La la la, la la la la la, la la la…


I mean, how else to start this ramble?

No, I know it’s almost been a year since I wrote anything here, but it’s been a terribly long and not particularly pleasant one, and if you don’t have anything good to say, sometimes it’s okay not to write thousands of words across the internet.

But I have a few good things to say. Mostly because I’ve started going to the cinema again, after Odeon finally decided they would introduce the Unlimited thing that Cineworld did for so long, and I could justify going to see films that weren’t necessarily going to be £15-good (what, realistically, can ever be that good?!).

I have two films to talk about. 1. LaLaLand. 2. Assassin’s Creed.

1. Now, I am not at all sure that LaLaLand is deserving of 14 Oscar nominations (certainly not those two songs – if any song in the film was good enough to be up there it was the John Legend one, that was decent), but I am very glad I went to see it in the cinema.

I’m just not quite sure I saw the same film as everybody else. Mind, I increasingly feel like my experience of life is not quite the same as everybody else, so at least it was consistent in that.

I thought it was beautiful. Really, truly beautiful and fascinating, but not at all beautiful because it was colourful, or because it was “like 1940’s coloured-in cinema”. At best, it was a cold pastiche of that, a wonky, bitter, tired pastiche of it. The song and dance routines, such as they were, owed as much to the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer as they did to any Singin’ in the Rain, and trust me, no trust me, nobody has seen the Buffy musical more than I have.

Midway through Gosling and Stone’s first big number together, I got the image of Xander and Anya’s “I’ll Never Tell” in my head, and from thereon in, it was rather difficult to shake off. Same moves, same tone, same we’re-not-professionals-here thing; same influences, quite possibly, but that’s a lot of similarity.

And the relationship was very similar, too – it’s not healthy, it’s not positive, and these are not good people in any real sense of the word, but they each get something out of it.

One thing I felt very clearly about: the film hates Gosling’s character. Hates him. He’s called Sebastian, for starters, and Sebastians are rarely heroes (is the lobster one a hero? Is Sebastian a lobster? I’m trying to make a Little Mermaid reference but I’m too much of a snowflake to watch Little Mermaid so I’m falling flat on my own joke), and he is straight up awful, hideous, vile, from the moment we meet him, to the moment we leave him. I do not, cannot understand why anyone would find him to be a romantic lead. He’s a nightmare. But a useful one.

Mia, too, is a nightmare. Mia (the name of every secondary school student’s drama exam character) is tired and jaded and she’s probably a really good actress but we don’t really see or know enough of her to know, and I like Emma Stone’s voice but a lot of people don’t so it doesn’t really matter. She doesn’t really like Sebastian but he’s interesting, and interesting is enough, sometimes, because she isn’t really relying on him until she is because she wasn’t paying attention, and then that’s what happens sometimes in life: you fall into things that aren’t good for you in the long term…but that doesn’t mean they can’t be good for you eventually.

The thing I particularly like is that both Sebastian and Mia are pretty grim. Sebastian is objectively and excessively so, from the white-boy saviour of the jazz that is quite ready to save itself aspect, to the fact that he has textual experience of stalking women and insisting they will like him, because the way Sebastians live in this world is to say things are so until they are. He has precisely zero redeeming features, but Gosling is a brilliant actor of such difficult stuff, and therefore he is, somehow, still watchable.

Neither Sebastian nor Mia are intentionally, significantly awful to each other. Sebastian is self-centred and doesn’t pay attention to dates. He walks into her and doesn’t go to her play, but in his head, there are reasons for both that add up well enough. She is past caring about anything much, and doesn’t pay attention to dates, and she doesn’t like it when Sebastian seems like he might drop the one thing that kept him interesting – which is not, incidentally, his unsuccessfulness, but is instead his resolute intent to experience life at its most miserable. It is not that he makes her feel better about being unsuccessful, it is that he makes striving for the dream look a little more like the dream than it has done in a while.

It’s not particularly romantic. It’s not a great love story. It is a wonderful piece of story-telling about paths crossing at a crucial time in life, about how even the worst people can, whilst being awful, sometimes give you just what you need, and about how sometimes, you give them that too. And that, really, is fine.

Honestly. It’s fine. He doesn’t save her. She doesn’t save him. They kick each other, metaphorically, up the artistic arse, at their last chance to have done so.

That end bit, that rehashing of what it would have been like if they really had been a romantic couple, how it could have been…I look at the way they come out of that and see two characters who are not sorry that it did not pan out that way. It would not have been roses. It would not have been better. Seb wouldn’t have had his club, and would never have been a successful hanger-on; Mia wouldn’t have been able to give herself to her craft, nor to find herself again, her old self, who, I like to presume, was happy with the relationship she wound up with, even if, for a moment in time, it was not what she thought she had wanted.

That, then, is my lengthy how-I-read-this, and it may be that I have spent a lot of my life trying, on and off, to variously achieve dreams, serve coffee, and be interesting that it resonated so much for me, but I think this is a lot more snide and pushy and sarcastic a film than all the glowing reviews I see.

I’m here for dislikeable characters and difficult conversations and I don’t need to root for anyone to enjoy a film. I didn’t feel that was a musical; I felt like jazz thrived despite Sebastian, rather than because of him, and I would totally go and see The Messengers because the keyboards were pretty cool and I liked that song more than most of the rest of them. And there we have it.

2. Assassin’s Creed. And so to a film made, as they say, specifically to delight me. I mean, really. What a joy, what an absolute joy and delight. I would have thought this anyway, but there were two things that consolidated this. a) The fact that Michael Fassbender spends a good chunk of the tail end of the film shirtless FOR NO REASON and b) the fact that they spoke Spanish in Spain and that all the past was subtitled. Note, I say these consolidated my conviction it was made for me – I probably would’ve enjoyed it anyway.

The thing with Assassin’s Creed was that it understood the source material to the extent that you both are and are not the central character. You look good as Michael Fassbender, or it’s good to look at Michael Fassbender. You don’t know who you trust, until the story decides otherwise. You’re learning as you go along.

I thought the balance between past and present was perfect for upping the genre to something slightly more sci-fi, slightly less appropriated history. I thought it danced fairly neatly past all the usual issues with large blockbuster films – not least because, and once I started looking for it, I looked for it a lot and always found it, wherever there were men in positions of power or authority, there were also women, and the gender balance was spot on. I am less of the person to make this comment, but in some senses, it was also a far more racially diverse film than I am used to seeing from the big-budget, game-adapted genre.

Marion Cotillard was as good as I’ve ever had the opportunity to see her, but never better than during the sequence where, having consistently worn only flat shoes, her character suddenly dons a pair of wedges for the denouement. Cotillard is a grade A red carpet-walker and I’ve seen her master many heels flawlessly, but she acted “oh crikey these shoes are annoying” in the most subtle of ways that likely escaped anyone who’s never experienced it, but brought a real touch of insight and authenticity to her character.

The female roles were never ~female, and the father-daughter relationship was pleasingly written – never exactly subversive, but with an edge of interest that is often missing, for there was content aplenty, here. Indeed, the characters from major to minor all had their own characters and motivations, their own stories and lives – a conversation between two characters was two lives intersecting, and that meant there was far more weight to just about everything.

Indeed, I think that’s what I loved about the film. In many ways, the content was nonsense, and the plot was tenuous. It barely held together, but I was enjoying it so much for depth and range of character, and for sheer pacey spectacle, that I went with it. I had a small epiphany on leaving, which was that, in blockbusters which feature Megan Fox eschewing outerwear, most internet critics are happy to go along with things and will leave feeling relatively entertained. Now, I don’t know whether or not I would have been quite as delighted as I was if Fassbender had remained fully suited throughout, but I like to think that there was still enough substance. What didn’t happen, though, was any female character less than fully and appropriately clothed, so perhaps a certain demographic drifted off, and perhaps the plot wasn’t tight enough for the serious story enthusiast. But. But.

My hope is that the target demographic has shifted somewhat, and that just maybe, I am it, and that there are more like me out there, who can greatly enjoy a decent bit of cinema that makes just enough effort to subvert expectations by firmly meeting my own.

And so it’s been a lovely week in the cinema, for me! I wonder what other film-based joys 2017 has in store? It’s about the only area of things I’m particularly looking forward to. Next on my list of things to be specifically excited by is Hidden Figures, which I feel I have had to wait forever for already…

Watching A Girl On Fire


We went to see Catching Fire today. I am a big fan of the Hunger Games novels. Big fan. I’ve read them multiple times, and each time I get to them again, I finish all three in 18 hours, tops, because they’re so damn compelling and readable. Every time. Every time I know what’s next, there are other layers, other thoughts, all the feelings. They are the heart-and-mind successor to Harry Potter, to all manner of great literature, but recently, at least, to Harry Potter, because they take hard times and difficult life and dark things and conflict and conflicting emotions to new levels.

I love the Hunger Games because they are always Katniss’ story. She is always the story. Even when her life is pulled this way and that, used by both sides, manipulated to the extreme, she is so consistent and strong a character that she’s never lost within the will of others. She survives a love triangle by being the best thing about it. She is the goal, the object, the fascination of the whole thing. She is a joy, a pain, a problem and an aspiration in turn, sometimes simultaneously.

I love the films because they understand Katniss’ story, but aren’t afraid to round it out. The perspective remains the same, but we get just a little more, just a touch more of President Snow, a little more of the districts, of the gamemaker, of things outside Katniss’ control and sight. Because we are lost when she is lost, and she finds the viewer, as well as the answer. Because she’s lucky…but not as lucky as she thinks. Because Katniss does the next thing, and survives the next obstacle, and barrels on through the most appalling situations…only because there is no other choice. She has something to live for, but even that is not always enough to convince her to stay alive. The fates conspire as much as everything conspires all around her.

The look of the films helps, undoubtedly. They capture the high technology and utter desolation of the outer districts perfectly. There are a few issues – mostly with the pace with which we’re forced to move through the story, an unfortunate constraint of legitimate cinematic timing, which, to be fair, I think is respectfully overcome in terms of the watching audience, and, still resonating, the fact that Katniss was racially miscast. I don’t know how much it’s my place to wonder about that, but, for all my utter and absolute adoration of the flawlessness that is Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss (and Jennifer Lawrence as an actress, more on which shortly), I still feel there was an opportunity inexplicably lost. I don’t like to forget that that happened…still, this is not Lawrence’s fault, and oh my, does she embody the strength, weakness, emotion and self-centredness of Katniss in an absolutely defining way.

And she is a magnificent actress, unashamed of being funny, of crying, of epic bitchface (I hope it’ll be infinitely in place on ONTD posts everafter), of being wrinkled or out of breath, exhausted, puffy, blistered, bright, beautiful, over-dressed, under-dressed, anything. Lawrence has a belief and confidence in herself as Katniss that makes Catching Fire in particular an extremely easy film to watch, even whilst its content is tough and challenging, or edging on cheesy or typical, or confusing, or quiet…it is always easy to look at her face and feel completely within her character. You are as within Katniss’ mind as her dialogue in the books, if not more so, for she’s much less irritating when shown briefly kissing characters than when extensively thinking about it – not something I ever hold against her, for I too have been a teenage girl; still, brevity is the soul of romance sometimes, and particularly in blockbusters.

This isn’t to forget Lawrence’s surrounding cast, which always match her. The chilling head peacekeeper sent to District 12? Just the right amount of conviction, self-belief and understated horror to be so unnerving that you only want to look away, but never can. Haymitch, and his slightly reworked, damaged, weatherbeaten, circumspect mentorness. Effie Trinket, showing that anyone from the Capital might, if only shown the truth of things, come to understand, although they’d never be willing to relinquish their hair. Cinna – the ever-gorgeous Lenny Kravitz who will apparently never age – making the most beautiful stand against anything that I can imagine. Peeta – such an important part in Katniss’ story, yet, in this film, so welcomely underplayed. Yet, if you’ve read what’s to come, you know that this part is played with such professional, even coolness that every line could, could be duplicitous. Could be a reflection of anything. Could be whatever you believe that character to be being at any point.

The biggest strength of Catching Fire, for me, was that, for the first time – and, as I said, I’ve read the books a lot – I really believed in Peeta/Katniss. I’ve understood, perhaps, but never cared for their partnership, hoped for or otherwise. But I felt the film brought the necessity, the edge that I wanted that pairing to have. I also found myself leaving with an unexpected slice of Peeta/Finnick (manipulated, sure, but hey, I’m always willing to be manipulated in the cause of attractive pairings). “I wish I’ll love someone like that one day…” – film, you make it too easy.

And let’s talk about Finnick for a second. i’ve seen the actor in a good few interviews and whatnot. I didn’t quite get his casting. Couldn’t see it. But, didn’t mind all that much. I thought Finnick a most interesting character, and worthy of a lot better than he gets in his peak sequence in Mockingjay (indeed, my biggest fault with the whole novel trilogy is Finnick’s latter storyline in Mockingjay which I had to read about three times to fully understand), but he wasn’t of my heart like Katniss. I wasn’t moved by him as much as some readers were, and he didn’t capture my emotions like he might have. And yet, and yet. Within seconds of being introduced to film!Finnick, I had fluttering heart and twisting stomach. I was genuinely surprised by his physicality, his understanding of how to play surface charm, bright, bold character with edge and heart and potential and past all there in the fewest of lines. That he came over hugely attractive was obviously at the heart of it, but as I say, I’ve seen the actor around aplenty and felt not a thing. This was the character brought to perfect realisation, for me, and there was a lot riding on the shoulders of the Finnick-casting, so again, I say gold star.

There are odd parts of Catching Fire – it’s always difficult to do crazy monkeys without coming over all Return To Oz, say – but the actors hold it perfectly at every single moment. No-one ever lets up their game. When the writers explain things, it’s only so you can watch the film (how does the clock work, what’s the forcefield), never to let you into things you’re better unearthing in the text of the novel (how does the Capital work, what’s the point of the Games). The faith in the audience is absolute, and the willingness to take them on a real ride – tough, uncompromising portrayals and teasings-out of the real violence, the real horror of the system – is admirable. The sequence in which Cinna is beaten against Katniss’ capsule whilst she, helpless, is lost as she begins to ascend to her own greatest challenge…utterly breathtaking in its unpleasantry, in precisely the way that a 12A can be, should be, when it deals with the consequences like Catching Fire does.

This is why I loved the book. It’s the greatest sequel, in terms of consequences of the actions taken in the original, that I have ever read. It isn’t simply a continuation: it’s cause and effect. It’s z because y because x. It’s think before you speak. It’s mass media, state persecution, rebellion, control, defeat, hope, desperation and despair, brought together like very few novels can. It’s got points to make about almost anything and everything, and it’s got a lot of whatever you want it to be saying right in there.

Catching Fire lets you start any conversation you want to that will take you to almost any kind of issue. That’s no mean feat. It’s a door to bigger problems than cinema, It’s a way to start thinking about how revolutions begin, and what they do and don’t mean. It’s a way to analyse the hard things, to get into that state of mind that lets you see the worst (and, rarely, best) of humans, and how and why extreme situations bring these things to the fore. The film is the perfect version of everything in the book.

I am in awe, frankly, of how beautiful and strong a viewing experience it was. My brief logistical issues aside, it is a perfect realisation of the novel, which I found to be a pretty perfect novel. Given that I am not the greatest fan of the third book (despite my utter love of the conclusion of the series, which I think is completely, perfectly spot on…l just feel there are content and editing issues with the first two thirds of it), I await the remaining two films with intrigue, hoping that they can distil the essence of Mockingjay and make the best of the brilliance assembled for Catching Fire, and behind the scenes. These are momentous films, for some of the greatest storytelling of our time, and how fortunate we are that its protagonist is an utterly real young woman whose faults and excellences are treated with complete evenness throughout.