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Man of Steel [2013] by Zack Synder

I grew up with the Superman movies of 1978-1983. I may feel differently about them if I watched them now, but at the time they were gospels for a secular age, epic stories of good news in which we are saved from death by a superior being from space. 

Were these films really better than Zack Snyder's noisy and ridiculous Man of Steel? There was perhaps some charm in the characters, particularly Christopher Reeve's awkward Clark Kent. But there was one element that rendered those films transcendent, and that was the music of John Williams. Regardless of the artistic integrity of his compositions, his music has an undeniable power to lift a movie into a mythical realm that we humans find ourselves swept up into. One of Williams's techniques is the theme song, introduced at the beginning, woven delicately through the bulk of the film and then exploding upon the viewer in the exciting climax. It not only accelerates the urgency of the film's climax, but it brings the heart. Everything that is important to protect in the world is projected onto that music, and when we hear it thundering at the climax, at that crucial moment, in our hearts we know it will be okay. The careers of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas could not have happened without John Williams. He is the master of manipulation.

Man of Steel is said to be the Superman story of our age, of the 21st century, our time of utmost scepticism and cynicism. In Zack Snyder’s film the score is indistinguishable from the sound effects and I could sum it up in one word, noise.

While there is an attempt to expand upon the story and the world by fully incorporating the destruction of Krypton and bringing its spiralling failed technocracy down to threaten Earth, the film spends most of its 143 minutes in noisy destruction that can barely even be called violence and that I would call silly if it wasn't so humourless. Sometimes statistics can be helpful, and it would be a sufficient film review if someone performed the simple but laborious task of calculating the percentage of the film's running time depicting a few almost invincible beings punching each other, banging into each other and just generally smashing their own and each other's bodies into as much human infrastructure as possible, resulting in the spectacularly banal destruction of first Smallville and its familiar chain stores and then New York and its skyscrapers. Things get smashed and crumble into dust. If that's your thing, you've found the right movie.

This type of violence cannot be considered dangerous or irresponsible, it is simply senseless and tedious. It is like an incoherent fascist ballet of utter abstraction, with bodies flying, falling and colliding. I suppose some people like this type of audio-visual stimulation. I can only assume they find it exciting, though I'm not sure what's exciting about it when there is no sense of coherent danger. It is noise. It is as gratuitous as any porn film. If it is the Superman film for our age, it is because, short of the character and plot sophistication of a Christopher Nolan film, it is more noise than you have ever experienced before, and in faster succession, and for longer; more smashes, more bangs, more whacks. A more appropriate comparison than The Dark Knight films would be the Batman TV series of the 1960s with its “Crash!” “Boff!” “Bang!” fight scenes. Those words are replaced by extremely complex computer graphics, but the experience is ultimately the same. Like any good porn film, the scenario that justifies the action is quickly swept aside for prolonged sequences of bodies pounding against each other.

Regarding the plot, Krypton was destroyed by inept committees, but the film adamantly rejects fascism. The military coup led by General Zod understandably wants to save the people of Krypton at any cost, even the genocidal colonisation of Earth. The benevolent line of Jor-El and Kal-El (Clark Kent) prefer instead to preserve truth, justice and the American way, by fighting fascist-inspired colonisation with the support of huge amounts of ammunition courtesy of the American government. And the Americans keep firing their guns, even though their enemies are totally impervious to them. Having justified the prolonged sequences of noisy destruction, the second objective of the plot is to create the hope and desire for a sequel, and you can bet $250,000,000 there is a sequel.


Risk [2016] by Laura Poitras

Documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras started filming the inner-circle of Wikileaks in 2010 when they first burst into the headlines. She filmed them on and off for the next six years. She was originally sympathetic to their commitment to releasing controversial governmental documents that offer difficult insights into the inner-workings of large and powerful institutions. However, she became quite intimately involved with the group, even becoming lovers with one of them, Jacob Appelbaum, and on this human level she became personally disappointed with the group, particularly Julian Assange. As a result, she seems to have chosen to cobble together a collection of unconnected moments from over the years of Julian Assange not living up to his heroic reputation, rather than telling a coherent story of this critical period in the history of Wikileaks.

Assange indeed appears in some scenes to be arrogant, paranoid, dismissive and possibly even sexist, but if these were the most revealing moments she shot in six years, it doesn't reveal much. I think most people would be horrified if someone had filmed them for six years and then simply cut together the moments when they were most revealing of the least savoury parts of their personality. I'm not sure I would come off well given the same treatment, though most people consider me a nice person.

Poitras has already displayed her ability to convey the urgency of a historic moment from the inside in her documentary Citizenfour [2014], in which she recorded the moment that Edward Snowden conscientiously released documents revealing the NSA's illegal surveillance of large numbers of people in collaboration with other intelligence agencies around the world. So her inability to edit her footage into anything coherent or interesting when the group involved is extremely interesting and her access was total, is surely a result of her conflicts of interest.

Although Assange's dismissal of the two women who claimed to have been sexually assaulted by him borders on sexism, the film itself has also been criticised for marginalising the women centrally involved in the running of Wikileaks in favour of more screen-time for Assange and Appelbaum.

The story of Wikileaks and the flawed personality of Assange have already been effectively communicated in Alex Gibney's documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks [2013] and Risk does not offer any deeper insight, despite intimate access and being three years more up-to-date. 

A documentary carefully examining the precarious line between performing a valuable, dangerous and always ethically ambiguous role in institutional transparency, and attempting to remain humble, respectful and balanced in the process would be a very interesting film to watch. Sadly, this confused and superfluous documentary is not it.


120 Beats Per Minute [2017] by Robin Campillo

BPM offers a documentary-like glimpse into a very specific historic moment: the AIDS epidemic in the '90s and one group's attempts to take action to stop their friends from dying, ACT-UP Paris.

The most vividly recreated scenes are the heated group discussions in their regular meetings, the political details of activism and the urgency with which they are acting as people die. 

I found it less effective on a personal level; none of the characters seemed interesting or fleshed-out enough to engage me emotionally.  So when the film becomes intensely personal it feels like it's still just reinforcing the political urgency of the moment.

However, at a time when cinema is largely depicting sex, and specifically anal sex, as brutal and disconnected, or just being coy about sex, BPM offers a delightfully intimate and frank depiction of anal sex, that act so central to the spread of AIDS; with care, with tenderness, with communication and with condoms. 


Melbourne Cinémathèque: Paul Verhoeven's Starships Troopers [1997] and Robocop [1987]

I saw my first film on DCP in 2009, so it has only been ubiquitous a few years, but already 35mm feels evocative of an earlier analogue age. The imperfections on the print seem to smell like popcorn, though there was none in the cinema at ACMI for the Melbourne Cinémathèque screenings of Paul Verhoeven's films Starship Troopers and Robocop.

The films have similar intentions, depicting a militarised and propagandised society, with Starship Troopers being considerably more extreme and less subtle than its predecessor. 

Starship Troopers is set in a globally unified 2197 in which everyone has American accents and knows who the bad guys are: the bugs. Nationalistic propaganda is depicted with overstated irony and we seem to be in permanent war with the sub-human and sub-intelligent beasts, whose territory we may have arrogantly encroached upon. 

But no matter, because the battle against evil unifies us as a society and citizenship (as well as voting rights) is the exclusive privilege of those who have served in the military. Even as millions are slaughtered in futile battles, more are recruited in hope of serving the society that entirely encompasses and protects them. 

Despite all the political satire, the film is not to be taken too seriously. It wields Hollywood cliche, bad acting, elaborate special effects and video game-like violence to the purpose of pure movie fun and thrills, tensing up at the threat to our heroes as we laugh at how ridiculous it all is.  The film wants it both ways: to satirise American military chic and "freedom", as the ability to choose to die for your country (or planet), and to totally relish in the thrill of the Hollywood science fiction action war film, with its big budget, special effects, exciting music and editing and pretty actors, and it mostly succeeds.

Starship Troopers is a bit thin on the irony though, and Robocop is a more successful and satisfying film in every way.

Robocop is set in the nearer future, in which the Detroit Police department has been contracted to a private company with some pretty nefarious intentions.  Now that the Police have been privatised, the next step is to mechanise the cops themselves and so crime can be fought by programmed and emotionless machines without human error, but perhaps with the type of error that only machines, psychopathic corporations and fascism can offer.

Robocop can be interestingly compared to Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises (2012) with very interesting implications.  I have already written about how Nolan's film supports the fascist notion that the masses are dumb and helpless and must be saved from evil by psychopaths in uniforms and masks.  Nolan's Interstellar (2014) also presents the idea that the masses must be lied to in order to save them from what they're not capable of understanding.  And Nolan's films are presented without irony or humour.  We must trust in our great institutions and we must not question them because we are ignorant to the complex manner in which they will save us.  This seems to be the ideology of the 21st century Hollywood machine.  The '80s and '90s were different.  Rewatching the four Batman films released between 1989 and 1997 there is an astonishing lack of any ideological underpinnings in all except one of them, Batman Returns (1992).  This film chooses Catwoman and Penguin as the villians, but in both cases the real villian is not even the dim, charming and manipulable mayor, but Max Shreck (a vampire?), the corrupt corporate executive who is responsible for traumatising both Catwoman and Penguin into the dangerous freaks they become.  The film is ultimately feminist and anti-corporate and causes us to question the powerful institutions that do not necessarily have our best interests at heart.  Quite contrary to Nolan's suggestion that we have blind faith in them to save us from evil because we are inherently ignorant.

Verhoeven, in Robocop, plays with both of these elements, fascistic violence overcoming crime, and the vapid money-obsessed corruption of our corporate class, with considerable wit and fun.  The technocratic violence is effective against crime, but only when it is combined with a human element, as in the half-human/half-robot, but it is ultimately doomed to failure because of the compromises of the perverted intentions of the executives running the institution.  And although the masses are not necessarily depicted as stupid in Verhoeven's film, they are saturated with an incessant and compellingly stupid media pumping them full of inanity as coke-driven criminals and coke-driven executives unleash violent crime on their vulnerable city.

It all sounds rather serious and intense the way I am describing it, but it is actually constantly fun and funny, thrilling and stupid, offering you the dumb thrills you learned to love as a child and the clever irony you need as a thinking adult.

Both of Verhoeven's films draw you into the dumb violence of Hollywood and its fascist ideology of redemptive violence led by all-powerful institutions, but they also ridicule its grotesque consequences and the ludicrous propaganda supposed to convince us of its efficacy.

But if you're in the right mood, they're just fun too.


A Gentle Creature [2017] by Sergey Loznitsa

A Gentle Creature is a bleak foray into the hopelessness of Russian bureaucracy and meanness.

The protagonist is like a camera, a naive participant being passively led deeper into a world that has nothing for her at best and will destroy her as easily as they will ignore her.

Universally repugnant characters dismiss any lingering mystique about the brotherhood of the Russian Revolution. There is nothing left but futility and corruption and a bit of surrealism if you're lucky. 
But this is what some of us crave in our cinema, a harrowing experience of some of the real pain going on in the world to break down all the illusions we futilely use to protect us from reality. Sometimes nothing is more depressing than a fake-happy movie that you can't quite believe in and that leaves you feeling hollow.

I would recommend Loveless over this as the latest cinematic depiction of the soullessness of modern Russian society, but I also cannot dismiss the determination and dignity of this film.

A Fantastic Woman [2017] by Sebastián Lelio

A woman dealing with the grief of her partner's sudden death also has to deal with his family's prejudice about her as a trans woman.

I usually find films in which people are constantly mean to each other irritating and upsetting, but in A Fantastic Woman Daniela Vega is so engaging I am fully drawn into her world.

She absorbs and channels all the prejudice and hatred that is unfairly thrown at her with utter dignity, being neither oblivious nor overwhelmed, but mustering all her strength and integrity to maintain her equilibrium and move on.

As she tries to grieve the death of her partner she is the recipient of all kinds of abuse, being called all sorts of nasty things; but Vega's presence speaks louder.  No, she is a grieving human being, she is fragile and yet robust, delicate and yet capable of rage, she is a woman, and certainly a fantastic woman with such poise and grace.


Spookers [2017] by Florian Habicht

A heartwarming mental illness horror documentary about community.

I would never attend the horror attraction Spookers and I would not have seen this film if I was not already familiar with the delightful and charming work of its director, Florian Habicht. Perhaps he has reached the limit of what his light and spontaneous approach is capable of accommodating. The only intention seems to be heart-warming and pleasant, and this seems to work when you're depicting falling in love on the streets of New York or getting excited about attending a pop concert, but when it comes to grotesque gore and violence, it is really not cute.

What I came to expect from the marketing is that the blood and horror of the Spookers attraction was to be intercut with the employees talking about how they found a peculiar feeling of family and home, self-expression and acceptance. Intercutting laughing, smoking and applying make-up with the horror element sounds harmless enough, diffusing the violence with the lightness and joy with which it is delivered. But it is extremely naïve to think that we as viewers don't respond to that imagery in primal and negative ways.

It is still up for debate whether or not horror films are effectively cathartic or desensitising to real-life violence. This film absolutely does not deal with these themes at all. Despite briefly talking about some Spookers attendees who become legitimately terrified and even showing footage of some almost catatonic person being gently escourted out, why an audience would want to expose themselves to this violent horror and terror is not addressed. It is fine to offer a fun and superficial film, an advertisement for the community of freaks who feel at home at Spookers, but the film attempts to address some of the deeper issues below the surface.

It is briefly mentioned that the site of Spookers used to be a psychiatric hospital where many patients were isolated for decades and severely mistreated and one of the patients is even interviewed. Some of the cast of Spookers have experienced severe mental health issues themselves or distressingly witnessed it in their family. The possibility is mentioned that Spookers may be ridiculing these real experiences or that it is reinforcing stigmatising myths about mental illness in general, but there is no depth whatsoever in the discussion. Once these serious and emotionally moving topics are introduced, the film just cuts back to more grotesque and vapid scenes of horror. I suppose this is intended to be amusing, but I found it rather upsetting. Having witnessed the traumatising possibilities of mental illness in my own intimate relationships, none of this is remotely amusing. It is naïve, irresponsible, superficial and just weak filmmaking.