Tale of Tales [2015]

I’m going to break my own rules to try and keep this spoiler-free, since very few people reading this will have seen it.

I saw Tale of Tales late in its theatrical run at a nearly-empty Prince Charles Cinema – probably a fortnight after it opened. It was one of those many many films I’ve seen that are like fireflies in the UK film marketplace, burning with a kind of brilliance somewhere off in a dark corner where only those who aren’t blinded by the latest blockbuster can see them. It’s not hard to understand why films like this aren’t huge commercial successes no matter how well-received they might be critically, and Tale of Tales was not exactly lauded to the heavens. It’s too complex and too weird to really sell to a mass public, with no surrounding franchise to build a fanbase, and no sufficiently A-list actor to generate traction that way. I myself walked out of the cinema feeling ambivalent, and so unwilling to leap onto social media and go to bat for it the way I’ve done for some other fireflies like Mustang and Love and Friendship. Nor did I feel this was an obviously important film for processing our modern world like Grandma, Our Brand is Crisis, and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. So why, you wonder, is this film getting a substantial treatment here when none of those films did?

The simple reason is that Tale of Tales has stuck with me over the intervening couple of months, as I turn my mind back to it again and again trying to tease out what I think it’s about and what significance each of the substantial story beats has. It is a film that is comfortable with not explaining itself and assuming that its audience will keep up. That extends especially to the endings, all of which feel weirdly truncated, because each of the three main plotlines ends fairly immediately after the most obvious plot action is resolved, leaving no space for a real denouement. It’s amazing how reliant we are on that last couple of minutes of wrapping things up to feel satisfied – think about the ending of Casablanca if it had ended with Ilsa and Victor boarding the plane instead of carrying for that extra minute where Renault and Rick have just a few lines of dialogue to show how the experience has changed them – Renault throwing away the bottle of Vichy Water, and the famous last lines about the new phase of their friendship. These little capstones close the drama. In some ways these capstones are the characters within the fiction acknowledging the end of things, and the absence of that acknowledgement in Tale of Tales is disquieting.

The simplest way to explain this is that Tale of Tales isn’t meant to be passively consumed. I think it’s a film expecting its audience to bring their understanding of Fairy Stories and actively participate in the storytelling in the film. It requires the audience to embrace the magical elements, and to make their own inferences about character motivation. And this is what I’ve been trying to do in the time that’s elapsed. In a way that’s the point of Art ™. This isn’t a comfortable pastiche recycling things I’ve seen a million times before. I haven’t got an intuitive and deep understanding of the genre constructions, because there isn’t properly a suite of genre films for this to fit amongst (Blancanieves is the closest that occurs). The difficulties don’t obscure that somehow this film drilled through my jaded cinematic shell, so that I’m still puzzling over it months later, when many films don’t even fully occupy me while I’m watching them.

I don’t know whether this is an endorsement. It’s perhaps more of a suggestion. Do try this film on, and love it or hate it, I think you’ll agree that it’s singular.

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Jason Bourne [2016]

This review is courtesy of Raymond Chandler: It’s the classic action-spy story, it has learned nothing, and forgotten nothing. It’s a story you’ll find taking up spaces in Multiplexes for two generations now, paying lip service to the value of individual honour in a world patently without it – the murky world of the spy. Perhaps the cutting is a little more dynamic, the dialogue less wooden. They talk about computers now instead of launch codes, but the basic currency of the half true but mostly noble lie of “the greater good” and “security in the free world” remains the same. The locations are ever more exotic and the budget for the car chase that kicks off the closing act may be bigger. But fundamentally it is the same old story of good intentions turned evil by paranoia and obsession, the same inevitable betrayal of those expendables not in the inner circle of power. We’re left with the same dazed feeling that in the world portrayed of perfect information, even the truth is a lie. It’s not a very fragrant world, but it is the world our fantasies of power live in.

And at the centre of it all is the man, always a man, for whom a heroine is sacrificed to galvanise him into action, the redemptive action which will for a time set the plotting in abeyance and allow ordinary citizens to live out their lives. At least until the next time. He is inevitably a lonely man, who can trust nobody, but whom nevertheless we can trust implicitly to do the right thing at the right time. He must have the common touch, the common sensibilities of our world – neither a satyr nor a paladin. I could go on – Chandler certainly does in the original.

This film does nothing to earn anything other than a glib dismissal as another vapid example of a long-dead genre, the ultimate zombie, merely retrofitted with the latest shiny Macguffin in the store. Alfred Hitchcock would have balked at some of the excesses of violence, but the scenario and the moving parts would have been perfectly in his bailiwick. Reaching further back, nothing in this film is fundamentally beyond the circumscription of Baroness Orczy’s  imagination. I think, I hope, there’s a film out there of spies in the modern world, but this isn’t it. And of course, that’s why my reading of this film fails – I’m sure it did what it wanted to do efficiently and purposefully, but it wasn’t what I wanted, what I hoped for. I wanted them not to kill poor Julia Stiles, I wanted the bad guys to be honestly-intentioned, I wanted the film to look into Bourne’s future rather than re-tread his worn out past, I wanted so much. The Bourne Identity reinvented the spy for the modern world by making him human – and if this film couldn’t do the same trick by making him modern, I wanted at the very least for it to remember that, but Bourne is now a pure automation, and this “franchise” (god, how I hate that term) has literally nothing to offer me anymore.

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Suicide Squad [2016]

There is exactly one great ensemble-based action-adventure: the Iliad. Achilles is clearly the main character, inasmuch as his choices shape the narrative, but the bulk of the action features the other badasses being badass – Hektor propping up the entire Trojan side of the battle single-handed, Odysseus being all kinds of cunning, Ajax being mighty. Each of the Greek heroes gets at least one pretty thorough-going rampage, to prove what a badass they are. Homer does a lot of things to write the perfect heroic epic but the thing of most interest to me right now is something Robin Laws always says about writing: start as far into the story as you can. The Iliad picks up 7 years into the war, and it doesn’t waste any time explaining who Achilles is, who Agamemnon is, why they’re fighting, who’s in the moral right: nothing. It’s straight into the specific incident which triggers Achilles’ withdrawal from the war and it ends when Achilles re-enters the fighting. When they made Troy [2004], a film I adore, that was perhaps the one thing they over-did, showing the kidnap of Helen, the gathering of the army, and the fall of Troy. But I forgave them because all that stuff was badass and they didn’t spend too long on it.

So here’s the problem every ensemble film has faced ever since: nobody knows who the heroes are sufficiently well that you could really seriously think about not introducing them, and nothing shows this more clearly than The Magnificent Seven, which one way or another wastes about half its running time just showing them getting the seven together and unpacking each’s motivation for going along on the ride. In Kurosawa’s original this is dealt with much more swiftly, and I think part of the point is well made at the end when the two original Samurai are reflecting on the battle – they lost, but the villagers won. The point of the heroes and heroism is to see them sacrificed, to see their ultimate irrelevance in the natural ordering of village life. I wrote “wastes” above, but of course, without that effort, the film hinge of the film where they’re given back their lives by Calvera [Eli Wallach] just wouldn’t make sense, and you wouldn’t care about the individual battles within the final confrontation. The real story is actually about who those characters are, and what they do is really just an exclamation mark at the end of that explanation.

With Suicide Squad, like the Avengers before them and the Justice League to come, we’re at a cultural tipping point where I think the vast bulk of the audience could have named all the principal characters and told you their basic story before entering the cinema. We don’t really need any explanation about, well, there’s these super-beings and this one is called The Flash, or anything like that. Try an experiment – go to one of your “non-geek” (we’re all geeks now, but do your best) co-workers and ask them to name all the superheroes they can think of within a couple of minutes. If they can’t name and don’t name Batman, Wonder Woman and Superman, I would likely fall out of my chair in surprise. So a film like Suicide Squad, unlike The Magnificent Seven, isn’t starting on a blank canvas. It’s starting with all the main figures pretty well known, and if not known, then at least not a million miles away from things we’ve seen plenty of before. Don’t know the low-down on Deadshot? It’s not going to take a rocket scientist to connect the dots on that one. So my first major thought on Suicide Squad is that it wastes a third of its running time on exposition that frankly, even if it’s not directly repeating known facts, is telling you things of which you’re broadly aware. Most films can lose 20 minutes without losing anything, Suicide Squad can lose close to 45. Jut think how much more actual story they could have put into the film with a 50% increase in running length.

That 45 minutes could have done a lot for the film. As it stands, it’s an almost purely generic clone of The Dirty Dozen [1967], with lots of little action sequences which carry no emotional valence at all. The action in this film is pure spectacle, lacking any real procedural focus, any real scope for characterisation, or any real sense of jeopardy – because the stakes for any given conflict exist purely on the grounds of overcoming an obstacle. A fundamental structural feature of heroic stories is that the hero overcomes the obstacle – interest is always generated by things that are orthogonal to the main quest itself. The emotional beats are generated by a choice between alternate evils, not by simply powering through. This is why Hitchcock always regarded the Macguffin as purely a secondary consideration. He never really cared about whether his characters were chasing state secrets, or whatever, as long as there was some notional reason for them to have been launched into action. What Suicide Squad needed was some time to generate those sideways glances and diversions which are where the real emotion lies.

Having said that the Macguffin doesn’t really matter, the Macguffin in this film really didn’t work for me at all. It was the most boring version of the doomsday device I’ve seen since… well, actually, we’re awash with poorly conceived giant swirling death-globes just now, from the truly awful RIPD to the charming but structurally unsatisfying Ghostbusters, to the completely incomprehensible X-Men: Apocalypse. A wizard standing in the middle of a landmark chanting magic and just waiting for you to breach their protective layer of henchmen and kill them is … just so trite, so lazy, and so staggeringly unimaginative that anyone going into a pitch meeting with that climax should be fired on the spot.

From a structural perspective then, this film is a total write-off. But I always try and see the best in films – so assuming all this was a deliberate design decision and it’s just not aligned with my personal taste, what is there to take away from this film that we can like?

I think one of the main things we need to give it some kind of kudos for its gender representation. Now, not forgetting that everyone in the film is a sociopathic monster, we’re basically even on the numbers and level of focus on men and women. It’s a co-lead from Deadshot and Harley Quinn. The costume design did tend to show a lot more female flesh than male flesh however, so it’s a win with a caveat. What they lacked in clothing, I think they made up for in story drive – Quinn drove the action more than Deadshot, and of course the ultimate puppet master was Amanda Waller, so… yay?

I thought it was a great looking film, and had a fantastic sound design. The soundtrack was always spot-on, even if sometimes it felt a little obvious in retrospect. I’d need to see it again to confirm, but it felt well edited and paced to me. Editing is always a hard one to comment on with only a single viewing. The mechanics of the actual film and storytelling were also good. I was never confused about what was going on, or where. Can’t say the same for some other recent blockbusters.

Suicide Squad was that worst of things in a way – it was “okay”. Assuming that you’re not too bothered by a conventional storyline (as I wasn’t with one of my favourites from the last year, Deadpool) and provided you find the character introductions interesting (and they broadly are) then this film will perfectly adequately pass a couple of hours. I’m always really reluctant to say what a film “should” have been – I think that way lies madness – but what I hoped for was something that took the transgressive rule-breaking habit of Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and combined it with transgressive, rule-breaking characters, to do something interesting. And this just wasn’t.

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Triple 9 [2016]

I want you to put away everything you’ve thought about modern crime movies since about 1970. In fact, I want you to cast your mind back to before the Hays Code forever applied a moral valence to cinema, and I want you to think about the classic crime films of the 1930s and very early 1940s. Think about crime between Little Caesar and High Sierra. This was an era of crime filmmaking where films are intensely interested in criminals and see their downfall in practical logistical terms as much as moral statements – as the code became successively ingrained, I think the moral element came to dominate. All of the classic gangsters fail because of some inherent flaw in their psychology, making them tragic rather than evil. When Tom Powers [James Cagney] is killed at the end of The Public Enemy [1931], we recognise an inexorable chain of events formed by his nature, by his unwillingness to compromise. Most of these films would probably be regarded as dramatically aimless by modern audiences, trained to seek out the Hayes-inspired simple moral message of an essentially karmic world, but they are fascinating what-if scenarios. In my mind, this ilk of film draws its dramatic heritage from the Elizabethan or particularly the Jacobean tragedy. They are complex amoral tales that I don’t have a lot of difficulty imagining alongside the more ambivalent of Shakespeare’s heroes – Titus Andronicus and Coriolanus have always struck me as peculiarly modern, almost gangsters in effect. Continue reading

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Behind the Curtain, again

2016’s film watching is well on track to eclipse the number of films seen in 2015, and I’m going to TIFF in September and that’ll mean watching another set of films bigger than most of my friends watch in the cinema in a year. I have taken to posting capsule reviews on Facebook, it’s a bit unsatisfying. I’ve also read more new novels and non-fiction this year than I did last year, including some really really good books – Kate Griffin’s A Madness of Angels being the stand-out fiction and This is Not the End of the Book being the most page-turning non-fiction. Generally I’ve kept my thoughts on those to myself.

When writing my reviews I always try and take the view that the film really does work, and is doing something and it’s deliberate, and taking the success of the film as a core premise I try and understand how and why. To me, that’s real criticism, whereas I think most of the reviews I read are little more than a highly-filtered emotional response, which can point out interesting features in a work but which don’t really explore the deeper meaning of the work or the strategies it uses. Just consider the following (typical) snippet from a dismissive review of Central Intelligence:

As in Thurber’s last movie, We’re The Millers, there are hints of a much darker (and better) comedy buried throughout; a throwaway moment even suggests that Bob—who rides around on the same motorcycle Calvin had in school—might be manipulating the former prom king’s over-inflated sense of his teenage glory days for his own gain. But instead of pursuing that angle, Central Intelligence opts for everybody-learns-a-life-lesson schmaltz and the kind of listless, feature-length-gag-reel vamping that’s become a common viewer hazard ever since Hollywood convinced itself that anyone can direct improv.

I can’t help but read something like that and think that the reviewer had an emotional response of “I don’t like this” and then followed it up with “wouldn’t it be better if…” without really engaging with the deliberate strategies involved in exploring identity inherent in this, which the film leaves as subtext. My reading of this dynamic was quite different, and ultimately also rooted in an emotional response – I laughed instead of cringed. In my reading, Calvin effortlessly coasted through High School, but when the challenges of the real world began to emerge he didn’t adapt and his current malaise is the result of recognising that pure talent isn’t sufficient in the real world. Bob has looked at Calvin and recognised that without that inherent talent, the answer is hard work. Bob has a genuine confidence in Calvin, which over the course of the film leads to Calvin having a genuine confidence in himself and he moves from being passive at the start of the film to playing an active role in events at the end. Is this “everybody-learns-a-life-lesson” story? It sure is – but recognising a genre template is the first 1% of really grappling with a film – you might as well dismiss Rope as just being a “whodunit”, without recognising the extremely sophisticated reinterpretation of the classic whodunit denouement: the dinner party with all the guests.

In short, the role of a reviewer is to shoot from the hip and hope that their combination of experience, eloquence and personal taste hits the mark for a particular audience. I’m more interested in Criticism ™, where a work is pulled apart to examine its insides with a range of technical tools, and sometimes you must indeed conclude that a film is a failure – but I watched Central Intelligence in a crowded cinema which never really stopped laughing, so to write that off with a “C-” really seems to speak more to the snobbish value system of the reviewer than the film and its relationship with its audience.

There are two problems I’m having in keeping up with my writing aspirations are mostly time and energy. I’m trying to re-engage with other forms of writing, and I’ve been finding that the more sophisticated my critical skills become paradoxically the longer they take to deploy. I came out of The Nice Guys inspired to write about what I thought was a really interesting film, and a month or so later I’m still chipping away at it, trying to really get the best version of the best critical view written, while addressing what is an increasingly large range of other reviews I’ve read.

The second problem is that these reviews disappear without a trace into the ether. 10 years ago blogging was a community activity; any post would garner some level of response. These days it seems like the readership for all blogging is relatively low, and it also seems that passive absorption is the norm. The crystal-clear case in my mind is Jenni’s recent review of Monty Python’s Holy Grail. When I asked Facebook for recommendations of female critics recently, Jenni was the clear winner – and yet she was able to post a scathing review of one of geekdom’s all-time classic films, beloved by millions, and receive absolutely no comments. 10 years ago, I think a post like that would have kicked off a serious pro/con debate about the merits or otherwise of the film. It’s got a hugely interesting commentary on then-current UK politics built in, and is philosophically non-trivial, yet there’s no denying that it’s assembled-sketch format isn’t always successful, something they rectified in Life of Brian. We tend to talk about social media these days as being an echo chamber, but the reality often seems to me that its more dangerous aspect is its silence and passivity. Writing in that environment is like trying to have a warming fire with a single stick.

So, just in case, below is my list of films seen but not reviewed so far for 2016. Sing out if there’s anything in particular you’d like to know more about:

 

Grandma ****, The Raid 2 ***Four Rooms ***John Wick ***The Revenant ***The Assassin *Bridge of Spies ***The Big Short ***Dear White People ***A Bigger Splash ****Bone Tomahawk **Hitchcock/Truffaut *** (and the book on which the film was based ****), Our Brand Is Crisis ****Me, Earl & the Dying Girl *****High-Rise ***Triple 9 **Zootropolis ****Theatre of Blood ***The Ides of March **Eye in the Sky ****Captain America: Civil War ****Victoria ***Our Kind of Traitor **Mustang *****X-Men Apocalypse *Whiskey Tango Foxtrot ****Love & Friendship ****The Nice Guys ****Independence Day: Resurgence ***Central Intelligence ***Ghostbusters ***Tale of Tales ***.

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The Martian [2015]

I broadly enjoyed The Martian at least in part because until after I’d seen it, nobody described it as Robinson Crusoe In Space – there is actually a film literally named that, but I’ve never seen it. “Robinsonades” could be further described by a number of broad sub-types, including the Return to Eden ™, Man Versus Nature ™, Imperialist Fantasy of White Supremacy ™, and so on. There are aspects of most of these in the Martian, but I think what dominated the discussion around the film, and what I felt was the primary dramatic ploy, was the much-quoted “I’m going to Science the Shit out of it” line from early-ish in the film – Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is an expert displaying his particular expertise, and that works especially well as a quotation because it literally involves shit. Continue reading

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Irreducible Complexity

My favourite argument in favour of Intelligent Design is “irreducible complexity”. The argument is, roughly, that some things found in nature are so intricate and complex that if you change any one element by even a small amount, the whole thing becomes impossible. If it can’t be changed, then it must have been constructed as one piece, and the only way that can happen is if you have an intelligent designer in the ether. I love this argument because it appropriates the language of science to argue its case, and because I think it goes one step better than most mass thought to place complexity first and foremost. In order to engage with this argument, either for or against, it is necessary to place the idea of a complex system at the forefront of your thought. It is impossible to engage with this argument through simplistic reductive shortcuts, there is no chance to focus your attention on a single variable as “the key” to understanding the situation.

The world is a fantastically complicated place that I feel is continually being “simplified” in ways that are unhelpful. Examples are so common that it’s hard to choose one as emblematic of the general fault. As a random sample, a kind of mass metonymy, there’s the use of GDP as a measure of economic health, the emphasis we place on who is PM or President, the use of temperature rise as the sole indicator of climate change, the attempts to solve traffic flow problems by simply adding more roads, IQ scores as a measure of intelligence, the use of opening weekend box-office returns as an index of film profitability, the reliance on a “3 Act Structure” to interpret fictions…

In each of these examples, a part of a complex system is used as a representation of the whole system, to the detriment of our understanding of the full implications of the thing we’re interested in. For example, we discuss “Reganomics” as a metonymy for a number of social and cultural changes. Regan becomes a focal point, a symbol for privatisation – but Congress was solidly controlled by the Democratic party, so clearly there was a far wider and more pervasive ideological force in play that shaped both sides of the US political divide to allow the changes Regan ushered in. Similarly, it was a Democratic President, Bill Clinton, on whose watch Glass-Steagall was repealed, and he presided over a Congress and Senate with Republican majorities. Trying to understand the ebb-and-flow of US political history by focusing on the singular figure of the President is counter-productive. Wider cultural, ideological and political matters need to be considered.

Once you embrace complexity, however, it can become a deep rabbit hole. There can appear to be no way down through the layers to find an answer of any kind. My favourite example of surrendering the search for a solution comes from West Side Story, where the delinquents explain the reason for their behaviour to Officer Krupke:

They examine different possible explanations for their behaviour, rejecting each one in turn. No single factor or approach can comprehend their problems, and so the conclusion of the song is that they are simply no good after all. The whole system of their world needs to be revised, something beyond their ability to effect, even if not beyond their ability to recognise. Their criminality can only be completely corrected by simultaneously addressing all of the origins of their problems. It’s no coincidence that the most hardened and inveterate criminals are sometimes described as “products of the system”. It’s much easier to treat individual crimes and criminals than address the underlying systemic problems that support criminality. Their very attempt to compartmentalise their problems is what dooms any solution to failure, but without any such reductive strategies their plight could appear so complex that it could only be the result of deliberate design.

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