Category Archives: 2010s

As You Like It (2019)

*. One of the things that I think everybody knows about Shakespeare is that when his plays were first produced the female roles were all played by men, or boys. This has always invited a bit of head spinning when watching plays like As You Like It or Twelfth Night where one of the main characters is a woman who disguises herself as a man. So audiences were watching a man disguised as a woman pretending to be a man.
*. This version of As You Like It promises “Shakespeare like never before” but it’s really just Shakespeare with an all-male cast, which isn’t being original so much as originalist. There have been celebrated (and not-so celebrated) productions of this play with an all-male cast for quite a while in our own time, at least on stage. We may have moved the Forest of Arden to Death Valley here, but having the players all be men isn’t breaking any new ground.
*. Of course, gender politics in the twenty-first century are a little different than they were in the English Renaissance. So, for starters, an all-male Shakespeare today is inevitably going to be a gay Shakespeare. Now I don’t think this movie plays the gay angle up, at least on the level of what Derek Jarman would have done with it, but at the same time it’s obviously there in a way that goes beyond just crossdressing some of the cast. That’s immediately indicated by the epigraphs from Christopher Marlowe, “All they that love not tobacco and boys are fools,” and the Village People: “Go West!”
*. I’ve seen crossdressed Shakespeare on stage before. These are productions where the male parts are played by women and the female parts by men. I’ve always found these to be only half successful, in that I have no trouble buying a female Macbeth or Lear in uniform or corporate attire, but as soon as a guy comes out on stage wearing a dress it’s pretty much game over. Is that prejudice on my part? Probably. And attitudes do seem to be changing. But it still registers as silly in a way that hurts the play. Maybe in a hundred years we’ll look at these things differently. If anyone is still doing Shakespeare in the 2100s, which I doubt.
*. So I think they make a good choice kicking things off here introducing us to Rosalind (Jordan Grant) and Celia (Joseph Haro), two young men wearing dresses, as soon as the play opens (there’s an introductory chorus-like address that gives us a bit of background info, but the first proper scene is Act 1 Scene 2 in the play). Best to get the surprise factor out of the way as quickly as possible. After this we’re only going to be shocked by the sight of the country wench Audrey appearing as a barrel-chested dude with a bushy moustache and a one-piece swimsuit. But Audrey is a comic figure anyway and I did think Haro made an attractive girl.
*. This is a very low-budget effort. I don’t think many people have seen or even heard of it. The DVD didn’t even have a menu much less scene selection! I know nothing of the director, Carlyle Stewart, or any of the cast aside from a couple of veterans in supporting parts (Graham Greene as Corin and Tom Bower as Jaques). But, to my surprise, it’s actually not bad.
*. Some of the actors were hard to warm to. They even seemed angry for no apparent reason. Grant as Rosalind and Stephen Ellis as Touchstone stand out in this regard. And did we need Orlando beating Charles by throwing sand in his face and kicking him in the nuts? To this I would add that the whole thing feels clunky in its pacing (the transition shots are heavy beats) and dramatically flat. Perhaps more music would have helped. As You Like It is a frothy play that skips and dances, a quality that I’ve only found the 1936 version really captures.
*. I won’t deny that I had very low expectations going into this one, and they were happily surpassed. For a low-budget indie it has an interesting spin and is competently put forward in most departments. The cuts — like some of the wordplay with Touchstone, the hedge-priest Sir Oliver Martext, and the encounter with a lion (here a gunfight) — are sensible, and indeed have become routine. That said, it’s a niche film that mainly just keeps its head above water and is unlikely to appeal to anyone except the Shakespeare curious.

H4 (2012)

*. Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1 and 2 are sometimes produced together, and at least once they’ve been combined on film to great effect (Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight). I don’t know if double-bills are a good idea though. Part 1 is a better play, so depending on how you cut and splice the audience is likely to feel some dropping off. Part 2 just plays like a long death scene. And you will have to make pretty significant cuts. This movie runs through both plays in an hour and 46 minutes, so you can be sure you’re only getting a greatest hits mix-tape.
*. The big novelty here though is the setting, which has jumped from the scepter’d isle of England to the streets of L.A., and more specifically the predominantly Black neighbourhoods. Henry IV (Harry Lennix, wearing a rakish eyepatch) is a sort of local crime boss while Hal (Amad Jackson) is the Prince of Watts. Other geographical locations are translated in amusing ways. A reference to Ireland is changed to Cuba, while Scotland is Jamaica throughout. The general forces meet at Compton, not Bridgnorth, and Shrewsbury clock has moved to South-Central.
*. Aside from such cosmetic changes, which extend to changing cups of sack to 8 balls, it’s actually a pretty faithful rendition of the two plays. And the players mostly do their part. Lennix is joined by Angus Macfadyen as Falstaff. The two had last played Shakespeare together in Julie Taymor’s Titus (Lennix as Aaron and Macfadyen as Lucius). But I particularly liked Geno Monteiro’s turn as Hotspur. He has a fresh-faced boyish energy that you don’t often see the part played with, which is too bad as it fits Hotspur well. But after he dies (at the end of Part 1) we’re not left with much.

*. I didn’t care too much for Macfadyen’s Falstaff. In part because I couldn’t figure out why he was one of only two white faces in the cast, in part for wearing a moustache that didn’t seem real, in part because he didn’t seem that old, in part because he had sunglasses on in half his scenes, but I think most of all just because I’ve always been less enamoured of the character. Isn’t Falstaff just a creepy old guy and a blowhard who lives by sponging off others?
*. The way he does Hal’s father as Brando’s Don Corleone in the extempore bar scene though was clever. I thought there should have been more stuff like that. For example, they really missed an easy trick by not having Falstaff’s troop of cannon fodder being homeless types pushing shopping carts around. That would have been perfect.
*. This is a very inexpensive, barebones production, funded partly by Kickstarter and shot largely in an actual theatre and taking no pains to conceal the fact. That’s something they might have got away with, but the actual filmmaking isn’t up to the task. The blocking is terrible, nobody seems to be pulling focus, and at times the camera just drifts about as though wondering who or what is supposed to be in the shot. In short, it isn’t quite at a professional standard.
*. That’s too bad, as they had an interesting idea here to run with and seemed to have had a route to making it work. I think it’s only fair to say that the money just wasn’t there to make it into a proper movie and they didn’t want to go the route of shooting a play being put on in an abandoned theatre. So it’s certainly not the mess it might have been, but I can’t say it’s very good either.

Last Will & Testament (2012)

*. Let’s start by talking about snobbery.
*. When discussing politics and the recent slide into anti-democratic populism (a global phenomenon) there’s a tendency to locate the undercurrent of rage in the masses of the “left behind” by the global economy, and in particular white males without a college education. This has always struck me as simplistic, as many of the angriest people I know are affluent, well-educated professional people. Could anyone imagine angrier people than the current slate of “conservative” justices on the U.S. Supreme Court, or Donald Trump? These people aren’t losers, but they’re positively incandescent with rage.
*. By the same token, and near allied, is the association of conspiratorial thinking with ignorant rubes who swallow the fantasies of QAnon wholesale. But many of the leading lights of today’s wildest conspiracies are again well-educated professional types who just have a blind spot or a particular axe to grind.
*. The idea that William Shakespeare, the “man from Stratford,” didn’t write the works attributed to him during his lifetime (and posthumously in the First Folio) is a good example of what we may call highbrow conspiracy thinking. It’s not like the people who say they believe any of the alternative-author stories are dummies. Many of them are academics, with Ph.D.’s in the field. And yet, if you take a step back to look at what they’re saying, it’s madness.
*. There’s also a lot of snobbery attached to the anti-Stratfordians, whose main line of argument is that Shakespeare couldn’t have written the plays because he was uneducated, even illiterate, and was low-born (of the middle class, but not the nobility). Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford seems to them to be a more likely candidate.
*. Last Will & Testament presents itself as an examination of what it calls “the greatest literary mystery of all time: who wrote the works of William Shakespeare?” It isn’t all anti-Stratford, as Stanley Wells and Jonathan Bate are given time to argue the orthodox side, but it does have a finger on the scale by allowing the Oxfordians substantially more play.
*. That Shakespeare was really Christopher Marlowe or Ben Jonson or Francis Bacon or Queen Elizabeth I or Emilia Bassano or any one of over a dozen other candidates are theories that are only mentioned without being addressed in any depth. Though the point is made by one anti-Stratfordian that the sheer number of alternative Shakespeares provides the “final nail in the coffin” for Shakespeare’s authorship because it indicates a “widespread dissatisfaction” with that conclusion. In other words, “people are saying.” Which is not an argument I put much stock in. Or really one that I think can be considered an argument at all.
*. Oxford gets the most attention as an alternative candidate, and the idea is further floated that he might actually have been the love child of Elizabeth I, and Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton their love child in turn. Now if that nutso idea sounds familiar it’s because it was the basis for the speculative (and entertaining) 2011 film Anonymous, which was directed by Roland Emmerich. And Emmerich was executive producer for this film, which might almost have been included as a bonus feature with the Anonymous DVD. As it is, footage from Anonymous recreating the Globe Theatre in operation back in the day is included throughout, which helps make the link between the two films even stronger.
*. I’ve listened to many of the anti-Stratfordian arguments and find none of them convincing. Take the matter of Shakespeare being illiterate. This leans heavily on the fact that we have no proof that Shakespeare attended the grammar school in Stratford-upon-Avon. But all the records for that school have been lost so we don’t have evidence that anyone attended it. Given that Shakespeare was the son of a former mayor and could attend the school for free it seems more likely than not that he did, so the illiterate smear seems far-fetched to me.
*. Then there’s the matter of Oxford having died in 1604, after which point Shakespeare went on to write quite a bit more. Some special pleading has to be put into work here (he’d already written the plays and they were only produced and/or touched up later).
*. But even more to the point the question has to be asked as to what the point of this giant Shakespeare fraud was.
*. Derek Jacobi talks of how “we’ve been duped” and “had this author [that is, Shakespeare, or “Shaxberd” as they like to call him] foisted upon us.” But by whom? That Oxford wanted to keep his authorship a secret seems a stretch to me, and would have involved far more people than I can believe capable of keeping a lid on such a story (the fatal flaw in most conspiracy theories). But then who continued, and continues, to “dupe” the public with this supposedly false tale of the man from Stratford being a playwright? Here’s where conspiratorial thinking becomes more generic.
*. The guilty parties include authors and publishers looking to sell Shakespeare biographies, the tourist industry in Stratford-upon-Avon, and the Shakespeare-industrial complex of merchandising that has, in the words of Vanessa Redgrave, “benefited, over the centuries, many people.” Beneath all of this is a hatred of elites and academics who aren’t open to the truth, or anyone who happens to be “just asking questions.”
*. This strikes me as projection. If anyone is cashing in here it’s the anti-Shakespeare crowd, who also have books to sell.
*. All of the best evidence suggests that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. This includes new evidence like that drawn from stylometrics (which is not mentioned here). Meanwhile, nothing presented here as evidence in support of Oxford strikes me as even being remotely likely. As so often with this kind of thing (think of a question like “Did Jesus exist?”, for another popular example) I can see reasons for doubting the “official story.” The record isn’t everything we could want it to be. But while I understand why doubters reject official stories I can never understand why they put stock in stories with even less, and I mean far less, evidence to support them.
*. As Chesterton wrote, “When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.” Which can be liberating, and a lot of fun. But can also be dangerous.

Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)

*. Exit Through the Gift Shop is a documentary that asks a couple of questions: one that I found annoying and the other quite significant.
*. First off, its subject is the street art movement as told through the eyes of a Frenchman who moves to Los Angeles named Thierry Guetta. Guetta adores street art and decides to start filming some of the leading practitioners, including Banksy and Shepard Fairey. He tries to make a documentary out of all his footage but it turns out to be a mess and Banksy (apparently) took over and edited it down to this film. Guetta, in the meantime, became a commercially successful street artist himself, adopting the persona of Mr. Brainwash.
*. So the first question is whether it’s real or if it’s fake, a documentary or mockumentary. On the fake side it’s even been said that Guetta is a total creation of Banksy, whose style he does seem to imitate pretty closely. Banksy himself has denied this.
*. The thing is, does it matter? Should it? I mean, Banksy is interviewed a lot here but he’s just a shadow wearing a hoody with a distorted voice. So is that even Banksy? Personally, this whole business sort of got my back up because I resented the implication that I should care if any of it was real, or who Banksy really is.
*. The second, more significant question has to do with what you think of Guetta’s work, or street art in general. I think a lot of it is very clever, marking an evolution of Andy Warhol and pop art into a new environment. And I like that it’s still a physical environment, because I guess NFTs were where all this was going.
*. But just as with pop art you have to wonder at the message. For example, I think Fairey and Banksy have a political bent in what they do, but with Guetta I’m not so sure. Also, it seems to me that in a movie like this you’re supposed to be cheering Guetta on as the little guy chasing his dream, but here he just seems like a phoney on the make. As with so much art in our age of irony, separating the fake from the authentic is difficult.
*. Is that Guetta’s point though? Let’s listen to his mentors trying to sum up at the end of the film.
*. Shepard Fairey: “Thierry’s obsession with street art, his becoming a street artist, a lot of suckers buying into his show, and him selling a lot of expensive art very quickly. It’s anthropologically, sociologically, it’s a fascinating thing to observe, and maybe there’s something to be learned from it.”
*. Banksy: “I don’t know what it means, Thierry’s huge success and arrival in the art world. I mean, maybe Thierry was a genius all along, maybe he got a bit lucky. Maybe it means that art is a bit of a joke.”
*. I don’t think Banksy feels that art is a joke, but I do get the sense that he thinks the art world is. So I suppose if you read this movie straight it’s mainly meant to expose or send up just how stupid that world and its focus on money and fame is. Which I think was Warhol’s aim at the end too.
*. I wouldn’t go any further than Fairey and Banksy do. Maybe there’s something to be learned here. Maybe it means . . . something. It’s an entertaining movie anyway, even if you’re watching a whole artistic movement swallowing its own tail.

Victor Frankenstein (2015)

*. I had a bad feeling about this one as it got started. The look was obviously borrowed from Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, something that I think everyone noticed immediately (it was widely remarked upon by reviewers). This even extended to changing the setting of the story from Shelley’s eighteenth-century Europe to Victorian England (Holmes’s stomping grounds). There’s also (and this is more by way of trivia) a connection to the television series Sherlock, which shares many cast members and one of its directors (Paul McGuigan) with this film.
*. Did the Frankenstein story need this kind of treatment? It’s a look we’re familiar with now so in a way it’s not even that fresh an interpretation. Then there’s the way the title is introduced. Daniel Radcliffe (Igor) pursues James McAvoy, who he has just met, and asks him “Sir, please, may I know your name?” McAvoy turns and, without saying anything, the title “Victor Frankenstein” appears. Oh, please.
*. Also part of the bad start: it turns out Igor, who works as a clown in the circus, isn’t a real hunchback but only has an abscess. He has also, remarkably, trained himself into becoming a first-class doctor (though he hasn’t got as far as finding out for himself that he isn’t really a hunchback yet).
*. So, yes, things really get off on the wrong foot. I wonder if a lot of people who didn’t like it (which was most people, based on its reviews and box office) gave it much of a chance after this. They should have, because it gets better.
*. What helps the most are the two leads, who do much to redeem the usual nonsense. I wasn’t as blown away by McAvoy in Split, the multiple-personality thriller, as others were, but I think he’s very good here. He’s even more watchable than the monster, when it finally gets going.
*. The script he has to work with isn’t great, but I don’t know how much could have been done with such worn material. As the narration points out at the beginning, we all know the story. And when you think of it, it’s not like there have been a lot of well-written Frankenstein movies in the past. The old story has been filmed countless times, but after the classic Universal appearances not often with great results. In fact, quite often with results that have been just plain awful. So what standard are we judging this one by?
*. Much of the script just sort of fizzles. Victor has a back story involving a brother Henry that McAvoy only barely manages to make me go along with. But there’s also a cynical aristocrat that we don’t get enough of, a devout police investigator on the trail who the movie doesn’t know what to do with, and a love interest for Igor who is just, miraculously, there. Some interesting elements are assembled, but they aren’t brought to life.

*. The monster, or really two monsters, are pretty good. Victor’s first crack at things is a chimp-like creature that is, at least, somewhat original and not what I was expecting. And the final creature is big and sort of waxy, which is what I guess a monster made out of spare parts would look like. He doesn’t have much to do, as he just shows up at the end and the movie really isn’t about him at all.
*. Instead, it’s more about the relationship between the two leads, with Victor claiming Igor as his greatest creation. This was sort of interesting, but I thought a bit presumptuous on Victor’s part. Sure he rescues Igor from the circus and drains his abscess. In that sense he saves his life. But does he create Igor? Then the two are partners in the monster’s creation. Maybe Victor’s arrogant attitude is just part of his character, and what will, the end suggests, keep leading him on to further experiments.
*. Not a great movie, but in my opinion a slightly better than average Frankenstein movie. It does try to do something a little different with the old story, and while that part doesn’t work very well there’s enough here to make it worth watching.

The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden (2013)

*. About the only thing I know about the Galápagos Islands is that Charles Darwin visited them and made some notes and observations that later helped buttress his theory of evolution. Like the documentary filmmakers Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine, at least before they took a job shooting a nature documentary there in 1998, I didn’t even know that anyone lived there. I thought they were a big nature preserve people could only visit. In fact, in 2020 they had a population of over 33,000.
*. Geller and Goldfine heard the story of the mysterious disappearance of a couple of residents of Floreana Island in the 1930s but didn’t think there was a movie in it until a trove of film made on the island featuring all of the principal players in the drama was discovered in the archives at USC. Now they had something.
*. The background: In 1929 the German doctor and budding Nietzschean superman Friedrich Ritter, along with his lover Dore Strauch, set up camp on the then deserted island of Floreana. A little later another German couple, Heinz and Margret Wittmer, arrived and carved out their own homestead some distance away. And then the colourful figure of “Baroness” (an invented title) von Wagner Bosquet arrived with two “servile gigolos” (Friederich Ritter’s caustic label) in tow. The gigolos (also German) were Robert Philippson and Rudolph Lorenz. The Baroness started taking on airs, styling herself the Empress of Floreana. Lorenz also found himself getting sidelined as Gigolo #2. Then one day the Baroness and Philippson disappeared.
*. I think everyone figures the two were murdered, but their bodies were never found. Nor is it clear who would have “dun it.” Presumably Lorenz was involved, possibly with the help of Friedrich Ritter and/or Heinz Wittmer. We’ll never know, as Lorenz tried to get off the island as quickly as possible and ended up dying in the attempt, Ritter died, also under mysterious circumstances, a little later, and Margret Wittmer, who lived to a ripe old age (the filmmakers even spoke to her in the 1990s) knew how to keep quiet about such matters.
*. The story was an international sensation, as it pushed a lot of the buttons that still make true crime documentaries go viral today. The French author Georges Simenon even wrote a timely novel (Ceux de la soif) based on the events in 1934. And because it’s a case that’s never been solved it keeps its hold on the imagination.
*. It’s a well put together doc, expanding on what happened nearly 100 years ago on Floreana by talking to the descendants of families that settled on the main island nearby and getting some idea of the sort of personality that would go this route. My own response to the settlers was divided. Impressed at their resiliency and ability to make a go of it under very harsh and isolated conditions, but also shocked at their presumptuousness and idiocy. Dore Strauch (Cate Blanchett provides her voice) had multiple sclerosis when she went out. Margret Wittmer was pregnant, and desperate for assistance from Ritter when she came to give birth. What were these people thinking?
*. Different things. There have always been types like this, wanting to get away from civilization and other people in general. A more extreme sort of Thoreau, who after all could walk into the village of Concord anytime he wanted, and often did. But the extremity is the real difference maker here. These people really were on their own. Until they weren’t. Because this might have been Eden, but hell is other people. And once the Ritters (who weren’t a happy couple to begin with) had to deal with neighbours they had to confront what one visitor called “the problem of social adjustment.” In some ways I think they handled it better than expected. But something had to give.
*. The subtitle came from a book written by one of the islanders and it actually stumped me. I suppose Satan is meant to be the Baroness, but she’s the one who gets killed. The way I see it, Satan could be pretty much any of the people we meet. Or just people in general.
*. The Baroness, on the other hand, was not a loner. She even wanted to start a hotel on the island. To be honest, I’m not sure what was driving her. She may have been the biggest weirdo of all. Maybe not so obnoxious as to drive someone to murder, but then this was an extreme environment.
*. I’ve written a lot before about how different film genres change, mostly in giving us more sensational action or gore or whatever. The true crime documentary, which was in the process of really taking off at this time, has followed a similar pattern. Today, most of these shows start off leading you to believe something and then hit a point where they pull the rug out from under you and force you to re-evaluate everything that’s gone before.
*. The Galapagos Affair does its best to play this game. There are a couple of twists, like the discovery of Lorenz’s end and the mystery of Ritter’s death. There are unanswered questions relating to both of these matters. But overall there’s something missing from all of this. Ironically given the remarkable amount of material they had to work with, from letters to the films made on the island at exactly this time, it’s hard to get a read on any of these people. No matter how close or intimate we seem to get to them, they keep a safe distance, their private selves concealed behind a wall of play-acting or tactical silence. Some weight is put here on a single photo of Ritter and the Baroness standing close to one another but I found it impossible to interpret. Were they enemies? Intimate? Indifferent to each other? You be the judge.
*. It’s still a good movie, and you’ll come away learning a lot not just about this incident but about the settlement of the Galapagos in general. Also, the fact that so little is known for sure about what really happened leaves you with a pleasant feeling of wonder. Because if Lorenz and Ritter were the guilty parties, for example, they didn’t really get away with it. What happened on Floreana stayed on Floreana. There was no place else for it to go, and the tortoises aren’t talking.

Mortdecai (2015)

*. It’s easy as a reviewer to criticize a film’s script. This is because (1) they usually aren’t very good; (2) while not everyone can light or edit or direct a movie, everyone knows how to write; and (3) by the time they actually get around to shooting a movie the script has often been so worked over and cut apart and reassembled that it’s hard to point a finger at who’s to blame anyway.
*. Well, the script for Mortdecai is crap. Which is only a little surprising because it’s based on a literary source, specfically the first book in a popular trilogy by Kyril Bonfiglioli featuring the art dealer-detective Lord Charlie Mortdecai. I haven’t read any of the Mortdecai novels so I can’t judge, but I figure they must be better than this. Did Bonfiglioli get that much mileage out of barf and erection gags? I suppose he might have. Mortdecai’s manservant Jock (Paul Bettany) has no last name in the movie but in the books it’s Strapp. As in Jock Strapp. At least that’s something we were spared.
*. But I don’t want to rag on the script here. It’s neither funny nor interesting as a mystery thriller. Basically it’s just a bunch of nitwit cops and robbers chasing each other around and getting in fights while they try to find a Goya masterpiece with a code to a vault of Nazi loot written on the back. If Mortdecai (Johnny Depp) can find it he can keep the creditors from repossessing his manor house and maybe save his marriage to Johanna (Gwyneth Paltrow) at the same time.

*. Instead of the script, I thought I’d talk about what’s happened to acting. There are styles of acting that come and go. Acting in a silent film was very different from what it turned into after sound came. In some old films it was considered great acting to react very slowly to anything that was going on, to a point where it seems hilarious by modern standards. The nature of the art evolves. So, what can we say about today’s dominant acting style?
*. One thing we might say is that it mirrors today’s dominant genre: the comic-book film. So a truly memorable performance is rarely understated or restrained, but caricaturish and overdone. Some actors have this down to a point where there’s hardly anything left to do but self-parody. Think Samuel L. Jackson or Nicolas Cage or Jeff Goldblum (who shows up briefly in Mortdecai as an American billionaire). Or think of Johnny Depp, at one time considered one of the best actors of his generation. Then there was his eccentric turn as Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and the giga-success of Pirates of the Caribbean and his swish Captain Jack Sparrow. Critics couldn’t get enough of his Captain Jack, and he was very good . . . in what was a comic-book movie.
*. I was thinking of this again watching Depp playing Mortedecai. He’s not even a character anymore, but just a string of weird mannerisms, a funny accent, and a comic-book moustache. A posh twit attended to by his dog-like manservant Jock, we may think of him as a latter-day Bertie Wooster, but he’s far zanier and more extreme a creation than anything Hugh Laurie would have played. Laurie seems utterly naturalistic in comparison.
*. You could just call Depp’s performance an eccentric star turn, but I think it’s more representative of where we’re at than that. I think this is what today’s most prominent style of filmmaking demands of its stars. Naturalism has disappeared as completely as nature itself in the age of CGI.
*. That’s a digression, but I think an interesting one. And since I have nothing much to say about Mortdecai it will have to stand in lieu of a review. The movie flopped, so if there were any thoughts of making it into a franchise they were soon forgotten. Almost as swiftly as this movie has been erased from what’s left of my mind.

Wrath of the Titans (2012)

*. I’ve complained enough about CGI over the years. In Wrath of the Titans the effects, however, aren’t bad. In fact they’re pretty good. But I still think the CGI is a net minus for the film.
*. This may seem paradoxical. In fact it is. Wrath of the Titans is a CGI movie. You would know that going in. But that is my point. The genre of “CGI movie” has become so predictable not only visually (large monsters, armies, cities being destroyed) but in terms of plot that all of the elements are basically interchangeable. What movie am I watching? A CGI movie.
*. The story here has the Olympian gods (or at least the male ones, as Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite are nowhere to be seen) heading into their Götterdämmerung because people have stopped praying to them and infighting has led to the possible release of the titan Kronos. The hero Perseus is the only one who can save the day by assembling the Spear of Trium out of Zeus’s thunderbolt, Hades’s pitchfork, and Poseidon’s trident.
*. Got it? Good. Even if you went into this cold you’d be up to speed in no time. I could only keep myself amused by plugging the various characters and plot points into an imaginary CGI-movie template constructed out of earlier and later movies. So Zeus (Liam Neeson) is Gandalf, or Odin from the Thor movies. The bitter half-sibling Ares is the Ocean Master. Kronos is Sauron or Thanos. Hades is Voldemort. The Spear of Trium is the One Ring or the Tesseract or the Trident of Atlan.
*. Even the casting is predictable. If you were surprised by Ralph Fiennes (Hades) and Edgar Ramírez (Ares) turning on Zeus then you obviously don’t watch many movies. Hell, Zeus didn’t even remember the previous movie, where he’d signed off saying that Hades was only “biding his time” to take his revenge. Meanwhile, Bill Nighy is back as Davy Jones and you can even tell it’s him. Nighy, that is.
*. You might be expecting, or at least hoping, that Kronos, being the Father of the Gods, would be a bit more interesting. Alas he doesn’t speak in any known language (not that he has much to say anyway) and has even less personality than the Kraken. He’s really just a big steaming pile of magma.
*. The script is full of the usual fustian, with a surprising lack of humour. Here, for example, is Andromeda’s defence of humanity: “We may not be gods. But we do what people say can’t be done, we hope when there isn’t any. Whatever odds we face, we prevail.” Being an actor in a CGI movie can’t be easy. As Harrison Ford once said to George Lucas, “George, you can type this shit, but you sure as hell can’t say it.”
*. You would have thought they’d have given Toby Kebbell some funny lines, but I was left wondering what Agenor was even doing in this picture. Come to think of it, Andromeda (Rosamund Pike, filling in for Alexa Davalos) doesn’t have much of a role either, beyond showing that girls can kick ass too.
*. A budget of $150 million that took in $300 million box office. Which means it flopped (Clash of the Titans had grossed $500 million two years previously). One benefit of this being that the planned sequel, Revenge of the Titans, was scrapped. So as for now the gods are dead.

Clash of the Titans (2010)

*. Pretty much everything I figured it would be, and a bit less.
*. CGI gods and monsters. The only thought that entered my head while watching it was what effect all this might be having on kids who have been growing up on this fare. My guess is that most of them would be playing video games anyway. Which comes to the same thing, doesn’t it? Or again, maybe something a bit less.
*. The story bears some resemblance to the 1981 original. Zeus (Liam Neeson) calls for the release of the Kraken. Bubo shows up only to be quickly dismissed.
*. Hard to think of anything that stands out. Sam Worthington has nice legs. The effects weren’t bad for 2010 but are starting to show their age now. Especially with the couple of shots meant to play in 3D. The film was hastily converted to 3D after the success of Avatar, which led to director Louis Leterrier disowning it. I suspect he wasn’t that fond of it in the first place.
*. I don’t know why anyone would have thought they needed to do it all again just a couple of years later, but they did, subbing out the Kraken for Kronos. There didn’t seem to be a big demand. The kids were too busy playing on their computers, and I can’t say I blame them.

High Life (2018)

*. High Life is the first English-language film by director Claire Denis, and I have to say up front that I think something was lost in translation. The script, which was apparently just an outline with little dialogue, was originally written in French but had to be translated because Denis couldn’t imagine people speaking French in space. So that may explain the sense I had of something not making it all the way through.
*. Beginning with the title. High because we’re in space and Life because the doctor in charge of the mission is trying to make babies up there. But who speaks of space as being “high”? It has no up or down. And when we say “life” do we first think of the nuts and bolts of reproduction? High Life sounds like some stoner comedy, and I’m not sure it wasn’t at some point. (A quick check and it turns out I’m right. High Life was the name of a 2009 American film about junkies robbing an ATM.)
*. That title, by the way, doesn’t appear until 17:36. And there are no other opening credits. Oh, come on.
*. The title is only one bit of the awkwardness that’s felt here though. Nothing about the dialogue feels really natural. And there are moments that are downright weird. What does it mean when Dibs (the doctor, played by Juliette Binoche) is accused of having a “plastic pussy”? Beats me, but then I’m not as hip as I used to be. I wasn’t even sure if something was getting scrambled in the following quote from Denis about what the movie’s theme was: “The film is about sexuality, not sex. Sensuality, not pornography. Sexuality is about fluids. As soon as sexuality stirs within us, we know it’s all about fluids – blood, sperm, etc. I thought if I wanted that fluid subtext to work, we had to reduce the sex act to masturbation. I forbade myself any naked scenes. No erect cocks, no gaping pussies. We did it another way – High Life speaks only of desire and of fluids.”

*. So then, desire and fluids it is. Hydraulics, if you will. There’s a story, but as Agata Buzek says in the “making of” featurette included with the DVD, “I don’t think the story is the important thing.” A bunch of death-row inmates is sent into space on what looks like a shipping container to harvest the energy from a black hole. They’re an international, multiethnic bunch, including Robert Pattinson and Mia Goth. Binoche appears to be the captain, but it’s not clear if she isn’t another convict as well, or how she is maintaining her authority.
*. If the black hole is the ship’s main mission, it’s not something Dibs appears interested in at all. Instead, she’s into running some kind of breeding experiment, becoming a “shaman of sperm” while riding some weird kind of furry sex contraption that looks like something David Cronenberg dreamed up. It’s located in what the crew call the “fuck box,” but we know from Sleeper as the Orgasmatron. For some reason it also leaks fluids post-climax. It’s all very weird.
*. Pattinson’s character, named Monte, doesn’t want to play any of these semen games. He wants to remain master of his domain. Like General Jack D. Ripper, he will be with a woman, but withhold his essence. He’s known on board as Mr. Blue Nuts. He’s gone into monk mode. He’s accepted this mission as a no-fap challenge. Do I need to say more? Because I’m running out of ways of describing this sigma edgelord.

*. Stooping to the use of some date-rape drugs, Dibs finally gets a sample from Monte and makes a baby with the use of Mia Goth’s womb. Then the mission sort of goes to hell and everyone dies but Monte and his daughter, Willow. They arrive at the black hole and decide to check it out. The end.
*. It looks good. It moves very slowly. It doesn’t make a lot of sense. Pattinson has to do most of the heavy lifting but he just projects as blank, like he’s on some kind of tranquilizers throughout. I’m still not sure there’s much to him, but I do appreciate his choice of difficult roles. There may be some sort of theme being developed but I can’t figure out what it might be. Is it a feminist film with something to mutter about female bodies and birth? Is it concerned with prison reform? Environmental issues? The garden made me think of Silent Running but apparently Denis saw it as an homage to Solaris.
*. It does have a couple of moments — the sex machine, Mia Goth turning into spaghetti in the first black hole — but they’re not spectacular and the rest of it feels like a long deep-space haul indeed. And the ending just sort of fizzles out. If you’re in the mood for a very quiet change of pace then you might find it hits the spot, but I think the more likely response will be a confused shrug.