A Murmuration of Stalins

The Death of Stalin (Armando Iannucci, 2017)

I’ve been watching Armando Iannucci’s comedy for decades now. He was there behind On the Hour and The Friday Night Armistice, not to mention The Thick of It and In the Loop. Much of his work this century has been exploring the back stabbing shenanigans at the heart of politics, even as reality outstripped him.
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Eleven Minutes to Nine

“I’d sort of like to see some of my ideas, not just special effects of my ideas, used… and concepts that awaken the mind rather than the senses.”

Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villneuve, 2017)

May contain spoilers — I am circumspect at the start, with a firmer warning later on.

So after a full week of lectures and tutorials and a London day trip, I checked when a certain sequel was showing and saw there was a Thursday night preview with one seat left. So I booked.

I confess to a love-hate relationship with Blade Runner, ranging from the hating it because it betrays the source to loving it for visual style and allusiveness to hating it because half the students were writing about it and I’d seen it too many times. If I’m honest, I didn’t see the need for the sequel and I wasn’t convinced Scott could pull it off — and Prometheus and Covenant didn’t help, but the baton had baeen handed on.

I fully expected to hate it and had kept my expectations low, as I saw a number of rave reviews and Kim Newman’s balanced response, although I carefully didn’t read past his spoiler point.

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And the Real Thing is the Best Thing Yet

Detroit (Kathryn Bigelow, 2017)

Some time ago I was doing some research into the history of Detroit, and read that this was an integrated city with little disturbances over racial lines. It was the heart of the American motor industry and then a music industry, which have since collapsed and moved elsewhere. Julien Temple’s extraordinary documentary Requiem for Detroit (2009) documents its collapse and attempts at reconstruction. Having done further research, I’m not sure what the author was talking about — and this film centres on a reconstruction of a devastating event at the heart of a disturbance, at the Algiers Hotel.

An illegal drinking venue is raided by largely white police men, arresting largely African American patrons. This leads to unrest on the streets, which the film labels a riot, over a number of days. An aspiring male vocal group, The Dramatics, have their performance cancelled just before they are due to go on, thanks to the curfew, and they try to find their way home. Larry Reed and Fred Temple book a room at a motel and try to pick up two white tourists, Julie Ann and Karen, who introduce them to Carl Cooper and Aubrey Pollard. Pollard fires a starter gun out of the window, attracting the National Guard, the police — including Philip Krauss, who has shot someone dead in the back — and a security guard, Melvin Dismukes. Krauss starts interviewing every one left in the motel, with sadistic glee, staging mock executions. Then things go really wrong. When the night is over, the white cops and Dismukes are put on trial, with an all-white jury.

There has been a certain amount of fuss about whether this was a story that Bigelow, as a white director can tell this story. It would be interesting to see a John Singleton or Spike Lee version, of this film, but cautious Hollywood rarely gives big budgets to African American directors. Equally, they rarely do so to women — Fifty Shades of Grey, Twilight and Wonder Woman being rare exceptions — so perhaps we should celebrate a woman being given a $34 million budget, although that is not huge. Bigelow is the only woman to win a best director Oscar, so perhaps has the chops to swing the gig for an African American director and act as producer; on the other hand she has had a lot of flops, in the arcane world of film accountancy her films are rarely in profit, making about three times the budget at best. At the moment, Detroit is a flop.

It is not an easy film to navigate, as we take a long time to get to the motel and then we have the aftermath to deal with. All of this is necessary. There are a bewildering range of characters in the first half hour, before the set piece kicks in, and this gives us a portrait of a city in crisis, if not the mundane every day life. The context of unrest in 1967 Detroit is sketched in with drawings and captions — the move of workers from the south to work in the car industry and the slow exodus of the white population (the words “white flight” are not used). We don’t get the fall out from Jim Crow laws, the Civil War and slavery, but that was more in the south anyway. We are told that change is inevitable, although it is not clear when or how. Bigelow slips between documentary footage and reconstruction.

In a sense the film is all reconstruction; we are told that it is not clear what happened, even with court testimony and the memory of survivors. Characters will be compressed into composites, dialogue will be invented, people were on their own. This matters because this is an event of political importance — but the story has to be told. There is violence, but we can’t be sure it is the right violence. Above all, we can never quite get into the heads of Krauss and his fellow cops — of what made them racist. Or to behave as they did. Their interrogation is tactical, but we don’t know who set that up.

Sometimes there is a sense of punches being pulled. John Boyega as Dismukes is a Good Man, and no doubt he is, but I wonder whether the actor is in danger of becoming a British Denzel Washington, a guarantor of uprightness. Equally, there are moments of good deeds by white people just in case we have wanted to insist #notallwhitemen. It is telling that the two central characters are played by British actors. Was it too much of a hot potato?

Bigelow has always been a director of contradictions, a female director who had tried to inhabit supposedly male genres, more likely to create meaty roles for men than women (but don’t forget Jamie Lee Curtis in Blue Steel (1987)). Her background is in painting and film theory, with auteurial signatures of night shoots and neon lights, often viewed through smoke, but she has worked with and was married to James Cameron. She has worked in art house and television, with a small role in the extraordinary intersectional sf film Born in Flames, but she’s also had big budget. Repeatedly she makes radical films that end up with a whiff of neoconservatism — her vampire film Near Dark (1987) blurs boundaries of sexuality and gender, but white patriarchy and home wins out; her sf Strange Days (1995) has a female African American protagonist, but a white old man saves the day. Detroit was inspired by events in Ferguson, but the dots of true integration still not being achieved are not filled in.

I think this is a film to be seen — even if it’s not a film to like or enjoy — but perhaps on the level that a flawed attempt to tell a story is better than not to tell it. But perhaps the canvas of a thirteen part television series might have been more suitable.

Casey the Nietzschean Ghost

A Ghost Story (David Lowery, 2017)

Your response to this film will depend on whether you can buy its central conceit: when a husband dies in a car accident he haunts his wife in a white sheet. In the next house along there is another ghost, in a rather more fetching design. The cumulative effect is it is not certain how seriously you are meant to take the film — is it a comedy, a tragedy, a bitter sweet comedy, a comedy with tragic overtones? Much of the film is in silence, the husband staring, first at his wife, and then at the various later, or perhaps earlier, inhabitants of the house. The cynic is me suspects that they could only afford Casey Affleck for a couple of days, and a stand in plays the ghost, but apparently it is him.

One of the incomers, present at a party, has a speech longer than all the other dialogue put together. Oddly, when a Spanish-speaking family move in, they are not subtitled — perhaps the ghost does not understand them — but the dead neighbour is.

Lowery works within an almost square ratio, something like 4:3, the same as used in silent films, and this adds a sense of voyeurism to the proceedings. The Curzon’s policy of not closing curtains — maybe there are no curtains — to cover the blank screen draws attention to the empty space outside the restrained diegesis. The ghost is often at the edge of the frame, just in view, with the camera held on the tableaux for longer than we are used to and certainly more than is comfortable. I was reminded of the great southern American photographer, William Eggleston, with his focus on the determinedly mundane. It is ordinary, but there is a beauty in it.

Whilst in Manchester By the Sea delayed the final revelation of what the trauma and guilt at the heart of the film was, this is more circumspect. There is tension between the married couple, over whether they should move or not, the chain of tragic events is less laid out for us. Whilst that film denied us catharsis, this one is even more frustrating of audience desires. The pace is glacial at first, but slowly builds, never less than watchable even as it toys with us. The mourning wife, Rooney Mara, binge eats a chocolate pudding, in spoonful after spoonful after spoonful and I hope this was achieved in a single take for the sake of her waist line.

It is not clear whether it is told in linear time — in a sense it isn’t, as we have flashbacks — but the years that the house lies empty should be stretching out from more or less the present, even as a modern metropolis encroaches on the house. They have laptops. Mobile phones. And we also loop back to pioneers. The film’s epigraph is taken from a Virginia Woolf story, “A Haunted House”:

”Whatever hour you woke there was a door shutting. From room to room they went, hand in hand, lifting here, opening there, making sure — a ghostly couple.”

and Woolf repeatedly plays with duration in her work.

On a couple of occasions the husband loses patience with his squatters and haunts them — exploding light bulbs, throwing books around. We see some of the titles: A Farewell to Arms, some Nietzsche. They mean something. Probably. You may lose patience. You may surrender to the film. You should probably cry.

Peter Parker’s Day Off

Spider-Man: Homecoming (Jon Watts, 2017)

I can remember standing in a queue for the Spider-Man reboot, worried that it would be rebooted again before I got to see it. And here we are, a new Spider-Man, now part of the Marvel Comics Universe, after what I assume is a cameo in a Captain America movie.

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Waiting for Gadot

Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins, 2017)

Of course, this is an important film — women directors are pretty rare and women directors given a big budget are even rarer. Whilst I am hardly disciplined in seeing DC and Marvel superhero movies, my experience is that women are mostly there to be rescued, with the few female superheroes rather sidelined. This is, I understand, the first female superhero movie (Supergirl aside or presumably Catwoman). I confess I’ve yet to have the pleasure of Batman vs Superman, a film seemingly so long in the making that I suspect they wanted us to forget about it. So this is my first meeting with Diana, Princess of the Amazons (Gal Gadot), at some point to be called Wonder Woman.

She is brave and headstrong and heroic, and refuses to be put in her place, with a string duty of care and a sense of ethics. As action figure, she fits in that line that started with Buffy and went through Catnip Evergreen to Rey and the ex-Emma Grundy née Carter. We need strong women. We need strong role modes for women.

Note the plural.

And we need a world in which $149 million can be wasted on tosh starring a woman as well as on tosh starring a man.

Because, it is, don’t get me wrong, tosh.

There is something that makes me feel awfully uncomfortable about a superhero movie set so firmly in the real world that the First World War features and which has the superhero also living in present day Paris. Paris. Of all cities. And obviously it raises questions about the Second World War, as well as more recent tragedies, and where the hell she was.

So little Diana, princess, has grown up on the island of Mascara, ok the island of Themyscira, passing through a series of different accents until she comes of age. After being forbidden to train as a warrior, she gets her way and is beefed up just in time for American spy Stephen Trevor to literally crash into her life, with boatloads of Evil Germans on his tail. These are soon seen off — although the battleship seems to be conveniently forgotten about — and Diana decides she wants to go to the Front, to find and defeat Ares, the God of War.

It is at this point that the idiot gear is engaged. She sails with Trevor, apparently overnight to London, waking up for Tower Bridge, which is closer to St Paul’s than you think and even closer to Selfridge’s, where they get her some clothes, with the aid of the former Hayley from The Archers aka Dawn from The Office as Etta Crumb, perhaps the most interesting figure in the film, who can more than hold her own, even when they are mugged in the surprisingly close by Sicilian Avenue.

Meanwhile, a mission is afoot: to stop the evil Dr Moreau (who spells it Maru) from developing a nerve gas even worse than the Mustard Gas used by the Germans in Ypres and elsewhere and indeed by the Allies in 1917 when they found some and started developing their own. This will also get Diana closer to Ares. And so Trevor recruits his team, Sameer and Charlie in London and Chief, a Native American, in Belgium, to go after the bad guys.

Of course, it is hard to think of Spud from Trainspotting as a sharpshooter, indeed he is not as good at it as you’d think, and when he raises his kilt to warm his, er, sporran over a fire, he clearly turns out not to be a true Scotsman. And there are unexpected twists that make absolutely no sense and an embarrassing and hideous mass killing, albeit of Evil Germans, by Dr Moreau and Herr General Evil German, who cackle with laughter in a callousness that feels poorly judged. Especially in a 12A. And the Evil Germans keep shooting at Diana, but unaccountably aim for her wrists or her shield, rather than, I don’t know, her ankles. But there’s hugs all round by the end. The surviving Evil Germans aren’t so evil after all.

Of course, I was under the impression that Trevor was Rogers and was going to turn into Captain America, but that was Chris Evans rather than Chris Pratt, an entirely different universe. Silly me. Too many Steves and Chrises.

Of course, Trevor is given a wonderful speech in which he explains that evil is inherent in humanity and there isn’t really one Big Bad, and you wonder (sorry) whether it’ll turn out that Diana was deluded after all. But he has to go off and buy the farm, whilst she gets to kick Ares after all. Of course, this is her brother, whom she is able to Stop, in the Name of Love, as she gets extra powers when she’s mourning.

The box office success of the film no doubt means a second episode is forthcoming, although whether this will be present day stopping evil in Paris or we have another flashback to her, I don’t know, fighting Ares in a Berlin bunker, having stopped…. no, just, no.

Perhaps less of the stupid next time?

Have I Got Your Attention Now? Good

The Boss Baby (Tom McGrath, 2017)

This animation is more fun than it has any right to be — in part because of the vocal talents of Tobey Maguire as the narrator, Steve Buscemi as the villain and, above all, Alec Baldwin as the eponymous baby.

We have a few notes of political subtext — seven-year-old Tim’s imagining life in the jungle seems to be setting up a survival of the fittest philosophy that you imagine may collide with capitalism — but it brings the anxieties of the older offspring feeling edged out by the new baby.

The new baby is a ringer, who had been found to be insufficiently empathic, who has therefore been sidelined into management of Baby Corp and is now clad in a business suit. He has been sent to Tim and the Templeman family to try and discovers why puppies are becoming more popular than babies. Tim has discovered the truth about the baby, but is unable to convince any of the adults about the secret. Inevitably, however, the two have to work together to rescue the parents and stop the baby from growing up.

There is a strange mix of animation — an almost photorealistic style colliding with something rather more impressionistic. Repeatedly there are moments where you sense the animators at just showing off. The Baby Corp sequences are fun (although they have to go to great lengths to protect the naked babies’ modesties) and there are some fun moments of Elvis impersonators.

Of course we have a sense of contradiction here — the massive behemoth of DreamWorks satirising commerce — and sadly the opportunity for the cynical ending is sacrificed in favour of the feel good and the growing up and large hook for a sequel.

But frankly I feel forgiveness for a film that uses Alec Baldwin so well and allowing me the cultural capital of being the only person in the cinema to pick up on a Glen Garry Glen Ross reference.