What does the alien want? Although it mirrors Natalie Portman’s actions and appears to commit suicide, the final scene reveals that actually, it doesn’t share Portman’s suicidal urges. In its own weird way, it saves her marriage.

The alien’s modus operandi is ‘refraction’ – the scrambling of reality to create new forms. It is creative whereas the humans in the film are (self)destructive. We may experience these effects as annihilation, but from the alien’s perspective it is exactly the opposite.

It’s hardly a comforting thought to assume the point of view of a cancer, which is why this film lacks the charge of Garland’s Ex Machina, where male power was overturned by a sympathetic ‘alien’ female. Here the alien may just represent Eros defeating humanity’s Thanatos – the (supposedly) impulsive way Portman’s sabotages her marriage being replaced with the will to save it. It doesn’t quite work because the marriage feels unreal to begin with, and ‘impulse’ is not a great explanation for Portman’s infidelity.

Garland has done better before. In its structure Annihilation is similar to the Garland-penned, Danny Boyle-directed Sunshine, where the characters spent less time explaining who they were, and their cabin fever environment made better sense of their descent into madness. There are some shudder-inducing moments in Annihilation, as well as a few beautiful sequences, but nothing that compares to the thrill-ride of Sunshine’s final 30 minutes. That it went straight to Netflix in Europe is somehow fitting – it’s not as good as Garland’s previous work would suggest it should be.


"In Britain at least, changes of government are precipitated not by a burning sense of right and wrong but by a vague feeling that things have gone too far in one direction and that some kind of correction is needed to bring them back into balance. After a while, voters bank the good things that a government has given them and look to the other party to deliver them from the bad things. They got the welfare state from the Attlee government, for instance, but after five years of sacrifice they were longing to do some shopping. They got something like full employment from a series of Labour and Conservative governments but they also got higher taxes and over-mighty trade unions and so turned to Margaret Thatcher. She and John Major sorted out those problems but kept health and education on such short rations that voters in the end elected New Labour, at least in part, to build them back up again. It did so, but did little or nothing to tackle the underlying vulnerabilities of a growing welfare state reliant on an economy built increasingly on debt and immigration, as well as an unwarranted confidence that the good times could ever end." - Tim Bale, The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron


Black Panther

There is a striking parallel between Wakanda and Themyscira – faraway hidden utopias which flip the privileges of our world. In Black Panther the attraction of that idea is brought out a bit more than last year's Wonder Woman. The little boy who grows up to be the villain sees the glow of a spaceship in the sky, the possibility of escape and the hope of a new world. Wakanda becomes a way to transform present day iniquities and right historic wrongs.

The best villains are those who have motives you can sympathise with. Andy Serkis is a cartoon in this film, but the revolutionary agenda of Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger is born out of a sense of righteous anger, which pickles into murderous resentment. Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa has to walk the line between his cousin’s urge to overthrow and institute new empires, and his father’s desire to remain detached from the concerns of other countries – isolationism par excellence. Weirdly, by making Wakanda into a superpower, the film imposes on it many of the foreign policy responsibilities the United States takes on as the world’s policeman.

T’Challa’s dilemma is overlaid with a personal responsibility to a cousin abandoned by his father, and by his fatherland. The absent father is a common experience in the black community, which the film broadens out into a failure to express solidarity generally. Wakanda’s problems are partly of its own making.

These ambiguities are what make the film such an intriguing watch. T’Challa manages to quash Wakanda’s imperialistic turn, but also opens up the country through humanitarian outreach – there are aid programs but no military bases. Difficult questions (on foreign intervention, reparations, the legacy of slavery or the return of cultural artefacts) are referenced but remain unresolved. Then again, there’s only so many digressions a superhero film can sustain without becoming ponderous. Black Panther takes on some heavy ideas, but wears them all lightly. It’s a finely balanced piece of work, and yet more proof that Marvel Studios know exact what they are doing.


The Garden of Words

The feature Makoto Shikai made before the phenomenally successful Your Name has come on Netflix. It’s 45 mins long, and the irony of a precocious teenager teaching some life lessons to an older woman is evident even before the big reveal halfway through: that the woman is in fact a teacher at the boy’s school. A second irony is added when the teacher is hounded out of her job by false allegations of seducing a student. The repercussions of that accusation is what puts her in danger of seducing a student for real.

These ironies don’t lead anywhere, and perhaps they don’t have to. Watching this after Your Name, it’s evident that Shinkai has an interest in star-crossed lovers brought together and torn apart by fate, a force given an almost physical presence by the photorealistic hyperreal animation. It’s manipulative – a reliance on these tricks is why I dislike Wong Kai-Wai so much. For some reason, Shinaki’s equivalent is more tolerable, perhaps because we get under the skin of his characters to a greater extent than the detached cool of Wong’s lost urbanites.

Like Your Name, The Garden of Words ends on two characters on a set of stairs finally recognising each other. It’s a climax that Wong refuses to grant his viewers, and his films end up feeling emptier as a result. This, on the other hand, is generous, well-paced, and satisfying, despite the open-ended finale.


Samurai Champloo

If this makes any sense at all, it's as metaphor. One sword-wielding badass represents order and the other chaos, with the girl in the middle providing the semblance of a quest narrative. Jin follows the rules of the samurai genre while Mugen breaks them. Jin comes straight out of the Edo period and Mugen is a break-dancing hip-hop rebel. Jin is the samurai and Mugen the champloo. They are eternal and immutable opposing forces destined to orbit the female protagonist as she pursues her goal. And instead of resolution the series offers equilibrium. Backstory or progression rarely intrude on each bottle episode's brawls and scrapes.

So far so good, but the three-part finale has to lead somewhere. Fuu is the girl who yokes Jin and Mugen together to look for what turns out to be her father, who abandoned her and her mother when Fuu was a child. The idea of a patriarch who has deserted his responsibilities hangs over our angsty trio – kids without a sense of purpose or direction. The absent father may stand in for a defeated nation, destabalised gender roles, a precarious economy... you name it. Fuu is chasing the good-for-nothing bastard in order to slug him one for his dereliction of duty.

Except that in the end her father was trying to protect her all along. He did behave honourably. He did love his child. Her rage was misplaced. It's interesting that Fuu's ability to strike out on what turns out to be an extremely dangerous journey is powered by that sense of injustice, but the anime keeps stuffing this independent spirit back in the box. Because it turns out that Fuu needs Jin and Mugen, her incompetent bodyguards, to protect her on the way to her confrontation with her father. She simply cannot get by without them. The anime teases the concept of an independent woman only to put her in need of saving again and again. And in doing so, the patriarchy is redeemed.

The ending is therefore reassuring, conservative, and happy. At least there aren't any marriages. There are hints of a romantic triangle, but the anime ends by stressing the friendship between the three heroes. Their quest complete, their bonds affirmed, their demons purged, they go their separate ways. Such elemental forces are destined to wander rather than settle down. The anime is at root a chronicle of their journey together. It's only fitting that it should end when that particular journey is over.


The Iron Rose

A captivating fairy tale from Jean Rollin, probably the finest one of his mood-builders I’ve seen. The plot is barely there – a couple meet at a wedding, loiter around on a first date, get lost in a cemetery, and then the girl goes a bit mad.

That first date sometimes feels like an encapsulation of a life-long relationship – youthful lust, soul-baring confessions, bitter fights and reconciliations (and the suggestion of children, either dead or estranged). But the cemetery also provides a specific focus on a kind of existential crisis. The boy in particular finds it a refuge from the dirt and noise of the town. There is something very adolescent about the young lovers feeling like the only people who are really alive in their boring, provincial society. The idea is brought out rather literally in their lovemaking scenes amidst the buried skeletons. Their passion is the only quickening force in an otherwise meaningless rotting world.

But the girl takes this all a bit too literally, beginning to prefer the company of the dead to the living. There’s an interesting gender dynamic going on in the film, whereby the boy is associated with mechanical things like trains, bicycles and watches, while the girl is associated with the natural world – sea, mist, foliage. While the boy seeks to escape, thinks logically, and tries to move forward, the girl increasingly becomes a manifestation of nature, engulfing the boy in her earthly tomb. The iron rose, which is cradled by the girl a bit like Gollum with the one ring, is straightforwardly a metaphor for their relationship – bringing together the artificial and natural. It is also an emblem of their doom, a warning against the alluring but dangerous power of the sacred feminine.



Very glad I ate a big bowl of ramen before watching this film at the Prince Charles Cinema. It’s a comedy centred around people's obsession with food – whether it be feeling up every piece of fruit in the shop, to wanting a final meal cooked by your dying wife. The hook on which the film is hung is the idea of finding a purpose, and trying to achieve it – in this case, creating the perfect ramen shop. The rest is just sketches, some quite Pythonesque, my favourite being the newlywed crime boss who likes to bring food into the bedroom, and the group of tramps who turn out to have a taste for fine dining.


42 books for 2017

I feel like I've read fewer books than last year's mammoth readathon, probably because I've got a new, more exciting, but more exhausting, job, which has meant switching off with a good book has been harder. My commute is also shorter, and you'd be amazed how much that cuts down your daily reading time.

The interest in Japanese literature remains, but this year was dominated by a read through Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae – an outrageous but intriguing survey of western literature. That pushed me on to reading Wilde, Balzac and Baudelaire. Sady Doyle's first book (I'm a long-time fan of her writing) was a necessary dose of common sense after the sustained assault of Paglia's bold theories.

I wish I had read and written more about comics this year – have only managed three or so columns for the London Graphic Novel Network. I now live further away from the libraries that supply my comics obsession, so I'll need to work a bit harder. I also have to fight against the sense that I've read quite deeply into the medium now, and there's fewer things out there that feel fresh and new. Delving further beyond anglophone comics may be the solution to that.

I keep track of the things I read on Goodreads, and there are a few scattered links below where I've bothered to jot down a quote or write about a comic (several of the comic ones link to a great end of year roundup on the London Graphic Novel Network, which I contributed to).

Camille Paglia - Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson
Nick Clegg - Politics: Between the Extremes
Ed Balls - Speaking Out: Lessons in Life and Politics
Edmund Dell - The Chancellors: A History of the Chancellors of the Exchequer, 1945-90 [link]
Ryan Avent - The Wealth of Humans: Work, Power, and Status in the Twenty-first Century
Nick Srnicek / Alex Williams - Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work [link]
Jonathan Portes - Capitalism: 50 ideas you really need to know
Hattie Collins / Olivia Rose - This Is Grime [link]
Michael Azerrad - Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground, 1981–1991
Neil Kulkarni - Eastern Spring: A 2nd Gen Memoir
Sady Doyle - Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear... and Why
Catherine Millet - The Sexual Life of Catherine M.
Valerie Solanas - SCUM Manifesto
John Gray - The Soul of the Marionette: A short enquiry into human freedom

Carl Neville - Resolution Way
John le Carré - Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Haruki Murakami - The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
Yukio Mishima - Confessions of a Mask
Oscar Wilde - The Picture of Dorian Gray (uncensored version)
Honoré de Balzac - SarrasineThe Unknown MasterpieceThe Girl with the Golden Eyes
Charles Baudelaire - The Flowers of Evil
Yōko Ogawa - Hotel Iris
Jun'ichirō Tanizaki - Diary of a Mad Old Man
Jorge Luis Borges - Fictions
Kobo Abe - The Box Man
Ursula K. Le Guin - A Wizard of Earthsea

Kazuo Koike / Ryōichi Ikegami - Crying Freeman [link]
Tsutomu Nihei - Knights of Sidonia [link]
Akihisa Ikeda - Rosario + Vampire
Pierrick Colinet / Elsa Charretier - The Infinite Loop [link]
Marjorie M. Liu / Sana Takeda - Monstress vols. 1 & 2 [link]
Fumio Obata - Just So Happens [link]
Usamaru Furuya - Lychee Light Club
Ales Kot et al. - Zero, Vol. 1: An Emergency
Jason Shawn Alexander - Empty Zone vols. 1 & 2 [link]
Brian Wood - Channel Zero
Hubert / Kerascoët - Miss Don't Touch Me vols. 1 & 2
Enki Bilal - The Nikopol Trilogy
Daniel Clowes - David Boring
Joe Sacco - Palestine
Jonathan Hickman / Tomm Coker et al. - The Black Monday Murders, Vol. 1: All Hail, God Mammon [link]
Paul Auster / Paul Karasik / David Mazzucchelli - City of Glass: The Graphic Novel


Star Wars: The Last Jedi

I watched The Force Awakens again on Netflix before going to see the new one, and thought it was pretty awful, far worse than I remembered. Perhaps that's why The Last Jedi feels so great. It's like Rian Johnson got handed a shiny but badly-made new car by J.J. Abrams and managed to rewire it into something roadworthy. The new trilogy was never going to be brilliant (cough, neither was the original trilogy, and given the benchmark it set the prequels weren't that bad either). But I got the sense that Johnson finally made a Star Wars film that was worth re-watching.

It's still a bit of a mess, obviously. There are plenty of internal contradictions in the plot that have riled people up. Thankfully I don't give a hoot about such things, so long as the unlikely situations build to satisfying emotional or narrative payoffs. There were a couple of bait-and-switches in The Last Jedi that I was suckered into, and subsequently appreciated.

One was Poe Dameron’s arc, which is a rather straightforward one about the need for leaders to learn about humility and co-operation. The Admiral Holdo stuff was a bit forced, but in the age of Trump it was interesting to have not one but two heroic Hilary substitutes who earn the respect of impulsive hot-shots. The film could have been subtitled "the return of the centrist mums".

The other was Rey’s arc. Have to say I foolishly expected the revelation that there was some sort of family relationship between her and Kylo Ren, given their telepathic link. Turns out that was a ploy by Snoke, and that Rey has no distinguished parentage. The rather confusing sequence in the dark hole under the Jedi temple may have been an arty way to foreshadow this. Rey tries to see her parents in the mirror, but instead just ends up looking at her own reflection. Hoping your horrible parents were other people is no solution. At some point you have to grow up and rely on yourself.

There is a contrast here with Kylo Ren, who has a distinguished parentage, and like many a pampered prince becomes slightly unhinged when close to power. Being sent away to Jedi boarding school with your weird uncle would be enough to set anyone on edge, and then you have betrayals (by Luke) upon betrayals (by Snoke). Ren's way of coping is to lash out, and long to amass enough strength to prove his disappointed elders wrong. There's a touching moment with Rey when the loneliness of such a position is revealed. We owe a debt to Adam Driver for supplying a Star Wars villain who is actually interesting. Let's hope Episode IX in 2019 doesn't ruin all that good work.