1970s, 1980s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Drama, Sports, Uncategorized

Rocky (1976) / Rocky II (1979) / Rocky III (1982) / Rocky IV (1985)

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Directors: John G. Avildsen, Sylvester Stallone
Screenwriter: Sylvester Stallone

By Roderick Heath

Rocky’s genesis and success is deeply entwined with the story enacted in the movie series it birthed, and a fundamental aspect of its mystique and popularity. Sylvester Stallone, born in Hell’s Kitchen in 1946, had suffered from partial paralysis in his face from a difficult birth, a debilitation he patiently tried to entirely erase as he became an actor. Stallone’s peculiarly dichotomous image had roots in his background, with his mother founding a gym for women in the mid-1950s and powerfully influencing her son’s celebration of physical prowess, even as Stallone proved himself no dunce in attending the University of Miami. His early acting days were harsh, and raw desperation drove him to appear in the porn film The Party at Kitty and Stud’s (1970). Stallone recovered to find scattered but eye-catching jobs in films like Bananas (1970), The Prisoner of Second Avenue, Death Race 2000, and Farewell, My Lovely (all 1975), usually as tough guys and thugs. Tired of being relegated to such meathead roles, Stallone resolved to write himself a leading part. He found his theme when he watched heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali defend his title against the white journeyman Chuck Wepner, who surprised many by lasting 15 rounds against the great master.

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Inspired, Stallone wrote a script, taking the basic premise of an unrated contender taking on a terrifying champion, and cobbling together bits of popular boxing lore, encompassing figures like Jim Braddock, Rocky Marciano, and particularly Rocky Graziano, whose autobiography Somebody Up There Likes Me had provided Paul Newman with his own breakthrough starring vehicle in 1956. He also knew his old movies about boxers and fighters along the lines of The Champ, Flesh (both 1932), Kid Galahad (1937), Golden Boy (1939), and Gentleman Jim (1942). Stallone’s script was initially, relatively muted with the original ending having Rocky throw his fight after deciding he didn’t really like boxing. But as the production moved along, and Stallone’s do-or-die project became a more tangible proposition, it evolved into a hymn to the ideals of persistence and hardiness in the face of adversity. In the mid-1970s film milieu, that kind of old-fashioned sentiment was unfashionable, but Stallone proved he was in the same place as the mass audience. As the Bicentennial rolled around in the immediate post-Watergate hangover, the hunger for something thrilling and affirmatory proved rife. Stallone’s script was good enough to gain a lot of studio interest as a possible vehicle for an established star, but Stallone insisted he play the role. Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, producers attached to United Artists, were able to take risks on movies they made provided the costs were kept restrained, and they gave Stallone his shot on a $1 million budget.

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For a director, they turned to John G. Avildsen, who had served a sturdy apprenticeship as an assistant director before becoming a director in his own right and was best known up to that point for Joe (1970) and Save The Tiger (1973), quintessential works of the early decade as restrained and moody character portraits contending with the battered American psyche of the time. Save The Tiger had even netted a Best Actor Oscar for Jack Lemmon. Avildsen proved perfectly in tune with what Stallone’s script offered, able to apply a potent sense of verisimilitude and muted realism to a story that ultimately offered crowd-pleasing pleasures. Rewards were immediate: the film was a huge hit, and pitched against flagship works of the American New Wave’s height like Taxi Driver, All The President’s Men, and Network at the Oscars, Rocky emerged the victor. Stallone was vaulted to popular stardom. In the immediate wake he evinced warning signs of hubristic self-confidence in directing, writing, starring, and singing in the vanity vehicle Paradise Alley (1978), badly denting his standing even as he was just getting going. Stallone decided to make Rocky II, again directing as well as starring and writing. This proved another huge hit and cemented him as the biggest star of the next decade, particularly once he gained his other signature role as John Rambo. To date there have been eight films featuring Rocky Balboa as a character, and all of them are worthwhile to some degree, but it’s the first four films that constitute the most fiercely beloved portion of the series.

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Even in physical terms Stallone was a contradiction, his large limpid eyes and long, equine nose in his youth like an Italian princeling out of a renaissance portrait, jammed onto a stevedore’s frame. Rocky and Rambo became almost diametrically distinct yet closely joined concepts defining Stallone’s screen persona, the genial, covertly ferocious man rooted in community and the angry but stoic outsider, connected only by their gifts for mayhem, and embodying oddly complex and contradictory ways of conceiving patriotism. Rocky is carefully deployed as a figure out of a very specific enclave, the working-class Italian neighbourhoods of Philadelphia. Robert ‘Rocky’ Balboa is introduced on a telling note in the opening scene of his first film, fighting Spider Rico (Pedro Lovell), with Avildsen’s camera zooming back from a painted Jesus icon on the grimy venue wall to encompass the fighters in the ring below, immediately establishing a semi-ironic affinity: boxers bleed for the crowd’s sins, serving the function of sublimating and wielding the pent-up aggression of the fans and very occasionally rewarded by becoming a true faith. Rocky seems almost lackadaisical in the bout until Rico delivers a gash to his scalp that infuriates Rocky, and he pounds his opponent into the mat. From the start Rocky is characterised as a man whose real potency remains latent but impossible to repress once incited, an essentialised rendition of the self-image of a vast number of men.

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Pushing 30, Rocky’s problem isn’t that he lacked talent but seems to have missed the kind of kinetically exploited anger and will that fuels champions, as well as facing a general prejudice against left-handed “southpaw” boxers. Although he’s well-known and liked around town, Rocky has become a figure of familiarity to the point where his latest victory is met with the most casual interest. Even Rocky’s nominal trainer, gym owner and elderly former pug Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith), is so unenthused by him now that despite his victory he strips him of his locker, a humiliation Rocky can scarcely be bothered protesting, Rocky makes his living working as a standover man for loan shark Tony Gazzo (Joe Spinell), but is such a soft touch he lets men he’s supposed to rough up go with partial payments. Rocky maintains a shambolic friendship with the rotund and resentful meat packer Paulie Pennino (Burt Young), and tries to charm Paulie’s painfully shy younger sister Adrian (Talia Shire), who works in a pet store and sold Rocky his beloved turtles. As Rocky and Adrian stumble towards a relationship, Rocky receives a life-changing offer out of the blue, made by fight promoter Miles Jergens (Thayer David) on behalf of the heavyweight champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). Desperate for an opponent after other contenders scurry for the woodwork and seeing the chance for a great publicity coup, Creed wants to take on a Philadelphia fighter as an exercise in Bicentennial showmanship, and chooses Rocky strictly for his great nickname, “Italian Stallion.”

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“Sounds like a monster movie,” Creed chuckles as the sound of the match-up, and certainly by the time the fourth and fifth instalments in the franchise rolled around many a wag felt sooner or later Rocky would take on Godzilla. But Rocky’s largely low-key, even ambling pace in its first two-thirds is matched to a stringent realism, and even the finale’s note of triumph is restrained by technical failure. Part of Stallone’s cunning lay in how carefully he rooted the drama in a sense of characters who prove much larger than they seem, battling those who generally prove much less awesome than they appear. Avildsen’s camera, with the great Bill Butler as DP, surveys grimy surrounds in that classic blotchy, moody 1970s colour. Paulie is Rocky if he lacked even a singular talent, used to feeling his flesh and spirit sag amidst the hanging meat carcasses, just as childlike as Rocky in some ways but with barbs, often verbally abusive to Adrian and erupting in shows of frustrated aggression. Adrian is deeply repressed and makes a bond with Rocky, as she compares the advice he often received, to work on his body because his mind was no good, to the opposite advice her own mother gave to her. The characters are adrift in a blue-collar environment that’s portrayed both in a harshly gritty fashion, filled with litter and crumbling infrastructure and patches of snow on wasteground, replete with seedy arenas for building and wasting flesh, and also extremely romantic, where everyone knows everybody and close-harmony singers hang about on street corners.

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Much of Rocky feels in close accord with Avildsen’s work on Save The Tiger, following around a character in near-picaresque encounters as he faces with sullen apprehension a moment in his life he experiences as pivotal even as it just seems to involve more of the same, the stern spiritual economics of persistence and taking punishment. The only real signal we’re not just watching something along the lines of early ‘70s bummers like J.W. Coop (1972) is at the outset as the title sweeps across the screen, Gone with the Wind-style, with Bill Conti’s instantly rousing trumpet fanfare resounding, clearly declaring we’re not just watching some bum roaming around Philly but setting the scene for an Olympian contest. Part of what makes the film work is how carefully Avildsen mediates the transition from the passive to the active as embodied by Rocky. The Rocky films would become beloved and mocked equally for their training montages, but Avildsen builds very slowly to such a point, first portraying Rocky’s early exercise efforts in laborious detail, scoffing down a glass full of raw eggs and heading out for jogs on frigid mornings. When Paulie first ushers Rocky into the abattoir and the boxer realises the potential for training by punching the meat carcasses, it comes with a sense of ponderous, punishing violence, Rocky’s knuckles left bloody and raw even as he works up the force to crack the ribs of the carcasses. A TV news crew shoots Rocky doing this, and Apollo’s canny trainer ‘Duke’ Evers (Tony Burton) watches with some apprehensive attention, but can’t attract Apollo’s interest.

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The ingenuity of Rocky as a character was in fusing his raw corporeal strength and fighting grit to a personality that’s eternally innocent, a goombah who knows what he is and yet constantly struggles to transcend it. A memorable vignette early in the first film sees Rocky trying to give a straight talk to a neighbourhood girl, Marie (Jodi Letizia), who hangs out with the rough local urchins. Rocky tries to illustrate the way reputations supplant actual people, until Marie tells him, “Screw you, creepo!”, and Rocky wanders away laughingly accosting himself with the insult. His attempts to strike a spark with Adrian nonetheless revolve around his rambling persistence, leading to a first date Paulie manipulates them into making. Gentle character comedy – Rocky gently pleads at Adrian’s bedroom door for her to consider coming out with him after she retreats in shock when Paulie springs the date on her, only for her to emerge entirely prepped for a night out – blends with a portrayal of tentative connection and finally painfully revealed need as Rocky bribes a Zamboni driver to let Adrian skate in an empty rink, before inviting Adrian into his shabby apartment. Adrian hesitates at the threshold before entering and almost dashes again as Rocky desperately appeals for her to stay, before the final melting clinch. Gloriously well-observed and trenchant as a distinctly unidyllic romance that is of course actually ideal, Rocky and Adrian’s coming together is also the subtle cue for other transformations about to spur Rocky towards greater things.

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As a character and conception, Rocky is a brilliantly definite creation standing in contrast to an irritating tendency in more recent heroic tales to make protagonists as blank and broadly worthy as possible. He’s offered as an example of a truism, that truly physically strong and imposing men often project a gentle persona. Rocky swiftly becomes as familiar as a friend in his traits and actions and reactions, his background and situation tangible, his specific mannerisms, his habits of talking around challenges and provocations and deflating verbal aggression and projection of earnest geniality that so strikingly contrasts the pith he unleashes in the ring. And yet he easily becomes an emblematic archetype. He’s there on screen readily accepting identification with anyone, anyone who’s been bullied or outcast, down and out, felt their potential waste and their souls wrung out, knowing they have the stuff to go the distance and only requiring one true chance. Rocky is again close to a secular Jesus in that regard, taking all the pops on the chin for us. Even in the most recent series entries, Creed (2015) and Creed II (2018), revolving around Rocky’s acting as trainer to Apollo’s illegitimate son Adonis (Michael B. Jordan), Rocky still dominates despite not being at the centre of the story because of what is by now the almost reflexive skill Stallone wields in inhabiting such a well-defined character, where the younger man is more defined by the things the filmmakers don’t want him to be.

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That’s especially frustrating as Apollo as inhabited by Weathers made for a surprisingly strong character too, one whose similarities to Rocky, and his differences, are totemic throughout the first four films. Many sports films negate opponents or present them as ripe assholes, and indeed that’s a direction the third and fourth episodes would readily turn in. Rocky’s grounding in the mid-‘70s zeitgeist also invoked some cultural animosities as well, with it all too easy to see Rocky as a great white hope thrown up against the juggernaut of black pride and power that Ali so forcefully identified with even whilst nimbly retaining his media star stature. Stallone quietly and cleverly deflates that sort of reading even if her perhaps still benefited from it, as he portrays Rocky watching Creed on TV in a bar. Apollo is gifted with a similar talent for media performance to Ali, and the bar owner grouchily and racially berates him as a clown, to Rocky’s offence: Rocky knows very well how good a boxer Apollo is, and offers him unqualified respect that’s oblivious to other issues. Clearly intended as an avatar for Ali, Apollo is nonetheless a rather different creature, apolitical and driven more by intense pride and ego and lacking any clear sense of communal grounding beyond his awareness that such clannishness can be financially exploited to make the match lucrative, envisioning himself as more an entrepreneur of sport than a rough-and-tumble warrior.

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One running theme of the series would become the problem of not simply achieving but avoiding the pitfalls of success. Apollo, as offered in the first two films, is not vilified but certainly embodies those pitfalls, stung to repeatedly try to swat the small Italian fly but failing to comprehend the danger lurking in a rival driven by naked hunger and spirit. Apollo’s fancy gyms and parade of sparring partners prove of less worth than the gritty, almost primal techniques Rocky and Mickey favour. Apollo’s great project in the first film is to exalt himself in the guise of patriotic celebration. He dresses up as George Washington crossing the Delaware as he enters the arena for the bout against Rocky. Apollo’s self-identification with America – he even wears stars-and-stripes shorts in the ring – carries schismatic import. His spectacle can be seen as black mockery of and subsuming of white patriotism in sectarian triumphalism, and at the same time a kind of democratic parable warning that the essence of American life is the underdog, not the fat-cat, and that regard the wheel’s always in spin as to who holds what role. Rocky IV would later signal that Apollo’s patriotic fervour isn’t facetious but rather entirely earnest, and his felling at the hands of the hulking Russian Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) is offered as a vivid metaphor for the bloodied American nose of Korea and Vietnam.

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It’s tempting to read the schism between Rocky and Apollo as Stallone wrestling with his own nature and contradictions, the canny, driven, conservative, self-made self-promoter and the struggling, belittled outsider, the arch professional and the man unsure of his place in the cultural firmament. Apollo’s slow transition from Rocky’s great foe to his pal and mentor and then finally as spurring martyr is an essential aspect of the classic quartet. The climactic bout of the first film sees Apollo shocked when Rocky knocks him down for the first time in his career, turning it from a lark to a proper fight, and soon the two men are delivering savage blows, Rocky cracking Apollo’s ribs and Apollo breaking Rocky’s proudly hawkish nose. The rematch, which sees Rocky finally, properly besting Apollo, still only comes by a thin margin after they knock each-other down and Rocky gets to his feet quicker. When Apollo steps up to train Rocky in Rocky III, he ushers Rocky out of the homey precincts of Philly to the even grittier climes of black Los Angeles, at last spotlighting the place Apollo clawed his way out of, and furthering a kind of cultural exchange in a tale of interracial cooperation, even as the uneasy Paulie makes such witticisms as, “You can’t train him liked a colored fighter, he ain’t got no rhythm.”

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The closeness of Rocky and Apollo in prowess and talent is underlined again at the end of Rocky II as Rocky wins by the narrowest of margins, as the two men knock each-other to the ground and Rocky is able to get to his feet. The motif of their close-matched machismo is finally brought to a comedic head at the very end of the third film as they arrange a secret bout far away from media purely to satisfy themselves as to who’s the best, the film fading out on a freeze-frame of the two launching mirroring punches at each-other. Rocky’s eventual amity with Apollo contrasts his fractious relationship with Paulie, who browbeats his sister and wields a baseball bat around the living room in unleashing his toxic mixture of resentment and anger aimed at others but really conveying his own self-loathing. Mickey as a character, and Meredith’s scenery-chewing bravura in the part, was one of Stallone’s plainest attempts to recapture old Hollywood flavour: the gruff and grizzled old-timer played by one, armed with folkloric traditions and disdain for hype, resplendent in wool cap and coming armed with theatrically worn hearing aid.

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As with Rocky’s friendship with Paulie, sharp undercurrents of anger and frustration define Rocky’s ultimately paternal relationship with Mickey, who answers when Rocky finally snaps and demands to know why Mickey rides him so much, that Rocky had real promise but never capitalised on it. Mickey nonetheless tracks him down to his apartment after learning of the arranged fight and offering to share his wisdom, cueing a scene of pathos as Mickey digs out ancient, yellowed newspaper cuttings recounting his great bouts in a distant past, whilst Rocky, still smouldering in resentment for the old man, ignores him and then chases him out of the building with his bellows, frustration and resentment finally released, before finally dashing out to catch Mickey and agreeing to the partnership. Mickey’s death in Rocky III comes shortly after he reveals to Rocky he’s tried to keep him away from truly dangerous opponents, an act blending aspects of care and treachery, as it only put off the moment when Rocky would have to truly test his champion standing and deepest resources of courage.

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Rocky’s shot at success is nonetheless closely entwined in narrative and character progression with his relationship with Adrian, one arming him and inspiring him with new potency for the other, and the first film’s iconic ending as Rocky and Adrian embrace in obliviousness to the bout’s technical outcome. Shire was perfectly cast as the apparently mousy woman who proves Rocky’s equal when she finally unleashes on Paulie and remains, despite interludes of fear, her mate’s rock-solid supporter. Another matchless aspect of the film’s power was Bill Conti’s score, with Rocky’s fanfare resembling Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” and the driving theme “Gonna Fly Now,” a rather oddball piece of film music in fusing big orchestral sweep matched to choral vocals and touches of pop, soul, and rock, a multigeneric stew that perfectly articulates the film’s celebration of American alchemy. As the moment of the fight approaches, Rocky’s renewed verve and fight-ready prowess breaks into clear ground, dynamically illustrated in one of the most famous, copied, and lampooned sequences in cinema, as Avildsen depicts Rocky pushing his body to new heights in a montage of exercises, climaxing in him running through the streets on a cold Philadelphia morning, past smoke-billowing factories and railway lines and along streets piled with garbage, the lean and fluid intensity of Rocky’s new body contrasting the blight all about him.

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There’s a touch of genius in the way this sequence converts the film’s driving ideas into thrilling visual statements. Rocky jogging with bricks in hand with the rising sun behind as Bill Conti’s heroic fanfare rings out suggest the birth of new tidings. Avildsen films Stallone running along the waterfront, a sailing ship moored in the background as if mindful of an immigrant nation’s seaborne past, Rocky suddenly picking up speed as if the further he goes the more power he becomes, before making his iconic dash up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum. Variations on this sequence would inevitably recur in most of the subsequent films. One difference between the first iteration of this scene and the later ones however is the aspect of sarcasm in Rocky’s postures of triumph as he reaches the summit and dances before the dawn, Stallone deftly showing even in such an unimpeachably inspiring moment that Rocky knows very well he’s still just one lone man play-acting his triumph. The most joyous and effective variation comes in Rocky II where Rocky this time is pursued through the streets by a horde of young fans cheering him as he makes his dash, the lone warrior now folk hero.

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The climactic bout of Rocky is no elegant ballet of technique but instead an intense slugfest Rocky forces Apollo to participate in, a dialogue not just of duelling personalities but ways of comprehending life through action, taking cues less from Ali’s match with Wepner or event the near-mystical artistry of the Rumble in the Jungle than his notoriously grim brawls with Ken Norton and Joe Frazier. Apollo still wins the first fight by a split decision, but it’s Rocky who emerges as the hero. Rocky II takes off immediately after the first film as Rocky and Apollo are both rushed to hospital to recover, where Rocky asks Apollo if he gave him his best and Apollo replies that he did. Rocky enjoys the fruits of his success but spends his purse quickly and unwisely, and because of damage to one of his eyes he doesn’t want to fight again. Rocky is soon reduced to working in the same meat plant as Paulie, whilst Adrian goes back to the pet shop despite being heavily pregnant. Paulie prospers in taking over Rocky’s old beat as Gazzo’s debt collector, and buys Rocky’s beloved sports car off him after Rocky gets sacked from the plant. Apollo, increasingly stung by a general belief Rocky really won the fight, decides to goad his foe back into the ring, provocations both Rocky and Mickey eventually feel are too cruel to ignore.

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Rocky II sees Stallone nudging the material into a zone where what was previously earnest, convincing, and low-key began to give way to shtick and formula, and trying many a broad ploy to make Rocky seem even more likeable and straightforwardly good. The former standover man is now playing with kids in the street and begging for blessings from the old Italian local priest. What would soon become the ritualised killing-off of familiar, beloved characters for the requisite emotional juice was presaged when Adrian falls into a coma when there are complications with her pregnancy, intensifying Rocky’s unease in returning to fighting. This climaxes in a happily corny hair-on-your-neck moment when, after awakening and with their son Robert Jnr safely born, Adrian asks one thing of Rocky: “Win.” The second match-up of Apollo and Rocky proves a radically different affair as Mickey has trained Rocky to fight in right-hand style in order to protect his eye, only to unleash his pulverising left hooks in the last round to finally claim victory. The climactic bouts in the first three sequels have a similar shape as Rocky absorbs intense punishment much as he and his loved-ones feared, only for Rocky to gain strength as his foes cannot keep him down, and soon he’s actively taunting them with their failure and luring them into self-destructive overreach.

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Rocky made Stallone but to a certain extent proved a millstone for Avildsen, who was changed forever from a maker of artful character studies to a director constantly tapped for his ability to make rah-rah narratives work, in subsequent efforts like three Karate Kid films, Lean on Me (1989), The Power of One (1992), and Eight Seconds (1994). Avildsen only returned to Rocky for 1990’s lumpy, if perhaps undervalued Rocky V, which more or less took the series full circle. Rocky II clearly saw Stallone claiming full auteur status in the series, and meditating on his breakthrough success and folk heroic standing, and the difficulties negotiating with it. Rocky’s fast ascent and equally quick descent mimic Stallone’s immediate experience, and the film sustains the honest emotional tone of the first film by feeling palpably rueful in this regard, as well as asking the right questions about how a guy like Rocky would sustain himself after such a life twist. Stallone portrays Rocky attempting to earn money through appearing in commercials but failing because he’s a poor reader and can’t work off cue cards, which feels like a pointed dramatic translation of Stallone’s own difficulties in being taken seriously as an actor after overcoming his facial tic. Despite being a relatively green director Stallone proved himself entirely capable of mimicking and augmenting Avildsen’s style, although the film has an odd, slouchy pace at points.

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Rocky III and IV are by contrast tighter, flashier bits of filmmaking, almost to a fault, with Stallone knowing well that the essentials of the characters are now so locked down he doesn’t need to waste too much time reiterating them. If the first Rocky is the “good” movie in terms of its modest and substantial intensity, then Rocky III is the highpoint of the series as pop entertainment, the most emblematic and purely enjoyable, for several reasons. Before he got a bit too montage-happy on Rocky IV, Stallone here grasped the way Avildsen’s montage work could condense story: like its heroes, once the breaks into clear ground, it can just get on with things in the most kinetic and visually fluid fashion. One vital new flourish was the Chicago rock band Survivor’s gleefully cheesy, thumping new anthem “Eye of the Tiger,” played over an opening montage showing Rocky’s successful defences of his title, interspersed with vignettes showing Rocky becoming a newly slick and confident player, now even readily making credit card commercials. Another was casting former bodyguard Lawrence ‘Mr. T’ Tureaud as the fearsome new contender, ‘Clubber’ Lang, a verbally aggressive and ferociously physical boxer.

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If Apollo represented a depoliticised, well-scrubbed take on Ali’s popular image, Lang seems more like a compendium of the less charitable caricatures of Ali, actively contemptuous of opponents and wrapping his colossal ego and resentment in coded race resentment: “This country wants to keep me down,” he declares in picking a fight with Rocky, “They don’t want a man like me to have the title!” He also sharply contrasts both Rocky and Apollo like the embodiment of their own dark sides. Where both of them have more or less defeated the aspects of their fighting drive like resentment and anger over their roots and experiences of classism and racism, Lang weaponises both as part of his annihilating persona. Rocky is doubly spurred because Mickey keels over and dies from a heart attack amidst the convulsive tension and furore before Rocky takes on the feral contender, long in the offing but finally provoked by Lang’s behaviour, and he then loses his match-up with Lang partly because of his worry for Mickey as well as from losing his edge. Apollo steps into the breach to train Rocky, taking him to Los Angeles to learn in the environs that made Apollo. This time around, Stallone’s personal metaphors highlight his awareness that stretching out the series risked turning it cartoonish – not that that stopped him – as Rocky is first glimpsed battling giant wrestler Thunderlips (Terry ‘Hulk Hogan’ Bollea). The rest of the film’s angst over whether Rocky really still deserves champion presages Stallone’s efforts to try and prove himself a lasting star beyond the character, and his difficulty in finding good vehicles beyond Rocky and Rambo would dog him long after.

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Rocky III’s narrative proper opens with Stallone tracking a drunk and dispirited Paulie around the old neighbourhood, getting himself jailed for smashing a pinball machine with Rocky’s face on it. Rocky comes to bail him out and after insulting and trying to punch him Paulie finally asks him point-blank for a job, and Rocky readily agrees. This vignette has a box-ticking aspect to it but also carries a sharp sense of the way success radically changes relationships and also how it can make great life problems much less complex, and so even as the series becomes more crowd-pleasing and fantastical it retains a sense of how personality and sociology combine. Stallone’s wonderfully slick style on Rocky III verges occasionally on self-satire, particularly as Rocky and Apollo train together with lots of long, luscious close-ups of their heaving muscles and emphasis on their friendly rivalry that it borders on soft-core interracial homoeroticism, reaching an apogee when Rocky finally beats Apollo in a footrace and in celebration splash about together in the surf. Given that Rocky and Adrian’s relationship has by this time become fixed in stone, their relationship is much less vivid and central, although Adrian is given a crucial speech as she helps Rocky leave behind his lingering guilt and fear and again lends him new velocity.

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In Rocky III the climactic bout isn’t one about the fighting spirit of great boxers but a quest to slay a particularly vicious dragon. Rocky this time unwaveringly returns Lang’s gorgonizing stare, and after taking and shrugging off a few of Lang’s most lethal blows Rocky expertly turns his foe’s size and ferocity against him by revealing new staying power as well as refined strength and nimbleness, and then pounding him to pieces. In Rocky IV, Rocky’s resurgence and evolution are complete, now a rich and widely loved man, slicker in speech and confident in the world with Adrian and young Robert at his side. It’s Apollo who’s facing frustration in retirement that finds an outlet when Drago, visiting the US with his smug Soviet apparatchik manager Nicolai Koloff (Michael Pataki) and his wife Ludmilla (Brigitte Nielsen), provokes his patriotic pride. Apollo arranges a match-up against Drago, although the Soviets want to fight Rocky, only for Apollo to receive a fatal beating from the Russian hulk. Determined to avenge his friend and take up the symbolic contest, Rocky agrees to head to the USSR to fight Drago despite Adrian’s certainty he’ll end up like Apollo, taking Duke with him and this time training in the harsh Russian landscape.

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With Rocky IV Stallone leaned into the notion that his kind of resurgent Hollywood blockbuster was a weapon in endgame Cold War cultural contest, something many critics and commentators saw as inherent in the re-emergence of morally straightforward and expensive B movies as the Reagan era ascended. Rambo: First Blood Part II (1984) had already explicitly revised Stallone’s other alter ego from outcast warrior at odds with his own society, rooted in the waning Vietnam-age angst, to avenging angel settling old scores with arrogant external enemies, underlining and even perhaps helping to author a shifted zeitgeist. Rocky, as Stallone’s more conscientious persona, tackled the same idea more generously. Rocky IV is perhaps the film most emblematic of a popular concept of a 1980s movie, replete with music video-like montage inserts that provide visual emotional shorthand, complete with one in which Rocky drives his car at night whilst conjuring up demonic visions of a strobe-lit Drago. Rocky is reborn as a yuppie who buys a pet robot for Paulie, and now turns his attention from domestic struggle to geopolitical forums. Now Rocky’s fighting pith needs blood sacrifice to bring it to the boil.

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Drago is offered as the near-monstrous incarnation of a paranoid American concept of Soviet prowess, scrubbed of emotion and human frailty, trained with space-aged precision and liberal doses of steroids, his face festooned on huge Stalinesque propaganda banners: the übermensch as state project. Drago’s wife, with her hair short-cropped and blonde like his, suggests a slightly different model of cyborg. Clearly by this point the series had lost a great deal of touch with its initially earthy sensibility and had embraced a new, campy, high-style approach. And yet there’s still a strand of the old thoughtfulness, as Stallone alternates Drago and Rocky’s perspectives as fighters plunged into disorienting new arenas filled with dazzling lights and surrounded by forms of hoopla they don’t quite understand. Before his fight with Apollo, Drago is depicted as solitary and bewildered amidst the splashy pre-bout show featuring James Brown and Vegas showgirls, and Apollo prancing about dressed as Uncle Sam. Rocky by contrast stumbles out into an arena filled with booing Commies and the full spectacle of political import as a Gorbachev lookalike and other Presidium members settle to watch the presumed inevitable victory of their man. Stallone portrays the cold war antagonists as studies in clashing aesthetics, first signalled in the credits as two boxing bloes emblazoned with their national liveries collide and explode, and then reiterated, Americana seen as gaudy, flashy, vulgar, and lively, Soviet spirit as monumental, monolithic, and possibly more potent in its lack of such wooliness.

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The contrast is illustrated most vividly as Stallone returns to the classic training montage but this time intercutting Rocky’s exertions with Drago’s. The Soviet man is ensconced in futuristic gyms and tested with machines as well as injections of mad-scientist drug cocktails, whilst Rocky gets down and dirty in the world of a Russian peasant, running along frozen roads, hefting about farm equipment, and finally dashing up mountain flanks to bellow out his foe’s name in vengeful intent. Stallone’s showmanship is at a height of glorious absurdity here, inflating the notion of real manliness as the product of toil rather than calculation to the nth degree. There’s also a ghost of topical commentary on the general suspicion that Eastern Bloc countries had been using performance enhancing drugs on athletes for years before sports organisations began actively stamping it out. Ultimately, though, Rocky IV’s method keeps it from being as deft as the third film as the montages pile up and the dramatics prove largely supernal and rote. Adrian quickly makes up with Rocky and lets him get back to his push-ups, and the death of Apollo, a singular galvanic figure in the franchise, is quickly left behind. It’s also rather tempting to see Rocky IV’s subtext as less political parable and more a portrayal of Stallone’s amused anxiety at Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recent emergence as a rival bemuscled action star: Drago is essentially a stand-in for the Terminator and Lundgren’s mock-Slavic drawl evokes Schwarzenegger’s accent.

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Ironies abound around Rocky IV: as the shortest and most abidingly formulaic of the series, one that even commits the crime of omitting Conti’s key themes, it’s also perhaps the most fiercely loved for its hyperbolic purity. The basic notion driving the series, the relatively little guy taking on an intimidating enemy and finding it vulnerable, is pushed to its limit as Rocky gets into the ring with the towering Lundgren, who delivers his inimitable threat, “I must break you,” with haughty dispassion, and Rocky goes through his a-man’s-gotta-do paces with grim commitment. Rocky finally impresses the Russian audience so profoundly they start cheering for him, proving crowds everywhere love an underdog. This in turn so infuriates the frustrated Drago he finally exposes himself as a failure by both communist principles and sporting ones as he angrily tells the audience he fights for himself. Rocky finally flattens him and then delivers a conciliatory message, in his own inimitable fashion, based in the changes in his attitude to the crowd and vice versa mean that “everyone can change.”

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It’s both absurd and entirely fitting that Rocky turns his big lug charm and intrinsic humanism to defusing political tensions and forging national outreach, with the fadeout on the image of Rocky literally wrapped in the American flag. The next four films in the Rocky-Creed saga would commit to reining in the pop-movie excess of Rocky IV to a more quotidian frame again, eventually seeing Rocky resettled as a fairly average Joe back in his old neighbourhood, after being nearly bankrupted by a corrupt accountant in Rocky V. Turning to training, the fifth film sees Rocky foster a young fighter who then betrays him, leading to a literal street fight between the two men Rocky manage to win. The middle-aged and widowed Rocky returned for a surprisingly good show of battling a champion in a gimmick bout in Rocky Balboa (2006), and even revisited the Drago legacy in Creed II with a newly shaded sense of generational suffering and anger. As a series the films have half-accidentally become something unusual, a portrait of a character and the actor playing him marching through the stages of life, steadily losing his loved-ones but gaining new ones as well. This fits well with Rocky’s symbolic cachet. But it’s hard not to wish the series, and life, could’ve ended with Rocky at his peak, the guy who always has one last pile-driving punch to aim at fate’s chin.

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2010s, Uncategorized

Confessions of a Film Freak 2019

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By Roderick Heath

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

02
Parasite

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

03
Ford v Ferrari

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

04
Fighting With My Family

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

05
Arctic

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

06
The Aeronauts

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

07
1917

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

08
The Nightingale

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

09
Monos

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

10
The Last Black Man in San Francisco

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

11
The Art of Self-Defense

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

12
Uncut Gems

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

13
The Farewell

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

14
Booksmart

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

15
The Beach Bum

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

16
Under the Silver Lake

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

17
The Hustle

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

18
Rambo: Last Blood

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

19
Daughter of the Wolf

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

20
Us

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

21
The Wind

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

22
The Lighthouse

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

23
High Life

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

24
Dragged Across Concrete

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

25
Les Misérables

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

26
Shaft

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

27
Avengers: Endgame

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

28
Star Wars – Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker

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

29
Captain Marvel

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

30
Brightburn

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

31
Godzilla: King of the Monsters

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

32
Fast Color

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

33
Joker

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

34
Dumbo

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

35
Aladdin

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

36The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

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

37
Alita: Battle Angel

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

38
Crawl

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

39
Gemini Man

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

40
Knives Out

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

41
Hellboy

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

42
Top End Wedding

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

43
Ride Like A Girl

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

44
Midway

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

45
Hustlers

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

46
Synonyms

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

47
Luce

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

48
Share

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

49
Dolemite Is My Name

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

50
Little Woods

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

51
Marriage Story

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

52
Jojo Rabbit

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

53
The Two Popes

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

54
Official Secrets

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

55
Hotel Mumbai

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

56
Richard Jewell

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

57
Dark Waters

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

58
A Hidden Life

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

59
The Chambermaid

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

60
Portrait of a Lady on Fire

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

61
Transit

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

62
Non-Fiction

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

Performances of Note:

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

Favorite Films of 2019

63

Ad Astra (James Gray)

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

64

Ash Is Purest White (Jia Zhangke)

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

65

Birds of Passage (Cristina Gallego, Ciro Guerra)

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

66

Domino (Brian De Palma)

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

67

Everybody Knows (Asghar Farhadi)

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

68

In Fabric (Peter Strickland)

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

69

Holiday (Isabella Eklöf)

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

70

Hotel By The River (Sang-soo Hong)

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

71

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

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

72

Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Bi Gan)

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

73

Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino)

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

74

Pain & Glory (Pedro Almodovar)

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

75

Shadow (Zhang Yimou)

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

76

The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg)

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

77

Tempting Devils (Jean-Claude Brisseau)

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

Honourable Mention

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

Rough Gems and/or Underrated

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

Disappointing and/or Overrated

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

Crap

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

Unseen

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

The Best Older Films I Saw First in 2019

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

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Uncategorized

The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967)

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aka Dance of the Vampires ; The Fearless Vampire Killers, or, Pardon Me But Your Teeth Are In My Neck

FearlessVampireKillers01

Director: Roman Polanski
Screenwriters: Gerard Brach, Roman Polanski

By Roderick Heath

The Fearless Vampire Killers has long suffered a benighted reputation. It’s remembered to pop culture lore chiefly as the film on which Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate met. Tate’s sorry fate and Polanski’s later disgrace tend to weigh heavily on attempts to appreciate the film’s near-unique, bewitching blend of horror and comedy, two modes notoriously difficult to blend. The Fearless Vampire Killers was Polanski’s follow-up to his first two films made in Britain, the psychological horror film Repulsion (1965) and the tragicomic thriller Cul-de-Sac (1966), films that established Polanski as a force to be reckoned with outside his native Poland, where he’d first gained notice with his debut feature, Knife in the Water (1962). The Fearless Vampire Killers saw Polanski working with a comparatively large budget and filming in colour for the first time, on a production shepherded by producer Gene Gutowski and co-written with Polanski’s regular writing partner Gerard Brach, partly filmed around the Italian Dolomites. Originally screened as Dance of the Vampires upon release in the UK, the film was retitled The Fearless Vampire Killers, or, Pardon Me But Your Teeth Are In My Neck for its American release, heavily edited, appended with a new, animated opening credit sequence, and marketed overtly as a campy, farcical parody. Seen in this form the film was largely dismissed as a creative blip before Rosemary’s Baby (1968), the film that brought Polanski to Hollywood with a bang. The proper cut has long since been restored and generally known by the plainer title of The Fearless Vampire Killers.

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The original title perhaps contained more of the essence of Polanski’s odd melding of elegance and bite, in a film that his cinematographer Douglas Slocombe correctly saw a sensibility strongly rooted in a rarefied central European evocation of fairytale menace. Certainly, Polanski intended to make sport of the waning Gothic horror film revival of the late 1950s and ‘60s, particularly Hammer Films’ beloved imprimatur with its boldly textured use of colour and lushly coded sexuality. Ironically, Polanski gained a bigger budget and heftier technical collaborators, like Slocombe, than what he was targeting could dream of. With Repulsion Polanski had helped formulate the modern horror movie with its basis in socially transmitted evil and psychological roots of mayhem, inaugurated by Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, advance a few more degrees. But The Fearless Vampire Killers is executed in a fashion that reveals Polanski’s deep affection for and peculiar understanding of the gothic style of horror movie even as he’d done his bit for rendering it antiquated, crossbred with aspects of silent movie comedy and Yiddish music hall humour. Polanski cast himself in the film as Alfred, the gangly, jittery assistant to Professor Abronsius (Jack McGowran), a former teacher at the University of Konigsberg and expert in nocturnal wildlife who’s turned his hand to the great and holy mission of proving the existence of vampires, tracking them down, and exterminating them.

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Abronsius has been chased out of academia by colleagues who, as Ferdy Mayne’s inimitable opening narration tells us, blessed him with the nickname of “The Nut.” The opening scene evinces Polanski’s strange and ethereal mood blended with absurdism, envisioning a snow-caked Mittel Europa landscape through which a sled carves a laborious path. The sled carries Abronsius and Alfred, and Alfred realises they’re being chased by wolves, forced to fend off the animals alone because of the driver’s obliviousness and Abronsius is almost frozen stiff in the bitter cold. The film’s first shot signals Polanski’s technical mastery with a complex, multi-plane matte shot, zooming out from a model moon and pulling back to an eerily beautiful wide shot of the snowy landscape across which the sled progresses laboriously. Immediately we’re drawn out of any sense of the real world and into one that’s more like illustration, only for the mood to shift to one of dry slapstick in Alfred’s panicky fight with the wolves and attempts to alert his companions. Polanski continues such a dance of tones throughout, rarely going for big laughs or overt horror, but tracing the edges of a queasy zone where a sense of the ridiculous abuts a sense of the oneiric. Abronsius and Alfred are installed in the inn of Yoyneh Shagal (Alfie Bass), a place where the local yokels assemble in a haze of steam and goose down flecking the air, with garlic cloves hanging all around.

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Abronsius and Alfred are defrosted and installed in an overpriced room by Shagal, who has a rotund and watchful wife, Rebecca (Jessie Robins), a pretty daughter, Sarah (Tate) just returned from a girls’ school, and a maid he patently lusts after, Magda (Fiona Lewis). The coming of the crusading duo causes friction in the Shagal household, as Sarah admits to Alfred she became very fond of having a bath when at school, but the only tub in the inn, located in a room adjoining both hers and the new arrivals, is placed off-limits to her, after they catch sight of her naked in the bath when Shagal shows the new arrivals the amenity. Polanski and Brach have fun with their concept of Abronsius as a vampire killer whose general method is to obey genre cliché. Abronsius notes the garlic hanging all around and feels he’s getting close to his goal. “Is there by chance a castle in the area?” Abronsius enquires, only for the yokel who tries to answer in the affirmative (Ronald Lacey) to be quickly silenced by his fellows. Alfred meanwhile becomes smitten with Sarah, catching her eye by building a snowman in the yard.

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When a grotesquely misshapen hunchback, Koukul (Terry Downes), arrives at the Inn on a sled, Abronsius suspects he’s the vampire overlord’s traditional minion. He assigns Alfred to track Koukol to his base, but Alfred quickly abandons the task as it proves too hard to cling onto Koukol’s sled and after he’s been treated to a bloodcurdling sight, as Koukol, far from being harassed by the same wolves that chased Alfred and Abronsius earlier, stalks after one of the animals and returns with his massive buck teeth dripping gore. Man bites dog is news indeed. Shagal makes midnight excursions, first to nail shut the door to Sarah’s room and then to set about trying to get into bed with Magda, who coolly rebuffs his advances. He attracts the attention of both his wife, who stalks him with a huge salami to bash him on the head, and the would-be vampire slayers, out to learn what’s afoot. Shagal successfully eludes his wife by hiding behind Magda’s door and she instead the wallops Abronsius on the head, knocking him out cold. The next day Abronsius meets only stonewalling shrugs as he tries to alert the Shagals to his assault. Sarah gets around her father’s barricade by sneaking into the duo’s room and begging Alfred to let her use the tub, only her choice of words makes him think at first she’s talking about lusty needs provoked when she was at school: “I adore it…Besides, they say it’s good for your health…do you mind if I have a quick one?” But Sarah has fatefully attracted the attention of Koukol’s master, the Count von Krolock (Mayne), who lurks on the roof awaiting his chance to spring on her.

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The Fearless Vampire Killers nods occasionally to comic territory familiar from other movies of its time. Some bawdy gags would fit in with likes of the Carry On… films, as when Shagal becomes mesmerised by Magda’s rhythmic backside as she scrubs the floor, and his games of hide-and-seek as he tries to get into the maid’s bed. Other jokes have a basis in the broadening social compass of pop culture, ribbing the blind spots of the old, square, carefully constrained horror style. That old Jewish theatrical tradition, which also echoed through the work of some comic filmmakers emerging in the late ‘60s including Mel Brooks and Woody Allen, inspires the best-known gag in Polanski’s film. The vampirised Shagal waves his hands in delighted disdain at the crucifix brandished at him by Magda and declares, “Oy-yoi, ‘ave you got the wrong vampire!” Queerness was a common subtext in many a classic horror film, but Polanski made it plainer as Alfred encounters Von Krolock’s gay son Herbert (Ian Quarrier), “A gentle, sensitive youth,” as the Count put it, with Alfred threatened with a new form of the fate worse than death as Herbert’s undying toyboy.

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Polanski also weaves in a stream of visual puns. A shot of what seems to be Alfred staking Shagal at Abronsius’ instruction, filmed in silhouette as per genre visual convention, proves instead to be a practice run on a pillow where Alfred whacks his mentor’s fingers. An attempt to stake a presumably hidden vampire releases a gushing red torrent that proves to be wine. When Shagal sneaks into the duo’s room to close off the bathroom, he’s seen at first to have what looks like huge fangs jutting from his mouth but prove to be nails. Other comic sights have a more subtle, weird inflection, like Alfred placing heated cups on Abronsius’ skinny, pale blue back, or a shot of Abronsius sprawled asleep over a desk, his snoring gusts causing a piece of paper to flutter and unfurl, straight out of a Looney Tunes animated short. The silent comedy influence becomes clearer in Polanski’s lyrical sense of peculiar motion, watching Alfred and Abronsius trying to ski across the snowy landscape, or lope from block to block on a castle battlement, Abronsius’ long, stork-like limbs and Alfred’s rubbery physique providing a study in constantly linked yet distinct modes of ambulation. Late in the film comes a priceless piece of visual comedy based in the nearly Escher-like sense of the castle’s geography, as Alfred tries to flee Herbert, dashing at speed around the balcony over the castle courtyard only to arrive back face to face with his would-be lover-killer.

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Sarah’s assault by Von Krolock changes the film’s initial atmosphere, however, from one of general, oddly textured play to one charged with a rather darker undertone. A few flecks of fairytale snow falling onto Sarah’s bathwater alert her to something strange, and she glances up to see Von Krolock floating down towards her with red eyes and long teeth. As he would do more extensively on Chinatown (1974), Polanski switches to hand-held shots to evoke physical urgency and distress, as Von Krolock pinions Sarah and bites her neck as she thrashes in the water, soap and water flying, and when he departs he leaves only a red stain on her bath bubbles. There’s a charge of genuine disquiet that certainly feels consistent with Polanski’s more familiar, dire portrayals of intimate violence. The scene is further augmented by one of the film’s most remarkable elements, the music by Christopher (Krzysztof) Komeda. Komeda, a jazz musician and another of the people involved with the film who died tragically young, had scored Polanski’s three previous movies, and here he provided one of the greatest and weirdest film scores with stark, throbbing instrumentations interwoven with vocal ululations, remixing familiar aspects of many a horror score – organs, harpsichords, ominous choruses – into a truly weird melange, reaching an apogee during Von Krolock’s attack. And yet Polanski sneaks in a fillip of humour here too as Alfred, catching sight of Von Krolock through the keyhole and cringing in tongue-thrusting, ferret-eyed fear.

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The Shagals’ distraught reaction to Sarah’s vanishing treads a line between the two states, at once a depiction of parental grief and vaudeville shtick. Shagal heads out into the snowy night to try and bring back Sarah, girding himself for battle by chewing up garlic cloves. This proves an insufficient defence, however, as he’s found outside the next day frozen into a bizarre sculpture and riddled with vampire bites that Abronsius uncovers with justified satisfaction, although the rest of the villagers continue to obfuscate and call them animal bites. Abronsius tries to convince Rebecca her husband’s body needs to be staked, only for her to chase the vampire hunter off at the point of his own stake. So Abronsius and Alfred decide to do the job themselves, cueing one of Polanski’s best pieces of visual humour, as the two men pause to crouch down by the table Shagal’s corpse is laid out on, and take out vampire killing implements only to see Shagal revived and watching them in grinning bemusement. Shagal flees as eludes the hunters in the wine cellar, and attacks Magda in her room. The dynamic duo give chase on skis to Shagal as he dashes out into the countryside, leading them to Von Krolock’s castle. The ski pursuit becomes a lyrical moment of physical action upon vast spaces of snowy land stained blue in the moonlight, ski track cutting the frame with ribbons of blue and lines of action following contorted geometry.

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The familiar heroic figure of the Van Helsing-type vampire slayer, the iron-willed and well-versed enemy of evil, is perverted into an extended and acerbic joke about intellectual dilettantes, taking on monolithic evil with tunnel-visioned confidence and book learning. McGowran’s peerless comedic performance presents Abronsius as a man of no small mental muscle – witness how cleverly he extracts himself and Alfred from being imprisoned by Von Krolock by making use of an old cannon – but who’s also the epitome of the absent-minded professor, aging, distractable, and hardly a dynamic swashbuckler. Abronsius is too often more absorbed in and pleased by proving himself right than cognisant of entering a dangerous situation and provoking his quarries. He and Alfred evoke many a classic comedy team, transposing Laurel and Hardy into Hammer Horror, constantly getting themselves into another fine mess, or a subtler take on Abbott and Costello’s adventures in horror-comedy. Polanski had been acting in movies as long as he’d been directing them, having appeared in Andrzej Wajda’s A Generation (1955) in the same year he made his first short, but he was still taking a chance on casting himself as Alfred, a role that would’ve certainly fit some British comic actors of the day like Michael Crawford or Norman Wisdom. But he might have been precisely hoping to avoid making the role too comedic in the familiar sense: Polanski’s gawkily handsome, rather boyish façade and light Slavonic whistle lend a faint abstraction, and he managed to balance his characterisation at the intersection of comic foil, romantic lead, and holy fool. Tate, for her part, gives a deft comic performance, bewitching Alfred with painted-on freckles and mane of red hair, although she’s not in the film for much of the runtime, inhabiting it more as an elusive dream.

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The funny – or unfunny, depending on your viewpoint – thing about The Fearless Vampire Killers is the way it mediates Polanski’s essential themes, more often articulated in bleak psychodramas, in a style usually considered beyond his purview, although he’d make periodic returns to black comedy for sharply diminishing returns on What? (1973) and Pirates (1986). The figuration of a monstrous and all-powerful overlord who lays claims to the young innocent would be taken up again in Chinatown. Polanski gained attention with his early films for his stark sense of setting matched to a fascination with psychology and power and the nexus of the two, couched in a ready lexicon of modernist literature and art. Knife in the Water, set mostly on a sailing boat in dead calm stretches off Poland’s Baltic coast, isolated his characters in a setting stringent in its lack of orientation, turning space claustrophobic; in Repulsion he did the opposite, as a tight London apartment became, through its heroine’s viewpoint, a plastic space remade by her own crumbling psyche. Cul-de-Sac’s setting mediated the two, private castle perched atop an islet separated from the mainland by vast reaches of sand and mud. Polanski’s feel for landscape echoed Salvador Dali’s hallucinatory plains, abstract spaces of time and memory, a fitting setting to deploy dramas laced with influences from culture heroes like Kafka, Ionesco, and Beckett, mixed in with pulp fiction tropes.

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The Fearless Vampire Killers revolves around a detected likeness between the icy satire and allusive yearning for meaning in Kafka’s The Castle and the traditional format of the vampire tale, as the vampire killers are caught between obfuscating villagers and the dominating castle which they try to penetrate and locked in an extended game of politesse covering mutual intent to destroy. Like Kafka, Polanski was a product of the Eastern European Jewish experience, although the terrible experience of World War II separated them. The little humiliations and descriptions of a perverse and purposefully illogical social structure Kafka depicted had given way long since to mass murder and destruction and then resumed a superficial placidity with imposed political order: Polanski knew intimately about both. The Fearless Vampire Killers, in its own mordant, frisky way, analyses the familiar vampire myth as codified by Bram Stoker in a manner attentive to its purpose as political parable, an aspect usually kept as a strong subtext in the vampire movies of Fisher and Don Sharp, whose Kiss of the Vampire (1963) seems to have been a particular touchstone for Polanski and Brach. In offering vampires as an inferred stand-in for the impacts of Nazism on the landscape of his homeland, Polanski both echoed and also repatriated the theme after Robert Siodmak’s Son of Dracula (1943), which offered the same idea except as a warning over invasion and subterfuge. The devolved and desiccated remnants of aristocratic power still nonetheless rule the locale Abronsius and Alfred enter in blithe disinterest for the laboured efforts of academic do-gooders, the gnarled and desiccated ranks of the undead still wrapped in shabby robes of power and crawling out of their coffins to suck the life out of the few remaining specimens of beauty and potential left. Polanski uses vaudeville shtick to soften ever so slightly a tale of malignant power that starts out as a purely regional ill before gaining a chance to spread across the world.

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The comedy-horror film has always been a difficult tightrope to walk. Many a great horror film has made capital from characters’ natural habits of making quips amidst menacing surrounds, conspiring with the audience’s temptation to do the same thing in order to undercut it. But Polanski aimed for something distinct, and also different from a more straight-laced kind of spoof, which aims to disassemble familiar tropes and making sport of them, but tries to dig down to that niggling nerve where horror and humour converge, as different expressions of anxiety. A much later brand of gross-out movie, like Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator (1985) and From Beyond (1986) and Peter Jackson’s Brain Dead (1991), would adopt a quick path to stoking appalled laughter by deploying outrageous visions of gory depravity, whilst something like Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods (2011) offered an essay analysing the function of genre essentials even whilst provoking laughs at their recognition. Polanski followed more a model employed by the old Bob Hope vehicles The Cat and the Canary (1939) and The Ghost Breakers (1940), and which would in turn also be taken up by An American Werewolf in London (1981) and Ghost Busters (1984), where funny characters are unleashed in a situation that obeys classical horror genre rules.

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Mayne’s terrific performance as Von Krolock works in part because he’s assigned to play the traditional vampire master totally straight except with dimensions of deep existential dread and mocking humour aimed at Abronsius and Alfred, who he knows are unworthy foils. A sight like Downes’ Koukol, with overgrown pageboy haircut and colossal buck teeth, crouched in a pose reminiscent of a Hanna-Barbera animated grotesque but with a huge axe in his hands, somehow manages to be bizarrely funny and genuinely menacing. Much like the yacht of Knife in the Water, the flat of Repulsion and the castle of Cul-de-Sac, the labyrinthine sprawl of Von Krolock’s castle becomes a stage where the human interlopers’ efforts to prove themselves in control founder amidst the ridiculous. Polanski offers homage to Laurence Olivier’s films as director, as his vampire homestead becomes, like Olivier’s Elsinore in Hamlet (1948), a twisting, mimetic trap for behavioural perversity, whilst late in the film he includes a dancing vampire who looks like Olivier’s Richard III. Polanski suggests a sense of Horror cinema history as the echoing singing of Sarah recalls the haunting melodies echoing in dark places in the Val Lewton-produced Isle of the Dead and The Body Snatcher (both 1945). Alfred and Abronsius spend their time lurching around the confines of the castle and yet find themselves ludicrously ill-equipped for some simple breaking and entering, unable to come to grips with their enemy even when prostrate before them, often locked up in small rooms by Koukol, and reduced finally to literally running around in circles.

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Von Krolock plays the indulgent, engrossed host for Abronsius and Alfred once they gain access to him, confessing a liking for the Professor’s book on bats and drawing him into an extended, increasingly silly attempt to sustain his cover story over chasing a bat flying well out of season. The heroic duo’s efforts to penetrate the family crypt see them fended off by an axe-wielding Koukol at the gate, so they stagger around the battlements to access it by a skylight. Alfred slips through but Abronsius gets stuck, so the Professor tries to coach Alfred through staking the Count, but Alfred lacks necessary killer instinct. Alfred’s attempts to circumnavigate back out of the crypt and around again to the roof to pull Abronsius free are delayed when he hears eerily melodic singing echoing around the castle, and encounters Sarah bathing, preparing happily for her role as guest of honour and unwitting main course at the Von Krolocks’ annual ball and hiding the bite wound on her neck with a lock of hair. The love-struck Alfred tries to convince her to leave with him immediately, but as he scratches a love heart on the frosted window sees Abronsius still jammed in the skylight and dashes out to free him.

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The recurring joke about people being frozen solid or near enough makes sport of the farceur tradition’s sense of elastic physicality by making actors at once exploit their muscular control but also deny it: they become an object. It also offsets one of the film’s most fervent concern, with human (and inhuman) connection, peculiar pacts and perversities rooted in mutual need. Alfred’s love for Sarah and desire to rescue the damsel in distress offers the most traditional frame but the same force binds Alfred to Abronsius and makes Herbert fall for him, makes Von Krolock play “pastor” to “my beloved flock,” and drives Shagal to madcap excursions in his efforts, both alive and undead, to claim Magda: even the dead can’t stand being alone. Von Krolock touches his son’s arm with a tender solicitude as Herbert gazes mournfully out upon another sunrise as they prepare for sleeping in their coffins. Malignant as they are, Polanski sees even his vampires as creatures beset by pains of solitude and need echoing on with strange intensity across aeons rather than the mere lifespan of humans. Such need is however also repeatedly seen to be consuming: to love is also to destroy, to consume.

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Understandably, then, high-flown romantic chestnuts come in for a ribbing as well as horror clichés, as Alfred digs a book out of Von Krolock’s library entitled “A Hundred Goodlie Ways Of Avowing One’s Sweet Love To A Comlie Damozel” for the purposes of wooing Sarah, only for Herbert to snatch it from his hands and start using it to guide his own advances: whereupon Alfred finds the book remarkably useful not as lubricant but as a prophylactic – shoving it into Herbert’s mouth to ward off his bite. When Alfred and Abronsius manage to infiltrate the ranks of dancing vampires Alfred announces himself to Sarah as her saviour: “It is I!…life has a meaning once more.” A late gag, which also signals the final veering into territory close to romantic tragedy, takes a swipe at La Boheme as Alfred grips Sarah’s frigid fingers and exclaims, “Your tiny hand is frozen!” When Alfred tries to track down Sarah again when he thinks he hears her singing, he finds the squeaking voice is actually a water pump Herbert’s pumping. Meanwhile Von Krolock tells the vampire slayers, with a blend of mordant irony and pride as they watch the vampirised Shagal snatching Magda from the Inn via telescope, that the innkeeper’s been blessed with the restoration of his youthful vigour and life-lust. But Shagal, tasked with helping Magda dress to be another guest of the ball, finally gets too greedy and accidentally kills her in drinking too much of her blood.

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The social element to Polanski’s satire resurges as Shagal finds to his chagrin that Koukol won’t let him share the Von Krolock family crypt with the Count and Herbert, even dragging the newcomer out in his coffin and kicking him down stairs into the adjoining cemetery. Yes, even the undead have their undesirables and their clubs that won’t let Shagal’s kind in. When Alfred later penetrates the crypt, he finds, in a moment at once hilarious and pathetic, that Shagal’s still managed to get back in and has curled up, like a faithful dog, on top of Herbert in his coffin. Von Krolock hints at the kind of existential angst Werner Herzog and Francis Coppola would later dig into with their variations on the Dracula tale, as he promises to Abronsius that once he’s a vampire they can talk it all over during “the long evenings,” Mayne wittily stretching out the enunciation with both threat and also aspects of pain he’s all too happy to share with his enemy. Von Krolock clearly fancies himself not merely as patriarch to his vampire clan but a kind of priest-king who ministers to his “flock” and considers it an exalted status, promising Abronsius that he’ll understand “when you attain my spiritual level.” And yet Polanski undercuts Von Krolock’s pretences as he keeps revealing the animal edge of his behaviour, his leering, toothy visage as he hovers over Sarah, and baring his fangs as he torments Alfred, only to quickly hide them again as he resumes a veneer of haughty dignity: Von Krolock’s quasi-Nietzschean faith is actually Hobbesian nightmare.

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When his undead cotillion begins arriving for the ball, they crawl out of their graves and assemble in his hall, a collection of rotting, mouldering visages wrapped in dusty clothes from an ancien regime still clinging to existence in its cordoned corner of the world. Although it’s hinted the vampires’ success in retaining overlordship of the district has been self-defeating as fewer travellers bother coming there. Von Krolock, after saluting his brethren with the devil’s horns gesture, rouses them with a speech promising a feast this year after the gloom of the previous ball: “There we were, gathered together gloomy and despondent, around that single, meagre woodcutter.” Von Krolock plays the triumphal impresario as he bids his guests come closer before unveiling Sarah as bauble that will sate unholy hungers. The pivotal moment of the climax, and perhaps the film’s most ingenious melding of the droll and the surreal, comes when Alfred, Abronsius, and Sarah try to disguise their efforts to escape the vampire ball as part of the dance, only to find themselves confronted by a huge, dirty but still effective mirror affixed to the ballroom wall. Of course, the hapless trio are the only ones reflected in the glass, prancing puppets in foolish exposure.

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Tellingly, this is again a joke based in social distinction, the ultimate act of being outed as an outsider. It’s reminiscent, in a distant but crucial manner, of the moment where Tom Cruise’s Dr Harford is unmasked by a similarly controlling, perverse, youth-and-beauty-consuming crowd in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999). The main difference is that in Polanski’s film the bloodsucking is entirely literal. Alfred and Abronsius’ know-how proves equal to the moment, however dumb they look, however, as they improvise a huge cross out of old knightly swords and place it on the floor to keep the vampires at bay. Von Krolock sends the unaffected Koukol after them, and Koukol uses one of the coffins he’s fashioned as an improvised sled to chase down the sleigh the humans escape in. Koukol miscalculates, however, and crashes over a precipice to become food for the vengeful wolves. It seems like a victory for good, an unlikely yet hard-fought end for such dopes. Except that Sarah, possessed by the vampiric taint left in her bloodstream by the Count’s bite, unveils massive fangs and sinks them into Alfred’s neck. The oblivious Abronsius cracks the reins and transports the infected duo out into the world, free to transmit evil unchecked. A perfect resolution for Polanski’s stringent ransacking of genre familiarities, and one in keeping with the filmmaker’s career-long habit of ending on a downbeat note of misanthropic assessment. Alfred’s naively charming ardour proves, far from ennobling him, to be the ripest target for evil to find a purchase in.

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Collected Film Writings of 2018

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Friends, you can now download on pdf all my writings for Film Freedonia and sister blogs This Island Rod and Ferdy on Films for this year. Just click on the link below which will take you to PDF Archive and download the file:

Roderick Heath 2018 Collected Film Writing

Here’s wishing you all happy holidays; be sure to check back here next week for my annual year in film review, Confessions of a Film Freak 2018.

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The Duellists (1977)

To mark the founding of a new film site carrying on the legacy of Ferdy on Films, the site I co-authored with Marilyn Ferdinand for 13 years, I offer as the first piece on Film Freedonia the previously unpublished full-length version of the first essay I ever posted on that site, my look at Ridley Scott’s debut feature, The Duellists

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Sir Ridley Scott today stands at the forefront of popular cinema with a raft of works easily nameable to any self-respecting cineaste – Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down – and also a long mid-career slump with a slew of artistic and commercial failures. Scott often falls into the familiar trap of visually-oriented directors, turning in works overly-stylised and dramatically under-powered. But he has proved a remarkable survivor. Scott rode the vanguard of a generation of film-makers who stressed a visual sumptuousness almost unknown in British cinema outside of David Lean and Michael Powell; some were trained in television and advertising, like Ridley, brother Tony Scott, Hugh Hudson, and Alan Parker; others, like Peter Greenaway, rooted in a far more arty sphere, but in some ways similar in their love of gaudy flash. Most were instinctively commercial, and found varying degrees of success in Hollywood. Aiding many of these men was the impresario producer David Puttnam, who led a short-lived but impressive campaign by British cinema to reconstitute itself as a global force after a collapse in the early ‘70s.

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Puttnam pursued a strategy of tapping American money, hiring slick, commercially amenable talents, telling strong stories made with care and artfulness, and taking advantage of what was then the British industry’s surpassing, underused technical talent, to turn in films both ravishing in appearance, solid in drama, and cheaper to boot. They soon achieved Oscar success and box office victory with products including Parker’s Midnight Express and Hudson’s Chariots of Fire. The Duellists is one of the first films in this campaign, but it does, however, stand apart; it’s basically an art film, a hit at Cannes and not at the box office. It did, however gain Scott enough attention to land him the job of directing Alien.

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I would say his masterpiece is still his debut. Most first films are messy affairs; The Duellists, however, is remarkable for being the most concise film Scott has made. It is obviously influenced by Stanley Kubrick’s exercise in historical storytelling, Barry Lyndon, from two years previous, (indeed, the influence of Kubrick is still strong in later Scott works) in evoking with its cinematography the texture of still life and landscape paintings of the eighteenth century. As with Barry Lyndon, a swashbuckling story is turned inside out by this cool style, and becomes a study in irony, in watching what passes for classically heroic achievement revealed as idiocy and baseness. Yet it is its own film and it could be argued to be superior to its model, chiefly in being half as long but telling its story with equal impact. The story, adapted from a Joseph Conrad tale itself drawn from an apparently true account, is relatively simple. Beginning in Strasbourg in 1799, “the year Napoleon Bonaparte became ruler of France” as Stacy Keach’s narration puts it, we encounter Gabriel Feraud (Harvey Keitel), a Lieutenant in the 7th Hussars, swiftly and happily skewers the nephew of the town’s mayor in a duel because the man spoke disparagingly of Bonaparte.

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This incident sets in a rage the formidable General  Treillard  (Robert Stephens, the first in the film’s pitch-perfect series of character turns), and he orders D’Hubert, also a lieutenant in the Hussars, to find his vague acquaintance and place him under house arrest. He finds Feraud at the salon of Madame de Lionne (Jenny Runacre). Feraud is, naturally, less than pleased at this errand. On their way to Feraud’s billet, the gentlemanly, uncomfortable D’Hubert constantly trips verbally over Feraud’s fuming, and by the time they get there, Feraud has directed his rage at D’Hubert, promptly challenging him to a duel, and with his bullying D’Hubert cannot avoid it. Their furious fight in the courtyard is interrupted when D’Hubert slashes Feraud’s arm, causing Feraud’s mistress to promptly assault her lover’s assailant. What unfolds in episodes across the next fifteen years is a personal conflict backgrounded by a world war, and the nature of their antagonism broadly reflects that war. At first glance, The Duellists seems a disjointed, episodic film. We only see these two men in the times when they come across each-other in the course of the Grand Army’s campaign across Europe, and after. We come into the various chapters, identified by locale and date, and are made aware of the passing of time and the toll of war as friends and faces disappear, reappear, make their indelible impression, are lost and forgotten. In this way, The Duellists manages at once to maintain the economy of its short story basis but also evoke a novel’s complexity of texture.

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The chief – indeed only – similarity between Armand D’Hubert and Gabriel Feraud is that both are exceptionally good and brave soldiers. In fact, we see in them a study of two different kinds of bravery and honor. Armand is a relentlessly honorable man. We suspect, and later find it’s true, he comes from wealthy circumstances, and his manner is scrupulously gentlemanly and reasonableness. Yet he is a man who does not entirely understand himself, because he is ultimately so willing to engage in this trap of ethics and masculine pride. Late in the film is own self-defence, “I’m a temperate man! Temperate in my speech-” is rightly laughed at by his fiancé, because as we know already, his strength of character is at odds with his projected surface. His sense of honor forces himself to enter into circumstances when his good sense warns him away. He cannot be seen to turn tail, to tell tales, despite the fact that he does not even himself know just what exactly offended Feraud so badly, and thus considers their quarrel incoherent. Nonetheless he fears Feraud’s savagery. D’Hubert has the kind of guts that arise from necessity. Feraud, on the other hand, relishes violence, and Armand lives in constant, queasy-making fear of his enemy. In one of my all-time favorite lines, Armand’s physician friend Jacquin (played by Tom Conti), in considering Feraud’s face (D’Hubert has had him attend Feraud’s injury), describes perfectly one kind of bigot; “The enemies of reason have a certain blind look. Feraud has that look don’t you think?’ Jacquin has crucially recognised that Feraud is quite set on carrying on the quarrel until he kills Armand, and gives three crucial pieces of advice; keep away, keep ahead in rank, and hope Bonaparte keeps the wars going, all of which forestall further duels.

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Feraud is not a one-dimensional bully. Where the essentially Romantic Armand reckons their quarrel to be around a supposed disrespect shown for Madame de Lionne, it is to Gabriel about Bonaparte, and Gabriel’s private class war. He seems driven by deep resentments, and the surface reasons he finds to enact them, whether it’s assumed disrespect for Bonaparte or the fact that he can no longer win arm wrestling contests because of the wound Armand gave him, are excuses for a deeper resentment. Indeed, he has a psyche that feeds on such hates, to drive him in his pleasurable seeking of war and hate. He refers to Armand as a “boudoir soldier” and a “staff lackey” where he himself is, in the words of one fellow, a “man who would ride straight at anything”, a man’s man who fills his tent with other soldiers and vivandieres, boozing, screwing and betting. The duel is more than just an outlet for his angers; it is his equivalent of an extreme sport, the thing that sirs his blood, renews his soul and gives a mode of self-expression. “You make fighting a duel sound like a pastime in the Garden of Eden!” Armand comments in Madame de Lionne’s apartment.

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Armand’s own ‘woman of the garrison’ is Laura (Diana Quick). She is the last of an old crew of camp followers, representative of the women who have kept, comforted, and celebrated this roaming mass of organised madmen. Sprightly on the surface, increasingly melancholy beneath, she keeps account of what happened to her fellows and the soldiers they loved. She has a standing marriage proposal from one invalided ex-soldier, but passes it up to be with Armand, “the only one I ever loved”, when she accidentally comes across him in Augsburg (1801, the second “chapter”). Laura, however, soon finds herself driven to worry and anger at the spectacle of her man not merely endangered as a soldier but living in fear and readiness in between campaigns. She is forced to live constantly with the spectacle of death, maiming, and ruination not as a brave soldier and gallant but as a passive onlooker and ledger-keeper, the price paid for bathing in their collective sexy and spectacular glory. After their second contest, where, in a swift set-to, Armand almost accidentally receives a nasty gash in his chest that prevents further fighting, but Feraud will not shake hands with him. Laura subsequently confronts Feraud and his fellows in his tent. When he jokingly draws a sword to protect himself, saying, “I once knew a man who was stabbed by a woman, it gave him the surprise of his life”, she ripostes, immediately sizing up this figure as a mere cheap macho bully, “I once knew a woman who beaten to death by a man. I don’t think it surprised her at all.” Finally, Laura, inspired by a tarot card reader’s assessment of the situation, leaves Armand, leaving him a pointedly poignant farewell by writing “Good-bye” in lipstick on his sabre. Left grimly barren, Armand throws himself into an exhausting, brutal match with Feraud where the two men end up wrestling in utter exhaustion on the ground.

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Kingdom of Heaven featured one moment that tellingly quoted Scott’s debut work, The Duellists, when Balian (Orlando Bloom) recognised the head of his Templar friend (David Thewlis) stacked amidst many others, covered in a glaze of dust, a personal signature of the unseen brutality of battle, and a replica of a scene, in a different climate, in The Duellists, when Armand D’Hubert (Keith Carradine) discovers the frozen form of his friend and fellow soldier Lacourbe (Alun Armstrong) during Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow. The Duellists, a film made on a stringent budget that nonetheless manages to be at once one of the most beautiful films ever made, one of the best evocations of an historical period, and a work where the visual texture is in complete unity with the dramatic material.

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Ironically, despite the trouble it brings his personal life and the tirades he receives from Gen. Treillard, Armand actually benefits from this situation. “You’re a notorious and savage duellist,’ jests Lacourbe when he, Laura and Armand are dining in an Augsburg restaurant, and there’s the suggestion his career is helped along by this reputation. “All the little girls adore you.’ Lacourbe observes, and indeed, these soldiers are hold the dazzling, florid, outside-the-common status held only for rock and film stars today. Their duelling, though illegal, is actually grand theatre and entertainment. Their next fight, in Lubeck, 1806, is done on horseback, as “a compliment to the cavalry”. Here Armand encounters Laura once more; having married her invalided suitor, and then lost him in a typhus epidemic, she has returned to following the army but is now a bitter wreck, and when Armand ardently recommends she give up this life in spite of her tearful account that her husband suggested she return to “that fool Armand”, she hisses back spitefully; “This time he’ll kill you!” and runs away. Indeed, Armand becomes convinced of this, prompting Lacourbe’s angry answer; “Dammit, kill him!” In this duel, Scott makes a brilliant and inspired stylistic shift; as the two men face off on their chargers, and race in for the kill, a series of flash cuts illuminates Armand’s mind, recalling Feraud’s impudent savagery and Laura’s past love and present wretchedness; realising the evil mark Feraud has left on his life til now, Armand gains warrior rage and rather than dying leaves his enemy with half his scalp torn from his head.

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“Six years later,’ Keach intones, “The Emperor’s Grand Army regrouped for Armageddon.” “Russia, 1812”, gives a glimpse of the grim destruction of this grand force and its dashing, beautiful men. Frozen, whiskered, faces bitten into by chilblains, starved and without boots, they drag themselves tediously across a vast frigid landscape. All the trappings of decorum, civility, and humanity have fallen away, and the second they catch sight of each-other, Feraud bunks down paranoiacally with two rifles and eyes D’Hubert as they both huddle in shiver in a blizzard. They are now in a barren landscape where only instincts reign. Against all the codes they have been following to this point, they head off, under the pretext of reconnaissance, to duel in private. This scene is only stopped by the intrusion of a Cossack who mocks them, and, realising they are surrounded, the two men fight off their mutual enemy – only survival overwhelms their grim enmity. Feraud’s particular comfort with this animalistic state is seen when he calmly slices the wounded Cossack’s throat and refuses D’Hubert’s offer of a drink to celebrate their approaching the Neiman and escape. It is at this point D’Hubert finds Lacourbe’s body, a haunting image of lonely death on the edge of nothingness.

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“Tours, 1814” finds D’Hubert, retired having risen to the rank of General of Brigade, living with his sister Leonie (Meg Wynn Owen) on her estate, walking on a wounded leg and telling his nephews war stories. With his injury and his psychic exhaustion, despite being still a relatively young man, he has convinced himself he is done with the world. Leonie, recognising the danger and waste of this, immediately sets about matchmaking Armand with the niece of an elderly neighbouring Chevalier (Alan Webb), who is both happy to be restored to his rank post-Bonaparte but also fussily proud of his acquired trade as a boot-maker. Armand’s subsequent romance with Adele (Christina Raines) aids in his regeneration from emaciated, limping burn-out back to a serving commander again. But Bonaparte’s escape from Elba brings another ghost back to his door. A Colonel (Edward Fox) brings D’Hubert the offer to command a brigade – “The Emperor is our strength,” he says, “We belong to him.” “I rather fancied I belonged to myself.” Armand answers icily. In Armand D’Hubert we have not just seen the death of Napoleonic zeal but the rude birth of the better kind of modern man; partly cynical (“I fear the army will have more realists than Royalists”he reckons after Waterloo), partly still idealistic and honorable, Armand has notably rejected the call of grand projects and ethereal ethics. “It has been said that you do not love the Emperor.” Fox suggests. “By whom?” “By General Feraud, for one.” “Ask General Feraud what the honor of the Emperor has to do with Madame de Lionne.” D’Hubert suggests. Forced to recall this long-ago event, Feraud remembers D’Hubert as saying “As far as I’m concerned they can spit upon Napoleon Bonaparte!” Where up til now these two men have been quarrelsome aspects of the same thing, they are now bent in diverging directions.

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Whilst there is still the fire of defiance in Feraud’s stance, and in the whole Napoleonic revival, it is a shame defiance, idealism and vision become partisanship, compulsive destructiveness, inability to change or adapt. After Waterloo Feraud and his fellows return with missing limbs, eyes, glowering, aging, misshapen stumps of men, where D’Hubert grows strong, rich, secure, gains a command under the King, and more importantly, has a child expecting by his beautiful bride. But there is still in his sense of honor a form of security he won’t allow himself. Using his contacts, Armand approaches Fouché (Albert Finney), a virtuoso of survival by his own description – or as Fox calls him, a sewer rat; a turncoat who has gotten the job of handling political prisoners (“Or else my name would most certainly be on that list”), an image of the kind of corrupt, sleazy men who have inherited the nation now the brave ones are dead and with whom the peace is necessarily a negotiation; Armand saves Feraud from the chopping block. We sense immediately Armand’s reasons; his personal code of honor will not allow him the shabby security of avoiding an enemy by letting him get taken care of by someone else. Yet we also suspect Armand has some small part of himself that considers this piece of business unfinished and needing one last true decision.

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Nonetheless, when the time comes, and Feraud, released, dressed in self-conscious imitation of his exiled idol, comes looking for his nemesis, Armand condemns the proposed duel. Once again, Armand finds his life and his relationship threatened. Their final encounter, enacted around a ruined castle in a pristine morning wood, ends with Feraud’s raw hunter’s cunning almost winning, but Armand’s wits finally clinch the moment; aiming his gun at the waiting, goading Feraud, we suddenly leave the scene behind, and see Armand proceeding home, humored smile on his face, greeting his worried wife with cheer. And Feraud? We return to him, wondering the woods in grimacing solitude, musing of their encounter, when Armand stated, “By every rule of single combat from this moment your life belongs to me, is that not correct? Then I shall simply declare you dead. In all your dealings with me you do me the courtesy to conduct yourself as a dead man. I have submitted to you notions of honor long enough. You will now submit to mine.” In short, Armand has won a more important victory, a victory of life. He is no longer playing by Feraud’s bloodthirsty ethic, but his own, and he finally frees himself from any last hint of responsibility for this wretched, outdated man. Our last glimpse of Feraud is in one of the most beautiful images ever put on film. He stands on a bluff overlooking a flooded valley in a sun-shower. The scene before him would lift most men to a sense of glory – but the final shot, closing in on his grey, implacable, brooding face, suggests he is doomed to eternally turn inwards in gravely gnawing spite.

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Beyond being a very relevant study of a peculiar kind of masculine madness that is most certainly not dead although the mode it express itself in here – the duel – is long defunct, The Duellists also provides a map for the greatness and failure of the Napoleonic movement; idealistic, liberating, beautiful, stimulating, ultimately monstrous, destructive, dead-ended, and for the creation of the hesitant, more humane, less volatile, less rhapsodic modern state of mind. It’s easy to miss the full depth of the finale’s implications on a first viewing. Gerald Vaughn-Hughes’ screenplay is at once a masterpiece of subtlety and economy, mixing light and dark with great deftness. Scott’s direction is invaluable. The best works of his oeuvre have tended to concentrate on fierce conflicts between opposites – sometimes individuals with each-other, or societies and ideas, sometimes as representatives of such, sometimes merely Manichean, yet often also complex and layered, common to so many of Scott’s subsequent films. The rigorous self-control evinced in The Duellists is redolent of enormous talent, but also one born partly out of determination to make a mark, partly out of pragmatic necessity to reduce costs. At times, Scott is a little too controlled, and serves up some overly-arch shots designed merely to awe with their resemblance to paintings. For the most part, however, the film’s enormous sensual beauty does not weigh it down, and Scott employs hand-held cameras and jump cuts with creativity and fidelity to the film’s physical evocation of an inherently more physical time. Cinematographer Frank Tidy’s work is the sort of work that movie dreams are made of, alive to every blade of grass, belt buckle and bead of water – a pity that Scott, who had worked with Tidy before on TV, has never subsequently done so, a point he laments on the fine DVD’s commentary. As a last note on the film’s fusion of technical and artistic skill, Howard Blake’s score is a masterpiece in itself.

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T2 Trainspotting (2017)

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Director: Danny Boyle

By Roderick Heath

Trainspotting was one of the signal cultural moments of the 1990s. After his helter-skelter debut, Shallow Grave (1994), Danny Boyle placed his name on the lips of the international caste of cineastes with his second work. Although set nearly a decade earlier, Trainspotting was the closest thing the decade’s cinema offered to a big screen avatar for the zeitgeist of the already waning grunge scene in music: grimy, blackly comic, pungent in its evocation of society’s margins and the up-yours attitude of its citizens. Adapting Irvine Welsh’s cult novel, Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge depicted a landscape of scruffs and dropouts making do, without a countercultural era to lend them glamour, on heroin and dubious friendship, finally torn apart by money in an ultimate act of self-liberation that was also, in aptly sarcastic manner, an act of obeisance at last to an entirely commercialised world. Trainspotting’s antic sense of humour and its equally vital if sometimes exceedingly grim depiction of the junkie were visualised by Boyle in ebullient cinematic terms. I remember describing it to a friend a few years later as A Hard Day’s Night’s (1964) evil twin, a comparison the film readily courted in quoting the Abbey Road cover. This sort of touch also confirms Trainspotting’s complicity in the Cool Britannia moment of the mid-‘90s, when new pride in the nation’s post-war cultural accomplishments surged in time with the oncoming Tony Blair era. As for me, like many, the film was a galvanising moment in my teen years, when the indie film scene was roaring at full blast and interesting moviemaking could come from anywhere and still find an eager audience. Now, at a time when everything old is new again in the movie theatre, revisiting beloved movies from beyond the usual roster of multiplex fodder gains a certain attractiveness, particularly when pitched as an investigation into nostalgic as a contemporary state of mind.
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T2 Trainspotting is officially spun out of Welsh’s follow-up novel, Porno, but is as much about the original film, its place in the lives of anyone who saw it and loved it, as well as its unmistakeable lexicon of images and, perhaps even more crucially, sounds. This self-reflexive urge is both the most interesting aspect of T2 (the title itself is an act of cheek, appropriating the carefully groomed marketing contraction of another ‘90s hit, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, 1991) and its most irritating. Or to put it another way, it’s like having a friend rave on in your ear about how great the good old days were whilst occasionally stepping back and making fun of himself for his nostalgia: the cake is had and eaten too. Reacting to this sequel also means reckoning with passing time and shifting attitudes. Boyle, who seemed to me the coolest cat on the street back when I was a teen, has long since revealed himself as a creature of facetious cinematic energy whose work I soon started to dread more than anticipate. Boyle and favoured star Ewan McGregor followed their breakthrough hit with the now blessedly forgotten A Life Less Ordinary (1998), a raucous mess that fulfilled the threat of ‘90s alternative culture to turn into a caricature of itself in throwing out all narrative sense and instead linking a series of pop cultural pastiches, and then actor and director purportedly fell out acrimoniously over McGregor being displaced by Leonardo DiCaprio on Boyle’s next film, The Beach (2000). T2’s status as a reunion project adds a charge of subtext to the scenes of angry and recriminatory but ultimately forgiving confrontation between old friends. Steve Jobs, Boyle’s surprisingly measured if flagrantly theatrical 2015 release, suggested Boyle was capable of restraining himself still, and I hoped returning to this ground might provoke something latent in the director.
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Boyle and Hodge here try to entwine the characters’ pining for a social past that was largely mythical with their own longing for their youth. The formerly dynamic duo of Mark Renton (McGregor) and Sick Boy, now going by his more mundane real name of Simon (Johnny Lee Miller), are now easily caught up in free-flowing rhapsodies about various national past touchstones in a way that feels less appropriate to these once-cynical drop-outs than to Boyle’s self-appointed status dating back to the London Olympics as the framer of the national psyche, proxies for an imagined audience of barroom mates for whom the original Trainspotting is a fixture along with George Best and James Bond instalments. The storyline here mimics the act of revisiting the past as Renton is driven back to Edinburgh after twenty years living in Amsterdam. The collapse of his childless marriage and impending joblessness, on top of a suddenly nascent heart problem, events he attempts at first to cover up, have compelled him to return home. Soon he’s walking along streets where wistful recall is forever accompanied by a low-key pang of anxiety, considering that he left Britain after ripping his mates off and absconding with the proceeds of a drug deal. Simon greets him by wrapping a pool cue around his ear, which is cute compared to what their vicious mate Francis ‘Franco’ Begbie (Robert Carlyle) will do when he meets up with Renton.
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Begbie is currently incarcerated, serving a twenty-year stretch for his many crimes, but after he’s rejected yet again for parole, he contrives to have a fellow inmate stab him to get transferred to hospital, and then to escape. Meanwhile Simon has taken over his aunt’s old pub, but that building is a solitary monolith now amidst a bulldozed neighbourhood, leaving Simon trapped between a disappeared community and an oncoming wave of gentrification. To make extra cash, Simon sets up opportunities for blackmail, making clandestine recordings of his pseudo-girlfriend, Bulgarian prostitute Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova), in her romps with respectable clients. Once the visceral business of dealing with old betrayal is done, Renton and Simon quickly fall back into matey ways, to the point where Veronika sarcastically tells them, under the cover of a language they don’t understand, that they actually love each-other. Veronika and Renton quickly become lovers regardless, whilst Renton eagerly joins Simon in an enterprise to transform the pub into a brothel, an enterprise that demands capital, so they set about fleecing suckers whilst also applying for a business loan from a government panel. Meanwhile Begbie returns to his terrified wife June (Pauline Turner) and now-grown son Frank Jnr (Scot Greenan), only to experience impotence in bed and frustration with his wannabe hotelier son, whom he drags along with him on robberies. When Begbie visits Simon, he fobs him off with suggestions Renton is still in Amsterdam, but the two foes are doomed to encounter each-other in a rave palace toilet.
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Part of the original Trainspotting’s cunning lay in the way it mused with carbolic acidity on the then still-recent sting of insult so many felt from the ‘80s conservative reaction, but refracted through the cracked lens of a bunch of fuck-ups whose personal deficiencies only gained relevance through that context. The characters’ mordant pronouncements on modern life had their true side, but there was an irony involved, as their own lives were revealed to be littered with jagged shards of tragedy and violence and brushes with death, their rebellion a method of slow suicide. By comparison, T2 cannot commit to any new cultural thesis. There’s a gag early in the film when Renton is met by a flotilla of female greeters at the airport, all dressed up like stars in the first reel of a porn film, who turn out to be immigrants. As this joke evinces, T2 buys not so subtly into the logic of Brexit, that the present is a deracinated joke and Britain is now full of foreigners living out the dreams that were those of locals however many years ago; this idea is literally the underpinning of the plot, as Veronika reproduces Renton’s arc from the original. The film’s most political interlude is also one that takes aim not at contemporary malfeasance but at the habits of backward-looking pockets of the British Isles, particularly a social schism that’s long been niggling the Scottish community, as Renton and Simon infiltrate a club for right-wing Protestants who still celebrate ancient victories over Catholics. As Renton quips, “They have something we don’t – an identity,” for they retain a folksy brand of communality that just happens to be based in sleazy sectarian prejudices. Renton and Simon bluff their way out when they’re almost unmasked by improvising a song about killing Catholics, and then fleece many of their bank accounts simply by punching in the date of the Battle of the Boyne.
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Renton himself can’t even bear to listen to Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life,” the original film’s thunderous theme, on his old turntable, as the emotions it stirs are too intense. Meanwhile Danny ‘Spud’ Murphy (Ewen Bremner), the fourth pillar of the surviving gang, has relapsed into addiction after trying to settle down with old girlfriend Gail (Shirley Henderson) and their young son. Spud’s attempt at suicide is narrowly averted by Renton’s arrival, and as well as coaching the two eager entrepreneurs, Veronika pushes along Spud’s attempt to supplant his mania for heroin with a mania for writing down his experiences. Following the lead of Porno, T2 substantiates Spud as Welsh’s stand-in in this, the most wretched of the group whose scrappy creative gifts will nonetheless finish up the most viable for any real survival and prosperity. By contrast Renton and Simon’s labours add up to nothing when they’re leaned on by a gangster who nixes their project and dumps them in the woods, whilst Begbie romps around the city, alienated from his family and with no object in mind more profound than to visit cruel revenge upon Renton. The other three make an excursion into the hills to pay tribute to the missing member of their old gang, Tommy, whose death, Simon reminds Renton, was partly his fault in introducing him to the junkie lifestyle. Whereupon Renton reminds Simon in turn about how his neglect when high also killed his infant child. When the business loan is approved unexpectedly, Renton and Simon find themselves each trying to work up the nerve, and self-justification, to rip off the other man and flee to A Better Life 2.0.
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The major pleasure of T2 is seeing these actors snap so confidently back into their old roles, many relishing the new dimensions of the original’s rather Hogarthian sprawl of gangly, hyped-up caricatures. Miller’s performance here is a splendid roadmap of egotistical traits that have lost the sexy edge they had when he was a twenty-something and settled into mere scuzzy pathos: far from tongue-swapping Es with girlfriends, now he’s only gotten it up far enough to bang Veronika once, and prefers to get high and watch music videos on his big screen telly. Bremner, who has gained the charmed career natural character actors know, plays Spud with a blend of keen empathy for his flailing as he tackles the chance to regain control over his life, whilst retaining an edge of unhinged, almost alien attitude to his physical comedy, prancing like a denuded spider through some scenes, quivering like jelly in others, and sometimes finally locating the lode of character and creative zest under all his timorous, life-shy unease. Carlyle’s act as Begbie is just as uncanny as ever in describing the terrifying side of the Scots character, that inchoate berserker will, but it’s stretched here in some discomforting ways, as Begbie finally reveals a self-aware streak as he finally makes peace with his son. Welsh turns up playing the same part he did in the original, former small-time drug dealer-turned-fence Mikey Forrester.
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McGregor is by comparison not so well served as the straight man to these freakazoids: Renton’s successful but only temporary integration into the world at large has left him bereft of the outsider cheek and verve that once served him well, and it’s not until half-way through the film that he’s allowed a glimmer of the bard-like state of cynical ferocity that so famously marked him in the original. This comes as he explains the meaning of his and his mates’ old, sarcastic “Choose Life” motto and updates it to take a poke at the bullshit of the present day. One problem here, however, is that the original Trainspotting was rooted securely in its portrayal of an era, an era that was already slightly antique when the film was made: by this logic, T2 should be set in the late Blair era. But the reference points here are much hazier and generally present-tense, and when Renton delivers an updated “Choose Life” rant, it’s a sprawl of whinges directly transcribed from a million Twitter accounts: “Choose rape jokes. Choose slut-shaming, revenge porn…Choose 9/11 never happened.” The angry thrill of rejecting officially sanctioned bromides has lost its ironic pep and become a mere list of bugbears, as a vast slice of society at large has stolen Renton’s thunder but without the irony. In its best moments T2 coherently visualises the feeling of being plunged back into the past in the frame of the present, when that past was so much more vibrant if also often terribly ugly, as in a moment when Spud finds himself on a familiar street and remembers events that pierce him to the core – and the viewer, as those events are the iconic opening moments of the original.
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T2 locks itself into this pattern and can’t get out of it, reproducing the fault of its characters. These middle-aged goons are left looking back perpetually to a time when, however squalid they were, they were at least confident in their disasters. Building an entire film around this reflex is a dodgy move at best: long after the point where this film should have moved on to new business, the filmmakers are still busy rehashing the old. Almost everything that takes place in this entry is beholden in some way to the original, rather than presenting a new piece of art that properly creates an interesting present-tense. T2 reminded me of some other attempts to synthesise second acts for reasonably serious hits. One unfavourable comparison is Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money (1986), which expertly crafted a mature continuation of a not-so-dissimilar character portrait whilst avoiding miring itself in retracing old steps. Trainspotting’s concentration on characters barely holding on to a place in society and thus moving from scam to scam might easily have loaned itself to such fresh contexts, but instead T2 takes the least adventurous course, never quite making truly effective drama and only occasionally wringing fresh and outrageous comedy out of the thin plot. Porno was more concerned with Spud’s reinvention as an artist and the other characters’ gleeful repetitions of the past. Boyle and Hodge make gestures towards rendering T2 as a kind of work-in-progress, post-modern depiction of its own creation as Veronika urges Spud to give us an ending to his tale. But to call these gestures hamfisted feels excessively kind. Teasing snatches of familiar music keep bobbing up on the soundtrack, calling back to the original’s anthemic use of “Lust for Life” and Underworld’s “Born Slippy,” but the new soundtrack is very forgettable, or littered with tracks straight out of Boyle’s iPod shuffle.
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The female characters retained from the original are left holding the bag in a way that confirms how suffocating the portrait of male ageing angst has become. Henderson, who loaned mischievous humour to the original, is reduced to a barely-glimpsed walk-on, a forlorn martyr to Spud’s fecklessness. Sadly, Kelly Macdonald returns only very briefly as Diane, Renton’s one-time randy, underage party girl pick-up. Now she’s a besuited, coolly confident lawyer installed in bright and shiny offices, whom Renton and Veronika hire to spring Simon from prison after his blackmailing racket rebounds. The spark in Macdonald’s eye as she teases Renton about his latest too-young girlfriend gives the film a momentary spark of knowing, randy energy that Veronika can’t match in spite of Nedyalkova’s admirable poise even wearing cavorting in a strap-on dildo: the foreign hooker girlfriend looking for her chance is a little too cliché a figure. Indeed, too much of the film’s would-be biting commentary has shop-worn aspect, like the opening that finds Renton not running through the streets but on a treadmill, an arch way to tell us he’s devolved into just another yuppie, and the gangster’s punishment of Renton and Simon’s disrespect by leaving them naked and forcing them to venture their back home, a sequence that feels like it stumbled in out of another movie. A scene in which Begbie reconciles with his son feels entirely phony, a sop to the imperative in so many modern films to offer some kind of maudlin connection even as everything we know about Begbie shouts at us that he’s an insensate psychopath without such capacity for introspection. Now Begbie has traumatic memories of a drunken father and a streak of class rage. But in the very next scene he’s carrying around a bag fool of tools intending violation and dismemberment of Renton. So who cares what his issues are?
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The original Trainspotting was a daft ode to its own bratty energy but it was in that way true to its characters and their smart-arse viewpoint on pop cultural mores. Boyle’s stylistic showiness was attuned to the frenetic highs of junkie life and to its wilful blindness and weak grasp on reality – moments of gouging tragedy passed by noted and then lost amongst oblivious recourse into more drugs, vignettes of fantasy and kitschy self-mockery coming at you with such fervour they coalesced into a kind of sense. Here, the mood demands something totally different, and if Boyle had been less concerned with re-establishing his hip bona fides he might have tethered this tale to an artistic palette rooted in the bleak feeling of being washed up after a shipwreck. Instead, Boyle’s style settles into weak self-imitation, replete with canted camera angles and freeze-frames of no function, and random film references – Spud imagining himself as the hero of Raging Bull (1980), and a finale that spoofs Blade Runner’s (1982) climax. Boyle pulls off one great shot when Renton first approaches Simon’s pub, a monolith in the midst of an apocalyptic landscape, remnant outpost of an age and a culture that has literally upped sticks and moved on. Indeed, Anthony Dod Mantle’s photography is perhaps the best thing about the film, even when Boyle makes him do nonsensical things. The film does still offer its occasional comedic coups, like the sequence with the Protestant clique, and the cleverly deadpan sequence in which Renton and Begbie finally encounter each-other, sharing cross words through a toilet stall without initially recognising the other’s voice, only then for the penny to slowly drop for both. And there are images that sharply capture the evanescent emotions Boyle is chasing, as when Renton watches Diane in her office from the street, the outsider looking in and pining for all lost time.
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After moving in circles for what seems like an eternity, T2 finally starts barrelling towards a climax as Begbie finally encounters Renton, and he leaves his quarry with a gashed arm as Renton flees him. Soon Begbie tracks down Spud and is momentarily stalled in his quest when he starts making Spud read his written anecdotes to him, taking great pleasure in hearing his old sadisms mythologised, only then to find the same way that Renton cut Spud in on the money he stole. At Veronika’s behest, Spud aids her in filching the money the lads got off the government, before trying to warn them about Begbie’s murderous intentions. But he arrives too late, as Begbie has already entered Simon’s pub, forcing his former friends to try and battle him. The trouble is that once the actual story pace of T2 picks up (as opposed to its shot pace, which remains stroboscopic), it stops making sense, and resolutions to the various plot lines carry unusually little weight. That’s in part because unlike his younger self, Boyle, like many a recovering cynic, has become an indulgent and syrupy filmmaker, loathe to drag any of his characters too deep off into the woods. Unsurprisingly for the guy who made me sit through Slumdog Millionaire (2008), far from revisiting this material to shock current cinema out of its lethargic state, Boyle instead has, in spite of the occasional bit of male nudity and his empty showiness as director, removed the fangs from his creation. T2 isn’t a bad film by any stretch, and yet I found it a profoundly disappointing, even dispiriting one on many levels. Not because of its melancholic streak, but because it doesn’t know how to frame that melancholia. Something I’ve long suspected is now hatching out in movie land: after decades whining about Boomer nostalgia, the Generation X equivalent threatens to be utterly insufferable. Where are the worst toilets in Scotland of yesteryear?

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