Sunday, 28 February 2016


Eduardo Sánchez, 2014, USA

Exists’ is a good monster-movie romp but a lousy drama. You will spend a lot of time thinking of how stupid the lead characters are. And it’s not the same as the flawed thinking that marks realistic, inexperienced people - the kind that colours in the characters of ‘It Follows’ for instance - but the kind of character behaviour that makes you aware of mediocre writing. So you have the hysterical girl that won’t stop crying and potentially giving their position away (which I can go with because as annoying as this may be, people will do that under extreme duress, etc) but then there’s the guy coming out of hiding just to blast away all his ammo and trying to confront the Sasquatch with challenges I guess he would’ve heard from sports programmes and action movies. Good going, stupid, you’ll be thinking. Yes, pretty soon they all stand out as annoying movie types.  So no, it won’t be challenging ‘Willow Creek’ as a definitive Bigfoot film. Or a found-footage film.

Director Eduardo Sánchez was one half of the team that made ‘The Blair Witch Project’, but ‘Exists’ doesn’t solve the major problems of the hand-held-camera genre the former instigated: why keep filming? Who’s editing this afterwards for maximum drama? Etc. To justify all the covering shots (like the creepy exterior one of the Sasquatch coming up the cabin in shadow), we begin with one guy (hey, you won’t remember the names of these characters) having a considerable stash of cameras: I guess we are to take for granted that he could afford all this and that he would set it all up without any trouble or comment. (And then he never checks them?) Although this reaps rewards with a helmet-cam when the beast is running after a speeding bicycle (shades of Sánchez’s funny ‘A Ride in the Park’ entry in ‘V/H/S/2’) or a vision of the Sasquatch jumping onto the camper van, at other times it will just make things incomprehensible. Again, the intimacy of subjectivity forfeits the drama of a well-placed shot. This has none of the care or ambiguity exhibited in his ‘Lovely Molly’.

On the plus side, it wastes little time with getting on with things: these privileged idiots knock down something that is probably just an animal and won’t let that get in the way of having a good time to show on social media. And then they get attacked, the creature besieging them and then retreating, tormenting them and showing evidence of intelligence in its assaults. And, the film does have a great Sasquatch and that makes up for so much if you are a monster fan. Oh, it's an excellent Sasquatch.Brian Steele wears the suit designed by Mike Elizalde with sound design and grunts and roars by Kevin Hill and Matt Davies. It’s impressive. At first, the creature is seen in shadow, then long-shot, then medium shot, then in fragments like an eye or a foot… all implying that this monster suit is going to be kept at arms’ length to keep up credibility. But this isn’t the case. There is a good cellar attack scene and visions like the Sasquatch keeping pace with the bicycle or coming out of the smoke and the final close-up justify this is a creature feature.

Saturday, 27 February 2016

The Homesman

Tommy Lee Jones, USA-France, 2014

Ultimately, what we are left with is a sad, sad story. Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) is a woman whose female independence and self-sufficiency is a turn-off in a buyer’s market, so she feels she has nothing to lose by volunteering to transport a handful of women in the community who have all “gone mad” and had breakdowns to the care of another parish. But then she meets George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones) dangling from a rope and only has until his mount runs off to live, and she decides saving him is enough of bargaining chip to enlist his help on the journey. 

The Homesman’ is less self-conscious than ‘Slow West’ but shares its melancholia; indeed, it plunges headfirst into it. Tommy Lee Jones provides the quirkiness and Hilary Swank the gravitas and they are just as good and compelling as expected. These are meaty roles. Mary Bee Cuddy tries to cut into capitalism – she has assets – but the men are having none of that from a woman. The accent on the feminine experience is a nice counter to a very machismo-led genre. George Briggs (probably an alias) doesn’t want any part of apparent civilisation – he’s a deserter and probably undependable – but the west is more accommodating of his wayward ways. Indeed, men aren’t particularly to be relied upon in this landscape. And it’s worth mentioning how Meryl Streep does much with her little screen time, implying that perhaps her Altha Carter might be hiding a harder if not crueller side with the dropping of facial expressions when no one is looking. 

The imagery is direct: a carriage of madness, a hotel full of promising luxuries, merry-making men drifting away while we’re left on the bank. ‘The Homesman’ is far less showier than its contemporary genre peers, but it’ll likely haunt and trouble long after.  

Friday, 26 February 2016

The Revenant

Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2015, USA

‘The Revenant’ is as much a box-of-tricks as Alejandro Iñárritu’s previous critic-pleaser ‘Birdman’, but it’s a box-of-tricks designed to win over a viewer like me. The unwavering long takes… repeatedly I found myself thinking Wait – this is a single shot! And it hasn’t finished yet… The camera moves from participant to participant in the opening camp raid, for example, and it doesn’t break. Then it goes underwater to follow a near-drowning and then back up again without cutting away. Long takes like this are showboating but also exemplary cinema. I am always a sucker for them.

The fact that this is supposedly based on the true story of frontiersman Hugh Glass is much touted, but of course one must always take such claims with a pinch of salt. It seems that Based on a True Story is equated with depicted truth and, maybe, a superior narrative. But this is rarely that case because films are fabrications and they have the habit of making the truth a pliable thing: they use oppressions, elaborations and omissions, usually not giving the complex truth at all and aggravating those well versed in it. For example, apparently Hugh Glass did not have a son. Besides, this true tale is surely just a framework to dazzle with cinema rather than narrative, although one can see why the idea of this tale is compelling. 

And then the bear attack. I thought perhaps they had blown a trump card by featuring it in the trailer. The trailer that baffled me at first and then slowly got me more-and-more intrigued. But the trailer does not prepare you for the length and execution of the bear attack. About halfway through the scene, I realised my jaw had dropped. So smitten was I with this scene that at first I wondered if it was setting a precedent for CGI in narratives, the interaction between the artificial and real actors. But then of course I came to my senses and remembered that we had Richard Parker from ‘Life of Pi’ and it is probably easy to forget that almost the entirety of ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ was a CGI animal showcase. Or even 'Paddington'. But yes, the bear attack in ‘The Revenant’ is an exceptional special-effects sequence. This is not the only jaw-dropper, but it probably tops all the others the film offers.

And of course the film’s length and slender narrative will cause criticism, but there is always another visual jaw-dropper around the corner. It is fuelled by ambience, showstoppers and themes. The length and episodic tribulations are narratively coherent when the theme is given as only God decides when vengeance is over. In this sense, DiCaprio’s defeating death multiple times puts him in some way as God’s envoy, or at least under some Divine protection until he has completed vengeance (and what this says about God is another discussion).  And there is the moment when Hardy/Fitzgerald states that there is nothing else to him but the identity his work gives him, which furthers the questions of what makes a man. But the film squarely puts the revenge fantasy centre-forward and that is always popular in American cinema. The film in not really interested in skewering this theme, just impressive rendering. 

And of course, it has to be noted that this is a Boy’s Own Adventure so no real room for womenfolk, except in Terence Mallick-y maternal and floating form. And speaking of Glass’ dreams: the pile of skulls may be impressive production design work from Jack Fisk, for example, but it’s not original symbolism (even if justifiable as rendering the limits of Glass’ imagination). As such, these excursions into dreams are the least convincing aspect of the adventure, even if the try to colour Glass with some softness against the relentless theme of revenge. It also nods to the villainy of colonialism and the savagery and nobility of colonialists and natives alike, but these are more asides, gesturing to a more complex humanity that Glass is forgoing on his quest. 

Tom Hardy swings from being impressively sullen to scenery chewing, often at the same time: at least these tendencies are fused here unlike ‘Legend’ where, playing both the Kray twins, one could see his tendency between both brilliance and gimmicks. He seems to be trying to trump Jeff Bridges and Nick Nolte for occasionally incomprenhisble mumbling accent. Quietly, Will Poulter steals the film by getting on and not trying to show off, using his vulnerability to make an impression at odds with the other heavyweights. And of course, DiCaprio’s physical trials in this role will demand accolades – he looks so obviously like he’s suffering! 

S. Craig Zahner, the director of another exceptional western ‘Bone Tomahawkreally doesn’t like ‘The Revenant:

"I certainly hope there’s going to be a western resurgence. My view on it is, The Revenant got made, Leonardo DiCaprio is a huge star and Inarritu is a big director. I think that movie is probably the single worst movie I’ve seen in the last five years and just totally empty and terrible and didactic. And it’s just awful—lacking humor and characterization, and anything I ever want to see in a movie. But that movie got made because there are two powerhouses there."

But ‘The Revenant’ isn’t about humour and characterisation (which both feature strongly and impressively in ‘Bone Tomahawk’). It’s about a world with the humour sucked out and reduced to survival and retribution and state-of-the-art film making. And the magic-hour vistas are just the start.

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Massive Attack with Young Fathers - "Voodoo In My Blood"

 Massive Attack with a "Phantasm" homage and Rosamund Pike.

Sunday, 21 February 2016

The Hateful Eight

Quentin Tarantino, 2015, USA

The Hateful Eight’ is both expansive in its 3 hour running time and use of Ultra Panavision 70 and claustrophobic in its locations, namely a carriage and then Millie’s haberdashery (of course it helps that this haberdashery is a big place). The snow and a storm outside keeps everyone in. It’s no surprise that this has been adapted into a stage play. It wants to be both epic and a chamber piece. And of course, there was the typical controversy that comes with each of his new releases: firstly, the leaking of the script and then, upon release, the Ultra Panavision 70 proved a stumbling block as the Picturehouse, Cineworld and Curzon chains did not have the equipment to screen this format and so would not be showing the film.

On the epic side, the snowscapes that define the opening act are glorious. They reminded me of ‘The Great Silence’, but you expect blatant homage in a Tarantino flick and I am sure they allude to others I don’t know. Homage is part of Tarantino’s language.

That and rip-offs: on the soundtrack, you will hear not only a grand new score by Ennio Morricone, but also the expected choices from Tarantino’s album collection: now using The White Stripes and Roy Orbison is one thing, but the score also includes ‘Now You’re All Alone’ from the ‘Last House on the Left’ and more Morricone with ‘Regan's Theme (Floating Sound)’ from ‘The Exorcist II: The Heretic’. I had the same reaction as I had with the ‘Inglourious Basterds’ use of the Moroder/Bowie title song for ‘Cat People’: I could get past the post-modern incongruity, but here was the use of another film’s entire theme song and not only would this kick me out the film’s internal reality, but it felt a steal rather than a homage. It's as if Tarantino can't get past other people's films. And besides, ‘The Hateful Eight’ already had music by Morricone so why need anything else, let alone take from another Morricone score? Aside from that, Tarantino’s narration leading the audience into the second half was a gigantic misstep that also kicked out any goodwill the film had gathered until then. You can almost feel him enthusing, “See, I’m storytelling here!” But this proves only a momentary glitch.

The length of 'The Hateful Eight' (yeah, about that counting...) will of course trigger claims that it’s too long, but the joy is surely in its taking time to unspool. There may be padding, but if it’s working for you, the indulgence of the padding will provide enjoyments too. The script wants to take its time setting characters up and letting the true identities reveal themselves. The basis of the plot is that John Ruth (Kurt Russell) is a bounty hunter transporting notorious Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) when they bump into another bounty hunter, Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L Jackson), and then find themselves holed up at Minnie’s Haberdashery with other suspicious types. But Ruth is certain that someone will try to spring Daisy – but who?

And as a chamber piece, the cast give it their all, as you would expect, and enjoyable they are too. There has always been room in Tarantino’s universe for hamming it up and Tim Roth channelling Christophe Waltz leaves no chamber pot unturned, redeemed by the fact that it all turns out to be an act. Only Zoe Bell truly fails to hit the right pitch. And although there is no one to care about – these aren’t real people but movie types – there is fun to be had in the unfurling of the interactions.

The gravest critical thematic conclusion is that all these hateful men are unified in their misogyny against a hateful woman.  But I don’t believe this is so: I perhaps wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s equal opportunity to have Daisy as loathsome and as formidable as any of the men, but I think accusations of misogyny are misplaced when Tarantino’s full oeuvre is taken into consideration. The first time she is punched, it is perhaps the only time in the film that the audience’s empathy is engaged with the violence: it’s hurts and there’s no doubt it is gratuitous and feels wrong. From then on, when she is physically abused, it’s more slapstick and a running gag. I would say the ugliness is equal opportunity. Otherwise, the violence is just part of the palette. 

The shallowness of the film, whilst in no way impeding the enjoyment, perhaps makes me have greater respect for the bonkers ending of ‘Inglourious Basterds’, which at the time I felt betrayed the subtleties of its earlier scenes: there is no doubt it was reaching and perhaps there's some merit to that. ‘The Hateful Eight’ has no such genre peculiarities. Deeper readings of narrative may have the opening snow on a crucifix resembling a KKK hood, Minnie’s Haberdashery as an American democracy  which is then divided up as a platform for Civil War grievances*. And maybe all that is there, but I wouldn’t venture ‘The Hateful Eight’ as meaningful or thematically profound: it’s just a well presented and enjoyable film, featuring many of Tarantino’s strengths and weaknesses.

There certainly seems some inconsistencies with the Major’s claims that Minnie was bigoted against Mexicans although there is an argument that is just another of his lies. Sure, I'd say without doubt to Tarantino's attention to detail; but then there's some to-do about a revelatory blood stain and candy caught in floorboard gaps, and then considering the recent massacre revealed in the second half, don't those floorboards seem greatly absorbent of bloodstains?

Saturday, 13 February 2016

Young Romance

Young Romance are a band that I have been fan of for a long time and last night I saw them live at the Shacklewell Arms, Dalston. Claire’s drums stomp and Paolo’s guitar roars and the vocals are like a honey trail through the shrapnel being kicked up. Thrilling.

Monday, 8 February 2016


Jerry London, 1974, USA

Through which you might be thinking How much more 1970s can one film get? It’s so much of its time that’s a surprise it doesn’t play disco or prog-rock on the killer vehicle’s radio (surely a missed soundtrack opportunity, and one Stephen King would not miss out on with ‘Christine’). However, the score by Gil Melle is mostly setting the synth on “spacey” and achieving a fair bit of ambience with it. For unintentional humour and campness, it helps of course that this was made for TV with all the limitations and earnestness that format brings with it. It helps that the cast, lead by Clint Walker, treat this with complete deadpan seriousness. 

A meteor lands on an African island a long, long time ago and when inadvertently discovered by a construction crew in 1974, and – apparently being an alien entity that knows no better – it possesses the bulldozer banging into it. Of course. This somewhat limited alien invasion requires that the crew of six men on the island act somewhat stupidly to ensure that the killdozer meets its kill quota: there’s a lot of standing in front of ‘dozer blades and not getting out of cars when the dozer is bearing down at a moderate pace – that kind of thing. It also requires macho-bonding of a latently homo-erotic kind in the example of Dutch (James Wainwright) going on and on about his dead best pal and what great times they had (“Hey, did I ever tell ya the time when me and Mack, well we…”). And when he gives up on that, he goes on and on about swimming, so much so that you just know it’s going to be his undoing. The script by Theodore Sturgeon and Ed MacKillop is full of tough guy talk: maybe Sturgeon's original novel has more in the plausibility stakes or revels more on it's gleeful absurdities. (Certainly the comic book adaptation appears to have more females, judging by the cover.)

All this gives off a meagre enjoyment for nostalgia’s sake for a time when this kind of sci-fi scenario was everywhere, and of course it’s agreeable bonkers if not quite as good as it ought to be. And you could read into it a cautionary tale about shoddy work safety... But as far as these kind of possessed-thing threats goes, ‘Killdozer’ is unlikely to make you look at passing construction vehicles with anxiety.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

First Blood

Ted Kotcheff, 1982, USA

Although it set the template for many an action movie, ‘First Blood’ is far more influenced by the social conscience of Seventies cinema: that is, it’s more ‘Deliverance’ than ‘Die Hard’, more Bob Clark’s ‘Deathdream’ than Michael Winner’s ‘Death Wish’.  John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is a Vietnam vet suffering from PTSD who wanders into town looking for an old war friend, only to find the friend has died from the toxic gases used in the war. Right from the start, from the tone and expression of the friend’s mother telling Rambo this, the film reeks of bitterness at the official treatment of vets, resentment at those that gleeful warmonger at the expense of other’s children. Then, just wandering his way out through town, the sheriff sees how Rambo is a stranger dressed down and assumes the worst of him, sees him out and tells him he shouldn’t bother coming back. Of course, he has crossed the wrong guy.

First Blood’ appears to be two competing films, one pushing for the good-guys-versus-bad-guys dynamic that will typify action films and justify their carnage, and the other film featuring Stallone as a highly damaged vet, pushed into warfare by the uncaring civility that he fought for. Perhaps there is some trace of the reason for this in the story on IMDB trivia of how Stallone hated the first cut of the film and suggested his material be cut to let the others do the talking. This maybe accounts for the disconnect between the bravado of the dialogue and the harshness and bleakness of the action, which makes ‘First Blood’ more of discussion on machismo than one might expect. It would seem a lot just flew over people's heads: indeed, as a kid, I first heard about Rambo from friends going on about how he stitched himself up.

The other characters go on about how bad-ass Rambo is and act as part-time soldiers with their town as the battleground to protect, yet they’re not about to put themselves at risk unless the odds are irrevocably in their favour with a rocket launcher: they’re perfectly willing to kill the enemy (which for them is just a violent hobo) and pose for heroic pictures. Meanwhile, Stallone plays a broken mind, defaulting to soldier mode when misunderstood and provoked, but never really celebrating in this: there is a silent despair to his performance, helpless to what has been made of him. Rambo’s retaliation at wannabe tough guys may be translated as heroic, but he himself doesn’t really read his behaviour as such; no quips and one-liners from him, no sense that this is all some party or showing-off. Indeed, there is no heroic final act: the film ends with Rambo breaking down and sobbing about how he has been treated and what he experienced and then surrendering to the authorities. The sense is that the men will talk tough and tell tough stories about this long afterwards without understanding at all. And the action genre went on to mostly do the same. 

* Tagline: "This time he's fighting for his life." As opposed to what? When he was in war?