The Films I've Watched This Year #16

Film Short list this week because I was (a) ill with the tummy bug which has been going around (really do try and avoid this one, it's very, um, liquidy) (I lost half a stone in two days), (b) watched the Don Giovanni from the Royal Opera House from BBC Four on Sunday (because the only way to support Tony Hall's art initiative is to watch some of it), (c) finished off the incredibly stupid seventh series of 24 ("Dammit Tony!") and (d) began the even stupider series eight ("Dammit Renee!") then (e) tonight sat down with the not strictly a film because it was made for Court TV, Guilt By Association.

Guilt By Association continues my old blog commitment to trawl through actress Rachel McAdams's back catalogue.  It's a 2002 campaigning "film" about mandatory minimums, the US law which in drugs-related cases means everyone gets the same sentence even if they all they did was take phone messages and even if they didn't know that the caller was a dealer or customer.  Mercedes Ruehl stars as a widower with two kids who knows her boyfriend is dealing "a little pot on the side" but not knowing the extent of his business finds herself facing twenty years in the women's penitentiary.

Essentially it's what you'd imagine Orange is the New Black would be like ten years ago.  Lesbianism is implied once and only as a "kind of hospitality" and there isn't much room for gallows humour.  McAdams plays one of the few friends Ruehl has, a suicidal young woman who also picked the wrong boyfriend ("I didn't know the chemicals could be used to make methamphetamine" she says) and generally spends most of her section of the film looking pasty and crying (as you might expect given the circumstances).  She's transferred out of the jail before we find out what happens to her character.

Bits of this are unintentionally funny not least the overwrought opening in which a domestic scene straight from A Christmas Story is invaded by police extras in armour who look like they've stormed into the wrong film from 24 (cut to digitally zoomed close up of Ruehl's astonishment face as she's pinned to the ground) and the man playing the Georgia lawyer who fights for her pardon sounds like he's learnt his accent from watching Matthew McConaughey films.  Nevertheless, thanks to Ruehl good performance, the conclusion is still extremely effective for what this is.

Pacific Rim
The Usual Suspects
The Burning Plain

As long as you watch Pacific Rim in the spirit of what it is, which is Guillermo Del Toro directing a Westernised anime on a massive budget in live action, it's extremely good fun.  Pity a lot of critics and most of the audience seemed to miss that.  As a good installment of Battle of the Planets or Pole Position it really works.  Del Toro wanted to make a film about Mecha fighting Kaiju.  He made a film about Mecha fighting Kaiju.  He even calls them that in the bloody film.  Yet everyone seemed to go in expecting something, what, more complex?

I'm on the defensive again.  But honestly, how can you not love a film which essentially has Idris Alba doing Luther but in command of giant robots?  Has Ron Perlman doing that?  Has Burn Gorman of all people recreating Lee Evans's performance in Doctor Who's Planet of the Dead in a film which essentially recreates the plot of Doctor Who's Planet of the Dead?  Yes, it's stupid, yes, as the Cinema Sins video notices the whole thing could have been resolved without the need for the Mecha in the first place but damn if the flashback dream sequence doesn't redeem everything.

Like this week's trailer choice, The Burning Plain's a bit of a monster to write about in terms of spoilers.  How much to reveal?  How much is too much?  Have you heard of it?  I hadn't until I realised it was in Jennifer Lawrence's back catalogue and she's in there with Kim Basinger and Charlize Theron playing, erm, roles.  It tells the story of some people and there are some things which happen because of a burning.  On a plain.  The title has a number of meanings.  Is that too much?  No I think that's enough.  Don't look at the Imdb or the Wikipedia whatever you do.

All of this is because the film's main power is due its flashback structure which plays on how much knowledge we have of the characters and how well we pick up clues to locales and action in realising how they're connected to one another and where they all fit together within a definite timeline, sometimes deliberately misleading us.  It's written and directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu's collaborator Guillermo Arriaga which explains its spiritual similarities to 21 Grams, Amores Perros and even Babel which also work best when the viewer having as little knowledge as possible beforehand.

Lawrence is arguably as compelling here as she is later in Winter's Bone but it didn't make her a "star" yet presumably because the film as a whole wasn't well received.  Rotten Tomatoes shows an amazingly harsh 35% with spoilery reviews from critics who to a person give away one of the films central mysteries and entirely dislike the puzzle structure because it appears to make them think too much.  Even Ebert, bless him, missed the point, which I won't reveal now.  Maybe some other time.  But needless to say of the slim pickings this week, this is the one I'm recommending.

Having had to watch Traffic multiple occasions for my MA Screen Studies dissertation, the prime example of hyperlink cinema that it is, it's near impossible to enjoy it as a simple piece of entertainment now, though on this occasion, as part of watching all of Stephen Soderbergh's films in order, I did notice that the patter between Luis Guzmán & Don Cheadle's cops clearly glances back towards Out of Sight, Catherine Zeta-Jones is pretty much playing a middle-class Erin Brockovich and the Dawson's Creek junkies material is even less convincing now.

The Star Wars Canon Explodes. Again.

Film Yes, alright James, it's "canonical". But I couldn't think of another post title. A couple of days ago, someone tweeted Del Ray Books, the US publishers of the Star Wars novels to check:

Which is fine. Makes sense. Except until, as and its commenters notice there's stuff in those novels like Owen Lars and Obi-Wan being brothers which are flat out contradicted internally within the books, plus there's a bunch of stuff which refers to the EU which has just been tossed into the Sarlacc Pit. The beleaguered social media attendant, when faced with this logic banthadepositstorm ended up issuing this clarification:

In other words, no, no the novelisations aren't canonical unless you draw a line through anything which isn't actually in the films. Um.

To be fair to @DelRayStarWars, they're not entirely incognizant of the irony inherent in their job. Example:


"The real winner is the pie."

TV Sometimes watching a main news programme on any of the channels, for all the dayglo sets and sunny dispositions of the presenters can be a depressing shame. The BBC utilises The One Show as a kind of silo for the stories which they don't deem cutting edge enough for the 6 or 10 o'clock, but there's a general lack of balance and a sense that unless someone's died, seriously injured or a politician it's not news.

Ironically BFBS News, currently on the Information TV channel on satellite offers a counter approach. While it's true it offers its fair share of what you'd expect, there's also a useful genre of sunnier stories, in which service personnel are seen doing good turns or with good things happening to them.

Presented generally by Kate Gerbeau (formerly of Five News and Watchdog and formerly Kate Sanderson until she married the man synonymous with the Millenium Dome), there's just a greater sense of offer the whole human experience.  It's very rare that the kinds of things which do balance the main news like arts and culture updates are pushed out of the edges as they often seem to in the mainstream.

Here's a link to a classic piece of BFBS whimsey from last night. It's about the Great British Pie Awards, an event with the 6 or 10 or national BBC News in general would never cover and worth watching at least for the resident expert whose intense interest in both the competition and pies makes it impossible for you not go want to go out and buy once straight away. As he says, "The real winner is the pie."

The whole programme is available to stream here as are all of BFBS's programmes.

Painshill Suffra.

Film To local news and a report that Painshill Park in Surrey is being utilised as a setting on Suffragette:
"Mike Gove, chief executive officer of Painshill Park, said: “We were delighted to chosen as one of the settings for the filming of the Suffragette movie. With 158 acres of diverse landscape garden, Painshill is a fantastic film location which can be used for both modern and period productions.”
It's worth clicking this for the final paragraph which makes the thing sound like a Bourne film.

The Feeling Listless Soundtrack 1.0:
Just Like Fred Astaire.

Written by James
[from: 'Millionaires', Mercury, 1999]

Music  He sweated everywhere. Jeans, T-shirt, Jacket all wet with the salty liquid, soggy with no clear way of drying himself out in this atmosphere, humid and steamy. The bench at the edge of the makeshift dance floor was low and uncomfortable. His knees were in front him, higher than his waist, his hands resting on them, his feet tapping in time with the drum-ridden rubbish that was being played, rubbish which had been in the music chart at sometime. Although not a drink had passed his lips all night, he couldn't think straight. He was tired, excited and jealous all at the same time.

Next to him, a bespeckled man glasses was comparing tongue length with a half- burned blonde. His eyes were close, as though he didn't want to realise that she was only kissing him between sips of lager and puffs of a half burnt cigarette, both of which she held with the hand that wasn't making the lonely dance under the T-Shirt of her 'stand' for the evening. It was a compelling sight. The other side, a woman a few years older than him, in a large, floppy maroon hat, seemed as bored as he was as she glanced at her watch. It was close to midnight. This was her celebration after graduation, but the friend she had come with had disappeared into the crowd with an ex- boyfriend. He thought better of striking up a conversation - the idea of screaming some half-hearted questions about courses over the loudspeaker which hovered above them, wasn't very appealing. He continued to sit and sweat.

Cigarette smoke wafted through the air, mixing with the fibres of his clothing. He thought of the launderette visit which would follow on the Monday, and the owner, who sat strangely, in the shadows, making dribbling noises occasionally. Unknown to him, the graduate had also been there once and a faulty machine had eaten her favourite leggings. Which why she was wearing odd ones tonight - pink and black, green and yellow, they clashed desperately, but worked - somehow.

She got up and disappeared into the dancing mass, as did the tonsil twins, still joined at the mouth. He waited hopefully for some Rock. He could Mosh very well, but anything would be better than this hell on vinyl which was making his heart beat irregularly. He crossed his legs, closed his eyes and placed his head on the wall of the stage. He was going to ride this out.

When he opened them, time seemed to have stopped, all movement being held stationary, apart from one thing. Just in front, glazed in blue light, danced an apparition. Her body seemed to become the source of the music, not just ebbing and flowing with it. Nothing about her was that different from her fellow dancers. She was quite short - shoulder length brown hair. A stripy-blue tank top extenuated a ... generous figure. Though he was all too aware of her, she was only aware of the music - her feet sliding her across the dance floor, until the world she lived in eclipsed a party light.

It felt uncomfortable and excited. He knew he was staring, but his eyes would not leave her. What was she thinking? What memories were hidden under the hair which was hovering her hair and rapidly covering her whole face. He ran his fingers through his hair and she repeated the action, the strands disappearing behind her shoulders.

The drums ended, the synthesizers died. Time began again. The small pocket of reality she occupied that he had invaded disappeared. She smiled at some at some friends at the other side of the hall and disappeared into the crowd. He smiled broadly and stood up to rejoin his friends, who were crashing into each other drunkenly on the other side of the hall. He tried to join in, but it was only half-heartedly. The reality he had just experienced, which he had not asked for was infinitely better than the reality had chosen [Originally written over a decade ago].

[Commentary: The "gift" which keeps on "giving". For some unaccountable reason this is now the fourth occasion this has been posted on the internet, once on the website which came before this one, then in 2003 when I was desperate for something to publish one night then again during Review 2006 as part of an answer about my sexuality.  I'm not sure there's much else to say about it other than that the memory is still vivid, or at least the perfect version of it which is reflected above.  The piece was originally written in the late 90s too.  Some of the punctuation is horrendous.]

This BBC Radio 4 Extra Life.

Radio BBC Radio 4 Extra is presenting selected reruns of old episodes of This American Life from across its history from this weekend:
"We will be broadcasting a selection of the much celebrated US series on British radio for the first time. Selecting the best of this rich pool of programmes was a difficult task, so I asked colleagues on Radio 4 and Radio 4 Extra, all of whom I knew were devotees, to suggest what they thought would sit comfortably on the network alongside the drama, the fiction, the comedy and show off the breadth of This American Life. The final 13 we settled on are just the tip of an impressive back catalogue.

"Taking a theme each week Ira Glass and his team at Chicago Public Media weave interviews, stories, and music to take us on an intense journey into the lives of ordinary and extraordinary people and situations. This American Life experiments with a different way of telling stories. Listeners who have not heard Ira Glass’s quirky style before may find the pace a little unusual but it is that slow reveal, that ability to dance around a theme, to catch you unawares that is so captivating. The layers of people’s lives are peeled away and the exceptional and seemingly mundane become as vivid as a great movie or a great American painting."
Presumably the idea was to choose episodes that are less current affairs heavy, covering more universal themes.  If the ratings are good enough it might convince them to simply run the programme as broadcast on an ongoing basis.  Or at least a few more people to subscribe to the podcast.

The Force is Strong in this lot.

Film As Doctor Who's off season really begins to bite, it's good to know a certain other sci-fi franchise is knocking out announcement after announcement. You will have read this already, but just but in case you apparently don't read any other websites (Hi Francis) here's the news we've all be waiting for about who's going to be in the next Star Wars film:
Actors John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, and Max von Sydow will join the original stars of the saga, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, and Kenny Baker in the new film.At present the page at is inaccessible, so
I've cribbed that from Bleeding Cool instead.  By any stretch of the imagination that's an amazingly strong cast and if you're going to relaunch a franchise who's previously released installments were less than stellarly received this is the way to do it.  They've pulled an Eccleston in other words.  Let's talk through them a bit shall we?

John Boyega.  First screen credit was supporting in the remarkably good Being Human online/red button spin-off which was in its own way more interesting than the parent series in its later series (he's the bloke talking to Adam in the dining hall scene in the above episode).  Most likely to recognise him from Joe Cornish's film Attack The Block.  He's in four episodes of the new 24 series, and has done the National and Tricycle but he's essentially the unknown in screen terms.  The new Mark Hamill in other words.

Daisy Ridley.  No idea.  Doesn't even seem to have a wikipedia page yet.  Yahoo News has had a glance around online, mainly at her imdb profile but she's the really interesting choice, not least because she's (and this is the main disappointment about the announcement) only woman listed that isn't Carrie Fisher.  She's the new Carrie Fisher then.

Adam Driver.  Rumoured to be playing the villain which everyone assumed at one point would be Grand General Master Thrawn person until the EU was blasted into who knows what.  But yes, Adam Driver off of Girls and two minutes of Inside Llewyn Davis which stars ...

Oscar Isaac which is the massively impressive choice especially if he's allowed to do the schlubby thing from Inside Llewyn Davies.  He's currently my favourite new actor.  As I said when reviewing the Coens film: "the charm of the young Pacinos, Goulds and Hoffmans, owning the screen, out compelling even John Goodman in the scenes when Goodman should be in ascendancy.  Not only can he sing, but his adeptness in physical comedy has elements of Tati, especially in the cat scenes.  Seriously, this is one of those occasions, like Renner in The Hurt Locker when we're in the presence of a star of the old school and want to see everything else they do."  He just needs to be be boxed in playing some admiral or something.  Hopefully he'll be a kind of son of Han Solo figure.  In other words, the new Harrison Ford.

Andy Serkis chalks up another mythic franchise.  Everyone'll assume this is a mo-cap job but he's a fine actor otherwise and it'd be great to see him taking a duel role.

Domhnall Gleeson.  For all About Time's inherent problems, Gleeson wasn't one of them doing a pretty good job of playing Hugh Grant's avatar in a script clearly written with the younger version of him in mind.  Previous with Potter and Dredd so subtly another franchise traveler.  Hopefully Abrams is using some imagination and Gleeson's playing Adam Driver's partner in crime - seems odd to have in the hero role somehow.  The new Peter Cushing, if you like.

Max Von Sydow.  Which is basically trolling at this stage.  Older Obi-Wan figure?  Supreme Chancellor?  The new man in charge of the imperials?  Could go either or any way.

Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, and Kenny Baker.  Yes indeed.  Presumably their roles will be rather more reduced than the first film, mentors all.  Apart from the droids.  Part of me wishes they weren't there, that this whole thing was set even further into the future, a break from the everything, but I expect after Star Trek recast everyone, Abrams just simply wants to work with his childhood heroes.  Can't argue with that.
Director J.J. Abrams says, “We are so excited to finally share the cast of Star Wars: Episode VII. It is both thrilling and surreal to watch the beloved original cast and these brilliant new performers come together to bring this world to life, once again. We start shooting in a couple of weeks, and everyone is doing their best to make the fans proud.”
Which is the point of all this.  Abrams's tone is far more conciliatory than Lucas with his like it or lump it attitude.  He's desperate for us to want to like these films as well as bring in the money.
Star Wars: Episode VII is being directed by J.J. Abrams from a screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan and Abrams. Kathleen Kennedy, J.J. Abrams, and Bryan Burk are producing, and John Williams returns as the composer. The movie opens worldwide on December 18, 2015.
Except, and here's the massive problem which everyone seems have slightly forgotten.  There is no story.  I mean Lucas apparently had nine episodes planned out way back when, but Jedi is a full stop.  Timothy Zhan managed to launch a whole bunch of new stuff, but like it or not, those six episodes tell a pretty clear story that follows the rules of drama, the fall then the rise.  Paradise Lost.  Paradise Regained.

The ideal story has what were the rebels, in other words the heroes essentially having become jaded by having become the rulers and find themselves ultimately becoming as authoritarian as the imperials.  In other words, Luke and Leia have unwittingly become the antagonists and the story is about a new rebellion against them, perhaps led by Han who at his heart is still an anti-establishment figure.  That's drama right there.

Of course an audience would never accept that, even though there's a beauty to history repeating in Luke and Leia still following the destiny the Emperor had in mind for them even though they're still under the impression that what's become an autocracy is still the ochlocracy they presumably hoped it would be.  One of the ironies of Jedi now is that they're essentially fighting for the resumption of the bureaucracy which led to the Clone Wars happening in the first place.

Plus it screws the merchandising possibilities.  So we'll probably have Luke training younger Jedi at an academy administered by Leia, unless she's the Queen or some such with Han in charge of what was the old rebellion still mopping up pockets of Imperial resistance as a new darkness enters the galaxy.  Oooh, ooh, hold on I've just had an idea...

Abrams essentially remakes Star Wars but flips everything over.  So Adam Driver plays a Luke figure but instead of learning about the Jedi he becomes a Sith Lord instead at the behest of evil old exiled Max von Sydow, ironically hiding on Tatooine and they join a resistance that's grown out of the Imperials and at the end of the film they somehow strike at the heart of the New Republic or whatever its called.  It's Star Wars: A New Doubt everyone.

"with more inertia"

Life id magazine offers its usual sad indictment of Generation Now:
One Saturday, a week or so ago, a friend invited me to dinner. There were five of us and, having eaten, we were stumped as to what to do next. Not that we didn’t have any options, of course; but rather too many. We sat around the table, tapping at phones in broken silence. Facebook invites and group texts all said the same: this pub, that club, party etc. And nothing was even approaching just quite right.

"This inertia soon resolved itself in the way that inertia tends to: with more inertia. Soon the clock had struck 12, we were six bottles in and with each glass the options were propelled away further and further, like stars in distant galaxies. The vino began to tap the brakes of conversation. A friend picked at the corner of a label of a wine bottle. A universal truth shone through: if we were going to make a big night in of it, music was needed. Except - shock, horror - the internet was down."
Unfortunately I can somewhat sympathise, not with the internet down bit, I think I could and have probably managed) but the rest. As I've said recently here and elsewhere with everything available, how do you make a choice?

Perhaps that's why, as Adam Batty of Hope Lies At 24 Frames a Second notes the act of viewing movies has become "an infinitely-lasting box-ticking exercise" something which could be applied to all culture.  Used to be availability limited the decision making process.  Now without that we're doing it ourselves by working through lists, at least that's how I'm doing it.  Of course now the problem is in choosing the list.  Once I've completed the Cinema Sins selection and the Sight & Sound films of 2013, what after that?  Perhaps we need a list of lists.