and so anyway, having now visited White Sands, New Mexico, it turns out that the best thing about White Sands (Roger Donaldson 1992) is, as I thought thirty years ago when I paid good money to see it in the cinema, not its amazing and far-too-good-for-this-rubbish cast, including Willem Dafoe, Mickey Rourke, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Samuel L. Jackson, M. Emmet Walsh, Maura Tierney, Miguel Sandoval, Mimi Rogers and John P. Ryan, all of whom now look like baby versions of themselves, apart maybe from Walsh and Ryan, but the fact that it manages to draw together all the elements needed for a really tense, tight little B-movie paranoid noir thriller…except for a director capable of making one
David Gaffney, Out of the Dark (2022)
Thanks to a mutual friend (also called David), David Gaffney sent me a copy of his new novel about a traumatised man obsessed with an obscure British film noir.
Set primarily in the Midlands of the 1980s, Out of the Dark falls somewhere in the terrain triangulated by Mike Hodges’s Get Carter (1971), Chris Petit’s Radio On (1979) and Andrea Arnold’s Red Road (2006).
It is also under the influence of JG Ballard. But its motorways are not London’s near-future-but-never-happened orbitals, nor are its high-rises desublimating enclaves of bourgeois acquisitiveness and hierarchical obsession. Rather, it all takes place in actually-existing concrete landscapes of marginalisation, disconnection and dereliction – ‘neither in Walsall nor West Bromwich’ and thus ‘equally inconvenient’ in all directions. And it is rather more grungily quotidian and irreal-adjacent than anything in Ballard – closer, perhaps, to M. John Harrison or Ramsey Campbell.
And while the story it tells is full of twists and turns, genre-playfulness and sharp observations – as is the story within the story – what I loved most about Out of the Dark is something much more personal. I was born in Staffordshire, in a small-now-swallowed-in-the-conurbation Staffordshire village, but all my family were from Birmingham, from the Perry Barr/Perry Beeches parts of Great Barr, with outliers in Handsworth and West Bromwich; and behind my paternal grandparents mid-terrace two-up/two-down (with an outside loo), on the far side of the allotments onto which the garden backed, was an aerial stretch of the M6. And although we moved down to Devon when I was four years old, there is something ineffable about the litany of place names threaded through the novel: in chapter five alone, Perry Barr, Great Barr, Sarehole Mill, Kings Heath, Cotteridge, the impossibly distant Worcester, Bourneville, Harborne, Dudley Road, Perry Barr Island, Aston Lane, Swan Island, Billesley, Walsall…
And if this is nostalgia, it is not inappropriate for a novel enamoured of noir – especially when, for me, it is so oneiric and bittersweet.
Atomic Blonde (David Leitch 2017)
and so anyway it turns out that the best thing about Atomic Blonde (2017) is not the weird disjuncture between the parts of the film that want to be John le Carré (but aren’t), the bits that want to be exciting (but aren’t) and the bits that want to be sleazy (but can’t even manage that) and the bit that wants to be really cool by using George Michael’s ‘Father Figure’ in an unexpected way (but comes a very distant second to Keanu (Atencio 2016)), no, the best thing about Atomic Blonde is the complex set of emotions when you suddenly realise that the bald bloke playing C is a rather dour Peter Wyngarde and that this must have been his last film, and then when you get to the credits and discover it was actually James Faulkner impersonating a rather dour Peter Wyngarde and you kind of feel sorry for him but relieved that at least Peter Wyngarde, dour or otherwise, was spared the indignity of appearing in this piece of shit…
Logan Lucky (Steven Soderbergh 2017)
and so anyway it turn out that the best thing about the oddly lifeless Logan Lucky (2017) is not the spectacle of Soderbergh blaming its poor box-office on the marketing campaign rather than the odd lifelessness of it all, nor is it the tremendously funny I swear gag of beating the Disney juggernaut to cutting off the arm of the latest Skywalker, nor is it the actually quite amusing (though I think it is meant to be touching) scene in which Channing Tatum’s little girl tricks an auditorium full of West Virginians to sing ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’ out of key, no, the best thing about Logan Lucky is Daniel Craig’s very first scene in which, with an eye on his post-Bond future and the mortality of older actors, he auditions for every scenery-chewing role that, after their deaths, would previously have been offered to Steven Berkoff, Anthony Hopkins or Malcolm McDowell…
Three thoughts about Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (McDonagh 2017)
1. All those comparisons of McDonagh to Tarantino and the Coen brothers are as lazy as they are wrong.
Yes, all three/four directors combine violence, black comedy and relishable dialogue being relished, but they all make films that are tonally very distinct. Tarantino and the Coens are, in their different ways, entirely superficial. Which is not necessarily an insult – and especially not in the first half of the Coens’ filmography. However, Three Billboards is a story of sexual violence, in which a woman who is not supposed to have a voice finds a way to speak out, and everyone tells her to shut up. That we now need to keep hold of Three Billboards‘ relevance (however unintentional) to the #MeToo conjuncture, while also needing to hear the growing criticism of the film’s treatment of race, suggests something deeper than mere surface. (As does, more trivially, its relative absence of obvious intertextual allusions.)
Also, Tarantino and the Coen brothers write, albeit in different ways, one-dimensional characters. They might be dazzling and memorable – again, especially in the first half of the Coens’ filmography – but they are fixed and incapable of change. McDonagh’s characters might not be fully rounded, but they do at least possess multiple conflicting aspects. They are little bundles of wrongfooting dialectical energy – which is why the coughing-blood-in-the-face scene works so well – unless they are dentists or priests. Or black. Particularly not if they are black.
2. Complaints about narrative incoherence miss the point.
Awww, diddums. Baby want a bottle? McDonagh repeatedly sets up formulaic situations then refuses the easy pay-off. You’d probably have been delighted if there had been a police cover-up, or if Dixon (Sam Rockwell) had accidentally overheard the killer in the bar, or if he had shot himself, or his mum, or his mum and then himself. (I suspect this is why people keep misdescribing his story as one of redemption. They want it to be as tediously familiar as that.)
3. This is yet another American film about lynchings that cannot bring itself to be about lynchings.
Like Fritz Lang’s Fury (1936), Mervyn Le Roy’s They Won’t Forget (1937) and Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night (1967), among others. Despite all the violent crimes committed in the film, the only person to go to jail is black. On a petty charge trumped up by a racist cop. A racist cop who recently got away with torturing a black suspect in custody, and continues to get away with violent assaults. And Mildred (Frances McDormand) gets away with all manner of shit in relation to the rape-murder-incineration – but not quite lynching – of her daughter. Try doing that while being black. Hell, try quietly refusing to stand for the national anthem.
Meanwhile the three black characters are just there to signify moral dignity (Clarke Peters channeling The Wire‘s Lester Freamon as the new police chief) or to accessorise Mildred and thus deflect from, while also complicating, her racist language. (I’d like to think that when Denise (Amanda Warren) and Jerome (Darrell Britt-Gibson) inevitably hook up, it’s because they’re the only people in town who aren’t assholes. But that is not the reason.)
Tomboy (aka The Assignment) (Walter Hill 2016)
and so anyway it turns out that the best thing about Tomboy aka The Assignment (2016), Walter Hill’s tawdry and exploitative story about a hitman, Frank Kitchen, played by Michelle Rodriguez, complete with facial (and other, more southerly) merkins and a prosthetic male chest and torso every bit as convincing as Nicolas Cage’s chest in Ghost Rider (Johnson 2007) and a prosthetic penis (cos yes there is a full frontal shower scene), who is double-crossed by the gangster Honest John (naughty Anthony LaPaglia!) who hired her and sold to the wealthy-genius-but-struck-off-female-surgeon-who-dresses-mannishly-and-likes-to-experiment-on-homeless-people-who-won’t-be-missed-and-whose-brother-was-killed-by-Frank-the-hitman, Dr Rachel Jane (naughty Sigourney Weaver!), who exacts her revenge on her brother’s killer while simultaneously trying to free Frank from the trap of toxic masculinity by performing unwanted and non-consenting sex change surgery on him, and who then – like the gangsters – becomes the target of revenge for the female Frank, also played by Michelle Rodriguez (who won an acting award for this shit, though admittedly a fairly obscure German one), again with some full frontal nudity, presumably to reassure the audience that the male body prosthetics caused no lasting damage to Letty, is not Hill’s unnecessarily complex nested narrative that jumps back-and-forth in time in order to cover up what looks like a collapsed budget and disastrous shoot while minimising anything resembling interest or suspense, nor is it that he also managed to trick Tony Shalhoub into appearing as Dr Galen (how long did it take to come up with that name?) in long and badly written dialogue scenes with the now-institutionalised Dr Jane, nor is it that somehow Walter Hill manages to make this tawdry and exploitative story so very bland that you are left wishing Abel Ferrara had directed it, or a young Jonathan Demme, or even a young Walter Hill, so as to make it properly tawdry, no, the very best thing about Tomboy aka The Assignment is that, despite Hill’s ploddingly pedestrian and mostly completely inoffensive treatment of this tawdry and exploitative tale, he nonetheless – and albeit by an extraordinarily circuitous route – manages to leave you feeling as dirty as you should by making you grateful he has always resisted the urge to direct a movie in the Alien franchise he produces, which means you are grateful for films directed by Sir Diddley Squat…
Legend (Brian Helgeland 2015)
and so anyway it turns out that the best thing about Legend (2015), the most recent attempt to glamourise and whitewash at least one of the Kray twins, is not Brian Helgeland’s decision to hire Emily Browning, an actress every bit as inept at voice work as Daniel Craig (see Renaissance (Volckman 2006)), to do the voiceover narration, nor Brian Helgeland’s decision to let someone as inept at writing voiceover as Brian Helgeland write the voiceover script, nor is it Brian Helgeland’s decision to cast David Thewliss, Christopher Eccleston and Tara Fitzgerald but not bother to write roles for them to play, nor is it Brian Helgeland’s stunt casting of the lovely Tom Hardy as both of the Krays, thus forcing him to stop doing all the accents at the same time and to instead create two distinct characters – the loyal, beautiful, misunderstood but handy in a fight and not at all auditioning for the role of James Bond Reggie Kray, and the psychotic gurning-like-a-Gumby jealous queer in NHS glasses Ronnie Kray – nor is it the inclusion of a unicorn just in case Sir Diddley Squat needs some outtake footage for yet another reissue of Blade Runner, no, the best thing about Legend always was and remains the poster’s chutzpah in pretending The Guardian‘s overly generous two-star review was – look between their ears – yet another of the utterly mystifying four-star reviews…
Yer basic bog-standard Maltese falcon
Free Fire (Ben Wheatley 2017)
and so anyway it turns out that the best thing about Free Fire (2017), easily (though you might want to heed the ambivalence in this expression) the best men-with-guns-in-an-abandoned-factory movies since Walter Hill’s Trespass (1992), which I always somehow forget was written by the Bobs Gale and Zemeckis, probably because it is not a steaming pile of shit like the latter Bob’s films usually are, is not the sheer amount of talent (e.g., even Armie Hammer is good) visibly being frittered away on such a fundamentally frivolous project designed for teenage boys younger than the certificate, nor the occasional lines you are pretty sure you can hear Amy Jump insisting had to be in the script in order to preserve some measure of dignity, such as the 90 minute rule or Brie Larson’s exasperated ‘Men!’, nor the fact that guns never need reloading until it becomes essential to the ‘plot’ that they do, nor even its nuanced and sensitive delineation of the Irish Republican struggle in the 1970s, no the very best thing about Free Fire is that everything would have been fine and dandy, and deadly violence would never have erupted, if Sam Riley hadn’t attempted to do an American accent, at least I think that’s what it was, I’m not sure, but whatever it was it made me want to shoot him, too…
xXx: Return of Xander Cage (DJ Caruso 2017)
and so anyway it turns out the best thing about xXx: Return of Xander Cage (2017) is not reminding people that when xXx (Rob Cohen 2002) first came out serious people seriously spoke about it seriously killing off the hopelessly moribund Bond franchise, seriously, and being able to prove it by pointing to the film’s complex self-referentiality (well, the succession of innuendo so lame even Roger Moore would have questioned the wisdom of saying such things aloud), no, the best thing about xXx: Return of Xander Cage was seeing it in a cinema full of boys who were not alive when xXx came out and who were in fact so young that, when Ice Cube turns up for his cameo, they not only have no idea about xXx: State of the Union (Lee Tamahori 2005), and thus of who Darius Stone is, but were also not actually all that clear on the identity of Cube himself, no, wait, the very best thing about xXx: Return of Xander Cage is having an audience of teenage boys turn around in unison and stare at you when Cube/Stone appears and you are the only person in the auditorium to let out a small involuntary cheer…
 But then Vin Diesel walked away from the franchise, and from the Fast and Furious franchise, to make the massively underrated but still a bit crappy Chronicles of Riddick (David Twohy 2004) and especially, and lest we forget, The Pacifier (Adam Shankman 2005).
 Aka, for non-US, audiences xXx: The Next Level.