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.

Elsewhere:

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.

Films
April 15, 2018

valentina on the phone

A while ago I called the ten-volume project to bring all of Guido Crepax’ comics output into the English language a cultural intervention, and that still looks like the right label. Crepax’ artistic treatment of an internal fantasy life is vivid enough on its own to make most erotic comics look stuck in tar, but the more of the stuff that Fantagraphics reprints, the clearer it gets that Crepax was trying to get actual tactile sexual sensations down in an ink-on-paper form—critic Matt Seneca wrote about it in those terms, and he was spot on. And it works so well in the Valentina stories that the character—even though she’s always naked or in bondage or just letting it all hang out—never seems to be on the receiving end of male gaze at all. The strips are piled high with sexuality from floor to ceiling, but it’s all Valentina’s view of Valentina’s own, and there’s nowhere for a reader’s voyeurism to fit. It’s simply irrelevant. This is quite the cultural moment to discover that Crepax wanted to achieve that decades ago and worked out how to get the job done.

Every story also has some piece of visual storytelling from Crepax’ 1960s and 1970s output that seems to bubble up from a broad expressionist tradition and inform something more recent. The first volume had a bunch of Frank Miller faces; the latest one has some very Bill Sienkiewicz demon bears. An entranced Valentina receives hypnotic instructions from the witch Baba Yaga via the telephone several nights in a row, worshiping the handset in different poses, and eventually she does the same thing with a wind-up gramophone playing some satanic 78 vinyl. It’s an erotic reverie that Dario Argento would appreciate, but could not match.

Art
April 14, 2018

the outlaw life

Death Wish by Michael Winner: nature or nurtureDeath Wish by Michael Winner: nature or nurture

The great pop-culture recycling machine has had one bite at Michael Winner already, when it had a brainstorm and tried to turn The Mechanic into a Jason Statham franchise, as mentioned in passing before. But Death Wish is a different beast altogether. The film’s reputation as a toxic conservative virus has preceded it into every room for 44 years, which might automatically make it an item to be examined rather than erased from history no matter where on the political spectrum you happen to stand. The new remake by Eli Roth tweaks the story to be less abrasive culturally and politically, while escalating the cinematic sadism to suitably Roth-ian levels, but the unspoken worry that a story of a non-violent man becoming violent is just too dangerous to be left loose in the culture has summoned up all the old concerns.

For critics the big problems from 1974 are still in business: what’s the difference between form and content, how to assess American violence on screen, and does impolite fiction have a role to play in getting us out of this mess? Is all art an invitation to disagree, or not? What, in short, is art for? I wrote about Death Wish old and new for Sight & Sound, having already waded into the argument about whether pop-culture should be obliged to address you only from an altar of virtuousness while reviewing Blade Runner 2049 and the superhero films of Zack Snyder in the same venue. Answer remains: I think not.

Death Wish by Brett Parson: culture or culturalDeath Wish by Brett Parson: culture or cultural

Films
April 12, 2018

phantasm at twenty-five

I’m going to be at the inaugural Portsmouth Comic Con on Saturday 5th May to chair a couple of panels. One of them will be about the art of Star Wars, from the perspective of both the designers behind the films and the artists who create painted fantasy art and book covers and other graphic designs once the films are out in the culture. The other will be a chat with Dirk Wood about his new imprint from IDW Publishing, and its recent hardback volume of cultural essays and strips called Full Bleed.

Another new print publication about comics and cartoons has started up in the UK, and the launch issue of Comic Scene includes a piece by me about the animated film Batman Mask of the Phantasm which is now 25 years old. Full-length Batman animated films have chugged on as a cottage industry ever since and wandered far and wide, but the only thing about Phantasm that really shows its age is the flat 2D animation and the lack of colour gradients. Everything else is a story Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams would have been very happy with, and a solid look at Bruce Wayne’s troubled character, including the part of it that gets a kick when Gotham citizens turn the lights on and Batman turns out to have been standing six inches away all the time.

Art
March 23, 2018

gardeners world

The May issue of Sight & Sound includes me reviewing the Chinese film Detective Chinatown 2, in which a pair of goofball detectives visiting from Beijing get all starry eyed in New York on the trail of a killer whose identity is obvious from the minute that the Anglophone actor in question walks on. Joe McCulloch, writing about English translations of Japanese manga in the anthology Critical Chips 2, said experiencing a foreign culture in a translated version was like looking at a garden from the outside through a hole in the wall, unable to really know the situation in which the works exist. Which is also how I felt upon discovering that Detective Chinatown 2 had made $530 million in its own territory.

Annihilation has remarkable gardens, to the point where it ventures into the natural sublime in proper Burke-ean terror-tinged ways—a rarity in a culture more comfortable with the technological sublime instead. It puts Alex Garland into a strand of British film making that doesn’t have many members, somewhere in an overlap of Danny Boyle and Peter Strickland, although Annihilation deals directly enough with cancer and metabolic change to ally Garland with David Cronenberg as well. The alterations from the source book make for a more conventional ending, but some of Garland’s tweaks are appropriately visual rather than thematic. When the characters stumble across a house overgrown in greenery, only we and Natalie Portman recognise that it’s identical to her house in the real world, and Garland gracefully doesn’t even give her a double-take to flag the matter up. A monster duly terrorises her there, up from the id of her own adulterous bedroom.

And Annihilation promptly terrorised and stress-tested some outposts of current film criticism to near-destruction in about five days flat, which was always going to happen as soon as something turned up on Netflix that we might actually feel people should see. Twin Peaks gathered the kindling for this turn of events, but it was 18 hours long, so claims that it was Clearly A Film became a shibboleth for folk not comfortable admitting that work of quality could merit any other label. Annihilation though really is a film—made as one and delivered as one, until Paramount chickened out and sold it on. The results have been calamitous, a coming together of both the major current critical regressions at the same time. A fixation on content and blindness to form—which is the approach needed if you’re inclined to see a film’s -isms and ideologies as both the work’s true essence and the way its makers will reveal their hidden wickedness—has instead dented our skills at sounding convincing about why one form is better than another. Meanwhile an inability to speak in any decent motivational rhetoric—never mind poetics—instead of dry academic language has squelched our ability to motivate a passing viewer to open their minds, or indeed open an envelope. After voluntarily surrendering those two weapons, what’s left?

Films
March 21, 2018

artistic licence

All three recent books about the birth of 2000AD point out that MACH 1 was a blatant attempt to make readers think of The Six Million Dollar Man, but since Enio Legisamòn put a very Lee Majors-ish face on the character for page one it was hardly a state secret to anyone reading on the school playground at the time. From four decades down the time tunnel, MACH 1 might be more successful at the comic’s two stated aims — cash in on sci-fi while alarming British adventure comics as much as possible — than most of the other stuff in Prog 1, just by being such an enthusiastic cash-in itself. Rebellion has collected the first year or so in a new volume, where the constant churn of artists and writers doesn’t do as much damage as I remembered — partly since I had forgotten that the strip is utterly nuts. It’s boys adventure comics for boys delirious with fever, or dreaming of receiving six hundred pounds worth of cybernetics from some branch of the Callaghan government and marrying Farrah Fawcett. I reviewed the collection for Tripwire.

Also at the same venue: a review of the latest Judge Dredd Case Files collection which covers 1999 into 2000, and by my sums might be the last to contain stories only published by Fleetway before Rebellion swung in through the window on ropes. Those books mentioned above make it clear that a lot of creators felt the period before that happened was desultory, and of course they should know. But Dredd has always occupied his own tonal niche isolated from properly wayward editorial whims, a niche shaped very much like writer John Wagner. (Dredd’s counterpart, Psi-Judge Cassandra Anderson, had the luxury of taking months or years off here and there, and her stories over the same period in the hands of Alan Grant were properly ambitious.) Dredd gets back into humorous mode a few times here, but the book includes Wagner and Henry Flint’s story from March 2000 in which the residents of a city tower block respond to their unsafe building and uncaring politicians by committing enthusiastic mass suicide, which in a current light is practically Swiftian. You would need to be sure of your critical footing to say that a period which put that on the shelves of WHSmith had failed to do its cultural duty.

Art