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

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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.

Twin Peaks: The Return (2017) – Part 9, dir. David Lynch

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Part nine of The Return delves more deeply into the mystery of Garland Briggs. We’re held waiting: what happens in season 2? The case of blogger William Hastings questioned in handcuffs about the headless, gross corpse of a man in his 40s seems a subtle acknowledgement of the Twin Peaks fandom itself, and its own work online speculating the series’ universe and characters. Hastings has seen into an alternative dimension, hearing the voice of the Major. Viewers might have expected a deeper look into Cooper or Laura Palmer as the focus of this series, but Lynch is throwing things up.

Bobby (Dana Ashbrook) goes home to his mom, as she sits drinking coffee and using her Macbook, but this time in uniform. Briggs’ life becomes cyclical, expecting the presence of Bobby, Hawk (Michael Horse) and Truman (Robert Forster), built upon mystical prophecy: Major Briggs saw his son’s life before he knew it. He too would become a man in uniform, though of a different kind. She detaches a stick from a chair that raises more mysteries than answers. Outside the Sherriff’s Department, Bobby knows what to do, unfolding a piece of paper born out of the stories him and his father told as a kid, predicting what will happen two episodes from now: something about 2:53 in Jack Rabbit’s Palace, amid a drawing of twin peaks. But Briggs’ deciphering also reveals something about Cooper: the doppelgänger (Kyle MacLachlan) walks through the trees, burnt up from Part 8 as he retrieves a bandana from a tree. Briggs’ code tell of two Coopers; the floating head that appeared to Hastings shouted Cooper twice.

Brought into the LA Metropolitan Police Department, the existence of Dougie and his relationship with Janey-E (Naomi Watts) remains just as confounding, changed after a car accident; he lacks any social security, tax records, passport or birth certificate prior to 1997. A ring inscribed to Janey-E was found upon the cadaver. Bushnell (Don Murray) stands over, watching over a western painting. Dougie, in his black suit and his mug of coffee, is becoming more and more like Cooper. Dougie stares at the US flag and a power outlet, as a secretary walks by in red shoes to the tune of patriotic music, as though it’s Diane working at the FBI.

As the sun rises over the Sherriff’s Department, Twin Peaks is cast with an orange glow. We watch the waterfalls of the Great Northern, as Ben (Richard Beymer) admirably refuses to pursue a relationship with secretary Beverly (Ashley Judd). At the Bang Bang Bar, a woman sits scratching herself, as a double act of Hudson Mohawke and Au Revoir Simone perform as the most beautiful thing ever. In Buckhorn, Diane (Laura Dern) continues to be an absolute joy: she complains about the unsightly muted pink waiting room; aghast about not being able to smoke in a morgue, as she drags out a cigarette she shares with Gordon (David Lynch); constantly checking her phone for messages.

Perhaps the most welcome aspect is Lynch’s use of comedy, something he perfected throughout the original series. Cooper’s doppelgänger is handed a pink Alcatel pink flip phone by Hutch (Tim Roth) that must immediately be destroyed; he stands there eating a packet of Lays. Laughter pierces out at us, the most unreal laugh ever heard. Lucy (Kimmy Robertson) and Andy (Harry Goaz) fall into domestic arguments as the height of workplace procrastination, debating whether to purchase a $179 fabric chair for their living room in beige or red; she chooses red to please Andy, foreshadowing the reveal of Briggs’ chair in the following scene. Chad (John Pirruccello) is forced out of the conference room as he sits eating a ready meal on his lunch break, awkwardly shuffling out as he struggles to even open the door. Jerry (David Patrick Kelly) remains in the woods, high out of his mind, freaking out at his anthropomorphised talking foot. But Lynch also manages some clever staging: he pans through a living room staircase to the sound of shouting, before revealing the bloodied body of Johnny Horne (Eric Rondell), a framed picture of the waterfall overlooking the Great Northern behind him.

The Student (2016), dir. Kirill Serebrennikov

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Adapted from German play Martyr, The Student has makings of controversy. Serebrennikov directed the play on stage with much of the same cast before making the film, but sought independent financing; state financiers found themselves concerned with religious themes. Russia’s relationship with religion remains complicated. Under communism, Marx decried religion as the “opium of the people”, following state decried atheism that rejected the long-held power of the Russian Orthodox Church. USSR film followed equal principles: Kino Eye (1924) represents faith through a madman in a sanatorium, decrying himself Christ and bread as his God; One-Sixth of the World (1928) depicts Russia’s religious diversity whilst simultaneously dismissing it; Enthusiasm (1931) opens with collapsing church steeples amid deafening sound. Directing Solaris (1972), Andrei Tarkovsky struggled between his own spiritual convictions and Soviet censors.

Putin’s Russia holds an uneasy line between separation of church and state. Russia might today seem synonymous with Donald Trump, but is complicated globally from handling military action in Syria to alleged state-sponsored hitman jobs. In Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov is afforded autonomous power running a state-within-a-state, following hard-line Islamic orthodoxy that diminishes women’s power, enforces head coverings, and justifies the suppression of gay men, who apparently don’t exist.

Placed in the concrete port city of Kaliningrad, The Student is set against a post-Soviet Russia in a city that was a Prussian and German territory before the end of WWII. Kaliningrad has no linear identity, forced to unlearn its Soviet ways of being. The Student not only follows Venya’s emerging orthodox religious faith, but questions its role within institutions. Putin’s face, in front of the Russian flag, watches over the teacher’s conference. On the bus to one of mother Inga’s three jobs, icons of Mary form a shrine. Cinematographer Vladislav Opelyants injects the frame with a constant church-like presence through the shadows of the long, overbearing windows of the pool and school.

Venya’s school grants unofficial power to Father Vsevolod, teaching classes on Orthodox culture. Vsevolod might only go in odd days, spending most time in church, but assembles children in the gymnasium to bless with water and carry Jesus’ icon; Vsevolod attends teacher meetings on Venya’s odd behaviour, reading liturgical passages. Venya’s hard-line orthodoxy rejects Vsevolod, though he should be a source of religious community, arguing the Bible rejects organised religion, monuments and the act of forgiveness, instead favouring private connection to God.

Venya quotes the Bible selectively to find rebukes to almost anything, carrying his Bible constantly. Liberal Biology teacher Elena tries to best him, enraptured reading scripture online to boyfriend and fellow teacher Oleg’s frustration, not even breaking for birthday cake, covering a wall with alternative interpretations on post-it notes. She is never wrong: the phrasing between Venya’s print Bible and her online Bible, and perspectives and worldviews, differ. Serebrennikov questions how we approach the Bible today, and whether we should still accept its teachings.

Venya fights against modernity and industrialisation, sitting poolside full clothed, Bible by his side, refusing to go in because of girls’ immodesty, juxtaposed against Venya’s dramatic narration of 2000-year old words of battle and conflict. But the school allows Venya power. The school principal questions whether girls unwittingly sexualise themselves towards the ogling gaze of Oleg, seeking answers between the lines of policy as vague as the Bible itself. Elena counters that, maybe, men should wear swimsuits too. At the beach, Oleg and Elena submit themselves to sheer sexuality, almost masturbating each other, as teenagers accept the elements, entering waters naked, an easy answer. Venya becomes a carpenter, building a cross out of loose wood outside his family apartment, carried as a weight upon his back through streets, ducking an underpass, set to the edgy industrial metal of Laibach’s God is God. Erecting the cross in school as though it were a chapel, Venya isn’t reprimanded: the police and principal bless the cross themselves.

Venya’s faith acts as rebellion and escape against the agnosticism and maternal relationship he grew up within. In the opening, Inga laughs off his convictions, telling him he has no religion, but what does she know? Venya’s beliefs allow licence to act like a dick, informing her she shall spend all eternity in Hell unless she finds her faith again, decrying her adultery, divorce and unclean bed as he strips the room of wallpaper, leaving only a mattress. Venya illuminates his innocence, speaking words without knowing how the world works. As Venya tells her he will meet his Father again soon, the film plays verbal double entendre: Inga pushes against it, without realising he actually means God. Inga meets with Vsevolod, hoping to find solution to his behavioural difficulties; frustrated by his insistence “God works in mysterious ways”.

Venya, thinking himself a disciple, manipulates power dynamics. Teachers accept him as a teenager, not a threat, allowing sympathy; the psychologist doesn’t want to tread too hard; other kids revel in the anarchy. During a sex ed lesson, Venya strips naked, showing how it’s really done. During a lesson on evolution, he runs around in an implausibly acquired monkey costume, throwing plastic bones about, as though 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) lost its matte paintings and nature photography. Venya accepts extremes, decrying in his teenage isolation implicit support for Chechnya and Afghanistan, seeing dying for God as a suicide bomber as noble.

Although The Student never gives answers, it depicts religious visions. In the living room, a wooden cross appears to Venya, seemingly giving him answers. The static of the TV remains on, relaying signals from the beginning of the (non-Biblical) universe. For each verse Venya quotes, the film footnotes its source.

Though Venya is the focal protagonist, he never elicits sympathy; Elena’s liberal perspective encourages support. Elena fights against the syllabus, giving lessons on sexual orientation, protection and evolution, constantly seeking compromise. Though Venya’s outbreak is extreme, it raises a good point: demonstrating how to put condoms on might be a good idea to reduce pregnancy, but a carrot is still a pretty poor substitute for a dick. She stands at risk of promoting gay propaganda, what the principal considers a “lifestyle choice”. Her teaching on Darwinian evolution is met by the suggestion she teach creationism to let the children decide. Elena, in both the certainty and uncertainty of science, fights against a brick wall, through the same logical fallacies that plagued me as a kid. Who created the Big Bang? Who created God?

Elena is cast aside as victim. Venya’s anti-Semitism is dismissed as nothing to take offense at; Vsevolod reads aloud anti-Semitic verse in Venya’s favour, as the principal keeps on laughing. Venya fabricates an incident of sexual abuse, expelling her from her position and dragged out by security, as she forces herself to stay, nailed besides the cross: just as much a victim as Jesus was.

The Student’s most intriguing aspect might be in how it handles sexuality. Inga’s worries about her son are as much a fear against bullying as fears against queerness, from body image to worrying about spontaneous erections in the changing rooms. Venya rejects sexuality, waiting until marriage, not even allowing himself to jerk off. Lidia coerces him to making out, taking her top off and pushing him against the window, but his rejection is clear.

Grigoriy offers an intersection between queerness and faith, but is so underwritten he hardly acts as positive representation. Grigoriy is as gay as Plato is for Jim in Rebel Without a Cause (1955): his attraction is obvious from the first moment we see him, almost falling over Venya as he offers support. Grigoriy is bullied relentlessly, pushed into a bin by classmates. Grigoriy and Venya’s relationship acts as a manifestation of Elena’s reading of the Bible, where Jesus’ disciples were in fact an early gay rights group who all loved each other, becoming a mechanism for the only queer contact he can get, within a culture that rejects any notion of queerness as social outcasts. Grigoriy becomes the boyfriend he brings home unexpectedly: in a dinner scene, framed as a tableau akin to the Last Supper, Inga struggles to split food, as Venya insists the fish can feed the 5000. Grigoriy’s ambivalent faith struggles to balance spirituality and the physical world: as Venya insists they say grace, inviting Grigoriy to speak, he doesn’t know what to say, simultaneously thanking God and thanking Elena for her hard work.

Grigoriy pushes physical contact between himself and Venya, pulling arms around him in lovelorn embrace; Grigoriy and Venya pushing each other around in a fight might as well be fucking. Venya offers his hand, as though it were Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam (1512), never allowing him to blaspheme. Grigoriy insists his limp is genetic, but Venya persuades him he can be cured of the sins of the father. Grigoriy strips down, removing his pants as he revels in Venya touching his bare leg as healer, supernaturally asking for his leg to grow. Attempting for a second time in class, the pair are caught by Lidia and her mobile, convinced Venya is queer.

In Grigoriy and Venya’s confrontation upon the beach, blessed as disciple, the emptiness of Grigoriy’s character becomes clear. Grigoriy leans in to kiss as Venya firmly rejects him, quoting Leviticus and dismissing him as Judas, breaching sacred trust. Handing him the Bible, Grigoriy becomes yet another queer victim: his skull cracked open, stoned to death, discovered by police as joggers pass by. The film offers no redemption or indictment to Venya: Venya lives, without any chance to mourn for Grigoriy, nor see his loss affect family or classmates. His spirit, dressed in angelic white, appears to Elena, but with little to say. Depicting any queer character in Russian cinema – even an independent one – may have limitations, but Grigoriy acts as a plot function and contrivance.

The Student acts as an intellectual debate, though questions around secularism might work better in its native Russia: the UK has long precedent for separation of church and state and acceptance of a multiplicity of views, although religious traditions still cast a long shadow.

Baby Driver (2017), dir. Edgar Wright

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This review contains spoilers

Shifting to American cinema is a big step for any director, but Edgar Wright’s filmography owes much to American cinema. Shaun of the Dead (2004) transposes the zombies of Romero’s Living Dead (1968-2009) series to a down-and-out electronics salesman in London. Hot Fuzz (2007) mixes explosions, comedy, the buddy cop and police procedural. Wright is adept at style: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) recreates the stylisation of the graphic novel series perfectly. Ant-Man (2015), for all Wright’s involvement in pre-production and scripting, never captures the kinetic movement of Wright’s style.

The lone getaway driver is a familiar narrative. The drivers of Taxi Driver (1976) and Drive (2011) roam the streets of New York and Los Angeles at night, reconciling masculinity and internal strife. Travis Bickle senses street justice; Refn’s driver becomes the embodiment of cool, wearing a scorpion upon his jacket alongside a synth soundtrack. Baby (Ansel Elgort) is young, easy to underestimate, always listening to his iPod, without a hint of facial hair, lacking the mid-20s embitterment of Travis and Refn’s driver, assisting heists committed in broad daylight. Baby affords a silent presence: the music in his ears and his gaze speak more than dialogue.

Elgort might be best known for playing a cancer-afflicted boyfriend to pine for as Augustus Waters in The Fault in Our Stars (2014), not a heroic protagonist to root for. Baby Driver sympathises with Baby from the very start. His backstory is tragic, afflicted with acute tinnitus ever since his dad and singer mom, played by pop artist Sky Ferreira, were car crash victims. Baby holds onto his mom’s past in a cassette tape, refusing to let go. Baby never stops helping deaf foster father Joseph (CJ Jones), communicating in sign language as Joseph asks how things are going with girls, offering witty innuendo. Baby manipulates him just out of view, placing dollars underneath the floorboards in their apartment as his pixelated monochrome face appears on TV. As danger heats up, he moves Joseph to an assisted living home. In the court case, he’s commended of his “good character”: he hands a grandma her handbag whilst stealing her car; hands a mother her baby; nods to the post office clerk to get away.

Baby tries escaping his identity: he moves away from the car in the junkyard, throwing the gloves to the ground that Doc (Kevin Spacey) handed to him, refusing another mission. As a fugitive, he jumps over escalators in the Peachtree Center, throwing on a denim coat, hat, sunglasses, jump-starting other vehicles from the parking lot. But Baby cannot escape his actions.

Debora (Lily James) acts in harmony to Baby, even as she puts on the wrong nametag: entering the same diner Baby’s mom briefly worked in, singing along to B-A-B-Y by Carla Thomas, captured by Baby’s Dictaphone. She serves coffee, living off cups of it, though dismissive of her ability. They bond over Debora by T-Rex, together through song. Baby stays with her as she runs errands, doing laundry. Kissing in the car before departing, cinematographer Bill Pope frames the couple side-on in unity. Calling her manager’s phone at the diner in desperation, the pair are framed between both sides of the screen, creating spatial distance whilst reaffirming their bond.

Baby tries to separate two lines of work, wanting to protect her. On a date at a fancy restaurant, dressed in fancy suit and beautiful dress, he splashes cash, unable to explain its provenance; Doc appears, paying off the bill. Debora asks if he’s his previous boss, and he can’t explain. Late at night, raiding a convenience store for pills, Bats (Jamie Foxx) persuades Baby to pull in at the diner to order Cokes. Alongside former Wall Street trader Buddy (Jon Hamm) and his girlfriend Darling (Eiza González), there’s harshness as Debora refutes them. Baby hides into his own shell, refusing to follow their game, pulling Bats’ gun away as he threatens to mug her, handing Debora the bill as they leave. Baby stands her up; the gang refuses to let him take a midnight road trip.

Debora and Baby hold onto a dream of escaping their lives. In a monochrome vision, Debora wearing a spotted dress, Baby’s hair slickly pushed back in a neat black shirt, they ride into the sunset in a T-Bird, with the same illogic of a fashion commercial, wanting to keep on driving without stopping. But they can’t keep up forever. As they earn their idyllic dream, amid the green of the trees and the open road, Baby surrenders to police upon the bridge at the state border, putting his hands up and throwing the keys into the water, telling her that this life isn’t for her. Baby still, ultimately, holds responsibility. In court testimony, Debora cannot reconcile her relationship: more than friendship, but was it ever a great romance? From prison, Baby glances over a postcard adorned with a retro, idyllic image of Route 66, still holding to his dream as she promises to wait.

Baby Driver has a litany of supporting characters struggling to understand why Baby is even a part, fearing he’s an agent ratting them out, requisitioning his library of tapes. In the elevator and in briefings, this disparity is clear: Buddy and Darling never stop locking tongues, making lewd jokes about the “back entrance”. Wright includes interesting cameos, including musician Flea as Eddie No-Nose. Wright met with criminals during the research process, including an anecdote about Knocking on Heaven’s Door acting as a bad omen.

Wright’s concept was long gestating, initially adapted into the music video Blue Song for Mint Royale; the driver aligns the heist to a CD-R. From the opening, set to Bellbottoms by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, through Harlem Shuffle by Bob & Earl during the opening titles, Baby Driver feels a combination of musical and music video, clearing licences before he even started filming. Soundtrack is essential to genre films, capturing mood and aesthetic. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) has Peter Quill trek across the universe with only rocket boots and a Walkman (later, a Zune), confined by a limited number of songs upon an oft-played mixtape, a physical connection to the music his late mother listened to in the 70s.

Baby Driver’s music is eclectic between moods, decades and genres: organised chaos. The title comes from a folk song by Simon & Garfunklel, played over the closing credits; Tequila is set against a secret warehouse weapons acquisition. Baby has an iPod for each day of the week, flashing back to a Christmas morning over a decade ago as he received his first from his mother; he even has a pink one, covered in glitter and sparkles. Baby Driver offers nostalgia for the technology kids Baby’s age grew up with; the same technology Wright witnessed around him as he made Shaun of the Dead. The modern world of Spotify offers infinity, algorithms predicting musical tastes: at least with the albums that weren’t forgotten, or on TIDAL. Wright rebukes streaming culture, whilst pushing it to its implausible limit. Baby mixes samples of Doc saying “retard” using physical tapes, without ever touching Garageband. His cellphone is a flip phone, off the grid from anyone seeking to find them easily. Even the TV in Joseph’s apartment is a CRT, unable to afford a flat screen that might ruin Wright’s aesthetic.

Each character has their own song. At the post office, Doc’s nephew, Sam, stands in as Baby’s son, a younger version of him: he pays close attention to the security camera, headphones in as he plays with his PSP. At the desk, the clerk joyfully compares her working hours to Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5. Musical icon Barbra Streisand is name-checked as suffering from tinnitus. Headphones are an inescapable part of modern life: I walk into the cinema, wearing headphones. As the credits roll and I leave, the headphones come back on. Music is Baby’s escape from the outside world and tinnitus. Bats rejects the notion of having one song, as Baby and Griff (Joe Bernthal) bond over Brighton Rock by Queen, headphones in each other’s ears, paralleling Baby and Debora’s own music bond. Bats has his own song: the revving of the engine and the open road. In the video essay “Once upon a pair of wheels”: Baby Driver & the Classic Car Movies, Wright acknowledges most car chases are silent; the action speaks for itself, noting the lack of score in Bullitt (1968) and The Driver (1978), focus placed on tyres and sirens.

Wright embraces the artificiality of gangster and heist films by taking it to its natural conclusion. Crime drama, for all its gritty darkness and “based on a true story”, often feels implausible, creating orchestrated violence and constantly evading authorities. Criminality becomes almost admirable, beyond its horrors. Wright creates a hyperbolic version of the heist, refusing to intellectualise, interested in style. He isn’t making arthouse, but so what?

In the bank robbery in the opening scene, as Baby stops at a traffic stop, we’re thrust into action timed to the beat. Choreographer Ryan Heffington performs Baby Driver like a musical, relying upon storyboards. La La Land (2016) has nothing on this. Baby moves along to the music: flicking windscreen wipers, mouthing lyrics, tapping, playing the invisible piano. The streets of Atlanta, even its graffiti, have colour, coordinated between each character; a woman roller-skates on the sidewalk. He walks past a street preacher and blaring alarms, in his own world, trying to avoid bumping into passers-by. He slides into Octane Coffee, ordering four coffees with the immediacy of musicals; even the name of the coffee place seems a slick reference, refuelling his vehicle (Octane Coffee is a real chain in Atlanta). Wright rewrote the screenplay’s original setting of Los Angeles for its production city, refusing to present Atlanta as anything less, including notable locations familiar to locals, including record store Criminal Records. On the highway, three red sports cars pull up together operatically, creating an easy diversion as police pursue. Baby’s movements carry a dance as he communicates and make sandwiches for his stepdad.

In his video essay Scott Pilgrim: Make Your Transitions Count, Evan Puschak admires Wright’s use of movement, sound effects, visual effects and reverse shots, transitioning between scenes by manipulating time and space. Wright considers every scene with unstoppable flow, without wasting a second.

Wright still leaves aspects understated, interested in the visual over exposition. JD (Lanny Joon) complains to Bats that he left his shotgun behind, his concerns ignored. Wright never shows his death: Doc opens up a car trunk, showing Baby JD’s bloodied corpse. In the next scene, Baby stands in a junkyard, watching a car crushed into a metal cube as he remembers his own family in high contrast, sparkling flashbacks, his mom’s music eerily looped in reverse as though it were the inverted reverb of The Beatles’ A Day in the Life. In a few shots, Wright communicates all we need to know about Baby, his motivation and backstory, leaving behind an incompetently organised gang that doesn’t take care of its own members or value life. In the Laundromat, the coordinated reds and yellows move in sync, slowly dissolving into the red label of a spinning record in the diner’s jukebox. During a heist, Baby refuses to allow music to fall out of sync, rewinding with the delayed speed of an old iPod, driving away at the exact second. Wright leaves some gaps, yet each song seems to flow smoothly into each other. Baby Driver shifts seamlessly between genres as it does scenes: car movie, smoke burning up on the tarmac; heist movie, Doc drawing out a map on the chalkboard; thriller, in slick aerial shots; fugitive under siege, as Baby evades police and helicopters, ducking behind a tree.

Just as Wright dances between genres, he dances between references. For a film about gangsters, Baby working as a deliveryman for Goodfella’s Pizza & Wings seems apt. Baby’s car drives over elevated roads in Atlanta like the San Francisco hills Wright admired in Bullitt. During a bank robbery, the gang adopts masks of Michael Myers, a la the presidential masks in Point Break (1991). In the backseat, a debate is launched. Did he mean Austin Powers, or did he mean Michael Myers from Halloween (1978) – or did he mean the hockey mask of Jason? But then, Michael Myers’ mask is a mask of William Shatner anyway. Nowhere to Run plays through the stereo, evoking the iconic scene on the Bronx’s streets in The Warriors (1979); Walter Hill makes a cameo as a courtroom translator. On Joseph’s TV, Baby flicks through channels, frustrated, Monsters Inc. (2001) and Fight Club (1999) as pan-and-scanned monstrosities; Baby quotes movie dialogue back to Doc as though they were his own. Baby and Debora go on the run, self-aware of their roles as Bonnie and Clyde, launching New Hollywood all over again. In the final scene upon the bridge, the police confrontation subverts the bloody shootout at Bonnie and Clyde (1967)’s conclusion; they refuse to become them.

Without his iPod, Baby loses his identity. Baby seeks to reclaim his iPod and the girl that defines him, unable to exist without them. Wright refuses to hold back, becoming a fight to the last man as Wheatley does with Free Fire. Baby seeks vengeance for all wrongs pushed against him and the girl he loves, revving the engine forward, impaling Bats through the front window. Darling, though displaying superhuman ability with her ammo, ultimately becomes victim to police bullets; Doc is crushed in spite by Buddy’s own car; Buddy falls from the car park to a fiery death within his requisitioned police car. Baby’s irresponsibility and insistence has consequences; the irrecoverable wounds to Doc’s gang are self-afflicted. Baby’s line of work isn’t glamorous. How can anyone support seeing friends around them reduced to bloodied corpses? Even when Baby must face the music, he refuses. In prison, he still dances with his broom, waiting for the next day.

In This Corner of the World (2016), dir. Sunao Katabuchi

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Anime has had a strong series of releases recently, thanks to limited screenings of Your Name and A Silent Voice. Based on the manga by Fumiyo Kōno, who grew up in Hiroshima, In This Corner of the World ran a massively successful crowdfunding campaign, making ¥39 million. Director Sunao Katabuchi’s credits are brief, having worked alongside Miyazaki on Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), but works like Princess Arete (2001), developed at Studio 4oC, play a beautiful twist on the fairy tale, a meditation on mortality and fate through its stunning animation.

Like Katabuchi, 18-year-old Suzu is an artist; in the opening prologue in 1933, we see her sketching white rabbits moving through the green grass. The film’s animation adopts watercolours similar to Suzu’s art, contrasting artistic interpretations of her sketchbook with reality. Suzu sketches a scraggly man with a feral beard, but in a moment of magical realism, the man looks just like her beastly sketch. The sky lives with a Van Gogh-esque starry night, taken from her work. Katabuchi reminds us of the importance of family and traditional ways of living to Japanese life, reminiscent of Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953) through its different generations. Suzu finds herself in an arranged marriage with Shūsaku, a judicial officer within the military court who becomes a part of the navy, living in Kure. Taken to a new city, Suzu forms a bond with a new family of in-laws, including young Haruma and Keiko, gazing upon Japan’s fleet of warships from the port. Part of the war effort, Suzu becomes a Tonarigumi, stitching trousers into traditional clothing, seen through a diagram she explains for us. Her romance with Shūsaku is never given enough development, but remains endearing, affording a necessary sense of companionship to Suzu in a time of great struggle. Though we sense unease as they kiss upon his vessel, they remain together, cuddling and protecting each other during an air raid.

In This Corner of the World’s strength is in situating the war within the normality of everyday life in Hiroshima and Kure. In the opening scene in December 1933, we see the bustle, Christmas figurines decorating windows as young Suzu runs errands. The summer of 1945 is a summer like any other: people go about their day, celebrating the summer festival, never knowing their inevitable fate. Like with Your Name’s contrast between the present and the life of Lake Itomori, In This Corner of the World captures a sense of guilt yet hope at survival amid great adversity, as foretellers of doom question if we could have avoided this point. Air raids and evacuations foreshadow the coming threat. Suzu does her hair, as the ground beneath her shakes; a barely noticeable flash appears, lasting seconds. Suzu is caught between two homes: one will save her, one will not. The film counts down the days, diary-esque, towards August 6th, as though each day were one less. The impact is gradual: houses left aflame by orange streaks of firebombs; assembled men and women standing witness to the seemingly inexplicable mushroom cloud out in the distance.

Irradiation affects the water; the ground beneath; nature all around; the genetics that carry forth our future. Hiroshima is cast under a grey haze: floors become liquid tar, unwilling to touch the tread of shoes; living bodies melt in the street. Suzu stands amid rows of demolished houses. But life goes on. We witness different reactions, as families become more and more desperate, areas cordoned off. Grave of the Fireflies (1988) was bleak, emotive yet depressing, opening upon the incendiary firebombing of Kobe and the lifeless, burned body of Seita and Setsuko’s mother; the conclusion is one of great mourning and sadness. In This Corner of the World stands by hope: Suzu holds onto a great optimism: in the face of everything, they can get through it.

Japan’s imperial legacy of occupation continues to be confronted. South Korean films like The Handmaiden depict a combination of cultures, between the Victorian country home of the source text and the imposition of Japanese culture upon Korean culture, whilst The Age of Shadows depicts movements of Korea’s resistance against Japanese powers. Le Moulin (2015) presents Taiwan’s resistance movement against Japanese colonialism through poetry, film, photography, music, intellectual schools of thought and surrealist art, combining found texts with spoken narration and the physical presence of a library of books. Beginning in 1933, In This Corner of the World positions us from the beginning of Japan’s militarism and territorialism through the Sino-Japanese War, Pearl Harbor and the pacific theater of war. Shūsaku’s role as naval officer gives a sense of Japan’s own military involvement and national fleet: the Yamato, the Musashi, the Aoba.

Katabuchi hints towards a wider, imperceptible war machine, just below the surface that civilians pay the ultimate price for, without being responsible. Military police harass Suzu as she sits upon the coast with her sketchpad, drawing warships, dismissing her artistic work as possible espionage, unable to pursue her artistic streak through the paranoia of war. Relating the incident to her family, she is shaken and soulless; they laugh it off as a humorous anecdote. Witnessing the devastation, Suzu sees beauty, juxtaposing explosions with paint splotches on the canvas. But without a canvas, she cannot paint the unimaginable.

Recent American films like Hacksaw Ridge might avoid the yellowface and oriental stereotypes of wartime propaganda, but still confront us with armies of Japanese soldiers without characterisation or families, rallying war cries and practicing seppuku. In This Corner of the World reminds us of the humanity. As the Europeans celebrated, war carried on, without easy victory in sight. Family are killed; Suzu holds the fossilised remains of her brother’s brain; loses her hand, bandaged as it continues to bleed out.

Western cinema has provided many tales of the civilian impact of war. Brief Encounter (1945) presents Britain as it was before it went into war and the women within it. Hope and Glory (1987) uses Boorman’s own wartime experience to show the effects of rationing and bombing during the Blitz. But rarely do we consider how this played in Japan. In This Corner of the World provides many small details of how Japan’s everyday people cope. Suzu must act as a homemaker: cooking, fetching water, sewing kimonos. As food distribution weakens, Suzu relies on resource-saving recipes, combining sugar, rice and miso, saving small amounts wherever they can for the next day. Suzu’s family watch in amazement as she cooks rice, inflated to three times the regular size. We see her frustration as their only supply of sugar, infiltrated by ants, drowns in water as they attempt to salvage it. It is never a diet to live on, feeling great weakness as their bodies fail them. Suzu must rely on the black market, wandering into a different part of town, built upon a lavish industry of hotels alien to her. Watermelon, sugar, sweets and paints are traded out in the open at highly inflated costs, as thought it were a traditional market, barely able to afford anything. Suzu becomes lost in a city that refuses to help her find her way, bumping into courtesan Rin.

Through radio broadcasts and military communications, we hear a war going on beyond its people; the radio becomes a communal space for families to crowd around. Japan surrenders, humiliated, making a mockery of its great power. Through the film’s final scenes, we see a nation weakened, losing its military and occupied in its streets by Americans. People barter with American soldiers, getting better rations from soldiers’ tins of table scraps than they ever did during the war.

But Suzu holds out hope. For as long as the five people beside her remain standing, she will continue to fight and live. She gazes out upon the bridge with Shūsaku, admiring being in this corner of the world. She raises an orphan of the bomb and a household, because it is her duty. Japan will rise again.