The Last Jedi – a review

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There’s an awful lot of red in the Last Jedi’s world

To begin with a warning: when reading this review keep in mind Disney bought the Star Wars franchise from Lucasfilm in 2012 and are responsible for its reboot. It is conceived as all Disney productions are conceived, to a corporate aesthetic. I mention that because it lowers expectations of anything new or exciting happening other than a rehash of the old mixed with the new-ish. You like candy floss, you get lots of candyfloss.

I just about remember the freshness of seeing the first Star Wars. Despite its ground-breaking special effects, it was a Saturday afternoon matinee film given top billing in the evenings by public demand, and the series has remained a matinee action flick.

George Lucas practically killed off mature adult stories with his Star Wars franchise and Indiana Jones adventures; he infantilised cinema. French cinema took the biggest hit, dominant in European filmed culture up and until that point. Queues lined up to see Lucas’ flash, bang, wallop extravaganzas staying away from films that make you think.

It took almost four decades for cinema to recover and give us a wide range of adult subjects again, but here we are once more watching Number 8 in the saga. And believe me, at two-and-half hours it feels like four. No, five.

Criticising Star Wars as nothing more than empty science fiction is liable to bring down on your head adoring fans ready to dice you in equal slices with a swing of their light sabre. So here goes nothing.

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Is this a dagger I see before me? – no, a light sabre with a dead battery

No action, no problem, no issue, no dispute in Star Wars is resolved without a battle to the death. Life is one long war of attrition followed by a war of annihilation, until somebody says smugly ‘mission accomplished’, which one character almost does in Last Jedi, only to swallow her words as another battle appears on the horizon. I guess the clue is in the title – Star Wars. All characters live a life of perpetual jeopardy. Nobody has a hobby or preaches peace.

John Williams Nazi rally music is here again to boost patriotic feelings and make us understand we should kill anything that walks if we are to achieve world domination. The theme is in every nook and cranny. There are no quiet moments. Sounds is turned up to eleven and then twelve.

Critics tell us this film is full of twists and turns. And so it is. After the umpteenth wholly contrived misdirection I started yawning, then leaned heavily to one side like a ferry boat listing. “Not anither wan?” ran through my mind, to quote the old dear on UK elections. The new reclining seats in my cinema were installed in the nick of time.

If you try to make sense of the crushing junk script it will suck any intelligence clean out of your skull. And there’s none of the fake Shakespearian philosophical discourses so beloved by Sir Alec Guinness and Yoda. (Yoda makes an appearance. I groaned.)

Only three actors do any acting, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, and Laura Dern given all the kick ass lines ever written. Women’s liberation, according to the Hollywood bible, is doing and saying as tough men do. All the others put on costumes and play the stereotype, a Lucas hallmark. They are so wooden a Stormtrooper seems human in comparison. However, there’s a scene in the middle of Jedi that’s significant.

The sequence that takes place in a neo-medieval island hideout where Luke Skywalker, (Mark Hamill) sulks his life away – images of Achilles in the Iliad. To be candid, we see and hear too much of the scruffy misanthrope. Actually, Hamill was badly injured in a car crash just as his youthful star was rising and then almost forgotten as an actor. The tragedy might well have fired the writer’s ideas for reinstating his character.

Just as I was working out which Scottish island the scene was shot – Skellig off the west of Ireland – up popped Rey, (Daisy Ridley) introduced to us as the contemporised feisty femme in The Force Awakens, (2015).

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Mark Hammill (centre) giving fans what the like. (With Ridley and director Rian Johnson)

Rey has gone to that dark, windswept rocky retreat in the hope of persuading hirsute Luke to go walkabout with her and join her, and other heroes, in the Resistance. Their aim is precise and singular: to defeat the First Order—to which Ben Solo, (son of Han and Leia) now known as Kylo Ren, (Adam Driver) has sworn life-long fealty.

This is where the visuals get fascinating.

In melancholy mood Rey enters a hidden place in which she faces a vast subterranean mirrored rock face, and, confronted by her reflection, reaches out to it only to see a dozen or more identical Reys, all moving in unison, and then moving in reverse sequence that recedes to infinity. The image is arresting, Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, a way of witnessing her power and her uncertainty. So far, so good.

This becomes a question of Rey’s identity – not a new idea, I grant you, but in expression visually refreshing. Unfortunately thereafter it reads like ploy to give Rey substance, to make us believe she’s human and doth bleed.

Like so much of the movie’s twists it offers us sub-text that never quite manifests into concrete form.

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The fate of our stars – Rian Johnson on set with the late Carrie Fisher

The rest of the story follows the Resistance led by General Leia, (Carrie Fisher in her last role) to survive and escape a Lucas standard set piece, the mass galactic onslaught, this time led by the First Order’s pompous General Hux, (Domhnall Gleeson, son of Brendan) and its Supreme Leader with the silly name, Snoke, played by the great Andy Serkis, Hollywood’s most employed actor rarely seen. The arch villain is always seated on a throne these days and ugly as sin.

Other actors of note – English playing baddies – are pilot Poe Dameron, (Oscar Isaac), and two other Resistance fighters, Finn, (John Boyega) and Rose, (Kelly Marie Tran). There’s lots of familiar faces but not the bored and boring Ewan McGregor. (Sorry, fans.)

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Black for villains Domhnall Gleeson, and Adam Driver, the latter mesmeric

The director of all this pseudo-science pudding and Poundland religion called ‘The Force’ is Rian Johnson straining to be an auteur, but showing he can’t hold onto a logical line in the way he managed in his film Looper, (2012). Johnson must hate his audience to play so many teasers on us that amount to a cruel annoyance.

The best and the average cast members don’t get a chance to develop their characters or breathe for more than a minute. The movie’s suit is cut too tight, the story line held tight by mixed edits, flash backs, flash forwards, and last second sounds crashes – everything is down to a time running out cliché.

The visual images are more complex than ever but presented with absolute assurance and skill. Battles end up looking like a Jackson Pollock action painting. This is where lie the real talents, the real gifts of the film.

If you ever get an opportunity to visit the Pasadena College of Art and Design in Los Angeles you must take a look around the Department of Graphic Illustration. It is mega-impressive, it’s output eons ahead of anything you will see in a UK art college. The students are gifted. By the second year of study their work is ready for sci-fi comics and films. That’s what we marvel at in this Star Wars episode, the scenery, the back drops, the moving planets and galaxies, the digital magic.

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I’d swear that robot thingy has put on weight

As with each succeeding Star Wars movie I’m left wondering what the theme is about. Opening titles flying off into space tell us it’s about the Resistance. Main characters are all able to command by mind control, the USA’s next great weapon in its arsenal. You dispel rationalising flawed character relationships realising the theme is greatness, the power of American imperialism, and the ultimate sacrifice for your country.

The Last Jedi is solid US war propaganda. Like American foreign policy, the war to end all wars is never-ending. And I haven’t mentioned the unashamed marketing of Star Wars paraphernalia that accompanies every episode.

There are three more scripts in development. For my part, the Star Wars saga ended in the last Millenium with Return of the Jedi.

  • Star rating: Three
  • Cast: Daisy Ridley, Mark Hamill, Adam Driver, Domhnall Gleeson, Carrie Fisher
  • Director: Rian Johnson
  • Writer: Rian Johnson, based on characters by George Lucas
  • Cinematographer: Steve Yedlin
  • Composer: John Williams
  • Duration: 2 hours 32 minutes
  • RATING CRITERIA
  • 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: Excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: very good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: Crap; why did they bother?
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Best Films of 2017

 Or at least, the best ones I managed to see

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‘The Florida Project’ refers to a failed housing scheme. Top acting honours go to its main actors – Brooklyn Prince ably supported by Bria Vinaite as her mother

The movies outlined range from very good to outstanding, though most were genre led and unoriginal in style and script. Too many are praised by London critics and reviewers as classics in the making, when in fact they were no more than above average.

Logan Lucky

Steven Soderberg back from self-enforced retirement gives us a slice of redneck life and characters around a somewhat implausible heist on a ticket office at a car race track. Notable for Daniel Craig doing his best not to be a psycho James Bond (again). An enjoyable heist story at least for attempting to be fresh.

The Disaster Artist

Unlovable, expect to young female fans, trying hard to be James Dean, James Franco  finally manages to create art by showing us bad art, the true story of how non-talents made their own film The Room (2006) the worst film every made. Move aside Ed Wood. Lost count of films made about the making of films.

Mudbound

A highly sensitive dissection of racial attitudes and segregation in post-war Mississippi Delta from emerging talent Dee Rees. Sad, bleak, but also an affirmation on the human spirit, snapped up by the increasingly smart Netflix empire.

The Death of Stalin

Our own home educated satirist Armando Iannucci fictionalises the last days of Stalin’s rule to show how buttock clenching fear still stalked his colleagues and henchmen. Very clever start to finish, but could have been universal if Soviet Union was not the subject. I’m looking forward to Iannucci’s follow-up on Trump … maybe.

Good Time

A good crime yarn from the Safdie Brothers: Robert Pattison plays a street wise New York hustler doing his best to survive in the urban jungle. Lacks the emotional punch of Midnight Cowboy, but still a slice of life that rings true. 

The Florida Project

With only one professional actor, Willem Dafoe, model and singer Bria Vinaite, and a gift from the gods in little Brooklyn Prince, co-writer and director Sean Baker gives us a slice of American life struggling to keep body and soul together and losing. Five stars.

Detroit

Kathryn Bigelow’s gut wrenching fictionalisation of what happened to black protestors locked in an hotel during the Detroit riots, harassed and beaten by psychotic police, was often difficult to watch. It got lots of press coverage but ignored by British cinemagoers.

Murder on the Orient Express

Not as memorable as the original mainly because director-star Kenneth Branagh dominates every scene; not even the locomotive gets a look in. An impressive piece of work still in a few cinemas, sure to be pushed out by multi-showings of Last of the Jedi.

The Handmaiden

An erotic thriller of the first order from the imagination of Park Chan-Wook, a story unlike any other with brilliant twists and turns, and femme fatales to die for, indeed a few men do exactly that. The original novel was set in London, Chan moves it to Korea of the 1930s and raises it to a masterly vision. Stays in the mind a long time.

Trainspotting 2

While pleasant to see the gang again, I dithered over including Trainspotting’s revisit of our much loved reprobates and haunts. There are laughs, but aspects of our anti-heroes’ adulthood are psychologically improbable. Self-indulgent, too nostalgic, a commercial merging of two books. We’ve more important stories to tell than repeating close scrapes in low-life schemies. Anyhow, The Florida Project tells a tale of poverty and hope ten times better.

An odd year

The worst film among many bad films was Scarlet Johansson’s Ghost in the Shell. At times this western remake of a Manga cartoon strip was embarrassingly bad. However, I didn’t see German born, Ireland educated, Michael Fassbender’s universally ridiculed (by its director too) The Snowman. Fassbender is a fine actor. Still, every man of genius needs a bit of the Irish in them. He had his version of MacBeth doing the rounds to make amends.

My work schedule meant I missed a lot of good European films showing in my local art house cinemas, but while on the subject of Europe and Germany, I can recommend the weird and wonderful Toni Erdman. This is an extraordinary study of a father-daughter relationship, neither liking the other, and of their loneliness, (it’s all in King Lear!) proof positive Germans have a great sense of humour.

For the avoidance

I avoided anything with cars that transform into destructive robots. I didn’t manage to avoid war movies. British ones were average fare, mostly obsessed with nostalgia for Blighty’s misfortunes in the Second World War. Christopher Nolan’s homage to Dunkirk was an exercise in old-fashioned filmmaking where Englishmen displayed resolve and a stiff upper lip, Scots were less than supportive of English colleagues, and no Indian or Pakistani fought against Nazism.

The media loves war nostalgia, seamless reams on radio and television, as if ramping up patriotic fervour for the next territorial folly. Chief among the lickspittle looking for elevation is a certain Dan Snow, like the shallow Neil Oliver, full of quick study history anecdotes while telling the rest of us to forego plans for a nation of independent means. Let’s rely on millionaire landowners helping us out in times of need. That’ll do it.

Of British war films, Their Finest was the weakest; others masqueraded as science fiction. In the habit that is dumb Hollywood, if one studio is shooting a film about Churchill another studio lost for ideas will order a script written about Churchill. We got two, weeks apart. Both were vehicles for actors who can impersonate the boozy colonial, but that’s all they were, impersonations of Churchill. We know from the aftermath and court trials, in times of war men do mad things. In peacetime men make crappy war films.

In summation

If this year marked any trend it was the one that favoured impersonation, impersonating politicians, painters and Hollywood celebrities among the actor’s favourite roles. It’s acting of a sort, but not really as clever as creating a whole character from words alone.

As for me, there was a lot of pacing, pondering and hesitation about advising friends to apply to the new film fund set-up of Creative Scotland. The bureaucracy is horrendous, and the older you get the worse it becomes.

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2017 Most Popular Essays

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Edinburgh’s George Street, a rag-bag of garish fairground lights and elf stalls

Edinburgh’s George Street festive illuminations are attractive from a distance, a bit of a disappointment close up, like the promises made by Scotland’s opponents.

A year of marking time

To my mind the funniest political episode this year was the stramash over Alex Salmond selling his political chat show to Russian Television. To the rabid right-wing press, the political crime of the decade is Russian Television’s propaganda aimed at our society. (The accusation is, of course, British propaganda.) The effects of the crime are undetectable, unlike the massive effects of interference by corporate power and private wealth in government policy and taxation, not considered a crime, merely the normal workings of democracy.

Scunnered at puerile press speculation of Nicola Sturgeon ‘shelving’ a second plebiscite on Scotland’s future, or only ‘delaying’ it, “I mostly” concentrated on emphasising how much Scotland’s economy and daily life remain a depressing post colonial existence. I didn’t plan essays that way. They evolved. The more I researched British colonialism the more it became neo-colonialism; comparisons grew and grew. It got to the point I could lift almost any callous remark from a Tory or Labour politician and find its doppelganger in one spoken to Hindus under British rule.

Corporate power rules – okay?

Add to all that the corporate strangulation of European influence and tax regulation and our impotence to stop unalloyed greed, and you have a model of Scotland as a colony in the 21st century. To hear thumping mediocre unionists with connections to big business sitting in Scotland’s Parliament doing their very best every day to tighten that deathly grip, envisages the Wicker Man bringing firelighters to the pagan ceremony.

When the sun is shining, you’ve a full belly, enough money to buy a pint and see the match, repeatedly told self-reliance is bad for Scotland’s health and your children’s future, you won’t perceive you live in a politically undernourished society. You become blind and deaf to what you don’t have.

The opposition in Holyrood sucks, but suction kills

People might agree some of Holyrood’s opposition MSPs are poor value for money, but the same are slow turning frowns into vigorous resistance against a proliferation of fifth columnists accessing Parliament. I can’t find their equivalent in England, thousands of Scots beavering away to undermine England’s self-esteem and steal its wealth.

There were weekends it was a relief to write about the car industry or publish a humorous film review, so enraging is Westminster’s hold on Scotland’s maturity.

The top ten essays read and reread this year

Here are the top ten essays this year to the nearest half-thousand, with a link for readers.

  1. Dear JK Rowling 16,000…………………. https://wp.me/p4fd9j-sB
  2. Paging BBC Scotland 10,000………….. https://wp.me/p4fd9j-kUW
  3. My Country to Govern 8,500…………. https://wp.me/p4fd9j-f9U
  4. The SNP’s Achievements 7,000…….. https://wp.me/p4fd9j-63x
  5. Scotland – A British Colony 7,000… https://wp.me/p4fd9j-mcb
  6. Rock Star Sturgeon 7,000……………..  https://wp.me/p4fd9j-bwJ
  7. England the Oil Thief 6,000………….. https://wp.me/p4fd9j-fg7
  8. England’s Neo-Colonialism 5,000… https://wp.me/p4fd9j-iD0
  9. Catalonia – Then and Now 4,000….. https://wp.me/p4fd9j-kOl
  10. Debeaking Wings 3,500…………………. https://wp.me/p4fd9j-jpC

Readers pull favourites out of the archives regularly, The Infamous Ledger, Torrance the Terrible and A History of Brief Time, are three perennials, the last my thanks to Scotland’s elderly, septuagenarians and octogenarians who voted to reinstate autonomy. Some reactivated essays I’d forgotten I’d written, some I’d prefer to rewrite.

Some days I want to bar the door and stay at home

I have no idea what 2018 will bring, but I know there is more fear in the world that last year, thanks to Trump, May, Spain’s Rajoy, and Scotland’s chronic inability to have confidence in itself. But here’s to 2018 just the same.

This year 2017 Finland celebrated 100 years of independence – and no ill effects!

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Wish it was Scotland

 

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Scotland Leased to the Scots

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What differences are there in this image from those in our own society?

Imposing an unequal Treaty on a neighbour nation in which that nation will always be overpowered by the parliamentary votes and self-serving agenda of the dominant nation is normally described as governing a colony.

In Scotland’s case, Scotland is leased to the Scots.

The majority of key powers are retained by the UK Parliament which in the main serves England first, colonies second, usually serving them badly. All Scotland’s wealth goes south, a tiny portion sent back in case we starve, in which case we’d be no use to our colonial masters at all. The tragic political dog’s dinner that is Northern Ireland is a case in point, Gibraltar another. Scotland gets short shrift but a bit more attention because it’s joined onto England and shouts a lot. Wales is too close to London to be a threat.

Foreign policy, armaments, avoiding wars, banking, trade deals and treaties, tariffs, broadcasting and cable provision, membership of the United Nations are only a few of the important powers not given to Scotland. By any yardstick that makes us a colony.

The only concessions England made under the Act of Union – and how it must regret it – was taking on all the United Kingdom’s debt in the event of a split. That was the boulder chained to its ankle in return for controlling all financial powers. To compensate they take all Scotland earns and steal Scotland’s oil.

Colonies are not for consulting

Colonies are not considered in the calculation of consequences. Pulling out of Europe on the vote of middle-England racism is a case in point, a pertinent one.

The flitting is potentially lethal to the economies of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, as well as tearing up all the Treaties NI with the Republic, and Gibraltar too. But Theresa May and her empire loyalists plough on regardless.

Only a minority party in NI has been consulted, the DUP, not the NI Assembly. Readers will recall the Tory MP Neil Hamilton receiving brown envelopes from Mohamed al-Fayed who owned Harrods. That was sleaze, but chicken feed to today’s £2 billion promised to the DUP for services rendered.  The Tories handed the proverbial brown envelope to the DUP to keep themselves in power. Sleazy? – you bet it is. That isn’t a government  strong and stable. That’s a democracy in the last throes of life.

Our neighbours in the south

Scotland cannot remedy its ills nor progress unless released from the governance of an essentially reckless, corrupt neighbour, now openly antagonistic and repressive.

As Westminster uses Brexit to recover powers it gave to Scotland, and scandals are heaped one upon another, more and more English are realising something is rotten in the state of merry Britain. Scotland is beginning to understand it cannot resist the worst of English extremism unless it has the internal powers to halt unwanted incursions.

Unionists like to react to that statement with mock shock and surprise and quite a lot of ridicule. Where, how are you oppressed, they say? This was the British question put to Gandhi and his India. Imperialists always see themselves as benign, bringing civilisation to the natives who really ought to be grateful.

The colonial assumes the natives are inferior. They argued without imperialist England India would fall into anarchy ruled by corrupt maharajas. And indeed, that’s exemplifies the essential attitude unionist against pro-independence supporters. Only that isn’t the truth. English presence, aided by Scots in their employment or merchants trading with India, ensured famine was rife, poverty accepted as part of the natural order of things, and the quelling of mass protest silenced by rifle fire. All India’s resources, gold and jewels too, (see Queen Elizabeth’s crown) went to England, the usual one-way journey.

Anti-independence supporters – the ones who belittle democrats as ‘separatists’ – keep repeating the lie that Scotland is too poor to survive on its own. They do not mention how much of its wealth and resources they are removing from Scotland to justify that fabrication, in the same way England got very rich on the back of owning India.

Juggling with globalisation.

Globalisation has been with us a very long time. It’s not a new concept, not as I understand it. If we interpret globalisation to mean international integration it began long before somebody used coinage to create capitalism.

When you look at it, silk roads dating back to the pre-Christian times were an extensive form of globalization. Marco Polo opening up China to the west and a huge trading market, mostly in one direction, the west.  China is doing that today, dominating western industry’s profit margins, and owning billions of the west’s debts keeping us tied to their friendship no matter what we dislike about their lack of civil rights.

If you want to make a lot of money you do what James Dyson has done, and other major companies before him. You create products that sell in the biggest market in the world, China, and you manufacture them in China at cheap labour rates so that you can sell the same products in the west at great profit. That too, is a kind of colonisation.

“All for ourselves, nothing for other people.” Adam Smith

The rise of industrial state capitalism has changed the scale and character of globalization, and in its turn the relationship England with Scotland.

It is fair to argue that before 1945, the advanced capitalist countries practised a kind of open imperialism. They colonized weaker countries. They did it by strength of navy, army and financial muscle.

They legitimised oppression by imposing unequal treaties on them. By any analysis this is creating a colony – they occupied parts of territories through “leasing,” deprived them of the right to set taxes, tariffs, or negotiate with other nations. Does that sound familiar?

Since 1945 we have seen a strong worldwide reaction against colonisation with the advent of nation states, well over a hundred, some by peaceful means, the ballot box, and some by rebellion, armed insurrection. I believe Scotland’s political awakening in the late twentieth century, and now in fierce, combative action, is a manifestation of the desire to wrest back control of our nation’s rights and destiny from the people who have profited from globalisation. In our case it’s our neighbour at our expense.

Together with other nations, particularly Latin American countries sick of American interference in their  economies and governments, Catalonia too in its own way, we’ve seen the emergence of a global revolt that rejects naked imperialism. There’s been a continuous process of de-colonialisation over the last decades and, once sovereignty is regain in full, membership of the United Nations, which is based upon the principle of one-country-one-vote.

The disaster upon us

Unfortunately, what are seeing now in England’s callous dumping of European unity is a rollback of the sovereignty that the post-colonial countries enjoyed. Scotland has yet to enjoy a post-colonial existence.

A plethora of trade agreements since the Nineties has eroded sovereignty, (mostly made in the US’s favour) and English see that as much as Scots do but confuse it with their inherent dislike of Johnny Foreigner. English Exceptionalism feels it has the right to tell Europeans what they should do, but not the other way around.

Furthermore, our lives are shaped and dictated by multi-national corporations, organisations that used to be self-contained but that now hold great economic power. They see themselves as above the law and natural justice. They move their money around continents and pay next to no tax. This is an unprecedented extension of corporate power.

Scotland laughed at Reagan’s old faker antics but was thoroughly kicked around by Thatcher’s interpretation of survival only of the fittest. Now we see major corporations driving government policy – big business telling the Scottish population not to vote for self-governance but to bow to their bought and paid for puppets, the Tory and Labour party who pander to their interests, many of whom retire onto their board of directors.

Good? It’s nearly all bad

We see the terrible effects of neo-liberal economics – the emphasis on individuality and the creed of me-first rather than collective identity. (Collective identity is what the SNP is good at.) The ill and vulnerable are told to work, then see shrinkage of the welfare state remove their lifebelt to avoid the poverty trap. Those in work are told their job stacking shelves or as a bank teller is redundant so go switch mid-life to investment banking or computer software expertise.

Unless we take our nation’s destiny into our hands and our place in the United Nations too long delayed, unless we take control of the mechanisms that redistribute wealth, we will always be the loser who is never compensated. We will pay dearly for leasing our own land.

Daniel Defoe said, “In this Union here there are Lands and People added to the English empire.” He knew what he was talking about, a statement fit for The Infamous Ledger.

Further reading:

The scale of this new globalized  world is revealed in the 2013 World Investment Report of the United Nations Commission on Trade and Development. 80 percent of global trade is run by transnational corporations, accounting for only 20 percent of jobs worldwide.

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Last Essay

Unless Armageddon looms large, this is the last political essay this side of 2018. Next year sees the fourth year of this essay site. It’s been an interesting journey reaching almost 30,000 regular readers a month worldwide, and an average of 22,000 impressions a day. Though I don’t have millions of followers I delight in having over 11,000 likes. When I began I wondered what it was I had to say that would outlast a month’s articles. Now and again I see some influence on readers who are keen to learn, as I am from them, and who are open minded. Meanwhile I’m ruining my eyesight composing essays at night, and I think I’ve acquired a permanently numb bum from all this sedentary work. If next year doesn’t see a second referendum on Scotland’s rights I might have to buy a guide dog and a wheelchair.

Personally, I hate Christmas, the whole tawdriness of it. But I’ll survive.

Next week: a list of Best Films of 2017, and Most Popular Essays.

 

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The Disaster Artist – a review

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James Franco (right) and his real life brother Dave recount ‘the worst film ever made’

How the director, Tommy Wiseau, a nobody from nowhere without a single film to his credit, managed to get hold of enough money to make the original bad film on which The Disaster Artist is based is anybody’s guess. He appeared to have a bottomless bank account – all the crew were paid and camera equipment bought not hired – more than two homes, a luxury Mercedes, an accent that was never the New Orleans he claimed, and an age three times the one he said he was. The film cost $6 million USD. And, shock horror followed by amusement, by word of mouth it’s made its money back again, after a miserable first night of $1,800 box office revenue.

Easier to understand how James Franco got hold of his budget to recreate the behind-the-scenes making of what is now a late night cult film so bad it’s enjoyable. He’s a world movie star. And believe it or not, in Rocky Horror Show style, Wiseau’s film plays to packed late night houses, fans enraptured and buying tickets for another showing. At a scene in which Wiseau threatens to kill himself audiences chant, “Do it”! Do it! Do it!” How can a film about a hyper-loser who becomes a winner not be a winner?

Wiseau’s mess takes the title resting decades with Ed Woods and his ‘Worst Movie Ever’, Plan 9 From Outer Space. That film was remade by Tim Burton and Johnny Depp winning both an Oscar. Franco’s will surely get a nomination. He’s done a grand job though it’s an impersonation not a created fictional character. And he’s been smart enough to let others write the screenplay, unlike the hapless Wiseau.

As someone who has been behind a camera watching my own script come to life or die a writhing death before my very eyes, I watched The Disaster Artist in a permanent state of acute anxiety. I was thoroughly unnerved. (Americans call it creeped out.) Sometimes I laughed out of embarrassment, sometimes out of seeing a common pratfall. I recognised truthful moments: poor organisation, clash of egos, director tantrums, actors who give good auditions and then have nothing more to offer. Professional experience tells me the greater the talent, the less it screams and shouts. The less able are generally riddled with uncertainty and doubts, prone to whine.

If you’ve seen the original train wreck, The Room, you’ll not want me to dwell on it. Wiseau has become something of a celebrity, invited to give talks, demonstrations of his directing prowess, long discussions about his life, guest on late night chat shows, all it has to be said, to the delight of fawning audiences. Tommy Wiseau has succeeded in turning himself from a nonentity without a shred of talent to a recognised figure exploiting his notoriety.

The Room is so bad it’s painful to watch. And that’s why it’s mesmeric. You can’t believe anybody could create something so awful that didn’t plan to do it for comedy reasons. Characters enter a room in one mood and switch in an instant to another; people make strident speeches only to ask for personal guidance, sex scenes are grotesque, dialogue is a long hurdle race of tautologies, people bump into the furniture, it’s that bad.

Yet here I am writing a review of a major motion picture based on Wiseau’s misfortune. It stars bad boy James Franco as Tommy Wiseau, ably supported by Franco’s brother, Dave, and half-a-dozen comedy luminaries including Seth Rogan and Alison Brie. For most of its length it’s very funny. What can I say? Crap wins the day.

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The real disaster director Tommy Wiseau

Throughout The Disaster Artist Franco’s Wiseau emphasizes the very Americanness of his endeavour, which is odd because in later interviews he admits to being of ‘eastern European’ origin but won’t tell exactly where. His accent is a garbled mix of what I deduce as Ukrainian English and fractured American. (Compare Wiseau in interview with Franco’s interpretation of him and it’s perfect.)

In life as in the film’s recreation Wiseau tries his luck at acting classes. After a tortuous stage audition in New York he decides his talent is unrecognised. With his odd beaten up looks, long black hair, stocky frame and rolling gait, friends tell him he’d make a perfect movie villain. “You have a malevolent presence,” says one director, “you’re born to play villains.” But Wiseau’s other inadequacy, one of many, is his complete lack of self-awareness. “I hero, you all villain. Yeah, you laugh at the hero. That what villain do.” There’s something chronically naïve about him but a lot of the street hustler too.

He’s a great fan of James Dean and Marlon Brando. Wiseau must be thrilled to have Franco play him, and actor who played Dean on television.

Franco gives us a Tommy Wiseau that’s by fit and starts reckless, obsessive and haughty, propelled by a childlike passion. Those characteristics combine to make him seem strangely attractive to others. We meet Tommy doing his brains in, in a San Francisco acting class, strangling Tennessee Williams famous Stanley Kowalski speech.

Weird as a platypus wearing flippers, Tommy meets and makes friends with Greg Sestero, (Dave Franco), a fellow student. Unlike the man that fascinates him, Greg has severe problems with self-confidence. Shy and withdrawn, he uses drama classes as a therapy. The two become close friends and move to Hollywood for their big break.

Tommy, every careful to portray himself as typically American, carries a football around a lot but can’t throw it for toffee. In a typical moment of stupidity Tommy approaches a visibly annoyed Judd Apatow in a restaurant and screeches Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy before forcibly tossed out the door.

Almost on the spot he decides the solution to his woes is the worst solution possible … to make his own movie.

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Old and new, it’s all magic mirrors

There are any number of films made about making films, my earliest recollection a hazy remembrance of a Scottish black and white chase film about a lowly director constantly one hour behind meeting up with a potential financier, the action set in Glasgow. The last I saw was, Bowfinger, (1999) devised as a comedy vehicle for its star Steve Martin. The best of that genre belong to the Italians, and Fellini.

The fascination of The Disaster Artist is witnessing all the things that can go wrong in filmmaking, and do, common sense solutions overridden by a cack-handed, ego-driven directors who think their every word gold dust.

Tommy harps on and on about his production being “The real thing, man, a real movie, professional, man” when it’s riotously the exact opposite. Actors are given no idea of character motivation, or what they’re supposed to be doing, especially when Tommy explains things to them. His crew are stricken dumb at his incompetence. His artistic vision is paramount, pushing aside all criticism. Moments had me wonder if it was all a satirical stab at Donald Trump in the Whitehouse.

I like Franco’s decision to embrace nepotism and cast his own brother as Tommy’s best friend. It works well offering some of the best moments in this tragedy of errors. We sense disagreement, misunderstandings among exchanges based on genuine affection. Their relationship is rocky. Frequently Greg is silenced by Tommy’s displays of volatile temper, sequences adding tension and drama where none might have existed.

On opening night, Tommy overcomes his initial embarrassment at the howls of laughter in the theatre and basks in the glow of his audience’s applause. This is the opposite reaction to that of producer and accountant in Mel Brooks hilarious The Producers (1967). In that intentional comedy the nefarious rascals scurry off to nurse their wounds.

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Franco managed to stay in character while directing himself directing the film!

The Disaster Artist makes great play with the idea that there’s a little bit of the outsider in everybody – well, the writers should spend time in class ridden England. Then again, since we are watching a studio movie about Wiseau’s indie film we are forced to admit he succeeded to some degree, he secured fame of sorts, and an American identity.

Tommy Wiseau reaches out for fame on the back of creating great art but in the end achieves a pile of  crap and notoriety. He abandons the guise of the driven, tormented artist and assumes the mantle of a salesman and hawker, in US parlance, a huckster. You can’t get more American than that – right?

Yes, the sub-text in this film must be about Donald Trump.

  • Star Rating: Three and a half stars
  • Cast: James Franco, Dave Franco, Seth Rogen, Ari Graynor, Alison Brie
  • Director: James Franco
  • Writers: Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber
  • Cinematographer: Brandon Trost
  • Composer: Dave Porter
  • Duration:  98 minutes
  • RATING CRITERIA
  • 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: Excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: very good if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: Crap; why did they bother?
Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Last Exit from Brexit

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The deathly clowns of Brexit – sinister harbingers of repression

A quick guide to solutions for Scotland to escape England’s fiasco

Living next door to England is living next to a perpetual building site constructed on a PFI budget we paid for, and continue paying for the next twenty years. No matter how many times architects and site foremen say they’ll keep noise and mess to a minimum, that they won’t encroach on our property, you know they’re lying.

Moreover, the scheme means seriously crap buildings emerging to block out sunshine and light, with extensions added not on the approved plans. Finding out councillors are almost all shareholders in the site, it doesn’t assuage anger to know you were voted down over opposing the scheme by the council to whom you pay taxes. We are left feeling powerless, trapped.

We can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with England’s plan- or we can do something about it.

The silence is deafening

The Tory government and it’s wooden headed propaganda agents kicking Scotland’s fetlock are unwilling or unable to explain what will happen to Scotland when they give Johnny Foreigner the heave-ho. They even keep their own regions in the dark. Talk is all platitudes and generalities. Their MPs have all the dynamism of a paper aeroplane.

We’ve seen evidence of the worst to come: long-time respected residents repatriated, a sharp diminution in critical migrant labour, the steady loss of civil rights.

Incidentally, has anybody noticed the Etonian twit who caused all this, David Cameron, is nowhere to be seen? He’d lay claim to some guile and intelligence if he spoke Scottish. He tried that on a day return visit to Edinburgh, gargled something, and left.

Cameron is replaced by a sleazy bunch of vainglorious poseurs. There’s a likelihood the idiots call out their own name when they climax during sex.

On seeing xenophobia unrestrained England’s politicians are filled with woolly emotion. By regaining all the powers previously shared with the EU, Brexit is a gift from Heaven, the perfect device to ignore the Irish, stuff the Welsh, use Gibraltar as an ace negotiating card, and “tame the Nats”, making them peripheral to politics indefinitely.

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If you’re wondering who’s in the coffin – it’s Scotland if we don’t control our destiny

Optimists say there’s still time to turn back, pessimists say English racism has elevated greed and hatred to patriotic virtues. Either way, there has to be another referendum for Scotland to decide if it wants to endorse repugnant xenophobia, or create the egalitarian society it feels it seeks by nature.

Be advised: To accept a boss’s demand for sex as part of securing work and a career crushes self-esteem and dignity. You never fully recover.

What can be done?

This list is to archive for reference, or send to friends. It’s expressed in digestible form.

It’s all about Scotland. England can look after its own mess. I try to avoid the technical miasma of Brexit. I began compiling points weeks ago. By coincidence both First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and the EU published their own predictions.

The clowns of Westminster are sinister and deadly. Finding humour in any of this is almost impossible, but I’ll try.

Brexit Disaster for Dummies

Who to Trust

Some unionist Brexiteers and a small group of SNP Brexiteers think leaving the EU will gain a few extra powers for Scotland. Their strategy is to stay passive. You might call it supine, sit and beg, roll over, and pretend to be dead. They think if they are patient and polite devolution will gain powerful adherents. Anybody who thinks Westminster grabbed Brexit in order to enrich Scotland needs sectioned immediately.

Stopping Brexit

The SNP argue all four nations – graciously calling Northern Ireland a nation – should have a veto to reject or accept the outcome of Brexit talks. Dismissed out of hand by the Tories – a veto no one gave them, and a sign they mean to have first dibs on gold they dig up – SNP strength in numbers at Westminster proves worthless. Duplicitous Labour and the discarded placenta called the Liberal Democrats refused to support the idea. What England wants England gets.

A soft Brexit

Some of the electorate are ready to accept staying in the Single Market. Freedom of movement is guaranteed in that event, something Scots value. SNP policy acknowledges cut off from the EU leaves Scotland at the mercy of rapacious England. The world’s best economists, Yanis Varoufakis among them, agree Scotland is more than capable of surviving as a nation state again, guaranteed to prosper if part of the Single Market.

Maybe if a few more Tory MPs could be sacked for improper behaviour, (such as being an MP) we could see some modesty for a cross-party consensus for staying in the Single Market, but Etonian-bred Exceptionalism stops that happening.

Scotland’s corner

Scotland has everything to gain by staying in the Single Market irrespective of what the other nations do. Securing that gives us a status analogous to the European  Economic Area (EEA). In fact, there’s nothing stopping us becoming a member of the EEA. Agriculture and fisheries would be excluded. That solution keeps Aberdeen voters who stuck gap-toothed Tory Suits on us very happy so long as Scotland gains control over both. It also avoids tariffs between Scotland and our dear departing neighbour, border controls too, allowing the free movement of workers between Scotland and Europe, the workers we need, and the opportunities Scots want to pursue.

Scotland gets to participate in Social Provision, exchange research, and EU Justice. We sit at a top table hitherto denied us. So, this solution is devoutly to be wished.

You can hear right-wing rednecks choke on their jellied eels demanding  border controls their side of the red line to stop infiltration of superior educated peoples into England.

We want no brain surgeons here, mate! We can flip our own burgers!”

And where would the phantom ‘No Borders’ campaign be then? Personally, I don’t mind border controls to England. It means jobs. Lots of them. When you think about it we will need some way of keeping out all the clones created by UKip and the BNP. In any event, controls are in place in the Schengen area for third country nationals and it works extremely well.

How easy is easy for EU-EEC membership?

Reading EU advice confirms membership is technically easy to attain. (Cue pasty-faced Brit nationalist with knotted hanky on their bald head screaming “Spain will veto it!”)

The EU says there are challenges being in both the EU Single Market and trading with rUK but they are not insuperable. Lichtenstein – a miniscule independent country minding its own business and keeping British tax evasion safe – is in a customs union with Switzerland but both are effectively in the Single Market by virtue of Switzerland’s treaties with it.

This is where it gets a bit complicated, and I have to check and recheck I understand what the EU argues. The EU puts it succinctly: “In order for Scotland to remain compliant with Single Market regulations, the Scottish Government and Parliament would require new competences across a wide range of Single Market matters currently reserved to Westminster.” I think what that means is a lot of hard negotiation to place Scotland in the best EU category, as well as pleasant discussions on mutual benefits.

There is hope in an open border between rUK and the Republic of Ireland being applicable to Scotland. Nothing is impossible.

As for the expected English redneck backlash aimed at Scottish immigration freedom, control of immigrants can be monitored at the place of work, (a solution agreed by the EU) not a difficult  law to police considering Scotland is a nation of only 5 million, with only a few thousand economic migrants entering each year, and a large number leaving.

Independence

Once upon a time the SNP looked upon Europe with suspicion. We were just free of World War II and German imperialism. Thankfully, today Scotland is wiser. We realise the value of remaining a European state. But we lost it when unionists lied about  keeping EU membership sacrosanct if we voted for England’s interests.

The SNP was re-elected with a mandate to hold a second plebiscite if there was a material change in circumstances. Next to every Englishman taking to wearing the kilt, Brexit is an humungous ‘material change in circumstances’.

Naysayers and ‘No’ voters were conned. Westminster has not ruled out a second plebiscite if we behave ourselves and do not create a stushie over Brexit – the classic torturer’s ploy. We might have to wield a chair leg to make our escape back into the wider world. Be prepared.

The Scottish Government has reaffirmed its faith in, and commitment to, a free Europe. And while aspects of the EU undoubtedly require democratisation – a process already in process by the DiEM25 movement in each nation that includes radical change to the way the EU bank operates – there is no basis in EU law that blocks or forbids Scotland from becoming a full EU member.

Threat of vetoes issue from General De Gaulle’s pathological distrust of English influence in Europe. He had a point. De Gaulle thought England a vain nation; it had a navy not to see the world, but to have the world see it.

That aside, no European country has stated it will veto Scotland’s entry. Nada, zilch, zero. Nor is there a queue Scotland would have to join. Europe is just as adept at multi-tasking as any institution.

It all takes time

Yes, regaining membership to the EU will take time, but we could have been there now had only a few thousand No voters the backbone to reinstate self-determination when it was offered in a carefully designed package keeping intact much of our relationship with England in trade and freedom of movement.

We’re faced with a growing number of Scotland’s citizens who want rid of England’s corrupt influence altogether. Separatists we have but we now have absolutists. They know things will get worse. We might have to wear a St George’s Cross on our lapels.

In the short term Scotland can be part of the EEC and EFTA and so benefit immediately as part of the Single Market, while keeping out of the controversial fisheries policy. Like all the other solutions there will be complications to surmount, but it’s either that or becoming the mirror image of England’s stomach-churning movement to the far right. Do you want one of Scotland’s notable achievers on our banknotes or Nigel Farage?

In the meantime we can watch the clueless Tory clowns at Westminster go through the motions of pretending they know what they’re doing, and that they are in possession of all four aces if not their intellectual faculties. They talk but don’t think. Their opinion of their abilities isn’t just high, it’s in bloody orbit.

There are three things destined for jeopardy: a bird in the hands of a child, a young girl in the hands of an old man, and Scotland in the grip of England. You have been warned.

Posted in Scottish Independence Referendum, Scottish Politics | 3 Comments

Car Museums

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Los Angeles Peterson Automotive Museum – the director’s desk is made out of half a sedan

There’s something inert, lifeless about car museums, even the best of them, especially those that lay out their vehicles in serried ranks. The better ones, such as the Peterson Museum in Los Angeles, create attractive displays and renew them a few times a year, offering information about the culture of the times beyond a car’s brand and date of production. They try to make displays come alive, using clever lighting, back projection, sound effects, or filmed sequences.

Some auto museums set their cars against recreations of old garages, or whole streets with shops and tramways, but even in those mock-ups it’s a bit like visiting a run down movie set. You notice the dust gathering on the mannequins and exhibits. There’s too much to take in. You have to be high on nostalgia to appreciate the time and effort put into the set piece. As an educational exercise it has some value for school parties.

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A recreation of Jack Tucker’s garage in the UK’s Beaulieu Museum

Oddly, when you think about it, auto shows are just as dead but we get excitement out of them in anticipation of seeing the latest models and technological innovations.

Annual auto shows are crowded places full of noise and chatter and digitally enhanced moving images of overhead screens of sports cars zipping along completely empty country roads. There’s also snobbery as to who in the crowd the Bentley representative will allow to sit in their latest status symbol. And let’s not forget the distraction of skimpily glad females adorning metal. (When will car manufacturers get wise to their overt misogyny?)

Live shows, such as the Goodwood Revival Show, and the Goodwood Festival of Speed held in the grounds of Goodwood House, West Sussex, make all the difference.

Goodwood brings cars to life and car lovers together. Cars of all eras and nations are actually driven and raced, and you can meet the designer and a famous racing driver or two. Visitors dress up for the occasion in pre-war attire, or attend to gain good ideas on how to improve their classic car for modern driving conditions. The event is an annual pilgrimage for petrolheads and their spouses.

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The beautiful Malaga Auto Museum and Art Gallery

I want to draw your attention to one museum I enjoy visiting, though it hardly alters its exhibits one year to the next. This one is fairly new, the Malaga Auto Museum. Oddly it also has an extensive Russian Art Gallery next door, a donation by the St Petersburg Museum. Housed within its third block is a science museum, three venues for the price of one visit.

The museum was created out of a former imposing tobacco factory, Fabrica de Tebacos, renovated only a few years ago to a very high standard, thanks to some EU grants – how we shall miss those – and turned into a resource for adults and children in the city and region. The factory produced snuff tobacco more than cigars.

Getting to Malaga from Scotland is easy and cheap these days, no more than three hours in one airport and out the other, but with the Euro equivalent of £1 sterling purchases, food and clothing, and that stuffed toy donkey, are not the bargain basement they used to be when pasty-faced Brits flocked to sun and beaches to get blotched and scorched.

Malaga offers a great relaxing long weekend of good weather if you have the cash to spare, book a flight early enough to grab discounts, and need a break from winter blues, boring boss, unfaithful lover, or endless Westminster sleaze and slander.

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Exhibits are arranged in chronological order, with a room devoted to oddities

Before you make for the Auto Museum a walk around the centre of Malaga tells you that its citizens take care of the place and show pride in it.

The first things that impresses as you enter the city are the marble paving stones free of the dreaded chewing gum. Warm nights and lights illuminate pubs and tapas bars. By far the best tapas bars are found in the Basque region, but there are lots of good one to choose from in Malaga.

The joy is finding one that serves consistently high cuisine one day to the next. Standards fluctuate wildly even within a single restaurant. The best outdoor eatery with indoor tables too is the humorously named (for us) bodega bar El Pimpi next to the Roman amphitheatre, the theatre itself dominated by Alcazaba the 11th century Arab fortress.

You sit under El Pimpi’s large umbrellas and palm trees watching tourists go by, courting couples flirt, youth reminding you of yours, flower sellers trying their luck, and flamenco guitarists seducing a few coins from you, a pleasant way to let life roll by and anxieties wait another day. Those moments remind you how stupefying are Brits who think Europe shouldn’t be run by foreigners.

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A 1914 American LaFrance – a racing car built on a fire engine chassis

There’s plenty to do and see, visiting the fabled Picasso Museum a first stop for art lovers, and then his birthplace half a mile away.

There are other art galleries, but the Picasso shows you what a superb painter he was in his youth, and how his ideas were influenced by painters he met, soon developing their ideas from his own boundless imagination. Picasso owned cars but I think he liked dogs more. A lot of photographs of him at work in his studio or relaxing show a dog nearby.

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A Renault Coupe de Ville from the Belle Epoch age

The Auto Museum sits on the edge of the city, a twenty minute taxi drive in the rush hour, and a cheap entry ticket. There’s a café in the auto museum, a small one outside in the grounds, and a modest one in the art museum block serving a limited menu.

Both museum and gallery have a gift shop. Even if you have little interest in cars, seeing the old jalopies and vintage motors is a walk through automotive history and social progress since 1890, from high privilege to the car for the common man and woman and back again to car for the very wealthy.

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Can’t discuss a Spanish car museum without showing a Spanish car. This is a 1923 Hispano-Suiza, a ‘Barcelona Torpedo Tourer’

As well as in the Spanish language the information attached to each car is often written in hilariously poor English. Even the guide book gets it off-beat and talks of “The Museum exposes an extraordinary private collection of 6,000 square meters.” Of the attendant costume collection – a weird inclusion, the guide adds, “A waste of glamour and elegance” rather than an extravagance.

But the layout is clever, a chronological journey past the design and historical evolution of some European key marques since the end of the nineteenth century exhibited through thirteen thematic rooms.

The cars are restored to the highest level, some valued in hundreds of thousands of pounds, such as Mercedes, Hispano Suiza, Bugatti, Bentley, Rolls-Royce and Ferrari.

Seats are upholstered in ostrich and mink fur, precious woods, Lalique mascots on bonnets, mother-of-pearl dashboards, ivory and silver handles, and specially made custom engines, the kind of interior you can order for your Rolls-Royce today

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The museum has just as many modern classics as stunning vintage motors

Once you’ve enjoyed the cars its a few yards walk to the Russian Art Museum. In two hours of a leisurely stroll it taught me how advanced were some Russian artists in the 1930s and 40s anticipating  European trends in modern art.

Exhibitions are changed every three months, and all show work rarely seen in the west. As our right-wing journalists once said of the Red Army Ensemble and as they do now of Russian Television today, it’s all horrible propaganda. Well, that’s their loss. One assumes they’re tossing their Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff CDs in the bin.

Anyhow, I hope this essay doesn’t sound too touristy, a tourist manual, or even Manuel, but it makes a change from writing about the political chicanery of the motor industry, as well as reminding us that the stinking rich have always been with us, only now they own 50% of the world’s wealth because we let them have it.

Posted in Scottish Politics, Transportation | Leave a comment