Sunday, 6 August 2017

Permanent Vacation

Jim Jarmusch, 1980, USA

The opening narration of Jim Jarmush’s debut ‘Permanent Vacation’ is worth quoting at length as it sets the agenda for his entire career: having name-checked Charlie Parker, the voice-over says of this story, 

“I don’t expect it to explain that much, but what’s a story anyway except one of those connect-the-dot drawings that, in the end, forms a picture of something? That’s really all this is. That’s how things work for me. I go from this place, this person, to that place or person. And, you know, it really doesn’t make that much of a difference.” 

2016’s 'Paterson' may be slicker but despite Jarmusch’s dalliances with genre – thriller, westerns horror – this philosophy hasn’t really changed. In fact, it’s Jarmusch’s application of this philosophy to the formal rigidity of genre that has produced such distinctive results (with perhaps 'The Only Lovers Left Alive' showing a failing of application).

The opening credits of ‘Permanent Vacation’ play over alternations of views of the crowded city and deserted litter-strewn back streets, which is where our story takes place. Allie (Chris Parker) walks around a dilapidated Manhattan thinking he’s cooler than his surroundings. He gives his introduction over a montage of various places, from prison cells to upper-class lounges via unremarkable bedsits, possibly places he’s been. The first thing we see him do is tagging his name on a wall, as if staking a claim. Refusing to be tied to anything, he goes from barely furnished apartments with women to unpopulated lobbies of cinemas via slightly hysterical encounters with women on fire escapes. These vignettes do not articulate a narrative but rather a mood of deliberate and delicious aimlessness. No need for dramatic denouements here. 

Michael Wotjas calls this a “freeform, rough draft of a film” with its no-budget and student-film formal deficiencies clearly and somewhat proudly on its sleeve, but it’s this that gives it a no-money authenticity. It’s a view of the city more in line with Buddy Giovinazzo’s ‘Combat Shock’, Frank Henenlotter’s ‘Basket Case’ or William Lustig’s ‘Maniac’ rather than, say, Woody Allen’s ‘Manhattan’. Yes, it’s a class thing. He wanders into parts of the city that like look like bombsites. There’s the sense that there’s not much art design at all, that the camera was just pointed in the right direction. This teenage aimlessness is the point: Allie can be conceived as Jarmusch’s avatar, roaming through long takes, looking for cool and the end point. Occasionally, like youth do, Allie says inadvertently funny things that he thinks are profound. Jarmusch would soon hit comedy gold with his use of non sequiturs with Roberto Begnini in ‘Down by Law’. Jarmusch hasn’t quite perfected his mastery of random encounters here, but all the elements of his approach are present. The comedy is droll: an apathetic cinema girl, when Allie asks if she thinks he’ll like the film he’s just bought a ticket for, proceeds to synopsise the plot to him; or how he meets someone who seems to be his French doppelganger on the waterfront and they proceed to swap cool instead of hanging around to be friends.

He visits his mother in hospital, displays his yo-yo skills, steals a car. It’s quite a romantic view of homelessness conceived as an expression of ultimate wanderlust and freedom. Here, Allie is a long way from Paterson in ‘Paterson’ – which is like ‘Permanent Vacation’ come middle-age – who has made peace with the intimacy and subjectivity of art. Allie still seems to think the whole world is watching. And when he dances for his own amusement while a woman he is being cool for looks disinterestedly out of a window, Jarmusch shows that from the start he could capture people at their most entertaining in the most humdrum of contexts. It's a humane, generous, disarming and amusing wordview.

Saturday, 29 July 2017


Rusudan Pirveli, 2010, Georgia

Susa is a twelve year-old boy surviving harsh Georgian poverty and where his entire life is selling illegal vodka. He has no friends; he doesn’t seem particularly streetwise though he has learnt to negotiate the pitiless adult world around him. There are hints of his creativity when he makes his own kaleidoscope – just one of numerous times where he seems to try and see the world through different perspective, as when he puts eyeholes on a window he steams up; or when he puts utensils to his eyes to give surroundings a colourful filter. 

There is no humour here to brighten things as with, say, Taika Waititi’s ‘Boy’ (which is nevertheless just as downbeat but is sneaky about it). But neither is there the same ambiguity of Sam French’s short film ‘Buzkashi Boys’ where the hope for choice is crushed and could be either the tragic dismantling of dreams or the message to put away childish things. We know there will be no happy resolution for Susa because we can tell what kind of film this is. He and his mother pin their hopes on the return of the husband/father and that this will lead him to taking them away from it all, but we know that won’t happen long before he turns up as a burnt out shell who won’t change a thing. This aesthetic is not where hope will make an appearance.

The use of bildungsroman to lay out the pitiless nature of poverty is a well-established agenda and it proves no less effective here. As typical of this genre, the visuals are drab and drained, the aesthetic deceptively straightforward and unflashy. Perhaps you might be appalled at the poverty portrayed. There is little dialogue and music to provide respite. It looks and feels like something that could have been filmed anytime over the past several decades. Rusudan Pirveli’s direction keeps Avtandil Tetradze as Susa central at all times and is rewarded with an unflashy performance that, through context and slight expression, show his vulnerability, intelligence, sadness, resolve, and fleeting moments of enjoyment. It avoids the cliché of giving Susa a bad homelife – everyone is caught up in this punishing poverty – and his futile final expression of anger won’t mean a thing. This is how it is right now and it is unlikely to change for the foreseeable future. That it comes in at 75 minutes means its sparse nature is direct without outstaying its welcome as a piece of empathising miserablism. Where the bulk of mainstream cinema offers up trite and persistent messages of hope, films such as ‘Susa’ are there for those who find those messages leave broken hearts and spirits.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Ghost Story

John Irvin, 1981, USA
Screenplay: Lawrence D Cohen

When I first saw ‘Ghost Story’ as a kid, the sudden manifestations of the ghost – all skin decaying and melting on skulls – scared me. Not in the same way as ‘Halloween’ and ‘Salem’s Lot’ perhaps (which filled me with delightful dread at the prospect of seeing them again. Which I just had to), but it did give me a few jolts. Dick Smith’s special effects on the ghoul remain the high point, all squishy and slippery and full of disturbing detail. The manifestations of the ghoul remain unforgettable (just look at that cover on the left).

Of course, in Peter Straub’s original novel, ‘Ghost Story’s ghoul isn’t really a ghost but a vengeful shape-shifting thing credited with being the nucleus of all Horror myths. As with Stephen King’s ‘It’, I wonder why such an all-powerful, omnipresent malevolence spends it’s time in one All American small town area, using its considerable power just to plague a handful of humans that irked it one time. Of course, Ours Is Not To Question Why, but it strikes me as a pretty petty and not just a little unconvincing. You with think an Immeasurable Evil would have higher ambitions.
No? Even so, Lawrence D Cohen’s screenplay has to strip the novel of many stories and implications and this leaves something like the straightforward the ghost story the film title promises but will leave fans of the novel’s sprawl disappointed (a mini-series would have the time for this). It hints at the ghoul’s greater powers with a couple of hints in the dialogue, but the association of a couple of delinquents – a smirking young man and a pre-teen boy – and what they have to do with all this is surely going to be confusing for those who haven’t read the book.* 

A group of elder gentlemen that have been friends all their lives get together to tell horror stories. But then find they are being tracked down by a vengeful spectre from their youth. Of course, the elder statesmen of the cast give this some charisma – Fred Astaire, Melvin Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks Jnr, John Houseman – but the women don’t get much to do between young women that vamp and old ladies that look concerned. Alice Krige does a good job of being otherworldy and ethereal with the wintery backdrop being memorable, but the whole enterprise lacks a magic ingredient that elevates it above its muddled-headedness. 

One killing is even credited to the creepy kid as if they suddenly realised they had to do something with him. So we’ve been worried about the ghoul but now we have to worry about him –and he can pop-up for scares just like her??

Thor: the Dark World

Alan Taylor, 2013, USA  

Exposition: it’s hard to get to everything or to care much when everything is stodgy with legend and jargon. Chris Helmsworth is Thor: his sex appeal will be used for humorous asides. He battles an undefeatable evil for Asgard, or something. Dark elves are involved apparently. Special effects: of course we have games that match this now and for the most part relies upon sensory overload. The women – Natlie Portman, Kat Dennings, Rene Russo – will be feisty females for a little balance to all the machismo. There’s a decent attack on Asgard and a lot of fun with portals where things disappear in one end and come out in other places unexpectedly; this also includes grenades that act like mini-black holes. This might be the best detail. The cast try to be playful but there isn’t much to play with – it relies on Tom Hiddleston as Loki to deliver much of this. Then it all ends up inter-dimensionally in Greenwich, which is fairly novel.

I receive a lot of bewildered looks from friends that I would still vouch for super-hero films: yes, I know that much of it is soulless and rote, and hardly any of it rises above a rating of “fair” but I can still find enjoyable nuance in ‘Wonder Woman’, despite its rigorous formula, and hey, I was even misguidedly if disinterestedly defending ‘Batman vs Superman’ for a while. Put it down to my penchant for always trying to see the good. And besides ‘Spider-man Homecoming’ is thoroughly enjoyable. But ‘Thor: The Dark World’ is so formulaic without any real nuance that it’s hard to get excited about any of it. The mash-up of fantasy and science-fiction surrounding Asgard is interesting enough but when the special-effects have such a familiar and pretty tedious framework it’s hard to be impressed. All the Godly bombast can’t disguise general dullness.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Flesh for Frankenstein

Paul Morrissey & Antonio Margheriti, 
1973, USA-Italy-France

Andy Warhol presents Paul Morrissey’s version of the Frankestein story as a mixture of Hammer Horror, ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’, Herschell Gordon Lewis and Carry On. Baron Frankenstein here is an unabashed deviant and madman, wanting to create a master race of pretty zombies to return Serbia to greatness as he fist-fucks corpses. Frankenstein is played by Udo Keir who starts on maximum ham and then tries to dial it up. But this is not a place for want of decent acting. Indeed, the line-readings of the pretty boy protagonists are often flat and laughable. But being laughable both intentional and unintentional is apparently the name of the game; that, and maybe causing vomiting as it offers a gluttony of atrocities as Frankenstein experiments in his lab and decapitates the wrong head for his monster. The head belongs to a dull gay farm hand that has no interest in procreating a master race with a zombie bride. It’s high camp for horror fans.

Kim Newman calls Morrissey’s films ‘Flesh for Frankenstein’ and ‘Blood for Dracula’ “the definitive trash/kitsch horror movies.”* The Aurum Encyclopaedia of Horror is unabashedly scathing, concluding that the tongue-in-cheek and throwaway tone is “designed to absolve filmmakers and viewers alike from blame in for indulging in this venal spectacle of macho brutality.”** Exploitation often works in the realm of both the disposable and the extreme, with the knowing disposability relating to the so-bad-it’s-good get-out clause and earnest extremism as code for the poignancy of showing-it-like-it-is. ‘Flesh for Frankenstein’ perhaps looks too good to be totally disposable – and Aurum cites Antonio Margheriti as the true director with Paul Morrissey mostly as supervisory – but too weak overall to be taken seriously. Although it does end on a high note with a wealth of gore and corpses heaped in the laboratory in a scene that reaches Horror farce.

Dr Frankestein is presented here shorn of all pretences of the sophisticate and shown as a ranting and snobbish necrophiliac. His wife is his bigoted and nymphomaniac sister – the films spends a lot of time with her berating the lower classes – and they have two children who watch all the goings on but have no dialogue at all (oh, the boy says “No” a couple of times). The children are ultimately Frankenstein’s true zombie offspring, which would quite possibly be poignant if the film wasn’t as daft as it is gory. 

         * Kim Newman, ‘Nightmare Movies: A Critical Guide to Contemporary Horror Films ‘ (Harmony books) 1 Oct 1989, pg 129 
**    ed. Phil Hardy, ‘Aurum Ency of Horror Hardcover’ (Hamlyn)  – 18 Sep 1986, pg 279

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Dead or Alive - the Takashi Miike trilogy


Takshi Miike, 1999, Japan
Writer: Ichiro Ryo

The first 10 minutes of Miike’s ‘Dead or Alive’ are so breathless with sex, shock, violence, music, colour, parody and back-story that you are likely to feel your jaw widening. The film is counted in by the protagonists… “1, 2, 3 -” … and then we’re off with a kaleidoscope of falling corpses, Kôji Endô’s industrial rock track, frenzied editing cutting across a number of stories and characters, food gorging, outrageous coke-sniffing, strip joints, breasts and gyrations, shotguns, supermarkets, gay toilet sex and assassinations, machine guns… and so on. It seems that when Miike was handed a typical gangster script, he just condensed it down to this giddy opening. As far as kinetic introductions go, it’s a virtuoso piece. It encapsulates how inventive Miike can be at a dizzying speed, how shocking he is (you won’t wonder where accusations of misogyny come from but the bathroom killing won’t win many fans from the gay community either: Miike’s shocks embrace everyone). And that’s even before the opening finishes with a bloodbath, which perhaps neatly provides a keen metaphor for one of Miike’s approaches: take a bunch of people… characters or the audience, maybe... and throw a grenade amongst them. As well as machine gun fire. Unpredictable, unfettered, quite brilliant. Miike is simultaneously gung-ho and perfectly in control. As Chuck Bowen says: 

“In the Dead or Alive trilogy and many other films, Miike demolishes singularity of tone, implicitly suggesting such values to be bourgeoisie luxuries appeasing conditioned expectations and responses.” 

Hold your breath.

And then the bigger shock is that ‘Dead or Alive’ is then not that high octane thriller that perhaps the introduction implies: instead, it is more of a character study of two men on the opposite sides of the law and their ties to family and macho obsessions. V-cinema superstars Riki Takeuchi and Shô Aikawa are the through-line of the ‘Dead or Alive’ films, although they do not play the same characters: this is equally a showbiz conceit and implies themes of reincarnation. Perhaps inevitably, it’s the Miike shock-factor that comes up front but his films are also typified by melancholia. They may be mad and bad but they are also equally downbeat and haunting. It’s his nimble way with genre and his simultaneous disregard and understanding of them that makes Miike’s nonsense more credible than a lot of Eastern madcap romps. It’s a deep-rooted restlessness that always makes him interesting and this attention can be remarkable when it focuses: it’s then we get the likes of ‘Audition’, ‘Rainy Dog’ and ’13 Warriors’. His agenda that anything can be used makes sentimentality just another colour – before the car explodes. So when the kinetic opening of ‘Dead or Alive’ gives way to character studies of two gangster genre archetypes – the macho steely gangster who is so  full of machismo he is barely able to talk and is quite unable to sit with his legs closed (Riki Takeuchi); the dogged policeman obsessed with his work at the expense of his family (Aikawa Shô) – it really shouldn’t be a surprise.  This also acts as a satire of crime genre machismo, but it’s a while before that becomes clear.

Meanwhile, we have the tale of a small group of yakuza hoodlums run by Ryuichi (Riki) taking on the Japanese and Chinese mafias. Ryuichi’s younger brother returns from studies but is mortified to find his education was funded with blood money. Detective Jojima (Shô) is determined to stop them even as domestic demands for cash for his ill daughter’s treatment lead him to corruption and his boss seems to be saying don’t work too hard. Against these family concerns, events veer wildly from the appalling to the blackly comic to the tragic and maudlin, often within the same scene. For example, the scene where the girl of the gang is murdered by enema, laying in a pool of her own faeces whilst the underworld boss soliloquises about his lot (a small penis) is weirdly full of as much pathos as disgust and produces a response beyond mere horror.

So when we get to the final showdown, it really isn’t so much of a surprise when these guys turn into cartoon characters that can produce rocket launchers and superhero-like balls of power from thin air. That their fight devastates the world is where the film can be seen to parody the genre: two big stars get together and – pow! Or this is simply a dig at those denouements when the good guy and the bad guy faceoff  and it all gets increasingly ridiculous. Miike didn’t want to kill one of the main stars so this was his solution. It’s certainly a baffling lurch from the subtleties of the story up to then, but still further evidence of Miike’s “fuck it” style. It’s certainly memorable.


Takashi Miike, 2000, Japan
Writer: Masa Nakamura

‘Dead or Alive 2: Birds’ may not have the jaw-dropping intro of its predecessor, but the opening is no slouch at all. A boy stands in a room (?); a title card says “Where are you?” and we cut to a vision of the planets (whoa? – picking up where the first left off?); and then a man – whose penchant for magic provides many minor highlights – tells a story of warring underworld gangs using cigarette packets, setting off a hit that doesn’t quite go according to plan. The killer with the bleached blond hair – who we recognise as Aikawa Shô from the first film – sees another hit-man doing the job and he recognises him as an old childhood friend – Takeuchi Riki from the first film. Nevertheless, Shô collects the pay anyway. These first ten minutes knock out an inventive exposition, a hook, offbeat comedy and existential angst without barely breaking into a sweat. It occurs to me that the cigarette packet moment, in an American gangster film (say, by Scorsese or Tarantino), would be one to be elevated into the pop culture pantheon of endlessly mimicked and quoted film scenes. But for Miike, it’s just another inventive offbeat moment. These moments are usually all over the place in a Miike film.

Then the film strides into a sequence where the film acts like a trailer of itself.

There is no actual connection to the first ‘Dead or Alive’ except for the underworld setting, but whereas the first used the “opposite-sides-of-the-law-but-really-the-same” narrative, ‘Birds’ is grounded in the “childhood friends” theme that the gangster genre subsists on. Miike is taking us to one of the essences of the gangster genre, namely framing gangster friendships in a sentimental and nostalgic light (which has never been done better than Sergio Leone’s ‘Once Upon A Time in America’). This allows the characters to shed as many tears as bullets as they are murdering friends and cohorts or watching everyone they’ve grown up with die. Miike throws in flashbacks in faintly baffling spurts to colour in the history and to provide jigsaw pieces of information for the audience to piece together. It is here that Miike surprises again by showing this most outrageous and fickle of directors can also serve up focused sentiment. At its most touching: a gorgeous-looking and amusing vignette of the boys on the beach; and then a moving sequence where as adults they are reunited and recreate the fooling around of their orphanage days. But there is also an eerie flashback when one boy returns home one day to find his foster father dying, covered in blood; a moment that distorts both visually and auditory in a fleeting scene that would match anything spooky by David Lynch.

Miike tears through tonal shifts and genre motifs without either pausing for breath or losing his grip. It is obvious that Miike is a master of genre-mash-ups. Soon, he is cutting between a slightly obscene play for children and nasty gangland massacre. Our two hit-men are going to perform in the play with a theatre group (who have lost a couple of members in an auto-accident, a scene punctuated with cartoon crash sounds) but they have a shady reputation of misbehaving at plays when they were kids, so the theatre owner is panicking when the hall fills up, and then: “Oh, Hello Mr. Mayor!” It’s all very much provincial comedy. Meanwhile, gangsters are blasted whilst having sex during a gangland slaughter, etc. Further meanwhile: the school play about loneliness and advocating togetherness includes inappropriate penis gags. Miike alternates between farce and bloodshed, reinforcing the question of what lays between children and the killers they become.

The film veers again: our hit-men, moved by their return to innocence or at least childishness and imagination, decide to use their skills as assassins to rid the world of bad guys and use the money to pay for vaccines for Third World Children: this is apparently what Shô has been doing all along and Rikki joins him happily. Our assassins kill for the starving even as they gorge themselves on noodles (food and bonding is a frequent motif). Miike has no qualms about utilising real footage of Third World children for his gangster fantasia: indeed, Miike can and will use anything, appropriate or not. The film’s harshest criticism of crime seemingly that it deprives needy children. This leads the assassins to also become literal avenging angels when they sprout wings.

But finally a lifestyle shall catch up, vengeance breeds vengeance and these assassin-heroes get shot down (and we see their murderers as the children they once were too), yet that is not the end, for there’s genre satire to be had. They drag themselves soaked in blood, for at least a day, back to the ferry and their childhood home – stopping to help tourists take photos - as if insisting that they reach the most sentimental ending they possibly can. This is surely just as unfeasible as the other ‘DOA’ endings with plausibility being determinedly elastic. But it seems more appropriate to see this not only as genre parody but also the last fantasy of dying hit-men – perhaps just like the finale of the film’s predecessor, it shouldn’t quite be trusted.

In the end, Miike leaves us with one final vision, full of tenderness, anger and possibility: the tiny fists of babies. That this is a symbol of hope rather than mawkishness shows again that Miike’s anything-goes aesthetic has a sharp focus and that perhaps the biggest surprise for his audience is his capacity for humanity as well as shock and horror.


Takashi Miike,  2002,  Japan

Writers: Hitoshi Ishikawa, Yoshinobu Kamo, Ichiro Ryu
Again, apparently working only to his own agenda, Miike completes his ‘Dead or Alive’ trilogy with a science-fiction thriller. We are introduced to this future world – which looks very much like a low-budget dystopia – with a scene of a dirigible passing over the streets with the film’s title to Kôji Endô’s faux-Vangelis music. ‘Final’ is indeed partly a ‘Blade Runner’ pastiche: for example, a running gag is that there’s a guy that runs around continuously playing saxophone solos. Our lead hero Ryô (Shô Aikawa) is indeed a “replicant” (so the subtitles say), an affable android drifter who, when attacked or protecting street kids and with the help of a little “Matrix”-style bullet-time, becomes a deadly killing machine. He ends up joining a small gang of rebels who refuse to take Dictator Wu’s birth control pills and reserve the right to have babies. Dictator Wu (Richard Chen) has more-or-less outlawed heterosexual procreation – his philosophy seeming to be that too many people means that war and devastation is inevitable and that homosexuality is the cure – and seems to rule a shabby post-apocalyptic society like some guerrilla leader in a run-down nation. There is really no extravagance or dazzling set design here. Indeed, it is all filmed with a slightly jaundiced and sickly-looked filter. Meanwhile, 0fficer Honda (Aikawa Shô) hunts the rebels and replicants for the Mayor…

It might be expected that Miike’s science-fiction would have all the razzle-dazzle of the previous ‘DOA’ films, but this is the most aesthetically restrained entry, looking like  a no-budget straight-to-video cash-in with a couple of intriguing diversions that, really, don’t go so far as the characters just seem to come a full stop; and then these features are jettisoned for the typically outrageous finale.Final’ has its one truly eerie moment when, having tried to commit suicide, Honda’s wife lays half-dead on the bed sparking electricity.
The fight scenes are executed with flare, using wire-work and a brush of digital effects but these are used with restraint.  Mostly, the story mopes around Ryô and the rebels whilst they attempt an attack on Wu then find their numbers dwindling down to nothing due to incompetence and betrayal. This includes their accidentally kidnapping Officer Honda’s son which triggers a subplot where the rebel kid and Honda’s son bond and share strips of celluloid and watch films in an old cinema. This cinema nods to the black-and-white film footage seen at the opening credits, (which also casts a satirical light on all these replicants as just a modern version of all that nonsense. Of course, this reference to celluloid datesw this immensely). This short-lived kidnapping triggers the revelation that Officer Honda is also an android, although he did not know. ‘

Wu, it seems, has reprogrammed the battle androids of the apocalyptic war, apparently making the world to his liking. Wu wears a shirt splashed with pink (faded blood?), dislikes breeding, acts a little slimy around his sax-playing catamite. ‘Final’ is homophobic in the same way that the first ‘DOA’ is misogynistic: it surely is guilty of that in some way, but as with all Miike there seems to be much more at play than meanness and such negativity does not strike as the agenda. It’s all grist-for-the-mill for Miike’s anything-goes mentality. Perversely, we are not going to find nuance in Dictator Wu as a predatory gay madman, but we might find a little nuance in Ryô’s and Honda’s experiences of being androids; and the homophobia is turned inside-out when – in a further satirical take on ‘Tetsuo’ (which was a coming-out film all of its own) – our two leads have a showdown. They have a decent little melee and then, heading for that outrageous ending, they merge into a crazy phallic robot which seems to satirise not only the homocentric nature of gangster and fighting genres, but also the fetishising of mutation and technology of the anime genre. Miike seems to care not at the ridiculous conclusion: it nods to the old film footage but also to the previous conclusions of the ‘DOA’ films and the appearance of the cosmos throughout the series. And then it’s as if the previous outrageousness turns throughout the series makes some sense if they were always just replicants… or something.

It certainly explains their sudden powers at the end of ‘DOA’ and the seeming cyborg duck castration in the childrens’ play during ‘Birds’ (yes, you read that correctly). The two leads melding together to make a phallic robot, seeming to then recall their roles in the previous films, certainly brings front-and-centre the homoerotic undertows of the first instalments. It’s audacious, ridiculous, nonsensical, funny and shows that the homophobia surrounding Wu shouldn’t be trusted and certainly isn’t the whole story. The silliness of the machismo of the action genre has surely been a prime target throughout the series.

Final’ is so different and undoubtedly the lesser work, but when taken as a whole, its go-nowhere story with a sudden outrageous finale is totally in keeping with the series as a whole. It is eccentric and fascinating. The downbeat turn of the drama is only obscured because there is the sudden mania of the denouement which feels stuck on. But even the scrappy nature of the narrative seems to point that Miike isn’t interested in filler and of the wealth of ideas crashing and splashing into on  another. Even if the whole series is ultimately some kind of cyborg dream of past lives, or something, then tat is what we will go along with.


Miike has used the same two characters and put them in three different “DOA” scenarios like they are reincarnations, different models of the same character throughout time and genre. Rikki is often unintentionally laughable with his macho-posing. Shô is the more playful and flexible performer and manages to reach genuine character and pathos amidst the absurdities.

The flaws are obvious: haphazard pacing; revelations just come out of nowhere. Some may find this confusing; others may just see it as cutting out the extraneous stuff and allowing the audience to piece things together. It’s no surprise in interviews with Shô and Rikki that they both convey that there was a sense of improvisation when working on ‘Dead or Alive’. Such scattershot plotting ordinarily doesn’t convince me in a lot of Eastern cinema, but Miike’s sense of the chaotic seems to me to be so aligned with deconstructing genre tropes and in the name of anarchic film-making that it works. It also means that it is usually on second watches that I truly determine what I feel. For example, initially I enjoyed ‘Birds’ the most, but on repeat watch I think equally highly of ‘DOA’ and I was more open to the merits of ‘Final’. They all centre on outsiders trying to do best for whatever family units they have, all contain sentiment and the ludicrous, the inspired and unruly, violence and melancholy to create a series that is frequently brilliant, silly and riveting in equal measure. Often all at once.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Blade Runner

Ridley Scott, 1982, USA-Hong Kong- UK

The look alone makes this an instant classic. The dazzle of the cityscapes are true sci-fi visions of the like only seen on book covers and comics. This is like Judge Dredd’s Mega City One come alive. Philip K Dick himself approved. Even now, where CGI makes all things possible, this still astounds. Douglas Trumbell’s special effects are outstanding. It has a convincing grubbiness, an overstuffed but hang-dog feel, the futuristic and retro crushed together leaving little space for people. Here is a world that doesn’t quite to seem to have daytime - maybe the sheer size of the buildings won’t let the sun in; or maybe pollution? - allowing plenty of space to assault the eye with neons whilst giant billboards give what sound like haunting disjointed Eastern vocals to the sweeps of Vangelis’ electronic-and-saxophone score. It’s a soaring score that is quintessentially of the Eighties but also transcendent.

There are numerous unforgettable set designs in the busy streets, Tyrell’s spacious and yet stifling room, JF Sebastian’s cluttered apartment, or Deckard’s apartment whose lighting makes it look as if he is living in an air-con unit. It’s a wealth of chiaroscuro. There is a dreamy segueing between scenes with the application of music that provides a faintly abstract ambience that allows the feeling that this is deeper than it actually is. But what mood.

It is of course based upon Philip K Dick’s novel ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’: Hampton Fancher and David People’s script contains Dick’s reality-bothering existentialism and paranoia to a film noir plot, giving it a recognisable focus, but there is still enough of PDK’s doubt about humanity and perception to give this an edge. Rick Deckard (Harrison ford) is an android-assassin – a “Blade Runner” – called in to hunt down a particular group of these murderous replicants (artificial humans made as a slave race but inevitably grown too big for their boots). Each time he is nearly killed, only saved by lucky interruptions and the replicant desire to finish him off in fancy ways. It’s enough to think his skills as a hunter are somewhat exaggerated. As Mark Kermode writes:

When making the 2000 documentary On the Edge of Blade Runner, I asked Rutger Hauer why he thought Harrison Ford was so reluctant to talk about what is now considered a timeless sci-fi classic. “He’s such a dumb character,” Hauer replied mischievously of Ford’s android-hunter Deckard. “He gets a gun put to his head and then he fucks a dish-washer!”

Ford looks permanently baffled while Hauer is quite ripe, filtering all the film’s melodrama. In fact, every performance is a little bit weird and this too adds to the oddball tone which all helps the feeling of a slightly alien futuristic society. The biggest misstep is perhaps how the film adds in a little roughing-up of Rachel (Sean Young) when Deckard and she finally get to romancing. 

Its key legacies are: Giant global corporations, environmental decay, overcrowding, technological progress at the top, poverty or slavery at the bottom -- and, curiously, almost always a film noir vision. Look at "Dark City," "Total Recall," "Brazil," "12 Monkeys" or "Gattaca" and you will see its progeny. 

Like all seminal works, it has been absorbed so much into general culture that it’s impossible to recall how remarkable this look was, but it still proves overwhelming. ‘Blade Runner’ gave us an updated ‘Metropolis’, and along with ‘Alien’* has gone a long way to defining the look of science-fiction on film. That’s no small thing and this is a classic that can be watched again and again. But you knew that already. 

Although Carpenter’s ‘Dark Star’ (’74) surely set the true precedent for workers-in-space.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Baby Driver

Edgar Wright, USA-UK, 2017

Edgar Wright’s ‘Baby Driver’ is highly entertaining as it starts off dancing with car chases to The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and then keeps jigging around through it’s near-constant soundtrack. Indeed it’s like one big music video, the conceit being that our young-faced super-driver “Baby” (Ansel Elgort) uses iPod music to battle ever-present tinnitus and that gives the film a continuous soundtrack. It’s a good soundtrack and Wright edits the whole film fast and furiously to the tempo of the songs. Consistently amusing, frequently exceptionally directed and a movie-movie concerned mostly with genre all makes this highly appealing. And of course, the true origin for this goes back to Wright’s video for Mint Royale’s ‘Blue Song’ (below). 

The slender narrative is typical for such a concept. People are name-checking Refn’s ‘Drive’ obviously, but this goes back to ‘The Driver’ and Thief’, to a moment when music and motion became firmly glued together and the thrill of car chases became the whole theme. All these films are movie-movies where people are archetypes and cool is the aim. For example, Baby doesn’t talk much, communicating with his deaf foster father through sign language and dancing around the apartment. It’s parodic with Wright’s background in comedy making sure things stay light, but it’s also too much of a homage to truly run loose from its type.

Baby Driver’ throws passing glances at reality like it glances at the corpses of innocent bystanders but never lingers or gets up close. It is a getaway driver fantasy as musical and that’s all forgivable but for the weakness of the romance where it becomes apparent that the two female characters of note – Lily James and Eiza González – don’t really exist outside of male fantasy. This is a shame because all the charm Elgort and James generate can’t avoid the fact that she increasingly disappears into being Baby’s fantasy girl. Not quite one for ladies then, except if you want to be the pretty face for a boy racer’s imaged music video life. Then there’s Jon Hamm and Kevin Spacey who do their thing but it’s Jamie Foxx that stands out as “Bats”, the harbinger of true danger and death. He’s just one one-note as anyone else, but he is intriguing in his display of smarts along with a kill-kill-kill! mentality.

The chases by foot benefit from Elgort’s agility and dancing skills and the chases make good use of the multi-levels and slopes offered by Atlanta, Georgia. It’s strongest behind the wheel with perhaps a little reliance upon Wright’s considerable editing skills to achieve effect instead of just letting cars do their thing without cuts.  When ‘Baby Driver’ skids into its final act it gets increasingly overblown, meaning the smaller pleasures of Baby simply going to get coffee with the whole world around him seemingly turning into a musical are long lost by the time a big denouement is called for. The acute highs and lows makes this pretty messy and perhaps with stronger writing less geared just to homage it would have been more remarkable. As it is, it’s fine entertainment. 

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Wonder Woman

Patty Jenkins, 2016
USA | China | Hong Kong | UK | Italy | Canada | New Zealand

The origin tale of Diana of Themyscira (Gal Godot) – or Wonder Woman – an Amazon goddess that finds herself involved with World War I.

So although it’s all lead by women – a female protagonist and directed by Patty Jenkins (director of the Aileen Wuornos film ‘Monster’ [!!]) although written by Allen Heinberg – there is nothing here that truly elevates or criticises the usual superhero origin film format. There is nothing of true originality, just an agreeably lighter and more fun tone than is usual for a DC Universe film. This has won people over, of course, and it’s as enjoyable as you want and as slick as you might expect, but don’t expect any moulds to be broken other than giving the women the same treatment as the guys. Rupert Gregson-Williams’ music often threatens to break out of its orchestral bombast into a metal-ish freak-out, and similarly the film seems like it might break free of the confines of the format, but it never quite does. In that sense, it’s a disappointment even as it’s being fun.

Probably any romantic involvement for Diana was going to be seen as undermining any claims this had to hardline feminism, but perfunctory romances have always typified origin stories (Lois Lane and Mary Jane to name the most famous). However, ‘Wonder Woman’ is in no way beholden to Steve Trevor. Indeed, the most gratuitous flesh is his and whenever he and Diana glance against sex, it is she that is confident and indifferent to his charms. It’s agreeably flirty. And it is in the subtler details that the film elevates her dominance, in the way that she is the only fighting character with true certainty, that she confronts and rebukes the men often and that they soon realise that she is their true power and acts as her shield-leg-up so she can do what she has to do. So as other superhero men want to be dour to be poignant, or just goofy to be cool, Diana is all about getting stuff done, doing what you need to do with others and in that way she’s a positive symbol (which one could see as a quiet rebuke to the narcissism of male superpower fantasises).

The film undermines much of the usual machismo: it’s in the way that Saïd Taghmaoui says he wanted to be an actor but was the wrong colour; in the way that Eugene Brave Rock says he has no home; and most obviously it is the way that Ewan Bremner seems like he is going to be the mouthy one is ultimately in effect useless as he is traumatised by war so that he can no longer be the top marksman he is presented as. Even Danny Huston as the ostensible scenery-chewing super-enhanced bad guy is nothing without the lethal gases invented by Dr Maru (Elena Anaya – nicely creepy). It is Dr Maru that balances the scales of feminine goddess goodness by representing the villainy and cruelty that women are equally capable of. Indeed, until the inevitable super-villain, the men in this enterprise would not be half as effective without women, both good and bad. Some may have criticised that Diana needs a man to hold her hand to become wonderful, but the film could also be seen as giving space to allow Steve Trevor to charm Diana, to allow her feelings rather than just cool. It also gives a platform for Chris Pine’s considerable likeability (as Kirk, he is hobbled by an annoying smugness and self-righteousness). And the film is not above sacrificing Steve to make Diana’s story more poignant.
Of course, as with most superhero tales it seems, there are problems if not hypocrisies: typically, the usual call for peace and nonviolence is shoved aside for a denouement of take-it-or-leave-it CGI fisticuffs and explosions galore and ‘WW’ is no exception. Indeed, Diana underlines “Love” as a redeeming feature even as she lays waste to the surroundings to beat the bad guy who disagrees. Yeah, you aren’t really fooling us - we saw her just murder the bad guy. And the bad guys (“Germans”) are mostly faceless adversaries to be mowed down even as we get dense back-stories for Amazons and others (there is a kind of group-hug at the end, but…). This comes part-and-parcel of the genre and the film doesn’t really overcome its central murkiness of having a warrior woman who initially seems naive about war and seems to think killing one bad guy brings about peace (yeah, but…). To its credit, the film subscribes this more as naivety than stupidity and dwells more on her bafflement that men are so inept at heroism. Of course, all this is easy for her as she is a gorgeous super-powered Amazon, and it probably shouldn’t be underestimated at how good Gal Godot is at maintaining a balance between naivety and warrior. This paradox has always been the issue with superheroes, but after all they are power fantasies.

And to this: if this is all part of giving kids role models of super-empowerment, then at the screening I saw as the end credits rolled, there was a girl who was about four years-old (yeah, she probably shouldn’t have been there) who was running in front of the screen making Wonder Woman power-poses. In that sense then, I guess this girls’ version of the same old superhero tropes is more than equal to the boys’.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Lights Out

David F. Sandberg, 2016, USA

Expanded from David F. Sanberg’s short film whose problems (what, you just go to bed?) is fairly forgivable in a short format. The scares here are fine – there’s a lot of mileage to be achieved from silhouettes with glinting eyes – and it explores the possibilities of multiple light sources well, and it utilises that staple James Wan trick efficiently (now it’s there; now it’s not; now it’s there – but closer (loud music sting)!). Of course, why ghosts sometimes need to squat down (to be scary, presumably), or why Diana is carving her name in the floor and how she can suddenly make doors unopenable or why her footfalls can suddenly be heard (to be scary, presumably) is never quite explained (she’s supernatural mumblemumble) – but we can go with that. But in expanding the short film and a back-story is apparently called for, ‘Lights Out’ establishes how it then means to go on within the first half hour: with weak and ridiculous exposition. Typically, the cast are agreeable enough but they ultimately have scraps to work with. 

The weakness of the script becomes more problematic when it’s obvious that Diana is a manifestation of the mother Sophie’s mental illness. The solution to this then is obvious, and the film goes through with the logical conclusion, but this is also cruel. The solution to mental illness is suicide? Perhaps Eric Heisserer and Sandberg’s script thinks it is being shocking and hard-hitting, but it just comes over as thoughtlessly mean. Enough to be insensitive and therefore offensive.