Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘2021’

They held the Oscars last weekend, and a weird ceremony it was too (at least, the little of it that actually made it onto the news).  Perhaps it’s just me and my unreasonable sentimental attachment to the theatrical experience, but it seems very strange and perhaps even wrong to have an Academy Awards ceremony for a year in which hardly any films have been released to the big screen: I think I’ve been to see about six genuinely new movies in the last twelve months, mostly during that brief July-to-October period when the cinemas reopened. Letting films which have only been available to screen via streaming sites win Oscars is just playing into the hands of those sites, and potentially damaging theatrical cinema itself.

Then again, Netflix has been playing this game for a couple of years now, sneaking one of its movies out with the smallest possible cinema release necessary for it to qualify for Oscar nomination. Most studios make prestige projects with more than one eye on the gong season, but in the case of a streaming site which normally doesn’t release films at all, it seems particularly calculated and mercenary (I am aware this is becoming a bit of a theme when I start writing about Netflix films).

This year’s Oscars tilt from Netflix took the form of David Fincher’s Mank. Shot in luminous black and white, it opens with the arrival at a remote Californian ranch of screenwriter, wit and general bon vivant Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), who is recovering from a broken leg suffered in a car crash. It is 1940 and Mankiewicz, his secretary (Lily Collins), and various other assistants are here to write the screenplay for a movie, to star and be directed by the prodigiously talented young Hollywood outsider Orson Welles (Tom Burke) – Welles will also get sole credit for the script.

The writing of this script is essentially a frame story for a film looking back on the previous ten years or so of Mankiewicz’s career in Hollywood, and particularly his relationship with the media tycoon and politician William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and his wife Marion (Amanda Seyfried). Mankiewicz’s personal politics tend towards the left-of-centre (inasmuch as he has political beliefs, preferring to just be louchely witty when not drinking or gambling), quite unlike Hearst’s by this point – but it seems that Hearst enjoys having him around.

This becomes increasingly uncomfortable for Mankiewicz, as the ruthless power politics of Hollywood and California in general become more and more savage, and his own career begins to slide into decline as he alienates the studio bosses and generally makes himself unemployable. Perhaps these men, despite their lesser minds and imaginations, have realised more quickly than he the potential power at their command? Phony newsreels play a key role in the defeat of the Socialist candidate Upton Sinclair in a gubernatorial election.

The film’s thesis is that it is these experiences which influence the fallen-from-grace Mankiewicz when he is writing Welles’ film for him. That film turns out to be Citizen Kane, of course, which Hearst interpreted as a hatchet job against him and tried very hard to have stopped or suppressed – most people agree that Kane is indeed based on Hearst, but Mankiewicz’s motives for doing so are less clear-cut than the film suggests.

As noted, at least part of Netflix’s motivation for financing Mank seems to have been the expectation it would snag a few awards – which it has duly done, albeit mainly for its cinematography and production design. Why do I say this? Well, there are certain types of film that are much more likely to get attention from organisations like AMPAS, a set of boxes to be ticked.  One of the best bets is the box marked ‘Make Film About Hollywood Itself’ (the ‘Shoot In Black And White For Added Artsy Gravitas’ box is also good value). The fact this is a true-life tale of a well-remembered industry figure taking a stand on behalf of justice and integrity is also another factor in the film’s favour.

The fact that Mank is a movie about the origins of what’s still often hailed as the greatest film ever made (although apparently it has recently been the subject of a fierce challenge by Paddington 2) is obviously another point in its favour. The fact that this is a film about Citizen Kane in which Orson Welles is a relatively minor character is certainly an oddity: you might even argue that Mank suggests that Kane’s greatness is as much due to the contribution of Mankiewicz (a man with a long career as a Hollywood insider) as that of Welles (a colossal talent unable to find a place within the established studio system).

If you accept this reading, then beneath the surface the film is a little conflicted – the glamour of old Hollywood and its stars rubs up against the venality and ruthlessness of studio bosses (Louis B Mayer in particular gets it in the neck). Then again, perhaps this clash between dreams and reality is at the heart of all the films purporting to go behind the scenes in the movie business.

This one handles both aspects pretty well, at least on a visual level – all those awards were certainly deserved. What’s particularly clever is the way in which many of the scenes reference elements of Kane, even on a subliminal level: Hearst’s palatial mansion, with its own zoo on the grounds, inevitably recalls Kane’s retreat Xanadu; there are countless other references as well.

This kind of self-referentiality extends throughout the movie – transitions between the 1940 sequences and flashbacks are signified by captions in the form of stage directions – and initially I thought Mank was going to turn out to be a bit too clever for its own good: a lot of whistles and bells and great visuals but essentially just another example of the movie business gazing into its own navel while patting itself on the back (if you consider a film never really intended to run in cinemas to be a genuine part of the movie business, anyway).

In the end I think Fincher and Mank get away with it, mainly because of the strength of the central performance: I knew Herman Mankiewicz’s name, vaguely, before watching the film, but wasn’t really familiar with who he was; Gary Oldman brings him to life. It’s not the flashiest of turns – though Mankiewicz’s legendary wit certainly provides him with some good dialogue – which may be why it hasn’t brought him the same kind of acclaim as his (slightly hammy) performance as Churchill a few years ago. By the end of the film you do care about Mankiewicz and how his experiences have affected him. Oldman gets to do some good drunk acting, too, of course, as the screenwriter’s alcoholism and compulsive gambling are both dwelt upon in the movie.

Did Mankiewicz really write the bulk of Citizen Kane in less than a fortnight while permanently sluiced? It is at least an appealing bit of legend, although given that much of the ‘history’ presented in Mank has been challenged, one is inclined to doubt it. (If the rest of the film has the same level of historical accuracy as the scene at a 1930 script conference where someone describes a movie as being like The Wolf Man, a film which wasn’t made until 1941, then I am almost forced to conclude that Citizen Kane was never actually made at all, and our memories of it are just a case of Mandela syndrome.)

Mank is certainly worth watching, if only for the look and craft of the thing, and some great performances – as well as Oldman, Charles Dance is good value as Hearst, and there are decent turns from Tuppence Middleton, Arliss Howard and Lily Collins, too. It’s a witty and intelligent film that presents an interesting tale of life in Hollywood in the 1930s and early 40s. Whether that tale bears much relation to reality is another question, of course, but if nothing else the film reminds us that this has always been a complex and occasionally fraught issue.

Read Full Post »

One of the things that Hollywood writers grumble about and bring up when the Writers’ Guild contemplates strike action is something called the possessive credit: this is when, at the start of a film, it says ‘A Film by…’ and then the director’s name. If you’re talking about a pure piece of auteur cinema, written, directed and otherwise shaped by a single person’s vision, then fair enough – but if the director’s just realising someone else’s script, you can see why the writers might get a bit peeved about their contribution being downplayed in this manner.

Certainly there are occasions when the use of the possessive credit feels – what is the mot juste here? – silly. But directors like to think of themselves as artists and creative visionaries, even when they are making films like Godzilla Vs Kong (which is apparently ‘A film by Adam Wingard’. I’ll be honest and confess I’d never really heard of Wingard before, but apparently he made a name for himself doing visceral micro-budget horror films and things loosely linked to the mumblecore movement (low-fi, low-budget, naturalistic movies). How therefore he ended up in charge of a $200 million franchise movie I am not entirely sure; he must have made a very good pitch.

For anyone who doesn’t follow the meta-plot of Hollywood monster movie franchises as closely as I do (I suppose it’s possible such people do exist), this is a follow-up to both 2017’s Kong: Skull Island and 2019’s Godzilla, King of the Monsters. As the movie gets underway, we learn that giant ape Kong (never actually referred to as King Kong here, in case you were wondering) is essentially being kept in protective custody by monster-wrangling agency Monarch, to stop Godzilla from tracking him down and beating him up (there is bad blood between their families, or something). Deeply concerned for the big guy, and de facto leader of Team K as the movie progresses, is primatologist Ilene (Rebecca Hall), who has a cute deaf-mute adopted daughter who shares a special bond with the ape.

The plot proper kicks off when colossal nuclear dinosaur Godzilla surfaces in the Gulf of Mexico and launches a seemingly unprovoked attack on an industrial facility in Pensacola owned by one of the world’s leading tech companies. The world is shocked by this sudden aggression, but firmly on Team G is Madison Russell (Millie Bobbie Brown, reprising her role from King of the Monsters), who is sure there has to be a reason for the attack and sets out to discover what it is.

Meanwhile, maverick geologist Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgard) is recruited by the owner of the tech company (Demian Bichir, giving an enormous, swaggering, I-am-delighted-by-my-own-evilness performance) to help find a means of fending Godzilla off should he start playing up again. This involves locating a mysterious power source only found at the hollow core of the Earth. The expedition involves going down a very deep hole they have dug in Antarctica, and…

Well, look, here’s the thing. As regular readers will know I am a big fan of Japanese monster movies (and indeed monster movies in general) and happily cut them all kinds of slack as long as they get the good stuff right. And, up to a point, Godzilla Vs Kong delivers the goods in spades: the monster rasslin’ between Kong and Godzilla is as imaginative, violent, and destructive as one could wish for. (Similarities between this film and the jokey King Kong Vs Godzilla are thin on the ground, but both are obliged to address, in different ways, the fact that Godzilla’s atomic breath appears to give him a distinct advantage. Bonus points are also given for there actually being a genuine winner when the two face off in the third act.) Hereabouts we have previously discussed the issue of the aesthetics of giant monster battles, and the slightly tedious tendency of Hollywood movies to set them at night. There’s a touch of that here, but it’s offset by the film’s general use of a garish, neon-saturated colour palette, even if it is a bit video-gamey.

Nevertheless, you can’t just have 113 minutes of monsters fighting each other; there needs to be some kind of connective tissue of plot and structure to give it all a bit of context and significance and, dare I say it, logic. It’s true that this is a film about how the ancient rivalry between an enormous ape and a gargantuan nuclear dinosaur is impacted by the plans of a lunatic billionaire who has decided, for reasons known only to himself, to build a giant cyborg replica of said nuclear dinosaur using body-parts harvested from an alien space dragon, and thus it could be argued that normal standards of credibility and logic are not fully in effect. Even so, much of the plot of the film is nonsensical, reliant on outrageous and absurd plot contrivances and devices. You can see that they’re hoping that if they go really fast and keep hitting you with visual grandeur, lavish CGI and new plot developments, a sort of fridge logic will be in effect and you won’t notice how little of it makes sense. But fridge logic has its limits and even as you’re watching it, you can’t help but notice how under-exposited most of it feels.

But as I say, it does look very pretty, with some impressive new monster designs (including a new version of yet another member of the classic Toho kaiju stable). You have to feel a bit sorry for the actors, though, who join the long and distinguished roll-call of performers who have signed up for a Godzilla or Kong film and found themselves all at sea. Takeshi Shimura, Raymond Burr, Jeff Bridges, Charles Grodin, Jean Reno, Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins: there is no shame in joining their company, as Skarsgard, Hall, and various other members of the cast do here. Bichir, on the other hand, seems to be trying to win a bet: it’s a big and enjoyable performance, but camp in a way that most of the film seems to be trying to avoid.

In the end, it’s colourful and action-packed and sort of fun, but it’s like drinking a bucket of cola instead of enjoying a balanced meal. I’m rather surprised that the proper critics have gone so easy on Godzilla Vs Kong, admitting to its various flaws but suggesting they don’t matter and may in fact be inherent in this kind of a movie. Obviously, I would disagree: even the critically-mauled King of the Monsters was more coherent and satisfying story-wise. It may just be that the presence of Kong, as opposed to a group of more obscure Japanese monsters like Mothra and Ghidorah, makes the new movie more accessible to a general audience. I didn’t find it as satisfying as either of the films immediately preceding it, but it is entertaining on a superficial level; it’s just a shame they couldn’t have come up with a way of keeping all the monster fights but surrounding them with a plot that actually made sense.

Read Full Post »

Another day, another Netflix movie which I guess is really aimed at a YA audience, a bit like A Week Away (I suppose). Today we are discussing Moxie, based on a novel by Jennifer Mathieu and directed by Amy Poehler. Normally I’d be a bit wary of approaching this kind of film, but revisiting Parks and Rec (starring, produced, and occasionally written and directed by Poehler) has been one of the things that’s kept me sane during the current lockdown, so I figured it was worth a look.

It starts off looking like a fairly routine high-school comedy-drama. Main character Vivian (Hadley Robinson) and her best friend Claudia (Lauren Tsai) are just starting eleventh grade; we see are the usual high-school tribes and characters, including a comedically jaded form room teacher and a less than entirely impressive principal (Marcia Gay Harden). There is also new girl Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Pena), who immediately makes an impression by questioning the choice of The Great Gatsby as an English lit text, as it is predominantly concerned with the lives and issues of wealthy white men.

This puts Lucy on the wrong side of wealthy white American football team captain Mitchell (Patrick Schwarzenegger), who sets out to annoy (in the words of his defenders) or persecute (in the words of everyone else) his victim. This only makes Vivian more aware of the entrenched unfairness of the high school system, especially when the jocks post their list of all the girls, ranked according to various demeaning criteria.

Vivian finds herself compelled to do something about this, but what? It turns out her mum (Poehler) used to be a bit of a rebel herself, and a fan of the early-90s radical feminist riot grrl movement. Vivian is inspired to anonymously publish a zine she calls Moxie, urging the young women of the high school not to accept the status quo, but to stand up and make their voices heard, finally…

So, once again it’s fair to say I am probably not in the primary target demographic for this movie – unless this notion itself is just another example of putting people into categories rather than judging them as individuals. It may be slightly counterintuitive to say so, but this is a rare example of a mainstream movie which doesn’t, on some level, have a feminist subtext. However, this is only because Moxie has an explicitly feminist text, albeit an inclusive one that suggests men can be feminists too (hey, you know what, I’m absolutely not even going there).

Now my a priori response to something like this would be to echo the old Sam Goldwyn (or possibly Humphrey Bogart, or Ernest Hemingway) line about how messages are for Western Union and this sort of thing is best done with a light touch. But here again I am forced to doubt myself and wonder if doing so isn’t itself being complicit in the misogynistic culture the film is rightly so critical of.

I suppose this in itself is a sign of the film’s success in raising awareness of the issues involved and making the viewer (i.e. me) think about what it’s saying. I was always aware I was having issues raised for my attention, and being gently (or not so gently, most of the time) guided towards a particular set of conclusions, but the film never feels especially shouty or strident: angry, yes, but justifiably so.

How does it manage this? Mainly by never losing track of the traditional storytelling virtues. It’s not just about issues and injustices: the characters are carefully drawn and played by the (fairly) young cast with conviction. None of them are established names, as far as I’m aware – with the exception of young Schwarzenegger, and this is a different sort of thing entirely. (Let’s be scrupulously fair here and judge Patrick Schwarzenegger on the merits of his own performance, which does everything the film requires, rather than his family connections or anything arising from them.) Good work, too, from the older cast members: Poehler gives a very nicely-judged turn, and she is supported well by Ike Barinholtz, Harden, and Clark Gregg (eagle-eyed viewers may spot a very tiny cameo by Helen Slayton-Hughes, whom Parks and Rec fans will recognise as long-suffered City Hall clerk Ethel Beavers).

Still, this is a more serious piece of work in every respect than the kind of thing Poehler is best-known for. It would be deadly for this to come across as too much of a single-issue movie, though, and Poehler dodges the pitfall by ensuring it is nuanced and character-driven. Loud and angry protesting doesn’t come easily to everyone: one of Vivian’s closest friends has a different cultural background and as a result has a slightly different set of issues to deal with. There’s also the fact that being a perpetual state of anger is exhausting and risks alienating otherwise-sympathetic people around you.  The film recognises that, no matter how glaring and egregious an injustice may be, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the solution to it is simple, straightforward, or will come without sacrifices.

The only times the film falls down are when it loses track of this, and becomes more simplistic, even verging on the melodramatic: the disinterest of the school principal is essential to the framing of the story – this is young rebels versus the establishment, after all – but it just doesn’t seem credible, post-Weinstein, for a female character in a position like this to be quite so indifferent to some of the abuse going on. There’s also a third-act plotline about a sexual assault which feels just a tiny bit glib and contrived. We could also talk about the problematic way in which white men are inevitably demonised, to some extent at least, in this kind of narrative, but this is a big and complex topic.

Given that Netflix have, as noted, also recently funded a faith-based musical romance of almost ferocious innocuity, one has to wonder the extent to which its commitment to feminism agitprop is equally calculated. The two films couldn’t be more different: but this is by far the superior of the two. It’s not perfect, but then axe-grinding films like this one almost never are. Nevertheless it manages to be an engaging piece of entertainment as well as an openly angry and political film, and this is a considerable achievement.

Read Full Post »

If you’re looking to make an uplifting family-friendly musical, starting off with your protagonist being pursued by the police is not the most obvious choice, but it’s the one that director Roman White makes at the start of A Week Away (currently showing on a Netflix account near you). Yes, our hero is a lad named Will (played by a dude named Kevin Quinn, whose striking similarity to a young Zach Efron it seems to be compulsory to mention). The script has a tricky balance to strike, in that the plot requires Will to have a long history of trouble with the authorities, while the general tenor of the film (not to mention its target audience) means that he must also be, in the final analysis, essentially wholesome and non-threatening.

The compromise they hit upon is that a) we don’t actually see Will doing anything naughty, the film just starts with him being pursued by a cop and b) at least some of his misdemeanours are presented in a ho-ho-ho slightly ironic way (he has supposedly put his high school on Craigslist, for instance). Anyway, he is duly nicked and we get some background: orphan, long list of expulsions from various schools and foster homes, and so on, but his most recent exploit – stealing a police car – has landed him in particularly hot water.

Normally I would have said the essential non-naturalism of the movie musical was epitomised by the fact that people keep singing and dancing about every few minutes. This does happen in A Week Away, but it is still somehow rather more realistic than a young male stealing a cop car in the US and pretty much being let off, which is what happens here. Will’s social worker does a lot of more-sorrowful-than-angry head-shaking and offers him a tough choice: he can go to Juvie, or… he can spend a week at camp with one of the foster parents (Sherri Shepherd) and her family. Hmmm, poser.

So off they go to family-friendly camp, which is run by the only person in this movie I can ever recall having seen before, David Koechner (previously in the Anchorman movies and Snakes on a Plane). Will bunks with his new foster mum’s son (Jahbril Cook), who is a nice guy but terribly uncool and hopes Will can give him advice on getting it together with one of the girls there (Kat Conner Sterling). Will, however, is rather preoccupied by Koechner’s character’s daughter (Bailee Madison). But given her thorough-going perky wholesomeness, how will she react if she eventually learns of Will’s scallywag past…?

The word ‘wholesome’ has cropped up a few times so far, along with ‘family-friendly’. It should therefore come as no surprise if I reveal there is a bit more to this movie than just a sort of chaste take on the Dirty Dancing-style holiday-romance plot structure. The first big musical number, only a few minutes into the movie, opens unexceptionally enough until Shepherd starts belting out lyrics about ‘the grace of God’ which the chorus all enthusiastically join in with.

This turns out to be a motif in the songwriting of A Week Away. The songs are not painful to listen to, and the performances are decent if not outstanding (in a similar vein, the choreography is hardly up to Gene Kelly standard but performed with gusto). Most of the numbers cover commendable themes encouraging teenagers to have confidence and self-esteem, but you can’t help but notice that the grace of God does get mentioned quite a lot. There’s another song called something like ‘Whoa, God is Awesome’ and one of the oldies smuggled onto the soundtrack – the kids in the target audience will be too young to recognise this – is ‘Baby Baby’, by arch CCM-pop-crossover star Amy Grant. In short: yes, this is a faith-based movie.

Full disclosure: I’ve never found a religion that actually worked for me, though only a fool would dismiss the importance of the great faiths to world history and culture. Faith-based movies? Not so much. These things tend to get pretty brutally reviewed, on the whole, and the only one I’d actually watched prior to A Week Away – just to see if it was quite as bad as its crits – was Last Ounce of Courage (yes, it was). I’m not sure why it should be such an iron law that faith-based movies are invariably so bad, but then of course I’m sure that many people of faith must find them entirely satisfying entertainment in the way that non-faith-based entertainment presumably isn’t. Perhaps we touch upon a deep truth about how one’s belief system colours one’s perceptions of the world here. Nevertheless, to paraphrase someone off Roger Ebert’s website, even the best of these films put me in mind of a commercial for a product which everyone in the target audience already owns.

And, to be fair, A Week Away isn’t anything like as bad as Last Ounce of Courage. True, early on I did catch myself wondering if I could somehow throttle myself into unconsciousness and get to the end a bit quicker that way (in the end I just ended up playing a lot of 2048 while watching it just to keep my higher brain functions busy), but it’s sort of amiable and unmistakably good-hearted, even if the requirements to be wholesome and family-friendly mean that it is almost totally innocuous, lacking drama, tension, or any sense of threat. It’s almost as if near-total blandness is a genre convention for this kind of film. Jokes which poke very gentle fun at faith-based organisations probably count as edgy, subversive material in this kind of film. (Not that there isn’t the odd particularly weird moment: at one point the leading couple experience a moment of shared triumph by wreaking havoc together on the paintball course, which feels rather tonally wrong – there are various other points where the film seems to be trying a bit too hard to seem cool.)

Oh well. In the end, this kind of film really isn’t my kind of thing, but it’s bright and colourful and some of the songs are pleasant enough. I suspect that Netflix (who are streaming it) don’t feel any great ideological affinity with it either, but the Christian-movie audience is large and juicy and they probably need the subscriptions right now. I wonder how Christian movie-watchers feel about being exploited and/or pandered to in this way? It’s hard not to conclude that Netflix’s investment in this film is ultimately quite cynical and calculated. There are strong and less-strong ways of running your movie streaming service – and I can’t help but think that this is a weaker way.

Read Full Post »

Who knows where anything starts anymore? Back in the old days, I went round to a friend’s house to discuss a plan to get a freaky art thing underway, which turned into the pair of us scribbling away independently. Being a good host, my friend invited me to choose some music to put on. Paralysed as usual by the prospect of making a revealing choice in a social context, I opted for the last CD I had bought, a live album recorded at a reunion concert. My friend nodded and smiled. ‘Play X-Ray Spex,’ he commanded his virtual assistant. We sat in thoughtful silence for a minute or so while Oh Bondage! Up Yours! racketed out of his speakers. ‘Stop playing X-Ray Spex,’ were the next words in the room…

Fifteen or sixteen years earlier I had been in the early stages of one of my infrequent but inevitably ill-advised excursions into online dating (or ‘the donkey ride to hell’ as I have come to refer to it) and we were at the getting-to-know-you stage in proceedings. Things were going reasonably well until I admitted to having been spending a lot of time listening to Germfree Adolescents, the 1978 debut album by (a pattern develops) X-Ray Spex. I would say it’s usually difficult to communicate unconstrained hilarity via an email, but my correspondent had no difficulty doing so. ‘I can’t believe anyone still listens to X-Ray Spex,’ came the response. Suffice to say things did not proceed very far…

…I suppose the root cause of all this, really, was the experience of having to study very intensively for my university finals back in the mid-1990s, not least because I’d spent the bulk of the preceding three years messing about in the film and media studies section of the library rather than doing much work on my own subject. This involved repeatedly listening to The Best Punk Rock Album in the World… Ever!, with the benefit of hindsight a slightly embarrassing and certainly inauthentic artefact which redeemed itself by being stuffed with banging tunes from bands I’d barely been aware of. As well as an almost Pavlovian conditioned response to Talking Heads’ Psycho Killer (the track I would unfailingly listen to immediately before an exam), it also left me with an abiding fondness for the band with the saxophones and the shouting.

Nevertheless, as you can see, most peoples’ reaction to X-Ray Spex is that they are weird and/or a novelty band (‘novelty’ in this case having the same pejorative connotation as in ‘novelty record’). So it goes, I expect. Or maybe not, for if the cinemas were open at the moment, I expect that one or two of them would be showing Paul Sng and Celeste Bell’s documentary Poly Styrene: I am a Cliché, about the life of the prime mover behind the band.

The title is ironic, or at the very least tongue-in-cheek, for there is very little about the life of Poly Styrene (real name Marianne Elliott-Said) that was entirely conventional: born in the late 1950s, of mixed English and Somali heritage, she always seems to have been one of life’s questing spirits. Perhaps the most predictable part of her story is her attendance at a Sex Pistols gig in 1976, which inspired her to have a go herself, hiring a band and changing her name. (There are variations on this story featuring New Order, Morrissey and many other musicians and bands.)

Then again, I suppose you could argue that the trajectory that followed was broadly speaking quite predictable: success, media interest, too much too young, personal and psychological problems, an unfavourably reviewed solo album, and then retreat from the music industry into a Hare Krishna community, from which she intermittently emerged until her untimely death in 2012.

There is, obviously, a great deal of potential material here, all mixed up with the social and cultural history of the UK. At first listen most of the songs on Germfree Adolescents sound the same – snarling guitars, frantic saxophones and Poly Styrene yowling over the top of it all – but the lyrics deal with topics of personal identity, feminism, the environment, and much more. One of the paradoxical things about the film is that while it reinforces Poly Styrene’s status as a punk icon, it also suggests the punk rock movement was a really a collection of disparate individuals, misfits who only really had in common the fact that they didn’t fit in anywhere else.

The general tone of the film arises from the fact that it is directed by and prominently features Celeste Bell, Poly Styrene’s daughter. Bell narrates the film, appearing on-screen throughout, and the piece is framed as her looking back on her mother’s life and significance. This gives it an undeniable resonance and impact, even if it does threaten to turn the film into a meditation on the extent to which it is possible to really know another person – for all the archive footage and material the documentary includes (Ruth Negga narrates some of Poly Styrene’s diaries), you inevitable come away realising you’re just getting tiny glimpses into what was really an extraordinary life.

On the other hand, it doesn’t have the measured thoughtfulness of Who is Poly Styrene?, a contemporary documentary made at the height of her success and popularity – the best moment of which comes when a journalist asks the singer how she sees her music developing in the future. ‘Who knows, maybe it’ll turn into the sound of a hoover,’ comes the chirpy reply. Nor is it really surprising that the film skates very lightly over some aspects of Poly Styrene’s life that might give a less positive image of her: there is a reference to her ‘cruelly sacking’ Lora Logic, the saxophonist responsible for much of the classic X-Ray Spex sound, but no elucidation of just what occurred (in one of the great karmic ironies, Poly Styrene and Lora Logic both ended up living in the same Hare Krishna community in later life).

Then again, this is standard operating procedure for most musical bio-documentaries, which are after all largely pitching to fans of their subject, who may be turned off by a warts-and-all approach. For the most part this is still a colourful and satisfying look at someone who is perhaps too little remembered these days. It doesn’t have the depth or detachment that makes for a really great documentary, but it’s still a thought-provoking and illuminating film.

Read Full Post »

As you may have noticed, I like dodgy old horror films and Japanese monster movies. You may not. This doesn’t mean either of us is weird: it just means we are different people. However, what it does mean is that I am more likely to say kind things about a dodgy old horror film or Japanese monster movie than you are, and you should probably bear that in mind when thinking about asking me for film recommendations.

I mention this because every now and then a film comes along which gets favourable reviews and a bit of a buzz about it, and which a lot of people seem to really like – and when I eventually get around to seeing it, it really doesn’t do a lot for me. It’s moments like these which lead one to have a sort of nano-existential crisis about the whole reason for and value of writing about films on the internet: is this supposed to be some kind of useful semi-objective assessment of whether something is worth watching? Or just a string of feeble jokes and clever-sounding observations meant primarily to divert and entertain, with an acquaintance with the actual film strictly optional?

Bearing all this in mind, you can probably have a fair guess at which way this is going to go, but so be it: under discussion today is Simon Stone’s The Dig. (I’ve been trying to avoid reviewing too many Netflix movies hereabouts, but what the hell: one every now and then isn’t going to do too much harm.) The title is very much from the does-what-it-says-on-the-tin school of nomenclature, but perhaps there are hidden depths to be (ahem) excavated.

The movie opens with Ralph Fiennes making a journey by rowing boat, carrying a bicycle: this is at least easier than doing it the other way round. It turns out Fiennes is playing auto-didact archaeologist Basil Brown (not much like Indiana Jones, but they do have vaguely similar hats). The year is 1939 and Brown is off to see a potential new employer.

This person is Edith Pretty, a wealthy landowner in a damp part of Sussex. Pretty is played by Carey Mulligan. There has been a lot of fuss about what constitutes fair criticism of a Carey Mulligan performance recently, so I fear that if I suggest that her main role in this film is basically to be rather like Keira ‘Twice’ Knightley, but (one would assume) for less money, I may be taking my life in my hands. It’s probably too late to worry about this now, though.

Mrs Pretty is keen for Basil Brown to examine her mounds. (Don’t tut: the film itself uses almost exactly the same gag.) She has several of these on her land, and she, and the local archaeological establishment, think they may possibly date back to the Viking period. Basil thinks they may be even older, and once they have come to terms (the princely sum of £2 a week changes hands) he gets busy with his spade.

Well, at the risk of spoiling the history of British archaeology for you, one of the mounds turns out to have the Sutton Hoo National Trust site hidden inside it. This is big news, and gets the top boys from the British Museum in rather a lather. But can they conclude the excavation of the site and its treasures before war breaks out and this turns into yet another war movie about Plucky Britain Standing Alone?

My own excavations of the history of The Dig have revealed that, for a while during its development (this is another film which has been over a decade in the works) it was going to be a BBC Films production. This did not greatly surprise me, because it’s the kind of thing that BBC Films considers a good fit for them: period setting, true-story angle, reasonably meaty parts for respectable actors, and so on. It’s what I tend to refer to as a hats-and-fags movies, by which I mean that the historical setting is primarily evoked by the fact that everyone wears some sort of titfer and tends to have a ciggie on the go at all times.

And, obviously, it achieves all the minimal competencies in this area. Beyond that, however – well, at the risk of descending into cliché, it really seemed to me to be a film of two halves, one of which was rather more interesting and original than the other.

The first part of the film is – how can I put this? – quiet and still, more about atmosphere and figures in a landscape than anything else. Music plays gently as the characters contemplate the land and its history: the reassuring certainties of the past are implicitly contrasted with an unknown but turbulent-looking future (perhaps it’s no surprise that this film has struck a chord with audiences in Britain, at least). Mulligan and Fiennes are basically front and centre throughout, and the film is as much about what they don’t say to each other as what they do – in parts it almost resembles a big-budget gender-tweaked version of Ted and Ralph, with Mulligan playing Charlie Higson’s part.

Then, rather earlier than I expected, the secret of the mounds is revealed and the film undergoes an abrupt mid-point change-of-gear: a lot of new characters descend, played by the likes of Lily James, Johnny Flynn and Ken Stott, and all that lovely stillness and thoughtfulness is largely dispelled. Those old standbys of the British costume drama, class and repressed emotion, take up major roles in driving the plot: the brilliant but working class Basil Brown is disparaged and patronised as the authorities try to take the site off him, someone else turns out to have a photogenic chronic medical condition, an unappreciated young wife (her husband is possibly implied to be gay) engages in a destined-not-to-be romance with a character with no historical basis, and so on.

I mean, it’s not awfully done, but at the same time it is very generic stuff, no matter how well-played it is. It’s almost as though the film-makers struggled along for as long as they could, trying to make something distinctive and atmospheric, touching on genuine ideas, but then they cracked under the strain and resorted to a lot of bits and pieces of plot which don’t seem to have any particular focus, and honestly feel a bit soap-opera-ish.

And yet, on the other hand, lots of people like this kind of thing, which is why British period drama films are such a fixture of the schedule (and the Downton Abbey movie made £200 million). So perhaps I shouldn’t gripe too loudly: this is, in a sense, a genre movie, and it’s silly to complain about a genre movie featuring the tropes of its own genre. If you like this kind of thing, you will probably enjoy The Dig – it looks nice, the story hangs together, and the acting is good. But it did seem to me that, by the end, history and archaeology in general, and Sutton Hoo in particular, had largely been forgotten about, and I thought that was a shame.

Read Full Post »