A Damn Fine Cup of Culture Podcast #6: The Last Jedi

d1ad56da-abce-4afe-9f45-79294aede9e3Tune in for episode 6 of A Damn Fine Cup of Culture podcast, which returns us to a long time ago (all together now!) in a galaxy far, far away: what did we think of The Last Jedi? What role did that mega-franchise play in our childhood? And has Rian Johnson ruined or renewed Star Wars? Also, some thoughts on The Leftovers – the novel, not the series – and on Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer.

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The legend is dead – long live the legend

It’s been a while since Star Wars had the ability to surprise me – and in part that was its appeal: being the galactic equivalent of comfort food. Pop in a Star Wars episode and you generally know what you get, namely an epic fairy tale with farm boys destined to greatness and cloaked space wizards of the good and evil variety. You get secret weapons blown up after a one-in-a-million plan pays off. You get grand revelations, redemption and heroics.

The Last Jedi

Along comes The Last Jedi, and guess what – Star Wars has the ability to surprise me again. Continue reading

Fan service, nostalgia and storytelling

When I first heard about Warner Bros. Pictures’ plans to bring the Potterverse back to the big screen with Fantastic Beasts and How to Find Them, I pretty much dismissed those plans as them going back to their favourite cash cow: a decision based primarily on monetary interests. Rowling’s book, published in between the fourth and fifth Harry Potter novels, was more of a sourcebook for the fans, so why turn this into a film – or, indeed, a series of films? For the many shiny sickles and galleons the producers would add to their hoard at Gringotts, obviously.

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Force of Habit

“Remember when…?” is the lowest form of conversation.
– Tony Soprano

Now, I’m far from considering Anthony John Soprano the touchstone of film criticism, but I kept thinking of this particular dictum of his throughout much of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Don’t get me wrong: in almost every respect I consider the movie better filmmaking than the sequels.* J.J. Abrams knows how to stage zippy, effects-heavy action with enough personality so it doesn’t just feel like a VFX showreel. The performances are good throughout, with Harrison Ford bringing more of his erstwhile charisma to the screen than he has in a long time.

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Fighting the franchise funk

Over the last few years we’ve been watching the Harry Potter movies with a friend who lives abroad; every time she’s been over, we watched another one or two of the films, and over the holidays we saw the two parts of Deathly Hallows, in my case for the third or fourth time. As far as I’m aware, the first part fared less well with critics and audiences than the second one, and it’s clear why: it’s definitely the less crowd-pleasing film of the two. Its plot meanders, what big setpieces there are don’t feel as cathartic as the showdown against Voldemort, and a lot of the movie seems to be dedicated to Harry, Hermione and, with some interruptions, Ron hiking, camping and generally looking wet, cold and miserable.

Nonetheless, rewatching the two films, I found myself clearly preferring the first one. Deathly Hallows Part 2 largely works because it’s the end of a journey, but it feels (and felt even when I first watched it) perfunctory to some extent. We need to resolve the different plot strands, we need to bring closure to Snape’s story, we need to dispose of the remaining horcruxes and of Voldemort himself – but little of this feels like it tells us anything about the characters. We know that Harry is brave, Hermione is smart and Ron is, well, Ron, and we also know that the visual effects wizards are great at doing what they do, as are the designers, artists and everyone else responsible for the way the film looks and sounds. After a while, though, setpieces become interchangeable, and while the escape from a fiery Room of Requirement is exciting in the moment, it’s also strangely bland. It’s a Harry Potter movie, of course there would be some chase or fight involving pixel magic, derring do and last-minute escapes. It’s fan service to some extent, but fan service isn’t automatically bad.

It's quidditch time!

However, there are moments in Deathly Hallows Part 1 that are decidedly different, that are quiet and unexpected, that have nothing to do with crowd-pleasing 3D whooshery. The film already starts with some of these scenes, filled with foreboding and sadness, as Hermione for instance wipes herself from her parents’ memories so they’d be safe. It’s a largely wordless scene, not of teary farewells but of loss and poignant resolve. Another scene I found surprising and delighting was the animated Tale of the Three Brothers; and later, as Ron is temporarily off and Harry and Hermione are alone, Nick Cave’s “O Children” plays on the radio, and Harry engages his friend of many years in a clumsy, sweet dance. It doesn’t further the plot, and it doesn’t get the pulse racing with excitement and danger – but it surprised and enchanted this muggle here more than all of the final part of the final part of Harry Potter.

Obviously the Potteriad wouldn’t have worked, or at least been as successful, if all it consisted of were these quiet, unexpected, intimate moments (though it would be intriguing to see someone try their hand at creating the Before Sunrise of the wizarding world) – but for me it highlights both the shortcomings and the potential of big franchises. Many of the fans love the Harry Potter films for the magic and the world, the quidditch matches and firebreathing dragons and wizards’ duels, so obviously these are things by which later instalments are judged. We want what we know, what is comfortable, because that’s how we came to love the franchise. These expectations are reasonable, but they’re also a trap, keeping a franchise frozen like an insect in amber. It’s similar with something like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where we get some variation between the different strands – Iron Man isn’t the same as Captain America, whose pulpy WW2 first instalment and more sombre second film differ from Thor‘s sci-fi/mythology mashup – but we know what we’ll get, namely some good action setpieces, some snarky humour and a band of heroic characters that need to put their rivalries and disagreement aside and come together as a family to defeat some colourful yet dull villain – or, if you’re lucky, Tom Hiddleston.

Loki here!

Franchises are the storytelling equivalent of comfort food: when you want a plate of spaghetti, you don’t want it to surprise you with chopped coriander or shiitake mushrooms or a honey-aceto balsamico reduction with shavings of shock-frosted lamb’s kidney. The line between comfort food and tinned spaghetti is thin, though, and there’s always a risk of that exciting quidditch match or that bit where the Hulk goes smash getting stale, to the extent where you hardly know which particular instalment you’re watching at the time. Franchises thrive on constancy, on giving fans what they want, but they can’t be that and that only if they want to be alive and vibrant. They need scenes like Harry and Hermione’s awkward dance to Nick Cave, just like they need Trevor “I am (not) the Mandarin” Slattery. They need to be willing to withhold the simple, immediate gratification of More Of The Same” at times if they want to be good and not just safe. And there’s potential in exactly this: fans know what to expect, so you can surprise them by playing with the format. The most memorable episodes in TV series (which tend to be prone to becoming formulaic) are often the ones that, once the format has been established, play with the formula: Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s “The Body”or “Once More With Feeling”, House M.D.‘s “Three Stories”,  M*A*S*H‘s “The Interview”. It’s because people know the formula that they see how it’s played with, and if it works, it can create some of the most memorable moments a franchise can afford.

Doing that with an entire film is risky: people who go and watch a Harry Potter movie want to see an adventure for the whole family, with magic and special effects setpieces. Iron Man fans want an action comedy with explosions, flying metal suits and Robert Downey Jr. doing what he does so well. But the safety net of the franchise shouldn’t become a prison. By all means, establish a formula, make us fall in love with the flying brooms, the comic-book villainy, the TIE Fighters and Star Destroyers and light sabres. But use those things as a starting point. Don’t just give us what we already know we want: surprise us and win our hearts again by whisking us into a clumsy, earnest dance to the strains of “O Children”. Because being a franchise doesn’t mean we want to watch the same movie over and over again, forever stuck on repeat.

Light sabres… for kids, you know?

I’m one of the lucky ones – I was a kid when the original Star Wars trilogy came out, so I like the Star Wars movies that it’s okay to appreciate. Like so many boys of my age I wanted to fly an X-Wing or a snowspeeder, bringing down the Empire one AT-AT at a time. I got really good at making bad light sabre noises. It took me a long time to see anything other than A New Hope, because my parents were decidedly uninterested in anything sci-fi or fantasy; I still haven’t completely forgiven them for taping over the original movie the day after we got the Betamax tape from my uncle, recorded from ITV. By the time I watched Return of the Jedi, I still thought that TIE Fighters, Death Stars and raspy-breathed evil space samurai were cool, but Ewoks were just overgrown teddy bears.

I remember the original teaser for The Phantom Menace giving me goosebumps at the cinema. This wasn’t just nostalgia, it was nostalgia distilled, and then the distillation distilled again. It was all the best things from my childhood without the stuff I’d worked hard to forget or repress. It was Star Wars, for crying out loud.

Well, we all know what happened when the prequels came out and millions of nerd voices suddenly cried out in dismay. Let’s face it, though, Teddy Bear’s Picnic should have prepared us for Jar Jar & Co. In any case, if I wanted to write about the disappointment of the prequels, I’d be even more ludicrously late than I am with most of my blog posts.

What I really want to write about is this: that fine distillation of childhood with all its best bits left in exists. And next to Rock Band, it’s the best fun I’ve had with any video game playing with my girlfriend.

Lego Star Wars gets the appeal of Star Wars: its universe is a playground for overgrown kids – but while it’s childlike, it isn’t childish. It isn’t embarrassing the way the Gungans are in Episode 1, nor does it take itself as seriously as the worst moments of Episodes 2 and 3. The trials of Anakin are more relatable when he’s a mute toy figure… and the “I am your father” moment in Lego is simply perfect.

The Lego series of games extended to other fictional universes after covering the Star Wars movies in bric-a-brac glory: there’s Lego Batman, Lego Harry Potter, two Lego Indiana Jones titles… and Lego Pirates of the Caribbean is in the works. The games are all basically the same, with small variations in the designs – but for someone who grew up trying to imitate the roar of an Imperial fighter screaming past your cockpit, it’s the Star Wars game that carry a special magic. And sitting on the sofa, teaming up with my girl to dismantle the Empire brick by evil brick is bliss.

As is the ability to hit Jar Jar with an itty bitty light sabre. Again and again and again…

Don’t stop-

As always, I’m pretty late to the party, so please bear with me as I write about the pop culture event of the year… 2007, that is. “Remember when” may be the lowest form of conversation according to some – but remember when The Sopranos ended on the ten seconds of silence heard around the world?

The Sopranos has been with me for a long time. It has a special place in my heart for accompanying the most important relationship in my life. Even beyond its personal significance, it was the first HBO series I got into – arguably it’s the one that got me hooked and that led to Six Feet Under, Deadwood, The Wire, and so on. And while it had its ups and downs, feeling at times like it had continued past its prime, it is clearly one of the strongest pieces of TV fiction ever, featuring one of the best written, best acted core casts.

In seasons 4 and 5, I felt that while the individual episodes were strong, the series wasn’t going anywhere. The episodes were exchangeable. There wasn’t all that much of a compelling story arc (they should’ve had Christopher writing the series – there’s a man who knows about the importance of arcs). Idiosyncratically named season 6 part 1 (if you want to top that, you need to go to video games and check out Star Wars: Dark Forces III: Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast) was a mess in some ways, but it tried, and succeeded, in getting the series out of its rut. The whole of season 6, but especially part 2 (the final nine episodes, that is), had a sense of purpose: we were spiralling in on the destruction of everything that Tony holds dear, often at his own hands.

“Made in America”, the final episode, ended… strangely. Was it a massive anti-climax? Was it a subtle way of saying that Tony’d been whacked? Was it a “Fuck you!” to the fans who’d been loyal to the series for almost a decade? Personally I’m leaning towards the “Tony’s dead” interpretation myself, since it’s pretty stringent – the strongest argument being Bobby Baccalieri’s line earlier in the season, referring to the moment when you get shot: “You probably don’t even hear it when it happens, right?” A lot of things point, more or less strongly, towards Tony’s violent death.

At the same time, though, season 6 part 2 (paragraph A, line 23) is a season of red herrings. There are several episodes that ratchet up the tension, suggesting very strongly that by the end of it, character X would be dead: Paulie Walnuts, Hesh, Bobby, Christopher. The latter two do end up dead, but only after a bait and switch pulled by Chase. “Made in America” works pretty much the same way, with everything pointing towards that final gunshot – but then we get nothing. Blackness. Silence. “Don’t stop-” indeed. Does it stand for death? Tony’s death? The series’? Or for Chase denying us the closure we want, whether that is Tony getting away with it all or getting the punishment he undoubtedly deserves?

Shrodinger’s Tony aside, though: the episode is perhaps the strongest of the entire series in terms of filmmaking, and the final five or six minutes are a brilliant example of this. I can’t think of many films or series that ratchet up the tension so deftly while showing what can easily be seen as wholly innocuous. Add to that Chase’s usual good hand at picking the perfect soundtrack for this series:  “Don’t Stop Believing” will forever be stuck in my head together with this scene. And cutting off the music when it does? Perfect. What better moment to end than in mid-sentence, right after “Don’t stop”?

Farewell, Tony. Farewell, Carmela, A.J., Meadow. Good bye, Sil, Chrissie, Uncle Jun, Paulie, Bobby, Janice, Livia. Ciao, Dr. Melfi. Many of you were pricks with an over-inflated sense of entitlement – always with the drama! – but damn, if you didn’t make these ten years of TV watching memorable as hell. (Quite conceivably a hell run by the Irish, where every day is St. Patrick’s Day.) Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing-

P.S.: Another nail in the “Tony’s dead” coffin, and one that I find pretty convincing: there’s no reason to end before the entire family’s together, but we don’t get to see Meadow with her parents and brother. If the end was supposed to be open, it would’ve ended with all four of them; instead, we get the Blam! of the black screen just before Tony sees her. Either Chase’s fucking with us, which I don’t believe – or something interrupted the family union. Something pretty final.

P.P.S.: Think what you want about the woman, but Hilary Clinton’s Sopranos spoof campaign ad had class:

A study in contrasts

Earlier this week I almost made my brain explode. I watched Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (no, that in itself wouldn’t have done the trick)… and then, the next evening, I saw The History Boys. From loud, complicated, essentially dumb SFX-travaganza to smart Brit drama in about 24 hours – it’s enough to give you a bad case of the cinematic bends.

At World’s End (or Pirates of the Caribbean III: Why does everything have to be a trilogy?) is undoubtedly a fine-looking film. The visual effects, by and large, are amazing, and the film’s visually inventive to boot. There are sights to behold that I’d never seen before on screen, and the digital artistry on Davy Jones’ betentacled head and face is quite amazing.

If only it was in service of a better script. Remember the first entry in the Pirates franchise? It wasn’t Bergman, but it was witty and fun, which is exactly what such a film needs. Starting with the sequel Dead Man’s Chest, though, the film lost in lightness and wit what it gained in complicatedness. Not complexity, mind you, because that would mean the plot actually adds up to something and benefits the films. Nope, what we got was messy and uninteresting. failing almost completely to serve the movies’ characters.

Yes, Johnny Depp was fun in the third film, as he was in the first two, but Jack Sparrow being Jack Sparrow is simply not enough to keep me engaged for three hours. Geoffrey Rush’s Barbossa might have helped, but little was left of his wonderful scenery chewing in the original Pirates of the Caribbean. In fact, most of the actors acted their hearts out, but to no avail: the script is leaden and dull, only little better than George Lucas’ efforts in the Star Wars prequels. Honestly, Mr. Verbinski, here’s a suggestion: if you want to make a three-hour popcorn movie, give it a fun script, or don’t do it at all.

The History Boys, based on Alan Bennett’s stage play, is pretty much the opposite of Pirates of the Caribbean 3. It’s wordy and character-driven, it gives its cast a chance to shine, and it’s funny and moving. I’d never realised that Richard Griffiths did roles other than broad caricatures, but his Hector, a gay, sad English teacher with an absolute passion for his subject, is a beautifully judged, subtle performance with no trace of Uncle Vernon. However, as much as Hector’s at the heart of the film, practically every other part is as well acted and as necessary to the whole.

Bennett’s writing requires acting this good; I’ve seen amateur productions of his shorter works, and they all came across as terribly mannered and stagey. The dialogues in The History Boys are not realistic, they are stylised (as are the characters), but that doesn’t mean in any way that they feel phony. There’s a truth to all of the performances and writing that takes a bit of time to develop – during the first half-hour, I was thinking that some of the characters were a tad stereotypical, but that’s only true in the way that many people at first seem to fit certain types, and only as you get to know them they develop their individuality.

The movie’s also surprisingly good at not feeling like a filmed play. It may have a script that feels theatrical (which makes sense, given the subject matter – school is inherently theatrical and every classroom is a stage), but it doesn’t look like it wants to be on the narrowish confines of a stage (or like it desperately tries to escape those confines, which is often worse). The film breathes throughout the spaces it evokes.

The History Boys is definitely not for everyone, and if I want to be somewhat arrogant and dismissive about it, chances are that more people will like At World’s End. It’s a film that expects its audience to engage with it, intellectually and emotionally. But the effort pays off many times.

… like hormonal hobbits, all obsessed with a ring

Anthony Lane is one of my favourite film critics. I don’t always agree with him, but by and large he’s got a great bullshit detector when it comes to movies. His dismembering of Revenge of the Sith is a classic – I got considerably more enjoyment out of it than out of George Lucas’ third dismal prequel:

The general opinion of “Revenge of the Sith” seems to be that it marks a distinct improvement on the last two episodes, “The Phantom Menace” and “Attack of the Clones.” True, but only in the same way that dying from natural causes is preferable to crucifixion.

(Thanks, Robot Chicken.)

The New Yorker website has now put Lane’s review of Sex and the City (one of the few HBO series that would probably make my head explode). Again, it’s great fun to read – I doubt the film could make me laugh half as much:

Secrecy has clouded “Sex and the City” since it was first announced. When would the film appear? Who would find a husband? Would one of the main characters die? If so, would she commit suicide by self-pity (a constant threat), or would a crocodile escape from the Bronx Zoo and wreak a flesh-ripping revenge for all those handbags?

If you like wit as sharp as a well honed knife, do browse Lane’s reviews. Well worth it, especially when it comes to the films you hate.