Monday, 25 November 2019

Rambo: Last Blood

Based on the evidence supplied by Rambo: Last Blood, Mexico occupies a peculiar place in America's cultural psyche. Despite the fact that, in reality, a significant amount of the United States has been built over Mexican land, it is the UMS that is portrayed as the covetous entity here. In Last Blood the country is a ravenous monster, filled with absurdly antagonistic criminals, eager to chew up and spit out anyone foolish enough to dally there. There may be a throwaway aside between two mob bosses about the export of trafficked women to the United States - which, in of itself, prickles the very real idea that Mexicans suffer to keep oblivious American consumers happy - but, for the most part, the symbiotic relationship between the two lands is limited here to an idea of lawlessness encroaching on sacred, American, soil.

With Mexico positioned as a nightmare blob residing just over the horizon (banished by walls both towering and rudimentary), what prevents Adrian Grunberg's film from registering solely as disgusting, Trumpian wish-fulfilment? Actresses Adriana Barraza and Yvette Monreal are deployed as Rambo's anchors, both playing characters of Mexican descent currently residing in Last Blood's version of Arizona (which looks more like Spain, lending the film and its winding Cu Chi tunnels an exploitative, Macaroni Combat flavour). The women give Sylvester Stallone's character a purchase on reality, but it's a mechanical gesture that seems designed, primarily, to smooth over the savage inhumanity Stallone and co-writer Matthew Cirulnick have assigned to the women's parent country. Neither role is especially complex. Barraza represents maternal worry while Yvette Monreal's Gabriela is a fairy tale innocent; young, beloved and full of promise.

There's precious little depth to Monreal's role - we are instead asked to consider the imperilled, tragic Gabriela within the context of Rambo and the pitiless life he has lead. She's the perfect, idealised child he never had. Her mother is dead, her biological father isn't interested. Rambo has chosen to be the strong, caring man in her life. All hope for his redemption hinges on her and the life she should go on to lead. Since Gabriela is a cipher there's an obvious temptation to think about her role in terms of Stallone's actual life - the writer-actor frequently uses the cover of vein-popping carnage to explore aspects of his own experience. To this end, it's important to note that Stallone lost his own son, Sage, in 2012. Bluntly, this is the power that Last Blood possesses. It's an ugly, filthy examination of parental vengeance fantasies. This isn't grief examined in small, human ways, it's a massive, thrashing tantrum. Stallone plays Rambo as a chewed-up muscle monster struggling through bereavement by pulverising the people who hurt his baby. Last Blood is a film so jaundiced, so confrontational and nakedly functional in its desire to place Stallone in situations where he can growl then deform anonymous, loveless men, that it's actually sort of astonishing.

Tuesday, 19 November 2019


Joaquin Phoenix's performance overwhelms Joker. It's by far the film's biggest component, crowding out a rigid sense of reality, the smoking sewer setting and, even, Robert De Niro. Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a struggling, mentally ill comedian who is no longer able to access the medication that keeps him level after budget cuts in a rotting, overripe Gotham City. Locating the action somewhere in the early 1980s may allow the filmmakers to pile the streets with static garbage and dress everyone up in layered corduroy, but Joker's social issues are timely - an uncaring ruling class mock the disenfranchised through word and deed, prompting a popular uprising.

Todd Phillips' film, much like The Dark Knight Rises before it, is only interested in these developments as colour to chart an idea of acceleration. Arthur Fleck neither buys into nor attempts to escalate the clown protests his criminal actions inspire. Fleck himself states that he has no political aim or objective, he's just reacting to the hand he has been dealt. This statement underlines an issue in Joker's plotting. Despite all the terrible revelations thrown Fleck's way, success lands in his lap with very little active manipulation. Fleck doesn't glom onto his disenfranchised copycats, he doesn't need to. One car-crash stand-up performance, somehow taped for posterity, lands him exactly where he needs to be - in the company of De Niro's bruiser chat show host, Murray Franklin.

De Niro's work, particularly the actor's collaborations with Martin Scorsese, are positioned as antecedent to Joker. A collage of moments to be reconfigured or riffed on. The chimeric Fleck obviously combines elements of Rupert Pupkin and Travis Bickle (the straining musculature of Max Cady is in the mix too), but while The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver frequently affected a dispassionate, observational distance between camera and subject, Phoenix's work bleeds out of the frame and into his film's structure. Significant portions of Joker take place in and around Fleck's waking delusions, fantasies in which he is able to connect with a father figure or a love interest. This interior life is relatively wholesome, even meek then. That the comedian is raised to the level of a chaotic, modern messiah recalls the queasy incredulity at the centre of Monty Python's Life of Brian. So while Fleck never cynically leverages the disorder he arouses, Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver give themselves up to it, using Fleck's slippery grasp on reality to litter their film with orphan scenes of Phoenix plying his trade without any pressure to knit these strange little asides back into the cohesive whole.

Saturday, 16 November 2019

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare - SHOOTERS IN THE SHOOT HOUSE

It's been around for a week or so now, but here's my first game on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare's freebie map Shoot House. Compared to the arenas that shipped with the game, Shoot House is snappy, barely allowing players the space or time to hunker down in some dark, foreboding corner and wait for foot traffic. While I'm very aware that the PS4's capture feature can never fully represent the actual calculations and results generated by this kind of online game, it's nice to know it can snatch footage of the general weirdness players encounter. 09:10 in this clip is a good example of the strange anti-auto aim I sometimes come across in Call of Duty games. Rather than allow you to track with an enemy character, you feel like you're constantly correcting an effort to force your aim off your target. 

Sunday, 10 November 2019

Piranha II: Flying Killers

Structurally, at least in terms of the characters and situations that drive rather than hinder the piece, Piranha II: Flying Killers appears to have been designed as a straight-faced follow-up to Joe Dante's gleeful original, trading in that film's knowing carnage for something resembling a late 70s tech thriller. Credited director (and uncredited co-writer) James Cameron famously spent a couple of weeks at this sequel's helm before he was jettisoned in favour of the film's producer, Ovidio G Assonitis. Cameron has described his role as that of a patsy, an American sounding name that could be attached to the film for the US market, belying its more diffuse, European origins.

Piranha II is, for the most part, awful. Despite an obvious through-line centring around several clashing experts and their preferred approach to airborne teeth, the film prefers the company of placeholder people. We suffer through the larks of the doomed and the wild tonal shifts these antics present. Our victims are feckless, moneyed Americans on holiday in the tropics, burning up and snooping around. The women are depicted as oversexed or manipulative; the men podgy and compliant. As a dramatic axis, all these nobodies provide is a brief moment of expectation when, as a blubbery, drunken horde, they prepare to descend on a nighttime beach to scoop up vulnerable, mating fish. We know it isn't loved up grunion they'll find down there but the snarling, gene-spliced Flying Killers. Disappointingly, even this brief thrill is thwarted.

Piranha II's gliding, dry land attacks are laughable. The frenzied, frothy pace dictated by Joe Dante and Mark Goldblatt's cutting on the previous film is nowhere to be found here. Instead puppets blast around on piano wire then flap around uselessly after connecting themselves to their victim's throats. In deference to the works of HR Giger, not to mention the Flying Killers' mad science origin, an effort has clearly been made to render these creatures as bio-mechanical. Their faces are agonised skulls while their bodies resemble industrial tubing painted gunmetal gray. Glimpsed briefly, the design is striking but Piranha II refuses to conceal them, demanding we stare at the puppets in long, neutral close-up until all sense of danger dissipates.

Running concurrently with this mulch plotting are three characters who better align with the combative experts seen in James Cameron's later work. Tricia O'Neil and Lance Henriksen play Anne and Steve, an estranged couple who allow the writer-director to construct a couple of scenes around thwarted expertise and clashing professional objectives. Anne is a marine biologist currently working as a diving instructor; Steve is an intense local cop who lets dynamite fishing slide and enjoys a strange, disposable attitude towards his police helicopter. Frustrating any chance of reconciliation is Steve Marachuk's Tyler Sherman, a military biochemist who poses as a diving student as a way to discretely investigate a wreck that the piranhas have infested. The brief, sexual relationship that arises between Tyler and Anne recalls an infidelity subplot from Peter Benchley's Jaws novel, a complication between Chief Brody and Hooper that never made it into Steven Spielberg's killer fish progenitor text.

All of Piranha II's best moments take place underwater, away from queued-up victims and the actor who decided to interpret the familial love between Anne and her son as a series of leering, nose-jutting flirtations. Submerged, the distraction of misfiring drama disappears, replaced with prolonged, silent exploration. These sequences are not only beautifully photographed by Roberto D'Ettorre Piazzoli, they also facilitate moments of believable, claustrophobic tension - emotional notes completely absent from the rest of the film. Anne and Tyler clawing their way along the rusted interior of a sunken ship while a bomb timer ticks down is a clear antecedent to a similar sequence in Aliens. The scale and stakes may be completely different but both retreats represent action, and its moment-to-moment frustrations, as their own, distinct, approach to storytelling.

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Daniel Deluxe - Sojourn

snaer. - Ringleader


Paced to express the mounting sense of anxiety felt by the film's lead couple, Joe Dante's Piranha starts out leisurely, bordering on sluggish, before slowly building to full-on, adrenal mania. Heather Menzies plays Maggie McKeown, a spunky skiptracer hot on the trail of two teenagers who skinny-dipped in the wrong pool. Along the way she recruits Bradford Dillman's topped-up drunk Paul to help investigate the disappearance. The pair stumble on a semi-abandoned military research tank (the kind that holds water) which they promptly, thoughtlessly, drain. Unfortunately, this bone-clogged cauldron housed a strain of super aggressive, selectively bred, piranha, able to survive in the cold, local waters.

After a couple of run-ins with the film's buzzing, agitated shoals, Maggie and Paul abandon their emerging relationship to arrive at a state of total, propulsive motion. This unceasing advance hits a peak 79 minutes into the film - editors Dante and Mark Goldblatt assemble a short, delirious sequence that mixes on-water stunt falls; a speedboat crashing through a smaller vessel (and the subsequent explosion); massing, carnivorous fish and, finally, our heroes launching themselves into space in a stolen, slow-motion police car. Dante's film may be slight in terms of storytelling - a quickly produced cash-in hoping to ride Jaws' wake - but it's assembled in a way that extracts maximum impact out of its (comparatively) meagre budget. The Piranha attacks manage to be both protracted and frenzied. The film's micro maulings communicated with churning, underwater collages that knit together images of teeth, injury and clouding, dilute blood.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare - THE META

Caution is the name of the game in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Ideally, you want to position your in-game character against a peekaboo surface with claymores at your back, guarding you from ambush. Even better if you can post up in a pitch black room, overlooking high traffic movement channels. Running about is discouraged - levels are a nightmare of distracting details and long, overlapping sight-lines; meaning the slightest movement could leave you hopelessly imperilled. Unfortunately, I don't have the patience for any of that shit, so I'm just loading up with whichever weapons are currently tanking the meta.