2010s, Action-Adventure, Fantasy, Horror/Eerie, Political, Television

Game of Thrones (TV, 2011-19)

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Creators: David Benioff, D.B. Weiss

By Roderick Heath

For much of the past decade, Game of Thrones stood astride the popular zeitgeist as a colossus. Game of Thrones inspired obsessive loyalty and served as a flagship for a much-hailed second golden age of television allowed by burgeoning cable TV and benefiting from the new panoply of viewing opportunities. It became the arch example of a ravenously consumable “binge-watch” programme and dwarfed just about any film rival save the Marvel Cinematic Universe, setting records for Emmy wins and internet piracy. The series was adapted from an as-yet unfinished cycle of novels started by sci-fi and fantasy writer George R.R. Martin in 1991, entitled A Song of Ice and Fire, although the TV version adopted the title of the first entry in the cycle. A professional author since the early 1970s, Martin struggled to gain anything like a reputation commensurate with his ability, standing like other similar talents in Stephen King’s huge shadow. Ironically Martin’s recourse to working in television, including on the Linda Hamilton and Ron Perlman vehicle Beauty and the Beast in the late 1980s, equipped him with unusual gifts when he finally decided to tackle the kind of fantasy epic he had loved since he was a kid with a nose in J.R.R. Tolkien’s books: he added an extra ‘R’ to his penname to acknowledge the debt.

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But Martin didn’t want to write fantasy as airily mythical, idealised, and Manichean as Tolkien, trying instead to create a deeply conceived, palpable, often terrifying fictional universe governed by many of the same rules as the world we all know. The schism at the heart of Game of Thrones, a work torn between grand imaginative frontiers and a hardnosed metaphorical depiction of humanity’s often terrible march towards modernity, proved both key to the show’s addictive appeal and also the source of the often aggravating sense of grievance it could leave in its wake. Martin, who helped produce the show and wrote several episodes, had wittingly or not composed his novels in a fashion that reflected his TV experience and made them ideal for serial storytelling, with their long, overarching narratives matched to immediate vignettes tethered to the viewpoints of specific protagonists. Game of Thrones was boosted to such epochal success by several coinciding factors. As a tale of familial tribulation and communal fracture, it suited the post-Global Financial Crisis and War on Terror mood and rhymed with the more general portent of climate change and swiftly transforming economies. A generation had been reared on The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter film series and were now hungry for a new fantasy franchise, but were also ready for something gamier and more adult in the genre, and were more prepared to accept the outsized metaphors of fantasy as capable of bearing the weight of serious themes than any mass audience before.

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The show was created and overseen for HBO by novelist and screenwriter David Benioff, who had written The 25th Hour (2002) and had explored embyronic aspects of the show in his screenplay for the Homeric epic Troy (2004), along with his fellow writer D.B. Weiss. The TV series pared down the novels’ digressions into exploring the manifold corners of Martin’s fictional universe but still featured dozens of recurring characters and required filming from Iceland to North Africa. Game of Thrones unfolds chiefly on Westeros, a continent on an imaginary world where the length of seasons are capricious, and a long and mellow summer is about to give way to an unknowably long and punishing winter. The chief clan of protagonists, the Starks, were once royalty in Westeros’ north and ruled from their seat of Winterfell, but the seven kingdoms of Westeros had been united three hundred years earlier by the Targaryen family, with a mysterious magical link to dragons and who used those animals to pulverise enemies on the path to total domination. The realm’s seat of royal power, the Iron Throne, was literally forged out of the swords of defeated enemies with a dragon’s fiery breath. The oft-incestuous Targaryens gained a reputation for inherent lunacy, eventually sparking a great rebellion that saw many different great families in the realm join together and overthrow their dynasty, installing Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy) in their place. Ten years into Robert’s reign, the King visits Winterfell to ask his best friend and old ally Ned Stark (Sean Bean) to accept the post of “Hand of the King” or chief minister to replace a predecessor who has recently died. Robert is married to Cersei (Lena Headey), scion of another great family, the Lannisters, famed for their deep resources of both gold and political savvy. Robert dislikes Cersei and ruling equally, preferring drinking, whoring, and hunting. Cersei has long since found comfort in an incestuous relationship her twin brother Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), who is the true father of her three children, Robert’s nominal heirs.

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The early episodes sketch the tenuous balance of personalities and factions sustained through Robert’s reign, and how his lack of interest in the niceties of kingship sows seeds of coming conflict. Rivals like the Lannister patriarch Tywin (Charles Dance) can accrue great influence through all but subsidising the kingdom, whilst resentments build up elsewhere, including in the old North kingdom, and Dorne, in the far south, for the losses of people and honour they suffered. The friendship between Robert and Ned seems like a sturdy foundation to sustain peace on, particularly as Ned is a deeply honourable and decent leader who has tried to instil his values in his sizeable brood of children and dependents, including sons Robb (Richard Madden) and Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright), daughters Sansa (Sophie Turner) and Arya (Maisie Williams), and bastard son Jon Snow (Kit Harington). By comparison the Lannisters have a reputation for cold-blooded conniving. Sansa is betrothed to Robert’s heir Joffrey (Jack Gleeson), but he quickly proves a budding psychopath. The tomboyish Arya’s unremitting hate for Joffrey is stoked when a playful fencing game she has with a peasant lad leads to that boy’s slaying after Joffrey starts bullying them. Arya also resents Sansa for siding with Joffrey in trying to fulfil her own dream of becoming queen and escape the comparatively dull and squalid northern backwater.

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Jaime, labelled “Kingslayer” by all and sundry for having delivered the coup-de-grace to the last, lunatic Targaryen king despite being his bodyguard, seems a glib and supercilious playboy. He pushes Bran off a tower where the boy spies him and Cersei having sex. Bran is left a paraplegic, and after an assassin is killed trying to finish the job, Ned’s wife Catelyn (Michelle Fairley) has the killer’s dagger identified as belonging to Jaime and Cersei’s younger brother Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), often labelled “The Imp” because of his dwarfish stature and penchant for dissolute living. Catelyn has Tyrion taken captive and transported to another region, ruled by her unstable sister Lysa (Kate Dickie). Whilst serving in the capital King’s Landing, Ned uncovers the truth about Cersei’s children and offers her a chance to flee, but Cersei, covertly a hard and vicious operator who fancies herself Tywin’s truest progeny, instead contrives Robert’s seemingly accidental death before having Ned arrested for treason. Cersei tries to arrange a swap of Tyrion in exchange for Ned’s life, but the newly-crowned Joffrey, delighting in power and bloodlust, instead has Ned beheaded. This sparks a furious continental power struggle that sees Robb leading Northerners in rebellion, whilst Robert’s brothers, the talented but glum and charmless soldier Stannis (Stephen Dillane) and the charismatic and gay Renly (Gethin Anthony), informed by Ned of the heirs’ bastardry, each raise armies to make themselves king.

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This core drama obeys a realistically nasty sense of medieval society and its dynastic players, drawn from a number of ready sources. These include Greek and Jacobean tragedy, Shakespeare’s history plays, Robert Graves’ I, Claudius novels and their 1970s TV adaptation, Maurice Druon’s French historical novel series The Accursed Kings, Frank Herbert’s Dune cycle, Michael Moorcock’s fantasy cliché-smashing Elric of Melniboné tales, and The Godfather films, from which it significantly assimilates, and recapitulates in the most hyperbolic terms, the theme of a family trying to operate in a corrupt and hostile world whilst retaining a vestige of honour. Overt fantasy elements are pushed to the far fringes at first, glimpsed in vestigial remnants and hunks of infrastructure that now seem to have no proper use, from dragon eggs long turned to stone and the skulls of the Targaryens’ conquering monsters stowed in a basement, to a colossal wall of ice built to guard the north against supernatural forces, but which now merely stands to hold out wildings, the hard and bitter peoples who subsist in the frozen wastes. The signature touch of white hair that marks the Targaryens pays tribute to Elric and to Melville, imbuing the breed with a hint of the uncanny, of extraordinary power and also a suggestion of innate decadence and inhumanity. The wall is manned by the Night’s Watch, a once-legendary band of holy warriors now mostly filled out by convicted criminals and social refuse. Jon Snow learns this to his shock and shame when he volunteers to serve with them. The very first scene of the series however has signalled something is coming along with the winter, as some Night’s Watch men are attacked by a mysterious and terrifying foe that can induct their own victims into their ranks, as glowing-eyed zombies dubbed White Walkers.

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Where most high fantasy aims to create a fabled classical past as it might have been synthesised in medieval folklore, Game of Thrones rather portrays that medieval mentality as still uncomfortably and half-sceptically infused by that past. The first season sets up the essential dramatic tensions and conflicts in relatively low-key terms, the death of the peasant boy presaging a story predicated around portrayals of aristocratic selfishness waged in general contempt for the greater populace. Here the innocent often get ground into so much mince by the machine of statecraft, where some characters defend their prerogatives with unstinting precision and others are confronted by the near-impossibility of getting anything like justice when such forces rule the world, and so must find ways to armour themselves through arts both delicate and warlike. Martin’s youth in the counterculture era informs the pervading spirit of the material in the grand-scale recapitulation of The Who’s famous lyric, “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” Ned’s effort to operate according to his scruples helps to unleash a near-apocalypse, costing him and Robert their lives, nearly destroying their families, and sparking internecine warfare that convulses across the length and breadth of Westeros. Catelyn and Cersei’s mirroring desire to protect their children and bring their enemies to book similarly fuels the carnage.

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Part of the overall narrative’s ingenious thrust was sourced in the inclusion of two major storylines that contrast the relatively petty squabbling of the Westerosi clans with momentous and slowly uncoiling threats, allowing a varied blend of not just plots but types of storytelling. One of these is the inexorable White Walker army, massing in the wait for winter’s start. The other is Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), who, along with her older brother Viserys (Harry Lloyd), is the last known surviving member of the former ruling clan. Now subsisting in exile on the neighbouring, Eurasia-like continent of Essos, Viserys tries to purchase an army to regain the Iron Throne by essentially selling Daenerys as a bride to Khal Drogo (Jason Mamoa), a chieftain of the virile nomadic warrior tribe known as the Dothraki. Daenerys manages to turn this humiliating and violating fate to her own advantage as she deftly captures Drogo’s unwavering love. When Viserys proves too big for his britches Drogo promises him a crown that will make men shudder to contemplate, and promptly has a vat of molten gold poured on his head. Drogo dies when a light wound from a duel is turned into a fatal one by the efforts of a witch from a tribe his Dothraki enslaved, leaving Daenerys with only one great act of faith to ensure the rebirth of her dynasty left to dare. She has herself and the stone dragon eggs that are the last remnant of the breed burned together with Drogo on his funeral pyre, along with the tethered witch. Daenerys emerges from the fire unharmed, proven to be the true Targaryen kind, and three infant dragons hatched and regarding her as their mother.

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Daenerys soon gains a fanatical following as she uses her ever-amplified personal legend, and equally fast-growing dragons, to attract adherents and begin assaulting the status quo in Essos. At first with guile and then increasingly with brute force, she captures several large cities with a determination to wipe out slavery, gaining help from freed slaves and obtaining the unswerving loyalty of the Unsullied, a corps of cruelly but effectively trained warrior eunuchs. She attracts loyalists including former slave and translator Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel), and Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson), the Unsullieds’ choice for commander from their own ranks. She also has Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen), a former Westeros knight exiled for slave trading by Ned, who tried to regain his standing by spying on the Targaryen siblings but instead finds himself welded in personal loyalty and affection to Daenerys, whilst she is more drawn to the glib but romantic mercenary Daario Naharis (Ed Skrein and Michael Huisman). Daenerys’ following is built on assaulting the malign regimes both on Essos and Westeros, and holds the promise of freedom for the oppressed that Daenerys feels messianically obliged to deliver. But it remains disturbingly contingent on Daenerys’ willingness to unleash brutal poetic justice upon various collectives of malefactors, countenancing such acts as having one enemy and a traitorous handmaiden sealed alive in a vault, crucifying slave owners, and relying on the shared capacity of the Unsullied and her brood of dragons to devastate enemies with no questions asked.

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One major theme of the show is that of the repercussions of specific choices and actions, particularly when performed against the evident necessity of a given situation. The kinds of crisis of conscience and acts of defiant agency-seeking that define modern drama are often painted as indulgence in the face of foes who will gladly murder you while you sleep, and yet are eventually validated nonetheless as the only possible answer to such nihilism. Ned and Robb are joined as father and son both doomed by their incapacity to wield cunning and dexterity in concert with moral action, and so are outflanked by more ruthless foes. Arya dedicates herself to the idea of making people face the consequences of their actions, even pushing this to the point of abandoning a wounded man as she feels he deserves a slow death, and later slaughtering a knight who killed her fencing teacher with terrible relish. But when she joins a sect called The Faceless Men to learn their prodigious assassin arts she cannot give herself up to their religious dedication, a lapse that almost gets her killed. Daenerys’ attempts to end slavery constantly collide with the much deeper problem of how to revise the basics of a society, eventually driving her to conclusions similar to Mao and Stalin in her revolutionary course. When a finer quality wins out, it’s usually the cumulative result of long and demanding discipline as well as sacrifice, and the seeds of good deeds take much longer to flower than expedience. Some acts win through in a crisis of the moment but leave a lingering flavour of disgust whilst others seem to fail in the moment and yet offer the possibility of treasured worth. Thus the Starks are nearly decimated in the first half of the series and yet, finally, emerge triumphant.

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Around the central dynastic players orbits a host of ingeniously conceived and cast supporting characters. There’s Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie), a freakishly large and strong noblewoman who’s taken up a knightly creed without actually being a knight, first introduced seeking a place amidst Renly’s bodyguards. Fate drives her to the twinned tasks of avenging Renly’s assassination and protecting the Stark children, whilst also at first stuck with Jaime’s company and then doomed to linger in love with him. Varys (Conleth Hill) is a eunuch who serves the Iron Throne with his genius for gathering intelligence but considers himself far more loyal to the realm at large rather than any one ruler. Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish (Aidan Gillen) is a pimp and plotter who has risen to the royal council, harbouring a secret desire to become King and somehow win back Catelyn, his childhood love, and after she dies, setting his sights on Sansa instead. Sandor “The Hound” and Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane (Rory McCann and Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson) are husky brothers bound by shared fighting pith and deep mutual hatred, each employed as thugs by the crown. Samwell Tarly (John Bradley) is the portly, timorous scion of a macho knight bullied into joining the Night’s Watch where he’s taken under Jon’s wing, slowly blooming into a man of action and learning who also takes on a wife and her child he rescues from the frozen north.

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Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) is a former smuggler raised to knighthood by Stannis who was impressed by his ingenuity, nicknamed ‘the Onion Knight’ for his sarcastic choice of emblem and who serves for Stannis, sometimes to appreciation and often to its opposite, as a voice of earthy wisdom. He loses a son to Tyrion’s explosives during the assault on King’s Landing but later finds himself allying with Tyrion as well as Jon and others as the White Walker threat becomes urgent. Melisandre (Carice Van Houten) is an enigmatic and manipulative priestess for a god called the Lord of Light who influences Stannis with sex and displays of magic, burns sacrificial victims en masse, and achieves Renly’s death through birthing a vaporous magical assassin. Gendry (Joe Dempsie) is one of Robert’s illegitimate sons, a talented blacksmith who briefly becomes Arya’s companion in fleeing King’s Landing, is tapped for his royal blood by Melisandre for her incantations, and eventually finds himself granted Robert’s old titles and lands. During a venture north to head off an imminent invasion by a massed wilding army, Jon has a passionate affair with the garrulous but deadly archer Ygritte (Rose Leslie). The fierce yet strangely likeable Tormund Giantsbane (Kristofer Hivju) eventually becomes Jon’s unshakable ally in efforts to save the wildings from the White Walkers. Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer) is the ambitious daughter of another great house who takes Sansa’s place as Joffrey’s intended and happily plays any role, from saintly princess to partner in sadism, to further her aims, backed up all the way by her formidable grandmother Olenna (Diana Rigg). Her brother Loras Tyrell (Finn Jones) is a glamorous knight who is not so secretly queer and Renly’s lover, but finds himself committed to becoming Cersei’s second husband.

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The vast number of these and other players contribute to the constantly recapitulated theme of outsiders imbued with contrasting talents and sullen, long-foiled desires that find a stage for realisation, proto-moderns both out of time and place and yet imbued with strange grace for existing within a pre-modern world. A lot of current pop culture seeks to flatter its audience by narrowly illustrating and confirming a progressive sense of history, but whilst Game of Thrones makes is sympathies clear it also muddles easy identification and refuses easy victories, one reason why, despite its fantastical aspects, it rang true for a vast number of viewers. The show constantly indicts a certain brand of stiff-necked and abusive patriarchy as a corrosive force, presenting many septic father figures, like Samwell’s father who threatens to arrange his death if he doesn’t disinherit himself, and the brilliant but self-righteous and coldly domineering Tywin, as figures who try to impose rigorous control and yet again are destroyed by their self-delusion. The ultimate figure along these lines in the show is Craster (Robert Pugh), a wilding who’s carved out a home in the frozen wilderness and fosters a brood of daughters he keeps under an incestuous thumb, sacrificing his boy children to the evil beings who control the White Walkers. Ginny (Hannah Murray), the girl Samwell saves, is one of his daughters. Craster is eventually murdered by mutineers of the Night’s Watch, who also slay Jeor Mormont (James Cosmo), their commander and Jorah’s father, during a disastrous foray into the wastes.

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One of the more compelling characters in the suffering offspring mould is Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen), the son of the nominal king of the piratical Iron Islanders off the Westeros coast, raised as a hostage by the Starks but essentially a member of the family. Theon is initially portrayed as a cocksure bigmouth with no real character. Once Robb kicks off his rebellion he sends Theon to his father Balon (Patrick Malahide) to negotiate his aid, but Balon coldly rebuffs Theon as a foreigner, preferring his much more aggressive sister Yara (Gemma Whelan). Theon tries to prove his worth by instead leading an attack on Winterfell and pretending to kill Bran and the youngest Stark son Rickon (Art Parkinson), substituting the bodies of two slain farmhands in their place. Theon is eventually betrayed and taken captive by a mysterious young man who takes great delight in sadistically tormenting him. This man proves to be Ramsay Snow (Iwan Rheon), the bastard son of Stark loyalist Roose Bolton (Michael McElhatton), who has his own deceitful project under way. Theon inspires degrees of disdain, pathos, and admiration in the course of his experience, his fumbling efforts to prove himself worthy of his creed, his pride as a lover and his impotence as a princeling finally, terribly mocked in one swoop when Ramsay castrates him and sends his boxed genitals to his family. By the time Yara comes to rescue him, he’s reduced to such a wretched, servile thing she’s forced to abandon him.

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Theon’s capture and initially inscrutable suffering is one aspect of the show’s third season, which, with its jolting twists, served at once to disorientate a growing viewership but also sank the hooks of addiction more deeply. The malicious cunning reaches an apogee in the episode “The Rains of Castamere” where Robb tries to restitch his alliance with sleazy, aged, petty potentate Walder Frey (David Bradley) after breaking a vow to him to marry one of his daughters, having instead taken the smart and lovely foreign healer Talisa (Oona Chaplin) as a bride. During a feast of reconciliation, the Freys, in alliance with Bolton and with Tywin’s covert backing, suddenly attack and slay Robb, Talisa, Catelyn, and much of the Stark army, in an atrocity quickly dubbed the Red Wedding. This act of treachery nonetheless seems to virtually end the civil war and leaves the Lannisters in apparently firm control, as Tyrion and Tywin have already beaten off Stannis’ seaborne assault on King’s Landing. Arya, in the custody of the Hound who wants to ransom her back to her kin, barely escapes being caught up in the Red Wedding. Her near-crazed hunger for revenge begins to manifest as she recounts a list of enemies to slay before sleeping at night, and keeps starting fights with factional goons the Hound has to finish. Despite the fact he’s one of the names of Arya’s list for his role in killing the peasant boy, the Hound feels a near-paternal responsibility for the Stark girls, only to be left to die by Arya after he loses a duel after a chance encounter with Brienne. Arya refuses to go with Brienne, instead heading to Essos to join the Faceless Men, one of whom, Jaqen H’ghar (Tom Wlaschiha), she encountered as a prisoner and whose stealthy talents in killing helped save her, Gendry, and others from a sorry end.

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Martin took inspiration for the Red Wedding from events in Scottish history, although his explorations of its ramifications echo back to Greek tragedy, forging a kind of anti-Alcestis. The series charts the devolution of social and civic mores in Westeros to the point where all scales for measuring decency are broken. This theme is borrowed from I, Claudius in particular, with Joffrey and Ramsay representing the kinds of fiends who revel in the power they can indulge when such limitations dissolve, in the same way Caligula did in I, Claudius. More importantly, the Red Wedding’s bloody shock and Theon’s gruelling torture signalled a series that didn’t exactly have reassuring its audience in mind, and fulfilling Martin’s credo of trying to undercut the clichés of his chosen genre and truly portray a world completely lacking the kinds of soft landings provided by modernity and well-knit civilisation. Game of Thrones is always wise on a dramatic level to leaven the often punishing tone with flashes of droll humour, particularly from Tyrion, whose forthright tongue slashes holes in egos and pretences across two continents. At the same time, the longer arcing plotlines point towards dates with destiny in a manner that contradicts such self-detonating narrative mischief. The show sometimes even offers sourly funny inversions of its own clichés. Tyrion relies on sardonic man-at-arms Bronn (Jerome Flynn) to serve as his champion in a trial by combat to escape Lysa’s clutches in the first season, but is condemned in the fourth when he nominates the vengeful Dornish prince Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal) to fight The Mountain for him in a similar situation, only for Oberyn to lose the duel in a manner at once dismaying and blackly comic.

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Tyrion is the show’s heart, played with true brilliance by Dinklage. Tyrion, hated by his father and sister because his mother died giving birth to him but held in bonds of affection to Jaime, has a humanistic mind to which he adds, when Tywin decides to make him Hand of the King whilst he’s busy fighting the war, a talent for ruling and Machiavellian plotting. Long used to indulging bought sex and wine to compensate for his failings in physical and dynastic stature, Tyrion is often regarded as the real monster by the populace, blaming him for crimes and misdeeds actually committed by Joffrey and others, whilst Tyrion desperately tries to conceal his one vulnerability, the prostitute Shae (Sibel Kekilli) he’s fallen in love with and manages to conceal in the royal castle by posting her as the captive Sansa’s handmaiden. Tyrion’s inspired and valiant defence against the attack of Stannis’ force is overshadowed by his father’s charge to the rescue, and he’s soon faced with many humiliations, losing his post and being forced to marry Sansa, whom he dedicates himself to protecting from Joffrey’s harassment. When Joffrey is fatally and gruesomely poisoned at his wedding to Margaery, Tyrion is blamed, and he soon realises he’s going to be framed by Cersei and Tywin and is devastated when Shae helps get him convicted. Jaime helps Tyrion escape with Varys’ aid, but before fleeing Tyrion sneaks into his father’s chambers: when he finds Shae in his bed he strangles her, and then shoots his father on the toilet with a crossbow.

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Tyrion’s swerves of fortune and many goads to such homicidal rage and his attempts to live with himself after are charted with a precise sense of emotional calumny, his actions entirely understandable and yet once again damaging to what he means to protect: leadership of the Lannisters is left in Cersei’s tender care. Whilst talented in some of the same ways as her father and younger brother in plotting and manoeuvring, Cersei lacks Tywin’s cool sense of proportion and tries to make up the difference with unswerving bloody-mindedness and a tendency to mistake the needs of her ego for sovereign necessity. Her one saving grace is her maternal care, a grace she is relentlessly stripped of when Joffrey is poisoned and her daughter Myrcella (Aimee Richardson and Nell Tiger Free) is slain by Oberyn Martell’s lover and bastard daughters in revenge for his death. Margaery deftly pivots to marry Tommen (Dean-Charles Chapman), Joffrey’s decent but naïve younger brother, so Cersei, desperate to rid herself of the Tyrells, fosters a fanatical religious group that crops up in King’s Landing called the Sparrows. This sect is led by a saintly and shrewd former merchant turned monk (Jonathan Pryce), who proposes to cleanse the kingdom of its sins. Cersei arms the Sparrows and gives them power to seek out and prosecute the immoral: she get what she wants when Margaery and Loras are imprisoned but realises her terrible mistake when they arrest her too, whilst convincing the new king to support them. Cersei weathers her own perfect humiliation in being forced to walk from the Sparrows’ abode back to the royal residence, naked and abused by a gleeful crowd.

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The religious and spiritual motifs in Game of Thrones are, like its politics, generally cynical but also more disjointed and curious, and it highlights an area where the show is fails to offer a coherent sensibility despite leaning heavily on the mystical throughout. The Seven Kingdoms exalt the nominal modern religion of the Seven, a group reminiscent of the Greco-Roman and Norse pantheons, although many still also hold to an older creed more closely connected to a shamanic sense of natural forces. Those forces prove to have been destabilised millennia before through human pressure, driving the “Children of the Forest”, figures akin to the Dryads of Greek myth and the Green Men of Celtic, to create the first White Walkers and possibly also cause the mysterious imbalance behind the distended seasons. The sight of Daenerys after surviving her husband’s funeral pyre, naked and cradling her dragon offspring, is one that might have come right out of some ancient folktale, one radically at odds with the structured, socially reflective faith of Westeros. In further competition is the monotheistic faith of the Lord of Light practiced by Melisandre and fellow ‘red priest’ Thoros of Myr (Paul Kaye), who is also a member of the Merry Men-like Brotherhood Without Banners, who inconstantly try to fight for the peasantry. These two priests prove to have the ability to revive the dead through invocation to their deity, a seemingly definitive capacity for miracle that nonetheless remains confusing even to those revived.

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Various motifs, like Melisandre’s penchant for the auto-da-fe and the Sparrows’ righteous warpath that targets the powerful but likes singling out gay men and wilful women, evokes the darker side of medieval Christianity and doesn’t entirely fit with the generally pagan mores of Westeros, stretching to encompass such commentary. The narrative coldly undercuts any sense of certainty in spiritual power and justification in fanatical conviction when Melisandre convinces Stannis to save his failing campaign against the Boltons by sacrificing his young, disfigured daughter Shireen (Kerry Ingram) to the Lord of Light, Iphigenia-like, only for the spectacle to cause half his army to desert in disgust, leaving the rest to be hammered by Ramsay. The closest the series gets to defining the meaning of the flashes of the miraculous is when the Hound grimly notes of the Lord of Light, “Every lord I ever fought for was a cunt, why should he be any different?” This nonetheless does hint at an amusing metatextual joke, as the Lord of Light’s purpose in reviving the dead is conflated with authorial prerogative. By rights Jon, who gets assassinated by some of his fellow Night’s Watchmen who revile his attempts to make compact with the wildings, should die as the result of his choices as per the series convention, but the plot still needs him, so arise, spunky Lazarus. Likewise the slow process that sees many different and far-flung characters slowly drawn together to battle evil is informed by a wry conflation of a divine plan with storytelling felicity.

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The show is more confident and coherent in wielding the symbolic as well as narrative potency of the more clean-cut fantasy elements, which are ultimately far more palpable as expressions of human and natural phenomena. The White Walkers encapsulate an evocation of existential threat applicable to just about any great danger up to and including death itself, presenting a foe so frightening that it demands unity, trust, and unselfish heroism, the things that just happen to be sorely missing from Westeros life. Daenerys’ dragons describe at first the formidable strength located in a more ancient ideal of society then the henpecked feudalism of Westeros, as devices that can unite tribal peoples behind a god-ruler fuelled by a sense of divine mission, but also by series’ end cunningly link such atavistic power with nuclear weaponry, the most modern expression of such potency. They’re also tethered to Daenerys’ psychology as surrogate children and functions of her psyche, as a woman who sustains herself through initial degradation and later tribulation through conviction she is destined to rule, but also wants that conquest to have meaning, meaning she seeks to fulfil in freeing slaves and punishing the iniquitous. As she attempts to get down to the finicky business of actually ruling cities she captures, she locks away the dragons or lets them fly off, essentially castrating herself and trying to ignore her most prodigious talent, for unleashing destruction and wrath. Eventually, when she’s obliged to wage war with the dragons let loose in their full, mature fury, it seems like a heroic moment of revealed power, but also symbolises the tipping of a balance in Daenerys’ mind towards a darker conviction that in the end her might makes right.

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Bran’s story sees him gifted with great psychic abilities, like the ability to enter the bodies of animals and people, which emerge after his paralysis. After being driven away from Winterfell by Theon’s attack, he follows a recurring vision northward with the aid of his hulking manservant Hodor (Kristian Nairn), a man who’s plainly not an idiot and yet can speak no word other than his name, Osha (Natalia Tena), a former wildling and Stark servant, and Jojen and Meera Reed (Thomas Brodie-Sangster and Ellie Kendrick), another seer and his huntress sister who obey the cryptic urge to help Bran. Bran finds himself anointed to take the place of the “Three-Eyed Raven” (Max Von Sydow), an ancient oracle who stands as the interlocutor of the human and natural worlds and receptacle of all memory past and action present. Bran’s storyline is less incident-driven and more subtly conceived than much of the rest of the show, and is even absent from a whole season at one point, and its purpose doesn’t entirely become clear until the very end. In the meantime he presents a tempting target in the war against the White Walkers and their terrifying, seemingly unstoppable commander, the Night King (Vladimir Furdik), who wants as death incarnate to annihilate what Bran contains.

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Bran’s story links his evolution to a pantheistic concept of a world unified on a fundamental, natural level, but the connection between it and the other spiritual motifs is never clarified, a disappointment given the seemingly great expanse of time available to the series: it’s hard to shake the feeling the show, and through it Martin, wants his cake and to eat it. Nonetheless it pays off narrative-wise when Bran has to flee the invading White Walker force, requiring Hodor to jam shut a door and give Bran and Meera time to escape, his constant utterance revealed to have been sourced in the literal order to hold the door communed into his head as a teenager by Bran, indicating his entire life has been subsumed to the purpose of protecting Bran and sacrificing himself in this moment. A potentially silly culmination that nonetheless reaches for and achieves operatic force. Bran’s new awareness lets him easily solve hidden mysteries, allowing him to indict Baelish for his many crimes, and uncovering the great truth of Jon’s real parentage. But it also renders him a veritable void of personality, to the point where Meera abandons him in grief after realising the Bran she knew has essentially died.

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The show’s more satirical edge evokes a wry despoiling of the familiar motifs of the medieval morality play, particularly in the way characters like Tyrion and Varys contradict common depictions of physical deformity and peculiarity as markers of bad character. Dinklage had played Richard III on stage before being cast in the role, and Tyrion resembles a take on the Crookback king rendered according to a revisionist impulse, whilst Varys mocks the common figure of the untrustworthy eunuch. Arya’s training with the Faceless Men puts her in contact with a group of actors whose play converts recent history into fitting melodrama but also reproduces a version of reality both the current wielders of power and the audience with its inbuilt prejudices fondly wishes were correct, where Joffrey was a fair and noble king slain by his grotesque and malevolent uncle, and political and social truths work in the same way as feudal banners, clear in symbolic import. Game of Thrones undoubtedly attracted a great amount of its audience through its willingness to offer lashings of sex, bloodshed, and vulgarity in a gaudy manner denied to much contemporary big-budget cinema, freely exploiting the flexibility of subscription television in this regard as opposed to the mass audience aim of current Hollywood. The show took a lot of sardonic criticism in its time for an approach to plotting labelled “sexposition,” often having characters explain themselves and situations whilst fornicating enthusiastically and otherwise.

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One much-mocked example in the first season when Baelish schools Ros (Esmé Bianco), a newly-arrived northern lass joining his brothel, in the fine arts of seduction sexual and political, is actually a rather smart and feverishly erotic illustration of the theme of power applied through the deft use of puppetry, an art Baelish is dedicated to. That said, much of the bawdiness seen in the series does prove forced and impersonal, although to its credit it tries to be even-handed in servicing the audience, most gleefully in portraying the bisexual orgy Oberyn and his paramour indulge, and it also taps it for some humour value, as when Tyrion is bewildered to find his squire Podrick (Daniel Portman) a sexual prodigy after buying him an interlude with prostitutes as a reward. The sexuality exists in constant relation to violence, which borders on the genuinely off-putting at times, particularly as Joffrey gets his brutal jollies with prostitutes, in Ramsay’s torment of Theon and, later, Sansa, and sequences like one where prisoners are killed by bored Lannister soldiers who contrive to have live rats eat through them, a genuinely Sadean touch. The idea of violence as a universal trait is certainly at the core of the series, sometimes an art wielded with purpose and discrimination and at other times just a way of releasing boredom and frustration for men weathered well beyond empathy, but always with a fervent sense of its ugliness.

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Arya’s storyline contends with her efforts to transform herself into the perfect engine of violence, applied with a surgical skill and in accord with the precise arithmetic on the moral abacus, as she evolves from a rough-and-tumble teenage girl delighting in learning swordplay for its own sake with a vague ambition to avoid becoming another castle lady, to a brilliant, rather frightening killer who nonetheless achieves a level of self-direction and freedom none of the other characters gain. Amongst all the characters on the show Arya has the widest purview on the horrors unleashed by the war, spending time amongst slaves and then as the oblivious Tywin’s servant, experiencing disillusion on all levels save faith in a personal god of vengeance. Her spell with the Faceless Men sees her eventually rejecting their amoral service to Death as an anonymous and disinterested “many-faced god.” This puts her in lethal conflict with a fellow waif (Faye Marsay) whose motivations may, or may not, rhyme with her own but are not accompanied by any scruples or sense of empathy. Arya is punished by Jaqen for her refusal to follow orders by taking her sight away and forcing her to learn to fight the waif blind, a gift that ironically allows Arya to defeat her later in a true duel as her foe, who delights in indiscriminate death, has never broken the rules and therefore never been trained this way. Arya’s return to Westeros is announced in the most sublimely Jacobean fashion when she slaughters Walder Frey after fooling him into eating his sons baked into a pie, before then taking on Walder’s appearance and poisoning all his underlings at a feast.

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Sansa, by contrast, seems for much of the series to be the most passive and hapless of the Starks, paying the endless price for being, in Arya’s view, a pretty airhead with princess fantasies. Joffrey takes delight in forcing her to look upon her father’s severed and impaled head. She’s eventually sold by Baelish, after he spirits her out of King’s Landing, to Ramsay as a bride, despite his affection for her, to buy Ramsay’s good will. The heartless scion rapes and tortures Sansa, eventually rousing Theon from his traumatised state: he helps her escape whilst Ramsay cleans up Stannis’ army. Sansa, robbed of any last remnant of her naivety, soon evolves into an imperious force in her own right, even making a deal with Baelish despite knowing what he is to help save the day when she and Jon lead an outmatched army against Ramsay. Ramsay’s end, with Sansa feeding him to his own hungry hounds, is another pure Jacobean moment. The series is ultimately, despite its ambiguities, most essentially a cracking good melodrama replete with bad baddies and breathless last-second rescues. But it also tries to complicate its morality to a bracing degree. The series constantly tries to imbue its many moments of relished payback with a note of discomfort as we see once good people, however justifiably, pushed into similar zones of subterfuge and cruel relish as their tormentors. It votes its many devils like Tywin and Cersei, Baelish and Ramsay, flashes of sympathy in comprehending how they’ve been formed by their eternally dogging and unanswerable desires. A figure like Olenna, as ruthless, murderous, and Machiavellian in her way as any of her enemies, nonetheless comes across like a positive character for her assured sense of just ends and distaste for posturing of any kind.

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Notably, the narrative repeatedly extracts payment for redeemable characters who do evil things by robbing them of precious things, particularly body parts. Jaime is the most successful of the series’ ambiguous characters. Introduced as a golden boy nonetheless held in contempt by all and sundry for his killing of the “Mad King,” a man who casually tries to kill Bran whilst fucking his own sister and strangles a cousin to escape the Starks’ clutches, Jaime nonetheless is slowly revealed to be a complex man capable of great decency, and whose deeds reflect the often impossible positions he’s thrust into: he killed the king to save King’s Landing from general immolation, and made the choice to protect his own family rather than the Starks. His road movie-like travels with Brienne, tasked with taking him back to his family, sees him forging a genuine camaraderie with her, and his attempt to save Brienne from being brutalised by some Bolton goons who capture them results in his getting his sword hand hacked off. Jaime, greatly weakened as a fighter but shocked into a new gallantry, saves Brienne again and dedicates himself to trying to head off ill fate, freeing Tyrion and heading off to try and save Myrcella, before eventually committing himself to the battle against the White Walkers despite Cersei’s refusal to help.

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The show’s incredible production values often pay off in truly impressive spectacle, particular in the episodes directed by Neil Marshall, maker of cult works like Dog Soldiers (2002), The Descent (2005), and Centurion (2010): his “Blackwater” in season 2 and “The Watcher on the Wall” in season 4, where Jon emerges as a great leader figure as he and the Night’s Watch fight off the wildling horde, are superior in filming and dramatic tension to most blockbuster movies in the past decade. A terrific action sequence in a fourth season episode sees Meera, Jojen, and a Bran-possessed Hodor battling off a gang of animated skeletons, paying cutting-edge tribute to the famous climax of Jason and the Argonauts (1963), whilst the thunderous climaxes of the seventh season depict Daenerys using her dragons to great effect against earthbound foes both living and dead. Game of Thrones eventually ran into a great deal of vexation and disappointment from viewers as it reached its final seasons, with many finding the last in particular hurried and flimsy. To my eye, the show’s wobbles come rather earlier, around the fifth and sixth seasons, as so many of its driving plotlines demanded resetting or replacement following the fourth, and several elements are set up only to be left hanging, all whilst still trying to maintain the same sense of velocity. Tyrion and Varys’ journey east to meet up with Daenerys and seek employment with her, whilst Daenerys herself is obliged to flee political enemies and is snatched away by the Dothraki, opens up great new vistas for these characters.

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And yet this hemisphere plays out in a herky-jerky manner, failing to build storylines as effectively as before, and resolving with Tyrion picked to be Daenerys’ Hand without much good cause. That said, these seasons still offer some very effective movements, including Jon’s murder and resurrection, and the climax of Cersei’s conflict with the Sparrows. The latter is dealt with in an aptly megalomaniacal manner as Cersei blows up the cult and sundry other enemies in one colossal blast, finally achieving agency to match her willpower but also foiling herself, as the spectacle drives Tommen to kill himself in grief. Cersei becomes queen in her own right and sets about ruling with an iron hand, allying with Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbæk), a charismatic and well-travelled rogue who has murdered his brother Balon and driven Yara and Theon into exile, and falling pregnant to Jaime again. Season 6 concludes with Daenerys and her entourage and army finally arriving in Westeros, taking over Stannis’ old castle and making punishing war on Cersei’s forces. Her awesome campaign is forestalled as Jon comes to her and asks for her help against the White Walkers, and the two handsome young monarchs quickly fall in love, although the underlying tension of their political mating remains rather less pliable.

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Game of Thrones ultimately ran into a problem of expectations in a narrative that built its initial appeal around willingness to confound expectations. And confound it did. Ned, played by the nominal series lead and best-known cast member, doesn’t survive the first season, and subsequent plot strands zigzag with roguish energy, managing the tricky task of satisfying without doing so obviously. Joffrey’s sticky end, the object of fervent wishing from both other characters and viewers, not only comes with an unexpected jolt of pathos but also invests a host of new story reverberations. Yet most of Martin’s desecrations of plot actually service his longer games, like clearing away relatively superfluous or over-familiar and stolid characters like Robb and instead obliging the survivors to enact stranger paths to victory that make their eventual triumphs all the sweeter. The TV series moves from being a reasonably intimate political thriller where no-one is safe to a spectacular fantasy war epic where all your favourite characters are pitched in together. One risk, evidently, lay in continuing the series past where Martin had reached, especially considering that many of the best scenes in the early seasons had been copied almost verbatim from the books. But sooner or later the storyline had to deliver on its most essential promises, or dissolve into a mass of self-defeating gamesmanship, or else a total embrace of anarchism. The dichotomy here perhaps accounts for why Martin has failed thus far to resolve the novel series.

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That said, I didn’t really feel upon watching the series right through that the later seasons represented any precipitous drop in quality. Rather on the contrary, they deliver as both spectacle and drama and manage the unenviable task of focusing such a sprawling tale to crucial focal points. Some aspects do certainly feel ungainly, like the blinding speed with which Euron builds a powerful new fleet and the way he seems able to make it turn up anywhere by surprise (Asbæk’s outsized performance in the role does however give the later episodes a jolt of much-needed roguish energy). But the degree to which they hurt the show has been often ridiculously overstated, and I’ve seen some other promising series of recent years that bellyflop far more painfully. Perhaps it’s an indication of where pop culture is these days, preferring the open road of narrative rather than firm conclusions and attendant ideas. Game of Thrones remains propulsive and underlines its cumulative concepts and messages lucidly. One significant aspect of the show’s overall sweep is the way it takes up Thomas Hardy’s dictum that character is fate. Figures like Ned and Robb die precisely because they cannot act against their inner natures. Whilst most of the characters experience transformations of one form or another, such evolution is more a function of the inner person than something imposed from without. Jaime emerges as a weirdly heroic figure and yet cannot finally escape his bond with his utterly hateful sister. Daenerys tries to describe a legend and an ethical scheme for herself that flies in the face of her actual proclivities. Tyrion finds something close to a faith in dedicating himself to Daenerys but ultimately finds his cynical, honest, defiant self is ultimately worth more. The younger Starks, who grow up in the course of the series and so are formed by their reactions, can be said to be forged by such circumstance, and even then their eventual personas reflect where they’ve come from. Most pointedly, all are ultimately left to act out their own pathologies once the great existential business of defeating the White Walkers is dealt with.

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Jon is the most traditional hero figure, sent down from heaven’s central casting with his defining sense of eternal psychic conflict (compulsory for a proper modern hero) matched to a consistently valiant and honest outlook, as well as his emo-dreamboat good looks. The show takes some time to make a real case for Jon being at all interesting, partly because his growth process is from a callow youth who’s talented and well-trained in fighting to one with authentic and genuine self-reliance and wisdom. Jon proves himself in the course of nominally betraying his vows to fulfil them, becoming one who constantly attempts to act on his most honourable and humane impulses even whilst never shying away from the risks he faces. Those risks run from standing up for Samwell at the outset to eventually making compact with the wildlings, and his strength, both in body and in mind, ultimately sustains him where many others fall. His punishment is to be robbed of nearly all he holds dear. He falls in love with Ygritte and then Daenerys but his dedication to the greater good ultimately costs each woman’s life, and at the end he is left the same man, ruefully aware of the punishing nature of identity and duty in both the immediate and philosophical senses, bereft of home if not purpose, as he was at the start. He’s not blessed with levels of impossible wisdom, either, assassinated by his comrades and suckered in by Ramsay’s sadistic showmanship in their epic grudge match “Battle of the Bastards” to the point where he almost blows the battle. The theme of facing consequences is returned to in the very climax of the story where Jon prepares with equanimity to burn in a fiery blast from a dragon’s maw in fair payment for a foul deed, perhaps the first person in the saga to ever face up in such a fashion.

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But Daenerys is the one figure whose sense of inner being is most thoroughly assaulted as her “children” are killed along with her most loyal friends. The key to her sense of mission as the anointed Targaryen, her great salve, is voided when she and Jon learn that he is in fact her nephew, the secret offspring of her long-dead older brother and Ned’s sister. Daenerys’ crisis is then enacted on city-levelling terms, in a bitter punch-line that underlines the dubiety the narrative always warned in regarding self-nominated heroes and dynastic rulers claiming divine right. Before that, Daenerys is seen at her most gallant as she puts aside her own mission and joins the Westerosi in the great fight against the White Walkers around Winterfell. Jon and his comrades have already tried to convince Cersei to help in the fight by capturing and exhibiting a White Walker, and Daenerys loses one of her dragons to the Night King’s ice lance in trying to rescue their raiding party. The Night King is able to induct the dead dragon into his force, using its power to break through the Wall. The great climax to that aspect of the story comes half-way through the final season in “The Long Night,” a unit of action brilliantly orchestrated by director Miguel Sapochnik, one that struggles to deliver a strong piece of spectacle despite the way an inherent aspect of the battle is blizzard-furled chaos, the army of zombies attacking on the ground whilst the dragon-riders do battle in the sky. Jorah and Theon die most heroically in the last stand of humanity before cold fate, and the Night King makes his remorseless march up to a solitary and exposed Bran in a sequence of excruciatingly well-sustained, mournfully-scored tension, also a particular highpoint for series composer Ramin Djawadi.

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Some complaints about the later seasons had validity but also often tended to smack of a common brand of that’s-not-what-I-would’ve-done fan whine. Many, for instance, felt that the task of felling the Night King was Jon’s anointed story duty, and I can understand the feeling of dashed expectation in that regard. But I also see the sense in the task falling instead to Arya, who takes out the ghoulish avatar just as he’s about to slay Bran and end the memory of mankind: Arya answers malign force with precision and guile, down to the witty flourish of deception and legerdemain she executes to take him down. This also accords with the whole course of Arya’s story: such a triumph sees Arya finally besting death itself after rejecting its amoral worship, giving final coherence to her story after her many dances near the edge of nihilism. Jon has his own arduous task in the end, as he’s faced with the necessity of supplanting or killing Daenerys to save the world in general and those he loves in specific from her decimating will. Criticism of Daenerys’ disintegration is again worth hearing out. Whilst the show certainly forewarns of such a turn and provides plenty of indicators that no matter how stable and decent a member of her clan might seem they contain the seeds of monstrosity, there’s a remarkably short space between her riding heroically to the rescue on her dragons to her incinerating large swathes of King’s Landing essentially as a gesture of answering dominance aimed at Cersei after the rival queen captures and executes Missandei.

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Nonetheless Daenerys’ psychology is intriguingly reminiscent of the main character in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), another self-made champion mixing intense neurotic revulsion for death and suffering driven to prove master of it by dealing it out, swaying from extremes of messianic heroism to base atrocity. The fiery wrath she unleashes on King’s Landing, a city she sees as essentially filled with collaborators in her father’s death and in Cersei’s murderous reign, comes after an excellent piece of wordless acting from Clarke as you all but see her soul crack in two, and serves as her “No prisoners!” moment. The great juggernaut of mutual destruction finally sees Cersei and Jaime dying together as Jaime tries to pluck his sister-lover out of the collapsing citadel, already mortally wounded from a fight with Euron over territorial rights to Cersei’s womb, and The Mountain and The Hound tumble together into roaring flames after Sandor forcefully dissuades Arya from killing Cersei. Arya is left to try and survive the apocalyptic flames shattering the city, the last and most terrible tableau in her witnessing of war and terror and one where her talents are utterly dwarfed by a new kind of impersonal annihilation. Full-on fascist parable hatches out as Daenerys holds court with the Unsullied arrayed in Nuremberg-esque rows and Tyrion passes his firm but impotent judgement by throwing away his Hand of the Queen pin. Tyrion nonetheless gains a kind of victory as he convinces Jon there’s no alternative to his slaying Daenerys.

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Jon finally commits the deed to Daenerys’ blank-eyed shock as the embrace in the ruined throne room. Her last remaining dragon melts down the Iron Throne – who knew dragons had such a great sense of dramatic irony? The image of Jon clasping Daenerys’ lifeless body nonetheless returns us to the realm of classical myth fit for the last act of a Wagner opera, an act of violence committed in the name of love that both entirely shatters and rebuilds the world’s moral crux. Bran is eventually selected by the new Westeros potentates, including Sansa, Samwell, Davos, and Arya, at Tyrion’s suggestion. Again, having Bran finish up king rankled many viewers, but it makes sense, once more, in terms of the series’ underlying metaphorical sprawl. Bran, all-seeing and all-knowing and scarcely caring about it, represents the arrival not of democracy or consensus in Westeros, but of the great trade-off that is modernity, encompassing phenomena like the internet and the surveillance state, coolly imposing order and promising peace and safety at the expense of privacy and unmediated liberty. The few remaining characters who prize their autonomy and indeed embody the very concept must as a consequence must past out over the margins into myth. Arya heads west to find the world’s edge, and Jon, exiled again to the Night’s Watch, treks into the frozen north with the wildings with the strong hint he’ll become their new leader. The best thing that can be said about Game of Thrones is that, love or loathe its conclusions, it manages the task of stitching such a rich and sprawling drama and its attendant ideas into a grand tapestry, and yet retaining the authentic pleasures of good pulp storytelling.

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2010s, Uncategorized

Confessions of a Film Freak 2019

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By Roderick Heath

If there’s any conviction underpinning my yearly film round-ups, it’s the feeling that the movies are talking to each-other. In 2019, it seemed the conversation was more intense and deeply interwoven than ever. As the way we consume cinema evolves and a moment of generational change looms in terms of who makes and watches movies, the common references and preoccupying themes gained something like a collective voice. Filmmakers and their on-screen avatars faced the treachery of their bodies, floated in dreamscapes of nostalgia and sore memory, felt the nature of identity becoming porous and confused, and pondered the meaning of relationships between people in many different figurations testing all for their perversities. 2019 proved a formidable year in terms of the sheer number of excellent films; indeed, I’d say at this point the best year of the closing decade by a good measure. This is not to say it didn’t have its share of duds, disgraces, and acreage of mediocrity. But it was a year when old cinema heroes and new ones offered a surfeit of boldness and quality, all determined to prove their boisterous energy and vision.

02
Parasite

Perhaps it’s a result of facing excruciating political choices and dim prospects, but many of 2019’s films betrayed a desire to crawl into a subliminal space of dreams and remembering and wrestle with the meaning of experience, in what might called, however paradoxically, urgent nostalgia. Films as violently disparate as The Irishman, Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood, Pain and Glory, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, The Nightingale, Us, Ash is Purest White, The Souvenir, In Fabric, Ad Astra, High Life, The Aeronauts, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, and Star Wars – Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, revolved around an unstable evocation of pasts, presents, and futures private and communal, featuring characters who, willingly or not, drift into places beyond recourse, obliging them to justify their living tenure. Many dug into a place in the creative mind where fetid experience and adored art mash together in a polymorphous lode, often conflating filmmaker and on screen characters in implicating webs, autobiography and cultural reportage merging. Works like The Lighthouse, In Fabric, Under the Silver Lake, and The Wind saw characters plunge into zones where all certainty over what constitutes reality dissolved.

03
Ford v Ferrari

Protagonists of films like Pain and Glory, Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood, Rambo: Last Blood, The Irishman, and King of Thieves struggled with their own fraying bodies and wits, forced to recognise the limitations of their prowess and power, several tossing away their curatives in exchange for more direct purgation. The hero of Gemini Man was literally confronted by his own clones, young versions free from such weary flesh but lacking the seasoning imbued by hard experience too. Many stories of 2019 dealt with harsh necessities, people seeking sustenance and shelter without time for navel-gazing, like the lost folk of The Chambermaid and Little Woods and Arctic, the rogues of Dragged Across Concrete and Triple Frontier, Les Misérables, Hustlers, Joker, Birds of Passage, and Parasite. Works as tonally diverse as Hustlers, Holiday, Booksmart, Richard Jewell, The Hustle, Marriage Story, Ride Like A Girl, Men In Black: International, Terminator: Dark Fate, Ash Is Purest White, The Aeronauts, and The Nightingale portrayed women trying to assimilate themselves into realms more usually associated with masculine behaviour, often for reasons blending wisdom and futility and finding their efforts leading them to places that left some triumphant but others discomforted, even damaged or perverted, by the experience. Adoring artists feverishly sketched the forms of their beloved in Pain & Glory and Portrait of a Lady on Fire, trying to capture the fleeting being in a moment, or lost themselves in the orgiastic in the likes of Tempting Devils, The Beach Bum, and Under the Silver Lake, trying instead to accept with equanimity the fluidity of ardour.

04
Fighting With My Family

Property, and characters’ desperation and determination to hold it or regain it, was central to many stories, and some had to surrender it amidst hard choices. The antihero of Uncut Gems forced himself into situations of existential risk purely to feel that kind of shocking urgency and danger. Nor were there hard borders between the wistful and the immediately anxious stories, as a film like The Last Black Man In San Francisco perceived the connection of the two states. Studies of close friendships and family, the people we share life with in bonds of need that sometimes turn strange and painful in their very necessity, also permeated 2019. The people we lean on as life whittles away choices and chances, the people life would be unbearable without even if it’s unbearable with them, in relationships that can be noxious or umbilical or both – the tethered sisters of Little Woods and generational unions of Fast Color and Shaft, the magnet pals of The Last Black Man in San Francisco and Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood, and people trapped together in situations they can’t escape, like the aging bastards of The Irishman and the fraying coworkers of The Lighthouse and the crumbling interstellar exiles of High Life. Others searched for those who taunted in their absence and embodied gaping holes in psyche and memory, the son hunting for his multifarious father in Ad Astra, the sought-for ghost of a lover in Long Day’s Journey Into Night and reunited gangster and moll in Ash is Purest White. Deterioration and death waited for all, from the poet of Hotel by the River to the killers of The Irishman and Ash is Purest White. Only taking on a burden of care saved many a 2019 character from sliding into limbo.

05
Arctic

Joe Penna’s Arctic gave Mads Mikkelsen a strong if strenuous role as one such character who enacted perhaps the most basic and essential variation on that theme. Mikkelsen played a plane crash survivor stranded in remote and icy climes, who does everything right in weathering his situation but finds himself obliged to take a dangerous chance when a helicopter that comes to rescue him crashes too, forcing him to care for an injured woman. The storyline obeyed familiar beats of the survivalist tale without much variance, but Penna distinguished it with patient, detailed filmmaking, well-matched to Mikkelsen’s expert depiction of a good and sensible man driven through stations of bitter humour and tragic acceptance in learning just how bad bad luck can get when contending with an indifferent universe.

06
The Aeronauts

Tom Harper’s The Aeronauts took authentic history as a leaping-off point, mashing together real events and personalities from the pioneering days of ballooning, portraying prototypical meteorologist James Glaisher’s landmark ascent and inserting a female pilot to accompany him, imaginary if a composite of some real figures. In abstract it sounded a bit try-hard when it comes to fashionable revisionism. In practice, thankfully, the film proved a vivid, gorgeous-looking Jules Verne-esque adventure that played smartly on Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones’ established if previously ill-served chemistry, and found effective ways to complicate a straightforward story, with an eye to the way science and showman’s hoopla have so often been obliged to play uncomfortable bedfellows.

07
1917

Sam Mendes made 1917, his first non-James Bond feature in a decade, as an attempt to render a revisit to the grim trenches of World War I an immediate and intense experience rescued from all hint of period quaintness, depicting the fates of two luckless soldiers dispatched on an urgent and dangerous mission across No Man’s Land to prevent a doomed attack. Mendes joined the growing ranks of directors who have made a movie in a simulation of a single camera take. The approach sometimes paid off, particularly during an unblinking depiction of a character’s slow death. But as is often the case with such strenuously achieved cinema, the hoped-for immediacy and realism was instead squelched by a tendency to theatrical awkwardness in acting and dialogue, and Mendes’ tendency to offer excessively preened visual flourishes was pushed to the nth degree: too often, for all its would-be sombre grandeur, the film resembled a video game where for each level survived you met a prominent British actor.

08
The Nightingale

Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra expanded on their debut Embrace of the Serpent in continuing to study the travails of South America’s indigenous peoples, portraying traditions tested to the limit by involvement in the drug trade. The Babadook creator Jennifer Kent released her sophomore feature, The Nightingale, a gruesome revenge saga set in Tasmania in the bloody throes of colonisation, where an Irish convict lass is compelled to join forces with a bereft Aboriginal tracker and chase down and kill the thuggish English officer who brutalised her and her family. Kent roped together some very trendy themes and points of thorny, lingering contention in a potentially fruitful manner, and offered a couple of properly powerful scenes, when her heroine confronted the reality of brutal payback and her hero despaired at an act of apparent hospitality. To describe the bulk of the film as blunt and heavyhanded would be understating things, however, with the conflation of a specific and personalised battle with evil, represented by Sam Claflin’s ridiculously over-the-top villain, with a general portrait of historical brutality, ultimately self-defeating. Kent’s attempts to extend the best aspect of The Babadook, its delving into a subliminal world afflicting a troubled mind, proved merely clumsy.

09
Monos

Alejandro Landes gained wide attention and acclaim with his debut film Monos, grappling with South America’s agonised recent history of guerrilla warfare as glimpsed through a cracked and absurdist lens. Landes portrayed a gang of teenage warriors, impressed and indoctrinated as members of an insurgent force, assigned to guard a dairy cow and a ransomed American doctor, but who steadily become wrapped up in rites of passage and tribal power games until their cause, and their community disintegrates in a welter of bloodshed and lunacy. Landes’ fragmented images were alternately impressive and opaque, the arty postures vigorous and overbearing, with early scenes chasing a Dogtooth-esque vibe in portraying strangely socialised behaviours but without the same precision, whilst nods to Lord of the Flies towards the end were likewise a bit tinny. The basic storyline, although more conventional, steadily gained force and tension, and the sense of place, particularly when the guerrillas relocated to the jungle, was palpable.

10
The Last Black Man in San Francisco

In a year filled with some extremely accomplished studies of more quotidian situations, Joe Talbot’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco became one of the year’s major indie successes, depicting a flailing man’s efforts to reclaim the house his family once owned, now a pricey piece of desirable real estate in once-homey, now-gentrified inner San Francisco. Talbot took on a theme difficult to dramatize, the angst and disruption caused by urban renewal and displacement of black neighbourhoods, with first-time actor Jimmie Fails, whose experiences inspired the story, proving a thoughtful lead. Talbot offered an open-hearted humanism, permeated with an honest sense of yearning and regret, that felt peculiarly acute in describing 2019 as a moment. Still, his direction alternated interludes of attentive and nuanced beauty with patches of mannered windiness, the slight story taking far too long to play out, and the personal drama trickled away.

11
The Art of Self-Defense

With The Art of Self-Defense, Riley Stearns returned to the appeal of cultish allegiance for disoriented personalities he explored in Faults, in depicting a dweeb accountant’s rebirth as a karate student following a vicious assault, only to find himself under the thumb of a fascistic sensei, played with a drone of cold wit by Alessandro Nivola so sly it was almost occult. Stearns’ style, this time inflected by a blackly comic absurdism enacted by a selection of characters at once pokerfaced and verbose, lacked the cryptic and dreamlike visual quality that marked Faults, but the film’s wry confidence in depicting an increasingly bizarre and shocking situation, and the ironic sharpness of its denouement, marked it as a small gem.

12
Uncut Gems

Fraternal directing duo Benny and Josh Safdie continued a negotiation with the mainstream whilst retaining their squirrely street energy with Uncut Gems, making ingenious use of Adam Sandler’s talent for playing fraying hotheads by casting him as Howard Ratner, a jewellery seller out on a limb thanks to his love of gambling and other rowdy appetites, trying to land a big score with a hunk of illegally imported black opal before loan sharks come in to feast. Whilst the Safdies tried valiantly to set up political and spiritual subtexts, the real engine of the drama was simply Howard’s endless capacity for self-sabotaging risk-taking. This added up to my least favourite work by the Safties to date however, lacking the submerged and alien sense of individuals cleaved out of society found in Heaven Knows What and Good Time, instead offering a hyperbolic update of ‘70s films like The Gambler and California Split, deployed with a high-pressure style but without that much to say about the lead character other than his being a very trying, half-smart jerk: the schmuck also rises.

13
The Farewell

Lulu Wang’s The Farewell took up a basic story template that’s been run ragged in American indie films, the uneasy family reunion where a lurking crisis threatens general high spirits and feels, and gave it a unique bilingual gloss. Wang recounted a lightly fictionalised take on experiences with her family returning to China to stage a fake wedding as an excuse to say goodbyes to the clan’s elderly matriarch, whose diagnosis with a fatal illness they’ve elected to keep from her. Wonderful performances from Awkwafina as the frustrated, terminally honest artist and Shuzhen Zhou as the beloved, unflappable grandmother, coupled with Wang’s well-knit flow of vignettes and a meditative sense of cross-cultural and intergenerational attachment, amounted to a lovely piece of work. Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir offered a similar project, transmuting personal experience into an inquisitive artwork, although Hogg’s labours proved much more complex and ambivalent, testing all her sentimentalities.

14
Booksmart

Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart took on one of those cultural grail quests that occasionally preoccupy both filmmakers and the commentariat – to make a hit girls-behaving-badly romp. Wilde revealed directorial promise, particularly in a marvellous sequence in which Kaitlyn Devers’ nervous queer heroine gains her mojo as she swims amidst jostling bodies on a high of sensual possibility only to run aground on heartbreak. The film also had a starting point with potential – what happens when the intellectually confident start trying to be socially and sexually adventurous? But the script was a grab-bag of tones and ploys for Twitter feed approval, the film less about and for teens than for an older audience’s idealisation of themselves, and an overt attempt to make a woke artefact that forgot to check its own haute bourgeois privilege. Jonathan Levine’s Long Shot was a similar attempt to make an of-the-moment work pleasing its presumed progressive audience as it portrayed a romance between Charlize Theron’s glamorous Secretary of State running for the Presidency and Seth Rogen’s shabby but zealous journalist-turned-speechwriter. What could have been a smart new age take on The American President instead lurched between incompetently deployed jokes, unable to decide whether to aim for satiric hyperbole or something more credible.

15
The Beach Bum

Recovering arthouse sleaze merchant Harmony Korine returned with The Beach Bum, featuring an impishly cast Matthew McConaughey as a sometime poet who’s abandoned himself to a wild bohemian lifestyle around the Florida coast, forced to return to his art after his rich wife’s death but still refusing to take anything seriously. Korine located a new, if still very earthy breeziness as he blended a hyperbolic take on the mystique of the wild-living genius, with a gamy modern twist on classic anarchic comedies by the likes of Preston Sturges and the Marx Brothers. If Korine had set out to counter the tendentious and dogmatic tenor of much cultural attitude in 2019 he couldn’t have done better in his depiction of absurd and happy hedonism as a curative for artificially stoked angst, and Korine’s eye, as hinted on Spring Breakers, has evolved into a good one. But his familiar monotone dramatic style, able to focus only on one mode of behaviour reiterated endlessly, meant that despite some comic and visual coups, The Beach Bum turned pleasantly dreary well before it ended.

16
Under the Silver Lake

David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake was supposed to be released with all the occasion due a notable new director following up a hit like It Follows, but after a weak reception at Cannes it was eventually, rudely dumped. Whilst enlarging upon aspects of Mitchell’s first two films, this one proved something else again, a portrait of shambling bohemian discontent and disconnection contending with malign and paranoid forces of money and power. Under the Silver Lake was by turns fascinating, dazzling, annoying, silly, undercooked, and ardent, alert to the incoherence of the moment if also often inclined to chase its own blue balls. In short, a definite failure that was more interesting than most successes. For his first film since the gimmicky but compelling Locke, Steven Knight offered Serenity, at first seeming to be a sun-kissed neo-noir piece that proved rather a meta-narrative stunt. Even before it reached a truly stupid central twist, the film was beset by pointlessly showy direction and overheated performing from a strong cast who deserved a straight-up, old-school genre vehicle: only Jason Clarke’s malignant gangster offered real juice.

17
The Hustle

Writer and actor turned director Stephen Merchant aimed for and scored a modest populist hit with Fighting With My Family, recounting the real-life rise of a goth girl from a wrestling-mad Norfolk family who found fame and fortune with WWE after overcoming a crisis of identity. Despite Merchant’s brainy reputation the result was a succession of trite and familiar loser-makes-good audience manipulation ploys, leavened largely by Florence Pugh’s excellent lead performance and the generally good-natured support around her. Chris Addison, another talent honed on British TV, made a foray into star vehicle directing with The Hustle, a remake of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels casting Rebel Wilson and Anne Hathaway as con artists (and actors) engaged in a duel of abilities based in their disparate varieties of guile and skill. The script was broad and the humour leaned on the comic value of colliding chic and crudity like a crutch, but despite the general caning it got from critics I finished up mildly enjoying it, mostly because of Wilson and Hathaway’s gusto in their roles.

18
Rambo: Last Blood

2019’s action cinema quite often resembled that of thirty years ago. Rambo: Last Blood saw Sylvester Stallone returning to his other beloved hero role for some septuagenarian slaughter, this time avenging the despoiling and death of his housekeeper’s daughter at the hands of a scummy Mexican drug cartel. As an extension of Rambo lore it was at least slightly better than the previous film in the series, with some lip service to the lingering sway of PTSD to leaven dully xenophobic politics and a stagnant sense of what the character means. Adrian Grunberg’s anonymous if efficient direction and a painfully straightforward script made for a contrived and negligible experience for the most part, but the bloody climax, if not exactly making the outing worthwhile, did at least deliver a hot dose of entertaining violence. Michael Bay was one of several big-time directors who explored the pleasures and pains of Netflix bankrolling in 2019, with his 6 Underground debuting on streaming despite being made with all of Bay’s blockbuster braggadocio undimmed. Ryan Reynolds turned his patented wiseass act to playing a billionaire who’s faked his own death in order to set up a team of talented pros for the purpose of taking down an evil dictator. Bay wielded all his craftsmanship and managed for a time to sustain a free-flowing tapestry of frenetic humour and flashy, even beautiful imagery, particularly in the lengthy, bravura opening chase scene. Melanie Laurent was particularly good as the team’s deadpan resident badass babe. The problem was, Bay’s hasn’t gained any capacity to vary his style and rhythm, every scene pushed to an artificial extreme, and by the second hour it was more chore than thrill ride.

19
Daughter of the Wolf

Hans Petter Moland remade his own Norwegian film In Order of Disappearance in the USA as Cold Pursuit, sold as darkly comic variant on the accustomed Liam Neeson action flick. The original plot was transposed to the Rocky Mountains, with Neeson’s irate father out to destroy a drug dealing syndicate to avenge his son’s death, accidentally sparking a gang war in the process. Some touches, like having the villain be an über-macho fad food freak, hit the right zone where gallows wit and noir unease can mix, but the movie still felt like a theory by its end, not quite funny, not quite exciting, affecting sardonic distance but foiling itself with rather too much CGI. David Hackl’s Daughter of the Wolf took a similar winterbound setting for a far more traditional type of revenge flick, with Gina Carano playing a rampaging army-trained momma bear chasing down her kidnapped son and doing battle with the “family” of Richard Dreyfuss’ monstrous criminal patriarch. Scruffy production values and a basic script kept the result from being much more than streaming fodder for a rainy evening, but as with Hackl’s Into the Grizzly Maze it was honourable as a cheap and efficient blood-pumper, anchored by Carano’s convincing toughness and Dreyfuss having a ball as he officially enters the “old coot” phase of his career.

20
Us

Neil Jordan returned with his first feature in six years, Greta, starring Chloe Grace Moretz as a young woman acclimatizing to New York who becomes the object of obsession for the title character, a crazed, aging, would-be maternal moulder, played with crafty bravura by Isabelle Huppert. Ultimately the film proved a nasty, chamber-piece variation on Jordan’s fascination with characters trapped in situations defined by perverse modes of loving, but only after trekking through many a stalker movie cliché and never really engaging with the sort of emotional complexity Jordan was once a master in locating. The fun performances, also including Maika Monroe’s hilarious turn as Moretz’s sturdy gal pal and a cameo by Stephen Rea as a mordant private eye, did most to keep the film animated. Jordan Peele unleashed a second helping of his special brand of socio-politically charged horror-fantasy after Get Out with Us, an off-kilter tale of an upwardly mobile black family being tormented by a gang of enigmatic doppelgangers. Peele’s visual talent is swiftly evolving with flashes of genuine strangeness and intelligently oneiric imagery. These remained largely isolated, however, amongst a story at once bold-type and vague in its symbolic dimensions, the solid suspense filmmaking balanced by an overdrawn and sometimes borderline silly glaze of would-be creepiness.

21
The Wind

Emma Tammi’s The Wind, whilst straying more overtly into the blurry hinterland between psychodrama and horror film, sought to portray desolate straits in an isolated setting, depicting two frontier families contending with a destructive force that might be supernatural or mental, the difference between the two increasingly beside the point. Tammi’s direction was initially intriguing, with a potent sense of place and mood nimbly complicated through a splintered sense of time. The Wind nonetheless lost cohesion as the threat became more literal and overt, whilst the acting was awkwardly TV-like and callow. The Vanishing saw Danish TV director Kristoffer Nyholm tackling an infamous mystery of Scottish history, the disappearance of three lighthouse keepers from a remote island early in the 20th century, for a grim tale of madness and murder. The Vanishing proposed a solution to the mystery in a basic film noir plot, with a more allusive patina imbued by the theme of men contending with the corrosive and destructive intensity of grief. The actors did their best to imbue proceedings with gruff and hirsute grit, but the storyline was far too stock and predictable, and the film overall proved drab and demoralising where it should have been flavourful and exciting.

22
The Lighthouse

Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse proved a very different piece of work even in dealing with the same basic setting and theme. Eggers’ second feature also offered a similar proposition to his first film The Witch, studying characters stranded in a setting geographically and historically remote, succumbing to a collapsing sense of reality. Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson brought startling, stylised passion to the project in depicting the grizzled, perhaps deliberately histrionic and hammy elder and his young, quietly neurotic employee who alternately loathe and love each-other. When the film concentrated on their fluctuations of affection and hatred, accord and dominance, it was interesting. And yet The Lighthouse felt less mature than The Witch in its bombardment of hoary surrealism, sickly physical textures, and general portent rammed home almost from the opening frames, overloaded with suggestions of the supernatural and even religious symbolism and yet offered with little sense of measured effect: the totality looked uncomfortably like an overblown student film.

23
High Life

Claire Denis’ High Life was an even more high-falutin’ take on the same motif of disorientating isolation, again armed with Pattinson. This sci-fi chamber piece depicted a spaceship crammed with prisoners sent on a one-way trip to check out a remote black hole. Juliette Binoche was the ship’s witchy doctor, pursuing a sideline in experimental fertilisation, eventually leaving Pattinson’s monkish survivor to raise his biological daughter alone after his fellows all crack up and die. The result was familiar Denis in the stringent evocations of weird sexuality and psychological torment. Something about the movie overall didn’t gel for me, however. The provocations were a bit too predictable, the approach uncomfortably pitched between realism and stylised allegory, and the tone of acting apart from Binoche rather stilted. By the end, the attentiveness in Denis’ best work to finite glimmers of the sublime amidst the forbidding had devolved here into a vague, zombified sort of sentimentality. One scene, the freakish “fuck box” excursion for Binoche, was basically the justification for the whole exercise. James Gray’s Ad Astra was similarly preoccupied with space voyaging as a metaphorical canvas of evoking human connection and alienation, depicted in a relatively more conventional narrative, but Gray managed something surprisingly akin to cinematic jazz in setting up vast surveys and big feelings and yet managing to syncopate them allusively.

24
Dragged Across Concrete

Back down in the mean streets, men and women still battled for such petty issues as money and power. J.C. Chandor’s Triple Frontier leaned, like The Vanishing, on a Treasure of the Sierra Madre riff in portraying a team of former soldiers turned Robin Hood adventurers out to steal a drug lord’s fortune only to crash literally and metaphorically into the rugged and impoverished Latin American landscape. Chandor’s storyline offered some dramatic turns and the methodical directorial method was initially engaging. But as the film became more serious it proved excruciatingly heavy-footed on all levels, indecisive in toggling between a dark parable about corrosive greed and a more forgiving attitude towards its mercenary heroes. S. Craig Zahler’s Dragged Across Concrete was another variation on the same basic motif of blue-collar warriors contemplating a turn to the dark side to combat financial distress, in this case Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughan’s unruly cops, balanced by Tory Kittles’ more practical and patient ex-con, who all find themselves contending with an especially scummy crew of bank robbers. Zahler proved gutsier than Chandor if also perhaps disingenuous in portraying his antiheroes’ crude and unromantic aspects. Zahler’s style, offering concerted escalation of narrative through a minimalist palette, was still effectively peppered with islets of startling brutality, but now stumbled into the blurry area between slow-burn and long-windedness, trying to tell a taut thriller story with all the nimbleness of an oil tanker trying to turn.

25
Les Misérables

Brian De Palma’s long-delayed Domino invoked a similar sense of urban warfare, although its thematic reach invoked geopolitics and media event-making, his heroes defined by the struggles to direct their well-honed skills despite their own earthbound humanity. Ladj Ly hijacked the title and original spirit of Victor Hugo’s venerable Les Misérables for a very contemporary study of the Parisian neighbourhood where, long ago, Hugo wrote his tome, now crammed with poor immigrants. Ly depicted a newly transferred cop’s experiences with his bilious, exasperated partners and the seething, easily provoked denizens, with an adolescent boy’s act of thievery kicking off snowballing acts of abuse and confrontation. Ly expertly charted the social schisms and little ironies inherent in the locale and cleverly built tension as the seemingly happenstance meshed into a trap of fate, even if the essential set-up wasn’t that original and the sociology never deeply interrogated: how many times in movies and TV have we seen bullish cops and troubled youth make friction until they kindle a blaze? Moreover, the movie resolved in a lady-or-the-tiger situation more liable to exasperate than distress.

26
Shaft

Where the first John Wick movie, the renascent Keanu Reeves’ all-style-no-substance action franchise, left me quite bored, the second episode at least managed to complicate its oddball universe and leave off on an intriguingly precipitous note. The third episode, Parabellum, got off to a good start as Wick had to battle off armies of assassins, including one stirring quote from Sergio Leone, and fun turns from Halle Berry and Mark Dacascos. But as it lumbered on it became clear that for all the hyped-up yet pointless fight sequences, this episode was simply one long exercise in marking time, quite truly sound and fury signifying nothing. Nominally engaging a similar zone of urban thriller grit but in a completely different key, Tim Story’s Shaft invoked not just the stature of Gordon Parks’ 1971 hit but also John Singleton’s 2001 sequel-cum-reboot. Samuel L. Jackson reprised his role as John Shaft Jnr, Richard Roundtree returned as the grizzled but still potent elder, and Jessie T. Usher was installed as grandson JJ, a milquetoast FBI agent who evolves into a next-generation standard bearer. The original’s suave, clever, worldly Shaft was left far behind, instead offering more a riff on Jackson’s familiar persona as a truculent hard-ass, and the new edition tended far more cartoonish than its predecessors. But Jackson and Regina Hall as his perpetually aggravated ex gave performances of whirling-dervish comic ability, the outing had spunky energy and real understanding of the appeal of star power, earning the status of guilty pleasure.

27
Avengers: Endgame

2019 delivered a deluge of would-be blockbusters, most of them at least nominally in the science fiction genre. The superhero vogue reached its official zenith with Avengers: Endgame, a pseudo-epic that saw the familiar team return for one last adventure with daunting stakes, trying to undo archenemy Thanos’ exterminating victory through time travel. Endgame certainly hit the spot for a vast number of moviegoers. It left me dispirited, however, even in comparison to the better-organised, more exciting Infinity War. The directing Russo brothers sacrificed vast swathes of running time to reiterating well-worn parental traumas for its characters whilst neglecting their camaraderie, served some heroes very poorly, and slogged through a plotline more busy than epic. Worst of all, it somehow became the biggest hit in movie history whilst representing cinema’s ultimate surrender to a drearily digitised aesthetic somewhere between seniors insurance commercial and video game desktop wallpaper.

28
Star Wars – Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker

Another great epoch in blockbuster hype concluded as J.J. Abrams rounded off the third Star Wars trilogy, delivering Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker. Abrams had a job of work ahead of him to conclude the saga in anything like a coherent and satisfying manner, especially considering how the previous episode left much of the narrative infrastructure in tatters, and the disorderly development of the new trilogy was more obvious than ever. The strain of trying to come up with something momentous enough to please fans, critics, the studio, and general audiences all at once showed, in a film stuffed to bursting point as it laboured to do justice to the characters and motifs already in motion but introducing a grab-bag of new ones too. And yet as a totality the episode was as much buoyed by excess as it was hampered, with a blissfully freewheeling pace and a real sense of dramatic weight in its most important scenes. The storyline took the crucial duologue of heroine and antihero to some interesting new places, and Abrams offered some powerful flashes of visual mystique.

29
Captain Marvel

Shazam! proved an entertaining and well-made entry for the Warner Bros./DC universe, which confirmed signs in last year’s Aquaman that, having abandoned cyberpunk grandeur as the series model, the new one is ‘80s blockbusters. Director David F. Sandberg went for a full-blooded tone and really grasped the empowerment fantasy complete with a finale where its collection of hapless orphans became a stable of bemuscled champions, whilst only slightly diluting the found-family sentimentality with knowing. The familiar enemies of lumpen CGI and over-length did retard the product, but not too greatly. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Captain Marvel aimed for a similar gloss of playful nostalgia, casting Brie Larson as a spirited military pilot who evolves into the eponymous spacefaring swashbuckler after getting caught in the middle of an intergalactic war. Larson and costar Samuel L. Jackson did their best to make everything seem gallant and chirpy, but the script might as well have been was written on a tissue, and Boden and Fleck’s direction was stupefyingly plastic.

30
Brightburn

David Yarovesky’s Brightburn, written by two members of the Gunn family dynasty, offered an intriguing basic premise in taking up Superman’s origin story in all basic details but recasting the adopted alien superbeing as a psychopathic parasite whose genetic programming kicks in at puberty, leading him to wreak carnage as he comes to understand his role and powers. There was certainly a prospect here to deliver a scurrilous assault on the all-conquering superhero genre and a twist on slasher movie chestnuts, and it mooted an interesting, emotionally immediate theme in the spectacle of desperate broodiness turning a blind eye to all warning signs. Actually delivering on such potential proved beyond the filmmakers: the storyline showed it cards far too soon, and devolved into an inevitable string of bluntly gory killings as a sense of the inevitable robbed proceedings of surprises and tension. F. Gary Gray reportedly had a hard time behind the scenes in taking on another backdated franchise, with Men In Black: International. The filmmakers had the right idea in reuniting Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson to expand on their chemistry, and the notion of turning the established concept’s framework from cop tale to extra-terrestrial spy movie parody, with Hemsworth as a hunkier Maxwell Smart, could have resulted in something really good. The movie failed to do anything even faintly original and exciting with such quality parts, however, completely neglecting the founding film’s oddball streak as well as its propelling concept as a metaphor for modern subcultures, filling in instead with weak plotting and some laboriously on-trend nods.

31
Godzilla: King of the Monsters

Godzilla: King of the Monsters was a designated critical and box office bombsite, but I liked it a lot. Debuting director Michael Dougherty honoured the old Toho franchise with real affection, and added new layers. Like its monsters it was a bit too big and cumbersome. But it also wielded a proper sense of immense spectacle that also described the emotional chaos of its human characters, and gained zany energy in fusing together classic bits of kaiju eiga and Lovecraftian lore. Of all the FX spectacles released this year, it seemed the one least embarrassed with itself. Simon Kinberg, like Dougherty a Hollywood player trying to level up, took his tilt at ushering out the X-Men franchise as we’ve known it with Dark Phoenix, recapitulating Jean Grey’s infestation by an alien energy that exacerbates her wild mutant talent. The film was met with particular derision, but again I liked it more than the last 3 or 4 entries in this franchise, with Kinberg retaining a down-to-earth approach to action, and a serious sense of the characters, contending in their different ways with knowing the extraordinary is possible whilst languishing in a depressingly predictable world: this felt more keen to the moment for me than many number of others attempts to nail the zeitgeist down. But the very end went bewilderingly awry, punching unexplained holes in series continuity for the sake of an unearned note of closure.

32
Fast Color

Julia Hart’s Fast Color offered an intriguing variation on the notion of people with extraordinary powers subsisting in clandestine fashion, used to illustrate an intriguing metaphor for the covert strength and resilience of matrilineal traditions, in depicting three generations of African-American women blessed with mysterious but tormenting gifts that ultimately prove to have world-saving potential. Gugu Mbatha-Raw was particularly good in the central role and Hart’s direction effectively fused the mundane and the fantastic, although what felt like a very cramped production limited its ultimate effect. Tim Miller’s Terminator: Dark Fate had some unusual similarities, in also concentrating on a rebel band of mutually reliant women contending with impending apocalypse and pursuing authority, whilst also trying to revive a doggedly beloved but waning franchise. The return of Linda Hamilton’s majestic Sarah Connor and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s sardonically pokerfaced T-800 offered shots of grizzled, nostalgic appeal to punch up a script lacking any true innovation and imagination. Actually, Mackenzie Davis provided the best reason to watch as the latest dedicated defender from the future, even if the plot gave her tour of duty little to distinguish it.

33
Joker

M. Night Shyamalan signalled intent to get back in on the superhero craze he gave some impetus to with 2000’s Unbreakable, offering Glass as a sequel to both that film and 2017’s Split. The movie pitted Bruce Willis’ homey hero against Samuel L. Jackson’s nefarious title character and James McAvoy’s multitude of acting class skits, with Sarah Paulson added for a neat study in smiling castration as a psychiatrist with a mysterious agenda. The result was initially engaging but went nowhere fast, Shyamalan backsliding with alarming speed into familiar habits of empty showmanship and witless meta pizzazz that laboured desperately to disconnect itself from any hint of the material’s pulpy roots. Todd Phillips’ Joker became the year’s succes de scandale in netting the Golden Lion at Venice whilst provoking oodles of ridiculous pre-release commentary. When it did come out Joker scored big at the box office and became perhaps the instant go-to archetype of what you think is a really great grown-up movie when you’re 13. The actual movie, a middling rip-off of several superior films and sporting a violently overhyped Joaquin Phoenix performance, wielded an effectively grimy feel, but only offered vague and generic social critique and misfit-turned-vigilante clichés, so loosely anchored to a nominal basis in comic book lore that it managed to betray both those roots as well as any ideals of proper drama.

34
Dumbo

Disney’s much-discussed and wearying grip on the box office in 2019 came in large part through expertly playing to several audiences, offering up plenty of material for young viewers whilst also repackaging old successes just in time for the first wave of Millennial nostalgia. Whilst Jon Favreau and Guy Ritchie were richly rewarded for doing hackwork in helming The Lion King and Aladdin respectively, Tim Burton placed his neck on the chopping block as he deigned to helm one of Disney’s live-action remakes of more hallowed animated fare, in his case Dumbo. Burton’s film was imperfect but at least an honourable negotiation, his familiar gothic tint lightly applied to lush period Americana, perfect for a tale of the misbegotten’s gentle melancholia struggling to bloom for a romantic adventure. The film had a better performance from its CGI title character than many real actors offered in the course of the year, and Burton’s theme of the regret inherent in selling private dreams to large entertainment concerns came perilously close to biting the hand currently feeding him.

35
Aladdin

Aladdin was a much bigger hit, but despite Ritchie’s relentless attempts to invest the splashy production with vaudevillian energy, the project never felt anything but forced and hollow. Will Smith turned hammy and floundering with third-rate material as an all-powerful Genie who still couldn’t conjure up good comedy writers. The rest of the cast was boring and wooden, and the price we keep paying for “Let It Go” notched higher with the one new song tacked onto the dolorously well-scrubbed score. Rob Letterman’s Pokémon: Detective Pikachu opened a campaign to build a big screen franchise out of the gaming and anime property. The product was so functional, processed, and bland it made Styrofoam seem tasty, and yet it was kept watchable by Ryan Reynolds’ affable shtick as the mysteriously loquacious title character, and Kathryn Newton’s zest as a plucky reporter: anyone wanting to update Torchy Blane for the 21st century should hire her.

36The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

Chris Renaud’s The Secret Life of Pets 2 offered a gallery of cute animated house pets, many of them blessed with voiceover work by a top-drawer cast, and their adventures in trying to save a white tiger cub from a vicious circus owner whilst canine protagonist Max (Patton Oswalt) learns to let go of his protective role over his owners’ infant son and mans up under the tutelage of a gruff farm dog (Harrison Ford). The film certainly wasn’t any sort of classic, but it was slickly animated, occasionally quite funny, and offered an unpretentious simile for the trials and tribulations of helicopter parenting. The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part saw Mike Mitchell subbing for Phil Lord and Chris Miller, taking up the lingering note of threat to lad paradise at the end of the first instalment to portray one boy’s efforts to play nice with his sister through the prism of unruly Lego avatars. As a second helping, it couldn’t recapture the original’s furious pace and heady legerdemain in making comedy from nerd-canon literacy. But in some respects it was more sophisticated and substantial in marrying absurdist humour with insight into childhood dynamics. Plus that song got stuck inside my head.

37
Alita: Battle Angel

Robert Rodriguez joined forces with writer-producer James Cameron to adapt the manga Alita: Battle Angel as a CGI-heavy action-adventure flick, following Rosy Salazar’s robotic heroine from junkyard foundling to unleashed supersoldier. Rodriguez executed the film in a more colourful and expansive version of his stylised Sin City films. Salazar proved a capable star as the empathic but vigorous title character. The movie ultimately left a bad taste in the mouth despite her however, with swerves into ugly violence and distressingly tacky-looking special effects throughout. Frant Gwo’s The Wandering Earth made waves by scoring a colossal success at the Chinese box office, evincing that country’s new outlook in offering not historical gallivanting but mammoth sci-fi action filmmaking. As a movie, The Wandering Earth was much less notable, a flat, flashy, alternately wooden and overacted assimilation of Hollywood’s goofier precincts, and how much it entertained depended on how much you wanted to turn your brain off. Zhang Yimou’s Shadow was more traditional, a martial arts action flick set in a mythic past, albeit with the action essentially offered as decoration for a dark melodrama about identity and loyalty that built beautifully to a finale where underclass rage and feckless aristocratic entitlement meet and lose all shape: the result was perhaps Zhang’s finest excursion into genre film to date.

38
Crawl

Alexandre Aja’s Crawl sounded just like what the doctor ordered amidst the desultory mid-year blockbusters, an unpretentious thrill-ride built around a perfect cliffhanger situation, pitting a young would-be swimming champ and her injured father against alligators amidst a raging hurricane. The result was entertaining in a kinetic and mindless manner, but the attempt to stretch the situation out to fill an entire movie via contrived thrills, as well as a rather tinny dramatic pitch, kept it from being anything like as good as it could have been. Andres Muschietti’s adaptation of Stephen King’s It concluded with It: Chapter Two, a capstone taking up the tale of Derry, Maine’s Losers gang, now forty-somethings in various states of middle-aged unease, forced to return to their home town and do battle once more with the monstrous wraith Pennywise. The film’s bloated expanse incidentally confirmed how clumsy Muschietti’s first part was in laying out story essentials by having to introduce some here via flashbacks, whilst being incompetent in itself. The characters were still sketchy assemblages of identifying traits and cliché traumas battling an endless succession of lacklustre shock sequences, building to a finale that tried to make an agreeable point about victim empowerment that unfortunately reduced an unholy cosmic terror to something that could be defeated by a schoolyard chant, an event horizon for the horror-is-a-metaphor-for-something school of thought. Good actors like Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, and James McAvoy went terribly wasted.

39
Gemini Man

Hobbs & Shaw set out to expand the Fast and Furious franchise by forcibly uniting Dwayne Johnson’s hulking FBI agent and Jason Statham’s reformed mercenary, in an entry replete with middling rival alpha comedy and passable action scenes. John Wick and Atomic Blonde director David Leitch failed to inject much of his patented Vodka ad style, and Idris Elba and Eiza Gonzalez were pathetically wasted as the android villain and a criminal queen. To be fair, though, eventually it cut loose with a gleefully ridiculous finale, and Vanessa Kirby as Shaw’s kick-ass sister gave a dose of elegant spunk. Ang Lee continued his recent campaign to revitalise cinematic showmanship through technological advancement in releasing Gemini Man, Will Smith’s second underwhelming stint in front of a green screen for the year. Lee pitted the middle-aged Smith against a CGI simulacrum of his younger self, as he played a brilliant but burned-out hitman forced to go up against a clone raised by his former mentor turned enemy. In flashes, Lee recalled the graceful staging and sense of physical action of his Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon days and he tried to work in his familiar motif, the struggle with one’s sense of self and one’s progenitors, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Benedict Wong gave expert support as Smith’s allies. But the storyline was excruciatingly familiar and clichéd, decorated with action sequences lacking real conceptual edge, whilst the fancy effects proved largely underwhelming and sometimes actively annoying. Worst of all, Smith was called upon to give one of the least animated performances of his career so the one-note inexpressiveness of his digital doppelganger wouldn’t seem too flaccid.

40
Knives Out

Jim Jarmusch, having tackled vampires in 2014 with Only Lovers Left Alive, turned to the living dead for The Dead Don’t Die, depicting the chaos befalling a small town during a zombie apocalypse, with Bill Murray, Adam Driver, and Chloe Sevigny as the outmatched local cops, and Tilda Swinton as a katana-wielding mortician with a secret, amongst a host of other notable players. The result was fitfully amusing and Jarmusch indulged a waggish brand of fourth-wall-breaking, with characters who know the film’s theme song and have read the end of the script, plus a late swerve into another genre. But the film almost entirely lacked its precursor’s richness as a deconstruction of genre concepts, settling instead for recapitulating the already given themes of the Romero zombie flick as a dull screed with some witless satirical jabs, and failing to make much of his excellent cast save a superlative Sevigny and a cunningly deadpan Driver. By contrast, Peter Strickland’s return with In Fabric saw the director balancing black comedy, fetishistic horror, and surrealist consumer satire with dazzling gall. Rian Johnson recovered after his divisive Star Wars outing with Knives Out, a wry and energetic twist on whodunit essentials that suited Johnson’s sensibility far better, with a pointed, merrily obvious subtext taking aim at arrogant privilege being displaced by immigrant pluck and decency.

41
Hellboy

After patiently waiting nine years for a new movie from Neil Marshall, it proved especially disheartening that he should return with a reboot of Hellboy, stepping into Guillermo Del Toro’s very large shoes for a movie that never stopped feeling like a studio trying to squeeze juice out of a convenient intellectual property. Miraculously, some essence of Hellboy as a character, along with his circle of outcasts and eccentrics, came through, and Marshall occasionally nailed the tone of gory-corny musketeering he was aiming for. But overall the film badly lacked Del Toro’s playful yet earnest connection with the material, with lashings of CGI bloodletting that couldn’t hide how rote the effects and plot stakes were.

42
Top End Wedding

Elizabeth Banks took a stab at rebooting Charlie’s Angels with a suitably trendy makeover, casting aside the day-glo jesting of the early 2000s films as well as the glycerine gloss and blow-dried spunkiness of the old TV series, instead slotting a new selection of omnicompetent ladies into a free-range mash-up of other heist and action movies. The film’s many miscues included casting Kristen Stewart, hardly known for on-screen levity, as the scrappy, zany team member, failing to back her up with some strong and defined star charisma in her co-stars, using a script crammed full of harvested internet memes, and piling on girl power touches about three decades past their use-by date. That might all still have been forgivable if the film had any real wit or skill in staging action, but the result seemed only desperate to be called fun and affirming. The Sapphires director Wayne Blair and star Miranda Tapsell reunited for Top End Wedding, a starring role Tapsell cowrote for herself. Tapsell’s enormous appeal and skill as a comic performer and a generally good-natured vibe in contending with the clashing vagaries of modern and traditional identities helped keep the movie watchable. But the confused story and pat emotional resolutions saw Tapsell cheating herself of a vehicle worthy of her.

43
Ride Like A Girl

Rachel Griffiths, an actor who had shown a breezy touch in her sporadic short films, made her feature debut with Ride Like A Girl, a biopic depicting the often gruelling life course jockey Michelle Payne travelled to gain her landmark 2015 Melbourne Cup win. Payne’s story was certainly worth a movie and came with its feminist message built in, and the ever-undervalued Teresa Palmer supplied a strongly felt lead performance where you could feel the character’s many hard knocks etching themselves on her bones. But again the script was a cornball amalgam of crowd-pleaser clichés and formulaic dramatic swerves, with costar Sam Neill gorgonized by some of the dramatic beats and lines he was obliged to enact. The project as a whole was swathed in impersonal gloss, with Griffiths’ direction long on cute touches like a flock of betting nuns, but short on specifics, like scarcely properly identifying many members of Payne’s big brood.

44
Midway

Danger Close: The Battle of Long Tan was another Aussie film depicting a true subject, albeit one rather more grave, depicting the clash between green conscripts and their estranged leadership when thrown into a vicious battle with North Vietnamese soldiers in 1966. Red Dog director Kriv Stenders handled events mostly with insipid professionalism, although he did try early on to offer a dialogue of perspectives on battle – chaotic immersion for fighters, distant glimpses for hapless entertainers, sputtering radio reports for the commanders. That gave way however to overworked visuals and clunky war movie cliches. Somehow screenwriter Stuart Beattie dared not only to offer a variation on “It’s quiet” “Yes, too quiet” but followed it immediately with one soldier showing another a picture of his family. Another recreation of a famous battle, Midway saw Roland Emmerich trying to mesh his penchant for historical subjects with his more familiar trash-spectacle expertise in depicting the early months of the Pacific War, climaxing in a big, brash recreation of the titular naval battle. Emmerich’s long-apparent desire to make a proper 1950s B war movie with modern special effects finally found true realisation, and early reels loped awkwardly with some tonelessly jut-jawed acting and lapses into near-cartoonish affect. Like a few of Emmerich’s films it proved however cumulatively something better than initially proposed, as he tried to counterbalance a straightforward depiction of heroism with a more holistic and attentive attempt to convey a moment in history and its players than Michael Bay’s haplessly melodramatic Pearl Harbor. Emmerich’s fluid visual gifts touched the wartime action with a sense of beauty as well as thrilling immediacy.

45
Hustlers

British bandit of bland James Marsh offered King of Thieves, recounting the true story of a gang of elderly underworld figures who banded together to pull off a colossal diamond heist, only to be undone by their long-simmering enmities and tunnelvisioned worldviews. It was worth watching to see a battery of terrific actors still strutting their stuff as men to whom age brought no wisdom, and yet Marsh’s limply jaunty style couldn’t mesh with the low-key storyline and the script never worked out what the real crux of the drama was. Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers was another, lightly fictionalised spin on a real-life case involving sympathetic devils, a gang of strippers who, hitting hard times after the global financial crisis, started drugging and robbing men under the guise of hard partying. Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez anchored the film with smart performances, and Scafaria’s direction was both muscular and finely textured, turning sequences of bump-and-grind and felony into arias of physical and mental contest, making it one of the best of the many fake Scorsese films in recent years. Scafaria also managed what most directors to try it before her failed to do: weaponize J-Lo’s celebrated booty. The characterisations were shallow and evasive, however, with Lopez’s character in particular intriguingly sketched but never fleshed out, and Scafaria left me unsure us to just how seriously we were supposed to take its characters’ facetious self-justifications as social commentary.

46
Synonyms

Isabella Eklöf’s Holiday offered a more focused and quietly remorseless tilt at a similar subject, portraying an attractive young female trophy who in one gesture rebels against and accepts the logic and cruel pleasures of an abusive subculture. Nadav Lapid’s Synonyms recounted the anxious adventures of a young Israeli man fresh out of the army, who lands in Paris determined to recreate himself as a Frenchman, a being he conceives in the most quixotic fashion. He is slowly disillusioned in the face of poverty and the subtly vampiric relationship he strikes up with a privileged, arty young couple, whilst his strong young buck’s body slowly becomes a rather cynical object of exploitation for him and others. Lapid, dramatizing his own experiences, managed the creeping transition from a sprightly tale of romantic overreach to a clammy portrait of a man’s incapacity to escape himself and the immigrant’s agonies in trying to change from one state of sponsored self-delusion to another. Tom Mercier’s excellent lead performance was charged with just the right kind of neurotic energy. And yet something about the film didn’t quite cohere, its calculated ambiguities, particularly in regards to the central character’s mentality, ultimately rendering it merely a collection of impressive vignettes rather than a coherent character and social study.

47
Luce

Julius Onah’s Luce took up a similar concern, the discomfort of the transplanted, and also had a certain resemblance to Brightburn. The title character, a former Eritrean child soldier adopted by some Americans bourgeois and transformed into a poster boy student, seems to begin a war of nerves with a teacher he believes unfairly treated one of his friends. The film, adapted rather obviously from a play, tackled a host of hot-button notions and was most effective at portraying the kind of performances black (and other) Americans are expected to put on for the sake of enforced equilibrium: Octavia Spencer, as usual, was splendid in an hesitantly written role. The pseudo-thriller framework was more aggravating than tension-provoking, however, foiling its dramatic punch as it reduced the essential question to whether or not Luce was the next Obama or Unabomber, as one of far too many recent dramas unambiguously about ambiguity, before throwing up its hands.

48
Share

Pippa Bianco’s Share was another adventure in high schooler angst and one that took seriously an issue Luce grazed rather foolishly, analysing the impossible position of a teenage girl who awakens on her front lawn after blacking out at party and must face the legal and personal fallout as fragmentary video footage of the party leaks out. Bianco did an admirable job avoiding the tone of an op-ed piece or cautionary after school special, the fuzzy digicam naturalism meshing effectively with a story rooted in disorientation and confused feelings, although the story and characterisations ultimately proved a little too superficial and so never really transcended the realm of illustrative cautionary anecdote. The Upside, Neil Burger’s remake of the French hit The Intouchables, relied entirely on the expert playing of Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston as a man flailing after a prison stretch and a paralysed tycoon who forge a friendship and help each-other overcome their various life crises. The film got a long way on playing games with prettily photographed stereotyping and the most obvious tweaks therein – ha ha! a black ex-con liking opera! a stoned rich white guy! – but did offer flashes of emotional depth as it unfolded.

49
Dolemite Is My Name

Dolemite Is My Name united a formidable battery of creative talents: screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski tackled another of their trademark biographical subjects in Rudy Ray Moore, the flailing nightclub comic who reinvented himself as a folk hero with his Dolemite character and found unlikely cinematic success. Craig Brewer took on directing duties and Eddie Murphy played Moore. Murphy was characteristically terrific, nailing Moore’s blend of bluster and ingenuity, and he was backed up by some delightful supporting turns including Wesley Snipes as the perplexed D’urville Martin. Overall the film was good fun, even if the script recycled a few too many jokes and flourishes from the writers’ Ed Wood, and Brewer’s direction was oddly lacking in his usual, shaggy energy and texture: where Moore’s work had madcap confidence, Brewer’s take on it was only slick and sufficient. Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood likewise revisted a wilder, woolier age in filmmaking, and amongst its manifold qualities it depicted the co-dependent reliance of actor Rick Dalton and his stuntman-cum-dogsbody-cum best pal Cliff Booth, as they face unemployment and more overt terrors in a changing cultural moment.

50
Little Woods

Nia DaCosta’s Little Woods played as a fringe underclass variation on the topic of women relying on each-other in tough times, with Tessa Thompson and Lily James playing sisters in a North Dakota town, one trying to walk the line after being busted for smuggling prescription drugs out of Canada and the other contending with an unwanted pregnancy. DaCosta’s terse, evocative direction and sense of milieu went a long way, and Thompson and James cemented their resumes with effective if occasionally theatrical performances, as well as Lance Reddick as a solicitous parole officer. Ultimately, though, the film didn’t really distinguish itself that much amidst a plethora of recent movies depicting hard times in flyover states, with a cliché collection of bearded deadbeats offered as foils for the heroines. Chinese wunderkind auteur Bi Gan went for a deep dive in carefully delineated zones of cinema and consciousness with Long Day’s Journey Into Night even as he also described a depressed and backwards region and the people subsisting there. His film was half bleary meditation, half lucid dream about making peace with the past and self in the context of China’s gritty and decaying provinces not yet caught up with the national boom.

51
Marriage Story

Jia Zhangke’s Ash Is Purest White likewise wrestled with the sense of jarring uprooting and the petty sadisms of aging. Pedro Almodovar’s Pain & Glory took on the same concerns with a more overtly autobiographical inflection, meditating on the director’s life and career in a tapestry of past and present, art and life. Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story also transmuted a director’s personal experience into a would-be incisive drama laced with barbed comedy. Baumbach depicted the agonising way good intentions in divorce easily slide into recrimination and legal drama, as Adam Driver’s engrossed New York theatre director ends his union with Scarlett Johansson’s once-and-future LA star wife and struggles to stay in his young son’s life. The film neatly captured the ratcheting frustration such situations generate, and sported terrific supporting turns from Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, and Alan Alda as divorce lawyers who channel their personal outlooks into cases. But as usual with Baumbach I found it overall too archly loquacious and smugly theatrical to really galvanise, and also far too tightly wedged in a privileged niche. The characterisations evoked the surface furore in a disintegrating partnership but stopped well short of really exploring its central figures as both individuals and a failed couple, whilst Baumbach’s efforts to net awards attention saw a new mawkishness and episodes of strident acting spectacle bloom despite the stars’ great efforts. Also, Randy Newman’s score annoyed the shit out of me.

52
Jojo Rabbit

Marriage Story was however certainly part of a terrific year for Johansson, who also invested her mainstay heroine Black Widow with a tint of melancholic necessity in holding down the fort before meeting a tragic end for a noble cause in Avengers: Endgame, and was tremendous as the doomed radical mother of Jojo Rabbit. The latter film saw Taika Waititi, after his own sojourn in Marvel service, returning to his more common concern with a child’s perspective on the adult world this time attached to a risky topic. Jojo Rabbit was the account of a young German boy weathering the last six months of World War II, instilled with fanatical love of Hitler so thoroughly that he conjures his own fondly imagined version of the Fuhrer as a mentor, but eventually confronts reality when he discovers a Jewish girl living in their attic. Waititi’s evocation of the young hero’s viewpoint with all its transformative inflections helped the film keep balanced whilst exploring madly divergent tones, although Waititi’s goofy, anachronism-laced approach hampered any hope of truly disquieting meaning, not quite working as a portrait of a specific age nor exactly nailing a more general thesis about misaligned hero worship and in-crowd longing.

53
The Two Popes

Most other 2019 films dealing with history played a more familiar game. The Two Popes offered an intriguing proposition, a chamber piece drama describing the retirement of the arch-conservative Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) and his uneasy conversations with the modern and open-minded Jorge Borgoglio, about to become Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce), with Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles trying to imbue a distinctively South American lilt to the portrayal of Francis’s ascension. The stage was set for a meaty portrayal of two completely different men enclosed nominally by a common tradition expounding on serious and urgent moral issues and the various crises facing the church, as inhabited by two great actors. That film never quite arrived, however: what we got instead was a sort of buddy comedy and glossed-over piece of Church-approved marketing that quite literally muted Benedict’s role in hampering action against criminal priests, whilst offering a once-over-lightly portrait of Bergoglio’s own experiences and lapses under the Argentine junta, before assuring us that as long as the Pope can enjoy a soccer game everything’s pretty forgivable. Some of Meirelles’ lushly decorative shots confirmed he still has an eye, but he should still be ashamed of himself.

54
Official Secrets

Gavin Hood’s Official Secrets followed his drone war drama Eye in the Sky as another slickly packaged study of contemporary political dilemmas, this time recounting the true tale of whistleblower Katharine Gun’s struggles with government chicanery in the lead-up to the Iraq War. Keira Knightley’s customarily strong central performance, capturing Gun’s unstable mixture of flighty uncertainty and deeper resilience, gave the film backbone, and Ralph Fiennes was equally good as her calm and cunning lawyer. Gun’s story, however, was a bit too thin and anticlimactic to justify an entire movie, and the neat, audience-flattering approach to a fraught moment in recent history was ultimately a bit cheap. Scott Z. Burns likewise tackled the War on Terror’s fallout in The Report, a journalistic portrayal of the efforts of a US Senatorial staffer to compile a comprehensive account of the CIA’s torture program unleashed on captive suspects in the wake of 9/11. Burns’ crisp direction laid down the details with admirable clarity, ably describing the way bureaucracy and political balancing acts foil accountability, even if the gestures towards character drama and tension were mostly supernal.

55
Hotel Mumbai

Anthony Maras made a bold feature debut with Hotel Mumbai, recounting the dreadful events in the Taj Hotel at the climax of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks. Dev Patel wielded his familiar aura of guileless yet stalwart humanity as the waiter who exemplified the hotel staff’s dedication amidst the horror, amongst a squad of quality actors. The depiction of the events as a pulse-pounding thriller veered towards the tactless on occasions amidst the delirious carnage, but Maras managed to coherently depict the furore of such nightmarish straits and maintained a sense of pathos even in the gunmen, depicted as bribed and brainwashed yokels who nonetheless thoroughly owned their villainy, driven to acts of astounding callousness to nullify their own bewilderment at a word that refuses to obey a neat moral order. James Mangold got back to doing what he does best for his first non-Wolverine movie since the ‘00s for Ford v Ferrari, recounting a clash of carmakers in the mid-1960s climaxing in the infamous 1966 Le Mans race, but more deeply interested in the travails of the people hired to enact contests of plutocratic ego with their own acts of genius and physical commitment. The script leaned a tad too heavily on some conventions straight out screenwriting manuals, and yet Mangold’s flashy, detailed direction and lush sense of the period backed up the terrific cast’s expert work in creating a popular entertainment actually worthy of the name.

56
Richard Jewell

Martin Scorsese’s name was used in vain throughout 2019 when he dared critique the notion that popularity is virtue in cinema, but he put his money where his mouth is in style with I Heard You Paint Houses, called The Irishman in promotion, a revisit to his old gangster movie stomping ground based in the allegedly authentic exploits of Teamster official and supposed Jimmy Hoffa assassin Frank Sheeran. Clint Eastwood tackled another page of recent history in his ongoing project of locating unexpected value amongst ordinary, often scorned people, with Richard Jewell. This time he harked back to the mid-1990s and the story of the portly security guard whose punctilious approach to his job helped save lives amidst the infamous bombing of a public concert during the Atlanta Olympics, only to find himself the lead suspect behind the attack chiefly because of stereotyping. Eastwood’s cool and measured directing counted amongst his best as he depicted the actual bombing, even down a witty use of the Macarena to not just nail down the time period but describe a moment of communal experience. But he also nudged the material towards the melodramatic and partisan as he offered a version of Jewell that did some caricaturing of its own, making him seem more like a persecuted naïf than he ever appeared in real life, and his enemies in the media and FBI into blunt instruments of ego and unchecked power. It was a reminder that Eastwood, once a nuanced and complex conservative artist, has lately been degenerating into punchy propagandist. Nonetheless, within such limits the cast had a ball, particularly Paul Walter Hauser as Jewell and Olivia Wilde as the tabloid spirit incarnate.

57
Dark Waters

Dexter Fletcher followed his rescue work on 2018’s Bohemian Rhapsody with Rocketman, a portrait of Elton John, tracking his rise from prodigious but emotionally bereft boy, through stardom and a spiralling crisis of drug use whilst contending with his queerness, to eventual recovery and self-acceptance. Fletcher mashed together approaches and styles, making the film part standard biopic, part jukebox musical, part sub-Ken Russell fantasia, and part TV talent show bumper, sporting Taron Egerton’s superficially convincing approximation. None of it congealed, however, with a desperate shortage of story to tell, a surplus of shallow psychology, and even a lack of promised gritty sexuality: despite Fletcher’s many, often clumsy magic-realist flourishes, it couldn’t even finish with good spectacle. Todd Haynes turned his rarefied, acquired-taste aesthetic to a mainstream end with Dark Waters, the tale of a corporate lawyer drawn into advocating for a West Virginia town where he has roots as it becomes clear residents’ lives have been poisoned by Dupont dumping carcinogenic Teflon waste from a local plant. Haynes made it a fittingly explanatory companion piece to Safe, as well as a peculiarly muted and world-weary variation on the familiar crusading lawyer tale, noting the capricious nature of life between the official margins as the case drags on for years and the might of a monolithic corporation seems intractable. Mark Ruffalo did fine work in the lead, although Bill Pullman stole scenes as a colourful legal ally.

58
A Hidden Life

Terrence Malick resumed a relatively conventional narrative form for A Hidden Life, contending again with the issue he wrestled with in The Thin Red Line, the possibility and meaning of pacifistic stands in wartime. This time he recounted the life and death of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian conscientious objector executed by the Nazis for refusing to swear allegiance to Hitler. The leisurely three-hour running time was wielded with a sense of purpose, as Malick tried to capture a sense of open spiritual experience balanced by a portrait of a society sliding towards bigotry and scapegoating. The customarily dazzling imagery drank in the beauty of Jägerstätter’s native Alps and was attentive to the physical immediacy of his performers, and despite a grim theme and length the film held attention easily. That very silkiness was a signifier of the underlying problem, however, as it failed to truly ignite the sweat-inducing fires of imminent martyrdom and real moral and mortal terror. Malick’s sense of Jägerstätter’s saintliness was so airy it never touched earth. As a whole it proved one of Malick’s least original and compulsive labours to date, as the straightforward method cut off access to his poetic arsenal whilst failing as prose to really gain access to any character’s head, so Malick was largely reduced to offering variations on the same two or three scenes over and over.

59
The Chambermaid

The Chambermaid, actor-turned-director Lila Avilés’ debut feature, depicted the working travails of Evelia, palpably incarnated by Gabriela Cartol, a young, single mother who works in a luxury downtown hotel in Mexico City, and her encounters with coworkers and guests, trying to maintain a taciturn and businesslike demeanour in her quest to get ahead. Avilés deftly sustained a mode of cinema based around the rhythms of a workaday world, a constant roundelay of toil leavened by flashes of both farcicality and crisis amidst floating islands of luxury, populated by the daffy despots of privilege. Only towards the end, as Avilés piled up dashed hopes for Evelia, did it start feeling untrue to her initial, observational project in order to underline a point. Tell It To The Bees, one-time Super Mario Bros auteur Annabel Jankel’s adaptation of a respected novel, wanted to be a British equivalent to Todd Haynes’ Carol as it portrayed a working class woman of the mid-1950s with a young son who, after breaking up with her thuggish husband, falls in love with a female doctor new to her town. Holliday Grainger and Anna Paquin did right by their roles, but the film’s sluggish, precious tone and ridiculous late swerves into both melodrama and magic-realist inanity aimed for daring but gained only embarrassment.

60
Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, was a carefully paced, concertedly self-serious period drama about a young female painter commissioned to paint the portrait of a young bride-to-be for a distant, arranged intended’s inspection, but finds herself falling in passionate love with her moody, cloistered subject instead. Sciamma managed for the most part to walk a fine line between potential traps of Harlequin romance and anachronism, delivering a keenly felt tragic romance laced with finely observed touches and excellent lead performances. That said, I found the early scenes, with the artist-heroine’s attempts to divine both her own nature and the mysterious blank that is the assigned centre of her art with an implied struggle between phony artistic conventions and psychological reality, more interesting than the affair once it fully bloomed, the style a little too cleanly glazed to entirely evoke the depth of anarchic passion running under a staid surface the title image evoked, although the elegance of the last shot was a great salve.

61
Transit

German director Christian Petzold, maker of Phoenix, returned with another tale of people displaced and cleaved from identity by war and dislocation, Transit. Petzold’s boldest decision was to take Anna Steghers’ World War II-set source novel and retain its period specifics, but play it out in present-day surrounds, Nazi occupiers dressed like French SWAT teams and the like, erasing the gap of years between the refugee crises of the past and present to elucidate our short tribal memories. Petzold’s vision proved beautifully controlled in parsing his characters’ state of entrapment in an everyday setting, and the quietly tormenting anxiety of the refugee’s lot, watching as they try to cling to their morals and illusions. But as with Phoenix, Petzold’s penchant for vaguely Hitchcockian images and themes in his human drama, attached to a central anti-romance revolving around concealed and mistaken identities, cut against the grain of his cool realism and failed, ultimately, to truly resolve into something persuasive.

62
Non-Fiction

Bong Joon-ho captured the year’s Palme d’Or with Parasite, a film that started off as a jolly-nasty satire about a hard-luck family who efficiently insert themselves into the lives a richer clan with various acts of fraud, before becoming a malicious morality play. Bong’s filmmaking was at its most energetic and deceptively amusing throughout, and it’s somewhat easily the best of his work I’ve seen. But Bong’s brand of social satire, much as it wields hipster appeal, remains one-note, and the late swerve into bloodletting mostly came across as an attempt to make the film seem less like a well-shot sitcom, whilst failing to even try living up to the more insidiously Bunuelian aspects of its set-up. Non-Fiction was one of those very French movies Olivier Assayas makes in between his attention-getting exercises in po-mo mindbending, tackling the upheavals facing the French publishing industry in the internet age. Such cultural dislocation is experienced by an equable editor trying to decide what his career mission is, his actress wife ensconced in a TV cop show, and a shambolic author who can only write about personal experience, even as their private lives suggest not everything changes in such realms. As a movie it was entertaining if relatively slight for the director, with pretences to hot-button commentary already dated. Assayas’ handling was still sleek and witty, and the portrayal of the randy intelligentsia shot through with both acerbic knowing and affection.

Performances of Note:

Fabienne Babe, Tempting Devils
Christian Bale, Ford v Ferrari
Antonio Banderas, Pain & Glory
Javier Bardem, Everybody Knows
Juliette Binoche, High Life ; Non-Fiction
Tom Burke, The Souvenir
Honor Swinton Byrne, The Souvenir
Gabriela Cartol, The Chambermaid
Benedict Cumberbatch, 1917
Deng Chao, Shadow
Laura Dern, Marriage Story
Adam Driver, The Dead Don’t Die ; Marriage Story ; The Report ; Star Wars – Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker
Jimmie Fails, The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Adèle Haenel, Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Marianne Jean-Baptiste, In Fabric
Scarlett Johansson, Avengers: Endgame ; Jojo Rabbit ; Marriage Story
Sun Li, Shadow
Matthew McConaughey, The Beach Bum
Vincent Macaigne, Non-Fiction
Idina Menzel, Uncut Gems
Eddie Murphy, Dolemite Is My Name
Ruth Negga, Ad Astra
Alessandro Nivola, The Art of Self-Defense
Brad Pitt, Ad Astra
Christopher Plummer, Knives Out
Adam Sandler, Uncut Gems
Wesley Snipes, Dolemite Is My Name
LaKeith Stanfield, Knives Out ; Uncut Gems
Zhao Shuzhen, The Farewell
Victoria Carmen Sonne, Holiday
Zhao Tao, Ash is Purest White
Ensemble, The Irishman
Ensemble, Hotel By The River
Ensemble, The Lighthouse
Ensemble, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

Favorite Films of 2019

63

Ad Astra (James Gray)

Familiar in aspects and yet in totality a creation with a singular creative stamp, Ad Astra was unmistakably a James Gray film even as it saw the director making a valiant stab at breaking out of his craft-art niche to paint on larger canvases without sacrificing his delicate textures. Gray managed a twinning of opposites, a grand odyssey rendered as a sombre, semi-abstract, psychological tale, a story invoking big ideas and vast realms but in the most interior emotional terms. Ad Astra teased apart the Kubrickian blueprint that’s long held sway over the space movie even whilst seeming to honour it, demanding we turn our attention from fantasies of gods and monsters to study the face in the mirror.

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Ash Is Purest White (Jia Zhangke)

In a particularly excellent year for Chinese cinema, Jia Zhangke didn’t offer formal stunts as heroic as Bi Gan or action spectacle as fervently as Zhang Yimou. But his patient, accumulating style, punctuating an earthy sensibility with moments of lyricism and fantasy, tackled a common theme in recent film, people tied together as they slip from youth to decrepitude and confront their mistakes in spasms of anger and acquiescence. His characters, a gangster and his girlfriend who somehow manage to keep betraying and exiling each-other even as they stumble on through changing times into shambolic co-dependence, made for a sarcastic kind of neo-Western, as China’s prosperity cleared the boondocks of its last feudal lords and drowned memories along with cities under the rising tide.

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Birds of Passage (Cristina Gallego, Ciro Guerra)

Made amidst the directing team’s divorce but betraying only sublime balance of sensibilities, Birds of Passage saw Gallego and Guerra following their debut Embrace of the Serpent with another study of South America’s troubled native populaces. This time focusing on Colombia’s Waayu people, the duo used an ill-starred marriage as the central catalyst for a descent into hell, as a tribal identity made potent by tradition is laid waste by involvement in the briefly enriching drug trade. The plot recalled classic gangster movies but told in a manner closer to the cool, folkloric approach of directors like Paradjanov and Herzog, with references to Ancient Greek literature offering mythopoeic echoes to hint how the same stories recur from age to age, world to world.

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Domino (Brian De Palma)

Domino limped out into the light after several years on the shelf only to be swiftly reburied in general estimation, a once-titanic director tackling a low-budget Euro-thriller that arrived backdated and curtailed. And yet Domino proved a superlative example of what a great director can spin from such crude circumstance, ransacking the material for opportunities for clever filmmaking and sigils of sharp characterisation, along with De Palma’s still-quicksilver feel for the game of cinema correlated with political messaging. De Palma wove in a needling dialectic about characters who cling to philosophies that underpin their actions in the world, and the sorts of faiths, and illusions, that sustain them on the way. Movies of 2019 that cost a hundred times as much couldn’t boast set-pieces as beautifully sustained and diagrammed as the key early rooftop chase and the climactic terrorist attack at a bullfight.

67

Everybody Knows (Asghar Farhadi)

Gaining bizarrely little acclaim despite being a highly accessible yet still rigorously fashioned film from a major director, Everybody Knows saw Farhadi landing in Spain and making deft use of stars Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz, cast as former lovers who find themselves bound together in a fraught reckoning when Cruz’s daughter is kidnapped. If the story frame was melodramatic, it served Farhadi well in lending new intensity and purpose to his usual, novelistic texture in exploring human dynamics, detailing sweat-inducing straits of personal crisis and families in stifling proximity with a needling understanding of the way even the most intimate relationships can be contingent on money and the things it can accomplish. All was fleshed out with a lively, convincing portrayal of communal joy and friction.

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In Fabric (Peter Strickland)

In comparison with Peter Strickland’s last two works, lushly suggestive and esoteric imaginative realms where dream and waking worlds slowly merged, In Fabric to a certain extent offered a more waggish and explicit, if still often surreally fractured, variation on his honed aesthetic. This time the melding of retro horror tropes with a satire on commercialism’s distorting effect on lifestyle alternated the truly weird with a skit-like sense of humour in recreating bygone textures, in devices like tacky ‘70s late-night TV ads as vehicles for evil influence. The compensation for the new archness was a diptych of insidiously brilliant character portraits, as Strickland pitted hapless everyfolk in oblivious contest with agents of dark forces masquerading as purveyors of consumerist paradise, churned together with a delightfully bizarre and sickly-erotic evocation of the stygian, delivered in images that came on with mesmeric verve.

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Holiday (Isabella Eklöf)

Sharp and bright as jagged glass and about as cuddly, Holiday presented for our consideration the tale of a young woman who’s attached herself to the boss of a drug trafficking crew and vacations with him and his hard-partying but dreary and moronic clique, weathering storms of abuse and violence in exchange for being an anointed creature of the globetrotting set. When she reaches out for a more becalmed form of affection, the gesture leads to some nihilistic conclusions. Holiday overlapped with Ash is Purest White and well outpaced something like Hustlers in contemplating a young woman who proves far tougher and more dangerous than anyone expects. Eklöf’s cool, taut filmmaking and unnervingly sustained, rhetoric-free approach paid off in a finale that made its central character’s recourse to violence shocking but comprehensible on several levels, from psychic pressure release to self-reassuring achievement of equality.

70

Hotel By The River (Sang-soo Hong)

Hong’s long been a quietly marvellous filmmaker who always manages to skilfully work invest novelty and dexterity into his movies despite their superficial similarity. Hotel By The River took up some of Hong’s well-trod concerns, like artists dealing with the mess of real life and characters wandering in places of humdrum exile where everything feels at once familiar and disorientating, with a new lilt of aged and wintry regret. Here his most lovingly crafted images, crystalline in their simplicity and integrity, became the aesthetic springboard for the deftly tragicomic, in his twinned depictions of mutually reliant women and a father and his sons whose lode of tension and resentment boils over. The very end stepped over a threshold other directors this year marched up to and paused before. Death is an end to pain; it’s the living we have to worry about.

71

I Heard You Paint Houses (aka The Irishman) (Martin Scorsese)

Martin Scorsese’s epic anatomisation of both recent American history and a film genre he helped invent, the modern gangster movie, The Irishman pieced together a cold indictment of both its specific players and the world they represented, relating the maybe-true adventures of hitman and Teamster official Frank Sheeran, who confessed to killing his legendary former boss Jimmy Hoffa. Rarely has such a long film been so tightly wound and cohesive in first forcing the viewer to understand a certain subculture’s worldview and then obliging us to consider the ugliest consequences for buying into it. A great piece of moviemaking that was also that rarest of cinematic blessings, a coherent and fitting monument to filmic figures of the calibre of Scorsese and his battery of still-mighty stars.

72

Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Bi Gan)

Bi’s second feature felt in many ways like the essential condensation of 2019’s cinema even as it beat most of it to the punch. Bi portrayed landscapes physical, mental, and artistic whilst correlating cinematic experience with the haze of memory and the transformed lucidity of dreaming, via a tale that can only be described as the story after the story, his characters wandering about in the wreckage long after a standard-issue film noir plot has played out, trying to piece together an accurate sense of the past’s meaning and the present’s possibilities. The airier themes were coupled with a pungently evocative contemplation of life in modern China’s backwaters, whilst the long final sequence was an act of cinematic cabalism.

73

Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino)

A droll, Cassavetes-like character study and a Proustian recreation of a lost time mated with meta-western and true crime drama, Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood saw Quentin Tarantino lingering in unusual territory, at least before the characteristically outrageous finale, in contemplating the terrors of middle age and the travails of weathering a hostile zeitgeist. His ninth film proved at once deeply funny and cumulatively, emotionally piercing, finding a uniquely nimble way to study both the fear of creative irrelevance whilst also celebrating the lingering influence of pop cultural heroism, a force imbued with strange magic: even if it can’t literally save lives, as the climax ironically depicts, it still elevates and envelopes commonplace experience with epic lustre, giving form to modern life it too often otherwise lacks. The Manson Family murders offered their legend as the basis, only to be rudely inverted as the antiheroes doled out harsh chastisement to malign berserkers.

74

Pain & Glory (Pedro Almodovar)

The thought of Pedro Almodovar, ever the colourful raconteur and provocateur, getting gloomy and facing up to the predations of age sounded in abstract like a thoroughly depressing chore, and Pain & Glory tackled the subject with a lightly fictionalised gloss that might have proved in the hands of a lesser artist a study in navel-gazing. Almodovar instead turned this into the stuff of one of his best films, a memoir-like portrait of a once-outrageous gay film director struggling to overcome niggling physical ailments and general dejection as he faces decline only to be released for new adventures thanks in large part to revisiting the past and his formative experiences. The film was loaded with beautifully crafted images and portrayals of characters laced with both cutting wit and insight, as well as a spry sexiness that was ultimately invigorating. Antonio Banderas deftly incarnated both the director’s troubled and meditative streak and his remnant lode of bantam cock pride in creative achievement.

75

Shadow (Zhang Yimou)

With Shadow, Zhang tried his hand again at the same conceit he fumbled years ago with The Curse of the Golden Flower: using the trappings of a wu xia saga to depict forms of evil, particularly the venomous nature of unchecked power, and vagaries of identity, as people deform themselves into perverse shapes to fit into social roles even as they contort with lethal vivacity in battle. This time Zhang applied his most dazzling and accomplished stylistics to a cunningly developed and focused story, avoiding his usually lush colour schemes, adopting a nearly monochrome look instead, to lend a noir-like texture to his narrative, where the abstract political games always had a precisely identified impact on human players, complete with a barbed punchline that did cruel things with the familiar worm-turns tale.

76

The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg)

Hogg’s fourth feature gained her a breakthrough to broader recognition with an autobiographical story, but The Souvenir was still a rarefied piece of artistry, building a subtle yet definite emotional texture whilst also unfolding in layers of reference and aesthetic query. Like Almodovar, Hogg asked intelligent questions of a familiar mode of storytelling, scratching out its own path in considering the quandary of an artist’s growth, taking shocks through risk in life. The Souvenir reached back into Hogg’s past and retold a tragic romance, framed through not merely a metafictional statement about artistic becoming but also perceiving how all realities, personal and cultural, are amassed in webs of borrowed likenesses and echoes. How do I know who you are? is also How do I know who I am?

77

Tempting Devils (Jean-Claude Brisseau)

Cheap-looking, capriciously horny, and barely distributed, the final film from an old pervert saw Brisseau plying arthouse-softcore as the shiny wrapping on a beguiling package filled with deeply sardonic romantic and slapstick comedy, philosophical inquiries into art, love, death, and transcendence, anecdotal portrayals of endemic social evil, and gleefully tacky special effects where lesbian threesomes hovered amidst galactic visions. Brisseau managed at once to send himself up mercilessly whilst also becoming himself at last in entirety, and of the many filmmakers to offer studies in imminent mortality of late, his seemed the most blithe, the most determined to do a good turn in trying to release people from cages of varying types. Whilst Tempting Devils certainly wasn’t the most politely refined work, it was lively, funny, and heroically accepting of human strangeness and resilience in ways many a more polished and posturing release of this year failed to be.

Honourable Mention

The Art of Self-Defense (Riley Stearns)
The Chambermaid (Lila Avilés)
Dumbo (Tim Burton)
The Farewell (Lulu Wang)
The Last Black Man In San Francisco (Joe Talbot)
Synonyms (Nadav Lapid)
Transit (Christian Petzold)

Rough Gems and/or Underrated

Ford v Ferrari (James Mangold)
Dark Waters (Todd Haynes)
Godzilla, King of the Monsters (Martin Dougherty)
High Life (Claire Denis)
Hotel Mumbai (Anthony Maras)
Hustlers (Lorene Scafaria)
Jojo Rabbit (Taika Waititi)
Knives Out (Rian Johnson)
The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part (Mike Mitchell)
Les Misérables (Ladj Ly)
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma)
Non-Fiction (Olivier Assayas)
Shaft (Tim Story)
Star Wars – Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker (J.J. Abrams)
Under The Silver Lake (David Robert Mitchell)
Us (Jordan Peele)

Disappointing and/or Overrated

1917 (Sam Mendes)
Alita: Battle Angel (Robert Rodriguez)
Avengers: Endgame (Anthony and Joe Russo)
Booksmart (Olivia Wilde)
Brightburn (David Yarovesky)
Captain Marvel (Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck)
Cold Pursuit (Hans Petter Moland)
The Dead Don’t Die (Jim Jarmusch)
Dragged Across Concrete (S. Craig Zahler)
Gemini Man (Ang Lee)
It: Chapter Two (Andres Muschietti)
John Wick – Chapter 3: Parabellum (Chad Stahelski)
Joker (Todd Phillips)
The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers)
Long Shot (Jonathan Levine)
Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach)
The Nightingale (Jennifer Kent)
Parasite (Bong Joon-ho)
Uncut Gems (Benny and Josh Safdie)
The Vanishing (Kristoffer Nyholm)
The Wandering Earth (Frant Gwo)

Crap

Aladdin (Guy Ritchie)
Glass (M. Night Shyamalan)
Men In Black: International (F. Gary Gray)
Rocketman (Dexter Fletcher)
Serenity (Steven Knight)
Tell It To The Bees (Annabel Jankel)
The Two Popes (Fernando Meirelles)

Unseen

An Elephant Sitting Still ∙ Asako I & II ∙ Atlantics ∙ Bacurau ∙ Bombshell ∙ Border ∙ The Burial of Kojo ∙ Diane ∙ Doctor Sleep ∙ Frozen II ∙ Gloria Bell ∙ Honey Boy ∙ Invisible Life ∙ Just Mercy ∙ The Lion King ∙ Little Women ∙ The Man Who Killed Don Quixote ∙ The Mountain ∙ One Cut of the Dead ∙ Peterloo ∙ Queen & Slim ∙ Sunset ∙ Tigers Are Not Afraid ∙ Toy Story 4 ∙ Waves ∙ The Wild Pear Tree ∙ Young Ahmed ∙

The Best Older Films I Saw First in 2019

As Tears Go By / Days of Being Wild / Happy Together (Wong Kar-Wai)
The Avenging Conscience / Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout The Ages (D.W. Griffith)
The Awful Doctor Orloff / A Virgin Among The Living Dead (Jesus Franco)
The Ballad of Cable Hogue (Sam Peckinpah)
Bigger Than Life / Bitter Victory (Nicholas Ray)
Blind Husbands (Erich von Stroheim)
The Blue Bird / Victory / The Last of the Mohicans (Maurice Tourneur)
The Boy Friend (Ken Russell)
Cairo Station (Youseff Chahine)
Carnival Rock / Sorority Girl / A Bucket of Blood / The Young Racers / Bloody Mama (Roger Corman)
The Champagne Murders (Claude Chabrol)
Cotton Comes To Harlem (Ossie Davis)
Darling Lili (Blake Edwards)
Dolemite (D’urville Martin)
Foxhole in Cairo (John Llewellyn Moxey)
Geronimo: An American Legend (Walter Hill)
The Ghost of Yotsuya (Nabuo Nakagawa)
Godzilla vs Monster Zero (Inoshira Honda)
Glastonbury Fayre / Bad Timing (Nicolas Roeg)
Hangmen Also Die! / Cloak and Dagger / American Guerrilla In The Philippines (Fritz Lang)
Head (Bob Rafelson)
The Hired Hand / Idaho Transfer (Peter Fonda)
Il Grido (Michelangelo Antonioni)
It’s Alive / God Told Me To / The Stuff (Larry Cohen)
J’Accuse! (Abel Gance, 1919)
The King of Kings (Cecil B. DeMille)
La Venere d’Ille (Lamberto and Mario Bava)
Man’s Favorite Sport? (Howard Hawks)
Mr. Majestyk (Richard Fleischer)
The Murderer Lives at Number 21 / Quai des Orfèvres (Henri-Georges Clouzot)
My Name Is Nobody (Tonino Valerii)
Odds Against Tomorrow (Robert Wise)
The Outlaw and His Wife / The Monastery of Sendomir (Victor Sjöström)
Private Hell 36 / Flaming Star / The Killers (Don Siegel)
Red Ball Express (Budd Boetticher)
Robbery (Peter Yates)
The Shanghai Drama (Georg Wilhelm Pabst)
Sir Arne’s Treasure (Mauritz Stiller)
Svengali (Archie Mayo)
Ulysses (Mario Camerini)
Wavelength (Michael Snow)
We Were Strangers (John Huston)

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2010s, 2019

My Collected Film Writing 2019

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rhfw2019title

Presenting the full collection of my film writing for 2019 as featured on Film Freedonia, This Island Rod, and Wonders in the Dark, on pdf. 800 pages, 208,000 words — a lotta reading entirely for free. Just click on the link to download from PDF Archive:

Roderick Heath 2019 Film Writing

I’ll be back in a few days with my annual Confessions of a Film Freak survey featuring my Best of 2019 list. Until then, joy of the season to you, and happy reading.

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2010s, Action-Adventure, Fantasy, Scifi

Star Wars – Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

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Director: J.J. Abrams
Screenwriters: J.J. Abrams, Chris Terrio

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

And so it ends. Again. For the third…oh look, forget it.

The revived Star Wars series got rolling in 2015 with overwhelming hype and predisposed affection from an eager audience, as the now Disney-owned Lucasfilm team and its hired gun directors promised to restore the original trilogy’s legacy through a blend of straightforward cavalier fun and new-fashioned cinema showmanship following the ambitious but often-derided prequel trilogy. J.J. Abrams’ Episode VII: The Force Awakens was a colossal hit and Rogue One (2016) seemed to successfully augur in a strand of one-off stories. But within the space of four years, much of that goodwill was squandered. The heated, sometimes ugly contest unleashed online by partisans over Rian Johnson’s follow-up Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (2017) and the flat box office of Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018), despite its being the jauntiest and most classical new entry, provoked worries the property might have been over-exploited far too quickly. As vast and rich as the Star Wars universe has proven in reams of expanded-universe literature, the cinematic experience has always been compelled by a singular subject, the fate of the Skywalker family, and its concurrent, elementary mythological motif: the search for a way to battle evil without becoming it. The eagerly anticipating crowd that gathered at midnight with me to watch the closing episode surely announced that despite all missteps, we all still wanted to see how it would all draw to a close.

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Abrams was rehired to helm the third instalment after Colin Trevorrow dropped out, and to a certain extent that was fair: whatever problems one had with The Force Awakens, Abrams had clearly laid claim to the new trilogy as his creative template. Johnson’s well-made but intensely frustrating middle episode tried oh so hard to critique and deepen the series and certainly betrayed an individual creative hand with a solid sense of dramatic architecture, but mostly only achieved a form of storytelling self-negation, neglecting some of the more germane ideas The Force Awakens set in play and sabotaging its own ones whilst dithering through some truly half-hearted plotting, whilst again killing off an original trilogy hero in an especially annoying way. On the other hand, it handled the pivotal new relationship between Daisy Ridley’s emerging titan Rey and Adam Driver’s Byronic villain Kylo Ren with a deft sense of strange attraction even in profound conflict. If The Last Jedi felt an awful lot like a Star Wars movie for people who don’t like Star Wars movies, the latest instalment, Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, is likely to be just as divisive but along different lines: it’s most definitely one that’s been made in the interests of giving the audience what it supposedly wants. Abrams penned the script with Chris Terrio, with a storyline contributed to by previous creative hands Derek Connolly and Trevorrow. Many cooks, boil a lumpy broth they do.

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The often rushed and ungainly outlay of basic plot in The Rise of Skywalker betrays a trilogy forced to play some serious catch-up football in getting its essential narrative priorities oriented again just in time for a big finish. The Last Jedi left ostensible core villain Snoke (Andy Serkis) dead, the notionally powerful and impressive First Order now run by characters who barely seemed able to run a lemonade stand, and the tattered remnants of the Republic-defending Resistance escaping to fight another day with what appeared to be about two-dozen members. The Rise of Skywalker solves the problem of the first two points one fell swoop in its earliest scenes, as Kylo is provoked by a mysterious broadcast apparently sent out by the Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), last seen getting shafted at the end of Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983): quite literally, he died, but got better. Kylo tracks down one of two totemic markers that can give him the whereabouts of Exogol, the planet that was the ancient seat of the Sith cult, as Kylo intends to properly finish off Palpatine just as he killed Snoke to become the unquestioned leader of the Dark Side’s forces. Instead he learns Palpatine was behind Snoke and the First Order’s creation, and has assembled a colossal fleet of Star Destroyers with new weaponry giving each planet-killing capability, ready to go into action after decades of preparation for resurgence, which Palpatine dubs “the Final Order.”

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Meanwhile, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega), and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) on the Millennium Falcon on a mission to an ice-crusted asteroid to pick up information collected by a spy in the First Order revealing the newly emergent threat. The heroes manage to escape a battle with TIE fighters and get back to the jungle planet where the Resistance is hiding out. Rey is currently continuing her Jedi training with Leia (Carrie Fisher). Realising they have to find and destroy Palpatine and his fleet before it deploys, Rey, Poe, Finn, Chewie, and stalwart droids C3-PO (Anthony Daniels), BB-8 (Dave Chapman and Brian Herring), and R2-D2 (Jimmy Vee) set out to track down the other Sith totem. They follow a lead to Passanna, a desert planet where, amongst a local festival, they encounter Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) and locate a dagger engraved with information about the marker’s location. C3-PO is programmed not to translate the Sith language, so he has to undergo a mind wipe to do so. This is performed on the planet Kijimi, where Poe also encounters former comrade in disreputable endeavours and old flame Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell), who like Boba Fett perpetually wears a mask. Chewbacca is captured by the First Order and the gang stage a daring rescue by boarding Kylo’s Star Destroyer to snatch him back, before heading on to the Endor system and the ruins of the second Death Star, where the totem resides. There Rey has to confront not just Kylo but also the discomforting truth of her true birthright.

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To describe The Rise of Skywalker as fast-paced – the above synopsis should give a good idea just how it careens between plot points and locations, and that’s only the first half – could be understatement. The opening scene comes on as such a fat lump of just-add-water exposition, complete with Palpatine conjuring a huge fleet and greatly increased stakes just in time for the big series climax, that it immediately and seriously tests all credulity about just how carefully Disney-Lucasfilm have planned out this series. The Rise of Skywalker makes it even plainer that the production team has tripped over its own enthusiasm in trying to do in four years what took originally George Lucas eight, even not counting early development. The salving aspect is not negligible, however. Abrams’ visual flare, always frustratingly intermittent but sometimes properly arresting, is quickly evinced too. His feel for moody Chthonic imagery and shadowy colossi as explored in the huge, cyclopean reaches of the Sith temple goes some way to restoring the aspect of dreamlike scale and fantastic density to the series after the dull, technocratic look of Rogue One and The Last Jedi.

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There’s a brief but striking sequence in which Kylo has his shattered mask restored by an alien artisan, a sequence Abrams shoots with a sense of infernal ceremony in the guttering shades of red and blue and black and working of stygian tools. Like much of the film it’s a bit too vertiginously edited to gain all the graphic force it could have wielded, and yet this sequence give me a thrill, a reach into the same place of arcane ritual as the opening scene of Conan the Barbarian (1982). Abrams also offers one great set-piece, spoiled to a degree in having been excerpted almost in entirety for one of the film’s trailers, as Rey bring down Kylo’s TIE fighter as it charges her across a desert plain, with an astounding display of her now-honed powers. Notably, this scene is also a sidelong tribute to the famous arrival of Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Abrams has long embraced the bricoleur aspect of Star Wars albeit usually only in terms of the original films and others from the same era. Here he packs in several nods to Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) as well, including the hunt for the Sith dagger and a movement where, like Marion in that film, it seems Chewbacca dies in an explosion only to reveal he was on a different craft. Rather oddly, the Sith dagger which proves to be a kind of map quotes a similar device in Robert Stevenson’s Disney-produced adventure film from the antedeluvian pre-Star Wars era, The Island at the Top of the World (1974), a touch that made me wonder if the screenwriters were paying it a nod of their own or if Disney never entirely neglects a property.

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The overstuffed, fleet-to-a-fault aspect of The Rise of Skywalker is a twin-edged blade, likely to aggravate critical opinion, and it occasionaly manages to feel like one of those later Harry Potter movies that were near-incomprehensible unless you’d read the book, despite not having such a basis. I confess to finding it both messy and something of a heartening deliverance not just in terms of this series but also the general tenor of some recent franchise films, like the pseudo-grandiose yet profoundly unimaginative and lethargic Avengers: Endgame. The breathless pace and sense of excitably boyish storytelling here contrasts both its predecessors, which had significant problems negotiating their middle acts and strained to prove all this meant something despite plainly not knowing what. Much of the fan frustration with the various provocations Johnson introduced in his instalment had a trite if not reactionary aspect, but as much again was justifiable because Johnson’s efforts accidentally highlighted a lack of direction overall. Lucas was always deceptively good at alternating tones and dramatic facets in his films in quick succession, something that a lot of the current franchisee cinema he technically birthed often shows no grasp of, tending instead to get lost in lengthy episodes of verbal explanation and theatrical character interaction. The Rise of Skywalker escapes this chiefly by having a lot of stuff do.

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There’s now a piling up of eye-catching new characters who don’t get that much to do, like Zorri and Jannah (Naomi Ackie), a warrior lady from a clan of equestrian survivalists on Endor who are all, like Finn, former Stormtroopers turned deserters and rebels. Jannah’s quick-dry gluing to Finn leaves his gal pal Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) looking in turn a bit stranded. More familiar faces don’t get much to do either: Dee Williams, still a Jovian screen presence, doesn’t get anything like the screen time and vital story function his compatriots from the old series had, and even Wedge (Denis Lawson) is dug up only to appear for all of about five seconds, the sort of touch that gives fan service its bad name. Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o), with her wizened visage and likeably tart tongue, is also now part of the rebel band and just as neglected as ever. Disney’s arrested-development sensibility is plain as it trucks in romantic partners as beards for its heroes only to either kill them off, ignore them, or comically deflate them, as happens between Zorri and Poe at the end. Which does to a certain extent highlight the relative bravery of the perpetually simmering, transgressive passion manifest between Rey and Kylo, or rather Ben, his alter ego. There’s a likeably brusque quality to some of the touches here however, like the casual slaying of General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), revealed as the spy in the First Order not for any noble cause but because he wants revenge on Kylo. Hux was always a great annoyance for me in the trilogy as the worst kind of tinpot villain, but at least Abrams sees him off with a jolt of narrative impudence as well as faint shock. His place as snooty fascist boss is taken by Richard E. Grant as General Pryde, who gets to sneer at things aplenty for a few reels until he gets his comeuppance.

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I never liked the basic premise and storyline of the new trilogy, too obviously an attempt to recapitulate the original trilogy’s readily marketable strategy with slight tweaks rather than come up with a new template. And yet it’s managed to hold my interest enough, in ways I can’t put entirely down to the Pavlovian power of John Williams’ scoring. Much of the reason to stick with the new trilogy has been for the main characters as inhabited by the key cast members. Boyega’s struggled to keep Finn relevant despite the trilogy’s uncertainty about what use his character is beyond being one character whose natural instinct is to flee a terrifying danger only to learn his heroism like a new language. Whilst Poe has never felt like a role that really needed such a strong actor as Isaac in the part, he feels most vital in this instalment as he tries to find a working equilibrium with Rey, who’s just as fiery and self-assured as he is, whilst also provoking her to live up to her potential. He gets to show off some of Poe’s swagger and romantic streak, even if the film cheats him by sticking him in scenes with a former lover who hides always behind a mask and spurns his advances at the end. Still, Isaac’s roué look of come-hither to her is worth a hundred hours of CGI. At the time of The Force Awakens my first impressions of Driver weren’t agreeable, and yet as he’s proven himself a consistently interesting and unusual type of movie actor, and he’s fleshed out a figure who at first glance seemed an each-way bet, an emo-goth take on Anakin Skywalker with an added dash of Twilight-esque bad boy mystique, with a steady accumulation of gravitas and nuance. He’s proved particularly good at twisting Kylo’s occasional displays of unexpected sympathy into one of his cruellest weapons and the opposite, his most malign acts often seeming to contain as aspect of self-mortification.

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Ridley, the ingénue nobody had heard of at the time of The Force Awakens, who showed herself a little green and yet was still very promising in that movie, now inhabits Rey and her intense existence as a creature feeling the sway of powerful feelings and instincts intensified to the point of lunacy by the tides of the Force. The Rise of Skywalker’s plot throws her a perfect curveball as Rey learns the truth of her lineage. Yes, her parents were, as The Last Jedi established, not terribly important in themselves, but her lineage is nonetheless still consequential: her grandfather is Palpatine himself, and she is the heir he’s long sought to transfer his power and the Sith hive mind into. In terms of the wider series mythology, this makes no real sense – Palpatine reproduced?! with a woman?! – and given that it’s jammed in as a revelation in this very busy instalment, it feels a bit like something Abrams and the other writers pulled out of their exhaust ports. But it does serve a strong purpose beyond mere plot in that it gives Ridley a fine opportunity to bring out extremes of her character, the ferocity of her denial of evil in the previous episodes now tinted with strong overtones of self-righteousness and repudiation that can easily turn toxic. Rey struggles with her dark side and feels the temptations to perfectly egotistical power Palpatine has always represented, even glimpsing a vision of herself as a Sith in the evil-infested Darth Star ruins.

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Despite this, The Rise of Skywalker confirms something that seemed likely from The Force Awakens onwards: the lack of a driving idea behind the new trilogy. Lucas’ original trilogy, forthright and simple as it was, built itself around Joseph Campbell’s repurposed Jungian ideas in portraying the construction of a hero figure in mythic terms that also served as a metaphor for the path to maturation instantly coherent to its audience of surrogates: one great difficulty in making a sequel to this was that the original series had already portrayed the basic experience of life. The prequel trilogy was dedicated to examining creeping political decay and rising authoritarianism, as well as inverting the hero’s journey into a story of failed character. The Disney-sponsored series finally reveals itself as lacking any true storytelling compass apart from again setting up a gang of heroic pals and a great force of evil to take on. The determination to avoid any hint of the prequels’ holistic conceptualism including the political aspect has resulted in a new trilogy that’s confused about what the political struggle involved represents all the way through. We have somehow both a Republic and a Resistance, a centre of political consensus defended by a scrappy band of outsiders, and an evil enemy that is both insurgent cult and tony tyranny. The piling up of familiar series concepts in the finale has no mighty allegorical idea to convey but simply a need to pay off its many promises and make cool shit rain down.

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The closest thing it has gained to a fresh concept lies in Rey and Kylo’s antipathetic bond, one that has perverse, ethereal erotic overtones in uniting the headspace of a man torn by urges and rendered a patricidal bully, and a gutsy, noble heroine, hindered only by a misplaced faith her identity was worth discovering. The Rise of Skywalker hints an interesting new dimension in this regard as the twists of the story see Rey unleashing a dark and hateful side as she learns who she is and Ben Solo eventually winning the battle over Kylo Ren thanks in part to Rey almost killing him in the eye of her nihilism. A good portion of the story here had to be knitted around Carrie Fisher’s tragic passing, solved with digital hocus-pocus reconfiguring some unused scenes from earlier episodes that is at least not as painful as the CGI Peter Cushing in Rogue One but still can’t quite disguise the patching. Fisher’s absence certainly doesn’t aid one aspect of the story, where Rey inherits Leia’s long-unused lightsaber, as Leia can’t be properly around to explore this aspect of herself coherently. At least the episode does give her a solid salutary act as, like Luke, she uses the last of her Force, and life, to reach out to her son and pull him back from the brink of monstrosity, albeit almost costing him his life too.

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The excellent lightsaber battle between Rey and Kylo offers a notable homage-cum-reversal of the duel at the climax of Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005). Abrams exchanges boiling lava flows for the angry ocean crashing against the rusting remnants of the Death Star to likewise offer a mimetic canvas for the seething emotion and unleashed power of the duellists. This time it comes with a coherent subtext of two cursed inheritors battling amidst the quite literal wreckage of their elders’ deeds and crises, still trying to piece together a sure sense of their identity with the lingering disquiet that perhaps this is one dance that is eternal, perpetually driven on by failure as well as success. This aspect carries authentic gravitas, and it elevates the film considerably, even if it also highlights the way the trilogy failed to develop the theme properly. Some of Abrams’ persistent flaws nonetheless start nudging insistently. He’s strong at isolated pieces of action staging, but has no facility for larger-scale business. As in the stunted finale of The Force Awakens, he has no idea how to convey the climactic battle of the fleets with anything like tactical coherence and spatial relationship, not to mention any note of originality in the conception of such warfare: it’s lots of shots of X-Wings zipping and zapping or getting zapped. The climactic plot stakes, where the whole Final Order fleet is tethered together like a drone force and therefore can be collectively foiled, represents some really half-arsed screenwriting convenience.

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More serious problems are caused by attempts to walk back The Last Jedi’s cynical touches. Luke is revealed to have been in hiding partly because of his efforts to track down Exogol. His late appearance as a force phantom, to get Rey back into action after she briefly exiles herself to Aach-To, delivers on withheld promises like the resurgence of his sunken X-Wing, but feels rushed and cheesy. Better is Kylo’s imagined but still vital conversation with his dead father Han Solo (Harrison Ford), which offers a grace note laced with foreboding. Long-time fans are also likely to be annoyed by the Force’s transformation into a general form of magic useful for plugging story gaps, complete with Rey and Kylo able now to take physical objects from each-other even when in different places, and a new capacity for healing that comes out of nowhere, first displayed when Rey heals a giant, wounded sandworm and then more consequentially when she saves Kylo. Meanwhile Palpatine suddenly has power enough to fry whole space fleets in the sky. The Force was always a fantastical idea, a breath of the mystical in an otherwise, oppressively technological universe, but this stuff seems to violate all its essentials, only partly excused by the supposedly rare nature of the young antagonists’ bond and the power it produces. Star Wars was a major influence on Harry Potter but in the past couple of movies the traffic has definitely reversed. Seemingly important story pivots, like C3-PO accepting his imminent loss of memory and identity, are introduced and then just as quickly reversed. Granted, enough old series characters had died, but it still feel redolent of cold feet.

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The Rise of Skywalker is a much less stately and self-composed effort than either The Force Awakens or The Last Jedi, which is also why, I suspect, I generally enjoyed it much more even whilst cringing at some of the visible seams and in spite of all the evident problems. It’s messy and regressive, but also proudly and inescapably a genuine, true-hearted hunk of pulp sci-fi fun, unconcerned with checking its own cool or critical cachet anymore and just trying to deliver a rollicking good time. It’s not weighed down by attempts to say something profound about fandom and nostalgia but getting on with delivering a good ride. That’s not necessarily a positive thing, but I also can’t really pretend it’s letting down what’s come before, which suffered from uncertainty about how to give and when; ironically, in giving sway to its scruffiest reasons for existing, The Rise of Skywalker manages to feel less calculated and constricted, and more like an act of happy, gormless conspiracy with other fans. I can’t pose much critical reasoning on this beyond simply having wanted and been delivered a pretty good time. But the best scenes here are good indeed; the only trouble is the film around insists on doubling everything up. The audience I saw it with seemed to have few scruples. They released a great groan of shock when Rey’s lineage was revealed, and a gasp of genuine surprise when the Lando-led fleet of allies finally arrived, the sheer scale of the image actually managing to impress even amidst the dulled palates of CGI-age cinema. Such virtually preternatural communal reactions feel more precious than ever on the contemporary movie scene.

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The finale comes on with such dizzy, daft gusto that it’s hard not to have such reactions, even with such ridiculous notions as Finn, Jannah and others riding alien steeds along the hull of a Star Destroyer, and twists like Kylo managing to fight his way through Palpatine’s guards only for him and Rey to present a perfect regenerative energy source for Palpatine, restoring him to, if not exactly health, then to his old, familiar creepiness. And indeed, precisely because of them. McDiarmid, who did an excellent job shading cunning and manipulative operator into pantomime villain in the prequels, here just has to leer and croak in the old style, and it’s an act he still does well. Palpatine sets up a new version of a familiar double bind for Rey as the act of killing him would transform her into the new Sith, a bind she’s able to get around as she feels her psychic real estate already filled up by generations of Jedi, and she uses her lightsaber to turn his energy bolts back at him, reducing him to dust. The effort kills her, so Kylo revives her by drawing on his own healing power; when the pair finally kissed, the audience I saw it with burst into applause only for it to die off as Kylo dies himself, having used all his life-force to restore her. I love that Abrams reaches for a note of weird and lawless liebestod here, something that might have lifted the new trilogy into an extraordinary place if it had been more compelling in terms of the whole series arc, but it just doesn’t land with the right force.

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Instead Rey is restored to her friends, and she, Finn, and Poe embrace in a way that confirms here the faith is less in the world-reshaping power of passion, a la the surrealists, than the warmth of a superfriends hug. The very ending again revolves the series back to its starting point, with Rey burying Luke and Leia’s lightsabers at Luke’s old home on Tattooine. She claims the name Skywalker as her own, now as it ever was an appended declaration of ambition for quixotic orphans, and she confronts the setting twin suns. It’s the fitting, even compulsory place to leave the saga, paying deep homage to its most fundamental image of dreamy wondering from the original that was also revisited at the end of Revenge of the Sith. But even this comes with a cost, as Rey also beholds Luke and Leia in their force forms, looking like something painted on a Franklin Mint collectible plate. Right to the end, The Rise of Skywalker sways between the sublime and the ridiculous, the earned and the gauche. Perhaps the fact that I felt little conflict this time was a symptom of having abandoned a certain aspect of my trust in the series, the feeling that I was watching Star Wars and expecting certain things from it rather than just another entertaining blockbuster. Certainly I felt more justified than ever in championing the prequels, and yet this also allowed me to simply enjoy what I was seeing. Finally it might be said that Williams, in bringing his great labour and perhaps his career to a close, imbues the unity that’s otherwise been lacking purely through the lustre of his scoring. How many dreams has his music fostered?

Standard
2010s, Auteurs, Biopic, Crime/Detective, Historical, Thriller

The Irishman (2019)

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aka I Heard You Paint Houses

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Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenwriter: Steven Zaillian

By Roderick Heath

And then, more time had passed than anyone realised, and suddenly things we thought perpetual are lost, and the age and its titans that stood in authority became another dusty annal.

The Irishman, directed by Martin Scorsese, now aged 77, stands self-evidently as a work both extending and encompassing a key portion of Scorsese’s legacy, his beloved and perpetually influential mafia movies. The Irishman reunites the director with three actors long connected with his cinema, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Harvey Keitel, as well as bringing in a fresh young whippersnapper named Al Pacino. The sharp pang of recognised mortality inherent in The Irishman is given a special cruelty by the way Scorsese’s cinema has long seemed, even in its most contemplative and rarefied moods, like American virility incarnate. The clamour of New York streets, the whiplash effects of urban life’s furore and the human organism in contending with it, the buzz of an era bombarded with cinema and television and advertising, written into the textures of Scorsese’s famous alternations of filmic technique, whip-pans and racing dolly shots colliding with freeze-frames and languorous slow-motion: Scorsese’s aesthetic encephalograph. The Irishman has been described by many as a terminus for the gangster movie. That’s fair in some ways, dealing as it does with a basic and essential matter very often ignored in the genre, what happens when gangsters are lucky enough to get old and die, as well as simply recording a moment when a genre’s stars and a most esteemed creator are facing the end of the road, however distant still.

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But of course, movies set amongst hoodlums and lowlifes are still pretty common, for Scorsese’s bastard artistic children are plentiful and likely to populate the cinematic landscape for a good while yet. What new tricks could the old dog still have to teach? The Irishman answers that question incidentally as it adapts a book by Charles Brandt, recounting the life story of Frank Sheeran. As biography it includes inarguable factual details, like the time Sheeran spent as a World War II soldier, truck driver, and Teamster official jailed for 13 years for racketeering, blended with assertions and conjecture about Sheeran’s involvement with organised crime, most vitally the claim he personally killed Jimmy Hoffa, the legendary former head of the Teamsters union, who vanished in 1975. The tales in Brandt’s book have been disputed, but the appeal to a filmmaker like Scorsese, over and above the inherent drama in such a story, lies in the way Sheeran claims to have grazed against the mechanics of power underlying American history in the mid-twentieth century, and indeed have been part of the mechanism, the finger that pulled triggers but never the levers. The Irishman becomes, amongst many achievements, a unified field theory in regards to the concerns of Hollywood’s New Wave filmmakers, wrestling with the waning memory of a certain age in political and social life, as well as that cinematic era.

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And yet The Irishman is also a project that sees Scorsese negotiating with very contemporary aspects of the moviemaking scene, produced by online streaming giant Netflix and exploiting all the possibilities opened up by such a backer in making a film without compromise, and employing a cutting edge special effects technique, using digital processes to make his lead actors appear younger in sequences depicting their characters in their prime. It’s Scorsese’s longest film to date, a veritable epic in theme and scope even whilst essentially remaining an interpersonal story, arriving as a roughly hemispheric work. The first half, recounting Sheeran’s early encounters with the potentates of the underworld and evolution from scam-running truck driver to hitman and union boss, broadly reproduces the detail-obsessed and gregariously explanatory style of Scorsese’s previous based-on-fact mafia life tales, Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995), if rendered in a much cooler, less compulsive manner. The second half mimics the processes of ageing, slowing down until finally reaching a point of impotent and stranded pathos, ticking off fate-making moments of choice and consequence, contending with the ultimate consequences and meanings of a man’s life actions.

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If The Irishman’s tone and sense of mortal and moral irony suggests Scorsese’s tribute to Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975), the famous epigraph of which Scorsese reiterates in direct and pungent terms, the method is more reminiscent of Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible Parts I & II (1944-58), as an expansive and surveying first portion sets up a second that proves a dark and immediate personal drama about power and betrayal. The Irishman’s narrative revolves around what seems initially a scarcely notable vignette, with Sheeran and his friend, associate, and boss Russell Bufalino (Pesci), a cool, wary potentate of the Philadelphia mob with great resources of invisible yet definite power, and their wives Irene Sheeran (Stephanie Kurtzuba) and Carrie Bufalino (Kathrine Narducci) striking out on a road trip on the way to attend the wedding of the daughter of Russell’s lawyer brother Bill (Ray Romano) in 1975. Sheeran’s voiceover narration readily concedes there’s a definite pretext to this trip, as Russell wants to collect various debts along the way. But the peculiarly pregnant, tense mood of the journey betrays something else in the offing, a hidden source of tension and expectation, and of course when it comes into focus the implications are terrible. The road trip accidentally doubles as a trip down memory lane, as they pass the scene where Sheeran and Russell first actually met, when Russell helped the young truck driver when he was pulled over with mechanical trouble, sparking an account of their adventures in racketeering.

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The Irishman returns to a motif Scorsese touched on in Shutter Island (2010) in contemplating the mental landscape of the so-called greatest generation of servicemen returned from World War II, men playing at fitting into a suburban world whilst invested with the skills and reflexes of soldiers, all too aware, with niggling import, how thin the membrane between settled life and chaos can be. Sheeran recounts the pathetic details of shooting German POWs with nonchalance, an experience he describes as teaching him to simply accept life and death with an almost Buddhist indifference, only to make sure to be on the right end of the gun. This experience, at once brutalising and transfiguring, proves to have armed Sheeran with not just a skill set but a mindset as well, one that makes him useful to men like the Bufalinos and their associates, including Angelo Bruno (Keitel), and ‘Fat’ Tony Salerno (Domenick Lombardozzi). Sheeran gains his first contacts in the underworld via the lower-ranking Felix ‘Skinny Razor’ DiTullio (Bobby Cannavale), by letting him substitute the high-quality meat Sheeran transports for his restaurant. When a load of meat he’s carrying vanishes before he can steal it himself, Sheeran is prosecuted for the theft. Bill Bufalino successfully defends his case, although he gets sacked from his driving job. After proving himself adept at debt collecting for DiTullio, he gains a more definite connection to Russell and Angelo, who sit in mandarin judgement upon representatives of a tragically unwise world.

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As in Goodfellas and Casino, Sheeran’s narrative expostulates the arts of gangsterdom in a succession of illustrative vignettes, as Sheeran begins to make himself reliable with his army-instilled smarts for sabotage and demolition, making him handy at wiping out rivals’ sources of income and power. Such gifts are illustrated in sequences touched with a sense of the ridiculous, as when Sheeran and some other mobsters try to wipe out an opponent’s taxi fleet by laboriously pushing all the cars into the harbour before Sheeran suggests less arduous means. When he’s hired by a laundry boss Whispers DiTullio (Paul Herman) to destroy a rival laundry only to be brought before Angelo who partly owns the rival, Sheeran is obligated to make amends and shoots Whispers in the face, kicking off his new career as a hitman, or, in coded parlance, a man who “paints houses” with blood. Some of the blackly comic hue Scorsese’s long been able to tease out of such grim situations manifests here as Sheeran notes the building arsenal of used weapons collecting on a river bottom under a bridge popular with folk in his line of work to toss away their used guns. Scorsese avoids the adrenalized fervour of his earlier films, however. For one thing, Frank Sheeran is a different creature to guys like Henry Hill or even Jordan Belfort, who delighted in their status as men apart, challenging law and fate with bravura even as they proved much less tough and canny than they wished to think. Sheeran rather fancies himself as a suburban husband and father with an unusual occupation: the circumstances that eventually make him a hitman stem from the need to feed his growing family.

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Part of what made Scorsese’s canonical gangster films vibrant was the way they offered innately interesting prisms through which to encompass other, more quotidian things difficult to make popular movies about. Friendships, troubled marriages, domestic violence, gender roles, the structure of civic life and the circuits of power that often hide in plain sight. One reason Scorsese has long seemed to have a specific affinity for the genre, to a degree that tends to drown out perception of his varied oeuvre, is because the gangster in his eyes simply represents ordinary people in extremis, bound by peculiar loyalties of family and immediate community, balancing attempts to retain certain ideals whilst contending with a cruel and corrupting world. Rodrigo Prieto’s photography, with a muted, greyish colour palette, gives the most immediate visual clue to the way The Irishman disassembles the template of Scorsese’s earlier gangster works, contrasting their lush, pulpy hues and baroque evocations in favour of something chillier, more remorseless, like the cancer that eats up the flesh and bones of these old bastards in the end.

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Another vital pivot in Sheeran’s life comes when Russell sets up the opportunity to become Hoffa’s enforcer, some hard muscle to back up Hoffa’s battles with rivals and powerbrokers. Sheeran’s first conversation with Hoffa over the phone sees De Niro register with beautiful subtlety the minuscule moment of shock as Sheeran realises Hoffa speaks the rarefied language of mob euphemism, conversant in the harshest facts of such life. But Hoffa manages to retain an avuncular glamour, a sense of righteousness even when swimming with human piranha, through seeming like a general engaged in a long guerrilla war, and he also crucially reaches out to Sheeran as “a brother of mine,” that is, a Teamster. Hoffa isn’t wrong to surround himself with hard men, with lieutenants nominally under his control like Anthony ‘Tony Pro’ Provenzano (Stephen Graham). Sheeran recounts how Pro had a rival underling garrotted in a car, cueing one of the film’s most startling visual flourishes, as the murder is glimpsed as the car moves by a moving camera, yawing mouth in silent scream and struggling bodies glimpsed in a flash and then gone. Pro is just one of many creeps and thugs who parasite off the Teamster organisation, a union built to resist the violent resistance to organised labour from management, but which has required and rewarded mob support to do so. Tension builds between Hoffa and his underworld contacts however as he tries to prevent the Teamster union fund, which bankrolled their casino projects, from devolving entirely into a ready cash pool for wiseguys. When a government investigation of Hoffa sees him imprisoned, the mob becomes more inclined to see the union go on being run by more pliable figures, like Tony Pro and Frank Fitzsimmons (Gary Basaraba).

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Like an updated version of the same analysis in Gangs of New York (2002), Scorsese considers the tribalism of politics and gangland as they form mutually parasitical relationship through their symmetry of outlook and method, disconnected from the real musculature of the workers whose ambitions and desires fuel their empires. Hoffa’s story has already been told comprehensively on film, in Danny DeVito’s overblown but fascinating Hoffa (1992), which rendered his life as an outsized romantic epic and elegy, in complete contrast to Scorsese’s dolorous and nitpicking realism. Hoffa was upfront in exploring the way Hoffa turned to the mafia for support to counter the overt and unsubtle brutality wielded by big business, where here this aspect is more implied and seen as part of an inseparable organism: wherever human energy is turned, and money’s involved, reefs of strange coral grow, and sharks come to live. The great swathe of The Irishman’s plot encompasses titanic figures like John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert (Jack Huston), whose vendetta-like pursuit of Hoffa drives the union boss to distraction, and finally overt acts of petty defiance like refusing to have the Teamster flag lowered after John’s assassination, whilst it’s heavily suggested the mob arranged the assassination in revenge for the Kennedys turning on them after they helped John’s election.

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Such history also grazes minor yet noteworthy supporting players like David Ferrie (Louis Vanaria), interlocutor for the Mafia support for Cuban exiles trying to retake their nation from Castro, and E. Howard Hunt (Daniel Jenkins), CIA agent and eventual Nixon henchman infamous for his role in Watergate, both of whom Sheeran meets delivering equipment to the Cubans. Sheeran’s encounters with such people illuminate in flashes the great puzzle of power Sheeran perceives without really comprehending. They also contain Scorsese’s winking acknowledgement of the way the film encompasses cinematic as well as political history, for Pesci played Ferrie in Stone’s JFK (1991), whilst the personages and events the film touches on have provided bone marrow for a host of serious modern American movies. Such encounters are nonetheless laced with a droll sense of individual ridiculousness and everyday farcicality contaminating all facades and postures. Hunt gets upset when he thinks Sheeran is staring at his infamously big ears. Hoffa’s unwitting ride to his end, a moment of solemn and skittish tension, is tainted by the smell and run-off of a fish his adopted son Chuckie O’Brien (Jesse Plemons) dropped off beforehand for a friend, taunting all the men present with the reek of ludicrous fortune and imminent mortality. Sheeran’s proximity to Hoffa and the generational struggle he represents is the most concrete and meaningful of his brushes with renown, and even sees him write a page of history.

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And yet Sheeran’s presence is actually defined by his absence, his being the incarnation of impersonal power, his carefully maintained readiness to be erased the key to his success as a killer and functionary. There’s an aspect of the self-mortifying and self-annihilating in Sheeran’s makeup, only purveyed for worldly rather than spiritual ends. Hoffa keeps him in his hotel room so his visit to the city for strongarming is completely without record, a trick that’s eventually turned on Hoffa as it’s revealed the true purpose for Sheeran and Russell’s road trip in 1975 is to set up a situation where Sheeran can be flown to Detroit to kill Hoffa. His talents as a killer demand taking some real risks, particularly when he’s sent to take out Joseph ‘Crazy Joe’ Gallo (Sebastian Maniscalco), a strutting, defiant figure of the underworld who happily ignores its laws as much as the straight world’s and who’s had a potentially difficult Teamster boss killed during a rally. Scorsese nods back to the gun purchasing scene in Taxi Driver (1976) as Sheeran selects the ideal weapons for the attack and considers how to pull it off with method. Sheeran elects to kill Gallo in a restaurant, avoiding gunning down his family members about him whilst taking out his bodyguard, before chasing Gallo out to the sidewalk to deliver the coup-de-grace as he’s sprawled on the concrete. This scene captures Sheeran’s abilities as a hitman at zenith, as well as illustrating his personal myth, seeing himself as a kind of good guy according to the world he lives in, eliminating fools and scumbags and sparing the innocent. It’s a mystique eventually stripped from him in the rudest possible manner.

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Although hardly a repudiation of his bravura stylistic flourishes, The Irishman sees Scorsese and his ever-ingenious editor Thelma Schoonmaker delivering a sinuous and measured work of high style. An early shot ushering the viewer/camera down the corridors of the nursing home Sheeran’s exiled to in his dimming days has the quality of a visitation by a reluctant but curious acquaintance; when this shot is repeated close to the end, it has a lacerating effect as now it’s clear that when the camera abandons Sheeran he is left in utter solitude, deserted by all he once claimed as friends and family. Scorsese repeatedly interpolates sequences shot in extreme slow motion, in one case in portraying percussive violence as Gallo’s goon shoots the Teamster official, bullets puncturing his flesh in spurts of red blood whilst hands desperately wrap about the assassin, but in each case with a sense of languorous absurdity even when describing tragedy, like the survey of seemingly mundane but despicable visages at the wedding after Hoffa’s killing: the wistfully twanging tones of a guitar cover of ‘Blue Moon’ and some doo-wop giving such scenes with a sardonic quality, at once melancholy and mocking. Throughout the film Scorsese puts up titles identifying various characters with their nicknames and the date and manner of their death, almost only violent. In the film’s slyest joke, one man is blessed with a title describing him as “well-liked by all, died of natural causes.”

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The cumulative effect of this device is to emphasise not just the incredible brutality of the mob world around Sheehan but also his ultimate luck, which might not be luck at all, in outliving all of them; suspense is removed from the equation, and instead we’re made to understand Sheeran as a man living in a city of memory crowded with ghosts. The mob community, one that eats its own, is a perverse family that has its deep rituals of belonging and expulsion. But the rubbing out – erasure – of its members is reproduced in terms of actual family as Sheeran secures his position but with consequences. Of his four daughters, Peggy, growing from a small girl (Lucy Gallina) to a middle-aged woman (Anna Paquin), matures as the mostly silent but incessantly aware ledger of culpability. She regards Russell with suspicion, knowing him for the monstrosity he is, and remains wary of her father ever since witnessing in childhood the spectacle of him beating up a grocery store owner who treated her brusquely, an act that left her feeling less like the well-guarded princess than an unwitting bringer of violence and horror. Peggy’s gravitation to Hoffa, even idolisation of him gives special sting to the way Hoffa embodies for Sheeran a more idealised version of himself, a man with feet planted in the mud and bloodied knuckles but with the stature of a working class gladiator turned statesman.

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The shift of The Irishman from case study review to something more intimate and tragic is managed over the course of a central sequence where Sheeran’s tenure as a Teamster Local boss is celebrated. Hoffa is present, out of jail and pursuing his utter determination to win back “his” union from Fitzgerald, Pro, and the mob heavyweights who want to maintain the new status quo. Hoffa glares daggers at Russell and Salerno whilst sawing up his steak, and carefully fends off Sheeran’s mediating warnings about giving up, insisting with simple assurance that for him abandoning such a cause, so deeply infused with his sense of being and mission, would be tantamount to dying in itself. Peggy watches the play of glances and conversation as she dances, long used to divining through such tells of language and posture. Sheeran is ennobled when Russell gives him a ring that signals his induction into the innermost circle of the mob along with Russell himself and Salerno, a gesture that indicates permanency and security in terms of that family, but which soon proves to actually be a nomination and bribe, as Sheeran is being commissioned without realising to be Hoffa’s assassin.

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The vein of pitch black comedy, blended with a forlorn sense of human vileness, is particularly icy here as Sheeran is essentially wedded to Russell via the exchange of rings, a gesture that contrasts in fascinating ways both men’s relationships with their nominal wives and families. Russell is married to a princess of mob royalty, a detail noted as it makes Russell seem for all his gathered strength like someone who just lucked out and married the boss’s daughter, whilst Sheeran almost casually seems to swap his first wife Mary (Aleksa Palladino) for his second, a little like getting a car upgrade. Hoffa’s wife Josephine (Welker White), who gets fired from her Teamster bureaucratic job in the escalating tit-for-tat, winces and imagines a car bomb blowing her to smithereens as she starts her car before the engine roars calmly to life, just another moment in the life of a foot soldier in a game of spousal ego. Late in the film Sheeran ruminates with tragic sting on how another car, one he loved, became responsible for his imprisonment. The men in The Irishman, at least until it’s too late, tend to adopt a fiercer sense of loyalty to the measures of their social status than their human attachments, from Hoffa’s obsession with “his” union to Pro’s anger at losing his Teamster pension despite being already being rich through to that car of Sheeran’s, his personal cross with Corinthian leather seats.

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One of the wisest decisions Scorsese made in tackling The Irishman, possibly even the reason he made it, was also one of costliest and most troublesome, in offering a movie that serves as a grace note not only for Scorsese’s career but for his stars. Though he’ll surely make more movies, perhaps many more if he keeps at it like Clint Eastwood, The Irishman relies in a manner reminiscent of something like Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country (1962) on emotional association with its stars and the sense of an era ending. Scorsese first worked with Keitel on his own debut feature Who’s That Knocking At My Door? (1967), and his associations with De Niro and Pesci, stars of several of his best regarded works, seem virtually umbilical. Scorsese spent a lot of time and effort on the de-ageing effects even as the stiff and angular movements of the actors, as well as the often plastic look of the effects, betray reality. It’s a more convincing approach than using make-up probably would have been for actors in their seventies, but the artificiality is still patent. In practice it’s clearly just a theatrical nicety, not trying to fool the audience but negotiate with our knowing in a way that Scorsese couldn’t have managed if he’d cast other actors to play his protagonists when young as is the usual practice. Scorsese needs the sense of continuity, wants us to perceive the corporeal reality of old men lurking within facsimiles of young, potent bucks, in a tale where what age does to self-perception is a key aspect of the drama as well as artistic nostalgia. The quality of the mask-like in the effects underscores Peggy’s keen capacity to penetrate such veneers, and time just as assiduously uncovers the face men carve for themselves.

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Hoffa conceives time as a literal form of wealth, a notion that provides both a thematic thesis – everyone’s time is running out – and also essential characterisation, as Hoffa’s anger is stoked by nothing quite so much as being made to wait, in part because he knows that waiting is something you only do for someone who presumes to have control over you. Which is why Pro calculatedly infuriates him by turning up late to a meeting, adding fuel to their feud. Pacino, ironically finally appearing in a Scorsese film despite being very much another Italian-American product of 1960s New York’s cultural vitality and long associated with gangster films, is particularly well-cast not only for his capacity to project potent, larger-than-life charisma but also embody in Hoffa a being who, whilst capable of speaking over the gap, nonetheless inhabits a slightly different continent to the gangsters, a man corrupt, compromised, but proud, not cynical in his authority even when cynical in many of his actions. Pesci by contrast is intriguingly cast as the most contained and calm of the major characters here after playing eruptive firebrands for Scorsese in the past, his Bufalino charged with terseness edging into easily stirred disgust, as he deals people who can’t work to the very specific rule their world demands, like an aged priest with unruly seminarians. One of the most arresting vignettes in The Irishman is also one of its most casual, as Russell orders Sheeran to hand over his sunglasses before he boards a plane to go kill Hoffa. Russell knows very well that the sunglasses are part of a killer’s uniform and shield, where he knows Sheeran needs the appearance of complete simplicity to pull off the hit, and moreover the discipline imbued by not retaining such a shield. Treachery must be entirely honest.

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De Niro’s specific brilliance, in a different key again from his two great costars, manifests in playing a man who feels no particular emotional urgency until it’s far too late for him to do anything about it. This reckoning comes in two great, mirroring moments, first as he regards Russell in silent grief and reproach even as he also plainly acquiesces to his command to kill Hoffa, and then later as he struggles to maintain a feined veneer of bewildered concern through a conversation with his family over Hoffa’s vanishing, before calling Josephine Hoffa to offer reassurances. The film’s heightened commentary on paternalistic values, where old men’s capacity to make conversation is a very obvious marker of their power and various characters ultimately reveal their foolishness and impotence by talking out of turn or too long, crystallises here as Peggy, who has noticed everything whilst adhering to the rule of being seen but not heard, rips off her father’s façade with a few pointed words, “Why?” the question that registers like the point of an ice axe into a glacier. Sheeran makes his call, an action of duplicity and false hope he’s still quietly hating himself for making as he waits around to die decades later: “What kind of man makes a call like that?” he asks of an oblivious priest seeking his confession in the nursing home.

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The most fundamental thread of Scorsese’s cinema has been the hunt for spiritual and aesthetic clarity in desperate conflict not just with the necessities of existence within a society but also with physical and emotional hungers that lead in the opposite direction from sainthood, even whilst stemming from the same impulses. Scorsese knows about such things; he took on Raging Bull (1980) as a project after being hospitalised for a cocaine overdose, and that film’s alternations of dreamy meditation and raw savagery have infused his mature oeuvre ever since. The Irishman follows Scorsese’s masterful study of cultural and religious clash, Silence (2016). Where that film seemed a capstone on a loose trilogy studying belief after The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Kundun (1997), The Irishman rounds out Scorsese’s study of mafia lore in Goodfellas and Casino, chasing their concerns to one logical end. The unexpected quality of The Irishman is that it also unites the two bodies of work. Scorsese returns to the figuration of Judas and Jesus Scorsese wrestled with so controversially on The Last Temptation of Christ in Sheeran’s treachery towards Hoffa. This comes with an inherent sense of irony – no-one here is exactly Jesus – whilst extending Silence’s contention with devotion and betrayal, the costs of adhering to a faith, with inverted propositions, and like so many of Scorsese’s films it contends with a character who eventually faces the essential situation of being left alone to do battle, Jacob-like, with their contending angels and devils.

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The ideals of religious faith, humane and yet eternally defined by individual conscience, high-flown, transcendental, necessarily defined ultimately by a person’s solitary confrontation with their conception of eternity, have always warred in Scorsese’s vision with a different brand of faith, a social devotion defined by communal ties, hierarchy, expectation, and ruthless punishment for deviation. Religious faith, which in Scorsese often bleeds into other faiths, like labour organising in Boxcar Bertha (1971) as well as in The Irishman, contends with social faith in direct contrast: religious faith is punishment of self where social faith is punishment of others. Father Rodrigues in Silence suffered just as much and met his end just as solitary and battered as Sheeran, but his retained grip on faith into the grave signalled his most vital stem of being, no matter how tortured, retained a sense of worthiness in his life mission. By contrast Sheehan is left by the end of The Irishman entirely stripped of any illusion his choices have ultimately been worth the cost, and stripped at the same time of the things that make such costs worth bearing. The Irishman could be seen as a classical winter’s tale as Shakespeare might have recognised it, even as it refuses to become such a tale. Those are supposed to be about conciliation and natural cycles, stories where the bite of the frigid season matches the gnawing proximity of death and the necessity of making peace to facilitate rebirth. The Irishman is about the consequences of rudely assaulting nature, and instead becomes something far more like King Lear, a tragedy where a once ferocious king is left bereft and pitiful and exiled from home and kin because of the long, lingering memory of his own lessons.

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Hoffa’s actual death nimbly turns from deadpan realism, as Sheeran shoots him in the head in an awkward and rushed jumble of motion, to a precisely composed renaissance pieta, as Sheeran leaves the arranged corpse and gun lying in the foyer of an empty house. Scorsese lingers on the sight after Sheeran leaves, the weight not simply of violence and crime but of dreadful absence, the negation of Hoffa’s presence and will, forces that compelled the world. The hit excises a roadblock to easy business but also echoes as an act of violence that consumes the men who committed it. Sheeran is forever excommunicated by Peggy, refusing to speak to him again even as he shambles after her in withered age in a bank where she works, whilst the destabilisation of an equilibrium vibrates through the mob world, with authorities prosecuting and jailing everyone they can, including Sheeran and Russell. Their figurative marriage becomes more like a real one as they’re left only with each-other in a cold and cheerless old age, withering within prison walls, two men who quietly despise each-other for the compromises forced and the implied lack of forgiveness in return, chained together in a caricature of amity into the halls of prison and then the grave.

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The viewer must watch with both a touch of scorn and half-willing sympathy as Russell, dying, reveals he’s turned to religion as he’s pushed away in his wheelchair for treatment, as if he’s found a way to mollify the big boss. No major American director has dealt so sharply with imminent old age, the reduction of the human form and mind by the entirely natural predation of ageing, although in taking up such a theme in what’s nominally supposed to be a true crime thriller recalls Eastwood’s similar evocation in J. Edgar (2011). Sheeran’s corrosive experience of solitude and humiliation even after being released from prison sees him fending off two calls for purgation by confession, from the priest (Jonathan Morris) and federal agents, whilst he picks out coffins and resting places, still hunting a last echo of worldly status even into the grave. But the framing suggests Sheeran is confessing to someone, perhaps the audience, a surrogate for Brandt, a craned ear hungry for forbidden lore. All these legends lose their immediate meaning as their actors die off, even as the labour they’ve been part of, equated with both the society they comprised and the movie they appear in, persists, carrying lessons that cut many ways for those who follow. Sheeran recounting his story is one last attempt to leave a certain mark, to give experience any form of meaning. Scorsese grants him no absolution, but does offer a small consolation.

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2010s, Action-Adventure, Biopic, Sports

Ford v Ferrari (2019)

aka Le Mans ‘66

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Director: James Mangold
Screenwriters: Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, Jason Keller

By Roderick Heath

Rain, speed, dark: the opening scenes of James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari offer a driver’s-eye-view of racing on the famous Le Mans circuit at its most treacherous, deep in the night where the world loses all texture but the consequences of lapsed attention can be deadly. This proves to be a dream-distorted memory of Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), winner of the race in 1959 who learns he has to quit racing as he’s developed a heart condition. Ford v Ferrari casts its mind back to the heady days of 1960s motor racing, a time when the sport was on the cusp of new technological wonders but was still leaning heavily on the eyes, minds, guts, and nerves of its committed builders and drivers. The title frames the story as one of clashing brand names, but the more vital battle here is between the dynamic grunts in the cockpits, pit lanes, and factory floors, and fatuous executives engaged in territorial pissing.

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The story grows out of an attempt at corporate rebranding, as young sales executive Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) tries to turn around a buying slump for Ford as it trundles along under the glum stewardship of Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts). Hoping to imbue the Ford marque with new, hip appeal, Iacocca talks the boss in trying to buy the great Italian car manufacturer Ferrari. That company has been dominating racing with its brilliant, carefully fashioned cars for several years, but has run out of money. Iacocca travels to Italy to arrange the purchase with Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone), only to be contemptuously seen off after Ferrari uses the Ford offer to leverage a buy-out from Fiat instead. When Iacocca reports Enzo’s barbed and personal insults, emphasising that the boss is just a feckless inheritor and maker of ugly, boring cars, Ford II decides to get revenge in a fitting but arduous manner, in setting up his own racing division.

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Iacocca hires Shelby, who has set up a fledgling car design enterprise, to attach his concern to Ford with the aim of producing a champion car. Shelby fixes on Ken Miles (Christian Bale), an eccentric and often truculent British-born racer with a knack for winning but no head for business or public relations, as a most fitting collaborator and driver. It’s an uneasy partnership: Miles takes such exception to Shelby’s criticism that he tosses a spanner at him, shattering his own car’s windscreen instead, turning off some Porsche bigwigs who were interested in hiring Miles as a test driver. Miles, who lives with his wife Mollie (Catriona Balfe) and son Peter (Noah Jupe), has recently had his garage taken from him for unpaid taxes, but still hesitates at Shelby’s offer because of his uncompromising streak. That streak, once he does sign on, quickly rubs another Ford exec, Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas), the wrong way as he sees through the marketing glitz around the Mustang. Beebe nixes Shelby’s intention to have Miles drive at Le Mans in 1965, which proves to be a good thing as the first Ford cars entered prove glitch-prone if promisingly fast. Shelby has to repeatedly convince Ford II to let him run the show as he sees fit, and eventually Miles proves his mettle by winning at Daytona, setting up an epic clash Le Mans in 1966.

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Ford v Ferrari is a potent example of an endangered breed in contemporary mainstream cinema, a breed that used to be pretty commonplace: an ambitious, well-produced entertainment taking on a story rooted in fact, armed with all the technical might and storytelling savvy Hollywood has to offer. One justification for the all-consuming vortex that is contemporary franchise cinema is that it helps directors who sign on for a spell get other, more risky and personal projects financed. Ford v Ferrari represents the payoff for James Mangold after slogging his way through two vehicles for the Marvel comic book character Wolverine. A lot of people liked those films but they bored me silly, for they demonstrated Mangold had no affinity for the fantastic genres as he tried valiantly to skew them towards his native turf of melodrama driven by strident, conflicted characters, but he could never quite contend with how such efforts foiled the best qualities of each mode. Ford v Ferrari is much more a work in Mangold’s wheelhouse, a tale of striving and grounded struggle for protagonists whose objects of aspiration promise release from, and intensify the pain of, their private hells.

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It’s a touch surprising that Mangold, who debuted with a modest entry in the ‘90s indie film stakes, Heavy (1995), has proven to be one of current Hollywood’s most dextrous artificers, one who’s gone to a lot of effort to become a plain master of his craft on a technical level. Ford v Ferrari is beautifully crafted, with a palpable sense of physical context. Mangold’s second outing, Copland (1997), was a crime tale inflated well beyond its rather modest storyline by being overloaded with stars and production values when Miramax decided to try and make it a major award contender, resulting in a bruising flop, but Mangold persisted and rebounded with the slick and popular drama Girl, Interrupted (1999) and the psychothriller Identity (2003), a film that amusingly rendered Mangold’s interest in fractured personalities trying to piece themselves back together in gleefully literal and schlock-fun manner. His 2005 Johnny Cash biopic Walk The Line, whilst inevitably reducing the scope of Cash’s achievements, evinced Mangold’s cunning talent for digging out the raw nerve of a strong, essential storyline, in a manner that reproduced Cash’s own propensity for mythic-moralistic yarn-spinning, style and subject uniquely well-aligned.

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The emphasis in Ford v Ferrari on antagonistic personalities who eventually realise a hair too late they’re friends also recalls Mangold’s flavourful if lumpy remake of the canonical Western suspenser 3:10 From Yuma (2007). Ford v Ferrari reproduces some of the best qualities of Mangold’s work on Walk The Line, particularly Mangold’s feeling for period detail and sensibility, and gift for being attentive to his actors without devolving into shaggy indulgence. Ford v Ferrari might have grown as a project out of Michael Mann’s long-frustrated intention to make a biopic about Enzo Ferrari, as Mann was a producer here. The initial precepts of Ford v Ferrari, from its title on down, describe a clash between European and American sensibilities and business methods, and propelled, at least initially, by the potent emotions lurking behind the pudgy, pale faces of suit-clad industrialists. The script, by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller, tiptoes around the more disturbing political associations of both companies, Ford as founded by a rabid anti-Semite and Ferrari by a former Fascist collaborator, but it retains a surprisingly attentive engagement with its various characters, and companies, as social phenomena.

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Ford II encourages Shelby to get to work by pointing out the building where the company built bombers during the war and instructing him to treat their venture the same way, as a war of worlds. In our peculiar epoch, such a story could be taken as a metaphor offered in dogged celebration of an Anglo-American partnership, for all its fraternal fractiousness, sticking it to snooty Europeans, in line with some political desires amidst Britain’s ongoing divorce from the EU. But as the film unfolds it disowns such readings, or at least complicates them. Shelby presents himself as the archetypal American individualist, half-cowboy, half-artisan, a man who once flew the bombers Ford built and who gives speeches wearing a Stetson. Miles, a man who’s left one country for another, is the battered progeny of an age, a war hero who nonetheless acts in a way that makes Beebe describe him as a beatnik, and whose intense, angular physicality on top of his unstable behaviour suggests he may be suffering from lingering PTSD, even if he manages most of the time to expend his angst in racing. His wife’s well-used to his mercurial strangeness and understands too well his particular addictions because she shares them to a degree, terrifying her husband as she drives the family wagon at speed whilst chewing him out for being evasive over his dealings with Shelby. His evasiveness is rooted in his deep-set ambivalence for the idea of becoming a company man, a deal with the devil he knows well will sooner or later cost him some big lump of pride.

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Mangold’s visual shorthand captures contrasting aesthetics as rooted in cultural gaps, Ferrari having his breakfast in the workshop of his factory in leafy old world surrounds that mimic the old padrone overseeing his villa’s business, versus Ford II ensconced high in his shiny tower, a man who almost accidentally embodies a specific moment in human history trying to work out the biggest trick in business, how to transcend that moment: can the great modernist project survive its own all-consuming will? Ford II makes clear to his workforce, both on the factory floor and in his executive ranks, the ultimate cost of failures of imagination and will, when he shuts down the assembly line in mid-flow and asks his employees to imagine that as a permanent state of affairs. “James Bond’s a degenerate,” he comments when Iacocca tries to use the fictional hero as the perfect example of a style icon for a new generation as a fantasy of gone-wild thrill-seeking and licentiousness, sharply contrasting the Ford imprimatur’s self-perception as a pillar of parochial American values. Enzo is offered the personification of a certain European ideal of the owner-manager who protects his brand and his personal aura with the integrity of an artist. Ford II speaks another kind of language, flying in and out of race events in a helicopter, stirring the mockery of the Italians but also stating to the world at large he’s a being from a vastly different stratum of business, one who exhibits his imperial, dynastic might in new ways.

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Letts, who’s also of course a playwright, beautifully nails the key moment of the drama when Ford II absorbs the import of Ferrari’s insults, the look of stirred anger blending with a shade of blank despair, the one weak spot in his armour expertly located and pierced. But it’s telling that even as Ford v Ferrari gives unexpected insight into what makes a man like Ford II tick, it carefully metes that empathy. Mangold takes unseemly delight in a sequence where Shelby takes Ford II out for a ride in his new racecar only to leave the great industrialist weeping in shock and fear, newly respectful of the abilities of people who can work at such extremes. This gives way quickly to a more familiar narrative pitch, concentrating on Shelby and Miles as the men who do the real work, building and wielding formidable hunks of technology, in tension with an increasingly corporatized enterprise. By the last act the games of plutocratic dick-measuring have given way instead to the efforts of risk-taking inventors and performers. It doesn’t take much critical squinting to see Ford v Ferrari as Mangold’s report on his experience as a director working for big studios on packaged product, arguing his belief that in the end even the most valuable property has to be turned over to creative people whose ways and means are alien and fear-inducing to boardroom types.

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Bale plays a version of Miles, who was generally known as a polite customer in real life but here is portrayed as a prickly misfit brilliant at his job but hampered by a volcanic temper that he almost seems to unleash with calculation just to see how people will react to it. This is Bale plainly offering rather a variation on his own public persona, star performer as a being who must walk the existential line. But this also aids Mangold’s conflating purpose, as if arguing the car/movie industry needs such personalities to make things happen, Miles as unruly but dynamic movie star and Shelby as visionary director. Bale’s a natural-born scene stealer, but Damon, asked to play the more grounded straight man, gives one of his most effective performances, sharpening his drawl to a point in moments like when he has to muster an effective argument for Ford II to keep the racing team going. Shelby and Miles’ working relationship reaches a crisis point when he has to bypass Miles in the ’65 Le Mans, a benching Miles takes with surprising calm and settles for listening to it on the radio whilst working on a car (in reality he competed in the race along with Bruce McLaren in a Ford only to retire with gearbox trouble, but hell, this is the movies). When Shelby begs Miles to work with him again, Miles punches him in the face, overture to a John Ford-esque moment of manly expiation of friendly contention through fisticuffs. The following year, Miles wins both Daytona and the Sebring 12 hour race, and goes into Le Mans on a red-hot streak, for the ultimate duel with Ferrari’s team.

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Car racing movies have a long if not always honoured pedigree in movies, reaching back to Howard Hawks films like The Crowd Roars (1932) and Red Line 7000 (1965) and extending through the likes of James Goldman’s Winning (1969), Tony Scott’s Days of Thunder (1990), Renny Harlin’s Driven (2001), and Ron Howard’s Rush (2013). There are even distinct narrative affinities between Ford v Ferrari and Ben-Hur (1959) in the theme of a man with a race-winner looking for the right driver to prove both a personal and cultural point. The two best films on car racing to date are John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix (1966) and Lee H. Katzin’s Le Mans (1971), both of which were hefty hunks of pricey filmmaking but expressive and unusual in their filmmaking and muted in their emotional palettes, avoiding the triumphalism we now more squarely associate with such films: they came out of a day when a sports movie could also be a study in alienation and disaffection. But the racer subgenre very often concentrates on characters who remain in some fashion enigmas to themselves and those close to them, trying to understand what pushes them out to such extremes of life and death, cutting them off from the ordinary world.

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Another telling inequality between Frankenheimer and Katzin’s films, products of a more cinematically adventurous age, and Mangold’s is that the older films aimed to offer almost poeticised evocations of speed and motion, like the awesome depiction of a car crash in fragmented visions and distorted time perception in Le Mans. Whereas Ford v Ferrari is, like many contemporary films, obsessed with nailing down a specific storytelling arc, an approach that does at least facilitate Mangold’s preoccupation with characters trying to understand themselves. Mangold’s visuals have real beauty that sometimes grazes the poetic in their way, but they’re thoroughly contoured into straightforward function. Mangold’s sharp yet textured images, his use of rich colours and light come in frames rendered with a clear, illustrative force, are one of the pleasures of his best films: his filmic approach is both muscular in a contemporary fashion but also quite classical and unmannered. The racing sequences here are some of the best ever staged, with Mangold’s framings expertly tethered to lines of linear motion, the soundtrack replete with the sonorous thunder of a well-tuned muscle engine at full throttle, cars moving at great speed as rivals and friends crash and hunks of wreckage tumble about your ears.

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The brilliant climactic recreation of the 1966 Le Mans race depicts with immediate verve and intensity the experience of driving a car pell-mell through thickets of rivals amidst flurrying rain and dark, frames awash with gushing spray and red taillight glow and boiling flame, a realm where Miles is most perfectly himself, delivered from a world of compromise and pettiness, brushing the edges of the sublime state he believes resides in the zone above 7000 rpm. But the whole film is wrapped in a lush gloss apparent even in interpersonal moments as when Ken talks with his son whilst sitting on a stretch of LA airport tarmac the team likes to use for practice runs, transformed into an amphitheatre of technological grunt amidst the glowing mid-century twilight. Mangold uses James Burton’s instrumental cover of “Polk Salad Annie” as a recurring leitmotif on the soundtrack, an instant dash of distilled retro Americana that also communicates the sheer fidgety urge to defy a limit and the love of rolling velocity encoded in its nervously thrumming rhythm. Ford v Ferrari actually digs into the business of making a winner as well as noting the forces that often get in the way of making a good movie. I mean, car.

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There’s a fine sense of detail in the sequences depicting the process of creating such a car, like coating supermodern machines in bits of flapping wool to analyse wind dynamics, as Shelby, Miles, and the Ford brains steadily winnow what they learn to arrive at the GT40, a car with a huge bundle of horsepower jammed into the rear of the car, and coming up with novel notions like a completely replaceable braking system when Miles almost gets wiped out as the car’s braking system locks up during an endurance test. What hampers Ford v Ferrari is its habits of narrowing its focus down to some stock-standard conflicts and refrains. Lucas is again stuck playing the kind of snooty establishment antagonist he embodied in A Beautiful Mind (2002), aggravating through the pinewood texture of his voice. The battles with the Ford hierarchy and Beebe in particular have roots in fact but it’s an aspect, along with the constant swaying between Miles’ work and his home life, that starts to interfere with the pace of the film. And yet the conventionalities are frustrating but serve a function that doesn’t quite become clear until the end.

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The emphasis on the conflict between the racers and the executives proves eventually to have a different cumulative meaning than is usual, and the refrains to Lee’s mostly happy home life, often seem superfluous despite Balfe’s terrific performance as Lee’s stalwart lady, but it ultimately becomes clear that the Miles’ story is one of how what makes us love some people is also what we know well might take them from us some day. Moreover, the climactic race, which has the lustre of folklore amongst race fans for understandable reason, presents a fascinating dramatic situation where character and machinery both are tested. What’s ultimately most interesting about Ford v Ferrari is the degree to which it’s not quite a classic crowd-pleaser, becoming rather a story of heroes trying to identify their deepest, truest yardsticks for success rather than those imposed by worldly expectations. Branded legend is invoked only to force the audience to identify with men who eventually realise their talents and abilities always come second to the interest of those whose business it is selling a product. Enzo Ferrari’s gesture of respect is ultimately tipped to the racers, not Ford II: European auteur gives respect to American studio hand, for there is no difference when the dream is the same and achieved superlatively. The genius of Shelby’s team and Miles’ ability are ultimately subordinated to this interest, as Beebe talks Ford II into arranging the three Ford cars in the race to cross the line together.

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It’s a chance for a perfect publicity photo that however cheats Miles of his win, as McLaren (Benjamin Rigby) is declared the winner for a technicality through backstage chicanery. The irony however is that Miles has already fulfilled his own standard of achievement, setting incredible lap records with ferocious driving, and defeating both Ferraris in duels. Finally he decides to obey the company decision as he finds he’s outrun the need to win alone. The cruellest punchline lies in wait a little further down the road, as Miles dies as a car he’s testing careens off a desert test track, the old braking problem still a lurking imp ready to upturn all faiths of men. Shelby gives the spanner Miles tossed at him to young Peter, and settles in his car for a fit of grief as he wolfs down his heart medication. A surprisingly ambivalent ending for such a movie, leaving the question as to whether all this defiant business is actually worth anything in the face of the human wreckage left in its wake. But the way Shelby drives off confirms he still has the fire in the blood, perhaps an irreducible component of the human condition that burns itself out in different people in different ways — the sense that life is not life unless it’s known at the very limit. Ford v Ferrari certainly doesn’t reinvent the cinematic wheel. But it is the the sort of film that gives popular moviemaking a good name.

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2010s, Best of list

25 Essential Films of the 2010s

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By Roderick Heath

Ten years ago I wrote a list of what I dubbed essential works of the new millennium’s first decade. When I read the list today I see some movies I wouldn’t put on there now, by filmmakers I’ve entirely lost faith and interest in, and a few movies my enthusiasm for then baffles me now. Those stand alongside choices that still give me pleasure. Often it’s the picks that seemed slightly daffy then that still feel the worthiest to me.

The last decade of cinema has skidded about like a seismograph chart, agonising, terrible, brilliant, endlessly inventive, profoundly lazy, embattled and almighty. As a mass-market art form cinema has narrowed to an excruciating degree in its viable stories and styles. Gaudy riches still turn up with a little digging the world over, and yet as such ore has widely and easily available as never before, at the same time general appetite for it has become more stringently parsed, and the ways we watch cinema increasingly hermetic and detached from a communal experience.

But I’m not interested in launching any screeds or prophecies at the moment, but in celebrating a selection of some of my favourite cinema of these past ten years. Movies that represented for me a glorious swathe of creative energy, movies that, for whatever reason, vibrate with a specific kind of life in my memory, imbued with mysterious flesh in pursuing their chosen aesthetic to the limit. As I usually do when composing such surveys I maintain a rule of one representing work per director.

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12 Years A Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013)

Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave was understandably greeted as a great moment in issue moviemaking, offering an often agonising portrait of the foulest aspects of American slavery as experienced by Solomon Northup, filmed with unwavering clarity and helping to fill out a wide gap in screen culture. But it was also a clinical, fixated examination on themes introduced in McQueen’s previous films, applying precise psychology and tensile dramatic force to the dynamics of power as revealed in the tale, sifting through the perverse undercurrents binding owned to owner. In a film about a system that aimed to dehumanise, McQueen instead managed the tricky task of identifying precisely what was human about it.

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Anna Karenina (Joe Wright, 2012)

One of the most original adaptations of classic literature of recent years, Wright’s best film to date was a throwback to the days of the Free Cinema in refusing to let filmic form or cultural inheritance ossify. Wright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard turned Tolstoy’s novel into a meta-theatrical event, confining it mostly to a sound stage/playhouse imbuing events with both aspects of recessive luxury and claustrophobic intensity, and capturing the swooning, self-dramatising romanticism of its heroine right up to her last moments. The result was far too dynamic for the Downton Abbey crowd and not solemn enough for awards season. Dario Marianelli’s score was a strong candidate for the decade’s greatest.

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The Assassin (Hsiao-hsien Hou, 2015)

Several movies on this list represent a solitary release for major directors in the decade, which says much about the way cinema’s most singular visionaries have too often been left stranded in the contemporary movie landscape. Like Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster, Hou’s lone outing blended his familiarly minimal yet lushly decorated aesthetic with a venture into popular genre fare, distilling its folk tale basis to a dreamy evocation of a past that never was, described in hovering images that hunted for both great beauty and an essential motif about identities chosen and imposed.

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Bastards (Claire Denis, 2013)

Bastards didn’t net the same level of attention as some of Claire Denis’ other films in the past few years, but it was the one that stuck in my memory like a splinter. A contemporary noir film blended with a particularly twisted take on Faulkner’s Sanctuary, Bastards was occasionally repugnant in portraying the lowlifes amongst the high life, conveyed through an aesthetic pitting the elegance of film against the seedy implications of video, where people become a tradeable commodity and everyone finally knows which side their bread’s buttered on. Vincent Lindon was marvellous as the ultimately upright but also fatally outmatched hero.

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Blackhat (Michael Mann, 2015)

A colossal flop that might well have ended Michael Mann’s directing career for good, Blackhat is nonetheless the one film I keep coming back to as a pure product of the 2010s, a seemingly straightforward thriller that keeps unveiling new layers and textures with each viewing. Certainly no other release seemed quite as engaged with the actual state of things in the mid-decade, from the radically shifting balances of geopolitical power to the indifference of the warriors out on the liquid frontiers of cyberspace, and the proxies of barbarity and justice enacted Einstein’s predicted future war in devolving from sublime codes and ethereal streams to brute intimacy of steel and lead.

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Drug War (Johnny To, 2013)

Hardware to Blackhat’s software, Drug War saw Johnny To abandon the crystal castles and shadowed alleys of Hong Kong and cross to the Chinese mainland’s grey-flowing highways, to portray the drug trade in concert with perceiving a great, unmoored populace afloat and adrift on the tides of a great new capitalist dream, people and product alike on the move. Earthier and more procedural than many of To’s more operatic crime flicks, Drug War’s climactic massacre, and the ingenious punchline of its antihero literally chained to a victim of his machinations, managed nonetheless to offer a beggaring spectacle of life and death, authority and outlawry in death grapple.

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Girl Walk // All Day (Jacob Krupnick, 2011)

The 2010s saw many attempts to revive the musical, but most proved lumbering and arduous if not hideously irrelevant. Girl Walk // All Day was improvised on the streets of New York as a mixture of internet-enabled happening and digi-neorealist fusion of On the Town and Joyce’s Ulysses, built around Girl Talk’s mash-up album. Krupnick provided one of the keenest cultural artefacts ever assembled, fleet-footed and ebullient in its unforced naiveté, a love-letter to both polyphony and the polyglot, impish but also firm in its defence of creative verve and the individual’s place both amidst and apart from the community, in the face of consumerist folderol and urban detachment. Infinite plaudits to stars Anne Marsen, Dai Omiya, and John Doyle.

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The Grandmaster (Wong Kar-Wai, 2013)

A nominal biopic of Ip Man, The Grandmaster proved rather one of Wong’s town square-like narrative conjunctions where his assailed but persisting hero fought for attention amidst forgotten rivals for folk hero status, as a way of exploring the ruptures that have defined modern China’s identity as well as giving new, macrocosmic dimensions to Wong’s eternal themes of frustrated ardour and personal evolution. All was wrapped up in some of the most ravishing visuals ever committed to film.

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The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino, 2015)

It’s possible that Tarantino’s most recent work Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood will firm up as his best film, and Django Unchained will probably stay his most popular. But for the moment I’m sticking with The Hateful Eight, a more contentious work, as the exemplar of his 2010s labours. A bleak and pitiless, if still blackly hilarious and happily grotesque, semi-remake of Reservoir Dogs, the film offered a dismantling of the western genre via a combination whodunit and slasher flick, pitting the titular disagreeable octet as avatars of America’s various tribes (racial, gender, political) in close combat. The grimly mirthful punchline affirmed civic identity as a mesh of dubious legends, uneasy alliances, and the very real bite of the law’s knot.

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John Carter (Andrew Stanton, 2012)

Perhaps it’s entirely proper that the best-crafted, most fluently directed, and sheerly entertaining action-adventure spectacle Hollywood produced in the 2010s was also one of its most punishing box office failures. Former animation director Stanton’s eye drank in the lush curlicues of vintage scientifiction with a big movie gloss, and John Carter was a last hurrah for old-school space opera and pulp sci-fi delivered on grandiose scale before the genre’s tattered remnants would be hoist again by the revived Star Wars series with all the weird texture and high romanticism surgically removed. Stanton’s film was a lot of fun, but also no other film of the ‘10s had a setpiece as charged with outsized emotion and spectacle as Carter’s berserker battle with the wild Thark horde as he expiates his tormenting grief and defends his new loyalties.

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Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick, 2015)

Terrence Malick’s decade was switchback-inducing: 2011 brought the widely hailed, grandly allegorical The Tree of Life, a film that proved for the 2010s what Goodfellas had been for the ‘90s in endlessly pervasive stylistic influence, and 2019 saw him return to relatively familiar narrative with A Hidden Life. In between Malick released a divisive sequence of impressionistic, improvisatory dramas. I could readily have chosen two or three of his films for this list. But I went with the Knight of Cups because it stands as Malick’s most extreme and dynamic experiment in poetic image flow and his most adult, recasting his own early experiences in Hollywood as an utterly present-tense tale of body and soul in turmoil, replete with flashes of mutable beauty.

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Like Someone in Love (Abbas Kiarostami, 2013)

Kiarostami’s final film was largely overshadowed in regard by its immediate precursor, the intimate and ingenious piece of puzzle theatre that was Certified Copy. But Like Someone In Love, a work that saw its director at home in the strange climes of Tokyo, stands for me as one of the most gracious swan songs in cinema, a tragicomic portrait of an elderly professor who gets wedged between the escort he hires for an evening’s company and her angry boyfriend. Kiarostami suggested great wisdom ironically through noting how often we can be as foolish in our twilight years as in our youth.

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Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, 2012)

Spielberg’s best film of the decade, and perhaps the best traditional, mainstream drama by anyone in the 2010s, offered the official historical companion piece to 12 Years A Slave, and the less scabrous balance to The Hateful Eight, in recounting Abraham Lincoln’s covert and overt struggles to outlaw slavery in the context of wartime bloodshed and political contention, revolving around the doomed President but encompassing an entire epochal sensibility and the great gallery of its brilliantly portrayed protagonists. Armed with a nigh-perfect Tony Kushner script and Daniel Day Lewis’ uncanny central performance, Spielberg walked the line between rough-and-tumble expedience and high-flown idealism with the same grace as his hero, articulated through a blend of unfussy realism and gently neo-expressionist evocations to describe national identity balanced on a bayonet’s edge.

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Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Bi Gan, 2018)

Young tyro Bi Gan’s second film, Long Day’s Journey Into Night was a testimony to the way expressive ambition can transform a wispy basic proposition, in depicting a middle-aged man’s return home to contend with his past and the people he’s lost. Bi synthesised the expressive lexicons of Chinese-language cinema’s recent heroes, their diverging temptations to extremes of raw authenticity and wistful meditation, as well as taking advantage of technological advances to push forward into a new zone of expression, creating a bifurcated epic exploring ambiguous tracts of memory and the hyperrealism of a dreamscape. The result was deeply personal whilst also expertly describing the mainland nation’s unease in a transformative moment where the recent past seems tantalisingly fragmentary in recollection and the present mysteriously insubstantial even in its enveloping immediacy.

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The Lost City of Z (James Gray, 2016)

Between the opiated antinostalgia of The Immigrant and the monomaniacal futurism of Ad Astra, The Lost City of Z moored James Gray’s output in the decade, leaving behind Gray’s fixation with New York’s folk mythology to contend with a more international brand in depicting Percy Fawcett, an explorer offered as both nascent mystic for a secular age and lost agent for emerging modernity seeking out proof of persistence in the wasteland, trying to reject the Conradian only to rediscover the Melvillian. Lost civilisations beckoned from the mist whilst the familiar ones warred and decayed, and the hunt for the sublime laid waste to the beloved.

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The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012)

The Master isn’t the easiest of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films to love, not as dazedly funny as Inherent Vice nor as cunningly romantic as Phantom Thread, his subsequent works. But it sported Anderson’s most sharply composed imagery and allusive screenwriting. Like The Lost City of Z, The Master subsumed a quintessential figure of twentieth century flimflam, in this case recasting L. Ron Hubbard as Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd, nominal guru for a very Andersonian populace of variably needy and bullying personalities. But Anderson’s focus fell on Joaquin Phoenix’s debased postwar drifter, an imp of the perverse offering a wealth of neurosis for Dodd to mine for dubious insights as well as embodying the siren call of a gloriously unilluminated underworld under all the bright Ike-age lights.

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Mysteries of Lisbon (Raul Ruiz, 2011)

The lengthy final labour from one of European cinema’s most restless talents, Mysteries of Lisbon adapted Camilo Castelo Branco’s novel as a tale perched between epic Victorian bildungsroman and modernist absurdism, trying to depict the perverse forces that give shape to people and nations. Young hero João finds his tenure on Earth not so much an autonomous life but a tide pool the waves of history personal and political occasionally deem to fill, his personality forged as the by-product of wars and crimes, even whilst surrounded by characters with fluid identities, personal legends, and lodes of guilt and suppressed passion. Ruiz’s fluid, elusive aesthetic swapped the often jaggedly experimental tenor of much of his work for a piercingly evocative and intangibly romantic palette.

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Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt, 2013)

Night Moves gained less fervent attention than Kelly Reichardt’s other work of the decade but was, again, it was for me somewhat easily the best of her films, her feel for immediate environment meshed nimbly with a nervelessly-told, steadily ratcheting pseudo-thriller. The story depicted a trio of environmental activists turned eco-terrorists who set out to blow up a dam only to reap unintended consequences: Reichardt picked at a thread until everything came unwound, as a nominal act of worldly conscientiousness was relentlessly stripped of illusion until the heart of darkness was exposed in a most unexpected setting.

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Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2011)

Nuri Bilge Ceylan won the Palme d’Or for his excellent depiction of pathos and solipsism Winter Sleep, but that film couldn’t quite escape the long shadow of its predecessor, which made Ceylan’s international reputation. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia offered a most ironic echo of frontier mythos in a long yet spare and ineffably patient portrayal of a gang of officials forced out into the Anatolian night to retrieve a murdered man’s body, contending with landscapes physical and mental where history seems to stand still, waste and decay are taking hold, and the guttering flame of youthful promise hovers just out of reach. The cold light of day illuminates only a stiff corpse and grieving family, proof of an eruptive tragedy that also elucidates a much smaller brand, the moment when you realise you have less days ahead of you than behind.

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Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (Edgar Wright, 2010)

A blissful islet of the gaudily, blithely youthful amidst the grizzled heavy lifting of the 2010s, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World kicked off a terrific triptych of films from Wright extended by The World’s End and Baby Driver. Wright converted a beloved underground comic book into a contemporary spin on a ‘60s psychedelic comedy that was also a surprisingly acute study of a phase in life, as a young bohemian hero contends with romantic rivalry and corporate inanity whilst trying to map out his own maturity, interweaving a broad satire of contemporary hipster mores with manifold plays on musical and cinematic touchstones.

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A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011)

A Separation brought Asghar Farhadi to wide international attention, as his blend of novelistic texture and filmmaking attentive to performance meshed for a classical brand of mature drama so many western equivalents seemed facetious in aiming for. Farhadi’s subsequent shift to a wandering maker of familial melodramas, whilst still producing excellent work, stripped him to a certain extent of the particular quality he wielded here. His study of the labyrinthine absurdity of Iran’s bureaucracy, seemingly constructed to foil and frustrate all coming in contact with it as a punishment for being merely human, matched his care in describing the wayward and contrarian impulses of such people, who all pay steep prices for their yearnings and frailties.

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Silence (Martin Scorsese, 2016)

After spending most of the ‘00s working on prestige vehicles to finally land an Oscar, Martin Scorsese’s 2010s oeuvre was more diverse and restless, ranging from the stylish gimmick thriller Shutter Island and the colourful childrens’ adventure of Hugo (2011) and the wizened epicism of The Irishman (which I haven’t yet seen), anchored by The Wolf of Wall Street, a huge and raucous hit, and Silence, met with scarcely a shrug by a mass audience. Silence dragged the viewer through a vision of worldly authority and ethereal piety at war with a perfervid blend of cruel immediacy and pensive neutrality. The result neatly rounded out a rough trilogy contending with faith with The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun, but also engaged with the same basic proposition as Scorsese’s more secular dramas, fixing on men eventually trapped beyond the assurances of community, whilst still desperately trying to find some small way of holding onto a particular conviction all too intimately bound in with a self-regard that will be relentlessly pounded out of them.

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The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg, 2019)

Late bloomer Hogg’s The Souvenir nominally offered a pretty familiar project in abstract, an autobiographical tale of tragic youthful romance and an artistic bildungsroman, fixating upon that odd phase in an artist’s life when creativity is a crying need but both subjects and style must be earned in the great gamble of life. But Hogg’s relentlessly intelligent and sinuously evasive artistry made it much more — an enigmatic character study, a fervent study in troubled romance, a suggestive depiction of a period zeitgeist, a multifarious nod to traditions of British cinema, a puckish analysis of class and identity.

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Sucker Punch (Zack Snyder, 2011)

Zack Snyder’s fourth film managed to be many things at once: a pseudo-feminist psychodrama about power and abuse, a bleak gothic fantasy about ruination and survival, a sexed-up neo-musical, a post-modern discourse on role-playing and gaming, a comic book romp with far more visual invention and style than any official entries in that mode, and more. As such it stood almost alone as one of the very few films that felt properly engaged with a pop culture fast migrating to an online and virtual zone and winnowing experience through portals of image-making, whilst also nailing down the psychic roots of the insane popularity of superheroic avatars in our search for fantasy liberators within and without.

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Zama (Lucrecia Martel, 2018)

Argentine director Martel tackled a native literary classic and forged a historical recreation at once palpable and dreamlike, a stage where her antihero slides by degrees down through a social hierarchy and finishes up quite literally disarmed, but also ennobled as one of the first true citizens of a strange new world rather than a mere emissary of the old. The story, with its relentless arc of downward mobility and humiliation, was basically downmarket Kafka, but all was elevated by Martel’s envisioning, replete with images conveying flashes of extraordinary mystery and sensuality and a sense of the deeply surreal confrontation of societies large and small, making ruthless sport of colonialist myth whilst offering a sliver of grace for its bit players.

Others:

13 Assassins (Takashi Miike) ∙ Allied (Robert Zemeckis) ∙ Ash Is Purest White (Jia Zhang-ke) ∙ Aferim! (Radu Jude) ∙ Attenberg (Athina Rachel Tsangari) ∙ Beauty and the Beast (Christophe Gans) ∙ Berlin Syndrome (Cate Shortland) ∙ Birds of Passage (Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra) ∙ Blancanieves (Pablo Berger) ∙ Cemetery of Splendour (Apichatpong Weerasethakul) ∙ The Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas) ∙ Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski) ∙ Concussion (Stacey Passon) ∙ The Counselor (Ridley Scott) ∙ Crimson Peak (Guillermo Del Toro) ∙ A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg) ∙ Dark Shadows (Tim Burton) ∙ The Day He Arrives (Sang-soo Hong) ∙ Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (Tsui Hark) ∙ Domino (Brian De Palma) ∙ Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn) ∙ Elle (Paul Verhoeven) ∙ Experimenter: The Stanley Milgram Story (Michael Almereyda) ∙ Farewell My Queen (Benoît Jacquot) ∙ The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer) ∙ Ginger and Rosa (Sally Potter) ∙ Good Time (Benny and Josh Safdie) ∙ Green Room (Jeremy Saulnier) ∙ The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Peter Jackson) ∙ Holiday (Isabella Eklöf) ∙ In Fabric (Peter Strickland) ∙ Interstellar (Christopher Nolan) ∙ Kill List (Ben Wheatley) ∙ Lady Macbeth (William Oldroyd) ∙ Last Passenger (Omid Nooshin) ∙ Leap Year (Michael Rowe) ∙ The Levelling (Hope Dickson Leach) ∙ Mandy (Panos Cosmatos) ∙ Moonlight (Barry Jenkins) ∙ Museum Hours (Jem Cohen) ∙ The Myth of the American Sleepover (David Robert Mitchell) ∙ The Nice Guys (Shane Black) ∙ No (Pablo Larrain) ∙ Noah (Darren Aronofsky) ∙ Of Gods and Men (Xavier Beauvois) ∙ On the Road (Walter Salles) ∙ Paths of the Soul (Yang Zhang) ∙ The Raid 2: Berandal (Gareth Evans) ∙ Road to Nowhere (Monte Hellman) ∙ The Runaways (Floria Sigismondi) ∙ Rust and Bone (Jacques Audiard) ∙ Shadow (Zhang Yimou) ∙ The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodovar) ∙ Sleepless Night (Frédéric Jardin) ∙ Still the Water (Naomi Kawase) ∙ Stranger by the Lake (Alain Guiraudie) ∙ Sully (Clint Eastwood) ∙ Tabu (Miguel Gomes) ∙ The Tale of Tales (Matteo Garrone) ∙ Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne) ∙ Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer) ∙ Vic + Flo Saw a Bear (Denis Côté) ∙ The Villainess (Byung-gil Jung) ∙ Welcome to New York (Abel Ferrara) ∙ Willow Creek (Bobcat Goldthwait) ∙ You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsey) ∙ Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow) ∙

Significant blind spots:

A Quiet Passion ∙ Almayer’s Folly ∙ Amour ∙ Arabian Nights ∙ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs ∙ Biutiful ∙ Capernaum ∙ Chi-Raq ∙ The Favourite ∙ The Florida Project ∙ Fruitvale Station ∙ A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night ∙ Goodbye to Language ∙ Hail, Caesar ∙ Happy as Lazzaro ∙ A Hidden Life ∙ I, Daniel Blake ∙ The Irishman ∙ Leviathan ∙ Margaret ∙ mother! ∙ Nymphomaniac ∙ Okja ∙ The Ornithologist ∙ Room ∙ Rules Don’t Apply ∙ Shame ∙ Shoplifters ∙ The Square ∙ Son of Saul ∙ Sweet Country ∙ The Turin Horse ∙ Toy Story 3 & 4 ∙ White Material ∙

Inessential Movies of the 2010s:
Not necessarily the absolute worst films of the decade and certainly not comprehensive, but a list of movies that, for whatever reason, I felt great and unremitting contempt for.

Concussion (Peter Landesman)
Contagion (Steven Soderbergh)
Gangster Squad (Ruben Fleischer)
The Help (Tate Taylor)
The Impossible (Juan Antonio Bayona)
The Iron Lady (Phyllida Lloyd)
Les Miserables (Tom Hooper)
Life of Pi (Ang Lee)
The Lone Ranger (Gore Verbinski)
The Monuments Men (George Clooney)
Serena (Susanne Bier)
Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonagh)
Warcraft (Duncan Jones)
Warrior (Gavin O’Connor)
A Wrinkle In Time (Ava DuVernay)
Seventh Circle of Shit Remake Hell: Conan the Barbarian (Marcus Nispel) / Ghostbusters (Paul Feig) / Robocop (José Padilha) / Suspiria (Luca Guadagnino)

Standard
2010s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Drama, Scifi

Ad Astra (2019)

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Director: James Gray
Screenwriters: James Gray, Ethan Gross

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

James Gray has remained conspicuously earthbound throughout his career as one of American cinema’s least-appreciated yet consistently lucid and enriching filmmakers, a teller of tales rooted in a world too often crude and exhausting, with flashes of the sublime through the murk blinding as often as they illuminate. Produced by and starring Brad Pitt, wielding a big budget and spectacular special effects, Gray’s seventh feature Ad Astra represents a sharp leap in ambition, and yet it’s also an unmistakeable, remarkably unalloyed extension of his career to date, taking up his most consistent themes and painting them upon his largest canvas yet. Gray’s initial argot, evinced in Little Odessa (1994), The Yards (2000), and We Own The Night (2006), was an updated version of a brand of American film situated on the nexus of film noir and social realist drama, fare like On The Waterfront (1954), Edge of the City (1957), and The Hustler (1961). Such a stage allowed him to at once analyse dynamic processes like immigrant assimilation, upward mobility, and gangster capitalism, in conflict with the internal foils that define the individual person, matters of identity, morality, empathy. With Two Lovers (2008) he turned to a more intimate brand of character drama whilst maintaining his carefully modulated awareness of context, a mode he sustained even whilst shifting to historical settings and broader canvases for The Immigrant (2014) and The Lost City of Z (2016).

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As I noted in writing on The Lost City of Z, Gray’s films are, in essence, ghost stories set amongst the living, tales of haunting gripping his protagonists in their desperate struggles to be born anew. Gray’s fascination with characters who find themselves bound to others – family, lovers, collaborators – in voyages into folie-a-deux perversity here takes on a form that’s become borderline obsessive in current American film, even its more fantastical wings, the figure of the lost and taunting father figure. The realistic special effects adventure and science fiction movie has also known something of a boom in recent years, prefigured by the likes of John Sturges’ Marooned (1969) and Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars (2001) and recently expanded by Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (2013), Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014), Ridley Scott’s The Martian (2015), and Damien Chazelle’s First Man (2018). The latter film was a biography of Neil Armstrong, the epitome of the cool, calm, collected type prized by organisations like NASA and utterly inimical to a showman like Chazelle. Gray tackles a similar personality in his protagonist, Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), who’s famed in the ranks the NASA-supplanting SpaceCom for the way his heart rate never goes over 80 bpm even in the most adrenalin-provoking straits.

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The film’s opening sequence describes such a circumstance in a fearsomely filmed episode of spectacle, as Roy is working on a massive antenna reaching from Earth into the outer atmosphere for easy communications with deep space. A mysterious pulse of energy sweeping in from the void strikes the antenna, wreaking havoc. Amidst a rain of plummeting colleagues and wreckage, Roy manages to flip the switch on the electrical systems, preventing the whole structure from melting down, at the expense of being swept off the antenna’s side. Falling to Earth, Roy has to wait until the atmosphere becomes thick enough to stabilise his tumbling fall and deploy his parachute, trying not to black out. Even when he does succeed in releasing his parachute, debris rips holes in it, sending him into a chaotic spin, but he still manages to land without being badly injured.

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After recuperating in hospital, Roy is called to meet with some SpaceCom brass (John Finn, John Ortiz, and LisaGay Hamilton), who admire his grit and ask him to perform a mission on their behalf. Roy’s father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), went missing in the outer solar system when he led a pioneering scientific mission, the Lima Project, to search for signs of alien intelligence. Long since presumed dead with the rest of his crew, Clifford has been hailed as one of the great heroes of SpaceCom’s history and the colonising process. But now SpaceCom believe Clifford might in fact still be alive, and pursuing some kind of anti-matter research that’s sending out the energy surges and might, if it destabilises, even annihilate the solar system. SpaceCom commission Roy for a very strictly delineated mission, to travel to Mars, the outermost outpost of colonisation, and broadcast a pre-prepared appeal to Clifford to cease the surges and make contact.

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Gray’s version of a spacefaring future has a fascinating tint of the retro to it, as if torn from the pages of a theoretical book predicting space exploration and migration from the late 1950s. Visually, it’s a realistic mishmash of technologies both potential and shop-worn, showroom-fresh and salvaged for expedience. Initially, Roy is offered as the essential square-jawed action man right out of a comic book or pulp tale. The title references the Royal Air Force’s motto, at once evoking the elusively poetic as well as the valiant but narrow pretences of a martial ethos. Roy is deployed by SpaceCom, an organisation Gray amusingly initially presents as a cadre enveloped by a mix of Madison Avenue-like controlled messaging and militaristic caginess. Roy makes the voyage to the moon in the company of his father’s former colleague and friend Thomas Pruitt (Donald Sutherland), albeit one who fell out with Clifford precisely because he wouldn’t follow him to the extremes Clifford aimed for. Gray’s awesome vistas of the moon surface, with the gleaming lights of cities shining out of dark craters, gives way to Roy’s stirred contempt in noting the way the American moonbase has become something like an airport or shopping mall, replete with consumer outlets, with boles of tacky hedonism. Even the flight he and Pruitt arrived on was commercial, charging outrageous prices for petty comforts. This is one of Gray’s canniest notions, suggesting that space habitation won’t ever really take off until the profit motive compels it.

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The moon has also become another stage for human fractiousness, with the many countries claiming various sectors of it locked in a perpetual state of quasi-war for the right to mine resources and defend domain. Despite the risks, the local garrison promises to get Roy and Pruitt aboard the interplanetary rocket, the Cepheus, awaiting them on a distant launching pad. As it unfolds, Ad Astra unveils itself as a variation on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and its various adaptations. The use of voiceover to penetrate the lead character’s hard shell and ready habits of spouting sanctioned clichés certainly harkens back to Apocalypse Now (1979), although as an assimilation of Conrad Gray’s take feels closer kin to the Ron Winston-directed, Stewart Stern-written’s 1958 TV adaptation for Playhouse 90, which recast the tale as a generational conflict as well as a depiction of cultural collision and malformed hybridisation, making its version of Kurtz the adoptive father of Marlowe and paragon of enlightened, elevated values turned bestial shaman. Such a twist might be said to recast Conrad’s story as more specifically American, a contest between elders ensconced in a citadel of certain faiths contending with a questioning, seeking youth facing a wealth of possibility as well as the pain of impossibility. Gray has explicitly compared the film to a version of Homer’s The Odyssey a common point of mythopoeic reference for all these works, but one told from the point of view of Telemachus, the wandering, searching son.

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Certainly Ad Astra plugs into Pitt’s recent, quasi-auteurist fascination with taking on roles that explore the mystique of certain brand of fatherly masculinity, echoing in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011) and Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood (2019), trying to grasp at what made the old-school ideal of manhood tick in order to assimilate its might but also excise its sick spots. Pitt, who started off as a long-haired lover boy and despite his very real talent always seemed like an actor cast for his looks first and his ability second, has finally reached a point in his career, rendered just a touch leathery by nascent middle-age, fidgety anxiousness starting to light those cover boy eyes and a sense of weary humour in self-knowledge twisting up that former perma-pout, where his lingering potential is being realised. Gray already touched on Conradian territory with The Lost City of Z but also argued with it as he presented a white, western hero who finds himself constantly nearing but never quite grasping his quasi-religious goal in the jungle. Also like his last film, Ad Astra entails revising that film’s portrait of a son so determined to live up to his father and join his myth that he eventually loses his life with him in a mission to the edge of the known. But Ad Astra is also a film that suggests Gray has a surprising affinity with sci-fi, particularly the precepts of early forays in the genre that sparked its 1950s screen craze, like Irving Pichel’s Destination Moon (1950) and Byron Haskin’s Conquest of Space (1955), both produced by George Pal, as well as Haskin’s later Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964).

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Haskin’s efforts to balance a stringent portrayal of what was then the largely still theoretical nature of spaceflight with a questioning, yearning sense of its meaning formed one of the first truly important bodies of work in the genre. Ad Astra can be regarded in many ways as a highly advanced remake of Conquest of Space, enlarging on that film’s detail-obsessed realism with all the arts of modern moviemaking, whilst also assimilating the theme of father-son conflict and madness inspired by confronting the void, and pivoting around key sequences like funerals in space where the eternal and the coldly immediate are both utterly tangible. Like Robinson Crusoe on Mars, it contends with space as an existential trap where the hero(es) contend not just with solitude and survival but with the conceivable limits of existence and their search for a divine presence. In Conquest of Space the father was also a much-heralded hero of space pioneering and his son condemned to dwell in the shadow of his legacy, and finally had to step and in save the day when his father’s seemingly rock-solid psyche gives way as he becomes convinced their journey to Mars is an act of sacrilege. Sci-fi had been on cinema screens since the near-coinciding birth of both forms, but Haskin helped forge a crucial question that’s propelled the genre ever since, certainly influencing sci-fi films as different as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Nicholas Meyer’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), not just in imagery but in a central, overriding impetus, a demand for transcendental meaning in the experience of spacefaring.

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Gray obeys the picaresque structure of both The Odyssey and Heart of Darkness, as a succession of events leading Roy from the familiar world to the very fringes of the human sphere, passing through zones of lawlessness, conflict, and collapse along the way to various outposts testifying to a tenuous hold on a universe that might shrug them off. Gray mixes in aspects that retain some of the zest of a pulpier brand of sci-fi whilst twisting it to his own purposes. During Roy and Pruitt’s transportation across the lunar surface to the Cepheus dock, their moon buggy convoy is assaulted by a flotilla of vehicles from a piratical faction, in an action sequence that can be taken as Gray’s take on the helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now. It’s also, like that precursor, one of those scenes you know to be an instant classic of the medium even as you’re watching it, through Gray’s depiction of speed and force as experienced from a rigorously controlled viewpoint, concussive impacts and swift, arbitrary destruction conveyed with a woozy blend of immediacy mediated by the strange, fluidic motion of low gravity. Roy’s cool under pressure asserts itself again, taking control of his buggy and managing to elude pursuers finally with a daring leap into the depths of a crater, a breathtaking moment where the vehicle swings in a languorous arc across the vast pit, suspended between past and future, death and survival.

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The buggy lands without damage, but when he reaches the launch site Roy is forced to part with Pruitt, as he suffers a heart attack following the battle. Sutherland as Pruitt offers a paternal figure to “hold my hand” as Roy puts it, although Pruitt recalls Clifford calling him a traitor. Pruitt insists that Roy leave him and get on with the mission, passing on to him a thumb drive loaded with information SpaceCom kept from Roy, including videos that suggest that reveal, far from perishing heroically, Clifford turned despotic and suppressed a revolt amongst his crew through violent means, determined to continue research with a cabal of remaining loyalists. When the Cepheus stops to answer a distress signal from a drifting spacecraft against Roy’s initial wishes and instinct, he and the Cepheus’ Captain Tanner (Donnie Keshawarz) cross to the vessel to search for survivors, only for Roy to lose contact with the Captain as they explore the interior, in a sequence that slides steadily towards the truly strange. Roy finally comes across the Captain to find him dead, his faceplate smashed and face gnawed off by a baboon, one of a pair of such animals, desperately hungry and maddened, still alive on the abandoned craft.

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Roy manages to kill both animals and gets back to the Cepheus, only for the second-in-command, Stanford (Loren Dean), to freeze up as the ship suffers a power outage during the landing on Mars thanks to another energy surge, once more forcing Roy to assert his steady hand and land the ship. On Mars, Roy encounters Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga), the administrator of the Mars colony who nonetheless doesn’t have sufficient clearance to be present as Roy is pressed into reading SpaceCom’s prewritten pap in a broadcast to his father. On a second attempt, Roy tries a more personal message, tentatively allowed by the controllers, but when they seem to suddenly be alarmed and try to swiftly send Roy back to Earth he realises he got some sort of reply. Helen extracts Roy from the room he’s locked up in and fills in the last piece of the puzzle confirming that Clifford killed many of the people on his mission including Helen’s own parents, in the name of continuing his mission. Determined to confront his father and doubting Stanford’s capacity to fulfil the Cepheus’ mission to stop the anti-matter surges by any means including an atomic bomb, Roy resolves to reboard the ship with Helen’s help.

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Ad Astra self-evidently picks up where The Lost City of Z left off, in contending with the idea of exploration and the kinds of people who dare to make leaps into the beyond, tethering the venturesome exterior journey with an internal struggle. But where the previous film voted the explorer empathy in his social rage and visionary drive, Ad Astra counterpoints with the viewpoint of the abandoned and the betrayed. More subtly, it also extends The Immigrant’s confrontation with people on the borders of new experience whilst still mentally trapped within the old. Percy Fawcett’s determination to discover a lost civilisation and make contact with a wondrous populace at once distinct and familiar is here swapped out for the elder McBride’s hunt for alien intelligence, the quest for a confirming and affirming mirror. Gray sees pioneering as an act aimed as much in rebuke to the familiar as it is an expression curiosity about what’s unfamiliar, and as a process rooted in incapacity to live within a quotidian world, but which is always doomed to drag that world in its wake. Roy passes through the corporatized and commercialised moonbase, a scene reminiscent of Fawcett’s arrival at a jungle city with opera and slavery, surveying a zone where what was once charged with infinite mystery and potential has been colonised and subordinated by the more familiar pleasures and evils of the world. Roy notes that his father would’ve despised such a development, a cogent awareness of the debasement but also offloading any requirement to make a judgement of his own onto the moral abacus of the father figure.

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Gray’s recurring mental landscapes are a warzone in the clash between identity and aspiration, enacted by people who sign on to repeat the journeys of their mentors and forebears despite many good reasons not to. Little Odessa and We Own The Night dealt with characters for whom the natural gravity of following a family legacy is both the easiest thing in the world to obey and also something his protagonists felt to be abhorred; Two Lovers dealt with the same proposition in terms less of material values but anchored instead in desire. The Immigrant’s climactic image of two people bound by a singular concoction of love and loathing heading in separate routes returns in Ad Astra more emphatically in familiar terms. Out Gray’s characters venture to places where traits of character that allow some to thrive and others to fail are mercilessly exposed, but Gray probes a common presumption in genre entertainment where those who question can’t do and those who do can’t question. Gray achieves something passing unique in recent mainstream cinema with Ad Astra, in creating vivid experiential cinema that’s also about conveying a state of mind rather than stating them rhetorically. The stages of Roy’s journey mimic his own self-reconnaissance, the visuals, at once hyper-clear and struck through a dreamy sense of removal, of mysterious abstraction in the void, and finally of hurt gripping like a vice in a cosmos vast and echoic, at once dwarfing and inimical but also lacking any meaning without eyes to see and minds to know.

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As the pivotal figure for a tale of derring-do, Roy is initially opaque, reciting his carefully worked phrases and speeches to get approval from digitised psychological evaluations and operating with the kind of self-control and focus that’s readily mythologised as the ideal tool for government, business, and the military: a man who can do the job and obey exact parameters of behaviour as long as he holds sure the faith that the systems demanding such capacities work with flawless logic. Gray diagnoses Roy’s prized impassivity and coolness as aspects of a carefully erected psychological apparatus to guard against passion, a dam his father’s abandonment and vanishing forced him to build. Gray echoes the thesis essayed long ago in Howard Hawks’ canonical study of old and young American males, Red River (1948), where the old-school tough guy persona was found to be based in closet hysteria, a state of ferocity muzzled rather than controlled. Early in his film Gray notes Roy’s memory of his wife Eve (Liv Tyler) leaving him, a form in the periphery of his awareness, and the process of working his way out towards his father is also in part the process of working his way back to her. Being confronted with evidence that his father was not the paragon both he and SpaceCom needed him to be shakes something loose, and Roy’s hallowed calm shatters.

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And yet the process of regaining his emotional reflexes ultimately don’t retard Roy’s daring and cool, where others around him fail and flail, as Gray seeks to analyse the difference between a kind of false stoicism and a more authentic kind. Ad Astra depicts a key part of coping with grief, where emotional reality is not denied but simply existed within, like the contained capsule of air that is a spacesuit. The counterpoint of Roy’s musing voiceover and his immediate experiences are reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s in this regard, although Gray avoids Malick’s more particular approach where his characters’ thoughts winnow out poetical essentials amidst frenetic associations. Faced with evidence of his father’s destructive actions, seemingly rooted in indifference to more paltry human needs, Roy recognises the same pattern of behaviour that has defined him, and he takes it upon himself to enact an oedipal drama on a cosmic stage. The myths Roy has accepted, which prove to have also been propagated by authority in order to retain its sheen of inviolable competence and purview, demand complete reorientation of his identity. Gray here seems to be getting at something absolutely vital about our time, the way spasms of reflexive rage and denial pass through many a body politic the moment foundational myths rooted in an idealised sense of the past and communal identity are interrogated.

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Roy meets his essential counterpart and foil in Lantos, who has only been to Earth once, born and living on Mars, a biography that subtly bisects Roy’s path. Lantos is a citizen of the void, orphaned and static: alienation is the literal air she breathes. Lantos extracts Roy from a room where he’s been sequestered with a barrage of calming influences projected on the walls, like being stuck inside an animated ambient music track. Lantos’ gift to Roy is a new sense of vengeful urgency in his mission, compelling him to be the one who goes out to bring his father to account, even as SpaceCom try to bundle him off the mission once he renders proceedings personal. Lantos helps Roy in trying to get back aboard the Cepheus, a self-imposed mission that demands swimming through water-filled tunnels and climbing up through a hatch between the rocket exhausts. Even once aboard Roy finds himself in danger as the crew leap to apprehend him. The crewmembers try to shoot and stab Roy even as he protests he has no malicious intentions, but the jolts of the launching spacecraft in accidents that kill all three crew, leaving Roy alone with three corpses. This sequence, another of Gray’s superlatively executed action scenes, is also a study in the concept of aggressive action as something that works upon itself: SpaceCom, revealed as an organisation that ultimately prizes the appearance of competence and rectitude over the actuality, and its immediate representatives react with mindless aggression the proves self-defeating.

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But Roy is also forced to regard the consequences of his own actions, which see him bringing death and mayhem in a manner not really that different from his father, in the single-minded desire to reach a goal without thinking too hard about what it might provoke, his determined aspect like a too-powerful engine amongst other beings who simply drift in existence. Roy’s voyage through space to Neptune sees him almost lose his mind and body in the decay of solitude, before arriving at last at the Lima Project station. Flares of energy radiate from a dish on the hull and Clifford lurks within, king of a drifting tin can where old musicals play on screens amidst floating corpses. Clifford proves haggard and baleful but still utterly lucid and readily confessing to Roy that his obsession entirely displaced any care he had for Roy and his mother, a moment that, amongst other things, extends Gray’s motif of phony speech contending with hard, plain, honest statements throughout the film: although Clifford deals out a cold truth to Roy, at least he respects him enough to offer it. In this part of the film I felt as if Gray’s inspiration was beginning to desert him even as his essential points came into focus. It might have been fascinating if he had taken Conrad’s (and Francis Coppola’s) cue and portrayed the remnants of Clifford’s personality cult engaged in atavistic perversity at the end of the universe in their awe and cringing before a blank vastness, rather than narrowing the experience to a generational confrontation.

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Gray’s ultimate point is articulated through Roy as he comprehends his father has experienced the most gruelling loss of faith, sacrificing everything and everyone including himself for a quasi-mystical project that has yielded nothing, manifold planets of infinite variety and beauty mapped but none offering what Clifford was so desperately searching for. “We’re all there is,” Roy sums it up, with both the inference that the kind of bond tethering father to sun across the solar system is worthy in itself, but also making the task of holding onto human life both more precious and also more awful and despair-provoking, knowing what both men know about human nature, and the fragility of its toehold in the universe. As a climactic point, this wrestles with the same problem Haskin foretold in the 1950s as humanity looked out upon the universe and struggled with the loss of old limits. But it also makes a fascinating about-face from the general run of sci-fi, starting with those old Haskin films and progressing through the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and many more, where the religious impulse is sublimated into a more generalised sense of wonder and possibility, as Gray confronts a frontier that provokes despair in many, the probability that we’re alone and have to make do.

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The images of Clifford and Roy hitched together in space, Clifford trying to tear loose from his son, inverts the climax of The Martian: the finite tether of human contact strained and broken, as Clifford demands the right to make his own end, obliging Roy to quite literally let go so he can drift off into gorgonized eternity. Roy has to synthesise his own good reason to return to Earth and face the music, summoning the ghostly image of his wife’s face as a reason to defy the void and launch himself through the planet’s rings to get back to the Cepheus, in the last of Gray’s astounding sequences, protecting himself against debris with a piece of panelling stripped to use as a shield. This touch seems in itself a closing of a circle even as it evokes a different Homeric figure, given Pitt played Achilles in 2004’s Troy but never got to wield that character’s civilisation-encapsulating aegis: here at last we get the cosmic hero, defier of fates. If Ad Astra sees Gray underlining himself in ways he’s usually avoided for the sake of trying to put across a film to a mass audience, particularly in some fairly superfluous concluding scenes, it’s still nonetheless a mighty, sparely beautiful, finally gallant attempt from a great filmmaker.

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2010s, Auteurs, British cinema, Mystery, Romance

The Souvenir (2019)

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Director/Screenwriter: Joanna Hogg

By Roderick Heath

Joanna Hogg’s rise to something like eminence was a long time coming. After experimenting in photography when she left school, Hogg had a chance meeting with Derek Jarman that set her on the path to becoming a filmmaker, with the director even loaning her a camera to experiment with. Graduating from the British National Film and Television School in 1986 with the short film Caprice, starring Tilda Swinton, Hogg spent the next twenty years working in television and music videos. When the time came at last for Hogg to make her feature debut with 2008’s Unrelated, she was determined to work against the grain of every rule TV work had imposed upon her, making extensive use of improvisatory acting and telling stories based around the vague and even petty signifiers that make up much of our lives rather than programmatic melodrama. She followed it with a portrait in class tensions on holiday, Archipelago (2010), and the more recondite, allusive portrait of a couple of married artists, Exhibition (2013), a work that grabbed Martin Scorsese’s attention. Scorsese helped produce The Souvenir, a film that’s made Hogg something of the woman of the moment. The Souvenir purposefully takes on a well-worn artistic motif, casting its thoughts back to the milieu of Hogg’s creative youth in the 1980s.

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It’s the kind of story plainly charged with deep personal and autobiographical meaning, approached with the tint of unsentimental rigour middle age imbues whilst still capturing the sharp poignancy of the sorts of experiences that shock a person into full maturity and leave an indelible stamp on a creative mind. At the same time it’s a meditation upon such meditations, contending with the way such experience informs and infuses art. The Souvenir is also a study in ambiguity between people, even people who are nominally very close, the trouble with the yardsticks we’re obliged to use to understand and judge who those people are in comparison to ourselves. Hogg’s central character, Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), is confronted precisely by dissatisfaction with her own identity. The daughter of wealthy parents, she has a sizeable flat in Knightsbridge and a line of credit she can wheedle out of her mother Rosalind (Tilda Swinton), but she’s attending film school and wants to make a movie about how the other half live, hoping to film a project about a young boy in the poor quarter of Sunderland who idolises his mother, a studied contrast to her own frustrating relationship with class and parents. It’s the mid-1980s and Thatcherism is in full swing, and so is an IRA bombing campaign, whilst post-1960s radicalism has faded to a background hum of barbed comments about privilege and desirable addresses and aspirations to social conscience expressed through art. Julie’s apartment is a magnet for nightly soirees of young arty types who rake over their ambitions, obsessions, and personal positions with forensic determination. Amidst one of these parties, a friend brings as a guest a man she describes as her lodger: Anthony (Tom Burke), a beefy, sullen-eyed chap in a blue pinstripe suit.

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Hogg opens with Julie’s black and white photographs of the blasted environs of Sunderland she wants to chart in her proposed dream movie project, a place in stark contrast to the classiness of her family abode and the upscale vantage of her flat, which overlooks Harrods. As the polite interest of her teachers and Julie’s articulate yet unimpassioned attempts to sell the project to them makes clear, it’s an elaborate act that stickily contrasts both the unofficial doctrines of write-what-you-know-ism and the niceties of cordoned interest. It also represents an attempt by Julie to shake herself out of a bubble. Which might succeed brilliantly (and could be correlated with the breakthrough works of some of Hogg’s fellows amongst the ranks of female directors rewarded for earnestly arty accounts of mundane lives in movies like Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher, 1999, and Andrea Arnold’s Red Road, 2006), but feels more like an attempt on Julie’s part to find a voice rather than something welling out of her authentic creative imagination. Irony circles Julie, as her life is something like the popular conception of Englishness as held dearly by Tories and foreigners, rooted in country house and replete with posh venues – Julie and Anthony meet to chat in a restaurant that looks like a backdrop for a Henry James tale rather than, say, a McDonalds. Julie’s film school pal, Marland (Jaygann Ayeh), improvises a wry blues ditty about aspiring to such worthy climes.

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Hogg and Burke conspire deftly in the early scenes to keep Anthony an ambiguous entity, standing or sitting with face turned away from the camera, registering as a low drawling voice and physiognomy trapped within that suit, brushing by Julie as he first enters her apartment only vaguely registered. He listens to Julie at the party, looking down upon her as she tries to articulate her immediate ambitions, but later when meets her in that restaurant they’re directly opposed in telling attitudes of appealing openness and supine coolness. Anthony quickly begins engaging her in a manner that splits the difference between patronisation and intrigued challenging, an approach that energises Julie because there isn’t anything else to prod her in such a fashion, except for the broad sniping of her film school teachers. As Anthony comes into focus, so does Julie: where scenes of Julie with her friends or her mother are filmed in handheld shots, Julie’s encounters with Anthony are offered with the precious, detail-rich framing and lighting of a Dutch master painter, as the lovers leave behind the mundane spaces of home and school and roam art galleries and ritzy Venetian hotels.

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The artistic motif finds its lynchpin as the duo roam a gallery with its perfectly composed neoclassical features and fixtures, and admire Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s picture “The Souvenir,” which depicts a decorous, long-tressed maiden fervently carving her lover’s initial into a tree after receiving a letter from him. Anthony tells Julie he works for the Foreign Office, and claims to be involved with business that relates, somehow, to the IRA campaign and other clandestine threats. Such a picture with its idealised vision of romance filtered by distance and historical mores seems a great distance from the louche mores of modern London, and yet the artwork nonetheless speaks eloquently to an affair defined by ardour in a war with distance and obscurity. Julie’s romance with Anthony unfolds in a series of spasmodic advances, shifting from random acquaintances to lovers without gradation, and Anthony could be counted as a masculine equivalent to the “girl who came to stay” John Lennon sang about. Their relationship continues in much the same way. Anthony doesn’t seem on the surface of things a particularly odd person: the son of a successful artist with roots in the northern working class, he’s become an establishment operative, Byronic instinct wrapped a self-consciously maintained Whitehall package. And yet Anthony seems to hover on the fringes not just of bohemia but society in general, contrasting the dressed-down funk of Julie’s arty pals and carefully locating common ground with Julie by airily declaring his great love for Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, whose example he points to as a way of looking for artistic truth rather than mere realism.

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Much of the time Anthony seems to be posturing as an Evelyn Waugh or Anthony Powell character, the saturnine, superciliously knowing public servant who knows life and is only too happy to school his naïve and unfinished young girlfriend. But at home Anthony swans about in a floor length, brass-buttoned coat like a wannabe Dostoyevsky dissolute, and has a couple of tell-tale wounds in the crook of his elbow Julie notices one night in bed. During a dinner with Julie’s mother and father William (James Spencer Ashworth), Anthony successfully negotiates the trickiest of moment of the meet-the-parents occasion as he discusses the terrorist campaign and calmly responds to her father’s perfectly generic Tory opinion with his own position that he’s against the violence he sees being committed by both sides, but managing to seem perfectly reasonable and informed all the while. Meanwhile William recalls the staunch sectarianism of the colleges of Cambridge he attended. Julie and Anthony’s relationship becomes defined by transactions of credit, spiritual and literal. Anthony, after a polite waiting period, makes a play to claim more space in the bed with Julie. Anthony offers Julie the experience of being drawn into a larger world, of new and more complete standards of maturity, including post-graduate sexuality as he buys her lingerie, and she gives him a safe harbour.

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Eventually his most immediate and consequential secret is revealed to Julie when she and Anthony have dinner with her filmmaker friend Patrick (Richard Ayoade), who extemporises airily on shooting two features with equipment he liberated whilst nominally in film school and declaring that there are no good British musical films. Patrick then announces he can’t reconcile Julie’s apparent squareness with Anthony’s reputation as a habitual heroin user. Julie’s disquiet is plain although she officially takes it in her stride, as it hardly seems to be a great bother, even as Anthony occasionally gets her to drive him out to the boondocks to buy gear off seedy beings in backyards, claiming it’s “for work.” One day, just as she and Anthony are planning to go off on holiday to Venice at his suggestion, she finds her apartment has been ransacked and robbed. Anthony claims to have find it in such a state, but after they arrive in Venice he admits what she already suspected, that he robbed it in desperate need of funds for a fix. Julie often has to submit to the commedia dell’parents in calling up her mother to wheedle a loan out of her, usually under the guise of buying equipment, and has to ask for particularly egregious sums as she has to keep Anthony’s habit.

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Hogg thrives on the forms of tension and contradiction apparent in The Souvenir’s purview, presenting a tale of youthful folly and tragic learning from a cool and meditative middle-aged distance. What such a viewpoint loses in raw immediacy gains in being attuned to the sense of the surreal that can linger around such events, that did-that-really-happen? lustre that can light upon events remembered, as well as a more precise ledger for things gained and lost. The gaps in the movie are also the gaps in Julia’s knowledge of Anthony and herself. It’s an interpersonal, even domestic story, but nonetheless rhymed to larger phenomena. Hogg’s evocations of the ‘80s milieu extend beyond mere cosy shout-outs or wistfully recalled psychic geography. Much like the later era of Brexit, the artificial but effective allure of the Thatcherite era lay in its self-willed recourse to an array of icons and ideals of a bygone Britain utterly passé in any realistic sense but so deeply entwined with the national self-perception that it became suddenly recharged with glamour. Even the era’s pop music, with the elegantly glitzy sound of the New Romantics, declared a desire to unify the best of a self-mythologised present and an idealised past – although Julie’s social circle prefers the ganga-and-dole-cheque chic of The Specials. One of the sharper British films of the era, Richard Eyre’s The Ploughman’s Lunch (1983), named itself after an advertising creation posing as ye olde repast.

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British cinema, still picking itself up after the collapse of the early 1970s, also underwent a split in this period that still lingers, despite some attempts to bash down the divide, between a polished and classy, internationally popular mode of period dramas, and gritty and provocative realism, ironically banished to the art houses. Anthony, in his way, is the living incarnation of such a spirit, with his retro affectations and love for studied, bygone art, his continental jaunts and mumbled reports of guarding against skulduggery, albeit with the other foot planted in a raw and squalid reality, and even seems draw some charge from such disreputable disparities, whilst claiming to be a foot soldier in the official war against existential threats. Meanwhile Julie struggles to invent a form of aesthetic that can comprehend such schismatic ways of seeing. The film’s most crucial yet cryptic entwining of personal and public myth comes when Julie finds Anthony has left hand-made paper arrows trailing through her flat, leading up to a windowsill where he seems to have left a present only for the thud of a bomb blast to shake the apartment – Harrods down the road has been attacked by the IRA. Such a coincidence could be a spasm of Jungian synchronicity, but given Anthony’s sometimes confused references to his work and his generally screwed-up attitude it doesn’t feel entirely impossible he didn’t know about the bombing through the jungle drums of covert intelligence or was even involved in the bombing through some kind of false-flag operation and wanted Julie to know it.

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At the same time it’s just as possible Anthony’s just a professional bullshit artist, an intellectual kibitzer whose creative/destructive impulses turned inwards and arrested in form through drug use and siding with power. Hogg doesn’t make too much of this – it’s just one of those strange and bewildering moments life can throw up given a special flash of rare meaning, charged with an addict’s sense of paranoid connection. What’s more immediately alarming is the strange, tattooed, incoherent lowlife Julie finds in the flat when she returns to it, some connection of Anthony’s who might as well be a horror movie mutant suddenly erupting into Julie’s world: Julie freaks out and bundles him out as quickly as possible. Like many young creative people Julie gets bent far off course for a time by the sheer pleasure of a consuming romance, to the point where the solicitous Marland asks here where she’s been after her ardent and fixated early days at the film school. But she’s also becoming an artist through the perverse and ungovernable processes of life: the lectures on how to use a moviola or the function of editing in Psycho (1960) give way to the efforts of Julie and her fellows, including Marland and denim-skirted, piercing eyed Garance (Ariane Labed), to shoot their student film projects.

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Anthony’s encouraging Julie to look beyond mere fashionable or reflexive realism is ironically realised through the texture of The Souvenir itself, utilising a smart tension between her often jarring edits and the deadpan gaze of her camera to open up zones of ambiguity even when what’s being shot seems perfectly straightforward, and Hogg dramatizes the head-versus-heart split at the centre of the tale as a dialectic of values. The artwork that gives the film its title encapsulates an entirely bygone romantic sensibility that nonetheless still captures something of the obsessive fire of love. Hogg’s previous films viewed haute bourgeois mores and blind spots through the register of suggestion through environment, a la Michelangelo Antonioni, with an added gloss of real estate porn: character inextricable from location, obsessions with domain and property giving form to people rather than the other way around, as in Exhibition which described the lives of artists trying to sell their home and cope with the aftershocks of an unstated crisis in the recent past. Julie’s apartment has a similar potency, gifting her influence and notoriety, independence and authority, even if she doesn’t quite understand what to do with it all.

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It’s quickly become a cliché to describe Hogg as a social realist filmmaker albeit with a different perspective to the likes of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. Certainly The Souvenir registers minute vibrations of class and financial disparity, but it also studies the way personality operates lawlessly in such terms. Lebed’s presence bolsters the feeling of affinity with Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Attenberg (2011), which, whilst quite distinct in its method, nonetheless similarly winnowed its portrait of awkward maturation down to a crux of tragic loss. Hogg occasionally interpolates fixed and ruminative shots of country landscapes whilst Julie reads Anthony’s letters with their stark and surprisingly ardent phrasings. This touch reminded me of Francois Truffaut’s shots of his letter writers reading their words direct to the camera in Two English Girls (1971), if with an inverted affect. The fire of personal communication is swapped for a cool longing for immersion in the calm reaches of pre-Romantic pastoral art with all its intimations of natural harmonies and sublime accords, but Hogg gains the same result in transmuting the staidness of the written word into a potent cinematic device.

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Common oppositions – new and old, aristocratic and plebeian, classical and modernist, establishment and revolutionary, man and woman, parent and child – all are invoked at some point, their limits tested, their mutant offspring called art. Julie and Anthony are lovers but their relationship comes to ironically mimic her mother-son project, Julie’s attempts to care for her lover laced with distinct maternal aspects. Real intimacy seems most possible – perhaps only possible – when Andrew makes Julie complicit in his habit, an admission that should start alarm bells ringing for Julie and yet which also offers the pleasure of feeling at once maternal and childlike before such inchoate need. The siren call of bohemian pleasures offers the possibility of maintaining some hot line into an authentic if dangerous mode of life experienced like a secret theatre within the package of bourgeois solidity. Hogg constantly envisions Anthony and Julie in separate spaces within her frames, usually in some disparity of business – Anthony cooking whilst Julie cleans, or the like, or talking over a table – in a way that nonetheless informs us of the way they contend as beings and inhabit space without quite meeting in it.

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Even in bed they have what Anthony wryly refers to, a la It Happened One Night (1934), as the Walls of Jericho between them, taking the form of the stuffed toy lion that betrays Julie’s uncertain level of maturity. This portrait of schism is also, more sarcastically invoked as Hogg portrays Julie and her film school fellows listening to a lecturer, the teacher at the centre of the frame, Julie and Garance on the right, and the male students crowded into the left. This sense of distinction is paired off with the use of mirrors, festooning the walls of Julie’s house, offering up alternate selves, alternate universes: the first time to pair are seen speaking is in reflection. The crucial scene where Julie is made aware by Patrick of Anthony’s habit sees Julie framed alone with Patrick and his girlfriend in reflection behind her, with Anthony then taking his place, intruding into the shot and completely transformed by Julie’s new awareness. Later, after Anthony’s been through an agonising attempt to kick his habit cold turkey in the apartment with Julie watching over him, a mirror panel on the wall glimpsed behind William’s head is seen to be punched in, echoing a key vignette in The Red Shoes (1948) and silently declaring the shattering of illusion. The most purely romantic moment in the film sees the couple dancing with their reflections granted equal space in the frame, the real and the illusory given perfect momentary balance and truth.

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These twinned motifs finally converge when the couple arrive in Venice and are installed in a beautifully decorated hotel room within which Julie and Anthony rove uneasily. Amidst the plush décor of the space a mirror contains both lovers as Anthony kisses her on the head, their little, crowded corner of baroque emotion in the midst of the ages’ splendour as purveyed in the shuffle of commercial tourism. It’s small wonder Hogg references Powell and Pressburger, however dubious a mouth she puts the admission in, as The Souvenir reveals itself as one of the great British tradition of romanticism lurking under a restrained surface in a way the filmmakers captured, and glimpsed only rarely in such other odd places as The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934) and Brief Encounter (1945), and Hogg casually nails the sensibility Paul Thomas Anderson spent the entirety of Phantom Thread (2017) labouring to nail down. After their fusion in the hotel room, Julie is transformed into a la The Red Shoes’ heroine as she follows Anthony in a ball gown through the winding streets of Venice, heading off to the opera: they have finally entered a magical land, delivered from the meanness of the present and become the flesh of their dream-selves. Back in their hotel room Anthony fucks Julie in garter belt and stockings, a capstone of intense yet dreamy sexuality befitting the haute couture cosplaying and Julie’s sense of arriving in amidst the fleshpot delights and filthy fantasias of true adulthood.

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Return to London however sees reality impinging ever more urgently until Anthony is arrested and, after she bails him out, Julie confronted by a different array of paraphernalia, Anthony’s junkie kit, and she orders him to get out. Julie sets about getting herself back on track, plunging back into work and brushing aside admonitions from her teachers and picking up one-night-stands with a new ease, filled with erotic glee mixed with a detectable self-satisfaction as she watches a hot young lover strip down before her. But when she reconnects with Anthony their gravitational pull is still strong. Anthony puts himself through the hell of withdrawal for Julie’s sake, and the ordeal seems worth it as Anthony emerges wan and shellshocked-looking but apparently clean and calm, to the point where he’s again dining with Julie and her parents to celebrate her birthday. But Julie’s immersion back in creativity, which sees her staying up to work on a project, seems to open up a void again for Anthony. Julie’s relationship with her mother is eventually revealed to be more than just one of indulgent parasitism as Rosalind voices hopes to Julie and Anthony about trying to go back to school, and she stays with her daughter one night when Anthony doesn’t return from a jaunt about town.

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Casting the real-life mother-daughter duo of Swinton and Swinton Byrne not only gives the film a smart charge of immediacy in their interactions but also, given Hogg’s creative history with Swinton, lets them take on an aspect of a split sense of self, generational drafts with all their varying levels of hope and experience, knowing and becoming. Family has other forms and potentials, too: Hogg films Julie travelling with her pals and collaborators late in the film in a van, united in their voices and enthusiasms, and the film crew becomes a different form of enveloping and delivering family, a collective act of arbitrating vision and ability rather than subjective and egotistical submersion. Their project comes to resemble something Jarman might have shot, a tip of the nod to the mentor and a depiction of the growing aesthetic courage and independence of the young students. When Anthony fails to return home Julie and her mother wait up and finally Julie pins a note to the building’s front door telling him not to worry about waking her.

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The sight of Julie’s unread note flapping unread on the door is one of the most forlorn sights in cinema, and her mother soon gets a phone call confirming the dread inevitable: Anthony’s been found dead of an overdose, consumed by his incapacity to sustain himself in the endlessly drawn-out tension of the immediate moment, which Julie can escape through creative and intellectual submersion. The loss is terrible and transfigures Julie, but it’s also another fantastic cessation, the vanishing of one aspect of her life as others crowd in, filmmaking no longer just an ambition but an authentic necessity. Hogg’s last shot is totemic, as Julie stands in the doorway of a sound stage, gazing from the threshold out at the countryside beyond, caught between the real and the created, the wild and the safe, ready to turn it all to good use in art, but also cursed with the incapacity to choose in which realm she stands. Hogg hides a brilliant sting at the very end of the credits, promising The Souvenir II, coming soon. The franchising of the art film, a new frontier for cinephiles.

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2010s, Auteurs, Crime/Detective, Thriller

Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood (2019)

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Director/Screenwriter: Quentin Tarantino

By Roderick Heath

Quentin Tarantino’s debut Reservoir Dogs, all the way back in 1992, was a film about acting in crime film drag where Tim Roth’s antiheroic Mr Orange was the prototypical Hollywood wannabe, working to become his role so deeply all lines between life and performance vanish, immersed in a game of whose tough guy act ruled. Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood, his ninth film, inverts that proposition to a great extent: it’s a film explicitly about acting, intersecting with crime and other random and inescapable cruelties of life, and the feeling when that gravity you’ve been defying through the transportation of creativity suddenly kicks in. Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood sees Tarantino returning to the climes of Los Angeles he recorded in his first three films, Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction (1994), and Jackie Brown (1997), albeit a recreation of a remembered city, the one of Tarantino’s childhood, recreated in such fetishistic detail it constitutes an act of conjuring. As ever in Tarantino’s cinema, fantasy and reality are blended to a delirious and unstable degree, but this time nominally subordinated to a pastiche of the familiar true crime ploy of outlaying narrative as a succession of checklist items in terms of who did what, where, and when.

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Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood revolves around one of the most infamous episodes in modern crime, by extension often regarded as an authentic pivot in the psyche of an epoch: the conversion of the counterculture dream into a nightmare by the marauding of Charles Manson’s “family” of young, disaffected disciples, events that refashioned not just Hollywood’s social landscape but in the whole relationship of celebrity culture to the world beyond. Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood’s title pays overt heed to Sergio Leone, one of Tarantino’s singular heroes, but its resonances go right down into the psychic life of Tinseltown and its misbegotten children. Tarantino’s narrative befits such fairytale associations, offering a revision of familiar history mixed with character dramas enacting a legend of renewal in a triumph of hope over experience. It also evokes the strange relationship between Hollywood, which was entering a crisis point at the time the film is set, and the filmmaking world Leone represented, in particular the Spaghetti Western. Today known for a rich and peculiar annex of pop culture, that mode was at the time so generally deplored and regarded as a synonym for cheap and nasty that one of Tarantino’s central characters, actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), is left distraught by the proposition of turning to it for career extension.

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Tarantino rose swiftly to the top of the heap of eager young independent filmmakers in the 1990s not just for his postmodern nimbleness and evil comic sensibility, but for his eagerness to resurrect the careers of actors out of favour for whatever reason. Tarantino’s belief in the special connection between actor and role, audience and on-screen avatar, brought immediacy and amity to his bricoleur excursions. Tarantino’s time as a struggling young talent who turned to acting to try and make a few bucks seemed to have honed such identification as well as armed him with some of the core themes of his oeuvre. Tarantino highlights the likeness between the industry schism of the ‘90s where once-mighty, now-waned stars like John Travolta and Burt Reynolds took their shot in indie film, and the more urgent upheaval of the late 1960s, where Hollywood almost collapsed in on itself with backdated product, a breakdown that also cheated many interesting and promising performers of the careers they seemed to deserve. Dalton is glimpsed at the outset in his heyday as the star of the TV show Bounty Law, being interviewed along with his stunt man Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).

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By 1969, agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) is trying to talk Rick into going to Italy, as Rick’s career faltered after his decision to leave Bounty Law and try for a movie career, and now he’s trapped in a succession of guest roles as bad guys in TV series, a punching bag to build up new stars. Rick’s great consolation is that he owns his house on Cielo Drive, nestled in the groves of Beverly Crest, with new neighbours in Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). “I could be one pool party away from starring in a Polanski movie,” Rick notes. Sharon’s career, in sharp contrast to Rick’s, is just taking off, ushering her into the jet set. The bulk of Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood unfolds on a single day in February ‘69, as Rick struggles to keep an even keel whilst playing the villain in a pilot for Lancer, a new Western being helmed by Sam Wanamaker (Nicholas Hammond).

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After buying a fateful first edition copy of Tess of the d’Urbervilles for her husband, Tate takes time out to watch herself in The Wrecking Crew (1968) in a downtown theatre. Cliff has fared in even more undignified straits than Rick, living in a trailer behind a drive-in movie theatre and working as Rick’s chauffeur, professional buddy, and general dogsbody because he can’t get any stunt work, for reasons that emerge later in the film. Whilst driving around town, Cliff repeatedly encounters lithe, gregarious, jailbait hippie Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) and finally picks her up. He agrees to drive her out to the Spahn Movie Ranch, a rundown former shooting location for Westerns where she lives with a peculiar gang of fellow waifs and weirdos. Pussycat is disappointed their beloved chieftain Charlie isn’t around, but Cliff is nostalgic to see the Ranch, where he and Rick used to shoot Bounty Law, and wants to talk to the owner George Spahn. But Spahn is laid up blind and guarded by a squad of young women who keep him sexed into submission, of which the most aggressive is Squeaky Fromme (Dakota Fanning). Cliff runs the gauntlet and chats with George, who doesn’t remember him, but upon emerging finds one of the young men in the gang has put a knife in one of his car tires.

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Tarantino grows his story out of the tempting morsel offered by the Manson Family’s residence at the Spahn Ranch, one of those details of history charged with layers of irony. The Ranch’s decaying state spoke of the sharp decline of the once-booming production of Westerns for both movie screens and TV, of which Rick and Cliff become avatars. Pop culture at large is being reinvented and colonised by a new sensibility represented by the so-groovy Tate and other exalted beings she’s glimpsed partying with at the Playboy Mansion, colourful and urbane rather than terse and rustic. The Family’s resemblance to the kinds of ruffians beloved of Western plotlines, a gang of disaffected and free-floating cultural exiles under the thumb of a lowlife posing as a guru, comes sharply into focus as Tarantino shoots Cliff’s arrival at the Ranch as a variation on Clint Eastwood’s arrival in town in A Fistful of Dollars (1964), threat vibrant behind every gesture even without an apparent cause. One reason that Manson’s onslaught lodged so deep in the psyche of Hollywood wasn’t simply because he bade his followers invade their mansions and desecrate the bubble of their community, but because he seemed to have fashioned a grim alternative version of the fantasy dynamics of the town, the great male visionary with his small army of rapt followers and pliable harem. The damage his female followers inflicted on Tate wasn’t simply execution but a wrathful act of blood sacrifice that punished her not simply for being successful, beautiful, and exalted in the world but for being their counterpart.

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For most of its first half, however, Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood barely touches on the Manson cult, instead drifting with its central characters in their various spaces of labour and lifestyle. Cliff sighs his way acquiescently through odd jobs for Rick but loves tearing about the streets of the city in his car with the radio cranked in the meantime. Tate puts her feet up and gets to enjoy the movie, beholding herself transmuted into movie star gaining laughs and cheers from fellow patrons and all the fruits of a job well done. The Family girls wander the streets salvaging food and scrap whilst in a beatific bubble, seemingly happy as fringe dwellers in the great society, a little like Cliff, who proves receptive to their presence, aware of them as weird fixtures around the LA scene. Rick, even in the midst of personal and career crisis, has a wellspring of professional skill he can tap. This approach to narrative signals Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood as much closer to a character study than a standard plot-driven thriller, where the time and place are also a character.

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Rick’s career is also a compendium of anecdotes, many with unhappy endings, as when the star of Lancer, James Stacy (Timothy Olyphant), asks if it’s true he almost got the lead in The Great Escape (1963). Tarantino mischievously offers digitally altered sequences inserting DiCaprio-as-Rick over Steve McQueen, as Rick grudgingly mumbles his way through explaining what happened. Acting is an eternal hall of mirrors filled with alternate selves, prospects grasped and missed, integral to an industry that needs the star actor as interlocutor between audience and art but also beset by ambiguity, a job with less security than the average mailman knows even for a man like Rick who’s colonised the dream life of a generation. The actor’s image achieves immortality, but the actor certainly doesn’t. By contrast Cliff is at once more curious and pathetic. Sent by Rick to fix his aerial whilst he shoots the Lancer pilot, Cliff drifts into a reverie recalling when Rick guest-starred on The Green Hornet, when Rick finally managed to talk the show’s stunt supervisor Randy (Kurt Russell) into giving Cliff the chance to possibly get some stunt work on the show, only to get lippy with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) as he showed off to the other stuntmen and accepted his challenge to a fight.

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Cliff as stuntman is the working stiff supporting the star show pony, the one who, whilst still immersed in the reflective glamour of the movie world, nonetheless has to put actually body and soul on the line for the construction of effective and convincing action cinema. Thus the stunt artist exists in that nebulous zone between fantasy and reality Tarantino loves plumbing. Lee is a taunting object for a man like Cliff not simply as a potent rival but as one making the leap from one caste to another: Lee has not just usurped his position but also achieved the ultimate promotion. So Cliff stokes Lee’s famous temper and they come out of it tied in terms of hits laid, although the fact that Cliff left a great dent in a car he threw Lee against seems to prove him the victor. Randy’s wife (Zoë Bell) interrupts them and gets her husband to throw Cliff off the set. Tarantino cuts back to Cliff as mutters, “Yeah, fair enough,” in the sure realisation and acceptance that even if he did get another chance he’d surely find a way to screw it all up again.

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This sequence reveals much about Cliff, including his genuine ability as a fighter as well as confirming all his talents for self-sabotage. It also deliberately begs many questions, as it’s revealed the big objection to Cliff is a strong rumour that he murdered his wife. A flashback is even added as Cliff recalls drunkenly handling a spear gun on a fishing trip with his wife who was just as soused and abusing him, but whether Cliff actually meant to kill her or some ugly mishap happened out of focus because of the booze isn’t shown. This all seems to explain a lot about Cliff’s situation. And yet the way Tarantino deploys it lodges it firmly in an ambiguous zone, affecting the way others regard Cliff in his memory and yet, much like his impression of Lee, possibly so non-objective that it’s hard to trust – compare it to the way Tate remembers Lee as a gracious tutor. Rick certainly doesn’t seem to believe Cliff killed his wife, but then again he’s so joined at the hip with Cliff, so reliant on him as a friend and helpmate, that he hardly counts as objective either. This is unusual territory for Tarantino who, whilst always engaged in a slippery dance between realist and fantasist postures, usually avoids engaging in destabilising the integrity of his storytelling in this manner. Much as a movie like Kill Bill (2003-4) had the undertone of a tale created by the child of a single mother designed to mythologise their parent, it maintained the rules of that fantasy.

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This disquiet in Cliff’s background lends a troubling aspect to what otherwise seems his easy-to-idealise valour in all other respects, as a near-forgotten war hero, a loyal pal and manservant to Rick, and unswayed enemy of Manson’s antisocial thugs. This is certainly in keeping with Tarantino’s general disinterest – the women of Death Proof (2007) and Django excepted – in the kinds of unsullied knights pop culture prefers, or at least likes their dark days well-hidden. Like his previous film, the often aggressively misunderstood The Hateful Eight (2015), Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood needles our laziness as viewers over who we assign sympathy to in movies and why and the kinds of myths we like swallowing and why. Most of Tarantino’s narratives have revolved around characters who can be hero or villain depending when you meet them. It also invokes awareness over the treacherousness of the history he’s engaging, with the tendency of the members of the Manson Family to blame each-other for heinous acts and the various forms of apologia attached to them depending on one’s personal and socio-political sympathies, as well as Polanski’s swift trip from tragic lover to exiled creep. The Manson murders were a long time ago now, and yet they still retain relevance, still inflecting aspects of the zeitgeist from political discourse to the difficulty as a film viewer to be had in watching Tate’s body of work, short of roles worthy of her startling beauty and comic talent.

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Rick’s career is explored with such fanatical detail, from his spot hosting and performing on the TV music show Hullabaloo to his B-movies like the Nazi-roasting war flick The 14 Fists of McCluskey, for which he learned how to use a flamethrower, to the point that we know his oeuvre better than many a real career. This serves not just Tarantino’s delight in pastiche but also his larger narrative target. Rick’s body of work is replete with echoes of Tarantino’s own – Bounty Law depicts a professional bounty hunter a la Django Unchained (2012), The 14 Fists of McCluskey offers a simplified version of Inglourious Basterds (2009) – and the feeling that Tarantino’s facing down his own middle-aged, mid-career demons through Rick repeatedly surfaces. Tarantino’s no longer the coolest kid on the indie movie block, but to all intents and purposes an establishment figure who’s taken some licks in recent years and facing the challenge of constantly trying to outdo himself when it comes to outré provocation and trying to mature without sacrificing his specific cachet. More immediately, Rick’s attempts to hold himself together in the course of shooting his guest role seem almost trivial given the forces waiting in the wings, and yet they’re all-consuming to him and vitally important in terms of his profession, a gruelling study in shattered confidence duelling with professional pride and abused talent.

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Rick is confronted with a preternaturally smart and disciplined eight-year-old co-star, Trudi (Julie Butters), clearly a kid with everything before her and impatient with his old-school affectations. Rick bursts into tears as he tries to explain the plot of a Western novella he’s reading to her as he sees the likeness to his own lot in the hero’s struggle with aging and wounding. This moment doesn’t simply acknowledge a metatexual commentary but makes an active aspect of the story, Rick knowing full well as he explains it to Trudy exactly how it reflects his own story and also connects with a very specific instance in Western movie folklore, the bullet in the back John Wayne’s character in El Dorado (1966) stands in for his aging, a reference that comes full circle in the finale as Cliff takes a similar wound that will also compel him to act his age. “’Bout fifteen years you’ll be livin’ it,” Rick mutters as Trudi tries to console him over his wane, reflecting both his own awareness that as a female actor Trudi’s up against even more daunting forces than him and also taking a momentary pleasure in the cruelty of acknowledging it, stealing just a tiny flame of her magic back from her, before his shame kicks in. It’s one of the best bits of writing Tarantino’s ever offered, not just in terms of the way it characterises Rick but also in the way it registers in terms of the larger narrative. The Manson Family will attempt to do just the same thing in far louder and more pyrotechnic terms, and the likeness echoes again as Rick’s role on Lancer is playing a vicious criminal mastermind with a coterie of henchmen.

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On set, Rick struggles to get through a lengthy scene with Stacy, and unleashes a torrent of abuse at himself once he’s back in his trailer, aghast at his inability to do what he’s known and prized for. This moment drew me back to Orange rehearsing his legend in Reservoir Dogs, as if we’re seeing the other end of a train of thought for Tarantino, the contemplation of what mastering such skill means at different ages, the fantasy of transcending self finally and inescapably exhausted, but with the bitter kicker that the only answer is to recommit to it. So Rick returns to the shoot newly galvanised and attacks his next scene with such gusto even Trudi is bowled over. Such are the absurd and yet inescapable measures of an actor’s gravity. Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood posits what could have happened if the Manson Family had targeted someone a little more capable of taking care of themselves. The key precept here is a great one: acting, especially in the language of old-school machismo, is often written off as an inherently phony art for creampuffs and pretty boys. And yet the Hollywood of the 1960s (and now) would have been filled with people who really could fight, shoot, ride, and do many a difficult and dangerous thing, and many lead actors were, then and now, rewarded to the degree that an audience sensed something authentic about the way they handled the world – no-one doubts, for instance, that Lee could have won just about any fight in life even if many a barstool brave could, like Cliff, fancy himself as the one who could take him.

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Tarantino offers a system of rhyming vignettes binding together the real and the imagined in these terms. Tate defeating an opponent in The Wrecking Crew wrings applause from the audience she sees it with, and she learned her karate moves from Lee, whose tutelage of her is briefly glimpsed as one of the film’s most cheery, fleeting visions of two ill-fated people alight in their youth and ability. Later Cliff and Rick’s honed skills will be used in a more immediate and consequential way which the audience knows is both total fiction and yet palpably real in the viewing context. Where Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice (2014) dealt with an LA left paranoid and punch-drunk in the aftermath of the Manson killings, Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood is a prelude where the possibility of something malignant and dangerous is only slowly registered and reality is just starting to lose a certain shape. Manson himself (Damon Herriman) is only glimpsed once in the film, appearing in Polanski and Tate’s driveway seeking Dennis Wilson, who used to live there, looking like just another weedy, hairy hipster. Tarantino stages the finale with Cliff under the influence of acid and has trouble being sure, when he’s confronted by the Family members, whether he’s hallucinating or not. In his Lancer role Rick is called upon by Wanamaker to remake himself in a vaguely hippie image with buckskin jacket and Zapata moustache, adopting the new apparel of the popularly perceived reprobate. Rick himself doesn’t like hippies either, in large part because he senses accurately they’re part of the forces corroding his career as well as decorating the corners of his town with strange sounds and smells.

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Cliff is easier-going in that regard, buying an acid-soaked cigarette off a hippie girl (Perla Haney-Jardine) for eventual delights, and laughing indulgently as Pussycat bawls at a passing cop car. But Cliff’s intrusion upon the Ranch sees a collective of gangly, unwashed drop-outs gaze at him like irritable marmosets from the old mock-up frontier cabins. This spectacle changes the film’s tone subtly but radically as something enigmatic and dangerous manifests amidst the otherwise entirely ordinary world we’ve been watching, and suddenly we’re in one of Tarantino’s classic, patient suspense situations. A scene like the beer cellar shoot-out in Inglourious Basterds depended on a sense of the unexpected suddenly and steadily turning an apparently straightforward meeting into a slaughter. Here Tarantino plays on the audience’s presumed awareness of the various signifiers here and there, like the names Spahn and Charlie and Tex, to lend menacing undercurrents to a situation that otherwise seems borderline silly, with the mistrustful youths ranged about like Hitchcock’s crows and Squeaky playing hard-ass watchdog. Cliff is unfazed by the attitude turned his way but also not aware, as the viewer is (presuming the viewer knows anything of the Manson story), of the kind of danger he’s in.

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Cliff eventually does manage to chat with Spahn (Bruce Dern), who proves aged, cranky, and barely aware of who Cliff is. He’s also an elder avatar for Cliff himself, a physically ruined and impoverished old stuntman, used by the Family in a way that surely feels like beneficence to him. When he fixes on Clem (James Landry Hébert) as the one who knifed his tire, Cliff beats the shit out of him and forces him to change the tire. The cliquish, self-cordoned sensibility of the Family – the adoring girls of the gang signal their sympathy to Clem and hurl abuse at Cliff – is noted with a fastidious sense of black comedy mixed with a sharp understanding of the rituals of such a gang for whom their own expressions of violence are considered honest and those of others unforgivable offences, crashing against Cliff’s complete indifference to such signs, a natural loner who’s long since mastered the arts of surviving that way. One of the Family girls rides up to fetch Tex Watson (Austin Butler), the most murderous of Manson lieutenants, who’s off running riding trail tours: Tex’s speedy ride back the Ranch transforms him into the quintessential Western henchman dashing to save a useless underling, only to find Cliff already driving away. Jose Feliciano’s cover of “California Dreaming” rings on the soundtrack, pursuing the various characters on their journeys back home with a note of wistful longing: the adventures of the day are passed, and what’s left is the mopping up.

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Rick and Cliff’s experiences are counterpointed throughout with Tate’s, free and easy on the Hollywood scene, somehow managing, despite the fact she lives right next door to Rick, to exist in a different universe. Rick and Cliff finally catch sight of her and Polanski in their convertible entering their driveway, like a glimpse of the anointed. The couple’s arrival at the Playboy Mansion for a party is a glimpse of a moment’s idyll, the apotheosis of a period in-crowd with so many of them doomed to an early grave. Tate dances with Michelle Phillips and Mama Cass whilst Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) watches and explains to Connie Stevens (Dreama Walker) the strange situation Tate lives in with husband Polanski and former fiancé Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch): “One of these days that Polish prick’s gonna fuck things up and when he does, Jay’s gonna be there.” There’s a suggestion Tate’s living arrangement with Polanski and Sebring was essentially a ménage a trois, but Tarantino keeps a wary distance from engaging with that. There’s a surprising gentlemanly streak to the way Tarantino lets Tate retain her almost too-good-for-this-world lustre, and not replacing her visage in her movies with Robbie’s. Tate gently mocks Sebring for his penchant for listening to Paul Revere & The Raiders and enjoys using her new if still fledgling star status to get herself in to The Wrecking Crew screening. Tate has no reason to worry about the disparity between herself and her screen self, recreating her on-screen movements from the audience in muscle-memory of the acquired skills and thrilling to the impression of cool reflecting back at her.

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Late in the piece Tarantino introduces an amusing codicil to the way the entwined yet distinct Tate and Rick stories relate, as it’s revealed both Tate and Sebring are fans of Rick’s and too shy to breach the distance between them. TV, cheap and unglamorous, is a nonetheless a common lexicon for everyone. Watching The FBI ironically unites Fromme and Spahn and Rick and Cliff, the latter two watching Rick in one of his guest roles as another bad guy: these stark little morality plays join the highlife to the lowlife, planting different seeds for cultivation. Tarantino spins this as he finally shifts focus onto the murderous crew Manson sends out to Cielo Drive, with Tex in command and including Susan ‘Sadie’ Atkins (Mikey Madison) and Patricia ‘Katie’ Krenwinkel (Madisen Beaty). As they work themselves up for the oncoming attack after being abused by Rick for driving their old and noisy car up his street, they latch on to a motive, the felicity of killing actors like Rick: “We kill the people who taught us to kill,” Atkins raves in increasingly demented enthusiasm in a vignette that captures the pseudo-radical morality of the Manson clan whilst also hinting Tarantino’s having a sideways swipe at the rhetoric often swirling around his films.

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It’s passing inane to note the obvious, that Tarantino deeply immerses himself in not just the movie business but specific wings of that business that have long tended to obsess him. He makes a show like Lancer, a second-string The High Chaparral or Bonanza, central to his plot precisely because of its virtually forgotten status and thus a fitting totem for pop culture’s mysterious melding of the ephemeral and the perpetual. Tarantino even allows Atkins that much grace in grasping an aspect of a truth. The little myths and legends we absorb day in and day out as consumers of such fare, so vital in the moment and readily discarded, are part of our substance whether we like it or not. Rick’s anxiety is made clear precisely because he knows he’s being actively written out of the mythology of his day remembered to less dedicated movie and TV buffs. What’s most interesting here is the way it frees Tarantino up on other levels, with a story structured and sustained in a way I’ve never quite seen before. Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood often seems scattershot as it’s unfolding, when in fact many apparently random vignettes and details prove carefully designed, in an attempt to deliver an entire film that’s one of his long, slow burns. Even a digression depicting Cliff in his trailer feeding his dog, has a function in this regard beyond simply noting Cliff’s shambolic life: we also see the perfect control he has over the pet, and like Cliff it’s a lethal weapon awaiting a signal to attack. By the time Tex and the others finally stalk the night in black clothes with butcher knives in hand, they’ve become actuations of fate stalking our heroes as well as very real terrors.

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When Tarantino resumes his story six months after the long day he’s described, the season has shifted. Rick has been to Italy, shot four movies that even gave Cliff a chance to recover his mojo, and is returning home married to Italian starlet Francesca Capucci (Lorenza Izzo). The great days are over: Rick has no idea if his sojourn will bring him more work so he’s looking at selling his house and tells Cliff he can’t employ him anymore. So the two men get roaring drunk before returning to Rick’s house and Rick lights up that fateful acid cigarette, and the doors get kicked in. Finally all of Tarantino’s gestures large and small reveal their larger pattern: Rick and Cliff have been granted as much solidity in their existence as Tate, Sebring, and their friends Abigail Folger (Samantha Robinson) and Voytek Frykowski (Costa Ronin), their movements ticked off as part of the same historical ledger, the grim stations of the true crime calvary doubling.

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The way Tarantino twists the true story of the fateful attack on Cielo Drive to his own purposes isn’t that hard to predict but still arrives as a set-piece of blackly comic ultraviolence as Cliff in an acid daze smashes Tex and Krenwinkel to bloody pulps, and Rick, shocked by the bloodied, sceaming Atkins crashing through his window and into his pool, grabs the first weapon on hand, which proves to be that flamethrower from The 14 Fists of McCluskey. As a climax this is of course similar to the finales of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained with a similar blast of gruesome, schadenfreude-tinted catharsis not just in the absurdly hyperbolic destruction of a truly malignant enemy, but also in releasing Rick and Cliff and even the bewildered Francesca from feeling like guest stars in their own lives. That part of Tarantino’s oeuvre which has long felt inspired by MAD Magazine reveals the depth of the influence in the way he transposes those old “Scenes We’d Like To See” strips into his movies. Indeed, the more one knows about the real brutality of the killers the more punch there is to it. Tarantino can make the revenge fantasy as nasty as he likes and still it cannot compare to what was really done to Tate and her friends.

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And yet this also made me wonder if Tarantino might have done better to swap his signature absurdist bloodshed for a harder, more realistic battle, all the better for breaking the spell of dark magic the Manson Family managed to weave about itself despite all. But as catharsis it still packs such a giddy, outlandish punch it’s hard to care too much about the distinction. The real brilliance of it becomes clearer in the subsequent scene as Cliff and Rick take leave of each-other not in any paltry parting but a scene of heroic gratitude and kinship. Rick encounters Sebring, brought out by the disturbance to the gate of Sharon’s house. Rick explains what transpired to the startled and fascinated young man, and gaining exactly the sort of potentially career-changing rapport he’d hoped for with Tate, who’s been saved. Sebring, as a fan, even grasps why Rick had the flamethrower. This particular revelation managed somehow to make me laugh and tear up all at the same time, as it finally becomes clear what Tarantino’s been trying to describe, for all his love of posturing as a cynical bastard. He knows well that part of us still longing to be saved by our heroes, even long after we learn what clay we’re all made of.

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