Wednesday, December 29, 2010


There is a particular kind of violence that is the common currency for Hollywood directors making big budget action films over the last twenty or so years. It is at once graphic and numbing, and it is the kind of savagery that has parents, teachers and governments concerned for the psychological welfare of youth. Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto is a neat example of this: blackish-red blood, ‘illegible’ wounds, camera cuts that do not actually depict the brutal act, the sound of a sack of flour dropping when punches are thrown, Pythonesque spurting gore. It is not hard to identify a high level of stylisation here, but also – predictability. The reason that, for many of us, this kind of film is fairly easy to watch and not lastingly troubling, is that we’ve seen it all before. Here comes that word… we are desensitised because between Apocalypto, Lord of the Rings, Die Hard, Saw, Scary Movie and the Watchmen, film violence has been packaged to be watchable, it’s absent of the erratic oddities of real-life injury and frankly, none of us get that vicarious shudder out of seeing Jason Bourne with that cosmetic dribble of blood over his left eye.

It is necessary to set out this account of arbitrary film violence in order to describe some of the elements of Black Swan. This is because Aronofsky’s highly anticipated film depicts a kind of violence not usually seen in cinema. It’s delicately detailed, unsparing in its clarity. You blink, and unlike a normal film, the image is still there. Most disturbing of all, this bloodshed turns every object that the viewer can see into a possible device of pain – building up a tangible tension the like of which I have only experienced once or twice before. Whilst I felt this was a magnificent film, and an important piece of cinema, particularly in the career or Natalie Portman, I felt upset that I was viewing things that I would rather not, just because I was held to the film by its prestige and quality. I spent no small fraction of my time in the cinema peering gingerly out from between my fingers, by the end credits I noticed the tension and revulsion of the violence had left me mildly nauseous, and I simply felt relief as I got up from my seat. I almost wish I knew the film already, to reduce the tension. I wish my first viewing of Black Swan was actually my second viewing.

Black Swan is at first glance an unlikely location for horror. It takes place in the unforgiving arena of professional classical ballet. In a timeless, masterly performance, Natalie Portman dons tutu and ribboned-pump as Nina Sayers, a technically accomplished, but oft-overlooked ballerina, at a stage of her youth in which she is best primed to launch what could be a prestigious career in the public eye. Her company’s forthcoming production of Tchaikovsky’s seminal Swan Lake and the retirement of the company’s prima ballerina Beth, combine to change Nina’s life. The opportunity to dance the dual part of the Black and White swans (one a virginal maiden, the other a malevolent seductress), provokes her out of her usual demeanour: a sweet, focussed girl, ungraduated into adulthood under the pervading care of her mother Erica, a retired ballerina herself. A misfit in the company due to her naivety and closeted inexperience, she begins to experiment with her sexuality and daring in order to better understand her darker side, to embody the Black Swan and win the role of the Swan Queen.

This film certainly does no favours to the discipline of ballet. Whilst fluffy as a cupcake on stage, ballet requires dedication, unfaltering peak physical fitness, and the sacrifice of much socialising – despite the fact that it is an art that most people won’t ever experience, and which tends to breed a very insular and self-referential community. It is also wearisome to the body – a dancer in their mid-thirties is long past their prime, and probably bears the marks of numerous injuries, particularly to the feet. An ex-dancer I know once told me that you are only a “true ballerina” once your have broken a big toe. There is certainly a lot of ugliness at the periphery of ballet, as there may be with any physical activity. In Black Swan, Aronofsky has gathered up this ugliness and hardship, and laced it together with the age-old narrative of a troubled genius driven to the edge of sanity, society and sanctity by the pursuit of artistic perfection.

What ensues is a tense, unpredictable oscillation of personality. Nina’s natural state of mind resembles the innocent White Swan, but each time she forces herself into the guise of the Black Swan, she has further to go to return to herself, and it is immensely gratifying to watch the twists and layers move like ebbing and flowing waves. The story of Nina’s transformation is so grandiose as to echo the great female dramatic characters of history – Cathy of Wuthering Heights, Ophelia, Lady Macbeth, Helen of Troy, Salome and Medea. Nina’s story is one that feels like it belongs in the annals of ancient literature, and yet remarkably Nina lives in the same world we do. She owns a mobile phone and rides the subway; her fellow dancers sport naff tattoos, drink cocktails, take uppers, flirt with each other and gossip in the green room. Nina’s turbulent emotional state is only heightened by the normality of those around her, none of whom recognise her turmoil, perhaps because the blueprint for Nina’s troubled personality comes from a tradition of storytelling that we have little equivalent for in this modern world. We no longer live in a time where people die of broken hearts, are possessed by the devil or maintain enemies, yet this seems to be Nina’s internal reality.

Black Swan is a film in which no detail is without meaning. This is no doubt a contributory factor to the film’s already widespread acclaim and will no doubt give it longevity. The music of the Swan Lake ballet, in particular the overture and the iconic The Swan permeate the whole film, the orchestral soundtrack remixing its famous motifs or slowing down the piece almost beyond recognition – warping it to enhance whichever scene it matches. I suspect that apart from some incidental music, the entire soundtrack was lifted from Tchaikovsky’s original score. The leitmotif of black and white is also prevalent, both signifying and bamboozling the viewer’s understanding of the presence of good and evil, truth and illusion, sanity and lunacy.


If the food you eat when you go to the cinema is anything to go by, Tron is the kind of film you watch whilst gulping down a $20.00 carton of popcorn – the kind that’s so large you don’t run out before the end of the film. Sometimes the experience of going to the cinema (snacks from the lobby, the trailers, the plush red seats, the air-conditioning) is more enjoyable than the substance of the film you are seeing. I don’t mean to say that Tron: Legacy is a movie you might see because nothing else is on. Rather, I mean that everything about the film embodies the spirit of blockbuster film culture in the 21st century. This of course is an inadvertent characteristic of a film that is as earnest and full of conviction as any piece of science fiction or major action release.

Falling halfway between a re-make and a sequel, Tron: Legacy is the story of Sam Flynn, son of disappeared tycoon Kevin Flynn and heir to Encom, a successful global software corporation. Being entirely disenfranchised by the drag of his father’s company, Sam has no girlfriend, no friends, no assets and no aspirations. He spends his time playing practical jokes on the acting board of his father’s company, spontaneously base-jumping and performing death-defying acts on his resplendent Ducati. In other words, he is perfectly primed for adventure when he discovers the virtual world of The Grid, where his father has been trapped for 20 years. The Grid is an efficient and spotlessly beautiful world - all is shiny black surfaces, neon lines, polished glass and glowing machinery. Everything is modular – machines pop out of hidden panels, and even the people living there are computerised. Everything on the Grid –the buildings, the people, the vehicles- is sexy. If the iPhone grew on trees, its plantation would surely be sited on The Grid.

Legacy is perfect for 3D, and there are several scenes that make use of that ‘so-real-you-flinch’ effect and which enliven vast expanses or vertiginous heights. There is little denying that The Grid is a brilliant 21st century manifestation of the visual effects of science fiction. It takes elements from Avatar, the Matrix and Transformers, then adds in real-world ingredients from the digital revolution: the recently ended re-hash of all things Eighties, the popularisation of specialised gadgetry and the trend towards a neo-deco penchant for streamlining. The film is also penetrated by CGI face-altering technologies. Jeff Bridges plays both Kevin and Clu. The latter is digitally altered throughout the entirety of the film to resemble a much younger Bridges – the lineless, handsome face we remember from the original Tron. Most importantly, as any Mac product user will tell you, the technology of The Grid is intuitive – no real technical, programming or hardware knowledge is needed to be able to operate the futuristic lightcycles, planes or automated doors*, just as none is needed to use an iPod, a Blackberry or a digital SLR camera.

Daft Punk are in situ as a direct link to our current world, in which style is hallmarked by smooth surfaces, reflective glass and the total invisibility of the gritty inner workings of machinery. Their presence constitutes a brief moment in which the fourth wall falls and director Joseph Kosinski says “this is one for the fans”.

For a film that has the word ‘Tron’ in the title, the character of Tron barely features. Whilst this might be a little confusing for those who haven’t seen the first film, it’s not that important to Legacy. In fact, like many chase/explosion action films, this plot is only lubricated by a viewer’s willing indifference to its inconsistencies. Garret Hedlund’s Sam Flynn is exactly Par, making him conveniently invisible against the glittering spectacle of The Grid, and Jeff Bridges is charming as the outdated arcade owner-cum-spiritual guru, and his part is peppered with some real gems of anachronistic 80s slang, man.

Not unexpectedly, cliché’s abound. Tron: Legacy is fitted out with a complete trifecta of witless exclamations: “Go! Leave me! Save yourself!” plus the unforgettable “What have you become!?” and of course “Perfection was in front of me the whole time, I was just too blind to see it.” Or something like that. Whatever. I may have got the exact wording wrong; I was munching popcorn pretty loudly at the time.

*A Note on Genre-Spotting: The genre of ‘Science Fiction’ in film, may be defined by the presence of automatic sliding doors. These will usually have some kind of ‘ready’ or ‘lock’ light beside them, a swipe-card or bio-recognition panel to trigger access, a female voice advising the user of the space they are entering, and sometimes a burst of white mist to denote the change in pressurisation between the rooms. If a film has an automated door with any or all of these features, it is without a doubt a work of Science Fiction.

Monday, December 13, 2010


Apparently there is, or was rather, a movement in the mid-70’s referred to as Northern Soul, and of which I was wholly oblivious until a few evenings ago. Part of the Summer outdoor programme at Somerville and Joondalup Pines, Soulboy is the rather mild story of a young man living in Stoke-On-Trent, which was a celebrated centre of industrial production for England, but not an exciting place for a young person to live. A little green from his limited experience of subculture, Joe McCain played well by the cheekily-dimpled Martin Compston, and his embarrassing best friend Russ (Alfie Allen) are lured by the charms of a startlingly beautiful blonde into the world of ‘Northern Soul’.

Northern Soul is what it sounds like: the children of rough, blue-collar workers in the North of England catch a shuttle coach once a week down to a resurrected dance hall where they listen to soul music and perform some very tricky dance moves. Accompanying the dance and music, are the various fashion particulars of northern soul: long leather jackets and singlets for the men, circle-cut skirts and bobby socks for the ladies, and a good helping of leather soles and patch-laden bowling bags all round. Soulboy depicts this culture as a short-lived one, yet representative of a unique reaction to the scarceness of enriching popular culture available to young people working in the tired industrial centresx of the North, especially in the economic prosperity enjoyed pre-Thatcher.

This film is pleasant enough, and the dance culture it illuminates is interesting, certainly enough so to be the subject of a film. The plot, however, the story of Joe McCain, is not a captivating one. It is styled as a heartwarming coming-of-age film, yet lurks in the wishy-washy territory between drama, comedy and historical pic. I imagine director Shimmy Marcus’s personal positive mantra was ‘”I will make this year’s Billy Elliot. I will make this year’s Billy Elliot.” It falls very far short of Billy Elliot, however, and no one character behaves in an exceptional manner. Perhaps this film is best described as a snapshot of what a Northern Soul dancer’s experience of the scene was actually like: A normal guy likes to go to a venue, where a bit of romance ensues, as does minor drug-taking and a splash of justified violence, and everything ends up more or less happily, no real lessons learnt. A day-in-the-life, if you will.

The soul music itself is absolutely the best part of this film. As to the rest of it, it’s almost as if a standardized bildunsroman plot, lifted from some classical source, got dipped in a big vat of Northern Soul. Like when the Bell Shakespeare company stages a production of Romeo and Juliet, but sets it in a prohibition-era speakeasy. This is little more than a subculture theme movie.


Ever heard of fan art? Fan fiction? Even fan pornography? Fan of course being the contraction of fanatic, these genres of quasi-creative endeavour constitute the pastimes of obsessives. Favourite subjects for fan-made mash-ups are generally the would-be geeky and marginalised empires that somehow make it main stream and go on to manufacture belt buckles, pencil cases, and plastic figurines. Think Star Wars, Buffy, Harry Potter, Dr. Who, Lord of the Rings, Star Trek, the Millenium Triolgy, Seinfeld, the Simpsons, the Matrix, Dan Brown novels, the Chronicles of Narnia, and most recently, the phenomenon of Twilight.

Fan fiction happens because enthusiasts know everything about their preferred universe like the back of their hands, and finding they have exhausted the series, miss the feeling of anticipation. Making use of detailed fictional worlds with extensive hosts of characters, these fan-written devotions are not innovative. They do little else than rearrange existing narratives. Say, a novelette in which Neo discovers that he is actually a software program and has to back himself up on floppy disc. Maybe a short story about a teenage Gandalf making his first suit of armour that Tolkein never detailed. Perhaps an erotic poem where Harry Potter and his ginger buddy compare wands in the owlery.

Whilst in no way as poorly conceived or realised as any of these fan ideas, the new Harry Potter film, called HP7.1 by the die-hards, is certainly approaching the same level of creative bankruptcy as fan fiction. By this I mean that the likelihood that this film will touch you deeply, warm your heart, truly surprise you or really make you think, is next to zero. Like fan-fiction, it’s all about recreating that tantalising, original hype.

This latest film sees Harry (the “Chosen One”*), Ron and Hermione* leave Hogwarts*, to go on the run from the corrupted Ministry of Magic* in a mobile, magically expansive tent. They search for Voldemort’s* Horcruxes*, which are objects they must destroy to help in the fight against evil. Meanwhile Deatheaters* are wreaking havoc and morbid disappearances increase among the muggle* and wizarding* communities alike.

* - Please see all other Harry Potter films, and/or read all Harry Potter novels

After six other films, what can you do, really, other than produce a film “a lot darker” or “more sexy” than the last film. No great departures are made, and even those that are present, such as a charming animated sequence, or the inclusion of a conspicuous Nick Cave track.

The truth is, the Harry Potter films are on a trajectory that was set when the first film was released, and are bound to it by the oppressive, yet worthy insistence of their literary origins. I don’t doubt that fans of the books will take is as give that they’ll see each film. Unfortunately, I don’t anticipate they will be doing so with much gusto, as the original target audience for Harry Potter (who where the same age as Harry when the books were published) are now in their early twenties, so by the time HP7.2 is released in 2011, they will have outgrown the characters too far to meet the no doubt momentous conclusion with the same excitement as they once might have.

Non-fans will be less interested, especially if they are not up-to-date with the other films. When my distinctly non-fan boyfriend asked me what HP7.1 was like, I explained to him thus: Yes, it is darker than the last. Yes, there were better special effects. Yes, I saw a little more flesh and a little more stubble. Yes, more veteran British comedians and ensemble actors starred. Yes, more main characters died. No, I can’t tell you anything you haven’t already heard. No, you do not have to come to HP7.2 with me.


A very pleasing exercise in the complexities and confusions of the modern family, The Kids Are All Right is the latest film by Californian director Lisa Cholodenko. But you may know it as “that one with the lesbian moms and the sperm donor”. Even put that simply, lesbian marriage, unknown paternity and artificial insemination are by no means trifling subjects for a film to offer. This is particularly so in the wake of some rather disappointing negative decisions and attitudes regarding the legal status of gay marriage. In lurid contrast to this inequality is the apparent normalisation of gay marriage presented in gaggy TV show Modern Family, the “gay wedding” of Sex and the City 2, and the high-profile same-sex marriages of Elton John to David Furnish and Ellen DeGeneres to Portia De Rossi.

Lesbian relationships, by nature of the regrettably uneven receptions they receive, are a delicate territory for portrayal in a film. Depicting one of the couple as “the man”, or introducing excessive cross-dressing or sexually explicit slang would definitely be a faux-pas here. This is not only because this film is about family, but because at least in part, it documents the graduation gay parents into the popular vocabulary – it’s a demonstration of our near future, wherein we will see more and more gay couples bringing up children without any of the special attention or stigma they would have received even ten or twenty years ago.

As you might imagine, the problems facing mothers Jules (Juliane Moore) and Nic (Annette Bening), are the trifling ones facing any family with adolescent children. Their concerns over their kids’ performance at school, awkwardly budding sexuality and questionable friendship ties are interrupted after their daughter Joni (Mia Wasikowska, fresh from Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland) turns eighteen, and at the suggestion of her younger brother Laser (Josh Hutcherson), asserts her legal right to contact the man who donated sperm in order for her mothers to conceive them both. Their expectations upon meeting this man are a formed from a complicated mix of defensiveness, feelings of abandonment, apparent longing for a father figure, curiosity and interest in the genetic heritage of their own talents and tastes.

The meeting proves that the question “Where did I come from?” is most often followed by “what will I do now that I am here?” Perhaps the most singular aspect of this film’s plot, and a magnificent matter to write about, is the fact that family are not chosen, however the arrival of sperm donor Paul (Mark Ruffalo) necessitates a choice that most people will not ever have to make, and for which no status quo exists: who will we let into our family?

The characters of this film are exceptionally strong, and all performances are imbued with a romance and a comic clumsiness. Not a scene goes by without some kind of awkward pause, unconsidered comment, or hilariously banal conversation forced out by some previously un-navigated social arrangement. This is all whilst remaining a relatable story, and showing how easy it is for any of us to make poor decisions or panic ourselves into conversing in the inane. Very intimate handheld camera-work heightens the comedic impact of the awkwardness, yet also has the lovely effect of assuring the viewer of the safety of these characters’ dignity – we feel so close to them that we know their humiliations will ‘stay in the room’, or rather, in their family.

Also of note is writer-director Cholodenko’s inclination to demonstrate and develop the personality their characters in a quite curious manner. Further to a central conflict, the characters of the children have their own enclosed stories that are furnished by very minor characters. Whilst these do not develop in the same dramatic manner as the main story, or serve a great deal towards showing the children in any more depth (not that we are in want of depth), they do work as an eloquent narrative mark. They help us to be aware of the potential tales the children may go on to forge, showing each member of the family has their own life outside of it.

The Kids Are All Right might be the best film about close or complicated relationships I have seen this year. It’s a well-loved gimic for an actor to shout ‘Cut! Cut! What’s my motivation?’ yet I don’t hesitate in saying that the best part of this film, for me, is that these are characters who don’t have a grand plan. They act without thinking, without anticipating repercussions, or out of emotional reflex, just like many of us do, and they can only know what they want by experiencing all the alternatives first.