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

All the Money in the World (2017)

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Director: Ridley Scott

By Roderick Heath

Where Ridley Scott last left off, he was sending his biologically engineered übermenschen off into deep space to operatic fanfares of crypt-black irony. All the Money in the World, although set in the recent, very earthbound past, nonetheless takes up where that movie left off as young John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer) reports in sad and bewildered voiceover his family’s elevation from the lot of common mortals to alien beings, existing in the world but scarcely belonging to it anymore. The idea that the rich might as well be a different species certainly feels rooted in the deepest recesses of Scott’s imagination, but so, too, is a probing, contradictory humanism that wants to understand even in condemning. Out for a walk one night in Rome in the balmy climes of 1973, Paul hears his name called out by the driver of a Volkswagen bus. When he approaches the vehicle, he’s bundled inside by masked, gun-wielding criminals, and spirited away to be imprisoned in an old cellar somewhere out in the Calabrian campagna. His captors are a scruffy bunch of low-rent criminals who see the chance for quick and easy riches. In himself, Paul is actually worth very little. But he happens to be the grandson of John Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer), the world’s richest man not simply of the moment but in the history of histories.

Paul lives in Rome with his mother, Gail Harris (Michelle Williams), who has recently divorced old Getty’s dissolute son John Paul Jnr (Andrew Buchan). Young Paul’s strange situation as golden boy with the potential for vast fortune and yet, for the present, simply a good-looking young chancer kicking about Rome is sourced in the manifold ironies of his upbringing, raised in fairly normal circumstances as his boozy but good-hearted father was scarcely acquainted with his own tycoon sire. Scott offers a lengthy flashback to a time when the family was broke, but reasonably happy in San Francisco. In an attempt to deal with their money worries, Gail coached her husband in writing a letter to his father, stating his understanding that their long alienation was the result of Getty’s desire to see his boy prove himself on his own. To their excitement, this gained a telegram response offering John Paul Jnr a job, which proved to be director of Getty’s European operations: “Sink or the swim,” was patriarch’s advice. Getty seemed to take a particular shine to Paul, giving him a statuette of the Minotaur, one he held to be worth millions of dollars, and utilising him as helpmate in his correspondence seeing off the legions writing to him begging for money.

John Paul Jnr, far from being remade by new prosperity, soon started living the bohemian high life, and sank into a drug induced stupor in Morocco. Gail divorced him, taking full custody of the children and refusing any compromises with the Getty dynasty by taking their money. Sadly, the result of this theoretically clean break leaves Gail totally at sea in dealing with the crisis that soon befalls her, and she’s obliged to ask Getty for the cash when the kidnappers demand $17 million for the safe release of her son. Getty, however, soon declares he has no intention of paying, nominally because he doesn’t want to encourage further such actions against his family and to hold a stern bulwark against the encroaching torpor and craziness of the age. Getty instead recalls a trusted negotiator and security chief, Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg), from the Middle East and assigns him to look into the kidnapping and advise Gail. One of the kidnappers is shot by his fellows after accidentally allowing Paul to see his face, his incinerated body is found on the roadside, allowing the carabinieri to track down his known accomplices and gun down several of them. But they’re too late to retrieve Paul, who’s been sold to the Calabrian mob, the ‘Ndràngheta. Paul forms a mutually tolerant bond with one of his captors, Cinquanta (Romain Duris), a gritty but empathetic personality who has committed himself with growing unease to a criminal enterprise, especially as he’s essentially sold onto the new masters along with his charge.

All the Money in the World, written by David Scarpa and drawn from John Pearson’s book about the true events that befell the Getty clan but making few bones about being a dramatic embellishment rather than exacting factual account, was given an unexpected boost in notoriety and intrigue even before it came out when Kevin Spacey, who had initially played old Getty, fell from grace thanks to sexual assault allegations. Scott made the decision, rather than see his film shelved and forgotten, to reshoot Spacey’s scenes with Plummer, who was closer to the right age for the character anyway, and still make the release date. All the Money in the World therefore provokes a level of admiration simply for existing at all in a coherent form, although perhaps not that much surprise. Scott, although long ensconced in Hollywood’s ponderous productions, has roots in the tight deadlines, low budgets, and pitiless pace of British TV work in the 1960s, and I get the feeling this was precisely the kind of challenge to skill and discipline Scott relishes. This achievement also meshes in an unexpected subtextual manner with the substance of the film itself, the sympathy it offers old Getty as someone who feels obligated by pride, business instinct, and pure predatory gall to turn every exchange into a test of professional strength. Scott understands that side of Getty, the man absolutely dedicated to his work.

The wrath of the outsider, the struggles of the frustrated would-be titan, the duels of individuals, communes, and classes, have long been fuel of Ridley Scott’s films as far back as the title characters of The Duellists (1977) and the working stiffs served up as lunchmeat and breeding husks by corporate paymasters in Alien (1979). Most of his films ably chart fault lines of self-perception and social identity, and All the Money in the World is perfect Scott material in recounting the tale of this benighted youth who finds himself defined and revised – psychologically and, eventually, physically – by inherited facts of identity like a uniquely cruel, inverted version of the sorts of lessons dealt out to Dickens’ waifs, whom Paul somewhat resembles as a wandering child who finds himself the object of both great good fortune and nefarious designs. Scott has also long displayed a fascination for characters nominally on the wrong side of such wars, a rarefied ardour for beings twisted into ignoble Calibans by their travails or separated from the common run of humanity by dint of their peculiar abilities or tastes, sometimes existing on either side of the patrician-plebeian divide or sometimes commingled in single bodies. Most of the characters in Blade Runner (1982) could count as both, but the image of the banished Replicants and ensconced magnate Tyrell in that film remains a blueprint for the essential struggle. All the Money in the World could offer a ready analogy between its vision of old Getty and the Satan figure in Legend (1985), the ultimate mythical reduction of the theme, except that even in that film Scott gave sympathy to his devil as the bewildered exile of a disinterested father clasping at anything precious that came his way.

Getty is Ozymandian colossus, gazing down balefully on high upon anyone fortunate, or unfortunate, enough to fall into his orbit, a Midas whose touch turns relations not to gold, but to ashes. Getty gives his grandson tours of Roman imperial palaces, explaining his conviction he’s the reincarnation of the Emperor Hadrian, an echo of E.L. Doctorow’s novel, Ragtime, where Henry Ford and JP Morgan were depicted with a similar conviction. Later, Chase is privy to Getty’s designs to rebuild Hadrian’s palace “with flush toilets.” But his everyday life is a parade of skinflint habits, like washing his own clothes and installing a payphone in his English country estate, that are wryly amusing until suddenly they’re not. Chase is first glimpsed in his capacity as a negotiator for Getty, trying to strike a deal with Saudi princes and sheikhs whose fortune Getty made by taking the risk of drilling on their land, but not as much as he made his own. Now the Arab leaders are simultaneously bemoaning their own sons’ profligate carelessness but also hoping to snatch the reins of power from Getty now that his leases are ending and the advent of OPEC is shifting the orbits of the fiscal universe. Ironically, the tools of OPEC in choking off oil supply and sparking energy crises threaten to make Getty even richer. And yet as Gail and Chase press him to consider paying the ransom, Getty states he’s in too precarious a position financially, and responds to Chase’s question about how much he’d need to feel more secure with a simple “More.” This response carries instant and obvious film noir associations, as it comes straight out of John Huston’s Key Largo (1948), as the answer Edward G. Robinson’s gangster gave to the same question.

At his least Scott has sometimes been a purveyor of pretty pictures merely encrusting studio labours rather than enriching them. But at his best he’s a fashioner of little universes replete with suggestions of transitory states of being and feeling. Films like The Duellists and Blade Runner, Kingdom of Heaven (2005) and The Counselor (2013), are works that capture in visual textures the gratitude of their protagonists for the islets of beauty and comfort that gave restful ease from a buffeting universe. The opening of All the Money in the World is a dreamy little etude that captures the feeling of being young, reasonably free and able, at large in a city that offers all experience as a bounty, Scott’s camera gliding with Paul as he soaks in the night’s textures, including the erotic promises of the prostitutes who both mock and covet his youth. This sequence is quietly rhymed later to an interlude, earlier in the timeline of events recounted, when Paul is seen wandering the Moroccan abode his father has taken over, a hushed, shadowy abode, ripe stage for decadent adventures, lithe-limbed odalisques on the prowl, and Paul a bewildered youth adrift amongst the tides of greedy pleasures. It’s startling how much texture and self-referential verve Scott packs into this little scene, calling back to the retro-futurist stately abodes of Blade Runner and the historical exoticism of Kingdom of Heaven, capturing the psychic horizon in either direction that lurks for the weak-willed plutocrat, the bastions of dissolute collapse. Scott’s casting of Ghassan Massoud, who played Saladin in the latter film, as one of the Sheikhs arguing with Chase over oil rights brings that story up to date, the course of history also a metronome of shifting economic and political contest.

The ethical schema of All the Money in the World seems so obvious that it’s tempting to rebel against it, and although Scott and Scarpa don’t go easy on Getty for his monstrous clumsiness and abnegation, they do chart with surprising intensity and depth the specific walls of self-protection and carefully nurtured systems of removal and estrangement. Here are the habits of an aged and cynical man who infers emotions through the seismograph of economic appeals and expectations, and for whom truth long ago melted into a perverse geography, the gravitational force of his fortune working like a black hole to distort all relationships. Getty sits uneasily on a relentless source of horror, buried under layers of hard-bitten disdain for lesser mortals, at the pits money can open. He explains to Chase why he entitled a book he wrote not “How to Get Rich” but “How to Be Rich,” a guide to the habits that must be necessarily cultivated and practised with ruthless discipline in order to not merely accrue a fortune and then expend it and one’s self with it, such as instantly befalls his son the moment the taps of addiction-indulgence are opened. Getty sees traps in plenty and the call of boundless possibility. Such a theme echoes one of the best lines in a film by one of Scott’s cinematic heroes, Stanley Kubrick, in Barry Lyndon (1975), which proposed that too often the aspects of a character that drive one to make a fortune all too often ruin them after gaining it.

And to be fair, Getty has a point, when any quick survey of his immediate family offers plenty of support to his thesis. After all, Chase has found that Paul’s proposals to stage his kidnapping were in league with nominal revolutionaries, who Chase confronted only to be left rolling eyes at their threats to put him trial for crimes against the proletariat. The trouble is, Getty’s cynicism is bound up with a sense of moral phthisis eating its way into everything in sight. Getty practices rigorous tax avoidance by plying all of his earnings into purchasing artworks that pile up around his manor, including purchasing a Renaissance painting of Madonna and Child by for over a million dollars on the black market even as he’s fending off Gail’s entreaties. When Chase learns that Paul had floated, possibly as a joke, the idea of staging his own kidnapping to earn ransom money for himself, he reports this to Getty, who takes it as a sign he’s been used again, and to dig in his heels against any further attempts to get him to pay up. Scott drops hint as to Getty’s part in the sociological upheaval his own acquisitive instincts, noting with ironic alacrity that the energy crisis of ’74 was another kind of hostage drama set in motion by Getty’s fortune. Meanwhile Paul, much like the human shells and twisted homunculi of Alien: Covenant (2017), finds himself canvas for cubist alterations to the human form, as he’s held down and has his ear sliced off by his new captors whose idea of business is just as formidable and unyielding as Getty’s.

Scott stages this scene, one anyone who knows anything about these events will be waiting for with cringing unease, with a gruelling but concise and unflinching detail where others might have cut away or rendered it a kind of horror movie blackout. Throughout his career Scott has let slip a side to his cinema that betrays his British TV roots with their strong traditions of documentaries and realistic and factual dramas, in his fascination for pointillist detail and carefully observed processes that sometimes take on an imperative over and above nominal narrative through-line. This facet usually comes out most crucially in his thrillers like American Gangster (2007) and The Counselor. Here small details like Cinquanta trying to get Paul drunk before surgery and the “doctor” insisting the ‘Ndràngheta heavies hold his patient still and then setting to work for a piece of ragged work that just won’t end, serve to focus Scott’s exacting sense of this torture as another business transaction but also one that involves real people who feel obliged to do obscene things for some reason. It’s rhymed, not so subtly but with the sourly totemic kick of an old-school noir director, with the sight elsewhere of a butcher slicing off a hunk of meat. Paul’s cruel curtailing follows a gutsy and cleverly managed escape attempt achieved with the unspeaking collusion of Cinquanta as he improvises a method of setting fire to dry grass neighbouring the building where he’s held, only to be immediately surrendered back into the ‘Ndràngheta’s hands, a sequence of casually expert suspense-mongering that builds up to a Fritz Lang-esque punch-line where the conspiracy of evil proves entirely enveloping.

Like Blade Runner, American Gangster, and The Counselor, however, All the Money in the World isn’t really a thriller in the generic sense as a series of compulsive set-pieces. It’s more a heightened dramatic study in familial perversity and obstinacy of character as well as a holistic attempt to encompass the workings of peculiar niche of society, and the methods of various forms of capitalism. Just as The Counselor reduced the drug war to the image of a body in a barrel being endlessly shipped back and forth, here high capitalism means its street-level equivalent and speaks a peculiar language in flesh and blood, building to a sequence that depicts a small army of women working to tabulate the ransom money for the mob bosses and handing over the added total on a slip of paper, echo to the strings of ticker tape Getty adores studying. Rival moral systems are invoked, of course, particularly family, as Cinquanta notes with bemusement the lack of family feeling evinced by the Getty patriarch. I get the feeling Scott, who’s long been the preeminent member of a creative family and who’s been buffeted by loss over the years, feel this point closely. Other forms of fellowship also provide unexpected islands, particularly Cinquanta’s growing empathy for Paul and attempts to help him.

Given that Alien looked a lot like a remix of Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires (1965), it seems more than coincidental that Paul’s kidnappers strongly resemble refugees out of Bava’s Rabid Dogs (1974), that most pungent of paranoid Italian self-diagnoses from the same era, probably even inspired by the very events Scott is analysing. Scott complicates and amplifies Bava’s games of perception and appearance: people are rogue elements within all systems, a point codified in visual terms in the finale as heroes and villains and people in between dodge and weave in the shadowy aisles of an Italian city that turns vertiginous faces to the street, bespeaking a history of self-interest within fortresses turned to the world’s maelstroms. Family proves to be the initially unacknowledged battlefield of wills between Gail and Getty, as the tycoon feels robbed of his grandchildren, whilst Gail was determined to remove them entirely from the sphere of careless and destructive alternations of starvation and plenty that had defined her former husband’s experience of the Getty fortune. Getty is more determined to drive Gail to the wall than he is to pay or punish the kidnappers, insisting on her surrendering custody of her children and signing Paul aboard for stringent turns of repayable loans before he does finally agree to pony up ransom dough up to the maximum that’s tax deductible.

Getty finally bends that far after Gail strikes up another deal with newspapers, in another scene of carefully diagrammed intersection of commerce and violence, to publish a ransom photo of the maimed Paul, so she can then mail a stack of papers emblazoned with the image to Getty. The old man receives them, only for a strong wind to scatter the pages harum-scarum about his driveway, a great little touch that turns biting moral gesture into an active physical force setting a carefully ordered universe in anarchy. Williams as an actress has worked very hard in recent years but I’d also learnt a certain Pavlovian recoiling from her presence in movies as too often it spelt a certain laborious excursion in suffering was in the offering. That’s true of this movie too, to a certain extent, but what’s rare about Williams’ performance here lies precisely how well she inhabits a character who resolutely refuses to be pinned down by hostile forces until driven to insufferable extremes, always retaining a hard edge and a quality of sardonic amazement even as she being driven to the wall by ruthless bargainers on both sides in regarding both the ugly detachment of other human beings and her own capacity to engage in active self-defeat in the process of trying to gain a more vital victory. When Gail does break down, it takes a lot to do it. The Minotaur statue, which seems like a Chekovian gun that offers the chance for a painless solution to Gail’s trap, proves to really be just a trinket, and the mother buckles with crestfallen realisation not simply that Getty bullshitted his own grandson but he also invested illusory value on an object, thus giving it that value until it was tested—which proves true of Getty’s entire enterprise.

Chase, for his part, seems every inch the well-made man of action; taking up a shotgun when invited by Getty to join in trap shooting with other guests, he easily swats clay pigeons from the air. But even he begins to quickly lose his bearings in the maze of motive and potential he wades into, and Chase repeatedly defines his experience as a CIA agent and operator for Getty as more the life of a businessman, a professional deal-maker and mollifier. His ultimate function however is less save-the-day swashbuckler than as intelligent witness and consul to Gail’s war, a war he hinders as often as he aids. Appalled by Chase’s high-handed technique when he intercedes during a conversation, Gail swats him in the brow with the phone receiver, but Chase tries to make her understand his approach, speaking in perfect calm with bleeding forehead all the while. There are a few moments when Wahlberg’s diction in playing a worldly and confident protagonist where he irresistibly reminded me of the actor’s role within a role as international man of mystery Brock Landers in Boogie Nights (1997), and the part has a similar subtext as Chase lets slip he’s still brushing up on his culture under Getty’s tutelage, suggesting he’s a man who quietly hopes to be evolve into warrior-poet serving the emperor.

The spectacle of the kidnapping however imbues new self-knowledge upon Chase, knowledge he finally turns on Getty in the film’s climax of its moral drama if not the physical one. He loses his temper with the old coot and gives him a serving of truth, confessing he’s another pampered rich white boy and that neither of them knows what real struggle or risk actually means. Chase also illustrates with ruthless clarity the fact that Getty might consider money his fortress but in fact that only represents the sum total of the work Chase has put into building his cordons and bastions of muscle and attention. His security is ensured by actual labour and not magic powers. It’s also, of course, a form of prison, one that must be maintained with perfect vigilance without risking one’s life in the same way that Paul did simply by enjoying an evening stroll. When the ransom is finally paid and Paul is abandoned in the woods, he soon finds himself hunted by his vengeful former captors as they realise Chase and Gail alerted the police.

Scott builds to a climax that cross-cuts between young Paul’s efforts to find safe harbour and Getty’s succumbing to a stroke, likening them in flailing entrapment, wandering labyrinthine spaces that offer no safe harbour from fear of death, a metaphor that bears out the dramatic patience lurking in that Minotaur motif. The sequence echoes moments of lost and haunted characters trapped in the belly of the beast in many a Scott film, from Alien’s spaceship innards to the animate and terrorising streets of Black Hawk Down (2001). It’s also an echo and partial inversion of the finale of The Third Man (1949), a film that insisted on Christlike parables regardless of its subject’s utter moral nullity. For Scott it’s close to an existential vision of flailing humanity, one that sees the real flesh and blood boy delivered into arms of mother and dogged helpmate whilst Getty expires pawing his painted Renaissance boy in longing for the real thing. The ultimate irony comes when Getty’s lawyer Oswald Hinge (Timothy Hutton) slides a contract across the table to Gail that will enable her to take in hand the Getty fortune: the same flukes that placed her at the mercy of the same fortune make her master of it. “I think of you as one of the family,” Gail tells Chase at the end as she begins the Citizen Kane-esque deconstruction of the great man’s acquisitions. “It’s nice of you to say that,” Chase replies in complete disbelief, and perhaps a certain relief too. Everyone has their reasons, as the cliché has it. That doesn’t let them off the hook, Scott retorts.

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2010s, Ferdy

Confessions of a Film Freak 2017

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By Roderick Heath

2017 was a grim and unforgiving trail of frayed nerves, last straws, seething frustrations, angry determination, righteous retributions, downfallen tyrants, and general, brawling discontent. And that was just the queue waiting to get into see the latest Star Wars.

Beyond the climes of the movie theatre’s deceptive deliverance from care, 2017 was also a year of learning to live with deeply galling realities and relearning how to fight them. Inside those theatres, the signs of an altering zeitgeist I’d been feeling for a couple of years now became more definite. Try-hard blockbuster franchise extensions and wannabes started bombing and underperforming and outpaced by horror movies, musicals, and Jazz-age detective stories. Nothing quite made sense about this year, which made it both bewildering but also, aesthetically at least, consistently cheering. There was some hot garbage and a lot of very ordinary work about, but what was good tended to be good indeed.


Get Out

Appropriately for a year when rich disgust for and exhaustion with the arrogance of some of society’s winners broke out in blazing rage, one notable theme vibrating like a bass-note through the year’s films was a theme of working stiffs, plebs, hicks, and sundry victims making ploys to rob something of value, even if only self-respect, from under the noses of the powerful or resisting their directives. This imperative linked movies as diverse as Logan Lucky, The Shape of Water, Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri, Ghost in the Shell, The Assignment, The Limehouse Golem, Good Time, Get Out, Lady Macbeth, Beatriz at Dinner, Song to Song, A Cure for Wellness, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, American Made, John Wick: Chapter Two, Thor: Ragnarok, Hounds of Love, Berlin Syndrome, Blade Runner 2049, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, The Fate of the Furious, Star War: The Last Jedi, The Post, Nocturama, and Brawl on Cell Block 99.


Logan Lucky

Property, attempts to penetrate it or maintain it and keep someone out of it or in it, became battlegrounds for these struggles, often twinned to images of characters stepping over the boundary, half-willingly, of zones into illegality and proscribed behaviour. The protagonists of movies like I don’t feel at home in this world anymore., Good Time, Logan Lucky, Tramps, T2: Trainspotting, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Beatriz at Dinner, Baby Driver, and Star War: The Last Jedi were confronted by the citadels of their enemies’ security, demanding they crack codes for entrance and triumph. Some, like the characters of The Beguiled, It Comes At Night, Nocturama, and Lady Macbeth, found such citadels far too comforting once achieved, and abused the privilege. Others, like the captives of Get Out, Hounds of Love, Berlin Syndrome, A Cure for Wellness, Beauty and the Beast, Personal Shopper, My Cousin Rachel, Thor: Ragnarok, A Ghost Story, and Song to Song, found themselves claimed as property, subsumed into the furniture for the betterment and entertainment of others, obliging them to hold onto their identities and resist the blissful call of oblivion of the self. Good Time made telling gestures towards indicting its underclass protagonist’s mindset as colonised by his oppressors, in his stated belief that theft and causing ensuing havoc was in some way an honest form of entrepreneurship compared to relying on welfare. Others struggled to hold onto their property and the delineations offered against a chaotic and frightening universe, from the bleary and shell-shocked farmers of The Levelling to the miscreant threesome of Professor Marston and the Wonder Women who almost find their idyll destroyed by forgetting to lock the front door. Marjorie Prime and Blade Runner 2049 conjectured a near future when people might subsist forever more as a part of their household electronic systems.


Ghost In The Shell

Characters who found themselves created or refabricated as twisted and enraged chimera tried urgently to give themselves complete form and meaning. Their number included the hapless hero/ine of The Assignment, the methodical but quietly, existentially desperate invention/inventor of Alien: Covenant. The broken/reassembled superheros of Justice League. The flesh-refashioning antihero(es) of Split. The splintered personas of Kristen Stewart in Personal Shopper. The human wreckage left over after riot and calamity in Detroit. The wordless yet endlessly expressive heroine who finds the key to properly reshaping herself in The Shape of Water. Rey and Kylo, the inheritors of a collapsed world in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. The avenging cohort of Murder on the Orient Express. The lost child warriors of It and exiles on Main Street of Good Time and Baby Driver. The self-directing gender-ambiguous scion and lunk-headed outcast trying to escape French society’s bloated corpse in Slack Bay


The Assignment

Some hunks of shameless pulp got me through the first part of the year, including Zhang Yimou’s visually rhapsodic The Great Wall and Rupert Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell. Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ Kong: Skull Island was a divisive work that I confess to enjoying hugely, and whilst admitting Vogt-Roberts’ movie references and period flourishes were entirely too familiar, the debuting director revealed genuine dynamism in his action staging and an amusing nasty streak that made it a true-hearted revival for its iconic monster star. Walter Hill’s first directorial outing in several years, The Assignment, saw the light of day not long before a film he produced, Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant, also hit theatres. Both movies proved telling late-career totems from those two restless old pros, explicitly mocking their own status as by-products of artistic whim and commercial necessity through cruel mad scientist figures within their narratives, toying with characters and grafting together chimera for the sake of sparking new, anarchic sensations. Scott’s bigger budget helped him but his material also fitted the notion of redrafted excursions in madcap creation and destruction, whilst Hill’s shaggy dog story could barely be bothered sustaining its flimsy story but delighted in rambling along with its villain and hero/ine’s exiles-in-society viewpoints.


Personal Shopper

Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper was another auteurist Ikea kit, one that set out to give pivotal actress Kristen Stewart a vehicle to both exemplify and mock images and notions of movie stardom, and as long as it was meditating on Stewart’s louche and multifarious impersonations it was riveting. But it was also beset by an annoyingly scattershot script unable to decide on a proper framework for its ideas, if it really had any beyond the imperative to watch Stewart masturbate in designer duds. Stewart’s former costar and object of ritual shaming for the Twilight series, Robert Pattinson, meanwhile continued proving himself with a vengeance in two films this year, filling out the cast of The Lost City of Z with a crafty period turn and then pivoting for a livewire role as a New York reject in Ben and Joshua Safdie’s Good Time. Good Time confirmed the sibling filmmakers are major talents with a riveting study in the chaos ensuing from a bank robbery by two brothers, one of them a shambling, bewildered developmentally-delayed man-child and the other a shark-like survivor, brilliantly played by Ben Safdie and Pattinson. It felt, in its way, like a better sequel to Blade Runner than the official follow-up released this year, in its evocation of a New York submerged in darkness, both crammed to the gunwales with human flotsam yet also littered with cavernous wastelands.


Berlin Syndrome

Adam Leon’s Tramps, one of the year’s small gems, made for a shambolic rom-com echo of Good Time as it tracked two prickly young losers chasing down an illicit shipment they’ve lost and falling in love in the process, facing down their own internal blocks and dogging identities along the way. Two films by Australian filmmakers dealt with captivity and sexual abuse, Cate Shortland’s third feature Berlin Syndrome and Ben Young’s debut Hounds of Love. Hounds of Love invaded the dankest corners of suburban humdrum to depict a teenage girl’s ordeal in the hands of a psychopathic sex criminal and his enabling, desperately needy wife. Young did a fine job communicating terrible straits without indulging his perverts, and gained good performances from a game cast. But the characterisations and the pretences to psychological thrills were as blunt as its second-hand suspense-mongering. Shortland’s companion piece, on the other hand, was overlong and finished with a whimper, but managed to delve into the increasingly twisted dynamics of captor and captivated with a lucid and disquieting intensity, unfolding as a globetrotting fantasy turned to Sadean nightmare where the worst and most insistently tempting fate of all is to let one’s identity dissolve into the logic of someone else’s will.


Free Fire

Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire blended his folk-history interests and feel for freaky situational drama for a Stateside debut executed in a more playful if no less violent key. The result sported great ensemble work from a plucky cast and sustained its essential gimmick of staging a movie-long shoot-out waged by low-rent criminals and half-assed rebels with surprising grace. But it never realised suggestions of a deeper theme tracing fault-lines of loyalty in the atomising cultural precepts of the 1970s, and the chirpy tone kept it from feeling as cumulatively tough and ruthless as it should have proved. Steven Soderbergh returned from his brief retirement from directing, likening his own status as renegade alternative mogul to his hero’s via Logan Lucky, a spry comic heist film that played out as auto-critique and lampoon of Soderbergh’s Ocean’s high-life daydreams and sported some splendidly relaxed performances. The trouble was, as well as being impeded by some over-indulged asides and supporting turns (I’m looking at you Seth McFarlane and Hillary Swank) and a baggy, overlong narrative, Soderbergh’s hymn to plucky everyfolk felt beset by the same kind of self-conscious “sincerity” seen in the Guardians of the Galaxy films.


I don’t feel at home in this world anymore.

Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver immersed itself in the same water as Logan Lucky and betrayed many of the same reflexes, but spurned corny social commentary in favour of trying to properly analyse how we live now in our endangered yet chitinous bubbles of mobile culture, swinging with kinetic force and concision through genre modes from thriller to musical to retro dream, a slick, solid, smart entertainment that also served as a proof of love and life for cinema and music. Macon Blair’s I don’t feel at home in this world anymore. also took on the conceit of an ordinary person’s plunge into the underworld that sees them gain new grit and power in their ordeal, and although not nearly as slickly made, the smart casting of Melanie Lynskey and Elijah Wood, and fitful manifestations of a strange sense of humour, made it a likeable little success.


Marjorie Prime

Michael Almereyda’s Marjorie Prime saw one of current American cinema’s most cerebral and conceptually gutsy filmmakers straying into potentially fascinating territory, in portraying a near-future in which artificial intelligences might become friends, helpers, and memory pools for the aging and the damaged. But the material, in spite of its sci-fi concerns and sometimes elegantly dreamy tone, was ultimately an archly affected exercise in talky theatre and moneyed navel-gazing, Almereyda’s direction too detached from the decay and pain of the flesh to properly counterpoint the robotic algorithms of the dialogue, and the ending suggested dismayingly that quasi-immortality might await the rich through their fabulous Oceanside villas. Lovely work from Lois Smith and Geena Davis, regardless. Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water proved a unique by-product of its creator’s fervent imagination, daring to act out the implicit sexual element in many a classic monster-menaces-girl tale but play it as a wistful fairy-tale for grown-ups, diffused through elements of period thriller and satire. Juan Carlos Medina’s The Limehouse Golem sounded like great fun in abstract, a Victorian-era serial killer hunt that mashed together period figures like Karl Marx that, like The Shape of Water, tried to say something about our social evolution through the veil of retro fantasias and dark dreams. But the result was such a flagrant, shapeless mess that it ran out of steam long before its absurd final twists played out.


Columbus

Kogonada’s Columbus was a subtle, intelligent, if rather too wispy piece, depicting the alienated son of a great architect connecting with a young woman who’s clinging on to her current life to keep her wayward mother on an even keel in the titular Indiana town. Great performances by John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson made the experience worthwhile, even as the project as a whole ambled about as listlessly as its characters, and the direction failed to make any real capital out of the interest in architecture as amphitheatre for living. Miguel Arteta’s Beatriz at Dinner set itself up as the consummate age-of-Trump critique, as it pitched Salma Hayek’s plucky, naively good-natured caregiver against a roomful of snobs holding court before John Lithgow’s monstrous tycoon; good performances could not dispel the air of strained contrivance and corny simplification – its heroine could not even be afforded a taste of enjoyment of celebrity gossip lest she seem less saintly.


Brawl on Cell Block 99

Still, that seemed like a model of crisp and attentive realism compared to one of the worst films I watched all year, Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, a film that managed to mishandle everything it set out to analyse – small-town life, the fallout of crime, the agony of injustice, the gestures that save people from their own private hells – and filled in instead with a parade of would-be rah-rah speeches, ridiculous gestures, dialogue, characterisations, and plot details, and laboured, “outrageous” black comedy, all directed with the grace of a hippopotamus trying to breakdance. It’s a truly amazing movie that can make me never want to see Frances McDormand or Sam Rockwell on screen ever again. S. Craig Zahler’s Brawl on Cell Block 99 had a similar theme, in charting a Job-like protagonist’s descent into hell for the sake of protecting family, although Zahler’s played out as work of diamond hard modern genre smithing. Bones were smashed, faces peeled off, hell raised, in the year’s finest sequence of purgative catharsis, although Zahler doesn’t quite know when to quit yet.


A Ghost Story

I disliked David Lowery’s debut work Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, which struck me as a bunch of borrowed art movie postures. His follow-up this year, A Ghost Story, saw star Casey Affleck obliged to spend most of the film wearing a sheet. The film threatened in abstract to become an overblown music video for some feels-peddling indie band, particularly in overly-cute touches like Affleck’s subtitled exchanges with a neighbouring house’s ghost. And yet Lowery’s vision proved doggedly interesting in studying time and place as a way of being and seeing, in a manner that ultimately earned its run time, its hero effectively rendered a blank to himself and our eye by Lowery’s central conceit, finding a new way of looking at history’s surreal march. Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal similarly blended naturalism and fantastical metaphor as Anne Hathaway’s boozy heroine found herself incarnating as a city-stomping monster and battling with a would-be suitor with the same mysterious talent. Like too many of this year’s movies, there was something crass about its would-be clever metaphors, and a fatal lack of the internal logic needed to make its loopy ideas persuade.


The Big Sick

William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth fitted the mood of the year almost too well as it described in excruciating detail the determination of its antiheroine, set up initially as a figure to be cheered to victory over evil patriarchs and cruel period mores, only then to mortify in charting her willingness to sacrifice anyone to the cause of her own good, leading to an unflinching punchline that refused to let anyone off the hook for enjoying their privilege. Michael Showalter’s The Big Sick took on a deeply personal subject based on the immediate experiences of its writers, the romance between a conflicted Pakistani-American comedian and his WASP girlfriend, tracing the faultlines of cultures and genders. But I found the central romance excruciating, the cultural commentary old-hat, and Showalter’s direction listless. The remarkable pairing of Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as a pair of frazzled Midwestern parents did however provide, as long as they were on screen, one of the year’s most charming films within another film. Once-reputable director James Foley took on the thankless task of extending the Fifty Shades of Grey series with Fifty Shades Darker, but what once had a sheen of filthy, campy entertainment now just seemed desperately pseudo-naughty, and I turned it off long before it was over.


My Cousin Rachel

Taking place in a similar key of slow-burning passion if bearing no other similarities, Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled tackled Thomas P. Cullinan’s novel, and, more by implication, Don Siegel’s 1971 version, with a feminist twist on the material. But I found it the biggest dud of Coppola’s career to date, a ponderous and anaesthetised playlet lacking the hothouse evocation, so essential to the tale, of twinned opposites of daunting plenty and fatiguing shortage driving its characters mad. Assured performances did stand out. By comparison, Roger Michell’s My Cousin Rachel, although never living up to its Hitchcockian pretences, proved more intriguing and successful as it blurred the lines between its male protagonist’s obsessive tendencies and its eponymous female’s native ambiguity, to the point where by the end one could feel you’d seen two entirely different movies depending which interpretation you took. Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express proved one of the year’s more surprising hits, and as a lushly entertaining immersion in retro class and whodunit ritual staged with happy immodesty by its ageing wunderkind director-star and enthusiastically acted by a cast of authoritative pros and eager newbies, it struck me as it seems to have struck the audience, as an offering of decent escapism from the bawling, pulse-provoking paraphernalia of 2017.


Blade Runner 2049

Taylor Sheridan’s directorial debut Wind River repeated elements of his scripts for Sicario and Hell and High Water whilst transposing the setting from the rugged environs of the Tex-Mex borderlands to the rugged environs of Alaska. Sheridan tossed together flinty, grieving frontiersman Jeremy Renner and out-of-place FBI agent Elizabeth Olsen and then failing utterly to make anything interesting of the pairing, and offering a mystery that proved much less thrilling (or socially pertinent) than Sheridan would have us believe. Only Olsen’s good performance distinguished proceedings. The moment of 2017’s cinema I approached with the most trepidation was Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, as Villeneuve, one of my bêtes-noir in current film, took on the task of fashioning a sequel to Ridley Scott’s singular 1982 classic. Villeneuve presented an endless succession of lovingly crafted yet conceptually inert images tied to a storyline that managed somehow to render Scott’s techno-noir universe tepidly cliché. One great scene, in which Harrison Ford’s stalwart Rick Deckard was confronted with the refashioned form of his dead lover, touched the kind of operatic splendour the film otherwise chased unsuccessfully, whilst Ford came close to a career-best performance. Rupert Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell was a far better tribute to Scott’s film, conveying a sense of alienation and dysmorphia with far more economy, tossing in some fluid and spectacular action sequences in the process, to offer a spare, semi-abstract, melancholic action movie without succumbing to self-importance.


Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets beckoned in its trailers as an island of fanciful, decorative genre splendour, and it was that, certainly. The film’s opening scene, tracking the development of humankind’s engagement with the universe from tentative tin cans in the void to mighty floating cities filled with alien flotsam, was an almost perfect piece of cinema. But after that lay only Besson’s monumental folly, passing off desperately frenetic tomfoolery as exciting action, a dull and incoherent plot as a great adventure, and two distracted and terribly miscast leads as worthy swashbucklers. Matthew Vaughan, who once seemed a promising cinematic punk, offered a sequel to his rude and raucous 2014 hit Kingsman: The Secret Service with Kingsman: The Golden Circle. But the result was a perfect study in the law of diminishing returns, the original’s gall and vivacity swapped out for incredibly tired jokes, wasted actors, and a general air of enervation, like watching a drunk at a wedding who thinks he’s the life of the party urinating in the punch.


Wonder Woman

Truth be told, much of superhero business this year left me in general discontent, be it speciously earnest (Logan, Wonder Woman), straining to be light-hearted and fanciful (Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2), or a broken-backed product of misaligned auteurism and studio second-guessing (Justice League). James Mangold’s Logan set out with an interesting brief, to give Hugh Jackman’s beloved incarnation of the most popular X-Men hero a farewell in a gritty neo-western. A lot of folk seemed to like it, but I found tedious on a dramatic level and pungently disappointing as an action-adventure movie, obliging its protagonist to struggle through an endless reiteration of the same damn reluctant saviour act he went through a half-dozen movies earlier. Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman was well-made, and star Gal Gadot proved born to play the role with some sturdy support from Chris Pine. But the film struggled with a bog-ordinary script that lacked effective conflicts, never seemed as flavourful and pulp-epic as the material and setting promised, and fell away to nothing by its end. Gadot returned months later in the second Warner Bros.-DC entry for the year, Justice League, a work that felt like looking upon wreckage of Egyptian colossi in desert sand, signs of great ambition and scale shattered and jumbled and lost to history.


Thor: Ragnarok

Over at Marvel, James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 tried to top its predecessor for lysergic colour schemes and flip humour, and wisely turned to Kurt Russell for a dash of charisma and gravitas in playing a twinkle-eyed but black-hearted planetary consciousness. But the storyline had no ideas, and the try-hard efforts to make everything seem all roguish and larkish and then finally big-hearted only seemed forced and puerile. Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok was greatly superior, for at least its spasmodic moments of scallywag humour and overripe spectacle were truly enjoyable and well-composed. But the film just couldn’t annex the zone of scrappy, hand-crafted ‘80s entertainment it so anxiously wanted to ape, obliged to waste time on franchise-servicing buddy comedy and letting down the specific space opera pleasures of this corner of the Marvel fantastical universe. Jon Watts’ Spider-Man: Homecoming was an utterly perfunctory and anonymous entry, only elevated at all by a good villain turn from Michael Keaton and the smart-mouth poise of Zendaya.


A Cure For Wellness

Horror cinema had a great year at the box office, providing a sturdy counterpoint to the shakiness of all that blockbuster flimflam. Jordan Peele’s Get Out benefited fortuitously from the ornery mood abroad after Donald Trump’s election victory in its deployment of a very familiar genre story, involving mind control and theft of identity, mediated through a wry lampooning of black anxiety over white liberal hypocrisies. Peele displayed formidable formal gifts for sustaining unease and thrills even whilst provoking laughter, and the whole experience was a great lark as long as you didn’t look too hard at its plot mechanics nor expected its – ah-hem – skin deep satirical points (hey look, a black guy acting like a white guy – gold!) to effectively mesh with its more personal sense of endangerment. Thanks in part to the expert performances of Allison Williams and Daniel Kaluuya, the theme of romantic illusion and betrayal finished up wielding far more kick than its broader socio-cultural targets, finding its climax in the image of Kaluuya’s assailed hero with fingers wrapped around his sphinx-like lover’s throat in bewildered rage. Gore Verbinski returned to the horror genre with A Cure For Wellness, a film that wanted to stand as a gleefully sick exercise in high gothic style in mashing together Suspiria, The Magic Mountain, old Boris Karloff vehicles, and Verbinski’s well-established love for slithering aquatic things. But Verbinski’s relentlessly heavy hand turned what should have been a steadily ratcheting exercise in disquiet to a parade of phobic perversity and overbearing visuals.


It

M. Night Shyamalan continued his resurgence with Split, a Twilight Zone-ish tale of madness and kidnapping that proved Shyamalan is most entertaining when letting the mischievous, malicious, downright weird side of his imagination off the leash. The director gave star James McAvoy perhaps over-abundant opportunities for theatrical bravura in playing a psychologically fragmented supervillain; the result was both enjoyable but more than a little disquieting in its blithe use of multiple personality disorder and sexual abuse as cheap gimmicks. Andres Muschietti’s first half of a bifurcated adaptation of Stephen King’s It was a big hit that recapitulated the potency of horror in general and King in specific at the box office. But it left me utterly cold, as King’s lumpy but ambitious novel was translated into a showy, repetitious, simplistic ghoul-fest that reduced its cast of troubled, young outsiders to an array of dull and poorly-served stereotypes. Trey Edward Shults, who made an eye-catching if annoyingly overemphatic debut a couple of years ago with the crypto-biographical family drama Krisha, returned with a swerve into genre territory with It Comes At Night, an attempt to make a movie almost entirely in a key of foreboding survivor angst and festering hysteria, like a George Romero flick with the zombies cut out. Shults’ interest in depicting clannish self-defence and rituals of protection and expulsion hardened into a consistent theme and his clipped, eerie visuals provoked tension, but his style proved ultimately merely onerous, and his story crises and character behaviours too often felt contrived.


Raw

Hunter Adams’ Dig Two Graves was a far better venture into similar territory involving the supernatural blended with over-the-shoulder glances at childhood trauma and quotidian mysticism than It, depicting a teenage girl’s efforts to expiate her brother’s accidental death and becoming involved with some backwoods necromancers and a long-simmering blood feud. Osgood Perkins intrigued with another tale of adolescent angst shading into infernal bloodshed and mystery, The Blackcoat’s Daughter, but although he sustained an effectively creepy mood and tone of unforgiving alienation, his serpentine storyline and games of perspective never quite stopped feeling like a magpie’s nest of gathered tropes. Julie Ducournau’s Raw likewise took as its basic matter a teenage girl thrust into the disorientating surrounds of institutional schooling and discovering monstrous impulses in herself, and aimed for a brand of tragicomic, deeply sick body horror. But once again, the film never added up to much, because its metaphors felt both too obvious and insufficiently developed, never generating a flicker of real fear or authentic dark revelry.


The Mummy

Alex Kurtzman’s The Mummy proved the instant stuff of Hollywood cautionary tales, proposing to kick off a franchise extrapolated from Universal Studio’s classic monster movie roster but falling afoul of a misbegotten Tom Cruise action vehicle. It was doomed to be one of the year’s whipping boys, and indeed it languished with an insufferably dumb plot and a tone far too detached from its nominal gothic forebears. But it also sported a couple of well-handled set-pieces and some intermittently effective images, the striking if wasted presence of Sofia Boutella as the title monstrosity, and the spectacle of Cruise and Russell Crowe beating each-other up. Just who you cheered for in that contest would possibly reveal interesting things about your psychological profile. Boutella also provided a jigger of class in David Leitch’s Atomic Blonde, her radium eyes with wincing cool providing a momentary flash of emotion before landing in the sack with Charlize Theron for the year’s most gleefully uninhibited sex scene. A pity the film around them lumbered through a series of well-choreographed yet resolutely unexciting action scenes and tortuously convoluted espionage charades that aimed to unite the James Bond, Jason Bourne, and John LeCarre strands of the spy movie, only to fail utterly. Leitch had jumped ship from the John Wick franchise whilst former co-director Chad Stahelski helmed John Wick: Chapter 2 solo. This time Keanu Reeves’ steely antihero was plunged into a spiralling trap where his omnicompetence as a killer proved to only worsen his situation, and the movie was a surprising improvement on its predecessor.


King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

Nikolaj Arcel’s The Dark Tower was doomed to be the measly also-ran in the face of It‘s success as a film of a beloved Stephen King property. It was certainly a prime example in how not to do this sort of thing, a style-free, flavourless distillation of King’s dense web of mythology and metafiction into something that pretended to be an epic adaptation but looked like it ought to be filling a Wednesday evening timeslot on the SyFy Channel. Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey were cast in potentially thrilling roles as cosmic adversaries and yet completely wasted; a moderately exciting shoot-out finale did at least save the experience from being a total washout. Guy Ritchie, who suggested surprising new levels and a sense of style on his great The Man From UNCLE a couple of years ago, backslid into smug and torpid laddish humour, corny directorial gimmicks, and stolen fantasy movie tropes when he tackled the energetic yet uniquely tiresome King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. Amongst other crimes, Ritchie’s film managed to concatenate all of the root sagas’ great panoply of female archetypes into one nonentity character, belittled what was left of the other essential aspects of the legends, and actually succeeded in surpassing Sword of the Valiant as the dullest Arthurian movie ever.


Star Wars – Episode VIII: The Last Jedi

Colin Trevorrow’s The Book of Henry was far too arch and tonally unfocused in trying to recreate a certain brand of earnest, magic-realist kid’s movie from the ‘80s. Rian Johnson ascended to the pinnacle of current Hollywood franchise management to offer his twist on the Star Wars saga, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, to the clamour of both wild praise and disgruntled confusion from different quarters. It wasn’t Johnson’s attempts to critique and deepen the social context of the saga or his brusque approach to inherited infrastructure that bothered me, so much as how he did it, continuing and exacerbating the series’ decline into a mere martial melodrama with added teen soap dynamics, the mythopoeic edge and holistic conceptualism of George Lucas’s films falling by the wayside along with another poorly served old hero. The filmmaking was still tremendous in tactile force, but the palette dismayingly reduced.


The Lure

Likely to keep ahead of it as the year’s biggest money-spinner if only because of The Last Jedi’s late release, Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast got family bums in theatre chairs and surely became an instant fixture in many a kid-ruled living room, but was also generally dismissed as a shadow of the 1991 Disney film it was a remake of. Having never seen that version, I found this one tolerably jaunty and entertaining thanks to Condon’s lashings of good-humoured campiness, and the game cast did their best to drown out the clang of Disney cash registers. But Emma Watson’s weak vocals and the determined neutering of Dan Stevens’ beastly antihero badly thwarted its impact. An infinitely more interesting contemporary spin on the musical was Polish director Agnieszka Smoczynska’s The Lure, which revised another Disney-claimed fairytale property into an art-punk soft-core fantasia with a stony centre regarding desire and the desire to change ourself to fit our ideas of what other people want us to be. Jeffrey Walker’s Dance Academy was an old-school you’re-going-out-there-a-nobody stage melodrama about recovery from injury and the need to balance artistic excellence with personal fulfilment, but it was foiled on all levels by remarkably bland filming and acting.


xXx: Return of Xander Cage

F. Gary Gray took on the Fast and Furious franchise for an eighth instalment, once again sporting Theron, this time in full villainous mode conveyed with such ice-eyed relish and taunting sinuosity she almost but not quite succeeded in keeping afloat a series that really should have shut down an episode earlier. Star Vin Diesel also subjected himself to reviving another of his old franchises whilst his training session buffness held out, returning for DJ Caruso’s xXx: Return of Xander Cage, a film that at least had the decency to be enthusiastically ridiculous, and sported a finale that went for, and delivered, iconic girl-power action moves. The year’s best action movie hands-down was Korean director Byung-gil Jung’s The Villainess, a ferocious headlong dash into some of the most astounding action set-pieces ever shot, matched to a narrative that wheeled with surreal bravura through the ages in its eponymous lady’s life as a string of inhabited roles finally colliding with painful truths.


Battle of the Sexes

The year’s sexual-romantic highpoints in film tended towards the outré, or at least beyond the normcore, including forbidden love between woman and fish-man in The Shape of Water. Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name aimed for a lush, oddly old-fashioned take of wistfully recalled young romance with a queer twist. As with Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash last year, the film testified to the director’s talent for conjuring well-observed behaviour for his actors whilst failing to knit it all together into anything substantial, achieving less a Wong Kar-Wai-ish memory-dream than a haute-bourgeois tourist ad for the pleasures of lounging about the sun-kissed campagna with people with good muscle tone. The film’s real subject, the part played by one’s parents, or not played, in letting you become your true self was only breached right at the end. Angela Robinson’s intelligent, nuanced, swooningly romanticised take on the real-life ménage-a-trois that gave birth to the year’s biggest hero, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, was a movie that, unlike Guadagnino’s, did something with the theme of intellectual characters confronting, analysing, and eventually transforming the meaning of their transgressive erotic impulses. Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton’s Battle of the Sexes tackled similar territory in portraying Billie Jean King’s struggle with her burgeoning sexuality whilst taking on the jovially absurd Bobby Riggs in their famed sporting match-cum-media huckster carnival. Simon Beaufoy’s script was replete with excruciating point-underlining dialogue and the finale’s potential for intimate drama was badly hampered by having to recreate the match whilst avoiding its stars’ lack of athleticism. But the good acting backed up the directors’ unforced empathy for the specific complexes of all their characters.


Song To Song

Terrence Malick’s hitherto unheard-of rate of work saw him release his second film in as many years, Song To Song, a defiantly shaggy venture into the Austin music scene that nonetheless proved a quintessential Malick work in its themes of romantic disaffection and creative burn-out and sell-out. Whilst it’s probably Malick’s least successful movie in a while, it was still a dazzling, intriguing, vigorous labour worthy of a filmmaker half Malick’s age. Danny Boyle went romping around the old neighbourhood with T2: Trainspotting, a film that attempted the tricky art of both wallowing in its characters’ nostalgia for the good old days whilst also trying to find a way to release them from that trap. Boyle and his reassembled cast gave it a valiant effort, but nothing about the new adventures of this bunch of skivers proved as vital, funny, or thrillingly indecent as their days of being wild. At the other end of the socio-economic scale but no less smothering in studying insufferable self-involvement were Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) and Azazel Jacobs’ The Lovers, this year’s official entries in the Fake Woody Allen Movie stakes as portraits of the thick-shelled bourgeoisie, with Louis CK’s I Love You, Daddy a redacted third entry.


The Disaster Artist

Malcolm D. Lee’s Girls Trip attracted some utterly bewildering praise for its day-glo antics and sassy clichés. Stephen Frears’ Victoria & Abdul saw Judi Dench return to the role of Queen Victoria, this time with Stephen Frears’ unshakeably professional poise apparent in snappy edits and choreographed camerawork to back her up, but only for a trite buddy comedy and once-over-lightly study in imperialist angst. As if taking pity on Jessica Chastain after she sweltered her way through last year’s silly fake Aaron Sorkin movie Miss Sloane, Sorkin himself wrote and directed a vehicle for her this year called Molly’s Game, an interesting if stagy and absurdly overlong portrait that made some gestures towards describing American enterprise as a symptom of rather than outlet for deep-seated neurosis. Try as they might, Chastain and costar Idris Elba couldn’t help but seem as overripe as their dialogue. Doug Liman’s American Made chased a similar overtone of critique as it cast an eager Tom Cruise as the fatally naïve, swashbuckling pilot at the heart of the Iran-Contra affair, whose dalliances in espionage and drug and arms smuggling are painted as a natural by-way for someone chasing the American Dream. The film itself belonged to a school of cheery, scabrous, can-you-believe-this-is-true Goodfellas knock-offs, and finally felt far too shallow and derivative to be memorable. James Franco’s The Disaster Artist delved more boldly into queasily amusing, art-imitating-life fare, as he likewise took on a true story revolving around an ironic realisation of all-American ambition, this one recounting the strange journey of Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero from wannabes to living jokes to cult heroes. The result was a great laugh and a biting portrait of ego and need colliding with money to create a masterpiece of badness, and also an intriguing if ultimately failed attempt to extrapolate a deeper exercise in role-playing and artefact recreation, as Franco’s direction was too straightforward to properly realise it.


The Post

Steven Spielberg’s The Post offered another of its director’s profiles in courage from the recent past, recounting Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee’s gutsy collaboration to print stories on the Pentagon Papers. The movie was consciously conceived and executed by its director in a manner akin to the journalistic spirit he celebrated, relying on reflexive skill and professional savvy to spit out a story under a deadline that anyone can still read and comprehend, and it works beautifully if unsubtly in that spirit, spurning the cool investigative tone of Spielberg’s recent work for outsized theatre. Kathryn Bigelow returned for her third pairing with screenwriter Mark Boal with Detroit, a nominal portrait of the calamitous 1967 riots that beset and hollowed out that city, but which chiefly focused on a gruelling, galling recreation of the Algiers Hotel incident. Bigelow’s fearsome technique remained unequivocal, and the film succeeded as a deep immersion in power’s abuse and the toxic legacy of racial and economic prejudice. But the project failed to live up to its great promise, particularly the mooted chance to say something more enveloping and original in the subtextual linkage of the occupation and repression of the city to the occupation of Iraq and War on Terror as studied in the filmmakers’ previous movies, and the last third of the film skirted too shallowly over the business of surviving such trauma.


Dunkirk

Similarly immersive in aesthetic if more traditionally uplifting, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk launched a pummelling cinematic blitzkrieg upon its audience, for a movie that proved once and for all that Nolan is a peerless filmic artisan with absolutely nothing interesting to say about history, politics, or human nature, reducing warfare to a string of well-staged yet utterly calculated survivalist skits, resolutely failing to match even the much briefer but infinitely richer Dunkirk vignette in Joe Wright’s Atonement. For his part, Wright finished up cowering in the shadow of the same achievement as he returned to that milieu for Darkest Hour for the sake of renewed prestige, in an account of Winston Churchill’s first, stormy weeks in office as war leader amidst the calamity of Nazi onslaught. Gary Oldman’s surprising, vigorous impersonation of the portly PM wasn’t sufficient to make up for a one-note screenplay and Wright’s tired directorial showmanship.


Our Time Will Come

Lone Scherfig’s Their Finest touched on the same epoch once more whilst focusing on legendary days of the British film industry’s renaissance in adversity, for a mildly enjoyable romp that nonetheless managed to tick off every cliché in the current middlebrow movie handbook. Ann Hui’s Our Time Will Come looked back to WW2 in Hong Kong as a moment of transformation, even liberation, for those swept up in the whirlwind, finding amidst the rubble of an age a string humanist epiphanies, from mothers bickering over the correct protocol for a wedding to a moment of angry and offended personal confrontation between men caught on opposite sides of war, in trying to grasp just why such conflicts seem to engage human identity on its most profound level even when the cost it exacts finally becomes unbearable. Only lackadaisical pacing and shaping foiled Hui’s lush cinema.


Slack Bay

Bruno Dumont, who made his name with dark and dour movies, continued a recent shift towards playful magic realism and free-form genre play with Slack Bay (Ma Loute), a study in period French social concerns pushed to absurdist extremes, including aristocrats inbred to freakishness and peasants turned cannibal, Jacques Tati and Chuck Jones cohabiting with Zola and Celine, and sporting the year’s most delightful extended joke in gender-bending – until it stopped being a joke. The movie weathered Dumont’s breakneck tonal shifts but not his final drifts into affected zaniness in lieu of a genuinely inspired way to tether his ideas together. Alain Guirardie followed his remarkable study in desire Stranger by the Lake with Staying Vertical, a far more fitfully engaging mix of deadpan character comedy and eccentric fantasy with lashings of anarchic sexuality, as it followed a wandering bisexual writer’s flailing efforts to cope with creative crisis and sudden responsibility as a father and lover to several arbitrarily needy country folk.


Graduation

Hope Dickson Leach’s The Levelling likewise journeyed into a farmland setting and saw not a world of pastoral peace but a zone of murky, exhausting engagement with nature’s meanness and humanity’s flailing in the face of it. Werner Herzog’s Salt and Fire contended with the same basic theme of human unease before the boding threat of the natural world and its imminent revenge for being disrespected, positing the acceptance of responsibility and real awareness as the only cure. Herzog’s style was as muscular as ever, and though his script was sophomoric in its fabulist flourishes, it still added up to a surprising statement from its oft-caricatured director. Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation was a return to the sort of eye-level engagement with dire personal straits that propelled his 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days after his epic survey of religious fanaticism in Beyond the Hills, charting a portly, middle-aged doctor’s efforts to secure his daughter a ticket to the good life in Britain and extract her from the sink of corruption and moral slovenliness besetting their everyday lives. Mungiu’s most cunning and interesting achievement here was in setting up what seemed to be a message movie but finished up being more a character study that considers how that character defines a society as a whole.


Nocturama

Bertrand Bonello’s Nocturama translated Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed into an argot of detached and sardonic, brand-aware modernism, as it depicted a gang of disparate young radicals who set out to perform a coordinated series of terrorist attacks around Paris, only to find themselves immobilised and then immersed in the distracting comforts of consumerist plenty as they hide out in a ritzy department store. The result was a fascinating but uneasy achievement, as its critique of contemporary radical possibility and its retardation by the colonisation of our dreams by commerce was obscured by Bonello’s refusal to define his protagonists and their various trips in any depth, which meant that it kept verging on a superficial these-kids-today lament. Albert Serra’s The Death of Louis XIV charted the title event with a bleak yet witty sense of the remorseless decline of the flesh mocking human pretence and pomposity, utilising the prone form of Jean-Pierre Leaud to comment also on the twilight of an age of cinema as well as a canvas for depicting life’s outermost shoals. The experience was, probably by design, alternately painful, mesmeric, and trying. As to whether Serra’s harvest of epiphanies was equal to the time expended on it, I’m not entirely sure.

Performances of Note:

John Cho, Columbus
Geena Davis, Marjorie Prime
Michael Fassbender, Alien: Covenant ; Song to Song
Harrison Ford, Blade Runner 2049
James Franco, The Disaster Artist
Rebecca Hall, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women
Mark Hamill, Star Wars – Episode VIII: The Last Jedi
Armie Hammer, Call Me By Your Name ; Free Fire
Bella Heathcote, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women
Holly Hunter, The Big Sick
Don Johnson, Brawl in Cell Block 99
Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out
Ellie Kendrick, The Levelling
Jean-Pierre Leaud, The Death of Louis XIV
Teresa Palmer, Berlin Syndrome
Florence Pugh, Lady Macbeth
Haley Lu Richardson, Columbus
Bob Odenkirk, The Post
Raph, Slack Bay
Daisy Ridley, Murder on the Orient Express ; Star Wars – Episode VIII: The Last Jedi
Kristen Stewart, Personal Shopper
Michael Stuhlbarg, Call Me By Your Name
David Troughton, The Levelling
Vince Vaughan, Brawl in Cell Block 99
Sigourney Weaver, The Assignment
Allison Williams, Get Out
Zhou Xun, Our Time Will Come
Ensemble: Baby Driver
Ensemble: Detroit
Ensemble: Good Time
Ensemble: The Lost City of Z
Ensemble: The Shape of Water

Favourite Films of 2017

Alien: Covenant (Ridley Scott)

Ridley Scott’s second, greatly superior attempt to revisit and revise his foundational work saw him roam through a catalogue of genre influences and tropes whilst striving to restore the charge of ferocious nihilism implicit in the material, in a movie that adds up to a freewheeling summary of both Scott’s late career obsessions and the history of the horror genre. Michael Fassbender’s elegant, witty central performance(s) saw his character David emerge as a truly great villain in contemporary storytelling.

Baby Driver (Edgar Wright)

The crime movie as dance flick, musical as melodrama; Edgar Wright’s playful concoction tried to capture the private joy and intensity of young love – for music, for the ideal partner, and for learning how to orchestrate the world, even whilst learning the crueller lessons in the price the world claims something back.

Ghost In The Shell (Rupert Sanders) / The Great Wall (Zhang Yimou)

I’m counting these two together because both were unfairly hobbled long before they even came out but represented fruitful matings of Eastern and Western aesthetics, and moreover because they were both much more enjoyable and infinitely superior as cinematic experiences to many an overblown blockbuster released later in the year. Sanders’ film found intelligent ways to contend with its own cross-cultural mutt status and beef up its action whilst maintaining the bleary, dissociative textures of its source material. Zhang’s was a contemporary DeMille epic, a utopian vision of collective action that lacked a script to match its images, but gave its director ample scope to turn the CGI action film into a state of pure colour and motion.

Good Time (Benny and Josh Safdie)

New York filmmaking frères Benny and Josh Safdie stumbled into something like the mainstream through casting well-known faces like Robert Pattinson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Barkhad Abdi, but remained true to their creed as portraitists of co-dependent weirdos in dire straits, their fierce brand of artful realism delivered as a form of action painting. Good Time, nominally a contemporary twist on a classic sort of streetwise melodrama revolving around fraternal responsibility and spiralling consequences of life mistakes, also wielded a sharp political subtext critiquing conservative dogma, exposing the Robin Hood pretences and clannish loyalty of its protagonist, who’s assimilated the rhetoric of individualist bravado as rooted in disdainful disregard for the common good.

The Levelling (Hope Dickson Leach)

A film that views both human grief and agricultural degradation on the same analytical level, this terrific little debut explored the aftermath of a young farmer’s suicide and its impact on his deeply repressed father and his alienated, exiled sister. Leach’s depictions of animal life surviving deluges hover in dreamlike abstraction whilst its humans experience a plunge into putrid realism clinging like dung to the their boots. But it’s the film’s theme of moral implication that refuses to let anyone off the hook for the collapse of systems human and natural that really speaks to the moment. Although nominally belonging to the same strand of cool British naturalism as Lady Macbeth, it was a polar opposite in cumulative message.

Lady Macbeth (William Oldroyd)

Transplanting Nikolai Leskov’s novel and pruning it down to a hardy stem, William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth analyses brutality on many levels with a cold and exacting eye, dispensing with tony psychology to look instead unsparingly at human activity as a form of zoology, in competition for dominance, breeding rights, and living space. A look at period mores that suggests that you don’t have to be crazy to rebel against a corrupt social order, but it certainly helps.

The Lost City of Z (James Gray)

James Gray’s fastidious restraint and shaded emotional palette constantly retard his chances of ever finding popular favour, but here proves cumulatively magisterial with his mixture of biography and meditation on lost time, exploring the life of Percy Fawcett as he sought out signs of forgotten civilisations even as the one about him shuddered and toppled.

The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska) / The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro)

I count these two films together because both are versions of the same story, Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid. But each gave this starting point a gleefully weird, divergent spin. Smoczynska’s work suggested what Anderson’s story might look and sound like if a Jesus Franco joint interbred with a Beach Party movie. Whilst not all of Smoczynska’s flourishes worked, she managed to restore the grief, perversity, and an appropriately pained sense of the cost to be borne in denying one’s true nature, inherent in such source material. Del Toro rendered his transgressive concept not just sweet but very close to square, stripping out any feral power and punkish disquiet from his ode to interspecies love. But his fable-like frame allowed his eye to wander his conjured historic landscape, be it to contemplate the false offerings of consumerist priests to the steel idols of a new technological age crumbling before the power of the flesh and its call for transformative passion.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (Angela Robinson)

Cramped by a low budget and familiar foreshortening problems of the biopic, Angela Robinson’s recounting of the creation of Wonder Woman by William Moulton Marston and the two women he formed a harmonious and loving life with nonetheless rivalled The Shape of Water as the year’s most romantic film, depicting shifting states of being and self-realisation through fantasy. Robinson pulled off the tricky feat of combining an essentially interpersonal drama with qualities of an essayistic film, contemplating Marston’s creation and its inspirations with a touch keen, like Marston’s lie detector, to the faintest, but most revealing murmurs of the heart.

The Villainess (Byung-gil Jung)

Destined for cult classic status purely on strength of its jaw-dropping, hyperbolically violent, how-the-hell-did-they-do-that? action sequences, The Villainess backed up its formal gusto with a whacko storyline about a vengeful young gangster’s moll recruited as a superspy after slaughtering her lover’s killers, only to find she’s been played hard, making its protagonist’s schismatic existence a gruesomely, expansively theatrical experience lampooning the roles we play in life and society at different stages of life.

Would Be On This List If I’d Seen It In Time:

Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson)

Runners-Up

All the Money in the World (Ridley Scott)
Berlin Syndrome (Cate Shortland)
Brawl in Cell Block 99 (S. Craig Zahler)
The Death of Louis XIV (Albert Serra)
Our Time Will Come (Ann Hui)
The Post (Steven Spielberg)

Notable & Underrated

Detroit (Kathryn Bigelow)
Dig Two Graves (Hunter Adams)
The Disaster Artist (James Franco)
Free Fire (Ben Wheatley)
A Ghost Story (David Lowery)
Get Out (Jordan Peele)
Graduation (Cristian Mungiu)
I, Tonya (Craig Gillespie)
Murder on the Orient Express (Kenneth Branagh)
Nocturama (Bertrand Bonello)
Salt and Fire (Werner Herzog)
Slack Bay (Bruno Dumont)
Song To Song (Terrence Malick)
Thor: Ragnarok (Taika Waititi)
Tramps (Adam Leon)

Disappointing & Overrated

Atomic Blonde (David Leitch)
The Beguiled (Sofia Coppola)
Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve)
Call Me By Your Name (Luca Guadagnino)
Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan)
Hounds of Love (Ben Young)
It (Andres Muschietti)
It Comes At Night (Trey Edward Shults)
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (Guy Ritchie)
Logan (James Mangold)
Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas)
Spider-Man: Homecoming (Jon Watts)
Star Wars – Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson)
Staying Vertical (Alain Guirardie)
T2: Trainspotting (Danny Boyle)
Wind River (Taylor Sheridan)
Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins)

Crap

Fifty Shades Darker (James Foley)
Kingsman: The Golden Circle (Matthew Vaughan)
The Lovers (Azazel Jacobs)
Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonagh)
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (Luc Besson)

Blind Spots:

After the Storm ∙ Apprentice ∙ Barracuda ∙ BPM (Beats Per Minute) ∙ Clash ∙ A Fantastic Woman ∙ First They Killed My Father ∙ The Florida Project ∙ From Nowhere ∙ God’s Own Country ∙ Heal the Living ∙ Hermia & Helena ∙ Hostiles ∙ Icaros: A Vision ∙ Indivisible ∙ Ingrid Goes West ∙ The Killing of a Sacred Deer ∙ Lovesong ∙ Lucky ∙ Marshall ∙ Menashe ∙ mother! ∙ Okja ∙ The Ornithologist ∙ A Quiet Passion ∙ Sieranevada ∙ The Son of Joseph ∙ The Square ∙ Suburbicon ∙ The Woman Who Left ∙ A Woman’s Life ∙ The Women’s Balcony ∙ Wonder Wheel

The Best Older Films I Saw First in 2017

The 4D Man (Irvin S. Yeaworth)
Arsenic and Old Lace (Frank Capra)
The Bamboo Saucer (Frank Telford)
Black Caesar (Larry Cohen)
Cabiria (Giuseppe Pastrone)
Castle of the Living Dead (Michael Reeves et al)
Children of the Damned (Anton Leader)
Chushingura (Hiroshi Inagaki)
Criss Cross (Robert Siodmak)
Erik the Conqueror (Mario Bava)
Images / 3 Woman (Robert Altman)
Kid Galahad / The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (Michael Curtiz)
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (John Cassavetes)
The Ladies Man (Jerry Lewis)
Legend of the White Snake (Shirō Toyoda)
Mansion of the Ghost Cat (Nobuo Nakagawa)
Mo’ Better Blues (Spike Lee)
My Night at Maud’s (Eric Rohmer)
Nightmare (Freddie Francis)
The Passionate Friends / Hobson’s Choice / Summertime (David Lean)
Pierrot le Fou / Made in U.S.A. / 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her / La Chinoise / King Lear / Nouvelle Vague (Jean-Luc Godard)
Possession (Andrzej Zulawski)
Los Olvidados / Susana / Ascent to Heaven / The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz / Illusion Travels by Streetcar / Viridiana / Tristana / That Obscure Object of Desire (Luis Buñuel)
Queen Cristina (Rouben Mamoulian)
The Street With No Name (William Keighley)
Tombs of the Blind Dead (Amando de Ossorio)
Toute Une Nuit (Chantal Akerman)
Trouble in Paradise (Ernst Lubitsch)
Underworld / The Docks of New York (Josef von Sternberg)
War and Peace (Sergei Bondarchuk)
Waxworks / The Man Who Laughs (Paul Leni)
Wild Tales (Damián Szifrón)

Standard
2010s, Action-Adventure, Epic, Scifi

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

SW-TLJ1

Director/Screenwriter: Rian Johnson

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

Although primed as the eagerly awaited follow-up to a hugely successful blockbuster and instant pop culture fixture, Star Wars: The Last Jedi had a daunting job of work ahead of it. If J.J. Abrams’ franchise-reviver The Force Awakens (2015) proved as tepid as often as tantalising in its effort to give fresh impetus to George Lucas’ canonical science-fantasy series, it did at least manage the task of introducing a new, appealing selection of heroes, and set them up as focal points for a grandiose cosmic drama, conveyed in lovingly produced and crafted cinema. But these exciting qualities weren’t particularly well-served by a new plotline that seemed determined to scrub the series blueprint down to its most simplistic outlines, and recycle familiar and comfortable looks and sounds from Lucas’ first trilogy without bringing any fresh ideas or conceptual zest to the table.

New helmsman Rian Johnson took on the challenge of dragging this new trilogy, laden with expectation and the inertia of franchise property protection, into richer, more novel, more genuinely epic territory. Johnson, a very talented filmmaker, turned heads with his 2005 gambit Brick, a film with the memorable conceit of having high schoolers play the protagonists of a noir film, a unique way of mediating the thrilling intensity and melancholy of teenage life. His second two films, The Brothers Bloom (2008) and Looper (2012), were entertaining but flawed attempts to expand his palette, radically different in tone and style but linked by efforts to blend his love of bygone ephemera and old movies with authentic efforts to tap the wellspring of emotions they stir in him, and his delight in telling tales of labyrinthine cunning. His best work post-debut was actually on several episodes of the TV series Breaking Bad, including “Fly,” a memorable instalment regarding its antiheroes’ efforts to catch a dogging fly in their underground meth lab, provoking all their festering anxieties to hatch out, as well as the pivotal episode “Ozymandias” where their lives actually fell to ruins. The Last Jedi actually takes on themes similar to those episodes, as it puts the Star Wars characters old and new in a pressure cooker and slowly but surely forces them to make choices regarding their lives, their beliefs, their loyalties, whilst their world topples.

In the wake of the briefly operational but catastrophically effective Starkiller’s destruction, the pulverised remnants of the restored Republic government and their Resistance warriors are forced to flee base after base, pursued by the First Order, the ruthless renascent offspring of the old Imperial forces led by the malformed but immensely powerful Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). Famed Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) leads a determined attack on a formidable First Order warship of a “Dreadnought” class, sporting giant energy weapons, to give time for Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and the rest of the Resistance leaders to flee. Poe ignores Leia’s commands to abort the mission, and instead calls in a flight of heavy bombers to pound the Dreadnought until the determined, self-annihilating efforts of one bomber pilot, Paige Tico (Veronica Ngo), succeeds in destroying the craft. Poe is put on the carpet and demoted for wasting too many good fighters and ships by Leia, and the Resistance fleet eventually finds itself crawling through deep space with the First Order, led by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), in close pursuit.

Desperate to come up with a way to get the First Order off their tail, Poe and pal Finn (John Boyega), who’s just awoken after spending months in care having terrible wounds repaired, team up with Paige’s low-ranked, hero-worshipping sister Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), who has a brainwave about the method the First Order is using to track them, and decides they need to sneak aboard their command ship and shut it down. Together, Finn and Rose take a fast, small ship to a nearby planet, Canto Bight, a playground for the super-rich, to find a codebreaker who might be able to penetrate First Order security recommended to them by Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o). Thrown into prison for a parking violation before they can make contact, they encounter in their cell the scruffy, nefarious DJ (Benecio Del Toro). DJ casually breaks them all out of their cell to demonstrate his own talents at subverting authority, and soon they form a pact and flee the planet after raising some hell. Meanwhile, budding Jedi Rey (Daisy Ridley) is trying to convince Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to leave his hermit existence in a remote Jedi temple on a lonely island and return to breathe new hope into the Resistance cause. But Luke is filled with regret and self-recrimination after his failure to revive the Jedi order and loss of young Ben Solo to Snoke’s influence and the mantle of his assumed evil guise as Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Rey finds herself dogged by unexpected moments of psychic connection with Kylo, whose conflicts after killing his father Han seem to be boiling over.

If the most interesting subtext of The Force Awakens was its “tell me a story, grandpa” angle in contemplating chains of storytelling and their personal meaning, be it old war stories in the context of the on-screen drama and in meta terms the movies and other artworks you loved as a kid, The Last Jedi makes it clear that ardour for things wrapped in the comforting lustre of legend and period glamour must yield to a new and often dismaying reality. So Johnson commences with a mischievous assault on Abrams’ nostalgia, as he returns to the momentous final gesture of the first film, with Rey holding out to Luke his old lightsaber, that technocratic Excalibur: Luke takes the weapon, gives it a cursory look, and then tosses it over his shoulder in contempt. This is a great moment that signals Johnson’s theme, worked on several levels in the movie that follows, that his characters and their hopes can no longer be sustained by stale myths and old paradigms, and must jettison all that baggage to start again from scratch, to cleanse their temples and reinvent their institutions. It’s an intelligent and appropriate and, dare I say it, timely theme. It’s also, unmistakeably, a message aimed at the franchise itself. If Lucas’s prequels chased the ye-olde-timey ring of courtly sagas and his original trilogy evoked ‘40s screwball spark in their romantic scenes, Johnson’s dialogue and humour style here bring the series to a more definitely current, fashionable style. A joke early in the film sees Poe mock Hux by pretending to have him on hold on a speaker phone.

This is a funny moment that also signals, a touch annoyingly, that the Star Wars universe is being more exactingly annexed by a certain glib contemporaneity. Star Wars is no longer a legend of dreamtimes past; it’s a wing of modern pop culture founded by the likes of Joss Whedon. I suppose that’s inevitable to a degree, given that Lucas’s shift to set his tales entirely in a pseudo-historical zone with the prequels was the most fascinating and most ruthlessly rejected of his efforts. The opening sequence with the bombing raid is both thunderous spectacle but also rather senseless – the series has long been sustained by the unlikely notion of WW2-style aerial dogfights in space, but Johnson takes that here to a perfectly improbable extreme by reproducing that era’s style of bombing, with bombs dropped straight down with the use of gravity that doesn’t exist in space. On the other hand, the film’s central movement involves the agonisingly slow chase through deep space between the Resistance and First Order fleets, the latter maddeningly unable to catch the former at subspace speeds but only seeming to fend off the inevitable, in a plot motif bizarrely reminiscent of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) in imposing clear physical limitations and cold equations upon the spacefaring (there are many yawning plot holes in the story, but I won’t carp on those). After Leia is almost killed in rocket attack on her ship, tensions mount in this agonising situation. As there doesn’t seem to be any way out save his friends’ risky plan, Poe feels provoked to rebel against acting fleet commander Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) when she seems to be intending a dangerous evacuation upon shuttle craft.

Star Wars has always been a bricoleur’s assemblage, defined by the ingenuity with which it mixed and matched classic film and pulp literary genres and a trove of mythological motifs. Abrams clearly worshipped at the altar of Lucas’ 1977 series foundation, but that seemed to be the limit of his referential frame. Johnson, on the other hand, is the sort of creative hand hip to Lucas’ method, at least to an extent, as Looper spliced incongruous motifs – time travel and psychic powers, gangster and hitman melodramas, old Hollywood and Anime – into an impressive if lumpy chimera. His preferred modes are classic noir and expressionist dramas rather than the swashbucklers, war movies, westerns, and sci-fi flicks Lucas took most inspiration from – screwball comedy is one significant overlap in their lexicon. This new influence is immediately apparent in the scenes on Canto Bight, where the grand casino inhabited by the smug-ugly has a veneer of ritzy glamour that proves instead to be a den of iniquity in a manner reminiscent of something like Josef von Sternberg’s The Shanghai Gesture (1941) or Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946). A pivotal incident in the past that caused Luke and Kylo’s break and the destruction of the fledgling Jedi renaissance is seen three times in revised flashbacks, a touch that echoes many a noir film’s sublimation of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), and Kane and Welles are more clearly echoed in a sequence in which Rey attempts to confront her own nature as a creature of the Force and instead finds herself confronted by an endless hall of mirror selves, threatened like Welles’ antiheroes with mistaking her own ego for the state of the universe.

Johnson also emphasises the inequality and sleaziness pervading corners of this universe. Lucas’ vision for his future-past was always one of a society with a cynically profiteering sector – witness Han’s travails with Jabba the Hutt and Anakin’s lot as the slave of businessman Watto. Johnson tries to indict the forces at the centre of the Galactic community and their willingness to make money out of war. DJ highlights for Finn and Rose that the fortunes of Canto Bight’s denizens have largely been made selling arms to both the First Order and Resistance. The visit to Canto Bight finds Finn and Rose observing the brutality towards both animals engaged in racing, and the young human thralls used to prop up the lifestyle of the rich and famous, and the plucky Resistance warriors make common cause with both. The sequence in which Rose releases the racing animals is both fun but also a little too Harry Potter-esque for this imprimatur, whilst Johnson’s attempts to work up some of the sort of resurgence-of-the-repressed drama Lucas was so fond of – see THX-1138 (1971); Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) – manifests in offering up a few waifs straight out of ‘30s Our Gang shorts making gosh-jeez faces. Johnson wants these kids to represent the notion that the Resistance instils hope and the basis for future resurgence, blended once again with the notion of loving this fantastical material as a viewer for its uplifting and dream-stirring cache, and the film’s very ending points directly to this process taking root in the minds of these young people.

This notion doesn’t land nearly as strongly as Johnson intends it, however. He wants us to feel the illicit rush of this rebellious spirit in his tale and also the daring in his lack of cool. Given that Lucas was flayed alive by the modern cool police by his choice to move entirely into the imaginative realm of kids on The Phantom Menace (1999), Johnson’s efforts feel only crudely calculated and tacked-on in skirting the same territory. Where the film is on surer ground is Rey and Luke’s tetchy, mutually frustrated relationship, which evokes but also revises Luke’s encounters with Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back (1980). Luke is a shambolic, self-exiled husk of his former self, detached from the Force and subsisting with hopes the Jedi way will die with him. Confronted by Rey’s raw natural power, he’s both impressed and terrified, as he’s already seen the same abilities in former pupil Kylo. Rey attempts to prod the Master back to action provoke scorn – “Did you think I was going out to take on the whole First Order with my laser sword?” Luke questions in derision. Hamill, whose performance is often taken as a weak link in the original trilogy, nonetheless matured into an excellent character actor in the course of his spotty career. He’s very good here, better indeed than Harrison Ford’s much-hailed equivalent turn was in The Force Awakens, as he invests his aged and haggard Luke with glimmers of his old, dreamy romanticism even as the damage his life failings have done to him gnaws incessantly at his core being. Of course, the question as to whether Luke will return to the fight isn’t really a question, only how and at what suitably dramatic juncture of the story.

One sharp failing of The Force Awakens was Abrams’ neglect of coming up with any genuinely inspired new technology or alien species. Johnson is more vigorous with the aliens, particularly on the temple island where Luke takes milk from giant, lolling walrus-like creatures to drink, and the Porgs, a race of small, furry, but relatively aware critters who object with memorably abject horror when Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) proposes to eat one of their fellows. But there’s still a notable failure to do much that’s interesting or properly, dramatically engaged with the new alien characters. Even Chewbacca, who has long stood vitally on the divide between sci-fi grotesque and beloved supporting character, is marginalised here, and his reunion with Luke is a paltry scene. Johnson does offer up one lovely dollop of fan service as Yoda (Frank Oz) appears to Luke when he’s determined to destroy the last of the Jedi’s founding texts. Rather than try to stop him, Yoda brings down a bolt of lightning to do the job for him, and patiently instructs him in the film’s theme, that faith has to be in the living avatars of the creed rather than relics of the past. Kylo, confronting Rey, makes the same point, encouraging to spurn her past and claim the future as her rightful possession.

This endlessly reiterated message feels as much like a poke in the ribs to cranky old fans like me as a dramatic imperative, and it might have had more impact if the film wasn’t trapped resolutely within the resolutely unimaginative framework Abrams and Lucasfilm-Disney provided. The new series has not just paid attention to all the criticisms aimed at the prequel trilogy but taken them so deeply to heart it’s caused creative rictus, in stripping things back to essentials: although there are little flourishes in the margins here, it’s still basically just an extended chase movie. The First Order, whose resemblance to a Khmer Rouge, Taliban, or Daesh-like force of fanatical opportunism has faded to leave them purely as Empire wannabes, represent the biggest failure in this regard. There’s still no inkling given of their aims, their credos, other than being the Bad Guys. Snoke is the Emperor without Ian McDiarmid’s wit and relish in instilling dimensions of Machiavellian smarts and rancid perversity in his character; Hux and Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) are still just sneering snobs. One quality that distinguished the Star Wars series under Lucas’ hand was the way it steadily evolved, accumulating lore, complexity, and emotional heft, even whilst maintaining an open, light touch for the broadest possible audience. Yes, the original film was a fleet, glib space western, but it laid groundwork quickly and deftly to suggest greater dimensions to everything we saw and felt, and then each of the following five films added something new. But in spite of Johnson’s calls to bring something new to the table and forget the past, he resolutely avoids the hard work of actually doing this.

Johnson indeed seems plainly impatient with much of the infrastructure he inherited from Abrams and Disney’s focus groups – very early in the film, he has Snoke mock and Kylo destroy the incredibly uninspired mask Kylo wore in The Force Awakens, and the path Johnson’s storyline cleaves through the set-up he was stuck with is similarly dismissive. One great task always facing Johnson was to try and come up with a twist as memorable as Darth Vader’s great reveal in The Empire Strikes Back. Johnson does provide a twist; several in fact, but not only do they not approach the momentousness of the model, they don’t really add up to much, in large part because they eventually cancel each-other out and leave the story precepts pretty much what they were at the outset. Much like Rey in her hall of mirrors, Johnson falls into the trap of merely deflating or offering slight tweaks on familiar moments. The flight to battle in rickety spaceships proves a tragicomic joke. The bad guy who becomes a good guy proves then to still be a bad guy – not once but twice. The pivotal scene here involves Kylo’s assassination of Snoke, a gleefully nasty if not total surprise, and one that concedes Snoke was just a ranting placeholder in the role of ultimate evil. Johnson’s staging of this sequence, and Rey and Kylo’s subsequent battle with Snoke’s bodyguards, is definitely the highpoint of the film, one that seems finally to engage with the sheer swashbuckling verve and operatic swerves of human nature of the series. And yet Johnson quickly undercuts its impact by having Kylo prove to be merely calculating rather than complex, and he ascends to the status of unchallenged bad guy, one who is apparently still enough of a sucker to not notice the difference when someone is projecting themselves on the astral plane.

The major subplot involving Poe’s clashes with and eventual mutiny against Holdo is another potentially intelligent story thread that doesn’t quite work, particularly as its raises a worthy and legitimate new theme about types of leadership. Poe, used to command and chafing against his reduction, becomes increasingly angry with the taciturn Holdo, and both fail to a certain extent in arguing for their positions. Johnson seems to be pitching here to launch a thousand think pieces on female leadership and male intransigence, which feels in a way a bit treacherous to the series’ comfort with women as leader figures (Leia, Mon Mothma, Padmé Amidala), which means ironically he’s had his talking point theme at the expense of this creative universe’s established, blithe indifference to contemporary gender politics (none of Padmé’s soldiers questioned her commands). Dern also feels rather miscast in the role, too, as it seems to demand someone with thorny hauteur and icy-eyed determination along the lines of Kristin Scott Thomas. That said, Holdo’s climactic act of vengeful self-sacrifice, ramming her space ship into Snoke’s at high speed, shattering the First Order fleet to smithereens, is a great piece of spectacle, made more effective by Johnson’s removal of all sound, simply observing the surge of pulverising energy and splintering metal. Here he really grips the quasi-Biblical scale of action and destruction matched to grandiose human will in the series forebears by the throat. And yet, again, Johnson doesn’t follow through with any clear depiction of the effect this has. Indeed, it has none on the First Order hunt and core villains.

Ridley and Boyega are still real finds for this series, and both of them display a developing touch in making their roles effective audience stand-ins who nonetheless have properly defined characters. But the way Finn and Poe are handled here makes them feel increasingly like fifth wheels. Finn is proved a dupe who flits about the margins and Poe’s struggles lead him into a position of new authority by the end that feels more accidental than earned. Finn’s final battle with Phasma aboard a disintegrating Star Destroyer is effectively melodramatic, but proves a little scanty. Johnson sets up a romantic triangle of sorts between Finn, Rose, and Rey – or rectangle if one counts Rey’s fleeting if finally extinguished attraction to Kylo. But it’s a long way from the smouldering love-hate of Han and Leia or the guilty, transgressive passion of Anakin and Padmé. Now we’ve got the adorkable pairing of Finn and Rose, which does lead into a gripping sequence in which Rose performs a staggeringly risky manoeuvre to save Finn from his own kamikaze gutsiness, but otherwise feels entirely too cute. Lucas’ characters were archetypes and naïfs, but they were also solid adults who had sex and dashed and dazzled. Everyone in this seems restricted, repressed, stymied. Part of what made The Empire Strikes Back as beloved as it is in spite of its nominally downbeat narrative of calamity and mutilation, was because it was the most authentically dreamlike of the original trilogy. The cavernous spaces and hovering beauty of Cloud City, dragon-riddled asteroids, haunted swamps, and spaceships roaring through twilight skies burned with ardour in authentic fantastical horizons. Nothing here even approaches, at least until the very end when Johnson evokes Lucas’ crucial images of setting suns and dissolution of the flesh, such a state of transcendental beauty.

Rey was and remains the best new character – I’ve heard many invocations that hold her as the sole real achievement and best reason for loyalty to the new series from fans both casual and hardcore – and The Last Jedi does drag her evolution to interesting new places. She’s the voice of a new and ardent breed who craves leadership and direction, appealing to a crusty old warhorse in the form of Luke in a manner that feels true to a real-world context today where the young have looked to older voices of undiluted radical vision. Rey is also beset by her mysterious bond with Kylo, with glimmers of erotic interest and tactile communion as they try to connect psychically (including Rey being distracted by the sight of Kylo sans shirt, a funny moment that also conveys a blessed note of the erotic, otherwise desperately missing from Disney Star Wars) coexisting with fierce antipathy. The film’s ultimate solution to the raised mystery of her parentage feels like another dodge, as her parents were just wastrels who sold her for coin, and her abilities are purely her own provenance. This is neat on a symbolic level, as it underlines Rey as the embodiment of the new and of re-founding rather than legacy, but it’s also rather, well, lame and anti-climactic. Luke reiterates a belief that the Jedi must end, but what exactly what might take the creed’s place, and what Rey in particularly could bring to it, again isn’t given any thought.

The Last Jedi does give Fisher a strong last go-round as Leia, who stands alone as a figure of stature and authority for the first time, running the Resistance cause with a sinking heart and guttering fire of determination. Leia gains some appropriately great moments, including one in which she utilises Jedi gifts surprisingly to save herself from a seemingly inevitable death. She also has a funny exchange with Holdo as they both admit their simultaneous irritation with Poe but also common love for his kind of bad boy. A running joke about Rey’s belief that the Force is the ability to make rocks float builds to a punch-line at the end involving her do just that. That’s about it. And this moment crystallised the way Star Wars has been vampirised by those pretending to reinvigorate it. There’s painfully little wonderment or fantastical beauty left in this universe. Johnson’s film looks good in a way, chasing a quality of desolate, dusky beauty, but too often it looks rather too often grey, dusty, and more than a little dolorous. Compared to the astounding opening sequence of Revenge of the Sith (2005) with it monumental, intricately staged, kaleidoscopically colourful space battle, Johnson’s paltry fleets slowly chugging through space are clunky and dully pseudo-realist. Of course, The Last Jedi is supposed to be set in a different, more run-down and wearied age, but that only covers a genuine paucity of real layering and ingenuity in effects and world-building so far.

The mantle of the Jedi no longer carries with it the scent of green bamboo shoots they inherited from their wu xia and samurai epic models nor the red petals of chivalric romance, and with them goes the very element that elevated Star Wars above its rivals in the modern special effects cinema arms race. And as dynamic as these cinematic inheritors try to be in filling its place, this absence of an elevated plane to the drama, a yearning for higher ideals and the resonance of myth, never mind Lucas’ attempts to encompass his ideas on history and society and the linkages of both to identity, depresses me deeply, as does the refusal to engage in the creative universe beyond the immediate survival drama beyond canards like some of the rich are bad. I might seem to be castigating The Last Jedi more harshly than it perhaps warrants: it’s still easily the best of the three entries (which also includes Gareth Edwards’ mediating one-off Rogue One, 2016) in the reinstituted series. It boasts a handful of powerful sequences, and although it features a finale that goes on a few scenes too long and tries playing the same hand over and over again, and builds to a properly momentous confrontation of Luke and Kylo, it’s only to, once again, reveal itself as a kind of a cheat, failing to deliver Luke to a consummation even close to what he (and the audience) deserves. The universe should shake to its foundations when Luke Skywalker dies. Instead, Johnson merely has him run out of puff. The new series has closed The Last Jedi tells me the series has plateaued in terms of what it can accomplish and how it’s going to do it, and that reasons why I’ve loved this material in the past are slowly but surely being neutered. Where the prequel trilogy has only doggedly and insistently earned my admiration for their achievement over the past decade or so, these new films lay all their cards on the table instantly.

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2010s, Biopic, Comedy

The Disaster Artist (2017)

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Director/Actor: James Franco

By Roderick Heath

When I wrote about Tommy Wiseau’s The Room (2003) in 2011, I finished up my commentary with a flourish of mock-epic prose:

The Room finishes, and yet its all-pervading awfulness remained with me. Everything seemed to grow darker, tainted by its touch. The likes of Michelangelo and Leo Tolstoy would have had their faith in creative endeavour shaken by it, and afterwards I started seeing the inner Wiseau in many a great artist, as if all efforts lead into an immense heart of crappiness.

It seems I wasn’t the only person to feel a personal implication of all artistic ambition in Wiseau’s intrepid failure, and to be compelled against my will by this fragmentary, heartfelt yet farcically inept by-product, the misshapen offspring of an intended, serious piece of artistry. Since then, in the strange fate that befalls certain movies, The Room and its manifold absurdities have only gained ground as a common touchstone, a rite of passage for students and movie fans, and its inanities, so beggaring on first viewing, swiftly became old friends – the non sequitur dialogue and plotting, the random impulses of emotion and gesture, the screw-loose bravura and shambolic majesty of Wiseau’s lead performance and the valiantly outmatched efforts of his supporting cast.

After years of speculation and interest as to just how in hell this car crash of a film came into being, Wiseau’s friend/accomplice/bewildered collaborator Greg Sestero worked with writer Tom Bissell to pen and publish The Disaster Artist, an account of the film’s making, Sestero’s adventures as a young wannabe about Hollywood, and his alternately stirring, ruinous, ultimately triumphant acquaintance with Wiseau, in 2013. The book dished a lot of dirt on the production of The Room, and the man who made it. It was also surprisingly entertaining and revealing in its depiction of Sestero’s own period as a try-hard model-turned-actor, a rare portrait of coping with failure in the city of stars after many elusive promises and chances for success, before he reluctantly joined forces with Wiseau for his bull-in-a-china-shop foray into the world of independent filmmaking. Yet it also revealed Sestero by and large just as confused, stymied, and awed by Wiseau’s enigmatic stature as the rest of us. In supreme irony, the book’s often hilarious but just as often melancholy and disillusioned narrative gained accolades Wiseau might have dreamt of, earning Sestero and Bissell awards and now a prestigious adaptation. Yet the book could only have existed thanks to Wiseau’s failure, and the transformation of that failure into an icon of delighted ridicule.

James Franco seems to have empathised. Like Sestero and Wiseau, he’s been the ardent fledgling actor who worshipped at the altar of James Dean, although Franco actually made the leap to playing the legendary star in a 2001 TV movie. Like them, he’s laboured to escape type-casting and prove himself an adventurous and serious artist on multiple fronts, making a string of movies in the past few years that have often been met with withering contempt, although in Franco’s case the often hyperbolic dismissal of his works far outstripped their modest merits or failings, or at least for those I’ve seen. Franco’s directorial efforts up until now seemed mostly happy as marginalia, using his movie star status to bankroll movies as rough drafts of creative endeavour in the same way a budding painter might tear through dozens of pages on sketches preparing for an ultimate endeavour. His film of The Disaster Artist wields ironies in itself, a ploy for a broad audience built around celebration of a niche cult object, working from a script by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber. That said, The Disaster Artist plainly unites several frames of reference already apparent in Franco’s work. Following in the wake of movies like The Ape (2005), Sal, and The Broken Tower (both 2011), it’s a study of troubled and striving creative endeavour. Like Child of God (2013), it’s a portrait of a gnarled, thwarted, inarticulate, furious outcast trying to stake a claim in the world. It follows Interior. Leather Bar. (2013) as a study in the cinema aesthetic itself, conjoined with a contemplation of cultural priorities.

Franco casts himself as Wiseau and his younger brother Dave as Sestero. It’s the sort of idea that seems at first like a Saturday Night Live skit writ large, but proves in practice more like a performance-art conceit, shaded by dint of the brothers’ careful, convincing impersonations of their respective avatars. They render Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero as parts of a fragmented persona, the bland but likeable all-American boy meeting his intense, destabilising, immigrant partner in yearning. Not that the disparity entirely disappears, nor does James want it to. Franco stages Greg’s illustrious first encounter with the typhonic force of Tommy as a momentous epiphany, complete with rumbling, epic scoring suggesting great forces gathering, although what we actually see are Greg’s awkward, rigid performance for a San Francisco acting class and then Wiseau’s unhinged, almost literally scenery-chewing rampage as he offers his own interpretive dance take on the famous “Stella!” scene from A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). Most onlookers are stupefied and amused, but Greg is fascinated by Tommy’s energy and willingness to put himself out there, and suggests they play a scene together in class.

Tommy responds by inviting him to lunch and then getting him to read lines in the middle of a crowded restaurant, overcoming his shyness and discovering his inner hambone under the aghast and bemused attention of other patrons. The two men become fast and solid friends, as Tommy seems to be fired up by Sestero’s blonde, cheery inheritance of all natural fortune, and Greg by the older man’s enthusiasm and go-get-‘em energy. They watch touchstone movies together and drive all night to visit the scene of James Dean’s death as a shrine after watching Rebel Without a Cause (1955). On the spur of the moment, Wiseau suggests they both head to Los Angeles and get busy making it as actors, casually revealing that he owns an apartment there they can share. Greg is too thrilled by the idea to pay attention to his mother’s (Megan Mullaly) concerns about Tommy’s intentions, catching wind of homoerotic interest in Tommy’s references to Greg as “babyface” and liking for hanging about with a handsome younger man. Later when they do shack up in Tommy’s apartment he does seem to make a come-on to Greg, only to then laugh it off as a joke. Soon they settle back into amicable, brotherly mutual boosting, but it’s a friendship where Tommy is well aware Greg can only grasp his chances with both hands because his generosity allows him to go for them.

The two men dedicate themselves to the endless, crushing roundelay of auditions and more acting classes, a process that sees Greg quickly snatched up by a top talent agent, Iris Burton (Sharon Stone), purely by dint of his looks. Meanwhile Tommy chafes increasingly against the common opinion he’s got the makings of a terrifying screen bad guy, believing himself far more the stuff of romantic heroism. “You all laugh,” Tommy retorts to an acting coach (Bob Odenkirk) and his sniggering class after one of his performances and resisting their attempts to pin him as a natural heavy: “That what bad guy do.” Soon, with neither of their careers going anywhere, Greg tries to keep Tommy’s spirits up, and he hands his friend a flash of inspiration–the notion of making their own movie. Tommy, with his mysteriously deep pockets, realises he can make it happen. All he needs is a script, so he bashes out his magnum opus and gets Greg to read it over lunch. In his determination to ensure his production has the stature of a great cinematic enterprise, Tommy approaches camera equipment providers Birns & Sawyer and instead of simply renting their gear insists on purchasing all manner of cameras and shooting his movie on both film and video. The staff realise they have a major-league sucker on their hands, and convince him to utilise their small film studio too.

An inevitable point of reference for The Disaster Artist is Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994), another biographical drama about a much-hailed cavalier of terrible cinema. The differences between Wood’s adventures as a no-budget huckster and Wiseau’s mogul pretences are as marked as the similarities, however. The Disaster Artist portrays the gruelling shoot for The Room as a process not beset by the fly-by-night anxiety and enthusiastic fellowship Burton found in Wood’s forays, because Wiseau’s money furnishes him with largely competent collaborators and a cast of anxious hopefuls who, just like their self-financed auteur, are hoping to carve a niche for themselves in the industry. And yet the result proves to be just as deliriously out of tune as anything Wood made, stricken with the same fascinating blend of cynical and deeply personal impulses. Tommy tries to encourage the cast and crew he hires to follow him on a grand creative journey, but it soon becomes clear to all involved, even the ever-supportive Greg, that Tommy has no idea what he’s doing, quickly earning enmities with imperial egotisms like a specially constructed personal toilet and turning up late for shoots. He also loses his bravado in performing when it comes time to do it before cameras, spending most of a single day trying to shoot a scene involving one line (All together now: “I did not hit her. It’s not true. It’s bullshit. I did not hit her. I did not.”).

Script supervisor Sandy Schklair (Seth Rogen), who is initially surprised when his pay check actually clears, is obliged to take the film in hand when Wiseau is before the camera, but Tommy studiously ignores his directions and finally, unceremoniously boots him and some other pros from the production. At last, Tommy’s overwhelming desire to realise his perfect fantasy of living in a movie leads to ugly moments like him clashing with the crew when he goes mental over a pimple on the arm of his leading lady, Juliette Danielle (Ari Graynor). Tommy is beset by the simultaneous need to express himself creatively and report his emotional travails to the world, whilst also trying to remain shielded against its prying eyes and judgements, unaware that show business, although a business of image and affectation, also requires a fine human touch to navigate. Tommy never reveals the source or extent of his fortune and steadfastly refusing to reveal his age, claiming to be the same age as Greg. Tommy, like some exploitation movie version of Jay Gatsby, believes American success and self-invention can be extended onto all stages of life, that the image one creates of one’s self can become the reality, and his desire to venture into acting and moviemaking betrays an ambition to escape the aspects of identity he refuses to admit, the foreignness that’s patently obvious to everyone else.

Tommy’s neediness extends to both wanting to use Greg as his avatar in the world but also getting peevish when Greg reaps the sorts of successes he wants, as when he lands a girlfriend in the form of cute bartender Amber (Alison Brie). Later on, when they’re trying to shoot Tommy’s passion project, Greg’s announcement to Tommy that he’s moving in with Amber sparks a tantrum from Tommy that echoes the climactic moments of The Room, except that apocalyptic desolation plays out in life as kicking a few vending machines and cradling a throbbing foot. Greg’s discussions with the other actors about the characters and their possible real-life inspirations suddenly highlights that many of them could be versions of Greg himself, and beyond that, projections of Tommy’s shifting ideas of Greg, possibly the one true human contact he’s had in years. Finally Tommy’s controlling streak manifests destructively for Greg when he refuses to bend from his shooting schedule to allow Greg to keep the beard he’s grown long enough to shoot a role on the TV show Malcolm in the Middle offered to him after a chase encounter with Bryan Cranston. Soon Greg loses his temper with Tommy whilst shooting second-unit footage (such as it is) in San Francisco, prodding him over his own refusal to open up, finishing up with the two men getting into a scuffling, spiteful yet still rather brotherly wrestling clinch in the middle of a scene shoot. After time apart, Greg is stunned to see Tommy’s mug gazing down from a colossal billboard ad in downtown LA, and soon the man himself comes to invite him to the film’s premiere.

With Interior. Leather Bar., Franco and documentary filmmaker Travis Mathews collaborated on a nominal attempt to recreate lost material filmed on New York’s gay scene for William Friedkin’s Cruising (1980), footage reportedly hacked out of that film because it was too racy, in the name of reclaiming the world it recorded from the realm of sordid legend. Franco’s interest in film as an artefact in this fashion, the desire to capture lightning in a bottle twice, finds a vehicle here that allows him to extend that kind of avant-garde conceit whilst playing the entertainer. He painstakingly recreates Wiseau’s footage and the hapless acting recorded by it utilising talented, experienced, and famous thespians, including Jackie Weaver as Carolyn Minnott, Juliette’s on-screen mother, Josh Hutcherson as Philip “Denny” Haldiman, and Zac Efron as Dan Janjigian, the actor playing fearsome yet negligible drug pusher Chris R. In much the same way that Wiseau absorbs scenes in Streetcar, Rebel Without a Cause and The Talented Mr Ripley (1999) into his creative lexicon, Franco simulates and transforms Wiseau’s images. At film’s end Franco offers the original scenes alongside his recreations to compare both the success and the failure of the reproduction, the slight variances in timing and actor delivery and camera angles coming with logarithmic variance. Filmmakers who do this sort of thing rarely put their labours on the line in such a fashion, and I get the feeling it’s very much part of what Franco was after in taking on the project, a desire to grab the raw material of this compelling piece of outsider art and disassemble it to see how it works, to apply exacting competence to incompetence.

What Franco lacks that Burton brought to his contention with Wood’s threadbare oeuvre is a definite directorial signature to utilise in mediating the stylistic mimicry. Franco’s shooting style, developed on the run on his many projects, has arrived at a baseline of fly-on-the-wall realism conveyed with darting, often hand-held camerawork, affecting gritty and happenstance casualness. It’s the exact opposite of the tony, polished, yet utterly stilted professionalism Wiseau spent about $6 million of his own money achieving. Franco brings specificity to the work more through the associations he can leverage with his casting and his contexts. But Franco does make some sport out of reproducing elements of Wiseau’s visual syntax. Unsurprisingly for anyone had ever seen the infamous football-throwing sequences in The Room, Sestero revealed in his book that Wiseau barely knew how to play the game and yet fetishized it as a symbol of Americanness, so when the Francos’ impersonations try to play a clumsy game of catch, Franco reproduces Wiseau’s square-on, middle-distance viewpoint, revealing awkward cinema is rooted in incomprehension of what exactly was being filmed. The sweeping view from the roof of Tommy’s LA apartment block is presented as the obvious inspiration for the blue-screen panorama constantly seen in his film.

A prolonged and purely cringe-worthy sequence in which Tommy spots Judd Apatow at dinner in an LA restaurant and harasses him with his garbled reading of a Shakespeare soliloquy, sees the brusque producer squirming in his seat in please-make-this-end discomfort, and then attempt to fix Tommy in the eye and make clear to him that he will never be the stuff of stardom. Franco’s own self-mocking subtext here acknowledges Apatow as the man who gave him his break on the TV show Freaks and Geeks. This scene suggests a closer relative to The Disaster Artist than Ed Wood might be The King of Comedy (1983), Martin Scorsese’s ruthless portrayal of obsessive fandom and its ambition to assimilate the vitality of the famous. Except that unlike Rupert Pupkin, Tommy has the money to make his own show happen, to impose his weird, theoretically romantic ayet actually deeply masochistic fantasies. Tommy’s own likeness to a vampire is a repeated quip throughout, fleshing out the suggestion he sucks the life out of anyone fool enough to come into his orbit, most particularly Greg.

James’ performance as Wiseau has to walk a narrow line, because it must be integral to his approach, moving beyond mere skit-like impression but also conceding its status as performance, to find realism in artifice. He manages to walk that line with impressive fixity, nailing aspects of Wiseau’s persona as his peculiar speech mannerisms where the line between old accent and recent nerve damage can’t be entirely distinguished, the slightly dead-eyed gaze, the anxious, robotic laughs and full-on eruptions of hot feeling that suggest a barely-suppressed volcanic heat at the base of the man’s belly. Dave gives a fun performance playing Sestero, but in many ways he has the harder job in playing the man constantly drawn in the wake of Tommy’s eccentricity. And he can’t quite inhabit Greg: the real Sestero, in spite of his general aura of real geniality and loyalty, looked nonetheless born to play the role of blithe betrayer, with all those sculpted planes to his face under ocean-blue eyes, the entitled surfer boy hunk and white-bread heartbreaker one can so well imagine inspiring Wiseau with existential terror, the being he wants to point to every time someone calls him a villainous-looking dude and say, but that’s what threat looks like to me. The smile Sestero put on when first glimpsed without his beard has a quality of rictus to it; you can see, as he reports in the book, his sinking feeling that all his acting dreams are at an end, and no actor can quite reproduce such a look. Franco ultimately shies away from pushing The Disaster Artist to the extremes of discomforting and dismaying absurdity of Scorsese’s film.

The galling if querulous misogyny that flows through The Room is also for the most part elided, regarded as an aspect of the paranoid general misanthropy. When the cast of the film talk about what Tommy’s trying to get at in his script, Juliette describes Lisa as essentially symbolising “the Universe” and its treatment of him. But Franco makes sure to depict the casting process for the film consists of Tommy getting the young actresses auditioning for the role to jump through hoops of behaviour including actions like blowing on a saxophone and licking an ice cream, filled with salacious innuendo, suggesting Franco knows very well Wiseau displays some of the tendencies that attract men like Harvey Weinstein into the movie business. On the other hand, Franco also notes and entertains gleeful complicity with Wiseau’s desire to objectivise himself on camera, to offer his own flesh, both anxiously and narcissistically, as a paradigm on manhood on screen. And so, of course, the moment in The Room that gains the most appalled groans of intolerance is of course when Franco/Tommy’s butt is displayed in colossal detail upon screen, granting the viewers the sensation less of having gained an erotic moment of self-exposing bravura than the feeling that, well, someone’s just forced a theatre of people to look at his ass.

The book was filled with Sestero’s musings on his pal and his shadowy past and modes of income, which are also left out: like many fans of The Room, it’s the very inscrutability of Wiseau that compels Franco, his status as a fever dream sprung directly out of some Eastern Bloc kid’s idea of an American success story made flesh and compelled by his own warring identities to both risk himself and hide all at once. Given that the 21st century has been so far an age of obsessive public fascination with celebrity, with performance of the self as enabled by technology in in all its illusory promise of instant and easy adoration, it’s certainly not hard to see Wiseau as the age’s court jester, its perfect and perfectly absurd embodiment. Less comfortingly, he might even be a fitting antihero for the Trump age as a man who uses a shady fortune to glorify himself and subordinate others to his will. Wiseau’s collaboration was inevitably required in making the film, probably meaning Franco felt obliged to go reasonably easy on him.

And also because in the end, although hopes are dashed, feelings bruised, fools made, Tommy himself is ultimately the one wounded most, this bedraggled yet weirdly gutsy, prosperous yet pathetic avatar of every weirdo who’s longed to be anointed by a more glamorous world, only to become a figure of fun. “Even if you have the talent of Brando,” Franco has Apatow tell himself as Tommy, “It’s a one in a million chance you’ll make it.” Sestero emphasised in his book the way Wiseau’s efforts added up to a form of therapeutic self-rescue, whilst in Wiseau’s pathos Franco sees something more universal but also quite personal, the lot of every creative person, their desire to reveal themselves, to take risks, but on their own, controlled terms. Where Ed Wood had to imagine a sarcastically triumphant ending for its hero, Franco turns the premiere of The Room, the ego trip as objet d’art no-one ever through would actually make it to a movie screen, as a microcosm of the film’s journey from wince-inducing, career-killing calamity to the subject of horrified fascination, and on to become a source of fiercely beloved merriment and communal joy, its creator suffering through ultimate humiliation only to immediately reinvent himself as the proud maker of a deliberately shoddy piece of punk comedy. Whilst he’s simplified and homogenized the phenomena of Wiseau and The Room to a certain extent, Franco can at least claim, in addition to making them into the stuff of a damn funny and entertaining film, to capture the essence of their curious appeal. And now, thanks to it, you don’t even have to actually watch The Room. But I will. Again.

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2010s, Auteurs, Fantasy, Musical, Scifi

The Shape of Water (2017)

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Director/Coscreenwriter: Guillermo del Toro

By Roderick Heath

Guillermo del Toro’s oeuvre has long come in two strands: the wistfully poetic splendour and infernal evocations of his Spanish-language films, Cronos (1992), The Devil’s Backbone (2001), Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), and the gleeful, geeky spectacle of his Hollywood work, including Mimic (1997), his two Hellboy films, and Pacific Rim (2013). What’s unified both hemispheres of del Toro’s work even is his plain, fervent love of the fantastical, his belief in its worthiness and capacity to bear up powerful emotions and connect with a point of the mind at the edge of shared awareness. 2015’s Crimson Peak saw del Toro trying to unite these two strands in a film that proved a luscious but lumpy effort, high gothic romanticism and old-school melodrama melding uneasily with florid supernatural showmanship. The Shape of Water, his latest, is less an attempt to fuse these two modes than a fully-fledged attempt to make one of his Spanish-language works in Hollywood, borrowing tropes with equal zest from pop culture lore of the mid 20th century, the archives of fantastic literature and surrealist art, fairy tales, and internet, fan-penned, slash-fic erotica. Del Toro signals his credo in a delirious opening sequence in which heroine Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) dreams of being submerged, her apartment flooded, fish wiggling through dancing light patinas, belongings floating in languorous beauty, voices sounding muffled through the water, slowly drawing Elisa back to wakefulness.

Elisa is mute, and communicates in sign language. She lives over a movie theatre in downtown Baltimore in the early 1960s, next door to a Giles (Richard Jenkins), a gay commercial artist who’s become a steadfast friend. Her only other real friend, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), works with her as a cleaner in the OCCAM Aerospace Research Center, a grandiose den of quasi-official experimentation. One day, Elisa and Zelda are privy to an unusual sight, as a large tube containing some kind of living being is wheeled into a room prepared with an open tank as a kind of makeshift habitat. Intrigued by the contents, Elisa touches the tank, only for a hand to slap against the glass from within. The two cleaners soon encounter government agent Strickland (Michael Shannon), the man who captured this bizarre specimen from its South American home where, he reports, it was worshipped as a god by tribes there. Later, the cleaners see Strickland stumble out of the creature’s room with two of his fingers gorily severed. Assigned to clean up the bloody mess, Elisa and Zelda retrieve Strickland’s fingers, and Elisa catches sight of the creature through a glass screen, beholding a strikingly coloured and muscled amphibian humanoid. Struck not only by the creature’s pathos but its similarities to herself as a nonspeaking creature desperate for sensible contact, soon she’s sneaking into the habitat to feed boiled eggs to the curious and wary being and play records to him.

In much the same way that The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth meditated upon Spain’s troubled past, The Shape of Water casts its mind back to a time in American history at once recent but also retreating to the fringe of collective memory, a time of jarring disparity between the flashy, technocratic splendours of the burgeoning space age and racial strife, a time that promised so much and now stirs a twinge of regret in lost illusions. Del Toro links this echoing past with the very stuff of his fantastical lexicon, formative creative influences and dream provokers glimpsed on movie and TV screens and read between covers churned together with the psychic landscape of the past. History plays out at times barely registered by the workaday characters drifting through a landscape, as when Elisa goes to work with the fires from riots blazing in the background, and at other times wilfully drowned out, as when Giles anxiously tells her turn over the TV from news reports on civil rights demonstrations and happily retreats into old Alice Faye musicals instead. One totemic image comes early on, as del Toro notes Zelda and Elisa conversing as Zelda dusts down a colossal jet engine. His tale of the little people who are adjuncts to great designs is boiled down to this perfect piece of iconography, dusted nonetheless still with a sense of the dreamlike, of ridiculous Sisyphean tasks and worship of twisted metal gods.

Strickland, by comparison, fancies himself the perfect avatar of American go-get-’em bravura and fortitude of will. Properly introduced to Elisa and Zelda as they clean the OCCAM men’s room as he lays down the cattle prod he uses to torture the fish-man before taking a leak in the urinal without touching his dick to establish his rigorous self-control, Strickland has a picture-perfect family he anxiously wants to move to a better city. Offering Shannon as implacable villain again feels like a highly unimaginative bit of casting, especially as Strickland, representative of the whitest of white bred authority, an Almighty-invoking avatar of septic squareness ignorant of all interiority, feels similar to the role he played in the TV series Boardwalk Empire. And yet it’s also a wise move, as Shannon can play such a creature in a manner that evokes underlying neuroticism and neediness so intense it almost renders him sympathetic even before indulging behaviour that makes him utterly despicable. Strickland is depicted as inordinately proud of his efforts to prove himself the exemplary American, buying a green – sorry, teal Cadillac in a droll scene in which he readily falls for a salesman’s spiel and claims his right to the essential status symbol. He’s also a patronising racist and sexist, who finds himself taken with Elisa, making a play for her sexual attention in wolfish fashion, and enjoys torturing the amphibian when he has it at bay. Del Toro makes no pretence to offering Strickland as a realistic character, but existing as it does in a plain fantasy, he is del Toro’s evil queen or wicked witch, the totemic figure of everything wrong with the era’s self-delusions.

The digits Strickland lost to the fish-man are surgically restored but the graft refuses to take and he’s left with two steadily rotting fingers whose steady degrading to black stumps gives del Toro a mordant device to illustrate the gangrenous state of aspects of the super-duper company man. A cringe-inducing sex scene sees del Toro sarcastically painting “normal” sexuality as obscene, Strickland screwing his wife Elaine (Lauren Lee Smith) with ruthless enthusiasm, clapping his hand with black blood leaking out over her mouth to muffle her attempts to complain. Del Toro interestingly revises his patient indulgence of institutions exhibited in the Hellboy films and Pacific Rim, where the dens of government experimentation and arsenals, with their labyrinthine corridors and gargantuan yet obscure fixtures, housed swashbuckling weirdos and stolid functionaries in relative harmony. Here, the facility is den of imperial arrogance infiltrated by social cast-offs and the disadvantaged, as well as foreign influences. The predominately black and Latino workforce of cleaners and dogsbodies in the OCCAM facility gain their little moments of peace and relaxation in avoiding the cyclopean eye of the security cameras, taking cigarette breaks in the blind spots for the cameras, a throwaway detail that nonetheless germinates into Elisa’s realisation need only retrain the cameras to get the amphibian out of his den.

As Elisa forges her amity with the amphibian, a scientist who’s been assigned to understand the creature’s physiognomy, Dr Hoffstetler (the inexhaustible Michael Stuhlbarg), sees her but does not report her, because he has his own secret: he’s a Russian agent (real name Dmitri, as he reveals in an affecting aside), employed by a spymaster posing as a diplomat, Mihalkov (Nigel Bennett). But Hoffstetler’s higher loyalty proves to be science, as he tries to argue to both of his nominal masters the necessity of keeping the amphibian alive for study, only for both to decide the creature should be killed. US military bigwig Gen. Hoyt (Nick Searcy) wants the creature’s biology closely examined, and Mihalkov states, “We don’t need to learn – we need to stop the Americans from learning.” So Hoffstetler elects to aid Elisa as he realises she’s planning to bust the amphibian out, after she’s already drawn Giles and Zelda into helping her. The breakout succeeds, after Hoffstetler intervenes and gives a guard about to arrest Giles a dose of the lethal injection he was supposed to give to the amphibian, and they manage to escape without leaving any sign of their identities for the wrathful Strickland to track.

The official inspiration here is one close to the hearts of most fans of classic science fiction and horror film: Jack Arnold’s Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) has long stirred frissons with its image of a grotesque yet curiously charismatic humanoid forming an attachment for a lovely human female who prefers, in that film, the attentions of two primates who barely seem that much more advanced. The connection between male sexuality and bestial impulse isn’t new – to quote a quip from Mystery Science Theatre 3000 concerning another tatty monster, it’s how all teenagers see themselves. Del Toro had even ventured down this path before on Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2009), where the fish-man Abe Sapien romanced an ethereal elf princess to her unblinking openness, as both were citizens of a magic world indifferent to the fear of the unique known only be humans. Plainly del Toro didn’t work the idea out as far as his twisted mind could there. Like another film that saw the light of day in English-speaking film markets this year, Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Smoczynska’s loony-tunes The Lure (2015), del Toro evokes Hans Christian Anderson’s original The Little Mermaid story – a very different beast compared to the homogenised Disney take – and even parses it through similar impulses to Smoczynska as a postgenre hash of expressive impulses, up to and including musical flourishes.

One way del Toro signals his peculiar bent, and his deep feel for cinema in all its glories, comes in a small detail involving the movie showing at the movie theatre isn’t something cool like a ’50s noir film or one of del Toro’s beloved monster movies but Henry Koster’s forgotten religious epic The Story of Ruth (1960). There’s a faint but definite gesture her in the direction of Byron Haskin’s The War of the Worlds (1953), which made show of Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949) screening at the outset, invoking homiletic glow of religious parable and Biblical dimensions to the ensuing Armageddon. Strickland repeatedly uses the story of Samson as his mission statement, only to find out he’s mistaken his own role in the parable. Del Toro runs with another notion encoded in Creature from the Black Lagoon, the idea that understanding different forms of life could give an edge in future adventures into space. In Arnold’s film this idea is deployed instead as justification for vivisection and exploitation of something beautiful and incredibly rare, the pretentions of the space age another guise of colonialism. The Arnold film posited its gill-man as a representative of the untameable in nature, in much the same style as King Kong (1933), powerful and baleful and constantly seeking to breach the new citadels of progress – in short, exactly like the maddening sexuality that vexes both Arnold’s characters and del Toro’s.

Del Toro seems to have in mind not merely the familiar rosters of sci-fi and monster movies from the ’50s, but also a string of movies from the 1980s, including Steven Spielberg’s E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Fred Schepisi’s Iceman (1984), and John Carpenter’s Starman (1985). Those movies stand in many ways as repudiations of values expressed in the older breed, with distrust in authority and cold science, and ecologically-minded sense of the preciousness of strangeness (del Toro isn’t the only filmmaker of late to cast his mind back to those films, as last year’s Midnight Special, also featuring Shannon, leaned heavily on their influence). The Shape of Water can be described without too much stretching as a romantic variation of Spielberg’s famous work, although his contemporary, grounded evocation of the childlike has been swapped out for del Toro’s ardour for the retro and the dreamily erotic. Del Toro might be turning a smirking nod to the TV series Alf when it comes to a gross gag involving the amphibian developing an appetite for one of Giles’ cats. The movies of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro also seem prominent in his thoughts. One bathroom-flooding sequence pays overt tribute to their Delicatessen (1992), whilst Elisa and Giles are highly reminiscent of characters from Jeunet’s Amelie (2001), although, fortunately, del Toro doesn’t indulge his whimsy to the same degree as Jeunet did when left to his own devices: his mischievous streak, his love for throwing his audience the odd curve ball in jolts of violence and weirdness, keep bubbling insistently to the surface.

Some qualities, running like a vein of gold through The Shape of Water, seem indebted to a more rarefied brand of movie dreaming than del Toro’s genre film loves. The touch of having Elisa and Giles live over a cinema, the sounds of the epics and fantasies echoing up through the floorboards, is reminiscent of the more overt surrealism of Leos Carax’s Holy Motors (2012). Hell, there’s even a faint flicker of (1963) in Elisa’s hallway dance moves. Where del Toro eventually steers this annexation of familiar material is in his literal and figurative deflowering of the traditional metaphorical sexuality of the monster movie with relish, as he finally has Elisa and the amphibian shacked up in her apartment after the successful escape. Elisa keeps him immersed in her bathtub, as he can only breathe out of water so long, obliging her to mix table salt in with the water to keep him from suffocating, and even with these measures his physical condition begins to decay. Del Toro has already noted Elisa’s habit of masturbating in the bath as part of her daily ritual, and she sports unusual marks on her neck that look a little like the gills on the amphibian’s neck, a sign that the orphan girl might be the lost heiress to some race of merfolk, a notion reminiscent of another melancholic fairy tale of lost souls and marine life, Curtis Harrington’s Night Tide (1961). Giles can’t help but remark on how beautiful the amphibian is when he first sees him, and Elisa’s attachment to the creature quickly steps over the line into erotic interest which she first shies away from but then, after trying to settle down for the night on her sofa, throws caution and clothes to the wind, marches into the bathroom to join the creature for a night of passion.

There’s a marvellous joke following this scene for anyone who’s ever watched many a classic monster movie like Creature from the Black Lagoon and wondered why these monsters never seem to have sex organs, as Elisa mimes the opening of the amphibian’s surprise package to Zelda’s mixed repulsion and fascination. Del Toro also links one form of “forbidden” sexuality to another as Giles’ situation as an ageing gay man forms a counterpoint to the central tale: Giles, who laments the stranger’s face that stares at him from the mirror, is anxious to return from his greying exile to his former workplace in an advertising agency but, whether by getting old or letting slip his orientation, he remains unwanted there. He forms a crush on a handsome young waiter (Morgan Kelly) in a coffee shop, forcing Elisa to follow him in and buy pies neither of them can stand eating for the sake of gaining his daily look at his idol. Sadly, Giles compounds humiliation after being fobbed off by his former boss by making an equally unsuccessful and bruising move on the young man. Del Toro links his two outside men as his camera slides from the window of Giles’ apartment to Elisa’s where the amphibian stands in a mimicking pose, matched in their bemusement at their place in this unforgiving world. But Giles also finds himself beneficiary of a bizarre talent the amphibian has. The fish-man has a bioelectric system that pulses as if he’s wearing a suit made of the aurora, and this seems to be the source of a healing power he can wield. This gift repairs wound he accidentally made in Giles’ arm, and stimulates the growth of hair on his head, allowing him to throw away his toupee.

There’s a lovely bounty of humanity in The Shape of Water in this sort of thing it almost makes you ache to think how little of it there is some other movies these days. The fecundity of Elisa and Giles apartments are carefully wrought and textured by del Toro and art director Nigel Churcher as an abode of escape from the shiny, chrome plated super-machines and gritty realities both beyond their walls. Del Toro’s feel for way the apparatus of the past lingers in the dreamscapes of the mind long after epochs fade is part of the texture here. Del Toro has one of the best eyes in contemporary film, and his attentiveness to the little worlds here communicates in an argot of another age, particularly the swirling, futurist décor that permeates the OCCAM facility boldly grasping at an age when science and art can cohabit on the level of engineering dreams, but usually with the malignant Strickland hovering before them. The cold, clean geometries of Strickland’s new Cadillac wield the same whiff of antiseptic modernity, at least until Giles accidentally slams his van into it during the escape from the facility. By contrast, Del Toro’s early 1960s Baltimore is as exotic as his Victorian era was in Crimson Peak, and linked unexpectedly with John Waters’s Hairspray (1987) in its setting and use of Baltimore as an exemplary American city in a time of swift and unnerving change, not quite as blankly indifferent as a megalopolis like New York or Los Angeles but hardly village-like either, beset by unseen borders and a sense of hovering between nothing and nowhere. And, like Waters’s film, it’s concerned with people usually thrust to the margins of life suddenly and boldly claiming their place in the world.

Perhaps this likeness is why, when del Toro abruptly swerves into a musical sequence, it doesn’t feel at all unexpected. Elisa indulges a fantasy shot in black-and-white and gleaned from old Astaire and Rogers movies, where she can suddenly not only talk but sing, and launches into a dazzling dance number with her humanoid beau. Del Toro takes up the old canard about musicals, that their characters break into song when there’s no other way to properly express and contain their emotion, and not only transplants it into an unexpected setting, but links it with his own effervescent love affair with the fantastical genres, a love the revolves around the same notion, the transformative potency of heightened expressive modes, the certainty mere reality cannot contain our manifold selves. The notion of language as something as much physical as oral, mooted throughout as the amphibian learns to communicate through Elisa’s sign language, is also rendered here in a radically different fashion, the need to move, to transcend the limits of ordinary physicality and become fluid as a dream. It’s also a moment that highlights the way The Shape of Water, whilst assembled with many an archetype, trope, and cliché, wields impudent originality in the way he patches them all together. Del Toro counterbalances this with his relatively straight-laced portrayal of Hoffstetler’s anxiety, provoked by the looming malignancy of Strickland on one side and his boss who might be planning to have him killed on the other. This subplot builds to a sequence that reminds me del Toro has a gift for nastiness as potent as his romantic side, as Hoffstetler is saved after being shot through the face by a KGB goon by Strickland who’s been following him, only for the American agent to hook his fingers through the gaping wound in his cheek and drag him around by it before torturing the amphibian’s location out of him (shades here of the infamous stitching scene in Pan’s Labyrinth).

Equally charged, if not as violent, is Strickland’s subsequent confrontation with Zelda, visiting her in her own and terrorising her and her husband Brewster (Martin Roach) in a disturbingly intimate way. Del Toro shoots Shannon like the reincarnation of Boris Karloff he’s long threatened to become, deep grooves in his face picked out by deep shadow and gruelling sweat mixed with rain pouring off him like the natural translucent ooze of an actual beast from the deep, the angry white man as monster. I wouldn’t blame Spencer if she never wanted to play another period menial again, but she aptly embodies del Toro’s theme of nascent rebellion as she weathers this storm and moves to both warn Elisa of Strickland’s warpath and chews out her lazy and cowardly husband at the same time. Jones has been del Toro’s instrument of vital physicality in his movies since Mimic. His performance is expert in imbuing the amphibian with traits both recognisably intelligent and animalistic, and it feels like a just reward for him to at last play romantic lead, even if he is still swathed in latex. What’s perhaps more surprising is that Hawkins, who’s always a deft and inventive performer, nonetheless matches him and dominates the film without speaking a word, purely through intensity of expression and gesture. The film’s waterfront climax is perhaps a little disappointing in its lack of inventive staging or action, even if it does at last deliver a nicely nasty punch line to Strickland’s hand-of-god pretences. But the very last images of underwater love and transcendent transformation finally thrust del Toro’s labours into a rarefied zone, a rapturous embrace of the intimately surreal, and slipping the prison of the flesh.

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2010s, Action-Adventure, Scifi

Justice League (2017)

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Directors: Zack Snyder, Joss Whedon (uncredited)

By Roderick Heath

Here we go again.

Zack Snyder’s films for the DC Comics-Warner Bros. imprimatur have provided ready whipping boys on the contemporary pop culture scene. Compared to Marvel-Disney’s current stranglehold on the zeitgeist, with their chintzy, jolly, near-indistinguishable entries, Snyder’s films, cloaked in a dusky, gothic stature, have aimed higher. I was never particularly sold on Christopher Nolan’s laboriously pseudo-realist Batman films, but I found Man of Steel (2013) a truly ambitious attempt on Snyder’s part to render DC’s superhero roster distinct from its rivals by viewing it through lenses of both neo-mythology and the post-Alan Moore style of introspective, self-critiquing comic book saga. His Superman questioned his own right to do what he does before finally being obliged to shatter a city to save the world. Such conceits were true to the themes of DC’s attempts to deepen its lexicon and complicate the world-view of their superhero comics since the late-1980s, but many critics and viewers responded as if their understanding of the mode hadn’t changed since the 1960s Batman TV series.

When I first saw Snyder’s follow-up, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), I found it a ragged, intermittently impressive mess. Revisiting Snyder’s director’s cut of the film, I saw the themes and style had been rendered truly epic, interweaving real-world contexts – fears of terrorism, the fallout of war, the tattering of social and civic institutions in the face of the 21st century’s atomising realities – with familiar but refreshed generic concerns and some irretrievably lumpy franchise development. All this was achieved through Snyder’s patented visual muscle, granted a stately gravitas that stands a good chance of being remembered not as the worst moment of the superhero craze, as many declared it, but the finest. Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman earlier this year won popular plaudits for retaining a fair mimicry of Snyder’s style whilst cutting out the complexity of theme and vision and offering a straight-up new-age heroine. And David Ayer’s Suicide Squad…well, that was just crap.

Justice League, Snyder’s latest offering, is the official moment of consummation when the DC-Warner brand arrives at its The Avengers (2012) moment in teaming up its flagship heroes. Supposedly, following Dawn of Justice’s oft-withering critical reception, it was hastily redrawn, and Snyder’s withdrawal during post-production because of a family tragedy saw The Avengers helmsman Joss Whedon, who is also credited as co-screenwriter with Chris Terrio, brought in to oversee reshoots and inject more of his trademark blend of gags and geekery. There is good reason to be nervous about such shifts in vision. Snyder’s Sucker Punch (2011) and Dawn of Justice were both badly hurt by studio-mandated snipping only to be revealed more truly in their extended editions. Justice League also has its share of heavy lifting to do. Although these specific takes on Clark ‘Superman’ Kent (Henry Cavill), Bruce ‘Batman’ Wayne (Ben Affleck), and Diana ‘Wonder Woman’ Prince (Gal Gadot) now have been thoroughly introduced to audiences, we also now have along for the ride Arthur ‘Aquaman’ Curry (Jason Momoa), Barry ‘The Flash’ Allen (Ezra Miller), and Victor ‘Cyborg’ Stone (Ray Fisher). These newcomers were briefly glimpsed in Dawn of Justice as a gallery of ‘metahumans’ Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) was tracking, with the potential to create a potential line-up of heroic defenders to fill the extremely large gap left by the death of Superman.

The start of Justice League takes up where that film left off, with its landscape of ruination and setback both physical and moral: in an opening that tips a self-evident nod to Snyder’s equally iconographic opening for his take on Moore’s Watchmen (2009), he sets Sigrid’s cover version of Leonard Cohen’s cynical anthem “Everybody Knows” to visions of resurging patterns of crime and anxiety following the fall of the Kryptonian hero. Renewing his nocturnal adventures in Gotham City, Bruce encounters a grotesque, flying alien creature which he attracts by dangling a hapless criminal from a rooftop as bait. Diana returns to crime fighting, saving hostages from a gang of nihilist terrorists who want to restore “holy terror” as a state of being for humanity in the face of titanic universal forces. Lois Lane (Amy Adams) has retreated into a bubble of soft news stories whilst trying to work through her grief following Clark’s passing. His mother Martha (Diane Lane) loses the family farm to the bank. Believing the alien to be a scout for an oncoming assault by a powerful host, Bruce and Diana set out to track down the other metahumans. Soon that host arrives, flocking at the behest of interdimensional fiend Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds), who in aeons past almost conquered and laid waste to the Earth in his attempts to bring together three “mother boxes” that when pieced together fuse into a terraforming device of unbelievable power. A great alliance of ancient races and alien ‘gods’ defeated Steppenwolf’s armies and drove him into exile, but now with Earth absent its great defender, Steppenwolf attacks the Amazon capital Themiscyra where the first box is held, battling Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and her hordes of sword-wielding equestriennes.

Meanwhile our earthly heroes attempt to fuse into a coherently operating unit. Barry, having been blessed with astonishing speed thanks to a freakish incident involving lightning, is a waggish but neurotic outsider living off the grid and fuelled by needy angst concerning his imprisoned father (Billy Crudup). Arthur is the heir to the sunken kingdom of Atlantis, but rather than hang out with his fellows like Mera (Amber Heard), who watches over the second mother box, Arthur prefers to spend his days wandering the seas, lending a hand to folks in need like a penurious Icelandic village and a sinking trawler crew. Victor is the newest and most troubled candidate for superhero status. He’s the son of a scientist, Silas Stone (Joe Morton), who was investigating the third mother box, retrieved by perplexed archaeologists. Following his son’s terrible injuries in a car crash, Silas tried to rebuild his boy with the box, only to result in a strange, constantly evolving and upgrading fusion of man and machine. Victor hides out in his father’s apartment, fretting over his changing nature and battling the alien influence he constantly senses attempting to subsume his identity and control over the new form he’s taken. He has the ability to connect with other technologies and parse information at incredible speeds, and he detects Bruce and Diana’s attempts to track him down even before they properly start. Diana, who’s attempting to come out of her self-imposed isolation after the death of her lover Steve Trevor in World War I, appeals to Victor to do the same. But when they go up against Steppenwolf and his minions for the first time, the team realises quickly and forlornly that they don’t stand much of a chance without Superman.

Justice League arrives on the big screen with a heavy air of compromise hovering about it. Often it betrays an initial intention to follow on from Dawn of Justice’s weighty reckonings, and add up to a mythic-scale song of rebirth to counter the previous film’s death trip. This aspect is borne out not merely by Superman’s eventual resurrection but by a climax that pays off in the perversely beautiful sight of alien flowers blooming amidst devastation, capping the motifs of revival and synthesis. Early sequences including Diana’s intervention in the terrorist attack and Steppenwolf attacking Themiscyra prove Snyder’s chops for this sort of thing are almost unequalled in current film, striking momentously heroic notes Wonder Woman laboured for two hours to sound properly. The second sequence is a particularly giddy and momentous interlude, as the cosmic monstrosity beams into an Amazonian temple stronghold to retrieve the mother box, complete with hammer-swinging muscular giantesses bringing down the roof and a desperate relay race trying to keep the box out of the villain’s hands, culminating in a colossal Amazon cavalry charge. It’s a pity the whole film can’t sustain such elephantine, madcap absurdity.

Much as he threatened to do often on 300 (2006), Snyder shifts into full-bore Peter Jackson-does-Tolkien territory for a flashback to the ancient war to defeat Steppenwolf, a gloriously weird spectacle of Amazons, Atlanteans, deities, and even a Green Lantern getting stuck into a colossal brawl. I got the feeling this scene, interpolated halfway through the film, was initially intended as an epic prologue like the Krypton scenes in Man of Steel. Instead it’s reduced to mind-numbingly expensive exposition. The epic film originally intended has been chopped up and interspersed with another one, Whedon’s more traditional matinee romp draped over the mythopoeic design. This is not necessarily a terrible thing, although I would’ve preferred to watch Snyder’s original concept. The relative ease with which the film incorporates the Flash, Cyborg, and Aquaman, on the other hand, raises the question as to whether all those long, involved stand-alone introductions were necessary, as we go down the Seven Samurai (1954) route of meeting new heroes with individual talents and angsts noted in quick thumbnails of biography and characterisation. Flourishes of Whedon’s trademark stammering yet wordy humour, most of it wielded by gawky and entertaining Miller, actually work in the same way as those sprouting flowers, little squiggles of colour decorating a moody landscape. And yet it also leaves the film creaking in uneasy switchbacks of dramatic style and affect.

Snyder is anything but a subtle filmmaker, but he has two qualities that constantly arrest me. First, and most self-evidently, he’s a director who is properly and entirely visual. His images maintain connection with a bygone age in cinema, the time of Fritz Lang, Michael Curtiz, Cecil B. DeMille, F.W. Murnau, and other masters of film seen as an atavistic art of unchained spectacle. In an age in which cinema too often feels squeezed, cropped, and otherwise denuded by eyes too used to other platforms, he wants his pictures to sweep up the viewer like a physical force. Even in some throwaway sequences in Justice League, like a moment when Aquaman strides out onto a groin to let storm waves crash upon him, Snyder offers pictures of acromegaliac beauty. Snyder wants the audience to see every particle of water and feel its gush and enjoy the noble boner provoked by such manly spectacle. Secondly, he’s developed a surprisingly rigorous chain of motifs in his work. Even 300, the digitally-rendered peplum that made Snyder a Hollywood heavy-hitter and became a dudebro keepsake, was a work compelled by the disparity between the roots of heroic myth and the act of transmitting it, retelling the legend of Thermopylae in a manner its participants would have understood, a duel of propaganda in outsized nobility and debased and deformed opposition. Watchmen set the infrastructure of the comic book universe at war with itself. Sucker Punch portrayed the ecstatic release of fantasising colliding hard with bleak realities. Man of Steel and Dawn of Justice mediated his critical impulses amidst the borrowed finery of a commonly beloved cosmology.

I keep wondering what film scholars might make of the popularity of superhero tales in the second decade of the 21st century in a few decades’ time. So resolute is the mode’s grip on the current box office that it will certainly seem a prognosticative aspect of the age, like the popularity of westerns and religious epics in the 1950s or spy films in the 1960s. It’s certainly not that hard to discern the reasons for their popularity. The genre – I feel it’s safe to call it a genre now – places specific individuals at the centre of modern special effects techniques, and on the dramatic level they work the same way, enacting and complicating basic fantasies of empowerment. It seems the basic matter of whether or not these individual films in this style work revolves around the degree to which they satisfy the schism between the desire to render them dramatically coherent and serious enough to sustain their own weight, and acknowledge their ridiculousness. The Marvel brand has maintained an unbroken run of success through easily and confidently varying a basic formula: a few laughs, a few thrills, a few feels. It’s both reliable and the exact opposite of any kind of creative risk, even the sort exhibited within the imposed limitations of genre and blockbuster intent. Even the superior examples of their approach, like Captain America: Civil War (2016) and Thor: Ragnarok (2017), only merely exemplify rather than enlarge their formula. Attempts to paint the superhero craze as some adjunct of a neo-fascist spirit have an accurate facet but also tend to get belaboured, in large part because they also fail to read their essential subject as being the ambivalent relationship between the individual and the community.

I seem to prefer this branch of the superhero craze in part because of this sort of thing, as it exists in the same context as any other genre, one where bad things happen that mostly can’t be undone and the distanced metaphors mean something. If superhero movies are the westerns of today, call these the John Ford and Anthony Mann westerns to counterbalance Marvel’s pleasant servicing of The Lone Ranger crowd. I know that’s a blasphemous way of framing this phenomenon for many, perhaps even to me, and yet I can’t get away from it. For instance, most takes on Superman neglected his alien state before these films; Snyder put this aspect, and the question as to whether he can effectively defend a species who physical nature he does not share, at the centre of his take, a question that proved maniacally offensive to Bruce Wayne in Dawn of Justice, who proposed that only a weaker, mortal creature can be truly brave. Snyder and Terrio blurred the lines between Bruce and Lex Luthor’s motivations to a fascinating degree, suggesting the difference between their ultimate selves was one of personal struggle, one who emerged as Batman and another as supervillain. Bruce is back on an even keel in Justice League, purpose renewed by a sense of mission and also guttering guilt over his near-murder of his better self. He gets into a brief contretemps with Diana as he prods her over her prioritising her personal grief over her natural status as warrior leader, earning himself a wallop in the chest over mentioning Steve Trevor’s name in such a fashion. Similarly, the film’s glances over the shoulder at the travails of Lois and Martha keep the film rooted in the mood of bruised humanity that’s linked the entries in this cycle.

Victor’s struggle with his new, unpredictable, unnervingly self-willed cybernetic enhancements offers another stage for the running psychic struggle of man and superman. Victor’s lot as something not too far from the antihero of some body horror movie, glimpsed hiding in the shadows of his father’s apartment in a faintly menacing and baleful fashion that recalls Jeff Goldblum in David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986), dealing with his rebelling body’s whims in randomly releasing dangerous energy blasts. Victor’s mainline into the technological marrow of the world swiftly proves indispensable, as he gains greater control over his “body” and joins his natural gifts for analysis to his augmented senses. Barry, on the other hand, in spite of his troubled past, provides uncomplicated dash and eccentric, boyish vigour to the enterprise. Aquaman arrives as perhaps the least well-developed of the characters in spite of possessing legendary backstory and having the oceans at his command. The film offers such brief visions of his underwater kingdom and fellow merpeople they scarcely register, and whilst the approach to Aquaman as a hairy, macho outsider, a bit of rough trade covered in tattoos, intends all too obviously to rescue the character from his previous status in the eyes many as a fey embarrassment in this realm, but instead too often symbolises the film’s awkward pandering in his swaggering faux-cool, such as his already immortally stilted exclamations of “My man” and “Booyah.”

The film is also duty-bound to resurrect Superman, the figure whose presence haunts all the others, and this franchise in general. Superman’s fall and rise is one of those essential motifs, enacted in three of Christopher Reeve’s movies, and now taken to an extreme here, capping a trilogy that’s never been shy about evoking Superman’s status as messiah figure. Snyder’s visions of Clark in his cornfields retain a dusky romanticism as sentimental as anything Richard Donner purveyed in his classic film. Bruce concocts a method of resurrecting the singular hero by utilising the technology in the crashed Kryptonian spaceship still lying in downtown Metropolis and the power of the one mother box still in their hands. Successfully revived, Superman proves confused and aggressive, tossing his would-be helpmates around like skittles and threatening to crush Bruce between his bare hands. Bruce only forestalls his own messy demise by bringing out “the big gun,” which proves to be Lois; she successfully pacifies Clark and spirits him away to regain his bearings. Left with no choice but to venture into battle with Steppenwolf in his stronghold, the rest of the nascent league track the fiend to his base in an disused power plant somewhere in a former Soviet state, where he sets about uniting the talismanic boxes and unleashing its world-fashioning powers.

Whedon’s imprint on this material is apparent not just in the humour style and the quick fillips of characterisation, but also, more vexingly, in the resolute lack of cleverness in the storyline. We get elements of both his Avengers movies recycled wholesale, including a villain who beams in unexpectedly through a wormhole, and this kind of setting for the finale. Steppenwolf is a regulation comic book baddie, a big, weird, nasty alien with a demonic look whose motivations are never delved into beyond the obvious “he wants to destroy our world and build his own” sort of thing, who gets what he wants and then stands around waiting before doing what he intends just long enough for the heroes to turn up and stop him. Again, it’s not such a big crime to simply offer sufficient antagonism to spur the heroes, but it cuts against the grain of what this imprimatur has been striving to achieve. The only real topic The Avengers tackled was the proposition that a bunch of immensely talented screw-ups could unify and prove themselves an effective team, a theme with a certain level of self-reflexive import insofar as it clearly reflected the life of a Hollywood player like Whedon himself. And the essential theme of Justice League is…well, whether a bunch of immensely talented screw-ups can unify and prove themselves an effective team. Hell, DC already did that with Suicide Squad.

It’s this aspect of Justice League that left me frustrated even as I enjoyed the Irish stew it finally served up. Until now the Warner-DC cycle had tried, in however lumpy a fashion, to engage on committed dramatic level and translate comic book fare into a legitimate wing of cyberpunk-hued sci-fi. Justice League’s ultimate answer to the popular pressure upon the series delivers a fair crowd-pleaser but also jettisons the greater part of what made it interesting and distinctive. It pays off, but not with the heft Snyder’s labours to date deserved. There’s also been a noticeable shrinking of the horizons of this series since the truly epic opening scenes of Man of Steel, a film that was majestic on an audio-visual level. Now most of the fights seem to take place in sewers and industrial abodes, the finale drenched in ugly CGI patinas that look like the backdrops of computer games. The amazing thing about Justice League is that it doesn’t just hold together but somehow, in spite of everything compromised and cynical about it, it still manages to count for me as a kind of success, if only because it remains doggedly entertaining. Justice League certainly appeals to that perpetual six-year-old in the back of the mind who just thinks it’s rad to see Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman kicking ass together. And those other guys too, why not.

There’s at least one great joke at the expense of these superfriends, as Barry wheezes a proud gasp for breath after pushing a family out of the danger zone only to see Superman swing by with an entire apartment block on his shoulders. The glue that holds the enterprise together tend to be elements already been well-proven – Cavill’s disarmingly warm grin that lends supple charisma to his igneous frame, Gadot’s statuesque glamour charged with plucky, soulful intelligence. Affleck, who I found a surprisingly effective Caped Crusader in his first outing, seemed less sure to me here, however, particularly as he seems to have walked through some of the mandated reshoots: at least one of his line readings made me want someone to give him an adrenalin dose. Jeremy Irons (as Alfred) and J.K. Simmons (as Commissioner Gordon) were in there too, bewilderingly but gratifyingly. It also helps that Danny Elfman’s scoring is at least willing to service my kind of fan and toss in occasional flourishes of his old Batman (1989) theme and even a faint pastiche of John Williams’ mighty Superman fanfare, deployed at just the right moment, when the finale finally delivers the kind of righteous bash-up this entire cycle has been moving towards. I expect the film was always intended to be this kind of capstone to the cycle, and to get there, even in such an awkwardly framed result, still has a charge of fulfilment. And whilst I can’t say it knocked my socks off, I can’t say it was a few dollars badly spent, either. Perhaps, yet again, what this was supposed to be will eventually be seen on a smaller screen.

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2010s, Crime/Detective, Historical

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

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Director/Actor: Kenneth Branagh

By Roderick Heath

Kenneth Branagh, damn his eyes. Few figures in contemporary film remain as eclectically gifted and perpetually vexing. The energetic-to-a-fault Irish-born thespian-turned-filmmaker’s directorial career has provoked acclaim and irritation since his electrifying debut in 1989 with Henry V transformed a 28-year-old best known for his stage work into a major cinematic talent. Branagh confirmed with the success of his second Shakespeare film, Much Ado About Nothing (1993), that he had a unique way with popularising the Bard on film. But his output in this period, as he seemed determined to stretch and express his talents at a breakneck pace, proved hit and miss, and his promise never quite translated into the sort of career his debut signalled, even as he continued to go from strength to strength as an actor. His movies in the prolific decade following his gambit included the flop of his capital-R Romantic film of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) and the swift submergence of his radically odd extrapolation of Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000), as well as the violently uneven yet truly epic-scale Hamlet (1996), interspersed with smaller, more personal, spasmodically effective works like Dead Again (1991), Peter’s Friends (1992), and In the Bleak Midwinter (1995). Branagh’s directorial style, his adoration of oversized gestures and scarce-restrained theatrical energy, simply doesn’t fit into the current pop cultural paradigm any more than his love for Shakespeare: it’s the antithesis of cool. The attempt to crossbreed Shakespeare with old Hollywood musical idealisation with Love’s Labour’s Lost did, for the six people who saw it including me, help bring all Branagh’s works into focus as covert musicals – the swooping camerawork, the dialogue delivered in quick, dexterous, recitative-like refrains, the actors perpetually propelled about his frame-stages in giddy motion.

Two surprisingly excellent films in the mid-2000s, a TV-debuting version of As You Like It and a dazzling take on The Magic Flute (both 2006) seemed to revive Branagh’s fortunes, but the dismissal of his pointless remake of Sleuth (2007) proved he was still a frustratingly patchy creative force. Then, suddenly and unexpected ease, Branagh reinvented himself as an A-list director in Hollywood with 2011’s successful yet underrated Wagnerian power ballad of a superhero flick, Thor. He followed it with two profitable pieces of studio hackwork, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014) and Cinderella (2015), that nonetheless bore weird flickers throughout of Branagh’s cavalier romanticism and melodramatic bravura. What other director could find the same traces of bruised humanity and noble instinct in Tom Clancy’s dullard CIA hero as he finds in a Shakespearean king? Murder on the Orient Express is the latest of Branagh’s career-long efforts to invest a hoary property with a new lustre, and it feels like a homecoming, and a restatement of personal delight in film, within the apparently cosy confines of familiar material. Along with Ten Little Indians, the novel is surely Agatha Christie’s most famous, distinguished by one of her most cunningly crafted and ingenious plots and a great setting, one that shares in common with Ten Little Indians and her legendary play The Mousetrap the quality of claustrophobic isolation.

The plot, as you probably already know: sometime in the early 1930s, Belgian-born, UK-residing private detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh, inevitably) departs Jerusalem after performing a swift and nifty piece of deduction that defuses a nascent religious riot. Travelling by boat to Constantinople (or Istanbul; either way it’s a Turkish delight on a moonlit night), Poirot meets the keen and lovely governess Miss Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley) and the stoic, upright soldier-turned physician Dr Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr) on the same boat: although affecting to be strangers, Poirot notes their peculiar intimacy. Once arriving in the great city, Poirot encounters a friend, the cheerfully dissolute Bouc (Tom Bateman), nephew of the Orient Express’s owner. When the onerous call of duty summons Poirot back to London, Bouc promises to gain him a berth on the very next Express to London, a promise that proves difficult to fulfil as the train’s first class compartment proves to be booked solid, a bizarre event in the winter season. Nonetheless Poirot gains a berth, and finds himself thrust in with a motley collective including Mary, Arbuthnot, talkative husband-hunter Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer), White Russian exile Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench) and her paid companion Hildegarde Schmidt (Olivia Colman), hot-tempered Count Rudolph Andrenyi (Sergei Polunin) and his drug-addict ballerina wife Countess Elena (Lucy Boynton), cheery automobile magnate Biniamino Marquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), sternly moralistic missionary Pilar Estravados (Penélope Cruz), and flinty, racist Austrian academic Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe).

The greyest of these eminences is snake-eyed American art broker Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp), travelling with a manservant, Masterman (Derek Jacobi), and business manager, Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad). Poirot’s presence is unnoticed by some of the passengers who exist in their own little bubbles of angst, like Pilar and the Andrenyis, but catches the eye of others, including Hubbard, who seems to zero in on Poirot as an eligible bachelor, and Ratchett, who offers Poirot a lucrative stint guarding him from threats, as he keeps receiving threatening letters, and is worried about the possible repercussions of selling some suspect wares to a group of colourful Italian gentlemen. Soon, the train is trapped in the mountains by an avalanche, and after a night of strange occurrences, Ratchett is discovered in his compartment riddled with stab wounds after an apparently frenzied attack, and Poirot finds himself obliged to identify the killer. Soon the problem Poirot uncovers involves less the question of who would have the motive to kill Ratchett than which one of the plentiful potential assassins did not have a very good reason to kill the man, who was actually an infamous gangster named Cassetti. Cassetti was known to Poirot through underworld whisperings that he staged the kidnap for ransom and subsequent murder of the child of a famous aviator, John Armstrong, and caused the ensuing destruction of many lives connected to the crime and the benighted Armstrong family.

Sidney Lumet of course filmed the book to great effect in 1975, an unexpected swerve into ritzy entertainment for a director more usually associated with raw-nerve realism. Lumet’s film mediated old-fashioned storytelling values with an invested level of New Wave Hollywood grit, and opened with an inimitable prologue, depicting in monochrome visuals staging events then reported in newspaper headlines set to piercingly eerie music, depicting the central crime that drives many of the events in the subsequent story, the kidnapping of the Armstrong child and the event’s evil consequences. Branagh wisely never tries to outdo this scene. More recently, the story had also been adapted as a telemovie showcasing David Suchet’s beloved characterisation in the role of Christie’s sublimely methodical, ever-dapper detective, although the later entries featuring Suchet lacked the lush, easy style of the late ‘80s TV series in which he pioneered the role. So what need, if any, for another take? Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green answer the question by taking an approach similar to the one Branagh took with Henry V and Victor Frankenstein, trying to see if there’s another layer to the drama under what everyone knows about them. Branagh successfully located the complexity of Shakespeare’s hero, usually drowned out by playing up the patriotic fervour in the play, in his moral guilt and anguished reckoning with the distinction between his place as man and role as king and symbol – an investigative mode that Branagh surprisingly returns to here.

Another obvious reason to return to this material is that whodunits are everywhere again at the moment. This mostly true on television, whether in Britain with their many procedurals like Midsomer Murders, Canada, with The Murdoch Mysteries, Australia’s The Miss Fisher Mysteries and The Doctor Blake Mysteries, as well as blockbuster Hollywood properties like the CSI and NCIS franchises. For myself, I’m not the biggest fan of them, although I can certainly enjoy them when they’re well done. But it’s a relentlessly mechanical, formulaic fictional mode that often tends to boil the great drama of life and death down to mere puzzles. As critics have noticed long since it was founded by figures including Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins, and Arthur Conan Doyle, and codified by the likes of Christie, the whodunit is the most comfortingly structured of subgenres. The world is momentarily thrown into moral chaos by a sudden eruption of festering emotion that pays off in a crime, a killing more often than not, only for a detective with the mind of Aristotle and the purview of a priest-king to step in, identify the guilty party, and ensure the restoration of order follows. Christie’s particular genius at this style rested in her grasp of repression as its key-note, even in foreign and exotic climes rendering the parochial, everyday calm and politeness of the English social landscape on a mythic level, upon which plays of frustration and rage unfold: chafing scions bump off greedy patriarch, outraged wives slaughter faithless scum husbands, tortured good men lose control and choke terrible bitch-queens. Authentic transgressive impulses are identified as an essential aspect of the human condition, and the incapacity to keep them in check is then methodically unveiled and punished.

More recently, so-called Scandi-Noir, a peculiarly Scandinavian variant on the mode with roots in the overtly Socialist-themed Martin Beck novels of the 1960s, has found international popularity and prominence as it found a way to make the whodunit more socially and culturally interrogative whilst retaining that ever-satisfying functionality, a slant that’s inflected much of the style since. Branagh himself had recently played one Scandi-Noir hero, Kurt Wallander, on television. This mode’s popularity on the stage, where The Mousetrap is the longest-running play in history, and on television, rather than in film, is telling. Alfred Hitchcock only made a couple of authentic whodunits in his long career as the Master of Suspense, sensing they were inimical to his understanding of film. Cinema, that great oceanic space of design and movement, can so easily encompass the drawing room dramas of the whodunit that it tends to dwarf their little sketches of static decorum and deception. Murder on the Orient Express as a property invites the cinematic eye, with the jazz-age elegance and exclusivity of the train setting, the sweep of the Dinaric Alps where the Express breaks down, the panorama of fascinating types aboard begging to be filled out by famous faces. But it also frustrates that eye as the narrative settles down and plays out like most whodunits, indeed as a perfect reduction of the form to essentials: a series of charged interviews between canny investigator and array of suspects. This comes complete with a punch-line that is at once the ne plus ultra of solutions – the everyonedunit – and a total dramatic bust. And yet how Branagh and Green try to negotiate this problem is a great part of the pleasure of their adaptation.

Lumet managed to make an unusual project work for him because Christie’s tale, however playfully, operated deep within the space of Lumet’s career-long fascination with criminals and law enforcers, how the two often exist in deeply uneasy relationship with each-other, how wretched the avatars of both prove in the crush of pitiless circumstance. Branagh has more an old Shakespearean’s fascination with the figure of the upright and exemplary individual who attempts in spite of their feet of clay to thrust their head into the stars. It’s a thematic fascination he shares in common with a predecessor as a theatre tyro turned movie fiend, Orson Welles, and also like Welles he’s constantly provoked and inspired by the way being totally cinematic also allows him to be, paradoxically, ever more grandiosely theatrical. Branagh’s Poirot comes equipped with a glorious pennant of a moustache, and is imbued with traits that looks awfully like obsessive compulsive disorder, as he’s foiled in his attempts to have breakfast by the inability of the hotel staff to cook two perfectly boiled and arrayed eggs, and constantly annoyed by things like crooked ties. This has a fashionable tilt to it – Sherlock Holmes for instance had often of late been portrayed as inflected with traits redolent of Asperger’s Syndrome – but it’s also part of a more comprehensive attempt by Branagh to both enlarge and engage Poirot as a more defined dramatic player, in a way that links up with an intriguing attempt to critique the whodunit as a whole without betraying Christie’s text.

Holmes was defined by his creator as “the highest court of appeal,” a fantasy of near-deistic insight into the hearts and ways of men, a blueprint for the concept of the great detective which Poirot readily fell into. Branagh takes this to a logical extreme in the film’s opening, in which Poirot is called upon to work out who, amongst a collective including a rabbi, a bishop, an imam, and a police inspector could have stolen a religious treasure from a church shared by the denominations. The detective swiftly reveals the culprit, defusing the eruptive religious tensions and exposing corrupt officialdom in one gesture, even contriving to catch the criminal by thrusting his signature cane into a slot in the Western Wall. It’s quite literally a vision of the detective as god, peacemaker and restorer, fulfilling that role as deistic intervener to a near-absurd degree. It’s an apotheosis Branagh takes as cue to bring Poirot down a few notches before re-enshrining him, shuffling about in the canon for hints of backstory and finding it in Poirot’s wearied glances at the photograph of long-ago love Katherine, representing a ghost of human attachment perhaps stirred by the twinned presence of the young, beautiful, sharp-as-a-tack Mary and the age-appropriate and dazzlingly lovely if seemingly daffy Caroline. Meanwhile the great detective frets increasingly about his restless, compulsive role as archaeologist of fetid human motives and misdeeds. The derailing of the engine leaves the train without power for a day and a dark night, a time in which people both freeze and sweat depending on Poirot’s proximity to them, stewing personal traumas and dependencies witnessed and stoked in numinous candlelight that thrusts all the characters back out of the semi-modern world and into a less forgiving, more sepulchral world.

And what misdeeds he soon starts to uncover, quickly discerning links between many of the passengers and the deceased Cassetti, to the point where everything starts to seem either the product of outrageous coincidence or very purposeful design. Branagh began introducing stage traditions of colourblind casting into film with fresh intransigence on Much Ado About Nothing, a habit that was still raising hackles as recently as Thor when he cast Idris Elba as a Norse god, and he continues this habit, although instead of simply casting a block actor in the role of Arbuthnot and leaving it uncommented upon, he uses it as springboard for digging into the social landscape of the train passengers in a manner that moves beyond Christie’s usual seismic examinations of class pretences to also prod questions about race and sex in manner that more proto-modern. There are intimations of romance between Mary and the good doctor given new hues of period transgression, particularly in the face of Hardman’s apparent subsuming of Nazi ideals in the foment of the age. Bouc prevails upon Poirot to take up the investigation by prodding him with the awareness that leaving it to the local police might see Arbuthnot and Martinez persecuted for their ethnicity. A telling joke that lands early in the film involves Arbuthnot catching himself in the act of reproducing the patronising ways of the white west with some Turkish sailors.

Where Branagh is more mischievous, and ultimately more himself, however, is his subtext based in a sense of theatre lurking behind the proceedings. His Murder on the Orient Express, for all its swooning camera mobility and passages of CGI epicism, is fixed securely in his sense of the tale as one rooted in our liking for actors plying their trade, a liking encoded in the story that demands a cast full of familiar faces to fill out the parts in order to render each and every suspect on a level. Although Lumet also had roots on the stage, such a self-aware lilt was beyond him, as it clashed too profoundly with his realist style. Just as Poirot sees a landscape of people pretending to be what they are not, that’s exactly what Branagh sees and knows the audience sees too. The act of stripping off the guise is played out most outright when Poirot instructs Hardman to drop his Germanic affectations and unveils a Yankee former policeman, who proves to have been in love with a maid of the Armstrongs who committed suicide after being tried for complicity in the kidnapping. Dafoe pulls off the moment in which the dedicated but tiring actor is ever-so-grateful in being freed from the part with a deft glimmer of wit, as the prop glasses and snappy accent are both dropped, and the cop idly mentions the source of the role in a way that recalls Branagh’s acting hero Laurence Olivier and his similar admissions of real-life models for characterisation. Dench and Jacobi have been regular members of Branagh’s band of brothers since Henry V, and indeed Branagh’s casting of Dench in that film almost certainly gave her movie career traction, and their presence lends proceedings the pleasant air of an old stock company reunited. To their number Branagh now adds the likes of Ridley, stretching her legs with impressive poise after her breakthrough in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), Cruz, doing not much at all sadly, and Depp, who seems most appropriate in movies playing parts like this now, his formerly quirky male beauty hardening into a mask of ruined disdain.

As well as old Hollywood musicals, Branagh has worked through his admiration for Hitchcock before, engaging the Master’s obsessive tropes in a thoroughly personalised fashion with delirious plunge into fractured identities and sharp objects on Dead Again, and there are glimmers of it here, with The Lady Vanishes (1938) an inevitable touchstone: the very last shot inverts the opening of Hitchcock’s film. The climactic recreation of Ratchett’s actual killing rejects Lumet’s stately, ritualistic portrayal of the moment in favour of portraying a frenzy of rage from the carefully marshalled but finally unleashed avengers that has a more distinctly Hitchcockian feel for the ferocity lurking under the stoic mask of the average person. Branagh’s camerawork, at once ebullient but also perhaps the most controlled it’s been since his debut, turns the train into a series of rolling stages. The camera glides horizontally along the length of the carriage when Poirot first boards the train to analyse the conveyance, its compartments, and the passengers looming out from them. He repeats this shot at the very end with entirely changed meaning, the gazes of the people out at him charged with salutary complicity, Poirot’s status as adjudicator of fates reinforced but also his separation from the almost religiously transfigured passengers communicated with great visual succinctness and beauty. Elsewhere Branagh tries, much like the actors in the Globe Theatre might once have, with restless contrivance to release himself from the linear confines of the stage that he’s nailed himself to in the form of the train, be it in staging a brief pursuit down through the creaking, icy beams of the trestle under the immobilised train or picking out Poirot and Mary seated upon milk pails through the open doors of the luggage van, hovering in space halfway between heaven and hell in the midst of white-flanked, gold-crowned mountains.

There’s only so much Branagh can to do to give such a scuffed property a new lacquer of course, and if you know the story then there are few surprises to be had. But that’s precisely what I found so enjoyable here, the murder mystery staged as a dance, an old tune wielded with a fresh orchestration and choreography. And the critiquing aspect of the film remains as a dogging footfall to the main stride of the drama, as Branagh tweaks Christie’s denouement with just enough consequence to remake it more keenly as a moral crisis for Poirot, a reckoning with forms of justice and moral obligation, victim and criminal, beyond his usual understanding of the terms. It’s a way of approaching the story that gives a level of heft to the whodunit mode it usually pointedly rejects: an attempt to get at the visceral nature of crime, the impacts it has on a personal level, and demanding Poirot play his own part. “I see the world how it should be,” he admits early in the film, linking his obsessive characteristics with his moral viewpoint, but by the end of the film such easy linkages have been disrupted, finding nobility instead precisely in the boiling, neurotic desperation of the offended and broken-hearted, particularly Pfeiffer’s striking incarnation of the seething and righteous avenger under the thin coating of courteous disguise. This makes for a morsel of intelligence in a film that is otherwise a blissful time out from the world.

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