The end of the year brings some structural changes and new content to the site. These are accessible directly from the main navigation menu above, or from the sidebar of the relevant sections. For several years the Critic section has been lacking in updates and largely overlooked, as I have little time to write longform film reviews. Last year the Reeltime Harry Potter series gave it a shot in the arm but, whilst we intend to do more Reeltime projects, they too require a considerable time investment.
To allow for more regular updates, we are formalising the QuickView single-paragraph reviews that grew out of last year’s film resolution. Rather than collecting them into posts of a dozen or more films (which became somewhat overwhelming for readers) they will now appear as individual posts in the Critic section. Hopefully this will also encourage more engagement on individual reviews. The final set of 2018 QuickViews will be collated at the end of the year, but after that they will no longer appear in the Fragments section, where they already felt slightly out of place.
Another new feature is Fives, a response to the routine question about my favourite films. I do not have a favourite film and a static top ten list has struck me as absurd whenever I have tried to construct one. The films that speak to me the most will change considerably depending on my mood, my current focus, and a host of factors. To reflect this, Fives presents selections of five movies within varied categories loosely inspired the weird genre classifications Netflix uses for its recommendations. The Fives page will be updated only intermittently, but feel free to suggest new categories and I will try to populate them.
Meanwhile, the Artist section now features a new gallery of Virtual Photography, featuring “photographs” shot in the virtual worlds of various videogames. Over the past year I have started applying the techniques I have learned from real-world photography to experiment with virtual images. Starting with Red Dead Redemption 2, this will gradually expand as increasing numbers of games provide tools to reduce the HUD or fully-fledged photo modes. In fact, for the first time this virtual photography provided the image for this year’s Christmas card.
The penultimate installment for the year takes us to the moon and back (is that a spoiler for First Man?).
57. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017) – 6/10
Writer/director Noah Baumbach has an exceptional ear for conversational dialogue, the way it actually occurs rather than witty repartee stylised for the screen. The fractious relationships of the Meyerowitz family are evident in the way they talk at cross-purposes — sometimes engaged in entirely different conversations — or respond to what they want to hear rather than what was actually said. As fascinating as this is, the characters lack real depth despite the high-profile cast, and the film drifts weightlessly through its disjointed scenes with little to say.
58. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016) – 6/10
Lonely Island’s take on the music mockumentary is really just a thin plot to string together the band’s signature style of lyrically ridiculous pop, and the songs are undoubtedly the highlights of the film. The scenes in between rely largely on the big names who agreed to provide cameos or talking heads, but the wow factor declines as the movie drags on. Spinal Tap remains the pinnacle of this style of filmmaking because what happens off-stage is so well-observed. Here, the by-the-numbers rise and fall, with band members falling out and reconciling, cannot quite sustain an entire movie. As with most pop stars: the key to enjoyment is just listening to the music and ignoring the rest of their antics.
59. To All The Boys I Loved Before (2018) – 7/10
A derivative but quietly charming high school drama, its unlikely initial premise swiftly falls into a familiar “fake relationship” plot but — despite the lack of surprises — the charismatic leads evoke a genuine desire for them to acknowledge their feelings. The melodrama of high school students may not have changed much in the past few decades, but this is still a fresh update for the modern generation.
60. Newness (2017) – 6/10
After a cynical opening look at the hookup culture facilitated by dating apps, the film follows a new couple who want a more meaningful connection despite meeting after they change their statuses in exasperation to “DTF”. Concerned about boredom in the absence of new experiences, the couple start to experiment, flirting with others and then taking it further. The setup is ripe for an intriguing exploration of polyamory in the modern world and the film’s middle act seems to be leaning in that direction. Sadly, the desire for a more conventional conclusion requires it to abandon this more interesting avenue. Ironically, then, there little new here. The most compelling ideas come from the older man Gabi meets, whose transactional view of relationships is unromantic and yet more realistic than anything else on display.
61. Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011) – 7/10
Infuriating punctuation aside, this romantic comedy strives for greater quality and depth than its peers, even as it relies on familiar tropes. It is largely successful through acting talent and valuing thoughtful drama over laughs. Steve Carrell is allowed to make the newly single Cal sympathetic rather than a sad sack caricature. Where the comedy surfaces, it is typically wry rather than laugh-out-loud, with the best lines tending to have darker overtones. It is noteworthy that the central couple are a middle aged husband and wife who share remarkably little screen time. As is often the case with even the smarter rom coms, the movie struggles to find a conclusion and falls back on awkwardly saccharine displays, despite undermining the “grand gesture”.
62. Compliance (2012) – 8/10
After referencing the Milgram experiment (albeit without the more nuanced modern conclusion), we spend almost the entire film within the confines of a fast food restaurant on the day a caller claims to be police officer and convinces the staff to detain, strip-search and mistreat one of the employees. The facts are unbelievable yet this is both a true story and not an isolated incident. Writer/director Zobel shoots in a clinical style that minimises titillation, being more interested in the human interactions and how individuals could be led to act this way. It is Ann Dowd’s performance as the overstretched manager that sells this, as we can see her critical thinking and resolve gradually evaporate. Ultimately the film is an indictment of humans’ desire to cede responsibility to others.
63. First Snow (2006) – 6/10
A slow burn noir thriller as a confident salesman’s life is thrown into disarray after a fortune teller claims to have foreseen his imminent death. There is a pervasive sense of loneliness and isolation, accompanied by rising paranoia, with Guy Pearce delivering a performance reminiscent of Memento early in his career. Whilst the film serves as an interesting musing on destiny and control, it meanders more than it speaks.
64. Bad Moms (2016) – 7/10
I had expected Bad Moms to follow the Bridesmaids blueprint of a female-fronted movie setting out to prove the women can be as gross as the men. In fact, it is an escapist romp with more in common with This is 40. A stressed, underappreciated working mother ditches her conventional responsibilities and discovers a more relaxed approach, whilst set for a collision with the controlling president of the PTA. The comedy is fine; the drama is underwhelming. Surprisingly, however, hidden within are some genuine messages about parenting. It does not aid the storytelling that fathers barely feature at all and the PTA meetings are a sea of female faces. Although it is a shame not to see that particular trend bucked, it would be disingenuous to complain when this was only ever intended to be a rarer film about motherhood.
65. First Man (2018) – 7/10
First Man should not be mistaken for a film about the Apollo programme; as its name suggests the biopic is focused solely on the contribution of Neil Armstrong, sidelining everyone else. The claustrophobic nature of spaceflight is realistically presented through tight shots that leave us gazing into Ryan Gosling’s eyes with a regularity that eventually becomes tedious (although some viewers may disagree with this assessment). This is combined with an interesting decision to shoot the moon landing with IMAX cameras. If seen in that format the larger screen is entirely unused outside of that 15 minute sequence. Although impressive, IMAX viewing for this alone is far from essential. Gosling’s portrayal is deliberately understated whilst Claire Foy delivers the film’s strongest emotional performance as Armstrong’s wife. The most surprising aspect is an effective exploration of traditional masculinity and the burden placed on men who are left unable to share their emotional pain, with resulting impact on their families. Ultimately First Man is overlong but satisfying.
66. Tau (2018) – 5/10
Despite pretensions toward cererbral sci-fi in the vein of Ex Machina, this is really a derivative trapped woman thriller that is elevated only by some impressive production design. The conceit is that Julie’s captor is using an AI-controlled house to imprison her, allowing her to develop a relationship with the AI rather than directly with her captor. Although Tau raises a few interesting ideas about controlling AI and limiting its access to information, it fails to capitalise on these. That the science fiction is more about aesthetic than intellect is clearest from the way deletion of memories is used as a method of “punishing” the AI but inexplicably manifests as inflicting pain.
67. They Shall Not Grow Old (2018) – 6/10
Peter Jackson’s respectful World War I documentary is clearly a labour of love, dedicated to his own grandfather. For the audience, however, the reason to see this is the painstakingly recoloured footage which brings the front to life in a slightly ghostly fashion. It is a marvellous achievement in restoration of archival footage and to be applauded. However, this technical achievement is somewhat overshadowed by the verisimilitude with which filmmakers (and even game makers) have recreated the trenches in recent years, meaning that these are images we have seen before in sharper focus. Jackson eschews narration in favour of the amalgamated stories of over a hundred veterans sharing their memories in an anonymous fashion. Again these are familiar stories: boys lying about their age, excited to enlist; the bleakness of trench life; the horror shells and gas and barbed wire. Of greater note is the fondness for the German soldiers that readily comes through. They Shall Not Grow Old is a fine documentary then, but presents us with nothing new beyond a fresh coat of paint on contemporaneous footage.
68. Almost Famous (2000) – 8/10
Set in the early 1970s, toward the end of classic rock and roll’s heyday, this is less a story about music than William, a naive likeable youngster finding himself whilst touring with his favourite band, writing for Rolling Stone magazine, and trying to resist the allure of the trappings of fame. It touches on industry issues like rivalry between band members and the encroaching capitalist record companies, but ultimately Cameron Crowe’s script brisk and witty script is more interested in the individuals, both within the band and outside. Crossing the divide for William is the magnetic Penny Lane (apparently based on a real individual) who is romantically involved with one of the musicians, but takes William under her wing. Her espoused wisdom is catchy and yet ultimately impossible: “If you never take it seriously, you never get hurt. You never get hurt, you always have fun.”
Untitled sketch by Tim Burton, 1990 Pen and ink, and pencil on paper
Two of my favourite films, released almost three decades apart, are linked by an interesting thread: touch. Edward Scissorhands’ design was rooted in this concept. Tim Burton was looking for a physical manifestation of his isolation — bladed hands that prevent him from touching others without hurting them (“Hold me.” / “I can’t.”), or even himself as the scars peppering Edward’s face attest. In Blade Runner 2049, lack of touch is a defining feature of both K and Joi for different reasons. K is a replicant (a synthentic human) who hunts down rogue replicants for the police department, simultaneously rejected by human officers as a “skinjob” and shunned by his fellow replicants as a traitor. His only real companion is the Artificial Intelligence Joi, whose holographic projection lacks physical substance. She yearns to be able to touch K, to break through his isolation, to comfort him. In one of the film’s most mesmerising scenes, Joi hires a replicant sex worker as a stand in, overlaying her projected image, in an effort to be closer to K. With nothing more than implied nudity, the scene evokes more vivid intimacy than I have seen captured on film in recent memory.
Simon Van Booy said that “For lonely people, rain is a chance to be touched”, an idea that always resonated with me. It is telling that when Joi is able to leave the confines of K’s apartment with an “emanator” upgrade, the first place she wishes to go is the roof, out in the rain. As she remains a hologram we see the water first fall through her image until she responds to it by adjusting her visual representation to make it appear that the water is splashing on her skin and settling — a facsimile of the touch she craves. This is, incidentally, why I think the lonely and depressed have a propensity to take long showers. Although in popular culture showers act as a cleansing metaphor, washing away guilt or shame, the sensation of warm water running across skin is also another chance to be touched.
Although I only came to appreciate it a few years ago, touch took on a particular significance to me as a child because of my grandmother. She lived with us and from my earliest memories she was virtually blind and had started to lose her hearing. We would spend time together sitting on the sofa and talking, with clasped hands replacing eye contact. She would recite Tamil nursery rhymes with accompanying actions — I could not understand the language, only her touch. Another game involved writing words on one another’s hands, trying to guess the letters from touch alone. Ours was a slow form of non-verbal communication, and perhaps this allowed me to be more patient with her when repeating explanations long after others had given up in exasperation. And I suspect it was touch that kept her grounded, even as her other senses failed.
The isolating nature of the absence of touch is not adequately recognised. Although we often denounce children’s communication through electronic media rather than in person, many of our real-world interactions remain staid, as if merely sharing the same general space is sufficient. What we consider to be “traditional masculinity” typically limits straight men’s access to touch to a firm handshake or a brief hug goodbye. A more intimate, lingering touch in a social context is considered inappropriate. I was fascinated by a series of vintage photographs that circulated in 2012 showing that in the late 1800s platonic intimacy was commonplace. In fact it seems to have been the sexual conservatism of the mid-1900s which drove the idea that physical intimacy between men was a sign of homosexuality and therefore to be avoided. So this is not even traditional masculinity; it is a byproduct of a more recent conservative mentality that we have already rejected.
A friendly touch lowers stress-related cortisol and increases the release of oxytocin, a neurotransmitter that promotes feelings of trust and bonding. Although its strong release from cuddling has led to it being colloquially dubbed the “love hormone”, oxytocin relates to any kind of pair bonding. Without touch and oxytocin, we are less trusting of others, and we feel less connected. Isolation and distrust are notably attributes we tend to associate with toxic forms of masculinity. This may also be a route to understanding the difficulty in adjustment experienced by those who leave a tactile brotherhood like the military.
So the importance of staying in touch with friends should be taken as literal rather than merely figurative. We need to break the social perception that conflates touch and sexuality. It is fitting that this piece was finished today, on International Men’s Day, but it is just as relevant for friendships in mixed groups, where judgments are frequently made about those who are more tactile with one another or about individuals who are more comfortable with such interaction in public. By stifling this, we are placing artificial barriers in the way of our ability to forge deeper bonds. By drawing together through touch we may find ourselves still adrift but at least less isolated.
The latest instalment takes us over the half-century mark via several recent documentaries and two films about to be released.
44. Long Nights Short Mornings (2016) – 7/10
A perfect insomnia film, I wonder whether this series of late night encounters would be as effective if watched in the harsh light of day. James is drifting directionless through life and women in New York, unwilling to commit. He is a dislikeable but relatable protagonist, his saving grace being a level of self-awareness and repentance. Although he seemingly has no trouble attracting women, this is not some Casanova male fantasy – this is a man hopelessly enslaved by his id and we see the loneliness in his eyes. The film’s inspiration is clear in a shot that glances over a copy of Charles Bukowski’s “Women”. I have previously described my favourite genre of film as connection/disconnection and these fleeting vignettes are almost connection porn, often insubstantial and leaving a desire for something more meaningful. Yet, within this, there are profound moments that affect James and the viewer.
45. The Death of Stalin (2017) – 8/10
Mining the aftermath of Stalin’s death for comedy may seem an unusual choice, but the interpersonal relationships within the resulting political power vacuum are perfect for an Armando Iannucci farce. The film begins slowly, its pace gradually ramping with the characters’ paranoia, coming to a head at Stalin’s funeral. Steve Buscemi’s quietly scheming Khrushchev stands out, along with the wonderful excess of Jason Isaac’s Field Marshall Zhukov. Like Veep, it lacks the bite of Iannucci’s television masterpiece The Thick of It but this is intelligently absurd cinematic comedy.
46. The Shallows (2016) – 6/10 The Shallows is a slight, but surprisingly effective, thriller right until its inability to find a satisfying conclusion. The setup is straightforward: a young woman becomes trapped by a shark whilst surfing off a remote beach in Mexico. Blake Lively is an unlikely choice for such an individually focused survival film but she offers a strong performance with believable peril and pain, whilst grappling with the emotional issues that drew her out to honour her mother’s memory. It is a shame, then, that the film’s final minutes leave the audience incredulous rather than impressed.
47. The Fast and the Furious (2001) – 6/10
Growing up with scant interest in cars, this series of criminal vehicular excess passed me by. Although the story of a cop infiltrating a street racing gang is laughable and I still struggle to care about the cars, in the right frame of mind it is easy to enjoy the slick, high-octane action designed to provide an artificial testosterone kick. It is just a shame the women are given so little do whilst the guys growl, fight and drive. With the whole franchise appearing on Netflix I briefly considered ReelTime reviews but, based on the first entry, there is not enough content to justify it.
48. World of Darkness (2017) – 7/10
A solid documentary exploring the vampire-themed role-playing system developed by White Wolf in the 1990s. The filmmakers look at the social impact it had on the outsiders to whom its gothic-punk sensibilities appealed, as well as the corporate triumphs and tribulations that would eventually lead to a failed merger, an abandoned videogame and an IP left in limbo. Most interesting, perhaps, is the analysis of the widespread, lasting influence this niche game has had upon mainstream popular culture from film and television to fashion and the club scene. It will appeal primarily to those with some knowledge of White Wolf, or at least role-playing games in general.
49. Blow Out (1981) – 9/10
I went into Blow Out cold, other than knowing it was one of Quentin Tarantino’s three “desert island films” (Rio Bravo and Taxi Driver, if you’re interested) and the reason he wanted Travolta in Pulp Fiction. It makes sense, as Brian De Palma’s bleak neo-noir thriller is obsessed with the process of filmmaking, and the way that separate recordings of visuals and audio can, in concert, take on new meaning. Its story only works in the analogue era. The use of colour in darkness rivals Wong Kar Wei, along with carefully some beautifully controlled overhead shots. Meanwhile, more emotional range is required from Travolta than most of his career, which is essential for the film’s crowning achievement – turning an opening joke into a closing gut punch.
50. Tickled (2016) – 8/10
A bizarrely compelling documentary that starts out with a New Zealand journalist researching a light piece on the strange sport of “competitive endurance tickling”, but swiftly descends into a murky world of affluence and threatening behaviour. Ultimately a story about some people’s desire to control others (or ruin their lives) it accidentally paints a strong argument against the concept of inheriting “family money”.
51. The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest (2009) – 6/10
Although a satisfying conclusion to the Millenium trilogy in terms of resolution and tying up loose ends, the closing film is easily the weakest instalment. This is due largely to the fact that, with Lisbet Salander first recovering in hospital from injuries sustained in the last film and then imprisoned awaiting trial, the series’ most interesting player is essentially out of action for the bulk of the film. There is still an effective slow burn journalistic thriller and some enjoyable courtroom drama, but the novel’s pacing does not translate well to a film and again Salander and Blomkvist share virtually no screen time.
52. Icarus (2017) – 8/10
Bryan Fogel’s Oscar-winning documentary begins with an investigation into doping in cycling until he is put in touch with Grigory Rodchenkov, head of Russia’s anti-doping laboratory. It then swiftly expands as Rodchenkov reveals details of Russian athletics’ state-sponsored doping programme and decides to go public with this information in the USA. Despite some weak structure and Fogel’s need to include himself in the story, the scandal itself is incredible enough to drive the film. Rodchenkov is a fascinating subject as he struggles with his decision, and drawing a parallel with Orwellian doublethink (complete with passages of 1984 narrated by Rodchenkov) is a nice touch.
53. Kubo and the Two Strings (2016) – 9/10
I have no excuse for my tardiness in catching the latest stop-motion animation from Laika, the studio who produced Coraline. The decision to focus solely on this overlooked art form allows them to develop new technology that drives the medium forward from one film to the next. The scale of some of the puppetry here is incredible, though size can be deceptive on-screen. Strong art direction coupled with stunning lighting separates the film visually from the average family animation, though it is likely to appeal more to older children. The meta-narrative about Eastern storytelling through origami figurines is a nice touch for the beauty of what they physically produced, even if it only remains in ephemeral film.
54. The Party (2017) – 6/10
A lean, wry comedy in that skewers middle class morality as a group of friends gather to celebrate Janet’s rise to a Ministerial position. Conversations gradually unravel from subtle sniping until the guests are at one another’s throats. Staged across just three rooms of the house and a patio, this theatrical to a fault rather than cinematic. Although there is intrigue as to the secrets each person hides, the superbly talented cast cannot overcome the lack of depth to their equally dislikeable characters. Decidedly less successful than the similarly contained Carnage, it is still an amusing diversion that does not outstay its welcome at just 71 minutes.
55. BlacKkKlansman (2018) – 8/10
With his early films Spike Lee cemented his reputation as a defining black voice in cinema but lately he has struggled to find relevance. His latest joint is both timely and relevant, by turns hilarious and then horrifying in the familiarity of racism it portrays. Peppering in slogans being used by the alt-right today would feel trite if it were not so blisteringly accurate. Lee’s intention is to encourage more people to vote, though it is not a message delivered expressly. The film’s lighter tone and typical Hollywood gloss on the story of a black police officer infiltrating the KKK will no doubt draw some ire from those who expect the subject of racial struggle to be handled with greater gravitas, but it allows Lee to entertain his audience whilst highlighting the serious risks posed by the recent resurgence of these right-wing ideas, all the more starkly when it follows a moment of levity.
56. The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018) – 8/10
Cameron Post is the kind of emotional but understated role that I have been hoping for Chloë Grace Moretz to take. That she signed on to this low budget but beautifully crafted passion project makes clear how keen she was too. Gay conversion therapy remains a dirty secret of Christianity, with Western societies tacitly condoning this form of emotional abuse. This film approaches it solely from perspective of those subjected to treatment; it can be sympathetic to other characters but does not seek to explore their reasoning. Whilst a protagonist without agency is often problematic, in Cameron’s case it makes sense because that is fundamental to those experiencing this treatment. Through Moretz’s nuanced performance we see the transition from incredulity at what she hears, to wanting the process to help her, to realising she has far more understanding and agency than she had allowed herself to believe. Whilst a marketing push is likely to target a queer audience, this deserves mainstream recognition.
Legendary director Spike Lee burst onto the scene in the late 1980s and early 1990s with a flurry of powerful movies about the black American experience. Although he has continued to be a prolific filmmaker, I think it is fair to say that he has struggled to maintain the same relevance as his career progressed. Irrelevance is a charge that absolutely cannot be levelled at his latest joint, BlacKkKlansman, which is timely, necessary, hilarious, and horrifying in its familiarity. When Jordan Peele pitched Lee a film about a black man joining the Ku Klux Klan, like me his immediate thought was Dave Chapelle’s Clayton Bigsby sketch. Truth being ever stranger than fiction, BlacKkKlansman is actually based on the true story of Ron Stallworth, a black police officer who infiltrated the KKK in Colorado Springs in the late 1970s. To mark the UK release of the film, Lee gave a Q&A following the screening, and his comments provide an interesting lens through which to view his latest work.
The film opens with a vitriolic hate-filled rant over footage from Gone With the Wind and DW Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, a classic of American cinema that is deeply and openly racist, and caused a resurgence in the KKK upon its release in 1915, at a time when the organisation was virtually dead. The inclusion of the former may seem strange but it was a personal choice for Lee, who excitedly saw the film as a child but hated it because of its depictions of black people. The latter is a more profound question for Lee, who as a film student (he and Ang Lee were in the same class at NYU so he refers them as “The Lees”) learned techniques developed by Griffith but found no discussion at all of the film’s inherent racism: they were not interested in teaching the artist, only the art. The question of separation of art and the artist is as relevant in the current #MeToo landscape as ever, and Lee acknowledges that the answer will be personal. For his part, he does not think the separation should be made but clarified this does mean he is an advocate for censoring or avoiding problematic art, “I’ve never said the film shouldn’t be seen; I’m just saying we should talk about it.”
The Birth of a Nation is not simply a backdrop to this movie, but permeates it creatively. In a central scene, Lee adopts the cross-cut technique pioneered by Griffith, this time to parallel white power and black power meetings. This direct comparison demonstrates the false equivalency between neo-Nazi movements and Black Lives Matter or Antifa. Celebrating hatred and responding to its effects are nothing alike. Similarly, we see the rhetoric adopted by the black power movement to mirror their oppressors, but that rhetoric is a far cry from the action taken by the latter. Lee wished to make this a “contemporary period film”, evoking 70s cinema as much as the period itself. Shooting on 35mm film rather than digital certainly assisted atmospherically and, whilst watching, I felt a distinct Serpico vibe.
Lee’s politics are obvious but, sitting in a London theatre, he highlighted the global relevance of this film. This kind of intolerance is not an American phenomenon, but is represented in the rise of the right across around the world, “led by ‘Agent Orange’ — I won’t say his name”. He nodded to Brexit, Le Pen and others. His focus, though, is obviously the USA and he sees historic cinema as fundamental to American history. He is not a fan of Westerns, “their vilification of Native Americans was criminal”. Ultimately he does not mince words at all when he states, “the foundation of the United States of America was genocide and slavery.” It is the sort of thing that I say flippantly, but it is no less true.
A trademark dolly-zoom transitions from the close of Stallworth’s story to the present day, with footage from the Charlottesville rally a year ago, whilst BlacKkKlansman was in pre-production, bringing home sickeningly just how close this all remains. In discussing this Lee asked whether we could use another word instead of “violence” which he felt was inappropriate. The phrase he suggested? “Red, white and blue, apple pie, homegrown American terrorism.” Intentionally incendiary, that is of course what it is when a person drives a car into a crowd of civilians.
The takeaway from this film, Lee answers straightforwardly, is that “people need to register to vote” especially with the upcoming American midterm elections*. When asked whether he felt artists had an obligation to address politics in their work, Lee’s response reflected the fact that in the current climate politics — particularly the politics of intolerance and oppression — are inescapable: “If you’re an artist and you choose not to put politics in your art, that is a political choice.”
*As an aside, the end of the Q&A was derailed by a white American woman more interested in bragging about her ex-pat organisation (which I will not advertise) and exposing her ignorance of racism in the Midwest than asking any kind of question. It was utterly tone deaf and particularly disappointing to see in this context. Meanwhile if her organisation is, as she claimed, capable of “swinging elections” in the US, would the last election not have been worth swinging?!
As a lawyer, and specifically a litigator, I know a lot about winning arguments; I have literally made a career out of it. Recently I have been struck by a number of conversations about how intransigent those on the other side of the political divide have become, how they will not be swayed even when faced with facts and evidence, how it is impossible to change their minds. It has led me to realise that in our desire to win arguments, we have lost sight of the purpose behind it. Arguments can serve all manner of purposes: resolving disputes adversarially, exploring ideas recreationally, releasing repressed emotions, and changing people’s opinions. If our desire truly is to change someone’s mind, winning an argument but leaving them more entrenched than ever is an abject failure. Why is this a mistake we are making so often?
It is not enough simply to recognise cognitive dissonance (the state of holding at once contradictory beliefs, attitudes or ideas) in our opponents; we must empathise with it. Although it may stem from flawed logic, it results in mental discomfort and psychological stress, particularly when one’s attention is drawn to it. So an accusatory attack on the illogical basis of someone’s beliefs will tend to make them immediately defensive and combative. Our minds seek to protect our current perception of reality, hence the power of confirmation bias (the tendency to seek out, favour and recall information that supports one’s pre-existing beliefs). To change people’s minds we should be focusing on the common ground and moving from there.
For example, when immigration enforcement under Trump led to children being separated from their parents (sometimes with no way to reunite them), it seemed galling that Christian Americans could ever support the policy. Weak defences included: (a) claiming that the policy allowing it was introduced by Obama; and (b) blaming parents for bringing children with them. Faced with an untrue statement, we want to correct it; faced with ignorance of the nuance to a situation, we want to explain it. But this is often a red herring that leads us away from the change we are trying to effect. It doesn’t actually matter whether ICE could have done the same thing under the Obama administration or whether the parents were wrong for crossing the border illegally. All that matters is whether we can reach common ground that separating children from their parents in this way is a bad thing, no matter who is to blame. If we can reach consensus on that, we can look at fixing the situation, something which Trump was capable of doing (and eventually did). Properly allocating blame may provide us with a sense of vindication, but it is rarely actually necessary in order to effect change.
Sometimes the goal is a demonstration of support for others rather than changing an individual’s mind, which is perfectly valid. For example, if a stranger comments with racist vitriol on a public social media post, a scathing response is justified to ensure that others reading it know that those views are not shared, condoned or tolerated. That is about identifying our audience — not shifting a bigot’s views but supporting their targets.
Some long-running arguments, particularly emotional ones, have abandoned all pretence of discourse and devolved into two sides shouting at one another. For a long time the abortion “debate” has consisted of one crowd decrying the killing of a foetus as murder, whilst the other side screams back, “my body, my choice”. Whilst this pro-choice argument is a compelling feminist position, it does not really address the concern raised by its opponents. In fact, if we were to accept the fundamental pro-life principle, that the debate is one over murder, we would not expect or even want them to back down. We need people (like Amnesty International) to argue vociferously against murder dictated by someone else’s choice. The arguments we ought to be making, then, relate to the more nuanced position regarding the start of life (and I appreciate there will be differing views amongst my readers). It is complicated and does not lend itself to easily shouted slogans. Raised Catholic, I was taught the sanctity of life from the moment of conception but, even with critical analysis, I could find no logical alternative point given that medical science’s ever-increasing ability to keep a foetus alive outside the womb meant that simply adopting current notions of “viability” felt arbitrary. What allowed me to resolve the conflicted views I held was not rhetoric about choice, but a discussion with a Christian scientist about the volume of fertilised embryos that are naturally lost during menstruation without the mother even being aware of the pregnancy. As many as 30% of women will experience an early miscarriage in this way, without ever knowing. I did not leave that conversation with my mind changed; it sat with me for a while and it gradually shifted my perspective on conception.
We teach trainees early on not to engage in point scoring against lawyers on the other side — if the Court is not going to care, it is irrelevant and has no value. This is just as true in anything but recreational arguments. We can score points all we like but they won’t mean prizes. Ultimately, recognising why we are arguing — and pursuing our ultimate goal — allows us to be successful even if the other person walks away thinking that they have won.
Another instalment of this year’s single-paragraph reviews gets off to a good start but hits a clutch of decidedly (and numerically) average films, improved by a full Takashi Miike trilogy at the end.
32. How to Talk to Girls at Parties (2017) – 7/10
Neil Gaiman’s short story about adolescent insecurity, with a literal approach to the alien nature of the opposite sex, does not obviously lend itself to a feature-length film. Mitchell’s film draws out every theme available in the story, straddling disparate genres as he presents the 1970s punk scene, a coming-of-age tale about individuality, alien tourism, and a sweet love story. Elle Fanning (still 17 at the time of filming) delivers wonderfully as an alien driven to rebel and experience the world. However, the film’s erratic nature will prove highly divisive. Whether you enjoy the experience will be clear from the titular house party early in the film: either you can embrace its weirdness or it will send you running for the comfort of something saner and more coherent.
33. Deadpool 2 (2018) – 7/10
Like the Guardians of the Galaxy sequel, Deadpool retains his confident swagger but has lost some of his disruptive freshness. The humour remains edgy and wonderfully delivered, and the film maintains its ability to surprise, despite straining with the attempt to tell a larger story. Domino is a fantastic addition and her “lucky” superpower allows for the most creative action sequences. In some ways the film serves as an argument against Disney’s acquisition of Fox, so that Deadpool can take equal potshots at DC and the MCU from the sidelines. Deadpool 2 also makes far better use of a post-credits sequence than Marvel has managed of late.
34. The Mermaid (2016) – 7/10
This Chinese blockbuster is a contemporary ecological fairytale about a mermaid who is sent to kill the rich property developer threatening her species’ home but finds herself falling for him. With Stephen Chow at the helm, it is gloriously silly and filled with fun creative flourishes. Sure, the story is ridiculous and its message about ecology and wealth (although apt for modern China) has the subtlety of a sledgehammer, but ultimately it is the characters that make this an enjoyable ride. Yun Lin sells the title role particularly well. The Mermaid doesn’t stand up next to Chow’s masterpiece, Kung Fu Hustle, but it is still a worthwhile addition.
35. The Red Turtle (2016) – 5/10
Studio Ghibli’s first non-Japanese production is undoubtedly beautiful with lush handdrawn backgrounds, any frame of which could be hung. The wordless tale presents a shipwrecked man coming to terms with his plight and then follows him through the key stages of his life. Despite a certain lyricism, the content is too sleight to fill even its 80-minute running time. Adults may find enough to muse (it will almost certainly bore children) but I did not feel I had acquired any new insights by the end. Stripping away the repetition and filler, its beauty and haunting style could have been conveyed equally well in a short film with a fraction of its running time.
36. Alien³ (Assembly Cut) (2003) – 5/10
David Fincher may now command respect but he had to battle studio interference in his first film, stepping into an already embattled project with script rewrites whilst sets were already in construction. The 2003 Assembly Cut restores half an hour of character scenes demonstrating Fincher’s desire for a deeper film with parallel threads of isolation beyond the prison planet itself, through divisions of gender, criminality, intelligence, religion, and sanity. This outing is more akin to the atmospheric original, limiting the xenomorph’s screen time than Cameron’s gung-ho sequel (albeit undermined by some shoddy CGI). The last act is a confused mess of an action sequence in a network of identical tunnels in which it is impossible to tell where any characters are in relation to one another. In extended form the film is not as bad as its reputation, but still worlds away from its predecessors.
37. The Jungle Book (2016) – 7/10
Although commonly labelled live-action, that is not entirely accurate since Neel Sethi is the only actor who appears onscreen, with CGI filling the space around him. A wobbly opening scene concerned me but generally the CGI is excellent, with breathtaking vibrant jungle vistas when the camera pulls back to capture characters in silhouette. The A-list voice talent can be a little distracting, although Bill Murray is an inspired choice for Baloo. Similarly, retaining just a few of the Disney songs is a stranger choice than excising them entirely. Sethi’s Mowgli is believably curious, isolated and angry, Favreau drawing out an impressive performance against empty green screens. It is not a classic, but the original was not Disney at its height either and this stands comfortably alongside it.
38. The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016) – 5/10
André Øvredal’s follow-up to his excellent Norwegian cult hit Troll Hunter is good by Western horror standards but underwhelming if you are not a particular fan of the genre. It does many things right early on, building tension in the enclosed confines of a morgue and spending time fleshing out its characters. Unfortunately it then falls back on routine jump scares as it races to an unsatisfying conclusion. An hour of good setup is wasted on an ineffective climax. That’s what Jane Doe said.
39. Warcraft (2016) – 5/10 Warcraft seemed like a fitting way to kick off my mini-break around the E3 gaming convention. Where it succeeds is in bringing Blizzard’s chunky character design to life. The Orcs in particular are stunningly rendered, their actors unrecognisable yet able to convey a range of emotion. Sadly the script attempts far too much in convoluted plotting, at the expense of worldbuilding and character moments. Many gamers may be familiar with Azeroth but newcomers will see nothing more than a generic fantasy world. Whilst the $160 million budget allows a real sense of scale to the battles, the stakes are only ever as high as our investment in the characters, and there is scant opportunity for this to develop. This is a particular shame as some of those quieter moments are the film’s best.
40. Mute (2018) – 5/10
It is was unsurprising that, after the lukewarm reception of Warcraft, Duncan Jones chose to return to smaller scale sci-fi. The relative freedom of Netflix funding was squandered on the tale of a mute bartender searching for his missing girlfriend in near-future Berlin. Near-silent protagonists taking on criminal elements invariably means style over substance, though both Drive and Baby Driver have shown it can be successful. Although the cyberpunk visuals are impressive, they are little more than a painted backdrop for uninteresting characters in a messy story that veers into uncomfortable territory due to poor handling of its darker subject matter. The setting invites an unflattering comparison with Blade Runner, seeking to evoke its atmosphere without any world building (the best attempts being the nods to Mute existing in the universe as Jones’ debut Moon).
41. Shinjuku Triad Society (1995) – 6/10
Prolific Japanese director Takashi Miike rose to prominence in the latter half of the nineties with the loosely connected Black Society Trilogy, as he graduated from the straight-to-video market. Shinjuku Triad Society bears the hallmarks of his later work, with its outcast anti-heroes and perverse, often violent, sexuality. Whilst his portrayal of sexual violence is problematic, it is not without intent but is reflective of his characters, even if the perspective is overly detached. His approach starkly challenges the orthodox Japanese sense of masculinity that imbues, for example, Takeshi Kitano’s anti-heroes.
42. Rainy Dog (1997) – 8/10
Takashi Miike continues to explore cultural intersectionality with a Japanese hitman stranded in Taiwan and forced to work for a local crime boss. The near-constant rain creates an oppressive mood, and his connection with a local sex worker, Lily, built entirely on their shared desire to escape Taiwan begins to seem reasonable. His predicament makes him no friendlier to the son left in his care, who follows him like puppy despite his horror at his father’s work. Yet this is not played for sentimentality as the story veers more toward a fable, subverting cliché with Lily being the one to develop an attachment to the boy.
43. Ley Lines (1999) – 7/10
Concluding the trilogy, we return to Shinjuku. Childhood friends, bonded over their outcast status due to mixed Chinese/Japanese heritage, grow into restless adolescents and run away to Tokyo in search of a better life. In typical style, Takashi Miike takes a standard coming of age setup and veers into much darker territory. After a Chinese sex worker steals their money, the boys are drawn into the criminal underworld to support themselves, leading to betrayal and violence. Like Rainy Dog, by its conclusion this feels more like a meditative fable, particularly with the overt parallel of a loan shark with a penchant for Shanghai folk tales.
Continuing the single-paragraph reviews of films I have watched for the first time this year, we hit a rare perfect 10. Because I wanted eleven films, and not at all due to a numbering error, here are #21-31.
21. Elle (2016) – 9/10
Although sold as a thriller about a woman seeking revenge on her rapist, this is actually a much broader film about an older woman’s sexuality, how she uses it and how it affects her interpersonal relationships. As an offbeat thriller it is refreshingly unpredictable and suspenseful, but the film relies upon Isabelle Huppert, whose performance is enthralling throughout.
22. The Interview (1998) – 8/10
A taut Australian crime thriller set almost entirely within the confines of a police station as two overzealous officers try to extract a confession, while the audience questions whether they are watching an innocent man bullied or a devious criminal toying with his captors. Hugo Weaving plays both sides of the role to chilling effect. Often reminiscent of The Usual Suspects, the budgetary restrictions on the scope arguably serve to aid the atmosphere, together with a sombre score.
23. Elysium (2013) – 6/10
Like District 9, South African director Neil Blomkamp’s sophomore feature tackles social inequality through science fiction. A bigger budget adds star power in the form of Matt Damon and a ludicrously-accented Jodie Foster, while the film’s messages are delivered with even less subtlety than before. Blomkamp’s trademark effects work delivers up highly realistic technology from exosuits to near-future weaponry, making the dizzying shaky-cam action a particular shame. With a plot that rarely surprises, and a completely overwrought ending, this is ultimately a film that sells itself more on visuals than anything else.
24. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017) – 10/10
Based on the talent involved, I expected to like this but I had no idea just how much. Starting with a mother seeking justice for her murdered daughter by calling out the local police department, this is really a journey through multiple characters dealing with grief and exploring the effect of tragedy upon our relationships, emerging as anger, love and fear. Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell are stellar in portraying richly nuanced characters, and are accompanied by an excellent supporting cast. Many scenes are soaked with such powerful emotion, whilst avoiding sentimentality through use of raw drama and dark humour, that watching the film is a cathartic experience. Of particular note, it is rare and refreshing that we see a female character whose grief is expressed through violent, misplaced rage. Martin McDonagh proved his talent with In Bruges but has seriously upped his game.
25. Lady Bird (2017) – 8/10
An alternative coming-of-age film, the focus is Catholic high school girl Christine (who has adopted the name “Lady Bird”) and her turbulent relationship with her mother. This is an unusually well-realised mother/daughter relationship, in which they both know they love one another, yet their strong-willed personalities frequently grate. Saoirse Ronan deftly avoids portraying Lady Bird as quirky for its own sake, instead making it a believable element of her awkward teenage self-expression, whilst still anxious about the perception of her wealthier peers. Religion largely takes a back seat to the more human elements of the story, in what struck me as a female counterpoint to Richard Linklater’s films about male adolescence.
26. Now You See Me 2 (2016) – 3/10
The level of smartness of this sequel is evident from the fact they failed to call it Now You Don’t. Where the original was a surprise success with stylish sleight of hand distracting from its lack of substance, this movie fails to cover its tracks at all. The freshness is gone, but so too is the tension. The tricks are now overblown and ridiculous, to the point that each time one is revealed it induces a groan rather than amazement. There is no magic here.
27. The Girl Who Played With Fire (2009) – 7/10
Troubled hacker Lisbeth Salander becomes more nuanced in this sequel but the story suffers from separating her from journalist Mikael Blomkvist. Although they are following leads on a related series of murders, we lose the chemistry that made the original so memorable. Noomi Rapace’s performance still enthrals whenever she is on screen, but the more routine aspects of Blomkvist’s investigation are less compelling. Although still a good undiluted thriller, The Girl Who Played With Fire is inferior to its predecessor and is more reliant on the final instalment of the trilogy than being an effective standalone film.
28. Lolita (1962) – 7/10
The tagline was “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” and the answer is that they didn’t. With slightly altered ages we still follow middle-aged college professor Humbert as he becomes infatuated with a 14-year-old “nymphet”, played wonderfully by Sue Lyon. Yet, despite Nabokov receiving a screenwriting credit, we lose the lyrical language that elevated his novel, along with any real access to Humbert’s mind. The movie may still have been scandalous but it has lost any edge over time. To Kubrick’s credit, he does still allow the viewer to find a paedophile sympathetic (and later simply pathetic) while spending almost two and a half hours in his company.
29. Avengers: Infinity War (2018) – 9/10
With ten years spent building up characters, this is an event movie unlike any to date. Much like the first Avengers movie, I came away impressed firstly that it did not buckle under its own weight. In particular, the introduction of the Guardians of the Galaxy to the rest of the MCU cast works expertly, aided by James Gunn apparently writing their dialogue. Despite threadbare development to date, Thanos becomes a villain with whom one can sympathise, convinced his actions are necessary even as certain acts pain him. Although the number of fight sequences is exhausting, there is sufficient creativity and some memorable tag team moments. Infinity War stands up to a second viewing but whether its stature lasts will depend on how satisfactorily certain choices are explained by the final instalment next year. In assuming a working knowledge of the majority of the heroes, their backstories and their interpersonal relationships, Infinity War does not really work as a standalone film but it mounts a compelling argument that, for monolithic franchises, this may no longer be an appropriate test.
30. Gold (2016) – 7/10
Matthew McConaughey immerses himself deeply in the character of modern-day gold prospector Kenny Wells. Based on the 1993 Bre-X mining scandal, in which the discovery of a massive Indonesian gold deposit turns out to be a fraud, there are overtones of The Wolf of Wall Street to this fictionalised account, albeit with a protagonist at once less charming but more sympathetic. Gold serves as a film as much about ambition as avarice, as we analyse Kenny’s motivations and trustworthiness.
31. OtherLife (2017) – 8/10
A challenging Australian indie sci-fi, this is a taut thriller in the vein of Ex Machina. Ren is a scientist/programmer developing a breakthrough biotechnology that allows for time compressed virtual experiences (“As far as the brain is concerned, reality and fantasy are chemically identical”). She is driven by the desire to cure her comatose brother, whilst her business partner is concerned by financial viability and a potential Government contract for virtual incarceration. Jessica De Gouw is fantastic in a typically male role, coupled with excellent cinematography that greatly elevates the production. Although much of the plot unfolds predictably, and despite a meandering last act, the overall result is impactful and thought provoking.
NO SPOILERS FOR AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR CONTAINED BELOW
Human beings are storytelling creatures, as we are oft told. Usually this is about the narratives through which we interpret the events in our lives, but on a larger scale stories tell us from where we came and allow us to conceptualise our place in an increasingly large universe. Over time our most sacred stories transitioned from oral folklore and mythology into codified religion and, in doing so, they gradually lost their mutability to become dogmatic truths. As a species, we lost something in this shift.
In 2009, Disney made a surprising acquisition of Marvel for $4.29 billion. Now, with billions of dollars in revenue from the monumentally successful Marvel Cinematic Universe, it makes perfect financial sense. But in 2009, we were only two films into what Marvel termed “Phase One” of the MCU following the breakout success of Iron Man. The only other release, The Incredible Hulk, had a lukewarm reception. It can be viewed as a shrewd commercial gamble but I think that misunderstands their intention. Disney’s real motivation only became clear to me several years later when, in 2012, it purchased Lucasfilm, ostensibly paying $4.06 billion for a single franchise, Star Wars. Unlike Marvel at the time of the acquisition, everyone knew that the Star Wars label was essentially a licence to print money, so few questioned the business decision. Most of the scrutiny came from fans concerned about the consequences for a fictional universe dear to their hearts. At the time I pointed out those fears were misplaced given the expert curation of the MCU following the Marvel acquisition and George Lucas’ own inability to manage his creation. Disney’s stewardship has been more uneven in respect of Star Wars (quite aside from mixed reactions to the films, the dearth of videogames following an exclusive licensing deal with EA is a travesty), but the acquisition builds to the same goal.
For several hundred years, the most retold stories outside of religion were fairytales, be they the Germanic tales we associate with the Brothers Grimm, the Middle Eastern tales collected in One Thousand and One Nights or the countless folk tales from Africa, China and beyond. These continued the oral tradition of being retold and altered, with each storyteller imparting something of themselves. These are the stories upon which The House of Mouse truly built its empire, moving from amusing cartoons to stories with deep societal roots which then became synonymous with childhood. Although I may dislike the “Disneyfiction” of darker tales, such retelling is perfectly in keeping with their folk story origins.
In the 20th century, comicbooks were a major disruptive force. With DC and Marvel at the forefront, we saw the creation of a new mythology of alien gods and human heroes. This mythic nature may be clearest with Marvel’s literal translation of the Norse pantheon into the Asgardian race, but is equally true of super-powered mutants and those caught in their wake. These were also mutable characters who could change with the times, routinely killed off and resurrected to reflect the values and needs of each decade. The core elements of the characters remained the same, but they provided a lens through which to perceive rapidly changing times. It is no accident that their rise occurred alongside increasing secularisation, because for many these were allegorical stories that served a similar purpose as religious teachings in calibrating our moral compass through lessons like Spider-man’s familiar, “with great power comes great responsibility”. And if you question the cultural impact that comics had before the rise of their colossal movie franchises, consider 2007’s mainstream US press coverage and backlash to the “unpatriotic” decision to kill Captain America in a post-9/11 story arc.
Amazing Fantasy #15, Aug. 1962
These mythological intentions are even clearer with Star Wars. George Lucas has overtly espoused his appreciation for John Campbell’s seminal work The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he examines what he terms the “monomyth”, a single overarching story that humans in unconnected societies have been telling one another around the world and across the ages, a story that appears fundamental to what it means to be human. He identifies all the points of commonality and maps out “the hero’s journey”, which Lucas slavishly used as a template to craft Luke Skywalker’s adventure. The extent to which the resulting story resonated with its audience can scarcely be described.
This, then, is what Disney has been acquiring beyond its original foothold in fairytale and folklore: the sources of modern mythology, control over the central stories that we tell (and retell) outside of religion. We see now the culmination of the MCU’s ten-year story in Avengers: Infinity War, drawing together characters it has spent a decade establishing. Even within that timescale we can see societal shifts emerge and become incorporated, such as Black Panther upending the perceived wisdom that a black blockbuster could be a financial success, whilst also posing searching questions about racial identity and responsibility or Civil War’s (underdeveloped) questions about identity registration and the nature of a society’s sense of security.
Many are baffled by the success of the Marvel and Star Wars films. This may be because they seem childish when compared to more serious fare or because it is easy to view them in the same way as forgettable action flicks. They are fantasies and they are silly. For several years my advice has been to approach these films specifically with the concept of mythology in mind. When we read the stories of the Norse gods, we don’t decry the ridiculousness of Loki’s children including a large wolf, a gigantic snake and an eight-legged horse, or that Odin keeps the severed head of wise Mimir alive by using some herbs and singing. These sorts of stories are not bound by that kind of cold logic. Rather, it is the shape of the story, and individual interactions, from which we learn a few truths about the world, what it means to be human and, perhaps, ourselves.