The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey

King Kong 1933

King Kong 1976

King Kong 2005

In older, darker days I had occasion to watch Peter Jackson’s King Kong on DVD with a pal who was familiar with neither the 1933 version, nor the arch, sneery 1976 John Guillermin remake, of both of which I am quite fond. I had been encouraged in my evening’s viewing choice by two facts: a) I knew Jackson was a fan of Kong and was therefore unlikely to tit about with it too much, and b) it is a story, I thought at the time, with an unkillable structure.

The original is a great three acts. Half an hour getting to Skull Island, half an hour poncing around with the natives, half an hour of climactic NY carnage.

Well… After two hours of Jackson’s oceanic scene-setting and purposeless penisaurus-fighting my friend turned to me in a state of what sounded like suicidal ennui and said, “Has it nearly finished?”

Yes, I assured her. We are in New York now. The end is nigh. All Kong has to do is climb the Empire State Building and get shot off. It was beauty killed the beast. Blah, blah, blah. End credits, and we will say no more about this.

At which point there was a shot of the Manhattan skyline with the Empire State Building a teeny, tiny feature in the far distance.

God’s tentacles, I thought. There could be at least another hour of this. And indeed there was. Another bus-pushing, monkey-sliding, patience-pummelling hour.

I was reminded of this at the end of Jackson’s most recent movie The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey when, after almost three hours of wandering around, our vast ensemble cast looked from the top of a mountain towards the distant object of their quest.

It was really, really far away.

And I had already become quite vague about what it was and why they were going there. Probably I will find out over the next two years.

If I’m spared.

Two years…

The Hobbit

What happens in the Hobbit is this: Tim from The Office pulls his funny faces and does a series of double-and-a-half takes whilst enduring a home invasion instigated by Gandalf the Great Intelligence. The interlopers are fifty-seven gnomes, each of them brilliantly characterised. There is Irish gnome, Scottish gnome, fat gnome, ugly gnome, comparatively normal-looking gnome, twofold gnome and all the other gnomes.

They are planning on, oh I dunno, fighting a dragon who has stolen all their gold, for some reason. They do some comedy business with the eating and the burping and the singing of their little gnome song and doing a little gnome dance about the washing-up.

Having tidied up they trot off on their quest taking Tim from The Office along as their burglar. Despite his not being a burglar. For some reason.

It turns out that there are Klingons who are cross with the gnomes. Everyone fights each other for a bit with a sword named after their favourite album track by Wolfstone, and the gnomes escape through a hole in the ground. Or something.

I was asleep for parts of this film. Perhaps I should make that clear.

Anyway the hole in the ground leads to a magical pixie palace, home to the actor Kevin Elrond.

Also, and this is quite exciting, the magical pixie palace is where you will find the only female character in the whole film. Actually there may have been a buxom female Hobbit briefly, and there was definitely a pixie flautist, but this is the only female character to actually have a name and a purposeful place in the narrative, making Middle Earth a place of tokenism even more embarrassing than the Star Wars universe.

Her name is Gladys and there she is all glowing and ladylike on a literal pedestal.

“Ne-Ne Na-Na Na-Na Nu-Nu,” she explains, and off our gnomes fuck on the next bit of their pilgrimage.

There is a lengthy stop off at Mola Ram’s mining and shouting enterprise. Things pick up here momentarily as Hare from Burke And Hare turns up to do his epic 3-2-1, Ted Rogers-style riddle business.

“I am useful for driving. In me you’ll go far. I have wheels and an engine. In fact I’m a car.”


“Are you a car?


“No. I’m a bin. And here’s Norman Collier to explain why…”


Thinking about it, this might have been one of the bits I was asleep for.

During another bit of sleeping I had an idea for a movie involving the two blue wizards that are mentioned, and whom I have assumed to be Betty Blue and Blue Emmanuelle. Also instead of them being wizards one is a nun and the other is a nurse. And instead of being set in a fantasy feudal land it is set in a women’s prison. It’d be a great film.

Back in the real movie there is another fight with some Klingons and, as with every other fight in the film it looks like the gnomes will win because they have a tactical nuclear wizard in their arsenal. And indeed this comes to pass since what is even more invincible than a tactical nuclear wizard is a tactical nuclear wizard with the out-of-office number for the emergency flock of giant eagles.

Really? Eagles again?

So our brave gnomes are bravely, randomly rescued, and now there are only twelve short months to wait for the middle bit of this, what we might as well call, story.

It’s beautiful to look at is The Hobbit, in that nothing-is-real, Captain Zep Super Space Detective/Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow kind of way, but is that all we get now? Gnomeo & Juliet versus God Of War III? Is that the best we deserve? Pretty lights shining on a wall?

I just can’t find anything interesting enough in this to think or write about.

It is fabulous that Jackson has managed to smuggle some eccentric bits into a product-shifter movie this trans-global (Doctor Who’s hedgehog hospital, for instance, is a fleeting joy), but it is a sign of how numb we have become, how utterly harrowed and broken, that this fraction of a film is looked on as some sort of high watermark of legitimate adult entertainment.

It is for children. Not particularly inquisitive children at that.

If you want a three-hour movie about characters changing over the duration of a journey why not try Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker? Not only is it a brilliant film but it also has the twin advantages of an actual ending and a fascinating, insistent line of philosophical enquiry. You will not find a PS3 game of Lego Tarkovsky’s Stalker and that is indicative of something.

Wake up.

Scooby-Doo Meets Batman











In his fascinating book Thinking, Fast And Slow Daniel Kahneman explains our current understanding of cognitive processes by invoking two metaphorical systems, System 1 and System 2.

System 1 is a fast, intuitive jump-to-conclusions system which assumes truth, and is predisposed to make connections, ascribe agency and so forth. It is a low cost thing is System 1 and it is running all the time.

System 2 is an effortful system, exerting the kind of deliberate, analytical thinking that is required when impressions, inclinations and feelings alone won’t do. It is the process from which we get beliefs, attitudes and intentions. It costs though, metabolically, so it is really only called on when required. And in Kahneman’s terminology it is “lazy” which, I think is a way of saying it acts until the exact moment it doesn’t need to anymore, then it stops.

As with everything in adaptive evolution the workings of cognition are shown not to be the noble striving towards an ideal of efficiency. They are the results of an “Ah fuck it, that’ll do” default.

If a genuine, actual God exists and this is his creation then he is my kind of guy. Botched jobs that will barely do, walked away from; and paths of least resistance all the way.

System 2 is not called upon that often because the broadly understandable, associative worldview that System 1 cobbles together in its charming, scatty way is generally unharmful. System 1 is blind to subtle, biasing things like suggestion and priming effects because, mostly, it doesn’t need to be aware of them.

If nothing else at least this provides Derren Brown with a way of making a living.

When System 1 does come across something obviously contextually unfamiliar it nudges System 2 for validation. There is an identifiable shift up from the one system to the other. This loss of cognitive ease is simple to observe. Kahneman uses the sentence:

“When something cement does not fit into the current context of activated ideas the system detects an abnormality, as you just experienced.”

The converse also holds true. If something doesn’t seem anomalous then System 1 blunders blithely on.  Kahneman demonstrates this by asking a simple-to-answer question:

“How many animals of each kind did Moses take into the Ark?”

The answer is so easy that the majority of people don’t spot what is fundamentally wrong with the question. System 1, not detecting an associative disruption, has given the answer. System 2 is still tucked up in bed with a cup of hot chocolate and a Sudoku book.

Kahneman’s book is excellent, and there is a lot more too it than my piffling simplifications suggest. We are not quite as spiffing as we fancy ourselves to be and, as the book goes on to explain, we consistently make bad statistical choices because of the way we’ve developed.

There are economic ramifications I am given to understand.

A Nobel Prize got awarded they say.

I enjoyed the book greatly. It taught me a lot of new stuff as well as reinforcing a lot of previously ill-informed notions I had about why we think the way we think, and why, unless challenged, we believe the things we believe. It is all rooted in the physical, experiential, verifiable world too.

For the most part, I came to understand, when I am watching films I am running System 1. There are bright lights flashing on the screen.


Thing follows thing follows thing follows thing. It is rare that my cognitive ease is unsettled to the point that I think “Hang on a minute, though…” and when it does this is usually the result of a purposeful action on the part of the film makers.

Some film makers are good at exploiting a sense of unease by subtly altering what you expect to see. You can see it in the way John Carpenter has things happening in the corners of the widescreen frame in Halloween for instance. Or Philip Kaufman’s ruthless exploitation of the tilted topography of San Francisco to fill the backgrounds of his Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers with visual non sequiturs.

Others are less good. Ed Wood’s reputation as the cinema’s worst director is well founded. The clumsiness of Plan 9 From Outer Space, its lurches between night time and daylight, its mismatching of stock footage, its swooping tonal changes all make it quite difficult to watch. System 2 is getting constant digs in the ribs from System 1. That all costs you. The raising of your blood pressure and the dilation of your pupils has to be fuelled by something.

People have different thresholds.

I wasn’t irked particularly when the Raiders franchise “nuked the fridge” in Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull. Many people were.

Similarly I did not have a problem in this year’s The Dark Knight Rises when the Gotham City Police Department emerge from their prolonged entombment, fit, healthy, muscular of arm and shiny of buttons to fight Bane and his forces.

“That could never happen,” was the complaint, as though there was no precedent in magical realist literature, fantasy films or comic book writing. It is, at the very worst, para-consistent with what has gone before rather than outright inconsistent. And not even that I think.

It’s a thrilling sequence in a film that is one of the least compromised blockbusters I’ve ever seen.

2012 has been a year notable for films that have come freighted with heavy expectations but which nonetheless have not disappointed.

I adored the colour-saturated Magnificent Seven-for-nerds that was The Avengers. It was so much nimbler than I thought it could possibly be. Similarly I was agog at Prometheus. I think time will be as kind to that film as it has been to Blade Runner, which was also not well understood on its initial release.

The Amazing Spider-man was not to my taste. The revision of the Peter Parker character into a cool, sulky pseudo-outsider made the story considerably less interesting to me, but it is, I now realise, a film that is not intended for me any more than the Twilight, Harry Potter, Hunger Games or Sex And The City films are. It has its own audience, and that’s good.

So what a relief that The Dark Knight Rises, fourth in the queue, was a tour de force too. It was sensible of the studio to give Christopher Nolan a free rein with it as a hobbled compromise would have been too much to bear.

Still though it must have taken some balls for them to release, under the mantle of a summer blockbuster, the movie he presented them with. Nearly three hours long, furiously unconventional in its depiction of the passage of time and without its central character for huge stretches, this is a challenging piece of work.

What can we say about Batman?

He is an archetype of apparently limited flexibility. The only child of philanthropic billionaires he witnesses their murders as a young boy. In adulthood he is compelled to fight crime, seemingly as a result of this early trauma. He dresses as a bat. The reason he gives is that criminals are a cowardly, superstitious lot.

His relations with the Gotham City Police Department are ambiguous but he has a mutually respectful friendship with the Chief of Police Jim Gordon.

Occasionally he has had a partner called Robin. The first Robin, Dick Grayson, later became the superhero Nightwing. The second Robin, Jason Todd, was murdered by The Joker. The third Robin, Tim Drake, grew up to be the superhero Red Robin and his replacement, Stephanie Brown, was killed in action almost immediately. The mantle is currently worn by Damian Wayne, Bruce’s son by Talia al Ghul from a storyline that I had previously thought was non-canonical. And if, when you hear the name Damien, your first thought is of The Omen rather than Only Fools And Horses then you are the sort of person that I would like to be.

Batman once had his back broken by the drug-engorged villain Bane, but he got better. Bruce Wayne’s girlfriend at the time had magic healingy-wealingy powers or something.

There is an ensemble of allies. There is a colourful spectrum of antagonists.

In his time Bruce has been killed. He has been imprisoned for murder. He has been sent back through time. He has been to the Moon, to distant galaxies, to Hell, and to Scotland.

DC, the company which publishes the Batman comics is astute about the character. He, at least in their main line of comics, is most generally played as the obverse of Superman. The dark night to Superman’s yellow sun. It is a very tidy conceit.

Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent are both orphans, but they appear to have reacted differently to their situations. Superman’s affable, monogamous simplicity is a stark contrast to Batman’s glum, polymorphous complexity. A reason for the equivalence of their origins is simple artistic thrift. They both started out in their own comic books at about the same time (Batman in a 1939 detective comic, Superman in a 1938 action comic) with audiences that were separate and distinct. Fear of the loss of one’s parents must have been quite a thing to the kids growing up between world wars. An origin story is just an origin story. No wonder there were similarities.

You can read too much into the moral dualism the characters seem to present. Ooh darkness and light. Ooh the Manichaean struggle at the heart of all men.

Well, yes. But, more to the point, no. It’s just a fucking comic.

In the wake of Frank Miller’s transgressive 1986 comic series The Dark Kight Returns in which Bruce Wayne has succumbed to the ravages of age and Clark Kent has become the puppet of a right wing US President, there was a move towards seeing the expression of something political in comics. Perhaps something profound about twentieth century sexuality too.

Sadly though this doesn’t seem to have amounted to too much. There are now visionary comics writers who receive more attention than they otherwise might have done, but they are still the tiny exception.

Some of Miller’s subsequent work has been a bit thuggish and misogynistic, and The Dark Knight returns seems less and less important the further away we get from it. If Miller has left an enduring mark on Batman at all it is only that there are more stories about youth gangs now and fewer about Bat-Mite or Ace The Bat-Hound.

There have been sideways Batman stories too. There was a series of Elseworld graphic novels in which the Batman story was played out in the Victorian Era, or the Wild West, or against Dracula, or as if Bruce Wayne was Green Lantern. All jolly good but the point is that the parameters are very limited. There are few things of any philosophical worth you can get from Batman.

The point of it is how do you present what there is?

The Tim Burton movies were not that different from the two Joel Schumacher movies that followed. Both directors are more concerned with what happens of the surface of your retinas rather than anything a bit deeper into your head.

This isn’t so very bad in itself I suppose, but I prefer something a little less like a toddler tantrum in a migraine factory.

Christopher Nolan’s three Batmans are infinitely more measured. It would be a stretch to call them adult, but they do at least address the notion of change over time, both as growth and decay. They are also scrupulously directed and cast, and there is a perspicacity at work that you don’t always get in the genre.

There is no shortage of Joker stories in the gargantuan Batman oeuvre, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard his malignant nature more intelligently observed than when, in The Dark Knight, Michael Caine’s Alfred calmly intones, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

There is an uncommon weight of conviction in that.

Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises stand as examples of mainstream cinema that do not underestimate or patronise the audience. There’s a stateliness to them that Christopher Nolan can be proud of, and I am glad that I have lived to see blockbuster entertainment start to move away from the ubiquity of the “defy authority, destroy property, take peoples’ clothes off” paradigm.

And if you know what movie that came from then you are my kind of people.

Anyway, when I sat down to write I hadn’t intended to talk about any of  that puffin-guff, but it wasn’t possible to get to Scooby-Doo Meets Batman without the set-up. Because Scooby-Doo Meets Batman is a complicated prospect. It is not a film to be watched lightly.

It’s not even a film at all if we’re going to apply rigorous taxonomy here. It’s two episodes of The New Scooby-Doo Movies: The Caped Crusader Caper (1972) and The Dynamic Scooby-Doo Affair (also 1972).

Purists need not worry. This is classic era Scooby-Doo. Fred, Daphne, Velma and Shaggy are all present and correct. It is free from the contaminating paw marks of Scrappy-Doo and Scooby-Dum. There is even the classic misspelling of Casey Kasem’s name on the credits.

It is proper.

In addition the same tight team of thirteen writers (only thirteen!) worked on both episodes so the narrative consistency is high.

Second half first. The Dynamic Scooby-Doo Affair is the less confrontational of the two episodes. It is logically robust. The clues are all there from the start. When (SPOILER ALERT!) Mrs. Baker is revealed to be the counterfeiter and we learn that her disappearing house actually turns upside down as camouflage, and that’s why everything was stuck down, we slap our heads in exasperation at our own nincompoopery. It is like Poe’s purloined letter or Chesterton’s postman. It was right in front of us. How could we not see it?

System 1 thinking, Daniel Kahneman would tell us.

If The Dynamic Scooby-Doo Affair has a problem it is that the antagonistic matched binary systems of Batman and Robin/The Joker and Penguin feel ancillary to the story.

My suspicion is that they were added late as an understandable commercial reaction to the success of the first story, The Caped Crusader Caper, because that is where the art lies in this endeavour.

Its story starts quite simply with the Mystery Machine gang meeting Batman and Robin in a forest. The dynamic duo are in pursuit of The Joker and The Penguin who have kidnapped an inventor called Professor Flakey. Scooby and his pals have already been terrorised by a dryad and Batman quickly works out that this fits exactly with The Joker’s modus operandi. Dressing up as a dryad.

They go to the dryad place… Cave. It’s a cave I think.

There follows some hurly and some burly, a lot of it quite hard to follow. It’s a good job those thirteen writers were on hand or the whole thing could have got out of control quite quickly. It all leads to a climactic scene at the Gotham Rubber Factory where Professor Flakey’s secret invention is revealed to be a flying suit.

Well, he says it’s a flying suit. Fans of The League Of Gentlemen will recognise it as part of Daddy’s Medusa machine. (The safe word is Juliet Bravo.)

It is here though that the story becomes an art-terrorism affront to meta-fiction because the rubber factory, in addition to its primary function of being a place to hide mysterious inventions, also makes big novelty balloons for parades.

It makes five of them to be exact. Big balloons of Father Christmas, Fred Flintstone, Yogi Bear, Batman and Robin. And that’s when my highly revved System 2, which had been running like a cooling fan on an over clocked computer for a while, started frantically looking round for some sort of System 3 thinking, just to deal with the complete defiance of narrative congruence.

Father Christmas isn’t real. I know this. He sort of is compared to Scooby-Doo, but for the most part in our reality Santa and Scooby have equivalent degrees of fictiveness. However, in Scoob’s world Santa is fictional (presumably) whilst Scooby is real. And in Scooby’s world Batman and Robin are also real, but in addition to being real in that world they also share the fictional (balloon identity) status of Santa, Fred Flintstone and Yogi Bear.

Small wonder that nine short years later Jean Baudrillard was driven to write Simulacra and Simulation.

I quite like the feeling of apprehension that this brought about in me. There is something dismayingly true in The Caped Crusader Caper about how we interact with fictional constructs which themselves interact with fictional constructs. For something made in 1972 it seems to me to reflect clearly the very contemporary concerns of the deconcretisation of the world and the dissolution of what used to be quite sturdy boundaries.

It was well worth the three quid I paid for the DVD.

Not quite, but almost entirely unrelatedly I was playing Monopoly by myself on my iPad recently. I do this because I am very important and clever and sexy. I was the car and my computerised opponent was the top hat, effete fool that it is.

At one point the top hat landed on the same property I was on and I felt a little warmth and camaraderie. That’s nice for everyone, I thought. On the same square at last. They can have a bit of a chat.

Then I realised that that was silly, because cars and hats can’t talk. Then I remembered that they weren’t even a real car and a real hat. They’re just little metal representations of a car and a hat.

Then I remembered that they are in fact computer renderings of metal models of a pretend car and a pretend hat and that’s the world now. We used to hit actual things with other actual things and now we don’t.

It is an interesting time to be alert.

CLICK HERE FOR “Sketches of Scoob”:   Batman

(Oh. And it’s Noah, not Moses.)


The Pandaemonium of Brians is a scary place near which to find yourself. Sewell, Dowling, Dennehy, that thick cheery gastropod from off of The Magic Roundabout, they are all there. Bryan Adams too at a push. Also among the more daunting, and less cherishable Brians, is Brian De Palma, Catholic mathematician, big bushy beard wearer, and director of really REALLY loud movies.

Brian, a snail

There are, rightly or wrongly, respected films in De Palma’s work: Carrie, Blowout, The Untouchables, Casualties Of War, Carlito’s Way and Mission: Impossible; and I think there are merits in a lot of his misses.

Sisters elicits a magnificent couple of turns from the sainted Margot Kidder. Phantom Of The Paradise lopes merrily along, high on its own narcotic lunacy. Dressed To Kill has an achingly lovely Pino Donaggio score and, that rara avis, a good Michael Caine performance from the eighties. The Fury is a spirited attempt to recapture the éclat that Carrie had but suffers from the wayward plotting of John Farris’s original novel and the what-the-hell-were-they-thinking casting of Kirk Douglas (62) as the boyfriend of Carrie Snodgress (33). It’s as uncomfortable a partnership in its way as Roger Moore and Grace Jones in From A View To A Kill and, er, Kirk Douglas and Farrah Fawcett in Saturn 3.

The less said about de Palma’s Bonfire Of The Vanities, Mission To Mars and Snake Eyes the better, and, as I am sure I have muttered darkly before, his spavined adaptation of Black Dahlia is exactly the sort of film you would get if you showed a bunch of kids L.A. Confidential and then got them to play “cops and other cops” in the playground the next day.

(Do kids still have playgrounds? I am old and out of touch and will mercifully be dead soon.)

Black Dahlia is a particular disappointment as the James Ellroy novel whence it sprang is one of my favourite books. Steeped though they are in Hollywood lore and the occult aspect of West Coast history, Ellroy’s novels are far too finely characterised and abundant in narrative detail to make for good movies – and if you think Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential is a good movie then read the four Ellroy books of which it is the third volume to have the film’s comparative moral and intellectual weediness exposed.

Out of all of De Palma’s oeuvre though the most culturally significant film he has made seems to be Scarface, and for those of us who were around to see it on its first release in 1983 this is considerably surprising.

Scarface (very, very approximately adapted from Howard Hughes’s 1932 gangster movie written by the mighty Ben Hecht) tells the story of the rise from impoverished obscurity to Croesus levels of wealth and power of Cuban immigrant Tony Montana, played with irresponsible glee by Al Pacino.

Principal among its many obvious faults are the facts that the film, scripted by Oliver Stone with his customary lightness of touch, has no likeable characters and surprisingly few actual events for something that demands near enough three hours of your time.

According to popular legend novelists John Irving and Kurt Vonnegut both walked out of the premiere in disgust during the chainsaw sequence which occurs quite early on. At the same showing lovely, cussed old Dustin Hoffman is alleged to have fallen asleep.

Perhaps we were all a bit too close to it then to see it for what it actually is though, because the passage of time has been very gracious to Scarface. The film remains a cold-blooded, borderline reptilian celebration of the pursuit of money and power, but that seems cleverer now than it did in 1983.

At the time the film’s very few adherents saw it as an indictment of the new Hollywood.

To put it in context 1983 had seen the release of some genuinely good films: Zelig, Koyaanisqatsi, Videodrome, The Hunger, The Right Stuff, Local Hero, there are more I bet. You fill them in. It had however also been the year in which the highly unnecessary sequel had become an acceptable part of the cinema landscape: The Sting II, Psycho II, Porky’s II, Superman III, Staying Alive, the battle of the geriatric Bonds with Octopussy versus Never Say Never Again, and, most ominously, the dead-eyed two hour marketing opportunity that was The Return Of The Jedi. And yes, I know that Psycho II is an epic bit of retro-fitted storytelling but that isn’t, I think, what was foremost in the minds of the money guys when they gave it the green light.

What Scarface symbolised at the time for those smart enough to read it (not me I must emphasise since I was then, and remain now, as thick as fudge) was the changing of the movie industry guard. Out with old-fashioned stuff like actually having ideas, character and plot, and in with the new cash-flashing, drug-chugging, bottom-feeding rippers-off of everything that had gone before.

To the experienced eye Tony Montana’s negotiation of a seventeen million dollar drug deal whilst in possession of little other than his tight white disco suit and colossal personal swagger was highly reminiscent of the talent-free producers swarming through Hollywood at the time like cock-a-roaches, but cock-a-roaches who could spin air into gold.

(And for the dedicated here I wholeheartedly recommend Charles Fleming’s brilliant book High Concept: Don Simpson and the Hollywood Culture of Excess which is as perspicacious an indictment of that era as can be expressed using the medium of language.)

Twenty-eight years on and time has deposited layers of irony on Scarface’s existence. It has, for example, been embraced by the hip hop community, whose accumulation of brand name trappings and affection for homicidal carnage provides a jaunty backdrop for a genre of music which was, originally, born of genuine anger at social injustice but now represents the nadir of conspicuous consumption and aspirational inanity. A hymn to the grim, top-end Argos catalogue of expensive things that premier league footballers think they like.

Scarface goes to very great lengths to show the futility of the progression from hungry achiever to bloated pig. Several times during the story’s progression we have our attention directed towards characters who have more than anyone could want or use, but who are still joylessly dedicated to the accumulation of more.

It’s almost readable as an anti-consumerist parable, but as with so many enterprises whose irony is lightly worn that irony is lost on most of the audience.

More money? Faster cars? Thinner women? Bigger guns? Mountains of cocaine on your massive desk in your massive mansion? Yes please. And then some more if that would be OK.

So, a warning from the past to the future, or a crass celebration of excess? The choice is yours.

What is undeniable is that in the quarter century plus since its ignominious opening and subsequent poor reception Scarface has become one of those hits that hit rather heavily.

Two of its lines for instance have become globally, and frequently incorrectly, quoted:

“In this country you got to make the money first. Then, when you get the money you get the power. Then when you get the power then you get the woman. That’s why you got to make your own moves.”


“Say hello to my little friend!” which, frankly, lacks real impact if you’re not actually toting an M16 with the M203 grenade launcher attached as you shout it.

In a shopping centre.

A gun or something earlier today

A number of video games are in debt to the movie too, most notably the Grand Theft Auto series which can leave the nerdy types slightly anxious during the film as they are unable to direct the characters and vehicles using a PS controller. I speak from personal, tragic, lonely experience.

Anyway Scarface is newly out on Blu-ray and this is the first time I’ve seen it in some years. As I’ve previously suggested I think that history is a friend of the movie. What seemed garish and ham-fisted at the time now looks pretty authentic.

This isn’t the early eighties as vaguely imagined by someone who wasn’t born at the time and processed through the numbing mills of the CGI factory. This is the eighties as it actually was. You could buy Quatro in cans and watch Michael Elphick in Private Schulz on the telly when this was being made.

The performances are genuinely great. I’d previously dismissed Michelle Pfeiffer’s performance as Elvira as being a bit bland, but it’s actually a hellishly accurate portrayal of a flint-hearted, unscrupulous woman on the make. All the supporting actors (including the slippery, elusive F. Murray Abraham) are impressive. But it is on Al Pacino’s performance as Tony Montana that the whole film stands or falls.

A picture of a flint-hearted, unscrupulous woman. You know, just in case you never see one in real life

Opinion at the time was largely negative. Pacino’s mannerisms and accent were seen as broad caricature. Worse, there was a creeping liberal dread that it might actually be a bit racist, bordering on the regrettable tradition of blackface. This kind of thing had still been acceptable on British TV until comparatively recently. The Black and White Minstrel Show ran, embarrassingly, until 1978. It was still no big deal to have Michael Bates playing Rangi Ram on It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, and Michael Spice as Weng-Chiang in Doctor Who in the late seventies, but attitudes were changing.

Now, culturally insensitive boor I may be, but I am sympathetic to people’s offence at this sort of thing. Still I do have to confess that it doesn’t actually ruin my day to see someone playing a race, nationality or gender that isn’t their original one if the intention is clearly not to demean or patronise. It’s not Anne Hathaway’s Yorkshire accent that is keeping me away from One Day for example. It’s the fact that I am a boy rather than a girl.

Actoring isn’t generally a hate crime. It’s just dressing up and pretending. And to this end Pacino is a brilliant Tony Montana. He is rarely off the screen, and his initial sangfroid and its gradual mutation into cocaine psychosis is fabulous to behold.

Ultimately though the filmmakers were touchy enough about the idea of alienating a whole slice of humanity that they appended the following lily-livered disclaimer to the end of the movie.

I don’t know about you, but I find the phrase “enriched the American scene” a bit of an unconvincing one.

The transfer of Scarface to Blu-ray is fantastic. As I seem to be finding over and over, old movies shot carefully on proper film make for sumptuous hi-def experiences. I recommend this with some vigour, but only to those with affection for the amorality of the era and tolerance for bass-bothering Giorgio Moroder music.

True Grit

The novel True Grit by Charles Portis was first published in 1968 and must have seemed oddly anachronistic in its rectitude and formality in that furry-headed era of counterculture. It was well received, with Roald Dahl declaiming “True Grit is the best novel to come my way for a very long time. What book has given me greater pleasure in the last five years? Or in the last twenty?”

There were similar plaudits from contemporary writers of the calibre of Ira Levin and Richard Condon. In the UK it was published in 1969 as Penguin paperback number 3017 (thanks to my spheniscid pal Keir for pointing this out The writing was beautiful and the widespread assumption was that the novel would live on permanently, revered as a classic.

In her effusive introduction to Bloomsbury’s welcome 2005 reprint Donna Tartt notes of the novel that in the 1970s “…True Grit vanished from the public eye, and my mother and I, along with many other Portis fans, were reduced to scouring used bookstores and buying up whatever stock we could find because the copies we lent out so evangelically were never returned.”

I don’t agree with Tartt that truffling around second-hand bookshops is a mean or lowly pursuit to which one is “reduced”. Some of us find it quite noble. I do share her frustration though. It pre-echoes my constant astonishment that John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee books don’t enjoy enduring popularity.

So what causes lie behind Portis’s disappearance from the literary canon?

True Grit is an amazing book. It details the handful of days in which fourteen year-old Mattie Ross heads off into the Choctaw Nation with the spent, dissolute US Marshal Rooster Cogburn and the prickly Texas Ranger LaBoeuf, her only intention being to deliver justice to Tom Chaney, the man who killed her father.

The novel sets itself up in an amazingly economical first chapter, and 215 pages later finishes with a beautiful coda in which Mattie relates, in a matter of paragraphs, the rest of her life. I don’t think I’ve ever read such a compelling account of how an entire life can crystallise around a single event, nor as convincing an evocation of how we all move apart in life like galaxies, no matter how important we are to each other.

“Time just gets away from us,” intones Mattie at the book’s very end. Amen to that.

What comes in between the introduction and the end, the actual story of the novel, does not describe a complicated curve, but the details are convincing and Portis’s writing (in the voice of an old woman, remembering events that happened to her as a young girl) is astonishing in the unwavering nature of its conviction. Best of all though the three central characters change gradually and irreversibly over the course of events, and not one of them ever refers to “going on a journey” apart from in a strict geographical sense.

It is not too overblown to call True Grit a great book. That it fell from renown I think can only be blamed on the broad film adaptation that followed.

The 1969 film version of True Grit is truly a film to make the guts tired. It’s lazily directed by Henry Hathaway, who at this point is coming to the end of a career verging on the illustrious, but who still has 1970’s Airport in his future. It’s catastrophically screen-written by Marguerite Roberts who misses every beat, constantly loses dramatic focus and fills her script with such deadening amounts of exposition that even that gobby bloke at the end of the third Matrix picture might think it was a bit much. She can’t even keep hold of the basic id/ego/superego pattern that the three characters in the novel suggest, like McCoy/Kirk/Spock in Star Trek or Quint/Brodie/Hooper in Jaws.

But worst of all, really, it’s an extravagantly badly cast film. Kim Darby (who had played Miri in olden days “proper” Star Trek) is an awful Mattie Ross, too old, yet not worldly enough. And the stunt casting of Glen Campbell as LaBoeuf misfires very badly indeed.

Why True Grit is remembered is partly for its Dennis Hopper turn, but mostly for the fact that John Wayne won a best actor Oscar for his portrayal (broad mummery, bordering on self-parody) of Rooster Cogburn. He beat both Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight who were nominated in the same category for Midnight Cowboy.

Oh Oscar. Why are you so laughably and persistently wrong? Remember in 1982 when you asserted that Gandhi was better than ET, and that Ben Kingsley was better than Paul Newman in The Verdict? Remember also that year when you gave the best supporting actor to Lou Gossett for An Officer And A Gentleman over James Mason in The Verdict? You are an idiot.

So Wayne got his Oscar and there was some mileage to be got out of that, but I think the film cheapened the reputation of the book, and I further think (with noooooo evidence whatsoever) that it contributed to the book’s decline from popularity.

If there is any justice the new film version of True Grit will correct this.

With their 2010 movie version the Coen brothers have opted for an almost literal adaptation of the book. There are a few ellipses and one or two liberties taken, but generally this is the exact plot of the book with large swatches of dialogue rendered word for word from the page.

Hailee Steinfeld is perfect in her steadfast priggishness as Mattie, providing the supporting mechanism of the film with complete confidence. Watching that degree of competence in so young an actor reminded me of Natalie Portman’s performance in Leon. And that’s as big a compliment as I am able to give.

Matt Damon gives good value as LaBoeuf, once again showing that he is shaping up to be one of the standout actors of his generation, and making me sorry that still every time I see him I am shouting MATTDAYYMMONNN in my head. Team America has a lot to answer for.

Josh Brolin does as much as he can with slow-witted character Chaney and Barry Pepper (so good in The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada, and recipient of a Razzie for his collaboration with Battlefield Earth) is a suitably weaselly Lucky Ned Pepper.

But this is very much Jeff Bridges’ show, and he is tremendous as Rooster Cogburn, reclaiming the nuance of character that got blurred in the embarrassing pantomime of John Wayne’s interpretation of the role. Bridges can do the comedy, but he underscores it with the bitterness of age and defeat. His physicality is impressive, and he brings a lot of wounded-elephant grandeur to play, but he never lets you forget that underneath the misanthropy, illiteracy and orneriness – quite far underneath all that in fact – is an actual human being whose current state is the result of everything he has endured in life. The accent, I will assume, is well researched, though I felt we were only ever one “hornswoggle” away from authentic frontier gibberish.

So how good of a film is True Grit in its current incarnation?

There is, I contend, no such thing as a bad Coen brothers film, unless we are to be merciless and include Joel Coen’s cameo in John Landis’s execrable 1985 comedy Spies Like Us. Admittedly some of their less accessible movies like Barton Fink, The Man Who Wasn’t There and A Serious Man have failed to find a wide fan-base. And two of their comedies, The Ladykillers and Intolerable Cruelty are loudly and frequently unloved, which is a shame. The lunatic gravity of Tom Hanks’ ill-judged performance does destabilise the orbit of The Ladykillers rather, but there’s a lot left to enjoy in the film. And as for Intolerable Cruelty I would argue that Geoffrey Rush’s amazing turn goes a long way to cutting through the apparent smugness of the rest of the movie.

True Grit looks beautiful courtesy of the Coen’s regular cinematographer Roger Deakins, and constant Coen composer Carter Burwell scores it up a storm. The acting is great but, I am left to ask, what’s the point of it?

The book is so fluidly written, and so quick to read that in the time it takes to watch this film you could sit down and read it cover to cover.

The film has no flaws at all apart from the fact that it brings absolutely nothing new to what already exists. It’s like Gus Van Sant’s inexplicable shot-for-shot remake of Psycho. No harm has been done, but you strain to find a single microgram of benefit anyone has got from the endeavour.

Why was so much skill, effort and time spent on this?

On a final note, some commentators have tried to infer a political agenda from the fact that Wayne plays Cogburn with an eye patch on his left eye whereas Bridges plays him with the patch over the right eye. As far as I remember in the book Cogburn is described as an old one-eyed jasper. I don’t believe it is ever specified which eye is missing.

Black Swan

Black Swan is very good indeed.

I am not fond of the ballet. As an endeavour, for me, it is right up there emotionally and aesthetically with raffia weaving, with the added drawback that at the end of the ballet you don’t even have a little round thing to put your cafetière on. But we live in an age of metaphorical opulence. So, The Social Network is not “about” Facebook, There Will Be Blood is not “about” drilling for oil, and neither is Black Swan “about” the ballet.

Darren Aronofsky is an intelligent, articulate director and although films in his oeuvre have touched upon abstractions like number theory, religion, faith, love and spirituality (π and The Fountain) it is in the domain of the flesh that he seems to be most confident, coming on like the natural heir to David Cronenberg. In fact I think that as literary adaptations go Requiem For A Dream kicks The Naked Lunch’s talking ass right round the block.

Requiem For A Dream showed an admirably brutal insouciance towards the depredations of its characters’ bodies and psyches. The rot, the pain, the malfunction: that’s just the way things are. It’s still a hell of wrenching film to look at.

The Wrestler was similarly without qualm, and had a parallel agenda. The impossibility of arresting progress. The inability to stay still. The futility of resisting time’s arrow. Bloody thermodynamics.

It’s tempting to look at The Wrestler and Black Swan as the obverse of each other, they certainly have screamingly obvious similarities, but I think that their intentions are completely different.  In The Wrestler Mickey Rourke’s character, Randy The Ram Robinson, is shown to be pitiable and wretched outside of the strictly codified environment of the wrestling ring. He is hopeless with his family. He can’t hold down a job. Only when he’s wrestling does he have any sense of purpose, and it isn’t progressive purpose. It’s about the maintenance of the status quo.

The opposite is true of Black Swan in which Natalie Portman’s character Nina is obsessed by the idea of movement towards perfection. But for her the joy does not lie in the progress. It’s all about culmination. There is no satisfaction in the journey for her. It is one hundred percent about the destination. In this delirium, which basically lasts for the entire duration of the movie, there is no distinction between her life and the performance of Swan Lake she is rehearsing for. It’s not even as if reality and fantasy bleed into each other. There is literally no separation between the two.

Much has been made of this film’s antecedents. It has, even to the casual viewer, less in common with The Red Shoes than it does with Dario Argento’s horror films of the seventies. Mark Kermode, a critic I admire, but whose studied contrariness and confrontational saltiness I find a bit wearing, has likened Black Swan to Deep Red and Terror At The Opera, two of Argento’s gialli. I can see what he’s driving at but Black Swan reminds me far more of the saturated, heightened realities of Argento’s supernatural films Suspiria and Inferno.

There are also, I think, clear lines of descent from two non-consecutive Cronenberg films: Videodrome (1983) and Dead Ringers (1988).  Dead Ringers is an eerie, detached nightmare featuring twin gynaecologists both played by Jeremy Irons. It has at its core a morbid fascination with duality and the thinness of the membrane between the socially acceptable and the psychopathically unhinged.

Videodrome is concerned with, among other things, transcending the limits of the flesh and questioning the validity of any attempt to describe an objective reality. From a narrative point of view the second half of Videodrome looks like a bit of a mess, but the central character is seen to don a virtual reality helmet halfway through the story and we never see him take it off. The descent into incoherence may be the point. It’s difficult to say.

There is no such lack of coherence in Black Swan, but it definitely has its fun with duality, with bodily morbidity and with the uncertain perspective of an obsessed mind.

Portman is an absolute revelation. Who knew she had enough charisma to flame Vincent Cassel off the screen? Not me. I’m glad she got her Oscar. I hope she finds the courage to try more roles like this in the future.

The performance of Black Swan I was at was the first one in Inverness post-Oscars, and whilst it would be nice to write about the film without touching on the viewing experience in this instance I find that I can’t.

It’s very difficult to kill a good film. Scanners looked great on a disintegrating 16mm print fed through two clapped out Bell & Howell projectors the first time I saw it. The Evil Dead looked magic in a scratchy print at the long-since knocked down Tower Cinema in Leeds in the early eighties.

You can wound a good film though, and Vue in Inverness consistently and pointlessly make this their principal aim in life, seemingly.

Bad enough that the audience consisted of a large number of morbidly obese harpies, lured in by Oscar hype I assume, who giggled nervously at every mention of sex. And there are a lot of mentions of sex as this is a film largely concerned with Nina’s burgeoning concupiscence as the role of the Black Swan begins to subsume that of the virginal White Swan. I mean seriously. We’re all grown ups. It’s 2011. Do we still giggle at masturbation and oral sex? Looks like it.

Bad enough too that there was a guy in the audience who couldn’t put his mobile phone away for 108 minutes. His mobile phone, I might add, which had more luminous output than Commissioner Gordon’s fucking Bat Signal.

This is all just audience idiocy. You don’t get it at Eden Court so much. You get it at Vue all the time.

No, what bugs me the most is the contempt the cinema itself has for the film. I’m a credits nerd. I like to stick around until they’ve finished, or what I call “the end of the film”. Now I accept that at the first threat of having to read something some people need to run like Usain Bolt to the exits. It’s a bit annoying and distracting for those of us interested in “the end of the film”, but it’s their choice. Occasionally they will miss a little post-credit treat. So what? Fuck ‘em.

Other folk will stand up in front of the credits whilst they put their coats on and have a bit of a natter. That’s just rude, but again. I can live with it. People are idiots.

Where I draw the line is when the cinema itself obstructs you from watching the credits and this is a Vue speciality. At the end of the last scene of Black Swan, the precise second the (black on white and hard to read) credits started to roll the staff turned the lights up full.

I stood, or more literally, sat my ground. But even as the moody, entrancing Clint Mansell score was drawing to a gentle close they started pumping out the vile ear slurry of Good Enough by Dodgy. It’s depressing.

Film is a wonderful medium and cinema can be a transcendent experience, but Vue make it horrible.

They are dastardly and I do not like them.



And finally, whoever put in my head the idea that every time I see the name Darren Aronofsky I have to sing it to the tune of If I Were A Rich Man… I don’t much like you either.

Of Gods And Men – Tron Legacy 3D

Of Gods And Men was one of the regrettable no-shows at last year’s Inverness Film Festival. Here it is now though, and it was worth the wait.

Telling the story of a group of French monks in Algeria who were found dead in 1996 having stayed in the country during the Algerian revolution despite being advised not to, the film deals in a softly-spoken, slow-handed manner with the question of what motivated them to stay and face death.

It is not a complex film structurally but it is a deep one. It moves with the careful lack of haste of an archaeological dig and gradually allows some insight into what may have motivated the monks, what their experiences of religious calling might have been, and what generally constitutes the practice and purpose of prayer. Most enthrallingly, from my point of view, the film through its precisely delineated characters gets to grips with the question of what men of retreat and non-violence should do when conflict presents itself. “The serenity to accept the things that can’t be changed, courage to change the things that can, and wisdom to know the difference” in the comforting but confusing words of twentieth century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.

Director Xavier Beauvois is not, I think, concerned with answering any moral, ethical or religious questions absolutely, but he clearly enjoys exploring the experience of individuals.

This where my interests lie too.

I was brought up in a religion from which I moved away a long time ago. There were compelling reasons for me not to belong to a specific religious faith, but the matter of (for want of a better word) spirituality has become extremely interesting to me in recent years.

It seems to be such a common experience in people, this nebulous, unquantifiable, undetectable, spooky interaction with the supernatural. I hear people talking all the time about their relationship with God, or Allah, or their Higher Power, or the guiding angel light of their recently-departed Aunty Bunty, but it doesn’t coincide with anything I’ve ever felt or experienced.

This not, I hope, simple posturing on my part. I don’t particularly like the bit in Star Wars where Han Solo slouches insouciantly on the Millennium Falcon’s DFS sofa and quips dully about having flown from one side of the galaxy to the other and never seeing anything to make him believe in the force. This seems particularly disingenuous as a mere twenty years previously the Jedi were poncing all over the shop using the Force, but I digress.

I like to take people at their word. I like to assume for the most part that when people tell you about their own experiences they are doing just that and not forcing an agenda. My problem is that other people’s experience of God seems to be different from mine. When they use words like “spiritual” or “supernatural” I don’t know what they mean.

I’m not a solipsist. I work on the principle that the universe exists, and that it’s the same objective universe for all of us. I think our subjective experiences of it differ, but I’ll never know that for sure. What I’m happy about is that when we all say, “Look, there’s a sorbet or an armadillo or a fleet of Austin Allegros” and we lick it or chase it or drive it towards one another we are sharing an experience.

But I don’t get this notion that we can somehow interact with something that cannot be detected. When I pray, or meditate, or zone out I am aware afterwards that my conscious mind has been absent, or at least stilled to the point where it’s not filling my head, but I don’t feel that I have communed with something ineffable. There’s a lot of unconscious brain activity that goes on in my noggin, and it is good at what it does. It keeps me alive. Bloody hell, where would we be without our autonomic functions? I trust my medulla oblongata to steer me right. It’s a long way from a burning bush though.

When people tell me about their direct experiences of God I believe them, but I haven’t had one myself. I feel very much like a blind person having Magic Eye pictures explained to him. I nod a lot. I don’t really understand the phenomenon.

Of Gods And Men is scrupulous in its depiction of the monks as good people. It even-handedly portrays their local Islamic community as good people too, and celebrates the similarities of the Abrahamic religions. The antagonising force in the Algerian revolution, the Jama’ah al-Islamiyah, is shown to be violent and political, temporally driven rather than spiritually so.

It’s not a proselytising film though. There is room in it for the exploration of doubt and loss of faith, and I was grateful for that. I often feel that of all the apostles Thomas gets the hardest time. His reaction always seemed to me to be the sensible one.

This is absolutely worth your time and subsequent consideration. The acting highlight (and the cast are all utterly persuasive) for me was Michael Lonsdale’s performance as Brother Luc. Day Of The Jackal and Moonraker are now but dim memories.

Also concerned with aetiology, deification and questions of the interaction of conscious minds with their environments is 2010’s least likely blockbuster Tron Legacy. It’s the first film I’ve seen that puts a plausible case for 3D, so intelligently does it use its differentiated frames of reference. The spaces the film uses for its game play sequences use completely different physics from the less frenetic scenes. It’s a remarkable conceit, but more of technical stuff later. First some history. (And I’m afraid there are likely to be spoilers. I wouldn’t blame you for not reading this. The condensed version of the rest of this blog is “It’s really, really, really good.”)

When the original film Tron came out in 1982 it was widely sniggered at. It didn’t look anything like its contemporaries thanks to its weird, processed neon-stripe livery and pioneering use of wireframe computer graphics. Nor did it sound like anything else out at the time thanks to its spiky score by Wendy Carlos (formerly Walter Carlos, if you want more details Google it).

Carlos’s previous gigs had included A Clockwork Orange and The Shining. S/he made some fabulous, if odd, contributions to film soundtracks, a fact for which we should be atonally grateful.

(And yes, I wish I’d made that joke up. Truth to tell I nicked it from David Quantick.)

The other big sci-fi blockbuster of 1982 was ET. I like ET a lot, but if you contrast it with Tron it’s an exceedingly safe movie. The lustrous John Williams score, the sympathetic camera angles, the conventional narrative structure. Next to it Tron is a strange, awkward, angular film. No wonder there was tittering.

And the science in Tron is utter gobbledygook. For a lot of the film’s duration you might just as well say “and then they done some magic” to explain what’s going on.

But there are two important things about Tron.

Firstly, it posited in popular culture (at about the same time William Gibson would have been consolidating the notion of cyberspace in his fiction) the idea that what we put into computers is of us, but no longer in us. It was an early intimation of the Internet, social networks, hacking and what we might loosely refer to as the information revolution.

Secondly it neatly side-stepped the process of becoming dated. A lot of movie sci-fi, particularly the stuff dependent on special effects, becomes passé instantly as technology advances. There is a handful of works (which I think includes Metropolis, Things To Come, Forbidden Planet, 2001 and Blade Runner) that avoid this process by being completely sui generis. Their form and function is so completely contextualised as they are released that they never move forward in time with the rest of us.

Neat trick if you can do it.

So Tron was not initially embraced, but it became increasingly admired and loved and now, 28 years later we have the sequel.

Tron Legacy is ace.

In the original an impish Jeff Bridges played a computer programmer whose work was appropriated by a tech company whose “Master Control Programme” had reached sentience and was accumulating power. Hacking in to the system, in an attempt to prove that his work had been stolen, Bridges’ character enters the world behind the screen (best to hurry past this bit). Here he finds anthropomorphic versions of computer programs forced by the MCP to do battle if they are of no other use. Charmingly the programs have a mythology about the “users” who control their lives for some unknowable purpose.

The olden days of 1982. Can it be that it was all so simple then?

Long story short. Bridges’ character battles his way to the Input/Output tower returns to the “real” world with the proof he needs and becomes MD of the company.

In the sequel, set in a version of now, Bridges’ character Flynn has been missing for some years (there is some great CGI with Bridges in flashback the way he would have looked in 1989, using his Against All Odds appearance as a reference I think).

Flynn’s son Sam, having long given his father up for dead, finds himself in the same virtual world (there is some unconvincing talk of quantum teleportation, again don’t look, keep moving). However things have changed a lot since 1982, the threat is more acute and the stakes are higher.

It is, I hope, not the stuff of spoilers, to reveal that Flynn senior has been in the virtual world all this time, now looking like the ancient and grizzled Jeff Bridges we love from Crazy Heart and Iron Man. Once reunited with his son, Flynn realises he has to do battle with his computerised alter ego Clu who is running the virtual world as a kind of Reich.

This is one of the major similarities with Of Gods And Men, this interest in how a man of peace, whose moral way is not to fight, must behave when confronted with the unacceptable.

A lesser film would sit back on its father/son dynamic and go for some Manichaean goodies versus baddies action. Not Tron Legacy though. As soon as the protagonists and antagonists are in place it moves straight to the theology of it.

Flynn, effectively the creator of the Universe he is in, is tacitly acknowledged as God. Clu, his alter ego who is waging an ideological war with him, represents Lucifer. Flynn’s son Sam is Christ whose presence in the virtual world is shown to be instrumental in saving the artificial life that has evolved there (the analogue of humanity).

Even with this structure though, the film-makers have not settled for the conventional Judeo-Christian interpretation of the ur-soap opera. In this version God accepts that Lucifer only behaves the way he does because that’s how God created him. The film’s climactic battle is not a fight so much as a struggle for God to get the Devil to forgive him.

And through all of this, almost as an aside, the writers throw in with gleeful enthusiasm radical off-grid, Deepnet, dark Web ideas about life, evolution and the boundaries of identity.

I just don’t think you get stuff like this in Pirates of the Caribbean.

The look of Tron Legacy is amazing. The sheen and texture of the CGI is completely appropriate for its setting and, as I suggested earlier, the application of the 3D process is extremely intelligently done. The flashbacks are in 2D. There is a pre-credits warning telling you that they are supposed to look flat.

Bridges’ performances are wonderful and bring to mind the highly lauded twin-acting that Jeremy Irons did in Dead Ringers.

In place of Wendy Carlos’ eighties synthesiser-wonking we get Daft Punk. I was pre-indisposed to this. My mistake. It is beyond apt.

Moving 'long the Queen's highway looking like a streak of lightning.

In short, I loved it. As with two other big-budget films of last year Inception and The Social Network, I feel that Tron Legacy is far braver and more experimental than it is being given credit for. I will happily accept your criticisms of any of these movies, but I maintain that they are better than, say, the entirely predictable, lazily manipulative Toy Story 3.

We got a better class of blockbuster than usual last year.

Inverness Film Festival 2010, Final Day – Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Honeymooner, Symbol

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is a divisive film, almost provocatively light in anything you could conventionally acknowledge as plot, incident or character development. Happily I am a fan of the recent trend towards deeply decelerated Slow Cinema. Just as well really. Here’s a summary: Boonmee, close to death with collapsing kidneys, is visited by the wraith of his dead wife, and the non-human ghost monkey form of his missing son. As death approaches he takes himself off to a cave where, he remembers, the first of his incarnations was born.

Er, that’s it.

I understand that there was something of a backlash at the Cannes Festival this year after Uncle Boonmee won the Palme d’Or. I can dig this. It’s not Toy Story 4 by any stretch of the imagination. It’s hard to recommend to anyone who’s not acclimatized to long, meandering films that may or may not mean something. The best I can say is that my own personal thumbs remained untwiddled.

Ghost monkey business

The curse of the unavailable print struck again with Uncle Boonmee unfortunately. “Our” copy of the film was apparently in Köln rather than Inverness so we had to make do with a less than perfect promotional print.

The PR company’s logo remained in the top right corner of the film right the way through, and we got regular onscreen prompts reminding us that we were watching a promo copy. Hey ho.

On the plus side: ghost monkeys and a talking catfish. I am very easily pleased

Honeymooner, my next film of the afternoon is Uncle Boonmee’s polar opposite. An indie British romance about a guy dumped just before his wedding and his two blokey-blokey male pals. I’m not a gong-banger for North London hipsterism, and my sympathy is not particularly aroused by the piffling woes of attractive, talented, wealthy twenty-somethings, but there was something beguilingly bittersweet about the movie’s candour.

When you get down to it there just are not that many British films dealing maturely with men’s emotions, and it was nice to see a film whose primary concern was the feelings of its male characters. No pantomime male infantilisation here. Plenty of exploration of the duplicitous manipulative side of women though.

It is a bold endeavour, and I became very engaged with writer/director Col Spector’s representation of the film in the Q&A afterwards. He talked extremely bluntly about how difficult it can be putting a film together in Britain. Kudos to him indeed for bringing this in (with huge use of deferred fees) for 43 grand.


And then back to the domain of the doolally with my last film of this year’s festival Symbol, or if you prefer Shinboru, a patently ridiculous and yet deeply, deeply loveable Japanese film.

In Mexico a family goes about their everyday business, cute kid, his termagant of a mother, his gentle granddad, his father who is a masked wrestler and his sister who is a chain-smoking nun.

Simultaneously a Japanese man wakes up clad in clownish yellow patterned pyjamas in a featureless white room. We follow him in a bizarre Scott Pilgrim meets Tomb Raider quest to get out. These two stories are intercut despite seeming to bear no relationship to each other at all. They do converge eventually however, in a way for which the word “unexpected” seems barely sufficient.

In all honesty it is completely purposeless writing about this bonkers film. I might as well do you a little dance about it. It is tremendously absorbing though and I commend it to you highly.

And there ends this year’s Inverness Film Festival at which I had fun in abundance.

Thanks Paul. Thanks Eden Court.

Same time next year?

Inverness Film Festival 2010, Days 3 & 4 – Monsters, The Edge Of Dreaming, Outcast

Days three and four of the mighty Inverness Film Festival were blighted by a couple of no shows: Of Gods And Men and A Woman, A Gun And A Noodle Shop. I wasn’t too fussed about not seeing the first, but had been massively looking forward to the second, a Wushu style remake of Blood Simple seemingly. Bum.

Still, worse things happen at sea and all that. Extra style points to Eden Court for managing the situation with more elan than anyone had a right to expect. The fault, for those looking to fling blame, lies with the film distributors who seem to be as random now as they were the last time I had anything to  do with them, which was in 1987. (Young people, check with your parents. There were years before 2000.)

I remember hearing once of a Science Fiction convention which ordered up a movie for their film programme. I forget which one. An SF movie beginning with S – Solaris or Saturn 3 perhaps. Anyway the print duly arrived from the distributors but, on inspection, turned out to be a copy of Shenandoah. It was sent back for replacement as a matter of urgency and at some expense. The replacement arrived the next day and was –ta da! – another copy of Shenandoah.

The convention ended up showing Shenandoah at three in the morning to an appreciative audience. They’re a flexible-minded lot SF fans.

Bloody film distributors though. Makes you go “Tch.”

I got three films in anyway. First off, Monsters.


There’s been a lot of publicity about the big-balls on a budget exhibited by this film, and it’s all fair comment. Brought in reportedly for under $500,000, with director Gareth Edwards claiming to have done the effects on his laptop, Monsters looks the absolute business.

Set some years after an infestation of aliens has turned the territory between Mexico and the USA into a highly hazardous no-go area, the film follows the adventures of a rough diamond photo-journalist and a pampered rich girl as they try to negotiate their way back home after getting stranded in Mexico.

The background is utterly compelling, and it is uniquely to the movie’s credit that the action takes place six years after the infection took root. There is no invasion trauma here. The characters pretty much all know what’s what, or, perhaps more importantly, think they do.

I adored that aspect of the film. I was less entranced by the developing relationship between the two main characters as the story unfolded. The exemplars the director had in mind are probably Bogart and Hepburn in The African Queen or Gable and Colbert in It Happened One Night. These are noble role models, but Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able, delightful though they are, are not quite in this league.

That’s a micro-quibble though. The film is another British triumph in a year which is already rich in them.



The Edge Of Dreaming is a miraculous documentary. Directed by Amy Hardie, whose speciality is scientific documentaries, this is a shamelessly personal work that uses scientific methodology to approach a subject that initially comes across as “spiritual” or “supernatural”.

Having had a vivid dream about her horse dying and then discovering the next day that he had, in fact, died during the night Hardie took it very seriously when she had another vivid dream about her former partner (now dead) telling her that she would die aged 48. Unable not to take it seriously, but sceptical of supernatural explanations Hardie then documented the year between her 48th and 49th birthday, and this film is the result.

Without wishing to spray spoilers around: Hardie was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness during the year, but she didn’t die.

The film is a highly moving interleaving of the personal and the detached. There are scientists talking about dreams, and how they might relate to perceived reality. There’s even a brief debate about the validity or otherwise of the word “reality” when talking about our consciousnesses and perceptions. Beyond the science though is the story of an intelligent woman and her loving family addressing the practicalities of mortality.

I loved this.

Amy Hardie took part in a Q&A session afterwards. Her thoughtfulness and clear-sighted answers made this the highlight of the festival so far.

Web details herewith:



And then at 22:00 on Saturday…

Outcast which is a macabre marvel: urban horror in the tradition of the Hellblazer comics, the works of Ramsey Campbell and early Clive Barker (his “good” period). I’d had low expectations because of the participation of James Nesbitt and my personal antipathy towards him. Possibly he’s a very nice guy, but I’ve always found him a bit of an enervating presence. I have a low tolerance for whimsical blarney, and I cannot abide a twinkle.

No worries here though. He’s a revelation, channelling a seething Plutonic darkness that I would previously have thought well outside his range. He plays Cathal, a supernaturally tooled-up Irishman seeking his son who is in hiding under magickal protection in Edinburgh.

Director and co-writer Colm McCarthy does an exemplary job of evoking a foreboding atmosphere. He’s particularly strong on eerie juxtapositions, contrasting the desuetude of central belt sink estates (fried breakfasts and dingy branches of R.S. MacColls) with arcane language and sigils daubed in blood on council flat walls.

There’s a strong through-line, some good shocks and an ending I didn’t see coming. Great cast too though (in a classic Feexby moment) the girl I dismissed mentally as being a Karen Gillan wannabe turned out in the credits to be Karen Gillan.

Hee haw.


Outcast showed with a supporting short called I Love Luci. Written and directed by Colin Kennedy it’s neat, sweet and tidy. I laughed but, bloody hell Scotland, not so much of the puke and the poo next time, eh?

Inverness Film Festival 2010, Day 2 – Another Year & Rare Exports

The Inverness Film Festival is trundling along rather wonderfully. Web details for the remainder of the programme ici:

It’s a magnificent line up of films. There are unique opportunities to see short Scottish films supporting some of the features. Also Eden Court is just a damn spiffing place to be.

Two movies today for me. Mike Leigh’s Another Year and Jalmari Helander’s Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale.

Slope-headed, knuckle-dragging fan, as I am, of robots that change into vampires and any movie where one character throws cars at another character it is not often that I cross paths with the Mike Leigh oeuvre.

My stupid fault. Yes, I am an idiot.

The thing is every time I actually see a Mike Leigh film I love it. The problem I have is tricking myself through the door of the cinema in the first place.

It’s hard, therefore, for me to rank Another Year against other Leigh films, but what I can say is that on its own merits it is a brilliant piece of work. Will we see a better British film this year? I would guess not.

Leigh’s practice of starting without a script but building up the lines through improvised rehearsals sounds risky to me, but it evidently works. Nothing here sounds stilted or forced. The characters, their relationships and they way they talk to each other feels entirely evolved and organic.

It was interesting for me to contrast this with last night’s Scottish premiere of Never Let Me Go. The themes of the films are very similar. They each deal with transience, frailty and, ultimately, mortality. But whereas Never Let Me Go (which I think is a fantastic film) makes a virtue of being schematic, elegant and symmetrical Another Year comes across like a chaotic gnarled thing grown out of a particularly fertile soil.

Indeed the central couple’s allotment is a fixed reference point throughout the evolution of the story.

Another Year is a transfixingly gorgeous mapping of the lives of Tom and Gerri (Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen) through four seasons as their friends and relations come and go. The subtlety on display is breath-taking. I kept wondering if some of the dabs of humour were too gaudy, or if some of the depressing declines were too theatrically sad, but no. Everything about the film is perfect.

Jim Broadbent is now at whatever stage of sanctity lies beyond “national treasure” and Ruth Sheen is as warm and complex as she was when I first saw her in High Hopes back in 1988.

If you have any interest in contemporary British cinema please grab your chance to see this.

Fags! Booze! Another Year

Another Year was supported by Adam Stafford’s short film The Shutdown. Set in Grangemouth it’s the tale of an incident at the town’s petrochemical plant. It’s based on a short story by Alan Bissett, who also narrates. The detail is convincing. The visuals are hypnotic.


Rare Exports on the other hand is a broad cinematic act of psychotronic Finnish lunacy. A cross between Miracle On 34th Street and 30 Days Of Night for which the world may not quite be ready.

On the Finland/Russian border a cull of reindeer fails because something more deadly than the hunters gets to the reindeer first. The hunters blame wolves, agitated by the explosions and drilling coming from the Russian side of the border.

Is it wolves, or is it something more sinister? Young Pietari, who knows more about the Russian drilling operation than he should, thinks he knows the truth. The difficulty lies in convincing anyone.

I don’t want to give any more detail away as, really, the less you know about the film the better. And I do strongly urge you to see it, particularly if you have a sense of humour that tends towards the dysfunctional. Occupying a point on the festive axis somewhere between A Muppet Christmas Carol and Silent Night, Deadly Night it’s a worthy addition to the elite league of fine Christmas films. Drily witty, but at the same time horrific and ultimately rousing, there isn’t anything else quite like it out there.

One note that may count as a possible spoiler: Finnish filmmakers, I have now seen enough scary elf penises and scrotums. Thank you.

Inverness Film Festival 2010, Day 1 – Never Let Me Go

There is a feeling I get that I don’t know the name for. Basically if you make an equilateral triangle of Despair, Ennui and Contempt and then extrapolate upwards to form a tetrahedron, then the emotion I’m trying to describe is the pinnacle of the pyramid.

I get it every time a soi-disant literary author has what they think of as an audacious, innovative idea which turns out, in reality, to be a well-worn science fiction device.

The usual form is for the author to deny that they are writing SF at all when its obvious to anyone who’s actually done genre writers the courtesy of reading round a bit that it effing well is effing Science Fiction. Just wanting it not to be isn’t enough.

Every time Margaret Atwood states that her SF books aren’t SF I wince as though she has actually physically punched Ursula LeGuin, Octavia Butler, Lisa Tuttle (or any honest SF writer with a feminist agenda) right in the face.

I cringed through the late seventies and eighties when Doris Lessing distanced her Canopus In Argos: Archives series from the Science Fiction genre and, seemingly the whole of literary society was too polite to say, “Nice one Doris, but what you have done here is to pointlessly re-invent the wheel. Or in this case pointlessly re-invent the Dune trilogy.”

I read Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel Never Let Me Go with that same dismaying nameless feeling described above. The idea, his amazing idea, of a secondary class of humans cloned solely to provide organs for “proper” humans is only surprising if you’ve not read any SF ever. Indeed the same year that Never Let Me Go was published the Michael Bay film The Island was released at cinemas. It’s pretty much the same story.

The Island is a dire film. Truly a crass, artless, thudding, bombastic, cock-wagging mess of a movie. But, in its defence, it is quite clear about its aims. There’s a perfectly serviceable basic three-act structure to it. Set-up. Conflict. Resolution. Crucially, low though they may have set the bar, the creators have had a specific intention and have seen it through.

Never Let Me Go (the novel) by contrast comes across as a meek, bovine version of the same story.

There is a superb axiom in writing that the author should strive to “show, not tell”. Marvellous. Except I think that the most important part of that is “to show”, whereas Ishiguro seems to think it’s “to not tell”.

It’s maddening the lack of explanatory detail in the book.

My generous understanding of it is that Ishiguro has created the lacunae and the vagueness as a sort of literary negative space. An absence into which we are invited to project our own interpretations of meaning.

My less generous understanding of it is that there was in his mind no clear concept of what he was writing about.

So where is the wisdom in trying to bring that book to the screen?

One of culture’s most unwatchable debasements happened when Fernando Meirelles (a bone fide brilliant director) tried to adapt Blindness a novel by Portugal’s greatest living dead writer, Jose Saramago, for the screen. The mimsy, farting mis-shape that resulted is awful; a grunting insult to Day Of The Triffids and 28 Days Later and numerous other narratives of integrity. What was the original point of the book? No idea. The film has had any trace of artistic accomplishment ruthlessly expunged from it. Whatever muse was ever involved in its inception was bludgeoned to death long before I got a chance to see the film.

So whilst the prospect of a Never Let Me Go movie was, for me, generally a grim one I could never quite let go of the fact that it was directed by Mark Romanek.

I still recall vividly the galvanising effect that Romanek’s first movie Static had on me the one and only time I saw it in 1986. It stars under-exploited treasure Keith Gordon as a worker in a crucifix factory who collects all the malformed crosses that would otherwise be thrown away. In his spare time he has invented a machine which, he says, can see into the afterlife. Static seems subsequently to have been disowned by Romanek. I think this is a shame. I’d dearly love to see it again.

Romanek didn’t make another movie until 2002 when he wrote and directed One Hour Photo, a film of incredible control and nuance.

In the intervening years he worked as a director of music videos including an emotionally ravaging one for the Johnny Cash version of the Nine Inch Nails song Hurt.

I’m always going to watch Romanek stuff then, whatever the apparent pedigree. But add to that a script from Alex Garland (who is much more comfortable writing for the screen than the page) and the acting talents of Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield and suddenly I’m up for it.

The film is quite beautiful.

It is beautiful visually thanks to Romanek’s masterful eye for frame-filling and use of colour, but it has a beauty beyond the mere superficial. With a few plot changes (choice rather than expediency) and the occasional inversion of the implicit to the explicit, this story has suddenly becoming an unbelievably moving experience.

From a novel I thought reticent, clumsy and monochromatic has come a very rich experience indeed. Romanek and his shockingly talented cast have uncovered a lot in this narrative that simply wasn’t evident in the book however closely you read it. Themes of purpose, transience and the compromises we make. And, most witheringly, a stark exposure of the futility of all the expectations and hopes we have, and the pointlessness of the suppositions we make as we huff inelegantly from alpha to omega.

A great film which I cannot wait to see again.

Rachel Portman’s score is lush too.

Pictured: Spider-Man versus Sally Sparrow