Saturday, 31 March 2018


F. Javier Gutiérrez, 2017, USA
 Screenplay - David Loucka, Jacob Estes 
& Akiva Goldsman

Another entry in the Sadako saga – or rather, “Samara” in this American interpretation. Following up Gore Gabrinski’s genuinely unsettling American version of Hideo Nakata’s 1998 original ‘Ringu’ (yes, keep up; the history of ‘Ringu’ isn’t quite as byzantine as ‘The Grudge’, but there’s still much to this franchise), this seems to be in an awkward place between trying to reboot and assuming we probably already know the premise. It dashes off the “VHS-curse-virus” without much ceremony and then, as it probably has too, updates it to the digital age. It quickly moves on from its more intriguing subplot where a professor has a kind of club of potential Samara victims – which could have explored youth’s morbid fascination with cheating death as well as trying to deconstruct Samara with science and would have been a more interesting tale – and heads for another tedious origins plot. What dilutes Samara’s scariness is not just mediocre dialogue and a series of random jump scares (noisy opening of umbrellas!) or the litany of non sequitirs, but a certain lack of intimacy as she seems to move into ‘Final Destination’ shenanigans -  for example, causing a plane to crash (wait, so she is now happy to kill those who haven’t seen the tape? They’re just collateral damage?). Forget this for she has her true moment later on crawling out from a flatscreen TV. But that’s it: one genuinely creepy set piece before the script even seems to forget the seven day threat to Julia (Matilda Lutz), loaded as that is with impending doom and suspense. Then for the origin, it moves into ‘Don’t Breathe’ territory and the terror of Samara becomes somewhat secondary.

The cast and wafer thin characters go through the motions, moving from narrative trope to cliché just to go through the motions rather than becoming fully formed; indeed, the film skips over its potentially most interesting character and actor in Johnny Galecki’s Gabriel. It’s slickly made and probably doesn’t quite deserve the ire spewed at it, but most of all it is rote, confused and uninteresting. And the Braille twist shows how horror can be unintentially silly and laughable when not bolstered by a stronger context. And dull.

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

The Navigator: a medieval odyssey

Vincent Ward, 1988
Australia-New Zealand
writers: Vincent Ward, Kely Lyons & Geoff Chappel

Vincent Ward’s ‘The Navigator: a medieval odyssey’ is a treat for those that like under-appreciated oddities, the kind of film that possesses a unique quality that means it often slips under the radar. Of course, technological advances now means that nearly everything is retrieved and now available (the years of seeking out rare VHSs of fondly remembered shows and films are long gone), but ‘The Navigator’ is still a bit of a lost gem, despite having won eleven awards at the time. Ward offers a mixture of black-and-white 14th century scenario tunneling into a colour urban 20th Century New Zealand by way of time travel, story-telling, visions, elliptical symbolism and editing. In a medieval town, young Griffin keeps having visions as he waits for his brother Connor to return from an outside world devastated by the Black Death. When Connor returns with pronouncements of doom, it would seem that only a religious quest to mount a spire  on the tallest church in Christendom will save the village. 

The black-and-white medieval sections are reminiscent of silent cinema and Andrei Tarkovsky (ref. ‘Andrei Rublev’), with people much like silhouettes against the snowbound backdrops. The modern world comes in bursts of nocturnally shadowed colour where motorways are near impassable death-traps, submarines come like aquatic behemoths, diggers and cranes are monsters and displays of television sets must seem like boxes of visions to eyes from the Dark Ages. Ward does a commendable job of making the 20th Century uncanny from the perspective of these time-travellers, just as he respects their limited understanding without condescension. 

It’s often beautiful and jaw-dropping in its imagery and audaciousness, using imagery rather than effects to conjure the incredible. It’s built on the themes of the loyalty of familial and community bonds, on a faith that makes it easy to accept the impossible. The science-fiction of time travel is more rooted in the power of storytelling and imagination, of folk stories and visions which are constantly evoked by Davood A Tabrizi’s haunting score. Its ambition makes any weaknesses or budgetary limitations secondary.

‘The Navigator: a medieval odyssey’ covers a breadth of aesthetic techniques and ideas and its final accomplishment of being genuinely moving means it fills a high quota of accomplishments. It strides the pools of fantasy and arthouse effortlessly. Unique and timeless.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

'The Prodigy' by Herman Hesse: nature vs eduction

‘The Prodigy’ – Herman Hesse

Originally ‘Beneath the Wheel (Unterm Rad), 1906 
Peter Owen Publishers translation, ‘The Prodigy’, 1957
Translated from the German by WJ Strachan

Herman Hesse’s bildungsroman 'The Prodigy' - the original title of 'Beneath the Wheel' is more explicitly aggressive -  focuses on Hans Giebenrath, an intelligent and sensitive boy, eager to please and excel from his provincial origins. But having successfully entered a theological school, he finds that its focus on the technical rather than the emotional education of the young drives him to a breakdown. Hans’ ambitions, wants and needs rest between the poles of the natural and educational worlds and the establishment falls far short of meeting these. 

School in ‘The Prodigy’ is a serious business which, if it is not openly abusive, is oppressive and devoid of compassion. There is no satirical take on teachers as in Mark Twain’s ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’ (1876), or elongated sequences where the classroom is a chamber of humiliation and physical punishment as in James Joyce’s ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ or David Storey’s ‘Saville’ (1976). In Joyce’s ‘Portrait’, the protagonist rejects the source of his torment, namely Catholic education, and, even if he is not happy by the book’s close, he has survived. Storey’s ‘Saville’ also features a prodigy, a son of a miner who, by strength of natural intellect, may ascend from his class origins; yet he is unable to escape the front room of his home and subsequent destructive bitterness sets in. In ‘The Prodigy’, it is not outright cruelty and sadism that defines the boy’s experience but simple indifference to whom Hans may be – an emotional depravation. It is Hans’ inability to truly rebel that is finally his fatal flaw. His friend Heilner personifies all the youthful and successful rebellion and bitterness that Hans cannot achieve and barely acknowledges within himself. Heilner is to some extent Hans’ inverse reflection, a parallel set up upon the first time that they meet. Both boys are strolling alone in the woods and meet at a lake. Both flatly agree upon the beauty of the place: their friendship is sealed. With Heilner as a companion, Hans can gradually fail his school and survive the consequences; but when Heilner is gone, Hans is lost, friendless and at the mercy of lessons and expectations, which leads to a breakdown. Friendship then emerges as a natural element, a counter-active force to the unnatural climate of education. 

In Twain’s ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ (1884), education is – albeit humorously – something to be avoided and the knowledge of the natural world becomes central and superior. Civility is to be satirised. Tom Sawyer may not be able to reject society absolutely – he always needs an audience to play to – but Huck can manage alone just fine. He is smart, cunning and eloquent in an effortlessly self-educated sense, and these qualities make him a survivor. He can take or leave culture. And not for Hans the precocious insubordination of the boys of Kipling’s ‘Stalky and Co.’ (1899), or Compton’s ‘Just William’ who quite happily pal up to upset establishment. It is not learning in itself that pressurises Hans – indeed, he has a voracious appetite for it – but rather the demands and concepts that culture has of education as an institution. There are a number of passages in which Hesse lays out this institution for indoctrination and compliance:

There was something wild, untamed, uncultured in him that must first be broken, a dangerous flame that must be extinguished and stamped out.

And: is the school’s job to break in the natural man, subdue and greatly reduce him; in accordance with the principles sanctioned by authority is its task to make him a useful member of the community and awake in him those qualities, the complete development of which is brought to a triumphant conclusion by the well-calculated discipline of the barrack square.
 [Penguin edition 1973, pg. 43]

It is not blatant brutality or unkindness that breaks Hans but rather that the education is at the expense of humanity, ignoring his sensitivity for his propensity for learning: school as a passive-aggressive tool for dehumanisation.

In 'The Prodigy', there is a moment when the order of narrative seems shuffled: the book begins with a brief account of Joseph Giebenrath’s life and then his son Hans’ candidacy for the ‘Lendexamen’; it is only late in the book [chapter five] that Hans’ earlier childhood pre-candidacy is detailed. Having “failed” at school, Hans returns home and visits the Falken where a host of memories come back to him as a prodigy. It has not always been local priests and teachers that have educated Hans. There is his brief but densely sketched friendship with a sickly orphan Hermann Rechtenheil [pg. 114] who taught Hans how to fish, to “study the weather” and a whole litany of practical and observational tricks. Even in this Hans has been an excellent pupil for his friend, but Rechtenheil dies quickly and leaves way for the subsequent influences of Heilner’s friendship. He too disappears and Hans’ need for a stronger, educating friend leaves him vulnerable and lost. But in Rechtenheil, Hans’ need for being taught and for the natural world had once been perfectly embodied. This sequence in which Hans’ early life is conveyed comes latterly in order to show that which he had forgotten and has lost in his quest to become a great student. 

Hesse endows Hans’ world with lengthily and beautiful passages on rivers and woods and nature, almost as eloquent and poetic as those of Laurie Lee in ‘Cider With Rosie’ (1959) (“almost” because ‘Rosie’ is pretty much peerless). Fishing is tied to Hans’ bond with nature and with giving him the respite and autonomy he desires as much as academic skill. When Herman is attracted to a girl, the imagery is of animals and (with the cart) the threat of civilisation and technology:

… this one was so lively and talkative and so indifferent to his presence and awkwardness that he drew in his horns helplessly and, slightly offended, withdrew into himself like a snail brushed by a cartwheel. 
[pg. 123]

It’s a lovely passage evoking the shyness and inelegance of first crushes and feelings of perplexing attraction. A similar mixture of the natural world and feeling runs through his desire, expressed by the imagery of breezes, of gardens, of clutching fences and stopping halfway across bridges listening to rushing waters. [chapter six] This isn’t quite innuendo, but the symbolism is clear. It’s overwhelming to Hans, being the susceptible soul that he is.

After a night of revelry that puts his observations and extroversion to the test, Hans is found drowned: but was this an accident or was it suicide? The ending argues that if we do not balance nature with nurture then disillusionment, alienation and self-destruction is, perhaps, the tragic end for sensitive souls who cannot cope. How we failed them. Or certainly this is how sensitive souls like to tell their narratives. This is a typical outcome for fictions based on outsiders of some form victimised by society (early texts exploring female roles who always seem driven to death, for example) and here it blends tragedy, suffering and a kind of wistfulness. If perhaps this sides too much with victimhood, Hesse nevertheless presents a fine tirade against education as a tool of indoctrination, and as such as antithetical to individualism and the natural self.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

'The Shape of Water' and irksome wonderment

Guillermo del Toro, 2017, USA

Despite any originality in the premise, Guillermo Del Toro’s fishman-and-woman romance unfolds predictably, being the kind of tale that Mike Mignolia turns out in his sleep. Although the art design is sumptuous and the players devoted in reliably Del Toro style, there is something a little sloppy at the edges as if it thinks its pretence to romanticism is enough. Actually, Mike Mignolia would not be quite as sentimental. You know how it is all going to play out: this is just a routine persecuted-outsiders-in-love tale for Forrest J Ackerman fans. Yes, it’s a romance about a woman and a fish-person (someone on social media called it ‘Grinding Nemo’), but the narrative is quite safe and pulls a shower-curtain upon the truly tricky stuff. 

Monsters-in-love is older than Mary Shelley and it is perhaps
telling that this spends equal if not more time with Richard Strickland (you know: the real monster here) because that has more substance. After all, Beauty-and-the-Beast is a standard genre trope. Michael Shannon is too entertaining and skilled for sadistic Strickland to be anything but intriguing, but a less offbeat actor would have immediately shown up how two-dimensional and hammy the character is. Michael Stuhlberg as Dr Robert Hoffstetler is far more fascinating and possessed of layers (and because he too is better than the material). More importantly, it is hard to find Elisa Esposito’s character beneath all the knowing smiles and symbolism as she falls for the amphibian, despite Sally Hawkins’ committed performance: for example, she has no voice and was found as a child near water as an orphan; the marks on her neck that apparently make her mute look like gills; she masturbates in the bath, linking sex and water, etc. But then again, maybe these are all clues that she might be an amphibian too – this would make sense of the flooding-the-bathroom scene which doesn’t really address the problem of drowning – but then there would be more questions raised by the domination of her air-breathing persona (she would surely know she is amphibious by the time we meet her, but there is no indication of this). 

This half-baked thinking dogs all the details, such as much is madeof a single security camera but there seems to be no cameras or security at all surrounding the actual prize creature. Or a bathroom becomes a water tank and floods… but there’s no attention to the damage this would surely cause (it floods the cinema below, but this leads to nothing). Or when Elisa and the amphibian have sex, she pulls the bath curtain as if to gain some privacy from the audience, even though there has been a graphic sex scene with Shannon beforehand.* The graphic sex is saved for the monstrous human but there’s no visual evidence of the romantic possibilities of intimacy for the amphibian (I mean, he sparkles colours which is pretty but that isn’t quite enough). And then everyone just accepts this interspecies relationship as the epitome of romance. Borowczyk’s ‘The Beast’ surely bursts the bubble of this. The amphibian itself (Doug Jones) is given so little character, despite evoking pity, that it comes close to Elisa simply projecting onto him as if she saving a puppy from a mill. It just protests so hard at being romantic, its nadir being two raindrops merging into one, that it becomes as enamoured with itself and is just as uncomfortable as a ‘Love is…’ cartoon. Love is … an amphibious god-like humanoid that will kill the nasty man. When such details of internal logic are left wanting, it’s in danger of being a house of cards that will collapse with the merest prodding.

That it’s a fairytale is meant to excuse any lacunas, but its sense of its own wonder of wonderment is as narcissistic as Disney with very little that is independent of its own magical magicalness to earn genuine characterisation or investment. It all feels a little unearned. A paean to cinema must surely do more than just indulge in its own homage (of course the lost monster will be found mesmerised in a cinema). Even ‘La la Land’ took time to show why music can be so important to people by demonstrating that a whole alternative and romantic story can be imagined in a song. ‘The Shape of Water’ rests upon a well-worn love of black-and-white movies and musical numbers because fantasy is so close to nostalgia. For all its elegance, it’s often about a subtle as a glass of water thrown in the face, followed by a handful of glitter. 

I felt ‘The Devil’s Backbone’ move into pure story was a delight and ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ is surely about how fantasy makes harsh realities bearable, even if cognitive dissonance solve nothing, but ‘The Shape of Water’ starts at the pitch it means to go on with no shifts or questioning of its own reality. It's not quite as art-design-over-substance as 'Crimson Peak' but its lack of inquiry into its own basis means is a movie-movie and that an audience may find themselves probing at its weaknesses and finding it unsatisfactory. But a lot of people have taken it at face value and found it emotional. I myself am thinking that (like Nolan’s ‘Interstellar’ which I had similar reservations about on a first watch) I may find myself more accepting and less prone to criticism the second time, with a less demanding eye. As it is, I found it entertaining enough but unconvinced by its conviction in its own magic-realist poeticism. In the end, I found that more irksome than moving.

Here is another moment that suffers from the lack of clarity or follow-through that typifies the script: Elaine Strickland (Lauren Lee Smith) seduces her husband for consensual sex, but then the scene is filmed and executed in an aggressive style that is typically coded for a rape, especially when Strickland tells her to be mute and to relinquish her character. But they have had kids together: has he never acted this way before? If he has, is it something she likes as she instigated this sex? If she doesn’t (and the moment hints her reaction isn’t fully consenting), then where does it leave their relationship? What does this say about her and consequently him? There is no follow-up to this so we do not know, leaving her character somewhat underserved.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018


David Cronenberg, 
Canada, 1981

Popular early Cronenberg where his excursions into physical and psychological breakdowns take on a decidedly more commercial bent. Compared to the more medical – and difficult – tone to his earlier works, a more straightforward thriller trajectory makes ‘Scanners’ a more accessible tale of battling psychics and exploding heads. Scanners are telepaths with remarkable mental abilities that allow for all kinds of random and telekinetic possibilities. They are being rounded up and recruited by Michael Ironside for a war against plain average humanity. The somewhat shady ComSec company find Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) on the street - a broken down, homeless Scanner, barely aware of his own powers - and recruit him to infiltrate Ironside’s secret army, tutored by splendidly grey-bearded Patrick Magoohan. 

Not quite as theologically scary in implication as those that came before - 'Crimes of the Future', 'Rabid', 'Shivers' - 'Scanners' offers rather more action-orientated fun, heavily coloured by Cronenberg’s vision of untapped human potential unleashed by man’s experiments in technology and pharmaceuticals. There is still that typical Cronenbergian clinical objectivism, which perhaps make the characters less relatable and wanting in general, but Ironside produces great scowls and charisma even so and McGoohan knows how to keep a straight face. 

That legendary early exploding head set piece is still thrilling and genre defining that perhaps not even the prolonging squishy scanner showdown can quite top it. An interview in a gigantic sculptured head also provides a wonderful moment of surrealism, as does a melting phone (Cronenberg even manages an exploding phone booth). The underground group of good scanners seems to present them as the inheritors of the hippie legacy, or at least of counter-culture (they're the homeless, disenfranchised and the artistic, for instance). The malignant corporation is typical of the conspiracy plot that is practically obligatory to this scenario, exploiting and corrupting for crazed ideology. Binding it all, Howard Shore score makes it clear that this is bombast and an updating of old-school horror.

The plotting and execution is thrown around, bordering on stream-of-consciousness and probably will not hold up under close scrutiny, but it is easy to digest and great pulpy horror. Tapping into the sub-genre of psychic-power fantasies - where just force of will can either pour bloody vengeance on all or can better anyone threatening you  - proves a potent resource and Cronenberg mines it for as much head-popping and face-tearing as he can manage. The revelation that Cronenberg could be both cerebral and fun had never quite been so evident. Or maybe you just can’t go wrong with exploding heads.