Thursday, 17 June 2021

Logan's Run

Logan’s Run 

Michael Anderson

1977, USA

Screenlay: David Zelag Goodman based on the novel by William F Nolan & George Clayton Johnson

 

One of those future utopias/dystopias that I grew up with, in the same pack as ‘Westworld’, ‘Silent Running’, ‘Planet of the Apes’. Those films that are sci-fi smart pulp, but ‘Logan’s Run’ is inferior to those.

The dialogue strikes as the kind of future-speak that adults write for kids. Only Jenny Agutter has an innate naturalness that cuts through: Michael York as Logan 5 (yes: numbers as surnames) is probably apt in his certain sincere blandness actually: people’s banality would be intentional in this society. It’s the 23rd century where civilisation survives in a dome and live for leisure and pleasure; they wear colour-coded clothing according to age and enjoy “the carousel”, where people who reach thirty are “renewed”; a super-computer seems to be in charge. An A.I. is using a Big Lie to maintain population control. It’s that well-known receipt for the undoing of humanity: technology and hedonism. The more sordid side of this life of indulgence was mostly cut to reduce the film’s rating and the most we are left with is a sex club where nudes move in slow motion and try to grope you.

Logan is a Sandman, who hunts and kills those running from “carousel”: seems like not everyone believes in renewal. Logan is introduced to discontent when he meets Jessica (Agutter), and then when he retrieves an Ankh from a runner’s corpse, the computer instructs him to “run”, to find “Sanctuary” – the place runners are trying to escape to – and destroy it.  (The poster seems to imply that Logan goes a-running with Farah Fawcett-Majors, who graces proceeding with feather hear and come-ons.)

After an encounter with a psychotic robot that makes it clear that previous runners probably never got out – which is grim – Logan and Jessica get outside and meet an old man. It is when they meet Peter Ustinov that the stiffness of their dialogue makes more sense as the product of their limited culture. Ustinov’s mumbling spontaneous charm contrasts and adds texture and context: the banality of the characters makes sense when juxtaposed with warmth and improvisation.

But this texture is squandered when Logan and Jessica go back to the dome to share the truth with others, but they don’t actually have any plan for this apart from shouting it to an amused, uninterested mob and being caught by Sandmen. Luckily, the truth overloads the computer, it does a “Does Not Compute!” and a simple gunfight brings the whole city to exploding. If it wasn’t so hard to thwart this civilisation after all, you might think the insurgents might have accomplished something by now as complacency isn’t absolute. Surely the computer would have encountered an Ankh before (runners have them and certainly would have been found earlier when the corpses are frisked)? This would then make more sense as another attempt by it to destroy “Sanctuary”. And why does the Doc risk everything clumsily when trying to kill Logan; can’t rig an “accident”? etc.

So perhaps internal logic isn’t ‘Logan's Run’s’ strong suit and plot holes are everywhere, but there’s lots to enjoy in the future city model-work and sets, as well the overall camp of the costumes and flashing lights and mad robots, etc. You can just feel the intelligence of a novel's ideas being siphoned off for movie platitudes (it would be 'Logan's Run's peer 'Star Wars' to show film makers that you needn't hint at smart, just Faith and spectacle to make it work). Michael Anderson’s direction is a little stiff, but it’s episodic enough that it’s never boring. There’s enough that audience imagination can paper over the cracks and there is always the hint of a better film that keeps the interest. Not so smart, but entertaining.

Monday, 14 June 2021

Nobody

Ilya Naishuller

2021, USA-Japan

Writer: Derek Kolstad

The draw is Bob Odenkirk, because he’s proven himself so great and textured as Saul Goodman in ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘Better call Saul’. Here, he’s Hutch, a humbled and inured family man when we meet him. You know: emasculated. And then there’s a break-in at his house and, although everyone responds as if he has been cowardly when he doesn’t fight back, we can tell there’s more brimming below. And this leads to a chain events that sees him go on to take down an entire Russian underworld gang. So perhaps I thought it might be more ‘A History of Violence’ than ‘John Wick’, but it’s the latter. Well, ‘Nobody’ is written by ‘Wick’ writer Derek Kolstad, so that makes sense.

It’s another action thriller that plays to the fantasies of potency and kick-ass powers for men that seem to think family life is a prison for their killer skills as Alpha Male. It doesn’t help that Hutch’s family soon become just tokens, their opinions of all this and of their father subsequently barely addressed. His wife is a kind of vapour that hangs around. Odenkirk brings gravitas and amusement, but this isn’t a tale of how an aging complex man with an appallingly violent and psychopathic past is forced to face it as well as bring out latent skills. It’s the tale of how he’s let off the hook - finally! – once he feels underappreciated by normal life. It’s about how decent guys are just pretendin’ and they’ll scorch your earth if you mess with them. Any action wannabe could do this, but the casting of Keanu Reeves and Odenkirk for Olstad’s scripts are agreeably offbeat choices, at least ostensibly. For Alistair Harkness, ‘Nobody’ “gives Odenkirk enough room to slyly acknowledge the regressive nature of this film’s plot while simultaneously embracing the opportunity to have fun going kill-crazy on a bunch of Russian mobsters.”

We know how this works: the audience I was with was laughing as soon as it was known the kitty bracelet was missing and he was out the door like a shot to retrieve it. Laughing at how he just watches from the end of the bus, knowing he’s going to teach the gang a lesson and they just don't know it yet. We know he’s going to kick ass and that’s what we came for. There’s no risk because we know he’s indestructible.  

There’s real hurt in the initial fight on the bus, and this is the set-piece that stays in the memory. It takes its time to play out and even has Hutch injured, although that doesn’t linger. Ilya Naishuller directs to emphasis brute force rather than the dance of fighting – but don’t worry: there’s none of the dizzying camerawork of his Hardcore Henry. It’s always enjoyable and entertaining, even if by the time you get a Russian mobster (Aleksey Serebryakov) crossing the road to his nightclub and not caring about traffic because the world bends to his whim, it’s fully clear the tropes and cliché are going to be the agenda here. There’s also crowd-pleasing cameos from Christopher Lloyd and Michael Ironside, and one of those redundant mid-credit scenes that is all the trend but which I am adverse to in any context other than Marvel films. Mark Kermode says ‘Nobody’ is well-made exploitation trash, and that’s so, and for me it’s the bus fight that stuck in my memory.

Wednesday, 9 June 2021

A Quiet Place part 2

 

John Krasinksi

2021, USA

Writers: John Krasinski, Scott Beck & Bryan Woods

Which picks up, after an action-packed flashback to the days the aliens landed, directly where 'A Quiet Place' ended. If anything, right from that flashback, it’s evident that Krasinski is even more assured this time. The formula for ‘A Quiet Place’ reaps great monster movie rewards: instead of lots of build-up and explanation, there’s a solid family basis with a little conflict and emotion that never lets mushiness delay the action, a general survival plot, and once these are established, the films just get on with a series of thrilling action set-pieces. And, again, there is surely even more confidence in the way Krasinski cuts between multiple set-pieces and maintaining the suspense for each one.

There’s even more emphasis on the theme of heroism (which I consider one of the fundamentals of the horror genre) with the story of dad’s mantle being passed to his daughter – an excellent Millicent Williams. She even makes the rebellious daughter trope palatable. Both Marcus (Noah Jupe) and new addition Cillian “I’m not your dad” Murphy get their own arcs of heroism. Kick-ass mom (Emily Blunt) is a given, already having had her turn in the first instalment. The fact that the Abbot family have the advantage of their experience with sign language is one of those pleasing details that open the story to inclusivity. It’s a neat conceit that, in the flashback, is shown clearly as just another facet of family communication. One pleasing aspect is how many details aren’t spelt out in exposition but just there for the audience to learn. But none of this gets in the way of the monster fun or set-pieces.*

The aliens themselves seem there just to run amok and kill – it isn’t even clear that it’s for feeding? – and probably don’t stand up to rigorous logic (she’s the only one to work out that a certain frequency can be weaponised against the monsters?), but at this stage, it barely matters. They are simply avatars for a constant threat to a civilisation beaten out of its loud-hailing ways. Over-stimulated Western lives reduced to a needs-must basis, to an oppressive quietude. Another benefit of this is that we are spared Bad Guy speechifying: it doesn’t stop them being horrid and crude, but at least we don’t have to hear them leer and swagger this time. And given its agenda, it’s perhaps surprising how little it plays the “quiet-quiet-BANG!” card. And I did jump three whole times. Malte  Bieler’s sound design is, of course, notable, doing a sizeable chunk of the storytelling.

And of course, this has been a film held back from audiences due to lockdowns, and there’s certain pointedness to the fact that its premise is about how life-threatening going outside is. And as before, it’s certainly a brave choice to distinguish a mainstream film with a conceit that makes every overheard crunch of popcorn an affront to its enjoyment.


*    I have a friend that finds the Abbots hollow, not really likeable, but I like the lack of mushiness and the pace stopping dead for more family emoting. There’s enough to know who they are and to propel the set-pieces along.

Sunday, 6 June 2021

The 'Pusher' trilogy


Nicolas Winding Refn

Writers: Nicolas Wining Refn & Jens Dahl

1996, Denmark

In the tradition of notable debuts, Nicolas Winding Refn’s first film is a gritty, guerrilla- style crime drama about a loathsome, selfish small-time crook getting himself into deeper and deeper trouble, alienating himself from everyone in a spiral of self-destruction.

In an overabundance of streetwise gritty and downbeat crime thrillers, Refn's debut distinguishes itself with a compelling central performance from Kim Bodnia, a pumping soundtrack, and a hand-held camera that doesn't stray from the shoulder of a scumbag drug pusher on a self-destructive week.  And this marks out the whole ‘Pusher’ series: enthralling central performances, a guerrilla-style hand-held camera that is always pushing the incident and narrative, and a pulsating score by underground artists and Peter Peter. It makes for a riveting and kinetic aesthetic, transcending the familiarities of the story. Apparently made by Refn without any experience and a lot of moxie, certainly there’s a raw and visceral feel.

Of course, the central feature of this underworld genre is the conflict of gangster posturing with morality. But Frank (Bodnia) is wanting from the outset, and there’s a big clue in that he retreats to the immature crudity of his friend Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen). Frank’s credentials as a scumbag only become more apparent as he reacts with bad management to his ever-worsening situation; mostly by mistreating the woman he is using to hide out with. Actually, it’s the women that are key to the moral dilemmas throughout the series. But it’s not a representation of a criminal world that grants any style or psychopathic charm or flair that are so often used by the genre to mitigate the scumbags. Milo (Zlatko Buric) the drug-lord is the only one offering that “gangster flash”, but he’s decidedly bargain rate, just as shabby as he is as dangerous. This is not a community that even entertains ethics or loyalty, just the fleeting highs and business of drug pushing.

The natural lighting, the grittiness and no-budget core only serve to enhance the charmlessness of this milieu. It’s certainly a world away from the arty compositions and neons of Refn’s later work. Frank’s tale is a worn one, and maybe that itself has a point, but the bravado of the telling makes for a punch of a debut.

 


PUSHER II: With Blood on My Hands

 Writer & director: Nicolas Winding Refn

2004, Denmark-UK

A sequel with a more questioning stance of its criminal underworld: This time we concentrate on Tonny, a fearless Mads Mikkelsen, who certainly is a surprise against his more austere later roles. Here he is crude, not so smart, immature. Tonny is a scumbag but we understand why when he's immersed in such a scumbag social circle. The reappearance of drug lord Milo hints at the smallness of this world, but this sequel spreads wider.

The underworld here is synonymous with broken families, propagating more brokenness down the generations (a wedding becomes just an excuse for a strip show). Tonny, despite his head tattoo, doesn't get any respect. Everyone insults him, and he’s suppressing a lot. He's clueless but, just out of jail, also curiously willing to please, which makes him easy to sway either way and therefore more sympathetic. But why do good when good isn't rewarded? Whereas his pal Frank found there was nothing inside himself but more selfishness and trouble, Tonny’s tale is a portrait of a man with limited resources finding something deeper within himself certainly strikes a surprising chord.

Highlights include an early extended scene with Tonny with two prostitutes and clueless men changing a nappy.


PUSHER III: I Am the Angel Death

Writer & director: Nicolas Winding Refn

2005, Denmark

In which we now follow Milo, the crime lord that has played a key part in the previous films. The ‘Pusher’ trilogy ends on a kind of farce for crime lords: all Milo wants is to throw a successful 25th party for his spoiled, bratty daughter – but he gives his crew food poisoning! a drug deal goes wrong! he has to go to the local takeaway for party food! he has to get to AA meetings! There’s nothing quite so questioning here, and the dissonance between Milo underworld status and his intention to be a generous and gregarious patriarch barely seems to cause him reflection. But the  precariousness of his status is naked here, always under threat from others as well his own cooking abilities. It all takes place over a day so there is no fallout from what we see, although by the end of it the family and the business come together seamlessly and the whole sordid mess carries on.

Again, a hypnotic central performance (from Zlatco Buric), but more vulnerable and less flamboyant than his previous appearances and a kinetic handheld camera, boosted by great music, makes this always compelling, even if treading well-worn territory. And the series ends on its most gruesome set piece that comes across as just another pratfall Milo has to deal with.

 

*

As a trilogy, ‘Pusher’ soon overcomes the familiarities of its genre – and that’s part of what we came for, anyhow – to become dynamic character studies, each film bringing a different shade. There’s not even so much of the macho posturing that streaks the gangster genre – we won’t count Tonny’s immature boasting of sexual prowess – but rather people just going about their sordid lives, posturing and making stupid pronouncements, filling the roles they think they’re playing. Sometimes, they just fall for their own repeated failures of character, sometimes they manage to break away from themselves to something new without really knowing what that means, and sometimes they just grow old into it, with no real desire to transcend. Together, the ‘Pusher’ films creates a credible and raw microcosm of a degenerate corner of Copenhagen, solid character studies of unlikable protagonists that are seemingly doomed from the outset.

Monday, 31 May 2021

To your Last Death & Max Reload and the Nether Blasters - Grimmfest May Madness


 To Your Last Death

Jason Axinn

2019, USA

Writers: Jim Cirile, Tanya C. Klein

Originally conceived as alive action, it seems, but ‘To Your Last Death’ being an animated horror distinguishes it in a way it probably wouldn’t have been otherwise. Dysfunctional siblings are summoned by their psychopathic and obscenely wealthy arms dealer father and unleash death traps and cosmic malfeasance in equal measure. The animation is the style familiar from ‘Archer’, the characters are the antagonistic kind and there are enough bonkers and outrageous touches – ‘Saw’-style death traps; reprehensible Russian henchmen; a little time-travel; comic-book style omnipresent beings for which we are just playthings; but surely missed out on a killer robot – to make this entertaining throughout. The faintly clunky animation only makes the pulpy excess and ultra-gore more amusing.


Max Reload and the Nether Blasters

Writers & directors: Scott Conditt & Jeremy Tremp

2020, USA

And here it is, the 80s homage that always pops up at a genre festival. This follows features such as ‘Beyond the Gates’ (homagey fun) and ‘Game of Death’ (playing things straight and nasty) in gamer culture unleashing demonic apocalypse; one might even include the delightful ‘Deathgasm’ in this playpen with its metal nerdiness.

Comic book colours – red lightning! – likeable young protagonists, retro-synth score, genre favourite cameos playing to the gallery – Kevin Smith! – thick messaging about the power of friendship, nerdiness and lots of retro-video gaming love. Although it has to be said that neither Max’s (Tom Plumley) proclaimed asshole lone-wolfish and the apocalypse are thoroughly convincing, but it’s light, funny, fun and exudes a lot of goodwill. It also contains one vivid and creepy moment where our heroes travel through a city where all the people have glowing red eyes.  And it’s all resolved with gameplay. 


Sunday, 30 May 2021

A Perfect Enemy & The Nest - Grimmfest May Madness


A Perfect Enemy

Kike Maíllo

2020, Spain-France-Germany

Screenwriters: Kike Maíllo, Cristina Clemente, Fernando Navarro

Slick and often slippery thriller where a successful architect apparently obsessed with “perfection” finds himself harassed by a young woman after a conference in Paris. Despite the expanse of their locale, it’s a chamber piece where they talk contentiously against the backdrop of an airport lounge, storytelling and memories.

Perhaps if you are versed in this kind of psychological thriller, you may guess the answer to the mystery long before it comes – there are certainly clues – but there’s enough feints this way and that to keep doubts and interest. There’s a nice European feel and an airport lounge proves a winning central location. Mostly, there’s a lot of chemistry and good stuff between Tomasz Kot as Jeremiasz Angust and Anthena Strates as Texel Textor – both great performances – and the writers have a lot of fun with the unreliable narrator and cement imagery.


James Suttles

2021, USA

Screenplay: Jennifer Tudrung

A horror allegory for the disintegration of a family that sinks itself in unremarkable family scenes and then genre clichés that outstay their welcome long after we have the point, ending with thin horror pay-off.

(Also, IMDB has it listed as ‘The Bewailing’, which surely goes on the list of most desperate and clumsy naming.)


And my previous review of the enjoyable 'Vicious Fun' is here.

Lapsis: Grimmfest May Madness

 Another virtual festival from Grimmfest, streamed straight into my home. It has been these film festivals that have offered respite from the routine of lockdown, for which I am grateful. I’ll be sad if they don’t keep the virtual option going.


Lapsis

Writer  director: Noah Hutton

2020, USA

As a kind of science-fiction Mike Leigh, ‘Lapsis’ provides criticism of the gig economy with just a few genre trimmings. It centres itself on the fake empowerment industry phrases we are all familiar with, the kind that are all about giving everything to your job whilst pretending to be about bettering yourself as an individual ("The best cablers are the ones who aren't afraid to challenge their status quo"). Ray (Dean Imperial) needs cash for his unwell brother’s treatment and gets caught up in cable laying for a telecommunications company, which promises rich rewards as employment, but he gets the job from a shady source and something doesn’t seem right. 

Turns out that trying to negotiate through a new job, learning the language, rules and equipment for a new role works is akin to solving a mystery narrative, and is just as compelling. Everyone knows something but the protagonist, who’s also been saddled with a contentious work identity, and there’s a conspiracy to uncover as well. Exploitation is of course the target, and how technology is used to monitor and ensnare workers. An indication of the subtlety is the fact that Dean brother’s fatigue illness is suggested as made-up at tone point, surely aligned with the social mindset that not working is failing or shirking. It’s one of those near-future scenarios that speaks directly to contemporary experience, and if it falls into seeming anti-climax – a second viewing to fully piece the puzzle and resolution together is undoubtedly required - it’s always smart and relatable. It’s also grounded in Dean Imperial’s similarly smart and relatable performance as unfussy Ray, who’s motivation, endearingly, is solely to do his best by his ailing brother. His chemistry with Madeline Wise is also a high point.

Bonus points for the simple imagery of cables trailing through the forest, quickly symbolising business technology’s desecration of nature. Subtle and low-key rather than polemical, although the questions it posits are likely to remain vivid and gather weight long afterwards.

Wednesday, 26 May 2021

Army of the Dead


Army of the Dead

Zack Snyder

2021, USA

Screenplay: Zack Snyder & Shay Hatten & Joby Harrod

There was a moment where Zack Snyder seemed all zeitgeisty. His rendering of cliché with pop-conviction and some cine-smartass pzazz was simultaneously exciting and camp. Even ‘300’ was a pretty confection and laughably preposterous, not necessarily good but bizarrely winningly camp. ‘Watchmen’ brought all the Snyder’s tics in a positive light: with a proper meaty script, he delivered a bold interpretation with his aesthetic, which – at that moment – was perfect for comic book narrative. There was the darkness there mitigated by camp and colour, this was before Snyder became tediously po-faced with his later superhero offerings. But ‘Suckerpunch’ was just bad.

‘Army of the Dead’ doesn’t have enough pzazz or camp to lift it above its clichés. All its explosions signify very little. It starts off with a lady wobbling her cleavage at a man that causes a crash on a desert road (?) with a military procession that causes the release of a zombie that causes the apocalypse in Las Vegas. Vegas is quarantined, etc, but there’s a lot of money still in there that a band of variously desperate and bored survivors think they can get before the city is nuked. A premise that promises fun, but the writing is weak and rather than something poppy and amusing: three screenwriters, but it’s rudimentary stuff. ‘Oceans Eleven’ meets ‘Planet Terror’ surely sounded a winner on paper, but we get tired characterisation, tired odd buddy banter and father-daughter stuff that is too rudimentary to be engaging and yet keeps interrupting all the time. A female cigar-chomping helicopter pilot; some cast-off ‘Aliens’ types; tedious stubborn daughter (eh, you know she’s going to run off); a stoic guide with a conscience; a German safe-cracker that screams high-pitched, and therefore like a woman and that’s apparently indicative of his cowardice and therefore funny* - but he actually proves to be the most engaging character (Matthias Schweighöfer). Oh, and Dave Bautista whose presence and charm are wasted.

Here, being a zombie gives you cool monster vocal effects and athletic abilities. Perhaps having our heisters face a pack of intelligent zombies was a mistake: trying to be clever and smart surrounded by a hoard of mindless cannibals might have been a better conflict? These here could just be any post-‘Mad Max II’ post-apocalyptic gang. The best zombie epics are about the thin threads of civilisation and humanity revealed by the outbreak; when zombies are just cannon fodder, it’s dull and is not so dissimilar to watching someone play a video game, but with less at stake. In ‘Army of the Dead’, they even recruit someone because of his social media presence where he treats the living dead as a shooting gallery, but this is apparently just proof of his skill and never once is his empathy questioned. Yes, it’s not that film but there’s not enough elsewhere to mitigate the anti-zombie genre criticisms that it’s just an excuse for conscienceless shoot-em-ups. For comparison, Robert Rodriguez’s ‘Planet Terror’ had exploitation on its side. But there’s apparently an ‘Army of the Dead’ franchise intended … and it’s not truly an army either, because they’re not fighting any opponents or …  It’s the kind of film that, with a Google search, there’s clickbait like “How Did Th Zombie Queen Get Pregnant?” 

I mean, even going into “a forbidden zone” has echoes of ‘Stalker’ and ‘Escape From New York’ and ‘Annihilation’, but the mystery and/or threat here don’t really ramp up, however much the zombies screech; ‘World War Z’ had far more vivid zombie visuals. ‘Army of the Dead’ does have a zombie tiger, who provides the film’s best head-chomping gore moment, but that’s one engaging gross-out in a sea of mediocre zombie fighting (and the tiger is just distractingly fakery CGI).

We also have the use of incongruous pop-tunes which Snyder helped set the modern trend for (I’ll never forget the rush of suddenly hearing Johnny Cash’s ‘When the Man Comes Around’ in Snyder's ‘Dawn of the Dead’) but now it’s just old hat (the best use in ‘Army of the Dead’ is of Culture Club’s ‘Do You Really Want To Hurt Me’ as elevator muzak). But the pop soundtrack does fit the heist movie genre. The most striking sequence is that trick that Snyder is great at, in using the opening credits to squash in an entire movie or two (my favourite is the guy parachuting into a mob of zombies). But that’s the dramatic high point and, despite the budget, it’s thin blood and loose change and not enough fun.


·    *   I read a Twitter thread recently that discussed how in the ‘King Kong’ spider pit sequence, there’s a lot of high-pitched male screaming and that, over following years, men screaming was presented as a lot lower in tone. High-pitched male screaming is still a trope of amusement, something about immasculinisation, I'd presume.

Saturday, 8 May 2021

Cat People - Tourneur and Schrader

 

Jacques Tourneur

USA, 1942

Writer: DeWitt Bodeen

Tourneur’s alternative were-tragedy is a svelt and elegant tale about how sexuality and jealousy makes one woman dangerous. Certainly, Irena is quite charming, sweet, smart and endearing at first – Simone Simon barely seems capable of raising her voice – and that means she is appealing intellectually and disarming. And she’s a Serbian immigrant and therefore exotic, so it’s easy to see how a decent enough all American chap might fall for her. She has a warmth and vulnerability that commands empathy throughout. But this foreignness also comes with troubled ancestry and a delusion that, when this exotic sexuality is tapped, she’ll become a lethal panther. This becomes a problem when she senses her husband falling for another.

But there’s nothing mean to our central love-triangle: there’s a definite maturity to DeWitt Bodeen’s screenplay. When Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) must tell Irena that he’s fallen for someone else, he doesn’t blame Irena for being difficult or stringing him along, but it’s with regret and acceptance of responsibility. Also, Alice (Jane Randolph) isn’t some love rival drawn bad, but often suggesting the more sympathetic actions when dealing with Irena. Moira Wallace writes that “Simone Simon seems by nature to be more kitten than were-wolf”, but that is surely the point, that Irena isn’t a siren seductress, a femme fatale to anyone but herself. After all, “She never lied to us.”

It’s a text wholly built from fear and phobia, from a woman’s fear of her ancestry and sexuality, and of her loneliness and her place in social convention. Undoubtedly also due to budgetary constraints, it nevertheless evokes the eerie and uncanny with a success that a film with more resources probably would not have achieved. Secondarily, it’s the male fear that a woman’s troubled sexuality can’t be trusted, perhaps especially if it’s foreign and exotic. And there is also the hint of lesbianism, not least when a stranger calls Irena “Sister”. It’s also notable that it’s Alice that first believes in the threat and powers of Irena, without much hesitation when she’s confronted by weirdness, while the men mostly patronise, disbelieve and consign Irena to insanity. The men can’t quite see pass their own agendas, and in Dr Judd (Tom Conway), his assumption that his privilege and gender trump all is a wrongheaded arrogance. There are forces at play here that the very straight characters outside Irena are barely aware of.

The film’s major laziness is in suggesting some makeshift cross and Christian declaration might fend off something so primal, as if the film thought it was a somewhat more traditional supernatural monster movie fighting off a pagan threat (and although this can be attributed to Oliver’s beliefs, the film does seem to play along). But the bus moment is one of the genre’s great jump-scares, and there is something truly primal and fearsome in the similarly iconic swimming pool set piece. Rob Aldam writes, 

 “Largely overshadowed by Paul Schrader’s inferior remake, The Cat People is a milestone in horror movies. The way Lewton and Tourneur use shadow in lieu of an actual monster completely revolutionised how films are made. There’s so much more malice in a fleetingly glimpsed silhouette than revealing all your cards to the audience.”

The use of shadows and light are exemplary throughout, shadows becoming bars and obscuring the monster and monstrous so it is always lurking and pending. Tourneur and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca worked on film noir before and put the chiaroscuro to the best evocative use for horror. ‘Cat People’ successfully conjures the uncanny and abstract anxiety, those elements that touch the everyday, perpetual engine of the genre.  The monster revealed is our own fear of ourselves. It’s certainly a text for those who feel like outsiders, even surrounded by decent, sympathising people.




 Paul Schrader

1982 – USA-Japan

Screenplay: Alan Ormsby

Paul Schrader doesn’t think of this as a remake of the Jacques Tourneur classic, which he doesn’t seem to rate, and seems to think the inclusion of a mysterious lady saying “My sister!” is his homage to the original; but it riffs on the swimming pool scene and the famous bus jump-shock and in that way follows similar beats to the original. Schrader’s take is very different and earns that contentious label as a “re-imagining”, but to reject it as a remake is surely a little disingenuous.

What it does do, like Cronenberg’s ‘The Fly’ and Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’, is to take a beloved source material and update it successfully, bringing what was all allusion and suppression in the originals to the surface. For ‘Cat People’, that means all the kink and sleaze and dodgy sexuality is front and foremost. And surely Natasja Kinski nude was a selling point, although this was also in McDowell’s nude period. Oh, and to add incest too. Kinski’s offbeat sexual appeal where she goes from innocent to seductress when discovering she turns into a panther when primal urges are released by sex certainly centres the film. She hangs between Malcolm MacDowell’s sleazy incestuous perversity and John Heard’s wholesome All American machismo.

This was slightly side-stepped in the shape-changing cluster including ‘An American Werewolf in London’, ‘The Howling’ and ‘The Thing’, perhaps because it wasn’t funny or satirical or outlandish, but I always put them in the same pot. The highpoints are McDowell’s creepy leaping on the end of a bed, the arm being pulled off, the unforgettable desert scenes and Giorgio Moroder’s quintessentially Eighties pulsing synth-score: I even think of the orange tint to the dream-desert sequences as an Eighties orange. The score is one I have listened to ever since. Its weaknesses are a couple of moments with female victims that wouldn’t sound out of place in ‘The Man With Two Brains’, and the iconic pool scene that, here, seems to imply that Irena can transform at will, which isn’t in the rules of this version.

The sexuality in ‘Cat People’ walks a line between arthouse and exploitation and its actual standpoint a little hard to pin down. Sexuality is primal, unleashes the beast and perversion: even the ostensibly nice and normal sex between Irena and Paul leads to bondage. Based on this, Gary Arnold calls a Schrader “an exploitation director with delusions of grandeur”,  but that seems pretty self-evident, and hitting that sweet spot between conceived “high” and “low” art is genre privilege. ‘Cat People’ is a near-miss, but still intriguing.

The ending signals tragedy, and it is conceptually better than the run-of-the-mill monster movie ending that Schrader talks of, but it also symbolises a woman’s sexuality being caged up by a man for her own good, and by her own choice. There’s an uneasy murkiness here, but the elements of arthouse and exploitation tame one another to produce something that is quite unique, and certainly beguiling, despite and because of its crude edges and pulsating Eightiesness. 

Sunday, 2 May 2021

Amusements



Friday, 30 April 2021

'50s Garden Rocket - music video

Here is a new video for an old song. "50s garden Rocket" was the first Buck Theorem song, made when I was in the band I Am The Twister. That's my Twister pal Paul West providing some drums and xylophone. It was made on an old 4-track in the early- or mid-Nineties and spruced up digitally decades later. It features on my first effort, "Waiting Firecrackers".

I promise to pick up everyone.


Monday, 19 April 2021

'Black Test Car' and 'The Black Report'


 Black Test Car

黒の試走車 – Kuro no tesuto kâ

Director: Yasuzô Masumura

Writers: Kazuo Funahashi, Yoshihiro Ishimatsu

Novel: Sueyuki Kajiyama

1962, Japan

‘Black Test Car’ looks like Sixties New Wave shaded by Film Noir, and it certainly uses this look and urgency to dress up its tale of industrial espionage as a spy thriller. Two companies engage in dirty tricks – blackmail, bribery, bullying, pimping, spying, etc – to beat the other to the punch in developing a sports car. But of course, it’s much deeper than that. The fanatical company loyalty is akin to blind patriotism, and indeed there are CEOs with military backgrounds and the whole rivalry is played out like a warzone where ethics are seen as naïveté. And of course, this is conflated with capitalism. Jonathan Rosenbaum speaks of how Masumura portrayed this as a madness.*

JapanonFilm equates Asahino’s closing moral speechifying as typical of this genre of drama, condemning their tactics as concomitant with gangsterism, but also in a specifically Japanese context. 

“But he adds the unexpected twist of comparing the company to the Army and telling his boss he might as well “put on khaki.” Masumura and his screenwriters are not necessarily representative of the society as a whole, but the very idea that the previously god-like Army could now be considered worse than the yakuza in a mainstream entertainment movie indicates just how far a large segment of public opinion has swung by 1960.”

Aside from this insanity of unquestioning devotion, the correlation between sex, work and money is brazen. Masoko (Junko Kano) sensuously kissing a jewelled ring after she’s been pimped out by her boyfriend to obtain industrial secrets is typical. Inevitably, when business is so dominated by men, toxic masculinity is rife; but as Rosenbaum notes, everyone here is villainous. It’s not quite like ‘The Sweet Smell of Success’ where the women are superior, ethically speaking, but ‘Black Test Car’ is even more obvious that the women know that their gender compromises their opportunity and choices. The men have no such mitigating motivation: their company loyalty is corrosive.  

It’s not so subtle and doesn’t need to be, with characters often talking in exposition (or at least the subtitles do: “Here is your spying money,” is a highlight). The settings are boardrooms and clubs and bedrooms, but the sequences are often rapid, the pace persistent, the plotting and double-crossing keeps coming, so it’s always compelling. The black-and-white compositions and suits give this an element of surface cool even as the centre gets increasing warped and destructive. 

The word “black” became synonymous with corruption in Japanese culture, with Deiei’s Tokyo studio releasing a whole series of films under this rubric. Made during a booming period in Japanese cinema, these films reflect post-war social changes and anxieties about such economic booms – such as the car industry – and wrestled with ethical struggles with new and old systems. Masumura’s follow-up to ‘Black Test Car’ was ‘The Black Report’ (aka. ‘Black statement Book’), a similarly thorough and cynical text on the legal system.


The Black Report

Aka. Black Statement Book

Kuro no hôkokusho

Director: Yasuzô Masumura

Writers: Yoshihiro Ishimatsu, Yasuzô Masumura 

‘The Black Report’ starts with the beautifully composed aftermath of a murder, the scene decorated with flowers. The mixture of death and decoration is almost giallo-like. Both ‘Test Car’ and ‘Report’ begin with their most striking images – the car covered in a tarpaulin to disguise its design and the murder scene – that imprint themselves in the memory from the outset as the film goes into more offices and meetings to tell its tale. ‘The Black Report’ is less jazzy than its predecessor, but courtroom dramas have a built-in suspense mechanism.

Again, as things unfold, Masumara’s style is rapid with barely a diversion or segue. Just clean cuts, parcels of information developing the narrative with each scene. There’s so many details – this affair, another affair… no… Yes?... that another film might take half hour dispensing where Masumura takes ten minutes. And then, the trial falls apart as the angle of each testimony changes. One side has the ideal of law and the other sees it as sport. 

Both these films end with triumph and defeat as equal, as much losing when winning, creating a picture where truth and fairness are impossible within a crowd of personalities and perspectives, weaknesses, plots and corruption. Comeuppance is waved tantalisingly at the audience before the deadline is missed and the idealist becomes the scapegoat. 

And yet although fatalism and sleaze caps the narratives, so does acceptance and both films finish with the idealist going on to do presumably future good works, presumably wiser from their experience. Despite the beautiful high contract black-on-white on display, this is definitely a frustrated world of grey. That element of “unfairness” that I always find so memorable in a film does not register here: one of the notable achievements of these films are that they refuse to fall on either side of nihilism or wish-fulfilment. They resound with something far more complex.

* ‘Black Test Car’, Arrow release: ‘What Matsumara Does With Our Madness’: John Rosenbaum. 


Tuesday, 6 April 2021

Grimmfest Easter Horror Nights 6: 'Keeping Company', 'Paradise Cove' & 'You're Dead, Helene', 'Minimally Invasive'

 Keeping Company

Director - Josh Wallace

Screenwriters - Josh Wallace, Devin Das

Starting off on the more goofy end of horror, with humour quite broad, but hammering its satire harder and harder until we get bloodstains on white business phones. Trying to have the same bite as, say, ‘I Care a Lot’: it even has that "I'm a shark" bullshit. In this world, parents are monsters, meat is fast food capitalism, life insurance is just a scam, workers become unwitting murderers. It just doesn’t have that virtuoso streak of ‘Society’s finale or a footing in reality that might make the characters more engaging; or the gleeful silliness of ‘TerrorVision’; or, if we’re talking cannibalism and What Lies Behind Suburban Surfaces, the drollness of ‘Parents’. It becomes wearisome, even if it has a good pace.

Paradise Cove

Director - Martin Guigui

Screenwriter - Sherry Klein

2021, USA

I liked Martin Guigui’s ‘The Unhealer’, but although it starts with a clean and fresh air, ‘Paradise Cove’ just sticks to the clichés until there’s nothing to it. A couple buy a beachfront house to renovate, only to discover there’s a dotty homeless woman under it that just won’t leave. Any hope that it might take a surprising turn from all the other Eighties thrillers that are just like this and keep on coming are quickly disabused as soon as the knife goes in. A pleasing coastal setting make it nice to look at, but that’s no surprise and can’t stop plot holes and the central problem that, if they know she comes and goes and overhears them as she does, why not just leave? They don’t even discuss it. For all its gesturing at social conscience, it just becomes another tale of the privileged finding out that all their prejudices against the homeless aren’t unwarranted. 


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Michiel Blanchart’s ‘You’re Dead, Hélène’ is tale of being haunted by a dead girlfriend that just won’t quit when you’re trying to move on. It’s funny, but deftly handles shifts in tone to horror and romantic sentiment. 

Adam Harvey’s ‘Minimally Invasive’ has that one-location horror scenario that short films do so well. A nervous patient undergoing a routine operation … well, that’s all you probably need to know. The helplessness and squeamishness are all present and correct. It’s blackly comic fun.


endnote...

And I don’t know what happened because I thought I had bought the whole Grimmfest pass, but I hadn’t and therefore missed what I have seen called the best of the festival ‘Rendez-vous’, as well as ‘Sleepless Beauty’. More than that, I didn’t know that there was also free shorts until midway through the festival and thought I had time to watch… but I misjudged and then they were gone. So I missed a whole chunk. Silly me. 


Monday, 5 April 2021

Grimmfest Easter Horror Nights 5: 'Trans', 'Red River Road' & 'Nova', 'Strayed', 'Hey' it's me'

 


TRANS

Director-writer: Naeri Do

2020, The Republic of Korea

Time-loops, electricity and biology, bullying, temporal displacement, murder and nihilism. In a world of high school bullying, Minyoung Go (Hwanf JeJeong-in) is experiencing a time-loop. There’s a guy that sits in the desk in front of her that has an artificial – bionic? – arm. Someone has been murdered outside the school, fried to a crisp. Another guy, Taeyong (Kim Taeyoung) having saved her from bullying, shows her that he has a lab in back home and introduces her to transhumanism. He weds this to adolescent nihilism, thinking himself superior and humankind trash and over. This is not ‘Weird Science’.  He even has a giant Tesla Coil thing set up in the desert. The narrative crashes along and doubles back on itself, leaving behind quickly what might appear to be a Making Superheroes At School revenge set-up. There’s still the dramatics of characters conflicting, but then there’s identity merging, and then we get to time travel… It’s heady, and you’d best keep up, and elements of fun come with playing electric guitar to Tesla Coils. Although there’s a Hard Sci-Fi feel to the philosophy, characters are just left confused and desperate in the wake of superpowers and multi-dimensions, which seems appropriate for bullied teenagers biting off more than they can chew. And where else can you go with angsty teens other than being swamped with Big Science they think they understand?

Red River Road

Writer/director - Paul Schuyler

2021, USA

A real family affair, made wholly by the Schuylers under lockdown conditions. This brings, of course, an authentic family feel to the characters and the setting – oh look, nerd stuff! A whole room dedicated to DVDs… and film reels as decoration! Action figures! – which helps no end with identification and investment. This wave of made-at-home films, long and short, are showcasing the innovation and DIY drive of filmmakers more than ever. Of course, it helps if you have the decent script and ideas. A short like ‘Thrall’ uses it limitations and assets and flourishes with themes, for example: at first, I probably thought it was standard fare, but upon reflection found it properly meaty. ‘Red River Road’ (the Schuylers’ actual road) deploys its scenario discreetly: Anna’s (Jade Schuyler) paranoid pillow talk early on may initially seem the result of a anxious nature, but it proves to be a vital junket to what’s going on; and once there’s the knife accident, things come into focus even more. With a solid family foundation, the film can take its time to drip-feed details that there’s a pandemic out there, spread by the internet that messes with reality. There’s even microchips in necks and rotary phone calls to imply government control. It’s right of its moment.

‘Red River Road’ succeeds with its depiction of a warm family dynamic and its portrayal of slipping reality, lack of control, fear of the intangible and mounting loss. It would be harder to find a more personal film capturing the anxieties and abstract doom of the pandemic lockdown era. It even uses family film footage for the flashback/whatever. A budget may even have been a hindrance to the vision.

 

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James McAbee’s Nova’ is just what the short form is for: a rotating shot showing off special effects. Impressively executed and designed, we can fill in the backstory ourselves. 

Sarah Bonrepaux’s ‘Strayed’ condenses abstract fear of the self, of being debilitated when you’re in your prime.

The Sposato’s ‘Hey, it’s Me’ meets the criteria of its lofty sci-fi time-spanning demands by focusing on one person, offering some retro-futurism and keeping it things colourful. The Grimmfest summary cite ‘The Twilight Zone’, and it certainly has that feel. Fully satisfying.

 

 

Sunday, 4 April 2021

Grimmfest Easter Horror Nights 4: 'The Other Side', 'Mara' & 'She Cries at Night' and 'Southkorea Ghost Story'


THE OTHER SIDE

“Andra Sidan”

Directors & writers: Tord Danielsson, Oskar Mellander

2020, Sweden

A Swedish version of the standard mainstream horror tropes, set in a country where people don’t have strong indoor lights, or if they do they don’t turn them on. But this does mean some nice shadow-play and lighting in an otherwise non-Gothicky setting (the bar of light coming from an open bedroom door across the hallway is imprinted on my memory). It’s about how a woman must prove her worth as a stepmother to a child by facing off the bogeyman creeping in from next door. Luckily, a few declarations of love seem to do the trick. Perhaps this could have been a little more subtextual for effect. And it tends towards that thing of setting up something up for just one scare and abandoning it: in this case, surely she would/could have used the baby-cam for greater results? But there is a wonderful performance from the five year-old Eddie Errikson Dominguez (the directors’ experience in children’s TV paid off here) and it does a good job of converting a modern and clean house into a scare-space, and although quiet-quiet-BANG! doesn’t usually work for me, I did jump a couple of times.


MARA

Writer & director: Alexey Kazakov

2020, Russian Federation

Trying to blag and gaslight his way out of a traumatic incident that has broken up his marriage, architect Andrey (Semyon Serzin) seeks the help of Mara (Aleksandra Revenko): she gives him a mushroom that makes his wife, musician Olya (Marina Vasileva), forget that incident. For payment, Mara asks Andrey to housesit her amazing New Agey apartment. Of course the mushroom works and of course nothing is as it seems.

An intriguing updating of making a pact with a witch that gradually becomes more psychedelic as it goes on, incorporating body horror, fairy tale nods, war flashbacks, Giallo palette, and the Kremlin. Andrey’s selfishness and weakness grounds it all – he’s not malevolent, but acts unforgivably through not accepting what has happened. With bravery and cowardice as key horror and fairy tale themes, ‘Mara’ makes the horror of the self and it’s failings central, as well as guilt and culpability (he’s spent all this time thinking of what he should have done, but when he’s given the chance it pleasingly doesn’t have the desired result, adding even further layers). It’s a fairly heady mix. David Dent sees this as misogynistic, and of course there is the manipulative female witch, and it’s true that Olya is more idealised than fully fleshed out, constantly manipulated, but the film doesn’t condone that: but it struck me that it was more about the failure of Andrey as a partner and punishing him for facing up to reality. And that’s where the fairy-tale-horror stuff comes in, and for that, as a horror based around mushrooms, it’s offers something a little different.

 

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Stephen Parker’s ‘She Cries at Night’ provides simple creepy scares – you can’t go wrong with creepy crying and squeaky doors opening by themselves – when a couple try to recover from the loss of their child. As always, the supernatural preys on grief and offers them something crying at night… There’s a nice offhand chemistry between the two leads, some mild scares and a sense of what always sticks with me in horror: unfairness.

Minsun Park and Teddy Tenenbaum’s ‘Southkorea Ghost Story’ tends towards the more goofy end of horror, at least initially when Lyrica Okano visits Magaret Cho and finds herself victimised by cultural rituals and mad motherdom. There’s some dry playing and some memorable use of acupuncture for this satirical take on cultural belief systems.