I was attracted to this by the strong reviews, presence of the ever-worthwhile Benedict Cumberbatch, and promise of something Strange. It turns out that Marvel’s commitment to Strangeness is as half-assed as it is to anything else that might threaten their revenue. There is nothing Strange in the title character, bar his name: a typical masculine figurehead to whom human concerns like money and taking a beating are a matter of indifference, with a smattering of Cumberbatch’s trademark gruff, belligerent intelligence tossed into the mix to make him ‘stand out’. There is nothing Strange in any supposed spiritual undertones: the Doctor’s journey to Nepal in order to heal his mind and body leads him into the path of Tilda Swinton’s (oh so white) guru, supposedly called the Ancient One but who could just as easily be named Yoda or Morpheus. There is nothing Strange in its multidimensional action scenes: Christopher Nolan will be touched to see Inception given homage, but the images of cityscapes folding in on themselves and gravity-defying fight sequences, also cribbed from The Matrix, are given a bloodless makeover by Marvel which sap them of wonder and tension. There is certainly nothing Strange about the appallingly dull romantic subplot (gifted to the unfortunate Rachel McAdams), wasted supporting actors (Chiwetel Ejiofor and Mads Mikkelsen are far too good for the nonentities they perform), and the singularity of purpose, which is to set up further sequels. All of these are familiar tropes that have left me feeling aloof from the Marvel franchise. Why such badly written productions are consistently overpraised for having a few well-timed gags I struggle to understand. So the best I can say about this film is that I was rarely completely bored, its zippiness certainly preferable to the DC output from this year. But is there anything truly Strange, inspired – will it last? I don’t think so.
ON BFI PLAYER
My Scientology Movie
Talkin’ ’bout Strange, how about a religious cult that requires you to pay for the rights to its teachings? Scientology is the perhaps inevitable religious incarnation of 20th century capitalism, where worshippers praise the business model and ruthless ingenuity of its CEO, David Miscavige, as opposed to any spiritual entity. As this documentary demonstrates, Miscavige is very much an Old Testament God, dealing wrathful penance on his inferiors: the business model relies on the bullying of anyone who dares to question his authority, labeled as SPs (Suppressive Persons) and subjected to mental, verbal, and occasionally even physical abuse. Like any good thuggish businessman (Sir Green’s hero), Miscavige is surrounded by a wall of inscrutability, blocking access to him or any of his closest circle and thus posing a challenge to documentarians seeking to understand the Church of Scientology.
Enter Louis Theroux: a much-loved icon in the UK, renowned for his ability to break down walls of inscrutability. Sadly, he has not been granted any special access this time, so we only get interviews with ex-members, and not all of them are entirely frank: Mark Rathbun, a former senior executive, is volatile and flips out whenever Theroux tries to broach his complicity in the Church’s past cruelty. It can be seen as a metaphor for the impenetrability of Scientology as a whole, which Theroux – well, of course fails to penetrate. Which might make you question the point of this feature-length, and you’d be right to, but consider this: has any documentary highlighted so well the relation between this LA business institution and that other one which effectively peddles dreams? Not just the Tom Cruise link, which is obvious, but also the Church’s use of propaganda, created in its very own production studio to support its top-down business model, is aligned to the ways of Hollywood, and the bizarre annual gala which opens and closes the film is as ingratiatingly self-congratulatory as the Oscars. The decision to use actors to play the roles of Miscavige and Cruise is not just a practical way around their lack of approachability, but also a sly acknowledgment of the ways in which acting and demonstrations of religious belief can overlap. It’s a fascinating insight from a film in which the tensest moments are standoffs between the filmmakers and current Scientologists, like a Hollywood western but with people pointing cameras at each other instead of guns. Naturally, Hollywood is a less sadistic institution than L Ron Hubbard’s. Isn’t it?
The film can now be watched (cheap) on the BFI website, here.
The Heavy Entertainment Show – Robbie Williams
Take That alumni and all-round geezer Robbie Williams is almost unique amongst musicians in that you look forward to hearing what bad ideas he’s come up with on his latest release. There’s a real stinker here: a song that samples Prokofiev’s Montagues and Capulets (better known as The Apprentice theme tune), features a barking chorus of ‘have it like an oligarch’, and rhymes ‘Russian’ with ‘end of discussion’ and ‘concussion’. Anyone looking for socio-political import from ‘Party Like a Russian’ – they should seek out Randy Newman instead – will be disappointed to hear Robbie’s announcement that it’s ‘not about Mr Putin’ but about how ‘Russians are ridiculously good partiers’. The rest of us will be too busy stifling our giggles, which is what Williams of course intended. His tongue-in-cheek absurdity and embracement of bad taste are admirable and sometimes very funny, making him the deserved champion over Gary Barlow in the solo act stakes, but as is so often the case he falters when it comes to enlivening the dreary ballads. ‘Love My Life’ and ‘David’s Song’ are cringey in the bad way, over-vocalised and over-produced. And whilst I have approximately zero issue with pop stars using guest writers, if only Williams had brought his personality to bear on The Killers’ ‘Mixed Signals’, Ed Sheeran’s ‘Pretty Woman’, and Rufus Wainwright’s ‘Hotel Crazy’, all of which belong very much to their authors and not to Robbie’s quirks. The best moment here is the least likely to appeal to the mum-rock demographic he so courteously courts, a touching ode to his two-year-old son. It’s called ‘Motherfucker’.
Ruminations – Conor Oberst
Like Morrissey, Robert Smith, and Nick Drake – key inspirations all – Conor Oberst has the knack of transmuting personal turmoil into accessible, bizarrely life-affirming entertainment. The trick is in the details: the Romantic metaphor of ‘The Rain Following the Plow’ turns out to be ‘never as profound as I had wanted it to be’, society’s rock star martyrdom complex is dismissed as being a way to ‘satisfy the Philistines’, the singer’s self-pitying nature is gently mocked in the final track where he decides to keep on drinking and spilling the beans to a pissed-off fellow at the bar. Oberst has a predisposition for melancholia, a trait he shares with many third-rate songwriters, but the above surprises and many more offer a diversion from the path of woe-is-me cliché, which helps to make his music a joyful rather than a depressive experience. That warbly voice of his, which turned Bright Eyes into an underground sensation, may irk listeners averse to post-adolescent angst, but it evokes pain and pleasure with a pointed simplicity. The musical accompaniment to his distinctive voice is here limited to piano, harmonica, and acoustic guitar, a quiet setting that evokes the wintry nights of Oberst’s home town in Nebraska. Cue the inevitable comparisons to other folky wordsmiths, particularly early Bob Dylan and the Bruce Springsteen of Nebraska. Indeed, the music sounds familiar, but comfortingly so, in the best folk tradition; it’s designed to never distract from the words, which are Oberst’s forte. These words are nothing like Dylan’s or Springsteen’s, they’re more insular and less expansive, but then again there is a moment in which he flees his Catholic school on a stolen motorbike: autobiographical or not, Conor sounds Born to Run, and run away he does with this lovely set.