Tuesday, 29 January 2019

The Spy Lodgers: "Miss Secret Agent Regrets" EP

Miss Secret Agent Regrets... but she'll never tell. Instead, listen to these new files from The Spy Lodgers.

And here are some promo videos for this EP, by Henrik Svedlund.

"They Crash Their Cars"

"Dead Friends"

"Late Night With the Lowlife"

Johannes Lang playing piano for
"For the girls back home"

Monday, 28 January 2019

The Equalizer 1 & 2

The Equalizer 1 & 2

Antoine Fuqua, 2014, USA
Antoine Fuqua, 2018, USA

Robert McCall (Denzil Washington) likes to sit in a café and read as a tribute to his late wife. But then he sees a young woman being misused by the Russian Mafia and must put his pensiveness on hold to get involved as her saviour. Luckily, he is a super-skilled killer.

This is of course the big screen adaptation of the Eighties' Edward Woodward series. Here, Robert McCall is just as lethal and miraculous a fighter as Batman, and the repeat close-up of his eye, verging on ‘The Terminator’ vision, is like a signal that the super-powers are about to kick in. He also seems to have the money to do whatever he wants, to come and go from work when he needs to go abroad in disguise to kick some bad guy ass… but then maybe he just does his Uber job to find out who needs his equalising services. Yeah, that’s it. Or in the first film, he works in a hardware store, which supplies him with no end of weapons. Either way – Uber driver or salesman – his working man credentials are established. At one point, we don’t even see him do his equalising thing, just hanging a sledgehammer back into its place after he’s borrowed it to even some score. It’s almost a gag.

The problem is that there is never any doubt that he will prevail without much threat, so there isn’t any suspense or tension. He just walks in and smacks down whoever needs it. This means both ‘The Equalizer’ films end up being like the guy that says, “…then I hit him, skewered the head of the asshole on my left with a pencil and smashed the one on the right’s face in with a teapot, etc.” In the first film, he walks into a room of bad guys to kill them all and this starts a chain of events; in the sequel he walks into a local street gang’s place (which he knows) for a rescue. Now, I’ve seen enough films to know that bad guys would surely have him marked and surely this would just be the start of a conflict? But there’s no follow-up. It’s just a naked vigilante fantasy untroubled by consistent consequence (there doesn’t seem to be much police follow up to the aftermath of his set piece slaughter). There’s also an occasional streak of real nastiness that borders on sadism rather than the exhilaration of excessive action. There’s never quite the gleeful embracing of silliness of Collet-Saura’s Liam Neeson vehicles.

In both films, it is McCall’s designated primary victim that provides the soul and emotional interest. It’s Chloë Grace Moretz in the first film and Ashton Sanders in the sequel. Whereas Moretz is mostly there to bookend with motivation and resolution – a kind of Thank you, rampaging father-figure – and gives the role far more substance than is warranted, Sanders does better as a fully rounded character. In McCall he seems to see a Tough Love father-figure that bolsters his confidence as an artist and disapproves of the allure of gangster street life that threatens to entrap him. But Sanders projects a vulnerable, conflicted machismo that, again, gives the role greater substance than a cold reading might imply. 

For his part, Denzil Washington has a charisma that keeps the silliness watchable and entertaining. He doesn’t do anything remarkable or demanding but floats through on that charm. Occasionally he seems to be switching films between scenes. Of course, McCall’s preaching life lessons, with a filling of judgementalism, his pretence to self-sacrifice and soulfulness are all hypocritical because he and the audience just want to see him kick ass in the most lethal fashion. Everything else is just window dressing to convince us and himself that he’s a good guy. 

A film with a similar save-the-girl plot like ‘You Were Never Really Here’ gets around its familiarity with a sense of oddness and an anti-hero that is mostly irredeemable, so that we can engage simultaneously with the aesthetic and his redemption. Fuqua, by comparison, directs ‘The Equalizer’ with a slick flare that rarely offers up anything individual: there’s nothing impressive or distinctive like his single-take fight in ‘Creed’. There’s nothing here but an empty tin of competently made vigilante fantasy of the most obvious kind.

Sunday, 13 January 2019

The Strangers: Prey at Night

Johannes Roberts, 2018, UK-USA

A sequel that comes over a decade after the original for 'The Strangers', who are kind of b-level icons in the horror genre because they are easily recognisable and easily imitable from their masks. Also, they know how to act like horror killers: they step in and out of shadows, tilt their masked heads menacingly, can break into anywhere and appear soundlessly, play incongruous music for their kill-spree (this is a more contemporary requirement) and say pithy nihilistic one-liners like “We’ve only just begun”; or when asked what their motivation is, “Because you were home” or “Why not?” They even roll up in their killer’s van to Kim Wilde’s “Kids in America” so that the point of modern American youth’s nihilism and sociopathic nature is underlined right from the start. In this sense, it’s certainly belongs to that strain of youth-hating horror and one that portrays murder as the logical end of their privilege and self-obsession.

‘The Strangers: Prey at Night’ offers nothing new and your investment in the protagonists may vary, but the family is probably better rendered than many. The misbehaving daughter (Bailee Madison) is introduced with her black fingernails stroking a soft toy, which is surely one of the most immediate announcements that we’re dealing with Goth/Emo. And then there’s a jock brother (Lewis Pullman) and the parents who are floundering in their attempts to break through to their teenagers; this has led them to relocate and temporarily stay in a trailer park where The Strangers are prowling. The family dysfunction and the seemingly obligatory obnoxiousness of the youths is par for the course – although anything is bound to be improved by the natural class of Christina Hendricks. But what it ends up being is more like the troubled kids versus the bullies and mean kids and there’s not really a sense that this family is the kind of film family that deserves what it gets.

What it runs on is a series of decent set-pieces. Johannes Roberts films everything cleanly and the tempo is at a steady clip so that it hardly drags. The confrontations mostly stop from being overplayed, the family starts to call on your apathy, the killers are just short of smirky. It’s generally well-judged until the final stretch where it plunges ahead without a care and you’ll be lamenting stupid behaviour that has up to then been kept to a minimum (“Move out of the way of the van!!”). The best of these is the pool scene: unfolding with the pace of dread and plausibility, a flickering neon behind the head of someone forced to kill is a vivid visual cue for someone psychologically crossing the line into a moment of madness. So, on the one hand you have a film the delivers consummate horror set-pieces with some flair; on the other is a film that isn’t above having things put on books called “A Stranger is Watching”, prefacing with “Based on true events” or using jack-in-the-boxes for weak scares. It’s diverting and slick enough but doesn’t rise above its conventions.

Saturday, 12 January 2019

The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life, 
Terrence Malick, 2011, USA

I received, firstly, the advice that if I could last the first half hour, I would be okay. “Tree of Life” starts with a whispery, portentous, frequently one-word voice-over (“Brother.” “Father.” etc.) that is guaranteed to set my teeth on edge and my sneer twitching. Oh, such resonance and poetry in these words! But these hushed voices are less narration than fragments of disembodied thoughts that sporadically appear, intending to elevate the poetry and occasionally offer insight into the characters, as little as we are offered (“Mother. Make me good.”). And these whispers do not guide the film: they just annoy with drawing attention to the film’s portentousness.

Rather what steers the film is the vertiginous camera, a hand-held vision that is aggressively mobile, often as disorientating as any found-footage excursion. In “The Tree of Life”, the camera swoops insistently, often to napes. When a camera that glides through an office complex is intercut with a camera that glides through nature and back without losing a beat, the magic of the film starts to come to life with this juxtaposition. A nineteen year-old is dead: the mother is devastated; the father tries to retain a square jaw; a brother reflects – and this triggers off the memories that will be the bulk of the narrative.

Where did it all begin? And here Mallick throws in his most audacious conceit by taking us back to the forming of the universe and the world in a prolonged spectacle that offers gorgeous, dazzling visuals rather than story. It is a special-effects sequence that can’t help but provoke memories of “2001: a space odyssey” (and indeed, Douglas Trumbull was involved in the creation of this sequence). It also prompted my friend to recall that moment in “Ed Wood” where Ed professes enthusiastically that he could make a whole film out of a bunch of stock footage. Indeed. And then Mallick becomes even more audacious and throws in the thing that probably is the film’s greatest contention: suddenly, we are looking at a dinosaur on a beach. Filmed mostly in low light and tones, these CGI creations look real enough and they are presented as prettily and with as much reverence as everything else that precedes it and is to follow. And, for the record, I liked the dinosaurs. This first sequence gives us a chapter that references evolution. Later, this will conflict with the fall into a mundane family drama and their reliance upon religion. And by “mundane” I mean that it is the simple and unextraordinary qualities that the film triumphs and considers most vital. The universe was created by incredible processes, and so was the earliest life on Earth, and then there were dinosaurs and, eventually, there were these three brothers and their loving and strained relationship with their parents. How wondrous and remarkable these things are, how grand and great the differences in size these moments seem, and where does one lead to the other? Of course, this can also be read as tapping into human narcissism, that we and our individual experiences are the true centre of the universe…

To that end: a tale of a boy growing up during what seems like a short period of a couple or years or so in a certain house in smalltown America (the memories end when the family has to move). This is, as the ominous voiceover tells us from the beginning, a tale of fathers and brothers, just in case we aren’t sure. Strange, then, that aside from the two brothers we become most familiar with there is also a third brother who seems superfluous. Indeed, it may be hard to work out which younger brother will die: this death is like a Hitchcock “McGuffin”, there mostly to set the story of memory in motion. The father spins from being affectionate, dictatorial, protective and unreasonable. Mother is rendered mostly in moments of dancing around: on the grass or sometimes in the air, for example. She is cast as angelic and therefore barely needs a complex personality until called upon to render maternal grief at the loss of one of her boys. She is “Grace”, but with little to do for herself, the film is imbalanced towards her apparent primal opposite: the father.

Aside from our main protagonist, the boys too have vague characters. They run and play charmingly and as they grow older, they start to experiment with meanness and unhappiness brought about by their stern father and messing around with other kids. Our protagonist becomes increasingly troubled and complex as time goes on and he starts to move away from the confines of the house; we often see him wandering around the streets, occasionally so slow he might just as well stand still. The bulk of character interest is the father, who comes a fully rounded character: charming, conflicted, authoritarian, loving, et cetera. This is probably more achieved by Brad Pitt’s exceptional performance than the screenplay. He manages to fight off most of the symbolic imagery to become a character.

This is a story of where we come from, of memory and loss. It also appears to be a tale of the union and conflict between the natural world and God. If you find inspirational meme’s insightful, then you may be stirred by the religious symbolism, the whispery voiceover and themes that permeate the film: life is a waterfall, cascading magnificently; we are but grains of sand in the wind; and so on. Many may be seduced by the religious symbolism and probably feel that is where the poignancy lies, but this is the laziest of signals. Tales of people, of time and place and growing up, the forming and conflicts of the young and the failings and struggles of adults, these are the things that speak truth and the nods to God here are but pretentions to poeticism that drag insights down to man’s most narcissistic interpretations of existence.

And that brings us to the beach at the end, where Sean Penn wanders and meets the cast of his past. There are reunions of a sort and the mother gives over her son to God – all on a pale beach. It certainly feels a little confused and confusing. However, I prefer to read the beach as less some kind of afterlife or Heaven’s Gate – which the sentiment and otherwordliness might imply – but rather as a plateau of (Jack’s) memory, where its cast wander in Jack’s mind; as a place where he can bring them all together again, as if they had never aged, as if they are forever on call from that time in his childhood. I do so to sidestep the triteness of the afterlife depicted as a beach of the soul. 

The opinion seems to be that Malick is aiming for ‘pure’ cinema, one unburdened by narrative constraints, that is given to the visual rather than story and dialogue. This usually means the cinematic version of a stream-of-consciousness tone poem.
Malick’s film shares more with, for example, Tarkovsky’s “Mirror” and Korine’s “Gummo” where visual aesthetic wrestles and fragments with often simple tales to elevate them into something universal, metaphysical and cultural. Their contrivances are more audio-visual than plot. As it is, the visual splendour and audacity of “Tree of Life” fights for supremacy with the intimacy of the bildungsroman which reaches deep to remind us of growing up and what it is to be besieged by memory and dwarfed by the universe.

 Tree of Life” is definitely going to reward repeat viewings and is the stuff that books and criticism will be written upon for, oh, as long as people are interested in film. It is a splendid experience, not only visually but it has emotional weight despite the its obviousness and pretensions. But then Malick has a total new edit for the Criterion release – an extra fifty minutes (!) – so maybe that makes all this review redundant? This speaks to the film’s fidgety and impressive portrayal of restless memory and cinema and also to its inability to pin itself to anything deeper than the emotional gestures of commercials and stale aphorisms.

Friday, 11 January 2019

One Cut of the Dead

Shin'ichirô Ueda, 2017, Japan
(カメラを止めるな! Kamera o Tomeru na!, lit. "Don't Stop the Camera!")

At FrightFest 2018, there was a lot of buzz about ‘One Cut of the Dead’ and it then went on to appear on several “best of festival” lists. But I missed it as it wasn’t on the main screen but at the Prince Charles Cinema: I always had the impression that I had missed out. Well, it’s returned to the Prince Charles, by popular demand apparently and certainly when I went it was a packed house: judging by social media, there were many people who had missed this at FrightFest and were catching up.

I had carefully avoided hearing too much about it and I recommend you doing the same, if possible. I knew it was a “filming during a zombie apocalypse” kind of thing, mumble-mumble, and that it had undead, obviously, but little else. This meant I was able to enjoy its surprises to the fullest. By way of highlighting how much fun this turns out to be, let me just say that you shouldn’t be fooled by the apparent negligible moments of pacing and acting and scripting or whatever of the first half and stay with it for the long-game. And if you haven’t seen it yet, you should stop reading now.

And then, like ‘Climax’, halfway through, the credits come, it seems, and the intrigue is upped. But whereas Gasper Noe's halfway mark denotes a following decent into hell, Ueda then presents the trouble with conjuring one up. It’s a cannier film than at first appears, doubling back and drawing laughs from the same material just seen by introducing a new perspective and context. Many of those things that initially seemed “off” hit home as jokes. In this way, Ueda’s supple script traversing the perspectives of “laughing at” and “laughing with” with cheerful aplomb, celebrating and gently lampooning shaky-camera horror and improvisation. 

It doesn’t need too much characterisation, just archetypes, but it’s all satirical enough: the hapless director chosen for self-publicising as average; the slightly arrogant lead; the woman who takes her role too seriously; the drunken extra, etc. It has a touch of bad taste, a dollop of silliness and a faint appeal to sentiment, but it’s structure and speed means that there is never too much of any one thing. It’s a joyous celebration of gung-ho low-budget film-making.

By being slightly meta-genre, it’s both fun and knowing enough to please both the demands of comedy and consideration. As a horror behind-the-scenes farce, its entertainment value and building reputation is bound to give ‘One Cut of the Dead’ cult longevity.