Saturday, 28 May 2016

Suddenly

Lewis Allen, 1954, USA

In a little, sleepy, Republican town of Suddenly, a officer pauses to share a joke with someone passing through that “things happen so slow now, the town councilor’s figuring to change the town’s name to Gradually.” But it’s name comes from a time when it was a wilder place of gamblers, road agents, gunfighters, probably prostitutes, that kind of thing; the kind of people that make things happen ‘suddenly’. It shouldn’t be forgotten what kind of wildness built the town.

 It’s a regular ol’ day in Suddenly. The most conflict seems to be when Sheriff Tod Shaw has a little tiff with the female that he is after, Ellen Benson, because he buys her son “Pidge” a cap gun when she has expressly forbid it. She is still grieving for the loss of her husband in the war, you see, and abhors symbols of violence. Oh, he explains that it’s not the weapon and it’s the man, et cetera, et cetera, but she isn’t having any of it. The Sheriff’s affinity with violence seems also to be one of the reasons she is playing hard to get. Her father-in-law is also tired of Ellen’s anti-violence moaning. She is, after all, just a woman and doesn’t understand that there is horror and Evil in the world that can only be resolved and fended off with counter-violence. But not to worry: her silly, womanly anxieties and philosophies will soon be shown up for the bunk they are when three hoodlums take over the family house for a plot to assassinate the President of the United States who is apparently - or suddenly as it may be - passing through. What follows is a little chamber piece in which decent people and hoodlums argue it all out whilst they wait for the assassination attempt.

Conversely, Ellen Benson (Nancy Gates) would be better off without Sheriff Shaw because he’s an asshole, and as performed by Sterling Hayden, a wooden chunk of an asshole. Maybe that’s masculinity. He is belligerent and bolshy with the life-long ease of a born bully; juvenile in his responses to Ellen, swaggering with the unintentional humour that posturing machismo always brings. On the other hand, if she wasn’t such weak tea, she ought to notice that assassin John Baron is played by Frank Sinatra and is a far more interesting man. Sure, he’s a murderer, but so is her beau and her father-in-law because they were all soldiers: Baron brings with him an interesting questioning of what it means when a Nation trains its men to kill. This grey area is quickly resolved by the Sheriff distinguishing between good and bad soldiers, those that come home to take on authoritian roles such as cops and secret agents and those that liked it too much: Baron was born a killer, even if, as he says, “They” taught him how to kill. His mental health is probably more a result of this innate psychotic nature, the fact that he was left in an orphanage, that kind of thing, rather than a result of war trauma, of course. He’s a bad seed, see?

We are a long way from the home invasion scenarios of “Funny Games” and the like, but nevertheless there is a fair hard edge to the proceedings. The film implies Baron’s sadism and instability as much as possible, whilst never losing his hoodlum hat, and it’s fairly zesty with the expendable cast. Thanks to Sinatra’s performance, both mean and vulnerable with eyes full of uncertainty and a gutted sense of his own emotions, we have no doubt that he is capable of carrying out his threats against “Pidge” and the President. Sinatra brings the whole set-up alive in a community of otherwise stock types and rote performances. The film may try to side-step the issue of what turning men into killers might do to a generation, but he is far from a whiner about his lot and he does help to puncture the posturing of the ex-servicemen around him just by being there. He is also living the American dream of Capitalism and firearms: he doesn’t have any feelings about his job, he is just doing it for the money and marking his place in the world by killing when told and paid to. It’s just business. Baron may be wrong, but that doesn’t make the little conservative enclave he invades right just because of their pretences at patriotism and overall recourse to violence which is just as quick as his, although arguably justified as self-defence. Writer Richard Sale also can’t help but give Baron the best dialogue either. The irony is simple: the bad guy brings with him the dark edges of noir and is the only point of fascination in the film, the near only thing in context with blood running through its veins. Sinatra is good casting: he is tiny compared to the hulking Hayden, but Sinatra holds his own by doing and not swaggering. Only with the TV repairman - who may as well wear a target on his chest when he turns up late in the proceedings - played by James Lilburn do we get another actor actually awake and complex, simultaneously confused, outraged, bemused and shocked.

As a drama centred around sofas and windows it has the feel of an expanded play, although there is nothing wrong with that, with competent if uninventive direction by Lewis Allen, a director of the era’s stalwart TV series. The play with the cap gun and the television set is quite neatly handled, right under the assassins’ noses, and the ending - and we’re never in doubt as to the how things will turn out - gives both “Pidge” and Ellen a chance to resolve issues with a firearm. That’ll learn’em. And later, it will be the Sheriff playing hard to get and Ellen doing the chasing. That’ll teach her. 

  

Friday, 27 May 2016

The Haunting in Connecticut


Peter Cornwell, 2009, USA-Canada

The opening credits of Peter Cornwells haunted/possessed house film are an example of the problem of Twenty-First Century supernatural horrors. It starts with a gallery of old black-and-white photographs, pictures of families posing with their dead loved ones in the style of old mementoes. However, this is broken up by flashes of running blood, all red and here-and-now. It is as if the film is anxious about holding the attention without the promise of contemporary gore. Tales of hauntings subsist on atmosphere and build-up, on the slow seeping in, of an unsettling ambience and the character of a troubled building and, usually, correspondingly troubled characters. It seems to be that the tempo of contemporary film-making and modern editing trends is all wrong for a successful supernatural horror. This tempo is so hungry for and anxious about holding audience attention, the audience attention-span being taken as uniformly and shockingly short, that it is oblivious to build-up and ambience. We are barely ten minutes in before we have our first fake-shock courtesy of a dream. This is unnecessary: the film does not know that simply having big, locked, imposing doors in the basement are enough to generate the creeps once our unfortunate protagonist decides to use the basement for a bedroom (!). Perhaps I am being unfair: a film like Fulcis The House by the Cemetery has little rhythm, but it does somehow generate atmosphere and is redeemed by a couple of key set pieces, mainly the cellar denouement. Perhaps then The Haunting in Connecticut will pull a similar stunt.

The family has moved into this old big house to be closer to the hospital so that their son can be nearer his cancer treatment. Again, we dont need scares so early when the pathos of a cancer victim engages our sympathy straight away: decent character involvement around this would hold our attention. Merging the sons cancer with the haunting pays off dividends, but not as much as it ought: there is no ambiguity as to whether his hallucinations and visions are the product of his illness, for example. The ghosts pop up all over the place, all the time. And then theres a nasty eye-lid clipping. Its all too much too soon and counteracts the development of the uncanny that the best ghost stories ask for. The flashbacks should be far spookier than they are, but spooky flashbacks in the modern mainstream are frequently sabotaged by the snappy editing and film effects that refuse to let them breathe. Every supernatural occurrence is edited with jump-cuts, flares, black-outs and juddering effects so that they verge on the incomprehensible and certainly resemble music videos rather than visions of terror. The most hilarious sequence of sped-up editing and exposition is the cliché visit to the library where, seemingly in an hour or two, our characters unearth The Truth. Libraries are often the undoing of supernatural terrors.

There is family interaction winningly modelled on examples such as Poltergeist and the performances are all fine, considering the material given. Such schlock often benefits from seasoned actors, but what Virginia Madsen, Martin Donovan and Elias Koteas are doing here other than picking up a pay check is the films real mystery. Well, that and why after experiencing terrifying supernatural phenomenon, the family doesnt just leave. Koteas character - a minister also suffering from cancer - is especially silly, reeking more of deux ex machina than genuine character.

The film exhibits ickiness concerning death: a funeral home is obviously an undesirable building and host to all manner of angry spirits; the good family tries to keep bad things away with prayers. Surely this is a product of the side of American culture that has such difficulty dealing with death. It is ironic that so often with horrors that are so softly religious in a Judeo-Christian manner that prayers are inevitably all part of the creepiness, even as they are calling on the supernatural to provide solace and justice in life. Ghost stories often distrust the past, presenting it as a dangerous place, but ghost stories are also about grief and loss. But The Haunting in Connecticut is having no truck with death. Indeed, our cancer-ridden hero survives, returns from the dead even, fully recovered from terminal illness. All you need are Gods mysterious ways, which apparently involve a violent haunting, grave robbing and necromancy and a heavy dose of sentimentality. Yes, a haunting cures cancer. It’s an insultingly juvenile vision of mortality and one heavily mired in a denial that I am not even sure the film-makers care about.



To call this muddled, ridiculous and most of all grotesquely offensive is an understatement. If the Horror genre is chiefly concerned with death in all its guises and our fantasies for it, rarely has a religious horror film gone about so nakedly denying its omnipotence.  And not for one minute would I entertain this as a true story.    

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Accident

Joseph Losey, 1967, UK

A droll dark comedy of manners and coolly detached condemnation of the infidelities, arrogance, indifference and debauchery of the academia. Director Joseph Losey’s fascination with and attention to the English class systems reaps great rewards, combining with “The Servant” and “The Go-Between” to produce a fascinating exploration of status, repression, cricket greens and beige rooms. 

Misogyny, patriarchy and classism saturate everything, right up to the heady heights of the Oxford University Philosophy faculty. Here, Dirk Bogarde completes another brilliant portrayal of studied mannerisms, slowly giving way to something far more primal and despairing. The longing that he and his immediate male social circle has for a particular student, seemingly a princess, undoes everyone. Male desire is a fragile thing and they aren’t very mature about it, for all their careful affectations of decorum, aloofness and intelligence. How so very clever they are in their suppressed jealousies, in how they talk openly about their infidelities and their little love triangle. The professors do not think the young stud Michael York has a chance in the winning, but not one of them is really getting to the heart of the princess. She is a catalyst, an intangible object of desire, a gorgeous young woman, but barely a personality. This is rather the effect of her status in a patriarchal society rather than a failing of the source novel “Accident” by Nicholas Losey or Harold Pinter’s typically excellent and slightly abstract screenplay.

The novel veers into what the dust jacket likes to call “a prose poem”, one of those very phrases that probably doesn’t entice readers who balk at the pretences of academic literary study. It achieves a remarkable amount of mileage from a rather airless affair, delving into how minor and tawdry human melodrama can segue into artistic expression. The novel’s erratic and long flashback centre-piece that hangs between the bookends of the accident and the aftermath ~ the cover-up, as it were ~ is perfectly matched by Losey’s excellent formal cinematic approach of cross-cutting chronology, exemplary editing and the jumps from moment-to-moment. The colour scheme is cricket green and bored beige ~ almost a variation on black-and-white as cinematographer Gerry Fisher says ~ and, like “The Go-Between”, captures an a delicious tone of privileged rural England. Relax at the gorgeous jazzy, dreamy boat ride down the river, for example. Occasionally the camera is less casual in its capturing of natural and banal beauty and the shot holds a moment too long so that we notice this. 

Otherwise, a lot of the loose-limbed feel, the naturalism matched by precise editing feels decidedly French New Wave… But the acting is particularly English in its approach, its stately cadence. Bogarde, York and Stanley Baker are all excellent, exploring this slightly odd world. As with the New Wave, the pure sensation is probably greater than the story, which in truth is a slight thing. As with the other Losey-Pinter films of this period, part of the achievement is in feeling that a mystery of English behaviour has been both confronted and found essentially impenetrable and repellent. This remains a haunting and compelling quality and evidence of much of the brilliance of a film like “Accident”. 


Wednesday, 18 May 2016

An American Werewolf in London




John Landis, 1981, UK/USA

I first saw ‘An American Werewolf in London' in 1983 in the film marquee of what was then known as the C.N.D. Glastonbury festival. I was just about a teenager and far more interested in the mysteries of film than music at that age and spent most of my time alone, sitting on the grass (no seating), watching most of the films in the film marquee. There was ‘Zardoz’, which I already knew and really liked (I was quite baffled why the audience burst out laughing at the big reveal concerning a famous novel). ‘Woodstock’ was shown (it was a C.N.D. festival, after all), and I remember being piqued that the guy in front of me intended to play his bongos throughout the entire screening. There was ‘The Blues Brothers’ too, but I was not so interested in that.

I had met up with some other kid at some point and we had one of those friendships that lasted just one evening. I think I was the one who said we should watch ‘An American Werewolf in London’; I was certainly aware of it and its frightening reputation, as it was only a year or two old. We were immediately terrified and traumatised by the early moors scene and proceeded to experience the whole thing with our backs to the screen, taking turns to check out whether the scary scenes had finished yet. So in the end, we really didn’t get to see the whole thing. The next day, free to wander at my leisure, I tried to find the caravan where my ‘werewolf’ friend said he was, but his directions had been vague and I was too shy to knock on doors to see if he was staying behind any of them. So we never met again, and I wonder if he remembers that first experience of “American Werewolf” too. It must surely have been my initiation into a more extreme form of horror. This, and ‘Eraserhead’ at a little while later (but that’s another story). And ‘American Werewolf’ was the very first VHS tape I owned, though I am not sure how I got hold of it as I hadn’t reach its ‘18’ demands at that time.


So jump forward decades later (2012 or thereabouts) and I get to see ‘An American Werewolf in London’ for a second time on the big screen, courtesy of one of those welcome aberrations in mainstream chain cinema schedules where they actually screen an old film. Firstly, the new digital restoration really does justice to the soft tones and colours of the opening moors scenes. The tongue-in-cheek soundtrack is still a joy with its retro moon-related songs. It is still quite nasty and extreme in its gore. The initially violent mauling on the moors and Jack’s (Griffin Dunne) ghoulish deterioration are still capable of inducing squeamishness. I had seen ‘American Werewolf’ many, many times - happily into double digits - but it had been a while since I last viewed it. It is one of those films I know back-to-front; yes it is a favourite. But what struck me this time was just how many iconic scenes the film has – or maybe I just felt that way because I knew it so well. There’s the hapless New York backpackers’ visit to “The Slaughtered Lamb” and the moors werewolf attack; the still absolutely terrifying and upsetting Nazi-monster family massacre dream sequence (which takes place whilst ‘The Muppets’  plays on the TV, keeping up with the mismatched elements that run throughout the film); the infamous transformation, which gleefully renders the agony of the metamorphosis; then there’s the hilarious porn cinema sequence and the brutal, shocking Piccadilly Circus vehicle smash-up that closes the film.

Although Landis’ direction is deceptively unfussy, closer inspection reveals some excellent choices in pacing, execution and framing. For example: the soft fade into 'The Muppets' that sneakily seems to signal the passing of time to somewhere safe to reassure the audience when it is instead a segue into a nightmare.  The balance between casual and slightly more goofy humour (the incompetent police investigator, for example) and straight-up horror alone is wonderful and assured. Rarely does a horror-comedy hold together humour and horror so well; there is no sense of self-referential parody here, and the tongue-in-check elements are kept to the details rather than the core of the drama. The romance is light and, thanks to the immediate affable charms of David Naughton and the gorgeous Jenny Agutter, more endearing and convincingthan it probably has the right to be.

The film’s dedication to a sequence in which David is in hospital is notably longer and more relaxed than usual; typically horror narratives speed over hospital periods quickly. But this extended time allows Landis to set up a tour-de-force of unnerving nightmare sequences and it’s-all-a-dream shocks. A simple dream of panning through a forest creates dread and tension. Landis knows that we know what is going on and doesn’t waste much time with tedious sequences of denial or ambiguity. The Nazi-monster family massacre remains one of my favourite ever horror moments, and it has lost none of its terrifying and upsetting power. This hospitalised period also allows time for warmth and romance between David and his nurse, and it is to Agutter’s and Naughton’s credit that they make this very brief fling credible for the final tears to matter. There is also space made for a handful of side characters to flesh things out.

The transformation was, and remains, quite a breakthrough: Dick Smith has spoken of how it was practically unheard of to film such an effects sequence in full light. Landis was right in this choice. The film has a look that seems mostly akin to television: slightly flat; no particular showcases for lighting effects. But his only helps to frame the werewolf in a realistic environment and for some of that realism to rub off on him. Seeing all the gore and metamorphosis lit like a daily soap opera pays great rewards, and what were are left with is perhaps the greatest werewolf of cinema. “The Howling”, “Ginger Snaps” and “Dog Soldiers” all have great work in them, and even something like “Underworld” (love the first two films; less taken with the others) is a fine example of the move to CGI lycanthropes (not to be encouraged, necessarily, but inevitably here to stay), but very little can compare to the visceral power and fear that this American Werewolf provides. And the transformation scene is an exemplary example of incongruity between the visuals and soundtrack as David’s pain and screams are accompanied by that classic 'Blue Moon'.

The first true reveal of the beast rampage is brilliantly framed: from the top of an escalator in a London underground station, we look down as the werewolf slowly wanders in from the top of the frame. It is revealed in the clear, slightly sickly, cold glare of a very public space; convincing in its movements, unnerving in size. This remains one of my favourite shots in the whole film. Landis manages to offer plenty of excellent views of the thing - chowing down in the cinema and running through Piccadilly Circus - without giving away too much for too long so that the viewer’s imagination still gets the opportunity to expand and imagine for themselves. There is the sense that, because Landis holds back so often, each viewing of the monster is a real treat. It’s a great creation and rarely bettered. One of the best ever put to screen. (Even the cover lose-up can still unsettle me.)

After the tension of the werewolf rampage, Landis drops into the film’s sequence of broadest humour, involving David waking naked in a wolf pen at the zoo and his search for clothes and getting home. The film unapologetically and assuredly juggles tones and genres, and often delivering surprising or clever transitions. We see a lion when we think we shall see the werewolf; the dream-within-the-dream; etc. Next, there is the wonderful stupidity of the porn film ‘See You Next Tuesday’ and finally the end rampage. This involves that pile-up in Piccadilly Circus which is so thoroughly brutal and edited brilliantly so that the viewer will always flinch at the massacre. It is a remarkably canny move on Landis’ part to rely upon the carnage that the fleeing werewolf causes by proxy, generating action and bloodshed on a grander scale than possible in the more intimate option of focusing on the werewolf itself.


It probably shouldn’t work, as it ought to be an imbalanced patchwork, but ‘An American Werewolf in London’ pitches itself and moves freely amongst horror-drama-gore-parody-comedy without barely missing a beat. It is still funny, scary and charming. A seminal horror, scruffy round the collar but all the more endearing for that.


Sunday, 8 May 2016

Jumanji


Joe Johnston, 1995, US

Based on Chris Van Allsburg's book, like all the best children’s fantasies ‘Jumanji’ threatens to turn very nasty at any moment once the children are called by the eponymous boardgame. Rolling the dice, they have to confront its malevolent jungle forces that break out into the real world. First up in 1969, bullied rich kid Alan (Adam Hann-Byrd), having argued with his somewhat wealthily conservative parents, hears the drums of the game calling him and promptly disappears for the next twenty six years. He turns up then when orphaned Peter (Bradley Pierce) and Judy (Kirsten Dunst) move into the house with their aunt and discover the game, only to start up Alan’s game again. This time, though, Alan has turned into Robin Williams, in another of his Peter Pan guises. Luckily, Williams is never allowed to overwhelm the proceedings and pretty soon there are ‘Gremlins’-like monkeys and stampedes of animals tearing up the surrounding town.

Relatively modest and character-based, ‘Jumanji’ is noisy and brisk entertainment whose only real failing is a Disney-sentimental infrastructure based on family – but that’s to be expected. The game itself is, quite rightly, given no explanation, but appears to be concerned mostly with bringing a little danger and character-building confrontation to alienated and lonely kids. The kids themselves are engaging enough, if somewhat indistinguishable; Jumanji itself manifests their inner turmoil and sense of a chaotic, destructive world. Of course, how Alan survived trapped in the game for twenty-six years is never explained, but all the unanswered possibilities about the game only serve to fuel its mystery ~ and to wonder how it avoided the seemingly inevitable sequels.* Built upon ideas of lost time, the film manages to avoid the nostalgia it might have wrought in jumping from the sixties to the nineties. The sixties are semi-idealised and the nineties are grey and depressed; it is Alan himself who delays this transition by inadvertently destroying the symbol of impending consumerism and capitalism, a sports sneaker. It is Alan who symbolises something old-fashioned and traditional, whose final guise just happens to be Father Christmas. Darkest of all has Alan’s father (Jonathan Hyde) turn up in the manifestation of a relentless manhunting Victorian, hunting down his son like an animal in order to force his offspring to confront his fears

But more than all this, ‘Jumanji’ is a special effects film and they are impressive – by Industrial Light and Magic’s and Amalgamated Dynamics - although of course they are of the time. They stay just the right side of neo-realism, they are just a touch cartoony, so that all the animals remain the conjuring of the game, of an alternative reality. Best of all is the stampede and Williams sinking into floorboards like quicksand whilst beset by giant spiders. And although it’s played as a punishment, little Peter surely lives out a boy’s fantasy when turning into a monkey. 

Reasonably scary and spectacular, ‘Jumanji’ is decent, slightly alternative family entertainment.


Of course, there was  ‘Zathura’ in 2015 which was seen as a kind-of sequel, being of the same idea, and at time of writing a remake/reboot of ‘Jumanji’ is pending.  

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Alamar (To The Sea)


Pedro González-Rubio, 2009, Mexico

Films are often criticised for not having enough plot: for example would be ‘The Revenant’ and ‘The Raid’, as if cinema is only at the mercy of drama. But these films are about other things upon which a familiar premise is but a coat-hanger (execution and acting in the former; fighting in the latter); you could even say it about ‘Victoria’ (execution and acting). Sometimes a film might feel improved if it had more plot, or rather more originality in the writing – say, ‘Hardcore Henry’. But sometimes the visuals can be enough.

Pedro González-Rubio’s ‘Alamar’ barely has a narrative at all: the child of a holiday romance, Natan (Natan Machado Palombini), goes to spend some time with his father Roberta (Roberta Palombini) who lives off the Mexican coast on the Caribbean reef of Banco Chinchorro. The film is composed of the men’s daily routine in fishing: there are no women, although they do call a bird that seems to temporarily adopt them by the feminine. Once the mother sets up the background story, she merely bookends this portrayal of father-son bonding. This separation may raise the probability of some kind of disharmony, but there is very little friction here, perhaps even less than dialogue. What we do have are gorgeous visuals of the reef, of a sea-based community. Highlights are the feeding of birds and crocodiles. 

The film has a documentary style in its matter-of-factness, but the visuals are gorgeous because what it is looking at is abundant natural beauty. It’s a home-movie of a gorgeous holiday or perhaps a ‘National Geographic’ article come to life. It captures a mood, a fleeting happiness and beauty. It leaves many questions unanswered but this is not a film of answers. Rather, it implies the continuous nature of emotional response in that it does not bestow Natan immediately with reflective sadness for a lost paradise when he returns home to his mother in Rome –after all, he is only five – but perhaps the value of this time with his father will reveal such reflections as he grows up. It is perhaps nice, for once, just to wallow in a mood of a moment without the demands and tensions of drama.



Monday, 2 May 2016

Captain America: Civil War


Anthony & John Russo, USA, 2016

The morning when I thought I might go see ‘Captain America: Civil War’, I popped into my local comic shop where they are naturally and expectedly talking about such things. The comic shop guy was telling someone, “It's the best ‘Avengers’ movie without ‘Avengers’ in the title.” Then Spider-Man was mentioned and someone across the shop called out “Spider-Man is in it for seventeen minutes. Sorry, my Autism just kicked in.” Anyway, the comic shop guy is usually reliable (he’s introduced me to ‘American Vampire’ and ‘Outcast’ and we’ve bonded over ‘Teen Titans Go!’, so that’s all good) and I am sure this moment encouraged me to check out the latest Marvel Universe offering. No, I hadn’t seen the previous Captain America films, but ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ had left me cold and, although I have heard it is the best film ever, the first ‘The Avengers’ film had only mildly entertained me. So I doubt I was expecting much from ‘Civil War’.

The plot is set going by the same troubling question of what happens about all the people who die in a typical urban super-battle that triggered ‘Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice’, and likewise this argument sets super-friends against one another.* Whereas ‘Batman vs Superman’ simply ignored the moral questions it had initially set up, ‘Civil War’ sidesteps them by having the subsequent super-battles in desolate locations (an evacuated airport and Siberia). It will be interesting to see whether they address this in sequels or if it’s just there to fuel soap opera. There may be a large selection of characters to juggle but the underlying storyline is streamline and the whole enterprise feels more focused and less cluttered than the previous ‘Avengers’ films. Not that ‘Civil War’ isn’t just as eager to please, but it just seems to be actually having fun without making up for any deficiencies by joking around.


The screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely is nimble enough to layer on just enough plot, humour and angst to keep the action sequences propped up. It’s not confrontational but it does touch upon one of the main questions of the zeitgeist: how far will we go to stay ‘safe’? The colour-scheme is washed out for seriousness but not so shadowy that things can’t be seen (which can’t be said for ‘Batman vs Superman’). The initial street fight in Nigeria seems as much influenced by, say, the Bourne films as superhero films. The action scenes are often inventive, occasionally edited incomprehensibly, but aware of how powers and skills can be used quickly in a battle. The airport fight is good, fast and inventive even if we don’t believe a fatality is at stake (we don’t really believe they’ll kill each other).

Just as the tone has settled, the Spider-Man sequence pops up and it’s funny; then he’s somewhat unceremoniously dumped with a “You’re done”; but it’s a promising introduction to his reboot. The humour surrounding Spider-Man goes to show how self-conscious the one-liners are in ‘The Avengers’ films, however welcome: here, the humour is not about quips but centred in Peter Parker’s naivety and others reactions to him; the jokes are more organic, highlighted all the more because the rest of the film doesn’t try hard to be comedic. Even wise-ass Tony Stark seems subdued here.     

The ending doesn’t rely upon a super-fight between the team and a powerful villain but rather two heroes on the verge of killing one another. If anything, the whole plot rests upon how close heroism is to murder and carnage and ego, etc.; just how close they are to being super-villains. For the ending, you would have to suspend belief that, despite their experiences – which is far and beyond those of your average person – these super-beings don’t have the skills to overcome themselves and their knee-jerk reactions to engage with negotiation and diplomacy. As Bucky at one point says, everything ends in a fight. And being able to physically overcome adversary, whether by superpowers or skills, is what this genre is all about. These entries that pit heroes against each other, as if they are foes, are all about squabbling with friends: they’ll work it out eventually, or at least reach a truce, but meanwhile let’s ask Who would win if? So it’s not so much their mortality at stake but more about watching and seeing what these characters using their abilities going at one another.

No, there is nothing at all original here, but Anthony and Joe Russo direct something that is fun, despite its faux-seriousness, without quite feeling desperate and forced. It doesn’t quite answer the questions it raises (for example, what about the damage they do to the airport? Millions of dollars worth, surely??) but it delivers on the genre demands of emotional super-beings in entertaining punch-ups with dashes of humour and lashings of special effects.



 *          Yeah yeah, I know Batman and Superman aren’t friends – not in that film – but you get my gist. 

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Victoria


Sebastian Schipper, Germany, 2015

A single take capturing a heist in real time. 

What could have been pure novelty – however enjoyable – becomes something much more due to exemplary performances. Given the constraints, ‘Victoria’ runs an entire gamut of emotions as lonely Spanish woman in Germany Victoria falls in with a group of capering Berliners, falls deeper and deeper with them and then discovers herself in a crime film. 

Victoria’, manages to use the intimacy of the hand-held without, for the most part, the problematic incoherence of vertiginous shaky-cam; it shows up the pretensions of Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s ‘Birdman’ one-take-trick-shot (however agreeable). It’s a surprisingly convincing storytelling considering all that happens takes place over more than a couple of hours. If anything, the film displays how the entire scope of drama can take place in such a short space of time. Yes, the one shot by cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen is remarkable, quite stunning for its consistency as it weaves and dips the highs and lows of the drama; but it’s Laia Costa’s performance as Victoria and Frederic Lau as Sonne that will remain as an aftertaste, the camera often focusing right on their faces and expressions, returning to them again and again to trace the changes and reactions there. Funny, angry, vulnerable, resourceful, stupid, raw, impulsive, ruthless, charming – it’s all there in all the characters in this compressed scenario. Director Sebastian Schipper never allows the single take conceit to be the sole focus, but rather allows it to provoke a naturalism that reaps great rewards. As a technical, storytelling and acting achievement, it’s quite breathtaking.   


Saturday, 23 April 2016

Forbidden planet


Fred M Wilcox, 1956, USA

“Monsters, John… Monsters from the Id!”


Taking smartly and happily from Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ and Sigmund Freud, ‘Forbidden Planet’ is about as pure as retro-science fiction as you can get. Flying saucers, super-robots with clunky appeal, astronauts with razor-sharp partings in their hair, the mystery of the alien Krell, impressive effects, otherworldly atonal music – namely the first fully electronic score by Bebbe and Louis Barron – and a brusque scientist… it’s all here. Some hokey dialogue, dated romancing and weak ‘drinking cook’ humour can’t undermine the evident intelligence and pulpy joy of the film. It is painterly - with some of the best ever use of matte paintings making it look like a sci-fi book cover come to life - marked by purplish-blues, baked alien vistas and best of all, the unforgettable tour of the subterranean city. It becomes more extraordinary as it progresses, for upon the stock-sci-fi dramatics grows a tale of failed alien civilisations, the failings of intelligence and super-technology, and those monsters of the Id that spark from the barely subtextual sexual tensions. It’s as if ‘Flash Gordon’ stumbled into ‘The Tempest’. A thorough classic and a perfect example of pulp with big ideas.


Sunday, 17 April 2016

Zardoz



John Boorman, GB, 1974

I have a life-long relationship with ‘Zardoz’. When I was a kid, I read a lot of splendid science fiction (before I read a lot of junk horror) and ‘Zardoz’ seemed, to me, to simulate what I was reading (just like ‘Westworld’, ‘Soylent Green’, ‘Planet of the Apes’, 'Phase IV' and, um, ‘Logan’s Run’, etc.). It was full of big ideas, a little tacky, a little mad: the central idea was a rogue rebel let loose in an alien world and that was a perennial narrative of the genre. Still is, as we all wanna be rogue rebels (it’s one of the principal selling points of advertising). I liked it. So then I was surprised when I next saw it: I was barely on my teens and at the Glastonbury music festival, spending all my time in the film marquee, of course. This was the early eighties and it was still called a CND festival. I saw ‘The Blues Brothers’ there; someone played the bongos throughout a screening of ‘Woodstock’; and then I saw ‘An American Werewolf in London’ during which … well, that’s a story for another time. But they also showed ‘Zardoz’, which I had seen before on TV: remember, this was hardly the VHS era and it was still a major venture to try a track down a repeat viewing of that film you liked on the three channels on TV. Anyway, I was happily watching the film when its ‘Wizard of Oz’ revelation came…. and the audience laughed. A laughter of ridicule, of “really?” I was perplexed. It was my first taste of realising that others might find ridiculous the things I took for granted. I couldn’t fathom why they found this amusing. Of course, since then, I realise that ‘Zardoz’ has a certain reputation for being silly, pretentious, laughable, a failure. Mark Kermode, for example, writes that “I think Zardoz is a terrible film – a fascinating failure perhaps, but rubbish nonetheless.” 

I don’t feel this. You see, I still feel it’s a full of big ideas, a little hemmed in by its Seventies feel – which I now see as campness – bizarre and a little mad. And I approve. I still feel it resembles some of the pulp I was reading, and once I became acquainted with ‘Heavy Metal’ magazine and Marvel’s short-lived comic ‘Epic Illustrated I thought it resembled the stories in them too. They explored worlds that were immersive and were often hinged on the bizarre. I like absurdism if it’s working – making absurdism work is a trait I admire (another reason I am a horror fan) – and I have long since realised that I regularly have a blind spot to what others might find preposterous. It’s too pulpy to be serious and too serious to be pure pulp. In this sense, it is an oddity.


So, yeah: Sean Connery wears a nappy. Which I never had a problem with as I saw it as a loincloth and this seemed to me a simple, primitive kind of clothing which made sense in context. But it’s become a prime tagline for the film’s detractors. And the other one? When the God Zardoz says that “The gun is good. The penis is Evil.” Indeed, it seems a comedic line when isolated, but I don’t think this is unintentional. Isn’t this a political philosophy that we have seen dictating modern principles for a long, long time, boiled down its essence? It reminds me of Immortan Joe’s spouting similarly outrageous and destructive propaganda in ‘Mad Mad: Fury Road’ when he tells the masses not to become addicted to water. We hear leaders spout such frightening and illogical agenda all the time. But it’s true that the somewhat stilted dialogue at the start deteriorates into characters relating the obvious by the end. The strength of the film is not in what the characters say, even when they are speaking arch-poetry or genuine TS  Eliot and Neitzsche. The strengths are in the world-building and visuals.

And the floating head of Zardoz is an unforgettable image: a God that vomits guns and violence to followers. It’s not subtle but its effective symbolism. Just one of many vivid images Boorman offers. As Tom Milne says: “But visually the film remains a sparkling display of fireworks, brilliantly shot and directed.” And Zed (Sean Connery) stows away in this head and crosses to the Vortex, a New Agey villagey idyll whose residents are immortal and possessed of great psychic abilities. He explores and tours this world, then is encouraged to be its downfall. These eternals, of course, want death. 

There is a subtext underlying all the feminine authority, which is dominant here, that is negative – for example, as part of his rebellious nature and seemingly sidestepping any advancement made in gender concepts, the character of Friend says he hates women. The Vortex is a world built on lies but its gated community manipulating the apparent inferiors outside goes a little beyond class war: intellectuality and elitism is seen as cold, unfeeling and as incomplete. And the implication seems to be that voting and democracy is also stifling, as ideas of civilisation that omit innate emotion. Zed’s brute-force liberates the Vortex community even as his education leads him away from naked brutality. One could argue that Zed becomes a balance of primitive and intellectual motivations by the end – and he points this out by saying he is what not what he once was – but the film does not venture into this. From the outset, Zed is a mutant capable of scheming and suppressing his baser reactions in the service of a greater plan. 

The convolutions of the plot concerning Zed doesn’t really merit close scrutiny, as Oancitizen’s summary clearly outlines: 

"So his plan was... herd a bunch of working class Brits into, breeding someone genetically able to think on the Eternals level; lead him to a library. Hope, that he taught himself how to read properly. Hope, that he came across the one specific book that inspired the whole Zardoz shtick. Hope, that he would stow-away on the Zardoz head and shoot him. Then hope, that the head would crash back inside the vortex. Hope, that the other Eternals didn't kill him immediately, and teach them all that they know; in the hopes that he would figure out how to destroy the tabernacle and therefore all the Eternals. In other words, the exact kind of plan you expect for a man who draws on his goatee."


Yeah, well, when you put it like that…. But the whackiness is part of it all: such a plot makes sense in context. Or rather, in context you can forego logical improbabilities. Far more problematic is surely Zed’s inclination for rape, although it is understood that he has been conditioned this way. If he is bred to match the Eternals, would this not cause him to consider the question of rape (especially if he has read all in a library that surely has its share of female and feminist authors)? 

But I am more with Ben Wheatley on this: ‘Zardoz’ is all-immersive, its devotion to creating another world full-hearted and, along with the direction, helps to mitigate any shortcomings through budgetary restrictions. All the colourful period trimmings are grounded in the exposition that this is all in the service of a plan for space-travel. Even the much ridiculed costumes speak of how the Eternals are meant to have a more hands-on agenda to community (making their own). That the Vortex appears to be a picturesque lake; that there are psychic mind-games played out under colourful bed-sheets; multiple prism and mirror effects and reverse play-back all thrown into a psychedelic mix – they all speak of limits of budget and the compensation of imagination. It may be overstuffed but that is not a bad thing.

No, they don’t quite make films like this anymore: in fact it’s uniqueness means that they hardly ever did. It is authentic. And the fact that John Boorman went to this after ‘Deliverance’ is quite remarkable (although some of the existentialist concerns of ‘Zardoz’ is alluded to in ‘Deliverance’). When so much of contemporary science-fiction is just other genres with space helmets, it is when you look at something like ‘Zardoz’ that it is clear how short-sighted most genre cinema is.