Saturday, 27 August 2016


Plot spoilers ahead!

Part-way through this film Deadshot (played by Will Smith) stumbles on one of those top secret folders (you know the ones), and discovers what's really attacking New York. Turns out it's the Enchantress, who used her original enlistment into the Suicide Squad as her chance to go rogue. In other words, the action of recruiting the Squad generated the enemy they now need to face. It's a neat irony. A flashback handily confirms all this.

Except the 'flashback' almost entirely reprises scenes we previously saw in real time. Which kind of scuppers the surprise element a little.

And things are often like that here. Expert critics have spotted that this film is thrown together in an often haphazard way. But then so has everyone else. The rest of the Squad, bar Deadshot and Harley Quinn, occasionally up and do something significant-seeming, in the firm belief they're adding to their backstory. Not in this movie, they're not. (Diablo comes closest, and luckily his back story is so predictable it doesn't need much screen time.) 

And it bizarrely manages to combine repeat load-tipping of info dumps with the assumption the cinema viewer will know their comics lore. Some things we're told twice, others not at all. Harley jumping into the chemical vat, those not familiar with the Joker origin story find that a particularly mystifying moment.

(Me, I'd have started the film with the conference room scene, where the Suicide Squad project is first announced. The aide to Walker, the Black Ops boss, would then have manifested as the Enchantress to the audience the same time as the Generals. Then the rest of the Squad could have been introduced, one by one. All of whom within their own unique personalised holding cell. But I digress...)

Critics (and everyone else) rightly point out the way the soundtrack sounds so slapped on they might as well have stuck an i-Player on shuffle. And that Cara Delevingne might look the part of the spooky Enchantress, but acts just like a model. Which becomes a particular problem in the finale, where instead of commanding proceedings she gyrates like she's in a really bad music video. And when your cast is all bad guys, you need to a pretty good antagonist to up the ante of evil on them.

While Deadshot is projected as the primary protagonist, getting the nearest there is to characterisation, it's Harley Quinn (played by Margot Robbie) who really dominates. It's hard to find a publicity image where she's not centred. If he's intended as the heart of the film, she's its face.

She actually gets a back story. Trouble is, it isn't just bad, it's about as bad as it gets. As if the career woman who throws it all in for the bad guy wasn't bad enough, the scene where the Joker tortures her into her new identity is effectively a euphemistic rape scene, so we even have the 'conversion through rape' trope.

Much of this has been said already, and ably enough, so let's make just one further comment. Notably, both Deadshot and Diablo are conflicted over their bad guy status. Deadshot is shown sniffing gunpowder like a crackhead with a pipe, yet at the same time he's motivated by love for his daughter. That's some... not much, but some indication of an inner life. Whereas both Harley and the Enchantress are simply split, the well-behaved good girl (Harleen Quinel and June Moone respectively) alternating with the sexy bad girl. Not depth but appearance. Times two.

And Harley leads us on to the next common criticism of the film, the way the Joker is reduced to such a cameo role. (See for example this YouTube review.) Most likely, this is another thing down to poor structuring and edit wars. Actor Jared Leto has confirmed he not only shot a whole lot more scenes, he was less than pleased to find how few made it to the finished film. (Asked if any of his scenes were cut, he's responded by asking if any weren't.)

But actually, that's one thing which works in the film's favour. Had the Joker been onscreen more, Harley would have once more been relegated to his girlfriend and sidekick – the Batgirl of the crime world. As it is, his being remote from the plot but forever trying to force his way back in all but reverses things. He comes to represent her desire to be out there, driving recklessly round town rather than being stuck in boring detention. In short, the essential nature of Harley necessitates that the only way the Girl Joker can dominate the film is to keep the Boy Joker at arm's length.

But then again, that's what they do. It doesn't atone for the egregiousness of her origin story, of course. But when we complain about superhero films being so concerned with the heroes, and the heroines always shunted into supporting roles, isn't this something to cheer? (Me, I'd have given Harley none of the unnecessary backstory, and almost no scenes together with the Joker save the brief moment where her rescue seems to be working. But that's probably another digression.)

The conceit underlying both characters is that crazy counts as a kind of super-power. It leaves the wielder so unconstrained by social norms, so ready with the unexpected it becomes an ability akin to the ability to set light to things or be a crack shot. (Neither has any particular powers beyond this.) And then, just to throw you even further, they toss in the notion that crazy might just be an act after all, there to distract you while they get on with their scheming.

And this is accentuated with Harley, who also delights in playing the part of the bimbo stripper. On release her very first action is to toy with the guards' minds, leaving them unsure whether she's lunatic or player, goofy simpleton or corkscrew-minded schemer. Her costume is less the... well, the harlequin image of the original cartoons and more a cross between the peeling facepaint feral joker of 'Dark Knight' and the punk kinderwhore look - both of course designed to sew confusion among those they encounter. And she pretty much keeps up that act throughout. It's her not Deadshot who dispatches the Enchantress, a victory she achieves through cunning and deception.

The one time we see her without the make-up, so to speak, is when she believes the Joker died in trying to rescue her – and we see her crying in the rain. But only we see this. By the time the rest of the Squad have walked up, the act is back on. (Admittedly for this to be true you have to disregard the risible scene where the Enchantress tempts her with the fantasy of becoming a stay-at-home mom. But then you have to do a whole lot of mental re-editing with this film.)

All of which is sold by Robbie's performance, which could without exaggeration be called scene-stealing. It's everything Delevingne's isn't. As she repeatedly sidles up to other characters, they can never be sure whether she'll screw with them, try to snog them or stab them.

And here we've hit the upside. When it works, which in fits and spurts it does, the film treats you just in the same way Harley does. No wonder she's the face for it! You're never quite sure what it is, what it will do to you next, what angle it will come from - dark or comic, dramatic or surreal. The film itself behaves like a lunatic let loose from the asylum. That may well be because the film doesn't really know itself what it is. But it can still press that into service.

And there are times where it does seem to froth with deranged invention. The Joker's henchmen conduct a raid in ludicrous fancy dress, one machine gunning guards in a panda costume. And shouldn't it be like this? if superhero films try to up characterisation, they're still going to be lagging behind in the Academy awards. They're simply not playing to their strengths.

And the concept of a motley collection of bad guys is actually a pretty good one. It's often said the strength of a superhero title is the strength of it's rogues gallery. So why not have just the rogue's gallery? “Let's do something fun”, asserts the Enchantress early on. And something fun does sound a more inviting prospect than another two and a half hours of sour hero grimdark. This ragbag army follow a very crooked path indeed, sometimes doubling back on themselves, at others leaping blocks ahead. A route map they're not. But at least they're moving in the right direction.

Sunday, 21 August 2016


The Green Door Store, Brighton, Fri 19th August

Featuring both the guitarist and drummer from Bo Ningen, pyschedelic noise purveyors and Lucid Frenzy fave, Xaviers might seem their side project. But they're dominated by the keyboards of Kenichi Iwasa, the guitar lines often as metronoic as the drums. In fact for the one section the guitar takes to the fore he immediately switches to secondary drums.

To this day, there are those who associate space rock with prog. Yet his child's-play stabs couldn't have been further from their sophisticated swooshes, a buzzing biplane against a Red Arrows display. His cheap, insistent and off-kilter lines lead the band through one long improvised number.

They're strongly Krautrock influenced, never a bad thing in my book. And Krautrock of course can mean either the propulsive rhythms of Neu!, so much a forerunner of the repetitive beats of dance music, or the deranged freak-outery of Faust. Except Xaviers somehow manage to cover both of those styles at the same time. It's a set which lurches forward like a drunken robot. Imagine the clanking castle on chicken legs of 'Howl's Moving Castle' combined with the humanising imperfection of Wall-E. (This analogy is handily pictured.) You were never quite sure whether it would be able to keep going, while it actually assaulted your senses for a full set length with none of the longeurs impro can lead into.

From listening you'd have no idea how proficient the musicians were or even if they had any idea themselves how it was working. It might have been propelled by sheer forward motion for all we knew. And it's refreshing to see such a safety last approach to taking to the stage. The band name comes, I would assume, from the psi powered head of the X-Men. And they certainly seem possessed of advanced telepathic powers.

An earlier, and less keyboard-led, set from London...

Saturday, 13 August 2016


...on the west coast of Mull. The nearby Calgary Art in Nature trail was also encountered. As ever, full set on Flickr.

Saturday, 6 August 2016


NB This review boldly goes into plot spoilerific territory (as surely as it splits infinitives)

If I haven't written much about the Star Trek movies so far (only a brief response to the first one here) it's partly because I felt responses were hard-coded. It just came down to have much of a classic Trek fan you were. Hardcore fans of the original series hated the reboot with a vengeance, whereas I... well I was never that much of a fan, so was more amenable to change. Which suggests at different perspectives, rather than different analysis. Which would make any debate purposeless.

It's true, for example, that the the original series was powered by the Kirk/Spock/Bones triangle. But that seemed effective because of the chemistry between the three actors, the way some bands can only work with a classic line-up, making it something of a fool's errand to try and reproduce. Better to vary from it. Admittedly, they strayed too far, and made films too much about Kirk and his supporting cast. But it's better to go in the right direction and overshoot than the wrong.

This time the script conspires to divide the crew into twos, but is only interested in the effect of this on Spock and Bones. And it's actually handled reasonably well, Spock suddenly finding a joke funny and Bones worrying he's become delirious, Spock attempting to say he'd always assumed their relationship to be based on an underlying respect and Bones firmly insisting it doesn't need saying. It's reminiscent enough to work, without being trapped inside imitative.

And when Kirk's two-hander with Chekov yields nothing similar that's probably just as telling. Kirk's job is to move the plot along, and anyone with him is an audience or sounding board. There's some feints to give him one of those 'atonement-with-the-father journeys' out of Scriptwriter's Basic, but that tends to lurk around the film trying to find some sort of purchase. And, surprise, his 'arc' is his considering giving up being a starship Captain only deciding to stay one after all – meaning he comes out of the film just the way he was on the way in. Phew, that was close!

We're clearly intended to connect to him by him being coded as connected to our era. So much so you half wonder if there's a director's cut scene where he wakes up in the future, Buck Rogers style. Perhaps what's significant is how this is played. He's a rock'n'roll Starship captain, riding a motorbike round an ancient planet to distract the enemy, and later seizing victory by blasting the Beastie Boys at them.

If these moments are annoying, rather than goofily charming as they seem intended, it's most likely because they're so absolutely unearned. At the close he tells another character, now enlisted with Starfleet, she doesn't have to obey all the rules. Because, you know, he said so. There may well have been eras before ours which had lower levels of personal freedom. But the gap between perception and reality, the idea of how free we are compared to the way our lives really function, that must be unprecedented. Short of some truly dystopian turn in history, nobody is going to look back on us and say that was the time you didn't have to obey all the rules. And consequently our heroes have become coping strategies, ways by which we can lie to ourselves.

And the flashy, frenetic direction of the film (by Justin Li, who's previously directed things like 'Fast and Furious' sequels) makes the perfect accompaniment for Kirk. As it leaps, giddyingly and unrelentingly from one set-piece to the next, its almost a trailer extended to film length. At times the flash-cutting is so unfollowable you end up just guessing what must have just happened, and you're normally right.

That said, the set-piece scene where the swarm attack the Enterprise, effectively slipping under the radar of its mighty weapons to literally dismember it, is genuinely effective. It's almost like the opposite to the classic opening of 'Star Wars', where a great big spaceship is shown to be chased by an even bigger one – this is death by an army of minnows. The scene's even given a neat fillip later, when it's revealed that their peer-to-peer inter-ship communications jammed the Enterprises' in themselves rather than through a deliberate plot, like they attacked us with their very unlikeness.

It's one of those classic moments where you can watch a Hollywood movie and root for the bad guys without having to rewrite much in your head. In fact it's virtually Negri and Hardt's theory of multitude versus empire, laid out on the screen. (Not, it must be said, a theory that's particularly convincing. In fact it's quite possibly no more than rock'n'roll autonomism the same way Kirk's a rock'n'roll Captain. But for all that it's fun to see it on the screen.)

And of course at the very same time the film seems cheerily innocent even of the concept that the 'bad guys' might portray positive features. In the standard clash-of-values conversation with the villain Kraal, he snarlingly mocks their “unity” as a “weakness”. Yet not only are his crew as unified in purpose as Kirk's, they are defeated precisely by having this unity disrupted.

Even if we weren't already expecting a plot twist over Kraal, Uhura is given a line to tip us off that one's incoming. And the way it's delivered is effectively handled, suddenly fixing on a clue which has been hiding in plain slight just as we've been looking elsewhere.

Yet it's this twist which truly scuppers the film. It turns out... I said there'd be plot spoilers, didn't I?... it turns out Kraal was himself a Starfleet captain, who wound up marooned on a distant planet, became convinced he was dumped there and consequently got a little embittered. And okay, aliens in science fiction are never going to be truly alien. That would make them beyond imagining, and then no-one would be able to imagine them. They're always going to be our shadow selves in some form, us at our worst so our best can get in a fistfight with them.

But there's a question of degree. Making them our literal shadow selves and no more turns them from disturbing shapes into mere reflections. It's taking those shadows and wringing the darkness from them, it robs them of any element of alienness. Historically as the Earth became delineated to the inch by spoilsport cartographers, the edge of the map was pushed further out and finally space became the place for the weird and inexplicable. This is more less what lies behind the rise of science fiction as a popular medium. It's where the strange can still be strange, where the unknown rears up at us. If you don't honour this then the science fiction becomes just a setting, a desktop background interchangeable with any other.

And this fault line is blown wide open by the ending. In'Into Darkness' we returned to Earth for a final battle with a terrorist bad guy intent on blowing up stuff. And here... okay, it's the futuristic city of a space station, but that's pretty much the same thing. And it's worse than repetition, it's even worse than the nagging sense we never really went anywhere, it runs counter to the most basic premise of 'Star Trek' – the bit spelt out up front about boldly going. Significantly that fabled opening monologue is now relegated to the end of the film, like the franchise is permanently being thrown off course and trying to get back on track. This film should really be called 'Star Trek Back Again'.

Because Star Trek is inherently about frontiers not home bases. Roddenberry's well-known original pitch for the show was “Wagon Train to the Stars”. Starfleet can be referenced, but needs to be kept in the background of a story. Kirk should land on an alien planet like a Marshall bringing law to Dodge City, explorer and policemen simultaneously. In short, this film is not without it's moments. But it's reached the point where they made Star Trek so unlike itself, that even a non-fan like me thought of throwing in the towel.