2020s, Action-Adventure, Crime/Detective, Thriller

No Time To Die (2021)

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Director: Cary Joji Fukunaga
Screenwriters: Cary Joji Fukunaga, Neil Purvis, Robert Wade, Phoebe Waller-Bridge

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

It feels like an eternity ago when Daniel Craig was cast as James Bond. The thought of a rugged, jug-eared, blonde-haired bruiser in the role caused consternation and debate amongst fans fond of the character’s popular image as a slick, dark, handsome toff in a tuxedo. But Craig’s debut in the role, Casino Royale (2006), proved an audience-delighting smash hit and a smart reinvention of the well-worn franchise: taking its cue from Ian Fleming’s debut novel, Casino Royale stepped back from familiar, much-loved template filled with absurdist action, sci-fi gimmicks, and quasi-surreal villainy, and instead aimed for something tougher, earthier, more realistic, an edge that had been present in the earliest films in the series like From Russia With Love (1963) and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), and briefly returned to in For Your Eyes Only (1981). Casino Royale owed much of its success to the direction of New Zealander Martin Campbell, who had previously reinvented Bond effectively for the 1990s in Goldeneye (1995). But it was Craig’s strength in the role that enthralled the zeitgeist, his muscular sex appeal and skill in depicting Bond’s evolution from a relatively unsophisticated government goon to something more like the familiar, suave, ice-cold agent. Craig’s stint as Bond has been the longest of any actor to date at 15 years, although he’s made less movies in that time than either Sean Connery or Roger Moore, thanks to oddities of fate like the credit squeeze that held up making Skyfall (2012) and the Covid-19 pandemic that delayed release of No Time To Die, Craig’s avowed last turn in the part.

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Craig’s tenure has also been bedevilled by violent unevenness in the quality and reception of his actual movies, even if the actor himself has held on to general, if not universal, acclaim essaying the role. Marc Forster’s Quantum of Solace (2008) was met by many as an excessively hyperactive, underwritten entry, and Sam Mendes’ Spectre (2015) was also met as a letdown after Mendes and Craig scored a colossal success with Skyfall, a movie that managed to convince the rest of the world to play along with Britain’s reborn nationalist delirium. For myself, despite being a Bond fan and nominally appreciating the moves the franchise made back towards Fleming’s model, I’ve found it hard to really like the Craig era. Quantum of Solace was a bruising disappointment after the excellence of Casino Royale, and I also found Skyfall rather ungainly; ironically I liked Spectre a lot more than many, whilst conceding it had serious problems. Campbell’s touch on Casino Royale expertly mediated the new sock-in-the-teeth grit with some of the old globetrotting lushness in a manner at once smart and unpretentious, but the production team’s choice to bring in artier talents proved frustrating. Forster’s tilt, much like his supposedly serious movies, proved flashy and facetious. Mendes’ gift for creating adamantine imagery with a sense of scale and solidity and touched with gentle abstraction helped the series retain its aura of lush, ultra-classy style – you could all but smell the money being spent during his entries – but at the price of a somewhat languid pace and a sense of top-heavy self-importance in a franchise that once served up neo-matinee serial thrills.

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There were subtler problems with the Craig-era films, too. The Bond series had long sustained itself vampirically through emulating pop culture trends – annexing Blaxploitation for Live and Let Die (1973) and the sci-fi craze of the late 1970s for Moonraker (1979), for instance, or even the parkour and Texas Hold ‘Em portions of Casino Royale – whilst retaining its own, mooring roster of demarcating tropes – the inimitable Monty Norman and John Barry theme, the opening gun-barrel logo scene and dreamy pop-art credit sequences filled with naked, silhouetted women, the familiar in-universe touches like Bond’s weapon of choice, the Walther PPK, and supporting characters like Q and  Miss Moneypenny. The choice of divesting the series of many of these for Casino Royale came with a mooted promise to bring them back as Craig’s Bond evolved, whilst in the meantime the new films heavily emulated first the Jason Bourne films with their maniacally edited hand-to-hand combat and chase scenes and superficial cynicism towards statecraft, and Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, particularly The Dark Knight (2008), which Skyfall emulated to such a degree it sometimes felt like someone had erased the names from Nolan’s script and pencilled in new ones. The emulation of strong tendencies in contemporary serialised storytelling also drew the Craig Bonds to adopt a running storyline that managed to be at once negligible and convoluted, and an insistence on personalised conflicts and revenge themes based in backstory, leading to the point where even protozoa on Ganymede rolled their eyes when the series reintroduced Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the mastermind of SPECTRE, only to now characterise him as Bond’s resentful adoptive brother and chronic behind-the-curtain tormentor.

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Skyfall and Spectre did at least serve to fulfil the promise of reintroducing the familiar Bond tropes with a fresh sense of their function. Spectre, in bringing back Blofeld (played inevitably but with curious miscasting by Christoph Waltz) and resetting the table so SPECTRE could once again provide ideal running villains detached from geopolitical tides, seemed to finally set the scene so the series could go wild again. Trouble is, the Craig-era films were simultaneously locked into another pattern, one obedient to current screenwriting clichés and the niceties of star vehicles. Craig’s advancing age was thematically tethered to Bond’s backdated status as a retro kind of hero and already being joked about in Skyfall, and now with No Time To Die Craig’s popularity in the part essentially obliges the franchise to eat its own tail. What was supposed to be a superhero’s origin story is suddenly, abruptly a fin-de-siecle meditation and dismantling. No Time To Die breaks with series traditions in many obvious and very arch ways, starting with being directed by an American for the first time, Cary Joji Fukunaga, who sometime back suggested a gift for filming very English material with his intelligent and textured work on Jane Eyre (2011) and brought cinematic attitude to the TV series True Detective. On the face of it, he seems like just the sort of talent to give the series a shot in the arm and help Craig wrap up in a blaze of glory. But something went very, very wrong here.

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No Time To Die opens with a long flashback sequence to when Bond’s current paramour, Madeleine Swann, a doctor and the daughter of the deadly former SPECTRE operative Mr White, was a child (played at that age by Coline Defaud), at home with her alcoholic mother (Mathilde Bourbin): a man wearing a kabuki mask, who we later learn is named Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek), traverses the snowy woods outside, enters the home, and kills the mother. Madeleine shoots Safin, but fails to kill him, and as she flees she falls through the ice covering a neighbouring lake. The intruder, rather than leaving her to die, saves her life. Cut to thirty-odd years later: Madeleine (Léa Seydoux) is travelling through Italy with Bond after he quit MI6 at the end of Spectre. As the pair resolve to make their peace with the ghosts haunting them as they stay in the town of Matera, Bond at Madeleine’s encouragement goes to say farewell at the grave of Vesper Lynd, his great love from Casino Royale. But Bond is almost killed by a bomb secreted in her tomb, and is chased by a gang of SPECTRE agents working under Blofeld’s command despite him being in strict isolation in an English prison. Hints given both by one of the assassins and Blofeld himself as he rings Madeleine on her cell phone, as well as her earlier encouragement, tell Bond she set him up for the assassination, and after he manages to wipe out the killers Bond stick her on a train and tells her she’ll never see him again.

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The opening flashback puts a value on Madeleine’s past and perspective which does resurface later in the film, and yet I still don’t feel it was justified especially in a movie so long, but Fukunaga does tap the image of the masked man suddenly appearing in the window of the house for a jolt of effective creepiness. The subsequent sequences in the lengthy pre-credits movement are excellent. Fukunaga and the production team do their best to provide some thundering good action with some thankfully real-looking stunts as Bond throws himself behind a small brick fixture on an ancient stonework bridge to avoid being run over by a speeding car and then leaps off the bridge using a power cable as a bungee cord, and a few moments later rides a captured motorcycle up a cyclopean wall and leaps onto a terrace. This is the sort of daring, vivid, no-bullshit stunt work that’s been sorely missing from too much contemporary action cinema. But Fukunaga breaks the spell a few moments later when he has Bond, behind the wheel now of his beloved Aston-Martin, eject some miniature bombs that blow up a pursuing vehicle, done with obviously, horribly fake CGI. It’s dismaying that even James Bond films no longer have the courage of their own megabudget, go-big-or-go-home convictions.

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Nonetheless Craig-as-Bond is at his best in this sequence: the way his eyes go wide and glazed in their fixed and murderous ferocity where he was warm and romantic a few seconds earlier, betrays Craig’s intelligent feel for how being an action hero requires a rarefied and demanding kind of acting, and builds to a moment when he seems paralysed by rage and heartbreak as he and the bewildered Madeleine are trapped in the Aston-Martin by gunmen who pound it with machine gun fire. Bond seems to be considering letting them both be shredded by the bullets once they finally puncture the armoured body as a just end for her deception and his foolishness, before his better self kicks back in as he beholds Madeleine’s weeping, terrified face, and he wipes out the shooters with the car’s secreted machine guns. A marvellous moment that knows how to express character through action, and seems to promise a Bond movie for the ages. The familiarly stylised credits sequence tips one of many nods to Peter Hunt’s series high On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in revisiting the imagery in Maurice Binder’s credits sequence for that film involving a Britannia figure and hourglasses, seen here crumbling to pieces and sinking to the ocean floor, with Billie Eilish’s duly dirge-like theme song on sound: the increasingly morbid and languid tenor of the last three Bond themes has exacerbated a certain cheerlessness starting to cling to the series.

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The narrative proper takes up five years after the shootout in Matera, with a unit of heavily armed SPECTRE goons invading a covert germ warfare laboratory in a London skyscraper (!) to snatch a turncoat scientist, Obruchev (David Denchik), and a nanobot virus he was developing at the behest of M (Ralph Fiennes), capable of being programmed to kill anything from a specific person to an entire ethnic genome, and codenamed Heracles. Bond now in solitary, disaffected retirement in Jamaica, is visited by his pal and CIA agent Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), along with a State Department official, Logan Ash (Billy Magnussen): they want to hire Bond to track down Obruchev as they’ve caught wind of the danger his invention represents. Bond initially turns them down, before he’s confronted by a British agent, Nomi (Lashana Lynch), who is soon revealed to be Bond’s replacement as 007: Nomi warns Bond not to get involved, which is a good way to make sure he does. Bond goes to Cuba where Leiter and Ash tell him Obruchev was last spotted, and in downtown Havana he finds the entire SPECTRE team gathered together to celebrate Blofeld’s birthday. Bond makes contact with an American agent, Paloma (Ana de Armas), who professes to being a recent recruit with three weeks’ training, but unleashes major skills when things go haywire.

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Bond realises too late that he’s been lured to this place by Blofeld who wants his death by Heracles to be the crowning moment of the celebration, but when the virus is released it instead kills all the SPECTRE bigwigs: Obruchev, whose true master is Safin, has doublecrossed them. Bond and Paloma fight their way out and engage in a little friendly rivalry with Nomi in trying to catch Obruchev: Bond wins and flies him to a CIA spy ship disguised as a trawler where he meets with Leiter and Ash. But Ash proves to be another traitor in league Safin: he shoots Felix and leaves him and Bond to die as a mine blows a hole in the boat. Bond can’t save Felix, but he manages to escape and when he returns to London has a charged confrontation with M, before allying with Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q (Ben Wishaw) to fully understand Heracles and seek out Safin. Bond demands to see Blofeld, who usually only allows Madeleine, now living in London and serving hand-picked as his psychotherapist, to visit him. Preparing for the next session, Madeleine is visited by Safin, and who blackmails her into spiriting a vial of Heracles in to Blofeld. Madeleine flees before actually confronting Blofeld, but Bond, having touched her, transmits the virus to Blofeld when he gets mad and tries to throttle him, and Blofeld promptly expires. When Bond goes to visit Madeleine, they swiftly reconnect, but life throws a new wrinkle Bond’s way – Madeleine has a daughter, Mathilde (Lisa-Dorah Sonnet), who he notices has his eyes: Madeleine swears she isn’t his, but of course she’s lying.

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No Time To Die proves maniacally determined to cross the Ts and dot the Is when it comes to wrapping up Craig’s tenure, which, I might as well say now seeing everyone in the universe knows already, ends with Bond dying. In the process, the film completely contradicts the supposed initial promise of Craig’s entries as origin story. Instead, it exacerbates a trend that had been noticeable in Skyfall and Spectre in playing as a compressed greatest hits collection of tropes, but muted and pinched to fit in with the nominally more terse and down-to-earth Craig style, whilst also burning them as fuel for its own star vehicle engine. No Time To Die bewilderingly sets about wiping out Blofeld and SPECTRE just after they were restored to their proper place in the franchise, and also Wright’s Leiter, on the build-up to the climax where Bond himself finally seems to bit the bullet. Or missile. It’s as if the filmmakers feel that Craig is now so integral to Bond mystique that the character can’t survive in the same form beyond him as far as his fans are concerned, and so as far as this wing of the franchise goes, all the outstanding business must be ticked off. Or is simply that contemporary Hollywood screenwriting needs big bangs all the way through, and the only way to prove how big No Time To Die must be taken as is to be, as TV commercials might put it with thumping music stings, The. One. That. Changes. Everything.

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Craig’s films have repeatedly tried to root themselves in concepts and lore taken in Fleming’s books, many of which were casually tossed aside as the film series became its own happily ridiculous thing, in continuing on from Casino Royale, the film of which obeyed the novel in presenting Bond as the product of heartbreak and disillusionment. The death of Vesper Lynd left him hollowed and icy, but Fleming’s most cunning and effective twist on this was that it finally made Bond the perfect spy. The Craig film accepted this as its own new beginning, but has, ironically, been dedicated to contradicting it since. Fukunaga and the screenwriters tip their hand many times to Fleming’s closely linked later novels, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and You Only Live Twice, which saw Bond married and widowed at the hands of Blofeld in the space of a few pages, then travelling to Japan where he tracked down Blofeld and killed him before finishing up as an amnesiac living to a local diving girl and presumed dead by the world. Fleming had made a stab at killing off Bond before in From Russia With Love, only to bring him back for Doctor No, and when he tried to rid himself of the spy a second time deliberately left it more open-ended. So Fleming was hardly averse to the idea of his great hero proving very mortal, but he kept walking it back anyway.

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The film version of You Only Live Twice threw out much of that novel’s business, but the adaptation of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service stuck closely to the template, ending famously with a note of tragic romanticism with Bond murmuring “We have all the time in the world” over his wife Tracy’s dead body, the phrase also providing the title to the Louis Armstrong warbled theme song for the film. No Time To Die gives warning this will be a reference point early on by having Bond repeat the “All the time in the world” line to Madeleine as they drive about in bliss, which for anyone who knows the series lore immediately sets antennae twitching, and wraps up with the Armstrong song, which is both agreeable – it’s one of the great themes and Armstrong’s singing is unbeatable – and a bit arch. It also incorporates the marvellous concept in You Only Live Twice of the villain propagating a garden filled with poisonous plants, although this classic touch of Fleming’s borderline surreal morbid imagery is here rendered in flavourless visual terms. At least, for the first time since Pierce Brosnan’s run, the plot stakes here offer the once-standard motif of a megalomaniac out to terrorise the world, working from a secret headquarters on a remote island – Safin’s father was in charge of a former Soviet chemical and missile plant on an island in disputed waters, where Safin grew up and now has set up a plant to manufacture Heracles there. Safin’s remorseless project of revenge was set in motion when Mr White killed his family by poisoning them all with smallpox, which Safin survived albeit badly scarred. Now, once he finishes his mission of wiping out SPECTRE, he turns his attention to remaking the world, mostly into corpses. He also seems to feel some sort of proprietary interest in Madeleine, feeling that he in effect owns her after saving her life, which makes it a bit confusing as to why he’s decided to wait thirty years or so to take possession of her.

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Most of this heavy stuff is held off to the second half of the film at least. The first half tries on the other hand to restore some jauntiness too many felt had deserted the series. The added screenwriting hand of Phoebe Waller-Bridge, whose TV series Killing Eve offered its own, semi-satirical spin on a Bond-esque universe of assassins and spies, and which No Time To Die clearly seeks to emulate to a degree, is very apparent in this half, if not to much advantage. A lot of the humour falls flat, or at least it did for me, feeling entirely at odds with the tenor of the rest of the film. This in particular clings to Obruchev, who despite being a major villain in the film is also its comic relief, appears, like in his first scene where he’s being teased by his fellow scientists and he threatens to kill them in return. It also inflects the scenes involving Paloma, although it works much better there, in part because De Armas knows exactly how to sell a blend of superficial naiveté and secret dynanism. The scene where Fukunaga cuts between Bond and Paloma engaged in their own style of fighting, Bond in brutal fisticuffs with a SPECTRE goon, Paloma using explosive gymnastic dexterity and ingenious physical wit, is a highpoint not just for movie but the series in general, particularly in the wry punctuation of Bond falling from a balcony and springing back up again and patting himself down again to recover his savoir faire, before pouring himself and Paloma a drink and the two downing theirs with brusque aplomb.

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The ebullience of this scene nonetheless points up the shortcomings of the rest of the film rather painfully, particularly when it comes to Nomi, who’s posited in the film alternately as Bond’s replacement, rival, foil, and comrade-in-arms. Lynch has the right statuesque swagger for the part, but Nomi emerges as seriously underwritten and scarcely conceived beyond the basic proposition of “tough black chick,” and by comparison to the eager, surprising Paloma, she feels like a walking cliché and no fun to boot. I also got the feeling she’s a victim of the rather garbled midsection of the film which might have been the result of hasty reshoots. Bond’s contretemps with M also feels like a victim of this, leaping from the two having quite the falling out, in very English polite English fashion, when they meet face-to-face for the first time in years, only to be relatively chummy again a couple of scenes later, and there’s definitely some connective tissue missing there. This is also strongly suggested through small but consequential plot details like the fact Blofeld in prison is able to communicate through a bionic eye implanted in him somehow, which is a nice, very Bondian idea, except that its discovery and removal all take place off screen. The core team of M, Q, and Moneypenny, well-served in the past two entries, here get very little to do. Q in particular, despite being playfully characterised here as gay, is still reduced to a character who taps rapidly at keyboards and explains the plot. Oh, and Rory Kinnear’s Tanner is still around, doing whatever it is he does. Other problems are more existential for this material. Spectre interestingly mooted the continued need for the human touch in spy work in an age of cyber and drone warfare, which actually gave that entry a hint of contemporary political relevance, something the Bond series has generally run away from since its earliest days when it swapped out Soviets for SPECTRE as the necessary villains. But it also saddled itself with the silliest countdown in movie history as Bond and company had to race against a ticking clock…to when a computer system would go online!

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No Time To Die similarly chooses a MacGuffin in the nanobot virus that’s both difficult to make work in a movie and also somewhat worn out as a plot device in sci-fi action flicks. Which wouldn’t be as much as an issue but it feeds into the clumsiness of the film’s narrative, which the urgent attempts to earn gravitas through killing off familiar characters feel mostly designed to paper over. No Time To Die take the cake-and-eat-it-too tendencies of the Craig era to the limit, setting up all the old-school Bond tropes at last but still also play off the beat, in a way that foils narrative intensity, as when Safin simply lets Mathilde go, whilst the jokey playing of Obruchev means he’s never convincing as a villain but not actually funny either. Nomi feels like the biggest victim of this indecisiveness. She’s plainly introduced as a sort of goad to the much-mooted idea of generation change in supplanting Bond with a black woman, one who treats him with an edge of cutting condescension (“I’ll put a bullet in your knee,” she promises when warning him against interference, “The one that still works.”), even if she finds he’s still able to give as good as he gets. Of course, they eventually become mutually reliant partners, and Nomi hands back the 00 title to Bond. There’s no particularly good reason given for why they’ve become less antagonistic by this point or why Nomi should give up a rank she presumably earned: of course James Bond should die, if he must, as 007, but the script fudges, and somewhere along the line Nomi was left as a fifth wheel rather than a potent new figure. Nomi is eventually given one would-be iconic vignette late in the film when she vengefully pushes Obruchev into a vat of his own nanovirus after he threatens to turn his invention on the “west African diaspora.” Mass-murdering bad guy? Fair enough. Racist too? Die, mofo!

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It’s been compulsory for film critics to take a poke at the nominally outmoded aspects of Bond as a character and franchise for decades now, apparently oblivious to the fact that the series itself has been tapping it as a source of humour since the quips in Live And Let Die about “following a cue ball” and through segues like Judi Dench’s M tautologically calling him a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur” in Goldeneye, as well the issue of a superspy belonging to a country that had devolved into a mid-range power by the time he was created. There’s been a lot of debate lately about replacing Craig with an actor of colour or even a woman. The problem with such proposals, modishly pleasing as they are, is they reveal a fatal misunderstanding of what Bond is. The basic appeal of the character is rooted in ironic contrast, his surface appearance of the classic English gentleman hiding an existential shark whose interests, talents, and occupation all converge in bringing mayhem, delivering orgasm, and tempting chance, in about that order. Mendes got that, at least, particularly at the start of Spectre when he had Craig-as-Bond wearing a Day of the Dead mask and waving a red rose, his basic functions as bringer of death and life reduced to essential symbolism with a hint of morbid humour. There’s still nobody quite like him around: compare him to the gelded stable of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, full of grown men who can barely speak to a woman. Only Tony Stark, who tellingly birthed that franchise, was conceived in a Bondian manner – his first entry even sported a direct lampoon in playing Bondish guitar music over Tony having a quickie. Of course, Stark’s maturation saw him obliged to leave that behind, and Craig’s tenure sees him somewhat ironically obliged to follow that arc, now even forced to mimic Stark in Avengers: Endgame (2019), which also saw him become a father and die at the end. There isn’t even a hint of the fun Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) found could be tapped in the idea of a loner hero finding he’s a dad.

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The cinematic Bond’s arrival on the pop culture scene in 1962 heralded a tectonic shift in many regards, but one above all. Certainly Bond was a male power fantasy at a zenith, but he owes his success to also being a female one: Bond’s sexual prowess was a resource more valuable than all Auric Goldfinger’s bullion, capable of rewriting the world’s rules, as in Goldfinger (1964) itself, where the only actual, positive thing Bond does to alter the outcome of the plot is be a good enough lay to win Pussy Galore back to the side of right and virtue. Bond became thus the first authentic modern icon of female sexual need, save perhaps Dracula, a character with many fundamental similarities to Bond. The way a lot of critics talk about this aspect of Bond now, you’d think nobody in the world has casual hook-ups. Anyway, the Craig era’s general response to this has been to make Bond less an erotic swashbuckler and defined more as a kind of emotionally crippled pseudo-stud. Which would be fine, close indeed to Fleming’s character, but the Craig cycle has refused to stick to it; again, we are trapped within the formats of modern screenwriting manuals. Craig’s arrival in the role rang bells across the world with his shirtless beach scene, but now he’s middle-aged despite still being in ferociously good shape. Skyfall’s best moment also gave the best new twist on Bond’s sexuality, when the villain teased him with queer flirtation, “First time for everything,” to Bond’s unblinking, ever-so-cool retort, “What makes you think this is my first time?” The perfect line: on the one hand a nimble revision of the undercurrents (and sometimes overcurrents) of homophobia in some earlier movies and in Fleming, on the other one that just seemed to fit: of course Bond would have tried every dish before settling on a favourite. Anyway, No Time To Die has no such adroitness. Instead it settles for a few jabs at the idea of aging lotharios, with Bond striking out with both Nomi and Paloma, before taking it to the logical extreme of having suddenly face up to being a family man.

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Craig and Seydoux were good together in Spectre, but here they totally fizzle in terms of chemistry, not that the script gives them much chance to work it up again. Madeleine’s reappearance in the story is so sudden and happenstance it’s almost like a reel got skipped, before the film underlines Bond’s new emotional dimension in the most hackneyed manner conceivable. In the prior film Madeleine was cool and ambiguous: now she’s the vaguely tragic baby mama, and that does her as few favours as it does Bond, until she becomes the object of Safin’s weirdly obscure attentions. It pains me to say that Craig himself eventually became part of the problem he was supposed to cure. There’s a pretty familiar pattern to Bond actors getting tired with the demands of the role and the consuming nature of the career-arresting fame that comes with it, and Craig’s increasing unease in the part has been apparent for a while now, even as he’s become so fixed to it in the public imagination. Craig’s good-humoured recent performances for Steven Soderbergh and Rian Johnson have indicated the kinds of parts he’d rather be playing. Craig still delivers in some vignettes, as already noted: he’s too good an actor and too smart a star to walk through a part. But somewhere along the line his characterisation was drained of the roguish force he evinced at the start of his tenure, and Craig’s pinch-mouthed and squinty impersonation of grim grit, once refreshing, is now somewhat rote, and as the character’s basic qualities have been eroded – his sex appeal, his omnicompetence, his jet-setting savoir faire, his dark relish for adrenalized thrills – his Bond stopped feeling groundbreaking and just became, well, a bit of a drag. The irony of No Time To Die is that it suggests the filmmakers were aware of this and wanted to put some zest back into things, only to then be obliged to double down on the pseudo-seriousness.

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Of course, one can simply say that No Time To Die obeys the logic of Craig’s Bond as something distinct and discrete in the history of the character, and that’s fair enough, I suppose, but it also made me really pine for the good old days. Malek is surprisingly effective as Safin, playing his supervillain as soft-spoken almost to the point of feyness whilst retaining a cold conviction that he feels is perfectly reasonable even when revealing utter mania. The film does its best to build him up as a truly threatening, apocalyptic figure, from his creepy, slasher movie-like entrance through his process of wiping out such storied figures as Leiter and Blofeld. And yet Safin never comes close to being a Bond villain for the ages: he feels more like the ultimate by-product of the Craig era’s tendency to take an each-way bet when it comes to the series legacy, trying at once to present a vaguely realistic figure but also inhabit the superstructure of the old, epic-scale series villainy. He’s not physically threatening enough to lend real, feral intensity to their final confrontation – compare the limp tussle here to, say, Bond and Blofeld’s bobsled battle in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – and he lacks the kind of arrogant stature and venom that’s long defined Bond’s most indelible enemies. Instead he’s offered rather too nudgingly in the screenwriting manual fashion as a mirror of the hero, to the point of giving him a very slightly revised version of the archetypal “we’re not so different you and I speech,” and having them battle over possession of Madeleine and Mathilde. In that last regard, the film can’t even really commit to the basic melodramatic spur of a bad guy endangering a hero’s mate and child: instead we get a helluva lot of wandering around corridors shooting anonymous henchmen.

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I counted down to the virtually inevitable moment when Fukunaga would, as he did on True Detective, interpolate a one-take action scene, another contemporary cliché that Mendes already ticked off at the start of Spectre: Fukunaga’s version is a long strenuous tussle on a flight of stairs that’s not half as engaging as recent variations on the same idea in movies like Atomic Blonde (2017) and Extraction (2020). Whilst I still think Fukunaga’s a talent, his work here for the most part feels rather fidgety and anonymous, and poorly geared to the rhythm of the performances. The action scenes aren’t particularly clever or well-staged either, except, again, for the opening, and bits and bobs like a nod to the gun barrel logo sequence in a different context, and the smart use of wildly varying vantages in the Havana fight. The scene of Obruchev being kidnapped begins with sleek, semi-abstract images that suggest a real style-fest is in the offing. There’s a solid chase that caps the second act in which Safin, Ash, and an array of goons chase after Bond and his new family into a fog-drenched Norwegian forest, which reminded me nonetheless just a little too strongly of the battle on Takodana in Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015) in serving the same purpose of providing a lot of bash and crash as a distraction whilst the villain snatches away someone precious to the hero. Ash is another character who suggests possibilities that barely get to register: Magnussen plays him as a bland WASP who’s also a star-struck Bond fanboy (do secret agents have fans?), but also a cunning and ruthless turncoat, a mixture that could be witty but here just feel random. He ought to have been kept around to loan some extra villainous presence to the climax, but he bows out in a nod to For Your Eyes Only when Bond literally drops a car on him as revenge for Leiter.

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The film does finally hit the right notes again quite late in proceedings when Bond confronts Safin after invading his island base and finding its overlord seated behind a modernist-minimalist desk with Mathilde on knee. Suddenly, for a couple of crucial minutes, No Time To Die feels like an ideal James Bond film, with the classic situation of two extremely dangerous men with very different worldviews playing at calm conversation whilst discussing stakes both personal and global, given a new gloss by the hard conviction of the actors. The punchline of the film must be that Safin deliberately infects Bond with a dose of Heracles, this one programmed to make sure he can’t ever touch Madeleine and Mathilde again without killing them. This is entirely contrived to place Bond into a cul-de-sac he doesn’t want to escape as missiles rain down to wipe out the base, even as it scarcely makes a lick of sense on a basic plot level. Why the hell would Safin waste time on such a thing? Why not actually just kill Bond with it, especially considering Bond shoots him dead a few seconds later? Then he could still make sure his evil plan can be carried out. All right, so Safin’s a man with a well-developed sense of irony as well as a mass-murderer, sure. All this still plainly happens entirely so the film can have its ending. All this apparently disturbs Bond so much he can’t face living without Madeleine and Mathilde, who he was doing a perfectly fine job of living without a few days earlier, and so he climbs to the top of the base and lets the missiles rain down on him. This is designed to preclude any doubt of the character’s fate, with Bond disappearing in the blinding light of erupting bombs. “James Bond Will Return,” the very end credits nonetheless assure. There is direct heed paid to the end of the novel You Only Live Twice in the choice of poetic eulogy M chooses to read to his team in memorial of Bond.

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Perhaps the filmmakers intend a segue into some variation on Fleming’s last, posthumously-published revival of the character, The Man With The Golden Gun, where Bond turned up after several years in amnesiac exile after being thought dead. But if they want to go that route, they ought to have been a tad less explicit. Such questions are, I expect, being held off for the time being. The real point of this ending is to allow Craig to draw a firm line under his tenancy and allow another reboot. After all, if Spider-Man can keep going through the same origin story again and again, why not James Bond? It’s the sort of thing that might please those who considered Craig the apotheosis of the franchise, but will leave others wincing and wondering why they even bothered. What’s most galling is that when one considers the many references to previous entries and to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, realisation dawns that as well as filching from Marvel and The Force Awakens, No Time To Die is also powerfully beholden to another J.J. Abrams movie, Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013). That film, whilst okay in itself, has deservedly become a byword for incoherent franchise remixing and self-sabotage, particularly in the finale where it decided to rearrange the immortal end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) so that Kirk dies instead of Spock, whilst casually removing all the qualities that made that model so memorable. No Time To Die does basically the same thing in having Bond rather than his great amour die, and also forgets what made that long-ago tragic ending so strong, the stinging irony of a man so talented at keeping himself alive cursed to remain that way after crushing loss. By comparison this Bond’s end feels like a sigh of relief. Bond’s greatest enemy isn’t Blofeld, or Safin, or love, or time, or fate, but the shrunken horizons of modern franchise creativity. The price paid for making Bond more earthbound, it seems, is to eventually drive him into the mud.

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2020s, Auteurs, Drama, Fantasy, French cinema, Horror/Eerie

Titane (2021)

Director / Screenwriter: Julia Ducournau

By Roderick Heath

Film festivals are in an odd position these days. Given the wealth of venues for viewing movies we have now, the idea of gathering everyone together in one place to watch the new crop threatens to feel passé. And yet critics and cognoscenti still look to the major film festivals to winnow down the ridiculous number of movies produced these days, to showcase and gate-keep for the supposed crème de la crème. The Cannes Film Festival has been the premiere event in the international cinema calendar since the late 1940s, providing a great crossroads for the many artistic streams around the world, but it’s still had a bumpy ride in the past few years, with a large number of Palme d’Or winners failing to make much impact. Recently, however, Cannes has managed to reverse that to a degree, first with 2019’s anointed Palme d’Or winner, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, and this year’s Titane, both choices well-attuned to capitalise on contemporary cultural talking points, much as the Venice Film Festival created a stir with its 2019 choice Joker. Such choices, however good as actual films they are, nudge awareness that current film discussion is animated as much by the way art is framed as much as by what it does in itself. The way movies are sold to us today is in terms of cultural discussion as important, or indeed more so, as the movies themselves, one reason why today YouTubers can make a good living fossicking through trailers interpreting the signals blockbuster movies are transmitting into the populace, and in art-house cinema touching on hot-button issues can make a movie seem vitally important even if its message is something like, “greed is bad,” and when you’re desperately trying to make up for a roster of seventy-odd previous Palme d’Or winners where only one was directed by a woman.

All that doesn’t really have much to do with Julia Ducournau’s Titane beyond noting that it’s very easy these days to be pulled into reviewing the way a movie is framed by external factors rather than the movie itself. But today we might well be facing cinema that plays this game within itself. On YouTube it’s common to see movie trailers that start off with a kind of miniature trailer within a trailer, a little grab-bag of moments of action and spectacles offered as a taster presumably offered to instantly capture the attention of attention-deficient young people. Again, this doesn’t necessarily have much to do with Titane, except that the film’s narrative approach reminded a little of this: Titane is frontloaded with elements of attention-getting intransigence before taking a swerve into something for the large part more conventional. Ducournau emerged in 2017 with the gruesome, stylish Raw, a portrait of a girl attending a veterinarian school, who contends with the abusive social strata in the student body and begins to develop voracious cannibalistic traits. Ducournau immediately declared herself in the running as one of the many possible heirs to David Cronenberg as the founder and champion of “body horror” on the current scene. Ducournau is also working in a familiar stream of outrageous, carnally and intellectually provocative French filmmaking long plied by the likes of Claire Denis, Catherine Breillat, Bruno Dumont, and Jean-Claude Brisseau: Ducournau borrows Vincent Lindon to play a similar character type as he did in Denis’ Bastards (2013), the igneous but weathered exemplar of Gallic manhood.

Body horror retains an aura of cool because it readily situates itself at a fruitful nexus of cinema’s most low-down and most exalted aesthetic vantages: any director who dabbles in it is automatically edgy because not everyone can stomach it, but it’s easy to be considered elevated in the mode too, because body horror challenges contemporary culture’s obsession with physical wellness and beauty and easy commercialised images of such by degrading, perverting, and outright assaulting such imagery with inversions of decay, damage, and grotesquery: it is therefore, intellectually and aesthetically, connected with the deliberate destabilisation and defiling of form found in post-World War I modernist art. Which leads me to consider another odd contemporary trait: nostalgic attachment to yesterday’s iconoclasm, often matched by an absolute resistance to current iconoclasm. Anyway. Ducournau’s first film, in a manner that’s becoming increasingly pervasive in current, ambitious horror cinema, turned the cannibalistic theme into an unsubtle metaphor, in this case for emergent sexuality, which was something horror cinema had done arguably to more effect before, but the framing of quasi-abstract artiness made it more respectable, more discourse-worthy. One problem with body horror is that, to me at any rate, it’s a style most effective when being sparing. Many of Cronenberg’s imitators, constantly trying to up the ante of provocation and abnormality, see their films devolve into sprawls of blood and other bodily fluids without that much wit or depth to their musings, and indeed I too often get the feeling the showmanship is substituting for anything actually stimulating to say.

Ducournau is most interesting for most onlookers as a female filmmaker venturing into this zone, and both Raw and Titane are predicated around impudently twisting ideals of femaleness on screen. Actually Titane is ultimately rather old-fashioned, given the fiercely schismatic debates going on about gender and its meaning today, in what it says about the female body. Ducournau’s journey to that end is a long and winding one. She begins with a jarring scene that presents an everyday sort of life-altering disaster: 7-year-old Alexia (Adele Guigui) sitting in the backseat of her father’s (Bertrand Bonello) SUV, stokes his irritation with constant humming, fidgeting, and finally unbuckling her seat belt and flipping about; when the father turns momentarily to force her back into her seat, he loses control of the car and it crashes against kerbside barrier blocks. Cut to gruesome surgery scenes as surgeons implant a titanium cap in her skull, which leaves her with a large scar, and Ducournau’s vision of the shaven-headed Alexia, encaged by a steel truss (nodding less to Cronenberg than to the vision of the hospitalised father in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, 1986, another constant point of emulation for would-be art-house provocateurs) presents her as something already ambiguous in gender and physical integrity, a fusion of human and machine, a misbegotten by-product of rage, damage, and family. As she’s released from hospital, Alexia walks to the family car, caressing it and hugging it, pressing her scar against the window glass as if in intimate communion.

Ducournau takes this basic idea to a weird and literal extreme as the adult Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) is portrayed as erotically attracted to cars. Ducournau stages a long, dynamic tracking shot travelling through the environs of an auto show where exotic dancers gyrate atop vehicles to The Kills’ “Doing It To Death,” conjoining the fetishisation of flesh and of shiny steel for the titillation of the mostly male consumers, but Alexia has ironically taken this to the logical conclusion as her dances are to covertly get her rocks off with the machines, even as they’ve made her famous in this world. But Alexia’s strange tastes have a dangerous side. Showering after her performance, she gets her hair entangled with the nipple ring of a friendly fellow dancer, Justine (Garance Marillier), in a moment of comic intimacy; as she heads out to her car later, she’s tracked by a male fan who crosses the line between eagerness and offensiveness when he tries to force her to kiss him, whereupon he stabs him in the ear with a sharp metal file she hides in her hair like a hairpin. Ducournau seems to stoke sympathy for Alexis here, presenting her as a cold-blooded survivor who’s justified to a degree in lashing out at a sexist and abusive world. But this is soon enough revealed as Ducournau trolling the audience: Alexis is an active serial killer, murdering anyone she gets close to.

We’re obviously in quasi-surrealist territory here, even before our antiheroine fucks a car and gets pregnant by it. Or at least, surrealism in a contemporary usage. Original, authentic surrealism aimed to move beyond mere symbolism and strangeness to explore a realm of total instability, where all things can become their opposites; it aim was anarchic. Titane is not anarchic, not really: how it works as a movie depends on the degree to which one swallows the storyline’s outlandish ideas as metaphorical. We can, say, interpret Alexis’ injury and reconstruction as recovery from childhood abuse and her later persona as a resulting maladaption, her ardour for cars a symbol of a need for perverse and self-mortifying kicks, as well as offering a clear enough nod to Cronenberg’s Crash (1996). But it’s more fun to take literally: Alexis, infused with foreign metal as a child, has been infected with the hunger for steel: only such fearsome penetration can satisfy her, and the language of the metal beings is the one she speaks. Ducournau depicts Alexis having an actual erotic encounter with a self-animated Cadillac that demands she emerge from her dressing room, car bouncing up and down with glaring headlights and beeping horn as Alexis within has a raging orgasm, wrists wrapped in the seatbelts and tits jogging merrily, sweat flowing down her tattooed form. A bold, funny, weird, sexy image. We, and she, will of course pay a price for this. Turns out if you have an automobile for a lover you can still get knocked up.

Anyway, Alexia’s taste for violence asserts itself when she hooks up with Justine, biting her nipple with hungry force when they make out at a waterfront locale, just before Alexia vomits and realises she’s fallen pregnant by the car. When she goes to Alexia’s house and they resume their make-out session, Alexia slays Justine once again by her hair needle, missing at first and plunging it into her cheek, before a struggle that ends when Alexia manages to plant it in Justine’s ear. But she’s quickly confronted by the necessity of killing the two people Justine shared the house with, plus a random guy one had brought home for sex. Here Ducournau feels locked in the same creative zone as Raw, basically repeating its driving, punkish preoccupation with a young woman whose carnal needs manifest as a desire to kill, only sans cannibalism and with a different motivation. It could be that Alexia is supposed to be gripped with such a homicidal impulse because of her injuries, or because she’s not entirely human anymore. But the real explanation is that Ducournau simply wants to galvanise the audience with images of bloodshed and mayhem ironically committed by a young and sexy woman: when she has Alexis tussle with a topless woman on the stairway, it seems Ducournau’s trying to do an arty lampoon some concept of trashy thrills. Alexia, deliberate as she is in her murderous activities, experiences a blackly comedy exasperation as her task keeps getting more gruelling, including killing a sweet-natured black man named Jerome (Lamine Cissokho) and one of Alexia’s housemates: a second manages to throw her off and escape. Realising she’s going to be busted, Alexia returns to her home and sets fire to her clothes, seeming to set fire to her family home as well, and flees northwards.

It’s easy to see why Ducournau kept all this stuff in her script, because it’s provided all the talking points for many critics and viewers ever since, the sort of thing that gets reported in breathless “it’s so crazy” terms, even though it only accounts for about a third of the film. The rest of Titane is an oddball take on a Shakespearean pastoral play, mixed with a variation on the Monster and the blind man scene from Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Alexia adopts a cunning plan to elude police: a couple of times early in the movie an old missing persons case is mentioned on TV broadcasts, with the father of a young boy named Adrien Legrand who vanished several years earlier still searching for the son he still resolutely believes it alive. Realising she looks just enough like a new computer-aged picture of the boy that’s being circulated by investigators to possibly pass for him, Alexia retreats to a bus station bathroom and quickly gives herself a brutal makeover to look like a teenage boy, even breaking her nose on the sink to complete the illusion. And so she’s ironically able to use the police hunting for her to instead deliver her to Adrien’s father, Vincent (Lindon). Vincent proves so eager to find his son that it quickly becomes clear he’s willing to accept anyone in the role, refusing to get a DNA test and immediately taking “Adrien” under his wing. Vincent is the captain of an all-male squad of firefighters, and he swiftly inducts his reclaimed son into their ranks.

This portion of the film felt the most adroitly observed and successfully ironic in the contrasting visions of people doing gruelling things to themselves in bathrooms: Alexia’s self-effacing, self-mutilating adventure, strapping down her breasts and smashing her nose and shaving her head to a ragged crop, segues into vignettes of Vincent not just forcing his body through a gruelling nightly exercise regime, but injecting himself in his bruised and track mark-riddled flank with steroids, in his ongoing attempt to maintain his physical fortitude as the macho hero and king of the crew of professional heroes: as Alexia is trying to erase and overcome her biological identity, Vincent trying desperately to hang onto his. This works because, wild as the adult-woman-passing-as-a-teen-boy twist is and these scenes nudge zones of heightened grotesquery, it’s still made just sufficiently believable by Ducournau and the actors. I’m sure someone’s also already writing a thesis comparing the scenes of attractive women breaking their own noses in this and Cate Shortland’s Black Widow from earlier this year, an act with the quality of a last taboo: with so many women, and men, in the world desperately trying to improve their looks, to reverse their aging, to assert their inner vision of what they are over the crude material of their genetics and environmental moulding, what perverse freedom in the act.

Once this point is made, however, Titane begins to tread water, settling into a wash-rinse-repeat structure of Alexia/Adrien constantly trying to avoid being caught in the altogether, first when she’s bunked down for the night when her/his “father” comes to give her clean clothes, and then repeatedly thereafter. In between are vignettes of Vincent fiercely declaring his determination to protect Alexia/Adrien at all costs, and his pseudo-offspring interacting uneasily with the firefighter squad, including when she accompanies them on an emergency call and manages to save a life. The smirking younger men take the slight and shy-eyed Adrien to be “gay.” For a moment I imagined a more farcical variation on the situation where all the nominally straight young braves start hitting on the newbie who has to keep his own secrets, but this is a supposedly serious movie. Finally Vincent’s ex-wife (Myriem Akheddiou), the mother of the missing boy, barges in on Alexia and recognising her fraud demands a basic compact: she won’t tell on Alexia if Alexia will continue her charade for Vincent’s sake as one who truly knows how deep and painful his psychic wound is. Underlying all the superficial perversity here then is a straightforward emotional arc: Alexia, so badly damaged by her own pinch-faced father’s incapacity to control himself, finds a superior father figure in Vincent, who engages Alexia/Adrien in an extended dance of role-playing where each is entirely willing to sustain their role according to their needs, leading to moments like Vincent insisting on shaving Alexia/Adrien’s face, as well as ignoring the gigantic scar from her childhood operation on her head.

Their relationship seems to be constantly in danger from the ticking biological clock of Alexia’s pregnancy, and she finds herself increasingly, frustratingly beset by her body’s rebellion against her attempts to bury it. Eventually she’s forced to survey her mangled form, covered in bruises and gouges and with the stigmata of her unnatural pregnancy breaking out regardless as she leaks out motor oil in place of milk and blood from nipples and vagina, and splitting skin on her bulging belly reveals the infesting gleam of metal. This narrative turn reminded me, in a seemingly distant swerve of attention, of something out of ancient ritual myth, or variations transmitted in some more profane vehicle like Jane Seymour’s Solitaire in Live and Let Die (1973) – the seer who loses her mystic power when she’s sexually awakened. Similarly, Ducournau seems to offer Alexia as depowered by the admission of anything like human feeling, with her killings representing some sort of sovereign power – a ridiculous metaphor but okay – that she loses, although it’s her impregnation that nominally starts her down this road, an impregnation brought about by her rare nature. The trouble with this is that the early scenes of Titane seem to explicitly disavow sentimentality in terms of its characters, only to then try and milk Alexia/Adrien and Vincent’s relationship for something resembling grounded pathos. Their connection is deepened when Alexia finds Vincent prone after one of his steroid injections goes wrong, and finds she can’t take advantage of the chance to kill him.

More power to artists trying to walk a tonal tightrope and reach for strange new epiphanies, but I never felt particularly convinced or compelled by any of this, despite Lindon’s vehemently committed and deeply felt performance: Lindon is one of the best actors in movies today, and he brings a depth of feeling and a palpable sense of his character’s bleary mental and emotional exhaustion and desperate attempts to keep up appearances. The greater part of the problem is that Alexia/Adrien is by comparison an empty vessel: the casually murderous entity of the first section of the film becomes a poor vehicle for exploring unexpected and unusual bonds later in the film. It might have been more interesting if Alexia/Adrien was allowed a greater degree of self-expression, but the character is stricken with an impassive blankness beyond mere registers of transient feelings – pain, anger and so forth – particularly emphasised in the long mid-section of the film where Alexis/Adrien refuses to speak lest her voice give the game away and it’s taken for a traumatic symptom. Such blankness is rather too common in contemporary “serious” movies, usually because filmmakers want characters who function as ready viewpoint figures, but Alexia remains stuck someplace else, between multifarious symbol and actual character. Alexia’s scar is constantly, improbably on show, obvious both when she’s a dancer – is that a good career move? – and later when she’s posing as Adrien, gaining no comment from anyone. Again, of course, one can read it as symbolism of a kind, but it still feels overly garish and distracting.

In Raw Marillier also played a character called Justine, whilst the two major characters framing her emergent nature were named Alexia and Adrien, suggesting those names have some totemic meaning, particularly in their ultimate pseudo-fusion. Ducournau killing off this version of Justine, who’s bold and queer, might represent some leaving behind of the past. Or maybe it’s just a precious screenwriting touch. The version of Alexia presented early in the film is completely unsympathetic; the version we get later, the quasi-Adrien, we’re asked to feel some odd sympathy for as she’s beset by increasing impotence, stricken as her body rebels on her and her former cold-bloodedness deserts her – she can’t kill Vincent and she fails in her attempt to abort her new body-infesting foetus with her hair needle. She can’t even wield the same sexual imperiousness as before – when she’s laughingly goaded by the fire fighters into dancing atop a fire truck during one of their unit’s occasional parties, her sexy dance style falls flat by the weirded-out young men. This scene aims for cringe-inducing discomfort and obtains it, although Ducournau seems to think it’s utterly verboten for a young man to dance like a sexy woman. Most guys would find it hilarious and the highpoint of the party. The repeated jabs at the raunch culture Alexia profits off feel rather dated in themselves, whilst Ducournau’s collection of firefighters looks like a gang of male strippers anyway. The cultural targets in Titane feel a bit hackneyed is what I’m saying. Alexia’s revisit of her ritual seduction dance is then followed by her attempt to get it on with the fire truck, but gains no result: Alexia has lost her ability to give or gain satiety that way.

Being inducted into the firefighter crew at least seems to offer Alexia/Adrien the chance to enter a world defined by madcap physical heroism and gutsy dedication that’s the polar opposite of her/his sharklike and parasitic existence, an induction that also sees Alexia/Adrien slowly embrace the role of sustaining Vincent’s illusions, something everyone around him seems to agree to do on one level or another. Vincent already has a surrogate son figure on his team, Rayane (Laïs Salameh), who gets jealous of Alexia/Adrien. It’s not a thread of the film that goes anywhere, and Rayane is killed later when he and Vincent fearlessly venture into a forest fire and Vincent gets him to take charge of a gas canister retrieved from a caravan which then explodes. This event serves to chiefly serve to drive Vincent even deeper into his self-imposed role, even beholding Alexia naked finally but still avowing his function as father and protector. Things build to a head as Alexia tries to seduce Vincent, a move that creeps him out too much, but also seems to finally provoke Alexia to give birth, with Vincent desperately trying to coach her as her body tries to do something at once natural and inimical.

Much of Titane made me wish Ducournau had stuck to the initial epater-le-bourgeois zaniness or had started with Vincent accepting this odd changeling and had rolled from there in a more careful journey through a game of arbitrarily agreed rules in deception and acceptance, because it feels like an uneasy conjunction of a couple of different script drafts, and there are points in the film where it comes close to – quelle horreur – a typical indie feels entry where some life-ragged people find each-other and form an oddball unit. Or perhaps it’s the dream life of the Fast and Furious films turned inside out, with their obsession with cars and family. The scene with Vincent’s ex-wife, although exceptionally well-performed by Akheddiou, nonetheless disrupts the dragonfly-skating-on-water tenor of the rest of the film’s mutually agreed reality, a veering into quotidian psychological realism that feels misjudged. Overall, as a film Titane lacks the derivative but compelling aesthetic of Raw, and in many ways feels like a classic awkward sophomore effort, even if the faults it shares with its precursor are fairly consistent: an indecisive tenor to the toggling between realism and anti-realism, the lack of sense for somewhere interesting or exciting to go after the basic conceits are employed and their elemental value expended until a great climactic image partly makes up the difference. This climax does manage to bring many of the film’s meandering threads and depraved emotions to coherent and fitting terminus, culminating with the indelibly sick image of Vincent cradling Alexia’s offspring with veins of rippling metal running up its spine and head, ironically reborn himself as a father to some fresh hybrid whilst the misbegotten mother lying dead and mangled.

Ducournau’s attempt to restore some of the primal anxiety inherent in childbirth is fascinatingly visualised even if it remains at an arm’s length from the nominal narrative containing it. Maybe if I felt something more maniacal and wilful in Alexia, something that made her body’s rebellion and her ultimate fate feel more palpable, I might have been more persuaded by the drama overall. But I kept thinking back to the moment in James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) where Vasquez (Jeanette Goldstein) wails “Oh no!” when she suffers a crippling injury that finally foils her brash physicality, and it hits in a few brief seconds exactly the note Titane tries constantly to hit. In terms of the film’s nominal exploration of gender role-playing, Titane actually makes an unfashionable point – that, no matter how it’s denied, disguised, revised, and inhabited, the body is still ultimately a slave to nature. Perhaps the proper zone of ambiguity there is just what nature is, what it imposes on us, the people trapped within such cages of flesh, could be a much larger question than anyone knows. Which is a damned interesting point to chase down, and the pity with Titane is that it doesn’t really ask it until the very end.

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2020s, Action-Adventure, Fantasy, Scifi

Dune: Part One (2021)

Director: Denis Villeneuve
Screenwriters: Eric Roth, Jon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

As a dedicated fan of Frank Herbert’s Dune and its literary children, I anticipated a new film adaptation with a mixture of hope and apprehension. Dune has managed to sustain a potent cult over the half-century since its publication, its influence manifest in subsequent hits as diverse as Star Wars, The Matrix, and Game of Thrones, to the point where its building blocks now seem pervasively familiar, even if its most individual and esoteric qualities remain largely untapped and evergreen in their strangeness. Herbert’s legendarium, with its encoded metaphors for mind-expanding drug use, fossil fuel dependency, post-colonial politics, nascent feminism, and religious seeking, seemed exactly attuned to gathering forces in the modern zeitgeist and so caught the imagination of three generations of dorm room dreamers, but also connected with a larger, more mainstream audience in a way hardcore science fiction rarely does, albeit also erecting a firm barrier between those who could penetrate Herbert’s odd, dense writing style and those left totally cold by it. On a more immediate level, Herbert’s preoccupation with the figure of a quasi-messianic hero who finds himself anointed the one person who can rebound from near-oblivion to lead an uprising helped connect the science fiction genre’s roots in pulp heroism and exotic adventuring with a new preoccupation with the experience of maturation as the key modern narrative, birthing the “chosen one” motif in just about every emulating fantastical epic since.

And, of course, there were earlier versions. David Lynch’s big, bizarre, contorted, but almost endlessly fascinating 1984 version became mostly remembered as a debacle echoing in the corridors of pop culture history but has since gathered a fervent cult following. Jim Harrison’s 2000 TV miniseries proved modestly popular and proficient in its indulgence: whilst scarcely memorable, it seems to have laid seeds for the age of prestige television. For myself, I love both the Herbert novel and Lynch’s film, even if they’re passions that cannot ever quite overlap: they exist a little like matter and antimatter, reflecting the image of the other but unable to touch without annihilation. Lynch’s film manages the unique task of being both maddeningly fastidious and wilfully odd as adaptation, sometimes obsessed with communicating the most finicky details from Herbert and elsewhere badly distorting and even avoiding important elements. Now comes the first part of Denis Villeneuve’s proposed two-instalment adaptation of Dune, a bombastic unit of expenditure and epic portent that seems to have been produced with a determination to avoid the heralded mistakes of Lynch’s version, by taking a leaf from Andres Muschietti’s financially successful adaptation of Stephen King’s It (2017-19) and splitting the book into two movies.

It’s easy to see a dismaying motive behind the new version: present-day Hollywood’s reliance on familiar intellectual property with a hopefully baked-in audience has become so unshakeable that it would rather try again to adapt a book commonly described as unfilmable after Lynch’s version proved a massive financial failure, on the vague expectation the novel’s fans will come, than take a chance on something new. But hope for a new adaptation that would prove sufficiently balanced and coherent, able to at once honour the material’s most specific qualities and appeal to a big audience, has long preoccupied Dune’s fandom, particularly as I suspect every aficionado has long cherished their personal idea of how it should be done. Bifurcating the story promises that the novel’s meticulous construction of its imagined future 8000-odd years hence could be carefully meted out along with the strong, fairly straightforward central storyline. This approach has its own, big risks of course, as any of the three people who remember The Golden Compass (2007) can testify. Regardless, in familiar fashion, Dune unfolds in a distant future in which humans have colonised tracts of the galaxy and have developed a neo-feudal system of control where an all-powerful Emperor and the feudal houses under him administrate the many planets.

We see the House of Atreides, led by the canny and noble but world-weary Duke Leto (Oscar Isaacs), assigned to take over the planet Arrakis by his Emperor, displacing the previous clan of administrators, their hated rivals the Harkonnens, and taking on the responsibility of mining the substance called spice that only occurs there. The spice is absolutely crucial to the shape and operation of the Empire, so whilst the spice mining is an incredibly lucrative business, failure to keep it flowing could bring down harsh penalties. Leto and his advisors also suspect they’re being set up for a fall, a correct assumption, as the Harkonnens are being backed by the Emperor to wipe the Atreides out and rid him of rivals. Leto and his concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) have one son, the teenaged Paul (Timothée Chalamet): Jessica is a member of the Bene Gesserit, a sect who operate at the nexus of priestesses, nuns, witches, and genetic scientists. The sect has long been dedicated to breeding a human with psychic gifts pronounced enough to see the future and actively control future human evolution, a notional being dubbed the Kwisatz Haderach in ancient prophecy, and Jessica represents the near-culmination of the project. But Paul’s birth, the result of Jessica’s desire to please Leto after she unexpectedly fell in love with him, disrupted the project, and now Paul is displaying nascent signs of being the Kwisatz Haderach. The Atreides are attacked by the Harkonnens, who break through their defences thanks to the treachery of their house physician Wellington Yueh (Chang Chen), but Yueh’s complex motives also see him arrange to save Paul and Jessica from the massacre.

Villeneuve wisely casts familiar faces even in relatively minor parts, making Dune something of an old-fashioned star-studded epic, even if it resists the Lynch version’s delight in showing off its all-star cast in a long curtain call-like final credits scene. Jason Momoa and Josh Brolin play the ultraloyal and omnicompetent Atreides warriors Duncan Idaho and Gurney Halleck, respectively, whilst Stephen McKinley Henderson plays the house strategist and “Mentat” Thufir Hawat. The three actors have the ability to swiftly and effectively make their characters interesting and palpable, even as they’re also essentially wasted. Brolin gets one of the very few jots of humour in the film as he maintains his familiar tight and stoic grimace even whilst answering Leto’s teasing command to smile with “I am smiling.” Charlotte Rampling is somewhat inevitably cast as Reverend Mother Mohiam, the stern, mysterious, haughty exemplar of the Bene Gesserit creed who nominally works for the Emperor but pushes the Bene Gesserit agenda at all times. Liet Kynes, the Imperial ecologist assigned to study Arrakis turned covert renegade and a male in the book, has here been turned into a woman for some reason or another, with Sharon Duncan-Brewster taking the role. Javier Bardem turns up for two scenes to mumble impressively as Stilgar, a leader of the so-called Fremen, the original human colonists of Arrakis who long since adapted to life on the planet and consider themselves its true custodians, but have since suffered from persecution at the hands of the Imperial and Harkonnen enforcers.

Villeneuve and his co-screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth peel away much of the story superstructure in digging down to the fundamental melodrama that forms the spine of the plot, which, he’s decided, is the fate of the key Atreides themselves – Leto, Jessica, and Paul, with interpersonal exchanges between the three trying for a mix of familial affection and pained gravitas, and the tragedy that presages the rise of the young scion on the path to revenge and mystical transformation. There’s an early scene in the novel, dutifully recreated in all versions, which provides a galvanising moment in the narrative, when Paul is visited by Mohiam, who insists on testing his mettle for at that point obscure reasons. She forces him to stick his hand into a box that induces terrible pain, challenging him to withstand the pain or be killed with a poisoned needle pressed to his throat, in a rite of passage designed to distinguish if he’s a true human, infinitely capable of patience and resistance, or a mere “animal,” slave to impulse and reaction. It’s a scene that, I expect, most genuinely hooks the attention of about-to-be fans, as it not only presents a thrilling situation, but also encapsulates much of how Herbert’s writing and storytelling works – the lengthy, ritualistic confrontation of strong personalities, the suspense based in the problem of a surviving a situation when hemmed in by potential checkmates of lethal capacity where cast-iron willpower must be met with the same, and the unsettling description of a teenage boy being forced to endure perfect agony without flinching as a preparation for life in a world without safe and comforting moral boundaries.

Villeneuve handles the scene as well as Lynch did, in the contrast between Chalamet’s open-faced youthfulness and Mohiam’s veil-clad and forbidding embodiment of all that’s powerfully arcane and dismissive of weakness, particularly with the added touch of Jessica able to maintain sympathy with her son from outside the room and experiencing what he experiences, reciting the famous mantra against fear. Villeneuve and his screenwriting team seem to be trying to take a leaf from The Godfather’s (1972) example in trying to communicate the relationships between the central family characters whilst they seem to mostly discuss business, as in another early scene where Paul and his father discuss the looming challenge before them whilst walking between grave markers of their ancestors on the grey and watery world of Caladan that has long been their home and fiefdom. The trouble is despite this approach I never really felt convinced by their family dynamics. Isaac and Ferguson are strong actors and are undoubtedly the right age, but it still feels a little odd seeing them cast as the grizzled patriarch and weirdly hot mother who has a perturbing dynamic with her on-screen son. It doesn’t help that Isaac and Ferguson are both forced to quell their natural charisma to fit into Villeneuve’s pinched, po-faced dramatic style. Villeneuve’s essential approach is one of characters muttering earnestly at one-another in dimly-lit spaces.

What’s surprising about Villeneuve’s Dune is that despite being given a nominal wealth of space to tell the story, it doesn’t really know what to do with it. Despite the simplifications, the script essentially settles for being an exposition machine, with very few flashes of effective and engaging interpersonal detail, like Paul being teased by Gurney whilst being welcomed for the first time into one of the House strategy meetings. It’s the sort of movie that makes you long for the day when a director would spice up an epic with a few dancing girls or something. Villeneuve takes almost exactly as long as Lynch did in telling the story from beginning to the point where Leto finds Fremen housekeeper Shadout Mapes (Golda Rosheuvel) dying, signalling the start of the Harkonnen attack, and then spends the majority of the next hour and twenty minutes of running time on a listless succession of chase scenes Lynch was more effective in compressing. As a fan of the book I’m in a dichotomous position in this regard. Familiarity helps me keep up and indeed a step ahead of everything so I don’t need to expend the mental energy it will undoubtedly cost a newcomer to the material. But it also makes me susceptible to possible boredom when I simply see things being checked off rather than being truly, creatively explored. Unfortunately, that’s what I began to feel watching Villeneuve’s Dune.

The Quebecois Villeneuve emerged as a feature filmmaker with 1998’s August 32nd On Earth, a debut that immediately gained him notice as a talent screening at the Cannes Film Festival, and his French-language follow-ups, Maelstrom (2000), Polytechnique (2009), and Incendies (2010), were all acclaimed and award-garnered, with the middle film stirring some disquiet in portraying an shooting spree at the University of Montreal in 1989. Villeneuve then went Hollywood with the would-be thoughtful, moody thriller Prisoners (2013), sparking a swift rise up the Hollywood totem pole as he followed with the paranoia study Enemy (2013), the drug war drama Sicario (2015), and sci-fi tales Arrival (2016) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017). I haven’t seen Villeneuve’s French-language films: if I had I might have a different perspective on his later stabs at mating art movie postures with popular storytelling. As far as they go, I find Villeneuve a largely insufferable filmmaker. But he’s one who certainly seems to be finding a particular niche in current mainstream cinema discourse similar to those held in the recent past by David Fincher and Christopher Nolan, in that his particular approach seems to impress some and dismay others through a carefully filtered aesthetic sensibility aiming to deliver chic spectacle.

Villeneuve’s mainstream works to date have been defined by this smothering aesthetic matched to storylines that are generally far less deep and intensive than the stylistic cues insist they are. Those cues, including a relentlessly drab colour palette and droning, booming music scores, seem to me hallmarks of a particular brand of modern quasi-seriousness even when, upon close inspection, there’s little substance to back them up in Villeneuve’s films. I still cringe when I remember how the plot of Arrival was explained by a randomly info-dumping Chinese general to the time-unmoored heroine, or Sicario affected to be a grim investigation of the drug war only to become a ridiculous revenge drama, and Prisoners waded through highly unsubtle character signposting and emblazoned themes even whilst affecting a glaze of knit-browed profundity. Like Blade Runner 2049, Dune sees Villeneuve being relatively restrained, but there’s still something relentlessly pummelling and joyless about his filmmaking to me. Dune has been sucked dry of all its exotic strangeness and dynamism, all its semi-surreal, florid liveliness, with a kind of dry, pseud efficiency in its place. “My planet Arrakis is so beautiful when the sun is low,” Chani (Zendaya), Kynes’ daughter and a Fremen warrior, is heard in voiceover at the very outset. This immediately evinces an attempt by the filmmakers to combine exposition and low-key genre poetry, a method that continues throughout. But the unconvincing clumsiness of the line, the lack of actual, proper expressive language and specificity apparent in it, also neatly demonstrate how this method fails.

Rather than the artists who provided beloved illustrations and cover art for the books, like Bruce Pennington and John Schoenherr, Villeneuve moves to take inspiration from more European styles in sci-fi illustration, with a particular emulation of the work of Jean ‘Moebius’ Girard in the oddball costuming and weirdly-shaped spaceships, designs which, as Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element (1997) which had actual Moebius design work proved, just don’t work very well off the page. But that’s a relatively minor issue. It’s in the specifics that Villeneuve really falls down. The actual uses of the spice and way the substance informs the entire social, political, and economic structure of Herbert’s universe are more or less dismissed in a couple of pithy lines of dialogue, and so we’ve subtly but firmly shifted from any attempt to convey the depth of Herbert’s text in favour of simply delivering its most basic story points. Sometimes this can be a wise move – Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy worked in large part because whilst it happily included much of J.R.R. Tolkien’s esoterica, it knew how to impart it in a fashion that wove around rather than interrupted the central story. The trouble is Dune doesn’t work in the same way. Tolkien deliberately structured his stories so you didn’t have to worry about the quasi-angelic background of the many magical figures including Sauron, Gandalf, and Balrog, even if to understand all that does make things more explicable: nonetheless we intrinsically grasp their function. Similarly, in Dune, it’s possible to approach it without thinking too much about the larger structure and historical meaning of organisations like the Bene Gesserit and the guild of mutated Navigators who need the spice to fuel their precognitive ability to steer colossal spaceships.

But – and this is a large but – to not understand those things means to miss what’s important and interesting about Dune as a mythos and as a work of speculative fiction. If you haven’t read the books you’ll have no idea from this movie about the Navigators; whilst the function and method of the Mentats are depicted through Thufir, just exactly what they are and why they exist is likewise impossible to properly deduce, nor why the flying machines and spacecraft are conspicuously missing guidance computers. Anyone who’s read the book knows about the Butlerian Jihad, which saw all robots and artificial intelligences destroyed and forbidden in the universe, and obliging human beings to stretch their abilities to limits unthought-of in our current time, most of it allowed by the spice. Herbert’s real fascination was with human intelligence and physical development as our vehicle, for which our machines are mere externalised devices. I didn’t sense any real intellectual curiosity in Villeneuve’s Dune, nor desire to put across Herbert’s world beyond what’s strictly necessary to the plot. In Villeneuve’s vision, the spice is reduced from a substance of vast, fantastical conceptual importance to the mere, tinny metaphor for fossil fuel it started as, combined with a kind of light hallucinogen. Villeneuve’s renderings of Paul’s visions are the most banal imaginable, consisting of lots of adolescent yearning glimpses of Chani, swanning about in flowing garb, and occasional glimpses of tussling warriors.

This tendency, to mine the prosaic from the visionary, is an awfully common failing of a lot of recent genre film and television in the contemporary obsession with grounding and pseudo-realism. With Villeneuve it’s particularly acute, having already taken Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) and tapped it for straightforward plotting and self-consciously obvious thematics, reducing the original’s unique dreamlike palette and narrative density to just another plodding blend of action movie and TV commercial-like sentimentality in its odes to human qualities. Similarly, there’s a monotony to the acting and dramatic beats here. The introduction of the Harkonnens themselves, including the bulbous, infinitely malevolent Baron Harkonnen himself (Stellan Skarsgard), his henchman Raban (Dave Bautista), and Mentat Piter De Vries (David Dastmalchian), takes the mumbling-in-dark-rooms aesthetic to a logical conclusion: the entire world of the Harkonnens seems to have a lighting problem. The obvious, cliché casting of Skarsgard, swathed in a fat suit, is matched by the equal, exhausting obviousness of the nods to Marlon Brando’s performance in Apocalypse Now (1979), as Skarsgard strokes his greasy bald pate with monstrous meditation.

The portrayal of the Harkonnens in Lynch’s film has long seemed to me the biggest problem with that work, in trying to graft Lynch’s penchant for leering id-beasts and wild, bristling bullies onto Herbert’s material with its hypnotic fascination with intellectual evil and total amorality. And yet I found myself longing for the vividness of Kenneth McMillan’s Harkonnen and his outsized delight in obscene behaviour, compared to this drab substitution, and Lynch’s most gleefully appalling touches, like giving a poisoning victim a surgically stitched-together cat and rat to milk for an antidote daily, or Raban crushing a small animal and drinking its bodily fluids like orange juice. The closest Villeneuve gets to such twisted flavour is a brief glimpse of some genetic chimera, part humanoid, part spider that his Harkonnens keep as a pet. Yueh was played with some force by Dean Stockwell in Lynch’s film, and his pathos as a man who betrays himself and his friends for the sake of one, desperate tilt at a more personal revenge was allowed to register as he screamed at Harkonnen after being stabbed in the back for his aid, “You think I don’t know what I’ve done? For my wife?” By comparison, Cheng’s Yueh is bland and blasé even as he dies, his motive not suggested until just before he’s killed, one of the many tributaries of potential melodramatic juice reduced to mere plot function in the face of the impassive-grandiose style. There is, that said, a good touch when Harkonnen has Leto prisoner thanks to Yueh’s machinations: Villeneuve has the Duke stripped naked and laid prone before his enemy, a potent little encapsulation of his sudden vulnerability before a truly evil foe. But Lynch’s crazy, disturbing imagination imbued his Dune with something by and large missing from this one. Which is one reason I’ve long felt that Lynch’s Dune is not a perfect adaptation but is perfectly itself, wielding a specificity and, most importantly, a fearlessness of creative passion almost entirely missing from contemporary big-budget cinema.

Not that I want to get bogged down in simply comparing Lynch and Villeneuve’s versions. Villeneuve goes for an aesthetic, full of monumental forms and a kind of medieval minimalism in décor and design, that’s quite different to the tangled Gothicism, Austro-Hungarian martial dress, and madcap Rococo dominant in Lynch’s film, and it’s a look that struck me as more appropriate to the material. And yet Villeneuve’s style of shooting too often has the hyper-sharp, gritty-glossy look of high-end video game cutscenes, particularly in the special effects sequences, although there’s still some genuine awe stoked by visions like the Atreides fleet being disgorged by one of the colossal “heighliner” space transport vessels. His vision of Caladan makes it look like a drizzly patch of New Brunswick – understandable perhaps for Villeneuve – rather than a watery world where the primal power of the ocean matches and opposes the similar power of Arrakis. Villeneuve swaps out a blue filter for Caladan for a grey-brown one on Arrakis, and he makes the desert planet relentlessly dingy and colourless. Villeneuve’s approach has drawn a lot of comparison to Lawrence of Arabia (1962), but I can’t see why. David Lean (who was apparently approached to direct the first version at one point, whilst Herbert himself took strong inspiration from T.E. Lawrence’s story) knew how to convey the scale of the desert as well as its physical extremes through his approach to light, framing, and colour – the more brilliantly blue the skies the more relentless the sense of sun beating down, of exposure and dire physical straits. Villeneuve makes all of his shots colourless, his skies filled with omnipresent dust, and his desert looks, well, rather tepid.

One telling disparity in Villeneuve’s take on Blade Runner was where Scott’s street scenes were teeming with life carefully conveyed not just through hiring extras and costuming them but with the camera’s sense of how to pick up that life, Villeneuve’s felt stodgy and depopulated. There’s a similar lack of any real energy and sense of lifestyle in his approach here. Here everyone seems afraid to raise their voices too high or gesticulate too much lest they disturb the carefully composed symmetry of the shots. There’s genuine visual ingenuity sometimes, that said. Herbert’s cleverest touches, like the ban on nuclear weapons and the personalised force-fields that have returned warfare back to a matter of who’s best at hand-to-hand combat rather than one of projectile weapons, helped at once to give a clever legitimacy to the old-school space opera’s Wagner-in-space sensibility, whilst also feeling coherent and well-thought-through in terms of its imagined future’s construction, where the path to victory for both villains and heroes means threading a path through seemingly impregnable bulwarks of technology and behaviour. The visualisation of the fights between force-field-wearing warriors are good, but only when dealing with one-on-one fights. The big, tragic combat between the invading Harkonnens and Atreides host is oddly curtailed and lacking much dynamism in staging, the sort of moment that really makes you wish some ebullient meathead like Zack Snyder or Neil Marshall was directing rather than a hyperfussy aesthete. Herbert’s ornithopters, the usual mode of flight on Arrakis, long seemed one of those ideas easy to imagine and write but just about impossible to effectively film, are realised nonetheless with true visual élan, with Villeneuve’s take offering helicopters with side-mounted blade that beat like dragonfly-like wings. There are some truly beautiful images scattered throughout, testifying to the cinematographer Greig Fraser’s masterful talents, including the striking prologue depicting Fremen resistance against the Harkonnen spice miners during a sandstorm.

And of course there’s the sandworms, the massive beasts that infest the sands of Arrakis and provide an omnipresent threat, as well as a potential source of power, and are connected to the spice. Villeneuve handles the first scene involving a worm well, in part because it’s a strong suspense situation: Leto and his team, being flown over the desert by Kynes, spot a worm advancing on a manned spice harvesting machine and race to save the crew before the unimaginably large creature swallows the harvester up. Modern special effects are more than equal to the task of realising the worms, and there’s a nice tightening of the suspense as Paul is abruptly distracted during the rescue as he breathes in the unrefined spice and is plunged into a visionary state, demanding Gurney fetch him, the two almost getting caught in the liquefying sands caused by the worm’s approach. After this, however, in the subsequent appearance by the worms as one swallows up a team of Imperial “Sardaukar” troops after they’ve executed Kynes in the desert, and another chases after Paul and Jessica, the worms rapidly become familiar and prove a bit dull-looking: whilst obviously better-realised in a technical sense, they never register as effectively nightmarish as Carlo Rambaldi’s creations for Lynch did, particularly in the latter pursuit. Villeneuve’s versions have long hair-like teeth and perfectly round mouths and crinkly, puckered skin that make them look a bit, well, anal, particularly in a very misjudged shot when one pauses it attack and sits centre-frame. Not that this represents some lurch towards Freudian imagery. If Lynch arguably went overboard in trying to tease out the surrealist imagery and dream symbolism inherent in Herbert’s material, Villeneuve’s edition strains in the opposite direction to make everything clean and hard-edged, plunging Herbert back into the regulation techno-fascist style he broke with.

Momoa’s presence, with his innate muscular swagger and obliquely twisting grin, gives the film a thankful jolt of matinee heroism that’s also appropriate for the character, who, as his name suggests, is offered as a kind of holdover of an ancient kind of frontier grit – one reason Herbert kept reviving Duncan over and over in the books. Villeneuve gives him an appropriately spectacular end, something Lynch fumbled rather badly, as he fights a unit of the Sardaukar hunting Paul and Jessica after the Atreides’ downfall, still managing to battle on even after being skewered with a blade. Momoa’s presence is particularly vital as he offsets Chalamet. Chalamet is definitely a current It Boy on the cinema scene with his anime-drawing-of-a-young-man looks, and he’s an actor with great potential – he did, for instance, an excellent job as the compulsory stand-in for the director of A Rainy Day In New York (2020). The film tosses in a ribbing joke about his lack of muscular manhood, but it doesn’t quite cover up the fact that he feels wrong in the role, whereas Kyle MacLachlan, whatever else you can say about him, expertly negotiated the shift from eager teenager to fearsome messiah: here Chalamet kept reminding me a little too keenly of his character in Lady Bird (2018) as a gangly brat who read a Marxist text once, here with a few added taekwondo lessons. One problem is that Villeneuve’s relentless approach to the style means the only moment where Paul feels at all boyish is when he first meets Duncan on screen, displaying a smile reserved for a kind of older brother or alternative father hero figure. Later in the film when he’s called upon to display emerging grit and gravitas he falls totally flat.

A more obvious problem with Dune: Part One is there in the title. We don’t get a complete story here, and the point where Villeneuve and company choose to leave off is at once fairly natural but also tormenting only in being anticlimactic. Villeneuve ends not on a cliffhanger but at a relatively lackadaisical story juncture, as Paul and Jessica are accepted into the Fremen fold after Paul finally meets Chani, and he is obliged to kill a Fremen, Jamis (Babs Olusanmokun), when the offended and xenophobic warrior challenges him to a duel, a fight that establishes Paul really does have a deadly streak as well as training. This provides a solid fight scene that nonetheless caps off the multimillion dollar blockbuster about some kind of war in the stars with a knife fight. “This is only the beginning,” Chani says in a trailer-ready line, whilst looking and sounding just like a sophomore at a SoCal performing arts school. The time Dune: Part One spent on the shelf awaiting post-COVID release is telling as Zendaya still looks rather young and pouchy-cheeked, with no sign of the impressive maturity she brought to bear in this year’s Malcolm & Marie – not that she’s in the film long enough to make much impression either way. Hans Zimmer matches Villeneuve’s style perfectly in his scoring, alternating drones and ululating songstresses and throbbing-propulsive, drum-thumping cues in a succession of current scoring clichés. Zimmer’s scores are inseparable from the contemporary blockbuster scene, and more specifically from the way movies are sold now: Zimmer’s work maintains a perfect synergy with the art of modern movie trailers, and in effect his work essentially does advertising for the movie within itself, refusing any kind of lyrical invitation in an imaginative universe but instead twisting the viewer’s wrist to find it all grand and darkly thrilling.

Herbert nodded to the early history of science fiction with Dune, with quite a bit of Flash Gordon and Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter of Mars tales in its makeup as well as more sophisticated concerns and investigation of mythopoeic patterns. So to a certain extent it’s fair enough that the movie emphasises this aspect, even if it doesn’t do it all that well. But Herbert deconstructed that kind of old-fashioned adventure tale at the same time, commenting on what’s often seen as the quasi-imperialist assumptions of stories where outsiders, usually white and western, become leaders of far-flung populaces, whilst his narrative both mimicked and commented upon the power of messianic mythology, uncovering links with twentieth century totalitarian movements. Herbert kept in mind things like the way Moses’ emergence as prophet and nation leader led directly to a war of extermination after the wanderings in the desert waged upon occupants of the Promised Land, and saw the way such narratives are pitched as self-justifying for aggrieved nations. He also had an evident fascination for Arabic legend and culture, appropriate considering the story’s basis in the current reality of the oil boom in the Middle East, but also tackled in a complicating fashion: Herbert’s future is a great melting pot of all past human culture and identity, where religions, creeds, and races have long since all formed into a melange as rich as the spice. The Fremen are hardly supposed to be mere stand-ins for Arabic peoples, but a society that’s retained and transmitted a classical culture as appropriate to their lifestyle. This is, after all, once again supposed to be science fiction. Villeneuve’s choice nonetheless is to hammer home the relevance and the more stolid side of the fantasy by emphasising the Fremen culture as quasi-Arabic, which manages at once to be more of a sop to emphasising contemporary parable but also more retrograde and confused in the contained politics.

As for Paul’s dread of the potential of unleashing a genocidal holy war, Villeneuve signals, at least, unlike Lynch who avoided and indeed entirely contradicted it, that he plans to deal with this consequence, but still only has Paul very quickly mutter some malarkey about holy war along with some flash-cut visions of a bloody hand. Lynch’s theatrical cut was forced to compress the second half of the novel in extremely ungainly fashion, so in this regard Villeneuve has left himself plenty of room to deal with the oncoming deluge of fresh weirdness, including Paul’s self-inflicted visionary trip to emerge as Kwisatz Haderach, the arrival of his sister Alia, the bloodthirsty adult in a child’s body, and the great battle for control of Arrakis and the Empire, as well as the bleak side to Paul’s ascension. And yet I’m also forced to ponder how Villeneuve will drain these of their perverted fervour. The ultimate impression Dune: Part One left me with was of something utilitarian, a work that seems to have finally managed, judging by the box office and general reception, the task of successfully selling Herbert’s creation to a broad audience, and indeed it’s worth celebrating insofar as it finally revives hope for franchise blockbusters more ambitious and mature than superhero movies. But the price paid for this is pyrrhic, as too much of what made Herbert’s work lasting and interesting has been sacrificed, and what’s left in its place is occasionally striking but essentially inert. Moreover, it forces me to say something I never, ever expected to say: Lynch’s version remains the superior.

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2020s, Action-Adventure, Fantasy

Jungle Cruise (2021)

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Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Screenwriters: Glenn Ficarra, Michael Green, John Requa

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…you’ll thank me.

The latest attempt by Disney to spin one of their theme park rides into a narrative, following their very successful Pirates of the Caribbean series, Jaume Collet-Serra’s Jungle Cruise opens with a prologue detailing the disappearance of the legendary conquistador Aguirre (Edgar Ramirez), who as the movie has it was lost whilst seeking the Tears of the Moon, a legendary flowering tree growing in the Amazon Jungle and which supposedly has incredible healing properties. Flash forward to 1916. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) is the indomitable, brilliant female scientist bucking the male establishment – is there any other kind? – who wants to realise her father’s dream of discovering the Tears of the Moon. MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) is her brother, who she has deliver an address to some snooty scientific society – the film won’t say which one – essentially as a distraction whilst she breaks into a workroom and steals a priceless artefact, an arrowhead needed to access the tree, which Lily hopes to find using the historical map her father left that supposedly shows the way to the tree’s location.

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Lily manages to abscond with the arrowhead, eluding a German-accented man (Jessie Plemons) visiting the society for some reason and decides to try and impede her getaway. He promptly slays all the men in the room because the man who showed him in uses his real name, a la Frank in Once Upon A Time In The West (1968), which apparently the screenwriters watched once. You see, he’s Prince Joachim, the youngest son of Kaiser Wilhelm, and he was trying to steal the same relic. Gasp, might the rather recognisable woman seen trying to sneak in there a few moments earlier, and created an elaborate diversion to facilitate it, be suspected of the murders and be sought by the police? Ha, no, this little thing of a few dead archaeologists in the middle of London is of no consequence; such things don’t raise an eyebrow, any more than a German prince being at large in England in the middle of the Great War, or gentlemen being invited to give speeches to snooty scientific organisations without rehearsing what they’re going to say. Lily doesn’t even bother going on the search for the relic until her brother’s started screwing up the distracting speech. Next thing we know she’s in South America, looking for a boat to take her in the jungle.

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Soon she encounters Frank Wolff (Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson), down-on-his-luck everyman skipper who makes a living ferrying tourists around the river. It seems that despite the war going on there were a very large number of very proper English tourists hanging around the Amazon looking for rides from captains who endanger their lives with his ridiculously haphazard behaviour and dubious stunts to augment the experience. Frank owes all his money to Nilo (Paul Giamatti, who I hope made enough on this to retire, or start his own theatre group, or whatever he’s pulling) and is on the verge of losing his boat to him. Now, we never actually find out why Frank is in debt: he seems to do a good business, and later on we find out things about that, well, make it all rather moot anyway. By all reports Jungle Cruise the movie fits in many of the familiar elements of the Jungle Cruise ride, which makes sense. Such elements include the skipper’s awful puns, which Collet-Serra insists on underlining in the visual equivalent of fluorescent ink by having the tourists cringe and groan to each one, down to one mouthing “Wow” in disbelief.

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Anyway, because Frank is in Nilo’s office trying to steal back the keys to his boat’s impounded engine when Lily comes calling, he plays along with her mistaken impression that he is Nilo in order to get hired by her. When he’s busted he still manages to impress Lily and MacGregor by facing down a jaguar that enters the tavern where they’re talking, only for the jaguar to turn out to be Frank’s pet: he arranged the whole thing, somehow. Lily is snatched by some kidnappers who lock her in a cage with some captive exotic birds, but she manages to break out, and she and Frank run around some in a chaotic action interlude. Prince Joachim turns up in a submarine that seems capable of navigating all the twists and shallows of the muddy river, and he madly fires off the sub’s machine guns and torpedos, mostly with the effect of tearing apart the town and eventually the sub crashes into Nilo’s boats – ha ha, he was a jerk, you see – whilst Frank, MacGregor, and Lily get away. Frank insists his boat is the fastest on the river, and at one point in trying to elude a torpedo fired by the U-boat it manages to move like a speedboat despite the fact that it never seems capable of more than slow chug, and Frank is first introduced trying to get the breakdown-prone machine working. The filmmakers seem to think it’s a worthy counterpart to the Millennium Falcon.

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I should note that all of the above scenes I’ve noted constitute the good part of Jungle Cruise, the portion of the film where its excess and inanity at least comes on with a few good gags and a sense that it’s trying oh so hard to deliver giddy fun. Once upstream, Lily demands the best bath in South America Frank promised her, so he points overboard and explains that the river is just that, a few moments before he incidentally demonstrates that there are flesh-stripping piranha in the water. Oh, and Lily, having donned a cliché explorer’s costume during her foray into the society, now insists on wearing trousers all the time, and Frank hilariously nicknames her “Pants.” Now, I can hear you all now begging the chance to say: but Mr Heath old chap, this movie’s supposed to be a jaunty, old-school adventure movie made to enthral kids and for adults to tolerate, it doesn’t need to make that much sense. And I agree – to a degree. But suspensions of disbelief and moments embracing puckish disinterest in logic ought to be like time-outs in American football or basketball, carefully rationed and used only to strategic effect. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) famously, mirthfully neglected explaining how Indiana Jones sails with the submarine to the island, but Jungle Cruise is apparently made by people who think you can make an entire movie on that level.

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Jungle Cruise is so aggressively senseless, so utterly detached from any semblance of narrative control and human content, that it becomes a parade of everything that’s bad and stupid and wrong about contemporary movies. It piles clichés upon clichés and then tries to shock them to Frankensteinian life by amplifying them to garish degrees of excess. We don’t just have banter, we have banter coming on in whiplash-inducing levels of rhythmic sound, like someone tried to film one of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s orchestrations of Edith Sitwell’s nonsense poems. The film can’t just have MacGregor over-pack for the journey, no no! He has to come encumbered with huge trunks filled with ridiculous items, all of which Frank insists on throwing into the river rather than letting them be left behind in the hotel. This sort of gag might pass muster in a Bugs Bunny short, but here it’s stupefyingly witless and absurd. The film can’t merely make Lily a strong-willed woman but one utterly bulldozer-like in her life-endangering arrogance, pushing Frank to try braving some rapids that he knows are incredibly dangerous, and their voyage ends up with them almost going over a waterfall.

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Lily and Frank’s feudin’-and-a-fussin’ masking their attraction is pushed constantly to the point where I wanted piranha to eat them both. She and Frank can’t simply strike sparks as polarised characters stuck together like obvious models Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn in The African Queen (1951), but repetitively fall out in whirlwinds of hyperbolic reaction. Lily’s supposed to be a tough, brave person and yet she constantly acts like a reality TV princess, constantly performing her outrage to let the audience know she’s a strong woman, y’all. The inspiration here feels less The African Queen than Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz in Stephen Sommers’ goofy, often clumsy, but enjoyable The Mummy films (1999, 2002), because those films, now about twenty years old, officially count as affectionate sort-of-classics for millennials and also just forgotten enough to justify recycling them for a young audience. But where those films’ protagonists at least were characterised with some care, and came with challenges in terms of their own sense of themselves to overcome, Johnson and Blunt are stuck playing mobile assemblages of necessary traits. Every single principle of good film crafting is subordinated here to the need for constant humour and visual stimulus-response.

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Once our insufferable, reprehensible heroes get on their way, Jungle Cruise sets about more thoroughly ransacking the established formula of the Pirates of the Caribbean films in trucking in folkloric and supernatural aspects. As we saw at the outset, Aguirre and some of his loyal men were not killed but cursed after massacring a native village and doomed never to stray far from the river, but they’ve become trapped in a grotto and infested by jungle plants and animals: one can throw out vines like tentacles, another has a bee’s nest in his skull, and Aguirre himself has snakes that writhe under his face and sometime burst out in a manner rather too reminiscent of Davy Jones’ tentacles in the second two Pirates of the Caribbean films. I grew to truly dislike the Pirates of the Caribbean films over the years as I meditated on their superficially energetic and yet perversely enervating take on the pulp adventure tradition. But they at least had pre-cancellation Johnny Depp’s blasé humour and against-the-grain showmanship to invest proceedings with the faintest hint of actual roguishness. Jungle Cruise, by contrast, is a relentless exercise more harmed than helped by its stars’ willingness to play their roles just as written.

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Only Plemons seems to be trying to work slightly off the beat with his part, playing the compulsory German baddie as bluffly good-humoured rather than icily menacing, and getting one of the few real laughs with his pronunciation of the world ‘jungle.’ Trouble is this means he’s never at all scary, and he’s the second annoyingly jovial German character in a big-budget movie this year, after Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead, suggesting a new trope is emerging. Somehow Prince Joachim finds where Aguirre and his men are trapped – common knowledge, it seems – and revives them by sprinkling river water on them. Once freed, they agree to help the Prince whilst seeking the Tears of the Moon to cure themselves. The Prince seems quite unbothered by encountering 400-year-old undead conquistadors, to the point which makes you wonder how often it’s happened to him. The script for Jungle Cruise, by the by, is co-credited to Logan (2015) and Blade Runner 2046 (2017) co-writer Michael Green, who hitherto has displayed a remarkable capacity for making fantastical material feel bog-ordinary, and Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who often work as a directing team including on the likeable I Love You Phillip Morris (2009) and the passable Focus (2015). I can’t connect this movie with those beyond a certain habit of hyperactive writing.

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Eventually, when he and Frank share just about the film’s only coherent moment of downtime conversation, MacGregor strongly implies that he’s gay, and has followed his sister partly to avoid disgrace, and partly to honour her for defending him. In its own way this is actually one of the few solid moments of the film, allowing the two men to share understanding with an emotional tug, with Frank extending the calm solicitude of one outsider to another. But in context of the totality of the film, as well in terms of its aim, it’s a dreadful failure. MacGregor is constantly characterised throughout as the worst kind of nelly caricature, posh, unmanly, utterly lost in the jungle. We’re told that Lily spent her childhood moving around from exotic locale to locale learning all of her father’s business, an education apparently not extended to MacGregor. I couldn’t help but wonder if this scene was added after the rest of the film was shot to try and ride the ally wave. In any event it has the opposite effect, not just in making MacGregor, who might just otherwise be a comical dweeb, an offensive stereotype, but also as the Disney paymasters still can’t quite bring themselves to put their stamp on any explicit statement, so the film retains a fig-leaf of deniability so the I-don’t-want-that-stuff-shoved-down-my-kids’-throats-during-a-fun-movie crowd won’t get too hot and bothered.

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This is particularly indecent given the film’s incompetent stabs at bending over backwards to be politically correct. It tries to offer a period feminist message a la Wonder Woman (2017) but doesn’t actually, whilst actually managing to rip off something like Lasse Hallstrom’s Casanova (2005) in its method. All the dart-blowing, mask-wearing natives are in on Frank’s act, and the real bad guys are European imperialists. But I get ahead of myself. The natives knock out Lily and MacGregor with darts and put them through a terrifying routine where they’re threatened with torture and death, to the point where Lily starts fighting back only for the leader of the charade, Trader Sam (Veronica Falcón), to wearily pull off her mask and call time. They also knock out Frank, despite him being their confederate, because the movie needs to fool the audience to make the joke work, and despite the fact that given what we later learn about Frank it’s odd that a blow dart can render him unconscious when a sword through the heart doesn’t bother him much. But again I get ahead of myself. The notion of the unga-bunga natives suddenly turning out to be loquacious and hip (at one point Trader Sam admonishes someone to “be cool”) isn’t new, being a gag that goes back past F Troop and on to old Bob Hope-Bing Crosby Road To… movies, and Jungle Cruise can’t even land it squarely.

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The film also has an odd, ineffectual approach to Aguirre and his men, who scarcely emerge from sideshow status despite nominally being the real antagonists, turning up now and then to give the heroes something to fight and run from. Aguirre is presented as both the arch conquistador scoundrel, who slayed the friendly Indians who saved his life, but also as a sympathetic figure driven by his need to find the Tears of the Moon and save his sickly daughter, in backstory that might have made sense but seems to have been edited with a garden mulcher. Also, the film insists on playing out the story of Aguirre and crew’s cursing twice, helping pad out a film that, whilst only just over two hours in running time, feels twice that long. Insert joke about Jungle Cruise helping to open up an Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972) cinematic universe here. There’s also, weirdly enough, what could be called nods to Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982) as Prince Joachim sails upriver whilst blaring out Wagner, although I was more reminded of Herbert Lom’s similarly arrogant German villain in J. Lee Thompson’s King Solomon’s Mines (1985), a much-derided film I nonetheless found myself thinking back to fondly during this.

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Eventually it emerges that Frank is actually one of Aguirre’s cursed men, in a twist that’s been weakly suggested beforehand but really comes across like the screenwriters decided to toss it in once they reached this point of the script and then backtracked to make it vaguely sensible. Frank managed to avoid being trapped with his fellows and is the subject of Aguirre’s eternal hatred because Frank, real name Francisco, tried to stop the massacre, giving the tribal shaman time to foil and enchant them. So, Frank isn’t a down-on-his-luck everyman skipper after all, but an eternal Flying Dutchman’s captain, consumed by a sense of existential futility. As absurd as this twist is, it could have been effective and interesting, and demands a performer with a sense of haunted charisma and deeply inscrutable mystique. Instead we get Johnson, who’s always an affable screen presence and a decent comic actor, but also has all the haunted charisma and inscrutable mystique of a Burger King drive-thru attendant, mysteriously sporting an American accent despite being a Spanish-Algerian trapped for centuries in South America.

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Given how entertainment-starved we’ve been over the past eighteen months, it feels like just about any big movie release ought to be worth celebrating. And Jungle Cruise is no slapdash quickie. It’s one of the most expensive films ever made, and it looks it: there are truly brilliant sets and special effects littered throughout, to the degree the film ever slows down to enjoy them. But Jungle Cruise is a timely reminder of just how bad modern Hollywood can be at what it’s supposed to be the best in the world at doing, labouring to do the sort of thing just about any backlot salary director could have tossed off in a hour back in the 1930s. What’s especially galling as the genuinely fun and interesting film this could been is constantly in evidence. Collet-Serra has been one of the more talented genre film hands to emerge in the past few years, delivering strong, no-nonsense but artfully constructed thrillers often starring Liam Neeson. And the best thing that can be said about Jungle Cruise is as frenetic as things get it never quite dissolves into total incoherence on a visual level, and sports some of Collet-Serra’s eye for colour composition. But on Jungle Cruise he seems to have been swallowed up and infested, much like Aguirre and his men, with the pulverising blandness and incoherence of Disney’s corporate prerogatives. It’s not in any authentic manner a Collet-Serra film, but an accumulation of executive notes, Twitter feed ploys, and special effects team make-work taped together and called a movie.

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Part of what’s really, gruellingly painful about Jungle Cruise is how unexciting it is, and how unfunny after its first couple of reels, as the story with its magical MacGuffin begins to congeal into the limpest brand of current digi-cinema. Movie thrills demand that at least on some level the audience be given the feeling that one some level what we’re seeing on screen is dangerous, that it involves some slight blurring of the line between fiction and life, something that used to manifest through the beauties of stunt work. Of the few attempts to deliver any proper derring-do in Jungle Cruise, there’s a scene where Frank tries to swing with Lily on a cable from one side of the native village to the other, only to slip and swing back again. Not a bad idea for a comically deflated swashbuckler move, but Collet-Serra doesn’t offer any consequence to the failure to pull off the move – it doesn’t matter that they don’t make it, so the whole vignette just dies a quiet death. Eventually Lily and Frank forge ahead without MacGregor, who they leave behind when he injures his foot. The film contrives to get MacGregor back into the film by having him get snatched by Prince Joachim. In the end he mans up enough to suddenly throw a few good punches at the Prince, knocking him prone and inadvertently cause his death. Which somehow only manages to increase the embarrassing patronisation of the anointed gay character, in a movie set at a time when T.E. Lawrence and Siegfried Sassoon were jousting with empires.

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Finally, Lily and Frank track their goal to a remote waterfall basin called La Luna Rota, and manage to brave an underwater mechanism that closes a lock to block the waterfall and drain off the water, so the basin drains out and reveals some ancient Mayan ruins containing the Tears of the Moon tree, which I shall henceforth call the wondrous Avatar tree. Before diving in the water Lily makes Frank turn away whilst she strips down to her long underwear, although a couple of seconds later they’re both swimming together en deshabille: we just needed to sneak in that little bit more banter and violate what little we know about these people. At least the scene where Lily gets trapped whilst trying to close the lock whilst Frank is attacked by piranha was actually filmed underwater and so there’s a tiny flicker of suspense. The wondrous Avatar tree is an enormous thing that flowers when moonlight touches it, and we get one of those climaxes where the characters have to rush to pluck some of the petals before the moon moves on despite the fact they could reasonably wait until the following night. In a climax the film seems to think is rather apt but is actually grotesquely horrible, Frank eventually elects to entrap himself with the other Conquistadors, returned to their petrified fate by cutting off the water flow into the cavern: Aguirre manages to shout, “This is worse than torture!”, and he’s entirely right. Fortunately Lily uses the one petal she managed to pluck to save Frank, but apparently leaving the other men to suffer there for all eternity.

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What nice heroes. I mean, yes, Aguirre and his crew did terrible things once. And that given, isn’t 400 years of being the living dead punishment enough? There’s some kind of unpleasant pseudo-morality at work here I found disturbing. Some of the petals bloom anew and the heroes return to civilisation with the prize in hand. Lily again has MacGregor lecture the society, only this time to inform them she’s been made a Cambridge professor on the back of discovering the flower and he tells the society all to stick it, because apparently Cambridge is good and has no connection at all to whatever society this is and there will be no professional consequences to such an act whatsoever. Now of course this kind of movie always has a bit of fun with historical licence, but where Raiders of the Lost Ark handled the hero’s success in bringing back an impossible relic to an inimical world with economy and a beautiful kick, Jungle Cruise begs the question of just exactly what will be made of Lily’s world-changing discovery of a magic curative plant. Despite having a narrative about discovery and recovery, nobody learns anything in the course of the movie. Jungle Cruise is a fascinating, perhaps even ultimate example of what happens to movies when they’re made by people with no apparent connection to anything even vaguely like the real world, but simply take the phenomenon of mixing together other movies and acts of corporate branding, ultimately debasing the adventure movie tradition.

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2020s

Confessions of a Film Freak 2020

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By Roderick Heath

Well. That was interesting.

This year those of us lucky to survive spent much time hunkered down in physical and psychological siege. For me, as for just about everyone else, the COVID-19 pandemic had a direct impact on how I watched the movies of this year. Mostly by curtailing my watching them at all. Movie theatres closed down and then reopened without major films to fill screens. The sudden, colossal public demand for internet bandwidth made streaming somewhat difficult for me through much of the year. So my best alternative for viewing new movies was, ironically, the DVD vending machine in my local supermarket. This year, perhaps for good, some barriers between cinema and TV collapsed, but the only thing that’s definitely true for now is that things are in a state of flux. The vigorous mix of trends and styles we usually get in the course of any given movie year was choked off, precious few expansive entertainments and movies of mature and well-honed expression making it under the boom, leaving us mostly with a mealy stream of dumped studio refuse, dour low- and mid-budget dramas, and callow indie movies. For a time I lost interest almost entirely. I wasn’t entirely unhappy with this, as I had an excuse to get off the treadmill of currency and dig into my DVD and blu-ray collection for an epic rewatch of classics and newer movies I hadn’t seen since first release. Good for my head, not so good for this annual Confession.

But my viewings still piled up, and so too did the number of interesting movies and quite a few films that would be great in any year. Given how relatively few of these I’ve written up in the course of the year I’ll be writing more on the films on my favourites list than usual.

Unhinged

2020 felt like debts accrued these past few years coming due, societies at large paying the price for the blindness and incompetence of chosen leaders. So it’s appropriate, if not at all consoling, that a lot of the films that came out this year tended to be grim, savage, punitive in outlook. Many dealt with sexism and racism on manifold levels, along with monstrous greed and malfeasance. Horror movies proliferated and often purveyed a bleak and nightmarish tone. Sadomasochistic psychedelia and surrealism bloomed in films like Possessor, She Dies Tomorrow, Capone, Color Out Of Space, The New Mutants, Tenet, and Shirley. Psychos like the loony avenger in Unhinged, the transparent husband of The Invisible Man, the unseen boss in The Assistant, and the plutocrat husband from hell in Tenet made lives hell for women who offended their egos. People fought for space to release expression and gain fellowship in movies like Night of the Kings, Birds of Prey, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga; A Rainy Day In New York, Mank, Lovers Rock, First Cow, The New Mutants, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Emma, Sonic the Hedgehog, On The Rocks, and Mulan. Others battled to simply claw their way out of deadly abysses and provide proof of their own existence, as in Underwater, Above Suspicion, Capone, Extraction, The Midnight Sky, Greyhound, Rogue, The Outpost, 12 Hour Shift, The Rhythm Section, Ava, Kajillionaire, Escape From Pretoria, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Bacurau, Palm Springs, Ammonite, I’m Your Woman, and VFW.

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The time-slipping warriors of Tenet went to war with the future, with fate, itself. The young folk of The Vast of Night discovered how flimsy the substance of their stolid reality was and slipped through the cracks into realms unknown. Others faced the collapse of their personalities in the face of stronger ones or vortexes of confusion caused by destabilising reference points of body and mind, like the brainjacking antiheroine of Possessor, the constantly rebooted hero forced to re-experience his deepest trauma in Bloodshot, and the innocent abroad perverted out of shape in Shirley. Delroy Lindo’s shambolic ‘Nam vet in Da 5 Bloods seemed like the incarnation of the moment in his fervent, volatile, desperate need to express something chokingly inexpressible whilst feeling like spear-points levelled all around. Characters faced with endemic, even universal corruption and inequity in films like Da 5 Bloods, The Whistlers, Bad Hair, 12 Hour Shift, The Burnt Orange Heresy, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and The Wild Goose Lake reacted by endangering themselves and their identities for what they judged the worthwhile risk of slicing off a piece of the pie; antiheroes in the likes of Capone and Greed felt the same urge even in the lap of luxury as age and the world’s repudiation starts whittling them down. Tyrannical regimes ascended and demanded resistance and familiar systems crumbled into anarchy in films like Bacurau, New Order, Night of the Kings, Escape From Pretoria, and Tenet.

The Rhythm Section

In further irony the wing of cinema most usually ubiquitous was the one almost entirely muted for most of the year: Hollywood superhero blockbusters. One of the few to see release was Josh Boone’s The New Mutants, which proved a last gasp for the familiar X-Men franchise even though intended as a new beginning, doomed to sit on the shelf for a couple of years amidst the tumult of 20th Century Fox’s purchase by Disney and then be dumped by its new owner to drum up some streaming revenue with a sigh of expedience. The film took a refreshingly indirect path towards the familiar mutant spectacle in portraying a quintet of adolescents being held in a near-deserted and fancifully segregated gothic hospital, contending with Alice Braga’s manipulative therapist and the mysterious and frightening talents for conjuring terrors the latest inductee seems to wield. The film courted the YA crowd in hiring The Fault In Our Stars director Boone, who made sure to keep including clips from Buffy the Vampire Slayer on the rec room TV to let us know what his touchstone was, as well as nudging everything from The Breakfast Club to Girl, Interrupted. The film was largely trashed by both genre fans and critics, but it didn’t really deserve to be, sporting a lot of overlap with M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass but not nearly so affected. A solidly creepy, horror movie-lite tone was wedded to a straightforward take on the series’ driving urge to link teenage angst to superhuman traits with some decent performances, and sporting a refreshingly gentle queer romance at its centre.

Bloodshot

Derrick Borte’s Unhinged offered a merging of Duel and TV movie psycho stalker tale, as Caren Pisotorius’ listless divorcee was forced to fight for her life and the people she loves when she crosses paths in a heated moment on the road with Russell Crowe’s psychotic creep, who sets about avenging a minor infraction with a campaign of terrorism and murder. The result was a fun, tense throwback to an earlier age of down-to-earth, pulse-pumping thriller fare, but its ultimate impact was foiled by constant resorting to idiot logic as well as oddly wasting Crowe in a straightforward monster role, when the film could have tapped him for a stranger and more discomforting portrait of frustration and rage. David S.F. Wilson’s Bloodshot was a slick modern B-movie with a plotline that came across like a bit of a throwback to the days of weird grow-your-own-superhero flicks like Darkman, sporting Vin Diesel as a man brought back from the dead and imbued with incredible powers by nanotechnology and employed as a super assassin by the inevitably cast Guy Pearce. A good mid-film plot twist and some peculiarly lyrical visuals made the watching vaguely worthwhile, although the script was ultimately far too unambitious, and a strong cast, rounded out by Eiza Gonzalez and Sam Heughen, went almost sadistically wasted.

The Invisible Man

Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man picked at an interesting loose thread in blending the Wellsian concept of a scientific genius who makes himself invisible and uses it to evil ends, and the everyday psychological anxiety of spousal abuse and mental cruelty, the idea of the malevolent person close to you deconstructing your sense of reality. So Whannel’s inventor was also an abusive creep bent on using his invisibility device to torment and ultimately destroy his former partner, played by an inevitably cast Elisabeth Moss, in a slow-mounting campaign of harassment and victimisation. An interesting idea, one that ultimately wasn’t really developed much beyond the obvious, with Whannell just a little too eager to conflate his own showmanship with his villain’s. He relieved the psychological tension too soon, his story played out in an unconvincing milieu, and his plot kept offering huge holes in logic for a movie trying to offer relatively believable sci-fi excitement, particularly the superficially clever ending.

Possessor

David Cronenberg’s son Brandon made a bold gambit to anoint himself heir to his father’s unique cinematic kingdom with Possessor, exploring similar realms of body horror, conspiracy, and psychic disruption. Cronenberg the Younger cast the ever-valiant Andrea Riseborough as a fraying woman with unique aptitude for the latest realm in corporate warfare, having her consciousness plugged into the minds of luckless people chosen to commit assassinations, only to find herself trapped inside her latest mark and experiencing bizarre new zones of identity on the way to a bloody consummation. Cronenberg employed a fascinating premise and occasionally lighted upon a striking image in offering a surreal flux of style and story in portraying any sure sense of physical and mental reality dissolving. But as the film droned on it became a dull and oppressive chore punctuated by blunt, witless gore, the ideas lost amongst the overbearing style, and by the end the young pretender seemed practically interchangeable with any number of his father’s legions of imitators in film schools and music videos.

Bad Hair

Dear White People director Justin Simien seemed to develop good-humoured ambitions to get in on some of that sweet Jordan Peele money by making his own horror movie revolving around racial paranoia with Bad Hair. Set in 1989, Simien’s film portrayed a young woman, well-played by newcomer Elle Lorraine, beset by unruly hair, who chooses to get a radical new weave for the sake of making the leap from the production staff at a Black audience-aimed cable TV staff to on-camera star, only to find her lovely fake tresses have a vampiric life of her their own and will take over her mind entirely if she doesn’t fight it. With an eye to introducing an aspect of cultural anthropology rather than only nostalgic callbacks (but those too), Simien offered wittily exact recreations of the era’s music videos and would-be streetwise pop culture. Likewise he nailed the tone of a lot of low-budget horror cinema from the same era whilst giving the template a racially conscious makeover, and managed to make the most awkward of monstrous threats work. He also made great use of a cast full of old-school faces including Vanessa Williams and Blair Underwood. Only towards the end did the film lose some control, letting the climax turn goofy and trying a little too hard to ram a message home.

Da 5 Bloods

Meanwhile Spike Lee, the now-venerable yet ever-restless dean of African-American cinema, returned with Da 5 Bloods, one of many films of late to offer homage-cum-variation on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. This one focused on four aging survivors of a tight-knit gang of Black Vietnam War soldiers who return to the former warzone to retrieve a stolen horde of gold and the body of a lamented comrade, but find themselves fighting thieves and each-other with equal ferocity for the prize. Lee still hadn’t lost any of his ambition, trying to blend rich humanity, in depicting his shambolic heroes and the hapless people they draw into their madness, with fluorescent melodrama and agitprop signposting. Lee’s script, despite many nods to other movies (the Apocalypse Now-themed dance club in modern Ho Chi Minh City was some kind of evil genius), was another work along the lines of Get On The Bus (1996) and He Got Game (1999), in presenting a situational portrait of a gamut of Black experience and dealing with generational as well as racial and national incomprehension. Delroy Lindo, as the most reactionary and damaged of the team, gave a near-Olympian performance, and the late Chadwick Boseman had a salutary cameo as the fallen comrade who served as the team’s political conscience, feeling between the two of them like the psychic poles of Lee’s aesthetic sensibility. The film was ultimately hampered by Lee’s familiar failings in not knowing when and how to quit nor nail a cohesive tone (I counted down to the moment when a character would “shockingly” step on a landmine), eventually taking recourse in tired twists and an ungainly last act. To be honest, nothing in it threatened to displace Dead Presidents in portraying the Black Vietnam experience.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

August Wilson’s lauded play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was brought to screens by Tony-winning stage director George C. Wolfe, handing career-capping parts to Viola Davis as the legendary chanteuse and “mother of the blues” and Chadwick Boseman in his last role as her aggressively ambitious but psychologically fraying trumpeter who finds his sustaining fantasies fatally endangered, in a story charting a mounting sense of crisis in the course of a hot Chicago day in a recording studio. Wilson’s theatrical architecture and lacerating perspective on the two main characters’ attempts to gain, wield, and show power in a culture that ritualises denying it to you according were largely transferred intact and made voluble by the potent, if unabashedly large, performances from the whole cast. Wolfe’s direction was slick and showy, however, with an overly-stylised recreation of the period milieu that lacked the crackle of verisimilitude to properly offset the balletic force of the dialogue, to really communicate the mounting furore and fetid mood and give a space to the telling: everything, including the actors, felt buffed and shiny and well-arranged. Some moments, like the start of Boseman’s epic central monologue, seemed more like filmed theatre than film. Still, no movie that records such vital drama is negligible.

The King of Staten Island

Judd Apatow tried to do for Saturday Night Live player Pete Davidson what he did for a battery of rising comedy stars back in his ‘00s heyday, and forge him an iconic star vehicle with The King of Staten Island. This took the interesting route of presenting Davidson not in some hyped-up farce but in an autobiographical comedy-drama drawn from his own experience as the son of a firefighter who died on the job: Davidson’s shambolic alter ego Scott Carlin had struggled well into adulthood with mental health problems and a general habit of weed-huffing ennui. Apatow drew low-key humour and feels from the character’s plight as he’s forced to come to terms with the past and head into the world after his mother finally gets another boyfriend, also a firefighter. The film finished up foiling itself on several levels despite Apatow’s talent for enabling vibrant acting. The cliché story arc felt at odds with its attempt to explore the fallout of grief and dislocation whilst the everyone-talks-like-an-improv-star style of verbal humour leeched the realism. Apatow ruined the story’s argument that Scott had worthy talent for some cheap laughs, and Apatow’s tendency to ramble on was particularly pronounced to no greatly enriching end. Supporting performances, including Marisa Tomei as Davidson’s mother and Bill Burr as her new love, tended to overshadow Davidson’s modestly appealing but one-note characterisation.

Palm Springs

Max Barbakow’s Palm Springs took up Harold Ramis’ beloved Groundhog Day and gave it a contemporary spin, that is by grafting on a very similar character type to The King of Staten Island, casting Andy Samberg as a young man caught in a time loop that dooms him to repeat the same day in the title locale, thanks to a freaky geological-quantum physical event and so exists in a state of wilful, lackadaisical disconnection, only to be eventually joined by an angry coot (J.K. Simmons) and a young woman (Cristin Milioti). The former constantly kills him whilst he finds himself falling for the latter, demanding a true reckoning with their situation that involves both achieving a level of maturity and purpose alien to them so far. Barbakow tried to augment the core theme of Ramis’ film, the futility of life lived without love, by confronting the hero with his female foil and making them reckon with their failings in terms of other people. But ultimately the film tried and failed to blend absurdist humour and earnestness, without many great jokes, and failing to really develop their journey into anything particularly memorable, aiming for a note of emotional crescendo in the final confrontation with mortal risk but ultimately remaining jammed in a gear of hipster self-satisfaction.

Sonic the Hedgehog

Andrew Pattinson’s The Vast of Night was subtler and more truly disconcerting in presenting a destabilisation of reality that also encompassed a fledgling romantic relationship faced with the difficulty of escaping the stolid, whilst also harkening back to the glory days of science fiction fandom and a newly weird evocation of 1950s American society. Jeff Fowler’s Sonic the Hedgehog tried to wrangle a coherent plot out of the beloved vintage video game, presenting the title character as an interdimensional exile hunted by government agents led by the arrogant Dr Robotnik and protected by a small town cop. The movie was tolerable but also as numbingly bland and ambition-free as last year’s Pokemon movie. It did have a fun performance from Jim Carrey as Robotnik, particularly the extraneous yet delightful scene where he combined bad guy business and workout by dancing to “Evil Grows In the Dark,” the kind of moment that reminds how you how much a real comic actor can be worth amidst a sea of boring CGI.

The Burnt Orange Heresy

I hadn’t seen any work by Giuseppe Capotondi since his interesting The Double Hour back in 2011, so was intrigued to take a look at his The Burnt Orange Heresy, an adaptation of a well-received novel depicting a disgraced art critic and historian, who, just after commencing an affair with an enigmatic young woman, is handed a chance to revive his career when a tycoon (played by a wittily-cast Mick Jagger) offers to get him an interview with a reclusive and legendary artist if he’ll steal one of his unseen trove of artworks for his collection. What seemed set to be a posh thriller about skulduggery in well-decorated rooms proved eventually to instead be a rather noirish study in self-destructive characters and creative and moral bankruptcy. A clever subtext ironically dramatized the often inverted stereotype role of host and parasite in art and criticism, as well as the misogyny subsisting in the modern art world. The acting, particularly from Elizabeth Debicki as a doomed adventurer and Donald Sutherland as the artist with all his hard-won wisdom, helped impose cohesion on a plot that required to some forced-feeling twists to occur.

Above Suspicion

Similar in its ultimate focus and upshot, despite a radically different setting, was Philip Noyce’s true crime drama Above Suspicion, focusing on a notorious incident from the late 1980s involving the fallout of a clandestine affair between a go-getting FBI agent assigned to an Appalachian backwater and drift into an affair with the much-abused young woman who becomes his key informant in her desire to escape a den of lowlifes and drug abuse. Emilia Clarke’s surprisingly strong turn as the angry, wilful, infuriating antiheroine, seemingly cursed to a daisy-chain existence of succumbing to her own flaws as well as the weakness of the men in her life, gave the film enough juice to keep it watchable. But Noyce’s direction eventually lost its way, and delivered what should have been a grimly compelling last-act study in personal and institutional hypocrisy in a rushed and slipshod manner. Yi’nan Diao’s The Wild Goose Lake was another, specifically localised spin on genre movie clichés and with a similar structure in confronting a young woman repeatedly with the bloody debris of crime and justice, taking on a classic style of noir tale, the man being hunted by authorities, and using it to anatomise the social landscape of modern China.

Mulan

Amongst the deluge of girl-power narratives this year, Niki Caro’s live-action remake for Disney of their 1990s hit Mulan again recounted the popular Chinese myth of a young woman who defies norms and dresses as a man to go to war for the sake of the family name. This finished up one of the more perplexing if not worthless misfires of the year. Caro’s filming looked good in a chintzy fashion, but the flimsy script swapped out the original film’s celebration of its heroine’s cleverness and competence for a cod-Star Wars narrative depicting the title character as a wondrous phenomenon who needs to reclaim her femininity to achieve her potential, but playing awkward games in trying to reconcile the model’s celebration of eruptive individualism with respectful traditionalism for the sake of making inroads with the Chinese market. Humour and music were discarded, too, in favour of a string of expensive but half-hearted action scenes. Given the large number of authentic wu xia films with kick-ass female heroes and villains going back decades in films made with much more elan, Hollywood trying to sell its own confusion with such things back to the Chinese was definitely trying to teach grandma to suck eggs.

Birds of Prey, and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn

Another tale of a young woman weathering a world of criminals was Julia Hart’s slow-burn and realistic I’m Your Woman. Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey, and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn took a different tack, wielding a waggish sense of humour in presenting a gang of crime-fighting female frenemies as drawn from the DC Comics universe, led after a fashion by Margot Robbie’s semi-reformed gangster’s moll and general-purpose nutjob, in a would-be jaunty and colourful distaff edition of the Deadpool and Kick-Ass movies. Yan displayed an occasionally striking eye in sporadic neo-psychedelic visuals, but the film proved a teeth-gritting experience for the most part, with a script that felt like a mishmash of strategies, incompetent in trying to reconcile the divergent projects of providing a Robbie star vehicle whilst also introducing the titular team, who didn’t even meet up until the film’s climactic scenes and lacked any sign of group chemistry when they did. Plus the fact that, well, its comedy wasn’t really that funny and the action sporadic and lumpen, a nasty and bullying streak failing to mesh with the frivolity. Only newcomer Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Mary Elizabeth Winstead gave flashes of the right stuff, whilst Ewan McGregor gave the worst performance of his career as the bad guy.

Ava

Reed Morano’s The Rhythm Section and Tate Taylor’s Ava both offered stories revolving around that much-fetishised modern archetype, the female assassin, the former charting the steady transformation of Blake Lively’s debased trauma victim into a cool and purposeful killer, the latter casting Jessica Chastain as one in the prime of her career but feeling the constant tug of old weaknesses and emotional ties. Of the two films The Rhythm Section was initially the more interesting, with Morano suggesting a feel for action and atmosphere as well as a patient touch for the essential character drama, the process of rebuilding a shattered self in dealing with an intriguingly (if ultimately excessively) closed-off and unsentimental protagonist: a lot of movies this year mistook blank unreadableness for stoic strength. The film eventually fell apart, the story trickling out in some terribly anticlimactic scenes. The reliably awful Taylor meanwhile applied clumsy, cheap-looking style to Ava, and Chastain, strong as ever on an acting level, never quite convinced as a lethal creature of balletic motion. The script tried to say something interesting about addiction and reckoning with damage left in its wake, at least, almost to the point of displacing the flimsy genre story, and the cast, particularly Colin Farrell as the villain, did their best to play up the modicum of substance.

Escape From Pretoria

Francis Anann’s Escape From Pretoria offered up a good old-fashioned, based-on-fact escape-from-prison tale, depicting the efforts by some white South African anti-apartheid campaigners (including one played by Daniel Radcliffe), railroaded for lengthy prisons stretches, who set about breaking free by taking advantage of the small but consequential security lapses of their arrogant but dim-witted guardians. Anann handled the suspense sequences and the minutiae of the escapees’ method with attentive skill, but the film never escaped prison movie canards or truly investigated its characters and their plight beyond the superficial, and so remained only a modestly gripping diversion. Tom Hanks returned to a World War II milieu for Greyhound, based on a C.S. Forester novel, with Hanks playing the inexperienced but quick-study captain of a destroyer on his first convoy escort mission during the Battle of the Atlantic, battling a rapacious U-boat pack and heavy weather with a cool head and a sense of religious duty. Director Aaron Schneider handled the high seas action very well, with a palpable sense of the setting and maintaining a high-pressure mood throughout, really nailing the feeling of being locked in a duel with utterly remorseless enemies. But, again, the film’s nods towards human drama were barely sufficient, including a stiff and unconvincing prologue sporting Elizabeth Shue as Hanks’ girlfriend, and it would certainly have been better spurning that stuff altogether and keeping focus purely on the business at hand.

The Outpost

Rod Lurie’s The Outpost was another warzone plunge, depicting the true story of a small US Marines garrison in a remote Afghani valley in 2009, a seemingly cursed locale that keeps losing COs. Eventually the outpost becomes the object of a large, committed Taliban assault in what became known as the Battle of Kamdesh, resulting in the first ever awarding of two Medals of Honor for a single action. Lurie tried to delve into the dynamics of the garrison and its personnel in a more restrained and realistic manner than a lot of recent War on Terror-age movies with less blustery machismo and some attention devoted to the uncomfortable tilts at outreach and community-building defining the soldiers’ relationships with their local hosts before everything goes to shit, trying to earn comparisons with precursors like Zulu and Pork Chop Hill. Scott Eastwood and Caleb Landry-Jones anchored the film effectively as the two rather different types of hero, but somehow the other soldiers remained not terribly well-delineated as a collective of personalities or even faces, and Lurie’s constantly moving camera was often aggravating and confusing rather than intensifying, badly hampering the intended sense of intimacy even if did convey toey entrapment.

Extraction

Extraction tried to install Chris Hemsworth in an action movie role worthy of an icon of the genre, casting him as a mercenary hired against his misgivings and the wind drag of background pain to rescue the kidnapped son of a drug mogul from his even nastier rival, finding himself trapped on the ground in an Indian city and forced to fight his way out with the lad. The film delivered the requisite dose of shooting, punching, running, and jumping in a year starved of such basic cinematic pleasures. It was also an uneasy attempt to blend a gritty, old-school style of action-thriller with slick, hyped-up, John Wick-derived gun-fu business, two modes which to me can’t really be reconciled, and the wall-to-wall fisticuffs and spasmodic plot crowded out interesting elements, like Golshifteh Farahani’s equally proficient and vengeful partner.

Rogue

M.J. Barrett’s Rogue offered a version of the same basic plot only done on the cheap and with some killer lions thrown into the mix. Barrett cast Megan Fox as the appointed rescuer with a team of fellow badasses sent in to save some kidnapped schoolgirls from a vicious extremist group in an unnamed African nation. The unconvincing CGI lions and air of low-budget waywardness almost foiled the film, and Fox, trying to get gritty and de-glammed, didn’t convince despite offering a decent performance. As a whole, though, Rogue was a moderately engaging mixture of the ungainly and the likeable, trying to offer many of its characters moments to make them specific and empathetic, and sell itself as a message movie wrapped in a shoot-’em-up.

VFW

Joe Begos’ VFW was a similarly, self-consciously and happily trashy throwback B-movie, offering up a wonderful collection of aging but still potent genre movie faces including Stephen Lang, Fred Williamson, Martin Kove, and William Sadler, as a gang of war veterans hanging around one of the titular watering holes who find themselves fighting off an army of brain-dead addicts and punk gangsters. The official style guide was early period John Carpenter with George Romero gore and some nods to Neil Marshall as well, the story a bare-faced if honest rip-off of Assault on Precinct 13. The cast interacted well, including young ringer Sierra McCormick as the truculent cause of the battle who proves every bit as ornery as the old coots, and the film provided some solid, grimy fun. The directing was jittery and clumsy when it came to action, however, and the script was sketchy, lacking the kind of casual wit and feel for character its models wielded, so it didn’t add up to anything more than a fun-sick diversion.

Underwater

William Eubank’s Underwater, released early in the year after sitting on the shelf for a while, blended disaster and monster movie and tried, like VFW and a score of recent movies, to sustain something like traditional dramatic values whilst also playing out a high-pressure situational thriller, shearing off the first act and cutting to the chase. Eubank started with everything going to hell and followed his emergent heroes as they try to survive an attack by a Lovecraftian monstrosity on their deep-sea drilling structure. The film also tried something interesting in making Kristen Stewart’s hardy protagonist, schooled well by grief in struggling through terror and darkness, provide the undertone of emotional evanescence investing the story. The result was, again, watchable and modestly entertaining, and yet failed to develop any aspect of itself enough to really count, never really scary or exciting or engaging sufficiently with its characters, even Stewart’s, to make the film truly thrilling or memorable. Plus the elaborate but murky special effects were trying.

Color Out Of Space

Veteran genre freak and pariah Richard Stanley finally returned to feature directing a quarter-century after his infamous sacking from The Island of Dr. Moreau, with another tilt at adapting a classic sci-fi/horror story. This was H.P. Lovecraft’s already twice-filmed Color Out Of Space, the story of a small New England farming family, here recast from Lovecraft’s eccent yokels to very modern folk, unlucky enough to have an unnatural meteorite land on their farm and begin affecting flora, fauna, and themselves in increasingly disturbing fashion. Stanley made sure to present his story and sketch atmosphere with a thankfully old-fashioned approach as well as good-looking photography, whilst his reading of Lovecraft’s story tried to turn it into a barbed portrait of family identity and the cruelty of time and nature working upon it. His approach to the body horror aspect of the story was strongly indebted to John Carpenter’s The Thing, whilst trying for an appropriately disquieting new edge of intimacy. Despite real initial promise, however, Stanley lost control quite badly, the build-up to insanity breaking out spasmodic and unconvincing when it arrived, the horror derivative, and most frustratingly, the characterisations never cohered. Altogether the experience was largely depressing.

Tenet

Christopher Nolan tried and largely failed to revive the year’s cinema-going mojo when he decided to release his latest opus Tenet in theatres, and those who did see it were often mixed in their feelings. So of course I liked this crossbreed of action and sci-fi more than most of his films to date, appreciating his stabs at giving some urgency to his characters and their plights, in a tale of a secret organisation in the present day battling a mysterious cabal in the future who, per some of Nolan’s weapons-grade gobbledygook, send people and objects back in a reversed time flow with an ultimate aim to reverse-colonising the past. John David Washington and Robert Pattinson did fun work as the uneasily partnered heroes and Elizabeth Debicki was affecting as the wife of Kenneth Branagh’s vicious Russian arms dealer who has his own motives for aiding the future enemy. As usual for Nolan, however, the conceptual gymnastics eventually displaced the personal drama and his ham-fisted visual style often foiled the thrills.

The Midnight Sky

George Clooney offered The Midnight Sky, casting himself as a brilliant but emotionally distant and deathly ill astronomer residing in an Arctic research station. His theory that a newly discovered Jovian moon has life-supporting potential has just been confirmed by an exploratory mission, including Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, and Kyle Chandler, now journeying back to Earth in their massive spaceship. But an unspecified apocalyptic event devastates the Earth, leaving polar regions temporarily untouched and the scientist marooned with a young girl who seems to have been accidentally left behind. The story counterpoints the two groups as the scientist and girl make a desperate journey across the Greenland wastes to reach a base with a large enough satellite dish to warn off the spacefarers, who have their own problems. Clooney set up an initially compelling set of situations and tried to weave a rarefied mood of blasted but lingering humanism, whilst offering some of his most visually accomplished filmmaking to date, including an excellent spacewalk sequence and ensuing crisis. None of that stopped the film proving an embarrassingly hackneyed disaster, with climactic revelations that reduced the whole film to a painful gimmick enabled with absurd coincidence, and themes illustrated with head-slapping obviousness. It’s the sort of movie that makes you hiss and shake your head for hours afterwards.

Emma

Sofia Coppola’s On The Rocks and Woody Allen’s A Rainy Day In New York shared both a level of ardour for New York as a seat of wistful dreams and comforting alienation whilst confronting different stages in life, youthful floundering in the latter, middle-aged fear and aging regret in the former. Experienced music video director Autumn de Wilde made her feature debut by getting into the Jane Austen adaptation business with Emma because, well, apparently enough time had passed since the Gwyneth Paltrow version. 2020’s most employed new star Anya Taylor-Joy was cast as Austen’s self-satirising heroine, artful arranger of domestic bliss who must contend with her own perturbing love-life. De Wilde followed Whit Stillman’s example in adopting a highly affected style, complete with arch performances designed to mimic the crisply ordered flow of Austenian prose but instead locking into a frieze of affectation, a strategy I found initially very hard to take. The film began to work, that said, when it started to relax in its second half and allowed the characters and their reactions to deepen.

Ammonite

Francis Lee’s Ammonite was a radically different take on the period romance mode, and depicted an interesting and neglected female figure of history, in this case working class paleontological pioneer Mary Anning. Whilst many compared it to last year’s Portrait of a Woman on Fire really Ammonite was closer to faux-Mike Leigh, with Lee weaving a remarkably immediate sense of her windswept stomping grounds on the English coastline and the tight, tense world of regional life in the 19th century. But without much if anything to say about the interest that was the driving obsession of Anning’s life, Lee decided to invent a lesbian romance for her on the thinnest pretext so as to sell it to a current audience for PC brownie points. Said romance, between Kate Winslet’s dour, impenetrable impersonation and Saoirse Ronan as the grieving young mother she’s saddled with by her distractible nerd husband, was modestly engaging and sported a pivotal sex scene that was at least more realistic and less diagrammatic than many such recent set-pieces of queer passion. But the film still never penetrated Anning’s mind beyond the self-evident, indeed leaving her as mostly the same lugubrious bore it presented her as at the start, in the sort of narrative that wants to be celebratory and liberating but was actually subtly sexist.

Shirley

Josephine Decker’s Shirley united several aesthetic strands of the year’s cinema, blending biopic, semi-surrealist mind-bending, quasi-feminist cultural anthropology, and psychological narrative. The nominal focal point was the beloved master of discomforting fiction Shirley Jackson, incarnated by a tic-ridden Elisabeth Moss, contending with the tantalising disparity between the writer’s bizarre and fecund artistic sensibility and her life as a housebound, cripplingly neurotic wife to a minor teaching star in the midst of stolid academia. The film divested the couple of their real-life children and invented a young couple, all the better to filch from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, invited to lodge with them only to be manipulated and finally subsumed into the creative process and the cult of personality. Decker’s style grew high-handed very quickly, offering scene after scene of Sapphic-tinged witchypoo nonsense between Jackson and her young female protégé/victim filmed in excessive close-up, in a desperate attempt to create an unstable and ambiguous mood, even if the narrative ultimately boiled down to some trite and vague statements about the relationship between life and creativity. Michael Stuhlbarg as Jackson’s alternately insufferable and understanding mate was, when all was said and done, the best reason to watch; Moss, despite working really hard, was oddly wasted.

Capone

Josh Trank’s Capone, pitched as his comeback after the evil fate that befell his Fantastic Four, took a similar approach to the basic chore of the biopic. Trank tried to capture the state of mind of the legendary gangster in his last year by reproducing the garbled, ghost-filled perceptions of a brain eaten out by syphilis, with Capone desperately trying to hold on to his sanity long enough to aid his family and fend off a still-dogging government. Capone seemed to have everything going for it, with a major star in Tom Hardy tackling an inherently interesting historical figure. But the film was a squalid disaster, completely failing to make any element of its plot or strained stabs at emotional catharsis mean anything and wasting an excellent cast. Trank instead offered indigestible wads of fake Lynchian strangeness and corny CGI visions, and with Hardy chewing the scenery, furniture, and fellow actors with a flatly grotesque performance.

The Trial of the Chicago 7

By contrast Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 took a more traditional approach to recreating a historical moment and its antagonists, applying slick theatricality in invoking the heady days of the 1960s antiwar movement and the facetious prosecution of protest leaders to make them shoulder the blame for the riots around the 1968 Democratic Convention. Sorkin’s script took many liberties with events and characterisations, and his ultimate intellectual project, despite all the invited likenesses between the Nixon and Trump regimes and period and current activism, was actually looking at internal style conflicts on the left and the tension between Sorkin’s preferred brand of institutional-minded reformer and the boogeyman of genuine social rebels, obliging Eddie Redmayne’s Tom Hayden and Sacha Baron Cohen’s Abbie Hoffman to become his duelling puppets in this. Sorkin’s still a rather basic director in many ways and his primly loquacious politicking was almost amusingly wrong for dealing with the wild and shambolic energy of its topic, but his cross-cutting style helped keep things propulsive, with Frank Langella delivering a peach of a scary-funny performance the trial’s fossilised judge.

Incitement

Incitement saw Israeli director Yaron Zilberman dealing with a topic that must have taken some nerve to tackle, given the way it still echoes through Middle East politics: the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by Yigal Amir, a law student and fixated ultranationalist. The young killer’s journey to the fateful moment was charted with a rigorous sense of both psychological and political context, including the right-wing Rabbis who urged him on, and the political figures who benefited from the stoked, fervent deploring of Rabin’s peace moves. Zilberman’s intense, intimate handling and deft mixture of recreation and news footage helped make the time and place palpable, and the script was smart in contending with the tensions within the Israeli social make-up rarely noted by outsiders. Zilberman’s accusatory thesis set out to depict radicalisation as a process of intellectual seduction and mental colonisation from specialists in rhetoric who would like to create a certain outcome but not perform it themselves, relying on double-edged statements and seeking out amanuenses smart enough to join the dots and compelled by their own interior needs. This aspect gave Incitement relevance transcending the specifics of the story it tackles, even if perhaps its psychology was a bit too straightforward.

Mank

David Fincher returned for his first feature in six years with Mank, a biopic inevitably close to his heart, written as it was by his father Jack. Mank proposed to tell the story of screenwriter extraordinaire Herman J. Mankiewicz, played by Gary Oldman. Fincher the elder’s script took the ever-controversial writing of Citizen Kane as a framing device but looked more to the acerbic and decent but also sadly alcoholic Mankiewicz’s immersion in the Hollywood of its day and his encounters with the plutocratic power of William Hearst, Louis B. Mayer, and others. The Finchers’ desire to “take the writer’s side,” as they had a character put it, had an honourable purpose in celebrating people often under the heel of old Hollywood’s hierarchy. But even putting aside the extremely debatable portrayal of Kane‘s development, I found the film was an intensely aggravating and ultimately dire experience for several reasons. The imitation of Kane‘s structure was scattershot, the script far too in love with its approximations of Mankiewicz’s Algonquin wit deployed in drawn-out but not terribly illuminating sequences, and yet never quite managed to be genuinely funny or ironic, littered with fudged facts and anachronisms. Fincher’s familiar tendency to foil his undoubted technical prowess with flat, fidgety visuals, trying desperately to look retro-classy, was rendered particularly trying by Erik Messerschmidt’s occasionally well-composed but too often drab-looking, blow-out-happy black-and-white photography. Only Amanda Seyfried’s excellent Marion Davies was a good reason to watch.

The Gentlemen

For a rather more interesting and bloodcurdling exploration of the connection between power and storytelling, Philippe Lacôte tried to explore the schismatic mind of post-colonial Africa in Night of the Kings through the fetid microcosm of a prison where ancient tribal rituals and strange social compacts reign, but the thrill of both individual and communal expression still has meaning. Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock tackled some similar ideas and images but in a more familiar context. Trying to earn back a little of his street cred after the cinematic autotune of Aladdin and the punishingly empty spectacle of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Guy Ritchie returned again to his roots in the Cockney gangland flick with The Gentlemen. Matthew McConaughey was deftly cast as a transplanted ganja kingpin battling off both enemies and supposed friends long enough to sell his business, in a narrative that proved good as a black comedy-thriller and better as a free-form satire contending with Brexit-era Britain as a prospective haven for all kinds of scamps, ruled by a venal press, a waned and cashless aristocracy, and a shaken Pax Americana, spiced up with a deal of meta play. Neat performances, particularly from Michelle Dockery as McConaughey’s stiletto-clad, derringer wielding “Cockney Cleopatra,” helped a lot. As with all of Ritchie’s films the result was patchy in its levels of invention and wit and purveyed all at the same volume, but it had a droll and flavourful texture overall and sufficient jolts of seriousness when required.

She Dies Tomorrow

She Dies Tomorrow saw writer-director Amy Seimetz trying to dramatise a rarefied and difficult subject, the feeling of dread and despair in confronting mortality, in portraying a metastasising epidemic amongst a group of acquaintances who all become convinced, through some enigmatic influence, that they’re going to die the following day. The theme is certainly always worth tackling and indeed for some effectively represented the experience of 2020 in specific, but Seimitz’s chosen method was impenetrably pretentious and pseudo-experimental. Michel Franco’s New Order confronted straits just as nightmarish but with a far more immediate method, portraying a klepto-fascist regime taking control of Mexico using an underclass revolt as a pretext, with conclusions that were difficult to stomach but certainly valid in invoking pockets of recent world history. Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonca Filho’s Bacurau played an inverse game in depicting determined resistance to fascistic thuggery in a Latin American context, this time Brazil, via a loopy semi-futuristic parable. Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Whistlers was an equally eccentric but likewise dug into the problem of retaining your autonomy and humanity, and indeed your life, in a country where corruption and political malfeasance are a way of life and even decent people can be forced to countenance dangerous acts.

Kajillionaire

Reigning queen of American indie oddball Miranda July presented Kajillionaire, an initially intriguing, bizarre tale depicting a drop-out couple and their androgynous, clever, but socially maladroit daughter, dedicated to living off the grid in the concrete forest of LA and subsisting through petty crimes and scams, or what the father calls “skimming.” Their tight-knit unit began disintegrating once another young woman comes into their orbit, slowly drawing the daughter towards something resembling normality. Parts of this were ingenious, like a central sequence where the gang invaded a dying old man’s house and found themselves pressganged into recreating familial sounds to help him pass on, fulfilling his need for the illusion of domesticity even as they parody it according to their distaste for such things. July’s point, the difficulty for children of nonconformist families to orientate themselves in the world at large, came through in the deliberate exaggeration, and the excellence of the cast, with Wood giving a witty, physical, quietly pathos-ridden performance and Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger both amusing and excruciating, did a lot to keep the movie going. Still, July’s eccentric flourishes felt contrived and artificial as often as they worked, and the characters never felt real enough for their plights, and affections, to convince.

The Nest

Sean Durkin’s The Nest played as a tonal and situational inversion of Kajillionaire and yet was preoccupied by the same ideas: the perversity of family and the illusory nature of prosperity versus the necessity of rooting in the world. Durkin cast Jude Law and Carrie Coon (both quite excellent) as a 1980s couple with two kids who move from the US back to the husband’s homeland in England so he can take a job in a share trading firm he used to work in. The family soon face a slow-tightening gyre of anxiety and anger as the husband, driven by personal demons, tries to push big deals that won’t come to fund his fantasy lifestyle victory, including renting a huge, creepy country house, whilst the rest become increasingly aware of their tenuous position. As with his Martha Marcy May Marlene but with less justification, Durkin blended what was ultimately a story preoccupied by material (and materialist) truths with stylistic flourishes borrowed from horror movies to build tension and dread, constantly suggesting a haunted house with miscuing visual flourishes only to reveal – gasp! – the only ghosts are in the characters’ heads. Such devices, as well as the more literal one involving a dead horse, got in the way of a drama that, whilst straining at points to indict aspirational entitlement and entrepreneurial smokescreens, had substance and needling accuracy in depicting mounting familial crisis, and the last shot captured exhausted catharsis and ceded power like the release of a breath held for nearly two hours.

First Cow

Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow, despite its very different setting and style, told a not-so-dissimilar story in depicting characters taking too many risks to cut themselves off a slice of the capitalist dream. Reichardt told the story of two outsiders in a stretch of frontier forest somewhere in the American northwest in the early 1800s, who become friends and partners in commerce and find themselves a hit when one man’s talent for baking earns them the custom of people desperate for real cooking, only with the caveat that their successful wares depend upon milk taken at night from the one cow in the district, belonging to Toby Jones’ local bigwig. Reichardt avoided repeating ideas from Meek’s Cut-Off, her previous blend of deflated Western mythology and ultrarealist moodiness, and her calm, determinedly unhurried style drank in time and place, the visual exposition clean, some real elegance to the evocation of a constant edge of the absurd to life in such a place. The lead characters however remained flat and dull (despite Orion Lee’s class as one of the men, a well-travelled Chinese sailor), and the film took two hours to reach a predestined point, the upshot far too obvious. Reichardt is almost certainly the most talented of the ‘mumblecore’ filmmakers and yet she’s now butting against the limits of such a recessive, exterior style. Casting René Auberjonois in one of his last roles acknowledged the debt to McCabe & Mrs. Miller, but the comparison with Altman’s jostling, fecund, detailed take on similar material wasn’t that flattering.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Kitty Green’s The Assistant and Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always both dealt with very young women traversing the isolating climes of New York and contending with the dismaying spectre of systematic domination, the former depicting an aspiring producer working as a mogul’s tirelessly labouring factotum who begins to suspect her boss is exploiting women who come into his orbit, the latter tracking a teenage girl who sets out on an interstate odyssey to obtain an abortion in secret with her cousin’s aid. Green’s film was fascinatingly cryptic, totally submerging the viewer in a state of existence almost totally severed from any world beyond and where gravity bends to unseen masses. Hittman’s film was a more classical brand of indie-realist drama, detailing her characters’ travails with a painfully precise feel for the minutiae of such a venture. The film was strong as both a caustic portrait of a social issue and a vision of people who are barely adults trying to weather a waking nightmare. The characterisations were a bit sparse, however, hinting at mysteries and distresses motivating the central character left undeveloped, and the film’s urge to keep the screws on felt a bit forced.

Greed

Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela explored the grief and anger of a woman at the opposite end of life, coming to Portugal to confront her husband decades after he left her behind, and becoming ensconced in a community of fellow immigrants trapped in a zone on the fringes of society. Michael Winterbottom and Steven Coogan finally got back to work after several The Trip series to make Greed, a film that pointedly sports an act of bloody revolt by a young female employee against her creep boss, climaxing an occasionally biting (that’s a pun) satire. Coogan was customarily good as a fashion tycoon Richard ‘Greedy’ McCreadie on the build-up to his orgiastic 60th birthday party, with David Mitchell playing his official biographer who soon begins comprehending how much his business success is based on conartistry and exploitation. Greed was deliberately heavy-handed in mixing consciousness-raising fable and black comedy, but it settled for skimming the surface for the most part, despite nods to Barry Lyndon and Lindsay Anderson as points of inspiration, with the comedy not quite strong enough to compensate. Some great supporting performances from Isla Fisher as McCreadie’s symbiotic ex-wife and Shirley Henderson as his ancient but still-pithy Irish mother helped keep things bouncy.

Eurovison Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga

David Dobkin’s Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga was a comedy with rather less on its mind, perhaps to its ultimate credit. Will Ferrell played another of his signature boy-man roles, this time a middle-aged loser from a small Icelandic town whose singular obsession with winning the eponymous music competition, forged after a transformative childhood glimpse of ABBA, distracts him from everything else, including the love of his talented performing partner, played by Rachel McAdams at her most ridiculously winning. When seemingly absurd fate allows them to actually make the contest, the duo are tested by temptation and their own seemingly endless capacity for self-sabotage. The storyline, even as a pretext for silliness, hit beats and covered ground Ferrell had already worn ragged. And yet Dobkin and the cast, also including Dan Stevens as a campy Russian star and Pierce Brosnan as Ferrell’s disappointed dad, put it across with enough conviction to make it work. The general high spirits and good-natured sensibility, where even the nominal villains were ultimately likeable, were a balm in a year filled with so many glum, mean movies. The lampoons of Eurovision fare also managed to be both affectionate and craftily dead-on.

12 Hour Shift

Brea Grant’s black comedy/thriller 12 Hour Shift offered another hellish workplace with indie horror star Angela Bettis smartly cast as Mandy, a life-battered, drug-addicted hospital nurse involved in a scam purloining organs from the recently deceased and who sometimes gives the dying a little push along to make the process run more smoothly. Her night on a double shift is made intolerably complicated when her dimwit living-Barbie in-law Regina (Chloe Farnworth), acting as her courier, loses the latest harvested kidney, and is pushed by their gangster connection to get a replacement on the pain of donating one herself. This sets in motion mounting chaos on the wards, with both women pushed to acts far beyond the pale. What made the film interesting was the way it charted a gyring sense of random and lethal abnormality with segues into both outright farce and straight genre film, whilst working coherently as a metaphor for the cynical headspace of its wired, overworked, grief-stunned antiheroine. Ultimately the film would have been better – even great – if it had been a bit more disciplined in terms of how far it pushed its cruelly absurd edge and stylistic quirks, as the script kept threatening to lose its grounding, particularly once Regina turned into an absurdly stupid killer. But the actors forced their characters to work, and as the film gained momentum it delivered some delightfully sick twists.

Performances Of Note

Rachel Brosnahan, I’m Your Woman
Emilia Clarke, Above Suspicion
Steve Coogan, Greed
Carrie Coon, The Nest
Gail Cronauer, The Vast of Night
Elizabeth Debicki, The Burnt Orange Heresy ; Tenet
Frankie Faison, I’m Your Woman
Chloe Farnworth, 12 Hour Shift
Sidney Flanagan, Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Julia Garner, The Assistant
Shirley Henderson, Greed
Rashida Jones, On The Rocks
Udo Kier, Bacurau
Frank Langella, The Trial of the Chicago 7
Jude Law, The Nest
Delroy Lindo, Da 5 Bloods
Elle Lorraine, Bad Hair
Rachel McAdams, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
Matthew MacFadyen, The Assistant
Sierra McCormick, The Vast of Night ; VFW
Bill Murray, On The Rocks
Naian González Norvind, New Order
Donald Sutherland, The Burnt Orange Heresy
Marisa Tomei, The King of Staten Island
Vitalina Varela, Vitalina Varela
Ensemble: The Gentlemen
Ensemble: Lovers Rock
Ensemble: Night of the Kings
Ensemble: A Rainy Day In New York
Ensemble: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

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Favourite Films of 2020

The Assistant (Kitty Green)

In abstract this film threatened to be a dubious exercise in tabloid exploitation or a tinny talking-point drama a la last year’s crummy Bombshell: a tale of workplace abuse inspired by Harvey Weinstein’s downfall. The Weinstein figure was rendered here as an unnamed, unseen movie company executive whose shows of wrath and prerogative register through emails and phone calls like the tremors of the tyrannosaurus’ footfall in Jurassic Park. The situation was explored through the viewpoint of his young, still relatively green, hardworking assistant Jane, who in trying to pay her dues on the way to becoming a documentary producer, has the job of literally cleaning up the mess left by his casting couch adventures amongst myriad other duties beginning before dawn and ending at night. But Green’s feature debut did something very smart in tackling such subject matter. Green put the minutiae of Jane’s day front and centre with a sense of workaday routine perhaps derived from Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, unfolding in an office space where the sombre, intense atmosphere and the constant work has an embracing, almost homey mystique, one easy to imagine could sustain Jane through the gruelling and alienating entry-level days in the industry.

Except this was revealed with pitiless concision to conceal the constant knife-edge of threatened disruption lest the boss’s evil temper register, the parade of young lovelies waiting to go into the office perhaps just potential talent or willing supplicants or meal for a hungry ogre, whilst Jane’s submergence in her work at once makes her privy to signs of sleaziness but also allows her to retain an envelope of plausible deniability to let herself keep her job. The most frightening scene in any movie of the year came when Jane did finally work up the nerve to approach the company’s HR boss, beautifully played at maximum sucker-punch smarm by Matthew MacFadyen, only to have him fend off her concerns with expert soft bullying and then find everyone already knows about her foray when she returns to the office. The film relied on the audience to connect portrayed events with what we know about the Weinstein case, but what made it really worthwhile was the way that to a certain extent all that was rendered ambiguous, even supernal, to the exploration of the crushing weight of factotum solitude and powerlessness experienced by its heroine as only a slightly more urgent version of that experienced day in and day out by others like her.

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Bacurau (Juliano Dornelles, Kleber Mendonca Filho)

Evoking the traditions of Latin American magic realism and its fascination with peculiar communities and fluxes of time and identity, as well as the Western movie genre, Bacurau can also be described a cleverly nasty inversion of familiar horror movie tropes. You know, those movies where hapless tourists stumble into malignant locales full of people, often in sleazy, degraded backwaters, and have to fight for survival. Here Dornelles and Filho define the people of a small, far-flung town out in the Brazilian boondocks as a collective defined by mutual trust and identity, a proud sense of both tradition and openness to the world in a movie set in the very near future. The droll early scenes depict the locals reacting to the death of a matriarch and the communal rejection of a patronising politician, tapping elements like the politician’s rolling campaign show for slyly deceptive comedy, came with sidelong hints of what’s coming as coffins are left scattered all over the road to town, empty at this point, and a teacher schooling local children is bemused when the town seems to vanish from online maps. Talk about cancel culture.

Those very communal strengths play a part in why they’re earmarked for eradication for reasons connected to local power structures whilst also equipping them to resist it. The actual agents of suppression are sourced, in a twist of sublime if incredibly harsh wit, through another potential future industry: murder tourism, bloodlusting internationals come to indulge lethal fantasies. The swerve towards ugly violence after the gentle absurdism of the first half serves a definite purpose as the racism and entitlement of the invaders is contrasted with the ordinariness of the locals, save the scattered criminals used to making their own impotent tilts at the world but who find their special talents needed to help the town fight back, the weirdness and wildness suddenly becoming weapons. It helped that the directors didn’t abandon their profoundly odd sense of humour even as war erupts, including an elderly couple whose choice of nakedness fools their opponents and also seems to contain some primal sensibility. Udo Kier, bringing the film cred in linking it to that horror movie tradition, was cunningly cast as the tour guide/assassin boss whose air of flinty command doesn’t quite conceal a bloodthirsty mania that gains the most fitting, and frightening, of comeuppances.

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I’m Your Woman (Julia Hart)

Last year Julia Hart’s Fast Color intrigued me with its blend of fantasy, fable, and dry realism, an unusual and interesting mixture that suggested where the superhero genre might find some artistic growth, foiled only by a rather too stringent budget and a poky tone. Hart’s return with I’m Your Woman wielded a similar interest in characters exiled both in the world and within themselves, and proved one of the year’s quietest successes in trying to present a feminist twist on the well-trod routes of the retro gangland drama. Rachel Brosnahan gave a terrific lead performance as Jean, the trophy wife to a gangster forced to go on the run with their mysteriously acquired adopted son for reasons she has no real understanding of, only slowly learning the truth whilst meanwhile forced to witness and do terrible things in the name of survival. Hart had to negotiate a dramatic difficulty in the central character’s blindsided passivity through much of the film – the gangster genre’s been beset by too many blankly reactive viewpoint characters in recent years.

Hart turned this into a dramatic strength in the space of bewilderment and hermetic detachment woven about Jean, her feelings of being at once deserted and besieged exacerbating her already confused and detached perspective on her existence, presented at the outset as a domestic fantasy, life in constant showroom readiness, wrapped in breathless plastic. Soon she’s on the road as the uneasy charge of one of her husband’s colleagues, a black man who barely knows more than her and proves to have a ruthless side despite seeming decent, and finds herself taken under the wing of his family, where she has to contend with the secrets compelling their assistance as well as try to find a way out of limbo. The mixture of character drama and tension had rigour, and if the film’s slight over-length did make me wonder what some 1940s noir-style on the story might have looked like, perhaps with a less naïve heroine and a pithier telling, ultimately Hart’s firm control and purpose paid off with several riveting suspense sequences. Most of these scenes were unusual, too, in dealing with characters who tend to stumble upon the results of others’ actions or get caught up in the furore. Jean’s breakdown in a Laundromat, swathed in sodden disco finery, was a marvellous vision of total pathos, precursor to the inevitable pivot as she matured into someone capable of protecting not only herself but others.

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Lovers Rock (Steve McQueen)

Part of a five-episode string of thematically related movies detailing black British life from the late 1960s to the early ‘80s, grouped under the heading Small Axe, Lovers Rock saw Steve McQueen doing something, on the surface at least, rather different to what he’s done to date in cinema, in choosing to depict joy and celebration. Stepping back from the kind of explicit portraits of psychological and social torment he purveyed in fare like Hunger, Shame, and 12 Year a Slave, and recovering from the sluggish disappointment of his commercial foray Widows, McQueen set about recreating, with a precise sense of both personal nostalgia and anthropological import, the sights and sounds of a house party in a black London neighbourhood circa 1979, from early scenes noting the DJs setting up and cooks preparing and young women choosing their battle dress, to giddy dance moves executed to “Kung Fu Fighting.” McQueen avoided inserting any traditional comic antics or big dramatic gestures to mythologise the event, or even nodding to any larger socio-political context beyond what he can grazingly suggest. Instead, he kept to his brief of simply watching people at a moment in time celebrating within the embrace of their fellows, a hermetic cultural experience at once in reaction to and ignorance of racism and incomprehension without.

In its way as maniacally focused and radical a piece of formalism as Hunger, Lovers Rock obliged the viewer to shift into a slightly different headspace to enjoy it. Some flashes of complication were introduced. A jolt of racist harassment from some white louts. A near-sexual assault by a pushy dandy, and the show of female solidarity that fends it off. One woman leaves in fear of intimacy, one tests out glimmerings of same-sex attraction, one seems to find the love of her life and rides off with him into the sunrise and beyond. But McQueen, to the point of risking patience at points, keeps his focus on the communal experience of dancing to music that invokes group identity, building to a rhapsodic eruption from the dance floor-lording young men, laced with political meaning as well as the insensate quality of authentic shared ecstasy, as the DJs play The Revolutionaries’ “Kunta Kinte Dub,” suburban party suddenly become ancient rite of belonging and defiance, achieving the kind of mesmeric frenzy of body and mind so often sought and so rarely, truly gained. The coming of daylight brings the familiar flow of little, stinging insults and defeats but also the burgeoning of new hopes. Plus; given 2020’s feeling of isolation and besiegement, the film provided something close to a virtual reality simulator for the socially deprived.

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New Order (Michel Franco)

The bleak and unflinching flipside to Bacurau‘s prophecy of resisting exploitative power and oppression in a Latin American context, New Order ruthlessly charts its own socio-political thesis, proposing that very often the threat of class warfare usually finishes up benefiting reactionaries and opportunists far more than the masses, and illustrates it in truly effective ways. Disorientating flashes of revolt and totems of political transformation give way to a skittishly realistic portrait of economic disparity, as a former employee of a very rich family comes to ask to borrow money to help his sickly wife during a wedding party. The alternations of patronisation, outright rudeness, and actual charity from the good-nature bride amidst a show of dynastic ziplocking are pointed but believable, until purely by evil chance a revolution breaks out, people from the bottom of society climbing over fences and activating agents within.

Swiftian parable takes over: the military called into the streets to put down the revolt soon become agents of their own and their bosses’ enrichment, the rich are kidnapped and ransomed back to their families and the poor made to look responsible. Franco’s vision was by the end hard to take, but moved towards that end with remorseless energy and a vision of mounting horror brilliantly executed with a thriller’s tension, with its cruelly victimised heroine used in every way possible despite (and because) her being the most conscientious and likeable figure in the film, who finishes up in the deepest shit imaginable whilst setting out to do a good deed – not that staying within the castle walls would have spared her. Ghastly visions like a mass pansexual rape of the prisoners were mixed with a sourly detailed depiction of the nuts and bolts of repression under the guise of security, choking off easy communication and enabling disorientation, and concluding with brutish taciturnity with shots of the hangman’s ropes. Amidst all the phantoms of paranoia and appropriate anxiety thriving in 2020’s politics, New Order provided a cold reminder of what real tyranny looks like, provoking any sensible person to ask just what holds it off.

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Night of the Kings (Philippe Lacôte)

Ivory Coast director Lacôte set his Night of the Kings in that country’s huge, forest-girded MACA prison, a community nominally controlled by the agents of the state but actually ruled over by an anointed kingpin whose command over the prison, in a pointed echo of old tribal law, depends on retaining his virility: when he gets too old or too sick he must die. Trying to fend off fate for one more day as he’s stricken by illness, the chieftain uses one technicality in his arsenal, appointing a young and naïve hoodlum just arrived in the prison to become the Roman or storyteller, tasked with telling the inmates a story through a long night with the Scheherazadian twist that if he finishes before dawn he’ll be put to death. The storyteller’s vigil becomes a communal theatrical event as the inmates invent dances and physically mimic the events he speaks of, whilst the storyteller himself tries desperately to synthesise his scanty and pathetic experiences as the lieutenant of a minor gang lord into a Homeric epic of national identity and magic-realist history.

Lacôte’s vision managed, in the course of a curt running time – it might well have been the only film of 2020 that could stand to be longer – to evoke both the specific cultural and historical experience of the Ivory Coast and the entire human experience of art as a communal event, people rearranging their minds and bodies to make sense of existence and the craving for narrative, for heroes, for psychic landscapes that knit the one into the whole, the spasms of interpretive dance and role-play the audience apply to the story giving it shared life and vitality. Tabloid violence and ancient myth bleed into each-other, the Roman connecting the contemporary folk hero with a suitably legendary backstory, so that the grimy and oppressive present gains the lustre of something deep-rooted. The young Roman’s night of testing is also an event with specific political purpose, an attempt to buy more time for a teetering regime, as lurking factions wait to invade the stage, including the watching, fraying eye of the armed yet besieged guards, one of whom finally shoots down into the arena to deliver random death, fending off, at least for another night, the moment where the jailed become masters.

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A Rainy Day in New York (Woody Allen) / On The Rocks (Sofia Coppola)

I’m counting these two together as connected evocations of a melancholically romantic New York, and whilst flawed they balanced each-other in gesture and impulse. Allen’s film loitered in fantasies of being young, rich, and free in his native city, at both his most off-hand and his most crisply directed and scripted in a long time. Coppola’s was a martini-dry deconstruction of fantasies both cinematic and personal, turning the tension between its relentlessly limited purview, in dealing with niggling psychic anxiety and uncertainty and the song of issues that seem long suppressed and yet need resolution, and the seemingly necessary largesse of cinematic expression, into its driving concern.

I didn’t expect Allen to deliver a film as blithely charming as A Rainy Day In New York at this point in his career, especially given that I’ve never been a fan, but it was the kind of sublime doodle late careers sometime offer, sporting ingenious comic performances from Timothée Chalamet and Elle Fanning as a mismatched young couple whose adventures in Manhattan provoke maturation and self-understanding, whilst contending with an array of farce trope characters and mood-piece havens. It’s the sort of movie an artist might only make when they’ve allowed themselves to relax on some fundamental level, simply existing within a way of seeing and feeling.

Coppola by contrast seemed to be in conflict with her own career to date, pulling apart the elements of her early signature success Lost In Translation and refashioning them in a more self-conscious and probing thesis, casting Bill Murray as an aging roué whose transgressions and failings are charted with a more precise sense of what they cost his daughter, played by Rashida Jones, even as his approach to life, laced in movie-fit postures, seems irresistible. If the key tension in artistically ambitious recent indie American cinema of late has been being sticking to a realm of low-key and hyper-realist authenticity at the expense of sacrificing bigger dreams and styles like weaning itself off a sugar rush, Coppola seemed to be trying to make this her very theme.

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The Vast of Night (Andrew Patterson)

An inventively crafted tribute to bygone dreams mediated by more modern insights and paranoias, The Vast of Night offered itself as a purported episode of some Twilight Zone-ish TV show from the black-and-white era, only to shift into full-colour, long-take, steadicam-enabled contemporary style. Two ordinary young people, the gabby, nerdy telephone operator Fay (Sierra McCormack) and the wannabe cool cat DJ Everett (Jake Horowitz), connect over a tape recorder test whilst walking through the streets of their small, flat, close-knit home town in the Texas boondocks, a certain arc of fledgling attraction manifesting in their shared status as people with minds flung out far beyond the city limits even as she spills her enthusiasms and he plays aloof hipster. They soon find themselves draw together more urgently as strange phenomena begin manifesting, weird signals on the wires, lights in the sky, and callers testifying to universe-reshaping events. Patterson underlined his fascination, bordering on fetishism, for backdated technology and the accompanying mystique of past entertainment – the fertile, deftly minimalist palette of radio drama and the threadbare expressionist sketches of early television, the savoured fervour stoked in a time when expressions of nerdy obsession had to await the mailman bringing a magazine packed full of mind-expanding concepts and thrilling wonder stories.

Patterson’s more blatant cinematic gimmicks, his unblinking takes and roving camerawork, doesn’t simply seek to offer impressive technique but actively work to maintain the same sense of dramatic intensity and unity that such models wielded. Patterson’s eye and ear for the place and time was genuinely admirable, his actors precise in nailing period mannerisms and speech patterns. Patterson alternated shows of camera dynamism, including an astounding travelling shot that seems to travel from one side of town to the other, with passages of deadpan minimalism, so neither felt strained. The key influence here was ultimately less Rod Serling or George Pal or even Steven Spielberg than David Lynch, quoting his estranged depictions of ‘50s small town environs with a destabilising event forcing the two protagonists to face hidden truths social, as one caller explores the racist use of African-Americans in cleaning up an apparent UFO crash, and historical, as an aged recluse recounts to them tales of such events going back to the Old West with an enigmatic influence at work. Amongst the many Lynch acolytes emerging this year, Patterson was the best because he used the influence most subtly. Only in his climax did he spurn his theatre-of-the-mind aesthetic and offer a glimpse of something straining for the startling and awesome but not quite landing it. Nonetheless his final shots reverted to a haunting tone and suggested the price for getting out of Nowheresville can be steep.

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Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa)

Given how many movies are made these days by directors who scarcely seem to have any concept of framing and staging, it’s a bit of a shock to watch a movie that consists of nothing less than perfectly crafted pictures, composed in depth and with care in lighting that turns a nominally gritty location and subject and location into the stuff of Renaissance art. The latest film from sporadic Portuguese director Pedro Costa unfolds in a dreamlike key, shot in a Portuguese shanty town filled with immigrants in a manner that makes it look like warren of menace out of a Val Lewton or Marcel Carne film, but the only ghosts and crimes are banal in scope, if never feeling so to those who have suffered them. The title character, played in neorealist fashion by a non-actor woman of the same name, arrives in Portugal from her home in Cape Verde to confront her dying husband, the man who abandoned her decades earlier, only to find he’s passed just before her arrival. Vitalina is left alone in his crumbling, sloppily-built house, eddying in a space of grief commingled with rage.

Costa’s films are known for their severe façades and themes of an unquiet past, mixed with empathy for the underclass. The film’s political undertow, meditating on the false quest for prosperity for immigrants, a siren song strong enough to sunder the most idyllic unions, meshes in a particularly lucid but unforced way with Vitalina’s experience, her own recollections of constructive partnership from the early days of her marriage contrasted with evidence of phthisic will and shrivelled personal passion, a contrast illustrated by two different houses. Costa richly humanises and endows palpable, even epic eminence upon his outsider protagonist, Vitalina granted the blazing-eyed stature of a Greek tragic heroine whose ancient wounds hurt no less for their age. She’s also tormented not simply for being left behind but because she’s fed herself on her hurt, her nursed grievance a source of strength and still-stinging bewilderment, frustrated that she cannot gain the confrontation and catharsis she deserved. Meanwhile she comes into contact with an aged, haggard priest consumed by his own lode of guilt and evil memory. Costa truly nails down the experience of grief, the aimless desire to wrestle with phantoms, the long nights of grinding, inchoate feeling, as well as the slow coming of healing, a process Vitalina forces along with customary rituals even when they seem utterly false. Some of Costa’s images, like Vitalina trying to seal up her roof during a storm, had a visual power barely seen in cinema since the heyday of expressionism.

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The Whistlers (Corneliu Porumboiu)

Corneliu Porumboiu is generally known for his dark, tough, stringent dramas about the ramshackle state of modern Romania. The Whistlers was a sharp change of pace for him, insofar that it’s a dark, tough, off-beat, often funny post-genre film about the ramshackle state of modern Romania. The plot had a uniquely clever point of departure, as Cristi, a corrupt policeman, is sent to the Canary Islands to learn from the locals their time-honoured art of communicating through whistling, so that he and his accomplices in a drug-dealing operation can communicate in a manner incomprehensible to surveillance. Along the way he’s thrown into the company of a beautiful femme fatale aptly named Gilda, forced to negotiate for their lives with clashing factions and dodge plots involving his confederates and even his own opportunist boss. Poromboiu had the gall to sell a bent cop enmeshed with some real scumbags as a protagonist on the understanding that in a bottomlessly corrupt society all bets are off.

Cristi is the hangdog embodiment of moral and mental exhaustion, the son of a former Communist party official who never benefited from his father’s dishonesty but everyone assumes he did anyway, left excruciatingly exposed when his mother finds his stash of illegal cash and gives it to the church. Porumboiu taps the constant experience of surveillance and intrusion for both dark humour and tension, in a film that walked the line between satire and straight-faced, sharp-edged crime drama, with evident political dimensions: his gang of dangerous and diversely motivated criminals becomes stand-ins for a dissident element. The early encounter between Cristi and Catrinel Marlon’s smoky beauty Gilda, which sees them forced to have sex to satisfy hidden cameras, is a quietly hilarious game of deception and misdirection through sexual illusion Brian De Palma might have been proud of, whilst the sarcastic nods to Western films throughout leads to a shoot-out in a movie set and a curtailed gunslinging match between the two major female characters. Eventually all the hero is left with is his new, peculiar language, but that proves to be the key to a happy ending where his one good deed gains a just reward.

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The Wild Goose Lake (Yi’nan Diao)

Like The Whistlers, The Wild Goose Lake used film noir conventions to anatomise a society in a moment of painful and dislocating transformation, in this case the grim and gritty zones of China’s developing but iniquitous cityscapes – Wuhan, no less – where money is the only motive that keeps its value but evanescent connections keep people tethered to each-other with a host of needling motives. The Wild Goose Lake certainly fits in with a plethora of excellent recent Chinese films with similar preoccupations. Director Yi’nan Diao’s vision was certainly its own, particular thing, however, utilising the traditional noir theme of a manhunt, following a strong but dim gangster from an outfit specialising in stealing motor scooters, who kills a cop after a battle with rivals in his own gang. When a large reward is put out for his capture by the barely competent local police force and seeing no real way out, he tries to remain free long enough to contrive a way of making sure the reward money can go to the wife he abandoned years earlier. He finds himself thrust into the company of a deadpan and enigmatic young prostitute, who describes herself as his wife’s friend and emissary.

Diao’s woozy, fluid style avoided some of the more outright surreal touches offered by the likes of Jia Zhangke and Bi Gan in their ventures down this mean street, and yet he painted the story with flashes of electric strangeness, from the hooker washing off the antihero’s jism from her hand in lake water, to a young woman providing a sideshow attraction as a disembodied head in a box, and a gang of policemen converging on a felled gangster whilst all wearing fluorescent shoes glowing hallucinatory in the night. Such sights not only gave the movie its punch-drunk texture but also effectively described Diao’s thesis about modern China as a place filled with human rubble and where life and death have a perverse, almost acausal rhythm. Moments of bleak and gnawing irony, like a union meeting voting to see who gets sacked from a factory that mimics the conclave of hoods assigning turf from earlier in the film, rubbed against episodes of black comedy and vivid physical action John Woo might have been proud of, including one astonishing moment involving a creatively used umbrella. Underlying all this was an authentically noir sense of blasted solitude and tenuous human connection, building to a final revelation about the prostitute’s motives that finally drew the film’s serpentine emotional landscape as well as plot together. Vied with Vitalina Varela as the best-shot film of the year, too.

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Added to 2020 Favourites List after 1/1/2021

To be announced

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Honourable Mention

12 Hour Shift (Brea Grant)
Incitement (Yaron Zilberman)
The Nest (Sean Durkin)
Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Eliza Hittman)

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Rough Gems and/or Underrated

Bad Hair (Justin Simien)
The Burnt Orange Heresy (Giuseppe Capotondi)
Da 5 Bloods (Spike Lee)
Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga (David Dobkin)
First Cow (Kelly Reichardt)
Greed (Michael Winterbottom)
Kajillionaire (Miranda July)
The Gentlemen (Guy Ritchie)
Wonder Woman 1984 (Patty Jenkins)

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Disappointing and/or Overrated

Ammonite (Francis Lee)
Birds of Prey, and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (Cathy Yan)
The Invisible Man (Leigh Whannell)
The King of Staten Island (Judd Apatow)
Mank (David Fincher)
Palm Springs (Max Barbakow)
Tenet (Christopher Nolan)
Shirley (Josephine Decker)

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Crap

Capone (Josh Trank)
The Midnight Sky (George Clooney)
Possessor (Brandon Cronenberg)

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Unseen

∙ Another Round ∙ Bad Boys 4 Life ∙ Beanpole ∙ Bill and Ted Face the Music ∙ Black Bear ∙ Borat Subsequent Moviefilm ∙ Butt Boy ∙ Cuties ∙ Deerskin ∙ Driveways ∙ The Father ∙ The Forty-Year-Old Version ∙ Fourteen ∙ Hillbilly Elegy ∙ The Hunt ∙ I Was at Home, But… ∙ I’m Thinking of Ending Things ∙ Let Them All Talk ∙ The Lodge ∙ Mangrove ∙ Martin Eden ∙ Minari ∙ Miss Juneteenth ∙ News of the World ∙ Nomadland ∙ The Old Guard ∙ The Personal History of David Copperfield ∙ Promising Young Woman ∙ Relic ∙ Saint Maud ∙ Soul ∙ Sound of Metal ∙ Swallow ∙ Tesla ∙ The Trip to Greece ∙ Tommaso ∙ True History of the Kelly Gang ∙ The Twentieth Century ∙ The Wolf House ∙ Wolfwalkers ∙

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The Best Older Films I Saw First in 2020

Deluge (Felix E. Feist)
I Married A Witch (Rene Clair)
On The Town (Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly)
Phase IV (Saul Bass)
Teorema (Pier Paolo Pasolini)

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In Memoriam

∙ Orson Bean ∙ Honor Blackman ∙ Chadwick Boseman ∙ Wilfred Brimley ∙ Tim Brooke-Taylor ∙ Earl Cameron ∙ Sean Connery ∙ Gene Corman ∙ Linda Cristal ∙ Abby Dalton ∙ Sonia Darrin ∙ Olivia de Havilland ∙ Brian Dennehy ∙ Kirk Douglas ∙ Mort Drucker ∙ Rhonda Fleming ∙ Derek Fowlds ∙ Stuart Gordon ∙ Buck Henry ∙ Ian Holm ∙ Terry Jones ∙ Hugh Keays-Byrne ∙ Shirley Knight ∙ John Le Carre ∙ Michael Lonsdale ∙ Vera Lynn ∙ Ennio Morricone ∙ Daria Nicolodi ∙ Geoffrey Palmer ∙ David Prowse ∙ Helen Reddy ∙ Carl Reiner ∙ Little Richard ∙ Diana Rigg ∙ Kenny Rogers ∙ John Saxon ∙ Joel Schumacher ∙ John Shrapnel ∙ Jerry Stiller ∙ Max von Sydow ∙ Stuart Whitman ∙ Fred Willard ∙ Barbara Windsor ∙

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2020s, Auteurs, Comedy, Drama

On The Rocks (2020)

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Director / Screenwriter: Sofia Coppola

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…well, sort of

Sofia Coppola’s latest film obviously harkens back to her breakthrough success with Lost in Translation (2003) in reuniting her with Bill Murray and casting him again as the well-lived father figure to a woman experiencing a tailspin of life purpose. But On The Rocks is far from just a sequel-cum-revision or an attempt to recapture old magic. Coppola’s seventh feature is an oddity. On one level I felt like it was another of the films she’s made in the past decade that hasn’t lived up to her potential and seems at first glance conspicuously unambitious; and yet at the same time it’s another that works some kind of extra-dimensional emotional kung fu on the attentive viewer. This simultaneous feeling, that Coppola is at once an underachiever and a remarkable film artist on a finite level, has kept me both wary of and engaged in her cinema. The spry, elegant, cultural tourist mode she explored in Lost in Translation and the post-modern historical pageant of Marie Antoinette (2006), still my favourites of her films, has nonetheless given way appropriately to attempts to ask more questions of scenarios involving characters on the losing end of situations defined by an excess of options and indulgences for others, and how they rebel.

On The Rocks is also the second film by a major director this year, after Woody Allen’s A Rain Day in New York, to chase what could be described as the cinematic equivalent of a Chet Baker vocal performance, jazzy in a dry, minimalist way, loping in intonation and self-deprecatingly melancholy: Coppola even opens the film with Baker singing “I Fall In Love Too Easily.” On The Rocks revolves around Laura (Rashida Jones), who at the outset is seen having just married Dean (Marlon Wayans), two good-looking young people on the cusp of great undertakings who duck out from their own reception and sneak through the halls of a palatial hotel. Finding a swimming pool fringed by brass statues and clinging ivy, Laura jumps in still wearing her veil to join Dean in the water, leaving a trail of her stripped bridal finery behind her. A lush and witty little vignette that nods to the high life fantasias of Coppola’s early films and her intrigued delight in the accoutrement of female sensuality, as well as offering a thumbnail for Laura and Dean’s early relationship, depicting an Edenic state they must inevitably fall from.

Cut to several years later: Laura is a writer with two kids, glimpsed after the title is flashed treading her way gingerly cross a floor littered with rubbish and picking it up with parental diligence. Dean is an entrepreneur, whose blurrily defined business is beginning to grow very successful and chew up more of his time, obliging him to jet off to locales like London and Mexico for “big deal” conferences and meetings. Laura, stuck in the domestic role despite having her own career purely by dint of being the one working from home, is stricken with writer’s block as she’s trying to work on a book she’s sold but not written, sitting at her computer but mostly staring out the window of their spacious Manhattan apartment. When Dean returns from a business trip to London, he finds her in bed and kisses her, only to retreat, seemingly surprised or disorientated by some aspect of the reunion. Disturbed, Laura begins to theorise that in his jetlagged state he thought she was someone else, someone he’s been having an affair with.

On The Rocks sees Coppola shifting from the Hollywood scenester mirth of Lost in Translation, Somewhere (2010), and The Bling Ring (2013), to the tonier climes of New York, a move that ironically threatens to rob her work of its specificity, great as she has been at describing the absurdities of celebrity culture whilst constantly noting something more ambivalent and pathos-charged behind it – the rich and famous are people too, you know. Whereas here Coppola incidentally moves into a stratum of American cinema that’s been growing of late set amidst the haute bourgeoisie of New York as practised by directors including Noah Baumbach, Tamara Jenkins, and Azazel Jacobs, directors laying claim to being Allen’s heirs as observational artists hovering in that specific milieu of the creative and pretentious and making movies blending drama and comedy. Unlike most of that breed Coppola doesn’t have a penchant for theatrically loquacious characters and has too elegant a filmic touch for the mumblecore crowd. Laura’s status as a generic, well-educated, arty-lefty type who could readily fit into such movies is part of the point here: she knows what a cliché she’s threatening to become, and moreover she has to be the stuck-in-the-mud counterpoint to Murray’s bon vivant.

Coppola’s deftly observational and satirical eye and ear are still fine-tuned enough to let her spin a movie out of a minimum of dramatic elements. Coppola wryly indicts Laura as the type who’s married to a swashbuckling black capitalist and has stickers for Bernie Sanders and Stacey Abrams on her apartment door. Early scenes depict Laura moving through a roundelay of big city mothers’ play groups and schools, and efficiently paint a phase of life as inevitable for most people as it is alternatively a joy and a chore, when one’s own wont is submerged in the business of corralling kids. In a recurring role reminiscent of Anna Faris and Leslie Mann’s hilarious character turns for Coppola, Jones’ former costar in the sitcom Parks and Recreation Jenny Slate appears as Laura’s acquaintance from such settings, Vanessa, who insists on narrating her dating life to Laura in such situations as cueing in school corridors: the whole arc of her latest, absurd relationship is charted in fragments. The crucial early scene of Dean’s suspiciously alien kiss is given a strong charge by the way Coppola films it, capturing the mood of somnolent and spacy intimacy, and then the lack of it: the key point of uncertainty that dogs Laura after this is whether Dean through he was kissing someone else or rather that he realised he wasn’t kissing the same person in Laura herself, that she is growing into someone she isn’t entirely sure she recognises.

Laura’s simmering anxieties are raised a few degrees when she lunches with her grandmother (Barbara Bain), her mother (Alva Chinn), and her sister (Juliana Canfield), who ask pointed questions about Dean travelling with his “new assistant”, actually his account manager, the posh and glamorous Fiona (Jessica Henwick). This potential liaison seems to gain some credibility when Laura finds a bag of Fiona’s stuff in his suitcase, which he claims she asked him to carry because her luggage was full. Later Laura attends a birthday party thrown for Dean at his workplace where she registers the discomfort of some of the women who work with him in meeting her, whilst Fiona presents Dean with his birthday cake. Laura rings her father, Felix (Murray), an art dealer by profession, gadfly and roué by habit, to ask him for his opinion: he unreservedly agrees with her suspicion, and dashes to New York to offer emotional support and investigate at the absolute faintest sign of interest, arriving outside her building in a town car with his stoic chauffeur Musto (Musto Pelinkovicci) behind the wheel.

Laura’s struggle with the fate of being inserted into the domestic realm echoes the theme of young women cocooned from the flow of life in The Virgin Suicides (1999) for whom self-destruction is ultimately their only gesture of self-actualisation. On The Rocks avoids such melodramatic gestures, preferring to posit itself as a tribute to jauntier old movies like George Roy Hill’s The World of Henry Orient (1964), Blake Edwards’ farces, her own father’s You’re A Big Boy Now (1967), and the gadabout chic of ‘60s Italian cinema, in unleashing its dynamic father and daughter duo in a comedic romp around New York and, later, Mexico, trying to prove Dean’s perfidy. But On The Rocks ultimately isn’t that kind of movie: indeed it can be described as a movie about people who want to live in that kind of movie. Felix’s choice of roadster, a vintage red Ferrari, underlines the lineage, and for a few brief moments when Felix hits the accelerator and gives chase to Dean and Fiona in a taxi through the streets of Manhattan the fantasy becomes enveloping. Ultimately On The Rocks’ palette is more ironic and realistic. Felix is rich and cunning enough in handling people to live out such fantasies to an extent, but even he finds himself subject to consequences. That exhilarating cross-city chase ends abruptly when Felix is pulled over for speeding.

The film’s first dialogue, heard in voiceover over the black screen, presents Felix as laying perpetual claim to his daughter even as she’s about to marry. Two watches given as presents signify Laura’s dual fealties to father and husband. The elephant in the room when it comes to On The Rocks of course is the temptation to take it as a self-analytic struggle with being the daughter of Francis Ford Coppola, and perhaps also her relationships with some famous beaux like Spike Jonze and Quentin Tarantino, high-powered male artists all. Sofia had dealt with the feeling of living in the shadow of a father whose very presence shifts the gravity of the world around him more allusively in earlier films but here directly contends with the theme of trying to forge a separate identity from a man who’s a genius at charming and dealing, whose ethos is extraordinarily hard to reject because it’s so blithely attractive on many levels. Coppola doesn’t however designate Felix as an artist, but rather a merchant of culture, so his adventures are immediately rendered less epic, despite his plain sense of pride and achievement as he recalls selling his first major artwork. Felix’s method of talking his way out of a speeding ticket, cleverly creating a sense of familiarity and intimacy between him and one of the cops through pretending to have known his father, depends on a certain roguish confidence that he can wriggle his way out of many a situation lesser mortals will be consumed by. “It must be very nice to be you,” Laura comments with sour amusement.

Laura’s conversations with Felix are regularly punctuated by his flirtations with waitresses and strongly charged encounters with some of his female buying clients as well as one of Laura’s fellow moms despite his advancing age. Laura is irked as she perceives how adroitly he weaves webs of contacts that allow him to sell artworks even whilst helping her out. Felix is a show that doesn’t stop, leading to the perhaps inevitable moment where Murray-as-Felix sings, regaling a crowd of tourists with a rendition of “Mexicali Rose” that walks along the edge of absurdity and yet keeps its footing. Of course, Coppola is also satiating the audience’s presumed desire to hang about with Murray, relaxing within the electron field of his dryly witty, pseudo-blasé persona whilst also harnessing it to make a deeper point about Laura’s journey. Felix’s skill with keeping people and children entertained is repeatedly evinced, including one shot where Coppola captures him sprawled like an Orientalist painting’s harem girl on the floor of Laura and Dean’s apartment with their kids in trying to teach them to play cards, completely relaxed in his personal bubble. Meanwhile he regales Laura with his opinions on the impossibility of sexual monogamy for men with facetious bravura: “That’s hardwiring. Keeping the species alive. The woman passes through an emotional filter. Man doesn’t pass through the emotional part. It goes directly from the eyes to the ass.”

Of course, as the film unfolds the self-serving edge to Felix’s rhetoric is gradually unwound, more about justifying his own appetites and lapses than arriving at some deep truth about human sense and sexuality. He likes reciting the kinds of scientific theories about sex and evolution Sunday newspaper editors love (“When we finally stood up two legs, it was the women with the rounded breasts that mirrored the haunches that were most exciting to the males.”) His advice on how to avoid losing a man to Laura is to retain her own sense of sexual worth and charisma, advice that Laura of course is having a small crisis in not being able to follow. In Lost in Translation Coppola’s avatar was similarly suffering through worrying about her husband’s fidelity and the problems of being subsumed into a marriage, but where there Murray provided a liquid-state all-purpose celebrity pal /father figure/boyfriend here Felix is a more specific dramatic creation, one reminiscent of the role Jim Jarmusch gave him as the aging lothario in Broken Flowers (2005). Laura’s decision to contact Felix after being weirded out by Dean proves more consequential than she suspects as he, actually rather lonely and bored, is all too happy to jet in from Paris to the rescue to energise and upset his daughter’s life, but what’s really in play is a story where father and daughter slowly work their way towards a reckoning that’s been a long time coming.

On The Rocks tries to deal with some states of mind and being that are by and large difficult to make movies about, something Coppola has managed before, achieved in such striking and sinuous contrast to her father’s grandiose visions of society and history as achieved in epics like The Godfather films and Apocalypse Now (1979), but not so far from some of Francis’ personal films like The Rain People (1969) or One From The Heart (1981). Sofia rejects even the stylistic grandeur of such movies: Coppola chases singular, crystalline portraits of emotional and psychological straits. More exasperatingly, On The Rocks faces a particular problem in that its core theme doesn’t feel fresh: in fact, it lies well over the border in a realm of the hoary. Tales about the offended offspring of carelessly priapic papas have been a dime a dozen from Gen X writers and directors, constantly avenging the allure of the missed sexual revolution with their latchkey kid angsts. What makes the film work, and partly if not entirely escape the scent of mould, is the way Coppola goes about telling it. Setting up the investigation theme almost inevitably proves to actually be a chance for father and daughter to come to terms with each-other and to reach a moment of catharsis, both characters projecting their neurotic impulses onto Dean who proceeds oblivious to the whole enterprise, and indeed emerges from the whole exercise smelling like a rose.

On The Rocks is a difficult film to pin down in giving an overall verdict because I both liked what it managed to pull off, whilst also wishing Coppola had developed it more. Laura’s emotional journey doesn’t compel as much as it might because it ultimately affirms her choices to an almost hermetic degree. On the other hand, it does manage to chart the mood of frazzled emotional tension and mental exhaustion that’s pretty accurate to the moment. It’s a movie that manages at once to be a break of escapism and one of piercing pragmatism. As a work of emotional autobiography the film feels at once like an addendum to her woozy remake of The Beguiled (2017), a film which didn’t work for me overall but certainly conveyed Coppola’s choice to leave behind the perma-adolescence that afflicted many of her earlier characters and contend, through the viewpoint of Kirsten Dunst’s repressed spinster losing the bloom of youth aroused and then terribly spurned by the fox in the henhouse, with the pains of getting older and losing what gave you hope without yet having gained what you need. On The Rocks pursues a similar evocation of questioned sexual self-worth whilst also wrestling with Laura’s sense of poisoned expectations of marriage.

Such expectations ultimately stem from Felix’s infidelity and break-up with her mother, and their conversations throughout the film zero in on this topic with increasingly revealing and truthful layers. Murray’s restrained but still potent showmanship dominates, but it’s Jones who has to stitch the film’s human drama together. Part of what hampers On The Rocks is that Laura isn’t a particularly entertaining or vital character: she’s a writer but her profession feels a bit too much like one of those jobs sitcom characters have, and too often Coppola uses her as the sounding board for Murray-as-Felix’s monologues. To be fair, that’s part of the point: I’ve known some wilted progeny of high-powered, egocentric personalities. Jones’ excellence, stuck with playing the potentially thankless role, forces it into focus. Jones expertly counters Murray in their game of acting chess with subtle body language, as in the way she stiffens and takes on a languid air of indulgence when Felix first starts off on one of his sexual theorems, and registering Laura’s air of forlorn panic as when Felix informs her that his sources have told him Dean bought something from Cartier’s, the sensation of her borderline irrational fantasies suddenly becoming more tangible and her face stretching out ever so finely as if all the blood in her body just fled down to her feet and nearly dragged her expression with it.

Laura registers Felix’s past actions as specific crimes against her sense of familial security whereas Felix describes them as the result of a simple parting of the ways between himself and her mother in terms of where their lives were heading, before noting with finite heartbreak that the woman he left her mother for, his former assistant and an artist, died earlier in the year, and becomes clear that Felix has reconnected with Laura because he desperately needs someone around to help ease his own sense of panic in mortality. It’s this steady, refined, almost imperceptible accumulation of personal and emotional detail that makes On The Rocks work. Coppola winnows the film’s emotional texture down to one astounding shot of one of Laura’s tears falling into her martini in languorous slow motion whilst Baker’s version of “I Get Along Without You Very Well” murmurs on sound. This is close to Coppola’s finest, most exactingly crafted bit of directing to date.

The air of forlornly romantic desolation connects with the general adoration of New York as a physical and psychological space, shot by cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd as a great bauble of glass and metal and colour, hovering always in promise and also alienation, much as Coppola filmed Tokyo and Versailles. Eventually Laura and Felix follow Dean to a Mexican seaside resort where they hope to catch him with Fiona, a place where Felix seems in his element regaling tourists with songs, casually arranging potential big sales, and calling greetings to new friends from the hot tub, whilst Laura sits locked in a Hopper composition in her bedroom, stewing in disquiet and detachment from the phony conviviality. The actual climax of father and daughter’s quest is gained in comedic diminuendo as Laura receives a cell phone call from Dean, who’s had to dash back to New York, just as she and Felix sneak up on his booked room where they’ve glimpsed Fiona swanning about. The film comes close to another major cliché in this sort of thing insofar as the film doesn’t quite reveal Fiona to be a lesbian, although she introduces Laura and Felix to her “friend” in equivocal manner.

But again Coppola rescues things by delivering a sly punch. The sting of humiliating self-revelation here proves perhaps worse than uncovering infidelity, as it shows Laura that her own neurosis and Felix’s glib propulsion have brought her to such an end. Laura soon unloads on Felix for taking things over and encouraging her worst impulses, and dresses him down for his many failings. “You can say it to my face now,” Felix says, in a brilliant little bit of acting from Murray, twitching ever so slightly as you see Felix forcing himself to turn off any temptation to retort or defend himself and withstand Laura’s upbraiding. “What happened to you?” Felix eventually does comment with a sad, isolated gaze: “You used to be fun.” Which might indeed be Coppola’s way of defusing that question of her own artistry: growing up is always a prickly, often joyless process. This sequence is also superbly shot by Le Sourd, capturing the strobing of lightning out to sea and the sparks of beachfront bonfires, wind-twisted curtains and jutting agave plants, touristy affectations of the picturesque accumulating genuine dreamlike beauty. Laura finally falls asleep on the waterfront and awakens in the bleary morning, forced to accept herself for company. The script doesn’t finally paint Felix as any sort of villain; quite the contrary, his confessions throughout eventually indicate that his rhetoric is a way of shielding himself from still-bewildering cruxes of behaviour where the real pain lies in the way he can’t quite see how they couldn’t have happened, even if he’s not exactly let off the hook. Ultimately, frankly, his pathos ultimately feels more substantial and intriguing than Laura’s.

The ultimate frustration of On The Rocks is that in spite of its quality and honesty you’re still left with the feeling Coppola could and perhaps should have done more with the themes and actors she has in play: too much of the film left me with the feeling of Murray and Jones caged when they should have been unleashed, the nods to exploiting their talents as farceurs left as just that, nods. Some of On The Rocks’ concluding shorthand gestures feel a bit obvious and vestigial, too. We know when Laura complains that she can’t whistle since giving birth she will be whistling very well by film’s end and it never stops feeling like a device. The symbolism of the swapping of watches, Felix’s vintage gift boxed away in favour of Dean’s flashy Cartier present, reminded me of the rather clunky opening of Somewhere that showed its hero literally going in circles: for a subtle artist Coppola can try a too hard. It could also be said that Dean ultimately never feels like a particularly convincing character. Wayans plays him well enough, broadcasting on a low-wattage frequency of affection for Laura that makes it difficult to take seriously the idea he’s really having an affair, but he’s still something akin to Schrodinger’s Husband. Dean could be revealed to be loyal or adulterous and either way it wouldn’t give him much defining characteristic and Laura is ultimately willing to think he’s unfaithful because otherwise he’s a bit too good to be true. The note of romantic mystery sounded at the outset, the arc of bewilderment and seeking sounded in that fateful kiss between husband and wife that opens up gulfs of identity to be explored, suggests possibilities that the film ultimately swerves around. Perhaps that’s a field of exploration for Coppola’s next film.

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