Monday, 21 May 2018

This Island Earth

 Joseph Newman, 1955, USA

One of my fondest film-watching memories is when I was living at my grandparent’s house as a preteen and getting to watch the b-movie season playing over months and months on television. I was about eleven or twelve and I loved getting into my pyjamas and watching these films on a Sunday evening before bed. I saw so many of the black-and-white creature features this way; my private education to the drive-in horror and science-fiction era, as if I had been born decades earlier. I know for sure that I saw “The Beast from 50,000 Fathoms” and “King Kong” and “It Came From Outer Space” that way, as well as “It! The Terror Beyond Space”, “Earth versus the Flying Saucers” and “This Island Earth”.

This Island Earth” is kind of an honorary classic: it’s not a classic due to story and execution, for it has some of that workmanlike clunkiness and flatness of the era, but the whole is definitely greater than the parts. It looks and sounds like a tacky Fifties sci-fi, but it is much more if you play into it. It has decent and decidedly adult characters; it has a nice air of menace and mystery and a fascinatingly ambiguous relationship with its aliens. The aliens are the kind you are likely to meet in “Star Trek” – intelligent, humanoid and talky with over-sized foreheads, but can seemingly pass for human, but they are more than two-dimensional. They are a threat in that they are a civilisation – from Metaluna –  on the brink of being wiped out by their enemies and both need Earth’s help whilst simultaneously plotting to colonise Earth. But they are desperate rather than cruel or megalomaniacal. The film’s classic status is surely down to the fact that it is quintessential Fifties-era pulp sci-fi and that’s a lot of fun and no bad thing. It also has a slow build-up that is rewarded with a fantastic if brief visit to Metaluna itself, a gorgeous cosmic vision with comic-book colours and mutants, one which rivals “Forbidden Planet”.

This Island Earth” is full of green rays, flying saucers, manipulative but super-smart aliens, decidedly square-jawed scientists (Rex Reason) and equally unlikely science. It looks and acts like something from an Astounding!” magazine cover, and that’s integral to its delight. The film worries about other cultures being smarter, more manipulative and colonialist, but trusts its American square-jaws and female vulnerability to get an Earthman through an extraterrestrial encounter. It is dated, but that doesn’t seem to do it any harm. It gets better and balmier as it goes on and has the good sense to throw in some alien mutants too to spice up things.

Yes: the mutants. These insectoid aliens gave me a nightmare that I have never forgotten. They were lumbering, soundless and – well, you can’t get much more alien than insects. They don’t have much screen time, although they are plastered all over the posters, but hey are unforgettable. I dreamt that I was on the spaceship standing inside the giant transparent tubes it had to condition people to different environments; my dream was paraphrasing the spaceship and a scene from the film. One of the mutants was going crazy on the flight deck, just as in the film, and I was stuck in the tube. The difference was that there was a gap at the bottom of the tubes so that feet, ankles and lower shins were horrible exposed. The alien came attacking the tubes and I was trapped inside and, eventually, it started to attack my feet at the gap at the base of the tube. I suspect I woke up during the attack. Oh yes, it was quite a nightmare and I’ve never forgotten it. For this reason, I have quite a soft spot for “This Island Earth”.

It remains a delightful slice of pulp hokum with an odd charm all its own. It doesn’t have the resonance and deep chills of, say, “Invasion of the Body-Snatchers”, but it is old school fun and possessed of enough intelligence and gorgeous alien scenery to more than hold its own.

Monday, 14 May 2018

The Strangers

Bryan Bertino, 2008, USA

A loving couple with relationship difficulties become under siege by masked tormenters in their holiday home in the woods. That’s it for plot and that’s fine. Isolated homes are a pretty regular stop for horror’s message that NOWHERE IS SAFE so this fits nicely into that particular paranoia.

As a slick fright machine, “The Strangers” does so much right. It falls on the same plate as “Vacancy”, “Ils (Them)” and, inevitably, “Funny Games” - the post-Manson home invaders - but somehow falters at the last stretch. It is a shame because in mood, pitch and pace, it is mostly an excellent lesson for how to scare with little more than knocks on the door, creaky floorboards and masked figures seemingly able to infiltrate the house at will (wait, how do they do that…?) Cinematographer Peter Sova films it all warmly and sharply: the holiday home is a cosy set, prettily decorated with scattered petals, an open fire and, inevitably, pretty and ironic vinyl music on the stereo (continuity issues with the albums here… the songs are a mixture of old and new and the player seems to turn itself off halfway through a song at one point…). Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman are convincing as a couple going through some troubles (she said “no”) and suitably scared when they need be, making the most of slender characterisation  and again showing that horror benefits tremendously from adult giving it nuance rather than always twenty-something cookie cut performances.

“The Strangers” has nothing to say other than shit happens, but that’s okay as that’s the genre’s domain. The film has no real commentary on the horror genre other than keeping its slasher tropes alert and functioning. It even has the nerve to open with a narration that both claims simultaneously this is based on reality and that no one knows what happened – but of course the Manson Murders are namechecked, which only adds to its ‘70s vibe*, although the unresolved nature of the Keddie Murders are perhaps a little more apt. As Kim Newman says,

"This shows only a relentless commitment to being no fun at all, which is vaguely admirable but ultimately self-defeating. The message of ’70s horror was that straight society was crazy; the 2008 version is that other people are shit - it’s a fine distinction, but makes a depressing difference."

As is dominant with home-invasion narratives the message is that the comfortable middle-class are always under threat from the dispossessed, although here that threat is not so clearly the underclass but more the natural endgame of youthful nihilistic pranksters. It is this nihilism and deliberate random cruelty (“Because you were home.”) that Roger Ebert found irredeemable but the lack of context is meant to add to the paranoia. It certainly leaves a hole. It’s just a sleek scare machine and it can’t find a way to open out its text into something socially aware like “Ils”, or as neatly tucked in at the corners as “Vacancy” even. It is, ultimately, one of those horrors perpetuating its own urban legends. (But it took a long time for a sequel to emerge.)

Monday, 7 May 2018

Black Panther

Ryan Cooglar, USA, 2018 

A lot was riding on this because, you know, An African Superhero and so on and because of its potential contribution to representation. Trying to discuss this film upon its release without this point would be to undervalue its relevance. And although fan boys were eager, the superhero genre had become rote for a wider audience. And then, of course, it was a massive success because it was good. The genre had been broadening itself on the fringes and then into the mainstream by showing that it could incorporate a scruffy attitude and be funny with ‘The Guardians of the Galaxy’, and that it could be 18 rated and also funny with ‘Deadpool’. The funny certainly made ‘Spiderman: Homecoming’ a delight and improved ‘Thor: Ragnorok’. Oh, these superhero films always had amusing moments, but there was certainly an air of calculation about them: a one-liner here and there. The strident sincerity of Nolan’s ‘Batman’ – or even ‘Chronicle’, ‘Unbreakable’, ‘Defendor’ – was no longer the only approach in town and things were now stretching out (and didn’t have to go to the camp of Schumacher’s ‘Batman & Robin’ either). And the genre had been pushing at the edges of representation all over; maybe playing it too safe at times, but it seemed to be trying. ‘Black Panther’ came to show how taking-this-silliness-seriously with effortless humour could be at its most organic. It successfully keeps both the po-faced seriousness and excitement constantly in play so that it proves fun but not frivolous, earnest but not preachy. 

In its approach to representation, ‘Black Panther’s treatment of gender is also so casual and balanced – perhaps radically so – that it surely bests the much heralded but somewhat pedestrian ‘Wonder Woman’ on this issue (there’s Danai Gurira, Lupita Nyong’o and Angela Basset just for starters). Here, there is no doubt that women are, intellectually and physically, equal if not superior. They always seem to have the wit and the playfulness that gives them the upper hand. Ryan Cooglar says,

I really wanted to have women who speak to the themes of the film, who personally had their own arcs in the film, and who really speak to the fact that a society – an African society or any society – doesn’t function without women carrying tremendous weight. T’Challa is a great king, but he can’t be that without women in his life. So that was kind of my perspective.^

And this attention to both gender and race only serves to make ‘Black Panther’ full of winning inclusivity that goes to making it a fuller meal than perhaps these films sometimes offer. Well, more than just popcorn.

There’s also a noteworthy similarity between ‘Black Panther’ and ‘Wonder Woman’ in that the heroes in both films are ostensibly killers. With Wonder Woman, there is no doubt: not only does she kill but she kills the wrong guy and this doesn’t lead to much reflection on the film’s part, surely leaving a problematic lacuna. But when Black Panther (Chadwisk Boseman) seemingly defeats Killmonger (Michael B Jordan) and lets him die, it feeds into themes that have been running throughout the film: Killmonger chooses to die, citing it as the same choice that his ancestors made when they jumped off of ships to their deaths instead of accepting slavery. This provides a counterpoint to the constant refrain to ancestry that permeates Wakanda’s culture, a refrain which is positive but narrow. So when T’challa defeats Killmonger, he gives his nemesis the respect of choice: they could heal him in an instant, but T’challa is not unsympathic to Killmonger’s motivation and lets him choose his fate.

I have heard a criticism that this is the first superhero based in black culture but that the fact that it is based in tribes and trial-by-combat is negative and stereotypical; but I have read a lot of comments to the contrary, that many appreciate the representation of a variety of different African cultures.* Indeed, Wakanda as a utopian vision is also quite radical when dystopias are so in vogue, and can seen as a riposte to the limitations of constant doom-mongering.  Further one of T’challa’s arcs is that he comes to reject the ancestors as faulty, his own father as hypocritical, and that this leaving the past behind allows his forward-thinking. If Vibrabium is a symbol of the strength of black culture, when T’Challa smirks at the end when questioned as to what Wakanda can offer, it is surely an analogy for the feeling that that culture – which is of course many cultures – must be feeling as if they know and have something superior that white culture can only guess at. They don’t want the doom-mongering.

There are diversions into James Bond territory and Andy Serkis provides a more obvious scenery-chomping bad guy, leaving Killmonger to be more complex, and all of this is very entertaining. But the real achievement is that, like ‘Get Out’, ‘Black Panther’ is part of movement showing genre films can also address the American race issue with the language of entertainment and amusement, not just and only with neo-realist seriousness – unless you are averse and prejudiced against such things, of course. Indeed, in the screening I intended, a decidedly mixed audience laughed mostly at jokes rooted very much in the black perspective (the line about another white boy to fix and a character being called a colonialist; indeed, Martin Freeman is the token white). It feels full-blooded in detail even though it adheres to the familiar super-hero genre structure and strictures. The greater accent on greater diversity and representation reaps rewards – both culturally and economically – and continues to touch on certain areas of drama and humour previously not-so drawn upon, especially in the mainstream. 

In Ta-Nahisi Coates’ ‘Black Panther' Comic (issue #170, April 2018), the character Tetu gives a speech criticising the binary way of seeing matters when a circular vision is more beneficial and correct: 

“But Wakandans are trapped in the binary. So Strict. So Western. Boxes where there should be circles.” 

He’s villainous so he also adds, 

“Stasis when what we need is revolution”^

But this call for more fluid thinking is striking, offering an alternative to a rock and a hard place, to one or the other, against extremism. With mainstream entertainment reaching further and showing that, hey, a wider selection of viewpoints makes money, a this-or-that approach is belatedly but hopefully going to look old-fashioned sooner rather than later, even with the current resurgence of far Right Wing political reaction to the success of alternative thinking and agendas in the mainstream.** The sheer range of representation in ‘Black Panther’ is surely a triumph: but that it is done so well is important. Or as Davika Girish summarises,  

…but what makes Black Panther truly unique is that this “dystopian” present is juxtaposed with a (stunningly realised) utopian vision that is wholly steeped in the black experience – in its history, iconography, and culture. In doing so, Black Panther gives blockbuster science-fiction its new vocation: a grounded and inclusive reflection of reality that isn’t closed off by mass spectacle, but instead – in the tradition of Afrofuturism – allows for radical reimaginings of both the past and the future.***

But putting aside its place in this discussion about race and gender, it is a fun, well-measured and well-made film – this cannot be underestimated and this will be the foundation of its longevity. Yes, it has that typical third-act showdown and it doesn’t really relinquish genre norms, and Black Panther’s unique attributes are bound to go on to be subsumed and diluted by his inclusion to ‘The Avengers’ universe, but for now its perspective gives it relevance and grit. A superhero film with one eye on David Simon’s ‘The Wire’, perhaps. One can only hope that, now the bottom line has shown that such inclusivity is a money-maker, that the doors have truly been kicked open. Perhaps it is apt that entertainments so rooted in wish-fulfillment like superhero films are making headway in the way in the mainstream – both quietly and bombastically.

^ ‘Black Panther’ (issue #170, April 2018)
* Indeed, I read one social media comment where someone reported that his sister cried throughout the film because it was full of faces and characters that were familiar to her experience.
** At its most basic, the election of President Trump can be seen as a retort to President Obama; indeed by his own tweets and policies one could easily frame the argument that Trump himself treats it this way.
*** ‘Film Comment’ March-April 2018

Saturday, 5 May 2018


‘Jusqu'à la garde’
 – Xavier Legrand, France, 2017

This is a follow-on from Legrand’s 2014 short film ‘Just Before Losing Everything’ (Avant Que De Tout Perdre– whose trailer easily taps dread), which I had not seen and did not know of, so I was in the same position as the judge at the beginning of ‘Custody’ that presides over the case. “Which of you is the biggest liar?” she asks, and indeed I wasn’t sure either. At one point the possibility that the son was actually playing both sides seemed open to me. But it’s not those particular mind-games that the film is ultimately interested in playing (indeed, the trailer commendably keeps an air of ambiguity). 

Rather it is the psychological and the emotional tensions of weekend visits with dad that are most at play. Anyone who was a kid caught in an uncomfortable divorce – not even abusive – can relate to the excruciating experience of feeling trapped in a car with a difficult parent. And making you feel all this tension is Thomas Giora as Julien, who, in an all-round impressive ensemble piece, is exemplary. As the son, he doesn’t get to say so much, but it’s his experience that mostly guides the film and he expresses a lot, letting all the emotions flicker over his face as we watch him suffer and internalise stress as he wonders what he should do. The restraint and naturalism that permeates the film avoids making Denis Ménochet as Antoine – Julien’s father – just a cartoon villain: he plays the victim in embarrassing and frightening displays of self-pity, and he lashes out from time to time, but the tension is waiting to see just how far he’ll go. His swings between moderation and control and victimhood and hints of violence keep everyone on screen and in the audience on edge. He is recognisable and mundane in his moodswings and manipulations and this makes him far more recogniseable and troubling than a more incarnation of aggrieved masculinity like ‘The Stepfather’. Wendy Ide writes

Once you see him as a threat, you can’t unsee it. This is not a problem with Ménochet’s performance necessarily, rather a consequence of the narrow timeframe that focuses on the final crash and burn of family relations. But it does become a challenge to see the man behind the monstrous grudge.

But that’s maybe the point: the monstrous grudge is all Antoine chooses to be. When vengeance and grudge narratives are so culturally dominant, here is a reminder of the shocking pettiness when this carries over to mundane reality. This drama of wounded people trapped in emotional turmoil bears the tone of Andrey Zvyagintsev and bears the same sense of people emoting without everything being revealed and obvious. And then, the film slides into horror.

If anything is the raw stuff that the horror genre draws from, abusive family dramas are primary sources. All those Ids, all those monsters, all that feeling of helplessness: horror thrives on these elements and they are fundamental to painful domestic environments. All that trauma. All that potential for violence. If ‘Custody’ says anything it is how the commonplace miseries and disputes of our lives can descend into true horror. We have only to turn to headlines and friends to hear such stories. The question may be does the film use horror motifs or does genre obtain its motifs from such moments? A film like ‘Cape Fear’ turns up the genre aesthetics whereas a film like ‘Elephant’ keeps a step back, undoubtedly horrific but tethered to underplayed drama. ‘Custody’ is dour and restrained without being depressing, because the thriller tensions are always the undercurrent. It manages to stay quiet for the length before turning it up when all the previous screw-turning makes the whole thing cave in. It’s a masterful play and makes this a drama that is not likely to be shaken quickly.

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


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.