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.

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Valium and the Plant of a Thousand Pretties

Valerian and the Planet of a Thousand Cities (Luc Besson, 2017)

Back in the 1980s, there was this thing called cinéma du look, French in original, and films that perhaps aspired to the thriller but were interested in putting disaffected yoofs in attractively shot locations. Stuff like Subway and Diva, huge cults at the time, but more or less invisible today. It was the early days of pomo, and style would triumph over substance.

And Besson was in that group, Subway most obviously, and he’s continued in that vein. Twenty years ago we had his The Fifth Element, which stuck Bruce Willis and Gary Oldman and (unwatchably) Chris Tucker in an sf caper that involved chasing Mila Jonavich around. It was pretty, it was vacant, it was fun, it was portentous. And prententious.

And now they’ve given him lots of money to make Valerian and the Planet of a Thousand Cities, an adaptation of a French comic book I confess meant nothing to me. At the heart of this is Valerian and Laureline (I had to look her name up), agents sent on a mission to retrieve the last specimen of a particular species whose background is associated with a planet which was caught up in some kind of war. And that war is associated with a soldier colleague, played by the reliably wooden Clive Owen who here is giving a performance for once too nuanced for the surrounding movie.

So here it is pretty — like Jupiter Ascending pretty — but vacant — like Jupiter Ascending vacant. If you like a film where you can see half a dozen examples of an CGI alien for thirty seconds, you’ll fill your boots. Repeatedly. The opening five minute montage of docking spaceships and docking spaceships and space stations, with increasingly diverse humans and then aliens, choreographed to “Space Oddity” (for cheap gravitas), is a case in point. It’s a point where you might fall in love with the movie; the quick tour of the space station several centuries later may confirm this. But the thrill is cheap.

The backstory involves a society of pearl fishers, who repay their planet by feeding one of the pearls to an alien cutie who poops pearls in a bigger on the inside ridiculousity not since Doctor Who portrayed the moon as a hatching egg. The alien pooper seems to feed on uranium, something we don’t get to see in the beachly CGI paradise that resembles an early draft for Avatar. The uncanny valley means that actually it would have been more convincing if they’d used animation (or puppets) rather than mocapping. If Avatar was reminiscent of Roger Dean, the. This is a mass uo of Chris Foss, Peter Goodfellow and Tim White.

So as Valerian and Laureline chase and escape, we are treated to a series of set pieces, each pretty in themselves, and with the virtue of the sense that if one sequence is dull, the next one might be better. So the best two things in the film after the opening are Ethan Hawke as a pimp and Rihanna as an entertainer (I gather she is a popular beat combo). Valerian crashes his way through walls, with ne’er a health n safety sign in site. Nod and you’ll miss Rutger Hauer.

A lot of reviewers have said that there is no chemistry between the leads — this is true but I suspect misses the point. On the one hand, Dane DeHaan as Valerian is pretty to look at, although I suspect they’ve CGIed him over Keanu Reeves outtakes from Bill and Ted’s Big Adventure and The Matrix. I could stand more watching, although the character is frankly an arse. Cara Delevingne as Laureline has a pissed off look on her face throughout, reflecting her truthful response to the nonsense to has to say and do, which evidently includes the heterosexual reward narrative and being paired off.

I was quite tired when I saw this, and I was in danger of nodding off — the spectacle having the side effect off lolling me to sleep. The surface is astounding and that’s what you get in cinéma du Luc, but the lack of backstory aside from surplus to requirement flashbacks is frustrating. We know little more about the characters after two and nearly a half hours, but you pays your money for the pretty.

The Ape with No Name

War for the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves, 2017)

The original Planet of the Apes franchise is a good example of the way in which sf film moved from radical to conservative between the late 1960s and late 1970s. Whilst the original Pierre Boulle novel presumably needs to be read in terms of French political history and colonialism, or in terms of class, the films seemed to offer an allegory for America in the civil rights era, with the apes standing in for whites, African Americans and Jews. Certainly we have the spectacle of Charlton Heston, old Moses and Ben Hur, and fellow white astronauts being subjected to the slave experience. As a sequel gave way to prequels, the films seemed to become more anxious about the politics (and there is something frankly racist about the allegory).

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Kissing Cousins

My Cousin Rachel (Roger Michell, 2017)

What is not clear here, of course, is how reliable the self-serving Philip is. Is it really wise to want to marry a cousin with a dodgy back story? Is it good taste to marry one’s uncle’s widow? Or is Rachel perhaps just poor at handling money and the victim of an infantile young man brought up in a homosocial environment?

We’ve all been gaslighted at some point — I know I have and I can tell you the name of the man who did it and does it to others. Typically, of course, it’s something a man does to a woman rather than vice versa, although I suspect if you reverse the power dynamic we get into not-a-proper-man territory.

I can live with that.

Daphne du Maurier is probably best known for Rebecca, in which the nameless narrator has a less than frank new husband and housekeeper. Somewhere along the line it ends up back at Bluebeard.

But here, in this film adaptation of another of her novels, we have Young Philip, orphaned, brought up by Ambrose in an all-male household, aside from the dogs and the plainish daughter, Louis Kendall, of a family friend and Godfather, Nick Kendall. Ill Ambrose goes to Florence to take the air and falls in love with a cousin, presumably younger than him, Rachel. They marry in haste, but Philip learns first that his uncle is dying and that Ambrose thinks Rachel is to blame.

We have a structural problem. Key to the narrative is the psychodrama between Philip and Rachel — is he mad? Is she a bunny boiler? Is he naive? Is she misunderstood? We can’t have her, until she comes to the Cornish estate he inherits, and thus we have to told about what she has done rather than seeing it — we cannot see if she loved Ambrose. We are stuck with truncated flashbacks and awkward voiceovers, and even when she has arrived, the shot of her is delayed as long as possible. Was it half an hour in? It all feels a little laboured.

The film has to convince us that Philip can switch between someone who hates and wants revenge on “the bitch” and someone madly in love, wrapped round her finger. Philip here is a bit wet and sulky and arrested adolescent — and you have to lay that at the door of Ambrose, who has excluded all women from the household save the dogs. And the dogs want to sleep with the bitch.

What I think the film sneakily does — more so than I recall from the novel — is to make us side with the wrong character. Rachel is, it appears, a character who loves sex. I’m guessing this is set in Regency times (it isn’t clear — neither trains nor telegrams seem to have made it to Cornwall; I don’t think the letters are sent by the penny post). Lydia in Jane Austen may well be the right era, and her desire is the cause of all manner of shenanigans that delay Elizabeth and Darcy exploring the double beds in the west wing of his stately erection. Narratively, she probably has to be punished, but I’m not sure du Maurier really wants to.

So we have a young man, starved of affection and sex, who finally gets an opportunity and loses a sense of proportion — showering her with gifts and trying to buy her, pretty well paying her for sex. Given the opportunity, she even tries to give it back.

There is the question of her overspending — is she being blackmailed by the Italian Rinaldi? He knows about her past and perhaps the confirmed bachelor Ambrose has secrets too. Or perhaps the house repairs are just bloody expensive.

I ended a little underwhelmed — not because Rachel Weisz didn’t put in a fine performance, because she did, and Sam Ciafin is suitably emo. Holliday Grainger makes the most of an under written role as a smart role. Cornwall is pretty if a little … narrow. (Florence, I’m afraid, shouts CGI.) But somehow the pace is off — we’re given an interesting ending rather than a satisfying one, and for a film that seems to reach for ambiguity, Michell — unlike Hitchcock, who learned his trade in silent — just keeps telling.

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.

Free Fall

Free Fire (Ben Wheatley, 2016)

This isn’t a postmodern movie like Reservoir Dogs, the academic introducing this movie reassured us, as Wheatley draws on Michael Mann rather than Quentin Tarantino.

Okay…

I’ve only seen two of Wheatley’s previous films (and his Doctor Who episodes) and I suspect I like one of them more than others and one of them less. One switched genre gears pleasingly into Wicker Man territory, the other was a Kevin Brownlow movie directed by Ken Russell. There was a camp if violent tone to both.

Free Fire cranks up the claustrophobia on both — after a couple of road scenes and a factory exterior in Toronto, we’re then stuck in single space in Brighton, although you could read it as Massachusetts and some point in the 1970s if you want to. On the one hand, there are Irish men looking for machine guns, presumably as part of the terror campaign, on the other hand there is a South African and an ex-Black Panther looking to sell. The inbetweeners are a bearded giant and almost the only woman in the film.

Of course, you know it’s going to go wrong and, whilst the film is a taut ninety minutes, it drags a little until the wrongness starts. One of them asks the woman if she is an FBI plant — just like Mr Orange, you’ll think, or in his mould, but that hasn’t been filmed yet. Later we’re told how long it takes to bleed to death — just as we find out in Reservoir Dogs. One faction will, you know, attempt to rip the other group off — or they’ll rip each other off.

There’s a very heavy handed flagging of a gun over a fireplace, although we’re never told what the gun is and … well, as far as I can tell this is a tease and perhaps the only real nod to originality in the film.

As the bullets fly, you rather quickly lose track of who is dead or dying, or perhaps merely dying, or perhaps they’re stunned… beautiful plumage… You can’t help but feel that as the shot, blown up and penetrated crawl over glass, syringes and rubble that they’d be a little more stunned. For all Wheatley’s plotting out of the action in Minecraft, the spaces don’t feel consistent.

There are some laughs. The guys behind me (I think there was only one woman in the auditorium) found shooting a gun hilarious. They found guns jamming hilarious. They found the need to reload hilarious. I think I missed the joke. Cillian Murphy, Michael Riley and even Sam Riley had good lines. Armie Hammer looks good in a beard, perhaps his one character note and a means of telling him apart from the others. Brie Larson has her moments, and I’d like to see her in Concrete Island if Wheatley fancies more Ballard. And Sharlton Copley has the same comic schtick he brought to District 9 and CHAPPiE, minus the CGI. Rather like Life it’s an endurance test for the audience as much as the characters, and I cared marginally more for them.

But solid back story, motivation and something like an actual plot have been carefully eliminated in the name of … well it used to be postmodern and ironic and it used to make a difference from Merchant-Ivory confection but it’s twenty years since Michael Mann in Heat remade his own LA Takedown from a decade before that. Do we have more than a feature-length sitcom with a body count? It is slick, but too slick.

When googling around on Wheatley, I read the comment that he’s the new Noel Clarke. This may have been a compliment.

To be honest, I’m not sure who should be more insulted.