This article is taken from the February 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
I realised in December that I’d spent quite a lot of the year watching films that I was supposed to admire but actually found somewhere between disappointing and interminable. Of the three-hour Epics By Great Men, I probably liked Oppenheimer most, but I could live easily with the news that I was never going to see it again.
This insight came to me as I found myself smiling from pretty much the first frame of Godzilla Minus One, a Japanese monster reboot that for all its silliness of premise seemed to have rather more to say about the actual impacts of the atomic bomb than Christopher Nolan’s movie. If you think that there’s the slightest possibility that you might enjoy a film about a giant lizard trashing Tokyo, give it a look, because it’s a delight.
Happily, 2024 is shaping up rather better, with two films out this month from new directors who show plenty of promise. First, Cord Jefferson has written and directed American Fiction, a satire based on Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure. It may be significant that one of the producers is Rian Johnson, whose name has been on some of the best film and TV of recent years, including Knives Out and Poker Face.
The film stars Jeffrey Wright as Monk, a black author frustrated that publishers only want him to write “Black” books about drugs, crime and racism. Monk, the middle-aged Harvard-educated son of a doctor, who wears a tie to go on dates and whose childhood bedroom still has his lacrosse sticks, knows no more about ghetto life than any of his white counterparts.
But as his frustration with the world grows he snaps and, under a false name, drafts a spoof autobiography culled largely from watching films.
Titled “My Pafology”, it is a stereotyped tale of deprivation and violence. He intends it as an obvious insult to editors who can’t see past his skin colour — “I just want to rub their noses in it” — but of course it is taken seriously and he finds that for the first time in his life he has a bestseller on his hands.
American Fiction sits alongside last year’s hit novel Yellowface as a satire of the publishing industry’s — and the reading public’s — fetishisation of particular minority experiences. “They want a black book,” Monk’s agent tells him after publishers reject an earlier manuscript. “They have one,” replies Monk. “I’m black, and it’s my book.”
The film is merciless on all its subjects, including Monk, who loathes his publisher and nurses a vicious grudge against a more successful rival in ways that I and all my fellow authors will insist under torture that we do not recognise.
Wright, utterly absorbing, gives us a man who is grumpy but tender, perceptive but idiotic, satirical but pompous, dignified but ridiculous. The funniest moments come from Monk’s frustration at the fawning reaction to the book — “White people think they want the truth, but they don’t,” Monk’s agent tells him. “They just want to be absolved.”
But the other half of the film is a gentle and moving story about his own life as, forced to take a leave of absence by his university after a white student complains he’s insufficiently sensitive about race, he re-engages with the family he’s kept at a distance. He, and they, contain multitudes, we learn.
This is an intelligent and highly enjoyable film about fury with the modern world, despising your co-workers, resenting the media, developing hate obsessions with books you haven’t actually read, and wondering how you’ll afford to put your parents into a home. It’s hard to imagine a film more perfectly targeted at Critic readers, and personally I think we should be giving copies of this magazine away at every screening.
Rather bloodier and scarier is Out of Darkness, from Scottish director Andrew Cumming. It is, and I realise how ridiculous this sounds, a prehistoric thriller, the story of a tiny Stone Age tribe going to new lands in search of a better life, and finding themselves in a fight for survival against an unseen foe.
I would understand if you thought this sounded like nonsense, your mind drifting to Raquel Welch in a fur bikini in One Million Years B.C. But this is a far superior offering. The performances, from a largely young and largely British cast, are convincing. The scenery of northwest Scotland, beautifully shot, is convincing as a world of both possibility and danger.
The story is tight, and well-worn horror tropes are given fresh life by the ancient setting. In particular the night scenes as the cave-people surround their fire, staring out into the darkness in terror, debating whether to fight or flee, are edge-of-the-seat stuff.
There haven’t been a lot of Stone Age films, partly because suspension of disbelief is a problem. In particular, how will the characters communicate? Should they speak modern English, which would be jarring, or are you limited to grunts?
Cumming solved this by commissioning a linguist to invent a language for the film, which is interpreted in subtitles. It’s a risky choice but it pays off, engaging you instead of pushing you away. I was immersed in this alien-but-not-alien world.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe