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A tremendous gift for a new year
Having been in some kind of development for the past quarter of a century, Martin Scorsese's Silence finally opens. And after a grim 2016 it emerges as the perfect gift for the new year: a deeply probing and contemplative epic exploring themes of persecution, integrity, truth and faith, which seems not only apt for our times, but necessary.
We open with the chaotic sounds of nature – a cacophony of insect chatter and animal wailing – and then we cut to "Silence".
The year is 1633 and the place is Japan. Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) provides the context. He's a Jesuit priest, captured and tortured by the Japanese for his faith. Jump to 1640. Two of Ferreira's students, Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver), are informed that Ferreira has gone AWOL in Japan. The crackdown on Christianity has turned that country into a dangerous place for Christians. Rumours abound that Ferreira has denounced his faith. But Rodrigues and Garrpe believe this is slander, and they set off for Japan to bring Ferreira home.
The wandering priests enter a coastal village and are welcomed by the native Japanese, who exist in crushing poverty, struggling under the ruthless, ever-watchful eye of Inoue Masashige (Issey Ogata). Suspected Christians are regularly dragged from their homes and forced to publicly denounce their God by stepping foot on the image of Jesus.
This "trampling" becomes a key weapon and point of conflict in the story. As the Japanese rulers repeatedly state, it is "just a formality". But for the flock it means the relinquishing of faith; a surrendering of who they are. It's called "korobu", literally meaning "to fall down".
When Rodrigues advises the villagers to go ahead and "trample", he is applying real-world advice to a punishment that threatens their very existence. Yet what about Rodrigues himself – why should he not heed his own advice? The Japanese believe it's a matter of ego; that Rodrigues is arrogant. But is it not his job to be held to a higher religious standard?
The story is seen almost exclusively through the eyes of Rodrigues: his horror at the cruelty of the ruling class; his ambivalent but ultimately loving relationship with Garrpe; his guilt and doubt about his faith and his mission; and finally the extent of his service under a repressive system. After all, what relief can he provide dead? Even if it makes him a hypocrite in life.
In the basic plot there are parallels with Heart of Darkness, and by extension Apocalypse Now, although don't expect a crazy Colonel Kurtz showdown. The inevitable confrontation with Ferreira is a philosophical fight. What is found is scary and threatening to Rodrigues, but not for the reasons one might imagine. Indeed, this third act shifts our view of the priests, who were once unquestionably saviours, to something less morally clear.
But the greatest parallels are with Scorsese's own film, The Last Temptation of Christ. Like Willem Dafoe's Christ, Garfield's Rodrigues is humanised. He's temperamental, doubtful, even hopeless at times. Always burdened by this divine responsibility, although perhaps less resentful than Nikos Kazantzakis's Son of God. Garfield brings great warmth to the role, and an agonising, largely internalised passion.
Special mention must go to the sound design. It's a quiet film but one which is conspicuously bereft of silence. At one point Rodrigues hands a token – a tiny wooden cross – to a poor villager, and it seems to chirrup like a living thing. Scorsese is reminding us that nature is never silent, and rarely is the human mind.
By the end, we are left with more questions than answers – which is fine, because they are questions we can all ask of ourselves. Narratively harking back after the lifetime of Rodrigues, we ask: If a person's faith is not permitted to be shown – not fetishised – does that mean it is vanquished? Belief, one might argue, is actually given strength by repressive rules, driven deeper, into the soul of the individual. (Or, for the atheists among us, into the unvoiced subconscious.)
All of which makes us look at the broader struggles portrayed throughout the film in general. The Inquisitor frequently refers to Japan as a swamp in whose soil Christianity can never take root. Indeed, as a structured organisation, Christianity may not be able to overthrow the Buddhist order. But on an individual level, leaving aside rituals or tokens, there will always be those who need relief from the burden of their guilt, or who struggle with their personal integrity.
In the wake of last year's events, it is sometimes mentioned that we are living in a "post-truth" world. That truth is the objective kind, whereas the "truth" to which Silence refers is something different: the truth that beneath the artefacts of our belief systems – the crosses and the books and the veils – lies a shared belief in humanity; a desire for order and community. In portraying the captors and captives in a nuanced way, without madness or outright evil, Scorsese isn't obfuscating this greater truth but illuminating it.
At 160 minutes, Silence looks on paper like a slog, but it's briefer than your average Middle-earth movie and it is never dull. This isn't Bela Tarr, where boredom is a currency; there is purpose and drama in every scene, and if you surrender to its perfectly paced lull then you will emerge self-reflective, and quite possibly into the most interesting post-cinema pub conversation ever.
A link between worlds
I confess to being predisposed toward Disney's latest animated feature thanks to my adoration for The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker. Like that classic video game adventure, Moana is all about the epic wonder of the rolling ocean, and the primal and mystical forces that flow between its precious islands. There are also hints of Hayao Miyazaki – especially Nausicaa and Princess Mononoke – in its strong heroine and its concerns with humanity's impact on the environment.
Moana (Auli'i Cravalho) is being groomed to become chief of her Polynesian paradise of Motunui. Yet Moana is drawn to the sea and what lies beyond the horizon. In an elegant prologue, we see an infant Moana protecting a turtle as it waddles toward the ocean. Suddenly the water itself comes alive like Aladdin's carpet (this film is also directed by Ron Clements and John Musker). So we know straight away that Moana has a special understanding with the ocean, as well as an innate empathy with nature.
Less so, Maui (Dwayne Johnson). He's a demigod who stole the heart of Te Fiti, the goddess who created all life. Now a corruption is creeping through the islands. Moana's dad believes that she has a duty to stay and protect her people. But Moana's grandmother feels for her wanderlust, and encourages her to follow her instinct – an instinct which tells her to set sail and find Maui, bring him to Te Fiti, and return the goddess's heart. Obviously this is the choice Moana makes, and her adventure takes her far beyond the safe coral of her homeland.
Moana begins as a leader (not a princess, she insists), with her parents pulling her away from her calling. It's the classic duty versus individuality conflict, mostly rendered without black and white moralising. "Find happiness where you are" is the repeated mantra of the islanders – but the story's ultimate message is that such domestic happiness can only be maintained by respectfully communicating with foreign lands. (If only, humanity, if only.)
Technically speaking, Moana gives us a new level of detail in CG animation. Not just in the texture rendering but in the nuance of the animation itself. The living sea – snaking like the probe in James Cameron's The Abyss – is full of wordless charisma. The general art style is nicely aligned with classic Disney 2D, except the extra dimension feels necessary to embellish the breadth of the setting.
The pacing is near-perfect. By now, Disney Animation Studios probably have an algorithm for the ideal narrative structure. But heck – if they do, it's working. From the myth-building first act and the character interplay of the second; from the moment of self-doubt to the final (very touching) showdown: it's pleasingly predictable and entirely satisfying.
That structural predictability allows for some fantastically bizarre setpieces along the way. Personal favourites are the attack of the Kakamora, where the movie suddenly turns into Fury Road for kids; and the Realm of Monsters, which movingly updates the weird 80s fantasy environments of films like The Legend of Sirius, and then throws in a giant glam-shelled Jermaine Clement to do a David Bowie impression.
The interplay between Moana and Maui, which constitutes the drama and humour of the middle section, is smartly written and full of sparks. Being a demigod, Maui is a raging narcissist, so Moana quickly realises that persuading him to do the right thing requires an appeal to his ego – an ego which bellows godliness while whispering a fundamental vulnerability.
Moana herself has the goofy appeal of the modern Disney heroine. Going deeper, her internal conflict isn't original but nor does it feel forced. Johnson and newcomer Cravalho deliver excellent voice work, some of which requires belting out lung-busting songs. Moana's theme may not be Disney's catchiest number but it sure is stirring.
Joining the adventurers is a doolally rooster named Heihei. He's the slapstick cartoon element, narratively pointless but occasionally amusing. Perhaps he was inserted for younger children, because the rest of the humour is more subtle. I particularly enjoyed Maui's bromance with his living tattoo, acting as a kind of pectoral-based conscience beside his heart.
Moana is up there with the best of this Golden Age of American Animation, which shows no sign of dwindling. It is extraordinarily well made and efficient, big-hearted, and achingly beautiful. Familiar elements abound, but they're remixed into an original setting with a rich mythology. Combined with thoughtful characterisation and a highly laudable (and, depressingly, an endlessly relevant) message, Moana will be seen and savoured for years to come.
An uneasy alliance of squandered talent
1942. Intelligence agent Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) parachutes into the Moroccan desert, where he's picked up by a wordless driver and taken to Casablanca. There he connects with Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard), a French agent. Together they pose as a married couple – the precursor to a daring assassination attempt on a German ambassador.
Max and Marianne fall for each other, of course, and after the job Max invites her to return with him to London as his wife. Following the Blitz-born birth of their child, the Vatans enjoy an apparently idyllic partnership. But then Vatan's superiors call him in. Questions are raised about Marianne. Is she who she says she is? Could it be that she's telling "a lie"? (Ally, get it?)
Allied isn't a particularly good film. Chief concern is that it is scuppered by a crushing lack of chemistry between its stars. (Goes to show, all the sordid celebrity speculation in the world can't make the magic happen on screen.) I've a feeling the blame rests on the shoulders of Pitt, whose performance here is unusually dull. A flirty Cotillard tries her best to raise him from the dead, to no avail.
But also there is director Robert Zemeckis – such an inventive student of film – who appears to be honing a TV aesthetic here. It worked for Spielberg's Bridge of Spies because that was essentially a chamber piece. But Zemeckis is reaching for grandeur – a feat which should be possible with an $80m-plus budget – without succeeding. Allied has the same hyper-real sheen we saw in his last film, The Walk, whereby everything somehow looks CG even when it isn't.
Structurally, the film has problems. The first half is an outright clunker, with any dramatic tension undermined by the inevitability – the yawning predictability – of the plot shift to come. It's only when the 'twist' (if we can call it that) is finally traversed that the film enters any kind of stride.
Following the move to Blighty, things fare better. Zemeckis's depiction of period Britain has the generic Little England postcard quality that comes from the outsider's eye, and the co-stars can't quite de-glam sufficiently to make their marriage believable, but writer Steven Knight's plot beats keep the narrative chugging in a workmanlike way.
In the last half hour, the film finally sputters into life like an old RAF propeller, but it's too little too late. The climactic scene – a brilliantly tense exercise in visual storytelling of which Hitchcock would be proud – almost feels like it's been cut in from a different movie.
Handsome and competent and quite boring, Allied doesn't even have the good grace to be enjoyably bad. It wears its okayness with pride: big production values, big names, big talent – but little to remember of it a week after watching.
The Hired Hand (1971)
The definition of the "elegiac western", The Hired Hand was the directorial debut of the ubiquitous Peter Fonda. Fonda also stars, as Harry, a world-weary wanderer finally planning to move back to his ranch and make good on his marriage to his wife Hannah (Verna Bloom) and their daughter. Tagging along is his BFF Arch (Warren Oates) – although at some point he too will move on, and Harry will have to up his game as a family man.
Meanwhile, the ghosts of the past are stirring. It seems like there's some bad blood in Harry's home town, and – to mix in yet another metaphor – the chickens are coming home to roost.
If it sounds like I'm being vague, that's because the plot of The Hired Hand is looser than a half-tied lasso. Remember, this came hot on the heels of another Fonda vehicle, Easy Rider, and as such you'll regard its laid-back tempo and mannered editing either as richly layered or a load of hippie nonsense. Personally, I found the mix of Bruce Langhorne's eerie music and the mournful rhythm quite hypnotic.
This is a slow and moody western where the dramatic beats come from the exchanges between characters rather than exchanges of gunfire. Bloom is exceptional in the role of Hannah, a woman who is at once rebuked for sharing her bed with other men in Harry's absence, but then who in one withering speech entirely justifies her behaviour. Her presence, as a fully-fleshed out female character in a male- swamped genre, is most welcome.
Thematically it's tempting – as with all American New Wave cinema of the decade – to position The Hired Hand in the context of the Vietnam War. It's a link that can be overstated, but there are undoubtedly parallels: the gunman yearning to return home from a long journey; his struggle to adapt to civilian existence in a place where life has continued without him; the breaking of brotherhood in favour of fatherhood; and the violence of his past returning to haunt him.
So, a deep sorrow hangs over the film. Fonda was only 31 when he made this, and it's questionable whether, with his slight frame and young eyes, he can beard himself up to achieve sufficient world- weariness. Oates, however, nails it, that permanent grimace of his both warm and worn in equal measure. Capturing them exquisitely is the peerless Vilmos Zsigmond (the first casualty of this year's terrible roster of obituaries), who virtually takes us back in time with the preciseness and depth of his framing. The desperately sad final shot is worth the (relatively brief) running time alone.
One reason The Hired Hand isn't better-remembered is because it is by its nature low-key; quiet and sombre. Consider as well that at the time the western genre was in decline – the real classic, McCabe and Mrs Miller, also came out in 1971, and Robert Altman's film (also shot by Zsigmond) is the superior of the two. Still, there is much to admire about The Hired Hand – and I use that verb carefully because it's as much a film to sink into for its mood as it is to conventionally enjoy.
The Driller Killer (1979)
Prepare to DIY
"This film should be played LOUD," insists the pre-credits card at the beginning. And not simply to feel the full force of The Roosters, or the squeal of the titular murder weapon, but also because Abel Ferrara's zero-budget slasher is all about anger in need of expression.
Ferrara himself plays Reno, a struggling artist desperate to complete a painting that will earn him enough to pay the rent. He lives with a couple of girls, one of whom is kind of his girlfriend but neither of whom particularly likes him, and he's being driven mad by those damn Roosters downstairs. All his repressed rage and his inability to empathise with fellow humans is taking its toll. Then he sees his release: take it out on the New York homeless using a power drill and a Porto-Pak(TM).
Reno's disgust of transient men betrays a profound male anxiety: the inability to provide. Furthermore, his "masterpiece" is a painting of a bison – both a icon of masculine power as well as a symbol of hunter-gatherer sustenance. He barks impotently at his indifferent girlfriend, who later turns to their female flatmate for her physical satisfaction.
Moreover, Reno is unable to communicate with his artist peers. Even the members of the band who aren't musicians are full of extrovert self-expression. Reno, meanwhile, is a wholly internalised recluse, harbouring a growing loathing of other people.
Then there's Dalton Briggs (Harry Schlutz II), a gallery owner who, like a Roman emperor, holds the power to give a thumbs-up or down to Reno's future. In the deliberately theatrical Dalton scenes (a realist style is employed elsewhere) Ferrara scores with Clockwork Orange- style electronic classical music; and indeed there is a hint of Kubrickian absurdity in the juxtaposition between Briggs' high art pretensions and Reno's degenerate world.
That world, shot on location around Ferrara's own haunt, is at times as potent a snapshot of post-Vietnam New York's underbelly as Scorsese's Taxi Driver. The depiction of madness and desperation amongst the homeless is pretty broad, although it doesn't stray into the sort of farcical territory we would later see in J. Michael Muro's Street Trash.
The Driller Killer is one of the original "video nasties" – a select group of films banned from UK home video in the 1980s for fear of corrupting malleable minds. Apparently, the complaints were based solely on the poster, depicting the famous head drill victim. To be fair, the actual content here more than lives up to that marketing promise. This is a grotty and gory film, the cheapness of whose effects is offset by being shot mostly at night.
Smart directorial choices, neat editing, dark humour, and a unique setting elevate The Driller Killer above many of the slashers of the late-70s/early-80s period. It may not be the most fun – think of the intense grimness of Maniac or Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer – but it's surely one of the more memorable.
As Amy Adams' opening voice-over speaks in sad lyrical strokes, and director Denis Villenueve's lens slides slowly through her empty home, and Johann Johannson's mournful music breathes in the background, we know we're not watching Independence Day.
Adams plays Louise, a linguist seemingly grieving for her daughter. Louise is last to know that twelve colossal spacecraft have entered the Earth's atmosphere and are now hovering in various locations around the globe. Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), who has a bit of previous with Louise, invites her to join a team who will enter one of the alien crafts and try to communicate with them.
The rest of the movie is set largely in a military base in the shadow of the alien craft. The camera meekly moves beneath the huge hovering object, as if anxiously averting its eyes. The sense of awe is palpable and appropriate, filling the audience with a thrilling dread as the crew creep – and float – inside. The sparse design of the alien ship interior is fantastically foreboding, and the form of its pilots is convincing in its otherworldliness. I won't describe them; I'll just say they're named "heptapods".
The humans attempt to communicate. While Louise uses words and gestures, the heptapods rely on a kind of hieroglyphic language made from ejected ink. It's pleasingly weird and graceful. These first encounters are the most engaging, successfully giving the sense of an impenetrable barrier between species.
Fans of modern epic sci-fi won't be bowled over by the core message, but I won't name names for fear of giving away the mildest of surprises.
The sombre colour-drained style may be standard these days, but Villenueve contrasts it effectively with Louise's memories of her daughter. The editing throughout the film is textured and nuanced, even if it does collapse into a malaise of generalised Big Feelings in the end. Still, the quality of craftsmanship and the doomy style bode well for the director's upcoming Blade Runner sequel.
For all the heavyweight actors, the supporting characters – from the gruff, pragmatic military leader to the slimy CIA suit – are stock for the genre. Adams is typically soulful and skillful, while Renner, to his credit, tries his best in a role written to be playful, except he's under the thrall of a director who doesn't really do play.
Arrival isn't completely cohesive. There's some of the hard sci-fi slog of The Andromeda Strain, but also the socially conscious grandstanding of The Day the Earth Stood Still. Both are great movies (and both by Robert Wise) – but are they great bedfellows?
Tonally I was reminded of Another Earth, a similarly mournful, cerebral sci-fi movie with a metaphysical twist. But that movie wore its melon-twisting conceit on its sleeve, as opposed to the Nolan- esque puzzle box narrative gradually unveiled in Arrival. As twists go, this one is ambitious: a clever cop-out or a mind-expanding revelation depending on taste. Your capacity for feeling moved may depend on your feelings about the bow-wrapped ending of Interstellar.
Along with Interstellar, a major touchstone is Robert Zemeckis's Contact, which also focused on a passionate female protagonist driven by grief. Contact's depiction of an invaded world swallowing itself whole through reactionary insanity was more fun and more convincing, although I guess the overblown public reaction in Arrival may speak more to the current feverish state of US politics.
Arrival suffers from many familiar elements, and a script that can't match the sumptuous visual style, the committed performances, or the unique production design. Perhaps a little more lightness of touch may have alleviated the slippery slope of the film's neat-yet- divisive second half. But there's no denying that this is impressive, technically astounding filmmaking with an unapologetic intention to awe. Worth seeing – and worth seeing BIG.
The Accountant (2016)
Rain (of death) Man
It's as if someone read the Wikipedia page on autism and figured, 'That sounds like the perfect assassin!' A direct plea in the epilogue to regard autistic people as merely "different" is laudable on paper – but after 90 minutes of watching a liquid-cool super-soldier wade through an army of henchmen to lift the lid on massive corporate corruption, it's hard to swallow.
Ben Affleck plays the titular accountant, Christian Wolff, who works for dodgy high-end clients, fixing their books. The film doesn't bother with the morality of Christian's work, but it does come to the attention of Treasury Officer Ray King, who blackmails his underling, Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), and sends her to investigate. Meanwhile, Christian is hired to investigate a robotics firm run by Lamar Blackburn (John Lithgow), after one of its eagle-eyed junior employees, Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick), spots something awry with the finances.
Suffice to say, not everything at Living Robotics is squeaky clean, and Christian and Dana find themselves on the hit list for a security firm run by a verbose brute named Braxton (Jon Bernthal). Christian and Dana share a close friendship, and Christian works his perfectly aligned socks off to protect her, whilst taking out those who are trying to kill them.
As with Gavin O'Connor's previous film, Warrior, behind the veneer of style – distinguished by colour-drained, Fincher-mimicking formalist framing – is something quite conventional. For a while The Accountant has the air of 1970s political intrigue dramas but ultimately it owes more to the cold killer thrillers of that period – stuff like Dirty Harry or The Driver – with the quiet antihero comfortably amoral because the real bad guys are even badder. As the film wears on it slides inexorably toward cheesy action movie cliché, and the final sequence has the look and feel of any number of '90s action thrillers and their DVD- bound legacy.
So, the interesting stuff happens in the first half-hour, as we are introduced to Christian's everyday habits and OCD foibles: his exquisitely arranged breakfast, where egg can't touch bacon; or a wardrobe full of the same suit. A scene in which Christian examines 15 years of tax returns in a single night is more dramatically satisfying than a fistfight with a nameless henchman, yet we end up with a whole lot more of the latter. You'd have thought long-form TV might have taught movie producers that we aren't that impatient. The action scenes have the super-efficient style of John Wick, except they're edited to death in a Greengrassian frenzy.
Meanwhile, the Treasury investigation just isn't interesting, full stop. It's basically scene after scene of people trawling through databases and Googling stuff. True to life, maybe, but hardly dynamic. There's a Big Twist toward the end, which lands with so little impact that I found myself questioning if it even is a twist, or if I'd simply not picked up someone's name earlier. Do not expect your mind to be blown, here.
Kendrick is basically plonked into the film to leverage her inherent niceness and distract us from the dourness around her. Seriously, some of the monologues in this movie rival Cormac McCarthy's The Counselor for sheer rambling self-seriousness, and I can't help thinking Kendrick was added simply to provide a squeak of levity. John Lithgow is wasted in a one-dimensional supporting role. Simmons is his usual commanding self, even if he must deliver some of the clunkiest exposition.
If only the film were simpler and more streamlined, and more in touch with its silliness. Sadly it's a bit of slog, punctuated by tone-deaf black humour. By the end we're expected to laugh at people being shot in the head like this is a Martin McDonagh film. Except it isn't. The film's last act attempts to draw us into an emotionally warm conclusion feel inappropriate and glib. Empathy is necessary; but it's a tall order to expect us to sympathise with these ruthless killers.
Despite offering a welcome twist on an overstuffed genre, it's hard to recommend The Accountant. Its attempts at depicting autism are of the reluctant superpower variety, which in itself wouldn't be a problem if it went ahead and embraced its absurdity, and if its genre underpinnings weren't so disappointingly rote.
To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)
Predator and prey stalk 80s L.A.
"I'm getting too old for this s**t," one character utters early on in this stylish 1985 thriller from the formidable William Friedkin. The veteran director doesn't bring much of his recent black humour to this hard-boiled cop thriller, but the brutal cynicism is present and correct. After the questionable Cruising and the forgotten comedy Deal of the Century, this was Friedkin back on Sorcerer form.
William Peterson, who would smoulder even more intensely the following year in Michael Mann's Manhunter, plays Secret Service agent Richard Chance. And boy does he take chances. A thrill-seeker who spends his spare time bungee-jumping off bridges, when his soon- to-retire partner is gunned down he goes after the culprit with reckless abandon. His prey is Rick Masters (Willem Dafoe), a completely amoral counterfeiter who slaughters with a smile.
Chance is paired with a by-the-book agent named Vukovich (John Pankow), who's dragged deeper into this violent mess thanks to a ruthless code of honour. What ensues is an action thriller somewhere between the rawness of Friedkin's own The French Connection and the glossy buddy thrillers that were soon to become a Hollywood staple. There are shoot outs, intricate car chases, fist fights, and a conspicuous amount of ball-kicking.
You can forgive some of the film's flaws for their pay-off. Sure, Chance might blunder into situations with face-palming recklessness, but that's consistent with his character. Similarly, even when the storytelling is stripped down to the point of being nonsensical (characters leap about locations in the space of a jump cut), you accept it for the thrilling briskness and the efficiency of storytelling.
You won't be surprised that Peterson excels at glowering and Dafoe revels in his menace. Chance isn't a complex character but he does take us on a journey, from sympathy to something like repulsion. He exploits others and ignores the rule of law to get the job done – so, is he so different from the villain he's preying upon?
Par for the genre, women are sidelined as strippers or victims, although in Friedkin's defence the ample nudity is generous to both genders. Plus, in a thematic sense, one could see the film as one big critique of the single-minded alpha male. If there are winners in the end, it's not who you'd expect.
On the whole, however, expectations are satisfied more than they are defied. Cliché follows cliché, but it's all done with great energy and style. L.A. is perennially clad in orange sunset, and the saucy 80s rock soundtrack (from British new-wavers Wang Chung) locks the film in time. Mann would remake his own 80s effort with Heat in 1995, providing the final word on the L.A. neo-noir genre. But in To Live and Die we see its overture: a relocated Miami Vice writ large. It's nasty, dated, and fun.
The Initiation (1984)
Skippable slasher also-ran
As Gabriel Black's and Lance Ong's atmospheric synth pads growl over the opening credits, expectations are pretty high. Unfortunately this 1984 slasher is bungled in conception and execution.
Kelly (Daphne Zuniga) is haunted by a vision – possibly a memory – of her father attacking his wife's lover and setting him on fire. Or is it the other way around? Along with her sorority sisters, Kelly is in the midst of an initiation, and now it's "Hell Week". The big plan is to break into a shopping mall and steal the uniform of the security guard – the "Fright Night" toward which the story progresses. Along the way we are introduced, via the standard POV shot, to a fork-wielding killer, who's working his way through the kids, apparently to get to Kelly. Could it be the burnt man from her vision? (Spoiler: Yes, yes it could.)
Kelly goes to Peter (James Read), a psychology graduate with a penchant for blandly name-dropping Freud and Jung, and who's the kind of bore who goes to a college party and grumbles, "I, too, arrested my development for four years." She falls for him and he helps to unlock her madness. It is psychology as detective work, and this whole subplot drags an already quite ordinary film down in the most clunky and unconvincing way.
As Kelly, it's an early role for Zuniga (she was Princess Vespa in Spaceballs, remember?), and her wit and charisma carries the film while its other elements fail her. The Initiation simply isn't very well made. It's not the budget, or the workmanlike makeup effects, or the clearly moving corpses. It's not the typically leering camera-work, or the bland and sometimes unfocused framing. It's the lack of interesting ideas. And any deviations from the slasher formula – i.e. the aforementioned pseudo psychology – feel like dull digressions rather than adding depth.
Tonally it's all over the shop, with the tension too frequently punctuated by sub-Animal House frat pratting (all the boys are mindless jesters, by the way). At one point a dramatic crescendo is completely undone when one of the characters looks at the camera for a winking reaction. Sound like fun? Not when the film had shown zero signs of wilfully breaking the fourth wall up to that point.
The story culminates in an extended setpiece inside a deserted shopping mall, where there are at least some flashes of inspiration. There's some okay tension here – I like the scene where one character enters a lighting shop, and the lamps begin illuminating around her – but almost always the pay-off doesn't warrant the build-up. And that goes for the film in general, as it careens toward its lame twist: a revelation requiring so much exposition that it's more tiring than clever.
The Initiation doesn't excite as a slasher; doesn't titillate as an exploitation flick; and it definitely doesn't convince as a psychological horror. As a midnight movie, sadly, the only thing to fear is falling asleep.
Jamaica Inn (1939)
Jamaica? No, she did it of her own accord.
Alfred Hitchcock's last film of the 1930s, and his last film made in Britain before setting sail across the Atlantic, is this blustery Daphne Du Maurier adaptation about a very dangerous corner of Cornwall in the 19th century.
Somewhere in Bodmin Moor is Jamaica Inn, a rural pub which houses a gang of vagabonds, who regularly head down to the coast to raid ships that wreck on the rocks. Crew killed, the spoils are stolen. The gang is fed information from above – namely, a very corrupt Justice of the Peace named Sir Humphrey Pengallon (Charles Laughton).
One stormy day (they're all stormy around here), Mary Yellen (a very youthful Maureen O'Hara) arrives in search of her aunt, Patience (Marie Ney). Patience is married to Joss (Leslie Banks), who happens to be the leader of the Jamaica Inn gang. Mary, in the right place at the wrong time, ends up saving the life of a gangster named Traherne (Robert Newton).
So, Mary and Traherne are on the run, while they try to uncover the identity of the big boss running the wrecker operation. In classic Hitchcock style, they are oblivious to Pengallon's secret, while we the audience are aware – and here Laughton excels, charming and disarming with his avuncular cheerfulness. Can they pull back the curtain before Pengallon and his crew are able to draw another ship to the rocks?
The central problem with the plot is that it hinges upon the ignorance of possibly the dumbest and most naive law officer in the entire Cornish peninsula. How he cannot see the guilt of Pengallon, despite him being the only man with the connections and opportunity to pull off such an enterprise, is the film's greatest mystery. And that's before he's stumbling into a room full of fearless pirates, who've already tried to kill him once, armed only with a single-shot pistol.
But still, these facepalm moments come later. What's apparent from the start is the beauty of the production design. Whether it's the intricate modelwork or the bold, crooked sets, the sense of location (without actual location shooting) is atmospheric and immersive; and the very unreal nature of those elements is typically Hitchcockian, creating a claustrophobic sense of dreamlike theatre.
The performances are quite variable. O'Hara is fine, essentially an entity whose sole function is to propel the plot – although she does get one moment of bona fide bravery later on. The gang members are fun as an ensemble. I couldn't help thinking of Mad Max in their self-pantomiming posturing and the alpha disputes constantly threatening to tear their chaotic brotherhood apart.
Of course, the real deal is Pengallon. He's the mythic crazy capitalist: the top dog who takes none of the risks but all of the spoils, driven by a scary belief in the hierarchy of men. Laughton's consummate skill means Pengallon's gentlemanly malevolence is revealed gradually, until we realise once and for all that he'll never find humanity because the world is all objects to him, not people. Even in his demise he gets the last hurrah.
Jamaica Inn isn't top drawer Hitchcock, but even middling Hitchcock is better than most filmmaking. It's fun and fast-moving – an action movie, at bottom – and features a massive performance at its heart from one of cinema's great actors. Brace for its sillier elements and it is ideal for a wet and windy Sunday afternoon.
The Burning (1981)
Hot stuff from the slasher heyday
With Tom Savini doing the makeup, Rick Wakeman on keyboards, and Bob and Harvey Weinstein on story duties (forming Miramax while they're about it), The Burning is a notable entry in the slasher genre. Released in 1981, it rode on the coattails of Halloween and Friday the 13th, and in terms of quality it can stand proud alongside those better-known movies.
The prologue sets up our monster. A group of boys at a summer camp decide to play a Halloween prank on the caretaker, Cropsy (Lou David). As they guffaw, the joke goes horribly wrong and in his fright Cropsy sets himself on fire.
A decade on and the summer camp is in full swing. We're introduced to the horny boys and girls (keep an eye out for early performances from the likes of Jason Alexander, Fisher Stevens, and Holly Hunter), who spend their time bickering, bullying, boating, and bonking.
But Cropsy is back, and he has a pair of secateurs, and he wants revenge. After numerous well-staged red herrings, the slaughter begins. And it doesn't disappoint. Savini's work here is of the stabby and slashy variety, and it's appropriately wince-inducing. We get heroics from the camp counsellors Michelle (Leah Ayres) and Todd (Brian Matthews) but essentially it's a free-for-all, and anyone's guess who'll finally take down the homicidal gardener.
That's not to say that the characters are mere fodder. The film takes time to establish the lusts and rivalries in the group, mostly without resorting to cliché. I particularly like the way that the bullying beefcake (Larry Joshua) is repeatedly pushed back by the camaraderie of the nerdy kids. The sexual politics are typically retrograde, with endless excuses to show as much nubile flesh as humanly possible. And then stick a knife in it.
While atmospheric, gory, and funny without being self-mocking, there's nothing particularly innovative about The Burning – it doesn't have the memorable weirdness of 1983's Sleepaway Camp, for example – but it's well-made and sharply written enough that you are swept along on its ruthless tide of gore.
It's just a pity the good work doesn't carry right through to the end. Aside from a mild and needless twist, the final showdown is a mess of scrappy editing and baffling continuity, as if the filmmakers were scrabbling for footage. With a proper climax we might have been looking at classic rather than curio status.
Overall, it's understandable why The Burning has achieved its cult following. Ignored on release, it deserves reappraisal as a straightforward, unfussy slasher elevated by good writing, great performances, and even better makeup effects. Now in HD!
Honogurai mizu no soko kara (2002)
Hideo Nakata's other great J-horror
After Ringu and its sequel in the late 1990s, prolific J-horror grandmaster Hideo Nakata returned to familiar ground in 2002 with this intimate and very scary family drama/ghost story/murder mystery hybrid. Like Ringu, it was remade (reasonably well) in Hollywood – an indication of the central story's universal appeal.
While awaiting custody proceedings over her daughter, Ikuko (Rio Kanno), Yoshimi (Hitomi Kuroki) recalls being left at kindergarten while her own parents argued about who should pick her up. These memories inform the whole premise and tenor of the film: Yoshimi is terrified of losing her daughter. So she convinces the divorce panel that she is looking for work and a new home for her and Ikuko.
Mother and daughter move into a cheap, brutalist tenement. It's basic but serviceable. Yoshimi gets a job and soon the pair have achieved some kind of normality. But something's not quite right. There's a damp patch on the ceiling and it's gradually growing. And who is that strange little girl wearing the yellow mac? As Yoshimi seeks the truth – all the while protecting her daughter and triggering her own deep-seated fears – she will uncover the tragedy of a missing child that will haunt her on an existential level.
As with Ringu, Nakata shows his mastery of the slow horror form, and is in complete control. The frame is drained of bright colour and tinged with blue and grey, almost as if we're underwater. Forget about cheap jump shocks – Nakata is all about presence, subtly introducing us to the layout of the apartment block before planting its corners with half-glimpsed human forms and shadows. Meanwhile, the subtle, eerily ambient score textures the images rather than crashing the cuts.
The two main performances are excellent, portraying an entirely believable bond between mother and daughter. Kuroki's performance may aggravate at first – Yoshimi is all nodding subservience and hysterical nerves – but gradually we empathise. As the clouds clear on the mystery of the girl in the raincoat, so they do too on Yoshimi's really quite rational fear of abandonment.
While you can see its influence on recent fare like The Babadook, which similarly focused as much on the mother-child dynamic as the scares, Dark Water also owes itself to films that came before. The image of the possibly supernatural, raincoated child, for example, clearly harks back to Don't Look Now; and we even get a final act shock that matches Nicolas Roeg's classic for sheer, lurching terror.
Dark Water is deep and foreboding; a bass thrum of a horror which keeps its creepy cards close to its chest. It is intricate and heartfelt and provides pictures that linger. It is also, crucially, an effective and moving love story about family bonds, which is key to grasping the real horror here: the horror of loss.
Scary, violent, and playful, Vamp is the quintessential 1980s mashup of Brat Pack comedy and trash horror. It's one a handful of films directed by Richard Wenk, these days better known for writing blockbusters like The Equalizer and The Magnificent Seven.
Keith and AJ (Chris Makepeace and Robert Rusler) are two kids looking to sleaze their way into the college fraternity. They intend to do so by hiring the ultimate stripper. With the help of the infinitely wealthy Duncan (Gedde Watanabe) they go to the city and find themselves at the After Dark strip club. It's owned by Katrina (Grace Jones), who also turns out to be their dream girl. What they haven't banked on is that the club is populated by vampire strippers, queen among whom is Katrina herself. A raunchy road trip turns into a desperate lunge for survival, as the bloodsucking bad guys close in on their prey.
Vamp is pure energy and efficiency: 90 minutes of gaudy, gory fun. There's always a wink in its eye: upon entering the city, the boys find themselves in the back alleys via a car accident, the vehicle spinning like the house of Dorothy Gale. One character quips, "We're not in Kansas anymore". After that it's a neon-lit nightmare all the way, impaled with Dario Argento-style pinks and greens.
The chemistry between the characters is a breeze. There's the easy banter between Keith and AJ, and the less-than-easy chemistry between Keith and Allison (Dedee Pfeiffer). Allison, an old flame of Keith's, may be oddly ignorant to the true nature of her murderous colleagues, but she's not naive; she may be bouncy and adorable, but she's no pixie dream girl. Duncan, meanwhile, embodies the swagger and impotence of 80s excess – his money buys them into trouble but cannot get them out again.
Then there's Grace Jones, whose unique persona is put to great use here. Her striptease is frightening and sensual. She's the original Lady Gaga and she's off the leash. She doesn't say a word throughout the whole film but she doesn't need to – her eyes and hair and clothes do all the talking.
The makeup effects are seriously special. Queen Katrina is a grotesque creation: the deliberate antithesis of Jones's pristine elegance. As for the excellent sound design, well, the noise of gorging on carotid blood has never been so fantastically disgusting and guttural.
As the film wears on it does begin to lose some of its initial spark. The final onslaught has more in common with a zombie horde than a pack of lethal vampires. The eerie atmosphere and the visual gags slip away – an early moment when the owner of a greasy spoon cafe dons a priest's robe and cross at the end of his shift is never topped – in favour of more ordinary action dynamics.
From frat house to strip club to sewer, Vamp is a far cry from the opulent castles of Stoker's myth. Its heightened grottiness is all its own, and its simple storytelling and memorable characters have stood the test of time. I watched it once on grainy VHS, and it's a pleasure to rediscover it as one of the better comedy horrors of the decade.
Burnt Offerings (1976)
A creepy and effective offering
It may sound like a round of toast gone wrong but it's actually a religious term: a "burnt offering" occurs when an animal is incinerated on an altar as a sacrifice. The consumption is absolute – soul and all – which may give a clue as to where this 1976 gem, written and directed by horror veteran Dan Curtis, will ultimately go.
Marian (Karen Black) and Ben (Oliver Reed), along with their son Davey (Lee H. Montgomery) and Aunt Elizabeth (Bette Davis) move to a rundown California mansion for the summer. The landlords are creepy siblings whose reclusive mother, Mrs Allardyce, is locked in an upstairs room. For a knock-down rent, the incoming family need only take care of the building and leave a tray of food each day for the mad woman in the attic.
The tenants move in and initially enjoy the peace and majesty of the great old house. But tempers quickly flare. Ben becomes uncommonly angry; Marian increasingly obsesses about the unseen Mrs Allardyce; and Elizabeth falls prey to a terrible manic illness. Is Mrs Allardyce the cause of all these tensions? Or could it be the house itself, which seems to bloom into life as its inhabitants succumb to mutually assured destruction?
For fans of The Haunting (the Robert Wise version, obviously) and The Shining, this is a must-see psychological horror which has been relatively "overlooked" (Shining joke). In a way, Burnt Offerings is a relic from a time where scares were more understated whilst, paradoxically, performances were more melodramatic. It doesn't parody these genre aspects in the way that Kubrick's monolithic milestone would do four years later, but instead plays everything straight. Which is why it seems such an oddity, coming at a mid-70s moment after the dawn of the new allegorical horror of Romero, Hooper, and Craven and before the seedy/gory horror heyday of the 1980s. It's more like The Exorcist, pagan style.
The film relies principally on atmosphere and gradually growing sense of menace and madness. For the first two thirds it's impossible to tell where the insanity lies. Is it in Marian, with her discomforting interest in Mrs Allardyce? Or Ben, whose visions of his mother's hearse are pushing him to hysteria, manifesting as rage? The dynamics work not only thanks to strong lead performances, but because Curtis takes time and care to portray a functioning family, comfortable with each other's foibles; so when the fractures appear, it's genuinely disturbing. When the playful, protective Ben starts wrestling his son in the pool to the point of drowning, it's not only intense but feels terribly wrong. Moreover, the dialogue throughout is well written, so when the silliness kicks in we take it seriously.
Support-wise, Anthony James – a know-his-face actor who played many a memorable creep – rocks up occasionally to smile sinisterly, and there's a supremely creepy cameo from Burgess "Penguin" Meredith, playing Mrs Allardyce's son, who watches Davey playing from the window whilst practically dribbling.
The framing, lighting, and production design is top-notch, and the editing is meaningful. This is a work of poise and control; and these qualities are consistent all the way to the final Hitchcockian scene, which is scary in spite of being, by that point, predictable. Burnt Offerings is a slow, stately, dense psychological horror, low on gore and obvious shocks – and all the more impactful for it.
Slugs, muerte viscosa (1988)
Death at 0.01 miles per hour
Toxic-mutated, man-eating slugs descend upon a small US town, consuming everything human in their path. The town's health inspector, Mike Brady (Michael Garfield), is convinced by the threat, but even as the body count multiplies, the mayor and his businessman cronies won't listen. It's up to Brady to find a solution to end the slaughter and save the town.
Shifting the action from Shaun Hutson's Britain-set novel, "Pieces" filmmaker Juan Piquer Simón writes and directs, following formula all the way. I mean, the hero is virtually named Chief Brody and the upstanding-professional-versus-blinkered-authority schtick was done miles better in Steven Spielberg's Jaws 13 years earlier.
"What'll it be next," scoffs the sheriff, "demented crickets?" He's got a point. Convincing the authorities that there's a shark in the water is a far cry from carnivorous gastropods. But the premise actually works okay – its inherent silliness is a reasonable argument for scepticism, after all.
Slugs: The Movie (to give it its full title) is dumb as hell but not without merit. It's well made and swiftly paced, and there's just enough characterisation to make you care about the community under threat (even if those characters tend to be identified by a single feature: she's a drinker; he's an Englishman etc).
The special make-up effects are good, gradually ramping up in grossness. These little bastards are mean, happy to munch the flesh and the eyes off their victims. There are hints of the Piranha movies in the creatures' swarming nature (although the quality of filmmaking is a step up from James Cameron's cack-handed sequel). But a more appropriate comparison might be Fred Dekker's equally squirmy Night of the Creeps, which two years prior did a better job of embracing the camp 50s monster movie vibe.
While there are probably too many scenes involving people walking into offices and receiving phone messages (if ever there was a movie to be fundamentally altered by cell phones, it's this), the narrative structure is solid, and decent production values allow for a surprisingly exciting and large scale ending – even if Brady's final plan is preposterously reckless.
Slugs delivers few surprises, simply transposing its icky threat into a stock plot for a genre not used to posing such slow-moving threats. But it's fun and disgusting and worth a go for the post-pub slot in the run-up to Halloween.
One More Time with Feeling (2016)
Darker with the day
The premiere of 20,000 Days on Earth, Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard's 2014 documentary about musician and author Nick Cave, was preceded by red carpet pizazz, and the irreverent film itself ended – beside the sea – with an optimistic message of boundless hope and creativity.
It's these memories that make Andrew Dominik's mesmeric new documentary even sadder. We're used to seeing the elegant, lyrical Cave effortlessly turning horror into romance. But here we see him slouched in a tracksuit top, unsure what to say or do to console his grieving wife, who clutches a painting that their son, Arthur, drew when he was five.
Our knowledge of the fate of Arthur Cave, who fell to his death last year aged 15, is assumed and it looms over the film like a literal shadow. Shot almost entirely in monochrome, the mood is mournful throughout, punctuated by the briefest levity, usually between Cave and Warren Ellis, his long-time collaborator.
The film makes few narrative concessions. There's no dramatic moment when the bad news comes through. No crash zooms on crying faces. Early on, Cave reflects on something Ellis has said: that past, present and future exist all at once. And this is how it feels in the final edit, as we never know which footage (if any) is from before the tragedy and which came after.
We are given no names in subtitles and the context is barely explained. It's not informative in the typical sense. This isn't a criticism but a fact. Rather than a charting of specific events, One More Time With Feeling is a document of mood and emotion. Punctuating this texture are studio recordings. The tracks from The Bad Seeds' new LP, Skeleton Tree, released the day after this one- off cinematic event, are universally downbeat: looping, suffocating, darkly ambient swirls and tragic piano descents. More than ever, the lyrics are aching and sometimes abstract. Cave is the master of effective verbal repetition; and, as he mentions at one point, no line is wasted. Dominik lets four or five tracks play out in full while his camera prowls the moody studio darkness. His direction is tasteful, atmospheric, and sensitive.
And necessarily so, because the feelings are raw. Cave talks unbearably movingly about the impossibility of softening his grief with lyrics. (I was reminded of Theodor Adorno's comment about how there can be no poetry after Auschwitz.) He's also coming to terms with the fact that the trauma cannot be escaped, such is its "elastic" grasp, always pulling the bereaved back. However eloquently Cave has sung or spoken about death and loss in the past, the situation here is obviously something profound and unique, and the aftermath is a maze of indefinable despair, beyond the best poet.
Watch with caution, for this is a difficult documentary which is not designed to console or comfort. It exists to draw you unsentimentally into the sombre rhythm of grief. Yet the fact that a perfectly calibrated and deeply moving work of art could come out of such a moment in an artist's life does, on some level, leave us with a kind of hope.
Hell or High Water (2016)
Jeff Bridges over troubled water
A battered car carries two bruised brothers, Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) across a desolate post-industrial borderland. Passing billboards advertising debt relief and loans, they make their way to the bank. It's the first of many they will rob at gunpoint. On their tail is Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), three months from retirement and looking for a hobby. What better way to pass the time than guessing the Howard brothers' next move? He's joined by his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham), and together they will chase Toby and Tanner, all the while wondering why the youngsters would want to steal cash when their family is sitting on an oilfield. Could the motivation go beyond simple greed?
Hell or High Water is the ninth feature from director David Mackenzie, and it follows his excellent prison drama Starred Up. As with that film, ostensibly there's little here we've not seen before, but it's pulled off with such confidence and control that it seems effortless, making for an effortless watch.
For a film about post-9/11 shattered ideals it's a very accessible and humorous package. Taylor "Sicario" Sheridan's script is surprisingly banter-filled and funny, to the point where one could argue the emotional impact of the climax is somewhat undermined. Indeed, the final confrontation is comfortingly predictable more than tense, its ambiguity mild compared with, say, Tommy Lee Jones's hauntingly sad dream speech ending from No Country for Old Men.
The Coen Brothers' masterpiece is but one touchstone for Mackenzie. Also referenced is Michael Mann's Heat: the concurrent story lines with their inexorable slide toward violent resolution; and the idea of honour existing equally among thieves and cops. I was also reminded, in the ageing lawman and the righteous criminal, of Joel Schumacher's Falling Down, not least in the brazen reminders that our antiheroes are fighting back against a system constructed to screw over the everyman.
The idea of such decency and honour is fanciful, naturally, but fantasy is part and parcel of the mythologizing of what we might call the New Old West. This is a scorched landscape of masculine archetypes. Like John Boorman with Deliverance, Mackenzie is a foreigner painting on an all-American canvas; and he's joined by fellow outsiders Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, composers who've touched the broken heart of the American Dream before in The Assassination of Jesse James and The Road. Their subtle score here takes a back seat to a dark acoustic playlist.
Ben Foster can do unhinged-meets-vulnerable in his sleep, although this is Chris Pine as we've not really seen him. He's fine, if occasionally coming across as stolid when striving for ambivalent. Bridges is the growling, grumbling goodie version of True Grit's Rooster Cogburn. Marcus's banter with Alberto is fun at first, though after a while I found his racist barbs as wearying as the receiver himself does. Regardless, in both pairings – brothers or partners – a sense of well-worn chemistry is evident.
For fans of modern Westerns such as No Country and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, this is pretty much required viewing, even if expecting the sheer existential weight of those films may be pushing expectations too far. A well-intentioned morality tale, Hell or High Water has enough deadpan humour, familiar characterisation, and well-crafted action scenes to please genre aficionados and mainstream audiences alike.
Mechanic: Resurrection (2016)
In need of a full service
"Mechanic" is quite an unsexy title. It conjures images of low-slung jeans, exorbitant MOTs, and overbearing pop radio bellowing out of a sidestreet garage. But it also means "hit-man" in mafia language, and Jason Statham's Arthur Bishop is the best of the best.
The 2011 film was a pretty mediocre remake of a Michael Winner/Chuck Bronson vehicle (get it?). To say that this sequel – whose belated nature is right there in the title – is an "original" work would be pushing it.
Bishop is trying to lead a regular type life on his bomb-rigged yacht when he's dragged into a plot devised by Riah Crain (Sam Hazeldine), an old orphan buddy. They were separated back in hit-man training school – Bishop got out but Crain turned into a cold- hearted empire-builder. Now Crain wants Bishop to murder his business competitors.
Crain needs leverage, so he kidnaps Bishop's girlfriend, Gina (Jessica Alba) – she'll die unless Bishop completes three contracts. The film almost finds its stride during this trio of setpieces; and indeed the plot on paper is silly and simple enough to be a serviceable carriage for Statham's very specific talents. Naturally the trail of destruction leads Bishop to an explosive showdown with Crain himself.
The problem is that Mechanic: Resurrection just isn't a very well written, directed, or edited film. Those are all the fundamental phases of film production without a lick of real quality, and the result is there on the screen, from the cheap opening with its poor superimposing, through its arbitrarily globe-hopping narrative, all the way to its bungled non-event of a final revelation.
There's no real characterisation to speak of (explaining convoluted plot elements to each other doesn't count) and the whole enterprise is scuppered by the complete lack of chemistry between Statham and Alba. By the way, she's a rote damsel with an angelic tendency for rescuing foreign kids and a penchant for kicking henchmen in the balls.
The action is too slow coming, and messily edited when it does arrive. Retrograde in all departments, I couldn't help thinking of Goldeneye N64 as The Stath stalked guards on the bad guy's boat. (Weirdly, we get two of these sequences and they're virtually identical.) Speaking of video games, the other touchstone is surely the Hit-man franchise. As Bishop goes about his business, never under any real threat, it's like watching a speedrun on YouTube.
The violence is of the toned-down, CG blood style that has crept into this increasingly PG-13 action culture. Yet we still get a laughably coy sex scene where the stars do it in clothes. It's not like director Dennis Gansel is shy – Statham's body is the temple that his camera worships here, far more than Alba's.
The first movie had Donald Sutherland to bring gravitas, and here Tommy Lee Jones is thrown into the mix – albeit very late on and briefly. Laid-back and sporting shades, as though his baddie from Under Siege is all grown up. It's a dead easy pay cheque for Jones but we get precious little of his time.
Obviously there are no grey areas here with regard to goodies and baddies. We're not looking for that. But some kind of inventiveness or a narrative curveball wouldn't have gone amiss. Because it's not like we have blistering action to fall back on. There's a scene where Bishop is climbing a skyscraper using sucker pads, and it's so poorly staged and phony; it had me yearning for Ghost Protocol and a proper bit of high-rise stunt work.
Resurrection is for Statham completists only. It's worse than its not-great predecessor. A guilty non-pleasure – think Cobra rather than Commando – whose rightful place is the small screen, and last on the watchlist.
"It's not the Russians it's Rumble-Rama!"
When a light-hearted, nostalgic comedy opens with a nuclear explosion, you know you're onto something weird and original. Yet it's also comfortingly familiar. Matinée was made seven years after Back to the Future and is set (in 1962) seven years afterwards. In its style and tone it echoes Robert Zemeckis's blockbuster, but it wasn't embraced nearly so warmly by audiences.
Maybe it's because the backdrop is the harder sell of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Gene (Simon Fenton) is a young teen who lives on a naval base, and he's coming to terms with an absent military father who may never return. Some solace is arriving, however, as the B-movie tycoon Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman) is coming to town to show off his new half-man/half-ant opus "Mant".
The film establishes a broad cast of characters to populate Key West, including Gene's buddy Stan (Omri Katz), who's obsessed with the flirty Sherry (Kellie Martin). Gene himself, meanwhile, is courting the CND-conscious Sandra (Mrs Doubtfire's Lisa Jakub). While the parents panic about the impending nuclear annihilation, the schoolboys bicker and talk about girls.
The first half of the movie focuses on establishing the many characters, while the second half is dominated by the premiere of Mant itself and the (mostly) orchestrated chaos surrounding it. Suffice to say, the build-up – which does suffer slightly from minor character overload – is justified by the pay-off. The kids must sign a waiver before entering the theatre, and with good reason. "This crowd is turning into a mob," the producer yells at Woolsey – "congratulations!"
Writer Charles S. Haas has a brilliant ear for taut, funny dialogue that doesn't rely on punchlines, and the teenage dynamics are brilliantly observed. (The boys, anyway – the girls are more thinly sketched.) At the core of the film is Woolsey, whom we first see in Hitchcock-style silhouette, warning the audience about "atomic mutation". Goodman absolutely relishes his role, gleefully feeding his "AtomoVision!" and "Rumble-Rama!" to an audience hungry for event movie gimmicks.
Woolsey sees a business opportunity in the lightning-in-a-bottle moment of the Missile Crisis, keen to capitalise on the heightened national anxiety. Yet rather than making him the monster, the film skilfully presents Woolsey as a hero. Through him the film puts forth its paen to cinema as entertainment, and also a philosophical argument for the cathartic value of movie monsters as a way of exorcising a society's demons.
As with Tim Burton's masterpiece Ed Wood, director Joe Dante displays total affection for his subject matter, namely the monster flicks of the 1950s and '60s. Every period movie you can think of is referenced, but particularly Kurt Neumann's The Fly. We see plenty of footage of Mant and it is entirely convincing (by which I mean appropriately unconvincing), and avoids mocking its myriad sources.
"Put the insect aside!" one character begs the half-man/half-ant, to which he replies, "Insecticide? Where?!" Meanwhile, in the world of Dante's film, Woolsey is hurling special effects around the auditorium, spilling smoke and rumbling seats, literally bringing the house down. When the Mant cast start directly referencing the Matinée audience, who are in turn being watched by us, it feels like Amblin's answer to Inception.
For those who enjoy the smart satire of The 'Burbs and the frenetic farce of Gremlins, this is a similarly genre-dodging yet relatively overlooked Dante classic. It's a film about films they don't make anymore – and, in our less kind-spirited age of comedy archness, they really don't make them like this anymore.
Barry Lyndon (1975)
They are all equal now
William Makepeace Thackeray's most famous novel, Vanity Fair, has been adapted into several films and TV series. The Luck of Barry Lyndon, later retitled The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq., hasn't been quite so regurgitated. Originally serialised in the 1840s before becoming a single volume in 1856 (although set in the previous century) it's a rambling text, described by a disinterested narrator, full of satirical swipes at the seventeenth century romantic ideal.
Stanley Kubrick's adaptation – a bit of a flop in 1975 – dials down the satire. With Dr Strangelove, Kubrick had taken a cold and sober story (Red Alert) and turned it into a nightmare satirical comedy. With Lyndon he takes a rambunctious and ironic picaresque and turns it into a witty but ultimately sorrowful journey into the black heart of a world that can't accept the orphan foreigner.
We begin in Ireland, where a young Redmond Barry (a blank slate Ryan O'Neal), in trying to win the heart of his cousin, challenges the smug Captain John Quin (Leonard Rossiter) to a duel. The event triggers Redmond's exile, and he hits the road, not so much gallivanting around Europe as finding himself stumbling in and out of army units and from one bereft wife's bed to the next.
Redmond has ambitions to wealth and status. So, when he comes into contact with Lady Lyndon (an even blanker slate Marisa Berenson), he decides to settle down and take advantage of her money and make himself a gentleman. Lyndon, however, is guarded by her fiercely protective son, Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali), who will defend her honour until the violent end.
Barry Lyndon employs a realist aesthetic, but it's a beautified and exaggerated realism, like a photo album telling half the story – the pretty bits – as if we were observing the fantasy of an ordered universe. The style is perfect for the self-aggrandising nature of Redmond, who would rather keep himself unknowable in detail, but would gleefully embellish his grander legend.
Kubrick predominantly makes use of zooms, as opposed to tracking shots, evoking a sense of flatness similar to a painting. The compositions themselves are reminiscent of 17th and 18th century pieces – at one point Lord Bullingdon effectively walks through Hogarth's "The Morning After". When the camera does come off the tripod – for example, during an astonishing brawl at a concert performance – the effect is brilliantly jarring.
For a film that keeps its title character in frame but at arm's length for virtually its entire 180-minute running time (save for a brief interlude of contented fatherhood), Barry Lyndon is Kubrick's most moving and heartfelt film. Kubrick used cinema for awe (2001: A Space Odyssey) and anarchy (A Clockwork Orange); but he knew also that cinema is sadness: twenty-four transient events slipping away every second.
The sombre rhythm of Barry Lyndon, and the lifetime it covers, is such that we are vitally aware of the passing of time. It is an exercise in anti-tension, with minimal editing and zero revelation. Michael Hordern's ironic narrator frequently informs us of important events before they occur.
Kubrick was a proponent of the Soviet Montage school of editing: creating meaning through the juxtaposition of images. And yet with Barry Lyndon the meaning is created more by the events within the frame: the stillness, smallness and slowness of people in vast, beautiful, indifferent spaces.
Barry Lyndon may lack the broad humour of the more accessible Dr Strangelove, but Kubrick's acknowledgement of the absurd is still present. Marriage, monogamy, material consumption, and the endless pursuit of money: the sometimes conflicted aspects of the independence-seeking society that sprung from the one we're watching on screen. It's a reflection of our world, today.
Yes, Barry Lyndon is a historical film, and it's about history, but it's also about who we are now. It is a film that questions our values and our social convictions. We may laugh or cry at the picaresque rogue and the rigid class divisions he crosses. We may sneer at the loveless marriage born of loneliness at the story's centre. We may despair at the movement from the expansive freedom of the rolling landscape to the closed world of the gated estate. But we may also consider that, unlike Redmond Barry, we have the awareness and the means and the mobility to resist such a fate. Yet so often we choose not to.
Hangmen Also Die! (1943)
Resistance is fertile
"Die if you must for a cause that is just." It's a line from a poem which becomes a song of defiance, written by a Czech civilian taken hostage by and awaiting execution at the hands of the Nazis. It's also the core mantra for many of the Resistance heroes who face death for the sake of the greater national good.
The plot of Fritz Lang's film, adapted from a story by Bertolt "Bert" Brecht and loosely based on real events, concerns the assassination of the "Hangman of Europe" Reinhard Heydrich (Hans Heinrich von Twardowski) in occupied Prague. Naturally the Gestapo are all over the case, but their efforts to nail the assassin are thwarted at every turn by Resistance sympathisers – many of them ordinary folk turned potential betrayers.
The chief inspector is Gruber (Alexander Granach), a bawdy, beer- swilling cop with a nose for sniffing out lies. But the prime suspect, Svoboda (Brian Donlevy), is his intellectual equal, casting a web of deceit that entangles innocent witness Mascha (Anna Lee), whose father is subsequently captured and used as leverage.
Mascha's dilemma is a Sophie's Choice that encapsulates the terrible decision at the heart of all citizens living under oppression: Speak out and her family will be shot; say nothing and only her father dies.
Hangmen Also Die! was made after Lang's emigration from Nazi Germany in the 1930s and before his move into hard noir with Scarlet Street and The Big Heat. It was produced during wartime yet somehow avoids many of the demonising clichés that could potentially turn depictions of the Third Reich into a pantomime of evil (even if some of the performances are a tad broad).
The precision and nuance by which such a complex array of characters is mapped out is remarkable – the stuff of AAA television in our current era. Lang and his co-writers somehow make it all work, with virtually every scene a nail-biting moral or ethical decision, or some devastating revelation. It's the leanness of the narrative, with every word and frame employed to maximum effect, that makes this level of intensity possible.
Special mention should go to the great female roles here, from factory workers to fruit sellers, all taking their punishment for their part in the Resistance effort. Mascha in particular could have been a hysterical wuss, but she's as calm, capable, and principled as the men plotting each other's doom. She never asked for this – yet she's the one making the sacrifice regardless.
The mix of political intrigue, melodrama, and hard-boiled noir may not sit comfortably in many minds but on screen it's a masterful balancing act. Just as with M, Lang dares to paint his subjects in shades of grey (the Resistance fighters are no more pure of heart than the Gestapo police are pure evil), and the results are utterly engrossing and grimly plausible. If you've seen Lang's big-hitters, it's time to try out this lesser-known little classic.
Microwave Massacre (1979)
You are what you eat
Described by its original DVD distributor as "The Worst Horror Movie of All Time", this 1983 black comedy doesn't quite live up to that promise, but it's a close thing. The painted cover art is fantastic, and typically unrepresentative of the lousy content of the film.
Donald (Jackie Vernon) is a depressed, disillusioned construction worker who returns each evening to his frumpy, nagging wife, May (Claire Ginsberg). She feels she doesn't get the gratitude she deserves for "slaving away" at her new microwave all day.
One night Donald snaps and murders May. Naturally, the only way he can destroy the evidence is by cooking and eating her. He gets a taste for it (excuse the pun) and thus begins enticing ladies of the night back to his suburban home. He cooks them and feeds them to his insatiable, ignorant co-workers. Donald is free and he's impressing his new best buddies. What can possibly stop his campaign of cannibalism? Vernon was a stand-up with a distinctive deadpan style, which is entirely incongruous with the farcical events of this story. Combined with the film's weirdly languid pace and Leif Horvath's eerie electronic score, it's quite an unsettling experience – although this is mostly due to it being an outright tonal disaster, rather than any controlled sense of atmosphere.
With the humour and delivery of a 70s sketch show, it's a movie badly in need of canned laughter, if only to inform us of when we're supposed to laugh. Genuine humour comes in the briefest of snatches: Donald's encounter with Dr Van der Fool (Ed Thomas), who doesn't know which side the heart is on; or the scene where May's sister stops by and Donald has to prop May's disembodied head in the bed to pretend she's still alive ("She looks awful pale...").
It's a movie of a mercifully bygone era in which all the women are nags or sluts, although this is par for the course in trash horror of the time. What the flesh sandwich lacks is a juicy layer of satire. Given that the microwave was just becoming a household essential in the 80s, promising the death of the conventional cooker, this has to go down as an opportunity missed – we get none of the consumerist satire of The Stuff, nor the grotesque farce of the more enjoyably outrageous Street Trash.
Microwave Massacre just about claws its way into the midnight movie slot through a certain uniqueness and, frankly, its brevity (it comes in at around 75 minutes). But it's more of a freak-out than a fun time.
Star Trek Beyond (2016)
To mediocrity, and beyond!
All "beats and shouting" is how one character describes the classical twentieth century strains of The Beastie Boys, and it could just as well describe Justin "Fast & Furious" Lin's entry into the Star Trek cinematic canon, its thirteenth instalment.
Three years into their five-year mission and life aboard the Enterprise is getting pretty boring. (I know, right? Our hearts bleed for these brave handsome space explorers.) They park up at a moon-sized starbase called Yorktown, where they are visited by an alien refugee who says her people have been attacked.
The Enterprise investigates, traversing a nebula before finding a hostile swarm of ships. (Incidentally, the pacing by this point is typical of the film as a whole: insufficient build-up to an overlong action payoff.) The Enterprise is overwhelmed, and boarded by the swarm's commander, Krall (Idris Elba). Krall wants an alien artefact in Kirk's (Chris Pine) possession.
As a result of the battle the Enterprise crew crash land on a local planet. Separated, some are captured by Krall and his drones. Kirk's scattered team, with the help of clichéd huntress Jaylah (genuinely named after J-Law, and played by Sofia Boutella), must find a way to rescue their friends and escape the planet before Krall and co destroy Yorktown.
An opening gag, a comical encounter involving a bestial alien race, sets the cartoon tone for the movie. The set even resembles the Klingon courtroom from The Undiscovered Country – and it was the first of many times that I felt the series' heritage was being referenced in a faintly mocking way. When every line involving that rich pseudo-science jargon is being flipped into a joke it comes across as dumbing down to the point of contempt.
I feel this point is important enough to labour, particularly as some of the marketing has harkened back to the likes of The Motion Picture – a thoughtful work of philosophical sci-fi to which this bears no resemblance. Being stupid isn't in itself a problem, but when a film continually references its forebears, both on screen and off, one cannot but feel that history is being exploited.
When nu-Spock is coming to terms with his mortality and his fearful exclamations are laughed off by his supposed friends Bones and Kirk (who, in a diluted allusion to Wrath of Khan's birthday scene, had themselves earlier discussed mortality), you question whether these characters – the very soul of Trek – are being taken seriously.
Being co-written by Simon Pegg, it should come as no surprise that the bro-banter is in full force; and, in Beyond's defence, it sometimes works in the quieter moments. When the crew is paired off we do get some interesting matchings: Kirk and Checkov (the late Anton Yelchin); Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Bones (Karl Urban); Scotty (Pegg) and Jaylah. The strongest scenes are the simple ones where they're exploring this strange new world and mutually building their characters.
However. Maybe it's a reference to the original third film's subtitle, but poor Spock is missing for large parts; and when he is on screen his moodiness comes across less like a character's grief and more like an actor's embarrassment. You can almost see his despair at the direction the series is taking: A franchise hungrier than ever to knock the techno-babble on the head and move on to the next starship-flipping setpiece.
(Just wait until you get to the part with the musical weapon. It will determine if you're on board with this mission or it'll be your escape pod moment. I found it risible: not smart-silly, just shark-jumping.)
Another Star Trek movie, another frustrated madman having a tantrum. But unlike Nero or Kahn, Krall's motivations are vague and implausible, and Idris Elba's performance is unconvincing. It's not helped by his character's obsession with the ancient artefact he covets: a MacGuffin so mysterious that it cannot be adequately explained through exposition, and which produces a lame CG effect like something out of The Mummy.
Lin mimics JJ Abrams' kinetic style but it's all bluster and no rhythm or rhyme. His clunky direction and the chaotic editing (four editors, seemingly at odds with each other) undermine any sense of local geography or the relationship between subjects. This particularly comes to the fore in the final act, where any narrative ingenuity gives way to video game plotting (complete with tool tips and checkpoints) – a succession of confusing complications in lieu of real narrative complexity – and Lin is not up to the task of keeping us informed of the rules and the stakes.
Beyond lacks the vitality and novelty of Star Trek '09 and has none of the thrilling personal conflicts or emotional sensitivity of Into Darkness. And more than those films, which were already more flash than flesh, it lacks depth. This is the cinema of spectacle, not ideas. Once, this film series could do both. But Beyond doesn't go beyond passable. And for a crew of this calibre, that's not good enough.
Satan's Blade (1984)
Welcome to the longest 80 minutes of your life. Distinguished by catastrophic acting, editing, cinematography, music, sound, lighting, makeup, pacing, plotting, dialogue and characterisation, L. Scott Castillo Jr's slasher is so bad it's bad, reaching an Edward D. Wood Jr plateau of tosh. It couldn't secure a release until 1984 – four years after it was shot.
The legends speak of a "Mountain Man" who, frustrated at society encroaching on the hills and pushing him further into the wilderness, regularly comes down from the peaks to take it out on poorly-clothed teenagers. This season there are two groups: The lusty spring break chicks and the two sensible couples. Their worlds collide when hottie Stephanie (Stephanie Leigh Steel) inexplicably falls for nerdy Tony (Tom Bongiorno), and this sets in motion a series of horror movie separations, giving the killer his chance to pick them off, one by one.
The plot isn't sufficient to fill the running time. We get endless shots of Stephanie wandering the wilderness, accompanied only by a drab piano-and-flute score. At times it's like we're watching bored actors waiting around on location. The killings ramp up in the final third, but are tame and lacking invention in their execution. There is one diverting nightmare sequence, although it is memorable for its dodgy makeup more than its creepiness.
This is one of those cheapo horror flicks where, thanks to the desperate acting quality and the appalling script, the alleged friends barely seem to know each other. The relationship between Tony and his wife Lisa (Elisa R. Malinovitz) is laughable. Their dirty talk scene – packed with lame courtroom metaphors (he's just qualified, you see) – is an avalanche of cringe.
Let's be relative. Comparing Satan's Blade to bigger budget horror movies of the era isn't fair. But films like The Mutilator and Sleepaway Camp – low budget contemporaries with which Satan's Blade bears resemblance – at least had fun deaths and biting humour respectively. And the final 'twist', involving a cameo from our esteemed director, is a total dud. It makes sense when Hitchcock does it, but Hitchcock he ain't.
In a very awkward interview on the disc, the director states that film is "a business, not an artform". Don't worry, Mr Castillo, there is no danger of mistaking this film for art. Arrow Video (the version I watched) is scraping the barrel here with a curio that only the most dedicated slasher aficionados should indulge. It's also worth mentioning that this is a very rough print. Crackle and hair is authentic, sure, but the print is woefully damaged at times, with distorted sound and a multitude of unwanted historical artefacts. Actually, "unwanted historical artefact" might be the best way to describe the film.
Tacky 80s comedy horror starring George Clooney's hair
Part Two of the infamous comedy horror series is the best one insofar as it's the least bad. It was made in 1988, ten years after the ultra-low budget original.
Anthony Starke is very game in the role of Chad Finletter, nephew of Wilbur (Steve Peace), hero of the Great Tomato War of '78. Chad works in his uncle's pizzeria – where tomato coverings are now outlawed because they're evil – along with his buddy Matt (a magnificently mulleted George Clooney).
Meanwhile, gene-splicing Professor Gangreen (John Astin) is creating an army of tomato people, hoping to conquer the world. One day one of his creations, Tara (Karen Mistal), escapes and seeks sanctuary in the arms of Chad. Gangreen sends his henchman Igor (Steve Lundquist) to retrieve her. Chad and Tara fall hopelessly in love, but Gangreen will stop at nothing to retrieve his test tube babe. Chad, Tara, and Matt must band together, along with Chad's uncle and his troop of weirdos, to defeat Gangreen and save the world from the "red menace".
You might as well skip the dreadful first movie because we get a full recap here. Return is far more watchable thanks to a vaguely coherent script and less of a chaotic sketch show structure. Most of the best stuff happens early on, where there's a ton of fun in Tara's fish-out-of-water flailing bumping up against Chad's bumbling charm. And there's great bro-chemistry between Starke and Clooney.
The film is pure spoof, falling somewhere between the Mel Brooks and Zucker brothers camps: the fourth wall-breaking elements of the former and the cringeworthy puns of the latter. (At one point a character opens a China closet and finds the Great Wall of China inside.) It's not upper Zucker by any means, but somewhere around the Top Secret range in terms of gag hit rate.
There are also countless references to horror film contemporaries. We get a bit of Weird Science; the mad lab of Reanimator; the gene-mashing horror of The Fly; and the dead-eyed hottie-on-the-loose of Frankenhooker. It's all powered by some fantastic synth-rock music which doubles down on the echo-snare. Plus a Bacharach-styled ballad as the lovers prance on the beach whilst being bothered by a creepy mime.
Eminently good natured and low on gore, Return emphasises the comedy over the horror, making it more accessible than its title suggests. There really isn't much killing at all. The problem is that, beyond the first act, it's not consistently funny either, so as far as cultdom goes it is niche. Set expectations to moderate though and it's a fun, screwy ride.