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Although the cinema can offer tremendous experiences, sometimes there is a misfire. 2018 had much that delighted but also some turkeys. Thankfully, there were few serious stinkers, and it might be fair to say that no film is completely without merit so long as it is well lit, so you can see what’s going on. That said, there were some films in 2018 that had me variously shaking my head, silently shouting at the scream and coming out afterwards wondering how it all went so wrong.
As mentioned in my last post, The Little Stranger was underwhelming. Although director Lenny Abrahamson captured a very British sense of reserve, the film failed to generate much tension or societal satire. A bigger disappointment was Suspiria, Luca Guadagnino’s remake of the Dario Argento classic. A great power of cinema is to show rather than tell, and Suspiria told too much, was far too long and overwritten to a tedious degree. Horror maestro Eli Roth made an effort at family fare with The House with A Clock in Its Walls. Despite the winning combination of Jack Black and Cate Blanchett, THWACIIW was flat and laboured, offering only passing enjoyment.
As is par for the course these days, 2018 offered various superhero films, and while some of them were brilliant (watch this space), others demonstrated the pitfalls of the genre. Venom was a wasted opportunity that lost its potential in chaotic incoherence, and while I didn’t hate Aquaman, it had a lot of soggy moments. Still, not everything can entertain to Infinity…
Computer based movies proved a less than inspiring source in 2018, as Searching took an interesting premise but stretched it beyond credibility. Documenting and dramatising lives lived through technological devices has significant potential, but Searching took the conceit too far in terms of its timeframe and reasons (or lack thereof) for the material to appear on screen. On the adaptation front, Tomb Raider was an improvement over the previous efforts, offering a more grounded approach to the adventures of Lara Croft. Nonetheless, it was still a disappointment since everything it offered had been done before and better. Speaking of which, Sicario 2: Soldado proved a poor follow-up to the 2015 original. Stefano Sollima’s overreliance on a crashing score and a lack of nihilism made this a weak and ultimately ineffective thriller, despite the promise of its genre and evocative setting.
Although there were few stinkers in 2018, that doesn’t mean there weren’t any. The Equalizer 2 was a huge disappointment after the pleasant surprise of the 2014 original. When I saw it, one of my viewing companions actually fell asleep. He said he would not have dozed off if he had been less tired, but would have stayed awake if the film had been more engaging. It is easy to see his point, as the disparate storylines, vague characterisation and pedestrian direction made this a seriously unequal sequel.
The worst offering of the year though, just as it was half way through the year, was Red Sparrow. Everything about this said I would like it: a genre I love, proven directorial chops, great cast, genuine commitment to being unflinchingly brutal. Yet the result was laboured, the nastiness at times gratuitous and the film as a whole deeply boring. It was a cinematic experience that I spent waiting for the film to get good, something to kick in, give me a twist that carried dramatic weight, draw me into the scenes of torture or abuse, and it failed on pretty much all fronts. It wasn’t a total disaster, since there was some moody lighting at times, but the film proved to be more turkey than sparrow.
After the mixed responses to Man of Steel, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad, Wonder Woman demonstrated that given the right level of care and attention, DC could deliver an effective superhero film both for audiences and critics. Justice League sheds the ponderousness of BVS: DOJ and avoids the jumbled storytelling of Suicide Squad, borrows plot elements from both The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron, and presents a colourful array of characters. The new arrivals – Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa) Barry Allen/The Flash (Ezra Miller), Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher) – receive short shrift in the rush to squeeze everything into two hours, and would have benefitted from earlier standalone films to give them and their respective worlds more detail. The lack of balance between characters is mirrored by the imbalance between the wit of Joss Whedon and Chris Terrio’s script and the portentousness of Zack Snyder’s direction, a problem that also affected BVS: DOJ. Despite this, Justice League still manages to deliver on the promise of multiple super-powered individuals, with a sometimes dazzling display of spectacular abilities, all of which are neatly tied to character development. From Bruce Wayne’s Batman’s (Ben Affleck) array of wonderful toys (composer Danny Elfman also references his own score from 1989’s Batman) to Diana Prince/Wonder Woman’s (Gal Gadot) reluctance to lead, Cyborg’s fear over the loss of his humanity to Aquaman’s cynicism and the Flash’s youthful exuberance, powers work as part of identity, and the appropriate use of this power is a recurring conceit of the film. Some of these potential heroes have to mature into their powers, others need to be reminded of its responsible use or restraint. Against all this, poorly-rendered (in both written and visual terms) villain Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) is rather underpowered despite his goal of planetary conquest, and the film’s chief pleasure is watching the members of the League bounce off each other verbally and physically. Several spectacular set pieces – one with a semi-assembled League and another with them complete – deliver smackdowns of varied spectacle and visual impact, while a neat strand of humour (largely coming from Flash) adds further pep to the concoction. Justice League falls someway short of the standard set by Wonder Woman, but it is far from kryptonite for the DCEU.
Cinema is the capturing and creation of space, within which events and characters take shape. Frequently films create a semblance of unified space, but in the case of Assassin’s Creed, space is often fluid and inconstant. Justin Kurtzel’s adaptation of Ubisoft’s blockbusting computer game achieves the remarkable feat of creating an immersive experience that allows the viewer to vicariously undergo the experiences of Cal Lynch (Michael Fassbender), descendant of assassin Aguilar (also Fassbender), as he enters the Animus, a device that causes him to relive the experiences of his ancestor. The technobabble explanations provided by Dr Sophia Rikken (Marion Cotillard), part of a modernised Templar Knights, adds to the mystery of the events that understandably confuse Cal, but once he enters the Animus and his movements and feelings blend with those of Aguilar, the viewer is set for a visceral and enthralling experience where space, time and personality shift dramatically and arrestingly. Kurtzel stylises speech, location and action in a manner similar to his superb Macbeth, and while the emotional heft of Assassin’s Creed may not reach that of the Shakespearean tragedy, it does succeed as a strong film based on a video game (a rare beast indeed), and confirms Kurtzel as a promising talent to watch.
There is a widely held misconception that BVS: DOJ is about an epic physical showdown. It isn’t. What the title refers to, and what the film portrays over its sometimes ponderous running time, is an ideological debate between saviour and vigilante. Perhaps surprisingly for a filmmaker best known for bombastic action set pieces, Zack Snyder grapples valiantly with this political debate, resulting in a film where the most interesting sequences are those that feature actual debates. A brooding, melancholic and traumatised Batman/Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) debates with reluctant but loyal Alfred (Jeremy Irons); an idealistic yet doubtful Superman/Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) debates with Lois Lane (Amy Adams), Martha Kent (Diane Lane) and Perry White (Laurence Fishburne); senator Finch (Holly Hunter) debates with fellow politicians as well as twitchy billionaire Alexander Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg). Meanwhile, the mysterious Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) seems to have more answers than everyone else, yet raises questions herself. In-between the debates are immense set pieces, many shot in Snyder’s trademark slo-mo that recalls 300 and Sucker Punch (other references to Snyder’s back catalogue also appear). DOP Larry Fong lenses the film in gloomy shades, especially the ruin of Wayne Manor and the urban wastelands in which our ‘heroes’ battle. At times, the grand portentousness does overwhelm the drama, the wit of Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer’s script hamstrung by Snyder’s lumpen pacing. Yet while the film lacks the lean muscularity of Christopher Nolan‘s Dark Knight trilogy or even the more focused bombast of Man of Steel, it does make a strong contribution to the fundamental questions of superhero cinema – what does it mean to be a hero and what does it mean to be super? Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice may not be the zippiest superhero film, but it is one of the more thoughtful.
I recently saw Ed Harris’ Western, Appaloosa (2008), a traditional and unshowy contribution to the genre. Whereas many Western of the past twenty years have attempted to be “revisionist” or “deconstructive”, often quite successfully, Appaloosa takes the staples of the genre and works through them with commitment and detail.
This is to say, I liked Appaloosa just fine. It had a solid setting, decent story with strong characters, and fine performances from Harris, Viggo Mortensen, Renee Zellweger and Jeremy Irons (though his Boston accent sounded very odd). It did not flinch from its portrayal of violence, which I think is a key ingredient to the Western, on which more later, and balanced that with a pragmatic sense of honour – a man gives his word in this world because it is in the interests of his own self-preservation, and another man accepts the word of the first because it is in the interests of his own self-preservation. This way, the film gets around the potentially hokey idea of men trusting each other simply because “a man’s word is his word”.
The honour system is one of several genre clichés that Appaloosa deals with very effectively. Another is the skill of the gunslinger – Virgil Cole (Harris) and Everett Hitch (Mortensen) are good at what they do because they have lived long enough to become good at it, and similarly being good at it has enabled them to stay alive. Described as “peacekeepers”, they do not simply wander into town in search of someone to kill or avenge themselves upon, such as Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name in the Dollars trilogy, or (sticking with Sergio Leone) Douglas Mortimer (Lee Van Cleef) in For A Few Dollars More and Harmonica (Charles Bronson) in Once Upon A Time in the West, or Eastwood’s other incarnations such as The Stranger in High Plains Drifter (Clint Eastwood, 1973) or William Munny in Unforgiven (Eastwood, 1992) (my personal favourite Western). For Virgil and Everett, killing is what they do for a living, within the remit of the law, simply because in a lawless land, it is a good way to use one’s skills.
What worked especially well for me about Appaloosa was the parallel between the external struggle of Virgil and Everett attempting to bring down the crooked rancher Braggs (Irons) and the internal struggle of conflicted loyalties between the two partners and the woman who enters their lives, Alison French (Zellweger). The film presents this struggle as a love triangle of sorts, initially appearing as a romantic triangle with both men vying for the woman’s affection. The first scene featuring all three characters frames Ali in a shot between the two men, suggesting that they will compete for her. Yet romance blooms between Ali and Virgil very easily, while Everett’s own relationship with Katie (Adriana Gil) suggests he is no worse off. The only encounter between Everett and Ali seems a calculated attempt on her part to make Virgil jealous, but as Everett explains, “We’re both with Virgil. What emerges therefore is a triangle that features Virgil as the object of desired association rather than Ali. Everett could be read as homosexual but the film offers more evidence to support the importance of a homosocial relationship. In different ways, both Ali and Everett value their relationships with Virgil very highly and each poses competition for the other.
This competition is the central thread that runs through Appaloosa, and the external conflict with Bragg ultimately serves to resolve it. In the film’s final scene, Everett calls out Bragg to a shoot-out that Everett wins, and the film’s (perhaps unnecessary) final voiceover clarifies why: by killing Bragg, Everett outlaws himself from Appaloosa, leaving Virgil as town marshal and the responsible man who can be with Ali. Everett himself has no place in this civilised town so must leave, the cliché of the Western given voice as Everett describes himself heading off towards the setting sun.
The different routes available to Virgil and Everett demonstrate what has been argued by critics as the central theme of the Western, and what I believe is the fundamental theme: the tension between wilderness and civilisation. What a Western is is one of the most debated questions in genre studies, largely because it should be an easy question to answer. Yet it remains contentious and any definition is open to attack. I am not attempting to end this debate (where’s the fun in that?), but throwing my Stetson in the ring (because Stetsons are cool), I believe the conflict between civilisation and wilderness is the defining feature of the Western genre. If a film does not have this theme, then it is not a Western. Both classic and revisionary Westerns from Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939) to The Searchers (Ford, 1956), from High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952) to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Ford, 1962), from Once Upon A Time In the West (Sergio Leone, 1968) to Unforgiven all feature this central concern. Sometimes it is blatant, such as Ethan Edwards standing in the doorway but unable to enter the homestead. Other times it is more subtle: what civilisation do we have in A Fistful of Dollars (Leone, 1964) when a town is run by opposing gangs? It’s a town, everyone in it is oppressed by the gangs, and it takes a man like them in the form of No Name (or Joe) to free it – but of course, he has to leave, there is no place in a town now made civil for a man such as he. Stagecoach has been described as a microcosm of American civilisation travelling through the wilderness; High Noon has the sheriff who defends the town against savagery but then decides it is not worth saving; Once Upon A Time In The West features the coming of the railroad which should be civilising but demonstrates that capitalist exploitation is just as savage as the wilderness; Unforgiven depicts a totalitarian civilisation that is torn down in the name of brutal revenge. The conflict between civilisation and wilderness takes many forms: sometimes one is supported over the other and other times the conflict is not resolved at all, but this is the thematic debate that Westerns participate in. I have heard Star Wars described as a Western and I must disagree: it’s a war film (saga) in space. There is no clash between civilisation and wilderness – it is a struggle for freedom from oppression much like The Lord of the Rings or even Snow White and the Huntsman.
To return to Appaloosa, Harris’ film has a parallel between its central characters similar to that of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Just as Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) is a representative of the law (read: civilisation), so is Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) a force of savagery, ostensibly taming the wilderness but therefore a manifestation of it. Doniphon acquiesces his position of authority in the town of Shinbone to Stoddard, knowing that it is time for civilisation. Similarly, Everett performs the act of savagery that disqualifies him from civilisation, necessitating his departure from Appaloosa (Viggo Mortenson choosing exile? Where have I seen that before?).
Throughout the film, Everett is presented as less intimately involved with civilisation. He follows Virgil’s lead, allowing the other man to determine their involvement with the establishment of Appaloosa. He lives in the town’s hotel, while Virgil takes the house under construction with Ali. The fact that the house is under construction is highly significant – Virgil is literally building a new life, in his position as marshal, with Ali, and in their home. Like Ransom Stoddard, he has built his place within society. It is also Everett who rides out to meet the Apaches and present them with a horse, ending their hostilities. Any Western can easily invite charges of racism, but the Apaches in Appaloosa are not presented as wild savages, simply people operating under different systems of civilisation than white settlers. Everett’s easy interaction with them demonstrates less of an engagement with the law – while Virgil is very much committed to his job, returning Bragg to prison, Everett is more flexible and adaptable to their circumstances, which he demonstrates again when he calls out Bragg. As noted above, the depiction of violence in a Western is crucial, and I think should be brutal and unflinching, as the engagement with violence is central to the theme of wilderness VS civilisation.
Like Tom Doniphon, Everett reaches a point at which he no longer belongs in civilisation (or is it the other way around?). Unlike the earlier film though, it is love of a friend rather than love of a woman that motivates Everett. In a very real sense, he loves Virgil and wants him to be happy, so he sacrifices his own place within the town so that he can let Virgil go. The two men represent a force for civilisation in a wild, savage environment, but it is Virgil who ultimately accepts a role within civilisation. For Everett, the place is still out there, a place on his own without his partner, who will now share his life with Ali. As for Everett, and “for the unforeseeable, well, it was out there waiting for me”. Civilisation or wilderness, it seems, will always be available for the Western protagonist.