Sunday, 30 September 2018

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: The Prowler (Joseph Zito, 1981)

In 1945, a young woman is murdered by a masked GI at the graduation dance. After a 35-year ban, the town where the murder takes place decides to bring back the graduation dance. This triggers the killer, who goes on a rampage through the eager young teens who just want to have a good time.

As a teaser for October, here is a brief look back at one of the key titles from the slasher movie cycle of the early 80s. Directed byJoseph Zito (who would go on to direct Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter), The Prowler (also known as Rosemary's Killer) is mainly notable for the makeup effects by Tom Savini. 

I have never been a fan of tropes in genre movies - I'll take some interesting characters and a decent story - but there has always been something kind of compelling about The Prowler.

The opening scene, set in 1945, is great. The filmmakers spent some money making this grad dance evoke the period - they even throw in some Glenn Miller on the soundtrack. And then the Prowler jumps out of the darkness with a pitchfork and we're off to the races.

But then the movie cuts to the present and the movie starts to feel really formulaic. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but The Prowler really suffers from a lack of personality. Even the killer feels like he needs a spruce-up. 

He has a creepy look, but I've always felt he needed more of a 'face' - it's too bad My Bloody Valentine used a gas mask because The Prowler could have used something similar. Another problem is that while Tom Savini's gore effects are effective (the knife-through-the-head gag is terrifying), the killer never really differentiates himself in terms of his arsenal - he uses knives and other stabbing implements, but nothing remotely related to his gimmick. He's like a crappy jobber wrestler from the WWF. 

The big problem is that it is a little colourless - in between the set pieces, the movie’s pace slackens. The acting from the unknown cast is decent, but the characters are not that interesting. They are all familiar horny teenage stereotypes.

Ultimately, the script makes the mistake of being really dull and predictable. There’s one blackly comic scene where a hotel clerk is too lazy to call in the sheriff, but otherwise this is  is a slasher by-the-numbers. It basically ends up feeling like a super violent Scooby Doo episode.

It is a pity the wave of slasher reboots is past - The Prowler could benefit from a remake.

Friday, 28 September 2018

Colonel Sun (Kingsley Amis, 1968)

When M is kidnapped, James Bond follows a trail of clues to Greece. Once there he finds himself in an alliance with a beautiful Greek KGB agent with an agenda of her own. Together, they are in a race against time to prevent an act of terror with catastrophic implications for their respective power blocks. 

I found this book in a second-hand shop around 2000 - I was in the middle of finding all the Bond books, and this one stood out because it was a one-off and at the time I remember thinking it was the closest to capturing the feel of Fleming. I re-read it recently, and my impression of it was that

Written by Kingsley Amis (father of Martin) under the pseudonym Robert Markham, Colonel Sun was published in 1968, four years after Fleming's death (and two years after the release of the posthumous short story collection Octopussy & The Living Daylights). Amis had written a book about Bond called The James Bond Dossier and had consulted on the final editorial of Man With The Golden Gun after Ian Fleming had died - there are unconfirmed rumours that Amis may have worked on the manuscript to get it ready for publication.

This novel reads like an accomplished musician's cover of a popular tune: It gives you the melody but adds a new arrangement and adds new details and textures that fill out the lyrics and gives it new meaning.

Amis's approach is encapsulated by the opening, which feels specifically designed to assure fans. Amis opens with Bond on the golf course with Bill Tanner. Amis grounds the reader with familiar elements (the location; Tanner; the reference to Bond's injuries from his last (Fleming-penned) mission), before introducing something new - the pair are being watched.

While Bond's literary adventures had featured sequences in England (Moonraker; Goldfinger), generally speaking Fleming maintained a clear separation between Bond's private spaces and his work-life. By introducing an antagonist who is aware of Bond's identity and his habits, and is able to move in his spaces without Bond's knowledge, Amis is violating the unstated formula of the books. For once, Bond is not the active element, and by neutering him so early it undermines the reader's expectations. This short scene is paid off with M’s kidnapping from his house. 

Reading Colonel Sun, you really get a sense of Fleming's limitations as a writer, and Amis's understanding of those limitations, and how to exploit them. For one thing, Amis has more of a sense of humour than Fleming - one example is the Sir Randall Rideout, the Government Minister brought in to right the ship after M disappears. Functionally, the sequence in which he appears is meant to be the point where the situation crystallises and Bond is sent out on his mission. This scene could be dry and expositional, but the inclusion of the clueless Rideout, a blue blood who thinks he is above everyone else in the room, the scene is genuinely funny - and rather than detracting from the stakes, having Rideout there undercuts the sense that Bond's team are in control of what is going on.

The plot is based on an idea from Fleming's From Russia With Love - MI6 know that the clue to Greece is a lure, but they decide to follow it anyway. Here it has a greater sense of urgency, since M’s life is in the balance.

As far as the titular character, Amis's portrayal is based on the familiar stereotype of the evil Asian sociopath, but I give him credit for giving Colonel Sun his own voice and motivations. Generally speaking, Fleming does not do that - he hardly ever plays the story from his villains' POV, leaving the reader to piece them together from Bond's vague assertions. While Amis does not externalise Sun's evil, as some kind of physical scar or disability, in the way that Fleming did with his villains, Amis prefers to dig into Sun's mind. One creepy detail he gives Sun is his accent - he learned English from torturing British soldiers and his accent is an combination of a variety of  regional dialects and inflections.

So much of what makes this book stand out is the way Amis gives extra meaning to rote scenes - such as Bond’s first meeting with Ariadne, a Greek agent of the Soviets - he knows it is all fake, but goes along with it anyway, partially for the sake of his mission, and partially because he is enjoying himself. Once again, I feel like Amis is adding a little more shading to a sequence that Fleming may not try for.

As with Sun, Amis bothers to give Ariadne her motivations and ideology - in some ways she aligns with Bond, but their relationship does not lead to her having a change of heart. There is an air of fatalism to their rapport which makes it more meaningful - because of their jobs they both know it cannot last, and do not pretend otherwise. 

While the plot ends up being relatively straightforward, Amis does add a neat wrinkle: the Russians think Bond is trying to interfere with their conference, and end up getting in the way. Their leader, General Arenski, is a familiar secondary bad guy - he is a lazy politician with no imagination.

The Greek setting is well-handled, and Amis adds a neat layer of cynicism and melancholy to Bond's observations that feel more profound than Fleming's xenophobia - his Bond ponders globalisation, and how American pop culture and commercialism is starting to affect all of the places he loves to visit. In line with the plot and Bond and Ariadne's relationship, every element of Amis's book seems to be pre-occupied with the end of an era. This was Amis's only Bond novel, and I wonder if Colonel Sun was his attempt to signal that the world and ideas that had created Bond in the first place, were dying out.

In the Bond completes his mission, but there is a bitter after-taste to it all. Colonel Sun is appalled by his own actions, Bond and Ariadne go their seperate ways, and - in a tragic beat - no one ever finds out that an innocent fisherman who sold them a boat had been tortured and killed by Ariadne's employers. It adds an edge of bitterness to the ‘happy ending’, by leaving threads dangling.

Once again, Amis is doing something that Fleming could not. In all of his books, Fleming goes on about the dirtiness of Bond’s job, but Amis finds ways to layer that into the story, by creating juxtapositions, like the death of the fisherman, that undercut the romanticism of Bond's adventures.

Overall, Colonel Sun is a fine thriller that hits all of the tropes you would expect, but in ways that make it more involving.

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


For Your Eyes Only


A View To A Kill

The Living Daylights

Licence to Kill


Tomorrow Never Dies

The World Is Not Enough (2010)(2017)

Die Another Day

Casino Royale

Quantum of Solace

Spectre (2015); (2016)

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Fired Up! (Will Gluck, 2009)

When their irascible coach tries to foil their libidos by moving football camp into the middle of nowhere, two hot-shot jocks (Nicholas D'Agosto and Eric Christian Olsen) decide to leave the ball behind and join the cheerleader squad.

Hi-jinx ensue...

The effort this movie goes to be funny, sexy, heartfelt and relevant is jaw-dropping. Released at the beginning of 2009, it feels like a movie from 1999, even down to the theme song by blink-182 front man Mark Hoppus. The fact that director Will Gluck also made Easy A as his next movie (released the following year!) blows my mind. This movie bombed on release and somehow he managed to escape.

I usually find bad comedies a chore, but there is something weirdly hypnotic about this movie's focus on delivering unfunny material from set up to punchline.

I heard this movie was shot to be an R, and was hacked to pieces - somehow, I cannot see that making it better. The premise is so odious, it is hard to latch onto them as sympathetic protagonists. Nicholas D'Agosto is suddenly turned into a puppy dog, just so he can come across well to the female lead.

The sad thing about the movie is the obvious effort everybody is making to make it funny, which makes it so fascinating to watch.

I counted one joke that actually worked: during an outdoor screening of Bring It On, the camera pans across the cheerleaders' dazed faces as they repeat every line of dialogue in unison. It is legitimately funny, but conversely adds to the film's subtext that women are inferior beings compared with our dude-bro heroes.

D'Agosto and Olsen do have some chemistry together, but they come off as both too soft to convince as star athletes and too abrasive to come across as sympathetic romantic leads. They feel like secondary villains. 

Olsen is basically playing a variation of his character in Not Another Teen Movie, except he is meant to be the good guy; d'Agosto's character is a least given a sliver of a redemptive arc - it is not earned or crafted that well, but the idea of a character learning... something is there. Olsen's character gets even less to work with - he appears to be rehabilitated through proximity to D'Agosto.

 As previously stated, there is a layer of misogyny to this 'comedy' that the filmmakers seem either ignorant of, or too afraid to acknowledge. The key subplot is d'Agosto's relationship with Sarah Roemer's head cheerleader Carly. Initially presented as a smart, mature woman who immediately know what our 'heroes' are up to, her character is never consistent - when the movie needs an obstacle for the boyz? Carly. Love interest? Carly. Prick boyfriend serving as a secondary antagonist to boost our heroes' virtue? You get the idea.

The lesbian subplot is creepy as hell. One of the cheerleaders (Margo Harshman) has a crush on another (Hayley Marie Norman), who seems to have no clue of her teammate's attraction. On the face of it, this could be mined for comedy. But the way her attraction is portrayed feels like a fantasy that the main characters would dream up - Angela (Norman) wakes up to find Sylvia (Harshman) has snuck into her bed and has wrapped herself around her. The non-consensual touching continues through the rest of the movie.

It is uncomfortable for a couple of reasons - Norman's cluelessness and lack of agency about her body is problematic enough, but the portrayal of a LGBT+ character as a predator who is not concerned about groping her roommate without consent. This subplot is also introduced about 20 minutes before the end of the movie - it just comes off as a really bizarre attempt at a joke.

I could go on, but really there is not much more to it. If you want too study a time capsule of teen comedy cliches way past their use-by date, check out Fired Up!

Thursday, 27 September 2018

I Love Bekka & Lucy

Bekka (Jessica Parker Kennedy) and Lucy (Tanisha Long) live alone in an abandoned suburb in Eagle Rock, Los Angeles. Their blissful existence is disrupted when a new neighbour Glenn (Alexis Desioff) moves in next door, and their bond is further tested when Lucy's ne'er-do-well boyfriend (Christopher Nicholas Smith) proposes.

Faced with the idea of life apart, the erstwhile soulmates try to figure out what they want and need, whether together or apart...

Created by Rachel Holder (who writes and directs every episode), B & L is a production of Stage 13, a new company with a mission to provide a platform for new and diverse voices to create and share their stories.

Composed of 11 episodes running about 10 minutes each, B & L feels like an indie dramedy about leaving your 20s behind, and trying to figure out what the 'adult' version of yourself is.

Lucy and Bekka feel like they need to be doing/not doing something different at this point in their lives. Lucy decides to marry her boyfriend because it feels like time. Despite the fact that her boyfriend shows no signs of maturity, responsibility or self-awareness, she contemplates having kids as the logical next step. Meanwhile, Bekka is insecure about her independence. She does not follow Lucy's lead, but she is trying to find a new paradigm.

Largely restricted in scope, it never feels padded or over-ambitious in scale. If it was not for the reminder to watch the next episode, you would think it was one continuous story - a lot of the episodes pick up immediately after each other, with no recaps of preceding episodes. This show is designed to be viewed on this platform.

I caught the trailer randomly on social media. Its focus on the friendship between two women reminded me of the web series OK Cupid which I reviewed last year.

One thing that I appreciated was how little I knew about the cast. Tanisha Long was the only one I recognised, and I'm only familiar with her from a couple podcasts and comedy sketches. Meanwhile, Jessica Kennedy Parker and Alexis Desioff were complete unknowns to me (Kennedy Parker was featured in that pirate show Black Sails and Desioff is a veteran player in the Joss Whedon stock company).

Desioff's character is an accountant-turned-screenwriter who is trying to build a new life for himself. He gravitates towards the girls because he is lonely. Desioff is one of the best things in the show, and also the locus of my main problems with the show.

Repeatedly throughout the show, our leads wrestle with the idea of how they want to feel old. Lucy considers marriage and children, while Bekka pushes for friendship; the idea that a soulmate has to be a romantic partner is challenged throughout the pair's interactions. Ultimately the show channels this thesis through the characters in ironic ways. Lucy finally recognises that Harry is not what she wants. Whatever the future holds, she can figure it out without him.
    The benefit of the running time allows the makers of B & L to let scenes play out in ways that organic and motivated - we can track character choices here in a way that reminded me of Hello Cupid. The best example is the final conversation between Bekka and Glenn in the pool. Scenes of characters falling for each other often shortchanged and contrived, with characters in ways that contradict their personalities and motivations. Here, it feels totally natural, coming at a point when both characters have reached a similar point of mutual awareness - they know and accept each other.
      And the strength of Holder's writing, and the actor's performances, is that they are building the foundation for a relationship that fulfils Bekka's needs without feeling like a identikit version of the relationship with Lucy. There is no sense that Glenn (and a hetero romance) is destroying what Bekka and Lucy have.
        Unlike the 50s women Bekka regards with fear and awe, she can have more than a soulmate, romantic or otherwise. It is not the usual type of change we get, where the female protagonists is transformed. It is more of a case of Glenn acknowledging and understanding her.

        That really is the ultimate message of the show: there is no set path, no schedule or fixed destination to 'adulthood'.. The final epiphany the main characters reach is being able to recognise that the 'right choice' for one person maybe the wrong one for someone else.

        The two leads are great - Parker Kennedy and Long have great chemistry, and their characterisations are so complementary that they feel like a single personality. Long gives Lucy this sense of cynical optimism that is hard to describe - her character is both aware of her unhappiness, but also too scared to do anything about it.

        Parker Kennedy's Bekka is a similar contradiction - a school teacher who hates people; a mature adult who has sex with strangers; a confirmed loner who ends up married. Parker Kennedy's no-nonsense performance is a treat, is she tries to figure out what Lucy's marital plans will mean for their friendship. 

        Christopher Nicholas Smith is hilarious and terrifying as Harry, Lucy's boyfriend-turned-fiance. Introduced telling his mom he forgot to water the plants she sent him, Harry is a good-for-nothing with no ambition and no real empathy for other people, he is millstone that Lucy has trouble learning to get rid. He could be a cartoonish monster, but there is a sadness to his performance, as though he is aware that he is on autopilot, but lacks the motivation to change.

        Right, now that I have talked about what I liked, onto the giant suppurating ulcer at the centre of this show: despite Stage 13's vision of diversity, the fact that Glenn is not played by a disabled actor is ridiculous. Desioff delivers a great performance - but I am sure there are plenty of other actors who could have done this role.

        The other problem with the show is Glenn's character. There is a big reveal about Glenn is the fact that he divorced his wife because she was fat; taking place during a double date with Lucy's other half, it functions as a rug-pulling moment for Bekka after she jumps into a relationship with a stranger. Making Glenn come off as an asshole is a funny idea, but this revelation is awful. It ends up making it easy to question Glenn's feelings for the younger women. It is a bummer, because as a scene the final reproach-ment between Bekka and Glenn is great - it is rare that you see characters forge what feels like a genuine, believable connection. But the reveal about Glenn's wife feels like a fumble in terms of how viewers feel about the resolution of the show.

        One other interesting thing about Glenn is the near-total lack of attention that is paid to his disability. In a way I like Glenn's story about his wife because it prevents his character from coming off as a saint, or just a diagnosis with dialogue. Giving him a defect to make him feel more rounded is a worthy idea, but this particular character flaw just turns him into a superficial jerk. What is worse is that after this scene

        Overall, I really enjoyed I Love Bekka & Lucy. It is funny and heartfelt, and the three leads are terrific. I just wish the show was more nuanced, and more willing to embrace different POVs. There is a great show here, but there are a couple of components that hold it back.

        Wednesday, 26 September 2018

        BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Django, Kill... If You Live, Shoot! (Giulio Questi, 1967)

        Django, Kill is not my favourite western, but it is easily the weirdest I have ever seen.

        The plot is a collection of familiar western scenarios: Left for dead, a gunslinger (Thomas Milian) seeks vengeance on the members of the gang who betrayed him.

        Before this same stranger can wreak and ruin, his ex-colleagues are ambushed by an isolated community who steal the loot and string the crooks up in the centre of town. Arriving post-massacre, our 'hero' finds himself in the middle of a war between a sadistic rancher named Zorro, and a creepy alderman with a pyromaniac locked in his house...

        There is something out-of-kilter about this movie. Though ostensibly a western, it pulls from a variety of sources: horror movies, gothic melodrama and Questi's own past as a partisan fighting the fascists in World War 2.

        So much of the movie feels like a reaction to the cliches of the genre - the good guy is the most talented fighter, and the most helpless character in the movie; the villains are the townspeople; Zorro may share a name with the famous hero, but he is instead a sadist who takes a great deal of pleasure in inflicting as much pain as possible.

        The movie is filled with disturbing images: the leering townspeople, the hanged bodies of the bandits, the scalping of the gunman's indigenous guides, and a man covered in melted gold. The daylight setting and bright colour palette make it all the more disturbing.

        The story-telling is pretty shaggy - it feels like a couple of different stories cobbled together. Every half hour or so, the stakes and antagonists change and our hero has to start from zero. It could almost work as a bizarro franchise, in which our hero goes on a series of different adventures.

        The early part of the movie is a supernatural revenge tale in which our hero comes back from the dead to kill his murderers; this is followed by our hero being hired as the lackey of the local saloon keeper and having to deal with the in-fighting between the saloon keeper's new bride and his son; before long he has also become a hired hand for a local rancher named Zorro, who also has the town under his thumb. And then there is the alderman with the pyromaniacal wife he keeps jailed in her bedroom. It is a lot to take in.

        As the nameless gunslinger, Thomas Milian is charismatic and empathetic as the lead. It is a testament to his powers, that he makes this character weirdly likeable. The movie never clears up whether the stranger is back from the dead, but never makes allowances for this origin - he ends up being a slave to the forces around him, and ends up wandering into the desert having affected no positive change.

        Strange, haunting and occasionally disturbing, Django, Kill is one of a kind.


        BITE-SIZED REVIEW: The Pelican Brief (Alan J. Pakula, 1993)

        When two Supreme Court justices die in mysterious circumstances, a law student, Darby Shaw (Julia Roberts), stumbles onto a court case linking the two deaths - the 'Pelican Brief'. When her hypothesis finds its way to Washington DC, Shaw finds herself hunted by a mysterious cabal intent on silencing her before her theory gets to the public.

        With the direction of American jurisprudence hanging in the balance, Shaw and investigative journalist Gray Grantham (Denzel Washington) are in a race against time to figure out the motive behind the deaths of the two justices...

         In the early 90s, this movie's premise probably felt like a the definition of a high concept thriller. In 2018, it feels like a terrifying portent. Featuring a craven president, Tony Goldwyn (who in the future plays Scandal's loved-up Pres) as his Lee Atwater-ish attack dog and a billionaire with an army of nefarious agents manipulating events from the shadows, there is something deeply unsettling about this movie that is totally a product of the present.

        With an administration (and a loyal legislative branch) pushing ahead with a radical nominee who could swing the court hard to the right, undoing decades of precedent around civil rights, a woman's right to choose, environmental safeguards and a variety other issues, The Pelican Brief feels like a portent, and also horrifically out of date. Not to mention the advanced age of 50% of the liberal bloc of judges on the current bench, which may give Trump more opportunities to fill the bench.

        This hindsight aside, The Pelican Brief is the perfect example of a style and genre that has become practically extinct on the big screen: the prestige legal thriller. Beginning in the 80s, with films like The Verdict and Jagged Edge, legal thrillers took off in the 90s on the back of John Grisham's success with The Firm (and the movie starring Tom Cruise).

        Written and directed by Alan J Pakula (All The President's Men), the movie has some solid suspense sequences and interesting supporting performances, but for some reason, the whole enterprise comes off as rote and by-the-numbers.

        The story is intriguing, but never really builds to real dramatic catharsis. The lead performers are both fine, but there is nothing that compelling or specific about either of them: Washington is strangely muted, and Roberts is similarly low-key. Not that there is anything wrong with their choices, it is just there is a real lack of dimension to them. They are just good guys trying to solve a situation, with nothing to really hang your hat on emotionally.

        The movie this most reminded me of were Ron Howard's Dan Brown adaptations in that it features plenty of twists and a decent sense of pace to capture the page-turning quality of the source material, but there is something missing, a depth to the characters, or a thematic heft to the film's portrayal of the politics and the justice system, that prevents it from really sticking in the mind.

        The most interesting element for me was Stanley Tucci as the professional assassin assigned to clean up all the loose ends. However, like the movie's premise, my enjoyment probably derived more from Tucci's casting than anything about the performance or the character.

        Despite its pedigree, there is not much to distinguish it from similar movies of the same era. The Pelican Brief is a decent watch, but nothing more.

        Saturday, 22 September 2018

        IN THEATRES: A Simple Favor

        When Stephanie's (Anna Kendrick) new friend Emily (Blake Lively) goes missing, she goes on the hunt to find out what happened. As Stephanie follows a trail of clues, she begins to realise that she does not know her friend as well as she thought...

        Paul Feig is most well-known for directing comedies like Bridesmaids, The Heat, Spy and the remake of Ghostbusters. For his latest venture, he has taken a step outside the sandbox to dabble in thriller territory with an adaptation of the novel by Darcey Bell.

        Man, this movie is so tonally and generically confused: Is it a thriller? A black comedy?

        There are elements of both here, but they feel out of balance. Feig feels a bit lost - it is not dark enough and not funny enough, or at least not in the right places or at the right level. It’s not a bad movie, but these differing tones end up negating each other - it is the movie equivalent of “Like getting slapped with warm lettuce”, to quote Aussie PM Paul Keating.

        It falls to the two leads to navigate this tableaux, and to a large extent, they do. Kendrick is hilarious and vulnerable as a lonely single mom who finds herself drawn to the mysterious Emily (Lively).

        Lively is having a great time as the object of Stephanie's adoration. Completely unfiltered and dead-eyed, she is a great comic femme fatale. And in a movie with a better understanding of tone, the muddying of Emily's motivations could have come off. As is, she is basically a sharply-dressed cliche.

        The weakest link is Henry Golding, as Emily's husband Sean. The character is meant to be as mysterious as his missing beau, but he never really who never convinces as either a grieving dad, a fall guy or a potential suspect.

        I remember a comment Film Crit Hulk made about Feig’s inconsistent use of cinematic visual grammar - he knows how to play the joke, but he does not how to stage it in a cinematic way. That flatness is very obvious in A Simple Favor, a story which features suspense, plot twists and a central character who is increasing paranoid about the intentions of the people around her. A few scenes have some flare (the discovery of the body) but overall the visual style never changes to reflect the shifts in the story and the characters - for one, we never really feel like we are getting inside Stephanie’s head, and the film's attempts at tension never really come off.

        Overall, it is entertaining, and it is always watchable, but the tonal inconsistencies and lack of directorial verve keep it from really taking off.

        Friday, 14 September 2018

        IN THEATRES: The Predator

        During an encounter with a Predator, black ops sniper Quinn (Boyd Holbrook) manages to steal some of the alien's advanced equipment. Fearing that the government will want to keep the incident under wraps, he send the tech to his hometown as insurance.

        What he does not know is that another Predator is enroute to Earth, intent on destroying the technology and anyone that stands in its way.

        With a band of ragtag ex-soldiers-turned-convicts, and a scientist (Olivia Munn) with knowledge of the creatures as allies,  Quinn is in a race against time to get home and protect his family from the evil ET. 

        I was really looking forward to The Predator. Not because of the franchise, but because Shane Black, of Lethal Weapon and The Nice Guys, was taking up the reins. Sadly, it is the second-worst thing Black has done this year.

        A sure hand with action flicks, the filmmaker and co-writer Fred Dekker (of Monster Squad fame) are completely adrift here. Black's hand with hard-bitten characters exchanging barbed, self-reflexive dialogue is barely in evidence, and the movie is weighed down with a dis-jointed story populated by under-written characters.

        Particularly in its early scenes, it feels like key scenes have been cut out; characters are introduced and events happen with no build-up or real context. Not to say it is confusing, but there is a rushed quality to proceedings that makes the movie feel unfinished. There is little of the easy flow and relationship-building of previous Black movies. The Predator is in too much of a rush to set up all of the story pieces.

        In terms of genre and tone, the movie never lands: is it hard-bitten action flick? A kids movie from the 80s? An alien-government conspiracy thriller? Is it trying to be scary? Is it trying to be funny? Is it aiming for pathos? It never figures itself out.

        The set pieces also feel off - there is little build-up or suspense, and an over-reliance on CGI. The would-be show-stopper of the movie, the 'Upgrade' Predator never gets the kind of treatment it needs to come across as an effective threat.

        Watching the super-Predator stomp across screen, you really appreciate the physicality and grace that Kevin peter Hall brought to the role in the first two Predator movies, as well as the limitations of technology, which forced the filmmakers to use the creature sparingly. One of the great aspects of the original is the fact that we do not see the Predator until the finale - and that was because the filmmakers literally scrapped the original design for the alien and had to come up with a new one.

        In Black's film, the Upgrade Predator is treated so perfunctorily it reminded me of the Alien's inauspicious return at the end of Alien Covenant last year: while there was probably some mo-cap involved, the film's villain is just a computer-generated creation with no weight and little personality. 

        The film also suffers from a lack of clear narrative POV.  The focal point is meant to be Boyd Holbrook's hardbitten sniper, but we also have Olivia Munn's scientist Dr Casey Bracket, Holbrook's son (Jacob Trembly) and a busload of military prisoners (Trevante Rhodes, Keegan-Michael Key, Thomas Jane, Alfie Allen, and Augusto Aguilera).

        Holbrook's fellow soldiers are more interesting than the bland protagonists, and the scenes of them bonding are the closest the movie gets to being fun. They are just types, but the movie would have been better served by being an ensemble piece.

        In light of how the male cast have abandoned Olivia Munn following her revelations that Black had hired a convected sex offender without informing the cast or studio, there is a bitter aftertaste to watching the team try to reconnect with their humanity and become heroes. Combined with the shakiness of the story-telling, knowing about their (in)actions offscreen just reinforces how ineffective they are as 'badasses'.

        As Holbrook's offspring, Room star Jacob Trembly fills in the cliche of the super-powered disabled person. As with the other characters, he has no real characterisation, and it is hard to believe or understand his relationship with his father. His part of the plot feels so rote and cliche - and considering how rote the rest of the movie is, that is saying something.

        Even the basic premise - a predator fleeing to earth pursued by its comrades - could be cool. It is surprising for a filmmaker like Black, who has displayed an ability to turn conventions on their head, to overlook the potential for playing the story out from the title character's POV.

        The movie tries to add detail and shading to the Predator mythos, but the aliens have never been that interesting by themselves - they are designed to hunt other beings. It is hard to find pathos in that makeup. Plus, by revealing more about them, the Predators lose any real sense of danger, and it just draws attention to how silly their mythos is. 

        The movie is not without its good points. Jake Busey shows up playing the son of his father Gary's character from Predator 2. There is a great set piece involving our heroes holding onto the outside of a spaceship as its shields activate. The space dogs are fun, and deserved far more screen time (like everything else).

        The Predator is not an outright disaster, but the sloppy execution frustrates any attempt to really engage with it as a fun night at the movies.


        Tuesday, 4 September 2018

        NZIFF 2018 Diary: Climax

        A newly assembled dance troupe hold a party. Someone spikes the punch and the group proceeds to fall apart.

        I should get my lack of credentials out of the way: I have never seen a Gaspar Noe movie before. After watching Climax, I really want to check out at least one or two more of his movies.

        Played out in the claustrophobic confines of a dance studio, Climax does not have much plot, and it does not need it. This is a movie about sensation, agitation and intense emotional provocation. It is also a middle finger to people who do not like Gaspar Noe movies.

        While it is hard to say whether the movie is 'about anything' beyond the breakdown in a group of people, the movie's singular focus does give the movie an intensity and a sense of pace that really pulls you in. I saw this movie pretty late at night, this movie is so immersive and hi-energy that by the time it was over, I was pumped up.

        It helps that this movie is based around a dance troupe - particularly in the first half, as our 'heroes' gyrate around the screen. Noe uses a lot of long takes and wide shots that create a sense of distance between the camera and the characters, which also works for the opening dance number. So many musicals and music videos post-MTV chop up their choreography so you cannot follow the action, but here most of the dancing plays out in extended wide angle shots from a high angle. It is awesome.
        What I found interesting about this movie was how people react (or don't) to the drugs. It becomes a catalyst for certain characters to give in to their worst impulses (the siblings) while others do not. I was expecting the young guys who talk about women in the most misogynistic way possible to turn into monsters, but they don't. There is a terrifying randomness to how the characters fall apart that adds to the movie's sense of pace.
        Even the characters who try to do something about the situation (like the mother who tries to protect her son by locking him away) end up messing up (she loses the key to unlock the door).
        There is no real 'main' character, but the closest to it is Sofia Boutella as the leader of the troupe. She really runs the gamut here - she is great in the opening dance number, throwing in some great acrobatic moves that she later calls back in her 'breakdown' scene towards the end of the movie. This is one of my favourite scenes of the year: Boutella's meltdown takes the form of a ridiculous dance - pelvis thrusting to the sky as she spider-walks and screams down a hallway, before frightening herself in a mirror. It is hilarious.
        While I have no previous experience with Noe's oeuvre, it is easy to see the movie (at least partly) as an exercise in trolling for his critics. There is a sequence where the camera and the subtitles are flipped upside down - it was one of the biggest laughs at my screening. There is also a sequence midway through the movie which is just a montage of his name in different fonts.
        There are a only a few moments where Noe's reputation felt realised in the movie. The most obvious is scene in which a pregnant woman is kicked repeatedly in the stomach, while the camera looms over her screaming face.
        I have read some reviews that felt Climax was less provocative than Gaspar Noe's past work, which makes me wonder if I am just on-board with under-powered Noe than prime Noe. Regardless of where it sits in the broader body of his work, on its own terms Climax is a pure, visceral, utterly cinematic experience that is worth seeing at least once, and ended up being my favourite film of the festival this year.


        The Miseducation of Cameron Post

        Skate Kitchen

        Let The Corpses Tan

        Little Woods

        Good Manners

        Monday, 3 September 2018

        NZIFF 2018 Diary: Good Manners

        Clara (Isabel Zuaa) gets a job working for expectant mother Ana (Marjorie Estiano). Shortly after she begins work, Clara realises that her employer is not all that she appears to be. By night, Ana turns into a sleep-walking, meat-craving monster.

        While their bond grows more intense by day, by night Clara has to figure out how to contend with her nocturnal roaming. As her due date draws close, it becomes clear that whatever is afflicting Ana is related to her pregnancy...

        I had a choice between this and The Guilty. This one looked weird - and started earlier - so it won. And I am glad I checked it out.

        This movie is so wonderfully specific in look and tone. And it touches on so many different tones and ideas: a supernatural horror; a love story; and a story about adolescence, and breaking away from parental control.

        As Clara, Zuaa is wonderfully understated. The story is so potentially ridiculous that it requires a careful balancing act in terms of performance. The actress conveys so much with believably human reactions. There is none of the histrionics one gets occasionally in horror movies.

        Aesthetically, this movie is fascinating - Ana's apartment is hyper-realistic; the colour palette and lighting of early scenes reminded me of a soap opera. The exteriors are shot against green screen backdrop - or using some weird colour grading. And yet, it never feels cheap - it feels like a contemporary version of the miniatures and matte paintings of an earlier era.

        Ultimately, Good Manners feels like a fable - this is a story about the power of love to overcome all hurdles - including lovers who try to kill you, or children who kill their parents (or eat other kids). I have to say, watching films at the festival this year really shook me out of the idea that cinema can only work with three acts/a clear plot. While Good Manners is pretty straightforward, there is something so off-book about the relationship between the leads: The dynamic between Clara and Ana is so well-established, and so unpredictable, that the second half, based around Clara raising Ana's lycanthropic son, feels formulaic.

        When this movie is a slow-burn chamber piece about the shifting power dynamic between Clara and Ana from employer-employee to friends to human-monster to lovers - is so engrossing and unpredictable that the second half cannot help but come across as just another monster movie. The CG werewolf effects do not help.

        While flawed, Good Manners - at least in the first half - is an intoxicating cocktail of fantasy, black comedy and relationship drama.



        The Miseducation of Cameron Post

        Skate Kitchen

        Let The Corpses Tan

        Little Woods