Talking Movies

June 29, 2019

On Rewatching Movies

The Atlantic recently showcased some findings from behavioural economists suggesting that we overvalue novelty and undervalue repetition, and it made me think about how I’ve been watching movies of late.

Listener up there! what have you to confide to me? Do I anticipate Trump? Very well then I anticipate Trump.

I have been finding it hard, looking back to 2010 in the last few weeks, to get a handle on the contours of this decade, cinematically speaking. And I think some of that difficulty is owing to my not having rewatched as many movies as I would have done during the previous decade. This was a deliberate decision to use my time to add as many new titles to my ken as possible rather than simply rewatching what I had already seen. And that decision has been quite rewarding: I have seen more Jean-Luc Godard, Woody Allen, Orson Welles, Andrei Tarkovsky, Louis Malle, and Mia Hansen-Love films than I would’ve had I not sought them out. But it seems there is an opportunity cost: if you focus on expanding your knowledge, it comes at the cost of deepening existing knowledge.

There is a lot to be said for repetition to really soak in a film. After all a vital check on whether a film really stands up is whether it can be rewatched with profit. I saw Birdman and High-Rise twice within days and loved them both times. In the case of High-Rise I had a totally different viewing experience each time: a crowded screening in IFI 2, where Stephen Errity and I managed to miss the opening scene, brought out the comedy of the film, whereas a deserted screening in IFI 1 with Paul Fennessy brought out the visual grandeur of the film. John Healy opines that repetition, like constantly catching snippets or indeed all of Jaws on heavy rotation on a movie channel, allows you enjoy lots of little details you’d otherwise miss without seeing it so often.

Little details can create what I’ve previously dubbed ‘mental architecture’. Watching The Matrix again and again and again you find yourself responding to someone asking your name with ‘Yeah, that’s me’ and only later realise you were quoting Keanu Reeves. Clambering off the floor with a somewhat awkward grace you realise later you were approximating how Keanu Reeves got up off his knees at the end of Constantine. In neither instance were these conscious emulations, simply physical or verbal replications of an oft-seen physical action or verbal response. The joy of repetition is that which comes from knowing a movie inside out: like watching a James Bond movie with my Dad, hooting at in-jokes about Ken Adam’s inability to stop blowing the budget on working monorails, or quoting along to The Matrix Reloaded line after line en masse with friends.

Whooping up Back to the Future Day on ITV 2 with my Dad back in 2015 wouldn’t have been half as awesome if we hadn’t watched each film repeatedly together over three decades. When Dad couldn’t countenance a full film I would summon from the DVR just the helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now, Donald Sutherland’s JFK monologue, the Joker’s attack on the van in The Dark Knight:

At the far left of the shelf of DVDs was a single unlabelled videocassette. Schwartz slid it out with a finger and popped it into the ancient VCR.

“What’s this?” Henry asked.

“You’ll see.”

Schwartz watched this tape alone sometimes, late at night, the way he reread certain passages of Aurelius. It restored some nameless element of his personality that threatened to slip away if he didn’t stay vigilant. (The Art of Fielding)

Repetition can allow us grasp a film from different angles, enjoy the red herrings we missed before, create personal in-jokes, and provide us with an idiosyncratic frame of reference. But it can also utterly surprise. I was experiencing the rare joy of sharing a friend’s first encounter with a classic in 2017 when I nearly gasped at Citizen Kane on the big screen. Donald Trump’s threat to Hillary Clinton during their debates that he would, if elected, appoint a special prosecutor to look into her situation, now found an incredible anticipation in Charles Foster Kane’s threat during his speech that his “first official act as governor of this state will be to appoint a special district attorney to arrange for the indictment, prosecution and conviction of Boss Jim W Gettys”. There was now a new meaning in an old text.

In the case of Citizen Kane and American politics life was imitating art, as Oscar Wilde opined happened more often than vice versa, and a piece of art that had seemed to have a stable meaning had had that meaning upended. Repetition is not old hat in a world of novelty and completist instincts. It is both a time machine, that can enable us remember the way we enjoyed a movie the first time we saw it and remember ourselves and the milieu of that experience, and a transmogrifier that reworks old movies into something we never suspected our contemporary.

January 27, 2019

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part X

As the title suggests here are some short thoughts about the movies which aren’t quite substantial enough for each to merit an individual blog posting. What a week it’s been in the continuing cultural meltdown two tribes go to war turn it off and on again freakout of Trump’s America…

Playing a Trump Cad

I have recently fallen into the seductive but dangerous trap of watching the movies I recommend as TV choice for the week on Sunday Breakfast with Patrick Doyle. And so yet more of my free time enjoyably disappeared re-watching Speed for the first time in a while. As I mightily enjoyed Dennis Hopper’s villainy; whooping it up as he snarled Joss Whedon’s quotable dialogue at Keanu Reeves; and sat thru numerous TV spots for Christian Bale in Vice, I had a light-bulb moment. The perfect actor to play Donald Trump is the late, great Dennis Hopper. His performance in Speed, notably the comic timing, the sneering and taunting, along with notes from his sinister turn as the unpredictable, childishly explosive, sexually aggressive Frank in Blue Velvet, would provide an admirable palette for portraying President Trump in the Oval Office. Were it not for the fact that we are talking about the late, great Dennis Hopper. I’ve previously sighed over Michael Shannon’s comments about his aggressive lack of interest in playing Trump, even as he is happy to portray Guillermo Del Toro’s latest one-dimensional villain. Trump’s speeches are rarely played uninterrupted on Sky News for as long as Obama’s were, but one of the rare occasions they gave him some airtime I was taken aback at what it reminded me of – for all the world he was performing the opening monologue on a late night talk-show. His satirical invective was aimed at very different targets, but the madly free-wheeling style following the ebbs and flows of audience feedback was like an improv comedian ditching his script to go after the trending topics on Twitter. The ad hominem attacks of Trump aren’t so dissimilar to Colbert mocking Trump’s Yeti pubes or Meyers mocking a Trump’s aide receding hair. That bullying joy in cruelty, aligned with the obvious insecurities that drive Trump, seems like fertile ground for any actor. But especially for an actor who used his magic box of memories for any number of undesirables; determined to find motivations that made monsters someone whose skin he could inhabit.

 

The means defeat the ends: Part II

Back in September I pointed out the commercial shortfall of the Hobbit trilogy owing to the artistic shortcomings justified in the name of making it … commercial. It turns out that I took my eye off the ball since then and have only just noticed another example. Back in 2011 the studio was volubly unhappy with David Fincher spending an unconscionable 90 million dollars on making The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. They felt that for what it was, an R-rated thriller, it could have cost a lot less. An awful lot less, especially if directed by somebody else who wouldn’t shoot every scene about 60 damn times. So Fincher was thrown overboard, and with him Rooney Mara and Steve Zaillian (and possibly the non-committal Daniel Craig), and Fede Alvarez came onboard, but not, as initially assumed, Jane Levy. Instead Claire Foy took over as Lisbeth Salander, and, with the budget being watched like a hawk, the movie came in at only 43 million dollars. See, Fincher?! SEE??!! That’s what line-producing looks like. And then The Girl in the Spider’s Web only made 35.1 million dollars worldwide. As opposed to Fincher’s effort netting 232.6 million worldwide… Oops. So that’s a profit (sic) of 142.6 million dollars being replaced by a loss (sic) of 7.9 million dollars in the quest for greater profit. Once again the studio confused shaking the cash tree with cutting down the cash tree. As my sometime co-writer John Healy noted he wouldn’t have even have watched the first one if Fincher hadn’t been involved. The ends (making mucho money) justified the means (firing Fincher, Mara, Zaillian, and trimming runtime and budget). And, the ends, of making mucho money, were defeated by the means employed.

September 9, 2018

You get Hoynes/Trump!

It’s been a nostalgic blast watching The West Wing from the start on TG4 this past week. Coming at the exact moment that Bob Woodward’s new book of nasty quotes and the New York Times’ anonymous op-ed painted a picture of the workings of a very different Oval Office it led to disquieting thoughts about Presidents Bartlet, Obama and Trump.

The Ringer recently produced a list of the 100 best TV episodes since 2000. I got the impression reading that one contributor would almost rather say ‘not anti-hero’ than ‘hero’ because if they said hero that would bespeak not being the kind of world-weary sophisticate who writes for The Ringer. This excerpt is fairly characteristic of them:

I don’t disagree about the Bartlet hagiography, but to me that’s almost a charm of the show; in the world of Walter Whites and Hannah Horvaths and the sociopaths of Succession, the idea of the “good guy we’re rooting for” is almost quaint.

But… if the media, especially the unlimited digital ink allowed by the internet, spends its time praising only anti-heroes, difficult men… and the Emmys and Golden Globes go only to shows on cable about anti-heroes, difficult men… and both the media and industry generally deride when they don’t ignore shows  (usually on network, like, say NCIS) that feature principled heroes, can both media and industry (as seen at every awards show) really get up on such a moral high horse when an anti-hero, difficult man becomes the President? If Obama now says Trump is a symptom not the cause, is the media and industry not partially culpable? Did they not prepare the culture to bring forth just that?

Years ago I wrote but never posted a lengthy piece based around a reading of a segment of Obama’s Dreams From My Father and the complaints on BBC of a Hillary Clinton staffer that Obama had had an unfair advantage because pop culture had prepared the way for a black President via Morgan Freeman and Denis Haysbert but there was nobody similarly making straight a path in the wilderness for Hillary. But if Deep Impact and 24 were literally held to have given Obama an advantage then surely The West Wing must have contributed mightily too. During the dark days of Bush Jr’s inarticulate incompetence there was a President who was charming, articulate, intelligent, a university lecturer; he was fictional, but you can’t have everything; and Bush Jr was replaced by a President who was charming, articulate, intelligent, and a university lecturer.

But then after a decade of anti-heroes, difficult men, what do you know but the American public went and elected one of those cultural icons as President – the anti-hero-in-chief. Where could they have got such a weird idea?

Oh, for one of those crassly commercial network notes now! “Can you make President Trump more likeable?”

July 20, 2018

At least we still have… : Part IV

The fourth entry in an occasional series in which I try to cheer myself up by remembering what still exists in the world and cannot ever be taken capriciously away.

As I wrote in my Top 10 Films of 2012 here when praising Damsels in Distress, the desire of Greta Gerwig’s daffy character to improve the global psyche with her creation of future international dance craze the Sambola seemed rather less daft after PSY’s eccentric ‘Gangnam Style’ stormed the world after the film’s release. Featured prominently at the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang some months ago, this still led to an irresistible grin whenever played; despite the fact nobody has ever known what the lyrics are about, other than the vague impression that this is the Seoul version of Ross O’Carroll-Kelly.

And if I think of the 2012 election duel between Obama and Romney I will immediately think of this parody. Sure, not all of College Humour’s video works as well as you’d want, but when it hits the heights of this particular verse it’s irrepressible:

I got distinguished hair

And a private jet that flies me way up in the air

Buy and sell your company with so much savoir faire

I bought a mansion for each one of my two dozen heirs

Romney’s wrong-footing of Obama in the first minute of the first debate is almost worthy of a mention here in its own right. Obama had clearly prepped to face off against the accustomed robotic Romney. Little did he suspect that Romney’s operating software had been given a Reagan upgrade – and when his handler keyed in the command for ‘execute joke’ he did it perfectly, leaving Obama stunned; he was not prepared for this level of charisma. Obama staggered thru that debate looking punch-drunk before recovering his poise for the next two, but to think that Romney was pilloried in 2012 for his ‘binders full of women’, and everyone was glad that the RNC intimated that he should stop seeking to run again in 2016. Oh, what people wouldn’t give now to have had Romney as the GOP candidate in 2016 rather than Trump and his ‘binders full of payoffs to women’ (sic).

Any Other Business: Part XVII

What is one to do with thoughts that are far too long for Twitter but not nearly long enough for a proper blog post? Why round them up and turn them into a seventeenth portmanteau post on television of course!

 

Sorry seems to be the hardest word for Facebook

I had been thinking about commenting on Facebook’s current TV spots on British television, and then Channel 4’s Dispatches came along and disquietingly lifted the lid on the people who work for Facebook but don’t work for Facebook in Dublin. Ah, the joy of outsourcing. It’s always someone else’s fault that the high standards Facebook expects are not being upheld. Not that we’re ever told what those high standards are precisely. And nothing bad that happens is ever wrong, certainly never criminal, it’s always, well, let’s listen to the TV spot Facebook is using in Britain to try and reassure people that Brexit may have been the result of Facebook but not to worry, soon your newsfeed will be full of only cute kittens again – take it away maestro, “We didn’t come here for click-bait, spam, fake news, and data misuse. That’s not okay.” Well, that is profound. I guess if Mark Zuckerberg, whose non-apology apology to Congress came in for some stick hereabouts previously, can go so far as to admit that enabling Brexit and Trump was ‘not okay’ then we can all meet him half-way and forgive him for letting it happen, and evading responsibility. The best way to protect your privacy is not to change settings on Facebook it’s to not use social media at all. And if Facebook is really intended just to ‘connect people’ rather than say data-mine the f*** out of the world’s population for psychometrics in the service of personalised advertising then there’s one really simple way to prove it. Change it to Facebook.org

xkcd by Randall Munroe, where would our collective sanity be without it?

 

I can’t believe it’s not The Unit

I can’t remember the last time I had such a double-take reaction to a TV show as watching SEAL Team. The adventures of a band of brothers in the American military who fly about the world causing mayhem, when not dealing with domestic dramas at home. This simply was a remake of David Mamet’s The Unit, they even hired Mr Grey (Michael Irby) from The Unit to play their ‘been there done that’ character putting the hopefuls thru their paces before they can ascend to the godlike status of a Tier 1 Operator. There were touches that distinguished it from Mamet’s creation to be sure, but mostly that was a layer of SJW-babble; centred around the character of Alona Tal’s English PhD student and would-be girlfriend of would-be Tier 1 Operator Max Thieriot; and it was never entirely clear whether this was being satirical of SJW-babble or just thinking it needed to be there to represent America as it is right now. But mostly this was The Unit, with different actors, led by David Boreanaz taking over the Dennis Haysbert role. And then creator Benjamin Cavell, late of Justified, threw the mother of all structural spit-balls at the viewer. The characters just upped and left to Afghanistan for deployment, a regular occurrence, but one brought forward on this occasion because of the complete destruction of their predecessors Seal Team Echo. All the domestic dramas at home gone, apart from two Skype scenes in six episodes so far of this investigative arc into who ordered the hit on Echo which has replaced the mission by mission of the earlier standalone American episodes whose only arc was Thieriot’s training to join the team. I’m not sure I was prepared for such formalist experimentation on CBS.

“That’s some editing”

Editing the punch-lines out of jokes first annoyed me a few years ago when Willem Dafoe was voicing the Birdseye Bear. A peerless advert saw him set the scene for a romantic dinner for his hapless owner, only to be told to hop it as the no longer frozen food arrived at the impeccably mood-music’d and mood-light’d table. The bear turned straight to camera to register his astonishment, and was then found sitting outside the house muttering “There’s gratitude for ya!” But then the advert started to get edited more and more severely, and the punch-line was thrown out. Who does that? What buffoon makes these decisions? Let’s edit for time, and throw away the jokes that are the point of the seconds we’ve kept that are now pointless. James Corden’s current advert has been cut to the point of sheer gibberish. The three encounters with three fly-by-night mechanic brothers, who bore a passing resemblance to Donald Trump, and left Corden sad and depressed entering Vegas with bugger all money after their antics and then elated when he left with loadsamoney have been reduced to a decontextualised idiotic mishmash. What exactly was the purpose of this editing?

March 27, 2018

Mike Pence, like Batman, only has one rule

VP Mike Pence has been having, it’s fair to say, a hell of a time… If he goes to a Broadway musical he gets heckled, from the stage. If he goes to a football game the anthem gets disrespected, from the field. If he goes to the Winter Olympics he gets insulted, by the American athletes. But the death of Rev. Billy Graham, famous for his rule, has seen indiscreet whispers that Pence has suffered ordeals worse still emulating Graham, as Friedrich Bagel now reveals.

July 6, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Brown – RTX3ADUJ

Mike Pence was kidnapped by the President of Mexico. The Mexicans kept him prisoner and tortured him by forcing him to have dinner nightly with a woman who was not his wife, thus forcing him to break the Mike Pence rule. They also referred to him as Miguel Peso.

 

 

In Mike Pence’s office all female secretaries and officials have to wear a Ruth Pence face mask, but at one point the mask slipped and Mike had to abseil out of a White House window.

 

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Mike was on board Air Force One when he realized that there were no crew present and the pilot’s announcements had revealed her to be a woman. He immediately parachuted out of the airplane but unfortunately landed in a nunnery.

 

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Ruth Pence got a new haircut and makeover which rendered her unrecognizable. She entered the Pence household and Mike had her escorted from the premises by the female security detachment, who were all wearing the Ruth Pence Prime outfits.

February 23, 2018

Lady Bird

On an avalanche of hype Greta Gerwig’s second film as director finally arrives here, depicting the senior high school year of Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson.

Sacramento native Christine (Saoirse Ronan), who insists on referring to herself by her new self-given given name of Lady Bird, is returning from scouting California colleges with her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) when she breaks her arm being melodramatic. Further misadventures involve falling out with her fat best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) and falling in with the rich, pretty, vacuous Jenna (Odeya Rush) while she goes from romancing charming co-star Danny (Lucas Hedges) to moody musician Kyle (Timothee Chalamet). She is determined to go to college on the East Coast despite money worries caused by her father Larry (Tracy Letts) being let go, and further family tension owing to her brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues) and his live-in girlfriend Shelly (Marielle Scott) working checkouts despite having Berkeley degrees because of the ‘jobless recovery’. This is 2002/3, you see. 

Among the baneful distortions of reality the Oscars cause is the unrealistic hype that can destroy some films, which can never live up to expectations like ‘the greatest screen performance of all time’ Daniel Day-Lewis supposedly gave in There Will Be Blood. Lady Bird is at 99% on Rotten Tomatoes among critics, it’s meant to be the feminist film of our times, the antidote to Trump’s America, take your pick of whatever hyperbole attaches to it online. But after Frances Ha and Mistress America this film is a disappointment. Sam Levy, who shot those two as well as Maggie’s Plan, casts a hazier light over proceedings here which matches Gerwig’s impressionistic portrait of a year with vignettes and montages. But too much of Lady Bird is populated by stock characters, a vague backdrop outside the only carefully etched relationship: mother-daughter.

It’s odd that, after Twilight (!), Gerwig sees fit to also rehash Gilmore Girls’ exemplar: the dull dependable boyfriend versus the edgy erratic boyfriend. More predictable is that, like Wish I Was Here or Middlesex, Lady Bird presents an artist’s abandoned religion as ancient nonsense/psychotic cult. In this case juvenile anti-Catholicism leads directly to a terrible misstep. Lady Bird is horrible to her best friend when she’s chorus and Julie lead in their school musical, she’s horrible to her brother when failing at college admission, and, in one of the most repellent scenes I’ve ever seen, especially for a ‘charming indie’, she’s horrible to anti-abortion speaker Casey (Bayne Gibby) whose very existence she dismisses as a joke. Lady Bird isn’t very funny, talented, smart, or nice. And as this film is steadfastly uninterested in developing anyone else that’s a problem…

‘Important’ films are rarely good, and sadly it seems Gerwig is being feted for making an important film, because this falls short of what she’s done in the past.

3/5

January 31, 2018

Any Other Business: Part XIII

What is one to do with thoughts that are far too long for Twitter but not nearly long enough for a proper blog post? Why round them up and turn them into a thirteenth portmanteau post on television of course!

Dangerous, Handle With Care.

Very Dangerous, Do Not Handle At All.

Watching re-runs of The Avengers (in colour!) on ITV 4 over a few months before Christmas it was hard not to be struck by two things. It was better than most current TV shows, and it made the soapbox posturing of the CW’s Berlantiverse look utterly inane. The ludicrous blackmail episode, ‘You Have Just Been Murdered’, is so hilarious, as the blackmailers repeatedly mock-murder their wealthy victims and leave a calling card just to prove how easy it would be to do it for real, so pay up, was one of the best episodes I saw on TV in 2017. The sustained ninja attacks on Steed’s friend; a car almost runs him over, he is attacked with a fake katanna, and finally shot with an arrow that imprints ‘You Have Just Been Murdered… Again!” on his shirt; floored me. And there were many other episodes almost at the same level in Diana Rigg’s 25 colour episodes, and some equally wonderful in the subsequent 32 episodes with Linda Thorson. The Rigg episodes were very telling in their writing of Renaissance woman Mrs Peel: painter, sculptor, chemist, journalist, mathematician published on the subject probability as applied to Bridge, and amateur secret agent. Nobody makes any deal out of Steed’s partner being a woman, apart from a doddery Colonel back from the tropics in ‘The Hidden Tiger’; “Highly unusual to have a woman on a hunt, Steed” “Highly unusual woman, Colonel”. And Mrs Peel, expert in judo, wins most of the fights she gets into, hence her amusement in ‘The Correct Way To Kill’ when she finds two photos with handwritten annotations in the local KGB HQ. Steed is described as ‘Dangerous, Handle With Care’. She then discovers that ‘Very Dangerous, Do Not Handle At All’ refers to her. This is a fictional universe where many of the villains have women as their most ruthless lieutenants, and any daffy woman is very possibly a ruthless lieutenant hiding in plain sight by playing up to bimbo stereotypes. In ‘The Living Dead’ the village hospital is run by a woman doctor, and nobody mentions her gender; she’s just the doctor who runs the village hospital. Steed and Mrs Peel almost co-opt her as a third agent in their investigations, but Mrs Peel doesn’t make a big deal of it. It would be literally impossible for a woman to run a small-town hospital in a Berlanti show without a plethora of dialogue about it, and if she were to aid Supergirl we would get girl power dialogue about the sisterhood working together in a man’s world. It is disconcerting when a 1967 show assumes equality, entertains, and provides an indomitable heroine with a delightfully light touch, while 2017 shows talk endlessly, needlessly about equality, as if trying to convince themselves.

The Berlantiverse was once highly praised on this blog but as time has gone on it has become more and more obviously flawed. So let’s try and isolate the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Berlantiverse: The Good

Tony Zhou amusingly gutted the MCU a while ago for its complete, deliberate absence of memorable music. Their copy of a copy of a copy elevator muzak approach seems to be a determined attempt to free cinema from the Wagnerian leitmotifs that composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold had in the 1930s made the convention for scoring the fates of characters and the progress of action. As a result of Marvel’s decision no matter how many Avengers assemble there will never be any music that can announce the arrival of a single one of them. What is lost by that? Well, look at what Blake Neely was able to pull off in the Supergirl/Flash/Arrow/Legends crossover extravaganza for the final fight against the alien Dominators. When Green Arrow is shooting the Dominator the jagged Arrow theme is heard, when he is thrown off the roof the music hangs in the air with him with a sustained note on strings, only for a roar of brass to announce the arrival of Supergirl to catch him from plummeting to his death. That is what leitmotifs are for. Why Marvel would want to pass on that sort of emotional punch is a mystery.

Berlantiverse: The Bad

There are elements; such as 24’s lack of humour; that you forgive so long as the show is good. But once you stop enjoying a show you remember those flaws, and notice new ones. I never made 10 episodes of Arrow, but I was surprised the same creators brought forth the fun that was The Flash. I also watched Legends of Tomorrow and Supergirl until the recent crossover. Then I ditched all three shows. My problems with Arrow I’ve outlined. The Flash became idiotically repetitive; “My name is Barry Allen, and I am the fastest man alive!” – apart from Reverse Flash, and Zoom, and Savitar…; emotionally manipulative; Barry watches his mother die again, watches his father die, gets them back sort of only to give them up, gives up Iris, how much damn angst does one character need; and eventually unwatchable despite maintaining a comic edge. Supergirl from the get-go had problems, which started to converge with the problems of Legends. Legends degenerated from a fun show in which time-travellers screwed up their mission, to a less fun show in which they took George Lucas in Love as their ur-text and applied it to Lucas, Tolkien, and Arthurian legend, to the E.T. episode where they re-did E.T. in 40 minutes with their characters, like House or CSI: NY saw writers take off a movie they saw, just with less self-awareness. Supergirl’s characters kept getting on soapboxes; Jimmy Olsen on black men not being allowed show anger, Cat Grant on being a woman leader, Kara on being a woman and a superhero; rather than having comic-book adventures. Moving network for season 2 Berlanti decided that Alex should be gay now, an abrupt character reboot handled with the grace of an Austin Powers skit. But then he doubled down by beginning season 3 with Alex and Maggie engaged. Wow, that was quick! They break up because they never had a discussion about having children before getting engaged. Berlanti’s political imperatives were trumping his aesthetic imperatives with a vengeance. Legends’s characters arrive in the 1950s with an injunction not to attract attention; so they set up Ray and Kendra as a married couple, with Sara as a nurse. Berlanti castigates Jim Crow racism and has Sara liberate a repressed nurse. This makes nonsense of the injunction not to attract attention. The way to do that would have been to have Ray and Sara play house, with Kendra as a nurse. But internal logic was starting to be damned if it got in the political way.

Berlantiverse: The Ugly

Can you tell who Don Siegel voted for in 1956 and 1972 from watching Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Dirty Harry? Adlai Stevenson? Maybe? Richard Nixon? Maybe?? It’s not easy. Can you tell who Greg Berlanti voted for in 2016? … It seems Berlanti was traumatised by the failure of America to be with her. Now, art and politics don’t need a Jeffersonian wall of separation, but there ought be some artistic guile cast over political intent, like Arthur Miller addressing Senator McCarthy at three centuries’ remove. Berlanti has a beef with Trump. He could silently showcase heroic, adorable, and honourable minority characters like The Blacklist. [Navabi, Aram, Dembe] He does not. Instead, to stick it to Trump, he introduces to Legends the rather insufferable Zari, and reminds us repeatedly that she’s a Muslim American. He probably needs to remind us because she doesn’t wear a hijab, or have a prayer mat, nor use it 5 times a day, worry about keeping halal, or attending a mosque. Given previous complaints about American artists’ inability to take faith seriously this shouldn’t surprise, but ironically it makes Zari the kind of Muslim Trump might endorse – invisible. Berlanti could espouse meritocratic ideals like Bernie Sanders’ support for basic income. He does not. Instead Berlanti has gone down the rabbit-hole with Hillary. Her failure was due to misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia. Ignore that she was as historically awful a candidate as if the Republicans had nominated Robert A Taft in 1948, and that she called ¼ of the eligible voters “a basket of deplorables”. Pushing Hillary’s apologia is killing the Berlantiverse. It would be clumsy and obvious to try and push basic income. But it couldn’t be worse than the gender studies harangue when Helen of Troy appeared in Legends, or when The Flash had a stripper lecture her clients on her critique of the male gaze. That same episode a female supervillain was taken down by the female characters working together and Iris said “Hashtag Feminism”. This, along with insisting “We are The Flash”, is Iris’ new thing. The abandoning of all pretence of artistic guile over political intent in attacking Trump came in the recent crossover, with this interchange: “Make America White Again” “Which it never was” “Hashtag Melting Pot”. But the nadir was Nazi Arrow proudly announcing “We’ve created a meritocracy”. … … … One should not have to point out that Nazis did not believe in meritocracy, but in its exact opposite, aristocracy. It is self-evident.

If you’re looking for the brightest and the best, you get Einstein, and then, if you’re a Nazi, mutter, damn, a Jew, and issue another call for the brightest and the best, but Aryans only please. Whereas if you’re not a Nazi you say, Welcome, Mr Einstein, I hear you are a very brilliant genius. Meritocracy advances people on the basis of ability. Aristocracy advances people on the basis of bloodlines, rather than their ability.

Berlanti wasn’t being ironic, none of the superheroes protested about this calumny of meritocracy. That degradation of meritocracy, the one true guarantor of equality, shows Berlanti pursuing a political agenda that while thinking itself liberal is not. The Berlantiverse no longer entertains because so many artistic decisions are clearly suborned to a political agenda, and it troubles because that political agenda is clearly Hillary not Bernie. Meritocracy doesn’t see colour, gender, or religion. It sees ability. And it only sees ability. Attempt to attach secondary considerations to it and it is gone. You can’t grade a test on correct answers and ensuring a diversity quota.

September 20, 2017

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Director Matthew Vaughn helms a hasty sequel to his Mark Millar absurdist spy fantasy which sadly displays its hasty production.

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Our hero Eggsy (Taron Egerton) is waiting for a Kingsman cab when he is attacked by old rival Charlie (Edward Holcroft); unexpectedly, because he was presumed dead, and didn’t have a bionic arm. Said ‘arm’ leads to Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong) being the last Kingsmen standing, and having to seek help from their American cousins, the Statesmen. They get a gruff reception from Agent Tequila (Channing Tatum), but a warmer welcome from Merlin’s opposite number Ginger Ale (Halle Berry) who has developed a maguffin for dealing with headshots. Et voila – despite Colin Firth being shot in the head last time out – Harry lives! But will Harry recover his memories and his co-ordination in time to save the world from the depredations of drug baron Poppy (Julianne Moore) or does his distrust of Agent Whiskey (Pedro Pascal) bespeak incurable paranoia?

This sequel was written by Vaughn and Jane Goldman, but the tone is off; right from the twisted but not funny use of Chekhov’s meat-mincer in Poppy’s introduction. The fact that Eggsy and Merlin face the same Kingsmen apocalypse in this first act as the original’s third act feels very lazy, as does the Hollywood cliché for raising stakes in the finale.  This is a bloated movie: Tatum is barely in it,  Jeff Bridges even less so, and the impulsive jackass President played by Bruce Greenwood (!) feels like a late Trump-bashing addition to the script; especially his final scene which is a transparent and asinine piece of wish fulfilment. The running time could be trimmed by removing Elton John; his foul-mouthed temper-tantrums in support add nothing. Indeed all the swearing lacks the purposeful artistry of a McDonagh or Mamet.

A notably bombastic yet unmemorable score is punctuated by ecstatic uses of Prince’s ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ and John’s ‘Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting’ for elaborate fights as Vaughn relentlessly searches for but never really finds an action sequence to equal the church brawl from the original. Like The Matrix Reloaded, physical reality is traded for bullet-time and CGI, and the magic of choreography is lost. Oddly the most effective use of music is the most muted; John Denver’s ‘Country Roads’ for an all guns blazing character moment. Hanna Alstrom’s Princess is now Eggsy’s girlfriend, possibly as a response to criticism, yet Poppy Delevingne’s femme fatale Clara is subjected to even more tasteless comic use than Alstrom was… Moore’s super-villain has an interesting plan; but you feel Vaughn and Goldman understand it to articulate something meaningful that they never actually articulate.

This strains to equal the fun quality its predecessor had naturally, but, despite many misgivings, there are enough good action sequences, gags, performances, and uses of pop to make this worth your cinema ticket.

3/5

January 25, 2017

That’s “Mr. President The Donald” to you…

Yes, it’s time for one of the regrettable lapses into politics on this blog; occasioned by the vitriol thrown at Donald Trump’s Presidency, which is of dubious historical merit when considered under the headings of mandate, legitimacy, and suitability.

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MANDATE

Donald Trump got 46% of the popular vote.

Bill Clinton got 43.01% of the popular vote in 1992.

Woodrow Wilson got 41.8% of the popular vote in 1912.

Armando Iannucci is one of many people to claim that Trump has no mandate, because more people voted for someone else.

Well, the only way to ensure that doesn’t happen is to win over 50% of the popular vote, isn’t it?

If a candidate must receive more than 50% of the popular vote to have a mandate, then no Democrat President in the 20th and 21st centuries has ever had a mandate except Franklin D Roosevelt, Lyndon B Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Barack Obama.

By contrast every Republican President from William McKinley’s 51% in 1896 onward has had a mandate, except Richard Nixon, George W Bush, and Donald Trump; and Nixon and Bush both achieved over 50% of the vote on re-election.

 

LEGITIMACY

The electoral college system is silly, but it’s been silly for a long time now.

Andrew Jackson blew a gasket in 1824 when he was denied the Presidency.

But it wasn’t fixed then.

Rutherford B Hayes ended Reconstruction in 1876 to be let be President.

But it wasn’t fixed then.

Nor in 1888, nor in 2000, because, like AV in England, it is politically insoluble.

If you weep for Hilary Clinton’s near 3 million votes and no Presidency, did you also weep for Nigel Farage’s 5 million votes and only 1 (previously filched Tory) seat in 2015?

Hilary Clinton effectively built up massive and useless majorities in safe seats, while Donald Trump eked out tiny majorities in seats that could be flipped, and so won with equal legitimacy as David Cameron did in 2015.

 

SUITABILITY

Trump as an unsuitable character to be President…

More unsuitable than Johnson, who boasted that he’d had more women by accident than JFK had on purpose?

More unsuitable than JFK, who was so out of control new Secret Service agents were aghast at being assigned hooker detail?

More unsuitable than Nixon and Reagan, who both committed treason to win the Presidency?

Should the Republicans only be allowed to nominate candidates approved by the Democrats?

Would the Democrats then be happy to only nominate candidates approved by the Republicans?

Wasn’t that instinct what led to Watergate – Nixon trying to swing the nomination towards McGovern because he felt, and rightly so, that he could easily destroy him in the campaign proper?

 

BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER

Donald Trump is the President.

He has more of a mandate than Bill Clinton  in 1992, Richard Nixon in 1968, and Woodrow Wilson in 1912.

He has the same legitimacy as John Quincy Adams, Rutherford B Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, and George W Bush.

And he has fought fewer duels than fellow populist and all round short-fuse exponent Andrew Jackson.

 

All three strands are ahistoric rationalisations obscuring the raw howl  ‘I voted for the other candidate!’.

Well, in a two-party system, there is a 50/50 chance that the other candidate wins every 4 years.

And then you wait for the next roll of the dice in 4 years and place your money on your candidate again.

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