Wednesday, 21 March 2018

The Navigator: a medieval odyssey

Vincent Ward, 1988
Australia-New Zealand
writers: Vincent Ward, Kely Lyons & Geoff Chappel

Vincent Ward’s ‘The Navigator: a medieval odyssey’ is a treat for those that like under-appreciated oddities, the kind of film that possesses a unique quality that means it often slips under the radar. Of course, technological advances now means that nearly everything is retrieved and now available (the years of seeking out rare VHSs of fondly remembered shows and films are long gone), but ‘The Navigator’ is still a bit of a lost gem, despite having won eleven awards at the time. Ward offers a mixture of black-and-white 14th century scenario tunneling into a colour urban 20th Century New Zealand by way of time travel, story-telling, visions, elliptical symbolism and editing. In a medieval town, young Griffin keeps having visions as he waits for his brother Connor to return from an outside world devastated by the Black Death. When Connor returns with pronouncements of doom, it would seem that only a religious quest to mount a spire  on the tallest church in Christendom will save the village. 

The black-and-white medieval sections are reminiscent of silent cinema and Andrei Tarkovsky (ref. ‘Andrei Rublev’), with people much like silhouettes against the snowbound backdrops. The modern world comes in bursts of nocturnally shadowed colour where motorways are near impassable death-traps, submarines come like aquatic behemoths, diggers and cranes are monsters and displays of television sets must seem like boxes of visions to eyes from the Dark Ages. Ward does a commendable job of making the 20th Century uncanny from the perspective of these time-travellers, just as he respects their limited understanding without condescension. 

It’s often beautiful and jaw-dropping in its imagery and audaciousness, using imagery rather than effects to conjure the incredible. It’s built on the themes of the loyalty of familial and community bonds, on a faith that makes it easy to accept the impossible. The science-fiction of time travel is more rooted in the power of storytelling and imagination, of folk stories and visions which are constantly evoked by Davood A Tabrizi’s haunting score. Its ambition makes any weaknesses or budgetary limitations secondary.

‘The Navigator: a medieval odyssey’ covers a breadth of aesthetic techniques and ideas and its final accomplishment of being genuinely moving means it fills a high quota of accomplishments. It strides the pools of fantasy and arthouse effortlessly. Unique and timeless.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

'The Prodigy' by Herman Hesse: nature vs eduction

‘The Prodigy’ – Herman Hesse

Originally ‘Beneath the Wheel (Unterm Rad), 1906 
Peter Owen Publishers translation, ‘The Prodigy’, 1957
Translated from the German by WJ Strachan

Herman Hesse’s bildungsroman 'The Prodigy' - the original title of 'Beneath the Wheel' is more explicitly aggressive -  focuses on Hans Giebenrath, an intelligent and sensitive boy, eager to please and excel from his provincial origins. But having successfully entered a theological school, he finds that its focus on the technical rather than the emotional education of the young drives him to a breakdown. Hans’ ambitions, wants and needs rest between the poles of the natural and educational worlds and the establishment falls far short of meeting these. 

School in ‘The Prodigy’ is a serious business which, if it is not openly abusive, is oppressive and devoid of compassion. There is no satirical take on teachers as in Mark Twain’s ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’ (1876), or elongated sequences where the classroom is a chamber of humiliation and physical punishment as in James Joyce’s ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ or David Storey’s ‘Saville’ (1976). In Joyce’s ‘Portrait’, the protagonist rejects the source of his torment, namely Catholic education, and, even if he is not happy by the book’s close, he has survived. Storey’s ‘Saville’ also features a prodigy, a son of a miner who, by strength of natural intellect, may ascend from his class origins; yet he is unable to escape the front room of his home and subsequent destructive bitterness sets in. In ‘The Prodigy’, it is not outright cruelty and sadism that defines the boy’s experience but simple indifference to whom Hans may be – an emotional depravation. It is Hans’ inability to truly rebel that is finally his fatal flaw. His friend Heilner personifies all the youthful and successful rebellion and bitterness that Hans cannot achieve and barely acknowledges within himself. Heilner is to some extent Hans’ inverse reflection, a parallel set up upon the first time that they meet. Both boys are strolling alone in the woods and meet at a lake. Both flatly agree upon the beauty of the place: their friendship is sealed. With Heilner as a companion, Hans can gradually fail his school and survive the consequences; but when Heilner is gone, Hans is lost, friendless and at the mercy of lessons and expectations, which leads to a breakdown. Friendship then emerges as a natural element, a counter-active force to the unnatural climate of education. 

In Twain’s ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ (1884), education is – albeit humorously – something to be avoided and the knowledge of the natural world becomes central and superior. Civility is to be satirised. Tom Sawyer may not be able to reject society absolutely – he always needs an audience to play to – but Huck can manage alone just fine. He is smart, cunning and eloquent in an effortlessly self-educated sense, and these qualities make him a survivor. He can take or leave culture. And not for Hans the precocious insubordination of the boys of Kipling’s ‘Stalky and Co.’ (1899), or Compton’s ‘Just William’ who quite happily pal up to upset establishment. It is not learning in itself that pressurises Hans – indeed, he has a voracious appetite for it – but rather the demands and concepts that culture has of education as an institution. There are a number of passages in which Hesse lays out this institution for indoctrination and compliance:

There was something wild, untamed, uncultured in him that must first be broken, a dangerous flame that must be extinguished and stamped out.

And: is the school’s job to break in the natural man, subdue and greatly reduce him; in accordance with the principles sanctioned by authority is its task to make him a useful member of the community and awake in him those qualities, the complete development of which is brought to a triumphant conclusion by the well-calculated discipline of the barrack square.
 [Penguin edition 1973, pg. 43]

It is not blatant brutality or unkindness that breaks Hans but rather that the education is at the expense of humanity, ignoring his sensitivity for his propensity for learning: school as a passive-aggressive tool for dehumanisation.

In 'The Prodigy', there is a moment when the order of narrative seems shuffled: the book begins with a brief account of Joseph Giebenrath’s life and then his son Hans’ candidacy for the ‘Lendexamen’; it is only late in the book [chapter five] that Hans’ earlier childhood pre-candidacy is detailed. Having “failed” at school, Hans returns home and visits the Falken where a host of memories come back to him as a prodigy. It has not always been local priests and teachers that have educated Hans. There is his brief but densely sketched friendship with a sickly orphan Hermann Rechtenheil [pg. 114] who taught Hans how to fish, to “study the weather” and a whole litany of practical and observational tricks. Even in this Hans has been an excellent pupil for his friend, but Rechtenheil dies quickly and leaves way for the subsequent influences of Heilner’s friendship. He too disappears and Hans’ need for a stronger, educating friend leaves him vulnerable and lost. But in Rechtenheil, Hans’ need for being taught and for the natural world had once been perfectly embodied. This sequence in which Hans’ early life is conveyed comes latterly in order to show that which he had forgotten and has lost in his quest to become a great student. 

Hesse endows Hans’ world with lengthily and beautiful passages on rivers and woods and nature, almost as eloquent and poetic as those of Laurie Lee in ‘Cider With Rosie’ (1959) (“almost” because ‘Rosie’ is pretty much peerless). Fishing is tied to Hans’ bond with nature and with giving him the respite and autonomy he desires as much as academic skill. When Herman is attracted to a girl, the imagery is of animals and (with the cart) the threat of civilisation and technology:

… this one was so lively and talkative and so indifferent to his presence and awkwardness that he drew in his horns helplessly and, slightly offended, withdrew into himself like a snail brushed by a cartwheel. 
[pg. 123]

It’s a lovely passage evoking the shyness and inelegance of first crushes and feelings of perplexing attraction. A similar mixture of the natural world and feeling runs through his desire, expressed by the imagery of breezes, of gardens, of clutching fences and stopping halfway across bridges listening to rushing waters. [chapter six] This isn’t quite innuendo, but the symbolism is clear. It’s overwhelming to Hans, being the susceptible soul that he is.

After a night of revelry that puts his observations and extroversion to the test, Hans is found drowned: but was this an accident or was it suicide? The ending argues that if we do not balance nature with nurture then disillusionment, alienation and self-destruction is, perhaps, the tragic end for sensitive souls who cannot cope. How we failed them. Or certainly this is how sensitive souls like to tell their narratives. This is a typical outcome for fictions based on outsiders of some form victimised by society (early texts exploring female roles who always seem driven to death, for example) and here it blends tragedy, suffering and a kind of wistfulness. If perhaps this sides too much with victimhood, Hesse nevertheless presents a fine tirade against education as a tool of indoctrination, and as such as antithetical to individualism and the natural self.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

'The Shape of Water' and irksome wonderment

Guillermo del Toro, 2017, USA

Despite any originality in the premise, Guillermo Del Toro’s fishman-and-woman romance unfolds predictably, being the kind of tale that Mike Mignolia turns out in his sleep. Although the art design is sumptuous and the players devoted in reliably Del Toro style, there is something a little sloppy at the edges as if it thinks its pretence to romanticism is enough. Actually, Mike Mignolia would not be quite as sentimental. You know how it is all going to play out: this is just a routine persecuted-outsiders-in-love tale for Forrest J Ackerman fans. Yes, it’s a romance about a woman and a fish-person (someone on social media called it ‘Grinding Nemo’), but the narrative is quite safe and pulls a shower-curtain upon the truly tricky stuff. 

Monsters-in-love is older than Mary Shelley and it is perhaps
telling that this spends equal if not more time with Richard Strickland (you know: the real monster here) because that has more substance. After all, Beauty-and-the-Beast is a standard genre trope. Michael Shannon is too entertaining and skilled for sadistic Strickland to be anything but intriguing, but a less offbeat actor would have immediately shown up how two-dimensional and hammy the character is. Michael Stuhlberg as Dr Robert Hoffstetler is far more fascinating and possessed of layers (and because he too is better than the material). More importantly, it is hard to find Elisa Esposito’s character beneath all the knowing smiles and symbolism as she falls for the amphibian, despite Sally Hawkins’ committed performance: for example, she has no voice and was found as a child near water as an orphan; the marks on her neck that apparently make her mute look like gills; she masturbates in the bath, linking sex and water, etc. But then again, maybe these are all clues that she might be an amphibian too – this would make sense of the flooding-the-bathroom scene which doesn’t really address the problem of drowning – but then there would be more questions raised by the domination of her air-breathing persona (she would surely know she is amphibious by the time we meet her, but there is no indication of this). 

This half-baked thinking dogs all the details, such as much is madeof a single security camera but there seems to be no cameras or security at all surrounding the actual prize creature. Or a bathroom becomes a water tank and floods… but there’s no attention to the damage this would surely cause (it floods the cinema below, but this leads to nothing). Or when Elisa and the amphibian have sex, she pulls the bath curtain as if to gain some privacy from the audience, even though there has been a graphic sex scene with Shannon beforehand.* The graphic sex is saved for the monstrous human but there’s no visual evidence of the romantic possibilities of intimacy for the amphibian (I mean, he sparkles colours which is pretty but that isn’t quite enough). And then everyone just accepts this interspecies relationship as the epitome of romance. Borowczyk’s ‘The Beast’ surely bursts the bubble of this. The amphibian itself (Doug Jones) is given so little character, despite evoking pity, that it comes close to Elisa simply projecting onto him as if she saving a puppy from a mill. It just protests so hard at being romantic, its nadir being two raindrops merging into one, that it becomes as enamoured with itself and is just as uncomfortable as a ‘Love is…’ cartoon. Love is … an amphibious god-like humanoid that will kill the nasty man. When such details of internal logic are left wanting, it’s in danger of being a house of cards that will collapse with the merest prodding.

That it’s a fairytale is meant to excuse any lacunas, but its sense of its own wonder of wonderment is as narcissistic as Disney with very little that is independent of its own magical magicalness to earn genuine characterisation or investment. It all feels a little unearned. A paean to cinema must surely do more than just indulge in its own homage (of course the lost monster will be found mesmerised in a cinema). Even ‘La la Land’ took time to show why music can be so important to people by demonstrating that a whole alternative and romantic story can be imagined in a song. ‘The Shape of Water’ rests upon a well-worn love of black-and-white movies and musical numbers because fantasy is so close to nostalgia. For all its elegance, it’s often about a subtle as a glass of water thrown in the face, followed by a handful of glitter. 

I felt ‘The Devil’s Backbone’ move into pure story was a delight and ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ is surely about how fantasy makes harsh realities bearable, even if cognitive dissonance solve nothing, but ‘The Shape of Water’ starts at the pitch it means to go on with no shifts or questioning of its own reality. It's not quite as art-design-over-substance as 'Crimson Peak' but its lack of inquiry into its own basis means is a movie-movie and that an audience may find themselves probing at its weaknesses and finding it unsatisfactory. But a lot of people have taken it at face value and found it emotional. I myself am thinking that (like Nolan’s ‘Interstellar’ which I had similar reservations about on a first watch) I may find myself more accepting and less prone to criticism the second time, with a less demanding eye. As it is, I found it entertaining enough but unconvinced by its conviction in its own magic-realist poeticism. In the end, I found that more irksome than moving.

Here is another moment that suffers from the lack of clarity or follow-through that typifies the script: Elaine Strickland (Lauren Lee Smith) seduces her husband for consensual sex, but then the scene is filmed and executed in an aggressive style that is typically coded for a rape, especially when Strickland tells her to be mute and to relinquish her character. But they have had kids together: has he never acted this way before? If he has, is it something she likes as she instigated this sex? If she doesn’t (and the moment hints her reaction isn’t fully consenting), then where does it leave their relationship? What does this say about her and consequently him? There is no follow-up to this so we do not know, leaving her character somewhat underserved.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018


David Cronenberg, 
Canada, 1981

Popular early Cronenberg where his excursions into physical and psychological breakdowns take on a decidedly more commercial bent. Compared to the more medical – and difficult – tone to his earlier works, a more straightforward thriller trajectory makes ‘Scanners’ a more accessible tale of battling psychics and exploding heads. Scanners are telepaths with remarkable mental abilities that allow for all kinds of random and telekinetic possibilities. They are being rounded up and recruited by Michael Ironside for a war against plain average humanity. The somewhat shady ComSec company find Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) on the street - a broken down, homeless Scanner, barely aware of his own powers - and recruit him to infiltrate Ironside’s secret army, tutored by splendidly grey-bearded Patrick Magoohan. 

Not quite as theologically scary in implication as those that came before - 'Crimes of the Future', 'Rabid', 'Shivers' - 'Scanners' offers rather more action-orientated fun, heavily coloured by Cronenberg’s vision of untapped human potential unleashed by man’s experiments in technology and pharmaceuticals. There is still that typical Cronenbergian clinical objectivism, which perhaps make the characters less relatable and wanting in general, but Ironside produces great scowls and charisma even so and McGoohan knows how to keep a straight face. 

That legendary early exploding head set piece is still thrilling and genre defining that perhaps not even the prolonging squishy scanner showdown can quite top it. An interview in a gigantic sculptured head also provides a wonderful moment of surrealism, as does a melting phone (Cronenberg even manages an exploding phone booth). The underground group of good scanners seems to present them as the inheritors of the hippie legacy, or at least of counter-culture (they're the homeless, disenfranchised and the artistic, for instance). The malignant corporation is typical of the conspiracy plot that is practically obligatory to this scenario, exploiting and corrupting for crazed ideology. Binding it all, Howard Shore score makes it clear that this is bombast and an updating of old-school horror.

The plotting and execution is thrown around, bordering on stream-of-consciousness and probably will not hold up under close scrutiny, but it is easy to digest and great pulpy horror. Tapping into the sub-genre of psychic-power fantasies - where just force of will can either pour bloody vengeance on all or can better anyone threatening you  - proves a potent resource and Cronenberg mines it for as much head-popping and face-tearing as he can manage. The revelation that Cronenberg could be both cerebral and fun had never quite been so evident. Or maybe you just can’t go wrong with exploding heads.

Tuesday, 27 February 2018


Seth Macfarlane, 2012, USA

Another comedy based on the principle that the American male is nothing but a loveable man-child who can’t grow up. Here’s the interesting spin: as a child, he’s a little lonely and wished for his eponymous teddy-bear to come to life, which it did, and now Ted acts as his bad influence and represents his arrested development. This means the gags are based upon the bear making a stream of inappropriate wisecracks, simulating sex acts, organising hooker parties, being racist (because being obnoxious masquerades as being rebellious) and getting wasted. And learning about cocaine from Sam J. Jones (Flash Gordon himself). Much of this is quite funny and diverting but the film has no idea how to explore its potential and, in the manner of all comedies that run out of imagination, steers headlong into uninteresting thriller mode in the last act to try and provoke unearned sentiment. The whole bear-in-peril plot might have worked up something genuinely satirical – since Ted is a faded celebrity – in a kind of “King of Comedy” manner, but for all its pop-culture references and profanities, it really is very conventional and somewhat ultimately dull because of it. 

Friday, 23 February 2018

The 'Evil Dead' trilogy

Sam Raimi, 1981, USA

Sam Raimi, 1987, USA

Sam Raimi, 1992, USA

When I was a kid, the TV spots advertising ‘The Evil Dead’ terrified me. That witchy-demon banging around and glaring up from the cellar truly intimidated me, enough that I had to steel myself every time the commercial ran. 

1981: Seemingly armed with nothing but a cabin in the woods and a smoke machine, Sam Raimi used these to try out his technical gusto and to make horror history. Ash (Bruce Campbell) and friends go to the isolated cabin to get away but find themselves at the mercy of demons with a pretty slapstick sense of things. Although the comedy and the Cult of Ash would take over, there is a d.i.y. and transgressive edge that feels rooted in Seventies exploitation cinema so that those features, at this stage, remain sly gags. Details such as the mirror that turns to water edges into the kind of surrealism that ‘Phantasm’ excelled in (but it’s true that the Book of the Dead looks like something your Heavy Metal mate might have drawn in a school text book). There’s plenty of invention and detail all round – in using a pencil for a demonic assault and blood giving a projector a red filter, for example – to show how Raimi’s debut earned its reputation. It may seem ridiculous now to think a horror so obviously influenced by cartoons and slapstick could spearhead the “Video Nasty” phenomenon, but there is the wrong-headed tree rape and a genuine sense of the unhinged to indicate how people that didn’t understand the genre would be outraged. That, and enough splatter, dismemberment and stop-motion to really push things as far as they can go. And the camera hurtling through the trees as a demonic force still remains a simple but unforgettable horror technique. The tree-rape is an unnecessary misstep, though and the whole thing just narrowly misses a subtext of fratboys-take-girls-to-cabin-and-the-girls-are-nuts! There’s an overall gonzo humour that somehow circumnavigates anything just being offensive. Even when you are clued in to its full throttle rhythm, there’s a pause and stillness to the stop-animation at the end (probably the only notable stillness in the film) that taps into genuine eeriness. Very few films feel this kinetic, like a sloppily aimed punch, and despite its gleeful pell-mell liquefying into outré slapstick, it still holds onto something intrinsically scary, unnerving, bizarre and outrageous. 

‘Evil Dead 2’ (1987) is a rewrite of the original as a more straightforward comedy of madness. The use of green blood is always telltale sign of compromise but even so, this sequel is the equal to the original in breakneck invention and punk-brat fuck it! agenda. This is how you revisit/reboot/remake an original (rather than Fede’s Alvarez’s 2013 bland/terrible ‘Evil Dead’). There’s a place where bad dialogue and so-so acting won’t matter, and this is it. Bruce Campbell is admirably game and mugs his way dementedly through it all with verve to match the film-making as it just heaps more and more upon him. Perhaps the bigger budget means it’s descent into giant demon heads is unavoidable, but the first half especially excels at depicting one man’s elevation into insanity through cartoon excess. Apparently all this was in lieu of Raimi’s original intention of a
medieval dead which the budget couldn’t stretch too – which we get to next – but there is no disappointment in this sequel just regurgitating more of the original. We know the tricks but Raimi shows he can pull it out of the hat a second time with no problem, showing the original was not a fluke.

And so time-travelling we go: ‘Army of Darkness’ (1992) is fully defined by the Cult of Ash and makes ‘Evil Dead’ a joke. I mean that both as summary and detrimentally. Apparently this is what Raimi had intended all along with the concept, but now he had the cash to do it. The “Deadites” hold no mystery or disturbing qualities here, although there is fun to be had in their designs. If the original brashly held the coat-tails of slapstick and horror and the sequel still maintained fidelity to this, this third installment is some weird Harryhausen tribute mixed with satirical macho posturing. This is nothing like a continuation from the Ash from the first two films: he wasn’t much of a character but he was sympathetic and put upon and we could relate to his descent into insanity. The constant Bruce Campbell-bashing was a fun in-joke; he is charismatic without having to do much. But ever since he uttered “Groovy!” it’s been a descent to what he is here: a privileged wisecracking asshole who’s supposed to be funny because of it. It’s that thing where his overt machismo is at once parodic and
wallowing in itself. “Gimme some sugar!” and so on, you can quote later. But his wisecracks aren’t funny (your-mileage-may-vary) and it coasts on the Bruce Campbell mythology which has now taken hold – here’s a mini-Ash army; here’s his demonic double – and it isn’t scary or unnerving at all. Of course, it isn't meant to be: it's a romp. It holds some weight as Ash’s narcissistic manic nightmare, but it’s also caricature over character. There are times when it feels decidedly amateurish, badly lit and juvenile, and perhaps it has the same zest of its predecessors but the invention here seems self-indulgent. Luckily, there was plenty more good stuff to come from Raimi.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Blade Runner 2049 - a second watch

Watching ‘Blade Runner 2049’ again, it seems to me that the accusations of a too-slim narrative are misguided: every scene is full of theme and the revelation of plot details that texture and drive the narrative. But, yes, the visuals are so immersive that the superficial reaction is that they are dominant; the tone is a little abstract and underplayed so that it is perhaps easy to miss the details of narrative being disclosed through hints and  dialogue. 

For example, the human-free showdown that opens the film sets up a replicant-killing-replicant backdrop: Ryan Gosling’s slightly regretful but unquestioning execution of his programming; Dave Bautista is living a solitary existence hiding away on a farm until Gosling tracks him down; these are artificial humans that debate briefly how to resolve the situation before Bautista calls out K/Joe/Gosling’s motivation, saying how it’s because he hasn’t seen a miracle. This sets up the key theme of artificial humans always trying to be human. Later, it will be suggested that Bautista let himself be killed to protect the secret of the human-replicant birth, retrospectively giving this moment an extra theme of self-sacrifice as well as playing into the philosophy that to die for a cause is the ultimate human behaviour. This leads to Gosling discovering the bones of a body that triggers the story of the replicant-human baby that drives the plot. There seems to me here plenty to chew on during the set-up, providing not only crowd-pleasing visuals and a fight, but setting up motivation and themes that thread and are coloured in throughout the film.

And then there is the thorny issue of gender politics, but it seems obvious that almost every male character is confused or/and weakened or/and deluded whereas all the female characters are mostly certain and clear and direct. It is the women that are the true power in ‘Blade Runner 2049’, no matter how much the culture’s veneer of misogyny insists otherwise.  Even with Joi, Gosling’s stay-at-home fantasy “wife”, she seems to enact her programmed devotion to Joe with individualist determination and invention. She is not passive although she may be deferential. It seems Joe’s fantasy is to have a loyal woman who takes charge and reassures him as much as she serves holograms of better food. This surely indicates his insecure nature… but that surely can’t be his programme? Even with the replicant prostitute we see hints of individualism if not independence (but movie prostitutes are typically feisty, it’s true). Later, he will see Joi advertised through sexual promise, coded in vibrant pink, but it is not so clear if this shatters his illusion of her or simply reinforces her differences to him. This is the most tender and humane relationship in the film and it’s the interplay between false humans. There is nothing we can read as un-human or unusual in their communication as we might the conflict of Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) crying as she kills. Where the rise of technology tries to make everything as human and interactive as possible through means of nostalgia, ‘Blade Runner 2049’ offers a decent vision of a future resulting from this conflict. It’s a future where artificial humans develop identity crisis and seek solace in holograms. Technology so far gone it has to reassure itself. It barely needs humans at all.  It’s a future that arguably insists on the misogynistic culture that guided Ridley’s original – itself derived from film noir – even as the evidence of the real world negates it. 

And then there's the symbolism of rebirth in the waves although the more obviously religious is commendably avoided. 

These are just a couple of ruminations of many inspired by a second watch of ‘Blade Runner 2049’, and there are sure to be more with repeat viewings. Each scene is vibrant with these themes and questions into identity and motivation. Like the original, it’s an experience that rewards and becomes more textured on repeat viewings. And again, it is surely an achievement that it gives answers whilst still maintaining much ambiguity. If nothing else, there is the glorious cinematography of Roger Deakins and the thunder and the synth tsunami of Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch to overwhelm the senses. But there is depth beneath these pleasures.

Saturday, 10 February 2018

Brawl in Cell Block 99

S. Craig Zahler, 2017, USA

Bradley Thomas is having a bad day: he’s just been fired and goes home to discover his wife (Jennifer Carpenter) is cheating. He turns to drug-running to resolve issues, but this is not to imply he’s just a scumbag or weak-willed: rather, he’s just a pragmatist that does what he feels needs to be done. But he has the ultra-violence and savvy to back it up. Nevertheless, getting involved with bad people eventually only leads to more trouble and a descent to cell block 99 and there’ll be no more turning his back on a violent nature.

The cover blurb quotes The Hollywood News saying “The most impressive director since Quentin Tarantino,” but S. Craig Sahler has in Bradley Thomas a character that cuts through all the verbose digressions and bullshit to the bone – the kind that both Tarantino and Vaughn are known for. Vince Vaughn plays Bradley with less of the Clint Eastwood existential machismo or Charles Bronson’s disinterest, but rather like ‘Point Blank’s Lee Marvin striding in and just punching without fanfare. The only one that seems likely to veer into broad villainous caricature is Don Johnson’s Warden Tuggs, but that turns out to be something of a red herring, despite being a lot of fun.

Bradley Thomas is someone who appears to have mostly turned his back on a life of violence but he triumphs at it when he unleashes. Sahler’s previous film ‘Bone Tomahawk’ established that he excels at extreme violence (very few times have a felt an audience so physically reacting to a killing), and ‘Brawl’ doesn’t disappoint. There is bound to be one or two moments that will lodge into your memory as un-erasable once seen. If films like ‘The Villainess’ and ‘The Raid’ are about skill, this is about brute force and in keeping with that candour action is not conveyed through fast cuts but rather unflinching straightforward shots. It is Vaughn’s hulking physical and terrifying directness that is likely to be most memorable.

There’s nothing new in the narrative but it’s all executed with a slyly fated and doomed air as if this is more than just riffing on that exploitation staple of the super-violent man hammering vengeance on all and sundry. But it’s very much grindhouse brutality through arthouse melancholy, the latter somewhat shaving off the rough edges of the former, making it gratuitous and restrained at the same time. There is none of the thoughtfulness on the topic of violence and community here that ‘Bone Tomohawk’ offered – indeed it appears that this was written beforehand – but that’s probably moot when you are flinching/giggling at the excess. ‘Brawl in Cell Bock 9’ offers movie violence and a more-or-less unbeatable fantasy male in a probably never-better Vince Vaughn performance. It’s a straightforward guilty pleasure where Zahler’s pacing and skill subscribes to a sincerity beyond trash even as Udo Kier is talking about dismembering foetuses and heads are being stomped. 

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

The Belko Experiment

Greg McLean, 2016, USA-Columbia
Writer – James Gunn

In an office building in a suspiciously remote office block in Columbia, eighty employees suddenly find themselves sealed in and told by an ominous intercom voice that they must kill each other. It covers similar ground as Joe Lynch’s ‘Mayhem’ where office life becomes a bloodbath. It’s a fine horror-drama set-up full of possibilities but James Gunn here doesn’t seem to know how to write the best of it and forgets to sprinkle some jazz to make it sparkle. It’s decently if uninterestingly played but its conclusions – a group of locked-in people will always revert to and be overcome with violence – aren’t fresh and there is little to distinguish its initially promising premise. Its satirical high-point is a fight against a projection of a company promotional film, but it ends up being just another tokenly decent guy’s revenge fantasy against the overlords.

Saturday, 20 January 2018

One moment in 'Sorcerer'

'Sorcerer' - the rope bridge

William Friedkin, 1977, USA

Very few moments in cinema can perhaps capture the lunacy and gung-ho spirit of film-making than the rope bridge scene in William Friedkin’s Sorcerer. Hey, let’s put a truck on a rickety rope bridge in the middle of torrential weather and drive it across. Yes, let’s do that. This is filtered through blue and a soundtrack of relentless storm: the scene let’s one truck cross, and then another that has more trouble as the river floods violently below and foliage is uprooted and goes flying. The weight of the truck is all one side at one point and it looks for sure that it will fall in. It looks perilous just to watch and it last around ten minutes.

Of course, the mystery and mechanics of it is laid out by Wikipedia, but the filming still reportedly was as crazy and as hard as it looks. Roy Scheider commented that shooting 'Sorcerer'  "made Jaws look like a picnic." It’s one of those mysteries whose debunking only increases the admiration of behind-the-scenes development. It’s something that CGI can’t hope to replicate.