Wednesday, September 20, 2017
Okay: I exited the auditorium from a quarter-full screening of Darren Aronofsky’s ‘mother!’ (only two people walked out), went for a pint, got my thoughts in order, came home, poured another drink, cracked my knuckles, fired up the laptop aaaaaand … holy fuck fuckety fuck, I have no idea where to start.
I don’t know whether to write a straightforward review of the film – plot synopsis, quality of acting, effectiveness of cinematography and production design, you know, the usual kind of thing – or to come at it obliquely via a review of the reviews.
‘mother!’ – which is already starting to piss me off with its wannabe e.e. cummings fixation on lower case and its needless exclamation mark*, and I’ve only typed it three times – has been variously described, by some fairly high profile critics, as being About** the state of the nation, the Syrian refugee crisis, the creative process in general, Aronofsky’s creative process in particular, the dark side of fame/celebrity, a deconstruction of cinema itself, and the inability of Man to aspire to God because of our pettiness and selfishness.
Let’s start with the latter reading. Yes, the film is obviously a religious allegory. It’s obviously an allegory since it begins with Javier Bardem’s character (none of the characters are given names***, but Javier is billed as “Him” just to make it fucking obvious) placing a crystal on what is basically a mini-altar. What the crystal is and where it came from is revealed at the very end, but by then you’ll probably be too busy Googling Aronofsky’s address so that you can go round and punch him to care. What the placing of the crystal on the altar does is trigger a cosmic reset button: a burnt out house is restored to its basic, undecorated, structure and a lifeless husk in a bed revivifies in the form of a woman (Jennifer Lawrence). Which is basically like Aronofsky texting every member of the audience with the message None of this is real, everything’s a stand in for something else” followed by a parade of emojis, including thumbs up, fist bump, devil, angel and the shit emoji. To the best of my knowledge emojis symbolising human heart flushed down the toilet, eviscerated baby and film director giving his audience the wanker sign haven’t yet been designed, but I’m sure our Darren has put in a commission. Oh, and it also robs the film of any shred of tension – with one hour fifty-nine and a half minutes still to go.
So yes, it’s an allegory, and yes it’s a religious allegory since we have Cain and Abel (here depicted as spoiled millennial twats fighting over a will), God so loving the world that he makes a spectacularly bad parenting decision vis-à-vis His only son, and a self-aggrandising plea that said child’s death be forgiven. There’s also a tip of the chapeau towards the virgin birth inasmuch as Lawrence’s character demands of Bardem’s “how come you never fuck me?” I’m not a big reader of the Bible, but I rather think she was paraphrasing there.
But an allegory along the lines of ‘God gives us nice things but we can’t have them because we’re selfish gits’? Hmmm. Two problems: (i) the script so thoroughly puts the audience in sympathy with Lawrence’s litany of entirely reasonable requests that the exponentially burgeoning parade of interlopers put down things, stop breaking things, quit abusing her hospitality and, finally, get the hell out of her house that the only way the metaphor can work is that Aronofsky is slapping every member of the audience in the face with a j’accuse, rather than presenting them with a concept to mull over (a surefire way, in other words, to alienate rather than engage the audience), and (ii) he’s essentially cast his girlfriend as the living embodiment of humanity’s selfishness. Way to go, Romeo.
Okay. Let’s take it as a state of the nation piece instead. It’s quickly established that one’s home is not a safe place; that men treat women badly; and that slightly-embarrassed prissiness is the default mode of behaviour for the haves, spitefulness and vandalism for the have-nots and passive-aggressiveness for those stuck resentfully inbetween. As social commentary, the first two observations are thuddingly obvious and thrown out in a manner that adds nothing to any meaningful debate, while the third is reductive to the point of stupidity. The extended final act trades in the imagery of fan worship, religious cults, social upheaval, the police state, political factionism, oppression, anarchy and everything else up to and including the kitchen sink, the bathroom sink, the bath itself and most of the plumbing. Plus maybe the kettle, the teapot and most of the crockery.
As a deconstruction of cinema? That only works if it’s a genuine dismantling of the form itself (rather than the ‘High-Rise’ style orgy of onscreen destruction that it so patently is); moreover, any claim to deconstructionism is intellectually cancelled out by its plethora of borrowings: from Polanski, from Fellini, from Tarkovsky, from von Trier, from Wheatley, from Romero, from Fulci … even from Cavani if you squint hard enough. It’s a stitching together of other works, from the highbrow to the lowbrow by way of the obscure, and the only point I can see is to demonstrate just how damn much cinema Arofonsky has absorbed. Well, you know what? Tarantino does exactly the same thing, but makes it his own and never claims that he’s doing anything other than indulging a lifetime’s love of cinema. There’s no love of anything in ‘mother!’, just a leaking bile duct dribbling its nasty effluent over the screen for two hours.
An investigation into the creative process? Well, I personally know enough people who are creative – poets, musicians, novelists, filmmakers – to know that while certain terrors and traumas and obsessions go into the great melting pot of artistic creativity, none of these people are misanthropic and emotionally destructive. If ‘mother!’ is to be read as what someone has to go through in order to create – not to mention what they put those around them through, and the degree to which they leach off other lives and tragedies – then it’s possibly the greatest statement of anti-art and anti-thought and anti-creativity since Donald Trump, Theresa May and Nigel Farage were collectively conceived.
As a commentary on the Syrian refugee crisis? Only if you’re an inveterate fucking racist.
Here’s what I think it’s about, and we’re back in allegory territory: imagine that the entire history of cinema is a blog post. The people who go to the movies to be entertained are the people leaving a single comment on the comments thread that effectively washes their hands of it. The people who go to the movies to theorise and critique are the ones playing nice on the comments thread and genuinely trying to arrive at some form of collective agreement. Darren Aronofsky is the troll.
*With the sole exception of Powell and Pressburger’s ‘I Know Where I’m Going!’, exclamation marks have no freaking business in movie titles whatsoever.
**The whole thing is so stultifyingly pretentious – right down to its all-in-lower-case-except-for-one-character end credits – that it demands you accept it as being About something.
***Art film alert!
Tuesday, September 19, 2017
‘It’ arrives in cinemas on a wave of such critical adulation that you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a modern classic of the genre and the best Stephen King adaptation by a country mile.
The latter is a disingenuous tag anyway. King has been remarkably ill-served by adaptations: Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’, while technically brilliant, ditches everything that’s pure King in favour of a bunch of things that are pure Kubrick; de Palma’s ‘Carrie’ again favours technical prowess over storytelling; Tobe Hooper’s TV mini-series of ‘Salem’s Lot’ is an honourable attempt at adapting a dense novel whilst strictured by budgetary limitations and the aesthetics of the small screen; the same goes for Tommy Lee Wallace’s original take on ‘It’.
Elsewhere, the likes of ‘Silver Bullet’, ‘The Lawnmower Man’, ‘Maximum Overdrive’, ‘Sometimes They Come Back’, ‘The Mangler’ and ‘Sleepwalkers’ proliferate, while the less said about King’s pretentiously self-declared “novel for television” ‘Storm of the Century’, the better. Compared to much of what’s on offer, the likes of ‘1402’ and ‘Secret Window’ seem like highpoints.
In fact, there’s a case to be made that unless a Stephen King adaptation has “directed by Frank Darabont” in the opening credits, it probably won’t be much cop.
All of which brings us to Andy Muschietti’s ‘It’. Or ‘It: Chapter One’, given that this film concentrates only on the sections of the novel set in 1950s small town America. Only Muschietti and his various screenwriters have transposed these sections to the 1980s. Superficially, it makes sense – ‘It’ concerns a cycle of disappearances that afflicts the seemingly bucolic tower of Derry, Maine, every 27 years, and having the kids as kids in the late 80s means the filmmakers can set ‘It: Chapter Two’ contemporarily. But it’s a decision that immediately creates two problems. First, the way kids behaved in the 1950s is nothing like the way kids behaved in the 1980s. A kid housebound through illness who makes a paper boat for his brother? 1950s, yep. 1980s, they’d both be playing Nintendo. A kid so fascinated by a red balloon that he follows it into a library basement? 1950s, okay I buy it. 1980s, hell no. Second, the 1980s period trappings – indeed, the very look of the film – is pure ‘Stranger Things’. Throw in that show’s breakout star Finn Wolfhard as the foul-mouthed Richie Tozier and the whole edifice becomes top-heavy. Half the time, I thought I was watching ‘Stranger Things: The Movie’ and not a Stephen King adaptation.
Did I say Wolfhard’s character was foul-mouthed? And. Fucking. Then. Some. Remember the honed dialogue of the novel and the 1990 miniseries that establishes the bonded-as-outcasts friendship of the Losers Club? Here, it’s dialled down to a constant stream of dick jokes and “your momma” ripostes. Ordinarily, swearing in movies doesn’t bother me, and in numerous cases – ‘In Bruges’, step forward – it’s crucial to the aesthetic, but hearing the young cast of ‘It’ spewing an incessant stream of fuck fuck fuck dick your momma for two and a quarter hours became as tedious as it was dispiriting.
There are other problems: the first hour resolutely avoids any hint of narrative, instead leaping all over the place as a series of loosely related vignettes; the jump scares are telegraphed so predictably that there may as well have been a countdown timer in the top left hand corner of the screen; the score, by Benjamin Wallfisch, is so intrusive that it’s as if Wallfisch were sitting in the seat next to you, continually telling you, in a loud whisper, that the next bit is, like, really really scary … all the way through the motherfucking film; the adult cast are saddled with clichéd, one-dimensional roles; and the entire production design is over-designed. When the kids venture into a spooky old house, it’s self-consciously spooky rather than being organically creepy. When they descend into the drains to battle Pennywise, you’d think there was a whole Jeunet and Caro metropolis down there, not just a drainage system. Oh, and positively the worst thing the film does it take everything that was interesting in the novel about the black kid and either cut it out entirely or gives it to the fat kid. In its own way, it’s as bad as the whitewashing in ‘Ghost in the Shell’.
What ‘It’ does have in its favour is two bona fide great performances: Bill Skarsgård gives us a Pennywise that not only survives comparison with Tim Curry’s evergreen performance but actually makes the character his own; and Sophia Lillis as Bev just radiates star quality. She turns in a nuanced piece of characterisation that belies her 15 years. Every bit of emotion that the film achives (rather than faking in a very Spielbergian way) is down to Lillis. Damn shame, then, that the film both objectifies the hell out of her and reduces her to damsel-in-distress for the finale when she’d been allowed to be so capable in earlier scenes.
‘It’ isn’t a bad film - it’s floating around at the higher end of the second division in terms of King adaptations - but there’s just something so ordinary about it; it looks and feels no different to any horror film made in the last decade and a half. A sense of missed opportunity pervades. Tommy Lee Wallace’s small screen adaptation – for all its budgetary constraints and naff special effects – remains the better work.
Friday, September 08, 2017
‘The Limehouse Golem’ is a darkly entertaining little film that takes a perverse delight in monkeying with genre tropes and audience expectations. It starts out as a cop-and-killer/cat-and-mouse thriller, with jaded Scotland Yard detective John Kildare (Bill Nighy) – considered reputationally expendable by his superiors due to whispers about his sexuality – saddled with the sensationalist case of the title, a series of bloody murders that hark back to the Ratcliff Highway killings immortalised in Thomas de Quincey’s essay ‘On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts’. Throw in the Victorian London setting and we’re firmly in proto-Jack-the-Ripper territory.
Then director Juan Carlos Medina and writer Jane Goldman (adapting Peter Ackroyd’s novel) pull the rug as one of Kildare’s four suspects – failed playwright John Cree (Sam Reid) – is killed, ostensibly at the hands of his ill-treated wife, former musical hall star “Little” Lizzie (Olivia Cooke). The cases overlap. Lizzie’s trail becomes as sensational as the Golem murders. The prosecution case stacks up against her. It’s not long before she’s facing the gallows. Suddenly the film has become a courtroom drama with Kildare’s investigation ticking away in the background.
Then there’s another structural and (to a slightly lesser degree) tonal shift as Kildare, convinced that unveiling Cree posthumously as the Golem will both save Lizzie and benefit his career, visits Lizzie in prison and cajoles her into recounting her relationship with John, eager for any snippet of information that might help. We’re now in flashback territory and along for the ride in what could easily have been a trite rags-to-riches story except that Lizzie’s rise to fame is played out against a backdrop of greasepaint, illusion and backstage rivalry, the musical hall a cauldron of simmering tensions and blurred sexual identities. Lizzie’s erstwhile protector and mentor Dan Leno (Douglas Booth) is a female impersonator; Lizzie makes her music hall debut dressed as a boy. There’s a late-in-the-game bit of troilism where Lizzie’s arch-rival Aveline (Maria Valverde) assumes Lizzie’s “wifely duties” (to muddy the waters further, it’s heavily hinted that Aveline is bisexual). Even the troupe’s impresario (Eddie Marsan) – a man so avuncular that everyone calls him Uncle, for God’s sake! – has certain peccadilloes.
So we’re in sleazy potboiler territory. Only we’re not. I mentioned the de Quincey connection earlier, and ‘The Limehouse Golem’ has one eye at all times on the literary. Of course it does. The source material is by Peter Ackroyd, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature who has a Somerset Maugham Award and two Whitbread Awards on his mantelpiece*. Which is why a fog-wreathed murder mystery with all the genre tickboxes well and truly checked – from the haunted copper at the end of his career to the third act race to the gallows – has walk on parts for Karl Marx (Henry Goodman), George Gissing (Morgan Watkins). Dan Leno was also an historical figure. There’s no small amount of delight to be had in seeing the grumpily pragmatic Kildare going up against them – one of the film’s niftiest conceits is playing each of the murders as if one or other of them is guilty of it, depending on whom Kildare is interviewing at the time.
But for all of its literary pretentions, ‘The Limehouse Golem’ is at its best as a treatise on theatricality. The swapping of identities, one individual playing many parts; the nature of hagiography, brutal violence restaged for crowd-pleasing thrills; the interchangeability of gender. But it also says much about the misplaced ethos of masculinity, specifically with regard to how three men in particular want to save or redeem Lizzie and various others just plain use her.
It’s fair to say that ‘The Limehouse Golem’ has a hell of a lot bubbling away during its brisk hour and three quarter running time. It could easily have been a mess – artless and disjointed – even in the hands of an experienced director. Which makes it something worth praising that it is only his second feature-length outing, following 2012’s ‘Painless’ – a film I now have every intention of seeking out. Medina is savvy enough to give the audience what they want – there’s plenty of blood and gore, the streets of London are depicted as appropriately dark and dangerous and seedy, brothels and opium dens abound, and everything is foggy or shadowy – and keep the procedural element of the film happily bouncing from clue to clue, doubling down on the genre beats even as he subverts them.
He’s also adept with actors. Granted, Nighy – who took the role after Alan Rickman stepped down owing to ill-health (he passed away soon after) – doesn’t need much prompting: the role of Kildare fits him like a glove. Mays, a perennially underrated actor, does sterling work and who’d have thought that a Bill Nighy/Daniel Mays double act would form the backbone of the film? Booth, Marsan and Valverde are pitch perfect, the latter taking a role that was basically written as Bitch Queen From Hell and emerging with a nuanced character. And then there’s Cooke, who graduates from a cluster of good performances in indie films and TV dramas in impressive style. ‘The Limehouse Golem’, through all of its shifts in structure and perspective, is finally Lizzie’s story and Olivia Cooke gives us a Lizzie who is unforgettable.
*I’m speaking figuratively here. I don’t know whether he keeps them on his mantelpiece or not. It’s not like I’ve ever been round his gaff.
Wednesday, September 06, 2017
It would be an easy and reductive way to start this review by observing that ‘Logan Lucky’ is the white trash B-side to Steven Soderbergh’s earlier heist movie ‘Ocean’s Eleven’.
Easy. And reductive. And not without a glimmer of truth. It would also be worth noting that ‘Logan Lucky’ enjoys the benefit of being an original piece of work rather than a remake (albeit one that surpasses its Rat Pack source material).
‘Logan Lucky’ is a film of two halves and myriad incidental pleasures. It’s not as taut or as impeccably constructed as ‘Ocean’s Eleven’, but it unfolds with the amiability of a shaggy dog story narrated by a consummate storyteller and it’s just as impressive in its casting. It is, in fact, enough of its own film that I ought to do the decent thing and knock off the ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ comparisons right here and now.
Yeah: let’s do that.
The basic set up of ‘Logan Lucky’ – though there’s a hell of a lot more going on than the merely narrative – is that Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum), the elder scion of a family not known for having the vaguest hint of good luck shine on them, ropes siblings Clyde (Adam Driver) and Mellie (Riley Keogh) into a speedway robbery, a scheme that also compels him to recruit imprisoned safecracker Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) and his brothers Fish (Jack Quaid) and Sam (Brian Gleeson).
So why does an honest working stiff like Jimmy suddenly want to embrace a life of crime? Well, it’s partly because he’s been laid off from the very construction job that’s given him an intimate knowledge of the layout and financial workings of the speedway; partly because he’s parvenu ex-wife Bobbie-Jo (Katie Holmes) and her car-dealership-owning new husband Moody (David Denman) are about to move to another state, effectively severing Jimmy’s contact with his daughter Sadie (Farrah MacKenzie); and partly because robbing the shit out of a speedway during a NASCAR event is a big fuck you to obnoxious English racing impresario Max Chilblain (Seth MacFarlane), a wanker of the highest order who is first introduced flanked by an entourage and picking a fight with one-armed bartender Clyde. Clyde lost said arm on active service in the US army.
If that very very brief overview - one, I should add, that doesn’t even touch on Sadie’s beauty pageant obsession, Moody’s attempts to chat-up/sell a car to his sort-of sister-in-law, Jimmy’s potential romance with medical outreach worker Sylvia Harrison (Katherine Waterston), or the odd tonal shift in the last third when a heist movie suddenly becomes a police procedural – leaves you thinking that there’s more going on here than just good-ole-boys-rip-off-NASCAR, then you’re thinking as smart as … well, that’d be telling if I let on exactly whom the savviest character in the movie is.
I said earlier that ‘Logan Lucky’ is a shaggy dog story, and that’s certainly what it is first and foremost, as well as being the narrative and intellectual register in which it functions most effectively. But it’s also a study in defeated working class machismo (Jimmy was the high school quarterback destined for glory whose life actually came to nothing; Clyde went into the army in an attempt to live up to his brother’s stature and was left disabled in an explosion); the role that luck plays in how one’s life pans out (the film’s subtlest joke is the repeated denial that the Logans’ luck isn’t really cursed because Mellie’s done all right for herself: she’s a hairdresser); the social divisions created by simple earning potential (for all his business acumen, Moody is a serious trade-down for Bobbie-Jo from Jimmy); the wanton misuse of money (compare the outrageous concession stand prices at the speedway with Sylvia’s rueful commentary on how the outreach programme relies on donations); and the casually dismissive way that corporationism makes, breaks and resets the rules (the speedway management can’t determine exactly how much they lose, but sure seem happy with the insurance payout; Chilblain calls the shots over experienced drivers because his shitty energy drink pays for the race team).
I also said earlier that ‘Logan Lucky’ is a film of two halves: the first is basically a three act progression from Jimmy-gets-pushed-to-breaking-point to Jimmy-plans-the-job-and-puts-together-the-team to Jimmy-and-the-team-pull-off-the-heist, and every minute of it is an unalloyed joy; the second focuses on an FBI hardass Sarah Grayson (Hilary Swank) who tries to make sense of the case’s many weird elements and damn near puts it together. While this section is narratively valid – unlike ‘Ocean’s Eleven’, ‘Logan Lucky’ doesn’t have a Terry Benedict figure against whose oleaginous villainy even vault-cracking and multi-million theft is justified, therefore Grayson’s investigation is the mechanism by which the corporationalist shenanigans which turn victimhood into insurance-funded profit is laid bare – these scenes seem like they’ve wandered in from a different movie, and Swank’s performance seems oddly out of kilter with everyone else’s.
Steven Soderbergh’s always been something of an awkward bugger, never quite cohering to even his staunchest fans’ expectations, and it’s somehow fitting that such a luminary as Swank should emerge as the weakest link in one of his films. That said, everyone else is on form: Tatum and Driver form the best double act I’ve seen in ages (their use of “cauliflower” as a code word for Jimmy’s criminal endeavour is way funnier than it ought to be, particularly in the disgusted tone Driver uses to repeat the word, dragging it out as if it contained four times as many letters); Waterston shines in what’s basically a glorified cameo (her ‘bitch please’ look when Jimmy suggests that Sylvia is “an old lady name” is a joy to behold); Craig has more fun with a role than I’ve seen anywhere else in his filmography; and the Agitation Man of the Match Award is jointly awarded to Dwight Yoacham as a prissy prison governor beleaguered by the most hilarious prison riot ever, and Riley Keogh, who sashays through the film with insouciant cool, all haughty looks and witheringly flippant remarks.
‘Logan Lucky’ is about one degree short of a modern classic but offers so much that it’d be criminal to carp. That it shamelessly rips off ‘Two-Way Stretch’ for its most crucial subplot … aw, hell, I’m in a magnanimous mood. Full pardon granted!