Review: Detroit (cinema)

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Fairly early on in Detroit, Carl is demonstrating to two white girls what it’s like living as a black person in the US. He’s holding a palm-sized starter gun that looks enough like a real gun to make his spectators hold their breaths. He rants and shouts contradictory orders at Lee, who tries to answer swiftly and politely even as Carl starts shoving him and waving the gun in his face. Lee can’t give Carl the right answer, because Carl, representing the white police force, doesn’t want to hear the right answer. Finally, Carl shoots the pistol and Lee drops — and the two dissolve into laughter, as this gun is all bang and no bullets. The girls watching, and the young friends Larry and Fred, don’t find it quite so funny, and Carl laments that they can’t take a joke. The girls don’t really want to hear this lesson, and nor do Larry and Fred; they’d been hoping their night at the Algiers Motel would be an escape from the imploding city outside.

The movie as a whole shares a lot with this scene: the camera hovers at peoples’ shoulders and backs, it gets in too close to their faces and shudders and rocks as the perspective shifts and situations escalate. Detroit wants you to know what that constant level of tension feels like. It shows you a hopeless situation that the victims cannot get out of, and no matter how polite, compliant and nonthreatening they are, nothing they do or say can end it until the aggressors decide it’s over. This is probably the clearest indication that it’s a movie made by a white woman, probably aimed largely at white audiences. Non-white viewers in modern America presumably don’t really need informing of society’s ongoing, inherent racism. If Detroit can be a slap in the face and a wake-up call for people who don’t realise that institutional racism is real, then that’s great. It’s a dramatic, well-acted, well-shot movie. But it’s not a story that’s told for the victims or the oppressed themselves; its black characters are universally helpless in the face of what happens, which may be accurate enough when it comes to these events, but could be handled better by allowing them more agency in the events that bracket the violence at the Algiers Motel.

It takes a while to ramp up to the events at the motel. The movie begins by meandering through the chaotic streets, offering a taste of what’s to come here and there: even as the social contract breaks down, people still want to just be people and have fun and drink and dance and sing. The heightened emotions that occur when fun and abandon collide with hard, humourless law-keeping don’t bubble over initially, but it’s clear how recklessness is going to grow, both in the oppressed black population of the city, and in the institutionally racist police force. The police know that their raid on an unlicensed venue will inflame tensions in the area: it’s with great reluctance that they accept they’ll have to bring the party-goers out through the front door, onto the street, rather than round the back of the building. Here, in plain view, locals gather to watch as the whole party is bundled roughly into vans with no questions asked. But the knowledge that their tactics are provocative doesn’t stop the police from carrying on, doubling down and telling themselves the blame lies only on the city’s black population, not on the failings of the state.

Gradually, the camera starts to pick out individuals, bringing areas of the chaos into focus. Leon, one of the frustrated onlookers at the party raid, is spotted looting groceries. A white police officer, in the middle of claiming that they are ‘failing these people’, chases Leon down and makes it clear precisely what he means by that: Krauss shoots the fleeing man in the back repeatedly, even when he’s dropped the tins and packets he’d taken. Krauss’ superior is pissed with him: he knows this man is actively racist in his dealings with Detroit’s black population, he disagrees with Krauss’ approach and he slaps down his suggestion that looting can only be stopped by shooting looters in the back. But he sends Krauss back out. And he’s the first of a bunch of cowards we meet who could have done something to prevent the crimes committed at the Algiers, and he’s not even the worst of them.

Although John Boyega’s security guard, Melvin Dismukes, is billed as the main character in the trailers for Detroit, it’s really Larry, played by Algee Smith, who’s at the movie’s heart. Dismukes is caught between sides, able to do little more than look on in horror at what unfolds under Krauss’ reign of terror at the Algiers. He does what he can — like the first time we meet him, he tries to divert the anger of the white police, and he seems to share an understanding with the man from the military. But none of this makes any difference; Krauss has nothing to fear from Dismukes or his account of the night. Dismukes’ complicity in what happened led him to be tried alongside the white officers, and although Detroit implies that there’s little he could have done, it would have benefitted from letting us inside Dismukes’ head a little more. Boyega is perfectly capable of showing us what isn’t said out loud, and his performance is affecting, but he’s still not given a lot to work with.

Larry, meanwhile, is a swaggering, confident young singer in The Dramatics: he is certain of a big record deal in his future, he just wants to see a theatre full of people dancing and moving to the sound of his voice. Still, he wants his best friend, Fred (Jaboc Latimore) to be there for all of it, even though Fred isn’t in the band. Fred’s sweet and quiet and conscientious, and when Larry’s dreams of taking to the stage in front of a big name from Motown are scuppered by a police order to clear the venue because of unrest in the area, Larry makes like any other teenage boy: he’s going to find his sweet, introverted friend a girl, and he’s going to find one for himself while he’s at it. But by the end of the ordeal at the Algiers, Larry’s a totally different person: he turns in on himself, and when he looks at a theatre audience, or even at record company execs, and he sees white people dancing, and the police guarding the exits, he relives the trauma of the night at the Algiers. The police stole the lives of those who survived that night as much as those who were killed. Larry is the only character whose inner life is explored to any depth, and it’s an effective arc to show, even if it felt abbreviated in between the overruling need to move on with the action.

In short though, you should leave this movie angry. The sheer number of people who could have made a difference and didn’t is horrifying, from the State Police who turn away from what they fear will be a ‘civil rights issue’ they don’t want to get dragged into, to the military officer who plays along with Krauss’ intimidation tactics, to dumbass Demens who’d rather kill a man in cold blood than stand up to a racist bully. At the end of the movie, when text flashes up to update us on where Dismukes and Larry and Julie ended up, and to confirm that full, public justice was never received by the victims at the Algiers, you get a hint of how many people in local government must have been complicit in derailing any attempt to get redress for those who were killed and beaten and traumatised by the police that night. There’s no closure to this story, not least because of the resonance it still has in contemporary America.

As a film, Detroit is an effective piece that ratchets the tension up consistently, is acted brilliantly, and has a thing or two to teach people about white allyship. It’s not as revolutionary as it might have been though. Although I found it powerful viewing, having since read criticisms of the way it depicts the passivity of its black characters and of the attempted objectivity of its account, I’m inclined to agree with those criticisms. The movie begins by warning us that ‘change had to come’, but if the change refers to the sudden explosion of frustration that resulted in riots and looting, that story is never completed by the movie — what brought the riots to an end? And if it refers to what should come afterwards, to an actual catharsis or resolution that rights the imbalances of the segregated society depicted, then we’re still not there. That’s the kind of thing that an ambitious movie like this should acknowledge openly, rather than assuming its audience is all on the same page; it’s a lazy assumption that allows people to continue to ignore the problems in contemporary American society.

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Review: Aftermath: Empire’s End (Chuck Wendig)

wexley-sloaneImage: Steve Thomas for Del Rey.

I need to vent. If you like these books, I recommend you don’t read this. And I say that as someone who likes a lot of the new characters: this is about the writing.

I’ll also say first that representation is important and it matters. Wendig goes out of his way to include characters of colour and characters from various parts of the LGBTQ+ spectrum. This is good. It is unambiguously a good thing to do, and I don’t take away from it at all. None of it is a distraction from the plot, or from ‘what Star Wars is about’ or whatever. The distractions are all down to Wendig’s bad writing.

Well, that was a lot harder a slog than I was hoping for. I didn’t read any SWEU for years until in 2015 I realised Aaron Allston had written one last X-Wing novel in the old canon (Mercy Kill), and I was always going to enjoy another story about Piggy and the delight that is Myri Antilles. More recently, I wasn’t too impressed by Alexander Freed’s prose in Rogue One, but hell, I enjoyed a lot of other things about it. Catalyst by James Luceno was good though; and you can go through my archive here if you want my opinions on the YA/children’s lit offerings tied to Rogue One. I’m saying all this because at so many points during Aftermath I was going: really?? Is this just the quality of SWEU? Has it always been this bad? If I go and re-read favourites from a decade ago will I cringe and regret it? So, I think having reminded myself that I read and particularly enjoyed Mercy Kill and Catalyst in recent memory, I can safely say: no. This is not the standard quality of SWEU writing. This is just bad writing.

Ah, I hear you clamour: ‘But, I enthuse! Surely you noticed that it was bad…at the beginning of the trilogy? If you didn’t like it, why push through to the end?’

Well now. This is complicated. Partly, I think I was hungry for more stories about a rag-tag crew of found family saving the galaxy from evil (murder droid…hot soldier banging hot outlaw in the ship’s storage room…gorgeous Imperial defector…uh, a badass but traumatised mother and her infuriating son?). And the first book in Wendig’s trilogy did that very nicely, thank you. I thoroughly enjoyed the exploits of Norra Wexley, worst mother in the galaxy, and despite myself I fell head over heels for the smart-arse alcoholic ex-Imperial Sinjir Rath Velus. Also I read the first one because it claimed to be about Wedge Antilles. Spoiler: he’s not actually in it very much. And the second in the trilogy carried on in a fairly entertaining fashion. But this one just…dragged.

Since the first in the trilogy, Wendig’s tortured metaphors have driven me mad. Not least because most of them seem to rely on an animal of some sort, and he runs rings around himself as he tries to figure out the SWEU equivalent of an actual animal, or wanders off on tangents about animals he’s invented. It’s all so jarring. People seem to know metaphors about animals that are only native to one planet — one that these characters have no great familiarity with. Oh, and the present tense. Save me. I’ve read good things written in the present tense (usually fanfic tbh), and this is not one of those things. I’m really not sure what the point of it is, it just became a constant background annoyance by the end of the trilogy.

Even the characters I made myself read this damned book for felt like they’d been twisted into caricatures half the time: I started the trilogy fully prepared to have precisely zero time for Sinjir’s fanbaity badassery, but his eloquence was laced through with enough self-knowing sadness that I was hooked. But by Empire’s End he was starting to sound like a parody of Joss Whedon dialogue; always a quip, never something I could actually imagine a human being saying. He was happily cured by the time his final scene came around, but I still had to plough through what came before, didn’t I? (Everyone I know: no, no you didn’t)

I’ll grant that Norra and Sloane (pictured above) at least had a satisfactory end to their arc. Unfortunately, as there was so much that this book had to get through in order to take us to where we needed to be in the set-up to the sequel movies, the characters’ internal lives were sacrificed. Norra’s situation was dealt with particularly perfunctorily, her various traumas stacked so high on top of each other that there was never a chance to delve into how her unresolved issues after the Battle of Endor had grown. And Jas had it even worse. Sloane, on the other hand, had plenty of time to reflect, and it gave her story more of a punch than I expected. Maybe, then, this isn’t Wendig’s fault entirely, but the problem that comes from having to slot into the saga’s bigger picture; Sloane had a lot of waiting to do whilst the other characters caught up to her. I did enjoy Wendig’s stories the most the further they were from familiar ground, but I was never grabbed by the events on Kashyyyk, and the political wrangling of Empire’s End was simply depressing rather than interesting in the way the various holo-report interludes in the first book were. He also had Lando use the word babe in a way that made my toes curl, and his Han often felt like a clip-joint pieced together from movie dialogue.

Having said that, the end wrapped up fairly nicely, and seemed to be written in a far less tortuous manner than the rest of Empire’s End. Some character deaths were achingly predictable, some were predictable in a tropey way, and some were fairly callously handled. I’m not really sure why some of the characters who died had to die, especially when they seemed to be original to the trilogy, but still fairly minor, unexplored players. I’m not opposed to character death (I live at the bottom of a pit of glorious despair called the Rogue One fandom after all), but there wasn’t enough to go on with some of Wendig’s characters to make their death have much of an impact. Other scenes in the climactic battle were robbed of any excitement by the fact that we know how things end up: we’ve seen Jakku and what crashed there in The Force Awakens. A better writer could probably have wrung some drama from this stuff anyway, but — uh, super strong tractor beams that I never mentioned before!! doesn’t really cut it.

I’m disappointed. I was kind of disappointed in the first one that there was so little Wedge, but then I got behind the new characters. The plot of the second one felt flimsy, but it rattled along easily enough. Empire’s End, unfortunately, got stuck between the demands of the franchise and a horrid prose style. Unedifying. What happened to characters I liked was unedifying, what seems to pass for some SWEU these days is unedifying, reading this book was unedifying. I’m going to try some classic, no-longer-canon SWEU next. But maybe not next, next. I need to read something more reliably good first.

Also I only just twigged that Snap Wexley is in The Force Awakens, and now I’m annoyed because I did not imagine him like that. Not one bit.

Bingley Music Live (Friday)

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Photo credit: Bingley Music Live Facebook Page

Just a quick write-up rather than a review, as it wouldn’t be fair to judge based on only one day! It was a great day, however: Maxïmo Park and the Manic Street Preachers on the same stage on the same evening? Yes please, how did you know? First time I’ve been to (or heard of) Bingley Music Live, but it was worth missing a friend’s 30th in Italy for (and much cheaper) — sorry Alice. I may go again, line-up depending: this festival is great value, and much larger than I expected, packing quite a punch in its short line-ups. Sure, it’s September in Yorkshire and it’s going to rain, but it’s warm, end of summer rain, and who cares if you get a bit damp when the tunes are this good…

Dead Pretties
We rocked up a couple of hours after the gates opened to catch most of this set at the Discovery Stage for new bands. With a pint of fresh Butcombe Bitter in our hands, a beach ball being bounced listlessly around the afternoon crowd and a sense of glee at being at our first festival in about six/seven years, we quite enjoyed Dead Pretties. The tunes were good, rhythm section-driven indie, and the band members proved quickly that they were competent enough with their instruments to make a three-man band sound interesting. Shades of Nirvana and early Libertines were there, and the final track began with an entertainingly-Jim Morrisson-esque ramble by the singer, even if it sadly forgot where it was going about three-quarters of the way through. Taking themselves a little less seriously would help, but the singer has the voice and the presence to mostly compensate for that.

Twin Atlantic
tbh I wasn’t really listening to the end of their set on the main stage; I was too busy wondering who would get a tattoo done at a music festival, why the tattoo guys weren’t selling healing cream, and why on earth the main stage bar wasn’t selling the Butcombe, only Carlsberg. Still, I think I caught some heavy bass-drumming, which I’m always a sucker for.

Maxïmo Park
It pissed it down during their set: the photo above was taken about mid-way through, but doesn’t show the full double rainbow we all saw. Still, there was enough space in the crowd to dance, which is what you have to do, especially with the new tracks like What Equals Love and The Hero, so there was no time to get cold. As when I saw them in Cambridge, the crowd responded really well to the new tracks, and the set was heavy with them. Paul told us about his trip to Salts Mill (unsurprising), had a dig at the local bus services, and even allowed himself to get political in the intro to Work Then Wait again — to which he got a resounding cheer from the audience. It was a pretty similar set to the Cambridge one overall, but tracks like By the Monument always sound about ten times better at a festival, and I’m just so thrilled to hear Risk to Exist getting such a good response. Hopefully the Manics fans clinging to their barrier spots enjoyed themselves even half as much as I did…

Manic Street Preachers
Last time I saw them was on tour for the album they’re currently promoting the ten year anniversary of (Send Away the Tigers). It was also seated, in the gallery at Cambridge Corn Exchange. And the only time before that was the Lifeblood tour, in a huge arena, playing a set I don’t remember much of other than the fact that JDB had a flying V for a few tracks… So it was fun to see a full set I knew, at the front of a crowd full of fans all bellowing their heads off to everything from Ocean Spray (dedicated to the NHS, naturally) to You Love Us. They’ve obviously got an immense back catalogue to draw on these days, and they were never going to play everything I wanted to hear; still, it was a set surprisingly heavy on tracks from This is My Truth Tell Me Yours, with not a single one from The Holy Bible. Presumably this balance was designed for a crowd that was as likely to be at the festival for Saturday headliners the Kaiser Chiefs, as for people who’d come specifically for the Manics. And there were still some surprising highlights for me: No Surface All Feeling turns out to be an excellent live track, and it was a treat to hear My Little Empire as well as all the singles from TIMTTMY. Oh yes, and the acoustic Masses Against the Classes: excellent, along with the inevitable Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head. Complementing Paul Smith’s tales of Hockney pilgrimmages, James Dean Bradfield chatted about the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and merrily nattered to the audience about how they must get sick of ‘fucking tourists’ and the like. Obviously, Nicky Wire is the mouthy one in interviews, but it’s JDB’s genial stage presence that keeps an audience rapt, eating from the palm of their hand. The crowd were a generally good-natured bunch too, barring the usual drunk school kids, drunk middle aged women, and the men who stand stock still at the barrier, determinedly ignoring the short people behind them who are desperate just for a hand hold on the railing. Nevertheless, a cathartic sing-along to A Design for Life under a spray of Welsh-flag coloured-confetti will smooth over pretty much any differences.*

*Yes, I know the confetti at the end was white; I can’t remember what track the red, white and green stuff came down on. You Stole the Sun from My Heart?

So, better value and a better setting than Newcastle’s Times Square gigs (one of which I went to last summer). I mean sure, someone else would have had to pay me to attend the line-up on Saturday or Sunday, but I lucked out and Friday’s two headliners were two of my favourite bands. It was a great end to summer (what summer?) and on the whole had a fantastic, friendly atmosphere. Pull off a line-up like that again, BML, and I’ll be back. (Could you maybe get Kate Bush next time, too? That would really cover all my bases).

Review: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (cinema)

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Oooh boy. I really watched the last three movies in the wrong order. I had reservations about all three, but thought this would be the easiest to enjoy. It was hands down the worst though (and Atomic Blonde was the best by a few million million miles). I’m not going to comment on the source material; I know Luc Besson’s been wanting to get this adapted for years. But as is often the case with these things: the director’s idea of what’ll look cool based on decades of mulling it over isn’t always something that translates into a good movie (bitter about the Star Wars prequels still, moi?). Style over substance is the order of the day.

And it does look cool, to be fair. That’s a thing it does with aplomb. It’s as beautiful and shiny as space should be, the design of all the alien species and the spaceships are really neat, and the CGI is obviously fantastic (if at times a little more than is necessary). An important alien species is the Pearls, whose skin is iridescent, and the design and appearance of them is really impressive (though it has shades of Avatar, which I’ve not seen largely because of CGI creepiness). Bits made me think of Star Wars in a good way: the opening pan and accompanying soundtrack, the garbage chute… The three information-selling aliens were adorable and had more character than everyone else in the movie. And I actually cackled when I realised Ethan Hawke was in it, doing more  acting than the rest of the cast combined. Also the pasty General and his officers were good eggs — he could actually pronounce an umlaut, so we were clear it was a planet called Mül not ‘Mule’. And the Converter was cute. And the Pearls were great. The only piece of design that really bugged me was that Clive Owen seemed to be taking fashion tips from this guy:

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Hark, a Vagrant 266

But I’m struggling to enthuse here. It was slow, it was obvious, and Valerian was utterly unlikeable. A Nu!Kirk fratboy who doesn’t understand the difference between commitment to a relationship and commitment to a job, who claims to do things ‘by the book’ when… uh, evidence points to ‘no’, and who ultimately agrees to do the right thing because he’d still quite like to get his end in </nini legs-in-the-air voice>. Laureline was fun enough, but my god did it all need updating for the 21st century. “Gentlemen and lady.” Really? Laureline saves Valerian’s ass, then gets distracted by the “pretty butterfly!” Eeeesh, Bubble’s ‘arc’ was grim, too. Valerian nervously bats aside the attentions of beautiful women in Paradise Alley; he makes a snide comment to the trans* woman and recoils in horror from the fat woman. The opening scenes, which should be a lovely montage of ambitious space exploration and working together, are given a sour taste as the white people welcome first the Chinese, then all the other ‘colours’ of planet Earth, one at a time, because evidently this kind of co-operation can only happen in space. It wouldn’t have been hard to write all of this very differently, and even if I’m generous and attribute it to the source material it doesn’t affect the plot one bit. I mean, in terms of Bubble’s pep-talk about Valerian’s relationship with Laureline, Spider-man: Homecoming did the same thing better, and with more genuine emotion between a teenager and a super-suit in 30 seconds than this movie manages in its entirety.

Look, I liked John Carter. I really liked Jupiter Ascending. And what was for years Luc Besson’s consolation prize, The Fifth Element, is probably in my top 20 movies I’ll watch anytime, anywhere. But these movies actually had likeable characters, and the world-building that weighed them down felt worthwhile — and it either made sense or didn’t need to make sense. Admittedly, John Carter struggled to update its princess to let her be what a modern audience might expect, and Valerian has the same problem ten times worse. They both suffer from Heinlein-itis: women can be really strong and intelligent and competent, but men are always better at these things, they just need women to provide the emotional smarts and empathy. And essentialism of this kind just sucks wherever it appears. I don’t care what the source material did. You’re making a sci-fi movie in 2017. Do better.

The darker aspects of the world were all thoroughly glossed over, apart from the villain’s crimes — but their presence meant that the world’s less appealing aspects (slavery, prostitution, etc) couldn’t just be ignored. Oh, but if you don’t guess who the villain is and what he’s done within five minutes of him being onscreen then it’s because you’ve already nodded off. And, assuming that’s intentional, that means there’s no need for everyone’s shocked faces at the end as they realise what our baddie did. Again, there might have been an interesting real world political point to make here, but all I find I’m left with is someone ranting about ‘economy!!’ and ‘soldiers!!!’

Scratch the surface of any of the plot and it makes no sense. The script is lacking, to woeful, to absent. The acting is wooden and superficial. It does look nice. But that is nowhere near enough to save it. Give me Jupiter Ascending any day.

Review: The Dark Tower (cinema)

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I loved books 1–4 in this series as a teenager. When the final 3 at last came out I devoured them, though with a greater awareness of what I found disappointing or frustrating about them. Recently, I read the spin-off The Wind Through the Keyhole and enjoyed a whole lot of nostalgia for the world(s within worlds). And, oh my god, I was so excited when they announced the casting for this. But like everyone, my dread has been growing the closer we got to the release date because we’ve had little more than one trailer in terms of marketing. And because I didn’t want to read too deeply into rumours or details of what they might have changed, I went into this having only the barest sense that: this was sort-of a sequel to the books, it was a stand-alone film, and it was bafflingly awful to many people who’ve seen it.

Well, it wasn’t quite that bad (I thought I’d need to apologise to He Judges afterwards but he claims to have rather enjoyed it and now might read the books!). I’d still rather have the Netflix/Amazon/HBO series, that includes all the weird and wacky Arthurian-cowboy-post-industrial-radiation-hellscape details I know and love (lobstrosities! Deranged trains! Very lost Elton John-soundtracked priests! EPIC flashbacks!). But bits of this movie did genuinely get the feeling of the books, which is more than I’d expected in the end. And oh, I’m still thrilled about the casting. Idris Elba is the perfect Roland — solemn, takes himself a little too seriously, is bad at interacting with new things, but can convince you he does still have a heart under that gruff exterior — and tbh I never thought of Matthew McConaughy as an actor I wanted to see do more than one-note, inexplicably-wants-to-see-the-world-burn evil. And Tom Taylor as Jake did a good job holding it all together.

Having said that, I don’t think that telling the story from Jake’s perspective was necessarily the way to do this. The beginning dragged. There’s no easy way to explain Mid-Earth and its history, but a prologue from Roland’s perspective might have helped. Heck, lean in to the fact that this is a sequel to the books: how did he lose Jake before (again, and again, and again)? It’s never quite clear how much Roland and Walter remember their pasts, but given that it seems to be referenced later in the movie I’d have just gone for trusting your audience and showing it head-on, rather than leaving clues dangling that are only for the people who’ll see them coming. This applies to a lot in the movie. The Crimson King and Walter are essentially combined, but this is never explained: you know what ‘all hail the Crimson King’ means if you know. Same with the talking raccoons. My god, for a moment in the woods I really, truly let myself believe there was going to be a billy-bumbler. What can I say? I’m an eternal optimist.

But as much as there was a huge amount that just wasn’t explained, there were still enough changes that it was disorientating even when you have ploughed through all the books and all their ongoing retconning and layers. Walter’s evil plan involving children who have The Shine (just in case you forgot it was Stephen King guys!) never really worked for me. This might be because I have no recollection of the rat people (was that a thing in the books? ETA: ah yes, the Low Men, not one of the reasons I ever cared about the world or the story…), or because Topher from Cabin in the Woods was there being Topher, or because I was too busy going ‘THAT’S THE WIZARD’S RAINBOW!’ or because Roland seemed surprised to learn where Walter was even though the night before he’d watched the firey beam of children’s screams arc across the sky to the Tower… Adding this in as an element felt, well unnecessary, although I take it that in a stand-alone movie they wanted to show how Walter represented a more immediate threat to the Tower. Again, maybe address the story cycle directly: is this something that Walter learned of on their last go around the Wheel, and he’s now trying to bring his plan forward by exploiting a resource he’d not previously been aware of? It might have been a way of ensuring that your audience started off on even footing is all.

Other problems: no Susannah. Yeah, this is a problem. Pretty much every woman with a speaking role dies or is injured (except the lovely medical staff in NYC). And casting Idris Elba was initially hailed by lots of fans as a chance for the story to reassess some of the more problematic racial aspects the books hamfistedly addressed. But you can’t do that without Susannah. I like to think that the old bum who warns Jake is Eddie, so it would have been nice to even have a shout-out that referenced Susannah: they managed to fit enough other things in for the fans (Roland’s excitement about painkillers for example). But there wasn’t even that. Nor was there a hint of interest in the implications of a strong, powerful black man striding into our New York as a Gunslinger. Missed opportunity. The real world implications are important to the books, and would have updated easily and effectively.

I did enjoy quite a bit of the movie despite this: Roland and Jake had exactly the right dynamic, especially when it came to Roland’s interactions with anything new.

Jake: You had fairgrounds in your world?
Roland: No one knows what this is.
Jake: It’s a fairground.

Roland in the hospital, popping painkillers and glugging sugar; Roland loading himself down with bullets and doing his Gunslingery thing; Roland getting himself injured and pushing through the pain because that’s what Roland does. These were the moments that reminded me why I made myself read all the books, and they actually made me want to read them again. The movie just about managed to squeeze in his thawing, and the way he comes to care for Jake, but it wasn’t given much space. For any viewer who wasn’t at all interested in filling in those gaps by reading the books I can’t imagine it did much. And yet the movie had so much time to play with! It was short. And yet the beginning still dragged.

So, it wasn’t nearly as awful as I’d been expecting. But what saved it was largely what I’d expected would make it bearable anyway: Idris Elba as Roland Deschain. Supplemented by the surprisingly good Tom Taylor as Jake. But even when I was enjoying it, I was constantly wishing for more colour and more ambition. It’s like the only way it finally got made was by someone giving up and saying ‘this can’t be done, just write some fanfic that sort of covers it and we’ll make it monochrome and moody and people will get the idea’. No. Gilead should be colourful, even in its dying throes. The Tower stands at the centre of a field of red roses. The sandalwood handles of Roland’s guns are a warm and polished ochre. The denim is blue and the grass is green. But here, everything was grey and timid, going for the lowest common denominator and expecting the least from its audience. It’s a pity, because what I always loved about the books, even when they descended into self-referential farce, was the scope and ambition of the world-building. Sure, half the time it barely made any sense, but if you centre it on characters who are worth following then it’s all bearable. I had to go and see this movie because those characters used to mean so much to me, and I can’t quite say that watching it was a total waste of my time because there were still just enough flashes of the Roland and Jake I came for.

Review: Atomic Blonde (cinema)

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Okay. Okay. Now I want to drive around at speed, punch things, and listen to ’80s music LOUD. It’s like my normal state, but MORE. This movie looked and sounded gorgeous. Blaring synth-pop tunes and flickering projectors, neons, and fluorescents tried to smother the violence, but the violence won out. You think Daredevil’s corridor fight looks tiring? You ain’t seen nothing. And between it all Charlize Theron smiles a wan smile and looks at you from beneath her too-long fringe. And you think: yes, please punch me in the face too.

To be honest, it took a little while to win me over to this extent. The way the music and the fight scenes intersected was telegraphed in such a stylised way that it bugged me at first, as did the stilted dialogue and self-conscious posing of Theron and James McAvoy around their ever present cigarettes and vodka. When she wasn’t speaking, Theron’s face said so much, but then something that wasn’t convincingly an English accent came out of her mouth in a clipped monotone and I wished repeatedly that the movie had no dialogue. This feeling faded — and I can’t decide if in the end my suspicions were validated or made redundant — and about a third of the way into the movie it hit its stride; basically once Lorraine had managed to gain some control over her mission.

It’s a movie that will benefit from rewatching (though perhaps I’m just bad at guessing the twists in spy movies), though it will mean rewatching the bad with the good. There’s a trope that’s embedded firmly in the genre that coincides with a trope that occurs too frequently across various media anyway. It wasn’t ‘as bad’ as I’d expected, having been spoiled, but frankly it remained unnecessary; and perhaps by not being ‘bad’ in the way I’d expected, it ended up being worse for being lazy in a different way.(1 – spoilers)

Anyway, probably because I knew it was coming, I let myself compartmentalise that part of the story, and I’m a little ashamed with how much I enjoyed the rest. It wasn’t terribly afflicted with the male gaze, but with mirrors everywhere it maintained a sexy, stylised look that I’d argue was a rung or so above Music Video. In the action scenes, and the less people talked, it felt less like a comic adaptation (and in this case I’m saying that’s a good thing). The action was where it shone: you could feel the bruising impact of each blow; you knew how much harder Lorraine had to work to land the kind of punch she needed to; but you knew she was capable of it. The stairwell fight and its follow-up were exhilarating and horrifying in equal parts.

By the end, what was a fairly simple premise — that many might have guessed the twists to earlier than I did — was wrung to a taut, smart finale. With all of Lorraine’s antagonist’s monologuing about the nature of ‘truth’, her contemptuous silence told you all you needed to know. His musings barely scratched the surface of her own experience.

She was a compelling hero, and Theron’s skills brought out layers of vulnerability as well as cunning that a lesser actor wouldn’t have managed. If it wasn’t for the specificity of the setting (as with so many Cold War movies) I’d be eager for a sequel that took care to avoid some of the tropes this one languished in. As a stand-alone it’s good fun though, and I’ll happily watch it again. It’s just not as revolutionary as it might have been, sadly; though it’s still smarter than a Bond movie.


(1) spoilers

Of course I’m talking about Delphine’s death. So soft and sweet and naïve — of course she wasn’t going to make it through. She managed more fight than I expected, and indeed was around longer than expected. But these were manifestations of the lazy storytelling I’m talking about: the movie wants you to think she means something to Lorraine. It wants you to see how close she came to winning, to living, to being rescued. But when you know from the beginning that she’s going to die, because not only must the love-interest die, but we must bury our gays, it’s … shall we say, very hard to let yourself get involved? Though tbf she did a lot better than Irina in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy…(and I love that movie too).

Review: Pom Poko (1994)

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Ok, I don’t think this is an uncommon response for those unfamiliar with the tanuki, but it took me a while to come up with more than: “I never thought I’d see so many raccoon scrota in one movie.” Apparently the connection between the raccoon dog/tanuki and enormous ball-sacks emerged relatively recently in Japanese folklore and popular culture, and is to do with the process of hammering out gold leaf inside a tanuki skin. Cool. There’s no indication of that connection in Pom Poko though, where the focus is very much on the legendary transformative abilities of the animals, which are put to use here to try to defend their land from human development.

Part precursor to Princess Mononoke, part Ghibli does The Animals of Farthing Wood, this is a strange blend of cute woodland shenanigans and the bleak realities of urban expansion. These two sides are represented in the art, as stylised and beautiful as we’ve all come to expect from a Ghibli movie, and from Isao Takahata himself. Generally, when they’re around humans or human activity, the tanuki are depicted realistically; when they’re experiencing strong emotion (grief, fear, joy) the crowd becomes more of a caricature, apparently in the style of surrealist manga. Most of the time though, they are anthropomorphised as above, the slightest details of hairstyle or accessory enough to make each individual stand out.

Now you’re just showing off…

Structurally, the movie is told in what might be described as chapters, although the narrative voice-over treats it more like a chronicle of the years since the tanuki were forced to band together to seek a solution for their shrinking habitat. At first, they fight each other, then they try to learn about the humans from television, and to rediscover the art of transformation. This leads to increasing levels of interaction with the human world as their abilities improve: initially they transform into trees and other objects in order to force road accidents at the construction site. This develops into more elaborate types of hauntings and apparitions at shrines, before culminating in a wild display of spirit activity in the nearby town (that unfortunately all goes a bit Beetlejuice on them). Their last act is to show the encroaching humans what the forest once looked like to all of them, before it was bulldozed for housing estates.

The story does end up dragging because of the necessarily repetitive nature of the tanuki’s attacks on the humans. They have a ‘five year plan’ that is begun early, but the movie still covers several years in the lives of the tanuki protagonists. Their lives revolve around the seasons — initially, they practice abstinence in order to keep their numbers steady, but after a year of this, followed by a series of small victories, self-control is lacking the following spring. See also: any comments section under an article connecting global warming to an ever-increasing human population. The tanuki are human-like also in their adoration of television and tempura, their disagreements over whether the solution to their problem should be a violent one or a peaceful one, and in the divisions between those who are able to transform and those who are not. I don’t know if it’s relevant to Japanese culture in the same way as British culture, but by the end of the movie I wondered whether the whole thing was actually meant to be a comment on class as much as on environmentalism. The tanuki who can transform become normal middle class humans: busy and tired with work and commuting, some of them selling out their old lands for easy money. Those who could never transform simply become urban wildlife: living fast, making lots of children and dying young. Additionally, there are the foxes (kitsune), who long ago gave up on their fellows who couldn’t transform, and moved wholesale into the human lifestyle, exploiting whoever they can, and clearly being depicted as suave and successful in their new lives. At the end, the main character, Shoukichi, sees his old friends frolicking gleefully under the moon on a golf course: after a long day in the human world, he sheds pieces of his human identity bit by bit, racing to join them in their carousing and singing. Concern for the tanuki is deflected by the voice-over, as we witness their success within the human world, and instead the movie ends with a reminder to think of the real animals, who can’t transform: rabbits, deer and others.

The movie is funny and surreal and, of course, looks utterly gorgeous. The characters aren’t deep enough that I ever felt it tugging hard on any heart-strings, but they’re a likeable bunch nonetheless. The blend of whimsy and brutality works fairly well; the animals, even with their anthropomorphic qualities, are made animal in a way I don’t recall seeing done so well since The Animals of Farthing Wood adaptation (though that certainly did do individualism and personality in more depth). Their lives are not bloodless and nor are the human lives they are at strife with. As with the sympathy shown to Lady Eboshi in Princess Mononoke, the humans living in the town nearby are shown to be as much at the mercy of the developers as the animals are: one says he’d happily leave only he can’t afford to live anywhere else. The workmen scared away by the tanuki are constantly replaced by more workmen. Maybe it’s ironic that the pressure already put on the environment by the human community ends up being added to by the foxes and raccoon dogs who transform to join their society.

Uncomprehendingly, a family that sees the tanuki close by their house marvel at the sight of them so near, and wish they could see them more often. There’s no answer or solution or happy victory at the end of Pom Poko: mingling folklore, environmentalism and a distrust of the distant bosses it remains contemporary, despite also feeling very early ’90s in some ways. The tanuki ultimately accept their fate with either the aggressive lack of compromise or the cheerful optimism with which they lived. It’s up to the viewer to take away a message from the film or to let the same thing keep happening.

Review: Okja (2017)

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This is a movie that can be taken in a couple of different ways. A lot of people have latched on to its message about industrial farming, using it as an argument for a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle — a view that can be seen as represented in the movie by the Animal Liberation Front, and its most extreme member, Silver, who starves himself out of fear that he’s contributing to exploitation even in agricultural farming systems. But even this hints that it’s also a story about human exploitation, from the way Mija’s grandfather lies to her, to K’s mis-translation of her wishes, to the way Mirano uses her love for Okja as a marketing tool. I absolutely don’t want to take away from the messages about how we treat animals, and about the toxicity of vast agri-business (TOPICAL GUYS), but to me this remained a very human movie. Maybe because it uses an invented creature — that is a fairly adorable pig-hippo-dog mash-up — to tug the heartstrings, maybe because the victory at the end was necessarily limited, or maybe just because the characters were written so well. After all, even within the ALF there are arguments about when ‘the cause’ should come first and when Mija’s wishes should come first.

Okja is a far sweeter tale than Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, but it’s not so sweet that it shies away from the utterly gruesome. Somehow it balances a host of different elements and slightly disorienting casting choices into a coherent, heartfelt whole. Wrangling together Mija’s idyllic, protected upbringing in a remote part of South Korea with the bustle of Seoul, the divided but devoted ALF, and the calculating marketing machine behind an American agri-business is no mean feat in itself, with the movie managing to give each character a distinctive personality and just enough of a backstory or motivation to bring depth to the story. Bong makes good use yet again of Tilda Swinton, who’s enjoyable as ever, but after her scene-stealing in Snowpiercer here she has the rug taken out from under her by Jake Gyllenhaal’s manic, egotistical nature documentary presenter. He’s somehow even more horrifying than the two-faced business-people: they lie about how their ‘super pigs’ are made because they know it’s the only way to sell the meat, but Gyllenhaal’s character, who made his career on the back of his professed love of animals, now turns most cruelly on them in order to cling on to the shreds of his pride. He’s been more effectively absorbed into Mirano than the top brass, it seems. But I think for me the strangest thing was Paul Dano’s turn as Jay, the leader of the ALF. All the cultish charisma and intensity he brought to There Will Be Blood is still there, but it’s softened just enough; nevertheless, the tension between the credo ‘do not harm’ and between the urge to do violence to various humans is, well, never that far from bubbling to the surface. It’s a really effective piece of casting, anyway, because with Jake Gyllenhaal trying to skew the movie’s balance in favour of his scenes, to Seo Hyun-Ahn’s quiet, stubborn heroine, Dano keeps the ALF parts equally strong.

Ultimately, it proves impossible to reconcile Mija’s simple desire to return home and not to join the underlying and ongoing struggle against the corporate giant, however. Mija gets her companion back again — traumatised but still trusting of Mija — and one little addition, but the abattoir remains; Mirano endures under stricter management; and only the sting after the credits gives you any idea of the continuing work against industrial agriculture. In this interview (warning, spoilers for Snowpiercer if you haven’t seen it), Bong talks about the underlying problem when it comes to environmental damage and animal cruelty being capitalism. It’s far easier to read this movie as a lament about the exploitative nature of multi-national corporations than as a direct call for veganism: Okja lives ‘free range’ with Mija and helps her harvest persimmon and fish, also contributing to the fertility of the ecosystem. Mija and her grandfather live remotely and grow what they need to sustain them, including chickens. But Mirano’s local contact Mundo must be almost a family friend, a trustworthy face familiar with the local terrain, and a bridge between foreign corporate interests and the perceived naïvité of the local farmers. It’s a naïvité that K in the ALF also exploits, telling Mija she should really learn some English after he mis-translates her wishes to the rest of the group. The movie isn’t just interested in animal rights, but in human rights, and in the colonial inheritance of globalisation.

There’s even more going on at a minor level, including themes of family that I don’t think I’ve quite managed to wrap my head around yet. Tilda Swinton’s Lucy is haunted by the legacy of her sister and her father, who were recognised as cruel and untrustworthy, even though they were still successful business-people; consequently, she is the dangerous mask of ‘friendly’ capitalism, terribly sad that she has to lie to her customers, but resigned to the fact that it is necessary. Mija, on the other hand, lost her parents at a very young age and latched onto Okja as her family — as Jay recognises when he gives her the choice of whether to help them or not. But her grandfather does not recognise the importance of Okja; an older, more conservative generation, he supposes that Mija has more of an attachment to the parents she can’t even remember, and thinks that the loss of a pet is just a part of a coming-of-age story where she can now move on and start thinking about meeting boys. I don’t think Mija’s story is a coming-of-age story at all though: if anything, it’s a rejection of it when she finally hands over what would traditionally have been a wedding gift in order to get her beloved Okja back.

Perhaps in the end there are a few too many balls in the air. Although the movie is a coherent whole, I’m not sure how much it needed Lucy’s personal motivation for her brand of friendly capitalism; it felt like a loose thread that was there to give Tilda Swinton more to sink her teeth into. The public, whose hearts and minds are the ones both the corporation and the ALF need to win over, are oddly absent, but there is too much awareness of the bigger picture for everything to focus in satisfactorily on Mija’s return home. It’s a victory, and it’s a happy victory, but it seems very small by the end. Nevertheless, I think this is a movie that will absolutely benefit from multiple viewings, with more emerging on each one.

Review: Pryor Convictions (Richard Pryor and Todd Gold)

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My main experience of Richard Pryor before reading this autobiography was ‘Live in Concert’, filmed in 1978. It’s a pretty damn perfect introduction to the variety and humanity found in his performances — though of course, do remember it was the ’70s. Elements, like the Chinese waiter with the stammer, might not have aged well; but a lot still stands either because it’s universal or because, more depressingly, it’s still accurate. There’s a lot in Pryor Convictions, and Other Life Sentences that’s universal too — and even more that’s uncomfortable reading but still holds true. The tension between these elements drives both the comedy and the tragedy or Pryor’s work and his life: no matter how many times he tries to come back to the idea that we’re all just human, just the same, he’s pulled back into the realities of inequality and racism that continue to dog society.

The book reads as a kind of therapy, set down and published during the 1990s as he struggled with the increasingly unpredictable effects of the MS he was diagnosed with in 1986. Although he seems to reach an acceptance of life by the end of the book, it’s never really clear how far he ever got with the occasional bouts of actual therapy: he’s self-aware, but remains fearful of confrontations throughout, not least when it comes to how his childhood informed his adult anxieties and addictions. This means it’s a book without very much closure: even the afterword in my edition, written by Jennifer Lee Pryor*, provides little of this kind of resolution. I’d been looking forward to hearing Jennifer’s side of things, too; Pryor is open about the violent, cruel side of their relationship with each other, offering neither excuses nor apologies, just context; but beyond his interpretation of Jennifer, all I got from her afterword was a sort of hardness amounting to protectiveness, but little more to help me understand her. But, to be fair, this isn’t her autobiography, it’s Pryor’s.

This is the kind of book where you’ll find yourself laughing along at an anecdote at the top of the page, but a couple of paragraphs down your jaw has clenched and you feel a bit sick, or wonder whether you should now feel guilty about laughing at what just came before. But, as Pryor makes clear, he was happy to use his own mishaps and mistakes for laughs from the beginning. Attention, any and all attention, is what he craves, from the moment his family laugh at him slipping in dog poo, to the fearful urge to be married at the time of his death — so there’ll be a woman to cry for him afterwards. Nevertheless, he lets a bit more context seep into his autobiography than he does his comedy — context and consequences. For instance, the ending to the skit about his relative’s Great Dane trying to hump his Shetland Pony: the dogs are left unsupervised in the backyard with the pony and they eat it, much to the horror of the housekeeper. It’s rather more gruesome than tragic, as in the vein of his self-gassing squirrel monkeys whose deaths do make it into his stand-up. Good comedy is as much about the pauses, the gaps, about knowing what to leave out, as well as knowing what to put in … but it’s not like life always ends on the punchline.

Above all, there is a good-natured, hopeful kindness to Pryor’s comedy and to his autobiography. Even the uncomfortable stereotype of the Chinese waiter I mentioned above isn’t meant to be nasty; he speaks of ex-wives and of the grotesques he grew up around (pimps and whores and thieves and fighters and more) with a fondness and a love that allows you to understand (or to come close to understanding) why he remains so loyal to people who had little use for him as a child, and seem to be primarily interested in his money once he grows up. There’s no judgement from Pryor — well, what precious little there is he reserves for the man who abuses him as a child, and even then Pryor chooses rather to present a faintly ludicrous scene, where the man later arrives at Pryor’s trailer asking for an autograph for his son. Pryor is torn between terror at seeing him again, and hope that the man’s child isn’t now suffering at his hands, but he simply signs the autograph and leaves it at that. He presents the scene, but he doesn’t delve into its depths: they’re there for his audience to see, should they wish to look.

This might again be why Jennifer Lee’s afterword is so jarring: she (rightly, it seems) has no patience for the hangers-on (‘locusts’) she finds taking advantage of him when she returns to him in 2001. She judges them plenty, and it highlights the fact that Pryor doesn’t mention this aspect of his care (there may be a bit of a time lapse though), reminding us again of the ever-present need to be wantedlovedlaughed at; to avoid confrontation at all costs. The closest his own words ever come to such bitterness is the way he talks about his time working on the script of Blazin’ Saddles, and you can tell it always rankled that he suspected Mel Brookes didn’t fight for him to stay involved once filming started.

It might sound weird to say that Pryor avoids confrontation, given his reputation as a brash, sweary and dangerous performer. But I’m thinking particularly of his reaction when he received a backlash for the realisation he came to after a trip to Kenya. How shocked he was to find out that plenty of people could not see things from his point of view, and how they claimed his identity as public property, not only his to define how he wanted any more. So he sank into depression and stayed away from the limelight for a while rather than engaging further. You might say the divorces amount to the same; rather than look too closely at himself, he moved on to the next relationship. See also: substance abuse. So rather than scrutinising his life up-close, he side-eyes it through the autobiography as he does through his comedy.

Throughout parts of this autobiography I found myself wondering what sort of influence it might have had on Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking, which also began life as stand-up-comedy-cum-therapy. Her love for her dysfunctional family, her recurring addictions and her underlying insecurities all echo themes in Pryor’s autobiography. But then maybe they’re both just products of America in the third quarter of the twentieth century.

In any case, Pryor’s whip-smart intellect shines through it all, and he’s justly proud of the hard graft he put into his comedy. This book is eye-opening but not sensationalist, socially aware and angry, but not preachy. The success with which Pryor projects himself into other characters in his routines, into people of all kinds, as well as different kinds of animals, speaks to his ability to turn a situation around and empathise with others — at least when he has the distance to do so. No matter the proximity or the distance to his life(style), every reader should find something to empathise with in this book then, just as in his comedy.

*His fourth wife, 1981–2; they remarried in 2001 and she remained with him until his death in 2005.

Review: Spider-man — Homecoming (cinema)

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Well, that’s Blitzkrieg Bop stuck in my head forever now.

I was pretty ambivalent about seeing this beforehand, but I need to get better use of my cinema membership, and I want my local cinema to be used more so it stays open, so… it appealed more than Cars 3. And it bucked the trend regarding my waning interest in Spider-man movies! I only saw Sam Raimi’s 1 and 2; one Amazing Spider-man was enough for me; and despite everyone telling me he was the best thing in Civil War *whispers* I still haven’t see Civil War. But I’m actually quite keen to now, which is an outcome that way outstrips my expectations for how much I’d enjoy this movie.

Right, sorry, enthusing, yes!

The first sentence was my way of saying this has a great soundtrack. I don’t need to reiterate what everyone’s already said about Peter Parker actually being allowed to be a kid in this, but it does make the movie much more refreshing, not least when it manages to combine his unpopularity with a believable level of nerdiness. It was about time we ditched the skateboard, frankly. And it probably helps that we don’t need to see his transformation from unhealthy super-nerd to … super-nerd with a six-pack. Nuance — shock! — is brought to the dynamics of the American high school (well, the academically prestigious New York high school anyway), because the love interest is also a nerd; the weird outsider is a nerd; the bully is a nerd … and I’m getting sick of the word ‘nerd’. Nerds are great anyway. Basically, Spider-man — Homecoming builds on some of the successful alterations of The Amazing Spider-man but casts a guy who can plausibly play a teenager in the main role. And — praise be — Uncle Ben didn’t even need to die onscreen or within the narrative timeline. Not even the man with the nice sandwiches needed to die!

In fact, no one died!

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The Day Today – in 1975, no one died…

I really wanted Michael Keaton as Tooms not to be Michael Keaton, but to be Doug Hutchison, who played Eugene Tooms in two of the creepiest X Files episodes ever. Anyway, I guess Michael Keaton was pretty good. His Tooms was the kind of antagonist you’d expect from this movie: a cross between the archetypal Spider-man antagonist (surrogate dad figure, is confused about his priorities, thinks he’s just helping his family but is in love with Mad Science) and the archetypal Iron Man antagonist (Tony Stark killed his family/dog/job/blew up his country/stole his science etc etc). It was a combination that worked surprisingly well, and Spider-man — Homecoming isn’t here for any of your usual Spider-man déonouement clichés: the set of scenes in which Peter and then Tooms recognise who the other is is done brilliantly. The atmosphere is claustrophobic from the moment Tooms opens the front door, letting us suspect (along with Peter) for a good while that this is a set-up, that Tooms has restrained the house’s occupants and brought Peter into a trap. But then a supremely awkward feeling takes over as it’s revealed to be the cozy family home of the villain. And normally this kind of thing is done in such a tired way that it really bugs me, but Tooms’ daughter* and wife keep the lightness of domesticity about it, particularly in the car journey where teenage exasperation meets sinister scheming. In the end, Peter’s not made to have the weight of anyone’s death on his hands, and complications are avoided because Tooms’ family moves away, with no suspicion of Peter’s involvement.

Avoiding creepiness as a male is a recurring theme in the movie too, and Peter treads a believable line between longing after Liz but not wanting to be a jerk about it. From Stark’s early ‘wait, that was creepy, wasn’t it?’ — his usual brand of admitting problematic behaviour out loud as though all he has to do to make amends is acknowledge that it’s wrong, without doing anything about it — to Peter’s baffled rejection of ‘suit lady’ Karen’s advice, Peter Parker shows he’s a hero without a sense of entitlement. Marissa Tomei’s Aunt May is also a refreshing take on the character, both relaxed in a New Age-y kind of way, and yet clearly worried about her ability to single-handedly raise a teenage boy. The scene where she and Peter try to figure out how to tie a Windsor knot using Youtube says it all, really.

Of the other MCU movies the one it most resembles is Ant Man (which I also thoroughly enjoyed). It skirts the big stuff, doing another nice job of showing the fall-out of the Chitauri invasion and, like Ant Man, it’s a story in which the new hero, manipulated by an older hero (even one with good intentions) needs to learn how to define themselves and to stand up for their own position in, or around, the team. Peter starts off on the outside, longing to be on the inside, but this is about the Avengers, not about who he hangs out with at school. Along the way he misses out on the kind of formative teenage experiences that previous Spider-men have pined over, and the ‘tough love’ that Stark tries to claim as the making of him as an Avenger is ultimately the making of him as a more rounded, normal teenager. That Stark still doesn’t understand what it entails to ‘be better than [him]’ is clear from the scene in which Peter surprises him, Happy and even Pepper.

So, a feel-good Spider-man movie; a Spider-man who longs for something, but who is mature enough to realise when it’s handed to him that it’s not something he needs right now. For his own sake, it can wait. There’s no great self-sacrificing moment where he must interalise his angst in order to protect a Gwen or an MJ; by the end of the movie quite a few people know his secret and he’s much better off for it.

*Referring to her as this to avoid getting too spoilery.