1970s, Auteurs, Drama, Greek cinema, War

The Travelling Players (1975)

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O Thiassos

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Director/Screenwriter: Theodoros Angelopoulos

By Roderick Heath

Until his accidental death in 2012, Theodoros Angelopoulos was regarded as one of the best filmmakers in the world, and stood as the dominant figure of Greek cinema since the mid-1970s. Angelopoulos was also the embodiment of an ideal of cinema quite different to the usual, as a maker of slow, disorienting, heartrending portraits of national histories, replete with long takes and languorous camera movements that made Andrei Tarkovsky look like Michael Bay. Angelopoulos would only admit to two main influences, Orson Welles and Kenji Mizoguchi. His approach arguably also took up where Hungarian master Miklos Jancso left off in experimenting with staging action before the camera as a series of carefully choreographed, expressive tableaux on films like Red Psalm (1972), although Angelopoulos’s detached, wandering camera matched to variably lost and assailed characters was ultimately quite different to Jancso’s dance-like synergies. Directors who have clearly absorbed and experimented with Angelopoulos’s style include people as different as Hou Hsiao-hsien, Alexander Sokurov, and Alfonso Cuaron. Originally a law student, after a stint of military service and a spell at the Sorbonne Angelopoulos switched to studying film, and after a stint working as a film critic for a socialist newspaper upon returning to Greece, made his feature directing debut with Reconstitution (1970). Days of ’36 (1972) marked the first of the several themed trilogies in his oeuvre, leading the “trilogy of history” which would also encompass The Travelling Players and The Hunters (1977).

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Amongst his later films, Ulysses’ Gaze (1995) would take on the then-raging war in the former Yugoslavia. Angelopoulos was reportedly infuriated by being beaten out by Emir Kusturica’s similarly-themed Underground for the Palme d’Or that year, but as if in compensation Eternity And A Day took the top prize three years later. Angelopoulos’ early career coincided with the infamous “Regime of the Colonels,” the military dictatorship that descended upon Greece in 1967, a year before he shot his first short film, and ended just before The Travelling Players was released. That experience galvanised Angelopoulos’ leftist politics and determination to depict through art the history of dislocation, oppression, and violence that had gripped Greece and its region for much of the mid-twentieth century. Greece, long before it became the poster child for first world economic blight following the Global Financial Crisis in the past decade, had suffered badly from tides of history, particularly during the Nazi occupation of World War II and the period immediately after, when it became a proxy battleground for superpowers as Britain and the US backed efforts to suppress Communist partisans during an intermittent civil conflict, and the concurrent diaspora of people fleeing the country.

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Angelopoulos circled back to the period for his second-last completed film, Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow (2004), acknowledging how deep the wounds of that time still ran in the national psyche, whilst some of his other works dealt with the bemusement of people of his generation before younger inheritors. Days of ’36 had dealt with the pre-war regime of Ioannis Metaxas, who rose to power and tried to model his authoritarian regime on Mussolini’s. The Travelling Players, whilst nominally commencing in 1953, quickly and invisibly circles back to the waning days of the Metaxas regime and the start of country’s war with Fascist Italy. The film commences with one of Angelopoulos’ essential images, of a group of random people standing by their suitcases, avatars of all those dumped by history. In this case, however, the group are professionally itinerant, the actors of the title, a company who specialise in performing the 1893 pastoral verse drama Golfo the Shepherdess, in search of a stage. A snatch of voiceover explains that the ranks of the players have changed since before the war, with younger actors taking the place of those missing, but as they walk through the town of Aegion on the way to their lodgings they move back in time, so the players are essentially now playing the people whose roles they subsumed.

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The troupe pass by banners and boosters pumping up the post-war government of Alexandros Papagos, but by the time they arrive in the town centre, a man on a motorcycle is announcing Goebbels’ arrival on diplomatic mission, some fifteen years earlier. The players settle into the city playhouse and begin rehearsing, with young Electra (Eva Kotamanidou) uncertainly steps into her mother’s shoes in playing Golfo. During the night Electra wanders the courtyard, catching sight of her mother Clytemnestra (Aliki Georgouli) in bed with her lover, Aegisthos (Vangelis Kazan), who is also the troupe’s token fascist, whilst her brother Orestes (Petros Zarkadis) returns from military service and joins with his father Agamemnon (Stratos Pahis) and fellow actor Pylades (Kiriakos Katrivanos) in anticipating Communist resistance to Metaxas. Pylades usually plays Golfo the Shepherdess’s romantic lead, the shepherd Tassos, although Orestes sometimes takes the role when he’s with the troupe. An old woman (Nina Papazaphiropoulou) is the company’s repository of old folk songs, whilst an old man (Giannis Fyrios) is their accordion-squeezing accompanist. Clashing displays of allegiances occur as some fascist militiamen drill outside the playhouse whilst the troupe breakfast; Pylades is irritated and Aegisthos responds by standing on the table and singing a fascist anthem. Soon after, some plainclothes policemen turn up at a performance, chase Pylades, beat him in the street, and drag him away to exile.

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As the character names signal, The Travelling Players borrows a loose narrative structure by hinging on a variation on the legends that were the basis for Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy, in which the children of Agamemnon avenged their father’s murder by their mother and her lover by slaying them both. Angelopoulos initially conceived of this structure as a way to fool the dictatorship’s censors as to what kind of film he was making. Such fragments of plot are used less to engage on the traditional level of psychological analysis and dramatic impetus than to provide occasional, recognisable landmarks to orientate by. It resonates on several levels, nonetheless, as the characters are obliged to fill roles in the eternal roundelay of Greek political life, a clash of schematic political outlooks payed out inevitably and brutally on a domestic level: the actors inhabit social and historical entities and exemplars as well as ephemeral identities. The mighty tradition of Greek theatre is likewise invoked, although the players themselves offer less exalted fare. The play the troupe dedicates their lives to playing reflects a romanticised evocation of the Greek landscape and pastoral stereotypes, albeit one that ends with bodies piled up in tragic fashion. The constant interruption and despoiling that afflicts attempts to stage Golfo the Shepherdess become the closest thing Angelopoulos offers to a running joke, albeit one that sets up an essential aspect of his art. During the first performance, some fascist goons swoop across the stage to bundle up Pylades. During the second, an air raid breaks out. A third sees two people shot dead on stage, life and art virtually indistinguishable.

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Angelopoulos’ characters don’t dominate or compel the story in the traditional sense. They’re mostly witnesses to and fools of fortune in the midst of an age of horror. The early scene where Angelopoulos’ camera roves the playhouse courtyard establishes his peculiar, elusive aesthetic, as Electra is glimpsed wandering about disconsolately, noticing her father left alone in his bed and weeping after following sounds of sexual passion until she sees her mother in bed with Aegisthos. We’re immersed in a little nocturnal universe where the feel for setting – the creaking wood of the building and sheltered nooks and vantages apt for a play in themselves – is as important as the people wandering about it in their little zones of sullen anger and passion. And yet every scene is charged with invocation of a specific emotional state, an overarching weltschmerz occasionally interrupted by flashes of absurdity and collective joy. The Travelling Players is as much a poetic attempt to recapture the flavour of the Greece of Angelopoulos’s childhood as it is a portrait of that past’s drama, so he sensitises the viewer to ephemeral experiences as when Agamemnon delivers a lengthy, weary-souled monologue whilst seated in a trundling, rattling, damp-ridden railway carriage. Agamemnon’s monologue recounts his exile as a young man from his birthplace in Ionia during the advance of Turkish nationalists, when he was separated from his family and never saw them again, instead finding a place in Greece as a refugee.

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The use of the antiquated device of the monologue, which recurs several more times in the film, each time with a different character, is another of Angelopoulos’ nods to the metatheatrical. He usually employs it to fill the viewer in on specific incidents that define both the experiences of his characters and also the history he’s portraying. Agamemnon invokes the tragedies of the 1922 war with the Turks; later Electra describes the “Dekemvriana” street clashes that helped spark the Civil War. Pylades recounts the brutality dealt out to him and other prisoners. Notably, Clytemnestra, who delivers the first in the film, meditates instead not on such worldly business but on days when Orestes was a boy who needed her, a far cry from her current situation as glorified vagabond with her husband and her lover, and whose daughters who hate her, ranks Orestes will soon enough join. When Agamemnon joins the army to fight the Italians, she laughs at the sight of him in a uniform until he slaps her in anger. Momentarily shocked, she splays out on their bed as if wishing him to fuck her, perhaps more in taunting than in invitation; he storms out angrily instead and Aegisthos uses it as the right moment to properly lay claim to her. After the Nazis intervene on the Italians’ behalf and occupy the country, Agamemnon joins the burgeoning resistance, as does Orestes and Pylades. Some German soldiers raid the playhouse in the night and make a show of searching for a supposed English soldier but instead net Agamemnon: Electra realises her mother and Aegisthos ratted him out to get rid of him once and for all.

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Around these events Angelopoulos stages many of his signature sequences emphasising communal rather than individual experience. When the ragged band that is the player troupe makes one of their periodic returns to Aegion, they are amused to be caught up in a celebratory street parade during the surge of patriotic zeal upon the start of the war with the Italians. Angelopoulos films citizens marching along the beach in a show of unity before winding through the city streets, waving flags and singing en masse. Such shows of mass demonstration recur throughout the film but in fatefully smaller, partisan bands, with a rising sense of menace as a threat of violence lurks behind every gesture. Angelopoulos shoots much of the film very early in the morning, with a chilly blue light in the air and pinkish hues in the clouds. This seems a choice in part to take advantage of the empty city streets as Angelopoulos choreographs his complex shows of communal action, but he also seems clearly in love with the raw, world-being-born atmosphere. As the war takes a firmer grip and an authoritarian mood reasserts itself, Electra is followed in the street by an officer who follows her into the playhouse and attacks her with arrogant prerogative. Electra fends him off by ordering him to strip of as by way of an erotic overture: in a hilarious vignette, Angelopoulos films him as get completely naked and stands in macho confidence, only to shamefully cover his genitals when Electra suddenly turns and leaves him alone, all his power stolen.

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This scene soon has its antistrophe of humiliation as transaction, as wartime privation bites hard. To get a bottle of wine for the troupe to share for dinner, Electra’s younger sister Chrysothemis (Maria Vassiliou) strips down and sings for a rich merchant with a large wine cellar as he masturbates in a rocking chair. As she leaves his house he’s promptly shot dead by a pair of resistance fighers, and Chrysothemis returns to place the bottle of wine on the table in perfect calm, well used already to the surreal twists of fate defining their lives. Angelopoulos even gives this moment a flourish of theatrical underlining as he pulls the camera back through the troupe’s painted rustic scenery. As the troupe assemble to leave Aeginos for the season, Angelopoulos films them from a high vantage as they sing a bawdy song with renewed spirits, descending a winding road amidst a snow-crusted landscape. But the moment of cheer is instantly dispelled as they’re confronted by bodies hung from a tree; dispirited and famished, the players are reduced to trying to catch a solitary chicken they spy on the snow, a moment of astounding deadpan comedy. The players fare no better once they board a bus, which gets pulled over by German soldiers, and all the passengers into an old fort they use as an encampment, plainly intending the execute them as retaliation for partisan attacks. Another note of bleak humour resounds as Aegisthos advances from the pack of prisoners, pleading in fractured German, “Me comrade!”

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Fortunately a raid by partisans forestalls a massacre and the prisoners sprint away whilst the warriors fight, although Angelopoulos doesn’t shift his camera’s gaze from a rough-hewn brick wall, conveying the fight instead with sound and flashing explosions. Angelopoulos even seems to have a totemic fascination with that wall, as a stand-in for the many such backdrops used for firing squads during the course of the war. As dawn rises on the ruins, the freed prisoners linger in fatigue and confusion, until partisans and demonstrators flood into the place, celebrating the departure of the Germans: the Nazi flag is dumped in the harbour, and the populace gathers in the town square in a show of political unity, flags of various allegiances waved until a bomb explodes, and a street battle between different factions erupts, Nazis, Communists, liberals, and Allied forces. The players are still stranded amidst all this, sneaking through the streets and trying to get back to the playhouse, cowering and avoiding the various battles, exchanges of gunfire accompanied by bellowed anthems. As they reach the beachfront the players are stopped by a patrol of British soldiers, who seem at first threatening as they search the players. The British, realising they’re dealing with actors, get them to stage Golfo the Shepherdess and provide a grateful audience on the beach sand, and even reciprocate by providing a rousing chorus of “It’s A Long Way To Tipperary.” But the happy moment is interrupted as a sniper shoots one of the soldiers dead.

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Interruption, as evinced in this scene, is an essential motif in The Travelling Players, as first introduced through the disruptions to the play and bleeding into life. Moments where nascent connection and outbreaks of festivity promising fertile times seem possible are rudely and cruelly terminated by eruptions of violence and volatility. Rather than the end of strife, the liberation proves to be the moment for repaying old debts and hatching out long-delayed projects. Electra heads out to find Orestes, who is hiding with some fellow Communist partisans, and brings him back to the playhouse to execute justice upon Clytemnestra and Aegisthos. This is a literal moment in the drama but also one that reverberates metaphorically, as the young Greeks attempt a political exorcism of their state by wiping out the corrupt generation, just as their legendary forbears strived to prove themselves worthy of their lineage and to enforce cosmic justice, even as they invite the same force to fall upon them. Confronting them on stage during performance, Orestes shoots them both dead. The audience, thinking all this is part of the performance, delivers rapturous applause: all barriers between performance and life, political theatre and standard drama, are dissolved.

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Electra’s description of the Dekemvriana reports, by contrast, identifies a stage-managed aspect to seemingly random and chaotic events, accusing the British commander, Alistair Scobie, of contriving a clash between left and right factions to spark war and justify intervention. Angelopoulos’ analysis of history revolves a similar line of inquiry to one Luchino Visconti pursued on The Leopard (1963), as he tries to comprehend why his country seemed doomed to see history repeat and the chance for genuine popular government constantly stymied. He diagnoses it as lurking behind a pretence to freedom that’s actually carefully doctored: democracy is acceptable as long as democracy doesn’t choose a radical alternative. Angelopoulos’ least subtle side is his political facet, entirely understandable given the moment of the film’s making as The Travelling Players mediates a baleful attitude of accusation and displaced rage. But Angelopoulos mediates it with his sense of humanity. His fascists, radicals, and foreign interventionists are all entirely human, often sympathetic in moments of absurdity or vulnerability: all become victims to a certain extent. The course of the age is etched upon Electra’s face as she becomes ever more stern and cold.

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The relative minimalism of The Travelling Players as visual experience – it contains only about 80 distinct shots spread over its nearly four-hour running time – is belied to a great extent by the vitality Angelopoulos achieves with camera mobility and staging, albeit a vitality that leaves the viewer unmoored at times. The distance between actors and camera and absence of dialogue niceties renders some players hard to identify. Most directors give clear identification of players and subdivide sequences with a multiplicity of shots and edits to construct context; Angelopoulos’ stand-offish approach beholds all but also leaves the viewer to scramble to construct context. Part of this is a result of Angelopoulos’s desire to unify theme with style. He’s portraying a national experience and his characters are merely localisations of that experience, although they’re allowed to register sharply as beings of behaviour. Their experience is one of constant disorientation and shock as the rules of their existence are constantly rewritten on the fly.

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This is an expressive universe always in flux, desperately trying to find form and locus, but so often failing. Even when the scene falls becalmed, the effect conjures a constant sense of anxious anticipation. The restlessness of the aesthetic doesn’t entirely find resolve until the very last shot, but that shot also signifies another link in an ouroboros chain. The build-up to the killing of Clytemnestra and Aegisthos is one of the great movie sequences, as Angelopoulos precedes Electra and her summoned assassins through the streets with an epic tracking shot, a noirish scene where light and dark are at war and the aim not entirely clear until the climax is reached. Electra advances with a grim and steady pace, like a gunfighter, but the actual gunmen scurry through the shadows. The tension is punctured by a gang of gleeful revellers spilling out a tavern and dancing in the street: inchoate eruptions of joy are just as capable of intruding upon acts of evil as vice versa, but not as able to head them off. This is the sort of touch Angelopoulos often employs to escape the aridness that sometimes afflicts directors who mimic his style.

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After achieving her revenge, Electra enters her mother’s room and puts on her blood-red nightgown, as if now assuming the role of matriarch and temptress at once. The price Electra pays proves to be cruel, as heavies wearing suits and clown masks arrive and take her captive. As with the shot of the brickwork ruins, a scene in which right-wing punishers come to drag Electra away has come off sees Angelopoulos linger on an empty foyer, listening to rather than looking at the assault: the portrayal of intrusion and assault is intensified in an unexpected fashion. Fascist pals of Aegisthos knowing full well Electra and Orestes killed him and her mother, the gang hold Electra splayed on the floor of a deserted café and rape her, demanding she tell them where Orestes is. Electra holds out despite her brutalisation, and she’s dumped on the outskirts of town. Picking herself up, Electra launches into her monologue. Well before she marries, Chrysomethis takes her leave of the troupe, pausing to share a long, charged, searching look with her sister across a hallway, making it plain that Electra’s killing of their mother was a step too far for her sister; meanwhile, echoing up from below is a schoolboy’s lesson in Greek history evoking heroic moments of the long-gone days of rebellion against the Turks.

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The use of actors as the linchpin of Angelopoulos’ parable invokes artistic culture as one aspect of national identity, its perpetuation and also its mutability, as the various players are obliged to play new parts in accord with the changing times. The players sustain a version of Greece in their work that’s scarcely related to the Greece they live in, although the notes of high-flown romanticism and personal tragedy glimpsed in it certainly still seem to engage with the general spirit of place: it’s a place always torn between spectacular vistas of the soul and squalid traps of the flesh. The troupe also specialises in singing folk songs and performance styles that maintain appeal to an audience that needs them identify themselves. Chrysomethis’ song before the furiously wanking merchant even seems to register an erotic dimension to that shared imbuing of identity, as she assumes the ironic part of the eternal innocent Golfo, the sweet young thing at once left intact but also reconfigured as masturbatory idol. Such cultural totems are definers of national inclusion, even if sometimes they threaten to also become its tombstones, markers of a fixed and unyielding canon that cannot evolve. The Communists in the troupe are pals with an exiled Spanish poet (Grigoris Evangelatos). Electra and Pylades visit him late in the film, and listen to him pining for his own nation lost to fascist hegemony, with an underlying suggestion that the poet is always an exile, from the past, from idylls, from unrealised ways of being.

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Late in the film a clash of cultures that could also create synthesis is deftly described as Chrysothemis marries an American soldier. The troupe celebrate with his fellow soldiers at a reception on the beach. The elders of the troupe insist on singing a traditional wedding song, a song the Yank’s jazz-playing pals insist on taking up and radically changing, much to the bewilderment and displacement of the elders. This vignette signals Angelopoulos understands transformations are inevitable, but he also feels for the offended spirit of the classical culture as well as that of the moment, which is represented by Chrysothemis’ adolescent son, who sits silent and surly through the wedding ceremony in fuming resentment for his mother marrying one of many invaders he’s seen in his short life. Finally he stands and drags the tablecloth off, walking down the beach with the cloth trailing behind him like the forlorn standard of a defeated cause. The notion of culture as warzone recurs throughout particularly as the various political camps constantly communicate, disseminate, and clash through their songs. Angelopoulos keeps in mind the way such songs, delivered lustily by choruses of massed faithful, help keep political movements rooted in the culture about them and unifies them with shared reflexes.

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The Civil War zeitgeist is illustrated when Angelopoulos presents a scene in a dance hall where the patrons eventually split into two camps and begin duelling with songs, a scene that presents an eloquent lampoon of the famous Marseillaise scene in Casablanca (1942; a film Angelopoulos would again nod to in The Hunters). The impasse seems won for the lefties when the band singer gets her fellows to blast out “In The Mood” whilst she sings bawdy new lyrics mocking Scobie, until a royalist shoots a gun in the air. All the couples promptly depart, leaving only a gang of virtually indistinguishable reactionaries in suits and hats to command the band and start dancing with each-other. This is Angelopoulos’ last, most devastating joke aimed at the fascist spirit, framing it as one that gradually denudes the nation of anything except a hall of mirrors for bullies. This cabal files out of the hall in the early morning, parading through the streets, bawling out an anthem in which they promise not to shed Greek blood, only that of traitors, and pass by a speechifying politician, making clear that the election has been carefully shorn of real democratic meaning.

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This segues into a bizarre spectacle as a band of troubadours march and play before a jeep loaded with British soldiers, one of whom stands with two severed heads in his hands, whilst Orestes and other captured insurgents are marched through the streets to be imprisoned. We’re back now in a world Aeschylus could certainly understand, one of political messaging written directly in blood. A bleak circularity is underlined as they prisoners are loaded onto a boat and taken to the same island to be imprisoned where the Metaxas regime shipped its enemies. When Pylades is released after signing a denunciation of the radical cause, he’s a shamed and damaged man, but his recounting of the sufferings he and others were put through makes clear the impossibility of putting up a stand in the face of such dehumanisation. Finally Electra is called to the prison to collect the body of Orestes, who’s been executed without anyone being told. As the troupe bury him, they give him a round of applause, a farewell for an actor who’s played his role to the limit. The film’s very end presents a note of uneasy peace at least temporarily restored with a new generation flourishing, as the troupe return to work in the midst of the ’52 election campaign, the face of the latest uniformed conqueror emblazoned on posters around town. Electra helps her nephew prepare for taking over the role of Tassos. Angelopoulos films him through a gap in a curtain as he assumes the traditional opening pose, his head out of sight. The player has become abstract entity, the role eternal.

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1960s, Comedy, Drama

Two Weeks In Another Town (1962)

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Director: Vincente Minnelli
Screenwriter: Charles Schnee

By Roderick Heath

In Memoriam: Kirk Douglas 1916-2020

Kirk Douglas and Vincente Minnelli worked together three times, on 1952’s The Bad and the Beautiful, 1956’s Lust For Life, and 1962’s Two Weeks In Another Town. Douglas and Minnelli seemed on the face of it to be very different creative personalities, and yet their collaborations constituted some of their best and most influential work, and stood with Douglas’ films with Stanley Kubrick as his most vital partnership with a director. Douglas rose to the peak of Hollywood stardom with a reputation for playing antiheroes in tough dramas with a chitinous shell of confrontational masculinity and physically manifest streak of rage and pain in battling the world. Minnelli initially made his name in Hollywood after a successful stage career as a maker of musicals and romances wrapped in airy splendour. He had signalled most loudly with Madame Bovary (1949) that his ambitions and skills for directing drama were rapidly evolving, and whilst his two Oscar wins would both be for musicals in the 1950s, he kept fighting not to be pigeonholed.

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Minnelli and Douglas had similarities, similarities shared with many denizens of Hollywood, as people who had left behind or covered up their backgrounds and their natures, in order to make it and persist in the spotlight’s glare. Minnelli’s emerging fascination for deeply conflicted, often abrasive characters struggling to understand their own natures also offered Douglas exactly the sort of role he craved, and working with an actor like Douglas imbued Minnelli with new stature. The Bad and the Beautiful found unique equilibrium in unifying each man’s artistic drive, as Minnelli adjusted to a low-key, black-and-white palette to portray Hollywood’s darker facets and explore industry lore. Douglas went to town playing the prickish yet dynamic movie producer Jonathan Shields. Despite their apparent diversity, The Bad and the Beautiful extended the nascent postmodern aspects of An American In Paris (1951), studying the relationship between creative people and their patrons in all their glory, spite, and absurdity, and teasing out the relationship between the artwork and the artists who make it. Lust For Life offered the perfect vehicle for the two men to explore degrees of both realism and stylisation in assimilating Vincent Van Gogh’s artistic approach to tell his life story. The film was a lauded hit and saw Minnelli’s late style emerge in confidence, ready to explore the florid yet slyly ironic cinema he turned on some of his best subsequent films like Some Came Running (1958) and Home From The Hill (1960).

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Two Weeks In Another Town, by contrast, has an aspect of the purgative to it, an expression of still-fervent creative desire but also exhaustion with the bullshit of waning studio-era Hollywood. Minnelli had just come off directing an expensive, flashy but shoddy, studio-mandated remake of the mouldy hit The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and the box office failure of Two Weeks In Another Town on top of that white elephant labour helped deflate Minnelli’s career, as Minnelli’s ornate melodramas went out of fashion hard. Douglas later blamed its flaccid reception in part on studio editing that cut some significant scenes. Two Weeks In Another Town is nonetheless my favourite of Minnelli’s films, a glossy yet pungent blend of character study, showbiz self-excoriation, and blackly comic caricature, and the climax of Minnelli’s fascinating efforts to weave what we would today call the self-referential and meta-theatrical into his cinema, an aspect of his films first really manifested in Madame Bovary which offered the novel’s plot within a framework of its author being tried for obscenity, art and its creator seen as inseparable entities, one nesting inside the other.

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In Two Weeks In Another Town this manifests most famously, and archly, when the central characters, faltering director Maurice Kruger (Edward G. Robinson) and fractured star Jack Andrus (Douglas), watch a movie they made in their heyday together, a work represented by The Bad and the Beautiful. Just about the entire creative team involved with that movie in fact returned with Two Weeks In Another Town, also including writer Schnee, producer John Houseman, and composer David Raksin. This baits the audience to accept Two Weeks In Another Town as a combination of self-satire and confessional, and it certainly is both, although it’s also a fascinating play with form and sign. Two Weeks In Another Town adapted Irwin Shaw’s novel, one of a breed of bestseller takes on Tinseltown gaining popularity at the time albeit blessed with more literary cred by Shaw than stuff like The Carpetbaggers or Valley of the Dolls. Like many such books Shaw built his story of industry gossip and rumours about real people, including Tyrone Power and Montgomery Clift lurking in Jack’s makeup and the likes of James Dean and John Drew Barrymore in Davie. Minnelli and Douglas turned this to their own purpose.

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Much as Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood (2019) cast its mind back to the days when Hollywood stars and talents could head to Italy and spark or reignite their careers, Two Weeks In Another Town took on the same phenomenon in its heyday. The film’s opening, with Minnelli’s camera drifting around classy, serene-looking estate grounds that could be some top star’s palatial abode with ornate gates that suggest both exclusivity and entrapment, provides the first of many malicious jolts as it turns out this place is actually a rehab clinic for the rich and famous. Jack has been in retreat there for a long time, repairing body and soul after a terrible car crash that left him with a prominent scar on his once-handsome mug. Fretting about a telegram he’s received from his long-time director Kruger offering him a supporting role in the film he’s shooting in Rome, Jack visits the supervising doctor, whom he dubs “Dr Cold-Eyes” (Tom Palmer), who tells Andrus he’s essentially recovered and ready to leave the clinic, but has to face down the demons immersion back in the film world will immediately stir up again.

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Jack has to run a gauntlet of humiliations, some petty and some borderline sadistic, like the pleasure Kruger’s assistant Janet (Joanna Roos) takes in watching him flounder, and an encounter with his former agent Lew Jordan (George Macready) in the airport, where Jordan happily takes the opportunity to finally tell Jack he hates him: Jack responds with a smack on the face. When he arrives on set at Cinecitta, Andrus finds Kruger hard at work in time-worn style, directing his two stars Davie Drew (George Hamilton) and Barzelli (Rosanna Schiaffino) in a historical romance that looks a little like Luchino Visconti tackling Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler. Davie is a young hipster actor who electrified audiences in his movie debut but has since become virtually unemployable after running out on two productions and seems to desire annihilation by dissolving into the bohemian pits of the city. Barzelli is a local movie goddess who can’t speak English. Kruger berates and belittles Drew, often calling him a “nauseating little creep,” whilst rhapsodising over Barzelli and carrying on an affair with her. Kruger is facing a rapidly nearing deadline when he has to finish shooting the movie or the producer, Tucino (Mino Doro), an expert in cheaply financing and distributing movies who knows how to make a profit even from absolute duds, will have the right to supervise the dubbing in expedient fashion with inevitable damage to the film’s quality.

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Kruger is desperate, not only short of money but after several failed pictures urgently wants to ensure the film’s success to reinvigorate his career, so he decides to manipulate Jack into helping him out. Telling him he’s too badly scarred for the camera now and that he only offered him a role to help him out at his doctor’s request, Kruger instead offers Jack the same money for overseeing the dubbing. Jack accepts, after demanding double the money, and battles his way through attacks of anxiety and the contempt of Janet, as well as the close proximity of his sexpot ex-wife Carlotta (Cyd Charisse), who’s staying in the same hotel with her current husband, Zeno (Stefan Schnabel), a shipping tycoon plainly based on Aristotle Onassis. A lucky encounter helps Jack keep it together, as he strikes up a romance with Davie’s occasional, mistreated girlfriend Veronica (Daliah Lavi). Davie, full of dope and rage, threatens to stab Jack for stealing her away, only for Jack and Kruger to disarm him. Kruger suffers a heart attack as the shoot nears its end, and Jack leaps into the breach to try and get the film finished in time.

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Robinson’s Kruger is a compendium of traits associated with some famous directors, ferocious and insulting like Otto Preminger, macho as William Wellman, famed for his richly layered soundtracks a la Howard Hawks, for arty auteurist innovations like Orson Welles, and given to sleeping with his leading ladies like, well, most of them. As a character he’s sometimes frightening and yet also charged with pathos despite his often ugly actions, a man trying to keep running lest the thin ice below give out. He comes armed with his booze-sucking banshee of a wife, Clara (Claire Trevor), who enacts a well-established kabuki play with him day in and day out as she gets loaded in their hotel room and berates him for his infidelities. In perhaps Minnelli’s most blackly amusing yet stringently acute portrayal of marital co-dependence, one of these abuse sessions sees Kruger finally lash out and insult Clara back (“My lawful wedded nightmare!”), driving Clara to lock herself in the bathroom and attempt suicide, a ploy Kruger seems very familiar with. He kicks down the door and tells her not to bother if only because the sight of seeing her stomach pumped makes him feel sick. That night, ensconced in the marital bed, Kruger suddenly starts confessing his terrors and Clara consults him like a mother with a child: the chains of emotional need and alternations of role defining the two blend extremes of sadism and masochism define the couple. Minnelli’s casting of Robinson and Trevor in their roles again smacks of an in-joke, evoking and distorting their parts in John Huston’s Key Largo (1948) where Trevor won an Oscar as the fraying former mistress of Robinson’s gangster, except in an even danker mode of co-dependent perversity.

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Kruger’s relationship with Jack is similarly fraught, riddled with betrayals and yet, like coals in a burnt-down fire, still with flashes of real affection and mutual admiration glowing around the darkness. When Jack first arrives Kruger finds he’s packed along his Oscar, won for one of their films together (wishful thinking given Douglas and Robinson both never won one) and the two men muse on their great work. A few minutes later, as they start arguing again, Kruger plants the Oscar down declaring, “What do I want with this? That’s all that’s left of you!” And a short time later they reunite in a pavement café table, singing “Auld Land Syne” after Jack shakes Kruger down for more money and teases him by stealing his drink when Kruger presumed he was on the wagon. As in The Bad and the Beautiful, Minnelli and Schnee explore the unstable concoction of mercurial personalities and creativity as well as money required to make movies happen, sometimes demanding forgiveness for intolerable behaviour, an idea Two Weeks In Another Town also suggests is pretty true of all human relationships, defined as they are by so many cross-currents of need and desire and will to both power and degradation. But unlike the earlier film it also states there are limits that can’t be crossed.

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Jack, as the survivor of celebrity life’s gaudiness slowly piecing himself, together contrasts Kruger’s clammier, more insidious degeneration, a man who sweats in bed with his wife and questions in midnight urgency why he seems to have lost his golden touch: “Is it ego? Self-indulgence? Or am I just plain afraid?” Kruger nonetheless continues to abuse the fount of power that is his lot as director, the creature whose job it is to make a great lurching machine of skill and conceit form together into a film, but even that power has limits. This is illustrated with cruel concision as he begs Tucino for time to finish the film properly, only for the producer to tell him carefully how he can make a profit of a half-million dollars even if the film is unreleased provided it doesn’t cost one lira more than the contract states. The pretences of art are a by-product of commercial overflow. “Tucino, you international peddler,” Kruger berates his producer as they watch The Bad and the Beautiful, “Take a look at a picture that was made because we couldn’t sleep until we made it.” Whilst it was hardly the first movie about filmmaking, Two Weeks In Another Town was groundbreaking in offering a mainstream drama where the very nuts and bolts of moviemaking like the arts of dubbing and editing, are not just noted but part of the story, as well as the motivations of the people doing it all. The construction of the illusion and the defacing of it are entwined acts.

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Producer Houseman, who had infamously parted ways with early collaborator Orson Welles in feeling Welles’ need to take credit for everything had crossed the line into megalomania, might have felt he’d earned a measure of payback in making a movie about an aging former wunderkind director who doesn’t know how to collaborate stuck trying to make things happen in European exile. Minnelli’s semi-sarcastic self-identification with Kruger as the emblematic director partly masks the way Jack and Davie also embody aspects of him, the weathered professional and the young man trying to work out how to outrun his past and remould himself to fit the world’s expectations. The hyperbolic female characters amplify the macho crisis, with the beatific Veronica embodying a blithe and generous attitude. She, tellingly, doesn’t go to the movies (“Gelato,” she mutters dismissively), seeking pleasure and connections in the entirely real world. Veronica cops a black eye when Davie smacks her aside whilst bellowing protests at Kruger, making her receptive to Jack’s mature and gentlemanly courtesy, although Veronica’s connection to Davie remains drug-like to the younger man. Veronica is munificent enough to heal both Jack and Davie, but Davie confronts Jack in his hotel room with a knife, demanding Jack “give her back to me.” Kruger enters to ask a casual question and bullishly confronts and disarms Davie, berating Jack for trying to help (“Don’t fight my fights!”) even as Jack knows well Kruger might have kicked Davie’s face in and made it impossible to finish the film.

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The party thrown for the Krugers’ wedding anniversary is a black comedy zenith as Maurice delivers a speech where he pleads to “being sentimental” about such old-fashioned virtues even as Barzelli rubs his ass, inspiring Clara’s wrath and sparking a fight between the two women. Minnelli’s mordant wit extended to the casting of Charisse, herself like Minnelli a talent whose fame was rooted in stuff usually dismissed as lightweight, her greatness as a dancer as well as an arresting beauty, and who had trouble being taken seriously when she turned her hand to starring in more serious fare. Charisse is asked in Two Weeks In Another Town not so much to act as to embody Carlotta, who in turn personifies the illusory tease that is the cinema’s siren song, lounging on her gold-sheeted bed in seductive fashion as the abstracted, emblematic epitome of a female movie star, a creature existing entirely to taunt and tease with sexual promise. Carlotta herself is in thrall to the great black god of money: “Have you ever seen a billion dollars breathe?” she asks Jack whilst indicating her new husband Zeno, a man too busy with his business to bother her much and very happy to watch “men wanting me,” to the point where Jack could very easily be accepted as kept sexual surrogate to service them both in their fashion. Barzelli is archetypal Italian version of the on-the-make starlet, a tough nut from somewhere out in the campagna made over into a gleaming jewel, seductively pawing at the crotches of men who make her fortune and partying alone with a selection of willing and able toyboys, unleashing bloodcurdling shouts of anger in on-set tantrums.

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The psychodrama at the story’s core eventually reveals itself, as Kruger was one of the many men Carlotta slept with whilst married to Jack, and discovering them together sent Jack of on his near-fatal ride. Jack contends with the constant, niggling uncertainty as to whether he actually tried to kill himself in the crash, or if it was an accident. Jack’s efforts to save Kruger’s picture hit two roadblocks, the first being Davie’s intransigence. The shoot has to be shut down for a night whilst Jack and the stalwart assistant director Ravinksi (Erich Von Stroheim Jr, who really was a stalwart assistant director, including on the film he’s in) enlist Veronica’s aid to search Rome’s nightlife. When they fail, Jack’s gambit already seems foiled, only to find Davie asleep on the sofa in Jack’s hotel room, awaiting his return. Davie confesses he fears he’ll be completely lost if he can’t finish another movie, and so has come to Jack as the one man around who understands the terrors of acting stardom. This proves the catalyst for both Jack and Davie to unleash their talents, and the shoot goes so well their careers seem on the cusp of being revived. Jordan jets in to sign Davie up, and Davie insists that Jack direct his next movie. The second and more damaging block comes when Clara, revelling in finally having command over the Kruger legacy, and the man himself, still poisonously possessive in his hospital bed, conspire to try and destroy Jack, accusing him of trying to steal the movie.

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Minnelli’s efforts to locate needling truthfulness magnified through artifice in his films were never so well-balanced as here. The mordant exploration of the movie business and evocation of the romantic freedom of a spree in Rome gave him the perfect stage for such an aesthetic, filled as it is with poseurs and profligates and games of surfaces that eat away insides until the facades are all that’s left. Minnelli’s Rome is scarcely less aesthetically remade than the Paris of An American In Paris and Gigi (1958), with his careful use of lighting to paint real backdrops in variegations of luminescence and colour, refashioning reality into a teeming and aesthetically vivid film set. Jack’s wanderings around the city with Veronica evoke the city as one would like to dream it, vibrant with life in the streets and dreamlike in its nocturnal beauty. One shot sees Jack and Veronica, clad in black and white, walking on a Roman street with a palazzo daubed in blue to one side and four red-clad cardinals passing them on the other.

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And yet the actual human environment Jack stumbles into is ludicrous in its grubbiness, filled with thieves and tyrants, satyrs and sluts, and most perniciously of all, people locked in various postures of servility and suppliance to the fantasy world of cinema and its attendant superstructure of power. Minnelli’s films often covertly analysed his own situation as a bisexual man who struggled constantly with his identity and the politics of sexuality as a driving phenomenon in society, overtones of which are just as present here. Easy enough to read Jack’s desperate need to leave behind his former sexual identity as personified by Carlotta, and also Davie’s, in the suggestive contours of his confession to Jack, “All the stories about me over here and in Hollywood – all of the filth, most of it’s true. Until Veronica.” Minnelli readily grasped the universality in his quandary, presenting a bleak vision of much human life as a roundelay of people trying to get what they want with sex or experiencing their desire as a perpetual, personal Calvary, and seeing Hollywood as a machine chiefly driven by this phenomenon, the alternated business of selling and staking claim to objects of sex appeal.

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Minnelli often enjoyed introducing qualities from his musicals into his dramas, including the dance-like finale of Some Came Running and street riot of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and here that same urge manifests in using sets and costuming to depict states of mind and body. Veronica is always clad in angelic white that always seems to be trying to peel itself off her barely contained form, her sexuality wielded like a nature goddess for the sorry citizens of modernity. Jack lounges in red sweaters that declare his burning neurosis, but when Kruger has his heart attack it’s his room that becomes a blood red trap. Carlotta attends a ritzy party and dances with Jack wearing a dress festooned with black feathers, become an angel of death who, having already driven Jack almost to death once, has now come to sup on his bones. One of the most beautifully visualised sequences unifies the two motifs as Jack and Kruger expiate their shared past after Kruger’s heart attack within Kruger’s palatial hotel room, with a spectacular Roman fountain covered in statuary aglow just outside the window, suggesting the linked pretences of medieval princes and contemporary film gods. Kruger’s quoting of Carlotta’s line of seduction, “The water’s warm,” is rhymed with the water gushing from the fountain. The fountain transforms from grandiose vestige of the past and monument fitting Kruger’s imperious ego to a mocking mimesis of Jack’s pain. The coolly balanced and exactingly lit and framed composition enclosing the two men gives way to expressionistic angles and dialectic editing, the gravitas even the illusion of Kruger’s pseudo-monarchical stature that helped keep Jack stable as his amanuensis, once as actor and now as crew member, suddenly collapsing and leaving him to struggle through his new squall of self-doubt and pain alone.

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Minnelli’s widescreen framing teems with panoramic detail, as when Jack and Kruger are reunited with the industry of a film set sprawling behind them, or when Jack talks Tucino into backing him as director, the producer doing business like an emperor in his ornate bed, the lesser organs of his enterprise reflected in the great mirror over his head. It’s easy to imagine Douglas just as happily playing Kruger as Jack, much as he played the lousy if motivating Shields in The Bad and the Beautiful. Douglas loved playing such bristling Calibans as the boxer in Champion (1949), the scheming reporter in Ace in the Hole (1951), or the one-eyed barbarian troubled by flashes of humanity in The Vikings (1958). Movie stardom made him play more heroic figures, but even then, with the likes of Colonel Dax in Paths of Glory (1957) and the title role in Spartacus (1960), it was as characters contending with bleak and provocative situations, playing men smart enough to know obeying a personal moral compass is often a luxury but still driven to a decisive act. He gave of his very best performances as Jack, a more vulnerable type of character and one where Douglas couldn’t fall back on the galvanic physical quality he often projected, as if his whole body was a clenched fist and he didn’t so much want to act as paint with his whole body as metamorphic canvas, the intensity for which he was both often acclaimed and mocked for.

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After slapping Jordan early in the film, Jack is defined by his need to keep control and avoid such ruptures, a lode of quelled frenzy constantly hinted at but not unleashed until the madcap finale. Douglas depicts Jack’s episodes of consuming disquiet and neurotic palpitation, particularly in one scene where, goaded by Janet and derided by Davie, he experiences a panic attack only to be relieved when a phone call proves to be from Veronica: Douglas tells the entire story of Jack’s experience here without needing words. Jack nonetheless also actively resists falling prey to false sentiment or delusion as an intelligent man beginning to understand his real power, and when calmer displays resources of wit and aptitude, whether extracting more money from Kruger or getting a frazzled and hungry voiceover artist to effectively fill in Barzelli’s voice, which needs to be richly desirous, by imagining a wealth of banana splits. A central scene where Jack tries to explain the strange lot of a successful young actor to Veronica as they picnic on a beach is particularly good, as Minnelli shoots Douglas in a long but hardly noticeable take. Jack’s monologue invokes a sense of humour as he meditates on being obliged to “make love to the most beautiful women in the world hour after hour after hour” for the camera, but also the nettled flipside of having “the face that barflies all want to take a poke at to see if you’re as tough as the roles you play in the movies,” before getting to the crisis of identity that pursued him all the way.

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Davie reproduces Jack’s angst only raised to a higher pitch, the inheriting generation driven into pits of madness by the strange new shape of a world people like Jack and Kruger and Carlotta made in their own image, the desperate beatnik pushed to ever more hyperbolic extremes to re-establish his authenticity in the face of becoming a famous falsifier of emotion. Minnelli played with mischievous humour on Hamilton’s status as he his own discovered protégé, albeit one nobody was ever going to mistake for James Dean. Davie’s reformation comes just in time to help Jack rescue the movie, and they find themselves quickly in deep creative accord. A fresh wind of liberation starts to blow, as Minnelli has fun portraying Jack’s tilt at direction as mostly a process in urgent improvisation (stranger things certainly happened in those days: Mario Bava owed his directing career to repeatedly saving such calamitous productions). Jack reveals talents for handling performers, easing Barzelli out of one of her tantrums by somehow managing to sweet-talk her despite him not speaking Italian and she not speaking English, and then going to the other extreme of giving her a boot in the backside when she goes off again. Not very gallant and likely to result in charges these days, although there’s also the detectable note of screwball comedy inflation in such a gesture. Jack’s resurgence suddenly seems foiled by the malignant streak in the Krugers, Maurice backing up Clara’s attempts to crush Jack with a fake story given to entertainment journalist Brad Byrd (James Gregory), even as he silently displays his shame and regret in sacrificing his friend once again to the needs of his ego.

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Minnelli initially intended the film’s climax to be a miniature tribute-cum-riff on La Dolce Vita (1960) and La Notte (1961) as the dazed and possibly self-destructing Jack drifts back into the arms of Carlotta and joins her in a high-life orgy, an aspect cut right back to the bone in the released film. Carlotta delivers Jack into the arms of a pair of full-breasted nymphs at one of her parties whilst guests lounge in listless, licentious, cod-Antonioni ennui in listening to a singer (Leslie Uggams). What follows is one of the great climaxes in cinema, entwining direction and performance in a dazzling display of visual storytelling. Seeing Carlotta retiring to her boudoir with another of her fancymen sparks Jack’s long-restrained trauma. As if in a mesmeric daze, Jack chases them upstairs and attacks the lover, battling him in a bout glimpsed as a shadow-play on the wall. Carlotta laughs like an evil queen delighted to her champions battling, until Jack wins and gives Carlotta a few good smacks for good measure. He dashes outsides, leaps into his convertible, and tears off. Carlotta just manages to jump aboard in trying to stop his charge. Jack careens through Roman streets at speed, declaring his intent to finally discover what really happened in his mind on the night of the crash, Carlotta reduced to a screaming, sobbing wreck as she tries to get him to stop. Rather than trying to make Jack’s wild ride seem realistic, Minnelli emphasises the fakeness of the effects – Douglas at the wheel of a mounted prop car, roaring around back-projected streets or simply hovering in hoary darkness with wind and light rushing at him – and instead uses his careening camera and the mechanics working the vehicle to turn the ride into a kind of dance sequence.

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The scenes marks the apogee of Minnelli’s efforts to find reality through embracing the artificial, an island of pop-art surrealism illustrating a place in the inherently lunatic modern world where mere realism can’t capture just how strange and violent the new impulses are. The explosion of motion and psychosexual reckoning recreates the past whilst also finally purging it: Jack eventually simply slows down and stops, proving at last that he didn’t have some subconscious wish to die. A great scene for Douglas, too, reaching an apogee of his own, eyes blazing and face twisted into a gargoyle’s visage in exploring the very edge of life and sanity, only for the moment to pass and leave him with all his ancient ills burned out. He drives the car under a gushing fountain, this time the water finally doing its proper function in cleansing him. The final scene sees Jack heading off with new confidence and vigour to prove himself in Hollywood and encouraging Davie to do the same without feeling a need to lean on him as Jack did with Kruger, a genuinely effective and fitting veer towards the upbeat after all the angst, giving Veronica a last kiss of passion before returning her to Davie. Jack’s chief victory is that he sees how inconsequential most of his problems really were. “I came here looking for the past. I found it and to hell with it!” Shameful as it was that Two Weeks In Another Town didn’t gain anything like the respect it deserved at the time, filmmakers certainly took note. Federico Fellini repaid the compliment when he made the “Toby Dammit” sequence in Spirits of the Dead (1968). The influence on Martin Scorsese, particularly on New York, New York (1977) which would expand on the tension between ruthlessly observed behaviour and surrounding artifice, proved inescapable.

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1940s, Auteurs, Film Noir, Thriller

The Lady From Shanghai (1947)

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Director/Screenwriter: Orson Welles

By Roderick Heath

Orson Welles long served a cultural function as the emblematic genius discarded by Hollywood, doomed by the wrath of the kitsch Olympians to only to manage a singular labour of creative awe, Citizen Kane (1941), before being forced to scrimp his way through a fragmentary and disappointing subsequent oeuvre. That narrative for Welles’ career has long since been challenged and revised, and whilst it’s certainly true Welles and Hollywood never got along, they continued a long, uneasy dialogue for decades, and Welles only finally abandoned all hope of making a final Hollywood film in the early 1980s. Following the infamous collapse of his deal with RKO, resulting in the dumped release of a crude edit of The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Welles ventured to South America on a war effort-enabling goodwill tour, during which he worked on the multipart docudrama It’s All True, only to suffer another aborted project and accompanying corrosion to his professional reputation. As an actor, Welles quickly regained footing when he returned to the US, resuming stage and radio work as well as gaining traction as a movie star. He also married his fellow goodwill ambassador Rita Hayworth, who arrived during World War II as one of the hottest properties in movies.

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Thanks to arduous, self-effacing negotiations with studio honchos, Welles made his directorial comeback with The Stranger (1946), which, despite flashes of his visual ingenuity and aesthetic and thematic fixations, sufficiently fulfilled his promise to make a ‘normal’ movie. Welles was rewarded with a proper box office success, although his backers still welched on a deal to produce four more of his films. Welles went to Broadway to stage a flashy adaptation of Around the World in Eighty Days, only for producer Mike Todd to suddenly pull out. Welles tapped Columbia Pictures boss Harry Cohn for cash he ploughed into the doomed project, on the promise of writing, directing, and starring in a movie for him without further recompense. Welles took on an adaptation of Sherwood Kingsley’s crime novel If I Should Die Before I Wake, purportedly at the urging of William Castle, and Cohn gave Welles the green light to make the movie also featuring Hayworth. Cohn’s sense of prerogative over Hayworth’s career had already been offended by her and Welles’ union, which he deemed insufficiently glamorous, and he was properly livid when the resulting film’s rough cut was screened for him, revealing Welles’ new look for her with short, platinum blonde hair. Cohn didn’t much like the rest of the film either and had it extensively recut and reshot, reinforcing Welles’ reputation as a mercurial spendthrift. Although The Lady From Shanghai did reasonably good box office again, it was still fated to mark Welles’ break with the major Hollywood studios.

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Great as Welles’ films are, none of them feels quite as urgent and personally exposed as The Lady From Shanghai, save perhaps his final, pieced-together opus The Other Side of the Wind (2018). The film’s gadabout affectations, the giddy humour and overt ridicule of neat plot rhythms and Welles’ music hall Irish accent, can’t conceal the film’s real emotional tenor, one of anger – anger with love, anger with self, anger with the world. Cohn in turn was incensed by the film for good reason, as it presented, amongst many other things, Welles’ poison pen letter to the dawning atomic age and American capitalism, his bitterest, most biting commentary on the politics of sexual possession as espoused in Hollywood, and a return to Citizen Kane’s preoccupation with the insidious gravity of power and money in warping normal human relations. This time he cast himself as a lovestruck interloper rather than the all-consuming man of destiny, a choice that betrayed Welles’ jaundiced new perspective. Spurred by the slow spoiling of his marriage and his frustration in falling from boy titan to harried supplicant, as well as his unease within the rapidly changing zeitgeist in the post-war period, Welles responded with a film lit in a sulphurous glare, fuelled by smouldering, even despairing anxieties. It’s also perhaps Welles’ most stylistically extreme film, an aspect actually amplified by Cohn’s reediting, and the violence of technique enters a feedback loop with the overtone of emotional burnout.

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Welles happily occupied a contradictory position as an artist, the frustrated classicist and tragedian who delighted in playing comic book heroes and who grasped the epic potentials in pulp fiction. The Lady From Shanghai and its companion piece Touch of Evil (1958) saw him collapsing boundaries between high and low cultural argots, turning the seamy, worldly obsessions of film noir into high Shakespearean evocations of love, treachery, and penance. Welles initially turns King’s story into a jokey pastiche of knight errant tales, with his character Michael O’Hara the nominated dumb Quixote, a man who testifies in his opening narration, “I start out in this story a little bit like a hero, which I most certainly am not.” O’Hara flirts with the beautiful lady, Elsa (Hayworth), he sees trundling by in a Central Park carriage and then saves her from a gang of hoods who knock out the cabbie and try to rob and rape her. The sarcastic lilt of pre-Raphaelite romanticism, as Michael ventures into the well-pruned parkland serving as virgin forest to rescue the damsel and then commandeers the carriage to ferry her homeward in gentlemanly style, quickly collides with the grease and concrete aesthetic of a Manhattan car park, a nest of Futurist swoops and curves and blocks.

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There various imps of ill-fortune lurk and dangle, the heavy with a tragedy mask for a face, Broome (Ted De Corsia), and the dough-faced George Grisby (Glenn Anders) both on hand for vicarious jollies as Michael realises the lady he’s saved is the wife of Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloan), a notoriously brilliant and utterly ruthless defence lawyer, a man known to a man like Michael only as figure of awe and dark magic in anecdotes but about to become an all too familiar acquaintance. Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons both revolved a stung sense of nostalgia, ransacked for discrepancy but never entirely demystified, for a slower, quieter past where iniquity was balanced by the comfort of set order, as compared to the oncoming spree of hypermodern angst, where even the go-getters and empire builders felt alien to themselves. Destructive and intransigent as they were, Charlie Kane and George Amberson Minafer were also trapped as mediating figures, spanning the days of the aristocrat and modernity, where Bannister and Elsa are pure-sprung creatures of their moment.

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By contrast, The Lady From Shanghai satirises O’Hara’s status as a man also out of time and joint, sailor, soldier. A man who, even though he’s been all around the world and killed whilst fighting fascists in Spain, nonetheless retains the aura of the eternal naïf, a man who’s lost contact with a vital piece of himself, a Hercules who partakes of eating the lotus and forgets his mission. Welles couches Michael as the emblematic working class hero, admired and feared by his pals to equal degrees as a guy who’s “got a lot of blarney in him but he knows how to hurt a man when he gets mad,” imbued with a faint lustre of legend because of “what he did to them finks back in ’39,” a lustre later turned against him with an overheard radio broadcast characterises him, in one of the film’s throwaway flourishes of carbolic wit, as “Black Irish O’Hara, the notorious waterfront agitator.” He’s glimpsed banging away on a typewriter in the seamen’s hiring hall in front of a poster that read, “We Accept All Americans,” a pointed dying echo of the credo that had during the war become something like an official ethos.

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Bannister tracks him to that place, to hire him to crew his yacht, ostensibly seeking him as a proven good guy, Mephistopheles to grasp his Faust. “You’ve been too busy seeing the world to learn anything about it,” Bannister informs Michael. “What’s a tough guy?” Jake Bjornsen (Louis Merrill), one of Michael’s sailor pals and a former comrade from Spain, tells Bannister as he applies that label to Michael: “A guy with an edge…A gun or a knife, a knife-stick or a razor, something the other guy ain’t got. Yeah, a little extra reach on a punch, a set of brass knuckles, a stripe on the sleeve, a badge that says ‘cop’ on it, a rock in your hand or a bankroll in your pocket.” Welles uses this speech to set in play not just the film’s essential plot, but also to subvert the general basis of noir storytelling in a romanticised envisioning of working class violence and the folk heroic figure of the underclass badass. Bannister’s jealousy of Michael’s physical prowess is more than outpaced by his capacity for brutality leveraged by other means, and the thug in the alley with a switchblade isn’t half as scary as an aggrieved plutocrat with his hooks in you.

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Sloan’s Bannister is one of the great screen monstrosities, a courtroom marauder who walks with canes like a mincing praying mantis, his high, crackly voice shifting between registers of slurred, liquored-up aggravation and clipped, precise assassination: the way Sloan pronounces “lover” does to the word what Exxon did to the Alaskan shoreline. The triangle of Michael, Elsa, and Bannister plays at least on the surface as a lampoon on Lady Chatterley’s Lover, down to the crippled rich man as emblem of a twisted modern age, but with woodland renascence swapped for dread-caked globetrotting and penny dreadful conspiracies where the promise of sex is part of the trap rather than a mode of escape. Welles gleefully steals imagery and textures from ‘40s travel posters and the promised high life of Hollywood’s fantasias as portrays the Bannisters’ voyage about Central and South America, with Elsa’s commodity physique celebrated in rest and motion, high-diving from rocks into the sea, splayed out the yacht deck whilst warbling a gently seductive ditty. The siren updated, coming on to Michael in playing another abused and frightened subcontractor wondering if the price paid in anxiety is worth the paycheque. Accompanying the holidays are Bannister’s nominal law partner Grisby, his hired PI and minder Broome, Michael’s pal and deck hand ‘Goldie’ Goldfish (Gus Schilling), and Bannister’s cook Bessie (Evelyn Ellis). A potent, simmering attraction seems to manifest between Michael and Elsa, but the real seduction is between Michael and Grisby, who offers Michael a wad of cash for a simple job: to confess to murdering him.

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Welles’ archly theatrical and equally arch cineaste sides, held in balance in his first films, came into conflict in The Lady From Shanghai. The film is littered with verbal soliloquies and passages of visual delirium, creating a tension that finally snaps the elastic in the finale as Michael rattles off a synopsis of the plot whilst assailed by surreal images, the lingual, factual, and experiential realms crumbling before the onslaught of images evoking surrender to the absurd, dismissing the usual mechanics of the thriller story as mere detail in a story that’s much more about consuming chaos. Michael’s narration carries much of the weight of the actual storytelling, certainly to patch over some of the editing but also investing it with a palpable sense of Michael’s bewildered and stricken romanticism. Bjornsen’s speech about tough guys is the first of several lengthy, memorable discourses delivered throughout, followed by Bannister’s acidic commentary on the power of money as a vehicle not merely for survival but revenge, and Michael’s anecdote about witnessing a shark feeding frenzy that saw the beasts turn on each-other cannibalistically, implying the Bannisters and their cohort are behaving the same way. Bannister’s commentary reveals himself as a man who himself is reacting to memories of being an outsider under the thumb of the rich, describing with relish how he destroyed a man who kept his mother out of a club he owned for being of an undesirable ethnicity, whilst also noting that Bessie prays she’ll never be too old to earn the money he pays her to support her family.

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This scene captures Welles’ coldest and most concise analysis of capitalism as a by-product of human urges, the desire for dominance and supremacy and a precise weighing of the “trickle-down” effect of wealth untinted, at least, by noblesse oblige hypocrisy. The Lady From Shanghai emerges as a more politically analytical and revealing film than Citizen Kane, even before it invokes nuclear terror as the new existential state, the bitter taste in the post-war triumphalism. Grisby hovers around, snatching privileged glimpses of Elsa and Michael’s simmering attraction and teasing them with his knowledge, before making overtures to Michael to be his fictional assassin, cover for some convoluted scheme to claim his own insurance and sail off to some remote clime where he’ll be safe “when they start dropping those bombs.” Bannister already resembles a post-apocalyptic thing, the first of the many atomic monsters that would start loping across screens in following years. Welles later reported he gave Sloan canes to walk with to give the actor, still relatively fresh out of radio, something distinctively physical to cover his inexperience, but the theme of creeping disease and sexual amanuensis is too tightly wound into the story to ignore.

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The new look Welles imposed on Hayworth, so startling and offensive to Cohn and others, anticipated the 1950s’ run of platinum blondes as the embodiment of a plush and acquisitive age’s ideal of femininity, when Marilyn Monroe would corner the market to near-mystical perfection in playing the blonde as status symbol love object. Hayworth as Elsa is the atomic bomb in human form, the flash of brilliance on her crown and blood on the lips and the black ash of fallout in her eyes. The beasts of the aquarium where Michael and Elsa meet look forward to the aquatic beds of Godzilla and the Gill Man. The Lady From Shanghai can be seen as much Welles’ metaphor for his permanent yet agonising love affair with the filmmaking world as for his faltering relationship with Hayworth, although the two things were surely linked – how could Welles entirely repudiate a change of profession that helped him marry the most beautiful woman in the world? Trying desperately to hold on to these extraordinary gifts straight out of the dream life he’d discovered, in the face of petty dictators and profit margins. Things constantly happen to Michael in ways that leave him completely mystified as to why they’re happening, the temptations and repudiations wielded by power alike wielded with capricious verve in a way that must have felt very true to experiences with the studios.

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What a fresh sense of irony Welles, the boy wonder out of pinko theatrical climes with the New Deal ideals, must have gained contending with such outsized provocations to lust and wonder in Hollywood, moving from the relatively abstract evocations of trophy wives and malign plutocrats in Citizen Kane to this electro-Hogarthian stew where the feeling is palpable. The film canters to its climax and it seems less that Michael and Bannister represent Welles and his tycoon nemeses than, finally, it represents the warring sides of Welles himself, the image-maker and the desperate husband: “Killing you is killing myself,” Bannister tells Elsa, suddenly revealed as the actual tragic lover in the story. Hayworth had, with Gilda (1946), nailed down a specific persona as the girl who seems corrupt purely by dint of her incarnation of sinful temptations, but is actually covertly virtuous, a persona she’d later be forced to take to a biblical extreme when she played Salome. Welles upended basic image expectations not just in look but in character: Elsa proves to be a killer and schemer whilst all the while seeming like an innocent, soulful and tremulous in her pathos. The desire to believe Elsa is good is nonetheless a compelling fiction not just for Michael but also for Bessie, who regards her as the poor child at the mercy of the monster, so perfectly does she embody a vessel of elevated fantasy. The name of Bannister’s yacht gives the warning – Circe, the sorceress who turns men to swine.

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Part of The Lady From Shanghai’s strange beauty resides in the way Elsa remains a creature of perfect ambiguity even after she’s unmasked, creature of manifold realities, a woman who was “taught to love in Chinese” in “the second wickedest city in the world,” (Michael nominates Macao as number one, a place Welles would finally visit for The Immortal Story, 1968). She’s product of political ructions and cultural collisions, trying to survive a uniquely cruel marriage but also determined not to be thrust back into the cold, especially when, as Michael’s pleas prove, capitalism’s gravity can only be countered by a kind of sentimental romanticism. “Now he knows about us,” Elsa says after Grisby had witnesses them in a clinch. “I wish I did,” Michael quips. Elsa’s attempt to seduce Michael into a kiss earns a slap instead, the film’s most electric moment of physical intimacy giving way to Elsa silently and shakily jamming a cigarette between her lips and lights it. A sublime piece of acting from Hayworth that manages to suggest all at once that Elsa’s far too used to being hit and controlling herself when it happens, and also the shock, not entirely disagreeable, of experiencing the real sensation, and then the equal shock of recognition: Michael’s fear. Even when exposed as a scheming murderer Elsa retains a flailing, almost pathetic quality, canary in a gilded cage trying to reinvent herself as a condor, making a hash of schemes to liberate herself. Except that everything goes awry and she has to use Michael as a fall guy.

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Writing about any Welles film is hard and The Lady From Shanghai amongst the most challenging simply in the lure to muse on the visual textures, the cavalcade of astounding and evocative shots, achieved here in collaboration with cinematographer Charles Lawton Jr with uncredited work by Rudolph Maté and Joseph Walker. Welles’ desire to break away from studio simulacra saw him shoot much of the film on location with a palpable sense of place, although the result was hardly a neorealist work, the seedy glamour of the Mexican locales and the San Francisco waterfront and Chinatown instead charged with a sarcastic sense of their exoticism, albeit with the sense of strangeness inverted, such places charged with life and energy which the visiting representatives of the high life despoil. The elegance of Welles’ first two films even in their radicalisms, and the relatively prosaic grammar of The Stranger, gave way here to the vertiginous affect that would mark the rest of Welles’ oeuvre, the driving pace of editing matched to visuals that come on often with discursive jaggedness. Shots like the dollying camera tracking Hayworth as she runs, clad in swimming white, down an Acapulco street with archways and pillars breaking the shot into segments of lush yet elusive romantic fantasia.

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Or the shot of Michael and Grisby standing on a cliff edge, framed from overhead, distorting all sense of geography so that when Grisby says, “So long, fella!” and steps out of frame for a second it seems he’s jumped into the void only to leave the startled Michael as the one hovering on the edge. Moments like these only represent a fraction of the cinematic creativity on display. The sight of Elsa running away from dinner with Bannister to meet Michael in the gritty Acapulco streets sees her briefly as an illuminated figure in a special effects shot, hovering in luminosity over the dark town, a shot reminiscent of images in The Red Shoes (1948) the following year, another film meditating on the figure of the mogul as cruel magician. Their stroll through the streets together sees them passing by boles of local nightlife, cellars and taverns crammed with fervent existence even as the interloping gringos find no refuge: Michael, teased by the pursuing Broome, knocks him out, only for Goldie to turn up later with some cops hoisting Broome’s unconscious bulk demanding to know who he is. “What’s the Spanish for ‘drunken bum’?” Goldie requests in gleeful derision.

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Welles steadily builds a feeling of dizzied, intoxicated intensity often by framing the actors at great heights or having them move in reeling, criss-crossing lines in ways the pervert geographical reckoning. He combines the two as Michael has his fateful talk with Grisby. The duo climb on the heights above Acapulco, intersecting with other examples of economic exchange, like the gigolo reassuring his lady, as Grisby courts Michael for a different kind of service rendered. Welles plays an extended game with acts of seeing, through lenses, windows, and most famously in the climax, mirrors. Grisby watches Elsa through a telescope, the visuals becoming a succession of magazine-like poses, and then later on the rest of the party, rendering them specimen-like in their varying characters. The aquarium windows invert the specimen spectacle. The politics of seeing are correlated with evaluation and possession but ultimately feed back into the labyrinthine self as the funhouse mirrors rend and smear form and identity and fracture personas.

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The beach party scene is one of Welles’ most amazing sequences, a revisit to the laboriously extravagant picnic scene depicted in Citizen Kane but again invested with a more specific and vivid realisation. A grand exercise in high living curdles into a dank, tragicomic voyage into the heart of darkness – Welles’ faint revenge for his failure to film Conrad – as the picnickers canoe up tropical rivers and set up on a sunset beach with roving mariachi bands, torch-wielding partyers, and frolicking children, where the objects of rent-a-crowd exaltation sit in the fire-lit dusk and insult each-other with vicious art. Montage matches the picnickers with their animal totems amidst the sliding, flapping, squawking swamp creatures. Michael’s story conjures a whole squirming ocean full of blood and teeth even as the falling sun behind him seems to promise tropical peace. He delivers the punchline – “I never saw anything worse, until this little picnic tonight,” only for Bannister goes one better as he notes for Grisby’s benefit, “That’s the first anyone’s ever thought enough of you to call you a shark. If you were a good lawyer you’d be flattered.” Bannister’s a good enough lawyer to turn his foe’s attack into his own.

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The Circe’s return to San Francisco sees Michael giving in to Grisby’s offer, hoping to entice Elsa away from Bannister with a safety cushion of cash, only for Grisby’s genuine and properly dead body to be found and Michael put on trial with his bogus confession taken for the real deal, with Bannister taking on his defence nominally to not make him seem a martyr for Elsa’s sake. Occasionally, as in Citizen Kane, Welles privileges the viewer to knowledge that he denies his nominal storyteller, most crucially when Grisby shoots Broome, who confronted him over his machinations, shortly before his own death, and conversations between Broome and Bannister establishing that both seem to be aware of a plot against Bannister’s life. Broome, seemingly a crass and threatening figure at first, proves one of the few decently motivated characters as hired watchdog who struggles even as he bleeds to death to warn Elsa and Michael against impending wheels of fate. Grisby, by contrast, with his perversions of elocution and bulging eyes set in a perpetually sweat-seeping face, seems a ridiculous figure, and whilst he really is a ridiculous figure, he’s also playing for high stakes, Elsa’s confederate in an attempt to bump off Bannister that goes awry and demands Michael go through with his role as killer. Grisby leaves Michael to go through the prearranged motions whilst heading out to the Circe, firing off a gun and attracting the attention of a horde of dancers in a waterfront tavern.

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The trial sequence is another tour-de-force of restless visual energy and satiric gall as Welles makes a mockery of justice processes in a way that again feels fascinatingly prognosticative in a different way, here anticipating the age when celebrity culture and law would become tightly entwined in acts of mass-media theatre. Bannister turns proceedings into a vaudeville routine as he affects to interview himself on the witness stand. Jurors sneeze heartily during testimony, onlookers gawk with vicarious hungers to be sated, and the prosecutor (Carl Frank) means to oblige them by forcefully attempting to brand Elsa star in a pornographic cornucopia. The closer the camera gets to Elsa’s face as the prosecutor’s questions become increasingly ruthless sees her threatening to lose substance altogether, to dissolve into a frieze of lacquered beauty, unable to play the roles required either by self-protecting social function or natural empathy – Elsa no longer atom bomb personified by the first computer, crashing from colliding streams of information and incapacity to resolve the outcome. Bannister’s sadistic intention to sabotage Michael’s defence despite knowing well he’s innocent instead fulfils the game they’ve been engaged in since the beginning, Bannister’s urgent and ultimately self-destructive need to annihilate the man who represents all the things he isn’t, having purposefully brought Michael into his fold to inhabit the role he cannot and then destroy him. Nothing sharpens the mind like the thought of being hung in the morning, as they say, and Michael learns the truth of this as imminent condemning finally grants him wisdom.

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Michael’s escape from the court house blends clammy desperation and ridiculousness as Michael sucks down a handful of Bannister’s medication, giving him a chance to escape by beating up a couple of court cops in the overseeing Judge’s (Erskine Sanford) office, trashing it in the process. The fight is offered as a miniaturised synopsis of the threatened apocalypse, civilisation crashing to bits much to the Judge’s horror complete with his neatly ordered chess pieces sent flying – Napoleon’s bust sits silently as a cop’s head crashes back against a pane of glass, shelves filled with law tomes it toppled as a weapon – before Michael escapes the building by joining a flock of jurors from another trial and the Judge is left to demand a full report from an unconscious man. The sickly humour that pervades The Lady From Shanghai also makes sport of the nominal conjuring of exotic mystery in the title, inverting the emphasis of Josef von Sternberg’s equally baroque but more wilfully fantastical entrances into Chinoiserie dreaming in the likes of Shanghai Express (1932) and The Shanghai Gesture (1941): even as Welles depicts a descent into delirium he relentlessly demystifies, hunting the sawdust behind the tinsel. The glimpse of two Chinese-American teens at the trial, exchanging comments in Mandarin before one of them exclaims in ripe Californian, “You ain’t kiddin’!” Michael fleeing to take refuge in a Chinese opera house in San Francisco’s Chinatown only to fall into the hands of Elsa and her underworld contacts contrasts the impenetrable stylisation of the art form with the studied blandness of its audience, the gateway to the last act in the equally impenetrable drama, like the opera full of signs and symbols Michael cannot read.

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The legendary climax confirms the correlation between show business and brutal crime, if in the most outlandish dimensions, Michael’s bemoaning that either the world or he is insane gaining a grotesque mimesis as he awakens in a funfair crazy house. Mirrors reshape him, Caligari geometry maps out his confusion, slippery slides deliver him into the maw of a papier-mache dragon and dump him out on a set that looks like a Miro painting: somehow Welles manages to cram the entire experience of modern art as a response to the opening fields of the absurd in the first half of the 20th century whilst also suggesting the carnival got there long beforehand. Painted slogans – STAND UP OR GIVE UP – both demand his action and mock his powerlessness. Elsa’s torch picks him out and she draws him into a hall of mirrors where her lovely simulacra are infinite, still protesting “I love you” even in mutual awareness she was willing to sacrifice him. Bannister’s arrival, given the last necessary jab of jealousy, sees him and Elsa annihilate each-other in a fusillade of bullets.

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This shoot-out, a brief spasm of total chaos, has long since been installed as a classic cinematic moment, and films as diverse as Enter The Dragon (1973) and John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017) have taken it as a touchstone. But few imitators have tried to match the specific visual effect Welles manages, his subdivided frames and huge images of Elsa’s ghostly face compared to Bannister’s sharp, scuttling form, amounting to a surrealist study of psychological space. The obsessive clawing at the game of surfaces can only end this way, only to find nothing left once Elsa and Bannister’s bullets crack glass and break bodies. The destruction of all illusory selves is enacted, Bannister’s belief that killing Elsa is killing himself literalised. Michael’s passivity even in the face of this grim corrida nonetheless give him the key to his real problem, to deal with his existential crisis, responding to Elsa’s nihilistic credo that “We can’t win” means “We can’t lose, either – only if we quit.” The Lady From Shanghai is, ultimately, the story of Michael’s rebirth, even as he ruefully walks away confident of being proved innocent – “But that’s a mighty big word, innocent. Stupid’s more like it.” – and knows how deep the barbs of the Elsa illusion remain stuck in his sinews. Nonetheless the irony of Michael’s basic conclusion, his rediscovery of a form of faith in confronting the void and gaining the realisation that any individual has the power of a god in terms of their own specific world but their fate would depend on how they utilise that knowledge, and that only the storyteller can properly impose meaning to life, would become the essential theme for the rest of Welles’ career. But Elsa supplies the proper trash-poetic benediction for those who can’t face such a choice: “Give my love to the sunrise.”

Standard
1980s, Comedy, Crime/Detective, Scifi

Repo Man (1984)

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Director/Screenwriter: Alan Cox

By Roderick Heath

Writing about Repo Man might be like trying to dance a Picasso or sing about the Taj Mahal. So why am I trying, you ask? Hey, up yours, anyway.

Alex Cox could either be described as one of cinema’s true rebels, a man who determinedly forged his own, uncompromising path when he proved too much for Hollywood, or a filmmaker whose stubborn attitude prevented him from living up to his great early promise, leaving him with one certain sui generis classic and a couple of other cult objects to his name. Given his tell-it-to-me-raw punk affiliations he might well accept both descriptions in equanimity. Cheshire-born Cox, after a stint as an Oxford law student, turned to studying filmmaking. Doubting he was going to get anywhere in the ‘70s British film industry, Cox winged away for a stint at UCLA and made the short artist-versus-the-world film Edge City/Sleep is for Sissies. Cox’s first feature, Repo Man, which he originally hoped to bankroll on a tiny budget, was realized thanks largely to former Monkees member Michael Nesmith, who acted as his executive producer and talked Universal Pictures into ponying up a $1 million budget. Repo Man slowly groped its way out of initial obscurity to becoming an underground hit thanks in part to the popularity of its soundtrack album stirring up an interested audience, setting Cox up for a brief spell as a potential major filmmaker.

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Cox’s follow-up, Sid and Nancy (1986), gave Gary Oldman an early push to stardom and applied a potent blend of authenticity and stylization to recount the legendary tragic punk romance. His career went awry as Straight to Hell (1986) and Walker (1987) were greeted as clumsy, self-indulgent attempts to get polemical and blend familiar genre modes – spaghetti westerns and road movies in the former case, war movies and historical biopics in the latter – with jagged po-mo aesthetics and harsh, blatant political commentary on Reaganite policy in Latin America. He next made Highway Patrolman (1991) in Mexico. Those films, like Cox’s generally ultra-low-budget output since, have maintained a small but fervent cadre of proponents. From today’s perspective it feels even more unlikely that an imported anarchist spiv like Cox even managed to get Repo Man made, never mind parlay it into a brief accord with studio filmmaking. But Repo Man remains a glistening gem, cult cinema about as pure as it gets. In many ways it’s an updated spin on ‘60s free-for-all satire with spiritual and procedural links to the likes of Jean-Luc Godard, Richard Lester’s early films, Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man! (1972), Christian Marquand’s Candy (1968), and Bob Rafelson’s Monkees-perverting Head (1968), which might partly explain why Nesmith was able to grasp Cox’s vision. The old lysergic template was given a punk-era makeover, and produced soothsayer art, as Repo Man anticipated the age of the internet with startling precision.

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The age of democratized information. Doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good information, relevant, interesting, fulfilling, just information. Repo Man, in its way, is like plugging your mind directly into the stream of internet downloads; a frightful, glorious, semi-comprehensible overload of stuff. Accumulating in the brain like pieces of animal and plant in sedimentary silt, bits of things, shards of art, memory, politics, philosophy, design. All was churned together with the full panoply of Cox’s artistic and socio-political obsessions, as well the pinpointing perspective of an acerbic outsider. Like the age it portrays and the one it anticipates, Repo Man is in search. In search of a viable code, in search of meaning, wading through that sediment of endless information half-heard and quarter-understood, trying to put the pieces together in a manner that works. It takes place in a landscape cast over with the scattered rubble of the Cold War, religion, the New Age, pop culture, post-‘50s paranoia, and sci-fi positivism, and grasps to convey a clashing, riotous mix of different social and philosophical groups; punks, hippies, suburbanites, fascists, revolutionaries, whites and Mexicans and blacks, rich and poor and in-between, all charted with the concision of a Victorian realist novel, if not the method.

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The opening credits are backgrounded by green outlines of ordnance maps spotlighting places of specific association in the legend of American nuclear imperialism, zeroing in on Yucca and Los Alamos. The opening scene purveys essentialist American iconography as an unstable and dreamlike conglomeration – a Chevy Malibu with its jaunty, crisply coloured lines bespeaking of some place that always in a blithe mid-‘60s American summer, a highway motorcycle cop clad in fascist steeliness, a trunk full of the same glowing, annihilating stuff that carved a path through the macho men in Kiss Me, Deadly (1955), scorching the hapless cop down to his briefly highlighted skeleton and his smoking boots. The Malibu is driven by J. Frank Parnell (Fox Harris), a nuclear scientist who claims to have invented the Neutron Bomb, armed with an insane smile, one lens missing from his sunglasses, and a trunk full of alien corpses stolen from New Mexico, giving off mysterious energy sufficient to vaporise anyone opening the hatch.

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The gritty sprawl of Los Angeles’ industrial zones, much fetishized by filmmakers in search of hip climes hunting for authenticity in the ‘80s, found their rarest auteur in Cox, and their great documenter in imported cinematographer Robby Müller, cut loose in the American wilds as every indie up-and-comer’s heroic shooter of seedy, sun-kissed glamour. The boxy empty warehouses with the faintest patina of art deco style, the freeway stretches and overpasses painted strange hues by street lighting, high-rise buildings glimpsed away in the distance like a neo-Stonehenge for money worship amidst a city otherwise preoccupied with all its tribal business. Our “hero” Otto Maddox (Emilio Estevez) is introduced as a punk archetype, a young man frustrated with shitty jobs and pointless schooling. He tosses in his job as a supermarket shelf stacker in a fit of pique after his coworker and sort-of-friend Kevin (Zander Schloss) drives him to distraction singing a 7-Up jingle and the boss Mr Humphries (Charles Hopkins) chews him out for various infractions. Seeking fellowship with his punk friends who get wasted and screw in Kevin’s parents’ house, Otto instead finds himself driven from all solace when, after briefly breaking off making out with his girlfriend Debbi (Jennifer Balgobin) to get beer, returns to find his pal Duke (Dick Rude) has taken his place. Otto returns home to try and extract a payment of $1,000 his father promised in a bribe him to stay in school, only to find his burnt-out, pot-addled ex-hippie parents have given it all to a television evangelist Reverend Larry (Bruce White) to send bibles to El Salvador in exchange for having their names inscribed on “The Honor Roll of the Chariots of Fire.”

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Wandering in depression and solitude, Otto encounters Bud (Harry Dean Stanton), a man sitting in a car who offers him money to drive another car, which he claims to be his wife’s, out of a bad neighbourhood. Otto gets into the car and starts it up, only to be assaulted by a furious man, forcing Otto to drive away at speed. Bud works for the Helping Hand Acceptance Corporation, a repossession service, reclaiming cars from owners who have missed their payments. When he realises what business Bud is in, Otto pours out a can of beer on Helping Hand office floor, a gesture of contempt that instead impresses Bud and others in its commitment. “I’m not gonna be no Repo Man” he says; the company’s Girl Friday secretary Marlene (Vonetta McGee), only for her to coolly inform him as she hands him a wad of cash: “Too late – you already are.” As the paradigm of aimless, disaffected youth rather than someone who is by intellectual or even natural leaning a rebel, Otto is of course totally ready to fall for the first thing to come along to satisfy his urges for sex, money, power, and belonging. Whilst his friends Debbi, Duke, and Archie (Miguel Sandoval) take off on a life of crime, Otto is schooled in the Repo Man creed, a lifestyle where the antisocial vicissitudes are as alluring as the fiscal recompense. Kevin’s efforts to act the good little employee with ambitions play out as a fragmentary subplot, as he becomes a naive pump jockey and is last glimpsed briefly dazed and battered on a hospital gurney, Cox offering his and Otto’s tales as his answer to De Sade’s Justine and Juliette.

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The essence of Cox’s sardonic mythos lies in the ambivalent attitude that is the Repo Man way, which both exemplifies an all-American sensibility whilst also charting underlying faultlines, a fantasy of an ancient way somehow persisting in the ruined modern landscape. Otto initially takes the Repo Men for sleazy representatives of narc capitalism, only to find them ruled by a uniquely clannish sensibility with a charge of unexpected cool, cavalry roaming the urban badlands out to punish the deadbeats, living by their wits and doses of greedily snorted speed. The Repo Men take themselves for contemporary versions of the Lone Ranger, risking assault and even death. They lead lives practically indistinguishable from criminals, doing drugs to stay awake, concocting intricate ruses to rip off cars, keeping a step ahead of cops and gun-wielding owners. Unsurprisingly, they idolise John Wayne, even when Miller declares “John Wayne was a fag,” and tries to inform that that he once got hired by the Duke to install two-way mirrors in his bedroom and came to the door wearing a dress, details the Repo Men dismiss: “Plenty of straight guys like to watch their buddies fuck!…I know I do.”

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Bud, a lanky, high-strung, blow-loving maverick, sees himself as the exemplary Repo Man. He anoints himself Otto’s mentor and conceives of his job in an overtly high-minded, even philosophical way, evoking everything from the Bushido to Isaac Asimov as he declares the basic credo as he conceives it: “I shall not cause harm to any vehicle or the personal contents thereof nor through inaction let that vehicle or the personal contents thereof come to harm – it’s what I call the repo code, kid.” Such a warrior ethos is informed by necessities; keeping alive, keeping cool, doing the job well. Bud loathes any code not run to the same pragmatic standards as his own (“No commies in my car!…No Christians either!”), Hawkeye in a hot Pontiac. Venture capitalism as a sort of moral mission: if a man has to risk his body and soul in life, that risk might as well be represented by reward, and reward might as well be money. Bud pursues repo-ing not just for the pay but also because it allows him soil to nurture his need to remain removed from the mass of humanity. The job gives him satisfaction in his loathing people in debt (“If there was just some way of finding out what they owe and makin’ ‘em pay,” he muses ruefully whilst surveying slum dwellers) and, by extension, the world of credit and plastic that has replaced the world of thrift, work, and honour. He’s a hothead who hates his rivals the Rodriguez Brothers because he sees them as the degeneration of his profession. Part Repo sage, part burnt-out middle-aged bore, Bud is the best at his job but wants to get the hell out of it and be the guy with the lot instead of the guy who just brings the cars in.

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Not every Repo Man adheres to the same ethos. Lite (Sy Richardson) offers the black perspective, no-nonsense and expedient, warding off threatening debtors with blank cartridges, hotwiring vehicles, and schooling Otto in seamier tricks of the trade like tossing a dead rat into the car of female targets: unfortunately one reacts coolly to this ploy and squirts mace in his face for his pains. “Only an asshole gets killed for a car.” The Helping Hand encompasses a cross-section of types; besides Otto, Lite, and Bud, there’s sweaty, laugh-at-his-own-jokes boss Oly (Tom Finnegan); Miller (Tracey Walter), a hippie mechanic with a line in esoteric musings; Otto Plettschner (Richard Foronjy), the rent-a-cop fascist who “died in two World Wars” and whose first name suggests the sort of creature Otto might become with the right incentives; and Marlene the double-agent secretary with a line in Blaxploitation action moves. Marlene’s in with the Helping Hand’s great rivals, the Rodriguez brothers, Lagarto (Del Zamora) and Napoleon (Eddie Velez), Pancho Villa-esque alternatives to the Repo Men, complete with quasi-revolutionary outfits as they become Guevara-like urban guerrillas in the closing scenes. When the Helping Hand crew elect to settle their hash during a nocturnal encounter on the road, the Rodríguezes easily rattle them by threatening to sue for injury and damages. The apparently madcap plotlines begin to bundle together when the government agents tracking down Parnell and the Malibu post a reward of $20,000 for return of the car, a prize all the Repo Men leap at, and everyone has their moment in possession of the literally hot car.

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Cox’s use of repossession, the grimy, coercive end of the capitalist centipede, as a vehicle for exploring arch individualism is smart-assed enough in itself. Around this motif he wraps an acidic negation of consumerist values. All the food and drink products seen in the film are bluntly packaged with descriptive names rather than fancily labelled: when Bud suggests to Otto they get a drink, the next shot is of cans simply labelled Drink. Cox goes several steps further to consider an epoch where everything has to a certain extent become commercialised and alienated from its original nature. Christianity has been pulverised into self-mockery, as Otto’s cranially-nullified parents watch the phony televangelist without blinking. The Scientology-mocking ‘Dioretix’ book presents “the science of mind over matter”, adopted variously by Repo Men and FBI agents, is a pseudo-scientific religion perfect for the new-age mindset that tends naturally to believe in things unseen because why not. Science proper is busy creating neutron bombs that “destroy people.” Country, repressing the truth, monitoring your life, employing torturers, perverts, and homogenous minions. Otto wanders the streets of LA seeing men in hazmat suits retrieving corpses, the collateral damage in an ongoing apocalypse. Hippiedom, represented by Miller is beautiful but written off as a form of benign madness, a contrary blot in the corner whilst harbouring keys to the universe. The United Fruitcake Outlet, cover for an organisation for alien conspiracy nuts, waits patiently and hopefully for transcendence to come in the form of relief to come of aliens. Which, funnily enough, it does.

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Otto encounters one of the UFO faithful, Leila (Olivia Barash), as she’s dodging the government agents. Leila and others in the UFO are trying to make contact with Parnell, intending to get the aliens publicised, dreams of dissident glory written up in tabloid ink. Otto chuckles mercilessly at the whole set-up but still sees in Leila a comely lass of just about equal age and level of horniness. Otto’s come-ons lack finesse but finds Leila’s certainly up to screw in the backseat of a repo car in broad daylight out the front of the UFO headquarters. Otto has both enormous cynicism but also a youthful lightness to the way he treats life, like his fumbling attempt to get Leila to give him a blow-job when next he visits her; when she slaps him he can’t help but laugh. Otto’s values, though fractured amidst the random bizarreness of his existence, slowly gain form. He believes in fairness, which he shows by offering to not take a car he thinks belongs to a poor old black lady and then, when he finds it actually belongs to her big musician son and his band of equally big friends, tries to rip it off. Only they catch him and beat hell out of him. When he won’t say who did it to the Repo crew, they in turn beat him up to get the name because it’s their code this should never happen. So Otto gives the name of Humphries, his ex-boss at the supermarket, cueing one of the film’s most bluntly hilarious jolts of black humour as the Repo team visit Humphries’ house and clobber him with a baseball bat. Meanwhile Leila is taken prisoner by Agent Rogersz (Susan Barnes), the haughty, pinstriped dominatrix of the government team trying to track down Parnell who comes across: in a nod to Dr Strangelove, she has an artificial hand to which the punks bow down like a pagan fetish.

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Meanwhile Walter’s sublimely kooky Miller, the hippie repairman and shaman for Helping Hand, performs healing rites for the battered Otto and delivers monologues composed of sci-fi accented mysticism involving flying time machines, blended with contemplations of Jungian synchronicity as an expression of the cosmic unconscious, all recounted as he burns up junk in a rail yard. He does so to Otto’s bemused and cynical interest: “Did you do much acid Miller – back in the hippie days?” Miller’s illustration of synchronicity involving “plate” or “shrimp” or “plate of shrimp” gains a throwaway refrain later as a diner window sign advertises, yes, “plate ‘o shrimp.” Such finite yet precise detailing flows all the way through Repo Man, a film which sees no essential distinction between big particulars and small in a manner that’s akin to a narrative cinematic version of certain modernist art styles, perspective removed, only the map of mysterious relations left. The wonder of it all is that for all the rambling, often scarcely connected flow of individual sequences in the film, its plot ultimately unfolds with a deft sense of mechanism, the fragmentary becoming a unique whole in much the same way that the alien power in the Malibu evolves from destructive to transcendental force. Miller’s raving about “threads of coincidence” becomes the stuff of Repo Man’s story. But what gives the most ironic and clandestine form to the story is the way Cox delivers a version of an Arthurian Grail quest, with the Repo Men as the most devolved version of the Knights of the Round Table, Otto as spaced-out Galahad to Miller’s Percival and Bud’s screwball Lancelot.

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The joke of the federal agents all having the same blonde quaff is reminiscent of the interchangeable jocks in The Graduate (1967), albeit weaponised with acid political inference. The White Superman is under assault from all directions; from youth, the Counterculture, the Underculture, all the non-Gringos, whilst the Establishment’s hordes look they’ve been constructed en masse by Mattel, is too busy trying to keep a lid on the Great Secret of alien life, far too shocking and discomforting to be broadcast on the news between the commercials. Cox sees all theoretically polarised factions as actually porous in nature, because humans are collections of impulses and divided natures, each attitude containing its antithesis. Otto the punk joins the square-dressing Repo Men. The feds mock Marlene and the Rodriguez Brother’s failure to run down Rogersz like they were Repo Men themselves. Leila the radical conspiracy theorist happily signs up with the feds’ mission and tortures Otto. All of them are ultimately driven to look for ideal missions suiting their personal wants and instincts, and what draws them to one group isn’t so far from what might draw them to any other. Leila, excited by the subversive thrill of excavating hidden evidence of alien life and all the pseudo-religious implications therein, is of course attracted to being a fascist.

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Then there’s Parnell, rescuing the alien remains for Leila, hoping to redeem himself in the act except that he’s too far gone, flesh leeched by poison, brain sliced and diced, at once high priest of the western death-dream and victim, obsessed by radiation with apocalyptic delight and fear. He’s been to the mountaintop of modernity, having endeavoured to create what he describes as something “so monstrously immoral just working on the thing can drive you insane.” Parnell’s job was to weave the spectre that seems to hang over the entire scene, as if life on Earth has a limited shelf-life, or at least men will make sure it has one. Perhaps it’s also true to the film’s punk ethos that it also mocks punk itself mercilessly. Otto himself quickly falls from the faith when the blithe, unruly punk ethic bites him on the backside. The young barbarians gather to gyrate and smash glass in post-apocalyptic locales. Otto’s friends degenerate into bandits who sound like poseurs, the poshly accented Debbi and the preppie-sounding Duke, who in a shocked moment vows a really criminal act: “Let’s go get sushi – and not pay!” Otto knows damn well that not only is modern life rubbish but as a hopeless middle-class stowaway he’s part of it too. “Society made me what I am,” Duke gasps whilst dying; “That’s bullshit,” Otto replies with realistic contempt, “You’re a white suburban punk, just like me.” “But it still hurts,” Archie protests in his dying gurgle, summing up the whole problem.

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Repo Man gained a lot of its immediate cred from the soundtrack, with a chugging punk surfer-noir theme by Iggy Pop added late and the spacey guitar tracks by The Plugz gifting the film some of its unique texture, at once louche and spry in propelling the movie with aspects of aural lampooning as well as mood-weaving. Repo Man came out amidst the strong moment for unusual, cultish, low-budget projects that was 1984, as the independent film movement was gathering steam. Jim Jarmusch’s breakout with Stranger Than Paradise presented kin in pokerfaced cool; John Sayles’ Brother From Another Planet anatomised contemporary society with sci-fi metaphors. Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas offered a simultaneous survey of the American landscape shot by Muller and featuring Stanton in all his bedraggled glory. Much as fans of all three movies might hate to admit it, Repo Man also had affinities with Ghostbusters in making sport of the post-counterculture meltdown and rise of yuppiedom amidst a tale of fantastical cosmic collisions, and with James Cameron’s The Terminator, tearing about the tech-noir LA streets dodging time travellers and metaphorical Cold War-age fallout. If science fiction’s success in the Star Wars age had come at the expense of largely losing the socially critical veneer it had wielded throughout the previous decade, Repo Man helped restore the balance, point the way forward to similar mixtures of urban gothic and satirical screed in the likes of Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop (1986) and John Carpenter’s They Live (1988). Hell, there’s even some of The X-Files in there.

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Cox’s style, inimitable as it was, would also have definite impact on Quentin Tarantino’s early work in freely mixing deadpan realism closely attuned to LA’s street feel, genre film quotes redeployed in quotidian contexts, black humour, and surf guitar music twanging on the soundtrack. Similarly, Cox had already gotten to places where David Lynch was going in stewing together retro Americana and surrealist blindsiding, pre-empting the absurdist theatre of Mulholland Drive (2000), if with a far more playful bent, and aspects of his TV show Twin Peaks, down to the association of atom-age sin with contemporary dislocation. The formal chic of Muller’s photography with its acrylic textures undoubtedly helped imbue Repo Man with its oddball poise. Flashes of surprisingly intense and kinetic filmmaking, like a liquor store shootout and a chase in an underground carpark, are contrasted with many a shot where the camera sits removed at a cool distance from the actors and action to accentuate the absurdist flavour. One essential example arrives late in the film as the heroes flee a hospital with feds pursuing, the camera remaining rooted to the spot in filming the flurry of action, only for the Malibu, releasing bolts of blue energy that strike down the feds, cruising by as a brief and tantalising glimpse of the utterly surreal. Cox takes a squared-off perspective on roadsides and house fronts so often it becomes a system of sorts, the viewpoint of the Repo Manas cruising along the road, surveying the facades of the everyday, both compelled and repelled by the geometry of LA and its ideals of possession, eyeing the shiny objects parked without.

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The film has an inexhaustible supply of brilliant, throwaway comedy skits and vignettes laden with bemused and mysterious texture. Otto being berated for knocking over garbage bins by an old English lady (Dorothy Bartlett). An agent screaming, “Not my face!” as Marlene prepares to thump him with a chair. A scooter-riding gang trundling up a midnight street to the quoted strains of “Born to Be Wild,” and a refrain of “Ride of the Valkyries” accompanying Duke, Debbi, and Archie as they flee a drug warehouse they’ve raided, Archie pausing to shake hands with a derelict man on the way. “Born to be Wild” resurges later with cruel good humour as Otto tries to take off with the musicians’ car, only to realise the back wheels are jammed on props. Miller ministering to Otto after he’s beaten up by the musicians with mystic chants and ribbons. The Circle Jerks, of which Schloss was a member, appearing as a lounge act warbling atonal and cynical ditties in vicious mockery of the old crooner style. Duke gets gunned down when he and Debbi rob a liquor store, sparking a gunfight that also sees Bud wounded. Duke is already dead, flash-fried by the alien radiation when the crew steal the Malibu. They stole the car off the Rodríguezes, who stole it off Parnell, who then regains his ride after Archie’s death. Otto finally spots the Malibu and chases it on foot until Parnell stops and gives him a ride. The scientist him with radiation factoids and explains how he got lobotomised to slow his overheated brain down, before suddenly expiring from a haemorrhage.

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Throughout all the craziness runs the spasmodic blend of amity and frustration that defines Bud and Otto’s partnership, not quite friends, not quite surrogate father and son, more different versions of the same generational task, each as rudely unfinished and unique as the other, evoking Ethan and Martin in The Searchers (1956), a film Cox would later make a pseudo-sequel-cum-interrogation in trying to explore his fascination. Taking at first to being Otto’s mentor, Bud ends up exasperated: “I thought I could teach you something!” Bud, tired and hungry for enough money to become the boss, is scarcely a model of world-conquering success himself, a prototype already outmoded, and in the very end it proves Miller rather than Bud who takes Otto for the next, greater step in his journey. However Bud’s method of handling things proves revivifying; where Otto finds the Malibu, Bud just rips it off and waves his gun at anyone who disagrees, and when he falls with a belly full of machine gun bullets, only calmly asks for a cigarette. Otto has a young man’s quick sense of the absurd balanced by his longing for something authentic and worthy. He is as often bewildered and out of his depth as is he is knowing and cynical; indeed he’s largely a weak and silly hero (like when he explains to Duke that he never came to see him in juvie because “I was working!”) specifically because he’s also young. But he is, ultimately, a pure grail seeker, ultimately worthy to travel with Miller in the Malibu because of his willingness to keep seeking something uncompromised which overpowers all his other instincts.

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The riotous climax lays waste to the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) in reclaiming the transcendental encounter with alien powers for the fantastical revolution for social outcasts, whilst the representatives of state security and other institutions wither and cringe before the might of such energy as represented by day-glo paint and gaffers tossing around ice cubes. The radiation-suit-clad feds burst into flames and even the good Reverend Larry bleats “Holy sheep-shit!” as the energy fries his bible. It is ultimately Miller’s vision that wins through, his kooky reports of time machine flying saucers that proves pertinent. Where Bud makes a last stand (“I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees!”) and get shot for his pains, it is Miller the cracked mystic who ultimately knows what to do with this star vessel, the man on the scene with the understanding. He invites Otto to come with him to the stars. “What about our relationship?” demands Leila. “Fuck that,” Otto replies before climbing aboard. The glitter of the LA skyline glimpsed from a flying car is wonder enough. Nothing left to do but look up and charge into the void. One of the great movie finales, and one of the great movie beginnings.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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Tempting Devils (Jean-Claude Brisseau)

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

Honourable Mention

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

Rough Gems and/or Underrated

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

Disappointing and/or Overrated

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

Crap

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

Unseen

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

The Best Older Films I Saw First in 2019

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

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2010s, 2019

My Collected Film Writing 2019

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

Roderick Heath 2019 Film Writing

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

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2010s, Action-Adventure, Fantasy, Scifi

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

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

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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