Avengers: Infinity War (2018) – Film Review

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“This is the end game,” says Doctor Strange at one crucial point in this film, and for once you better (almost) believe it. I’ve been a skeptic of Marvel productions for as long as I can remember, as a film-lover who loves narrative films more than ongoing soap operas about superheroes with more personality in their fists than their brains. And yet the apocalyptic scale of this latest entry in the saga, the sheer surreal extent of the carnage and its dramatic implications on future instalments, had me feeling in a way that I so rarely have before with these things. And feeling something – something out of the ordinary that you just can’t get from everyday life – is the entire point of cinema, I’ve always believed.

So hats off to directors Anthony and Joe Russo for orchestrating 2 hours and 40 minutes of compelling action that rarely flags and consistently arrests the attention of even a superhero cynic like me. The more I think about it, the more I’m impressed with the achievement – bringing in over a dozen iconic superheroes to fight in different parts of the universe, maintaining the breezy pace and momentum all the same, balancing genuine laugh-out-loud moments with genuine horror, and throwing in enough fist-fighting to keep the kids (young and old) entertained… The success of it all is no mean feat.

And the more I think about how much I enjoyed the film as a story, the more I’m surprised, because in many ways it’s not a story, at least not in the conventional sense. There are no character arcs; these superheroes don’t undergo any massive changes in identity, or manage to triumph over inner demons. And what minute arcs there are dramatically go up in smoke or are left unresolved by the film’s ending. As with lots of other Marvel productions, but unlike Black Panther, it feels less like a self-contained story and more like another chapter simply intended to set up further chapters in the exponentially growing MCU web. So why did I leave the cinema feeling satisfied this time around?

I think the answer is Thanos, the vulgar grey giant played with snarling perfection by Josh Brolin and who is the best villain Marvel have thus far conjured onto the screen. What’s unusual about this film is that it’s him, the villain, going on a quest, and the heroes who are trying to thwart him, in a marked reversal of fairytale lore. And so, in some strange way, you’re made to almost root for Thanos in his efforts to collect all of the infinity stones and become master of the universe. It’s in our nature to want to see a quest being fulfilled, at least on film, even if that quest is in order to eventually wipe out half the universe.

Like Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men, Thanos represents sheer, unadulterated evil, and yet has a peculiar logic to his murderous ways. He wants to wipe out half of all life in the universe in order that the universe, with its finite resources, can survive a little longer and prosper. The tolls he must pay to “save” the universe are terrible. But he believes that they’re worth it, and if we’re not careful he just might be able to convince us that they’re worth it too. Like any dictator in history, his self-delusion is the most frightening thing about him, and the most convincing. As human beings, we find self-delusion on a titanic scale utterly compelling to watch, sometimes even to the point where we might begin to feel sorry for the self-deluder. Or even begin to share in their bizarre delusions. I don’t think I need to draw any more parallels to today’s world, and the monster who’s currently sitting in the White House. Or the Kremlin. Or the…

So this film taps into an alluring darkness that has always been at the heart of superhero narratives: fascism. Both superheroes and supervillains believe that they are the only ones who can restore order to the universe; they believe that they’re above all rational law, human or otherwise. That’s a combination which has proven deadly throughout human history. And so it proves at the end of Infinity War.

I’d seen much talk on social media about how traumatising this film’s ending was, and put it down to marketing hype whisked up by Marvel to help sell their product. Not caring all that much about any of the characters going into the film, I didn’t expect to be moved by any of their deaths. And yet I was; without giving anything away, let’s just say that even I was shocked by how far this film was willing to venture into tragedy. And the fact that its tragedies occur not with a bang but with a series of whispers makes it far more disturbing to my mind. We’re all going to vanish into thin air one day, and to be reminded of that fact again and again and again at the end of the film left me speechless, stunned, and completely taken aback, for quite a while afterwards.

It’s a bleakly poetic and troubling series of images that will sear itself onto your conscious mind, if you allow it to. In terms of sheer bleak nihilism, it matches Game of Thrones’ Red Wedding sequence, which is quite an achievement – and I suspect it was partly inspired by that show’s willingness to shock its fans.

Which raises the question – where do Marvel go from here? Game of Thrones failed to ever match the Red Wedding, because how could it? “We’re all going to die” is all that show’s ever really had to say, and the Red Wedding was its most dramatic depiction of that reality. I think Marvel will similarly never be able to top the shock factor of this instalment. But can they find other ways to surprise, entertain, and capture the imagination?

It’s possible they could reverse the damage they’ve wrecked on some of its biggest characters at the end of Infinity War. After all, anything is possible in this universe, and we know from Loki and Doctor Strange that death doesn’t have to be permanent. I fear that would be a copout, and might reduce the impact of Inifinty War in retrospect. But for now, I can’t stop thinking about the film, which frankly has never happened before with a Marvel production. I would swap all of the Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America films for just the one shot in this one of Tony Stark, starkly alone, waking up to the fact that half of the universe can be wiped out with ease.

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Black Panther (2018) – Film Review

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I’m not one to give films bonus credit for being “woke” – I thought Wonder Woman was awful, for instance, despite the importance of its female lead role. What can I say? I want a film to impress me on its own merits, not based on the racial/sexual identity of its cast.

That said, the majority black casting of Black Panther really is a radical step forwards, and don’t let any troll tell you otherwise. Marvel has been shy with black characters before – I can recall only a smattering across their so-called “universe” (oh the irony of that all-encompassing word). So to see an entire superhero movie that focuses on a history, culture, and skin colour other than Caucasian is refreshing. Its nearly all-black cast is undeniably a statement, a political one, that my African-American friends and colleagues have responded to with elation: one friend has seen the film 4 times and plans to go again, something that they’ve never done before, because of their feeling that this film is history, a turning point in representations of minorities in American cinema. And that means something.

Make no mistake that Black Panther only exists because of decades of committed activism from the African-American community, certainly one of the most successful minority groups in the world at expressing their fury at the social injustices perpetrated against them. If you don’t believe so, just try to imagine a Marvel film being released tomorrow with an all-Latino cast, or all-Asian, for instance. I can’t see it happening. These two large minority groups in America don’t have the same history of protest, at least not to the same extent, and so their representation in mainstream American cinema has been woeful – just think of all the Chinese guys with “funny accents” all over American comedies.

So yes, Black Panther appearing onscreen is a culmination of years of political agitation from African-Americans, you better believe it. As such, as a cultural totem in the future, it will likely be compared to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. Is Black Panther as good as that remarkable album? No. And not just because Kendrick’s contributions to the film’s soundtrack are fairly disappointing by his standards.

Black Panther is lumbered with all of the baggage attached to Marvel productions. It needs to tie into the wider universe: which it does, rather clumsily, with Andy Serkis reprising a villainous role that should really have been excised. It needs to have a bland, tedious romantic interest: which it does, this time sadly wasted on the luminous Lupita Nyong’o. It needs to have several patience-testing actions scenes: which it does, although the twist this time around is that they’re sometimes shot engagingly.

I know, complaining about action scenes in a Marvel film is like complaining about cheese on a pizza. But you can have too much cheese. And they really do make the movies a chore for me, because they’re shot through with such little tension. I don’t care about who would win in a fight between X and Y, but I do want to care about the consequences of their fighting, the psychological implications. The way so often in which Marvel characters walk away from epic fights completely unaltered in any way, physically or mentally, makes me really not give a damn about seeing those fight scenes in the first place. It’s lazy, cynical storytelling.

Black Panther is less guilty of that than most, which is why I like it better. The action scenes tend to propel the plot forward rather than drag it down. When King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), a.k.a. Black Panther, is challenged to ritual combat for the throne not once but twice in his native Wakanda, each time the stakes feel high, and that feeling’s exaggerated by the literal height of the setting – they fight on top of a waterfall, with dramatic cliffs and tense tribes encircling them. We know that Black Panther won’t die, of course, but the dizzying effects and swirling photography make our eyes dart across the screen, worrying for him, all the same.

A car chase scene in South Korea is played for laughs and is less effective – the otherwise impressive cast can’t really do comedy, not like Robert Downey Jr. or Ryan Reynolds – and the finale is about 5 minutes too long.

But still, this is by far the most enjoyable Marvel entry for a while. I count 3 good reasons for this:

  1. Writer/director Ryan Coogler. At only 31 years old he’s one of the freshest talents in Hollywood – Creed and especially Fruitvale Station were powerfully made, gripping yarns. I have no doubt that Black Panther’s aura of genuine radicalism and its respect for African cultural traditions come largely from him. Not to mention its visual imagination.
  2. The cast. This really is the most watchable group ever assembled for Marvel. Only token white guy Martin Freeman fails to do the best with what he/she’s given. Various supporting turns threaten to steal the show: Michael B. Jordan, Danai Gurira, Daniel Kaluuya, and particularly Winston Duke (the only one who can do comedy).
  3. Afro-futurism. The script looks to a future in which Africans and all of their diasporas will change the world through technology. This future is one in which they will manage to bring about an equality between all the races (because white folks sure won’t do it), but bring it about through intellect and science and not through violence. Yeah, this might be utopian dreaming, I hear all you cynics saying – are we ever really going to all “live as one”? But then isn’t the point of film for dreaming?

The figures speak for themselves: the film’s grossed a staggering $1 billion worldwide since its release, $242.1 million of that in its opening weekend alone. The excitement is there, the appetite for change. You can feel it in the air. You can feel it coursing through every frame of the film, like vibranium.

And I for one am relieved that the future it envisions is one of hope.

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Phantom Thread (2017) – Film Review

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It’s suitable that Phantom Thread is dedicated, at the very end, to the late Jonathan Demme. Much like The Silence of the Lambs, it’s a psychodrama concerned with the manipulative games that sinister people can play on each other.

Those two people are Reynolds Woodcock (played by Daniel Day-Lewis in apparently his last leading role), a middle-aged couturier who works in London’s unswinging 1950s world of fashion, and Alma Elson (played by Vicky Krieps in her first major leading role), the latest in a long line of beaus (a.k.a. sexual objects) to come and go from Woodcock’s fashion house.

Woodcock spots Alma working as a waitress in a countryside cafe; she is humble, and she stumbles, and he is charmed. He asks her out on a date, and we believe that we are in the familiar fictional territory of a middle-aged man seducing a much younger woman. Yawn; we don’t need to see that strain of male director’s fantasy onscreen again, surely. But then Alma produces a note with her name already on it and gives it to Woodcock. It turns out that she was prepared for his asking her out, and didn’t need to be seduced. We are being primed for later developments in the film – maybe, just maybe, she’s the one in control of their relationship. And maybe that’s what Woodcock wants.

Woodcock takes her back home and… they don’t have sex. He wants to dress her up, not undress her. Taking her measurements, he comments on her lack of breasts, to which she apologises, and he responds: ‘No, they’re perfect.’ Why? Because it’s the dress’s job to give her breasts, of course. His dress will change her body; this power is what turns him on, not her exposed flesh. The scene reminded me of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, in which James Stewart dresses up Kim Novak to fit his fantasy. And similarly to that great film, Phantom Thread explores what shifting power dynamics can mean in a dysfunctional romantic/sexual relationship.

It recalls many other Hitchcock classics as well: Woodcock’s sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), who manages the fashion house and Reynolds’ conquests, is clearly modelled on Mrs Danvers from Rebecca, so frosty and omniscient is she. Plus allusions to voyeurism/exhibitionism (Reynolds watches Alma at a fashion parade through a peephole; Alma is fully aware and enjoys it) and incest/necrophilia (Woodcock’s dead mother appears to him in a wedding dress at a key moment – in bed) echo some of the themes that run across Hitch’s oeuvre.

If Phantom Thread doesn’t come close to matching the heights of Vertigo, Notorious or Psycho, well, those are high benchmarks indeed. I admire Paul Thomas Anderson’s chutzpah, as both writer and director, for trying. This is a poised, elegant, and venomous film. It has the icy cool and sudden kick of a martini (watch out for the ending), and I think it’s his best film of the decade so far. Admittedly there are no likeable characters, which is a common problem for PTA’s films outside of Magnolia. But if you accept the cold exterior, there is much pleasure to be had underneath.

Most of all there are the performances. Watching Daniel Day-Lewis is never a chore, and the way he modulates his body language and facial inflections to convey the minute details of Woodcock’s character in this film is mesmerising. I’ve read critiques of his acting style that describe it as ‘hammy’, which I think confuses naturalism for good acting. Day-Lewis may not appear ‘natural’ in any of his roles, but his ability to inhabit strikingly different larger-than-life characters, and to drag them all down into the messy cesspool of contradictions that is human behaviour (including the venerated Abraham Lincoln), never ceases to impress me. As Woodcock, he captures with ease a man who prefers fabric to human beings, a misanthrope who seethes with rage at the mere noise with which a woman dares to eat her breakfast. The intensity of Day-Lewis’ presence burns through the screen, which makes Woodcock’s sudden outbursts of anger ignite easily, like gunpowder.

In fact, Vicky Krieps has talked openly about the intensity of his presence on set, and how she would avoid him. You can detect some of that nervousness in her performance; the way she responds to his incredibly specific breakfast orders in their first scene together has a genuine fragility to it. You can feel how Krieps might be overawed by Day-Lewis’ presence just as Alma might be over-awed by Woodcock; it works on both levels, and PTA plays on that knowledge. But he does so in order to upend our expectations later on. Alma will prove more than a match for Woodcock, and so will Krieps for Day-Lewis. The soft, charming Luxembourg accent in her voice that contrasts against the steely resolve in her eyes, as the film motors towards its climactic confrontation between the two, will remain my most powerful memory from the film.

Supporting performances are all outstanding, with the grotesque series of rich women who come to Woodcock for dresses each leaving an impression. Yet I was left wanting more from Lesley Manville as Cecil Woodcock; her character arc is left frustratingly incomplete, subsumed by Reynolds’ and Alma’s domination of the narrative. Whereas, for instance, Mrs Danvers was far from forgotten about in the ending of Rebecca, a comparison which lessens Phantom Thread‘s impact.

So it isn’t a top-tier PTA film (see Magnolia, Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood), but it’s a solid second-tier one for sure (alongside Punch Drunk Love and Hard Eight, I would argue). If you are a creature of film, willing to accept its surreal atmosphere and occasionally freakish dialogue (‘kiss me, my girl, before I’m sick!’) you will be transported. If not, well, why are you reading this?

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Coco (2017) – Film Review

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The most consistent film studio in the world comes up with another gem in Coco. On a budget of $200 million it’s already raked in over $600 million, an unremarkable feat for Pixar, but a fairly remarkable one for a film about death.

Then again, death has been Pixar’s overarching theme from the start. The Toy Story trilogy is essentially a metaphorical look at how all things must pass. The image of Buzz Lightyear sprawled out on the floor, with one of his wings broken after attempting to fly, is one of the most poignant illustrations of the fragility of physical matter in all of cinema. He’s not immortal; he’s just a toy. And the ending of Toy Story 3 is so moving to us because Andy’s leaving home represents the death of his childhood and therefore also all of his toys, including Buzz and Woody (so the decision to make Toy Story 4 was incredibly stupid – where can you go after death?).

Then of course there was Up, with its famous opening flickbook through a couple’s life together, ending up in a matter of minutes with an old woman’s death. It was a brilliant depiction of the fleeting yet ever-so-worthwhile nature of existence.

Yet Coco takes this fascination with death, which infects so many other children’s films around the world, and makes it more explicit than ever. For starters, it’s set in Mexico during the country’s Day of the Dead festival. But then, even bolder, it ventures into the Land of the Dead itself, after its hero, Miguel, attempts to steal a guitar from the tomb of his idol Ernesto de la Cruz and becomes cursed as a result. Accidentally ending up in the Land of the Dead, he must find a way to return to the Land of the Living before sunrise, or else risk permanently becoming one of the dead himself.

If this all sounds too scary for a kid’s film, know that Coco has all of the customary charm associated with the Pixar package. There’s a dopey sidekick (Miguel’s dog, not as funny as the usual sidekick), a breathless adventure across a strange land, plot twists that keep an audience guessing, and most of all a belief in the redeemable nature of (most) human beings that warms the hearts’ cockles.

Plus, needless to say, it’s all so visually ravishing that the Land of the Dead actually looks like a fun place to be. Parties, concerts, and bustling streets all have the mad energy of a Mexico City, except inhabited by skeletons. You’ll want to visit the world again once the film’s over (and we’re talking about the Land of the Dead, remember!).

There’s laughter and tears, of course there is. But though the latter is in roughly the same proportion as every other Pixar film, the former isn’t. The comedy is lessened because, frankly, Miguel is a dull hero. He’s filled with an unbridled enthusiasm, particularly for music and his family history, fine. But this one characteristic can’t sustain interest for the length of a film. Where’s the conflicting darkness in him that makes Pixar’s best characters so intriguing, and intriguingly amusing – Woody’s feelings of jealousy that cause his feud with Buzz (Toy Story), or Carl’s misanthropy that helps separate him from Russell (Up)?

Which is to say that for all its surface level enjoyment, Coco doesn’t cut quite as deep as the best Pixar outings. What’s more, its depiction of death is so neutered, so unthreatening, that it risks being of little use to children who would be better off educating themselves with Bambi or The Lion King instead.

But there are some genuinely emotional moments that deepen the entertainment value and help Coco to earn its place in the Pixar pantheon. In particular, Pixar’s proven commitment to richly detailed elderly characters continues to reap rewards, with Miguel’s grandmother providing the film with its title and emotional epicentre. There’s a tremendous scene towards the end, in which Miguel simply sings an old tune to her, and memories of a long lost love visibly come crashing down before her eyes. Yet instead of pain, there is joy.

Our loved one’s memories are the real Land of the Dead. It’s how we live on after we’re gone. Mexicans are aware of this, and hence their Day of the Dead. Coco captures the spirit of this, and as a result it’s not just appropriating Mexican culture for commercial reasons. It manages to show how understanding that culture might be beneficial to all of us.

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The Top 30 Films of 2017

These were the best films of the year – no debate!

Of course there’s debate, there’s always debate. That’s what makes writing about film so interesting. For instance, I read many great pieces on the brilliance of Blade Runner 2049, but to me it seemed like a sluggish bore with precious little of the original’s poetry. And overall critical fave Get Out didn’t convince this horror skeptic that its social commentary was pointed enough to overcome the dull descent into horror movie cliches.

So you won’t find those films on my list, as adored as they are. But you will find a variety of other joys, some of them critically respected, others ignored or passed over. Here they are (films released in the U.K. in 2017 only):

 

1) Moonlight

The first time that the Oscars’ choice for Best Film has matched my own since 2007’s No Country For Old Men. Just like La La Land, its narrative is based on an age-old genre: the Bildungsroman. But Moonlight transcends its genre limitations with more agility than La La Land. Its conception of the fluidity of identity is marked by the graceful flow of its cinematography and the narrative ebbs and flows, all beautifully controlled by Barry Jenkins, whose work on the film so much deserved the Oscar for Best Director over Damien Chazelle. As a study of toxic masculinity coming up against the frightening honesty of love, it’s a story for our age, and for all ages to come.

 

2) My Life as a Courgette

Delightful; upsetting. I have rarely been as surprised by a film’s tonal complexity – this is in the league of Bambi, The Night of the Hunter, and Blue Velvet. Like those films, this one has moments of sheer childish pleasure, which restore your faith in a medium that is all about childish pleasures, but also contains moments of horror that could be traumatising for young viewers. Set in an orphanage, and with slightly creepy luridly coloured children with heads as large as their hearts, this doesn’t shy away from the potential calamitous damage of growing up and is all the better for it. Yet you won’t see a more heart-warming film all year.

 

3) The Handmaiden

Another coming-out-of-the-closet film? Good, we can’t have too many. Based on Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, but with the action transposed to Korea, this is audacious enough to suggest that male-female sex has its limitations, and that female-female sex might in many ways be preferable. In a film about complicated power struggles between the sexes, the heated lesbian sex scenes become symbols of equality in the face of male oppression. It’s steamy, yes, and so lusciously photographed as to be accused of glamorising sex on screen. Yet the final moments are inspiring, and crucial in understanding how this is a great story, and not mere pornography.

 

4) Manchester by the Sea

Perhaps the story that most people will recall from Hollywood this year is of victims of abuse speaking out against their oppressors. We always knew that Hollywood was full of grim sleazeballs, but the extent of the damage was nevertheless still a big shock. Casey Affleck has long been problematic as an actor/director who stands accused of various acts of sexual aggression towards his co-workers. I know reasonable people who refuse to watch his films because of the allegations made against him. I understand this – the charges really are grave. But in the same way I can still watch Hitchcock or Polanski films without remotely liking the men behind them, I can’t stop myself from marvelling at this film and Affleck’s performance in it. His character is the ultimate antihero – difficult, abrasive, insular. He can’t even chat up women in a bar. Which makes the depth of care you’re made to feel for him all the more remarkable. Director Kenneth Lonergan handles it all with humour and sensitivity, eliciting stellar performances from all involved.

 

5) The Red Turtle

A gorgeously rendered, tranquil, bleak animation that wordlessly weaves its charm. It has a faith in mankind’s ability to improve its relationship with the natural world that’s never stupid (i.e. hippieish, as in Avatar) or absolute (there are moments of cruelty by man against nature, and vice versa). And there are sequences with all the wonder of an episode of Planet Earth, and with the same moving sense of our species’ insignificance.

 

6) Call Me By Your Name

Try looking at a peach the same way again after watching this. Such is the magic of film: ordinary objects can be made to take on extraordinary meanings. And the magic of this particular film is in how it takes a potentially sleazy situation, with a 17 year-old falling for his father’s research assistant (an older man), and transforms it into a beautiful summer’s dreamlike illumination of romantic ecstasy. Just perfect in the youthful role, Timothée Chalamet is all gangly charm and pent-up sexual energy, his eyes full of a hope that his summer liaison can last whilst his prodigious smarts let him know that it can’t. It follows close to Summer With Monika and Before Sunrise, not to mention the Grease song ‘Summer Nights’, in showing a love affair that becomes heightened because of the time limit imposed upon it.

 

7) Risk

This really is the riskiest move that Laura Poitris has ever made as a documentarian. She follows Julian Assange: first respectfully, then questioningly, and finally with a growing sense of disillusionment as the rape allegations and other charges build up against him. It’s an expose of the man’s nastiness that raises an important question over the legitimacy of the Wikileaks project as a whole. Top marks for honesty.

 

8) A Monster Calls

At first I couldn’t shake the TV-movie-of-the-week feel – we know that watching a parent slowly dying from cancer must be an almost unthinkably awful thing for a young child to cope with, so why do we need to watch a film about it? Isn’t life difficult enough? I think that this film is necessary. For one, it doesn’t sentimentalise its main character: a boy who lashes out verbally and physically against the people he loves. Its fantasy elements, much like Pan’s Labyrinth, deepen the sense of psychological reality by revealing the hidden truths in a child’s mind during a terrible moment of crisis. And one devastating truth that comes towards the end transforms it into one of the most honest depictions of being forced to watch a loved one die that I’ve ever seen.

 

9) The Big Sick

At last! A Judd Apatow production that cracks my top 10, through sheer force of likeability. It would be as useless to argue with this film’s many charms as to argue with an ex-girlfriend in a coma.

 

10) Detroit

Kathryn Bigelow takes a big step up with this, a look at one particular instance of racially motivated violence perpetrated by the police during the Detroit riots in 1967. Impressively, it eventually zooms out to depict how injustice permeates all levels of the US judicial system. It’s tense beyond belief, and there’s a deeply unsettling portrayal of how private insecurities can be dangerously unleashed in the form of violent bigotry. Particularly unnerving (and brilliant) is Will Poulter, seemingly possessed by the spirit of all of his country’s worst impulses.

 

11) Toni Erdmann

12) Okja

13) The Lost City of Z

14) The Florida Project

15) Dunkirk

16) 20th Century Women

17) The Salesman

18) Marjorie Prime

19) It Comes at Night

20) A Ghost Story

21) City of Ghosts

22) Frantz

23) Elle

24) Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie

25) Paddington 2

26) Harmonium

27) Laerte-se

28) Logan

29) La La Land

30) Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press

Harmonium (2016) – Film Review

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It’s that time of year again when every blogger is weighing up their ‘best of’ lists and scrolling through others to find out what they’ve missed. That’s why I leave my lists to the very end of December; I know there’s always more great stuff to be found. I’m never going to be able to catchy every worthy film, no amateur reviewer is, but it’s the effort that counts, because it uncovers hidden gems like this one.

Harmonium is a tragedy in miniature, impressively written and directed by Kōji Fukada. It won the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival last year, and despite that honour it had only a very limited cinema release in the UK, hence explaining why I missed it.

It concerns a family whose discord is evident from the very first scene: Akie (Mariko Tsutsui) and her daughter Hotaru (Momone Shinokawa) say grace at the dinner table as the man of the house Toshio (Kanji Furutachi) carries on eating. Conflicting worldviews are established without a single word passing between husband and wife. It reminds me of the opening of Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman, in which a shattered window foreshadowed the widening cracks in a seemingly content relationship. Here the mood is just as tense underneath the surface.

We find out that the girl, Hotaru, plays the instrument of the title and is going to appear in a concert. In order to perform, her hands must be able to play in harmony. Likewise, in order to perform the function of a working family, this trio must harmonise. Are they able to do so?

Well, it’s certainly thrown into doubt when a friend of Toshio’s, Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano), a man with a shady past, comes to the door seeking a job and lodging. Toshio obliges his friend, and we sense that this is not just because of the Japanese custom of politeness, but because he is atoning for a sin of his own from the past.

Yasaka seems to be a man of harmony: he is calm, collected, and is always wearing the same white shirt tucked into black trousers – he’s a picture of elegance and decorum. Yet he moves stiffly, as if weighed down by some burden, which indeed he is. And this burden will latch itself onto Toshio and his family, plunging them deep into a river of discontent, in which they might well suffocate.

Kōji Fukada directs his melodramatic story with a poise as careful as Yasaka’s, ready to pounce on an unsuspecting audience and shock them. He’s no Hitchcock – suspense is limited to one or two long tracking shots. But he maintains a constant gnawing sense of unease, one that remains right up until the tragic-farcical conclusion. And it’s to his credit that this unease sticks around hours after the credits have finished rolling.

Biblical themes of Catholic guilt and eternal damnation are dealt with, yet never heavy-handedly, and the ensemble cast convincingly portrays a dissatisfaction with life’s vicissitudes that manages to universalise these religious underpinnings. In this way, it reminds me of Leviathan, a film which also showed how momentary slips from the past, a.k.a. sins, can bubble up to deny redemption.

Harmonium isn’t as powerful as that film; it doesn’t have the same self-righteous anger. Yet it works very well as a study of one family who live as if they’re playing a harmonium with hands out of sync, and tragically it seems they always will be.

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Detroit (2017) – Film Review

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Directors often care quite a bit about criticism, more than they let on – take for instance D.W. Griffith, whose The Birth of a Nation was correctly interpreted as a piece of KKK recruitment propaganda, and therefore followed it up with a lament against Intolerance to prove that he wasn’t a racist (the jury’s still out on that one). Or Francis Ford Coppola, who believed that critics and audiences didn’t fully understand that The Godfather was intended as a critique of the mafia, so aimed to make Part II a much less romanticised vision (I’m pretty certain he succeeded – it’s my favourite film).

I think that Detroit similarly aims to redress criticisms levelled at Kathryn Bigelow’s previous effort, Zero Dark Thirty, which controversially included scenes of torture without entirely condemning the practice, hinting that it was necessary in order to find and kill Bin Laden. Detroit, in contrast, unambiguously decries all forms of brutality used in the name of the law. The violence used by the police to extract information from suspected criminals is shown to be excessive and to yield no positive results, tied up as it is with systemic racial prejudice.

Like Intolerance and The Godfather Part II, the urgency imparted by the director’s need for greater moral clarity makes for a better, more powerful and more interesting film. Detroit is at once more gripping and cerebral than Zero Dark Thirty because it communicates a true sense of horror at how humans in a position of power can abuse it, rather than simply showing the good guys hunting bad guys. David Thomson described Zero Dark Thirty as being like a ‘John Wayne movie’, but that’s not a charge that could be levelled at Detroit – unless that movie was The Searchers.

Detroit concerns a real life incident that took place during the city’s race riots of 1967, following the unlawful arrests of African-American partygoers. A man shoots a toy gun out of a hotel in a black neighbourhood, and is mistaken for a sniper, which leads to a violent police raid and a roundup of the usual suspects, a.k.a. all the young black men. These men are threatened, intimidated, beaten, and otherwise physically abused by the bellicose local cops, with the state police quickly backing off, not wanting to get caught up in a ‘civil rights case’.

Bigelow directs these terrible scenes with a real feeling for the unfortunate people caught up in the crisis, and effectively communicates the terror of being young and black and confronted by a hostile government-sanctioned repressive force. There are two white women who also get beaten and stripped by the aggressive cops; they are appalled by the prospect of these women having possibly slept with black men, in a similar way to how John Wayne reacts to Natalie Wood being married off to an Indian chief in The Searchers. Sexual insecurities often play into racism: ‘what’s wrong with us?’ one cop asks the women, self-pityingly, pathetically.

Will Poulter plays the ringleader of the racists, acting the part of a young policeman with an intensity that belies, or perhaps is exacerbated by, the babyish nature of his face. It’s his finest performance to date, and also easily the best in the film, one that intriguingly hints at some of the psychological deficiencies that lead to racist behaviour. He remains entirely engrossing, whilst inviting zero sympathy. Bigelow never quite digs as deep as Poulter does – she generally isn’t as concerned with the roots and causes of racism as with the surface suspense that its deployment creates. Never mind: her acknowledgment of it as an unavoidable element of the American judicial system is progress enough.

Apart from Poulter, the rest of the ensemble cast is solid, but nobody really stands out – the script doesn’t quite allow them to. John Boyega does well enough as a grocery store security guard who works across the street from the hotel, and who gets caught up in the mayhem and tries to de-esculate the tension between the black citizens and the white cops. He winds up being labelled an Uncle Tom figure and made legally culpable for the brutality, the worst of both worlds. Boyega has a star’s aura, but is restrained here, not tussling for the spotlight, perhaps a more impressive feat than his turn in Star Wars. Because it allows Algee Smith to be the film’s heart: he plays Larry, a singer who auditions for Motown and winds up rejecting their offer, after the harrowing events of the film take their toll. It’s a rejection of the company’s (partially) white audience, turning his back on them metaphorically, like Miles Davis used to do in concert.

So far this challenging film’s failed to recoup its $34 million budget, whilst Zero Dark Thirty made a healthy profit of over $90 million. This is a bitter indictment of modern audiences, sadly telling us, as if we needed to be told, that there is a far greater appetite for gung-ho action flicks than for piercing critiques of the justice system in America. But then again, times haven’t really changed: Intolerance and The Godfather Part II made less money than their predecessors too.

So go see Detroit, to show studio execs that there is still an appetite for tough-minded cinema, at least amongst a few of us.

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Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie (2017) – Film Review

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Yesterday I reviewed the bleakest film I’ve seen in years, today it’s the silliest. Every bit as good in its own way, though. It’s a film so fresh and enjoyable that one critic over at Roger Ebert’s website even overexcitedly compared it to No Country for Old Men (in terms of reference for its source text)!

I like it quite a bit myself, but not that much. Based on Dav Pilkey’s series of potty-humoured novels for kids about a couple of best friends, George and Harold (an interracial bromance akin to JD and Turk in Scrubs), who accidentally turn their headteacher into the titular superhero – it’s not War and Peace, hell it’s not even The Wind in the Willows, but it breezes by with enough charm to whisk you up in its underclothed trail.

The key to Captain Underpants‘ success is one that Marvel and DC should be paying attention to: it doesn’t take itself remotely seriously, keeping the gag rate coming at a near-Airplane! level. If only Spider-Man: Homecoming had been half as funny as a few critics tried to claim, it still wouldn’t have come close to matching this kiddie’s film in terms of laughs-a-minute. Screenwriter Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Get Him to the Greek, The Muppets) does a terrific job of distilling the puerile essence of Dav Pilkey’s books. There are many laugh-out-loud moments: George and Harold contemplating life apart as best friends in different classes with ‘long distance relationships never work!’; a supervillain whose full name, get this, is Professor Pee-Pee Diarrheastein Poopypants, Esq.; the moment where one character is told ‘you have no sense of humour, like a chair or a supermodel’; a random excursion into live action sock puppets…

Unlike Marvel, the pace is kept impressively brisk – the film feels like it was made by a 5 year-old going AWOL on sugar. Character development is therefore minimal, which means that this doesn’t have the rich textures of the best Pixar films. And if you have children, bear in mind that taking them to this won’t impart any great moral wisdom beyond ‘laughing is good’.

Still, as a superhero film it never stops laughing at its own ridiculousness the entire way through, so that it can be viewed (and celebrated) as a U-rated cousin to Deadpool. Our film culture, and particularly our comic book film culture, needs to be reminded to lighten up once in a while, or else it risks becoming like a chair or a supermodel.

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It Comes at Night (2017) – Film Review

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The bleakest film I’ve seen in years, it’s taken me quite a while to digest this one. I’m finally prepared to recommend it. Peter Bradshaw described it as ‘a downbeat cousin to 28 Days Later or The Road’, which is pretty accurate, if a little offputting. Because It Comes at Night actually is worth seeking out, even if you recoil from onscreen nihilism, as I do.

It balances its irredeemably bleak vision of a post-apocalyptic future with a compelling and relentlessly pushing narrative that sweeps away all objections in its path – only afterwards does the despair of everything that you’ve seen wash over you, like the creeping ‘it’ of the title.

What is ‘it’? We are never quite sure, and that vagueness has annoyed some horror aficionados, but it actually serves to increase the lingering sense of dread in my mind. We know that ‘it’ causes black abscesses to appear all over humans, which are highly contagious and eventually cause the one suffering to die. We get the impression that ‘it’ has caused the end of civilised society, leaving families alone in the wilderness to fend for themselves, frightened to get in contact with other people, because who knows whether someone’s infected? We watch in the beginning as ‘it’ claims the life of an old man, whose son-in-law must shoot him. This is a future Wild West in which all sentimentality is banished, a frontier reached at the end of humanity. And our cowboy, the one killing his father-in-law, is Paul, played by the laconic Joel Edgerton, who must protect his family at all costs from the invisible ‘it’. Paul has a wife, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo – they’re a mixed race couple, and interestingly this is never discussed), and a teenage son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). Plus a dog – watch out for the dog.

Later on this family, who live alone in the woods, are compelled to take in another family to their abode. They’re clean, and what’s more bring farm animals for food. I don’t need to tell you that this won’t end well. Trust is a luxury that these future family units can’t afford.

It’s an impressively stark and unrelenting vision from young director Trey Edwards Shults, who never lets the tension dissipate, whilst finding time to explore Travis’ sexual frustrations in a land barren of possible procreation. The ‘it’ that comes at night is never sex, to his disappointment. Meanwhile the camera lingers on haunted faces and ruptured bodies with equal interest, displaying a clear debt to the most underrated of filmmakers, David Cronenberg, in its clear fascination with body horror’s psychological devastation. Nothing is more terrifying than an internal invader, a pernicious disease, one that even a cowboy like Paul can’t shoot at. You can only watch, in horror, as it absorbs all of those around you, even those you love.

So it is with the film: all you can do is watch, passive and exasperated, yet riveted, as bleakness slowly devours the screen.

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City of Ghosts (2017) – Film Review

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I didn’t get on with Channel 4’s recently aired The State, a fictional account of Britons escaping to Syria to join ISIS. It opted for an unlikely, in fact downright offensive, narrative of unbelievably naïve youths going to fight for their religion (like a jihadist All Quiet on the Western Front) and being shocked by the brutality of the regime they find over there. I mean, were we really expected to believe that these youngsters, one of them travelling with a child, were totally unaware of the openly perpetrated acts of violence that ISIS had long been infamous for publishing online? An early scene saw a new recruit turn away when being shown a video of a beheading, as if in disgust to show his innate goodness; it felt entirely disingenuous, a gross simplification for the sake of establishing narrative empathy.

Go and see City of Ghosts instead, if you can. It’s the real deal, or at least as ‘real’ as any film, fictional or non-, could hope to be in depicting the unimaginable horror that is the black heart of ISIS.

It’s a documentary following a group of Syrian rebels called RBSS (Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently), who were at first established to oppose Assad. But when that dictator’s troops were forced to abandon Raqqa and the vicious cancer of ISIS filled the void as ruling power, they suddenly found themselves forced to oppose an even more dangerous enemy. We all know about the nihilistic terror of ISIS and their exceptionally brutal methods of dealing with any perceived threats to their power base or ‘religion’. Most of us quake at the thought of being targeted by ISIS, yet the heroic RBSS actively seek out this very thing, confronting the group openly and risking their lives via protracted online warfare.

The keyboard warriors of RBSS publish the videos that ISIS don’t want the world to see, namely footage of the daily chaos in Raqqa, their home city, as food supplies dwindle and schools and hospitals are forced to close. ISIS want the world’s Muslims to believe that their ‘liberated’ areas are some kind of ‘paradise’, and promote Raqqa as such in their privately made videos. So RBSS are performing a crucial role in undermining the fantasies put forward by the ISIS propaganda machine. ISIS make slick, almost entirely fictional videos inspired by Hollywood action flicks and first-person shooters such as Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto in order to capture young and stupid minds; RBSS release real leaked footage from on the ground showing the daily terrors and endless suffering endured by ordinary people at the hands of ISIS.

One RBSS operative, Hamoud, even goes so far as to claim ‘cameras are more dangerous than weapons’ in this war. That’s a fascinating idea, and he may have a point: whoever controls the footage depicting warfare in Syria also controls the public perception of the ‘truth’. And distortion of the truth is how you harvest new recruits, as ISIS know full well, which is why they soon order all satellite dishes in Raqqa to be torn down.

We are shown many shocking scenes of real life barbarity in City of Ghosts, but I won’t warn you to avoid it, even if you’re weak of stomach, because I believe everyone should see it. ISIS are every bit as heinous as the Nazis, and the freedom fighters in this film, who have been forced to flee their homeland to Turkey and then Germany, are every bit as brave as members of the resistance in the Second World War. Therefore City of Ghosts is a crucial historical document, and ought to be seen. Sadly, it rather skimps over the vast complexities of the Syrian crisis and misinterpretations of the Islamic faith, both of which resulted in the emergence of ISIS. But it works well in trying to understand the men – though not the women, we don’t get a chance to hear from them, which is another significant flaw – fighting against evil on a daily basis. It also serves as a reminder that the no. 1 group in the world to whom ISIS are causing the most harm are Muslims (which is not to ignore the savagery of the acts they’ve perpetrated against the west, of course, just to point out the people currently most at risk from them are in the middle-east).

The last scene shows the deep internal damage that ISIS have wrecked upon their fellow Syrians. A spokesman for RBSS thumbs through photos of his murdered friends and is suddenly brought to a halt, lighting up a cigarette. He begins to shake uncontrollably. We realise he’s having a panic attack, a breakdown all the more shocking considering how composed he’s appeared to be throughout the rest of the documentary. In letting down his guard, he reminds me of Tom Hanks at the end of Captain Phillips, alone and suddenly confronted with the enormity of all that he’s faced.

It’s a revelatory moment, one that puts a human face on the long-term damage caused by ISIS. And that face is a quivering, haunted wreck.

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