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 rather than making his own hell. 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, particularly 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 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

Here there be spoilers…

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 fascianted 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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2010s, Chinese cinema, Experimental, Film Noir, Romance

Long Day’s Journey Into Night (2018)

Di qiu zui hou de ye wan
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Director/Screenwriter: Bi Gan

By Roderick Heath

Bi Gan was inspired to become a filmmaker after by a college viewing of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) assured him that you could do what you liked with film. His debut as a feature director, Kaili Blues (2015), instantly marked him in both China and abroad as a new talent with startling accomplishment for such a young voice. Long Day’s Journey Into Night, his second film, is a statement of artistic ambition rare on the contemporary film scene. A surprisingly big hit at the Chinese box office, in part because of a cunningly obfuscating advertising campaign, Long Day’s Journey Into Night is also a film that tries to embrace contemporary frontiers in filmmaking like a bold application of 3D, usually reserved for special effects spectacles, and a unique brand of showmanship to a defiantly unconventional brand of filmmaking. Related to Eugene O’Neill’s great play only by a sense of living in a present inescapably haunted by the past (the Chinese title is equally loose in appropriating a Roberto Bolano book’s title), Bi’s film is neatly bifurcated as a viewing experience, the two halves – the title card doesn’t appear until almost precisely halfway through – corresponding to different states of perception and being.
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Bi’s approach to cinema is certainly original, and his vantage on art film internationalist. Nonetheless he threatens to unify some familiar traits that many other major Chinese-language filmmakers share to varying degrees. The lushly visual and dreamily psychological cinema of Wong Kar-Wai and the painstakingly evocative externalist portraits of Hsiao-hsien Hou meets the gritty reports from directors like Jia Zhangke and Li Yang, and even Johnny To’s bravura genre twists, to make account a deliriously shifting social and emotional landscape. His method, subsuming film noir motifs into a more abstracted and experimental brand of movie, also echoes a long tradition, back to the likes of Michelangelo Antonioni and Alain-Robbe Grillet. After all, the obsessions of much modernist art, with vagaries of identity and form, knowing and ambiguity, the sense of paranoia and estrangement pervasive in much of modern life, the uneasy relationship of personal agency with blocs of great power and crises of faith and ideology, conjoin very neatly with noir’s basic motifs, where the individual is so often an existential warrior in such a void. But Long Day’s Journey Into Night plays out a kind of film noir plot in disrupted and spasmodic fashion, used to illustrate a general, ephemeral sense of existence, where one search blends into another and all roads to a nexus of identity, far more ephemeral and romantically charged than such heady forebears.
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The setting fits such a story perfectly, offering a corner of a vast and prosperous nation where nonetheless not many interested eyes seem to be turned and it’s easy to imagine human flotsam slipping through the cracks. As with his first film, Bi’s real subject, or at least the most tangible one, is Kaili itself and surrounds in the southern province of Guizhou, a mountainous, subtropical region that’s plainly missed out on the great millennial economic boom. Bi surveys a backwater vista of decaying, blasted industrial structures, dilapidated enterprise, and drifting, isolated and disorientated people. Bi’s hero Luo Hongwu (Huang Jue) is first glimpsed, haggard and grey-haired, after a tryst with a prostitute, on his way back to Kaili after a ten-year absence. Luo seems to have been working at a scrap metal merchant’s as a cutter and welder. Bi’s camera tracks from a view of him driving off in a van and then along rusted metal barrier whilst Luo’s voiceover recounts how his one-time friend Wildcat was found dead at the bottom of a mineshaft. Luo’s return is prompted by his father’s death: he finds his father has left him his van but left his restaurant to his second wife, a move Luo accepts with weary approval. The second wife takes down a clock his father used to sit and drink in front of and replaces it with a photo of the father. Luo checks the clock and finds why it served such a totemic function for him: he had hidden a photo of his first wife, Luo’s mother, in the mechanism. She vanished when Luo was still very young, and he begins trying to track her down.
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One quest for a woman is conjoined with another. Luo also wants to find his former lover, Wan Qiwen (Tang Wei), a woman he became involved with years earlier, or who might have been named Kaizhen. She reminded Luo of his mother in some ways, particularly when he first saw her with smudged makeup. At the very start of the film, Luo tells the prostitute he dreamt of a woman, surely Qiwen, who always returns to him in dreams just when he seems at the point of forgetting her. What follows for the rest of Long Day’s Journey Into Night’s first half is a near-random-seeming assortment of scenes that start to fit together mosaic-like, recounting Luo’s present-tense attempts to find where his mother went to, as well as pondering his past with Qiwen and seeking her ultimate fate. Qiwen appears like an apparition out of the mess of Luo’s past. Luo recalls how he met her, as Wildcat’s former lover, tracking her down and catching her on a train that became halted by mudslide.
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Luo seems to rough her up, grabbing her hair and pointing a gun at her forehead, much to Qiwen’s detached and world-weary lack of great concern. As if in compensation after deciding she had nothing to do with Wildcat’s death, Luo took her out to dinner and encountered her again walking down a seedy tunnel wearing a green dress and smeared, blood-red lipstick. Luo showed her the same photo of his mother to her he would later rediscover in the clock. Or are his memories and his present bleeding into each-other? The older Luo visits Tai Zhaomei (Yanmin Bi), a woman in prison who was a friend of his mother’s when she was younger, and mailed the photo to his father’s restaurant. Luo learns things about his mother, including that she was a good singer, and was involved with criminal activities like forging identity cards. Mother and son both seem to have shared a fate to remain rootless and outside the law, and Luo and his father are unified by their fate to constantly dream about the woman they lost.
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Bi’s eliding visuals mimic the haziness of Luo’s memories, replete with rainy haze, reflections, unfolding in places that seem sequestered from the hoary everyday. Bi tends to break up longer, relatively coherent scenes with sudden plunges into subliminally connected recollections, a random access memory for vignettes charged with needling relevance. Luo’s voiceover describes Qiwen as someone who seemed to appear out of nowhere and then return there. His memories of her are often layered and mediated, a face in shadow lit by flame, a solitary figure swathed in green, glimpsed in mirrors and through rain-speckled glass, at once palpable and immaterial. Settings have a similarly conjured intensity, like the tunnel where Luo encounters Qiwen. Or the abandoned building with peeling paint on the walls and water constantly dripping from the ceiling, a place where Luo retreats and apparently once lived in with Qiwen, and which Luo recalls his one-time paramour teaching him a magic spell to set spinning around. Or the grimy railway café where Qiwen makes a fateful statement to Luo, and a cobra is kept in a glass case, rearing up in impotent fury, like an illustration of the lurking danger in their lives.
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Fragments of sublime and languorous romanticism are glimpsed, as when Luo and Qiwen lying kissing by a pond, or talk in the café where the subject is urgent but the mood is distrait, almost surreal. Such flashes of beauty are wound in nonetheless with a threat of violence and deep-seated angst. Luo tells his mother-in-law he’s been managing a casino, a tale that proves to be rooted in an old ambition he and Qiwen had talked about. Another vignette sees Luo promising Qiwen that if they have a son he’ll teach him pingpong. Qiwen wanted to leave Kaili with Luo because a man she knew named Zuo was returning. She recounts to Luo a story of how, when singing karaoke, he told her “I will always find you.” Who Zuo is and his place in the lovers’ life resolves as Bi offers a shot of a man wearing a white hat singing karaoke with Wildcat dangling like a meat carcass, in the bowels of some seedy building, with Qiwen seated but apparently browbeaten by Zuo, who grabs her hair and tries to make her sing with him. Luo recounts having seen Wildcat’s ghost on a train not long after he died, and later there’s a glimpse of his corpse being trundled into the mine shaft that became his last resting place. It seems that Zuo killed Wildcat, and Luo intended retaliation by sitting behind Zuo in a movie theatre and shooting him in the back, but Bi never shows whether he really did the deed.
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Back in the present tense, Luo is handed a handwritten message from Tai Zhaomei by a cop, giving what might be the current name of his mother, Chen Huixian, and an address. Luo visits a hotel, but it’s uncertain whether it’s his mother or Qiwen that he’s tracked there: the jovial but shabby manager tells him about one of his quarries, who used to pay her rent by spinning entertaining stories and stated she was born infertile. Luo visits Wildcat’s mother (Sylvia Chang), a hairdresser who Luo once was an apprentice to. Her account of Zuo’s dealings with her son and Qiwen sound startlingly like what Luo experienced, including being her lover and the deed of shooting a man on her behalf. Did any of this happen at all, or is it Luo’s feverish fantasy, or a blend of conjecture and identification rooted in things that happened to others? Was Qiwen Luo’s fellow survivor and islet of comfort in a harsh world, or a free-floating agent of destruction constantly ensnaring men and driving each to destroy the last? Bi doesn’t exactly answer any of these questions, but continues signalling subliminal connections between people who step in and out of roles in life – villain, victim, lover, parent, child – as time drags them along routes that seem at once utterly happenstance and eternally repetitive and predictable.
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The dichotomous hunt for Qiwen and Luo’s mother conjoins as a search for a kind of cosmic feminine, and often from scene to scene it’s hard to tell exactly which one he’s hunting for in that moment. Lookalikes proliferate. Meanwhile Luo explores a world where casual sights, like a karaoke truck or a boy petting a dog in a train station, will be appropriated and mixed into a fantasy landscape. Consuming fruit becomes an odd motif: Qiwen has a love of pomelos, whilst there’s an extended sequence of Wildcat eating an entire apple, stem and core included, as part of an odd ritual designed to end a feeling of sadness. Bi identifies an entire world of similarly uprooted and estranged people, as his camera notes Luo riding a bus full of itinerant workers sleeping, and a shattered factory populated by singer-prostitutes about to be left without a venue. Much like Jia with films like The World ( 2004) and A Touch of Sin (2013), Bi seems to perceive modern China as a place where the pace and type of change has left everyone’s head spinning, the country fundamentally fractured on the basic levels of community and psyche, the regressive lilt of its backwaters at once dogging the memories of its go-getters but also offering no cheer upon return. But like Wong Kar-Wai, he also sees the way we’re constructed by a mass of ephemeral impressions, always becoming and never more than a sum of the past.
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Throughout Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Bi works in some blatant nods to some beloved inspirations, including the self-animating glass of Stalker and the cattle skull-bedecked motorcycle of Touki-Bouki (1972). Such quotes certainly show Bi working through his cinematic touchstones, but they also serve a function as something like aesthetic milestones, points of recognition and orientation in the midst of a free flux of style. “The difference between film and memory,” Luo considers at one point, “Is that film is always false.” But memory is much more pernicious, blending together all the meal of being and identity, and our favourite artworks tend to become deeply entwined with impressions of places and times (this might also be the first and last film ever made to hinge in part on Vengaboys nostalgia). Tang’s presence in the film, as an international movie star whose beauty has the right mask-like, hallucinatory quality for Bi’s textures, provides another locus of recognition. Qiwen has an air of scarcely being present in mind even when physically present, of being too life-bruised and exhausted to react with anything like passion to any situation, barely bothered to resist clasping hands as if she’s been manhandled too many times to waste any but the minimum required energy fending such abuses off.
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Qiwen’s allure in the grimy and depressed setting Bi shoots is nonetheless inescapable, like something fallen from the sky. Qiwen shares a name with a cantopop star, a name that seems to distinguish her and signal her alien, too-good-for-this-place aura – this touch is reminiscent of Hsiao-hsien Hou naming the heroine of his equally wistful Three Times (2005) after the movie star Bai Ling, counting on such recognition for an archetypal charge: such names spell our moment and become our vehicles of self-expression and identification. Except that when Luo goes to a karaoke venue set up in an old factory about to be demolished, and thinks Qiwen might now be one of the singing concubines who works there, although the emcee-madame thinks he means an impersonator of the singing star, as her ranks are crammed with girls who specialise in mimicking such stars. To be subsumed to an image is to be erased. The opening with Luo chatting with the prostitute who looks something like Qiwen, signals the way Luo tries to retain a grip on the past’s illusions and his inability to move beyond them. Meanwhile he encounters people persisting in their small bubbles of subsistence – the hotel manager who points an ancient musket at his young employee as a bored practical joke, or Wildcat’s mother who works out to a video dancing game. Everyone and everything feels submerged, as if in a flooded city. After talking with Wildcat’s mother, who plans to dye her hair just as Qiwen once wanted to dye her hair red.
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Such throwaway and ephemeral details return transformed in meaning in the film’s second half. To waste time until the karaoke starts up, Luo goes to watch a movie and dozes off with a pair of 3D glasses on: at last the film’s title is displayed and the movie Luo watches becomes his own story. If the first half is an unmoored and skittish portrait of a man trying to sort out fact from fiction in his memory, the second has the fluid and metamorphosis-riddled aspect of a dream. The central conceit of Bi’s approach is that the dream seems much more lucid and negotiable than the section dominated by process of memory, which is associative and leaps time frames with jarring and bewildering randomness, although slowly it begins to add up to a kind of sense. The radical reorientation of style leaves behind the opaque shuffle of events for a rigorous, apparently single-shot experiential excursion, one that might be a “dream” and yet also seems clearer, more coherent, and more literal than the earlier half, albeit one filled with jolts of magic-realism. This section is replete with motifs anyone might recognise from dreams they’ve had over the years – mysterious journeying, strangely conflated setting and places, people who share multiple identities, anxious blends of public ritual and private angst.
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But Bi’s visualising of this, rendered in what is apparently one, long, sustained shot, inverts usual expectations for portrayals of the real and imagined, and ultimately makes you wonder which is which is his imaginative universe. He follows Luo as he enters an underground mine complex, leaves it on motorcycle and then rides a flying fox, entering a sort of industrial citadel amidst a jagged gorge that proves also to be a compressed pocket of reality where the stations of Luo’s particular life-long crucifixion are all neatly contained. People gather in a frigid plaza to watch and perform karaoke, big, beaty anthems echoing plangently around the locale, at once inviting the roaming outsiders and expelling them from the common run of humanity. Luo’s search becomes a literal trek around this segregated reality. Along the way Luo encounters a young boy living in the mine who also goes by the name Wildcat, and who loves playing ping-pong. He meets a woman who’s the spitting image of Qiwen except with a short red-dyed hairdo, managing a pool hall for her boyfriend. Another looks like the old Wildcat’s mother and has the same hairdo as the Qiwen avatar, who begs the hotel owner to come with her on some journey and confesses to be the one who burned down the building where Luo and Qiwen lived.
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Bi’s ostentatious yet resolutely unhurried formal device depends on a number of seamless transitions from shooting stage to stage – the ceaselessly roaming camera speeds before the motorcycle and then seems to glide through the air in arcs of languorous movement as Luo rides the flying fox and he and Qiwen make used of a ping-pong paddle the boy Wildcat gave him that has the potential to become a mode of flight, surveying the citadel and the human flotsam below as if momentarily granted deistic purview. As in myth, Luo has to pass a challenge to move from one zone to another, in his case winning a ping-pong match with the boy Wildcat. Luo has a potency in this zone that eluded him previously. He’s able to masterfully intimidate two teenagers who harass Qiwen, and fends off the hotel owner with a brandished pistol. In much the same way, the subterranean logic Bi employs throughout this sequence, the conjuring trick that is his cinema, ironically gives all a unity, a sense of completeness, that initially eludes it: the film’s second half is a statement of faith in art as a mode for making sense of experience. Luo is free to make associative connections and realise hidden truths. Resources of magic are available and time inverts.
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Each character realises multiple identities. The boy Wildcat could be the lingering spirit of Luo’s dead friend and also his fondly imagined and wished-for son, a reality in an alternate dimension. The vignette of Wildcat’s mother and the hotel owner could be simply be versions of the people they look like. Or smudged representations of Luo’s own mother and her ambiguous fate. Or Qiwen and her current boyfriend. Or future versions of Qiwen and Liu. They can be all at once in part because Bi has spent the entire movie carefully setting up the array of echoes and doppelgangers, generational examples of the same cyclical problems. Bi even has a certain droll sense of humour about the symbolic meaning of all this, as he has Qiwen comment on the symbolic value of the firework as representation of the transitory. In the truly surreal world, such representations break down, distinctions are lost, and opposites threaten to unify. The greater part of Bi’s game here is less to intrigue with such ponderings, however, than to articulate an oneiric feeling nearly impossible to articulate except with the tools cinema gives him. The sense of being at once present and removed from circumstances, of dreaming but also being aware.
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Luo’s encounters have a vital, salutary quality, helping the women he’s known, and by extension himself, escape frames of identity they’ve become entrapped by. The Qiwen he meets in the hillside town lacks the identifying marks that fixed the old one in his mind but nonetheless becomes the one he searches for, the green dress swapped for a flashy red jacket, just as iconographic but declaring a more worldly and contemporary aspect: classic femme fatale become ‘80s thriller neon goddess. Her fondness for pomelos suddenly gains meaning, as the highest rize on the fruit machine she likes to play, longing for fiscal deliverance. Strange as it all is, so much of Luo’s life clicks together like a jigsaw in these scenes, leading to its dizzyingly romantic climax as Luo and Qiwen kiss in the ruined building and do sit it spinning. His camera then threads an independent path, free of reference to his characters, through the citadel until focusing on the burning sparklers Luo left in Qiwen’s dressing room. Symbols of the transitory indeed, but burning brightly. We are of course watching Bi’s movie and he knows it, using the privilege to rewrite his own reality.

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2010s, Biopic, Musical

The Runaways (2010)

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Director/Screenwriter: Floria Sigismondi

By Roderick Heath

I know I was there, but I’m not sure what we were all doing around the start of the decade. Perhaps all basking in the glaring heat of LMFAO’s career, or praising ourselves over how cultured we were chortling at the toilet jokes in The King’s Speech. Sensitive white boys were masturbating over freeze-frames from Wes Anderson movies and the dudes who now trip over themselves to praise Kristen Stewart’s recent starring roles were all sharing memes about how talentless she was in those heady Twilight days. Whatever we were doing, we weren’t doing what we should have been doing, which was going to see Floria Sigismondi’s The Runaways. Pescara-born Sigismondi, daughter of opera singers, was named after the heroine of Tosca. An auspicious beginning for a woman who, after attending college in Canada, swiftly found repute as a photographer and director of freaky music videos. Sigismondi’s visions became prized as showcases first for Canadian bands and then internationally, for their bizarre dreamscapes laden with grotesquery, as in her striking work on The White Stripes’ “Blue Orchid” and The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s “She Said”, and clips for David Bowie and Christina Aguilera. When Sigismondi made her feature directing debut, she chose a topic close to her professional experience and interest, in deciding to adapt the memoir of Cherie Currie, Neon Angel: A Memoir of a Runaway, an account of Currie’s experience as lead singer of the prototypical all-girl rock band The Runaways.

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The Runaways failed to gain much commercial success in their day, except in Japan, and they’re remembered today chiefly thanks to their staple “Cherry Bomb,” which has turned up in such odd places as the Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) soundtrack in the undignified company of “The Pina Colada Song.” That song offered a swaggering lyrical attitude and heavy, chugging guitar parts, pitched somewhere at the nexus of glam, punk, and metal, a nexus fans of all three modes would probably prefer not to acknowledge could exist. The band was a relatively short-lived music phenomenon, releasing four albums in as many years and stumbling on after scene-stealing frontwoman Currie left the band, leaving it to lead guitarist Joan Jett to fill her shoes. Jett ultimately found her own mojo as a solo performer and eventually gained much greater success. The Runaways weren’t taken very seriously at the time, either, never fitting in with punk’s asocial credo, and far too spiky for the lushly eroticised sounds of disco. But their albums are spectacularly entertaining, with their little myths of reform school girls battling authority and hunting down sex and fun, like modern day Bacchantes enacting ‘50s B-movie plots. Sigismondi’s film, in drawing on Currie’s account, is less the success story of Jett, although that’s covered too, than her own tale of a talented girl falling afoul of the oldest and greatest trap of stardom: the freedom to indulge appetites whilst arresting the need to deal with the stuff of actual life.

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The opening shot lays it all on the line: a giant blob of menstrual blood spotting black tarmac, the moment Cherie became a woman in all its gory spectacle. It’s a touch that gives the film an unexpected sense of linkage with Jaromil Jirês’ Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970) which kicked off with the same fateful moment. Like that movie it’s a drama of an innocent being pushed out into the wild to hang with the witches and vampires, ready to transform you into a thing of beauty or suck your lifeblood. Cherie (Dakota Fanning) worked in an LA diner alongside her twin sister Marie (Riley Keough, in her film debut), daughter of a pretentious former actress (Tatum O’Neal), who, as Cherie describes it, kicked their father out for leaving coffee rings on the furniture. Talented as a poseur long before discovering any other ability, Cherie struts the stage at a talent show at her high school dressed as Bowie, lip-synching to one of his songs, and when the crowd gets rowdy and abusive at her freaky gyrations, she turns jeers to cheers by giving them the collective finger. She starts hitting nightspots, turning heads with her evolving look, and soon attracts attention that will change her life.

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Joan, likewise sporting ambitions to form an all-girl rock band even as her guitar-playing skills are still a work in progress, is a totally different type to Cherie, fashioning herself in the mould of old-school male greasers. She dares to approach Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon), a famed and influential music promoter and record producer whose career started with the novelty hit “Alley Oop” in the early 1960s. Fowley, a bizarre and showy personality who specialises in staying at the head of the pack in the music business by being weirder than the weird, likes Jett’s idea, and introduces her to drummer Sandy West (Stella Maeve). Once the girls prove to have musical chemistry, Fowley takes them out on a hunt for a singer, a performer to bring sex kitten zest to contrast the rock toughness, and fixates on Currie, with her carefully crafted apparel – “little Bowie, little Bardot, a look on your face that says ‘I could kick the shit out of a truck driver.’” Soon the band is filled with bristling guitarist Lita Ford (Scout Taylor-Compton) and bassist Robin Robbins (Alia Shawkat). Fowley bundles the girls up in a trailer in the wastes of San Fernando to practice.

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Dismayed by Cherie’s choice of an audition song, Fowley sits down with Jett to throw together a song that can double as a mission statement for Cherie, making a pun on her name and extrapolating a defiant message as the two improvise what will become “Cherry Bomb.” Fowley then provokes and taunts Cherie and the rest of the girls into realising their rock’n’roll fierceness, training them in the fine arts of playing whilst being pelted with garbage by having neighbourhood boys do it. Fowley’s antics nonetheless begin to pay off as the girls survive their first gig, playing an illegal party concert where they have to bat away flying missiles and general adolescent energy, before setting off on the road. Their adventures out in the wilds see them weathering abusive encounters with a contemptuous headlining rock band (inspired by several different bands, including Rush), provoking Joan’s revenge by pissing on their guitars. Once Fowley gets them signed to Mercury Records, the band gets big in Japan, so they wing across the Pacific to tour. But Cherie finds herself circling the drain as she anaesthetises her guilt about leaving her sister to take care of her alcoholic and ailing father, and a pariah amongst her bandmates for readily playing up her sexuality in racy photos that make them all look like soft-core peddlers.

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I liked The Runaways a lot when I first saw it, and since then it’s proven a constantly rewarding and entertaining movie to revisit. It doesn’t quite come together as forcefully as it might have and faces a difficulty that dogs many music biopics in trying to make a tale about spiralling addictions and detachment from real life fresh. But it’s still perhaps the most visually inventive music pic since Oliver Stone’s The Doors (1991), achieving like that film a texture that accords well with the music at its heart and the experience it records, preferring less a mood of earnest realism than one of being submerged in an aesthetic, animating a desire to portray not just a gang of musicians but the vivacity of a moment in time and way of seeing the world. Rock biopics, like the legion of biographies and memoirs of music stars that are something of a publishing standard now, depend on a dynamic a little like what critics detected in Cecil B. DeMille’s religious epics. They feed eye and mind with gratification and allowing the audience to get off on all the aesthetic pleasures of hedonism and addiction with the added pleasure of (hopefully) good music, whilst contouring them into a moralising narrative where we pretend to be interested in somebody’s romance with so-and-so or learn they’re really a family person at heart when we’re just after the gorgeous orgies.

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A contradiction to this is the fact that watching other people’s self-indulgence can swiftly become boring if they don’t tap the sensation of maniacal descent or transcendence through excess. The best movies in this vein tend to tap the latter quality, as Sigismondi achieves spasmodically. Since The Runaways’ release, life has added on its own fascinating and disturbing appendices. Currie, whose simultaneously antagonistic and overawed relationship with Fowley defines her tale, cared for him in his ailing later years before his death in 2015, after which one of the band’s real bass players, Jacqui Fox, who asked not to be portrayed in the film, stated that Fowley raped her. Such revelations add a discomforting extra dimension to Shannon’s ferociously convincing performance a self-made imp of the perverse. Fowley galvanises the band into a working unit at the expense of giving them a close and personal glimpse of egomania at a high-falutin’ extreme, delivering pseudo-philosophical diatribes about their role avatars of youth experience who must alchemise free-floating neediness into a coherent message (“This isn’t about Women’s Lib, this about women’s libidos!”). Fowley is the walking nightmare of the rock world who comes knocking on Sandy’s front door to speak to her straight-laced mother, who shags in his office whilst on the phone, and is glimpsed at one point hanging upside down and reading The Art of War. Fowley arms the band members with such arts for strutting the stage and staring down an audience bristling with anger, frustration, and desire. But he also claims his own ruthless price, as they must put up with his aggression, dominance, and willingness to sacrifice their real selves to a conjured image.

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The Runaways marked a coming of age for Stewart and Fanning, who have both since proven hardy, multifarious actors, but who were at the time struggling to prove themselves as adult performers. The crossover audience for people who wanted to watch former child star Fanning playing a doped-up jailbait exhibitionist and Stewart’s Twilight fans eager to go out to a gritty rock biopic proved to be about five people and a dog. But Stewart’s reputation now as a fearless and inventive star owes everything to her segue into this role, playing Jett with gunslinger swagger in leather pants and evil grin as she encourages her band mates to get in touch with the clitorises and their same-sex longings, as when she instructs Sandy to masturbate with a shower head and think of Farrah Fawcett. Fanning had the harder central role in playing a girl who, unlike the iron-souled Jett, isn’t really sure who she is or what she wants, painting on glitzy guises and playing roles asked of her to avoid the question; rather than growing into the apparel of stardom, she becomes a void around which such paraphernalia amasses.

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The Runaways unabashedly presents its heroines, products of sundered homes, distracted parents, and the mores of a grow-up-fast culture, as nonetheless the first ripe crop of femininity to emerge in a louche and liberated era and trying to grab the world’s plenty by the throat. Such hatchlings emerge amongst the tawdry but quietly fostering atmosphere of the LA suburbs where self-invention is a form of religion because everything else has a transient, prefab aura. Cherie daubs herself in paint and glitter and emerges as the new-age Venus, sexuality becoming just another pop trope she tries to master. Hormones blend with the beckoning promise of all things now being possible, as Joan’s pal Tammy (Hannah Marks) snatches a chance to kiss her and covers it with the excuse, plucked from Suzi Quatro’s lyrical refrain, “I’m a wild one!” Cherie is furious with her mother for leaving her and Marie to subsist whilst she jaunts off to Indonesia to marry her new boyfriend, and mocks her diva breezily egotistical affectations (“Places, people!”). But Cherie commits herself to doing the same thing first chance she gets, leaving her sister in the lurch with her grandmothers and father who’s left sickly and crippled by his own addictions.

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Cherie can’t escape them, however, or the impulses they generate which stick like barbs in the mind: Cherie’s return home sees her pathetically proffer to her long-broken father a $100 bill, totem of prosperity that can’t even save her own self. Life on the road sees the girls introduced to all the hedonistic pleasures available to them. Cherie quickly loses her cherry to the band’s skeevy roadie Scottie (Johnny Lewis), the kind of guy who likes leaping nude into hotel swimming pools, but also edging towards romance with Joan, who otherwise takes the place of sister and comrade in arms. Fowley nudges Cherie towards making an exhibition of herself for magazine photographers, but she leaps in high-heeled boots and all in trying to radically reconstruct herself as a fetishist icon and publicity magnet, only to be interrupted by her broom-wielding grandmother who tries to chase the photographers away.

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Skills in making music videos, a realm often dominated by purely stream-of-consciousness image-fashioning and brand-aware marketing impulses, don’t always translate into effective cinema directing talents, although many major filmmakers of recent years have cut their teeth in the field. Sigismondi’s well-honed skills for achieving strange and dreamy textures in her music videos proved invaluable in creating a dense and fetidly convincing recreation of the mid-70s setting in all its sweaty, fleshy, Me Decade tackiness and bravura. The Hollywood sign looming over the period LA is a crumbing and sorry sight, the tattered ghost of a bygone age claimed as stomping ground for hooligan inheritors. Much of the film was shot on Super 16mm to gain a grainy texture. Sigismondi’s eye picks out little splendours in the period recreation to turn to her purpose, like the chintzy tiling in a period hotel shower into which Cherie seems to dissolve as she frays, glitter make-up and mascara sliding off her skin and the small girl left naked and shivering as if she’s being sucked into the texture of banality. Vignettes like the band playing a house party that gets busted up by the cops, the band’s first real foray out of their trailer and into the big world of performing yet still in a bizarrely intimate, domestic setting, wields the potency of all pop music styles when they feed directly from the social landscape on a basic level, the synergy of entertainer and entertained.

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Sigismondi superbly catches the feeling of being swept up in a wave of excitement, and the way general euphoria blends imperceptibly at first with the heightened states of drug use and sexual unfettering. The film’s first big performance set piece recreates the band’s “Dead End Justice,” a Roger Corman drive-in juvenile delinquent flick set to song, performed for a thrashing nightspot crowd, as an orchestral show of light and dark, Cherie and Joan at the centre of a typhoon of noise and motion. A venture into a roller disco sees a swooning interlude of erotic discovery as Joan leans over a prostrate Cherie and breaths cigarette smoke into her mouth before kissing her, all in a flood of red light with The Stooges’ weirdo anthem “I Wanna Be Your Dog” with all its intimations of weird coupling and degrading delights, all the transformative thrill and danger of youthful experimentation packed into a single dreamy image. This segues into a drugged-up bedroom romp, tracing outer edges of Jesus Franco-esque sexual psychedelia where the two girls almost melt into each-other in hallucinatory spasms. Sigismondi puts over the druggy thrill and blurriness of Cherie’s spiralling habit coinciding with her efforts to hide in a guise with the gleefully totemic image of pills on a shining floor surface crushed up under the black gleaming form of her colossal stilettoes.

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Sigismondi plays up the queer aspect of the story, much as Todd Haynes claimed the legends swirling around Bowie and Mick Jagger to construct his own vision of rock’s vital place in bolstering gay emergence and visibility in Velvet Goldmine (1998), although Sigismondi’s approach is more intimate and ephemeral, celebrating the spree of possibilities set in motion as the rock’n’roll creed tests every boundary and seemingly makes everything permissible. Such bounty is part of both the creed’s grandeur and its depravity, adventures of self-discovery blurring imperceptibly with predatory behaviours. The performed sexuality seen on stage, particularly in the climactic recreation of the band’s thunderous performances of “Cherry Bomb” for a Japanese audience, is by contrast a zone of Amazonian accomplishment, Cherie donning a pink corset and stockings that in Joan’s words makes her ready for the peep show circuit, but placing it in her service of her own efforts to outpace onanistic fantasies by provoking them. Sigismondi sees in her efforts the seeds for Madonna’s later, more successful manipulation of this idea.

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Where The Runaways as a film runs into trouble is, aptly, where the band also floundered, in the process of establishing and maintaining a domain where its big personalities can operate and control their own image, but the less wilful collapse and fail. Cherie eventually digs in her heels and resists Lita and Fowley’s bullying, and walks out during a recording session. Joan, infuriated, starts trashing the studio and abusing Fowley, who is, ironically, delighted with such a display of proper rock’n’roll attitude. But the band can’t survive as a concept or unit without Cherie’s personality as its alluring and mediating face. Whilst Cherie descends even more deeply into drugged-up dissolution, Joan hides out in blank suburban bunkers and takes recourse in lesbian orgies, before resisting all temptation to give and fade back into the fate Fowley predicts for them all, as fat and happy housewives. She instead slowly but assuredly getting her mind back on music, and resurges as a solo star with her beloved cover of “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll.”

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Where the film’s first two-thirds are sublimely confident in transmuting loose history into a punchy narrative and sprawl of cinematic lustre, Sigismondi’s grip fails as events become more disjointed and the timeline becomes blurry. Both Cherie and Joan’s diverse processes of eddying and recovery require more time and nuance, and Ford’s moderately successful solo career isn’t even mentioned. In real life Cherie continued to hover around the edge of the celebrity scene (in real life she recorded a song with her sister, married Airplane! actor Robert Hayes, and starred in the 1980 teen flick Foxes alongside Jodie Foster, another brush with a big rising star) before dropping out. Sigismondi’s visuals retain strength even as narrative becomes diffuse. Cherie’s low ebb is well-visualised as she explores the innards of a supermarket, dressed in glam fashion but barely upright on two bandy legs whilst exploring the linen aisle, and traipsing across a weed-ridden car park, citizen once more of a crumbling and barren suburbia. Sigismondi also manages to give the film a wistfully fitting grace note, in the form of an awkward phone conversation as Cherie, now working as a shopgirl, calls up a radio show Joan’s being interviewed on to wish her well. The gulf between celebrity and civilian is ultimately defined by another disparity, harder to describe, not exactly one of the weak and the strong, but one of a certain innate warrior mentality that some have and some haven’t. The lapses of The Runaways are frustrating because it’s a lush, exhilarating, stupendously entertaining movie at its best. Sigismondi is still making major music videos, but damn, I hope one day she makes another movie.

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2010s, 2018, Confessions of a Film Freak

Confessions of a Film Freak 2018

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By Roderick Heath

2018 was a tough year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pacific Rim: Uprising

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

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

Tomb Raider

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

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

The Commuter

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

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

Black Panther

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

Ant-Man and the Wasp

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

Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom

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

Bad Times at the El Royale

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

Thoroughbreds

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

Hold The Dark

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

Double Lover

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

12 Strong

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

BlacKkKlansman

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

Mary Shelley

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

Colette

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

Vox Lux

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

The Kindergarten Teacher

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

First Reformed

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

What They Had

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

Dark River

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

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Performances of Note:

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

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

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

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Gemini (Aaron Katz)

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

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Mandy (Panos Cosmatos)

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

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Manhunt (John Woo)

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

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Ready Player One (Steven Spielberg)

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

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You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay)

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

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Zama (Lucrecia Martel)

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

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

To be announced

Honourable Mention

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

Rough Gems and/or Underrated

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

Disappointing and/or Overrated

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

Crap

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

Unseen:

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

The Best Older Films I Saw First in 2018

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

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

Mandy (2018)

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

By Roderick Heath

Panos Cosmatos is a second-generation directing talent, son of the Florence-born, Greco-Italian director George Pan Cosmatos and Swedish sculptor Birgitta Ljungberg-Cosmatos. Cosmatos the Elder directed many a punchy action movie over the years, including Escape to Athena (1979), Rambo: First Blood Part II (1984), Leviathan (1989), Tombstone (1994), and my personal favourite, his blend of disaster movie and epidemic thriller, The Cassandra Crossing (1977). At his best George had the kind of headlong, take-no-prisoners energy to his filmmaking that makes for great trash cinema. Panos Cosmatos debuted in 2011 with the instant cult film Beyond the Black Rainbow, signalling that he was going to be a very different filmmaker to his father. Just two films into his career, Cosmatos the Younger has confirmed a style based in delirious visuals and an allusively creative approach blended with concerted fetishisation of genre plots and imagery, a schismatic aesthetic Panos had stated very plainly is based in a desire to unify the artistic styles of his parents, George’s popular, spectacular thrillers and Birgitta’s abstract conjurations. Mandy, his second film, reaped a lot of excitement in the build-up to its release by promising a hallucinogen-tinted, utterly madcap revenge thriller carefully pitched to give fans of star Nicholas Cage a pure, uncut dose of his weird and galvanising talent.

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For once hype was inescapably correct, but Mandy proves something even more eccentric, a plunge into an evocation of a netherworld at once dreamy and charged with hellraising headfucking, but also a considered attempt to portray extreme woe as a state of mind that remakes the universe in its own sorry image. Mandy unfolds in a version of 1983 that might as well be in an alternate dimension, the landmarks all the same but the general spirit and rules of reality all revised by cosmic fiat. Red (Cage) and his partner Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) live in a house in the Shadow Mountains of British Columbia. Red works as a lumberjack, hewing away at the fringes of the primal forest, whilst Mandy mans the counter at a gas station and store, whiling away her hours reading paperback fantasy novels and painting fanciful illustrations for what seems to her own comic book take on her favourite genre. Red and Mandy both have the aspect of survivors, renegade lovers recovering from wild youths now happily drifting through the days out on the fringes of civilisation, with only need for each-other’s company when Red comes back from his logging adventures. Mandy, with her heavy metal T-shirts and goggle eyes, is a fawnish, fey-seeming lady who seems to operate purely by some skewed interior compass, whilst Red seems to have built his life around providing her with a safe shell to crawl into, partly because he needs her arms to crawl into himself.

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One day, as Mandy walks up on the gravel roads bisecting the forest about their home, a van passes by, and she locks eyes with a man in the vehicle, one Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache). Sand is the guru and warlord of a wandering gang of bohemian rabble calling themselves Children of the New Dawn, all in his thrall as a self-appointed messianic voice, and he instantly decides he must possess Mandy. Once ensconced in a nearby motel, Sand angrily spurns his older disciple and concubine Mother Marlene (Olwen Fouéré) in favour of a younger, Sister Lucy (Line Pillet), whilst instructing his slavish aide Brother Swan (Ned Dennehy) to find Mandy and bring her into their midst. To help Swan, Sand gives him a device he calls the Horn of Abraxas, which Swan uses once he’s driven out into the woods; the horn proves to have the ability to conjure up the Black Skulls, a band of demons riding motorcycles, whose hellish ranks Swan impresses for the task of taking Mandy and Red captive in their home. In exchange for their services, Sand casually tells Swan to let the demons have another of the disciples as blood sacrifice. The demons and cultists break into Red and Mandy’s house in the night, separating the lovers, tying Red up, and dragging off the hapless disciple for slaughter. Marlene and Lucy dose Mandy with a drug cocktail and subject her to the sting of a huge wasp just for flavour, before taking her to meet Sand in the living room, where the cult leader tries to dazzle her with his brilliance until she submits to his overlordship.

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The opening scenes stake out the dominant mood and style as one of narcotised and amniotic immersion, a state of free-floating spirit that seems to mimic the womb-like remove of Mandy and Red’s life together. They’re the kind of couple who know each-other’s sense of humour backwards – Red’s punchline-lacking knock-knock joke cracks them both up – and who settle down for dinner whilst watching a trashy horror movie. Their house has mostly glass walls that allows them to all but float amongst the trees. Mandy has a pacific sensitivity about her that lends specially charged meaning to a moment like when she stumbles across the corpse of young deer, and steps naked out of a lake with fixated eyes that seem to hold Red enthralled by her irrational power, in the best possible way. The jagged hieroglyphic of a scar on her cheek testifies to some encounter with terror and pain in her past. Riseborough’s preternatural gaze has never been quite so well exploited in a role where she’s required less to seem like she’s acting – which of course can demand very difficult acting – than a spirit haunting the movie even when Mandy is still alive. Mandy’s talent for illustrating seems to mesh with her fondness for the fanciful, as she’s reading a high fantasy novel called Seeker of the Serpent’s Eye about a questing hero battling sorcerers and demons. After finding the deer’s corpse, she recounts to Red, in a long, slow, eerie vignette, the story of how her father encouraged her and some childhood friends to slay some starling chicks he found, through his hatred for the greedy birds, but Mandy, lacking that edge of sadism so many only need encouragement to indulge, ran away.

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The arrival of Sand and his band offers a contrasting state of hermetic self-involvement, with Sand a tight-wound ball of craven wont mixed with a strange, livewire intensity that suggests a state of painfully ecstatic awareness. Sand wields some authentic-feeling qualities of the cult leader. Like Charles Manson he’s a failed musician, and explains with wide-eyed fervour about the transcendental experience of God speaking to him and telling him everything in the world was his, seemingly as a recompense for his dud career, and he offers a similar pleasure to those who follow him, a promise that even if he doesn’t want to use all the gifts of the people under his aegis all the time, he can still channel them towards a greater purpose than what the world usually extends to them. You’d dismiss him as a colossal wanker if he didn’t seem to really have some mystical powers, with his ability to completely compel his followers and summon demons to do his bidding. Whenever fear or anxiety unseat him, he’s able to draw in and recover a sure sense of his power, returning to glazed and fanatical stature.

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The film’s focal sequence comes when the drugged-up and tethered Mandy is obliged to witness as Sand parts his robe so she can behold his scrawny body and flaccid penis and listen with edification to his psychedelic folk-rock, a scene pure black comedy fervour wrapped in a shiny glaze of trippy colouring and droning scoring that keeps in mind the menace underlying all, the assurance that Sand will readily and easily do terrible things to Mandy and Red. What he doesn’t expect, however, is Mandy’s reaction to his great performance, as she begins to laugh with fearsome contempt for the man and his music: Mandy has encountered and defeated such monstrosities before, if only on the plain of her dreams. Sand’s punishment for mockery is however dreadful: once his underlings tie Red to a tree in the yard, he has Mandy bundled up in a sack, hung up before him, and burned alive. Left to his own devices by the Children, who leave after reducing Mandy to ashes, Red manages to work his hands free from his bonds and goes into his house, still tauntingly the same as it was a few hours before but now utterly changed, absent the presence that gave it meaning. Red is transfixed by the spectacle of an ad for “Cheddar Goblins” on TV that has demonic visages rising from a bowl of snack food, beset by animated visions of Mandy as a zombie, and stung as he pours vodka on his raw wrists and slashed side, raw physical pain anchoring him to a reality he’d probably easily check out from otherwise.

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Mandy’s bizarre style, sporting rich colour effects, plangent sound design, and general miasmic mood, sees expressive textures explicitly related to the otherworldly sensibility of the two tribes, the world of two that is Red and Mandy and the cobbled-together family that is the Children. Cosmatos seems bent on creating a modern version of psychedelic cinema, but that style’s generally gaudy, amped-up sensibility is swapped here for one liquidinous languor, as if David Lynch and Andrei Tarkovsky tried to collaborate on a New World movie for Roger Corman. The storyline proceeds with near-mythic simplicity, telling an essential story of loss and retribution, in order to describe the obsessive emotional quotient of Red’s experience after Mandy’s death. Mandy describes Panos’s imagined idea of 1983 as an age viewed through a prism of cultural detritus and childhood impressionism. The past is surely another country, populated with counterculture exiles and illustrated through the vivid, conceptually related but subtly diverse and individually totemic styles of cover art on Heavy Metal albums, drugstore paperbacks, VHS schlock, and comic book illustrations, all soaked in the bad Woodstock brown acid. The film might be a dream either Red or Mandy are having, the stuff of their waking fantasies churned together in the dye welling out of their subconscious.

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The demarcated chapters are announced by titles written in retro fashion, mimicking the horny curlicues on ‘80s horror paperback covers or the glazed, glowing fonts of fantasy film logos in trailers, the sorts of stylistics that tend to be so ubiquitous that you don’t really notice when they go out of favour. Cosmatos seems to be recalling with happy barbarity the days when pop cultural schisms were potent demarcations, when furious arguments over things we tend to laugh at now like Satanic messages in rock music could echo through the news space with credulity. The joke of this is that a pair like Red and Mandy, who often sports a pentagram-emblazoned Motley Crue shirt, are harmless when left to their own devices, whilst the Children, who are in spite of their hellspawn helpmates are actually designated “Jesus freaks,” are the cruel and marauding imposers. Cosmatos shows Reagan on the TV as another brand of beatific cult leader. The sociological import of this, Cosmatos suggests, is that more real damage has been done to the modern mindset by those proposing to have a path to God and glory than those happy to roll around in affected devilishness. The mysterious treaty between Heaven and Hell proposed by Sand and the Black Skulls, echoes an idea out of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, where the obsessive Jesuit Naphta proposed Satan was much closer to God than Man because the Devil was playing his part in the scheme of things whilst Humanity is always trying to go off on its own path. You could even describe Red’s path in the second half of the film as the dramatization of that path.

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Meanwhile Sand portrays a certain type of vanity to the hilt, turning his own libido and mesmeric conviction in his own value into a cosmic state, a diseased devolution of hippie mysticism into pure Me Decade ego service, bedecked in faux-religious finery. Mandy wins a kind of victory over him, signified as her face and his seem to be blurring and becoming one, doubtless the process by which he subsumes his slavish believers into his service, in an image reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966). But Mandy instead rips free and begins to howl with laughter, the worst offence to the man-god, who desperately masturbates as if hoping it’s a rite that can ward off humiliation, before he casts Mandy into the fires where, as the Children gleefully tell Red, she’ll remain burning for eternity. After escaping his bonds Red tries to touch her scorched remains, only for her skull to crumble into dust. Cage, up until this point mostly a quiet and beholding figure becalmed by Mandy’s presence in his life, now squirms in terrible private pathos. In his tiger-emblazoned shirt and underpants, pale legs barely propping up his weary body and pouched genitals and finally giving out, he’s like a caricature of a very specific image of bereft and pathetic masculinity, and concludes with the sight of him weeping on the toilet.

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Red sets out to avenge her with steady determination, visiting his enigmatic friend Caruthers (director and former Predator star Bill Duke in a splendid cameo), a calm but foreboding helpmate who has his ear to the ground, and who keeps a crossbow Red owns stashed away, a device of death Red calls The Reaper. Caruthers tells Red that he’s heard about the Children and their demon brethren, who tear along the remote roadways of the region transporting a powerful version of LSD concocted by some mad alchemist living out in the wilds, and reports rumours about the Black Skull’s nightmarish activities and supposed origin, as a biker gang perverted and misshapen by the alchemist feeding them a particularly obscene brew. Realising he needs a more than ordinary weapon to fight such monstrosities, Red returns home and forges a battle axe out of silver, moulding, hammering, and polishing the weapon until it’s a glistening demon slayer which he names, of course, Mandy. This sequence comes weighed up with brazenly iconic, fuck-yeah delight in the macho swagger and sense of impending reckonings, and Red sets out on his battle with evil well-armed if still facing great odds: “You’ll probably die,” Caruthers has warned him, to Red’s reply, in a tenor of slight hurt mixed with dry resolve, “Don’t be negative.”

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When the time comes for the roaring rampage of revenge Mandy certainly delivers. But it remains steadfast in its strangeness, its air of surreal grappling with a specific keynote of emotion. It’s also a film dedicated utterly to describing a mood that, for all the retro trope harvesting, seems somehow purely contemporary. A feeling of being bound and trapped, flailing in impotent anxiety before the entitled arrogance of others, of being naked before looming arithmetic of debts that can be repaid fourfold and yet only ever be too late and too little. It’s close to a zeitgeist right now, and Cosmatos, however coincidentally, speaks to it. More immediately, his purpose is to define Red’s sense of dislocated grief, and that is also the idea of grief in general. Red goes to war with “all that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil,” as his ancestor Ahab once did. Mandy zeroes in a rarely-contemplated aspect of the revenge saga, which usually, when not simply using it a pretext for violence, utilises it as a metaphor for the process of expiating loss. Mandy immerses Red, and the viewer, in a sodden state of inescapable awareness where the shock of violence intensifies rather than dispels the punch-drunk atmosphere, each gruesome slaying and sticky end ratcheting up the insanity a few more degrees. Every torn body and crumpled skull simply underscores the impossibility of escaping the sink of sorrow until the very last station is reached.

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Like some of the other more interesting films of 2018, like Lynne Ramsay’s equally shell-shocked You Were Never Really Here and Steven Spielberg’s more larkish take Ready Player One, Mandy considers the universe conjured by the mind, infinitely transformative and replete with manifold masks and yet so often defined by certain, infinitely significant points of reference, giving shape to the fragmentary nature of existence. Perhaps it’s the last frontier, a place of authentic struggle as well as retreat. Early scenes of Red and Mandy out picnicking and swimming in the woods are given the faintly unreal lustre of how Mandy might paint such a scene, with surging vortexes of pure energy in the sky and walls of fire appearing to Red, whilst the film’s very last shot perceives a landscape transformed into an exoplanetary wasteland, with soaring crags and hovering galactic bodies. Mandy herself seems to exist in a liquid state of being, timeless and resistant to ossification, a state that Cosmatos identifies as specifically feminine, in a manner reminiscent of Ma Joad’s speech from The Grapes of Wrath (1940), whilst Red is defined by a reductive sense of the function of masculinity, in the sense that he’s only free of the need to hunt – to chase down and destroy – when immersed in her space, and to be bereft of that space as he is when Mandy dies is like being born in a cold world all over again, birth that is like death. That Red plucks out a bottle of spirits from where he’s kept it stashed for god knows how long and uses it balm wounds inside and out says a lot of how he doused and dimmed that need before meeting Mandy.

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For a film that depends on exploiting Cage’s reputation as Hollywood’s most obliging fruitcake, his performance in Mandy is actually quite controlled, expertly managing the leap from dreaming companion to nihilistic marauder. When he pulls out some trademark mannerisms, like his mad grin, they come with a newly certain sense of import, of the soul in extremis, after passing through moments of convincing naturalism, as in Red’s despairing bathroom moment. Cage is willing to look undignified and slightly absurd here, in a way a lot of actors don’t dare. Mandy’s death is portrayed for the most part via Red’s agonised reaction. This scene presents a variation on another memorable recent Cage role, inverting the situation in Kick-Ass (2010) where he was the one burning whilst the female he cared for tried to save him. Red hits the warpath, hacking, slashing, goring, and felling his foes, who seem to become less substantial with each one he defeats, phantoms who are functions of his mourning. Even more so when the Black Skulls take him prisoner and pinion him with a nail through one hand and handcuffs on the other, perfectly encapsulating his agonistes. Red even taunts one of the demons into punching him repeatedly, although this has the practical purpose of loosening the pipe length he’s cuffed to, and when the pipe comes loose he clobbers the vile creature until it plunges into a gaping pit.

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The Black Skulls’ abode, a mixture of torture chamber and drug house where garbage is piled up, startling elixirs waits in jars, and porn flicks buzz on the TV, cunningly blurs the line between presenting the Black Skulls as authentically paranormal figures and merely heightened, hallucination-transformed junkies; in their look, with their nail-bedecked clothes, blade-sporting limbs, and chitinously masked faces, they seem like a cross between the Cenobites from Hellraiser (1987), the gimp from Pulp Fiction (1994), and Brando-idolising bikers. Red slays all of the Black Skulls and moves on to track down the chemist (Richard Brake) who makes their dire drug concoctions: the chemist proves able to deduce purely by reading Red’s stoic facial expression what his thoughts are. The chemist releases his pet tiger – yes, pet tiger – on Red’s unstated insistence and guides him on to the remote church where the Children congregate, where he does battle with the cultists one by one, gruesomely shoving the end of his battle axe down Swan’s throat and duelling Brother Klopek (Clément Baronnet) in a contest with roaring chainsaws. Finally Red approaches the end of his journey in the church, built over a subterranean system of tunnels that look like they might have been built for a government installation, a labyrinth where Red must first move past the sensual pleasures Marlene offers before reaching Sand and his assurances that Red is a paltry thing compared to his exalted triumph. But Sand is reduced to an obviously fake waxen skull and limbs breaking and melting under the fire and wrath Red brings, a crumpled mannequin in death: perhaps that was only ever his function, to awaken the apocalyptic force in Red. He drives away from the burning church, seeing Mandy in the car seat beside him, perhaps her spirit rescued from perdition or just a wishful apparition in his overheated brain, but with the sure meaning that as far as Red’s concerned he’s done right by her.

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Mandy comes on as an enveloping audio-visual experience, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s sonorous final score charting the tale’s psychological tenor and sense of spiritual angst, infusing Cosmatos’ lysergic images which roll on drenched in clashing primary hues that suggest Mario Bava making a music video. King Crimson plays over the opening credits. Recognisable fragments of the kind of late ‘70s and early ‘80s drive-in and video store fodder Cosmatos seems to have consumed and reprocessed into the fuel oil of his imagination float by: the chainsaw duel is out of Motel Hell (1981), the forging scene reminiscent of Conan the Barbarian (1982). The vision of Red overlooking the Children’s church, a spire of pyramidal wood in the midst of a deep, cleaving gorge, has a sense of outsized, cyclopean strangeness reminiscent of Michael Mann’s The Keep (1983) and some other, oddball by-products of the era. Often Cosmatos aims for self-conscious transformation of kitsch, like a vision of the released tiger roaring under a pulp mag moon, that obeys some personal logic, an attempt to transcribe the memory of what it was like to be a particularly imaginative adolescent, trying to imagine the perfect movie behind all those video cases, the one the real movies usually proved so disappointingly not to be.

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Mandy could be the strangest and most interesting attempt to blend art house and grindhouse notions of cinema since Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day (2001). The feeling of inevitability in its narrative could be called a fault, a limitation of its cumulative power. But it’s also certainly an offshoot of Cosmatos’ motive, his desire to dramatise a state of mind, to work through a fixation and exist entirely in an oneiric space. The Red who comes out the far end of his savage adventure is not the same man, but a new chimera, the product of his loss and love both. Mandy struggles to articulate the feeling of a particularly intense variety of dream or trip, and succeeds as such, but also emerges as the sort of movie doomed to split those who dare enter its colour-drenched frames into ranks of true believers and those who run the other way hard and fast. For myself, I both love it and distrust it, for the same reason as it tries to speak past the front of the mind to the weird and fetid recesses in the back. It is, in its way, the most intense and reorientating cinematic experience I’ve had since Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011), a film with which it shares little but the increasingly rare treat of directors utterly in love with their mediums determined to enact their vision to the limit.

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