Sunday, 24 April 2016


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


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.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice

Zack Snyder, 2016, USA

Of course, the subheading really doesn’t mean much apart from its own bombast and the promise of The Justice League as an upcoming franchise. ‘Batman vs Superman’ is more concerned with the question of vigilantism and heroism than justice (although in this genre these are ordinarily conflated). At least initially. You have Superman and Batman and the film takes a long time to set them against one another and making this an even fight. When one of Superman’s epic battles, smashing aliens and bad guys through the city, kills those in Wayne towers, Bruce Wayne sets on a path to bring Superman down.

But the world of the Batman has already won: Superman – the supposed antithesis of Batman, representing brightness and hope and overcoming disasters, a general colourfulness, etc – has been placed in the bleak world of the Dark Knight. He no longer wears his mantle of godhood with ease. The colour-scheme is so drained that it might as well be in black-and-white (which makes the appearance of the Batmobile a little hard to make out). The running theme is Destroy Your Gods: in Batman taking on the Man of Steel, to Lex Luthor’s nefarious plan to the people’s protesting at Superman’s supposed wrong doing. And surely there’s a little envy in the way Batman knows he can never do as much to save people as Superman? The film touches on this but never quite uses this to flesh things out, to make Batman’s motivation a little hubristic.  

There is so little humour here that when these guys wonder aloud who Wonder Woman is with, this lighter touch comes as somewhat a surprise: no one is expecting an ‘Avengers’ roster of quips, but the glimmer of a lightness-of-touch reveals how monochrome the approach is and that a little humour would have gone a long way to adding texture. For example, treating the fact that Lois Lane always gets saved by Superman – indeed, this is a major plot point – with a little knowing humour might have helped mitigate how problematic this is for a contemporary female character. This is a continuation of the darker, angst-ridden depiction of Superman as introduced by Snyder in ‘Man of Steel’. In that sense, Superman already met ‘The Dark Knight’. No one stays good all the time, says Superman before flying off with this apparently now part of his ethos. This might appeal more to my particular taste (I prefer things a little jaded) but I am also not certain this is correct for Superman.  

But what I can’t quite see is why ‘Batman vs Superman’ would have a harsher reception than ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ which was surely just as guilty of clunkiness, pomposity, bad moments and franchise appeasement. I felt ‘Ultron’ was as undemanding and… well, diverting but not perpetually good, covering up its flaws with perpetual quips; just as Snyder covers them up with faux-seriousness. Although I continue to admire how JJ Abrams balanced all the characters/franchises without dropping the ball. It demanded as much from me as the much-loathed ‘Fantastic Four’ (2015) film, for example. ‘Batman vs Superman’ is indeed guilty of being overstuffed (which I don’t necessarily mind) and there are several moments where things don’t get to breathe properly – for example, the speed with which Diana Prince gets an email and discovers other metahumans and just immediately shuts her laptop upon viewing the videos is unintentionally humorous. It takes a while for Batman to steal the Kryptonite, etc., but the speed with which other metahumans are introduced feels very much Oh, and this too! You can almost feel the joins of the studio demands of a franchise introduction being pasted onto Chris Terrio and David A Goyer's ready-written script (or, as a general joke goes, a half-finished screenplay that got filmed).

So, no, I don’t really think this is the worst superhero movie ever. It’s true that it’s hard to take its po-faced “superhero landing” seriously after ‘Deadpool’ and it’s true that it has some dodgy dialogue; that it speeds over some areas of narrative so fast it produces potholes and labours over other points; that Jesse Eisenberg is allowed to let all his annoying tics run wild as if he is channelling Lex Luthor via The Joker. Or do I have this wrong and Eisenberg, as A.A. Dowd has it, actually the only one having fun. And for what it’s worth: Ben Affleck makes good Batman; Henry Cavill looks good but is saddled with a mopey Superman that he can’t do much with; Gal Gadot as Diana Prince doesn’t get to do much here except look good in red in a washed-out world and hog the most slo-mo poses.

But what does it get right? If you think things are too easy to resolve for Superman, then most of his action gets brief screentime. There is a great Batman fight (featured in the trailer but late in the film) that is given time to play out and, although it’s not quite ‘The Raid’ or the kind of fight we see in the ‘Daredevil’ series, it goes some way to showing how this one man can beat gangs of bad guys. There are fanboy Easter eggs, such as Batman’s battle-suite being blocky a’la Frank Miller’s ‘The Dark Knight’; or an appearance by what looks like Zombie Superman.Then, when the Doomsday plot kicks in (and the shift to this different film is surely major evidence why people think it’s overwritten) Batman is relegated to the sidelines more to let Superman and Wonder Woman – the invulnerable ones – take centre stage, which is certainly sensible. It’s a Zack Syder film, which means it is often as good as it is bad and only as good as the script. For example: ‘Watchmen’, good; ‘Suckerpunch’, bad bad bad. And if the opening credits are trying to ape the technique of ‘The Watchmen’, the fact that it’s simply summarising Batman’s origin story – again! – surely makes it too familiar to be in any way exceptional. This is a director that has helmed two of the best openings in genre film: ‘Dawn of the Dead’ and ‘Watchmen’. He has also brought us ‘300’ and ‘Suckerpunch’. So with ‘Batman vs Superman’ I found I always had an eye on the flaws, but since my expectations were so low that I was surprised that it wasn’t as bad as I’d been led to believe.

And if the first half of the film stems from the genre problem of what to do with all the fall-out of mass destruction from a super-fight, this self-analysis is all washed away in the third act when surely hundreds and thousands died in the showdown. Talk about carnage. In fact, all the time (in the fiction as well as in actual watched minutes) it takes to set up the premise seems redundant when it amounts to a final act that undoes any thinking or themes that came before. Snyder apparently cannot help but be enamoured by super-beings being punched through a sequence of sky scrapers, or characters moving bad-assly and heroically in slo-mo towards the camera.  In that sense one can see why he has been chosen as a superhero director of preference, happily delivering the clichés and managing the enterprise with some hard-faced fare even as the most successful Marvel entries are those with large wodges of tongue-in-cheek. 

It would seem that Christopher Nolan’s Batman films have cast a long shadow still over the DC Universe. As a friend of mine said, it’s probably not what Snyder was aiming for, but it’s fine. ‘Batman vs Superman’ isn’t special in any way, but it’s not nearly as some would have it. And I guess that's damning with faint praise.

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Hardcore Henry

Ilya Naishuller, 2015, Russia-USA

Should you have ever wondered what the first person shooter you play looks like as a film, or if you’ve ever imagined the game you are watching a friend play is cinema, then Ilya Naishuller's ‘Hardcore Henry’ is that thing. Henry wakes up to artificial limbs being attached to his body whilst his wife explains that he has amnesia that will pass, etc. Then just as he’s getting a voice implanted, his revival is interrupted by the bad guys and it’s all running and fighting and killing from then on. 

The camerawork is from a stuntman’s point-of-view and sometimes this perspective makes things thrilling – free-running, climbing buildings, etc – and sometimes it makes it incoherent; but the film is quick to recalibrate so we never completely get lost. If you find shaky-cam nauseating, this unyielding p.o.v. may not be for you.* And there’s carnage aplenty, the outrageousness one of its chief gags from the opening credits. If you’ve come for story or insight into the first-person-shooter genre, this isn’t it. Rather, you’ll be impressed at the visual tricks employed to achieve this perspective: Wow, did he just flip from a crashing van onto the back of a bike? How many people is he fighting?? Etc. The other main gag is the comedy turn of Sharlto Copley who plays several roles that range from not particularly good (that Cockney accent is quite bad) to amusing (the military Toff-Brit is perhaps the best, but the weed-smoking character may depend upon how funny you find stoner comedy). The dialogue is also deliberately ungood to emulate the games it’s mimicking. That Henry is constantly running into places that have racks and drawers full of firearms and cabinets marked “Adrenalin” is surely far more successful joke. 

Franck Khaulfon's ‘Maniac’ used the first-person viewpoint to elaborate on its themes, to put you as cinematically close to the protagonist as possible, to show the film from his serial killing perspective: with ‘Hardcore Henry’ there is no psychological resonance to tap into because it’s not that film. This is more like dangerous sports: for the thrill of it. There’s a shoot-out in a brothel (of course) and the highlight of a musical routine. The former panders to the worst of gaming storylines and the latter dance routine is the only time that the film really promises to break out from its pastiche. But it doesn’t and your brain would have long since switched off before the final onslaught. As remarkably rendered and relentlessly paced as it is. With a little self-awareness instead of just imitation, this might have been more than just well-executed fun. A full story also might have helped make it more than just an experience.

And normally this may cause issues for me, as I found myself sitting through Tobias Lindholm’s ‘A War’ thinking “Stop trembling the camera! Buy a tripod!” A yet with ‘Hardcore Henry’ I didn’t find this an issue: perhaps because I went in expecting; perhaps because that is the film.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Insidious 3

Leigh Whannel, 2015, Canada-USA

A prequel to the 'Insidious' franchise that has psychic Elise Rainer (Lin Shaye) helping teenager Quinn (Stefanie Scott) to fend off a demon… ghost… thingy. A shadow waving through a window is creepy indeed but otherwise the jump-scares here are poor imitation for atmosphere. Ambience requires moody lighting, especially turned up to eleventy when Elise speaks of scary things. The dialogue is risible. The characters barely tick boxes: dad doesn’t understand the teenage generation – tick; a younger brother being an annoying younger sibling – tick; a neighbour boy fumbling his way through a crush – tick; etc. Nothing seems to lead on to anything consequential:  for example, the neighbour’s crush disappears (it’s just there to allow for the knock-knock scare); the younger brother has nothing to do; the moment where Quinn walks on broken legs has no lingering effects afterwards (hey, she’s fine!) and when Elise tells the guys to record her trip into the other dimension… well, that contributes nothing. Also, for the record, Quinn surely qualifies for the most unconvincing physical injuries ever.  And then we go into The Further. *snigger* At one point, one of the aggravating stock comic relief ghost hunters says that the name The Further is “cool”, and it’s hard to know if the film is being insistent or having a little fun at its own expense. And for what it’s worth, The Further is nothing more than a gloomy, ill-lit ghost house where Elise bullies victim’s spectres for help and says “Come on, bitch!” to aggressive others. One could try to find a message of overcoming fear here, but… nope. It gets worse as it goes on. Long before Darth Maul cameos at the end for the final nonsensical send-off jump-scare, you’ve long since realised you’re watching a pile of sloppy, uncaring shit.

Friday, 1 April 2016

The Relic

Peter Hyams, 1997, UK-Germany-New Zealand-USA

Derivative and formulaic on the one hand, unpretentious and decently executed on the other, ‘The Relic’ is both undemanding and occasionally surprising. Animal DNA in Brazilian leaves are brought back to a city museum and hold the starting ingredients for a bizarre mongrel of a monster. It’s a dark film, full of shadows and an obvious debt to ‘Alien’, ‘Jurassic Park’, ‘Jaws’, etc; its mixing of science and mythology go back to ‘Creature to the Black Lagoon’ and Quatermass; its characters are typical and bland ~ a tough talking, no nonsense detective and a tough talking but sexy female scientist who turns into Sigourney Weaver by the end, etc. On the plus side, Hyams deals with the proceedings with a healthy merciless streak, ensuring a high body-count, throwing in a couple of memorable set-pieces. Of course, every creature feature depends upon its monster, and the always impressive Stan Winston and friends brings to life a gloriously absurd creation that all-but redeems a plot that’s a relic in itself. Its a big, agile, implausibly quiet thing with a Dario Argento-like penchant for decapitation. Once Hyams gets down to the action, he gets interested. Afterwards it’s only left to ask how it took four writers to conjure up and what the monster was doing in the toilets in the first place?  


Michael Mann, 2015, USA

For all the digital sheen, Mann’s thriller runs on an old fashioned sense of character and narrative. Chris Helmsworth is the kind of criminal that reads in his jail cell whilst all hell is breaking loose outside (Foucault’s ‘Discipline and Punish’, by the way). And if we aren’t certain of his status as an anti-hero rather than villain, he later explains how he only steals from those that are big and faceless enough for it not to matter. He’s a cyber-thief, a genius with anything digital. A wiseass to authority. A hunk. And a peerless fighter. No, really. His former partner, who ended up on the right side of the law, convinces his superiors that Helmsworth is the one to help locate and stop a group of cyber-terrorists that seem capable of holding the world to ransom and committing crimes from afar with a keyboard which kills hundred and thousands. They globe-trot in search of these terrorists, Helmsworth proving adept and superior at each turn. It’s like ‘The Social Network’ meets James Bond. Sort of.

It all ends up in a showdown at a festival, presumably chosen for the amount of people that will be there: but here’s the thing, these characters simply could not be more conspicuous, walking right in the middle of the procession, walking against the flow. And when the bullets fly, well tough luck bystanders. Mann’s work has always been touched with a little of the ridiculous, and the thoughtlessness of this showdown – where spectacle obviously take precedent over logic – might cause unintended amusement from both the characters and the filmmakers. Wouldn’t a festival be exactly the locale the terrorists would choose? And what does that say about Helmsworth as a hero when he picks it? The macho posturing is a perhaps little less absurdist here (compared to, say, Mann’s ‘Heat’) - although you still get people standing and shooting into machine gunfire instead of taking cover - and it is all enjoyable enough, but ultimately it hardly leaves a mark because there’s something about it that seems unaware of any progress recently made in action thrillers. Or indeed it seems unaware of the cyber-financial age as a playground for a shift in macho posturing (ref. ‘The Social Network’, 'Steve Jobs', ‘The Big Short’, etc.) Even shots of a city looking like computer chips seem old hat. (And see what I did there?)