Saturday, 31 March 2018

IN THEATRES: Blockers

Julie (Kathryn Newton), Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan) and Sam (Gideon Adlon) have been best friends since primary school. Now they are all about to graduate and come up with the perfect send-off to their high school experience: a sex pact on prom night.

It's perfect except for the part where Julie's mum Lisa (Leslie Mann) finds out about the pact, tells Kayla's man-mountain-with-feelings dad Mitchell (John Cena) and Sam's human-dumpster-fire dad (Ike Barinholtz).

While the girls party, their parents frantically attempt to catch up to them and foil their plan.


I caught the trailer for this in front of Game Night, and it looked better than the log line. And as it turns out, this movie is more sophisticated than the premise would suggest. From the outside, this sounds ridiculously old-fashioned and sexist, but the movie (directed by Kay Cannon and written by Brian & Jim Kehoe) is laser-focused on undermining the double standards around women and their sexual agency.

The closest recent analogue is Bad Neighbours 2, which used a gender inversion to make points about the privileges of fraternities versus sororities. A similar strategy is at work here, with a group of teen girls who want to have sex and party like adults. We have seen this set-up in multiple variations for decades with young men, but generally speaking, those movies (Porkies, American Pie, Superbad etc) do not deviate from its protagonists' POV, which is generally white and cishet.

While the parents are the focus, Blockers oscillates on an almost scene-by-scene basis between our heroes and their progeny. The multiple POVs helps the movie to avoid the tunnel vision of similar teen sex comedies,  providing opportunities for more angles on our protagonists' well-intentioned but idiotic quest.


In the end, Blockers is a movie more concerned with the parents learning to grow up without their kids, rather than the kids: Mann's Lisa does not want her daughter to leave Chicago because she is afraid of being alone; Cena's Mitchell is terrified of his daughter doing anything on her own because he feels that its his job to protect her; Barinholtz's Hunter is a divorced dad who - in contrast to his friends - wants his daughter to have a great night, and feels that this is his one last chance to connect with her.

It is rare funny movie that cares about all of its main characters, and makes them all active participants in the story. Even the kids are allowed to be people rather than just plot devices for their parents' inanities. There is even a subplot about Sam's reluctance to come out of the closet, which could have either been an exercise in lascivious bad taste or clunky social commentary, but it ends up being an integral thread to the story.

Another thing I liked about the girls' storyline is that it was not resolved around romance (or even sex) - it ends with an affirmation of their friendship.


While they are all good, the movie belongs to the Blockers themselves.

Leslie Mann can do this in her sleep. That's not a diss - she is just so good at keeping handle on her character's insecurities while still finding humour in the situation. She is great.

I am a big fun of unorthodox personalities finding their way into acting, and John Cena is surprisingly good here. Something is going on with this new batch of wrestlers-turned-actors. John Cena is clearly following the same template as Dave Bautista - he's not going for straight dramatic leads, but finding a niche where his outsized presence works. He's also willing to undermine his masculinity in a way that is really funny. His character is so emotionally exposed that when he tries to put on a macho front it is hilarious. There are a few micro moments where he seems a little wooden, but overall he fit in with Mann and Barinholtz so well it felt like he'd been doing this for years. I am actually looking forward to seeing what he does next.

The real standout for me was Ike Barinholtz. I know him as a supporting player from the Neighbours movies, where he did this...


... but other than that he kind of put me off. Initially, his role as Hunter seems to be cut from the same cloth: a mildly sociopathic wild man who drinks and sleeps around.

Hunter is an archetype we have seen a million times before, but with a greater sense of emotional baggage: his acting-out feels like a response to his own sense of failure. At first, I found his character horribly cliched, but as more is revealed about his character, he become the heart of the movie. There is a sense of desperation to Barinholtz's clowning that makes him more sympathetic than this character type would usually receive - he has belatedly recognised that he has completely missed on his daughter's life and wants to rectify that.

In an interesting turn, it turns out that Hunter has cottoned-on to Sam's secret, and his motive is multi-pronged: partially he wants to block the other parents from ruining their girls' night, but he also wants to make sure that Sam does not do something she does not want to do (like have sex with her clueless prom date Chad).

One of the things this movie makes clear is that the girls all know what they are doing, and manage to sort out their individual predicaments on their own, with no interference from their parents. It also leads to a really sweet scene where Sam comes out to Hunter. While there are a lot of laughs in the movie (the butt-chugging scene et al), this is the high point for me. What's great about it is how it does not go the way you would expect. In any other movie this moment would be purely dramatic, but here it is undercut: Barinholtz manages to simultaneously hold back tears that he has finally connected with Sam, and grins at the realisation that Sam has not told anyone else (including her mum and step-dad).

After Game Night, Blockers is another fine studio comedy with plenty of laughs and a little more on its mind. Hopefully this is a good sign for the rest of the mainstream comedy releases this year.

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Race with the Devil (dir. Jack Starrett, 1975)

On vacation in a rented mobile home, two couples accidentally witness a satanic ritual in which a young woman is murdered. Fleeing the scene, the group alert the authorities and carry on with their vacation.

Soon they realise that their nightmare is just beginning: the members of the cult are following them and will not give up until all of them are dead...


Starring Peter Fonda, Warren Oates, Loretta Swit and Lara Parker, Race With The Devil is a fine addition to the 'daytime nightmare' variety of 70s horror cinema. Blending elements of road movies, chase thrillers and 70s satanic horror, it is a surprisingly coherent concoction with plenty of pulse-pounding action and unsettling images.

The early scenes, in which we meet our protagonists and their transport/residence, feel like the set-up to a 70s sitcom: watch our kooky heroes as they road trip across America engaging in hijinks with locals, mechanical problems and Frank's (Oates) conflict with Roger's (Fonda) dog.

 The tone of the lighting and Leonard Rosenman's score feel like a dare, pushing the bland everydayness of the couples and their planned vacation (the casting of Swit, still famous today as 'Hot Lips' from Mash, reinforces the movie's televisual style.

This might sound like a slog, but the cast have good chemistry (Oates and Fonda feel like genuine buddies) and Starrett shows off his background in biker flicks by having the men engage in hi-octane antics on their dirt bikes (the characters are former racers who own a motorbike dealership).


Aside from the main titles, there is little indication during these scenes that you are watching a horror movie. Once the couples reach their camp site, the movie makes a shift - just as the couples are settling in for the night with drinks and banter, off in the distance a fire starts under a large dead tree and the sound of chanting echoes around the desert.

I have to say this movie could have been incredibly silly, but the cult are really well-drawn antagonists. There is nothing supernatural to them - we never understand why they were sacrificing the woman, or what they are worshipping. All that matters is that they are bad and they are literally everywhere.

The most unsettling part of the movie is the omnipresence of the cult. One of the great aspects of a lot of the more supernaturally-tinged horror films of this era is the emphasis on making the banal and normal uncanny: the coven of bickering middle-aged satanists in Rosemary's Baby; the hippy-like spectre in Let's Scare Jessica To Death; or the series of accidents in The Omen. With no monsters or magic to fall back on, the filmmakers here show a similar focus on making middle America seem as disturbing as possible.

Everywhere our heroes go, they find friendly people who are willing to help but provide nothing at all. For most of the first half of this movie, the horror is based on apathy. Every time our heroes are in need of rest or repairs or a phone, they find nothing.

By the time the movie enters the third act, it seems like everyone they meet is involved. While he is a dab hand at action, director Jack Starett does a great job milking the characters' paranoia, framing multiple sequences around people just silently staring at our heroes: Are they members of the cult? Or just bystanders aghast at the weirdos in the RV?


As the film continues, the cult's actions escalate (with a mobile home invasion, a dead pet and some rattle snakes) until the climax, which features a veritable convoy of vehicles attacking the beleaguered RV.

With this final car chase, the movie shifts gears and turns into a variation on Duel and other highway-set thrillers.  Featuring a variety of vehicles, and a series of piratical assaults by cult members leaping onto the RV, it feels like a dry run for the final sequence of Mad Max 2.


And after all of this great stuff, we get one of the great horror endings.  

Featuring great performances from its cast (Oates is awesome) and fine direction from Jack Starrett, Race with the Devil is a really fun flick that is worth checking out for its savvy juggling of different genres. It is somewhat obscure outside of genre circles, but if you can find it, Race with the Devil is totally worth checking out. 

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

L’Amant Double (Francois Ozon, 2017)

Chloe (Marine Vacth), a young woman with a history of unexplained abdominal pain goes to a psychiatrist to figure out if it is a psychosomatic symptom of something buried deep in her psyche. Instead of a cure, she finds love with calm, easy-going analyst Paul (Jeremie Renier).

Eventually they move in together, and Chloe's pain appears to subside. Slowly her suspicions about Paul are peaked when she discovers another man, Louis (Renier), who bears an uncanny physical resemblance to her lover - but with a diametrically opposing personality and world view.

Excited and repulsed by Louis's sociopathic carnality, Chloe falls into a web of jealousy, sexual deceit and family secrets that will have her questioning who is telling the truth...


I was so excited heading into this movie: Francois Ozon re-teaming with Marine Vacth (star of his 2013 film Young & Beautiful) for an erotic thriller? Sign me up.

SIGH.

It's been over a week since I saw L’Amant Double, and it's hard to admit, but I was not on this movie's wave-length.

I feel bad for writing this but L’Amant Double feels like a movie that requires multiple viewings - and I do not have it in me to give the movie that much time. Ozon's movie is constantly undermining the viewer's sense of reality. This is a diegesis without rules - in terms of sexuality, ethical psychiatric practice, relationships or reality.

Before I go further, there will be spoilers, so if you are interested in seeing this movie, stop reading.

Ozon's approach is as cold and distant as it was in Young & Beautiful, but with an added layer of pitch-black irony which provided, for me, the highlights of the movie. And frankly, I was happy to have the levity.


The movie features some provocative imagery (the first shot is of a speculum encircling a cervix), but I found myself completely unmoved by it. There's a sequence based on our protagonist pegging her boyfriend - it's a good way to show how obliging and open-minded Paul is in comparison with his brother. There is another scene in which Chloe imagines a menage trois with the brothers (who, in one moment marred by suspect compositing, kiss each other in a tight close up). All of these moments have a bit of punch, but I was struggling to find a common root for all of these branches.  

For me, this is the type of movie that lives and dies on its finale. And that's where I felt it dropped the ball. Partially, it is the fault of expectation; partially the strength of the build-up failing to coalesce. I am not usually good at spotting twists, but about halfway in I was pretty sure that it was going to be revealed that Chloe had a twin. Not only is that the case, but the final revelation is so banal and medical (it turns out her stomach pain was caused by a combination of tissue that would have been her twin, but was absorbed by Chloe in the womb), that anything that was interesting or transgressive about the movie's focus on gender and sexuality just comes off as window-dressing.


As far as the acting goes, they are well-attuned to Ozon's perverse opaqueness. Vacth is solid as the lead, but the real star is Renier as the twin brothers. Their distinguishing feature is SNL-level silly, but the actor's characterisations are so distinctly different that they genuinely feel like different people. His milquetoast boyfriend Paul is so wholesome and metro it feels like a joke; his twin Louis is a Dionysian monster who feels perfectly pitched to our current climate.

The film's gender dynamics do feel tied to another era - Louis is a sexual predator who attacks every sexual encounter like a Viking raider. While part of the film's overall stance to agitate, it is really left up to the viewer to figure out why Chloe wants to have an affair with him in the first place. The absence of clear motive is interesting, but problematic.

To be honest, if the ending had won me over, maybe I would feel differently. An interesting watch, but not as mind-melting as I had hoped.

Previous review

Young and Beautiful

The lethal economy of Fred Zinnemann's Day of the Jackal (1973)

France, 1963. Frustrated at the government's decision to pull out of Algeria, a group of right-wing extremists known as OAS attempted to assassinate French president Charles de Gaulle. They failed.

Determined to achieve their goal, the leaders of the group hire a mysterious assassin known as the 'Jackal' (Edward Fox) to make another attempt on the president.

With time running out, the authorities scramble to find the killer before he reaches his target...


OH MAN I LOVE THIS MOVIE SO MUCH.

I first saw it about 18 years ago. I was way into James Bond, and my granddad had recorded this movie off the TV (remember those days?). I am not sure if he said it was better than any Bond movie, but at the time I watched it I remember that idea running through my brain. By the time it was done, all thoughts of Bond had been wiped from my brain.

I've re-watched Day of the Jackal multiple times since, and I am always impressed by its unobtrusive style, its directional precision, its sense of time and place, the SILENCE. This is a movie that could never be made today.




I cannot emphasize enough how Zinnemann's approach is so perfectly attuned to this story - and how at odds that approach is with current trends in Hollywood filmmaking. Just in terms of editing and sound design alone, this movie would feel completely different if made today.
The movie features so many great scenes that are tied to Zinnemann's style of filmmaking - the Jackal testing his rifle on fruit in an empty field; his covert execution of a woman who has talked to the police; his brief tryst with a gay man which is interrupted by an unfortunately timed newscast... All these scenes derive at least part of their impact from Zinnemann's slow pacing, careful shot selection and the lack of music.


Just check out the scene where the Jackal tests out his new gun.




There is little dialogue, no music and Zinnemann lets the action play out in-camera, rather than collapsing time through editing. In scenes like this or during the final assassination attempt, Zinnemann's deliberate pacing and stylistic restraint works to focus attention on what is happening without adding (or inhibiting) viewer investment with additional choices (such as dramatic music to guide the viewer's emotional responses). Without any obvious visual or aural cues, Zinnemann aligns the viewer with the Jackal's single-minded pursuit of his goal.


I have a couple of ideas as to why the Jackal gains the viewer's (partial) allegiance. The first is that the film feels like a strange variation of an underdog story, as we follow the Jackal-a single man- dodge the power of the French state and overcome the obstacles standing in his way. There is something compelling about watching one man attempt to take on the establishment, and Day of the Jackal works as this kind of narrative.



Another theory I have is that the film works in a similar way to a heist movie. Part of the fun of a movie like Rififi (Jules Dassin, 1955) or Ocean's Eleven (Steven Soderbergh, 2001) is watching the planning of the operation, with a third act based on its execution. Our investment in the main character(s) is based on watching them come up with a plan to reach a goal, and then the execution of that plan.


There is a basic satisfaction with this type of story, and Day of the Jackal works in exactly the same way: At the beginning, the Jackal's task appears to be impossible, but the attention to detail in showing every aspect of his plan pulls us in. Even though it is cold-blooded murder and not jewels the Jackal is aiming for, the movie feels like a feature-length version of that scene from Psycho where Norman Bates is waiting for Marioan Crane's car to sink into the swamp.


It is a testament to how invested we are in the Jackal's scheme that when the Jackal kills anyone who jeopardises his scheme, it is totally valid if a viewer feels both revolted by his amorality and reassured that his plan has not been de-railed. Part of the reason why the Jackal does not lose the viewer is that there is little real violence shown; the Jackal's actions are so efficient there is never any focus on his victims' pain; and, most importantly, by keeping the narrative focus on his villain's planning, Zinnemann has made the viewer invested in the Jackal's actions.



A lot of credit has to go to Edward Fox. A relative unknown who you may remember as a supporting player in various movies, Fox is perfectly anonymous as the Jackal. So often thrillers like this talk about characters who can disappear into crowds. While he is good-looking, Fox is no matinee idol and he blends in to the everyday surroundings in a way that you could not imagine a big star like (rumoured casting) Michael Caine. His casting gives the movie a level of verisimilitude that adds to the movie's tension.


Fox's relative anonymity also adds a jolt to the violence - at the outset, you cannot imagine such a skinny bland little guy hurting anybody. Going back to the idea of Day of the Jackal as a perverse underdog story, having a character actor like Fox play the role, rather than a big star (ala Bruce Willis in the remake) increases the suspense because - without an athletic star in the role - viewers bring no expectations toward the actor. On a meta-level, Fox has to prove his mettle.


On top of this, Fox delivers a terrifically understated performance. It is hard job to make a character with no real personality appealing, but Fox manages to do it. There is a pared-down, almost sociopathic minimalism to his performance that - in the context of Zinnemann's equally unobtrusive frame - is absolutely hypnotising.
 
Top to bottom, Day of the Jackal is a great movie - I haven't even brought up the fact that the whole movie is based on a fictional character killing a real person who was dead before the movie came out. THAT is the real testament to how durable this movie is. If you have never seen Day of the Jackal, rectify that situation post-haste.

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

IN THEATRES: The Death of Stalin

In 1953 Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin), Soviet strongman, dies. As the country mourns, his inner circle, particularly Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) and Beria (Simon Russell Beale), begin to fight amongst themselves  over who will take Stalin's place...


After a long wait, The Death of Stalin finally arrives on these shores just in time for me to get a bad case of writer's block.
You know when you see a great movie but you have nothing to say (or write) about it? That's me with The Death of Stalin.

I saw it over a week ago and I have been totally stumped. This movie hits all my sweet spots - history; black comedy and head shots. It works in every way that it wants to, and as a feat of tone it is amazing. It is perfect, which might be a problem - nothing about it leaps out to me in a particularly great (or bad) way, so this review is probably going to read like a series of empty platitudes.
 Let's see how this goes.

This movie felt like a combination of a couple of things. The first was Oliver Hirschbiegel's Downfall, for its claustrophobic focus on historical figures dealing with a major event. The other was Ernst Lubitsch's To Be Or Not To Be, for its near-miraculous juxtaposition of the comic and the horrifically real. Though it is funny, The Death of Stalin never shies away from the fear and paranoia of the time.

Iannucci's run-and-gun shooting style is perfect, catching these monsters at their most exposed and pathetic: Even Simon Russell Beale's Lavrentiy Beria, the most horrific and terrifying of Stalin's would-be successors, is not invincible. 

As with Iannucci's other projects, power and prestige do not translate to rational thought and moral integrity - heck, not even personal dignity escapes here. Violence and death come arbitrarily, and on the slimmest of pretexts. There is a humour to the bluntness of the brutality, but it is not there to soften the violence.

The movie's greatest strength is its ability to juggle these components. Iannucci's approach does not blunt or soften, it exposes - when Stalin dies, it is a long wide shot of an old man alone on the ground, soiling himself; when Beria is captured, he is chained to a toilet, screaming and dishevelled like a child. At a certain point, the deluge of ridiculous ego collisions and cold-blooded murder should become too much, but Iannucci and his cast strike the perfect tone: the key is that, fundamentally, they are taking this ridiculous, horrifying story absolutely dead seriously.

Like In The Loop, Iannucci's previous big screen effort, The Death of Stalin takes a major historical event and focuses on the series of human interactions and motivations that led to it. It is a view of history that film rarely attempts. Too often, we get the broad brush strokes, with characters who are just chess pieces (literally think of any historical drama or biopic from the history of cinema as we know it). In terms of recent movies, Steven Spielberg's Lincoln is the closest analogue in that like The Death of Stalin, it focuses on a specific little piece of history so that the natural drama between the key figures has room to breathe.


The cast are, pound for pound, fantastic. Steve Buscemi may bear little resemblance to Khruschev but as the man who would be king, he is a wonderfully odious protagonist - simultaneously the most human and the most conniving.

Michael Palin brings a cheery mania to his role as Molotov, already nostalgic for the good old days before Stalin's body is cold. The now-disgraced Jeffrey Tambor is also terrific as Malenkov, a nuclear meltdown of a human being who has, by default, has become the most powerful man in the USSR. Sporting a gloriously brash Yorkshire accent, Jason Isaacs almost swaggers off with the movie as WW2 hero Zhukov, the man who helped Khruschev become the man who would be king

While everyone is great (even Olga Kurylenko is good) the movie is stolen by Simon Russell Beale as Lavrentiy Beria. Mostly known for his theatre roles, Beale makes no attempt to soften Beria (a man who ran the NKVD during WW2, the Soviet nuclear programme and cinched his credentials as one of the worst people ever to walk the earth by also being a serial killer and rapist). Beale's Beria is a dead-eyed sadist with an almost blasé attitude to his day job, and who treats his colleagues with barely suppressed condescension. Beale is absolutely terrifying.


Huh, seems I had more to say about this movie than I thought. Anyway, check it out.

Friday, 23 March 2018

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: The Black Hole (dir. Gary Nelson, 1979)

Returning from a long-distance mission through outer space, the crew of the USS Palomino happen upon a mysterious ship floating near a black hole. Forced to dock when their ship is damaged, the crew recognise the vessel as the USS Cygnus, which went missing decades ago.

Onboard, they discover a crew of silent automatons, an aggressive robot named Maximilian, and the lone survivor, Dr. Hans Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell), a brilliant scientist who is hellbent on taking the Cygnus through the black hole. He claims that he had the ship's crew evacuate after an accident in an asteroid field.

The longer the crew stay on the ship, the more suspicious they become of Reinhardt's story and his motives... 


Released in the fallow period following its founder's death (and the release of Star Wars), The Black Hole is one of Disney's more ambitious one-offs. The company's first PG release, The Black Hole feels like a deliberate attempt to break out of the sandbox.

The cast are mostly middle-aged character actors (including Robert Forster, Anthony Perkins and Ernst Borgnine), and the story - while fantastical - is played almost dead seriously. The special effects are pretty good, and John Barry's score is one of his most memorable, contributing to much of the movie's impact.

'Strange' is the key word for describing The Black Hole. 'Confused' is another. It's a bit hard trying to figure out what its aim is - does it want to be an adventure movie ala Star Wars? Or a more serious sci-fi drama? Or a horror movie?


On this latter point, I will give the movie credit - when it leans into the more macabre elements of the story, The Black Hole really works. Before I had even seen the movie, the part I had heard of was Maximilian brutally impaling Anthony Perkins' Durant through the chest. That sequence does stick out - the rest of the movie is relatively light on blood and grue - but there are plenty of other memorable moments: the bizarre funeral of one of Reinhardt's robotic crew; Durant tearing away one of the automaton's faceplates to reveal the undead face of one of the Cygnus' crewmen; and, of course, the ending, in which Reinhardt achieves his dream of entering the black hole, only to find himself in a fire-drenched hell-scape.

The most 'Disney' element of the whole show is V.I.N.C.E.N.T. (voiced by Roddy McDowall), the crew's comedic robot. He's a blatant takeoff on the Star Wars droids, and feels completely at odds with the rest of the movie - even his design does not feel right. He looks like a missing sidekick from MST3K.


While  the movie is a break from the usual template of seventies live-action Disney releases, it does feel like a spiritual sequel to Walt's 1954 production of 20 000 Leagues Under The Sea, with its focus on a mysterious captain of a massive vessel who is intent on accomplishing his goals whatever the cost.

Maximilian Schell's Reinhardt lacks the motives and menace of James Mason's Captain Nemo, but makes for a decent antagonist. It helps that he has some solid muscle in Maximilian. With its blood-red armour and eye slit, this enforcer feels like a villain out of a 70s techno-thrillers (Demon Seed, Westworld).


In light of Disney's pop culture dominance, The Black Hole feels more special. Made at the studio's nadir, as  a reaction to the new wave of blockbusters, it is a movie that perfectly encapsulates the identity crisis and lack of direction at the heart of the company that made it.
  
While it is no masterpiece, I feel like the sense of uncertainty running through The Black Hole is the cause of its strengths as well as its weaknesses. As much as the human story drags, and V.I.N.C.E.N.T.'s antics with fellow robot B.O.B (voiced by Slim Pickens) are minor offence against comedy, the movie is packed with arresting imagery and individual sequences and moments which linger far longer than the actual story.


Friday, 16 March 2018

Strange Days: Kathryn Bigelow really wants to you watch

In the near-future of 1999, Los Angeles is on the brink of collapse. Economically depressed and riddled with racial tension, on the eve of the new millennium this city is ready to blow.

Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) is an ex-cop who scrounges a living from selling memories recorded on illegal headsets called 'SQUID'. Originally developed by the government to replace body-cameras, SQUIDs record what the wearer sees and records them on MiniDisks. If you want to experience the adrenaline rush of taking part in a bank robbery, or great sex, or falling off a building, Lenny is your guy.

Hung up on his ex Faith (Juliette Lewis) and stirring trouble for his friend Mace (Angela Bassett), Lenny's life has been following a sad but predictable pattern. That lifestyle is disrupted when Lenny gets hold of a MiniDisk carrying information which could have potentially apocalyptic consequences for the city...



I have never really been a fan of Kathryn Bigelow - there is a sense with all of her movies that what she wants the movie to say and what the movie ends up being about are two very different things. While it is entertaining, visually exciting and features some noteworthy performances (okay, one), but at a fundamental level, Strange Days is a movie of contradictions.

Thinking about this movie post-viewing, I was reminded of Film Crit Hulk's comparison of The Revenant and Mad Max - Fury Road in his essay on the importance of cinematic language to a film's narrative, tone and themes, and - in relation to Kathryn Bigelow's work - Angelica Jade Bastien's review of her last film Detroit.

Technically this movie is a marvel. The POV sequences utilised new kinds of rigs and apparatus to help approximate the sensation of watching someone else's actions from the hot seat. In this era of virtual camera moves and 'seaming' (using CGI to join separate shots into a single extended take), Strange Days' voyeuristic vignettes are jaw-dropping. They are so seamless you do not notice the amount of effort and skill that went into their creation.

That technical precision is also problematic - while the movie wants to come down against the voyeurism of Lenny's devices, the movie is so polished and covers its violence in such a cinematic and visceral way that it ends up glamourising the violence. The movie is trying to juggle a couple of different genres (film noir, cyberpunk and action thriller), but Bigelow's directorial touch is not deft enough to handle the shift in tones and intent.

Beyond Bigelow's direction, the movie feels incredibly conflicted about what it wants to say. On the one hand, this is a 1995 movie (clearly informed by the 1992 LA riots) that pivots around an act of police violence against black people. For a while, the movie flirts with radical politics yet fulfils conventions of 90s actions movies - our heroes get a final reprieve from an honourable old white authority figure, the bad guys die and our heroes/lovers get a kiss-out ending.

And then there is the theme of voyeurism, which seems to be the movie's initial thesis yet this theme gets subsumed by the film's stylised take on violence, and the increasing focus on state violence against minority voices which criticise it. These ideas could have worked together, but they never gel in a satisfying way. Strange Days wants to have its cake and eat it, and it means the movie feels more superficial and less incisive about the ideas it thinks it is exploring.

Aside from its technical elements, the movie boasts a great cast, including Juliette Lewis, Tom Sizemore and Vincent D'Onfrio.


Neurotic, haunted and constantly out of his depth, Fiennes is a believable as a noir-style 'fall guy' - a good man who has been unmade. Unlike traditional noir, this is not at the hands of a bad woman, but his own image of who that woman was, an image that he re-plays through his recordings of his own memories.

While the character does not quite fit, Ralph Fiennes is really interesting in the lead role. At a glance, Lenny is a collection of qualities you do not associate with Fiennes - sleazy, anarchic and lacking spine. As the movie progresses, and Lenny's past is slowly (and then clumsily) revealed, Fiennes' casting makes more sense. Lenny feels like a fish-out-of-water among the dealers and hookers because he is - a cop who lost everything, now he is just acting the role of a smooth impresario to make his way in the world.

While Fiennes is compelling as the lead, Strange Days' standout performance is Angela Bassett as Lenny's friend Mace. Playing another Cameron action woman, Mace's relationship with Lenny is an inversion of the traditional action movie gender dynamic. While Lenny is the protagonist, Mace is the character who saves him and - literally - pushes him toward solving the mystery and getting over Faith.

There are parts of the character which are problematic. The flashback to how Mace and Lenny met is ridiculous: she is a waitress who comes home to find her no-good (I guess?) husband getting arrested, and then finds Lenny, previously a cop, comforting her son). It's such a short scene, is played so broadly, and trades in so many ridiculous stereotypes (the hardworking black woman;    absent black fathers; the requisite white saviour (he is good with kids!) that it just comes off wrong. It speaks to the movie's ham-fistedness - the character's relationship is pretty well established without it. All it does is undermine Mace's agency by reducing her to a stereotype.

Mace's desire to be with Lenny is pretty clear already until this point, and the flashback just takesout any ambiguity by turning her into a pretty traditional love interest, one who is pining for man who seems to ignore her interest in him.


As well as being a lovesick romantic, Mace also fulfils another type - the strong black woman who helps the white protagonist to find their way. This might be unintentional, but in respect to Mace's character,  the movie's trading in noir tropes does offer something of a critique of her relationship with Lenny. While Faith is ultimately the femme fatale bringing Lenny to his doom, he is also an emotional leech on Mace. While he is not overtly malignant, he ignores her needs, screws with her job and (consistently) emotionally manipulates her into helping him.

If there is a relationship that recalls classic noir, it is the one between Lenny and Mace - she even calls out how she cannot get rid of her feelings for him, and she knows that it will not end well.

Aside from this relationship, as a neo-noir Strange Days is not that impressive. While James Cameron and Jay Cocks' script flirts with dystopian and film noir themes and motifs, its violent resolution and tidy romantic finale undermine the movie's grab bag of genre influences.

Ultimately, the problem with Strange Days is that it cannot reconcile the action movie it is with the tech noir (to quote The Terminator) it wants to be. All the movie's more complicated (and interesting) threads - Lenny's psycho-sexual trauma, technical addiction and America's systemic racism - are ultimately subordinate to a more conventional catharsis of the bad guys dying in a hail of bullets and our attractive stars making out on New Year's Eve.

While flawed, Strange Days is an intriguing watch and definitely worth a look.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

IN THEATRES: Tomb Raider

Determined to find out what happened to her father, a young Lara Croft (the Vikander) follows a trail of clues to a mysterious island that holds the key to his fate... and the world's! DUN DUN DUHHHH!!!!!


I still can't believe this movie exists. I look at the poster and there is something that does not feel right - like wearing a shoe that is one size too big. The movie is constructed to serve two purposes - one is to re-launch Tomb Raider as a movie franchise; the other is to turn the Vikander into an action star.

In terms of the first goal, the movie feels like a near-miss. The movie's focus on stripping away the supernatural trappings and making everything feel tactile and 'real' pays off as much as it doesn't.

In terms of set pieces, the movie is surprisingly immersive. Director Roar Uthaug and his team focus on hyper-real sound design and old-fashioned camerawork - the trailers imply otherwise, but there are  no gravity-defying CG camera moves, and no weightless character CGI. There is an emphasis on real stunts captured in-camera. There is an admirable level of detail to Lara's struggle that might be the big takeaway.
In this respect, the movie does a good job of building sympathy for its heroine in the immediate sense - when Lara is running from the villains, and struggling against her physical environment, the movie works. But in terms of genuine character identification, in overview the movie fails. And part of the problem is miscasting.

The Vikander has always had an ambiguous quality that has been a strength in her best roles - a humanoid machine with ambiguous motives in Ex Machina; the disintegrating queen in A Royal Affair. This movie's version of Lara is meant to be young, naïve and a bit of a smart ass with her heart on her sleeve. The Vikander is never able to get that exposed - early sequences present her as a bike courier, joking with her mates and engaging in adrenaline-pumping hijinks (kickboxing, illegal bike racing).


When the movie tries to make Lara 'relatable', Vikander's inherent unknowability gets in the way. When she tries to crack a joke (and there are A LOT of them), it never rings true. You never buy Vikander as an everywoman, a bike messenger who delivers kebabs and can't pay her rent.
Both actress and character jostle in these early scenes - it would have probably worked better if Croft were presented as a spoilt rich kid who knows languages and kickboxing because she can afford them, and then is forced by the situation to learn how to use her skills and become a relatable person that way. I can see this version of the character working in this story - an arrogant spoilt rich kid forced to contend with the real world. I could also see Vikander working as that version of the character.

This alternative version of the character popped into my head as the movie gets into the Tomb Raiding of it all. The filmmakers make Vikander's unlikely frame and presence an asset, emphasising her limitations, and showing her pain, exhaustion and terror as she is forced to deal with the elements and homicidal mercenaries. Vikander is believably put-upon, but the clumsy first act means she never feels secure in the role.

The movie it feels closest to is Batman Begins - it is an origin story of an icon, stripped of its more fantastical trappings and with a flashback narrative. But whereas the flashback structure of the Christopher Nolan movie were woven into the story, and served the purpose of identifying and building the character of Bruce Wayne, the flashback structure in Tomb Raider serves little purpose other than to re-state that Lara Croft loved her dad. Again. And again. And...

If this project were not Tomb Raider, and was some kind of survivalist action movie starring Vikander as an ordinary woman in over her head, this movie might have had more room to move. Tomb Raider and Vikander cannot occupy the same space for long. The movie is never terrible, but that disconnect means the movie is never as involving as it wants to be.

If the movie has standouts, they are Dominic West as her father, and Daniel Wu as Lara's traveling companion/potential love interest. They don't get a lot to do, but they put Vikander in the shade with about the same amount of character development.


Throughout this movie, I found myself appreciating the movie's aesthetics without ever being able to immerse myself in it. I found myself fascinated by its star as she struggled to gain a purchase on her character. I have no desire to see this movie again, but as a one-off, two-hour exercise in transparent franchise-building it was kind of interesting.

Which is a long way of saying there are better ways you can spend your money.

Monday, 5 March 2018

RANDO REVIEW-O! Predator: Captive (1998)

Predator: Captive is a one-shot comic book from Dark Horse Comics, written by Gordon Rennie and illustrated by Dean Ormston. Published in May 1998, it is the earliest comic book I own. I found it the other day while rummaging through the garage.


I always remembered liking the story for this one - it is a single issue one-shot, more of a riff on the title character than anything, but the central premise always sounded cool.

Billionaire Tyler Stern has managed the unthinkable: he has captured a Predator and has secured it inside a massive bio-dome that simulates its natural environment.


The story opens inside this environment, with an innocent pleb running through the jungle while unseen scientists comment on his vital signs. He tries to plead for help from the scientists, but is quickly killed by the Predator.


It turns out that this little set piece was arranged by Stern as a demonstration for his new head of security, a former government spook named Falkner. Like the characters in the 1987 movie, Falkner is a veteran of a past encounter with the aliens. Unlike Schwarzenegger, he did not emerge unscathed.


Falkner is unimpressed by Stern's demonstration, and during a walk-and-talk exposition dump, he runs through a list of concerns he has about the facility's security arrangements: the bio-dome has suffered recurring black-outs and unexplained pressure drops.

This section of the story is the most awkward: the dialogue is just background information, catching the reader up. Aside from Falkner's revelations about the pressure drops (implying that Predator has already escaped from the dome but has chosen to stick around for some reason), the most interesting thing we learn is that Stern has preserved the Predator's self-destruct device. Before the alien could activate the device, Stern's men had cut off his hand. It now sits in a small tank on Stern's desk.


A few panels after this exchange, the Predator fakes a heart attack and ambushes the med team sent to resuscitate him.


As the Predator tears through the staff, Falkner orders an evacuation and then orders in a special forces unit. He then informs Stern that he is a mole for the government and he is taking the project away from the billionaire. Stupidly, he says this with his back to Stern, who clobbers him to death with the case containing the Predator's preserved hand.

Determined to prove to the Predator who is the superior hunter, Stern enters the bio-dome with the self-destruct device on his wrist. Despite fatally wounding the Predator, Stern is quickly dispatched. The dying Predator then activates his self destruct while mocking Stern with his own words.




Overall, this story is fun but feels way too crammed in. The characters are barely sketches and act in ways that only work to push the plot forward (e.g. Falkner's fatal truth bomb). The bones of an interesting story are there - if you split the story in half, at the point following Falkner's initial briefing with Stern, you are left with an Act 1 and a finale (the rest of the story).

Tyler Stern could be an interesting character - with more flesh, he could be a modern Ahab, obsessed with the Predator. What's interesting about his character is that his obsession is not solely about possessing the Predator, it is about matching its ferocity and killer instinct. Stern is jealous of the Predator, and by fighting it he is hoping to gain acknowledgment that man is the Predator's equal as a killing machine. This is not that well-developed in the story (it is a single issue, after all) but it is interesting.


The best aspect of the story is the Predator. There is something really cool about the way Rennie strips away everything you know about the Predator - the invisibility, the tri-laser, the mask - and manages to create a compelling iteration of the creature. The Predator has never had much personality (and the same is true here), but Rennie's stripped-down, disabled version is maybe the best example of how formidable the Predator can be.


Dean Ormston's artwork is terrific - there is something hi-tech yet lived-in about his aesthetic, which grounds the story. His inks and colours are suitably vivid, reinforcing the sense of Stern's complex as a kind of techno-hell. He also has a good handle on the title character, managing to capture its speed and power with careful angle and framing choices (one tactic I noticed was that he keeps most of the focus on the victims and their reactions, leaving the Predator obscured or in shadow).

The story moves at a good clip, and boasts some great horrific imagery. There is also a nice vein of misanthropy running through the whole enterprise, with none of the glibness or irony I would expect from something from the 90s.

Overall, Predator: Captive a fun little ditty that expands upon the central monster in ways that makes it more interesting as an antagonist. Its only flaw is that it is just 22 pages long.

Predator: Captive is available online. 

Friday, 2 March 2018

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Propaganda (dir. Dear Leader, 2012)

A look at western media, and how it perpetuates systems of oppression around the world, keeping its citizens compliant and occupied with pointless distractions while corporations corrode democratic institutions in order to retain their economic power. Thanks North Korea!


I had never heard of this movie before. When it was released in 2012, the story was that it had been smuggled out of North Korea. In reality, Propaganda is a New Zealand documentary, made over a decade by Slavko Martinov.

The conceit is ingenious, as it forces the viewer to constantly re-examine the way western views of the world are moulded, it also draws attention to the biases of its 'makers'. The facts about the history of Western imperialism, historical revisionism and America's military-industrial complex are brutally real, and as an indictment of western hypocrisy about notions of good/evil and 'freedom', the film is nigh-perfect.

It's largely made up of stock footage, and the film is composed of various ideas that developed through montage and narration from an anonymous North Korean psychologist.

The movie does start to feel like a lecture at points, as certain themes and issues are hit over the head again and again and again, but the movie is enlivened by a rich vein of dark comedy. The film's takedowns of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tyra Banks' talk show and The Bachelor are hilarious (and true).

The film is not an easy sit. If you are uncomfortable thinking too hard about American history and its impact on the world, this is not for you. Some of the footage, particularly of America's various wars, is horrifying. But it is necessary to the film's effect.

What really elevates the film is the finale, in which all this history is re-contextualised as a reason for the perpetuation of North Korea as the last bastion of freedom. With this final gambit, the film becomes a 95 minute-long treatise on the importance of critical thinking. Everyone uses propaganda to justify who they are, and what they stand for (or stand against) - you just have to maintain an ability to see it for what it is, no matter who the messenger is.

Propaganda is available for free on Youtube.