Friday, 15 March 2019

Kubism, Part 1:
Fear And Desire (1953)

Every generation has a legend. Every journey has a first step. Every saga has a beginning. So goes the tagline for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, a film so bad that Stanley Kubrick literally died just a few months before its release in order to avoid watching it. Stan's first step on his own journey to becoming a legend for many generations was almost as fraught with bad decisions and terrible acting as Anakin Skywalker's, but is arguably more worthy of your time. He'd got all that unfortunate documentary business out of his system, thank God, and was all set to launch his career as one of the greatest, most innovative and exciting directors OF ALL TIME. But first: Fear And Desire.

Artistically ambitious and naive (or, to quote one S. Kubrick forty years down the line, "boring and pretentious"), Fear And Desire is a near-perfect example of an unfocused talent learning on the job. There are the striking visual compositions and classy lighting you'd expect from an accomplished photographer; lots of gigantic close-ups; daring editing choices, and evocative sound design being deployed to tell a deeply human story concerned with flawed masculinity and mankind's boundless capacity to overestimate his own control over the universe: all signature elements of the future Kubrick's oeuvre. But we pay for all that with a film student's idea of issue-led narrative, reckless abuse of visual grammar, a misogynist's approach to female characterisation (or, more accurately, lack of) and - most egregiously - colossally ponderous dialogue. Kubrick was yet to learn to trust in his instincts as a visual storyteller, and as a result Fear And Desire probably contains more dialogue in its 70 minutes than in the 160 minutes of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Fear And Desire begins mysteriously: a small platoon of four stock military characters (Lieutenant Handsome, Sergeant Warmachine, Private Babyface and Private Unremarkable) in an unidentified war are stranded on an island, six miles behind enemy lines. The time is also unidentified, as is the island, because the island is everywhere and everywhen. The island is man. The island is hell. A polar bear appears, and the pilot is abducted by a smoke monst- wait, no, sorry, I was thinking of something else. Lost in the hostile terrain of an inhospitable forest that looks suspiciously like southern California, the quartet make plans to get back to safety. Their lieutenant's idea to float down river on a hand-made raft seems staggeringly optimistic - especially when his first action is to lead his men uphill, which is traditionally not where rivers are found - but off they trot nevertheless.

What follows owes a small debt to the Greek mythology of Homer's Odyssey, and Kubrick is keen to let you know it: the soldiers' journey takes the form of a series of episodic encounters; the first stranger the group meet is a dog called Proteus; a siren (kind of) lures one of the men to madness. It would be churlish to criticise Kubrick or his high school friend Howard Sackler (who wrote the script) for their highbrow intentions, but when they present their ideas via some of the most flowery, flatulent guff you'll ever hear you would be well within your rights to shout "NERRRRRRD!" at both writer and director and pull their shorts down in front of the girls in the next P.E. class. Good luck, for example, making it through this philosophical cabbage-wank without audibly groaning:

It’s better... it's better to roll up your life into one night and one man and one gun. It hurts too much to keep hurting everyone else in every direction and to be hurt with all the separate hates exploding day after day. You can't help it. A curse buzzes out of your mouth with every word you say and nobody alive can tell which is which or what you mean. Yeah... you try door after door when you hear voices you like behind them, but the knobs come off in your hand...

Faulty doorknobs aside, the soldiers' journey continues. They make a brief stopover at an enemy hut where casual death and loss of humanity (a future Kubrickian preoccupation) feature heavily, almost as if war is some kind of violent and dehumanising process. One of the aforementioned sirens - actually a simple but spectacularly hot fisherwoman - is captured by our guys and is forced to watch while Private Babyface, who was clearly never the full metal jacket in the first place, goes increasingly bananas; eventually he shoots her to ensure she performs no further useful narrative function, before declaring the river to be flowing with blood and leaping off for a swim while cackling like The Joker. War Is Hell, evidently, and you can almost feel Kubrick squirming with the obviousness of it all - so much so that when he came to make his three other war movies, he just flat out said it (War Is A Humanity Vacuum in Paths Of Glory; War Is A Bad Joke in Dr Strangelove; War Is Madness in Full Metal Jacket) rather than wrapping it all up in pseudo-intellectual literary and cultural references.

There's more to come though, when we get to meet "The General" - the de facto villain of the piece - only to find that he's played by the same actor who plays Lieutenant Handsome, and his right hand bastard is played by the same guy who plays Private Unremarkable. The General muses portentously on death and his role in dispensing it, lamenting that he has become war, and it's a blessed relief when Lieutenant Handsome and Private Unremarkable put an end to his eye-rolling wittering with a few well-placed bullets. There's just time for them to recognise themselves in their enemies' faces though (because we are very much alike, you and I), before successfully escaping to their own HQ where they are free to ponder further on the physical and spiritual casualties of war because this film definitely needs more of that.
It's easy to pick on Fear And Desire for its heavy-handedness - fun, too - but it's still absolutely worth checking out as a formative piece of Kubrickery. Its formal sloppiness and narrative hamfistedness are hugely at odds with the meticulousness we've come to expect from Stan, but there's an undeniably trippy atmosphere to the piece and enough flashes of cinematic bravado to suggest that this guy might be worth watching in the future. Themes that would eventually be more fully developed lie dormant here, waiting for geeks like me to stumble across them years later, and besides, it's never not fun to witness the birth of a legend. Unless it's in The Phantom Menace.
Next time: Kubrick goes noir in crime drama Killer's Kiss. Will he still have his head up his arse? There's only one way to find out! (Watch it yourself, Jesus, why do I have to do everything around here)

← Prologue: The Kubriquettes

Thursday, 7 March 2019

Kubism, Prologue:
The Kubriquettes (1951-53)

Hey guys, welcome to another of my hugely original and trailblazing trawls through the career of a little-known filmmaker of whom I unjustifiably claim to have a much deeper and more meaningful understanding than you do! This time round the subject under discussion is a director called Stanley Kubrick, who you won't have heard of, but let me tell you he knows his directing onions. Present him with any random selection of onions and he would immediately know which were his directing ones. Or at least he would if he hadn't died, which I regret to inform you is exactly what happened 20 years ago today. Just as you'd found out about him, too :-(

Anyway enough about death and onions, let's talk films. The Brick made three short films and 13 features over his irritatingly short career, and I'll be fumbling my way through each of those in separate, semi-regular posts over the next one hundred years. It's only right that we should begin by investigating the infant's daubings that are his early non-fiction short films, what with them being chronologically first and all (more or less; Kubo made The Seafarers after his first feature, Fear And Desire, but it deserves to be lumped in with his other shorts). They're not very interesting I'm afraid, but I am a tedious completist and it only seems fair that you should suffer for that. OK? Great. Let's get Kubrickal!

Day Of The Fight (1951)
The Kubrick shorts, or Kubriquettes as they are widely referred to, are natural extensions of young Stan's career as a photojournalist for Look magazine. Day Of The Fight more so than the others, because he had in fact already told this story via the medium of still photography, which he used as a virtual storyboard for the doc. Following Walter Cartier (a professional boxer, although I am firmly of the opinion that the occupation should be renamed 'twatter') through a single day in the run-up to an important game of twatting, Kubrick shoots, edits and uses sound like he's making a crime drama. It's an itch he got to scratch properly with actual boxing-based crime drama Killer's Kiss two years later, but for now his style weighs its subject down with an appropriately oppressive ennui: a sense that the buildup to a twatting match is a tougher slog than the actual twatting itself.

Through his subject, Kubrick ponders the elliptical nature of time itself, which for Cartier expands unbearably when he's waiting for the twatting to begin and contracts dramatically once he's in the ring. The gaps between each of the film's time stamps gets increasingly shorter: a neat foreshadowing of the temporal manipulation seen in The Shining's gradually compressed narrative and in Spartacus' running time of approximately eight weeks. In fact there's a lot of the future Kubrick in Cartier's diligence, fastidiousness, preparation and dedication: over one shot of his twatting paraphernalia spread out on a bed, the narrator indicates that "his boxing gear has been carefully laid out", and it's hard to believe it wasn't the director himself who spent two hours arranging and lighting everything and 76 takes getting the right shot of it.

Cartier's patience and technique sees him through to victory as best twatter though, and Kubrick takes note of this route to success before embarking on his own wildly impressive career. First though, he had to prove something to himself, and to the world: that he was equally capable of farting out some painfully dull business about a priest in a plane.

Flying Padre (1951)
Challenging himself to make documentary gold out of the lustreless lead that is a vicar whose USP is that he can't be arsed to drive, Kubrick fails spectacularly. Here's a priest, he says, who gets about his ridiculously massive parish in a small plane, isn't that something? Well, Stanley love, no. Father Fred Stadtmueller is an instantly forgettable documentary subject, a man of the church who does churchly things like conducting funerals, chastising small children and ferrying poorly babies around in his airborne Godmobile. I'm sorry but if he isn't going to round off that funeral by resurrecting the deceased while floating two feet off the ground and making it rain wine then I'm putting Full Metal Jacket on.

There's an attempt to inject tension into the sick baby story with some canny crosscutting, but that's as technically accomplished as it gets. Some of the directing and editing choices here are riddled with schoolboy errors, with Kubrick mistreating the 180 degree rule in a couple of filmed conversations almost as brutally as he mistreated Shelley Duvall nearly 30 years later. Flying Padre is, sadly, no Day Of The Fight, but don't worry, I'm sure the next one will be great!

The Seafarers (1953)
Holy shit this one is terrible. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was this long con, in which he turned the man who quacked out a half-hour corporate video for a fucking sailors' union into the genius Stanley Kubrick, a director so phenomenally brilliant that nerds would watch literally anything he'd ever put his name to, meaning we'd all check out this crushingly soulless dreck in the misguided belief that it might just be comparable to The Shining. It's a testament to Kubrick's genius that this has been included on a DVD of one of his films: is Ridley Scott's Hovis ad included on the Alien disc? No. Does Mulholland Drive list David Lynch's commercial for Clearblue pregnancy testing kits among its special features? No. Does an Easter egg on the Baby Driver Blu-ray take you to Edgar Wright's Pizza Hut promo? I don't know, I haven't got it. Yet here we are, lapping up thirty minutes of propaganda urging us to join the Seafarers' International Union, because Stanley Kubrick banged it out over half a century ago.

Ramming the message down our throats that we'd all enjoy more security, a higher standard of living, a position of respect in the community and a daily sucking off from a Hollywood starlet of our choice if only we joined the union, The Seafarers promises much but delivers little. There aren't even any scenes set at sea, just a handful of shots of blokes looking busy on a boat when the captain walks past, and 22 insufferable minutes have shuffled by before we even get to that. There is, to be fair, a good gag involving an aesthetically pleasing pair of tits, but you have to wade through an awful lot of seamen to get to it, and that's just unhygienic. Still, if you're going to sell out, best to do it at the start of your career and then make up for it, and that's precisely what Stanley Kubrick did. Eventually.


If you thought that was bad, then join me at some indistinct point in the distant future as I undertake my virgin viewing of Stanley Kubrick's first feature film, Fear And Desire. Until then, have you ever thought about joining the Seafarers' International Union? Well here's your chance!

Tuesday, 5 March 2019

Captain Marvel: Brie, the change
you want to see in the world

They've made another Marvel film guys. Like you, I thought that big, noisy Avengers one was the last one, until I remembered there had been another Ant-Man since then, but surely that was it. What's left to do? Turns out that after ten years of dick-swinging testostersplosions Marvel realised they'd forgotten to put a lady in a super suit, so here's Brie Larson, the world's greatest woman to be named after a soft cheese, in what must surely be the final MCU film: Captain Marvel.
Despite myself, I still enjoy the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is either an inherent flaw in my genetic programming or a canny trick of expensive, laser-focused marketing that I actively look forward to these movies as much as I do. Sometimes they need a couple of viewings to bed in; my feelings towards Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 2, for example, improved considerably on rewatching it at home because when I saw it at a press preview it was inexplicably preceded by an unsolicited EDM gig that gave me a splitting headache and made me miss my train home.

So even though Captain Marvel is flawed, a little confusing at times for an old man like me and filled out with the usual messy space-explodey bits that have me checking my watch and wondering what's for dinner, I couldn't help but have a good time. Brie Larson is perfect in every way, Samuel L Jackson gifts us another sidekick-to-an-amnesiac-ass-whooping-heroine role that's almost as good as The Long Kiss Goodnight, and there's a brilliant cat. Sometimes that's really all I need to keep me happy.

It took a while to get there though: the story begins on the alien planet Hala, with Jude Law's Yon-Rogg dispensing pseudo-Jedi motivational waffle to Larson's Vers. Both are noble warrior heroes of the Kree race, who are at war with sprout-headed pricks the Skrulls, and I've got a bad feeling about this. I've already forgotten the name of the planet, and referring to yourself as a noble warrior hero is a bit on the self-aggrandising side if you ask me. But the MCU is an old hand at knowing what's old hat and subverting it for a post-post-post-modern audience, and before you know it (well, after a brief but exciting exfiltration mission which goes south fast), Vers finds herself - and us - dumped on the planet Earth. Specifically, in a Blockbuster video store. In 1995.
So far, so Thor, and like that film, this is where the fun really begins. But where Chris Hemsworth's giant walnut-man was a fish out of water, Vers takes like a duck to it. It's here where she meets up with Jackson's Nick Fury, sporting a complete set of eyeballs and a genuinely flawless de-aged face that makes X-Men: The Last Stand's similar treatment of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen look like it was done by pinching their skin behind their heads with bulldog clips. Vers and Fury team up to fight the Skrulls who've followed her to Blockbuster (presumably not to rent True Lies), and to work out why she has weird memories of being on Earth previously, only in an air force jumpsuit which is arguably more sexually appealing than the tight rubber one she swans around in at home.

So unfolds a fresh take on the superhero origin story, which organically meshes with its potentially hoary old noble-warrior-heroes-versus-sprout-headed-pricks fightgasm. Rugs are pulled and twists are twisted, and as someone utterly ignorant of Captain Marvel lore, I was continually kept guessing and frequently surprised by events, not least the hidden abilities of the cat. I was left a little baffled by a weird subplot featuring blue meanie Roland The Excuser, who I had to be reminded afterwards was the main villain in Guardians Of The Galaxy, but if you're a total MCU nerd then I'm sure it'll mean something to you. I was just happy to be kept entertained by Ben Mendelsohn as Chief Skrull Prick Talos, who spends most of the film buried under prosthetics but seems to have forgotten, so just does his Ben Mendelsohn thing regardless.
Given that one of Captain Marvel's USPs is its 1990s setting, I'm not sure it's 100% successfully mined for its full value. I'd have loved to see it lean into a '90s aesthetic a little harder: maybe it could have been shot on film; some life-size practical models could have been blown up and shot from eighteen different angles with each one cut together to protract the explosion; there could have been an erotic home invasion subplot with Sharon Stone somehow involved, I don't know. Instead we get a very 2019 movie, all arch and knowing, with its period detail limited to lazy references to the '90s. Alta Vista, Gameboy, flannel shirts, CD ROMs and pagers are all obvious gags here, although nobody ever mentions how much they're looking forward to the first Bond film in six years starring this Piers Bronson guy.

But the main attraction is, of course, the conspicuous lack of a cock and balls in the lead role, and Larson proves to be just as magnetic a screen personality as Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans and, uh, Ed Norton. Vers is positioned as a smart, capable woman who doesn't need rescuing, doesn't require a love interest to complete her, shows the guys a thing or two and - most satisfyingly - has close relationships with other females. Despite the frequent pyrotechnics, the film surfs an easy-going wave of charm that its male-centric counterparts sometimes lack. And while the script doesn't shove all this down your throat, it does allow itself a moment to say that women have been told what they can't do for too long, and now time's up. They can do it, and they can do it well. It's no accident that the most memorable scene in a multi-million-dollar, FX-strewn, sci-fi blockbuster is a simple, beautiful montage of shots of a woman standing up.
There's more socially relevant stuff, some of which gets lost in the mix a little: an underlying point about refugees and aggressive border controls is a welcome grace note rather than a fully satisfying theme, but the question of whether or not you're on the right side of a war when you haven't really explored all the angles is given a bit more due prominence. These are Good Things to stick in a kids' cape movie, obviously, but they're never going to resonate as much as more pressing issues like how Nick Fury loses an eye.

Still, it's yet another sign of Marvel's exponentially increasing development as a studio that we're now seeing whole films of things we loved seeing in one or two scenes only a few years ago: familiar actors convincingly de-aged; heroic females kicking several shades of shit out of a room full of blokes; Samuel L Jackson. If this does, as I confidently predict, turn out to be the final MCU film, well, they've gone out on a high. Personally I'd like to see Brie Larson team up with some of the other Marvel characters in an experimental crossover story, but sadly I think we all know that simply will not happen.

Friday, 1 March 2019

A review of Pierce Brosnan's
I Asked For A Coffee And I Got Myself !

Like most people, I was expecting this Wednesday to be just another run-of-the-mill, bog standard Wednesday: get up, go to work, get cross about Brexit, come home, get cross about Brexit again, go to bed. But, as it turned out, this Wednesday was no run-of-the-mill, bog standard Wednesday at all. This Wednesday was Pierce Brosnan's I Asked For A Coffee And I Got Myself ! Wednesday, a Wednesday so packed with incident that I only had time to get cross about Brexit once.

Now you might think that a mildly amusing Instagram video by a famous actor that went viral for a few hours wouldn't be worth lavishing 1,600 words on two days later, but that, my friend, is where you are wrong. I have spent the last 48 hours rewatching Pierce Brosnan's I Asked For A Coffee And I Got Myself ! because it is a work that demands that level of commitment and analysis. It certainly didn't take me this long to write an excessively wordy and pointless blog post about Pierce Brosnan's I Asked For A Coffee And I Got Myself ! because I thought of the idea about a day and a half later than I should have done, so you can forget that crazy notion right now.



The specific time is a bit of a blur, but at some point on Wednesday 27th February 2019, former James Bond actor and star of some other films Pierce Brosnan dropped a video on his Instagram feed without any warning whatsoever. Like a surprise Beyoncé album or a trailer for another fucking Cloverfield film, the video just appeared from thin air. For those of you who are tragically unfamiliar with it, here is Pierce Brosnan's I Asked For A Coffee And I Got Myself ! in full:

I mean, wow. I'll just let that sink in. Maybe rewatch it a few dozen times to really absorb the wonder.

Pierce Brosnan's I Asked For A Coffee And I Got Myself ! was shot by actress Jamie Chung, who, like me, you may not remember from Grown Ups, The Hangover Part II or Sucker Punch. Chung is currently filming The Misfits, directed by Renny Harlin and starring - yep - Pierce Brosnan. Perhaps you're beginning to see how the intricate workings of the universe, like a cosmic collection of cogs, levers and other doohickeys, have manoeuvred with a divine grace to bring the right people together at the right time to create genuine magic.
Jamie Chung, yesterday. Possibly Wednesday

Shot in a single, fluid take at the luxurious Jetex Private VIP Terminal at the Al Maktoum International Airport in Dubai, Pierce Brosnan's I Asked For A Coffee And I Got Myself ! is eight seconds of glorious, Bronhommy goodness that this world simply doesn't deserve. And yet, despite all the odds, it exists, like one of those animals that's so amazing it almost proves the existence of God. A butterfly or some shit, I don't know.

Chung opens her masterpiece in unforgettable style: there, in full frame, is Pierce Brosnan's face staring into camera, his head nonchalantly propped up by the index finger of his left hand (the other fingers remain casually relaxed, but clearly ready to provide backup should the index finger require it). His shirt is unbuttoned and his tie is loose, but no suavity is lost. The hair is, as ever, impeccable, and the hint of a smile can be seen forming at the corners of Brosnan's beautiful mouth. And yet something's not quite right: the first sign that there's more to Pierce Brosnan's I Asked For A Coffee And I Got Myself ! than meets the eye.
FAO @OnePerfectShot

For it isn't Brosnan we're looking at here, but a facsimile: a monochromatic rendering, which appears to be floating on the surface of a cup. And not just any old cup - a cup with a silver rim and handle (plated or solid? My heart yearns to know), balanced delicately on a saucer of indeterminate material. It could also be silver or it may be glass, but the bubble effect on its surface reminds one of the tears of an angel, delicately shed around the face of Pierce Brosnan.

With no warning, a hand wielding a teaspoon (silver, naturally) enters frame and the unthinkable happens - Pierce Brosnan's face is rent asunder, shattered by the deliberate penetration of the image by an unseen assailant's ludicrously expensive teaspoon. And yet that isn't even the most dramatic thing to happen at this early point in Pierce Brosnan's I Asked For A Coffee And I Got Myself !. As the Brosnan visage is irreparably and literally defaced, a female voice (we later discover it's that of Jamie Chung herself) utters a single, spine-tingling word:

Stirred AND shaken, right guys? Guys

WHAT. THE. FUCK. Are we watching an early scene from the new 007 film? Is Brosnan somehow back in the tux after a 17-year hiatus? Or is he, in a devilish twist of casting, the villain? It is all, as yet, a mystery, although Bond fans around the world have by now accepted that Pierce Brosnan's I Asked For A Coffee And I Got Myself ! must be canon.
Pierced Brosnan

Not content with opening a gaping wound in the image of Pierce Brosnan's face that takes that hinted-at smile and carves it into a Joker-like grin, the hand continues its wanton destruction with a delicate but merciless stirring motion. Brosnan's face swirls into oblivion and the camera slowly pulls out, revealing a stunning truth: all this time we've been looking at a cup of coffee. A cup of coffee with Pierce Brosnan's face on it. Gradually we get a tantalising glimpse of the party responsible for the caffeine-based carnage: a man (presumably) in a smart blue suit, the warmth of which contrasts with the clinical whiteness of the surroundings. Whoever it is, they had better have a damn good reason for smooshing Pierce Brosnan's chops into a creamy froth.
Running out of joke captions now

And then, the kick in the guts none of us could have prepared for. A rug-pull of such intensity that it makes Iron Man Three's Mandarin twist look like Spectre's reveal that Christoph Waltz is actually Blofeld. Everything we thought we knew about Pierce Brosnan's I Asked For A Coffee And I Got Myself ! has been turned upside down and inside out, or at least it would have been if he hadn't given away the plot in the text of his Instagram post.

For the diabolical mastermind behind the opening scene of facial devastation is none other than Pierce Brosnan himself, smiling directly into camera as if he's actually enjoying the damage he's inflicting on his own mug. What are we to make of this Brosnan-on-Brosnan butchery? What parallel cinematic universe has opened up before us? As Brosnan delivers the subtlest of pouts (a clear nod to Daniel Craig's signature Bond look) and a brief but unmistakable eyebrow raise (ditto Roger Moore), the answer - one possible answer, at least - comes from Chung again, with the words we'd already begun to form in our minds but never really expected. With a whisper of love, a whisper of hate, she lets the name slip out from between her lips like cigarette smoke escaping from a femme fatale's mouth in a 1940s film noir...

"James Bond".
Yeah, nothing, sorry. Think I peaked with "Stirred AND shaken"

This is almost more than I could take. I don't know where I am any more or what my name is, let alone who the figure before me, rendered in an otherworldly square of pixels from across the globe, can be. And yet that name is unmistakable. It's James Bond. Hold me.

But that's not all. Pierce Brosnan's I Asked For A Coffee And I Got Myself !'s final, unexpected act piles another layer of possible meaning onto the metatextual lasagne that has already filled me up and given me Brosnan-flavoured gas. James Bond, for it is now definitively he, appears to break character, his face creasing into a laugh that makes a mockery of everything we've seen, as if it was merely a gag; a throwaway moment of mischief tossed off to fill time while waiting for a luxury jet. Chung, too, cackles maniacally from behind camera, as if the two of them have been in on this baffling piece of performance art all along. And who knows, perhaps they have?
Is this the last one? Oh thank fuck for that

And then, perhaps reflecting the inevitable circularity of all things, Pierce Brosnan's I Asked For A Coffee And I Got Myself ! begins again, the face rebuilt, ready for another massacre at the hands of its own, er, hand. How Pierce Brosnan's face got onto his own cup of coffee is never explained: was it painstakingly created by the world's greatest barista? If so, did Brosnan request it himself? Or did the image, as was suggested to me by Empire magazine's Helen O'Hara (a woman whose steadfast anti-Bond stance was demolished in the eight seconds it took her to watch the video), appear there organically, like the face of Jesus in a tortilla? Quite rightly, Chung has remained silent on the subject. The mystery must remain intact, unlike the coffee-froth Brosnan we were introduced to so long ago.

More than that I cannot add. Pierce Brosnan's I Asked For A Coffee And I Got Myself ! is open to so many interpretations that there simply isn't room on the internet for them. Whether it's a splintering of the James Bond franchise, a sophisticated experiment in social media or simply a man stirring a cup of coffee, I doubt we shall get to the bottom of the enigma in our lifetimes. Hopefully these words I have recorded may provide some context for future generations studying the 21st century's most formidable achievements. If that's you, then I hope you find the truth. You deserve it. PS Sorry about Brexit.

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

The Kid Who Would Be King

It's been nearly eight years since Joe Cornish's terrific debut Attack The Block, a film that, in 2011, put him in the middle of the Venn diagram of British directors making excellent, modestly-budgeted sci-fi (cf. Duncan Jones, Gareth Edwards) and British directors making impressive first features (cf. Richard Ayoade, Paddy Considine). Cornish has hardly been dozing in that time, but it's interesting to note that if you were born when Attack The Block came out (unlikely, given my readership stats) then you're now more or less exactly the target age for his second film.

The Kid Who Would Be King concerns twelve-year-old Alex, the crushingly ordinary only child of a single-parent family from a suburban housing estate in London. When he stumbles across a sword wedged in a concrete pillar on a building site and successfully extracts it from its cementy sheath, Alex unexpectedly finds himself the sworn protector of the realm. Will he use the sword for good, overcoming apparently insurmountable odds to defeat evil and discover the true meaning of destiny, or will he turn to knife crime and carve a bloody swathe through the rest of Year 7, swinging the decapitated heads of his enemies in the air like claret-spurting bolas? Well, the BBFC have rated the film PG for "mild threat" so severed noggins are probably not the order of the day, sorry kids.
Opening with an inspired and, frankly, incredibly useful primer on the Arthurian legend in comic-book-style animated form, The Kid Who Would Be King warns us that the evil Morgana, once defeated by King Arthur, "will return when the land is lost and leaderless again." Establishing shots of a Britain weighed down by a grey drizzle of misery, homelessness, unspecified war and the unspoken but blindingly obvious shittitude of Brexit give off the kind of pessimistic world view that makes you want to give Cornish a hug and ask him if he's OK hun. More pertinently, though, the scene is set for the return of Morgana, played by Rebecca Ferguson with a sore throat and a severe case of split ends. The idea that Brexit and the failure of the current British political system have dredged up the most abhorrent evil known to the United Kingdom in millennia is floated, but Cornish - having made his point for the adults - dedicates the rest of his film to giving their offspring as much fun and entertainment as he can before they have to leave the cinema and grow up in a post-apocalyptic wasteland of embarrassing isolationism and delusional nationalism.

And there is a ton of fun and entertainment here: mouldering zombie warriors on flaming steeds rampage through the streets like Nazgûl who got too close to the barbecue; kids undergo swordfighting training with helpful, animate trees, and Merlin - in the form of Angus Imrie (son of Celia) - provides consistently eccentric running commentary, useful magical assistance and the kind of wacky hand-jiving spell-casting that kids will be practising in the playground for weeks after viewing.
As with Attack The Block, Cornish wears his influences on his sleeve. The unremarkable suburbia and broken families that characterised 1980s Steven Spielberg productions are all here, the mythology of Star Wars and Harry Potter are openly acknowledged and swooping shots of the rolling countryside of Cornwall and Somerset recall the grandeur of Peter Jackson's Lord Of The Rings trilogy. Squint and you might also make out the kind of children's fantasy absurdism that buoyed Time Bandits (terrifying supernatural forces appearing in kids' bedrooms are never not fun), or the social-malaise-manifests-as-demonic-threat plot of Ghostbusters II. Even Lance, the film's blond, arrogant, easy-to-hate bully, is modelled on Draco Malfoy, Game Of Thrones' Joffrey or - most despicably - an early Take That Gary Barlow.

But there's plenty of room for originality, and Cornish conjures a series of set-pieces that will delight school-age audiences - not least of which is the transformation of Alex's 'Dungate Academy' from Grange Hill-style dreariness to a knight school: a fortress of resistance against the forces of evil, laden with ingenious traps and armoured schoolkids.
The Kid Who Would Be King has a huge problem though, and that's the tiny slice of the cinemagoing market that are really going to dig it. The film skews very young: it's uncomplicated, hugely earnest, and mild of peril (despite the stakes, not a single character suffers so much as a scratch in the final battle). None of which are necessarily criticisms, but it's a kids' movie for kids who've yet to reach the age where cynicism and a general dismissal of everything sweet and lovely becomes the norm. At the other end of the scale it's potentially too scary for under-8s, with its hellmouths in the back garden and fiery monsters trying to murder innocent children. It's also two hours long, which is buttock-testing enough even for those of us not hopped up on Sunny D, or whatever legal crack the kids are fed these days.

In endowing his film with a big heart, a child's imagination and a wide-eyed innocence, Cornish may have drastically limited its audience, and that's a huge shame. But The Kid Who Would Be King does prove that the once and future Cornballs absolutely knows what he's doing at the helm of a movie, and there's no reason why he shouldn't be let near the kind of budgets that Duncan Jones and Gareth Edwards have been given. And if it takes another eight years for that to happen, I'll be here. Impatiently drumming my fingers and looking at my watch, sure, but I'll be here.

Friday, 15 February 2019

That's Rogertainment! Rogisode 11:
The Quest

It is with a heavy heart that I must once again draw your attention to another film starring Roger Moore that is, in the words of Charles Dickens, a steaming mountain of cackapoopoo. Why Rog cursed himself with all this guff remains a mystery, although clues can often be found where there's an exotic location, a large paycheque and a minimal amount of effort involved. And so we journey to Thailand under the direction of none other than Jean-Claude Van Damme for The Quest, a martial arts extravaganza in which, sadly, the Muscles From Brussels at no point engages in hand-to-hand combat with the, er, Briton From Britain.
"I must warn you, I'm Roger Moore"

The Quest is the first slice of Rogertainment that isn't, strictly speaking, a Roger Moore film. It is, of course, a Jean-Claude Van Damme film. You can tell because JCVD's name is above the title and Rog's isn't - a state of affairs which our hero recalls in his autobiography My Word Is My Bond as a Judas-level betrayal. Quite right too: like most films we've covered on these pages, Roger Moore is the only thing that makes The Quest worth watching. Aside from his gimlet-eyed turn as a Flashman-esque bounder, the film is an uninspired and laughably feeble excuse for a series of mixed martial arts fights, directed by its meat-slab star with all the panache of an actual slab of meat.

Van Damme opens his film with a truly stupid framing device. He's an old man in a bar (the old man makeup extends to a grey wig and a couple of wrinkles) who beats up a generic gang of punks despite the encumbrance of his age and hairpiece, then drifts off into a misty-eyed reminiscence of that time he met Roger Moore in 1925 and fucked him out of his above-the-title credit. We see young JCVD in New York, in clown makeup for some reason - quite possibly in tribute to Rog's unforgettably dignified depiction of James Bond in Octopussy, where he put on a red nose and some floppy shoes to defuse a nuclear bomb. Van Damme isn't a suave spy though: he's Chris Dubois, a Fagin-like bum who hangs around with a mob of street urchins living hand-to-mouth and stealing to feed themselves. Also he is unbelievably ripped and a highly skilled fighter, but for some reason those qualities do not seem to have helped him find gainful employment as yet.
Consider Yourself... DEAD MEAT

A number of obvious questions arise from having an absurdly buff man hanging around on street corners with a pack of under-age boys who would do anything for food, but The Quest isn't about to address them. Instead, through a convoluted series of unlikely events, Dubois is forced to abandon his pre-pubescent pocket-picking pals and ends up a stowaway on a boat heading for the far east. Despite being shackled in chains by the crew for some time he remains unbelievably ripped, and his fighting skills are put to good use when his boat is boarded by pirates led by Admiral Lord Edgar Dobbs, aka Sir Roger George Moore KBE. Van Damme the director at least has the good grace to give Rog a terrific first shot (literally):

A ruck ensues, and Dobbs notes that Dubois is "the best fighter I've ever seen," even though all Van Damme does in this sequence is kick a guy in the nuts then do a flip. Dobbs rescues Dubois only to sell him into slavery, and six months later their paths cross again in Bangkok while Dobbs is trying to get into the knickers of Carrie Newton, a sexy American journalist half his age. Classic Rog! This unlikely trio, along with Dobbs' bosun Harry and an American boxer called Devine, team up to get Dubois into the Ghang-ghen, a World Cup of mixed martial arts where great fighters from around the world compete for a large and frankly cumbersome gold dragon. Dubois aims to win the dragon to save his under-age Manhattan muppets from the streets, but Dobbs fancies the dragon for himself because he is, at heart, a right twat.

The remainder of this sub-Enter The Dragon / Kickboxer mash-up is a half-hour sequence of fights in which every competitor is a cringing racial stereotype: the Spanish fighter prances about like he's dancing a flamenco; the Brazilian entrant does a lot of fancy capoeira; the Scottish guy wears a kilt; a Japanese sumo wrestler is accompanied by a gurgling sound effect every time his flab wobbles, and a black man wearing assorted tribal gear is there to represent the "country" of Africa. And let's not forget those inscrutable orientals, all of whom are either villains, servants or accomplished martial artists.

Predictably Dubois wins the competition, but not the golden dragon; it turns out that the freedom of his friends and implied intercourse with the film's only female character (who serves literally no other purpose) were the real prizes all along. In his closing old-man waffle speech, Dubois casually tosses off the fact that he got the kids off the streets of New York anyway, rendering the entire story utterly pointless.
Although he does do the splits in mid-air so it's not a total waste of time

Throughout all this Roger Moore achieves the inconsiderable feat of being the best of The Quest's leads, and you have to wonder if one of the reasons he accepted the role was the implicit guarantee that he couldn't possibly be the worst actor on the show. Naturally more charismatic than, well, everyone, Rog twinkles as Dobbs: an absolute cad, an untrustworthy rogue, a liar, a thief, a mercenary and an opportunist. He represents the charming, smug face of the British Empire, smirking and smiling while doing dodgy arms deals, selling slaves and generally fucking everyone over for a few quid. Whether Van Damme intended this biting historical critique when he scrawled down his story in crayon is up for debate, but Rog seems well aware of it. He doesn't get much action beyond that early gunfight and a brief stint in a stolen German zeppelin (he did his knee in on location and spent much of the film in a cast), but he clearly relishes playing against type as an antihero.

In his memoirs, Rog describes Van Damme and The Quest's producer Moshe Diamant as the only two people in showbusiness he really dislikes (temporarily forgetting all about Grace Jones), meaning his appearance in the film of a man having a good time suggests he's a much better actor than he's usually given credit for. His scenes with Jack McGee as Harry, the Smee to Rog's Captain Hook, are relaxed and warm, possibly because McGee's on-set flatulence was a constant source of irritation to Jean-Claude Van Damme and amusement to Roger Moore. I don't doubt for a moment that a spinoff series of films about Dobbs and Harry's globetrotting twattery (preferably written by George MacDonald Fraser) would have been a colossal lark for Rog and a cinematic treat for the entire world. Alas, it was not to be: the remainder of his acting career would consist of cameos in films that people only watched while under eight years old, or drunk, or both.
"I say old chap, have you recently launched a
stink-rocket from your hidden underground base?"

So it's a workmanlike but welcome Rogerformance, one that just about makes The Quest worth watching but hardly a shining example of our magnificently-eyebrowed hero's finest work. After making this ill-advised disaster headlined by actors of limited talent, Rog would leave crass incompetence behind him by moving on to (*checks filmography*), uh, Spiceworld: The Movie. But that's another story.


Bonus fun: at the very end, it turns out that old JCVD has been reading from a book entitled The Quest by Carrie Newton, who it turns out was good for more than just a congratulatory shag to reinforce the hero's masculinity after all that oiled-up, semi-naked grunting and grappling. With apologies for the low resolution (I wasn't about to buy The Quest on Blu-ray), I encourage you to read the first page of this book, as presented in the film, to the end.

Friday, 8 February 2019

Thunder Road: Forlorn in the USA

To begin at the end: the first of refreshingly offbeat com-dram Thunder Road's end credits reads: "Written, directed and performed by Jim Cummings". Out of context, that "performed" sounds a little ostentatious, maybe even pretentious. But coming after 90 minutes of what is practically a one-man show, it's bang on. Cummings is front and centre in every scene of his first feature, which is based on his 2016 short of the same name, and it's a showcase for a wired and wild performance that will either leave you hungry to see what he does next or send you screaming from the cinema like your legs are on fire.
Thunder Road opens with a twelve-minute unbroken shot of Cummings' anxious, skittish cop Jim Arnaud delivering a babbling eulogy at his mum's funeral. This single scene filled the whole of the short film on which it's based, except that here Arnaud's attempt to sing and dance along to the titular Springsteen song is thwarted by a banjaxed CD player; maybe The Boss wasn't as relaxed with the rights to his music as he was three years ago. It works though: the sight of an officer of the law in full uniform, doing a catastrophically bad dance to a song that's only in his head, in front of his mother's coffin, perfectly sets the tone for what's to come.

"Everything went normal," Arnaud later remarks to a colleague of his bananas funeral performance: neither the first nor last hint that he may have some deep-seated mental health issues. The film sees him constantly teetering on the vertiginous edge of a total breakdown, struggling to connect with his pre-pubescent daughter and barely holding on to his job, friends and reality. Throw in an irresponsible ex-wife and a fractious relationship with his siblings and you've got all the ingredients for a feelbad weepie. But Cummings sees the funny side in emotional trauma, and invests the film with an almost schizophrenic ability to make you spit out your beverage of choice laughing just as you were glugging it to numb the pain. As hilarious as it is heartbreaking, Thunder Road walks this tightrope between melodrama and bad taste for its entire running time.
Cummings' performance is remarkable and unpredictable: barking mad at times and bursting with energy, then calming right down for some genuinely affecting quiet bits. There's a hint of early Jim Carrey in his most manic moments, but without the showboating. Arnaud is a complex ball of resentment, enraged by his own inability to deal with life, and that manifests as explosions of frustration peppered with fleeting glimpses of love and humility. There are other actors in the film, but Kendal Farr as his sassy daughter Crystal is about the only one allowed to make an impact.

Cummings uses Arnaud's personality disorder to take an affectionate look at male bonding, the abrasive nature of familial relationships, the blind terror of raising a teenage daughter and the permanent threat of repeating the mistakes of the past, but never foregrounds or labels the character's problems to the point where they become the focus of the story. Thunder Road is about real people dealing with real problems, usually quite cack-handedly, and skilfully avoids mawkishness with unexpected lols and an underlying sweetness that's never allowed to get cloying.
So to end at the beginning: for a second or two, the first shot of that first scene shows a hymn sheet on a piano. The words "He who would valiant be" are just about discernible before the camera pans away, and an hour and a half later you realise this could easily have passed as an alternate title for the film. Arnaud is desperate to show the world he's a man who can take everything life throws at him, but bravery isn't just about facing your problems, it's about facing yourself too. He's the hero cinema needs right now, brought to life by one of the most original new voices in independent filmmaking.