Thursday, 19 April 2018

Shin Godzilla - stomping through politics


Hideaki Anno & Shinji Jiguchi, 
2016, Japan

A reboot of Godzilla by Toho Studios – directed by Hideaki Anno and Shinji Jiguchi – that focuses on the political turmoil caused by a super-monster stomping through Tokyo. That means lots of talk about military action, evacuations and international relations. From time to time, Godzilla impressively unleashes sheer destruction. He’s been upgraded to motion capture and CGI but they haven’t even used the latter to make the eyes blink and his arms never move so it’s feel is very much man-in-a-suit. More importantly, the long-shots of Gojira ploughing through the suburbs and the city are bright, spectacular, clear and the best yet seen, surely.* The film steers a very tricksy line between the appearance of seemingly clunky old-fashioned effects and state-of-the-art techniques, pleasingly and sometimes surprisingly.


But the film is mostly cutting between various political, scientific and military departments trying to deal with the crisis. Much is made of Japan’s international relations dealing with the giant monster crisis: boardrooms become the central location of the drama as a satire of government bewilderment and bureaucracy ensues. If Gojira was born from the Atomic bomb, here the monster more represents nuclear and natural disasters: he’s there to embody all the terrible tragedies that befall Japan it seems (most obviously here it’s Fukushima Daiichi and Tōhoko, but remember he also fought the smog monster Hedorah). There’s a sly acknowledgement to the origins of Godzilla by having America name the beast and Japan then adopting it. America is represented by an ineffective aerial assault – just one of many – and a Japanese-American liaison (Satomi Ishihara) who bears the most difficult English accent of the cast; she has a penchant for acting sassy and flipping her hair like she’s learnt her moves from perfume commercials and seems to have stepped in from one of the earlier tackier films in the franchise (there’s also a somewhat baffling subplot about her becoming president eventually?). But it ends up being France that proves Japan’s political ally.

There are so many characters and groups being introduced all the time that it’s probably forgivable if you don’t quite keep track (the IMDB page gives the flavour of this). But mostly we follow Cabinet Secretary Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa) as he angsts over Gojira and his political ambitions. Directors Hideaki Anno and Shinji Jiguchi try to keep all this boardroom and control centre action exciting by gliding the camera through offices and having sheets of paper deployed in quick cuts like karate blows, or more strikingly through a portable device’s screen’s POV of the people looking at it, but there’s no doubt that this gets in the way of giant monster action and that the film could have been shorn of much of this. Most of the dialogue is made of instructions and exposition so it’s certainly better than many Godzilla films, but the line that stuck out for me was also the most enjoyably ridiculous: “Deploy all train bombs!” Of course, if you want to up the cheesiness, just play the dubbed version.**

The monster genre is typified and marred by the sense that the drama is almost always weaker than the rampage, but here it’s more that the politics starts to get in the way of the Kaiju. The seriousness is commendable and it’s all very slick and less silly than most Gojira flicks, but as admirable as it is to return Godzilla to Toho studios, there’s the sense that it’s longer and less fun than it should be.


· Gareth Edwards much maligned 2014 ‘Godzilla’ had some spectacular showpieces but failed to film its monsters in a way that left the audience satisfied. Even if it’s a man in a suit, an audience likes its kaiju anti-hero bright and clearly seen.
·        It’s “Send in all the train bombs” in the subtitles and “Freeze the bugger!” becomes “Freeze the bastard!” in the dub. It’s the little things… But this has been a review of the subtitled version because dubbing makes everything less serious.

The Pyramid

Grégory Levasseur, 2014, USA

Another hand-held footage excursion into hell, except for when it’s not hand-held. All the tedious motifs of found footage aesthetic are here (always exposition; why are they still filming? Etc.) but there are no characters that reach more than two-dimensions to enliven things. In fact, they are stupid (what’s the point of it all if they think the air is poisonous and yet still take off their masks?). Director Grégory Levasseur and producer Alexandre Aja have been responsible for some interesting nasty stuff – ‘The Hill Have Eyes’ remake, ‘Haut Tension’ and (my favourite) the ‘Maniac’ remake – but this isn’t one of them; this falls more into their sillier pile along with ‘Piranha 3D’Bringing Egyptian monsters to life could have been interesting if it all wasn’t so dull, and ultimately the monster looks like dodgy claymation, and not in a fun way.


Friday, 13 April 2018

A Quiet Place


John Krasinski, 2018, USA

‘A Quiet Place’ comes with a defining concept – monsters are attracted to any noise – designed to make anyone eating popcorn and opening sweets and chocolates in the audience act like the characters onscreen: delicately, cautiously, painfully self-aware. Every chair squeak in the auditorium is likely to be heard. Myself, being a good cinema-goer, I only buy quiet food (pastilles and chocolate that I open before the film starts) because eating popcorn loudly and talking through films really ruins the experience for me (he says with understatement) – but even I had a slight coughing fit during the film, made only worse by struggling to suppress it. It’s a film with the emphasis on the tiniest sound without necessarily being quiet itself: there’s Marco Beltrami’s score that underlays without quite disturbing the focus on silences; there’s the roars of the monsters and a cameo from Neil Yong’s ‘Harvest Moon’, for example. Even so, you have been warned that you can’t talk through this one without causing the ire of other audience members; that is, more than usual. Like Lynne Ramsey’s ‘You Were Never Really Here’, it’s a film that wants you to pay attention to the sound design.

Having established the concept and the high stakes from the opening – because kids want to be kids even in this scenario, which is a major theme –‘A Quiet Place’ focuses on a few set-pieces, sidestepping many demands for exposition and background information, not to mention internal logic – wait, so how would it work that these creatures seemingly decimated the human population? – and gets on with the job of racking up tension. Some context given by fluttering old newspaper headlines and notes written on a board but these are mostly things we have already intuited. Then there’s mum Emily Blunt, who is good at being stoic, son Noah Jupe, who is good at being vulnerable (almost unbearably so in ‘Suburbicon’), dad and director John Krasinski trying to do his best paternal protector thing and daughter Millicent Simmons finding she can’t quite go full stormy and noisy troubled teen because she has to be mindful of the monsters. She’s also deaf which gives the family an advantage in already knowing sign language.

Nitpicks could be found in that why does it take hundreds of days for the dad to show the safety of waterfalls to their son; or wouldn’t the military have worked out the monster’s weakness long before and let everyone know? There’s a baby on the way too, which is surely a bad and irresponsible choice, considering (but what else are they going to do? And thankfully it’s mostly quiet when it comes). But these matter less when there is plenty of attention paid to piling on the suspense.  When the majority of a film is doing so much else rightly and strongly, the constant questioning of internal logic isn’t such a priority; a few things can slide. (For example, there’s a lot of doubting the workings of the monster in ‘It Follows’; and where is the security in ‘Blade Runner 2049’ to stop Luv from just walking into the police station? And why aren’t they wearing Hazmat suits in ‘Annihilation’? etc.) But picking apart isn’t so rewarding when the set-pieces are strong and the main concern is to simply have some genre fun.

The grain silo and a flooded basement are highlights.


The monsters are big, all angles sticking out plus over-complicated head-and-ear designs, but that’s fun too; they are simply the bogeymen to scare and to be overcome. Mostly, the story is simply “surviving the set-pieces” and Krasinski directs cleanly and with care, despite some confused editing, forging some unforgettable images – the bath in the foreground and the thing coming up the stairs in the background doing its best 'Nosfertu' impersonation; the monster almost blending with the shadows in the cellar, for example. The main theme seems to be “If we can’t protect the children, then what are we?” (which is surely political - he says with understatement), but mostly, despite its downbeat veneer, this is a focused action piece that delivers tension and scares with the minimum requirement of nuanced characterisation  and bloodletting that is a true crowd-pleaser.

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Pacific Rim Uprising

Steven S DeKnight, 2018, USA

Bang!! Crash!!! Jaegers fighting Kaiju. It’s a crowd pleaser of the undemanding, empty-headed popcorn type and, for that, we do get plenty of giant robot action. Otherwise the characters are of the obvious kind and all the charm and liveliness rests with John Boyega. Boyega seems to know this sequel is pitched at the kids – but without the wannabe poignancy of ‘Star Wars’ (which you may argue makes ‘Star Wars’ easily superior) – and is playful and fun, even if he has the same rudimentary character-arc as others: learning to go from rebel to conformity. In fact, the narrative strikes a clear line from being a kid mashing your figurines together (which is the premise of ‘Pacific Rim’) to being a scrappy cadet to being a legendary soldier and all without losing your rebelliousness. As an advert aimed at youths for the military, it does a fair job: you too are the chosen one (“you may already have it”, as the commercial says) and for all those in charge that don’t understand you, for all your angsty noncompliance, you will show ‘em all when the shit hits the fan. Etc. To this end, it’s the cadets that get to face off the Kaiju. 

Elsewhere, there’s the overacting to distract/annoy you, although whether Burn Gorman or Charlie Day is the worst offender may depend on your personal taste (for me, Gorman settles into his hamminess and makes his a cartoonish character whereas Day is repeatedly aggravating) and some anti-corporation (boo!) red herrings (hey, drones will never beat real soldierism!). The last act is just one giant CGI extravaganza where the city (“Everyone’s safe underground” we’re told) is just a playpen for crashing and bashing and total destruction. Skyscraper’s aren’t just for punching and ploughing through but for robots to roll across too. But it’s CGI with all the soullessness inherent in that, although it looks expensive enough.  

The action admirably tries to keep things rooted in the characters and tactics, but there isn’t much to go round. It all has to be taken on that bashing-and-crashing level because that’s the whole aim. Guillermo del Toro’s 2013 original had, for all its shortcomings, a genuine love of its monsters and robots and a kind of individualism that this doesn’t. It’s the kind of thing where you wonder how it took four people to write and if they ever shared the same room. It does what it does. The whole thing is just for popcorn so criticism doesn’t matter much anyway.

Saturday, 31 March 2018

Rings

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

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

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



Wednesday, 21 March 2018

The Navigator: a medieval odyssey

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, 18 March 2018

'The Prodigy' by Herman Hesse: nature vs eduction

‘The Prodigy’ – Herman Hesse


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


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

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

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

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

And: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Saturday, 17 March 2018

'The Shape of Water' and irksome wonderment

Guillermo del Toro, 2017, USA

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

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

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

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

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


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

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Scanners

David Cronenberg, 
Canada, 1981

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Ted


Seth Macfarlane, 2012, USA


Another comedy based on the principle that the American male is nothing but a loveable man-child who can’t grow up. Here’s the interesting spin: as a child, he’s a little lonely and wished for his eponymous teddy-bear to come to life, which it did, and now Ted acts as his bad influence and represents his arrested development. This means the gags are based upon the bear making a stream of inappropriate wisecracks, simulating sex acts, organising hooker parties, being racist (because being obnoxious masquerades as being rebellious) and getting wasted. And learning about cocaine from Sam J. Jones (Flash Gordon himself). Much of this is quite funny and diverting but the film has no idea how to explore its potential and, in the manner of all comedies that run out of imagination, steers headlong into uninteresting thriller mode in the last act to try and provoke unearned sentiment. The whole bear-in-peril plot might have worked up something genuinely satirical – since Ted is a faded celebrity – in a kind of “King of Comedy” manner, but for all its pop-culture references and profanities, it really is very conventional and somewhat ultimately dull because of it.