20.8.19

Wild Things

Probably the last gasp of the 90s erotic noir, and while the film looks sleazy on the surface, it's actually redeemed by the increasingly ridiculous plot twists that start popping up half-way through, which show that basically no one is what they appear to be on the surface. Characters who you are set up to believe are victims turn into master manipulators, and vice versa. And while the portrayal of Denise Richards and Neve Campbell is exploitative, the film refuses to condescend to them, and hands ultimate victory to the latter.


The film is notorious for the scenes in which Richards and Campbell make out, although the film is at its queerest when Kevin Bacon surprises Matt Dillon in the shower – and there's a brief flash of full-frontal male nudity. Apparently, and enticingly, Dillon was supposed to join Bacon in the shower and kiss him, revealing a sexual relationship between the two men. Depressingly the financiers quashed the idea, although Bacon (who is also the film's producer) was pretty attached to it. Ultimately it's left as subtext, but it would have been a neat mirroring of the relationship between Richards and Campbell, and would enforce the prevailing mood that sexuality is a mutable thing in the Florida heat.


The director John McNaughton wanted to make the setting as beautiful as possible, to contrast with the beastly nature of the people within it. The film takes great pains to establish the contrast between the swamps swimming with alligators and the wealthy society living next door, with Matt Dillon's character sashaying comfortably through both environments. The metaphor is probably most acute with the crocodile tamer McNaughton keeps returning to – a nod to the attractions and dangers of playing with wild things. The film's conceit is that humanity has not sloughed off the evolutionary imperative to eat or be eaten – if anything our ability to dissemble makes us more ruthless. It's telling that McNaughton wanted to make a sequel with the kids of the characters who emerged on top in this film, underlining the macabre notion that the survival of the fittest would create ever more gruesome human beings.

15.8.19

Scream

There is a strain of nastiness to Wes Craven that I find a little unsettling. For the pivotal initial sequence in Scream, Drew Barrymore had told him about an instance of animal cruelty that had horrified and upset her, the memory of which Craven then used during the shoot to elicit a more convincing performance. That requires a lot of trust between director and actor, and in fairness, Craven acknowledges and is grateful for Barrymore's courage in making herself vulnerable in front of the camera. But having a director resort to such methods is still a bit unnerving.


The script was shopped around and could have gone in a bunch of ways, but with Craven attached it ends up as a genuinely scary movie – at least until the killer is unmasked and the film skips into absurdity. The irony of characters in a slasher film being aware of the conventions of slasher films is heavily present throughout, but the meta element becomes almost deafening in the scenes between Neve Campbell's 'final girl' Sidney and her boyfriend Billy (played by Skeet Ulrich as if he's channelling Johnny Depp). The latter speaks almost exclusively in film metaphors, so we really should have seen it coming.


The killer's motives are a joke, and used as just another comment on horror films (it's scarier if you don't know apparently). In fact the real motive is something Craven has been exploring throughout his career – the derangement of not being able to differentiate between reality and fiction. The money shot (horror films are in their way just as formulaic as porn) that encapsulates Scream is the TV falling on the killer's head and frying his brain. These kids are exactly what the censors of video nasties fear – that watching this stuff can turn you into a violent maniac. And the fact that it was accused of inspiring copycat murders perfectly rounds off the film's satirical project.

21.7.19

Jackie Brown

Jackie Brown is the first Tarantino film I watched, so perhaps that makes me soft on it, but I do agree with Mark Kermode that it is by far his best picture. Of all his work it's probably the least flashy and stylish. It lacks the unconventional non-linear structure of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, or the bigger budgets (and the bloat) of Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. But it makes up for all that by having characters with a depth that isn't found anywhere else in the Tarantino universe.


It's the one film he didn't write from scratch, and perhaps we should thank Elmore Leonard for supplying that missing ingredient in Tarantino's scripts – real people. For all the blaxploitation genre signifiers, this isn't really an exploitation film, black or otherwise (for starters it's probably Tarantino's least violent work). Instead it doubles down on a twisty noir plot whose main source of intrigue is how it reveals different facets of the people wrapped up in it.

It's difficult to think of a film which uses Samuel L. Jackson's talents better – his Ordell Robbie is a fun guy to be around, sure, but he's also cold and ruthless in a really quite scary way. Pam Grier, who as an actress in those 70s classics Coffy and Foxy Brown could be rather flat, is magnificent here – being both outwardly steely but also at crucial moments letting slip the inner vulnerability and doubt that must be coursing through her mind as she conducts her heist operation. Robert Forster also does great work maintaining a professional distance whilst subtly suggesting the ways in which he's also being drawn into Jackie Brown's web.


Forster's character Max Cherry can't quite bring himself to cross the line at the end of the film. He shares a kiss with Jackie Brown but chickens out of following her to enjoy her spoils on a holiday in Spain. Both of them are heading towards middle age, and while never mentioned it's clear they've left many failed relationships behind them. They both want an escape from their dead-end jobs, but only Jackie Brown is brave enough to risk everything to grab it. And by having Max pull back and drift out of focus the film acknowledges how difficult navigating those risks are. Tarantino hasn't been able to replicate the emotional complexity of that finale anywhere else. Which leads me to think that perhaps he should try adapting other people's material more often.

19.7.19

The Terminator

Although it spawned a science-fiction franchise, this is just as much a slasher film inspired by John Carpenter's Halloween. It even imports some of the sexual politics of the genre, with Sarah Connor's frisky roommate and her creep of a boyfriend dispatched in the most brutal terms after a long night of humping. Sex may dull the survival instincts, but just as much of an issue is Ginger's addiction to her walkman, which distracts her from the killing machine invading her bedroom.

That reliance on technology may be what James Cameron was trying to draw out. It's no accident that the final showdown is set in a factory, where the robots have clearly replaced humanity along the manufacturing conveyor belt. The Terminators are just the next level up in this process, eradicating humans from the planet as well as the workforce, and impersonating real people to do so. Kyle Reese suggests that the machines were the ones to launch the nukes in the first place – drawing a connection between the impersonal forces reshaping capitalism and the nuclear powers facing off against each other in the 1980s. Both are out to crush the little guy or gal trying to scrape a wage waiting tables.


The gratification in the film is that the gal gets to crush the monster in return. But the message gets scrambled somewhat by the iconography of the film – which dresses up Arnold Schwarzenegger as a counter-cultural punk in leather jackets and boots, and has an almost fascistic fascination with guns, bikes and slaughter. Cameron didn't want Schwarzenegger in the role at first – a giant Austrian bodybuilder is hardly believable as a cyborg designed for infiltration. But he was won around, and Schwarzenegger's presence on the set changed the movie, making it more flamboyant and stylised. No wonder they made him the hero in the sequel.


The rebels of the future are a raggedy bunch, fighting a guerrilla war against the evil empire in scenes that may be inspired by the Vietnam War. Kyle Reese is a product of that post-apocalyptic environment – where the broken TV used as a fireplace provides sufficient commentary on the decadent and dangerously soporific dependence on technology in the modern world. Inspired by Kyle's example, Sarah Connor loads up on all the guns she can get and goes off-grid at the end of the film. Defeating the military-industrial conspiracy means embracing survivalism. And the only sign of solidarity in the film is a cult-like attachment to the messianic figure of John Connor, and the intense but brief love affair between Kyle and Sarah – hardly promising portents for the future, nor a particularly attractive alternative to the machine overlords.

7.7.19

Spider-Man: Far From Home

Funnily enough before watching this I was listening to a cheerful podcast about how deepfakes can be used maliciously to provoke nuclear war and the end of the world. So perhaps these superhero films aren't just mindless escapism but do actually do what great science fiction should, which is to extrapolate from the problems and possibilities of contemporary society and technology and provide warnings about the way forward. Maybe. The villain's final line "people will believe anything" is certainly weighty in the current political climate. Then again, unlike Batman in The Dark Knight, I don't see Peter Parker destroying the insanely sophisticated snooping system bequeathed to him by Tony Stark. Who's to say he won't turn out like Jake Gyllenhaal's duplicitous Mysterio when he grows up, gets a job and gets screwed over by his boss? Like in a lot of Marvel movies, Iron Man is the solution to his own problem and perhaps we're better off without such billionaire playboys in the first place.


Anyway. The film would have been more successful if you couldn't see the twist a country mile off. Homecoming's big coup was to hit you with a mid-film revelation that you just would not be able to see coming, whereas Mysterio feels dodgy even if you know nothing about the character in the comics. Gyllenhaal has an impossible job trying to convince you that he's actually just a nice guy, and does about as well as anyone could, but he's a lot more enjoyable when he's revealed to be the slightly deranged wannabe dictator choreographing his own propaganda. Jon Watts obviously enjoys a joke, and perhaps making the villain a frustrated film director is one at his own expense.

The twist in Homecoming didn't just work on its own terms, it cleverly tied up the political superhero shenanigans about the little guys screwed over by the CEOs with the personal travails of a teenager trying to hook up with the cute girl in his decathlon team. Far From Home can't quite pull off the same trick. Again Peter has to juggle the social demands of being in school with the responsibilities of saving the world, but the two are drawn together more artificially here, with an awkwardly contrived emphasis on protecting his school friends from superhuman danger in an assortment of different European cities. That said, it'd be churlish not to give credit to Tom Holland and Zendaya for coping with the exigencies of the script with charm and poise. Ned and Beth, May and Happy are comedy couplings (as well as giving hope to men everywhere), but Spidey and MJ give you the genuine feels.

6.7.19

Identification of a Woman (Identificazione di una Donna)

Ideas in previous Antonioni films reappear here as echoes of past achievements. Perhaps the problem is Tomás Milián, who just isn't as engaging as Marcello Mastroianni, Alain Delon, Monica Vitti, David Hemmings or Jack Nicholson as the jaded aesthete stranded amid the ethical ruins of contemporary bourgeois civilisation. The visual ingenuity still present in late films like The Passenger, with its outré final long take, is relaxed here. It's like Antonioni is on autopilot.

The scene on the foggy motorway is the one bit of the film with genuine portent – where you get the same sense as in Blow-Up of a person lost in the chaos of reality and without the tools to make any sense of it. There's inexplicable movement and rustling in the shadows, we hear about gunshots and bandits, but we're kept in the dark.


The main character is looking for a woman to star in his next film, and he loses the woman he's fixated on due to his inability to commit. People are reduced to surfaces in the director's viewfinder – screens behind which he can spout his philosophical musings. The ending is a departure for Antonioni in some respects, with spaceships and special effects (although they look like they belong in the 60s rather than the 80s), but it's in keeping with his broad concerns. Niccolò switches from making a film about understanding a woman to a film about understanding the sun. Both are treated as physical objects studied with an objective, scientific eye. And the young boy he is making the film for asks "and then?" – what happens after you discover the secrets of the universe? The question is left hanging – ultimately love and science are meaningless purposeless pursuits.


Does he make the film for his nephew, or because he is also going to have a son? (Weirdly the possibility of a daughter isn't considered). It's ambiguous whether he decides to be involved in the raising of another man's child, although there's the suggestion that he'd be scared off by Mavi's discovery of her real dad, who she thought was just a distant and cold family friend. His comment that "family is a distraction from private life" feels like a constant in Antonioni's work – made explicit by Jack Nicholson abandoning his almost on a whim in The Passenger. Antonioni might celebrate such liberations, although they do strike me as ultimately self-indulgent and fundamentally irresponsible. Identification of a Woman was made when the director turned 70, but its attitude is still one of teenage listlessness and quixotic striving for romantic and political commitment. I'm now old enough to think that these people should really just grow up. It looks like Antonioni never did.

16.6.19

13 Assassins

Miike is only partly teasing when he says he wants 13 Assassins – best known for an exceedingly bloody 45 minute final faceoff between the titular thirteen and an army of 200 – to be viewed as a family film. The spectacle is great, but Miike and the writer (Audition and The Eel's Daisuke Tengan) are more concerned about the character drama that precedes it. There's a big emphasis on staying true to the original film, and the period detail – particularly the more ornate language spoken by the samurai.


The film begins with a slow scene of a lord committing hara-kiri, and its prevailing interest is in the sacrifices these men go through in order to remain true to their sense of self-worth and protect the values of their class. Miike wants to honour the rigours of doing your duty, but he also undercuts this with his decision of who survives the final massacre – the wastrel gambling nephew and a freewheeling Jack Sparrow-esque hunter who finds all these lords and their retainers ridiculous. Before he dies, the hero of the film describes being a samurai as a burden. The two survivors choose to lift it from their shoulders – pursuing women and the good life abroad or in the margins of society. It's an individualistic attitude totally at odds with the grim loyalty to lord and country of the older generation.


The film ends with a grin from the gambler looking forward to future pleasures, before the titles inform us that 23 years later the Shogunate fell and the modern Meiji era began. Miike is careful to leave the ending open to multiple interpretations, but I suspect his overriding attitude is to pay tribute to but to also break down the psychological fetters of Japanese feudalism, and remind the audience to be grateful that they live in more liberal times.

The Warriors

"There really isn't a lot to think about so keep it moving, keep it moving" was the instruction the director Walter Hill gave to his editor when cutting the film. That's slightly unfair on Hill's part. The story, taken from a pulp novel the producer found without a cover in a second-hand bookstore, is a retelling of Xenophon's Anabasis using New York gangs. Inadvertently it illustrates quite well the recent (and persuasive) theory of state-creation as a glorified form of protection racket – the earliest politicians extorting tribute in exchange for defending you from rival chiefs. The film begins with the biggest gang-leader Cyrus attempting to unite the other gangs to take over the city – showcasing the next stage of state-development where one emerges to rule them all and win the game of thrones.


The film got into trouble when it was released. Violence broke out in some screenings, leading the producers to pull advertising. Hill suggests that the subject matter may have attracted rival gangs into cinemas, which sparked scuffles. The film certainly doesn't try to moralise about the activities the characters get up to – the young men (and it is mostly men) are products of an environment that doesn't provide alternative avenues for respectability and success.

This is illustrated most effectively by the major female character in the film, who is attracted to the war chief of the Warriors gang to the point of abandoning her previous gang affiliation. Mercy isn't treated particularly well by any of the men around her – sexually harassed, insulted and dragged around against her will. But she is the only one who articulates the hopelessness of the neighbourhood she grew up in, and the attraction of escaping to somewhere, anywhere, else – even if that involves the risk of violence and death.


So there are things to think about, but Walter Hill isn't wrong in emphasising the propulsive nature of the film. The director's cut makes the comic book-inspired style of the story explicit – where the violence of the city is displaced by flamboyant gang colour costumes, outrageous personalities and a slipstream science fiction aesthetic. The director of photography does some amazing work around the underground train stations to make them look like scuzzy nightclubs, and the synth-embellished rock music was a novelty at the time. To an extent the film prefigures the neon-lit cyberpunk look and feel of Blade Runner three years later, although it owes a lot to Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange as well. It is certainly more enjoyable than either of those landmark pictures.