he finds love, happiness and learns various life lessons.
It's hard to write a tale about screenwriters without seeming smug and/or pretentious. And if you do, your story still oft comes across as a giant writer's fantasy anyway. Lawrence solves none of these problems in "The Rewrite"; this is ultimately a phony film which, though it at times works well as a paean to teachers, bristles with tired "insights" into the world of Hollywood and Hollywood writing. For this material done better see "In a Lonely Place", "State and Main" and to a lesser extent 2014's "Liberal Arts". Marisa Tomei co-stars.
6.9/10 – Worth one viewing.
The Coming War on China (2016)
"Pilger has taken on the great theme of justice and injustice. He documents the official lies that we are told and that most people accept or don't bother to think about. He belongs to an old and unending worldwide company: the men and women of conscience." - Martha Gellhorn
An interesting documentary by renowned journalist John Pilger, "The Coming War on China" details growing attempts by the United States to exert economic, political and military pressure on China.
Unlike previous films by Pilger, "Coming's" tone is one of ridicule and contempt; his film ends with a nod to Stanley Kubrick (Vera Lynn's "We'll Meet Again") and is largely told via a condescending narrator. Such a tone is appropriate: "The Coming War on China" details the greatest American-led build up of forces since the Second World War, an insane bit of posturing in which Russia and China are encircled by a nearly unbroken necklace of warheads, fleets and military bases, all capable of strangling trade, cutting off oil networks and instigating outright Armageddon.
"The Coming War on China" largely preaches to the choir. It does contain, however, some revelations, like scenes which show contemporary life on the Marshall Islands. Pilger describes the "American apartheid" on these islands, in which displaced and exploited locals are shipped to American bases to do menial work, and then shipped out back to their island slums. Sometimes they're unwittingly used as test subjects for nuclear weapons.
Other segments detail Nobel peace laureate Barack Obama's massive increase in nuclear spending (after promising to limit the construction of nuclear weapons), as well as the West's "Asian Pivot", which sees 2/3rds of the US Naval fleet deployed around Asia. Other scenes detail past attempts by the United States to covertly and overtly dominate, subjugate and invade, as well as Franklin Roosevelt's (32nd US President) family's connection to drug runners. Elsewhere Pilger, a cynic, doesn't shy away from China's own abuses, its massacres, its historical relationship with Western powers, and the massive levels of poverty and exploitation bed-rocking the glitz and glamour of 21st century Chinese state-capitalism.
Where "The Coming War on China" fails is in its ability to offer an economic reading of the situation it sketches. The role of money, private arms businesses who exploit lucrative markets, debt, banks, the US economy's own need for war, for market expansion and control, as well as whole financial systems which remain held together by magic, lies and faith, are issues too complex and interlinked for Pilger to coherently chart. And so the US-China rivalry, a revival of the Great Game of the late 19th century, goes on, largely mysterious and unmapped.
8/10 – Worth one viewing.
Greatest film since the Sistine Chapel
Cool and funny people do cool and funny stuff in "Ant-Man", a film in which cool and funny people do cool and funny stuff. Sometimes the cool and funny people stop doing cool and funny stuff and talk about serious things instead, like evil terrorist plots to destroy the world. Also sometimes they shrink and fight and punch each other.
One of the cool and funny characters in the film is played by Paul Rudd, who is cool and funny and also cute. Paul Rudd's character has many cool moments, like moments in which he does cool things, and says funny things, and also shrinks himself to the size of an ant. Sometimes he flaunts his six-pack, which is really hot and chiselled but not as hot and chiselled as Chris Pratt's six-pack, which is really hot and chiselled. My boyfriend Steve says Paul Rudd is boyfriend material for even straight guys, which makes me jealous because I don't like Steve thinking of other guys that way. But I guess it's no big deal.
Marvel movies are way cool, but not all of them, only some of them. I like the part in "Ant-Man" where the guys shrink and then try to break into a building. It reminded me of that Pixar movie ("Finding Nemo"?) with the little toys, but "Ant-Man" is way better because I saw it yesterday. Also it stars Michael Pena, who is really cool. Except he steals jobs from John Leguizamo now. My mom says not to say that because it's ironic and racist, but I don't understand why.
10/10 - A film with things.
Twelve things we know about It
Jean-Luc Godard directs "My Life to Live" (1962). The film opens with a dedication to B movies, and so underdogs. Godard then hits us with a quote by philosopher Michel de Montaigne ("Lend yourself to others, but give yourself to yourself"), the importance of which becomes apparent later on.
"Life's" first moving images consist of close-ups of actress Anna Karina. These shots, which survey Anna's skull from the front and sides, are all truncated and prematurely silenced. Only when Anna is viewed from behind, her face hidden, does Godard's film finally proceed. The message is subtle: only when her private wants are denied, does this character's life unfold.
Anna plays Nana, a young woman living in Paris. Poor, lonely and seeking escape, Nana allows herself to be seduced by a post-war France awash with money, billboards and glitzy cinema screens. The world will allow her to become an actress, Nana believes. And all will be fine.
But Godard counters Nana's naivety. When Nana insists that humans have free will ("I raise my hand, I'm responsible!"), Godard slyly admonishes her with a parable about a chicken whose soul is revealed to be on the outside of its body. Behaviour, personality and human actions, then, are contingent upon the External. And the External, for a staunch Marxist like Godard, is shaped by economic systems.
And so Nana is pushed into prostitution. She insists that this is a personal choice not influenced by economic and sexual shackles, a stance which immediately makes the ironically titled "My Life to Live" different from most films "about prostitution". For whilst most films simply pity prostitutes, Godard focuses on their complicity; they embrace their exploitation, deny that exploitation is even taking place, and believe themselves to be making rational career choices. Such are common beliefs under capitalism (the poor choose to be poor, the worker is free to choose his employer etc etc), which for Godard merely legitimise systems of abuse. Montaigne's command - "Lend yourself to others, but give yourself to yourself" - is thus seen to be an impossibility. The brain and body one gets back at the end of the day have already been irrevocably changed and colonised by the customer and employer. And with these changes, one's potentials are potentially stymied.
"My Life to Live" is filled with symbolism, clever juxtapositions and Brechtian techniques. Pin-ball machines, for example, point to both a cruelly deterministic universe and Nana's role as a money-for-pleasure dispensation unit. Elsewhere Nana watches Dreyer's "The Passion of Joan of Arc", a film in which a True Believer is crushed by patriarchal forces beyond her control. Godard uses the nature of Dreyer's film - silent cinema - as a comment on Nana's forced passivity, her exploitation, her misguided faith and ultimately her sacrifice. Another scene watches as Nana sits in a cafe observing happy couples as Jean Ferrat sings "Ma Mome". The song's about a lovely loser who is adored despite her failings. Godard's camera makes love to Nana's face and eyes as the song unfolds, a bit of tragic romanticism which climaxes when Nana uses the moment to "wilfully decide" to become a prostitute.
Juxtapositions abound. One segment portrays Nana happy and in love with her new life as a prostitute. The following segment abruptly shows the opposite. Nana herself embodies duelling qualities. Simply for being human, Godard treats Nana as a work of art, something lovely and precious and special and worthy of exaltation and love. Nana is herself aware of her exhibitionist situation, constantly posing, teasing and eyeballing Godard's camera. But when a character reads a poem (Poe's "The Oval Portrait"), such adoration turns sour. The poem is about a lovely head which dies when an artist fixates on a replicated image of it rather than the real thing. Privileging fantasy, then, leads to various forms of neglect and abuse.
Late in the film Nana meets a philosophical man in a cafe. He tells her that thinking leads to analysis paralysis and so an inability to quickly act. To mitigate suffering caused by inaction, humans are thus "predisposed to not think". This survival mechanism, the man argues, makes humans susceptible and blind to elaborate forms of exploitation. Language, a kind of lie, propagates these problems. Only by adopting a dispassionate and honest view of reality, the man implies, can human language and so behaviour become honest (and by extension capable of love in a humanitarian sense).
Like Godard's "Breathless", "Life" ends with a parody of Old Hollywood gangster movies; Nana is comically gunned down and gets the Hollywood career she always dreamed of. The film's obsession with prostitution echoes Godard's other films, most of which see capitalism as being built upon meretriciousness. For Godard, we're all prostitutes, selling our bodies and our minds which, as Cartesian mind/body splits are a fallacy, ultimately amounts to the same thing anyway. Where "My Life" differs from these films is in its dry, almost bureaucratic portrayal of prostitution; sex as banal, state sanctioned, "humanely regulated" economic transactions.
Aesthetically, "Life" is special. The film's mixture of avant-gardism and classical formalism (Godard uses heavy cameras and lots of dollies) is emblematic of the entire Modernist movement (Antonioni, Bergman, Pasolini, Kubrick, Herzog, Bresson, Fassbinder etc), cinema's greatest movement before its defeat by algorithms and banks. Fittingly, Godard, relative to wealthy bankers, once hoped to study anthropology. His film would prove an influence on directors like Scorsese and Tarantino, who'd steal its style but whitewash its politics, a kind of selective vampirism which would eventually kill the Modernist movement outright. The film finds Karina doing some of her best work; warm, tragic and never melodramatic (Godard's style undercuts melodrama). Little touches, such as Nana measuring herself with one hand or playfully dancing around a jukebox, show us the Nana that might have been.
8.9/10 – Masterpiece.
Into Great Silence
"Some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light and into the peace and safety of a new Dark Age." - Lovecraft
Directed by Werner Herzog, "The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser" opens in 19th century Europe. Here a young child, Kaspar Hauser, recalls the day in which he was abandoned on a river. These hazy images comprise Kaspar's only recollections of life before he entered civilisation; prelapsarian, pre-language snippets of innocence.
But Herzog's a pessimist and so innocence doesn't last very long. After poetic shots of swaying fields he quickly hits us with a title card: "Don't you hear that screaming all around you, that screaming men call silence?" Recalling Herzog's "Land of Silence and Darkness", this quote points to a landscape of suffering, death and decay. The universe wants you crushed. And to Herzog, a German absurdest with a fondness for consuming shoes, that's very very funny.
It's quickly revealed that Kaspar has spent 17 years chained in a cellar with only a toy horse to keep him occupied. He is thus unable to speak, stand or function like a "normal" human being. He also loves horses, wild and at ease and so representative of an ideal mode of existence.
The film's first half finds Kaspar being abandoned at a town in Nuremberg. Here the townsfolk poke and prod Kaspar, all in the hope of discovering who he is. During these scenes, Herzog satirises post-Enlightenment faith in empiricism, science and meticulous documentation. The townsfolk believe that the sheer force of scrutiny will solve the enigma that is Kaspar. But all their efforts prove futile.
Kaspar's attempts to embrace Nuremberg's customs also prove frustrating. Kaspar finds it difficult to understand distance, size and perspective, and finds it difficult to grasp the relationships between objects, and the arbitrary borders which demarcate things. In one scene, for example, Kaspar struggles to understand where an arm ends and a hand begins, and why a hand is not an arm and vice versa. Of course there's a certain logic to the aforementioned demarcations, but also arbitrariness. Much of what we deem to be normal, never mind language itself, is itself a kind of arbitrary social agreement.
Later Kaspar is essentially told that "man controls inanimate objects", a bit of hubris which is undermined when a disobedient apple leaps over a shoe. Man's egomania is challenged in another scene in which we meet a tiny king who lords over an ever shrinking kingdom. Others scenes find Kaspar questioning 19th century gender roles, and challenging various monarchs, academics and priests. But unlike similar films - "Elephant Man", "The Wild Child", "Edward Scissorhands", "Forrest Gump", "Being There" etc - Kaspar's "innocence" doesn't highlight a society that is brutish in comparison to him, but rather a civilisation that is blissfully denying a larger, almost ubiquitous brutishness. For Herzog, even empiricism, materialism and dour fixations on the corporeal miss something metaphysical that is far more terrible. The Church, busy creating bogus metaphysics of its own, is no better. "We, in comparison to the articulate vileness, baseness and obscenity of Nature," Herzog says in interviews, "only sound and look like half finished sentences out of stupid suburban novels. We have to become humble in front of this overwhelming misery and fornication. And I say this all, full of love."
But Kaspar is not allowed to love on these terms, and so begins to grow depressed. He says he feels cut off from everything, sees his life as a "great fall" and feels comfortable only when in his bed. Suicidal, Kaspar begins to long for the solace of a death his society invests a great deal of intelligence in ignoring. He is assisted for a while by George Daumer, a real life German philosopher and student of Hegel. Daumer believed that man should "lift himself out of coarseness via culture". Kaspar and Herzog believe the opposite; that culture denies a coarseness that is sublime and worthy of worship.
The film contains two musicians. One's a child who is robbed of his love for music by the rigidities of schooling, the other's a blind man who plays on his own terms. The man's music approaches the ecstatic and the sublime, heights which the film's overtly religious music aren't able to achieve; Kaspar finds religious music to be disgusting, emblematic of a false sacredness.
Mirroring its early scenes, in which Kaspar is meticulously catalogued, the film ends with Kaspar's dead body being autopsied. Scientists then offer explanations for Kaspar's behaviour, all of which Herzog mocks. Prior to this scene Kaspar recounts a dream in which a blind man leads unbelievers to safety through a desert. An earlier dream found Kaspar witnessing hundreds of people climbing a hill towards death. The two dreams put forth seemingly contradictory messages: in the first, life is a hill which man robotically climbs, in denial of death. Oblivious to nature's terrors, man thus never really lives. In the second dream, however, treating death as an illusion leads to life and leads to the forging of a path out of the desert. Reconciling these two positions was perhaps one of the chief preoccupations of 19th and 20th century existentialism.
"Kaspar" remains one of Herzog's best films. Sad, funny, poetic, satirical, unconventional, philosophical, absurd, Brechtian, part German New Wave (touches of Fassbinder) part Medieval hippie, the film is at its best when it treats Kaspar's growing consciousness as something akin to a religious awakening. Today we forget how influential Herzog was, and how much directors like Lynch and Malick owe to him. The film features a shot in which a monkey rests on a horse whilst a camel walks on its knees. Only Herzog.
9/10 – Masterpiece. See Renoir's "Bodou Saved From Drowning".
Star Trek Beyond (2016)
To timidly go where every idiot's been before
"There are numerous examples where terrorism has successfully promoted political change. Is it therefore not fair to say that terrorism is acceptable when all options for peaceful settlement have been foreclosed?" - Commander Data
"We killed 20% of the population of Korea. 20 killed, everyday for 1100 days." - USAF General Curtis Lemay.
Directed by Justin Lin, "Star Trek: Beyond" opens with one of its better scenes. Here Captain James Kirk (Chris Pine) of the United Federation of Planets attempts to broker a peace treaty with comically tiny aliens.
Unfortunately, because no "Star Trek" movie can go two inches without ripping off Nicholas Meyer's "Wrath of Khan", Lin then gives us a familiar scene in which Kirk and his buddy, Doctor McCoy (an overacting Karl Urban), discuss "birthdays" and "getting old". Because Kirk looks like a teenager, because we barely know him, because we've seen better similar scenes in "Khan", and because we've never watched Pine's Kirk meaningfully grapple with regrets or the passage of time, this sequence feels exactly like what it is: a hack writer's attempt at pathos. The film was written by Simon Pegg.
We're then introduced to Lieutenant Uhura and Commander Spock. They're having a rocky "romantic relationship"; a series of formulaic domestic disputes which the filmmakers mistake for "depth" and "substance". To hide the fact that she's been reduced to a nagging housewife, Uhura occasionally "subversively" kicks butt and "rescues men". But counter-clichés are still clichés.
Kirk and his spaceship, the U.S.S Enterprise, then arrive at Starbase Yorktown. Emblematic of Federation values - cooperation, sharing, caring etc - Yorktown serves as a meeting place for different species. But where previous Trek bases looked elegant or functional, Yorktown looks like eye-candy for morons: unnecessarily busy, vulnerable and over-designed. The Enterprise docks with it, in a sequence which unintentionally flaunts much needlessly dangerous engineering.
Kirk is then tasked with investigating a nebulae. Here the Enterprise is ambushed (why doesn't it warp away?) by thousands of vicious mining vessels; they decimate and destroy the Enterprise. Lin and Pegg offer the ship's destruction as a "big emotional moment", but it's not. This rebooted franchise has never treated the Enterprise as anything other than fodder for ridiculously powerful enemies. Unlike its previous incarnations, this Enterprise has no character, is not a home, never feels like an extension of its captain, and has never been something its crew could rely upon.
And so our heroes escape to an alien planet. Here we're introduced to Krall (Idris Elba), an evil Starfleet officer who crashed on the planet hundreds of years ago. Krall blames the Federation for his abandonment. Yes, another vengeful super-villain.
Things get stupider: Krall found a fountain of youth and an army of a gazillion mining drones. This fountain of youth allows Krall to "suck the life-force out of living beings" because apparently all modern super-villains must be contractually able to "steal your energy". More stupid is Krall's fleet of mining drones; instead of using them to fly home, Krall stays on this planet and embarks upon a 100 year quest to find an alien Mcguffin which Kirk randomly finds and which turns out to be an alien weapon. Krall wants to use this weapon to destroy the Yorktown, despite the fact that his drone fleet is much more powerful.
Things get stupider. Because all adventures need a random local chick to help point the way, Kirk runs into Jaylah, an alien girl who lives in the cloaked wreckage of Krall's old spaceship. Why can't Krall find this ship? Doesn't he know where he landed his own ship? Doesn't its sudden disappeared throw up red flags?
The film ends with the usual dogfights and fisticuffs. Throw in some ticking time-bombs, the Beastie Boys, much ignored property damage and a series of cliffhangers which would be easily avoided if our heroes simply used their transportation devices - and why are they still using spaceships? This franchise has made it clear that transporters can beam human beings across entire solar systems! - and you have one unimaginative climax.
The film's final scenes see our crew inheriting another Enterprise, a moment which highlights how disposable and hasty everything in this franchise is. We also learn that Kirk turned down a promotion - he inexplicably jumps from kid to Captain to Vice Admiral in the blink of an eye - because he "enjoys being an explorer" and "hanging out with his buddies". But what this franchise says it's about and actually shows are completely at odds: we've never seen Kirk do anything other than engage in slaughter, carnage and mayhem. He's James Bond in space.
And like Bond, "Star Trek: Beyond" is political in the worst ways. Here is a film in which an angry black terrorist decides to blow up a "bastion of democratic and co-operative values" because he "hates our freedoms" and "refuses to get with the times". In other words, like all mainstream Hollywood terrorists, Krall is an utterly irrational strawman without a coherent motive. He must thus be destroyed by our enlightened, multi-ethnic, tolerant, multi-coloured white boys, who apparently can't solve anything without themselves resorting to gigantic levels of violence and carnage. The film's politics might make sense in the context of its supposedly Utopian future - Star Trek is, after all, the product of 1960s hippies - but is mostly superficial and dangerous when overlain upon our real world. Ours is, after all, a world which deifies democracy, co-operation, multiculturalism, trans-nationalism, tolerance and the binding of all nations under a "common market", all for the purpose of ransacking nations and ecosystems, fostering class divisions, scapegoating, finding cheap labour and pushing down wages. Most major acts of barbarism over the past century have been hypocritically done in the name of the very values "Beyond" deifies. A better film would examine this.
2/10 – Highly illogical.
Omoide no Mânî (2014)
Girl on the brink
"When Marnie Was There" is reportedly the final film from Studio Ghibli, the studio made famous by master animator Hayao Miyazaki. It watches as Anna Sasaki, an introverted 12 year old, travels to a picaresque rural home to stay with relatives. The film's derivative of countless other anime ("Only Yesterday", "My Neighbour Totoro", "From Up on Poppy Hill", "The Secret World of Arrietty" etc), all of which use bucolic idylls to delve into and so heal traumatic, tragic pasts.
The "tragedy", in the case of "Marnie", involves the psychological and physical abuse suffered by several generations of related young women. To say more would be to spoil several key revelations. Suffice to say that, by the film's end, family and love have assuaged issues of abandonment and inferiority.
The film was directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, a Miyazaki protégé who struggles to find his own voice. His ghost-story plot is far too conventional, and his constant cutaways to pretty landscapes and pondering faces too often feel like low-rent Miyazaki, lacking the Master's compositional skills.
6/10 – Worth one viewing.
Man in a Box
Park Chan-wook directed "Oldboy" in 2003, a sleazy thriller dressed up in up-market cinematography and portentous music. Director Spike Lee would remake the film in 2013, replacing its kitschy aesthetic with something more appropriately tawdry.
But treating trash as trash doesn't make a particularly interesting film. This is still the tale of a man being abducted, confined for years and then tricked into sleeping with a relative. The only major difference is Lee's unwillingness to titillate with violence, a deliberately low-brow aesthetic and the insertion of various ethnic minorities. The film's narrative arc, in which irresponsible white people incestuously damage one another, mirror's Lee's "Red Hook Summer", a little masterpiece in which black, urban communities do the same.
Done for the money, "Oldboy" was a box-office bomb. Actress Elizabeth Olsen outshines its entire cast.
4/10 – Worth no viewings.
Town Without Pity (1961)
Dancing with the Devil
Directed by Gottfried Reinhardt, "Town Without Pity" stars Kirk Douglas as Major Steve Garrett, a military lawyer tasked with defending the US officers charged with raping a sixteen year old girl on German soil. The German government wants justice and the death penalty, the Americans want their boys free, and Garrett wants to appease everyone.
Kirk Douglas is renowned for playing mean, sadistic characters. In "Town Without Pity" he plays a devilish little lawyer who so expertly protects American soldiers that he manages to turn an entire German town against the very victim of a sexual assault. Unfortunately the film's braver moments are continuously undermined by dull direction and a slack script. It opens with an immensely cool, noirish sequence: as Gene Pitney's "Town Without Pity" plays on a jukebox, a gang of young men leave a sleepy bar.
6/10 - Worth one viewing. See "A Face in the Crowd".
Ricki and the Flash (2015)
Unleash the Streep
"Wherever I am, I am what's missing." - Mark Strand
Directed by Jonathan Demme, "Ricki and the Flash" stars Meryl Streep as Ricki, a rambunctious woman who leaves her wealthy husband (Kevin Kline) and embarks upon a quest to become a rock star. These dreams don't pan out, however, and Ricki instead finds herself playing at bars and working as a cashier.
Demme directed "Rachel Getting Married" in 2008, a film rife with suicides, weddings and cosy unions between different ethnic groups. "Ricki and the Flash" has similar preoccupations; we watch as Ricki reconnects with her estranged sons, helps her daughter escape suicidal depression, and learns to accept, forgive and beg forgiveness from her husband and his new wife, an African American woman who teaches Ricki to let go of various racial prejudices and preconceptions.
At the heart of "Ricki", though, is the tension between being a mother - and so having responsibilities to others - and being an independent artist who lives for one's art. What Ricki learns is that the two positions are not necessarily contradictory. She demonstrates this at the end of Demme's film; Ricki may be a giant train-wreck, but her music brings everyone together. Echoing Demme's many music documentaries/concert shows, "Ricki" thus portrays art as something communal and inclusive. Climaxing with Bruce Springsteen's "My Love Will Not Let You Down", it merges the rebellious ethos of rock-and-roll with more traditional family values.
"Ricki and the Flash" has all the positives and negatives associated with Jonathan Demme. It's well acted (at this point, Streep is practically a national institution), entertaining, sweet and boasts a catchy soundtrack. Like most of Demme's films, however, its attempts to sketch America's underbelly, with its working class anxieties and racial tensions, are mostly overly cute and overly idealistic. Mamie Gummer co-stars.
7.9/10 - Worth one viewing.
"Do you know when my dog pleases me most? When he displays human qualities"
Philip K. Dick wrote "Impostor" in 1953, a short story about Spencer Olham, an android who naively believes himself to be a human being. Like many of Dick's tales, it allegorically portrays humans as machines who do not know, or do not accept, that human behaviour (and concepts of self-hood, personality and "free will") is itself mechanistically programmed by external, causal chains. For Dick, man is always a robot in denial; an impostor.
Directed by Gary Fleder, "Impostor" was adapted for the screen in 2001. It stars Gary Sinise as Olham, and sticks fairly faithfully to Dick's short story. Differences include the insertion of several dull action sequences, and an attempt to flesh out the broader society (militaristic, paranoid and almost totalitarian) in which Olham lives. Hampered by budget constraints and poor direction, this society never feels anything more than cheap, phony and hokey.
Incidentally, Fleder's "Impostor" was originally a 30 minute short film intended to be released as part of a larger anthology. Possibly attempting to steal thunder from Steven Spielberg's upcoming Philip K. Dick movie, "Minority Report", it was quickly retooled and turned into a feature length picture. As a result, most of its running time feels like unnecessary padding.
6/10 – Worth one viewing.
O Lucky Man! (1973)
Cupcakes and Orwell
This is a brief review of "If", "This Sporting Life", "Britannia Hospital" and "O, Lucky Man!", four films by director Lindsay Anderson.
One of the defining films of the British New Wave, "Sporting Life" revolves around Frank Machin (Richard Harris), a short tempered guy who becomes a star on the rugby circuit. Eschewing the style of Anderson's later films, which tended to be stylised satires, it offers a gritty portrait of a Northern England rife with failed relationships, class anxiety and human despair. As Anderson cut his teeth as a run-and-gun documentary filmmaker, the film crackles with the energy of post-war Neorealism.
"This Sporting Life" would prove a big influence on Martin Scorsese's "Raging Bull". Replace Scorsese's boxing scenes with Anderson's frenetic rugby brawls and swap the tough-but-dim Jake LaMotta for the equally tough-but-dim Frank Machin, and you have virtually the same tale. Both also make extensive use of flashbacks, are shot in black and white, are preoccupied with masculinity and personal anguish, feature violent romances, mix poeticism with realism, follow the same narrative progression and are about men who express their inner turmoil through external violence.
Where "Bull" differs from "Life" is in the former's refusal to put Jake within a larger social context. This is a direct result of a broader shift; from modernism to post-modernism, from art as social engine to art as social withdrawal. And so in Scorsese's film, Jake LaMotta essentially has no external motivation. "I didn't want to give LaMotta any motivations," Scorsese would say in interviews (not quite true; LaMotta is reduced to a Catholic body bag, a suffering Christ who exists to absorb penance for his earthly sins), before going on to state that "all motivations are cliché". "Reasons? We never discussed reasons!" he would tell the New York Times in 1980. Scorsese's dismissal, the unconscious stance of post-modernity, is chilling.
But "understanding" is not necessarily "cliche", rather it is the essential component of character. La Motta's boiling anger in Scorsese's film does not make him a human being, especially once you've read how articulate and self-analysing LaMotta is in his autobiography. That makes the film, for all its power, somewhat shallow.
In comparison, "Life" has more direct ties to the Neorealist movement. It portrays sporting clubs as the playthings of the wealthy, shows how club owners become Mephistophelian menaces, is resoundingly class conscious, portrays the sports community as being intertwined with the mining community, shows how celebrity and sports are seen to be a form of financial and psychological escape etc etc.
And so Anderson's films are, at their best, rebellions against the inherent conservatism of British culture, akin to the plays of Harold Pinter and Arnold Wesker, and the contemporary working-class novels of John Braine, Alan Sillitoe, Stan Barstow and David Storey, the screen adaptations of which, in the late 1950s and early 60s, ushered in a new era of British film and formed the core of what was to be known as the British New Wave.
Scorsese has never spoken of "This Sporting Life", but in the late 1970s he did mention to David Sherwin that the name of his central character in "Taxi Driver", Travis Bickle, had been chosen as a homage to Mick Travis, Malcolm McDowell's character in Lindsay Anderson's "If". It should be no surprise, then, that "Taxi Driver" is essentially a remake of "If", now set in New York.
"If" is about life in a highly authoritarian British boarding school. We watch for an hour as teachers, prefects, priests and various other authority figures essentially make the lives of the students miserable. One young outcast called Mick Travis, however, refuses to put up with this any longer; he finds a stash of guns and, during a climactic, pseudo-fantastical sequence, guns down the school's staff from a clock tower.
It's a great film, though it does, like many similar films of the era, degenerate into a simple revenge fantasy, revolutions - unashamedly cathartic - brought about by bullets and violence. Compare this to fare like "The Magdalene Sisters", Jean Vigo's "Zero De Conduit" or perhaps "Clockwork Orange" and "Zabriskie Point", where the "fantasy cliché" at the end is reversed and the "anarchist" is absorbed/enfolded/manipulated into the very fabric he lashes out at.
"If" found Anderson developing a new aesthetic. He employs Brechtian distance and an acerbic, satirical tone. He'd develop this style further in "Hotel Britannia" and "O, Lucky Man!", both of which feature the Mick Travis character. A precursor to Terry Gilliam's "Brazil", both are also dystopian fantasies preoccupied with revolution, anarchists and abuses of state/corporate power. Attempting to portray life in a capitalist society dominated by powerful mega corporations, "O, Lucky Man!" (1973) was the more popular of the two films. "Hospital" (1982), though, was the more ambitious. Using a hospital to encapsulate the social mores and ideological underpinnings of pre-Thatcher, mid-1970s Britain, the film tackled everything from class bigotry to imperialism to problems of equity to Britain's love affair with monstrous dictators. Ironically, the film's release coincided with the "Falklands War", and so was sunk by a rise in nationalistic fervour.
"This Sporting Life" – 8.5/10, "If" – 8.5/10, "O, Lucky Man!" – 7.5/10, "Britannia Hospital" – 7/10