Tuesday, 31 October 2017

AFS Screenings: The Last Command & Ministry of Fear

Here are my last reviews of the Auckland Film Society screenings for 2017. This year's screenings offered a great selection of movies, and these screenings have made for some nice deviations from all the new releases I have watched. Let's start with the Academy Award-winning The Last Command.

The Last Command (Joseph von Stenberg, 1928)
An elderly Russian immigrant (Emil Jannings) working as an extra in Hollywood reminisces about his previous life as a high-ranking member of the imperial aristocracy in the former Russian Empire.

I first heard about this film in a biography of the great director Ernst Lubitsch. Reportedly, he had heard the story and passed it on to a writer, who then turned it into a script. For whatever reason, Lubitsch's involvement ended there and the movie was helmed by Joseph von Stenberg, the director of Marlene Dietrich's most famous films in the 30s.

Leading man Emil Jannings was one of the great character actors of German cinema who made the move to Hollywood. His reputation declined after he returned to Germany to work in the Nazi films. As the General, Jannings is great. His style is more theatrical than contemporary viewers may be used to, but he also displays an understanding of the medium - he makes good use of his eyes and economic body movements to convey the character's discipline and confidence.

It is an extremely cinematic performance, in that he understands how to moderate his performance for the camera - this is particularly evident in his portrayal of the character after the revolution. A broken man after the fall of Imperial Russia, he is a hunched, twitchy figure - a total contrast from the dynamic, haughty character he is in his prime.

For his performance, Jannings won the inaugural Best Actor Oscar at the first Academy Awards. He remains the only German actor to win the trophy.

The rest of the cast are all fine, but it is hard to pick any other standouts. One notable cast member is William Powell. It is strangely poignant to watch the future star here - in just over a year, sound would sweep Jannings out of fashion while offering Powell a chance at stardom.

The movie is remarkable for more than just Jannings' performance. Joseph Von Sternberg delivers some incredible sequences - the way he intercuts between the general's party on his train, and the collapse of the Imperial state, juxtaposing the personal story against broader historical events.

The other notable sequence is the ending, in which real and reel life collide. Now working on a film about the revolution, and playing himself, the General reverts to his old self. Dressed in a rough facsimile of his former finery, he orders his 'troops' to fight on and save Russia. He then collapses and dies before the cameras.

Certain elements don't stand up as well - I was not sold on the romantic subplot - but as an example of what silent cinema can accomplish, The Last Command is terrific.

Ministry of Fear (Fritz Lang, 1944)
Released from an asylum during the Blitz, Stephen Neale (Ray Milland) is ready to return to normal life. But after he wins a cake at a local fair, events take a turn. A blind man attacks him on a train; he is accused of murder at a séance; a suitcase he is carrying turns out to be a bomb. Someone wants Neale out of the picture. With the police on his tail, and an unseen enemy in the wings, Neale is in a race against time to find out what is going on.

I have not watched too many Fritz Lang pictures, and that number is even lower for his Hollywood work. Prior to this I had only seen the terrific noir The Big Heat, and While The City Sleeps, which I can barely remember.

Adapted from a novel by Graham Greene (The Third Man, The Quiet American), Ministry of Fear is a really solid thriller with a palatable air of dread and paranoia. The basic plot mechanics are standard, but the atmosphere that this movie generates overrides any of its more prosaic components. The first half of the movie in particular is great as an exercise in mounting confusion as our hero is buffeted by events he cannot predict or control.

Shot entirely in a studio, Ministry of Fear's clearly artificial, limited mise-en-scene works in its favour. There is a sense of claustrophobia to the diegesis which - when combined with Lang's direction - roots the viewer in the protagonist's limited POV. As viewers, we feel as trapped as Neale does. The hyper-real settings only reinforce the sensation that Neale has found himself in an uncanny mirror of reality that he cannot comprehend or escape.

Fritz Lang's direction is the star here - it is not flashy or as innovative as his famous work, but it is fascinating as an example of a singular filmmaker working within the framework of classical Hollywood. And for a Graham Greene adaptation made under the Production Code, Lang's involvement is a major asset. Even in his 'entertainments', Greene's pessimism and adult themes did not generally find favour in Hollywood (which is why The Third Man and Brighton Rock - both British productions - were more representative and successful examples of his work).

Even though certain story elements have clearly been softened (Neale's reason for being in an asylum; the tacked-on happy ending), Lang's roots in German Expressionism allow him to undercut the clearly defined morality of the Hays Code by contradicting what the characters say with a clever use of mise-en-scene and cinematography (once again, see the scene in which Neale explains why he was in the asylum).

The acting is all good - Milland makes for a strong, empathetic lead - but the acting overall is solid rather than spectacular. It is a thrill when Dan Duryea shows up as a minor heavy (particularly the scene in the tailor's), but he is not in the movie enough to make a real impression.

With its hero trying to investigate a conspiracy, the story feels like something Hitchcock would have made - albeit minus the sexual dynamics or humour that decorated The 39 Steps or The Lady Vanishes. This is not a major deficit, but once the conspiracy comes into focus, the movie becomes more conventional, with the focus shifting toward a romantic subplot that feels more like a convention than a natural part of the movie.

While it is no masterpiece, Ministry of Fear remains a highly entertaining example of classical noir. Definitely worth a look.

Previous AFS reviews

Purple Noon (2015)

The Servant 

Eyes Without A Face 

Night of the Demon (2016)

Grand Central

Tales of Hoffman


Friday, 27 October 2017

IN THEATRES: Thor - Ragnarok

After he is ejected from Asgard during a battle with Hella (Cate Blanchett), the Goddess of Death, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) finds himself stranded on a strange world of scavengers, gladiatorial combat and Jeff Goldblum. Teaming up with the Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Thor has to come up with a plan to escape and save Asgard from Hella's wrath.

This movie is awesome.

I was not a fan of the previous Thor movies -- they were a bit all over the place, and the character never made sense as the centre of attention - he always seemed to fit better as a straight man to the Avengers. But right from the announcement, everything about this movie sounded awesome: the premise; the director; the cast (Goldblum, Blanchett, and Creed's Tessa Thompson). And the first trailer was so much fun, it just validated my excitement.

Because Thor's previous films have never had a real consistent identity in terms of style or tone, he is the perfect vehicle for Taika Waititi's special brand of silliness.

This movie is silly - wonderfully so. The plot is not particularly complicated, the character arcs are fairly simple, and the stakes are not particularly high. But my god, as a comedy Thor: Ragnarok is perfect.

Thor's previous movies have flirted with the more ridiculous aspects of his world, but never has the potential been exploited as thoroughly here. After clearing the slate of the previous movies' plot threads, Waititi drops Thor into the colourful world of Sakaar - a wonderful hodgepodge of different aesthetics layered on top of each other with no regard for design or purpose.

Taking up most of the second act, Thor's Sakaar-based adventures are the film's highlight, as the befuddled god-ling bounces from set piece to set piece, and environment to environment, with no control over what happens. He is also de-powered, becoming something of an everyman.

These movies are not good at character development. It's the downfall of almost all of the movies, even the best ones (Spider-Man: Homecoming suffered a bit from this), and so while the movie is built on Thor taking on his father's mantle, that struggle never feels that important, and the focus on the yucks and the supporting players helps carry the movie to the finish line.

Along with Waititi's directorial talents, a large part of the movie's success is the cast. Hemsworth has always been good as Thor, but here he seems looser and more alive. Pushing his character's characteristic braggadocious-ness into complete buffoonish-ness, Hemsworth becomes a gleeful part of Waititi's crazy gumbo.

The Hulk gets another great showcase, going from ball of rage to petulant teenager, shifting between berserker rage and insecurity that no body likes him. While Mark Ruffalo does make a welcome return, this is the first time that the Hulk felt like a genuine character, rather than just a force that the other characters have to contend with.

And then there is Tessa Thompson as the hard-living, hard-drinking Valkyrie. I've been a fan of hers for awhile, and she does not disappoint here. Not only is she a badass, the filmmakers make sure she is a part of the fun - too often female heroes have to be the straight man to the jokes, but Valkyrie is just irreverent as everyone else. Her insistence on maintaining her alcoholism is a running joke that is hackneyed as hell, but they find enough natural variations on the trope that never gets tired. What was also interesting is that her drinking is never used as a signifier of her growth (ala Dean Martin in Rio Bravo) - it ends up being a sign of her own agency. She'll help the big galoot, but that doesn't mean she has to do everything he says.

Cate Blanchett has a great time, coming on like a combination of Angelica Huston's Queen Witch from The Witches (1990) and the shifty CEO of a dubious start-up company. Compared with most Marvel villains, she has far more personality. As with Thompson, Blanchett is not isolated from Waititi's nonsense, but an active participant and catalyst. Her interactions with Karl Urban's Skurge are a delight.

The movie is filled with great minor characters. Waititi gives himself a great supporting role as Korg, an average joe gladiator who looks like an old paddock wall. NZ theatre heavyweight (and Waititi collaborator) Rachel House is also great as the Grandmaster's no-nonsense second-in-command, Topaz. 

Karl Urban's role as Skurge is small, but he gets his own little character arc which is kind of poignant. His character ends up highlighting the movie's one central theme - all the characters have a desire to feel valued, and the movie is about all of them finding that value (or not). 

And then there is Jeff Goldblum. 

This is no stunt casting. This is a real Jeff Goldblum performance. With their unified aesthetic and tone, Marvel movies can sometimes smother unique voices, but within Taika Waititi's Cocoon of Inanities, Jeff is allowed to go the full Goldblum. 

Playing an egomaniacal tyrant can be somewhat limiting, but Goldblum offsets the character's ego with his trademark neurosis, creating a contradiction that makes the Grandmaster seem more threatening and unpredictable, and giving the movie some of its darkest laughs.

In tone the movie is vaguely reminiscent of John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China, with Thor as the befuddled, overconfident Jack Burton (Kurt Russell). The colour palette is bright and vibrant, the mise-en-scene resembles a mid-nineties video game and the character design recalls the artwork of comic book legend Jack Kirby. While it is not as memorable as the Led Zeppelin song that recurs through the movie, the score by Mark Mothersbaugh adds another layer of zaniness to proceedings, pulling Thor: Ragnarok further away from the MCU into its own surreal plane of existence.

The story is a little shaggy, but it fits the loose, comedic feel of the movie. Even once the movie heads into the home stretch, the tonal shift is a benefit to the usual bombast. And the film's conclusion puts a neat spin on the usual 'one all-powerful thing vs another all-powerful thing', with our heroes more concerned with helping people escape than the mayhem.

This movie is a great time. The laughs come beginning to end, and the usual formula never feels like its reining in the madness. The characters, old and new, are funny and memorable, and I'm hoping we get to see more of them in the future.

Go see it multiple times with friends and alcoholic beverages.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

IN THEATRES: Waru & Geostorm (Bleergh!)

To celebrate Labour Weekend, here is another double review!


Waru is a little boy who has died as a result of domestic violence. The film that bears his name is composed of eight stories that take place on the day of his funeral, showing the ripple effects of his death through the perspectives of nine Maori filmmakers: Briar Grace-Smith, Casey Kaa, Ainsley Gardiner, Katie Wolfe, Renae Maihi, Chelsea Winstanley, Paula Jones, Awanui Simich-Pene and Josephine Stewart-Te Whiu.

The story behind the making of Waru is almost as interesting as the film. Each filmmaker had come up with their segment according to a set of strict rules: their story had to be a 10 minute-long single take, take place at 10 am on the day of Waru's funeral.

I missed this one at the Film Festival, but I was really happy this made it to a wide release. The screening I was at was also packed, so hopefully it has found an audience. 

Just on a technical level this movie is a marvel. Single takes can be horribly gimmicky and obvious, but the brilliance of Waru is that the camera never draws attention to itself. Each director, to varying degrees, keeps the camera moving according to the dictates of the main character. It creates a naturalistic rhythm and tempo to the scenes that creates a greater sense of intimacy. 

All of the restrictions the filmmakers had to work under are never visible. Each story is a tight little vignette that takes the central theme in completely different directions. Some feel directly related (Aunty Charm overseeing the kitchen preparations for Waru's tangi at the marae; Ranui taking Waru's body back home) while with other stories the connection is more metaphoric.

'Charm', the opening segment, is a terrific character study of a matriarch who has to juggle various pressures and crises, while also keeping her focus on the practical tasks at hand. Charm is the calm in the eye of the storm, and Briar Grace-Smith manages to waive in multiple storylines and characters in a naturalistic way that helps to add more layers of context to how much mana Aunty Charm has with her extended whanau. It is so difficult to make group interactions come off, and the sequence offers a mini-masterclass in how to make it work without losing focus on the central storyline.

In a similar vein, Katie Wolfe's 'Em' stands out because, once again, its focus on a single character in a specific situation (a woman trying to get into her house without keys) distracts from the technical aspects of its production. The effect of the single take is so immersive that certain story beats (which i will not spoil) are allowed to serve their dramatic function without the meta-thrill of 'how did they do that?'.

The admirable thing about Waru is that no segment feels bigger than the whole. It would have been unsurprising if one of the filmmakers had turned their segment into a flashy technical exercise, but they are in line with each other - while different, they all feel dialled in to the same theme, creating a cumulative emotional impact that is extremely profound and multi-dimensional.

As with all portmanteau films, not every segment is great - the one segment that does not quite work involves a Maori correspondent clashing with a Mike Hosking analogue. Conceptually it is a great idea, and it has a great point, but the execution is off - the dialogue clunks and not-Mike Hosking is underwhelming. It is not terrible, but it's the one part of the movie that does not quite measure up to the other stories.  

Other than that, Waru is pound-for-pound one of the best New Zealand films I have seen in a really long time. Highly recommended.

BONUS: Here's a great feature with all of the filmmakers talking about their segments.

In the near future, extreme weather events have become a major menace to the planet. 17 countries band together to build a massive network of weather control satellites designed to prevent such extreme weather events from happening. But then the satellites begin to malfunction, and it falls to one burly American scientist played by Gerard Butler to head stab the situation back to normal.

I can think of a better title...
I used to be fascinated by movies that sound like total disasters. This movie had a ridiculously complicated premise, was directed by Dean Devlin, the co-writer of Independence Day and Godzilla '98, postponed several times, and partially re-shot by Danny Cannon, the director of Sylvester Stallone's Judge Dredd. In other words, it sounded like a hot mess.

This movie has cured me of that fascination. It is a sacrifice of time and money that I regret, and I urge any right-minded person to save their money, or invest in something more worthwhile. This movie sucks.

First, I want to focus on the one good thing this steaming shit pile has going for it: Zazie Beetz.

Thank the movie gods for Beetz, because she was the only thing keeping me half-awake through this cinematic blackhole.

She plays a sparky computer maven who helps Butler's brother Jim Sturgess (the not-Asian guy in 21) figure out what is going on.  An obvious add from the reshoots, her character is basically a way to plug the holes in the script. She is only in a few scenes with two of the leads, and all of those scenes take place in apartments, meeting rooms and other places that do not require location permits or special effects. The other tip-off is that the dialogue in her scenes sounds completely different from the rest of the movie - mostly because it does not sound like movie cliches and exposition. Some poor comedy guy with ten un-produced scripts was probably brought in at the eleventh hour to slave over these scenes while some coke-addled studio exec screamed into his ear. Maybe.

Anyway, Beetz does a great job making this movie vaguely watchable, and for her efforts has her name buried at the bottom of the cast list. There is no justice in this world.

And now to the rest of the movie that does not feature Zazie Beetz. BIG SIGH.

With Dean Devlin at the helm, I was expecting a certain level of cheese and silly jokes. Based on his previous work, this was totally reasonable. And if the movie had aimed for that tone, maybe this silly premise would have come off. But clearly Roland Emmerich was the guy who brought the cheese and the jokes, because on his own Devlin is dull. It is probably a result of the studio tinkering, but Geostorm does not even work as a silly romp.

There is no sense of personality or fun here. It feels like everything has been filtered through the Hollywood blockbuster machine, and all the nutrients have been ground out. My biggest complaint with Geostorm is that it feels like a lot of bad blockbusters nowadays - it's just boring and super-generic.

Even Gerard Butler's wooden earnestness is not enough to save it. Butler is not a great actor, but as a beefcake action dude he can be really watchable - just see Olympus Has Fallen or its equally brain-dead sequel, London Has Fallen, where he makes a good fist of playing a homicidal action hero. In action movies, his brand of stoic sincerity can be really enjoyable, but he gets nothing ridiculous to do or say here.

The rest of the cast bum me out: Andy Garcia, Jim Sturgess, Abbie Cornish, Alexandra Maria Lara and Ed Harris. This movie is beneath them. And the audience.

Speaking of which, this is how many people were in the theatre.

Hello darkness my old friend...
So while the rest of New Zealand was sitting with baited breath for the announcement of who the next government was going to be, I was stuck watching frigging Geostorm. I missed out on watching Mike Hosking's soul leave his body as he turned into an empty husk of a man - and that is something I will never get to re-live. 

Because of Geostorm. A movie I am already forgetting I saw. If you catch up with me next week I will have probably forgotten all about it. 

Anyway, go watch Waru. Or save your money and wait for whatever the hell this is...

Friday, 20 October 2017

NETFLIX ON WHEELS: Kidnap & Wheelman

This month, Netflix released two car-centric thrillers, the long-delayed Kidnap, starring Halle Berry, and the Joe Carnahan-produced Wheelman, starring Frank 'No Carbs' Grillo.

Kidnap (dir. Luis Prieto)
On a trip to a local park, single mother Karla's (Halle Berry) son Frankie is kidnapped. After watching the kidnapping, Karla gives chase in her minivan.

Reviews for this movie have not been kind, but I really enjoyed it.

In an era of overcomplicated, big budget excess, Kidnap is pleasingly straightforward. We get a nice set up of home movies setting up the bond between Karla and Frankie, then a quick introductory vignette with Karla and her son leaving work and going to the park. By 15 minutes in, Frankie has been kidnapped and Karla is gunning her minivan after the bad 'uns.

This movie is a simple genre exercise, one that works on primal emotions - bad people kidnap a kid. They need to die. They do. Done. It is a strategy that we have seen most recently with the death of John Wick's adorable puppy. Kidnap plays to the same base instincts.

In this respect, the two movies it reminded me of the most were Jonathan Mostow's Breakdown (1997), with Kurt Russell as an increasingly frenzied husband chasing down the men who have kidnapped his wife, and the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Commando, which shares Kidnap's unapologetic simplicity and logic-defying narrative progression. Most of the movie takes place behind the wheel of Halle Berry's car. Like her character, we are trapped - Karla's POV is the only one we have. The villains get almost no shading. For most of the runtime, we see them as figures in the distance, or as a hand at a car window. And that is all we need.

A large part of what makes this movie compelling is Halle Berry. She is awesome in this movie - I haven't seen parental panic this believable in awhile, and she sustains it throughout the movie. There's a scene where she literally prays to the almighty - it is the cheesiest thing in the world, but she sells the shit out of it
Kidnap is as simple as its title. And if you are in the mood for a pure shot of adrenaline (or NOS), it does the business. It is not as good as the other movie I am reviewing, but on its own modest terms it's a good time. Plus you cannot hate a movie that ends with an ice cream montage.
Wheelman (dir. Jeremy Rush)
After he is double-crossed following a bank robbery, a getaway driver (Frank Grillo) races through the city with two bags of cash and his compatriots on his tail. With his family on the line, he has to figure out what is going on before time runs out...

From the opening shot, with the camera behind the driver's seat, director Jeremy Rush establishes the claustrophobia and relentless forward-motion which define Wheelman's diegesis. Most of the runtime is spent inside the car, as Grillo's increasingly panicked driver drives around anonymous city streets. The only time we leave the car is to follow him as he gets into another (cooler) car.

Don't go in expecting relentless vehicular mayhem - this is an action movie in the purest sense of the term. There are no explosions or big set pieces, just a tough SOB in a situation he can barely comprehend. 

In other words, Wheelman is my kind of action movie. 

Tight and economical, with a clear, simple premise and a clearly defined anti-hero. It's a pattern established in westerns and carried down through into the early action movies of the seventies (Dirty Harry, The Driver), but it is a formula and style that is not so familiar nowadays. So many action movies today are so long, and contain so much unnecessary exposition and unnecessary action that they end up feeling bloated. Wheelman feels like a callback in the best possible way - every element of narrative and character is  pared down to exactly what is needed, and nothing more.  

And now to the part of the review where I offer thanks at the Church of Grillo.

I have been waiting for Frank Grillo to get a movie of his own, and Wheelman fits him like a glove.  A great character actor who can also do double duty as a laconic, minimalist badass ala McQueen and Eastwood, Grillo has proven his mettle in movies like Warrior and The Purge: Anarchy, but within Wheelman's limited confines, he really gets to show what he can do.

Ala Steven Knight's Locke (with Tom Hardy), this movie is largely based around Grillo on the phone. And it is a testament to his performance and the extremely tight script (the way his character is established through snippets of conversation is so naturalistic) that this character - who is a criminal - feels like a human being who - most importantly - may not get out of this alive.

Even on a laptop screen, this movie is incredibly tense. Rush's use of sound design, control of off-screen space and composition (his deployment of focus changes is particularly impressive and seamless) add to the atmosphere as Grillo's situation becomes more dire.

If you are looking for some solid thrills this weekend, check out Wheelman.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Never Hike Alone (Vincente DiSanti, 2017)

A hiking vlogger, Kyle (Drew Leighty), heads into the Catskills for his latest adventure to an abandoned summer camp at an isolated lake...

Ever since the release of the reboot in 2009, Paramount has struggled to come up with a new instalment in the long-running Friday the 13th franchise: should it be found footage? Another origin? 

Released last Friday (the 13th, geddit?), Never Hike Alone is a 55 minute-long argument for popular characters falling into the public domain. Written and directed by Vincente DiSanti (who also stars as the hockey-masked killer), Never Hike Alone takes a tacky premise (a found footage movie starring Jason Vorhees) and finds a way to make it work.

Its masterstroke is the focus on an individual POV. With bad casting and writing this device could have torpedoed the movie, but DiSanti succeeds on both counts. As Kyle, Drew Leighty is legitimately terrific. He is so naturalistic and likeable it never feels like you are watching a stock character in a Friday movie. It is a testament to his abilities that the movie remains completely engrossing, as for most of the movie, he is the only person onscreen. Kyle is also a great character - smart, self-sufficient and funny, he grounds the movie. 

And because he does not fit the mould of the usual dumb, horny teenager the movie becomes weirdly unpredictable. Once Jason makes his entrance, Kyle's disbelief and terror feel queasily real in a way that does not feel cheesy. 

DiSanti's direction is also leaps and bounds beyond what you would expect with a fan film. The photography, lighting and sound design are immersive and atmospheric (just look at that screen shot below). He also has a solid grasp of pacing and tone, holding back on the expected tropes far longer than I expected.

It is a testament to how good DiSanti's build up is that you do not see Jason for over 20 minutes.  

And once the big guy turns up, DiSanti pulls out all the stops to make Jason as terrifying as possible. Even if you have never seen a Friday movie, you know what Jason looks like. DiSanti has a firm grasp on what makes Jason scary, and slow-rolls his appearance, making great use of the widescreen frame and brief glimpses of the familiar mask.  

In the flesh, Jason can come across as a lumbering automaton, but DiSanti takes great care to make sure that the recognisable aspects of his persona feel horrifyingly tactile. Jason's heavy footsteps, deliberate movements and sudden bursts of violence are all well-orchestrated. DiSanti even makes Jason's weird ability to appear and disappear feel uncanny rather than silly. It is in large part because of his direction and Drew Leighty's performance that this tired old slasher feels like a visceral threat.

While it does a great job of making Jason feel tactile and 'real', thankfully, Never Hike Alone does not fall into the trap of trying to make Jason feel like a real human being. No spoilers but this is the Jason Vorhees of the eighties, and DiSanti has a lot of fun playing off his superhuman abilities. 

The biggest compliment I can pay this movie is that it worked on me, and I don't even like the Friday the 13th movies. This is the first time I have ever been scared of Jason, and it actually made me want to go back and watch more of the movies.

Honestly, you do not need a lot of history to get the pitch for this one. Never Hike Alone stands on its own as a genuinely scary movie in its own right. You can find the movie on Youtube here.

Friday, 13 October 2017

IN THEATRES: Happy Death Day & The Foreigner

Two movies, one moron. Let's go.

Happy Death Day
After she is killed by a masked figure, college student Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) slowly begins to realise that she is trapped in a time loop, forced to repeat the day she died (which also happens to be her birthday) over and over again.

One day, someone is going to write a book about Blumhouse, the studio responsible for this movie, Paranormal Activity, The Purge and Insidious. And I look forward to reading that book, because aside from Marvel Studios, Blumhouse is the only production company I can think of with an identifiable 'authorial' stamp - if Marvel is classic MGM, with its musical unit, then Blumhouse is American International Pictures, churning out genre fare that makes up for a lack of stars and budget with interesting concepts and a focus on meeting audience expectations.

The acting is all strong, the script does a good job of following a similar route to Groundhog Day (having the main character go from Mean Girl to a better person) and unlike the last horror movie I reviewed, Happy Death Day has a sense of fun, and finds humour in the fascistic head of the sorority. It's not too hard to see where the movie is going, but there are a few twists and obstacles which keep the movie involving.

One thing which I love about this movie is the budget: 4.8 million dollars. Think of all the bloated, overlong blockbusters that come out every year. I really hope that the Blumhouse model starts to trickle out to the rest of the industry (or Universal does what Disney did with Pixar and bring Blumhouse creatives in to run their operations). Because of the low-budget, the movie sticks to the smallest version of its concept and thus it feels more intimate and believable.

And it is a testament to the movie's strengths that the villain remains effective - the baby mask is creepy as hell (side note: what school decides to make a baby the mascot?), and the reveal of who it is makes for a nice button (and leads to another great joke).

There is nothing really at fault here - this is a solid genre picture that ticks all the boxes but feels like a fleshed-out story. There are a few hacky jump scares, and there are moments of over-cutting which undermine the suspense but overall, it's a just fun ride. It does not push the envelope, but it does not need to. It is a fun time, and another strong entry in Blumhouse's horror canon.

The Foreigner
After his daughter is killed in an IRA explosion, a Chinese businessman draws upon his past life as a government killing machine to hunt down the perpetrators, while also evading a massive Pierce Brosnan and his equally ginormous gun.

Or at least this is what the poster promised.
The only reason this movie is on my radar is because of the director, Martin Campbell - if the name is unfamiliar, he directed the original Edge of Darkness miniseries, GoldenEye, Mask of Zorro and Casino Royale. While it is not a great movie, The Foreigner is a great showcase for Campbell.

He has developed a dramatically-focused minimalism in his action movies which stands in contrast to the bombast of contemporary action cinema.

Campbell's work is notable for its focus on the essential work parts of continuity story-telling - action is never there for its own sake: There is no speed-ramping, crash-zooms or computer generated 'God's eye' camera moves to ad visual panache. In Campbell's movies, the camera is in just the right place, moves only when it has to, and tied together by razor-sharp editing. It is a style best suited for Hollywood-style narratives, which is probably why Campbell is less heralded - no one gets prizes for economy.

He feels like a man out of time, with a no-nonsense aesthetic better suited to the action movies of the past - not just the seventies or eighties, but the samurai films of Kurosawa and the westerns of Leone. What has prevented Campbell from attaining a similar level of recognition is a lack of consistent material. For every GoldenEye there is a Vertical Limit; for every Casino Royale a Green Lantern; for every Mask of Zorro a Legend of Zorro.

Thankfully The Foreigner finds Campbell in great form, with a stripped-down action thriller that is perfectly suited to his talents. And it helps that he has Jackie Chan, who might be the perfect leading man for his style.

What has always fascinated me about Campbell's work is the way his camera and the edit feel perfectly choreographed to the speed and movement of his performers - think back to the lithe athleticism of Pierce Brosnan in GoldenEye, the balletic elegance of Antonio Banderas in Mask of Zorro or the parkour chase of Casino Royale. Watching Chan and Campbell's camera move together felt like watching a great dance pair, every move by the actor perfectly captured by the director's frame.

Campbell's best movies are centred on violent professionals who are defined by action rather than words. Jackie Chan has built a career on body movement, developing a brand of physical comedy derived from his training in Peking Opera and a love of silent comedy. More importantly for this movie, Chan's comedy is based on his reactions to the predicaments he gets into. Unlike other martial arts stars, Chan always comes across as an everyman who does not want to be there. And while he can do some amazing physical feats, he is still fallible and vulnerable - half of his fights involve him getting punched and hurt.

While The Foreigner is a drama, Chan's style is perfectly attuned to Campbell's style. Campbell shoots in wide shots, allowing action to play out. It is a closer fit to Chan's traditional aesthetic, but Campbell does not share Chan's emphasis building drama (and comedy) through extended choreography. Campbell's style is all about pushing the story forward through editing, with the action reduced to as few moving parts as possible. It helps make the sequences feel less choreographed and more immediate.

does contains one sterling example of this unity of director and performer - Chan's escape from his guest room. Chan has always been an everyman, giving his action sequences a sense of pain and vulnerability - despite his incredible physicality. Whereas that quality has been used for comedy, it is also perfectly suited to a straight action drama. Throughout this sequence, it never feels like Chan can outmatch his attackers. He is clearly physically more capable, but Campbell makes sure to stage the action in tight spaces - an attic, a stairwell, a kitchen - so that Chan feels like he could be believably hurt or killed.

Campbell's underselling of action also allows for wonderful grace notes of comedy, and his unobtrusive visual style works for Chan's physical timing. While the escape sequence is tense, the sequence is broken down into various stages which work as the set-ups and payoffs to jokes. The audience laughed throughout the sequence, as Chan found a way out of trouble, or lost the advantage. It is perfectly paced action, that is not based merely on action - Campbell's style and Chan's choreography allow the sequence to breath, and allow for some wonderful grace notes of comedy: Chan twisting around a pole after falling off a roof; Chan leaping down the stairs as his confused opponent tries to catch up with him; shoving a man out a window. All great punchlines to the mayhem, and feel of a piece with similar moments in Campbell's previous work.

While it has its share of gunfights and beatdowns, The Foreigner is more of a political thriller than a straight-up action film. This is a revenge flick in which an older leading man avenges a loved one (ala Taken). What makes this movie stand out - aside from Chan's casting - is the movie's context: the theme of revenge is extrapolated to include the history of the Irish Troubles, and their ongoing reverberations in the present.

While there are short, brutal set pieces peppered throughout the film, much of its focus is on Pierce Brosnan's Deputy First Minister, an IRA veteran trying to hunt down the men responsible for the initial bombing while keeping his old comrades onside and maintaining the peace. Brosnan's complex performance - untrustworthy, scheming, and coldly pragmatic - carries most of the film's dramatic weight as Chan's actions increase the pressure he is under  to preserve the status quo.

Looking across his filmography, Campbell's minimalistic approach extends to the performances. In a piece on Sergio Leone (published in Empire magazine a few years ago), Campbell referred to the influence Leone had on the way he conceived character without dialogue. Brosnan can lean into ham, but here he underplays, turning his character into a ticking time bomb. Under Campbell's cool eye, Brosnan is fantastic.

The movie's one real flaw is that the real-life context does set the movie's more formulaic moments in relief - Chan's tragic backstory is so overblown (not only did his daughter die from an IRA bomb; his wife died in childbirth and his other children were murdered by pirates). Juxtaposed with Brosnan's storyline, with its references to IRA bombing campaigns, betrayals and backroom deals, the protagonist's story feels a little silly. Chan's performance and Campbell's under-selling of this melodrama mitigates this disjunct, but it is still there. It's the one major problem with the movie.

The Foreigner is no masterpiece, but with Chan and Brosnan on good form, and under Martin Campbell's deft hand, it is a solid genre thriller which is a far classier and more mature product than its generic title and plot may suggest. It does not move the dial in terms of originality, and might be too grim for some, but the mix of political intrigue and action make this a solid time-waster.
Related posts


Casino Royale

Martin Campbell

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

IN THEATRES: Blade Runner 2049

Los Angeles, 2049. Thirty years after the events of the original film, replicant K (Ryan Gosling) works as a blade runner for the police department, killing the remaining Tyrell-era replicants who continue to hide amongst humanity. K's routine existence is interrupted by a shocking revelation from the past with the potential to destroy the very reason for his existence: what it means to be human...

35 years after Ridley Scott's original, a strong team has been assembled to bring his dystopian vision of LA back to life. The director of Arrival, the writer of the original Blade Runner and the Greatest Cinematographer Working Today. Oh, and the star of Young Hercules.

I came to Blade Runner late. I read about it several times, but the first time I watched it (it was the 1992 director's cut) was after I had read Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It's a book I really enjoy, and I have re-read it several times. The special magic with Dick's books is that the experience of reading them is always different. The first time I read Electric Sheep, I found it extremely existential and depressing; the next time, I found myself laughing at Deckard's relationship with his wife. It never feels the same -- every read reveals a new layer of irony and complexity. It's an extremely literary experience.

This is a long way of saying that by the time I watched Blade Runner, I did not like it as much as the book. To be honest, no film can really do justice to Dick's prose and ideas, and the various properties generated from his work (Total Recall, Minority Report) have been extremely loose adaptions of his premises, with few of his ideas or themes. Last week I caught the screening of the Final Cut, which I had never seen before, and I really enjoyed it. So I ended up pretty excited to see this movie.

And you know what? It's really good.

All the actors are great - Gosling is perfectly cast as K. He is a little offbeat, but with his youthful looks and emotional restraint, he fits the role well. 

Ford is only in the movie briefly. With his well-known dislike for the first film (he always felt the character existed solely to give perspective to the set design), I was afraid that would influence his performance. Despite the character's emotional reveals, Ford does not play into these beats, but against them - he lends this older Deckard the same brusqueness he had in the original. It is a unity of performance that really tied the two films together.

The one real standout is an actress I am not familiar with, Sylvia Hoeks. She plays Luv, a replicant who is on K's tail. She is the closest thing the movie has to a villain, and she gives the character a terrific stillness and energy. Like all evil replicants, she is Dutch.

Another actor worth mentioning is Dave Bautista. He has a small but rather sympathetic role as an aging Nexus-8 that K retires. I am keen to see him in more vulnerable roles like this. He's been going about his career the right way, and I have a feeling there is a filmmaker out there who is going to give him something meaty.

This movie does contain scenes featuring Jared Leto. He is less histrionic than usual, but I found most of his dialogue portentous and repetitive.

Roger Deakins' photography is typically fantastic - the movie's aesthetic follows the original (it maintains the original's maximalist approach, employing multiple alphabets, languages and retro product placement).

Hans Zimmer and Ben Wallfisch's score echoes Vangelis, and they include a few direct call backs to familiar cues (the theme which plays during the 'Tears in the rain' monologue is re-purposed, to somewhat lessened effect). Overall, it is fine.

There are a lot of things to like about this movie. But I have to admit, I came out feeling aggressively mixed about it.

There was something not quite right with this picture. Overall, it is a really good, immersive movie with some interesting ideas, but there is something missing, an emotional and thematic resonance which the movie is aiming for but it is so incomplete and confused that it is hard to get a lock on exactly what it is aiming for.

My problems begin with the main character.

K is an enigma, and not in the way that the filmmakers intended. Because the character is so opaque, it is hard to latch onto him. Deckard was not well-defined, but he was clearly a man with basic human weaknesses - K is basically a superman, a Roy Batty without the existential dread of knowing he is going to die. And that lack of pathos is detrimental to the movie.

K has a 'relationship' with a virtual entity, Joi (Ana de Armas), which I guess was intended as a way of showing K trying to have a human-like existence. However, that relationship always comes off one-sided: she exists at his beck and call, first as a projection in his apartment, and then in the future version of a memory stick. My problem was a lack of context - unlike replicants, which become more human as they age, Joi's maturation never felt real. It did not help that de Armas does not get much of an arc. When she is deactivated, I had no idea what that was supposed to mean to K's character.

And in the pivotal sequence when he learns that he could be human, his reaction left me cold. It did not feel like the movie had laid any pipe in terms of his needs and desires that would make his breakdown feel believable. Once he knows the truth, and as the movie twisted into the third act, I had no idea what his motivation was. I know the movie's intention: that K is inspired to save Deckard to advance the replicant cause, but I never got what K's stake in all this was (which left the ending feeling completely empty). I did not understand what K's sacrifice was about.

The big problem is a lack of vulnerability, of something that the character is missing. It would have helped if K was operating on the same limited lifespan as the replicants in the original - it would have made the movie's revelations far more devastating, and would have made his story more emotionally believable. One of the key points of the original is that the replicants have a far greater sense of time, and how limited theirs is. Without that limitation, K is just a good-looking guy who is impervious to pain and can literally break through walls.
What is K fighting for? What obstacle is he facing? What is his ultimate sacrifice about? The movie never makes this clear.

When Deckard enters the picture, the movie deploys the crutch I hate - using echoes of the previous movie to create emotional impact: specifically the relationship between Deckard and the replicant Rachel (Sean Young).

By basing its plot on this relationship, it runs into two problems - one, this strategy only works if you have seen the original movie; and b) the relationship between Deckard and Rachel in the first movie was not especially substantial, and seems to exist purely to show the man's casual manipulation and disregard for the agency of the replicant. Deckard's treatment of Rachel comes off as extremely misogynistic and self-serving, and since Blade Runner 2049 does not show how this relationship progressed, all the viewer is left with is their brief interactions in the first movie.

After Fate of the Furious, this is the second big movie this year where the plot is built on a woman's uterus, but she has no function beyond that. Apart from Sylvia Hoeks as Luv and Robin Wright as K's boss, in Blade Runner 2049 women are just instruments and products created by men, for men. I am surprised the filmmakers did not do more with this, considering how these movies are about men who play god. There is a potential subtext about female reproduction versus male production (of replicants), but that might just be an accident.

As you can see from all of this rambling, there are quite a few things about Blade Runner 2049 which  do not work. Or remain unclear. The movie is good, much better than I expected. But it is flawed. 

And you know what? I kinda appreciate it more because of that. Blade Runner is kind of a mess too. It only makes sense that the sequel has a few screwy bits as well.

Friday, 6 October 2017

NZIFF 2017: Horror

Since it is October, here is the Midnight Ramble's reviews of the horror-related films at this year's New Zealand International Film Festival.

Tragedy Girls (dir. Tyler MacIntyre)
Two teenage girls, Sadie (Brianna Hildebrand) and McKayla (Alexandra Shipp), run a blog tracking the crimes of a local serial killer. Unimpressed with his lacklustre performance (and its effect on their website traffic), they take matters into their own hands to boost his (and their) numbers...

If I am going to watch a movie featuring horrific acts of violence against the human body, it better be lathered in a thick layer of irony.

An absolutely pitch black, dead-eyed comedy about two best friends dealing with the end of high school, college, dating and serial murder, Tragedy Girls is the horror comedy for our social media-obsessed age.

For a movie like this to work is dependant on a couple of things. The first is tone - skew too real and you lose the humour, go too OTT and you will blunt its bite. Tragedy Girls tackles its subject with no holds barred, juggling gore-soaked set pieces with the subtle nuances of two co-dependant teens attempting to find their way into adulthood.

The second element is casting. Hildebrand and Shipp are the beating, exposed heart of this story, and the movie gorges itself on their dynamite chemistry.

Hildebrand caught attention with her role in Deadpool, but here she gets to deliver the kind of performance that will get her some bigger roles. She manages to make this sociopath sympathetic and weirdly likeable without sacrificing how utterly irredeemable she is. It helps that the script gives her a romantic subplot with a normie - it adds a (wafer-thin) layer of humanity while also making her creepier. You are never sure if she is just using him or genuinely interested.

 Previously known as the actress who replaced Zendaya in the Aaliyah movie and the actress who replaced Halle Berry as Storm in X-Men Apocalypse, Alexandra Shipp finally gets a role to call her own here. I would not be surprised if this movie gives her more name recognition. It helps that her role is showier than Hildebrand's - unlike Sadie and her romantic travails, McKayla's psychosis is completely pure, and Shipp gives the character a child-like gusto that is equal parts hilarious and terrifying. Gleefully amoral, Shipp is the Harley Quinn we never got. While the actresses are great as stone-cold killers, what gives the pair's performances - and the movie - warmth is the friendship between McKayla and Sadie. There is a genuine rapport between Hildebrand and Shipp that makes them a friendship to root for - and that includes the fact that they are stone cold killers AND self-obsessed narcissists.

Another thing I liked about this movie was how it did not try to make these characters heroes. What empathy we get is their bond, and the movie's focus on their friendship is enough to keep them relatable. It is a testament to how well this relationship is weaved through the movie that the movie works so well. Adding to this, the movie never veers away from how despicable their actions and motives are. The movie winds up being both intoxicating and sickening, but in the right proportions.

While I found the denouement incredibly disturbing, I feel like giving the filmmakers a hand for following their conceit to the end, without resorting to a conventional ending (there is not even a final girl to vanquish them).

Hilarious, caustic and completely nihilistic, Tragedy Girls is one of my favourite movies of 2017.

It Comes At Night (dir. Trey Edward Shults)
An unknown contagion has swept the globe, reducing humanity to a few disparate families scrabbling for existence. Joel Edgerton plays a man determined to protect his family (Carmen Ejogo and Kelvin Harrison Jr.) at all costs. When another family (Christopher Abbott, Riley Keough and Griffin Robert Faulkner) arrives at their fortified home, he agrees to let them in. As the families try to get on with life, their tenuous bond is tested by the unseen terrors outside, as well as their own paranoia about each other.

A feature of zombie films is the breakdown of human relationships and interactions between the main characters. It Comes At Night takes this dynamic and removes everything else - the 'sickness' the characters fear is never identified or explained; the infected are only shown once; and we never get an overview of how the outbreak has affected the rest of the world.

It Comes at Night boils down to a very primal fear: the loss of control. Edgerton runs his home under a strict form of martial law. Ultimately, he fails. What makes it worse is that he - and the viewer - never know why.

While I enjoyed this movie, and found it effective as a human horror story, I need to address a factor that is going to influence this review. Like most people who enjoy surprises and fun, I try to go into a movie blind. I almost got away with it for this one, but on the day I saw it I caught a podcast where a critic I like briefly offered a negative opinion on the movie. No spoilers were revealed, but the critic had problems with the choices a certain character made. It was over so quickly I did not have time to skip ahead. So now I had to go into the movie with this vague critical frame, and it drew attention to parts of the movie I would have probably have overlooked.

While I appreciate how oblique the movie is, there are certain parts of the ending where I felt confused enough to be - briefly - ejected from the movie. I ended up checking the plot summary after it was over so I could figure what happened. So while I did enjoy the movie, and I recommend it, this little tangent really threw off the whole experience.

I am a fan of genre movies that take out the tropes and still manage to function, and It Comes at Night is a great example of this approach. For hard-core genre fans, this movie might come off a little pedestrian. The movie's tone and narrative are suitably nihilistic, but apart from its minimalist aesthetic the movie does not really push the envelope.

The acting from the cast is fantastic. Edgerton anchors the whole show as the taciturn patriarch. Introduced executing his infected father-in-law, he manages to feel both sympathetic and terrifying. With his basilisk stare and stillness, he is the perfect embodiment of the film's ambiguous point of view.

As his teenage son, Kelvin Harrison Jr. is horrifically relatable and alien at the same time. Clearly affected by what his family does to survive, he is the perfect compliment to Edgerton's stoic inscrutability.

As Edgerton's wife, Carmen Ejogo is the most relatable member of the clan. She does not get as much to do as the others but she provides a baseline of sanity that sets the rest of the family in relief.

As their guests, Christopher Abbott and Riley Keough are also really good. Abbott looked and sounded a bit like latter-day Shia LaBeouf, but like Edgerton he lends his role an ambiguity which makes his interactions with the family uneasy.

If you are in the mood for some end-of-the-world dread, you cannot go wrong with It Comes at Night.

The Evil Within (dir. Andrew Getty)
It's been two months since I watched this movie, and I'm still exhausted just thinking about it. The plot revolves around a young man with learning impairments who develops a split personality that may be the result of demonic possession. Huh, that was not as hard as I thought.

When the story behind this movie came out, I was so excited to see this movie: how a billionaire spent a fortune creating a horror movie to his own specific, deranged vision, and then died before its release - leaving no clues as to its meaning... Also BirthMoviesDeath released multiple, conflicting reviews which, if nothing else, made this movie sound like a clusterf*** on the level of The Apple or The Room.

A 15-year labour of love for its auteur Andrew Getty, The Evil Within has quickly become 2017's candidate for the pantheon of WTF Cinema. In its understanding of genre, filmmaking fundamentals and the basics of human interaction, it stands apart as an example of genuine outsider art. Watching this movie in 2017, and being aware of how it was made, I wondered if this movie could be treated as an example of how detached the 1% are from the rest of humanity.

The Evil Within is not The Room - the film's technical aspects are all up-to-par; the dream sequences are genuinely hallucinatory and the practical effects are genuinely disturbing. It is the story - and its telling - where things get extremely bizarre.

Getty died in 2015, before most of the editing and post-production had been completed, so there will always be a little bit of a remove from what his original vision was. According to what I could find online, the cast did not stick around for all of filming, so I am guessing there was a certain level of creative editing to keep the story coherent.

It is repetitive to say this, but it is hard to put into words how draining this movie really is. You spend the runtime trying to follow what is going on. The characters speak and act in ways that vaguely resemble human beings - except when they do not, which is generally when the movie is trying to shove the plot in a different direction.

In its favour, the practical effects are fantastic. It is so rare to see a horror movie with heavy use of makeup and puppetry, especially in a horror movie. When combined with the performances, and the script, these moments do pack a punch. If you are a fan of Dario Argento, you will be on a sure footing with this movie.

In the end, I don't know if I can recommend watching it. If you can get a group of friends together, it might be good for a movie night with lots of drinking. 

Other festival reviews


Live Cinema

Monday, 2 October 2017

Simulating catharsis: a look back at Total Recall

In the future, Earth is stuck in a perpetual war between northern and southern blocks. Mars is a North Block colony under the dictatorial rule of Coohagen (Ronny Cox), who uses his control of the air supply to control dissent. Back on Earth, a construction worker called Doug Quaid (Schwarzengger) has visions of Mars. Despite his wife Lori (Sharon Stone) and friends' warnings, Quaid decides the only way to get over his obsession is to get a memory implant of a vacation to the red planet, in which he plays a secret agent on a mission to save Mars and fall in love with a beautiful brunette.

Something goes wrong during the procedure, leading Quaid to realise that his entire life is a false memory and that he is really Hauser, a secret agent working for Coohagen who saw the light and decided to turn traitor after falling in love with Melina (Rachel Ticotin), a beautiful brunette. Cohaagen had him brainwashed and dumped back on Earth.

Determined to figure out what is going on, Quaid heads to Mars to discover his past and confront the man who destroyed his life...

Well, that's one way of looking at it.

Total Recall was inspired by the short story 'We Can Remember It For You Wholesale', written by the late, great Philip K. Dick. The story is not very long - it is literally just the memory implant scene. The big difference is that in the story, when the technicians realise their client has already had memory implant, during their attempts to find out who he is, they discover another memory implant within the first one. The story ends mid-stream, as the baffled  technicians discover another personality buried under that memory implant. And so on, and so forth. It is a comic spin on notions of identity, memory and reality. If a simulation looks and feels real, how would you know? In both story and film, there are no easy answers.

In writing the movie, screenwriters Ronald Shussett and Dan O'Bannon (the creators of Alien) used the story as a jumping-off point. The project took over a decade to get to screens, moving through directors as diverse as Richard Rush (The Stunt Man), David Cronenberg (The Fly) and Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy). When the movie was finally green-lit, the man tasked with bringing the story to the screen was Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven.

I recently read an interview with Verhoeven in which he compared Total Recall to the idea of Schrodinger's Cat in the way that it never makes clear whether Quaid's experiences are real or all in his head. The movie is meant to work with both readings.

This analogy works for all of Verhoeven's movies. RoboCop is an 80s action movie that also subverts the genre - RoboCop is a one-man-army who kills the requisite number of bad 'uns, but what Verhoeven does is show the impact of his (and the genre's) arbitrary use of violence. Starship Troopers is more overt, acting as a war movie which is also a scathing commentary on  America's obsession with military power, violence and blind patriotism. Released at the dawn of a new decade, Total Recall is a summation and indictment of the previous decade's pop culture, both on and off-screen.

Total Recall takes RoboCop's satire of neoliberalism and takes it to its most logical extreme (not only do the corporations control the government, they control the very air you breathe). Like Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) in that movie, Mars' overlord Coohagen (also Cox) is an ultra-capitalist but even more extreme - he is less a CEO and more a futuristic version of a robber baron in the old west, or a governor in a far-flung colony. A hyperbolic extrapolation of 80s capitalism and saver-rattling geopolitics, its commentary is made all the more pointed by the casting of its star, the most hyperbolic emblem of the era's obsession with cinematic machismo.

The film is also the point where Arnold Schwarzenegger became the icon he is now. After a breakout role in 1982's Conan the Barbarian, he carved out a niche as a B list action star with a series of action and science fiction movies. Some, like The Terminator, Commando and Predator were decent hits and critically successful; others (Raw Deal, Reds Sonja & Heat) less so. And then in 1988, he made his first foray into comedy with Twins, co-starring Danny DeVito. The movie was a huge hit, proving his comedic chops and introducing Schwarzenegger to a mainstream, non-genre audience. Schwarzengger was now emerging out of the B list, and Total Recall was the movie which would consolidate his broad appeal, becoming the first of his traditional vehicles to become a genuine blockbuster.

I have theory about this movie, and why it is one of Schwarzenegger's best. It is the one movie which does the best job at skewering the excesses and deranged masculinity underpinning his star persona. In that respect, Total Recall continues RoboCop's emphasis on the fascistic implications of its hyper-violent hero, only here he gets to play with the persona of the genre's most emblematic star.

Arnie's movies have always had an ironic edge - most of the filmmakers he has worked with have shown at least a degree of recognition about the sheer ridiculousness of their leading man. The Terminator's most iconic humorous moment ('I'll be back') is not meant to be funny, but when it is set against Schwarzenegger's massive frame, it gains a strange ironic quality, a sense of black humour that was picked and carried through successive vehicles such as CommandoPredator and Total Recall.  Taken in overview, Arnie's filmography appears to be a meta textual dare: is this behemoth believable as a robot/soldier/twin/kindergarten cop?

Within the context of a story based on questioning reality (and a filmmaker hellbent on hedging his bets), Schwarzenegger's antics become even more ridiculous. Because of the information within the movie, Quaid's Martian adventures are easy to question - especially during the film's many action sequences (why is this hulking man not hit?; why are people not dying when the outer shields are breached?). Even the introduction of an alien MacGuffin which can literally solve all of Mars' problems in a few minutes adds to the sense of ridiculousness.

Everything about Schwarzenegger's character, Doug Quaid, is hyperbolic. When he is introduced, Quaid is depicted as an ordinary working man, but it is a vision of domestic bliss pushed to the extreme. He also has a beautiful blonde housewife, who is introduced as a sex object for his gratification. He also has an insane degree of financial stability (his apartment including a holographic tennis instructor, virtual scenic views and he can contemplate vacations to other planets). He works as a construction worker, a job made all the more macho in the one scene of Quaid at work. Like Rambo at the beginning of Rambo II, he is shown breaking rocks, his massive arms holding a massive drill - it is everyman as cartoon.

And then there is the violence. It's what you expect from an Arnie movie, albeit leavened with a wink and a one-liner (ala James Bond). With the mad Dutchman at the tiller, the violence comes with an added bite. Verhoeven's movies are extremely controversial for their violence and sexual content, but there is always a sense of purpose to the excess. Unlike previous Ah-nuld vehicles, with Verhoeven the excess is never the punchline. The basis of Verhoeven's subversion does not come from a desire to turn reality into a cartoon, but the inverse. No matter how crazy the violence gets, Verhoeven blends it with a dose of reality that grounds it and highlights how horrific it is.

One example of subversion is the shootout on the escalator - specifically the beat where the villains shoot at Quaid and accidentally hit an innocent bystander. As the shootout continues, Quaid uses this corpse as a shield while he blows the villains away. When another group of villains appear at the base of the escalator, he spins the corpse around to catch their fire. The human shield is a familiar action movie trope of the era, and recognisably Schwarzeneggerean (gleefully lampooned in Austin Powers 2). By having this character be an innocent, rather than an antagonist, it draws attention to the often careless cruelty of eighties action heroes. When the character is a villain, we as viewers quickly reframe it as right and moral. But in Verhoeven's hands, we are forced to contemplate the violence stripped of its moral justification.

While this approach does subvert the cartoonish-ness of the action, it also gives the film a real sense of stakes. The sequences in which Coohagen's troops, backlit by the drills, gun down the resistance fighters, and the earlier scene in which the residents of Venusville have to watch as the fans pumping oxygen into their sector slow to a standstill. Verhoeven grew up during the Nazi occupation of Holland, and has talked about how the juxtaposition of childhood banality and sudden violence shaped his work. That tension between violent escapism and its consequences is an underlying dynamic in Verhoeven's work, and within the paranoid frame of Total Recall he has the perfect vehicle for his duelling occupations.

There are aspects of the film which do not stand up to snuff - my major criticism is the relative marginalisation of the female leads into a simplistic good-bad girl dichotomy. While Rachel Ticotin lends her character Melina a toughness that makes her believable as a partner to Schwarzenegger, the character is little more than a male fantasy - a hooker with a heart of gold who can also kick ass.

However while Melina and Lori's roles are barely more than archetypes, it does offer an opportunity for Verhoeven to undermine Arnie's machismo, and offer a re-working of the stock romantic leads of Ah-nuld's previous movies. Throughout the movie, Quaid is on the back foot with both of his lover interests (which is a nice flip-side to his borderline rape tactics in The Running Man). At various points Quaid is beaten up, objectified and rescued by them. This had never happened in one of his vehicles before. In previous movies, female characters are desexualised tagalongs (Commando, Predator) or arbitrary love interests (Raw Deal, The Running Man) that Arnie gets because he's the lead of the movie. Here, one woman is only with him to monitor and imprison him on Earth; the other is a self-sufficient freedom fighter who might be a figment of his imagination.

Could more have been done with these characters? Definitely. Romantic leads in action movies are generally the least well-drawn in the genre. Total Recall deserves credit for highlighting the limitations of the archetype (Quaid's description of his dream woman ('athletic build, sleazy but demure') could be mapped onto most of the throwaway love interests in the genre), but it does not do much to expand upon the template.

The dichotomy between 'good' and 'bad' woman is one of the elements Total Recall shares with classic noir. Through this lens, Quaid is a fall guy in a situation he does not full understand. The ambiguity of the ending, where his fate remains in the air, is a perfect distillation of the film noir protagonist's dilemma - almost every noir, from Double Indemnity through Chinatown and Blade Runner, is about someone who loses control of events and finds themselves unable to get back to a place of equilibrium. That description fits Total Recall perfectly - it is a great juggling act between different interpretations.

Am I talking rubbish? Is Total Recall just a big dumb action movie? Yes, but that overlooks the fact that it is also tonally and thematically ambitious. The joy of this movie versus, say, Terminator 2, is that rewards whatever expectations you bring to it. Terminator 2 is a great movie, but it is meant to be taken as a straightforward dramatic narrative. Total Recall is the rare case where the filmmakers are having their cake and eating it, and it actually makes the movie better. You could make the argument that the movie's satirical edge is not intentional, and its excess is just mean-spirited - which is totally valid. The demands of the story and the generic requirements of being an action movie throw every choice the filmmakers make into doubt. It gives the movie another layer of ambiguity - which makes the movie more interesting to discuss.

Ultimately, Total Recall is whatever you want it to be.

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