Hard to be a God (2013), dir. Aleksei German

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Hard to be a God is a testament to vision and persistence. German began a screenplay of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s novel Hard to be a God (1964) in 1967; Boris injected the piece with his own feelings on the political situation, but with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia the following year, work was abandoned. As German tells Anton Dolin in a 2011 book of interviews, republished within Arrow Academy’s booklet, he tried to take over Peter Fleischmann’s adaptation, Hard to be a God (1989), but was unable to negotiate as Fleischmann’s finances were already invested. Under Gorbachev’s relaxations, the film’s relevance seemed to have dissipated; German felt a national feeling of “the evil had been conquered”. German didn’t start production until 2000, shooting over a six-year period and editing until his death in 2013; completed posthumously through wife Svetlana Karmalita and son and filmmaker Aleksei German Jr.

German died considering himself a failure despite awards, producing only a handful of films within limitations of censorship; never achieving worldwide distribution or acclaim and suffering from depression. As he joked to Dolin, compared to a “severely beaten human being” or political prisoner, he was a “winner”. Shot on 35mm, the sheer scale of Hard to be a God is difficult to grasp, ostensibly science fiction but lacking few identifying characteristics besides its premise of a visitor to another world.

Hard to be a God is an exercise in worldbuilding, thanks to the efforts of designers Sergei Kokovin, Georg Kropachev and Elena Zhukova, and directors of photography Vladimir Ilyin and Yuriy Klimenko. Shot in castles in the Czech Republic and Lenfilm Studios in St Petersburg and recruiting numerous extras, Hard to be a God astounds. In the opening scenes, we feel distance: expositional narration offers a fairytale-esque glimpse, scientists gazing upon inhabitants framed by the circular lens. Rather than an escapist, futurist world, Arkanar becomes a reflection of our own history within the same genre as the swords and sorcery epics of films like Labyrinth (1986), series like Game of Thrones (2011-present) and multimedia franchises like Conan the Barbarian and Dungeons & Dragons. Though Hard to be a God lacks mythical creatures, it follows the same principle, just as steampunk refigures industrial technology into the future.

German coordinates mise-en-scène perfectly, creating a sense of the chaos of overcrowded streets, characters overlapping each other. German has less interest in narrative progression, without a clear journey: the film is circular, opening in snowfall by a black pool of water, ending in white snow as a man and a young girl walk by; people on horseback walking through the desolate landscape, the corpse of a dog hanging from a swing set. German’s worldbuilding is his philosophy: referencing Ivanov’s masterpiece The Appearance of Christ Before the People (1857), he told Dolin he would “rather create a single piece but a good one”.

As a medieval world trapped 800 years in the past, Arkanar’s Renaissance was forestalled by the repression of Don Reba, head of Crown Security, dissolving universities and its intelligentsia of “thinkers, smartarses, bookworms and artisans”, in war between Blacks and Greys. Reba is central to the film’s political commentary, drawing parallels between the Tower of Joy and the KGB; the Strugatskys foregrounded the novel within the repressions of the Soviet regime. Presented an award by Putin, German reportedly told him “the most interested viewer should be you”. Precepts become ludicrous: the world’s caste system, with slaves employed in tin mines, designate “gingernuts” as other, purely for the shade of their hair.

Arkanar feels otherworldly and anachronistic: the Renaissance exists as an alternative universe, references to Da Vinci, Baron Munchausen and a local tobacconist dropped throughout. Technology seems from another time and place, from spyglasses to an intricate flute that plays catchy yet equally as desolate blues music throughout the film that gives the young girl a “tummy ache” in the final scene. As a visitor, Don Rumata acts as a conduit to the contrast between this world and our world but with a Renaissance anachronism. Through the centuries, we feel distance from medieval life, unable to imagine what it must have been like. Perhaps the most successful vision of the degradation is Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), but it is still ultimately a comedy; German creates a world real and tangible. German wanted to “make a film with a smell”, immersing us within the Middle Ages “through a keyhole”. In Stalker (1979), adapted from the Strugatskys’ Roadside Picnic (1972), Tarkovsky created distance between science fiction and present reality through his industrial and natural landscapes to represent the Zone, grounded within our relationship with nature itself; Arkanar follows that same relationship. Natural elements are stark: a world of rain, fire, mist and swamps smothered in blood, alcohol and faeces, roses unable to distract from the disgusting.

German builds a terrifying vision of death. Bureaucracy relies upon torture; traders sell eyeballs; disembodied heads litter streets; rotting bodies hang from gallows, eaten by flies and marred by white splotches; poets drenched in fluid; disease spreads cholera and plague. It is a world of memento mori: Ruba handles the skull of a cow, before a young boy tells him it’s actually a boar. In an overhead shot, the Black Order march through the Land Beyond the Straits as premonitions, seen only in helmets and cloaks, a passing bird revealing the sheer scale. The precepts of the ordained authority of the Crown Security make fearing death itself a heretical crime. God’s existence becomes a constant act of debate: as a lone visitor attempting to shape the future, Rumata has a god complex, but in the Dolin interview, German argues he is only acting. God is dead, but Rumata asks God to stop him (if he exists), still debating whether there are souls or no souls. Frescoes create insight into the history of religious icons and the Arkanar Massacre itself, an event never directly glimpsed on screen.

Agrarian existence depends upon a relationship with animals. Eggs are held as produce; butchers handle animals; fish lay dead; cows, goats, hedgehogs, tortoises, monkeys and ducks walk through the frame; in close-up detail, we follow a horse in armour marching on. “May your donkey shaft you” becomes a visceral threat of violence. Sexuality runs rampant, one of the few things to entertain in a world where nothing seems to have any value. Naked bodies are as prominent as animals, filled with dicks, boobs and flagellation of butts. In the opening scene, we hold on a man defecating from an open window. Balls and bulges are fondled; German holds the camera on the oversized dick of a donkey’s. Bestiality is commonplace; rumours abound about a man having sex with a goose. Women become punished by archaic systems: abused by a solider, looking up her dress to determine whether she is a “gingernut”; burned at the stake as “whores”, with little to verify the authenticity of those slurs. German’s open use of sexual and needs driven bodies might seem to place him in the same category as Walerian Borowczyk, in the crossroads between high art, pornography and exploitation, but adds an additional layer of authenticity and reality to his world.

Almost the entirety of German’s films have documented Stalinist era history, shot in black and white. As he tells Dolin, two crimes were committed against cinema: the emergence of sound and colour cinema. German comments that he “see[s] the world in black and white”; colour is but a sensor within the mind. Black and white affords timelessness, placing Hard to be a God firmly within another era, its scale evoking the great Russian epics of Alexander Nevsky (1938), Ivan the Terrible (1942-44), Hamlet (1964) and Andrei Rublev (1966): nationalist mythmaking intersecting along exploration of faith, death and value systems.

Inspired by the scale and thematic exploration of Tarkovsky, Kurosawa, Fellini, Bertolucci and Bergman, by the end of his life German felt disengaged with cinema, becoming what he described to Dolin as “a spectacle for people who are too lazy to read”. Hard to be a God seems unmatched in its slow and contemplative 3-hour runtime. In long shots, the camera acts as a character within itself, never seeking to hide its presence. Extras walk up and look into the eye of the camera, watching out at us, performing to or avoiding as the camera catches their gaze. German breaks the fourth wall in much the same way as Tarkovsky did with Stalker, imagining the audience as participants and observers within this world. Largely avoiding close-ups, German allows us to examine the frame for ourselves and find our own narratives.

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The Beguiled (2017), dir. Sofia Coppola

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After failed development of a darker, underwater-shot version of The Little Mermaid at Disney, Coppola’s next project looked uncertain. Coppola may be overshadowed by her father, Francis Ford Coppola, but the Coppola family has branches throughout Hollywood, from actor Nicolas Cage to Gia Coppola, director of Palo Alto (2013); the Coppolas are important not only for directing films but for American Zoetrope’s film distribution. Coppola approached The Beguiled after reading Thomas Cullinan’s long forgotten novel A Painted Devil (1966) that provided the basis for The Beguiled (1971), making notes on holiday. Cullinan’s novel framed each chapter from a different woman’s perspective; Coppola sought to approach the material freshly.

Set three years into the American Civil War in 1864, The Beguiled is a story of the South, shot in the Madewood Plantation House in Louisiana and set in the Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies in Virginia. The enclosed world Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) builds seems unimportant amid wider conflict, teaching girls French lessons and table etiquette. Alicia (Elle Fanning) takes up embroidery and farms agrarian land, sowing soil and growing carrots in a long, tedious process, meals directly from the land. Coppola sought to present “women left behind” during wartime, rather than men at war: the house abandoned, slaves fled, husbands and fathers lost in war without a single reference; as art director Jennifer Dehghan describes, young girls Marie (Addison Riecke), Emily (Emma Howard), Jane (Angourie Rice) and Amelia (Oona Laurence) were “babies when the war started”, growing up within a “claustrophobic and trapped” environment.

Drawing a moodboard of references, Coppola drew upon Civil War photography and portraiture, watching Ken Burns’ The Civil War (1990). Coppola has a distinct aesthetic, drawing not only from film but fashion photography, influences from the naturalism and femininity of Juergen Teller and Corinne Day and the colour photography of William Eggleston. The Beguiled is most striking in the work of costume designer Stacey Battat and production designer Anne Ross. Dehghan researched into sewing equipment, musical instruments, table dressings, ironwork and vegetables, installing moss, vines, vegetable and rose gardens, raiding antique shops around New Orleans and focusing budget onto the interior and exterior of the house. Visiting the Met costume archive, Coppola worked from fabric swatches, creating a faded palette of pastels of dresses “washed many times”. Kirsten Dunst mentions the crew socialising together, holding Bible study, cooking breakfast together and learning dances. But as Corey Atad writes, the film’s “aesthetics are not apolitical”, highlighting that the film was shot in the same location as the empowering and illuminating Lemonade (2016). Black writer Angelica Jade Bastién argues the “untended garden” acts as an “unavoidable visual marker for the labor of black people”.

Conflict exists upon the periphery: Confederate soldiers march by the gates transporting prisoners of the war; explosions provide the only noise and light, touching the house from a distance, creating what Coppola describes as a “stark experience”. The Beguiled remains largely silent, the score by Phoenix only intermittently used. A Quiet Passion presents a similar sense of the periphery of war and gender: Emily Dickinson voices opinions on slavery and conflict, but remains confined to her house, told to keep silence and her place; Davies shifts through the archive of war, compiling a montage of photographs and music. The General (1926), one of the earlier films about the war, positions Johnnie as a train driver trying to hold onto his way of life as the war passes behind him. Atad himself argues Coppola’s exoticised South bears comparison to the “false nobility” perpetuated by The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone with the Wind (1939), the latter a film Coppola confesses she drew her first impression of the South from.

In the opening, Coppola plays the film as a dark fairytale along the lines of how Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) foregrounded mythology with the historical and political context of the Spanish Civil War. Young Amelia walks through the twisted branches of the woods, picking mushrooms for supper as she discovers the body of Union soldier Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell); with his Irish lilt, McBurney recalls the United States’ founding as a nation of immigrants. Each girl responds to his presence differently: Jane treats him with distrust as an enemy and mercenary, feeling loyalty to the Confederacy; Martha threatens to return him as prisoner of war; others feel he should be treated with respect and dignity. McBurney becomes an empty vessel, speculated over but never knowing his identity, limping around on crutches and spending most of his time in bed in the music room. As Martha washes open wounds with alcohol, the awkward stitches feel like a David Cronenberg film. As Christian Lorentzen comments, “[g]ore is a new element in the work of Sofia Coppola”, through the “mangled flesh and bone” and the blood on Martha’s nightgown during the amputation.

The Beguiled is defined by its women; John is relegated to the housework. Coppola went into filmmaking as an act of visibility, taking over The Virgin Suicides (1999) from a male director out of persistence and making films for teenage girls that “treat that audience with respect”. Coppola drew influences from female-centric films, including the films of Jane Campion, The Innocents (1961), Tess (1979) and stills from Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), reflecting the rituals of femininity.

Martha is the most manipulative figure, holding unspoken influence and control at the head of the dinner table. Kidman delivers a powerhouse of a performance, remaining as affecting as her sheer sexuality in To Die For (1995), Eyes Wide Shut (1999) and Moulin Rouge! (2001), spirituality and existentialism in The Others (2001) and The Hours (2002), emotion as a raped woman in Dogville (2003), and her more maternal role in Rabbit Hole (2010). Previously working with Coppola on Somewhere (2010), Fanning is quickly becoming one of the greatest young actresses of recent years, embodying teenage sexuality and desire in Alicia that she has done so well in the idealised, imagined body of Jesse in The Neon Demon and Julie’s indifference to sex in 20th Century Women. Fanning grew up with Coppola’s films; she still regards The Virgin Suicides as one of her favourite films. Dunst, working with Coppola since she was a teenager, is able to achieve character and identity far deeper than Mary Jane in the Spider-Man trilogy (2002-07) and Vivian in Hidden Figures, developed with personality. But as Richard Brody writes, Coppola’s Civil War and women are “an abstraction”, reducing complex historical and political events without the flashbacks, interior monologues and images of war that lace both the book and original film, interested instead in each character’s “immediate experience”.

The young girls of the Farnsworth Seminary carry youthful innocence, dressed in white, virginal dresses. The Beguiled’s conceit of multiple women interested in the same man might seem the premise of a raunchy sex comedy or exploitation film, but McBurney’s presence creates a deep exploration into female desire. Colour changes: girls put on blue and pink dresses, but remains subdued. Amelia remains oblivious to adult desire, keeping a button from his uniform as a memento and staying friendly with her pet tortoise. Martha heads a meeting on what impact McBurney is having; the impact is clear.

Examining wounds, Martha is tempted to touch his thigh, but holds herself back, without the “incest and a fervid erotic imagination” or “dark past or kinky yearnings” from Siegel’s film. In the middle of the night, Alicia sneaks out, kissing him as he lies asleep; later, the pair have sex. As Edwina confronts them, he’s pushed out of bed, falling down the stairs. The loss of McBurney’s leg becomes a phallic metaphor: Martha decides the best course of action is to amputation to stop the bleeding, without knowing anatomy. McBurney rails against the women in masculine aggression, knocking a chandelier to the ground and throwing Amelia’s tortoise. Martha is a butcher and castrator: he would rather be dead than less than a man. His sexuality embodies newfound ferocity: having sex with Edwina, he rips her pearls off, rolling along the floor. As Brody describes, rather than the frenzied “slathering lust” of Siegel’s film, Coppola approaches female desire with “a lyricism, a gracefulness, an elegance that doesn’t in any way diminish its carnality.” But The Beguiled entirely rejects black female sexuality: slave Hallie in Siegel’s film, controversially not present in Coppola’s adaptation, is for Atad a woman who “stands up for herself with a ferocity drawn from any number of black women in the blaxploitation genre.”

The women must reconcile Catholic faith with sexuality, entwined within 19th century culture, carrying expectations of marriage and love; sexual desire becomes a sinful hindrance to repress. The Beguiled becomes a cautionary tale. Although McBurney isn’t the crucified Jesus analogue of Siegel’s film, McBurney becomes what J. Hoberman describes as a “snake in the garden”, the seminary “one step from Eden”: paradise in the middle of chaos. The seminary’s welcoming of McBurney reflects their faith: a young girl feels looking after him would be the proper Christian thing to do, whilst Edwina prays for his health. Given a Bible, McBurney sets it aside, never looking through. The seminary maintains religious rituals, saying grace at the table, but rarely practices what they preach. Martha stages a last supper, but it depends upon murder, a twisted dark fairytale intertwined with theological iconography: she feeds him poisonous mushrooms he willingly consumes, effectively causing his own demise, speaking in double entendre. McBurney is left a white shroud, symbolised only by a blue ribbon hanging upon the gate.

Working with cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd, Coppola conforms to a highly classical style running through the film’s narrative, cinematography and characters, using vintage lenses. With Marie Antoinette (2006), Coppola chose the opposite approach, opting for an anarchic, ahistorical punk aesthetic. Little in the film, scarcely its sexual politics, feels 2017, but a product of an earlier era of filmmaking. In the opening shots, even the pink lettered title feels as though it were imprinted on physical film at the same time as Siegel’s film. Le Sourd excels in shot composition, conveying the enclosed nature of the seminary: white, blown out windows and drawn curtains; a little girl watching events from a tree; girls crowded together inside, watching from the curtains. As Martha meets a Confederate soldier at the gate, Le Sourd creates a duality within the frame, creating a distance between them. At the dinner table at night, the lighting is perfect, darkness only illuminated by candles. The Beguiled’s classicist approach bears comparison to The Lost City of Z and its emulation of the form of earlier, biographical epics: approaching history as history, foregoing an explicit clouding from present aesthetic sensibilities or cultural values.

Coppola’s The Beguiled presents an interesting counterpoint to earlier adaptations, helped by strong performances and characterisation from some of the greatest actresses currently working. Coppola approaches the material with a confident visual style and identity, harkening back to another era.

War for the Planet of the Apes (2017), dir. Matt Reeves

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One of the most successful rebooted franchises of recent years has been the Planet of the Apes series, finding a new perspective on how the world emerged. Planet of the Apes (1968) pitted astronaut Taylor against a future Earth, screaming against the Statue of Liberty buried in sand. Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) destroyed the world itself, but the films that followed travelled back through time through deus ex machina. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) positioned us in the near future as Will Rodman sought an Alzheimer’s cure, exploring the relationship between man and chimp and touching upon contemporary anxieties, with the global pandemic of the Simian Flu spreading on an airplane. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) expanded that world further, as a diminishing human population sought to survive. Director Matt Reeves might be best known for Cloverfield (2008), but is quickly becoming a big name, developing The Batman for Warner Bros.

Caesar (Andy Serkis) may be the defining character of the rebooted trilogy, but Caesar was never the focal character in the original series, played by Roddy McDowall in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972). Serkis has dominated motion capture, roles as diverse as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings (2002-04) and The Hobbit (2012-14), Captain Haddock in The Adventures of Tintin (2011) and the mysterious Snoke in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015). Serkis is so recognisable it becomes distracting: beneath his voice and eyes, we see Serkis, not Caesar. Caesar is never entirely sympathetic, forced to make uneasy decisions that cast his leadership in a bad light. Apes exist on a spectrum of colours and textures: orange, white, black, with characters like orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval) and Caesar’s wife Cornelia (Judy Greer). WETA Digital have developed an impressive array of visual effects, but WETA’s realism is a contradiction, falling into the uncanny valley, seeking sympathy and emotion for ape characters that we know have no physical presence. Faces begin to look like a videogame, with close detail on wrinkles, fur, rain and blood vessels within the eye.

War for the Planet of the Apes positions conflict between apes and humans. Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) suggested unity, a post-nuclear society of peace: in the forest, apes learnt human qualities through a school system. Rise attacked our treatment of animals, whilst in Dawn, we find sympathy in some characters but contempt in man’s militarism. War offers few shades of grey. Military faction Alpha-Omega is headed by Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson), outfitting signs with “THE BEGINNING AND THE END”. Mute girl Nova (Amiah Miller) reminds us of our humanity, but barely: picking pink flowers in the snow, taking her name from a metal plate from an abandoned Chevy. Nova feels like a sister to Laura in Logan (2017), expressing herself through body language. Reeves positions her within the frame alone, a singular remnant of what humanity could be. But War for the Planet of the Apes is far more interested in its apes. Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), perhaps the most infuriating character, crosses boundaries between ape and human: hermit and sole survivor from the Sierra Zoo, personified by a hat he adopts from an abandoned ski lodge whilst attempting to convey comedy.

War draws upon imagery of multiple conflicts across different terrains, through forest and snow, evoking World War II in tanks, Iraq in uniforms and green lights, and pre-industrialised wars with apes riding upon horseback. In the opening, we gaze upon graffiti on Vietnam-esque helmets, soldiers marching forward in camouflage, outfitted with phrases like “BEDTIME FOR BONZO” and “COMBAT KILLER”. We follow a first-person perspective, staring through crosshairs at an ape on a horse. At times, forest combat feels like Return of the Jedi (1983), Ewoks protecting land from the Empire’s machinations.

In the snow, human bodies become identical, lines of white uniforms demarcated by a circle of blood. In his muscularity and masculinity, McCullough acts as an archetype, speaking highly in his admiration of Napoleon. He listens to Hendrix, holding onto his youth. McCullough peddles fundamentalist Christianity, hanging a cross upon the wall next to a picture of the son he sacrificed in biblical fashion for the greater good. His battle is spiritual, crucifying apes upon battlefields. When he commits suicide, drowned out by whiskey, we feel no sympathy.

In its runtime and 65mm, War for the Planet of the Apes attempts to be an old war epic: Reeves riffs on the relationship between Nicholson and Saito in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and the scale of Apocalypse Now (1979), similar to Vogt-Roberts’ emulation of Vietnam War cinema in Kong: Skull Island (2017). Apes move through tunnels, setting off explosives, throwing mud at a soldier as a small act of revolt. There’s pathos to the destruction of the natural landscape: though a victory, devastation remains felt. War’s intertextuality is painstakingly obvious: graffiti on a tunnel reads “APE-POCALYPSE NOW”, as though we didn’t get the reference.

The Planet of the Apes series is directly tied to racial politics, both in how societies are structured and in how we treat others. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes built upon the racial conflict of the Civil Rights Movement, imagining a similar system to apartheid and segregation; apes kept as pets and slaves, leading to the fiery bloodshed of revolution. But the difficulty of reading the Planet of the Apes series through a racial lens is it embodies contradictions, no clear message lying beneath the surface. Human characters reflect white America: McCullough is obsessed with borders, but War is never about Trump. McCullough heads a rogue, militarised United States, groups of soldiers worshipping the American flag as an old record plays The Star-Spangled Banner; a flag set aflame during ensuing conflict. Alpha-Omega is dominated by white men; African-Americans and women become homogenised into the dominant system, without a voice, used as faces but not characters.

Imprisoned in camps, the old guard seeks to contain the new; apes are never a minority, but are kept back by existing power structures. Apes become redeployed in a way mirroring systems of slavery: redeployed in combat as lackeys, carrying equipment and turning on their own people. Apes become brandished with new names that aren’t their own, without heritage.

Borders aren’t just a question about Mexico, but about how America deals with Native Americans. The ape colony emerging in the Muir Woods around San Francisco represent new settlements; apes’ faces are painted in tribal imagery, seeking to reclaim land that was always theirs. War exists within a post-civilisation resembles an early America of manual labour, rooted in trees and overgrowth: remnants of the past still exist, faded Coca Cola trucks and tractors dotting the landscape, run-down corner stores, an abandoned ski resort thawed away by ice, frozen in time, but its landscapes never feel as effective as the concrete and hydroelectric dam in Dawn. Shot in Vancouver, natural landscapes are capped by waterfalls and snow, replenishing where humanity lived.

Reeves’ use of the imagery of westerns is a contradiction. In Muir Woods, whispers tell of great deserts and lands upon the horizon. Apes ride on horseback like cowboys, traversing the landscape of North America in a dream of new land and survival. In some respects, War draws parallels to Logan: a neo-western road movie, moving across from the Mexican to Canadian border in search of an Eden prophesied in comic books. In the final scene, War makes the western parallel obvious: Reeves slowly fades between shots as we walk into another film, discovering a colourful lakeside paradise that might as well be Monument Valley, clouds hanging stationary as though an artificial, painted backdrop. Caesar lays dying of his wounds, passing on to another generation, but his death captures little emotion; we never have enough reason to care. Logan’s parallels to the western worked because Mangold still innovated, developing his own visual style whilst acknowledging the influence of films like Shane (1953) within the film itself. But Reeves proves unable to find his own style, creating discontinuity of form with the previous films.

Reeves’ achievement is in sound and dialogue. From the opening logos, the soundscape immerses us with war drums, rain and the call of birds. The exposition in the opening captions conveys a documentary quality but with the same substance of a Wikipedia summary, RISE and DAWN awkwardly emphasised: we gaze upon a nature documentary, watching a civilisation we cannot entirely understand through human eyes. The director is not Matt Reeves, but David Attenborough. Scenes play with minimal dialogue, apes communicating through gestures, grunts and subtitled dialogue. Within world cinema, subtitles have direct justification, transcending cultural and language barriers. But Reeves’ subtitles create a hindrance to conveying meaning. Grunts seem a string of meaningless sounds, unable to capture emotion. Michael Giacchino’s score overpowers the soundscape, manipulating mood whilst never immersing us within the scene.

Caesar acts as interlocutor between apes and the viewer. Although Caesar’s use of English affords uneasy power within the tribe, it draws attention to the limitations of the film itself, speaking English with little justification. Dawn crafted narrative out of communication: conflict arose from miscommunication and conflicting needs, Alex’s sketches and love of Black Hole (1995) to emphasising the universality of visual communication. In War, Reeves explores how language acquisition is socialised. Raised in a zoo, Bad Ape’s broken English was acquired as a means to survive, embodying the philosophy of a working class sage. Devolution emerges from a loss of language acquisition. Nova’s communicates through her gaze with Maurice, edited in shot reverse shot and framed in close-up.

War builds itself as a remix of earlier genre works within a blockbuster franchise. But Reeves uses elements in a way that isn’t transformative, relying too heavily on recreation. War never feels fresh, with little to offer that hasn’t already been told in previous war or post-apocalyptic films. War can never be an old war epic or western, because that isn’t what it is.

Song to Song (2017), dir. Terrence Malick

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Terrence Malick’s recent works have struggled to find audiences for their experimental tendencies, but though experimentalism implies lack of narrative, experimental cinema often retains narrative even as structure is manipulated to its limits. Song to Song’s lyrical, expressionistic structure relies upon fragmentation, built by editors Rehman Nizar Ali, Hank Corwin and Keith Fraase in rapid fire. Malick attempts to mirror the temporality of life: experienced one way in the moment, another way through emotion, another way within memory.

Manipulating time is never purely aesthetic, but cinema’s core. Malick’s world is in motion, rarely using locked off camera except to emphasise the stillness of nature and the city: trees, mountains and overbearing glass windows stand still, gliding through living rooms in Steadicam. In the music festival, we open on mass crowds, tackled to the mud with sheer fury of motion; later, we glimpse assembled crowds at a football stadium and a church conference.

Malick builds a cacophony of voices between primary characters interspersed throughout. Faye’s (Rooney Mara) voiceover reflects upon time past, but grounds no present, lacking indication of when she is speaking. Only a Day of the Dead festival gives any clear indication to time within the film itself, moving through what could be many months. We move through the mundane: people on Segways riding through the park, or driving in the car. Cinema’s tendency is to simplify narrative for convenience, turning complexity into something straightforward and tangible. But though act structures might seem natural, life is lived through moments and spaces in-between, just as film is fused by iconic images and dialogue. Where narrative is manipulated, beauty can be found. Malick refuses to conform to the tenets of romantic drama: there’s no beautiful, affirming first date, or break-up leading to reaffirmation of love. Sexuality becomes a dance between kisses and flirtations, glimpsing fidelity and infidelity in the before and after: cause and effect.

Sound transcends physical space: sound designer Will Patterson drowns out diegetic sound, overtaking dialogue and music itself, hearing passing cars, crickets, birds and wind at a visceral level. Malick overwhelms us with the enormity and smallness of life, moving small moments and lives through a wider canvas of the progression of time. Through memory, we imagine life as linear, moving from point A and B: partners, jobs, moods, locations, events. But in complexity, we forget how time passes: we move between fluctuating and conflicting emotions without clear rationale, unsure where the next moment will take us. Memory rarely follows the right order: a flash of one time prompts another time, itself triggering something that happened before or after. Malick attempted this best in The Tree of Life (2011), moving from rural life in the 1950s to the immensity of the universe, simultaneously discarding the creationist story of Eden whilst witnessing the beauty of intelligent design and the work of God’s hands.

Rather than linear narrative progression, Malick draws thematic and emotional parallels. We hang within space itself, gravity no longer a hindrance, holding upon the slow movement of clouds from a cockpit window, floating in a reduced gravity aircraft. We move between colours and clothes, BV (Ryan Gosling)’s hair dyed blonde in some scenes. Malick seems almost as radical as Eisenstein and Vertov: remembering film editing and time as open, beyond the confines of formulas, audience expectations and studio profitability.

As a medium, film is directly tied to time. All film is manipulation, combining fragments of scenes and performances and layers of screenplay and dialogue to attempt to form something cohesive, seeking to engage us within a screen present regardless of narrative framing. Shot in 2012, we feel immediate separation. Rooney Mara is closer to The Social Network (2010); Portman closer to Black Swan (2010); Gosling closer to Drive (2011); Fassbender closer to X-Men: First Class (2011). In one scene, gazing upon an extract from a silent film, we’re reminded of the temporal distance inherent within film. Film depends upon distance: ideas formed years (or decades) ago, screenplays written years ago, production often lasting years; rehearsals, filming and editing. When a film is released, or rediscovered, might be considered the most important aspect, but even this is far from essential. Malick has only made a handful of films, preferring to allow time for things to develop.

Working with director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki, Song to Song combines multiple visual aesthetics. Scenes carry a home movie quality as a representation of the normal and everyday, as though nothing cannot be filmed. We witness animals through the fish eye lens of a GoPro, but Malick combines the film with some of the most beautiful cinematography put on screen.

Set against the music scene in Austin, Texas, Austin is deeply personal to Malick, a portrait of a city he knows to his core. But Song to Song isn’t directly about the struggles of being a musician: instead, music acts as a unifying background. We intersect along fragments of songs and artist cameos, including instrumental, classical, faith-themed pieces, Lykke Li and Die Antwood, the most bizarre soundtrack in film history. Neon Indian writes on a whiteboard with Faye at a party. At the festival, Duane (Val Kilmer) saws an amplifier in half and throws a sex doll around before being dragged inside a car. Flea and Iggy Pop appear in cameos. Patti Smith acts as a mentor to Rhonda (Natalie Portman), waxing philosophical as she beautifully and sorrowfully reflects upon her life. Smith’s presence affords an aura of documentary, blurring lines of fact and fiction, our protagonists embodied as real people within a real music scene.

Gosling’s performance as singer/songwriter BV provides an interesting point of comparison to La La Land (2016). BV is never entirely likable or charming: he treats women with a sense of sexual ownership, drawing an X on Faye’s body in red marker pen, later hooking up with Amanda (Cate Blanchett) in Freudian conflict. He cares for his dad, confined to his bed in sickness, struggling to reconcile his mum’s feelings about his relationship with Faye. But BV also has innocence and vulnerability: record producer Cook (Michael Fassbender) manipulates him, owning rights to his work and never standing by his side. In his black suit, Cook acts as the Devil incarnate, living a life of gluttony. Though he treats the vase of ashes by the pool with respect, Cook engages with visceral sexuality, staging a threesome with prostitutes and between Faye and Rhonda, naked women diving into the pool at the party.

Women become a sexual object: Faye’s naked body becomes a centrepiece to the party covered in food to eat off. Mara may be the film’s best part, purely for the power and strength Mara puts into every role ever given, one of the most underrated actresses of recent years. Performing on stage, Faye excels. Like Therese in Carol (2015), Faye has a queer edge: she feels initial hesitance to making out with Zoey (Bérénice Marlohe), but rediscovers intense sexuality, masturbating her and moving with each others hands. Malick’s women aren’t faceless, but with goals and desires: Rhonda wants to be a teacher, working as a waitress in a bar in a pink uniform. Rhonda attempts to reject Cook’s advances, but is ensnared by his destructive lifestyle.

Malick’s approach to cinema relies upon intense spirituality. Even Song to Song’s approach to time feels spiritual, removed from the dimensions of linearity. Malick’s spirituality allows for a sense of the emotional beyond the grounded. Patti Smith holds onto her wedding ring, still feeling the presence of her late husband, Fred, within the physical object. Rhonda’s goal of becoming a teacher is paralleled by a prostitute Cook hooks up with, forced into a line of work she doesn’t want to be in, holding onto the memory of her husband tattooed onto her, as she prays this is all part of God’s plan and she will get out of this and find fulfilment. Each protagonist is spiritual in a certain way: in voiceover, Faye reflects on the moment she realised she has a soul, having found the word embarrassing, laying her hand upon a religious icon; Rhonda attends a conference and a blessing with her dog; BV performs hymns on his piano. In a scene of mourning, we feel the immensity of the world around and intensity of emotion, moving overhead from the car park with a sense of isolation. Malick’s spirituality is tied to nature, touching down upon the water, moving across mountains and gazing upon birds in the sky, mirrored by the intricate mobile in the bedroom.

Where George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg became household names of New Hollywood, Malick still exists on the outside as a singular voice, recruiting big names for experimental cinema that transcend limitations. Though Song to Song might polarise, it is never not interesting. Malick’s approach to cinema demands to be seen. Song to Song may be the most beautiful portraits of our experience with life in recent years, interested in far deeper questions than entertainment, but reaching into the core of our souls.

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), dir. Jon Watts

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Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy captivated a generation, myself included: back when film was projected on film, the projectionist visible behind. I took a Spider-Man 3 (2007) pencil case to school every day. The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) remained meaningful, spending summer days reading comics and watching movies.

Seeking an on-screen legacy, Marvel sold rights decades ago to Cannon Films, becoming stuck in development hell as an unmade James Cameron film. Before the Disney acquisition, Marvel Studios was as outsider, partnering with Paramount for distribution; it wasn’t unreasonable for Sony and 20th Century Fox to lead the way as major, pre-established studios. Following the hack surrounding The Interview (2014), Sony information leaked spin-off and sequel plans, Andrew Garfield’s casting and negotiations with Marvel Studios.

Sony’s franchise relaunches have met criticism: Ghostbusters (2016) received middling box office and critical response, and though films like Baby Driver (2017) prove Sony can tell new stories, Sony lacks the cachet or cultural impact of Columbia’s early days. It’s been a long time coming: The Avengers (2012) almost added the Oscorp Tower to the Manhattan skyline. Sony still wants to expand, developing Venom, Silver & Black and an animated film with Miles Morales. Spider-Man is inescapably tied to Marvel’s identity, the iconic logo first used in Spider-Man (2002). The Marvel Studios logo plays over a confused remix of the iconic Spider-Man (1967-70) theme, never achieving the intended impact.

Spider-Man has been defined in relation to other heroes: in The Amazing Spider-Man #1 (1963), Spider-Man is rejected from the Fantastic Four. Peter’s relatable problems, through high school, college and adulthood, provides a counterpoint to more symbolic characters or superhero team unity; his non-hero life is almost more important than hero life. Captain America: Civil War (2016) re-introduced Spider-Man as a wisecracking teenager (Tom Holland) living in Queens with Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), recruited by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). Shooting an iPhone vlog without the finesse of Casey Neistat, Parker’s teenage joy frames a new perspective on the airport battle. Stark becomes a reluctant mentor alongside Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), a director cameo no longer appearing in his own movie. Downey never feels committed, struggling to recreate what made earlier performances so special despite reportedly having the highest actor salary worldwide. Iron Man wirelessly controls his suit from India, deserving more conflict whilst demanding more space for Peter’s character to develop. It feels like a spiritual sequel to the Iron Man films (2008-13): Stark, Hogan and Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) plan a press conference, an engagement ring suggesting belated marital unity. Even Stan Lee’s cameo disappoints, especially after Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) revealed him as multiversal being hanging out with the Watcher: New Yorker Gary yells out a neighbourhood window, unable to compete with his heroic cameo in Spider-Man 3 or the school librarian in The Amazing Spider-Man.

Homecoming finds a smaller lens to wider events against a refigured timeline. (Was Peter born in 2004, or did the Battle of New York take place in 2009?) Eight years ago, Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) cleans up the wrecked Grand Central Terminal, carrying a crayon drawing of the Avengers, shifted away by Anne Marie Hoag (Tyne Daly) and Damage Control. A heist crew wears Avengers masks; high schoolers debate which Avenger they’d fuck, marry or kill. Captain America (Chris Evans) hosts anachronistic state sponsored instructional videos in gym and detention, though Coach Wilson (Hannibal Buress) acknowledges he’s probably a war criminal. The post-credits, without the lost promise of the Sinister Six’s gear or promoting X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), acts as self-reflective commentary but offers nothing to get excited about. Framing the film around the Avengers moving facility, first glimpsed in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), mirrors every teenager’s feelings moving away, packing up Cap’s shield and Thor’s Megingjord.

Spider-Man’s suit feels more Iron Spider than ever, with Ditko-esque abilities: pushing out air, moving eyes, webbing underneath armpits. The film’s insistence upon CGI over physical suit might allow for some stunts, just as Iron Man’s suit has been reduced to CGI, but lacks the physical presence that could afford a greater impact. An internal OS is no longer the dream it seemed in 2008: AI Karen (Jennifer Connelly) is a personalised extension of Siri or Alexa, performing the same role as Bruce Campbell’s voiceover tutorial in the opening to the Spider-Man (2002) tie-in game. The voice inside Peter’s head given manifest form, Karen diminishes his power, never allowed to talk to himself or shout and scream at the sheer joy of swinging about New York City with superpowers. Trapped in concrete in the Damage Control facility, he lays around, confiding his crush on Liz (Laura Harrier) whilst learning abilities. Though Homecoming isn’t an origin per se, Peter follows a learning curve, proving his worth as hero and Avenger.

Each new writer creates a new status quo: Stan Lee introduced Peter Parker as a 60s teenager, balancing school alongside working at the Bugle; he grew up, graduating and meeting Gwen Stacy and Mary Jane at college; Straczynski depicted him as a Midtown High teacher; Slott moved him up to employee of Horizon and head of Parker Industries; a constant fixture of the Avengers since Bendis’ The New Avengers (2005-12). But high school has been continually revisited, throughout Ultimate Spider-Man (2000-09), Spidey (2015-16), and romance-oriented, manga-infused Mary Jane (2004) and Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane (2005-07), centred round a homecoming setting.

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Mary Jane: Homecoming #4 (2005)

Where The Amazing Spider-Man (1977-79) positioned Parker as scientist in college, Raimi’s trilogy largely avoided high school and college life altogether, more interested in him as young adult, limiting high school to the opening act of Spider-Man. The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) plays Peter as introvert and outcast skater kid, trying to deal with the death of his parents and Uncle Ben. Holland might seem perfect casting, and though a 20-year-old playing 15 is more convincing than a 28-year-old playing 17, Holland still looks his age. The Amazing Spider-Man had me obsessed with Garfield: I asked the hairdresser to make my hair look like his (it didn’t). But Holland exceeds Garfield as the hottest Peter Parker ever gracing the screen. Holland achieves hipness and smartness, shirts and jumpers neither too cool for school nor pretentious; pop culture nerd and science nerd. But Holland never conveys a sense of teenage wasteland.

Spider-Man becomes down to earth, concocting webfluid in shop class; his handmade hoody-esque suit inverting Ben Reilly’s Scarlet Spider costume. Where Peter spent time away from the costume in Spider-Man 2 (2004) and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014), struggling to reconcile personal relationships and grief, Spider-Man returns to his costume as proof of worth, just as Garfield’s Spider-Man was inspired by a kid standing up to the Rhino. Iron Man teaches Parker a paternal lesson of power and responsibility, considering damages from interference, including neighbourhood shops aflame to a ferry split in two, struggling to maintain the integrity of in homage to The Amazing Spider-Man #33 (1966). But Spider-Man is still a vigilante: a nobody celebrated by Peter’s high school after Washington DC.

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The Amazing Spider-Man #33 (1966)

He patrols New York fighting small criminals, screwing up along the way, saving bicycles without owners and setting off car alarms. A hobo with a boom box cheers on, reprising his role from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986). Spider-Man changes into costume awkwardly in back-alleys, webbing up his clothes, far from Clark Kent spinning in a telephone booth in Superman (1978). Though Peter might feel held back by the Training Wheels protocol, his hesitance is a sign of immaturity: his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) helps hack the suit, turning off trackers. As a teenager, Peter thinks he’s more than just a kid: anti-authoritarian, fighting the FBI on the ferry and cops and helicopters in DC, more resonant real world obstacles than any supervillain. Peter Parker is nothing without his suit, learning his identity and how he balances his life. His audacity to say no to Stark is maturity: self-reasoning his own interests, rejecting a room next to Vision.

New York City is a central location to both Spider-Man’s identity and the MCU as a whole. In Spider-Man, the New York landscape became an inescapable reflection of national mourning to 9/11: the World Trade Center had been the centrepiece to an early teaser trailer; Spider-Man became directly framed against the American flag. Peter Parker had witnessed the tragedy himself in The Amazing Spider-Man #36 (2001). Previous films use bridges, office blocks, theatres and Times Square as central locations, the Empire State Building on the skyline. Homecoming isn’t interested in New York as tourist destination but as somewhere lived and breathed. Though largely filmed in Atlanta and Georgia, New York was used in important moments; Los Angeles had been utilised as doubles through Spider-Man to The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Though The Avengers suggests a centrality to New York, the MCU has largely avoided it: Age of Ultron and Civil War were international; Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) travelled across the universe, teaching the value of family; Doctor Strange (2016) moves across interdimensional worlds, Kathmandu, Hong Kong and London, though based in Greenwich Village.

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The Amazing Spider-Man #36 (2001)

Homecoming embraces the small scale of Queens: Spider-Man stands on top the Metro, performs to a hotdog vendor atop a roof and regularly visits Mr Delmar’s (Hemky Madera) corner store, petting his cat at the counter. In The Amazing Spider-Man, the corner store represented a plot point in Uncle Ben’s death; here, it represents the city. Though we see the Statue of Liberty’s torch aflame, even tourist locations are lesser known: the sands and attractions at Coney Island, best represented on screen by The Warriors (1979); the Staten Island Ferry, moving across the waters. Moving outside New York, we embrace different skyscrapers: in Washington DC for the Academic Decathlon, Spider-Man runs past the Lincoln Memorial, saving the Washington Monument from crumbling. Washington DC is wasted, carrying none of the conspiracy thriller symbolism from Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), just another background losing the film of some of its New York identity.

Ned, as Peter’s best friend, lacks enough characterisation, a geek interested in being a good friend and the guy behind the desk, but little beyond that. A far cry from Ned Leeds: he isn’t working for the Bugle, and being the Hobgoblin and suffering psychological breakdowns seems unlikely. He’s closer to Ganke, Miles Morales’ best friend, putting together a LEGO Death Star with Peter amid his massive collection of Star Wars action figures. Ned is the definition of awkward, attending parties wearing a fedora; pretending to look at porn when caught at homecoming on the computer by a teacher.

Ned wants to know as much about Spider-Man as possible, learning Peter’s secret identity as he changes out of costume. He uses it for street cred, talking about Peter’s friend Spider-Man. It almost feels like a queer coming out: Ned asks detailed questions, from how far he can shoot his webs (yikes) and if he can spurt venom or lay eggs. May walks in on Peter undressed with Ned around, choosing not to ask questions. In the final shot, May walks in on Peter in costume, shocked. The Amazing Spider-Man #37 (2002) played a similar reveal: May walks in on Peter’s shattered, bruised and bloodied body and torn costume, but accepts him.

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Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #2 (2011)

Peter respects May: she’s understandably concerned, sneaking out every night and losing his internship, adopting both maternal and paternal roles. A waiter at the Thai restaurant and Stark have hots for her, but this isn’t controversial: May was engaged to Doc Ock in The Amazing Spider-Man #131 (1974). Without the baggage of Peter worrying about health issues, their relationship becomes equal: showing how to put on a tie, dance and act around girls, she channels the relationship between Jack and daughter Andie in Pretty in Pink (1986). But Tomei struggles to compete with Rosemary Harris and Sally Fields, or the power of May learning his identity in The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

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The Amazing Spider-Man #37 (2002)

The Midtown School of Science and Technology as a group of clever kids is interesting: Ultimate Comics Spider-Man (2011-13) made Morales enter a selective lottery for charter school, beyond the public education free-for-all. Homecoming’s cast is diverse, made of a wide number of characters: Betty Brant (Angourie Rice) and Jason Ionella (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) host the school’s news network: poorly edited, bad interviews, green screen, Comic Sans awkwardness. The Bugle may be struggling under fake news and social media, but newspapers still exist, yet the Bugle hasn’t been seen on screen since Spider-Man 3. Flash (Tony Revolori) seems more complex than previous films, no longer a thuggish jock but throwing insults and DJ’ing along to “penis Parker” at the party, but lacks the military background that defined him as Venom.

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Amazing Fantasy #15 (1962)

The previous films’ heart and soul were its love interests, providing Peter with humanity and motivation. We feel their love as Mary Jane and Spider-Man kiss in Spider-Man, through tribulations, MJ’s acting ambitions in Spider-Man 2 and their engagement in Spider-Man 3. In The Amazing Spider-Man and its sequel, Garfield and Stone’s chemistry was real. Peter never had one ultimate love interest, seeing many different women from Anna Maria to Carlie Cooper to Debra Whitman to Michele Gonzales. But Peter and Liz have nothing: Liz is just a crush, without investment when she accepts Peter as homecoming partner or moves to Oregon. It isn’t power couple; it’s just there, destined to break up. Peter becomes the sweet kid to show off and take selfies with; they never even make out. Though Liz was attracted to Spider-Man, she never had feelings for Peter in the comics: she dated Flash, fathering a son with Harry Osborn. The most engaging female character is Michelle (Zendaya): woke and progressive, planning to attend a protest, refusing to approach the Washington Monument because it was built by slaves. Michelle has an aura of mystery never articulated: she sketches in detention, reading constantly, trying to channel Allison from The Breakfast Club (1985). Adopting the initials MJ, the film hints to a larger role for future films.

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The Amazing Spider-Man #5 (1963)

Spider-Man’s rogue’s gallery might only compare to Batman’s in number and notoriety, offering constant space for new ground. Villains translated to screen were largely millionaires and moguls, scientists and professors: Green Goblin, Doc Ock, the Lizard; only Spider-Man 3 offered a more sympathetic view of Sandman, doing everything for his daughter. Homecoming embraces the underdog; the Vulture planned since the aborted production of Spider-Man 4. Keaton’s Vulture is neither Birdman nor Batman: Toomes is a family man, though stinks of hypocrisy. He riles against the oppressed and 1% in a monologue to buy time, but lives in a house few could afford. The Vulture becomes a literal vulture, re-appropriating Chitauri tech with the help of the Tinkerer (Michael Chernus).

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The Amazing Spider-Man #2 (1963)

Toomes assembles a crew, including the Shocker and Prowler (Donald Glover). Jackson Brice (Logan Marshall-Green) might only be recognisable as the Shocker thanks to padded sleeves, groomed out with a tightly trimmed beard, quickly replaced by Herman Shultz (Bokeem Woodbine) because of Toomes’ ineptitude. Perhaps the most welcome presence is Aaron Davis, Glover embodying a coolness. Hobie Brown is more iconic as the Prowler, a young black man in the Bronx that helps protect Spider-Man’s identity in The Amazing Spider-Man #79 (1969), but Davis’ presence has far greater implications: Davis is in his mid-30s and uncle to Miles Morales, interested in helping out kids and not being a criminal. Donald Glover can do no wrong: his last album as Childish Gambino, “Awaken, My Love!” (2016), was a funk-infused masterpiece, Redbone gracing the soundtrack of Get Out (2017); the Han Solo solo movie is my most anticipated solely for Glover playing Lando. Glover provided a template for Miles Morales, and played his role in the Ultimate Spider-Man (2012-17) animated series; it’s fitting to see him here. The postcredits scene brings in another villain, barely sans costume in shaved hair and prison clothes: Mac Gargan (Michael Mando), better known as the Scorpion.

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Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #8 (2012)

The strength of a villain is in personal stakes against the protagonist, best illustrated by the Green Goblin, conflicted between friendships and parental roles; Venom embodies an inverted reflection of our hero’s identity. In Birdman (2014), Keaton acted against his daughter Sam, played by Emma Stone; Keaton plays the in-law once more as father to Liz. Conflict becomes about identity: hit by streetlights, Toomes figures out Peter’s secret on the drive to homecoming, playing up the sinister in dramatic irony against what Liz, Adrian, Peter and the audience knows. Fears become uniquely teenage, but the final confrontation upon the plane never lives up to potential, never affected by the knowledge each character knows.

Homecoming never achieves a John Hughes tone, barely departing from the superhero film formula. Watts interprets Hughes as an 80s aesthetic, without recontextualising: the soundtrack is dominated by the Rolling Stones, Ramones and A Flock of Seagulls, without the MGMT that worked so well in the first trailer; the homecoming is event 80s-themed. There’s no sense of the music Peter likes, no indie or synthpop or R&B that might define this generation. Using contemporary music doesn’t need to be as desperate as the Raimi trilogy using Maroon 5, Corey Taylor and Aerosmith to shift compilation albums; music is an extension of identity. There’s Hughes elements: teenage rebellion sneaking out to the hotel pool; teachers not giving a shit about pupils, but Hughes’ films were defined by performance and comedy. Trying superficially, Watts never captures what it means to be a teenager in the 2010s; texting becomes just another graphic on screen.

Neither cinematography nor score stands out: Michael Giacchino afforded beauty and wonderment to the scores for Inside Out (2015), Doctor Strange and Rogue One, but achieves nothing but blandness here, unable to elevate mood and tone as Danny Elfman and James Horner achieved masterfully. Even the credits hit the wrong note: Spider-Man becomes reduced down to sketchbook illustrations on lined paper, with the edginess of middle school of the credits to Diary of a Wimpy Kid (2008). Though boasting a strong performance from Tom Holland, Homecoming becomes let down by an unfocused structure, introducing too many action set-pieces without weight, never allowing Peter’s high school scenes to have emotional impact. Even the final scenes of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 carried pathos, in spite of its many flaws. With many elements to set up, Homecoming struggles to carry a cohesive whole.

David Lynch: The Art Life (2016), dir. Jon Nguyen, Rick Barnes & Olivia Neergaard-Holm

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David Lynch might seem enigmatic: his films are full of mysteries that only he knows the answers to, requiring elaborate fan theories to decode. An artist at heart, Lynch never sought to become a filmmaker. As visual mediums, art and film aren’t separate, but bounce off each other to reveal and create something new. Lynch follows the daily notion of the “art life”: he drinks coffee in the morning, without distractions, and paints. Even for those not interested in the art world, The Art Life remains engrossing. Other documentaries like Cutie and the Boxer (2013), depicting Ushio Shinohara’s and Noriko’s lifetime of sculptures and performance art, present us with the intricacies of being a creative and its routines and relationships.

Lynch’s enigma remains in place. Lynch splits himself into three identities: his family, friends, and his representation of his inner self within art. Lynch talks about his adolescence in Missoula and Boise, becoming just another normal guy; Missoula is no longer just the birthplace of Maddy Ferguson in Twin Peaks (1990-91, 2017). Lynch recalls efforts to convince his father Donald that being an artist is a viable career decision: Lynch was the rebel who hanged out with the bad kids, working late nights in the studio after class, remembering how his mother was disappointed in him. Remembering his early 20s, his recollections become more interesting: smoking marijuana as his friend drove down the freeway; leaving a Bob Dylan concert; living in Philadelphia, where he came across dead bodies shot out in a diner, and encountered crazy people in the street.

But The Art Life is frustrating: the film chooses its endpoint as the production of Eraserhead (1977), suggesting an end of a chapter with more stories to tell, reinforcing the notion that Lynch is more filmmaker than artist. But Lynch embodies different kinds of art, never slowing down; he carried on with life. Directors Jon Nguyen, Olivia Neergaard-Holm and Rick Barnes illustrate Lynch’s recollections with his current, mixed media artwork, but without offering direct commentary. But Nguyen, Neergaard-Holm and Barnes also don’t hide the reality of Lynch’s life: he’s a father, playing with his young child; he takes a drag of his cigarette, frustrated at his own paintings and artwork. Lynch speaks reflections into his anachronistic microphone, just as he has done in his own reflective documentaries like Eraserhead Stories (2001).

Even shot on digital, The Art Life is never able to compare to the closeness and authenticity of the direct cinema movement of the 1960s and 70s, lacking neither enough insight nor a complete portrait to make it interesting enough, especially amid an existing canon of films interviewing the director. The film’s directors struggle to find a singular authorial voice, acting instead as a meditation that lacks the coherence one might expect to find.

My Life as a Courgette (2016), dir. Claude Barras

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Courgettes are perhaps one of the most underrated vegetables. They can be done as slices; as batons; bathed in olive oil; served with couscous, with chickpeas, with risotto. 2016 has seen a strong selection of releases, but My Life as a Courgette has been one of the most anticipated. Its title might confound anyone who hears its name, but behind its title and delicious vegetable is a beautiful tale of adolescence.

As the film began, I was confounded: My Life as a Courgette was playing in its American dub, lacking both zucchinis and its French voice cast. I almost walked out: dubs are something I avoid at all costs. Dubs are a necessary part of international distribution, not only to attract wider audiences, but allowing accessibility for its target demographic: kids. Studio Ghibli’s films weren’t ruined by their dubs, but broadened the potential audience. Courgette’s dub is strengthened by its voice cast: Nick Offerman, better known as Ron Swanson in Parks and Recreation (2009-15), excels as police officer Raymond, providing a sense of both his exhaustion and joy for these kids.

Studios like Laika have redefined what children’s stop motion can be, both as portraits of adolescence and as meditations upon death, thanks to the pathos of Coraline (2009), ParaNorman (2012) and Kubo and the Two Strings (2016); Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox elevated a Roald Dahl adaptation to a beautiful piece of filmmaking. In its stark realism, Courgette goes beyond the fantastical elements of Laika or the adventurous nature of Aardman for something far more grounded. Screenwriter Céline Sciamma built her career writing portraits of conflicted adolescence. Tomboy (2011) is one of the few works on gender dysphoria in childhood and parental conflict; Girlhood (2014) is brutal, portraying a conflicted young black teenager forced to fit into different social circles.

The orphan might be a trope of film and literature, but director Claude Barras makes this trope seem real. Icare, nicknamed Courgette, isn’t happy go lucky, and neither is the rest of the orphanage, suffering great trauma after accidentally killing his alcoholic mother. My Life as a Courgette frames us within the real world: Camille wants nothing to do with her abusive aunt, whilst other orphans lost parents to drug addition or suicide, still feeling the effects. We care for the orphanage as a unit, never wanting to see them torn apart; Simon becomes an ally, providing covert surveillance.

My Life as a Courgette’s darkness doesn’t lose it of soulfulness, using humour to great effect as kids come to term with sexuality, forced to mature at a young age. Courgette experiences his first crush on Camille, wanting to understand her and her traumatic background more deeply. Kids seek to understand: staring at diagrams of men and women, confused; chuckle under covers at night and on the bus about how willies explode. The film’s conclusion is one of hope, but problematizes Courgette and Camille’s relationship to make it just a little bit creepy. Can they really expect things to continue as they stand? During a party scene, Eisbaer is played, becoming an earworm for the ages.

Although My Life as a Courgette disappointingly lacks the deeper portrayals or queer themes that pervade Céline Sciamma’s work, Barras’ film provides a powerful portrait of overcoming trauma and abuse in childhood that demands to be seen, for all its short duration.

The Giant (2016), dir. Johannes Nyholm

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Having finished watching Clash, I sat waiting around in the Everyman for the start of The Giant, presented with a Q&A with director Johannes Nyholm.

Sweden’s cinematic legacy seems defined by Ingmar Bergman, perhaps one of the most celebrated world cinema directors to have ever lived, for his melancholy tales of humanity. Other films and directors have come after Bergman: Let the Right One In (2008) might be one of the most well known, with its teenage vampire romance, whilst directors like Lukas Moodysson have a noticeable presence.

Nyholm has previously worked on music videos and short films like Puppetboy (2008), but The Giant is his first feature. As Nyholm tells in the Q&A, the road to The Giant was a 10-year process, developing the script and other ideas in the meanwhile, filming another yet to be released feature in 2011. Nyholm found funding from Dutch financiers, but remained limited by budget. Nyholm explored The Giant’s basic concept in his music video It Will Follow the Rain (2006), but music videos and cinema are two different, though connected, realms.

When I asked Nyholm the inspiration behind the project, Nyholm related a time when he had a dream, aged 4 years old. In the dream, his body was bloated; Nyholm was unable to move, his mind turning to existential thoughts. Rikard’s love of pétanque comes from Nyholm too: Nyholm used some of his old teammates from the game in starring roles, largely relying on nonprofessional actors; Nyholm used only 4 professional actors within the film.

The Giant might be difficult to describe in terms of genre: the film combines sports, magical realism, drama and the western, finding a perfect balance between each, combining surrealism with the mundanity of everyday life, juxtaposing moods against each other. Other recent films like A Monster Calls (2016), through its giant, embodied monster, balance the dark world of mortality and the wish fulfilment of children’s fairytales. Nyholm achieves similar: the giant embodies two aspects of Rikard’s self. Rikard holds onto a dream to compete in the Nordisk pétanque championships, but Rikard feels constantly held back. Rikard imagines what it would feel like to be free. As a 30 year old with a deformed condition, Rikard feels infantilised, looked after constantly by carer Roland. In scenes shot through Rikard’s own perspective, we see how difficult it is within his body: though Nyholm injects Rikard with personality and humanity, through his distorted, circular vision, he struggles to see the world around him.

But Rikard feels joy: at his birthday party, he is enraptured by the love and care afforded to him by others, surrounded by gifts and multiple slices of birthday cake; Nyholm makes a cameo during this sequence. Speaking to Roland on the bench outside the hospital, they joke about blowjobs, showing only some maturity; he still has sexuality, despite his condition. Rikard insists his individuality and ability to look after himself: he refuses to stay down in a hospital bed; he holds onto a deep relationship with his mother, insisting he see her. As Nyholm tells, Elisabeth’s song also came from his own family.

Like the disabled characters of Freaks (1932) and The Elephant Man (1980), Rikard must prove his humanity in the face of otherising and dehumanising; the carnival sideshow of Freaks drank alcohol, had interpersonal relationships, had their own existence, despite the hate and mockery of others. Rikard’s skull is fractured in an intentional attack during a game, but Rikard becomes the one punished by management. At a train stop, bullied by a group of men, Rikard’s misery is turned into spectacle, recorded on their phones; attacked by his own pétanque balls. In the championships, Rikard is constantly underestimated within the tight, restrictive rulebooks of the game.

In Rikard’s paintings, he sees himself as master of his own universe: he paints landscapes, as a joy and passion of expression as other senses fail him. In pétanque, the formation of the game represents the motion of planets within the galaxy, drawn upon his restrictive bedroom floor where he can’t make too much noise; Rikard is at the centre. Through animation and model work, Nyholm injects the film with bright autumnal orange sunsets, as the giant walks among trees; his giant foot lands upon train tracks. The camera moves across the landscape, amid the trees and mountains and waters; a place truly beautiful. In the final scene, he rises from the ambulance. The giant rises upon the city as Godzilla or King Kong; everyday citizens run for their life. Rikard emerges as powerful, two bodies as one.

Clash (2016), dir. Mohamed Diab

clash

The morning of Saturday 8th April 2017 was a morning of firsts: I took my first Uber ride; made my first Instagram post. After a morning distributing flyers and boards around the Birmingham canals and SeaLife Centre, I prepared for an afternoon at Flatpack Film Festival with a great series of films lined up.

The @everymancinema is rad! The Giant starts here at 5pm

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The Everyman Mailbox might take the record for the comfiest cinema in Birmingham. Hidden away inside a shopping centre, the Everyman is decked out with a bar and unreasonably comfy seats, enough space to chill out and relax with a few drinks.

Egypt’s image might be as a land of pyramids and pharaohs, trapped within its history and tourist industry. Egyptologists and adventurers seep through the sands, looking for the great mysteries of the ancient ages. But Egypt is far more complicated than we can be led to believe. As the Middle East is engulfed by conflict and the emergence of ISIS, Egypt’s existence is far from stable. The Arab Spring emerged throughout Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Syria, becoming seen as emblematic of the participatory nature of the internet, alongside the Occupy movement: a powerful, leaderless force, manifesting mass protests through social media, with the power to topple governments. But the Arab Spring has not seen the birth of new democracies, but waves of extremism and oppression; Syria has collapsed to rubble, creating a mass refugee crisis and troubling use of chemical weapons by Assad. Tahrir Square stood as a symbol of revolution, but revolution dissipated. Clash situates us within the aftermath of the Arab Spring, in July 2013, retelling the military coup overthrowing Mohammed Morsi from power as president. Coproduced with French and German financiers, with assistance from studios like ARTE and Pyramide, Clash recreate protests through its use of contained space and assembling a group of extras to act as a mass of protestors, struggling with the difficulties of financing and distribution and limited budgets.

Much of what we understand about Egypt comes from journalism, not only in reportage but photojournalism. In an age where journalism is justifiably questioned more than ever, from clickbait to social media, to dubious online advertising to paywalls and fake news, we need more diligence than ever. Journalists need time and resources to cover stories in-depth, rather than throwaway headlines awash with speculation. All the President’s Men (1976) and Spotlight (2015) act as powerful defences of news journalism’s impact in exposing the truth. But often, film is unable to use journalism effectively. No Man’s Land (2001) and the re-edited Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956) insert English-speaking journalists in a way that feels clumsy, explaining away events for international viewers outside the film’s native country, destroying narrative logic and authenticity. As AP journalists, Adam and photographer Zein could be presented as easy international audience conduits. But Adam’s heritage gives him narrative license: as an Egyptian-American, Adam buried his dad in Egypt; the future of his country is just as much of interest to him as it is to any other Egyptian. Adam is constantly treated like shit, but his presence is essential in drawing international attention to injustices and events.

Clash conveys immediacy through its use of handheld camera, creating a documentary quality. Released only 3 years after the events depicted within the film, Clash walks a line between historical events and contemporary politics. Clash’s documentary quality lacks narrative justification: there is no unseen cameraman within the van following events. Clash refuses to conform to the found footage element of films like Chronicle (2012) that often strain credibility, instead evoking the form to create a mood that feels raw and contemporaneous. Events are depicted that cannot be captured as documentary, transcending limitations. Though we live in an age where cellphones are everywhere: potentially, no event can go uncaptured, every minute of the day committed to film through multiple angles, there are still limitations. As journalists risk their lives in warzones, there are still blind spots: atrocities can still be suppressed. The camera on Zein’s smart watch feels like a Dan Dare-esque gadget: Zein acts as guerrilla filmmaker, depicting the people on the van. Later, the camera acts as a memento, depicting song and joy as a record of people assembled together. Adam and Zein must negotiate their positions between acting as journalists and as trustworthy friends and allies; the van’s occupants remain self-aware they are being watched.

Cinematographer Ahmed Gabr achieves a strong use of cinematography, looking out to the world outside, lit out in lights, lasers and fireworks and punishing purples. After A’isha’s father’s death, her face becomes engulfed by reds, conveying her internal emotions.

Enclosed within a van, the film creates a sense of suffocation. Clash might be best watched in the confinement of a shaking van on a miniature TV. Hitchcock used contained spaces in Rope (1948) and Rear Window (1954) not only to focus upon the intensity of character performance but to focus upon location as a character within itself. Conflict arises with human emotion at its most tested, separating into tribalism instinctively as they are forcibly moved in a vehicle against their will. Though our characters begin as blank slates, we come to know them much more deeply. Muslim Brotherhood supporters. Journalists. Protestors. Everyday citizens. Mothers, fathers and children. A wannabe DJ, a film star, soccer fans. Rather than a homogenised mass, Diab grants each character subjectivity, with their own backgrounds and experiences.

Each character finds their own way of coping against the inevitable. Diab builds uneasy prescience around our characters’ doom: they remain aware that in the van before them, 40 people died, bound to be left for death. Characters negotiate with soldiers and police as captors, wanting at least basic human dignity, still with basic human needs: water, air, needing to piss. Clash has some gore: open wounds, stitches, blood, exploding bodies, but the film never becomes too gory, instead seeking realism. Some hold onto a faith in God, knowing a better day will come. A’isha removes her hijab to find a pin, in order to force the door open, contending against the systems of respect and oppression built into Islam. A’isha plays a game of noughts and crosses upon the wall, reflecting wider conflict within the rules of the game.

Around China with a Movie Camera (2015)


 

Last year, I appreciated the Old Rep as a venue for live performance with Faust (1926), presented with an immersive live score, animating the carnival and capturing the elemental forces of nature. This year is no short of live performances, adding an added dimension to film that demands physical presence, bringing new life to almost century old material. Ruth Chan’s score, complete with orchestra, combines Chinese and western influences to reflect the BFI’s compilation of an archive of decades of home movies, newsreels and ethnographic film, often filmed from western perspectives.

Around China with a Movie Camera seems at home with the city symphonies of the late 1920s. The film is not as interested in the progression of time as in the progression of space, moving between Beijing and Shanghai, using cities themselves as a point of departure to examine shared culture and location. Man with a Movie Camera (1929) experimented radically with editing, technique and form, placing the everyday life of the streets upon the screen without relying on traditional narrative, compressing Odessa, Moscow, Khariv and Kiev into one shared location. Where Around China with a Movie Camera lacks is its limitations: as a compilation, it has no authorial voice. It feels like a series of short sketches, comprised of extracts; the BFI’s website even offers a wider archive. Other recent BFI projects like The Stuart Hall Project (2013) feel similarly limited by form: manipulating an existing archive without offering coherent structure or anything much new to existing material.

But preserving early film carries importance, adding visual record to the stillness of photographs and the prose of monographs. Film deteriorates, left in archives or badly stored, unwatched or forgotten. As a physical medium, film is limited by the amount of stock available. The camera excludes: positioning and light affects how the image itself is perceived. We follow missionaries, tourists and honeymooners, capturing ethnographic images of a culture they do not live within, with their own decisions on what is valuable to shoot, rarely following a Chinese perspective. Early films like The Epic of Everest (1924) provide a valuable record of not only Mallory’s expedition to the Antarctic but Tibetan rituals, faces long since forgotten: but the camera conceals an imperial gaze.

Preserving an archive is ultimately a question about ourselves: how will we as people be remembered? Beyond the scarcity of physical records, modern technology allows for a seemingly infinite archive, amassed of photographs, videos, messages and emails that seem to exist for an eternity, impossible to organise in any reasonable way: but the instability remains. Files deteriorate; websites rebrand; the cloud is a fallacy, concealing the physicality of server farms. Around China with a Movie Camera is limited by time: the earliest film contained within the archive is thought to predate 1900. But dating relies upon conjecture and other available records. Were photography to emerge as a medium before the 1840s, and film before the 1880s, what other images could have been captured? What other images have been lost to eternity, or degraded beyond recognition? Inks, oils and pencils provide another insight into the past, but stylises the artistic image.

Film becomes filtered through the presence of time: we witness the days before the Shanghai massacre, but its relevance becomes heightened through the massacre its subjects and cameraman never knew of at the time. Subjects stare at the camera, in awe at an invention never before witnessed. Everyday life and farming techniques become captured upon film: irrelevant at the time, yet afforded new meaning in the century that has passed since. Its subjects, without knowledge of their lives or personalities, become blank slates, anonymous bodies to project upon who they might have been, containing entire lifetimes within seconds of film.

Around China with a Movie Camera captures some truly beautiful visions: tinted images and stencils light up the screen, attempts at colour that never feel realistic yet a truly wonderful spectacle. Although Around China with a Movie Camera never achieves aesthetic transcendence, its value as a document of the past cannot be underestimated.