Monday, 30 December 2019

Films 2019

Considering we're a good decade into comic book movies completely dominating the box office, it's nice that someone (hands-on producer James Cameron) has finally decided to create works better aligned with the violent science fiction that appealed to me as a child. The thrills in both Alita: Battle Angel and Terminator: Dark Fate are derivative. Alita is less an adaptation of Yukito Kishiro's manga Gunnm and more a live-action reworking of Hiroshi Fukutomi's Rusty Angel and Tears Sign OVAs. The video release, snapped up for UK distribution by viscera specialists Manga Entertainment, were one of a glut of releases designed to capitalise on sales of Akira VHS tapes and the long-running success of  IPC's flagship future shock comic, 2000 AD. Robert Rodriguez's film inherits some of the splatterpunk morality dubbed onto these Japanese animations; a bloodthirsty irreverence that stands apart from the knightly conduct of the Marvel set.

Dark Fate's appeal is even more specific. Beyond the recycling of ideas and situations present in the other, post-Terminator 2: Judgment Day sequels, Tim Miller's film functions as an expensive realisation of subordinate media, particularly Dark Horse's licensed comic books. Dark Fate features the multiple, harmonious machines seen in The Terminator: Tempest; the grinding, metal on metal battles of The Terminator: Secondary Objectives (a trick T2 missed by deploying a malleable, mercury man); and the malfunctioning chimera of The Terminator: The Enemy Within. As well as these extremely niche pleasures, Dark Fate is a big budget, science fiction blockbuster willing to engage with our current, fracturing reality. The film not only depicts the human misery of the Trump administration's migrant detention centres, it also doesn't shy away from the ways in which these facilities align with the Terminator series' fictional agents of human extinction.

Original review - Alita: Battle Angel
Original review - Terminator: Dark Fate

Set in a Northern Chinese industrial town, Ash is Purest White talks about community, interpersonal responsibility, and the ways in which modernity, as well as the new money it brings, can obscure the connections that keep people together. Zhao Tao plays Qiao, the girlfriend of Liao Fan's Bin, a low level gangster who, really, just looks the part. Bin's a passenger, his only ability an aptitude for glomming on to those in ascension. That he doesn't deserve Qiao's loyalty is a story told over decades in writer-director Jia Zhangke's film. Qiao's love is fixed, a deep root that is never treated as an obligation or weakness within Ash. That Qiao continues to care for both Bin and her community despite all the hardship that comes her way is evidence of an immutable, invincible strength. This canny determination radiates throughout Zhangke's film, begging the viewer to assess Tao, the director's wife and muse, in the same adoring terms as her husband.

Hyperbolic comic book rhythms interpreted as pure, delirious motion. Dragon Ball Super: Broly continues the work begun on Fuji TV's Dragon Ball Super series. What started off as a brightly coloured schedule filler eventually developed into the go-to destination for propulsive, impossible, combat. Character designer Naohiro Shintai is key for this feature, providing new drafts of Akira Toriyama's cast that confer playfulness and flexibility in a series that has sometimes strayed into overblown, stiff, musculature. Broly - like last year's excellent Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse - doesn't over-correct the wonder provided by individual animators to stick, rigidly, to one consistent frequency. Yuya Takahashi's throbbing, wall scroll seconds exist happily alongside Naoki Tate's rubbery, comedic acting and the fluorescent, body-warping histrionics of Yoshihiko Umakoshi. A ferocious, ear-ringing experience.

A mother-daughter relationship examined under extreme, subsistence stresses. Gwen takes the child's perspective, building itself around their universal desire to impress a parent with obedience and maturity during trying times. William McGregor's film unfolds slowly, adopting the halting pace of newly industrial life. This freezing hesitance allows us to marinate in the systems and situations that spell disaster for the titular teenager. Gwen is folk horror without a supernatural component, the driving force here is, instead, avarice, exemplified by a plump English lord protected by wealth and success. Authority in Gwen, as in life really, is power structured around the perception of debt. The men who follow their odious boss to run women and children out of their homes aren't portrayed as rabid here, they're just not brave enough to take a stand against the person who provides them income.

High Life represents space travel at its lowest, least romantic ebb - the interstellar craft that traps the central death row inmates betrays no aerodynamic features, looking very much like several stacked shipping containers hurtling towards oblivion. Claire Denis' film is assembled out of order. We see visions of an Earth irreparably scarred by petrochemical emissions; a zombie crew of young adults wincing their way through intrusive sex experiments to score some form of administered imbalance that might soothe their unending, clearly forsaken, mission. This guinea pig misery is contrasted with short but affecting sequences of Robert Pattinson's Monte caring for an infant named Willow. The child is his anchor, a tiny little person for him to love and care for. She consumes his time. Both parties rely on the other, their relationship conferring meaning and purpose on this otherwise misbegotten journey. 

The least romantic of Scorsese's gangster epics, The Irishman is a tale of compromise and treachery told over decades. It's the organised crime film as a dirge. Scorsese's film is told from the perspective of Frank Sheeran, a delivery truck driver who has come home from war with a newfound moral flexibility that allows the former solider to submerge himself in illegal activities. Sheeran isn't a raconteur though, his position within this subculture doesn't revolve around his ability to spin a yarn or make bold, adventurous moves, Sheeran is simply willing to break the law for personal gain. His own, self-realised attempts at criminality are laughable, easily recognised and thwarted by the people he's defrauding.

Frank doesn't care - this is his strength in this realm, an ability to push on despite all the human wreckage he leaves in his wake. This obliviousness extends to Sheeran's home life. His children, particularly Lucy Gallina and Anna Paquin's Peggy, are scared of him. He's the monstrous, masculine presence in the home, the person they cannot trust with their troubles because he only has one response - hammering, arthritic violence. Sheeran doesn't even recognise this simple fact. He's too hung up on his status and money to notice. The Irishman talks about fatherhood and misplaced priorities as rolling opportunities for long term interpersonal disaster. No matter who you pal around with, how important they are or how wealthy their company makes you, if your children cannot love you then, in the end, you're a failure.

Period films usually encourage filmmakers to explore width and space, the relationship between expanding, pre-industrial scenes and the tiny, extant lives they connect with. Shinya Tsukamoto's Killing heads off in the opposite direction, pulling close to its subjects to examine the strain and agitation that act upon their bodies. Tsukamoto and Satoshi Hayashi's photography depicts the human form as landscape, a quivering vista that must constantly channel deep, emotionally complex, feelings of anxiety and excitement to proceed. The Samurai sword, typically a weapon of supernatural precision, is portrayed here as an object built out of smaller, misaligned components. The Tsuka-Ito stringing chafes against the hand; the Tsuba guard rattles in place against a blade that hasn't cut. Tsukamoto drives at these momentary inconveniences to tell the story of an expert swordsman who cannot bear to strike another person.

Midsommar revolves around Florence Pugh's Dani. The actress providing a vulnerable, human performance, instantly recognisable as someone who has spent her life putting other people, and their problems, before her own. Dani has overcompensated to such a degree that her own wants have shrunken to nothing. Ari Aster's film is a sequence of opportunities to fret about this woman. The potential for hurt that tracks in on Dani is not simply the very real threat of being placed atop a raging bonfire, Dani must also suffer a boyfriend who completely fails to offer any hint of emotional support.

Quite apparently Jack Reynor's Christian considers Dani's exhausted, devastated response to her parents murder as a great big nag. A hassle designed to put a drain of his ability to do, or behave, however he wants. Christian is not just selfish, he's prickly too. A leech insulated from the thoughtless damage he perpetuates by a towering ego that views everyone around him in transactional terms. This arrogance is what prevents him from sensing his own doom. Even when obviously in extreme peril, Christian adopts the haughty bluster of an academic, poking and prodding at a Swedish fertility cult who have already figured out how to use him up. Dani, a person used to genuine, empathetic connection, makes herself useful, helping the women cook and asking questions designed to spark understanding rather than evaluation. She integrates, eventually finding herself in a position where we are no longer expected to worry about her.

With a title like Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood, it's no surprise that Quentin Tarantino's latest is a love letter to the heartland of the American film industry. Tarantino's Hollywood concerns itself with actors and agents, the facade rather than the deeper, more obviously odious machinations that power the town. Our guides through the story, such as it is, are Leonardo DiCaprio's handsome cowboy man, Rick Dalton; Brad Pitt's loyal stuntman-cum-personal assistant Cliff Booth; and Margot Robbie's thoroughly guileless Sharon Tate.

Dalton's story is like an aside in a Sir Christopher Frayling film studies book come to life - a television actor sliding towards obsolescence, offered a second-chance at stardom by Italian westerns and poliziotteschi action films. You hang out with the actor as he comes around to the decision, as he seizes on an underexplored instinct for salivating, but credible, melodrama, recapturing the magic that made him a star in the first place. Booth's strand confronts genuine, rather than imagined, desuetude. A damned man with a knack for pulverising violence, happy to eke out a living keeping his temperamental best friend buoyant.

Tate is pure sunshine, a young actress awed and appreciative of her power to entertain. In Tarantino's film, these people - actors and their support doubles - are united by a desire to create, to reach inside and deconstruct their failings and neuroses as a route to powering themselves through their next, exhausting performance. Strength and personal fortitude are expressed through twisting, self-inflicted turbulence. So when Tarantino's idea of industry people crowd up against the curdled end of the back-to-the-land movement - depicted here as stoned children with surface-level pop culture reads - it's no wonder they triumph so easily.

Song Kang-ho's Kim Ki-taek is Parasite's loose cannon. His family's slow, methodical, infiltration of the affluent Park family would likely go further, reaping longer-lasting rewards and siphoning off more money were it not for the father's misplaced sense of male camaraderie. Without realising, Ki-taek has taken on the role with the least amount of social status. He doesn't understand that his job as the Park's personal chauffeur is on the shakiest ground. His wife, Chung-sook (played by Chang Hyae-jin), has taken on the safest position - live-in housekeeper - the woman the Kims bully out of the role had been there almost as long as the house has stood. The Kim children, Choi Woo-shik's Ki-woo and Park So-dam's Ki-jeong, are just as canny as their mother, posing as academics, a social position that occupies a status that stands outside of mere financial standing.

The wealthy, superficial Parks must defer to them - in matters of education, they are the experts. Ki-taek though is just the driver. He's interchangeable, expected to be grateful. When he tries to talk man-to-man with Lee Sun-kyun's Dong-ik, the head of the Park family, he simply irritates, viewed as a bumbling little man trying to impress himself on his betters. Writer-director Bong Joon-ho manages to reduce the unspoken disparity that exists between these two men down to one devastating piece of information - Dong-ik thinks Ki-taek smells. We are told that the offending scent is that of the grasping, sweaty, public transport masses Dong-ik goes out of his way to avoid. In his crisp, freshly pressed shirt, sat in his air-conditioned car, this intrusive, animal odour represents reality encroaching on Dong-ik's lavender-scented success. This whiff, emblematic of every failure the IT CEO has worked to insulate himself from, breaks his carefully cultivated spell.

The forty-odd year saga of the Skywalker clan draws to a close with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, a sequel to the Star Wars: The Last Jedi that makes almost zero effort to honour the characters or concepts contained within Rian Johnson's film. What Rise does offer though is a strained but pleasant sense of mythological reassessment, similar to the one David Lynch (or, perhaps more accurately, the pruning team working at Dino De Laurentiis' behest) adopted when constructing 1984's Dune. Daisy Ridley's Rey and Adam Driver's Kylo Ren, characters who had previously been marked by their mutual, human longing for familial connection, are reorganised into pure, fight comics archetype - two halves of a fabled, convoluted whole.

Rey and Ren's relationship breaks reality, the duo able to reach across time and space to physically connect with each other in moments of crisis. They are completely out of step with the people and machinations that track in on them. Their powers go beyond the material realm, able to transfer life energies between themselves and communicate with the afterlife - following his own death and resurrection, Ren wills a memory of his father, Harrison Ford's Han Solo, into physical being. He replays their tragic, final moments than steers the recollection towards a happier, more constructive resolution. Lacking a pivotal mistake to reconfigure, it is the dead who come to Rey. They sing to her, raising her up with kind words and encouragement to fulfil the destiny they themselves fumbled.

Original review

Alita: Battle Angel // Ash is Purest White // Dragon Ball Super: Broly // Gwen // High Life // The Irishman // Killing // Midsommar // Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood // Parasite // Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker // Terminator: Dark Fate

Also liked:

Amazing Grace // Apocalypse Now: Final Cut // Apollo 11 // Avengement // The Beach Bum // Booksmart // Bumblebee // Child's Play // Crawl // Doctor Sleep // The Favourite // The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil // Godzilla: King of the Monsters // Hagazussa // Hustlers // John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum // Joker // Knock Down the House // Little Women // Memory: The Origins of Alien // The Miami Showband Massacre // Mid90s // Monos // Rambo: Last Blood // Reign of the Supermen // See You Yesterday // 6 Underground // Wild Rose // X-Men: Dark Phoenix

No comments: