21.4.19

The VVitch: A New England Folktale

Although Mark Kermode strains very hard, ultimately I think it's difficult to sustain the interpretation that the witchcraft is all happening inside the family's heads. The subtitle highlights that this is a "folktale" – where magic and fantasy are used as instructive metaphors. The fact that the witch preys on the tensions and divisions within the family doesn't mean it's an apparition that grows out of those tensions and divisions. Belief in witches doesn't create the witch. The roots of the family's downfall are deeper than that.


They are probably doomed from the beginning. The father finds the Puritan plantation too religiously lax for his tastes and chooses exile for his family. They are forced to eke out a miserable existence on marshy ground at the edge of a wood, and it doesn't go well. All the rigours of the faith don't stop the father William from lying to his wife – selling an heirloom to buy traps when the crop fails. His weakness is revealed when he implicates his children in the lie. The mother also wishes to basically sell the eldest daughter Tomasin into servitude, partly to remove a source of temptation for her younger son Caleb – a cruel separation for the two children.

The inflexibility of faith is the central problem. William realises too late that by casting out his family he was himself guilty of the cardinal sin of pride. A rejection of society is a dangerous thing, and the witch doesn't give him enough time to correct the error. Caleb's developing sexuality doesn't have a healthy outlet, leaving him open to the witch's temptations, and he dies in a rapture praying to Jesus in the most lascivious terms.

Tomasin's dilemma is the most interesting. She is the most powerless member of the family – patronised, overworked and at risk of being cast out. In a key early scene, she finds that the idea of being the witch gives her a taste of power for the first time, which she exercises effectively against her bullying younger siblings. She is also aware of her parents' own inability to provide for her – telling her dad that he's only good for chopping wood. At least the devil offers richer rewards – butter, dresses and living 'deliciously'. Finally a patriarch that can deliver.


The extent to which this is a feminist parable is uncertain. The forces of evil destroy Tomasin's entire family before she turns to the dark side – she doesn't have an alternative at that point. But the final image in the film, where Tomasin ascends to the heavens, is one of sinister triumph against the restrictive family and society she was situated in when the film began. In contrast to her introduction as a character, where she's asking God to forgive all the sins she has committed in thought, at the Witches' Sabbath she is cackling along with the rest of them. The inhibitions fall away, bad faith is abandoned for a dark transcendence. The film's conclusion may be that the society of witches is the only route to self-actualisation for women in 1630s New England.

19.4.19

The Mask

I loved Jim Carrey's mid-1990s streak of comedies when I was a child. I didn't quite understand how cruel and offensive Ace Ventura was at the time, I just rolled with the slapstick clowning and catchphrases. It's notable that Carrey has a writer's credit on that film, and a lot of it feels like a succession of comedy routines bolted onto a mystery plot that doesn't make a great deal of sense. The Mask, on the other hand, is more coherent. The plot is equally ridiculous, but there is some shape and purpose to the film – one that is moulded to Carrey's strengths, even though he didn't actually write it.

As the ridiculous TV psychologist explains – we all wear masks that help us conform to the expectations of society and allow us to get on in life. Carrey's character Stanley Ipkiss wears one all the time. He's a self-described nice guy who finishes last, helpful to the detriment of his own interests or desires. The magical mask he finds, imbued with the Norse god Loki's mischievous spirit, allows the repressed id to come out and play. Wearing the mask means liberation from your inhibitions, and all those social masks you wear in real life.


Ipkiss is set up as a hopeless romantic obsessed with cartoons, and the superhero he becomes is a reflection of that bedrock in his character. There is an unexpectedly smart twist part-way through the film when the intrepid reporter who we think will become the genuine love-interest is revealed as a sell-out. Meanwhile, the mob boss's doll, who we suspect may be out to entrap Ipkiss, turns out to be just another hopeless romantic. This was Cameron Diaz's breakout role, and she's cast very well as a kind of modern day Marylin Monroe bedazzling all the shmucks around her. There's a winning earnestness to her character that the Farrelly brothers would seize upon for There's Something About Mary.

If anything, Carrey's buffoonery as 'the Mask' is the least enjoyable part of the film when watching as an adult. Far more fun is seeing how Stanley gets trod all over in his regular life while fundamentally remaining a decent guy – essentially the same set-up that would win Carrey plaudits for The Truman Show. While Ace Ventura is crude, mean and horrifically homophobic and transphobic, there's a fairytale quality to The Mask that makes it hold up far better 20 plus years later.

18.4.19

"The religions come and the religions pass, and the civilisations come and pass, and naught endures but the world and human nature. Ah! if man would but see that hope is from within and not from without—that he himself must work out his own salvation! He is there, and within him is the breath of life and a knowledge of good and evil as good and evil is to him. Thereon let him build and stand erect, and not cast himself before the image of some unknown God, modelled like his poor self, but with a bigger brain to think the evil thing, and a longer arm to do it."
– H. Rider Haggard, She

14.4.19

The Thing

My wife and I spent the first 10 minutes of the film cursing the Norwegian sniper for trying to shoot the very cute dog running through the snow. Little did we know what evil lurked within. The Thing is a creature feature with excellently gross and gooey monstrosities bursting through animal and human flesh. Having watched Alien recently, I thought this had a pretty similar vibe. Like the xenomorph, the Thing is a ruthless and inexplicable killer preying on a crew stationed at the end of the world where nobody can hear them scream. There are some potential sexual undertones (unwanted penetration, a monstrous birth), as well as your standard cosmic horror of an unknowable being of incredible power warping humanity by its presence.


What's more interesting is the idea that the monster is a parasite hiding behind the masks of friends and colleagues. By its very nature it sows suspicion and turns people against each other. The film's ending majors on this theme – the two survivors facing one other uncertain if either of them secretly harbours the beast within. Perhaps that speaks to a kind of cold war McCarthyite paranoia about a communist fifth column within Western democracies. That point may have been stronger if it was revealed that the all-American hero Mac (played with typical swashbuckling style by Burt Reynolds) was an agent of the alien intelligence. As it stands, the political subtext is just suggestion, and for me, Alien holds richer symbolic significance.

13.4.19

A Clockwork Orange

Film lexicographer David Thomson sees this is the clearest evidence of Kubrick's "art director's cinema", where narrative is sacrificed on the altar of set design. I think 2001 is far worse in that respect. That film was state of the art and knew it – lovingly lingering over its innovations and making large sections ponderous and boring to this viewer. 2001's narrative is also less satisfying, being simply a series of repeating grandiose developments that obliquely mirror each other, and are too open to interpretation to really mean very much in the final analysis. The structure of A Clockwork Orange has a more satisfying circularity: the protagonist's actions in the first half of the film coming back to bite him in the second.

Anthony Burgess's Catholicism-inflected worries about the suppression of free will by new-fangled techniques of psychological manipulation come through in Kubrick's adaptation, but aren't as interesting now given that the mass use of aversion therapy for political control has not come to pass. In any case, the film isn't particularly interested in the causes of Alex's sociopathy and addiction to "ultraviolence" – something he shares with the majority of the young (male) characters in the film and seems therefore to be at least partly down to wider currents in the culture. It may reflect contemporary concerns that the lifting of social constraints on personal behaviour in the 60s would unleash the very worst in teenagers and lead to the collapse of all moral authority. Certainly Kubrick believed it – pulling his own film from being distributed in the UK after what looked like a copycat murder.


It's hard to conjure that sense of moral panic now, given today's teenagers appear to be more clean-living than their parents used to be at the same age. What's harder to grasp is the film's critique of both reactionary politicians' attempts to clamp down on lawlessness, and the liberal resistance movement who wish to utilise these new techniques of reforming criminals to institute a kind of inward tyranny, where the freedom to choose is eliminated and people are conditioned to be docile and non-violent. Alex is caught up within the conspiracies of these two tendencies, and the final image of the film is one of dark triumph, showing that neither the police nor the psychologists can dampen the antisocial passions raging in the heart of man.

5.4.19

Get Out

Get Out's title sequence includes a cute reference to the famous part in Dario Argento's Suspiria where the victim is driven through a haunted forest to the sounds of Goblin's demented yowling. That should clue us into what to expect. Argento's film was about a coven of witches lusting after the youth of young girls, and lashing out. Jordan Peele's update isn't really all that different – the family are just that bit more surgical about it.


But it's not just youth, strength and beauty that these villains are after. The blind and therefore (supposedly) symbolically unprejudiced art-dealer wants the talent as well. The most subtle and incisive aspect of the film is that the bad guys admire the social and cultural achievements, as well as the physique, of their black victims. Even when black culture carves out its own space, white supremacy has to carve it right back and get a piece of the action. Because what are the zombified domestic workers but a wry comment on white people trying to get into black people's heads and portray them back to a black audience – and not only failing but royally creeping them out? It's an experience that many black creators must know pretty well.


Peele initially wanted to end the film on a downer, but test screenings and the political context in the USA convinced him that he needed to give his protagonist and his audience a win for once – and one that celebrates black solidarity in the face of horrific and unexpectedly deep-seated racism. The scenes with Roy release a huge amount of tension – the comic relief almost slipping the film into the comedy genre before we return to the Hitchcockian unease of the parents' house. That little see-saw in tone and genre is excellent shorthand for the contrast between being a fish out of water, and being comfortable in your own skin.

2.4.19

   "Wonderful," Lepennon said, and his white skin paled further with pure excitement, "A human society with an effective war-barrier! What's the cost, Dr Lyubov?"
   "I'm not sure, Mr Lepennon. Perhaps change. They're a static, stable, uniform society. They have no history. Perfectly integrated, and wholly unprogressive. You might say that like the forest they live in, they've attained a climax state. But I don't mean to imply that they're incapable of adaptation."

– Ursula K. Le Guin, The Word for World is Forest

24.3.19

Captain Marvel

There are risks to starting a story in medias res. The filmmakers do it in order to set up a very good twist midway through where the protagonist Carol Danvers has to re-evaluate her identity and allegiances, and a backstory is revealed. But it also makes the audience work quite hard in the first half hour in order to piece together a lot of information. And it also means that the relationship between Danvers and her childhood best friend Maria Rambeau is quite brittle when a huge amount of emotional weight is put on it. I found their reconciliation very difficult to buy into. The actors do a good job of conveying the turbulent emotions of the scene, but end up overselling it.


The biggest emotional whallop comes later, when Captain Marvel gets her hero moment and rejects the psychological subjugation of her adopted Kree culture. That's a product of the film spending a longer amount of time setting up those bonds before they are broken. The directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck have been here before – Half Nelson was also a story of a young woman growing disillusioned with a charismatic mentor and substitute father-figure. A superhero film is not a perfect vehicle for the subtle shifts in relations that the indie drama can go to town on. And it's true that Brie Larson and Jude Law don't have enough screen-time together to flesh out their relationship. But Marvel movies are functional things – and it works well enough for the final fist blast to leave an impact.


As with Black Panther on race, Captain Marvel's feminism is deft but understated. Mixed in Carol Danvers's suppressed memories are moments of everyday sexism, and there's a rather nice touch when she blasts Schwarzenegger's head off a True Lies banner, leaving just the arm candy Jamie Lee Curtis standing. There is no love interest, although a bolder film may have pushed the friendship with Maria Rambeau in a more overtly romantic direction – that possibility is left open in the film. Given its success despite the best efforts of online trolls (who tried to manipulate the audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes) queer representation in a Marvel Studios product can't be far off.

15.3.19

Birdman (or, The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

It's more interesting, and biting, if the superheroics aren't real. Iñárritu is very happy to have a thousand interpretations bloom, and keep his own intentions close to his chest. And in fact, the finale was drastically rethought after the original comedic ending featuring Johnny Depp being taunted by Jack Sparrow was abandoned. The writers of the film wanted something which focused on the father-daughter relationship and had more pathos. That provides the clue. Rather than repeating the motif of famous actors being trapped by their most famous character, instead the daughter of a famous actor becomes trapped by the legacy of the father. While he chooses death and escape, she is given the opportunity to profit from his notoriety – the viral tweets, TV interviews and book deals are hers for the taking. She looks down at the corpse and then looks up, imagining not a superhero sequel but social media stardom instead.


The best joke of the film is that our attempt to fulfil our personal life-project and achieve transcendence is always inauthentic. Michael Keaton's Riggan Thomson does the play to escape his former blockbuster actor past and be more admired than George Clooney. Sartre was wrong – you are always in bad faith, no matter how much you risk and how much you fail. The film turns that bad faith into a character in Riggan's mind – the Birdman of his past tempting him to fly above the little people. But the other part of Riggan's mind is just as corroded – the glory of the theatre is riddled with as much sleaze, abuse and grim compromises as Hollywood. The dark secret at the heart of the film is that the only real freedom is death. That, and perhaps the heightened sense of the ridiculous which is the film's tone throughout. If you can't beat the system, you might as well laugh at it.


It's a triumph of engineering, put together almost back-to-front – the editing and post-production being planned out in advance so that the continuous shot effect could work. That amount of cinematic trickery masks the fact that in other respects this feels like watching a play: the setting mostly stays the same, there are only five or six main characters, and the action is built around set-piece exchanges of dialogue, of which Emma Stone's tirade about not being special is a particular highlight. But Keaton is also a bit of a revelation, as much as Riggan is for his theatre audience, although only we get to see his superb comic timing. Iñárritu should leave the ponderous dramas alone and do more funny stuff – it's a level above.