Archive for Rian Johnson

Stupidity of the First Order

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 23, 2017 by dcairns

Fiona dragged me to see… no, I’ve got to stop saying that. I was curious to see the new Rian Johnson film too — big fan of BRICK, LOOPER, and THE BROTHERS BLOOM may be a misfire but it’s the kind of misfire I’d welcome more of. I wasn’t absolutely sure I wanted to see the film RIGHT AWAY, but what the heck, it is a big screen spectacular…

There are spoilers ahead, but I’ll try to be discreet.

And some of the reviews were very good — though Peter Bradshaw bemoaned a major section of the plot being essentially a pointless side-trip. But that side-trip may be the most Johnsonian section of the narrative, a decadent art deco gambling world milieu. It inspires him to replay a shot from Wellman’s WINGS, soaring over the tables and between the customers. And it looks very much like it’s setting stuff up for the next film: the entrancing child actors from this sequence are coming back, it seems. But yeah, there’s too much of this film, and whole planets exist just to get the heroes captured so they can escape so they can get captured again. This is what happens when you don’t have enough real story.

Actors! Daisy Ridley seemed fine in the J.J. Abrams opener, but she has some very poor moments here, notably her first big speech. She’s cursed with a flat voice and an inexpressive face. That tiny cute scar on her cheek is her claim to interest. Though she’s not as bad as early Keira Knightley so maybe she’ll get there. John Boyega is fine in the non-eggy moments, Oscar Isaac is good but we know he can be better. Laura Dern continues her bold hair colouring from Twin Peaks. Hamill is good and Carrie Fisher’s valedictory turn is touching. Benicio Del Toro is the one bringing the real entertainment though I think giving him a stammer was over-egging it. He’s a natural eccentric already. Kelly Marie Tran is an unusual and charming presence and I was really interested in Veronica Ngo who has all too brief a role but gets to do the most affecting heroic stuff in the movie.

Andy Serkis is a CGI creation AGAIN, and I really don’t know why. The icky subtractive scar effect modelled by Frank Langella in the otherwise stultifying THE BOX is much more disturbing on a real actor than it is on a thing of pure pixels. Look at Voldemort in the HARRY POTTERs (there’s some quite Potterish stuff in this one) — a real actor rendered digitally noseless. As a voice performance, Serkis’ is a very generic baddie, and as a physical performance, he sits in a chair. And Adam Driver still feels too peevish and adolescent to be our boss villain, especially in a plot that basically has him outsmarted a lot.

Yoda and Maz Katana’s fleeting bits are just fan service. Chewbacca and the droids are barely more.

But there are some nifty set pieces — maybe the best light-saber battle ever, staged on a red set like something out of an MGM musical by way of Kurosawa. The opening dogfight has one very good thing going for it: it’s coherent. I wasn’t bored as I was with ROGUE ONE but I was ready for the movie to be over long before the makers apparently were. Then it would manage to muster my interest again. There’s a bit where the heroes escape on space buses. I was waiting for Princess Leia to say, “What am I, Carrie Fisher, doing playing piano on a bus to the moon?” I’ll be surprised if more than a couple of you get that reference.

If THE FORCE AWAKENS was a slavish remake of STAR WARS (you know, the first one, the film called STAR WARS), which it sure as shit was, Johnson’s opus is THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK in its broad strokes: the Rebels/Resistance have to flee their base, a young Jedi gets training from a Master while other characters go to a gambling planet but are betrayed; the heroes regroup at the end but face an uncertain future. Concurrent with these familiar beats are callbacks to memorable bits from the first film (Obi-Wan faces his pupil; garbage hatch escape; parental revelations; a hero disconnects his comms link while gunning for the weak spot of a huge weapon…), some deliberate, some maybe more desperate or resulting from the filmmakers running out of new situations.

But there’s stuff we haven’t seen before: super-fast dissolves as characters in different scenes exchange telepathic glances. A visual rebuttal of Lucas’s midichlorians bullshit, showing the force connecting all things with a nature montage suggesting the welcome influence of King Hu and A TOUCH OF ZEN. And I have to be cheered by so much of the film being set in Ireland, even if it’s meant to be Space Ireland.

There is some uncertainty of tone: is the movie duty-bound to feel like the old STAR WARS? Giving women and people of colour stuff to do is a welcome departure from Lucas’ films, but otherwise? One of the (innumerable) things that seemed wrong about Lucas’ own prequels was the stuff that just didn’t belong in the universe he’d created: fart jokes, the comedy sports announcer, that kind of stuff. There’s more of that here — a gag with what’s set up as a spacecraft but turns out to be a robotic iron pressing First Order uniforms seems more like a Richard Lester joke, and isn’t really connected to anything else the film attempts. There’s a relentless barrage of quips and many of them are not good. Though at least they don’t tend to paint the heroes as sadistic Man With No Name/James Bond thugs, as the quips in ROGUE ONE do: Poe Dameron doesn’t make mocking remarks to random stormtroopers as he’s killing them.

So it’s a mixed bag of Jedi mind tricks. Entertaining enough — if I had kids I would feel I was poisoning them if I let them watch the prequels, but this would get a pass. Not an exact clone,  for all its harking back, so that counts for something. But then, not as emotional as FORCE AWAKENS was. Watch this space, but I think I’m done with seeing this series on the big screen. But I’d like to see Johnson build a universe of his own.

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The 13th Monkey

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 3, 2012 by dcairns

A day of time travel stories —

To the cinema! To see Rian Johnson’s LOOPER. Big fan of his BRICK and I think THE BROTHERS BLOOM deserves more credit than it got even if it didn’t quite make it. After this hit, maybe more people will see it at least. But LOOPER is tough to talk about without spoilers, and it’s new so lots of you haven’t seen it. I’ll just say that Jeff Daniels berating Joseph Gordon-Levitt for copying his style from movies that themselves copied their style from older movies seems a very witty self-critique on Johnson’s part. We’ve already seen JG-L stand before the mirror and adjust his tiny duck-ass quiff in homage to Delon in LE SAMURAI… a movie which, like most Melville, transfigured moments and shots and set designs from old Hollywood noirs.

So it’s not the time to get into LOOPER, even though the film is current. We both really liked it, but I’d always rather talk about old stuff anyway.

The Outer Limits — watched the Harlan Ellison scripted Demon with a Glass Hand the same day as LOOPER, to get our heads nicely a-buzz with time travel ideas. Ellison sued the makers of THE TERMINATOR over its similarities to two of his stories, this and Soldier. Odd, since LOOPER owes much more to THE TERMINATOR, but one can’t imagine anyone suing over that resemblance. In Demon, Robert Culp (who can play both supermasculine and intellectual) comes from the future and has a cybernetic hand that tells him stuff, but can’t reveal the whole plot until it gets all its fingers back. This is a crazy, charming plot device, much more effective to deliver exposition than the scenes where Culp forces his enemies (who all look like Uncle Fester, as Fiona pointed out — except for the one who looks like a pitifully young Iggy Pop) to reveal what they know. They’re all remarkably loquacious, despite the fact that Culp is going to kill them anyway.

Byron Haskin, an old genre hand, directs, and rather delightfully the whole thing (apart from the above studio shot) plays inside the Bradbury Building, famous from BLADE RUNNER and a million other things, a building supposedly envisioned by its architect in a dream. Somebody should shoot some kind of cock-eyed compendium film of DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN and DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE there, since all of those came from dreams too. The ultimate oneiric movie.

The deserted office building at night is a vivid way to encapsulate the hero’s existential aloneness, which Ellison, lays on thick as you’d expect. He’s like a purple Kafka. Time travel per se plays little active role until the stinger at the end — the bad guys are aliens and removing their medallions could just as easily zap them back to their home world as forward in time. It’s interesting to me how baggy most of the Outer Limits scripts are — the one hour running time demands more complicated premises than Twilight Zone, but often the complications are stray stuff, padding or the narrative equivalent of patio extensions.

A case in point is The Man Who Was Never Born, which begins with a wholly superfluous astronaut character going through a time warp before the story actually begins. The true protagonist is Martin Landau as a futureworld mutant, traveling back in time to kill the scientist who’s going to invent a plague that sterilizes mankind and causes Landau’s disfigurement. So this story, by Anthony Lawrence, actually has more in common with THE TERMINATOR (and T2) than the Ellison story. Yet it’s prefigured too, by John Wyndham’s Consider Her Ways, which became a memorable episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Lawrence claimed his biggest influence was Cocteau’s LA BELLE ET LA BETE (Shirley Knight makes a radiant Beauty), and Conrad Hall’s fairytale cinematography actually conjures a comparable glamour using a very different palette.

The same day we watched LOOPER and the Ellison, the BBC screened the season finale of Dr Who, so we had a serious dose of time travel. Stephen Moffat’s run as script editor has been up and down — he allowed the Doctor to step hideously out of character in one episode, vindictively murdering a bad guy. It seems like there’s a quality control issue in the selection of writers, probably because Moffat doesn’t have time to read script samples and write his own episodes and rewrite everybody else’s.

In principle, I think the Weeping Angels who first appeared in the stand-out episode Blink are a one-trick pony and probably shouldn’t have been re-used. The basic gag of statues which only move when you aren’t looking, is terrific, but somehow stopped being scary after the first show (where it was terrifying). Which means that the pleasures of this episode came from the actors  — Mike McShane rather wasted, but Alex Winter Kingston (d’oh!) zesty as ever. Farewell to the best assistants the doc has ever had, but we still have Matt Smith as the Time Lord himself, a completely wonderful embodiment of the character. It pains me to say, but I think Smith really will struggle to find suitable roles when his stint finishes. As with Tom Baker, when you’re that good at playing an alien/funny uncle/Christ figure, it can be hard for casting directors to see you any other way. But I hope I’m wrong — in terms of emotional range, Smith can play anything, and generally comes at the emotion from a surprising angle, which made the climactic farewell scene here really affecting. Moffat wrote it very nicely, Smith and Karen Gillan (who assuredly will have a great post-Who career) played the hell out of it, and the awful music did its best to smother the whole affair in treacle but couldn’t quite succeed.

More Things That Aren’t Films

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 21, 2012 by dcairns

Breaking Bad continues good. Rounding out season 3 now, slowly catching up — but an episode a night is cutting into my movie-watching. There’s a magnificent episode directed by Rian Johnson of BRICK and LOOPER fame, a tour-de-force set almost entirely in one room, taking the very old idea of an attempt at killing a single housefly that escalates out of all proportion — superb writing, direction and playing transcend the basic premise and generate spine-jangling tension.

The most gifted of the regular directors involved is Michelle McLaren, late of The X Files, who manages to serve up at least one stunningly eloquent set-up per ep. Check this framing out — the couple, their estrangement, and the space between them occupied both by the bag of ill-gotten gains and the exit from the family home, spells D-I-V-O-R-C-E without a word needing to be spoken. Of course there are words, and they deepen and elaborate the emotions…

***

Dipping into G.K. Chesterton again. I like his absurdity and surreal menace, never quite dispelled by the rational endings, as Gilbert Adair notes in his intro to The Club of Queer Trades. He also praises Chesterton’s ability, or compulsion, to romanticize everyday London. Chesterton’s essay on detective fiction includes the following example straight off the bat ~

Men lived among might mountains and eternal forests for ages before they realized they were poetical; it may reasonably be inferred that some of our descendants may see the chimney-pots as rich a purple as the mountain peaks, and find the lampposts as old and natural as the trees.

Chesterton already does this: he’s speaking of himself when he imagines such descendants. Although his philosophy, which he shoehorns in crassly whenever he can manage it, is frequently little more than a defense of prejudice, he gussies it up nicely in melodrama and fancy ~

‘In God’s name, look at his face,’ cried out Basil in a voice that startled the driver. ‘Look at the eyebrows. They mean that infernal pride which made Satan so proud that he sneered even at heaven when he was one of the first angels in it. Look at his moustaches, they are so grown as to insult humanity. In the name of the sacred heavens, look at his hair. In the name of God and the stars, look at his hat.’

Also, Chesterton begins The Napoleon of Notting Hill with ~

The human race, to which so many of my readers belong —

I like that so much I’m not sure I want to go on reading it, it’s too perfect on its own.

***

As an adjunct of sorts to my protracted and oft-interrupted reading of Ulysses, which currently looks designed to last the rest of my life, I delved into Dead as Doornails, a memoir by Anthony Cronin on the writers he knew in Dublin. Of particular interest is the first real celebration of Bloomsday, June the 16th, the day detailed in Joyce’s book. Cronin took part in a tour retracing Leopold Bloom’s steps, on the fiftieth anniversary of the original date, along with Flann O’Brien (Brian O’Nolan), Patrick Kavanaugh and others. The whole thing nearly degenerated into violence at once, with O’Brien and Kavanaugh trying to kick each other off a steep hillside, but turned into something “that would have pleased Joyce”  ~

June 16th, 1954 was not only the fiftieth anniversary of the day Joyce had picked on as the day of his great fiction, but it was also one of the comparatively rare occasions when the date coincides with the Thursday of the Ascot Week and the running of the Ascot Gold Cup, as it does in the book. Naturally, with Kavanaugh, Con Leventhal — also a racing man — and myself in the party, some attention was given to this. Our progress, what with stops at pubs and places of interest such as Sandymount Strand, was so slow that the race was actually run while we were still in transit, in fact while we were still traversing the route of the funeral; and, at the insistence of the racing men, we stopped at a bookmaker’s in Irishtown to have a bet and hear the broadcast. There was a very strong French favourite, owned by M. Marcel Boussac, reputedly a great stayer. As is often thought advisable, in the Gold Cup, the stayer had a running mate who was meant to act as a pace-maker and ensure a good gallop for him, so that the stamina limitations of the other horses in the race would be exposed. The pace-maker’s name was Elpenor and he proceeded to make the running to such effect that not even his own stable-companion, who was supposed to win, could catch him, and he perforce went on to win the race himself at fifty to one, a record price for a Gold Cup winner in this century, though Throwaway in the book starts at forty to one.

Now Elpenor is a character in the Odyssey. He is a companion of Ulysses who falls off a height during some fighting, as some of our party had so nearly done, cracks his skull and dies. Although Ulysses remarks that it didn’t much matter, ‘since he wasn’t much of a fighting man, nor ever very strong in the head,’ he nevertheless goes down into the underworld after him to see what he can do. This descent is paralleled in the book by the scene in Glasnevin cemetery for in Joyce’s Ulysses, Elpenor is represented by the deceased Paddy Dignam; and it was the route of Paddy Dignam’s funeral that we were following; indeed the whole idea of a commemoration which would involve horse-cabs grew out of the Dignam funeral sequence.

Unfortunately, Cronin only noticed this remarkable coincidence when it was too late to place a bet, provoking his companions to fury when he told them of it. They could have made a fortune.

What made the result the more remarkable was that Joyce always believed his book to have strange prophetic powers of which he himself only became aware after the event.

***

I also read Get Real, the last of Donald Westlake’s Dortmunder books. I was afraid it might be a melancholy affair, but Westlake keeps it funny. He may have had some intimation that he wouldn’t be writing any more books, though: and this itself becomes occasion for some sly wit, when Dortmunder speculates that at last his luck may be beginning to change. Without Westlake to arrange the stumbling blocks that litter Dortmunder’s destiny, I guess he’s right.