The Reef (Andrew Traucki 2010)

The-reef-poster-2010jpgand so anyway it turns out the best thing about The Reef (2010), a based-on-a-true-story shark attack movie, is the side betting on the shark’s or sharks’ (it remains unclear) taste in television when it/they eventually show up; will it/they go for the actors who’ve been in Neighbours first, or those who’ve been in Home Away, or the one who has been in both, or the one who has been in neither but was one of McLeod’s Daughters?

The Wicker Tree (Robin Hardy 2011)

MV5BMTkyNzkyODE5N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjUxNzIxNw@@._V1_SX214_AL_and so anyway it turns out that the best thing about The Wicker Tree (2011) is not as I initially thought its ability to transform those memories of the Nicolas Cage Wicker Man remake into fond memories of the Nicolas Cage Wicker Man remake, but its ability to make you realise that they were always fond memories…

So what would have made Jupiter Ascending work?

It lacked certain elements that we need to market a film successfully. … Suspense, laughter, violence. Hope, heart, nudity, sex. Happy endings. Mainly happy endings.
It lacked certain elements that we need to market a film successfully. … Suspense, laughter, violence. Hope, heart, nudity, sex. Happy endings. Mainly happy endings.

Since posting my single-sentence review last week literally (and very precisely) more people than I can count of the fingers of one hand have asked me this question. I would have thought the answer obvious, given the content of my review and the cunning way it replicated the film’s structure by interminably concatenating random elements until it was finally time to just give up and end on a damp squib.

In reply, I could go on about the ill-thought-through galactic setting, undoubtedly made even more incoherent by frantic pruning so as to enable one or two more screenings per day during the opening weekend before bad word of mouth completely killed any box office. I’m not asking for the well-argued space opera universe of Samuel Delany’s Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984), and I’m actually quite fond of the really dumb single-climate-planet ‘moons of Mongo’ style of sf universe if you give me some reason to give a damn about what happens on them. But it’s not unreasonable to want something at least as good as The Chronicles of Riddick (Twohy 2004).

I could go on about the stupid plot, also undoubtedly pruned to even greater stupidity, but plot has never been a Wachowski forte. Neither has pacing, as the swimming-through-cold-molasses Matrix films amply demonstrate.

I could even suggest that film really needed – I don’t say this lightly – to be longer. A little less rushing around might have given those cgi worlds, the main characters and the even-thinner ciphers surrounding them the chance to take on substance and identity. Fore-ordained plot functions might have developed into something resembling characters and relationships. Which might even have led to jeopardy and thus suspense.

Lumbering Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) and Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) with each other was a major casting error. At no point is there a trace of chemistry between them – not even early on when he sweeps her up in his arms, and absolutely everybody in the cinema got a little bit swoony. (I am mildly appalled and thoroughly delighted by my own swooniness at that juncture. It was, for all its embossed supermarket romance paperback cover illustration claptrap, the one moment in the film that for me possessed a genuine affective charge – and not just because I have always loved dogs.)

One could respect Jupiter for not falling for such claptrap if it had been part of some sort of consistent characterisation about resisting sex/gender norms. But it wasn’t. Last year both Guardians of the Galaxy and Edge of Tomorrow possessed a strong female character – Zoe Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and especially Rita (Emily Blunt) – who was more interesting than the male lead but not permitted to be the protagonist (there is a far more brilliant version of Edge of Tomorrow to be made with Rita as the viewpoint character). With Jupiter Ascending we at last have a stupidly expensive blockbuster sf movie with a female protagonist – and her main functions are: a) clean toilets for rich people; and b) repeatedly step aside to let the male lead become the protagonist. And rescue her. Again and again and again.

But what really makes Jupiter Ascending suck is its humourlessness. It pushes the gaming aesthetic to a new level, linking sequences of fight-and-flight kinetic spectacle with passages of connecting narrative as leaden and joyless as the worst cut scenes.

Sure, it does have one witty moment, which also makes Jupiter briefly credible and likeable as she explains the injured Caine’s good fortune in stealing a woman’s car, and it has four other amusing moments (which I won’t describe because I really can’t remember what they were).

But that is all.

I am not one of those people who thought that Guardians of the Galaxy’s lightly comic tone was a major development, but it certainly helped. Nor am I demanding every space opera be a work of camp genius, such as Flash Gordon (Hodges 1980). I would even have welcomed all that witless lumbering around if Jupiter Ascending had been as absurdly certain of its own significance as is Zardoz (Boorman 1974) or Dune (Lynch 1984) or even Star Trek: The Motionless Picture (Wise 1979). At least then Eddie ‘The Whisper’ Redmayne’s moment of metalepsis, when he steps out of the narrative to explicate the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it anticapitalist subtext, would have generated the hoots of derision it deserved.

But a little humour would certainly have transformed the relationship between Jupiter and Caine, a genetically-engineered human/dog hybrid, into something less painful to watch and far more credible.

Why does he fall for her? Because dogs are easily won over by attention and affection. Because dogs are loyal. And because dogs are often really really dumb.

Why does he keep rescuing her? Dogs love retrieving things – sticks, balls, princesses, whatever – and are often really really dumb.

And just imagine being in that audience when Caine did good and the camera swooped round behind him to reveal – to laughter and cheers and applause – his little tail wagging.

I for one would have swooned all over again.

Still more on Jupiter Ascending here.

Jupiter Ascending (Wachowski siblings 2015)

Jupiter-Ascending-Channing-Tatum1and so anyway it turns out that the best thing about Jupiter Ascending (2015) is not that Meg’s name suddenly makes you flashback to all those Alfred Hitchcock presents The Three Investigator novels you read as a kid; nor is it Channing Tatum being, yet again, so much better than the film he is in either warrants or deserves; neither is it ditto Sean Bean or Nikki Akuka-Bird; nor is it watching all those respectable British thespians hamming it up in exchange for filthy Hollywood lucre; nor is it that the film looks so pretty, though it does; nor is it the comforting familiarity of the Wachowskis’ inability to construct a plot (except when James M. Cain did it for them decades earlier); nor is it the profoundly reassuring sense of your own embodied existence provided by the Wachowskis’ inability to pace a film (be honest, The Matrix is a good 40 minutes longer than it needs to be just because someone somewhere was scared folks wouldn’t understand what was going on, a fear cast aside in the sequels, with their more purely modernist and thoroughly interminable commitment to durée); no, it turns out the best thing about Jupiter Ascending is none of these things at all, but instead the sheer audacity of the title’s claim that not the entire film but merely its ending is complete and utter arse…

(more on Jupiter Ascending here)

Goon (Michael Dowse 2011)

l_1456635_028a4d17and so anyway it turns out the best thing about Goon (2011) is not that it recalls George Roy Hill’s Slap Shot (1977), though it does and that is generally a good thing, more or less, but no, it turns out the best thing about Goon is every single fucking frame of it in which Seann William Scott, the most underrated actor of his generation, appears…

Mr Skeffington (Vincent Sherman 1944)

mr-skeffington-movie-poster-1944-1020418969and so anyway it turns out the best thing about Mr Skeffingon (1944) is not tittering at the name of the conceited beauty and all-round awful Fanny (Bette Davis), but the sequence right at the end, after she has been brought low (through ageing, a medically dubious bout of dyptheria and some grotesque Perc Westmore makeup) and to the point of accepting the truth of her estranged husband’s words (‘a woman is beautiful when she’s loved, and only then’) just as he, Job (Claude Rains), returns from a Nazi concentration camp – a worn out broken man – and they are able to reunite because he stills loves her and, more importantly, as him tripping over a footstool reveals, he is now blind and cannot see that she is no longer beautiful and so she does not have to learn any kind of moral lesson whatsoever…

Carrie (Kimberly Peirce 2013)

Carrie_Domestic_One-sheetand so anyway it turns out the best thing about Carrie (2013) is the moment when you remember that back in 1988 the Royal Shakespeare Company decided it would be a good idea to blow the best part of $10 million on a flop Broadway musical version, but it turns out the very worst thing about it comes a moment later when you realise you would much rather be in the stalls, singing along and soaked in pig’s blood…

Z is for Zombies

Zombies are to us as we are to what we could be.

Zombie narratives try to make us side with the worst of us against the most of us. (Accumulation by) dispossession shall be the whole of the law.

Zombies are the twenty-first century’s bomb-throwing anarchists, its beardy dirigibilists raining incendiary terror from the air. Destroy destroy destroy so a new world will rise from the ashes. But, as always, the destruction is welcomed by the architects of perpetual immiseration. Ultimately, the zombies work for them.

Zombies who struggle to retain or regain their humanity lack ambition. When zoe is all you are, why settle for the same old bios?

Zombies are metaphors, and zombie metaphors hang around long after they should have been shot in the head. Beat ’em or burn ’em, they go up pretty easy.

Wrapping Up Hellboy’s Penis: del Toro, disability, The Devil’s Backbone and Blade

Guillermo del Toro, by Carlos Chavira
Guillermo del Toro, by Carlos Chavira

This is the promised follow-up post to  ‘On Hellboy’s Penis’ and ‘On the Back of Hellboy’s Penis: Pacific Rim‘ . Once it is out there, I will stop using the words ‘Hellboy’ and ‘Penis’ in close conjunction to clickbait y’all.

One of the curious features of Guillermo del Toro’s films thus far is that they all contain characters with disabilities or who become disabled through injury in some way during the course of the action – most often people with legs that are damaged or only partially functional. This ranges from De la Guardia (Claudio Brook), the billionaire villain seeking immortality through the eponymous device in Cronos (1993), who lives in a sterile environment and spiders around on a pair of crutches to signify his waning powers as a form of castration (but also because at least since Shakespeare’s Richard III ‘being crippled’ signifies villainy), to the  Republican guerrilla who, injured by fascists, has his leg amputated in El laberinto del fauna/Pan’s Labyrinth (2006).

Although such characters are usually not particularly well thought through, what makes them interesting is that they are often situated among monsters, which by their very nature raise questions about what are considered normal or normative bodies and abilities.

devilsbackbonethe_640x360Far and away the most interesting of these characters is Carmen (Marisa Paredes) in El espinazo del diablo/The Devil’s Backbone (2001), who runs a remote boarding school/orphanage, sheltering the children of those fighting for the Spanish Republic or whose parents have been killed by the fascists. A woman in her mid-fifties, she regularly has sex with Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), a handyman half her age. She has no feelings for him – it is just a matter of her sexual pleasure – and he goes along with it in order to gain access to her set of keys, one of which will unlock the hidden safe in which she stores gold to fund the Republican cause. She also has lost one of her legs at the knee, and we several times see her remove or replace her prosthetic lower limb.

Jacinto finally blows up the safe, only to find it empty. Later, Carmen’s body is found among the rubble, the gold concealed within her artificial leg. It is a fascinating image, this gold among the rubble, this hidden fold within which treasure is found, this older sexual woman who is not at all an object of repulsion or criticism.

***

Blade (Wesley Snipes) can be understood in terms of disability (he is part vampire and thirsts for blood because of this condition, for which he self-medicates) and of extra ability (he is a vampire, with all the powers that implies, but he is unaffected by sunlight). In the Blade (Norrington 1998), a film in which del Toro was not involved, a potential genetic cure for Blade’s vampirism is extrapolated from experimental treatments for sickle-cell anaemia. Blade ultimately refuses it, in a heavily coded moment that is also all about staying black. In Blade II (del Toro Blade-Wesley-Snipes12002), the vampires conduct genetic experiments to ‘cure’ themselves of their inability to go out in daylight.

Blade’s peculiar situation – a person with a disability, a person with superpowers – is really useful for beginning to think through superhero narratives, which, whatever else they might do, profoundly relativise ability. As Scott Bukatman wrote, in an essay on Superman and Spider-Man (among others), ‘Through the superhero, we gain a freedom of movement not constrained by the ground-level order imposed by the urban grid’ (188). That is, only the superhero is adequate to the environments we build for ourselves; the merely human – regardless of ‘ability’ – is not.

References
Scott Bukatman, Matters of Gravity: Special Effects and Supermen in the 21st Century. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.

This post and the related ones, ‘On Hellboy’s Penis’ and ‘On the Back of Hellboy’s Penis: Pacific Rim’  are extracted from ‘Disability, Monsters, Utopia: Some Lessons from Guillermo del Toro’, delivered at Disability Studies/Science Fiction, Universität zu Köln, 28–29 November 2014. Thanks to Olga Tarapata and Hanjo Berressem for the invitation to participate, to Ria Cheyne and Margrit Shildrick for their supportive comments, and to the captive audience of grad students for asking so many questions.

Some version of it might appear in a book on monsters I am thinking about writing (cos, you know, they love to fund research leave for stuff like that).