Monday, 15 January 2018

Films 2017

Alien: Covenant abandons Prometheus' questions about humanity's makers to instead ponder our race's future on a galactic scale, asking what legacy we might hope to leave behind. The film's answer is iterative and generational, concluding that mankind is essentially immaterial to what is to follow. We're catalysts, meat grist to power the pupal stage of our offspring. Just as our creators have been swept away, so too will we. It's a big, science fiction idea - the tools we've created to help us chart the stars have actually rendered us bovine. In this detail Covenant operates as a complementary piece to both Blade Runner and the moment in which Alien's Ash praises the perfection of Kane's son.

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Cursed to be invincible, Takuya Kimura's Manji is the perfect canvas for Takashi Miike to explore the latest in digital laceration technology. Talented, but not supernaturally so, in the art of sword-fighting, Manji stumbles from one apocalyptic battle to another, slaughtering hundreds for his beloved waifs. Blade of the Immortal then is a rolling thesis on decline and disorder. Beautiful players appear in crisp, expensive clothes. They carry bespoke weapons and strut accordingly. Likewise, Immortal's cast exist in ornately detailed environments; clacking wooden sets layered to a depth that borders on obsessive. These visual characteristics exist not so much to convey a specific sense of reality, but rather to establish a space or person of value that will, eventually, be broken by the rampaging Manji. Miike explores chanbara and how it communicates Japan's turbulent past, arriving at an idealised, superheroic image that cannot help but chew its own arm off.

Blade Runner 2049's hero isn't programmed to wonder, the overt rebellious streak that drove Batty and the rest of the Nexus 6 replicants has seemingly been nailed down to bad code and suppressed. K knows he's a tool and accepts it, trapped and complying within the limits imposed by both his captivity and the orders that have been written into his DNA. K does have a tiny release valve though, a small exploit that he can use to needle away at his fractional freedom. He uses the money he collects retiring his malfunctioning brethren to buy piecemeal upgrades for his holographic girlfriend Joi.

Pre-tweak Joi is designed solely to please, clumsily cycling through various domestic and sexual fantasy archetypes to arrive at a state that her owner finds acceptable. Post-tweak Joi's attempts at seduction take a finer, more nuanced approach. Rather than simply offer up a visual that excites in the moment, Joi constructs an entire series of interactions around the notion of a loving spouse who desires physical and emotional intimacy. K has slowly and methodically built a being with the ability to think and diverge in ways that his programming and stringent defragging do not allow. It's revolt as a micro-aggression, an underling using the only means afforded to his social class to make the tiniest, most private statement of defiance.

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Brawl in Cell Block 99 takes its time, building early scenes and situations around a character that we come to understand as grim but determined. There's a certain inevitability about Bradley Thomas. If he says he's going to do something, come hell or high water, he will do it.

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Ostensibly the story of Olympic wrestlers Geeta and Babita Phogat, Nitesh Tiwari's Dangal almost immediately reveals itself as a film about the function of being a parent - in this case the father to several girls. Aamir Khan's Mahavir Singh Phogat is a national wrestling champion who never quite made it to the world stage. Without a son to continue his legacy, Phogat concentrates his efforts on his oldest daughters, slowly molding them into freestyle champions.

Phogat's training is total, forcing the children to abandon any emerging teenage vanity, not to mention their mother's faith. Phogat transforms Geeta and Babita into social outcasts. Their discomfort ignored in service to Phogat's idea of a higher calling. There's violence in what this father has done to his children. He has, in a sense, hijacked their identity. Dangal tempers this bubbling outrage by repeatedly demonstrating Phogat's commitment to his daughters. He doesn't ask them to do anything he either hasn't done or will not do himself. When Geeta flounders away from home, finding herself at odds with her passive coach and uncomfortable competing at an international level, Phogat uproots himself, moving across the country to be available to his daughter.

Whenever Dunkirk's pace threatens to slacken or, God forbid, provide a gasp of breathing room, the film hurtles off to another temporal point where jeopardy can be piled on until the next natural break. The three stories - The Mole, The Sea, The Air - collide and interconnect frequently, working in service to their own individual dramas while also providing a wider perspective on the unfolding nightmare. Nolan doesn't hold back these convergence points either, we often see disastrous results long before any of the boys summon up the courage to instigate them. These shifting, even clashing viewpoints are another tool used to express the terrifying indifference of collapsing, ruptured machinery.

Full review

Finally washing up on British shores this year, Shinya Tsukamoto's Fires on the Plain uses blazing digital photography to capture the malarial despair of the Pacific War. Tsukamoto shoots hand-held and shaky, following his own malnourished body around dense jungles as he stumbles from one hopeless situation to the next. Although intensely anachronistic, sometimes even registering as unpleasantly cheap, Tsukamoto and Satoshi Hayashi's action camerawork does give the film an alarming sense of intimacy. It allows us to experience the sights and sounds of total defeat an inch from Private Tamura's face.

Included on home video releases of Jordan Peele's Get Out is an alternative ending in which Chris isn't rescued by his friend Rod, instead the patrol car that rolls up on Chris strangling Rose contains two white police officers who somehow manage not to shoot him on sight. Our hero ends up imprisoned for exterminating his captors, Chris accepting his lot with a grim sense of satisfaction - he may have lost his life but justice has been served. This unsatisfying, rejected conclusion highlights what is great about Get Out as released. The film trusts its audience not to expect the rigid, hypocritical order of a Hollywood code style conclusion. A great crime has been committed against Chris, those people attempted to bury his identity under that of a spliced-in slave master. They absolutely deserved to die by his hand .

Droning and headachy, Good Time simulates desperation. Robert Pattinson plays Connie Nikas, a relentless opportunist who seeks to work every human interaction to his advantage. Nikas, usually utilising his off-brand good lucks or his unceasing ability to chatter towards a point, twists the behaviour of those around him until they are, essentially, compliant mechanical dolls. Directors Ben and Josh Safdie stage crisis criminality as consumptive and self-defeating, Nikas never makes any gains against the system or the authorities, instead he just ruins the lives of every other poor person he comes into contact with.

Alice Lowe's Prevenge transforms the dull platitudes surrounding pregnancy into something nightmarish and insistent. Having lost her partner during a climbing accident, Lowe's heavily pregnant Ruth is left alone with only the bloodthirsty voice of her unborn baby for company. Prevenge expands on the idea that Ruth has somehow abdicated her autonomy by carrying a child. Her life is no longer her own, her actions driven entirely by strange, alien impulses. As Ruth's cheery midwife explains, she's basically a vehicle now. Ruth's needs and wants are secondary to the (homicidal) life growing inside her. It's a pep talk designed to make a situation easier - think big picture - but all it does is underline the erasure of  Ruth's identity.

Unlike your standard middle chapter, Star Wars: The Last Jedi hasn't been written to signpost a route to an eventual outcome. The film races straight into conflict, arriving at moments that push resolution then demand a wider re-evaluation. Rather than write to please the kind of episodic drip-feed you might expect, Johnson has constructed his film around Daisy Ridley's Rey and Adam Driver's Kylo Ren. The film moves on their decisions, using their mounting sense of uncertainty to posit routes and solutions that lie outside the strict binaries their masters are selling. Even an important, legacy character like Luke Skywalker is examined and deconstructed in ways that predominantly cater to the needs of Rey and Ren's arcs.

Full review

Structurally, Your Name hits you in waves. Makoto Shinkai's film begins as a dreamy identity mix-up with rural schoolgirl Mitsuha and big-city schoolboy Taki periodically and inexplicably swapping bodies. Since they're both fundamentally good, their response to this predicament is altruistic. Rather than use the temporary freedom to indulge their wicked fantasies, they work to improve the other's lot in life, leaving each other detailed, digital diaries to explain their choices. Naturally, a connection is formed, then immediately thwarted. Your Name isn't interested in heading straight for an expected, cute conclusion. The film never loses sight of the idea that Mitsuha and Taki's relationship began as something intangible, their connection only completely understood immediately upon waking, before your brain has had the chance to file the ache away.

Alien: Covenant // Blade of the Immortal // Blade Runner 2049 // Brawl in Cell Block 99 // Dangal // Dunkirk // Fires on the Plain // Get Out // Good Time // Prevenge // Star Wars: The Last Jedi // Your Name

Also Liked:

Baby Driver // The Big Sick // Call Me By Your Name // Catfight // Colossal // Death Note // Fast & Furious 8 // The Foreigner // Free Fire // King Arthur: Legend of the Sword // Kong: Skull Island // I, Tonya // Justice League // La La Land // Logan // Paddington 2 // 6 Days // Spider-Man: Homecoming // Thor: Ragnarok // Transformers: The Last Knight // Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets // The Villainess // War of the Planet of the Apes // Wonder Woman

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