15 September 2020
All our yesterdays
Not much about Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a surprise for anyone following Céline Sciamma’s humane and compassionate films of queer caution, and neither is that very French thing of staging a costume drama and making it modern through the faces and charisma of the performers involved—see also Catherine Breillat casting Asia Argento in The Last Mistress and driving a spike down through the film’s historical aspects and into the soil of 2007. (Anglophone films are wising up to how hiring Florence Pugh can do the same thing.) In Portrait’s case Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel both seem sparky enough to have arrived in 1790-ish Brittany direct from Montmartre via Vespa. There’s a specific shot of Merlant sat naked in front of a fire lighting a pipe while illuminated by a couple of candles that’s a pure crystal of one particular gaze and style, and couldn’t be clearer about that style’s country of origin if she was sat on a Tricolore rug.
Christopher Nolan does modernity and tradition in Tenet as he always does, the combo that still makes critics call him “chilly” when it’s been clear for several films now that Nolan is a big softie. But unlike those Tenet doesn’t have the element of romantic love and resulting guilt at its heart, and suffers. The nearest thing is the pairing of Kenneth Branagh (redoing the dying Russian routine from his own Jack Ryan film, which proves no one watched his Jack Ryan film) and Elizabeth Debicki, a sour squabbling marriage that makes you want to throw both of them overboard from his yacht. Without that solid C-major tonic at the centre, all Tenet’s thunderous engineering is built on Nolan’s sci-fi nonsense instead. Which this time is nonsense indeed, occurring not in the deeply personal head space of your dreams or the equal moral isolation of outer space, but now all over the place in the real world; a distractingly numbskull notion. I liked the cheapo sci-fi hardware, like Nolan’s chrononauts have to share PPE suppliers with the National Health Service, but the idea of a massive all-out armed conflict between squadrons of time-split armed forces out in the open, Chinooks landing backwards and all, needs more finessing than Nolan gives it, which is basically none. Reviewers keep trying to connect Nolan with James Bond and Stanley Kubrick, but not for the first time it would have been the arrival of Tim Thomerson from the world of Charles Band’s Future Cop that might have fitted.
Modernity everywhere in She Dies Tomorrow, which slaps the decadent mood of the era and the plague-ridden panic of this exact second into the same blender, so that one metaphor fits all. A bunch of Millennials passing along a maybe-virus that convinces them of death’s imminent inescapable arrival and just wandering around emoting about it, a ton of existential unhappiness arriving randomly like the dude delivering your pizza, is sublimely on target. Not mentioned upfront in enough reviews, you feel, is how the same thing works as a merciless parody of indie mumblecore self-indulgence on film and indeed in general, which writer/director Amy Seimetz plays with the stoniest of straight faces. If the mock-noir title wasn’t a clue (Kiss Me Tomorrow or She Dies Deadly would also work), Seimetz presents the title card with a hammer cut and a blast of Mozart Requiem, as effective a cliché as any film maker could go for. There’s a scene in which a man disconnects his sick father’s life support and his girlfriend promptly breaks up with him right there in the hospital room and I was nearly helpless on the floor. Even better, Seimetz visits an expert in leather tanning and when he walks on it’s James Benning, the most unlikely director cameo since that time Scarlett Johansson kicked Jerzy Skolimowski in the knee. Calling it She Dies Laughing might have been nearer the mark.
30 August 2020
In the October Sight & Sound magazine some words about Nocturnal, a small-scale British working-class film of fatherly anguish. That period when the Edinburgh Film Festival set out to show the best British films not hoovered up by other festivals and just found a glum reservoir of generic council estate aggro heading straight to VOD, usually with the logo of the National Lottery attached like the mark of Cain, produced a long hangover. Nocturnal has more going for it than that—for starters it arrives from Wildcard Distribution and their cheerfully off-kilter catalogue—even if the chewy question of why British leftist films are inclined to deal in individual histories rather than collective stories, and so might not be all that far left at all, still hangs in the air. On the other hand Nocturnal has Cosmo Jarvis, the best Sensitive Brawler currently strolling across British film sets. Having made a note of the actor after Lady Macbeth like everybody else did, I laughed out loud to find him on Netflix doing one day’s work in Hunter Killer on-board Gerard Butler’s submarine, shouting All Stop Aye or similar while someone shone a red lightbulb at him. British actors who look like they’re in it for the experiences all head west eventually, but lucky for the trade that Jarvis is for now still here.
Somewhere else on the British experience spectrum entirely:
Jennifer Lee Moon in Lynn + Lucy: curl up and dye
Having already seen Rate Me and Burn My Body, two short films by Fyzal Boulifa that would have earned anyone a shot at a feature if they wanted it, I watched Lynn + Lucy distracted only by wondering what viewers coming to it cold might be thinking. That, and being sorry that it didn’t continue Boulifa’s director/star routine with Zehra Zorba, who seems to have inconveniently vanished—inconvenient for those of us who wanted her to charge across British films like Parker Posey with knuckledusters. The film is one individual’s estate story again, but this time with the entire random cruelties of fate rolling towards that individual like a boulder, and Boulifa has a streak of theatrical dead-pan in him that jolts things out of the merely observational and into a kind of passion play charged with static electricity. There’s also some significant camp in Boulifa’s style, a live wire to touch in his particular social melodramas. It would destabilise a lesser talent and capsize a lesser film, but camp is dripped into Lynn + Lucy via pipette by a filmmaker wearing a hazmat suit. Ken Loach’s company Sixteen Films crops up in the credits and the man himself was mentioned in reviews, which might imply that the criticism machine can only hold one model of working class film in mind at a time, since Lynn + Lucy could hardly be less like Ken Loach if Captain America had turned up. I’ve frowned before at the theory that Loach’s style is now particularly successful, and it looks even more dilute compared to the faces and details that Boulifa goes in for. Jennifer Lee Moon, who was superhero-adjacent on TV in Krypton, beams so much baleful intensity into the camera as a beauty salon manager that she might be sending out gamma rays. Imagine Ken Loach trying to get his cinema wrapped around that face. The negative would have melted.
6 August 2020
Will Sweeney’s latest self-published retrospective art book Grok, reviewed by me for The Comics Journal.
There’s some anti-establishment aggro in Sweeney’s art, behind the simmering colour blocks and those techno-wizards on loan from somewhere adjacent to Jack Kirby, although the revolution might be a slow-burner. Wage slaves do shuffle miserably towards the office under armed guard, colonists blithely pollute other people’s rivers and icons receive epic state funerals at a snail’s pace. But the main political movement would be the Bring A Bottle Party, judging by the plates of wormy foodstuffs served up in restaurants to vaguely pompous first-class diners. The occasional blasts of hedonism are mostly things like those glam rock gods, blissed-out retro hipsters bringing you the hits of some previous recession.
Urgency isn’t really Sweeney’s thing. Next to the panel-busting eccentricities of Sweeney-fan Tetsunori Tawaraya, whose art is as interested in the animal as the vegetable, Sweeney is the calm reporter at hot events, as the old Stuart Davis quote goes. One of those characters turns up in Grok’s climactic image, observing something that’s either a pagan rite or the local Lady Gaga support act, and looking all set to sell the snaps to the Daily Mail.
28 July 2020
Film criticism might once have had to be dragooned into doing PR for Netflix but these days it’s obliged to volunteer, so it gave The Old Guard a warm welcome before the film even arrived and then shuffled awkwardly around how much praise to apply. No point getting tangled up all over again in the market forces compelling films to turn characters from comics into actors talking out loud at all, which has stopped looking like fun for actors and characters alike. Or in pondering how comics do their voodoo, a deeply non-cinematic “art of tensions” (the label via Charles Hatfield) and a working class one at that, in which the only voices you hear are in your own head; which is part of why films are a medium for explaining what’s up with other people but comics are better at explaining what’s up with you.
Worrying about the difference between form and content would be a better bet, a discussion The Old Guard contributes to by featuring content that does all the thinking for you and form that sends you outside for a walk. What difference is created, what change is made, what action at a distance occurs, if characters intended to embody progressive qualities are depicted in ways that are indistinguishably standard in framing, editing, speech, acting style, music, colour grading and affect, while they run up against an excruciatingly infantile British villain? Maybe no change at all. Decades after cultural empowerment of mainstream female characters started to mean just making them as armoured and indestructible as the men—in the process putting a dent in the ability of the films to be particularly left-of-centre at all—films still face the choice of whether to deliver information or experience. A drift towards the safer, less radical option might be inevitable once pop-culture voluntarily moves from the margins to the centre, but that shouldn’t stop discussion of what the drift might be doing to the work.
So in a film concerned with content you get The Old Guard’s Charlize Theron wearing a black vest and a frown, colour graded so that the woman is indistinguishable from the sandstone, iconography of the sensitive strongman that could have come from 1985. And in a film thinking about form you get Adria Arjona striding around 6 Underground in a ludicrous skin-and-fetish-mask combo, digital grading cranked up to match the emissions of a pulsar, images incoming from somewhere around tomorrow.
Form and content, arthouse director department. Netflix also got its chequebook out for Wasp Network, Olivier Assayas’s film about anti-Castro forces in 1990s Florida. No greater admirer than me of Olivier Assayas and of Carlos, one of the great films about active historical change occurring (or not) at the end of a gun; but Wasp Network is less caustic, and most people in it are basically recognisable conflicted human beings rather than committed jihadists.
Castro himself appears via the historical archives, bobbing and weaving—saying yes we ran a spy ring in Miami, wouldn’t you?—which seems a shallower political investigation than you got from ten seconds looking into the eyes of Julia Hummer as the batshit crazy “Nada” in Carlos. A weird thing in Wasp Network happens (twice) when an unheralded and unexplained voice over kicks in, arriving in the film as if thrown bodily on from the wings, which has to explain who’s who and what’s occurring before departing back to the ether. Assayas scores these explanations with “Wipe Out” by the Surfaris, which considering that he had Carlos the Jackal travel from A to B backed with “Loveless Love” by The Feelies feels like it must be a political statement of some sort.
Form and content, guts in a bucket department.
Reading S. Craig Zahler’s novels after seeing his films might be the right way round, since you discover that the films are such precise translations of mood and style from one medium into another that they seem refreshed when you watch them again afterwards, even if they also can’t help but feel a bit derivative. You certainly spot which bits of hair-raising violence have been run up the flagpole earlier in the books. A Congregation of Jackals has a tribe of cannibal Native American troglodytes and a character hobbled by a busted leg, and once read cannot be unlinked in the mind from Bone Tomahawk. It has a villain called Quinlan, whose first name isn’t given but might as well be Hank. Mean Business On North Granson Street, intentions signalled by that title of pure noir pastiche, foretells Dragged Across Concrete with cops of dubious morality in ballistic masks, stressed masculine partnerships, castration of men and threatened or actual blinding of women. It has a character said to resemble a movie star who turns out to be called Jerry Langford, by which point all those character actor cameos in Bone Tomahawk are starting to add up.
It also has a villain’s comeuppance involving the contents of his own colostomy bag, which I don’t think Zahler has as yet persuaded a studio to let him recreate. The tone of social dread hanging over everything is consistent enough in the films on their own, but makes added sense as a literary mood spilling over into a neighbouring field. So do the deliberate wanders away from established plot lines to see what’s happening somewhere seemingly unconnected, usually leading to the unconnected person having their fingers or gonads removed. This particular trick might finally settle the question of Zahler’s sincerity, pondered by me ever since that secondary character got emphatically Goya-ed in Bone Tomahawk. (Zahler has since written Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich, a bonkers triangulation between him, the low-budget pastiche of the old Charles Band film studio now arriving through the grimier lens of Cinestate, and the outsider comics art of Benjamin Marra. It feels like Zahler and Marra ganged up on Band in a car park to teach him about the pitiless emptiness of the universe.) Zahler films are squarely set in the same unquiet land as the books, a civilisation built on awful sands and feeling obliged to steamroller the supposedly uncivilised if it’s going to get anywhere.
7 July 2020
O Lucky Man
The 18th-century lush who stumbles around plastered in Portrait of a Drunk inflicting misery and death on everyone he meets is named Guy, so readers wondering whether the joke is aimed at any particular group of people should probably start with that. Despicable at first and then deteriorating from there, Guy’s bad behaviour is clearly going to earn him no comeuppance—although if he gets the loot he’s after there’s every chance of him tipping his prize into the ocean soon, sloshed again—which makes his one tiny ambiguous flicker of compassion in the middle feel even more dire than it would anyway. It certainly doesn’t do the young apprentice he fleetingly seems to be concerned about any good, since the kid’s already become one with the cosmos and is peering at Guy from an afterlife that’s swathed in heavy blue drapes like David Lynch’s vestibule.
The sour and stylish Portrait of a Drunk is a joint effort from Olivier Schrauwen and Florent Ruppert & Jérôme Mulot, and before reading it I had assumed it would be easy to spot who had done what; but panel-by-panel it’s nearly impossible. Schrauwen’s combative intellectual mockery is pretty distinctive—or distinctively Belgian if my struggles with films by Bouli Lanners and Jaco Van Dormael is any indication—and the feeling that the story is viewing its characters from an altitude of ten thousand feet feels like him. Ruppert & Mulot are comfortable lower down where the story’s sexual slapstick and kinetic violence flow from, something for which they have a knack. But Portrait’s bits of narrative free-for-all and layout gameplay could have been passed back and forth across the desk by any of them, along with the jokes. As in any morality play, the trick is to spot the void where your own morals are supposed to be; plus be reminded that where you end up will be where you started, no matter how much water has been passed since then.
Artistic coincidences: The separated body parts and spectres spying on Guy from limbo, which eventually gang up and torture him during a feverish hallucinatory sickness, include a headless body with a face in the torso. And reviewing Strontium Dog: Search and Destroy, the latest reprint of that strip’s first life which I hadn’t read since it was new in 1978, there’s John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra’s first depiction of the story’s mutant underclass. Grotesques as a common artistic language.
16 June 2020
Mrs. French’s cat is missed
Calling a film Dreamland gets your excuse in beforehand for any amount of arch unnatural gurning, but the latest Dreamland (latest of many) already has the spongey panto vibes that a low-budget English-language crypto-noir on the mean streets of Luxembourg is likely to haul around with it. Panto season kicks off properly when Juliette Lewis steams on as a Countess of no clear county and shouts at the locals, an American attached to middle Europe like a vampire. Her brother, an actual vampire, is as mittel-European as all hell. Gangsters hang out in a club called Al Qaeda, the rich buy and sell children as sex slaves while isolated de Sade-style in a mansion, and the band plays blithely on when the children eventually mow down their abusers with machine guns.
It’s no Pontypool. But then what is? Dreamland is Stephen McHattie and Lisa Houle saying lines co-written by Tony Burgess and directed by Bruce McDonald, and if anyone onscreen had hinted at a prior life in Ontario or some unpleasantness with a zombie plague I would have forgiven the film anything for joining the Pontypool Connected Universe. Pontypool—especially with the source novel Pontypool Changes Everything as some bigger project—is so singular that it hangs in the back of your mind like the book’s lethal virus, and even Dreamland seems to lens the light back towards it. Dreamland starts with a high-class escort practicing a foreign language, robotically reciting sounds divorced from their meaning, and ends with a coda in some artificial happy-ending limbo with the same actors who were in one of those last time, so maybe this is the PCU after all. In between everyone seems to be navigating a bubble of abrasive self-interest and artificial baloney. The collateral message, that navigating bubbles of those is your own lookout these days so you should probably get on with it, is a retro vibe of total current relevance and Burgess seems to have a bead on it. Pontypool knows the score:
The first Michael Winterbottom film I saw was probably 24 Hour Party People, and ever since the fact that he’s hardly mentioned as one of the greats has only endeared him to me more, even when I didn’t like the films—and I liked most of them just fine. It would be stretching things a bit to invoke the name of Ken Russell, but choosing to look at real lives through a mildly absurdist prism and see what aggressions emerge is one of the best tendencies the UK tradition has on the books—the Catholic hysteria may be out, but in exchange you get 24 Hour Party People’s subterranean cultural tides, all of them walking and talking. The other name to mention might be Ken Loach, given how Winterbottom’s films bite on social and socialist issues without ever landing close to Loach’s stone-faced naturalism, a style whose potential flaws aren’t discussed enough. You could wave your arms and wonder whether Winterbottom or Loach was the better heir to the kind of thing that British TV used to get up to, as opposed to what it gets up to now as an arm of the establishment centre. In any case, Greed, the last film I saw at the cinema before someone turned cinema off at the mains, takes a spectacularly dim view of capitalists and the fortress Europe sentiments created by people like Steve Coogan’s Sir Richard McCreadie, who is clearly the rich and very establishment Sir Philip Green.
There’s a temptation to see all of these regular Winterbottom/Coogan projects as The Trip To My Bank Account, but Greed’s comedy has a dose of appropriately Greek tragedy. The agent of cosmic retribution is a lion—so beat that Paul Laverty—which has consumed cocaine given to it by McCreadie’s resentful son—beat that Sophocles. Consulting the data indicates that the film received its tepid release the week after Caroline Flack died, and Flack is the first face seen in the film, one of many celebs endorsing and publicising McCreadie as the whole fetid system revolves. There’s a running gag about McCreadie resorting to celebrity lookalikes at his party; a George Michael arrives, unhindered by the real one having been dead for a while. The fact that Flack had gone too by the time the film came out undoubtedly distressed all involved, but Winterbottom’s pointed cultural romanticism makes it seem inadvertently well aligned, the ghost in the malfunctioning moneymaking machine.