Will Smith in ‘Bright’

Something interesting is happening as media distribution channels change, and Will Smith stars in the kind of movie that has a $90m budget, but will only ever be streamed on Netflix. That’s not what these notes are about, but it’s an interesting backdrop to Bright, which is a cop movie set in a semi-fantasy land (but like, really gritty).

Will Smith stars as a cop struggling to pay the bills and care for his family. Joel Edgerton plays his orc partner; the first orc in the police force, and encountering all the hostility and xenophobia you’d expect.

Bright does well in building a world where fantasy creatures (orcs, dwarves, elves, dragons and spells) exist in a future that wouldn’t be unfamiliar to anyone who’s driven through LA, featuring inequality, failing infrastructure and lots of grey, concrete buildings. It doesn’t get bogged down in telling the detailed backstory of the Dark Lord. It takes half the movie for us to uncover that a group of evil elves is trying to bring him back, and another group (elves, humans, and others) are fighting them, while also being seen by the society they exist in as terrorists (maybe they are – the film doesn’t dive into the detail).

What it does do is follow Smith and Edgerton as their characters struggle – first with each other, and the pressures from others in the police force. They respond to a distress call, and stumble into a disastrous scenario where they’re protecting a weapon of great power from everyone who wants to get their hands on it.

I won’t spoil it (it’s fun, and worth watching), but in the course of their adventures Smith’s character will face a huge moral choice, and make a decision that carves out a new narrative brilliantly, and Edgerton’s orc will reconcile the chasm he’s fallen into between orcish and human societies. They’ll struggle to decide whether they’re in a heroic fantasy movie, or a gritty cop procedural, there are some excellent action scenes, and they’ll fight for their own lives, and impact the bigger picture.

The ending felt a little forced for me, a little rushed in bringing together some of the strands, but overall, well worth it.

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The Post

It’s quite a time for The Post to have been released, and the movie is very aware of the echoes in history.

The Post tells the story of the Washington Post’s decision to publish the Pentagon Papers, fighting against threats from the White House to tell the American people ‘the truth’. There’s a lot to like. Spielberg tells a good story, with a particularly likeable twist for Meryl Streep’s character, who steps out of her deceased husband’s shadow to make critical decisions, even as those around her don’t all trust her.

The story shows the balance between commercial decisions (the Post’s IPO happens around the same time as the publishing decision), and the messiness of powerful relationships (McNamara is a friend of the Post’s proprietor).

It’s been said that a montage is a movie apologising for reality, but I think there were some that were used to good effect in the movie. At the start, they do a good job of taking the story from the wide expanse of its era, into the decisions inside the newsroom that will echo out into history.

The ending of the movie felt off to me. There’s a point, during the celebrations after a crucial court victory, when it feels as though the movie isn’t content with showing its impacts. There is no montage of soldiers returning home, or changes in the wider American context – marches on the streets, speeches in Congress. Instead it gives us slightly twee speeches by the Post’s proprietor and editor, spoken as though they were conscious of history looking over their shoulder.

Overall though, it’s a fun watch. Worth it.

Black Panther: Or, how subversive can a multi-million dollar movie be?

There have been a lot of reviews of Black Panther (New York Review of Books, Variety, Verge). I’d previously read the comic books, so given all the hype, I was excited to check it out.

Overall, the movie doesn’t disappoint, for what it is. It’s a well-paced action movie. It has fast-paced, well-choreographed action scenes. It’s better than your average Marvel movie (and definitely better than those TV shows), in that it features interesting characters: a king struggling to be a king after the death of his father, and one of the most nuanced villains (and therefore the most believable) we’ve seen in a long time. Killmonger is motivated because he sees power that isn’t used to the ends he thinks it should be, to helping those who are suffering and struggling. The fact that he is better motivated than other Marvel movie villains isn’t saying much though; there could have been much more about the suffering he was trying to prevent.

There’s been a lot written about representation, and what it means to have a full cast of people of colour, who are given a wide range of roles, including female leads who aren’t defined romantically. That is all important, and I’m not the person to write about it any meaningful way – you should go read someone else on that topic, because it’s an important one.

For all of the excellent things that the movie features, it is still a multi-million corporate production. There was a jarring reminder at the start of the viewing we went to, because of the Lexus ad before the movie had even started.

SPOILERS FROM HERE.

Killmonger’s final line, after he is defeated and dying, is:

Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, ‘cause they knew death was better than bondage.

It’s a powerful line, and one that’s generated some debate. But to have a few lines be the most subversive statement in an entire movie (again, apart from the representation – that is an important point, but one that I can’t do justice to) feels like a reflection on the context that produced the film. Had it been more controversial, it might not have made it through the corporate system, and fewer people might have seen it if it had been produced.

It’s a fun movie, but it’s a product of its context.

Coco

Coco is a good movie. It tells an interesting story well, and nails the fundamentals.

Visually, it’s stunning – beautifully done, as we’ve come to expect from Disney’s animated pieces. The music doesn’t overwhelm the movie, but is excellent.

The story is well-put together. It has good story beats: Miguel is a young boy, growing up in a family that abhors music, because of a long-departed grandfather figure who was a famous musician. Miguel’s attempts to play music catapult him into the far lands where people dwell after they’ve died. There, he finds unlikely allies, before facing the challenge that determines if he can return. I won’t give a spoiler, but I think it’s obvious that it would be unsurprising if a Disney movie didn’t have protagonists making decisions that ripple out from them, to their networks and the broader story.

For all that it sounds clinical when I describe it, it’s a well-put together and moving piece. What stuck out to me most, though, was the central importance of dominating the thoughts of others. Not in a negative way – but simply that to be remembered, and thought well of by others, is central to its motivating forces. That idea is something we’ve seen in a lot of contexts: CocoAmerican GodsTerry Pratchett’s books, Achilles’ desire to ‘live forever’, and others.

I think it’s something fascinating about humans that we care – deeply – about what others think about us, long after we’re gone.  I haven’t had a chance to dig into the literature, but there’s at least an argument that it’s a fundamental human motive. That’s a strange one, particularly given that the desire for status (or, whatever the appropriate word is – glory, fame, respect) can involve significant trade-offs.

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.

 

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.