Monday 19 February 2024

The Butterfly Murders

The Butterfly Murders, director Tsui Hark's dreamy feature debut, takes place in the aftermath of a martial arts apocalypse that has, quite apparently, wiped out scores of the tight-knit, chivalrous adventurers who usually find themselves battling across similar, Shawscope frames. Hark and cinematographer Fan Gam-yuk's picturesque depiction of rural China is, therefore, one littered with the remains of these doomed warriors and the carrion insects that feast upon their rotting bodies. This viewing, done so under the less than ideal conditions of an ancient Laserdisc rip with perfunctory, burned-in English subtitles, had the unintended effect of adding a layer of analogue obliqueness to a film already plotted around incomprehensible deceptions and strange, ulterior motives. What is clear though, despite the smudgy delivery system, is that Hark came out of the gate with an obvious gift for staging and shot design: the deserted fort, where a great deal of the non-underground action takes place, is wrapped in butterfly nets to keep the poisonous lepidopterans out; the billowing, diffused photography of high-end advertisement is gifted not just an organic but an axial purchase within the piece. Dotted with nature doc close-ups of massing moths, it does eventually become apparent that Hark views his disturbed, distrusting heroes with a similar sort of detached fascination. Motivation is rarely parsed and accords are fleeting; instead these costumed heroes strike and claw at each other, to no clear advantage, until their fragile arenas collapse in on them. 

Nina Simone - Tomorrow Is My Turn

Adam Hunter by grendelsagrav

Thursday 15 February 2024

The Marvels

The Marvels has every opportunity to (literally) sing: not only is the film premised on the surprisingly high stakes-presenting idea that each of the three central heroes (Brie Larson's Captain Marvel, Teyonah Parris' Monica Rambeau, and Iman Vellani's Ms. Marvel) can switch places, instantly, if they happen to use their light-bending powers at the same time but a significant stop along the way takes place on a planet where it is customary to serenade rather than converse. Unfortunately for Nia DaCosta's salmagundi sequel, and really the vast majority of the Marvel cinematic universe at this point, the tease of these ideas is more important than following them through to any of the terrifying (or even just satisfying) conclusions they seem to guarantee. The situational vice versa that should see each of the Marvels constantly swapping in and out of perils explicitly tuned to a completely different power scale does make itself known in the film's early action sequences; the relatively underpowered, street-level Kamala Khan is thrown into much higher stakes scenarios than she is equipped to deal with but her presence there is quickly nixed before a genuine sense of life-threatening danger can be generated. 

The Marvels does even (briefly) toy with the idea that Larson's superhero can have her powers leeched away by Zawe Ashton's strangely hesitant Kree warlord but, as is expected, this neutering is so brief that it barely registers in the grand scheme of the overall piece. As for the singing planet, well, before any of these interlopers are forced to awkwardly trill and warble their way through the basics of communication they have already been placed in the company of a handsome alien prince who is happy to talk to these humans in their own, non-musical language. Post-Downey Jr., Disney's Marvel films seem to be premised on a pointed overindulgence that has recently tipped into complete wastefulness, one that denies characters any opportunity to really suffer or be put into positions where they are forced to transform themselves, either physically or emotionally. Although entire planets blink in and out of existence, the stakes have never seemed so low or so easily resolved. In one of the sequel stings, drip-fed as the credits roll, the displaced Rambeau finds herself in an entirely different superhero universe, one that allows her the instant opportunity to meet an alternative version of the mother she lost to cancer. These kind of interactional possibilities, which, at a minimum, should deal with hesitance if not outright horror, present as misshapen and repulsively unreal when the dead are not only returned to life but, in this instance, given exciting superpowers as well.

Spider-Man / Kraven by Corey Lewis


YOUTH 83 - Lane

Wednesday 14 February 2024

Madame Web

Although mortifying in terms of how the film splays itself, presenting the executive-level interference for all to see, Madame Web does offer a few stray notes of grim fascination. These blips amuse in ways beyond the reflexive chuckles associated with the distracted (presumably intended as neurodivergent) energy that Dakota Johnson brings to her Cassandra Webb, or an approach to dialogue that is so purely expositional as to be absurd. Director SJ Clarkson's film tips a different hand early, before it has even begun in fact, with a new Columbia Pictures logo that rushes through the various incarnations of the torch-bearing Goddess that have played ahead of the films distributed by the company over the last century. Embedded within this collage are several, gleaming black and white drafts, instantly evocative of the comic-strip serials synonymous with the studio's early years. Following this history lesson, Madame Web tumbles into a scenario straight out of those episodic, 1930s adventures: a middle-class white person snooping around in the darkest corners of South America then coming to a sticky end, but not before their offspring has inherited an animistic power-set from the secretive locals. This sequence - complete with a squad of Peruvian shaman, imitating Steve Ditko's web-head with bodies painted red and muscles wrapped with knotted vines - could set the stage for a knowingly trashy take on Spider-Man, one that dispense with teenage, masculine angst to concentrate on a quartet of plucky damsels and the skin-tight slasher pursuing them. To fully take advantage of that deliberately sacrilegious concept though you require the derring-do of an 1980s Italian movie producer high on The Terminator, not a sultan of straight-to-video like Lorenzo di Bonaventura.

Sunday 11 February 2024

Police Academy

A few decades removed from the churn of Police Academy's repeated television screenings, it's a shock to note that director Hugh Wilson's film was produced by The Ladd Company; they of that beautiful, pixelated green oak logo that played ahead of a certain science fiction film that found its greatest successes on home video formats. Despite a stark difference in quality between these two parties, Police Academy did make a killing at the box office, recouping some of the losses made by the comparatively austere Blade Runner. Released in 1984 and charting ahead of the much more fondly remembered Beverly Hills Cop in terms of pure domestic take, Police Academy is, despite this monster haul, a strangely listless, low energy picture. Although Wilson's film managed to land itself an R rating, it more or less refused to wield any of the power associated with that certificate. 

Bad language is kept to an absolute minimum, likewise nudity and violence. The profanity that does remain feels tacked on, as if only really present to nudge the film closer to a prospective audience's idea of the titillation (or revulsion) offered by a Stripes or a Porky's. This notion of the filmmaker's hearts not really being in it is borne out by the franchise's hurried slide into being, specifically, children's entertainment: by 1988 there was a syndicated animated series clogging up the airwaves. Police Academy then revolves around several oddball law enforcement trainees, now able to able to apply for a role in the department thanks to a recent ruling by an unseen mayor that her city's constabulary should reflect the diversity of the citizens who live there. This hook is both the best and the worst aspect of Police Academy. Best in that it acknowledges that the bullying, racist skinheads who hurl slurs directly at Marion Ramsey's Hooks (and indirectly at Bubba Smith's towering, gentlemanly Hightower) are the police establishment's preferred recruits; worst because the impending graduation means that the film's army of screenwriters need do nothing but kill time before every single character gets something approximating a satisfying conclusion. 

Wednesday 31 January 2024

Badland Hunters

Dramatically, Badland Hunters never raises above the level of a streaming pilot. Director Heo Myeong-haeng's film presents itself as a sort of orphan project that introduces a few too many characters then doesn't really make a tremendous amount of effort to wring their post-apocalyptic wants dry. Anyway, there's an apartment complex, the only one still standing in a city otherwise reduced to rubble; a mad scientist who runs the building, attracting dilatory survivors with promises of clean water and cushy condominiums; and a standing garrison of reptilian grunts who cannot wait to charge at incoming gunfire. Of course, none of that dressing matters when you have the swaggering brawn of Ma Dong-seok to hand. Indeed the pained attempts at character investment that clog up the film's first hour melt away the instant that Nam, Ma's wasteland butcher, finds his way to this concrete experiment camp and starts hurling haymakers. Previously the best thing in Train to Busan and The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil (not to mention, thoroughly wasted in Marvel's excretable Eternals), Ma is a sensational action proposition: the guy is enormous; a sardonic strong-man able to weave and strike like a heavyweight boxer. Director Heo (whose previous credits include martial arts co-ordinator on Kim Ji-woon's The Good, The Bad, The Weird) cues up several corridors filled with human garbage just begging to be mulched by Nam's fists, pump-action shotgun and the saw-toothed machete that hangs (just out of reach) across his enormous shoulders. Heo isn't a one-trick pony either, tailoring several sprier, but no less exhilarating, action encounters around Ahn Ji-hye's Lee Eun-ho, a knife-happy ex-special forces sergeant with a high rise-sized grudge.