2010s, Biopic, Musical

The Runaways (2010)

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Director/Screenwriter: Floria Sigismondi

By Roderick Heath

I know I was there, but I’m not sure what we were all doing around the start of the decade. Perhaps all basking in the glaring heat of LMFAO’s career, or praising ourselves over how cultured we were chortling at the toilet jokes in The King’s Speech. Sensitive white boys were masturbating over freeze-frames from Wes Anderson movies and the dudes who now trip over themselves to praise Kristen Stewart’s recent starring roles were all sharing memes about how talentless she was in those heady Twilight days. Whatever we were doing, we weren’t doing what we should have been doing, which was going to see Floria Sigismondi’s The Runaways. Pescara-born Sigismondi, daughter of opera singers, was named after the heroine of Tosca. An auspicious beginning for a woman who, after attending college in Canada, swiftly found repute as a photographer and director of freaky music videos. Sigismondi’s visions became prized as showcases first for Canadian bands and then internationally, for their bizarre dreamscapes laden with grotesquery, as in her striking work on The White Stripes’ “Blue Orchid” and The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “She Said”, and clips for David Bowie and Christina Aguilera. When Sigismondi made her feature directing debut, she chose a topic close to her professional experience and interest, in deciding to adapt the memoir of Cherie Currie, Neon Angel: A Memoir of a Runaway, an account of Currie’s experience as lead singer of the prototypical all-girl rock band The Runaways.
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The Runaways failed to gain much commercial success in their day, except in Japan, and they’re remembered today chiefly thanks to their staple “Cherry Bomb,” which has turned up in such odd places as the Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) soundtrack in the undignified company of “The Pina Colada Song.” That song offered a swaggering lyrical attitude and heavy, chugging guitar parts, pitched somewhere at the nexus of glam, punk, and metal, a nexus fans of all three modes would probably prefer not to acknowledge could exist. The band was a relatively short-lived music phenomenon, releasing four albums in as many years and stumbling on after scene-stealing frontwoman Currie left the band, leaving it to lead guitarist Joan Jett to fill her shoes. Jett ultimately found her own mojo as a solo performer and eventually gained much greater success. The Runaways weren’t taken very seriously at the time, either, never fitting in with punk’s asocial credo, and far too spiky for the lushly eroticised sounds of disco. But their albums are spectacularly entertaining, with their little myths of reform school girls battling authority and hunting down sex and fun, like modern day Bacchantes enacting ‘50s B-movie plots. Sigismondi’s film, in drawing on Currie’s account, is less the success story of Jett, although that’s covered too, than her own tale of a talented girl falling afoul of the oldest and greatest trap of stardom: the freedom to indulge appetites whilst arresting the need to deal with the stuff of actual life.
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The opening shot lays it all on the line: a giant blob of menstrual blood spotting black tarmac, the moment Cherie became a woman in all its gory spectacle. It’s a touch that gives the film an unexpected sense of linkage with Jaromil Jirês’ Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970) which kicked off with the same fateful moment. Like that movie it’s a drama of an innocent being pushed out into the wild to hang with the witches and vampires, ready to transform you into a thing of beauty or suck your lifeblood. Cherie (Dakota Fanning) worked in an LA diner alongside her twin sister Marie (Riley Keough, in her film debut), daughter of a pretentious former actress (Tatum O’Neal), who, as Cherie describes it, kicked their father out for leaving coffee rings on the furniture. Talented as a poseur long before discovering any other ability, Cherie struts the stage at a talent show at her high school dressed as Bowie, lip-synching to one of his songs, and when the crowd gets rowdy and abusive at her freaky gyrations, she turns jeers to cheers by giving them the collective finger. She starts hitting nightspots, turning heads with her evolving look, and soon attracts attention that will change her life.
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Joan, likewise sporting ambitions to form an all-girl rock band even as her guitar-playing skills are still a work in progress, is a totally different type to Cherie, fashioning herself in the mould of old-school male greasers. She dares to approach Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon), a famed and influential music promoter and record producer whose career started with the novelty hit “Alley Oop” in the early 1960s. Fowley, a bizarre and showy personality who specialises in staying at the head of the pack in the music business by being weirder than the weird, likes Jett’s idea, and introduces her to drummer Sandy West (Stella Maeve). Once the girls prove to have musical chemistry, Fowley takes them out on a hunt for a singer, a performer to bring sex kitten zest to contrast the rock toughness, and fixates on Currie, with her carefully crafted apparel – “little Bowie, little Bardot, a look on your face that says ‘I could kick the shit out of a truck driver.’” Soon the band is filled with bristling guitarist Lita Ford (Scout Taylor-Compton) and bassist Robin Robbins (Alia Shawkat). Fowley bundles the girls up in a trailer in the wastes of San Fernando to practice.
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Dismayed by Cherie’s choice of an audition song, Fowley sits down with Jett to throw together a song that can double as a mission statement for Cherie, making a pun on her name and extrapolating a defiant message as the two improvise what will become “Cherry Bomb.” Fowley then provokes and taunts Cherie and the rest of the girls into realising their rock’n’roll fierceness, training them in the fine arts of playing whilst being pelted with garbage by having neighbourhood boys do it. Fowley’s antics nonetheless begin to pay off as the girls survive their first gig, playing an illegal party concert where they have to bat away flying missiles and general adolescent energy, before setting off on the road. Their adventures out in the wilds see them weathering abusive encounters with a contemptuous headlining rock band (inspired by several different bands, including Rush), provoking Joan’s revenge by pissing on their guitars. Once Fowley gets them signed to Mercury Records, the band gets big in Japan, so they wing across the Pacific to tour. But Cherie finds herself circling the drain as she anaesthetises her guilt about leaving her sister to take care of her alcoholic and ailing father, and a pariah amongst her bandmates for readily playing up her sexuality in racy photos that make them all look like soft-core peddlers.
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I liked The Runaways a lot when I first saw it, and since then it’s proven a constantly rewarding and entertaining movie to revisit. It doesn’t quite come together as forcefully as it might have and faces a difficulty that dogs many music biopics in trying to make a tale about spiralling addictions and detachment from real life fresh. But it’s still perhaps the most visually inventive music pic since Oliver Stone’s The Doors (1991), achieving like that film a texture that accords well with the music at its heart and the experience it records, preferring less a mood of earnest realism than one of being submerged in an aesthetic, animating a desire to portray not just a gang of musicians but the vivacity of a moment in time and way of seeing the world. Rock biopics, like the legion of biographies and memoirs of music stars that are something of a publishing standard now, depend on a dynamic a little like what critics detected in Cecil B. DeMille’s religious epics. They feed eye and mind with gratification and allowing the audience to get off on all the aesthetic pleasures of hedonism and addiction with the added pleasure of (hopefully) good music, whilst contouring them into a moralising narrative where we pretend to be interested in somebody’s romance with so-and-so or learn they’re really a family person at heart when we’re just after the gorgeous orgies.
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A contradiction to this is the fact that watching other people’s self-indulgence can swiftly become boring if they don’t tap the sensation of maniacal descent or transcendence through excess. The best movies in this vein tend to tap the latter quality, as Sigismondi achieves spasmodically. Since The Runaways’ release, life has added on its own fascinating and disturbing appendices. Currie, whose simultaneously antagonistic and overawed relationship with Fowley defines her tale, cared for him in his ailing later years before his death in 2015, after which one of the band’s real bass players, Jacqui Fox, who asked not to be portrayed in the film, stated that Fowley raped her. Such revelations add a discomforting extra dimension to Shannon’s ferociously convincing performance a self-made imp of the perverse. Fowley galvanises the band into a working unit at the expense of giving them a close and personal glimpse of egomania at a high-falutin’ extreme, delivering pseudo-philosophical diatribes about their role avatars of youth experience who must alchemise free-floating neediness into a coherent message (“This isn’t about Women’s Lib, this about women’s libidos!”). Fowley is the walking nightmare of the rock world who comes knocking on Sandy’s front door to speak to her straight-laced mother, who shags in his office whilst on the phone, and is glimpsed at one point hanging upside down and reading The Art of War. Fowley arms the band members with such arts for strutting the stage and staring down an audience bristling with anger, frustration, and desire. But he also claims his own ruthless price, as they must put up with his aggression, dominance, and willingness to sacrifice their real selves to a conjured image.
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The Runaways marked a coming of age for Stewart and Fanning, who have both since proven hardy, multifarious actors, but who were at the time struggling to prove themselves as adult performers. The crossover audience for people who wanted to watch former child star Fanning playing a doped-up jailbait exhibitionist and Stewart’s Twilight fans eager to go out to a gritty rock biopic proved to be about five people and a dog. But Stewart’s reputation now as a fearless and inventive star owes everything to her segue into this role, playing Jett with gunslinger swagger in leather pants and evil grin as she encourages her band mates to get in touch with the clitorises and their same-sex longings, as when she instructs Sandy to masturbate with a shower head and think of Farrah Fawcett. Fanning had the harder central role in playing a girl who, unlike the iron-souled Jett, isn’t really sure who she is or what she wants, painting on glitzy guises and playing roles asked of her to avoid the question; rather than growing into the apparel of stardom, she becomes a void around which such paraphernalia amasses.
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The Runaways unabashedly presents its heroines, products of sundered homes, distracted parents, and the mores of a grow-up-fast culture, as nonetheless the first ripe crop of femininity to come of age in a louche and liberated age and trying to grab the world’s plenty by the throat. Such hatchlings emerge amongst the tawdry but quietly fostering atmosphere of the LA suburbs where self-invention is a form of religion because everything else has a transient, prefab aura. Cherie daubs herself in paint and glitter and emerges as the new-age Venus, sexuality becoming just another pop trope she tries to master. Hormones blend with the beckoning promise of all things now being possible, as Joan’s pal Tammy (Hannah Marks) snatches a chance to kiss her and covers it with the excuse, plucked from Suzi Quatro’s lyrical refrain, “I’m a wild one!” Cherie is furious with her mother for leaving her and Marie to subsist whilst she jaunts off to Indonesia to marry her new boyfriend, and mocks her diva breezily egotistical affectations (“Places, people!”). But Cherie commits herself to doing the same thing first chance she gets, leaving her sister in the lurch with her grandmothers and father who’s left sickly and crippled by his own addictions.
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Cherie can’t escape them, however, or the impulses they generate which stick like barbs in the mind: Cherie’s return home sees her pathetically proffer to her long-broken father a $100 bill, totem of prosperity that can’t even save her own self. Life on the road sees the girls introduced to all the hedonistic pleasures available to them. Cherie quickly loses her cherry to the band’s skeevy roadie Scottie (Johnny Lewis), the kind of guy who likes leaping nude into hotel swimming pools, but also edging towards romance with Joan, who otherwise takes the place of sister and comrade in arms. Fowley nudges Cherie towards making an exhibition of herself for magazine photographers, but she leaps in high-heeled boots and all in trying to radically reconstruct herself as a fetishist icon and publicity magnet, only to be interrupted by her broom-wielding grandmother who tries to chase the photographers away.
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Skills in making music videos, a realm often dominated by purely stream-of-consciousness image-fashioning and brand-aware marketing impulses, don’t always translate into effective cinema directing talents, although many major filmmakers of recent years have cut their teeth in the field. Sigismondi’s well-honed skills for achieving strange and dreamy textures in her music videos proved invaluable in creating a dense and fetidly convincing recreation of the mid-70s setting in all its sweaty, fleshy, Me Decade tackiness and bravura. The Hollywood sign looming over the period LA is a crumbing and sorry sight, the tattered ghost of a bygone age claimed as stomping ground for hooligan inheritors. Much of the film was shot on Super 16mm to gain a grainy texture. Sigismondi’s eye picks out little splendours in the period recreation to turn to her purpose, like the chintzy tiling in a period hotel shower into which Cherie seems to dissolve as she frays, glitter make-up and mascara sliding off her skin and the small girl left naked and shivering as if she’s being sucked into the texture of banality. Vignettes like the band playing a house party that gets busted up by the cops, the band’s first real foray out of their trailer and into the big world of performing yet still in a bizarrely intimate, domestic setting, wields the potency of all pop music styles when they feed directly from the social landscape on a basic level, the synergy of entertainer and entertained.
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Sigismondi superbly catches the feeling of being swept up in a wave of excitement, and the way general euphoria blends imperceptibly at first with the heightened states of drug use and sexual unfettering. The film’s first big performance set piece recreates the band’s “Dead End Justice,” a Roger Corman drive-in juvenile delinquent flick set to song, performed for a thrashing nightspot crowd, as an orchestral show of light and dark, Cherie and Joan at the centre of a typhoon of noise and motion. A venture into a roller disco sees a swooning interlude of erotic discovery as Joan leans over a prostrate Cherie and breaths cigarette smoke into her mouth before kissing her, all in a flood of red light with The Stooges’ weirdo anthem “I Wanna Be Your Dog” with all its intimations of weird coupling and degrading delights, all the transformative thrill and danger of youthful experimentation packed into a single dreamy image. This segues into a drugged-up bedroom romp, tracing outer edges of Jesus Franco-esque sexual psychedelia where the two girls almost melt into each-other in hallucinatory spasms. Sigismondi puts over the druggy thrill and blurriness of Cherie’s spiralling habit coinciding with her efforts to hide in a guise with the gleefully totemic image of pills on a shining floor surface crushed up under the black gleaming form of her colossal stilettoes.
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Sigismondi plays up the queer aspect of the story, much as Todd Haynes claimed the legends swirling around Bowie and Mick Jagger to construct his own vision of rock’s vital place in bolstering gay emergence and visibility in Velvet Goldmine (1998), although Sigismondi’s approach is more intimate and ephemeral, celebrating the spree of possibilities set in motion as the rock’n’roll creed tests every boundary and seemingly makes everything permissible. Such bounty is part of both the creed’s grandeur and its depravity, adventures of self-discovery blurring imperceptibly with predatory behaviours. The performed sexuality seen on stage, particularly in the climactic recreation of the band’s thunderous performances of “Cherry Bomb” for a Japanese audience, is by contrast a zone of Amazonian accomplishment, Cherie donning a pink corset and stockings that in Joan’s words makes her ready for the peep show circuit, but placing it in her service of her own efforts to outpace onanistic fantasies by provoking them. Sigismondi sees in her efforts the seeds for Madonna’s later, more successful manipulation of this idea.
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Where The Runaways as a film runs into trouble is, aptly, where the band also floundered, in the process of establishing and maintaining a domain where its big personalities can operate and control their own image, but the less wilful collapse and fail. Cherie eventually digs in her heels and resists Lita and Fowley’s bullying, and walks out during a recording session. Joan, infuriated, starts trashing the studio and abusing Fowley, who is, ironically, delighted with such a display of proper rock’n’roll attitude. But the band can’t survive as a concept or unit without Cherie’s personality as its alluring and mediating face. Whilst Cherie descends even more deeply into drugged-up dissolution, Joan hides out in blank suburban bunkers and takes recourse in lesbian orgies, before resisting all temptation to give and fade back into the fate Fowley predicts for them all, as fat and happy housewives. She instead slowly but assuredly getting her mind back on music, and resurges as a solo star with her beloved cover of “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
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Where the film’s first two-thirds are sublimely confident in transmuting loose history into a punchy narrative and sprawl of cinematic lustre, Sigismondi’s grip fails as events become more disjointed and the timeline becomes blurry. Both Cherie and Joan’s diverse processes of eddying and recovery require more time and nuance, and Ford’s moderately successful solo career isn’t even mentioned. In real life Cherie continued to hover around the edge of the celebrity scene (in real life she recorded a song with her sister, married Airplane! actor Robert Hayes, and starred in the 1980 teen flick Foxes alongside Jodie Foster, another brush with a big rising star) before dropping out. Sigismondi’s visuals retain strength even as narrative becomes diffuse. Cherie’s low ebb is well-visualised as she explores the innards of a supermarket, dressed in glam fashion but barely upright on two bandy legs whilst exploring the linen aisle, and traipsing across a weed-ridden car park, citizen once more of a crumbling and barren suburbia. Sigismondi also manages to give the film a wistfully fitting grace note, in the form of an awkward phone conversation as Cherie, now working as a shopgirl, calls up a radio show Joan’s being interviewed on to wish her well. The gulf between celebrity and civilian is ultimately defined by another disparity, harder to describe, not exactly one of the weak and the strong, but one of a certain innate warrior mentality that some have and some haven’t. The lapses of The Runaways are frustrating because it’s a lush, exhilarating, stupendously entertaining movie at its best. Sigismondi is still making major music videos, but damn, I hope one day she makes another movie.

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2010s, 2018, Confessions of a Film Freak

Confessions of a Film Freak 2018

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By Roderick Heath

2018 was a tough year.

I lost my father this year. My partnership with Marilyn Ferdinand at Ferdy on Films came to an end, a rather gentler and less wrenching if still saddening end for an era. Too often the zeitgeist felt like a practical joke where everyone was the sucker. Watching things we love crack up and fail has seemed a little too often like the new state of things. Hell, the year’s biggest hit movie, Avengers: Infinity War, ended with half the universe exterminated. Granted, that’ll probably be reversed in the next movie, and yet it sat heavily with me when I realised my father, who always loved zoning out with the Marvel films, will never see it.
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Solo: A Star Wars Story

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But 2018 also saw some new beginnings, including the founding of my new site, Film Freedonia. The year’s movies often betrayed a pensive, roiling, deeply uneasy sensibility but often underscored with guttering expectation, perfectly in tune with such a backdrop. Many films spoke to a general hunger for justice and renewal. One major connective theme of 2018’s cinema meditated upon shambolic figures who find themselves at the mercy of fate at once leviathan-like but also often informed by seemingly trivial signifiers – a motif that connects a film as massive as Avengers: Infinity War and as rarefied as Lucrecia Martel’s Spanish Colonial tale Zama. The moment of crisis is one of the basic lynchpins of drama of course, but this year in particular the theme of imminent reckoning became a constant, unavoidable topic in movies – the moment when fair weather suddenly and cruelly ceases and for insular structures of families, friends, common causes, and communities, when agreed mutual fictions and sustaining myths must be abandoned and raw truths confronted if anything is to be salvaged. Such fulcrums were found in tales as diverse as Support The Girls, Solo: A Star Wars Story, Disobedience, The Party, The Rider, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, Black Panther, Colette, Blockers, The Endless, Bad Times at the El Royale, Double Lover, Cargo, The Ritual, Braven, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Breath, First Reformed, The Commuter, A Star Is Born, Widows, The Death of Stalin, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, The Kindergarten Teacher, and on and on. Hell, even ‘70s drop-in The Other Side of the Wind managed to fit in. Some, like Roma and Vox Lux, depicted mean scenes of personal reckoning but hinted at larger cultural moments still to come.
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A Star Is Born

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This year I found myself growing frustrated with a dominant mode of realism celebrated in current cinema, where a certain droning, one-note experience was too often had, laden with a kind of false subtlety, and more attracted to films that attempted to capture states of mind and zones of interior fantasy and experience. Much-praised works like Roma, First Man, The Rider, Leave No Trace, The Guardians, and others featured fastidious depictions of exterior reality, but on close inspection their drama was familiar, even a bit trite. Roma and The Guardians for instance both revolved around quasi-saintly, servile female characters used and abused by the clans they’re attached to, scarcely evolved from types you’d find in Victorian fiction and silent films. More interesting, if not always more successful, were the spasms of creative flux and floundering expression apparent in movies like the scabrous surrealism of Sorry to Bother You, or the dreaming zones of On Body and Soul, the multitudinous layerings of Ready Player One. Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman wrestled not only with racial consciousness and real history but with pop culture modes as signifiers of substance. The Strange Ones tried to depict the world from the viewpoint of a damaged young mind, where reality becomes a splintered and nebulous thing. All were movies that tried to wrestle with complex ways of knowing self and others
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Bohemian Rhapsody

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The makings of stardom and general heroism came under close scrutiny. Films like A Star is Born, Vox Lux, Bohemian Rhapsody, Colette, and Mary Shelley considered artistic fame and success as fields of violent and sometimes fatal contest despite their general reputation for being removed from gritty realities. Movies like Black Panther, Solo: A Star Wars Story, Red Sparrow, Tomb Raider, and The 15:17 To Paris, looked at protagonists who must fight tooth and nail to become the men and women they hope to be, and a telling number of “fun” films, including Black Panther, Solo: A Star Wars Story, Bad Times at the El Royale, and Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, revolved around watching friends, doppelgangers, and loved-ones make unconscionable choices based in understandable if not condonable reasons. One unifying interest in several of the year’s comedies was a basic template of fretful, middle-aged people contending with their own unruly appetites whilst still trying to function as nominally mature entities, for the sake of those entrusted to their care, be it children or society at large.
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Blockers

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Kay Cannon’s Blockers was particularly interesting in this regard as it contended with reactionary impulses amongst the officially equable and aware modern brand of parent out in the swanky suburbs, and it managed to generate some real laughs amidst musings on what it’s like to be both a parent and a young adult today. The trouble was, the film cut itself off from the sexual anxiety that was fuel for its premise and so had to generate increasingly absurd and strained situations to justify itself. Terrific comic performances, particularly from Leslie Mann, helped a lot. Stephan Elliott’s Swinging Safari looked back to the 1970s milieu of Australian suburbia as a rambunctious Eden, and considered the opposite problem of kids adrift when parents exist within a bubble of self-interest. Elliott’s outlandish stew had moments, but it never knew when to quit or throttle off. Sally Potter’s The Party explored the crack-up of New Age mores in the face of a treacherously enticing promise from an unseen temptress, standing in for a fickle audience of voters and viewers; Potter’s wickedly funny script and trenchant camerawork instilled what might have been a minor exercise, a tribute to a very arch mode of theatre, with real cinematic meaning. John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein’s Game Night felt agreeably reminiscent of a breed of shambling ‘80s comedies about everyday folk thrust far out of their comfort zone as it sent a crew of flaky gamers into the night to solve a mystery they think a mere fun exercise but turns out to involve real danger and crime. The film delivered a fun night at the movies thanks to snappy acting, particularly from Jesse Plemons as a discomforting cop neighbour, and Cliff Martinez’s vibrant electronic score exacerbated the ‘80s vibe. Trouble was, the script got too clever by half and what could have been a freewheeling outing kept tripping over its own feet.
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Support The Girls

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For comedy that tried to maintain a more authentic and quotidian vibe, Claire Scanlon’s Set It Up and Andrew Bujalski’s Support The Girls each tried to marry shambolic indie flick energy with slick, conventional appeal. Both studied small communities consisting of the self-exploited, in the former the overworked minions of New York office culture, the latter the young lovelies and their frazzled mother hen working in a Texas boobs-and-sports bar. Scanlon’s film sported fun performances and jolts of brazen humour, particularly from the ever-promising Zoe Deutch, but the film semi-accidentally made the case that none of these company creeps actually deserved love. Bujalski’s entry lacked the intricate humour and originality of his previous work and rambled on a bit, but its ripe, open humanism and liking for its characters were refreshing. Bujalski’s mumblecore fellow Aaron Katz made his own methodical play to go Hollywood without losing the vibe of his no-budget work with Gemini, a moody, sinuous, multifaceted send-up of celebrity culture that doubled as a parable for its own making, accumulating the paraphernalia of a traditional thriller much as its heroine dons the garb of a noir heroine, trying to work out how all the pieces fit together.
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Sorry To Bother You

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Boots Riley’s Sorry To Bother You stood up for a more aspiring wing of comedy, and provided a shot of absurdist satire with a specifically black perspective, following Lakeith Stanfield’s antihero from garage-dwelling loser to wealthy telemarketer thanks to his talents at “white voice,” and finding himself an imminent tool in a plot by Armie Hammer’s loony corporate boss to foster a race of half-horse, half-human slave workers. Riley’s comic conceits were occasionally genuinely brilliant, like a central scene where the hero cynically improvises a rap verse that goes over a treat, and the film felt reminiscent in its ambitions of classics like O Lucky Man! and The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer as a scattershot takedown of an entire cultural moment. But Riley’s direction and script were both highly erratic, stumbling over dull conventions like Tessa Thompson’s girlfriend of articulate conscience and a unionising subplot, and badly dispelled its impact through over-length.
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Early Man

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Nick Park, one of the most creative filmmakers around, nonetheless proved that even he can have an off day with Early Man, a jokey prehistoric mini-epic that both teased and honoured the familiar underdog sports drama; whilst littered with Park’s usual ingenious figments, particularly his lovable menagerie of animals, nonetheless the result felt underdeveloped in too many regards, and the subject matter, football, proved ill-matched to Park’s usually dazzling instincts for action staging. Wes Anderson offered his own stop-motion animated film, in the style of his best to date, Fantastic Mr Fox, for Isle of Dogs, a parable for scapegoating wrapped up in a self-satirising Japonaise edition of Anderson’s picture book style. The lack of a solid basis like Roald Dahl was telling this time, leaving Anderson leaning even more heavily on pure aesthetic than usual for an occasionally droll if very minor exercise.
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Winchester

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2018’s crop of horror cinema continued the momentum the genre’s had in the past few years, performing well at the box office and galvanising filmgoers, although some of the more trumpeted efforts of the year felt bizarrely overinflated in rhetoric. John Krasinski’s mass audience-friendly A Quiet Place proved a fun exercise in gimmicky tension in depicting a rural family battling sound-sensitive monstrosities: Krasinki proved himself a surprisingly dab hand at staging thrills but the script was far too evasive when it came to providing logic and context. Ari Aster’s Hereditary aimed higher in both style and theme, depicting a family beset by awful events that prove to have a secret, incredibly malevolent unity. Aster’s filmmaking was intricate but onerous, his attempt to create a bleak parable for family secrets and the predestination of genetics big on laboured visual metaphors but short on convincing writing and detailed characterisations. Michael and Peter Spierig’s Winchester flew the flag for the old-fashioned haunted house rollick, building a story around an authentic location, the house built by the heiress to the Winchester firearms fortune (Helen Mirren). But the film proved flimsy and absurd on just about every conceivable level, failing to do any justice to its fascinating basis.
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The Endless

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Gary Bruckner’s The Ritual, a loose adaptation of a well-received novel, followed a well-trod path into the spooky woods it sent a bunch of urban twats out into the Scandinavian wilds to meet an ancient monstrosity and a perverted cult. Bruckner’s happy embrace of genre convention was at once limiting and faintly vexing given the more original pitch of its source, but also proved by the end a bit of a relief in comparison with the year’s more exhaustingly self-serious horror flicks, as it worked up genuine tension and sustained it to the very end. Post-modern freaks Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead returned with their third feature, The Endless, casting themselves as twin brothers who feel compelled to return to the bizarre, cultish setting of their youth and find themselves confronted by segmented pockets of time and causality reigned over by an invisible, sadistic entity. The filmmakers cleverly augmented the meaning of their previous outings (including a salutary revisit to Resolution), but the human level of their drama remained sketchy, and the film kept blindly poking about hoping a tone would stick.
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Unsane

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An Australian entry in the zombie apocalypse stakes, Cargo, saw another collaborating duo, Yolande Ramke and Ben Howling, employ Martin Freeman’s specific everyman pluck in a tale of a solitary father trying to save his infant daughter from a cruel landscape. The attempt to adapt a very well-worn model to comment upon localised racial and environmental concerns honoured the Romero debt, but were never properly thought through and failed to mesh with the maudlin reflexes of the main story: the result grew tedious on the way to a finale that played like a parody of Woke cinema. Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane was bolder in extending its director’s recent penchant for interposing twisty, straightforward thrills with overt social issue-raising, tracking Claire Foy’s uptight heroine as she finds herself under the thumb of both a greedy institution and a ruthlessly controlling stalker turned nurse. The result wasn’t subtle and the choice of shooting the whole thing on an iPhone made for an occasionally grating, inflexible visual style, and yet it still built up a surprising charge of grimy excitement, proving perhaps finally that Soderbergh is at his best when he’s at his trashiest.
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Upgrade

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Former Saw mastermind Leigh Whannell presented a new venture in low-down genre thrills with Upgrade, unfolding in the blurry margin between body horror and sci-fi. The product played as an update of a ‘80s Cannon Films video shelf filler, as its hero (Logan Marshall-Green), paralysed in the same vicious attack that also killed his wife, forms a symbiotic relationship with the AI installed in his body to help him walk again and setting out for revenge, only to find he’s being used. Upgrade was moderately engaging whilst unfolding, but bland performances and a strangely detached, ugly tone retarded hoped-for high spirits, even before the gracelessly cynical ending. Similar in theme and lexicon of influences if vastly different in approach, Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy was a far more arresting if also more heedlessly monolithic work, unleashing Nicolas Cage in a trippy alternate universe 1980s to battle demon bikers and malignant cultists whilst avenging his murdered wife. Genuinely strange, wild, and beautiful in a junk-art manner, it proved one of the most unique films of recent years.
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Pacific Rim: Uprising

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Steven S. DeKnight took over the Pacific Rim imprimatur with Pacific Rim: Uprising, subbing for Guillermo Del Toro who was presumably too busy making his Oscar and his Godzilla figurine fight it out in the bath tub. The sequel’s deliberately more naïve, youth audience-friendly tilt and DeKnight’s plainer visual approach meant it wasn’t as gaudy an entertainment as the original, but it still proved a decent piece of ridiculous fun, with a couple of neat twists and a finale that paid pure tribute to its roots in old Toho monster movies. Alex Garland returned for his second directorial outing with Annihilation, adapting Jeff VanderMeer’s acclaimed novel trilogy into a would-be mind-bending exercise where the psyche and the physical blend in bizarre and dynamic ways. Unfortunately, Annihilation merely confirmed Garland knows nothing about cinema, proffering a lumbering exercise in dingy-looking pseudo-profundity, embarking on a trek that ripped off several better films before arriving at a lightshow finale that aimed to inspire cosmic awe but only inspired extreme boredom.
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I Kill Giants

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Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald saw director David Yates and writer J.K. Rowling return with the second instalment of the prequel pentalogy set in Rowling’s Wizarding World, with introverted hero Newt Scamander contending with his heartier brother and other confounding human relationships whilst trying to stop the ascent of charismatic fascist Grindelwald. The instalment proved aggravatingly lumpy, betraying Rowling’s inexperience as a screenwriter to an excruciating degree and neglecting the best aspects of the first film. But eventually it got to an interesting keynote regarding good and terrible choices in life and political adherence based in the amount and kind of pain one’s suffered, and Eddie Redmayne and Johnny Depp gave sure performances playing perfectly contrasting antagonists. Anders Walter’s I Kill Giants went for a variety of magic realism reminiscent of the kinds of ‘80s fantasy movies young folk have fallen in love with through home viewing ever since, depicting a smart and disdainful adolescent who escapes harsh reality into a fantasy life so intense it borders on lunacy. Madison Wolfe confirmed she’s an actor to watch with her vehement playing of a spiky, troubling heroine, but the film around her proved too insistent and unsubtle and excessively indebted to directors like Spielberg and Del Toro, without any of their sense of intimate detail or storytelling savvy.
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Tomb Raider

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Roar Uthaung’s Tomb Raider and Ron Howard’s Solo: A Star Wars Story were both surprisingly good extensions of hallowed franchises, and both were relatively, sadly neglected by the mass audience they courted and served so well, telling tales of formative escapades for famed adventurers, with Alicia Vikander and Alden Ehrenreich filling a decent percentage of their predecessors’ very large shoes. Tomb Raider managed the faint-praise task of proving the best video game adaptation ever with its lean and intelligently restrained action sensibility, although it should have doubled down on its best impulses. Solo: A Star Wars Story proved that sometimes a sober, smart, experienced professional behind the camera can outpace showy tyros. Manhunt, John Woo’s belated return to the sort of hard-charging pulp fiction he made his name with three decades ago, proved a heady melange of Hitchcockian thriller, sci-fi-tinted social conscience tale, and straight-up Woo shoot-’em-up; the product was absurd and awkwardly acted in three languages, and yet I’ll be damned if it wasn’t a blast all the same.
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Ocean’s 8

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Lin Oeding’s Braven took on a weary action movie formula, if with the beguiling contemporary twists of offering up a family of protagonists where everyone’s a badass. The notion of staging an action film on such a homey, intimate scale was a good one, but the film kept hurting itself by not sticking to that brief. Christian Gudegast’s Den of Thieves flew the flag for hardboiled cops-and-robbers fare as it pitted a nefarious team of former soldiers turned bank raiders against Gerard Butler’s ornery rogue detective, with O’Shea Jackson Jnr as the low-rent criminal apparently caught between the two camps. The film had the right idea in serving up a desperately-needed shot of bloody urban action, and it promised an interesting portrait of warring subcultures and streetwise protocols. Sadly, it was beset by a plot that belonged in an Ocean’s film and far too much cliché macho posturing in the meantime. Speaking of which, Gary Ross served up an extension of the Ocean’s series with Ocean’s 8, with a driving idea right out of 1966 in putting together – get this! – an all-female team of thieves. Fun work from Anne Hathaway and Helena Bonham Carter, both making fun of their popular images with gusto, kept things modestly engaging. Hard not to notice, however, a fascinating lack of proper dramatic complication or real stakes in the drama, as if the film, under its frothy façade, was actually sustaining a subtly sexist notion that women can’t face a real challenge or danger, and a script that gave most of its entirely overqualified cast far too little to do.
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The Commuter

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The Commuter was another essay in pressure-cooker situational action from Jaume Collet-Serra, pressing Liam Neeson into service again as a weary but able hero, this time on a train where he comes under the thumb of some villains who want him to kill an enigmatic passenger. The signposted class politics and late middle-age fretfulness promised new dimensions to a well-worn template, but were cancelled out by the need to keep the plot swerving. Script and handling were both way too formulaic and artificial, and the film urgently needed more of Vera Farmiga’s expertly galling voice of doom. Babak Najafi’s Proud Mary couldn’t even manage to provide solid Saturday night streaming fodder, holding out the promise of some flashy-trashy thrills in casting Taraji P. Henson as a hitwoman, but Najafi’s flavourless direction exacerbated a tediously generic product. Ted Geoghegan’s neo-western Mohawk at least had the virtue of wielding some great ideas and some riskiness to its historical perspective, as it portrayed a valiant female Mohawk warrior living in a ménage-a-trois with a brother brave and an English agent provocateur, taking on a party of ruthless Yankee warriors during the war of 1812. But hamfisted direction and a tinny, repetitive script meant it eventually degenerated into an overripe bore.
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The Predator

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When it came to the kind of big, immodest, special-effects driven spectacle you look for in Hollywood cinema, 2018 was a damn limp year. John Turteltaub’s The Meg set out with a simple mission: unleash a giant man-eating shark upon hapless submariners and swimmers for bloody hayhem and malicious entertainment. And it still managed to screw it up, unfolding with incredible blandness and perfunctory plotting, without any sense of how to use its monstrous enemy. Only one good phobic image, of the behemoth staring at a child through a wall of plexiglass as an impersonation of childhood nightmare, made it at all worthwhile. Shane Black returned to old stomping grounds as he took over a franchise he acted in way back in 1987, to make The Predator, a misshapen mutt of a movie sporting salty Black dialogue in spades and some fun performances, particularly from Olivia Munn. But the film’s tortured production proved very evident in a final product that never quite found its groove in pace or style, moving spasmodically through some half-chewed ideas and patchy action scenes.
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19-BlackPanther

Black Panther

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Deadpool 2 saw Ryan Reynolds now co-scripting as well as starring, evolving his smart-mouthed antihero into the personification of the internet, a one-man machine for snarky memes, callbacks, flames, and smarmy sentiment. The vehicle about him attempted a balancing act that was always going to be difficult, employing straight-arrow John Wick and Atomic Blonde helmsman David Leitch for action movie cred for a film that tried nonetheless to offer perhaps the most aggressively mocking deconstruction of a pop culture blueprint since the days of certain Swinging ‘60s lampoons, but desperately lacking their jaunty charm or panache. Star Josh Brolin dominated Deadpool 2 by playing his part completely straight, just a couple of months after doing the same thing in Marvel’s crowning colossus, Avengers: Infinity War. Speaking of Marvel, that studio’s domination of the box office epoch reached a new height with the astounding success of Black Panther and Infinity War just behind it, one powered on by its uniqueness as a cultural phenomenon as a tailored Woke blockbuster, and the other drawing on the momentum of the entire series. Black Panther was merely okay, save a rowdy car chase sequence mid-film and a potent performance from Michael B. Jordan as a villain whose smouldering sense of injustice encapsulated an entire sociological moment. The film’s status as a fanfare for the possibility of a black blockbuster sensibility was worth honouring but the minutiae of its efforts bore little scrutiny.
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Ant-Man and the Wasp

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By comparison, Avengers: Infinity War was widely criticised for being crammed to the gunwales, but that’s precisely what made it such a blast for me, the comic book movie’s moment of Neroesque excess that had the balls to leave its audience hanging like no movie ever has before, and stands as underrated despite its success for the way it made Brolin’s archvillain the propelling figure rather than all those pesky outmatched twerps in tights. Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man and the Wasp had the misfortune of looking rather shrunken (sorry) in contrast. Some find this branch of the Marvel universe the most personable and engaging, and I had some sympathy for that after the first Ant-Man, but this one I found almost torturously lacking when it came to plot, action, and repartee; only Hannah John-Kamen as a pain-wracked antagonist who could teleport at will wielded real spunk. Ava DuVernay returned after her potent work on Selma for a much-hyped leap into big-budget fantasy with a Disney-sponsored version of Madeleine L’Engle’s beloved book A Wrinkle in Time. Not perhaps since Heaven’s Gate has a follow-up to an admired hit seen a director’s stock drop so sharply, but by contrast with that flopped masterpiece, A Wrinkle in Time proved was rather the spectacle of talent gone screamingly generic and bland, toneless in script and performing, strangled by a would-be empowering gloss, with DuVernay’s direction at once fidgety and lumbering. And that’s before we even got to the attack of the fifty-foot glitter Oprah.
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21-JurassicWorldFK

Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom

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J.A. Bayona stepped behind the camera for another venerable franchise extension with Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom, in which Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard returned as Owen and Claire to save their beloved dinosaurs from their exploding island, only to find themselves yet again the fools of corporate malice. Bayona’s strong dose of imported horror movie and dark nursery rhyme imagery, and a couple of plot twists with potential, brought this property to the brink of new territory, but it all still felt far too familiar and enervating, neglecting its real dinosaurs for yet another genetic chimera and wrapping up with a seen-it-all-before game of chase and chomp. Christopher McQuarrie reteamed with Tom Cruise and company for Mission: Impossible – Fallout, yet another go-round for the IMF adventurers that tried to offer closure for some dangling loose ends from previous entries. As usual for this series, the entry was zippy, well-made, and still absent any true personality, its characters still placeholders despite the attempts to provoke nostalgia. Surprisingly, or not depending on your viewpoint, by far the year’s best event movie was Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, a project couched in an unpromising basis, cataloguing tropes of ‘80s and ‘90s nerd culture, but which turned out to be only incidentally such a fetishist totem, with its inexhaustible director both lampooning and extending his own impact on pop culture.
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22-BadTimesElRoyale

Bad Times at the El Royale

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Francis Lawrence’s Red Sparrow showcased Jennifer Lawrence, improbably cast with her Crossfit build as a ballerina who turns to espionage at the encouragement of her Putin-lookalike uncle, in what seemed like a determined attempt by Lawrence to cast off her down-home sweetheart aura. The film’s lengthy, sleazy discursions to a “whore school” for spies proved something of a miscue in promising a ruthlessly kinky psychosexual escapade, and eventually revealed it had no game at all beyond a stock-standard tale of spy deceptions and divided lovers. Drew Goddard aimed someplace between fake Tarantino and devolved Robert Altman for Bad Times at the El Royale, a labyrinthine thriller unfolding at a depopulated hotel on the California-Nevada border in the late 1960s. Goddard’s busy intersection of characters and their attendant mystiques kept accumulating rather than enriching, and ultimately felt like plotline bingo. That said, the film sported some strikingly well-directed sequences and a terrific roster of performances, but only when Chris Hemsworth’s swaggering pseudo-Manson cult leader entered the scene did the film really find a focal point.
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23-Thoroughbreds

Thoroughbreds

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Sibling filmmakers Eshom and Ian Nelms made Small Town Crime, a riff blending aspects of character drama and film noir, portraying a screw-up former cop, played in a perfect star turn by John Hawkes, embarking on a quixotic attempt to solve the murder of the girl he finds dumped by the roadside. The familiarity of the recovering drunk angle and neat obedience to basic genre precepts kept results modest, but within such limits the film proved one of the year’s quieter successes. Cory Finley’s Thoroughbreds also juggled familiar tropes, if in a more unusual manner, depicting a pair of young women bound together by a common detachment from the usual laws of empathy and responsibility in a well-to-do environment where psychopathy might be an evolutionary advantage. The film proved too hermetic to really bloom as a pitch-black comedy-thriller, but it did find strange pathos in characters bewildered and exiled by their lack of humanity. Beirut saw one-time indie tyro Brad Anderson taking on a Tony Gilroy script, with Jon Hamm playing a former American diplomat forced to negotiate with the byzantine dramas of Lebanon during the prolonged and vicious civil war, trying to lay his own tragic past to rest at the same time. Good work from Hamm and Rosamund Pike as a roguish CIA agent kept the film buoyed, yet couldn’t paper over the fact Gilroy’s written the same movie about a world-weary wheeler-dealer over a few too many times, and the seemingly pertinent backdrop eventually felt incidental.
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24-HoldTheDark

Hold The Dark

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Steve McQueen ventured into more mainstream climes for his first feature since his Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave, with his big screen adaptation of Lynda La Plante’s admired 1980s TV series Widows, transplanted from England to Chicago. This film theoretically had everything: a meaty story, a great cast, and a top director, with a seam of intersectional angst to mine in following a gang of patronised criminals’ wives band together to outwit their foes and pull off a big score. But the result was perhaps the year’s most grinding disappointment, with characters who resolutely failed to become interesting, stakes that utterly fizzled in a rushed finale, and pretentions to sociological depth far too familiar. Only a couple of almost incidental elements, like Daniel Kaluuya’s sadistic goon and Robert Duvall’s mean old-school patriarch, galvanised at all. Blue Ruin and Green Room director Jeremy Saulnier and actor-writer Macon Blair returned with Hold the Dark, a bleak and savage tale in which Jeffrey Wright’s aging, alienated wolf expert travels to Alaska to hunt down a rogue animal at a young widow’s request only to find very different monsters are at large, in a film that eventually became an odd, antiheroic spin on First Blood. The director-writer duo revealed expanding creative horizons in their attempts not only to fuse genres but work in unexpected reference points, including a weird and unsettling nod to Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, and political allegory, as the corrosive effects of social neglect on the home front and traumatising warfare combine to create several cold and well-matched killers. The lashings of portent, complete with constant suggestions of supernatural menace and threats to segue into horror, nonetheless highlighted the filmmakers’ confused intentions, and the result proved more intriguing than substantial.
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25-DoubleLover

Double Lover

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Much less grave and far more entertaining, Double Lover saw Francois Ozon bounce back from a recent spell of half-hearted movies with a psychodrama outing, employing muse Marine Vacth as an anxious young woman drawn into an affair with the aggressive twin brother of her kindly therapist fiancé, only to soon find all reality becoming blurred. Ozon had a ball using the feverish storyline, taken from a Joyce Carol Oates story, as an excuse for erotic provocations, including a hilarious fantasy of threesomes and twincest, and his visuals were often genuinely delirious, even if the film finally became a bit too silly and excessive to truly unnerve or add to more than a lark. Paul Feig stepped away from broad farceur duties to take a tilt at his own kind of droll domestic thriller with A Simple Favor, pitting Anna Kendrick’s Pollyannaish working mom against Blake Lively’s self-invented existential antiheroine. The project had potential as a partial send-up-cum-fantasy rewrite of the likes of Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train with a number of interesting ideas on the simmer. Feig proved utterly incapable of sustaining a tone or structuring a thriller, however, and only Lively’s strident performance made results watchable.
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26-12Strong

12 Strong

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Clint Eastwood’s The 15:17 to Paris was the venerable auteur’s latest exploration of true-life heroism, in this case the three young American friends and patriots who successfully foiled a terrorist attack on a train, but this time Eastwood seemed finally set on moulding himself to the commonly deployed caricature of his efforts, wielding atrocious, conservative base-pleasing screenwriting and flimsy acting to dress up his tawdry insights. By contrast, Nicolai Fuglsig’s 12 Strong was a stab at making a cool, clean-cut war movie, depicting a Special Forces team forging an alliance with Afghan allies in the early days of the US-led war there. The corny Taliban villain didn’t entirely detract from Fuglsig’s otherwise surprisingly textured, atmospheric, good-looking filmmaking, and it finished up one of the few superior War on Terror-era films. Following his showy but shallow 2016 musical La La Land, Damien Chazelle’s First Man set out to depict one of modernity’s great events, the Moon landing, and the man at its heart, Neil Armstrong, in a biopic packed with sombre gravitas as it explored the way unspoken grief and emotional repression helped and hindered Armstrong in his titanic venture. Chazelle’s depiction of extreme physical straits through attentive filmmaking was persuasive. Nonetheless he foundered rather badly when it came to getting into his hero’s head, revealing himself as too temperamentally at odds with such a character to grasp it and too determined a showman to let it be, and so fell back on hackneyed devices to wring an acceptable Hollywood arc out of the drama.
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27-BlacKkKlansman

BlacKkKlansman

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Spike Lee returned to find the times suddenly attuned again to his specific brand of socialogically attentive drama as he offered up BlacKkKlansman, an adaptation of former FBI agent Ron Stallworth’s infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s. Occasional flourishes confirmed Lee’s greatness as a stylist hasn’t entirely waned, and the film was at its best when playing out like a demented sitcom about self-creation through role-playing. But even after bolstering the material with imaginary characters and invented action, the story was thin, and I found Lee’s attempts to be simultaneously larkish and trenchant often cancelled each-other out. The more overt agitprop touches, like an interlude depicting diverse reactions to The Birth of a Nation and a coda leading into the Charlottesville riots, proved more successful than the film’s scanty attempts to analyse white nationalism, without much to say about the phenomenon beyond rednecks gonna redneck, and Lee’s greatest gifts, for dynamically portraying both personality and culture in flux, remained frustratingly scattershot. Actor Joel Edgerton made another foray into directing with Boy Erased, an adaptation of a memoir of a young gay man’s excruciating experiences weathering religiously-informed therapy intended to turn him straight, and fight to make his religious parents accept him whilst blowing the whistle on the sordid subculture. Intelligent performances from Lucas Hedges and Russell Crowe gave the film some meat, although Edgerton’s direction felt rather laborious at points.
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28-MaryShelley

Mary Shelley

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Jason Reitman returned with a movie perfectly on brand for his variety of vaguely topical, vaguely highminded pseudo-drama, The Front Runner, depicting Gary Hart’s collapse in the 1988 Presidential race in the face of media-fuelled innuendo about his private life. The film was initially absorbing with Hugh Jackman acquitting himself well in the lead, but finally proved little more than succession of pretences towards analysing the meaning of the event without a guiding principle, apart from generalities about growing media venality, and wouldn’t get to grips with the feeling Hart was destroyed as much by his own stiff-necked self-righteousness as anything else. Afghani director Haifaa al-Mansour took on the early life of Mary Shelley, with Elle Fanning playing the heroine on her path from the daughter to wife of radical thinkers before achieving her own revolutionary coup in publishing her epic parable Frankenstein. Fanning was good in the part and the movie pretty, but the numbing script made sure to make Mary mouth great hunks of modern-day critical discourse and moral repudiation of the sometimes injurious behaviour art and passion made her a party to.
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29-Colette

Colette

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In another literary biopic about a transgressive heroine, Wash Westmoreland’s Colette profiled the early career of one of France’s most famous writers, including her multifarious sexual and artistic exploits and tendentious relationship with her indulgent but exploitative first husband. Ace performances by Keira Knightley and Dominic West made things bouncy and occasionally the film captured the heady flavour of belle époque gallivanting, but too often elsewhere it seemed incredibly tame and tawdrily middlebrow for such a spectacularly dissolute subject. Much the same could be said of Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody, a rumination upon the life and career of legendary Queen frontman Freddy Mercury, one that hit screens wafting a smoke trail of compromise and discarded stars and directors. The actual result proved chock full of music biopic clichés and shallow as a paint tin lid, but still it proved rather more entertaining than it had any right to be, as Singer gave it a dose of authentic swagger, and Rami Malek’s terrific central turn made its hero coherent in his mix of wounding vulnerability and performative zeal.
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30-VoxLux

Vox Lux

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Similarly obsessed with the problem of finding self through performance, if fictional this time, Bradley Cooper gained a popular hit and plaudits with the umpteenth version of A Star Is Born, casting a game Lady Gaga as the gutsy pop belter who falls for Cooper’s shambolic country rock star and finds herself catapulted to fame whilst coping with her husband’s collapse. Cooper displayed an inconsistent but occasionally fine-tuned touch for capturing chemistry and intimacy between himself and Gaga, and smarts for staging musical sequences (and the score was actually good). But Cooper’s relentlessly up-close-and-personal style grew wearisomely high-handed after a while, and the script made only scant gestures towards revising and deepening the very familiar melodrama of the storyline. Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux played as A Star Is Born’s instant critique, biting off a big chunk of contemporary angst in offering pop star Celeste (played by Raffey Cassidy whilst young and with amusing bravura by Natalie Portman in maturity) as the subject of a “Twenty-First Century portrait,” a girl put on the path to fame when she’s gunned down by a classmate in a school massacre, survives, and finds her gift for writing anthems unleashed. The film offered a coldly incisive proposal, that the current cults of empowerment and optimism in pop music are a bromide in an increasingly unsettled time whilst real trauma lurks untapped through the total exile of any kind of dark revelry, and Fassbender might have appreciated one twist, when terrorists appropriated Celeste’s imagery for their own counter-messaging. Corbet however skidded over such ideas and settled into an amazingly clichéd arc as heroic young talent evolves into a regulation jerk star, with the showy direction failing to venture beyond superficialities, interspersed with utterances of strained significance from Willem Dafoe’s narrator.
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31-TKTeacher

The Kindergarten Teacher

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The more ambitious American independent fare of 2018 betrayed depths of moral struggle not just between cultures and communities but inside individuals, psyches whiteanted by the manifold pressures of the age. The Strange Ones signalled real talent from collaborating directors Laura Wolkstein and Christopher Radcliff, in their attempts to depict the viewpoint of deep trauma through fragmented and elusive cinema, bolstered by intelligent performances from Alex Pettyfer and James Freedson-Jackson. Only the film’s uncertainty when and where to end degraded its carefully parsed sense of enigmatic desolation. Similarly obsessed with fragmented identities and perceptions, You Were Never Really Here was Lynne Ramsay’s first film in six years, a disturbing exploration of a psyche and a society equally damaged by misuse and iniquity. The careful, remorseless deconstruction of a standard genre story resulted in a movie that seemed wilfully offbeat and anticlimactic, and yet rewarded careful attention and receptivity to its portrayal of deep-riven spiritual and mental pain. The Kindergarten Teacher was an American remake of an Israeli film, adapted and revised by writer-director Lisa Colangelo. Her take proved an exacting portrait of a woman in the title profession, latching on to the astonishing poetic talents of a young boy in her class as a way of coping with her own growing frustration in life and outlook. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s terrific lead performance kept the character ambivalent even as she eventually did foolish and self-destructive things, and the story unfolded with a certain rarefied tension as it invited the audience to share her mania and know its urgency.
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First Reformed

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Chloe Zhao’s The Rider and Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace were very similar experiences for me, as works made by talented filmmakers trying to unite methods derived from documentaries, in a careful attention to physical detail and authentic contexts, with a more elusively poetic quality, in depicting individual avatars of assailed and damaged subcultures in contemporary America. Both were interesting works but remained basic on the dramatic level, their central characters blankly alienated, noticeably avoiding examining the furore of individual personality and the way such people stand in context of the louder, uglier cultural brawls at large in the nation. Paul Schrader’s First Reformed was a more traditional brand of serious filmmaking, but one with a similar aim in describing a personal watershed, in this case the gyring mania of a troubled priest confronting both individual and systemic despair after the suicide of a young environmental activist whose welfare he tried to take an interest in. Schrader’s attempt to articulate a specific sense of crisis and a general state of contemporary existential angst provoked a great performance from star Ethan Hawke. But Schrader remains a frustratingly basic director in many ways, aping the haughty masters he’s long admired without their easy intimacy or sense of detail, and his script promised a forceful dialogue between value systems that never arrived, settling instead for a kind of religiously-tinted green-left rewrite of Taxi Driver. Only right at the end, as Schrader invited ridicule but gained real power in depicting the life urge breaking loose in all its unruly, irrational force, did he explode his own formula.
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What They Had

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Elizabeth Chomko’s What They Had occupied slightly different territory in the continent of awards season cinema, depicting the reunion of a troubled but loving family faced with the decline through dementia of its matriarch, played with skill and deftly obvlious humour by Blythe Danner. Robert Forster, Hillary Swank, and Michael Shannon were equally fine as her flailing family, and the film unfolded with a level of real feeling. And yet the cross-currents of life straits afflicting the various characters felt too stagy and designed, and made for a busy, slightly facetious dramatic landscape. In a similar vein of slickly-scripted, urbane comedy-drama, Tamara Jenkins’ Private Life depicted a pair of aging creatives (played, with stunning inevitability, by Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn) trying to have a baby with increasing desperation and finally entering into a pact with their flaky but talented, hero-worshipping step-niece for an egg donation. The film never rocked the boat in filmmaking or narrative, and sometimes reeked of navel-gazing, but an acerbic sense of humour and accurate sense of people in different stages of life crisis kept it interesting.
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34-DarkRiver

Dark River

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After a superlative 2017, what I saw of British cinema this year was much more awkward. Saul Dibb again proved his eye one of the more visually textured and purposeful amongst the current crop of vaguely prestigious Brit directors, as he took on a real war horse by remaking R.C. Sherrif’s Journey’s End, an appropriately bleak revisit to the trenches of the century-gone Great War. The remake proved solid enough, but the adaptation neglected the play’s central question as to the value of hero worship, and so added up to just another bummer war movie. Armando Iannucci, maker of cult TV satires and occasional movies, dared a more risky and insolent foray with The Death of Stalin, a depiction of that momentous event couched in terms of multiple farceur traditions, in recognising an aspect of the absurd to a terrible regime. But Iannucci’s filmmaking was shaky, and his enormous conceit eventually proved unmatched by any degree of real intellectual provocation or truly outrageous humour. Clio Barnard’s Dark River took up a similar story and setting to last year’s The Levelling as it depicted a troubled woman’s return to her home on a farm in the Yorkshire dales after many years, following her father’s death. The film was strong when depicting her haywire relations with her aggrieved brother, and sported gritty performances, but wasted time trying to play its abuse aspect as a formative mystery, and the stab at tragic grandeur at the end felt unconvincing, depending on twists of circumstance and character that felt rushed and arbitrary.
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The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

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Mike Newell’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society employed a great cast for describing an interesting but little-studied time and place, the impact of Nazi occupation on Guernsey, cut off from the mythology of resistance to blitz and tyranny and forced to find meaning in other ways. But the result was the worst kind of by-product of the current school of middlebrow British cinema, slinking through a lamentably dull romantic subplot and fragmented stiff-upper-lipisms, and proffering smarmily anachronistic congratulations for its presumed audience. Spanish director Sebastian Lelio landed in a fresh pasture, London, to focus on the city’s Orthodox Jewish community, for a drama invoking those frisson-inducing words, forbidden lesbian romance, in Disobedience. Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams played the former lovers thrown together again after the death of Weisz’s beloved rabbi father; Alessandro Nivola played the third corner of the triangle as McAdams’ husband and heir in scholarly repute to the late rabbi. Bodied, intelligent performances gave the film most of its muscle, which otherwise proved too inoffensive in its portrait of tested tradition and worrying desire, never really penetrating its characters and failing to ask really hard questions about how to reconcile self with community.
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On Body and Soul

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In Australia, Breath saw Simon Baker making his directorial debut on home turf, adapting author Tim Winton’s fictionalised take on his own youth, depicting a pair of teenage boys falling under the spell of a former champion surfer and his damaged American wife. The brilliantly shot surfing sequences managed to trace out a zone of pantheistic poetry, and if he’d had faith to simply immerse his viewer in that zone, Baker might well have conjured a minor classic. But as the thin plot played out Breath proved overlong and eliding, failing to penetrate any character’s headspace or make the jailbait romantic twist of the last third feel believable. Hungarian director Ildikó Enyedi captured the Berlin Golden Bear with On Body and Soul, her mystically romantic study of oddballs who find themselves connected on a sublime level despite being immersed in a squalid environment. The film was hindered by a slight feeling of inevitability, but it remained a lovely study in people pushed towards natural fulfilment in spite of their being misshapen by worldly standards.
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37-TheGuardians

The Guardians

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Perpetual provocateur Claire Denis made an unexpected pivot back to the wistful, urbane romanticism of her Friday Night with Let The Sunshine In, a study in middle-aged romantic frustration, readily communicated by Juliette Binoche as she contended with a coterie of potential mates who all prove mismatched to some degree. The film was witty in portraying its heroine’s frustration with a parade of men in love with the sound of their own voices, but it never wielded any clear design as a character study, and remained awkwardly perched between Denis’ impressionistic films and more conventional fare. Xavier Beauvois, who contributed memorably to Denis’ film as an actor, returned as a director with The Guardians, a film that applied the slow, elegant, patient tempo of his Of Gods and Men to a depiction of the French home front during World War I, where the rhythms of rural life unfold with stammering interruptions and transformations in a context of general dread. Beauvois’ attentiveness to detail was lovely and rewarding, but something about the drama remained frustratingly unfledged and obvious – like one character’s dream sequence of killing himself in battle – and it lacked the inquisitiveness of Beauvois’ precursor.
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Burning

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Lee Chang-dong’s Burning extrapolated a short story by Haruki Murakami for an uneasy contemplation on a contemporary Korean social landscape litted with bewildered and alienated young folk, with its central character, a would-be writer and son of a hothead farmer, stumbling into a sort-of relationship with a girl from his home town who’s had so much plastic surgery he can’t recognise her, and her other pseudo-boyfriend, a blithe and mysterious rich kid who confesses to arson as a hobby. Lee’s patient, attentive filmmaking paid off in some extraordinary passages depicting desperation, both personal and in the zeitgeist, particularly when noting the flighty heroine’s various stabs at self-expression, all too incompetently observed by others. But of all the films I wanted to like this year, this one left me the most subtly frustrated. The hangdog blankness of the main character and the opaque smugness of his foe struck me as excessively calculated, sapping some of the power intended in the finale’s jarring, almost arbitrary eruption of overt violence, and the film was more interesting in its first half, when it was a study of confused and drifting types, before it became more an enigmatic thriller. Rungano Nyoni’s I Am Not A Witch was a broadcast from Zambia that noted with both puckish humour and a sense of desolate beauty the surreal collision between ancient and modern varieties of flimflam.
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Cold War

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Lucrecia Martel’s Zama was an equally perturbing study in social breakdown and personal ambiguity, albeit in a radically different setting, in this case an Argentine outpost in the waning days of Spanish imperialism. The titular hero, an ageing don eternally pining for escape from his supposedly respected but actually excruciating post but constantly missing the cues that might deliver him, rides his downward trajectory to the bitterest end. Martel’s striking images were vital in creating an increasingly surreal atmosphere, even if sometimes the story felt less like a tragedy of a ridiculous man than a hyperbolic castration fantasy. Some notable works of non-English language cinema seemed to think being in black-and-white was a serious cinematic gesture in itself. Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski released Cold War, a follow-up to 2014’s Ida and a similar exercise in stringent, monochrome evocation. This time Pawlikowski focused on a pair of quarrelsome lovers, a hangdog music teacher in a state-sponsored folk culture conservatorium and his earthy student discovery, who criss-cross Europe and find themselves trapped both by political systems and by their own ornery personalities. Sharp performances, particularly from Joanna Kulig as the imploding heroine, and Pawlikowski’s gift for composing images by turns artful, abstract, and soulful, made the film a fascinating journey, and yet this time around the eventual recourse to tragedy felt unearned, the narrative too rushed and fragmented to add up to much more than an exercise in historical-aesthetic ventriloquism.
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Roma

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Alfonso Cuaron returned for his first film since 2013’s Gravity with Roma, a fastidious recreation of the milieu of his childhood in early 1970s Mexico. A contemplation of domestic life as a manifestation of bigger things, Roma centred on a privileged but unstable bourgeois family and their maid Cleo, who does most of the real work of raising the rambunctious brood of kids whilst contending with her own troubles. Cuaron’s talents for staging and shooting episodes of spectacle were given free rein in a film that played less as dramatic entity and more as an attempt to submerge the viewer in a way of seeing and feeling. But for me the ostentatious style foiled the intended essence, the attempt to orientate according to a childlike perspective. Dramatic values remained obvious, the political backdrop never really developing beyond affected window dressing. Whilst Cuaron offered up the most artfully shot dog turds I’ve ever seen, his characters remained vague gestures, their world recreated but not made to matter. The very end, despite the apparently raw emotions involved, came perilously close to sitcom neatness as the family settled down with its two shaky but resolute matriarchs. Valeska Grisebach’s Western depicted a clutch of German labourers exiled to a Bulgarian backwater to build a dam, faced with language difficulties and character clashes, with one lanky worker finding tentative amity with the locals but also eventually catching the brunt of their pent-up ire. The title’s reference to genre mythology informed a wry sense of frontier isolation and episodes of physical struggle and communion over such raw essentials as water supplies, gravel, horses, and sex, and overall Western proved easily the best and least strained of the several films this year that tried to evoke a sense of workaday straits with a drifting, virtually plotless narrative, with a particularly astute use of non-professional actors.
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The Other Side of the Wind

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The most remarkable film event of 2018 was certainly the appearance of Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind, methodically pieced together after decades on a variety of shelves. The result might have blurred the boundaries between archival rescue and accomplished film – I suspect Welles might have been a touch more brutal with his footage than the editing team, including costar Peter Bogdanovich, could bring themselves to be. But it was still a startling, blissful experience, joining Welles’ obsession with corrupt and compromised men of vision to a vicious meditation upon his own rare stature and the transformations sweeping the movie world at the time of shooting, filmed with his characteristic ferocity turned up to 11. I can’t bring myself to call The Other Side of the Wind a film of 2018, but it was still rather easily the best work released this year.

Performances of Note:

Nathalie Baye, The Guardians
Iris Bry, The Guardians
Nicolas Cage, Mandy
Olivia Cooke, Ready Player One ; Thoroughbreds
Sam Elliott, A Star Is Born
Claire Foy, Unsane
Ethan Hawke, First Reformed
John Hawkes, Small Town Crime
Maggie Gyllenhaal, The Kindergarten Teacher
Michael B. Jordan, Black Panther ; Creed II
Jong-seo Jun, Burning
Lola Kirke, Gemini
Rachel McAdams, Disobedience
Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody
Leslie Mann, Blockers
Ben Mendelsohn, Ready Player One
Thomasin McKenzie, Leave No Trace
Meinhard Neumann, Western
Joaquin Phoenix, You Were Never Really Here
Linus Roache, Mandy
Dominic West, Colette
Ensemble: Bad Times at the El Royale
Ensemble: The Party
Ensemble: Support The Girls

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Favourite Films of 2018
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I Am Not A Witch (Rungano Nyoni)

Alternately beguiling in the often haunting poise of its imagery, and piercing in its darkly comic portrait of institutional corruption and prejudice in a context well off the beaten track, I Am Not A Witch contemplated the lot of an orphaned, wandering 9-year old Zambian girl accused of being a witch, exiled to a camp full of similarly accused women and exploited by various parties in the faith that her supernatural capacities can bring riches and dispel the parched and blighted pall over the locality. Debuting director Nyoni managed the fine art of blending potentially discordant tones – laugh-out-loud satire colliding with mystic sparseness and social issue movie – ultimately achieving a sense of enigmatic regret in questioning what we steal from ourselves when we fail to recognise wonder.

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Gemini (Aaron Katz)

From its early scenes, with their carefully woven sense of punch-drunk paranoia, to a droll last third where Lola Kirke’s kooky fool of fortune slowly refashioned herself into master of all she surveys, Gemini was one of the year’s most intriguing and stylish films. Katz offered a spry, twisty narrative that worked on several levels whilst never quite giving in to the temptation to become any one thing definitely. Katz made affectionate sport of noir film clichés, analysed the alienating precincts of an endlessly self-referential celebrity culture, and dramatised the uneasy process of his brand of filmmaker negotiating with Hollywood, contending with the problem of selling out even whilst taking charge.

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Mandy (Panos Cosmatos)

Often I hold the phrase “unique vision” in a certain dubiety as it’s by no means a guarantee a filmmaker who has one is necessarily also any good at making a watchable movie with it. But Mandy established firmly that Panos Cosmatos certainly has one, and moreover one that surely flaunts his touchstones and inspirations and yet also subsumes them entirely into his private universe. Starring a cunningly cast Nicolas Cage as wrath, backed up Andrea Riseborough and Linus Roache as grace and malevolence, Mandy promised and delivered a gory, gut-crunching genre film, but also successfully communicated something more elusive, about the transformative power of love and its eternal partner, loss.

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Manhunt (John Woo)

This whackadoodle excursion from an aging master seemed to be trying to singlehandedly invent a new variety of pan-Pacific action movie, as Woo remade an old Japanese film and used it as a template to study the uneasy relationship of modern Japan and China where the only common lingua franca is English in the boardroom and Hollywood thrillers on the streets. The plot was silly and the acting off. But the explosions of dazzlingly fluid staging, episodes of operatic showmanship, and overripe images of romantic annihilation made the whole thing a crazy treat of pure joy in the medium.

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Ready Player One (Steven Spielberg)

Spielberg’s best film since Lincoln and his most carefree since his tilt at Tintin, Ready Player One received a lot of commentary upon release that read more like polls over how much one liked its basic mission statement, as a film based around a certain period in pop culture (of which it proves, astonishingly, there are more fans now than of, say, Little Nemo and Biggles). Generally they ignored its actual form and function, as a swinging romantic adventure film and old-fashioned teens-fight-the-man comedy, ebullient spectacle mixed with lucid, affectionate satire on online culture and a surprisingly pensive sense of summation for its director, contemplating the hazy zone at the nexus of artists’ rights, open-sourced culture and fan provenance, and corporate domain defence. Plus it had Mechagodzilla and Chucky going apeshit.

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You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay)

Lynne Ramsay’s fourth feature gained a pitifully small viewership for such a well-reviewed and original effort, with its relentlessly interiorised, eccentric deconstruction of the purgation-through-violence noir tale, and its sense of psychic struggle with things both virulently ugly and ungraspably beautiful will probably remain too rarefied for a cult audience either. But it was still a major achievement, creating a sense of what it’s like to have a badly damaged and traumatised mind whilst still trying to act according to a potent sense of right and wrong. Joaquin Phoenix’s carefully recessive performance provided the axis around which Ramsay’s visions created a hallucinatory void where acts of decency skid across ice with a dark hell below.

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Zama (Lucrecia Martel)

Weird, painful, and ultimately perversely cathartic in studying degradation as a natural process, Zama had a basic storyline that felt on occasions like a Coen Brothers put-on about a character too dumb or blinkered to know he’s doomed. But Martel turned that journey into a fresco at once fetid and desolating yet also perfervid, with some of the most beautifully composed images in recent cinema, finding hues of surrealism in sights as disparate as a woman caressing a horse’s belly, lordly natives wearing bird-masks, or a man robbed of his hands but finally delivered from the tyranny of worldly cares. The film came ready-loaded with implications about hot-button issues, like the ills of colonialism and slavery, but Martel’s pictures dispelled all trace of thesis and instead became a shamanic invocation of a past lingering like mist in the dawn.

Added to 2018 Favourites List after 1/1/2019:

To be announced

Honourable Mention

If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins)
Leave No Trace (Debra Granik)
Solo: A Star Wars Story (Ron Howard)
The Strange Ones (Laura Wolkstein, Christopher Radcliff)
Western (Valeska Grisebach)

Rough Gems and/or Underrated

12 Strong (Nicolai Fuglsig)
Aquaman (James Wan)
Avengers: Infinity War (Anthony and Joe Russo)
BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee)
The Endless (Justin Benson, Aaron Moorehead)
First Reformed (Paul Schrader)
The Kindergarten Teacher (Sara Colangelo)
Green Book (Peter Farrelly)
The Guardians (Xavier Beauvois)
The Mule (Clint Eastwood)
On Body and Soul (Ildikó Enyedi)
A Quiet Place (John Krasinski)
The Party (Sally Potter)
The Rider (Chloe Zhao)
The Ritual (Gary Bruckner)
Small Town Crime (Eshom Nelms, Ian Nelms)
A Star Is Born (Bradley Cooper)
Support The Girls (Andrew Bujalski)
Tomb Raider (Roar Uthaug)
Unsane (Steven Soderbergh)

Disappointing and/or Overrated

Ant-Man and the Wasp (Peyton Reed)
Black Panther (Ryan Coogler)
Deadpool 2 (David Leitch)
The Death of Stalin (Armando Iannucci)
Early Man (Nick Park)
First Man (Damien Chazelle)
Hereditary (Ari Aster)
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (J.A. Bayona)
Let The Sunshine In (Claire Denis)
Mary Queen of Scots (Josie Rourke)
Mission: Impossible – Fallout (Christopher McQuarrie)
Ocean’s 8 (Gary Ross)
Roma (Alfonso Cuaron)
Vox Lux (Brad Corbet)
Widows (Steve McQueen)

Crap

The 15:17 to Paris (Clint Eastwood)
Annihilation (Alex Garland)
Mohawk (Ted Geoghegan)
Suspiria (Luca Guadagnino)
Vice (Adam McKay)
A Wrinkle In Time (Ava DuVernay)
Winchester (Michael and Peter Spierig)

Unseen:

22 July ∙ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs ∙ Can You Ever Forgive Me? ∙ Capernaum ∙ Crazy Rich Asians ∙ Destroyer ∙ Eighth Grade ∙ The Favourite ∙ The Guilty ∙ Halloween ∙ Happy as Lazzaro ∙ Madeline’s Madeline ∙ A Private War ∙ The Old Man & The Gun ∙ Revenge ∙ Shoplifters ∙ The Sisters Brothers ∙ Sweet Country ∙ 

The Best Older Films I Saw First in 2018

Anatahan (Josef von Sternberg)
Atlas (Roger Corman)
Les Anges du Peche / Diary of a Country Priest (Robert Bresson)
Aparajito (Satyajit Ray)
The Beast (Walerian Borowczyk)
The Black Room (Roy William Neill)
Boudu Saved From Drowning / Night at the Crossroads / A Day in the Country / The Crime of Monsieur Lange / La Bête Humaine (Jean Renoir)
Cabin in the Sky (Vincente Minnelli)
La Collectionneuse (Eric Rohmer)
The Gun Runners / Edge of Eternity (Don Siegel)
Female Vampire (Jesus Franco)
Fires on the Plain (Kon Ichikawa)
First Man into Space (Robert Day)
Fort Graveyard / Japan’s Longest Day (Kihachi Okamoto)
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Rex Ingram)
A Fugitive From The Past (Tomu Uchida)
Galaxy Express 999 / Adieu Galaxy Express 999: Final Stop Andromeda (Rintaro)
Heart of Glass (Werner Herzog)
Ikiru / The Lower Depths (Akira Kurosawa)
In a Year of 13 Moons / The Marriage of Maria Braun / The Third Generation (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
The Iron Rose / The Grapes of Death (Jean Rollin)
The Lady and the Monster (George Sherman)
Les Vampires (Louis Feuillade)
Miracle in Milan / Umberto D. (Vittorio De Sica)
Ned Kelly (Tony Richardson)
Paisan / Germany, Year Zero / The Flowers of St Francis (Robert Rossellini)
Portrait From Life (Terence Fisher)
Princess Yang Kwei-Fei (Kenji Mizoguchi)
Rabid Dogs (Mario Bava)
Salo, or 120 Days of Sodom (Pier Paolo Pasolini)
The Sheik (George Melford)
The Soft Skin / L’Enfant Sauvage / The Story of Adele H. (Francois Truffaut)
The Son of the Sheik (George Fitzmaurice)
The Strange Door (Joseph Pevney)
They All Laughed (Peter Bogdanovich)
A Touch of Zen (King Hu)
Touki-Bouki (Djibril Diop Mambéty)
The Weary Death / Woman in the Moon / Spies / House By The River (Fritz Lang)
Whisky Galore! (Alexander Mackendrick)

Standard
2010s, Action-Adventure, Experimental, Horror/Eerie

Mandy (2018)

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Director: Panos Cosmatos
Screenwriters: Panos Cosmatos, Aaron Stewart-Ahn

By Roderick Heath

Panos Cosmatos is a second-generation directing talent, son of the Florence-born, Greco-Italian director George Pan Cosmatos and Swedish sculptor Birgitta Ljungberg-Cosmatos. Cosmatos the Elder directed many a punchy action movie over the years, including Escape to Athena (1979), Rambo: First Blood Part II (1984), Leviathan (1989), Tombstone (1994), and my personal favourite, his blend of disaster movie and epidemic thriller, The Cassandra Crossing (1977). At his best George had the kind of headlong, take-no-prisoners energy to his filmmaking that makes for great trash cinema. Panos Cosmatos debuted in 2011 with the instant cult film Beyond the Black Rainbow, signalling that he was going to be a very different filmmaker to his father. Just two films into his career, Cosmatos the Younger has confirmed a style based in delirious visuals and an allusively creative approach blended with concerted fetishisation of genre plots and imagery, a schismatic aesthetic Panos had stated very plainly is based in a desire to unify the artistic styles of his parents, George’s popular, spectacular thrillers and Birgitta’s abstract conjurations. Mandy, his second film, reaped a lot of excitement in the build-up to its release by promising a hallucinogen-tinted, utterly madcap revenge thriller carefully pitched to give fans of star Nicholas Cage a pure, uncut dose of his weird and galvanising talent.
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For once hype was inescapably correct, but Mandy proves something even more eccentric, a plunge into an evocation of a netherworld at once dreamy and charged with hellraising headfucking, but also a considered attempt to portray extreme woe as a state of mind that remakes the universe in its own sorry image. Mandy unfolds in a version of 1983 that might as well be in an alternate dimension, the landmarks all the same but the general spirit and rules of reality all revised by cosmic fiat. Red (Cage) and his partner Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) live in a house in the Shadow Mountains of British Columbia. Red works as a lumberjack, hewing away at the fringes of the primal forest, whilst Mandy mans the counter at a gas station and store, whiling away her hours reading paperback fantasy novels and painting fanciful illustrations for what seems to her own comic book take on her favourite genre. Red and Mandy both have the aspect of survivors, renegade lovers recovering from wild youths now happily drifting through the days out on the fringes of civilisation, with only need for each-other’s company when Red comes back from his logging adventures. Mandy, with her heavy metal T-shirts and goggle eyes, is a fawnish, fey-seeming lady who seems to operate purely by some skewed interior compass, whilst Red seems to have built his life around providing her with a safe shell to crawl into, partly because he needs her arms to crawl into himself.
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One day, as Mandy walks up on the gravel roads bisecting the forest about their home, a van passes by, and she locks eyes with a man in the vehicle, one Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache). Sand is the guru and warlord of a wandering gang of bohemian rabble calling themselves Children of the New Dawn, all in his thrall as a self-appointed messianic voice, and he instantly decides he must possess Mandy. Once ensconced in a nearby motel, Sand angrily spurns his older disciple and concubine Mother Marlene (Olwen Fouéré) in favour of a younger, Sister Lucy (Line Pillet), whilst instructing his slavish aide Brother Swan (Ned Dennehy) to find Mandy and bring her into their midst. To help Swan, Sand gives him a device he calls the Horn of Abraxas, which Swan uses once he’s driven out into the woods; the horn proves to have the ability to conjure up the Black Skulls, a band of demons riding motorcycles, whose hellish ranks Swan impresses for the task of taking Mandy and Red captive in their home. In exchange for their services, Sand casually tells Swan to let the demons have another of the disciples as blood sacrifice. The demons and cultists break into Red and Mandy’s house in the night, separating the lovers, tying Red up, and dragging off the hapless disciple for slaughter. Marlene and Lucy dose Mandy with a drug cocktail and subject her to the sting of a huge wasp just for flavour, before taking her to meet Sand in the living room, where the cult leader tries to dazzle her with his brilliance until she submits to his overlordship.
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The opening scenes stake out the dominant mood and style as one of narcotised and amniotic immersion, a state of free-floating spirit that seems to mimic the womb-like remove of Mandy and Red’s life together. They’re the kind of couple who know each-other’s sense of humour backwards – Red’s punchline-lacking knock-knock joke cracks them both up – and who settle down for dinner whilst watching a trashy horror movie. Their house has mostly glass walls that allows them to all but float amongst the trees. Mandy has a pacific sensitivity about her that lends specially charged meaning to a moment like when she stumbles across the corpse of young deer, and steps naked out of a lake with fixated eyes that seem to hold Red enthralled by her irrational power, in the best possible way. The jagged hieroglyphic of a scar on her cheek testifies to some encounter with terror and pain in her past. Riseborough’s preternatural gaze has never been quite so well exploited in a role where she’s required less to seem like she’s acting – which of course can demand very difficult acting – than a spirit haunting the movie even when Mandy is still alive. Mandy’s talent for illustrating seems to mesh with her fondness for the fanciful, as she’s reading a high fantasy novel called Seeker of the Serpent’s Eye about a questing hero battling sorcerers and demons. After finding the deer’s corpse, she recounts to Red, in a long, slow, eerie vignette, the story of how her father encouraged her and some childhood friends to slay some starling chicks he found, through his hatred for the greedy birds, but Mandy, lacking that edge of sadism so many only need encouragement to indulge, ran away.
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The arrival of Sand and his band offers a contrasting state of hermetic self-involvement, with Sand a tight-wound ball of craven wont mixed with a strange, livewire intensity that suggests a state of painfully ecstatic awareness. Sand wields some authentic-feeling qualities of the cult leader. Like Charles Manson he’s a failed musician, and explains with wide-eyed fervour about the transcendental experience of God speaking to him and telling him everything in the world was his, seemingly as a recompense for his dud career, and he offers a similar pleasure to those who follow him, a promise that even if he doesn’t want to use all the gifts of the people under his aegis all the time, he can still channel them towards a greater purpose than what the world usually extends to them. You’d dismiss him as a colossal wanker if he didn’t seem to really have some mystical powers, with his ability to completely compel his followers and summon demons to do his bidding. Whenever fear or anxiety unseat him, he’s able to draw in and recover a sure sense of his power, returning to glazed and fanatical stature.
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The film’s focal sequence comes when the drugged-up and tethered Mandy is obliged to witness as Sand parts his robe so she can behold his scrawny body and flaccid penis and listen with edification to his psychedelic folk-rock, a scene pure black comedy fervour wrapped in a shiny glaze of trippy colouring and droning scoring that keeps in mind the menace underlying all, the assurance that Sand will readily and easily do terrible things to Mandy and Red. What he doesn’t expect, however, is Mandy’s reaction to his great performance, as she begins to laugh with fearsome contempt for the man and his music: Mandy has encountered and defeated such monstrosities before, if only on the plain of her dreams. Sand’s punishment for mockery is however dreadful: once his underlings tie Red to a tree in the yard, he has Mandy bundled up in a sack, hung up before him, and burned alive. Left to his own devices by the Children, who leave after reducing Mandy to ashes, Red manages to work his hands free from his bonds and goes into his house, still tauntingly the same as it was a few hours before but now utterly changed, absent the presence that gave it meaning. Red is transfixed by the spectacle of an ad for “Cheddar Goblins” on TV that has demonic visages rising from a bowl of snack food, beset by animated visions of Mandy as a zombie, and stung as he pours vodka on his raw wrists and slashed side, raw physical pain anchoring him to a reality he’d probably easily check out from otherwise.
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Mandy’s bizarre style, sporting rich colour effects, plangent sound design, and general miasmic mood, sees expressive textures explicitly related to the otherworldly sensibility of the two tribes, the world of two that is Red and Mandy and the cobbled-together family that is the Children. Cosmatos seems bent on creating a modern version of psychedelic cinema, but that style’s generally gaudy, amped-up sensibility is swapped here for one liquidinous languor, as if David Lynch and Andrei Tarkovsky tried to collaborate on a New World movie for Roger Corman. The storyline proceeds with near-mythic simplicity, telling an essential story of loss and retribution, in order to describe the obsessive emotional quotient of Red’s experience after Mandy’s death. Mandy describes Panos’s imagined idea of 1983 as an age viewed through a prism of cultural detritus and childhood impressionism. The past is surely another country, populated with counterculture exiles and illustrated through the vivid, conceptually related but subtly diverse and individually totemic styles of cover art on Heavy Metal albums, drugstore paperbacks, VHS schlock, and comic book illustrations, all soaked in the bad Woodstock brown acid. The film might be a dream either Red or Mandy are having, the stuff of their waking fantasies churned together in the dye welling out of their subconscious.
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The demarcated chapters are announced by titles written in retro fashion, mimicking the horny curlicues on ‘80s horror paperback covers or the glazed, glowing fonts of fantasy film logos in trailers, the sorts of stylistics that tend to be so ubiquitous that you don’t really notice when they go out of favour. Cosmatos seems to be recalling with happy barbarity the days when pop cultural schisms were potent demarcations, when furious arguments over things we tend to laugh at now like Satanic messages in rock music could echo through the news space with credulity. The joke of this is that a pair like Red and Mandy, who often sports a pentagram-emblazoned Motley Crue shirt, are harmless when left to their own devices, whilst the Children, who are in spite of their hellspawn helpmates are actually designated “Jesus freaks,” are the cruel and marauding imposers. Cosmatos shows Reagan on the TV as another brand of beatific cult leader. The sociological import of this, Cosmatos suggests, is that more real damage has been done to the modern mindset by those proposing to have a path to God and glory than those happy to roll around in affected devilishness. The mysterious treaty between Heaven and Hell proposed by Sand and the Black Skulls, echoes an idea out of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, where the obsessive Jesuit Naphta proposed Satan was much closer to God than Man because the Devil was playing his part in the scheme of things whilst Humanity is always trying to go off on its own path. You could even describe Red’s path in the second half of the film as the dramatization of that path.
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Meanwhile Sand portrays a certain type of vanity to the hilt, turning his own libido and mesmeric conviction in his own value into a cosmic state, a diseased devolution of hippie mysticism into pure Me Decade ego service, bedecked in faux-religious finery. Mandy wins a kind of victory over him, signified as her face and his seem to be blurring and becoming one, doubtless the process by which he subsumes his slavish believers into his service, in an image reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966). But Mandy instead rips free and begins to howl with laughter, the worst offence to the man-god, who desperately masturbates as if hoping it’s a rite that can ward off humiliation, before he casts Mandy into the fires where, as the Children gleefully tell Red, she’ll remain burning for eternity. After escaping his bonds Red tries to touch her scorched remains, only for her skull to crumble into dust. Cage, up until this point mostly a quiet and beholding figure becalmed by Mandy’s presence in his life, now squirms in terrible private pathos. In his tiger-emblazoned shirt and underpants, pale legs barely propping up his weary body and pouched genitals and finally giving out, he’s like a caricature of a very specific image of bereft and pathetic masculinity, and concludes with the sight of him weeping on the toilet.
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Red sets out to avenge her with steady determination, visiting his enigmatic friend Caruthers (director and former Predator star Bill Duke in a splendid cameo), a calm but foreboding helpmate who has his ear to the ground, and who keeps a crossbow Red owns stashed away, a device of death Red calls The Reaper. Caruthers tells Red that he’s heard about the Children and their demon brethren, who tear along the remote roadways of the region transporting a powerful version of LSD concocted by some mad alchemist living out in the wilds, and reports rumours about the Black Skull’s nightmarish activities and supposed origin, as a biker gang perverted and misshapen by the alchemist feeding them a particularly obscene brew. Realising he needs a more than ordinary weapon to fight such monstrosities, Red returns home and forges a battle axe out of silver, moulding, hammering, and polishing the weapon until it’s a glistening demon slayer which he names, of course, Mandy. This sequence comes weighed up with brazenly iconic, fuck-yeah delight in the macho swagger and sense of impending reckonings, and Red sets out on his battle with evil well-armed if still facing great odds: “You’ll probably die,” Caruthers has warned him, to Red’s reply, in a tenor of slight hurt mixed with dry resolve, “Don’t be negative.”
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When the time comes for the roaring rampage of revenge Mandy certainly delivers. But it remains steadfast in its strangeness, its air of surreal grappling with a specific keynote of emotion. It’s also a film dedicated utterly to describing a mood that, for all the retro trope harvesting, seems somehow purely contemporary. A feeling of being bound and trapped, flailing in impotent anxiety before the entitled arrogance of others, of being naked before looming arithmetic of debts that can be repaid fourfold and yet only ever be too late and too little. It’s close to a zeitgeist right now, and Cosmatos, however coincidentally, speaks to it. More immediately, his purpose is to define Red’s sense of dislocated grief, and that is also the idea of grief in general. Red goes to war with “all that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil,” as his ancestor Ahab once did. Mandy zeroes in a rarely-contemplated aspect of the revenge saga, which usually, when not simply using it a pretext for violence, utilises it as a metaphor for the process of expiating loss. Mandy immerses Red, and the viewer, in a sodden state of inescapable awareness where the shock of violence intensifies rather than dispels the punch-drunk atmosphere, each gruesome slaying and sticky end ratcheting up the insanity a few more degrees. Every torn body and crumpled skull simply underscores the impossibility of escaping the sink of sorrow until the very last station is reached.
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Like some of the other more interesting films of 2018, like Lynne Ramsay’s equally shell-shocked You Were Never Really Here and Steven Spielberg’s more larkish take Ready Player One, Mandy considers the universe conjured by the mind, infinitely transformative and replete with manifold masks and yet so often defined by certain, infinitely significant points of reference, giving shape to the fragmentary nature of existence. Perhaps it’s the last frontier, a place of authentic struggle as well as retreat. Early scenes of Red and Mandy out picnicking and swimming in the woods are given the faintly unreal lustre of how Mandy might paint such a scene, with surging vortexes of pure energy in the sky and walls of fire appearing to Red, whilst the film’s very last shot perceives a landscape transformed into an exoplanetary wasteland, with soaring crags and hovering galactic bodies. Mandy herself seems to exist in a liquid state of being, timeless and resistant to ossification, a state that Cosmatos identifies as specifically feminine, in a manner reminiscent of Ma Joad’s speech from The Grapes of Wrath (1940), whilst Red is defined by a reductive sense of the function of masculinity, in the sense that he’s only free of the need to hunt – to chase down and destroy – when immersed in her space, and to be bereft of that space as he is when Mandy dies is like being born in a cold world all over again, birth that is like death. That Red plucks out a bottle of spirits from where he’s kept it stashed for god knows how long and uses it balm wounds inside and out says a lot of how he doused and dimmed that need before meeting Mandy.
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For a film that depends on exploiting Cage’s reputation as Hollywood’s most obliging fruitcake, his performance in Mandy is actually quite controlled, expertly managing the leap from dreaming companion to nihilistic marauder. When he pulls out some trademark mannerisms, like his mad grin, they come with a newly certain sense of import, of the soul in extremis, after passing through moments of convincing naturalism, as in Red’s despairing bathroom moment. Cage is willing to look undignified and slightly absurd here, in a way a lot of actors don’t dare. Mandy’s death is portrayed for the most part via Red’s agonised reaction. This scene presents a variation on another memorable recent Cage role, inverting the situation in Kick-Ass (2010) where he was the one burning whilst the female he cared for tried to save him. Red hits the warpath, hacking, slashing, goring, and felling his foes, who seem to become less substantial with each one he defeats, phantoms who are functions of his mourning. Even more so when the Black Skulls take him prisoner and pinion him with a nail through one hand and handcuffs on the other, perfectly encapsulating his agonistes. Red even taunts one of the demons into punching him repeatedly, although this has the practical purpose of loosening the pipe length he’s cuffed to, and when the pipe comes loose he clobbers the vile creature until it plunges into a gaping pit.
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The Black Skulls’ abode, a mixture of torture chamber and drug house where garbage is piled up, startling elixirs waits in jars, and porn flicks buzz on the TV, cunningly blurs the line between presenting the Black Skulls as authentically paranormal figures and merely heightened, hallucination-transformed junkies; in their look, with their nail-bedecked clothes, blade-sporting limbs, and chitinously masked faces, they seem like a cross between the Cenobites from Hellraiser (1987), the gimp from Pulp Fiction (1994), and Brando-idolising bikers. Red slays all of the Black Skulls and moves on to track down the chemist (Richard Brake) who makes their dire drug concoctions: the chemist proves able to deduce purely by reading Red’s stoic facial expression what his thoughts are. The chemist releases his pet tiger – yes, pet tiger – on Red’s unstated insistence and guides him on to the remote church where the Children congregate, where he does battle with the cultists one by one, gruesomely shoving the end of his battle axe down Swan’s throat and duelling Brother Klopek (Clément Baronnet) in a contest with roaring chainsaws. Finally Red approaches the end of his journey in the church, built over a subterranean system of tunnels that look like they might have been built for a government installation, a labyrinth where Red must first move past the sensual pleasures Marlene offers before reaching Sand and his assurances that Red is a paltry thing compared to his exalted triumph. But Sand is reduced to an obviously fake waxen skull and limbs breaking and melting under the fire and wrath Red brings, a crumpled mannequin in death: perhaps that was only ever his function, to awaken the apocalyptic force in Red. He drives away from the burning church, seeing Mandy in the car seat beside him, perhaps her spirit rescued from perdition or just a wishful apparition in his overheated brain, but with the sure meaning that as far as Red’s concerned he’s done right by her.
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Mandy comes on as an enveloping audio-visual experience, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s sonorous final score charting the tale’s psychological tenor and sense of spiritual angst, infusing Cosmatos’ lysergic images which roll on drenched in clashing primary hues that suggest Mario Bava making a music video. King Crimson plays over the opening credits. Recognisable fragments of the kind of late ‘70s and early ‘80s drive-in and video store fodder Cosmatos seems to have consumed and reprocessed into the fuel oil of his imagination float by: the chainsaw duel is out of Motel Hell (1981), the forging scene reminiscent of Conan the Barbarian (1982). The vision of Red overlooking the Children’s church, a spire of pyramidal wood in the midst of a deep, cleaving gorge, has a sense of outsized, cyclopean strangeness reminiscent of Michael Mann’s The Keep (1983) and some other, oddball by-products of the era. Often Cosmatos aims for self-conscious transformation of kitsch, like a vision of the released tiger roaring under a pulp mag moon, that obeys some personal logic, an attempt to transcribe the memory of what it was like to be a particularly imaginative adolescent, trying to imagine the perfect movie behind all those video cases, the one the real movies usually proved so disappointingly not to be.
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Mandy could be the strangest and most interesting attempt to blend art house and grindhouse notions of cinema since Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day (2001). The feeling of inevitability in its narrative could be called a fault, a limitation of its cumulative power. But it’s also certainly an offshoot of Cosmatos’ motive, his desire to dramatise a state of mind, to work through a fixation and exist entirely in an oneiric space. The Red who comes out the far end of his savage adventure is not the same man, but a new chimera, the product of his loss and love both. Mandy struggles to articulate the feeling of a particularly intense variety of dream or trip, and succeeds as such, but also emerges as the sort of movie doomed to split those who dare enter its colour-drenched frames into ranks of true believers and those who run the other way hard and fast. For myself, I both love it and distrust it, for the same reason as it tries to speak past the front of the mind to the weird and fetid recesses in the back. It is, in its way, the most intense and reorientating cinematic experience I’ve had since Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011), a film with which it shares little but the increasingly rare treat of directors utterly in love with their mediums determined to enact their vision to the limit.

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2010s, Auteurs, Film Noir, Thriller

You Were Never Really Here (2017)

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Director/Screenwriter: Lynne Ramsay

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

Glasgow-born director Lynne Ramsay gained international repute with her impressionistic debut narrative film Ratcatcher in 1999. Ramsay cemented her status as a filmmaker to watch with her portrait of crisis adrift, Morvern Callar, in 2002, and her American film debut, the 2011 adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin. Ramsay’s cinema is distinguished by her visually dense and allusive approach, applying the style she developed in early experimental shorts to films that try to convey the interior perspective of deeply troubled and alienated characters who subsist within bubbles of disorientation. Ratcatcher was the tale of a poverty-stricken boy who nonetheless sustains an extraordinarily vivid sense of the world about him, alive to fleeting moments of imaginative transformation and eye-catching serendipity. Morvern Callar depicted a young woman eddying in a stab at self-realisation following her author boyfriend’s suicide, her recessive and childlike personality allowing Ramsay a natural zone to annex after her debut, before arriving at the would-be worldly antiheroine of We Need To Talk About Kevin. Morvern Callar was one of the most interesting films of the early 2000s, but I intensely disliked We Need To Talk About Kevin, which struck me as facile and more than vaguely exploitative in its approach to parental guilt and school massacre. It was also the kind of debacle only a director of great talent can conjure, showcasing Ramsay’s visualisations, and its general success greatly raised Ramsay’s profile.
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Ramsay’s career has been marked nearly as much by the projects that have fallen through for her over the years as the ones she’s managed to get on screen. Her attempt to film Alice Sebold’s novel The Lovely Bones proved abortive, with the project eventually proving a fiasco for Peter Jackson, and in the past few years Ramsay wasted a good chunk of her new fame in an abortive attempt to work with Natalie Portman on the would-be feminist western Jane Got A Gun, which saw the light in 2016 helmed instead with stultifying lack of imagination by Gavin O’Connor. You Were Never Really Here, an adaptation of Jonathan Ames novella, marks a startlingly vigorous resurgence for Ramsay that also might be counted as a little revenge on her part, conjuring the film Jane Got A Gun might have been, taking on familiar generic canards with a fiercely quirky method and coming up with a hallucinatory neo-western blended with noir drama unfolding in the contemporary New York cityscape. Joaquin Phoenix is cast as central character Joe: he’s a figure perfectly suited to both the actor playing him and his love of playing damaged, semi-articulate screw-ups, and to the director, as another of Ramsay’s lost and childlike protagonists, subsisting in a hall of mirrors generated by his damaged psyche even as he brings potent adult anger and capacity for violence to bear upon the world.
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Ramsay quickly announces her peculiar aesthetic as the film kicks off with a vision of bubbles swirling in dark water and two distinct voices counting down to zero, as well as the ritualised chant Joe recalls from childhood insisting that “I must try to be better.” The film slowly composites into definite form as we’re given peculiar visions – a young boy’s face, a mouth writhing under a sheet of plastic, a burning photo of a girl, a bloodied hammer, possessions on a bed scooped into a bag. Joe exits what appears to be a room in a hotel, and descends to the lobby, only to retreat at the sight of cop cars outside. He exits instead into an alley, where an assailant tries to beat his head in with a blunt object, but Joe shrugs off the blow and easily bests the goon. Joe gets into a cab, the livery of which tells us we’re in Cincinnati, and catches a bus back to New York. He enters a house there, which proves to be his mother’s home. His mother (Judith Roberts) is elderly, infirm, and a little confused, but still can pull off a joke as she pretends to be asleep only to surprise her son. Soon enough Joe is lost again in the minutiae of his idea of a ordinary life, like mopping up the bathroom after his mother, singing along with her whilst polishing silver, or reading books backwards and tearing out pages he doesn’t like, whilst occasionally seeming to debate suicide.
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Joe’s carefully prophylactic work method, we learn, is designed to keep a layer of insulation between his home life and his current profession as hired muscle. He’s so particular about this he uses a grocery store owner, Angel (Frank Pando), as a middle man contact between him and his usual employer John McCleary (John Doman), and he decides to dispense with Angel as contact because his teenage son Moises (Vinicius Damasceno) has seen him entering his house. McCleary himself a mere agent for hiring guys like Joe to pull off nasty jobs, often hiring Joe to rescue girls kidnapped into sexual slavery: when he comes to visit McCleary’s office, Joe finds it filled with flowers sent by the florist parents of the girl he rescued in Cincinnati. McCleary hires Joe for another job, this time one that promises to be very lucrative, as a Senator named Votto (Alex Manette) needs Joe’s special talents. McCleary is happy, boasting he can finally get his yacht out of dry dock and promising to host Joe, but Joe’s too distracted by digging for green jelly beans. Joe meets with Votto, who wants him to rescue his daughter Nina, who’s run off from home and an anonymous tip has told him she’s being kept in a brothel for high-roller paedophiles located in downtown Manhattan.
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Usually when contemporary artists try to complicate the basic template of the lone avenging hero, they choose to load up the hero with quirks and neuroses that muddy up the white armour. Ramsay takes a different approach: although Joe is unstable and possesses a perturbing readiness to unleash punitive ferocity, he’s essentially an innocent, a small boy in a man’s body. Ramsay mimics Joe’s unmoored sense of time and focus with her filmmaking, latching on to random impressions and patinas, odd little details and fleeting spurts of conversation: attention deficit as a cinema aesthetic. Any sight seems charged with some semaphore of fate, like a girl staring at Joe from behind a pillar on the El. The reasons for Joe’s mental state are suggested in spasmodic flash cuts conveying the intrusive memories that can compel him at any moment of the day. A foot twitching in sand, a hazy face in a burka, two soldiers in uniform dancing in the midst of the desert, a candy bar handed over through fencing wire. These prove to be attached to specific, deeply disturbing moments in Joe’s life – one kid shoots another for the candy bar. When Joe is asked by some Asian schoolgirls to take their group picture, Joe recalls a truck filled with asphyxiated corpses of Asian women. The association so upsets Joe he goes to buy the wares of a drug dealer to lose himself in a chemical daze, and socks the guy for arriving late.
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Joe seems to have served as both a soldier and a cop in his life (Ames book makes it clear it was an FBI agent), and the awful sights harvested in such roles have left him damaged, but they’ve also clearly also conjoined with traumatising memories from his childhood. Ramsay offers flash sights of Joe’s childhood efforts to drown out domestic rows between his parents by wrapping his head in plastic – a habit that seems to lie behind his current habit of doing the same thing to control strong emotions. Joe also recalls his mother hiding under a bed and a man, surely his father, sitting in the living room and stalking the house with a hammer. Small wonder Joe is now so protective of his mother, and this slowly past biography also gives grim totemic import to his weapon of choice in dealing with the miscreants his job throws his way, caving in their skulls with a hammer. When Joe sets out on Votto’s mission, he parks outside the old brownstone and waits for a young man who works inside to come out; Joe apprehends him, ties him up, pumps him for information, and then ventures inside.
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Ramsay depicts Joe’s entrance into the den of depravity with the coolest of viewpoints, shooting his marauding through the security cameras around the brothel, in which he appears like a haggard ghoul lurching out of the shadows, smashing in the heads of the brothel’s guardians, leaving their bodies sprawled in his wake. Joe finds Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) on a bed, engaged in the same practice of counting down Joe uses in his anxiety control. Joe takes her in hand and leads her out of the brothel, pausing only with advice to her to close her eyes as he hammers a patron who stumbles into his path – Nina continues to watch with cool regard. Taking refuge in a car park, Joe has claw the girl off him with the assurance “You don’t have to do that anymore,” and then wait for her as she pisses on the bare concrete. Ensconced in a hotel room, Nina turns on the TV only for the news to reveal Votto is dead, supposedly through suicide. But it seems more likely that powerful enemies eliminated Votto for daring to claim his daughter back: two cops appear at the door of Joe and Nina’s room, blow the brains of a hapless bellboy across Joe’s face, and snatch away Nina. Joe manages to tackle one of the cops and kill him before fleeing, but he soon realises everyone in his chain of business contact is in danger. Sure enough, he soon finds McCleary in his office dead, having been viciously tortured until he gave up Angel, and Angel in turn is glimpsed being forced to watch his son being shot to pry Joe’s location out of him.
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The theme of a rogue veteran out to help a sexually exploited girl invites ready comparison to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), complete with cracked hero and invoked junctions of street life and political climes. But Ramsay’s radically odd approach to such a plot better recalls a mode of filmmaking little-seen since the late 1960s and ‘70s, films like John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967), aggressively deconstructing the usually steely certainties of genre filmmaking, as well as art house benchmarks like Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959) and Muriel, or, the Time of Return (1963), that tried to comprehend a sense of personal reality as a liquid state where past and present are always in dialogue, and the post-traumatic transience of mindstates mapped out in Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker, with its kamikaze cuts to memories of bleak suffering. The emphasis on a hero experiencing the various stations of the cross constituting his life in the midst of exterior action that mimics existential crisis is reminiscent of Richard C. Sarafian’s Vanishing Point (1971). Ramsay seems to nod to Boorman’s film at one point as Phoenix’s shabby, spacey hero nonetheless gains the impetus of mission and she shoots him marching forth, shoes crunching loudly on gravel, much as Lee Marvin’s Walker strode with purpose towards his reckoning. A scene of Joe pulling out a shattered tooth in nauseating close-up recalls Taxi Driver writer Paul Schrader’s Affliction (1997), confirming she’s well aware of the lineage. The atmosphere in You Were Never Really Here is radially paranoid in a fashion that also feels rather fit for that era’s cinema, although it’s also starting to feel very apt again for ours as it contemplates a landscape of greedy potentates and human wreckage.
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But Ramsay has so completely coalesced such influences, as well as the familiar touchstones of a thriller plot – the lone hero, the bad guy in a mansion on the hill – into her own peculiar sensibility that the whole deal emerges not as a compulsive work of suspense and catharsis but as a bad dream from which both the heroes and the viewer are trying to wake. Ramsay joins a body of filmmakers in this who have been essaying what’s starting to feel like a new subgenre, the dreamscape thriller, including Nicolas Winding Refn with Only God Forgives (2013) and Claire Denis on Bastards (2014), where traditional thriller imperatives are diffused through a sense of fractured and punch-drunk perception. There’s also a certain similarity to the works of the Safdie brothers, whose Heaven Knows What (2014) and Good Time (2017) similarly unfold with a quality of delirium and submergence with moments of sharp palpability, although not quite as overtly hallucinatory. Johnny Greenwood’s pulsing electronic score also recalls some of those film, calling to mind another cinematic realm, that of the down-and-dirty ‘80s thriller. Ramsay’s visual textures occasionally flirt with cliché – lots of hosepiping shots of freeways and cityscapes at night – but serve a coherent purpose in reinforcing a sense of bleary, blindsided experience. Ramsay uses Joe’s tale less to recount a traditional good-versus-evil narrative, but to explore the mental processes of the severely traumatised: Joe engages in his worldly action for much the same reason Ramsay takes up his story, searching for immediate avatars and ways of explaining to himself his compulsive and volatile experience.
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Ramsay contemplates a network of insidious evil diffused through a surreally dense layering of perception. Ramsay’s dedication to exploring the mental landscape of her characters overrides familiar impulses here, as Joe’s travails become as much a catalyst for unearthing his own deep lode of distress as a call to arms. Joe and Nina seem to be linked on a subliminal level, threatening indeed to become the same person: although she’s the child and nominal damsel in distress, she’s also like the more coolly functional part of Joe, cleaved off from the great part of his being. This fundamental sense of recognition compels Joe to move beyond his own losses and track down Nina again. Ramsay is clearly fascinated by the close proximity of caring and violent urges contained within Joe, the sense that he’s carefully fashioned himself a lifestyle that allows him to unleash his potential for savagery at a great distance from the one person he cares about. His choice of the hammer as a weapon signals he’s well aware on some level that he’s dogged by the same brutal instincts as his father, who haunts his life, but also that he’s fighting with all his remnant sanity to turn it to a protective purpose, however debased compared to serving as soldier and cop. It’s a question that often compels filmmakers who tackle this kind of fare, feeling out the edges of humanity in extremes and wondering whether the faultlines between the very human states of anger, fear, wrath, revenge, and conditions like psychopathy can be accurately charted. Joe’s overt peculiarity finds its distorted mirror in young Nina, who like him drifts in a dreamy space after her rescue, regarding the rain-smeared windows of the car and the passing lights as if processing everything from a slightly different vantage on reality.
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Whilst Morvern Callar conveyed the clammy sensation of intense grief, it adopted its heroine’s viewpoint rather than tried to describe her rather inaccessible thought processes, perceiving her travels in a state of bemused wonder. The technique Ramsay turned on We Need To Talk About Kevin successfully portrayed the blur of terrible memory dogging its main character. Here Ramsay blends techniques, alternating between Joe as distorting lens upon the world and as catalogue of sensations and recollections. It’s a high-wire act, aesthetically speaking, and yet Ramsay keeps walking that thin line with success just Joe must tread a bleak trail of carnage. The sight of his own blood mixed in with the white milk he pours for his cat sparks an alarm that drives him out to check on McCleary, only to find him dead, and he know soon killers will be at his own house. When Joe gets home and sneaks in through a window, he finds his mother already dead, shot in the face through a pillow. Joe hears the men responsible (they seem to be more cops, this time plainclothes detectives) and ambushes them, swiftly gunning them down. One of the killers (Scott Price) crawls into the kitchen with a bullet wound through his belly; Joe, in a vicious mood, catches him and presses the soul of his boot against the man’s back to wring information from him.
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The killer reveals to Joe the even sicker truth behind the mission Votto sent him on: Votto and political confederate, Governor Williams (Alessandro Nivola), shared paedophile tastes and liked to swap favoured girls, with his daughter offered up like some kind of bond-deepening pledge, a pledge Votto decided to pull out of at his peril. Ramsay pulls off perhaps her most bizarre twist on a familiar thriller moment here. Joe can’t really sustain the Dirty Harry act, slipping his bested foe a painkiller to help him die without too much agony, and lying down on the floor beside in him grief and exhaustion. The two men listen to the sounds emerging from his mother’s radio, still playing the chirpy sounds of an easy listening oldies station, and begin to raggedly sing along to, of all things, Charlene’s “I’ve Never Been to Me,” whilst holding hands. It’s the sort of scene a director needs a hide of armour plate to pull off, but Ramsay swings it, in very large part because it feels like the essence of the film. The banality of a kitschy old hit is suddenly transmuted into poetic commentary on the knight in cracked armour and the emissary of an evil king both malformed into things they don’t like by life and longing to be children again; it’s Ramsay’s achievement to evoke the quality of empathy nascent in the most sordid situation.
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By comparison, the actual climax of the film is a more muted affair, with Ramsay carefully sabotaging any hint of standard suspense as Joe tracks William to his house. In between, Ramsay follows Joe as he takes his mother’s body out to a lake in the woods, and prepares to sink her into a lake, intending to join her as he fills his pockets with stones. Ramsay turns this scene into her most surreal and gorgeous visual aria as Joe submerges himself in the lake with his mother and then releases her, allowing her willowing form to sink into the darkness, farewelled in a state of pure, liquid diffusion. It’s the most fantastical moment in the film but also the most sharply composed and executed. Joe however fishes the rocks from his pockets and resurfaces, following the shaft of light falling upon him. Why? Because he’s still got a job to do, fired up by the imagined – or psychically shared – scene of Votto serving his daughter up to Williams, and the sight of his mother’s sinking body transforming into Nina’s, a likeness of broken humanity demanding action.
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Joe travels to Williams’ mansion in all its piss-elegant stature, where an eyeless statue hovering in the shadows seems animated by malignancy. You know Joe’s path by the trail of the head, leaving security guards with smashed-in skulls in his wake. Ramsay’s camera zeroes in for the excruciating sight of Nina’s blood-caked hands working polished silver cutlery to pick at food at the dining table, an equally gory razor close by. Nina, Joe finds, has beat him to the honour of slicing Williams’ throat, a discovery that proves cathartic for him in delivering him, ironically, from the need for further violence. Ramsay’s talent for inspecting the aftermath of violence is just as keen as ever here. Only right does Ramsay seem unsure what note to strike. She depicts Joe seeming to shoot himself in a diner after freeing Nina, only to reveal it’s another of his dreams, as Nina comes to wake him up and lead him off to whatever life they can find. There’s a point to this of course, even if the style suddenly feel heavy-handed. Joe will still long for oblivion even as he gains a new responsibility to fend it off, although just who’s taking care of who seems strangely blurred, as if Joe’s mother has been reborn in Nina, in a great chain of incarnation, parent to son to child, fending off the monsters. You Were Never Really Here demands admiration on many levels, for its blithe lack of concern for commercial niceties and ready audience participation, and yet still managing to be perfectly lucid in describing a state of mental and spiritual confusion.

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2010s, Action-Adventure, Film Noir, Scifi, War

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

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Director: Ron Howard

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

From the moment it was announced, Solo: A Star Wars Story was dogged by ill omens, and the feeling it would prove the runt of the revived Star Wars litter. The troubled production, which saw initially commissioned directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller sacked and Ron Howard hired in their place, seemed to confirm it. Lord and Miller had proven their way with zesty, rapid-fire action comedy on the surprisingly good animated hit The Lego Movie (2016), and were undoubtedly hired to give the franchise a jolt of unruly humour and scruffiness in comparison with the core new trilogy, which has been unfolding with a stately gravitas that feels increasingly strained and lacking a real storytelling compass. The fact that Solo: A Star Wars Story signed up Lawrence Kasdan, who worked on series classics Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983) as well as helping out with the first of the new films, Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015), was at least a promising move, for Kasdan, as well as being a fine screenwriter, is a talent who knows the full lexicon of classic movie references that form the series template, and like the property’s creator George Lucas, made films like Body Heat (1981) and Silverado (1985) that paid tribute to such classics but also reflected an independent, modernising spirit. Kasdan was joined in writing duties by his son Jon, a move that only fleshed out a feeling of continuity.
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There was also a certain sense of aptness in Howard stepping up to the plate, as he had starred in Lucas’s American Graffiti (1973) long before he started directing in his own right, and directed the Lucas-conceived and produced fantasy epic Willow (1987). Nonetheless, the fact that Lucasfilm turned to Howard to save their film excited few. Where Lord and Miller had the aura of fresh, exciting talent, Howard has proved one of Hollywood’s true survivors, one who every now and then makes a strikingly good movie like Apollo 13 (1995), but more often turns out bland and indifferent fare. His tepid Oscar winner A Beautiful Mind (2002) made him a prestige filmmaker, and the price everyone paid for that was a string of clumsy movies like The Missing (2003) and Cinderella Man (2004). His 2013 racing biopic Rush was a surprise that confirmed Howard still had some verve and, moreover, authentic visual flair, but his In the Heart of the Sea (2016) was a clumpy melange that betrayed Howard’s tremendous technical craft remained in thrall to wayward scripting and ill-focused impulses. The sense of sustained legacy evinced in teaming up Howard and Kasdan was fitting at least for a project that, like Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One (2016), casts its mind back to the epoch in this legendarium between the end of Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005) and the start of Episode IV – A New Hope (1977), the high-water time of the evil Galactic Empire, and the early days of a beloved figure.
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Han Solo, as a character, was always the figure that kept the first Star Wars trilogy anchored in both a more recognisable sense of reality and also in a slightly different fantastical universe to the high fantasy and space opera realm the rest of it belonged to. The figuration of Luke Skywalker and Han was a little reminiscent of Raphael’s depiction of Plato and Aristotle, with budding Jedi and dreamer Luke cast as Plato with finger pointed to the heavens, and Han as Aristotle, pointing to the ground and the way things actually are. Luke was cast in the mould of classical knights errant and saga heroes; Han was the more quintessentially American and modern figure, sly, worldly, cynical, sceptical, a creation in the mould of hardboiled figures from the pen of writers like Hammett and Hemingway and splitting the difference between the urban warriors of Humphrey Bogart and frontier sentinels of Gary Cooper. Han brought to Star Wars a quality of contrast, in his values and outlook, that sharply reflected not just a sensibility within the series, as the living by-product of the Empire’s diminution of wonder and hope following the extermination of the Jedi and the old Republic, but also offering the more sceptical audience members their surrogate, and their gateway, through which they could enter this realm without feeling twee. In this regard, Han remains a figure somewhat without parallel in the saga, with some troubling impact upon subsequent films, where everyone is expected to be a true believer.
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Recounting the adventures of young Han was, then, a good idea, but also one that posits its own specific challenges, not least of which was finding a star who could match Harrison Ford’s blend of flinty attitude and supine cool in the role. Ford was 35 years old when the first film was released, and had already in his life veered from early promise to dismissal and resignation. He had been tested like his character, and found ways to survive under a hard shell. Lucas had first cast Ford as the cowboy hat-wearing-dude who arrives in town to challenge his rivals to a drag race in American Graffiti. Casting Alden Ehrenreich, a discovery of Francis Coppola who cast him in his little-seen but impressive personal drama Tetro (2009) and since gained notice in films like the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar! (2016), was one of those moves that felt remarkably right. He’s certainly no lookalike for Ford, but he held the promise of bringing something like Ford’s cocksure sturdiness and bruised joviality to the part, and whereas many actors today specialise in seeming boyish into middle age, Ehrenreich suggested remarkable maturity even as a teen. Solo: A Star Wars Story initially quotes both of Lucas’ first two features, THX 1138 (1971) and American Graffiti, in synthesising a suitable biography for Han.
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Han is introduced as a youth leading a hardscrabble life on a kind of space Detroit, the spaceship-building planet Corellia, a world of grand, grey metal monstrosities, labyrinthine in both geography and systems of oppressions. Here Han both subsists through and finds self-realisation in his gift for speed, jacking speeders and valuables under the nominal patronage of the grotesque alien crime queen Lady Proxima (Linda Hunt). Han however is dreaming of escape, and during a scam enacted on Proxima’s behalf has obtained a vial of refined hyperfuel, the hugely valuable, potent stuff that drives the engines of the Empire’s fleet. Han plans to flee along with Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), a fellow street criminal and his first love. First the duo have to slip Proxima’s clutches, when they’re caught by her goons and accused of hiding her share of their loot, and then the Imperial functionaries who check all people leaving the planet. Han’s deft exploitation of Proxima’s dislike of sunlight and his great, if slightly overconfident, ability behind the wheel get them to the brink of triumph. But Qi’ra is snatched back by Proxima’s heavies just after Han has passed through a security barrier, and her screamed demands for him to keep going are matched by Han’s resolve to return and fetch her once he’s hit the big time.
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Han signs up to the Imperial military, hoping to become a famed pilot, but three years later he’s found serving as a foot soldier in a grim and incoherent campaign on a planet called Mimban, a giant ball of mud. Han encounters a team of criminals, led by Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and his partners Val (Thandie Newton) and Rio Durant (Jon Favreau), posing as soldiers, and begs to be included in their plans and help him get off the planet. When he goes a step too far in threatening to blow their cover, Beckett has him arrested: Han is sentenced as a deserter to be thrown into a pit with “the beast,” a hulking, bedraggled monstrosity that we all recognise as, of course, Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo). Han wins over the mistreated and enraged Wookie by proving he knows a little of his language, and they break out, chained together Defiant Ones style. Rio talks Beckett and Val into delaying their departure with their loot long enough to pick them up, more for the potential muscle a Wookie can bring to their team.
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The gang’s raid on the Imperial arsenal proves to have been a stepping stone in their efforts to steal a big load of coaxium on the behalf of Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany) from a moving train shipment on the planet Vandor, but the mission goes awry as the gang is attacked mid-mission by a team of rivals, led by the masked and menacing Enfys Nest, a foe who constantly harries Beckett. Rio is killed and Val blows herself up in her determination to see the plan through. Han is pressed into saving Beckett and Chewbacca’s lives with his piloting skills even as he earns Beckett’s enmity by dumping the coaxium load to avoid hitting a mountain. Han agrees to help Beckett ward off Dryden’s wrath, and they improvise a new scheme the gangster approves: they plan to head to the planet of Kessel, where unrefined coaxium is mined, steal a quantity, and transport it as quickly as possible to a friendly refining concern before it degrades and explodes. Because they need a ship capable of making the dash, they approach charismatic corsair Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), and Han attempts to beat him in a card game to obtain his ship, the Millennium Falcon. After Han fails thanks to Lando’s gifts at cheating, Beckett agrees to cut Lando in on the profits, so Lando and his droid co-pilot L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) join them on their mission.
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I’ve been intensely frustrated by the revived Star Wars franchise. J.J. Abrams’ energetic but enervatingly slavish series opener and Rian Johnson’s perversely glum, twitchy Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017) were lovingly produced, highly watchable films, but seemed determined to strip out all remnants of colour and originality from the series and replace them with dull technocracy, televisual dramatic precepts, and ever-narrowing horizons of imagination. Rogue One wielded some tremendous imagery but floundered with a lukewarm script and forgettable protagonists. Here, something of Lord and Miller’s pointillist sense of detail and lampooning sensibility are still apparent in touches like Lando narrating self-mythologising memoirs, and Han’s attempt to fool Lady Proxima with a thermal detonator, only for her to announce he’s actually holding a rock and making clicking sounds with his mouth. Solo: A Star Wars Story has fun remixing and calling back to vital, previously glimpsed junctures in Han’s life, like a moment of passion inside the Falcon, interrupted in a manner recalling Han’s first kiss with Leia in The Empire Strikes Back. Early in the film, Han glimpses an animated recruiting poster for the Imperial services which blares out a version of John Williams’ immortal Imperial March reconfigured as a heroic anthem. There’s a quality implicit in this flourish that struck me as more genuinely understanding and simultaneously witty yet reverential in its intrinsic delight in the Star Wars universe than anything that’s appeared in the series since Disney took it over.
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Solo: A Star Wars Story also makes some real effort to try and bring back some ingenuity of spectacle and background liveliness to the franchise. Where Abrams’ regulation cantina scene in The Force Awakens was remarkably flavourless, Howard and the production team here locate Lando in a frontier saloon festooned with the bones of massive animals, drenched in shadow and smoke with polymorphous aliens hovering the margins, a bustling, genuine dive that recalls the kind found in 1970s western films but revised into something stranger for a film that mediates science fiction with the western just like Lucas’s long-ago opener. The environs of Corellia and Mimban, which resembles a World War I battlefield, are grimly beautiful and feel right as forges for Han’s dexterity as a survivor, negotiating a criminal overlord deliberately reminiscent of Jabba the Hutt and contending with Imperial officers who direct him on to attack trivial and obscure targets, a notion that unexpectedly also nudges Han into territory shared with literary figures like Yossarian and Gunner Asche. Whilst Rogue One strained to offer a novel perspective on the Empire, this manages the trick much better, perceiving the age of the Empire and its labours as an absurdist enterprise based on propaganda and degradation, its fringes devolving into fiefdoms controlled by organised crime and fractious rebel organisations.
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The film manages a feat Rogue One here didn’t quite pull off, which is to entertainingly illustrate the start of the decline and fall of the Galactic Empire, envisioned at first as a set of robotic tantrums from droids, and gaining dizzy fervour as Chewbacca is reunited with fellow Wookies, enslaved in the Kessel mines; revolt and collapse are incipient, old crimes set to be repaid, renegades forged by a once-mighty society’s breaking down into corrupt fascism now defining their own realities. Long before this film came out, jokey memes were circulating online about the compulsory points the film would have to touch upon in regards to the dribs and drabs of backstory known about Han from before his fateful encounter with Luke and Obi-Kenobi. Sure enough, we get all of them: here’s Han’s first meetings with Chewbacca and Lando, here’s his first sight of the Falcon, here’s the Kessel Run and why doing it in “twelve parsecs” was a big deal (explaining along the way what this means as it refers to units of distance rather than time). Han’s connection with the Falcon is revealed to be based in personal nostalgia and class pride, as he mentions his father used to build this model of spacecraft “before he was laid off.” We get an aside explaining just how our hero earned his peculiarly descriptive surname, given to him by a patronising Imperial recruiter who notes the young recruit’s lack of family or identity.
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Solo: A Star Wars Story moves at such a rocketing pace that some of these episodes inevitably seem a little compressed and robbed of the titanic stature they seem to have when wielded as suggestive history, which is a problem backtracking preludes often face. Compared to the leisurely evocations of masculine interaction and ratcheting tension Howard Hawks and screenwriter Leigh Brackett could evoke on the likes of El Dorado (1967), what we get here is so rapid-fire there’s little chance for a real sense of solidarity and frenemy intensity to grow between the characters. Glover’s Lando in particular seems ill-served by this, reducing Billy Dee Williams’ great portrayal of a slick, shifty, but hearty and ultimately decent rascal to a rather thin foil. Although Glover is one of the most engaging and multifaceted presences on the contemporary scene, and he masters Williams’ dazzling bullshitter’s smile, he eventually feels more than mildly miscast. On the other hand, Han’s fractured relationship with Qi’ra, who he finds to his surprise is now one of Dryden’s associates as members of the crime family called the Crimson Dawn, plucked from the dregs on Corellia, is the most interesting Star Wars has offered since Anakin and Padmé, particularly as it faces the thorny problem as to how it relates to Han’s growth.
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The flourish of killing off a female true love as a defining moment in a male hero’s life has become a noxious cliché, although it can be hard to separate from the traditions and demands of basic storytelling precepts of emotional involvement, and realistic and urgent motivation. I’ve seen that done well before, particularly in Barry Levinson’s Young Sherlock Holmes (1986) (a film that’s feeling increasingly like a template for the whole of current pop culture), but Howard and the Kasdans manage to sidestep this trope whilst still adding the finishing touches to Han’s sourly expectant worldview and eventual comfort with separateness. They do it not by killing Qi’ra off but revealing her as finally choosing another destiny for herself as Dryden’s successor, a criminal queen who makes her play to rise to the top of her chosen heap rather than subsist on the margins like Han. There’s a smart echo here of another retro template, films like Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) where the two kids from the wrong side of the tracks choose their mutual paths, given a modern tweak where the love interest is the femme fatale and the friend to whom bonds linger across vast gulfs of morality and expectation.
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It helps that Ehrenreich and Clarke have something like the bodied allure of proper movie stars. Han and Qi’ra’s kiss isn’t the only romantic moment the franchise has seen since its revival, after whatsit and whosis were at the end of Rogue One and Finn and Rose in The Last Jedi. But it is the first to make a real impression, even if the romance is necessarily defined and retarded by inevitable transience. Howard has sometimes been a little too eager to pick up modish directing habits, like the irritating action scenes in The Missing, and Solo: A Star Wars Story is replete with some excessively fast editing that feels alien to the Star Wars style guide. One would expect that Howard would wield little grasp on the faintly poetic, dreamlike edge that defines the series at its best. He evinces a real eye, however, for serving up the sorts of landscapes that evoke Lucas’s creation in its scenes of civilisations clinging onto the edge of vast abysses and hewn out the matter of a harsh universe, littered with traces of vanished forebears in signs like unknowably old standing stones, and the detritus of a vast galactic network of industry, war, and crime. Best of all, Howard restores some authentic Saturday matinee energy to the brand, and builds sequences with classical rigour. The train heist is the best action set-piece this series has seen since the finale of Revenge of the Sith, a tremendously well-sustained and visualised episode blending frantic swashbuckling and vast landscapes as the conveyance rockets along mountain flanks, pivoting on its axis in a way no familiar train does, constantly threatening to hurl our heroes to their doom even as Stormtroopers rain blaster bolts on their heads, with Nest’s band of aerial pirates in pursuit.
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Compared to the flatness of Abrams’ thin, hurried recreations of Lucas’ situations and Johnson’s tony approach, Howard proves himself, for all his air of practiced and familiar competence, simply better at this sort of thing. Likewise the extended movement in which the gang wreak havoc on Kessel and then make their flight to immortality of a kind offers real delight in pure movement and exponential absurdity. Helping give this great movement thrust is the inspired character of L3, a droid who’s passionately involved in preaching rights for robot kind and in love with her charming boss despite her protestations. Unleashed upon the unsuspecting Empire, she inspires all the droids on Kessel to rebel, in the sort of sequence, rowdy and crowd-pleasing and child-like, Star Wars was built on. L3 is shot down in battle and Lando uploads her memory into the Millennium Falcon’s shipboard computer to make use of her navigational knowledge, offering an ever so slight wisp of strange spirituality and sexuality to both Lando’s and Han’s relationship with the ship, and contextualising the Falcon’s virtual personality and spasmodic quirks. The Kessel run is a loopy episode that pays overt tribute to the asteroid field chase in The Empire Strikes Back, with snatches of Williams’ score heard on the soundtrack, but complicates it as a charge into murk and chaos where colossal tentacled monstrosities hide and holes in the fabric in reality wait for spaceships lurk in wait.
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The Kasdans’ feel for the root genres at play here is genuine, transmuting regulation scenes from westerns, including a confrontational card game and a train robbery, into the fuel of fantastical imagery. The elder Kasdan was credited as co-screenwriter on The Empire Strikes Back with Brackett, a writer who made her start penning pulp sci-fi and noir tales in magazines and then became a noted screenwriter for the likes of Howard Hawks. Brackett helped impose upon Lucas’s evolving property some authentic old-school flavour and sense of legacy. Kasdan repays the favour here as he works in an elaborate tribute to Brackett’s most famous sci-fi story, Black Amazon of Mars, as Solo: A Star Wars Story works up to a revelation Nest is actually a woman. Han forging a rough alliance with her offers another echo of an influence, positing Solo: A Star Wars Story as the outer space equivalent of Rick’s history of gunrunning for the good guys mentioned in Casablanca (1942), an act of nobility evinced even in an officially cynical resume. The gang’s encounters with Dryden in his roving nightclub-cum-spaceship belong more properly to noir films where the nefarious kingpin lurks behind a classy front. Han’s fractious relationship with Beckett and Lando exacerbate the resemblance to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) as a seriocomic riff on genre clichés, and the final confrontation between Han and Beckett as friends who nonetheless must face each-other’s guns recalls the climax of Vera Cruz (1954).
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Arch deployment of referential touchstones are of course not new to Star Wars, but what’s particularly interesting here is that whilst Johnson’s nods to Kurosawa and film noir undoubtedly reflected personal interest, they sat hovering in quotation marks whilst refusing to click into gear with an overall story thrust that didn’t have much to do with them. Howard and the Kasdans actually make their fetish points operate in coherent genre narrative terms, making Han not merely a dramatis persona and archetype but a knowing condensation of multiple strands of pop culture history, a creature who breathes the atmosphere of a certain danker, darker fictional sensibility, whilst still making them all serve a hard-charging storyline. Bettany offers an elegant performance as the smooth, gentlemanly, yet utterly ruthless criminal overlord, another nexus of sci-fi and noir: the final battle that defines the film unfolds not on a grand landscape but in the confines of his office, played out in terms of intimate violence in a manner that remains very true to this inspiration.
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This finish helps lay down a blueprint for a new wing of the franchise that presents a peculiar new bridging point between the underworld and the metaphysical power of the Force. It’s revealed the mysterious chieftain of the Crimson Dawn is Darth Maul, the bifurcated henchman last seen plunging into a shaft at the end of Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999), now a part-android crime boss. This twist makes for gratuitous fan service, of course, granting new life to a spikily memorable villain who many felt never got to strut his stuff as much as he deserved. By the time Han confronts Beckett, who betrays him and still intends to kill him and yet still represents the closest thing to a family he has left, the man Han becomes is clearly nearly complete, with a tense smirk and poised readiness. A shoot-out is imminent, except that Han shoots Beckett before the older man can do it to him. The gag here is obvious as a play on the infamy resulting from Lucas’s revision of his original film from 1997, which altered Han’s confrontation with Greedo, where he shot the bounty hunter from under a table. Lucas’ change was in line with his increasingly strong intent to remake the series in a more responsible, family-friendly mould, but it offended fans who felt the whole point of Han as a character was his canny, unsentimental toughness.
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Solo: A Star Wars Story restores the roguish side to Han’s character, but the script doesn’t simply play this pivot for a nasty joke. It is rather the moment in a tale that’s as much the tragedy of a valiant young man’s education in the cruel necessities of surviving a corrupt universe as it is the origin story of a hero: Han holds the hand of his dying father-enemy and Han watches Qi’ra fly away to her own chosen fate, as he faces a future of improvised exile. The film ticks off the last two necessary stages in Han’s journey as he journeys to lay claim to the Falcon for keeps and plans taking up a job offer from Jabba. It’s telling that in contemporary screenwriting patterns the shyster side of Han’s character, glimpsed fleetingly in the original character, is now very much a cosmic state of being in contemporary pop culture, and his cool, insouciant aspect, the aspect of Han that was most in touch with the older models, now feels so alien even Kasdan can’t quite bring it to bear. So, does Ehrenreich succeed as a Ford stand-in? Not really. But what’s important is that Ehrenreich is entirely persuasive and potent in his own right. It does seem unlikely given all the stumbling blocks it faced, but to my mind Solo: A Star Wars Story proves easily the best film yet from the Disney-managed franchise, the first to feel at all authentically grounded in Lucas’s sensibility and also to really enjoy itself as a pure, unselfconscious piece of pulp moviemaking. Not every choice and flourish is an act of genius or great creative originality. Like the Millennium Falcon herself, it’s a hunk of junk, cobbled together through expedience and flashes of inspiration, and somehow all fits together in a way that’s a total blast.

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2010s, Action-Adventure, Scifi

Ready Player One (2018)

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Director: Steven Spielberg

By Roderick Heath

It must be a strange feeling to live in an era you played a part in inventing. Steven Spielberg is one of the few people who might claim it, when regarding today’s pop cultural landscape. And how frustrating, to feel the same desire to create with the same old fervour and retain eminence when so many imitators and acolytes are pounding on the gates. Lately Spielberg has been contending with a host of wannabes eager to claim his mantle, and the jarring flop of his adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The BFG (2016) raised the possibility his days as a maker of big popular hits might finally be over. Maybe it was time to sell out like his pal and collaborator George Lucas, or perhaps settle for making more of his modestly popular, smartly if cosily-done, mid-budget dramas like Bridge of Spies (2015) and The Post (2017). Ready Player One signals this is far from his intention, a film that is at once a work of startling energy and brashness from a seasoned talent, but also one that fits with surprising elegance into the director’s autumnal phase, a contemplation of the notion of legacy in terms of a receptive and interacting audience and also in personal reckoning.
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The source material, Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel, is somewhat divisive as the “holy grail of pop culture,” as the film’s trailer proclaimed it. Cline’s book churned together a manic panorama of geeky emblems, conjuring a narrative that also worked as a literary equivalent of an online listicle, rattling off a swathe of appreciations and appraisals of various properties for a specific generational sensibility, in his fantasy world where the expanse of human imagination often boils down to repurposing myriad popular movies, shows, games, and books. To a certain extent Cline was only continuing a practice begun forty years ago by Spielberg and his generational fellows of the Movie Brat generation like Lucas, John Carpenter, Brian De Palma and others, with their early intimations of the post-modern sensibility incorporated into mainstream storytelling. They amalgamated genre tropes and narrative forms they found cool and felt other people dug too, whilst working in a personal sensibility. It’s in this last part of the process where the trouble lies: what if you don’t really have a personal sensibility, other than the various wares you’ve bought and used to furnish your mental space?
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Most people aren’t artists or creators, and happy instead to wield the fare they love as a kind of livery, a phenomenon that’s easy to see all over our contemporary online lives, for everyone who clips out some screencap or piece of artwork to make use of an emblematic figure and infer to all and sundry our allegiances, self-concept, and ambitions. The setting of Ready Player One is one of near-future dystopia, one that could well be unfolding down the road from Spielberg’s last venture into this territory, Minority Report (2002). After a series of broadly described calamities, including “the corn syrup drought and the bandwidth riots,” Columbus, Ohio has become the world’s fastest-growing city, with most of the populace subsisting in crudely assembled slums called The Stacks. But many don’t care too much about their living circumstances, as they spend most of their lives immersed in an online virtual reality world called the Oasis, the brainchild of the late tech wizard and uber-nerd James Halliday (Mark Rylance).
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Wade Willis (Tye Sheridan) is one of the natives of this timid new world, a prodigious young talent in the digital world and, outside of it, the barely-tolerated ward of his aunt Alice (Susan Lynch) and her sleazy boyfriend Rick (Ralph Ineson). Wade, who goes by the online moniker Parzifal, is one of a cadre of seekers who call themselves Gunters, or egg hunters, dedicated to the great quest Halliday built into the Oasis before he died: Halliday has placed an Easter Egg, coder slang for a hidden object, somewhere in the Oasis that will allow whichever intrepid and inspired soul can unlock it first to take control of Halliday’s company and the Oasis itself. Inevitably, this has spawned “clans” of unified competitors to dedicate their efforts to cracking the clues, and also corporate rivals in the form of the Sixers, an army of nameless, numerically designated gamers employed by IOI, a company founded by one of Halliday’s former employees, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn).
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Although intended as a vehicle of fantastical release, Halliday also built the Oasis to operate by certain rigid rules of cause and effect as well as be a zone of fair competition. Success in the Oasis depends entirely on the individual’s level of skill, and unlike the real world cannot by manipulated by other forms of influence, guile, or trickery. Certain extremely popular objects and effective tools can only be purchased with amassed credit, and to fail at a feat or die in the online world results in bankruptcy, and the player must start from scratch. The trouble with Halliday’s great quest is that nobody has ever managed even to surpass the first stage in the game, a colossal street race where the Gunters must attempt to outrace each-other and dodge ferocious threats, like breakneck plunges and a marauding King Kong, in order to reach the first of three promised keys that will grant access to the Easter Egg. Parzifal obstinately studies the assembled recordings of Halliday’s life, and races in the DeLorean from Back to the Future (1985).
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Parizfal belongs to a subset of solo Gunters who disdain clans, but he does engage in friendly competition and downtime banter with Aech (Lena Waithe), who he only knows online as a hulking green mutant version of Vin Diesel and who’s a wiz at reconstructing virtual machines, and the dashing duo Sho (Philip Zhao) and Daito (Win Morisaki), who appear as a kung fu master and a samurai warrior with Toshiro Mifune’s face, respectively. There’s also Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), Parzifal’s greatest rival and an enigmatic figure of legend in the Gunter community, a sleek, colourful, dazzling cavalier who competes in the race riding the red motorbike from Akira (1988). Parzifal saves Art3mis from her own bravado as she tries to leap over Kong, and begin to form a rugged alliance in attempting to plumb the mystery of Halliday’s quest once more. Parzifal finally unlocks the puzzle of the race in listening to Halliday’s testimonials and his wish to rewind, to go backwards, which proves to be exactly the right way to win the race. Parzifal becomes an instant celebrity and is courted by Nolan to help IOI unlock the rest of the puzzle. When he refuses, Nolan hires two potent heavies to try and nail Wade and associates, the enforcer F’Nale Zandor (Hannah John-Kamen), who rounds up debtors for the loyalty centers in the physical world, and the accomplished virtual goon I-R0k (T.J. Miller), who appears online as a walking heavy metal band album cover.
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To peel away the elaborate referential superstructure of Ready Player One is to find a straightforward story, pitting its young faithful against the forces of cynical exploitation, albeit traversing both the colourful digital universe and the grotty, dilapidated real world. Mendelsohn’s Nolan is revealed as someone who studied at the feet of the master Halliday but who even as an awkward whelp wanted to subdivide the Oasis experience according to real-world wealth, a notion explicitly at odds with Halliday’s meritorious world-building. There’s a damn clever reason behind the film’s pop cultural lexicon, as Halliday, a Gen Xer, made the Oasis an open zone for immersion in any lifestyle people desired, but structured his quest specifically according to his own proclivities as a nerd, and so to master the Easter Egg hunt demands mastering both his obsessions and his biography: the journey into the works is a journey into the creator. It’s believable when you consider the way nerd references are implanted in contemporary computing, like the phrase we use to refer to unwanted emails taken from a certain beloved Monty Python gag. The lexicon of a certain variety of entertainment has been hardwired into the technology created by its fans in the same manner as the classical education of the Victorian era’s inventors and entrepreneurs inflected their terminology and wares.
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It’s tempting nonetheless to describe Ready Player One as the ‘80s retro bar glimpsed in Back to the Future Part II (1989) transmuted into an entire movie: harvested, essentialised images from a time now fading into a similar status the 1950s had for the characters in Robert Zemeckis’ beloved trilogy, as a time of dogging nostalgia and niggling regret. Part of that lustre was of course the result of a general agreed contrivance, as filmmakers like Spielberg, Lucas, and Zemeckis projected their own ‘50s youths onto the ‘80s whilst taking a half-suspicious sideways glance at the promise of Reaganism to restore that lost Eden, but constantly suggesting the new forces in play. I fit the generational template for this film pretty squarely, and although I have no desire to remain living in a perpetual bubble of 1985, I also don’t mind appreciating and celebrating the best of the age, particularly when much of it still has to fight for a seat at the table as far as critical standing goes. Not that the ‘80s is the only frame of reference: much more recent video game characters are also in the mix.
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Cline’s plot draws on a host of models – there’s the idea of the video game as a version of the sword-in-the-stone task from The Last Starfighter (1984) and the quest to assume the mantle of a mysterious and tricky creator from Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, whilst the conflict in the digital realm obviously echoes Tron (1982). I could compare Ready Player One to some other films that have similarly contended with the splintering of reality and the looming possibility of life lived in proxy, movies like David Cronenberg’s ode to digital dysmorphia, eXistenZ (1997), Satoshi Kon’s Paprika (2006), Zack Snyder’s level-up dark fantasy of Sucker Punch (2011), Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2011), Wong Kar-Wai’s dreamy emotional biography 2046 (2004), and the movie adaptations of Suzanne Collins’ thematically similar The Hunger Games books. It almost goes without saying that Ready Player One is far lighter and more pop in tone than some of those, although it manages to ply the same imperatives without succumbing to the leaden self-seriousness of the Hunger Games films in particular: Ready Player One aims, and succeeds effortlessly, in recreating the old, jaunty mood of ‘80s pop movies whilst still analysing the new anxieties of the present. It also lacks the dreamlike conjurations and shifting sense of self Kon was able to articulate in his alternate reality journey through the mind and the furnishing provided by formative fixations and the imaginings of others. And yet it manages to contend with the same reservoir of fixations and concepts on its own terms.
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The very premise of Ready Player One is the sort that tends to instantly polarise and inflame sensibilities, veering between delight and exasperation, and depending very much on one’s age and sensibility which. Some adverse reaction carries a strong whiff of generational prejudice: it was all right to remix old serials and pulp tales into the Indiana Jones films or churn together a host of references in the Gremlins movies because they were artefacts of baby boomers’ fond remembrances, but to remix more recent fare is to appease younger people who are all, if you were to believe some journalistic voices, boors, sexists, and racists. It’s true that the nerd creed long sported a proud badge of innocence as one fit for outcasts, oddballs, misfits, and proud weirdos to coexist harmoniously in a zone outside the competitive realms of other pastimes, but of late, as it’s become cooler to be considered geeky, an unpleasant side to this world has been growing, the vicious and competitive gatekeeping and internecine strife. Spielberg and Cline, who co-wrote the script with Zak Penn, emphasise the positive side, as Wade’s progress is one of forging amities that bleed into the real world and bond together people who are on the surface rather different but who share a deeper essence.
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The way we consume pop culture has changed tremendously since Spielberg and the other Movie Brats started. Back then, except for TV showings, it was very hard to access older movies and TV shows. Pop culture of the moment was more definite, more enveloping and defining. Today, it’s very easy to live in a self-curated bubble totally different to the person next to you. There still are and always will be shared generational touchstones, but pop culture is far more of a bricoleur’s state now (although that might be changing again now that streaming platforms are effectively sequestering whole realms of culture and tightening the scope of interest to what services and sites choose to drip-feed their subscribers). Ready Player One’s survey is attuned to this phenomenon. All our concepts, all our pet fantasies, are a mask for something else, and the film’s human story is very much a tale that should be familiar to many of us, as the various young online swashbucklers become fretful about transferring their chemistry into the real world.
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Parzifal falls in love with the glamorous Art3mis, who warns him about the dangers inherent in blurring the Oasis life with the real world, a warning echoed by Aech, as they exist for the most part in a world that allows them to distort or even abandon their real-life identities: “You only see what I want you to see,” Art3mis tells Parzifal. As they’re forced to attempt to save each-other and beat IOI, the digital heroes are obliged to try and meet up in real life and fend off physical threats. Aech proves to actually be Helen (Lena Waithe), a black lesbian, Sho is an 11-year-old, and Art3mis is a young punkette belonging to an alt-culture clique dedicated to resisting IOI, trying to hide a birthmark on her face behind a lick of red hair.
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The game of spot-the-reference is certainly fun, and sometimes pays off in some blissfully silly conjunctions, as in the great climactic battle when Nolan as Mechagodzilla battles Saito in the form of the first real “mecha” hero Gundam, the evil, possessed doll Chucky from the Child’s Play horror series goes on the rampage, and Ted Hughes-via-Brad Bird’s Iron Giant recreates the salutary thumbs-up of the T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). The telling aspect to all this lies in the recognition that all these avatars plucked from pop culture are masks of various principles and ideas and projections of our interior selves and collective sensibility that long precede these various figurations, and also their role as tropes connecting to various roles. Even if you’re not a fan of these various properties, what they mean to others is made instantly apparent, and play their role in the story rather than being the story. Most cinema people react to video game associations like they’ve taken an acid burn, but Spielberg seems entirely Zen about it, although he might be better positioned to given his influence on that realm too. What is the Tomb Raider franchise but a distaff, simplified version of his Indiana Jones films?
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Most computer games are built around figurations taken from the essentialised studies of mythology of Jung and Joseph Campbell, systems of progression through to an innermost cave of achievement, ideas Lucas and Spielberg did much to popularise. A major motif in the story zeroes in on the legacy of Warren Robinett, whose game Adventure involved locating his own hidden name in a secret bole, the first ever Easter Egg that entwined the act of discovery and curiosity for its own sake with the pride of creating. Spielberg has never been a meta filmmaker, preferring instead to comment via sideways inferences and likenesses. Ready Player One is nonetheless perhaps the most overt work of self-analysis Spielberg’s made since Jurassic Park (1993) provided a vehicle to explore his pride and unease as a creator of wildly popular entertainments that sometimes provoked unwanted responses and challenges. The tepid response to Lucas’ later Star Wars films as well as his and Spielberg’s return to the Indiana Jones series, and works of retro tribute like The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011) and The BFG, revealed a looming generation gap, one that’s been nimbly exploited by the likes of J.J. Abrams, for whom pop culture dates back no further than the first Star Wars.
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Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) was vital and fascinating, but also restlessly received, in very large part because it was a generational statement from Spielberg and Lucas, attempting to introduce Jones, the mythical avatar of their parents’ generation, into the world of their own youth, a world where Howdy Doody, I Like Ike, the Atomic Café, hot rods, Elvis and scares over lead-lined fridges and Nigel Kneale’s sci-fi were mixed in with ancient idols and primeval myth, all artefacts in a madcap cultural centrifuge. Ready Player One is an attempt to offer an equivalent for a generation that followed, the one Spielberg helped foster, but also one that reflects the change in experience, casting Wade/Parzifal as the geek-culture inheritor of Jones. There’s an interesting gap between Spielberg’s ode to the ‘80s and his own style: back in the ‘80s, of course, he made movies that moved majestically on the strains of John Williams’ scores rather than pop hits like Van Halen’s “Jump” and Hall & Oates’ “You Make My Dreams Come True” as pop up on the soundtrack here (scoring duties are taken by Alan Silvestri, who drops in hints of his Back to the Future theme at appropriate moments). But, of course, the point here is curated culture. I liked the fact that not all the geekery is too popular, either: the film spares space for cult anime and David Lynch’s Dune (1984) as well as more imposing landmarks like King Kong (1933) and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986).
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The major irony here is that for the most part Spielberg has erased his own work from the matrix, except in the form of Jurassic Park’s tyrannosaur. But, of course, he’s everywhere in it; he’s creating the amphitheatre for all of this, just as Jaws (1975) is often cited, with a certain degree of accuracy, as the birth of the modern blockbuster style. All through the film I couldn’t shake the feeling it was a response in part not simply to Spielberg’s current assessment of his place in the pop culture hierarchy, but also to the great crisis facing that world, its abandonment of new ideas – a problem the film seems on the face of it to be perpetuating. But it’s also a prod, not simply to sometimes look past the comforting womb of favourite things to look at the way things are actually run and served up to us, but also to recognise that those things are all the product of a creator, who is in turn inspired by another creator. One of the later images in the film sees Wade confronted by the image of the young Halliday, a kid playing video games, destined to fashion great things but in turn just another fan. Spielberg might even be commenting on Lucas abandoning his intellectual property to Disney. To watch the Disney-shepherded Star Wars films is to no longer see an artist, however commercial and populist, responding to their own shifting identity and sensibility over the years but to see carefully screened, hired talents presenting what are at their best glorified fan fiction and at worst corporate franchise protection.
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Ready Player One is certainly a hymn to popular iconography, and rather self-evidently a commentary by Spielberg on his own career as an artist who’s managed to win a rare place for himself inside a system and an industry but who never quite feels comfortable in that system. It’s also an attempt to sensitise the audience into greater awareness that iconography can persist beyond its creators but the creators are still vital not just to the process of genesis but for the audience’s understanding and sense of affinity with the work – the notion that artist and audience are connecting on levels both overt and subliminal, the concerns and emotions they share. The in-built irony here of course is that to put across its theme Ready Player One engages in this practice at an extreme – the rights clearances alone surely needed an army of lawyers as thick as the avatar horde Parzifal unleashes upon IOI. Spielberg has Cline and Penn swap out one of the books reference points for one of Spielberg’s own favourite films. The heroes venture into an unnervingly fetishistic recreation of the environs of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1981), where the elevator filled with blood and the taunting call of the twin girls unsettle and terorise, and the naked ghost lady tantalises Aech before trying to kill her. Nolan meets I-R0k on Planet Doom under the wreck of a Martian machine from The War of the Worlds (1953), another lightning rod for the director.
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The recourse to Halliday’s records and attempt to parse the mysteries of his life recalls another founding text of modern cinema in general, Citizen Kane (1941), complete with a twist on the idea of Rosebud as raw material for communal dreaming: the absence of Halliday from his own life, his emotional failures, like his inability to kiss his great love and failure to take her dancing, incorporated into the stuff of his art and his message. Halliday had fallen for Kira (Perdita Weeks), but their one date was a flop, and she eventually ended up marrying his business partner Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg), an event that left Halliday perpetually lovelorn and also seemed to push him to force Ogden out of his company, and to reach the secret of the second key Parzifal, Art3mis, and their pals must understand Halliday himself, his regrets and mistakes. Parzifal is gifted with a token from the archive’s snooty custodian as the first person to ever grasp the significance of Kira’s name in part because of its general absence from the database, a subject of such special pain that it could only be retained is a singular totem and clue. Parzifal/Wade’s insight comes from his identification with Halliday as he’s faced with his own moment of romantic truth with Art3mis/Samantha.
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The flaw of the creator is the flaw of the creation, the dead points and blind spots in a conjured world reflecting the problems of growth found in turn in its architect – one reason why no single act of creation can embrace and speak for everyone. Spielberg’s collaboration with Rylance reaches its third instalment here, and it sees the hints given by his earlier roles for the director that Spielberg’s been using Rylance as a stand-in become more definite. In Bridge of Spies, he played a man caught between political blocs nominally in service to one who’d rather be painting, and the bullied, ageing hermit in The BFG whose truest connection is still to children. Here he’s glimpsed as Halliday, a droning savant both proud of his works but also diffident about their meaning in the face of looming mortality and handover. Of course, Nolan could also be read as another face of self-assessment, the mogul who’s clawed his way to the heart of a large industry, relied upon to keep small armies of passionate people pointed in one direction and expected to deliver profits as well as art with gruelling consistency. But Ready Player One is a great movie experience because a lot of the referential and theoretical stuff is rich and fun, but also supernal to the basic thrust of the plot, which is something both more essential and entirely apt, as the young heroes try to stick it to The Man and claim a legacy for themselves, as well as fighting for, well, net neutrality, open-source culture, and creative rights.
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Spielberg’s vision of a not-too-distant dystopia is effective in its own right in a way that sharply contrasts the delirious colour and spectacle of the Oasis because it feels recognisable. His vision of the Stacks as a high-rise mating of favela and trailer park, the general air of rundown infrastructure and shortage in life made up for by the fantastical plenty in the Oasis, the omnipresent drone surveillance, cunningly tweaks the familiar and pushes it to an extreme. The early surveys of the Stacks see Spielberg’s roving camera peering through windows at the absurdity of people in their various situations, enacting their online fantasies in the physical world, the kind of extended, diorama-like shot Spielberg used a lot in Minority Report and purveys in a similar fashion here with a puckish sense of humans in their various spaces, viewed as slightly absurd phenomena in their little boxes and tailored experiences in a future where nobody can quite escape reality but can’t face it either.
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A scene reminiscent of Wayne’s World (1992) sees Nolan carefully coached by earpiece on his small army of advisors as he tries to win over Wade by posing as a true-blue geek. But IOI’s meanness is not simply virtual: the basis of the company’s business method is buying up people’s virtual debts and forcing them into “loyalty centers,” essentially a form of virtual indenture. Samantha hates IOI for shoving her father into one of these, and follows in his footsteps when she allows herself to be captured by IOI goons to give Wade a chance to get away. She’s chained in a cabinet with a virtual reality helmet locked on her head, forced to toil in the Oasis for the company, in a scene that’s actually rather more effectively nightmarish than many a more overt act of cruelty on screen. Natch, her pals soon get down to trying to rescue her. A great little joke early in the film, the sight of Nolan’s Oasis password written on a post-it note in his fancy VR pod to aid a dodgy memory, proves to be a plot key, as Wade’s sharpness for remembering such detail lets him and his cadre hack Nolan’s feed and fool him long enough to think he’s at their mercy, obliging him to help free Samantha.
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Samantha in turn infiltrates the Sixers’ ranks and starts harming the IOI operation from within. Meanwhile Nolan is trying to ensure none of the Gunters can beat him to solving the last problem to get at the Easter Egg by sealing off the citadel Halliday built on the Oasis realm called Planet Doom with a magical device, set in motion, amusingly and inevitably, with an Elvish phrase out of The Lord of the Rings, and Samantha sets about trying to find the key to lifting the shield whilst Wade-as-Parzifal lays siege to the citadel with an army called forth from the eternal realms of nerddom, leading to the hilarious spectacle of 3 or 4 generations’ worth of beloved trash icons doing battle out in Mordor. Such is the film’s affection for the loves of its characters that even the Sixers and IOI’s small army of geeks are given their own heroic lustre as they dedicate themselves to thrashing out the conundrums and solving the unsolvable gameplay, and watching their joy in seeing Parzifal, just another one of them on the truest level, winning out.
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Perhaps the most charming aspect of Ready Player One is that it taps a vein of romanticism that Spielberg too often keeps under wraps, particularly in the sequence of Parzifal and Art3mis begin to fall in love in a zero-gravity disco where couples spin in weightless joy and the Saturday Night Fever (1977) dance floor can be summoned with a click of the fingers. The lively musical sensibility Spielberg was able to animated in 1941 (1979) and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) manages to free itself again, if briefly, here. Sheridan, who first caught eyes as a kid in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011) and who’s all grown up now, and Cooke, who’s quickly proving herself one of the most engaging talents around after transcending weak vehicles like The Quiet Ones (2014) and The Limehouse Golem (2017), pull off the film’s quietest but most emotionally vital bit as Wade draws aside the hair Samantha uses to hide her birthmark, and pronounces it unimportant. It’s a lovely little moment keen to the ebb and flow of strength in people, as Samantha, who specialises in seeming like a chitinous being chiselled out of raw confidence online submits to her ultimate fear, and Wade, who’s been longing to prove himself as a real person, doesn’t fail her. It charges the rest of the film with freewheeling humanist energy.
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Amongst contemporary filmmakers, few have the gift to make a movie where you go in to see Voltron battling Mothra or something, and have you come out thinking about the first girl you kissed. But Spielberg still has it, and that’s what turns Ready Player One from a potentially tiresome, gimmick or throwaway bit of nonsense into one of the most surprisingly galvanising and entertaining movies I’ve seen in the past few years. Ready Player One builds to a scene where anointed inheritor encounters the digital ghost of his hero, and recognises part of his own responsibility is to evolve past Halliday, to face the real world and the consequences of living in it as well as celebrating the joy of creation, and obliges to make everyone get some sort of a life and start dealing with the problems before them, as well as the pleasures. Here Ready Player One reminded me of another Movie Brat’s more thoroughly anarchic, if less well-orchestrated, poison pen letter to his art, industry, and audience, John Carpenter’s Escape from L.A. (1997), where Snake Plissken plunged the world into pre-modern darkness to cleanse its soul and mind. Spielberg is more reasonable. How about two days a week, just for a trial?

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2010s, Action-Adventure, Scifi

Black Panther (2018)

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Director/Coscreenwriter: Ryan Coogler

By Roderick Heath

The hype for Black Panther was rather daunting, to say the least. If you wanted to buy into Disney-Marvel’s carefully cultivated marketing hullabaloo and attendant word of social media mouth, you might reasonably expect Black Panther to singlehandedly reshape western history and count as a major act of social justice, every righteous minute spent watching it the moral equivalent of an aid dollar to Sierra Leone and a vote against Donald Trump. It is true that after seventeen films and billions upon billions of dollars reaped at the box office, Disney-Marvel have finally dared to put some of their fortune towards making a film with a black superhero front and centre, two decades after Spawn (1997) and Blade (1998). More noteworthy, it’s a film with a mostly black cast and a black director, a work carefully tailored to fit our oh-so-woke times. Blockbuster land has now been colonised by personnel forged in the new black independent cinema, which is genuinely cool and stirring, but which also carries the wince-inducing hint that a lot of viewers will feel relieved from any urge to actually watch some of that new black independent cinema, particularly at a time when the Marvel creed feels close to the last true religion in terms of moviegoer appeal, beloved for its ability to generate revenue by making variations on the same two films over and over again.
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Ryan Coogler made his name with Fruitvale Station (2013), a piercingly realistic depiction of the last days of police shooting victim Oscar Grant. Surprisingly for such an earnest-seeming young tyro, he quickly revealed readiness, nay, eagerness to go Hollywood, but also seemed determined to try and bend Tinseltown’s gravity to suit himself. He next took on Creed (2015), a generation-change take on the storied Rocky franchise. A lot of people really loved that one, but it left me only mildly buzzed. It badly lacked the kind of melodramatic, frankly plebeian zest the genre has long prized. I didn’t particularly care about poor little rich boy Adonis Creed, who seemed better defined by all the things Coogler didn’t want him to be than a really galvanising protagonist. Coogler’s filming was flashy, but like many contemporary filmmakers, he he had me wondering if he deployed long-take shooting in some of his boxing scenes to avoid constructing a proper editing rhythm for action scenes, a suspicion borne out when he reduced the climactic fight to an extended montage. I rather guiltily enjoyed Antoine Fuqua’s near-simultaneous Southpaw more: it was shamelessly manipulative and corny, but as such understood the essence of the boxing movie intuitively. Nor is Coogler the first black director to helm a superhero franchise. Apparently I was perhaps the only person who liked Tim Story’s Fantastic Four films from the mid-’00s. Story never got any props for those because he never tried to make his movies cool, but they were genuine in their comic book inspiration precisely because they were broad, naive, and accurate in their cinematic adaptation of the flatly illustrative on-the-page style.
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Still, my reservations about Coogler’s evolving talents weren’t urgent, and I looked forward to Black Panther with measured expectations, chiefly because I’ve long wanted to see a decent Afrofuturist film, a cinematic realisation of the kind of fantastic landscape Octavia Butler wrote about, Miles Davis would spread across his album covers, and Parliament Funkadelic, Jimi Hendrix, and Sun Ra used to compose in mind. Black Panther delivers this, as far as it goes. Although mentioned in some of the earlier Marvel entries and glimpsed briefly at the end of Captain America: Civil War (2016), this is the first time the remote, landlocked, self-sufficient African nation of Wakanda has been depicted in any depth. The nation hosts a sprawl of supertechnology enabled by the Wakandans’ control of the rare and endlessly exploitable metal vibranium, long the McGuffin enabling the Marvel universe. The conceit here is that although Wakanda entered and surpassed the general state of modernity far earlier than the rest of the world, it’s remained a very tribal society with primeval rituals of leadership and social relations, and has prospered at the cost of remaining sealed off from the outside world, neither troubled by neighbours and empires nor doing anything to help.
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The history of Wakanda is explored at the outset in the regulation quasi-mythical narrated prologue, exploring the landing of a vibranium meteorite in the territory, and the rise of the first Black Panther, a warrior-king with superhuman strength imbued by a flowering plant mutated by the vibranium and a suit forged with that metal. The latest Black Panther is T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), inheriting suit and throne from his father T’Chaka (John Kani), who was assassinated in Civil War. T’Challa has to pass through various obliged rituals before he takes the crown, including a challenge for the right to rule that’s a pure test of martial strength. He gains one challenger, M’Baku (Winston Duke), chieftain of the Jabari, one of the Wakandan tribes that remains aloof to the rest of the nation, living in high mountains, and manages a narrow victory over the hulking and vehement foe. T’Challa is then free to pursue more urgent matters. Nefarious character Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), glimpsed in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), stole an amount of vibranium from Wakanda in conspiracy with T’Chaka’s brother, Prince N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown), and after losing that trove to superhero enemies, seeks a new source of the ore to market. He works with a former American soldier, Erik Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), to steal a misidentified Wakandan relic, a war axe with a vibranium head, from a London museum.
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Klaue tries to sell the axe head on the black market, attracting interest from the CIA, with Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), another Civil War alumnus who’s aware of T’Challa’s secret identity, leading the buying team in a South Korean nightclub. The Wakandans want to punish Klaue for his transgressions, which include killing the father of one of T’Challa’s tribal chiefs, W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya). T’Challa and his most trusted companions, Amazonian chief bodyguard Okoye (Danai Gurira) and former girlfriend Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), arrive to foil Klaue’s sale. They capture him after a careening street chase and deliver him into Ross’s hands. Klaue is soon rescued by his allies, but then learns he’s a mere pawn in someone else’s game. Erik is actually N’Jadaka, son of N’Jobu, and intends to claim the throne for himself as part of a plan to conquer the world with Wakandan technology. Erik, also dubbed “Killmonger” for his gleeful dispensing of death on the battlefield, kills Klaue and arrives to challenge T’Challa.
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T’Challa and his world were created by the two grand-old creative forces of Marvel comics, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, although the property has been augmented over the past fifty years by many writers of colour who have interrogated its ideas, including the undemocratic hierarchies of Wakanda. Like the X-Men, Black Panther and his universe was conjured to fill a gap in the market and appeal to kids and teens pining for greater representation and easy identification figures, but he also became the first African superhero with the lead role in a fixture franchise. The notion that an African country has achieved a great level of advancement entirely independent of western influence could be taken as a fun and clever inversion of racist cliché, and even more so in the late 1960s when the comic first appeared. But it also has overtones of the kind of lost kingdom seen in many a pulp novel and movie, the kind where strange mores rule and the outside world is seen through a distorting lens. When he first appeared on screen in Civil War, Black Panther was sleek, tough customer carrying a load of melancholic resolve well-conveyed by Boseman, an actor who so far in his career has proven near-infinitely malleable. Here he is finally arrested into a certain amount of stolidity in dutifully embodying a hero whose heavy lifting of character was already disposed of in that movie. Like too many movie heroes, he threatens to disappear at the heart of his own vehicle.
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Coogler tethers the remote and haughty Wakandan abode with the mean streets of Los Angeles using an introductory sequence taking place in 1992, the year of the LA riots. N’Jobu lived there as one of Wakanda’s international spies with his pal, James (Denzel Whitaker), plotting violent revolutionary action, only to receive a surprise visit from T’Chaka, alerted to his brother’s joining forces with Klaue, and also revealing that James is actually Zuri, another Wakandan sent to keep an eye on N’Jobu. N’Jobu’s attempt to kill James in a spasm of rage instead provoked T’Chaka to slay his brother and abandon his young nephew to grow up in American ghettos. Coogler suggests some visual wit in the way he parlays young Erik’s glimpse of the glowing Wakandan hovercraft that portends his father’s death and the suggestion of an alien and inhospitable culture that reached down and changed his life, in a manner that hints at a police helicopter, a vision of authority as an anonymous assassin in the sky. The promise of a superhero film that unfolds in a Blaxploitation key is dangled tantalisingly, only to be snatched away, as Coogler and coscreenwriter Joe Robert Cole dodge both this mode and their own sociopolitical inferences by sticking almost entirely to Wakanda as a setting. Social relevance and metaphor are reduced to a series of placards inserted into what is otherwise a pseudo-hip Edgar Rice Burroughs fantasy camp.
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Wakanda’s big city, hidden behind holographic jungles, looks like just about every other CGI burg in a recent blockbuster, although the towering skyscrapers have some vaguely tribal hut-like features. Some sub-Peter Jackson-does-Tolkien forays into the Jabari territory with fancifully jutting statuary-structures are purveyed in fleeting fashion, but without any sense of real spectacle or discovery. Those demand a directorial touch attuned to the quality of awe, but the lack of it isn’t just Coogler’s: an authentic sense of the fantastical is an ore that’s proven rarer than vibranium for the Marvel imprimatur, apart from flashes in the Thor films. More enjoyable are the animal-like designs of their aircraft. But Coogler displays no gift for evoking place: his Africa is relentlessly manicured and depicted as an assemblage of culturally backdated accumulation of tropes out of an old Tarzan movie. The visions of the local culture, like the ritual singing and dancing before T’Challa’s challenge battle, are brightly hued and suitably exotic in a manner that suggests the kind of tourist-board kitschiness (or Disneyfied appropriation, a la The Lion King, 1992) one might expect Coogler to be taking aim at. I couldn’t help but start mentally quoting the Rifftrax lampooning team’s great ridiculing of the little-known Blaxploitation film The Guy From Harlem (1977), with their quips about “your native country of Africa.”
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Nor has the Disney-Marvel imprimatur’s well-developed gift for redeploying successful blueprints been seriously revised. Just as Doctor Strange (2016) slightly rewrote the Iron Man (2008) template, so Black Panther is essentially the Thor films in cod-Bantu drag, complete with contests between jealous relatives over the throne, a grand but morally flawed patriarch, a hero briefly exiled and robbed of his powers, some star performers of the ‘80s and ‘90s cast as the old guard, and a final fight on a long, flat concourse. The older Zuri is played by Forrest Whitaker, who also helped produce Fruitvale Station, which gives an amusing subtext to the inevitable moment of oedipal trauma when Killmonger slays him. T’Challa’s mother Ramonda is played by Angela Bassett, still an incredibly striking presence and still incredibly wasted. Early in the film T’Challa goes out to fetch Nakia from her self-imposed mission to infiltrate and break people-smuggling rackets, and Nakia’s bold efforts to perform positive actions where her once and future lover wrestles with a tradition of detachment would make for an interesting schism if it was deployed with any dramatic weight at all. The separation of Wakanda from the everyday flow of modern African life entirely anesthetises any chance for commentary on the progress or lack of it in the post-colonial age; what few glimpses and hints are offered about the world beyond Wakanda ironically seem to bear out Trump’s opinion that they’re all shitholes desperately in need of some intervention from an abiding superpower. Or at least in Erik’s framing of them, which, as Ross cogently notes, perfectly reproduces that of his US military training.
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It also verges on quasi-racist to present a vision of an African utopia that can develop to such a degree in one sector of its life, but whose social institutions remain utterly primitive, to the point where the country can be taken over by some random dude who turns up and beats up the reigning ruler, and everyone feels obligated to follow along. Of course, these are problems inherited from the source material and its roots in a different time, but I’m surprised no-one seems to have thought them through that hard in updating it all. The never-never quality to Wakanda doesn’t entirely retard the opportunity for a little commentary, it must be said. As a free-floating metaphor for the problem of first world responsibility, it retains some kick, particularly as Killmonger takes it over and attempts to turn it into an engine of world-correcting might-as-right. He intends to follow his father and Klaue’s original plan of sending weapons out around the world to spark international revolution, at once fulfilling a radical creed but also reproducing the guiding principles of the white man’s burden. But this is all entirely subsumed into the kind of lightly purveyed political inference the Marvel style has been leveraging for a while now with its not-quite War on Terror commentary. The franchise gets to subsume a patina of relevance whilst never quite challenging or offending anyone. The mentions of slavery and police brutality scattered throughout the film are bracing in their own right, but shouldn’t be congratulated as particularly radical, seeing as they’ve been long rendered into pop tropes by thirty years of hip-hop lyrics and movies, and won’t be considered even faintly controversial except to the most strident right-wing voices, who won’t be cueing up anyway.
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Perhaps it’s a bit churlish to overemphasise this aspect of Black Panther, in a film that mostly wants to be a jaunty, entertaining piece of fantasy-action absurdity with just a light glazing of positive social import. And for the most part Coogler barrels along with a reasonable sense of fun and energy, if with very little originality and only a few fleeting moments of true style and wit of staging. The set-piece car chase sequence in the middle is well-done, distinguished less by the often-annoying camerawork and the seen-it-all-before backflips and smashes, than by little flourishes of Coogler’s humour, like having Nakia slide to a halt still strapped to her car seat with the rest of the car fallen to pieces about her, a gag straight out of an old Buster Keaton two-reeler. But my reservations about Coogler’s gifts as a formalist were confirmed by the preceding stab at one of those grandiose one-shot action sequences in the night club, where the camera movements and staging lack any sense of pictorial impact. Coogler seems more at home in the sequences of close-quarters combat in the challenge battles, which he stages on a shelf above a chasm, ribboning mists and thunderous waterfalls all around. There’s real visual drama and a sense of intimate violence in these battles, particularly as the challenge between T’Challa and Killmonger turns into a spectacle of brutality that leaves T’Challa’s family and comrades distraught at the sight of their great hero taken down by a psychopathic interloper.
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A lot of Black Panther stoked contradictory responses in me. It’s yet another recent movie that manages to be too talky but where relatively little of substance is said, where the characterisations are stated rather than felt and their dramatic interrelationships fail to connect meaningfully. The cast’s general energy and comic timing alternates between charming and slightly tedious in parlaying dialogue that rocks on with a fast rhythm and yet which retards the dramatic weight, particularly with the proliferation of overripe Affreekahn accents. One of the reasons why Jordan feels particularly potent in the film is precisely because he’s free from this. His Killmonger speaks in precise, venomous articulations of anger. Jordan acts better than any actor since Toshiro Mifune with his teeth as he looks like he wants to take a bite out of everyone, and he brings basic melodramatic juice to a degree that feels unworthy of his standard-issue angry-usurper villain character: he deserves a more substantial film. We get Marvel beats that are becoming stultifying in their familiarity, like extracting humour from a hero who’s omnicompetent as an ass-kicker but awkward as a romancer, doomed to freeze “like an antelope in headlights” when he sees Nakia in the midst of battle. The last third in particular feels dashed off by Coogler, who can’t be bothered building much of a sequence around T’Challa’s recovery and restoration. Remember how well-done that was in Superman II (1980)? Ah, dear. The days of such storytelling patience are long gone.
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Coogler offers some flashes of visual lustre here and there, particularly in the mystical sequences that seemed composed of one part Paul Schrader’s Cat People (1982) and one part Bill Gunn’s Ganja & Hess (1973), via some funny-mushroom colour tricks. But for the most part Black Panther is a remarkably dull-looking film, often underlit, dully designed, and failing utterly to capitalise on the expansiveness of the setting. Where Black Panther really works is in terms of the cadre surrounding T’Challa, which is, peculiarly, almost entirely female, in the form of Shuri, Nakia, and Okoye. Wright’s Shuri is one of the film’s best facets, filling the role of James Bond’s Q except in the key of a bratty little sister, a long-bow wish-fulfilment figure for the younger audience members who is nonetheless a source of real entertainment, lurching between patronising her brother and propelling his adventures with all her absurd inventiveness and outsized enthusiasm. She’s stuck with the job of healing Ross, who requires her special gifts when he’s shot taking a bullet meant for Nakia, an act of altruism that makes him the – heh heh – token white guy. Shuri reacts suspiciously towards the interloper at first but soon finds him receptive in fascination for her technological creations. Gurira’s Okoye gets one priceless comic moment when she has to wear a wig over her shaven pate to pass amongst nightclub patrons. Otherwise she’s expected to stand around and look badass, something well within Gurira’s range after years playing the katana-wielding Michonne on The Walking Dead TV series.
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It’s peculiar that Nyong’o, who, since capturing an Oscar as a still-fresh face in 12 Years a Slave (2013), still can’t find a part to match her aura as a total package after being wasted egregiously in the Star Wars revival. Here she’s trapped in the straight-arrow part as Nakia, who operates by an independent moral compass, a trait that’s interesting but with counts for little. She fulfils the role of Love Interest with some added action moves, but remains shoehorned in between the Tough Lady and Girl Genius, leaving her to join that roster of ill-served major female talents swept up in this franchise including Gwyneth Paltrow, Natalie Portman, Rachel McAdams, Hayley Atwell, Evangeline Lilly…but hey, they’re all getting a decent pay cheque. Meanwhile Freeman’s Ross gets to follow in the noble footsteps of Marlon Wayans in GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009) in landing the dullest of heroic jobs, piloting a plane sent out to go and shoot down…well, they’re not missiles or machines of destruction, but…planes carrying arms to be delivered to someone with the possibility of being used at some point. My god, the tension. Ross has to use Shuri’s remote piloting system to do it, so to introduce physical danger and tension he’s being threatened by some kind of hovering insectoid craft trying to blast its way through to him in Shuri’s lab and…yeah, just stick him in the plane next time.
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The final battle sequence is cliché stuff that degenerates into a jumble of silliness, but at least it’s a wholehearted silliness that knows it, with armoured rhinoceroses charging into the fray and a sense of childlike giddiness to the sight of the three heroines launching at Killmonger. As with the fight between Gamora and Nebula in the first Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), there’s a flicker of an actual thrill in this. A postscript sees T’Challa opening a Wakandan outreach centre based in the building where his uncle died, flying in a Wakandan hovercraft to dazzle the local youth. I liked the nod to a long tradition of pedagogic righteousness in comic books that’s been largely missing from the great craze of adaptations of late. It’s also great to see Serkis relishing his part as second-fiddle bad guy, vibrating with suppressed energy and askew attitude, as when he sings Haddaway’s “What Is Love?” strapped to a chair. The best quality of Black Panther is that it feels genuine and unforced in its liking for its cast and honest in its desire to entertain. I’m sure for a lot of people the specific quality of Black Panther scarcely matters; the event itself carries a lot of import, and I hope at the very least its success provokes a new generation of black screen heroes. Personally, I’d love to see some more authentic African mythology brought to the screen. But in itself, Black Panther’s just another drop wrung from a rapidly drying sponge.

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