Archive for John Boyega

Battle of the Algiers

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on September 11, 2017 by dcairns

Fiona and I went to see director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal’s DETROIT as an anniversary treat (four years since Norman Lloyd married us in a blasphemous midnight nuptial). That was… fun?

One fascinating thing about the film is its patchwork texture — throwing in TV news footage and still photographs to flesh out its period reconstruction of the 1967 Detroit riots. Another is its unorthodox structure, starting with a big picture network narrative, drawing the characters together for a taut, contained hostage situation with protagonists held at gunpoint by cops in the Algiers Motel, then breaking free and trundling along through a protracted, disjointed aftermath that leaves the viewer with no idea where the thing is going or when it will stop. This rather fascinated me, because you rarely encounter that kind of loose, unpredictable shape in this age of rigorous three-act structure movies written according to a manual of somewhat made-up “rules.” I tried to work out whether an alternative approach might have worked better, but as far as I can see, going into flashbacks framed by the trial, etc, would have spun us round into cliché.

To adapt a true incident around which some mystery still lingers (the Wikipedia entry is like RASHOMON, at least as far as the details are concerned), with living participants and the possibility of lawsuits, Boal has fictionalised, creating cop characters with invented names but who commit real crimes. Will Poulter plays the main rogue cop with a compelling psycho stare. This might be controversial, but I don’t think his character is particularly racist. I mean, he’s clearly QUITE A BIT racist — his attempts to compliment John Boyega’s character as being, essentially, superior to most of his race, are sickeningly offensive, though not unusually so for the time. But I don’t think racism is at the root of this character’s murderous behaviour, as portrayed in the film. Power is at the root of it.

We see at least one of the white cops looking disgusted after finding two white girls in a room with some black guys. He’s in thrall to a powerful and corrosive race hatred, and it’s mingled with sexual jealousy. It’s this kind of evil that Poulter’s character exploits, because he can.

The film, during its long, gruelling middle section reminded me of the Stanford Prison Experiment, where students were randomly divided into prisoners and guards, and without clear rules to limit them, the guards quickly descended in barbarous fascism. Here again we have authority figures and their charges, arbitrarily assigned their roles in life (one cop is so dumb he doesn’t even understand the power games and psychological torture he’s participating in), but added to that is the fact that one group is predominantly white and the other mainly black. Well, that’ll give them something to talk about, I expect.

One thing I didn’t understand. As part of its odd mix of textures (Ken Loach’s cameraman Barry Ackroyd alternates between grainy shakicam for the tense confrontations and supersaturated colour for the concert scenes — yes, it’s kind of a musical, too), the film opens with an animation based on Jacob Lawrence’s paintings of the Great Migration that formed Detroit’s ghettos. Captions tell us that the tensions of big-city racism led to an untenable situation where change was inevitable.

What I don’t get is, what change? What we see in this movie feels very current, and relevant to the era of Black Lives Matter. It seems to me that the events portrayed could totally happen today, and the only difference would be the music would be hip-hop not doo-wop and people would have cell phones to film it on.

So, what change?

What change?

Advertisements

Reboot of the Jedi

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 30, 2015 by dcairns

xxxx

I was going to be all noble and abstain from seeing STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS because I am an adult. I have managed to avoid giving George Lucas any of my money since the first mangling of the original STAR WARS with CGI characters dropped into it at random, though this was partially by luck rather than design — a friend acquired a bootleg of THE PHANTOM MENACE before it came out and I abandoned all ethical principles and said what the hell and watched it and was damned glad I hadn’t thrown my money away on that load of tripe.

xx

But Fiona wanted to see this one, because it has the original actors in it a bit and so it connects more convincingly to any residual fondness one has for the original trilogy… and she had an unexpectedly emotional response to it. Funnily enough, I had just come from a costume fitting with the magnificent thespian Gavin Mitchell, who reported that he saw the movie while rather tired but his girlfriend got really emotional. Same thing. Is this a STAR WARS film that works better for girls? No bad thing, since the first film was so boysie (and so white) as one female fan wrote, ruefully, “One wonders if Princess Leia had anyone to play with when she was small.”

Princess Leia is STILL small, but she’s now a general. Han Solo is back to smuggling, the marriage thing having not quite worked out. Best of all, there are new characters, who actually have characters, unlike the entire cast of the prequels. John Boyega plays Finn, a disaffected stormtrooper — someone with actual demonstrable integrity, who rejects the politics he’s been raised with — nobody else in the films has such nobility. Daisy Ridley plays Rey (I think that’s short for Reysie Diddly, although it may also be a nod to the maker of another celebrated trilogy). Oscar Isaac is Poe Dameron, the only one of these kids with a surname, and does a lot well with very little writing to support him. It had been uncertain, looking at his previous performances, whether the brooding O.I. could pull off lightly likeable, but he does it here. Oh, and bad guy Adam Driver, he of the massive face, a co-star of O.I.’s from INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, is excellent too. J.J. Abrams has by now made a lot more films than Lucas had when he made the first film in the saga franchise, and has certainly shown a lot more care than Lucas lavished on the prequels. And he has a surer sense of what STAR WARS films need to be like. I swear, when that two-headed sports commentator turned up in PHANTOM MENACE…

xxx

Abrams’ great vice is his tendency to pass off remakes as reboots, so here we get secret plans hidden in a droid, yet another, an even bigger death star, Luke as the lost Jedi master in place of Obi-Wan, and a climax which intercuts a dogfight with a light-sabre duel. Plus a desert planet which might as well be Tatooine but isn’t, and a snowy planet that isn’t Hoth. The sense of deja vu is entirely intentional, but I would certainly have liked to see the filmmakers invent more — there are some striking background characters, but they stay in the background. And the filmmakers’ imaginations seem constrained, as if they can’t really imagine all this stuff they’ve imagined. The new death star is the size of a planet, but when the heroes land there next to one particular building they have to destroy, they quickly bump into the one person they’re looking for. It’s a small world after all.

The relentless compaction extends to time also — take a stop-watch with you and see how long elapses between the terrible news that the death star will be able to destroy everybody in two minutes, and the eventual solution to that narrative problem. We’re very used to this kind of trick in movies — the bomb timer that keeps doubling back on itself — but I swear it’s about fifteen minutes this time.

xxxxx

Things Abrams definitely does better than Lucas:

The dialogue. With the aid of EMPIRE STRIKES BACK co-writer Larry Kasdan and LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE guy Michael Arndt, Abrams has written (sparse) dialogue which doesn’t make you want to chew your own jaw off.

No midi-chlorians. Interestingly, midi-chlorians are the reason that, whenever you meet a Jedi knight, they smell like swimming pools.

Action. Lucas has recently tended to equate “excitement” with “shitloads of things buzzing about” whereas Abrams favours coherence, and has a pleasing tendency to make each shot do more than one thing, tying the scene together with images that develop and move, enhancing the sense of context at every turn.

Domnhall Gleeson with his permanent expression of “Ooh, matron!” camp outrage. So nice to find an actor making a bold choice and sticking to it.

Emotion. Even in the first/fourth film (the film that was called STAR WARS), Lucas rather shrank from emotion. John Williams provides a soaring Wagnerian leitmotif when Luke’s aunt and uncle are killed, but since there hasn’t been a single hint of human warmth between Luke and his kin, this can only do so much. A comparison with THE SEARCHERS, from which Lucas has borrowed this moment, shows how much is lacking — or avoided. This kind of thing has caused me to equate the word “operatic” with the phenomenon of “gesturing grandly at a supposed emotion without actually making you feel anything” — which I don’t think is the original meaning of the term. In amidst the frenetic running about, Abrams’ characters build up some actual affection — Reysie Diddly and John Bodeya are particularly useful here.

xxxxxx

But the reason Fiona had such a strong emotional response to the movie is that it reminded her of the original, which made her want to make movies at age 11. And maybe it was more the publicity booklet we both owned, which drew shrewd connections to everything from METROPOLIS to SILENT RUNNING, highlighted behind-the-scenes activities, and unpicked the creative process.

Meeting these characters again could be glibly compared to meeting people you grew up with, but really they haven’t grown up. It’s like meeting someone from your childhood and finding they haven’t matured at all. It’s cheering, in a nostalgic way, for a little while (135 minutes may be pushing it), to meet people incapable of growth or development, whose world doesn’t change. I don’t know why it should be so, but whenever friends meet Fiona & I after a while apart, they assure us that it is.