Category Archives: film reviews

The spectre of Tom Cruise hangs over the latest Bond film

fectreA taped message. An agent forced to go rogue in his battle against a secretive globe-spanning violent criminal gang.  His boss initially pursuing him, but by the end getting out from behind the desk and getting his hands dirty.  Confused talk about democracy. An extremely beautiful and much younger European woman at his side, potentially seducing him away from all the violence and the killing. They go the secret lair in North Africa, and this is followed by a shoot-out on the banks of the Thames, with the baddies including moles-and-traitors-within-M16…  The forces of, well, good force, prevail.

Yes, Mission Impossible 26, with the indesctructible Tom Cruise wasn’t bad, earlier this year.  And the Bond film ‘Spectre’ was fun too, following a formula that doesn’t bear too much thinking about.  It’s one of those film you enjoy at the time (if you like fist fights, car chases, explosions and gorgeous European women) but dare not think about for more than a few seconds afterwards, in case the enjoyment evaporates like mist when the sun comes out.

How long can Daniel Craig keep it up? How long does he WANT to?  Will Lea Seydoux be back?  All questions I won’t think about for another two and a half years, till the next one comes out…  By then, Greengrass and Damon will have produced Bourne 4 (filming now!) #dontfuckitupplease

Verdict: If you have 3 hours of your life (including trailers and adverts) that you want to throw away, then go for it.

The Martian – From Whitey on the Moon to Whatney on the Mars….

In July 1969 Richard Nixon didn’t give a speech. It would have gone, in part, like this:

safire-moonFate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.
These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice. These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.

The precaution of writing the speech for the president to give was sensible; Neil Armstrong himself thought that there was only a fifty per cent chance of landing safely on the Moon.  Still there’d have been a consolation for him and Buzz – “For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.”

Ridley Scott has made a movie, based on a novel of the same name, that poses the question ‘what if’.  But instead of it being whitey on the moon ,as Gil Scott Heron would have it, this is (Astronaut Mark) Whatney on the Mars, as played by Matt Damon, previously rescued at great expense in Saving Private Ryan and…oh see this

“The Martian”  is a palpable middle-brow hit, and it’s been quite a while since you can say that about a Scott film, after the disappointments of Prometheus, Exodus:Gods  and Kings etc and other ones we’ve all wilfully forgotten.  You have to go back to Gladiator for a proper crowd-pleaser, and Thelma and Louise for something to think about.  As with those films, it has exquisite photography, pacing, performances, score and dialogue; a treat for the eyes and ears.

There is a (white) optimism here – a sense that humans are still in charge of their (galactic) destiny, and that London and New York, the Atlantic dumbbell, are still the places from which you can show crowds of people watching big screens and have it pass as a synecdoche for global attention (there are some Chinese folks thrown in for ‘balance’.)

The gleaming Hermes that the astronauts travel to and from Mars (aka Wadi Rum) in, with its well-equipped gym and living quarters, is not the grungy not-out-of-place-in-Middlesbrough spaceship the ‘Nostromo’ , from Scott’s 1979 hit Alien. The corporate control comes later in Scott’s universe, though of course, The Martian must be set later than the tech-noir decay of Blade Runner, explicitly dated as 2019.  It’s a big universe.

The state we are in

That means that states still matter. It means that there is no competitive bidding process to send Whatney some new potatoes a la Space X. (There’s at least an undergraduate thesis to be written on potatoes in fiction –   originally brought from the ‘new World’ by Raleigh, and now to the new New World by Whatney.)  And, touchingly, it means that when things fuck up (and they do) then there is a clear line of blame (though the head of Nasa, Teddy Sanders played by Jeff Daniels is at turns both a buccaneer and career bureaucrat, a responsible innovator who needs an occasional nudge.  And, touchingly, when he gambles and loses, he seems not to suffer carer-wise).  We are a long way from the grubby and fatal reality of 1986 NASA , when they chose under perceived congressional pressure they chose to launch Challenger even as engineers working for Morton –Thiokol were begging them not to.  Somewhere along the way, somehow, lessons have been learnt. Or so we like to tell ourselves.

While the larger real-politik is gone, we are left with helpful Chinese and references to money and need for congressional approval, to keep the space programme going (the need to spread Federal largesse was what meant the booster rockets for the Space Shuttle needed to be built in different US states, and then be held together by fateful O-rings. Such are our articfacts. This was not new, even then; crtiiques of NASA’s funding date back to the 1965 book “Moondoggle”.

As Tom Lehrer put it

“What is it that put America in the forefront of the nuclear nations? And what is it that will make it possible to spend twenty billion dollars of your money to put some clown on the moon? Well, it was good old American know how, that’s what, as provided by good old Americans like Dr. Wernher von Braun!”

Basically there was a tacit agreement between scientists and the money-men about JFK’s Man on the Moon bid – “we will take your money, knowing that manned missions are scientifically barren, but politically essential.  So we will shut up about that, and the money will keep flowing.”

But I really have digressed, haven’t I!? This is essentially a  ‘no man left behind’ tale of (uncommon) valour and redemption, a tale where, to hell  with the cost, Americans are not left to die in foreign hell-holes, (see also Scott’s ‘Black Hawk Down’) combined with the good old American know-how and toughness of Robert Heinlein’s Space Cadet

The advantage of this is it allows us all, producers and consumers alike, to sidestep all the awkward questions about the military motives of space exploration – dominance of the high frontier, rods from god, networks of panspectropic surveillance.

The ‘ethics’ of space exploration get a glancing reference with the notion that planting crops somewhere makes that land yours (really?). They missed a trick by not naming one of the characters Bradbury, for the author of the brilliant “the Martian Chronicles.” One chapter of that “Way in the Middle of the Air“, which deals with the racism of the South, “was eliminated from the 2006 William Morrow/Harper Collins, and the 2001 DoubleDay Science Fiction reprinting of The Martian Chronicles.” [source]

The new saviours

maroonedIn the forgotten 1969 Marooned  (a guilty pleasure) and the forgettable 1998 Armageddon the necessary help-meets to American supremacy are the Russians.  But the times they are a changing, and on this occasion it’s the Chinese who come through with the goods and, it is implied, are rewarded with a seat at the table on the next Mars mission.  It’s a new world.

There are various ‘cheeky’ references to both fact and fiction within what is a witty script.  Teddy gets all meta/self-referential when exhorting his engineers to cut time horizons a la ‘the difficult we can do straight away, the impossible takes a little longer’. There’s the requisite science geek who saves the day with his cray-zee idea that Just Might Work (somehow didn’t get arrested by the cliche police). There is an impossible reference to Apollo 9   (no-one who worked on that would still be around, would they?) in the film, but nothing to the entirely predictable fire that killed three Astronauts in Apollo 1, the Challenger or the death-by-powerpoint of the Columbia in 2003.   Personally I was waiting for the whole thing to have been filmed on an Arizona sound-stage by Stanley Kubrick, a la Capricorn One, but that would have been a level of meta too far perhaps.

Verdict: See this film, it’s (red) bubble-gum for the mind. Probably no more  intellectually fertile than un-shat-upon Martian soil, but so what.  Climate change is coming (even if it isn’t in the film).  And we need to dance and drink and see dumb movies….

Still to (re)see, read etc
Dark Star (1974)
Moon (2009)
Gravity (2013)
The Mars Trilogy of Kim Stanley Robinson

Films on a Plane – Nightcrawler as neoliberal parable

Night Crawler

You should see this film. Especially if you care about understanding noeliberalism and its consequences for those who perpetrate it and those on the receiving end.

Jake Gyllenhal is brilliant as “Lou Bloom” (the name is a joke – there is nothing fertile about this guy, he drops toxic leaves all around him). We first meet him stealing chain link to fence (sorry about that). When caught, he checks out if the guard is private or a cop. It’s the former, and he beats him up. Nothing is made of it, but this sums up Lou- he has an (un)healthy disregard for boundaries, and cool calculation of precisely what he can get away with.

Lou then stumbles into the world of freelance cameramen who prowl Los Angeles for clips of people (preferably white) who are bleeding from accident and violence. The clips can then be sold to the voracious beast that is cable news (“if it bleeds, it leads”). The rest of the movie charts his rise. Bloom is a Horatio Alger for the 21st century, having imbibed all the homilies and bromides about reinvention, self-marketing and flexibility that are neoliberalism’s mantras and dogmas. He is a relentless and clever manipulator and shape-shifter, akin to the liquid metal Terminator in Terminator 2. Here though, there is no vat of molten metal to dissolve him. He probes weaknesses, leverages strengths and knows how to defend himself from the state when necessary, how and when to use it to his own advantage. He is of course the very embodiment of neoliberalism.

While skirting self-parody near its climax, the film is definitely up there with other great films about the role of the media and image in constructing reality (I am thinking Network, LA Confidential and Series 7: The Contenders).

Los Angeles has rarely looked so bleak, so alienating and alienated. The breathless media clips are pitch perfect, and Rene Russo brilliant as the news editor who doesn’t realise until it is too late what she is dealing with.

Also in the “identity” business is a German techno-thriller called “Who Am I – No System is Safe”. It is competent, entertaining and not worth thinking about too deeply (unlike Nightcrawler!). It twists and turns but is ultimately “The Usual Suspects” meets “The Matrix” via “The Edukators” (A 2004 German film about the ‘activists’ who… re-arrange people’s future.)

Such a pity to see a director who was as good in his day (Heat, Collateral) as Michael Mann delivering dross that looks like it has been shot on my video camera. Mann has always done steely competent men being steely and competent, with criminality and stylised gunplay as demonstrators. When it worked, it was exhilarating. This starts well enough – with a nuclear reactor being hacked and sabotaged, Chinese military intelligence wrangles, and the hacker-in-jail trope. But it soon becomes whack-a-cliche, with the squared jawed American and his tiny Chinese love interest, absurd gunfights with no apparent consequences in terms of paperwork (there is ALWAYS paperwork). There are signs of re-writes on the fly, and that irritating thing where because someone is good at skill x) (computer hacking) they suddenly are also good at skill y) (shooting people).

Behind it all of course is the head henchman and the Dr Evil character. The actors do well enough, but the script is alternately flabby and portentous, the plot preposterous. It tries to be Jason Bourne does the Matrix, but ends up more Mr Bean does Johnny Mnemonic. I fast forwarded chunks of its 2 hours and 13 minutes, and don’t think I missed anything.

Films I fast forwarded/abandonded

“I Kissed a Girl” – A gay French guy ‘converted’ by hot Swedish babe just before his wedding. Hilarity ensues, at least in a parallel universe where this film wasn’t  quite so obvious. Engaging performances can’t save something trite and shallow.

Men’s refuge (or some such)- German comedy about three men hanging out, each with their Own Secrets. Managed 20 minutes.