Monday, 17 December 2018

Bond 25 speculation: What could Lea Seydoux's return mean?

As the countdown to production on Cary Joji Fukunaga's Bond 25 begins in earnest, a picture is slowly forming of what the vision for Daniel Craig's swan song could be.

Before I go further, bear in mind that this is total speculation from a loser who (thinks he) knows too much about James Bond.


Last week it was revealed by The Daily Mail that Blue Is The Warmest Colour star Lea Seydoux, who played the lead role of Madeline Swann in 2015's Spectre, will be returning for the new film - reportedly at the behest of Fukunaga and Craig.

It is an unprecedented move in the series' history. Sylvia Trench (Eunice Gayson), a secondary love interest, appeared in the first two Connery films, while Maud Adams appeared in The Man With The Golden Gun (1974) and Octopussy (1983), but as two different characters.

Never before has a main female character returned in a subsequent film. This move signals that the  focus on continuity established by Spectre will continue, in some form. 

While there is still a lot of context missing, to me this news feels like a portent of something very bad.


One of the distinguishing characteristics of the Bond franchise has been its mutability - continuity and history were always subservient to whatever the filmmakers were interested in. Hence Diamonds Are Forever could pretend that Lazenby never happened, and For Your Eyes Only could say that Lazenby's movie did.

With every movie, it feels like the slate is wiped clean - allowing the franchise to self-correct and adapt, through changing tastes, poorly-received instalments, and different actors.

With the Craig era, there has been a shift from this approach - and not for the better.

Both Quantum of Solace and Spectre have tried to break from the self-contained approach of previous instalments - the former starts minutes after Casino Royale; the latter tries to retrofit all of Craig's movies into one epic narrative. Neither of those movies was particularly successful at this aspect of their narratives - the choice to premise so much of the drama of your story on the events of a previous movie is never a good idea. It means the movie's impact is based on whether the viewer has bothered to watch these previous movies.

It's an accepted trope of Marvel, where characters move between different series, with mid and end-credit sequences linking them to future stories which might be released only months later. It's a holdover from comic books, and - to be frank - not designed for 90-100 minute movies. But the filmmakers have been savvy about how they implement this narrative strategy to enough of a degree to hook a large audience.

The Bond series is always trying to stay current, and Spectre tried to follow the Marvel template. With Seydoux returning, it is clear some version of continuity is being maintained - and a theory that has been bubbling in the ether since the run-up to Spectre's release.  



Before the release of Spectre I remember reading some speculation that Bond 24 was going to be a covert remake of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, a story in which Bond winds up falling in love and marrying Tracy (Diana Rigg). Full credit to Matts Mira and Gourley from James Bonding, who picked out the following links between the films:

Both Madeline and Tracy are the children of criminals who have information Bond needs; in both cases, these fathers make deals with Bond that involve their children  (Tracy's father dangles information on the villain's location as an inducement for Bond to marry her; Madeline's forces Bond to protect his daughter in exchange for vital information on the villain's location). And - to varying degrees - both films end with the idea of Bond giving up his job to run away with their new love.

Beyond these connections, one of the final trailers for Spectre employed the OHMSS theme, which felt like a real tip of the hat to what the movie was building towards.

Judging by what I have read of the original script, the connections were meant to be more overt - Blofeld's sidekick was the same lackey he had in OHMSS, Irma Bunt; and the movie originally ended on the same line as OHMSS, "We have all the time in the world". Even the way the movie ends feels like a homage.

Just check out Spectre's final shot (1:11)...


...and see how it echoes the final shot of the wedding scene in OHMSS (2:48).


In the end, these elements were revised or removed, and Spectre ended in a way that kept Bond's retirement/nuptials hypothetical, and allowed for Craig to return in a brand new adventure.

Unless there is some unique idea that the filmmakers have for her, to me Madeline Swann's return means the filmmakers are still determined to follow OHMSS e.g. Bond marries Madeline, she is murdered, and Craig's Bond ends on the same note he came in on - with a dead woman on his conscience.

I'm hoping they have come up with something more original and daring, but I have a nasty feeling they are teeing up to just do another vengeance story. Could they do a good job? Sure.

There is the ghost of an interesting resolution to Craig-Bond in Spectre - the man who destroyed his relationship with Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale, inadvertently puts him on the path to finding redemption with the one person who can understand him: his daughter.

It could have been great, complicated and weird as hell, but Spectre kinda dropped the ball on that relationship. And now, unless they are going to make up for their error by actually developing that relationship into something more complex, we are gearing up for a revenge movie where we are supposed to be invested in a doomed romance that was not that developed to begin with.

Apparently, the casting breakdown is looking for two new female characters so unless polyamory is on the cards, it looks like Madeline is a goner.

Of course I could be wrong.

The producers are gathering a strong group of filmmakers, and Craig is clearly invested in going out on a high note, which I take as a good sign. And Seydoux is a great actress - I have been a big fan of hers through BITWC, Sister and The Lobster, and in the run-up to Spectre I was really excited that the franchise had snagged an actress of her calibre. Hopefully, the new team will do right by her and not relegate to playing a disposable archetype.

The Craig era has always felt like an attempt to fulfil the promise of previous Bonds that tried to break from the formula - not just OHMSS but For Your Eyes Only, the Dalton movies and 50% of The World Is Not Enough. These movies felt like dry runs for a different kind of Bond, one removed from. most of the gadgets and other surface flash that is part of the fun of these movies, but which is often mistaken for the meat.

Escapism is always at its best when the viewer has a genuine investment in the characters, and the hope that they can get through whatever situation they find themselves in. The best of Bond is when it finds a balance between the Bond formula, and strong relationships with other characters, particularly with the women - it is the reason why OHMSS has had such a renaissance in appreciation and the reason why the Brosnan movies feel less omnipresent than when they were first released.

A large part of the success of Craig's debut was his relationship with Eva Green's Vesper Lynd. His Bond is defined by his interactions with a strong, complex woman, and one could make the argument that part of the reason why Casino Royale and Skyfall succeeded, while Quantum of Solace and Spectre did not, was because those films did not feature a strong woman like Vesper or M (Judi Dench) to clash with Bond.

From the beginning, Craig's era felt like an attempt to really try and stay the course and not revert to straight repetition of the formula. They have not always succeeded, but I appreciate the intent. Now he needs a strong finish. And part of that strong finish is to do right by the female characters.

If you are interested in more Bond-related content, check out the reviews below. You can also subscribe to the podcast I co-host, THE JAMES BOND COCKTAIL HOUR, available wherever you get your podcasts.

Den of Geek articles





Bond reviews

Diamonds Are Forever

The Man With The Golden Gun

Moonraker

For Your Eyes Only

Octopussy

A View To A Kill

The Living Daylights

Licence to Kill

GoldenEye

Tomorrow Never Dies

The World Is Not Enough (2010)(2017)

Die Another Day

Casino Royale

Quantum of Solace

Spectre (2015); (2016)

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

IN THEATRES: Sorry to Bother You

Cassius (Lakeith Stanfield) is a man looking for purpose and financial security. After getting a job as a telemarketer, Cash is lost in the cut-throat commission-driven environment - until he discovers his White Voice. Having found his calling, Cash quickly rises to become a 'power caller', making multi-million dollar deals with massive conglomerates.

While his friends and colleagues fight for their basic rights, Cash is increasingly disconnected from reality. When he is offered an opportunity to work for multi-billionaire Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), Cash is confronted with a choice: does he give up the good life to fight for his friends' rights? Or will he let his White Voice dictate the sale of his soul?     


The debut of rapper Boots Riley, Sorry to Bother You is a movie bursting with ideas and off-beat visuals. This movie turned out to be a prime example of how a bad venue can taint your viewing experience. I caught a screening of this movie months ago. I was really excited up until the point I entered the massive amphitheatre to discover row upon row of empty seats. Not a good sign - having an audience to share in the experience is a big part of going to the movies. I never really thought much about the communal aspect of it until about ten years ago when I saw Pineapple Express in an empty theatre. it was about as fun as a mausoleum. It was not until I was watching the movie later with some friends that the movie came to life.
The exact same thing happened with Sorry to Bother You - I enjoyed the movie's ideas and style, but I could not connect with it beyond that. Having to sit in a massive empty room absolutely killed the movie for me. I decided to wait and see if the movie came out in my area, and watch it again.
And I am really glad I did, because this movie is now one of my favourite movies of the year.    

The film is concerned with individuals and their impact on larger systemic processes and problems. The movie's title is really an encapsulation of contemporary society's relationship with larger issues (such as climate change, crony capitalism and gender equality; insert your own here). As Steven Yuen's character explains, most of the time people do not do anything to fix problems - they just figure out how to live with them.

That moral flexibility is the dilemma facing our lead character. He is unemployed, living out of his uncle's garage, and his car is so crap he has to manually pull the window wipers back and forth when it rains.
The big selling point of the trailers has been the 'white' voices which characters use to navigate the world. It is a neat, funny idea and a great extension of the movie's focus on the idea of passing: Our hero is willing to abandon his identity in order to move up the ladder.


The acting from the ensemble is great. Lakeith Stanfield, most well-known for his roles in Get Out and Atlanta, manages to make Cassius's journey from lowly telemarketer to 'power caller' relatable and affecting. Even when he has sold out, Stanfield has a wavering quality which makes his weakness understandable.
Tessa Thompson plays Cassius's girlfriend/conscience Detroit. Still sporting her Thor Ragnarok abs (which gives a clue as to when the move was shot) Thompson's character is a visual and agit pop artist, with a committed belief system who is willing to put herself in harm's way (literarily) for her art.
    On re-watch, she is one element that felt confusing on both viewings. Despite her radical credentials, Detroit never really challenges Cassius, and when she does, it comes long after they have moved into a big apartment and bought a flashy car - it is hard to track what her motivations really are. There is a sense that her reactions to Cassius are motivated by a need to force him to confront what he has become, but if so, why did she take this long to challenge him? Thompson is good, but I did not have a lock on what Detroit's personality, motives or function within the movie were. Check out Jourdain Searles's essay about the character. It is far more in-depth than I could write.




    As Cash's friend and leader of the strike, Squeeze, Steven Yeun is good - he just needed more screen-time. With the success of South Korean drama Burning, he's starting to break out, but Yeun should be leading more movies now - his unrequited(?) attraction FOR Detroit made me want to see him and Thompson in a straight-up romantic movie. His character only really suffers because of the lack of development for Detroit - their romantic flirtation feels random and never resolves in a way that makes sense.
    If you have followed this blog long enough, you know how much I love a good bad guy - Armie Hammer's Steve Lift - a CEO who has come up with a modern form of slavery - is terrifying and hilarious. Hammer is really amazing in this movie.


    Playing a self-absorbed megalomaniac he is hilarious and terrifyingly close to feeling like a real person. It is a credit to his abilities that the scene in which he reveals his plans to create a race of horse-human hybrids feels repulsive rather than ridiculous. It is hard not to compare his arrogant befuddlement at the public backlash to the sociopathic tone-deafness of certain tech bro billionaires like uh... Melon Tusk. Hammer seasons this monster with a superficial charm that feels a little too strong - he puts you on edge from the first moment he is onscreen.


    Sorry to Bother You is brilliant. I am so happy I watched this movie again - with an audience, it just came alive. The time in between viewings also helped - it gave the movie a chance to marinate in brain for a bit.


    It does not look like the movie will be expanding to other venues outside of the Academy, so if you are keen, book your tickets ASAP.








    Tuesday, 4 December 2018

    IN THEATRES: Creed II


    Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) has made it to the top - he is the Heavyweight Champion of the world, and he is starting a family with his love Bianca (Tessa Thompson). Life could not be better.

    That is, until a new challenge appears in the form of Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu), son of the man who killed his father Apollo. 

    After taking a horrific beating in their match, Adonis has to go back to basics, and with the help of his family and trainer/erstwhile father figure Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), re-discover his eye of the Tiger.


    I was really worried about this movie.

    a) Ryan Coogler was not writing or directing
    b) Stallone was (co) writing
    c) It was a sequel to Rocky IV

    Rocky IV feels like it is in a completely different universe to Creed. How could it not be garbage?

    While it is not as good as Creed, like its predecessor Creed II does a really good job of taking something from the original Rocky series (Ivan Drago) and re-contextualising it in a way that deepens it.

    Ironically, Drago's subplot is my favourite part of the movie. Post-Rocky IV, Drago lost everything. In the last 30 years he has poured his hopes and frustrations into his son Viktor (newcomer Florian Munteanu).

    Largely silent, their relationship is the most interesting and well-realised character development in the movie. It is too bad they do not have more screen time, but Lundgren and Munteanu convey a lot in only a couple of scenes.


    On the flipside, Creed II is operating without a good reason to be a Creed movie - Adonis's whole motivation in the original was to feel like his life had meaning. Having completed that arc, there is no room left for him to grow.

    Jordan is great, and manages to make this character turn less jarring, but the character feels different - more self-involved, and driven by vengeance.

    Ironically, Adonis's motivation in Creed II makes far more sense in context as a sequel to the events in Rocky IV than as a sequel to Creed. I was half-expecting/hoping/praying Bianca would be singing 'Living In America' as Donny entered the ring for the final fight.

    While this movie works as a sequel to the fourth Rocky movie, the basic set-up is a re-run of Rocky III: Adonis starts the movie full of bravado, and being humbled in his first bout with Drago, re-trains himself to take the giant on again.

    While not on the same level as Coogler's original, Creed II is a solid sports movie, and a good time at the movies.

    Friday, 30 November 2018

    IN THEATRES: You Were Never Really Here

    After a lifetime of violence (both personal and professional), Joe uses his skillset to rescue kids. Joe's life is - at least on the surface - simple and discreet. Underneath it all, he is a wreck, re-enacting the traumas of the past.

    When he is hired to rescue a politician's daughter, Joe's finds his life upended.


    I love genre movies made by people who have not made their bones in them before. the results may not always work, but they are usually interesting. And when it works, it’s like watching one of those videos of an octopus work it’s watching one of those mazes



    Written and directed by Lynne Ramsay and starring Joaquin Phoenix, You Were Never Really Here has the bones of a thriller - a loner with a traumatic past takes on a seemingly simple case that spirals out into something bigger and more dangerous.


    Phoenix is great - a quiet, understated performance punctuated by abrupt moments of economic brutality. The title is as much a statement on his interior life as it is on his career as a covert retrieval expert. 

    Ramsay keeps the camera close to Phoenix, framing other characters in the corner of the frame or out of focus. Joe is almost completely checked out from the world. 

    Nothing about the story is new - Ramsay’s focus on emphasising Joe’s trauma goes beyond the easy signifiers of loners past. 

    Conveyed through disjunctive editing and sound design, Ramsay shows snippets that add up to a picture of Joe's inner psyche. This is a man who is constantly trying to pull himself together, while his past and present continually collide.  

    If you are coming for Jack Reacher-style hobo action, this is not it. There is a great set piece shot from POV of security cameras. Cutting between them at deliberate intervals, we get glimpses of Joe as he makes his way through the guards and patrons, either in media res-hammering or post-hammering. The movie is a slow burn, but always feels like it is moving inexorably toward some kind of explosion (either literal or metaphoric, it is going to be messy).

    Ramsay’s approach to violence is fascinating - generally speaking, we watch revenge movies for catharsis. Bad people have done something terrible, and we want to see them die. We want order restored to the universe. 

    In You Were Never Really Here, the violence is not cathartic - throughout the movie, Ramsay offers fragmented glimpses of Joe's past, including flashbacks of the violence he endured as a child at the hands of his father. Violence for Joe is the means to an end, but it does not act as a salve for his wounds. He is not some 80s action hero, who will be reborn and purified by the tortures he endures (Rambo, Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon). It just means more scars on his body, and ensures that he remains stuck in an endless loop, replaying the violence he has already endured.

    The film is ultimately a meditation on violence, and its limitations a means of resolution. The movie ends with Joe's desire for vengeance derailed, and replaced by a new connection with another human being.

    Easily one of the best movies of the year, You Were Never Really Here is a quiet, disturbing and deeply empathetic portrait of a violent man finding a way out.









    Thursday, 29 November 2018

    BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Lakeview Terrace (Neil LaBute, 2008)

    When an interracial couple, Chris (Patrick Wilson) and Lisa (Kerry Washington), move into the titular suburb, they are quickly acquainted with their neighbour Abel (Samuel L. Jackson).


    A veteran cop who is solo-parenting his two kids, Abel is a pillar of this community.


    The only problem is Abel does not like his new neighbours - at all. And the longer they stay, the more it becomes apparent that he wants them gone - by any means necessary.




    The premise of this movie sounds like the premise to a bad joke, or a right wing fantasy: What if the racist evil cop is black?


    If I had watched this movie when it came out, I probably would have liked it. With ten years distance, this movie just feels ridiculous and shallow.


    What is interesting is that the story was inspired by a real series of incidents involving a black cop who harassed his neighbours. In real life the series of articles written about the episode won some awards and the cop lost his job.


    Early on, the signs are promising. We are quickly exposed to the fault-lines in the protagonists' relationship, and Wilson does a good job of playing a white liberal trying to tiptoe around Abel's digs at his attempts to be 'woke.'


    The early interactions between Jackson and Wilson tease a suspense thriller built on racial dynamics that is far more subtle and interesting than the neighbour-from-hell shenanigans it turns into. Watching Abel walk Chris into his own biases and privilege gives the movie a fresh jolt of energy - albeit briefly.
    This initial slow-burn approach is simultaneously the movie's strength and weakness, priming the viewer for a finale that falls so neatly to formula it completely obliterates this early promise.


    The movie is scattered with some neat touches - a conversation about police violence at a backyard party that turns nasty; a great beat where Jackson's character saves the couple from a home invader; and Jackson's final monologue about why he is the way he is.


    Director Neil LaBute is famous for the misanthropic world of his films and plays, populated by characters who are only interested in their own desires - or are too cowardly to admit their own selfishness. In the simplistic thriller environment of Lakeview Terrace, it is hard to see any of the bite of his previous work.


    The movie is not that overtly stylish, but there is a neat touch of foreshadowing: throughout the movie, local authorities are trying to hold back a fire that is slowly overtaking the hills behind Lakeview Terrace. The hills burning in the background gives the movie some atmosphere that feels totally in-line with the setting and the conflicts bubbling between the characters.
    The movie constantly flirts with being deeper and more probing.


    In search of legal options, Chris and Lisa go to Lisa's disapproving lawyer father, Harold, played by Ron Glass. Over the course of the conversation, it becomes clear that her father's concern is not about Abel, but about the soundness of Chris and Lisa's relationship. Harold asks Chris what he will do to protect his children.

    It is not a simple question of his parental concern, but is tinged with the way black bodies are treated in America.


    Is Chris in a position to understand and impart to his children the dangers they will face?


    It is an issue that is sadly too big for this silly movie to handle.


    By the end of the movie, writers David Loughery and Howard Korder give up and just turn him into a cartoonish super villain out of a 90s thriller (think Unlawful Entry). The movie's role-reversal of the races of the characters ends up as cheap and silly as a Ben Shapiro think-piece.


    As a racially-charged drama, Lakeview Terrace does not even get off tarmac. But even as a silly thriller, it does not go far enough to rank as a guilty pleasure.

    IN THEATRES: Suspiria

    1977, West Berlin. American Suzy Bannion (Dakota Johnson) is accepted to the exclusive Markos Dance Academy. While Suzy quickly advances through the company, under the watchful eye of Mme Blanc (Tilda Swinton),  elderly psychiatrist Dr Klemperer (Tilda Swinton) becomes suspicious that the academy's staff are involved in something nefarious...


    A remake of Suspiria sounds like an odd idea - the original is a wholly cinematic experience, of image and sound so singular and overpowering that re-doing it always felt like hubris.
    I am not the biggest Argento fan, but I've always liked Suspiria - it's the one Argento joint where the weird plotting and wooden acting make sense. A couple years ago, I had the opportunity to watch the movie on the big screen, with Goblin playing the score live. It was one of the best theatre-going experiences in my life. It really made me like the movie far more.

    Suspria is one of those movies that lives and dies on a couple of key qualities: Argento's direction, the colour palette and Goblin's score.

    Any remake would need to go in a completely different direction. On that count, this movie is pretty successful. In place of Argento's technicolour nightmare, you get the muted colours of West Berlin in 1977, grounded in a real historical context. 

    In some ways, this movie is more of a fully-formed story, with its own specific ideas and themes.

    I watched this movie weeks ago and I’ve been really struggling to come up with a clear read. It is more thematically complex than the original, yet somehow less interesting as a viewing experience - it alludes to a lot of ideas (particularly in terms of its historical setting), yet they feel weirdly isolated from the story.

    Speaking of the story, it is... ultimately hard to grasp?
    The movie is about hidden secrets and the traumas of the past haunting the present, with the old guard using the young to prolong their hold on power. The reveal that Suzy is the real Mother of Sighs, and the ancient Helena Markos (Tilda Swinton) is an imposter is where I really started to lose track of what was going on.
    My read was that Suzy's reveal represented the hubris of believing that an assumed order is static and correct. In the end, the coven's old guard is revealed to be built on a lie and is destroyed.










    As far as the cast go, the real standouts are Tilda Swinton and Tilda Swinton. As the headmistress struggling to keep the coven together, Tilda Swinton is terrifying yet the most empathetic character in the movie. She desires moving the coven into the present, but is out-votes. Swinton is more interesting in her other role as Dr Klemperer, an elderly shrink who investigates the witches, leading to a confrontation with the ghosts of his past. I would watch a movie about this character - when the movie is based around him and his wife (original Suspiria star Jessica Harper), the movie finds a centre.


    My favourite aspect of the witches was how ordinary their interactions were - they do feel like long-serving staff who both share a sense of camaraderie and petty gripes with each other. It’s a character game going back to Rosemary’s Baby. While it does not really go anywhere, it does give the witches a sliver more personality.


    The movie features some grue, but is not that scary. My thing is that there are no real rules to what the witches’ powers and goals are. As a stand-in for the scars of WW2 and the (then) ructions of West Germany, they kinda work, in an obvious way. But dramatically I was really confused what their function was.


    This movie includes characters that are not the central focus, and a bunch of very specific themes that do not really add up to more than their most overt meaning. The West German backdrop of 1977 is well-realised, and ties in with the story of the witches, but this alignment never feels cathartic or satisfying in any way.


    It is watchable, and occasionally unnerving, but it ultimately feels like a computer without a CPU. I don’t see this version of Suspiria obliterating the original or fading into the past. It is spinning so many plates that it will be inviting it’s own audience to muse over its themes.


    But as a dramatic viewing experience, it never comes to life.


     

    Monday, 26 November 2018

    IN (HOME) THEATRES: Cam

    Nina (Madeline Brewer) is a cam girl. She loves her job, and is determined to take the Number One slot on the website that hosts her show.

    One day Nina discovers another profile that looks almost identical to hers. Soon, it is not just her job that is being taken away. Somebody out there wants everything Nina is and has built for herself - including mind, body and soul...


    Sex workers do not have a good cinematic history. Generally speaking, they are treated as victims in need of saving (the prime example being Pretty Woman) or cannon fodder in genre movies (think of all the gun moles who get killed in action or horror movies).

    Recently released on Netflix, Cam was written by former cam girl Isa Mazzei and directed by Daniel Goldhaber. Mazzei's involvement is key - Nina/Lola is not a victim because of her profession, and the filmmakers never demonise Nina for her work. She loves her job, and is focused with improving her ranking.

    The character and the film are also aware of the challenges Nina faces. One of my favourite themes is the disjunction between a man's perception of a woman and the reality, and Cam is at its best when the line between Nina's private and public faces breaks down. Misogyny is present in multiple forms, from the clients who want to possess the fantasy for real, to the cops, who disregard her complaint because they think she has brought it on herself.

    Despite the fact that it is a horror movie, Nina never becomes totally reactive - as her predicament escelates, Nina explores every avenue to get her identity back. She is knocked back and undermined and every turn, but Nina is always pushing forward, trying to get the upper hand.

    After supporting roles in Orange is the New Black and The Handmaid's Tale, Madeline Brewer is great, offering three distinct personas as Nina, her online character Lola and the cyber doppelgänger who has stolen her identity. Her Nina is self-possessed and hyper-aware of the boundaries between her real life and her job, rightly outraged when those boundaries are violated.

    After slogging through absolutely awful Netflix movies, Cam feels like a breath of fresh air - a smart thriller that upends the cinematic image of sex workers, it also works as a nightmarish look at the ways a woman's sexuality can be co-opted. If that sounds a bit heavy, it is - but one of the joys of Cam is how unpretentious it is about serving up its ideas.

    Definitely worth checking out.

    Tuesday, 13 November 2018

    BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Death Race 2050 (G. J. Echternkamp, 2017)

    In the year 2050, the United Corporations of America keep the masses placated with the Death Race, a trans-continental race in which coming first is only part of the fun.

    Veteran racer Frankenstein (Manu Bennett) is looking forward to retirement. His competition, includes musical superstar Minerva (Folake Olowofoyeku), fundamentalist Tammy the Terrorist (Anessa Ramsey), a genetically-engineered superman (Burt Grinstead) and a sentient car (voiced by D. C. Douglas).

    Complicating his task, a group of freedom fighters have declared war on the Death Race and all its participants.

    Frankenstein will need to use all his skills to win the race, and avoid being retired... from life.



    Produced by b-movie luminary Roger Corman, this sequel/remake to his 1975 cheapie Death Race 2000 (directed by Paul Bartel) is exactly what you think it is.
    The movie looks cheap, but it feels like a financial constraint rather than an ironic aesthetic choice. The style is really cool - the movie was shot in Peru, and the filmmakers make good use of the exterior locations.  

    The thing that really clicks are the characters - the racers are all distinctive and interesting, and the comedy feels like an organic extension of the characters: Perfectus is incredibly insecure; Tammi is a con artist who exploits her followers to rack up points; AI Abe ends questioning his own existence and taking a road trip of self-discovery.

    While the production values are threadbare, the performances are really good - everyone knows what the tone of the movie is, and commit. No one is winking at the audience, and that sincerity helps excuse the production values, and ends up making the movie funnier. 

    The plot is fairly rote and predictable, and the leads are a bit dull, but the bizarre world and supporting characters are the movie's MVP. It's too bad the movie is so short, because I could have used a couple more vignettes with Minerva, Tammy and Perfectus.

    Perfect for a drinking game, Death Race 2050 may not be great 'cinema' is a good time.

    Related

    Death Race

    Saturday, 10 November 2018

    LP1 (FKA Twigs, 2014)

    It is not often that I start an album sight unseen and let it play straight to the end. While it does not seem fast (it is basically the opposite), LP1 does have a distinct sense of pace and tension that hooks you in.


    LP1 is the definition of a slow-burn.

    It is also generically diffuse - there are elements which feel like RnB, EDM, even gregorian chants - part of the album's tension are the sudden shifts in style and aesthetic.

    'Preface' begins with the unsettling, multi-tracked line "I love another/And thus I hate myself". Repeated over an increasingly aggressive bed of electronica, it feels like passing through a gateway to another world.

    'Lights On' shows things down, but remains unnerving (the chorus particularly so). It sounds like a slow jam for an alien mating ritual - and that is a compliment. Thinking back, I really should have put this review out October.  It's not Halloween-related, but LP1 is definitely spine-tingling.

    At first I thought 'Two Weeks' was about a woman telling a man to pleasure her. Because it is so forthright, and the vocal is occasionally hard to make out, I thought it was about a woman's sexual agency, and how she focuses on her own sexual pleasure. After reading the lyrics, I was a little less taken with it.

    It is still a great song that I have listened to repeatedly, but the lyrics feel slightly conventional in theme (a woman seducing a man away from his significant other). The gender inversion is interesting, although with this song, I began to really notice the divergence between the lyrics and the tone of the production.

    What is frustrating and intriguing about LP1 is that these components are so unified and distinct that by the middle of the album, I find myself giving into it, and letting the words and sounds congeal around my brain. The album feels like a series of seismic movements, with little breathers in-between.

    Twigs started as a dancer, and there is something very body-centric about the music on LP1. If you watch her music videos, or the choreography in her live shows, it all syncs. I even found this myself - when I listened to the album seated, it feels discordant and unsettling. When I went for a walk, suddenly it began to make sense. The rhythms, the odd beats, the moments of silence - I could feel the pace of my walking and breathing shifting in time with the flow of the music. It was exhilarating, and the music began to feel more organic and - perversely - empathetic.

    Back to misunderstanding the album.

    'Hours' is produced by the great Dev Hynes (Blood Orange; Solange's Free EP; and the resurrected Sugababes' unreleased comeback album) but the sound of all the songs is so cohesive I only figured it while I was looking at his credits.

    'Video Girl' feels like one half of an argument where you don't really get what it's about: infidelity in the pop music world? A look at the superficiality and ignominy of video vixens?

    Maybe. Whatever the intent of the lyrics, the slowed-down trap soundtrack underscore the spare lyric with menace. Combining naiveté the birth of youthful dreams and a smidge of narcissism, the song builds to a near-martial beat.

    Backed by what sounds like a processed bell (A warning? For the subject of the lyric? Or the narrator?), 'Numbers' is even more unsettling. Good sequencing can add new meaning to songs, and having this song follow 'Video Girl' made it feel like a spiritual sequel, building on that track's theme of lost innocence, from the reductive image of the 'video girl' to a notch on some guy's bedpost.

    Starting with multi-tracked, echoing chorus, 'Closer' sounds like the Alien Queen covering Enya. That being said, the choral effect of the voices make this track feel more intimate and warm than the chilly electronica around it. Coming after so much darkness, lyrically and sonically, 'Closer' feels like a turning point in the record. When listened to in sequence, there is something weirdly euphoric and uplifting about 'Closer', like the narrator has finally overcome fear and distrust to open themselves to the world and new relationships.

    Buoyed by a more assertive vocal, 'Give Up' is an imperative. The conflict of previous songs is replaced with commands and assertions. The previous songs have been from point of view of someone who wants to please, to be malleable to the desires of someone who never articulates what those desires are. In 'Give Up', the narrator directly confronts this unseen spectator, demanding they respond.

    With a slightly more overt trap influence and a catchy chorus, 'Kicks' feels the closest thing to a pop song on the album. It is still weird as hell, but there is the spine of a torch song here. The narrator mourns a lack of purpose outside of a relationship - ironically, her solution is to emulate his behaviour.

    And then the album ends, as mysteriously as it began. As Keanu would say, "Whoa".

    In the last couple years, I have been a fan of this new futurist pop/RnB. Of the artists I have listened to (Tinashe, Kelela, KING etc), Twigs is the most extreme. Trying to frame her work in a digestible way has been ridiculously difficult. I consider myself a music fan, but I am no expert. I usually try to focus on broader concepts of what the artist is trying to accomplish, and try to offer analysis based on what history and context I know about the artist and their influences. Due to my relative illiteracy in musical terminology, I tend to focus on lyrical content.

    With LP1, I found my usual approach completely inadequate. I still don't know what the hell is going on here. Every time I think I have a handle on what she is doing, it feels inadequate, or off-base. The music is unquantifiable, in the best way possible.

    Listening to FKA Twigs, it feels like I have stumbled into the future of something. Of what, I am not exactly sure. But I am looking forward to learning more about it.

    Tangentially related (?)

    Tinashe's Aquarius


    Friday, 9 November 2018

    IN THEATRES: Overlord

    A few days before the Normandy invasion in 1944, a group of American paratroopers are dropped behind enemy lines to knock out a radio tower in a small French village church. 


    Their mission is difficult, but what they discover under the church could be of even greater consequence to both the incoming forces, and the rest of the world...


    Rumoured to be the next Cloverfield movie, Overlord is thankfully free of any tangential universe-building. If you ever played the Wolfenstein games or enjoyed the Dead Snow movies (or, if you really obscure, are a fan of the 1977 horror movie Shock Waves), this might be a little familiar. A fun blend of men-on-a-mission film and zombie thriller, Overlord feels like an idea that should have been made 10 times already.




    While it is a studio release, Overlord feels rather contained - in a good way. The lack of a big budget is a benefit - director Julius Avery shoots the action close, with the invasion force glimpsed through windows. Boyce's fall to earth is accomplished in a series of tight mid-shots, with the camera anchored to his POV as he struggles to pull his chute. And once the paratroopers are on the ground, the action is more limited - most of the major scenes are set in the attic of a house in the village, where the paratroopers plan their next move while SS patrol the streets outside.


    While the movie is exactly as advertised, it is also more understated, and not as much of a roller-coaster as the trailers make out. Overlord's forte is really slow-building dread and claustrophobia, rather than jump scares.
    And while the characters are pretty stock, the performances are decent. In the lead, Jovan Adepo plays Boyce, a green paratrooper who has to step up after he stumbles upon what the Nazis are up to. One interesting wrinkle to his character is how no reference is made to the fact that he is black. Considering the state of the US military at the time (President Truman desegregated the military by executive order after the war was over), it feels bizarre to ignore it completely.


    Wyatt Russell plays Ford, the veteran of the team, and is chiefly notable for looking and sounding exactly like his dad (Kurt). Watching him gruffly emphasise the importance of the mission, it is hard not to think of The Thing, Escape from New York or Big Trouble in Little China.


    My big gripe with the movie is that it's not more than what it is. It's a horror-action movie with Nazis in WWII, and that's about it.


    None of the characters are that interesting, and the action - while staged well - is not that exciting.


    The big problem with Overlord is that the supernatural threat is not that scary. An army of immortal killers is cool, but we don't get a real grasp of what they are, and the examples we do see are pretty bland (and are stopped fairly easily). Contemporary movie monsters are really lacking, both visually and in terms of characterisation.




    By contrast, the Nazi soldiers are terrifying. It probably helps that they come with a real historical context that does not require much explanation, but the movie is at its best when it is about four exhausted paratroopers hiding from the Germans in the attic while they interrogate its owners in the living room below. By comparison, the zombies just fall flat.


    Indeed, because the architecture of the movie is so familiar, you could take out the un-dead super soldiers and it would still work.




    The zombie threat only really connects when the main Nazi villain (Pilou Asbæk) injects himself with the agent that creates the un-dead, and turns into an unstoppable killing machine. This finale is undermined by the fact that it ends up being another fight scene between two immortal characters who cannot die. 


    In the end, Overlord is a solid programmer - nothing more, nothing less. The colourless monsters and neutral approach to race are just the most obvious aspects of a movie that should be more than a cool logline.

    Wednesday, 7 November 2018

    BITE-SIZED REVIEW: The Marine - Battleground (James Nunn, 2017)

    When the president of a biker gang is assassinated in a drive-by shooting, the gang head off in pursuit of his killers.

    Meanwhile, former marine Jake Carter (WWE wrestler The Miz) is now working as a paramedic. After he responds to an emergency in an underground parking lot, he finds one of the shooters with a bullet wound.

    Complicating matters, the gang quickly figure out where their targets are and lay siege to the parking structure.

    Cut off from the outside world, Carter will have to draw on his marine-ing skills to defend his patient from the bad guys.

    DTV action movies have a bad wrap that they do not deserve. There are some genuinely good filmmakers working in the genre, but because they don't come out in theatres, they still carry the retina of being lo-rent. Rather like how dramas have moved to TV, 'traditional' urban-set action flicks featuring people shooting guns, explosions, martial arts, profanity and nudity (basically everything from Dirty Harry through Rambo, Lethal Weapon and Die Hard) have left the multiplex in favour of streaming and Redbox.

    Scott Adkins is basically a non-entity on the big screen, but on DTV he is the equivalent of an 80s action star - check out the Undisputed movies, or the Ninja flicks, or Savage Dog. Even veterans like Jean Claude Van Damme have found a second wind in the DTV genre.

    If you bemoan the overabundance of CGI and superheroes on the big screen - and you have not checked out the DTV scene, you are missing out. . 

    I had heard some good things about this movie, and I liked the idea that it was basically a Die hard variant set at an underground parking lot at a closed theme park. It also (apparently) cost two million dollars to make.

    I did not have high expectations going in, but this movie is a lot of fun.

    The story is clean and simple - the characters are well-established and have understandable motivations. The dialogue is snappy, and not as cheesy as I thought it would be - the way Jake Carter is introduced manages to wedge in his background without feeling like an info dump.


    The performers are also well-cast: The Miz may not have great emotional range, but he is well-cast as the super-professional with a conscience. He's got a reputation as one of the best heels (bad guys) in the WWE, and it is a testament to his talents that he is convincing as the reserved ex-soldier. Bo Dallas is terrific as the psychotic villain, while Naomi - a great wrestler who has never been that great on the mike - is not exposed. The same goes for Curtis Axel, who plays the chief muscle of the gang, and gets in a  brutal hand-to-axe fight with the Miz.

    Bo Dallas as Alonzo


    One of the key elements of a Die Hard-type film is establishing the location. Every level of the  parking structure looks the same (considering the movie's budget, it's possible they just re-dressed the same location), but the filmmakers find ways to define each level with different action set pieces, and aesthetic choices (on Level 6, Carter breaks all the lights so it is in near-total darkness).
    Technically, the movie is great example of solid genre craftsmanship - the editing is tight and director James Nunn displays a talent for extended, unobtrusive takes as our heroes try to escape the biker gang. They are used judiciously, to show off choreography and also build tension in-frame, without hyperactive editing or jerky camerawork.


    The fight choreography is also great, and Nunn shoots it wide and long so the performers can really show off what they can do. One of the best examples of this is Naomi - a former dancer-turned-wrestler, she is famous for her acrobatic persona, and brings the same agility to her big fight with the Miz.

    The script is clever enough to give these fights a little story, with a couple of dramatic reversals - Naomi pulls a gun; the Miz zaps her with the defibrillator paddles; Naomi recovers and jumps him. And so on, until the Miz gains the upper-hand. There is a fun back-and-forth to the fights that prevent them from feeling rote, and - more importantly - making the Miz into a superhero.

    Despite being a one-man-army, Jake Carter feels like an underdog - giving him a supporting character who he has to keep alive really adds a sense of stakes to the movie, and makes his predicament (leaving a parking lot) more daunting than it sounds.

    There's not much more to it. The Marine 5 is a really fun flick. Even if you don't like pro-wrestling, you will find plenty to like here.

    Wednesday, 31 October 2018

    Bond 25 speculation: Into the black

    It has been a while since I put out one of these.



    So a lot has changed!

    First, frequent screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (scribes of all the movies between 1999-2015) were off script duties. And then they were writing a treatment. And then Danny Boyle was in as director, with frequent collaborator John Hodge as screenwriter (Bye Purvis and Wade!).

    And then in August, Boyle and Hodge were gone (Hello Purvis and Wade!).

    For a moment, it looked like Bond 25 was up in smoke, or in danger of being extremely pedestrian  (Hello Purvis and Wade!).

    And then there was a news update: Cary Joji Fukunaga, of True Detective fame, was onboard as director, and the movie's release date had been pushed back to Valentine's Day, 2020.

    What does this mean?

    I don't know. And I like it.

    Here we are suspended between victory and defeat, greatness and Die Another Day.

    The real fact is that all the behind-the-scenes, pre-production nonsense does not matter (apart from the people who are employed on the project). What matters is the final product.

    So unplug, enjoy your life and come back to this blog in just over a year when you can hear my thoughts on whatever Bond 25 turns out to be.

    IN OTHER NEWS....

    A new episode of the THE JAMES BOND COCKTAIL HOUR will be dropping on Saturday.

    I will also be putting out a Bond-related review at the end of November.

    There are more good things inbound, so keep following the blog - there are some very cool things coming.

    Related



    Monday, 29 October 2018

    BITE-SIZED REVIEW: The Slumber Party Massacre (Amy Jones, 1982)

    Alone for the weekend, teenager Trish (Michelle Michaels) invites her friends over for a slumber party. What they don't know is that serial murderer Russ Thorne (Michael Villella) is in the neighbourhood, looking to increase his bodycount...



    There is nothing subtle about this movie. If you have seen the poster, you know exactly what it is.
    A latecomer to the first slasher wave, The Slumber Party Massacre has an interesting pedigree - produced by Roger Corman, the movie was written by feminist academic Rita Mae Brown and directed by former editor Amy Jones, who would go on to direct the drama Love Letters with former scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis
    I watched this movie about a decade ago, after reading Corman's autobiography How I Made a 100 Movies in Hollywood and never lost a Dime. Corman is famous for giving budding filmmakers opportunities, and one of the stories he related was about this movie - editor Amy Jones was keen to get a shot directing and so she put together a skeleton crew and shot the first 10 minutes of the movie without Corman realising it. When she presented the completed footage to the producer, he was so impressed he gave her the budget to finish the rest of the movie.


    The book was filled with stories like this, with Corman offering tips and examples of how to get a genre picture made for very little money. At the time I read Corman's book, I was studying film production, and was hungry for stories like Jones's.






    While I recognise its flaws, I have always had a fondness for this movie. It's working from a familiar template, but because it is so small in scope, and it is not as technically strong as something like Halloween, there was something weirdly aspirational about it.  
    If you are looking for an introduction to the basic tenets of the teen horror movie, watching only the best movies won't get you that far. You can learn something from watching ideas executed brilliantly (Halloween), but I guarantee you will learn more from watching a movie like Slumber Party Massacre, where the mechanics of these movies are exposed. Not only is the shakiness of the movie's use of familiar clichés and formal conventions part of its charm, SPM serves as a great example of how these things are supposed to work.


    Structurally, SPM is a re-run of Halloween - an evil killer escapes from prison to continue killing people and stumbles into a group of randy teenagers.


    Now from what I have gathered, Rita Mae Brown's script was intended as a comedy, but the filmmakers did not get the satirical bent and turned it into a cookie cutter slasher movie. There are a couple of jokes which make it through - the phallic symbolism of the killer's drill; the creepy-but-well-intentioned neighbour; the zodiac signs in the newspaper. My personal favourite is the reveal (to the audience) of a body in the fridge, that the rest of the cast remain completely oblivious of.
    I chalk it up to Brown and Jones that the movie does not really echo the implications of the poster. There is only one scene of brief nudity, and the violence is underplayed (probably due to the low budget).
    The acting by the unknown cast is a bit wooden, although the core group of slumber paty-ers(?) have an easy rapport that adds a couple notes of humanity that they lack by themselves. There is a long, slightly dull subplot involving a new girl (Robin Stille) in the neighbourhood who has been ostracised from the group at school, and winds up coming to the rescue at the end. With a more sure hand at the directing tiller, and a more experienced cast, The Slumber Party Massacre might have been a dry run for Scream. As is, it is a generic slasher.


    But if you take it as an instruction manual on how to do a genre film on the cheap, The Slumber Party Massacre gains another layer of entertainment value. It features a clear concept, a small cast, and a few key locations. And as a rip-off of a better-known movie, it offers a good primer in how to pull off low budget thrills. It's far from perfect, but in its imperfection, The Slumber Party Massacre brings visibility to the human endeavour of trying to scare an audience.

    Sunday, 28 October 2018

    BITE-SIZED REVIEW: See No Evil (Richard Fleischer, 1971)

    After losing her sight in an accident, Sarah (Mia Farrow) is spending time with her uncle's family while she works through the transition.

    One day Sarah returns home to discover her family have been murdered by an unknown psychopath. The only clue to his identity is a bracelet engraved with the name 'Jacko'.

    After discovering the bracelet is missing, the killer returns to the house. Sarah flees into the countryside on a horse.

    Will she be able to escape the killer?


    I have a soft spot for director Richard Fleischer. He directed one of the movies of my childhood, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, and one of my favourite films noir, The Narrow Margin. He also directed some solid true crime dramas, including The Boston Strangler and 10 Rillington Place

    Extremely prolific, he made a variety of different movies of varying quality, and has gained a reputation as something of a hack. That may be true, but the guy knew what he was doing when it are to thrillers. 

    I caught this movie about a decade ago, after I had seen the similar (and far superior) Wait Until Dark, starring Audrey Hepburn. This was the wrong entry point for this movie - compared with the 1967 potboiler, See No Evil comes off a bit weightless.

    The best scene in the movie is Sarah's return to the house. As she walks upstairs, we see the signs of struggle, culminating in the reveal that everyone in the house is dead. It is a terrific scene, made more so by the lack of score (a rare dud from Elmer Bernstein).

    Fleischer shoots the killer with torso out of frame, with his distinctive cowboy boots as the most recognisable feature. It's a neat shorthand, although some of the hand-held shots undermine the effect.  I could not help wondering what Fleischer could have accomplished if he had made this film a few years later with a Steadicam. After 'Cowboy Boots's first appearance, you can feel the filmmakers straining not to repeat themselves with new compositions that keep his identity a secret.

    The movie is aiming for the same 'daytime nightmare' vibe as And Soon The Darkness (both films were co-scripted by Brian Clemens), but See No Evil loses momentum as soon as Sarah flees the house.

    The story becomes a collection of ideas that kill the suspense. Sarah becomes entangled with a local clan of Roma who are afraid that one of their family may be blamed for the killings. This subplot is interesting but it means the main catalyst for the movie's suspense - 'Jacko' - is out of the picture right until the very end.

    Basing the movie around a maligned minority who are blamed for a crime they had nothing to do with is a good idea for a thriller. In this movie, this subplot kills any sense of momentum. There is an element of danger in that the Roma do not want her to reach the police, but there is never any sense that Sarah is in actual danger. If the killer was hunting her for the course of her escape, and the Roma inadvertently made his job easier by imprisoning her, it would have worked. As is, it's just an overlong sequence that stretches the running time to feature-length.

     If you enjoyed Wait Until Dark, See No Evil is a fun variant. But be prepared for some judicious fast-forwarding.

    Tuesday, 23 October 2018

    Cotton Comes to Harlem (Chester Himes, 1965)


     After a rally for a 'Back To Africa' event in Harlem is robbed, police officers 'Grave Digger' and 'Coffin Ed' are put on the case. They soon find themselves following a trail of clues, back-street informants, femme fatales, and Southern racists, to a mysterious bale of cotton that everyone wants but no one can hold onto without winding up dead...


    Written by Chester Hines, Cotton Comes To Harlem is a great pulpy detective thriller set in 1960s Harlem. Published in 1965, this acidic look at two hard-nosed black cops feels rather timeless.

    Racism has always been a part of the American project, so it should come as now surprise that the issues present in Homes' novel - economic and political isolation; systemic oppression (the white cops feel like they could walk off the page onto the streets of 2018 America).

    While the book's perspective feels radical in terms of how it shows the other side of the law enforcement, it is not a beacon of progress. Some elements - such as the sexualisation of the female characters - feel less enlightened, although stylistically in line with the genre Himes is writing in.

    One of the chief joys of the book is the characterisation of our anti-heroes Grave Digger and Coffin Ed. Both hard-bitten, violent and empathetic to the community they are meant to serve and protect, they juggle the genre's fascination with vigilante justice with an understanding of how the system of law enforcement maintains racial inequality. It is a refreshing dimension that adds a layer of nuance to the violent loner cop archetype, that goes beyond their propensity for violence.
    The novel moves at a clip - I blasted through it in a couple of days - and it possesses a great, dark sense of humour: The Southern villain everyone compares to Colonel Sanders; the light-skinned suspect who wears blackface to escape the police station; fake priest Deke O'Malley's hypocritical seduction of a dead man's wife.
    The story is relatively clear, and Himes provides a few shifts in perspective that clue the reader into what is going on without spelling it out or making the investigation feel predictable.


    While not redundant, it is the gallery of characters and the world that make Cotton Comes To Harlem so compelling.


    Coffin Ed and Gravedigger are never just cops on a case; they are still two black men in America. Like all great fictional detectives, they are defined by having to move between multiple worlds, without having both feet in one place. While they are from Harlem, they are police men in Harlem. They are trying to walk a line between upholding the law and protecting the community.


    The great thing about this duality, at least as I - a white Pakeha from New Zealand - saw it, was that it did not negate or obscure the issue of race - whether to temper the way they dealt with the biases of their white colleagues; or separate from the protests and campaigns of O'Malley's 'Back To Africa' movement, or the Black Muslims.


    Though they use violence frequently, our anti-heroes display a more developed sense of empathy for the motives of the people they come into contact with, and are unafraid to stand up to their superiors.
    While the book's politics add meat, there are elements that betray its age - the portrayal of female characters is straight out of the pulp tradition. As a fan of this kind of potboiler, it added a note of familiarity, but there is nothing that revisionary about any of them. They are just wives, femme fatales or somewhere in-between.


    Overall, Cotton Comes To Harlem is really great detective novel. And if it was not clear, it is really fun to read. I am already on-board for 50s-60s thrillers like this, but it is really enjoyable - the prose is colourful but economical, and it moves like a bullet. There are eight other novels featuring Coffin Ed and Gravedigger, as well as three movies, so don't be surprised if they make more appaearances on the blog in the future.