Creed: Old Story, New Hero

Before Creed, I was a Rocky virgin. I know, shocking. Somehow, I managed to avoid the movie equivalent of a beat-em-up game. And every one of its subsequent sequels. I did not expect much. I never once considered Stalone a “good actor”. That felt like reason enough to avoid the franchise. Well, before I get into a wee analysis of Creed, the latest instalment in the series – arguably a new franchise if they keep it up – let it just be said that my judgement of these films based on my opinion of Stalone* was misguided, and I’ve since set myself up to watch the previous five films. We’ll call it film history. (*If Creed is anything to go by, he can act; unfortunately, I’ve also seen The Expendables, which seemed to come with a No Acting Required caveat, so long as you had the forearms for the job.)

Creed poster

Creed presents us with a new character: Adonis Creed, son of Apollo Creed. (Presumably from a previous movie.) The new Creed is smart, working in a professional environment, leading a good life. And he gives it up to box, looking to Rocky to be his coach. I was glad to see that every other character in the movie shared my sentiments on this career change – that it was stupid and arrogant. Rocky is old. Stallone slouches and carries himself slowly. As we begin to get to know Creed in his new life, we’re given a few glimpses into Rocky’s life, now – who’s dead, what happened with his son, what he’s been up to, the reputation he has in his town. Whether it was meant to tell new viewers some important info, or simply pander to the existing fans, it served to build the character of Rocky into something beyond a guy who seems to struggle talking in clear sentences, and who best communications with his fists. He’s a man adapting to modern life, and struggles through a number of emotional scenes that life in the ring couldn’t prepare him for. We’re given the impression that this man was able to face anything in the ring. He had all the control there. But outside the ring, when people get sick or leave, he’s powerless, and it shows on his face how difficult life can be when you’re exactly like everyone else.

sylvester stalone as rocky
Sylvester Stalone as Rocky

Despite his frankly absurd decision to enter the ring, Adonis is a believable character. He repeats old mistakes out of the frustrations of a difficult childhood in the system, and must take on his journey towards being a Creed in the public eye.

At the same time, we’re given some of the most engaging shots in cinema these past few months, within the ring. The lights go down. The camera doesn’t break momentum. Creed shares blows with his opponents. We’re in the ring with him, all that tension, all that focus, all that pain. The audience is drowned out. On-screen they shout mute in the dark; in the theatre, they sit on the edge of their seats, clutching their hands together, refusing to take their eyes off the screen.

michael b jordan and tessa thompson
Michael B Jordan as Adonis Creed, and Tessa Thompson as Bianca

And then we’re thrust back into the life of Adonis and Rocky, with a small collection of other characters around them, each with their own challenges to face, difficulties to overcome, weaknesses and desires. Creed isn’t just a boxing movie. It manages a host of characters in the same way any other drama would. It creates realism in this absurd world where people expect a man like Rocky to get back in the ring – even as a trainer – at a moment’s notice. But he’s old, and we’re told that over and over again.

This is an old story, with new heroes, and it’s told as gracefully as can be, while punches are thrown on-screen and blood splatters to the ground.

Room: How to Live in the World

“It’s a small world.” It’s a cliché made real in Room, in which Joy and Jack live in the smallest space imaginable for two people. Fit with just one bed, one wardrobe, a kitchen, a toilet and a bath, Room is their home and their world. Skylight gives them light. TV is full of imaginary people. There is only Joy, Jack, and Old Nick; there is only terror and innocence. (And, of course, spoilers.)

room poster

Room presents us with two ways of living in the world. One way is filled with terror, the other with innocence; terror is a post-innocence way of seeing things, when innocence has been stolen. For Joy, Room is a thing to survive. Food is supplied by Old Nick, when it suits him and what he can afford. Burning food means eating burnt food – nothing can be wasted. There is little space – though clever camera work makes Room look bigger – and twice as many people in Room than there was to begin with. Introducing Jack.

He’s five. Joy has been locked up in Room for seven years. The maths is simple, and the conclusion obvious and horrible: he was born in Room, and Old Nick is the only person to ever “visit”. But for Jack, Room is his whole world. Everything he knows is within the four walls and ceiling. His Ma’s terror fills his head with lies and ignorance. He can only see the best in his situation. While Old Nick rapes Joy, he supplies Jack with birthday presents.

Brie Larson and Joan Allen
Brie Larson as Joy (Ma), and Joan Allen as Nancy (Grandma)

When we leave Room – when Joy and Jack escape – we can conceivably expect things to change. Joy remains afraid. She struggles with her sanity and her mental health. She needs her family, and she needs Jack to adapt; despite this, she pushes people away – a consequence of her difficulty to adapt to life outside of Room, of seeing how people she knew as a teenager changed as they grew up and went on with their lives, children, careers, marriages.

Jacob Tremblay as Jack
Jacob Tremblay as Jack

Jack on the other hand, faces fear for the first time. Jack has to find a way to understand the size of the world – up until his fifth birthday, Room was the entire size of his universe. As well as adjusting to bigger rooms, natural light, and the threat of infection from germs he’d never faced before (not that he worries about the germs), Jack needs to adjust to his grandparents (the only other people he knows aside from his Ma) and to the concept of there being more people in the world than he’s ever met.

Room gives us a fresh look at the world from the perspectives of these two characters, and all the ways in which experiencing the world for the first time can lead to happiness and fulfilment against the odds.

Princess Mononoke: The Eco War

Thematically, Princess Mononoke holds nothing back: it’s all about the ecological troubles of the world. (Notably, in lands to the West. Thanks Japan.) The ecological theme runs throughout, sometimes literally on boars’ legs and the paws of giant wolves. This is a movie about the world we live in, and the terrible strife towards balance.

Princess Mononoke Poster
Princess Mononoke Poster

We begin with the boar demon. Ashitaka’s village is in danger from the boar, a mess of toxic worms spilling from its body and rotting the woods around it. It threatens to destroy everything in its path, rampaging uncontrollably towards the most amount of people it can find. Ashitaka’s attempts to calm it down fail, and though he tries to keep his distance, he is infected with the demon’s curse, even as he kills it. He is bound for death. His only hope is to head West, where the boar came from, to find answers, and maybe a cure. In this short opening, we’re given an idea of the consequences of others’ actions on the world, though we’re yet to realise it. The boar, Nago, had been struck down by men in the West. An iron ball lodged in the beast was the eventual cause of its death, and as a god, the effects of this are more widely felt than the village can see.

Ashitaka riding Yakul
Ashitaka riding Yakul

Another party of humans meet the other significant animal god tribe in the movie: the wolves, led by the wolf god Maro, and accompanied by the titular character: Princess Mononoke (the name itself means “Monster”, and is not, in fact, her real name. Her family call her San.) The wolves attack humans and their oxen, humans armed with guns (albeit old-fashioned guns, given that this is an historical fantasy movie.) Immediately, we can see the issue: the weapons look like they might have been able to kill Nago.

San AKA Princess Mononoke
San AKA Princess Mononoke

By the time Ashitaka reaches the Ironworks, where the human party were headed, we’ve been introduced to all manner of wonders, from the spirits of the forest – the kodama – to the god in the wood, the Deer God. No explanation is given for the kodama, nor can we ever expect one. Suffice to say, if you don’t see them in the wood, then you should worry. They are a sign of life.

The story of the Ironworks further emphasises the ecological message of the movie; in order for the iron sand to be accessed, the woods and mountains had to be cleared. The boars were driven out. Nago was shot and killed by one of Lady Eboshi’s weapons.

Eboshi is one of three significant human characters in the movie. On the grand scale of how much a person can care about the environment, her concern is as far weighted towards human success over environmental survival as can be. On the far side of things is San, the proverbial eco warrior out to destroy the Ironworks and save the forest. Then there is Ashitaka, the voice of reason who seeks balance in the world. It is small wonder, then, that the Deer God saves his life.

The Deer God
The Deer God

What the movie presents to us, in the Deer God, is a shapeshifting being representing two halves of the same coin; it is day and night, life and death. During the day, it walks the woods in its deer form, with an eerily human face smiling gently at every living creature. By night, it is the Nightwalker, towering over the woods. It is a translucent being, full of splendour and power. They come in cycles, life and death alternating as the sun rises and sets. The Deer God is balance in the world. Understanding that is central to appreciating the strength of the message.

The Nightwalker
The Nightwalker

In killing the Deer God – at least, in removing its head – humanity kills life itself. Without the balance, the forest dies – it becomes a death. Humans die as the unbound Nightwalker searches for its head. The Ironworks is destroyed by its mass, a muddy death pouring over the world, choking out life wherever it touches it. This is the curse of Nago, ten fold and spreading more violently. The death of a lesser god reached all the way to the East; the death of life itself would reach the whole of creation.

Ashitaka affirms the reality of the situation: the head of the Deer God must be returned by human hands. Only humans have the power to prevent the ecological disaster we have created. It’s not a subtle message, or a subtle means of telling it – the Deer God, in both its forms, and Princess Mononoke, have become iconic figures in their own right – but it is memorable. The day can be saved, life can be returned to the forest, but the damage remains: in killing the Deer God and ridding the world of the gods, nature has lost its only means of protecting itself.

Princess Mononoke has a lot to say to us about the price we pay in our industries. Through luscious imagery and a fully formed mythology, we can see clearly the damage we have done on the earth. We have gone far enough, in our wars and in our industrial revolutions, to permanently damage the world we live in. While we have no Deer Gods to kill, the result is the same: the future of a sustained environment is up to us, and even the human face of the forest – San – cannot bear to be around people any longer after everything they did. No one could hold it against anyone if they agreed with her.

The Big Short: How to Break an Economy

The Big Short does not deal in subtly. The (mostly) true story is filled with jarring cuts, jarring personalities, loud music, and a whole bunch of people you’ll grow to hate almost immediately. Before all that, we get a voice-over from Ryan Gosling. (Before I get into the whole discussion on The Big Short, let it just be said that in any of his non-rom-com roles, I don’t think I’ve ever heard Ryan Gosling talk this much.) As always, spoilers. In this case, looking at the history of the economic collapse might also qualify as a spoiler for the movie. Or reading the book on which the movie is based. Anyway, I have my principles, so you’ve been warned.

The Big Short Poster
The Big Short Poster

Gosling’s character, Jared Vennett, introduces us to the banking climate: what used to be a boring job is now a high-stakes, money-making roller coaster. Everyone can get rich in the world of big banking, and the American economy grew as a result. While no one paid much attention to the finance sector, it became a dangerous sector. Vennett is but one of four different types of people who are responding to the idea that something terrible is bound to happen soon. He’s the profiteer. He’s also working in one of the big banks, and so cannot bet against them (which is, to put it simply, what a “short” is on a bond – a bet that it will fail, by means of unpaid mortgages.)

Ryan Gosling as Jared Vennett
Ryan Gosling as Jared Vennett

Vennett got his info from Michael Burry (M.D.) played by Christian Bale – a doctor with an eye for detail (only one – the other is fake) who notices the bubble. He’s read the bonds. He knows what’s wrong, and too stubborn to consider that he might have made a mistaken (in gambling $1.3bn on shorts.)

Christian Bale as Michael Burry
Christian Bale as Michael Burry

Vennett, upon realising he can profit from this situation if he finds the right people to work with, stumbles upon Mark Baum – the man who wants to fix the world. He’s the original social justice warrior. He despises injustice. He’ll shout at someone in the middle of a store or in the middle of the street over it. He’s constantly on the phone. He skips his therapy. Steve Carell plays him excellently. (And further proves to me that, when playing more serious roles than, say those in Evan Almighty or The 40-Year Old Virgin, he actually can act. He’s fine in Comedy, but he stands out in Drama in an unexpected way.)

Steve Carell as Mark Baum
Steve Carell as Mark Baum

Finally, there’s the unlikely duo of Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), who stumble upon notes left behind by Vennett. If Vennett wants pure profit, Burry wants to prove he’s right, and Baum wants justice, Geller and Shipley want to prove that they can make it in the world of big finance. They’re the underdogs. They aren’t respected in the financial world. They recruit Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to help them. Presumably he’s got money and a reputation.

Finn Wittrock as Jamie Shipley and John Magaro as Charlie Geller
Finn Wittrock as Jamie Shipley, and John Magaro as Charlie Geller

Four approaches, four groups of people, one big problem.

Baum’s team expose us to the reality of the situation outside of the figures. They’re the only ones who bother to investigate if the numbers Burry’s looking at amount to anything. They show us a housing market struggling to stay in its feet, with people moving out of nice neighbourhoods because they can’t afford the mortgage anymore after they become unemployed. They show us the bankers who’ll give anyone a mortgage, whatever their income, because they can get rich off it. They show us a family man who’s landlord isn’t paying his mortgage, and a stripper with multiple mortgages on multiple houses. They show us the dirty reality of what the big banks did to America.

Throughout, we’re presented with a combination of stylised footage – some of it aged to represent the time in which the scene is set – and stock footage. The stock footage tells us when we are in American history, and demonstrates the mood of the era. It’s all about the money. Capitalism is at large. Everyone lives like the party will never end. Combined with our traditional narrative, this tells us an interesting story about banking – we’ve got the media mood, and the terrifying reality acted out for us. Banking terms are explained to us by famous models and scientists. The truth of every situation is explained by actors breaking the fourth wall. And all the time, there’s noise.

Noise pounds from the speakers. When it’s not Burry’s outrageously loud heavy metal, it’s the chatter of bankers, or the literal gambling of Vegas. There’s a laugh track when the big banking joke is revealed to Baum – who looks ready to explode. When no one’s talking, there’s music. When people are talking, usually there’s a lot of background noise present to drown them out. Anything important that could be said is covered up by the noise of the Big Bank America.

As our bankers and gamblers leave their Vegas hotel, anyone who would seek to do right leaves by cab. By now, they know that if they’re right, if they win big, the economy collapses. The global economy. It’s bigger than they realised. Geller and Shipley are the naive faces of young bankers, not realising the reality of the situation until Rickert points it out to them. Geller has to call his mother to deal with the anxiety. But while they leave in their cabs from Vegas, the bankers leave in expensive black cars, with private drivers. An SEC agent leaves by cab, after a long kiss with one of the big bankers – regulators and fraudsters are in bed together.

Brad Pitt as Ben Rickert
Brad Pitt as Ben Rickert

It’s a harrowing movie, in its terrifying truth. By telling us what everything means in layman’s terms, we can see more easily how much the big banks refused to care about the damage they were doing. The crumbling of the American Dream is seen too clearly, too painfully, in the faces of our more moral protagonists and the unfortunate people they encounter along the way. They come out rich, but miserable. There are no winners when there are big shorts, and the movie holds no punches in making that clear.

The Revenant: Wilderness and Survival

At the time of writing, the Academy Awards are in just over a month. By now, everyone’s probably rooting for Leonardo DiCaprio to win. For once. Considering his performance in The Revenant, and the fact that he’s already won a Golden Globe for the same role, it wouldn’t surprise anybody if he was awarded it this year. As Hugh Glass, he dominates the screen, a singular force of survival in the wild pre-US-societal America. That’s exactly what we’ll be discussing here: the wild, and the drive to survive. As always, may contain spoilers.

revenant movie poster
Poster for The Revenant

The story we’re presented with is relatively simple (especially when compared to previous DiCaprio movies, like Inception.) Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) is part of a company of men out to collect pelts. After a devastating attack by the natives – the Arikara – and a subsequent fight with a bear (no, really), the frontiersmen are at their wits end, and Hugh Glass is fighting for his life. His half-breed son, another young man from the group, and John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) stay behind to see Glass through to his death, while the rest of the company press on. Glass is then left for dead, his son killed, and Fitzgerald on his way home to claim a reward to staying behind until the end. By that point, we’re already a big chunk into the movie, but that’s all in the trailer.

Tom Hardy as Fitzgerald
Tom Hardy as Fitzgerald

The frontiersmen, all of them, face two big challenges in their lives: the fight against the wild, be it the weather or the animals, and; the struggling to survive attacks by the Native American tribes, and the French. We’re in pre-Independence America. There are no towns in the wilderness, only a base camp several days away from Glass’s death bed.

The need to survive, the need for retribution, is all that keeps Glass alive. He dons the bearskin – his kill, and his alone – to fight back the winter, grunting and growling the whole time. In taking the beast’s life, he became the beast. He’s left with only his gnarling teeth, a knife, a canister, and the bear claws – a reminder that he’s more capable than anyone had any right to be when the world was out to kill you. Even when he recovers his strength enough to walk, he’s mostly without the use of his voice. He grunts, he points, he gestures. Communication for Glass is rare. The two people he encounters who don’t immediately try to kill him aren’t conversationalists. They’re natives, and he’s a white man. Glass keeps his bearskin over him, too. He’s a wild beast with a man’s face and a slashed throat. When the need comes to sleep inside his horse, Luke Skywalker style, he whinnies. He draws on the creature’s strength. As needs must, Glass becomes the animals whose skin he wears.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass
Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass, in bear skin

The fight for survival is not just Glass’s. The Arikana tribe fight to stay alive against the oncoming tide of white men from across the ocean. They fight lies and deception, using bows against guns. They know what they want from the world, they have their crusade. Their morals and strategy are questionable at best – kill whatever moves that isn’t Arikana – but their intent is pure: survive. Glass may have a half-breed son – and formerly a Pawnee wife – but the racial divide, the struggle between two different types of people, is still a violent one. White men took everything from the Native Americans.

The Revenant gives us no breaks, just as the wild winter presses on against the frontiersmen. We must attempt to survive two hours of violence and bleeding, cringing at open wounds and holding our breaths when we think Glass might perish – or when it might be less cruel for him to die. Even when the walls are around Glass, when he has a roof over his head in the same way we do, there is no reprieve from the wild. His driving force for survival was retribution, and until then, even the walls of society cannot keep the wild out, nor can we look away. Until we know that Glass can survive wild – the outside world, and the wild within – we cannot let the movie end. If he can’t survive it, no one can.

Dogma: Stoners and Theology

When I was eight, a movie about angels came out: Dogma. I did not see in the cinema. Nor did I see it for the next sixteen years. It took until one of the movie’s actors had passed away for me to finally see it (though it’s been waiting in my recently purchased DVD pile since November.) I’ll be focusing mainly on two areas of the movie: the “stoners”, and the theology. Before I get into any of that, though: if you’re yet to watch this one, or if you haven’t seen it in a long time, pay attention to the beginning. I don’t think a text-based beginning to a movie has ever been more enjoyable than in Dogma.

Dogma Poster
Dogma Poster

Let it be said that I draw a strange amount of joy from stoner films. Something about the unexpected wisdom of stoners draws me in every time. In this instance, the stoners were known to me long before I ever saw them on-screen: Jay and Silent Bob. After months and months of conversations about the recurring nature of these two  characters, and repeated encouragement to watch Dogma, I finally caved. What we have are two halves of the stoner stereotype: the one who can’t stop talking, and occasionally says something intelligent, and the one who rarely talks and usually comes up with the ideas in the first case. The voice and the wisdom of stoners across all of Hollywood, wrapped up in two extraordinary characters.

Alan Rickman as Metatron
Alan Rickman as Metatron

We meet them as prophets, to travel with the protagonist of the movie: Bethany. Surrounding Bethany are the weird and wonderful pieces of Christian “mythology”: the angels, the demons, the prophets. We’re introduced, through Bethany, to Metatron, the Voice of God. Played by the late Alan Rickman, Metatron speaks with purpose and intent, and shared with Bethany the secrets of heaven, and a task which she must complete – or the whole of existence will suffer the consequences. All in all, Metatron is a pretty decent guy.

Adding to the angel party are Loki and Bartleby, played by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. The pair present to us two different types of angels: the warriors and the watchers. Bartleby was a watcher, there to observe the sins of man, while Loki served as the Angel of Death, present at a number of biblical catastrophes. They have one mission in the movie: return to Heaven, after their expulsion at the beginning of history.

While Loki and Bartleby make their way across the country on their mission, making a couple of hilarious stops along the way as only disgruntled angels can, Bethany is busy running into all number of strange phenomenon, from a Muse to a dead man, and a demon with a potty mouth. (The name of which is one of my favourite things I think I’ve ever heard in a movie, and so I don’t want to spoil it for anyone.)

Throughout the film, we’re given an awful lot to think about regarding religion and belief systems as a whole. Four years of theology in college has me wary of any attempt to speak about religion so candidly as Dogma does, but rather than simply attack Christianity (and Catholicism in particular), the movie deals with religion in a refreshingly inviting way. The truth is this: no religion is perfect. No religion has everything figured out. No single way of expressing belief in a higher power is perfect. There will always be an issue with it, one way or another, and the movie acknowledges this point in its argument. While it operates under the assumption that God is real, this approach to faith is the least insulting I’ve encountered in any conversation about religion since I started college. (Even when I graduated and didn’t go on to use the theology aspect of my degree, I am still held to answer others regarding their criticisms of religion. No one, even those who’ve seen Dogma, ever thought to take this approach. But that’s a conversation for a different website.)

Jay and Silent Bob
Jay and Silent Bob

All in all, Dogma addresses the strange mix of stoner film and theological debate perfectly within the confines of a fantasy comedy, including the weirdest nude scene of Alan Rickman you’ll ever see, power-hungry versions of Damon and Affleck, and the coolest hetero-life-mates in recent cinema history. Consider me hooked on the View Askewniverse.

Joy: Woman Power and Soap Operas

Picture this: actors not looking at each other, but delivering lines to one another; jarring dialogue; dramatic deliveries. This is the opening of Joy, and a recurring triad of features throughout the story. (And, warning: spoilers.) With a mother obsessed with soap operas, a grandmother away with the fairies, an ex-husband in the basement, two children upstairs, a father moving back in with her, and a half-sister with a bit of a lip, Joy’s life is not easy, nor normal. We are drawn into her life like one of the shows her mother watches, told the details of her life by her grandmother, and forced to get used to this weird set-up that could only exist on television.

Except this is a biopic of sorts. This is the story of a real woman, with a really messed up family life, a reasonable job that turns awful, and a lack of faith in herself. The woman we’re introduced to has been defeated by life, after a divorce between her parents, a divorce of her own, and the crumpling of her dreams. We’re guided through this life by the unreliable narrator that is her granny, a woman whose absence from most of the key scenes in the plot should be noted, if we’re to fully accept that the version of the story we’re told, the version full of drama and heavy dialogue and the most brilliant, and the nastiest, elements of each and every person shining through and just the right time.

Joy’s life is one under the dominance of the patriarchy: her father pays half her mortgage; her ex-husband still lives with her; men exert their power in the streets, at work, at the television studio; men are the best sellers; men cause a mess that women should clean up. Specifically, that Joy should clean up. She’s a strong character, but crushed under the weight of how much she wants to do to right by everyone, and how much she’s been told to listen to the men in her life.

joy poster
Poster for Joy

The opening of the film, right up until the first critical moment in her life – the one that might put her back on track – presents us with people fulfilling roles; accompanying the crazy family are the Rich Mistress, the Supportive Best Friend, and the Sleazy TV Sales Man. How they’re each introduced is integral to the storytelling mode of Joy. The mistress, Trudy, is introduced through a telephone call with Rudy in the middle of a discussion about business and finance – the relationship between Trudy and Rudy will always come in the middle of business, beginning as it means to go on. The best friend, Jackie, is introduced after a vivid soap opera dream that Joy has after passing out on her mother’s bed; Jackie’s knocking pulls Joy from the dream, a nightmare. She’ll continue to be the person to pull Joy out of trouble, whenever she’s able. Then we have Neil Walker, a man who’s introduced with his head off-screen; he could be almost any man in Joy’s life, making promises he doesn’t know he can keep, and supposing to know more about business than her on the basis of her gender.

Everyone plays a role.

While Joy mingles with the soap-operatic archetypes of her life, her struggles against the patriarchy (though she doesn’t call it as such) unfold. Her father accepts responsibility for the failure of her business – not because it was he and Trudy forcing her into a professional relationship with an unreliable lawyer, but because he let her get ideas of success and aspiration in her head. A man fails to sell her mop, or even understand its purpose. A man tries to steal her patent. A man steals her money.

Jennifer Lawrence in Joy
Jennifer Lawrence, as Joy, looking severely annoyed at the world in which she lives

It takes some time, but eventually Joy refuses to accept that all of the failure of men should affect her the way it does.

Throughout this whole adventure, from poor beginnings and a falling-apart house (as broken on the outside as the family is on the inside) to a small victory over the people who attempted to tear her down, she’s accompanied by only two supportive people: her ex-husband Tony, who’s a better friend than husband, and Jackie. Her family are all embittered people, jealous of her success and her ingenuity, and she abandons them more and more as her troubles mount. If nothing else, Joy teaches us that family is more about the people we choose to keep with us, and less about the people we’re surrounded by as a consequence of the circumstances of our birth.

While many people didn’t enjoy this movie, I was gripped the entire way through by the stylised soap opera feel, the exaggeration, the heavy dialogue and narrative techniques that guide us through the horror of the late 80s. Catch it in the cinema while you still can.

Did We Need Star Wars: The Force Awakens?

In 1977, no one could have predicted the success of the Star Wars franchise. No one could have imagined that, almost forty years later, they would be reviving the movies for the their seventh episode – and third trilogy – and that the original cast members would be making an appearance.

I’ve been to see The Force Awakens, and the question remains: did we need it?


Full disclosure: I really enjoyed the movie. I thought it was a lot of fun. I loved that the traditions of the original movies have remained in place, from the scrolling text to the screen wipes, to beginning with a camera pan to the first planet of interest. All of that was greatly appreciated.

It does not answer the question. When we left Luke, Leia and Han – and all the other assorted characters in the original trilogy – we were given a sense of closure. There was peace in the galaxy. Anakin Skywalker was at peace. Leia and Han could begin their relationship in earnest in the knowledge that Luke was Leia’s brother – so that was a no-go area. Even if she did already kiss him to make Han jealous.


It would have been the perfect happy ending, if not for a little thing called the Expanded Universe. Between the countless books, various comic books, games and follow up animated television shows, Star Wars did not end with Return of the Jedi. Far from it.

Daisy Ridley as Rey
Daisy Ridley as Rey

With the first trailer of The Force Awakens, fans began putting together theories over the identities of the only-named characters we’d been introduced to – Rey, and Kylo Ren. I won’t give anything away. While a great number of people have already seen the movie, it has only been out a few days at the time of writing. But the mention duo are important for this discussion. It was who they might be that made the story appeal to so many fans so much. People needed to know if their suspicions were true, and, if they were, what was going on with these two characters.

(If you’re curious, and you’ve already seen the movie, USA Today kindly put together a list of fan theories that covers this issue. Otherwise, I’d leave it be for now. Some people have taken it upon themselves to ruin Google searches for the movie already.)

The simple fact is, simply by releasing a trailer, they’ve garnered the attention of the fans. In the removal of the canonical state of the Star Wars novels, Disney ensured that whatever story they chose to tell would not be directly influenced by the expanded universe, which filled in the gaps before, during and beyond the scope of the pre-existing movies. The end result is that, for the regular fan who doesn’t have access to all of that information on the host of characters explored in the universe, there are new stories to be told.

Kylo Ren
Kylo Ren

It isn’t certain that we really needed to have this movie exist, except that – now – it might offer younger cinema fans the opportunity to know and love the franchise in the same way people of generations before them did. The original trilogy might not have lived on for younger audiences the way it has done so far. Even the awful arrival of Jar Jar Binks into the franchise served the purpose of giving the story another episode, another opportunity to appear in the public sphere.

If, generally speaking, the third trilogy fails to capture and retain public interest, it can still serve the purpose of re-introducing Star Wars into the lives of so many people. We might not need the new story, but for the originals to survive, we do need the new fans. At least The Force Awakens achieved that much.

Carol: Circular Narrative and Mirrored Characters

2015 has been a big year for the LGBT movement – not least of all in Ireland, with the world’s first passing of a bill legalising same-sex marriage by popular vote. In Hollywood, perhaps entirely by accident, we’ve been hit with two films that address homosexuality and transgenderism in a world not yet ready for such phenomena of social acceptance: Carol, and The Danish Girl.

carol poster

Since 2007, I’ve made it a habit of going to the cinema at least once per week; most recently, I sat down to watch Carol, not sure what to expect before heading in. I don’t read reviews before I watch a movie – my cinema has a membership card that allows me to see as many movies as I want for a monthly cost, so I don’t need to be overly picky – so I missed all the positivity that Carol had already generated, and instead went in with the mind-set that, given it’s December, we were looking at Oscar-bait. I’m of the opinion, now, that it deserves any and all nominations it receives. Be warned, while I’ve attempted to avoid specific details of the plot, there will be general spoilers in this article.

As the trailer suggests, Carol is a circular narrative. This is a fact clearly stated and barely understood until it has been seen; the film does not seek to explain itself, much in the same way that Cate Blanchett’s Carol Aird denies any explanation about herself to the people she meets throughout the events of the film. Set in the 1950s, she’s a closeted lesbian in a failed marriage, spending more time with her female friends than her husband. She’s figure of mystery and adversity, seemingly unconcerned with the consequences of her actions.

Therese Belivet, played by Rooney Mara, is her opposite. Unassuming, petite, and plainly dressed, she is everything Carol is not. Where Carol is presented as a wealthy socialite, Therese is a working girl living the daylight of New York, an aspiring photographer unwilling to accept the bonds of social pressure in the same way Carol did in her youth.

Cate Blanchett as Carol Aird

Their lives are mirrored throughout the movie, from their simple beginnings and through their transformations. For Therese, her appearances in the park echo the changes in her life; her working life and the photographs on the way in her kitchen tell different types of stories, challenging her dreams and managing her expectations. Carol’s transformation is reflected in her lawyer’s office, in her restaurants, and in the appearances of her best friend, Abby Gerhard (Sarah Paulson). There is a role reversal in the relationship between these women from opposing worlds.

In a pair of scenes, the women look for the other in their worlds – Therese looks for Carol in the night, and Carol for Therese in the day – from the point of view of a cab, bookending the ways in which the women and their relationship changed them as people. In the beginning, they fulfil a need in the other. Therese needed direction in life, Carol needed love. As they drive through New York looking for one another at different points in the movie, we’re given the impression that what they need in someone else has changed – and neither woman feels fitting for the role, anymore.

Rooney Mara as Therese Belivet

Alongside an incredibly powerful narrative, we’re given lingering shots of the women throughout their relationship. When they talk, when they drive, when they kiss, we are given an insight into the lives and their emotions, looking long enough at them as they listen to the other to more fully understand the weight of the words as they are spoken. The camera directs us to what is most important: how Carol and Therese make each other feel. It does not matter how one or the other looks as they speak. As their relationship is less conventional than we as an audience as used to, so too is the cinematography.

Powerful performances from Blanchett and Mara, with support from Paulson, Kyle Chandler and a host of others from Therese’s life guide us through a story that cinema needed, the normalisation of same-sex relationships on the big screen. This is a tale of love and transformation, and the effects of other people on our lives; while it seeks to challenge the romantic and sexual expectations of the women involved, such relationships are not uncommon in heterosexual circles. As Therese asks of her courter, Richard, “How many times have you been in love?”, we can be expected not to view Carol as a story of forbidden sexuality, but on the demands of love and romance on a life, and how it can bring out the best and worst in someone, regardless of gender or sexuality.

Carol has been nominated for several Golden Globes, including Best Motion Picture and Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion-Picture – Drama (both Blanchett and Mara). Have any thoughts on the film, or anything to contribute – comment away!

Chinatown: Love, Lies, and Conspiracies | Project 87

ChinatownposterChinatown hit the big screen in 1974, giving audiences a look at one of cinema’s greatest treasures in storytelling. We meet Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) at his office, a private investigator with a private collection of alcohol in his cupboards, and a distraught customer tearing at the blinds. He deals in break-ups, getting the dirt when the dirt in sought. This is the only thing we need to know about Gittes for a little while, before we enter a world beyond his control. (You should also note, there’ll be a few spoilers beyond this point. Consider yourself warned, if you care about that sort of thing.)

He deals in secrets and lies, and all the dangers they can cause. When Mrs Mulwray arrives at his office, we should be suspicious. She suspects her husband of cheating. When we meet Hollis Mulwray, questions begin to crop up. He’s a gentle looking man, thin and unassuming. He’s also the Chief Engineer of the LA Department of Water and Power, while the city’s gone into drought and he refuses to build a dam that might resolve the situation. There are so many triggers here that Gittes ignores, so many things that would make anyone else roll their eyes in disbelief that Hollis could be a cheater, and that anyone could even think he could manage it. He’s too public, and too decent, and still Gittes’s men find him with a woman that isn’t his wife.

Then, of course, the woman who hired Gittes to track Hollis wasn’t his wife, either. Her name is Ida Sessions, a woman whose significance remains in the dark for a large portion of the movie, beyond getting the photos from Gittes and into the paper. Enter Evelyn Mulwray, the real wife of our Chief Engineer – a man who subsequently proves incredibly difficult to get a hold of.

Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes
Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes

When we finally get to see his face again, we’re also introduced to Luo Escobar- Gittes former partner in Chinatown. It’s alluded that Chinatown was a bad time in the PI’s life, a time he’d like to forget. Escobar’s moved up in the force, just enough that when Gittes sneaks onto private property – a freshwater reservoir – to see the body of Mulwray dragged into view, he’s able to allow Gittes to stay.

With Mulwray dead, and Gittes still considering himself a client of Evelyn’s, the threads of the story finally tie themselves together: Gittes’s new life digging up dirt meets the water crisis of LA, and his old life in Chinatown tags along for the ride. Three stories, two happening concurrently. This is why we study Chinatown, why Syd Field writes about it in such detail in Screenplay, and presumably why it made Spike Lee’s list. A complicated set of tales wove into a single movie.

Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Mulwray
Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Mulwray

Under contract with Evelyn Mulwray – and faux-Mulwray – Gittes uncovers a lot about the water conspiracy of LA. From dried up relationships to dried up water reserves, his work keeps him tangled up in the biggest political issue the movie can muster: keep the desert off the streets. LA is focused on the water – where it is, and where it isn’t. Hollis uncovered the truth before his death – it led to his death, and subsequently to the reunion of Gittes and Escobar. It was an obsession for Hollis Mulwray – always looking for water. From the beach, Echo Park, and his own back yard, and let us not forget his position in the Department, water is Hollis Mulwray’s life, right from the beginnings of his fortune, when he and Noah Cross owned the city’s water.

Cross is important. He’s a vile man, with a wicked temper, a sense of greed greater than the devil’s, and a daughter in Evelyn Mulwray. He was critical in the construction of the Alto Vallejo, which later burst – an event that resulted in Hollis’s refusal to build another reservoir for LA. He knows what will happen – or at least suspects it – and when the water is dumped from the city’s supplies during the drought, Cross enters Gittes’s sights. Cross who owned the water, and whose fishing club is revealed to support a group of elderly men and women whose names come up on Gittes’s radar.

Remember Ida Sessions? Her involvement in the case, in getting Gittes involved, resulted in her murder. Gittes receives a last note from her, to look at the obituary column. He also runs into Escobar again. Old lives cross in new stories.

Between the obituaries and the public records for land purchases in LA, the puzzle begins to fall into place. The men and women Cross supports own the desert, where the land is cheap, and none of them even know it. With Cross intending for the land to receive LA’s new reserves of water – and with Mulwray out of the picture – the plot turns towards keeping Evelyn safe. Evelyn, and the woman we once suspected of being Hollis’s girlfriend.

John Huston as Noah Cross
John Huston as Noah Cross

Her name is Katherine Cross; she’s one more reason to hate Noah, and one more reason to keep Evelyn safe. Hollis’s death was no accident, his lung’s flooded with saltwater, and Noah Cross the number one suspect. With Noah on the lookout for her, after a dirty affair years before, and both Evelyn and Katherine sent to Chinatown for protection, the threads of individual stories that tied together at Hollis’s deathbed meet the point where they’ll become untangled.

In a flurry of activity that sees Evelyn dead and Katherine leaving with Cross, Gittes’s past has finally caught up with him.

This is what we’re dealing with as an audience of Chinatown, a mish-mash of stories that somehow manage to work. Looked at together, it takes some attention to put it all into a cohesive plot. Separately, we’ve got a PI who can’t get away from the trouble he left the police force over entangled with a woman whose past relationship with her father has led to the complete downfall of her life. The history of Chinatown, and the history of the Cross family, meet in a bloody end, with Gittes dragged back into one to mingle with the other.

Chinatown is as much the story of the water crisis of LA, and the supposedly failing marriage of an engineer, as it is the story of a PI who never conquered his demons, who instead took up showing others everything wrong with their lives.

Mulwray’s death is a message no one received, but for the audience, and for readers of the script, it marks a significant turning point in the story. It’s the point at which everything comes together almost entirely by accident, and sparks the events that won’t end until the death of the second Mulwray.

We study Chinatown for the way in which these stories are told, stories of life and death, love and abuse, and the politics of need and greed. We remember it for its closing line: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”