13 July 2019
Dog wife is in danger
Hotels you can’t afford full of matronly telephone operators with hipster neck tattoos writing murders on chalkboards; John Wick 3 is only one Simon Le Bon short of a Russell Mulcahy pop video from 1984. And like a bunch of those its revolt into style involves a lot of looking crestfallen, its affluent globe-trotting capitalist killers all miserable as hell, including the Eurotrash. Even without the baggage of the phrase Sad Hitman, which is plenty, the film is enthusiastically square. In his book Make My Day J. Hoberman mentions a 1976 film full of
Libidinal politics, celebrity worship, sexual exploitation, the fetishisation of guns, and racial stereotyping.
and it’s a mark of where we are that he was talking about Taxi Driver but could have been describing the last two John Wicks, which have all of those—plus a bunch of mixed-up class war messages—but with all the polarities reversed. Irony is everywhere and tone is everything, in John Wick 3’s case the tone being that of something written on the back of a menu by Mark Millar.
Shortbox put out a minicomic—“John Wick3 ”—which did what comics can usually do and sliced cleanly down through the wrapping paper of someone else’s IP all the way to the counter-cultural bone.
The films say Wick is a legendary figure of fable but the only decent visual signpost of it is Keanu Reeves riding a horse, the urban cowboy (or one of the Secret Agents of History, Hoberman’s phrase) from some self-made patty of McMythology. For the comic, Eileen Kai Hing Kwang sees this bid and raises it, putting Wick on a huge fantastical Bucephalus with hooves like spears, a portrait of horse and rider twisted in the act of either slamming on the brakes or making an unclean getaway, suitable for putting on a little stand at Wick’s funeral.
Wick on his horse in his skinny black suit will be part of PhDs about Keanu Reeves’s intersectional appeal and John Wick’s rampant heterosexuality (as if Wick wasn’t clue enough) and John Wick’s casting of Ruby Rose and Asia Kate Dillon as sleek representatives of the world’s hidden forces. In the meantime the comic spots Wick and Marcus (Willem Dafoe) as the franchise’s original flaming creatures, with Carta Monir drawing a battered Wick gazing up at the healthily bulging curves of Marcus’s crotch from floor-level as Marcus asks him for his safe word. “Hello John” indeed.
The best bit is Jane Mai’s cover, kicking Wick back into the manga tradition that loosely inspired him, as dreamy and flexible as the films are stolid and set. Plus it reaches the only logical conclusion about a sad hitman and his beagle.
6 July 2019
A piece of Elvis Presley’s carpet
Driven: the king of ping pong
Seen at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival:
The Vast of Night is sincere late-1950s sci-fi pastiche modelled on The Twilight Zone, and until scientists work out how to do one of those without starting from there then sincerity is probably what matters most. Two nice young people (one named “Everett Sloan” for a bit of sideways Orson Welles heritage, the other from a Spielberg-ian ruptured family) get into a UFO mystery involving voices on the radio and reel to reel tape recordings, allowing the film to mix modern digital tracking shots with a hardcore analogue fetish for audio tape and unspooling and splicing and threading and respooling. Their town apparently prizes a remnant of Elvis Presley’s carpet, and you can’t get much more analogue than that. As films about paranoid people on the radio go it’s no Pontypool; but then what is?
Driven is about John DeLorean, played by Lee Pace with something not unrelated to Elvis’s carpet on his head. Two films about DeLorean are now out and about, almost as if we were suddenly minded to take capitalists to court while being fatalistic about why to bother. Pace, no doubt wielding the kind of authority that 0.03 percent of the Marvel Cinematic Universe can deliver, seizes his opportunity to play DeLorean as some kind of ping-pong-playing cross between Croesus and Dionysus, but a bit more crappus.
Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love concerns Leonard Cohen’s randy nature and is about the painfully complicated love lives of real people in the 1960s, and the fact that they all remain sympathetic might have something to do with that authenticity.
The Souvenir is about the painfully complicated love lives of fictional people in the 1980s, and their unreality might be connected to my urge to kick the lot of them in the knee one after another. Joanna Hogg’s last film Exhibition also had affluent people trying to keep a jittery Britain out of their lives and thought that art might be the answer, while the new one knows that art can be blown up by an IRA bomb as easily as anything else. Not sure that the final Accusatory Look To Camera is a tactic with much voltage any more though; voyeurism isn’t what it used to be.
Samurai Marathon keeps Bernard Rose in employment which as always has my enthusiastic support, even if this time most of his natural eccentricity may have been used up by the eccentric idea of making a film set in 1855 for Jeremy Thomas in Japan and in Japanese in the first place. Rose’s great eye for faces is put to work in a different acting culture than usual but still works better than most other supposedly more sophisticated methods. Commodore Matthew Perry turns up with the face of Danny Huston, which says plenty about the film’s opinion of Commodore Perry before that face opens its mouth.
22 June 2019
Self-portrait as The Opium Smoker
20 June 2019
Jennifer Lawrence: end of the line
Or maybe, sic transit gloria Stewart. Bryan Singer has been cancelled, leaving behind only several fine films and my 1700 words about some of them and the qualities of X-Men 2, although Dark Phoenix would probably have been the end of the line after 19 years anyway. The last two X-Films were schizoid, grasping for modern qualities without much conviction about why they should bother; but on some level Singer’s films have all been about the fate of older classical inclinations in a cinema industry that wants to be a digital delivery system for the works of people like Simon Kinberg, the man who wrote Mr & Mrs Smith and somehow made Angelina Jolie look bland. Kinberg directs Dark Phoenix like a man who’s definitely going to book five rain machines for the funeral scene and so it duly transpires, despite a fine and novel opening in which the X-Men are called to action and blast off on a space rescue like Thunderbirds, a collective proactive adventure rather than any of the introvert teary moping that the Avengers films have sunk into. Once the digital images really kick in they create what they always create if left to their own devices: a weirdly miserable fug of non-thrilling excitement and studio-bound timid reticence, for reasons that have more to do with colour theory and digital images’ aggressive will to power and this era’s massive surplus of cultural production than characters and casts, despite our apparent vow of silence about saying so.
By then Dark Phoenix is being dragged backwards anyway, back to the same Phoenix Saga that was unessential cinema once already in X-Men: The Last Stand. Hardly any doubt by now that comics are irrelevant to comic book films, and Chris Claremont’s four years of careful build up on paper could hardly lead to as modest and unassuming a sense of payoff as Dark Phoenix does by chugging through the whole tragic cycle in one-hour-fifty-four, although the core of the story still has some of the voltage that Claremont put there. Jean Grey’s story takes the X-Men’s usual crises of principle and mixes in the much more conventional crises of identity loved by the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and of course causes a certain amount of crying, but it still involves stuff about individual change and temptation that Stan Lee understood about the characters in the first place. Kinberg cheats by having a peroxide blonde Jessica Chastain on hand as a nasty alien, relieving Jean Grey of the need to have any authentic villainous thoughts—her one unforgivable sin is an accident of temper rather than evil—but the film still deals in basic questions of personality and its flaws, issues of fate that most of the current culture has blown a fuse rather than grapple with. Just about.
That one accidental sin is to blast Raven Darkhölme sideways onto a spike and Jennifer Lawrence sideways out of her contract. Lawrence has never looked remotely happy doing these films and corralling her talents under prosthetics, and must surely have regretted signing the fateful deal in 2010. Raven’s own crisis of principle in Days Of Future Past was potent enough to justify the whole enterprise, but the accumulated slack elastic means her current easy heroism is hard to square with that crisis in the film before last and her outright turn to villainy in the film before that. It’s an arc with no affect—as good a label as any for this weird mutant storytelling, skilled craftspeople convincing themselves that sequential narratives parcelled out and arriving years apart can be willed to contain solid character arcs when no amount of arm waving actually makes it so. On some level the line from Brett Ratner to Matthew Vaughn to Simon Kinberg with Bryan Singer as a kind of overlapping interference pattern before being banished to the phantom zone contains a few truths about Blockbuster Mechanics, and so does the sight of Jennifer Lawrence spending three and a half films painted blue and directed to down-play. I hope she laughed all the way to the bank; but if so her portrayal of an actor who did not was flawless.
15 June 2019
Godzilla: King of the Monsters does that sequel thing where no one is ever outdoors, and the director has to treat characters in corridors as the most thrilling thing in the world, and the attempts at balanced sexual politics are inept. Meanwhile the visuals are in a suburb of the nightmare sublime: a ruined poisoned planet with evil leviathans screeching up through polluted clouds of cadmium-red destruction breathing lurid electric death. It’s like one of Frederic Church’s volcano paintings after half the lightbulbs have blown.
But this was peanuts to me, since I had just read Godzilla in Hell.
IDW’s licensed Godzilla comics have been more flamboyant than Godzilla films for a while, and Godzilla in Hell from 2015 frees several terrific artists from any minor issues of logic and lets them go bananas. Godzilla falls inexplicably into the actual Dante inferno on page one for no clear reason and then wanders around fighting whatever he encounters. Bob Eggleton draws an even more nightmarish version of King Ghidorah than the usual one; James Stokoe has Godzilla grappling a doppelgänger which splits down the middle and spews writhing crimson sinews much like something out of The Thing; and Buster Moody draws Godzilla encountering the Anti-God from some HP Lovecraft fever and getting in a punch-up with the Anti-Angels. It’s an artistic delirium that only this particular art-form could arrange; let me know when the current MonsterVerse films have Godzilla trudging away from Hadean rubble with smoke forming the word Lust behind him.
It’s even mournful. Godzilla’s nice-guy credentials have been rock solid ever since he did his cute little victory pogo in Godzilla vs Monster Zero, and the new American films are lining him up as mankind’s designated driver in the era of climate disaster, like a very miffed dad. But Godzilla’s hell is an endless parade of pointless punishment beatings and brawls and aggro without even the merciful release of death—which is exactly the same as up here.
10 June 2019
Natalie Portman in Vox Lux: fame game
Brady Corbet’s teenage acting career went from Thunderbirds to Gregg Araki to Michael Haneke and on to Lars von Trier, so zero surprise that the two films now directed by him are not some saccharine little nothings. The Childhood of a Leader wondered if fascism might be an incubated personality flaw, and now Vox Lux’s personality failings are inserted into a blameless child from the outside via two hideous traumas, first a school shooting and then the miseries of celebrity status. The films are reflections of each other in a dire funhouse mirror. Nature vs Nurture isn’t the largest of Vox Lux’s concerns, but it clearly thinks that Nature is going to screw you anyway so you may as well give some thought to Nurturing.
Corbet and his star Natalie Portman would both understand the cost of childhood fame as well as anyone. So does Bruce Wagner, judging by his venomous novel Dead Stars, and Vox Lux might get closer to the kind of unholy holistic worship of celebrity that emerges from that novel in a pool of tar than the film that David Cronenberg made from its pages. In any case, for the second time lately (after Jackie) Portman tinkers with her acting style to stuff some big old theatricality into supposedly naturalistic business. If you think the severe vowels of Noo Yawk emerge from the character’s mouth by mistake just because they didn’t when she was a child, then it’s not hard to imagine several famous females prone to regular image overhauls watching and not missing the point at all, or which way the barb is pointed.
But mostly Vox Lux knows what pity and terror look like in a culture where nothing sticks, one that roars over everything at ten thousand feet and ten thousand miles per hour. At this point any art which accurately depicts this situation rather than just repeating endless appalled bewilderment at its existence is a lap ahead of the rest, even before we get to the small matter of what is to be done.
Some more unsettled children in We the Animals, Jeremiah Zagar’s wispy impressionistic story about three young brothers, reviewed by me in the July issue of Sight & Sound. It could hardly be better designed for the arc from Sundance Festival to Independent Spirit Awards to BFI Film Audience Network, and there’s nothing wrong with its sadness at kids being buffeted into stoic silence by the world, nothing wrong with the sedate moves of the indie film playbook. Except maybe if viewed with the raging screams and righteous confusions of Vox Lux still in your ears.