Sunday 18 February 2024

New Movies Round Up # 2:

Sea Fever 
(Neasa Hardiman, 2019)

As far as niche sub-genres go, sea-bound eco/survival horror is generally a good bet, and this modest, primarily Irish indie production takes a pretty convincing shot at it. It’s a rather less exciting prospect to try to write about, truth be told, but I feel like telling you about it nonetheless, so buckle up, and we’ll get through this whole ‘review’ thing together.

So, synopsis time! A painfully introverted PhD student specialising in behavioural patterns of marine life, Siobhán (Hermione Corfield) is reluctantly persuaded by her supervisor to undertake a bit of fieldwork - namely, signing up for a research excursion on rust-bucket fishing trawler the Niamh Cinn Oir, wherein she makes the acquaintance of the unfeasibly diverse crew with whom she (and we) will spend the next 90-odd minutes.

In contrast to the wall-to-wall rough bastards you’d reasonably expect to find manning an Atlantic trawler, we’re instead introduced to hard-bitten yet well-meaning husband and wife skipper team Gerard and Freya (Dougray Scott & Connie Neilson), their sturdy and ever-cheerful son Johnny (Jack Hickey), and the family’s superstitious, and indeed suspicious, grandma Ciarra (Olwen Fouéré). Below stairs meanwhile, we’ve got Syrian refugee and unrecognised engineering genius Omid (Ardalan Esmaili) and another young man of middle eastern descent, Sudi (Elie Bouakaze), whose girlfriend is expecting a baby back home, and who regales us with his plans for a happy future, so -- I’m sorry mate, but you realise we’re in a who’s-going-to-die-first horror movie here, so might as well just get you measured up for that body bag right now, eh?

Speaking of which, exposition of the film’s supernatural plotline is wisely kept paper-thin, but long story short: after Skipper Gerard plots a course through a maritime ‘exclusion zone’ in search of a better catch, the trawler finds itself colliding with what transpires to be an unprecedentedly huge, translucent squid-like creature, whose suckers soon cause little patches of alarming, corrosive goo to begin seeping through the hull.

Sadly, the conspiratorial angle implicit in the fact that this massive, unknown creature is simply flopping around happily in an area from which the powers-that-be have pointedly prohibited civilian shipping is never investigated by Hardiman’s script, but no matter, as there’s plenty else going on to keep our characters busy once their vessel breaks away from the squid’s grasp. Not least, an unknown infection of spreading through the crew causing a variety of unpredictable, scary symptoms, furiously multiplying parasites in the water supply, a sabotaged engine, no means of contacting the outside world, and… well, you get the picture.

During ‘Sea Fever’s first half, the film’s gloomy tone, overcast, seaweed n’ barnacle-drenched ambience and plausible-seeming scientific chat all rather put me in mind of early ‘70s UK TV staple Doomwatch, establishing an atmosphere of drab realism which nicely enhances the impact once the full-on SF/horror elements are let out the bag and given a run around later on.

In particular, the low key atmos which prevails aboard ship contrasts nicely with the notes of Lovecraftian awe conjured up by the effects-heavy underwater sequences wherein we encounter the mysterious life forms first-hand, in footage whose eerie, CG-enhanced beauty proves surprisingly effective.

By far the film’s strongest suit though turns out to be its ensemble performances, with the cast having clearly been given a free hand to treat the whole thing as a long-form chamber piece/collaborative exercise, as all concerned do great work in transcending the potentially clichéd roles assigned to them by the script, effectively capturing our sympathies/attention in the process.

Though it can make few claim toward originality (see below), writer/director Neasa Hardiman’s screenplay is nonetheless peppered with curious bits of detail which also help add a bit of depth to proceedings, whether through random folkloric digressions (such as grandma Ciarra explaining the significance of the trawler’s name, or the crew reacting with consternation to the discovery that they’ve inadvertently set sail with a redhead aboard ship), or the assorted cool, DIY schemes Siobhán and Omid come up with to try to fight back against the alien incursion (using a hacked smartphone to generate UV light for instance); schemes which, refreshingly, totally fail to work in most instances.

There are, it must be said, a few glaring absurdities which stretch credulity along the way - most notably the vexed issue of the radio, which apparently falls apart after the boat bumps into the squid, causing the skipper to immediately declare that they’re now out-of-contact with the mainland, despite not even bothering to ask the two highly proficient tech bods on-board to try to fix it. (And what, no back-up radio? GPS tracking? Distress signals? FLARES, fergodsake? I mean, I’ll cop that it’s a been a few years since I spent any time on a boat, but I’d imagine it must take more than a few loose wires on the ol’ CB for a 21st century fishing trawler to declare itself lost without hope…?)

But, the crew must of course be entirely isolated in a confined space - that’s the point, for such is a prerequisite of the formula which inevitably takes ‘Alien’ as it’s foundational ur-text. In addition to which, it must be acknowledged that Hardiman draws heavily on the blue-print provided by John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ here, hitting most of the same basic plot beats to one extent or another, and repurposing a number of that film’s key set-pieces in a manner which I scarcely need to unpack here, so bleedin’ obvious will it be to the vast majority of the viewing public.

But, if you’re going to steal, steal from the best etc, and within the limited gene pool of ‘Alien’/‘The Thing’-type movies, ‘Sea Fever’ makes optimum use of its modest resources, rarely putting a foot wrong. Not exactly a mindblower or shredder of preconceptions then, but, the next time you find yourself in search of something to fill that particular salty sweet spot in your viewing schedule - look no further folks, this one’s solid.


Destroy All Neighbours 
(Josh Forbes, 2024)

Watching the trailer for this one when it popped up on Shudder early in January prompted a bit of an “ok, clear the viewing calendar, Friday night is covered” moment on my part, momentarily making that £5 monthly subscription fee feel a bit easier to justify.

Later on said night though, spirits were subdued (and low level spending priorities reassessed), as it was agreed that Josh Forbes’ gonzo horror-comedy just didn’t quite hit the spot.

It’s difficult for me to put my finger on quite why that is though, given that all the necessary elements for a good time do indeed seen to be present and correct in this saga of an anxious prog-rock obsessive William Brown (Jonah Ray) battling to complete his home-recorded magnum opus in the face of overwhelming disruption from his bestial new neighbour (Alex Winter of ‘Bill & Ted’ fame, unrecognisable under a mass of prosthetics).

Indeed, there are a lot of individual bits and pieces here which I liked a lot - not least copious amounts of muso/record nerd humour, partially arising from the amusing mythos surrounding the film’s fictional prog titans Dawn Dimension, and a ton of wild and oft-impressive practical gore effects sure to warm the heart of any ‘80s horror fan.

Ray does great twitchy, whining, self-pitying work in the lead role, whilst still managing to make his character at least somewhat sympathetic, and there are numerous scenes and individual gags along the way which are genuinely very funny, but… I dunno, man. Somehow the overall structure and tone of the whole thing just felt off - its story and characters presented in an indigestible, sometimes frankly just plain obnoxious, fashion which I didn’t really care for.

The problems begin, I feel, with Winter’s characterisation of Vlad, the nightmare neighbour. Buried under such heavy, orc-like make-up that we initially wonder whether he’s even supposed to be human, Winter seems to be going for a kind of broad, Eastern European macho stereotype here, dropping weird, garbled dialogue which frequently proved difficult to decipher. He’s certainly an unnerving presence, that’s for sure, but… I think he’s also supposed to be funny, and on that level, well… I just don’t get it, I guess?

Likewise, several of the film’s other OTT comic characters (the coke-addled, Crosby-esque singer-songwriter who makes William’s day-job at a recording studio a misery, the hobo who hassles him for croissants on his way to his car, etc) represent an aggressively emphatic brand of low-brow / one-joke character comedy which soon becomes both tedious and exhausting.

This is especially regrettable, given that the bits of the film which actually are funny (such as William’s attempt to bribe the security guard outside a blast furnace with a rare demo tape, or his interactions with his long-suffering girlfriend (Kiran Deol)) tend to be those which adopt a more low-key / down-to-earth kind approach, letting the surrealism of William’s increasing disconnection from the world outside his head sink in more effectively than all the putty-faced gurning / shouty stuff utilised elsewhere.

Although it was presumably Forbes’ intention for us to feel thoroughly disorientated by the descent into hallucinatory psychosis which accelerates after [not-really-spoiler-alert] William kills Vlad and dismembers/disposes of his body, the film soon begins to feel confused and rudderless at this point, in a manner which I don’t think was entirely intentional (an effect not exactly helped by a number of exceptionally unlikely plot twists).

By the time we reach the grand excelsis of the movie’s conclusion, which sees William finally finishing his album aided by a band of re-animated monster corpses in a hi-jacked studio utilising phantasmagorical, lightning-blasting equipment, we can certainly enjoy all the triumphant audio-visual, effects-driven absurdity of the situation, but at the same time, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the essential point of the exercise had been rather lost in transit (a feeling perhaps not inappropriate to the film’s unabashed celebration of bombastic prog excess).

Is this, essentially, a parable about the dangers of shutting the people around you out of your creative life? If so, I fear it doesn’t really come across terribly well. And, I realise that being cynical and un-PC and so on is cool in this cultural context, but should the film really be taking William’s ghastly crimes quite so lightly? Are we supposed to continue to identify with his personal/creative struggles as he alternates between whining self-pity and delusional slaughter? Because doing so is tough-going, frankly, but as we’re never allowed to leave his increasingly suffocating subjective POV, we’re never offered an alternative.

Whereas the presumed prime influences on Forbes’ film (Frank Henenlotter, early Peter Jackson) managed to skate across such questions in their work with charm, grace and a certain degree of humanity, ‘Destroy All Neighbours’ instead ultimately collapses in on itself, leaving behind a nasty residue of white boy smarm and mild nausea.

Perhaps that old chestnut about the perils of deliberately setting out to make a ‘cult movie’ may be applicable here? Or, pure speculation on my part, but perhaps the film’s problems simply stem from the contributions of its three credited screenwriters being insufficiently integrated into a coherent whole? Whatever the case though, sadly ‘Destroy All Neighbours’ many virtues as a piece of crazy-ass, low budget genre cinema find themselves scattered unevenly amidst a flood of nasty, unpalatable goo which just won’t wash out.


(Ti West, 2022)

A few Halloweens ago, I found myself impulsively re-visiting Ti West’s ‘House of the Devil’ from 2009, and discovered that, not only had it aged very well, but that I actually enjoyed it even more than I did at the time of it release.

Naturally, this set me to wonderin’ what became of the film’s director, who looked to be the Great White Hope of US horror cinema for a few minutes back there. To be honest, I lost track of his career following 2011’s underwhelming ‘The Innkeepers’, so, it’s a great feeling therefore to catch up with his triumphant return to the world of mid-budget horror all these years later, and to discover that it builds upon many of the qualities which impressed me so much in ‘House..’.

So, once again, ‘X’ gives us a beautifully detailed period setting (late ‘70s rather than early ‘80s in this case), and again includes an extremely lengthy (but almost hypnotically captivating) ‘slow burn’ build up before anything happens to 100% confirm that we’re definitely watching a horror movie. But, when those things do finally begin to happen, they do so in a way which proves extremely satisfying.

Before we get to all that though, ‘X’s initial set up - in which a threadbare cast and crew set off for a remote Texas farmstead to shoot a zero budget porno movie - proves interesting, fun and (like every aspect of the film) reflective of a writer/director with an innate understanding of (and love for) the aesthetics of vintage genre filmmaking.

It’s easy to imagine for instance that any number of the ultra-scuzzy regional ‘70s porn flicks which survive today as anonymous, public domain scans of heavily damaged prints could well have been the one these guys are setting out to make here, whilst the character dynamic which plays out between the opportunistic strip club-owner producer and his seasoned sex industry ‘stars’ on the one hand, and the high-minded film student cameraman and his girlfriend/assistant on the other, seems modelled to some extent on that documented in Joel DeMott’s legendary Demon Lover Diary from 1980.

Which is to say that, as in any good slasher film, there is plenty going on here to keep us busy until the vaguely defined threat lurking somewhere out in the darkness finally takes shape and makes its presence felt - and, needless to say, plenty of opportunity to fill the opening act with sex, and arguments, and people running around at night without (m)any clothes on, without seeming too forced or far fetched.

And, make no mistake - this is an extremely good slasher film. No more, no less. (Well, perhaps just a little bit more? See below.)

Without resorting to Tarantino-style fanboy blather, West dutifully doffs his cap to all the requisite precursors in this particular backwoods corner of the genre (not only ‘Psycho’ and ‘Texas Chainsaw..’, both directly referenced in the text, but also ‘Eaten Alive’, ‘Tourist Trap’, etc), and proceeds to do right by them.

And, once ‘X’ locks into a familiar stalk n’ slash pattern during its second half, the director plays a very nice little game with genre expectations which I’ve rarely seen any other contemporary filmmaker achieve too successfully. Namely, giving us exactly what we expect to happen - but still making it work.

When discussing music after a few drinks, I’m sometimes inclined to grandly declare that the art of great rock n’ roll lays in doing the simple stuff well, and, in both ‘X’ and ‘House of the Devil’, West seems determined to prove that the same formula can also be applied to horror filmmaking.

Based on these two examples at least, notions of surprise and unpredictability (usually so key to horror/thriller storytelling) play very little role in his cinema. Anyone with the slightest familiarity with genre conventions should be able to grok the entire premise of ‘X’ right from the outset, and in each of the film’s ‘kill scenes’ in turn, exactly what we think is going to happen happens.

But, in West’s hands, it happens really fucking well. Like a chef who has spent his life carefully refining the same menu night after night, he gives it to us but good.

(In fact, West’s dedication to perfecting the predictable even goes so far as orchestrating the best needle-drop of ‘(Don’t Fear) The Reaper’ in movie history, right at the pivotal moment bridging the film’s “slow burn” and “horror” sections. Again, original it ain’t - but awesome it surely is.)

Meanwhile, another similarity which unites ‘X’ and ‘House of the Devil’ (and indeed ‘The Innkeepers’, insofar as I recall) is the idea of the old preying upon the young, drawing explicitly upon the implicit fear of the elderly or infirm which lurks just beneath the surface of so many teen-centric ‘70s/’80s horror films.

Which brings us neatly to is what is ostensibly ‘X’s main talking point (though it is not something I found terribly interesting whilst in the process of actually watching it) - namely its status as quite possibly the first film in history to feature characters aged in their 20s and their 80s played by same actress (rising star Mia Goth, who delivers one hell of a performance in both roles, just for the record).

Surprisingly unaddressed in the writing I’ve seen about this film is the fact that, whichever way you cut it, the concept of getting young actors to don heavy aging make-up to play elderly characters seems pretty damned offensive, even in cases where those characters aren’t portrayed as psychotic killers. (As a comparison, just consider how far you’d get these days trying to make a film in which the same methodology was applied to race, or to disability, and you’ll see my point.)

At best, this could usually be considered fairly distasteful practice, inherently disrespectful to the older actors who may potentially have appreciated the chance to play these roles; but, in this case, as so often in the best horror movies, I think we can make an exception.

By which I mean, in addition to the practical difficulty of finding elderly performers willing / able to pull off the kind of physical extremity required of ‘X’s Pearl and Howard, I think we can also place ‘X’ within a lineage of horror cinema going all the way back to Tod Browning and Benjamin Christensen, in which filmmakers have purposefully stepped beyond the bounds of ‘good taste’, courting offense or disgust in order to confront viewers with taboo imagery and uncomfortable ideas, viscerally challenging conventional screen representations of ‘difference’, and hopefully provoking some thought in the process.

By casting heavily made up young actors as his damaged and homicidal geriatrics, West seems intent, not just on forcing us to question our own discomfort at the idea that aging/unattractive bodies may still harbour physical desire and the yawning gulf between flesh and spirit implicit in this, but also in drawing our attention to how thoroughly such unexamined fears permeate many of the 20th century horror films we all love so much.

Heavy stuff to unpack, you'd have to admit, but, like all truly great pulp/genre art, ‘X’ evokes these ideas merely as a by-product of simply being a fun watch - a perfectly-crafted, fantastically enjoyable exemplar of its sub-genre, whose side order of taboo-breaking thematic discomfort never spoils the deep sense of basic, popcorn-munching comfort this implies.

Saturday 3 February 2024

New Movies Round-up # 1:
Big Movies.

Looking back, it seems I began 2023 with a rare round-up of ‘new’ movies I’d seen recently, and… things seem to be going that way for 2024 too, so why don’t we make a Jan/Feb tradition of it? The first of two planned posts, this one will be looking at a few recent releases your friends, co-habitants and co-workers might actually have heard of, including the latest iterations of two of Japan’s (and my own) favourite cinematic franchises.


Godzilla Minus One 
(Takashi Yamazaki, 2023)

Just before Christmas, my wife & I took an afternoon off work to go and watch Toho’s attempt to expand upon the domestic success of 2016’s ‘Shin Godzilla’, at an ‘old folks’ screening at our nearest cinema. (I’d question how many - cough - ‘old folks’ really want to see a subtitled CGI monster movie, but hey, we’re all getting there, right?)

Truth be told, I didn’t emerge with particularly strong feelings either way, but I enjoyed it - which in blockbuster terms, seems about as good a definition of ‘success’ as any.

Rowing waa-aa-aa-ay back from the sophisticated political satire of ‘Shin Godzilla’ (which often felt more like being dropped into a Japanese equivalent of The Thick Of It than watching a monster movie), Yamazaki’s film is a far more conventional/commercial proposition, mixing state-of-the-art kaiju chops with a hefty dose of tear-jerking melodrama, a sheen of the kind of progressive/pacifist we’re-all-in-this-together patriotism that 21st century Japan (to its credit) does so well… and I suspect, more than half an eye on the overseas market, which has been richly rewarded by the movie’s success in the USA.

Leaving all that aside for a minute, it must first be acknowledged that the monster stuff here is all really good. Though perhaps not quite up to the level of that seen in the 2017 American Godzilla, the quality of the CG work has improved immeasurably since ‘Shin Godzilla’ (which I personally found conspicuously lacking in this regard).

The Big G’s appearances here are always dramatic and cool, he is sufficiently huge, weighty and terrifying to invoke comparisons to the gold standard of Honda’s ’54 original. Both his destruction of a battleship and his obligatory rampage through a painstakingly assembled facsimile of post-war Ginza prove to be incredibly effective set-pieces, giving us punters what we paid for in no uncertain terms, whilst reconfiguring his bursts of heat ray breath as individual nuclear detonations proves an especially frightening and powerful touch.

Unfortunately however, the accompanying human storyline (which comprises a somewhat higher percentage of the overall run time than it really should) proves ridiculously melodramatic, heartstring-tugging stuff, weighed down with coincidences and unlikelihoods which border on total absurdity in places. Even as a gaijin, I feel like I’ve seen these familiar historical narratives (survivor’s guilt experienced by a former kamikaze pilot, new family units being reconstituted out of the ruins of war, the desperation and gradual reconstruction of post-war Tokyo) done so much better, with so much more nuance and honesty, so many times in Japanese cinema and literature, that Yamazaki’s latest attempt to rinse my emotions just didn’t wash.

It’s always watchable mind you (much in the same way that we in the UK could probably spend the rest of eternity watching tales of dashing spitfire pilots romancing pretty young code-breakers on sepia-tinted bicycle rides to the NAAFI), but despite some strong performances from the supporting cast, both my wife and I basically found ourselves sniggering and whispering sarcy comments to each other whilst the the film was clearly trying to get us to weep and beat our chests. So… less of a success on that score, I reckon.

Somehow, based on advance publicity, I’d gotten the mistaken impression that ‘Godzilla Minus One’ was going to look at the events of the original '54 Godzilla, as experienced from the POV of ordinary folks on the street - an approach which, personally, I would have found that a lot more interesting than yet another tale in which our central characters get to enjoy multiple up-close-and-personal encounters with the Big G, before their sense of individual exceptionalism drives them to single-handedly save Japan and resolve their respective existential life crises at the same time. Oh well.

Beneath the Big Themes of national togetherness and reconstruction, there are a few bits of political sub-text bubbling away somewhere in the background which I found interesting, although they never really add up to much. As per ‘Shin Godzilla’, I liked the way that the occupying American forces are basically like, “eh, no - sort it out yourself please” once the kaiju threat emerges, leaving war-ravaged Japan to try to pull together a solution to the Godzilla problem using a few old fishing boats and bits of wire.

And, I also found it note-worthy that the coalition of ex-military/scientific expertise which eventually comes together to defeat Godzilla is a privately funded enterprise, operating independently of the (assumed to be useless) state apparatus - certainly a very different approach from anything seen back in the old days, and one whose implications quite possibly feel even more sinister than that of the big, quasi-utopian global super-organisations who used to call the shots in so many of Ishiro Honda’s SF movies. 


(Emerald Fennell, 2023)

An odd choice for a New Years Eve movie, but hey - I didn't make it.

Still, I’d rather see in the new year whilst watching a contemporary ‘cuckoo in the nest’ type takedown of the moribund British class system than I would catching a throat infection whilst queuing endlessly for drinks in a catastrophically over-crammed pub, listening to somebody’s idea of ‘party music’ blaring from a shit-fi PA, so - result.

But anyway! The problem with getting old as a fan of movies/culture in general is - you’ve see it all before.

This, for instance, is a perfectly well-made, compelling film, and had I watched it when I was within the same age group as the central characters, I may have found it all terribly thought-provoking and subversive and so on.

As it is though, by the halfway mark I already had this tale of a proletarian scholarship boy at Oxford (Barry Keoghan) inveigling himself into the stately home-based family life of disgustingly posh classmate Jacob Elordi pegged as 50% ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’, 40% ‘The Servant’, and 10% some random TV drama about the lives of the rich and privileged which I didn’t bother to watch - and thus simply spent the remaining run-time contemplating the potential of re-watching / re-reading the first two of those again instead. (Actually, I think there’s a fair bit of Ken Russell’s adaption of ‘Women in Love’ in here too… but this is only meant to be a short review, so I shouldn’t get carried away.)

As per Fennell’s previous film as writer/director (2020’s ‘Promising Young Woman’, which I liked quite a lot, for the record), innovation here largely stems from the unconventional and kind of knowingly ‘unfair’ games played with the audience’s sympathies, and the deliberate holding back of certain key pieces of narrative information - a technique which holds up well here, but feels pretty precarious also. I’d be wary about the prospect of Fennell pushing it further in film # 3, but let’s see, eh?

There are a few nods to classic gothic imagery here - most notably, a startling scene of sexualised vampirism which put me in mind of Theodore Sturgeon’s novel ‘Some of Your Blood’ (you see what I mean about getting old?)

For the most part though, realism predominates in spite of the dream-like grandeur of the setting, and the particular ‘vibe’ of a landed, upper class household adapting to the more open and inclusive norms of late 20th century life - studiedly casual, lethargic and welcoming on the surface, yet still hidebound by a bottomless cauldron of prejudices, petty cruelties and labyrinthine rules of conduct bubbling just beneath - is both beautifully captured and entirely convincing.

Sadly for good ol’ Richard E. Grant - perfectly, if obviously, cast as the clan’s pained patriarch - however, the whole affair also feels aggressively contemporary, in the sense that there's lots of pervy, uncomfortable sex stuff going on, but nobody actually enjoys any of it, and the characters all swear and say nasty things about each other incessantly.

All the malignancy and kink which Joseph Losey and Patricia Highsmith were obliged to deal with through allusion and smoke signals in their earlier iterations of this tale are dragged up to the surface of the murky bathwater and beaten black n’ blue here by Fennell… which is not necessarily a criticism, merely an indication that I can sometimes feel the generation gap yawning wide when I watch stuff like this. (Although, mercifully, it’s at least set in 2006, so they’re not all banging on about each others ‘socials’ and covertly videoing everything all the time once the inter-personal skulduggery gets underway.)

Barry Keoghan is certainly a very striking central presence - an old man’s face on young man’s body, with a weirdly disconcerting muscular torso, he’s like the genetically engineered mutant grandson of Dirk Bogarde’s character from 'The Servant' or something. Difficult to say whether the recognition he will inevitably gain from this role will totally make his career, or whether he'll be forever cursed by Anthony Perkins-esque type-casting, but either way - he definitely makes an impression.

As mentioned above in fact, the main thing which allows ‘Saltburn’ to live on in the memory is an uneasy ambiguity over the extent to which we’re invited to feel implicit in / sympathetic toward his character’s machinations.

As much as ‘The Servant’ may have caused controversy back in 1963, watched today, what seems most remarkable is that, despite his socialist convictions, Losey declined to re-tool Robin Maugham’s source novel as a take of class revolt. Instead, for all its many qualities, his film primarily still just reads as a warning to louche aristos that perhaps their Northern-accented man-servants should not be trusted.

Much as we might wish we could side with him, Bogarde’s character is unambiguously presented as an evil, depraved man (his implied Jewishness and homosexuality making this characterisation feel even more questionable to modern eyes), whilst James Fox remains his hapless victim, and Sarah Miles the rival predator whose position he usurps (a role assigned to Archie Madekwe’s Farleigh in ‘Saltburn’s expanded cast list).

It is unsurprisingly therefore that, six decades later, ‘Saltburn’ takes a rather more ambivalent position. Going in, Keoghan is our identity figure, front and centre; we feel sorry for him, and accept what we learn about his inner life at face value. An uncomfortable sense of disjuncture thus occurs when we subsequently become distanced from him, as he begins doing things which do not square with the character whose thoughts we felt we were privy to, and as the film is forced to adopt a colder, more objective perspective as a result.

But, nonetheless, the notion of an (admittedly sociopathic) member of the lower orders using the illusion of an ‘open’ society to gain the foothold be needs to bloodily claw back the privilege and luxury traditionally denied him will still be read by most 21st century viewers as a necessary corrective to historical injustice, rather than as the horrifying upending of the natural order envisaged by Maugham. 

At the same time though, few of us are likely to applaud the character’s conduct on a personal level - thus creating an interesting ethical tension which is likely to go back-and-forth across the nation’s (world’s?) dinner tables and office spaces for months to come, like nothing this side of Bong Joon Ho’s ‘Parasite’ (yet another noteworthy precursor, now that I think about it).


The Boy and The Heron 
[‘Kimitachi Wa Dô Ikiru Ka’] 
(Hayao Miyazaki, 2023)

Just over twelve hours later, and we began 2024 the right way, by going to see this at a lunch time screening [the Japanese language release, of course].

And what can I say? It’s bloody magnificent.

It’s probably a redundant observation to make about a Miyazaki film by this point, but this is such an aesthetically beautiful film - the mere act of looking at it feels like bearing witness to a expertly curated exhibition of natural/cultural wonders. The attention to detail evident in the background of nearly every frame speaks to a lifetime of dedicated craftsmanship and visual research, whilst the compositions and the gentle, gliding pace of the cel animation are - of course - relentlessly exquisite.

I confess I’ve found many post-‘Spirited Away’ Studio Ghibli projects a bit too frenetic and whimsical for my tastes, and my attention to their output has lapsed as a result - but the more sombre, more reflective tone adopted here suited me perfectly.

The film’s fantasy aspects are mysterious and intriguing, carrying a persistent undertow of physical menace and flat-out scariness which prevents them from veering too far toward the twee, and, as in all of Miyazaki’s best films, the accompanying human drama takes a potentially sentimental subject, but steadfastly refuses to dumb it down for a ‘family’ audience or to engage in manipulative heart-string tugging, meaning that (whilst not exactly an original concept within either cinema or fantasy literature), the core tale of a boy processing trauma and grief through a retreat into imagination remains incredibly moving, in a way that almost defies verbal explanation.

Likewise, during the film’s ‘real world’ segment, Miyazaki’s eerily surreal image of factory workers laying out the insect-like glass carapaces of fighter planes amid the beatific environs of a provincial shinto shrine said more to me about the effect of war upon Japan than two whole hours of ‘Godzilla Minus One’s sepia-tinted historical bombast. A small moment in a long and densely-packed film, but one which will stick with me.

Admittedly, the film does lose focus at times - I fear the opening act may prove too slow for a mainstream  audience to latch onto (although I liked it just fine), and later on, once we’re embroiled in the calamitous fate of the trans-dimensional fantasy kingdoms through which our young protagonist has travelled, sense does get a bit lost for a while in an endless cavalcade of stuff exploding and collapsing, brightly coloured creatures flying/flapping around and the weird details of the script’s fantasy-land logic etc, etc.

Perhaps a tighter edit might have helped mitigate this a bit, but - a minor criticism, in the face of great wealth of things within this film which feel good, and right, and true. There is so much good here in fact, so much spirit and compassion and visual/conceptual inspiration, it almost makes me feel that, so long as the human race can knock out something like this once in a while to pass on to future generations/civilisations, all the shit and pain that comprises life on earth will have been worth it.

I’m unsure how things stand with Miyazaki at present (I thought he had retired, until this one popped up as a new release), but if ‘The Boy and the Heron’ does turn out to be his final film, he’ll be going out on a high. For my money, it stands as one of his finest achievements… and in fact, as one of the finest pieces of human artistry I’ve seen from this sorry century for quite a while, to be perfectly honest.

3:00pm on 1st January, but if I see a better film than this during 2024, I’ll be surprised.

Tuesday 23 January 2024

(Part # 2 of 2)

With apologies for the delay…

5. Je t’aime moi non plus 
(Serge Gainsbourg, 1976)

Venturing out to a cinema screening of this one, in honour of the late Jane Birkin, mid-way through 2023, my first reaction to the opening scenes was simply to marvel at what a confident, technically accomplished and beautifully composed movie this is, given that it was Gainsbourg’s debut as director.

A world away from the pop-art outrages and wacky satires in which he participated as an actor/composer through the ‘60s, ‘Je T’aime..’ feels closer to the aesthetic of the ‘New German Cinema’ of the ‘70s - specifically, the romantic/minimalist style which Wim Wenders would introduce to America in the ‘80s, and the emotionally wrought, outré subject matter of Fassbinder - as Gainsbourg painstakingly delineates a self-contained, somewhat unreal desert world which is not quite France, but never quite the American West either, in which taciturn, musclebound queer characters bestride heaps of mouldering garbage, their minds seemingly attuned to higher things than the brutish squalor which surrounds them.

With Serge at the controls though, story-telling remains direct and concise, and the film never veers into pretention, its somewhat meditative tone interwoven with fart jokes, overweight strippers, slabs of bloody horse meat, a mountain of abandoned toilets and a central narrative concern with the best way to undertake anal sex without upsetting neighbours/co-habitants, exhibiting a mixture of earnest, doomed romanticism and grotesque vulgarity which is frankly exactly what we’d hope for from a Gainsbourg joint.

As our leads in this strange and tragic love story, Jane Birkin and Joe Dallesandro are… well, I don’t know if there’s a way to put the effect of their screen presence into words without resorting to cliché, but both are simply stunning, let’s leave it at that; every moment they’re together on screen feels charged with an enervating, dangerous power.

It’s certainly by far the best, least wooden work I’ve ever seen from Dallesandro, whilst Hugues Quester (best known around these parts as the uncooperative male lead in Jean Rollin’s ‘La Rose de Fer’) also makes a strong impression as his cuckolded partner. Star of the show though is definitely Birkin, who - again, a million miles away from her usual, glamourous public persona - delivers one of those performances for which critics tend to use “fully committed” as a euphemism for frequently naked, cold, brutalised and involved in intensely awkward/uncomfortable situations, all whilst remaining fully in control of her character, and of the almost Zulawski-level intensity she manages to dish out to co-stars and audience alike. An incredible portrayal of a kind of lonely, displaced feminine anger which has never quite been given a name.

In its matter-of-fact portrayal of the relationship between a straight woman and a gay man, the film’s fluid and non-judgemental approach to sexuality feels startlingly ahead of its time. Unfairly overlooked and dogged by censorship upon its release, I think it’s fair to assume that ‘Je T’aime..’ would probably have swept the board at every festival across the globe had it been made in the 2020s, and justifiably so.

Certainly, viewed today, as the famous title song finally rises on the soundtrack during the pivotal scene in which an act of sodomy in the back of a garbage truck becomes a transcendent moment of divine love, it feels like the apotheosis of everything Gainsbourg was trying to communicate through his art across the decades; the sacred and profane singing in filthy unison. 


4. RRR 
(S.S. Rajamouli, 2022)

So, a year or two late, I finally got to see this one whilst staying at a Netflix-equipped b’n’b in early 2023, and, I mean, what can I say? It’s pretty incredible, right?

Of course there’s very little I can find to say about it which has not been better expressed elsewhere, but, given the frequency with which I champion an ideal of “pop(ular) cinema” on this blog, it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge such an exhaustively epic expression of that ideal, existing on a plain which feels much closer to the exuberant, two-fisted spectacles of 60s/70s global genre movies than to the cynical, middle-brow self-awareness which suffocates most contemporary Hollywood product.

Naturally there are a few oddities here which feel rather uncomfortable when encountered in a mainstream/blockbuster context (such as the 20+ minute public torture sequence, and the excessive outburst of literal flag-waving nationalism at the end), but these are the kind of things I’ve learned to roll with during my limited forays into the realm of vintage Indian cinema, so they didn’t put me off unduly.

In fact, despite it being a long-time bugbear of mine re: Hollywood output, I even found myself coping ok with the super-human level of historically questionable individual exceptionalism around which much of the film’s action resolves, simply because, well… I dunno - N.T. Rama Rao and Ram Charan are just so darn loveable, I’ll allow those guys a bit of individual exceptionalism. I mean, talk about ‘star power’, jeez. Just the smiles on their faces in that big dance sequence, I can’t even…

ANYWAY. A few other quick notes;

1. Given that I’m the kind of viewer who tends to spit and leave the room when presented with a CG car chase, and finds all that Marvel crap unwatchable, how was I able to both embrace and enjoy the ludicrous, gravity-defying digitally rendered mayhem which comprises at least 50% of ‘RRR’s 3+ hour run-time, you ask?

The answer is - I really don’t know, but I can only assume that, when watching both this film and director S.S. Rajamouli’s previous works, I can latch on to the excitement of a filmmaker totally abandoning any pretence of ‘realism’ and just going hog-wild with the insane new possibilities of his multi-billion rupee digital playpen.

Since time immemorial for instance, filmmakers have clearly needed to be careful and considerate in their use of animals on-screen. But NO MORE, a film like ‘RRR’ tells us. Here in India in the 2020s, we can launch antelopes through the air, we can punch tigers in the face, fire them out of catapults or swing elephants around by their goddamn trunks, and no one in the audience is going to be stupid enough to believe that a real animal was anywhere near the film set, let alone being mistreated. Such freedom! [NB: I don't think any elephants were actually swung around by their trunks in ‘RRR’, I just put that in because I thought it would be funny.]

It’s the same kind of spirit you can see in the ‘70s/’80s Indonesian and Taiwanese fantasy films I love so much, in which imaginative ambitio proudly tramples any thought of realistic execution, yanked forward four decades and ripped through vast quantities of investment and processing power.

2. Doing for the enforcers of British colonial rule what ‘Raider of the Lost Ark’ did for Nazis? Yes please! Speaking as a suitably contrite British person, I’ve got to say, I was down with that, and that it’s about bloody time. An effective and long overdue bit of script-flipping for those of us who were somehow still allowed to grow up spending our Sunday afternoons watching heroic pith-helmeted Victorians strut around foreign climes in one televisual context or another, and props to the late Ray Stevenson for stepping up to portray one of the best moustache-twirling villains since Tod Slaughter trod the boards. 


3. The Iceman Cometh 
(Clarence Fok, 1989)

Liberally borrowing from Nicholas Meyer’s 1979 time travel comedy ‘Time After Time’ (and with no connection whatsoever to the Eugene O’Neill stage play, obvs), the high concept plot underpinning this ‘imperial phase’ Hong Kong belter finds morally upstanding Ming Dynasty-era swordsman Yuen Biao rudely awakened in ‘80s Hong Kong after he plunges into the depths of an icy ravine whilst engaged in a life-or-death struggle with maniacal rapist-murderer Yuen Wah - who, of course, also finds himself defrosted in the 20th century, ready to begin his rampage anew.

I went into this one cold (no pun intended), having never really encountered much enthusiasm for it amongst old school Hong Kong film fans/commentators, but, I needn’t have worried. Rather than the over-blown, headache-inducing farrago I was half expecting, ‘Iceman..’ is a blast in the best possible way, easily crashing straight into my hypothetical top five ‘80s HK action movies.

As per the template laid down by Meyer’s film, the psychotic Wah takes to the chaotic, over-stimulated environment of the modern day metropolis like a duck to water, installing himself as the machine gun-toting supremo of a violent criminal syndicate and wreaking shocking, Category III-worthy sadism upon anyone who crosses his path, whilst the chivalrous Biao meanwhile bumbles around in a state of fish-out-of-water confusion, eventually finding himself ‘adopted’ as a live-in man-servant / human curio by high end sex worker Maggie Cheung.

It would probably be an exaggeration to claim that ‘hilarity ensues’, but, this is still one of those rare HK action-comedies in which the comedic elements do frequently hit the right notes for me - largely thanks to the fact that all three leads are so relentlessly, almost preternaturally, charismatic.

Cheung in particular is a veritable human dynamo here, giving every impression of having a whale of a time with character whose wardrobe and behaviour seems cvlosely modelled on Madonna circa ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’, whilst the details of her perilous and hap-hazard lifestyle as a prostitute/hustler are depicted in an interesting and unconventional fashion, even before the complication of a defrosted medieval swordsman gets thrown into the mix.

Meanwhile, those who recall Yuen Wah for his scene-stealing bad guy roles in films like ‘Eastern Condors’ and ‘Dragons Forever’ will be fully aware of how much ass this guy can kick, and in ‘Iceman..’ he turns it up to 11, transforming himself into one of the most gleefully terrifying villains in movie history - a lithe, hyper-athletic engine of omni-directional destruction who still somehow manages to look like the coolest motherfucker in SE Asia, resembling some kind of insane, Shaolin master version of Warren Oates in ‘..Alfredo Garcia’.

And, completing the central trio, good ol’ Yeun Biao just kind of does what he always does, which is to say - being absolutely fucking brilliant.

Amidst all the carnage, ‘Iceman..’ is also a beautifully directed film, shot with a rich, dark colour palette, slickly edited and betraying none of the ad-hoc choppiness which sometimes afflicts HK movies. One of the things I loved most about it though is the way director Clarence Fok manages to maintain a frantic, light-hearted action/comedy tone without downplaying the darker elements of the movie’s subject matter.

Although Maggie’s antics in the worlds of crime and prostitution are on one level presented as being pretty, uh... kooky?, her character is still constantly faced with threats of violence or abuse, maintaining a rough edge of realism and danger, especially when, inevitably, she crosses paths with Wah - who, as mentioned above, reinforces his full spectrum evilness by indulging in some jaw-dropping excesses of perverse brutality.

By rights, this should all feel completely out of place in a movie that’s liable to have you chuckling over some screwball shenanigans five minutes later… yet somehow, with typically mad HK movie magic, it all comes together just so.

Which is all well and good, but what about the action, right? Well, ok, I mean… oh man, it is so good. A central chase/fight set piece here involving a horse, a jeep and a shipping container swinging perilously from a dockside crane is absolutely one of the most astounding / unbelievable stunt sequences in HK cinema (which is saying something), and the extended final showdown between Biao and Wah - involving swords, gunplay, blasts of hair-frazzling electricity and (of course) a ‘power powder’-suffused hand-to-hand throw down of nigh-on superhuman agility - is as intense and imaginative as any fight fan could hope for.

In one moment during the climax, we see a long shot of Biao and Wah facing off in profile, ‘Street Fighter’-style, on a rooftop, as immediately behind them, a jumbo jet glides in to land at Hong Kong’s notoriously perilous urban airport… at which point, I felt like pausing the movie, falling to my knees, and simply giving thanks to the gods for the particular time and place in culture which brought us insane masterpieces like this one -- just a few decades behind us, one day’s flight away, but somehow feeling like an outburst of joyful mania from a completely different universe. 


2. Miami Blues 
(George Armitage, 1990)

Probably one of the best entries in the cycle of late ‘80s/early ‘90s American neo-noirs I’ve seen to date - and hands down the funniest - this adaptation of Charles Willeford’s 1984 book begins as Junior (Alec Baldwin), an impulsive, sociopathic criminal, touches down in Miami, casually bends back the fingers of an intrusive Hare Krishna on his way through the exit lounge, and promptly finds himself falling into a why-the-hell-not romantic relationship with naïve local prostitute Suzi (Jennifer Jason Leigh), in the midst of the non-stop crime spree which comprises his regular day-to-day.

Unfortunately for the newly inseparable couple however, that Hare Krishna guy ended up defying medical science by inexplicably dying of shock following the finger-bending incident, meaning that grizzled and toothless homicide detective Hoke Mosely (Fred Ward) is now on Junior’s trail, instigating a ramshackle cat-and-mouse between the two men which can’t possibly end well, least of all for Suzi.

Attempting to make a whimsical film noir takes some balls, but that’s exactly what Armitage and producer Jonathan Demme seem to have been going for here, and against the odds, they succeeded brilliantly, creating a world in which toe-curling brutality, systemic corruption and random, meaningless death exist side-by-side with impromptu pork chop dinners, misplaced dentures and recipes for ‘vinegar pie’ (whatever that is).

It helps that Armitage proves adept in staging long, intense inter-character scenes which seem capable of turning on a dime between good-natured bonhomie and psychotic violence, and Willeford’s complex and morally ambivalent characters are lent an additional spark by career-best level performances from Baldwin, Leigh and Ward.

As with ‘The Iceman Cometh’ discussed above, this is one of these films in which all three leads are basically right up in our face, all the time - but it doesn’t matter, because they’re all such captivating, horribly loveable human disaster areas, we could happily watch their antics for weeks, and still never really know what’s coming next.

Meanwhile, DP Tak Fujimoto coolly resists the temptation to riff on the visual style of a certain other Miami-based ‘80s crime franchise, instead turning the city into a candy-coloured pastel wonderland which actually looks like it might be quite a nice place to live, aside from all the blood.

Inspired use is made of Norman Greenbaum’s ‘Spirit in the Sky’ during the opening and closing credits (a perfect musical shrug-of-the-shoulders to sign off a nihilistic crime movie, now that I think about it, and you’ve got to love the irony of “..gonna go to the place that’s the best” playing over an aerial shot of the smog-choked city), and the always welcome appearance of faces like Charles Napier and Martine Beswick in the supporting cast feels like a thinly veiled high five to the cult film fans who have followed Armitage and Demme from their days on the grindhouse/exploitation circuit.

I confess, I’m not familiar with Willeford’s series of Hoke Mosely novels, but on the expectation that they might nail something akin to the uniquely schizophrenic tone of this wonderful movie, I’m clearing space on my bookshelves as we speak. 


1. Light Sleeper 
(Paul Schrader, 1992)

Another year, another reclaimed masterpiece dredged up from the vast and treacherous back catalogue of Paul Schrader - and of all of his films, this is possibly the one that has hit me hardest, although I’d have difficult trying to tell you precisely why that is.

At the time of its release, ‘Light Sleeper’ often seems to have been dismissed as a middle-aged rehash of ‘Taxi Driver’, and on one level it is easy to see why. But, if you can manage to approach it without reference to the structure and plot beats it shares with its more famous predecessor, this tale of former addict John LeTour (William Defoe) attempting to break out of his emotionally neutered existence as a bagman/delivery boy for high class coke dealer Ann (Susan Sarandon) carries a singular power which transcends its time, place and subject matter.

Shot very much as it would have been a few years earlier, at the very apex of high gloss, ‘80s cinematic style, Defoe’s slow glide through the reflecting, desaturated surfaces of nocturnal Manhattan conveys an icy, uncanny emptiness which barely even needs to be elaborated upon by Schrader’s script. For all the surface level composure required by his trade though, LeTour’s faltering attempts to rekindle his relationship with ex-girlfriend Dana Delaney emerge just as desperate and cack-handed as Travis Bickle’s attempts to make human contact, in spite of two whole extra decades of hard-won life experience.

Denied permission to use the Bob Dylan songs he had written the script around, Schrader - in a brilliant example of makin’ lemonade - hired Christian rock singer Michael Been to record original music for ‘Light Sleeper’ instead, and, whilst the moody vistas of overwrought, sub-Springsteenian pomp which resulted might well have been unbearable on record, in the context of the film, the songs work superbly, their tides of smouldering passion effectively acting as LeTour’s inner voice, providing a soaring, white-hot emotional contrast to the cold, clean surroundings and transactional relationships of his material existence.

Schrader is on record as saying that he regrets turning the latter half of the film into a thriller, complete with an all-too-familiar violent bloodbath at the finale. Presumably he sees this as a concession to commercialism which detracted from the more existential core themes he was trying to address here. For my own purposes though, the plunge into genre proved very welcome, adding a vicious (neo)noir hook to the guts of a story which might otherwise have floundered into aimless introspection, reeling us in via a spiral of loss and collapse which could only reasonably conclude with an explosion of violent self-definition / self-immolation.

More than anything, I love the pace of this film - the slow glide, almost menacing simply in its constancy. Even when the characters are static, the camera prowls, like time creeping away at a consistent, doom metal tempo, taking us on a journey which has got to end somewhere, irrespective of the director’s more nebulous Sartre-via-Antonioni type intentions. And, when it does finally arrive at its destination - fragmented, hand-held footage documenting the blood-splattered walls of a modern art-bedecked penthouse hotel suite - the film achieves a moment of transcendence whose weird, spiritual power speaks to the religious angst and search for grace at the core of all of Schrader’s work more effectively than anything he’s ever managed to get across on paper.

As I say, it’s difficult for me to explain why ‘Light Sleeper’ had such an impact on me. I suppose that, like LeTour, I’m mid-way through my adult life at this point, dealing with the choices I’ve made. But - thankfully - the similarities end there, so there’s very little direct character identification going on here.

Could it be that, in the final analysis, this is simply an excellent movie, and that, by their very nature, the best movies become more than the sum of their parts - more than their creators intended or understood, even? And, they do not always give up their secrets so easily.

Thursday 4 January 2024

(Part # 1 of 2)

Well, cards on the table - 2023 was not exactly a great year, on either a personal level, a global level, or I daresay on many of the myriad levels found somewhere in-between.

But, mustn’t grumble, right? Even as my (our?) quality of life takes a (personal / collective?) battering, we’re all (mostly?) still here, still reading things and watching movies, and still (occasionally) updating blogs.

In fact, I’ve found myself thinking recently about exactly why watching movies has become my primary form of recreation in recent years, and, in the end, I think what it comes down to is cinemas ability to transport me to a different time and place, and to do so more efficiently and immediately than most other entertainment media.

This doesn’t always even need to involve ‘escapism’ as such (although that’s nice too), but (at the risk of descending into utter pretention, given that I largely gravitate toward movies concerned with the travails of lesbian vampires, psychotic killers, girl gangs or flesh-eating monsters of one kind or another), even the most absurd and poorly realised examples of global genre cinema can offer instant, full strength access to different perspectives, different cultures, different problems and different solutions - no supporting reading or conceptual re-adjustment required (tho this can always follow later).

Case in point: unexpectedly, two of the films on last year’s ‘top ten’ list below concern the experiences of indigenous peoples in Canada. This is not a subject I had previously paid much attention to, or taken an active interest in, to be perfectly honest - but now it’s very much on my radar. Thanks, movies!

As per last year, the following is definitely not a list of the best films I saw in 2023, or even necessarily a ljst of the best films I saw for the first time in 2023. Rather, it’s just a list of movies that surprised me, or made an impression on me, or that I just feel like telling people about and encouraging them to watch, for whatever reason. If you take my advice on any of ‘em, I hope you enjoy the experience.


10. Slash / Back 
(Nyla Innuksuk, 2022)

Though it may be weak tea as a horror movie, Nyla Innuksuk’s debut feature (which I wrote about here back in January 2023) absolutely smashes it as a character drama, as an insight into a remote and culturally unique community, and as a “girls on the scene” survival-through-teamwork movie in the lineage of ‘The Thing From Another World’.

It has a modest, gutsy DIY spirit which I absolutely loved, and a rare sense of inter-generational appeal. If you’ve got kids, try watching it with ‘em - see what happens.


9. The Day of the Dolphin 
(Mike Nichols, 1973)

Long story short: this one is pretty weak as a political thriller, but if want to see George C. Scott developing a father/son relationship with a talking dolphin (and who wouldn't?) - essential viewing.

The tone is totally all over the place, to the extent that we’re never quite sure whether we’re watching a serious, Watergate-era thriller or a heart-warming talking animal movie (a confusion of genres perhaps unique in the history of cinema), initially leading me to assume the film must have been subject to a long and torturous back story of behind-the-scenes monkey business.

But no - aside from a few expected grumbles about Scott being difficult on-set, the version of ‘Day of the Dolphin’ which ended up on screen was written by one guy (Buck Henry, no less), directed by one guy, and released by AVCO Embassy, no questions asked. And yet, it still turned out like this? Mind-boggling.

Apparently the script has very little in common with the more sensational source novel, with hearsay suggesting that the filmmakers instead took inspiration from the real life work of Dr John Lilly. But, aside from featuring a research scientist working with dolphins who has a contentious relationship with government intelligence agencies, the story has very little in common with anything he did either, so, what are we watching here, exactly?

Well, whatever it is, the narrative is under-developed in several key areas and the vibe of meditative earnestness which Nichols seems to be going for is undercut by a cheesy, Lassie-defeats-the-bad-guys resolution which feels like a total joke… but for all its faults, ‘Day of the Dolphin’ remains weirdly fascinating, beautifully shot (the dolphin footage alone is stunning), and packs a massive emotional punch, becoming more affecting than it really has any right to be during its startlingly bleak final minutes.

Sitting comfortably next to ‘Silent Running’ in the limited canon of first wave / post-hippie environmental tearjerkers, Nichols and Henry hit those “man is the only real monster” buttons more effectively than much of what followed once these kind of themes began to filter into the mainstream during the 80s and 90s. A uniquely weird, “only in the ‘70s” proposition which I’m very glad I made time for last year.


8. Un Témoin dans la Ville 
[Witness in the City] 
(Édouard Molinaro, 1959)

Of all the movies I watched during 2023 which fall within the broad category of ‘film noir’ (and there were quite a few), I think this one - which I wrote about at length here - made the biggest impression on me. 

Despite clear nods to Lang, Hitchcock and goodness knows who else, it still feels like a highly original entry in the genre, replete with dense, shadow-haunted photography, a great sense of visual storytelling, sickening suspense and an unsettling mixture of humanism and bleakest nihilism, all anchored by a desperate, almost monstrously menacing, performance from Lino Ventura.

Now available on blu-ray on both sides of the Atlantic (thanks respectively to Kino Lorber’s French Film Noir collection and Radiance’s World Noir set), it would be great to see this overlooked minor classic picking up a bit more of a following in the English-speaking world.


7. The Swimmer 
(Frank Perry, 1968)

If ever there were a film which proves difficult to discuss with / sell to those who have not yet seen it, Frank and Eleanor Perry’s uniquely troubling (and troubled) studio-financed cult oddity is it.

For the first half hour of your first viewing, you’ll be apt to wonder quite why you’re watching this seemingly aimless drift through a garishly-lit world of conceited mid-century WASP contentment and dreary socialite gossip, watching struggling alpha male Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster) attempt to find his way home by traversing the swimming pools of his privileged neighbours in up-market Connecticut on a balmy summer day.

But, as Merrill’s quest continues, becoming increasingly fraught and uncertain, things will gradually begin to make more sense. Then, suitably crushed by its conclusion, you will be drawn to watch the film again - at which point it will REALLY start to make sense.

Taken out of the Perrys’ hands prior to editing, additional / replacement scenes shot at the behest of producer Sam Spiegel initially feel mystifying and out of place, but eventually add a queasy, proto-psychedelic beauty to proceedings which makes the ground beneath our feet feel even more uncertain, lending the film an even more fascinating sense of outside-the-box strangeness.

You’re always guaranteed the real deal from a Lancaster perfromance however, and he holds together one of the most formally challenging films ever to have emerged from the Hollywood system with what I can only describe as a sense of tormented, masculine ease, confidently navigating a role which I’m sure no other male lead of his generation would have touched with a barge pole, driving us ever onward toward a harrowing, almost Poe-like gothic conclusion which feels like a tombstone raised above the aspirations of the USA’s entire post-war culture.

So, I mean, no wonder it didn’t really go over big at the box office, right? But, now that we’re less personally caught up in those generational aspirations and can give the film the attention (and repeat viewing) it deserves in the comfort of our own homes, it’s really quite the thing. 


6. Clearcut 
(Ryszard Bugajski, 1991)

An enraged, uncompromising attempt to probe the limits of a liberal pacifist mind-set and posit the necessity of more radical alternatives, this adaptation of a novel by Canadian author M.T. Kelly from Polish ex-pat director Bugajski seems on one level to address a highly specific regional concern (the disenfranchisement and loss of land suffered by indigenous communities in North Western Ontario), yet still feels frighteningly relevant to the precarious assumptions underpinning all of our lives in the 21st century. Indeed, it was difficult to view it in close proximity to the clusterfuck of events taking place in the Middle East during the last quarter of 2023 without drawing some very uncomfortable parallels.

But, before we get too dour, I should clarify that ‘Clearcut’ (its title referring to the process of intensive logging which leaves areas of land looking like “the dark side of the moon”) also stands tall as an engrossing and violent quasi-supernatural / metaphysical thriller, shot through with a welcome vein of pitch black humour, largely emerging from a brilliantly mannered, scene stealing performance from Oneida actor Graham Greene.

Long story short then: Ron Lea plays activist-lawyer Peter Maguire, who has just lost a case, attempting to defend indigenous lands from exploitation by a logging conglomerate. Despite ineffectual protests and civil unrest, tribal elders (as represented by Floyd ‘Red Crow’ Westerman) seem resigned to their fate, but, as Maguire plans his return to Toronto to mount an appeal, he notices a new “Indian” with a fierce intellect and unnerving, passive-aggressive attitude on the scene - Arthur, played by Greene.

Before long, both Maguire and belligerent mill owner Bud Ricketts (Michael Hogan) have been taken hostage by Arthur, and, with the tacit approval of Westerman’s tribe, transported to the unmapped depths of the river valley threatened by Ricketts’ logging operations, where, we must assume, the two white men are about to be subjected to some seriously harrowing rites of passage.

Due to its intense concentration on indigenous mythology and ritual, its occasional moments of savage violence, and its eventual blurring of consensus reality, ‘Clearcut’ has recently found itself re-evaluated (primarily by critic Kier-La Janisse in her documentary Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched and its accompanying blu-ray box set) as an exemplar of ‘folk-horror’. And, given the crucial ambiguity which is maintained re: the story’s interpretation, I think that this dubious prescription more or less holds up.

What, after all, is Arthur, in the end? A violent native rights activist? An externalised personification of Maguire’s unrealised anger? Or, simply a spirit of the violated land, summoned to extract vengeance? Naturally, Bugajski’s film is far too canny to give the nod to either a material, psychological or spiritual interpretation of events, and is all the stronger for it.

And likewise, though ‘Clearcut’s occasional pigeonholing as “the Canadian ‘Deliverance’” initially seems trite, the comparison persists, not as a reflection of any shared setting or story elements, but simply because both films eventually concern ‘civilised’ men encountering something atavistic and nameless within the landscape, and finding themselves forever changed by it.

Like both Boorman’s film and the best entries in Janisse’s beloved sub-genre, ‘Clearcut’ carries a power which is impossible to fully explain, impossible to reduce to its constituent parts, and impossible to forget. It is recommended to appropriately brave viewers in the strongest possible terms.


To be continued…

Monday 4 December 2023

Lovecraft on Film Appendum:
The Evil Clergyman
(Charles Band, 1987 / 2012)

As anyone familiar with his work will be aware, H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘The Evil Clergyman’ is a brief, half-formed fragment, obviously written in haste, perhaps extrapolated from a bad dream, and presumably never intended for publication in its extant form. Nonetheless, it saw print several years after Lovecraft’s death, in the April 1939 edition of ‘Weird Tales’, and - rather irksomely - it has formed part of his accepted canon ever since, seemingly more by accident than design.

As such, it seems appropriate that the story’s movie adaptation should take the form of an orphaned, 28 minute short, originally intended for inclusion in a 1988 Empire Pictures anthology flick named ‘Pulse Pounders’ which never saw the light of a projector at the time, remaining unreleased due to (it says here) circumstances arising from the company’s bankruptcy.

Furthermore, it appears that the original film elements for ‘The Evil Clergyman’ were subsequently misplaced or destroyed, leaving the footage presumed lost until, a quarter century later, Charlie Band found a VHS work print knocking about in his attic and smelled a quick buck to be made.

A bit of a clean up, a new credits sequence and a newly commissioned score from brother Richard later, and ‘The Evil Clergyman’ finally premiered, streaming on Band’s Full Moon Features website, in 2012.

I’m unfamiliar with the back story re: how exactly those film elements ended up disappearing, but I can only assume it must have been the result of some terrible and unprecedented freak accident, as any other explanation would frankly beggar belief given the breadth of talent involved in creating this segment, and the relatively lavish budget obviously invested in this thing.

With the exception of an AWOL Stuart Gordon in fact, ‘..Clergyman’ is effectively a ‘Reanimator’  reunion, with Dennis Paoli providing the script, photography by Mac Ahlberg, effects by John Carl Buechler, and a cast comprising Barbara Crampton, Jeffrey Combs and David Gale, with the ever wonderful David Warner (R.I.P.) thrown in for good measure.

In the grand tradition of Poe/Lovecraft adaptations through the ages, the film’s narrative has pretty much nothing in common with the supposed source story whatsoever. Instead, Paoli’s script sees Crampton taking centre stage, playing a woman returning to the attic chamber of a medieval castle which she had previously shared with her lover (Combs), a lapsed priest and alleged black magician who has recently taken his own life, prompting her to flee and leave the room vacant.

This ill-stared chamber is apparently still up for rent from the castle’s acid-tongued landlady (Una Brandon-Jones) however, and, once ensconced within it (ostensibly to “collect her things,” although the room looks bare), Crampton begins to experience a series of increasingly hair-raising manifestations related to her deceased partner, and reflective of the unholy depredations the pair apparently got up to prior to Combs’ decision to sling a noose slung over the high beams, and depart this mortal coil… temporarily, at least.

Along the way, Warner pops up as the revenant spirit of another dead priest, who pops up to warn Crampton of the error of her ways, whilst Gale is in full effect as Combs’ familiar, a chittering, man-faced rat-thing straight out of ‘Dreams in the Witch House’.

And... it actually all works really well. Paoli’s story is weird, memorable and unnerving, leaving plenty to the imagination, whilst the production design and performances are excellent.

Though she’s not really called upon to do much more than act terrified, confused and distraught here, Crampton achieves this quite brilliantly. Always a good few rungs up the ladder from yr average ‘80s ‘scream queen’, the sheer intensity scruff of the neck and drags us through this compressed ghost train ride of a viewing experience very effectively.

By contrast, we get a relatively low-key turn from Combs, but there is still a hell of a lot to enjoy in his sleazily sinister presence. His introductory “hi” at the moment his character first takes on corporeal form is a delight in itself, and the spectral love scenes he shares with Crampton take on an appropriately fevered quality, drawing us further into the odd story being told here.

Warner meanwhile seems a bit surplus to requirements here in terms of the narrative, but it’s great to have him along for the ride, and he’s clearly having a fine time regardless. In the midst of a seemingly endless series of rent-a-villain / mad scientist roles at this point in his career, the old boy knows exactly how to pitch a high-handed spectral priest, managing to deliver lines like “I’m a bishop, from Canterbury, sent to expel your lover from our church” entirely straight, without eliciting laughs from the peanut gallery.

As for the long-suffering David Gale meanwhile, one shudders to imagine the indignities he must have been subjected to in the process of realising Buechler’s man-faced rat effects - an inspired mixture of puppetry and facial prosthetics which is actually extremely effective, allowing Gale’s face and voice remain present, even when seemingly attached to a repulsive, ankle-high critter capering about on the castle floor.

Essentially functioning as a foul-mouthed, perpetually enraged manifestation of the Combs character’s id, Gale manages to deliver a memorable performance under what we might reasonably assuming were challenging circumstances; his spittle-flecked delivery of words like “WHORE” and “SLUT” in particular are imbued with an old world, puritan gusto which I very much enjoyed.

Shot, inevitably, amid the imposing environs of the swanky Italian castle which Charles Band inexplicably ended up owning in the late ‘80s (also see: ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ (1991), ‘Castle Freak’ (1995)), ‘..Clergyman’ benefits greatly from the location’s in-built atmosphere, adopting an almost abstract / fairy tale-like vibe which slips further into delirium as Crampton’s visions take told, and the world outside her lofty chamber effectively ceases to exist.

Moodily lit by Ahlberg in a none-more-80s manner, with deep shadows and shocks of blue-tinged moon light drifting in across the ancient brick-work, this is certainly one of the more accomplished efforts I’ve seen bearing Charles Band’s name as director. As is often the case, it’s perhaps questionable to what extent creative decisions here were actually taken by Band, but for what it’s worth, everything here is very solidly done. (I particularly liked the striking use of vertiginous high and low angles, reflecting the constant presence of both the swinging noose above, and the skittering rat-thing below.)

Even Richard Band’s retrospectively recorded orchestral score goes over gangbusters, really classing up this murky VHS-sourced work-print, much like his similarly bombastic/melodic work on Gordon’s ‘80s films, hovering just on the precipice of Elfman-esque parody, but never quite taking the plunge, or overpowering the action on-screen.

Given how strong this short is overall, it’s easy to see why a few elements ended up being recycled in other productions during the years in which the material shot for ‘Pulse Pounders’ remained unreleased.

Most notably, the effects used to create the human-faced rat creature were repurposed pretty much in their entirety for the creation of Brown Jenkin in Gordon’s 2005 TV adaptation of Lovecraft’s ‘Dreams in the Witch House’, whilst the “erotically charged predatory haunting” conceit of Paoli’s script also strongly reminded me of another Gordon-adjacent film, Danny Draven’s 2002 ‘Deathbed’ (not to be confused with the late George Barry’s outsider masterpiece of the same name), an interesting obscurity, also shot by Ahlberg and executive produced by Band, which saw release on DVD under the rather niche banner of “Stuart Gordon presents…”. (Were there any other entries in that series, I wonder? I don’t recall ever seeing any...)

In summary then, ‘The Evil Clergyman’ stands as something of an unexpected minor miracle for fans of the Empire/Full Moon/Stuart Gordon milieu. Alongside this year’s Suitable Flesh, it offers encouraging proof that the spirit of Gordon’s Lovecraft movies could live on and flourish, even in circumstances in which the man himself was unable to call the shots. Well worth making a small amount of time for if (as is understandable) it passed you by upon its belated release in 2012.