Category Archives: Film

Gravity, dir. Alfonso Cuaron


It’s more than a week since I saw Gravity, so it seems a bit passé to write about it now. I wanted to at the time but went to London to see The National the next morning, and have been stupid busy ever since. But I think it’s still on in cinemas, so I’ll quickly spew some thoughts. Beware spoilers, obviously.

Straight off the bat, Gravity is an awesome phenomenological cinema experience, bar some of the score, which became intrusive and unsubtle at times, especially towards the end. I am not a fan of 3D at all – as I’ve written before – but I would go as far as to say that you shouldn’t watch Gravity any other way; it felt absolutely intrinsic to the fabric of the movie, essential to immersion in the experience – and immersion is the right word – and to what Gravity was about. It certainly didn’t feel like a gimmick (think of those golf-ball shots in Avatar) or like it was grafted-on post-partum (John Carter of MARS). Cuaron seemed to be setting out to make a movie about space that could express the visceral nature of being an astronaut, floating weightless in zero gravity, and 3D was an essential tool in conveying that sensation. At several points the 3D made me feel incredibly woozy and dizzy and physically uncomfortable, almost inspiring motion-sickness. I can’t imagine the effect would be anywhere near as intense in 2D, even on a massive Imax screen.

I do have some issues with the way backstory and character were dealt with, though. Essentially (spoiler alert) I felt it was 100% unnecessary to write-in a dead child as part of Sandra Bullock’s character’s motivation. I’ve read accounts from Cuaron of things the studio wanted to do, like include flashbacks and scenes of people panicking at ground control, and I’m intensely glad that he fought to keep these elements out of the film; it would have been a much lesser experience had they been included. But the Bullock bereavement felt false to me, and extraneous, and as such it lifted me out of the otherwise superb atmosphere of the film. George Clooney’s character was humanised by allowing him to crack wise and listen to country music while spacewalking; Bullock’s was humanised by killing her child; she literally had no other interests or relations.

I’ve read some comments on this which suggested it was an inversion of the trope where someone finds the will to live in order to see their children / husband / dog / etc (delete as appropriate) once more, and, to be fair, I quite like the life-for-life’s-sake aspect of that reading, and it chimed nicely with the Buddhist vibe of the escape pod; but you could have inverted that trope just as effectively – more effectively – by not killing the kid, by allowing a female character to be defined by something other than her relationship to her offspring. Coming from Cuaron, who directed Children of Men – where every character, including, importantly, the male protagonist, is defined by their relationship to their children – and Y Tu Mama Tambien – where the female lead escapes being defined by children or lack thereof – it felt disappointing. Dying alone in endless, infinite space and loneliness felt like peril enough as motivation to keep living to me, and likewise being marooned alone in space after experiencing absolute catastrophe on an escape pod with no fuel and no parachute felt like reason enough to give up, too. You didn’t need to factor in anything else; wanting to live is the very essence of being human, and resigning yourself to inevitable death is no less so.

I’ve seen some people complain about a certain religiosity in the film, but I don’t agree with that criticism; in fact the opposite; when Bullock clambered out of the primordial soup like the first creature to walk, it seemed explicitly evolutionary to me. Add in references to Buddhism and any atheistic reading of the film as pro-Catholic sci-fi seem pretty frothing and Dawkins-esque to me. And the comedic placement of the 3D frog seemed a deliberate ploy to burst any bubbles of over-profundity, too.

As an aside, you may be interested in this short film by Cuaron’s son (Gravity’s screenwriter), which enlightens us as to the other side of the radio conversation Bullock has with someone on Earth near the film’s denouement.

Cuaron is one of my favourite directors of recent times, and Children of Men is one of my very favourite films. Gravity was a spectacular cinema experience, but, for me, relied so much on its format and medium for its impact, that I can’t see it being something I’d want to experience again at home on Blu-Ray particularly. It’s a hell of an achievement and I’m very glad I’ve seen it in the cinema, though.

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The Dark Knight Rises: disappointing?

Just so you know, there will be serious spoilers here if you haven’t seen this movie. But no more than there already are on Wikipedia.

Seven years ago, Christopher Nolan (don’t trust him; he doesn’t truncate his name) made Batman Begins, which was an unexpectedly stylish, believable, and satisfying resurrection (or reboot, or retelling, or whatever) of the Batman character and universe on the cinema screen. I went in with almost no expectations and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Three years later, we saw The Dark Knight at a preview screening, full of über-fans in Batman t-shirts and Heath-Ledger-as-Joker make-up and purple suits, and we were pretty much blown away. We saw it twice more (I think; certainly once more) in the cinema, and have subsequently watched it another half a dozen times at least on DVD. We’ve watched it so often that it’s become a standing joke to say to each other “should we watch that Batman film everyone’s talking about?” as if we’ve never seen it. I wrote about it at length on an old blog, and would happily call it one of my favourite films ever.

(I’m not a slavish fanboy, though; The Dark Knight had issues and things that could have been improved, but is more than the sum of its parts, both successes and failings.)

Last night we went to see The Dark Knight Rises, which we’ve essentially been waiting to do for either two or four years, depending how you look at it – since the last Batman instalment, or since Nolan’s between-Bats film, Inception. It’s fair to say that we were looking forward to it mightily.

Sadly, Em and I (she, if anything, likes Batman and Nolan’s interpretation thereof even more than I do) both left the cinema feeling a little deflated and disappointed.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing bad about The Dark Knight Rises. No jump-the-shark moment. No poor performances. No, as far as I could tell from one viewing, bad cuts (there’s a doozy in The Dark Knight when Alfred is talking to Bruce as he stitches himself up; camera cuts to another angle of Bruce, his voice still talking but his mouth closed and still for a fraction of a second: it bugs me every time, especially given how often Nolan is described as “meticulous”). The Dark Knight Rises just didn’t quite grab us the way that Batman Begins and The Dark Knight did.

Here’s why.

Score and editing

For a start, I feel as though the pacing, editing, and score didn’t work together here as effectively as they did in The Dark Knight. The Dark Knight was gifted with an extraordinary, avant-garde, tension building, rising single tone that pierced every scene the Joker graced and added a veneer of nervous apprehension regarding what the hell this crazed lunatic might do next. Smash a pencil through someone’s head? Set fire to a few million dollars in cash? Explode a hospital?

The Dark Knight used its score and its astonishingly taut editing to create a sense of unbearable, inexorable momentum, only losing its way a little with the citizens vs criminals face-off on the ferries. The Dark Knight Rises never seemed to quite build that synthesis of score and editing to ramp the tension up to maximum; it got close, but maybe Nolan and company had just done it so well before that matching or surpassing previous efforts becomes an impossible task.

Bane

Which leads to the next, sad point. Ledger’s death denied Nolan the use of a truly great screen villain for Batman. Bane just can’t compete – he isn’t a great baddy. Certainly he’s physically frightening (he, of course, literally breaks Batman across his knee, as Bane must do), and with his startling mask (which looks like hands trying to wrench his jaw apart) he resembles a muzzled fighting dog. Which is interesting: after Batman is bitten by a dog at the start of The Dark Knight, and the Joker iconically leans out of a police car window, lapping at the air like a happy dog later in that film, and barks like a dog in one of his video messages to the city (“LOOK AT ME”), I wonder if this is a deliberate theme for Nolan; villains as mad dogs.

Bane takes an entire city hostage for three months (which pass in mere seconds of screen time, and consequently don’t feel all that perilous or plausible), smashes the Batman to bits with his bare fists and throws him down a metaphorically bottomless pit, raids the stock exchange and destroys a football stadium full of people, but he never seems as unstoppable, as fascinatingly, charismatically crazy, or as dangerous, as the Joker. I didn’t think this would bother me – I know Bane’s schtick, his USP, his use in the comics, I knew what to expect – but unfortunately it did. Tom Hardy is a great actor, tremendously watchable and likable, and capable of imbuing total nutjob characters with great charisma (go and watch Bronson), but he’s literally like a muzzled dog here. Also, his voice really is a little silly, and, at times, incomprehensible; not just his muffled enunciations but also his strange accent.

Not enough is made of Bane’s motivation either; ‘evil man does evil things because he is evil’ is a rote and unsatisfying comic book baddy motivation which doesn’t really work in otherwise grown-up films; there’s a hint that Bane is motivated, right before he dies, by love (possibly inappropriate, given that he first knows her as a little girl when he’s a fully-grown man) for Talia al Ghul, but there’s nary a split second to ponder this before he’s kaput.

Talia al Ghul

Talia isn’t explored enough either; not enough is made of her relationship with Bruce in order to make her reveal at the climax emotionally satisfying. She’d also be much more satisfying, and plausible, if she wasn’t just slavishly following dead daddy’s plan. If she’d been something more than just a cypher villain, she could have been awesome. Also, Cotillard, though fantastic as Édith Piaf, is a strange screen presence in both Inception and here: glamorous but strangely hollow. Apparently Talia is the only character Batman has ever canonically slept with, though, Bat-nerds, so Nolan plays it according to the book here as well as with Bane smashing Batman’s vertebrae over his knee.

Catwoman

Why oh why is Catwoman dolled out in a lonely-fanboy-pleasing black rubber superhero suit? There’s no explanation as to why it exists, how she got it, or why she wears it, and given that she’s never referred to as “Catwoman”, it would seem more fitting if she just wore a regular black jumpsuit or something, like a real jewel thief might. I’m not opposed to characters arriving with no backstory (the Joker didn’t have one, and that worked fantastically), but there are ways to deal with it: “nothing in his pockets but knives and lint” is almost all you need.

I actually found Hathaway’s performance satisfying, sassy, and amusing, and a welcome spark of charm in an otherwise really quite exceptionally bleak film, which I didn’t really expect. But the catsuit was an annoyance that seemed at odds with the universe that’s been created over the films. When she jutted her arse in the air as she climbed astride the Bat-pod, it seemed like a nod too far to comicbook misogyny.

I’ve actually often had a problem with the way Nolan treats his female characters; they do seem to be very often simple Hollywood clichés, vehicles to inspire men to great things rather than there to achieve anything for themselves. Hell, in Inception Cotillard practically plays a MacGuffin. In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne’s father imparts line after line of pastoral wisdom to his son, whilst his mother barely opens her mouth to speak before being gunned down.

Other stuff that left a disappointing taste

The Bat, Batman’s new helicopter-thing toy/vehicle, was a little problematic. Though generally utilised in a fine, plausible way, in the climactic scenes it suddenly weaves through Gotham, dodging bombs and missiles and then ferrying a nuclear bomb out to sea more like a spectacular, physics-defying creation from GI Joe or Transformers. It lacked the physicality of the Tumbler, Nolan’s interpretation of the Batmobile, and thus the realism that this trilogy been so satisfyingly grounded in.

Speaking of realism, once again you see nobody bleed, even when shot to ribbons by sub-machine guns or brutally smashed with massive fists. In fact, the only person you see bruised and battered is, again, Batman himself. Partly this is a nod to the unrealism of comicbooks, partly a concession to 12A / PG13 certification, and partly a device to demonstrate the physical as well as mental toll taken on Batman over the years. With The Dark Knight I felt that this was a great, clever, hyper-real move (Batman pummels the Joker’s head, and all that happens is his make-up comes off), but for some reason here I found it a little childish, mainly when Matthew Modine’s deputy police chief ended up shot to death with not a mark on him. Conversely, I’m happy that Bane breaks a lot of necks, but always off screen.

The opening plane hijack was a little disappointing, too, seeming like a cross between the audacious henchman-kill-henchman heist from The Dark Knight’s opening and the extraordinary, anti-gravity hotel corridor fight scene from Inception. Sadly it lacked the shocking novelty and audaciousness of either; possibly because shots from it had been glimpsed in the trailers.

The use of flashbacks to Batman Begins seemed a little strange too; the film started almost directly on from The Dark Knight, with no exposition or context, assuming that the viewer knew exactly what was happening and what was going on. After this tone setting, it seemed strange to then almost patronise the audience by not trusting them to remember what had gone before.

Batman himself doesn’t get to do very many Batman-esque things; there’s precious little detective work (except by Gordon-Levitt), and barely any crepuscular beatings of baddies, one of the most satisfying aspects of the previous two films for me – Batman is meant to move in the shadows, to scare the hell out of people, make villains afraid of the night; seeing him duke it out on the steps of city hall in broad daylight is just weird.

Finally, how does Bruce Wayne get back into Gotham, when a major plot point is that it’s impossible to get back into Gotham? I know he’s got mad skills, but I’d have liked at least some attempt at an explanation.

But still, Batman!

I probably sound, after 1,700 words of moaning, as if I didn’t like The Dark Knight Rises, but that’s not true: I enjoyed it an awful lot, didn’t look at my watch once, and felt genuinely moved and satisfied by the closing scenes. Christian Bale turns in his best performance yet as Bruce/Batman, tying the two personas seamlessly into one damaged, sympathetic whole. Alfred, Gordon, and Lucius are all, though perhaps a little under-used, as charismatic and human as ever. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is terrific, and the treatment of his character shows that Nolan can find a way to bring even the most potentially eye-rolling bits of comicbooks to plausible, satisfying life on celluloid (he’s Robin, if you didn’t guess, but sans tights, thank the lord).

It looks, as with all Nolan films from Memento onwards, absolutely sumptuous; not real but hyper-real, dream-like, comicbook like. I’d love to see him do straight sci-fi, create a world unlike ours rather than one so like it in almost every way as to be uncanny, which is what he’s done with Batman and what he did with Inception.

We’ll probably go and see The Dark Knight Rises again soon; as much as anything I have loyalty to two cinemas in town and feel guilty for going to one and not the other to see it! But also I want to assess how much I felt disappointed; did The Dark Knight Rises simple fail to live up to impossible, outrageous expectations, or did it actually fail me as a fan? I hope, and strongly suspect, that it was merely the former.

So, Prometheus then…

Turn away if you don’t want to get spoilt.

We won some free cinema tickets on a milkshake and have been saving them for one of the various summer blockbusters we’re looking forward to. On leave this week after spending the weekend in Jersey, the weather was so awful (preventing me from cycling or getting to the allotment) we decided we’d go and see Prometheus on Tuesday afternoon and use the free tickets up. I almost wish we hadn’t bothered.

I’ve been looking forward to Prometheus since hearing that Ridley Scott was wanting to do something related to Alien; I’m not a fan of him as a director per se, but I love Alien and Blade Runner, and the things he was saying – about not wanting to make a straight prequel – sounded good and right. Resurrecting the franchise would be tiresome; examining new ideas from the same universe seemed like a bona fide good idea, especially if it allowed Scott to lavish modern cinema techniques and technologies onto a sci-fi context.

Sadly, Prometheus is, to my mind, a victim of modern mainstream cinema blockbuster idiocy as well as a beneficiary of modern techniques and technology. I shouldn’t have expected anything else from the man who made Gladiator and Black Hawk Down; Scott obviously has no issue with the overwhelming of plot and character by spectacle and set-piece, and I’m left wondering if the subtle successes of Alien and Blade Runner were side-effects of the limitations of Scott’s technical film-making back then – if you can’t CGI an enormous monster or a 3D galaxy map or an extremely invasive wide-awake abdominal surgery scene, you develop compelling characters and confusing moral dilemmas by accident?

So, what irritated me about Prometheus? Firstly, I didn’t give a crap about any of the characters. Not one. Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender were very watchable (Fassbender especially during the brief Wall•E-esque scenes where he wandered the ship alone, watching David Lean films and bleaching his hair), but I didn’t care about either of them, and the rest of the cast were irritating, pointless, or nondescript. The crew aboard the spaceship also suffered from “Sunshine Syndrome” – which is to say that they were (almost) all far too beautiful to be believable as scientists. I work with academics; none of them look like Logan Marshall-Green. None of the cast on the Nostromo in Alien did, either, which added to a sense of believability, and therefore empathy and sympathy, and therefore dread and terror.

Charlize Theron’s character was almost completely without purpose; I literally have no idea what she was in the film for (apart from to satisfy the Male Gaze with some near-naked push-ups and skin-tight uniforms), as any hint of tension or drama that was suggested early on evaporated. The casting of Guy Pearce was bizarre, and seemed to be justified entirely by clever pre-opening viral marketing and as an excuse to use a load of old-man prosthetics. Idris Elba’s character seemed like the most rounded and likeable, but was given barely any screen time. Sean Harris’ character was an excuse for a haircut and some mild dissonance. Rafe Spall, who I really like as an actor, was equally pointless. In fact it’s a quote from Spall about why he was so excited to be in Prometheus that best illustrates my issue with the film: “That’s why I wanted to be an actor, to be in a space suit on an ‘Alien’ set.”

Because I think Damon Lindeloff and the whole Comic-Con / Wonder-Con culture ruined Prometheus by making it pander to whooping expectations of spectacle. Lindeloff, we know from Lost, is an ideas man who needs a steadying hand to say “why?” instead of “why not?” every time he says “let’s do this awesome cool thing!” “Because it would be cool!” is not justification enough. So “let’s have the Space Jockey be a giant god-like humanoid with an exact match to our DNA despite translucent opalescent skin and huge stature, and let’s have them have created mankind in the dim and distant past by drinking a disintegration potion and dissolving their biomatter into a lake in Iceland” should have been met with enormous incredulity rather than gurning acceptance. Let’s not even get into the “let’s have a surgery-pod that performs complex operations on still-waking patients in space, and have it perform a kind of weird appendectomy / caesarian on Noomi Rapace, while she’s dressed like Leeloo from Fifth Element, and extract a giant CGI alien fish from her abdomen” suggestion.

“Let’s immolate people who are possessed for seemingly no reason!” “Let’s have a giant worm force itself down someone’s throat again and again! And have acid for blood!” “Let’s have a giant starfish monster with a vagina-like maw, and let’s have it have a fight with a giant translucent opalescent skinned godlike humanoid creation alien with our exact DNA! In space!” “Let’s have ancient cave paintings be of advanced alien civilizations consisting of giant translucent opalescent skinned godlike humanoid creation aliens with our exact DNA!” “Let’s have the android infect the male archaeologist with an unidentified micro-thingy, and then let’s have the male archaeologist have sex with the female archaeologist and impregnate her with rapidly-gestating alien starfish spawn!” “Let’s explore the very reason we exist! In space!” “Let’s have an entire planet be a bio-chemical warfare laboratory breeding some nasty bio-weapon which may or may not turn out to be the Giger-alien!” “Let’s have an android mirror the creationist dilemma and want to be Lawrence of Arabia! In space! And then let’s tear his head off and expose his milky circuitry guts, because that’s a trope we have to have in every film!” “Let’s add a mean female character with daddy-issues!” “Let’s have Guy Pearce in old-man prosthetics!”

Much less happens in Alien than in Prometheus, and it’s a much better film for it. The “themes” are much less lofty, the awe and terror much closer to home, much more intimate, and much more affecting for it. Likewise the spectacle is more modest, more real, the characters (and their cats) much more identifiable and understandable. So much of what does happen in Prometheus is unexplained. It’s like the inverse of dramatic irony; neither characters nor audience, nor, seemingly, director, writer, or producer, seem to have a clue why anything is happening. It all just happens because “it’d be cool to have this happen!”; there’s seemingly no internal logic.

There’s plenty more I could moan about, but I’ve already written a thousand words. I don’t think Prometheus is a “bad” film, per se – it’s an enjoyable cinema experience, it looks amazing, and so on and so forth – I just think it could have been much, much better.

Why do people hate John Carter (of Mars)?

Last night I went to see the film John Carter with my friend Olly. Olly has a PhD in English – as I recall he specifically researched the representation of women in Victorian literature. We go and see films together a couple of times a year or more, as we’re both into schlocky superhero and sci-fi movies which our wives don’t always want to come and see with us (though Em is often pretty partial to superheroes and sci-fi; just not anything with swords…).

Which is to say that Olly knows his fantastical action films and is phenomenally well read, too. But he didn’t know that John Carter was an adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess Of Mars, written in 1912 and initially published as a 6-part serial in The All-Story magazine, entitled Under The Moon Of Mars; I revealed this to him as I was buying ice cream. I could tell you how, along with HG Wells, it basically invented 20th century science fiction literature (and therefore films; not to mention sub-genres like steampunk), and how people have been trying to turn it into a film for literally a century, and how it essentially wrote the blueprint for Star Wars some 30+ years before George Lucas was born, which is what I told Olly over a tub of Ben & Jerry’s, but you can read all about that at the Wiki page. Olly didn’t know it was Burroughs because John Carter has been marketed pathetically. But more of that later.

I knew nothing about John Carter of Mars as a character until a few years ago when I read Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Volume 2, which starts off on Mars with John Carter and Gullivar Jones (from Edwin Lester Arnold’s 1905 book Lieutenant Gullivar Jones; His Vacation) duking it out against the Martians from HG Wells’ War of the Worlds (1898 – Mars was really popular around the turn of the century). Initially the idea of soldiers being inexplicably catapulted to Mars, discovering it populated by humanoid (and not so humanoid) aliens, and having remarkable adventures (and steamy love affairs) there struck me as faintly ridiculous, but 5 minutes of research into what was thought of Mars at the time (that it was riddled with canal systems, for instance) makes it seem a lot less ridiculous, and, in fact, rather like inventive and fun storytelling.

(I worked with astrophysicists researching extrasolar planets [planets outside our solar system that have atmospheres similar to our own] for the last couple of years; Edgar Rice Burroughs is a far more fun storyteller than they are, generally.)

Anyway, John Carter the film is being panned, and is bombing at the box office. The screen we were in was practically empty. But both Olly and I came out smiling, having thoroughly enjoyed it; we talked about it as we walked back to my house, and neither of us could really understand the criticisms it’s receiving. So why do critics hate it, and why are the public staying away?

First and foremost, the 3D is pointless and stupid; director Andrew Stanton (who did WALL•E and Finding Nemo for Pixar) apparently didn’t want to make it in 3D, but was presumably overruled by someone at Disney. The 3D did not entice me to see it; in fact it put me off; I’d much rather have seen it in 2D, and would probably go and see it again if it played in 2D locally. As a glasses-wearer, having to put the 3D sunglasses over the top of my regular spectacles is awkward and silly. We’ve got a 3D visualisation suite at work for engineers designing things, and I’ve seen that demonstrated, but I’ve very consciously chosen to avoid seeing films in 3D at the cinema. I’m not the only person nonplussed by 3D, either; it’s been in decline since summer 2011 at least.

Secondly, it’s a Disney film, and people hate Disney for all sorts of reasons: the cultural imperialism that saw them steal all sorts of myths and tales from around the world, repackage them with beautiful Americanised heroes and heroines, and then copyright them extremely strictly and get rich off the profits; Walt’s supposed anti-Semitism (unproven and possibly unfounded); the overt, simplistic American morality it peddles; the fact that it’s an enormous, crass, wish-creation-and-fulfillment corporation trading in fairy princesses and talking dogs and so on and so forth.

Thirdly, John Carter is an expensive film – $250 million expensive, plus whatever marketing has gone on top of that, and in 2012 it seems crass for anyone to make such an expensive film when the world is still teetering on the verge of economic catastrophe. Tangled (Disney’s animated take on Rapunzel), Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and Avatar are the only movies with equally massive budgets to have been released since the recession hit (even the second Transformers film only cost $200 million, and the third one $5 million less than that). Hollywood is seen as being as frivolous and out of touch as city bankers; just look at the success of The Artist, romanticising a golden age (long) before CGI blockbusters. (There are more expensive ventures we should probably be more concerned about, though.)

Most importantly, though, John Carter has been marketed horrifically ineptly. For a start, people are petrified of mentioning that it’s set on Mars, despite the fact that, well, it’s a pretty big part of the film (albeit a part that, like Spielberg’s War of the Worlds remake, could very easily have been altered, or just ignored, without affecting the atmosphere, tone, story, action, or anything else). Even the trailers were so poor that fans felt the need to re-cut them.

The fact that the source material set a benchmark for science fiction as we know it, that Flash Gordon, Star Wars, Avatar, Firefly / Serenity, Star Trek, Cowboy Bebop, Conan the Barbarian, even stuff like Indiana Jones, not to mention countless other films, games, TV shows, books, anime, superheroes, comics, and so on and so forth (anything with aliens, swords, guns, deserts, and superhuman strength and agility, essentially) and, arguably, a big chunk of the US space program over the last 100 years quite possibly wouldn’t exist, and certainly not as we know it, has been… not even underplayed, but completely ignored. For me, this is the key selling point, but no one at Disney or in the press is talking about it. If it seems formulaic it’s because it IS the formula.

This all adds up to a sense that people (critics?) seem desperate for John Carter to fail, to fulfill a narrative role as much as other doomed follies and flops and ego pieces like Waterworld or Speed Racer or Heaven’s Gate; so desperate that they’re reducing themselves to embarrassingly poor reviews littered with strange bread metaphors and lazy accusations of the film being “boring” and “incomprehensible”, whilst smugly bleeping out the word ‘Mars’ from audio clips and complaining, childishly, that the film’s nomenclature is nonsensical (as if no film, or cultural product of any kind, with idiotic internal nomenclature like Ewok and Endor and Yoda or Hobbit and Ent and Gollum or Na’vi and Pandora and Unobtanium, could ever be successful or even accepted).

(I like both Bradshaw and Kermode, as a rule, though I often don’t agree with them; it’s called ‘taste’.)

Certainly, John Carter is not the type of film that lends itself to the kind of aesthetic contemplation that can elicit positive critical responses, but cinema isn’t always about that; sometimes it’s about a fantastical, visually ravishing, swashbuckling, romantic, bizarre adventure that transports you for a couple of hours, which is what I experienced last night. To consider two recent(ish) sci-fi films I’ve adored: District Nine and Children of Men are all about plausible solutions to “what if?” scenarios, which is fine and worthy and entertaining and arguably can produce films more suited to “aesthetic contemplation”; but John Carter is about implausiblity and “wtf?!” scenarios, which can and often does produce spectacularly entertaining films. So what if the Martian MacGuffins were left unexplained (some kind of astral projection, immortal observers secretly guiding events, machines that fly on light, and so on and so forth); that’s the point of MacGuffins, and there’s plenty else going on to demonstrate intelligence from both Stanton, Borroughs, and Michael Chabon.

Take Dejah Thoris, the Princess of Mars herself, for instance; not just a damsel in distress, she’s the heir to a seemingly matriarchal society (they pointedly worship a goddess and not a god, and there are as many women in the armies as men), more than capable in a fight, an accomplished research scientist, and as pursuant of John Carter’s affections as he is of hers. She makes wry reference to the relative appropriateness of her (enforced) attire, commands soldiers, and comes up with the cunning plans that Carter himself is a little too dull to think of; there’s a lot more to her than the trailer might lead you to believe.

The long and short is that I don’t think John Carter is a failure, at least not creatively; certainly it could be better – it could lose 20 minutes, although I didn’t look at my watch once despite having gone to the cinema straight after a post-work game of 5-a-side (and I’d apply that criticism to many, many films anyway), and much of the dialogue is of the “you can write this shit but you can’t say it” variety (again, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Avatar seemed unharmed by this), and it perhaps tries to jam in too many sides, too much exposition, too much Martian jargon – but this seems like quibbling when advance press was making me feel guilty and foolish for wanting to see it, and half had me expecting some kind of horrific natural disaster of a film. It’s unabashedly pulp, but it understands, in fact it revels in its pulpiness; with 4-armed green Martians, phantasmagorical flying machines, a bizarrely cute-weird pet “dog” thing, extravagantly exposed thighs (from both sexes), lavish fight scenes, trashy political weddings, sumptuous scenery and sets, there is a wealth of pleasurable oddness to sweep you along.

Don’t be ashamed to be from Mars.

Exeter Shorts Film Festival

About 18 months ago I managed to convince the manager of our local multiplex cinema that she ought to screen the film Splice, because Mark Kermode had made it sound intriguing and nowhere else in Exeter (not the other multiplex, the arts centre, nor the chain arthouse cinema) had it scheduled. Amazingly, for someone who works for a corporate behemoth, she agreed, on the condition that I convince 12 other people to come along so that she could break even (and on the understanding that it would be screened at 11pm). Me being me, I went to Twitter and Facebook and emailed some contacts from when I ran the film department of the university library, and managed to gather 20 odd people for a Friday (late) night at the cinema to watch some schlock sci-fi horror. At least half a dozen people I didn’t know also turned up, and I gather that at least someone went to watch it each night it was on that week. Everyone’s a winner.

About a year later that same multiplex manager, Ros, announced that she was going to run a short film competition for local young filmmakers, and asked me, on the grounds that I’m gobby and not shy of giving an opinion, if I’d be on the judges panel. Of course I said yes; having judged battles of the bands, and both assistant directed and acted in short films by excellent local film makers, it seemed both a pretty logical step and a nice way to return the favour she’d paid me with Splice.

So Ros pretty much single-handedly went about setting up a website for people to upload films to, organising a judging panel (also including the director of Animated Exeter, a young filmmaker on Ros’ staff at the cinema, someone who works for a local film & TV production company and who teaches at Plymouth University, and a local arts education specialist), and soliciting entries from young people across the region in two categories; under 16s, and 16 to 24.

Many months, many emails, many films, and several meetings in person followed, culminating in last night, when the finalist’s films were shown on the big screen in front of a sizeable audience (replete with popcorn) at Ros’ cinema. Each finalist got a certificate and a splice of celluloid from an actual film (frames of Twilight and Sherlock proving unsurprisingly popular – the cinema is replacing all its film projectors with digital over the coming months), with the winners and highly commended choice in each category getting another certificate (we’d have loved to have given something more substantial as a prize, but had literally no budget; website et al was entirely due to people’s generosity) and a day’s work experience at the TV & film production company.

Judging was made difficult by the surprisingly high standard of the entries; every film had something to commend it, and there was significant bartering and opinion-swaying amongst the judges. We had stop-motion animations, experimental black + white mysteries, action films, zombie films, and more – and that was just in the under 16s category. A tight visual joke, an unexpectedly stylish camera move, a sophisticated use of sound – the pleasures of the under 16s films were many and varied, and I can see several of the entrants going on to do even better things in the coming years. In fact, if they don’t, I’ll be having words.

Joe, the u16 winner, submitted several stop-motion animations, all characterised by being very tight, funny, and sophisticated, often fulcrumming on a simple visual joke (often very clever and metatextual in nature, like the punchline of Cat Golf, which revolved around the cat’s golfball not going down the hole because, obviously, the hole isn’t a hole at all, but a black plasticene circle – Magritte-esque) and containing absolutely no narrative or visual fat. He’s 11, and you could see definite progression in the films chronologically as he tried new ideas (lip-synching to audio! Human intervention in his plasticene characters’ worlds!). I suspect that a future at Aardman beckons. This is the winning entry, which we thought combined humour, pathos, and ambition in spades. And all portrayed by a lump of plasticene.

The u16 highly commended entry was another stop-motion animation, an ambitious project from a local village primary school which included almost all the pupils from 7 years old upwards, whether they were scripting, animating, voicing, or filming. The aspiration behind such a large venture, getting a whole primary school involved, and giving kids in a tiny, sleepy, but beatific (I ride through it semi-regularly) Devon village the chance to engage with the kind of creative arts normally reserved for city kids was wonderful. Plus, again, it was pretty funny!

Unsurprisingly there was a quality leap from the under 16s to the 16-24 category in some ways; many of the 16-24 entrants were doing A levels or degree courses in media-related areas, with access to equipment and expertise that younger kids just wouldn’t have. Projects were longer, generally live-action, and ambitious in scope, if often more than a little adolescent in subject matter – there was a raft of horror films (mainly from female directors; it was heartening to have so many female entrants in this category, actually), and some were predictably much better than others. Again, though, there were pleasures to be had from every film; a surreal and effective performance by an actor, a breathtakingly well-composed bit of framing, tight storytelling that managed to convey a narrative without any dialogue, or a genuinely multi-layered grasp of humour.

The winning film didn’t come from someone with the support of a media studies department at school though; the director is from a grammar school which eschews that kind of subject, and this was the first time he’d ever tried to make a film, shooting the entire thing on a DSLR with a 50mm lens, experimenting with lighting and capturing sound as best he could. Talking to him last night confirmed that narrative was almost an afterthought, which we suspected, but nonetheless we felt that Platform One was exquisitely shot and well edited, and felt like the most “high quality” submission we received. As a film competition, we felt we had to reward the best film qua film. That he could so effectively tell a slight story suggests great things in future; give the man a proper narrative and slightly improved pacing, and he’ll make something even more impressive.

It was a close call over which film won, though, and in fact the ‘highly commended’ award was suggested by me as a way of distinguishing between the top two films in this category. Because the runner-up would have won on any other day, I suspect, and only some slightly loose editing and pacing (which, to be fair, was tightened up quite a bit for the screening) cost this spoof music documentary, or rockumentary if you will, the top prize. A film most definitely of the YouTube generation, with its to-camera asides, editing that somehow recalls the humorous use of html strikethrough tags, and gags about inappropriate search-engine-optimisation in song titles, it’s layered with laugh-out-loud moments which come from an array of places; gentle mocking of its principal characters’ pretensions, an irreverent attitude towards both music makers and fans, visual gags, and tiny references and subtleties you simply don’t notice first time around (the hapless documenter being named after Holden Caulfield, for instance). If you’ve ever played gooseberry between a “rockstar” and a female admirer or felt that the depth of your fandom deserved attention from the object of that fandom, you’ll cringe just as much as laugh. Give these guys a budget and a camera crew, and let them concentrate fully on scripting and acting, and they’ll be amazing.

I had a great time being a judge for Exeter Shorts, unsurprisingly, and we’re hopeful, given the success and attention this start-up venture has had (plenty of coverage in local media; a full cinema screen – that picture up top is from the screening; and some amazingly promising work by young filmmakers), that Vue Cinemas will continue to support it, and, with luck, make it a national thing; as far as I’m concerned, it’s exactly the sort of venture that big cinema companies should be undertaking in order to encourage the development of the talent that needs to feed the industry if its to continue to be successful; not everyone who takes part will go on to become Terence Malick (or even Michael Bay), but there are countless editors, producers, cinematographers and so on and so forth who make film & television what it is, and who need to cut their teeth.

There was much applause, as there should have been, for the filmmakers last night, but I need to make a word of thanks to Ros; not only is she the kind of person who’ll challenge her management for the sake of a good idea (be it screening some obscure, atypical-for-the-chain film at the behest of a mouthy customer, or something actually worthwhile!), she’s also the kind of person who gets things done through force of will and energy. She’s given dozens of kids a platform through which they can gain experience and exposure, which is invaluable. Good work.

Blue Valentine and Grizzly Bear

Last night we watched Blue Valentine, a miserable desolation of the human spirit film starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. Emma loves both of those actors, and also miserable desolation of the human spirit films, and has been desperate to see Blue Valentine since it was at Cannes last year. We missed it in the cinema, probably largely to do with my lack of enthusiasm, and DVD release seemed to take forever. But yesterday it arrived courtesy of LoveFilm, and so Emma finally got to see it.

And actually, I quite enjoyed it; both Gosling and Williams are convincing actors, capable of moving from disarming charm to upsetting emotional incapacity, which is what the story required (the story being an intercut, non-linear narrative of them falling in love and, years later, falling apart). There had been much talk from some parts of the film’s sauciness, due mainly to a scene in which Gosling’s character performs oral sex on Williams’ character; it’s a sad state of affairs when the image of a man pleasuring a woman in this way is seen as outrageously raunchy and a little taboo, while the inverse is so commonplace as to be mundane.

But I did have a problem with Blue Valentine, to be honest. Not with the callousness that Williams and Gosling showed to each other come the end, brought about, no doubt, by Williams’ character’s view of her own parents’ loveless marriage, wherein men do not ever do nice things for women, and thus women do not ever deserve to have nice things done for them (the root of much cognitive dissonance for her when faced with Gosling’s character’s selfless/selfish lack of ambition to be anything other than a husband and a father, despite his capacity for other achievement), or even with the fact that Williams’ character thus supplicated herself at every turn, and thus denied herself identity and happiness (as well as giving up her ambition to be a doctor, admittedly due to harsh circumstances and a wish to do the right thing, she also, in love scenes with both Gosling’s character and a former boyfriend, only ever receives or offers to be receptive; she never gives, or asks, or wants for herself, either sexually or emotionally).

No, the problem I had with Blue Valentine was Grizzly Bear, who soundtracked the film. I like Grizzly Bear a lot, but hearing snatches of their music, re-arranged, shorn of vocals, etcetera, that were naggingly familiar and yet also strange and unfamiliar, left me thinking about the music rather than the film. Unlike a purpose-written score, or occasional usage of individual, recognizable songs (in either diegetic or non-diegetic form), this re-purposing and slight alteration of music to make it half familiar seemed to work against both music and story. I don’t think Grizzly Bear will suffer the same bleak “synching” fate as suggested
as in this Quietus article (which is a decent thinkpiece, but lacks the evidence to support its assertions), but it certainly detracted from my enjoyment of Blue Valentine’s miserable desolation of the human spirit.

A crappy view

As someone who’s racked up over 8,000 tweets, been using Facebook since it was a closed network available only to those with “prestigious” university email addresses, been running blogs for very close to a decade, and spent half of last week traversing the country from Loughborough to Falmouth in order to demonstrate to people how to use social media in a higher education context, I often take it for granted that everyone can see the value of these online tools we use everyday. But this is resolutely not the case.

For instance, the talk I gave in Loughborough was split into two parts: 50% how we built our new university B2B website, and 50% hints and tips on social media usage. I expected everyone to be more interested in the latter; people in higher education are, surely, by nature, more open to new ideas, are they not? But no; the people who rushed to speak to me before I jumped back in the car and drove southwards were interested in the website development, which I took to be old hat and common sense in 2011. Social media and online networking seemed to scare them.

But HE isn’t the only sector still behind the times, far from it. The enterprising manager of a local multiplex cinema chain set-up a Twitter account for the branch she managed, which she used to publicise screenings, network with customers and local businesses, and generally engage with the local community. Normally my wife and I would feel obliged to go to the local independent cinema, which usually shows the kind of slightly leftfield films we enjoy (foreign films about the desolation of the human spirit, for instance).

But a rash of mainstream films we liked the look of (from Toy Story 3 to Inception), combined with less comfortable seats and viewing angles at the independent, plus a vague irritation with the fact that much of the independent’s clientele seemed like the kind of people who attended a local independent cinema in order to avoid riffraff rather than enjoy a great film, and, of course, the manager’s engagement with Twitter, meant we ended up feeling more comfortable at the multiplex chain, and it became our cinema of choice.

In fact, the manager’s willingness to engage with her customers lead to a little bit of lobbying and campaigning on my behalf and the midnight screening of a film (psycho-sexual gene-horror sci-fi Splice) that no other cinema in our area was going to show. I was told if I could guarantee a dozen bums on seats, it would cover costs. The first night it showed there were about 22 people there, maybe 8 of whom I didn’t know at all (the rest were friends, colleagues, and film-buff associates of mine). It felt like an awesome little event, a private cinema club that made for great goodwill towards the cinema brand and which was thoroughly enjoyable for all (even if the film wasn’t quite to everybody’s taste!).

Splice played at midnight for the rest of the week, and I gather there were people there for each screening. Had the manager not been on Twitter and chatting with her customers, this wouldn’t have happened. The manager also organised, via Twitter, for various local business people and customers to have a tour of the cinema, seeing projection rooms and so on, which garnered yet more positive comments and appreciation of the brand online (this I couldn’t attend; I was,frankly, more than a little gutted).

How is this showing a misunderstanding of social media, I hear you ask? Early on in her Twitter engagement, the manager asked for justifications that she could give to head office for having a local presence. I listed a load, and I doubt I was alone. This morning she tweeted that the branded account she’d been using for the last year or so was regretfully going to cease, and that we should follow her personal account instead (which I have duly done). It’s not been said in so many words, but my inference is that word has come from the top that she’s “not allowed”.

I understand fully the value of protecting your brand; a big slice of my day job is spent trying to convince researchers that they don’t need a logo for every little project and centre when we have a perfectly good, very well recognised and valued one for the whole university. But social media allows people who love your brand to spread that love around, allows a peep into the personalities of the people behind the brand. When it became obvious that the manager of our local chain cinema loved films as much as we did, and was willing to engage with customers, absorb ideas, enterprise, innovate, and connect, we felt a sense of loyalty to a brand that we had absolutely none for before.

Head office has just put a big dirty black smudge over that loyalty.