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My last post drew attention to 2022 being a strong year for female cinema. On a less positive slant, blockbusters were afflicted with a bad case of overwriting. A nonsensical criticism made of blockbusters and especially action movies is that they have no plot. This is patently untrue, as argued eloquently by David Bordwell, and the absurdity of this statement is highlighted by analysing various blockbusters from 2022 in order to understand what worked, what did not, and why.
In terms of the major blockbusters that I saw, all were franchise entries aside from Bullet Train, adapted from the novel by Kotaro Isaka. This film, for my money, had too many diversions and convolutions on its route which led to it running out of steam. While not all action blockbusters lend themselves to transport metaphors, the problems with Bullet Train were not uncommon. As a summary of my thoughts on the blockbusters I saw:
Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore – meandering and confused
Avatar: The Way of Water – immersive and spectacular but lacks focus
Black Adam – an interesting premise squandered by excessive cliches and incoherent world-building
Morbius – forced and too referential to the point of being overdone
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness – under-developed premise
Thor: Love and Thunder – too concerned with being referential and irreverent
Jurassic World: Dominion – why why why?
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever – decently balanced
The Batman – action, spectacle and plot integrated into the detective story
Top Gun: Maverick – clean, crisp, effective
The blockbusters that worked best, for me at least, were those with a focused approach that delivered on a simple premise. The best example is Top Gun: Maverick, which was a huge surprise for someone who does not like the original. The sequel works because it has a straightforward, three-act structure, presented in the most spectacular way possible. By contrast, Avatar: The Way of Water, while even more spectacular and thoroughly immersive, suffers from a lack of focus, too many characters and could easily have been two films. Thus, the recurring problem with these blockbusters – they are overwritten.
The worst offender in this regard was Jurassic World: Dominion. The original Jurassic Park, like Top Gun: Maverick, is a textbook example of efficient storytelling – people come to dinosaur park, dinosaurs escape, people escape from island. Dominion could have used a similar premise or indeed explored the concept at the end of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom – dinosaurs running amok across the Earth! Instead, we were treated to a tedious and hopelessly convoluted meander of dinosaur black-marketing and weaponisation, the return of the original film’s stars because reasons, and a separate narrative about corporate espionage and locusts.
Worrying about locusts when we have the promise of dinosaurs is a truly bizarre choice and demonstrates the strange conviction that more plotting is beneficial. That works when the narrative and character drives are investigation, hence the most impressive blockbuster of the year was for me the least blockbustery, namely The Batman. While Matt Reeves did not skimp on the action, including fights, a car chase, a dive off a (very) tall building and a finale of explosions and flooding, The Batman is largely driven by literal mysteries in the form of riddles and deeper investigations into characters and histories.
I guess all this goes to show you can get a lot from a little, such as Top Gun: Maverick, and a lot from a setting, as in The Batman, but when you over-complicate a straightforward set up, you get plagued.
In my previous post, I summarised the quality of films in 2022 with particular attention to horror, and also highlighted the strong output from Scandinavia. This output included The Worst Person in the World, which is a great film rather than a reference to any contenders for that title (most of them in positions of power). Though released in the UK in 2022, The Worst Person in the World was Norway’s entry for International Feature at the 94th Academy Awards. The Oscars in 2022 will likely be most remembered for Will Smith slapping Chris Rock, which is unfortunate because there were plenty of significant awards that night, not least Smith himself picking up Best Actor for King Richard, his third nomination in the category.
Jessica Chastain also won for her third nomination, picking up Best Actress for The Eyes of Tammy Faye, while Kenneth Branagh, after being nominated in a record-setting seven categories over the course of his career, finally won for Belfast’s Original Screenplay. Jane Campion, the only woman to have been nominated for Achievement in Directing more than once, won on her second nomination for The Power of the Dog, a film that oddly had multiple nominations but only received one award.
Best Picture went to the dark horse contender CODA, a wondrously touching film that also won Supporting Actor for Troy Kutsur and Adapted Screenplay for writer-director Sian Heder.
The wins of CODA, Heder and Campion point to 2022 being a strong year for women in film. Not only did women pick up awards in major categories, but these films and various others were about female experiences. It is a trite observation to say that the film industry is male dominated, but various releases in 2022 presented female experiences for wide audiences. CODA expressed a teenage girl having to grow up too soon, deal with family disability and learn to express herself both personally and artistically, while also navigating the trials of high school and relationships. Other teenage girl experiences were given vibrant life in such contrasting works as Turning Red and Dear Zoe, Piggy and You Are Not My Mother, while female creativity was prominent in Emily and The Lost City.
Fear of men (entirely justified) were key themes in Where The Crawdads Sing, Fresh, Don’t Worry, Darling, Men and Barbarian, while attitudes towards motherhood received critical attention in Mother/Android, Happening, Homebound, Hatching and Huesera: The Bone Woman (holy hell!). Women of power and agency took centre stage in The Woman King, Fall, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and She Said.
Perhaps most refreshingly, female sexuality and desire was a major theme in the aforementioned The Worst Person in the World as well as Benedetta and Three Thousand Years of Longing. These films demonstrated that stories about women can explore a range of different themes, serve multiple genres and entertain various audiences.
Historically, ‘the woman’s film’ was designated (by men) as a specific type of product, with all ‘regular’ films being for men. 2022 gave a strong showing of the range of content that can focus upon women and talk to any viewer who pays attention to what she said.
Disney’s animated Aladdin from 1992 is a classic. Its animation, its songs and Robin Williams’ Genie have entered the pantheon of iconic animation and family entertainment. The 2019 remake, directed by Guy Ritchie, therefore has a lot to live up to. As with previous remakes Cinderella, The Jungle Book and Beauty and the Beast, the film faces a dilemma. Be too different and fans will be alienated. Be the same and what’s the point? Ritchie’s film, if that is even a fair description, gets some elements right and others not so much. The setting of Agrabah is detailed and immersive, rendered in bright colours and vibrant regions through which the inhabitants run, leap and bound. These inhabitants are a colourful (more on that later) cavalcade including Aladdin (Mena Massoud), Jasmine (Naomi Scott), the Sultan (Navid Negahban) and Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), along with animal sidekicks Abu and Rajah, and an array of supporting players. The performances are all fine, the highlight being Will Smith as the Genie. Smith makes the character his own, not imitating Williams even when delivering the same lines. Less successful is the direction, as there seems to be an unresolved tension between Ritchie’s distinctive flourishes and the clarity of Disney’s house style. Scenes between characters as well as the action set pieces are effective, but the musical sequences constitute a distinct shift and feel forced, suggesting Ritchie does not come naturally to the musical genre. There are commonalities between Aladdin and Ritchie’s precious work, especially his two Sherlock Holmes efforts that managed to be family friendly urban action tales. At some points during Aladdin, the speed of the action varies which recalls sequences of Holmes (Robert Downey, Jnr.) planning his next move. Unfortunately, Aladdin‘s characters bursting into song jars with the immersive approach that Ritchie otherwise cultivates. It could be said that all musicals stop for the big numbers, but here the numbers do not feel of a piece with the rest of the film. As a case in point, in one scene a character goes into a personal fantasy to sing, other characters literally vanish, but when she finishes her song, the scene picks up from the point where she started, making the song noticeably separate.
That said, this musical number itself is part of the film’s strongest element – its progressive politics. Much like recent Disney output, such as Frozen and Zootropolis as well as live action fare including Black Panther and Rogue One, Aladdin displays progressive politics without emphasising them. The cast consists almost entirely of people of colour, and rightly there is nothing extraordinary about this, as it is a story set in the Middle East. Even better, the arc of Jasmine at least as significant as that of Aladdin. This Jasmine is not only a woman of independence and agency, but she is also a ruler in waiting who does not need men instructing her. For all its problems, Aladdin does present a whole new world we could all benefit from seeing more of.
Recently, I took on a new job which takes up rather a lot of my time. Therefore, I haven’t posted as much as I, and you, my devoted fans, would like. With the Oscars just around the corner, here’s my quick predictions for the awards, and a few of my own thoughts on them.
I’ve see all but one of these (hopefully get to Green Book one day). All have their strong points, some more than others. My personal favourite film of last year is up for multiple awards, but after its success at the BAFTA awards, I think this year AMPAS will, for the first time, award a film not in the English language the coveted prize of Best Picture. Roma is a magnificent piece of work that makes the ordinary extraordinary, all through the power of cinema. For that, I see AMPAS voting for Roma as Best Picture, and also Best Foreign Language Film for good measure.
Prediction – Roma
Preferred winner – BlacKkKlansman
Alfonso Cuarón for Roma
Yorgis Lanthimoss for The Favourite
Spike Lee for BlacKkKlansman
Adam McKay for Vice
Pawel Paliwkowski for Cold War
Much like Best Picture, I think the Academy will reward Roma, not least for the amazing direction and indeed multi-tasking of Alfonso Cuarón. I would personally vote for Spike Lee for his disruption of cinematic norms, but I see Cuarón picking up his second golden baldie.
Prediction – Alfonso Cuarón
Preferred winner – Spike Lee
The other day, a cat offered its opinion on the Oscar nominations. At any other time, this would seem strange, but Oscar season is when all opinions on film quality and aesthetic worthiness become, according to all and sundry offering opinions, The Truth. Whatever the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominates for awards, everyone from a broadsheet critic to a tweeting cat knows better.
I have opinions on the nominations, but I’m more interested in what they represent rather than knowing, let alone deciding, The Truth about the best films of last year. I am pleased to see some of my favourites from last year nominated, and while other top films of mine have been largely or entirely overlooked, I don’t think the Academy members are wrong, just have different views. In the run up to the awards, I’ll post my views and predictions on the various nominees, but for starters, let’s consider the nominees for Best Picture.
The dominant story around the nominations is the inclusion of Black Panther. The first superhero film to receive this accolade, it is also a significant black film. A blockbuster with a predominantly black cast, that succeeded critically and commercially with its incorporation of commentary about racial history and isolationism, the nomination of Black Panther is a hugely significant cultural event. Criticism of this nomination is largely based around the film’s lack of aesthetic quality: seemingly the film ‘is not really good enough’ to be nominated.
These criticisms do not specify the standards by which film quality should be measured, and imply elitist attitudes against blockbusters and superhero films in general. This cultural prejudice is interesting, since while less harmful, it is no less a prejudice than that based on skin colour. Artistic merit is subjective, and while there may be critical standards that could be considered objective, perhaps from the practitioners such as editors and cinematographers, these standards are unlikely to be universally accepted. Therefore, it seems more appropriate, and certainly less arrogant, to embrace the various subjective positions and accept the wonderful diversity of perspectives.
Speaking of diversity, I wonder if a predominantly white superhero film would have attracted such discussion. The nomination of Black Panther probably is more a political statement than an artistic one, as the members of AMPAS present themselves as progressive. The other nominees also suggest this different approach, with only two of the Best Picture nominees focused upon white men. Of these, I am yet to see Vice so will post my review subsequently, but at the very least it seems to be a satire of conservative white power, a point underscored by Christian Bale’s acceptance speech at the Golden Globes.
A Star Is Born is probably the most traditional and conservative of the nominees, being a remake of a popular rags-to-riches story in which a man helps a woman while wrestling with his personal demons. I loved the film and have no problem with it being nominated, but I am glad it is the only typical nominee. The biopic Bohemian Rhapsody is also typical, but its focus on a gay musician of Asian descent makes it unusual. Films focused on gay characters have received limited awards attention, Philadelphia, Brokeback Mountain and Moonlight being earlier examples. I’m not the biggest fan of Bohemian Rhapsody, and controversy around its director may keep it out of the frontrunning, but I applaud its inclusion.
Another film with homosexual elements is The Favourite, a surprising inclusion because of its focus upon women but also because it is such an odd film. ‘Costume dramas’ do attract attention – see Sense & Sensibility, Elizabeth, Shakespeare In Love – but rarely with this level of frank sexuality and dark comedy. To me, it is another weird choice, and all the better for it. Roma I am yet to see, but from a racial and gender perspective it is refreshing to see a film about a working-class woman in Mexico recognised. Green Book casts an eye over American racial history, much like Driving Miss Daisy, 12 Years A Slave and Hidden Figures, and once I’ve seen it I’ll let you know what I think.
Speaking of American racial history, I am thrilled to see my favourite film of last year nominated in multiple categories. BlacKkKlansman draws attention to important events with contemporary parallels, while engaging with and subverting cinematic norms. Spike Lee has long been a public face of African-American cinema, and Academy recognition brings attention to this important film.
It is easy to read many of the nominations as political. I do not see this as a problem. Film and the film industry are political, and in an age of social media everyone can be politically engaged. By engaging with debates over representation through their attention to films that address gender, race and sexuality, the members of AMPAS demonstrate social engagement. Ironically, to perpetuate lofty and undefined levels of ‘artistic quality’ would be more elitist and out of touch, as AMPAS has long been accused of. This is a radical time, and what we see in these nominations are contributions to debate and discussion. One of the most prominent platforms in the world is contributing to the debate, and that is something I applaud.
After my last post’s batch of bad turkey, which certainly gave me indigestion, let’s celebrate what was great in 2018. There are only twelve slots in my (totally arbitrary and subjective) best of the year list; however, there are plenty of good entries as well as honourable mentions. Among these were some unexpected pleasures, including the grim but in places touching social realist drama Obey, and the charming comedy about family and race relations Eaten by Lions.
I caught some other British efforts at the Norwich Film Festival, including some great shorts as well as the features Waiting For You and The Isle. These films were striking in their use of evocative locations, including the south of France and the Scottish islands, as well as offering intriguing stories.
2018 was a good year for black filmmaking. Critical darling Steve McQueen returned with his fourth feature Widows, a heist thriller with sociological smarts to match its stylistic sheen, that dared to have women of colour standing up to patriarchy. Idris Elba’s directorial debut Yardie used music and location as an intricate and organic part of its story. A great surprise was Blindspotting, that offered thrills and laughs in equal measure, interweaving its politics with its narrative beautifully.
Even better was Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, a brilliant piece of work that combined a true story with period setting and gripping set pieces. BlacKkKlansman subverted genre expectations and performed a reclamation of cinema through its formal properties, delivering a powerful and contemporary message. The highest profile ‘black film’ was Black Panther. While its racial politics received criticism and there is still a long way to go in terms of equal representation, Marvel demonstrated that a mainstream blockbuster can have a serious engagement with racial politics and isolationism, and also be a huge financial success.
Marvel Studios followed Black Panther with Avengers: Infinity War, a staggeringly ambitious super-powered epic. With ten years and eighteen films behind it, Infinity War balanced its multiple storylines and characters with verve and aplomb. Amidst the colourful fun, Infinity War also performed a sober exploration of power, making it exceptional in the superhero genre and a highlight of the year.
Other superhero exploits came in animated form, as Pixar delivered Incredibles 2. Fans of the original waited fourteen years to revisit the exploits of the Parr/Incredible family, and Brad Bird and his team did not disappoint with an explosive action adventure that engaged with ideas around gender and our relationship with technology. Sony Animation maintained their hold on web-slinging property as Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse combined dazzling displays of digital dexterity as well as just the right level of postmodern knowingness, proving that universes stretch just as much as spandex.
Perhaps the year’s biggest thrills came from a mega-star rather than a superhero. After twenty-two years, five previous films and with a star approaching sixty, Mission: Impossible – Fallout was a fabulous continuation of this enduring franchise. Bathroom fights, stolen plutonium, mountain climbing/falling, helicopter chases and a halo jump led to a breathless and exhilarating experience, with genuine emotion giving the film heart to go with its heft.
Other exhilarating experiences came from Ready Player One – the second Spielberg of the year that joyously embraced new technology – and First Man, which delivered a riveting journey into outer space that focused on the rivets themselves. While these films had very different subject matters – dystopian future and the tension between fantasy and reality, historical drama about journeys into grief as well as to the Moon – both featured exquisite levels of detail, every bit as immersive and compelling as each other.
By way of contrast, Cold War was a quintessential ‘art film’ that was involving and enthralling despite its rigid formalism. Stark black and white cinematography, interpersonal and geopolitical concerns, intimate performances and a heartbreaking story united in one of the most emotional yet carefully contained films of the year. Speaking of heartbreak, A Star is Born was an equally uplifting and devastating tale of music and romance, demonstrating that Lady Gaga is a fine actor and Bradley Cooper a fine director. And in one of the year’s strangest and most striking works, Lynne Ramsey delivered You Were Never Really Here, a brilliantly immersive revenge thriller, more about mood and experience than plot and narrative.
Finally, after this preamble, it is time to announce Vincent’s View on the Top Twelve Films of 2018. Therefore, and without further ado:
On the twelfth day of Christmas
The movies gave to me
Twelve lunar landings
Ten Lady Birds
Nine Stars a-birthing
Eight Ready Players
Seven Black Panthers
Six Watery Shapes
Five Phantom Threads
Three Ebbing Billboards
Two Were Never Really Here
And a Blac-K-k-K-lansman.
With awards season now upon us, I look forward to the many offerings that 2019 will bring.
2018 offered plenty of pleasures, ranging from the enjoyably silly Rampage to the grimly po-faced Mile 22. It proved an especially fruitful year for horror cinema – I missed out on Hereditary, which attracted a lot of discussion, but did catch Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman’s adaptation of their stage show Ghost Stories, which demonstrated (after)life in the anthology drama. I wasn’t as impressed by Ghost Stories as some have been, finding it a bit too neat when what I wanted was a devastating collapse of reason and rationality (which is hardly unreasonable). More effective was A Quiet Place, which proved a brilliant thrill. It’s a weird film that, if you think about it, rapidly develops major holes but, while you watch it, is absorbing and genuinely terrifying, especially if you have an aversion to bare feet.
Other horror offerings included the underwhelming The Little Stranger and the disappointing Suspiria (on which more later). Far more impressive was the surprisingly engrossing Overlord, that delivered gruesome horror in a World War II setting. But standing masked head and shoulders in the horror genre was David Gordon Green’s Halloween, a triumphant return of this classic series that provided genuine old school tension combined with modern sensibilities and awareness.
Halloween was far from the only familiar name for, as has become standard, the box office was ruled by sequels and franchise instalments. These were of varying quality, as Deadpool 2 provided more of the same to diminished returns on the laugh front, although extra characters did swell the interest. Ant-Man and the Wasp was the third MCU entry after Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War (on which more later), and proved to be a suitably light-hearted caper, although it did suffer from an overuse of the word ‘quantum’ that failed to make the techno-babble any more comprehensible.
During the summer, Star Wars provided us with Solo: A Star Wars Story. This was perhaps not a story we needed, but it managed to be one that the fans of Han Solo deserved, breathing new life into this stalwart from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Similar rejuvenation occurred with Ocean’s 8. Rather than being a gimmicky cash-in, this gender-inverted caper offered a shine all of its own.
Perhaps the year’s most pleasant surprise was Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. When Jurassic World opened in 2015, I thought the franchise should go extinct, but this latest instalment went to strange and encouraging new places, and I look forward to where the dinosaurs will go next. Therefore, while there was varying quality, all of these films did provide some enjoyment.
In one of the stupidest moments in movie history, Jaws: The Revenge features a shark that roars. Aquaman may remind viewers of this epic piece of idiocy, as it features a range of sea creatures, including sharks, giant seahorses and an apparent Kronosaurus, that growl and snarl. The toothsome recollection is just one of many reminders in a film that is not only so oceanically stupid that it collapses like tissue paper in the tide the second you think about it, but so overtly derivative it feels like a deliberate pastiche. Narrative and visual tropes from the likes of Thor, Batman Begins, Gladiator, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Black Panther, Clash of the Titans and more compete for space within a world of wet sand that disintegrates under its own tide. The visual effects teams create bright and bombastic digital environments, but they fail to create a sense of wonder. As the titular hero Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) experiences an underwater kingdom, there seems little effort to make it strange or wonderful, which is a waste of the fine visuals. Yet despite these problems, director James Wan still manages to craft a decent superhero adventure. Adventures of this sort largely depend on the exploration, both narrative and visual, of super powers and heroic identity. When it comes to the action sequences, Wan shows stylistic flourish with some immersive long takes in which combatants spin, slash, shoot and swim at great speed. Central to these sequences are the powers of Arthur, who possesses super strength, speed, resilience – what self-respecting superhero doesn’t have these? – and the ability to breathe and talk underwater. A further power that proves crucial is the ability to communicate with sea creatures. An early scene in this origin story shows the young Arthur ridiculed for talking to fish, and a striking visual image captures the inhabitants of an aquarium assembling in a formation behind him. This conceit suggests that the greatest power is communication, a worthy addition to the pantheon of superpowers, and is one of two things that save the film from being a completely damp squib. The other is Momoa himself, a likable and engaging lead who delivers a performance of physical grace and witty personality. Arthur’s interplay with Mera (Amber Heard) is enjoyable, and while their globetrotting raises objections of ‘That was awfully quick’ and ‘How do they know how to do that?’, it also allows them to build a fun relationship. Thanks to its engagement with communication, and the charm of its leads, Aquaman manages to keep its head above water despite the currents of dumbness that threaten to engulf it.
Superhero narratives have a reputation for being conservative. Terms such as chauvinistic, right wing and valorising the cult of the individual often appear in discussions of the genre. Since Pixar and director Brad Bird first presented their superpowered family in 2004, films such as Wonder Woman and Black Panther have offered alternatives to this pattern. Incredibles 2 does so as well, making it the best sort of sequel: it gives us what we know and expect and also something new. There is the same blend of action and humour, much of the latter deriving from Bob Parr/Mr Incredible’s (Craig T. Nelson) struggling with domesticity while Helen/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) leads on the action front. In one bravura sequence, a souped-up motorcycle chases a train with the tangibility and immediacy of live action. The introduction of more supers allows for further exhilarating sequences, and the humour and action are brought together brilliantly with the development of Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile).
All this is great fun, but in its narrative development and also world building, Incredibles 2 displays some surprising elements. The film’s focus on Helen is not the limit of its exploration of gender, as discussions between Helen and Evelyn Deavor (Catherine Keener) as well as Voyd (Sophia Bush) raise further issues. Furthermore, Incredibles 2 also questions our engagement with technology through its villain the Screen Slaver, and while this discourse could be reduced to clichéd monologuing, it is striking that the film includes this feature. In addition, there is a curious social aspect to the presence of supers in the film’s world. When Helen and Bob consider their future, they refer to the private sector, and benevolent government agencies are shut down due to public mistrust. All of this distances the Incredibles from the more self-righteous exploits of Batman and Iron Man. If superheroes are presented as inspirational figures, especially for children, figures that want to help others and make the world a better place, Incredibles 2 suggests that the place to do that is within the purview of the state. In a time of rampant individualism and self-interest, Incredibles 2 continues Disney’s surprising messages of acceptance, tolerance and state intervention and responsibility. If the imagined nation the United States of Disney actually practiced what films such as Zootopia, Beauty and the Beast and now Incredibles 2 suggest, it might not be so bad. And that may be the most incredible thing of all.