Sunday, 7 August 2022

Prey



Director Dan Trachtenberg and screenwriter Patrick Aison have worked a minor miracle with Prey. The duo have managed to produce a concept so strong that it works against the received (but failing) wisdom of how to conceptualise and plot a sequel, especially one with such obvious brand recognition. To wit: go bigger and bigger, at the expense of reason. The Predator series has always stumbled and bumbled around when attempting to expand its scope beyond John McTiernan's masterful but deliberately self-contained first instalment. Although Predator 2 seethes with an agitated, even radioactive, energy, further episodes strayed further and further away from the central idea of a single invisible monster stalking a shrinking team of maniacs. In one sense the first Predator is an ultra-masculine variation on Alien - a muscular appropriation of the same tick 'em off formula that trades oily decks for a green inferno; grumbling refinery workers for a well-equipped CIA death squad. 

In Prey, the extra-terrestrial chasseur is stalking The Great Plains, its presence in the 18th century reported in brief asides that recall the passively observed methodology of Arnold Schwarzenegger's cyborg in The Terminator. While McTiernan's creature was a ghostly presence, prodding at the soldiers it was tailing before going as far as actually attacking them, Trachtenberg's is locked into its own little sub-adventure. Although occasionally glimpsed by Amber Midthunder's Naru, a young Comanche woman who'd rather hunt than gather, this Predator is often alone, collecting trinkets and slowly working its way up the area's food chain. Dane DiLiegro's invader uses it's reflective camouflage to flaunt a proximity to the other animals that feast upon their physical inferiors. Trachtenberg's film, both in terms of incident and the dialogue screamed by dying men, plays up the villainous qualities of this Predator. It is a cheat. A massive firepower advantage isn't enough for this monster, instead it delights in striking at its victims while completely concealed, only decloaking when there's an enormous power discrepancy. 

Trachtenberg and Aison formulate their conclusion around this mix of arrogance and cowardice. Their hero, Naru, has enjoyed a certain proximity to this creature that has allowed her to decode its technology and techniques. In these situations Naru has, more often than not, played the role of quarry to the bigger game this Predator is actually poaching. She isn't viewed as a threat and is therefore irrelevant to the heat vision hunter. An early scene in which the Predator inadvertently gives a cottontail rabbit a reprieve by killing the wolf that was stalking it establishes that this alien has a blind spot, one that the physically smaller Naru can comfortably occupy. This advantage is compounded by Naru's intellectual acumen - just as she isn't constrained by the gender role that has been assigned to her by her family and society, she isn't limited by the position she hopes to grow into either. The Comanche men she brushes shoulders with have tried and trusted weapons that they rely upon - not unlike the Predator. Naru, when sensing the limitations inherent to her equipment, customises hers and transforms their utility. Naru then practices until she is fluent with these contraptions. Threaded throughout Prey is this idea that overwhelming physical strength limits those who possess it. The reliance on this power reveals an unwillingness to adapt; a desire to respond to every question with the same, mocking, answer. 

ALISON & Hotel Pools - Murmurs

Akuma by Matías Bergara

snaer. - Campfire

Wednesday, 3 August 2022

Crimes of the Future



Writer-director David Cronenberg's latest, Crimes of the Future, begins with a child hunkering down beneath a bathroom sink to tuck into the pink plastic bin that usually occupies that space. As he feasts, a thick white drool dangles from his mouth. Later we learn that this frothy sputum is caustic, an evolutionary advantage that will allow a new sub-species of humankind to consume and digest the synthetic trash that is crammed into every corner of our world. In the moment though, Sozos Sotiris' Brecken registers as a perfectly concealed Brundlefly - the mutant off-shot able to summon up corrosive digestive enzymes at will. This feeling of summation is threaded throughout Crimes: the mind-warping agenda of extreme, sensationalist, art from Videodrome rubs up against the pearlescent bio-mechanoids of eXistenZ; Shivers' mix of sex and surgery runs concurrent to failing attempts, by boring bureaucrats, to catalogue violent metamorphosis. The latter straight out of Scanners

Set in and around an art world dedicated to euphoric body modification, Viggo Mortensen's Saul Tenser and Léa Seydoux's Caprice are a double-act of critically appreciated performance artists. Saul is the canvas, Caprice the brush. Although we are told that pain and infection have largely been eliminated in this oddly Mediterranean present, Saul writhes in agony throughout the film. Unlike his partner, who can hold steaming skillets and must voluntarily alter her appearance, Saul's body is constantly undergoing twisting transformation. His insides give birth to new, unknown organs that are assumed to be vestigial and potentially tumourous. Cocooned in a operating bed that looks like a cross between the sarcophagus of a deep-sea monarch and a caterpillar's chrysalis, Saul submits himself to Caprice's surgical tinkering for the amusement of the champagne and canapés set. Even Saul's attempts to feed himself primary-coloured mush requires a soothing, swishing, skeletal apparatus - one designed to simulate the movements that a body locked in choking dysphagia has otherwise grown unaccustomed to. 

Beneath this new flesh garnish though, Crimes revolves around the sickly tension present in interpersonal incidents with clear hierarchical tiers - pitching and networking as an uncommon horror that demands artists pluck out their trembling insides then place them under someone else's microscope. In this sense Crimes treads similar ground to Cronenberg's earlier film Maps to the Stars. Whereas in that film the status that comes with fame allowed for a childish and chronic misbehaviour, Crimes examines these interactions from a perspective coloured by advancing age. Saul is elderly and established, unconsciously cooking up new projects in a mad rush to produce before his collapsing body begins its path to conclusion. In Crimes then the revulsion is generated not just by largely bloodless scenes of autopsy but by an overly appreciative audience, desperate to win any kind of favour with Saul. A scene with Kristen Stewart's Timlin, a junior staff member with the National Organ Registry, sees the young woman attempting to seduce Saul but, in practice, her overly enthusiastic regard is shown to be suffocating. Saul cannot help physically retreating from her fawning broadcasts, covering his mouth and face with his hands before, finally, conclusively ruining the mood by declaring that he is sexually inadequate.  

Tonebox & Lucy in Disguise - Lost After Dark

New Gods #9 by Artyom Trakhanov

Monday, 1 August 2022

I Still Know What You Did Last Summer



Director Danny Cannon's I Still Know What You Did Last Summer is a superfluous sequel almost completely disconnected from I Know What You Did Last Summer's core concept of drunken teens covering up their small town hit-and-run. Although both Jennifer Love Hewitt's Julie and Freddie Prinze Jr's Ray survived the events of the first film, Still's circling Fisherman killer only has detailed designs on the former - the saturated maniac showing up, unannounced, while Julie is attempting to enjoy an end-of-season break in The Bahamas. This lack of serious follow through when plotting Ray's death is symptomatic of a wider conceptual shift within the film. Still is less an ensemble piece, like its predecessor, and more a star vehicle designed around Hewitt. Previously, Jim Gillespie's film struggled to state a clear preference between its two female leads; more often than not Hewitt and co-star Sarah Michelle Gellar were trapped in the same medium shot, comparing crop tops. 

Cannon and cinematographer Vernon Layton's take on this Sony Pictures slasher is far more specific, and intrusive, in its shot selection. Hewitt's Julie, a lank and beleaguered presence in the first film, is allowed to be glamorous and frame filling here. The camera snoops around her, poking its lens deep into her personal space, appraising the actress' face and whatever skin she currently happens to be revealing. Singer-songwriter Brandy Norwood's Karla, the deputy attractive victim in this sequel, isn't given anything like the same attention as Hewitt. A monologue about Karla making an expensive bikini purchase fails to track into the conclusive leer it seems to propose, while a karaoke bar interlude only apportions mic time to Julie. Lumbered with a dull legacy villain who stomps around in waterlogged Wellington boots, Still does (briefly) shift up a gear when a member of Julie's college friend group reveals his true identity at the height of a tropical storm. And, although Trey Callaway's screenplay offers very little for Cannon to really sink his teeth into, the Judge Dredd director does at least seem to be trying to tune into the Italian horror masters when inspecting sodden graveyards or a verdant greenhouse that collapses in on itself. 

Final Fight Ultimate - 2P



Another look at CFX's Final Fight Ultimate, a modern fan project that squeezes Capcom's seminal coin-op down to a blast processing-friendly size. This latest clip shows off a gameplay mode missing from the SNES' 1990 adaptation (a Japanese launch title no less, which probably explains why the cart was a little feature poor): simultaneous two-player action. 

Neptune by David Green

VIQ - About You

Saturday, 30 July 2022

I Know What You Did Last Summer



Hurled into production after screenwriter Kevin Williamson scored a box office hit with Scream, director Jim Gillespie's I Know What You Did Last Summer is a far more routine pass at a late 90s slasher. The film is content to idle forward, slowly ticking off the remorseful teens who ran over a night-time stroller then tipped his bleeding body off a pier, so as not to disturb the bright futures they saw immediately ahead of themselves. Structurally speaking, I Know is the anti-Scream in that it deliberately thwarts the audience's natural desire to speculate on the identity of the killer. Roseanne vet Johnny Galecki plays Max, a nerdy snooper who displays all the hallmarks of a suspicion magnet: he's nursing an unrequited crush on Jennifer Love Hewitt's Julie; he's a whipping boy for the male contingent of her friendship group; and, crucially, he spots the teens acting suspiciously following the car crash incident that sits at the centre of the piece. 

Rather than string the audience along using this Max character, Williamson's script, an adaptation of Lois Duncan's 1970s young adult book, quickly jettisons him. The impulse behind this decision has a sense of deconstruction to it - this most likely suspect is now off the board and, surely, all bets are off if innocent bystanders are themselves being murdered? Unfortunately this writing flourish doesn't then pave the way for a startling new revelation that could be intuited from a close examination of the film's opening act. If Max, this unconnected but axe-grinding witness, has been slain then who could possibly be taunting this group? Naturally suspicion falls on the bashed-in body they dumped in the drink. This new framing implies a supernatural element in the film, one seemingly borne out by the Fisherman killer's ability to fill a car boot full of crabs feasting on a bloated teenager, then perform a full spit-and-shine service in the minutes between Julie discovering this nautical horror and her attempts to then reveal it to her beaten-up friends. 

The Fisherman killer's taunting goes beyond a simplistic, tit for tat revenge. Indeed the complete failure of any of these characters to thrive following that fateful night seems to indicate that the piece itself is acting against them. I Know is surprisingly prim in that sense. Williamson denies these characters the lives they dreamed of, hammering them back into small-town routine or, in the case of the most virtuous character Julie, having her unconsciously sabotage her chance at escape. There are even notes that imply that this is a just, tormenting, punishment being enacted from beyond-the-grave - Ryan Phillippe's image obsessed rage case has his good looks fouled (but not ruined) by a ghostly hit-and-run driver while Sarah Michelle Gellar's Helen has her beloved hair trimmed into a neat bob while she sleeps - but this spectral swirl ends up terminating in the dull den of a middle-aged man, grasping at his own straws. In the end this Fisherman killer is an unheralded aside who jumps through hoops to excuse these teens of their inciting crime.  

Tuesday, 12 July 2022

Thor: Love and Thunder



Star quality can be difficult to define. What is it that makes an actor appealing in a way that goes beyond the deliberately simplistic confines of brand-first filmmaking? Is above-the-title billing even a consideration that can be applied to the modern Marvel machine? Since Robert Downey Jr's departure there seems to have been a concerted effort to tidy away the idea of a bankable, middle-aged, leading man. The unending Disney slate preferring, instead, to offer up a hyper-caffeinated production line of poppy neophytes - a sort of The Mickey Mouse Club for big-screen action cinema. Whatever the desired destination, Taika Waititi's Thor: Love and Thunder presents an interesting case study in silver screen allure not 10 minutes into its runtime. We get a Chris-off: Chris Pratt versus Chris Hemsworth. Pratt, recently seen in the excretable Jurassic World Dominion and a veteran of several streaming-only also-rans, seems better able to communicate the snappy (and increasingly dull) impatience that underlines the majority of the interactions in this four colour universe - he's a living embodiment of Joss Whedon-style scripting then. Pratt offering himself up as a mouthpiece for the frustrated point-scoring that has, undoubtedly, burrowed itself deep into the series' DNA - a tick that refuses to be dislodged. 

Chris Hemsworth does something completely different. There's very little sense that he's concerned with seeming cool or even credible within this specific Summer blockbuster context. It's not even that he's behaving above the material, he's simply apart from the myth-making we've been trained to expect from this production line. With that in mind, Hemsworth's performance as the oblivious himbo secretary in Ghostbusters: Answer the Call seems to have become the actor's calling card. Hemsworth, likely recruited for that film because of his then-recent Marvel ascension, revealed a genuine instinct for absurdist comedy; one that seems to be completely at odds with his muscular movie star looks. If anything his fluency in pure nonsense adds an extra layer of bafflement to his strapping performances. Watching Love and Thunder, it was difficult to not be constantly reminded of Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam's post-Monty Python projects - Ripping Yarns or Erik the Viking; Time Bandits or The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - pieces in which expensive spectacle operates as a sight gag rather than an invitation to gasp. Collectively, these works all revolve around deluded maniacs who, it is eventually revealed, have their heart in the right place. At this point, Hemsworth's Thor has had his peculiarities exploded. The odd farcical aside has become the totality of this character. Broadly, Hemsworth's Thor is an invincible superhero who combines the moulded physique of Arnold Schwarzenegger with the good-natured psychosis of a Michael Palin. 

Sunday, 3 July 2022

Top Gun



At least initially, Top Gun presents as a defiantly shallow experience. The story of Tom Cruise's Maverick, a Naval hot-shot who encounters a top-secret Soviet aircraft, is told with the glossy visual language of an MTV music video. The plot hinges on a relationship between this young man and an older woman, Kelly McGillis' Charlie Blackwood, a civilian instructor at the TOPGUN Naval academy with Pentagon-level clearance. Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr.'s screenplay describes Maverick in far younger terms than would be appropriate for a serious-minded military thriller. There's still something of the frat-boy pugilist about him and his desire to transform every encounter or relationship into a kind of game; an opportunity for Maverick to flash his boyish smile then come out on top. This coping mechanism comes under attack when Maverick is recruited for an elliptical wargame that requires heated de-briefs from dangling love interests in front of an audience of chilly peers. 

Sport is stressed again, this time in structural terms. Maverick is the small-town star graduating to a college-level arena in which everyone is just as skilled as he is. How will he cope? By sleeping with his professor, of course. Eventually, a creeping doubt in his own abilities and an acute identity issue begin to pick away at this Maverick. Characters within the film begin to address him not by the super cool call-sign he self-identifies with but by his less exciting civilian name. This penetration of Maverick's deliberately constructed carapace is doubly troublesome for the young man because his family name carries its own weight. Grins becomes grimaces; exposing imperfect teeth. Maverick's father - Duke Mitchell, a Vietnam era pilot, perished in such a way that all records of his passing are sealed and stamped confidential. Maverick's true name, Pete Mitchell, initially registers as a kind of invective, deployed to undermine, before eventually - after Maverick learns the heroic truth of his own father's death - conveying a liberating and transformational power. Maverick's acceptance of this less obviously flashy persona allows him to become a more complete dogfighter. 

Director Tony Scott and cinematographer Jeffrey L. Kimball employ the commercial beauty of car adverts to bolster an artistic intent that wavers (knowingly) between softcore pornography and a seat-of-your-pants reportage. Male bodies are lovingly appraised, noting the pinkness of their sunburnt skin or the ripple of a flexed muscle. The actors are transformed into products, as adoringly photographed as the F-14 Tomcats that batter in and out of frame during the airborne battles. A clear constant across all Scott's work though is the desire to glimpse (then project) secret moments of genuine expertise; be that Denzel Washington's wounded bear act in Man on Fire or a tight close-up of a pistol ejection port being put through its paces by a dead-eyed Mafiosi in True Romance. Top Gun's opening credits are built around supersonic jets landing then taking off from a frigate at sunset. We don't follow the peeling aircraft though, we stay with the people hustling and prepping for the next influx. The sequence even accounts for the idea that, for these Signal Officers, there's a sense of monotony to this task. They've done it many times before. Scott and Kimball then, assisted by Chris Lebenzon and Billy Weber's edit, draw out the tiny, dreamily focused moments in which these men add flourish to their actions. We see them break - ever so briefly - from a well-drilled discipline to display anachronistic, human, moments amongst all the cold military machinery. 

Tuesday, 28 June 2022

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness



Although this is Sam Raimi's first pass at a Disney era Marvel character, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is the director's fourth adaptation of works that can be traced back to writer-illustrator Steve Ditko. As such, it's tempting to examine Multiverse within the context of Raimi's own web crawler trilogy - how then does this Doctor Strange episode measure up to the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man films? While there's less - but not zero - willingness to physically and mentally torture the film's leading man, Multiverse does improve on these previous works in one single instance: it combines the role of the leading lady and the villain into one super-character, subject to the extended attention you'd expect to be apportioned to the former while also acting with the ruthless determination of the latter. 

The first Raimi Spider-Man seemed to be positioning Kirsten Dunst's Mary Jane as a co-lead for that franchise, subordinate to Peter Parker's overarching journey but still able to eke out her own little corners of agony. That film's sequels were less inclined to follow that blueprint, discarding her perspective almost entirely in the theatrical version of Spider-Man 2 (an extended home video cut gives her a few underwritten asides) then transforming her into a prize to be haggled over in Spider-Man 3. A pivotal scene in the first Spider-Man has Parker inadvertently hear a screaming match between Mary Jane and a ranting father. He observes something private and embarrassing but doesn't then attempt to use this information against Mary Jane. Instead he commiserates, clumsily, before Mary Jane whisks herself away, smiling through tears.

Although designed - in the screenwriting sense - to allow the audience to see a gentle, non-judgmental side of Parker, how Dunst plays the scene keys us into the idea that Mary Jane has her own separate narrative arc, one distinct from, but complimentary to, Spider-Man's. Both characters are working class children trying to disconnect from their impoverished home environments and make something less mundane out of themselves. They both dream of a broad adulation; a kind of stardom that asks for little of themselves in return. Michael Waldron (the writer of Disney streaming series Loki and the "The Old Man and the Seat" episode of Rick and Morty)'s Multiverse screenplay does something similar with its two older leads. Benedict Cumberbatch's Doctor Strange and Elizabeth Olsen's Scarlet Witch are both creeping deeper into middle-age bereft of personal connection. Strange devoted his life to the pursuit of magic, missing out on a relationship with Rachel McAdams' Christine Palmer, while Wanda suffered through a pastiche of American sitcoms that gifted her a phantom family, then zapped them away from her. 

Disney streaming series WandaVision give us a bereaved sorceress who kidnapped an entire town before using them as tranquilised puppets as a way to work through the trauma she experienced battling the world conqueror Thanos. The show, a superhero-flavoured update on The Twilight Zone episode "It's a Good Life", toyed with genuine disquiet before, ultimately, resisting the urge to paint Wanda as an out-and-out monster. This aversion ended up undermining the strangeness of the piece, an effect exacerbated by a series finale that attempted to drum up enthusiasm for a television budgeted beam war. Multiverse demonstrates far less restraint, Scarlet Witch slaughters dozens of mystical innocents and superhero stand-ins. The film even goes as far as summoning up a team of vaguely fascist Avengers from an alternative reality for Wanda to (literally) pull limb from limb. Raimi consistently asserts himself in this cheery cruelty, working against Disney's well-established formula - that demands an irreverent stance on permanence - by burning tossed-off redshirt characters into the audience's memory by giving them deaths so alarming that their passing lingers like radiation. 

Thursday, 16 June 2022

Nemesis Prime by Tetsuya Ohara

ALISON & Hotel Pools - Pulse

The Northman



When The Northman begins, Amleth - the Viking Prince who will soon consign his life to the pursuit of vengeance - is still a boy. His father, Ethan Hawke's stout King Aurvandill War-Raven, returns from conflicts abroad with a seeping injury, one that seems likely to expediate the guileless prince's path to the throne. When considering his child War-Raven lasers in on Amleth's innocence; he senses something pure and uncorrupted in this cossetted, wide-eyed adolescent. Traits, incidentally, that this King feels are incompatible with the brutal monarchy that War-Raven has upheld. Despite protestations from Nicole Kidman's Queen, the father and his son partake in a ceremony designed to hasten Amleth's creep into adulthood. It's a shamanic ritual, resided over by Willem Dafoe's court fool, in which the two royals strip naked, bray and fart like animals, then drink mead spiked with a hallucinogenic. This witchery allows the pair to grasp at ethereal, reality-defying, visions that position their family within a massive tree root that extends off into distant futures.

Immediately following this psychedelic service, War-Raven is set upon and killed. Amleth escapes but never recovers from this outrage. His identity and outlook are frozen in the moments that he watched, helpless, as his father was murdered and his mother was carried away as plunder. Amleth therefore never quite shakes off the spell that was cast over him in that smoke-choked hut. The animal aspect that was summoned is never corrected by a return to the patterns and rhythms of a courtly life. The oath he swears during his escape - to avenge his father and free his mother - becomes an all-consuming ideological fulcrum. A desire for correction now burns within Amleth. The emotion has swallowed him whole, feeding the slathering, amoral might that lurks within. It's obvious then that The Northman owes John Milius and Oliver Stone's Conan the Barbarian a massive structural debt. Writer-director Robert Eggers and co-writer Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson treat that 1982 sword and sorcery film as a blueprint, battering a Scandinavian legend until it pivots on similar beats. Flourishes and embellishments are applied to Milius' sacred text: so while Conan steals a bastard sword away from a trembling Atlantean mummy, in Amleth's tale the corpse actually rises, joining battle with its graverobber.

The years between Amleth's flight and an opportunity to enact his revenge are a blur of frenzied violence. The prince - now played by a strapping Alexander Skarsgård - is a mercenary working with a clan of Viking berserkers. Pointedly, Amleth is party to, but not directly involved in, a kind of casual atrocity that undermines the conceptual purity of his own personal quest. His band generates enmity on a tremendous scale, tearing children and babies away from their screaming mothers then burning them alive. Skarsgård communicates a sheepishness in these scenes; an understanding that he is a component in a machine that perpetuates the kind of misery that drives his own vendetta. Later when Amleth has lied his way into a position that allows a chance at retribution, real-life circumstances gnaw away at his fantasy. The Wagnerian torment he has given his life over to is repeatedly undermined. First by the diminished circumstances he finds his treacherous uncle in, later by the poison that drips from his own mother's mouth. Eggers and Sigurðsson never let us forget that, in his heart, Amleth is a thwarted child. Jealousy prickles when he sees his mother loving another son and he willingly suffers through months of slavery just to decode a familial affection that he himself has never experienced. The final act of The Northman sees Amleth sinking deeper and deeper into delusion as a response to the devastating truths that assault him. The form of the film twists and turns in sympathy, rejecting muddy historical reality in favour of supernatural reverie. 

Friday, 10 June 2022

Street Fighter 6 - HANDCUFFS



In terms of instantly recognisable video game characters, Street Fighter II's World Warriors take some beating. Each one of the original eight globe-trotters were so perfectly composed that even the lightest remix (Hyper Fighting's colour swaps excepted) borders on pointless. Not that Capcom is happy to rest on their laurels. The company can't help burying their cast under affectations that players then can't wait to reverse, necessitating a trip to the app's online shop to pick up a classic costume. For instance, did Akuma really need a lion's mane in Street Fighter V? Similarly, after hitting on that cracking undead Ryu design in Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition, was V's killing intent variant in desperate need of a pair of neon pink devil horns? So what wilful sabotage have Capcom cooked up for their sixth instalment? Aside from a Ryu that (in fairness) looks genuinely fantastic we have a Guile with the jawline and blonde facial hair of WWE's resident belt hoarder Brock Lesnar. Not awful then, but still not a patch on a Super X-era Daigo Ikeno pin-up

Grand Soleil - Highway Ocean

Final Fight Ultimate - BLASTED



First look at a Final Fight fan project that shrinks Capcom's seminal coin-up down to Mega Drive dimensions. Although there's not much but menus in this clip, Edmo Caldas, Master Linkuei and Mauro Xavier's Final Fight Ultimate already looks about on par with the nearest equivalent adaptation, the 1989 Mega CD release, and conclusively trumps the period SNES cart(s) by allowing players to chose from all three street fighting characters. Although hardly a fair match-up, given the intervening decades of accumulated compiling know-how, it's still fun to see Sega's humble 16-bit system pushed to its limit. 

Liminal Project - Liminarité

Judge Dredd's Rough Justice by Jamie Hewlett and Glyn Dillon

Wednesday, 18 May 2022

Carpenter Brut - The Widow Maker feat. Alex Westaway

Sorcerer Rogier by Muraena

CORP81 - Was Here

YOUTH 83 - Slow Stride

The Abyss - Special Edition



The Abyss is a cacophony of drips. Anxiety rolls off the film in waves; the viewer made to feel the cold, pruning, ache that comes with occupying a leaky metal box that has been sunken into the pit of the ocean. Tasked with providing a base of operations for Michael Biehn's jittery SEAL rescue team when an American nuclear submarine goes bottom up, Ed Harris' Bud Brigman, and the crew of the Deep Core experimental drill platform, suffer their way through a steady stream of escalating dangers. The personal hell of having to share a collapsing space with an inflexible ex-wife he's still very much in love with - Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio's Dr Lindsey Brigman - turns out to be a minor discomfort for Bud when compared to the litany of hazards that await them all beneath the waves. A flooded Ohio-class tomb gives way to a series of close encounters compounded by swirling topside storms, a spiralling international crisis, and a dead-eyed psychopath who has taken possession of a Trident warhead. 

Rather than contrive a film's worth of interjecting hazards, writer-director James Cameron wrings drama out of his established milieu: bad oxygen tank mixes cause comas in the early going, while bulkheads buckle and burst when placed under incredible pressures as we plummet into the second act. These disasters don't present as contrivance either, they are a checklist of worst-case scenarios. The nightmare thoughts that have, quite obviously, crept in while Cameron was himself living through his own, practical, research. Every calamity feels strangely inevitable, the logical outcome of the film's obstinately perilous circumstances. Even Biehn's Lt Coffey, although happy to follow whatever apocalyptic orders are beamed down to him from his bloodthirsty superiors, explicitly suffers through a neurological episode caused by the intense physical strain of diving, then maintaining, the human body at so deep a depth. Typically a sensitive, even romantic, proposition in Cameron's other films, this Biehn performance exists at the other end of the emotional scale. Coffey is tremulous and chlorine-stained; a highly strung soldier attempting to power through a failing physical and mental state by repeatedly drawing a boot knife across his own forearm. 

As great as Biehn is, the film belongs to Harris and Mastrantonio. The hysteria their later scenes generate is so strong - so violently and nakedly distressing - that they actually end up unbalancing the film, vanquishing CG sequences that explicitly entertain the total destruction of mankind. This being a James Cameron film, The Abyss does not have just one finale. A tense submarine chase resolves to the estranged Brigmans trapped in a flooded, sparking, submersible. With one oxygen mask and tank between them, the decision is made - by Lindsey - to allow herself to drown while Bud tows her body back to the remains of the Deep Core. Harris screams and slaps his way through a seemingly hopeless resuscitation, the actor appearing to purge himself of the nervous breakdown-level exasperations associated with shooting a special effects film while genuinely submerged in stinging water. Everything that follows feels like a winding, superfluous, comedown by comparison. The scale of potential destruction may have increased massively - as well as having a sunken nuclear warhead in play, this Special extended Edition ratchets up the Cold War tensions and introduces the threat of mile-high tidal waves - but the claustrophobic terror we intruded upon earlier has been settled and, to a degree, dispelled. Lindsey and Bud have already reconciled. 

Wednesday, 11 May 2022

Spider-Man by Giannis Milonogiannis

John Dunder - Redshifted

ALISON & Hotel Pools - Stellar

The Sadness



What The Sadness lacks in plot it more than makes up for in pulsing viscera. Set in pandemic era Taiwan, writer-director Rob Jabbaz's film stalks the well-trodden path of two disentangled lovers fighting their way back to each other while the world falls apart. Berant Zhu's Jim and Regina Lei's Katie are the young co-habiting couple who find themselves at the opposite ends of Taipei when a highly contagious sniffle suddenly mutates into the catalyst for ultraviolent mayhem. The Sadness differentiates itself from the rest of the endlessly shuffling pack by shifting the undead's focus from pure calories to a kind of consumption that views other people in transactional or material terms. The goal then is for these zombies to make playthings of the uninfected: they tease and torture their prey, delighting in the horrifying power they hold over other people's bodies. 

Neither Jim nor Katie is afforded any real depth in The Sadness. Jabbaz's film preferring to consider the actors and their characters in purely utilitarian terms - both are simply good-looking focal points for the incoming waves of terror. In fact, the role through which we receive the most insight into this bubbling frenzy is Tzu-Chiang Wang's ominous Businessman. Initially encountered as a pestering presence on a packed commuter train, Businessman's mumblings quickly transform from a lonely, inexpert, attempt to trap Katie in a conversation to a frothing, stated, desire to rape her. He never shuts up, verbalising and even acting out every terrible thought that flickers across his mind. This explicit threat of sexual violence is woven throughout Jabbaz's film, positioned as the direct result of diseased brains that are no longer able to filter or thwart their invasive thoughts. The Sadness is a despairing film then, one in which the male example of the human animal is firmly, and repeatedly, contextualised in hopelessly predatory terms. 

Wednesday, 20 April 2022

Nirvana - Something in the Way (Live at the BBC)

The Batman



For a character that has been booted and rebooted to the point where any sense of permanence or progression has been subordinated to an endlessly regurgitating state of origin, Matt Reeves and Robert Pattinson's take on the caped crusader manages to eke out a place of its own in this ever-expanding pantheon by making him deliberately inexpert. This desire to play the masked vigilante as disconnected and insufferably weird is just enough to numb the nagging feeling that, perhaps, the Dark Knight might be better served by a period of hibernation. Although the overarching story is completely dissimilar, this The Batman is grounded in themes and ideas that didn't quite make it to the screen when Frank Miller and Darren Aronofsky were circling Warner Bros' prize property in the early 2000s - a Bruce Wayne estranged from the gaudier aspects of his wealth and a Batcave that, rather than occupy a cavernous space beneath a mansion, is actually a cordoned off stretch of abandoned subway. 

Like Miller and Aronofsky's recalibration, this Bruce Wayne isn't portrayed as worldly either. There's zero sense of the globetrotting pilgrimage that underpinned Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale's shinobi cinema take. Reeves' Batman has put down roots then rotted, a phantom committed to drifting along the streets that claimed his parents. Pattinson offers up gauntness, a malnourished cigarette stink that is reflected back to him by a Gotham filled with blaring video screens and neo-Grecian majesty; a city resplendent with ill-gotten gains and drowning in a constant downpour. Suited up, Pattinson's Batman isn't played as intimidating either. The street-level cops he interacts with are not awed by his supernatural presence, they treat him as a nuisance - an unwanted physical affectation that, for some reason, is allowed to pollute their evidence gathering procedures. 

Pattinson has a theatrical, carnival, quality to his looming. The horned cowl he wears more evocative of a Victorian depiction of The Devil than the usual animisitic totem. Batman as a dressed-up, Spring-Heeled Jack style, eccentric rather than the world-shaker who counts Superman amongst his friends. This Batman then has been plucked out of folklore and deposited into a particularly dour police procedural. This clash plays beautifully, at least at first, largely thanks to Pattinson's decision to not adapt in the slightest to the superhero production line. Rather than a gleaming Adonis, this masked vigilante is sinewy and violently unhinged; his venom maintained by poisonous-looking chemicals that can be injected into his body when he finds himself in dire need. Firmly located within sodden squalor, Reeves and Cinematographer Greig Fraser's film very obviously strives to evoke David Fincher and Darius Khondji's despondent work on Seven but the invocation frequently plumbs deeper influential depths. 

A constant technological prickle recalls the uneasy symbiosis of analogue and biomechanical machinery tidied into every frame by Ridley Scott and Jordan Cronenweth on Blade Runner. In the early goings, eyes gather and compute long strings of visual information, spitting out leads for this button-pushing meddler. It's a shame that the demands of Bruce Wayne's case have him leave this visually unusual feedback loop; damning his interactions to yawning exposition dumps and criminals casually surmising their murderous intents. Although the aesthetic is often sublime, the actual structural mechanics underlining this beauty frequently work directly against the spell. As well as an elasticated relationship to bodily harm that (bizarrely) aligns him with his Warner stablemate Daffy Duck, Pattinson's Batman isn't just dim, he's blank. An empty vessel just waiting to be filled up. 

Mouth-foaming data is batted aside, more than once, when Bruce Wayne finds his way to another, contradictory, perspective. There are sequences in the film where Batman dutifully trots from meeting to meeting, instantly rearranging his entire outlook based on nothing more than the last thing that was said to him. The character's strongest convictions are the revulsion he feels regarding firearms, an abstinence he lords over those who plainly weren't rich enough to keep a butler on staff to teach them the ins and outs of Spanish martial arts. In a film where, comfortably, hundreds of innocent civilians are swept away by polluted filth, why shouldn't Zoë Kravitz's Selina Kyle shoot a man involved in the brutal murder of her lover? Similarly, Batman's yelping admonishment of the supervillains he faces comes off as rote and sanctimonious in a film where the Bruce's public-facing persona is a barely maintained shadow. Scenes designed to draw clear lines under the idea that Batman and his foes are reflections of each other repeatedly fail to land because of the voyeuristic strangeness constantly being generated by Pattinson. If anything, Wayne Jnr's unholy quest to pummel turnstile hoppers makes considerably less sense than a violent uprising determined to rid a terminally compromised city of its parasitic ruling class.  

Michael Giacchino - Highway to the Anger Zone

Tuesday, 12 April 2022

The Chinese Boxer



As confident a directorial debut as you're ever likely to see, Jimmy Wang Yu's The Chinese Boxer (released as The Hammer of God in some territories) constantly looks for ways to submerge the viewer into the personal and physical stresses facing the film's hero. Wang Yu plays Lei Ming, the last survivor of a Chinese martial arts school levelled by supernatural Japanese invaders and their Chinese collaborators. Although at death's door himself, Ming swears revenge. Wang Yu, who was coming to the end of his time as an underpaid in-house talent with Shaw Brothers Studios, was in his mid-20s when he wrote, directed and starred in The Chinese Boxer. With that in mind, the film plays like a calling card for potential investors in Wang Yu's future blockbusters - the actor presenting himself as a matinee idol uniquely attuned to the bloodthirsty cravings of his audience. Chinese Boxer then is restless and constantly inventive. Wang Yu and cinematographer Shan Hua never play it safe with their shots, avoiding typical, locked-down, glimpses of backlot sets that had to have been laundered through dozens of features at this point. 

Action photography is similarly untethered, thrusting itself into straining grapples to better capture clenched teeth or circling a shrinking exchange with a massing, barely removed, mob. The Chinese Boxer really sings though during the body-smashing training Lei Ming subjects himself to while on the path for revenge. Although a routine premise now, Chinese Boxer's tale of a broken kung-fu student rebuilding his body through stressful drilling was novel at the time of the film's original release. Wang Yu and Shan Hua get to create a visual language of their own when considering these wilful, transgressive, transformations. Their model emphasises the horrific nature of the changes being enacted on a vulnerable - even sickly - human body. Surrounded by cobwebbed gargoyles, Lei Ming plunges his hands into boiling sands in an effort to create a callused pair of claws. The sequence careens at a Satanic fervour - the horrendous carvings bring themselves to bear on the soundtrack, laughing and snorting at Ming's torturous metamorphosis. Wang Yu doesn't neglect the frail human element in these macabre rituals either: although Lei Ming achieves his deadened technique, his hands are irreparably changed into bubbling talons that must be wrapped in surgical gauze to avoid becoming infected. Ming then is the hero as wounded and maniacal; lousy with a sickness that can only be purged through (righteous) violence. 

hello meteor - Cascade Nights

Gamera by Eric Schuster

Wednesday, 6 April 2022

Star Trek: The Motion Picture - The Director's Edition



Originally put together for an early 2000s DVD release by restoration supervisor Mike Matessino, producer David Fein and visual effects supervisor Daren Dochterman, Robert Wise's Director's Edition of Star Trek: The Motion Picture has drifted in limbo for the intervening decades - missing out on an entire generation of home video - thanks to a lack of forward-thinking when rendering the extended version's additional special effects shots. Specced (or more likely budgeted) for television broadcast and standard definition discs, the film's longer version was lumbered with an interlaced master; its elements lacking the kind of pixel bandwidth necessary to extract a high-definition alternative. Wise's preferred edit is only now available in 4K thanks to an unusually diligent restoration project that has, lovingly, reconfigured a film so time poor in terms of its original post-production that it was delivered wet to its premiere screenings. 

While it's difficult to not be sceptical about an expanded cut that arrives 17 years after the helmer's passing, Star Trek: The Motion Picture - The Director's Edition - although superficially similar to the 1997 Star Wars Special Editions - betrays little of the obnoxious third-party tinkering that George Lucas subjected his space opera series to. As with the previous DVD edit, The Motion Picture now opens with a Jerry Goldsmith overture, priming its audience for the more sedentary rhythms associated with Biblical epics. Extra moments and character clarifications are peppered throughout the piece, the best of which arrive in the third act: Leonard Nimoy's Spock expressing a kinship with the terminally unhappy machine they're investigating or James Doohan's Scotty patiently explaining that - on Kirk's orders - the ship's engine are being primed for self-destruct, a wrinkle that adds an extra layer of tension to the meeting with V'Ger. 

Obviously though, given how far removed from the original production this director's cut is, the majority of the attention the film receives is presentation based. Colour is corrected from the pallid countenance of the theatrical presentation to a more healthy hue while the film's soundtrack has been re-arranged to benefit Dolby Atmos equipment. This spatial audio allows the bleeps and blops of the Enterprise consoles to take on an almost symphonic quality that, at times, envelops the increasingly stunned crew. The photographical imperfections present in many special effects shots, thankfully, remain charmingly obvious and unchanged in this 2022 cut while the brand new CG shots, although not completely imperceptible, are often conceptually closer to the kind of work that Rafael Segnini is producing for his Kyojuu Tokusou Juspion web-series. It's an approach that sees computer effects used specifically to imitate the magical heft of miniature or puppetry special effects, rather than the physics-based sims modern movie goers have been trained to appreciate. A shot of the Enterprise docking with the living machine that sits at the centre of the V'Ger dreadnought is therefore designed to simulate two scale models knitting together in a cavernous studio setting rather than a more realistic collision between two massive interstellar objects. 

Jerry Goldsmith - Overture

Kavinsky - Cameo (feat. Kareen Lomax)

Evil Ryu by Hungry Clicker

Tuesday, 22 March 2022

Spider-Man: No Way Home



Heavily indebted to Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman's excellent Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Jon Watt's multi-dimensional pile-up, Spider-Man: No Way Home, employs the same reality-bending as its animated predecessor - not to mention the current Marvel streaming shows - to give this increasingly disconnected sub-series (as well as long-time executive producer Avi Arad) a victory lap. In doing so, No Way Home batters Tom Holland's likeable take on Peter Parker out of his moneyed comfort zone to re-establish a balancing act minted in a previous Spidey phase. The film abandons the overloaded technological wish-fulfilment - that saw Spider-Man subordinated into the role of Iron Man's teenage ward - to push at the working class ache that underpinned Sam Raimi's take on the character. No Way Home drags in adversaries from these Raimi films, as well as the two Marc Webb instalments that followed, as a way to brute force Holland's Parker through this conceptual shake-up. 

No Way Home is a piecemeal experience. Strange highlights - imported from different films and deployed to wrinkle recognition - struggle to exert themselves on a whole that seems to be either thrashing around in the midst of an onscreen identity crisis or simply holding the Spider-Man character to ransom ahead of the next round of financier negotiations. Willem Dafoe's Green Goblin is an obvious but under-explored delight though. The character's trajectory built around the tensions of a personality split that, unfortunately, we barely see overlap. Still, even if No Way Home doesn't apportion enough screentime to Osborn to manufacture a believable - or even trackable - sense of mounting disquiet, the film does remember that the action in the first Spider-Man's was defined by a deeply personal strain of violence. While the weight that Watts and his screenwriters (Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers) heap on their hero never comes close to matching the face-swelling welts that Raimi dished out, Holland does get to play murderous rage: punch after punch, hammering down on the teeth of a clearly ecstatic Goblin. For a series of films in which (comfortably) billions of people have died, the motivational power of pure hatred is a note that has been largely absent. 

Hotel Pools - Vital

Weird, Weird Dog by Dood

Harry Nilsson - Without You

Wednesday, 16 March 2022

Gemini Drive - Remember

The Comics Journal - Fist of the North Star Volumes 1-4



Jumped at the chance to write about the first four volumes of Viz's recent Signature releases of Fist of the North Star for The Comics Journal. If you're not familiar with Buronson and Tetsuo Hara's series, expect muscular messiahs battling for supremacy in the ruins of the twentieth century. 

Wednesday, 2 March 2022

Texas Chainsaw Massacre



Pitched as a belated continuation of Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, David Blue Garcia's Texas Chainsaw Massacre - itself the ninth entry in this petrol-powered series - betrays little understanding of the original masterpiece as anything other than a vehicle for a stylised ogre to murder young people. Legendary Pictures' approach then is similar to the increasingly disconnected Friday the 13th sequels; a vague idea of continuity that, in truth, has been boiled down to the recurring threat generated by looming musculature with an affinity for power tools. Garcia's film - screenplay credited to Chris Thomas Devlin with story credits going to Rodo Sayagues and producer Fede Álvarez - also finds a couple of spare minutes to lift the avenging final girl conceit underpinning the recent refresh of the Halloween franchise. Sally Hardesty, the only survivor of the 1974 incident, has bounced back from what looked like a lifelong catatonic episode to show up, mid-mulch, for an unsatisfying third-act fumble. 

Although no big shakes themselves, David Gordon Green's films do at least apportion a significant amount of their run-time to understanding the damage experienced by their heroines. Comparatively, this Massacre goes out of its way to snub Olwen Fouéré's take on Sally, reducing her to a clumsy emissary of the Remington Arms company. Largely contrived and mechanical in its execution, this Texas Chainsaw Massacre does manage a healthy thrum when we are allowed to see Leatherface rattling around in his private moments. One bystander, as they struggle to free themselves from a totalled police van, witnesses Bubba violently reclaiming the motherly mask intrinsically linked to his atrophied super-identity. Back in the home that has sheltered him in the intervening decades, a different victim watches as this killer attempts to process loss by staking a claim on his warden's clothing and make-up. These scenes are as close as Massacre number 9 gets to the trophy gathering predilections of Ed Gein, the necrophiliac body snatcher who served as inspiration for Hooper's nightmarish classic. 

Monday, 21 February 2022

Memoria



Tilda Swinton's Jessica find herself in Colombia, visiting her sick sister (who believes she's bed-ridden as recompense for some unsourceable transgression) and making half-hearted enquiries about refrigeration units for a barely noted orchid business. Jessica's attempts to sleep in this new environment are thwarted by an unprompted crack that she later describes to a helpful audio engineer as sounding like a rumble from the core of the earth. Although we are shown specific circumstances in which only Jessica can hear these intrusive reverberations, they do seem able to exert some purchase on the physical world - at least enough, in one instance, to elicit a chorus of car alarms. Jessica represents an alien element in the film's opening passages; a person rudely imported into this milieu who, nevertheless, is slowly slipping out of alignment with her own world and disappearing into this one. 

Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Memoria is built out of held frames, the director and his cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom using a flattened space, unmotivated by camera movement, to create vignettes. Swinton creeps across these frames. Her Jessica is always reticent, a trespasser slowly prodding further and further into places they don't seem convinced they should be occupying. Weerasethakul also cranks up diegetic sound far beyond typically acceptable levels; the hums and rumbles directing the eye to a detailing that gradually swallows Jessica up. The audience is prodded to tune into this stillness, understanding these rhythms as extant incident rather than a plotted bread crumb. Weerasethakul never betrays this somnolent trust either; he allows his audience to abandon their search for obvious meaning or direction, sinking into scenes and situations to the extent that they are then able to conjure up a sense memory - a smell, maybe - associated with their own experience of having existed within similar moments. 

Andre / Hugo by Matías Bergara