Back in the 11th hour of the American Century, the now-extinct species called the American intellectual spoke not only in lecture halls, but also in printed newspapers and magazines, on television programs of all stripes, and especially in books that landed regularly on bestseller lists. James Baldwin, a true American intellectual from the most humble of circumstances, left a long, self-imposed exile in France to witness and become a part of the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, writing articles for such periodicals as The Partisan Review, Mademoiselle, Harper’s, The New York Times Magazine, and The New Yorker and befriending Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. He started a memoir in 1979 whose working title was “Remember This House” that was to revolve around those three slain civil rights leaders and his relationship to his native land. Although it was abandoned after 30 pages, the book has been brought to life by black Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck as the script for I Am Not Your Negro. Through a combination of film clips of Baldwin and Samuel L. Jackson voicing Baldwin’s words from his unfinished book, Peck cogently resurrects Baldwin’s personality and vibrant intellect, showing his words to be not only powerful, but also prophetic.
I’m going to start at the end of the movie, with a taped interview of Baldwin during which he poses a question:
The question the white population of this country has got to ask itself is why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place. Because I’m not a nigger. I’m a man. But if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it. And you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that.
You’ll note that the title of this documentary avoids the very word Baldwin, a writer deeply concerned with the effects of language, asked us to consider. Think about that. Putting the word “nigger” in the title likely would have offended African Americans and shocked liberals of all kinds. It may even have hurt the advertising and distribution plans for the film. Yet if we don’t grapple with the implications of that word, but more important, that construct, as Baldwin asks us to do, this film will have been an exercise in futility.
Peck establishes that Baldwin may have left the United States voluntarily, but that the country never left him and that he has the communal connections, memories, and above all, the right to call himself an American and stake his rightful claim to full citizenship. He even rejects the concept of a civil rights movement, diagnosing instead “failure of the private life . . . the role of the guilty and constricted white imagination” with “white people . . . endlessly demanding that Birmingham is on Mars.” He says that “the Negro has never been happy in his place. When you stand up and look the world in the face like you have a right to be here, you have attacked the entire power structure of the western world. Forget the Negro problem. It’s not a racial problem,” he says, “but whether you’re willing to be responsible for your life.”
I have watched this film three times and am still not done with it. I looked at the angrily contorted faces of white people terrorizing painfully isolated black children trying to go to school, “heroic” movie stars shooting down marauding Indians (or more likely, white men in “red” face), and a final, shocking sequence of Doris Day looking her most angelic as she sings about whether to be “bad” and go all the way with Rock Hudson, followed by black bodies hanging from a tree as white onlookers smile their satisfaction. This sickness, this segregation not only of our physical beings, but also of our lived experiences, has turned many white people into what Baldwin calls “moral monsters.”
Am I a moral monster? I don’t think so, yet I can’t deny that my life rarely intersects with those of African Americans. I used to have black friends—real friends—but there were still gulfs of understanding between us. I was relatively poor, living paycheck to paycheck when I was friends with Bernadette, yet I lived in a two-bedroom apartment in a safe, white neighborhood, and she lived in the projects. I even gave her my space heater after she had a baby so she and her son would not freeze; I never much used it, as the heat in my home was generally adequate. My friend Jacqui and I went everywhere together. We went to a disco in the Loop, which we had to exit quickly when two black men started fighting over who would dance with me. Why was I so important? She spoke with me in a real panic about her hair falling out—I knew nothing about how important hair is to a black woman and offered little in the way of comfort. Then she fell on hard times I couldn’t share with her and vanished. I don’t know where she is today.
I became aware of black anger as a daily condition for some people when I visited the headquarters of my employer in Alexandria, Virginia. The black/white divide was an open wound in this state that had once contained the capital of the Confederacy. Suspicious self-segregation was the order of the day at the office; I was oblivious to the tensions most of the time because I worked remotely, and I blithely sat with my black colleagues when we did team-building exercises during my visits east. I danced in a Soul Train line at one of our Christmas parties, proud that I watched the show and not American Bandstand, vaguely aware that my black coworkers were probably laughing at me.
The most defining moment of my personal education in the ways in which white supremacy operates came during a taxi ride. The cabbie was telling me a story about how he hit a black boy who rode his bike into the car’s path. The cabbie was guilt-stricken at the damage he did to the boy’s legs and spoke about it with real distress. Suddenly, his tone changed. His voice took a sarcastic tone as he came round to blaming the boy for causing his own injuries, almost implying that the boy deserved to have his legs broken. The mental whiplash this strange encounter caused me has never healed; I have no idea what it did to the cabbie.
White Americans, particularly those who are liberal-minded, seem to think we can get past race if we just ignore it. Baldwin, a guest on The Dick Cavett Show, is shown confronting a white academic who complains that Baldwin needs to stop talking about race and argues that what we have in common in terms of our interests and personalities should be the guidepost for future interactions. Baldwin, who says he fled to Paris so that he could continue his work without fear of violent attack, roundly slams him: “You want me to make an act of faith, risking myself, my life . . . on some idealism which you assure me exists in America, which I have never seen.” In a similar vein, I interviewed Harry Lennix in 2013. I asked him about colorblind casting, which seems designed by simpletons to level the playing field for people of all races and ethnicities. He said, “I just saw “The Hollow Crown” on Great Performances, with Jeremy Irons, the other day, and they had a very good actor by the name of Paterson Joseph playing Henry V’s cousin York. But he was black! I’m not aware, in the 14th century in England, of any black person walking around in the court of the king as a fully functional, empowered official of the court. ‘So who is this guy?’ I wanted to know. It took me out just long enough for me to say, I applaud the effort, that’s nice, it’s good that they want to include people, but that is not indicative of an actual experience.”
It is, as Baldwin says, our failure of imagination, our simplicity, that offers such tepid, inconsequential attacks on the construct of the nigger. Baldwin says, “Simplicity is taken to be a great American virtue, along with sincerity. One of the results is that immaturity is taken to be a virtue, too, with no necessity to grow up.” Peck inserts a litany of apologies coming from everyone from Ronald Reagan to the Clintons and Eliot Spitzer. Like my cabbie’s fleetingly expressed shame, these apologies were given with fingers crossed; these temporarily humbled leaders would commit their crimes, both large and small, again, and would never be made to take responsibility for them. Tellingly, the opposition white establishments take turns playing Parent and Child, with each calling the other out and demanding an apology. In 2017, given the individuals in charge of our country, no one expects to get even the smallest of apologies, black Americans least of all.
Baldwin asserts that “it’s an absolute miracle that the black population has not given into rage and paranoia,” as footage and images of white brutality from Birmingham to Ferguson fill the screen. This miracle, however, has a reason, which Baldwin himself offers in a television interview: “The Israelis pick up guns, or the Poles, or the Irish—every white man in the world says give me liberty or give me death—and the entire white world applauds. But if a black man says exactly the same thing, word for word, he is judged a criminal and treated like one, and everything possible is done to make an example of this bad nigger so there won’t be any more like him.”
And, of course, the film, spends time on the three martyrs Baldwin wrote about, none of whom lived to see 40. I’m particularly embarrassed by a popular 1968 song, “Abraham, Martin and John,” written by a white man and introduced by white teen idol Dion, and note how it lionizes the peaceful black man, and how the song was amended later to include the fallen Bobby Kennedy, a man whom Baldwin asserts was insulted when writer Lorraine Hansberry asked him, as then-U.S. Attorney General, to make a moral commitment to black progress at a 1963 meeting also attended by Baldwin and other black leaders. I’m also embarrassed that 2017 was the first year since Martin Luther King Jr. Day was declared a federal holiday in 1986 that my employer gave its employees the day off. I’m quite sure I will not live to see the federal government declare a Medgar Evers or Malcolm X Day; they did not preach respectability politics or nonviolence, even though Baldwin says that Martin and Malcolm were coming closer to a meeting of the minds that would have been less threatening to white people.
So, have African Americans come as far as white people think they have? Consider that black men were elected to office during Reconstruction; Joe Gans and Jack Johnson won world boxing titles against white opponents in 1902 and 1908, respectively; Madame C. J. Walker became a business scion in America in the 1910s; and integrated schools were known in the 1840s, before the famous Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. These achievements have been more normalized in 2017, and, of course, we’ve had a black president, just about when Bobby Kennedy predicted in 1963 we would, outraging Baldwin with his arrogance as an Irish johnny-come-lately to America.
But I understand Bobby. His ancestors were hated and rejected, and so were mine. But he was and I am white. We eventually assimilate because our difference doesn’t show. As a Jew, I know I feel safer because someone else is targeted. I didn’t participate in slavery, nor did my ancestors in this country, but that doesn’t make me innocent of accepting the protections my skin color affords me. I move with relative ease and have absorbed some of the fear of black people I’ve been taught. When I was in South Africa after the fall of apartheid, it was the whites who were afraid of reprisals for their heinous behavior toward the black majority. Today, in America, I believe that white fear of facing our insanely cruel history in the name of commerce and comfort has allowed the worst elements of our society to run amok. I fervently hope we take a page out of recent South African history and set up our own truth and reconciliation commission to tour our country and pay more than lip service to our collective guilt, before widespread violence becomes the only recourse.
“Babel loved life. He believed that people are born to enjoy life.” –Antonina Pirojkova, mathematician, construction engineer, and second wife of Isaac Babel
Isaac Babel, the acclaimed Jewish writer from Odessa, Ukraine, enjoyed a momentous life—two wives, two children, numerous lovers, an international literary reputation, and an adoring public. But it was not a long one. He was arrested on May 15, 1939, and taken to Lubyanka Prison in Moscow. Eventually, he was transferred to nearby Butyrka Prison, where he was tried for treason and executed in secret on January 27, 1940, at the age of 45. Soviet agents seized 24 folders that may have contained nearly 80 of Babel’s writings; they have never been recovered.
Andrei Malaev-Babel, an acting teacher at the theatre conservatory of Florida State University, was moved to uncover the history and retrace the steps of the grandfather he never knew upon the 2010 death of Pirojkova, his grandmother and still grieving widow of Babel. The odyssey took him to Polish Galicia, Odessa, Paris, and Moscow, to the places where Babel lived, was detained, died, and was interred. Along the way, he samples Babel’s works as a progression of the things the writer saw and felt compelled to comment upon, even though it meant his death.
Finding Babel, directed and cowritten by award-winning documentarian David Novack, offers viewers a look at a perhaps unfamiliar literary giant in a way that illuminates just how great a writer and chronicler he was. Malaev-Babel and he approach Babel’s story chronologically, linking key writings with the places and people they visit.
The film opens with a sculptor burnishing a giant, bronze sculpture of Babel that is to grace an Odessa square in front of a new museum dedicated to the writer. This polishing process, which makes the sculpture shine like gold, is an evocative metaphor for bringing Babel out of the shadows of Soviet oppression and his secret fate and into the light of a new age.
To emphasize the point, the film launches immediately into Liev Schreiber reading from Babel’s Red Cavalry, based on eyewitness reportage of his time riding with the Cossacks, the traditional enemies of the Jews. The music is mournful, and the image on screen mimics the location where Babel stood, posterized to distinguish it as heightened reality. The language is rich and voluptuous, the descriptions horrifyingly vivid:
“A dead old man lay there on his back. His throat had been torn out and his face cleft in two. In his beard, blue blood cloated like a lump of lead.
“‘Sir,’ said the Jewess, shaking the feather bed. ‘Poles cut his throat.’”
This is what it means to be a witness to history.
The film jumps to New York’s Brighton Beach, with lively klezmer music invigorating what was, and is, Russian Jewish life. Malaev-Babel is being interviewed on Russian-language radio about his pending trip to trace Babel’s footsteps. Next stop is what is now western Ukraine, where he meets a guide in Lviv who helps him find the places Babel wrote about in Red Cavalry. During his travels in Ukraine, he meets a group of tourists from Israel who are likewise interested in Babel, confirming to Malaev-Babel that Babel is more than remembered—he is revered. He visits a large Jewish cemetery Babel mentions in his 1920 Diary, one of the few not destroyed by the Nazis or the Soviets and an image that will form a bookend with Babel’s final resting place, a mass grave marked only by a single monument festooned with nameplates and flowers.
From his teens until his 30s, Babel lived in Odessa’s Jewish Moldavanka section, where he may have been born. His famous Odessa Stories put the area on the map, infusing it with the lively chatter of the courtyard buildings, streets, and shops before the pogroms began. Malaev-Babel is escorted by two history professors, who comment that the cobblestones that still line the streets are the same as in Babel’s time. Following a reception at the Babel museum and the unveiling of the statue, Malaev-Babel visits the apartment where Babel lived, a crowd of journalists and onlookers documenting this historic meeting of past and present.
Novack offers excerpts of Benya Krik (Benny the Howl), a 1926 silent film by director Vladimir Vilner of one of Babel’s Odessa stories about a master criminal of whom Babel says, “He is the king while you give people the finger with your hand in your pocket.” Novack cleverly superimposes images of the films on present-day structures, again working very deftly to bring Babel’s words to life.
Malaev-Babel moves on to Paris, where Babel lived for a time with his first wife and three-year-old child, both of whom he abandoned to return to his homeland, soon meeting Malaev-Babel’s grandmother. In Paris, his grandson stretches his professional muscles by rehearsing a production of Babel’s 1935 play Maria. The play was never produced in Babel’s lifetime; it was shut down during rehearsals because of its very dangerous message that human nature will devour the utopian ideal of the Soviet Union and that all the people who died during the Russian Revolution were sacrificed for nothing.
A final, chilling moment comes when Malaev-Babel tries to visit the place where Babel was arrested. It is now in a gated community, and when Malaev-Babel tries to enter, he is roughed up by two security guards. The past, of course, is still present in Putin’s authoritarian Russia. As French actress Marina Vlady, the daughter of Russian immigrants to France, told him in Paris, “We have no Stalin, but we have a great many little Stalins.”
I’ve largely given a precis of this documentary because I fear many people will not be able to see it, but if you have a chance, do not miss it! Novack is a master imagist, creating filmic paintings of wonderfully chosen excerpts from Babel’s works that reveal the writer’s sensuality, keen eye, and vivid understanding of events he thought, in his idealism about the Revolution, would never happen. Malaev-Babel exhibits a lot of the charisma and intelligence that must have adhered from Babel, and thus, is a compelling and engaging guide. The horrors of Stalin’s Great Terror are everywhere apparent, from our tour through the monastery that was built above former torture chambers and cells to the ruins of barracks that housed the murderous Cossacks and their horses, the latter a strong symbol in Babel’s writing.
Babel met his fate, but remains a passionate voice in our world today. Aaron Lansky, founder and president of the National Yiddish Book Center, explains it this way: “Tyrants fear the poet, and people fear the writer, because they tell the truth. They tell a much deeper truth.”
Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, 610 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago, screens Finding Babel January 29 at 2 p.m. David Novack will introduce the film and lead a postshow discussion. Finding Babel is the first of four films showing at Spertus in its Sunday Cinema film festival, January 29–February 19, 2017.
Creator/Writer: Abi Morgan
Directors: Tim Fywell, Jessica Hobbs, and Richard Laxton
By Marilyn Ferdinand
In the crowded field of television homicide detectives, the British have offered rabid fans like me their fair share of talented, quirky sleuths. From David Suchet’s Hercule Poirot and John Thaw’s Inspector Morse to Helen Mirren as DCI Jane Tennison and Robson Green as, well, just about everyone, there’s no shortage of obsessive coppers dedicated to bringing murderers to justice for our viewing pleasure.
The latest of this breed is John River, the title character of the miniseries River, played by Stellan Skarsgård. The brilliant Swedish actor, who would have been a natural for the Swedish detective of the Wallander series instead of Irish actor Kenneth Branagh, has largely avoided cop roles since his riveting turn as detective Jonas Engström in the original Swedish version of Insomnia (1997). Perhaps he was avoiding typecasting, as his pale, worried face is a natural fit for the kind of damaged souls writers imagine homicide detectives to be.
That he took the role of River, a taciturn Swedish immigrant who works for London’s Metropolitan Police Service, is perhaps due to the efforts of its creator and writer, Abi Morgan, who brought us such polished British features as Shame (2011), The Iron Lady (2011), and Suffragette (2015). I like to think Morgan might have heard a suggestion James Cagney made about the dime-a-dozen gangster he was asked to play in White Heat (1949): “Let’s make him crazy.” Most TV homicide detectives flirt with the edges of sanity as an occupational hazard; River went off the deep end long ago. He regularly talks to and fights with a bevy of dead apparitions; only his 80 percent clear rate and the protective ministrations of his buoyant partner, Jacqueline “Stevie” Stevenson (Nicola Walker), have kept him on the police force.
We meet River and Stevie as they are driving around their precinct. Stevie sings and hand jives to Tina Charles’ uber-catchy disco tune, “I Love to Love,” as River smiles his approval. The pair grows quiet as River spots a car with a dented panel, a clue to his current investigation. He spots the driver in a mini mart and spooks the young man with a hard, penetrating stare. A long chase on foot ensues, with tragic results. River is pulled off the case, ordered into counseling, and assigned a new partner, Ira King (Adeel Akhtar). You see, the case he was working on was Stevie’s murder.
River is shattered by Stevie’s death. Even though he and Ira are reassigned to the electrocution of a construction worker who is hovering near death, he keeps on the hunt for her killer and persuades Ira to help him. Everything he says and does, including advising the construction worker’s wife to tell him what she needs to before his inevitable death in a move judged callous by Ira, is self-reproach for withholding what is plain to viewers: he was deeply in love with Stevie.
Love, trust, and the betrayal of both form the slippery undercarriage of this otherwise fairly standard mystery drama. Morgan assembles a familiar cast of characters: a cop who can’t stand River (Owen Teale); psychiatrist Rosa Fallows (Georgina Rich), who just happens to run a therapy group for people who hallucinate; and River’s sympathetic superior, Chrissie Read (Lesley Manville), who keeps reminding everyone that she lost a friend, too. Morgan also trots out the usual tropes for murdered cops—working on a side case, keeping her investigation secret from the partner who thought he knew everything about her, locating corruption inside the legal system.
Stevie’s Irish family draws instant scrutiny from the seasoned murder mystery fan, particularly when we learn Stevie turned in her older brother, Jimmy (Steve Nicolson), for murder and that he has just returned to the family fold after 16 years behind bars. Her uncle, Michael Bennigan (Jim Norton), has the oily, cheery veneer of all TV Irish patriarchs. Stevie’s mother, Bridie (Sorcha Cusack, of the Father Brown mystery series), is the typical, no-nonsense, blustery Irish matriarch that’s become a cliché, and Stevie’s doughy younger brother, Frankie (Turlough Convery), seems strangely wounded and in need of the protective shield the whole family throws around him.
Other suspects—one might even say the usual suspects in these xenophobic times—emerge as River zeroes in on a Somali man with whom Stevie seems to have been involved. His probing uncovers a small community of immigrants who don’t understand the obstacles and hatred they face from their adopted land. It’s quite a poignant moment when River imagines the voice of his quarry, Haider Jamal Abdi (Peter Bankole), speaking to his wife in a letter Ira has only partly translated; River’s feelings of loneliness and isolation are given voice in the imagined end of Haider’s letter; his emotional projections are the true source of his ghostly visitors.
One projection is hard to decipher: Thomas Neill Cream, a 19th-century serial killer known as the Lambeth Poisoner, the subject of a true crime book River is reading. Cream, played by always reliably creepy Eddie Marsan, announces that he is the anger, rage, and darkest place inside River and urges him to come over to the dark side. Now, it’s true that in the game of cops and robbers, the players can change roles quite easily, but River isn’t playing a game. Cream seems more a device to shoot scenes of River shadow-boxing with a wall or strangling the air than something motivated from within, and I found these scenes incongruous and annoying.
Opposing these are the heartbreaking scenes he shares with the memory of Stevie. Nicola Walker fully embodies the enormous life force that was Stevie, making her murder all the more tragic for us as well as those who knew her. She provides River with intuitive clues to follow, probably much like she did in life. As he circles closer to the solution, she taunts him to really see her, know her—certainly an inner longing River has to be as close to her as possible, a conjoining he could only approximate by laying in her empty bed. His fixation on Rosa, who we think River may be using as a Stevie substitute, actually turns out to be River’s desire to break through his fear of intimacy and love.
Stevie was bringing River to life, and he is blessed to have another partner, Ira, who accepts his mental derangement and tries to befriend him. We very well might wonder why so many people stand by River, but that is all down to Skarsgård’s stunning ability to convey deep pain, shame, and loss while simultaneously trying to reach beyond his limitations to embrace life. We’ve seen detectives like him before, but never one who refuses so mightily to give up on himself. He gets the ending he has earned.
A clogged LA freeway on a winter’s day, “Another Day of Sun,” cars backed up for miles on either side. Suddenly a spasm of frustration manifests itself not as shouting or horn-blowing, but as song, and the traffic jam erupts momentarily into carnivale, the humans caged in their rolling steel egoverses momentarily joining in shared celebration of the dreams and less glamorous reality that defines their lives. It’s the sort of absurdist set-piece I’m sure that has occurred to just about anyone who’s ever been stuck in such a traffic jam, and it retains a certain spiritual connection to the early dream sequence in that eternal touchstone of artistic self-appraisal in cinema, 8½ (1963), and even to the music video for REM’s “Everybody Hurts.” Damien Chazelle ultimately follows those models arcs towards melancholy reckonings with the gap between private passion and the dismay of modern living, but for the moment goes for big, raucous this-is-going-to-be-a-ride showmanship. It’s the sort of opening gambit that will surely split an audience right down the middle, between those who will be instantly swept up in the cued excitement and those who might uneasily gird themselves for what’s coming. I was amongst the latter. Not because ebullient outdoors production numbers annoy me per se, but this one did. Chazelle’s camera spins and twists and cranes with showy, athletic mobility. But the showiness of the camerawork is overtly strenuous, technique without actual purpose, distracting from the fact that what it’s filming isn’t actually very well staged or choreographed; it is in fact rather a hymn to its own existence, a “wow, can you believe I’m pulling this in 2016?” statement. People stand on their car bonnets and throw their hands up and down and fling themselves about in conga lines. This immediately lays down a template that the rest of La La Land follows studiously: approximation of classic musical style served up like the coup of the century, but which on close examination proves to be all sizzle and no steak.
Chazelle believes that the school of hard knocks is the path to greatness. This thesis he already explored in his scripts for Eugenio Mira’s Grand Piano and his own Whiplash (both 2014), which purveyed the gym-coach mentality to artistic development: no pain, no gain, and never mind your pantywaist sensitivities. La La Land, his latest, depicts the exasperated romance of Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone), two Los Angeles wannabes. Grazing each other on the freeway at the start – he blasts his horn at her, she flips the bird at him – they soon find their paths repeatedly crossing, not always in the best of circumstances. Mia wants to be an actress, and works as a barista in a coffee shop on the Warner Bros. studio lot. As such, she’s surrounded by the legends of filmmaking past but entrapped within early 21st century economic impositions, pecked at by her boss and forced to watch actual famous people parade by whilst she develops contempt for the roundelay of fruitless auditions that is the rest of her life. Encouraged to attend a party by her roommate friends, Mia finishes up departing the disappointment and is forced to walk home when she finds her car has been towed. A salve for such sorrows comes as she passes by a restaurant and hears a beautiful tune being played, drawing her inside. The player is Sebastian, a talented pianist, whose love of classic jazz approaches religion: unfortunately he’s just violated the restaurant manager’s (J.K. Simmons) injunction to only play strictly timed Christmas tunes, and he’s fired summarily for this, leading Sebastian to furiously barge past Mia as she tries to thank him for the beautiful performance. Some weeks later, she runs into him again, this time playing keys in a ’80s pop cover band. Her chosen method of revenge is to request the band play A Flock of Seagulls’ “I Ran.” The duo’s grazing, sniping humour and Sebastian’s tendency to turn most encounters into some kind of confrontation gives way to sparks of attraction.
This moment was the only one in La La Land that really entertained me, although it treads terribly close to Saturday Night Live-style shtick, in large part because it’s one of the few vignettes that taps both Stone and Gosling’s ability to play comedy, and also because it offers a combination of joke and character moment that revolves around the cultural attitudes of the two characters, the disparity between Seb’s semi-messianic sense of duty by his chosen art form and the pop culture around him, and the infuriating way his and Mia’s attraction continues to manifest through apposite impulses. Stone and Gosling are both accomplished neo-wiseacres, and Chazelle arms them with a small arsenal of zingers and prickles to make them convincing as representatives of a knowing and chitinous modern breed. But once their surfaces are scratched, both characters are revealed as deeply, almost suffocatingly earnest. Sebastian’s dedication is seen first as monklike as he subsists in an apartment barely furnished, with a stool once owned by Hoagy Carmichael as object of veneration or seating depending on the moment’s need. His sister (I think) Laura (Rosemarie DeWitt) appears for one scene, offering La La Land a jolt of call-bullshit sarcasm that cuts through the single-mindedness of Seb and Mia’s obsessions. One quality La La Land badly lacks is a major secondary voice or voices to lend depth to the palette, the kind they used to get people like Oscar Levant or Thelma Ritter to offer, pipes of sarcasm to put some smog in the airiness. When the few alternate voices that do come in Chazelle’s script, they’re nearly strictly pitched as rhetorical devices to push our characters about, like Simmons’ cameo as the asshole manager who prevails upon Seb not to play “the free jazz,” and, later, John Legend’s Keith, a successful band leader who seduces Seb into playing with his band with a get-behind-me-Satan spiel about the need for jazz to evolve.
Part of this might be explained by the fact that both Seb and Mia bring their own snark, but only long enough to be halfway convincing as contemporary types before we get into more traditional romanticism. But the course of true love and successful lifestyle maintenance never does run smooth. Mia lives with three other young women (Callie Hernandez, Jessica Rothe, and Sonoya Mizuno) at the start who form both her posse and chorus line, dragging her into action at the Hollywood party where the stage seems set for a good production number. Except no real production number arrives, just more of Chazelle’s spinning camerawork and background dancers throwing their hands in the air again. After a certain point, Mia’s pals vanish from the party, and then from the film. Her moment of transcendent bliss overhearing Seb’s playing, is his moment of self-indulgence for which he pays an instant price. I can handle the notion of a restaurant manager so oblivious that anything but straight-up tunes to wheedle diners’ ears will piss him off, even if I don’t really believe it, and I sense it’s just a device to set up Seb’s humiliation; what I can’t quite buy is the interaction of writing and vision we get here, the manager’s quip about free jazz and the slightly pompous but pretty anodyne piece of improvisation that costs Seb his job but charms Mia. It’s like the music supervisor had a slightly different copy of the script to the director and actors. Mia is suddenly seen to be saddled with a Chad Cliché yuppie boyfriend who turns up just in time for her to run out on him, heading instead to meet up with Seb at a screening of Rebel Without a Cause (1955), a venture that segues into a tour of the Griffith Observatory where rapture blooms and the heavens open, a lovely moment that nonetheless seems to come out of a different film. Later, Seb tries to explain to Mia the value of jazz as active expression of America’s melting pot brilliance, the product of the constant shunt and shove of multiple voices.
This vignette is irksome on several levels, not least because Chazelle makes Mia the easily schooled avatar of an audience he presumes associates this beloved musical style with smooth jazz bilge, not the rocky, high-stakes art form he worships. And it’s not just the fact that the film turns into an NPR essay here. It’s that Chazelle backs away from finding any interesting conceptual way of exploring Seb’s love cinematically. In the end, the movie that proposes to revitalise certain classical precepts in the musical is just another contemporary film where someone talks too much. And it’s on this level that La La Land repeatedly and conspicuously fails, in weaving its use of the form with its subject, until one climactic sequence towards the end, in which Mia’s audition for a crucial role becomes a song number. There’s no pervading sense of jazz as the informing art here, nor of any other strong contemporary pop music form, although Chazelle evidently sees a connection between his understanding of jazz and his pursuit of giving new meaning to an old aesthetic in the musical form. His visual approach offers sublimation of Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1966) insistently, aiming to recreate Demy’s skilful, deceptively rich blend of casual realism and stylisation, usually accomplished through careful redressing of real locations and employment of strong, colour-coded costuming and lighting. Sometimes, Chazelle succeeds, particularly in the shots of Mia and her gal-pals striding out to battle in their coloured frocks, her and Seb’s tentative shuffle before the mauve-hued sunset in the Hollywood hills, and a nicely quiet diminuendo scene where Seb sings to himself and dances on a pier at sunset, stealing away an old man’s wife for a moment of bewildered, good-natured dancing. Chazelle at least suggests schooling in the musical and its craft, avoiding the cut-on-the-beat style informed by music videos that’s infected the form since the early ’80s, instead going for long, lateral shots in the traditional musical manner to drink in physical context and the performers’ actions. And Linus Sandgren’s photography really is excellent.
Demy’s approach had hardly been forgotten to film history; in fact it was rather quickly assimilated and built upon by an array of American New Wave and Movie Brat filmmakers, many of whom tried their hand at fusing together the outsized fantasias of musicals with the kind of ragged, woozy, rough-and-tumble authenticity of their ethos. The 1970s and early ’80s produced a sprawl of gutsy crossbreeds in the wake of the musical genre’s official collapse as a mode following a string of huge-budget bombs. Some of these were deliberately frothy, like Peter Bogdanovich’s At Long Last Love (1975), but more often these were sharper, grittier critiques of the genre’s usual detachment from the reality of love and coupling as well as society. Hence Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York (1977) and Francis Coppola’s One From the Heart (1981) focused on fractious romances raddled by human feeling in all its livewire anxiety, and Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz (1979) turned Fosse’s own life and experiences as a choreographer into the subject of a superlatively sarcastic opus. One thing all of these had in common was their spiky, anti-populist emotional intensity, which made them the opposite of what musicals have come to be considered as the genre languishing in a permanent pop culture demimonde. In the past 20 years or so, every now and then we get a film that’s going to make the musical great again, be it synthetic pizazz like Chicago (2002) or full-on blazing shit like Les Miserables (2012). And if one apostatises with any of these, one will be told one just doesn’t like musicals. Or not as much as another person, who wants the form reborn in all its old glory and will greet any new, major, proper version of it as manna. In the same way, the new-wave musicals aren’t real musicals, because they’re not pretty and escapist and nostalgic. And of course, let us not speak of what happened to the disco musical.
Never mind the far more interesting examples of the oddball explorations of the genre in recent years, from the Outkast-scored and starring vehicle Idlewild (2006) to John Turturro’s suburban karaoke tragedy Romance and Cigarettes (2005), Jacob Krupnick’s On the Town rewrite Girl Walk // All Day (2011) and Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq (2015), which commit the sins of using pop music and foregrounding artifice, and have moments your grandmother won’t like. La La Land has been quickly celebrated as a new-age musical blending frivolity and melancholy, but I find on many crucial levels it hit me as a betrayal of the legacy of the gritty musical, one that quietly gelds this movement even whilst proposing to revive it. Particularly considering that its storyline and basic themes represent a filch not on Demy but on Scorsese. In La La Land, as in New York, New York, the theme is the troubled love of a couple joined by mutual admiration but torn apart by diverging career intentions, revolving around the disparity between jazz performance and mainstream pop celebrity, climaxing with an extended restaging of the basic plot as a stylised, more pure kind of old Hollywood fantasy designed to illustrate the contrast between the way things turn out and the way we’d like them to. La La Land is squeaky clean in spite of its attempt to talk about some mildly distressing things as relationships that don’t work out and the pressures of money that make people do things they don’t want to, as opposed to the classic musical where, as Gilda Radner once memorably phrased it, people never had to work or buy food.
La La Land’s moments of bruising, disillusioning conflict are entirely contrived – the set-piece dinner table sequence where Mia and Seb first fight over Seb’s compromised artistry and Mia’s looming date with destiny, where mild peevishness substitutes for unforgivable words, and the subsequent scene where Seb misses her show, a moment that could have been avoided with the newfangled invention call the telephone. Compared to the scene in New York, New York when Robert De Niro gets dragged out of the club in a rage of stoked jealousy, this is so wet it would barely pass muster as dramatic development on a Chuck Lorre sitcom. Chazelle’s nominal assault on musical tradition is not to give a traditional happy ending where love conquers all. But he leavens the experience by giving his characters everything else they want, which just happens to be a successful LA nightclub, a period recording and touring with a popular musical outfit, and becoming an international movie star. Wow, some takedown of the Hollywood dream. Instead, La La Land is an ode to hermetic qualities. Chazelle turns the urbane strangeness and sprawl of modern LA into a depopulated stage for weak song-and-dance numbers featuring two cute but underutilised white-bread stars, replete with odes to bygone pleasures that often reveal a crucial misunderstanding about what those pleasures work. There’s nothing witty or sly or sublime or even particularly sexy about Chazelle’s approach, in spite of his mimicry of the styles he sets out to recreate. La La Land is a bright neon sign describing its own facetious charm.
This wouldn’t count for much if the film was successful simply on the level of musical experience, but this is where it’s most disappointing. The music score for La La Land is so brain-numbingly banal that apart from Gosling’s oft-repeated refrain (“City of stars, are you shining just for me?”) I couldn’t remember two notes from the film minutes after it finished. It bears no inflection of any musical style apart from the most flat-rate off-Broadway stuff—least of all the sinuosity and rhythmic complexity of jazz. Perhaps La La Land represents the total victory of the last decade or so of shows like American Idol and Dancing With The Stars, shows that have carefully trained audiences to whoop and holler wildly when blandly talented neophytes and familiar celebrities who can barely sing or dance make a show of their mastery of a few soft-shoe steps. I felt a certain empathy for Sebastian in many regards: like him, I’m a jazz fan, particularly of the genre’s heights from the 1940s to the early 1970s, and I have violently mixed feelings about what’s happened to it since then. Seb however never feels like a real person – neither does Mia, but for slightly different reasons. Even the more interesting modern branches of jazz fusion don’t seem to have registered with Chazelle – Euro electroswing for instance, which, with practitioners like Caravan Palace, is a vibrant and utterly danceable wing of the genre, and would have made a great pedestal for this project. Whilst the indictments of Seb as some kind of white saviour figure with his obsession with putting his talents to best use sustaining and helping reinvigorate jazz very quickly reach the end of credulity (the limit of his ambition in this regard is to open a jazz club, and thus provide a platform for artists like himself, rather than to become the king of all jazz musicians), it’s hard to ignore the strident, rather strained aspect to the dramatic development whereby he becomes a member of Keith’s ensemble and finds roaring success in a band that offers a squishy melange of pop, soul, and jazz.
Chazelle offers one major performance scene for this outfit, during which Mia glances about in bewilderment over the crowd’s enjoyment and Seb’s apparent selling out. Although this song isn’t anything particularly special either, it reminded me a little of the scene in Dreamgirls (2006) when “One Night Only,” the unctuously meaningful ballad, was restaged as disco schlock: the “bad” song is more entertaining than the “good” ones. Which might even be Chazelle’s point — I just don’t know. La La Land drops hints to a cultural thesis that it then keeps swerving to avoid stating in any depth. What it is officially is a bittersweet romance where Seb and Mia are pulled together and then apart by their aspirations, their mutual understanding of each other as artists who feed on creation and fade when caged but also knowing that life means compromise. Seb’s commitment to Keith’s band sees him forced to hang about for a publicity photo shoot whilst Mia performs the one-woman stage show he encouraged her to write, which seems to bomb badly, leaving Mia distraught enough with the state of her life to flee back to her home town. Seb tracks her there when he learns a casting agent saw her show and wants her to audition for a major part: Seb’s coaxing draws her back into action, and her audition piece is a testimony to the example of her bohemian relative whose life in Paris has inspired her ambition to be an actress. It’s a big-ticket moment that goes for all the feels and finally seems to flesh out aspects of Mia as a character even as it actually underlines how generic she is, and how carefully calculated this scene is.
Gosling and Stone’s chemistry, which first manifested in the otherwise dreadful Gangster Squad (2012), here at least gets some space to stretch its legs: they’re both very good at making you like them even when playing faintly insufferable parts, a gift that’s vital in selling Seb and Mia, particularly from Stone in her portrait of Mia’s squall of apocalyptic feeling following her seeming humiliation in staging her play. Whatever else it does, La La Land understands what movie stardom is about, its facility in transmuting loose ideas and assortments of emotional reflexes into creations of great power on screen. And yet I’ve seen other films that make far better use of both stars – take for interest Gosling’s other film of 2016, The Nice Guys, which allowed him to reference a host of classic comedic actors whilst also stitching together a dynamic portrait of a man lagging slightly out of reality’s time frame from a mixture of grief and booze. By comparison Seb never moves out of the status of a kind of human placard. The issue at the heart of the film, one that’s relatively original and specific, is slightly removed from the more familiar making-it concerns; it’s actually the attempt to delve into the problems that beset many show business relationships, the time spent apart enforced by asymmetric professional demands. This is the one theme attacked by Chazelle that doesn’t feel done to death. What’s interesting is that La La Land offers a kind of calculus to the modern audience about what it would find the hardest to deal with – career failure or romantic failure. The answer is given as both Mia and Seb gain everything they want except each other. So Chazelle skips forward a few years to when Mia is a success and married to some dude and has kids, and one night fate directs them into a club that proves to be Seb’s, his apparently very successful showcase for old-school jazz. Seb, spotting Mia in the crowd, plays the same piece that enticed her into the restaurant all that time ago, thus sending the film off into an extended fantasia that re-enacts their relationship more perfectly, to the point where they’re married with kids themselves.
This sequence finally blew my tolerance fuse with this film, as Chazelle here rips off the “Happy Endings” sequence at the end of New York, New York, in offering an upbeat restaging of the narrative as a full-bore, total-style facsimile of classic musical method. Except it’s been shorn of all the ironic meaning Scorsese offered his climax with, for “Happy Endings” converted the messy stuff of life into a vision that would seem joyful to some and a sour mockery to others, and also commented on the way Hollywood mines and distorts life, questioning the ways and reasons why we tolerate convenient lies. There’s no such subtext to what La La Land offers, in part because it’s avoided any dialectic between the false and real. For Chazelle, this is just another facet of his showmanship, sleight of hand pulled to suggest there was actually some depth to this coupling and to work his audience over. Meanwhile La La Land ultimately has nothing actually bad to say about Hollywood, the cult of celebrity or the problems of dreams deferred, except for the fact that the film industry tends to be so forward-looking that it has no time for the past – not a fault I’ve noticed besetting the Academy voters lately. Somewhat amazingly, although not a word was spoken in it, Girl Walk // All Day managed to say far more about the uneasy relationship between personal art and joy and capitalism and society, building to the wonderful moment when its heroine realised her seduction by consumerism was erasing her identity and she kicked off her store-bought finery, all scored to music that captured the vibrant clamour of modern pop culture’s manifold dimensions. By comparison, La La Land remains wedged in its comfortable, rather smug niche, challenging nothing, reinventing nothing.
Around the middle of this year, I found myself awake late at night watching the oldest films ever made on YouTube—that place where everything resides now, the whole memory of the technological age of art. I watched Thomas Edison’s first stuttering shorts with their subjects dancing or fighting or simply being, against depthless black backgrounds. It felt like an act of cabalism, looking beyond the fringe of living memory at people recalled from the dead, hovering in a void. By comparison the Lumiere brothers’ escape into the light and discovery of the world at large was like returning to the land of the living. What genius of the day it took to create such an art form. What genius lets me watch it today with a click of a button.
Around the same time, I went to a cinema to see Suicide Squad. The experience was an ordeal, from the film itself, a work that might have been fun but which had been rendered close to intolerable by poor editing and witless handling, to the multiple irritations of the screening itself–the overly dark picture, the teenage jerks in front of me insisting on filming part of the movie and uploading it to the vague interest of their friends. It was hard not to feel like I’d stumbled upon cinema’s death throes, done in by an age in which the idea of a movie has devolved into a series of delivery systems, feeding fragments of incoherent but striking information to be channelled into instant iconography, detached from any pleasure of narrative or shared experience. But by year’s end I had also had radically different filmgoing experiences: regardless of what I thought of the movies in question, I knew when sitting in the theatre with crowds watching the likes of Rogue One and La La Land that the communal dream of cinema is hardly dead. In fact, it might be more vital, in both senses of the word, than ever. 2016 has felt like a year of gearing for hard knocks and rude awakenings. But it’s also had its bright lagoons and blooming promises.
Make no mistake—2016 has been a rough year, that’s for sure. Cultural heroes have departed us with dismaying regularity, and the less said about certain political twists the better. Hollywood definitely hasn’t been immune. The US summer blockbuster season saw film after film ring big loud gongs both critically and at the box office, and the laziest assumptions of filmmaking’s Mecca seemed set to be ransacked right at a time when it can least afford it. Apart from Disney and its many octopoidal limbs, it’s hard to shake the feeling much of Hollywood has almost forgotten what its business is. But what seemed like a train-wreck in July steadily resolved instead into a phase of quiet strength and achievement and signs of a shifting pop zeitgeist; audiences hungry for fresher, sharper thrills have been gravitating towards mid-budget thrillers, and for attentive cinephiles there’s been a constant flow of fascinating, worthwhile movies. Which is, of course, not to say that the age of franchise filmmaking is at an end, not when Marvel and Lucasfilm are raking in cash hand over fist. We still want great sagas and epics. But we want them done well, and finally audiences seem to be voting with their feet more effectively.
Suitably, a certain battered, whatever-it-takes terseness has defined many protagonists this year, with most keeping their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road. The themes of besiegement, whether literal or spiritual or psychological, and of the fraught gathering of tribes only to find their axis has broken, have been obsessively touched upon. Following last year’s parade of collapsing systems, this year was all about getting through. A few mighty drama queens still made their presences felt, a la the damaged, frenetically needy mothers of the homecoming diptych Krisha and Little Sister, Ralph Fiennes’ gabby, sybaritic rogue in A Bigger Splash, and, more quietly but perhaps the most insistent of the lot, Toni Erdmann’s insinuating farceur father. But the year belonged more to the soldiers of extreme necessity, even in the year’s big, “fun” films. Roland Emmerich’s would-be throwback to ’90s pop jauntiness Independence Day: Resurgence, emphasised the damage and premature gravitas imbued by survival. The Star Wars franchise dug more deeply into the die-or-die grimness of the war film, offering up damaged and doomed heroes who finish up as backstory to someone else’s triumph. The very last scenes, a madcap, enthralling depiction of self-sacrifice whilst Darth Vader returned to his rightful place in the collective unconscious as emblem of marauding evil, came loaded with such symbolic and imagistic power that it seemed to capture something undefined about the year’s mood of dread. The Legend of Tarzan presented its never particularly talkative hero in battle with historical evil and deeply personal threat. Marvel came close to its finest moment in pitting its roguish gallery of heroes not against a great enemy but against each other, in Captain America: Civil War, which dramatized the very process of larkish venture shading into bleak and hateful interpersonal combat over deeply personal definitions of pain and history. The clash of titans in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice employed the same motif but with a different slant, presenting a battle of id and superego allowing ego to run rampant—a motif relevant in its own way. Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room managed in a few quick, dense cinematic ideograms to sum up the extreme poles of political and civic discourse this year: idealistic but clueless hipsters, convinced a few blunt “fuck offs” to their enemies would dispel all opposition and carefully cultivate their dissident status, run headlong into potent, eagerly violent Nazis, whose downfall is that they’re not half as smart as they think they are.
Hell Or High Water
Tom Hanks’ eponymous hero of Sully was the epitome of the year’s heroes, a professional who brings utter cool and a cellular-level marriage of craft and intuition to a high-pressure situation, only visited with doubt under the scrutiny of a scourging public eye. Meanwhile the pilgrims of Paths of the Soul engaged in their arduous, infinitely repetitive journey to try to redeem the whole world. The couple at the heart of a pivot in law and culture in Loving stayed loyal and true in the midst of the world’s cacophony. Chris Pine’s heroes in The Finest Hours and Hell or High Water dealt with life’s storms with stern resolve, counterbalancing Ben Foster’s part in the latter, as the man who brings his own storms. Pine and his familiar compatriots of Star Trek Beyond couldn’t mourn their own defeat and the loss of their ship, instead forced to keep moving by any means possible to keep up the fight. The patriots of Anthropoid set out to kill a monster with the fixated nihilism of the intensely dedicated; those of Allied found themselves forced to question whether the profoundest loyalty is political or personal. The hero of Hacksaw Ridge endures ostracism, disdain, and finally war at its most savage without protection. Nat Turner offered himself as incantatory engine of revenge in The Birth of a Nation whilst Free State of Jones came under the domain of Matthew McConaughey’s glowing-eyed honky beneficence. Elle’s elegantly untraditional heroine refused to be reduced to victimhood, instead entrapping her rapist’s desire and perversity within her own until it is shrunken enough to conquer. The certain women of Certain Women coolly and patiently waited out the gnawing winters of the heart and the hapless Little Sister and her family fronted up to things that could be changed and things that couldn’t, its heroine fulfilling both sides of her titular role on the field of care and responsibility by any means on hand. The inhabitants of the Cemetery of Splendour contended with randomly cruel illnesses and multiple zones of reality. Amy Adams’ epitome of the human race in Arrival even had to put up with having her brain rewired and her future mapped out in excruciating detail, and learned to accept it.
Perhaps it’s apt that the western has been sputtering to life this year, evinced in Hell Or High Water, In a Valley of Violence, The Magnificent Seven, and Jane Got a Gun, being as it is a genre where hard-bitten, squinting antiheroes live wild and die free. Results differed. Hell or High Water, a Texas excursion for Scots director David Mackenzie, who has been made the sort of vexing films that illustrate the maxim “good is the enemy of great” for over a decade now, was a Peckinpah-esque exploration of the legacies of dispossession and violence past and present. The film struggled to find its feet with (sometimes literal) big signs announcing its themes and some familiar chestnuts of the Euro-director-goes-US mode, but the last half-hour sang with its eruptions of violence and genuinely ambivalent coda. In a Valley of Violence brought a similar blend of referential exactitude and shrewd dissection of the tropes of its chosen genre that defined Ti West’s earlier horror films, restaging the basic revenge drama in many a western as tale of mirroring misanthropy and brutal reckoning. The result was foiled only by West’s already familiar tendency to take refuge in formula when his ideas run out. Antoine Fuqua’s visit to the trail blazed by Akira Kurosawa and John Sturges occasionally caught the breeze of straightforward, cheery, bloodthirsty entertainment that once made the western so popular, giving Chris Pratt a death scene to die for. But Fuqua’s lead-footed filmmaking squelched any hope this film could live up to its models—that, and a fascinating refusal to engage with the same themes of class and race so important to those predecessors. Jane Got a Gun tried to bring a feminist tilt to the table, but failed to also offer an effective story or any pulse of excitement, playing out on all levels with strenuous inevitability. Suicide Squad was the grunge-tinted, contemporary variant on The Magnificent Seven, as a mob of variously low-rent, half-mad villains were pressganged to fight for…well, something or other. Whatever potential the film had was lost in a shit-storm of studio second-guessing and tired “fun” gimmickry.
Independence Day: Resurgence
Nonetheless, the superhero genre is definitely the modern-dress version of the western, following very similar templates—heroes with an edge over ordinary folk forced to answer their questions of the nature of justice and the meaning of community whilst fighting variations of the same essential moral dramas over and over. Zack Snyder’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice was met with merciless brickbats for trying to expand and deepen the superhero film’s palette. Whilst it did deserve some of the criticism, Snyder’s superior director’s cut restored heft and solidity, and it finally emerged as a work of real gravitas. And yet for all the huffing and puffing, the movie it wanted to be still only finally emerges in the last few fleeting minutes. Dawn of Justice isn’t the only one of this year’s whipping boys for which I found a little fondness. Independence Day: Resurgence was interminable when trying to outdo the original’s wholesale destruction porn, but curiously likeable elsewhere, particularly as it gave old pros Jeff Goldblum and Brent Spiner a chance to make me chuckle and offered Maika Monroe one of the year’s better action heroine roles. David Yates’ The Legend of Tarzan was weighed down by an extremely lazy chase plot and a script that seemed determined to foil all its own impending climaxes. And yet Yates’ eye for epic filmmaking was evident, and his film offered an intelligently revisionist approach to its hero. Yates’ other film for the year, an extension of J.K. Rowling’s Potterverse, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, renewed the franchise by backtracking. The result was at its best when simply having larkish fun and fell flat with the big picture game. Tim Burton’s Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children was doomed to languish in its shadow as its frizz-haired auteur tried his hand at juvenile franchise cultivation. Burton couldn’t break out of the bland rhythms of slickly CGI-crusted Harry Potter wannabes, but his strong imagery, furtive understanding of adolescent proto-eroticism, and episodes of slyly nasty humour (like introducing Judi Dench only to feed her to a monster) made it a reasonably honourable discursion.
Star Trek Beyond
Rogue One, Gareth Edwards’ entry of the now rapidly expanding Star Wars mythos, was only serviceable on a dramatic level, but was jolted to life by the force of Edwards’ visuals and the sheer whatever-it-takes verve of his and his filmmaking team’s love of the material. Eternal rival Star Trek also had an entry this year: Star Trek Beyond was a similarly mixed bag but ranked as one of the year’s better FX blockbusters. The script, co-written by cast member Simon Pegg, actually understood how to pace and shape an adventure story and grasped the essence of the Trek brand, particularly as it pitched its heroes into amusingly generic Trekian locations. But it was also weighed down by a plot that bashed together concepts from the last four Trek films, including yet another quasi-terrorist villain with a grudge against the Federation. Justin Lin’s direction embodied the schism, drinking in scifi spectacle with an eye that easily dwarfed that of J.J. Abrams, but also offered jarringly hard-to-read action scenes. The film’s weak box office was undeserved but perhaps inevitable given how much air Abrams had let out of the tyre. X-Men: Apocalypse’s weak box office was, on the other hand, entirely deserved. Rarely has a once-noble franchise come to such an underpowered, apathetically written, acted, and directed turn, lumbering through the motions of killing off Magneto’s family yet again, and setting up Oscar Isaac as a villain of cosmic menace only to have him stand around waiting for the big gang-up finale—a sequence that did finally deliver some entertainment, but not sufficiently to redeem it. Marvel rival Doctor Strange was a splashy but entirely hacky entry in the superhero stakes from Scott Derrickson. The film was dotted with moments of cleverness, some vivid visuals and fun performance from Benedict Cumberbatch and Tilda Swinton, but it foundered on its derivative and tony annexation of a more mystical wing of the Marvel realm, and failed that most basic of tests for this genre: it’s not in the slightest bit exciting. Tim Miller’s Deadpool, meanwhile, aimed at upending all familiar rules for this filmmaking mode, offering up a potty-mouthed antiheroic jerkwad as protagonist and making sport of contemporary blockbuster cinema’s self-seriousness. And yet it was the kind of curative that hurts more than the disease, a wad of collected internet memes passed off as antic cool.
The Neon Demon
Horror and thriller cinema proved extremely lively this year, benefiting from the disenchantment with the laborious parade of “big” movies. The second instalment of James Wan’s happily ridiculous The Conjuring series maintained the brand’s defining contrast between the loving, lively, generous impulses of its heroic, central married couple, and their line of work, which brings them into contact with forces of cosmic nihilism, this time around with a great supporting turn from Madison Wolfe as the victim of a demon’s possessive streak. Fede Alvarerz’s Don’t Breathe was a tolerable but trite and mechanical entry, depicting a home invasion with a nasty twist. Don’t Breathe desperately needed some of the hallucinatory gusto of the late Wes Craven’s similar The People Under the Stairs, but was faintly redeemed by its coal-black sarcasm in handling the idea of identity as fate—who could forget the turkey baster of doom? Jason Zada’s The Forest had an interesting setting, the “suicide” forest of Aokigahara by Mount Fuji, and a cool star, Natalie Dormer, but misused both in a half-hearted spookfest. Karyn Kusama bounced back from lacklustre blockbuster experiences to make the tense and smart The Invitation, which imagined the touchy-feely precepts of La La Land encounter culture as prelude to cathartic mass carnage. Perhaps the film I most anticipated this year was Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon, and it became conversely perhaps my biggest disappointment, though I still liked it in some ways. Refn’s craft, at once languorously aestheticized and patiently nasty, managed to tether together a raft of referential peccadilloes—classic Hollywood’s imperial egotisms and the mythology of its sacrificial young, the horny, id-welling chic of ’70s Euro-horror, the totemic force of Greek legend and the airy gloss of high-class consumer culture—into a heady stew replete with magnificent images. But it went on far, far too long and went down so many blind alleys before reaching its true reckoning that much of its minatory power evaporated.
Under The Shadow
Although more thriller than horror movie and technically really not even that, Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals touched on similar territory to The Neon Demon in studying LA’s exalted spheres (and sharing cast member Jena Malone) counterpointed with harsh and menacing evocations of ambition falling foul of the nation’s dark heart. Ford evinced surprising gifts for generating suspense and envisioning pivots of horror to a degree that suggests he might eventually make a good noir director. But whereas Refn’s quotes of fashion art were satiric, Ford’s are merely displays of brand affectation, and his better work here dissolves amidst dumb ideas, like a pair of murdered bodies rhymed with a couple in bed, and a finale when revenge literally costs an eye for an eye, before the narrative cuts off in a place that reduces the whole affair to a sick joke. Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow was similar to 2014’s The Bababook in portraying a mother’s claustrophobic haunting by a demon, set not in anodyne suburbia, but in Tehran during the darkest days of the Iran-Iraq war and its stifling, paranoid, reactionary zeitgeist: Anvari’s cool direction only occasionally let slip visions of strangeness, sustained an eerie mood right to the end, and held its own metaphorical inferences tightly leashed until nearly the end. Meanwhile, Robert Eggers’ The Witch gained plaudits as a horror film that took on the foundational struggles of European colonisation in America and its lingering credos. For myself, I’m still not sure how much I like it. Eggers’ eye is undoubtedly excellent, some of his images sear, and his sustained mood of dread was deeply effective. But the film’s supposedly radical tilt is actually pretty familiar for horror fans.
10 Cloverfield Lane
One of the year’s more surprising winners was Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane, triangulating scifi and psychological thriller, sustaining a genuinely intense and unsettling note of dislocation and apocalyptic mystery until nearly the end, whilst maintaining a gloss of pop cinema fun. Terrific performances from the perpetually underrated John Goodman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead helped. And I can’t help but admit a little, sneaky enjoyment of one of the year’s bigger critical and commercial failures, Burr Steers’ Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a work that tried to combine Regency manners and Romero splatter with a certain clunky, goofy zest. Jeremy Saulnier, whose Blue Ruin didn’t quite live up to its hype for me even as it marked an interesting debut, returned with the superb Green Room, a film with a genuinely Carpenter-esque sense of efficiency and drive. On top of its political inferences, it’s a film that offers sympathy for everyone by the end and actually manages to restore some of the fear of death and mutilation to a genre that too often treats both as playful pyrotechnics. Kudos in particular to the late Anton Yelchin and the marvellous Imogen Poots.
The Jungle Book
Making account of this year’s bad and mediocre films does require some time and effort. Timur Bekmambetov’s remake of Ben-Hur broke my personal record for turning off a film, when its opening frames insisted on taking me to the start of the chariot race, with Morgan Freeman’s stentorian voice delivering nonsensical narration, and the actors playing Judah and Messalah swapping lines of dialogue with all the conviction of two high schoolers who get involved with theatre club to meet girls. Jack Huston, one of those actors, has been a promising talent, but probably won’t get another leading role until 2033. Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival was another fascinating example in how, if one can master certain arts of high-pressuring an audience through relentless use of editing and audio stunts, one can be taken as a genius even if the raw material of one’s art is tepid schlock. The climactic scene of a Chinese general explaining the plot by way of a supposedly casual encounter remembered/foreseen by its heroine was the stuff of broad lampooning, whilst the movie as a whole bested Interstellar for reducing the apparatus of cosmic awe to the meal of TV melodrama. Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book was one of the year’s biggest critical and commercial hits, a real display of Disney’s regal force of production values. But although it was entertaining, there was something pleasantly trite about its glossy, photorealistic but essentially nondescript CGI animals, duly solid depiction of Rudyard Kipling’s fantasia, and half-hearted annexation of the 1964 film’s musical aspect. Also the attempts to beef up the mythic and heroic side of Kipling’s story proved awkward, as in the finale when young Mowgli, marked for death by intolerant Shere Khan for his kind’s carelessly destructive ways, proves his point by behaving in a carelessly destructive way—but he’s the hero, so it’s okay.
Alex Proyas’ Gods of Egypt and Cedric Nicolas-Troyan’s The Huntsman: Winter’s War trod arduously through their mythic-heroic guff composed of utterly flavourless drama and purely rote, appropriated scenes. Even Steven Spielberg couldn’t entirely escape the air of enervation that hovered around so much of this stuff this year. Although his The BFG was clearly personal and intriguingly muted, it felt weirdly flimsy and miscalculated, a gigantic project couched in intimate whimsy that desperately lacked a meaty story and compelling, detailed characters. Whilst by no means bad, it stands as the director’s biggest bust since the not-so-dissimilar Hook. The year’s most disgraceful entry from a major director was Duncan Jones’ Warcraft, a staggeringly bad romp through a fantasy realm carefully wrought to evoke the computer game it was based on whilst obeying no laws of aesthetics, physical logic, or storytelling sense. Far from legitimising such adaptations, Warcraft instead described just about everything wrong with modern filmmaking, from pulverising its good cast into a lump of indistinguishable blandness to failing utterly to convey any feel for fantasy cinema, offering something more like a gamer convention promo reel gone berserk. Paul Feig’s remake of Ghostbusters, meanwhile, became a cause celebre for all the wrong reasons. For all the hype and hate, the actual movie proved about as thrilling as a bucket of warm spit, a total failure of wit and invention sporting an array of tepid pseudo-improv comedy, weak heroes and villains, and empty, characterless special effects. Kate McKinnon and Chris Hemsworth did more for the film than it did for them. Jaume Collet-Serra’s The Shallows started intriguingly as a gap-year take on Jaws with an emphasis on minimalist menace, promising a rock-solid thrill ride. But it quickly sank amidst clichés and contrivances before revealing itself as the most elaborate game of hot lava ever played, with added Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue appeal. Babak Najafi’s London Has Fallen was the shit-smeared caboose of the long post-Die Hard action movie train.
J. Blakeson, whose debut, The Disappearance of Alice Creed, was so impressive a few years ago, returned at last, helming the eye-twistingly silly YA actioner The 5th Wave. The Divergent series went belly-up with the incident-free Allegiant, proving you can push the “let’s split the last book in two” adaptation process way too far. Tate Taylor, who at the moment is a serious candidate for the worst director in Hollywood, took on this year’s bestselling blockbuster adaptation, The Girl on the Train, and managed to waste Emily Blunt’s customarily good lead performance by shooting a supposedly creepy and intense thriller with all the propulsion and authority of a feminine hygiene commercial. There was some real bullshit amongst the year’s well-reviewed, classy fare too. Whit Stillman’s Love and Friendship was Suicide Squad for people frustrated they never went to Oxford. Jeff Nichols’ first of two films for the year, Midnight Special, was an initially intriguing attempt to blend Nichols’ moody, big-things-happen-to-small-people motif first mooted on Take Shelter with tributes to ’80s Spielberg and Carpenter, but finished up boring me silly with its fuzzy, hole-ridden plot, unearned emotional ploys, and banal visualisations of the miraculous: the finale offered a magic, invisible city that looked disturbingly like the one in Tomorrowland, a place no one should have to return to. Rufus Norris’ London Road was an intriguing, radical-sounding project, adapted from a stage musical that used real interviews of the inhabitants of the title street where a serial killer lived as the libretto for its stuttering tunes, but the result was revealing only in how little such heavy lifting achieved. Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon’s return to profitable stomping grounds, Jason Bourne, had one fine set-piece, a chase staged in the midst of an Athens riot, but proved so listless and unoriginal as a whole that it didn’t just bore me, but also made me wonder if I’d actually enjoyed the earlier films in the series.
Ben Stiller also tried to revive a beloved character engaged in international assassinations and conspiracy for Zoolander 2, and blimey if I didn’t get a few chuckles out of the resulting stew, even if it lacked the blindsiding nerve that made the original memorable, instead memorialising its own formula. On the other hand, Oliver Parker’s Dad’s Army revived the loveable old TV show but expended a perfect cast on hoary shenanigans and made the canonical mistake of such revivals by imposing an unfunny major character and resulting new dynamics on the classic template. Taika Waititi, whose What We Do in the Shadows exasperated me last year, returned with Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a tribute to bygone days of New Zealand’s comic outlaw movies and the wider pantheon of ’80s genre film: here Waititi’s true chops emerged, adroitly mixing authentic sentiment and pop culture-inflected waggishness. Abe Forsyth’s Down Under took on a disturbing major event of recent Australian history, the ethnically charged 2005 Cronulla Riots, and offered shots of effectively weird humour, but its attempt to segue from broad, caricatured satire to violent, darkly telling parable was ultimately laboured. Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s Swiss Army Man tried to mate hipster philosophical concerns—the nature of life and how to meet girls—with body humour, and got a surprisingly long way on that odd mixture, only to fall foul of a near-inevitable exhaustion of inspiration well before it ended. Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon’s Sausage Party tackled a similar mixture of authentically heady themes and raunchy humour and worked rather better, in part because as well as a spicy parable in favour of hedonism and against prescribed blinkering, it was also a much-needed burlesque of the now well-worn Pixar animation formula.
Shane Black’s The Nice Guys was doomed to be cited as the kind of great nonspecial-effect-driven film everybody claims to want more of but then doesn’t go to see, as, in spite of its top-line cast and strong reviews and crowd-pleasing tilt, it bombed hard at the box office. For me, Black’s raucous blend of black humour and retro action was often great fun and enabled an array of terrific performances from stars familiar (Russell Crowe), maturing (Ryan Gosling), and fresh (Margaret Qualley, Angourie Rice, Yaya DaCosta). But it also played the same hand one or two times too many, and wasn’t always so sharp at telling its great ideas from the ordinary. Gosling also featured in the film that will probably win all of this year’s Oscars, Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, a film that seeks to wrap its audience in a fervent recreation of musical aesthetics past whilst telling a mildly bittersweet tale about love going awry whilst careers catch fire. The pretty photography and Gosling’s chemistry with Emma Stone distracted from the fact it’s a neutered New York, New York (1977) knock-off that does precious little that’s genuinely creative or incisive, littered with utterly forgettable songs and choreography. Zachary Treitz’s Men Go to Battle blended drollery and bloodletting but in a very different fashion to The Nice Guys, applying the fuzzily realist aesthetics of contemporary indie cinema to a Civil War-era tale of two brothers sent along different paths with the thesis that people back then were just as confused, listless, and hapless as we are today—only the tides pushing them around were stronger. Jim Jarmusch’s charming, ambling Paterson was an ode to creativity as a life-force for ordinary people, couched in typically timeless, oddball terms by its writer-director and littered with lovely performances. But as a whole I didn’t enjoy it as much as its immediate predecessor Only Lovers Left Alive, for whilst Jarmusch’s feel for neurasthenic cool is undeniable, I doubt he could find actual normality with a road map.
Don’t Think Twice
Mike Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice was a film about comedy and the kinds of people who create it, exploring the tension between public artistic idealism and private expectation that eventually it had better start paying off: the film’s rueful portrait of the resulting crisis was affecting but never really proved as compelling, or funny, or insightful, as it wanted us to find it. Robert Edwards’ One More Time also depicted the pleasures and pains of a life in show business, offering Christopher Walken and Amber Heard a diverting if unmemorable vehicle as a waned crooner and his shambolic wannabe daughter. Two entries in the very familiar indie film subgenre depicting tense reunions of dysfunctional families gained strong plaudits this year. Zach Clark’s Little Sister was the lighter in spite of dealing with suicidal tendencies and gruesome disfigurement, whilst Trey Edward Shults’ stylistically harder-edged Krisha portrayed the fallout of addiction. Both films revolved around the impact of a self-destructive mother steeped in countercultural cool but now just a wash-up with ironically square kids (a theme also echoed in Toni Erdmann). Clark’s film offered rather too many cute ironies left insufficiently explored, and political themes that never came into focus beyond indicting the smugness of the bourgeois lefty style many felt the Trumpista victory was comeuppance for. But it had a fine touch for the ways people who love each other find ways both oblique and direct to make contact.
A Bigger Splash
Krisha, by contrast, came on strong but also blunt, laying on pathos and cinematic manipulation with a trowel, held together mostly by the deeply convincing portrait of fraying human will at its heart: its suggestion that some people can’t help laying waste to everything even when they don’t want to was fittingly cruel, but Shults’ tricky direction kept bad faith with the audience and struck one note for 80-odd minutes. Luca Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash sprawled out with glorious energy and eccentric humour with underlying menace for its first two-thirds as it explored the lives of the variously careless and rapaciously sensual, but then, after segueing into a fateful act of violence, left itself painfully beached without any idea where to go next. Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women was rapturously received by many. I liked it, although I can’t quite see what the big deal here is—stepping back from the genuinely original, cryptic indie-noir of Night Moves, Reichardt here offered a triptych of suggestive portraits where all the details feel as a carefully arranged as your grandmother’s crystal collection. Excellent performances and a great last 20 minutes did make the film worthy, however. Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits, on the other hand, gripped from the get-go with its enigmatic but almost physically exciting portrait of isolation within community, taking up a conceit similar to last year’s The Falling but more effectively, respecting the mystery it invoked but clearly understanding the unruly heart of youth.
Simon Stone’s The Daughter likewise revolved around the power and fragility of youth on the cusp, transposing Henryk Ibsen’s The Wild Duck to Tasmania’s drizzly heartland with respectable if sometimes heavy-footed results, swapping Ibsen’s cool tragedy for soap operatics on occasion, but retaining an architectural solidity. I preferred it all in all to the film that overshadowed it on Aussie award nights, Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge. That film was a big, bristling, very broad tribute to the clichés of war films past and a celebration of Gibson’s overwrought but curiously compulsive worldview, his happily boldfaced, confessional purging, his storytelling savvy, and his love of thrilling butchery—all peculiarly enjoyable when taken as pure theatre. Allied saw Robert Zemeckis similarly delving into classic movie lore with a less personal but more peculiar, intriguing bent, starting off with obvious touchstones—a spy romance set initially in Casablanca, of all places, replete with we-saw-Inglourious Basterds-isms—before turning into a darkly romantic portrait of marital distrust and sacrifice in the context of onerous official duty and collective paranoia, spiralling in towards intimate reckoning rather than explosive theatrics. It could well be Zemeckis’s best film, and certainly his determination to unmask the mobile orgy the war obliged might count as a historical duty. Another director who started, like Zemeckis, as a screenwriter in the heady days of New Wave Hollywood, is Terrence Malick. Malick’s latest, Knight of Cups, received an indifferent reception upon release early in the year. Understandable, I suppose—after all, it was just another magnificently shot, feverishly edited, astonishingly acted visionary confession-cum-tone-poem exploring a deeply personal zone of experience through a universalised lens.
As usual, the major yardstick for would-be seriousness in this year’s high-end fare was a basis in some suitable real-life tale. That most esteemed of Hollywood veterans, Clint Eastwood, returned with Sully, another study in the ambivalence of myth-making as backdrop to the reality of valour. Few films of recent years have been so efficient, so concerted, and even the somewhat overworked bureaucrat bashing aspect was kept contained by Eastwood’s complex yet entirely lucid assemblage. Meanwhile eternal try-hard Peter Berg released two based-on-a-true-story fob-jobs this year, Deepwater Horizon and Patriots Day. Deepwater Horizon was the only one I saw: bolstered by a strong supporting performance from Kurt Russell, who proved he still commands the screen like an ageing but still ornery beast of the veldt, this one built to an impressive but curiously, cumulatively pointless recreation of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil disaster. Good thing dramatic niceties and a nick-of-time fade-out relieved the film of the responsibility of noting one of the worst environmental catastrophes of all time resulted from these events, which were all apparently the fault of nasty, weirdly accented John Malkovich. Michael Bay’s 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi was a similarly pumped-up take on recent headlines, inflating controversial events that cost the life of a US diplomat and military personnel as a kind of neo-Alamo, but at least Bay’s showmanship was sufficiently madcap to serve as an end in itself. Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky, unlike Berg and Bay’s films, was not officially based on a true story but lightly fictionalised some familiar aspects of the War on Terror and its strange new battlefields into the texture of its drama for the purpose of introducing the audience to the simultaneously detached and nightmarishly intimate world of drone warfare. Whilst not quite wielding the same bleak and alien power, it could be counted as a modern-day take on something like Fail-Safe (1964) as a chamber drama of conscience versus necessity.
Glenn Ficarra and John Requa returned to the kind of preposterous yet fact-based story they cut their teeth on with I Love You, Phillip J. Morris in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, a film that offered Tina Fey and Martin Freeman welcome breaks from their more familiar parts, playing nerds transformed into wild cards in the midst of Afghanistan war reporting, but the film which could have been the MASH of the ’10s proved rather a few swear words away from being Private Benjamin instead. Natalie Portman had a much better time impersonating Jacqueline Kennedy and finding a lode of determination under her bob and Nob Hill accent in Jackie, the first of a superlative one-two punch from Chilean director Pablo Larrain, the other being Neruda, an inspired poetic twist on the usual hagiography. Don Cheadle suggested some real directorial chops in the snappy, colourful frames of Miles Ahead, a portrait-biography of Miles Davis, and Cheadle’s impersonation of the jazz great was suitably exact. But the facetious script eventually proved the opposite of Sully in that its showy structure led nowhere whilst its insights remained skin-deep. Sean Ellis’s Anthropoid, depicting the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich and the heroically futile battle for survival by his patriot killers, confused recreating scenes from generations of spy thrillers for noble filmmaking, and the results just serviceable. Mick Jackson’s Denial explored a moment of subtle but consequential import in the history of history, depicting the slow skewering of Holocaust denier David Irving, but David Hare’s script proved a textbook for study of now-familiar screenwriting tricks for this sort of thing—convenient conflict here! contrived misunderstanding there!—and Rachel Weisz’s annoyingly broad lead performance didn’t help matters. Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert depicted the life of Gertrude Bell, architect of nations and fool of fortune. Although generally dismissed and dumped on the home viewing market, I found this one quietly rapturous in recreating the brand of stoic, yet often blindingly intense romanticism at the crux of war, peace, man, woman, east and west: only James Franco’s miscasting proved a drag.
Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation looked set to be one of the films of the year, with director-star Parker receiving ovations at Sundance with his project which, in theory, sounded inspired—recounting the tale of Nat Turner’s 1831 rebellion and stealing the title of D.W. Griffith’s Ku Klux Klan-glorifying epic, aiming to angry up the blood. But something went wrong: Parker’s dubious past became, perhaps unfairly, a sticking point for easy acceptance. More to the point, the film was a troubling chimera, with its best traits, a sense of moral torpor and lurking unease blooming into outright horror, owing too much to 12 Years a Slave (2013), and its lesser to a well-thumbed playbook of righteous avenger movies resolving in clumsily staged action scenes whilst suggesting, dismayingly, that laundered, manipulative history was the answer to the same. Jeff Nichols’ Loving ventured to explore the marrow-deep malignity of racist legacies and the challenge to it via the experiences of the so-aptly named Lovings and their consequential victory for marriage freedom in the late 1960s. Nichols’ feel for place and lifestyle was truly evocative here, but as it went along, the usual lapses of Nichols’ style manifested, particularly over-length, whilst the central, essential portrayal of the couple strained to celebrate them as quiet and decent but proved on closer inspection sentimentalised and vacant instead, offering plaster saints rather than real people, with the cumulative effect of locking all potential dramatic power in amber. Still, Ruth Negga, who also gave Warcraft its sole flicker of life, maintained dignity. Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures played a more populist key in recounting the stories of black women mathematicians working for NASA in the early 1960s: there’s a more serious and memorable movie lurking somewhere within, but the one around it has its moments.
Radu Jude’s Aferim! trod a sneakier path towards a truer depiction of human absurdity and cruelty as it roamed around historical Romania, a place hovering on the threshold of modernity’s transformations whilst still subsisting in a medieval past, showing how we all learn to acquiesce to wrong and injustice when it’s painted as eternal truth and if our paycheque depends on it. Jacques Audiard’s Cannes winner from last year, Dheepan, finally surfaced this year in English-speaking markets. Audiard’s usually riveting gifts for blending raw sociology and dramatic daring with genre filmmaking proclivities here failed to fuse properly, but the result was still intriguing in its depiction of total personal and social dislocation and the peculiar malleability of identity, trying to wedge itself into the grey zone between Kafka and De Palma’s Scarface. Chan-Wook Park’s The Handmaiden, which appeared at this year’s festival, was much hailed as a lush and loopy transposition of Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith to Korea in the 1930s. This was another one everyone seems to have loved but me: I find Park’s filmmaking, eager as it is to claim the mantle of great cinematic sensualists and impresarios, to be a big hollow gong, his themes announced in unmistakeable brass booms, his eroticism slick and cold even (or especially) when it’s trying to be celebratory. Athina Rachel Tsangari’s follow-up to her great Attenberg was Chevalier, a would-be droll parable lampooning male anxieties and power games with a hint of political inference: some of its arrows landed deep and true and some images were sharp and funny. But the film, like its characters, kept going long after it had forgotten what the point was, if there ever was one.
Tsangari’s fellow Greek tyro Gyorgos Lanthimos made his English-language debut with The Lobster, one of the year’s arthouse hits. Offering a twisted exacerbation of contemporary life’s obsession with sex and coupling as a retro-futurist dystopia, Lanthimos mixed comedy, horror, even romanticism in his stylised, deliberately (?) stilted context. At its best, it was jarring and disturbing in confronting human nature, but on other levels it was also just an inflated Monty Python sketch, and I absorbed it more in dazed fascination than real enjoyment or deep contemplation. Meanwhile in Germany, Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann found general acclaim blending chilly realism and deadpan absurdity in depicting a mischievous father trying to prod his grown daughter, a serf to corporate life, to make some needed displays of undisciplined behaviour. Although the film had its fitful comic coups, and in spite of a nearly three-hour running time, it remained evasive in its characterisations and hackneyed in its supposedly biting critique of high capitalist behaviour, dressing up what was essentially an inflated Neil Simon three-act in the full regalia of Euro-cinema provocation. By comparison with such fastidious quirk, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendour was so delicate and sublimely well-fashioned, it barely seemed to be there, and yet it accumulated like summer mist on leaves until the finest patina of brilliance appeared as it drifted through ages and states of being with wry and melancholy grace. Yang Zhang’s Paths of the Soul, the first mainland Chinese film to deal with Tibetan Buddhism, engaged in spiritual themes in a more worldly yet no less mesmeric fashion, lifting the spirits by studying the unyielding dedication of the truly faithful and its more secular celebration of teamwork and trust. Way over in France, Paul Verhoeven’s Elle proved a tour de force for the filmmaker even as he ceded so much of its intent and effect to star Isabelle Huppert, who responded by giving a performance made of vulcanised rubber. The harder she was hit, the faster and straighter she flew.
Performances of Note:
Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water
Luke Evans, High-Rise
Ralph Fiennes, A Bigger Splash
Ben Foster, Hell or High Water
Krisha Fairchild, Krisha
Taissa Farmiga, In A Valley of Violence
Lily Gladstone, Certain Women
John Goodman, 10 Cloverfield Lane
Ryan Gosling, The Nice Guys
Sienna Guillory, High-Rise
Tom Hanks, Sully
Amber Heard, One More Time
Royalty Hightower, The Fits
Isabelle Huppert, Elle
Abbey Lee, The Neon Demon
Ruth Negga, Loving
Sam Neill, Hunt for the Wilderpeople; The Daughter
Chris Pine, The Finest Hours; Hell or High Water
Jenjira Pongpas, Cemetery of Splendour
Imogen Poots, Green Room
Natalie Portman, Jackie
Peter Sarsgaard, Jackie
Addison Timlin, Little Sister
John Travolta, In a Valley of Violence
Mary Elizabeth Winstead, 10 Cloverfield Lane
Madison Wolfe, The Conjuring 2
Odessa Young, The Daughter
Ensemble: Knight of Cups
Ensemble: Paths of the Soul
A blackly comic yet casually tragic journey through Romanian history, Aferim! viewed the past through black and white photography to present a remembrance that refused to offer monochrome morality, an attempt to diagnose national ills and deliver a finale that succeeds as sad pivot for a young man’s maturation and a study of the blend of arbitrary human constructs we call reality.
Thai filmmaker Weerasethakul’s latest was nominally slighter and even less overtly fantastical compared to his earlier work, but his vision has arguably never been more lucid or imaginative. When so many films struggle to pinion us in our seats with vistas of soporific spectacle, Weerasethakul here evokes multiple planes and states of being with pure language of mouth and eye, and, like the hospital that is his film’s setting, provides an islet of enigma and contemplation in the midst of a modern world bellowing in our faces.
Elle (Paul Verhoeven)
Signalling that Verhoeven’s cinema has become cooler and more insidiously methodical in his late phase, Elle shows he’s lost none of his characteristic provocation, the taste of arsenic under the heady aroma of this stew. Isabelle Huppert’s effortlessly commanding performance is the linchpin of a study that both totally fulfils and makes ruthless sport of the cultural grail that is the Strong Female Character, portraying a heroine who refuses to be judged by anyone’s standards but her own.
The Fits (Anna Rose Holmer)
Sparse, cryptic, finally ecstatic, an American descendent of such bastions of European social cinema as The 400 Blows and the Dardennes that nonetheless feels original, this study in a young black girl’s desire for acceptance and communal identity amidst a mysterious outbreak of paroxysms amongst a team of talented dancers provided one of the best portraits of inner-city life ever put on screen.
The Finest Hours (Craig Gillespie)
Nobody but me seemed to like this, but I found this throwback to an old-fashioned kind of adventure film a tonic amongst so many lumbering, bludgeoning big movie misfires, unabashedly corny but heartfelt and ravishingly shot. With its populace of hearty seafarers and flinty New Englanders, it was like an old Saturday Evening Post cover brought to life, and more successfully Spielbergian than the real Spielberg film of this year.
Green Room (Jeremy Saulnier)
Straddling zones of horror, thriller, even western, Green Room quickly proved that Blue Ruin director Jeremy Saulnier has his ear to the ground in ways I couldn’t anticipate, depicting the political schisms manifest this year in the manner of all great genre cinema—by enacting them at wild extremes. The result was hard, fast, and beautiful in the precision of its ugliness.
A portrait of Western civilisation’s crack-up as viewed through a lens of retro perversion, High Rise is the companion piece to Green Room’s diagram of 2016’s grotesqueness, contemplating the breakdown of a human and technological system that lays bare the workings of the social organism and suggests the strange, hideous, thrilling things that might take place.
A tawdry wing of current prestige cinema, the week-in-the-life biopic, is annexed by Latin America’s most dynamic current talent and transformed into something thrilling in Jackie, a portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy in the wake of her President husband’s assassination. The result is intelligent, investigative, and pungently unsentimental in its portrait of both intense personal horror and grief, and the construction of political mythology. Meanwhile, companion piece Neruda more quietly but just as radically dissects the role of the artist in society. Both films encompass the process turning life into fiction and fiction into the template of a new reality.
Knight of Cups offered the third and least celebrated of Malick’s unofficial trilogy exploring the state of modern life, coming on like a natural force in the relentlessness of its images and associations, replete with wide-eyed good humour as well as tragic force and fatalistic awe in its consideration of the manifold ways of humans being. Someday, it will be counted as a great shame no one was interested when such filmmaking was still being made.
Paths of the Soul (Yang Zhang)
The first Chinese film to deal with contemporary Buddhist faith blends documentary with gentle drama for a hypnotic experiential work depicting the quest of a small band of the faithful from a small Tibetan town who undertake a pilgrimage to Mount Kailash, kowtowing all the way, for the sake of not just their own souls but the whole world. In a year of massive shows of wilful ignorance and collective sparring, this experience made me sad for wondering whether we are worth such dedication.
Queen of the Desert (Werner Herzog)
Another dismissed artefact by an ageing auteur, Queen of the Desert set out to be the anti-Lawrence of Arabia in style and substance, its lensing immediate rather than grandiose, desert surveys dusty and grey rather than radiantly expansive, its depictions of people and cultures intimate rather than mythic. Apt, for a tale that envisions the life of its heroine Gertrude Bell as moments of fleeting grace and escape and the desert an ocean of peace but only a respite from civilisation’s perversities. The result is that most contradictory of propositions: a romantic Werner Herzog movie.
Would Be On Favourites List If I Had Seen It In Time: (to be updated)
10 Cloverfield Lane (Dan Trachtenberg) Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice (Zack Snyder) Captain America: Civil War(Anthony & Joe Russo) Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt) Hell or High Water (David Mackenzie) Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Taika Waititi) In a Valley of Violence (Ti West) Little Sister (Zach Clark) The Lobster (Gyorgos Lanthimos) Men Go To Battle (Zachary Treitz) Paterson (Jim Jarmusch) Rogue One (Gareth Edwards) Star Trek Beyond (Justin Lin)
Disappointing, Overrated, & Underwhelming
Arrival (Denis Villeneuve) Deadpool (Tim Miller) Free State of Jones (Gary Ross) The Handmaiden (Park Chan-Wook) La La Land (Damien Chazelle) Love and Friendship (Whit Stillman) Loving (Jeff Nichols) Midnight Special (Jeff Nichols) The Neon Demon (Nicolas Winding Refn) Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade)
The Fifth Wave (J. Blakeson) Ghostbusters (Paul Feig) The Girl on the Train (Tate Taylor) X-Men: Apocalypse (Bryan Singer) Warcraft (Duncan Jones)
20th Century Women ∙ Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk ∙ Captain Fantastic ∙ Christine ∙ Cosmos ∙ Fences ∙ Gold ∙ Hail, Caesar ∙ I, Daniel Blake ∙ Indignation ∙ Julieta ∙ Live By Night ∙ Louder Than Bombs ∙ The Mermaid ∙ Neon Bull ∙ Passengers ∙ Personal Shopper ∙ Rules Don’t Apply ∙ Silence ∙ The Treasure ∙ A War ∙
The Best Older Films I Saw First in 2016:
Bird of Paradise (King Vidor) The Cat O’Nine Tails (Dario Argento) The Edge of the World (Michael Powell) A Hatful of Rain (Fred Zinneman) Marooned (John Sturges) Nazarin / The Phantom of Liberty (Luis Bunuel) Outrage (Ida Lupino) Phantasm (Don Coscarelli) Rapture (John Guillermin) Road Games (Richard Franklin) Rodan / Mothra (Ishiro Honda) They Live By Night (Nicholas Ray) Transylvania (Tony Gatlif) The Velvet Vampire (Stephanie Rothman) The White Reindeer (Erik Blomberg)
Compared to the electric expectation stirred by last year’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the build-up to the release of Rogue One has felt comparatively muted. Or at least it has to me, because I felt particularly uneasy about what to expect. J.J. Abrams’ reboot for the Star Wars brand was a lovingly-made mediocrity, and seemed to presage a revived Disney-steered series without any boldness or fresh ideas, a bracing new trio of heroes surrounded by efficient but hollow mimicry and Pavlovian responses wrung out through careful employment of beloved fixtures. Rogue One, set between the first two trilogies in George Lucas’s deathless fantasy universe, sports a director and star I felt unsure about and rehashes old territory. Gareth Edwards, a special effects expert turned director, is the helmsman here: Edwards’ Monsters (2010) and Godzilla (2014) were ambitious, impressively mounted attempts to bring anxiety and artistry back to the monster movie genre, but both movies were foiled by Edwards’ unpersuasive dramatic touch. Rogue One had the potential to simply finish up a pile of good-looking spare parts and cheap call-backs for the fan base. Given that I’ve expended a lot of time and effort in the past defining my appreciation for Lucas’ much-derided but substantial and waywardly fascinating, romantically outsized prequel trilogy, I also felt a little threatened by this entry, which seemed poised to be the kind of film those works refused to be. This entry is determined to slavishly recapitulate aspects of Lucas’ 1977 inaugural blockbuster Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope, as Rogue One’s narrative quite literally brings us back to the opening seconds of A New Hope. As such it’s an overt work of retro ventriloquism, cloaked in borrowed finery, fan fiction with multimillion dollar heft.
Early signs aren’t greatly encouraging either. Edwards and his duo of very professional, almost overly-competent screenwriters, Tony Gilroy and Chris Weitz, insist on recreating familiar beats for the series barely a year after Abrams did the same on The Force Awakens: thus at the beginning we have another wounded, vengeful young tyro created as the Empire’s violence costs her family members, and leaves her forced to fend for herself. In this case the aggrieved character is young Jyn Erso (Beau Gadsdon), who loses her family as a child, as Imperial commander Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) arrives on the remote planet to which her father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen) and mother Lyra (Valene Kane) have fled to lead quiet lives as farmers. Galen, a former Imperial officer and scientific genius who was working on the construction of the Death Star, had renounced his work, but Krennic is determined to pressgang him back into service and use his family as leverage. But Lyra is gunned down as she tries to shoot Krennic and the Stormtroopers fail to track down Jyn, who, recalling a foreboding plea of her father’s to remember all his actions are intended to protect her, hides out until located by a friend of her father, the dissident warrior Saw Gerrera (Forrest Whittaker). Years later, Jyn, having grown into the big-eyed, puffy-lipped form of Felicity Jones, is in an Imperial forced labour camp for incorrigible types. She was raised by Saw but then was suddenly abandoned to drift on the winds of fate, and now she’s an embittered, apolitical survivor and all-round tough cookie. But the Rebel Alliance busts her out of prison and offers her a chance to escape the yoke of law and history.
Thanks to the intelligence gathering of hardened Alliance spymaster Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), the Alliance knows that Saw has received a message from Galen, delivered by a former Imperial pilot turned defector, Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), who is currently being brutally interrogated by Saw to ascertain whether he’s a fake or not. Because the Alliance broke off ties with Saw as he drifted into extremism and obsession, they want Jyn to approach him to find out what’s going on. They team her with Cassian and send them to the city of Jedah on a remote planet where the crystals used to power Jedi lightsabers were once extracted: the place has been strip-mined by the Empire for fuel for the Death Star. A Jedi temple used to be located here, and now its scattered caretakers subsist and stir trouble whilst Saw’s adherents fight a guerrilla war with the Imperial soldiers. Jyn and Cassian gain helpmates in two of the former temple caretakers, Chirrut Ïmwe (Donnie Yen), and Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang). They’re also aided by a reprogrammed Imperial droid, K-2SO (Alan Tudyk). After ambushes and skirmishes in the streets of Jedah, this ragged band is captured by Saw’s fighters and brought to him. In Saw’s company, Jyn is privy to a holographic message from her father brought by Bodhi, in which he explains the flaw he’s laboured to install in the Death Star’s seemingly invincible defences. But Krennic, in command of the now complete and utterly deadly space station, annihilates Jedah and surrounding territory with a shot from its mighty energy weapon, forcing our heroes to flee, except for Saw, who, seeing his labours have found a fitting point of handover, remains to be swept away in the blast. With the proof of her father’s plan lost in the chaos, Jyn immediately faces the problem of attesting Galen’s good faith, a problem that becomes urgent as the Alliance orders Cassian to go to the planet of Eadu where Galen works at an Imperial research facility, and kill him.
I find Rogue One a tricky movie to critique because it stirred many, contradictory reactions in me, simultaneously annoying my critical faculties and getting my blood pumping. Although it bends over backwards to recreate familiar sights and sounds from A New Hope, it also uses that template as an excuse to shift ground just a few inches and avoids leaning too much on the regulation touchstones of the series, like John Williams’ inimitable theme, and the familiar structural conceits like the Star Wars title appearing abruptly on screen, only incorporating such touches when dramatically necessary. Rogue One instead suddenly and jaggedly announces its title, and Michael Giacchino’s score disassembles and refashions elements of Williams’ compositions whilst maintaining their spirit. Aspects of Rogue One that fail to live up to the Star Wars legacy also help to make it a slightly more galvanising and vital take on the saga than The Force Awakens. It’s a straightforward war film on most levels, fast-paced, refreshingly hard-edged and ready to go to places on a thematic level the series hasn’t touched on much before, as it emphasises the cumulatively taxing and degrading nature not just of life under tyranny but also of the fight against it. Instead it draws out one aspect of Lucas’s foundational inspirations, the side of Star Wars that was rooted in action-adventure films set during World War 2, particularly adaptations of Alistair Maclean like The Guns of Navarone (1961) and Where Eagles Dare (1968) and some older models like The Adventures of Tartu (1942), Secret Mission (1943), and The Dam Busters (1956). Aspects of the plot are so hallowed in the history of spy adventures that David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams’ great 1984 genre lampoon Top Secret! had basically the same storyline. The zesty, fairytale aspect of Lucas’ original creation has been largely suppressed here; so to has its greater conceptual scope and mythopoeic edge.
The stolidness of Gilroy and Weitz’s script isn’t entirely papered over by Edwards’ pacing and graphics, either. Gilroy’s a master of modern Hollywood’s programmatic story beats and a crinkle-browed idea of pop seriousness – witness his overrated thriller Michael Clayton (2007), which gave a coat of varnish to a mass of old furniture – whilst Weitz, though better known for comedies, directed the poky but weirdly likeable steampunk fantasy The Golden Compass (2007). That film’s bombing still seems to rankle Weitz, as he’s tellingly named his spunky heroine’s mother after its spunky heroine. Their script is much safer in affect than the archly stylised ye-olde-speak of Lucas’s prequels, so many will probably think it’s good, but it’s actually littered with thudding lines, and major characters remain fuzzily defined and lacking memorable traits. It serves, in a strange way, to highlight just how classically constructed and patient the original was, with its slam-bang opening quickly segueing into a long, almost shambling first act that put together its story and gave a feel for the predicament of its characters in the face of a galactic-sized struggle: archetypes though they be, one knew exactly who Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and the other characters of A New Hope were by the time they left Tatooine and rooted for them, warts and all. Here by contrast Rogue One’s first third is a stuttering engine that takes a long time to get up to speed even as it tries to drive us along breathlessly.
We set up not one but two father figures for Jyn, good actors Whittaker and Mikkelsen turning up for a few scant minutes where they provide grizzled gravitas, only then to kill them off for teary pathos. Whereas in A New Hope such losses were ritual rites of passage that mimicked familiar life processes in melodramatic terms, here they serve rather another, blunter purpose, as Jyn’s fate inevitably takes a different turn to Anakin and Luke’s. Similarly, there’s a lack of creativity in the storyline that betrays the filmmakers’ lack of any real immersion in the process of inventing science fiction and fantasy concepts for themselves. Instead, they build up to a big, brash edition one of the essential, tiresome clichés of recent blockbuster filmmaking: the big fight around a great tall structure to try and stop or send some kind of all-important signal. Another telling lack, one carried over from The Force Awakens, is a lack of interest in or delight for the alien, the sense of mischievous invention in creating life forms and worlds. Most of what we get here is just slightly transformed familiarities and a couple of hairy moppets and tentacular things given the odd cutaway shot. Perhaps Lucasfilm’s Disney paymasters are still to antsy about the bombardment Jar-Jar Binks received, and that’s fair enough, but we’re also being cheated of sequences as great and witty as the tavern sequence of A New Hope or characters as vivid as Yoda, Jabba, and Watto. On-screen casting diversity has become a mantra, and that’s something this entry does well, but diversity of personality and species is drying up quicker than the Salton Sea.
And yet, and yet. To a certain extent the problems of Rogue One cheer me more than The Force Awakens’ relentlessly considered, empty, focus-group-parsed idea of swashbuckling fun. It’s a work fashioned with both finicky attention and messy energy, one that finally gains and maintains real force in spite of all its hoary and lumbering elements. If the Star Wars saga has hitherto represented some surviving stem of the Homeric instinct in western art’s pop culture age, Rogue One is an authentically Euripedean discursion from it – touching base with all the familiar aspects of the mythology but also offering a considered takedown of some of its cherished motifs and a weighing up of what you could call the story behind the myth. Thus what becomes the great stage of heroism for Luke, Han, and Leia is seen to be built on the unstinting determination and sacrifice of others, and whose dedication somewhat ironically contrasts the faltering, Johnny-come-lately attitude of our more familiar champions. Our protagonists here are all battered outcasts looking for a way to hurt the forces of terror and iniquity as they in turn have been hurt, with Edwards emphasising the atmosphere of the Imperial control as one of general rundown, depression, deprivation and exploitation – notes repeatedly sounded in early scenes as Edwards darts between settings, particularly the grimy, packed, vertiginous environs of a city where Cassian meets with a jittery spy (Daniel Mays). Krennic’s motives are interesting if only sketched, sourced in his faith that the Death Star will finally bring about peace, echoing Anakin Skywalker’s reasons for turning Sith. Rogue One effectively links the original trilogies in both depicting the fallout of one set of events, the breakdown of a society, and setting the stage for a new pivot. Jimmy Smits makes a welcome if unfortunately brief reappearance as Bail Organa, Leia’s adoptive father, alongside Genevieve O’Reilly as Mon Mothma, both in parts they inherited in the prequels as leaders of the Rebels, giving the film a sense of continuity that feels genuinely necessary and cheering.
Much less necessary, even rather ghastly in fact, is the digital simulacrum of Peter Cushing used to represent his role in A New Hope, Grand Moff Tarkin, and, towards the end, of young Carrie Fisher’s Leia. These crappy animations, nominally employed to maintain a sense of immediate continuity, look like something out of a second-rate video game. It’s not even necessary, as O’Reilly’s ease demonstrates. Edwards’ exactitude also stretches less offensively to inserting shots of the some of the actors who play ill-fated X-Wing pilots in the original still in their heyday as hotshots in the Rebel fleet, a much better and salutary touch. Even Darth Vader returns for a couple of scenes to great effect, all his unholy stature, sardonic charisma, and psychopathic force undimmed, initially glimpsed in his private castle set amidst the landscape suggestively reminiscent of the place where he came undone at Obi-Wan’s hands at the end of Revenge of the Sith (2005). Tarkin attempts to lever command of the Death Star out of Krennic’s hands with the justification that Krennic has failed to keep tight security. Krennic visits Vader asking him for assurance his achievement will be credited to him and left in his hands, but the Dark Lord is barely interested in Krennic’s egotisms. Krennic also confronts Galen on Eadu, as he perceives Galen’s betrayal. This confrontation coincides with the urgent moment when Jyn tries to reach her father, whilst Cassian wrestles with the choice of obeying orders or helping Jyn to rescue Galen. A flight of X-Wings sent in by the Alliance to make sure of the question unfortunately decides for them, pulverising the facility.
The gloss and tactile quality of production that distinguished The Force Awakens has been carried over to this film and perhaps even bettered: Rogue One’s production values are always magnificent, and its special effects never less than persuasive. Better still, Edwards shows that he understands the sense of atmosphere, at once concrete and dreamlike, that is the great saga calling card. This is particularly true during the Eadu attack, filmed in a primal landscape of jutting stony mountains, drenching rain, and glowing technological outposts, the visit to Vader’s castle, places of and bleakly beautiful gothic scale and artisanal intricacy, and the sight of the Death Star in the sky like dawning doom. Edwards’ gifts at handling his cinematic canvasses in relation to human-level drama have strengthened, too. On the other hand, so much of the film is dismally underlit and shadowy, just like a few too many recent extravaganzas, affecting moodiness but actually simply trying to cover up any flaws in the effects. It’s telling that the first scene to shock Rogue One to life is one built around a display of physical rather than special effect showmanship, as Yen’s Ïmwe flattens a brace of Stormtroopers armed only with a quarterstaff. Yen’s dashing, lightning-fast moves and good-humoured incarnation of a character obviously inspired by the great Japanese movie hero Zatoichi, and Wiang’s equally fun incarnation of a common type of tough, big-barrel-wielding yeoman common in Chinese action films, gives Rogue One a jolt of authenticity both in the legerdemain on display and the connection to Asian genre film that’s also one of the more notable skeletons in the Star Wars closet. Ïmwe invokes the force throughout and uses it although not with a real Jedi’s competence, but otherwise Rogue One stays true to theme of mystic and spiritual depletion both internal and external that defines the Empire’s reign.
The film’s core dramatic moment comes when Jyn confronts Cassian over his willingness to assassinate her father, and his terse rejection of her harangue, as he’s suffered as much as she has and committed far worse crimes in the name of the Rebellion whilst she’s settled for subsisting on the sidelines. It’s really only here that Jyn and Cassian feel particularly lively as characters, defined by their grazing, mutual sense of righteous anger and defining loss which is of course also complicated by flickers of attraction. Jyn is interchangeable with The Force Awakens’ Rey in too many ways (with dashes of Katniss Everdeen too), to the point where she likewise sets a male counterpart’s eyebrows on high by taking down a few opponents with a stick (c’mon guys, it’s 2016). I don’t much like Jones as an actor and she trades on the same perpetual look of bee-stung hurt that got her through The Theory of Everything (2014) here: Jyn could have been a galvanising heroine but between the non-committal writing and Jones’ lack of effective pith or convincing aggression she remains essentially a placeholder protagonist in spite of the wrenching defining trauma she’s burdened with. Cassian isn’t much more noteworthy, not given any signature moment or quality, although Luna inhabits him with an effective blend of wiry intensity and quiet unease. In this regard Rogue One is something of an inverse of The Force Awakens, which had fun heroes but too often left them without really cool and interesting things to do. It’s more the characters that surround the central duo that keep things lively – Ïmwe and Malbus, the abused and apprehensive yet determined Bodhi, and the droll comic relief of K-2SO, whose shtick isn’t terribly original – the obliviously inappropriate sidekick business was already covered in a different key by Guardians of the Galaxy’s (2014) Drax – but it’s still pretty good, thanks to one-time Serenity costar Alan Tudyk’s vocal delivery.
The earthy aspect to the action and the insistent edge of reckoning with the cost of great and calamitous warfare also gives the film ballast painfully lacking from The Force Awakens even as it retards the high spirits and breadth of vision Star Wars calls to mind. The film has an idea, that violence even in the service of a good cause isn’t great for the soul and that some causes are nonetheless more important than individual expectations, which means that it has something its predecessor didn’t have. That idea is also rooted in contradictory impulses and views of the same urge, which makes it similar to the conceptual schism that defines Lucas’s prequels: what if the thing you most want to do, nay, must do, is also the thing that destroys you? Rogue One emphasises the Rebel Alliance not as unstinting paladins but as a coalition of not-quite-aligned interests in a state of flux trying to elide outright confrontational warfare for good reason, engaged in a down-and-dirty conflict played out through more personal acts of violence over pieces of information. The reality of the Death Star suddenly and dramatically changes the landscape, forcing decisions and forging new alliances. In turn, Jyn and her new companions, including more Rebels eager for a chance to make a real difference, go, err, rogue and force their leaders’ hands by making a bold incursion at the Imperial archive centre to steal the Death Star’s plans on the planet Scarif.
Another lack apparent here, shared with The Force Awakens, is a failure to understand what made the action sequences in the original series work. As well as opportunities to incorporate the way-cool, they were structured as little stories in themselves – an aspect they had in common with Lucas’ other great pulp series, the Indiana Jones films, as chains of cause and effect pushed along by the characters’ objectives. Before one memorable aspect of the finale, there’s no ingenuity to the staging of action. There are not one but two scenes here that hinge on Jyn’s ability to climb really high ladders. Excitement! Ïmwe’s first display of prowess is both invigorating but also, frustratingly, connects to nothing else – he doesn’t even fight much in such a manner again. Perhaps that’s why the climb-the-tall-thing finale is so beloved of hack screenwriters at the moment: it entwines stake and endangerment in an obvious manner. But – and this is a major but – once Rogue One finally cuts footloose it offers a grand finale that, for all the hesitations, is still tremendous. Here the film finally gains the lucid sense of grand happenings entwined with acts of personal valiantness that make for a good epic. Edwards doesn’t have Lucas’ sense of widescreen sweep and spectacle, his scene grammar and punctuation more standard and jittery in the modern fashion, but he’s a much better director of action and visual artisan than Abrams. The rogue team’s assault on the Imperial archives draws a portion of the Rebel fleet in their wake for aid, led by Admiral Raddus (Paul Kasey and Stephen Stanton), a spacefaring fighter of the same species as Admiral Ackbar, wielding bravado as he tries to smash through the shield system around the planet to let Jyn transmit the Death Star plans.
This sequence is replete with contrivances and clichés, from absurdly placed controls for important pieces of infrastructure to weirdly unsophisticated defence systems for same. But, hell, so are most war films, and at least Edwards and company go for broke and admirably keep to the film’s brief of putting the war in Star Wars, a harum-scarum episode of wildly winging space ships and battling soldiers. Characters die one by one in suitably noble fashions, especially K-2SO, whose act of self-sacrifice is more moving than any of the humans’ deaths, and one which indeed highlights the peculiar approach of the saga to its droid characters, so deeply human as they tend to be in spite of their mechanical and digital natures – indeed, almost hyper-human in their sensitivities and loyalties. A late shot in the film of two people kissing before an apocalyptic plume about to sweep them away steals a vital image from Paul W.S. Anderson’s Pompeii (2014). There’s great fun in the actual method Raddus and his warriors use to knock out the shield. Best of all, right at the very end, Vader’s return to action, glimpsed a figure of nightmarish evil chasing after the vital copy of pilfered plans and cutting his way through Rebel fighters to get them, the red glow of his lightsaber and his remorseless, unstoppable swathe of violence restoring the unique aura of frightening potency and mystery he wielded when first he advanced into view way back in 1977. Rogue One is definitely a mixed bag and a frustrating experience. But I can at least offer it this much praise: in these scenes, Edwards gets Star Wars thrillingly, uncannily right, and the film’s smash-cut punch-line is perfect.
The biopic has become the most reliably rancid of contemporary prestige film genres. It’s supposed to be a mode for exploring vital cultural and historical touchstones in stirring, dramatic, thought-provoking fashion, and nothing should be as rich and strange as the life of a great man or woman explored in all its implications. But the biopic has instead become excruciatingly formulaic and facetious even as it reliably captures awards for actors. Pablo Larraín, one of the most interesting talents to emerge on the world film scene in the past decade, has turned his hand to not one but two biopics this year, with the implicit promise to shock the form back to life. He comes mighty close with a diptych of smart, epic, often electrifying filmmaking. Larraín’s cinema has thus far been strongly rooted in his native Chile’s tumultuous modern political and cultural history, explored through films like Tony Manero (2008) and No (2012), works particularly concerned with the lingering ghosts of the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, a tyranny initially backed by the CIA and defined by the inescapable gravitas of the modern epoch’s dichotomies. But Larraín’s concurrent, more particular interest is with the way we perceive such history and culture, the way they feed and distort each other. Particularly in an age of mass media, that great fount of mutual reference and levelling messaging so often sourced in the United States, the king of the heap in the Americas, the place where butterflies of intrigue and reaction have so often flapped their wings to cause earthquakes in Latin America during the fierce social and ideological ructions and sometimes outright conflict that defined the Cold War.
Neruda explores relatively familiar territory for Larraín in this regard, taking on an episode in the life of arguably Chile’s most famous cultural figure, the poet and political activist Pablo Neruda, whose experiences and career were forever inflected by the repressive tilt his country took in the 1940s and who died just as the Pinochet regime was ascending in the 1970s. That episode is turned by Larraín and screenwriter Guillermo Calderón into a Shakespearean pastoral comedy-drama like The Tempest, where banishment and eternal searching are the prices paid for honesty and the use of magic. Jackie, on the other hand, sends Larraín on a trip north to adapt a script by Noah Oppenheim and stage a shift of perspective, one located right at the great axis of power in second half of the 20th century at its most dazzling and frightening pivot: the end of the Kennedy administration, a grotesque play of blood and toppled power on just about the only modern stage Shakespeare’s tragedies could unfold without diminution. The two films offer a wealth of binaries contemplated in opposition – North America and South America, man and woman, communist vs. capitalist, political vs. creative power. Both films do, to a certain extent, exemplify a tendency in recent biopics to engage in portraiture through deliberately limited focus on the lives of their subjects. Neruda depicts only the few months in 1948 during which the poet attempted to remain hidden in Chile even whilst being declared verboten and hunted by the police, whilst Jackie concentrates almost entirely on the immediate aftermath of John F. Kennedy and his widow Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ Kennedy’s attempts to define his legacy and her own life through the process of arranging his burial.
Neruda is inflected by a peculiar evanescence, at once elated and melancholic, and the use of arch literary tropes to reorganise the reality of the event into something befitting a memoriam to an artist who belonged unashamedly to the age of literary modernism, whilst Jackie depicts an attempt to turn violent, messy reality into a form of art itself. Neruda’s most overt conceit is to offer a viewpoint not through its title character but through his nemesis. This fictional antagonist is Óscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal), a fatherless by-product of the nation’s whorehouses and slums who has ennobled himself relatively by claiming the name and heritage of a founder of Chile’s police – a happy bastard, identifying himself with the state and its hard, disdainful fist. His narration, mordant and cynical and casually lyrical as we’d like the poet’s voice to be, drags the film along, offering a constant counterpoint to things seen on screen, delivering witty and withering putdowns of the nominal hero Neruda from the very start, when the Neruda (regular Larraín face Luis Gnecco) is enjoying the last moments of the gleefully feted, decadent artistic-bohemian life he leads even as a Senator of the nation and hero of both the Communist intelligentsia and proletariat. Thus we see Neruda, dolled up in drag amidst his amigos in their orgiastic revels, reciting his most popular poem for the billionth time, as the detective sardonically notes this mob of well-off, well-travelled, oversexed elitists claim to stand up for the ordinary people. But Neruda’s downfall is already nigh. He breaks with the President whose election he supported, González Videla (equally regular Larraín face Alfredo Castro), because Videla has imprisoned union leaders and striking miners in a concentration camp, as prelude to banning the Communist Party.
Neruda and his wife, the artist Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán), try to cross the border into Argentina as they sense the heat rising, but are turned back on a technicality, and soon they’re forced to hide out in the apartment of a glum ally. So begins a game of hide and seek between artist and persecutor where Neruda lives books and missives to taunt and intrigue his unseen opponent, whilst the detective relishes the thought of the prestigious, high-living superstar forced to live a life of drudgery: “By now the poet must be chopping onions for his repugnant fish stew.” But the period sees Neruda more productive than ever, writing the poetic history Canto General and other works taking aim at the government, foiling the government through simple but effective devices for getting his words out. Neruda is blunt about its hero’s failings, his rampant priapic needs, his hunger for attention, his occasionally piggish treatment of his wife as their exile tests and finally nullifies their nonconformist union. But it also carefully teases out his ardent connection with Chileans of all stripes, the real fibre of his conscientiousness, and the peculiar place of the artist in their culture, so often barely detectable and yet equally so vital. Larraín illustrates such moments of genuine connection, as when Neruda visits a brothel and recites a poem for the prostitutes, including a transvestite chanteuse, who later recounts to Peluchonneau the sheer uplifting delight in the candidness of Neruda’s amity in contrast to the contempt and reproach of the law, and the power of his art to elevate. Neruda tries to assure a fellow Communist and hotel maid that the revolution when it comes will make everyone a project of glory rather than diminution to the lowly status she’s always known. Later, when Neruda’s exile is biting more sharply, he weepily hugs a street beggar and gives her his jacket as if his own problems are a mere irritation.
The detective’s hunt becomes all the more frustrating as he is constantly presented with the problem of the detachment of the people from the power he represents and their tendency to identify with the mercurial poet rather than the adamantine lawman. In a hilarious sequence, Peluchonneau has Neruda’s Dutch first wife invited on a radio show for the sake of character assassination, only for her to rhapsodise about his qualities, apart from the fact he owes her money. Meanwhile Neruda tests the limits of power with delight in the occasions he gets to treat his travails like a freeform artistic act, delighting in disguise – he dresses up as one of the prostitutes in the brothel to elude Peluchonneau, and later poses as a Mexican tourist in splendid white suit – and turning the act of the hunt into a game of signs and obtuse communication, a pursuit where the detective is trying to gain the measure of a system of thought and approach to life he’s purposefully rejected. Larraín employs some devices similar to Michael Almereyda’s equally eccentric biographical study Experimenter: The Stanley Milgram Story (2015), particularly in the deliberately archaic and unconvincing scenes of characters riding in cars before back-projected landscapes. This calls back to both familiar classic Hollywood film technique but also recognises it as a vehicle of surrealist strangeness, a method of the poetic easily found in the supposedly stolid methods of old-fashioned moviemaking. The photography is reminiscent to that of No, which was shot on an old camcorder; the textures of digital cinema here, preternaturally sharp in stillness and fuzzy in motion, refuse sentimentality about the past whilst still sometimes isolating vistas of great beauty and capturing the feel of Chile, particularly during the final phase of the film. That portion depicts Neruda’s escape from Chile, a move sponsored by his Communist fellows as it seems increasingly inevitable he’ll be captured, whilst Pablo Picasso (Emilio Gutiérrez Caba) is whipping up international interest in his plight in Paris.
Little of Neruda’s actual poetry is heard in the film, in part because of a recurring tragicomic joke that most people only want to hear the one poem over and over anyway – Neruda’s greatest hit – and because the film proposes to alchemise it into the texture of cinema itself, as Larraín dances through expressive refrains and motifs, alternating realism and hyperrealism, grit and romanticism, solid historical account and flight of metaphoric fancy. Peluchonneau is nominated as the poetic persona through which Neruda’s self-accosting, sometimes scornful, sometimes alienated contemplation of his place in the world is interrogated. Fillips of airy dialogue drop on the voiceover, as the detective calls the Andes “a wave that never breaks,” and evokes the ghosts of future past as Larraín’s camera explores the hellhole the dissident miners are exiled to in the midst of the Atacama Desert’s aptly desolate reaches. “Those who try to escape turn to pillars of salt,” Peluchonneau recites: “But no-one ever escapes, because the prison captain is a blue-eyed fox. His name is Augusto Pinochet.” The process of mythologising is contemplated as anyone who comes into contact with Neruda in the course of this adventure becomes subject to two layers of transformation, via Neruda’s artistic perspective and Larraín’s filmmaking, in both of which Neruda is the pole of all action. Neruda himself is a kind of artistic act: his real name is Ricardo Reyes Basoalto, a fact that’s used by the government as an excuse to prevent him leaving the country. When Peluchonneau encounters Delia after Neruda has taken his leave of her, heading for the border, she informs him that they’re not real people who have become woven into Neruda’s legend, but rather his creations who are struggling towards life.
The counterpoint of sound and vision in this manner, the restless, roaming quality of Larraín’s imagery and the ambient commentary by the voiceover, contrasts the game of motion with an increasingly contemplative, transformative perspective, a rite of passage for the innermost soul of the Chilean character, pulled by the unremitting gravitas of stern authoritarian nationalism on one hand and the expansive dreamscapes of the Latin American inheritance. The finale works as both sarcastic, antiheroic replay of such epic journeys in tales of dissidence and exile as those found in movies like Doctor Zhivago (1965), Cry Freedom (1987), and Kundun (1997), with hints of the Homeric grandiosity of westerns like The Searchers (1956) too, as Neruda and his entourage and Peluchonneau and his underlings venture into Chile’s rainy, mountainous, finally mystically-tinged southern regions. Here the detective discovers the limits of authority as a rich local man aids Neruda just for the anarchic pleasure of it, and Peluchonneau’s own henchmen knock him out and foil his mission, as they too don’t want him to succeed, or at least can’t be bothered venturing into danger’s way for his sake. But this is also the scene of a peculiarly rapturous movement towards apotheosis and rebirth. Peluchonneau, dazedly stumbling after his quarry into the snow-capped mountain peaks, “dies” but gains new existence as the emblem of his nation’s confused heart and avatar of the poet’s ability to redefine the national character, the sprout from a seed of awareness and possibility planted by Neruda’s art.
Jackie similarly deals with a person close to the political epicentre of a nation but also set at a tantalising, frustrating remove from it, forced to settle for becoming a psychological lodestone, and learning to work through the soft power of culture. It envisions Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) as a woman who tried to turn the seemingly supernal role of first lady into the post of national historical conscience, a mission described in recreating her famous television tour of the white house with all its wooden, tentative charm. The murder of her husband John (Caspar Phillipson), an act at once terrifyingly intimate and personal and also instantly the stuff of morbid public obsession, also provides the catalyst for her to take this effort to a larger, more consequential level, in the attempt set the appropriate seal on an epoch suddenly and violently curtailed without any apparent, natural climax. The film’s first third is a headlong experiential event with jarring contrasts between past and present, the present being Jackie’s private, one-and-one interview with a journalist (Billy Crudup) one week after the assassination, and the event itself, pieced together in shards of gruelling detail. It’s made immediately clear that the interview Jackie is submitting to is intended as no purgative of raw emotion or the type of confessional we adore so much today, but a ruthlessly controlled exercise in directing and defining the face Jackie is showing to the world: the journalist has agreed to let her check and edit his notes. Jackie, with her preppie lisp suggesting a delicacy her spiky eyes belie, is still engaged in a campaign that began the instant her husband died, or perhaps has been waged since she married him.
Jackie shifts into flashback and recounts the immediate aftermath of the President’s death, an almost moment-by-moment recreation except for the crucial moment of the assassination itself, which instead comes in brief, ugly snatches, befitting Jackie’s own confused memory of it and emphasising the moment as something so fast and awful that it can be parsed and probed but never properly known – Jackie’s memories of her husband’s shattered head rolling on her lap, her flailing desperation on the limousine trunk, trying haplessly to collect piece of John’s skull, and the limousine’s flight for safety along a motorway like a headlong rush into a great white void, are just as mysterious to her as to any observer. The passage from downtown Dallas back to the White House is described in exacting terms and clinical detail, stations of the cross visited as Jackie watches Lyndon Johnson (John Carroll Lynch) get sworn in whilst still wearing her blood-soaked Chanel suit, waits through his autopsy, and rides with his coffin along with Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard). Just as Neruda notes the seeds of later history, so here too we glimpse defining moments in the midst of seemingly chaotic events, as Bobby casually sparks Johnson’s feud with him by bossing him around even though he is now in command. These scenes are a tour-de-force for Larraín in conjuring the sensation, at once intense yet detached, of intense shock and grief, and for Portman in capturing those feelings. Her Jackie fumbles for clarity and necessary detail, making plans and declarations of intent and defiance, amidst friends and figures of import, their stunned, patient solicitude in stark contrast to her hyper-intense grappling for focus. Jackie reenters the White House still in that suit, a figure out of Greek drama, the queen suddenly without king or kingdom, dressed in rags of primal violence.
The sharp contrasts of Neruda and Jackie’s backdrops, the neo-imperial glamour of the Kennedy White House and the earthy environs of post-war Chile where Neruda must hide out, are nonetheless defined by a common sense of space as a form of meaning. The constriction of the poetic impulses Peluchonneau relishes imposed on Neruda contrasts the stage for realising a grand vision of a newly mature sense of power and prestige the White House offered Jackie, as backdrop for high statecraft and meaningful action. Bobby roams its space dogged and taunted by the memories of great acts, particularly a room that was formerly Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet room and the place where he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, now the nursery for the Kennedy kids, where Jackie registers the same atmosphere as one of beneficent calm. But this stage turns into a trap for Jackie, filled with the detritus of an irrevocably ended life – the antiques she laboured to restore now have arguably more substance to them. The nature of the battle ahead of her, clearly in her mind even in the frantic moments after John’s death, is how to ensure that his tenure in the office doesn’t get instantly lost in the flow of events and the indignities of history. The Kennedy family wants to claim John’s body and spirit it back to the family plot, but Jackie, with her awareness of history and the role of purposeful theatricality in it, instead lays down a plan to see John entombed as poet-king with pomp patterned after that of Lincoln’s funeral. She picks out a space in Arlington for his grave, braving the sucking mud and rain that lap at her high heels as she finds the perfect spot for the fallen Cincinnatus. But her orchestrations are threatened by possible turf wars as Johnson’s new administration takes charge and with the lingering anxiety that John’s accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald might not have been acting alone. Other conspirators might try to strike at the funeral procession.
Jackie extends the concerns of Neruda but also more urgently those of No in contemplation of political theatre and its meaning – the use of artifice in defining a common sense of reality. The purposefully poppy, sugary flavour of the advertising at the heart of No, wielded as part of a successful campaign to unseat Pinochet’s government, is here contrasted by the grim and grand business of mourning and memorialising. Jackie finds both an accomplice and a cynical check in this project in Bobby, who, equally angry and frustrated, rails against the amount of work left unfinished, without a firm foundation of achievement except for the double-edged sword that was the Cuban Missile Crisis. Jackie on the other hand sees this as precisely what lends mythos to her project, the image of the hero cut down midst-battle. Sarsgaard’s casting as Bobby is cunning – not quite as All-American handsome or perma-boyish as the original, he nonetheless readily wields the sharp, critical, hard-bitten intelligence of a foiled and internally injured princeling, matched by Portman’s equal evocation of a similarly unsentimental, but determined spark. Jackie and Bobby’s shared scenes crackle from the mutual awareness of their status as pieces still on the board of political chess but stripped of offensive power and protection, both of them leaking anger and resentment, whilst also riven by powerful, squalid emotion and trying to play appropriate roles as grieving loved ones. “History’s harsh,” Bobby hisses in a squall of bitter pathos as he beholds his sister-in-law as she counsels him not to second-guess himself: “We’re ridiculous. Look at you.” Meanwhile Jackie struggles with the necessity of telling her two children they’ve lost their father, as well as perhaps the grim necessity of using them as props in the theatre of grief. And there’s the looming inevitability of being turfed out of the White House to find whatever life remains for her.
Jackie is a study in grief and grieving, whilst also analysing how such a figure as the wife of the President of the United States, and indeed any major figure, is so often obligated to find ways to express private and personal feeling in public and discernible ways. Left alone, briefly, in the great sepulchre that is the presidential mansion, she drinks, dresses up, and listens to the soundtrack of that fateful musical Camelot, Richard Burton’s stentorian grandeur scoring as she revisits the yardsticks of a high-life all the while aware that already the living reality of that tenure and the man she shared it with is rapidly slipping into abstraction. Jackie’s true emotional furore, her anger at John’s infidelities and feeling of being pathetically abandoned, she admits to a priest (John Hurt) the White House staffers find for her. The latter part of Jackie rhymes and counterpoints fleeting moments in free-flowing, Malickian snatches. The islet of graceful success that was a performance by Pablo Casals (Roland Pidoux), representing the “Camelot” dream for Jackie versus the heady pomp of John’s actual funeral. The admissions of dark and inchoate feeling Jackie offers the priest versus the carefully crafted but perhaps no less honest descriptions she offers the reporter. The central, irreducible urgency of John’s death and the moments of delirium that followed it, and the moments of pleasure and frivolity that defined the Kennedys’ marriage at its best, still perhaps to be plucked from the fire.
Though Jackie lacks a device as clever as Neruda’s fictionalised antagonist to tether its ideas together, the same motif is present in Jackie, as the priest and the journalist are both known only by those blank job descriptions, functions of its heroine’s designs, the two faces of the human project, private and public, chorus to her life. The priest sees the anger, sorrow, and desperation, the reporter witnesses Jackie’s thinly veiled contempt as a Yankee aristocrat for media hype and frosty, wilful self-composure in the face of desolation and solitude, but both men are only ever seeing a facet of a person. Portman’s performance is both refined enough not to mute the intense emotion of the character but also detached enough to remind us it’s all an act on some level. The one moment of unmediated feeling comes fairly early in the film, as Jackie wipes her husband’s gore from her face, a distraught mess. It’s a sight difficult to countenance and stands as a biting corrective to the semi-pornographic quality of emotive insight we so often seem to demand in this mode of biography. So here’s a great woman with her husband’s blood splashed over her face. Are you not entertained? For the most part, Jackie counters this, via its lead character’s frost intransigence, with a determined look instead at the sublimation of emotion into creation. We see, bit by bit, the legend of JFK and Camelot fashioned to make sense of a terrible moment and to offer a new locus of political meaning.
It’s possible to read the film as reclamation and a riposte to Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991), a film named for the man but which also utterly erased him and the horror inherent in his demise from its focus, chasing the echo of bewilderment and derangement that followed his death through an endless house of mirrors. Jackie by contrast depicts the paranoia squirming under the surface of the days following the President’s death, the fear of guns and madmen and conspirators in every shadow, but also dedicates itself to studying the acts that rob such spectres of power, as well as the utterly intimate, corporeal reality of such a death. The flaws of both Larraín’s films are as complimentary as their qualities. Neruda has a subtle but cumulatively telling difficulty finding a powerful end-point for its cleverness, in part because there is no natural and obvious climax for a story about the unseen influence of literature. The second half of Jackie maintains its stylistic intensity, but cannot entirely hide the rhythm of the familiar portrait biopic blueprint in Oppenheim’s script – here’s the scene where she reaches a crisis point, here’s the scene where she stands up for herself against a usurper (Max Casella’s Jack Valenti), here’s the scene where she shows spunk and challenges Charles de Gaulle to join her in marching through the streets, jolts of tinny hype in a film that needs none.
Jackie’s authority remains on a visual level, as it zeroes in for a climactic emphasis on the point where private and public experience coalesce, and Jackie, wreathed in black veil, triumphant in her desolation, becomes martyr. Through Larraín’s eye, the empress of the Yankees becomes, both fittingly and sarcastically, an incarnation of that most Latin American of mythical figures, La Llorona, the spectral mother who cries for her lost children but who also mediates all the grief in the world. But she’s also suddenly a fashion plate, as Jackie sees from a car her personal style on sale in storefronts – pop icon, avatar of chic and grace under pressure. Two such personas could be considered a form of insanity or a fulfilment of a yin-yang view of existence, the withered branch and green leaf. It would be easy to interpret Jacqueline Kennedy as Larraín’s avatar as both student and sceptic of the arts of political myth, disgusted by its necessity. But Larraín’s fascination is more than merely cynical, signalled in No through his ability to see both the absurd and important facets of such arts. The innermost thesis of both Neruda and Jackie is the necessity of such construction, the need to create ways of seeing to counteract the spasmodic absurdity of communal life, which so often seems to take random swerves from the best and worst sides of natures. Even as the fact of that absurdity remains impossible to deny.
In 1974, Christine Chubbuck, a reporter at a small TV station in Sarasota, Fla., became a national news story when she shot herself on camera. I was in college at the time and must have heard about her suicide, yet I have no memory of it, and despite its purported influence on Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976), Chubbuck’s story has all but faded away. Strange then, that in 2016, we have not one, but two movies about her. Kate Plays Christine, a documentary about Kate Lyn Shiel preparing to play Chubbuck in an unspecified production, continues its writer/director Robert Greene’s fascination with people who play roles (e.g., Actress , about a housewife planning to return to acting, and Fake It So Real , about pro wrestling). Christine, the film under consideration here, is a fictionalized version of the last couple of weeks of her life.
Christine was an attractive, intelligent, ambitious woman with a seriousness of purpose about her profession and a history of chronic, sometimes acute, depression. She died just before her 30th birthday, still a virgin whose chances of having much-wanted children of her own were dimmed by the loss of a cystic ovary and her seeming inability to get a date, let alone form a lasting relationship with a man. Thwarted in love, dismayed by the trend toward “if it bleeds, it leads” journalism, her live-broadcasted suicide was, as she said when she “signed off,” “in keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts and in living color.”
Christine, like its subject, seems oddly subdued and awkward, a slice of a life that has no real drama to it until Christine’s final act. Straight-laced Christine argues with her live-in mother, Peg (J. Smith Cameron), whom she scornfully calls a hippie for smoking dope, mooching off her, and bringing home men. Christine argues with her boss, Michael (Tracy Letts), who keeps bumping her public affairs pieces and favoring sensationalism and her pretty coworker, Andrea (Kim Shaw), for on-camera assignments. Christine turns down offers to hang out from her best friend at the station, Jean (Maria Dizzia), and Steve (Timothy Simons), the weatherman. Christine interviews a strawberry grower and hosts a chicken breeder on her show, “Suncoast Digest.”
True to Christine’s dedication to serious news, the film eschews sensationalism in favor of helping us get under the skin of a troubled woman through the accumulation of detail in a way that doesn’t condescend to her or turn her into a caricature. The immersive performance of Rebecca Hall, whose Christine is physically gawky and emotionally guileless, withdrawn, and argumentative all at once, is, of course, key to the success of the film. Her Christine monitors her movements on camera for ways to improve. She buys a police scanner so she can get the sensational stories Michael wants, but when she gets a hot lead, films the owner of a home destroyed by fire instead of capturing the blaze itself. She just doesn’t seem to understand her visual medium, nor the cues she gets from others that could help her achieve her personal and professional goals. In sweet, but sad scenes, Christine writes and presents puppet shows at a children’s hospital that teach children life lessons that she herself seems to be discovering along with them. If not magnetic and compelling, at least she is painfully real.
Hall gets extraordinary support from the rest of the cast. Tracy Letts does nothing to hide Michael’s contempt for Christine, making her repeated confrontations and attempts to sell him on her ideas wince-inducing acts of courage. Her crush on George (Michael C. Hall), the station’s anchorman, seems to be rewarded one night when he suggests they go out for dinner, that is, until he maneuvers her into a group transactional analysis (TA) meeting. Even small parts that would be throwaways in other films, like Peg’s boyfriend, Mitch (Jayson Warner Smith), add substance to how Christine is perceived.
The period costuming by Emma Potter and set design by Jess Royal couldn’t be better, recreating a context for the action without seeming to gawk at its otherness; if these women don’t each garner an Oscar nomination for their work on this film, they will have been seriously robbed. The script, contrary to director Campos’ assertion in an interview that it is very accurate, gets everything about TA wrong—screenwriter Craig Shilowich seems to have confused it with EST or deliberately misrepresented games theory to create some deadpan comedy as Christine is encouraged to, rather than discouraged from, playing “Why Don’t You, Yes But.” I also think it would have helped if the real Christine’s interviews with the police about suicide were dramatized rather than have her investigate a somewhat seedy dealer of guns, a slightly political angle that I felt was misleading.
What motivated director Antonio Campos (Afterschool , Simon Killer ) to make the film, he says, is that he liked the script Shilowich wrote and thought Christine as a character was interesting. Campos has been quoted as saying, “I think dark characters are fun to explore in films. And the reality is we want to make these movies. We’re having fun making them. Some scenes are fucking hard and uncomfortable, but most of the time between we’re having a really good time making them. It’s interesting exploring scary characters, they’re so far away from you, but they’re still human. Trying to find monsters among us in that kind of way, but people that are seemingly normal. We’re all kind of drawn to that kind of character.” Now I can’t say for sure that Campos thought of Christine as a monster, but I certainly don’t. Her sad life is not really a byproduct of existential angst, but rather the result of an illness that left her overwhelmingly vulnerable to the hard knocks life metes out to us all.
I’ve grappled with why Chubbuck’s story is resonating at the moment, and I really don’t have an answer. Christine was a woman who, like many of us, couldn’t have it all, but was told by commercials and media that she could, and should. The film ends with Jean sitting at home doing what she told Christine she always does when she’s down—eating ice cream and singing along to whatever song is on the TV or radio. The song?
Regardless of the self-evident motives Warner Bros have, the return of J.K. Rowling’s fantastical world to the big screen doesn’t just feel like a promise of welcome revisit, but close to an act of civic duty: man, do we ever need some real invention and fun at the moment, given the tawdriness of current political life and the dismal survey that has been this year’s blockbuster “entertainment.” Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them proposes to fill the void. The title, as fans of Rowling’s original novels surely know, comes from the standard-issue textbook given to Hogwarts students in magizoology, a guide to the various species of magic animal written by one Newt Scamander. Some years ago, before finishing the original novel cycle, Rowling, produced a mock version purporting to be Harry Potter’s personal edition of the standard handbook as a charity project. Although it includes no plot or characters, that book provides the seed for a revisit and expansion of Rowling’s imaginary universe, five years after Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 set the seal on the original series of adaptations. The setting signals a reorientation of expectations and makes room to introduce some new elements to the rich, but already well-exploited zones of Rowling’s fantasy, like Hogwarts and Diagon Alley, and the general Dickensian pokiness of her magic Britain. So, the scene has shifted to New York in the 1920s, a realm of melting-pot energy and soaring art-deco ambition.
Oscar-winning It-boy Eddie Redmayne is cast as Scamander himself, who steps off a passenger liner in the New World carrying a battered piece of luggage with dodgy locks. Thanks to a magic device that makes the suitcase interior seem utterly humdrum, Newt passes through customs and arrives in a city straining from the wealth of human life it contains and now wracked by manifestations of some unseen, but very potently destructive entity. Very quickly, Newt’s propensity for collecting strange creatures and his hazy, eccentric, dismissive attitude for official mores starts to get him in trouble. His suitcase, much like Doctor Who’s TARDIS, is almost a world unto itself on the inside, a voluminous mobile zoo where he keeps the many magical animals he studies and nurtures. One of the creatures kept there, a Niffler, resembles an anthropomorphic, kleptomaniacal platypus. This critter slips out whilst Newt is distracted and causes havoc in a bank, forcing Newt to hunt for him high and low. On the search, Newt encounters a portly factory worker and veteran, Kowalski (Dan Fogler), who’s in the bank to petition for a loan to open a bakery. Kowalski is swept up in Newt’s attempt to corner the Niffler in the vault and freaks out as he’s subjected to the stomach-churning, physics-twisting arts of apparating.
Meanwhile, Newt’s haphazard tracking techniques attract the attention of Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), who works for the local equivalent of the Ministry of Magic, the Magical Congress of the United States (MACUSA). She arrests him and drags him in to be judged by the MACUSA President, Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejogo). But Tina has recently been demoted from her former rank of Auror, a hunter of malign wizards, to mere functionary. Picquery promptly ejects her and Newt, as more important matters are troubling the city. Europe has been rocked by the disappearance of Grindelwald, the dark wizard whose campaign to assert the superiority of magic kind and destabilise the old solution of remaining hidden within the larger human world is sending shockwaves through the whole wizarding community. A MACUSA operative, Graves (Colin Farrell), is taking an increasingly strict, even ruthless line against any dangers. On the opposite side, a street preacher and campaigner, Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), leads an organisation called the New Salemites, dedicated to making people at large aware of the existence of magic folk and their danger as unholy beings. Newt soon finds that his suitcase has been accidentally swapped for Kowalski’s, as he finds the one he carries is loaded up with the would-be baker’s pastry samples.
Fantastic Beasts sees Rowling debuting as a screenwriter, and David Yates, who handled the last four Harry Potter films, returning to maintain the brand standard. This is his second big-budget film for the year, after The Legend of Tarzan, another attempt to revive a franchise hallowed in pop culture, albeit a much older one. Rowling here is adapting her familiar talents as a fount of such lore and the elegant sprawl of her plotting from the leisurely pace of the printed page to the chop-chop wont of big cinema, but not without hesitations. Rowling’s talents at setting up complex story elements and making them rebound off each other like a pinball game are still in evidence in the early sequences, as Newt is first distracted from his ultimate goal in New York by one of Barebone’s speeches, which Tina is also watching, as keeping an eye on the witch hunter was her job and the cause of her losing it. Newt and Kowalski both serve to a degree as audience surrogates confronted with a fresh dimension of experience, as Kowalski is drawn into working with Newt to recapture the animals he accidentally sets loose. Newt and Kowalski soon bond, as both are outsiders defined by difficult pasts and an alienated present. Both men served in the Great War, if in radically different ways—Kowalski as doughboy and Newt fighting with dragons on the Russian front. Kowalski feels cut off from the general flow of life because he wasn’t able to come home until 1924, and he wants to pursue his personal, attentive craft-art for people in the face of industrialism’s new impersonal plenty. Newt is uneasy around people and distracted, possibly even damaged, borderline dismissive of not just wizarding bureaucracy but also of humans in general, whom he describes as the most vicious animals on the planet.
The men also find themselves taken under the wing of Tina, who starts to feel a responsibility to keep Newt out of trouble, and her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol). The sisters give the men a place to stay, in their pokey shared apartment. Queenie, who has the ability to read minds, is drawn to Kowalski, who, in spite of his unprepossessing exterior, quickly proves to be one of the most forthright men she’s ever met. Although sworn to remain in the sisters’ apartment, Newt soon leads Kowalski out into the New York night to track down the animals that escaped the suitcase, including Niffler for the second time, a gigantic rhinoceroslike creature called an Erumpent that’s searching for a mate, and a snakelike creature that grows and shrinks according to the available space in which it finds itself. The Niffler likes to steal any kind of shiny object, filling up a pouch with endless amounts of bright baubles, and Newt finds it trying to hide in plain sight in a jeweller’s window, striking a pose like a stuffed mascot. Chasing down the Erumpent proves a more arduous task. Newt tries to entice it away from impending union with a bewildered hippo in the Central Park Zoo by daubing himself with scent and performing a mating dance, only for Kowalski to spill some of the scent on himself. The beast chases after him instead, resulting in a chaotic dance upon the frozen lake as Newt tries to restore it into his own zoo inside the suitcase. That place, Kowalski learns from the inside, contains many more of Newt’s rare friends, including a colossal flying birdlike creature that is the real reason he’s come to America—he wants to release it in the wilds of Arizona. He also has a strange, amorphous ball of dark, parasitical energy called an Obscurus, something he warns Kowalski to stay away from.
When sticking to this stuff, Fantastic Beasts is great fun. Yates bridges the ingenuity of Rowling’s conceptual imagination and stages the realisation of it as the hapless humans, magic and nonmagic alike, chase after these creatures. Here, Fantastic Beasts locates the spirit of the likes of Looney Tunes and classic slapstick comedy, a percussive physicality and wiseacre absurdity that gives an unmistakably New World inflection to the traditionally English basis of Rowling’s work, in the ethos of the Great British Eccentric and the traditions of pantomime, Victoriana fantasy fiction, and the comedy of manners in the Ealing style. Perhaps the clearest conflation of the two is apparent during the sequence when Newt tries to seduce the Erumpent, performing his mating dance in a series of ridiculous ritual gestures, moving with the total self-seriousness of a scientific nerd who has dedicated his life to learning the communication of species everyone else recoils from, Doctor Doolittle and Jane Goodall and Harpo Marx colluding in one body. Setting this sequence in Central Park, that islet of nature with its not-so-faint whisper of the wild amidst modernity’s first supercity, gives the film a note of unexpected kinship with a host of works—the big-city hauntings of Cat People (1941) and Portrait of Jennie (1945), the juvenile adventures of Madeline and the heroines of The World of Henry Orient (1964) and even Snoopy’s dance upon the Central Park ice in A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1969). Newt’s problems with human sociability and preference for animals weirdly, but aptly echoes Paul Schrader’s bizarre remake of Cat People (1982), and that’s the only concept that’s strayed in from the darker wing of fantastic fiction, as the thrust of the real plot, which takes time to come into focus, has a certain kinship with both Carrie (1976) and The Brood (1978).
Rowling’s gift for conjuring characters who appeal in spite of, and because of, their difficulty in presenting a pleasing face to the world is thankfully still strong here, as well as her ability to generate an effervescent emotional tone. There’s a quality of innocence to our heroes, in spite of their grown-up emotions and psyches, a connection with the classic protagonists of this universe: Kowalski is reminiscent of Ron Weasley in his awkward desire to prove himself and natural awe in the presence of femininity, whilst Newt suggests Harry if he’d emerged from his adventures with a bout of PTSD. Redmayne, fresh off winning laurels for his portrait of Stephen Hawking in the execrable The Theory of Everything (2014), thankfully judges his performance as Newt well, throwing in a dash of Hugh Grant’s signature hem-haw charm along with signs of a deeper estrangement, wincing and averting his gaze even as he converses with people with whom he seems to feel accord, but charged with purpose and energy when engaged with his creatures. Waterston, who gained deserved appreciation for her breakthrough performance in Inherent Vice (2014), is even better as Tina, who, with floppy flapper hat perched above button nose and lanky limbs, is a talent whose enthusiasm and conscientiousness sometimes outpace her good sense, not as shaky in society as Newt, but not quite a good fit either. But it’s Sudol who steals the film with her witty melange of period types, a chatty flirt and good-natured open book who, ironically, has everyone else’s thoughts open to her, awaiting the right person nice enough for her to be nice to: the way Sudol says the line, “But we made them cocoa!” is almost enough to paper over many a fault.
Fantastic Beasts runs into trouble, however, when it tries to broaden its scope beyond the knockabout adventures of Newt and his hapless team. The naming of certain phenomenon suggests an awareness of the American style of such things—muggles are called no-majs in a clipped, contemptuous abbreviation rather than allusive wordplay, and MACUSA, befitting a land in love with acronyms and hinting at a parable about McCarthyism in the offing. The background of Grindelwald’s campaign to stir the magic folk to vengeful pride and force a schism between the magical and ordinary populaces meanwhile evokes the spectre of Nazism, whilst the pall of harsh authoritarianism descend as Graves, MACUSA’s chief Auror hunts the entity attacking the city and coldly sentences Newt and Tina to death when it’s believed the marauding force might be one of Newt’s escaped creatures and played a part in causing a no-maj death. That fatality comes during a political banquet, as newspaper tycoon Henry Shaw (Jon Voight!) promotes his elder son Henry Jnr.’s presidential aspirations, only for the invisible entity to invade the banquet and kill the younger Shaw. Meanwhile Shaw’s second son Langdon (Ronan Raftery) tries to interest his father, without success, in the machinations of Barebone and the New Salemists. This stuff is all important in a way, but the problem is the narrative can’t work out how to arrange it all, partly because the essence of this entry is essentially a goofball frolic. The original series was defined by the tugging gravity of its date-with-destiny storyline, something this film’s busy outlay of elements doesn’t ever feel like recreating.
One seemingly minor but cumulatively revealing problem Fantastic Beasts offers is that the Harry Potter tales understood the tidal psyche of modern Britain, constantly beset by a longing for the past and a guttering hunger to prove itself in the present, and also reaching beyond mere parochial charm to stir the same emotions on a universal scale. Whereas nothing here suggests such a keen understanding of the Americas, particularly in the go-go ’20s, even as surveys of the MACUSA headquarters offer a refreshingly multicultural sprawl. A metaphor for the colour bar is suggested in a ban between wizard and no-maj marriage, one that Queenie’s percolating romance with Kowalski seems poised to violate. Although the film suggests a likeable breadth to its cultural references rooted in the era, most disappointingly for me is that it does little to exploit the period setting with any specific sense of flavour. One of the few moments when it does comes in a brief visit to a hidden goblin tavern, a sequence that cannily conflates wizarding secrecy with speakeasy mores, where green-skinned chanteuses warble the blues and gigglewater stirs bewildering sounds from Kowalski when he downs a glass. Otherwise, the landscape of the magical new world is painted as rather busy, but never entirely coherent, and the superstructure intended to support a long story arc through subsequent instalments comes across as dashed off and flimsy. The America of the 1920s was the polar opposite in motivating spirit to the one that lingered inside the Harry Potter series—it was all about ravening, relentless progress. This might have been manifested by bringing a cleverer, Steampunkish approach to the New World’s magic. But apart from an upgrade in vacuum tube technology, there’s nothing like that.
Rowling’s method of mediating broad statements about individuals within and at odds with society is certainly in play here, but it lacks the spice of familiarity that informed the ruthless caricaturing of New Town fascists like the Dursleys, sociopaths in knitwear like Dolores Umbridge, or the related types noted in Rowling’s expansion of her palate with the partly satirical, partly tragic social panorama The Casual Vacancy. Fantastic Beasts tries to make up for this by quoting a certain brand of bygone melodrama, one that often also strayed over the boundaries into the kind of silent comedy the film tries to evoke—the dens of stern despotism and civic-moralist dominion that provided many an iniquitous prison in D.W. Griffith or G.W. Pabst films, as well as dogged Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp. Morton’s chilly, ardent, vicious, matriarch is an interesting creation, and introduces a subplot that further expands Rowling’s fascination with the right and wrong way to be an adult and foster children (as well as extending Morton’s scary inhabitation of the same type, after John McNaughton’s The Harvest, 2015). She raises orphans and schools them in her brand of paranoid suspicion and hatred for any sign of peculiarity, forcibly punishing and repressing any sign of such peculiarity in them, including her glum-looking ward Credence (Ezra Miller, who has been carefully made up to look eerily like Buster Keaton). Credence is contacted by Graves, who seems to believe another of Barebone’s charges, Modesty (Faith Wood-Blagrove), might be a fearsomely powerful wizard, and Graves seems intent on fostering and winning over such power to his own enigmatic cause. Tina’s own downfall as an Auror came about when she tried to confront Barebone about her abuse of Credence in her determination to keep his magic at bay.
Perhaps the best idea in Fantastic Beasts is also the most disappointingly handled—the concept of the Obscurus. This is an inversion of the Patronus, a manifestation not of shielding inner strength, but of the kind of inchoate rage that builds up inside young people when their real nature is denied. The Obscurus is a kind of projection that was once common in the wizarding world back when their kind was being hunted constantly by ordinary people. It’s now considered an extinct phenomenon by the wizarding mainstream, but Newt has discovered its persistence and recognises that an Obscurus is being manifested in the city. Sadly, the film’s second half, as Fantastic Beasts tries to bring its plotlines to an intersection and then a climax, begins to resolve in a way that feels like far, far too many other blockbusters of the moment, with city-levelling special effects and clumsy orchestrations of human elements. Yates is a fine director, but his work here lacks much distinction: the staging is often merely efficient rather than inspired, the bouts of action, comical and serious, never quite becoming as clever and intricate as they ought to be, although he does manage to invest some moments, particularly the capture of the Erumpent, with a sense of balletic motion. One distinctive touch Yates brought to the Harry Potter series was manifest in his magical action sequences—magic happened so quickly in his entries that it suggested levels of perception and wielded talent right at the edge of liminal awareness and thus, gave a clue as the difference between the great magicians and the merely good. Here, though, the same ploy just feels weirdly clumsy, and the visualisations of the Obscurus too clichéd as far as contemporary digital effects go, offering just another cloud of black tendrillar smoke, like something Marvel’s house of CGI hacks might have turned out.
All this actually made me appreciate a little better the job Chris Columbus did on Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001) in introducing a legendarium and the dramatic essentials that would power the next seven entries, for all the juvenile flatness in his approach. Ironically, although The Legend of Tarzan’s script was almost painfully uninventive, Yates’ eye was more confident on that film, as he offered an eerie, almost abstracted vision of a mythical Africa where heroes and monsters roam. And as far as adventures in magical realms goes, and as verboten as this might be in current critical appreciation, I think I may have preferred Tim Burton’s lumpy, but often weirdly personal romp in similar territory this year, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, a work that embraced weirdness as a perfectly respectable trait much more vitally than Fantastic Beasts manages. By the finale of this, I was cringing a little at the sloppiness of the exposition, particularly as Graves is unmasked by Newt as Grindelwald in disguise; played by Johnny Depp in one of his customary oddball guises, this one suggesting an escapee from a prison for sadistic Oompah band members. That said, Fantastic Beasts admirably refuses to give too much satisfaction, as Newt and Tina’s efforts to prevent a tragedy fail, signalling that although Fantastic Beasts retreats into the past for setting, whatever new series will spring from this is going to continue playing to the more mature awareness of its longtime fans.
Moreover, the movie recovers its savoir faire beautifully in its concluding scenes, particularly in its visions of Kowalski, faced with having his memory of his extraordinary adventures and new lady love erased by MACUSA order, accepting with grace and receiving a farewell kiss from Queenie in the midst of a falling rain that will rob him of such splendours, whilst all about him magicians repair the broken city. It seems fitting for a work in Rowling’s universe that the real visual set-piece celebrated here is not the destruction of the city, but its restoration—buildings and train lines and urban infrastructure reforming with both awesome power and delicate precision, restoring all the inhabitants to their lives and spaces. Here, the little touches of grace continue and remind one of the best spirit of this marque, like Tina’s little skip after Newt takes his leave but suggests he’ll return, and the final smile the supposedly oblivious Kowalski gives Queenie when she turns up in his new bakery. Frankly, Rowling and the cinematic creative team will need to spend a little more time at the drawing board before offering another entry in this renascent series. But the new elements that work here are sufficiently charming to make me willing to stick with it.
Coming-of-age films strike a nostalgic chord with many adults. These films work a kind of magic by awakening the adolescent within, letting us run the tapes of our own coming-of-age saga alongside the story on screen. But what if you could actually feel as though you are inside the experience of the person on screen, perhaps a person wholly unlike yourself? What if you could actually feel the emotions of a difficult transition, not just hitch your trailer of memories and feelings to a familiar tune? Somehow, Moonlight, a miracle that shouldn’t exist but does, accomplishes just that, and it is sweeping over audiences like the lapping ocean that forms a powerful symbol throughout the film.
Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney wrote “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” when he was an undergraduate theatre student. He was trying to work through some issues in his life, most particularly, coming to terms with his relationship with his late mother, a drug addict. The elliptical, unproduced play was semiautobiographical, set in his home neighborhood of Liberty City, Miami, with its main character, Chiron, existing simultaneously on stage at ages 10, 16, and 25. McCraney created this structure to comment on how all versions of ourselves reside within us throughout our lives. He considered the play unproducible and more a personal exercise than anything else.
The miracle that birthed the movie began when Barry Jenkins got his hands on the play. Providentially, he had grown up in Liberty City with a drug-addicted mother at almost the same time as McCraney, though the two didn’t know each other; McCraney’s house stood across the street from Jenkins’ high school. Jenkins wrote the script, preserving some of the language and all of the spirit of the play, and fusing his own experiences with McCraney’s to create a piece that sings with emotional truth.
Jenkins jettisoned the play’s structure and created a linear screenplay in three acts: Little, Chiron, and Black. He cast Alex R. Hibbert as young Chiron (“Little”), Ashton Sanders as teenage Chiron, and Trevante Rhodes as adult Chiron (“Black”). These actors don’t physically resemble each other, but they and Jenkins somehow find the immutable essence of Chiron; the many close-ups Jenkins employs allow us to capture all of the nuances of performance that connect each of these Chirons to each other, convincing us that we are looking at the same person over time.
Chiron’s world sounds like a ghetto cliché—absent father, beaten-down mother dragged under by a crack addiction, surrounded by bullies and burglar bars, destined for prison. Yet like a dandelion that somehow lifts itself up through the concrete sidewalk, Chiron finds grace and connection in singular, almost blindingly beautiful moments. His father figure, Juan (Mahershala Ali), is the neighborhood drug dealer, a do-ragged brother from Cuba who wears a gold front over his bottom teeth and sucks his tongue reflexively. Jenkins spins this unpromising character into an almost mythic figure when we first meet him by directing his camera in a swirling, background-obscuring, 360-degree turn around him as though conjuring a genie from a bottle.
Juan may be all things bad to the outside world, but he and his kindly girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) provide what little is good for Chiron. Cinematographer James Laxton puts us right in the water when Juan introduces Chiron to the wonders of the ocean, teaching him to swim and applauding with pride when the boy dog-paddles through the gentle swells. Jenkins offers moments of dark psychological violence when Paula (Naomie Harris), Chiron’s mother, dressed and lit in shades of red, screams something at him that we are not allowed to hear. Only later do we understand what everyone but Chiron himself seems to know: “What’s a faggot?” he asks Juan and Teresa. “Am I a faggot?” Juan’s answer is a model of decency and love. Sadly, the fragile relationship between them is lost when Juan again answers truthfully when Chiron asks, “Do you sell drugs? Do you sell drugs to my mom?”
The second important male in Chiron’s life is his best friend Kevin (Jaden Piner), who stands by him even when the other boys are bullying and excluding him. In a poignant scene, the boys in Chiron’s grade school are playing ball, with Chiron hanging on the fringes trying to get into the game. It’s heartbreaking, but then comes one of those breath-catching grace notes: Kevin comes over to him and the two walk off talking as friends do. In act two, a lanky, reticent Chiron is wound like a top, dodging the bullying that has taken a more savage turn and negotiating homelife with a ghostly Paula who only comes to life to demand money from him. Once again, Kevin, now played by Jharrel Jerome, validates Chiron with an act of sexual love, this time on a moonlit beach they learn one aimless, restless night that they both like to visit. And as with Juan, Chiron’s connection with Kevin is shattered when Terrel (Patrick Decile), the toughest of the bullies, forces him to give Chiron a beatdown. In a sad overhead shot, we see Chiron bury his face in a sink full of ice and emerge with a bloodied, emotionally frozen face.
Act three shows that Chiron is still in thrall to these two men. Buffed out and living in Atlanta, where his mother lives and works in a rehab facility, Chiron has become a drug dealer just like Juan, emulating his style, driving his car, and bringing young men along in the business, but with a bit more teasing cruelty than Juan ever displayed. He calls himself Black, a nickname Kevin gave him when they were boys, a name he still does not understand. Then, out of the blue, Kevin (André Holland) calls him—a song on the jukebox in the restaurant where Kevin works as a cook reminded him of his long-ago friend. Chiron drives from Atlanta to Miami to see him. Their nighttime reunion recalls their night on the beach, and though Kevin surprises Chiron with the picture of his child by a woman he no longer sees, this final act is filled with romantic possibility.
In act one, Juan says to Chiron, “At some point you’ve got to decide for yourself who you gonna be. And let nobody make that decision.” Moonlight actually gives us the time, space, and scope to watch someone decide what it will take to become his authentic self. As a boy, Chiron is buffeted by forces he’s too young and uneducated to comprehend, but he understands the connections between his pain and the people around him. His mother, whom he says he hates, is still his “only,” as Paula puts it; Paula puts a lot of stock in being “blood,” so it’s hard to imagine Chiron hasn’t internalized that lesson, too. He still visits her, if infrequently, as a grown man. His anger at being bullied, but moreso at having his connection to Kevin ruined by Terrel, brings him to violence and a stretch in prison, so he is sufficiently self-aware to know what is in his heart of hearts. But his persona, mimicking Juan, reveals a stuckness that all too many people never defeat. Kevin’s phone call is as providential as our first meeting with Juan, a message from the universe that Chiron’s time has come. The final image of the film has a somewhat mystical quality to it, not so much love’s fulfillment as life’s promise for Chiron now that he knows what Kevin asked: “Where’s you, Chiron?”
Jenkins and Laxton have created a visual tone poem awash in the dreamy colors and the natural beauty of Miami. It’s refreshing to see a film that deals with a poor, black neighborhood not punt to the regulation burned-out wasteland that many filmmakers, particularly slumming white ones, imagine. The cast is beyond good, making themselves vulnerable in ways that I find absolutely stunning. Ali has a strong, etched face that nonetheless is soft; when Paula moves Chiron away from him as though he had the plague, the surprised hurt on his face is heartbreaking. Young Alex Hibbert, in his first screen role, lays the strong foundation on which Sanders and Rhodes build an indelible portrait of a confused, painfully shy manchild, and Jerome and Holland are especially good at depicting an endearing, astute observer whose love for his friend breaks down all of Chiron’s near-implacable barriers. Harris plays a woman almost completely unlike herself and somehow manages to show incredible need—for crack, for her son—without making Paula a monster.
The script is a bit sketchy—it’s really more of a poem than a screenplay—but by leaving some blanks, like Juan’s disappearance from the film, it actually feels more like real life. This film is utterly mesmerizing—I was aware that I was falling under a spell from which I probably should have kept a small distance, but I couldn’t help but float along on this vast ocean of feeling, merging with the characters and their surroundings in rare communion. Moonlight is a prayer for humanity; let’s hope we can all find it in our hearts to listen.
At the time of Maya Angelou’s death in 2014 at the age of 86, she was a world icon. The holder of more than 50 honorary doctorates, she was known to millions as a close, personal friend and mentor to Oprah Winfrey. Another famous friend, Bill Clinton, asked her to write and deliver a poem at his first inauguration. Long a poet, her debut prose work, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), launched her into the stratosphere of fame, winning millions of readers and admirers internationally who identified with and gained strength from her candid memoir of growing up black and female in Stamps, Arkansas. The book frightened a lot of people, too. Over the years, the book has been banned from various junior high and high school libraries and classrooms in the United States for sexual explicitness and violence; in 1983, the Alabama State Textbook Committee banned it for preaching “bitterness and hatred against whites.”
Angelou was a certified renaissance woman whose one long lifetime ranged farther and higher than most people of any race or class, let alone an African-American woman from a broken home who was dropped into Jim Crow Arkansas following several years in more permissive California and then experienced the racial tumult of every decade to the present. As the directors of And Still I Rise put it, “An eloquent poet, writer and performer, Maya Angelou’s life intersected with the civil rights struggle, the Harlem Writers Guild, the New Africa movement, the women’s movement and the cultural and political realignments of the 1970s and ’80s.”
Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise is a two-hour documentary made for PBS’s American Masters series that works hard to encapsulate the many facets of Angelou’s life. My own awareness of Angelou comes mainly through her appearances on The Oprah Winfrey Show, so I found this documentary revelatory. Who knew she was a dancer! Who knew she sang, if not beautifully, then with a kind of actorly expression that would find further voice in her role as Kunte Kinte’s African grandmother in the ground-breaking miniseries Roots (1977) and a dozen more parts through the 1990s and 2000s! I didn’t know she had a son, that she was married twice to white men, that she included B.B. King and South African civil rights activist Vusumzi Make among her lovers, that she directed the quite wonderful feature film Down in the Delta (1998). Angelou was voracious in her pursuit of experiences and challenges, and, to my shame, I didn’t even know the half of what she accomplished.
In some ways, Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise doesn’t either. Tackling such a consequential and eventful life forced directors Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack to make choices about what to include. Generally, they make good use of archival footage to illustrate parts of Angelou’s story. They include clips of her dancing and singing from Columbia Pictures’ Calypso Heat Wave (1957), made to capitalize on the popularity of calypso and Afro-Cuban music during the late 1950s. We also watch her deliver her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” during President Clinton’s inauguration—or rather, we watch it in bits and pieces as the directors repeatedly insert Bill Clinton’s talking-head reminiscences about both the day and his friendship with Angelou. Other luminaries who are interviewed include Diahann Carroll, Alfre Woodard, Hillary Clinton, Cicely Tyson, Common, Louis Gossett Jr. and, of course, Oprah. These interviews show how much of an inspiration Angelou was, but only Cicely Tyson seemed comfortable speaking about Angelou as a regular person with flaws and quirks.
The most emotionally satisfying commentator on Angelou is her son, Guy Johnson, who talks of seeing his mother very little, but forgiving her absences as her attempt to keep a roof over his head. He is moved to tears about her sacrifices and her guilt about her absences and the fact that he was crippled in a car accident while on a trip with her. He also regrets that she never found a satisfying romantic relationship. The film also includes fairly robust information about her involvement in the civil rights movement, which put her in the orbit of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, the latter a close friend. I enjoyed seeing her in still photos and footage with James Baldwin, who encouraged her to devote herself to writing and telling the truth, and who is a man always worth listening to.
Hercules and Coburn Whack spend time on her writing process as personal therapy and liberation, and allude to the power of words for her by having her recount her five years of voluntary muteness as a child, a result of thinking she had killed someone with her voice. Disappointing was the fact that for a woman who left a large body of written work, including eight autobiographies, we hear so little of her prose and poetry. Indeed, we learn more about Jean Genet’s play The Blacks, in which Angelou performed, than we do about her own plays and screenplays, despite the fact that the filmmakers thought to include her poem and play title And Still I Rise in their own title.
The filmmakers worked with Angelou on this documentary until her death. While Angelou is frank about her life, the film tends to gloss quickly over her childhood rape and her time as a sex worker, offering instead her account of her calculated and personally disappointing first adult sexual encounter. If you’re going to bring the subject up, then you should follow it up with her attitude toward sex and relationships over time. Instead, it goes nowhere and seems more like the teasing opening sex scene so many movies punt to today. In addition, don’t expect to learn anything that questions her almost sainted status today—the people in this film and those behind the scenes love her and it shows.
I applaud the effort to bring the life of this seminal figure in African-American history and culture to the screen and think this is must-viewing for anyone who knows little about Maya Angelou. At the same time, this film could have been much more. Liz Garbus’ What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015) took an equally complex and extraordinary subject, Nina Simone, and told a riveting warts-and-all story that is one of the best documentaries of its type ever made. I hope that another documentarian brings that kind of razor-sharp observation to another telling of the life of Maya Angelou.
By most accounts, Philip Roth’s 29th novel, Indignation (2008), is one of his weaker efforts. Still in the mold of his slightly autobiographical musings starring his fictional stand-in, Nathan Zuckerman, this tale gains inspiration from Roth’s move from an all-Jewish section of Newark, N.J., to the small town of Lewisburg, Pa., to get his undergraduate education at Bucknell University in the early 1950s. Indignation shares other Roth obsessions, including fraught family relationships and sex.
Veteran film producer and cofounder and former Focus Films CEO James Schamus may have been attracted to Indignation for his directorial debut because of his own background. Schamus has a PhD in English and teaches at Columbia University in New York. Adapting one of the great American novelists of our time and cribbing from his own knowledge of academia, Schamus has lent a precise and knowing touch to Roth’s world while doing what many a successful producer has done—taken a minor book and turned it into a decent film.
The film opens with several American soldiers hiding in a building as the sounds of war surround them. They run when some Asian soldiers bearing bayoneted rifles enter their hideout to kill or be killed. A voiceover muses about tracing one’s steps through the many decisions, both large and small, that bring one to a critical moment in time. The scene shifts to Newark and centers on the Messners—Marcus (Logan Lerman), his father Max (Danny Burstein), and his mother Esther (Linda Emond).
The film spends a goodly amount of time showing the Jewish enclave where only-child Marcus lives. Marcus works hard at his father’s butcher shop, waiting on customers and patiently holding a pair of chickens by their feet for a middle-age woman to inspect. He relishes the chicken liver and onion dinner his mother serves. He also attends the funeral of a neighborhood boy who was killed in Korea. This event unnerves his father, who lost family during World War II, perhaps in the Holocaust—we’re never told for sure. Mr. Messner starts to hover over Marcus, looking all over town for him when he goes to the movies with his friends. Fortunately, Marcus’ stellar academic record secures him a place at Ohio-based Winesburg College and with it, a deferment from the draft and an escape from the increasingly bizarre behavior of his father.
One of Messner’s customers wonders, horrified, how Marcus will keep kosher in a place like Ohio. The obvious answer is that he won’t. Here Roth seems to air his disaffection with some members of the Jewish community who condemned him as an anti-Semite following the publication of his early short story “Defender of the Faith.” Marcus is an avowed atheist who apparently sees no contradiction in taking scholarship money from his synagogue. He also shuns an invitation to rush the only Jewish fraternity on campus, though the college has bunched him with two Jewish roommates.
His most typical, upwardly mobile, Rothian move is to pursue a prototypical blonde shiksa named Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), a Mt. Holyoke transfer and daughter of a prominent physician, whose bare leg draped over a chair in the library distracts Marcus so much that he must stay up until 3 a.m. doing the work he ignored while staring at it. As Roth wrote in Portnoy’s Complaint, “My contempt for what they believe in is more than neutralized by my adoration of the way they look, the way they move and laugh and speak.” His contempt and, ironically, his Jewishness will have severe consequences.
This film has every cliché in the book about Jews, but once Marcus hits Ohio, Schamus has Lerman underplay Marcus’ ethnicity. He attends the required chapel sessions with his roommates Flusser (Ben Rosenfield) and Ron (Philip Ettinger) without alarm and even eats the very treife escargot on his first date with Olivia. Following dinner, Olivia guides Marcus to a secluded location to give him a blow job. For traditional Jewish boys, having premarital sex is the equivalent of getting engaged, so Marcus’ confused amazement about this turn of events is more understandable in that context, not as the strange intellectual exercise he shares with a thoroughly disgusted Ron. That Marcus takes a swing at Ron for calling Olivia a slut and requests a new dorm room does not erase his muzzled reaction to her.
Another cliché that pops its head out, but to greater effect, is Marcus’ intellectual prowess. In a brilliant scene, Marcus takes on Mr. Caudwell (Tracy Letts), dean of men, who has called Marcus to his office to discuss why he is switching dorm rooms. The seeming concern of the dean fools Marcus not in the least, as he accurately assesses the interview as a veiled inquisition to discover if Marcus is a chronic malcontent and subversive. Marcus’ propensity for rabbinic argument extends to minutiae when he burrows into Caudwell’s description of his father as a kosher butcher, saying that he never used the word “kosher” on his college application. He further objects to attending chapel, baiting Caudwell to refer to his Jewish heritage and then trumping him by declaring himself an atheist and adherent of philosopher Bertrand Russell, a socialist he defends to Caudwell as a Nobel laureate. This scene is a master class in sparring with words, of the intellectual discourse of polar opposites that has all but vanished from popular culture—and perhaps a paean to the life of the mind from Schamus at a particularly stupid time in history.
At the same time, it shows the powerful danger into which Marcus has placed himself. Keeping a low profile and going along to get along simply isn’t his style, and again, I can’t help but think that Roth wanted to show the world that Jews are courageous, even though Marcus has avoided military service like any good Jewish intellectual. In the end, it is not Caudwell who is the ultimate enemy, but rather sex. Of course. Just like Ralphie and his Red Ryder bb gun, Marcus was bound to shoot his eye out by having sex, and this point is made in a too-on-the-nose fashion by having Marcus dream about kissing Olivia while they are both wearing bloody aprons. Schamus maintains the secret of Marcus’ downfall in a genuinely shocking and sensitive way, however, allowing him to question whether he is a victim of random events or fate as he picks over his choices and actions with a fine-tooth comb.
There are some fine performances in Indignation, with Letts a particular standout and possible Oscar contender as exactly the kind of cagey, cruel martinet who oversees the petty squabbles academia is heir to, absolute conviction in his rightness as his guiding principle. Emond makes the most of her one big scene in which she pours out her frustration with her husband to Marcus and then makes him promise to break off with Olivia, not because she’s a gentile but because she’s emotionally damaged and will drag him down. I also liked Ben Rosenfield as Marcus’ gay roommate, filling his clichéd role as a theatre major with a crush on Marcus with genuine enthusiasm, and sadness when Marcus decides to move out.
Lerman does a nice job of playing an emotionally contained young man. He projects a real intensity at times, while maintaining a mild demeanor and fresh-faced openness during his early days at Winesburg. Gadon, however, remains a bit of a cipher. She doesn’t seem emotionally troubled, though it seems we were meant to think that her sexual aggression was a sign of disturbance; later clues, like a scar on her wrist, seem like throwaways. Reviews of the book suggest that Roth’s characterizations were weak and sketchy, a handicap Schamus doesn’t entirely overcome. Nonetheless, he directs his cast well and captures an authentic feeling for the time, aided by a richly evocative, occasionally mournful color palette by cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt and Amy Roth’s costumes, which the actors inhabit with perfect ease. This one’s well worth your time.
Ben Wheatley debuted as a director with 2009’s Down Terrace and leapt to the forefront of British filmmaking talents with his second work, the gruesome, tantalisingly semi-abstract horror film Kill List (2011). Since then Wheatley, working in close collaboration with wife Amy Jump, who cowrites and edits his films, made the blackly humorous Sightseers (2013) and the psychedelic period film A Field in England (2014). Part of the potency the duo’s collaborations have mustered wells from the blend of Wheatley’s filmmaking savvy, achieving beguiling gloss and texture with stringent budgets and strong but near-unknown casts, and creative eagerness to smack apposite ideas and styles together. Wheatley and Jump marry the disorientating and enigmatic effects of arthouse cinema to down-and-dirty genre aesthetics, conjure farce and savagery as entwined serpents, and harbour an evident yearning to reinvigorate touchstones from diverse heydays of British cinema. Sightseers, for instance, managed to pitch itself somewhere between Ealing comedy and the eerie stylings of ’60s and ’70s folk-horror films, whilst A Field in England, though never quite coalescing as successfully as its two predecessors, also represented a leap in ambition as Wheatley and Jump explored the familiar theme of the shock of the new, but in the context of the past. High-Rise sees the filmmaking duo moving into new territory in adapting a highly regarded novel penned by J.G. Ballard in 1975 and working with a much more prestigious cast and budget. Still, the material demands that the duo’s edgy, fearless streak be left undiluted.
Ballard, a writer who, like Kurt Vonnegut, transcended his niche in popularity as a science fiction writer to become regarded as one of the most impishly acerbic imaginations of his time, spent part of his youth in a Japanese internment camp during World War II. He later transmuted that desperate experience into his famous novel Empire of the Sun, filmed by Steven Spielberg in 1987. Ballard’s adult viewpoint on the world, one that emerged with increasing ferocity, perversity, and cyanide wit in his writing, was understandably inflected by the grim lessons of his war experience, the spectacle of human civilisation suddenly ceasing to work in the coherent, systematic, antiseptic manner that defines modernity. Ballard’s scifi writing took on an increasing tint of brute parable as he offered mordant dissection of social systems and the underlying assumptions of human behaviour that sustain them. High-Rise levelled Ballard’s cold wit and unsparing sensibility at one of modernism’s temples, the high-rise apartment building, and the attendant commercialism of the boutique lifestyle mythos. The story, although nominally realistic and contemporary to when Ballard wrote it, edges quickly into a Swiftian portrait of what happens as systems break down and primeval behavioural patterns begin to assert themselves.
A few years ago I happened to catch on TV a British semi-documentary film from 1946, The Way We Live, detailed the rebuilding of Plymouth, rejoicing in the promise of apartment blocks as the way of the future for affordable housing. It was both a fascinating and perturbing experience to watch from a half-century’s distance, considering that life in such blocks would eventually become synonymous with slums and social dysfunction in many British towns (and far beyond), as large numbers of poor people were crammed into drab, self-cordoning zones — although now high-rise solutions to space and environment problems in cities are again becoming an trendy notion. Ballard’s target was larger than just architectural cul-de-sacs and the social engineering they’re supposed to enable, though, as his high-rise structure becomes a metaphor for the entire apparatus of human civilisation, with a grand architect named Royal and the floors of the building literalising social caste in terms of floors. Wheatley and Jump, in adapting the novel, made the choice to keep the story set in the 1970s, an idea with perhaps inevitable appeal for the duo with their fetish for retro tropes and styles, but one which also risks stripping the tale of its immediacy and still-pungent relevance, especially considering that with Kill List, Wheatley had revealed a gift for digging into a raw nerve of anxiety and portrayed the blindsiding quality of the late ’00s economic tsunami and the bitter aftertaste of the decade’s geopolitical adventuring better than most any other filmmaker.
High-Rise also keeps intact the flashback structure of Ballard’s novel, which commences with the instantly galvanising image of focal character Robert Laing eating a dog, and works backwards to explain how he came to this moment. Tom Hiddleston takes on the part of Laing, glimpsed at the outset exploring the mysteriously ruined, fetid, broken-down environs of his home, where strange men and dead bodies sit around apparently unnoticed, and the aforementioned act of cooking and eating a wandering dog is scarcely worth a blink. A title card announces a jump back three months to the days when Laing first moved into his new apartment building, the first completed tower in a five block project designed by genius architect and entrepreneur Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons). Royal’s declared hope for the building is to create a civic crucible that would break down class and other social barriers and create a self-sufficient community unto itself, complete with supermarket and swimming pool, and he’s attracted a great swathe of tenants through the fashionable swank and visionary allure of his construction.
As he settles into life in building, Laing learns that the opposite situation to the one Royal hoped for is rapidly evolving, with a rigid hierarchy built on floor levels. Lower floors are filled with middle-class wannabes whilst toffs and celebrities congregate in the higher. Laing, a pathologist at a teaching hospital, hovers somewhere in between, but he captures the interest of many of his new neighbours, including the much-chased single mother and socialite a floor above, Charlotte (Sienna Miller), and Royal himself, with his tenancy application, which inadvertently portrayed him as a Byronic intellectual. Laing seems to partly fit the bill as a loner, tightly-wrapped, both physically and psychologically. He’s recently been left quietly bereft, but also subtly armoured, by the death of his sister.
Laing draws Charlotte’s further interest when she catches sight of him sunbaking naked on his apartment terrace. She invites him for a session of fine dining and rutting in her apartment, which is interrupted by her young, bespectacled, hyperintelligent son Toby (Louis Suc). Charlotte’s also being pursued by another resident, Wilder (Luke Evans), a virile, fervent, working-class man who’s climbed a few social rungs through his work as a TV filmmaker. He lives on a lower floor with his wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss) and their kids. Laing encounters other neighbours around the building, a gallery of variously fussy, pushy, eccentric types, including wealthy, famous, but desperately lonely and fraying actress Jane Sheridan (Sienna Guillory); and supermarket checkout chick Fay (Stacy Martin), who starts teaching herself French from a phrasebook Laing buys but leaves behind.
Laing is invited to meet Royal by Cosgrove (Peter Ferdinando), his gatekeeper, and is bewildered by the rooftop garden, complete with thatched cottage, that crowns the building, Royal’s concession to his wife Ann (Keeley Hawes), progeny of a great country house and the patrician mindset thereof. Royal, who limps from an injury he sustained during the building’s construction, needs exercise to keep limber: he asks Laing to be his squash partner and also offhandedly invites him to a party his wife is giving. When he arrives at the party, Laing is embarrassed to find everyone else is in fancy dress (as pre-Revolution French aristocrats, complete with chamber orchestra scratching out a version of ABBA’s “SOS”) whilst he’s in a black suit, and worse, he’s outed as a man who doesn’t understand the vicissitudes of the sphere he has entered. Cosgrove, the hard fist attached to this body politic, tosses him out after a brief window of courtesy, and Laing is forced to spend the night in the elevator when it breaks down. Royal is apologetic over both the humiliation and the breakdown, but he infuriates Laing with unchivalrous remarks about Charlotte.
The elevator breakdown proves, moreover, to be an early sign of the faults Royal dismisses as teething problems, but which soon turn out to be endemic. As the infrastructure of the building breaks down so does the nerve, tolerance, and finally the humanity of its populace. “On the whole, life in the high-rise was good,” the narrator’s voiceover (also Hiddleston) proclaims late in the film, directly quoting Ballard’s text: “There had been no obvious point when it had moved into a clearly more sinister dimension.” Part of the essence of High-Rise’s thesis is precisely the idea that perhaps there is no great divide between the petty evils (and ecstasies) of human society and the potential for total descent into what some would call anarchy; indeed, another of High-Rise’s themes is that anarchy is another kind of order. High-Rise eventually moves into overt parable, even surreal territory, reminiscent of the music room no one can leave in Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1962), as life in Royal’s building begins to decay and everyone, instead of reaching beyond it, becomes determined to win their various battles within it, sensing, as the very end signals, that they might at least gain the advantage of being used to it before everyone else has to do the same. It’s also a variation on an eternal theme of postwar British artists, particularly satirists and comedians: the thorny and often insufferable business of living with other people, an inevitable psychological by-product of life on a small island where politeness is not just a pleasantry, but an actual survival skill.
Great swathes of modern science fiction writing have never really had their day on screen, and the best writers of Ballard’s era, including Michael Moorcock, Harry Harrison, Robert Silverberg, and Harlan Ellison, conjured gritty, dingy, sexy, acerbic tales that threw off the adamantine postures of earlier genre writing and embraced a cynical and dissident attitude even before the cyberpunk age arrived. Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) was one of the few authentic filmings of that style in its own era; Robert Fuest’s take on Moorcock’s The Final Programme (1974) was another. Wheatley’s work here recalls Fuest’s film particularly, evoking devolution as haute couture phenomenon. Wheatley’s decision to make High-Rise in period proves quickly to have been a master stroke, in part because it accords with the material’s wilful rejection of restraint in its metaphors, turning Ballard’s tale into a kind of disco allegory slightly out of time, like Lindsay Anderson’s If… (1968). The first half, however, plays mostly like a ’70s sex farce with the underlying note of absurdist dread only registering as the faintest buzz, as Laing negotiates life in the tower and contemplates the uncommon (that is, utterly common) mores of his fellow inhabitants, from Charlotte’s nonchalant approach to sexuality (after they’ve been interrupted shagging by Toby, Charlotte lights a cigarette; Laing asks confusedly, “I thought we were doing this,” to her reply, “We’ve done it.”) to Helen’s broody, frustrated angst, expiated in dreams of moving to a higher floor and watching TV dramas set in the romantic past, and Wilder’s tiger-in-a-cage unease in his environment. Meanwhile the upper classes and their lackeys barely bother concealing their vicious defensiveness, setting the stage for a partial inversion of the world H.G. Wells envisioned in his The Time Machine where the workers would evolve into cannibalistic Morlocks and the bourgeois into effete Eloi: in this vision, the upper classes remain so precisely because of their cold-blooded determination to hold onto privileges, a lack of sentimentality that could be called monstrous or some kind of evolutionary advantage.
Laing, after his ejection from Ann Royal’s party, takes out his anger with quiet precision on one of her other guests and a fellow tenant, the foppish Munrow (Augustus Prew), who’s also one of his pupils at the hospital. Munrow faints during Laing’s instructive dissection of a human head, and though his medical scans come back showing he’s fine, Laing plays a blackhearted practical joke on him by suggesting the scans suggest he might be ill. Shortly after, Munrow throws himself off a balcony to his death. Laing’s mean joke gone wrong proves to be a psychic declaration of war that soon starts to consume the building, where minor faults and breakdowns evolve into systemic failure of power and supply.
Wilder starts a more overt insurrection with a catalyst moment that begins as literal child’s play: Wilder, edgy and itching for conflict during a birthday party for one of his kids, leads the child guests in a raiding party on the swimming pool, which has been cordoned off and claimed for a toff’s wine party. After one of the higher-floor tenants, a newsreader who works for the same TV station, promises to get him blackballed, Wilder releases his anger by purposely drowning Jane’s dog. The pool crashing coincides with a power outage, with the lower-floor residents respond to with a sprawling impromptu party, during which Wilder snorts cocaine and, confronted by Cosgrove, beats the enforcer to a pulp. Wilder certainly has all the potency and force required to lead the lower-floor faction, as social sniping becomes active warfare, but does he have the sense of a cause and the wisdom? His first instinct is stick to his job, endeavouring to make a documentary on life in the tower block even as everything goes to hell, whilst Laing’s instinct is to retreat into his intense, self-composed bubble and wait out the various storms breaking upon his door. But this proves impossible as the block spirals into chaos during the continued blackout, and supplies start to run low. A cabal of upper-floor types led by Pangbourne (James Purefoy), with Ann Royal as patron, begin to create plans to take on the lower floors and throw an even better party, a plan that shades into full-on raiding and pillaging as looting breaks out in the supermarket and it becomes clear survival and prosperity in the building is starting to become a matter of raw force and dominance.
High-Rise, in spite of its nominal period setting, has the genes of dystopian science fiction, portraying a microcosmic society in breakdown and connecting that breakdown to the processes of the human mind itself. Laing compares Royal’s building plans to a human hand—the multiple towers are shaped like the curling fingers closing around the great central car park that, in spite of being wide open, is actually labyrinthine in its confusion—a brain and nervous system, and then finally, a heart. The idea of place becoming a mimetic map of psychological function is an old one in scifi, suggested in Metropolis (1926), and here employed with a hint that it’s an illustration of a war between functional utilitarianism, implied by the resemblance to the hand, the often illogical and mysterious twists of the mind that controls it, and the force of the heart that keeps beating through all. Laing’s name suggests a reference to the influential Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing, who helped develop a theory that the madness that follows attacks of schizophrenia is the cathartic result of the brain receiving contradictory messages—a notion that describes High-Rise’s narrative and Wheatley’s treatment of it as a whole with great accuracy. As the situation in the tower block worsens, Wheatley’s tone straddles the zones of horror movie consummation and screwball comedy, seeing both the repulsive and hilarious aspects of people acting on their worst impulses as their civilisation declines from consumerist paradise to galvanised class structure to tribal commune.
Futuristic tales of dystopian societies and struggles against coercion have been infiltrating popular cinema of late, with films like The Hunger Games series, Joon-ho Bong’s Snowpiercer (2013), and George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), and the structural conceit of Snowpiercer’s social metaphor suggests the immediate influence of Ballard’s tale. Wheatley’s take on that tale feels, however accidentally, like a riposte to the supposedly dark, but actually simplistic, reassuring heroic fantasies in those films. High-Rise posits Wilder as a possible hero figure, a would-be revolutionary who wears both his class resentment and his masculine force on his sleeve, but he’s led astray in the course of the film by the very violent impulses he can’t control and by sexual egotism that finally manifests in the ugliest way when he learns that Charlotte, who has rejected him, has been Royal’s mistress and that Toby is the architect’s son: Wilder’s response is to break into Charlotte’s flat, rape and beat her bloody, and then make her feed him in a gruesome caricature of normality, with the punch line that Charlotte feeds him dog food, one of the few foodstuffs left in the building. Wilder chows down with straightforward acceptance of a new reality, apparent in some of the building’s other inhabitants. Meanwhile, Helen finds her own succour getting rogered by Lain over the unused stovetop in his apartment, a space he tries in vain to decorate and inhabit; his belongings remain unpacked, with smears of neutral blue-grey paint the same hue as the colour of the sky outside on his walls in his attempt to fashion himself a free-floating life. It’s not until he actually has to fight for ownership of a can of paint in the supermarket-turned-war-zone that he actually proves he wants anything. Wilder eventually half-compliments, half-condemns Laing for his self-possession, the kind of apparently bland, quiet rigour that can actually weather the storm that’s breaking about their ears.
Moving slightly askew from Ballard’s obsessive theme of the distorting quality of technology and its pernicious penetration of the way humans relate to it and each other, Wheatley and Jump’s interest is more compelled by social ritual — its apparent arbitrariness, the very real forces it sometimes conceals and otherwise channels — and also by the rules of power as evinced in the seeming neutral zone of modern life. Sightseers portrayed its mousy social outcasts finding self-realisation in murder, whilst Kill List depicted a returned Iraq War veteran who engaged in killing for hire to support his lifestyle, only to find the bill arriving in the cruellest fashion possible. A Field in England depicted the temptations of control and submission with suggestive political ramifications: some people certainly do want to lord it over others, but is their ability to do so sometimes facilitated by the desire of others to let them, as a release from certain pressures and anxieties of existence? Wilder’s forced ritual of making Charlotte pose as dutiful wife echoes the scene in A Field in England where the necromancer took his enemy prisoner, tortured him, and then forced him to wear a sickly smile whilst leading him like a dog on a leash. Wilder eventually harbours an ambition to climb to the higher levels and confront the god-king Royal, to tear him down or displace him, only to fail to recognise Royal when the two men meet in the supermarket after the architect descends to the lower levels in his attempts to fathom the failure of his creation and the people in it. Royal himself tries to count himself out of the chaos, but is drawn however reluctantly into the upper-floor cabal out of sheer parochial loyalty, as his anointed class’s parties devolve into raw, explosive orgies fuelled with captured riches. Royal finds himself nominated as tribal chieftain, for all his flummoxed cynicism.
Around the travails of the main characters, Wheatley offers a sprawling landscape of strangeness, offering perversely ebullient filmmaking as he charts the decline of the building from chintzy classiness to stygian pit, alternating effects of dreamy fantasia and cokey Scorsesean montages, matched to Kubrick’s ironic classical music cues, whilst visions of Sadean revelry flit by. Ann Royal is forced to run on a supermarket conveyor like a treadmill when she’s caught by a gang of vengeful spivs led by Fay; Jane rides amidst the snobs’ orgy on horseback as a porn-queen take on Lady Godiva before dismounting and asking “which one of you bastards is going to fuck me up the arse?” A team of upper-floor raiders led by Pangbourne adopt tracksuits as a uniform and march into the supermarket happy to crack skulls. Wheatley and Jump’s propulsive editing style maintains the free-flowing, anecdotal quality of Ballard’s writing, vignettes of a descent into hell—or heaven, as so many seem ebullient and released in their surrender to completely carnal realities, including Royal and his wife, who shift from mutual contempt to strange loving using Jane as sexual surrogate, the two women holding hands plaintively whilst Royal works away. As the dissolution of the building reaches it last stages, its atomises into camps—women gathered in communal suckling circles, orgiastic sprawls that would make Sardanapulus blush, the swimming pool turned at first into a miniature Ganges where people wash clothes and then a concrete Styx littered with corpses.
Laing eventually finds himself threatened with top-floor defenestration when he refuses the request of Cosgrove, Pangbourne, and others in the upper echelon to lobotomise Wilder; he is saved only by Royal’s intervention. Wilder himself, given a gun by the Royals’ much-abused housekeeper and after Helen has been snatched as a hostage and put to work as a servant, climbs up through the building’s ventilator system, determined to confront Royal, only to stir the wrath of the women who form a kind of gestalt, a band of neo-Bacchantes who respond with lethal group wrath when their priest-king is threatened. Perhaps the most subversive idea in High-Rise is not that there’s a monster lurking under everyone’s skin, but that people are the same in just about any situation, just to greater or lesser degrees, and that after a time, perhaps it’s less our individuality than our shared reflexes that allow us to survive and create worlds together. Wheatley and Jump finally locate weird visions of happiness in disintegration amidst the horror and find a moment to note humanity even in the worst and the creation of new binaries and social zones, climaxing in beguiling moments, like Pangbourne coaching Helen through her labour pains and the final survey of Laing, calm and fulfilled with a harem of wives and a shank of dog leg on his spit.
If there’s a major flaw to High-Rise, it’s that it paints, but doesn’t entirely analyse the social processes Ballard’s satire was evoking. It backs off from some of the novel’s blackest resolutions, preferring to illustrate instead in a continuum of free-form absurdism. I have the feeling a lot of material finished up in the cutting room floor. But the blackout, sketch-like structure is to a certain extent the strength of High-Rise, kicking off the strictures of narrative nicety and, as the narration says of the building populace by the end, surrendering “to a logic more powerful than reason.” Here is the suggestion its characters reach a logical psychic end point akin to survivors of Leningrad’s siege or the bombing of Dresden, continuing with the business of keeping on. Only the very end brings in a genuinely false note, as a speech by Margaret Thatcher about capitalism is heard wafting on the airwaves: this moment serves less to make a solid connection between the late ’70s rejection of grubby authenticity for neoliberal chic and the sharp edge of social Darwinism than confirming just how much their impotence before the Iron Lady and her creed still haunts the British intelligentsia. High-Rise is certainly strong meat, perhaps too strong for many, in spite of its playful flourishes. But for the most part Wheatley and Jump have made their own work, the kind cinema too rarely offers these days—audacious, dynamic, and superbly crafted.
More or less ignored when not reviled upon release in 2009, Paul McGuigan’s Push has become one of the very few movies of recent years I can watch any time, in any mood, and enjoy. McGuigan, a talented Scots director, caught my eye in the late ’90s with the grimier, more authentically punkish answer to Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1995), The Acid House (1996), and the tougher-minded, more authentically maniacal retort to Guy Ritchie’s gimmicky gangster movies with Gangster No. 1 (2000). His work since going Hollywood, Wicker Park (2004) and Lucky Number Slevin (2006), failed to find wide audiences or critical favour, but have located some after-the-fact fandom. After a spell doing TV work, he just recently re-emerged as a feature director, only to have another jarring flop with Victor Frankenstein (2015). Push, his best work to date, is a hugely entertaining concoction in desperate need of some appreciation. It’s colourful, clever, and serious enough to compel, but sufficiently light-footed to evoke the kind of pulp novel adventure and comic book mind-bending its story evokes. Push is hypermodern in its approach and aesthetics, but also has the charm of a cult object slightly out of its time, as McGuigan’s stylish filmmaking blends diverse strands of contemporary cinema that someone ought to remix more often in service of a gleefully tricky narrative that riffs on the superhero genre with more poise and artistry than any actual recent superhero movie.
Push was also perhaps a little too obviously hoping to be the cornerstone of an original cinematic franchise. McGuigan lays the basic pillars of its plot through the opening credits, as protagonist Cassie Holmes (Dakota Fanning) explains a secret history rooted in the efforts of Nazis to discover and exploit paranormal abilities. This programme eventually evolved into an ostensibly U.S. government-sponsored, but almost lawless and stateless organisation called Division, which specialises in collecting and employing an array of individuals given great psychic and telekinetic powers. These people have been sorted into several basic types, each with an unofficial, but pithy sobriquet. Movers can manipulate, repel, or direct objects. Sniffs have an extraordinary sense of smell and can track people’s movements through the smallest residual traces. Watchers have the power to foretell the future. Pushers can distort other people’s sense of reality. Shadows can mask people and objects from the powers of other breeds. Shifters can mask the true appearance of something. Stitches wield startling healing powers. Bleeders can pulverise with their vocal sounds. A prologue sequence sees young Nick Gant (Colin Ford) and his Mover father Jonah (Joel Gretsch) on the run from Division. Taking momentary refuge in a hotel room, Jonah forces Nick to leave him, as he intends to do battle with Division’s heavies, but tells him before their split that one day a girl will give him a flower, and this girl will give him the key to changing his life. Jonah dies moments later in battle with Division agents, led by the forbidding Carver (Djimon Hounsou), a battle Nick witnesses obliquely from a hiding place before he scurries away and gets on with the business of surviving on his own.
A decade later, Kira (Camilla Belle), a captive of Division, is seen receiving an experimental drug Division has cooked up to boost the powers of superhumans. Everyone who’s taken the drug before this has died, but Kira survives and escapes with a sample of the drug thanks to a marble dropped by another captive which spins by seemingly random luck across the floor and jams a door. Meanwhile Nick has grown into the stubbly, sad-eyed form of Chris Evans, and is living in Hong Kong, a popular refuge for unaligned superhumans because the dense population makes it difficult for Division’s goons to track them. Nick has inherited his father’s Mover powers, but has neglected to master them for fear he might meet the same fate. Nonetheless, driven by lack of cash, he tries to use his powers to cheat in a craps game, but fouls up and finishes up having to outrun gangsters bent on beating him up. Retreating into his apartment, he’s soon visited by two Sniffs, Agent Mack (Corey Stoll) and Agent Holden (Scott Michael Campbell), who have finally managed to track him down. They’re looking for Kira, Nick’s former girlfriend, but don’t let him know that, leaving Nick bewildered. Once they leave, Nick gets a phone call from 13-year-old Watcher Cassie, who is standing outside waiting for him to open the door so she can raid his refrigerator and enlist him in a search for a large sum of missing money.
Nick quickly sees through this ruse and declares he doesn’t want to get involved in whatever Cassie’s up to. But he soon finds that he and the girl have already been targeted by a Triad crime family headed up by a kingpin (Haruhiko Yamanouchi) who wants to get hold of the drug and make his mob a rival to Division. All of his children have powers—he and his two sons are Bleeders and his daughter (Xiao Lu Li) is a talented Watcher with a fondness not just for sweets but also a sadistic proclivity for taunting her enemies, particularly precocious Cassie, whose mother is a legend in the paranormal community for her Watcher gifts. The clan are dubbed the “Pops” because of the daughter’s habit of sucking on lollypops. The crime family attack Nick and Cassie in a marketplace. The Bleeders cause havoc with their deadly screams—a touch that recalls Jerzy Skolimowski’s The Shout (1978)—as they chase the duo, causing fish in tanks to explode and finally leaving Nick badly mangled. He escapes death only because the Pop girl warns her brothers that they need him to obtain the drug. Cassie takes Nick to a Stitch, Teresa Stowe (Maggie Siff), who reshapes Nick’s body: Teresa is a haughty S&M priestess who can take away pain, but also return it, and who perversely enjoys not healing, but bringing agony. Then Cassie performs the totemic act of handing Nick a flower, signalling to Nick the time to take a stand has come.
Push’s conceptual similarity to the X-Men films was widely noted on release, but that is misleading to a certain extent, as the plot encompasses a rather different take on the relationship of its gifted outsider heroes to authority at large (there’s also a notable influence by Stephen King’s Firestarter). There’s less emphasis on spectacular powers than on subtler brands demanding mental discipline and wit. In the company of Push’s cast of superhumans, time and reality are in a constant state of flux to a point where even they can’t necessarily keep up. Push actually hews closer to an honourable update of one of the source texts for the more ambitious and sophisticated strand of superhuman fantasy works, A.E. Van Vogt’s Slan, with its Byzantine sense of paranoia in confronting a posthuman landscape amidst the shell of the hitherto dominant civilisation. As filmmaking, Push unfolds like a Fritz Lang movie reset in Wong Kar-Wai’s kaleidoscopic modern Hong Kong and jammed in a blender with Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run (1999). McGuigan’s strong visuals, alive to the colour and teeming liveliness of the locale, borrows from the aesthetics more usually associated with artier filmmakers, like Wong, Sofia Coppola, Michael Mann, and Olivier Assayas. Like several of those directors, McGuigan finds in Hong Kong the perfect hyperkinetic muse to survey the modern world, a place where urban life takes on a venturesome romanticism because it’s a frontier where cultures are meeting and ricocheting in manifold new forms.
McGuigan and screenwriter David Boursa are able to dramatize this idea precisely through the mechanics of their story, which hinges on people with all their differing gifts and traits working against or in conjunction with each other. Each power tends to complement another, but can also jam things up. The setting and the essential theme are noirish, the nature of fate unfolding in an urban labyrinth. But the mood is far too ebullient to nudge noir fatalism, and besides, Hong Kong is also a setting of action films, and the thematic lexicon can skew close to the traditions of manga and anime radiating from Japan—one of the Pop brothers has Astro Boy tattooed on his arm—and genre fusion mimics cultural fusion.
Appropriately for a film where a jostling breadth of humanity bestrides the landscape and the many modes of sensing evinced in the storyline, McGuigan’s trippy, tricky fantasia is a filtered, audio-visually layered experience laced with the jazziness of experimental films and music videos, but always plied with measured effect: freaky lensing, uses of contrasting film stocks and grains, careful use of décor and subdivisions of the frame that recall Wong’s assimilation of Matisselike visual textures and putting them into a more dynamic context, judicious slow-motion and time-lapse photography courtesy of DP David Sova. These flourishes are used with particular vividness in sequences illustrating the superhumans’ powers, like the fast-forward visions the Sniffs have when fondling Nick’s cup, visualising their analysis in reducing months of Nick’s life to a blur of action, and vertiginously edited fantasies the Pushers install in people’s heads.
Nick and Cassie, trying to work out where Cassie’s visions are leading, enlist the help of some other paranormal ronin, including Shifter Hook Waters (Cliff Curtis), Sniff Emily Hu (Ming Na Wen), and Shadow Pinkie Stein (Nate Mooney), who all have their reasons for hating Division and joining the fight even if their good sense tells them to stay out of the way of Carver and his hand-picked goon squad. Meanwhile Kira awakens on a boat in Hong Kong harbour with no memory of how she got there, looked over by the gaunt stranger who owns the boat and a message written with her own lipstick on a mirror simply spelling out Nick’s name and a number: Kira has had her memory of the recent past erased by the boatman, Wo Chiang (Paul Car). She’s soon captured by the two Sniffs but is able to push Agent Mack into killing his partner by convincing him that he murdered his brother, creating an entire alternative existence for Mack in a few blinks of her black-swelling eyes. Kira then manages to defeat Mack in a scrambling melee in a rest stop toilet and flees back to Hong Kong. Following clues given by both Cassie’s visions and Emily’s detection, Nick tries to rendezvous with the mysterious girl who everyone’s looking for. It proves to be Kira, who first response is to take a few potshots at him with Mack’s appropriated gun. Turns out Nick and Kira were lovers back in the States, a romance that ended suddenly when Kira was kidnapped by Division, leaving Nick clueless as to her whereabouts. Or were they? Believing they have to keep Kira out of Carver’s hands and find where she’s stashed the drug, they hole up in a hotel room using Pinkie’s gifts to hide Kira.
Another good quality of Push is the strength of its cast and the sharpness of its characters. Evans, post-Fantastic Four, first got to move away from Johnny Storm’s dude-bro tediousness and work out the charmingly chilled-out, white bread hero he’d soon purvey to much more money and popularity as Captain America, but also with a scruffy, more asocial quality, anticipating his next foray into Asiatic scifi, Snowpiercer (2013). Hounsou, always a great screen presence, makes for a formidable opponent, one who wears Division’s imperial arrogance like a suit: it feels like a manifestation of McGuigan’s raspy wit that the one-time oppressed hero of Amistad (1997) is now the ultimate manipulator of destinies and identities. Belle, who gained notice in Rebecca Miller’s The Ballad of Jack and Rose (2004), has an oddly delicate screen presence that helps draw out the contradictions of her character, who is at once powerful and near-fatally malleable.
One of screenwriter Boula’s better tweaks of the familiar plot pattern here is the way Nick is presented less as a singular hero than merely one in a group of pan-ethnic characters. Nick’s neglect of his talents means that he’s nearly constantly outmatched in his various encounters throughout the film, ending up battered, tormented, and tossed about like a plaything, as when he tries to confront Carver and his Mover bodyguard Victor (Neil Jackson). His lack of savvy as a hero recalls one of the film’s influences, Big Trouble in Little China (1986), though his lacks aren’t played for as many laughs as Jack Burton’s. His essential decency is noted early on when, whilst being tortured by Bleeders, he uses his powers to push Cassie to safety, and he does finally start to bring his real talents to the fore as the story unfolds. Chief amongst these is not his telekinetic gifts, but his mind for strategy, with which he works out a way to avoid the seemingly unstoppable fate barrelling down on him and his pals.
Young Fanning, though, taking her first step from child star to adult actor, is the one who walks off with the proceedings, playing Cassie as a precocious punkette with dashes of delirious pink dye in her hair (“Lose a bet with your hairdresser?” Nick prods her) and who draws pictures illustrating her visions in an art book, despite her complete lack of artistic ability: her pictures of the futures she sees are essays in childish style, all too crudely contrasting her precocious projections. Cassie is, in many ways, the film’s proper protagonist, as she’s desperate to save her mother from Division’s clutches. She is partially wizened beyond her years by her gift and also trying to play the grown-up living in her mother’s near-legendary shadow, a person who has touched the lives of almost everyone in the narrative with reverberations that eventually prove anything but accidental. Rattled by her own constant premonitions of death and the taunts of her lollypop-sucking sister-adversary, Cassie tries to focus her gifts and see her way through to another future by trying her mother’s favourite device to improve her seer powers—alcohol. Cassie, roaring drunk, bursts into the hotel room where the ragtag gang are holed up and accosts Kira as the one who’ll get them all killed: “I’m 13, and I’m powering my use!” she declares with truculent bravado.
Her encounters with Pop Girl are charged with peculiarly personal antipathy as well as a sense of their similarities, both prodigies competing directly on the behalf of family with the obligation to use the prodigal gifts they possess to further the ends of their kin, but with very different ultimate purposes. Where Cassie’s mother lives in a tranquilised void in Division’s headquarter—she’s only briefly glimpsed being led around by guards and dropping the fateful marble that helps Kira escape—and becomes something like a younger sister to Nick, Pop Girl represents a vicious and egomaniacal patriarch and a clan of carefully groomed thugs. When Pop Girl reports a failure to her father, he slaps her around. Later, when she presents her brothers with a more successful insight, it prompts them to ask whether that will make their father love them.
Push vibrates with unexpected fragments of emotional and thematic depth like these, decorating McGuigan’s framework like the neon that blazes over Hong Kong, never overplayed to bog things down. The emotional tenor here is wound together with the way the Watchers predict the future, becoming, in essence, like film viewers anticipating certain outcomes: “I like how this future ends,” Carver tells Cassie at one point when fate seems to be dooming the outsiders’ revolt to a grim end. The film’s audience, meanwhile, have their expectations constantly switched around, holding fast to the faith certain things will come out right even in the face of mounting contradictions and seemingly impossible knots of fate. Push’s approach to fate is one of its cleverest aspects. The idea that precognition is an ability affected by choices and potentials rather than being perfect insight into the inevitable isn’t a new one—Frank Herbert’s Dune posited a similar concept—and Push presents it as a psychic gift derived from people’s trains of thought, which means it’s vulnerable to temporary disruption. Kira took advantage of this by having her own memory wiped, and Nick eventually formulates a way to outwit the enemy Watchers by piecing together a plan and then having his own mind wiped by Wo Chiang, his instructions written down and parcelled out to his comrades in arms. I’m not sure if all this holds water logically, but it’s damn fun to watch play out. Nick is forced to take such drastic measures after Kira falls sick from the drug she was injected with and has to be handed over to Carver to save her life. This makes her vulnerable to Carver’s Pusher talents: he convinces her that she’s an agent in his employ who is suffering from amnesia.
Nick’s ploy works, sending both Carver and the Pops scrambling to keep up with the seemingly random twists and turns of their quarries, whilst they follow a chain of clues to locate the suitcase containing the drug sample in a skyscraper under construction, with a super-talented Shadow hired to mask the location. Our heroes still have run a gauntlet of challenges and dangers. The Pops try to zero in on the drug, but are instead fooled by a substitute Nick contrives to deliver to them. He then has a literally bruising encounter with Teresa, who has sided with Carver and has a sadistic streak her healing gifts are weirdly wound in with: she can restore injuries she fixes, and does just this to Nick, planning to torment him further, but his rapidly evolving Mover gifts allows him to outwit her. Cassie, constantly dogged throughout the film by visions of herself dead with a tiger above her, lets herself be bounced randomly around the Hong Kong underground, but still seems doomed to meet her ordained fate when she’s cornered by Pop Girl in a storeroom. But it turns out to be Pop Girl’s body splayed under one of the tiger symbol-emblazoned shipping boxes, her mind wiped by the lurking Wo Chiang. With Kira’s Pusher abilities magnified, Carver keeps her under his control once she’s stabilised and uses her take on the Pop clan’s army of gunmen, leading to a climactic battle within the half-finished skyscraper between the three vying factions.
I suspect that if Push had been made a decade earlier, it would have been a major cult hit, and not because superpowers weren’t so common on screen then. McGuigan’s sensibility cuts against the increasingly parochial and bombastic flavour of a lot of similar filmmaking, with its focus on international drifters in a polycultural nexus fighting the powers that be harking back to the ’90s milieu, rather than the post-9/11 mindset that rewarded Michael Bay’s fascist chic with big bucks, and the far more conventional and baggy filmmaking of the now exhaustingly dominant superhero movie. McGuigan signals a deliberate note of needling satire about the dark side of Bush-era politics, as he has Carver note, “We’re not ones for diplomacy anymore.” The final battle is a terrifically organised free-for-all during which Carver and Kira turn enemies on each other, Kira orchestrating a battery of killers under her influence like a particularly freaky line-dance choreographer, whilst Nick battles Victor, their powers becoming so well-balanced that they’re essentially reduced to a fist-fight, at least until the Pop Bleeder boys try to squelch them both. McGuigan tips another nod to Big Trouble in Little China when the Pop patriarch releases his Bleeder scream in uncontrolled furore after one of his sons dies, bringing down a heap of scaffolding on him and Victor.
Nick finishes up carrying the elaborate triple-bluff through to its end when he injects himself with the drug, which by this time has been substituted for soy sauce, and pretends to die under Carver’s contemptuous gaze. The very last few moments confirm that an even more elaborate plot than anyone except Cassie had originally realised has just been pulled off, and though Kira is still in Carver’s clutches, Nick has arranged for her to recover the truth, setting the scene for a most satisfying blackout moment of poetic justice. I’m inclined to call Push a kind of pop masterpiece, but too few heard this tree fall in the woods. A few months after its release, many of the same people who dissed it were calling the equally tricky but comparatively dour and pompous Inception (2010) a major event, which goes to show what a funny world we live in.
Award-winning documentary filmmaker and journalist Melody Gilbert is, like most documentarians, a carefully observant opportunist who finds her stories in her surroundings. Among her films are Fritz: The Walter Mondale Story (2008), about the career politician from her home state of Minnesota who served as vice president to President Jimmy Carter, and a short film for Twin Cities Public Television, Toxic Testing, about a 1950s program by the U.S. government to spray Minneapolis residents with toxic chemicals that prompted a federal investigation. Currently on a leave of absence from her job as an assistant professor and chair of the Journalism and Mass Communication Department at the American University in Bulgaria (AUBG) in part to workshop The Summer Help through Chicago’s Kartemquin Films lab program, this latest effort has emerged directly from her experiences at the Blagoevgrad campus.
Specifically, Gilbert focuses primarily on two AUBG business students as they head to the United States for the summer to earn money for college. The two young women, Nikoleta and Elena, are friends who have secured work as housekeepers at a resort in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. They have paid around $1,000 to a placement agency to help them obtain their J-1 exchange visitor visas to work in the United States, and bear on their own the expense of their travel and housing. As Gilbert relates in an informational title card, they are only two of up to 100,000 students who travel abroad for summer work in countries that can pay them far more than they would earn at home. To put a point on it, Gilbert adds captions to images of Nikoleta and her mother at work informing us that the young woman makes $8 an hour, whereas her mother, a factory seamstress, makes $8 a day.
The girls are excited about their first trip outside Bulgaria and record with their cellphones the various legs of their journey. In Myrtle Beach, they pound the pavement looking for second jobs, as their primary job will only cover their costs, contributing nothing to their college fund. As though to set us up for a film about worker exploitation, Gilbert follows Nikoleta home from her housekeeping job one day to her home away from home: the place is a cockroach-infested mess, but one with a refrigerator stuffed with food left behind by resort guests, including a whole watermelon. Pity the poor exchange worker and shame on wasteful Americans, the film seems to say at this point.
Of course, reality isn’t quite that simple, as we learn when Gilbert travels to visit with some exchange workers who ended up in Provincetown and Martha’s Vineyard, both in Massachusetts. The young men and women work two to four jobs catering to the upscale tourist trade in both locations. In a Martha’s Vineyard restaurant where one student works, an older couple commends her initiative in not accepting handouts and working hard instead to get what she wants out of life: “That’s what America’s all about,” the man says, like an embodied talking point for the Republican credo. Colorful, diverse Provincetown absorbs the newcomers from Eastern Europe easily, and the sprightly nightlife, welcoming atmosphere, and generous tips create a favorable impression among the workers and a desire to return the next year. One student says that the American University in Bulgaria has taught them to be tolerant of the eccentricities of Provincetown dwellers.
Perhaps some of the residents of Myrtle Beach should attend AUBG, because Nikoleta expresses her disgust and disappointment with Americans after she and Elena are ridiculed by some locals for the uniforms they wear. As housekeepers, they garner far fewer tips and pull in far less money than their counterparts in Massachusetts. Further, without access to a car or public transportation, Elena is subjected to a nasty fright when a man in a car follows her and tries to get her to ride with him. “He was drunk,” she says, adding incredulously that nothing like that ever happened to her in Bulgaria. Indeed, cultural exchange only goes so far. The painful class conflicts and behavioral disparities from one part of the United States to another are difficult for native Americans to negotiate, let alone young exchange workers.
Gilbert spends considerable time in Bulgaria shooting family gatherings and home interiors, as well as Skype chats spanning the distance between the girls and their families. She offers a somewhat sentimental view of family ties, scoring most such interludes monotonously with Erik Satie’s Gymnopédie No. 1. Because this film was funded in part by a Kickstarter campaign, public domain music was the most reasonable financial choice, but there are other public domain pieces of music that could have worked and enhanced other moods within the film. It seems a shame Gilbert didn’t explore more options.
The Summer Help has a brevity in keeping with Gilbert’s background in television journalism. The film provides a discernable contrast between the prospects in rich countries like the United States and poor ones like Bulgaria, but is content to comment on the more superficial aspects of these contrasts. Nonetheless, Gilbert found engaging students to foreground and hold our attention and sympathies. Nikoleta and Elena came of age in different ways through this experience—one embracing the American experience in a big way, the other rejecting it and finding better opportunities and lifestyles in other countries.
A one-time-only screening of The Summer Help takes place this Saturday, May 14, 7:45 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Director Gilbert will be on hand for a Q&A session after the film.
Terrence Malick’s late period has seen him more productive than ever at the cost of robbing his output of the almost magical allure it once had through scarcity. Once he was easy to idealise as an emissary of artistic stature redolent of a very different time and cultural frame, the reclusive poet broadcasting occasional, deeply considered artistic happenings from on high. But when he brings out three films in five years, he becomes just another filmmaker in the marketplace. Yet his work has defied the usual crises and swerves that befall aging auteurs to become ever more personal, rarefied, and bold, charged with a sense of questing enthusiasm and expressive urgency. Whereas in his early work I tend to find what Malick wants to say a bit obvious even as he laboured to say it in the most ravishing way, his later work suggests an attempt to articulate concepts and emotions so nebulous and difficult they cannot be conveyed in any meaningful way except when bundled up in that strange collection of images known as cinema, gaining a sharpness and urgency that risks much but also achieves much. This is a large part of why I’ve been moving against the current and digging what Malick’s been putting down all the more since The New World (2005). The New World marked a point when Malick really first nailed the aesthetic he’d been chasing, apparently formless in the usual cinematic sense, but actually fluidic and dynamic, more like visual music than prose, his stories unfolding in a constant rush of counterpoint, the visual and the verbal, each nudging the other along rather than working in the usual lockstep manner of standard dramatic cinema.
By comparison, I recently revisited Days of Heaven (1978) and find it gorgeous but inert, like a fine miniature in a snow cone. The pursuit of a horizon glimpsed in a dream, at once personal and lodged in a folk-memory, admirably articulated, but too refined, too stringently, self-consciously fablelike to compel me. The New World finally set Malick free because it allowed him to alchemise his preoccupations and poetic ideas, his obsession with the Edenic Fall, into the simplest vessel whilst still engaging with concrete history and a very solid sense of the world. Somehow Malick has become, in his old age, at once the wispiest of abstractionists and the most acute of realists. Knight of Cups feels like another instalment, probably the last, in an unofficial, but certainly linked cycle he started with The Tree of Life (2011) and followed with To the Wonder (2013). Malick has been translating his own life into art for these films, albeit tangentially, through a mesh of disguise, displacement, invention, and simple reflection. Knight of Cups completes the sense of journey from songs of innocence to songs of experience; the depiction of childhood’s protean possibility rhymed with adulthood’s regretful mourning as depicted in The Tree of Life has given way to the specific portrait of love found and lost in To the Wonder, and now, hedonistic abandon and the open void of modernity amidst the elusive promise of the land. It’s a report in the moment that rounds off the tale Malick’s been contemplating since The New World, a portrait of what’s become of that innocent land the white man conquered.
Christian Bale inhabits the role of Rick, a screenwriter living it large in Los Angeles, but dogged by a lingering inability to form real emotional connections and the gnawing onus that is the fate of his family. That’s just about all the plot there is to Knight of Cups, which unfolds like a fever dream of recollection, pushing the flowing, vignette-laden, high-montage style Malicks’s pursued since The New World to a point that is both an extreme and also a crescendo. In compensation, Malick adopts a very simple, but perfectly functional division into chapters, each named for a card in the Tarot and dominated by a depiction of one of Rick’s relationships, whether passing or substantial, with various women and family members, or turning points in his experience. “The Moon” recounts his grazing encounters with dye-haired young wannabe Della (Imogen Poots). “The Hanged Man” depicts his uneasy relationship with his father and brother. “The Hermit” follows Rick through the indulgences of Hollywood, attending a party hosted by mogul Tonio (Antonio Banderas). “Judgment” sees him briefly reconnecting with his ex-wife, medical doctor Nancy (Cate Blanchett). In “The Tower,” Rick is tempted by Mephistophelian manager Herb (Michael Wincott). In “The Sun,” he becomes mesmerised by a fashion model, Helen (Frieda Pinto), who embodies pure beauty and practises tantric yoga. “The High Priestess” sees him hooking up with stripper Karen (Teresa Palmer), and visiting Las Vegas with her for a dirty weekend. In “Death,” he becomes involved with a married woman, Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), who falls pregnant and doesn’t know if the father is Rick or her husband. Finally, “Freedom” depicts his ultimate decision to leave Hollywood and finding happiness with Isabel (Isabel Lucas), a girl he often sees dancing on the beach.
The Knight of Cups is also a tarot card, of course, one that notably changes meaning according to how it’s looked at, encompassing the alternately quicksilver brilliance and inane nature of the young adventurer and will to disorder, a reminder of the closeness between the two. Rick is evidently the Knight, one who is not so coincidentally often in his cups. He’s also correlated with the prince in a fairy tale his father is fond of who travels to a distant land on an important mission but is bewitched by a magic potion and forgets his identity. Near the start of the film, Rick meets with two agents (Patrick Whitesell and Rick Hess) who have orchestrated his transfer off a project on which he was floundering and attached him to a top comedy star, a move that brings Rick to the peak of his profession. Rick lives nonetheless in a small apartment that barely displays any sign of real human habitation apart from his bed and laptop, as two thieves find to their chagrin when they break in and try to rob the place. He is shaken by an earthquake close to the film’s beginning, the first momento mori that jars him out of any sense of confident self-satisfaction. Soon, Rick wanders the city gobbling up sensations and distractions. He cavorts with models, actresses, and scenesters he can now pull with his growing wealth and freewheeling enthusiasm, but is nagged at by the omnipresent evidence of a concurrent reality, represented by the down-and-out folk he brushes against on the streets of LA.
The film’s prologuelike opening scenes see Rick on the town, riding the streets with models and partying hard in scenes of ebullient, carnivalesque high life, where geishas and costumed artistes frolic and life seems utterly ripe. An experimental film being projected on the wall invades the film itself, a beautiful woman shifting through guises, masks of cardboard and make-up floating around her face, identity turned protean and cabalistic—essentially introducing the basic theme of the film around it. Then, the earthquake shakes the town. In the first “chapter,” Rick meets Della, who describes Rick’s problem as one commonly diagnosed in writers by those close to them: “You don’t want love—you want a love experience.” But she also recognises that he’s a man who’s been switched off on some fundamental level for some time. She begs him not to return to such a state again, and the rest of the film depicts his struggle to really feel and open himself up. Rick’s deeper spiritual and emotional maladies are soon revealed as he visits his father Joseph (Brian Dennehy) at his offices, in a strange sequence that might be memory, dream, or a blend of the two, as Joseph seems to be alone in a vast building and washes his hands in filthy water. Joseph’s health and sanity become niggling sources of worry for Rick, whilst Joseph boils over with Learish anger and sorrow. Rick also maintains an uneasy relationship with his brother Barry (Wes Bentley), a former junkie turned street minister, often submerged in the shoals of human wreckage Rick contends with. These three beset survivors are closely bonded by rivets of love and wracking pain because of the suicide of a third brother, Billy. When any of the three come together, they often clash, sometimes in heated and physically eruptive manner: a dinner the trio have together devolves into Barry hurling furniture around.
Rick’s success has been achieved by remaining switched off because of a fear he admits in contemplating his failed marriage to Nancy. Nancy, in a motif reminiscent of Javier Bardem’s minister in To the Wonder, is glimpsed treating broken and sickened individuals from the fringes of society, contrasting Rick as he eddies in a zone where he’s aware of his inconsequentiality even as he experiences a very real sense of burden. Joseph’s thoughts are repeatedly heard in voiceover, as if the ailing father is trying still to guide his Rick, who, nominated as the successful progeny, wears the double burden of fulfilling the familial mission and holding up, psychically if not financially, the remnant of their pride and prospect. But Rick’s perspective is not just one of fashionable ennui: it’s one that touches everything he sees with a sense of charged fascination and transient import and meaning. One of the film’s high points is also one of its seemingly most meandering and purely experiential, as Rick wanders Tonio’s estate surrounded by a boggling collective of random celebrities and pretty faces. Rick explores the gaudy environs of Tonio’s manse, a gigantic placard advertising tasteless wealth, a neo-Versailles, whilst on sound we hear Tonio’s explanations of his love life, comparing his womanising habits to daily cravings for different flavours of ice cream, the confession of an easy sybarite.
At first, the smorgasbord of flesh and fancy is bewildering and entertaining, the perspective that of a professional rubbernecker, but as the day goes on, booze is consumed, people dance and cavort, and eventually start plunging into the pool. Malick commences this sequence with shots of dogs chasing balls in the water, and then models dressed in haute couture similarly immersed, complete with giant heels digging at the water. He sees something both beautiful and highly ridiculous in visions where rose petals flitter through the air to rest on the shoulders of the anointed, straight out of some neoclassical painter’s concept of decadent pleasures in the days of Rome. By the end, everyone’s in the water, squirming in the liquid, a crescendo of absurd yet affectionate observation of the desire many have to exist within a perpetual party. The LA setting robs Malick of his usual places of meditative peace, the wavering grasslands, the proud sun-scraping forests. Swimming pools, the omnipresent symbol of prosperity in LA, become under Malick’s gaze numinous portals aglow with fervent colour, places where the moment anyone enters they instantly transform into a different state of being. They’re tamed versions of the ocean, a place Rick constantly returns to with his women or by himself, the zone of transformation and grand, impersonal force. Something of a similar insight to one Sang-soo Hong explored in his The Day He Arrives (2012), charges Knight of Cups, if in a radically different fashion, as Rick’s various relationships, whether brief or substantial, see him constantly returning to the same places and sights to the point where they seem both interchangeable and looping—going to the beach, driving the streets, visiting his girlfriends’ homes—evoking the evanescent rush of the early phases of love, but then each time seeming to reach a point where he can’t go any further. At one point he’s visited by old friends who knew him as a kid and have kids of their own, a zone of experience he hasn’t yet penetrated, emissaries from an alien land.
One noticeable lack from most of Malick’s earlier films was real, adult sexuality. After finally delving into that with To the Wonder, Knight of Cups is frankly sexy, as it portrays Rick’s successful entry into a zone that would strike a lot of young people as paradise. But there’s still a fascinating, childlike sense of play apparent in the film as Rick cavorts with naked nymphs he picks up. Malick moralises none of this, seeing it merely as the inevitable result and pleasure of putting a large number of good-looking, well-off people into a similar environment and letting them have at it. Knight of Cups brings the implicitly autobiographical narrative Malick wove through The Tree of Life and To the Wonder into a new phase, patterned seemingly after Malick’s time spent as a screenwriter in the early 1970s and leading up to his eventual self-exile from the movie industry. Again, of course, there’s good reason not to take all this simply as memoir, but rather as a highly transformed, aestheticized attempt to convert experience into poetry. That aesthetic is one of memory—fallible, fluidic, selective, associative. But there’s no hint of the period piece to the result, which is as stylistically and sociologically up-to-date as anything I’ve seen lately, engaging contemporary Hollywood and indeed the contemporary world in all its flailing, free-falling strangeness, the confused impulses towards meditative remove and hedonism apparent in modern American life.
Knight of Cups is, as a result, one of the most daring formal experiments I’ve ever seen in a feature film, an attempt to paint entirely in the mode of reminiscence, a tide of epiphanies. Malick’s early films were obsessed with the exact same motif of clasping onto a mood, a way of seeing, an impression from the very edges of liminal experience. But his techniques have evolved and transformed those motifs and are now inseparable from them. Knight of Cups seems random and free-form, but actually is rigorously constructed, each vignette and experience glimpsed as part of a journey that eventually resolves in some moderately traditional ways. Amidst Malick’s now-trademark use of voiceover to give access to the interior world and thoughts of his characters and music to propel and define various movements, he also adds snatches of recordings of poetry, recitation, and drama, including John Gielgud’s Prospero from Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books (1991) and lines from The Pilgrim’s Progress. With such hallowed, high-culture refrains snipped to pieces and rearranged into mantralike capsules of eerie wisdom ringing out, Knight of Cups finds a way to deal with the cornucopia, enfolding and smothering, that is modern life, as well as with Rick’s immediate personal concerns. Tto a certain extent, Rick is merely a scarecrow to hang it all on, the vessel of perception whose journey through life is, like that of all artists, one of both immersion and detachment.
And yet Rick is hardly a nonentity, or a cliché emblematic of Hollywood shallowness. If The Tree of Life and To the Wonder were overtly concerned with spiritual and religious impulses as well as the worldly matters of growth and love, in Knight of Cups, that has faded to background noise. Here Malick suggests constantly that in the modern world, the divides we used to be able to set up to corral zones of experience—enterprise, spirituality, sexuality, intellectualism—cannot be maintained in such an age. The urge of the spiritual seeker is still lodged deep within Rick, perhaps all the more powerful when stripped out of the pieties of childhood and small-town life and set free in the louche embrace of worldly plenty. Armin Mueller-Stahl appears briefly as a minister advising Rick on how to try to engage with life as he moves closer to making a real break. But the matter here is the allure of the profane, and indeed, an attempt to create a truly modern definition and understanding of it—the intoxicating, but also dispiriting effects of superficialities, the strange hierarchies that turn some people into the tools and suppliants. Some have seen this work as an anti-Hollywood moan, but it’s not the usual shrill satire or snooty take. The narrative does infer that Rick’s role in the film world is so inane that it barely registers in his stream of consciousness. The essence of Malick’s complaint seems to me that although the movie industry attracts, employs, and sometimes enriches artists, it so rarely asks them to truly stretch their talents, like making Olympic-level sprinters compete in three-legged races.
Malick actually seems to see Hollywood as rather comical, a candy castle for perma-adolescents. Rick’s dabbling in decadence is far from extreme: sometimes he gets blotto and has a lot of sex. Malick maintains much the same goggle-eyed, wide-open sensibility towards the strange places where Rick finds himself, from Tonio’s party to the pornocratic sprawl of Vegas and the strip club where he meets Karen. The placidity of a Japanese shrine offers the balm of calm, but Rick’s real transformative visions come amidst the partygoers of Vegas, a place that counts as some gigantic, if tacky, work of artistic chutzpah. There he gazes up at dancers dangling from the ceiling enacting a visualised myth of birth, slipping out of a chrysalis above the swooning, frenetic joyfulness of the people on the dance floor, an event of communal magnitude, something Rick is happy to exist within but cannot entirely join. Malick comprehends the magnetism of a place entirely dedicated to immersion in sensuality, a place where Rick lets the strippers lock him in a cage. Malick sees something genuinely telling here—that in the most adult of activities are the most profound expression of a desire to devolve back into the childhood, a place of play and free-form existence. But it’s also another stage for Rick to study to reveal his own persistent problem. It’s entirely logical then that in Malick’s mind, Karen, a bon vivant with a gift for moving freely and easily in the world, is probably the most complete and easy person glimpsed in the film, capable of chatting amiably with both pimps out in the surreal wilderness near the city and moguls ensconced in its gilt chambers.
Rick’s fascination with all his women encompasses their ways of interacting with the world and their individual identity, and also their commonalities, their mirroring points of fascination and ironic disparities. The faint, but definite glint of hard, ambitious intent in Della’s eye as a wanderer far out of her zone both rhymes with and also contrasts Karen’s similar status as a wayfarer, but one who has no programme in life other than giving herself up to experience whilst making a living in the profane version of Helen’s job. Rick’s regret at never having a child with Nancy segues into Elizabeth’s bitter, crucifying pregnancy. Rick’s own internal argument is actualised in glimpses of characters who bob through his life. Cherry Jones appears as a wisp out of his past, someone who knew him and his family way back and who recalls how he once told her he felt like a spy in his own life. Wincott’s Herb declares he wants to make Rick rich, but Rick contemplates his ruined father, who remembers that “Once people envied me…” and measures the ultimate futility of success as measured in exclusively worldly terms. The Tree of Life evoked Death of a Salesman in certain respects as it analysed the figure of the American patriarch, and here Malick’s casting of Dennehy, who found great success playing Willy Loman in a recent revival, is another tip of the hat to Arthur Miller’s work. At one point, Dennehy is glimpsed treading a stage before an audience, one of several fragments scattered throughout the film of a purely symbolic reality and glimpses of oneiric netherworlds buried deep in Rick’s mind, as his father has become an actor, a seer, a fallen king, Lear on the heath or Prospero with his magic failing on his lonely isle.
Malick’s methods chew up the talent he hires at stunning pace, but also presents an entirely democratic employment of them, in service of a vision that tries to encompass a sense of nobility in every individual. Knight of Cups is at once a display of Malick’s solipsism in this regard, his casual readiness to use a raft of skilled actors simply to inhabit the free-floating, sometimes barely glimpsed human entities that graze the camera in his films, and yet invigorating and reassuringly uninterested in the usual caressed egos of Hollywood film. Every performer is ore, mined for their most precise gestures, looks, words. Malick’s use of voiceover allows him to grant all characters their moment of insight and understanding as if gathering the fruits of years of contemplation, rather simply relying on what they can articulate in the flow of the banal.
Whereas To the Wonder suggested Malick’s intention was to incorporate aspects of dance and particularly visual art into film, here Malick’s artistic arsenal is rooted securely in the language of modernist literature, likewise reconstituted in cinema. The rush of images has the ring of Joyce’s technique and the very last word heard in the film, “Begin,” evokes the famous affirmative at the end of Ulysses, whilst the visual structure recalls John Cage’s take on Joyce’s aesthetics, “Roaratorio.” But Malick also shouts out to some of his filmic influences. Della is initially seen wearing a pink wig, recalling a Wong Kar-Wai heroine, a nod that acknowledges the influence on Wong’s free-flowing style and obsession with frustrated romanticism on Malick’s recent approach. Malick also reveals selective affinities with some signal cinematic gods for filmmakers of his generation: as with To the Wonder, I sense the imprint of David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago (1965) in presenting the main character as both actor and viewer in his life. The narrative, like many artistic self-contemplations in film, recalls Fellini’s 8½ (1963) whilst other motifs evoke Antonioni’s Blowup (1966) as Rick circles photo shoots, fascinated and knowing about the arts of creating illusory beauties whilst confronting interior voids. But Malick ultimately rejects the roots of their works in a pernickety moralism that blends and confuses Catholicism and Marxism, chasing more a Blakeian sense of life and existence as a polymorphic surge that must be negotiated and assessed, but cannot be denied.
Rick’s late agonistes with Elizabeth signal the end of the process Della identifies at the start, of Rick coming to life again but also facing the sort of emotional crucifixion from which his detachment spared him, both a price exacted and a perverse kind of reward found in genuine suffering: “It binds you closer to other people,” Mueller-Stahl’s priest notes. This event finally drives him out of LA, and he hits the road, exploring an American landscape of his youth and dreams that has forgotten him and that he, too, has forgotten. He seems to reconcile with his father and brother in a scene of violent catharsis, and takes his father to visit a former workplace, a heap of glowering, indifferent industry. By the very end of the film, Malick signals that Rick escapes LA, settles down with a woman, and finds a certain level of peace and healing living in the desert. Isabel seems deliberately filmed more as an entity than a person, the archetype of the type of woman who has flitted right through Malick’s work, a dancer and a priestess who leads Rick into caves for candlelit rites whilst the mountains that Rick has envisioned as symbols of everything his life wasn’t now soar above him. It’s arguable that in such imagery Malick finally retreats into a safe zone of symbolism, where much of the value of Knight of Cups is that it’s a work well outside his regular purview. But the truly radical quality of Knight of Cups is how completely untheoretical it is, the power of lived experience blended with urgent need to express in the most unfettered ways welling out of that experience. It’s both an explanation and a blithe feat of expressive legerdermain, not caring if we keep up. It’s cinema, stripped to the nerve.
Back in 2013, I sat down with Ben Sachs, former film critic of the Chicago Reader to talk about French filmmaker Claire Denis on the occasion of a retrospective of her work at the Gene Siskel Film Center. As the kickoff guest in this month-long series Ben put together with other female critics and artists in Chicago, I had first crack at giving my opinion about whether women directors have a unique perspective on storytelling that inflects their films. Ben said of Denis’ 2009 film White Material, “The movie, like many by Denis, asks you to intuit the characters’ relationships from impressions of environment and physical behavior.” I added, “There’s a sense of just wanting things to unfold. In my experience, women can be more patient. They’re not as quick to try to figure things out.”
I thought about that conversation yesterday as Spanish director Lara Izagirre’s first feature film, An Autumn without Berlin, did indeed unfold like a complicated origami creation before my eyes. As with Denis, Izagirre is in no hurry to fill in the blanks as she winds her way through her story, and like Denis, her story is very personal. A woman we learn very late in the film is named June (Irene Escolar) returns to her hometown after an unknown period of time away. She gets off a train, walks what seems quite a distance to a squat apartment building and rings the bell. Silence from the intercom is greeting with silence from June until, finally, she say “It’s me. I’ve come back.” Nothing. She ends up at a house where she opens an unlocked patio door and watches a young man (Mariano Estudillo) who is moving his arms to some music none of us can hear. He sees her, welcomes her into the house with a big hug, and then informs her that her bedroom has been dismantled. Ah, must be her brother. Oh, and their father (Ramón Barea), a physician who is out seeing a patient, will be angry when he sees her.
Slowly we watch June reconnect with the touchpoints of her life before she left. She pushes back a cloth covering an upright piano in the house, and we get a good look at a photo of a woman on a table next to the keyboard who looks like June, probably her mother, though that is never confirmed. When her father refuses to speak with her, she returns with her luggage to the apartment building and uses a key to gain entrance. She looks around the darkened apartment she must have lived in at some point because she has the key, running her hand over objects, looking at some writing on a desk, peering into dark and empty rooms. Eventually, the man who refused to let her in the first time, Diego (Tamar Novas), emerges from behind a bedroom door. He is sullen, suspicious, and asks her why she’s there. “To stay with you,” she answers.
The ambiguity Izagirre packs into her scenario extends to her dialogue. Diego and June were married, but why they separated is not clear. “To stay with you,” at first blush, sounds like an appeal for somewhere to sleep now that she knows she’s not welcome in her father’s house, but the larger implication—that she wants to get back together with Diego—hangs in the air like an intoxicating perfume that eventually envelopes the pair and brings them closer and closer together.
Slowly, we are drawn into the rhythms of Izagirre’s film and accept the pace of discoveries in the way we would with a good novel. Indeed, Diego turns out to be a fiction writer with notebooks full of short stories, a clear inspiration for Izagirre’s approach to her narrative. She pays admirable attention to the supporting characters who flesh out the film’s central romance—June’s very pregnant best friend Ane (Nairara Carmona), Diego’s estranged mother Pili (Paula Soldevila), and Nico (Lier Quesada), a precocious boy June has been hired to tutor in French so that he can get into the local French school. Her relationship with Nico, intelligently played by Quesada, a truly great child actor, is an absolute joy to watch as he convinces her to skip out on the lessons and roams the town with her, winning a giant panda at a carnival, fishing with Ane at a nearby stream, and getting drenched in a sudden downpour. He doesn’t want to get into the French school because he thinks it took first his friend’s hair and then his friend. This fear teases out the reason for June’s departure—she was so burdened with grief over the death of her mother that she could not endure the added sorrow of her father and brother.
In the end, the central piece of the puzzle is the very sad impasse between June and Diego. As observant and kind as she is, as loving as the couple becomes over the course of the film, June fails to recognize that Diego suffers from a mental illness. The restless wanderer, June longs to go to Berlin with Diego, who wrote an award-winning story about this dream. Diego, an agoraphobic, struggles to meet June in her world. The pair, beautifully embodied by Escolar and Novas, couple and uncouple like a silk scarf quietly slipping its knot. Izagirre’s delicate film builds an emotional power that is uniquely, proudly female.
An Autumn without Berlin screens Monday, April 18 at 7 p.m. and Wednesday, April 20 at 9 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St. Film composer Joseba Brit will present the film.
Burden of Peace: This searing documentary follows Claudia Paz y Paz, Guatemala’s first female attorney general, as she tries to dismantle the country’s corrupt, ineffective criminal justice system and prosecute its former military dictators for crimes against humanity. (Guatemala)
I Swear I’ll Leave This Town: A recovering cocaine addict goes more out of control than when she was using when her father takes control of her life in the hallucinatory dramedy. (Brazil)
On many best documentary lists, including the 2014 and 2016 Academy Awards nomination lists, were The Act of Killing (2012) and The Look of Silence (2014), both of which deal with the Indonesian death squads that brutally murdered more than a million people in the mid 1960s. Both films are very painful to watch, but it is even more painful to contemplate the depths of depravity and utter heartlessness to which human beings can sink. It’s downright crazy-making to know that anti-communist, anti-unionist, and anti-leftist ideology was used as an excuse for the machinelike decapitations and hackings of hundreds of human beings at a time, and that the murderers credited the United States with teaching them to hate communists.
Burden of Peace tells another such story in another part of the world—Guatemala. Perhaps it should not have surprised me that these same ideologies were behind the genocide of 200,000 Mayan people, from babies to old men, the destruction of more than 450 Mayan villages, and the displacement of more than 1 million people during the 1990s and early 2000s—but it did. One survivor said that the killings were with an economic purpose: a hydroelectric power plant and mining operations are now cranking at full steam on stolen land from which the original inhabitants were, ahem, removed. The Guatemalan military government that ordered the killings had the full support of the United States.
It is a miracle that the heroine of Burden of Peace, Claudia Paz y Paz (Peace and Peace), was appointed Guatemala’s first female attorney general. Paz y Paz became a dedicated human rights activist during her time working with Roman Catholic archbishop Juan José Gerardi, who was symbolically murdered in 1998 with a rock to the skull after he named names to a UN commission investigating human rights violations. As attorney general, she set about purging her office of incompetent and corrupt functionaries and then massed an impressive record of successful prosecutions of everyone from crime lords to corrupt officials. It was when she started to target the military leaders who engineered the Mayan genocide that she finally became a painful enough thorn to the country’s power elite to warrant removal.
Dutch filmmakers Boink and Wirten give us the lay of the land prior to Paz y Paz’s installation as attorney general, with pictures of the murdered and missing among the Mayans, dead bodies from gangland slayings and gang disputes, and frightened Guatemalans standing by helplessly as the police and government officials fail them. Then they follow Paz y Paz around as she is driven in what must be an armored SUV to and from her office in Guatemala City and conducts investigations, staff performance reviews, and victim interviews. She doesn’t complain about her exhaustion or the difficulties of trying to get her job done in the face of so much corruption; she finds people willing to work honestly alongside her to try to get the rule of law off life support. She has a picture of former U.S Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy on her office wall to give her inspiration. Her objective is to give the people of Guatemala hope and confidence in a system that has been broken for nearly 40 years during the country’s lengthy civil war and numerous military coups and dictatorships. Her most important case, and the centerpiece of the film, is the prosecution of Efraín Ríos Montt, president of Guatemala during the genocide.
There is something about her that makes one breathe easier. She has an open, caring face and an obvious intelligence and determination. The film luxuriates in her presence, lulling one into thinking everything will turn out well despite the formidable obstacles. Thus, it is a real shock when Boink and Wirten turn to one of her most vociferous detractors, Ricardo Méndez Ruiz, whose father served in Ríos Montt’s government during the genocide. His Foundation Against Terrorism represents the business elite and the military establishment, and he publishes tracts and blogs that denigrate her and accuse her of ignoring ordinary crime to advance her ideological war against the state. He says, “She may be charming with her soft voice, and you may think ‘O poor, little fatty.’ But she is incapable of being the attorney general. She comes from a different world, the world of human rights.” If your jaw just dropped, join the club. The thinking behind these statements and the insulting, racist comments that come from the defense attorneys for Ríos Montt left me dumbstruck.
The trial is both fascinating and deeply depressing, as Mayan villagers come one by one to the witness stand to testify to what they saw, brutality beyond description but crucial to the trial’s outcome. A victory that becomes a defeat is to follow, and then Paz y Paz finds herself accused of impropriety in office and facing an early ouster. She knows that the establishment intends to undo all she has done, return the crime bosses to the five regions from which they had been eradicated, install more corrupt, incompetent police and prosecutors. Perhaps another genocide is in the offing. I left this film feeling deeply disheartened and pessimistic about the human race, let alone Guatemala. But then I read on about Guatemala post-Paz y Paz—a corrupt president was forced to resign. I hope Claudia Paz y Paz, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee and beacon for human rights around the world, knows that her legacy endures.
Burden of Peace screens Monday, April 11 at 6 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.
I Swear I’ll Leave This Town: A recovering cocaine addict goes more out of control than when she was using when her father takes control of her life in the hallucinatory dramedy. (Brazil)
The Chicago Latino Film Festival premiered in the meaning-loaded year of 1984, and numerous films it has presented over the years have turned the tables on the all-controlling Big Brother, as filmmakers cast a bright light on political, social, and economic realities all over Latin America, as well as communicate the unique cultures of Latino communities around the world for interested audiences. Brazil is a country that will get its glaring place in the sun with this year’s Summer Olympics in Rio; I Swear I’ll Leave This Town offers an indirect, but pungent look at the social and political shenanigans that likely are afoot at this very moment.
I Swear I’ll Leave This Town is set not in Rio, but in Renife, the home town of the film’s director and a big city that sounds like the Brazilian equivalent of Chicago. It has more than 3.7 million people in its metropolitan area and is a port city that gets its name from the stone reefs that line the city shores. Those reefs provide a metaphor for the stone wall the film’s main protagonist, Joli Dornelles (Bianca Joy Porte), hits up against as she tries to start her life over after a long stint in rehab for a severe cocaine addiction.
The film’s opening scene shows a nude Joli trying to escape from the hospital, fighting two guards, and eventually turning a fire extinguisher on them before being subdued. As he looks on a straitjacketed Joli, who insists she’s cured, the medical director (Luis Carlos Miéle) decides to curse her by granting her wish to leave and predicts that she’ll be back sooner rather than later. Like all addicts, the worst possible scenario for recovery is to return to the milieu in which they were using—and, of course, that’s exactly what happens to Joli.
Joli’s boyfriend, Hugo (Sérgio Marone), fetches her by private helicopter and returns her to her well-heeled politico father, Antonio (Zécarlos Machado). Even though he must have expected her arrival, Antonio and the throng of people gathered on the expansive lawn of his modernist estate for a party treat her like a pariah. He gives her the toughest-love greeting I’ve seen in many a day and orders her to be on call whenever needed to help his campaign to become mayor of Renife.
Every attempt Joli makes to start her life over outside the orbit of her father is dashed before it really starts. He makes sure she loses her job at a restaurant, and when he finds a spoon her friend Manuela (Ana Moreira) brought over to her apartment to cook crack in, he rejects her honest pleas of innocence and has a thug drug her with a tranquilizer. She wakes up in his house. From that moment on, virtually every move Joli makes is controlled by her father, from making commercials to support his candidacy, to accepting Hugo’s marriage proposal, to heading up a recovery program for drug addicts from poor neighborhoods.
Director Aragão has created a free-wheeling, hallucinatory tale that peers inside the kaleidoscope of corruption, sexism, hypocrisy, and classism that characterizes parts of Brazilian politics and society. In today’s atmosphere of celebrity confession and public absolution, Joli could be seen as an indulged brat whose every fall will be cushioned, but her only real privilege was to be shunted away for medical treatment instead of locked in prison when the pain of her life had her reaching for a coke spoon. The depths of her enslavement to her ambitious father are truly horrifying to witness from the inside. Antonio wouldn’t know what to do if she were ever really well, and his role as saboteur seems perfectly in character with his self-serving, snobbish attempts to solve Renife’s problems by obliterating the riff raff and building luxury condos and retail stores on top of their ashes. He doesn’t hesitate to use violence to undo a damaging remark Joli made on live television, nor does Hugo, when he punches her out after she starts laughing uncontrollably following a hand job she forces on him. Indeed Hugo’s engagement to Joli seems pretty darn close to a proxy marriage to Antonio. In the end, her only defense against her father and Hugo and is to slip their bonds by going insane. Joli descends into catatonia, and Antonio agrees to have her brought around through the barbarity of electroshock therapy. It would have been better for him if he’d left her staring mute and motionless into space, but what fun is it to torture someone who can’t react.
Aragão thoroughly scrambles Joli’s world, plunging the audience into her sense of disorientation along with her as his brilliantly variable camera roams freely and his narrative becomes unhinged. Joli’s sexual activities and provocations, including a lengthy masturbation scene and a humorous attempted seduction of her auto mechanic, are reminiscent of the anarchic sexual freedoms found in the Brazilian classic Macunaíma (1969). In general, the film seems energized in the same way as many of the politically and socially provocative films of the Cinema Novo movement that Aragão says influenced his approach to I Swear I’ll Leave This Town. Bianca Joy Porte does most of the heavy lifting in this film, and her magnetic performance deservedly won her a best actress award at the 2014 Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival.
I Swear I’ll Leave This Town is a confusing and often disturbing experience, but it’s also a funny, exhilirating tribute to the power of the oppressed to survive. To those who break the rules for their own gain, be forewarned—what goes around comes around.
I Swear I’ll Leave This Town screens Saturday, April 9 at 8 p.m. and Monday, April 11 at 8 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.
If you liked The 400 Blows (1959), then I have a feeling you’re really going to want to catch Nothing in Return. Just as The 400 Blows was François Truffaut’s first feature film, so, too, does Spanish actor Daniel Guzmán make his feature directorial debut with Nothing in Return. Both films have an energetic boy from a troubled home who likes to steal at their center, and both end on an indeterminate, but hopeful note. Most important, both are incredible looks at growing up.
The central character in Nothing in Return is Darío (Miguel Herrán), a 13-year-old boy who, with his best friend, Luis Miguel, nicknamed Luismi (Miguel Herrán), enjoys speeding around Madrid on a motorcycle, shoplifting, peeping at their neighbor Alicia (Patricia Santos) as she showers, and watching TV while Luismi’s tiny dog tries to hump Darío’s larger dog. Darío’s parents (María Miguel and Luis Tosar) are separated and preparing to divorce, and both are pressuring their son to testify at their divorce trial. Darío is failing all of his classes at school, though as a very skilled and incessant liar, he has convinced his parents he’s acing everything. Instead of school, his preference is to “work” at a motorcycle chop shop for its shady, but entertaining proprietor, Justo (Felipe García Vélez), who fails to pay him and everyone else for the parts they supply him.
Darío is a dervish of energy whose open, easy way with people endears him to Justo and Antonia (Antonia Guzmán, the director’s grandmother), an elderly woman he meets one night collecting junk off the streets in her ancient pick-up truck to sell at a flea market. When his parents visit the school at the request of the principal (Miguel Rellán) and learn how badly Darío is doing, they start arguing bitterly about who is to blame. Darío runs off and asks Justo to take him in. When Justo fills his head with notions that he can make some real money coming into Justo’s business, Darío drops out of school. Unfortunately, Justo is arrested, and Darío moves in with Antonia until he can come up with the money to pay a lawyer to represent Justo. The rest of the film centers on Darío’s plan to finance Justo’s defense.
Guzmán has written a teeming, confident script that he directs with vitality. He is blessed with a uniformly terrific cast who know exactly who their characters are and are able to project their personalities indelibly, even if they have very little screen time. Herrán, whom Guzmán frequently shoots in close-up, is a delightful, but vulnerable boy, almost excessively open to any positive emotions. Watch him as he listens with an ever-widening grin to a pitch-perfect García Vélez spin his tough-guy tales and make himself a hero and fount of wisdom in the boy’s eyes. One scene where this plays particularly well is when Justo confronts a man with a motorcycle. He pretends to the boys he is going to clean the guy’s clock, but asks him after they are out of sight whether he’d be interested in a nice set of saddlebags for the bike. The next time we see the man, he is laying in the street, fulfilling his end of the bargain, as Justo drives past with the boys.
Antonia is another piece of work—an old lady whose surprising toughness mixes with a tenderness for Darío, who helps ease her loneliness. She is amazed when Darío turns up some new furniture during a junking expedition, not realizing he is stealing it from the lobby of a plush apartment building. When she is stopped by a cop for having a couch extending past the bed of her truck, we learn she’s been driving for five years without a license. That seems a fairly common practice in Madrid, as Darío has been doing the same without incident.
The most affecting relationship is between Darío and Luismi. They comprise a young, Spanish Laurel and Hardy, with Luismi’s girth a frequent target of Darío’s insults, though there isn’t a single hurt feeling between them. They share their mutual horniness and belief in their sexual prowess as they try to hire a hooker and accept that “later” will never come for Luismi to drive the motorcycle instead of Darío. During the first shoplifting expedition we see, Darío steals exactly the same red sweatshirt and sunglasses for each of them, forming a wonderful image of solidarity between them. Neither boy ever lets the other down, and Darío’s screams of “Luismi, Luismi, Luismi!” when he’s about to be arrested but is worried only about his friend testifies to the depth of their relationship.
The film’s title, Nothing in Return, could refer to any number of things, but for me, it signifies the truly selfless nature of Darío’s behavior, even though his actions cross the legal line. When, at last, he tells the truth of his life in a courtroom in a quickly spoken, short declaration, it provides an object lesson to everyone who thinks their children are “just fine” during divorce proceedings.
I’m a bit in awe of how much action and clever, revealing dialogue Guzmán packs into a 93-minute running time, reminiscent of the great screwball comedies of 1930s Hollywood. There are numerous set-pieces in the film, but they build naturally from conversations and happenstance and don’t draw attention to themselves as moments of directorial conceit. Nothing in Return is a very funny and warm film that delivers its lessons with a light, but resolute touch. It’s an excellent example of the great new films coming out of Spain.
Nothing in Return screens Thursday, March 17 at 8 p.m. and Friday, March 18 at 8p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St. Daniel Guzmán will attend both screenings.
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