From the School of Subtle Manipulation

There is a wounded stranger in the music room of Mrs Farnsworth’s seminary, a Union soldier from Ireland, a deserter with a leg wound, a man, not exactly young, but handsome. What to do? He is a Yankee, they are all from the South, so shall they hand him over to the Confederate troops nearby, or should they do the Christian thing and dress his wounds first? Mrs Farnsworth herself, the head teacher Mrs Morrow and the five pupils all feel an undercurrent of fear because that deserter might bring the War to their school, a war they watch every evening through a telescope from the upper balcony of their mansion, and they see the black plumes of smoke just beyond the treeline. Sometimes the boom of cannon-fire can be heard. That’s the situation at the beginning of Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled. It’s a must-see, because who tells stories about groups of girls or women better than Coppola? The movie is set in Virginia in 1864, but it resembles Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides (1999) in more ways than one. Continue reading

Between Us and Them, the Middle Ground Wins

Zombies in themselves aren’t that interesting, are they? If they don’t want to eat your flesh and slurp your brains, they just stand around rotting and smelling badly. Some of them walk slowly, others are able to run towards you. There are some who learn a thing or two, like climbing a ladder after you, or bashing a glass door in with a heavy rock or their own head. That’s about it. The key, then, to rather long-running series like The Walking Dead, or to movies like 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later is that those stories are all about the living, who are the survivors in some post-apocalytpic world with scant food and shelter and safety, where they are the endangered species, and mostly vastly outnumbered by zombies. Yes, sometimes the zombies get the living, but it’s also the living who seem to be very good at killing each other off when pushed into a corner like that. Humans have become a minority. It’s a metaphor that every audience member immediately understands. Continue reading

An Amazon in her Prime

Wonder Woman gets Wonder Woman right. Princess Diana of Themyscira, daughter of Queen Hippolyta and mighty Zeus, speaks her mind and does what she damn well pleases. In this movie, she wants to end World War I singlehandedly. She talks freely about slavery and freedom and the duty to fight for the weak. And boy, can she kick ass. Sometimes she is serious about fighting because there are civilians who need saving, but there are a few moments where she seems to enjoy combat, and she has a little glint in her eyes, just like Errol Flynn did before another bout of swashbuckling. It’s just that Wonder Woman deserves a better movie than this one. Continue reading

Genocide by Xenomorph? Discuss.

Alien: Covenant is a notch better than Prometheus, maybe two, but it still leaves much to be desired. The main problem, for me anyway, lies not within the film, but outside it. My main complaint is this: I am no longer afraid of the Xenomorph and its many manifestations. Oh sure, I am going to lose my shit for a moment at a jump scare (they are named that way for a reason), but even facehuggers and new-born chestbursters don’t do it for me anymore. I might suffer from what Mr Thirith calls Alien fatigue.

The thing is that with CGI, you can produce any and all Alien creatures, moving any which way, for any lenght of time; but just because you can doesn’t mean you should. In Alien: Resurrection, it became clear that the Xenomorph can even outswim humans. That is pretty much the opposite of what the very first Alien film did: Ridley Scott couldn’t show Giger’s Alien longer than a second or two because it looked clumsy and artificial in its movements. Scott also refused to show the Alien in the first 60 minutes of the film. What you hear is almost always scarier than what you see because your brain will make up stuff out of your worst fears. And don’t you agree that the very first Alien film is the scariest of them all?

It also seems like Covenant doesn’t quite trust its own scariness. There is a chestbursting scene involving Billy Crudup as the weak ersatz captain Oram that harks back to that classic John Hurt moment; there is a facehugger jumping out of an egg onto someone’s face; and there is the moment where they try to find that beacon and find it in a gigantic crash-landed Prince Albert-ring-shaped spaceship. It wouldn’t be a proper Alien film if all of those scenes were missing, but here, they are shot in such similar ways like they wanted to make sure that even the slowest of movirgoers realizes that this is just like the original. It’s the cineastic equivalent of cutting and pasting, and it smacks of cheapness.

Apart from showing us too many incarnations of our favourite beastie for too long, Alien: Covenant has other weaknesses. None of the characters is given enough time to develop some kind of personality, except for Walter (Fassbender) and Daniels (Waterston). While Katherine Waterston does what she can with her role, she certainly is nowhere near Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, so if any of the crew die (burned, speared, shot, decapitated, incubated and so on), why should we care? Their mode of death seems more important to the movie than their being a live character. On the other hand, there is Fassbender in a double role, but that device is undermined by an absolutely foreseeable trick.

There is, however, a magical moment between Walter, a latter generation synthetic, and David, his predecessor. David is stunned by the fact that Walter has not been given the ability to create, and so he teaches him to play the flute. Other than that, the screenplay doesn’t do anyone any favors. Interesting actors such as Carmen Ejogo and Amy Seimetz are simply used as Xenomorph fodder. And it’s a shame if the movie credits Noomi Rapace if she only gets to sing Country Roads. Come to think of it, John Denver is probably scarier than the Xenomorph.

Don’t take it personally, it just ain’t your story

I grew up roughly during the last dozen years of Apartheid, in a country that lived up to its tradition of supposed neutrality covering up business connections to an unsavoury regime. I faintly remember people boycotting Granny Smith apples and, somewhat less faintly, Eddy Grant’s song “Gimme Hope Jo’anna”. What I remember most from those times, though, is Cry Freedom, a 1987 film that zeroed in on the human cost of Apartheid: the exile of a liberal, middle-class white journalist and his family from their chosen home of South Africa.

Oh, and there was also something a corrupt, racist police apparatus torturing and killing the black activist and community leader Steve Biko.

Selma isn’t like that.

Selma

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We are family

In the past I’ve called Hirokazu Koreeda’s films “gentle”, which is perhaps a misleading term. It makes the director and his works sound soft and pleasant and, well, sort of nothingy. Which is giving both them and the adjective short shrift – these days especially, both on and off the screen, we could do with more gentleness. It also suggests that it’s easy to underestimate Koreeda and his films, because doing what he does – and, more importantly, doing it well – is exceedingly challenging. Koreeda’s films have an uplifting humanity that is sadly rare, not just in cinema.

Our Little Sister

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The one with the talking raccoon

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is one of the most likeable films in recent years. It’s definitely the most purely fun film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) since, well, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1. It is funny, it has personality, and it is eminently quotable. Almost every scene has at least one great line, and that’s not even mentioning the visual humour the film excels at. It’s almost impossible not to like the movie.

Reader, I liked it – but I wanted to love it, and I didn’t.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Guardians Vol. 2 does so many things right. It takes the fun ensemble of the first film and builds on it – and this extends to some of the henchmen, sidekicks and minor characters from the first film. It avoids the mistake common to the MCU of generic villains who are uninteresting as characters and who don’t reveal anything about the protagonists either (even if Marvel does return to the well of daddy issues a bit too often, perhaps). Visually it continues the trend of Dr. Strange of making these films look good instead of mediocre and blandly competent, and there’s genuine wit to some of the film’s humour. Continue reading