Bantha fodder: Solo: A Star Wars Story

SoloTales of a troubled production history used to sink movies before they even had a commercial chance; now, they’re just another part of the marketing toolkit, designed to give a product the illusion of unpredictability, conferring an underdog status on a multimillion-dollar micromanaged enterprise as if to lower expectations and then bask in the triumph of surpassing them. This week’s Solo: A Star Wars Story, an origin yarn about the iconic space pirate made famous by Harrison Ford, arrives with just such a chequered past. Original directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller were dismissed over creative differences and replaced with Ron Howard, while an acting coach was brought in to jazz up star Alden Ehrenreich’s supposedly lacklustre performance. And yet, what do you know, you can hardly tell in the finished work. The film is cohesive, zippy and confident to a fault, an interlocking piece of an ever-expanding – or should that be contracting – universe where most of the spontaneity has been relegated to the bad press. Missing is the loose, funky feel synonymous with its brash smuggler pilot – or, dare one suggest, the movie that Lord and Miller were trying to make. Continue reading

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Steven Spielberg Remembers It For You Wholesale

readyplayeroneOne of the greatest moments in Steven Spielberg’s filmography appears late in his 2001 work A.I. Artificial Intelligence, in which the robot child David, a broken-down simulacrum of an ideal son, comes face to face with the talisman that had given him hope of becoming a real boy. The mythical blue fairy he’d so desperately wished for, derived from Disney’s The Adventures of Pinocchio, turns out to be little more than a chintzy statue, wasting away lifelessly at the bottom of a dark ocean. It’s an incredibly moving scene, at once reckoning with childhood and the dreams we have manufactured for us, and it finds a filmmaker forging into middle age with a thrilling sense of exploration and uncertainty. By contrast, the 2018 Spielberg appears to have succumbed to the cultural amnesia of the present; an older man with a scrambled sense of his past, stuck in a regressive nostalgia loop that yearns, like some indiscriminate Philip K. Dick algorithm, to remember pop culture for its audience wholesale. Continue reading

The Square: Comfort Food for the Self-Loathing

thesquareFew things excite well-meaning liberal audiences more than being scolded for their bourgeois attitudes, and in Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund’s The Square, which charts the unravelling of a blithe gallery curator’s comfortable existence, they’re served up an art-house platter of guilt and chin-stroking class critique. That the film won the coveted Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival is no surprise, while its nomination for this year’s Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards all but sealed its middlebrow credentials. Despite its considerable smarts – and this is a clever, fitfully hilarious work – The Square faces a classic festival-film dilemma: it’s art that threatens to resemble the very subject of its critique, indulging its smug audience with a knowing sense of collusion. Continue reading

Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird

ladybirdLike her literary hero Joan Didion, Greta Gerwig hails from Sacramento, California, and has always worn her West Coast idiosyncrasy as part of her distinct charm as a performer. Emerging from the “mumblecore” scene of the mid 2000s, she was briefly (and fatuously) feted as Hollywood’s next quirky ingenue, before reshaping her trajectory by co-authoring 2012’s exuberant Brooklyn blast Frances Ha with her collaborator and partner, director Noah Baumbach. Lady Bird is her first film as sole director, a loosely autobiographical, unexpectedly tender coming-of-age piece that returns Gerwig, with a vivid sense of time and place, to her hometown. Continue reading

Thunder Down Under: Taika Waititi on Thor: Ragnarok

taikathor

There’s a wonderful moment midway through Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok, in which our hero shares a traumatic childhood memory with his brother and frequent enemy Loki: the time the latter tried to kill him by transforming into a snake. It’s rambling and absurd but also strangely poignant, with a clear rapport between the actors that’s unlike almost anything in the studio’s slickly oiled machine. Unsurprisingly, it was also improvised on set between Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston and director Taika Waititi, who spun the tale off the cuff like the fanciful father he played in his breakout film, Boy (2009). Continue reading

Uneasy appeasement in Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer

killingsacreddeerThe Greeks sure understand the wrath of whimsical gods. According to ancient myth, the goddess Artemis was so affronted by King Agamemnon accidentally bumping off one of her pet deer that she ordered the latter to sacrifice his eldest daughter, Iphigenia, by way of appeasement (which might seem excessive, until you realise he was messing with the Mistress of Animals). Depending on which version of the story you encounter, the King either goes through with the grim deed or Artemis saves the princess by switching her for an animal at the last moment. In others, such as filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos’ reworking (now showing nationally), Iphigenia is heard to incant Ellie Goulding’s ‘Burn’ – the pop hit’s joyous chorus whispered in defiant mockery of Daddy’s indifference to her fate. Continue reading

Hell All Up in Hollywood: Michael Jackson’s Ghosts at 20

ghostsMichael Jackson was a shapeshifter, fascinated by musical and visual transformation. Of all his memorable metamorphoses — werewolf, panther, Egyptian mystic — perhaps none was as striking as that in the sequence at the centre of 1997’s Ghosts, in which Jackson’s haunted house trickster faces off against the local town Mayor out to destroy him. It’s a moment straight out of surrealist nightmare: Having taunted the corpulent bureaucrat with a series of increasingly goofy gestures, Jackson’s “Maestro” proceeds to peel his skin back over his head to reveal a demonic, chattering skull, who then holds up the lifeless visage, like some Halloween Michael Jackson death mask, with leering delight. Not quite done, the skeleton Maestro violently smashes his skull to pieces to return to — shamone! — Jackson once more. The permutations of the self are dizzying, to put it lightly, and that’s before the Maestro has bodily invaded his nemesis and forced the white man to perform a possessed dance routine. “Back to the circus, you freak!” the bewildered Mayor gasps, rattled and rhythmically disorientated. Continue reading