At the movies: The Last Jedi, The Circle, Pitch Perfect 3 and the Kingsman movies

I’ve been watching a few movies recently, although nothing particularly highbrow.

The Circle

I enjoyed Dave Eggers’ The Circle, so I was interested to see the movie. SPOILERS: Last chance to watch the movie before you keep reading. 

The movie does a great job of delivering a lot of what made the book good. It takes the protagonists’ view, the story told from the viewpoint of someone diving into the transparency in a positive way, embracing all that is exciting in Silicon Valley.

In its own way, it’s a horror movie, as the menace lurks unseen, offstage. It would have been nice, perhaps, if they’d amped up the menace a little more. It felt hypothetical, unreal, for the most part – the downside to everything being visible, held centrally by a few people, didn’t have as much emotional resonance as you might hope.

For all that, I think they did a better job of the ending, with a Wikileaks moment as the protagonist uses her new power to hold the villains accountable, rather than the quiet acquiescence the book offers.

The Last Jedi

This one has been analysed to death, so I’ll just focus in on the bits that stood out to me. SPOILERS: If you haven’t seen it already, now’s your chance to stop reading.

The movie was visually stunning, particularly those final scenes on the desert planet. They were gorgeous – beautifully put together.

One of the things that did bother me was the abrupt shift in emotional pitch, often within the same scene. It felt jarring. We go from a life or death situation for the escaping Rebel fleet, to a scene that wouldn’t be out of place in the office as Poe taunts a leader of the Order. Later on, we see a massive spaceship that looks like an iron; but the camera pans back to reveal it is, in fact, an iron. Finally, as we witness the destruction of the ancient Jedi texts, a moment that shows the end of the Jedi, Luke admits to Yoda that he’s never actually read them.

There are more. The point isn’t that they aren’t funny – they are. The point isn’t that the original movies didn’t have jokes – they did. The point is that in The Last Jedi, the switching back and forth between one-liners and deep emotion felt abrupt and awkward, where as I think the originals pulled it off better.

That awkward transitioning is reflected in the final scenes. As we see the Alliance brought to its knees, to the final ship containing a handful of people – barely a team, let alone a rebellion – there’s no sense of grief, or loss. Nothing to match the final march at the end of the Jedi Returns, which felt more earned.

For all that, I did enjoy the Admiral Holdo storyline – perhaps because it was one of the few where the characters or narrative weren’t being hilarious.

Pitch Perfect 3

Pitch Perfect is, to my mind, the movie equivalent of comfort food. You’re not expecting much beyond some snappy tunes and snappier lines, and Pitch Perfect 3 delivers. It manages to weave a storyline or two in there, just enough to hang the jokes off. If you liked I and II, it’s more of the same.

Kingsman and Kingsman: The Golden Circle

In the second Epilogue to War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy writes:

If we consider a man alone, apart from his relation to everything around him, each action of his seems to us free. But if we see his relation to anything around him, if we see his connection with anything whatever—with a man who speaks to him, a book he reads, the work on which he is engaged, even with the air he breathes or the light that falls on the things about him—we see that each of these circumstances has an influence on him and controls at least some side of his activity. And the more we perceive of these influences the more our conception of his freedom diminishes and the more our conception of the necessity that weighs on him increases.

This question, of how to balance our perception of someone’s freedom and responsibility with an understanding of the context behind someone’s actions, is still important to day, and is part of what makes Kingsman mildly more interesting than the average action movie.

In fact, it’s a mark of how awful the Marvel movies are that the first Kingsman movie feels positively intellectual in comparison. Because although Kingsman is ostensibly a spy movie, and really another action movie, it is riven with class.

I don’t know the UK class system well, so I’ll let The Guardian summarise it:

In Kingsman: The Secret Service, out next month, a tasty little herbert called Eggsy from a London sink estate is recruited by the impeccably soigné, lah-di-dah spook Harry Hart, played by Colin Firth. Hart detects that Eggsy has the right stuff, the true Brit if you will, to transcend his oikish upbringing and become One Of Us. Now if Eggsy, played by Taron Egerton, can survive the training course in which he is pitted against a bunch of stuckup, over-entitled Oxbridge ponces (plus the token bit of hottie posh whose snobby froideur melts at our hero’s bit-of-rough charms), then he can become a Kingsman. But, you’ll be asking, what is a Kingsman? It’s a gentleman spy working for a non-governmental espionage agency run from a secret, steampunk-like bunker beneath (naturally enough) a Savile Row tailor.

What follows from that premise is a fast-paced, self aware action movie with a sense of humour, that I particularly enjoyed when Eggsy is asked why he’s named his dog JB, or when a villain asks for a snappy one liner from a soon to be victim. “It isn’t that kind of movie”.

Ultimately, of course, Kingsman doesn’t really delve into the depths of the class divide. Instead it lets the raw emotion against the entitled upper classes drive part of Eggy’s emotional journey, from his fights with his competitors, through working to save the common people from the maniacal one per cent, to the point where he literally sticks it up the royalty in the final scene.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle has the basic ingredients of the first movie, with an absurd villain, a willingness to kill off characters, and a series of frenetic action scenes, but it’s missing something that made the first a little more likeable.

Oh; but they both have Colin Firth in action scenes.

 

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TV and movies: Archangel, Sisters and the Good Place

Sisters

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler have been at the centre of two excellent TV shows (30 Rock and Parks and Rec), and it’s exciting to see them team up in Sisters.

Sisters isn’t an amazing movie – it doesn’t have a deep theme, and it won’t leave a deep mark. But it is a funny comedy, and worth it if you want something to wind down with.

The two star as sisters, one unable to relax and connect with a potential boyfriend (Poehler), the other unstable and unable to care for her daughter (Fey). Both are distraught at the idea of their parents selling the family home, with the sister tree that serves as a symbol of their relationship as children, even as they’ve drifted apart as adults.

Refusing to deal with the decision, they instead hold a party. [SPOILERS FROM HERE]. But to party successfully, they’ll have to confront their worst fears – Fey will have to be ‘party mum’, while Poehler (no, I can’t remember their characters’ names, and no, it doesn’t matter) will need to connect emotionally with her crush.

Throughout the night they fail miserably but hilariously. And as their failures grow, their childhood home is slowly trashed, the building graffiti’ed and then falling apart, until a literal sinkhole swallows up their childhood pool. That’s when their parents show up, and express how disappointed they are.

But, somehow, they reconnect, and in doing so learn a little about relaxing (Poehler), and being responsible (Fey). Watch it for the laughs, not the story; but it wouldn’t work without the framework of a story.

The Good Place

I saw a few recommendations for The Good Place, and I was keen to try it. But it’s hard to even hear about it, without hearing spoilers. Well done if you’ve made it this far.

It’s a good comedy. This isn’t Parks and Recreation or The Office. But it has its moments, and it’s a fun take on an intriguing new storyline. No doubt there are (or will be) think pieces on how The Good Place approaches the ideas of heaven and hell, and what that tells us about ourselves and society. But if you’re after a mildly funny comedy, this may be the place to try.

Archangel

Roy Chapman Andrews was an explorer and palaeontologist in the early twentieth century. Famous for among other things, publishing the first English language account of the Mongolian death worm in his book On the Trail of Ancient Man. He’s reported not to be the inspiration for Indiana Jones, but there’s a strong family resemblance.

Given that lineage, there’s a certain familiarity in Daniel Craig as an academic with expertise in Russian history, drawn into a mysterious plot in Archangel. As he stumbles through post-Soviet Russia, he uncovers a dangerous scheme that could change world history.

We see the now familiar scenes at the opening. Craig is Fluke Kelso, a womanising academic willing to enjoy the free booze at conferences, looking for the next big thing. From there, Kelso stumbles into intrigue between a Russian opposition party, the secret police, a mysterious notebook dated from Stalin’s death … and it goes on.

It’s fun to see one of those shows where academic ability was relevant to unravelling the plot. That curiosity, pulling at the threads of obscure facts until they give way, revealing a grand scheme, is fun to watch. The show also seems to do justice to post-Soviet Russia. I’ve never been to Russia, but from my experience in other contexts, it seemed to do well capturing the full scope of a cold, grim country with grey concrete buildings, and a dark, impenetrable bureaucracy.

This is a fun show, and a decent drama – worth seeing. [SPOILERS FROM HERE]. 

It felt plausible that Stalin would have abused his power, devastating the lives of people who trusted the justice of the party. I also liked the sense in the story of the protagonists encountering forces beyond their control, as they realise that Kelso is being used as a pawn by schemers with larger plans.

It felt a little frustrating though, in that at the end, all the grand story lines collapse back into a single (vital) McGuffin – a single item that will change world history. It’s not easy to show systematic issues in fiction, but this show doesn’t even try. Still – worth watching, for a drama.

Movies: Chappie and Blade Runner

Chappie

I’ve been a fan of Neill Blomkamp for a while. I think he does very interesting things in thinking about identity, and in particular the intersection between groups, even if he uses an individual’s story to do it.

Chappie tells the story of a droid, brought to life by an AI program. From there, it’s a struggle over the droid between the intellectual who created it, the gangsters who forced him to, the intellectual’s rival who wants his own droids to succeed, and the random strangers who will show him how cruel the world can be.

In a way, it’s a course in (semi-pseudo) child psychology. We see Chappie emerge fully formed, with motion and hand-eye coordination, all the things that humans take years to develop. Over the course of his limited life-span of days, we see him develop speech, and an understanding of values. One of the most touching moments, because it comes from such an odd angle, is seeing Chappie experience the horror of death – the existential angst the comes with the idea that we will all cease.

SPOILERS FROM HERE

Of course, because it’s a Blomkamp movie, Chappie ends with a powerful figure (Chappie’s creator) turned into one of the powerless (his consciousness transfigured into a droid, hiding in the backstreets from everyone who wants to destroy or capture him). It’s a striking transformation; and even though it’s one he’s done before, it isn’t old yet. Well worth it.

Blade Runner

Perhaps it’s because Netflix streamed this for us in a very pixelated fashion, but this movie just didn’t do it for me. I have memories of reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? some time ago, and thinking it was one of Dick’s better pieces. I don’t think Blade Runner did it justice at all. It felt stop-start, awkward, and heavy.

The dove, particularly, felt heavy handed and unnecessary. Logistically, too, it felt implausible. In the midst of a gritty, dirty urban sprawl, he somehow catches a spotless white dove, right at the dramatic climax? Give me a break.

 

Indignation

I’ve read and enjoyed a lot of Philip Roth’s work, although not recently enough that it’s made its way into this blog. So I was interested to see how his work would translate to the screen in Indignation.

Indignation  tells the story of Marcus Messner, a young Jewish student at a university in Winesburg College in Ohio. While we follow him in his first year of university, he is narrating his own quest to discover exactly what decision it was that led him to his death.

It’s mildly interesting, but not gripping. Worth it if you enjoyed the novel, but probably not otherwise.

SPOILERS FROM HERE

Marcus is a gifted, determined student, who goes on a date with a young woman named Olivia Hutton. On their first date, she gives him a blowjob, which, as it’s his first one, is a mindblowing experience. From there, the plot meanders its way through Messners frustration with the archaisms of a 1951 university with its chapel requirements, and … not much else, really.

I found myself wondering, halfway through, what the actual story was. What was Messner trying to achieve? Or would he just bounce between random scenes throughout the entire movie?

The movie makes sense, of course, as an attempt by Messner to understand what it is that has lead him to his death on the battlefield in Korea. The most direct causal link is that he’s been expelled (and therefore again subject to the draft), because he paid someone else to go to chapel for him.

Because there is no clear sense of agency for the protagonist, it’s hard for the movie to motivate the viewer. If something happens, should we feel happy, or sad? Does it get Messner closer to, or further from his goal? We don’t know.

It’s also interesting to watch the piece, because in some way it feels like an elegy for a different time. When universities might still require students to attend chapel, and when that was the most prominent point of rebellion for students. As students today live in a world that includes both trigger warnings and protests against police killings, it’s hard to look back at that time without the context looming large.

Iron Giant

The Iron Giant was made in 1999, but it feels as though it is deliberately trying to recreate an idealised version of a very different era – somewhere in 1950s America, in the midst of the Cold War.

The Iron Giant tells the story of a strange iron giant, fallen to Earth, and discovered by a young boy. As their friendship grows, the Iron Giant learns a little more about himself – that he can speak, and that he has terrifying weapon capabilities.

Throughout, he and his young companion (or teacher) try to dodge the attentions of the nefarious government, embodied by that adult who always wants to know what kids are up to.

Ultimately, we never find out where the iron giant is from, or who he is. But as the government escalates the conflict, trying to destroy that which it hasn’t tried to understand, the focus of action shifts from the boy trying to protect his new friend, to the Iron Giant, who must make a hard set of choices about himself, and the humans he’s come to love.

None of it is terribly surprising, but it is beautifully done. And there’s a bittersweet remembrance of the Iron Giant, as we remember his abilities to reconstruct.

Defenders: Another Marvel content vomit

By now, this is really my fault. I watch a little bit of some Marvel content – maybe it’s a movie, maybe it’s another TV show – and I think: ‘This one will be different! There’ll be an interesting protagonist with a real plot and interesting character development.’

As inevitably as Marvel grinds out yet another crushingly bad addition to the franchise, I am inevitably proven wrong, with another disappointing instalment.

Today’s edition is The Defender’s. The show brings together characters who’ve had their own shows (including Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist and Daredevil), as they must work together to … oh, who even cares?

Look, it took two episodes for them to even meet up. And satisfying as it was to see Iron Fist completely fail to hurt Luke Cage with his fancy martial arts, and then get laughed at for his story about a dragon, the whole thing is disappointing.

The dialogue is so pointless that it’s an exercise in frustration. Yes, we get it: the team is having trouble bonding. Beyond displaying that, the dialogue does little except pad out the excruciatingly slow moments between the fight scenes, which are the rare points of interest in the show.

I stopped five episodes in, because by that point I was over the writers yanking us around by refusing to reveal anything about what the Hand was trying to do, and because they kept giving the protagonists incredibly stupid lines, and no real motivation beyond stupid decisions that would generate internal team conflict.

If you love Marvel so much you can’t breathe because you’re out of fresh content, this may tide you over. Otherwise, do anything else with your time. Watch the clouds. Go for a walk. Hum a song your parents taught you as a child. Set your hair on fire (please don’t really do this at home). But do anything else rather than watch The Defenders, because it will be a better use of your time.

Frank

I didn’t love Frank. If you’re after something particularly slow and dreamy this may do, but otherwise I’d steer clear.

SPOILERS AHEAD

Frank is a movie about a middle class, suburban office drone (Domhnall Gleeson as Jon) who dreams of being a brilliant musician. Luck strikes when he’s offered the chance to join an indie band fronted by a tortured musician (Frank, played by Michael Fassbender in an enormous paper-mache head).

He goes with them to their retreat in the Irish countryside. What we learn alongside him though, is that rather than wanting to create wonderful music, he wants adulation, adoration, clicks and likes and retweets.

Like every good protagonist he’s driven by two conflicting desires, and in getting on to the main stage at SXSW he tears apart the band, and leaves Frank distraught and getting hit in traffic.

Eventually, Jon finds his way to Frank, and brings the band back together; but they can only make beautiful music if he’s not there. Having learnt his lesson, he graciously leaves.