Mulholland Drive

Poster for Mulholland Drive
Poster and link with Wikipedia article

I don’t know what in the hell is really happening in Mulholland Drive. Maybe nothing is. Screenwriting manuals would lead us to believe that what it does is invalid, that it could never hold an audience’s attention, let alone its empathy. The fact that it is beloved, often voted best film of any given period (the decade, the 21st Century, etc.) belies that. I just watched it for the second time, the first having been in theatres when it was released in 2001, and I can report that I found it as gripping and powerful as all those polls suggest.

Lynch’s films and TV shows are often detective stories, and in interviews he has spoken of the fact that we are all detectives, trying to figure out, in general and specific terms, what is “going on”. Part of the allure of his work is the sense that something most definitely is going on, even if we can’t quite divine it.

Mulholland Drive, more than Lost Highway, say, or Inland Empire, signals to the audience that there is a definitive answer to be found. Some elements scream, “Clue!”—like Betty calling Hollywood “this dream place”. The first DVD release came with a card with “David Lynch’s 10 Clues to Unlocking This Thriller”. I believe this is the game we’re meant to play. We participate.

Critics and analysists have argued for and against what seems to me to be the obvious reading: the first two hours are Diane’s dream/ fantasy, where Betty is a role she has invented for herself; the last twenty minutes less so—still not “reality” perhaps, but more memory (however subjective) than invention. Lynch is a well-known fan of the ’39 Wizard of Oz, and there’s definitely a sense in that last fifth of, “…and you were there, and you were there…”. For my money, the fact Betty vanishes just before Rita opens the box, bringing us all out the Dream Place, shows that the dream’s logic has finally broken down and can’t continue. Since Melissa George is Camilla in the dream, there’s no one for Laura Elena Harring to be. The dream gets to the point where it has to solve the mystery, and it can’t, so it’s “time to wake up, little girl.”

Plenty of people would tell me I’m wrong, but that’s okay, because the film is a game to play, not to win. It is also a compendium of astonishing moments: sexy, violent, funny (laugh-out-loud hilarious, actually), scary, and ultimately heart-breaking. You don’t need to know the reality of Diane’s story to know that it’s unbearably tragic.

I can’t explain it, but I love it.

Jodie Whittaker as Dr. Who

Jodie Whittaker as Dr. Who

Great, isn’t she?

You wouldn’t dare suggest that she doesn’t deserve it, doesn’t own it. And thank God, because as a white cis-male I’m getting pretty sick of all the white cis-males who blithely assume they’re the master race. I know I carry that assumption, too, and it still informs my actions and attitudes, but I’m ready to admit I have a problem.

Female Dr. Who is just what we need (along with a mountain of other stuff) right now, and thank God she nails it.

It even made me go back to the last two episodes of Christopher Eccleston’s reign, which is where I’d given up when I last tried to catch up. Knowing Whittaker lay in the future gave me the faith to carry on into David Tennent for a couple of episodes.

I still don’t think I’ll ever be excited about Dr. Who. I thought Peter Capaldi was an inspired choice, but only watched his first episode. I enjoyed it, but not enough to watch any more. I can’t wait for Whittaker’s third, though.

I’m excited about her.

Mad Max: Fury Road

Previous instalments:
   Holy fuck.
   I’m really, really mad at myself: if I’d been up to speed with the three others when this came out, I’d have seen it in theatres, and I’d have gone back to see it as often as I could. And then again for the black and white version.
   It’s an adrenaline-charged epic, so cinematic there’s literally a version where they’ve removed the dialogue entirely. The villain (a wonderful Hugh Keays-Byrne—also Toecutter in the original) is Palpatine and Vader in one. And the machismo takes a back-seat to a femme-led fable three years before #MeToo enabled, say, anti-misogynist Gillette ads.
   Much has been made of the fact that Max isn’t actually the lead character, that honour going to Charlize Theron’s marvellous Furiosa, but it’s a wonder anyone was surprised: this is how these films go, at least since Road Warrior. Max helps other characters achieve their goals, but he never shares those goals. In the lauded Mad Max 2, he discovers that he’s actually the decoy in the plan, rather than the heroic custodian of the “guzzoline”. He takes no shelter with the resulting Northern Tribe, or in the ruins of Sydney after his dalliance with Thunderdome. The flicker of empathy still within him is only ever briefly rekindled; he always chooses to revert to the lone scavenger, nursing his demons.
   It’s great for a franchise, because he’s a character that can continually reset. Unlike Bond, Max can convincingly play out the same transition, from selfish loner to selfless hero, in every film. He gets to be Rick from Casablanca again, and again, and again.
   Brilliantly, this one also makes clear that, in addition to the Max of films 2 and 3, where the viable pockets of civilisation he’s helped establish revere him in legend, there have been groups he’s tried to help, but failed. “You left us for dead!” one memory incessantly tells him. It explains both his need for “some kind of redemption” and his unwillingness to commit to the current cause beyond its immediate crisis.
   It’s really the only thing that makes him “mad”: being a loner in a world where even the other loners jump at any chance to band together. It’s also what lets him help so many people, even if they get to be the real protagonists.
   All this is happening so effortlessly, many have assumed the plot and characters are thin, and it’s only the monstrously brilliant action that sustains interest. People originally made the same mistake with Star Wars, assuming all you needed to recreate its magic was some spaceships. Just see the miserable failure of all its imitators to give the lie to that. Nope, there is depth here—it’s just not explained to you in dialogue like you’re an idiot. And it’s told through, yes, the greatest action ever filmed, period. I bet the Michael Bays of this world assume that no one can do carnage and mayhem like them, but here’s a real filmmaker (just about everything Miller has touched since Thunderdome, from Lorenzo’s Oil to Happy Feet, via Babe, has been recognised at the Oscars) beating them hands down at their own game. It’s an astonishing film just to look at. And look at again. And again.
   This is next-level stuff. Visceral. Primal. Essential. I’m buying it.

Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome

Previous instalments:
   If Road Warior is the series’ Wrath of Khan, Beyond Thunderdome is its Search for Spock: pretty good, with some inspired moments (chiefly Thunderdome, itself), but not quite of the same calibre. For one thing, it’s far more stationary than the other entries. Not until the very end to we get the patented vehicular chase/ ballet, and even then our heroes are literally on rails.
   Also, as much as I love him, I wish they hadn’t cast Bruce Spence. The series’ general avoidance of dialogue left me confused for a long time about whether this was the same character he played in the previous movie (it’s not). This is more than just irritating, because it’s an essential point of his character (which I’ll get to properly) that Max never again meets the people he helps.
   It’s very enjoyable, though, and Tina Turner is surprisingly good.
   Having seen the original trilogy, then, I was free to see what all the fuss was about surrounding Fury Road.

Mad Max 2, aka The Road Warrior

Previous instalments:
   This is the one I’d seen, back when Alex Cox introduced it for Moviedrome. I remember enjoying it, but it’s action was much curtailed by the 4:3 crop—much of the exquisite choreography comes from the framing of cinematographer, Dean Semler.
   More importantly, I didn’t particularly relate to Max, himself. He’s supposed to a cypher but, not having seen the first one, I found him too blank. Seeing it in the proper sequence really helped. The film is purposefully stripped down to the bone, with everything from its plot to its production design as sparse and barren as the outback landscape, and nowhere more so than the character of Max. It helps enormously, though, to know that he’s arrived at this point from somewhere.
   I think the first film is nowhere near as good, and is a bit of a different beast from all the others, but it’s very much worth watching, if only to get the most out of this entry: the template and ideal for future episodes to aspire to.
   It’s way ahead of its time, with outrageously exciting action chases, air-tight world-building, and great action-movie acting from Gibson and Bruce Spence. Gibson’s performance in particular has the confidence of an international superstar, rather than the embryonic potential on display in the original. Little wonder he went on to become MEL GIBSON, and that there was an appetite for yet more madness from Max.

Mad Max

Previous instalments:
   I think I was put off the first Mad Max because it seemed a bit too nasty for me. I was worried I’d be scared, frankly, when my pal’s big brother started raving about his VHS copy. Later, I thought it was merely a revenge-rampage movie, with the murder of the hero’s wife and child the incitement. That didn’t sound very enjoyable.
   It also seemed, from small clips and stills I’d seen, much cheaper and less stylish than the BDSM desert of the sequels, so influential that it became the default for all future movie post-apocalypses, just as Bladerunner’s Tokyo-on-steroids became the default future-noir.
   I was surprised to find that the revenge rampage comes very late in the movie. Most of it is an action police procedural set in the near future, this side of the apocalypse. It’s full of paperwork, bureaucracy, and struggles with work-life balance, admittedly spread between brilliantly staged chases, and, yes, a nasty encounter for some bystanders we’re left to assume involved rape.
   The first sequence with Max’s wife, Jessie (Joanne Samuel) packs in so many traits (she plays the sax, she knows sign language) that I assumed this was all we were going to get before she meets a horrible, but caltalytic, fate. But George Miller and fellow writers, James McCausland and Byron Kennedy, are far more interested in her than that.
   “I’ll be alright… as soon as I get it straight in my head.” That’s how Max explains to her his trauma at pal and partner, Goose, being burned to near death by the evil gang. It’s a better written scene than it has any right to be, with an implied apology for getting himself traumatised in the first place.
   Indeed, rather than being spurred to get even, Max wisely surmises that it’s a fairly shit job he has at Main Force Partol, and quits. On the road to the sanctuary of a friend’s farm, there’s another nice moment where Max tries to express the depth of his feeling for Jessie. In short, their relationship gets much more attention than we need just to set up some ultra-violence.
   The first time she’s terrorised by the Evil Biker Gang, I was still thinking, “Here we go: brutalised and killed in a way so horrible as to inspire a homocidal rampage in our ‘hero’”. I was wrong, though. She gets the better of the gang’s leader, Toecutter, via calm ingenuity and sheer guts. Making her escape, she stops the car long enough to order Max into the passenger seat, Sarah Connor style.
   The second time they try to abduct her, she escapes again, while Max is running off in the wrong direction. The only reason she’s eventually caught is because Max has failed to repair the car (she’s teasingly called him Tarzan at his ineffectually tinkering). And, in the end I was spared the horrible rape I was dreading. They run her over, which is brutal enough, but Miller films it with a discretion that avoids lingering on gore and focuses instead on the grief of the survivors, much to the film’s benefit.
   Which is all to say, I’m far more comfortable with the treatment of Jessie than I thought I was going to be.
   The ensuing rampage by Max—now Mad, at least in the sense of being extremely miffed—is quick, and not terribly satisfying. (Toecutter, like some of the earlier baddies, dies not by Max’s hand, but simply crashes his bike.) I’m not sure if that’s intentional or not. The chatter on the police radio suggests that Max, with his stolen V8, will not be welcomed back to HQ, or civilisation in general. In a reverse of, say, Get Carter, where Carter has gone way too far to get out alive, but is nonetheless ecstatic when he finally kills his man, Max gets to live, but only as a lost, tormented soul. That’s the assumption, anyway, confirmed two years later with the arrival of the first sequel.
Next: Mad Max 2

The Road to Fury: an appreciation of Mad Max

I’ve wanted to see Mad Max: Fury Road since it came out in 2015. Everyone loved it, and its nomination for Best Picture at the Academy Awards broke ground for unashamed action movies the way Lord of the Rings did for fantasy FX movies. The only problem was, of its predecessors I’d only seen Mad Max 2, aka The Road Warrior, and that back in 1992. So, for the last few years I’ve occasionally scanned the various streaming services, looking for the earlier instalments. I’ve even flirted with buying them.
   Then, last week, I noticed that films 1–3 were on Amazon Prime Video, and Fury Road was on Netflix. Here we go, then.
Chapters:

Double Bill: Annihilation and Arrival

This is a double bill that happened by accident. I was keen to watch Alex Garland’s Annihilation purely because it was new: I don’t get to the cinema much lately, so I tend to catch up with films only when they reach Netflix, or Prime Video. Being produced by Netflix, Annihilation was available to me on all my local devices less than a month after its US theatrical release. I’d heard good things about it, too, but the main reason I chose to use a rare command over the living room TV to watch it (my wife having started a new novel in earnest), is because I was a bit sick of missing out on the latest movies.

The following evening, my wife not having finished her novel (despite her prodigious reading speed) afforded me a second shot at the main TV, and giddy with the power, I considered many of the films I’d been meaning to catch up with for years. The Martian, The Intern, Arrival, The Founder, Manchester by the Sea, Moonlight. Of these Arrival was the one I most wanted to see, but I had to overcome my suspicion that it was very similar to Annihilation in tone and subject matter. I didn’t know the half of it.

They both start with (apparently) recently-bereaved women giving lectures to university students, before being picked up by the military because of alien lifeforms arriving on earth. They both have a solemn tone, that The Economist’s review of Annihilation describes as, “tightrope-walking the fine line between open-ended, mind-expanding mystery and lethargic, pretentious twaddle.”  They are both adapted from recent, award-laden science fiction literature: Annihilation from Jeff VanderMeer’s novel; Arrival from Story of Your Life, a novella by Ted Chiang. Their similarities are so many that it only accentuates their differences. In fact, they are in entirely different leagues.

Amy Adams in Arrival
Bereaved academic

Natalie Portman in Annihilation
Bereaved academic

Annihilation is full of wonderful things. The peerless cast, the gorgeous, refracted visuals (justified and necessitated by the plot) and a heap of terrific ideas all lead me to believe, at the halfway point, that it was either going to be incredibly scary or incredibly mind-blowing. Alas, ultimately, it was neither.

Arrival, on the other hand, while classy, initially seemed to be slightly less spectacular, both in its visual palette and its ideas. As it progressed, though, the simpler ideas only got more delicious as they were explored and developed, like the themes of a sonata, whereas Annihilation had simply tossed in more exposition and ideas, many half-baked. Crucially, the personal loss element of the back story, common to both, unfurled in a way that was far more intrinsic to both the plot and premise than Annihilation’s.

On finishing Annihilation, I considered reading the source novel as an intellectual exercise, see if it produced the same mild disappointment, or whether it had depths the film had failed to translate. The following evening, while the credits still rolled on Arrival, I had already bought the Kindle version of Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life, out of hope it would give me another dose of the pure euphoria of the movie, which I can’t wait to see again.

macOS Sierra Counts in a Human Way. Oh, no!

While working in Final Cut Pro X tonight, I noticed something: it was arranging my Events in the correct order, even though the first difference in their names (from left to right) were numbers, and some of those numbers had two digits.

I’ve always written numbers in a list with leading zeros to make sure they’re ordered correctly when alphabetised (if I knew we’d eventually be counting in thousands, I’d begin at 0001, 0002… etc.). When writing the date in filenames, I always use ISO 8601 (so today is 2017-01-02) for the same reason. That is, unless I’m working somewhere where the house style is set as something like 020117, in which case I go along with it, as a professional, and just silently seethe the whole time.

At first I thought this was a magical Final Cut Pro thing. But then I wondered why they’d so something that seems so simple, and yet apparently so difficult, in one app, when they could do it across the board. I renamed two old files in the Finder that should’ve been deleted long ago, and found that they, too, were correctly ordered without the leading zeros.

How long has this been the case? I’m amazed. I’m impressed. I’m… scared.

I liked the way I’d learned to behave a bit like a machine when interacting with machines. It gave me security in knowing I would be understood. It’s like altering your vocabulary when talking to a young child, nothing wrong with it. Except now there’s this kid who’s a genius and doesn’t like to be patronised, and the danger is I’ll forget to make allowances for the other kids.

I still use Windows machines, you see. Because I exist in the world. Will I forget my best practices because Apple’s a smarty pants?

There is precedent here, and it’s that old seductress, Final Cut Pro X. It doesn’t need to save, you see. You don’t have to keep hitting Command (or CTRL on the Dark Side)—S every 30 seconds, and the result is I don’t anymore. Years of training out the window. When I go to the BBC and work in Avid, it only saves when I render something (because I know to have it set to do so). I don’t manually save at all, unless I’m about to do something that I suspect will lead to a crash. This is like forgetting to look both ways when crossing a 6-lane motorway. I’ve become a danger unto myself v4qadop.

So it is with this whole “getting numbers in the right order” thing. It’s unnatural. It’s grotesque. Dealing correctly with numbers is something that computers were never meant to to.

Save us!

Rogue One review, with spoilers

Rogue One poster

Having not thought much of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, and feeling like I was adrift in a sea of praise for it, I was sceptical about Rogue One, despite the positive reaction. The trailers didn’t help, in that I simply didn’t feel they made the film look much good. I feared that what I’d liked about Star Wars (loved, actually) obviously wasn’t what everyone else did.

I’d started to feel that way with the prequels (1999–2005), but for opposite reasons: though I could see their flaws as well as anyone, they didn’t bother me. I enjoyed those films, and still do. It’s a lonely feeling.

Plus, it’s an offshoot, a side-story. Surely the stakes would be so much lower that any of the main sequence films, where the fate of the galaxy is at stake. More like one of those Expanded Universe novels that I’ve never had the slightest interest in.

I dragged myself to the cinema anyway, and while I took a wee while to warm to it, I came round, and found myself on the edge of my seat. Also, quite moved. After Force Awakens, this is much more like it.

It’s ‘offshoot’ status actually helps it dramatically in two ways: stylistically and structurally. This is Star Wars unshackled by the usual house style: no silly wipes, no opening crawl, and planets can be identified in a subtitle rather than having to be super-distinctive (desert planet, forest planet, snow planet). It walks a line between how much of the usual business it wants to avoid and still stay part of the family. The score is its own beast, for example, though it flits around the familiar themes (it’s central motif is most like Attack of the Clones’, strangely).

Also, it’s story plays out fully, to its own end—when it’s done, it’s done, which is almost unheard of these days, and a genuine relief. Not that you could just watch this one—you need to see, at least, the original Star Wars for this to make any sense at all, but there’s no Rogue Two in store for this one to drop irritating hints about. After a bit of that in the prequels and dollops of it in Force Awakens, that’s very refreshing. (The original 1977 film remains the only one that can stand completely alone if it needs to.)

One of my worries from the trailers was Felicity Jones as the lead. I thought her performance was at odds with how the character was presented (a psycho hard nut, basically, while Jones was, well, a bit posh). I was misled. Some of the lines which I thought were rubbish (“This is a rebellion, isn’t it? That’s what I do: rebel.”) don’t appear in the film at all. Others work beautifully in their rightful context. “Rebellions are built on hope,” for example, made me cringe in the trailer, but in the film she’s quoting for effect, and it’s great. She’s great.

The whole cast is magnificent, in fact. Diego Luna (who’s always seemed to me slightly overshadowed by his best friend and Y Tu Mama Tambien costar, Gael García Bernal) has grown into the world’s most dashing man. His Mexican accent is like music, and he’s nuanced enough to more than earn the moment when the blind Îmwe (Donnie Yen, also wonderful) has to ask, “Does he look like a killer?” and Malbus (Wen Jiang, also wonderful) responds, “No, he has the face of a friend.”

Forrest Whitaker: great. Mads Mikkelsen: great. And while Jimmy Smits’ part is about the same size as it was in Revenge of the Sith, he’s good here, where he was wooden and uncomfortable in the prequel. It’s also marvellous to see Riz Ahmed among Hollywood’s most fêted.

It helps that they have great writing to perform. Like the first 40 minutes of Force Awakens, it’s lean, potent stuff. There are many characters on each side, hero and villain, and we care about all of them. Perhaps the most dazzling piece of introduction—a late swelling of the band of heroes by a small army for the final act—is presented with a short, simple speech, delivered by Luna in that knee-jellifying accent, that gives us instant understanding of, and belief in, the motivation, dedication and worthiness of these new comrades. Character design and make-up, too, help us identify, and identify with, what should’ve been a random bunch of nobodies. There’s one who’s so pug-ugly that you love him immediately. It’s a bit like the genius in Episode IV’s final attack of having a fat X-Wing pilot called Porkins—still beloved by fans, some of whom are incensed that he found no place in this story. Some of his fellow X-Wingers from 1977, you see, get to make an appearance, which is neat, but leads us to another issue.

An aspect of the prequel trilogy that does bother me is its shoe-horning in of familiar faces unnecessarily. It’s a cheap, lazy way to tap nostalgia, and makes this supposedly expansive galaxy seem very, very small indeed. Rogue One flirts with this, but thankfully not too much.

When it comes to bit players, there’s one egregious example of pointless galaxy-shrinking near the start (“Watch it!”), but for the main everyone we meet is where they ought to be. When it comes to Artoo and Threepio, their four-second cameo actually helps clarify why they ended up on the Tantive IV with Leia (which the prequels made seem like a stupid coincidence).

Of more significance are Vader and Tarkin. The latter is a big talking point, obviously, for featuring the very dead Peter Cushing. How they got round the Crispin Glover BTTF2 rule, I have no idea. I mean, who’s permission did they get, exactly, to use his likeness? Anyway, his first scene was over when I realised I hadn’t listened to a word that had been said for scrutinising “him”. He’s imperfect and impressive at the same time—a bit like Gollum in the Two Towers. Gollum, though, was his own thing: animation, design and performance were open to interpretation. This, on the other hand, has not only a real actor to impersonate, but one in a role known back to front and up and down by the target audience of this film. It’s a big ask, and a big triumph that everyone’s basically happy with the result. I assume Cushing’s estate is happy, too, and has been duly compensated, so I’m just left with the hope that they’ll redo it for later home releases once the tech becomes better and cheaper, they way they did with Episode IV’s Jabba in 2004 (though that’s still crap).

Vader is done perfectly. He’s introduced without his suit, what’s left of his organic form suspended in a tank, rhyming with Luke after his wampa encounter in Empire Strikes Back. I couldn’t help but look for signs of Hayden Christensen in the mangled form. This a beat where the prequels really help. When we see the fully suited Vader striding towards a nervous Ben Mendelsohn, he’s bona fide scary again, and the fact that little Annie Skywalker has utterly vanished makes him all the more so.

A big hats off to director, Gareth Edwards. I haven’t seen any of his other pictures, but I’d heard he operates a lot of the camera himself, often improvising and trusting that the edit will shape the unplanned moments he finds. When I read that, I feared for Bourne-style shakey-cam, but the action, both the hand-to-hand skirmishes and the aerial battles, is nimble, deft and clear. There was also a very pleasant sense that the actions of the pilots in live action cockpits related perfectly with the motion of their craft in the CG exteriors, which sold the FX and leant a reality to the dogfights. There was also a unity to the style, in contrast to the prequels where the CG animators created dynamic sequences in a modern style that never quite knitted with the Kurosawa-inspired static tableaux that Lucas would film with his actors.

A lot has been made of the fact that this is the war-iest of the Star Wars. I was worried that that would just mean callous violence. At first, I thought my worries were justified—lots of innocent bystanders, lots of offhand, execution-style killing (from the heroes). But in the mid-Act II climax, the sense of war was conveyed much more deeply, more Full Metal Jacket, with crossed wires, confusion and panic that results in the Rebellion accidentally stuffing things up with a poorly judged airstrike. In the aftermath, the Rebel Alliance errs, frustratingly, on the side of caution. Mistakes here are very, very costly, and the outcomes of any action almost impossible to predict. There’s something Adam Curtis-y about this idea that the situation is more complex that you think, and simple, reassuring narratives being insidious enemies.

This, for me, is the spirit of George Lucas: a philosophy. As the upcoming Episode VIII’s director Rian Johnson wrote in a tweet, “the prequels are a 7 hour long kids movie about how fear of loss turns good people into fascists.” However badly they were executed, they had (like Videodrome) a philosophy. (Force Awakens, in contrast, was as soulless to me as many have accused the prequels of being.)

All that said, the skepticism I brought to it wasn’t entirely to blame for its slowness to win me over. It’s taut in the second half, but there is some flab early on. The brain-sucking creature, for instance, could be cut right out since it does neither of the things it promises (verify the defecting pilot’s story and driving him mad in the process), but at least gets far less screen time than the comedy octopus that Han’s smuggling in Force Awakens. And Forrest Whitaker keeps the sequence watchable, channelling Paul Darrow in the last episode of Blake’s 7 (“You………have betrayed………me?” —Fabulous.)

So this is much, much more like it. It actually has some weight, some heft. Heart and balls. It’s a side-story that genuinely enriches the main one, even the unimpeachable Episodes, IV and V. What a thing to pull off, what a dance to perform!

In short, it’s restored my faith in The Force™.