The Heart of a Dog

Laurie Anderson’s musings on poetry, politics, death and zen buddhism are woven together by reflections on her dog, Lola. I know how that sounds – self indulgent, rambling and oh so Californian. But it all kind of hangs together, with Anderson’s lilting, soothing voice and sketches floating over you until you think, “yeah, I could do yoga daily on the beach”.

I’m a hardcore atheist so Buddhist teachings are not my thing, but I found myself writing down many of her phrases. And maybe crying a bit:

“Animals are like people. They approach death and then back away. And you don’t have the right to take that process away from them”.
“We had learned to love Lola as she had loved us, with a tenderness we didn’t know we had”
“You get your story and you hold on to it, and every time you tell it you forget it more”

The Library Suicides

A Welsh library film! I don’t think there is a list of Welsh Library Films, but this would probably top it. It centres on twins Ana and Nan (both played by Catrin Stewart), daughters of a local writer Elena, who falls to her death. With her last words she whispers “it was Eben.” When the aforementioned Eben arrives at the national library in Aberystwyth where the twins work, to sort through Elena’s material to write her biography, the twins plot revenge.

The film takes place over one night as the story of Eben and Elena unfolds during the twin’s plan. The affable night guard Dan becomes embroiled in the mayhem also. We are repeatedly told than Ana and Nan are palindromes, but in case we missed it, “and Nan” is also an anagram of Dan Ana.

It features some nicely framed shots, but then twins wearing identical clothes, moving in sync is almost cheating cinematically for a structured image. It makes some comments on the nature of identity, memory and the role narrative plays in the construction of the self. Ultimately it’s like a long version of Hinterland, and that’s no bad thing.

2016 film review

Continuing my not-edtech related end of year roundup, as well as trying to read a book a week, I tried to see a new film weekly. This was largely successful, but they weren’t all cinema trips so the film may have been delayed somewhat from release, and I didn’t get around to seeing lots of films I should have (eg Nocturnal Animals).

In general terms, like most years but even more so, this was a crap sandwich, with good stuff at the start and end, but a real mess in the middle. Even the blockbusters were exceptionally awful. Batman vs Superman, Independence Day 2, Suicide Squad – these were like Donald Trump’s toilet, flashy, expensive and full of shit. But if comic book movies continued to be devoid of any value, there were some other genres that fared quite well: horror saw some atmospheric, taut, films with secondary interpretations (The VVitch, Blackcoat’s Daughter, Don’t Breathe, Green Room). Animation began to emerge from Pixar domination, and quirky, whimsical indie movies provided blessed relief (Captain Fantastic, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Sing Street).

Because I’m not adverse to an end of year list, here’s my top ten:

Hateful 8
The VVitch
The Big Short
10 Cloverfield Lane
Eye in the Sky
Son of Saul
Hell or High Water
Captain Fantastic
The Blackcoat’s Daughter
Rogue One

You’ll probably have seen most of these, but the Blackcoat’s Daughter (aka February) may have passed you by. I loved it – moody, brooding horror with an amazing score, it deserves to be better known. A special mention for turkey of the year, the truly, truly, awful Zoolander 2.

Increasingly I found it difficult to watch films in isolation of the context of the rest of 2016. I couldn’t get behind the “the best of New York came together” message of Sully in a year of Trump and Black Lives Matter. I couldn’t pretend Eddie the Eagle represented a version of Britain I could identify with after Brexit. And I couldn’t watch Son of Saul and flatter myself that it could never happen now. Even Rogue One had some people rooting for the Empire. I get the feeling this will be a recurrent theme in 2017.

Rogue One

The summer releases made it apparent that creating blockbusters that are not steaming piles of crap, is strangely difficult for Hollywood. And so it is with a sense of relief almost that we get Rogue One. It’s almost perfect for what it is – an action sci-fi flick with just enough depth. This issue of depth and surface plagues sci-fi and comic book adaptations. The summer pile up of disasters all suffered from wanting to have more depth than their flimsy structures could contain (Batman vs Superman really can’t make us think about the duality of Christ, particularly in the hands of Snyder). Ironically the best (it was a low bar) of the summer films was Star Trek Beyond, which was all surface. This was a shame since Star Trek has a legacy of being able to tackle philosophical issues with a deft touch.

The original Star Wars came at the end of the golden age of sci-fi, when in cinema and literature it made a case not to be seen as a genre, but as the defining mode of engaging with the zeitgeist (the Rogue One poster deliberately harks back to this period and is a thing of beauty). Star Wars itself was the weak one in this charge – it’s simplistic sword and sorcery in space didn’t compare with the headscratching of 2001, or the novels of Brian Aldiss, Asmiov, Frank Herbert, etc. But over the years this balance has served it well. There’s enough detail in the Star Wars universe to give people points of reference and fans to develop theories, but it’s generally about entertainment. Apart from the prequels. It learnt the lesson that comic book adaptations are learning now with those – don’t go thinking you’re Noam Chomsky.

So, on to Rogue One which is sort of Episode 3B. It has a good lead pair in Felicity Jones and Diego Luna, some solid back up characters (particularly the ultra cool Donnie Yen), and even a sardonic robot that manages not to be annoying. It follows a classic narrative – band of misfits on an impossible mission, that we know not many of them will survive. It is more space western than space fantasy. It’s real delights are the hooks into the original episode 4, including a CGI’d Peter Cushing and life on the Death Star scenes (although not in the canteen). When it ends with the opening scenes of A New Hope you almost want to cheer in recognition.

A funny thing happened after A Force Awakens – everyone went to see it, had a good time, and then came home and realised it was just Star Wars redone. They felt cheated, and cynicism set in. But that is to mistake the purpose of the series. The point of Star Wars is the enjoyment of cinema. And that is a difficult thing to realise, and should be cherished.

Sully

Soon after “the Miracle on the Hudson” you knew they’d make a film about it. The problem was that the actual action wasn’t long enough for an aeroplane disaster movie. They take off, birds, strike, and within minutes they’re landing on the Hudson. It’s impressive but it’s not a ninety minute movie. Eastwood’s movie overcomes this central dilemma by making the aftermath the central focus. Sully, played in straightforward Hanks mode, is accused of making the wrong decision. The insurance company have simulations to prove it. From here it’s a courtroom drama with plane disaster flashbacks. The film makes itself.

It is, of course, well done – Hanks and Eastwood are a guarantee of a certain level of quality, and throw in the real human drama and this will have been one of the punts movie execs can predict to the dollar what it will return. So, in terms of a Sunday afternoon movie that diverts, I’ve no complaints. It is the attempt to make it something more that rather grates. There is a Schindler’s List style epilogue where we see the survivors and real Sully. There is also a schmaltzy “New York came together” type monologue. That stuff just sounds hollow now, in the Trump days, a naive message of unity that collapses on its first inspection. Feel good is going to have to work a lot harder now.

Kubo and the Two Strings

This movie had “hipster fave” written all over it. Stop motion animation against all that CGI nonsense is like roasting your own coffee beans versus buying instant. So, I was obviously prepared to hate it. But it’s absolutely charming. It has its own style and a light touch throughout. Unlike hipsters it doesn’t take itself seriously, and yet manages to be moving and thought provoking. And the images are beautiful. It mixes different influences from Japanese art to Greek mythology and Disney animation, effortlessly and without needing to highlight them for you. The sidekicks are wry and amusing without being annoying – every other animation might want to take note of this in particular.

Nearly all films carry a meta-message. Even when they don’t. Taken is really about fear of foreigners and male white supremacy. It just looks like an action flick. Jaws is about three aspects of masculinity. The Thing is about having tendrils spin out from your face. What Kubo is about is the power of storytelling. The plot concerns this literally as Kubo spins stories from his two strings, but also in the medium. “Look” all that stop motion implores you, “we are constructing narrative here with our bare hands and narrative is powerful”. This is both a timeless message and one with particular currency.

But, then maybe I’m just a hipster.

Sing Street

John Carney’s story of New Romantic coming of age in 80s Dublin is a sweet, charming treasure. The film follows Conor as the recession causes the break up of his parents marriage and his transfer from a private Jesuit school to the rough Catholic local one. Here the misfits form a band, primarily to impress the cool and aloof Raphina, by telling her she will star in their video.

This is all fairly conventional plotwise, but the film differs from some of its contemporaries (such as the Commitments and Good Vibrations) by choosing the early days of music video as the focus, more than the music itself. I recall hiring a VHS video camera to shoot a birthday video for someone’s 21st, and filming was still a novelty back then. People would stop and ask what you were doing, with this cumbersome, but professional looking piece of kit. Early music video was quite punk in its ethic, and as this film reminds us, so was the New Romantic movement. There was a just do it, DIY ethos to both components of teh music industry then which Sing Street captures perfectly. It also avoids falling into the “oh, isn’t it a craic” cliches of Dublin.

It is worth seeing for the wisdom of Conor’s older brother, Brendan. For instance “No woman can truly love a man who listens to Phil Collins”. It may not have the most original plot, and it can veer towards the Disney Rebel Radio type school rebellion at times, but it’s a delightful film.

Anthropoid

This is a worthy war film, recounting the story of the assassination plot on SS General Reinhard Heydrich, the main architect behind the Final Solution, the “Butcher of Prague”. It’s realistic, firmly plotted and well acted, with all the ingredients of an old-fashioned war movie – the noble hero, love in the time of conflict, the coward and pretty straight up Nazis we can all hate (well, I say, all, but no doubt some magazines will run nice features on how well they dress).

What is really at the core of the film however are the moral dilemmas inherent in taking action. Assuming it is right to assassinate Heydrich, is it still worth it when you know someone else will take his place? What is the actual impact of this action? This is complicated when the effect on the lives of those who help the plotters is considered, and those of their families. And then is it still moral to continue when the Nazis threaten to execute 30,000 innocent people?

The film explores these dilemmas carefully, but without detracting from the main action. In so many movies the noble self sacrifice is foregrounded, but this is relatively easy to make. What fascist regimes rely on is the preventative measure of executing others. This is a very efficient technique – with one action it prevents further insurrection, makes cooperation unlikely, and increases mistrust. It shifts the moral dilemma from the oppressor to the resistance, and they are the sort of people who are likely to be bothered by a conscience. That’s why they’re not part of the oppressor’s machinery to start with.

Trump? I didn’t say Trump. Why would you even raise that?