Thursday, 18 January 2018

The Greatest Showman

(Warning: contains spoilers for The Greatest Showman)

Happy new year, blog-readers.  Here’s hoping for a year full of excellent films that I can rave about, or suitably dire ones that I can rant about.  I’m ready to move into my local cinema in preparation for watching all films possible so that I can be knowledgeable for no reason come awards time.
I started my film-year with The Greatest Showman.  I saw the trailer in November, and it looked like it was setting up to be the La La Land of 2018.  The trailer promised a lot – a happy Hugh Jackman in full ringmaster regalia, doing the full razzle-dazzle and singing about how this was “the greatest show”. 




I wish I loved this film because the posters look great.
Musicals are divisive creatures, I grant you.  You either love ‘em or you hate ‘em (although, weirdly, I find that even those who are the most dismissive about musicals are prepared to accept one or two).  Personally I love ‘em, so I was fully prepared to be fully immersed in some post-Christmas feel-good sing-a-long.
Jackman plays P.T. Barnum, the son of a tailor who falls in love with Charity (Michelle Williams), the daughter of a rich family.  Despite being told to know his place, and Charity being sent to finishing school, the two remain in touch, get married and have two children.  Barnum tries to provide for them but is laid off from his job, and through some deception secures a bank loan which enables him to buy a waxwork museum.  His children suggest that he needs something living to promote interest, which gives him the idea of employing various “freaks” and starting a circus.  Circus adventures ensue. 
It has a lot to recommend it.  It looks good, and it sounds good (indeed, the songs are written by La La Land’s composers – Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, fresh from their Oscars win, and already scooping up awards for this soundtrack).  Unfortunately, the thing that lets it down is the story.  And it turns out that’s a pretty big deal.
Agreed.

The main problems (as I see them) are these:
  1. The film can’t quite decide what it wants to be.       In the first five minutes, it sets up like Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge with an old title card and a very loose sense of time and place.  Soon after, it scraps that idea and decided time and place are important and that it wants to be a Broadway/West-end musical (and succeeds admirably – there’s a lot of set-pieces which could work to great effect on stage).  Halfway through the film, it changes to be more Disneyfied (notably, this is when Zac Efron shows up, so it might be a High School Musical nod), and then the last act flits between a few different film styles without necessarily committing to any.  As a result, it’s difficult to understand the world and what’s of consequence in it.
  2. The film can’t quite decide what it wants Barnum to be.      
    Now, this is understandable.  The real-life P.T Barnum was a politician, businessman, celebrity and showman, and a master of publicity, scandal and self-promotion.    He was involved in lots of projects and schemes, and the main pull seemed to be whatever would bring him money and fame.  By that description, he was an earlier version of Donald Trump (in the film, Barnum also has a difficult relationship with the press.  Hmm.).  The Greatest Showman wants to focus more on Barnum as a family man and dreamer, welcoming the outsiders of society into the family of his circus.  But it is hesitant to commit to that, and the film suffers as a result.  I found myself wondering: what was the Barnum of the film trying to achieve?  Was he trying to make good on his family name?  Was he trying to be a good husband and father?  Was he trying to be the most famous person he could be?  Was he trying to make money?  Was he trying to prove himself to the classes above him?  This Barnum had no clear raison d’etre and no clear goal, so I was never entirely sure if he had succeeded.  It also means that the Barnum that we meet at the start of the film is exactly the same as the one that we see at the end of the film (just older).
    For a film called The Greatest Showman, I'm not entirely sure how the Barnum of the film justifies the moniker.
  3. The film can’t quite decide what it wants to be about.The Greatest Showman sets itself up to be about a lot of things, but explores none of them satisfactorily (partially because of the above two points).  On the face of it, it looks like it is supposed to be a film about challenging the expectations and prejudices held against people who were “other” in any way.  However, it gives no voice to the circus people (and in a lot of instances, barely gives them a name) and blobs them all together as one amorphous group (Who are they?  What are their stories?  Even Barnum rejects the circus people in favour of touring with Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), but there’s no confrontation, conflict or resolution in this).  There are people who are protesting about the circus, but no mention of what they’re actually protesting (so it can’t be challenged).  Which means that songs like “This Is Me” which is an emotionally moving protest song loses much of its clout and becomes an amorphous song that could be generically applied to anything.



Name 5 of these characters.  Or tell me anything about them.
Anyone...?

But equally there’s the potential for this film to be about many different things.  For example:  this could have been a film about the tension between wanting to be popular (which life with the circus provided) versus wanting to be critically acclaimed (which touring with Jenny Lind provided).  This could have been a film about transcending your social class (which was hinted at with the bullying of Barnum’s daughter, or the tensions with Charity’s family).  This could have been a film about work life versus family life.  This could have been a film about choosing your own family.  The framework for all of those stories is evident in The Greatest Showman, but there’s no exploration or development of any of it.  In trying to be about everything, it ends up being about nothing.
This is further compounded by the absolute lack of consequence to anything.  We learn that Barnum takes out loans, loses money, takes huge financial risks.  The entire circus burns down.  But we don’t see any cracks in relationships, any wavering in confidence, any querying in decisions.  This should all have played as a daring high wire act.  It’s not.
This is a real shame because there’s a greater show in there.  Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron are both hugely likeable characters (although they should have been two contrasting characters, which would have given more resonance when Barnum symbolically hands over his top hat), and they bring a lot to their screen time together.  “The Other Side” is a hugely enjoyable set piece that displays their strengths well.  Likewise the choreography of “Rewrite the Stars” is impressive.  The songs are great, but the story doesn’t swing well between them.  As such, the audience is told a lot in big monologue heavy chunks.  Which would be fine if it was called The Greatest Tell. 

Additional thoughts, comments, questions:
  1. Barnum has two children.  One wishes to have ballet slippers and one wishes to marry Santa.  Barnum goes out of his way to make sure the ballet shoes happen, and the other child gets to be a tree in a play.  I’m not suggesting that there be a Santa storyline, but why give such credence to one and not the other?  Or, for the purposes of the film, just have one child?
  2. What did Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) actually do?  I liked him, but I wasn’t sure what his role was. 
  3. Everyone else I know seems to love this film.  The person I saw it with agrees with everything I’ve said in this review and still says “yeah, I don’t care though, I love it”.  Can someone explain it to me?
 
 

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Love Actually

(Warning: contains spoilers for Love Actually in case you haven't already seen it a billion times anyways)

I am really very fond of Love Actually.  It came out in the winter of 2003 when I was in my last year at university and had a lecturer like Billy Mack.  I watch it at least once a year on purpose when wrapping my Christmas presents (and then I accidentally watch it again in lots of parts because it’s on television a billion times a year).  The soundtrack makes me happy.  There are still bits that make me laugh.  
Romantic comedy.  Remember that.
And yet I am also aware of this one truth.


It’s awful.

Really awful. 

I have no way to defend it.

But it keeps coming up on lists of “feel good Christmas films” and so we need to talk about Love Actually.

For those who have managed to avoid it, this is a Richard Curtis romantic comedy with an impressive cast who make up ten separate, but intersecting stories (apart from Billy Mack, who only seems to intersect by being on people’s TV screens and radios, but ok).  At the point when the film was released, there were a smattering of well-known British stars in it, but the majority of the cast have now gone on to international acclaim (this is Andrew Lincoln pre-The Walking Dead, January Jones pre-Mad Men, Thomas Brodie-Sangster pre-Game of Thrones, Olivia Olson pre-Adventure Time).  Like it or not, Love Actually is a great film if you’re playing 6 Degrees of Separation. 

There’s no issue with any of that, per se.  I quite like the concept although it’s better played out elsewhere (Pulp Fiction, or Crazy Stupid Love perhaps).  What I do struggle with are the following things:
  • The timeline makes no sense
I’m generally happy to ignore timelines, if I’m honest.  But the good people at Love Actually seem to have gone out of their way to provoke me.  The film is really clear that the action starts 5 weeks before Christmas, and ends on Christmas Eve (with a one-month-later epilogue).  So who in their right minds decides that is the best time to create a Christmas single to get the Christmas number 1/give children their parts in the nativity play (given out in October, surely?)/book a venue for a work do in London at Christmas?  And who is the teacher who casts Sam (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) as a drummer two weeks before the carol concert when he hasn’t learned how to drum yet?
It also means that the Jamie/Aurelia storyline runs thus: Jamie finds out his girlfriend is cheating on him.  Jamie goes to France.  Hires Aurelia as his cleaner (why do you need a cleaner – you’re not even away for a month!).  He writes.  They misunderstand each other for a while.  He goes back to London, learns Portuguese, she learns English, he returns to propose (spontaneously), she accepts and they all live happily ever after.  IN FIVE WEEKS!!!!  Go to any school that teaches languages.  In five weeks, you’re learning vocabulary for food and animals, you’re not constructing impromptu romantic proposals. 

It means that Juliet/Peter get married, go on honeymoon, come back, while Mark splices together a creepy videotape that exorcises his best friend from his own wedding.  Mark confesses his undying love, but it’s ok because he’s essentially over it in a month.  Or he’s creepily still hanging round with his married friends.  IN FIVE WEEKS!!!

So there is an issue about how much you can get done in 5 weeks.  There’s also an issue about how those five weeks are constructed.  Tony (Abdul Salis) – Colin Frissell’s mate – is deriding him about his love life at a wedding in one scene, and in the very next one (which is happening on the same time and on the same day) is directing Jack to massage Judy’s breasts “for the lighting”.  Tony is constantly in two places at one time.  It’s weird.  I had a genuine concern for a while that I might be racist because I couldn’t tell two black actors apart.  It took me so long to realise it was the same guy because my poor brain couldn't conceive that someone would keep putting the same guy in consecutive scenes of two storylines happening concurrently. 

Jack and Judy in the meantime go out on a date on Christmas Eve, part company at her door, kissing happens and then they…meet up again at the school carol concert on the same night.
Let’s also talk about Joanna’s family.  Her parents, knowing that they are due to emigrate that night, allow their daughter to take part in the school carol concert, then jump in a car to make the last flight to New York.  This may be specific to my family (maybe your family is different!) but my parents would have moved us into the airport a fortnight before departure and forfeited the carol concert of their 9 year old.  No arguments.  Just get in the car.

It doesn’t make sense. 
  • Poor representation of everyone who isn’t a white man. 
Stand-up comedian Junior Simpson got a part in Love Actually because he made a joke that Richard Curtis should have received the best editing Oscar for Notting Hill for removing all the non-white people out of one of the most ethnically diverse areas of London.  On the back of this, Curtis cast him as the awful wedding DJ (“Now here’s one for the lovers.  There’s quite a few of you so I shouldn’t be surprised and a half” is his main line.  Which makes no sense.)  So that’s one non-white person.  And so is Tony (Abdul Salis).  And so is Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor).  And so is Annie (Nina Sosanya).  They are the most thinly drawn characters in the entire film.  We know nothing about them at all.  We know more about Colin Frissell, and he’s entirely there for comedy purposes.  It would seem that only the white people, with non-ethically sounding names get character and background.  Sorry Heike Makatsch (Mia) and Rodrigo Santoro (Karl).  No three-dimensional aspects for you.

There’s a tiny bit more diversity progress in terms of sexuality.  Sarah (Laura Linney) asks Peter (Andrew Lincoln) if he’s gay.  Daniel (Liam Neeson) is forward thinking enough to consider that Sam (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) might be developing feelings for another guy.  The implication in both examples is that it would be ok if they were.  But they’re not.  All of the relationships are solely heterosexual.
Now I’m not saying that you need to represent all backgrounds, and all possible groups of people.  But when you have so many different people and so many different stories, maybe have more than just the white, heterosexual people?  And this complaint gathers a little more force when you watch the deleted scenes – those stories were there and written, cast and performed.  Frances De La Tour and Anne Reid were an older gay couple.   There were scenes of Kenyan friends talking about their relationships.  But those were the stories that were cut.  Those were the stories that could be lifted out, wholesale, and not affect the rest of the plot.  That sits uncomfortably with me.  I’m not sure if Curtis believes that gay people can only be friends with gay people, and black people can’t really be friends with white people, but it would seem that way in his editing.  He explains that these were the stories that had to be cut for time, but conversely relays that Alan Rickman approached him for the confrontation scene between Karen (Emma Thompson) and Harry (Rickman) to be added.  This was granted.  Hmm...
  • The men win in the end.  The women do not.
Here’s what happens the women:
  • Karen – cheated on.  Her husband buys another woman a £200+ gold necklace (that looks like it’s made out of pasta, but whatever).  She gets a scarf and CD.  She is sad.
  • Natalie – sexually harassed in the workplace by the Prime Minister of the UK and President of the US.  Body shamed by her family and her work colleagues.
  • Sarah – pressured to have sex by a one night stand who seems to believe that his need for sex trumps her need to comfort her mentally ill brother.
  • Juliet – finds a video entirely made up of footage of her, taken by her husband’s best friend, less than a fortnight after her wedding. Stalked.
  • Aurelia – a crowd of people turn up to her work to, ostensibly, watch her be murdered by a stranger
  • Aurelia’s sister – told her father will willingly sell her to any man prepared to marry her.  Body shamed.
  • Nancy – told her work is worthless by a horny waiter (as he’s chatting her up)
  • Carla – brought to the UK as some kind of duty free woman for Tony
  • Britney Spears – we’re told she’s rubbish at sex, and she’s not even in the film
  • Margaret Thatcher – called a “saucy minx”.  Based on…being a woman, I guess.
Find me footage of women being respected in this film for 10 seconds.  Or winning in any way.  You can’t.
I know, Emma.
Here’s what happens the men:
  • Peter – happy (though doesn’t know his best friend fancies his wife)
  • Mark – his best mate’s wife finds a video he made of her.  She is oddly flattered.  He turns up to his mates house to confess his undying love to his wife.  She kisses him.  No other consequences.
  • Billy Mack – gets Christmas number one.  String of sexual encounters.  Is happy.
  • Jamie – proposes to the woman he’s never had a conversation with.  She joyfully accepts.  The entire town celebrates.
  • Daniel – meets the woman of his dreams who looks a lot like Claudia Schiffer.
  • Sam – his childhood crush comes  back from America.
  • David – is declared a national hero for nearly starting a war with America because the President sexually harassed the object of his affection.  Makes grand gesture at the expense of the taxpayer.  Everyone mightily impressed.
  • Harry – has affair.  Wife takes him back (according to interviews with Curtis).  No other consequences.
  • Colin – has sex with at least four women he meets as soon as he lands in Wisconsin
  • Tony – is brought Carla.  She’s real friendly.
And Kevin.  Remember Kevin?  (in order to have a good workplace Christmas party)..."...bulk buy the guacamole and tell the women to avoid Kevin if they want their breasts unfondled."  Not "let's maybe discipline Kevin in some way."  Nope.  I am aware of this sexual predator, and choose to ignore his behaviour.  Instead it's your job, ladies, to make sure you aren't sexually assaulted in the workplace.  Ugh.

Find me footage of men winning in any way.  That’s the entirety of the film.
Whoo!  Stalking works!

  • No love
This is a particularly weird thing.  Just take a moment and think about this.  Hugh Grant tells us that “love, actually, is all around”.  Now, I will concede that there are many different types of love and that friends come across quite well (Karen and Daniel, Tony and Colin, Billy and Joe).  There are some examples of close family relationships (Karen and David, Sarah and-her-nameless-brother-in-the-worst-psychiatric-facility-ever).  But…

Love Actually is touted as the ultimate romantic comedy. 
Where?

What relationship shows actual, romantic love?

There’s lust aplenty.  There’s crushes, yes.  But romantic love?  Lacking, actually.

I don’t know why I like this film.  But maybe, as with all Christmas traditions, it’s now just part of Christmas and I should accept it.  Like chocolate for breakfast and deciding to see as many people as I know before the arbitrary deadline of December 25th, and falling asleep during Doctor Who because I had too many roasties.  The big clue is Billy Mack pausing in what he’s doing to say “this is shit, isn’t it?” and smiling and carrying on anyway.

Additional thoughts, comments and questions:
  • Spelling of Christmas
Natalie’s card to David the Prime Minister.  Where she’s spelled “Christmas” incorrectly.
Oh Natalie. 
  • Airport security
For a film which starts off by alerting us to the fact that this is very definitely a post 9/11 film, airport security sucks.  Sam vaults security clearance, is chased by at least 3 security staff (more if you watch the deleted scenes), gets through the entirety of Heathrow airport and has a quick chat with Joanna before he is marched back to his stepdad and left without even so much as a mild ticking off.

The fact that the Prime Minister of the UK comes through airport security and someone bursts through the crowd and leaps on him and isn’t immediately wrestled to the ground and/or shot is nothing short of a Christmas miracle.
  • Electric Bills
The Wisconsin Women have no money, and have to share a bed and can’t even afford pyjamas.  Small suggestions: stop drinking so much in bars, and cut your leccy bill by having fewer Christmas lights.
  • Gift wrapping 
A present that is wrapped with rose petals, lavender and a cinnamon stick is going to smell rank.  End of.

  • This phrase...
Cock-bloctopus
Merry Christmas. 

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Thor: Ragnarok

Thor: Ragnarok

The trailer for this didn’t seem to me to bode well – the Hulk having a conversation and dressed in armour for a start – but as it is being heaped with praise far and wide I was ready to go along and not be disappointed.

And I wasn’t at all disappointed. I am not sure yet if I like it more than Wonderwoman or as much as Wonderwoman. It's very good indeed. 

Music
The director tells how he used Led Zeppelin's  Immigrant Song when pitching for the job and it then became integral. This tune has really stood the test of time and is a great fit for the action sequences it is attached to. Only a few years ago Trent Reznor's version served pretty well as backing to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo's imaginative credit sequence.

Heart throbbery
These two are not really my cup of tea although I am warming to Chris Hemsworth. Tom Hiddleston is rather a funny looking dude really and he is very heavily made up in this movie with noticeable thick foundation. We see a lot of him side by side with his rather conventionally handsome co-lead and it does look quite nice I admit. No, I really don’t want to read slash fiction about them.

Image result for stan lee in thor ragnarok

Women characters
I’m good at misidentifying actors (Cate Blanchett in a headdress and dyed dark with black eye makeup? Couldn’t place her.. Hairy Anthony Hopkins? Didn’t realise that was him either).so was happy to discover that I had indeed recognised the wonderful Tessa Thompson from seeing her in Westworld. 

I just loved the Valkyrie and the respect given to her character. 

Image result for tessa thompson valkyrie
Even Thor was shown to find her Valkyrie background extremely impressive. It was almost as though he was an ordinary man recognising someone as a member of the SAS. Thompson stood out as putting her heart into this role and really believing in it. I can’t praise her too highly. Her character was totally independent. Cate Blanchett as Hela was a fine villain with plenty of presence as an actor. Her headdress, originating in the strange artwork of Jack Kirby.

 Image result for hela artwork kirby


(influential on yet not overwhelming the designs in this movie: the curved horn helmet Loki loves is his too) was made to resemble a set of antlers and looked magnificent. How lovely to see a woman who is a little more mature playing a costumed character (a villain, but we have to start somewhere). It was a nice touch that she was not always in this headdress. Sometimes such items obscure or interfere with an actor's performance and block them from the audience.(cf the awful, awful, awful Klingons in the new Star Trek series who are totally encased in their constumes and masks).

Image result for jeff goldblum thor
 Makes me sigh a little that Cate's part is slightly undercut by her hero antagonist being of course young, fresh and lovely and Hela being described at one point as 'a hag'. Thompson is on record as saying she would not like to be thought of as the 'badass but beautiful' stereotype fighting female but I don't think she has avoided this altogether. 
The misogynists (well, some random commenters on a film site that I read as a sample) hate the prominence of Valkyrie which they feel to be at Thor's expense and view this exciting departure for Marvel with total negativity. Pretty disheartening to read. 

Comedy
This movie is without a doubt a full on comedy with action. I never was a fan of the Thor comics which were, at least in the 70s, pretty dire. Thor, and the other gods, spoke in cod Shakespearean English and Thor had absolutely no sense of humour. He couldn't even produce Spiderman's cheesy one liners. I found him a bit of a bore in comics, and to an extent likewise in his own movies - until now. Thor is the butt of a lot of humour, which will not endear it to some who like their heroes to be on top. To me it is really not a problem for Thor to be poked fun at. It's positively healthy.

Stan Lee's part in this movie is somewhat bigger than any of his Marvel cameos before. He has lines. He gets to cut Thor's hair against his will. It's a funny scene (though admittedly humiliating to Thor who seems far from godlike at this point).

Lovely guest appearance by Benedict Cumberbatch playing Doctor Strange provides more comedy as Thor gets zapped around the Sanctum Sanctorum with little regard for his dignity.

Image result for doctor strange benedict cumberbatch thor ragnarok sanctum sanctorum

The director Taika Waititi writes himself in as Korg, a rock monster with personality, and his turn is very entertaining. Korg is such a reasonable sounding sort of guy with his New Zealand accent and you get quite fond of him and his friendly advice. He does look a bit like a grey Thing though, just saying.

Image result for Waititi korg

The play
Suddenly I thought I was watching Game of Thrones...with characters watching themselves portrayed by players in a propaganda version of history. The idea does appear to be plagiarised. I have searched for a common ancestor but been unable to find any example that exactly matches, although there are many 'plays within plays'.

I didn't recognise Sam Neill as player-Odin but then neither did Rob Jones who was watching with me, so I feel less bad about that. 

Things I like a little less in this movie
Do I love everything about Thor Ragnarok? No of course not, you know me.

The wolf. It was so fake and badly executed. 

Jeff Goldblum - everyone was so glad to see him again. Don't know where he's been for the last 20 plus years since he starred in successful movies like The Fly, Jurassic Park and The Tall Guy. I liked him back then and wondered why his career apparently ran into the sand. But nostalgia may have clouded the judgement of some a little regarding his turn here as The Grand Master.  I found his performance somewhat too laid back, verging on lazy and heard myself thinking there were deserving actors out there who could have done it better. I didn't feel this quite as strongly as I did  about Kevin Spacey in Baby Driver but the irritating feeling was there that he was coasting on celebrity status.

Image result for jeff goldblum grand master
The lady standing to his left in this picture looked mighty familiar to me but I couldn't trace her through the cast list so far. Has she been in Doctor Who? I'm sure I've seen her somewhere being good in something. Whatever, she looked as if she was just bursting to act and I kept expecting her to do something important. She probably ought to have been cast as Hela's henchperson.

 The Bruce Banner in this movie (Mark Ruffalo) is a useless character. I preferred him when he was like this

Image result

A scientist but also a hero and not a dork. However I guess Marvel moved far away from the original Jekyll/Hyde concept with things like him being Hulk for two years at a time and being able to speak in sentences. I think I am a Hulk reactionary. He should be a giant green out of control toddler having a tantrum when he is not a handsome, sensitive hero.
The following is probably a nit to most people but it bothers me. The word 'Mischievous' should NOT be pronounced 'Mischievious'. Thank you, Tom Hiddleston (I think, difficult to check without seeing the whole thing again).

Skurge - bit of an uninteresting character. Hela deserved a better henchperson (see above).

Heimdall (Idris Elba)
He was in quite a lot of scenes, doing good deeds vital to the plot but his part lacked excitement on the whole and asked little of him. I'd like to see something more for this woefully underused actor. Heimdall has never been a success as a character onscreen and what he does is not memorable, at least to me. Still needs work!



In conclusion - this is a funny and entertaining movie with well executed action scenes, a good gender balance and some racial diversity and I would recommend it to one and all. 


Friday, 20 October 2017

Blade Runner 2049

(Warning: contains spoilers about Blade Runner, and Blade Runner 2049)

Writing a film review is a strange and interesting process.  Some films lend themselves very easily to a review.  By the time I’ve travelled home from the cinema, the review is pretty much in my head, fully formed, just waiting to get written down.  I find this has been particularly true of bad films, where it’s like my brain needs the earliest opportunity to expel the poison from its system. 
I’ve previously likened films to food, where some are candyfloss – delicious, insubstantial and of no nutritional value whatsoever.  But still a good experience.  Others are steak – satisfying  and something to get your teeth properly into, though not necessarily something you want all of the time.  Blade Runner 2049 has been a properly meaty film.  It’s taken a while to write the review for a couple of reasons – 1. After steak you need a while to sit and digest.  2.  I’m still not entirely sure what I’ve seen.
Is this just what all film posters look like now?
Blade Runner 2049 is a sequel to the 1982 film Blade Runner.  Set 30 years after the original, there has been some kind of blackout which has wiped the details of all replicants and their locations.  K (Ryan Gosling) is a Blade Runner - the never really explained term used to describe those who hunt down replicants and kill them.  He himself is a newer model replicant, but is tasked with finding older replicant models and “retiring” them.  He discovers the remains of a replicant.  Closer inspection suggests that this replicant was once pregnant – it was previously believed that replicants could not reproduce (as an ongoing argument about how they as “artificial humans” should be considered as less than “real humans”).  K is given the task of investigating, and destroying any evidence about the child (plus the actual child if necessary).  Mission ensues.
Written by Hampton Fancher (who co-wrote the screenplay of the original Blade Runner) and Michael Green (who is racking up an impressive list of sci-fi credits including American Gods, Logan, Alien: Covenant), and directed by Denis Villeneuve (Arrival), the result is faithful to the noir, gloom, and neon artifice of the 1982 original, while also not alienating those who come to the sequel first.   

This film is fascinating, because it can be viewed and interpreted in a myriad of different ways.  There are compelling arguments to say that it’s a pro-feminist film, and equally compelling arguments to say that it’s very anti-feminist.  Discussions about what’s real and what’s artificial are rife.  Comments about who knows what, and when, and how.  Interpretations of what it is to be alive, and the permutations of what that means.  It is vast and intimate, unknowable and personal, specific and vague.  In the hours following my first viewing of the film, I was having very complicated discussions with friends about different interpretations of what we’d all seen, knowing that in 10 years time the same topic could come up, and I’d think 100 different things.  There is much to savour, and much to digest.

First of all, as previously mentioned, you don’t need to have a great understanding of the original to appreciate the sequel.  I saw this film with my husband, who has watched Blade Runner a great many times and insists on quoting bits of it, repeatedly, and out of context.  Conversely, I have seen it once, and rarely understand why he shouts “TOO BAD SHE WON’T LIVE” when I least expect it.  We both think Blade Runner 2049 is one of the best films of the year.  For those who have seen the original, the sequel is faithful to it but subverts it subtly and frequently throughout.  The origami unicorns are replaced by wooden horses.  The Voight-Kampff tests now actively discourage authentic human responses.
Secondly, for me the oddest subversion is that the things that had the most emotional resonance…weren’t real…   So, K has a girlfriend, Joi (Ana de Armas), who is an upgraded hologram who travels with him.  We see K upload her, and upgrade her.  We see her glitch, and get interrupted by other technology.  She is partially see-through, and frequently reminds K that she is not real.  But when her emitter is destroyed it is a character death, it is shocking, and it is the most upsetting moment of the film.  The relationship between K and Joi is real to them, and real to us.  But it’s also completely and utterly not real.

Deckard (Harrison Ford) comes face to face with Rachael (Sean Young), the replicant he fell in love with.  He is visibly moved to see her, more so because she’d died some years before.  He speaks of the romance of their first encounter – the film goes to great pains to point out that those memories aren’t real either.
Ana Stelline creates memories and dreams for people.  They are things of intricate joy and beauty, and they evoke profound emotional responses from all who see them.  They’re not real.
The characters that we know most about and respond most to – K, Joi, Deckard, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) – are artificial.  The characters we believe to be “real humans”, such as Wallace (Jared Leto) are the ones who seem most inhuman.  That suggests that “humanity” can be artificially created, and I’m not sure I believe that, and yet…I find myself moved by a film, which in its very essence isn’t real.  WHAT DOES ANYTHING MEAN!?!
Thirdly, it would be remiss of me to ignore the feminism argument.  How does Blade Runner 2049 depict and treat women?  Good question.  The arguments that say it is anti-feminist are compelling – this is a film directed by a man, screenwritten by men, predominantly produced by men.  The female characters are mainly sex objects created for men and overtly so.  A woman is “born” and killed entirely because she’s not pregnant, and therefore worthless.  Joi is subject to the whims of K – she acts the way he wants her to act, dresses the way he wants her to dress.  He has bought her to be like that.  She has sex with him via another woman – Mariette (Mackenzie Davis), in a scene oddly reminiscent of Ghost – that woman is also bought and paid for.  There is a crumbling society where there is evidence of giant female sculptures, all naked, all fetishized, all submissive.  Replicants like Luv carry out the whims of people like Wallace because they literally cannot do anything else.  The film makes the point that Lt Joshi is also a sexual creature – propositioning K, and being turned down.  There is no suggestion that there is a male version of Joi for her.  So there’s a lot there that’s troubling.  However…
Blade Runner 2049 is a dystopian world, and it is evident that it is wrong and sick.  It is a place where no one is happy, content or satisfied.  It is not a world to aspire to.  Of the many people I know who have seen this film, not one is desperate to live there.  Therefore we can reason that, likewise, its treatment of women is not to be emulated.  If the argument is that the film is pro-men anti-women, who is the male character who is “winning”, and we should aspire to be?  Deckard – in seclusion, grieving, hunted?  K – who has no idea what’s real anymore, and his only raison d’ệtre is to kill his own kind?  Wallace – blind, deluded, isolated?  No thank you very much.
I don't really want to live here, thank you.
There are significantly more female characters than males.  Those female characters are notably more detailed, interesting and complex than the males.  Consider Mariette – on one hand, she is a prostitute who is paid to betray K.  She is also a significant figure in the resistance, not only betrays K but saves him, and is the only one not put off by his Blade Runner reputation. 
Consider Lt Joshi – she is a woman in a position of power, who isn’t afraid to ask for what she wants.  In a world which is male dominated, that really stands out.
The main argument for women as commodities for reproduction alone is voiced by Wallace, who is the villain of the film.  We aren’t supposed to agree with what he says.
Admittedly, a few small tweaks here and there would have improved some of the criticism.  It’s a very heteronormative film (although the dystopia argument could come into play here again, I suppose), and a few more women behind the camera wouldn’t go amiss.  There is an argument to say it’s anti-women, but there’s also one to say it’s anti-men. 
But that it manages to cram so much into 2 hours 44 minutes (admittedly long, but not bloated.  It’s a surprisingly lean film), while remaining faithful to the original, and introducing an old world to a new generation.  In a lot of ways, it’s nothing short of a miracle.
But then again,  
…you’ve never seen a miracle.     


Additional thoughts, questions, concerns:

1.  What was the point of Wallace and where did he go in the end?

2.  Who in the film is very definitely a human?

3.  If the film were to go on another 5 minutes, or 5 days, what would happen next?
 

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Dunkirk

I knew this would be a must see for Rob Jones but wasn't sure what to hope for for myself. I was encouraged to hear Mark Rylance was to star. As it turned out nobody did much acting in this movie. Mark played a phlegmatic type, understated to an absurd degree where he appeared pretty much autistic. Rob Jones' comment 'but he's always like that'.

Image result for dunkirk Mark rylanceNo one showed any emotion except for shock.  I found this completely unreal and it may help to explain why this film did not engage me. I know from reading other reviews that many found it deeply moving and engaging, including some women who did not expect to get much from it.

Reading that Nolan has wanted to make this film since at least 1999, it seems very much a personal quest for him and I wanted to know more about that. I am guessing he has a family connection to this piece of history. I also wonder whether it was in part a homage to the postwar movies it in certain ways resembles - for example not showing anything much in the way of injuries and the lack of both female roles more than walk ons and racial diversity. Might we have another Mary Beard style controversy about who was or was not white and male at Dunkirk? I would like to see that.

I felt there was great artistry in the shots of the massive skies and seas and that modern techniques allowed a much more realistic feel to the flying and sea sequences. If I could have identified with any of the characters it might have been quite an experience to go on that ride with them.

I like the way we see only the soldiers' viewpoint of the sinking of a rescue ship. It just happens, with no warning - suddenly everyone is underwater floundering. It's horrible. It's also horrible when an officer walks into the sea, unable to live with the deaths of his men (well that is what I think I saw happen).

Nolan has been able to convey some of the horror of war without body horror accoutrements by showing how psychologically distressing it all is, how disorientating, the lack of meaning (for example the senseless death of the boy which is eventually the subject of an understandable, comforting lie). Was it a desire to keep everything as low key emotionally as possible that led to the lack of acting and characterisation in the movie, or was it a tribute to the stiff upper lips of 1950s war films?

I don't want to see a lot of crying, shouting, laughing etc in a movie like this, and I can believe that a great deal of emotion would be suppressed through shock,  but at least some relieved or despairing emotings would have happened with humans in these situations!

One thing I really noticed was the complete absence of any Germans, except as unseen pilots or arresting soldiers dimly appearing at the end. It's disturbing, because they then become non people. However from the viewpoint of the allied soldiers in this place and time there must have been very little contact apart from bullets and leaflets so perhaps this was another way of keeping things realistic; or perhaps he just wished not to dilute the focus on the allied men.

Actors in this movie playing the lead roles were largely unknown to the point I can't say who played whom without looking it up (except the most famous such as Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy and Mark Rylance). I had forgotten Harry Styles was in it. He didn't stick out to me in any way, so job done I guess. There was not really that much asked of the cast so he hadn't got a lot to live up to. Tom Hardy's face acting has been raved about. I would have to watch again as I didn't even know it was him. It's hard to read anything much on near covered faces, at least for me. Here he is. I've only seen him before with a mask or a huge beard and his much vaunted greatness as an actor hasn't penetrated with me as yet. Since I love good acting I should watch him more.

Related image

I was pleased, or shall I  rather say relieved, to have a soldier reading Churchill's speech from a newspaper as things wrapped up, rather than an actor doing a voiceover or a recording of Churchill himself. On the other hand the constant near emergence of Elgar was maddening. Just play the damn thing! Instead someone had written an inferior version of the Elgar specially for the soundtrack. On the subject of the soundtrack, I didn't notice the much mentioned Shephard tone and had never heard of this, which is apparently a technique Nolan is fond of.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shepard_tone

If Dunkirk were conventionally narrated I could see it as a portmanteau of several stories. Nolan does not give us proper stories as such but scenes from the experiences of various individuals. Occasionally this is downright confusing, as in the scene where we suddenly see Cillian Murphy's 'Shivering Soldier' in charge of a lifeboat. When and where did this take place? We aren't told but only know it must have preceded his rescue.  Did it directly precede his rescue? As he was found alone I had started by thinking he was a pilot and the floating wreck his plane. Might the confusion be intended to add to the audience's fear, uncertainty and doubt, which helps make what is happening less 'consumable'? I think that, chewing it over now, we were meant to understand that the reason he was so traumatised was that he had failed to save all the people on the boat and was the only survivor. It was not clear enough.

I don't think Nolan was really ready to make this movie.  Perhaps he thought 'now or never'. I don't believe it quite reached what he was aiming for. My present feeling is that it is overrated, partly because of the grand reputation of Nolan, and will not be so highly thought of in a few years' time whilst likely to carry off many prizes.

Small irritations:

The first character I saw had dyed black hair with hairspray in it. Why go to so much trouble with authentic uniforms etc if you are going to give people unlikely barnets that are so not of the period? Oddly the foreign soldier he meets on the beach seems to have been to the same hairdresser for the same dye job. And Cillian Murphy has dyed dark locks also. The pilots had sandy hair, indeed one was Scots. If these hair colours were supposed to be significant it was lost on me except as a distraction. If you're doing historical, do historical including haircuts.

Image result for cillian murphy dunkirk
Next, and my OH disagrees on this, the shouting of 'English only' at French people trying to board an escape ship. What about all the Scots and Welsh, I thought. 'British only' surely. But Rob J thinks we all used English for British back then. I think not. There was a British empire still.

The movie announces that it was all shot on film which I suppose means no CGI possible. Yet it still looked very dingy, like a 3D movie. Who sucked all the colour out of our movies? Baby Driver was the first one I've seen for ages that had actual proper colour. Might Nolan have been going for the faded look of early colour? If so I say bad call.

Where CGI might have been a help would be with the numbers of evacuees seen. Dialogue stated there were 400,000 of them and we never saw more than 200 people I would estimate.  Even if no fx could be used, I think they could have paid for a few hundred more extras.

I did sort of notice the 1980s train seat cover as looking out of place, but didn't recognise it for what it was. Tut tut. Other anachronisms are minor and to my mind for the anoraks really.