Nolan Time to Die

In Tenet, celebrated director Christopher Nolan adapts for the big screen a previously unknown novel co-authored by Ian Fleming and Rod Serling. Or at least you could be forgiven for thinking that.

After an unnamed American special services agent (John David Washington) is almost killed during a mission by a bullet that appears to fire out of a wall and back into a gun, he is pulled into a conspiracy centring on “inversion” – the ability to make objects travel against the flow of time.

This set-up allows Nolan to de facto realise his aspiration to direct a Bond film. This is a tale of espionage that shoots between glamorous locations on different sides of the world, whilst going long on smart suits, gadgets and, most of all, action.

That said whilst it is obviously a pastiche, it is never just one. We may be watching tropes which have been deployed many times before, but by hurling high-concept sci-fi at them, Nolan shatters any sense of familiarity they might engender. You may be able to trace the influences on the fight sequences, gun battles and the truly astonishing car chase through Tallinn. However, none of those feature participants moving opposite ways through time. That is something genuinely novel and, given Nolan’s technical mastery, spectacular.

Indeed, they may be the best action set pieces he’s ever produced including “the bat bike” sequence in the Dark Knight.

I am not sure if it has the thematic richness of some of his other work, precisely because it often takes multiple viewings – and hearing about other’s interpretations of the film – for that richness to reveal itself. However, even if it does not, I will hardly be disappointed. I think we all deserve a bracing blast of premium popcorn cinema about now.

Two Popes are better than one?

* I don’t think this is a film where spoilers matter, but in case you disagree full spoilers ahead *

Habemus Papam*2

According to the fictional version of Pope Benedict XVI who appears in the Two Popes: “there is an old saying – ‘God always corrects one pope with another’.” This idea of Benedict and his successor as thesis and antithesis animates The Two Popes. However, not in the way you might expect.

When then Cardinal Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) travels to Rome in 2012 to appeal directly to the Pope (Anthony Hopkins) for permission to retire as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he is surprised to discover the Supreme Pontiff is also considering stepping aside. Neither man is initially sympathetic to the other’s intentions and not only a battle of ideas, but a clash of temperaments ensues. The cerebral traditionalist Pope initially regards everything about the down-to-earth, reform-minded Cardinal as a challenge.

In many films, the two popes would function more as stand-ins for schools of thought than actual characters. However, The Two Popes prioritises, not only, understanding, its central characters as men, but also imagining how despite their differences, they could develop a friendship and reach a mutual understanding.

The film’s Benedict is initially in a sort of spiritual funk, sensing that he is not meant to be Pope anymore, but fearful about the direction the Church will take if he relinquishes his office. However, encountering Cardinal Bergoglio, and realising he can hear God speaking through someone he considers so heterodox, gives Benedict faith that there is a path forward for the Church without “God’s Rottweiler” at its helm.

At the same time, Benedict is able to challenge the Cardinal’s guilt over his ambiguous role during Argentina’s ‘Dirty War’. Using his relentlessly scholarly mind to deconstruct the illogicality of the future Pope Francis’ unwillingness to extend to himself the forgiveness, he preaches for others.

This very intense focus on just two characters, only works because both Hopkins and Pryce are superlative. Henceforth, I expect to have the same difficulty mentally disentangling the Pope Francis and Jonathan Pryce, that I do separating Mark Zuckerberg and Jesse Eisenberg.

While scriptwriter Anthony McCarten is clearly more sympathetic to Francis’ worldview than Benedict’s, the marriage of his writing and Hopkins’ performance creates a portrayal of Benedict which is no less empathetic than that of Francis.

And crucially given the subject matter and central characters, both the writing and acting of the Two Popes, finds a way of depicting personal faith which reflects that as inexpressible as it is, for Benedict and Francis there is no force more powerful.

Two notes

Before finishing this review, duty compels me to note two things. The first is my one substantive criticism of the film. I do wish relatively more had been made of Benedict’s pre-clerical past. At one point, he says to Cardinal Bergoglio: “we both know that part of what dictatorships do is take away this choice”. Despite this, and the fact that incidental characters twice refer to Benedict as a “Nazi”, his upbringing under the Third Reich, and whatever parallels it might have with Francis’ experiences under Argentina’s Juanta, go mostly unexplored.

Secondly I absolutely, most flag up how legitimately funny the Two Popes is, especially when it depicts the stand-offishly modest Bergoglio confounding the grandiose world of the Vatican. As that world is often personified by Benedict, that means large sections of the film function as an odd-couple comedy.

Understanding

However, this humour is always affectionate, as befits a generous film that promotes understanding rather than conflict. But that is not understanding as some intellectual exercise, rather it is as a lived experience involving other people, who are inevitably replete with nuances and frustrations.

It is also understanding with teeth. The philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah writes in his book Cosmopolitanism that: “People often recommend relativism because they think it will lead to tolerance. But if we cannot learn from one another what it is right to think and feel and do, then conversation between us will be pointless. Relativism of that sort isn’t a way to encourage conversation; it’s just a reason to fall silent.”

Both Benedict and Francis are men of faith who believe in moral truth. That is what gives the fictional conversations across an ideological divide in the Two Popes such weight and urgency: they are between people who think that words can alter beliefs and that the right beliefs can change everything.

However, McCarten’s script avoids positing anything as simple as one man successfully proselytising the other. Rather, like two marbles travelling in opposite directions, which collide; after their encounter both his popes are put on an altered course, neither of which matches the trajectory either was on before.

That kind of change in one’s understanding might seem weaker than brute persuasion. However, as the Two Popes shows, under the right circumstances, it can be powerful enough to vault someone from the throne of St Peter.

The Siren Call of Safety: My Rise of Skywalker review

I have avoided revealing anything in this post that is not in the trailers or other pre-release publicity

A fan’s lament

I noticed myself noticing something whilst watching the Rise of Skywalker. Perhaps because it was mostly shot in the UK, a lot of minor roles are filled by actors who have played major parts in British TV shows. So, my brain would regularly be like “wasn’t that X-wing pilot a detective in Sherlock. Even in one of the film’s most emotionally charged moment, I was distracted by the realisation that a small but pivotal role was played by someone strongly associated with playing a very distinctive character, very different from the one they were depicting in the Rise of Skywalker.

Why am I telling you this? Well, I’m a huge Star Wars fan. I’m enthusiastic about the direction the saga has taken in the Disney/Kathleen Kennedy era. I would have been so enraptured watching The Force Awakens and the Last Jedi, that something small like this wouldn’t really have registered to me. That I was taken out of the film by it, illustrates that the new film did not cast the same spell on me.

Sure, it was still entertaining: the cast of characters remains hugely likable, John Williams remains a genius and ILM continue to deliver a mic drop visual after mic drop visual. However, it is impossible not to be disappointed that the trilogy has ended this way.

The criticism I’ve seen made most frequently is that the pacing is rushed. Which it undoubtedly is. In fact, it feels like two films have been edited into one. If films are often praised for their ‘lean’ storytelling, then the Rise of Skywalker is emaciated. It has been cut back so viciously that the bones of the plot are largely stripped of character development, thematic depth or anything else that might put flesh on them. The relentless gallop through the narrative also robs the audience of slower moments where tension can build. The effect of this pace is alienating rather than invigorating.

These writing and editing issues are exasperated in the first act of the film by the filmmakers trying to incorporate unused footage of Carrie Fisher shot for the Force Awakens. I appreciate why giving one of the saga’s truly great characters (and the fantastic actor who played her) a proper send-off seemed important. However, taking dialogue from one film and trying to jam it into another is the wrong way to do it. It feels out of place in the film it’s now in. And the editing doesn’t cover the joints in a smooth way.

The perils of playing it safe

However, I want to suggest a more fundamental flaw with the Rise of Skywalker: Lucasfilm was too cautious.

In his book Messy, Tim Harford cites numerous incidents where measures intended as a safety feature actually become dangerous. For example, part of a safety valve in a nuclear reactor breaks loose and causes a blockage which leads to a meltdown. Or more mundanely an anxious public speaker is so anxious about not knowing what to say, that they cling to a carefully pre-prepared script rather than reading the room and wind up saying exactly the wrong thing.

I fear Lucasfilm took a risky precaution by deciding to go back to a trusted director. It is understandable why they did this: the studio has been repeatedly burned by taking risks on directors – including parting ways with the Rise of Skywalker’s original director, Colin Trevorrow. In that context, rehiring JJ Abrams, the man who successfully delivered the saga’s relaunch in Force Awakens, must have seemed like a way to almost guarantee they would get a decent film.

However, that created a problematic dynamic. In contrast to their Disney compatriots at Marvel, Lucasfilm do not have a masterplan for how the story will unfold film-to-film. Instead, the writer/director of each entry in the saga improvises. Now, as anyone who improvises on stage or screen can tell you, it only works if you are prepared to accept and develop others’ contributions, the so-called “yes and…” principle. Rejecting them breaks the flow of the process.

Just such a break is created, by bringing back the director of the episode VII to direct episode IX. Abrams clearly had ideas about how the rest of the trilogy would pan out. Judging from the Rise of Skywalker those ideas seem to have differed substantially from what Rian Johnson actually did in episode VIII.

Rather than developing the story Johnson bequeathed him, Abrams instead seems to have tried to pull the saga back in the direction he initially intended: Characters introduced in the Last Jedi are ignored; whilst characters from Force Awakens often act in a way that seems at odds with what we learned about them in the previous film; and the previous film’s big reveal is retconned away. This isn’t even done in an intelligent way. Instead a character simply goes (to paraphase slightly): “When I said X (in the Last Jedi) that was actually sophistry. I really meant Y, which is the literal opposite”!

It also feels like Abrams drives forward with ideas, like the return of Palpatine as an antagonist, which because they were not seeded in Episode VIII seem to emerge from nowhere.

I also couldn’t escape the sense that Abrams had used up a lot of his ideas for action sequences in Force Awakens. So in the Rise of Skywalker, he resorts to making things bigger in a way that doesn’t turn out better. The combination of this drive for scale and the rushed editing, mean that a lot of the battles sequences become an uninteresting blur.

Let the past die – Kill it if you have to

Thus the very thing that probably most recommend Abrams to Lucasfilm, having successfully directed the Force Awakens, was actually the thing that made him the wrong director for the Rise of Skywalker. He did not have enough fresh ideas to contribute. Plus, his preconceived ideas about the saga’s direction clashed with the direction it actually took. This makes for a film that whilst not bad is jarring and uninspiring. It also points to a real danger for Lucasfilm or anyone else handling a long-running franchise. If you don’t take risks and tweak your formula, audiences will tire of seeing the same film repeated. For a franchise, too much caution is path which leads, sooner or later, to certain death.

6 Ragnarok reactions

N.B: Unless you’re REALLY spoiler-phobic this post should be ok for you!

1 – I liked it a lot. It’s funny, exuberant and inventive. It’s the MCU turned up to 11.

2 – It is by far the best Thor film to date. A large scale purge of the supporting characters pays off. While obviously very accomplished as actors, the likes of Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins and Stellan Skarsgard always seemed uncomfortable being in these films. Their replacements punch their way into Ragnarok already embracing their OTT camp glory. Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie feels ready to join the main Avenger’s line-up from the get-go. And if we can see Taika Waititi’s Korg or Jeff Goldblum’s grandmaster again that would be great. Obviously that could be in another Thor sequel, but they both seem like they’d fit-in well in a GOTG adventure.

3 – Casting Cate Blanchett as the villain serves to illustrate the difference between a good actor and a great one. Marvel villains have generally been uninspiring. Even capable actors struggle to do much with their generic objectives and motivations, modest screentime and clunky dialogue. Blanchett doesn’t so much overcome those hurdles as devour them. The likes of Lee Pace and even Mads Mikkelsen struggle when their characters get into full flow: they need to deliver dire declamations with conviction, without seeming silly. Blanchett needn’t worry. Her performance is hammed up to a level beyond the pantomime, but even at Hela’s most overwrought, Blachett inhabits her, such that you never wind up questioning, a character who on even cursory examination is totally ludicrous. This video illustrates the point rather well.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BauEj6-HVRQ/?hl=en&taken-by=marvel

4 – Ragnarok has a decidedly antipodean flavour. It was filmed in Australia, its director is a Kiwi, and much of the cast is from that part of the world. That helps make it feel distinct from the rest of the MCU. I felt that was reflected in a humour that’s a bit looser and more than the hyperverbal Whedony quipping you get in most Marvel movies. Not that I mind hyperverbal Whedony quipping, but some variety is pleasant. [Edit: put it this way. Marvel dialogue is generally very coffee. Ragnarok is more larger]

5 – The synth heavy score is exactly what this movie needs.

6 – If I had to find fault with Ragnarok, I would be point-out that:

  • he action scenes look cool but nothing more. I never really became invested in what was happening in them. Instead I’d enjoy the spectacle whilst waiting to return to the characters interacting entertainingly.
  • It takes about 20 mins to really click into gear. Doctor Strange’s inclusion felt unearned.
  • Idris Elba remains chronically underused, and Hiddleston feels sidelined to an extent that is suprising given the popularity of his character.

But honestly, I was having a riot, so none of this really bothered me.

7 – I am conflicted about the trailers. They stepped on many of the best moments, but were also really entertaining in their own right.

Democracy Dies in Darkness: Spotlight and the Trump Presidency

When it won the Best Picture Oscar a year ago, Spotlight’s message about journalism seemed important. With Trump in the White House, it is essential.

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Last year’s Oscar winner

It is hard to feel sorry for a film that won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Screenplay, was nominated for four others and grossed $90 million. However, a year after Spotlight surprised many by winning the most prestigious Academy Award, it is hard not to think it arrived just a little too early to be truly appreciated.

It tells the story of a team of journalists investigating one of the largest criminal cover-ups in American history. For decades, Catholic priests in Boston abused children. Confronted with this fact, the church hierarchy acted not to protect the victims but the perpetrators. It used its enormous informal influence in the city to keep allegations away from both the criminal justice system and explicit public attention. But Spotlight’s real focus is not on the priests or the church. Rather it is on the city of Boston itself. The film’s contention seems to be that abuse was widespread that most Bostonians knew it was happening. But it was easier to tacitly accept it, than to face the fact that a key ingredient of the social glue holding the city together, was in fact toxic to children. At one point a character opines that: “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.”

Even some of the journalists shown acting heroically to uncover the scandal, are shown to have been willing to partake in this silence, until pushed to confront that truth. That push comes, perhaps inevitably, from outsiders. Thus, in a film that is in large part about Catholicism, key narrative roles are played by non-Catholics. There is Mitchell Garbidian, an Armenian-American litigation lawyer played by Stanley Tucci, who specialises in representing victims of clerical sexual abuse, and who keeps trying to raise the alarm about quite how many clients he has. But most compellingly there is Marty Baron.

Though Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams were nominated for Oscars for their performances, the best performance in the film comes from Liev Schreiber as Baron. The real Baron grew up in Florida, the son of immigrants from Israel. He worked at a number of America’s most prestigious newspapers before returning to Florida, to edit the Miami Herald, before moving to Boston in 2001 to do the same job for the Globe.

Spotlight repeatedly underlines the importance of his status as a Jew in a Catholic city. From his trying to learn about the city’s baseball team from a book, to his being handed a Catechism by Archbishop Law, the film’s ‘big bad’. On multiple occasions native Bostonians at the Globe are leaned on by Diocesan officials to convey to Baron that the digging he has instigated is not ‘how things are done round here’. Yet it is precisely because he is not invested in the city and its dominant religious institution, that he understands that something untoward is occurring. It is he, who forces his journalists to investigate the abuse allegations, and to focus on the church rather than individual priests.

The revelations that resulted would force Archbishop Law to resign, provoke institutions well beyond the Catholic Church into taking stronger measures to protect children, and end much of the deference previously showed towards the Church. It would also win Baron and his colleagues a Pulitzer Prize.

Fact and fiction

Writing about seeing himself on the screen, Baron wrote that:

Liev Schreiber portrays me as the newly arrived top editor who launched that investigation, and his depiction has me as a stoic, humorless, somewhat dour character that many professional colleagues instantly recognize (“He nailed you”) and that my closest friends find not entirely familiar.

But he also saw a broader significance in the film’s depiction not of him but of his profession:

Aside from the acclaim of critics, “Spotlight” already has delivered one gratifying result. In emails, tweets and Facebook posts, journalists have declared themselves inspired, buoyed and affirmed. That is no small matter in this badly bruised profession. We have felt the traumatizing financial effect of the Internet and been berated by just about everyone, especially politicians in a campaign season that has seen us cynically labeled “scum.”

One journalist wrote me that “the story that inspired the movie serves as a wonderful, wonderful reminder why so many of us got into this business in the first place and why so many stayed despite all the gloom and doom and all the left hooks that landed squarely on our chins along the way.”

A reporter for a major national publication said he had gone to the movie with his entire family. “My kids suddenly think I’m cool,” he said.

Especially heartening has been the reaction of some publishers. One in California rented a theater to show the movie to the paper’s entire staff. Another wrote me on Facebook: “You and the Spotlight team . . . have reenergized me to find a business model to support this critical work.”

Cut to the present

Marty Baron is no longer at the Boston Globe. Since 2012 he has edited an even more august publication: the Washington Post. That has made him an important player in the unsettling confrontation between the media and President Trump.

The print publication that Trump appears to have the most animosity towards is the New York Times. However, it is arguably Baron’s journalists who’ve unearthed the most damaging revelations about the new president.

A staff reporter named David Farenthold revealed that despite Trump claiming to be a generous donor to charity, he actually gave hardly anything away. Most of the money possessed by his charitable foundation was donated by other people, and that was frequently used not for charitable purposes but to enrich Trump. For example, to pay out of court settlements arising from the misdemeanours of Trump’s businesses.

Then Farenthold also got hold of the so-called ‘Access Hollywood tape’ in which Trump makes a succession of crass comments about women, including that being famous allowed him to ‘grab them by the pussy’, which was interpreted by many people, including me, as an admission of committing sexual assault.

Most recently, it was Post reporters who revealed that Trump had been warned that his National Security Advisor, Mike Flynn, had been communicating with Russian diplomats. Something the administration had previously denied.

This has naturally not escaped Trump’s attention. His ire appears to be directed not at Baron but at Jeff Bezos, the Post’s owner and a co-founder of Amazon. Before the election, he complained about “purposely negative and horrible and false articles” the Post was writing and warned that he might take his revenge on Bezos by going after Amazon. At one point saying: “Believe me, if I become president, oh do they have problems, they are going to have such problems” and intimating that he might target Amazon for tax and anti-trust investigations.

Shooting the messenger

At a conference in 2002, Professor Mary Ann Glendon, a future US Ambassador to the Vatican would proclaim that: “…if fairness and accuracy have anything to do with it, awarding the Pulitzer Prize to the Boston Globe would be like giving the Nobel Peace Prize to Osama bin Laden.”

You see, the tendency to deride good reporting that you find inconvenient as ‘fake news’ is not new.

For almost a century journalists have been reciting variants of the saying that “News is what somebody does not want you to print. All the rest is advertising.” One such variation replaces the word ‘advertising’ with ‘public relations’. And as Mark Harris of Vulture has written because Trump’s interaction with the media has primarily been in the context of the entertainment industry, he’s primed to thinking that journalists should indeed act like publicists:

Every entertainment journalist will, sooner or later, be told by a PR representative, “Hey, we’re all in the same business here.” For the journalists and quasi-journalists Trump encountered during his decade-long run as The Apprentice’s star and co-producer, that was uncomfortably close to the truth. Trump thought they needed him more than he needed them, and believed that if they stepped out of line or off of the publicity game plan, he could punish them by cutting them off. And the evidence he chose to see backed him up. For proof, you have only to think back to the perfectly titled Access Hollywood and ask yourself what put Trump on that bus in the first place and allowed him to talk so freely. The answer: It was a safe space, a faux-journalistic enterprise produced by NBC, the network that aired The Apprentice, in which different house rules prevailed. The “interview” was a publicity segment, the “journalist” was a douchey wingman, the actress unwittingly roped into being their tour guide was a performer on Days of Our Lives, an NBC daytime soap on which Trump was about to do a cameo, which would help Days of Our Lives, which would help The Apprentice, which would help Access Hollywood. Hey, we’re all in the same business here.”

This is Trump’s understanding of journalism; it’s the bubble in which he lived for the decade before his campaign began, and it shocks and enrages him when journalism decides to be something other than flattery-for-access.

The result Harris argues is that real journalism of the kind done by the Boston Globe or the Washington Post looks to him like bad journalism. He complains that it is not only ‘fake’ but also ‘nasty’ and bemoans that it relies on leaks of confidential information. He has also accused the media of representing ‘special interests’ rather than ‘the people’.

Baron has suggested that, in this context:

It is no wonder that some members of our staff at The Washington Post and at other news organizations received vile insults and threats of personal harm so worrisome that extra security was required. It is no wonder that one Internet venue known for hate and misogyny and white nationalism posted the home addresses of media executives, clearly inviting vandalism or worse. Thankfully, nothing that I know of happened to anyone. Then there was the yearlong anti-Semitic targeting of journalists on Twitter.

Renewed relevance

It is, therefore, regrettable that Spotlight came out last year rather than now. Many of this year’s nominees can be seen as gaining relevancy from Trump presidency. But broadly speaking, they do so with a general message about tolerance of minorities. Spotlight appears inadvertently much more specifically directed at our present moment.

At the time of its Oscar triumph, Spotlight’s message was considered worthy but not controversial. Objecting to the value of investigative journalism would have seemed as silly as attacking helping the unlucky or striving against the odds. Now it is a divisive political issue. The President’s chief strategist has openly questioned the right of the media to investigate his boss and said the media should ‘keep its mouth shut‘.

Spotlight is a great dramatisation of the case for why this must be challenged with the utmost intensity. A tale of journalists breaking a story, based in part on leaks of confidential information,  about the wrong doing of people in power, that must have seemed ‘nasty’ to those powerful people, who disparage it as ‘false’ even though the carefully assembled evidence shows it is true, is something we could really do with seeing on the screen right now.

Baron recently authorised a change in the Post’s masthead. Underneath the paper’s title now sit the words ‘Democracy Dies in Darkness’.  Spotlight dramatises the truth of that sentiment for its audience. It illustrates that only by having powerful people asked awkward and potentially ‘nasty’ questions, can those with less power be protected from having ‘nasty’ things done to them.

There will always be men like President Trump and Archbishop Law. Let us hope there will remain journalists with the freedom to investigate them.

To the Dark Side and back

Rogue One’s a masterfully intense look at both the price and the necessity of war

This review focuses on the final section of Rogue One. While there are few explicit spoilers – at least if you’ve seen a New Hope! – you can probably infer a lot.

More or less from the moment that Rogue One’s premise was announced I’ve been excited about it. A tale of the forgotten Rebel heroes who stole the plans for the Death Star sounded distinct from anything the franchise had attempted before: a story of spies and soldiers rather than mystic warriors. This sounded reminiscent of my favourite parts of the now defunct Expanded Universe, which tended to the grimiest and most grounded installments in it. Then Felicity Jones – who I last saw giving an Oscar nominated performance as Stephen Hawking’s wife in the Theory of Everything – was cast in the lead and it picked up another big plus mark in my mental tally. Next the trailers came along, and they were intense and packed with foreboding and gorgeous looking visuals. It came to seem important as well as entertaining when Trump won the American presidency and some of his supporters amongst the ‘alt-right’ identified a female led story of a multi-racial band of heroes defying a fascist regime as a threat to their movement. Oh and having already psyched myself up for it being the film of the year, it was then released in Korea a fortnight later then everywhere else, with the result that I was hearing from friend after friend how great it was.

For the first hour, I wondered if my galaxy sized expectations were doing the film a disservice. I was impressed by the more grounded feel, by Star Wars delivering fight scenes worth watching as fight scenes for the first time, and most of all by K2, the snarky war droid faintly reminiscent of Marvin from the Hitchhiker’s Guide.* But I wasn’t really engaged enough to truly relish Rogue One.

Then it moved into its final act and it suddenly began doing the impossible: not only meeting but exceeding my absurd expectations. That’s all the more striking because I usually hate final acts in which smaller confrontations give way to masses of explosions. And let’s be clear, the finale of Rogue One does not want for explosions. There are explosions in buildings, explosions on beaches and explosions in space. Plus there are a lot of things happening at once, many of them involving characters we’ve barely seen before, which can become jumbled and disengaging if handled badly. This was largely what sunk the Phantom Menace. 

But director Gareth Edwards turns it into something stunning. He unfolds a tapestry of warfare, that’s bleak and brutal but also affirms the possibility of defying seemingly impossible odds. The best sequence to illustrate that doesn’t even feature the main heroes. The Death Star plans are aboard a rebel ship and have been put onto the drive that will eventually be stowed into R2D2 in A New Hope. However, the ship has been damaged and now boarded by the Imperial forces. A group of nameless rebel soldiers stand in a corridor, guns at the ready, awaiting the onslaught of Stormtroopers. Instead they find themselves facing Darth Vader. They shoot at him but this is of course in vein. He can deflect their blasts with his lightsaber. As he slices through those nameless soldiers, and on one occasion uses the force to smash them against the ceiling, the soldier at the end of the corridor tries desperately to open a door so he can pass the plans to a colleague on the other side. Which he succeeds in doing just before his inevitable demise at the hands of the Sith lord.

This is not what victory looks like in most films. It does not constitute a happy ending because in no way does it make you feel happy. It is as gloomy as those trailers promised. I’d go further and say that by the end Rogue One is harrowing. It makes you feel the desperation of the characters: they know that success is nearly impossible but pursue that small possibility with a ferocious determination and little regard to their own survival.

Star Wars has always thought itself important. There are people who agree and even try to turn it into a religion. That claim’s never been all that convincing. Its mythology is just too silly. But with Rogue One, the franchise makes its best case that it is indeed something more than an entertaining fairy tale. It is not only riveting, though it clearly is. Nor is it simply powerful, though I was struck dumb with emotion. Rather it is Star Wars engaging with war in all its violence, horror and heroism. And it’s epic, in every sense of that word.

 

*I promise I wrote that line before hearing Kermode and Mayo’s film review making exactly the same comparison

X-Meh

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X-Men: Apocalypse is not a terrible film but it’s a terrible waste of the talents of its director and cast.

There’s a variation of a particular line that always suggests to me that the writer of a sci-fi blockbuster isn’t over-endowed with the ability to craft original dialogue. In Terminator: Genysis (sic) the skynet hijacked John Connor tells Arnie’s nearly destroyed T-800 “you cannot defeat me” and Arnie replies “no – not alone”, at which point Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese burst in and save the day. In the truly awful, Fantastic Four Reed Richards tells the rest of the quartet that Dr Doom “is stronger than any of us but not stronger than all of us”. And in X-Men: Apocalypse Professor Xavier tells the titular villain that he will lose because “you’re alone and I’m not”.

Sadly this is the very generic place the X-Men franchise finds itself. Once a great innovator that largely created the blueprint for modern superhero genre, it now appears unable to vary that blueprint in any especially interesting ways.

Director Bryan Singer, the guy behind the Usual Suspects, is one of the few people able to make large amounts of CGI work. And he uses that talent to deliver some cool set pieces. In particular, and once again, Quicksilver’s big moment.

But this only goes part way towards mitigating the disappointment of the rest of the film. That’s largely a product of an uninspiring and unsatisfying script. As I’ve already the dialogue it contains is lazy and pedestrian. It also manages to both drag and feel rushed. Apocalypse is two and half hours long and large chunks of that run time are ponderous. Yet the film is so cluttered with characters and subplots that no single element has the space to develop satisfactorily. No character’s arc ever engages because it’s hard to tell what you are supposed to be investing in.

To make matters worse for Fox, they will inevitably face (unflattering) comparisons with Marvel. The obvious reference point is the recently released Captain America: Civil War, which is substantially better. But perhaps more striking is that the current run of Agents of SHIELD which more or less the same story as Apocalypse is also superior. The first mutant yells and relies on brute power but the first inhuman is a quieter and more insidious threat. The pain he causes the heroes feels more real and his actions are less predictable. Now we have moved on from the days when TV was considered necessarily the inferior to film. And I would argue that SHIELD is underrated and would cite as evidence for that the fact that Rolling Stone just put it on a list of the greatest sci-fi shows of all time. Nonetheless, nobody thinks SHIELD is Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones. It has a decent sized fan base but basically zero cultural resonance outside of it. If a studio spends north of $200 million and hires the guy who made the Usual Suspects, it presumably wants something a cut above a third-tier Marvel project. Certainly if you’ve made Oscar Isaac’s less compelling than Brett Dalton you’re doing something wrong.

Indeed the weakness of the titular villain is one of the most striking aspects of the film. One area in which Fox has had an edge over Marvel is in its villains. Where the Avengers would – Loki aside – face some blue guy yelling about destroying this or taking over that, the X-Men have always confronted psychologically complex characters with real depth. Sadly Apocalypse could easily be a Marvel villain: he’s a blue guy yelling about destroying this and taking over that. He may be massively powerful but that just confirms that more is not always better.

Isaacs is not alone in being wasted. Apocalypse has a seriously impressive cast. Not good in superhero terms, good in any terms. Like, there are Spielberg films with worse casts. Between them, Lawrence and Fassbender have six Oscar nominations and one win. McAvoy, Isaacs and Byrne each have BAFTAs, Golden Globes and Emmys. Munn, Hoult and Turner while not huge stars are clearly bankable supporting actors, who are good at what they do. Given all this it’s not surprising that the acting in Apocalypse is good but it is not applied to anything with that justifies such an assembly of talents. Characters just show up, do their thing and get placed in position for the next film. Professor X is bald – check. Storm is now an X-men – check. The potentially apocalyptic nature of Jean Grey’s powers have been hinted at – check. Magneto has been shown, despite his myriad homicides, to actually be a decent bloke – check. What’s particularly strange about moving all these characters around the franchises chessboard is that Apocalypse is supposed to be the endgame. It’s the culmination of the current trilogy and while there are Wolverine and Deadpool films lined up, the fate of the X-men films themselves appears unclear. It’s not obvious that Fassbender, Lawrence or McAvoy will be back and without those characters it’s hard to see it continuing successfully. Thus the all too common feeling in franchises that the quality of the film you are currently watching is being sacrificed for the sake of some future instalment is compounded by the sense that it might all be in vain.

Let us return momentarily to discussing Isaacs. One of my (female) viewing companions complained that his good looks hidden under prosthetics and CGI. From my (male) point of view Apocalypse seems vulnerable to an equal and opposite criticism. Why does Olivia Munn’s Psylocke fight in what is essentially a bathing suit? Ok that’s a rhetorical question, I mean I get that it’s so the audience – presumed to be mostly men and (especially) teenage boys – can ogle her. But that seems disrespectful to character, actress and audience alike. Perhaps instead Psylocke’s inclusion could have been justified by actually giving her something of significance to the narrative to do.

That’s a fairly minor gripe. Had I really bought into what else was happening in the film, I’d have barely noticed. But while X-Men: Apocalypse is not as sloppy as Batman v Superman nor as obnoxious as Deadpool, it’s still deeply underwhelming. Which is kind of odd because on a certain level it’s spectacular. The visuals are stunning and unusually for a superhero film it actually gains momentum when it moves into a climax full of obscene amounts of CGI. But that mostly underlines how weirdly inert the rest of the film is. There’s little point marrying such a talented director and cast with a script that is so flat and uninteresting.

Cain and Abel and Sheep

Those of us who hail from the Anglosphere may be forgiven for believing that the sole cultural output of the Nordic Nations are grim thrillers. Rams, an Icelandic tragicomedy about a fraternal feud between two Icelandic sheep farmers, shows otherwise.

At one point in the proceedings one of the brothers comments disapprovingly about vets being “university educated folk from the south”. He means the south of Iceland. Europe looks at Iceland and sees a periphery; the rest of Iceland looks at the farmers in the north and sees its own periphery. Appropriately this tale of men on the edge of Europe’s edge, plays out with more solitude than one usually sees in a film. It is fitting that various animals are credited cast members because their human counterparts spend much of their time acting alongside sheep and sheepdogs. These and other near wordless scenes cut to the essence of the characters far faster than dialogue ever could.

This unusual sensibility makes for an excellent film. It is melancholy yet punctuated with laugh out loud moments. It engages you in lives whose apparent simplicity conceals great emotional depths.

8/10 – a minimalist masterpiece

Sicario (review)

This sombre, sinister ballad of an idealistic FBI agent out of her depth may be the most powerful indictment of the War on Drugs since the Wire.

The initial conceit of this blog was to share striking or interesting facts, so here’s one. Since 9/11, the conflict in Afghanistan has transfixed the world’s attention. Yet it seems quite possible that more possible that more people have died in violence linked to Mexican cartels. We often talk about drug dealers engaging in ‘turf wars’ but in Mexico the analogy to an actual war has become horrifyingly literal. The death tolls not only matches a more conventional conflict but so do the arms involved: assault weapons, rocket launchers and high explosives. It is hardly surprising that both the Mexican and American governments have turned to their militaries to counter the threat.

This is the menacing backdrop to Sicario, the new film by director Denis Villeneuve. It follows an FBI agent played (excellently) by Emily Blunt as she gets drawn further into a mysterious and ethically dubious scheme orchestrated by a pair of shady ‘consultants’ played by Benicio Del Torro (also great) and  Josh Brolin (the best of that impressive trio).

That synopsis makes it sound like a run of the mill thriller but it’s more sophisticated than that. The film seems to have been partly inspired by Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty and Sicario is clearly reminiscent of her style. Villeneuve shares her flair for cinematography: which shows in everything from the beautiful shots of the arid desert to a pivotal sequence that plays out in infra-red and night vision. And the consistently gritty and realistic tone similar also mirrors Bigelow’s recent work. The action sequences emphasise tension over pyrotechnics. This is especially true of an electrifying sequence in which a convoy of Federal agents take a senior cartel figure from Juarez – until recently the ‘murder capital of the world’ – to the US, all the desperately trying to spot the ambush they know is coming.

But where it really departs from the conventional thriller by opting for a story that is designed to make us uncomfortable. The steps we’d expect to go through on route to our heroine’s eventual triumph are scrambled or missing altogether. Characters refuse to develop into the archetypes we expect and until the end are tough to make ethical judgements about. Villeneuve seems to have consciously crafted this as a film that’s impossible to relax into.

That’s to be commended. There are many aspects of the situation in Mexico that Americans should not be comfortable about – at least not without having considered them first. A real life scandal in which members of the ATF allowed hundreds of guns to fall into the hands of arms dealers, so they could see if they fell into the hands of cartels – they did and were used in numerous killings – indicates that, as the film suggests, some parts of American law enforcement have dubious notions about what is morally acceptable in their fight against the cartels. It’s also unsettling to wonder as Sicario does whether having used assassination, torture and mercenaries to fight terrorism in far away countries, the temptation to use them against an arguably more menacing threat on America’s doorstep might prove overwhelming. Finally, at a point where Donald Trump has re-energised the nativist elements of American politics by railing against the injuries Mexico has apparently done the US, it has to be worthwhile to get Americans to consider the harm they might be doing their neighbour. In particular, isn’t it predictable that when a large rich, country is tough on drugs but lax on guns then heavily armed criminals in the poor nation on its border will be the ones to supply the suppressed demand.

My writing about Sicario that way makes it sound hectoring. Actually, it’s the opposite. It poses questions rather than answering them and does so as part of an engaging story that’s present with some impressive performance and amazing cinematography.

Summary: 8/10 – it’s not an easy film to watch but it’s definitely worth the effort.

Note: I normally include trailers as part of my reviews. In this case, I chose not to because both of the trailers for Sicario were rather spoilery for my taste. Nonetheless, if that doesn’t bother you here’s the best one.