Talking Movies

March 18, 2019

Any Other Business: Part XXVII

What is one to do with thoughts that are far too long for Twitter but not nearly long enough for a proper blog post? Why round them up and turn them into a twenty-seventh portmanteau post on matters of course!

The Hounds of Hell

There is something finally and karmically wrong about watching The X-Files in full flight while Supernatural is still running almost at full steam. This second return of The X-Files, which we’re encouraged to just call season 11 and pretend it’s normal to have hiatuses between seasons of a decade, has been far better than 2016’s far shorter and less successful comeback. Some of this season’s mythology episodes have been damn good, while the monster of the week ones have frequently knocked it out of the ballpark. In particular ‘Familiar’, a disturbing tale of small-town hysteria with vigilante action going horribly sideways when due process is disregarded.  But it’s not just a witch-hunt parable, there really are witches at work. And that’s when it felt like this was a direct challenge to Supernatural as mystical circles, ancient grimoires, and vicious mostly invisible hell-hounds started to appear. Was it a bit weird? Yes. The return in 2016 was a jolt as you realised how everything from Smallville to Supernatural to The Flash had shamelessly lifted their episode structure from The X-Files. So watching Supernatural be appropriated by The X-Files is like watching a father and son competing against each other at the Olympics. But maybe the influence has gone both ways. Season 13 of Supernatural gave Dean Winchester a number of godlike character moments. Here Mulder went by the name Bob to avoid having to explain Fox for the 1000th time in cafes, almost brought about the robocalypse by eschewing tipping robot chefs, and was shamelessly obsessive over old TV sci-fi VHS and Sasquatching. Perhaps it’s an example of what the Greeks called eris – good strife, or competition making both parties better.

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November 3, 2018

From the Archives: Mirrors

Another dive into the archives, another forgotten movie…

Kiefer Sutherland doesn’t seem to have grasped that the point of making a film between seasons of 24 is to stretch his acting muscles and avoid typecasting, not to bloody keep on playing Jack Bauer…

Kiefer plays disgraced undercover NYPD detective Ben Carson, suspended for shooting a fellow officer, who is battling alcoholism and rage issues (subtly depicted with lots of wall-thumping and shouting) and is thus estranged from his wife (Paula Patton) who keeps him from seeing their two children. Jack, I’m sorry I mean Ben, gets a job as a night-watchman guarding a burned out department store whose redevelopment is being held up by legal wrangling. His younger sister, whose couch he’s crashing on, strongly disapproves of this move as she thinks his ramblings about seeing horrible reflections in the mirrors of the store herald a nervous breakdown. Amy Smart is actually quite sympathetic as Ben’s sister, however her role is a glorified cameo as she’s only in Mirrors for two reasons. To take her clothes off (of course) which she does briefly, and to suffer one of the nastiest screen deaths seen in quite some time.

Her death sparks some farcically Bauer-like rampaging, the comedic highlight of which is Kiefer kidnapping a nun at gunpoint from a monastery (yes, all the characters refer to it being a monastery…). Mirrors is destroyed by being three very different films: a quality shocker where images in any reflective surface can hurt you; a ho-hum ‘the ghosts want you to avenge their murder’ whodunit; and an all-action showdown with a demon which seems oddly uncommitted to actually killing Ben given its preternatural speed and strength, intercut with Ben’s family being seriously menaced in their house by a number of logical inconsistencies in the high concept.

Alexandre Aja is the talented horror director who gave us French chiller Switchblade Romance but he comes badly unstuck with his script for this remake of a Korean film. While Aja will never lose his absolute mastery of using sound to create dread this script crams in so much that it becomes an endurance marathon. You have vague memories, amid the pyrotechnics of Bauer Vs Demon, that 100 minutes ago you were watching a visceral shocker about evil reflections in mirrors, before being hit with Aja’s trademark asinine ‘clever’ finale.

There is nothing in this film which isn’t done better on a weekly basis by TV horror show Supernatural. If you want some enjoyable scares catch that at midnight on Mondays on TV3. If you want the experience of this film watch it – while mentally replacing Jensen Ackles’ Dean Winchester with Jack Bauer, hilarity should ensue. If Mirrors was just a little less efficient at the “HA! Made you jump…” scares then it would be gloriously bad. Regrettably that efficiency means that it’s just rubbish.

1/5

June 12, 2015

Let Us Prey

Game of Thrones’ Liam Cunningham is a mysterious figure causing chaos at the police station of a small Scottish town in this gory Scottish-Irish co-production.

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PC Rachel Heggie (Pollyanna McIntosh) has transferred to a small Scottish town, where her tightly-wound reputation precedes her. She instantly arrests local hooligan Caesar Sargison (Brian Vernel), and is surprised by the casual brutality of her supposedly religious superior Sgt Macready (Douglas Russell) and his unashamed leering at the teenage Caesar changing into prison garb. Her crude fellow constables Mundie (Hanna Stanbridge) and Warnock (Bryan Larkin) seem little better, ignorant of the police’s own call-signs when she reports a hit-and-run. When the apparent victim is brought in things get truly peculiar. He knows the darkest secrets of wife-beating prisoner Beswick (Jonathan Watson) and respected doctor Hume (Niall Greig Fulton), has a notebook full of names crossed out, and speaks of the reckoning to come at midnight. He has no name, only his suggestive cell number identifies him – Six (Liam Cunningham)…

The script by Fiona Watson and David Cairns plays this set-up quite straight. There are shades of Supernatural at play. Let Us Prey recalls the demonic Rio Bravo episode where the Winchesters were assailed by hordes of Lilith’s minions in an isolated police station, but it comes closest to Supernatural’s orbit in Six’s motivation. Six approaches Eric Kripke’s rendering of Lucifer as someone who lost an argument and is still determined to prove he was right, when he insists that forgiveness is an act of condoning and that the guilty must be punished for their sins. In fact Watson and Cairns at times seem almost to be riffing on JB Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, but that the dark secrets are being ferreted out by an equally dark angel. Everybody has a secret. They have been gathered together, for a purpose.

Commercials director Brian O’Malley makes his feature debut and his directorial control is admirable, and evident from the startling first appearance of Six landing on the Scottish coast in the midst of a crashing wave. His cinematographer Piers McGrail (Kelly + Victor, Glassland, The Canal) helps achieve a very precisely measured horror film that largely teases its gore rather than splash it about the screen, until the finale. Production designer James Lapsley renders the police station’s subterranean holding cells repulsively grotty, but there too many establishing shots of the most deserted town in Scotland. Arguably the power of Six has emptied the streets and filled them with crows, but it’s almost impossible not to think about budget constraints; and it distracts from the duels for power between Rachel, Macready, Mundie, Warnock, and Six as midnight approaches and the body-count rises.

Let Us Prey becomes increasingly outré, but the masochistic imagery of the fiery witching hour finale is certainly very memorable, and the gore and character arcs amp up pleasingly.

3/5

November 25, 2011

Last Exit to Smallville: Part I

“And that was the day the boy from Smallville became Superman…” 10 years is a long time for any TV show to run. When that show is the eternally misfiring Smallville, it’s an even longer time for a show to be part of your life…

Put it this way. Smallville has been running for so long that not only have season 1 meteor freaks like Adam Brody and Lizzy Caplan gone on to be the leads in their own TV shows, but Amy Adams has made the spectacular leap from meteor freak of the week to Lois Lane in Zack Synder’s forthcoming Superman: The Man of Steel. By the bitter end the only actor who’d stayed the course of the regulars was Tom Welling as Clark Kent, presumably the cursed role was only finally pried away from his cold dead hands, as even Allison Mack decided to eschew most of the final season and only belatedly arrived as a Chloe Ex Machina, just when John Glover showed up as Lionel Luthor to give some sense of an ending that synched with the 2001 pilot. The parallel careers of the runners-up for the role of Clark demonstrate exactly what Welling gave up by remaining always faithful.

Jensen Ackles didn’t get the role, and instead jumped straight back into Dark Angel, as his previous one-shot appearance became a regular role. When that ended he hopped onboard the final season of Dawson’s Creek. He was later terrific as the season 4 villain in Smallville, initially Lana’s charming boyfriend before his sinister machinations were unmasked, and then nabbed his signature role as Dean Winchester in Supernatural where his bad boy swagger was complemented by gory horror and sly humour. Ian Somerhalder didn’t get the role, and instead instantly shot a leading role in Roger Avary’s sublime The Rules of Attraction. He was terrific in Smallville season 3 as Adam Knight, loudly rumoured to be Batman. He wasn’t, of course, Smallville never delivered on awesomeness, and limped off to lick his wounds in O’ahu for the first season of LOST. Thankfully Somerhalder’s dark charisma finally found a role to popularly showcase it – the sociopathic vampire Damon in The Vampire Diaries.

Good actors weren’t the only people on the Smallville merry-go-round. Skilled writers came, tried to inject awesomeness, mostly failed, and quickly moved on. Jeph Loeb wrote for Smallville before moving on to LOST and then Heroes, but his contributions were rarely as distinctive as on those later shows. Drew Z Greenberg jumped from Buffy to Smallville where he penned some of season 3’s best episodes (the psychic who sees people’s deaths) before leaving. Steven S DeKnight jumped from Angel and made a pivotal contribution, forming the Justice League and penning damn near ¼ of season 5 to entice his associate James Marsters to star as season villain Braniac. The departure of creators Millar & Gough saw their lieutenants embark on an unintentionally funny Doomsday arc, before using a Kandorian clone of General Zod then a half-baked Darkseid as season villains, even as Geoff Johns simultaneously contributed a stunning two-part Watchmen homage and some terrific comics-based episodes of wit and depth.

The problem was that great writers were always struggling against a mediocre format. Miles Millar and Alfred Gough set up Smallville in such a way as to promote endless angst, and heavy handed hints of Superman adventures to come, while occasionally promising awesome adventures around the next arc, except those adventures never came – for 10 years. Season 2 of Smallville was a prime example. Indeed, it was almost unbearable in its angst quotient, which it mistook for deep drama. Spider-Man 2, which Millar & Gough co-wrote demonstrates to perfection their Smallville agenda for achieving emotional weight. Simply replace characters with their equivalents; Norman Osborn is Lionel Luthor, Harry Osborn is Lex Luthor, MJ Watson is Lana Lang, Aunt May is Martha Kent, Ben Parker is Jonathan Kent, Peter Parker is Clark Kent; and transfer their reluctance to give Superman a cape with Spider-Man’s baffling refusal to wear his mask, and you can see their one-size fits-all approach to writing superheroes.

It became clear as time went on that Millar & Gough didn’t really have a plan for resolving the central dilemma of their own concept – if Lex gradually became a supervillain wouldn’t he then, having earlier befriended Clark, know exactly who Superman was? The decision to kill Lex seemed to resolve that, while also making stark nonsense of the show’s own continuity as Lex’s dark future had been glimpsed by psychics, and foretold by prophecy. But then a cloned/resurrected Lex, possessing all his memories, triumphantly returned for the final ever episode. Only for Tess Mercer aka Luthessa Luthor to mind-wipe Lex, with a super-chemical compound, as her dying act. Lex remembered nothing of his friendship with Clark. And it turned out that all Clark needed to fly was an inexplicable voiceover appearance by Jor-El, after Darkseid had just socked Clark, introducing a montage of 10 seasons of Smallville as being the trials that he needed to embrace his Kryptonian heritage.

Clark just flying like it was second nature immediately after that was far too reminiscent of the ruby slippers in The Wizard of Oz – he had the power all along, he just had to believe it. The fact that he flew in season 4 also made it seem especially ridiculous. As for Lex’s mind-wiping, it was an ingenious save – and, like the equally neat LOST finale twist, entirely unrelated to everything that went before. It may well have been an ‘emergency finale device’ that’s been lying around for years in case the show got abruptly cancelled. But I won’t deny that Lex’s return was a joy. His first lines with Clark were the best written dialogue in Smallville for seasons: “Lex….” “You still say it the same way. Astonishment, with a hint of dread, but a hopeful finish.” The two montages that accompanied these turning points for Clark and Lex demonstrated something that I’ve always argued is TV’s greatest strength.

Its ability to develop character and accumulate experiences over a sustained period of time is unique. I stuck with Smallville despite its shortcomings because it wormed its way into my memories, and not just because for a while episodes were sound-tracked by chart-topping singles. I have vivid memories of discussing different seasons of the show with different people, as few people but me stuck with it for the whole run, and even our viewing motives changed. By season 8 I was chuckling at the stupidity of the show’s writing almost more than I was watching it for comic-book fun, and discussing it with others in that vein. But the montages reminded me why I’d loved the show in the first place – the heartbreak of the young Lex crying at the birthday party no one attended, the thrill of seeing Clark discover various powers for the first time. Smallville ran far too long but its Top 20 episodes would be superb.

It was great being reminded of the sublime moments the show had produced, many from a dynamic almost forgotten because those characters had long since left, but it was even better being told we had at long last reached the destination. In the closing minutes of the show we finally got to see Clark stop whining to Jor-El, put on the damn cape and fly, and rescue Lois by saving Air Force One. We heard Perry White as editor of the Daily Planet bark at Lois while she hassled an Olsen photographer (a dubious touch), as a white-suited (but with one hand black-gloved) Lex become President in 2018, before Clark ran out of the Daily Planet revealing the S under his shirt to the strains of John William’s score as the credits appeared in the 1978 font. Chloe’s statement to her son, “There’ll always be more adventures for another day”, summed up the enduring appeal of this iconic stable of characters.

So Smallville ended its decade long run as the longest running Superman TV series ever. It wasn’t always the best Superman TV series, but that’s something for Part II…

September 8, 2011

Troll Hunter

Since the 1970s there has been only one man in all Norway who dares to fight in the Hall of the Mountain King, who possesses the strength and skill to defeat the Tosserlads and Jotnars. He is Hans – the Troll Hunter!

Three kids from Volda College try to make a documentary about a series of unusual bear deaths but things get wildly out of hand when they try to surreptitiously film a man they suspect of being a bear-poacher… There’s a healthy feel of Cloverfield in how one actor is unseen for most of the ‘found footage’ as he’s stuck behind the camera filming events, and how despite nightmarish encounters the need to ‘document’ overcomes the need to survive. There’s also a solid three act structure to be retrospectively found in the ramshackle series of events, with an amazingly logical maguffin unveiled at the end. The moment when the students are surprised by the panicked ‘poacher’ running past them shouting “Troll!” is reminiscent of the episode of Supernatural where the Winchester brothers explode into the home-movies of amateur occultists filming their own terrible pilot Ghostfacers! And just as the Winchesters took the Ghostfacers (!) under their wing to fight scary monsters, Hans allows the students a peek behind the curtain.

Be forewarned that first glimpse of a troll is a bit disappointing after some truly wonderful sound effects, but as the film proceeds the trolls become scary because of how large and stupidly vicious they are. The battle with an aggressive Ringelfinch on a bridge is a supremely scary encounter, complete with a Jurassic Park homage as the troll-hunter uses a goat for bait to the dismay of the vegetarian boom-operator. Otto Jespersen is wonderful as Hans, equally battle-weary and stoically efficient. The scene-stealing character though is Finn Haugan, the hapless bureaucrat (with a curiously Irish sounding name) heading the Troll Security Service whose unenviable job is covering up Hans’ activity, with the help of extremely dodgy Polish bear-hunters (who cause more problems than they solve) and nonsensical press releases.

Writer/director Andre Ovredal make wonderful use of pseudo-science in explaining how trolls turn to stone when exposed to sunlight or the rig of UV bulbs our hero keeps on top of his car and is quite remarkably adept at mixing comedy and horror. A wonderful running gag utilising the legend of Trolls being able to smell the blood of a Christian man becomes intensely suspenseful, even as it satirically skewers the tyranny of Dawkins and his ilk in removing religion from ‘liberal’ public discourse. The finale has an incredible sense of peril as our heroes attack the 200 ft giant Jotnar with a jeep as robust against this creature as the mosquito in the opening credits is against Dexter.

Troll Hunter isn’t on wide release but its mordant horror deserves the widest possible audience.

4/5

July 28, 2010

Snyder’s Sensibility

Does Zack Snyder, director of Dawn of the Dead, 300, and Watchmen, have an identifiable and disturbing filmic sensibility or is it too early in his career to judge?

In a previous blog entry I wrote about misgivings regarding Snyder’s adaptation of Alan Moore’s epic comic Watchmen. These included the fact that Snyder’s Rorschach growled like Batman, rendering him heroic, whereas Moore gave Rorschach peculiar syntax to indicate his damaged state – this raised the worry that Snyder viewed Rorschach’s interior monologue as colourfully phrased expressions of a legitimate worldview rather than reprehensible ravings. More alarming was the linked problem of violence and visuals as, to masquerade as a blockbuster, Snyder had added violence, eliding Moore’s satirical point about the need for violent spectacle, and then reversing Moore’s intentions in Nite Owl and Silk Spectre’s intentionally lame rescue of people from a fire, which made their subsequent sex even more pointedly pathetic, by filming it as slow-mo heroic firestorms followed by ‘Hallelujah’ scored sex…

One could argue Snyder was demonstrating that he had only one style of directing, slow-mo ultra-violence, but what if it was a sensibility that colours his approach to all material? Dawn of the Dead threw out what little social satire there was in Romero’s original movie, about survivors repulsing zombies from a shopping mall, and instead indulged in that easiest of cheap horror tricks, fast-running zombies, as well as oceans of gore and needlessly nasty moments like a zombie baby trying to eat someone seconds after being born from an infected mother. Dawn’s writer went on to write and direct the joyous Slither so the majority of the blame must lie with Snyder. 300, which may be the cinematic encapsulation of the cocksureness of Bush America, works wonderfully as a musical comedy without music so replete is it with absurd patriotism and macho bombast, but Snyder in all seriousness made an action movie about freedom, and the people I know who hate 300 are uniformly the ones who took it seriously, like Snyder, rather than comically.

I wrote previously on the dilemma of criticising bad films without encouraging more of the same. I have since seen the ultimate cut of Watchmen in such a manner as to avoid both such encouragement and the vengeance of the FBI. I’m aware Ultimate Watchmen is not the theatrical cut most people saw, but the interpolation of the animated Black Freighter storyline along with its sheer wide-screen nature makes it more considered than a cut running an hour shorter could be, which allows some interesting observations. It remains a curiosity rather than a good movie, as it hews so closely to the comic, but Snyder is more restrained than I would have thought possible and one can only have a small number of quibbles with his adaptation.

These quibbles though feed the idea that there is a distinctive Snyder Sensibility, as their presence in the shorter theatrical cut emphasises both that Snyder wanted to include them above all else, and that they are jarring wrong notes. The ‘Hallelujah’ sex scene is painfully funny, and unintentionally so, and misses the point on two levels of its source equivalent by being heroic (even down to the climaxing fire-burst from Archie) because the preceding fire rescue has been presented in a bombastic rather than cringe-inducing fashion, and by following the failed sex scene which fails to juxtapose TV commentary on Veidt’s athletics prowess with Nite Owl’s impotence – an omission that makes a nonsense of interpretations of the alley scene as necessary misdirection because of the superpowers displayed in the opening fight. By the alley scene I of course mean the infamous moment when Silk Spectre, an out of shape human devoid of superpowers, rips the bone straight out of a man’s arm in a spray of blood with her bare hands. To quote Dean Winchester – “What the Hell?!” The other quibbles are Big Figure cutting the arms off his henchman when Rorschach ties them to the cell-bars, the blood seeping out from the toilet after Rorschach flushes Big Figure, the hand of Veidt’s secretary exploding when he’s attacked by an assassin, and Rorschach hatcheting the child murderer.

Why shoot the secretary in the leg, as in the comic, but then blow her hand off thereby ending her employability as a secretary? Why cut off a man’s arms with a power-saw and leave him in agony when Moore slashes his throat for an instant death? Why replace water with blood and have Rorschach graphically kill the child murderer rather than Mad Max him? Snyder adds sadism to an already nasty story, makes explicit violence that was elided, and prioritises super slo-mo sex and violence over logic. This is a sensibility. He may grow out of this seeming love of sadism for its own sake – Ultimate Watchmen displays new maturity – but if not he may become the new Tim Burton…

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