Monthly Archives: August 2012

Film Review – Brave, or, How Gingers Ruin Everything


Brave is a good movie.

It’s exciting. One of Pixar’s strengths has always been the practised pace of their storytelling, and Brave is no departure from the norm. This is a film that can be slow and reflective one minute, and the next explode into rollercoaster motion. The action is also excellent. Stakes are well established, and the fights themselves have true character. There is a world of difference between the happy Highland brawls and the concluding life-and-death-struggle, and you feel it in your gut. When someone gets hit in the former, it’s a joke. When someone gets hit in the latter, your blood runs cold.

Brave is also genuinely funny, again in the usual Pixar fashion. The film doesn’t have the kind of humour that has you on your knees, or literally rofl-ing. The humour is mostly slapstick, the punchlines snappy. The laughs it prompts are more amused barks than extensive chuckling. But still, the film is funny, or better yet, lighthearted: a film of irrepressible scamps, squabbling Scotsmen and excitable women with large boobs. Not particularly refined humour it’s true, but on occasion refinement can get stuffed. In some ways I am still the little boy who read the Beano religiously for years, and I have never quite lost my love for the intelligent and co-ordinated theft of pastries.

And yet…goddamn it. Look, Brave is fun, OK? It is without a doubt entertaining. It never drags, or gets dull. It’s a good movie. Keep that in mind, because now, I have to talk about why it isn’t a great movie.

I have to talk about it because Brave’s lack of greatness is so obvious. You watch the movie and you smile and you laugh, and hell, even cringe or wince now and again. But you never feel moved. This is especially irritating, because it’s not at all clear why you’re never moved.

I mean look at Brave’s story. At first glance it seems like it should work fine. The characters are all well drawn. Sure, their traits are all very stereotypical, but they are most definitely not stereotypes themselves. They feel like people. Fergus, the king voiced by Billy Connolly, may be a big bag of Scots wind, but underneath he is a man with a boundless love for his family. Furthermore the pacing works and the plot makes sense. It even has this enjoyable, low-fantasy mythic quality to it. It’s something of a rarity to have a modern film keep magic firmly to the outskirts of its world, and it’s good to see that happening here. After all, if magic is a common thing, it stops being special, and what’s the point of it then?

So the story at first glance seems fine. But on second glance, things become a little less perfect. Brave begins with Merida (Kelly Macdonald) narrating, but she never does so again, which in terms of writing faux pas is like farting on a first date. It just unnecessarily muddies the waters: is this story being told by a future Merida, or is present Merida experiencing it realtime? We never know. Meanwhile, the resolution of Merida’s character arc happens too quickly, too easily and too long before the end of the movie. And then there’s the villain, Mor’du.

Now, I like giant evil bears as much as the next man. But I honestly have no idea why this one is even in the movie, not that it’s even in it all that much. Mor’du first turns up in the prologue, a brief appearance in which the bear comes out of nowhere, eats Fergus’ leg and then buggers off for at least a decade. It’s not seen again until Merida and her mother (Elinor, voiced by Emma Thompson) accidentally bump into it, which just doesn’t seem particularly villainous. Villains should have schemes and plans, or at least be an obstacle that has to be overcome. The bear is none of those things. It’s just a bad thing that happens to exist, and is occasionally encountered. Mor’du itself has no purpose. That makes it a dull antagonist.

So yeah, Brave has a fair few story fumbles. But they are not the source of Brave’s problems. They are symptoms. In my opinion Brave’s problems stem from an issue as its very core. This story is trying to do the impossible: it is trying to teach two completely contradictory life lessons simultaneously.

Stories are never just entertainment. All the bangs and whistles, all the lovey-doveyness and explosions and intricate character creation, all that is just sugar coating for an ideology. From a sociological standpoint, stories are the most efficient method of cultural indoctrination, of teaching good from bad, right from wrong, who to love, who to hate and how to live. It’s like making toothpaste taste minty, or giving a child a lollipop after they’ve taken medicine. And yes, all stories do this. Bad Boys 2 may make Boris Johnson look like a pinnacle of refined grace, but nonetheless it successfully expresses the virtuousness of a very specific, militaristic form of male bond. It creates in our minds the sense that this is the ideal relationship. This is by no means an intended outcome. Michael Bay is not a storyteller who particularly thinks about anything. At all. But intentions don’t matter. Bay as a man obviously idolises the military and the virtues associated with that institution. He pours his love for those virtues into his films, and so his films become endorsements for those virtues.

So, at the core of every story is a message. What’s more for a story to work, that message has to be clear. Stories have to have a point.

Brave’s problem is not that it doesn’t have a point. If anything, the opposite is true. Brave’s problem is that it has two messages. In part, Brave is all about seizing control of one’s own destiny. That’s what the opening narration is all about. It’s also what motivates Merida in attempting to change her mother. With these elements Brave supports the ambition of becoming who you want to be, and resisting unfair societal pressures while you go about it.

And then, suddenly, the film undergoes a complete ideological about-face as Elinor is humanised. We are shown that her demands on Merida are not unfair: they arise out of necessity. Merida’s mother is the stateswoman of Brave: she is the one who keeps the clans from fighting amongst one another. Elinor’s instruction of Merida is an attempt to ensure that she has a successor. In this context, Merida’s rebellion starts to look a lot less like striving for rightful independence, and a lot more like wilful selfishness. Merida’s arc also fits this new lesson. Though she starts out wanting to free herself, in order to live her own life, Merida ends up acknowledging the need to sacrifice her own desires for the greater good. No wonder Brave feels so confused. It’s telling the audience to put their own needs first, at the same time as it’s telling us to put the needs of others first.

Brave does seem aware of that conflict, and tries its best to resolve it. But said attempt (Merida’s speech before the clan lords) lacks conviction. It’s just papering over a narrative fault line, a dissatisfactory attempt to reconcile two competing messages. Brave as a film is pure entertainment: nothing more, nothing less. And though entertainment value is the reason we digest stories so readily, it is not the reason that stories exist. We come to stories for the explosions, but we love them for what they say. Unfortunately, Brave says nothing but garbled nonsense.

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ESLF Feature – Re-Evaluating The Godfather

In which I suggest that The Godfather’s poor showing in the 2012 Sight & Sound Poll, may have something to do with a lack of cultural demand

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Berlin In Lights – A Summary

Count Harry Kessler’s diaries are not your straightforward historical source material.

The diaries consist of a string of isolated observations spanning 29 years. They are not dominated by any particular topic. Nor are they animated by any particular sentiment, other than the desire to make a record of thoughts. They aren’t even particularly focussed on charting history as it was happening around him. The Nazis only start to feature heavily in his writings from p.396, on the advent of a stunning Reichstag victory. What’s more, when Kessler receives word of the deaths of his dog Lulu and President Ebert within 4 days of each other, he reserves his extensive eulogy for the former. As a depiction of historical events, the diaries are chaotic and inconsistent. Neither are they troubled by any concerns for historical cause and effect. They are instead, purely a record of a personal experience.

But though the selection of content was not dictated by any academic interests, the content itself is worth academic interest. Kessler was a man of many opinions, and often engaged in discussions concerning contemporary politics (‘in Berlin, I always feel as if I am going from one public meeting to another’). He was also a compulsive commentator and critic, with a flair for brief, yet comprehensive, descriptions that would make the average Twitter user green with envy. From time to time, said commentating extends into pontificating, so that the diaries are dotted with various grand theories, arguments and designs. But these are not just idle musings. Kessler’s opinions have weight, because he is vaguely involved in the political and cultural arenas he comments on. Early on in the diaries we witness his stint as German ambassador to the newly-created Poland. Later, Kessler takes part in negotiations with the British. He owned a publishing company, the Cranach Press, producing engraved and illustrated editions of books for bibliophiles. He was also a prolific writer, his most noticeable work being a biography of the Weimar Republic Foreign Minister Walter Rathenau. With this in mind, Kessler’s personal thoughts are obviously useful to the historian, as they are the thoughts of one in the know.

The quality of his knowledge is further complemented by the sheer extent and variety of his experiences. The diaries record Kessler’s travels all across Europe, particularly to France and England, but also to Spain, Switzerland, Italy, Poland and various Mediterranean islands. His social circle extended beyond national and occupational boundaries, and the diaries record Kessler hobnobbing with politicians, artists, sculptors, playwrights, producers, journalists, nobles and even scientists (on several occasions he hangs out Einstein, who, it turns out, as well as being a genius, was apparently just the nicest man). Kessler was also a true patron of the arts: his diaries reveal a man with a passion for theatre, as well as an interest in literature, painting, sculpture and cinema. This extreme variety of subject matter makes Kessler’s experience extremely valuable.

What this means is that, though the diaries provide only a personal experience, it is an experience of incredible quality. It’s only limitation lies in it being tied to Kessler’s social class. The diaries cast little light on how it might be to be one of the lower classes at this point in time, particularly since the worsening economic climate barely affects Kessler. But in terms of what Kessler experiences, he is able to provide a trustable viewpoint on the whole spectrum of European high society, politics and culture. As such they allow the reader, not necessarily to understand what was happening during the inter-War years, but what it was like to live in the midst of them.

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The Dark Knight Rises Review, OR, Why I miss the altruistic porpoises

(kudos to for the pic)


The Dark Knight Rises (TDKR) is not a bad movie. But it is a failure.

This is an important distinction to make. See, if I was doing a more standard review of it, TDKR would be a three star movie. But that description lack nuance. It could imply TDKR was a very basic, functional affair, like Innkeepers, which would be entirely the wrong impression. TDKR is a three star movie, because it had ambitions to be a five star movie, but proceeded to cock things up.

Which does mean that this going to be a pretty negative review. On the other hand, because criticism tends to grow strong from the failure of others, it should also be fairly interesting.

TDKR takes place 8 years after the end of the Dark Knight, and things have changed. Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has retired as Batman after taking the blame for Harvey Dent’s death. Not that he appears to be needed, what with a number of new, tough, anti-crime laws (known collectively as the Dent Act) managing to keep Gotham’s streets clean without him. At least, that is, until two new foes show up. One is Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a highly accomplished cat burglar. The other is Bane (Tom Hardy), a massively strong mercenary with an apparent penchant for Bolshevik-style class warfare. There’s also a new face on team goodie: a hotheaded cop by name of Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who just happens to be Batman’s #1 fan.

Oh and there’s some stuff about a renewable energy project that’s been happening offscreen for ages. There’s also a new woman called Miranda (Marion Cotillard), who kind of just turns up and is all, “I’m totally a main character, despite my mysteriously thin backstory! This is not suspicious! Pay no attention as I win the hero’s trust!”

Now on the whole, the plot is fine. It’s a little overcomplicated and winding, but hey, this is Christopher Nolan we’re talking about. That’s just what he does. TDKR is also very well-shot. One conversation between Bruce and Alfred (Michael Caine) is particularly impressive for the DP’s manipulation of light and shadow. Hans Zimmer’s score is as great as ever, building tension and making the action sequences feel big and momentous, though its bombast does make it somewhat inflexible. The few throwaway comic lines sprinkled amidst the action are simply flattened by the score’s incessant grandiosity.

The acting is decent. Bale, Caine (Alfred) and Gary Oldman (Commissioner Gordon) remain as good as ever. Levitt is pretty good too, believably earnest and committed to the fight. Hardy does the best he can with a mask covering most of his face, but the fact that his lines are so clearly dubbed robs what expression he can muster of its weight. His accent is also ridiculous. The standout performance is Anne Hathaway, mostly because of one scene early on in the film, where she does this subtle facial transformation that is bloody chameleonic: a truly incredible snippet of acting.

However the best moment of the film concerns something else entirely. Midway through the film, we have ourselves a good ol’ car chase, all cops and robbers. The camera is following a police car, speeding down a tunnel after the bad guys. Tension grips. And then suddenly, in one beautiful moment, all the lights in the tunnel flicker and die. And you know, you know what’s coming, what’s about to happen, because the policeman at the wheel knows, and his look of stunned awe reaches out of the screen and fills you from head to toe with prickling anticipation. Because out of the shadows comes riding, the goddamn Batman.

That is a moment that captures the beating heart of the superhero genre, the moment where an ordinary person finds themselves without warning in the presence of something awesome. Not in the weak, colloquial sense of the word, but something so powerful and grand as to outright demand awe. That feeling, that wonderful rush, that is the reason superheroes are so fucking popular. Not many emotions are as pure, as heady or better suited to cinema, as awe.

And there is almost nothing more tragic than this moment of beauty being surrounded by failure.

TDKR’s character creation is blindingly incompetent throughout. One example, the character of Blake, actually sits down and explains his motivation directly to the camera. Somehow, Nolan managed to forget the first rule of filmmaking: show, don’t tell. It’s a rule that can be broken, sure, but not without good reason, especially when you’re detailing a highly emotional event that lies at the core of a major character. You watch this segment, and when you’re done, you know intellectually what motivates Blake. But you never feel the anger that drives him. Nolan effectively prevents you from getting inside his head. And this bit of characterisation is a goddamn triumph compared to the cack-handed creation that is Bane.

I just want to call your attention back, if I may, to the introduction of the Joker in The Dark Knight. That was just the most brilliant cinematic sequence. Exciting, tense, more than a little crazy, all culminating in Heath Ledger’s chilling opening line. But you know what else? That scene was also the most perfect introduction to who the Joker was. The complex, yet perfectly orchestrated heist. The careless disregard for life, whether of others, or his own (the Joker, by taking part secretly in the heist, puts himself at risk of being assassinated by one of his own goons). The contempt for the established order of things (knocking off a mob bank). And the sadistic sense of humour (the joke grenade). All the components of the Joker’s character are laid bare in that scene.

That sequence is not just fun, tense action. It is genius-level storytelling.

Now compare that to the beginning of TDKR. It has, if anything, even more spectacle than the first one, with that insane opening stunt with the planes. It has tension, it has violence. Once again, we see that Bane is a master planner. We also see a willingness to sacrifice the lives of others. So we know that Bane is clever, and evil. But we learn nothing of what motivates him, and no sense of identity within the villainy, as was provided by the Joker’s sense of humour.

This lack is never made up for. And I want to emphasise, this is not me criticising Bane for not being the Joker. Because he is also not the Scarecrow. Cillian Murphy’s character in Batman Begins was a multi-layered creation, a cool affected exterior masking a deranged interior. This multi-layered quality lent a chilling edge to his villainy, and he wasn’t even a particularly important character. Hell, he wasn’t even the main villain and he had more character than Bane does. Bane is not the Joker. But more importantly, he is a bad character: being physically powerful and nasty to subordinates is plenty evil and everything, but also dull and basic. A major villain requires character, beliefs, something to distinguish him from rote, everyday evil, and Bane has none of these.

“But what,” the voices in my head that represent my readership cry, “About the whole 99% thing? What about Bane as a representative of the perverted side of the wealth redistribution movement? What about Bane-in?”

“Ah”, I reply “Thanks for that not at all clumsy segue into my additional problem with TDKR. The total cock-up of the ideological struggle”.

See, the most significant trait of Nolan’s previous Batmans, is the running theme of Batman being more of a symbol than a person. Batman Begins was essentially Batman’s fight to establish himself as Gotham’s symbol of order, his defeat of the League of Shadows being a victory of the spirit of reform over the millennial desire to destroy and rebuild. Batman VS the Joker was very much about the consequences of when order meets, not simply an opposing order (the mob), but unmanaged chaos (The Joker). The added brilliance of The Dark Knight lay in it reflecting, on a fictional stage, what actually happened in reality post-9/11.

Now, TDKR is supposed to have a similar ideological conflict at its core: in essence, a battle against the capitalist underpinnings of the order represented by Batman. It would have been an interesting conflict too: what might a hero’s reaction be, to the fact that his cherished order is built on foundations at best unfair and at worst oppressive. Gotham after all appears to have severe wealth inequality problems.

Except of course (and here’s them SPOILERS kids), this is an ideological conflict existing on the surface only. Because the real villain is not Bane. It’s Talia al’Ghul, the heir to the League of Shadows. That whole 99% VS the 1% thing? It turns out to be empty rhetoric, a smokescreen, existing only to manufacture chaos and win supporters.

So right, League of Shadows, so that’ll be the whole Batman Begins theme being done again right? Well, not exactly. See Bane’s motivator turns out to have been his love for Talia (which has no emotional impact, because the two characters’ feelings are not given enough screentime to be convincing). Meanwhile, Talia’s motivator is revenge for her father (though why she would want to kill herself for her father when he exiled Bane, the love of her life, from the League of Shadows is not particularly well explained). Everyone’s motivators in this fight are strictly personal. So the aspect of ideological conflict that gave the previous two Batman films dramatic power is completely cast away.

What’s worse, this personal motivation is revealed in a series of choppy flashbacks and, again, direct monologues to camera. So though we now know why these characters are doing what they’re doing (though we know too late to save these characters from being bland dimensionless constructs for most of the film), we still don’t feel what motivates them. We never see the growth of Talia and Bane’s relationship. We never feel the love that motivates Bane to sacrifice himself for Talia. Nor do we ever feel Talia’s hatred for Bruce Wayne: it’s simply a plot point, hastily tripped out, then ignored for what’s left of the film.

This then is Nolan’s failure. He provided much in TDKR. He brought spectacle. He brought action. He brought grandiosity and awe. But he left out the intelligence, and, what’s worse, he left out the feeling. He was supposed to create rich, well-developed characters, and instead gave us narrative robots, machines created to drive the plot. Nolan’s Batman series has long been the highlight of the superhero genre for two reasons: interesting, cunningly-created characters, and the fact that their battles were the struggles of ideals, rather than merely human concerns. Somewhere in the process of making TDKR Nolan forgot this.

In doing so, he has made his Godfather 3.

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