Self-portrait as The Opium Smoker
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.Films
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 Warner Bros 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.
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.Films
Dark Horse recently put out a chunky archive of comics drawn by Brendan McCarthy and written by Pete Milligan, which made a lot of current British comics art look like it was playing things very safely. All the rumbling vibrations of pop-art and esoterica and colour theory that show up in McCarthy’s style have their origins in plain sight in outsider art and elsewhere, but in his case the end result seems to push on into territory bearing no one’s name but his own. As with the titanic book collecting Shaky Kane’s Deadline work of similar vintage, it’s hard to see how the current cultural moment could handle a similar amount of tension in this particular art form without the comics business straining at the seams.
Rebellion has published a book of McCarthy’s recent Judge Dredd stories including Chopper: Wandering Spirit, a collision between nasty future-tech and some animist spirits of a much older past—a clash that suits the thread of anthropology in McCarthy’s art. There’s also more recent Dredd work that doesn’t shake the dust off your bookshelves like the old stuff does, but still shows how the artist’s grasp of colour as a drawing tool—which was always a mighty talent even before the digital world came calling—still hums with a few hundred volts of activity. He’s due back in 2000AD at some point to draw more Zaucer of Zilk, so we’ll see how those comics business seams are doing. I read the new Rebellion book here for Tripwire.
Also at Tripwire: Peter Milligan’s most recent 2000AD strip Counterfeit Girl, which doesn’t and probably couldn’t work at the same temperature as those old stories he did with McCarthy, but does instead show off the spiky cartooning of Rufus Dayglo, with all its own connections back towards the very British underground of Tank Girl. The suggestion that 2000AD still kicks the establishment in the nuts is fairly quaint, but at least Counterfeit Girl has the boots for the job.Art
Demonlover glued itself into my personal Top Ten Films on sight, and the only things in Olivier Assayas’s film now showing its seventeen-year vintage are the CGI pneumatic babes in bikinis described as the entertainment wave of the future—which indeed they were, although these primitives look like something from the fossil record. The rest of it makes a lot of other socially conscious left-ish film making, with its dreaded cause and effect and logic, seem too timid to get the job done at a time when the dust of 9/11 was still settling somewhere over the horizon.
So having started as a drama with Connie Nielsen striding around in power-suits and held on as long as possible, Demonlover stops making sense halfway through as a shorthand for all the nasty unreality brewing in every corner of commerce and culture and life. The standard theories are that this makes it the only Assayas film to really show his liking for Videodrome, which is true; and that he never went back to this approach again, which is more dubious. Carlos looks a pretty kindred spirit to me, just dealing with the weirdness of politics and violence rather than money and media. The “Endings” column in June’s Sight & Sound magazine is a piece by me about Demonlover’s final scene, which can’t really be described without writing about the rest of it too.
The same June issue also has me reviewing Holy Lands, a well intentioned film with tidal waves of sentiment, featuring James Caan and many voice-over speeches about old age and paternal anxiety and Israel’s appetite for pork. It decides that tolerance and love might have to coexist with instinctive prejudice, superseding it rather than erasing or reprogramming it; an almost radically humanist thought for a current film, in this case peeping out from under a substantial amount of sugar.Films