One Cut of the Dead
(Shin'ichirô Ueda, 2017)
If you’ve not yet seen this high concept Japanese indie mega-hit, let me simply say that you probably should, because it’s wonderful.
Beyond that however, it is the very definition of a film that is almost impossible to write about without spoiling the surprise, so what follows is less of a conventional review, and more just a couple of quick pieces of advice for potential viewers.
1. Though it is being marketed as a zombie film, I’d probably tag this one more as a family drama, disguised as a film-about-filmmaking, disguised as a zombie film, so - keep your monster kid expectations in check.
2. Though the opening half hour might well cause you to question why you’re bothering to watch this thing, stick with it and you will be richly rewarded.
3. Likewise, if you, like me, tend to experience motion sickness when watching shaky-cam handheld footage, this opening act will soon become a horrendous, stomach-churning nightmare. Once again though, please keep it together and keep your eyes on the screen, because blessed relief awaits at the thirty minute mark, and you’ll be disappointed if you missed some important details whilst staring at your shoes feeling nauseous.
And finally, I will note that, despite its low budget origins, this film’s achievements in the oft-overlooked fields of pre-production planning and continuity are quite possibly unparalleled in the medium, and, I believe, deserve to be recognised with some kind of gigantic medal and a hearty round of applause from the entire international film community.
(Jordan Peele, 2017)
So yes, I was pretty late getting around to this one. I really liked it though! In particular, I appreciated the way in which Peele manages to spin his “yeah, I see where this is going” Stepford/Bodysnatchers type premise into a considerably more challenging and thought-provoking social allegory than I had been expecting.
By which I mean, I like that he clearly decided that making his bad guys traditional white supremacists would be just too easy, and instead sets his satirical sights upon a slightly trickier target – namely, a very particular slice of white, liberal America that tends to fetishize the black experience whilst failing to respect the existence of black people as independent, self-determining, well… people, basically.
Elsewhere, the film has some fine acting and character interplay and some effective bits of humour, together with an exquisitely rendered atmosphere of unease, top notch cinematography and a handful of queasily surreal images that will live long in the memory. All in all, it rather put me in mind of a slicker and more professional Larry Cohen film, which is certainly no bad thing. (One Larry Cohen film in particular in fact, but… that’s a story we’ll get into in another forthcoming review, I suspect.)
All of these qualities are meanwhile only slightly undermined meanwhile by a script so monumentally unfeasible that plotholers will no doubt be gleefully trooping toward this one with their hardhats and grappling hooks for years to come.
(My biggest personal bugbear: I know there’s probably a point to be made about the black community being ill-served by law enforcement, but even so, surely someone in a position of authority must have noticed that ten plus missing persons cases were all in a relationship with the same woman at the time of their disappearance…?)
The Sisters Brothers
(Jacques Audiard, 2018)
In these days of micro-managed, producer-bedevilled screenplays, I appreciated the way that the film feels, for better or worse, like the sole vision of writer-director Jacques Audiard (who makes his Hollywood debut here I believe, having previously hit big in his native France with ‘A Prophet’ (2009) and ‘The Beat My Heart Skipped’ (2005)). This in spite of the fact that the list of production companies & sundry other entities involved in ‘presenting’ ‘The Sisters Brothers’ takes up an entire widescreen frame of subtitle-sized text. (Honestly, I thought it was a gag, until the opening scene – depicting a massacre - established a considerably less flippant tone.)
In particular, I liked the way that this film’s storytelling moves away from the “leaden gravity of karmic fate” approach so often favoured by westerns, instead adopting a rambling, quixotic framework that allows all kinds of episodic diversions and sidebars to distract us from the main thrust of the title characters’ intertwined arcs, including random bear attacks, shipwrecks, transgender casino proprietors and a tour through the bright lights of Gold Rush-era San Francisco.
Adherence to conventional screenwriting doctrine would have seen most of this stuff mercilessly excised, but personally, I’m glad that that these various bits and pieces made the final cut, simply because they are fun and interesting, and help to make the world of the film richer and more involving than it may have been if restricted to a straight-down-the-line, three act type job.
Speaking of rambling however…. well, let’s just say that, whereas the great American westerns of the past were largely united by their zen-like mastery of the ‘SHOW, DON’T TELL’ approach to character development, Audiard by contrast takes the Wes Anderson route here, allowing his characters to bang on interminably about their family backgrounds, personal ambitions and psychological conflicts, sometimes even in the form of fourth wall-breaking, straight-to-camera monologues.
Lord in heaven, I’ve never known such a bunch of touchy-feely cowboys – The Wild Bunch they ain’t. In fact, if sainted Sam Peckinpah was still with us, the effect of a screening of this one on the old boy’s blood pressure might have finished him off for good.
This all culminates in a curious variation on the old ‘Treasure of Sierra Madre’ gold prospecting expedition, in which three of the four grizzled, gun-toting participants gradually come to recognise each other as frustrated, autodidact intellectuals who share a utopian belief in the common brotherhood of man…. leaving only one authentically brutish tough guy amongst their number. Needless to say, it doesn’t end well, but, like most everything else in this film, it at least ends badly in a pretty unusual way, breaking curious new ground within this most heavily codified of cinematic genres.
I’ll admit, all the self-reflective nattering and teary pontificating in ‘The Sisters Brothers’ really got my goat – perhaps simply because it conflicts so strongly with my own personal ideal of the western – but on the other hand, there’s a whole load of satisfyingly cathartic violence here too, so hey - swings and roundabouts.
In most other respects however, this is an admirable piece of proper, old fashioned filmmaking, anchored by a truly exceptional performance from John C. Reilly as the older, more mature of the two brothers. His relationship with his wilder younger sibling (Joaquin Phoenix) touches upon that same ‘old, dying west vs new, incoming civilisation’ conflict that lies at the heart of so many of those brilliant ‘60s and ‘70s westerns - only here, it is civility, settlement and compromise that Audiard sees as the more noble, more poetic option, in contrast to the doomed, twilight-of-the-gods masculine belligerence hymned by directors like Peckinpah and Leone.
Though the film’s occasionally quirky tone and failure connect with me emotionally prevent me from hailing it as a modern classic, there is a lot going on in ‘The Sisters Brothers’ for western scholars to get their teeth into, and it certainly makes for a fine way to pass an evening, irrespective of one’s personal investment in the genre.
(Steve McQueen, 2018)
In fact, watching it feels very much like reading a rock solid, intricately plotted contemporary crime novel, an achievement which I’m going to assume goes all the way back to Lynda La Plante’s source novel. (I’ve never previously felt the need to read any of her charity shop-filling doorstops, but I do feel somewhat warmer toward them on the basis of this satisfyingly labyrinthine, POV-hopping yarn.)
Outside of all the stuff with gun and gangsters and vans blowing up, there is plenty of swelling music, emotive flashbacks, manipulative ‘tearjerking’ moments and a lot of (perfectly reasonable, let’s face it) commentary on the hard road faced by women and ethnic minorities in contemporary society to endear the film to the Oscar Bait crowd, but I personally didn’t find any of it too cloying, and the relentless mechanics of the plotting keeps the engine ticking over nicely throughout; keeping our eyes always on the next corner, so to speak.
Initially, I thought we might be looking here at a kind of sophisticated, non-exploitative modern Hollywood take on the old Pam Grier/Jack Hill via Pinky Violence formula, wherein we get to enjoy the cathartic release of seeing wronged women exact revenge against a grab-bag of utterly despicable, cartoonishly horrid males (representatives of course of an utterly despicable, cartoonishly horrid system), but, as ‘Widows’ progresses, characterisation on both sides of the gender divide becomes murkier, casting at least some welcome shade onto the film’s socially progressive right n’ wrong dynamics.
Ironically for a film that so deliberately puts its female characters centre stage, I actually found that by far the most compelling aspect of the story was the material concerning the behind the scenes machinations of a local election, wherein two equally corrupt, duplicitous male candidates from opposite sides of the tracks attempt to put one over on the voting populace of the city ward in which the action takes place.
Both Colin Farrell as the Teflon-coated old money candidate who secretly hates the hypocrisy of the role his domineering father has groomed him for, and Brian Tyree Henry as the ruthless gangster who has reinvented himself as the “progressive social change” candidate simply because he believes politics will offer him better kickbacks and a longer lifespan, are fantastically monstrous creations, and it’s great too to see old Bobby Duvall pretty much napalming the joint in a ferocious turn as Farrell’s aforementioned father.
To be honest, the interlocking sisters-doing-it-for-themselves narrative suffers in comparison, feeling a bit underdeveloped, in spite of the vast acres of screen-time allotted to filling in the protagonists’ respective back stories. Nonetheless though, performances remain strong, and the film believably conveys the destabilising trauma that can ensue when every day, more-or-less-law-abiding citizens suddenly discover that their lives sit precariously atop a steaming mountain of corruption, violence and extortion.
The eventual emotional impact of all this is muffled by a few loose ends and a BIG PLOT TWIST which feels poorly handled and unnecessary, but hey, you can’t have everything. Overall, ‘Widows’ is a solid crime film that lives and breathes within the conventions of its genre despite its wider thematic concerns, and its heart is certainly in the right place.
I’ve not yet had the opportunity to see S. Craig Zahler’s controversial cop epic ‘Dragged Across Concrete’, but I’d imagine it could make for an interesting “compare and contrast” with this one. Something tells me I’ll probably rate ‘..Concrete’ more highly as a film, but I’m pretty sure I already know which of the two I’d rather hang out with were they to take on human form, if you get my drift.
(Shane Black, 2018)
I’m assuming that, by this point, this awkwardly monikered sequel/reboot/whatever must have already been consigned to obscurity, from whence it will be distantly recalled as one of the biggest franchise-killing turkeys ever to have strutted its way through the gates of the Fox backlot onto the baking streets of Hollywood. I’d normally be content to leave it there, sizzling on the sidewalk, but the curvature of the earth adds about ninety minutes to the reverse leg of my annual Tokyo / London flight, so – ladies and gents, ‘The Predator’.
Actually, in truth, I feel a certain sympathy for this effort simply because I’m aware that director Shane Black is a close friend and long term collaborator of Fred Dekker, a man still revered by us horror fans as the creator of ‘Night of the Creeps’ (1986) and ‘The Monster Squad’ (1987). Indeed, Black & Dekker (ha! I only just noticed…) share the sole screenplay credit for ‘The Predator’, although god only knows what percentage of the movie they originally had in mind actually made it to the screen after what I imagine to have been a torturous nightmare of uncredited re-writes, executive producer ‘notes’ and studio-mandated re-shoots.
Nonetheless, the movie (during its first hour, at least) retains a breezy, happy-go-lucky b-movie feel that is actually somewhat endearing, including a few dialogue exchanges which I’m sure must have come straight down the line from Dekker’s sainted keyboard. (In particular, I enjoyed the running gag about the Predator not technically being a predator at all, because it hunts for sport rather than for food, with a character at one point likening it more to “an intergalactic bass fisherman”.)
With its definitive article title rendered even more redundant thanks to the fact that the script actually features several Predators, ‘The Predator’ is, undoubtedly, a bad movie, rife with forehead-slappingly dumb ideas and mindless, video game-y nonsense. Crucially however, it is not an unenjoyable bad movie.
Unlike most second tier Hollywood action product, the first hour here is neither boring nor charmless, and it’s muddled totality can perhaps best be appreciated by considering it as the kind of movie that some ‘80s trash maven like Albert Pyun or Fred Olen Ray might have made, had they been gifted with an eighty million dollar budget and a cruise liner full of Red Bull-huffing digital effects “artists”.
Would Pyun or Olen Ray’s Predator movie have included cute alien doggies who chase and swallow hand grenades? Probably!
Would they have presented us with the idea that a bus-load of inmates from the psychiatric ward of a military prison might actually turn out to be a gang of lovable, good-natured goofballs who can be safely left in charge of children and trusted with an array of city-block-levelling firepower? Sure, why not!
Would they have tapped into some paint-by-numbers Spielberg type shit by having a hard-done-by autistic kid take possession of a Predator helmet and wear it out as a Halloween costume, using its powers to take care of bullies, etc..? Well, ok, perhaps that’s a little bit far off the low rent sci-fi action movie tracks for Pyun and co, but if you can get some school holiday/family TV appeal into the bargain it’s all money in the bank, right?
Well, either way -- you know that whole business with the hot lady biologist being whisked off by helicopter to a top secret pentagon alien research lab built into the side of a mountain, where visitors need to strip naked for the ‘decontamination chamber’, whilst a white-coated scientist-who-looks-like-Gary-Busey-but-isn’t cracks wise over the body of a sedated Predator they have restrained on the examination table (absolutely NO danger of it waking up and slaughtering everybody, no siree)..? THAT is some prime ‘80s trash sci-fi business right there, no question about it.
(The only difference is, in the ‘80s, there would have been boobs. But, as we all know, they don’t exist anymore (at least outside the context of grim, taboo-breaking ordeal movies about how sex is horrible and people would rather cut bits of themselves off with rusty knives), so no dice, lechers.)
In this spirit, I’d go so far as to say that – bearing in mind I was sitting in an air-conditioned tin can thousands of feet above the plains of Siberia when I watched it - I actually found much of ‘The Predator’s run-time uproariously entertaining, in an “I can’t actually believe what I’m seeing here” kind of way.
My enjoyment was further enhanced by the fact that the film’s in-flight presentation had been “edited for content” in the most hilarious fashion, leading to dramatic exclamations of “FUDGE!”, confusing references to a female character’s “pudding” and macho soldier guys who tell each other to “shut the heck up”. (I’d assumed that this kind of melon-farming TV redubbing was now a thing of the past, so I’m delighted to see it making a comeback.)
It’s a shame then that the film’s final act more or less squanders this good feeling and proceeds to become extremely boring and charmless – an interminable, knocked-up-inside-a-PC, sound & fury styled action finale in which the sight of characters the film has tried its best to make us care about getting violently killed off inspires little more than a passing shrug as we wait in vain for the damned thing to be over.
Unfortunately, this finale also serves highlight my least favourite aspect of the film – namely, the generic “bombastic action movie music” that seems to have been plastered wall-to-wall across the entire picture without even the slightest attempt to match it to the on-screen action. It’s like some kind of hellish anti-muzak, designed to keep you aggravated and on edge, and it gets pretty tiresome after a while. Perhaps this is just normal now though, I don’t know?
In fact, there are a lot of things I don’t know. Like the reason why Fred Dekker hasn’t been allowed to write or direct a film in over 25 years, despite his brief run in the late ‘80s suggesting he might be quite good at it, for instance. Eat my pudding, Hollywood!