13.5.18

The Breakfast Club

Kinda like Moby Dick if the ship was detention and the whale was an asshole teacher. Or like a retelling of the origin of the United States – the castoffs from the old world rebelling against their elders and writing a new constitution. The twist being that their new fellowship will collapse at the start of the following week.


If the film is supposed to represent America in microcosm, it's not a particularly diverse one when it comes to ethnicity or sexuality. There are however some broad brushstroke explorations of class, where delinquency is peeled back to reveal an abusive or uncaring family environment. That shouldn’t excuse the behaviour, which Molly Ringwald has written about here. Bender gets the hero shot at the end of the film, and he doesn’t deserve it.

Where Hughes is on stronger ground is how he shows the male characters burdened with a very oppressive view of masculinity, involving frequent instances of threats, fights and homophobia. Andrew’s long confession lays bear the emotional scars patriarchy can leave on teenage boys – his ‘old man’ almost belongs in the Old Testament with Abraham, Lot and the other patriarchs.


The film was shot in sequence, which is surprising as it feels like a collection of disparate scenes that have no follow through. Characters scream at each other in one moment and are thick as thieves the next. The pairing up at the end makes zero sense to the modern viewer, particularly Ringwald's character hooking up with the guy who has relentlessly harassed her for the last 8 hours. It’s bizarre, and goes to show that the film, and Hughes's sensibilities, have aged very badly indeed.

29.4.18

"Movies get around our cleverness and our wariness; that's what used to draw us to the picture show. Movies – and they don't even have to be first-rate, much less great – can invade our sensibilities in the way that Dickens did when we were children, and later, perhaps, George Eliot and Dostoevski, and later still, perhaps, Dickens again. They can go down even deeper – to the primitive levels on which we experience fairy tales. And if people resist this invasion by going only to movies that they've been assured have nothing upsetting in them, they're not showing higher, more refined taste; they're just acting out of fear, masked as taste. If you're afraid of movies that excite your senses, you're afraid of movies."

...

"People feel that there's violence out there, and they want to shut it out. Movies, more than any other form of expression, are capable of bringing us to an acceptance of our terrors; that must be why people are afraid of movies" - Pauline Kael, 'Fear of Movies', from When the Lights Go Down

28.4.18

The Villainess

A preposterous Korean martial arts film, with a loopy plot and absurd fights. The first is probably the best, starting out like an arcade shooting game before switching to first-person knives, kicks and a grim bit of garrotting for the finale. The film is very enamoured of the long-take action sequence, in which the camera whips around the protagonist as she slaughters foes by the hundred. The cuts are disguised by CGI and rapid camera turns, and a lot of it does end up looking like a particularly intense video game. But it’s something new in cinema, if a bit headache-inducing.


It’s a rather weird title (I put the Korean through google translate and got wicked or evil woman). She’s not actually a bad person, she’s more a victim of dastardly fathers, gangsters and intelligence agencies. The end of the film seems to imply that the wretched influence of all the above create a monster, and that villainy is a product of a corrupt society. There is a slightly annoying gendered dimension to this though, in that the protagonist is set down this path by being a dutiful daughter, girlfriend, wife and mother. She does a very abrupt turnaround as soon as she learns she’s pregnant, from wanting to end it all to wanting to live and protect her child. It’s almost as if the maternal instinct switches on automatically to overcome all prior trauma or depression.


For all the awesome killing she does, the protagonist has very little agency – being directed by others (mostly men) for the duration of the film. Even her boyfriend for the romcom interlude in the middle is there to manipulate her. Perhaps that’s the point, and it’s only when all the people who have ‘made’ her (as the big bad boss claims) have been dispatched can she be free to set her own course in life. Perhaps The Villainess is an ironic title. It’s the bad guys that call her a bitch. They can’t see a woman trying to escape their influence as the heroine.

5.4.18

Warcraft: The Beginning

Not a well-reviewed film. I ended up watching it with some Warcraft fans and their enthusiasm rubbed off on me. Duncan Jones, who won fame with Moon and my respect with Source Code, sticks within the parameters established by Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings. If anything, he is too faithful to the source material, packing in lots of lore which would confuse the uninitiated.

My experience of gaming makes me think the form is most effective at constructing brilliant alternative words. Warcraft III, the only game in the franchise I’ve played, has that in spades. But it also managed to string together an involving plot (that jumps four times in perspective) and some interesting character transitions. Indeed the effect of the game is to introduce you to different warring races and suggest that while not all ethically equal, each group has its own goals and justifications, which complicates a simple reading of good (human) against evil (orc).


The film copies all that across, producing a noble orc within a genocidal warband and a corrupt human within a peaceful kingdom. One of the issues is that the human’s turn to the dark side is never explained (it is in the games, one of the fans assured me). There are only hints of an interesting antihero before the demon takes over.

The rest is boilerplate Saturday morning adventure, and it’s about as effective as any of the Hobbit films, and certainly more enjoyable for having some of the murk replaced with shiny CGI plate-mail and barbarian muscle, and having proper wizards that cast proper fireballs. It didn’t make as much money as expected, but I for one would like to see Duncan Jones have a shot at making a sequel.

19.3.18

Annihilation

What does the alien want? Although it mirrors Natalie Portman’s actions and appears to commit suicide, the final scene reveals that actually, it doesn’t share Portman’s suicidal urges. In its own weird way, it saves her marriage.

The alien’s modus operandi is ‘refraction’ – the scrambling of reality to create new forms. It is creative whereas the humans in the film are (self)destructive. We may experience these effects as annihilation, but from the alien’s perspective it is exactly the opposite.


It’s hardly a comforting thought to assume the point of view of a cancer, which is why this film lacks the charge of Garland’s Ex Machina, where male power was overturned by a sympathetic ‘alien’ female. Here the alien may just represent Eros defeating humanity’s Thanatos – the (supposedly) impulsive way Portman’s sabotages her marriage being replaced with the will to save it. It doesn’t quite work because the marriage feels unreal to begin with, and ‘impulse’ is not a great explanation for Portman’s infidelity.

Garland has done better before. In its structure Annihilation is similar to the Garland-penned, Danny Boyle-directed Sunshine, where the characters spent less time explaining who they were, and their cabin fever environment made better sense of their descent into madness. There are some shudder-inducing moments in Annihilation, as well as a few beautiful sequences, but nothing that compares to the thrill-ride of Sunshine’s final 30 minutes. That it went straight to Netflix in Europe is somehow fitting – it’s not as good as Garland’s previous work would suggest it should be.

3.3.18

"In Britain at least, changes of government are precipitated not by a burning sense of right and wrong but by a vague feeling that things have gone too far in one direction and that some kind of correction is needed to bring them back into balance. After a while, voters bank the good things that a government has given them and look to the other party to deliver them from the bad things. They got the welfare state from the Attlee government, for instance, but after five years of sacrifice they were longing to do some shopping. They got something like full employment from a series of Labour and Conservative governments but they also got higher taxes and over-mighty trade unions and so turned to Margaret Thatcher. She and John Major sorted out those problems but kept health and education on such short rations that voters in the end elected New Labour, at least in part, to build them back up again. It did so, but did little or nothing to tackle the underlying vulnerabilities of a growing welfare state reliant on an economy built increasingly on debt and immigration, as well as an unwarranted confidence that the good times could ever end." - Tim Bale, The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron

2.3.18

Black Panther

There is a striking parallel between Wakanda and Themyscira – faraway hidden utopias which flip the privileges of our world. In Black Panther the attraction of that idea is brought out a bit more than last year's Wonder Woman. The little boy who grows up to be the villain sees the glow of a spaceship in the sky, the possibility of escape and the hope of a new world. Wakanda becomes a way to transform present day iniquities and right historic wrongs.

The best villains are those who have motives you can sympathise with. Andy Serkis is a cartoon in this film, but the revolutionary agenda of Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger is born out of a sense of righteous anger, which pickles into murderous resentment. Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa has to walk the line between his cousin’s urge to overthrow and institute new empires, and his father’s desire to remain detached from the concerns of other countries – isolationism par excellence. Weirdly, by making Wakanda into a superpower, the film imposes on it many of the foreign policy responsibilities the United States takes on as the world’s policeman.


T’Challa’s dilemma is overlaid with a personal responsibility to a cousin abandoned by his father, and by his fatherland. The absent father is a common experience in the black community, which the film broadens out into a failure to express solidarity generally. Wakanda’s problems are partly of its own making.

These ambiguities are what make the film such an intriguing watch. T’Challa manages to quash Wakanda’s imperialistic turn, but also opens up the country through humanitarian outreach – there are aid programs but no military bases. Difficult questions (on foreign intervention, reparations, the legacy of slavery or the return of cultural artefacts) are referenced but remain unresolved. Then again, there’s only so many digressions a superhero film can sustain without becoming ponderous. Black Panther takes on some heavy ideas, but wears them all lightly. It’s a finely balanced piece of work, and yet more proof that Marvel Studios know exact what they are doing.

28.2.18

The Garden of Words

The feature Makoto Shikai made before the phenomenally successful Your Name has come on Netflix. It’s 45 mins long, and the irony of a precocious teenager teaching some life lessons to an older woman is evident even before the big reveal halfway through: that the woman is in fact a teacher at the boy’s school. A second irony is added when the teacher is hounded out of her job by false allegations of seducing a student. The repercussions of that accusation is what puts her in danger of seducing a student for real.


These ironies don’t lead anywhere, and perhaps they don’t have to. Watching this after Your Name, it’s evident that Shinkai has an interest in star-crossed lovers brought together and torn apart by fate, a force given an almost physical presence by the photorealistic hyperreal animation. It’s manipulative – a reliance on these tricks is why I dislike Wong Kai-Wai so much. For some reason, Shinaki’s equivalent is more tolerable, perhaps because we get under the skin of his characters to a greater extent than the detached cool of Wong’s lost urbanites.

Like Your Name, The Garden of Words ends on two characters on a set of stairs finally recognising each other. It’s a climax that Wong refuses to grant his viewers, and his films end up feeling emptier as a result. This, on the other hand, is generous, well-paced, and satisfying, despite the open-ended finale.

16.2.18

Samurai Champloo

If this makes any sense at all, it's as metaphor. One sword-wielding badass represents order and the other chaos, with the girl in the middle providing the semblance of a quest narrative. Jin follows the rules of the samurai genre while Mugen breaks them. Jin comes straight out of the Edo period and Mugen is a break-dancing hip-hop rebel. Jin is the samurai and Mugen the champloo. They are eternal and immutable opposing forces destined to orbit the female protagonist as she pursues her goal. And instead of resolution the series offers equilibrium. Backstory or progression rarely intrude on each bottle episode's brawls and scrapes.


So far so good, but the three-part finale has to lead somewhere. Fuu is the girl who yokes Jin and Mugen together to look for what turns out to be her father, who abandoned her and her mother when Fuu was a child. The idea of a patriarch who has deserted his responsibilities hangs over our angsty trio – kids without a sense of purpose or direction. The absent father may stand in for a defeated nation, destabalised gender roles, a precarious economy... you name it. Fuu is chasing the good-for-nothing bastard in order to slug him one for his dereliction of duty.

Except that in the end her father was trying to protect her all along. He did behave honourably. He did love his child. Her rage was misplaced. It's interesting that Fuu's ability to strike out on what turns out to be an extremely dangerous journey is powered by that sense of injustice, but the anime keeps stuffing this independent spirit back in the box. Because it turns out that Fuu needs Jin and Mugen, her incompetent bodyguards, to protect her on the way to her confrontation with her father. She simply cannot get by without them. The anime teases the concept of an independent woman only to put her in need of saving again and again. And in doing so, the patriarchy is redeemed.


The ending is therefore reassuring, conservative, and happy. At least there aren't any marriages. There are hints of a romantic triangle, but the anime ends by stressing the friendship between the three heroes. Their quest complete, their bonds affirmed, their demons purged, they go their separate ways. Such elemental forces are destined to wander rather than settle down. The anime is at root a chronicle of their journey together. It's only fitting that it should end when that particular journey is over.