NZIFF: Final Portrait

Righto, not having written a blogpost in a while I will keep this fairly terse. The New Zealand International Film Festival is on in Wellington, and if you are in a position to attend a screening I strongly recommend that you do. In fact, don’t even check what you are about to see. Get a ticket for whatever and enjoy the surprise; independent cinema won’t hurt you. Now then, on to what I saw today:

Final Portrait (wri/dir: Stanley Tucci, starring: Geoffrey Rush, Armie Hammer) is a character study of Swiss-Italian artist Alberto Giacometti (b. 1901 – d.1966), set in Paris in 1964.

Giacometti, a draftsman and sculptor as well as a painter, is particularly known for his  style of rendering the human form in long, gaunt, monochromatic shapes. Coincidentally, my father showed me some of Giacometti’s work only a matter of weeks ago, and it was the first time that I actually took note of who he was. Therefore, seeing Final Portrait was, for me, a perfect elaboration from that introduction.

Geoffrey Rush is just as brilliant as I expected, playing irritable, chain-smoking, eccentrics is hardly a leap for him, but few could have done it better. Rush captures the look of Giacometti; the muttering bleakness of his spirit, and all the idiosyncrasies to be found in painters. I don’t have the knowledge to verify to accuracy of the portrayal, but to do so would be a mistake in my view. It would be beside the point. Let me explain.

James Lord (played by Armie Hammer), was Giacometti’s biographer, and in the movie he is enduring sitting after sitting in the hope of getting a finished portrait of himself to take back to New York, where his fiancee is waiting for him. The days pass by, and progress is slow. Giacometti sits opposite Lord in the studio and watches him, getting him to move his body by miniscule amounts, stopping work frequently crying, “fuck!” Sometimes packing up having only added a few strokes to the picture. As the sessions wear on, Lord’s morale is worn thin, and he despairs that the painting will never be finished.

Giacometti also despairs. That he can’t finish anything. He says to Lord, “When I was young I thought I could do anything, when I grew up I realised I can do nothing.” This may not be mere fatalism, but an expression of the existentialist view that modernity is vacuous. That it is without meaning. In the face of that, Giacometti searches for meaning in his subjects – in James Lord.

The painting itself, and the act of painting it, is cathartic for both Giacometti and Lord. The film, with it’s wit, and its excellent supporting cast (Clémence Poésy (Caroline), Tony Shalhoub (Diego Giacometti), James Faulkner (Pierre Matisse), Sylvie Testud (Annette Arm), is a much easier watch than Mr. Turner was, which is the best film I can compare it with – in terms of being about an artist.

Unfortunately, I have exhausted my analytical ability, and to continue to slip on the keyboard would be a waste of my, and your time. For art lovers this is not a film to miss.

That’s all for now.

 

 

Alien Covenant: Sifting through the debris when movies collide

Ridley Scott, styled “The elderly Ridley Scott” by Red Letter Media in their YouTube review, attempted to resurrect his creative ability after the abominable Prometheus. The result is an ugly mosaic from the debris of two movies. One of them should have been made. (BTW spoiler alert, and I use links to explain certain concepts if you want more information).

That one, a sci-fi horror featuring an android obsessed with creation and a hatred of the humans who made him, entrapping the crew of a colonizing ship and conducting hideous genetic experiments on them. David, the android from Prometheus played by Michael Fassbender, is living on a planet he managed to fly to with Dr Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) on board an Engineer spacecraft after the events of Prometheus. The Engineers are/were the sentient creators of humans, and it turns out that they created a black goo on one of their science planets that fuses with DNA to make monsters. This is the substance David plays with to eventually create the Xenomorphs.

This movie would have been brilliant. There would have been gnawing tension because we suspect David’s intentions, and Fassbender does a great job playing a composed ‘synthetic‘, and having crew members picked off one by one and then killed in slow, grissly experiments would have been a terrifying spectacle. No, it would not have been pleasant to watch, but it would have had a unified theme, and  have taken the series somewhere new. Lot’s more scenes with android David talking to android Walter, both played by Fassbender, which provided the best moments in the movie.

Alas, the second movie crashed into the first. This is a rehash of the original Alien, and it took place in the final 25 minutes. The iconic xenomorph is finally burst forth, and gets on board the ship that the last surviving crew manage to fly back to. Here Daniels “Dany” Branson (played by Katherine Waterston), the senior officer and wife of the late Captain Jacob “Jake” Branson — played by James Franco who is incinerated at the film opens — becomes Ripley-ish by luring the alien into the cargo bay and blasting it out of the airlock. A fine dose of nostalgia, but crammed into 25 minutes as it is deprives it of what is most effective about the original movie. THE PACE! It is slow, and like Jaws the monster isn’t really seen until the end. The imagination of the audience can conjour things that no amount of cgi can match. Turn out the lights and the imagination does the rest. That is why Alien is scary.

Alien Covenant needed to be either one of these movies. Either an Ex Machina – Human Centipede fusion that explores the meaning of creation and destruction, with a dash of human bravery, or a retro homage to 1979’s Alien. But trying to do both simply does not work. It is definitely better than Prometheus, by a big margin, but that raises the bar an inch off the ground.

Just why there was a weird collision of two different movies is unclear, but the answer probably rests on studio expectations — they paid for the iconic Alien so there must be the nostalgia soup at the end — but if Ridley Scott wanted to go in another direction he surely had the sway to do it.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t good moments, and as I have mentioned the Fassbender scenes are great — particularly when he kisses himself — and the Kane and Abel theme between the two androids culminating in a line from Milton’s Paradise Lost: “It is better to rule in hell than serve in heaven.” The duality of the androids is the most interesting part, forget the Aliens — they are actually boring and anticlimactic in comparison.

David’s rooms on the planet where he has spent ten years doing his experiments to create the “perfect organism” which has wiped out all life on the planet, are like the abode of Leonardo da Vinci, with models, preserved specimens, and anatomical drawings on the walls. In here is the preserved corpse of Dr Shaw, her abdomen exploded out, suggesting he used her to create an early chestburster. In one of the better scenes in Prometheus she gives birth by caesarean to a kind of facehugger, so her character being a guinea pig for David, and the mother of the Xenomorph completes her character development. Early in Prometheus she laments her infertility. It is her most powerful character motivation.

Really, what would be interesting would be to take all the material from Prometheus and Covenant and cut them together into one film, The Tragedy of Elizabeth Shaw. As it is all we have is a field of confused debris from colliding movies and a filmmaker who forgot how to create.

The Cinema of Elections

The oddity of the 2016 election has confused pundits, politicians and the public alike. Blame, insofar as one can blame the present situation with all its complexity on any one group, has been laid at the feet of the media.  I mean not to challenge this generalisation, but rather to examine what the actual effect the ‘media’ has, and then how best to analyse it.

I start with how elections are consumed.  They are experienced via television and internet news and parody programs, and on a grand scale going far beyond the audience that can vote on November 8.  Domestic election news is carried by organisations in many other countries and territories, with reactions that range from giggles of schadenfreude, to genuine concern over the ripple effect of sudden policy shifts from the global hegemon.

I propose that the 2016 election is akin to an extended movie, since the primary method used to experience it is as a spectator.  Therefore, analysis using the tools of cinematic criticism is apt, and for the purposes of this exercise I have chosen to apply the arguments of Laura Mulvey from her celebrated essay Narrative Cinema and Visual Pleasure (1975).  The choice is not arbitrary, as modern feminist film theory was launched by this work, and in the 2016 election a feminist understanding of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is timely.  Especially with the recent release of a recording of Donald Trump bragging of his predatory sexual attitude towards women.

In Freudian sexuality theory, scopophilia (the pleasure of looking) and the inverse pleasure of being looked at is a component instinct of sexuality.  Simply put, pleasure is derived through taking people as objects, subjecting them to a controlling gaze.  Proof of this argument is simple: the proliferation of pornography, QED.  In her essay Mulvey argues that, “At the extreme, it can become fixated into a perversion, producing obsessive voyeurs and Peeping Toms, whose only sexual satisfaction can come from watching, in an active controlling sense, an objectified other.” While I do not propose that Trump’s only means of sexual satisfaction is from watching, he is close to the extreme end of perversion.

For example, he owns beauty pageants, and in this capacity satisfies the urge of the voyeur by going backstage when the contestants are preparing, subjecting them to his gaze which is absolutely controlling. He is the owner, they are the owned.  He said the following to radio shock jock Howard Stern:

“Well, I’ll tell you the funniest is that before a show, I’ll go backstage and everyone’s getting dressed, and everything else, and you know, no men are anywhere, and I’m allowed to go in because I’m the owner of the pageant and therefore I’m inspecting it,” Trump said. “You know, I’m inspecting because I want to make sure that everything is good.”
“You know, the dresses. ‘Is everyone okay?’ You know, they’re standing there with no clothes. ‘Is everybody okay?’ And you see these incredible looking women, and so, I sort of get away with things like that.”

If this is a  movie, or many cinematic variations occurring at the same time, Trump occupies the traditional space of the superior male in the 1970s (more evidence to support reading Mulvey of 1975).  He is the possessor of the infamous male gaze, which he deploys to reduce women to unconscious objects, rather than beings of power in their own right. He does this to all women, even his own daughter Ivanka is not immune, but is referred to voluptuous, a piece of ass (see here), someone Trump would like to date.  This is important because Ivanka is a person with policy ideas, she has pressured her father to advocate for support for mothers with young children. She has power that Trump recognises and ensures is either broken or bridled.

In the narrative structure of film, Mulvey argues that there is an active/passive heterosexual division of labour according to the principles of the ruling ideology. Woman is the image, man himself cannot bear the same burden of sexual objectification. This argument no longer holds true to the extent that it did in 1975, but as Trump is an anachronism, it applies to him.  And of course it does — Trump is objectively unattractive, worthy of the description Norman Mailer had for Paul Johnson in another time: “He looks like an explosion in a pubic hair factory.”

In the diegesis* of this election he is playing the traditional male role controlling the action (through his blunders that are focused on by the media) with Hillary reacting to it. That is an obstacle for Clinton, but it is surmountable.  Importantly, Hillary is not controllable by the male-gaze.  She is an older woman, dresses in suits, and the reductive energy of her opponents in using secondary sexual characteristics like her voice is essentially limited.

According to Freud’s castration anxiety theory, the objectifying gaze both reduces women to sexual objects, as well as reminding the male of the fear of castration. Women do not have penises, and a castrated man does not have the capacity for normal sexual pleasure. He is thus dis-empowered, and when the gaze defines women as lacking a penis, it dis-empowers them.  Now, this is obviously compete crap.  Women have the capacity for tremendous sexual pleasure, as anyone who has experienced or witnessed a female orgasm can attest.  But applying this psychic fear of castration to the potential of the first female US President, Hillary Clinton is not threatening to the patriarchal order in the same way.  She cannot be objectified.

So Trump’s attitude towards women is ineffective in demeaning Clinton.  However, in this time it is very effective at damaging Trump. So we see now the suicidal lurch of his campaign towards the ultimate climax of this movie, Clinton’s triumph and Trump’s concession.

The Trump campaign in this election is like a cinematic tour-de-force from the 1970s in competition with a blockbuster of today. The audience has changed, and nostalgia only gets the old boy so far.  Even a mediocre film like Batman v Superman succeeds at the box office with a big marketing budget. And the Clinton campaign is not lacking funds.

I expect much better criticisms to be written by wordsmiths around the world, and for criticisms of my own attempt here to appear in the comment section, or perhaps in private.  If I have made an error in analysis when it comes to applying the genius of Laura Mulvey, or reducing Freud to a few lines, I expect to be corrected.  With that, dear reader, I am done (for now).

 

*diegesis is a fancy term for film narrative

David Brent: Life on the Road

In the first ten minutes I was laughing embarrassingly hard. But I wasn’t embarrassed, because it is impossible to be embarrassed when David Brent is around. His presence is as cringe worthy as ever, but unlike in The Office this David Brent wins the sympathy of the crowd.

It is a simple enough premise, David Brent is a lowly sales rep at a company that sells cleaning products. Still, he carries himself with the same smarmy confidence, and hasn’t given up on his dream of being a rock star. So he has cashed in on several pensions he acquired in the 90s and is taking to the road with a remake of his band “Foregone Conclusion.”

The band members are in their twenties and are just doing the three week job for the money, the job being a series of gigs in the settlements around London. David Brent has a slew of songs he’s written himself, and he introduces each song with a long explanation before the nearly empty bars and clubs. It is profoundly awkward, and the tour exposes Brent to the isolation of bearing both universal dislike and doubt. He begins to doubt himself, and the tragedy of David Brent is quite honestly poignant.

He always tries extremely hard, and the saddest point for me was when he paid the band to sit and have a drink with him, with them on their phones desperate to get away. But his ability to see himself as being more than what everyone else sees is his redeeming quality.

In terms of humour I found the first ten minutes to be the most brilliant comedy there is. The rest of the film doesn’t quite reach that level again, but that is because you start caring for David Brent, and cannot laugh as hard when he chokes on his feet.

I’ve a feeling we won’t be seeing David Brent again, with Ricky Gervais being a sparing writer, who would rather give too little than too much. As Brent would say “You can have too much of a good thing!” And so if this is the final encore for the character I say bravo, and recommend it heartily to all.

Ghostbuster thoughts 

Over-thinkers and vacuous shits abound. When I consider the average film critic I imagine a malodorous and disgruntled chap with dark rings around his eyes, a knitted jersey specifically chosen to clash with his tweed jacket and bright orange socks (I live in Wellington after all, it’s hipster-ville), and the superior air of one who cannot make anything useful with his hands, but has a talent for transposing dull thoughts into readable sentences. Critics are the sewer of the film industry, but unlike a good waste disposal system they dump as much fecal matter as they can find into the ocean where it can wash around us simple mortal creatures bathing in the tide.

Not content with prejudging the all-female Ghostbusters before its first teaser, they had to go and dump on it again after it came out. Now, I have not read a single review, because it is one less thing I have to do and am content with being both a foe to critics and a consumer of film who does not consume their scribbling. It is fun to deny them, makes me live longer and I think strengthens my own position in appraising films with a clear mind. I do know that anti-feminist rhetoric has pervaded and in some cases masqueraded in the reviews and opinions of many, and I want to oppose that. I am also rather aghast that actress Leslie Jones was abused on Twitter for her part in the film. She was, arguably, the most important part of the story. The one character from the real world who thus is the most effective stand-in for the audience. None of us understands the pseudo-science and neither does Jones, and she often says what we are thinking. To think that she has faced sustained abuse on social media because of her role is discouraging. I think there is a race element, and that well-meaning white people are taking offence (whether truly or just faking it) at the fact that the black person in the group is the only non-scientific one. I have explained why this is the case and believe that the offended whites have missed the point entirely.

Onto the next point. This is a comedy so the first test should always be whether it made you laugh. The next is how much. Ghostbusters made me laugh. Heartily. More than once. Therefore it has served its advertised purpose as a piece of comedic entertainment. Was it full of nostalgia? Yes, that’s why I bloody well went to it in the first place. I think these pricks who whine about remakes and sequels of old films as being too nostalgic utterly miss the point of the whole enterprise. The Force Awakens was saturated with nostalgia, which is why I lined up with everyone else and saw it again and again. Watching a film that recalls ideal moments of your childhood which have been gilded in memory to a point where your remembrance is greater than the actual moment was at the time, that is a great pleasure. How dare critics complain and try to advocate the deprivation of it! Get out of the castle of my memories! So I loved the intertextuality, the numerous cameos of the original cast and ghosts, and the riff of the old theme tune.

This isn’t the best movie, but who really would want to see the best movie? If I saw the best movie of all time I would be very sad because afterwards I would have to die, or change my whole life to never see another film,. There’s no such thing as the greatest film so the critics constantly looking for it are trapped in a pathetic game they can only lose. It is as if you pay someone to find a needle in a haystack in a world where needles don’t exist.

I haven’t discussed plot, or structure, or the characters other than Leslie Jones, but I don’t think I need to. You can draw your own conclusions about all of it without my involvement. Perhaps the really pernicious thing about film reviewers is the unconscious assumption that people cannot form opinions and conclusions and must be given ones by film majors. That’s bunk, and it conceals the fact that reviewers are unnecessary. Theatre relies on reviewers to get the word out about them and encourage people to see plays etc. Film marketing needs no such help, it is done via social media, cinema advertising, billboards and TV. So dear reviewer, should your opinion be negative (which it possibly is) and unnecessary (which it probably is) I implore you to keep it to yourself. And remember to silence your phone during the movie, honestly in the middle of a screening who you gonna call?

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What’s not to like? 

Critical F*ckery 

Suicide Squad is not a great film. But if you pay attention to critics you might think it is worse than terrible. I saw it on Sunday night, and my impression is mixed, but it is not negative.

First of all, the point of the project was the characters. To get a great cast together to play some iconic roles. The plot was always secondary, and criticisms of the plot are therefore missing the point. We didn’t buy tickets to be blown away by an ingenious narrative. Hell, any lame excuse to get Harley Quinn, Deadshot, Killer Croc, and El Diablo together is worthwhile. We are there to see some good action, Will Smith being witty, Margot Robbie being gorgeous, and Jared Leto as the Joker weaving a bit of chaos. Did the film deliver on those points? Yes, it bloody well did. So don’t dismiss the film with vague assertions that it doesn’t hold together, that the plot is tired and poorly written, or even that too many of the characters are two-dimensional. You do know how many dimensions there are in a comic book right?

I made the experience of seeing the film hard. I was alone, and I had no food or drink. That means at no point could I slurp some sugar into my system to enhance the pleasurable parts of my brain. Even then I enjoyed the experience. I enjoyed it because there was enough of Ben Afleck’s Batman to redeem his part in Batman v Superman — that is hardly any.

I got annoyed by Jared Leto’s Joker, which I think was way overdone, but was intrigued by a development in his character that I will elucidate below. Leto played the Joker as much more of a Victorian gothic character, with his brooding and Shakespearian mutterings. However, the costume and makeup was far more modern, with tattoos and silver teeth that made him look more gangsta. I fault the director David Ayer for that, and it was indicative of everything I didn’t like about the Joker. At one point he is sitting at a table in a fancy club talking to the rapper Common who presumably is a high-ranking criminal. The Joker mutters about how Harley (who is exotic dancing in the background) is the fire of his loins. Harley comes over and it turns out that Common does not like her. The Joker kills Common. Now, why was the Joker in that club? Does he own it, or have a share? Is he scoping it to rob it? What was the basis of the conversation with Common? It is quite possible that I missed something, but in a nutshell this is my problem with Suicide Squad, much like Batman v Superman putting Gotham and Metropolis right next to each other so that both could be shown in a single shot and Lex Luther could gesture from one to the other, cool shots are prioritized over common sense. The Joker at one point is talking to one of his henchmen in a modern highrise building. The Joker is sitting in a large room with hundreds of knives and other weapons (and a few baby onsies by the looks of it) arranged in a spiralling circle around him. I could only imagine him spending hours arranging the items just right, or maybe handing a detailed specification to his henchmen on how he’d like his room arranged. It is stupid, and eroding to the character, who is not supposed to make sence, but still needs to be somewhat consistent.

So with that verbal puking of some of the things I didn’t like, what did I dig? Margot Robbie of course, she was exactly as entertaining as the marketing promised. And aside from being outrageous eye candy (hey I’m not the only one who was monitoring just how far her short-shorts would ride up her crack) she was way more powerful than in the comics and the games. She really kicked ass, which is important because otherwise she would too easily become a damsel in distress being constantly rescued by the Joker. Throughout most of the story she has an unshakable confidence and cheerie attitude, it is only when she thinks the Joker is dead that her facade is shaken. This is no shallow character. Her motivation is always clear, and her methods to achieve her ends make sense. As I said before, there is an intriguing development with the Joker’s character. He is genuinely in love. We have not seen this before at the movies (I cannot speak for the comics) and it is a huge change because suddenly there is something predictable about the Joker, he is always going to get his girl. That is a vindication for Harley Quinn as well because to date she has been little more than a pleasing appendage to the Clown Prince of Crime, something that can be cut off if necessary. Her survival as a character I think has more to do with the fact that fans like her. She is villainous, but not in the way that Poison Ivy, or the Enchantress, or Talia al-Gul are. Those three are exotic, whereas Harley Quinn is more mainstream. She is like Catwoman, and just as Selena Kyle genuinely has her claws in Bruce Wayne’s heart, Harley has captured the Joker’s.

The best scene for me demonstrates this. The Joker and Harley Quinn are talking on a ledge above several vats of acid. It is implied that these may be the same vats that the Joker fell in to become the character we know. He asks Harley if she would die for him, and she says yes. Would she live for him? Again, yes. Then she dives backward into one of the vats, and the Joker looks down at her and turns away. Then, with conflict on his face he throws off his coat and dives into the vat, pulling Harley to the surface, and kissing her. This is the most human Joker I have ever seen, and dammit I want to see more. With all the criticisms; the overacting, the Heath Ledger voice imitation, and the fact that with white make-up, darkly hooded eyes, ratty tattoos and silver teeth, and forty-four years on this earth; Jared Leto is still so outrageously pretty, I am sold for a sequel. And one is already on the way, with David Ayer tempted to go R-rated. The implications of that on Margot Robbie’s shorts are almost too much to be considered in the daytime, and a second crack at this may bell yield something better.

Don’t expect the critics to be merciful with their opinions though. They are so far up Marvel’s arse I expect their bleating to drown out Jarvis in Tony Stark’s helmet. If a film is entertaining don’t let the critics convince you that it is poor. It may not be the best thing in the world, but hell Hollywood is never going to be.

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Hitman with a heart, and you know what the film needed that. Will Smith plays the villain looking for personal redemtion, and is the character the audience can identify with. Film 101 guys, it makes total sense.
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Way overdone, yet narratively interesting. Leto tried a little too hard with this one, he might want to tone down his method acting.
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The Enchantress AKA Cara Delevigne. She did a solid job playing a difficult part. I swear her eyebrows increase the production value by at least 10 percent…
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There is nothing Margot Robbie cannot do. Will we ever fall out of love with her?

Decisions

I want to write about decisions; you know, those things that masquerade as badges of freedom and liberty, but sap your energy and leave you unsatisfied and coldly yearning for what might have been. We try to fend off that creeping impenetrable silence of frustrated being with baubles and shouty things that impress and promise so very much, and yet we know deep down that it is all a game of procrastination. It is all we can do to put off the dreaded silence for just long enough to enjoy the pleasure that only temporary life can bestow.

I don’t mean to sound hollow, but decisions are such bullshit! On Friday (NZ time) 66 percent of eligible voters in the UK decided by a margin of 52 percent to 48 percent to tear Britain out of the European Union. So about a quarter of British voters — with a median age of 73 — have set the future of Europe ablaze. This is not hyperbole. The economic fallout has already begun with the Pound dropping to a record low, and the UK credit rating being downgraded. These are immediate blows, and being as economically illiterate as I am I cannot predict what will happen next in that vein. Fortunately the volume of media analysis about the entire sorry mess is enough to drown a continent…

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Really Britain, was that a wise decision?  Scotland is now halfway out the door, there are rumblings in Northern Ireland, the British territory of Gibraltar is skittish (its population of 30k voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU, and Spanish claims of sovereignty over it might strike a louder tone now). When does the very name United Kingdom become a farce? When it is just England, Wales and the Falklands? If that was in the minds of voters when they crowded into booths that might be different, it would be an informed choice. But I think inaccurate portrayals of immigration were dancing around the lobes of the voters.

 

I looked forward to writing a political obituary for David Cameron, but not like this. Last year I predicted he would last two to three years at the most before Boris Johnson rolled him. I was being generous in my  forecast though I couldn’t know it at the time. It is small comfort now to note Boris’ keenness for Winston Churchill, who was first to manage Britain’s decline from global Empire to stodgy Commonwealth. Boris may well be managing the euthanization of the UK. Some legacy eh what?

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Boris Johnson is the real winner. Cameron’s days as PM are numbered.

Me Before You (spoilers)

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This is a controversial film featuring the Mother of Dragons herself Emelia Clarke, and er, the guy who was Fennick in the Hunger Games movies. Not a very uplifting story. A rich British white guy who has everything is struck by a motorcycle and becomes a quadriplegic. He can move his face and his thumb and is miserable. I totally feel him, that really sucks. But he is still extremely rich, with parents who love him and who are present, and who enlist the services of Emelia Clarke — who is a chatty, small town English girl with a garishly cute fashion sense*  and a sweetness that would be trite if it wasn’t so endearing — to cheer him up. No, not quite in a sleazy way, but in a friendly ‘this is a helper not a caregiver’ way.

She gets to know him after a while and eventually learns that he plans to go to Switzerland to be euthanized. Ah ha, now you see the connection between this and Brexit, a poor decision that means misery to all who have to live with it. Finnick  — I forget his name in Me Before You, but am too disgusted with him to take two seconds to look it up — decides that his life as a quadriplegic is too reduced from the life he lived as a rich young playboy that he doesn’t want to continue. I don’t quite fault the film for this, loss is not something everyone can deal with, but I do think the film insults quadriplegics. That is regrettable, because a spinal cord injury is not a terminal illness, and quality of life is not measured by being able to walk. I don’t think anyone can argue with me on that point.

The factor that struck with me again and again through the film concerned money. Disabilities are very expensive, and in the film the issue is avoided by making the guy extremely rich. But most people don’t have the resources to convince a loved one not to die by taking them on a private jet to a tropical paradise. Working in the disability sector as I do I have seen how expensive it is to bring down the barriers and obstacles and enable someone to live a rewarding life, and how worthwhile the effort and expense is. Perhaps the rich guy could afford to simply give up, while the rest of us strive and work as best we can.

That brings me to the final point I want to make on the topic of decisions, which concerns euthanasia. At the moment the Health Select Committee is preparing to review submissions on Marian Street’s Medically Assisted Dying petition, and to hear oral submissions later in the year. This will have implications for the Private Members bill that David Seymour has in the ballot, or perhaps an entirely new bill in the next few years. Like it or not the debate will not disappear. My own thoughts get more complicated with every day, and I don’t have a clear answer as to whether it should be legal or not. I do hope that the selfishness of Me Before You is not replicated by people with disabilities here in New Zealand. Certainly, if I was being kissed by Emelia Clarke on a beach in Hawaii, well, consider the ‘impenetrable silence of frustrated being’ well forgotten.

 

 

*I am not being sexist pointing that out, it is actually a very important part of her character.

American Ultra; Casualty of Bad Critics

Last weekend I saw a movie. Nothing unusual so far but keep reading. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, which starred Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart (an established pairing, I refer you to Adventureland) as a stoner couple in a small town in West Virginia, whose life is torn apart by the CIA. Jesse was part of a project you see, he was enhanced like Jason Bourne to be a super soldier and then had his mind wiped blank when the project was cancelled. I don’t need to reveal anything more of the plot than that. Seth Rogan Slacker meets Jason Bourne. It is American Ultra.

This film was a critical and commercial failure, and I cannot work out why this was so. That is, I don’t know why it didn’t make back it’s $35 million budget. I expect it was a combination of economic factors, like the competition with Hitman Agent 47, And the difficulty marketing a genre hybrid film. But I do know why it was a critical failure. And it has nothing to do with the movie — but everything to do with vapid nature of film criticism.

I target Red Letter Media, a collection of film aficianado’s who produce good value discussion material on YouTube and hilarious reviews like Mr Plinkett. I target Peter Travers of the Rolling Stone magazine who since the death of Roger Ebert has become the de facto supreme critic. They should know better. I am taking aim Rotten Tomatoes and the whole rating/review aggregate system, which ends up dumbing down movie-going and supporting the cynical producer viewpoint of cinema being all about the numbers.

With your indulgence I will take these in reverse order. Rotten Tomatoes gave American Ultra a 42% rating. Stale if not rotten. That number was based on over a hundred ratings, but the real lump of pungent green putty from satan’s armpit is to be found in their narcissistic “critical consensus”; that the film had some good ideas but failed to reach it’s potential. Peter Travers said something similar, that Eisenberg and Stewart were good, but the film as a whole was not. That is kinder but no less brainless. Since when did film criticism equate to being a sour high school teacher who can’t handle the disruptive student? “Oh I am afraid they are a very disappointing child, they do not reach their full potential.” I challenge you, dear reader, to try to tease out any specific meaning from these remarks. What made the film not good Mr Travers? What is its potential Rotten Tomatoes? Is $500 million at the box office and ten Oscar nominations its full potential? If that is the measure then I am not at all surprised it didn’t reach it. If it is not then what in hell is?

All we have in film criticism is logic. It isn’t science, there is no universally acclaimed film, no matter what there will be people who don’t like Star Wars, or Titanic, or Citizen Kane. Criticism is opinion backed up by reasoned argument. Reviews are just the opinion part, but even then it is opinion masquerading as fact. Peter Travers writes that the film is not good. That is a statement of fact, because it omits the crucial preface “I think”. By skipping that it claims to be fact and fact must be backed up with logic and reason. When that happens a film review becomes elementary film criticism, and suddenly worth a damn.

Red Letter Media does deal in film criticism. There is no suggestion that the guys involved are espousing facts, they discuss their opinions and back hem up with logic. So far so good. But they slammed American Ultra, a film I liked, to the evident hurt of writer Max Landis, who took the criticism personally. Well, they were pretty harsh with their appraisal of the writing, and Max Landis responded on twitter with a lament for originality in Hollywood. He was proverbially crucified for that remark. He wasn’t meaning that American Ultra is a beacon of originality, with it’s plot heavily influenced by the Bourne films as I have already mentioned. But it wasn’t based on anything. There was no TV show, or comic, or novel of American Ultra. It wasn’t a remake of an old (no not so old) flick. It is as original as anything humans routinely manage, and the routine is rarely practiced now in Hollywood.

What makes this important to me is that with such commercial and critical failure it will be all the harder to get future films like it off the ground. Making a film is incredibly difficult, and making an independent film is near impossible. The action sequences in American Ultra require a Hollywood budget, plain and simple. I don’t want Hollywood to simply be the province of the tentpole blockbuster, The Avengers, Star Wars etc. The trap Red Letter Media falls into is the same that catches film students everywhere. You learn so much about the craft, about what makes a good film that the idealised perfect film becomes a standard by which you measure everything you don’t like. The things you do often get a free pass. Who cares about the plotholes in Inception when the film was so engrossing? But for some reason you don’t like American Ultra, maybe because it has Kristen Stewart and she still has the Twilight taint. That is poor criticism and I accuse Red Letter Media of it.

Why did I like American Ultra? Well, I have a very simple and logical measure. Did it achieve its ends? For an action/comedy did it thrill me and did it make me laugh? Yes, and oh my god yes. There is a sequence in a supermarket in which Jessie Eisenberg fights several armed men with items off the shelf as weapons. It is brilliantly shot, with one fluid shot following Eisenberg for a couple of minutes of violent action with no cut. The choreography is superb, Eisenberg’s skinny awkward physique beating larger and stronger assailants is funny and actually believable. He doesn’t ham. Kristen Stewart gets a few punches as well (taken and given) and the emergence of two bloody people through the smoke near the end denies the consequence free violence often portrayed in Hollywood.

The writing was sound too, right up to the finish. The final line tying back to the accidental brilliance of Eisenberg’s character, long suppressed by amnesia and dope. I won’t reveal it, I hope you will see the movie. Piracy has hurt the film greatly. After typing it into Tumblr I found that half the posts on it included links to streaming websites. Piracy doesn’t hurt big blockbusters, but they are the ones to go after it most fiercely. It does hurt smaller Hollywood movies, which do have distribution deals (unlike Indie flicks) and must make money in the cinemas. I hope that Blu-ray sales give American Ultra the second wind it deserves.

Finally, on Kristen Stewart, she is a good actress. Twilight is dead and gone and forgotten. For every clunker she has done I can point to something she did well. Speak, Into The Wild, Adventureland, The Runaways. Every oeuvre has its drudgery as well as its gold. I’ll happily take the gold wherever I find it.

All the President’s Men

1976 classic. Oscar winner, great dramatisation of the best journalistic adventure of the 20th century.

Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman play Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein respectively, two young and hungry Washington Post reporters who chased the Watergate story before anyone was interested.

From odd things like the burglars of the Democratic National Committee head quarters at the Watergate building having their own lawyers present at their court arraignment the next day without one of them making so much as a phone call, to employees of the Committee to Re-elect the President (Nixon) being suspiciously coy and afraid, the story was pulled out by it’s toes and exposed.

This is a great film to watch now because in the forty years since the depicted events the entire thing has been warped and twisted. It might be news to some that the film makes no mention of a secret taping system at the White House. That is something that dominates the story now, in part due to films like Frost Nixon.Before the tapes gave the wider media something to focus on it was up to Woodward and Bernstein to pursue the story past dead ends and loops. Most people didn’t want to talk about it.

Someone who did want to talk was Woodward’s shadowy source Deep Throat, who in 2005 was revealed to be Mark Felt the assistant director of the FBI. He guided the young reporters to the real story, that Watergate was a blunder by a few not-so-smart guys — but it revealed a larger ugliness. A vast intelligence gathering operation engulfing the entire government intelligence apparatus.

Later developments slotted into the picture and gave depth to the claim. A secret taping system at the Whitehouse, reflecting the paranoia and inward approach of the Nixon Administration (and earlier administrations). The disgusting activity of Henry Kissenger, who as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State, chaired the committee of forty which controlled covert activity. He colluded with the army in Chile to violently overthrow the Allande Socialist government and impose General Pinochet and years of dissapearances and repression. He cooperated with the Indonesions in their violdent atrocities committed against the people of East Timor. And under his policies vile dictators around the world were supported for being anti-communist.

This film is a sober reminder to keep ones attention on the activities of powerful people, and that it is possible to fight back. Many people have lamented the death of journalism with the decline of print media, and transmutation of broadcast media into black holes of souless entertainment. But journalism has not died, it has adapted. I am a blogger, at times my work is journalistic enough to warrant the badge. I am one of millions. We are decentralised, in many contries, and can consume and disemminate information at such high speed that scoop has become a forgotten term.

There is so much surveillance in the world today. Naked pictures of us swirl around the web until long after we are dead, our every move, every purchase, every swipe on our phones is recorded and stored. But that’s not just the case for us, it is everyone. You can turn your cameras on governents and subject them to the same surveillance. If you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear? Something tells me the Government is very fearful.

See the film if you haven’t yet, it is great. Redford reminds me so much of Brad Pitt it is quite remarkable. Hal Holbrooke is Deep Throat, which is great to see when all you’ve seen of Hal is the benign and dottery old men he plays in Lincolnand Into the Wild.His thin face is sinister in the shadows, and his eyes are icy. It’s an excellent performance.

If I had to give stars I would give five.

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Touring the Kevin Smith filmography

Kevin Smith is the filmmaker and podcaster behind Clerks, Zack and Miri make a Porno, and Red State.

Silent Bob. If you don’t know him by that then chances are you won’t recognise him at all. He is a master of filth, and sticks to making films for himself, rather than an audience. He has not been significantly commercially successful in his career beyond being successful enough to keep making movies.

Jay and Silent Bob.

I hadn’t seen any of his flicks aside from Zack and Miri make a Porno. After that film Smith feared he had killed Seth Rogan’s career, and gave up making movies a few years later. He returned in 2014 with the panned Canadian horror film Tusk. The film flopped but reignited his desire to make movies, and take no notice of critics. That allowed him to make a horror film about a psychopath who kidnaps people and surgically turns them into walruses. Ku ku kachoo! (Trailer below)

I got interested in his work again after happening across his latest Fatman on Batman podcast on YouTube. It was a review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and it was fantastic. So entertaining. I post the link below if you want to check it out.

Smith is a prolific podcaster, and a big talker in general. He often does on-stage q&a sessions which are more like impromptu stand up comedy gigs. He tells wildly funny stories.

After watching a few I got curious to see his filmography, and went right to the beginning with Clerks. Made in 1994 for $27k worth of credit card debt, Clerks went to the Sundance Film Festival back when it was possible to submit an indie flick with a decent shot at being accepted, and make a break into the film industry. Now it is much too saturated. Films with outstanding production value get skipped over so that festivals can screen the non-Hollywood excursions of Hollywood actors.
The great unknown films must break in another way, and many are distributed independently online.

So I watched Clerks. Loved it. I followed it with Clerks 2, and then 1995’s Mallrats. These are the hilarious screwball comedies, where Jay and Silent Bob feature as supporting characters that rightly became cult heroes. The cinematic style is basic (Clerks was shot on grainy black and white 16mm film and the camera was pretty much static the whole time), but the writing is brilliant. Smith said in an interview that the difference between now and then is he got better as a filmmaker, and the style improved hugely, but the content got weaker. Whether the last part is true or not I cannot say, but the first part certainly is.

I went from Mallrats to Smith’s 2011 horror Red State,which is a genre mash-up about an evangelical Christian family modelled on the Westboro Baptist Church, but with murder and an arsenal of automatic weapons thrown in. Jumping fifteen years draws out the contrast between the sides of Smith’s career. Plus I don’t like Ben Affleck and I would have had to endure more of him in Smith’s films Chasing Amy, and Dogma. I’ll get to them eventually.

Red State is a brilliant twist in the road. There are some stellar performances from the cast, which features John Goodman, Michael Parks, Melissa Leo, and Michael Angarano. In particular the first scene Michael Parks as Pastor Cooper is chilling. He delivers a crazed sermon about the evils of homosexuality and the sin of America in the family church, while a gay man they’ve captured is gagged and strapped to the large cross before the altar. The sermon continues while the older adults smile and nod in agreement, and the little children watch on enraptured. It’s chilling. The whole film is worth it for that one scene. The trailer is below.

This doesn’t explain my sudden rush of Smith fever. The reason is simple. He’s the most encouraging person in the film business. He stepped back into filmmaking having decided to ignore the critics and any naysayer from then on and forever, and every chance he gets he encourages people to explore their creativity. No one else has your particular creative insight so it is the only valuable thing that cannot be matched by anyone else. Reinforcing the message is his confession that he is not at all naturally talented, that there are many people considerably more skilled than he is, yet he could still make the art that matters to him. So we all can do it too. Cast your self expression into the world, to use Smith’s language; on the world’s face, neck, and chest.

The following clip was taken from YouTube, during one of Kevin’s q&a nights he was talking about the death of his father. The mood shifted for a few minutes as the crowd listened to an extremely poignant rousing call for people to live their dreams. It has some profanity, but that’s mild compared to the story about anal fissures that followed. Please watch it.

If you are still reading this then maybe you’ve been fondled by the devil of inspiration like I have. I hope so. I am going to give filmmaking another shot, on my own terms this time. Where I am right now is pretty good, a solid job and the beginnings of an independent life, but I am not living my dream. I know exactly what I’ve got to do and if Kevin Smith knew me at all I am sure he would have my back. Sweet encouragement, that is what this world needs more of, and art that’s not pre-calibrated to a particular audience but exists in its own right, for the artist first. Anyone can find it, reject it or embrace it. That freedom is what makes it worth doing.