House of Tolerance

There are no surprises in this French film eulogising the Belle Époque brothel. Its sights are firmly placed on the lush frills, drapes and ornaments. And the women, who are stuck in the house getting drunk every night and having to sleep with the same tiresome men over and over again. Everyone is too wasted to summon up any kind of wit or personality. Although there is camaraderie among the girls, the prevalent mood is one of grinding frustration and hopelessness.

The film is at its most gruesomely impactful when it slides into horror. The director Bertrand Bornello was inspired by a dream of a film (...very French, that. It's called A Man Who Laughs and I haven't seen it) to include a prostitute disfigured by one of her clients. The grim scars on her face are unsettling, and her assault is difficult to watch. The film begins with it and returns to it several times, and it adds a hint of menace to each gloomy shot of a dimly lit boudoir. There is prevailing sense of predators lurking behind every shadow, although in the end that one psycho turns out to be less lethal than the inevitable spectre of syphilis.

The film's use of symbolism is boringly obvious. You have your petals falling from white roses, and also a surrealistic shot of a whore weeping tears of semen (gross and also a bit ridiculous). It ends with video footage of sex workers in modern day Paris – the implicit question being whether today's streetwalkers have it worse than a hundred years ago. It's not something Bornello seems interested in answering, so asking it feels a bit pointless. But if you needed reminding that prostitution is dreary when it isn't actively frightening, this film does the trick.


Spider-Man: Homecoming

‘Homecoming’ in several ways, one of which must be a knowing wink from Marvel Studios that they have finally brought the property back to where it belongs. After the weird diversions of the Amazing Spider-Man films, and the disappointment of the third Tobey Maguire movie, this finally gets the Spidey film on the right track.

It’s also a nice narrative arc to hang the film on, after the abrupt introduction of the character in Captain America: Civil War. Most superhero film franchises begin with an origin story and work outwards, with the main character taking their place in the world fighting against evil. This one starts on the grand stage and moves inwards. After getting a taste of Avengers action, Peter Parker is desperate to become a member and leave his dull high-school existence behind. That, however, is a rejection of what Spidey is all about: a superhero who is in the same situation as the teenagers that read his comics – juggling homework, family, bullies, and crushes on cute girls.

And this film has Parker dropping all of those balls. It rather neatly evokes the experience of competing expectations and responsibilities which are impossible to meet all at once. Being the cool superhero means disappointing your friends, or making your family anxious. This is conveyed physically by how clumsy Tom Holland's Spidey is at the job of fighting crime. Some of the biggest laughs in the film are from him crashing through people’s back yards, knocking down sheds and tree-houses, and terrifying the kids out on a sleepover in their tent. Parker is not used to his superpowers in the same way teenagers are not used to their changing bodies. The metaphor is forcibly and enjoyably communicated.

There are shortcomings, mostly of emphasis. Marisa Tomei is not given enough to do as Aunt May – the rock on whom Peter depends, but also a burden of responsibility which weighs over his activities as a costumed hero. Tony Stark’s distance could have been reinforced by less Robert Downey Jr. on screen. But these are tiny flaws in what is a tricky feat to pull off – an introduction to Spider-Man that’s not yet another Spider-Man origin story.


Beyond the Valley of the Dolls

An enjoyably bad film, of not much value beyond being a snapshot of a period, and even then it rather over-eggs the sex, drugs and rock and roll. Did people really speak like that, or is it a writer's approximation of what kids in the 70s were like? The parties are all an embellished facsimile, refracted through Russ Meyer's own camp desires.

The film's best and worst character is Ronnie "Z-Man" Barzell: a flamboyant Shakespeare obsessive who loosely orchestrates the revels. He dominates every scene he is in – the ringleader of a host of grotesques that swirl around Hollywood. But the film can't help but want to punish such decadence. It reveals Barzell to be trans, and then a schizophrenic monster who cannot control his desires. The lesbian characters (although obviously leered at relentlessly) are treated better, but they wind up dead as well, leaving three married heterosexuals at the end. For all its transgressive posing, the film is less daring than it seems.


Wonder Woman

There is something quite apt in making the personification of the patriarchy (and villain of the film) into an old resentful man, rather than a hunky slice of beefcake. After all, these days CGI absolves the actor of needing to perform any feats of athleticism in action sequences. And it's a clever ruse to set up one burly alpha male as the bad guy, only to switch him with an unassuming, frail-looking member of the English ruling class. These were the kinds of pusillanimous creatures that sent the youth of Europe to die in trenches, after all. Ares embodies every single kind of privilege, playing games of divide and rule and dreaming of a world free from riff raff.

Wonder Woman is a symbol of the hierarchies being levelled. It's why she leaves Themyscira, which despite its heavenly appearance is an militaristic autarky ruled by a queen – not far from national socialism with the genders reversed. Diana speaks every human language, and cares for all living things equally, and yet the film must conform to genre expectations to the extent that the romantic interest is a buff American and the sidekicks are left to fill out the diversity criteria. It's a shame that Saïd Taghmaoui couldn't have the part of Steve Trevor. It would have made for a more enjoyable movie.

No matter. It's very good, with a nice enough message about evil not being the work of bad guys but of everyone, and that self-sacrifice can defeat it. Gal Gadot is superb in the role, selling her character's passionate distress at war, but also bringing a wry sense of humour to her interactions with all these weird men she has to encounter. In the cinema the effects and music are stirring, even if you've seen all these tricks before. The most depressing thing about it is the prospect of Wonder Woman again playing second fiddle to Batman and Superman in future films. Turns out she's more interesting than either of them.



Jake Gyllenhall is literally unbelievable as the unscrupulous thief spouting entrepreneurial gobbledygook who gets involved in filming crime scenes for local news. It's an unlikely composite character, which suggests that it is a metaphor for something else: Los Angeles, Hollywood, America, capitalism in general.

Although sensationalism in the news is the film's most obvious target, the lasting impression is of Lou's ridiculous management-speak being used to threaten, coerce and exploit the people around him. They don't have the economic security to resist his obscene offers. Lou's language of aspiration and empowerment ring hollow, and add a rich undercurrent of dark comedy to the film's proceedings.


Margin Call

Turns out the good guys in this Wall Street drama – the risk analysts who spot the error that precipitates the financial crisis – are both engineers by training. They could have spent their lives building tangible things, but the money to be made in finance was too much to turn down.

J.C. Chandor portrays this twilight world of investment banking as a place of constant alienation and existential bewilderment. Employees lose their jobs at random. No one is certain of where they stand relative to anyone else. The sense of people's work and words is often unclear. In some respects it reminded me of the numb absurdity of an Antonioni film.

This is captured in a great shot-reverse-shot sequence with Stanley Tucci and Demi Moore towards the end of the film. Both are supposed to be looking at each other, and normally that would mean having one to the left of the frame looking right, and the other to the right of the frame looking left. Instead, one is framed to the right and looks right outside the frame, and the other to the left looking left. There are supposedly talking to each other, but actually a dialogue is never achieved. They are speaking to the empty space around them, unable to make a connection.


Cowboy Bebop: The Movie

An exercise in style, mostly. I haven't watched the series, but given that the characters are just collections of archetypes, it's very easy to catch up and get into the swing of things. The animation is brilliant – particularly in its use of distorted perspective and skewed framing. And the music choices are inspired – a selection of jazz and funk tracks that bring the science fiction setting down to earth, and highlight the debts owed to hard-boiled noir. The characters are all flamboyantly-dressed Tarantino-esque smart-mouths (although the film does tend to disrobe the women to telegraph their vulnerability).

Piecing together what the film is about is an unhappy task. There is something to its notion that being free from the fear of death is the source of true liberty. It also seems to be the source of the main character's exhilarating martial arts and piloting abilities. An almost Buddhist renunciation of worldly attachments is married to the rugged individualism of the wild west.

The villain is the victim of a corporate conspiracy, who wants to share the pain he has been put through by releasing a chemical weapon in the middle of a city parade (parallels with the Sarin attacks in Tokyo are left unexplored). As is typical in anime, the corporation does not get its comeuppance at the end (in contrast to the new Ghost in the Shell film, for example). Instead the only way out is suicide, of a sort. The filmmakers link this death drive to a sense of the numinous and transcendent, and end by asking the audience if they can tell what's real and what's make believe. The villain and hero are mirror images of each other, and the film may be warning the audience away from the alluring but nihilistic aesthetic they embody.

Ghost in the Shell

The LGNN discussion (which I contributed to at the margins) did a good job of exploring the whitewashing controversy. Perversely, it made me want to watch the film more, to get a sense of exactly how it dealt with the idea of Scarlett Johansson playing a Japanese woman. Turns out that you can excuse that decision in the same way that you might excuse the gratuitous nudity in the manga and anime – the Major is designed by a heartless corporation according to its (patriarchal, white supremacist) whims.

There's a strange auto-criticism in so blatantly placing a Japanese ghost in a white American shell, given that it is done at the behest of the villains of the film. The evil corporation kidnap Mokoto Kusanagi (a rebellious teen) and wipe her memories, and I find it impossible to tell whether this is a sly nod to how Dreamworks and the filmmakers have treated the original property. Not least because the CEO who is responsible for the nefarious plot is dispatched in fine style by none other than 'Beat' Takeshi Kitano, an acclaimed Japanese comedian, actor and film director in his own right. You could read it as the return of the repressed, or the revenge of the colonised on their imperial masters.

The film is at its least interesting when it indulges in shot-for-shot recreations of the anime (which I love). The rather generous Observer review is on point in so far as it identifies the sordid world as the main distinguishing feature of the remake. In the (unspecified) city of the future, giant holograms tower over buildings advertising brands both real and imaginary, adding their own sinister comment on the film's mercenary nature.


All About Eve

Gender and Christian myth are my go to lenses when interpreting film, and All About Eve is at the centre of that Venn diagram. It's not a feminist film at all, but then there's the scene where Margot (a feisty aging actress) admits that being a woman is just another performance. She can try to carve out a career for herself, but at the end of the day this is just a distraction, a way to spend the time until you find a suitable husband. Marriage is the only route to happiness available for women – any other kind of ambition is monstrous. Margot is valourised for accepting her fate, regardless of how independent-minded she may appear at first glance.

Because then there's Eve of course, who at first glance appears meek and is revealed to be anything but. The name cannot be an accident – she is an alluring object, a potential theatrical star. But she is also a tempter, and a serpent. It's interesting that despite her best efforts, the men in the film who are in relationships remain faithful to their partners. Eve's victims are women, not men. The film never allows her to have the upper hand.

Eve's intrigues spring from the same motive as Satan in Milton's Paradise Lost – observing what others have (love, grace, success) leads to resentment and ambition. It will end up in a desire to dominate that is far less benign than Margot's melodramatic inflexibility, which the film frames as feminine caprice and weakness. The filmmakers aren't brave enough to show Eve unbound. Instead, they transfer that end state onto a man: Addison DeWitt, a critic (of course).

DeWitt is a villain greater than Eve. He is omniscient – seeing through all Eve's secrets and using them to make her his slave. "You belong to me", he says, and slaps her when she doesn't comply. DeWitt also provides the initial voiceover at the start of the film. It starts off being a voice of God, before DeWitt introduces himself, and the film's one radical act is to associate his character's cold inhumanity with the deity of the Christian faith. DeWitt is a jealous God insisting on complete obedience from his servants.

I admit I missed the suggestion that Eve and DeWitt are gay, which adds a homophobic tenor to the film's defense of marriage. All About Eve has a gay following, but that is due to Bette Davis in the role of Margot – who has the largest presence, and the sharpest wit, in the film, and therefore displays a certain freedom before being forced to retire from the spotlight. The film ends with Eve's success, and the notion that the ambition that powered her ascent is something universal. And although there is something morbidly fascinating about Eve's duplicity, I wonder whether the film would be a classic without Bette Davis sparkling turn as Margot, who makes the character's retreat into domesticity into a tragedy.