Star Wars: The Force Awakens (JJ Abrams 2015)

_1443544274and so anyway it turns out that the best thing about Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2014) is not the way tumbleweed blows across the Tatooine desert when Simon Pegg makes his desperately unfunny ‘Rey gun’ joke, nor is it the revelation that the ‘home’ Han is so glad to be back at is the one in which his grandkids have dumped him, where he rooms with Bruce Campbell’s Elvis and Ossie Davis’s JFK, no, the best thing about the new Star Wars movie is the eighteen months of misdirection during which Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill straight-up straightface lied about the next Jump Street movie cross-over being with the Men in Black franchise…

The Drop (Michaël R. Roskam 2014)

the-drop-tom-hardyand so anyway it turn out that the best thing about The Drop (2014) is not that we get to see James Gandolfini in action one last time, nor is it the reminder of quite how good a writer Dennis Lehane is, nor is it the way that it confirms that the sole motivation left to men in contemporary cinema is protecting or revenging their dogs, as in Equilibrium, I Am LegendThe Rover, John Wick (and presumably John Wick 2) and the Fast and Furious franchise (let’s face it, Paul Walker was basically Vin Diesel’s adorable little stray), as well as Human Target on the telly, no, the best thing about The Drop is every single scene in which Tom Hardy picks up young Rocco (or Mike, as he would have preferred to call him) and it becomes  impossible to decide which is the cutest puppy of all…

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Fehér isten a.k.a. White God (Kornél Mundruczó Hungary 2014)

whitegodIf you like dogs, and you like revolution…

If Jupiter Ascending has whetted your appetite for films in which a girl and her dog fight against tyranny and longueurs…

Trailer

White God begins with a beautifully composed aerial shot of a major Budapest intersection. The streets are deserted. A tiny figure cycles up onto the flyover.

It has a familiar eeriness to it – like the deserted Waterloo Bridge near the start of 28 Days Later…, but without the graininess, the obvious digital compositing. And, shot from so far above, it is as much about the construction of urban spaces and the ways they channel us as it is about the shocking emptiness of this particular space at this moment.

The cyclist – a young girl, Lili, maybe thirteen years old – passes an abandoned car, its doors wide open, and descends into the city streets. Through intersection after intersection. Patient, determined. As if searching, cautiously and with trepidation.

Then the dogs appear.

Dozens of them.

Running.

Not from something, but toward something. With purpose.

They barely even notice her.

The film leaps back a few weeks. Lili’s mother and her partner are off to Australia for three months, so she is left with her father – once a professor, now a meat inspector at an abattoir, dishevelled and disgruntled. (He is inspired by David Lurie, the protagonist of JM Coetzee’s Disgrace (1991)). Lili insists on taking her dog, Hagen, with her.

The tension between estranged father and daughter soon focuses on the dog, culminating in Hagen being abandoned by a busy roadside.

The film then follows two paths.

white god-feher isten-zsofia psotta-hagenAn oh-so-arthouse mildly prurient exploration of the occasionally sexualised Lili’s pubescent struggles – with her father, with older teenagers from the orchestra in which she plays trumpet – as she tries to find Hagen and ultimately reconciles with her father.

And the story of Hagen’s life as a stray. He is befriended by a dog_THUMB-1418155236944scruffy terrier, who teaches him about life on the streets, how to find food and water and shelter. How to avoid the city dogcatchers. Le barkour. But Hagen is eventually caught and sold into the world of dogfighting.

In the arena he quickly learns the horrible cost of this so-called sport.

Soon, Hagen finds himself in the dog pound, facing a lethal injection. He rebels, rather bloodily, and frees the other dogs.

He is Barktacus; they have nothing to lose but their chains.

The canine uprising has begun.

A lot of the criticism the film faced after winning the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes last year has to do with the supposed murkiness of its metaphor. This is typical of critics who don’t quite get how fantasy works, and who are incapable of finding value in the fantastic until they have translated it into the mundane. What exactly do the dogs stand for? They don’t have to stand for anything. Let them just be dogs; they will accrue meaning(s) regardless.

In complaining about the purported failure of White God‘s symbolism to symbolise some particular thing clearly, critics unwittingly clamour for an unambiguous one-to-one allegorical correspondence between manifest and latent content. Which is precisely what they would complain about if the film actually did do something so lunkheaded. That would be like  valuing Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) so highly solely because it is a roman à clef of the Bolshevik revolution and the emergence of Stalinism, rather than because it is also much richer and more ambiguous than that.

Kornél Mundruczó has cited a range of sf influences – Alien, Blade Runner, Terminator – although his film probably comes closer to Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972). He inevitably mentions Bresson’s Au hazard Balthazar (1966), and more surprisingly the films of Fassbinder and of Sirk:

For me, White God and All That Heaven Allows is the same story. Both discuss how society confines and forces people to behave.

The genius of Sirk’s film is to move between the constraints faced by a middle-aged widow and the repressiveness of an entire society. Mundruczó’s film is perhaps less successful, but the alternation between the two narrative strands creates a similar critical resonance. It is about race and about immiseration and about state power and about the tyranny of free markets; about family, gender and generation; about species; about surviving and providing and being better than the unhomely world we daily build will allow.

It is also about crossing The Incredible Journey (1963) with The Birds (1963) with Zéro de conduite (1933) or, better yet, Hue and Cry (1947), and throwing in a little Pied Piper of Hamelin, so as to rework, as its anagrammatical title suggests, Sam Fuller’s White Dog (1982).

Does it work? Not quite. But that did not keep me from enjoying loads of it, mostly the doggy parts.

Some might complain about the film’s typical liberal substitution of a vague warm fuzzy feeling for the coherent revolutionary politics it is incapable of imagining. But it is a film that functions primarily on an affective level. There is so much simple joy to beb9114194-0ea0-4e19-8aa1-312cd5d19455-460x276 found in seeing dozens of dogs, all different sizes and shapes and colours, running freely together, in fast motion and slow, that the image of revolution undergoes a quite radical transformation – it is violent and scary, but it is also comical and energetic and charming and delightful, as any worthwhile revolution must surely be.

And almost incidentally it does have some good politics in the mix. According to dog-trainer Teresa Miller, the two dogs playing Hagen don’t quite understand that they are dogs, and so simply did not get that they were supposed to be leading the pack. So although Hagen runs near the front of the pack, he never leads it. He is no Bane, which helps keep the canine rebels from becoming some clumsy reactionary representation of Occupy or Indignado or Tahrir or Syntagma, and which helps keep him unmuzzled. white-godAnd the film ends in media res, not with a Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) memorialisation of an already foreclosed future but, like The Birds, with the future still open … and if Hagen and his dogged comrades can just get to the horses, the cows, the sheep, the birds….

Note While leaving the cinema, I was momentarily thrown by the end credit I thought read ADDITIONAL CATS.

The final post, honest, on Jupiter Ascending (with hints of Fifty Shades and Star Wars)

in which the author finds himself attempting self-reflection, which is not, as you know, his strong suit…

0d25976623564ed7fbaa2169ae7c7774After my single-sentence review and longer post, various folk sent me links to blogs saying positive things about the film I had not considered, such as this piece by bootleggirl.

It contains a whole bunch of things I think are problematic.

First, and probably  least relevant here, is the great, and mostly American, tradition of demonising Mormons – I have always found Orson Scott Card hateful and tedious, and am familiar with the many criticisms of the Twilight books and movies (without reading or seeing them), but blaming all that is wrong about them on a religion is just lazy thinking. I am no fan of religion, organised or otherwise, but at least I understand that religions are complex shifting phenomena, and that people have complex shifting relationships with their religions.

Second, the equation of negative criticism of the film with sexism and transphobia. I have no doubt that transphobia does play a role in the treatment of Lana Wachowski – bootleggirl seems to have specific examples in mind, my only evidence is that we live in a much-too-often really shitty world full of loudmouths and assholes. And I will return to the question of sexism in a while. But I am not certain that recognising these factors makes the film any more coherent. (And there is the question of what is meant by incoherence. It is not as if the narrative is hard to follow; it is, after all, a pretty linear, one-damn-thing-after-another action-adventure. It is more that the thinness of the characters and the compression of what was presumably a three-hour cut makes motivations unclear/unconvincing and reduces the story-world to a series of flat and largely indistinguishable backdrops. The lack of chemistry between the leads also does not help make any of it seem to make sense.)

Third, the array of assumptions made about Lana Wachowski. Although, on the other hand, I think bootleggirl does a good job of demonstrating how adopting a trans perspective can change our understanding of the film. Suddenly, the sequence in which a camp robot leads Jupiter and Caine through the labyrinthine bureaucracy necessary for Jupiter to be declared queen becomes something else. It is no longer a misjudged and tiresome homage to Terry Gilliam (himself as frequently tiresome as he is misjudged) into a wry representation of the difficulties faced by trans people in gender-binaried and gender-binarising bureaucracies.

But there are a couple of important things in bootleggirl’s piece, both of which brings us to sexism in the response to Jupiter Ascending.

The first is bootleggirl’s attempted regenrification of the movie away from its marketing image. It is not a space opera for boys, like Guardians of the Galaxy (Gunn 2014). It is about ‘space angel werewolf boyfriends’ with antigravity rollerskates, and thus obviously

a member of the female-targeted romantic fantasy genre – stuff like City of Bones, Beautiful Creatures, and yes, Twilight.

I’ve seen none of the movies bootleggirl gives as examples, and I am way more True Blood than Twilight (at least until the fairies showed up), though admittedly not someone who could ever really understand the appeal of Bill or Alcide, especially not with Eric around.

But this makes me curious about the extent to which the film’s delayed release was also about cutting it, post-Guardians, in an attempt to ‘normalise’ its gender appeal (i.e., make it play more to the boys, albeit not very successfully). The female friend I saw it with, who enjoyed Guardians more than I did, also enjoyed Jupiter Ascending more than I did. But then afterwards was slightly appalled at herself for being swept along by the romance narrative.

Jupiter Ascending reminded me of NK Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (2010) not just in terms of similar story elements, but also in my response to it. It is a novel I liked well enough, but not sufficiently to read the rest of the trilogy or to understand why it got all those award nominations. It was all a bit too bodice-rippery for me. (The same friend read my copy in a single sitting and immediately tracked down the sequels; and looked at me like I was mad when I first made the comparison.)

Bootleggirl is very clear on this point: Jupiter Ascending is ‘a female fantasy. It’s not anti-feminist.’ Again with the problems. Female fantasies are not monolithic. The ones in this film are not shared by all – or even most? – women. Just because it is a female fantasy it does not necessarily follow that it is not also anti-feminist. Not all women are feminists. Feminism is not monolithic. Neither is anti-feminism. Both take many forms.

But I am reminded of a point made by Anne Bilson about the Twilight movies

it seems to me that Twilight attracts a lot more vitriol than any other nonsense aimed at the young male demographic. … reviews of such boy-tosh may be predominantly negative, but the tone is not so much derisive as regretful at opportunities wasted. No matter that movies aimed at boys feature superpowers or super-robots or saving the world with super-ninja skills. Those sorts of fantasies are permissible, almost cool, even when the films peddling them are awful. … But Twilight caters to the sexual fantasies of teenage girls. I’m not saying in a good way, but at least it caters to them, and there’s not a lot else at the cinema that does – not in a young adult fantasy genre that invariably reduces females to also-rans or decorative sidekicks while the Harry Potters and Lightning Thieves get on with their questing.

Angie Han makes some similar and related points in her ‘Partial Defense of Fifty Shades of Grey’.

I’m not sure, but these approaches seem to me to be one way to deal with the sexism in such high-profile female-centred, female-created and/or female-targeted movies: try better to understand their appeal to often largely female audiences; try to leverage any analysis, complaints or critiques into the broader problem of the everyday and widely tolerated sexism of most cinema (not just content, but distribution, exhibition, reception). And we need to question and challenge the boy-tosh in similar ways

Which brings us to the second thing in bootleggirl’s post that set me pondering:

do not critique this movie by bringing up whether Jupiter is empowered. I’ve spent substantial time on another forum where largely male folks compared Jupiter unfavorably as a heroine to Princess Leia in Star Wars episodes IV and V. Even leaving out the metal bikini scene, Leia gets upstaged as the “leader of the Rebellion” as soon as Luke shows up, and like Jupiter, her exercise of power is primarily in conventionally feminine ways like giving orders or resisting pressure techniques, rather than shooting guns. Yes, Leia is slightly better at hand to hand combat than Jupiter, who has space werewolf fallen angel boyfriend to protect her. … I find this critique especially galling from people who loved Guardians of the Galaxy, the film that notorious feminist Joss Whedon was involved in producing where the female characters are good at fighting but also completely reduced to sex objects for men.

4766351833_c999af8d08To be frank, I am always mystified by this widespread reading of Leia, who rapidly goes from feisty to uppity to domesticated over the course of the three movies. Her story arc is one of humiliation, of a woman being put in her place. Regardless of what she does, that is how the films treat her. And let’s not forget, her supposed feminist credentials in the first movie are at least as much about the exercise of class privilege and whiteness. But it does seem de rigueur to genuflect before Leia, or at least before this presumably male fan perception of her.  ( In class last autumn, I mentioned Guardians‘ undermining of Gamora (Zoe Saldana) by the way the camera repeatedly leers at her arse. Male students, presumably intentionally catered to by such shots, genuinely seemed not to have even noticed them; but a lone female student did speak up, saying that was the only reason she enjoyed the film. Which made the ensuing discussion a lot livelier than it might otherwise have been.)

2116419.jpg.square-true_maxheight-285_size-285All of which made me think some more about my own liking for and championing of Emily Blunt’s Rita in Edge of Tomorrow (Liman 2014) and, to a lesser extent, her Sara in Looper (Johnson 2012).

Because when male fans are the ones judging the supposedly feminist credentials of female characters we could well be in serious trouble. Especially when the feminism invoked is so one-dimensional and non-specific as ’empowerment’ – a term that always was pretty vague and has become utterly devoid of actual meaning.

211996120It puts feminism(s) in the past, and treats the social realm as an even playing field in which magically empowered individuals swim while others sink and have no one to blame but themselves. Whatever its uses in the past, ’empowerment’ is now mostly a lickspittle, running dog discourse that leaves patriarchy and neoliberalism untroubled, and the action heroine ceases to be a feminist icon (however problematic) and instead become just another masculine fetish item.

Which is not to say that feminists and other women cannot make important use of them. But when they become such toys for boys to fight over, they also become a way of avoiding feminism(s) entirely.

(Trust me: I’m a boy, we pull this kind of shit all the time.)

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)