My Favourite Joke

Making jokes is not a simple business. I’m not really too sure how they work – why people laugh, and at what. It’s a part of human art that’s not really studied with the seriousness of tragedy, and I think it may be because tragedy is in some ways more reliable, and probably because we lost Aristotle’s chapter from the poetics on comedy while retaining tragedy. I think if you take art seriously, it’s reflection is taking yourself seriously, whereas I think comedy and joking invites the opposite conclusion that if you like to laugh, you’re not very serious. In one interview Jon Oliver denied being “news” by pointing around his office and saying “this is not the office of a serious person”. It’s not that convincing though, is it? In fact, jokes are really important, and I’ve been avidly consuming a couple of new media streams that really look into how and why jokes work, especially Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee and Good One: A Podcast About Jokes. If you’re interested in the why of laughter, they’re really great resources.

I thought I’d offer a really brief theory of my own and explain my favourite joke that I kind of “wrote” – though what I really mean by that is probably that I stole it from somewhere and just tried to make it my own. The joke is just this:

Damned foreigners, coming over here and stealing our jobs and our women.

It’s not that easy to untangle all the reasons that I love this joke, but first and foremost, I love that I’m a foreigner, and the overt text here is framing myself as “one of you”, when despite 30-odd years in the country, I still haven’t ever really internalised some of Aotearoa’s quintessential things. I never call anyone “mate”, for example. I am most often quickly spotted as a foreigner in conversation, even now, on account of not having the right accent, I talk funny. Canadian has become the most popular guess for anyone who’s never met a Canadian. I love Canadians.

I’m white and male and I have a professional job, so for me the second layer of the joke is that there’s foreign, and then there’s Foreign – I’m really English because the English are everyone. As as a WASP, I’m basically a man of the world, the universal norm. This is derived from a book I read when I was a kid about an Englishman who lives in Spain and basically moans the whole time about how strange everyone is, how they don’t conform to his expectations of behaviour – the book read perfectly straight, but you just knew that the author was aware of the absurdity of the position and the target was obvious English colonialist behaviours. The whole idea of this doubling identity is silly, of course – like the cat who thinks they’re a person. (I’m the cat in this analogy).

The next layer down for me is that I find complaining at least faintly comedic. It’s not right, it’s not fair, it’s just that it’s so pointless, so futile, and usually so self-indulgent without being self aware. Obviously genuine grievances tend not to be that funny, but I think about 95% of complaints I hear are just wasting air. Maybe I should have been a stoic philosopher instead of an engineer.

Taken in total, the idea of the statement is just that it’s completely absurd. I, a foreigner, complaining about foreigners in a way that’s vague and generic. Honestly, I’ve never gotten a really proper belly-laugh from anyone ever when I’ve made the joke, but it’s not really that kind of joke. It’s a satire. I think even if people didn’t find it funny per se, they at least recognised the self-aware irony.

It was a line that really worked well for me when I went to the UK. I worked at a big multi-disciplinary consulting firm with about 80 people in my building. I’d hazard there were about a quarter English-born staff when I started, about half Anglo-saxons with the rest second-generation immigrants, plus a smattering of the English-adjacent (Scots and the like). Conservatively, two thirds of the staff were outright foreigners like me, coming over there, stealing some hard-working Britisher’s job. Shocking! I think because I was a foreigner and everyone else too, I kind of always felt a bit of solidarity as a backwash – if we’re the problem foreigners, we’re all a problem together.

Nothing good lasts.

One of the recurring theses offered by both shows is the idea that nothing is off limits to comedy, that you should be able to tell a joke on any topic at all. I like this as a generalised concept, and I’ve laughed at some pretty morally questionable material in the past, for sure. I think it was Larry David who summed it up most succinctly, saying that sure, you can tell a joke about cancer – but if you do it’d better be fucking hilarious. Because unfortunately, I’ve also not laughed at a tonne of really awful jokes that were just not on point at all. I abandoned a couple of “edgy” Netflix specials because of old-school rape jokes told “ironically”. I just wanted to say to the comedian, dude, read the room. And by the room, I mean our whole civilisation right now. And then… I laughed at Katherine Ryan’s joke that she’d let Amy Schumer wear her as a watch if it’d help get a female comedian into that top tier of the entertainment world. I didn’t want to, but I did it anyway.

So I had to give up my favourite joke in about 2016 because it just stopped getting a laugh. It stopped being a mildly amusing ironic reflection and became a sore open wound in the zeitgeist I inhabited. I say give it up, but of course I just tell the version now where it used to be a joke until it wasn’t, which in my mind makes the Brexiteers the new butt of the joke, but while being down on them is great, it’s a much simpler joke and so isn’t so pleasing at all.

The “rise” and and then inevitable fall of my favourite joke did for me what I think the real purpose of comedy should be, which isn’t actually to be funny at all. Comedy is a kind of thought laboratory when it’s in its most powerful form. In that thought laboratory, you can work through ideas, connections, possibilities. It’s a space where you can play and see what happens, and I think that seems to be the most common way of writing discussed in Comedians and Good One – you think of something, you say it, if it gets a laugh you grab it and try it again with a twist. It’s playful, but that doesn’t mean it’s not serious – the process for all of the comedians sounds downright scientific, in that it’s a theory you test with an audience again and again until it works. What I saw over my couple of years joking about foreigners in the UK was a cultural movement from where the idea that foreigners were bad was ridiculous and could therefore be ridiculed, to the point where it was being taken too seriously by too many people for that joke to work that way.

The joke was a canary in the coal mine for me, and let me read the room I was in. Seeing who laughed, who didn’t, how they responded – it told me a lot. It wasn’t other foreigners who stopped laughing- it was the Englanders who weren’t sure whether it was a joke at all. I had to stop making my favourite joke because it stopped being funny because the world moved on to a place where it became less and less ridiculous every day. Context is everything. I’m not completely without hope, of course, that things will come around again, and I’ll be able to say “bloody foreigners” and the patent absurdity with my stunning delivery will once again get the wry chuckle or derisive snort that level of wit deserves.

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Altered Carbon: Resleeved [2020]

Russel Gray described Blade Runner as “bootlegging” energy from science fiction to revitalise the moribund genre of the hard-boiled detective. It’s been a decade since I read the paper, which isn’t available where I’m riding out the apocalypse, but the use I put it to in some honours paper or other was that Blade Runner‘s “detective” doesn’t in fact do any Poe-style “ratiocination”, doesn’t in fact solve a mystery at all in any classically recognisable sense. Instead, I argued that Blade Runner is an exploration of the boundaries of humanity, especially with respect to the power of memory as a validation. Remembering things is the key trait that defines a person in Blade Runner, and the clues that Deckard assembles point fairly directly to the replicants’ awareness of that. If anything, I think Blade Runner steals life force from the vital and still-thriving field of noir to make possible a melancholy meditation on humanity. It’s the energy that the remake of Solaris lacks, for example.

The first season of Altered Carbon feels like the next evolution of that technique, because the chassis of the narrative is a fairly complex multi-thread mystery – you have to solve a mystery to solve a mystery to understand a motive to solve another mystery, leading you eventually to the classic locked-room puzzle that kicks off the action. The show uses that narrative framework to return to its central high concept from several different angles: is life given meaning by death? The show is extremely timid with explorations of almost every other aspect of its post-human central technological conceit of “the stack”, a bit of technology that allows its occupier to “re-sleeve” into a new body fairly easily. It’s clearly interested in the stack only as a means of portable immortality, not as a radical reinterpretation of what humanity itself could be, such as the competitors in Alita: Battle Angel [2019]. I think the show synthesises these two things very well, so that you get a satisfying mystery as well as a thorough probing of the high concept.

Altered Carbon: Resleeved positions itself one year after the conclusion of Season 1, with our protagonist acting as a hired bodyguard for a wayward youth, beset by mysterious assassins, guarded by the Yakuza because she will play a pivotal role in a planned transfer of power between two bosses. The central high concept remains the same, an exploration of whether life is given meaning by death, but now it is coupled with a bodyguard narrative whose main action is an exhausting series of extremely gory yet dull fights.

Whereas I think Season 1 took itself very seriously as an investigative drama, Resleeved doesn’t seem to really hang together in the details as a tale of what is effectively internecine warfare within a crime syndicate. The film doesn’t really take any time to show the three different factions in play, to explain how the organisation is structured, or really, who the footsoldiers are. I very often found myself asking Dale’s classic interrogative question: why should I care about whether it’s this mob boss or that one who wins? What impact will this have on anything other than the wayward girl who we’re supposed to care about, but whose only virtue is that she’s positioned as a damsel by the narrative, a move that naturally engenders sympathy? I would need to sit down to rigorously prove it, but on first viewing my strong suspicion is that the plot doesn’t really hold together either – which is forgivable if you’re swept up in an emotional journey; not the case here.

Similarly, the main probing it does into the nature of life and death is explicitly stated, that the decision of each successive mob boss to experience Real Death ™ is what motivates the loyalty of their footsoldiers… but this idea is never explored beyond that simple statement of premise. Why do the footsoldiers need their bosses to not only ultimately be mortal, but a blood sacrifice? The film is basically content to take this as read.

Throw in sundry other uninteresting and/or poorly executed ideas, such as trying to replicate Poe and the Nevermore but with a Japanese presentation, of having the coincidence of relation between two main characters, etc, and this was a distinctly sub-parr viewing experience.

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Fracture [2007]

In his famous “defence” of detective novels, The Guilty Vicarage, Auden says that while he consumes detective novels in bulk,

I forget the story as soon as I have finished it, and have no wish to read it again. If, as sometimes happens, I start reading one and find after a few pages that I have read it before, I cannot go on.

It is a very strange form of praise for a genre to argue that one of its great virtues is a lack of memorability. Formula fiction as a general concept relies on a huge churn of low-quality product, some of which turns out to be actually very good. I sometimes think that those who are actually good at writing this stuff are more like 49ers hitting a lucky strike after panning through the river of mud than genius artisanal craftsmen. I think that’s what I’ve come to like most about Raymond Chandler – he was 100% a grinder, who recycled his own material until it was good.

The existence of the second-rate object then starts to become interesting – specifically, why does a work of art fall into certain story tropes, traps, dead ends, rather than flourish when there are so many prior examples from which to steal? I’ve seen a few recently, of various kinds, of which Fracture [2007] is the most recent. What makes it so fascinating is that it attempts to borrow from so many places that in the end it seems to have literally nothing to say for itself, becoming a kind of empty shell of a story so that pretty much every scene just reminds you of a better movie that did the same thing. In a way, it leaves you thinking favourably, that this was a “swing and a miss”, trying to meld a bunch of different formulae into something coherent.

In outline, it’s a Colombo-style “howdunit” where the challenge is for the detective to see the killer’s ingenious plan for getting away with it. It presents this as a courtroom drama, and makes the protagonist into a hard-luck-kid making good, and the antagonist is a cut-rate Lector who enjoys toying with the initially-overmatched hero. Maybe I only make that connection because it stars Anthony Hopkins, barely even phoning it in. We’ve also got Rosamund Pike shamefully wasted as a potential love match for Ryan Gosling’s lawyer at the centre of it. Just that much of a precis has probably prompted anyone familiar with any of this to think of something more interesting than what this film actually did.

So, taken as read that the film could be improved in every way, why does it exist as it does, and why is that at all interesting? I think the existence of films like this like those art-works where you think you’re looking at a shape, but in truth you’re looking at its inverse – it is the holes and absences that define its genre, it’s place. Like slow cinema, it really works by generating the unfulfilled stories in the audience; at the moments this works best in this film, it’s a double-bluff.

The clearest example of that is in the central conundrum faced by our pseudo-detective – the murder weapon has vanished from the locked-down scene of the crime. Those familiar with the genre can see immediately a couple of possibilities – either the gun is genuinely still in the house, to be found at a dramatically-appropriate juncture, or the gun has been disguised/reconfigured into something else. Agatha Christie wrote a couple of real crackers with both “solutions”, but what this film does is the absolute simplest thing it could do, which is have the gun actually not at the crime scene. A little later in the drama, a cop bent on conviction offers the protagonist an identical gun that he says he can have switched within the chain of evidence, effectively creating a viable murder weapon as a piece of evidence. Again, those who recognise desperate cops and lawyers recognise a couple of well-worn but still potentially dynamic story possibilities, including that they do it and get caught, or that they succeed in switching it and the guilt eats the honest lawyer alive later. Just as with the earlier story opportunity, the film does the simplest possible thing – the offer is declined and never mentioned again. What’s interesting is that in the end, the criminal concealed the weapon precisely by switching the real gun with the cop’s gun! At each fork in the story road, the film’s taken the safest and most obvious course to end up nonetheless folding back on itself for a simple mystery that you don’t even notice because it’s offering you all kinds of other story possibilities.

Another way of explaining this outline event is that the film doesn’t attempt to be anything more than a puzzle construction. The characters are all cyphers, the storytelling is inert, the scenes have no dramatic power, because the film is simply and only a mystery story – everything else that would be interesting would just get in the way of that simplicity. It is a film without stress or fanfare that can be consumed in bulk; compare that to trying to watch 50 Brick‘s – I love that movie, but a succession of hard-hitting complex stories with a cast of dozens and a two or even three-tier system of motivations rooted in historic crimes. I feel exhausted just trying to explain what the good version of this film looks like. But this compromise is the very essence of formula fiction, without which it couldn’t really exist as a concept. A film like Fracture‘s very mediocrity is essential to its genre ecosystem. This is why and how we can watch 15 years of CSI or 20 seasons of Law and Order! Or 50 games of Hockey a year, or 38 Premiere League matches a season.

It’s not garbage, and it’s not a great use of time, but it’s fine. Fine is enough most days.

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Films of 2019

We’re reaching the end of a year, and the end of a decade, so there is an incredibly strong temptation to take stock of the state of cinema one way or another for both this last year and stretch that exercise back to 2010. What was good? What changed? What was bad? What affected me personally, but what found a wide audience? I’ve watched just under 500 films released since January 1, 2010 so if I followed a standard top-10 approach, I’d be selecting a vanishingly small percentage of films. If I casually picked out, say, Kermode’s top-10 for the decade, there’s not a hint on there of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which must objectively be the defining movement of the last decade. Whether Kermode’s list is good or bad is hard for me to judge for the simple reason that I have only seen a couple of them. Most of the Variety critics are similarly niche. If I championed the small films I loved in the last decade, you’d be in the same position unless you’re a very serious cineaste indeed. But then – that’s the point of these lists. Nobody needs to advocate for seeing Avengers: Endgame, because we all already did. I think objectively, no matter what your emotional response to that capstone, it’s got to be in the conversation about important films in 2019, or even the 2010s.

For the past few years I’ve been using to track my film watching, which at least means I have a detailed chronology available, allowing me to remember that, say, Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse was a 2018 release, but I saw it in 2019. Ditto with The Favourite. Mostly I find this muddies the waters, because almost a quarter of the films I saw in 2019 in cinemas were released in 2018, while some festival films still aren’t actually officially released at all. Real critics use the date of wide release for these lists, which easily creates situations where a good film gets left off because of quirks of timing. I tend to end up just citing films in the year I saw them as long as that’s not too radically wrong.

What reviewing my ratings for the past decade has told me is that I very rarely re-watch 5-star films. 3.5 stars to 4.5 stars is the sweet re-watch spot, because I don’t tend to rewatch truly mediocre things either. The only film I’ve watched more than twice in the last decade that I gave 5 stars on first viewing is The Guard [2011]. Ipso facto, this is the best film of the decade. A film drenched in masculine insecurities that fails the Bechdel test. What a sad conclusion. Except that it actually might be the best film I saw this decade.

The other thing that Letterboxd is good for is in tracking frequency of occurrence for actors and directors. This year the winner was Scarlett Johansson, followed by Robert Downey Jnr, Samuel L. Jackson, Chris Evans, and Brad Pitt. #2-ranked woman was Charlize Theron. Top director was Alfred Hitchcock, with three movies. None of which were 5-star classics, it turns out. I wish there were a higher proportion of women in my top list. I tell myself that this is a function of the structural inequality built into the film industry. There are literally a dozen Bruce Willis films available on Netflix right now, but only 5 films starring Helen Mirren (one of which also stars Bruce Willis). Played as a “blind” numbers game, there’s no actress who can beat the boys.

Closing LetterBoxd and thinking about films that have stayed with me is probably actually fairer. Films like A Bigger Splash [2015] have haunted me. I quite often find myself thinking about it, trying to decide what I think about the various characters and their actions, some of which feel right but defy any kind of logic. I find myself advocating for The Clouds of Sils Maria [2014], even though it’s exactly the kind of pointless melodrama I usually avoid. Do you hate Kristen Stewart? This film may change your mind – she’s really good! These impressions are pretty personal, and may result as much from time/place as anything intrinsic. You shouldn’t trust those either.

One thing I love about cinema is that it’s a small time investment, which allows you to gamble on things being good. I’ve watched movies whose premise wouldn’t even have got me to open a novel to read the first page. The capacity for surprise is huge, and that’s been a feature of my favourite films from 2019. Like in 2017, I’ve got them here in box office order.

Top 5 of 2019

Woman At War [Benedikt Erlingson, $4,060,683]

I saw this on a sunny Autumnal morning at Alice in Videoland in Christchurch, because that was the film that was available in the window I was available. Alice’s was the premier video-store in Christchurch when I was a student. It was quite out of the way, so I used to have to make special trips from Ilam to the city to go there, and then to return the films afterwards – what a drag! Mostly I used the Video Ezy at Bush Inn, because that was super-convenient. I actually still have my Alice’s membership card, but I haven’t checked whether it’s still valid.

Woman at War is a really brave film on a bunch of levels. It’s about an eco-terrorist (the clue is in the film title), who’s an Icelandic woman (again, not a spoiler) over 50 – this is not the protagonist that Hollywood has trained us to appreciate. She is perhaps the strongest and toughest character I’ve seen in a film this year. It’s a film that takes a bold stance against the modern surveillance state, something that’s very key to my own political beliefs – I will never ever forgive our government for passing it’s 5-eyes-friendly GCSB-enabling spy bill. Those government ministers can burn in hell for giving away one of our fundamental rights in exchange for precisely nothing. And lastly, the film score is like nothing I’ve ever heard before, perfectly amplifying the emotions of the narrative, and visually underlining the mood the sound is conveying.

I think the position of this film in my year’s top-5 is strongly indicative of how useless it is to give films ratings – I gave it a 3.5 when walking out of the screening. Over the past 8/9 months though, it’s stuck with me, I’ve recommended it to lots of people, I’ve thought about it a lot, and I’ve come to realise just how criminally low that rating is. This got an absolutely tiny audience, but a persistent one – it played in Wellington’s arthouse cinema for nearly half a year. If I have any criticism, it’s just that I didn’t need the last 2-3 minutes of salving sentimentality that forms the epilogue to the main action. 4.9-stars then.

Booksmart [Olivia Wylde, $24,641,970]

I watched this at the Lighthouse Cuba, perhaps my favourite cinema in Wellington – however much I talk up the Embassy, I saw films at Lighthouse 3:1, so that has to count for something. I laughed more than the average audience member, but I almost always do at comedies.

There’s a cornucopia of excellent qualities to discuss – my favourite is that this is a low-conflict film. Comedy can often be driven by adversarial characters vying for dominance, because this is how we tend to think of stories generally. Who wants what, and who stands in their way? In Booksmart, there are differences in perspective and expectation, but I think most of the characters are just trying their best. There isn’t any awful monster of a character that you need to forgive being a dick because they turn out to secretly have a heart of gold – that kind of thing.

Plus, it’s fucking hilarious. My face hurt afterwards.

Rocketman [Dexter Fletcher, $189,179,787]

Like pretty much everyone else in the world. I own a couple of Elton John CDs, and I am all-too-familiar with Candle in the Wind. I went into this film not really expecting much more than an enjoyable juke-box musical showcasing the hits of an artist I mostly like. What I got was therefore a complete surprise.

Rocketman is an unashamedly partisan and potted history of Elton John, but it is also undeniably effective. From the opening few minutes, the film somehow makes you interested in and care about this awkward kid, and his circumstances. After I was all the way in, it was one hell of a roller coaster, even if the outline shape is broadly predictable.

As well as providing an amazingly engaging and emotional narrative, the film also acts as a series of unbelievably good music videos for Elton John’s songs, and while there are all the hits you expect, there are also some pretty deep cuts.

This is a 5-star classic, no doubt, and deserving of a slew of Academy Awards, not least for Taron Egerton – I had no idea he had a performance like this in him, having found him blandly charismatic in the Kingsman movies.

Knives Out [Rian Johnson, $196,124,854]

I’m always nervous including something so late in the year in my best-of wrap-up. This film hasn’t sat in my imagination for months like the others – it’s a fresh, new love. In a way, this is the least interesting film on my list this year, because it’s “just” a country house murder mystery. The fascinating thing about it becomes just that someone in the 21st century dares to take your basic Golden Age 20s/30s plot and honestly and competently make a top-shelf iteration. Saying more risks spoilers, I think, but in 2020 I’m going to sit down with the Blu-Ray and really break it down in spoilerific detail.

Avengers: Endgame [The Russos, $2,797,800,564]

As I hinted above – there’s no need to say anything about this. You’ve seen it already and decided for yourself whether it was a great capstone to a ten-year journey through 20-odd other films.

Endgame made my list because I know for sure I’m going to watch this film again more than once or twice. Films that might have made the list, like Jojo Rabbit, which were “better” in some high-art concept, are films I’ll probably remember fondly but don’t really imagine I’ll ever seek out again.

Best TV

This year two shows really caught my attention. Neither completely without problems – that’s the nature of Art ™.

Russian Doll

While I’m not really on board with its ultimate moralising, it’s a completely captivating ride that plays with familiar story tropes in an entertaining way. Natasha Lyone’s performance is also one for the ages.

The Witcher

Hating on Henry Cavill is pretty easy after Man of Steel, et al, but the failings of the DC films aren’t his fault. He was decent in The Man from U.N.C.L.E., even if out-shone by Armie Hammer and Alica Vikander (I did not see enough Alica Vikander films this year), and he was a decent presence in Mission Impossible: Fallout. But this role is his best.

Avoid at all costs

I saw two films this year that made my blood boil with rage and frustration, leaving me cursing the names and parentage of those involved.

Polar [Jonas Åkerlund]

It’s hard to know where to begin. Think of some vile story trope that you’re completely over and thought we were done with in 2019 – this film does that. Fridging? Yes – let’s introduce a “love” interest specifically and only to kill her. Hard-core objectification of women? Yes – double helpings thanks! Lazy torture scene? Yes, let’s do it the most cliched way possible. Fat-shaming? Why, of course fat people are inherently funny and murdering them in a way to emphasise that is just good clean fun.

Honestly, a one-star review of this film would be generous.

Ad Astra [James Gray]

Pretentious & boring is not quite enough to make my list, and the meandering “plot” of a journey into darkness is lazy and trite but also not quite enough… What makes this film anger-inducing is it’s constant need to render it’s “subtext” into text, when in fact even calling it subtext was generous. What’s enraging is having yet another manchild with daddy issues whose main challenge is just being unable to talk about his feelings. What’s enraging is the sheer repetition of the one-dimensional idea that a universe empty of other intelligent life is good because it “proves” there’s a god. What’s beyond enraging, into the realm of “disappointing”, is a science fiction film where the central lynch pin action makes no sense.

This was a shameful waste of time, money, “talent”, and I am utterly bewildered by its critical acclaim and relative box office success.

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Under the Silver Lake [2018]

By far the most interesting film I saw at NZIFF 2019 was this one. It’s impossible to really get to grips with why that’s the case without spoilers but this is a special case, where the people who’ll like this film won’t care about the spoiler and the people who won’t like it are better off knowing now what they’re in for. This is a one-star film for a lot of critics for very good reasons that I’ll get into with spoilers in the next paragraph.

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Point Break [2015]

I had a hankering to watch Kathryn Bigelow’s seminal action film the other day, but I had that hankering after a road reached up and smacked me hard in the head and so I walked out of Aro Video with the wrong one. To be fair, the staff did quiz me on it, but by the time I’d gotten to the counter I couldn’t be arsed fixing my error. It’s been 20-odd years since I last saw Point Break [1991], so my memory of it is hazy and mostly parsed through references such as Hot Fuzz, which is itself now more than a decade old. It’s therefore become more of a mythology than a specific film, and the duel between friendship and morality has become, if not a staple, a leitmotif in the modern action genre as seen in The Fast and the Furious [2001] etc. These movies all inhabit a genre space that’s widely regarded as dumb, but where I think surprisingly sophisticated storytelling strategies are in play at a structural level, and critics mistake a lack of a serious aesthetic for a lack of serious design – a case I’ve made before, for Fast 7. Like all genre films, Point Break thus lives or dies on the detailing of its implementation of a story structure.

Let me break that structure down a bit, as Umberto Eco famously did for Bond in The Role of the Reader:

Step 1 – Establish the “protagonist”‘s credentials, or more pertinently, their near credentials. The point of view character must be sort of capable of entering the world of the criminal, but they’re not entering that world as a genuine rival to the main “villain”, but as a potential protege.

Step 2 – The meet-cute is engineered by the would-be crimestopping protagonist. Inevitably they’re shown for to be inferior but promising, and there’s enough chemical energy for the relationship to seem interesting.

Steps 3 – Trust and expertise are built as the hero works his way into the inner circle and begins to imbibe the

Step 4 – Tragedy strikes as something goes wrong and a key member of the team is killed, creating an opening for a new but promising member of the team.

Step 5 – The heist where things “get real” and the hero must ostensibly decide where his loyalties lie, but fails in his moral character, unable to discard his regard for the villain. Nonetheless, in this process they are outed.

Step 6 – The hero must use his inside knowledge to get one step ahead of the villain, leading to a final true confrontation where the hero’s loyalties are finally established in favour of law and order.

Obviously, as with any such skeletal summary, there are major variations here, such as the distortions in Step 6 in The Fast and the Furious. In our three-act-structure obsessed world, I think most would summarise Steps 1-3 as “Act 1” with Step 4 as “Act 2”, and roll the last two steps into “Act 3”. I hope by pulling out these steps explicitly the stupidity of trying to squash the story into a nice and linear three-act structure is obvious.

You may also see some passing similarities to the Hero’s Journey, but bear in mind that adaptation for a new purpose of existing story structures is as sophisticated as human art gets. Don’t we have a hero here who finds a dark version of the wise mentor? He at first refuses the call to becoming a hero in order to not slay the villain. Yet, the dramatic energy from a classical Hero’s Journey comes from the dramatic transformation of the main character, such as Mr Anderson transforming into The One by way of Neo – that isn’t really the source of dramatic energy or story shape in this narrative. Our protagonist undergoes something of a transformation through their near-seduction in the middle of the story and then un-transforms in the end. It’s something more like a failed romance story, like Annie Hall.

What this remake attempts to do that I don’t really recall in the original, is to explicitly mythologise the villain’s modus operandi. The seductive power in the original comes from a fairly general hedonistic lifestyle, one that purports to offer freedom from responsibility; this is wholly inverted in the remake, where the villains are trying to make a statement about the evils of modern capitalism with their crimes. They are in a sense righteous crusaders, though their cavalier acceptance of collateral damage makes it impossible to really sympathise with them or to entirely buy the seriousness of their commitment to their stated philosophy. The hyper-masculinity in the original is retained and repurposed.

This is a crucial element of successfully adapting a work – in fact, it is absolutely essential to restructure and re-present the material, as Harold Bloom articulated so forcefully in The Anxiety of Influence. The review on makes this point very clearly, but without recognising it at all:

The original “Point Blank” may have been a spectacularly stupid movie but at least it was straightforward and direct. Here, Kurt Wimmer’s screenplay meanders all over the place and is so concerned with allowing Bodhi to spout his kooky koans about becoming one with nature through the Ozaki Eight that it neglects to adequately explain what the challenges are or what they are supposed to represent.

In fact, reviews of this ilk are a dime a dozen, strongly showing that while critics were able to recognise what was happening, they couldn’t see the strategy being deployed – they couldn’t see the forest for the trees. Let’s leave aside for the moment the misreading of the original, the conscious attempt to reframe the film as a semi-mystical exploration of extreme sports definitely has a kernel of interest. This bland dismissal just doesn’t grapple with the film to determine whether the strategy was successful. There was every chance it could have been successful, and joined the pantheon of remakes that we forget are remakes, because they make their originals seem like an ill-formed predecessor, if they’re remembered at all.

Of course, I’ve got to admit that this is no 5-star classic, however interesting I find its attempt to repurpose the “spectacularly stupid” action film into something better. But I think that the failure in this film is where it cannot completely escape the original, and instead consciously repeats critical moments and shots. Indeed, it’s not easy to read the entire aesthetic of the re-cast central pair as trying anything other than to recreate the dynamic of Reeves and Swayze. Truly that was the time to “kill your darlings” and completely reimagine the characters to better suit the reimagined morality tale in progress.

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The Realm [2018]

This is a slow-building thriller about a corrupt politician whose schemes unravel amidst his abandonment by his friends.

This film brought to mind strongly Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat. Like most formalist studies, Save the Cat is very reductive, choosing 11 “basic” narratives (compared to, say, Christopher Booker’s even more distorting 7 basic “plots”), but that’s a reduction based on exploring the different mechanisms and strategies for creating dramatic interest. The problem in a way is that despite advertising themselves as perfectly general studies, they are still very specific versions of even more general studies. The key advice in Snyder’s book, which gives its title, is that early in a narrative you need to give the audience some reason to care about the fate of the protagonist, whether that’s to make you love or hate them (alternate title: Murder the Cat). There’s a really crucial meta-theory in the background there, which is that the audience needs to care about what’s going on, generally focused on the fate of the protagonist. What The Realm completely lacked for me was that “saving the cat” moment that made me sympathetic or interested in Manuel [Antionio de la Torre].

Once I realised that I didn’t really care about any of the characters, who all seemed petty and grubby, it was hard to generate much of an emotional response to the film. That left me trying to figure out the plot and track the machinations of plot, of move and counter move, and on that level the film was equally disappointing in that everything was driven by a Hitchcockian MacGuffin. As a refresher for those who haven’t read Truffaut’s Hitchcock, a MacGuffin is some plot device or prompt that kicks off the action but about which you (the audience) does not care and in which you are not directly interested. This makes a lot of the scenes feel almost surreal, with characters who are pretty much cyphers arguing with each other trying to gain advantage over exposure of involvement in plots that are also cyphers.

The end result is something akin to a hyper-real narrative, where there are signs, but they all point only to other signs. We’ve got a representative figure of a protagonist, but one who doesn’t drive the action and in whom we are not interested, engaging in plots whose details are unknown and whose consequences are mere suggestions. The film rallies in the 4th act with a very well-constructed car chase and finishes with a satisfying verbal debate, but that leaves this far short of being a good film.

As I always say, criticism, however well intentioned or informed, always begins with an emotional response and my emotional response was “Meh”.

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Non-Fiction [2018]

I book tickets to films like this one because, well, you’re kind of supposed to as a cineaste. It’s all well and good loving silly genre films, but real cinema enthusiasts love Béla Tar and are familiar with the latest works of Fassbinder. I should be able to pontificate at length about mood and speculate knowledgeably about what lenses the director used for each shot. It’s true that I have seen and advocated for the odd bit of pretentious garbage – I’m a big fan of Stalker [1979] for example, so there’s a 2-hour conversation between myself and one Jamie Sands on that topic waiting in the aether for release. And like all film genres, if you’re not hugely disposed to them they can nonetheless still surprise you by being just so great that you accept that there’s no murderer, or espionage, or men on horseback who seem on the verge of forgetting human speech. The previous Oliver Assayas film I saw was just such a one. The Clouds of Sils Maria [2014] was a very thought-provoking study of fame and age with two great central performances and a not-bad third-hand from Chloe Grace Moretz.

Non-Fiction, not so much.

In a way, the English title is more accurate than the literal translation of the french title, which would be “Double Lives”, because while this film has “characters”, what it really has is cyphers who exist in a social matrix for the purpose of having highbrow discussions with each other on a range of topics. It may not be strictly factual, but what narrative and character elements exist for this film are totally suborned to this higher purpose. I think that will definitely not please people who, perhaps a bit like myself, came to see a character exploration such as that of The Clouds of Sils Maria; nonetheless, it’s far from being without merit. When you get a group of smart people having more-or-less well-informed discussions about any given topic, that can be quite compelling. Along those lines, one of my favourite Umberto Eco books is a transcription of a lengthy conversation, This is Not the End of the Book.

If we accept that this disconnected series of debates is “unrealistic” when measured by standard dramatic conventions then it becomes the same kind of un/hyper-real exercise as, say, a Western gunfighting picture, or a Super Hero film. Instead of flying through the air and firing laser beams from their eyes though, these constructs deploy wit. That kind of fantasy is for me equally desirable, because when I think about myself, I like to think that I am engaged in more than simple engineering or escapist reading, but as a participant in an intellectual dialogue about Important Topics ™. I read the Guardian weekly for example, and nothing is so pleasurable as recycling its talking points in conversation with anyone to my political right – most people. The fantasy you inhabit in a film like Non-Fiction is the kind of fantasy that powers all of Aaron Sorkin’s work, but especially the Newsroom. It is the fantasy that you have profound thoughts, and that you can engage others in debating those thoughts.

3 stars.

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Capital in the Twenty-First Century [2019]

Capital, and concomitantly “capitalism” and the whole democratic concept that’s intertwined with it, is a huge topic. I haven’t traversed the entirety of Capital by Marx, but I have slogged my way through The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith, and dipped in and out of various perspectives from How the Economy Works by Roger Farmer to The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein. Fair to say, Smith is in favour and everyone else has more than a few questions. A film of less than 2 hours is always going to be a light skim-coating, so the question isn’t whether this film can truly translate a wrist-breaking tome, but whether it can put forward a persuasive argument of sufficient complexity that it isn’t instantly dismissible by someone on the opposite economic flank from me.

In general, I thought this presented a fairly decent cross-section of the concepts in play and put enough of a spin on that for it to be more than a dry exposition. In particular, the way it was able to show analogous modes of capital existing in different forms but with the same systemic function was interesting – roughly, how the pure ideation of money creates a rentier economy not dissimilar to the way property historically accrued money. What this documentary also addresses in a fairly direct way is the practical implications of capitalist inequality, pointing out that in real terms it has lead to the stagnation or deflation of living standards (e.g. life expectency is gently declining in the USA.)

Where I think I’d have liked a little more emphasis is in the fundamental requirement for exploitation that underpins the global version of Capitalism. Examples aren’t hard to find, from consumer goods made in Bangladesh death traps going back to the exploitation of colonised countries, going back to slavery. It’s for sure not an accidental byproduct of the system, it’s a necessary predicate. Similarly, the obvious craziness of perpetual growth as a concept wasn’t really front-and-centre.

This pandered pretty well to my sensibilities – I would 100% recommend it as a survey of the situation. I do wonder how well it would cross the aisle though. I recently read PJ O’Rourke’s Don’t Vote: It Just Encourages the Bastards, which was a great bit of advocacy for the free market and freedoms in general – but the absolute best bit of the book is about 3/4 of the way through where he surveys political discourse and says that neither side is even trying to speak to the other any more. That’s absolutely the case for me, where political disagreements are rarely productively explored but rather create tension. This film was sufficiently slanted to please me – is it sufficiently unslanted that, say, a National voter would largely agree with its points or at least find it a fair representation of their ideology?

4 Stars.

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The Whistlers [2019]

I always say that criticism, however well intentioned, begins with an emotional response. Critics respond in a strange way to their favourite genres – sometimes they’re just happy to see the favourite on the screen, sometimes they feel disproportionately displeased by variations or missteps. I, as an aficionado of crime and noir-inflections, was mostly mildly bored by this film.

I think my dissatisfaction comes from the real lack of emotional affect in virtually any of the performances in the film. The characters all basically drift through the narrative letting it kind of happen to them, and so they remain at a distance from each other. It’s hard to believe in the friendships, betrayals, or the love story that crops up with a grinding inevitability given no apparent emotion at any time. Maybe that’s all just lost in translation? A shoehorned love story between a middle-aged corrupt cop and a young beautiful femme fatale was the last straw for thinking this could be a good movie… Just so bored.

The mechanics of everything are pretty efficient and there are some nice shots, the dialogue isn’t bad per se. For sure I’ve seen worse films in this story space, but this is definitely below par.

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