Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Cohen & Tate

Eric Red, 1988, USA

There was a time in my youth when my friends and I would drawl “Piss on you!” in terrible Southern American twangs, mimicking Harley Cross in ‘Cohen & Tate’. I’ve waited a long time for this to feature in the DVD/Blu-Ray revolution and now here it is. There was a time in the eighties when its director Eric Red seemed a reliable name, being the writer of ‘The Hitcher’ and ‘Near Dark’, but he never quite lived up to that promise after those cult titles that helped define the era’s horror. Even so, I always had a soft spot for ‘Cohen & Tate’, the tale of two mismatched hit-men sent to kidnap a nine year-old boy (Cross) who some mobsters somewhere think saw something he shouldn’t have. 

What follows is a nocturnal road movie – which typifies these early Red favourites – in which it is quickly apparent that the two hit-men are thorough opposites and get on one another nerves. The kid senses this quickly and plays them off of one another. You will have to allow that a preteen can manipulate a couple of hardened killers, but it shouldn’t be underestimated just how tricksy and smart kids can be; and viewing it through the filter of a fairy tale about a child using wits to overcome odds bolsters suspension of disbelief. 

Red’s often quotable script gives everyone nuance and weakness: a hearing-aid; a temper that, when thwarted, dissolves into childish self-pity; childish precociousness giving way to tears. Hit-men coming undone when their victim proves quite a match is a staple thriller storyline but nevertheless this doesn’t try to be groundbreaking, it’s just a good thriller. Perhaps Baldwin is over-ripe and cartoonish, but Cross is more than a match for his adult co-stars, amusingly annoying one minute and a scared little kid the next. Roy Scheider is the backbone, delivering all the stolid adultness to hold it all together; it’s a fine portrayal of a man caught up in something he’s tired of. The stripped-down narrative and locations give this a direct intent and nightmarish edge, with the deleted scenes on the disc showing that this was intended to be even more brutal. These sudden moments of brutality, a crisp script and some memorably framed shots makes this a stand-out. A highly entertaining black humoured thriller with a centre of how adult weaknesses can capsize simple plans.

Monday, 16 October 2017

The Beast - and the joy of erotic offence

The Beast ~ La Bête
Walarian Borowczyk, 1975, France

It’s the typical poster of some beauty in the infernal clutches of a monster/alien/robot. But even with ‘King Kong’, I was thinking, “So he fancies Fay Wray… and…?” But with King Kong, the monster’s infatuation could be attributed to a plutonic obsession with aesthetic beauty (she’s so small, delicate and pretty…). So what’s The Creature from the Black Lagoon’s excuse, with all that simulated underwater sex? Monster films typically have an “other” inexplicably lusting for a human that it surely wouldn’t be wired to lust after? I mean, wouldn’t that be a form of bestiality? And yes, I know interspecies sex is a thing, but nevertheless... Are these monsters/aliens/robots merely conceptions of male lust that dominates the fantasy and science-fiction universes, and are women just to be in peril? Is this some kind of rape fantasy?

And that’s where we come in with Borowczyk’s ‘The Beast’. It’s as if Benny Hill had directed a Hammer horror. Originally conceived as a part of the anthology ‘Immoral Tales’ and then expanded to feature length, ‘The Beast’ is the tale of a woman into bestial fantasises that a monster in the woods chases her and… lusts after her - she likes it really - until she seemingly fucks it to death. The film sets out its agenda from the outset, starting with a prolonged and explicit sequence of horses breeding. It’s this that turns her on, because any hint of sex seems too. Lucy (Lisbeth Hummel) comes to a big old estate to be married to a business-man’s son, who is being scrubbed up to be presentable as the issue of his being baptised seems to be a sore point of domestic politics.

Glenn Kenny is surely wrong when he says that Borowczyk is “neither decorative not decorous”: the set design is lush, if filmed without exaggeration; and when he says that “His lighting is generally flat” one can only imagine Kenny has not seen a decent print of ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Miss Osbourne’. But yes, there is a straightforward rendering that might be seen as the opposite of the aesthetic of, say, Kubrick’s ‘Barry Lyndon’. But he is right when he writes that Browczysk is an artist “whose ability to appal and exhilarate and to make one fall sideways laughing at erotic absurdity will certainly find appreciation from anyone whose taste for the Psychotronic runs to extremes.” The tone is of farce, bizarre pornography, surrealism, of perversion, of a wrongness pummelled down by the ludicrous. There is a whole roster of details to be offended by along with the bestiality: light-hearted rape; a black servant associated with rampant lust; small children stuffed into a closet so that the adults can romp; a pederastic priest – but an assault on good taste is surely the agenda. All of this is filtered through farce, accompanied by incongruous jaunty music to accentuate the comedic. Even the gargoyles rudely and suggestively have their tongues out. But when Borowczyk has Lucy masturbate with a red rose, the film reaches for a merging of the explicit, pleasure and the romantic and arguably achieves a moment beyond just shock into something more complex in effect. When a snail slimes over a deserted slipper, it can be read a metaphor for how the ickiness of nature always overwhelms tokens of civility. 

It’s not a film to look for great performances or characterisation and, as with porn, personalities are mostly condensed to sexual appetites; but there is an underlying precision to Borowczyk’s use of the ridiculous and the explicit that mostly hits its mark. It’s certainly unique. As Scott Nye notes, it draws together “eroticism, sin, horror, repression, vulnerability, and humiliation.”  As well as a somewhat ratty monster costume that evidently fell off a back of a lorry that is another indication that this melange of erotica and the b-movie is mostly comic, if not for many. It surely scores as a logical result of the sexual subtext that underlies so many monster-movies. 

Saturday, 7 October 2017

In Between

Bar Bahar

Maysaloun Hamoud (writer/director), 2016, Israel-France

In Tel Aviv, three women share an apartment and try to find their place in a patriarchal society that admonishes them as soon as they show independence. 

A vibrant drama with magnificent performances from the three leads -  Mouna Hawa, Sana Jemmelieh and Shaden Kanboura. Into the world of a sassy, sexy lawyer and a lesbian DJ comes the more traditional girl, and the stage seems set for a conflict of their personalities. But this isn’t the case for they have a greater shared enemy with a culture that demands they repress their individuality and parades them before disapproving men and families. Their affinity as women emerges as stronger. 

Even if there may be a more obvious political backdrop to call upon, Hamoud’s Palestinian drama  is set in the no less political world of gender roles. The conflict between traditional demands and the context of modern society proves their central dilemma. Why don’t they just get married? Layla (Hawa) just wants good time to let off steam from being a smart lawyer and although she can casually tell a colleague who makes advance they should keep their relationship fun and flirty, she’s not above being smitten. Salma (Jemmelieh) is perfectly as ease with herself but being outed is something else. Nour (Kenboura) plays by all the traditional rules – wears a Hijab; is deferential to her fiancé – only to find that that doesn’t guarantee you’ll be treated right. And so there’s no surprises because these are usual dramas – and yes, there will be a dancing-in-the-lounge moment – but it’s energetic and daring as a tale of modern Israeli-Palestinian women trying to kick against an old world conception of gender. Even if Nour’s tale does veer into something touching on thriller, it also clearly heads that way to show that the woman have to bond together and try more desperate measures to deal with issues when it’s obvious that there’s no help forthcoming elsewhere. 

It’s loose-limbed, funny, mature and engaging and although the end leaves them a little stranded, the impression is that these women are just getting started (as the title implies). As if to prove Hamoud right, she has had a fatwa placed on her due to simply making this film about and for women. Dabbed with neon-inflected credits and a dance tunes, the tone is far from downbeat and even if the world seems to be doing these women no favours, their upbeat defiance will surely leave the world trying to catch up with them and not vice-versa.                                

Sunday, 1 October 2017


Darren Aronofsky, 2017, USA

The trailer for ‘mother!’ was shown frequently at FrightFest 2017 and it seemed to be a home invasion/scary cult ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ kind of thing: I was thinking that the trailer gave away too much. But of course, now I see that is all those things too but that a trailer could not give it all away even if it tried, because Arofonsly’s latest is all allegory and that’s the kind of thing a teaser cannot convey. I went into it with a horror fan’s mindset, feeling unease at the infiltration of the domestic setting between Jennifer Lawrence (“Mother”) and Javier Badhem (“Him”), enjoying the bonkers escalation of events when their siblings turn up. But by the time it becomes clear this is all symbolism and metaphor, such tension dissipates and the main job is to decode and ride the escalation of events as things go off the rails. 

And then, as they are all symbols, it becomes apparent that involvement with the characters as personalities is moot, although Lawrence and Badhem and the cast in general are great: they provide the human ingredient. There is a lot of humour and farce to be had in the scenario of people just turning up all the time – and Michelle Pfeiffer’s increasing scathing looks got frequent laughs when I saw it – and there is a underlying affinity with schlock and exploitation that is surely being lost on people that simply see it as pretentious: this is in accord with Aronofsky’s previous work as much as the religious allusions. It has a visceral full-throttle and swelling trajectory that is surely derived from the horror genre.

When I first came out I said that I didn’t think there was much to decode: but that is obviously wrong and what I think I meant was that it it’s so evidently an allegory that there is no mystery. Aronofsky has posited ‘mother!’ as an allegory for our times: Lawrence represents mother Earth and so on; and then there are the multitude of religious references. But I am of the mind that people think religious references instantaneously meaningful instead of lazy and obvious and I am not the receptive audience for parables. A friend of mine saw it as an allegory for abusive relationships. Indeed, it can easily be seen as a tale of how men use young women up and then just move on: if you find this critical of patriarchy may depend on whether you think Aronofsky is being empathic or guilty of relishing a little too much the suffering of women (I tend to think it’s sympathetic, but like ‘Black Swan’, it treads a fine line). And if one subscribes to its value as parable, it can be read as equally as scathing of how religion abuses women as ‘Martyrs’

As I am not one to think religious insinuation is intrinsically profound, my interpretation was that ‘mother!’ was an allegory for the creative process with Jennifer Lawrence being the somewhat mistreated muse. You let the fans in, they inspire you, they are weird, have a party with and start wars/arguments over your art and eventually they tear it all apart with their cult fandom – they find the unbraced sink of weakness and test it until it brings the wall down – and then you have to start again with a new muse. That such a conceit has been promoted in such a mainstream style amuses me no end. It’s going to be so divisive –and it is – because it isn’t what you expect and behaves more like one of those films that mainstream audiences hate (and where the goal was to get people through the door, the promotion surely worked). It’s certainly a film that grows in stature upon consideration afterwards – if you do like it at all – but as a film that straddles the absurdities of the horror genre and the pomp of art cinema, it’s certainly a go-for-broke effort.