Film

SOUL (2020 – Review)

Pixar’s penchant for life affirming messages holds firm for Soul.

They really do have this down to a fine art now as the world’s premier animation outlet, their ability to fine tune very clear conceptual ideas and frame them in the context of extraordinary worlds and scenarios. Soul, co-directed jointly by Pixar chief Pete Docter and writer Kemp Powers, focuses exclusively on the ephemeral without leaning too heavily into the spiritual. It frames the individual journey, the meaning of existence itself, through vivid representations of an ‘alien’ world. The animation here is truly outstanding, even for Pixar, combining the buoyant realism of New York with geometric shapes, childlike landscapes and glorious star scapes.

In this sense, it moves away from the quest narrative of Onward, which never quite reconciled its Weekend at Bernie’s central plot with the broad fantasy trappings of the story, and moves closer to the cartoonish depiction we saw in Inside Out. The souls of the ‘Great Before’ might look like the Adipose fat creatures from Doctor Who at points but they more adequately represent ‘pre-emotions’, blank slates on which life experience has yet to be etched, and Docter & Powers look to tell a story about what that experience, what life, can do to the soul, and what we really should place importance in.

By the end of Soul, there is no doubt this crystallises the traumatic experience of 2020 as an existential year, and is undoubtedly the reaffirmation we all needed as we leave it.

Partisan Cinema: INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL (2008) – Better Dead Than Red!

In a recurring feature called Partisan Cinema, we look at movies from a political slant, gleaning insight from them about how they relate to society then, and indeed now…

Politics and Indiana Jones have always gone hand in hand, despite the series being the epitome of adventure serial derring do extrapolated for a modern blockbuster audience.

Raiders of the Lost Ark and Last Crusade both featured Nazi villains in advance of the Second World War, seeking supernatural arcanum to help win a conflict they had yet to start. In the latter, Harrison Ford’s hero Indy even comes face to face with Adolf Hitler himself, amidst a terrifying Nazi rally in the burning cauldron of 1938 Berlin. While the films avoided any significant political commentary, opting instead for action, spectacle and mystery, the ideological differences between the Allied and Axis worlds were clear. The Nazis were grave robbing parasites determined to pillage history for their own pure blood gain, while Dr. Jones represented a noble America, a land of heroic saviours of antiquity.

“It belongs in a museum!” Indy would bark at corrupt inversions of himself. “So do you!” they would bark back, perhaps presaging his own irrelevance.

Steven Spielberg is not a creative who ignores history, or whitewashes truth. He has given us some of the more pointed political tracts about WW2 and the echoes of that conflict of the last fifty years. His Indiana Jones pictures are nevertheless simpler, designed first and foremost to entertain rather than convey polemic. Temple of Doom, the middle child film between two masterpieces, paints a picture of the British as colonial saviours in pre-partition India, saving poor locals from the murderous Thuggee cult. This is a pleasant fiction and one many audiences can accept, particularly American ones. Yet the most recent film in the series, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, wears its politics more clearly, befitting perhaps its arrival in a more polarised era, in the shadow of a Great Recession, as opposed to the bombast of blockbuster Reaganite excess the original trilogy embodied in the 1980s.

Here, set toward the end of the ‘50s, Indy is painted as a suspected Communist as, for the first time in the series, the existential threat comes home.

Partisan Christmas Cinema: LOVE ACTUALLY (2003) – A Fairytale in Downing St

In a recurring feature called Partisan Cinema, A. J. Black looks at movies from a political slant, gleaning insight from them about how they relate to society then, and indeed now…
It would be fair to say that Richard Curtis’ crowd pleaser Love Actually is not hard hitting political discourse, but one of its central plot threads does warrant closer examination.
Curtis’ film is a loose-knit, Altman-esque character piece under the central umbrella of ‘love’, mostly involving Curtis’ traditional retinue of cloyingly middle class Londoners living in a fantasy version of Britain’s capital where everyone has money, time to navel-gaze, and doesn’t worry about laws such as breaching airport security gates and things like that. It is, simply, a load of sickeningly twee nonsense inflated, bizarrely, into some kind of totemic Christmas film that only humbugs suggest might not just be rubbish, but also contain numerous creepy plots and almost sociopathic characters.
You only have to look at Andrew Lincoln wooing Keira Knightley with cue cards on the doorstep of the house she shares not only with her boyfriend, but his best friend.

Leaving that aside, there is one plot line in Love Actually that bears looking at, given outside of Emma Thompson’s genuinely moving performance as the wife of a cheater, it probably stands as the only thread in the film that is easy to stomach: the romance between Hugh Grant’s incumbent British Prime Minister and Martine McCutcheon’s cockney Downing Street tea girl. There is a charm about their characters that belies the rest of the film, even if it bears almost zero reality with anything else in British politics, bar the thinnest of tangential nods and winks to both the Blairite and Bush eras – fitting as the film was made and is set during their tenures, and at the point tensions were fraying.
Love Actually might here be political fantasy, but it has one foot in post-9/11 reality.

Partisan Cinema: CARNAGE (2017) – Liberal Veganism

In a recurring feature called Partisan Cinema, A. J. Black looks at movies from a political slant, gleaning insight from them about how they relate to society then, and indeed now…
As mockumentaries go, Carnage may well be the first one to genuinely lampoon the culture of veganism while also making a very powerful, liberal prescient point.
Simon Amstell is a British stand-up comedian, probably best known as former host of popular BBC music panel show Never Mind the Buzzcocks. His first film as writer and director, Amstell doesn’t appear but provides near-constant narration as the omnipresent guide through a ‘future history’ where the vegan has inherited the Earth. Set in 2067, in a United Kingdom where the very idea of eating meat is an abhorrent abomination to an almost-utopian, youthful society, Amstell’s fake documentary tells the story of how we went from a savage, carnivorous culture to an enlightened, animal-loving species. If you’re laughing at the absurdity of this, that’s ok. That’s the intention.

And yet, Carnage is noticeably pro-vegan while being enormously capable of mocking the pretension of a following which, historically, has found itself tethered to the hippy, new age trail. Amstell, who wrote as well as directed this, is as keen to highlight the madness of being a meat-eater as well as enjoyably sending up the intense vegan legions who, in this future, are considered the norm.
You may be surprised to hear Amstell, in doing so, utilises almost as much stock footage from a range of sources pre-2017 as he does future scenarios beyond the present day. It helps make his point.

Partisan Cinema: IN THE LINE OF FIRE (1993) – Clint and J.F.K

In a recurring feature called Partisan Cinema, A. J. Black looks at movies from a political slant, gleaning insight from them about how they relate to society then, and indeed now…
In the Line of Fire feels increasingly like a cultural artefact in this day and age.
Though in some ways rooted in the 1990s, in an era divested of the Cold War but away from a future of terrorist uncertainty, there is a political timelessness about Wolfgang Petersen’s movie. It feels at though it exists between two worlds. Barring one exception, this was the last film starring Clint Eastwood in the title role that he didn’t direct and you perhaps feel at times Eastwood wants to jump out of In the Line of Fire and establish his own political sentiments on Jeff Maguire’s script and Petersen’s effective, if at times pedestrian direction.

Eastwood has at times asserted his fairly right-wing political leanings on his filmmaking, most notably in American Sniper, but In the Line of Fire remains essentially neutral in terms of political discourse. The President under threat is never even characterised, beyond the traditional American image of a white, middle-aged man. He could be Reagan. He could be Carter. He could even be Clinton, who was in office at the time. Petersen’s film isn’t concerned with the man Eastwood’s ageing Secret Service agent Frank Horrigan is determined to protect, simply about what protecting a President means.
The film is concerned primarily with age in terms of Frank and indeed America itself. The shadow of John F. Kennedy’s assassination hovers over the picture, given how Frank is, as he modestly describes himself at one point to René Russo’s junior agent, a “living legend”; the only remaining serving agent who was in Dealey Plaza on the day of the President’s assassination in November 1963.
Thirty years after the most powerful event in modern American history, In the Line of Fire focuses on a character who has never been able to escape it. Frank, in many respects, is analogous to America as an entity.

Milking the Franchise: STAR WARS, MARVEL & beyond

As Star Wars and Marvel announce their future plans, A. J. Black discusses the phenomenon of milking the biggest franchises in the world for all they’re worth…
Franchise cinema, let’s be honest, can be thrilling. It can transform movie experiences from solitary pursuits to collective endeavours.
In an age of deeply fractured politics and cultural conflicts happening across nation states, there is comfort in how Captain America taking on Thanos only for the entire MCU to ride in and support him galvanised everyone operating in that shared cinematic space to cheer in collective joy, no matter what your political or cultural persuasion. Many felt the same when Rey and Kylo Ren turned the Emperor’s fire back on him (though I’d argue this was a far diminished return than the Marvel example…). Denigrators of franchise filmmaking, of fandoms indulging in shared universes, miss this aspect – the collectivisation of a text which binds fans together.
It is often toxic, but it is equally as often magnetic and joyful.

There is, however, a limit to the reach and scope of such franchise endeavours for those, like me, who skirt the edges of fandom.
Marvel and Star Warsboth of whom Disney just announced a huge slate of projects for over the next few years—are not the worlds I personally am most invested in. My fandom interests lie elsewhere but even then, I am not a consumer who digests only Star Trek or only James Bond. Fandoms are frequently incredible communities filled with people who live and breathe the properties they love, and this is to be—sans the aforementioned toxicity—encouraged. Friendships are born. Partnerships are made. Respect can be mutual. I have seen these things happen. I have, in my own way, experienced them myself.
Yet it feels like we are sailing close to a perihelion of franchise dilution. A point where financial concern and milking a product for all its worth become not just the primary driver, but the only driving principle.

Partisan Cinema: BREXIT: THE UNCIVIL WAR (2019) – The Origin of Cummings

In a recurring feature called Partisan Cinema, A. J. Black looks at movies from a political slant, gleaning insight from them about how they relate to society then, and indeed now…

Brexit: The Uncivil War is current, fascinating, terrifying and quite frankly absurd in equal measure.

It came as no surprise to find out a major consultant on this joint Channel Four and HBO drama was Tim Shipman, the author of All Out War, a comprehensive, forensic exposure of the battle central to Toby Haynes’ film: the Leave and Remain campaign’s divisive, controversial conflict to decide the outcome of the EU Referendum in June 2016, which very quickly became known as ‘Brexit’. For anyone in the UK, there is no word you are more likely to see, read or hear about politically right now than Brexit, save perhaps the surname Trump or the word Covid. It is all pervasive, all-consuming, and Shipman’s book places into clear context just how we ended up where we currently are.

The Uncivil War is, essentially, an adaptation of his non-fiction tale of events from both sides of the camp, though it is framed around, frankly, the far more interesting side of the divide: the Leave campaign. The campaign who won. The campaign with characters far less milquetoast than anyone who fought to Remain. The campaign who fought a dirty war of new frontiers and who the Remain organisation were, almost always, two steps behind. I say this as a firm Remainer—let’s get that pretty clear right off the bat—who thinks Brexit is the single greatest British catastrophe since appeasement.

Nevertheless, The Uncivil War attempts to show us the real story. The story behind all of the news reports, and the political briefings. The story you have heard on fringe websites or even via conspiracy theorists, or slanted from newspapers right and left. The story of how Brexit changed democracy and changed politics, in a way nobody in Britain, the EU or beyond, ever expected. All Out War is teeming with inside jobs, murky suggestions of dark political wizardry, and schemes upon schemes in a battle often outside the minds eye of the public.

What we actually end up with is Brexit: The Panto, with Benedict Cumberbatch as the veritable Peter Pan.

Partisan Cinema: MANK (2020) – Citizens of Ideology

In a new, recurring feature called Partisan Cinema, A. J. Black looks at movies from a political slant, gleaning insight from them about how they relate to society then, and indeed now…
One senses the frustrations of writer Upton Sinclair, erstwhile Democratic nominee for the Governorship of California in 1934 and open socialist, might not have featured so prominently had Mank been made, as planned, in the late 1990s.
The story of legendary screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (portrayed here in wonderfully shambolic form by Gary Oldman) as he furiously raced to complete the screenplay of Orson Welles’ future masterpiece Citizen Kane, was penned originally in the ‘90s by the late Jack Fincher, who passed away in 2003. His son, renowned auteur David Fincher, planned to make the film after 1997’s The Game with Kevin Spacey (remember him?) in the titular role, before Fincher’s own seminal masterpiece Fight Club beckoned, but the stars refused to align. Fincher, after a cinematic break of six years following his adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, has finally—thanks to Netflix—provided viewers with his father’s legacy at the tail end of a year where audiences have been starved of prominent cinema.

Yet Mank, arriving at the end of 2020, has not just fallen in what we might dare to hope are the impending final months of the Covid-19 pandemic, but also twelve months of sweeping social and cultural unrest. This might well be the biopic of a long-dead man in a now near-mythic cinematic age, revolving around the creation of what many have considered for decades to be the greatest film ever made, but Mank’s politics feel heightened for modern audiences. Fincher, borrowing Citizen Kane’s then-revolutionary non-linear structure, flashes back in episodic fashion from 1940 to deeper back into the 1930s and sees his lead character unconsciously crafting the elements of his Oscar-winning script from powerful, influential figures, and political movements, of the previous decade.
Mank positions the brilliance of its protagonist, and the work of genius he creates, within the tussle of polarised political ideologies in a manner that, intentionally or not, reflects the America of 2020.

Nobody Did It Better: Losing SEAN CONNERY

Following the sad loss of Sean Connery at the age of 90, A. J. Black talks about what the legendary Scottish actor meant to him…
We all have them. They’re all different. They all mean something unique. The childhood hero, the person in the public eye who inspires you, is a special and personal thing for us all.
I was never one to have too many heroes to the extent of extreme fan worship. Many years ago, I worked with a chap who was obsessed with two lesser known American character actors (Adam Baldwin and Brad Greenquist, who weirdly will be popping up again on my next Alias review…) to the degree he would follow them around and collect any and all memorabilia. Fair play, it made him happy. But I have never been that obsessed with any one person. TV shows and movies? Sure. Anyone reading this knows I have spent more time in my 38 years thinking about and watching The X-Files, Star Trek and James Bond than is probably healthy. Yet it didn’t always extend to the people involved in those properties.

Sean Connery was rare, for me, in being the kind of actor and persona who did serve as something of a formative icon in my younger years. His loss, at the princely age of 90 years old (having not long celebrated his birthday), is not one to mourn as a tragedy of the like we saw with Chadwick Boseman this summer. Yet in my piece talking about how his death had affected me, I mentioned my dread at the day we lost Connery, because like Roger Moore—whose death I also vividly remember as another childhood hero—this one means something to me. It does feel like losing a part of your own life and, as my friend Zach Moore recently commented to me, it’s “hard to believe we now live in a world without him”.
It is indeed. He was a unique breed in many ways. We will never see his like again.

Film Review: I AM GRETA (2020)

★ ★ ★

Greta Thunberg is, to put it mildly, what we might describe in the U.K. as a ‘Marmite figure’.
To others, polarising would be the better word. Ever since Thunberg sat down in the middle of her hometown of Stockholm with a painted sign saying (in Swedish) ‘School Strike for Climate’, removing herself from education to raise awareness about climate change and global inaction, she has won almost as many detractors as fans. Nathan Grossman’s film, you suspect, wants you to believe more of the world is with Greta and her cause than the opposite. I Am Greta is not exactly a hagiography but it is sympathetic, on multiple fronts; a documentary that follows the 15-year old girl with Asperger’s Syndrome on a remarkable journey over less than three years, but which oddly feels longer.
The issue with I Am Greta, no matter how openly it presents its protagonist, is that it won’t do precisely what Thunberg is devoting her life to: changing minds.