Monday, 25 October 2021
Writer-director Rob Zombie maintains his ferocious commitment to human ugliness with Halloween II, a mire deep franchise entry that hijacks the fright mask branding to tell a story focused around the lingering radiation of trauma. Scout Taylor-Compton's Laurie Strode, having survived the murder of her parents and many of her friends in the previous film, is living with Sheriff Brackett (a brilliant turn from Brad Dourif) and his daughter Annie (Danielle Harris). Strode is frozen in a fight or flight response, simmering in the anxiety of having been pursued and attacked. She dreams of empty hospitals filled with bodies and a relentless, lumbering, shape. Her days are spent oscillating back-and-forth between venomous invective and a sobbing tenderness. In terms of writing and performance, this is a far more nuanced and sympathetic portrayal of a gnawing stress disorder than you might expect given the rest of the Michael Myers saga.
Unlike the recent David Gordon Green entries, 2018's Halloween and this year's Halloween Kills, Laurie's experiences haven't tempered her, they've obliterated her. She struggles to maintain a cordial relationship with Annie - the person closest to her in terms of a lived experience - and finds herself slipping into self-destructive and self-isolating rhythms. The strange frequencies apparently generated by Michael Myers' madness have polluted Laurie as well, causing the teenager to experience parasomnia episodes in which she acts out instances of inherited murder. Conceptually, Rob Zombie's films run with the idea that Laurie and Michael are brother and sister, an insinuation threaded into the original Halloween - via additional footage - during the production of the first sequel, when the former was scheduled to air on television. Zombie, rather than simply use this piece of trivia to demonstrate his grasp of John Carpenter's alternative edits, makes their familial relationship his linchpin.
Zombie's Myers, himself the product of the sustained mental and physical abuse he suffered during childhood, is a special attraction sized phantom who drifts in and out of existence on the fringes of his home town, Haddonfield. The psychic broadcasts that, eventually, envelop Laurie centre around half-remembered fragments from Michael's childhood; items and people that have grown - in the absence of any other stimuli - into massive, totemic, forces that urge his violence on. His mother, Sheri Moon Zombie's Deborah Myers, has been transformed in death from a put-upon but doting parent into a vengeful spectre that demands blood tribute. A toy horse, given as a gift by his mother during one of his early psychiatric stays and probably one of the few possessions he was ever able to hold on to, has ballooned into an enormous white stallion that seems to represent Michael's own thundering, dutiful, musculature. Michael is also visited (and assisted) by himself as a boy, frozen in the moments when he took his sister's life. Zombie's beautifully grainy film pulls Myers apart, rendering Carpenter and Debra Hill's supernatural killer as an unholy trinity of interconnected instability - the mother, the muscle and the child. They represent a force that exerts a palpable drag on reality, warping and fouling everybody they come into contact with.
Saturday, 23 October 2021
Friday, 22 October 2021
The Cutscenes channel over on YouTube has not long posted this short sit-down interview with Hideki Kamiya, walking us through the development of the first Devil May Cry game. Given his quick-draw reputation over on Twitter, Kamiya is humble and conversational here, happy to talk up competing productions as well as how he had to be prodded, by Shinji Mikami no less, to embrace a tone and gameplay style that appealed to his own sensibilities. Formerly a producer-director at Capcom and their subsidiary Clover Studio, now a founding member of PlatinumGames, Kamiya also speaks about the Devil May Cry sequels, that he was not involved in developing, and how they influenced him when he was putting together Bayonetta.
Set in a distant future where mankind has scattered itself amongst the stars, transforming their adopted planets into machines of pure, smoke-choked, industry or monuments to a scattered and arcane past, Denis Villeneuve's adaptation of Frank Herbert's Dune - the director sharing co-writer credits with Jon Spaihts and Eric Roth - is an unusual proposition for an American financed space opera. Unlike, say, a Star Wars or a Star Trek, Villeneuve's Dune neither portrays humanity as obscure or idealised. Instead eight thousands years of relentless progress may have given us incredible technological leaps, like an instantaneous solution to the enormous distances associated with space travel, but society itself has congealed into a kind of pre-industrial feudalism.
Throughout Villeneuve's Dune there's a sense that mankind has battered forward through the centuries to arrive at a point where, for all their boons, they are just better able to beam their failures and shortcomings out into space. This pitch black universe, rather than offering brand new opportunities or transcendental experiences, has turned out to be an enormous canvas, just waiting to be painted red with fire and blood. Timothée Chalamet plays Paul Atreides, the heir to House Atreides, a dukedom in a vast - and largely unseen - intergalactic empire underpinned by dutiful servants, who double as human computers, and a powerful cult of witches who plant prospects throughout the empire, armed with breeding instructions. Paul is the result of one of those procreations (if not necessarily the strict order that directed it), a young nobleman afflicted with involuntary glimpses of moments in his life he has yet to live.
Although Paul's adventure remains incomplete here in terms of the original text - this telling concludes just as the young duke and his mother press deeper into the desert to join the mysterious Fremen - Villeneuve's film does register as a complete work, one centred around a parapsychological call and response within Paul's mind. This internalised conversation slowly overwhelms the shape and direction of the piece, carrying us away from rigid order, off towards an almost formless state of acquiesced myth. While still on his home planet of Caladan, a wind swept naval barracks, Paul dreams of the desert planet Arrakis and Zendaya's Chani, a beautiful young woman with blue on blue eyes. Although broadly walking a path that aligns with Campbellian heroics, the young Atreides is a more curious example of an anointed one; a character who slowly adjusts to his place within the manipulative, messianic, rhetoric whispered amongst nomads to massage his coming.
A character like Luke Skywalker (an obvious point of comparison since George Lucas' film series clearly takes a great many cues from Herbert's work) might slowly attune himself to the same mysticisms that enveloped his father but the road to power he undertakes is deliberately portrayed as something to be seized. Paul Atreides is a different animal, a child raised amongst nobility and instructed in the politics of warfare. That's the aspect of the character defined by his father, Oscar Isaac's Duke Leto, and the seat of power Paul will come to hold should the Atreides reign remain uninterrupted. His mother, Rebecca Ferguson's Lady Jessica, has an even deeper stake in this child. We learn she had the power of design over his birth, selecting his gender to please his father and, in the process, thwarting the centuries long machinations of her spy masters the Bene Gesserit. Paul's is a destiny that isn't taken then, it's an ancient plan that he surrenders to.
That Paul is male hasn't prevented Jessica from teaching him the ways of her all female religious order either. Slowly, he is coached to reproduce several techniques centred around coercion, the most powerful of which are the croaking words of a hag, a technique that allows the Bene Gesserit to overwhelm the weak-minded, bending them to their will. Paul's stewardship then goes beyond the basic act of training. He has, to some degree, been manufactured by Jessica; a notable bloodline directed - through her - towards the kind of figure that religions can be founded upon. Within Paul are the powers inherent to the male and female aspects of this strange universe working in, if not harmonious, then certainly complementary ways. The most terrifying aspect of Dune then is that Paul is conscious of this potential future and, eventually, works towards it; overcoming his disgust at having been physically and politically fabricated. The tension in Villeneuve's Dune is that of an assumption. What is it that makes Paul Atreides special? His tragic experiences? His possession of a mind that trespasses outside strictly ordered time and space? Or is it simply his willingness to be battered towards Godhood?
Thursday, 21 October 2021
Tuesday, 19 October 2021
Monday, 18 October 2021
With Jamie Lee Curtis' Laurie Strode counted out of this instalment - thanks to injuries suffered during the previous episode - the hysteria that drives Halloween Kills is that of Anthony Michael Hall's buffoonish Tommy Doyle, the child Ms Strode spent her evening looking after in John Carpenter's original film. Having grown into a drearily solemn raconteur, Doyle seizes on the opportunity presented by a new spate of murders, clumsily attempting to make himself the solution to the recurring problem of Michael Myers and win some form of approval from his slumbering former babysitter in the process. Doyle is self-important and not short on confidence; a red-faced eye-bulger who hurries from incident to incident, vomiting up a leadership routine that barely extends beyond a tumultuous chanting. He's a farcical figure. A one-note fantasist gumming up the works of a slasher film that is already disinclined to generating pity.
David Gordon Green's second Halloween sequel, co-written with Scott Teems and Danny McBride, is structured to spend long stretches of time in the company of unlikable, middle-aged, cretins. The film is assembled in a style much closer to that of a comedy, with its various pieces working towards blunt, graceless, murder as if it carried the same dramatic inevitability, or entertainment, as a punchline. Halloween Kills is the horror film as a litany of quick, unsatisfying, releases rather than any sustained attempt to sculpt tension. The audience always knows more than the film's mindless throng too, so no sense of trepidation is never allowed to creep into our minds. A brief sequence in which a hospital, packed with the bereaved and panicking, suddenly goes into meltdown at the suggestion that Myers has begun to attack the building could work if the viewer was left in some doubt as to what was actually happening. We're always two or three steps ahead though. We know it isn't Myers, so we're just watching headless chickens piling on and over each other.
As with Green's previous effort, Myers is calibrated to be an engine of violence, mechanically brutalising any body he come across. This lack of methodology - Myers seemingly killing people to pass the time on his way back to his childhood home - isn't helped by his constantly stressed invincibility or a cast of characters who, largely, fail to deviate from Green and McBride's well documented gift for ugly (but crucially not absurd in this instance) caricature. There's no sincerity or empathy in how Kills handles its victims. No consistent, creative level, decisions that indicate that the filmmakers have any interest in the brew they are concocting beyond wheel spinning. The film's better moments then are either happy accidents - a video stream briefly sputtering during a rare gooey kill in such a way that it recalls the blurring censorship visited on the animated Fist of the North Star movie - or strange little orphans in search of purchase. A closing segment built around Laurie's daughter Karen - played by the indefatigable Judy Greer - catching a glimpse of a child's image seared into a window pane elicits a strange supernatural sadness but, by then, it's too little too late.
Saturday, 16 October 2021
Thursday, 14 October 2021
A flat and fleeting adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel that nevertheless lodged Bela Lugosi's arch portrayal of Dracula in the public imagination. Lugosi's Count is a hypnotic bounder, happily fixing his stare on his social inferiors in order to gain the access he desires. In Tod Browning and (uncredited) co-director Karl Freund's film, Dracula is appraised in terms of his foreignness and the ways in which he differs from the drippy Englishmen he rubs shoulders with. His vampirism then is framed as an extension of his smouldering, European, sexuality; a supernatural sensuality that has men and women fawning all over him. Dracula's first victim is Dwight Fyre's Renfield, portrayed in this film as the solicitor who facilitates Dracula's move from a crumbling castle to an Abbey in England. Once the paperwork is in order, Dracula feasts on his guest, transforming Renfield into a creeping familiar. Although hopelessly besotted with his undead master, Dracula regards this pathetic, predatory, creature with an abashed disgust.
Once in foggy old London, Dracula prowls the streets dressed to the nines, feasting on flower girls and encircling the Seward residence. The lion's share of Browning and Freund's film takes place in and around this draughty household, with Dracula haunting the patio in search of welcome and coerced invitation. It's during this section that Lugosi's Dracula finally aligns with the character's seductive reputation - previous feedings characterised by their opportunism or, in the case of Renfield, desperation. Once bitten, Helen Chandler's Mina mumbles about the Count in terms of the tension he has introduced into her life. Previously determined to sleepwalk through a marriage to David Manners' terminally dull John Harker, Dracula's intrusion has made Mina forget herself. Outward propriety be damned, this mysterious, moody, foreigner has awoken something in this previously prim Englishwoman. When Mina talks about Dracula, she seems to drift away. Mentally checking out of conversations at first then, later, physically leaving her sappy fiancé to go and cavort under a cape in the garden.
Tuesday, 12 October 2021
Sunday, 10 October 2021
A dramatically bizarre adaptation of NetherRealm Studio's fighting game series that spends less than 80 minutes interrogating the idea of a Superman who has suffered such profound loss that he longer takes issue with extrajudicial murder. While the story presented by the Mortal Kombat devs is little more than a scant justification for internecine Justice League punch-ups, it has clearly captured the imagination of the studio heads at Warner Bros, arguably influencing their entire approach to a post-Marvel cinematic universe. Arriving eight years after the first game in the series, 2013's Injustice: Gods Among Us, Matt Peters' Injustice utilises that brawler's airtight justification for an angry Superman - Joker tricks him into beating a pregnant Lois Lane to death before levelling Metropolis with a nuclear weapon - but otherwise fails to, logically, take the audience to a place where the Man of Steel is then cleaving through a warehouse rave full of teenagers with his heat vision.
As a narrative proposal, Injustice is series of violent lurches; the feature film as flip book product that assumes goodwill garnered elsewhere massages over the gimcrack offered here. How else do you explain a Harley Quinn who debuts whacking an expectant woman over the head with a hammer before defaulting back to an overtly sexualised comic relief? Perhaps Injustice's brevity simply exposes the dissonance constantly acting upon works that wield such well-established characters? It's not enough for the piece to simply work against expectation, it has to be seen to create a completely alternative reading. Any shortcuts in that solution break the trance. As a work of animation, Injustice is flat but legible. The superheroes themselves are, largely, shot and arranged in poses straight out of a colouring book. The exception - the only hero who feels gooey and animated - is Plastic Man, the Dark Knight's ringer, who gets to ooze through grates in a subterranean Supermax or inflate his body into an enormous, deadly, latex action figure. While these deformations have nothing on those employed by Monkey D. Luffy in Fuji TV's never-ending One Piece series, they are (at least) a brief distraction from the rest of the film's cutscene-level clunking.
Wednesday, 6 October 2021
The interior perspective of Léa Seydoux's Madeleine Swann is woven into the bones of No Time to Die, the super-criminal's daughter enjoying a place in the film's structural hierarchy beyond even that afforded to James Bond himself. Her experiences encompass this entry. No Time to Die beginning with an opening gambit constructed around a home invasion and near death incident from Swann's childhood. These memories don't just bleed into the piece in the usual ways - an expositionary tremble before the disrobing commences - they set the table, elevating the character of Swann from a one-and-done love interest to that of a crucial, dramatic, piece. The closest antecedent to this kind of framing (that comes immediately to mind) is the introduction of Diana Rigg's Countess Tracy in On Her Majesty's Secret Service - a film that is quoted here with motifs inherited from John Barry's musical score as well as words that echo Richard Maibaum and Simon Raven's spoken dialogue. Tracy begins that film attempting to end her life by walking into a churning surf before she is interrupted by George Lazenby's deliberately silhouetted 007.
Although begun by, and premised on, Tracy's actions, even that incident wasn't so deeply sunken into the temporal mechanics of its parent feature. Swann's hold over Cary Joji Fukunaga's film is beyond incidental, it's elemental. Swann has been granted an actual flashback, one that takes place decades earlier than the main action, centred around a frozen lake in Norway. As a storytelling device these kind of recollections are anathema to the stridently contemporaneous Bond films. The distaste for such a method of storytelling so pervasive that Spectre - a film that was desperately in need of some foggy little interlude from Bond's childhood - swerved the opportunity just so Christoph Waltz's adult Blofeld could lecture the audience about his adolescent grudge instead. Although by no means a bold storytelling device in of itself, the decision registers as notable here simply because the Bond series itself practically demands to be appraised in terms of formula. That the film's viewpoint has shifted so dramatically is telling - it's a conscious attempt to subvert the means by which an audience connects to the character and world of James Bond.
Other uncharacteristically independent female characters are threaded throughout No Time to Die as well, the film making a conscious decision to approach these flat, archetypal, roles with a fresh intent. Ana de Armas' Paloma, a rookie secret agent staking out a SPECTRE sex party, might typically spend her screentime comically underachieving and pining for the violent expertise of Bond. Here, the fresh-faced spy rebuffs James' half-hearted advances then, despite her first-night nerves, perfectly compliments the thundering mechanism of her accomplice. Paloma, unlike say Carey Lowell's Agent Bouvier in Licence to Kill, is allowed to move around in her brief appearance with a self-contained and self-determined sense of agency, one that exists beyond her interactions with the British secret agent. Similarly, Lashana Lynch's Nomi, Bond's replacement in the 00 Section, isn't embroiled in the pointless duplicity usually associated with the appearance of a fellow Whitehall liquidator. Awarded the position of 007 for much of the film's runtime, Lynch gets to play with more sardonic frequencies than the feature actor; she's the handsome, ice-veined, action hero that typified the older calibrations of the Bond character. Notes, incidentally, that Craig's run hasn't always sought to exploit.
No Time to Die's screenplay, credited to regular 007 screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade , as well as director Fukunaga and Fleabag creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge, seeks to conclude this era of the Bond saga by poring focus on, then tidying away, all the dangling threads that Craig's tenure has picked at. The idea of Bond as a personification of Britain's post-colonial wish fulfilment is jettisoned somewhat; this Bond isn't necessarily fighting on behalf of Queen or country, he's his own man, an orphaned button man pinballing back-and-forth between whichever international ally can currently offer the best lead. Craig's stint as Bond has repeatedly played with this idea of the character untethering from its host, experimenting with autonomy and even redundancy. In No Time to Die this disconnection isn't just pronounced, it's integral to the character's personal development. The safety net offered by an all-knowing leadership very much having left with the death of Judi Dench's M in Skyfall. The Britain depicted in No Time is Die then has pointedly soured, both in terms of internal management and global outlook.
This state of slow motion collapse is best exemplified by Ralph Fiennes' Mallory, a deeply flawed M who has let technological fantasies about clean murder cloud his judgement to a world threatening degree. This lapse underlines another disconnect in the series - Britain and America have slipped out of alignment, each of their secret services pursuing the same ends from different directions, all while maintaining a chilly radio silence. The CIA (although themselves compromised by double agents) are outright refusing to work with Mallory's MI6, preferring instead to recruit a demobbed Bond who has since retired to Jamaica - the island country where Ian Fleming first wrote about his debonair civil servant. This international aggro grows as the film goes on, eventually encompassing Russia, Japan, and America's less shadowy naval interests. The Britain of No Time to Die is very much alone, a pariah that is striving, clumsily, to eradicate a mess they themselves have created. The attempt terminating in a setting that mixes Dr. No's Crab Key stronghold with the imminent immolation Nicholas Cage faced in Michael Bay's The Rock.
In a move that will no doubt delight video game writer-director Hideo Kojima, No Time to Die's central threat revolves around nanotechnology and the idea that a person can, through no fault of their own, become an unwitting agent of assassination. 1998's stealth espionage game Metal Gear Solid seems an obvious reference point for this dilemma, the player themselves unwittingly spreading a heart attack inducing infection among high-ranking hostages. In No Time to Die the power wielded by Rami Malek's soft-spoken Safin is that of a directed pandemic, an ability to synthesise designer diseases that attack specific DNA traits or sequences. A pox that thinks, differentiates, then transforms people into a mass of seething boils. Unlike the FOXDIE retrovirus Kojima's hero Solid Snake was infected with, Safin's pox is a conscious infliction, one designed to condemn targets, rendering them knowingly radioactive. Despite the horror of his methods, Safin is one of the film's weaker elements, a villain that straddles two distinct, uncomplimentary, criminal paradigms - the broken, tooled-up, avenger and the established, financially independent megalomaniac.
In terms of a SPECTRE successor - which the film definitively positions him as - Safin struggles to carve out an identity wholly his own. His key characteristics, especially towards the latter half of the film, are inherited from the criminals that butted heads with Connery's 1960s snooper. Particularly those who hailed from, or resided in, the East. Blofeld's previously un-filmed poisonous Japanese garden from the book of You Only Live Twice rubs up against the movie serial Sinophobia that underlined 007's first filmed adventure. Safin's residence hangs beneath a rotting, decommissioned submarine pen, an underwater fortress filled with fanatical scientists and rivers that can dissolve the unwary. In this sense, Safin is the Bond villain reduced to its primordial state - a lunatic who is largely defined by his foreignness when compared to Fleming's British secret agent. Depicted as inscrutable, quietly adept and even lit to stress a mottled rot in his skin, Malek's Safin is eerily reminiscent of the heavily made-up and luridly lit film adaptations of Sax Rohmer's Dr. Fu Manchu. A comparison that doesn't actually embarrass the good doctor, given Safin's almost effortless string of successes.
Although in the early going No Time to Die's action sequences play around with a similar kind of bored expertise as Spectre - most assuredly in a twilit forest where Bond easily outmanoeuvres umpteen vehicular assaults - when Safin's terror presses closer to home, Craig's Bond is seen to really struggle. In Fukunaga's now signature, anxiety inducing, oner, we see James limping up a mouldering staircase with attacks coming from every conceivable direction. In these moments Daniel Craig's physical dexterity and determination - genuine positives that have become less and less remarked upon the further away we get from Casino Royale - are truly allowed to shine. Peril is dealt with fractionally, an entire spinning plate apparatus with Craig dead centre, adjusting the henchman, firearms and grenades constantly hurled his way. Later, when confronted with a vivid threat to his personal identity, Bond throws away his automatic rifle and SIG-Sauer sidearm then sinks into a pose of total supplication before a triumphant Safin. Fukunaga's film offers a scale of outrage previously unencountered by the cucumber cool spy, prompting a equally unusual response. Bond feigns defeat, collapsing into a heap, designed to arouse either pity or disgust in this impassive enemy. While his mouth and body sputter out a gabble of prostrate apology, his hands go to work. First at his belt then, apparently, sinking deeper and deeper into his body - his soul even - for an appropriate response. Surrounded by enemies with a beloved innocent in play, Bond's hand eventually curls itself around his most treasured appendage - a Walther PPK pistol.