‘Pride’: Morality, Politics, Unity

Morality and politics are frequently intertwined. Political debate and campaigning can revolve around questions about what is right or wrong, but are politics, government and legislation not more practical, more about opportunities, protection from harm and facilities available for citizens? This has always seemed to me the function of government – provide for citizens’ practical needs, rather than our moral wellbeing, because we can take care of that ourselves.

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Matthew Warchus’ brilliant sociological comedy drama Pride draws a sharp distinction between morality and politics and the value of this separation. Based on a true story, the film follows a newly-formed group, Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, who encounter great hostility from the miners they support during the Miners Strike of 1984. The reason for this hostility is homophobia: some among the Welsh mining community view the homosexuals as morally perverse and object to their assistance and presence. The LGSM support the miners as a fellow group oppressed by the government and the support they provide is purely financial, ultimately paying for the miners’ new van, an essential resource for the strike. Here is the result of political activism – money used for practical support of citizens’ needs. Despite the essential resource this money provides for, the miners union ultimately rejects the continued assistance of the LGSM, the conservative among them refusing to waver in their conviction that homosexuals are perverts, despite the benefit that LGSM brings for the miners. This moral position leads to the partnership between the miners union and LGSM being dissolved, and it is a truly tragic moment to see prejudice and inflexibility triumph over openness and practicality.

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Despite this dissolution, friendships remain between the miners and gay activists, reappearing at the film’s triumphant climax at Gay Pride 1985. I have written before about the novelty of crying at films, and Pride provided another new experience: crying with joy at a film. Politically, I am left wing so this film was always going to agree with me, but political films need to integrate their politics into an engaging story. Pride is engaging on multiple levels: it has rounded, likeable characters with personal and political struggles; it tells an important historical story (simplified and fictionalised for narrative purposes but still raising awareness); it balances humour and pathos in equal measure. Best of all, it uses its politics for dramatic effect, so while the audience is being entertained they are also receiving a political lesson. This lesson is the benefit of practical politics and focusing upon benefits rather than morality. The moral inflexibility of some of the miners has no relevance to the practicalities of the strike, but the unity between the miners and the gays has great impact for both groups.

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Pride’s central theme is the coming together of different people. In a crucial scene, activist leader Mark Ashton (Ben Schnetzer) explains to miner Dai (Paddy Considine) why he supports the Miners’ Strike: “It’s just logical”. Mark’s motivation is the promotion of people’s rights, be they workers, homosexuals, women, people of colour, or any group whose rights are restricted. Ideology need not be a barrier to unity – all those with restricted rights can stand together. The final march through Westminster not only demonstrates unity but also its effect, supertext informing the viewer of a practical, legislative difference made possible by the unity between LGSM and the NUM. Pride expresses the practical impact of political activism, as well as being an uplifting, engaging, humorous and very moving story, making it one of the best films of the year.

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A Most Wanted Man

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Spy thrillers fall into two basic categories – field and non-field. James Bond and Jason Bourne fall into the former category and are largely action thrillers, with copious amounts of running, jumping, fighting and shooting.

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The other type is best represented by Harry Palmer and George Smiley, and tends to be much quieter with emphasis on talking, analysis and planning.

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Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man falls firmly into the latter category, as a German Intelligence team headed by Günther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in the last role he completed before his tragic and untimely death) analyse, talk and plan how to neutralise terrorists in Hamburg. The film’s great strength is the detail with which it portrays the everyday work of espionage – the patience, the plethora of information that must be sifted for analysis, the clandestine meetings in public places and, above all, the relationships between spies as well as between agents and informants. Earlier in the year, I criticised Captain America: The Winter Soldier for its failure to successfully marry its conspiracy and superhero elements, the film feeling like two halves with insufficient connection. A Most Wanted Man does not have to include an action element – there are two action set pieces that are well-handled but central to the drama – but it does a fine job of blending old-fashioned legwork and intrigue with contemporary concerns and technology. Post-9/11 espionage drama from Body of Lies to 24 is often in thraldom to the high tech gadgetry of counter-terrorism, but the computers, mobile phones and surveillance cameras of A Most Wanted Man are contextual rather than fetishized. The emphasis is upon the relationships that are key to spying – Bachmann’s team convinces as a committed but affable group of co-workers; the relationships between Bachmann and his informants, including Jamal (Mehdi Dehbi), Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe) and Annabell Richter (Rachel McAdams) are fraught but engaging, and it is the interplay of these relationships that leads to a nerve-shredding climax based around signatures on bank transfers. To describe a film as following relationships and culminating in financial transactions sounds more like a domestic drama than a spy thriller, but A Most Wanted Man succeeds in dramatizing these seemingly banal features into a genuinely gripping, as well as grim and dour, portrayal of contemporary espionage.

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Guilty Pleasure / Noble Sin

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I have always found the concept of ‘guilty pleasure’ rather strange, because I find guilt and pleasure to be mutually exclusive feelings. If I feel guilty, there is no pleasure, so if I start to feel guilty about something pleasurable the pleasure is removed. That’s just me, because for plenty of others the two feelings are clearly compatible. As far as films are concerned (I write about those, in case you didn’t know), I used to refer to Last Man Standing as a guilty pleasure and then realised I felt no guilt about it (nor should I). In discussions, the following films have been described as guilty pleasures:

Sharknado

Mega-Shark VS Giant Octopus

Dinoshark

The Room

The Devil Wears Prada

The Hangover

Predator

Total Recall

Conan The Barbarian

Sleepless in Seattle

Legally Blonde and Legally Blonde 2

Cutie Honey

Commando (that came up a lot)

Battle: Los Angeles

Stardust

Love Actually

A Knight’s Tale

Frozen

Independence Day

Battleship

I Spit On Your Grave

The dictionary definition of ‘guilty pleasure’ is ‘something, such as a film, television programme, or piece of music, that one enjoys despite feeling that it is NOT generally held in high regard’. Therefore, if you regard something as a guilty pleasure then there is a belief (which you may or may not share) that there is something wrong or bad about the text in question, so you feel guilty about taking pleasure in it, and furthermore this guilt can itself be pleasurable. Exactly what makes these films guilty pleasures will vary, depending on one’s perception of what they ‘should’ like or admire.

Sin City (2005) and Sin City: A Dame To Kill For (2014) (hereafter referred to jointly as Sin City), is a franchise that could be considered a guilty pleasure because of its stylish design but (apparent) lack of substance. When Sin City premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2005, critics described it as stylish but empty, and one review endorsed the second film with the caveat that ‘the stories are still about as deep as a shallow grave’. However, Sin City also highlights pleasure directly associated with its sinful characters and actions. ‘Sin’ is obviously a key element in Sin City, demonstrated both by its title (a bastardisation of its setting, Basin City) and creator Frank Miller’s emphasis upon ‘sinful’ behaviour including sex, violence, corruption, gambling, drinking, smoking, etc. All the major characters throw themselves (in some cases, literally) into ‘sinful’ situations, and the reader/viewer is invited along for the ride. The invitation is apparent in the graphic novels through constant alignment with particular ‘sinful’ anti-heroes whose internal monologues pervade the panels and gutters of the book, allowing the reader direct access to the protagonists’ views. This monologue becomes voiceover in the film adaptations, with the authority and alignment between viewer and character that this particular device creates, even though the alignment is with characters that embrace violence and vice with gleeful abandon. Glee is key, as Sin City takes pleasure in its abandonment of ‘polite’, ‘proper’ behaviour. This pleasure is apparent in the text’s excessive violence and sexuality: practically every woman appears in a state of undress (inviting obvious charges of sexism, to which I shall return); injuries are extremely gory; characters perform superhuman violent feats, such as crashing through the windscreens of moving cars, leaping off tall buildings without harm and (literally) cutting people to pieces.

Violent entertainment has been pleasurable for centuries, not simply because we are bloodthirsty but also because it is safe. Much like a rollercoaster, thrills on the screen are exhilarating but there is no risk of us suffering physical injury. But the excessive ‘sin’ of Sin City goes further, inviting not only pleasure but also something noble about in the abandonment of social niceties. Crucially, these are contemporary social niceties, the niceties of modernity and western capitalism. Although the setting, stylistics, hard-boiled dialogue and constant voiceover owe much to film noir, there are more primitive yet classical themes running through the streets of Sin City. The character Marv (Mickey Rourke) espouses a desire for violent revenge that would not be out of place in Jacobean tragedy, even if the vocabulary and syntax are distant from Shakespeare or Webster:

I’ll stare the bastard in the face as he screams to God, and I’ll laugh harder when he whimpers like a baby. And when his eyes go dead, the hell I send him to will seem like heaven after what I’ve done to him.

Marv is a recurring character across the various stories of Sin City, both on page and screen, and the narrative’s alignment with him encourages audience identification with his murderous intentions and deeds.

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Similar alignment is made with Dwight McCarthy (Clive Owen), who takes significant pleasure in ‘The Big Fat Kill’ along with Gail (Rosario Dawson) and the rest of the girls (prostitutes) of Old Town, while in ‘A Dame To Kill For’ Dwight (now played by Josh Brolin) has no qualms about murdering Damien Lord (Martin Csokas) in order to save Damien’s wife Ava (Eva Green). Similarly, John Hartigan (Bruce Willis) murders several gangsters in defence of Nancy Callaghan (Jessica Alba), including Roark Jnr (Nick Stahl), the titular ‘That Yellow Bastard’. The anti-heroes of Sin City lack restraint but not honour or compassion, and their attitudes towards women reinforce this. One review describes Sin City as ‘an unreconstructed, man’s man’s world where the guys are either sickly or borderline sicko and the girls are classic noir femme fatales – – both in distress and deadly. Getting sniffy about sexism in Sin City would be like complaining about spaceships in Star Wars. The sexism is not just (un)dressing but integral to the old-fashioned milieu of the protagonists and their fictional world – anti-heroes driven by antiquated chivalry in a world without honour. Hartigan, Dwight and Marv are knights out-of-time – Dwight pronounces Marv as being ‘born in the wrong century’ while Marv describes his quest of vengeance for Goldie’s death as ‘the bad old days’. A scene in which Marv learns that his adversary is Cardinal Roark (Rutger Hauer) features a giant statue of Roark, reminiscent of towering effigies in The Lord of the Rings (2001-03) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). This iconography echoes epics, as does the casting of Clive Owen, who previously starred as the eponymous knight/monarch in King Arthur (2004). This is the noble sin of Sin City – the anti-heroes are modern day knights who defy law and convention in pursuit of their own sense of what is right. Furthermore, their adversaries are far worse – child molesters, cannibals and corrupt politicians who use murder and intimidation to maintain their power. But although Sin City takes glee in this medieval nobility, it does not simply valorise it.

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Dwight’s devotion to Ava in ‘A Dame To Kill For’ is foolish and ultimately misguided, but he demonstrates similar devotion when he pursues Jackie Boy (Benicio Del Toro) and his gang so as to stop them hurting anyone. As it turns out, the ladies of Old Town don’t need his help, because they are more than capable of handling a carload of drunken louts. Although Dwight proves helpful later on, the prostitutes clearly do not need male protection, which highlights the antiquated nature of the men’s attitude. Similarly, Nancy only gets into danger when Hartigan comes to save her – had he stayed in prison Roark would never have found her. In order to protect her, Hartigan ultimately kills himself, and the subsequent story features Nancy going steadily mad, disfiguring herself and risking life and limb to take revenge on Senator Roark (Powers Boothe). As fun as ‘sinful’ behaviour may be, the cost is also on display, emphasised by the gory injuries and eventual deaths of Hartigan and Marv. Nor are these deaths resisted – Hartigan describes his death for Nancy’s life as a ‘fair trade’, while at his execution Marv says ‘it’s about damn time’. While these deaths are heroic sacrifices and pyrrhic victories, the demise of the anti-heroes reinforces the sense that they are out of time and their endeavours absurd. But that is part of the fun – in an era with no place for chivalry, what is sinful is also noble, demonstrating the lack of distinction between the two. The tagline for the second film is THERE IS NO JUSTICE WITHOUT SIN, and how true this is. The ‘sinful’ activities of Frank Miller’s characters are also acts of justice, highlighting the guilty pleasure of noble sin.

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In Order of Disappearance

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Snow, more snow, blood, chortle, snow, blood, snow, snow, chortle, blood, bang, bang, bang, blood, snow, chortle. That is a summary of In Order of Disappearance, Hans Petter Moland’s pitch black comedy about bereaved father Nils (Stellan Skarsgård), who takes on organised crime in Oslo in revenge for his son’s death. The setting and dark humour are reminiscent of the Coen Brothers’ Fargo, as events spiral out of control and Nils’ quest for vengeance provokes a full scale gang war. The balance between laughs and thrills is not always maintained, as the increasing number of deaths (all presented with title cards and appropriate religious symbols) spills into absurdity. But Skarsgård remains a likeable presence throughout, his downtrodden everyman maintaining a bewildered yet dogged determination.

Lucy

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Lucy dramatises the title of a film from earlier this year that also featured Morgan Freeman explaining pseudo-science – Transcendence. Lucy has already been more commercially successful than Wally Pfister’s film (over $270 million at the time of writing as opposed to $103 million for Transcendence’s entire theatrical run), and Luc Besson’s film could easily have been called Transcendence while Pfister’s could have been called Singularity (which might also work as a title for the forthcoming Interstellar, but I digress). Lucy is effectively a superhero film, the digital sequences that display the effect of a mysterious blue powder on the titular protagonist (Scarlett Johansson) are reminiscent of scenes in Blade (1998), Spider-Man (2002), Hulk (2003) and Daredevil (2003). But rather than emphasising spectacular action (which does appear but in a subordinate role), Lucy’s focus is on higher states of consciousness, increased intelligence and alternative perceptions of reality. The character Lucy transcends the film’s starting point for humanity and the film builds steadily towards transcendence with a focus upon heightened experience. Besson does not always strike the right balance between his (completely fictional) science and the spectacle of elevated experience, but Johansson is an engaging and reliable presence who carries the film for its brief running time. 

The Keeper of Lost Causes

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The Keeper of Lost Causes is part police procedural and part psycho-thriller. The division between the two is also the division between the crime and the detectives. While it would reductive to compare any crime film from Scandinavia to The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, The Keeper of Lost Causes shares screenwriter Nikolaj Arcel with the earlier film so similarities are not coincidental. Both films involve investigations of cold cases, both feature imprisonment and long held grudges, as well as chilling portrayals of inhumanity. But whereas Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy featured unconventional protagonists, Jussi Adler-Olsen’s novel (the first in his Department Q series) uses the trusty (and perhaps clichéd) device of two mismatched cops, one an experienced but disgraced loose cannon, Carl Mørck (Nikolaj Lie Kaas, who bears a striking resemblance to Dominic West), the other an eager rookie very much in love with the job, Assad (Fares Fares). The different races of Carl and Assad adds to their mismatch, and an interesting feature of the film is its willingness to include institutionalised racism – Carl at first mistrusts his new partner who has only been assigned menial tasks in the police department, implicitly because of his race. Racism remains an issue that Assad must deal with and Carl’s willingness to work past his own prejudice allows for the characters and their relationship to develop.

The Keeper of Lost Causes photo 01 by Christian Geisnaes

 

This relationship as well as the investigation is handled in a down-to-earth, gritty manner, although DOP Eric Kress still finds beauty in the locations. Director Mikkel Nørgaard only partially succeeds in marrying the realism of the police investigation with the clichés of the genre as well as the perversity of the crime, and there is perhaps too much information made available to the viewer that the cops do not have, which removes much sense of mystery. However, the film is at its best in generating empathy for the suffering of the kidnap victim, Merete Lynggaard (Sonja Richter), whose ghastly situation is presented in a palatable and compelling way. Pleasingly, the film eschews a sexual dimension for her plight, not linking it to her gender but making it a twisted case of revenge. Equal opportunities psychos are in short supply so it is refreshing to see one who does not simply hate on women. This empathetic presentation helps to mitigate the film’s flaws, resulting in a grim and enthralling thriller that keeps its feet on the ground and its face in depravity.

The Keeper of Lost Causes photo 02 by Christian Geisnaes

Guardians of the Galaxy

Marvel are one of the few studios whose brand is itself a selling point. Whereas punters are unlikely to see the next Warner Bros. or Twentieth Century Fox film purely on the basis of the studio, Marvel gives a strong impression of what to expect. Furthermore, Marvel’s commitment to a single mega-franchise aids the consistency of their productions, which have maintained tone and continuity across ten films, a TV series and several Marvel One Shots.

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Despite Marvel’s continued success, Guardians of the Galaxy is a tough sell. None of the characters have the cultural familiarity of Captain America or the Hulk, and none of the stars have the proven draw of Robert Downey, Jnr. The setting is outside that of previous Marvel instalments, a cosmic adventure with only the opening sequence taking place on Earth. Thor and Thor: The Dark World featured other realms and The Avengers an inter-dimensional portal, but the narratives always centre on Earth. In GOTG, multiple alien planets, cultures, technologies and histories need to be introduced, as well as an ensemble cast of fairly wacky characters. These include human thief Peter ‘Star Lord’ Quill (Chris Pratt), assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana, looking as accomplished in green as she did in blue), Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), cybernetic experiment Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and sentient tree Groot (Vin Diesel). Compared to these oddballs, the Avengers look almost pedestrian.

Despite the inherent weirdness, co-writer/director James Gunn and co-writer Nicole Perlman opt for recognisably human characteristics and cultures. This may be conservative and unimaginative, but it ensures that the viewer is not confused about the societies of Xandar and the Kree, or the villainous motivations of Ronan the Accuser (Luke Pace), which are established early on and also create a link with The Avengers. Our bunch of misfit heroes – or ‘A-holes’, as one law officer describes them – are efficiently established and their relationships develop naturally from antagonistic to mutually beneficial to comradeship.

These relationships form the heart of the film, as the interplay between the Guardians is warm and very funny. Peter is a cheeky chappie who recognises the humanity in his companions, while Gamora and Drax gradually warm to the rest of the team (pleasingly, the only suggestion of romance between Peter and Gamora is quickly abandoned). A particular source of amusement is Drax’s non-comprehension of metaphors and symbols, as his species are very literal. The relationship between Rocket and Groot is quite moving – Diesel manages to express a significant range of emotions through different enunciations of ‘I am Groot’ while Rocket delivers as many barrages with words as he does with weapons. The bickering between these two is very funny but also betrays a deep affection, culminating in a tear-jerking climax.

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Humour may be the film’s strongest element. While the production design of the various alien worlds and creatures is impressive and the action sequences spectacular, the abiding memory of the film is amusement, the filmmakers fully embracing the film’s absurdity and having a lot of fun with it. Thankfully, the film is well-disciplined enough to avoid self-indulgence and strikes the perfect balance between horse-play, character and action, often all at the same time such as in the climactic dance-off (no, really). Guardians of the Galaxy is more reminiscent of Star Wars or Serenity than The Avengers, but it is still a recognisably Marvel movie with its attention to detail, warmly rounded characters and laugh-out-loud humour.

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