Flaming youth

Not Foundation Year: the way they wereNot Foundation Year: the way they were

In the December Sight & Sound magazine some words about Foundation Year, a micro-budget college romance willed into existence by the enthusiasm of its makers and formerly known as Shithouse, potentially remaining so for at least one viewer. The days when Animal House could make a point about society via bozos in some historic Zeta Zeta Zeta fraternity are already a long way back, but for a current film to earnestly say that the college-age young have skin barely one atom thick seems like a newsflash from another century now that the generation in question is trying to take control of a world both sinking and on fire.


Dune: destiny’s child’s motherDune: destiny’s child’s mother

The new film of Dune has a young man with self-confident hair deciding to depose the sitting Emperor of the Known Universe, which sounds nearer the mark.

Denis Villeneuve makes Christopher Nolan look like one of The Merry Pranksters, but since serious science-fiction is a rare cinema species there’s a limit to how much griping is appropriate when someone goes and makes some. Whether Dune actually is hardcore art, or just foundational bits of fantasy business inflated with a very dense gas, is another question. Pondering what originality even looks like in an era of massive cultural surplus is enough to blow a fuse, but you can look at Dunes sights and sounds, detect their impact and voltage in the moment, and still laugh darkly at the arrival of the latest film full of foam.

Villeneuve’s embrace of sci-fi—three films in a row depending how you classify Arrival—was precisely zero surprise once it became clear that he’s a member of the Architects Film Club (prop: Joseph Kosinski who put Tom Cruise and Andrea Riseborough on top of a two-mile pole in Oblivion). The built environment gets his juices going: Enemy is about a lot of things but paranoia in Mississauga high-rises is certainly one of them, and Sicarios roads and tunnels and toll booths and dead ends are shot more tenderly than half the characters, caressed by aerial drone shots. Back at the source of my Villeneuve viewing, Next Floor looked pretty good in 2008 as a dry joke from the Peter Greenaway school of baked atrocity, but in hindsight the rotten building and its creaking timbers are giving the director a thrill on their own. Of course sci-fi appeals to someone with that kind of interest in architectural vibes and the individuals feeling them.

But you still have to make an actual film in there somewhere. Dune Part One has cavernous brutalist rooms to suit the grandiosity that the story endlessly talks about, chambers of anxiety and history. Then the film swings over towards metaphysics and prophecy and altered states, which do not seem to be Villeneuve’s bag at all. In the interiors he gives the full treatment to the faces of Rebecca Ferguson and Stellan Skarsgård, the former dominating any frame she appears in and the latter taking the opportunity to be Marlon Brando as Colonel Kurtz. Out in the endless desert with its not very individual individuals, the director almost seems to give up, not helped by the self-inflicted stuttering un-climax of Only The Beginning. There’s talk of desert power, but the film is most comfortable with military movie power, ornithopters buzzing like Black Hawks in this particular foreign policy scenario, and evil ships gliding out from behind a mesa like the menacing flyers of Blade Runner 2049, if not Capricorn One.

Whatever the supply chain issues with serious sci-fi, the glut of general mid-table fantasticals all processed through the same post-production software and sloshing around like a cultural wine lake makes the days when sci-fi was supposed to be a headspace and a hacker genre seem as far off as the dinosaurs. Respectability has not done the category much good, judging by what my streaming services keep yelling at me to watch. Dunes message in a bottle from 1965 isn’t entirely reassuring, about decay and rot of all your established orders and the shock of the probably not very fabulous new and karma that removes the choices from your pretty head; but whether that’s intended to fit quite as well as it does with the deadening ozone of digital effects is anyone’s guess.

Villeneuve put chewy ambiguities into Blade Runner 2049, which compared to Dune trips a lively fandango, and for his trouble got some impressively dim reviews that went to great lengths to miss the point. (Me in Sight & Sound discussing the actual point.) Dune takes no chances with that, partly by aligning even more exactly with a current theme: we are also well-supplied with characters realising the truth about their individual selves, rather than about their class or their collective or their coworkers. Leftism suppressed, while individualism moves in. As the film’s funders no doubt spotted, Dunes story has always had an angle on the issues of identity without which half of current pop culture might have to head back to the drawing board. Matrix Resurrections approaches on the horizon, returning to stamping grounds of gnostic awakening and the messianic tendency that are a lot more crowded than they were when Neo first put his trench coat on—crowded with Paul Atreides waiting for his story to complete for starters. Whether or not he gets his Part Two it’s still the season of The Ones.

See also: On the Villeneuve-less Sicario 2 Soldado
And also: What’s a Leftist film anyway, in Sight & Sound
And yet also: Avengers Endgame and the last rites of Stan Lee

5 November 2021 Films

The hitman and her

Kiss kiss kablooeyKiss kiss kablooey

Casino Royale is a great film apart from that interminable stuff at an airport while you’re waiting for Eva Green to show up, although I’m not sure even its fans were asking for the entire James Bond series to operate in that film’s shadow for the next 15 years. I’m not sure that modernising male characters has to be about loading them up with The Strong Man’s Burdens either, but burdened strong men litter the landscape from Mission:Impossible to Rambo Last Blood to Sicario 2, a bulk cultural shorthand for all sorts of things that are more nuanced than the average blockbuster can contain. Bond has spent three whole films suppressing a mournful sigh of regret in every scene, even the ones where he’s relieving some Spectre schmuck of his spleen. In return for this he gets Vesper Lynd’s mausoleum exploding in his face at the start of No Time to Die, simultaneously as absurd a final insult as possible and the only thing left to happen in their relationship.

No Time to Die has been built in the workshop to have something for everyone, or at least everyone acclimatised to the way that the Bond films strike a serious pose and a goofy self-conscious smirk at the same time. So 007’s very serious emotional rescue takes place while ludicrous nanobots dissolve people’s faces and a henchman carries Ernst Stavro Blofeld’s bionic eye around on a plush little cushion like he’s bringing in the Ferrero Rocher. Hans Zimmer does the music and quotes not just John Barry directly but his own Batman Begins music too; compared to the moments of deep jazz brass in Thomas Newman’s last two scores, the music is just a rhythm track. The film’s dialogue is entirely made of polyester, but Daniel Craig spins some of it into gold. I’ve forgotten who the villain is already. M should get the sack. The luxury brand tie-ins roll on as if the world wasn’t sinking beneath the waters, should anyone fancy Moneypenny’s white MKC x 007 Bond Bancroft handbag for £1,350.

And Bond meets a couple of competent female co-workers, one of whom in particular was apparently built to the original blueprint after a few decades of social change and geopolitical shift. He gets on with her so famously that it probably counts as self-love; one look at her and he knows the game is up, nothing left but the weeping string synth patches of the Hans Zimmer keyboard. This and several other things about No Time to Die reviewed for Critic’s Notebook.

See also: Skyfall in which the bad guy plays a John Lee Hooker song for no earthly reason and Spectre in which the master criminal prints out pictures of other characters from the MGM website and sticks them up with Blu Tack.

7 October 2021 Films


Two from the Edinburgh International Film Festival at Critic’s Notebook:

Mandibles: scream and scream againMandibles: scream and scream again

Mandibles is the deadpan one with the big giant fly and Adèle Exarchopolus shouting at everyone, both of which probably made director Quentin Dupieux chuckle heartily when he wrote them down. Dupieux is on one long Dada trip, and someone always should be so it might as well be him. There’s an article to be written about how this monstrous fly and King Shark and Weasel in The Suicide Squad are a trend, the unbearable strangeness of nature made Acceptably Horrible in some new SFX uncanny valley, environmental collapse with giggles.

Mad God is the one with a universe of senseless mayhem played out by cosmic forces in a parable of capitalist desolation—but funny. Phil Tippett has spent three decades getting this animated film into shape, pausing only to go and earn a crust working for other people as one of the greatest model animators around. Those crusts included directing Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation, a film with puppets onscreen in more senses than one and which at the time looked like just a calamitous insult to Paul Verhoeven. But its retreat from Verhoeven’s sunlight and space and aerial views into cheaper danker darker quarters and insectoid things charging around at ground level in the gloom looks a lot like one thread of Tippett’s preferred puppetry style. Mad God tips its crud-filled combat helmet to several of Tippett’s peers, in the case of Terry Gilliam via a sight gag primed and waiting since 1979.

Mad God: assassin’s crudMad God: assassin’s crud

23 August 2021 Films

Feel the hand of history

At The Comics Journal a review of a new book of critical essays on the subject of Judge Dredd, which can’t really be tackled without a pop at the whole criticism gig-economy grinder out of which the book comes. Marc Singer’s survey of the state of pop-culture analysis name-dropped on here endlessly already is pressed into service once again to say why enthusiastic promotion instead of actual critique might not do readers or writers much good, although in the case of 2000AD there are the business practices and mannerisms of the publisher to weigh up as well. Quite why any marketing department would not push back strenuously against the claim that a publication’s best work was thirty years ago has never been very clear, but in this case it’s the marketing department that keeps repeating it.

All roads lead back to the strip’s past partly because that’s where original writer John Wagner looms on the landscape like a benevolent god. The annual couple of stories that Wagner contributes to Judge Dredd these days consistently make the other writers look like they’re taking a different strip down a different path. Or at least a path less likely to make the comic a snarling grimy banner of action and outrage,” as the publishing staff said in 2019, another PR statement that flew by without any critical analysis of what it might mean.

In timely fashion, the book arrives just as John Wagner concludes a ten-week stint writing Judge Dredd in 2000AD, two stories that prove the point. In one of them Dredd trails the world’s unluckiest hitman, efficiently and without tripping over. But the second is Wagner Ascendant, putting the strip’s own history into motion by twinning the actual plot with an unrelated Mega-City One TV show which keeps chipping in, a Greek chorus with an unlimited SFX budget, broadcasting images like that one up there in a manner which leaves the reader to work out who is speaking to whom. It turns out to be Wagner speaking, and reminding anyone who needs to hear that his co-creation is a society built on corpses.

18 August 2021 Art

Tuscan raids

For the September issue of Sight and Sound magazine a review of Security, an Italian film set in Tuscany directed by an Englishman adapted from a novel by an American that was about Massachusetts and available on Netflix.

The plot has rich people being paranoid and horrible, which could be set anywhere; but the hints of Fortress Europe and locals scowling at incomers approaching from a southerly direction presumably came in during the translation to Italy. And like a lot of current Italian art, the oncoming threat could be read as something more viral in nature; I reviewed Manuele Fior’s comic Celestia recently, also a pre-Covid work and also now hard to separate from post-Covid malaise.

Peter Chelsom, who turns out to live in Italy and made Security just down the road, has been sticking to his romantic-comedy guns in the English language for thirty years. Having marshalled players as far apart in the cosmos as Miley Cyrus and Warren Beatty—the latter flattening the director like a slow steamroller—Chelsom probably saw Security as a chance to be more serious, although the woes of a worn out male tempted to get romantico with someone other than his wife do figure again. Valeria Bilello, whose version of romantico playing Sense8s scheming telepath was molto furioso, straps herself into garden-centre dungarees ready to hand the unhappy blue-collar electrician a pot plant, looking like an arrival from Milan Fashion Week with a Saturday job.

2 August 2021 Films

Revolution babies

For Tripwire a review of Manuele Fior’s Celestia, a major work by an artist with a few of those already on the shelf.

Some of them contain bits of business that crop up again in Celestia, but Fior nudges his magic-realism mood into a slightly new niche in the process. Even less surprise in Celestia than usual to remember that Fior is an architect, since the comic’s built environment is all walls and floors and furniture, calmness conjured by blissful Adriatic sunlight in a version of Venice where they apparently did build Frank Lloyd Wright’s Masieri Memorial. Calm on the surface anyway: all art of change and struggle now arrives through the lens of Covid, but in an Italian context the citizens of Celestia beating a retreat from an unseen invader and barricading in a lagoon has many parallels to ponder. No one actually says that art might save the day, but the visuals work with Wright and Mark Rothko and Igor Stravinsky so it goes without saying.

You could ponder how the story’s politics decodes into something that isn’t necessarily very Left, although the message that the older generation needs to get out of the road so that the young can get on with it is barely revolutionary at this point.

Somewhere very different:

Authentic revolution in Zig Zag, the new chromatic cavalcade from Will Sweeney.

Reviewing Sweeney’s last art book Grok for The Comics Journal I said that urgency wasn’t really the artist’s thing, but this time the political message gallops in at a rapid clip.

Zig Zags 24 wordless pages are a fractal sequence of actions, any one of which can’t happen before its predecessor; a preset sequence of contingency plans that could have been laid last month or last millennium. Characters are called forth by other characters and emerge from within still other characters and then consult different characters and then merge into yet further larger ones, eventually coalescing into a large multi-part multi-pilot humanoid robot that tackles some armoured dictator in another plane of reality somewhere.

Exactly what’s what hardly matters, but the thrust of some revolutionary collective action is hard to miss, as is the circularity of the events. Another cycle of all this seems assured at some point, a semi-permanent revolution, even as the giant body of the previous dictator lays in another of Sweeney’s state funeral images. The original instigator appears to be an old soldier with medals, from whom smaller (younger?) activists emerge as he melts away. Having entered the dictator’s citadel, the unified collective converts soldiers to its cause with one blast of illumination from a gun; and in the end it’s an illuminated citizen, not one of the outside insurgents, who concludes things.

At one point a group of characters catch a double-decker bus out of whatever urban city they seem to be in so as to reach a more isolated location, and later the giant dictator holds an umbrella against the rain of yellow paralyzing jism that the good guys have called forth with a firework. So it’s not without a certain British character. On black glossy paper the colour work in Zig Zag surges with voltage but it’s an adult fable, an organised revolution against something visually coded as El Presidente carried out by small cogs in a larger collective who take public transport to get where they need to be.

22 July 2021 Art