Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘2019’

Maybe I’m just a victim of my own self-imposed strictures, but the thin patch this summer seems to be dragging on forever, with the cinemas stuffed with remade regal cats, God-awful life-affirming quasi-musicals, and offerings from middle-aged wunderkind who’ve been pushing the same thing all their career. Seriously, you could have been reading another review looking at Hobbs & Shaw in more detail.

Instead, I found myself making a rare visit to Oxford’s plushest but most expensive cinema in search of something else: which turned out to be Christian Petzold’s Transit, a German film from last year now getting a limited cinema showing in addition to being available as view-on-demand. The film is based on Anna Seghers’ 1942 novel of the same name, which leads to some curious effects, as we shall see.

The protagonist is Georg (Franz Rogowski), a young German man who is in Paris as the film opens – but seriously considering his exit strategy, as the city is occupied and sealed, with many people living in desperate fear of their lives as paramilitary forces round up enemies of the new regime. The disconcerting thing is that we are not in 1940 – this looks very much like the present day, or perhaps the near future.

There is some close order plotting in the early stages of the film: in order to have a chance of escape, Georg agrees to deliver some letters to another refugee, a writer named Weidel. But Weidel has already surrendered to despair and committed suicide, and Georg keeps his personal effects. He seizes on another escape route, travelling in a goods train to Marseilles with an injured man, who dies on the way.

Once in Marseilles, he has to break the sad news to his former companion’s widow and son, and finds himself reluctantly drawn into their struggle for existence. He is also distracted by a mysterious woman (Paula Beer) who keeps approaching him, seeming to know him, only to withdraw. None of it seems to mean much, for there is no way out of the city, and whatever catastrophe is engulfing Europe will reach Marseilles soon as well. It is only when Georg visits the Mexican Consulate to return some of Weidel’s papers that there is a glimmer of hope – the authorities there assume that Georg himself is Weidel, who has already been offered a safe haven in Mexico, assuming he can secure the necessary transit visas from Spain and the USA.

Quite understandably, Georg instantly assumes Weidel’s identity and goes about getting the necessary paperwork to allow him onto the boat. But there is yet another wrinkle. Georg finally gets to know Marie, the mystery woman he keeps seeing, and a tentative sort of romance springs up between them, despite all the various hazards which surround them. She can accompany him on his fake Weidel-visa, but she refuses to contemplate leaving, insisting on waiting for her estranged husband to arrive. Which would be straightforward enough, but then she reveals to Georg her husband’s name…

The most obviously distinctive thing about Transit is that it is a novel about life in Nazi-occupied France which someone has updated to the present day. It’s a little difficult to tell whether Christian Petzold is doing this to make some kind of weighty allegorical point, or simply because the funding wasn’t there to do this as a full-blown costume drama. Certainly, this tale of migrants desperately fleeing Europe does feel uncomfortably topical, and perhaps the idea is to achieve the same kind of effect that Russell T Davies achieved in his TV drama Years and Years recently: compelling the viewer to identify with a refugee and come to understand why they do the desperate things that they do. Nevertheless, the conceit is a qualified success at best – the film has a slightly stylised quality, and awkward questions about why airlines are no longer operating and how Georg is able to pass himself off as an apparently quite famous writer are hand-waved away somewhat.

It’s not as if the film ever really escapes the shadow of its wartime origins – ‘Casablanca as written by Kafka’ is a quote on one of the posters for it, which is a not unreasonable description: there is a lot of fuss about visas and travel papers, riches-to-rags refugees living in fraught desperation, and a strange love triangle at the heart of the story. On the other hand, there are other resonances, too – it’s hard to watch this film and not think of Antonioni’s The Passenger, another tale of a man seeking to obliterate himself by swapping identities with a corpse.

It has to be said that while the film looks quite reserved and conventional, it is shot through with darkness and coloured by the gnawing anxiety felt by the characters as the unarticulated doom that is seemingly overtaking Europe closes in. In a sense, this is a film which is absolutely about the death of the self, whether that be figurative or literal: there is more than one suicide, and it could be argued that all the characters have been torn from their former lives and are existing in a state of limbo, awaiting their eventual fates.

Not the lightest of films, then (indeed, this is the main thing that sets it apart from Casablanca), but it remains a very watchable one, mainly due to a strong set of performances. Transit doesn’t work too hard at putting across a message or allegorical point, which gives some elements of the conclusion a slightly oblique quality – some elements of the story are left up to the viewer to interpret as they see fit. After functioning as a fairly conventional drama, almost a thriller, for most of its length, the ambiguous ending may not be for everyone, but it does suit the film. There is something very thoughtful about this film, and quietly very sad, too. It’s a strange thing to say, but I did find it very engrossing and almost enjoyable to watch, although whether it is a warning from history or a portent of the future is something we will have to find out in the fulness of time.

Read Full Post »

You know, sometimes I take no pleasure in doing this. I hear the response, so why do you bother? Well, as I think I said, it’s pathological. Really, though, sometimes I turn up to a movie which is obviously gunning to touch upon some serious emotional issues, and take a stand against bigotry and prejudice, and leave the audience uplifted and positive, but as much as I’d like to say positive things about it, I just find myself bitterly regretting the fact that the re-release of Apocalypse Now was on too late for me to see it on a work night, and that one can only go and see Hobbs & Shaw so many times before it starts to look weird.

The film that has me thinking this way is Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded by the Light, a bildungsroman with music, and a film which seems specifically designed to put you in mind of other films you may have enjoyed in the past. Viveik Kalra plays British Asian teenager Javed, living in Luton in 1987 (he is basically a fictionalised version of Sarfraz Manzoor, one of the co-writers). Many films have been made about the travails of growing up as a second-generation immigrant in a fiercely traditional, patriarchal family, and we are surely overdue for one which approaches this whole topic in a wholly fresh and innovative way. Unfortunately, Blinded by the Light is not that movie, and we just get all the usual bits and pieces, from the strict, conservative father (Kulvinder Ghir) on down.

Well, Javed goes off to Sixth Form College where his inspiring English lit teacher (Hayley Atwell) soon spots he is a frustrated poet, but one with little chance of ever properly expressing himself given the way everything is in his life. It just gets worse as his father loses his job and the National Front seem to be on the advance. It all comes to a head on the night of the Great Storm of 1987, when he finally gets around to playing some cassette tapes a friend has lent him – they are, of course, two Bruce Springsteen albums, and Javed’s life is utterly transformed. Well, a bit transformed. Eventually.

I could go into more detail but the film adheres to the standard script-writing structure with grim fidelity: there’s a succession of alternately sad and uplifting bits, building up the stakes, then a really downbeat bit at the end of the second act, followed by a life-affirming climax where the protagonist gets a chance to show everything that they’ve learned about The Important Things in Life. In this respect, like many others, it does sort of bear a close resemblance to Yesterday, another film looking to deliver a feel-good experience powered by some familiar tunes. Neither of them really had that effect on me, though, although I must say that Blinded by the Light manages to make Yesterday look much slicker and better assembled than it does in isolation.

There is just something very odd and not-quite-right about this film.  It’s supposed to be a paean to the power of the music of Bruce Springsteen… which is why the opening section is soundtracked by the Pet Shop Boys, a-Ha and Level 42. (I suppose the film-makers will say they’re holding back the Boss for the revelatory moment of Javed’s first hearing him.) But is it even that? (The paean, I mean.) At times the film resembles a bizarre mash-up of a jukebox musical using Springsteen songs and yet another comedy-drama about the Pakistani immigrant experience. This is an odd fit, to say the least: I know Bruce Springsteen has received many accolades, but I wasn’t aware he was acclaimed as the great interpreter of the British Asian experience in the late Eighties. Maybe the suggestion is supposed to be that his music has that kind of universal power and appeal – well, maybe so, but it still seems a very strangely specific take on this idea.

This is before we even get onto how the film handles its Springsteen tunes. When they do eventually arrive, they are initially accompanied by the words of the lyrics dancing around Javed’s head as he listens to his Walkman, which I suppose is just about acceptable. However, the writers soon decide they want to get some of the fun and energy of the non-diegetic musical into their film, so they break out a few big set-pieces. There are always choices with this sort of thing – you can keep the original Springsteen vocal and have the cast lip-synch to it. Or, you can re-record the song with the actors singing it (or attempting to sing it, if you’ve hired Pierce Brosnan) and use that. Or you can do what happens here, which is to play the original version and have the actors singing along over the top of it (not especially well).

If the singing is not exactly easy on the ear, it is at least better than the film’s attempts at dance routines. I would say these looked under-rehearsed, if I was certain they were rehearsed at all. The result has a sort of desperate earnestness to it which I tried hard to find charming, but I’m afraid I just couldn’t manage it. Something about the film’s biggest musical sequence (a version of ‘Born to Run’ performed in Luton High Street and just off the A505) not only managed to banish most of the vestigial goodwill I still retained for the movie, I’m also pretty sure I could feel it trying to suck out my soul and devour it. I’m not a particular Bruce Springsteen fan, but I can still appreciate the power and passion of his music – however, this film came alarmingly close to making me like his stuff a bit less. (A slightly bemused-looking Boss turns up during the closing credits, having his picture taken with various people involved with the production – one wonders if he was actually aware of who they were.)

That said, often enough they play Springsteen’s stuff without mucking it about or singing over the top of it, and this at least means you are listening to some great songs. This is better than the alternative, which is watching and listening to the scenes telling the story of the movie. These are – well, trite is one word that springs to mind. (‘Blinded by the Trite’ wouldn’t be a bad title for the movie.) None of the characters really behaves like a recognisable human being – they are all stock types living in a dress-up cartoon version of the 1980s, communicating largely in platitudes. Hayley Atwell plays the inspiring teacher, whose functions are to be inspiring and operate a few plot devices. Rob Brydon (wearing a truly shocking wig) plays a comedy relief old rocker, whose function is solely to be the comedy relief. It’s like the guts of the movie are on display throughout – it just doesn’t have the artifice or self-awareness to appear anything other than clumsily manipulative. (It could stand to lose about a quarter of an hour, as well.)

Of course, it does take a stand against racism, which of course is a good and laudable thing to do; and it does make some points about self-expression and being true to yourself and following your dreams, which are all perfectly good and admirable goals in life. Having good intentions doesn’t excuse the numerous narrative and artistic shortfalls of the movie, though. This just about functions as a story and as a musical, but it’s laboured and clumsy and trite throughout: all in all, rather more loss than Boss.

Read Full Post »

It is surely very heartening to see that, even in times as dark as the present, society still offers a chance for success to people who are clearly a little bit weird (especially heartening for those of us who are weird ourselves). Currently I am thinking of Peter Strickland, whom I may be jumping to conclusions about. Never having met the gentleman, I may be taking liberties by labelling him as weird, but the two films of his that I’ve seen have both been, well, weird. Weird in a very interesting and entertaining way, I hasten to add. But they’re still weird.

I saw Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio towards the end of 2012 and came out feeling rather well-disposed towards it (certainly more so than the gentleman who stood up at the end of the screening and shouted ‘Utter rubbish!’ to no-one in particular). His follow-up, The Duke of Burgundy, didn’t trouble the cinemas around here so far as I can recall, but his latest film did – albeit not in a very conspicuous way. Another victim of the great Disney squeeze, one might suggest.

The new movie is In Fabric, which is a fairly odd title and thus rather undersells the film, which is extremely eccentric, to say the least. The setting is the UK in what looks like the late 1970s or possibly early 80s (one character has a misleadingly contemporary hairstyle, but it soon becomes obvious that email and mobile phones don’t exist yet). Marianne Jean-Baptiste plays Sheila, a recently-separated bank clerk with a teenage son who is a bit thrown to discover that her ex-husband has already found himself a new girlfriend. As an odd form of passive-aggressive retaliation, she decides to join a lonely hearts dating service, but only after refreshing her look a bit. And so she goes out and buys a new dress.

This proves to be a choice of questionable merit, as the department store she visits is a rather unusual one which appears to be run by witches, or possibly devil-worshippers. Even the sales assistants are rather peculiar, such as the one she encounters (an uproarious turn from Fatma Mohamed). However, the ‘artery red’ dress she ends up buying is something else again, as it is apparently cursed and possessed of a malevolent sentience, and is determined to do her ill. This initially just takes the form of giving her a nasty rash and destroying her washing machine (the dress doesn’t like being machine-washed), but soon its activities become absolutely murderous…

There is a camp ridiculousness to the premise of In Fabric which clearly owes a debt to some of the sillier horror movie premises of years gone by – I’m thinking of the homicidal vine from Dr Terror’s House of Horrors or the man-eating furniture in Death Bed – although, come to think of it, Stephen King did a book about a haunted car and no-one called that silly. Certainly this resonance doesn’t seem to be a matter of chance, for the film also has a quasi-portmanteau structure which inevitably recalls Dr Terror and the various other portmanteau horrors of decades ago.

It isn’t quite as simple as this film simply being a spoof of that particular genre, though. Strickland’s fondness for Italian giallo horror was evident in Berbarian Sound Studio and this film has that same kind of visual artfulness and richness. The combination of arty continental horror stylings and everyday naturalism which  makes In Fabric so distinctive is almost enough to make one suggest that this is what it would look like if Dario Argento and Mike Leigh ever worked together on a project (or if such a project were lovingly pastiched by the League of Gentlemen).

The most impressive thing about In Fabric is the way in which it takes such a richly over-the-top premise, and such a seemingly-incongruous set of clashing influences, and still manages to be a coherent and cohesive movie rather than a mess of clashing styles and tones. This, it seems to me, is the sign of a very fine film-maker – the ability to turn a film on a dime and shift between tones so effortlessly is exceptionally difficult. And there are lots of different things going on here. As I said, this isn’t exactly a horror parody – it is knowing and tongue-in-cheek, and the audience is expected to recognise this, but at the same time it is a genuine horror film, intent on unnerving and rattling its audience. It is attempting to be weird and creepy rather than actually scary, and there are some extremely odd and rather graphic sequences that certainly won’t be to everyone’s cup of tea.

And then Strickland will smoothly go into another encounter with the bizarre shopworker Miss Luckmoore and her preposterous turn of phrase (this is a woman who says ‘I have reached the dimension of regret’ when she means ‘I’m sorry’), or a scene where one of the characters is dragged in for a nightmarish encounter with Julian Barratt and Steve Oram’s useless managers, or even a genuinely moving scene filled with real pathos. It shouldn’t work; it certainly shouldn’t look as easy as Strickland manages to make it appear.

I shouldn’t neglect to say that this is a genuinely funny film, albeit often in a highly surreal way (at one point Barratt and Oram are reduced to a priapic stupor by someone describing washing-machine faults to them). You find yourself wondering if you’re actually supposed to be laughing at this or if you haven’t quite understood what kind of film you’re watching. In the end I did conclude that very little in this movie has been left to chance.

For all that it is an unusual and rather intoxicating concoction, I would still say In Fabric has the odd flaw – primarily that the opening segment of the film is stronger than the rest, which is unfortunate if nothing else. Marianne Jean-Baptiste’s performance is a bit more rounded than those of Leo Bill and Hayley Squires, who carry the later parts of the movie. I might even suggest that the portmanteau structure of the story isn’t signposted at all and is a bit wrong-footing when it manifests itself.

Nevertheless, this is a film made with obvious confidence and skill and a definite sense of visual style (the soundtrack, from the splendidly-named combo Cavern of Anti-Matter, only adds to the hypnotic effect). It is distinctive and highly unusual (and probably not very mainstream, to be perfectly honest), but also very funny and always interesting. I liked it very much.

Read Full Post »

‘Why are there two enormous bald angry men in this trailer?’

I couldn’t tell if Sagacious Dave sounded more aggrieved or suspicious. ‘Because the third enormous bald angry man fell out with the second one,’ I said (I decided not to go into details of the Vin Diesel/Dwayne Johnson tiff just at that moment).

Sagacious Dave grumphed. Once again, I couldn’t really believe my luck: having talked the ursine Head of Advanced Erudition from my workplace into going to see The Meg with me last year (as readers with long memories and short change may recall), and his making vaguely positive noises about it, I took the chance on suggesting we go and see this year’s Jason Statham film as well. He had insisted on seeing the trailer first, though.

In the end the Sagacious One said yes, and off we went to the cinema, accompanied by one of his children (I wasn’t sure if the offspring actually wanted to see the movie or just see with his own eyes what the patriarch of the family did in his spare time). As it turned out, if Sagacious Dave had known going in that this was a Fast & Furious movie, I would have had a much harder job talking him into it, as he had seen one of the duff early sequels and not enjoyed it. But he hadn’t so I didn’t and there we were watching David Leitch’s Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw like two serious-minded education professionals (plus a grown-up child).

Never mind that this is officially a spin-off from the long-running Fast & Furious franchise, this coming together of genial Dwayne Johnson and Mr Jason Statham feels somehow fated. I know they’ve technically been together in the last two F&Fs, but on this occasion the movie can dispense with all the supporting cast of sidekicks and just let the pair of them get on with it, which basically boils down to frowning a lot and property damage.

There is something pleasingly purist about the straightforwardness of the plot. Some evil transhumanist terrorists have stolen a plot McGuffin and an MI6 team is sent to steal it back (some iffy editing strongly indicates their secret base is in an underground car-park under St Paul’s Cathedral in London, but I doubt this is intentional). Leading the team is Hatty Shaw (Vanessa Kirby), who is of course Mr Statham’s little sister. Things take on some of the proportions of a citrus fruit when they encounter lead terrorist operative Idris Elba, who has been given the strikingly dubious name of ‘Brixton’ and basically turned into MACH One from the old 2000AD comic. Brixton frames Hatty Shaw for the death of her own team and forces her to go on the run, having downloaded the McGuffin into her own body (of course).

Now, it turns out that Mr Hobbs and Mr Shaw are both already on the case, as depicted through a lively sequence using more split screen effects than have been seen in a movie theatre since about 1971. ‘Who are you?’ growls a bad guy, supplying this feed line with an admirably straight face. ‘I’m a giant sized can of whup-ass,’ replies genial Dwayne, who also manages to deliver this immortal dialogue deadpan. ‘Funny, I’d have thought that would have broken,’ observes Mr Statham, over in his bit of the sequence, having beaten about six people unconscious with a champagne bottle which has miraculously remained intact. Oh, friends, the joy – the joy.

Now, believe it or not, you can’t just have these two walloping people for the whole movie, and the script dutifully obliges by crowbarring in scenes establishing the moral premise of Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw. Mr Hobbs gets a scene with his young daughter (who has had a facelift since F&F 8) and Mr Shaw gets a scene with his mum (still Helen Mirren, who has clearly realised this is the kind of film where you don’t have to worry too much about acting), and it turns out both of them are carrying an inner sadness, because they are estranged from their families. Could it be that all the chasing about and hitting people that will come over the next two hours will bring about a rapprochement? Hint: yes.

So, the CIA (embodied by an uncredited Ryan Reynolds, who is roaringly OTT even by the standards of this kind of film) puts genial Dwayne and J-Stat together to find Hatty Shaw and the missing McGuffin (‘No ****ing way!’ howl the duo in unison) and hopefully fend off the marauding Brixton. They chase about London for a while and blow a lot of it up. Then they go to an evil base in Russia and chase about there for a while, blowing much of that up too (the evil base is clearly meant to be under the Chernobyl plant, but this has been snipped from the script presumably because they don’t want to be seen to be jumping on the bandwagon of that TV show). Then they all go off to Samoa to blow most of there up too (Cliff ‘Maori Jesus’ Curtis appears as Mr Hobbs’ elder brother).

On the way out I asked Sagacious Dave what he’d thought of it (his son had been sitting between us so I hadn’t heard his reaction to the choicer moments of the film). ‘That was very congruent,’ he said, with a beatific smile upon his face. It turned out this meant he thought it cleaved very admirably to the requirements of the action movie genre. And indeed it does: lots of cars and even a few buildings are demolished, Mr Statham gets to beat up multiple people simultaneously in more than one scene, and genial Dwayne gets to do a Samoan war dance before dragging a helicopter out of the sky using sheer muscle power. (If, as has been suggested, the fight scenes are carefully choreographed so both stars take exactly the same number of punches, for contractual reasons, it is not at all obvious.) But it also entertains mightily as a knockabout comedy film, with the two leads sparring breezily and overcoming some very Carry On-level humour. Thankfully the film does have a sense of its own ridiculousness and plays up to this just enough: it is, of course, absurd to suggest that Dwayne Johnson (an actor so monolithic that compared to him J-Stat is described as the ‘small, subtle’ one) can evade an international manhunt by putting on a cap and a false moustache, but it’s such an amusing idea that the movie gets away with it. Only when Kevin Hart comes on to do the actual comic relief do things feel a bit laboured and you wish they’d get on with it.

They even find time to include the necessary character beats and reflective moments as the film continues, and we learn a bit of the back-story of both lead characters (Mr Shaw’s history has become a bit confusing, and his reinvention as misunderstood anti-hero kind of glosses over the fact he murdered Sung Kang in F&F 3, 6, and 7, but hey ho). But Leitch knows not to get too bogged down in this stuff and soon we are back to moments of priceless cinematic gold like Eddie Marsan running amok with a flamethrower or Idris Elba being head-butted in slow-motion.

Needless to say, the action choreography is lavish and immaculate, as you would expect from a movie on this scale. I think there is a strong case to be made that the Fast & Furious films have really displaced the Bond franchise as cinema’s big, brash, outrageous action series – they don’t have quite the same wit or classiness, but they don’t take themselves too seriously, know how to stick to a winning formula, and they are almost irresistibly entertaining, especially when they’re fronted by actors like Johnson and Statham.

That said, we are told that Fast & Furious 10 will mark the end of the series. Happily, though, it looks very much like future Hobbs & Shaw movies are on the cards, separate to all of that. Does the Fast & Furious series really need Vin Diesel and all of that Los Angeles street racer malarkey? On the evidence of this film, I would say not. This is a very silly film, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a lot of fun, too.

Read Full Post »

Regular visitors will know that one of the few constant features to be found hereabouts is the succession of bad puns introducing and punctuating whatever bits of writing I see fit to unload onto t’internet. Often, especially during a particularly boring film, I will find myself thinking nearly as much about what bad pun I am going to put in the title as I am about whatever Keira Knightley (or whoever) is up to on screen. So to turn up to a film and discover that the makers have already been diligently milking their own work for its bad-pun potential is wrong-footing, to say the least. I feel as though someone has shot my fox, or stolen my clothes, or whatever the most appropriate idiom is. If the film makers are going to start doing the bad puns, where does that leave me? Do I have to start actually making the films?

Nevertheless, here we are with Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s The Current War, a film about the race between rival companies attempting to bring electrical power to the USA and thus, you can see, a film with a play on words as its title. It goes further: ‘Power changes everything!’ declares the poster. Demarcation, that’s the only answer, I tell you. Quite apart from this suspect promotional strategy, there does seem to be something slightly ‘off’ about this film – as a fact-based period drama with a first-rate cast, one would naturally expect to encounter it in a cinema around Christmas or early in the New Year, for it has clearly been made with one eye on the awards season. And yet here we are in the middle of summer and it is essentially serving as counter-programming to Disney’s regal cat and the latest Fast and Furious movie. What, as they say, gives?

Well, my understanding is that this one was actually finished a couple of years ago, and was in the process of having a few re-edits made to it when scandal engulfed one of its producers, Harvey Weinstein. Putting out a film with Weinstein’s name on it these days is such a bad business move that no-one even considers it, and so The Current War has been flogged on to another company and only now is seeing the light of day (if that’s an appropriate metaphor for something which is mainly going to be viewed in very dark rooms). I’m not sure at what point Kazakh producer-director Timur Bekmambetov got involved (Bekmambetov is the visionary responsible for the precognitive loom of Wanted and the general barking lunacy of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), but you can kind of sense his influence too, not least in the film’s tendency towards lavish CGI. (Much of this goes to cover up the fact that, for a film about American history, a significant chunk of it was filmed elsewhere.) As if that wasn’t a mixed enough bag, Martin Scorsese’s name is on it as well (although that has popped up in many unexpected places recently).

The film is mostly set in the 1880s and early 1890s. The script does a very good job of establishing that we are only really on the cusp of a recognisably modern world as the film opens: the night is lit mostly by firelight and candles, vehicles and machinery are operated by steam or sheer muscle-power. No wonder the early pioneers of electricity were regarded and referred to as wizards and magicians. Unfortunately, the film does a rather less impressive job of establishing one of the key tensions in the story. On the one hand, we have the famous inventor and entrepreneur Thomas Edison (Cumbersome Bandersnatch), who is determined to bring light to the masses through a combination of his own incandescent light bulbs and the judicious application of direct current (DC). Set against him is the engineer and businessman George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon), who has a similar plan involving high-voltage alternating current (AC).

Now, you could argue, and I expect the film makers probably will, that the heart of the film is about the rivalry between the two men and the differences it reveals in their personalities – the fact it boils down to a difference in currents only really matters if you are trying to come up with a snappy, pun-some title for a movie on this topic. I don’t know. I would have liked to have understood the science a bit more, simply because it is so central to the story, and also because the film is partially about how scientific and engineering progress is made.

The film progresses anyway. Westinghouse is initially interested in a possible alliance with Edison, but the great inventor snubs him and the scene is set for a mighty clash of wills – Edison has developed a complete and safe system he can provide, at some expense; Westinghouse has a product which is cobbled-together from various sources, considerably cheaper but also potentially lethal due to the high voltages involved. Much of the film revolves around Edison’s attempts to smear Westinghouse by suggesting he is selling a dangerous product to the unsuspecting public. Edison also makes a big fuss about never using his considerable talents to invent something harmful to human life, which is of course setting up the irony of the fact he is largely responsible for the creation of the electric chair.

Lots of good material there for a story in and of itself, you might think: maybe even more than enough, given the film could probably use a little bit more scientific exposition about the technology involved. But the film goes even further: there is a subplot about Edison’s personal life, and the illness of his wife (Tuppence Middleton). There is another one about the contribution made to all this by the Serbian inventor Nikola Tesla (Nicholas Hoult).

For all that he makes a significant contribution to the story (an employee of Edison and later a partner of Westinghouse), and despite Hoult’s excellent performance, the inclusion of Tesla is probably the most glaring example of the film trying to do too much. We are probably overdue a proper Tesla bio-pic, given that he was a mythologised figure even in his own lifetime (he has been suggested as the inspiration for H.P. Lovecraft’s short story ‘Nyarlathotep’, written back in 1920), and frequently depicted as an almost stereotypical mad scientist (see also David Bowie’s cameo as Tesla in The Prestige). There’s enough Tesla in The Current War for it to feel obtrusive, but not enough to really satisfy.

The same can be said for many elements of the film, if we’re honest. The story tries to cover so much that nothing is really treated with the depth and detail that it deserves, and the pace is seldom less than breathless – the film rattles along, rarely pausing for a reflective moment. This does mean it is never dull, but it also means it is a little exhausting to watch. After a while you just sit back and let the story whizz past in front of you.

This is quite disappointing, as in all other respects than the script and pacing, the film shows signs of excellence: it looks great, the direction is creative, and the performances are uniformly very strong. As noted, Hoult is on impressive, scene-stealing form, and there is a nice turn from Tom Holland (with a quite remarkably baroque hairstyle) as Edison’s secretary. Shannon also makes an impression in what’s not a particularly showy part. The film feels very much skewed in favour of Edison, though, which may or may not be connected to the fact that Bittythatch Chunderhound is one of the executive producers. He is, I should say, as good as usual, but on the other hand he is also playing pretty much the same character that he does in almost every film he makes:  acerbic, snarky, very very clever, not exactly gifted when it comes to showing affection to others… there’s no doubting his charisma, but he does seem in danger of becoming a movie star rather than the great actor he’s always been up to this point.

It is not a major issue, certainly when compared to the problems with The Current War‘s script and story. Even so, this is an interesting and engaging movie which we both enjoyed (Olinka needed some persuasion, but was glad she agreed to come along in the end). It’s by no means completely satisfying, but – quite appropriately – it does shed some light on an interesting period of history, and it’s nice to find a film with such aspirations to ambition and intelligence doing the rounds at this time of year.

Read Full Post »

Pressure is being brought upon me to watch the new Jon Favreau version of The Lion King, but I find myself rather reluctant to give in to it. Mainly this is because we already have a perfectly good animated film along these lines, and I am dubious (to say the least) about this scheme of Disney’s to make even more money by doing all their films again. We could move on to consider the notion that cel-animated anthropomorphic animals talking and singing can be moderately charming, whereas photorealistic CGI ones doing the same thing is just weird, but I think you get the idea. (This is essentially a principled objection as I pay flat rate for most of my cinema tickets and thus the money that goes to the Mouse Corporation is only notionally mine, but let’s not worry about that too much.)

Anyway, said pressure takes two forms – firstly, friends proclaiming they would rather go and see the Favreau film than any of the alternatives I propose. Now, I suppose that actually the second form of pressure is linked to the first – the reason there aren’t many especially attractive films around at the moment is because the film about the regal cat is showing thirteen bloomin’ times a day just at the six-screen Odeon. As usual Disney are using their leverage to squeeze everyone else out.

You have to look further afield for counter-programming these days, but it is there if you search for it. One of the hopefuls currently is Annabel Jankel’s Tell It to the Bees, based on a novel by Fiona Shaw (not the actress). Jankel is perhaps best known for her role as one of the creators of the SF satire Max Headroom, many years ago, but this is an entirely by-the-numbers hats-and-ciggies period melodrama.

The novel is apparently set in Yorkshire, but the film has drifted a few hundred miles north, presumably because Creative Scotland helped out with the financing. Holliday Grainger plays Lydia, a young single mother having a tough time in the small town where she lives: her husband (Emun Elliott) has walked out on her and her son, and she is struggling to cover the rent with the money she makes working in the local factory. It is, as they say, grim up north, even in 1952.

New in town, sort of, is the doctor, Jean Markham (Anna Paquin) – she grew up here but has spent many years living away, possibly because of rumours that are still doing the rounds. Well, when Lydia’s son is slightly hurt, he is taken to the doctor by his cousin and shows an interest in the beehives in her garden. As well as setting up the bee motif which continues through the movie, it also enables a rather laborious cute-meet between Lydia and Jean.

From this point on the film takes an unusual twin-track approach when it comes to surprising the audience. Much of the time it seems to give up on this notion entirely, for in terms of the actual plot, not much happens which you will not see coming a very long way in advance. Lydia gets kicked out of her house and she and the lad end up moving in with the doctor, supposedly as her housekeeper. Cue many significant moments between the two of them, supposedly charged with a keen erotic frisson (your mileage may vary). Sure enough they eventually give in to the powerful feelings that have developed between them (and, to be fair, the girl-on-girl stuff is handled in a classy enough way). But how will the poorly-educated and small-minded inhabitants of a Scottish town in the Fifties react to this sort of romance? Can they find a way to be together?

All that saves the film from total predictability is the other strand, which happens to concern the bees themselves. As I said, there is clearly some sort of a bee motif going on here, and much money has been spent on footage of bees in and around their hive, doing all the stuff that bees do. But if there is some sort of bee metaphor going on here, it is not at all clear what it is supposed to represent – there’s a lot of slightly eggy dialogue about telling your secrets to the bees, and some references to dancing bees that ties in with dancing as a repeated idea in the main story, but it still doesn’t feel especially coherent. And then as the film nears its conclusion –

Well, I should provide a little bit of context and say that this is one of those period films which lays it on a bit thick when it comes to the dourness, grit and misery, particularly as it goes on. Part of this is general, part of seems to be a bit more purposeful – there are only two significant adult male characters, and one of them is blandly feckless, the other a brute of toxic masculinity; the rest of the writing employs a rather broad brush, if not actually a trowel, too. And yet into all this comes an utterly bizarre sequence involving the bees behaving in a strikingly un-beelike manner. To say more would be to spoil what’s essentially the climax of the film, but it is a proper ‘You what?!?’ moment when it arrives.

It goes without saying that the costume-drama element of the film is well done; it is very unusual to come across a British film where this sort of thing is fumbled. And I suppose the performances are creditable, if not exactly striking. (Financing comes with hidden strings attached, however, as moving the setting means that Anna Paquin has to spend the film attempting to do a Scottish accent. We do not quite end up in Dick Van Dyke territory (a possibly infelicitous allusion there), but neither does she exactly cover herself in glory.) In the end this is a film which attempts to use artfulness and metaphor to disguise the fact it is a deeply predictable and not especially engaging or credible melodrama, but just ends up feeling odd and slightly pretentious as a result. As far as this story goes, you can tell it to the bees if you like, but I’m not sure they’ll be more interested than anyone else.

Read Full Post »

It is surely a coincidence that recent developments in British current affairs took place on the same day that temperatures in the country rose to something close to what you would expect to encounter in the proverbial fiery pits of the underworld. I was half-expecting to see news reports of fish falling from the sky, the Thames turning to blood, and horses eating each other, but these may not arrive until after the customary visit to see the Queen (yet to occur as I write). If nothing else it made for an appropriately hellish atmosphere in a poorly air-conditioned cinema as we sat and watched Alison Klayman’s new documentary, The Brink, as this film concerns the recent doings of Steve Bannon. It would of course be unfair to suggest that Bannon is the Devil; but, to paraphrase The West Wing, I would not be at all surprised to learn that he is the one who is sent out to buy the Devil’s cigarettes.

Who, you may possibly be asking, is Steve Bannon, and why does he deserve such opprobrium (even maybe odium)? Well, if you actually are wondering this, I sort of envy you. Where do you start with describing Bannon? Former US Navy officer, former investment banker at Goldman Sachs, sometime film producer and director (most likely nothing you have ever seen – if you’re lucky, anyway), at one point director of the closed-system experiment Biosphere 2, Bannon eventually rose to significance after founding the far-right news network Breitbart and becoming involved in the election campaign of Donald Trump.

Bannon ended up as Chief Strategist in the grotesque circus of the Trump White House, famously having all the chairs taken out of his office in order to create a more dynamic atmosphere about the place. This role ended after the Charlottesville protests and Trump’s response to them, and it is at this point, in the late summer of 2017, that the film opens, with Bannon having fallen from grace (if that word is even applicable in the context)

Most of it consists of Klayman quietly handing Bannon metaphorical rope as he goes about his self-appointed task as… what? It seems to be vague at the best of times. To begin with there is a sense of quiet optimism, with Bannon spinning things so that leaving the White House is really a positive step for him, as he can now go out and about as a roving envoy and cheerleader for the Trump administration without any of the fetters of actually being involved with it. Hopeful young Republicans seek him out in search of his endorsement, and he leaves his customary behind-the-scenes role to make various personal appearances.

Showing the same unerringly keen instincts that led him to back Trump, one of the first recipients of Bannon’s magic touch is Roy Moore, a far-right Alabama judge who was accused of sex crimes in the midst of his campaign to become a senator, resulting in the first Democrat being sent to Washington from the state in a quarter of century. There is then something of a tiff with Trump, after Bannon suggests some of the campaign’s meetings with Russians were unpatriotic.

And so Bannon clears off to Europe where a whole new menagerie of horrors await his attempts to organise a far-right populist movement there, as well, up to and including an appearance by Nigel Farage (here caught between his time with UKIP and his latest scheme). He hangs out with various wealthy white men who still manage to sincerely believe they are somehow rebels against the elite, is left reeling by an encounter with the notoriously tough political interviewer Susannah Reid (NB to foreign readers: this review contains irony), and hosts a series of dinners for people who are often described in the media as neo-fascists. Oddly enough, Klayman always seems to be being sent out of the room whenever Bannon meets up with one of the billionaires who finance his various activities.

Then it’s back to the USA, with Bannon cranking out another of his propaganda films (‘you say that as if propaganda’s a bad thing,’ he observes) in support of Trump ahead of the mid-term elections. It is hard not to detect some trace of Bannon wanting to achieve some kind of rapprochement with his former boss and get back into favour, for all that he declares on camera he’s not bothered about having a close personal relationship with the man. It goes on and on and on: smirking, dog-whistle politics and a wall-to-wall sense of entitlement. There is at least some schadenfreude to be had as Bannon grows increasingly embattled as the film goes on: he loses all patience with one particularly self-regarding underling and appoints his nephew (whose previous role has apparently been to make him snacks) as effective overseer of the entire European project, while another choice moment sees a frustrated Bannon literally banging his head against the furniture in mid-phone.

But on the whole this is thoroughly grim stuff. You can understand Klayman’s decision to step well back as an artist and let Bannon and his associates speak for themselves – they do as good a job of indicting themselves as any journalist could – but it is still pretty dispiriting and unpalatable. The film is, at best, a trip into a world of complete moral bankruptcy and deeply skewed perspectives. Practically the first thing you see in the film is Bannon enthusing over the efficiency of the design and engineering that went into the Birkenau extermination camp, not even seeming to consider that doing this might be considered a touch provocative by many people (he is repeatedly taken to task for using anti-Semitic tropes later in the film, especially with regard to George Soros). We also see him marvelling after his first encounter with a mainstream audience (as opposed to the Trump base he usually appears before). ‘They hate [Trump]!’ Bannon says, practically shaking his head in amazement. ‘Those aren’t even screaming liberals, they’re decent folks.’

On the whole this is documentary film-making stripped back to the barest of bones – the odd caption, and a very occasional intervention on-camera from Klayman herself, but most of the rest of it is Bannon talking – smooth, more than a bit self-regarding, a polished (perhaps glib) media performer. The cracks still show over the course of the movie. But why should someone who isn’t a right-wing acolyte subject themselves to ninety minutes of this stuff? If nothing else it is an important reminder of the forces of division at work in the world today, of exactly who these people are, what they represent and how they operate. You turn your back and look away from all this at your peril.

It is difficult to be particularly hopeful at the moment if you are not a right-wing nationalist of some stripe, and to be honest watching The Brink is unlikely engender much optimism. But it is a film of some importance for the same reason that it is important to watch the news and read the papers. Do we get much sense of who Steve Bannon really is as a man? Actually, I think we do, and for all that he comes across fairly amiably in the film, it is ultimately not that pretty. But it is the forces he represents and is attempting marshal that really matter, and which give the film a demand on the attention of anyone interested in the future of the world.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »