14.12.18

Shoplifters (Shoplifting Family)

The premise of the film is that a family of thieves kidnap a young girl and adopt her – they turn from stealing things to stealing people. You could extend the thieving metaphor to the entire family. They are not related by blood – their bonds are formed by money and necessity. But this is Kore-eda's 'socially-conscious' film, and so what would on the surface look like reprehensible behaviour becomes more explicable once you inhabit the house and become one of the gang. The child they have adopted was being abused by her parents. Her older 'brother' was left in a car while his carer was playing pachinko. The central couple are on the run after a murder of an abusive husband (in self-defence), and while they room with a grandmother whose pension helps them get by, they have in a sense adopted her as well after she was 'thrown away' by her real family. The film keeps returning to the idea that this family is chosen rather than the result of an accident of birth. And in some ways that makes it more honest.


The only other Kore-eda film I've seen is Our Little Sister, which tells a similar tale of family-formation but in a more comfortable, middle-class setting. That film was cute, but it meandered aimlessly and slipped too easily from drama to melodrama. Shoplifters is much tougher – the only slightly soppy moment is when the boy finally uses the word 'father' to describe his relationship with his carer and mentor. And even then it's undercut first by the awareness that he's unlikely to see his adopted family again, and then further when we switch to the girl looking out of her balcony in the hope of being saved from her real parents by her adopted family. The genius of the film is to turn that theft, and all the other stealing we see, into an act of kindness.

5.12.18

"Fatally estranged from the transcendental difference that grounds human identity, the transgendered subject is barely human, condemned forever to "idiotic masturbatory enjoyment" in lieu of the "true love" that renders us human. For, as Žižek holds – in homage to Baidou – "it is love, the encounter of the Two, which 'transubstantiates' the idiotic masturbatory enjoyment into an event proper."

These are the voices that pass for radicality in our times. Let us leave them to their love, their event proper." – Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts

20.11.18

Vampyros Lesbos

In the DVD interview, an admittedly ancient Jess Franco said he made the film because he thought vampires were classy and lesbians were sexy. Unfortunately there's not much more to this Euro-shlocker classic from 1970, which lacks the mystery and invention of the French sleaze-masters Alain Robbe-GrilletJean Rollin and Walerian Borowczyk. The avant-garde soundtrack enjoyed a resurgence in the 1990s, but in the context of the film it's wildly discordant and jarring, although perhaps I'm just not made for this sort of stuff, finding Goblin's celebrated work on Argento's Suspiria equally ridiculous. Franco apparently made over 160 films in the course of a long lifetime, some of which have been lost. On the basis of this supposed highlight, would guess a lot of them were pretty disposable.

18.11.18

Robocop

This might just be Verhoeven's most straightforward satire, in which the ironic stance isn't compromised by the director's complicity in what he's showing us – something that drags down Basic Instinct and Showgirls and even Starship Troopers. Perhaps it's a product of the slightly scrappier look of the picture. This was Verhoeven's first big budget sci-fi action film, and although the suit cost a fortune, it otherwise doesn't have the sheen of his work in the 90s. Its grit makes it less alluring, but it also makes it a purer work, not as contaminated by Verhoeven's taste for exploitation.


Being a comics kid first, this reminded me a lot of Frank Miller's brilliant 80s books – The Dark Knight Returns, Ronin, Elektra: Assassin –  not only in its cyberpunk aesthetic but its satirical bent, particularly when it comes to including an exaggerated version of American television news and advertising. Frank Miller contrasts the superficiality and decadence of the media with his stoic, hardboiled heroes clinging on to a notion of chivalry that's dying around them. To some extent Verhoeven follows this line – especially in his crass depiction of the criminals driving 'Old Detroit' to ruin. But Murphy is a more interesting hero because he is also a victim – the corporate powers-that-be hijack his body and programme his mind so he cannot compromise the company that owns him. He becomes a symbol of a society in which people have become products, treated as means rather than ends. Nothing in Verhoeven's later science fiction work is as simple and as powerful as that central idea.

28.10.18

Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms

An overlong high-fantasy anime released this year. It concerns a race of immortal weavers who isolate themselves from the world and record its history through the reams of tapestry they produce. The main character Maquia is warned off forming attachments by the clan's chief, who says such entanglements end in unhappiness. To love is to be alone.


The story is set up to refute this thesis. Maquia's home is attacked and she finds herself stranded far away from her country. Moreover, she finds a newborn child whose mother has been murdered, and decides to adopt and care for him. The immortal is brought down to earth, and has to deal with the real-world pressures of motherhood. Although the anime wanders off into a steampunky Laputa-esque fantasy narrative about clashing kingdoms, that stuff ultimately provides a backdrop for Maquia's relationship with the growing Ariel, who she looks over as he matures, falls in love and has children of his own.

Parenting is therefore the central theme of the story. The decision to have children is a way of ending your detachment from the world. You have skin in the game in a way you don't when you dispassionately look over events from an ivory tower, as the weavers (literally) do. It's significant that the director Mari Okada is one of the few female creators making internationally-fêted anime films. It's a valuable perspective to have in what is mostly a male-dominated industry.


The anime strains very hard to build to an emotionally powerful ending, slipping into melodrama if not bathos in the effort. I found this a bit cloying and wearying, and note that the understated approach of masters like Miyazaki and Takahata is often more effective. Okada also doesn't effectively integrate the personal story of Maquia and Ariel with the wider tale of the kingdom they live in. Instead there are awkward leaps between one and the other, making the whole thing feel longer than its 115 minutes. It's not perfect, in other words. But then again, there's also nothing quite like it.

27.10.18

"Just as the infinity spread out before my gaze contracts above my head into a blue ceiling, so my transcendence heaps up in the distance the opaque thickness of the future; but between sky and earth there is a perceptual field with its forms and colours; and it is in the interval which separates me today from an unforeseeable future that there are meanings and ends toward which to direct my acts." - Simone De Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity

26.10.18

Calvary

The film isn't shy about drawing the parallels between Brendan Gleeson's Father James and Christ. He is a good man. He knows that he is to be killed. He dies for the sins of others. In the final moments of the film it's implied that his gospel of forgiveness has at least one convert: his daughter picks up the phone to his killer – a superhuman act of forbearance and mercy.


John Michael McDonagh's approaches the issue of abuse in the Catholic church in a sideways and scattershot fashion. The film's characters treat it with lacerating black humour rather than earnestness. There's something deeply weird about how disconnected the performances are from any shred of sincerity. When Father James picks up his daughter from the train station and sees the evidence of a suicide attempt, he makes a joke, and she responds in kind. It's the sort of wisecrack-rich dialogue you would get in noir – and perhaps this is one.

There is a mystery, after all: who will kill the priest? But actually guessing the identity of the murderer is a mug's game. There's no hint dropped during the priest's rounds through the week that points to the killer. It could be anyone. And in a sense, it is. Father James is persecuted by the society around him, who mock his attachment to a faith and institution that has been discredited.

My favourite character in the film is Dylan Moran's obscenely rich Michael Fitzgerald, who made his millions in finance and then fled to the countryside after the 2008 crisis to avoid prosecution for the 'irregularities' he was responsible for. He makes explicit the tenor of detachment in the film, at times coming close to sounding like Camus in his bemusement at the meaninglessness of existence. The contrast that structures the story is between this community's listless sliding towards suicide and the integrity and courage Father James gains from his faith.


John Michael McDonagh calls attention to the artificiality of his film. At one point Father James discusses with his daughter what the third act twist of their play will be. On many occasions characters comment on the poor lines McDonagh has given them. The effect has the most bite when Aidan Gillen complains that his sarcastic doctor character is a cliche, and that Brendan Gleeson has a better role to play. For me this starts to smell a bit of the filmmaker apologising for his work rather than standing behind it. Admitting that the pieces don't fit doesn't actually make the pieces fit any better. If the film ends up overreaching itself, and relying a little too much on Gleeson's performance to pull it together, it's nonetheless still very watchable. And Gleeson is very good company.

28.9.18

Cowboy Bebop

Anime scholar Susan Napier suggests that the final two-part episode manages to reconcile ironic detachment and a conventional portrayal of the male hero:
"Perhaps Cowboy Bebop's greatest contribution to the construction of masculinity is the way it convinces its audience that traditional heroism and chivalry can exist within a postmodern framework."
That's a lot of weight placed on Spike's story, which sticks rather closely to the doomed noir antihero narrative, including a damselled and fridged femme fatale to add a bit of motivation to an otherwise supremely louche character. A cynic would say that this is just another mode the anime plays with – a genre it adopts for a 23-minute spin of the turntable before moving on to horror, farce, heist, sci-fi, action, comedy etc etc etc. How far can we take these personalities seriously, given they shift with the tropes they are required to embody?


But the series asks you to watch it in a different way – suspending the need for narrative continuity across episodes, or the urge to develop lasting themes that linger beyond the great song that plays over the closing credits. Bebob is about surfaces, and its attitude is playful rather than sincere. It's a procession of skits referencing effects and affects from other works, scrambling them together into a collage which asks you to admire its audacity, but doesn't really engage your feelings.

If anything the final few episodes draw attention to the unreal, no-stakes mode in which the anime operates. Faye Valentine finds her childhood home and leaves the adventuring life aboard the Bebop, but then realises she has nothing to go back to – she ends up rejoining the gang, finding her real family in the process. She arrives in time to warn Spike away from going back to his past, as she did. It's better to forget. But for Spike these adventures they've had together are just a dream he's been sleepwalking through. He needs to confront his origins in order to work out if he's really alive. Spike's tragedy is that he chooses Julia over Faye, a real past over an unreal present.


That reality has stakes – Julia dies, Jet gets injured, the Bebop is shot down, Spike himself is left for dead. Perhaps it's better to stay dreaming. Interestingly the standalone film (released after the series but set before the finale) warns against the seductive power of dreams. In the world of Cowboy Bebob you have to choose between meaningless death-defying spectacle or the real world of mortality and lost love.

22.9.18

Nymphomaniac

Kill Bill but replace the violence with sex and the pulp sensibility with an arthouse one. And like Tarantino, best when not taken too seriously. My favourite scene in the four hour epic, which I watched on Netflix, is Uma Thurman's darkly comic turn as a deranged wife sticking the knife into her cheating husband. That scene is absolutely brutal, but also completely ridiculous. Thurman brings the kids around to the flat where her husband's infidelities took place and gives them a tour. Her husband is a fool – leaving his wife for the titular nymphomaniac who doesn't care a jot about him. He stands as a silent witness to his life falling apart, and he only has himself to blame. The nymphomaniac, Joe, just wafts through these people's lives leaving carnage in her wake. It's an expertly judged performance from Thurman – just the right side of histrionic to communicate the pain of the scenario while at the same time registering how silly it is. It's a unique moment, and well worth putting up with the rest of the film just to experience it.


Volume I by general consensus is better than Volume II, precisely because it's more playful, and tries on several different modes. Although the second part is darker, and has an excruciating sequence where Joe puts the life of her son at risk because of her addiction, the first part surpasses it in its portrayal of the death of Joe's father. Volume II has fewer tricks up its sleeve – the only bit of levity is when Joe attempts to arrange a threesome where the two men end up having an argument about which positions to take, and she has to leave unfulfilled. You could argue that the very end of the film marks a return of Trier's very wry, dark sense of humour – Joe is first beaten and humiliated by her ex-husband and protégé, and then betrayed by her confessor throughout the film – Stellan Skarsgård's monkish Seligman.

The problem with these final cruel pivots is that unlike the Uma Thurman scene, we are left to guess at the motives of the characters. The surrogate daughter was seduced, but we don't see the seduction or the arguments used to turn her against Joe. Seligman says he is asexual, but when Joe commits herself to conquering her nymphomania, some of her desire seems to transfer onto him. The story of her life fires up a sexual curiosity in him just as Joe renounces her own sexuality. It's a twist of fate – something out of a fairy-tale. And in fact all the episodes in the film have the same quality of characters pulled deterministically by forces beyond their control, conspiring to create neat stories that don't ring true when you step back from them. The film draws attention to this, with Seligman occasionally doubting the veracity of Joe's story. It's brazenly artificial – something else the film shares with Kill Bill.


Which makes you wonder what the point of it all is. Suliman's verdict focuses on the double standard whereby women who behave like Joe face far more censure than men who behave in the same way. That's fair enough, although he offers this as an excuse for behaviour that is still pretty reprehensible. Rebellion against the repressive nature of society and religion is a cornerstone of erotic art, and feels unsatisfying as a conclusion to a film about sex made in the 2010s. I think Trier's ultimate motive is to conjure up a stubborn iconoclast who keeps getting punished, physically as well as emotionally, for being out-of-step with society, an urge he's had at least since Breaking the Waves. It's a celebration of being an outcast and martyr, and not a little self-aggrandising as a result.