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Film review: Rogue One

January 8, 2017

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Rogue One in one sentence: if you can look past some boring, underdeveloped characters, it’s mostly a gripping war film with excellent action.

Felicity Jones plays Jyn Erso, the soldier daughter of a Imperial scientist called Galen Erso. (He helped design the Empire’s horrific super-weapon, the Death Star.) After she escapes from an Imperial prison and sees first-hand how destructive the Death Star is, Jyn teams up with Rebels who are fighting the Empire.

Jyn’s father has designed a flaw into the Death Star which will allow the Rebels to blow it up. But to do that, they’ll need the plans for the Death Star, which the Empire keeps on a heavily-defended base on a planet called Scarif. So Jyn leads a mission to Scarif to steal the plans and keep the Rebels’ hopes alive.

Chris Weitz (The Golden Compass) and Tony Gilroy (most of the Bourne films) wrote the script. It has some problems. The dialogue is pretty flat; a genre expert like Joss Whedon could have made it sing. Jyn and fellow soldier Cassian (Diego Luna) are nowhere near as memorable as Han and Leia in the original trilogy, and they don’t have their chemistry either. Jyn’s dad Galen should have been one of the most interesting characters in the film, but he’s only on screen for about 6 minutes.

Some of the supporting characters stand out though. There’s Donnie Yen’s optimistic warrior Chirrut, and his loyal friend and wingman Baze (Wen Jiang) . Their relationship pays off in a wonderful moment in the middle of a decisive battle (I won’t spoil it). Through Baze and Chirrut we get back to the idea of the Force as a mystical, spiritual sustainer of everything in the Star Wars galaxy. Much better than all that pointless midichlorian-babble in the prequels.

Riz Ahmed (Four Lions, Jason Bourne) makes the Imperial defector Bodhi Rook quite sympathetic in just a few minutes, and the droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk, Firefly) earns his place in the movie with some final-act bravery.

Villains? A digital Peter Cushing plays Tarkin, cold and menacing. Brilliant actor Ben Mendelsohn is the vicious, stiff-faced Krennic. And then there’s Darth Vader. Rogue One makes him properly scary again, most of all in a brilliant sequence near the end that really is ‘Vader horror’.

Final thoughts. Rogue One is set between Episode III and Episode IV, and it does a very good job of transporting fans back to the world of the original trilogy with spot-on production design and costumes. Composer Michael Giacchino excels at evocative, throwback scores, from Mission Impossible to Star Trek, and his music for Rogue One is no exception.

Gareth Edwards’ skilful compositions and editing make the action clear and gripping. You always know who’s shooting who and where they are in relation to each other. And his attention to the characters’ emotions – even the poor Rebel grunts who don’t make it – adds a lot to the film.

3 out of 5.

RIP Carrie Fisher (1956-2016)

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Film review: Notes on Blindness

January 4, 2017

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Dir. Peter Middleton and James Spinney, 2016.

Notes on Blindness is a poetic, beautiful documentary about John Hull, a theologian who went blind in his thirties and had to learn to live without his eyesight.

It has two unique features.

1. The film’s actors don’t speak. They mime to John Hull’s tape-recorded words from his memoirs. I’ve never seen this done in a film before, and a lot of the time it works beautifully.

2. It’s told completely from John’s point of view, with lots of blacked-out or partially-obscured shots of his vanishing world.

There are several great moments: in one Stanley Kubrick-esque sequence, John imagines being with his family in a supermarket flooded by rain, and a huge wave comes crashing down the aisle to swamp them. Later, he remembers dropping off his son at primary school. John can’t see him walking into the building, so they call out ‘bye, bye’ to each other, and John listens until his son’s voice fades away.

This is definitely art cinema, not a narrative drama, and its art is great. Sound designer Joakim Sundstrom (Starred Up) builds an immersive soundscape of rainfall and other ambient sounds, and cinematographer Gerry Floyd creates dreamlike, nostalgic images that complement John’s memories. Spacious pauses between John’s words make the film peaceful and meditative.

Notes on Blindness won’t win ‘dramatic film of the year’ but it is a thoughtful, beautiful and compassionate piece of work.

Watch it on the BFI Player or Curzon Home Cinema. Excellent audio description options available for blind and partially-sighted viewers.

Searching for Sugar Man – a mystery about a mystery

January 23, 2014

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Over Christmas I watched Searching for Sugar Man. Its subject – an American folk musician called Rodriguez – deserves to take pride of place in my gallery of ‘mystery men’ (a blog I did last year).

The film is about how Rodriguez’s music developed a huge following in South Africa from the 1970s onwards. His South African fans only knew about him through bootleg copies of his albums which made their way into the country during the repressive Apartheid years. They never saw him perform live, and rumours spread that he had in fact killed himself on stage in the US. Meanwhile, Rodriguez (alive and well) had no idea that he was South Africa’s answer to Elvis. In the States his recording career had never taken off.

The film follows a fan from South Africa who finds out Rodriguez is alive and tracks him down in Detroit. I won’t give any more of the story away; if you’re reading this you’ll enjoy picking up the rest of what seems like a too-good-to-be-true hoax.

Rodriguez holds on to his mystique the whole way through the film: even by the end I wasn’t sure I knew that much about him. I’m used to documentaries that try to uncover real life in all its ordinariness, from the stress of being a midwife (‘One Born Every Minute’, Channel 4, UK) to the silly mistakes of trainee doctors (‘Junior Doctors’, BBC3), but Searching for Sugar Man is a story about a legend, and what that legend means to the people who believe in it.

PS: Andrew Watt of the Sydney Morning Herald has written a much more detailed look at Rodriguez’s life and how the film has transformed it.

My favourite movie taglines

April 26, 2013

Taglines can be great, they can be bad, and they can make no sense at all.  Tagline-writers have a strict limit (even two lines is a rarity) and this can lead to some very creative results. Here are a few I love…

(spot the films that don’t actually exist…)

‘He knows if you’ve been bad or good, and he’s got an axe.’

Christmas Slay (1988)

‘The good news is, you’re going to live. The bad news is, he’s going to kill you.’

Action Doctor (2010)

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‘Prepare for British Intelligence.’

Johnny English (2003)

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‘When he said I Do, he never said what he did.’

True Lies (1994)

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And finally…

‘If this movie doesn’t make your skin crawl…it’s on too tight!’

Black Christmas (1974)

Mystery Men part 2

April 21, 2013

More mysterious characters:

Boba Fett, Star Wars universe

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Boba Fett is a bounty hunter who first appeared in the Star Wars trilogy (1977-1984). He gets a very small amount of screen time, but what we do see is enough to hint that he’s a ruthless killer who has the respect of Darth Vader, the main villain of the series. Eg: when Vader hires a group of hunters (Fett among them) to capture the heroes – alive – in The Empire Strikes Back, he tells Fett ‘no disintegrations‘.

So Fett evidently has a reputation, and this feeds his mystique. As with other legends that don’t involve eyewitness testimony or first-hand evidence (like King Arthur), it’s because Fett’s exploits are unseen (what does a disintegration look like?) that they get bigger in our imaginations. It’s the fact that we don’t know much about him that makes him so fascinating.

Boba Fett is a defining example of what made the original Star Wars series so successful: as well as telling the story of Luke Skywalker, it stoked audience’s imaginations by hinting at a whole universe of other characters – with their own stories – ‘just round the corner’.  Star Wars creator George Lucas knew this bigger story universe was a business opportunity. He licensed the Expanded Universe, an array of books, comics and games designed to feed fans’ hunger for more information about their favourite characters – and Fett was one of the most popular.

He hasn’t been restricted to the Expanded Universe, though. In Episode II of the Star Wars prequels (1999-2005), George Lucas gave him a new backstory. It was interesting to see a young Fett on screen, unmasked, but for me the film blew away a lot of his mystique, like getting rid of shadows by turning on a light. Not all of Boba’s story has been told yet, though. In the new Star Wars series (brought about by Disney’s purchase of the Star Wars franchise), he might get a movie all of his own. If he does, I hope it’s good, and I hope Joe Johnston (director of Captain America and creator of Boba Fett’s outfit) gets to direct it.

The Doctor, Doctor Who

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Other characters often ask, at the end of a Doctor Who adventure, ‘Doctor, who are you?’ The original creators of the show wanted the Doctor to be like the ‘Stranger Who Comes to Town’ in a Western, a character whose backstory isn’t as important as what they do in the story here and now. Nonetheless, the show has revealed quite a lot about the Doctor over the years. We know he’s a Time Lord from a planet called Gallifrey, that he has two hearts, and that he can regenerate into a new body when he dies.

paul-mcgann-as-the-eighth-doctor-in-the-1996-tv-movieRichard E Grant

The most recent Who showrunners, Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat, have focused on enhancing the mythos of the character, aping the Boba Fett approach by giving the Doctor a massive-yet-mysterious reputation which precedes him almost everywhere he goes. Borrowing tactics from J.J. Abrams (whose Lost took TV mystery to a new level) they’ve used intrigue in other parts of the show too, planting codewords and secretive characters in each series.

Have there always been mysterious characters in stories? Some of the oldest stories we have are religious mythologies, and they’re certainly full of mysterious figures who don’t need introductions, backstories or literal descriptions. In more recent world literature, fairy tales (which have ‘characters’ who are just puppets with no psychological depth) show that stories don’t need characters to be detailed in order to work well.*

There’s no getting away from mystery; it’s a vital part of storytelling, as JJ Abrams explains in his TedTalk on ‘The Mystery Box‘. It seems that as long as stories need mystery, then characters (which can’t be separated from stories) need it too. As long as people still feel the thrill of opening a present without knowing what’s inside (even if it does turn out to be that DVD they got already), they’ll carry on loving characters like Boba Fett and the Doctor.

Here’s one more case study. In one of Oscar Wilde‘s brilliant short stories, a man called Gerald Murchison tells a friend about Lady Alroy, a secretive widow he has fallen in love with. Several times he’s arranged to visit her at her house, only to find she’s not there when he arrives. She won’t let him post letters to her house either, and can’t say why not.

‘All through the season I saw a great deal of her, and the atmosphere of mystery never left her…It was really very difficult for me to come to any conclusion, for she was like one of those strange crystals that one sees in museums, which are at one moment clear, and at another clouded…I was infatuated with her: in spite of the mystery, I thought then – in consequence, I see now. No; it was the woman herself I loved. The mystery troubled me, maddened me. Why did chance put me in its track?’

After days of trying to track down Lady Alroy at her house, Murchison sees her visit an apartment nearby in central London. What’s going on? He confronts her at her home:

‘You went to meet some-one,’ I cried; ‘this is your mystery.’ She grew dreadfully white, and said ‘I went to meet no-one.’

Murchison doesn’t believe her, and storms out. He leaves England for three months, and when he comes back finds that Lady Alroy has died of pneumonia. He also finds out she was renting the apartment she visited. The landlady confirms Alroy never met anyone in the apartment, and explains:

‘She paid me three guineas a week merely to sit in my drawing-rooms now and then…reading books, and sometimes [she had] tea.’

Murchison’s friend, who has been listening to the sad story, tells him what he thinks is going on:

‘My dear Gerald…Lady Alroy was simply a woman with a mania for mystery. She took these rooms for the purpose of going there with her veil down, and imagining she was a heroine. She had a passion for secrecy, but she herself was merely a sphinx without a secret.’

Murchison isn’t sure about this; he looks one more time at his photograph of the dead Lady.

‘I wonder?’ he said at last.

Further reading/watching?

The Hitcher, featuring a hitch-hiking villain who comes out of nowhere and can’t be stopped.

Drive with Ryan Gosling as a nameless Driver who doesn’t do anything but drive and hit people with hammers.

Daniel Day-Lewis, himself a man of mystery, plays the inscrutable Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. Mad, bad, or just extreme?

Wolverine in X-Men.

Nanny McPhee. A heroic nanny who no-one knows much about, except that she turns up exactly when she’s needed…

*As Philip Pullman explains here and elsewhere.

Moulin Rouge! 12 years on

April 3, 2013

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Last week I had the pleasure of re-watching Moulin Rouge! on blu-ray with my brother. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a high-energy, flamboyant musical about an idealistic young writer called Christian, who moves to Paris and falls in love with Satine, a courtesan at the Moulin Rouge (‘The Red Windmill’), the city’s most famous nightclub. The film is a tragedy, but a tragedy that is beautiful in so many ways. Ewan Macgregor (Christian) Nicole Kidman (Satine), Richard Roxburgh, Jim Broadbent and John Leguizamo play the main characters. Directed by Baz Luhrmann, who made Strictly Ballroom and Romeo+Juliet.

Here are some thoughts on Moulin Rouge that I wrote down just after watching, when I felt really uplifted and inspired.

The film is even more great than I remembered, and I think I appreciate it technically in a way I didn’t a few years ago. I am more into lighting now than when I last watched the film, and [especially watching in HD now] I noticed how rich the variety of lighting is, and how it fits the emotions and expression of the film. Even though it is ‘hyper-stylised’ it goes through a lot of rich colour variations and tones and shadows. It really works, like Romeo + Juliet does and like Strictly Ballroom does. If the lighting was less theatrical it would be wrong for the film, wrong for the feeling of it.

I actually found I bought the characters even though the acting is a billion miles from naturalistic. Again [like with the lighting], if the actors were playing more ‘normally’/more restrained, it would be not right for the film. Like the wrong colour of paint on a painting.

‘I’d rather have real artifice than artificial reality’, says Baz Luhrmann. As I understand it, he means he’d rather enjoy using all the fun, artificial, theatrical things you can do with a film – eg: colourful lighting, music, fast editing – than be too caught up in trying to make a film ‘real’ or completely accurate to reality. I relate to how he is trying to use something very stylised and ‘unrealistic’ – a musical – to tell us about something he thinks is true and important – LOVE.

This last line sums up pretty well what I think about the film. 12 years after it came out, it’s holding up pretty well, as all great films do, and I found it just as moving this time as when it first came out. The closing credits end with the word LOVE, just in case we didn’t get the message.

Other things I love about Moulin Rouge:

-It’s the third part of the director’s Red Curtain Trilogy of films, following Strictly Ballroom and Romeo+Juliet. Baz Luhrmann said that he wanted all three films to talk about love in different languages: Strictly Ballroom, through ballroom dancing, Romeo+Juliet, through Shakespeare’s language, and Moulin Rouge through music(als).

-It is a very unique and original film, yet it only has one song with original lyrics (‘Come What May’). Everything else is by Queen, Elton John, Madonna, The Police, David Bowie and others.

It is ‘over the top’, but not out of control. When some films go into ‘crazy’ sequences or wild acting, it seems like they are falling apart, or that the film has gone downhill and makes no sense. But Moulin Rouge, for all its high style, has a very strong sense of direction from beginning to end. The director is in control of his material and in touch with what the film wants to be.

-‘Come What May’, which Christian and Satine sing to each other at various key moments, is one of my favourite songs. I find it gets me emotional every time I listen to it.

Suddenly the world seems such a perfect place, suddenly it moves with such a perfect grace…

Suddenly my life doesn’t seem such a waste…

It all revolves around you.

The St Albans Film Festival – Saturday 9th March

March 10, 2013

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I have just got back to Watford from a day at the first-ever St. Albans Film Festival.

At the afternoon screening session I saw 14 short films, from all over the world, ranging from no-budget productions (£10) to high budget ones (£15,000). What I liked most was being in a room with people laughing loudly having fun. And as someone said afterwards, short films screened on the Internet have to compete with Facebook and Twitter for your attention; at a festival screening with mobile phones off, everyone can focus on the films more fully. For the directors who had come to see their own films being screened, there was also the vital experience of seeing how a ‘real audience’ (i.e. not supportive family/friends) reacted to their films.

My favourites of the lot:

You Look Stunning, dir. Nina Hatchwell.

A comedy about a woman trying way too hard to catch the attention of a handsome customer at her local coffee shop. I liked the film’s jazzy score and it had a really good sense of fun. And the ending involves hot chocolate, which sealed the deal for me.

Gracious Awakenings dir. Ben Jacobs

This got everyone laughing from about ten seconds in, which is the best way to start a comedy short film. A young man wakes up in a field: he’s naked and for some reason he’s covered in jam.

The Best Medicine dir. Dan Smith

Sharing its ‘accept yourself as you are’ theme with You Look Stunning, this film was another audience favourite. A woman with an embarrassing laugh tries to change it using a series of magical laugh potions.

The Players dir. Benjamin Garfield

A frightened young guy is playing poker with a bunch of intimidating gangsters. We notice within a few seconds that the playing cards have weird, occult symbols on them. Are they Tarot cards? Is the guy going to get killed? So far, so average-horror-short-film. But then I saw the ending.

For their unusual technical/practical achievements, Phil Hawkins’ The Flying Lesson and Ashley Michael Briggs’ The Search for Inspiration Gone deserve a mention. Hawkins’ film is set on a restored WWII biplane, which was flown for real to get various shots. Ashley Michael Briggs’ short looks like a bona fide early silent film. He laboriously shot on film, using 1980s stills cameras, and then scanned the film negatives into a computer. This creates an unusually handmade feel.

After the screenings there was a more-informative-than-usual Q+A with the films’ directors. When the questions from the audience dried up, the host (a veteran short film-maker called Jean-Luc Renaud) drew out useful pointers from the directors on budgets, cameras, and film festivals.

As a film fan, it was good to see so many people at the screening and queuing for the other events on offer. Well done to the producers and directors – it looks like it was an encouraging day for them all.