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Monday, 29 July 2013


Before Midnight is part of a franchise, the third film in a series that began eighteen years ago with Before Sunset. The central characters of all three films are Jesse, an American student and then writer, and Celine, a Parisian idealist who ends up working on environmental projects.

The story so far. In Before Sunrise, Jesse and Celine meet on a train, and wander around Vienna all night, talking and falling in love. They promise to meet again, one year from the day they met.

In the second film, Before Sunset, nine years later, Jesse has written a book about his and Celine's night together. She turns up at a reading he does in Paris, and they reconnect. We learn that Celine never showed up for their meeting the year after, and also that Jesse wrote the book, in part, in order to find Celine again.

The first two films are incredibly simple, each basically consisting of one long extended conversation between the two leads, one as they walk through Vienna, the other as they stroll around Paris.

The films are simple on the surface, but embrace romance, regret, the passing of time, the difficulty of love, the spirit and hope of youth, and show us the slow, meandering development of a relationship between two people from different sides of the world. They are subtle, gentle, profound pieces of cinema.

In the third film, Before Midnight, Jesse and Celine are now together and in their forties. It is nine years after the second film and they have twin girls, and are on holiday in Greece.

Immediately, this film feels different. For one thing, there are other significant characters, the couple's daughters, their hosts in Greece, their Greek friends. The film is full, compared to the first two.

There is one great scene where all of the guests in the villa sit around and talk after dinner. They talk about memory, love, the battle of the sexes, and tell stories and gossip. It is a group of people happy to talk about ideas and fittingly, as they are in Greece, not afraid of musing about philosophy.

Then their friends offer to look after the kids, and our two central characters go off together for a night away, just Jesse and Celine alone, as in the first two movies. In their hotel room they argue, tell stories, reminisce, worry and argue. And then they argue some more. And then this becomes all that they do.

In fact, most of the second half is taken up with the pair bickering, just like any other middle-aged married couple. It is like This is 40, but without the jokes.

The point of the argument is the inability of them both, in their different ways, - but especially anxiety-driven Celine - to deal with reality. And this is reality, the film seems to be saying. Relationships are not all romance and passion and destiny, like the first two films. Life and marriage are hard, complex, things get messy.

This is all very well, and true, I'm sure, but it is no fun to watch two characters - especially characters you have come to like and identify with over two films - bicker and argue and be petty and neurotic. By the end they had both lost my sympathy, and I didn't care if they really did split.

It's a pity, because it all started so well. It was witty, philosophical, there was the interplay between the characters, they were uncertain and charming and funny. The film set itself up to be a mature continuation of the first two in the series, and ended up somehow being the antithesis of the subtlety, humour and magic of its predecessors.

Before Sunrise and Before Sunset worked because they were a magical escape from reality, or else a heightening of this reality, an exploration of the possible. The characters were on the move right through the films, walking, travelling on boats, wandering from place to place, changing their environment as they attempted to change themselves and their world.

Before Midnight brings us right back down to a mundane, soured present that is really not much fun anymore. In contrast to the first two films they spend most of their time in a hotel room, the claustrophobia of the setting mirroring the stifling nature of their relationship. The magic is gone, for Jesse and Celine, and also, sadly, for us the viewers.

Thursday, 25 July 2013


What is the story with apocalypses this summer?

In the Superman movie Zod wants to destroy Earth, in World War Z, the zombies threaten to wipe out humanity, in Oblivion the Earth is already mostly laid waste to, and in This is the End the apocalypse arrives complete with demons and devils and hell. And that's not even to mention World's End, the new Simon Pegg movie, the title of which is pretty self-explanatory.

And now comes Pacific Rim. The end of all humanity is threatened this time from under the sea. More specifically this threat comes from a breach in the Earth's crust somewhere the Pacific Ocean, from where monsters called Kaiju emerge to wreak havoc on the coastal areas of Asia, Australia and the US.

As the attacks increase the world must come together to combat the monsters. Gigantic robots called Jaegers are built that have the size and fire-power to defeat the Kaiju. The robots need to be piloted by two people, and because of a neural link between the pilots, they are normally relatives, brothers, fathers and sons, triplets.

The showdown happens as the Kaiju attacks increase in frequency, and the agency (led by Idris Elba, from The Wire, whose character's name in Pacific Rim is the fabulous Stacker Pentecost) plan to try and nuke the breach in the ocean's crust in order to close it.

Cue massive explosions, cartoon type violence, combat between mountain-sized creatures and gargantuan robots, destruction on an incomprehensible scale, and then an attempted mind-meld with a Kaiju.

It is a silly, entertaining, vivid, spectacular piece of nonsense. There are two things that I think are especially worth noting about the film, beyond the CGI and the implausible plot.

Firstly, at least it is an original idea from an original script, and not a remake, or a sequel, or a reimagining, or a tired new treatment of an old theme, like ninety percent of the big-budget movies of this year.

Secondly it is not as massively Amero-centric as most of the Hollywood films produced at the moment. Involved in the final battle are robots from Russia, Australia and China, as well as the American one, and it is a Japanese woman who accompanies our hero on his mission to save the world.

This, I assume, is down to Guillermo del Toro, who directs this film, a Mexican who has worked in Spain. It is safe to say that the more international feel to the movie is down to his wider perspective, and also to the Asian influence that can be seen in the Godzilla-type monsters and the fact that a lot of the film is set in Hong Kong.

For these two reasons alone it is worth seeing. It just remains to wonder about this obsession about the end of the world at the moment. Is it born of some kind of preoccupation with coming environmental calamity, or else the feelings of insecurity in the US (where all of these films are produced) about economic collapse and the terrorist threat?

Whatever the reason, it has now become a trend. The world is about to end, who will save us? Is everything really that tenuous? Is humanity truly in that much danger? If you watch Hollywood blockbusters at the moment, you could be forgiven for believing that the end is very much nigh.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013


Reading Henry James from a twenty-first century perspective is a very strange experience. Written in 1904 The Golden Bowl is Henry James' last novel, and was included in a list of the one hundred greatest American novels that I read recently.

People certainly do not write like Henry James anymore, and if they did they wouldn't get published. For one thing, almost nothing happens in this 450 page novel. The plot can be safely summarised in a two paragraphs.

Adam Verver, millionaire, collector and widower, has a daughter, Maggie, who falls in love with and marries an Italian prince, Amerigo. It is clear that Amerigo has married for money, as he is impoverished. He had a relationship with another American woman, Charlotte Stant, but as she was poor they couldn't marry.

Later, Adam, Maggie's father, marries Charlotte. Charlotte and the Prince resume their relationship, this time adulterously. Maggie finds out and is unsure how to react.

And that's really it. James' style though, is so dense, so obsessive about examining and poring over every implication of every sentence of every conversation, and every detail of every action, that scenes and conversations take ten, twenty, thirty pages to describe.

His style is very opaque too, sometimes it is necessary to read lines and paragraphs two, three, four times to find out what they are saying. At times it is not even English, as we would recognise it - "Only see me through now......and I leave you a hand the freedom of which isn't to be said!" There are many sentences like this, that use strange constructions and unusual combinations of words that are either particular to the early twentieth century or more likely, of James' own making.

And at times he is not a very clear writer. He will write a paragraph talking about "she" and "her", and it will be unclear if he is talking about Charlotte or Maggie. References are seemingly deliberately ambiguous, conversations are vague and cryptic, and he hardly describes anyone or anything physically so it is difficult to get an image of the characters. It is at times like reading through a fog.

In fact Henry James does exactly what you are told not to do in writing courses, he doesn't "show" he "tells". Everything is intellectualised, over explained, pulled one way and the other, he doesn't give the reader any real leeway to make up his own mind. James is in charge, and he tells you what to think.

Also, the world that the characters live in is very claustrophobic, the action takes place in two or three grand houses in London, and one mansion in the country. And the five or six main characters are all turned inward, in towards their own thoughts and obsessions and betrayals, in to their own little privileged world. It is difficult to identify with them.

They are people with immense amounts of money, and moreover people who do no work whatsoever. They spend their time going for luncheon (it is never lunch) and talking in drawing rooms and telling each other that they are "beautiful", "splendid", "extraordinary".

The other thing they do best is not talk about what is really happening. Everything about the affair between Charlotte and Amerigo is unspoken, Maggie finds out but does her best to make sure that no-one knows that she knows, and in fact never at any stage confronts anyone with her knowledge. They are a small society devoted to covering up, to not talking about what is really happening, to maintaining what James himself calls "the silver tissue of decorum."

It is a bizarre world, and an intriguing novel, for all of the opaque writing, the incomprehensible paragraphs, the endless sentences. Our view of events is so dense, black-hole dense, with layer after layer of detail and thought and analysis, one on top of another, that it is like going deep and deeper still into the characters' motivations and beliefs and emotions.

Their relationships are much more complex than they appear on the surface. Maggie and her father, Adam, have a definite Oedipal thing going on. There is a hint from Charlotte near the end when we finally get to some honesty, that the father-daughter bond has made her own marriage to Adam difficult, as if she were always in competition with Maggie.

Though of course we never hear about sex. We are left in the dark - just as Maggie herself is, as she hints at later - as to whether Charlotte and Amerigo's affair is a sexual one. We assume so, but it is never made explicit.

It is a hypnotic, at times irritating, slice of fiction, brought together by the golden bowl of the title. This is an artefact that Maggie buys on a whim, until she discovers the crack in its perfection, a symbol of the flaw at the heart of their seemingly perfect lives.

The Golden Bowl requires patience, though does pull the reader along relentlessly, sucking you in to their airless world. It may be just too much for a lot of people, too dense, too slow, too claustrophobic, too incomprehensible at times, but it is also a strange, unsettling, intriguing experience. Frustrating but with its own fascination.

Sunday, 7 July 2013


Two comedies this week, showing that this is seemingly the only genre that Hollywood will now commission original scripts for. They are both patchy efforts, hit and miss, have their moments of humour and originality, while also slouching into longueurs of laziness and predictability.

The Internship is saved by the charm and likeability of Owen Wilson, and by his double act with Vince Vaughan. Their characters are called Nick and Billy, but this is really a pretence, we are watching Wilson and Vaughan playing a version of every other character they have played in previous films.

They are two guys in their forties, who end up as interns in Google, among a bunch of over-achieving twenty year olds. This is a neat set-up with a lot of potential, something that the movie just fails to adequately exploit.

There are the usual clichés and predictable plot turns. We have the sheltered, home-schooled Asian kid driven with a dragon for a mother, the cute manager (Rose Byrne) who Owen Wilson falls for, the bullying, contemptuous nemesis of our two heroes, played with no subtlety by Max Minghella, and the socially awkward nerd who has a crush on his dance teacher.

Naturally, the outcasts, - or outliers, as one of the characters calls them - form a team to try and win the full time jobs on offer at Google, and overcome their own lack of belief and inability to work together. It is the classic underdog tale, and has its moments of charm and likeability, but is all wrapped up a little too neatly, with no effort really on the part of the central characters.

There are some good jokes though, and an attempt at a message here, that human values like communication and invention are just as important as technology for human progress, but overall this is a vehicle for Wilson and Vaughan. How you feel about them will colour whether this is worth seeing or not.

If Vaughan and Wilson are basically playing a version of themselves in The Internship, there is a gang of actors in This is the End that is doing literally that. James Franco plays James Franco, Seth Rogen plays Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill plays Jonah Hill.

They are not the only ones. The film centres on a party at Franco's house in LA, where many of the great and good of the entertainment world are. Rihanna makes an appearance, Emma Watson from Harry Potter shows up, twice, and Michael Cera steals the show as a coke-addled, ass-hole version of himself.
And then the Apocalypse happens, and the good people begin to be called up into heaven. The joke here is that all of the famous people are either pulled into hell, or left on Earth to deal with demons and devils and the end of days.

This becomes the central theme of the film, the attempt to satirise rich, famous people's self-regard and self-obsession. And it works, largely. We see the actors forming a kind of alliance that constantly breaks down when confronted with their own selfishness and cowardice, and we get to laugh at their cluelessness and avarice.

And yet this kind of ironic meta-narrative is also a kind of a sign of solipsism and self-regard. Rogen, Franco, Hill et al are all so desperate to make fun of themselves, so insistent on showing us how self-deprecating they are, that this in itself becomes a kind of narcissism. "Look at us," the actors, and the characters in the movie are saying, "look at how self-deprecating and self-aware we are. Look at how we can make fun of ourselves."

Still, it is a lot of fun, and though it does turn into a bit of a mess towards the end (with a bizarre appearance from the Backstreet Boys), there are original ideas here, carried out with energy and wit and irreverence.