14.12.14

UKIP voters are so disaffected, and so distrusting of politicians, they cannot easily be 'bought off' by policy offers. There are also more limits than there used to be on the capacity of mainstream parties to respond to these concerns over Europe and immigration. The radical actions demanded by these voters come with large risks and large costs, and are opposed by many other voters as well as significant organised interests, like the business community. Policy-makers face the difficult task of having to balance these demands, but the compromises that result do not satisfy the radical right electorate. Meanwhile, politicians are generally unwilling to explain to voters that they cannot have the policies they want. Few people in politics want to admit to being powerless, particularly on issues like immigration and Europe, where many of their constituents have very strong opinions. Therefore, they often make incremental policy shifts and try to sell them as radical reforms. This, however, can backfire dramatically: if already sceptical voters feel they are being hoodwinked, such reforms can reinforce the dissatisfaction and distrust they are designed to address. - Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin, Revolt on the Right

7.12.14

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1

The Hunger Games become war games in the latest installment of the franchise, but the rules remain the same: a contest of messaging and propaganda as much as of fighting prowess. The most memorable moment in the film is when Katniss's genuine anger is captured by "our" camera and transformed into a rebel campaign video. The same frames are taken from the film we see to become something the characters see – another reminder (for those seduced by film's power to represent reality) of the subjective nature of the medium. It's a startling effect.

The propaganda videos almost have the satirical crudity of the ads in Paul Verhoven's Starship Troopers, and a further push in that direction would have been welcome. You do get glimpses of fascistic ritual in the revolutionary District 13: a militarised community stripped of individuality – something highlighted by the presence of Effie, the stylist from the Games and a self-declared "prisoner of war". Effie's obsession with fashion and celebrity were mocked in the previous films, but are a reminder here that decadence is just another word for civilization.

Splitting the film in two was roundly condemned as a ploy to milk the series as much as possible, but there is a logic to it. The story of Part 1 is structured around the two sides using survivors of the Games (Katniss and Peeta) in a war of hearts and minds. It is an extension of the televised killathon: Katniss's destruction of the arena in Catching Fire blew the conflict into society at large. And the film concludes with the end of this round of the "game": a battle won by the rebels, but at the cost of the individuals used in the campaign. Katniss, as ever, remains the hero due to her inability to go beyond the personal to the political. She treats people as ends rather than means, insisting on Peeta's rescue even though it doesn't make strategic sense. She is a messianic figure – the figurehead of the rebellion, not a person who can lead it.

Cut the final book in half and you still get a two-hour film – and the flab is distracting. The first 30 minutes slow the tempo right down while Katniss takes a needless trip back home to collect the family cat. There is also a pointless escalation midway through where same cat has to be rescued before District 13's blast doors shut. The film could have been a lean, mean 90 minutes and would have served as a welcome reprieve from the blockbuster bloat we can expect from the coming Hobbit.

30.11.14

2001: A Space Odyssey

At the BFI screening I went to, we were provided with the interpretation of a New Jersey teenager called Margaret Stackhouse, written shortly after the film was first released (and available online here). Stanley Kubrick fully endorsed her reading, so it's likely the best place to look if one is searching for a guide to the film's ambiguities. Although Stackhouse builds alternative explanations into her analysis, the transcendent nature of the monolith (the mysterious object driving the plot of the film) is inescapable. Like the god Prometheus, it is there at the "Dawn of Mankind" to give us the tools to improve and murder each other: the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. And at the end, a rapture. Stackhouse allows for either a capricious or a life-sustaining God, but it's some sort of interventionist God alright. In this regard it is worth comparing 2001 to last year's Gravity, in many ways just as visually impressive and innovative (and far more propulsive in a narrative sense) but also fundamentally concerned with the incredible unlikelihood that we have managed to get even this far. Gravity's commitment to our loneliness in the universe makes it the more coherent and admirable film.

It's telling that Kubrick's preferred analysis comes from a 15-year-old. No slight on Stackhouse intended, but there is something adolescent about 2001 in its complete devotion to cosmic musings at the expense of character. In fact, the only moment of human connection comes at the beginning, where space scientist Floyd has a skype conversation with his daughter, whose birthday he will miss. Interestingly, Kubrick used his own daughter Vivian for the scene, and that one slice of (autobiographical?) family life outshines an awful lot of the ponderous mechanics and dizzying lightshows that follow.

29.11.14

The Virgin Spring

The film begins with a prayer to Odin and ends with a prayer to God. Both are answered in their own ambiguous way. This being Bergman, the wronged father begins by procaming how he cannot understand a Creator that allows such evil to befall a good man. But rather than let that condemnation ring out into silence, he leans once again on the Christian imperatives of sin and redemption. And God listens: a stream appears from out of nowhere to baptise the father anew and wash away the step-sister's guilt. It's a more optimistic ending than Bergman will allow himself down the line.

And what of Odin in the beginning: the lusty, dangerous old man in the forest? He also answers prayers, or fulfills curses at least. The potency of the old gods may suggest that religions come and go, but evil and our attempts to deal with it are perennial concerns, both in the 13th century and in 1960. Then there is the title: the journey from innoccence to experience (sexual and moral) superimposed onto the changing of the seasons. The spring is that liminal time between bountiful summer and cruel winter, and the film's setting seems to move between all three. Evil, like weather, is both immutable and unpredictable.

Thankfully, Bergman's existentialist obsessions do not overshadow his real talent for intimate family drama, particularly in portraying the relationship between the sisters. Karin is already sliding towards corruption (dresses, dances and boys), yet her angelic countenance make her the favourite of the family. They also make her dark-haired (and pregnant) step-sister jealous. No sign of an expectant father appears. Did her lover abandon her, or maybe she was raped as well? We don't know, because any anger she may feel is not directed at the true source of her predicament, but serves as fuel for a murderous resentment against the perfect woman she can no longer be. Her confession before her father is the film's most powerful moment – far more so than the miracle with which it ends.

1.11.14

"It was true that the French, British, Germans and some other European peoples remained willing to make great sacrifices to defend themselves against aggression... But they had for the most part lost their appetite for national greatness and thus the imperative to order society accordingly. The long uncoupling of western European state and society from the project of making war had begun. Just as the interminable wars of past centuries had left their mark on European society, so now would the long peace shape domestic structures. The tradition of the primacy of foreign policy passed to the remaining European great powers, the Soviet Union and the United States." - Brendan Simms, Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy

19.10.14

Red Desert

Antonioni's first colour film is a visual treat. Industrial structures are composed into symphonies towering above Monica Vitti – the protagonist and stand-in for the alienation created by modernity. The film opens on out-of-focus shots of what looks like an energy plant, queasy drones on the soundtrack. The mood is unnatural, inauthentic. Our machines have separated us from the real world. A female voice slowly fades in amongst the electronics – the angelic battling it out with the mechanical. At the end of the film, Monica Vitti tells a bedtime story to her son about a young girl living a carefree life on an island. One day a ship appears and she swims towards it, but it floats away. The girl then starts to hear a beautiful female voice among the rocks, but she cannot find the singer. The parable feels like a microcosm of the film's world, in which people are both attracted to and repulsed by factories and globalisation, and are constantly disappointed in their search for the divine.

Antonioni apparently didn't have precisely this intention, wanting to convey the "poetry" of the industrial landscape. In that he succeeds brilliantly – the images are sumptuous. But the familiar themes of the breakdown of communication between people and the damage caused by "ways of life that are by now out-of-date", remain. The dialogue is characteristically elliptical and frustrating – barely rising out of nonsense some of the time. But that is to the film's purpose, and so forgivable. Monica Vitti herself has to do more work here than in The Adventure and The Night (the other two Antonioni films I've seen), and she acquits herself as well as someone can doing the crazy stuff Antonioni wants. Even the obviously overdubbed dialogue works to establish a sense of unreality to the proceedings (although this is a typical feature of Italian movies of the period).

Vitti's impact in The Night is greater, and that film's shape and coherence is more admirable than the meandering here. But the images Antonioni has crafted in Red Desert is something new and thrilling in cinema, and the film deserves to be seen for that reason alone.

11.10.14

Gone Girl

I went into the film with the twist slightly ruined for me by an FT feature about the gender issues it has stirred up. Fincher's latest effort (and in fact, most of his work) probably doesn't deserve the amount of analysis applied to it, since neither Amy nor Nick's characters can sustain a prolonged investigation into what makes them tick. But let's give it a go:

"Amazing Amy" has (due to her unique childhood) picked up the ability to identify and manipulate the various socially-prescribed roles foisted onto women. She is a femme fatale in the vein of Sin City's Ava – only in Gone Girl she is allowed to get away with it.

Why does she stay with Nick? Self-interest certainly plays a part, but there's also her delight in watching Nick learn his own role of adorable doofus. She has converted him to be her playmate in their sterile sham of a marriage – she can now manipulate him forever, his insides twisting pleasingly as he performs her every wish. Why write stories as wish-fulfillment (like Amy's mother did) when you can write reality itself?

The film ends on a slightly different note – generalising Amy and Nick's relationship into a comment on the institution of marriage as a whole. It does so by underlining the impossibility of ever really knowing what your partner is thinking, and how much of what you observe of them is role-play and bad faith. Fincher twists every sinew trying to extract as much horror from Rosamund Pike's final blank expression as he can. Whether it works depends on how much belief you can suspend in the film's ramshackle plot, which has Amy reacting to as much as shaping events, and which gives very weak motives for Nick staying with her and playing along.

1.10.14

Fashion Beast

Although marketed as a "lost masterpiece", Fashion Beast feels like a minor work in Alan Moore's career – a comic book adaptation of a film script he wrote for Malcolm McLaren in the 1980s. In comparison to the near-contemporary Watchmen, this is relatively slight. Moore admits in the introduction that the world of fashion is largely foreign to him, and his attempts to analyze it have the feel of an outsider looking in. Moore's lecture is summarised thus: the manipulation of our image is an assertion of power over others – an impulse encoded by evolution and that has helped us survive. But for the shadowy Tarot-reading fashion designer Celestine, these images hold out the possibility of transcending our natures, and he fantasizes about a world where humanity is erased and only clothes remain. There are shades both of Ozymandias and Doctor Manhattan in this rant.

Moore prefers to side with the people. The young Jonni is in line to inherit Celestine's throne and finds inspiration in the immanent – sex and the streets. But even then, Moore adds a jarring note – Doll quips that the working class Jonni worships are sexist, racist and homophobic, and she cannot be blamed for trying to run away from her origins. That exchange encapsulates Moore at is best: exploring how the messiness of life undercuts grand visions. He is on shakier ground in contrasting Jonni's base inspirations to the conflict powering Celestine's creativity – an overbearing mother who taught him to despise his own appearance and sublimate sexual desire. Compared to the subtleties of Rorschach or the Comedian, this is relatively blunt characterisation.

The book is lovingly put together by Antony Johnson and Facundo Percio, who keep quite a bit of the cinematic camera zooms that Moore used in Watchmen, as well as a few visual/verbal segues that bridge his scene transitions. The characters in particular are extraordinarily well-rendered. McLaren apparently demanded the couple be a girl who looks like a boy and a boy who looks like a girl – and it's astonishing how well this is pulled off on the page. Likewise the two Madams that guard Celestine have these wonderfully pinched wrinkled faces, and seem to float in their ornate baroque costumes. Although the story's origins as a screenplay are not entirely erased, Johnson and Percio both deserve a good deal of credit for how well it works as a comic.

28.9.14

Paris, Texas

The first Wim Wenders film I've seen (Beyond the Clouds doesn't count – it was terrible anyway), and its the craft that is most immediately striking. The pace is on slow burn for most of the picture's running time, but interest is maintained by the central mystery behind the protagonist. The story has already happened, we just don't know it and have to settle for watching the consequences unfold.

Then there is the light. The first shots of the desert are technicolor western pushed to Black Narcissus levels of lushness. The colours of those location shots are postcard perfect. And as Travis slowly returns to civilisation the neon glow seeps in. The final shots of him in the parking lot wreathed in green fluorescent mist, of him driving bathed in tail-light red, felt like all of Refn's Drive compacted into a couple of minutes.

And then there is the actual story, not shown, but narrated, in a setpiece right out of David Lynch's repertoire except this is a couple of years before Blue Velvet. It feels like a confession – Travis and Jane taking turns in the booth. And their stories are not just theirs, but ours: star-crossed lovers, the cowboy, the private eye, the femme fatale, the whore. And buried beneath, a man, woman and child unable to make their family work under the weight of these roles they have to play.