5. You're Next
You're Next's strength was in the ways different characters contextualise the danger they're in. The Davison family respond to having crossbow bolts fired at their heads as an ingrained collective, complete with interpersonal baggage. They're so self-obsessed that even in the face of annihilation they cannot conceive of a situation in which their own egos are not being managed and coddled. A life of privilege has prepared them for nothing other than success. They expect to win; they cannot think in any other direction. They approach the assault emotionally, responding to a filmic scenario in a filmic fashion. They discern narratives within their struggle and cater to them. They are fools. Erin, an Australian interloper masquerading as pliant arm candy, is completely different. At rest she demonstrates the kind of quiet self-assurance that needlers often mistake as passivity. Galvanised into action, she reacts quickly and logically, upending genre conventions by stamping them prone.
A 90 minute long panic attack that moves and functions on prehistoric story beats. Gravity is pure incident, Dr Ryan Stone evolving before our eyes from the kind of person who frets about losing a screw cap into a human missile. Her craft and crew shredded, Stone has to pick her way along international space debris until she finds a tin can secure enough to take her home. Disappointments and outright failures became the norm, mutating her sense of expectation. Stone changes from a single function component into a badass overseer, able to grapple with her situation and pummel it into compliance. Like You're Next, Gravity uses gender prejudices to turbocharge the will to power. Alfonso and Jonás Caurón understand that taking someone soft and reticent and turning them cold and hard is much more satisfying than seeing a military industrial man succeed.
3. Drug War
Protagonist is a slippery designation in a film like Drug War. At a glance, law and order man Zhang Lei fits the bill as he doggedly pursues a narcotics ring. Lei creates opportunity through a series of charades, adopting the identity of the last drug kingpin he met to woo the next. Lei is following a breadcrumb trail though, he has rules and regulations to consider, his success aligning with the wants of an all-powerful collective. He's a little too remote to truly root for. This interpersonal disconnect allows focus to shift onto Timmy Choi, a cowed drug lord who initial registers as cowardly and compliant. Of course he's nothing of the sort. He's just plotting, waiting for an opportunity to shift events in his favour. Drug War seems to be about how responsible ideology rarely translates into an exciting movie experience. In real life a well-oiled machine succeeding by inches is preferable, but entertainment mediums need people like Timmy Choi taking child hostages.
Milius is devastating. The documentary begins as a long overdue reappraisal of John Milius's contribution to the movie brat movement, covering everything from writing and directing AIP cheapies to being credited by Francis Ford Coppola as the main creative force behind Apocalypse Now. The documentary describes its subject as the go-to guy for boiling, bullshitting machismo. In between acting out anecdotes, we learn Sean Connery regularly had Milius employed to punch up his roles. Clint Eastwood fawns over Conan the Barbarian. George Lucas makes no attempt to hide a genuine love and affection for the man.
The doc charts a rise and fall then seems to be heading towards a wider reassessment. Suddenly everything falls apart. The effects of the debilitating illness that John Milius suffers are amplified by the situation, and I'm not just talking about my own selfish desire to see a Milius helmed Conan sequel. We see a man who has earned the respect and admiration of his peers struck down in the cruellest possible fashion. Milius then becomes a piece about how difficult, impassive older males attempt to articulate their love for each other. They can't just say it, they have to describe it using sports metaphors and denial.
1. Django Unchained
Django Unchained talks about identity and the ways in which extreme social situations impact upon it. Despite the ubiquity of the reading, it doesn't seem to me that the film is about an extravagant German transforming a humble slave into a superman. Instead it's about Schultz and Django's partnership providing a safe, stable environment that allows the former slave to reassert a personality he's always had. The rodeo shitkicker we see at the film's conclusion is, judging by Broomhilda's reaction to him, the man Django has always been. It isn't a comic book super state, it's the defiant one who stole Broomhilda's heart. We don't know him because Django has had to bury that person deep inside himself, lest he attract trouble.
This is the pantomime at the heart of Django Unchained. The white, master characters enjoy wild, overblown personas. They are indulged. Their social status and the colour of their skin allow them to act without filter. The black characters are not allowed this luxury. They have to pore over their statements and reactions, checking them for perceived provocation. While the white characters flirt outrageously with destruction, safe in the knowledge very little can trouble them, the black characters know death can come at any time. One wrong look could be their end. They are thus adept at behaving in a way that causes minimal offence - childlike, inferior. Anything that makes the people with power feel bigger.
King Schultz's fraternity helps stabilises Django, but it doesn't transform him. That comes in the hope that he can be with his wife again. Django Unchained is, at its heart, a deeply romantic film. Django exists to be with Broomhilda. It isn't just love or want, it's need. Next time you watch the film look at Jamie Foxx's performance when Schultz tells Django where his wife's name came from. The second Django realises he's going to discover something new about his love, no matter how tangential the relation, he abandons what he's doing - in this case eating - to sit in rapt attention. Passed over during award season and frequently described as the weak link in Django Unchained, Foxx is actually the calm, collected centre of the film. He knows the stakes better than anyone else and won't do anything to fuck up his last chance at happiness.
The World's End / Pacific Rim / Only God Forgives / Spring Breakers / Ender's Game / Fast & Furious 6 / Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Gods / Elysium / Prisoners / Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part 2 / The Secret Life of Walter Mitty