August 7, 2018

lone wolf and cub

It’s been mooted that Denis Villeneuve might be a not-great director who just directs the hell out of the scripts he takes on, which sounds like one sign of a great director to me. The difference between Sicario and Sicario 2 Soldado is mostly down to the change from a high style to something more routine, and since Taylor Sheridan wrote both scripts the likely source is the swapping of Villeneuve for Stefano Sollima—who, whatever else he does, does not direct the hell out of it. Sheridan doesn’t do the new man any favours, leaning into that old standby The Strong Man’s Dilemma, and doing without meaningful adult women at all—apart from a cheery US soccer mom earning a crust through people trafficking with a baby in the back of her car, which is the best moment of pointed commentary in the film—but it’s Sollima who finds ways to shoot Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro that come straight out of the Cannon Films catalogue circa 1991.

The general Cannon-ness has convinced a few people that Sicario 2 Soldado is a Conservative work, even though one thing that actually survives the sequel-manufacturing machine is Sheridan’s uncertainty that good people are righteous warriors able to change the world. Or good men, anyway. There’s been an attempt lately to banish Wind River within 12 months of its appearance, on the theory that its female character was made naive and out of her depth—as if an arc that starts there was a regressive thought crime by definition. Wind River is sedate and mournful, and more indirect proof of the influence of Sollima and Villeneuve on Sheridan’s scripts, since he directed that one himself. There’s also the small matter that Wind River shreds toxic masculinity, takes it to the absolute cleaners; but why let facts get in the way of a philosophy. I reviewed Sicario 2 Soldado in the September issue of Sight & Sound magazine.

August 1, 2018

beasts from the east

The August issue of Comic Scene UK magazine has an article by me about Octobriana, a cult character not so much out-of-copyright as off-the-reservation. Created via a good old-fashioned comics industry rip-off so muddied that it’s not clear how much the perpetrator even benefited, and in theory now a vehicle for everything from porn to political satire, her infinite flexibility might not have done her visibility or earnings potential any favours. But the air of anarchy that arrives with her every time she rocks up somewhere is always at least entertaining.

Her first best destiny is probably rampaging through alternative comix in a cloud of hardcore sex, like the Larry Welz strip from 1972 up above, although John Short and Gabrielle Noble have lately had her emasculate Vladimir Putin and allied her directly with Pussy Riot. Which more or less brings her back to where she supposedly started, even though she actually didn’t. Buy Comic Scene UK here or in comic shops.

July 29, 2018

max mon amour

I guess by now you can get a doctorate in Mission Impossible scholarship and write a thesis about the 70/30 live vs. digital mayhem directed by Christopher McQuarrie and, say, the stuff in Avengers Age of Ultron that was on the tv when I got home, where the ratio is the other way round at best. But in the end it’s just about the effect and the affect, like always. This Impossible and the previous one have made the most of McQuarrie’s brawny traditionalist style, which helped me give Rogue Nation the thumbs-up in Sight & Sound, despite the film’s simmering stupidities. Fallout inevitably gets even sillier, and the franchise has now reached the point where it would capsize back into camp if McQuarrie wasn’t playing a straight bat of Sam Fuller-ish dimensions. The cycle by which Ethan Hunt and his team are perpetually framed and then disavowed and then betrayed and then blackmailed is now as inevitable as moonrise, but when (any) James Bond had wound up on top of the Tate Modern chimney, it would have been an unconvincing bit of Pax Britannica mummery with the joins showing. When it happens in this film, it’s more muscular altogether—and once again, McQuarrie’s Anglophilia is showing.

The actors in the Cruise Crew are a cross-section through the franchise’s different directors like rings in a tree, but Fallout does better by Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg than Rogue Nation did. And I had bags of time for Vanessa Kirby, swanning around Paris and London in swish white outfits and established to be the daughter of Vanessa Redgrave’s character in the original Mission Impossible film. Coiffed and vocalising with that exact aim in mind, Kirby’s impersonation of Redgrave is so effective she should get a spin-off series of her own. Cosmic balance is restored when the film does rather worse by Rebecca Ferguson, returning as Ilsa Faust, a character name adrift without a purpose once the film leaves any noir pastiche a long way back in the rear-view exploding fireball. But then Fallout has an overall purpose that neither of the last two Impossibles had taken up, and manoeuvres Ethan Hunt into moving on from his already long-gone wife.

As well as landing Fallout with a case of The Strong Man’s Burdens and closing the story of Hunt’s love life, a topic keeping absolutely no one awake at night for the twelve years since M:I:III, this leads to a couple of dodgy dream sequences that teeter on the brink of self-parody. They probably dive right in, although the momentum of the film ploughs onward at such a rate of knots that your objections are lost in the hurricane. The first one has Hunt imagining his psycho-killer nemesis, played again by Whispering Sean Harris, officiating at Hunt’s wedding, a scene presumably aiming for the mythic but landing nearer the dyspeptic. The second has Hunt seeing his ex-wife and his arch-enemy framed as a couple in an ethereal dreamlight, looking as if Hunt had come home early and caught them in the wardrobe. Brian De Palma gave Hunt a Freudian reverie about castrated father-figure Jon Voight back in 1996, but that one didn’t make me nearly burst out laughing.

July 25, 2018

indexed, briefed, debriefed, unpublished

The Prisoner landed on British TV in 1967, but I was oblivious until some mid-1970s repeats and an article in Comics Unlimited which made the show sound like the most exasperating brainstorm going. The same cycle probably helped spur Marvel Comics to prepare a The Prisoner comic in 1976, and maybe nothing captures the state of Marvel in 1976 better than the fact it somehow ended up with two different first-issues of the series before publishing neither of them.

Titan Books has collected the original pencil art for both aborted versions, one by Jack Kirby and Mike Royer, the other drawn by Gil Kane (plus apparently Joe Staton) and written by Steve Englehart. The results are not milestones for anyone involved, but Kirby’s mid-1970s style is endlessly fascinating to stare at, and Kane’s aggressive cartooning makes the show look like it was dreamed up by Sam Fuller. I reviewed the book for Tripwire.

Alex Cox wrote a typically puckish analysis of The Prisoner last year, which I reviewed for Sight & Sound magazine and discussed a bit here. He reaches some conclusions which would probably never have occurred to anyone at Marvel, or possibly anyone watching the show.

July 8, 2018

black and white

Steve Ditko died without ever changing his opinion about the immoral wickedness of anyone setting themselves up as an opinion-shaper, or about the pointlessness of any artist expounding upon his work by opening his mouth about it. Ditko’s art spoke for him, in the literal sense that he himself never spoke on the record at all, which always seemed an idea as likely to appeal to left-ish arts critics as Ayn Rand-ian Objectivists: you want to know about me, fine, read the work. Barring any major discoveries once scholars are lowered into Ditko’s archives on ropes, it’s hard to see how the imminent biographies will differ much from the one Blake Bell wrote ten years ago, other than updated bibliographies. There is scope, though, for a look at how (as Jeet Heer has pointed out) Ditko’s faith that good people were rational world-conquerers produced Marvel Comics creations marked by surrealism and vulnerability. And perhaps, some respectful consideration that Ditko’s world view formed out of cosmic disappointment at the behaviour of every publisher and several colleagues and possibly most of the readers he ever dealt with, and that every passing wingnut stalker who barged in on his privacy was only proving his point. In any case, reducing an artist to just their programmatic beliefs is for the birds. I was consistently in the wrong place to see Ditko’s career arc as it happened, so my eventual encounter with the art of The Avenging World was like being slapped in the face with a stick, even while frowning at its political perspective; reading it again shortly after the Doctor Strange film came out made the statements that the film had captured the Ditko visual style into the stuff of unintentional comedy. No medium on Earth could do that, other than the one which did.

Harlan Ellison never stopped talking about himself and his work and other people and everything else, which created a few contradictions of its own; but rabble-rousers advocating for creative freedom and for writers to be fairly paid for their work are a rare enough sight, even without considering how Ellison’s stories and sci-fi hooks were catnip to film and TV producers. But in my house Ellison is inextricably linked with The Comics Journal. The huge, sprawling, profane interview he gave Gary Groth for TCJ 53 in 1980—my copy of which still has the £1.95 price tag from Forbidden Planet on the cover since it seems I never bothered to take it off—was a colossal overdose of information about Ellison and the unknown oceans that he swam in far to the West, as well as a most singular example of the interview as magazine-feature. It arrived just as I was preparing to switch off from comics for the best part of a decade and a half, and there are no words to describe my incredulity at discovering eons later that the interview had sparked legal ructions and inter-personal strife for all concerned. Groth’s introduction to the piece reads like Ellison’s perfect eulogy, despite being written 38 years before one was required, which says something about Ellison and something about Groth as well. But mostly it’s a reminder that the Journal is an incomparable living history of its chosen art form—all the more so for having such a bruising, adversarial relationship to it.

Not for the first time, I wonder what film criticism might look like if some equivalent to TCJ had miraculously sprung up and lasted for 40 years as a guide-star for ambitious would-be writers, or at least to stand in opposition to forces insisting film criticism be a traditional conservative humanities discipline. Chances are the creation of the Disney Industrial Complex would have rolled over everything anyway, but imagine the body of writing about it that we would have to rabble-rouse with now.

July 1, 2018

we have always been at infinity war

Three seen at the Edinburgh Film Festival 2018:

Cold War: Paweł Pawlikowski uses his square black-and-white tall-ceiling frames to loom over a sprawling 15-year political love story going on in the bottom of them, in which Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) loses his mind over Zula (Joanna Kulig) while the Iron Curtain closes. Ms. Kulig sings and dances and looks a bit like Jennifer Lawrence singing and dancing, and the chemistry between her and Mr. Kot is so minimal I assumed it was a deliberate comment on the nature of frustrated men being blasted sideways by mysterious women. In which light Cold War is pretty wicked and I’m surprised the Current Mood has been so accommodating of it. Terrific film.

Papillon: In which we see not only how Papillon gets sent to prison, but also how he wrote the book of the film you’re now watching. Because everything has to be an origin story, even though not everything is Batman. Rami Malek is a decent Dustin Hoffman, Charlie Hunnam really is not Steve McQueen, and everybody’s teeth remain distractingly perfect. Pointless.

The Parting Glass: A bunch of alumni from True Blood make a film that’s several light years from True Blood, but camaraderie counts for a lot when it shows through on screen. Not quite a weepy but certainly a bit of a teary, its view of the necessary banalities that follow bereavement will chime with anyone who has been there which is more or less everyone, and the film has a go at telling some of its story visually rather than verbally, which is something else that counts for a lot. Anna Paquin remains miraculous, a screen face like no other.


Sicario 2 Soldado: Having spotted that Josh Brolin now looks like Kurt Russell in the right light, it’s tough to see Sicario Too as anything beyond a 1980s Cannon production, before the film itself made several very obvious moves of its own in that direction. By the end Benicio del Toro is as indestructible as John Rambo. Emily Blunt is much missed, but since her character spurred some of the duffest film criticism of 2015, maybe not missed entirely. A different film than Sicario made for different reasons, all of them worth frowning at. Will be reviewed by me in the September 2018 Sight & Sound magazine, so more to follow.

Solo: A Star Wars Story: Form versus content, big screen edition. Production kerfuffle gives Ron Howard, a traditionalist’s traditionalist, $275 million and all the current buttons to press and the result is…traditional. But how refreshing is traditional right now. No shakycam overdose, fight scenes in which who exactly is punching whom and from where remains dangerously clear, a script by (traditionalist) Lawrence Kasdan, and photography by Bradford Young who is not necessarily a traditionalist but knows how to massage his muted colours in service of those that are. John Powell’s music always makes live actors seem about to clout each other with shovels in an Aardman production, but the energy imparted is as if someone plugged Rogue One into a defibrillator. And the film is wonkily cast from top to bottom, everyone a misfire, but let’s assume the original directors were culpable there.

Ocean’s 8: Charm-free film making by flow chart with the soul of an accountant. But not as much as…

Avengers Infinity War: Reviewers using the word culmination” about a film with a sequel date already set in stone was another bad day for the language, but there aren’t many stress-free ways to discuss a product of pure 21st Century Media, a knot of marketing and logistics so densely packed that it feels like storytelling squashed at the heart of some neutron star. Infinity War is hermetically sealed, no doorway provided for anyone ignorant of who, say, that talking racoon is—except that the droll asides of Bradley Cooper in a dubbing booth and the ever-better digitally-twitching whiskers of Rocket Racoon are designed by experts to be enticing enough to take the place of whatever groundwork characters were expected to lay, back in the far off days of ten years ago. This is the big change from Transformers, which couldn’t care less about ways in, and indeed from the DC movies too, which have opted not to dabble in warm characterisations as a tactic, wisely or otherwise. Somewhere between Bradley Cooper’s sarcasm and Gal Gadot’s sweet tussles with the English language lies a key to 21st Century entertainment. We have always been at Infinity War.

The Sense8 Finale: Form versus content, Netflix edition. Sad to report that the two-and-a-half-hour finale of Sense8, willed into existence by the wish of the series’ creators to do justice to a dozen characters, was a misfire. Letting it be made was an honourable instinct beyond the usual venal instincts of television, but the sheer volume of plot that had to be hauled from A to B to C left the finale beached like a whale. The whole point of Sense8 was pulpy content plus form to die for, twenty different location shoots that the great John Toll must have corralled with one of those wall charts covered in pins and string, creating a thing that looked like nothing else on TV. It was a massive parable of love and tolerance and forgiveness expressed in colour and framing and editing, interrupted now and again by lengthy bouts of far and away the most sex-positive sex available on any non-porno screen anywhere. The finale had bits of this but also none of it, the breakneck pace of plot emphasising all of its genre banalities rather than its holistic instincts, and its formal daring seemed to have become just acres of slow motion without point or reason; not an evolution of the series’ style but a devolution. The bad guys, once cartoonish for a purpose, are now just cartoonish, especially Valeria Bilello’s Lila Facchini—to say that it’s a shame she kept her clothes on is to risk misunderstanding, but having created a femme fatale on a dreamscape scale in the second series, the character is now passive and inert, and not the least bit sexy. There’s also the screen violence, copious and stupid, gouts of blood spurting and pooling on the floor. Having machine-gunned a few faceless individuals, the nominal hero ends the series and fixes his problems by firing a rocket launcher at a helicopter, another Cannon hero. Of all the series that could have forged a path forward without tripping over the myth of redemptive violence, Sense8 felt like it might be the one. The entire series was a landmark in screen erotica anyway, though, and more proof that the Wachowskis know the score.