Promising Young Woman, disjointed muddled film

Cinemas have been eerily abandoned for over a year now, and drifting past them through deserted city centres felt at times like finding yourself in a scene from The Omega Man. So it’s perfectly understandable that we should all latch on to some of the new releases when they do surface and greet them much as a man in a desert might welcome of bottle of bog standard bottled water. None the less, the hoopla that Promising Young Woman generated was somewhat baffling.

Basically, it harks back to those late 80s, early 90s zeitgeist movies that Hollywood periodically gravitates towards. The title of course references Single White Female, but what it feels like more than anything else is a riposte to Basic Instinct and Fatal Attraction. Essentially, it’s a revenge film for the Me Too era. And its problems are twofold.

First, is it a revenge thriller? There’s a visual joke early on around a hot dog which is genuinely funny and plays on the question of what exactly it was that our heroine did to her previous night’s ‘victim’. But that ambiguity is never resolved. 

Is this a good old-fashioned slasher movie, and are we looking at a female answer to Charles Bronson in Death Wish? Or is our heroine a complex, moral character carefully carrying out a precisely calibrated plan?

Some have welcomed this ambiguity as further evidence of the film’s charms. But all it means is that we’re never sure of what kind of person she is, that is to say what type of character she represents, and therefore what kind of film it is that we’re watching. This confusion is exacerbated by the second of its problems. Its structure.

Todd Solondz’ Happiness.

Effectively, it’s three films in one. It begins as what seems to be some sort of a revenge thriller come slasher movie. Then it morphs into an impeccably crafted, very left of field indie, personal drama. The scenes inside the house with her parents are wonderfully claustrophobic and feel like something out of a Todd Solondz film. 

But suddenly, about half way through, it lurches into rom com territory, as the Carey Mulligan character hooks up with an ex class mate, played by Bo Burnham. But about 20 minutes into this, it reverts back to revenge thriller mode.

The problem is, Bo Burnham’s performance is so impressively naturalistic and so winningly believable in the rom com section that the rest of the film’s parts are thrown completely out of kilter. Mulligan of course, it almost goes without saying, is wonderful throughout. She adopts a studied neutrality which manages to meld perfectly with each of the film’s three modes. 

But the sections with her parents, who are quietly mannered and off, grate horribly with the revenge movie sections, in which the villains, and for villains read males, are painted with such broad brushstrokes and are all so one dimensional they’re little more than cartoon caricatures. Which would have been fine if the whole film had been like that. But it’s not. 

Mulligan and Burnham are foot perfect but they’ve wandered into a whole new film.

When, for instance, you meet those sorts of moustache-twiddling villains in the likes of Killing Eve, you either sit back and accept them or you turn over to something else. That they should surface here makes compete sense as this is the feature debut of Emerald Fennell, who was one of Killing Eve’s principle writers and its show runner for season 2. 

The problem with Promising Young Woman is that Fennell was unable to decide on exactly what kind of film she wanted it to be. So unfortunately, it just ended up as a mess. A very well made mess, with a pair of stand-out performances. But a mess none the less.

You can see the trailer for Promising Young Woman here.

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Waldemar Januszczak and the curse of the Sistine Chapel

Waldamar Januszczak.

The finest writers on art, at least in the English language, are Peter Schjeldahl and Waldemar Januszczak. And they straddle the Atlantic like two colossal light houses, the former from somewhere in Williamsburg where he files his celestial copy for the New Yorker, the latter from his muse in Chelsea where he writes a weekly column for the Culture section of the Sunday Times.

If you haven’t seen this already, treat yourself.

Januszczak has gone on to forge an almost flawless career as a documentary film and series maker where he focuses principally on late 19th century Paris. But he’s equally adept and comfortable on the Renaissance and everything in between. All of those movements that led from there to the birth of Modernism as it burst forth from Paris at the turn of the 20th century.

He is both deeply knowledgeable and consistently illuminating on everything from Picasso – on whom he teamed up with the peerless john Richardson – Gauguin, Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec, to the Baroque, sculpture and the birth of Impressionism, reviewed by me earlier here. But that ‘flawless’ is stained by that ‘almost’ courtesy of an albeit understandable fixation with the Sistine Chapel.

In 2011, he made his one and only dud, The Michelangelo Code: Secrets of the Sistine Chapel, which was recently screened again on the excellent Sky Arts. All of its parts are as engaging and enlightening as you’d have hoped and expected. All of that research into the Medici popes, the Franciscans and his meticulous reading of the bible and the scriptures was well worth the considerable effort it obviously cost him.

But none of it adds up to anything. There’s no there, there. He plainly sees some sort of connection between the Branch Davidians and that madness at Waco, Texas, and the chapel’s ceiling. But if anyone can tell me after watching it what that connection is, I’ll send you on a bar of chocolate and a can of fizzy pop.

He’s wonderful company and a glorious guide, and I am more than happy to have sat through the thing for the second time. But for the life of me, I’ve still no idea what any of it was actually about.

If you’re unfamiliar with Januszczak, then you should search out some of his articles, any of them. His criticism is absolutely bullet proof. And if you can, watch any of his documentaries. But you should probably treat The Michelangelo Code as something of a bonus track, a deleted scene. Strictly for aficionados only.

You can see the tailer for the Michelangelo Code here.

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Pulp Fiction, opiate for the masses

Pulp Fiction.

Pulp Fiction is the perfect pick-me-up movie. It’s ideal for dipping in and out of during a pandemic as an alternative to chocolate and alcohol. What it isn’t though is a film, never mind one of any discernible depth.

It’s inhabited by movie types played by actors famous for the movie types they’ve previously played. And it’s written and directed by someone steeped in popular culture, and specifically in Hollywood culture. 

So it’s a glorious playground for any number of layered and endlessly self-referential games, as characters and actors alike, and of course the writer director, play and act against type. The way Tarantino achieves this is by dispensing with story. 

With no protagonist, and hence no one to root for, there’s no goal, no heart’s desire for us to desperately hope that our hero will one day attain. With no story to worry about, Tarantino is free to appear to play with the conventions of storytelling. It’s extremely clever, consistently funny and endlessly knowing. What it isn’t though is ironic.

Dramatic irony arises when we know more about what the character is doing than he does. And it results in a reversal that profoundly affects the fate of the character, and acts as a judgement on the decisions he took to produce that reversal. But it only arises when you care about what happens to the character. And that only happens when your characters are part of a story that we the viewer can become involved in. 

‘The Bonnie Situation’, the one dud, is a thank you to Harvey Keitel, and an excuse to allow the director some unwarranted screen time.

If there’s no story, you’re never going to care about what happens to any of the characters. When, for instance Travolta’s character gets killed, it’s amusing rather than tragic. And that, crucially, is not a spoiler. Because knowing it won’t in any way spoil your enjoyment of the movie.

Yes it’s also shocking. But not emotionally shocking, intellectually so. You’re shocked, in an impressed way, that Tarantino should have broken the rules of drama so cleverly. But he hasn’t broken any of those rules because it’s not an actual drama. It’s a collection of seven, free standing sections, that are made up of various distinct and independent scenes that you can dip in and out of, depending on your mood. 

John Travolta and Samuel L Jackson.

And it’s precisely that absence of emotional depth that makes it so instantaneously enjoyable. As Adorno complained of horoscopes, it asks nothing of you. And provides you thereby with an immediate, uncomplicated hit.

It’s like listening to a greatest hits album. You know that the pleasure that that affords is a guilty one. That instead of investing the necessary care and consideration that an album proper requires, you’re cherry-picking the songs that were the most accessible, that is to say the hits. And deep down, you know who greatest hits albums are aimed at; teenagers.

As a grown-up, you know that all clichés are true and that you only get out of life what you put into it. And that that is as true of art as it is of everything else. The greater the work, the more work it requires of you. 

But, for whatever reason, right now you just don’t have the energy. What you need this second is release. An uncomplicated, undemanding, instantaneous hit. So you turn to cinema’s perennial teenager; Tarantino.

So many memorable scenes, so little story.

Paradoxically, and indeed ironically, what Pulp Fiction anticipates and opens the door to is the very thing it’s celebrated as having been the last stand against. It presents a flat, comic book universe peopled by types, that move in and out of interchangeable and free-standing scenes that make absolutely no emotional demands on the viewer whatsoever.

Pulp Fiction wasn’t that last of an era when grown-ups were catered for at the cinema. It was the beginning of that era’s end. It’s a teenager’s film, and a very male one at that, for anyone who finds themselves momentarily in a teenage frame of mind. 

You can see the trailer for Pulp Fiction here.

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The Farthest, one more gem from BBC 4’s Storyville

The Farthest.

When the accomplished film editor Emer Reynolds first moved up to Dublin from Tipperary it was to study science at Trinity College. But she was soon distracted by and diverted to the world of film. 

So she was the perfect candidate to tackle what is one of the most extraordinary stories of the 20th century. Combining as she does a passion for science and a wealth of knowledge about the craft of storytelling. The resulting film, The Farthest, is a joy and a wonder to behold.

Saturn, from Voyager 1.

One of the conundrums posed by space travel is; the further you go, the more fuel you need to take on board. The more fuel you take, the bigger the space craft needed. And the bigger the vehicle, the more fuel you need. And so on.

But in the late 60s, the boffins at Nasa realised that, once you’d mastered the fiendishly complex maths, you could send a space craft to a planet on exactly the right trajectory so that it ends up going into orbit around it.

And you could then use that orbit to ‘sling-shot’ the space craft on to wherever it was that you wanted it to then go. Once you got it into that initial orbit, there wouldn’t be any need for any additional fuel.

Jupiter, from Voyager 1.

And that furthermore, for the one and only time in around 176 years, the four main gas giants of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune would be in alignment between 1975 and 77.

So they set about designing and building what would become Voyager 1 and 2, which were both launched in the late summer of 1977. And what had previously been seen as but four blurry dots were suddenly transformed into glorious, detailed technicolour.

The Farthest has three components. First and foremost, it’s the nuts and bolts story of the building and launching of the two space craft, as recounted by the individuals involved, a remarkably large number of whom spoke to Reynolds and her crew. 

The extraordinary photo of the solar system that Carl Sagan got Voyager 1 to take before moving off for the edge of the solar system. That less then 1 pixel dot is us.

Then, it’s the story of the fabled golden record that Carl Sagan oversaw the creation of, and which each vehicle carries a copy of. This was and is an audio-visual record of life here on Earth, should any intelligent life come into contact with them at any point in the future.

And finally, it’s a gentle musing on the nature of humanity. Because, apart from anything else, when we are all dead and buried and all signs of what was once life here on this planet have long since disappeared, the only remnant of our existence will be carried on those two golden discs.

The Farthest is everything you’d want in a documentary. Thrilling, uplifting and utterly compelling, you can see the trailer for The Farthest here:

And the full doc (which 90 minutes despite this recording clocking at 120) is available here:

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2 of 2020’s best albums: Sault’s Untitled, (Black Is) and Untitled, (Rise)

album cover for Untitled Black Is
Sault’s Untitled, (Black Is)

No sooner had artists from all walks of life just about managed to persuade the world that no, the pandemic was not in fact the perfect opportunity to finally get around to producing that masterpiece. And that, on the contrary, crafting anything of substance was, sneer, a little more complicated than that, along come Sault with not one two stunning albums, both of which are double albums, and neither of which have a semblance of filler in sight.

Sault’s Untitled, (Rise).

Worse again, the first, Untitled (Black Is) seems to have been propelled into existence in response to the murder of George Floyd, on May 25th, and was released, in quiet anger, barely four weeks later in June. With Untitled (Rise) appearing but 12 weeks later. So that’s a brace of apparently hastily conceived double albums over the course of the summer, after the pair of equally impressive albums they released at the end of 2019 – ‘5’ and ‘7’.

Sault’s ‘5’.

Then there’s the question of who exactly ‘they’ are. Sault do neither promotion nor publicity. And not in the we’re-uncomfortable-in-the-limelight limelit interview way, there’s genuinely almost nothing about them, anywhere. The two principles appear to be the London–based producer Inflo and the RnB singer Cleo Sol, who are joined by a handful of the performers signed to their record label, Forever Living Originals. 

The two albums mirror and echo one another, with, on paper, Black Is producing the more sombre meditation and Rise the more danceable beats. But truth be told, they both dive and glide from menacing gloom to confident joy and back. And the mood conjured up by both albums can best be summed up by the latter’s title, ‘rise’, being at once triumphantly upbeat and confrontationally revolutionary.

Sault’s ‘7’.

Musically, we move from 70s’ RnB and the pre-disco soul of Luther Vandross to the carefully considered mashups of the Avalanches, and that turn of the century moment when dance, funk and triphop coalesced. And each album is marbled with tracks built on afro-Cuban beats, sending the sounds back to where it all began.

Exceptional albums from an embarrassingly fecund basement somewhere in the former metropolis of London, England. You can see hear the standout track Widlfires from Black Is here:

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