Talking Movies

October 2, 2015

9 Days of 90s Horror

Hallowe’en comes to the Lighthouse with 9 days of 90s horror films from 23rd to 31st October culminating in a Scream-themed party before a screening of the late Wes Craven’s third reinvention of horror cinema.

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While the IFI’s Horrorthon unleashes a slew of new genre entries, the Lighthouse will hark back to the 1990s; the origin of the ‘ironic slasher’ sub-genre which was murdered by torture porn, and found-footage, which, like many a horror bogeyman, just won’t die. In association with the Bram Stoker Festival the 90s Vampire strand brings Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 adaptation of Stoker’s text back to the big screen, placing it beside other 90s vampire movies Blade, From Dusk Till Dawn, and the original iteration of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The most important film being screened, however, is Scream. Wes Craven redirected the current of horror cinema three times: Last House on the Left, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Scream. Teamed with razor-sharp screenwriter Kevin Williamson he delivered a totemic movie well worthy of a Scream-themed Hallowe’en night costume party.

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FROM DUSK ‘TILL DAWN

Friday 23rd October 10:30pm

Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s first blood-soaked collaboration is presented in a digital restoration; that won’t make QT happy… A grimy, violent B-movie about a seedy Mexican bar that happens to be crawling with vampires this had its origins in VFX guys wanting a showcase script for their handiwork. So, after some quintessentially Tarantinoesque build-up, with fugitives George Clooney and Tarantino trading taunts and riffs with their hostages Harvey Keitel and Juliette Lewis, Rodriguez’s aesthetic takes over: Salma Hayek and energetic mayhem.

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BLADE I & II – (Double Bill)

Saturday 24th October 9:00pm

Never let a high concept get in the way of a good double bill! Guillermo Del Toro’s 2002 sequel sees humans and vampires form an uneasy alliance to defeat the mutated vampires known as ‘Reapers’, who threaten to infect and/or eat everyone. But first we have to see Wesley Snipes’ vampire superhero take down Stephen Dorff, with some help from Kris Kristofferson, in the 1998 debut of the ‘Daywalker’. All together now: “Some motherf****** are always trying to ice-skate uphill.”

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BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER

Sunday 25th October 10:30pm

Nothing bad is ever Joss Whedon’s fault. That trope began here. His script for this 1992 teen comedy was apparently neutered in production, leading Whedon to dream it all up again for TV; where, even as show-runner, season 4 was also somehow not his fault. Buffy’s cinematic origin story isn’t a patch on the TV development, and, while Donald Sutherland’s Watcher and Rutger Hauer’s Master Vampire add class to proceedings, this is more interesting as a time capsule (Look! It’s Luke Perry!).

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BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA

Monday 26th October 3:30pm

Director Francis Ford Coppola’s screenplay differs wildly from Stoker’s book. Coppola fixated on a ‘true love never dies’ doppelganger love story between Gary Oldman’s Count and Winona Ryder’s Mina Murray, that shaped Jonathan Rhys-Meyers’ recent steam-punk TV adaptation. Cast adrift amidst outré sets that bellow their obvious artifice, Anthony Hopkins as Van Helsing and Keanu Reeves as Jonathan Harker try to ground things, but the best verdict remains Winona Ryder’s acidic “I deserved an Oscar for the job I did promoting that movie…”

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SILENCE OF THE LAMBS – (Cinema Book Club)

Tuesday 27th October 8.00pm

The Halloween edition of the Lighthouse’s Cinema Book Club is Jonathan Demme’s film of Thomas Harris’ best-selling chiller. Harris’ universe has been thoroughly mined, most recently in Bryan Fuller’s hallucinatory series Hannibal, but this 1991 Oscar-winner was the breakthrough adaptation. Jodie Foster’s FBI rookie Clarice Starling and Anthony Hopkins’ imprisoned cannibal Hannibal Lecter are indelible performances. It’s become fashionable to disparage this in favour of Manhunter, but there’s a reason few people ever saw Brian Cox as Hannibal Lecter…

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THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT

Wednesday 28th October 8.30pm

The greatest horror producer of the 21st century Jason Blum passed on this at Sundance, and has been kicking himself ever since. Some people at early screenings in 1999 thought that this was real; giving its unnerving ending enough power to create a buzz that made it a sensation. It wasn’t real. It was, however, the moment where found-footage horror stomped into the multiplex and declared it would never leave, all because of an unsettling walk in the woods in Burkettsville, Maryland.

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WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE

Thursday 29th October 8.30pm

Wes Craven wrote and directed this late meta-instalment in the franchise he had kicked off with his original vision of Freddy Kreuger. Heather Langenkamp, Nancy in 1984’s Nightmare on Elm Street, plays herself; plagued by dreams of a Freddy Kreuger far darker than the one portrayed by her good friend Robert Englund. Featuring cameos from several of the original cast and crew Craven produces a postmodern musing on what happens when artists create fictions that take on a life of their own.

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CANDYMAN

Friday 30th October 8.30pm

Bernard Rose’s cult classic, an adaptation of genre legend Clive Barker’s The Forbidden, follows a thesis student who is researching urban legends. Unfortunately for him he discovers the terrifying world of ‘Candyman’, the ghost of a murdered artist who is summoned by anyone foolish to say his name out loud into a mirror five times. Masterfully made, still absolutely terrifying, and the reason we all cheer whenever Tony Todd makes a cameo ever since, this also features the unlikely bonus of a Philip Glass score.

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HOCUS POCUS, Kathy Najimy, Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, 1993

HOCUS POCUS

Saturday 31st October 3.00pm

A token film for the kids is 1992’s Hocus Pocus. Why the misfiring hi-jinks of Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy’s trio of Salem witches is perennially on TV is a mystery, but to present it as the essential kids’ Hallowe’en film is an enigma wrapped inside a riddle. Especially when Nicolas Roeg’s film of Roald Dahl’s The Witches, starring a scary Anjelica Huston as the Grand High Witch, dates from 1990…

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SCREAM I & II – (Double Bill & Party)

Saturday 31st October 9.30pm.

Neve Campbell confidently carries this 1996 classic, a blackly hilarious self-aware dissection of slasher clichés which is also a brilliant slasher filled with tense sequences. Williamson’s delicious dialogue (“Movies don’t create psychos, they just make psychos more creative…”) is brought to memorable life by an ensemble on truly top form, with star-making turns from Jamie Kennedy, David Arquette, Rose McGowan, and Skeet Ulrich. 1997’s sequel isn’t quite as good, but Kevin Williamson’s dialogue remains a joy, there are some nail-biting moments, it’s as subversively self-aware as 22 Jump Street of its sequel status, and uses Timothy Olyphant, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jerry O’Connell, and David Warner to great effect.

‘9 Days of 90s horror’ ends with a Scream-themed Hallowe’en party preceding the Scream double bill, beginning at 8pm. Dress as your favourite 90s horror icon and enjoy the ironically-named cocktails, soundtrack of 90s hits, and general japery all related to Wes Craven’s classic slasher.

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TICKETS FOR 90S VAMPIRE FILMS:

http://www.lighthousecinema.ie/newsarticle.php?sec=NEWS&_aid=8323

 

TICKETS FOR 90S HORROR FILMS:

http://www.lighthousecinema.ie/newsarticle.php?sec=NEWS&_aid=8455

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August 30, 2014

Sin City: The Big Fat (Career-)Kill(er)

A decade is a long time to wait for a sequel. It’s a very long time. When the original Sin City was released Pete Travers of Rolling Stone hailed its success as a two-fingered salute to the values of Bush’s America. And yet even he’s bored senseless by its belated follow-up, because, lest we forget, 9 long years have passed…

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Bush’s America now exists only in the pages of self-justificatory memoirs, and endless hostile polemics that seem ever more embarrassing as Obama; from drones to Guantanamo Bay to blanket surveillance; continues and amps up what he was supposed to dismantle. And the film landscape has changed beyond recognition. Back in 2006 studios still made 40 million dollar movies. Christopher Nolan could follow up Batman Begins with a small personal movie at that budget, The Prestige. Nolan now makes small personal blockbusters (Inception, Interstellar) between blockbusters. And even if he wanted to make a smaller movie he probably wouldn’t be allowed; its 5 million dollars or 150 million dollars now, nothing in between. And for Sin City, looming above the possibilities of the comic-book movie now is the monolith of Marvel Studios; which was a mere business plan back in 2005.

2005… Spider-Man and X-Men had both had two lucrative outings. Batman was about to roar back into the cinematic fray, after a disastrous attempt to spin out Catwoman. Fantastic Four were about to be the latest Marvel characters given a chance for glory after disappointments for Daredevil and Elektra. And Hellboy had proven an unlikely blockbuster hit for Dark Horse. But, and this seems grimly hilarious, Fantastic Four was greeted with a universal groan of “Oh no, not another comic-book movie!” The clichés that bedevil the genre were already glaringly obvious. And Sin City didn’t have them: no superpowers or origins. This alone would have made it original, but it was also a brave new world of CGI recreating the look and feel of a comic-book. But now, after two 300 movies, (and Watchmen…) even its visual originality feels hackneyed.

Back in 2005 I wrote about how comics are perhaps the closest medium to cinema, combining as they do images with dialogue and voiceover. And, after all, films are storyboarded scene by scene, which is to say – drawn like a comic-book. Sin City finally treated the frames of a comic-book as if they were the storyboard and Robert Rodriguez simply shot what was drawn by Frank Miller. I lamented that it was a pity they picked such a lousy comic for the experiment. Hysterically, a year before Heroes, I also lamented how comic-book stories are more suited to the serialisation possible in television but have to be blockbusters owing to FX budgets needed for convincing superpowers. More on point was my contention then that, with outrageous blockbusters comics like Mark Millar’s The Ultimates out there ripe for the Sin City comics as storyboard treatment, it was the studios not the comic-books that were dumb; as big budgets led to playing things safe. Guardians of the Galaxy is probably the closest we’ll get to a Mark Millar blockbuster, and take away the absurdities James Gunn has attractively and distractingly sprinkled and you’ll notice the customary perfectly predictable Marvel structure plodding away…

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But arguably Sin City was a success in 2005 because it reflected the zeitgeist more than its sequel does now. In the era of torture porn, its opening vignette of Bruce Willis blowing off Nick Stahl’s hand and manhood seemed perfectly normal. Elijah Wood’s cannibal making Carla Gugino watch as he ate her hand, Mickey Rourke cutting off Elijah Wood’s arms and legs and leaving him to be eaten alive; all the violence that I found grotesque synched perfectly with Eli Roth’s work at the time. But that love of sadistic violence, which some critics implausibly interpreted as comedic, even clever by dint of its use of silhouette, isn’t present to the same degree in the sequel. Instead, and this is perhaps by accident rather than design, Sin City 2 amps up the sex – which places it neatly into the zeitgeist of Blue is the Warmest Colour, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Stranger by the Lake. It is unthinkable that Eva Green’s mostly topless/naked performance would not have excited a firestorm if it had been released a few years ago. In 2014 it’s slightly unusual but is more or less the new normal as Bret Easton Ellis might argue.

Sin City 2 isn’t likely to be seen by many people, which leads to an interesting side-note on what that says about the effect of onscreen nudity on Jessica Alba and Eva Green’s careers. Back in 2005 I praised Alba’s refusal to take her clothes off as stripper Nancy Callahan to satisfy the pervy hordes lusting at Miller’s porn-noir, dubbing it a giant punch against the liberal sexism of contemporary Hollywood. Eva Green, however, never had any such compunctions; as proved by her ridiculously over-exposed role in Sin City 2. But, while not getting her kit off has undoubtedly helped mute Alba’s career since Fantastic Four 2 to glossy horror (The Eye, Awake), terrible rom-coms (Good Luck Chuck, The Love Guru, Valentine’s Day, Little Fockers), and only the odd interesting film (The Killer Inside Me), getting her kit off hasn’t really worked out for Green, who has followed Casino Royale with TV shows (Camelot, Penny Dreadful), unseen movies (Cracks, Womb), and unmitigated disasters (The Golden Compass, Dark Shadows, 300: Rise of an Empire). Taking your clothes off apparently does not guarantee success. Indeed Alba’s rampage in Sin City 2 recalled her best role – her breakthrough network TV show Dark Angel.

If Sin City 2 is out of step with the zeitgeist, and its visual style no longer wows, it must be said there is another obvious reason for people’s lack of interest – Frank Miller… After two 300 movies, and The Spirit, audiences have evidently grown tired of Miller’s shtick. Sure The Spirit could be said to have put shackles on Miller’s vision by being a PG-13, but, freed from the ‘restraining’ influence of Rodriguez, in writing and directing his own original take on Will Eisner’s character we were getting the pure, unfiltered directorial vision of Frank Miller – and it was screamingly bad; not even laughably bad, just jaw-droppingly awful. It recalled nothing so much as the moment in The Bad and the Beautiful when Kirk Douglas’ producer takes over directing to get the most out of every single scene, and makes a total hames of the movie as a result.

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Miller’s obsession with every single line being delivered in as macho a manner as possible is exhausting, indeed the only sane way to approach 300 is in the best Wodehousian manner – a sort of musical comedy without the music. Sin City 2 highlights Miller’s excruciatingly repetitive and witless writing. Miller will never describe a character like Raymond Chandler in The Big Sleep; “I pushed a flat tin of cigarettes at him. His small neat fingers speared one like a trout taking the fly”; or drop into interior monologue like Sara Paretksy in Indemnity Only: “‘I’m trying to keep people at the office from knowing I’ve been to a detective. And my secretary balances my checkbook.’ I was staggered, but not surprised. An amazing number of executives have their secretaries do that. My own feeling was that only God, the IRS, and my bank should have access to my financial transactions.”

But Miller’s idiocy is now going to sink the man who bafflingly shackled himself to such pseudo-noir: Robert Rodriguez. Rodriguez has undoubtedly gone downhill creatively since the parodic joy that was Planet Terror. Indeed he’s properly ghettoised himself with Machete and Machete Kills, while his only other feature outings since Planet Terror have been two unloved kids’ films. Sin City 2 was positioned to reach a wider audience than anything he’d made since the original Sin City, but it’s gone disastrously wrong. Once, Rodriguez was a man who made major summer horror movies, off-beat summer action flicks, and event movies (The Faculty, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, Sin City). But (zeitgeist time again…) then people started watching a lot of gleeful trash, streaming it in their homes… So now, it’s likely Rodriguez will become a schlocky cable showrunner, having just made his last movie to be released in theatres…

Sin City 2 cost somewhere over $60 million and made around $6 million on opening weekend. As TWC distribution chief Erik Lomis said “We stand behind the film, and … never expected this level of rejection. It’s like the ice bucket challenge without the good cause.” …The Big Fat Career-Killer.

August 22, 2014

Sin City 2

Comic-book writer and artist Frank Miller returns with a sequel nobody particularly wanted, except presumably himself and co-director Robert Rodriguez.

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Hard-drinking hard-bitten hard man Marv (Mickey Rourke) wakes up surrounded by dead bodies, so, just another Saturday night in Sin City… Supernaturally lucky gambler Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) arrives in town to take down unfriendly neighbourhood super-villain Senator Roark (Powers Boothe) at his infamous poker game, assisted by lucky charm/hooker Marcie (Julia Garner). That doesn’t work out too well… Elsewhere Dwight (Josh Brolin, not Clive Owen), gets entangled with his seductive ex Ava (Eva Green) and her man-mountain muscle Manute (Dennis Haysbert, not Michael Clarke Duncan), and then another ex, Gail (Rosario Dawson), and her petite but equally terrifying muscle Miho (Jamie Chung, not Devon Aoki)… (Sheesh! Recasting is confusing!). And, in the final thread, stripper Nancy (Jessica Alba) prepares to shoot Roark as revenge for the suicide of her protector Hartigan (Bruce Willis); who now observes proceedings as a ghost.

I dismissed 2005’s Sin City as grotesque, witless garbage that was not so much pseudo-noir as porno-noir. And, hilariously, the sequel isn’t nearly as bad largely because of its abandonment of grotesquerie for the proud adoption of my latter tag. There still is nasty business; involving fingers, eyeballs, and bone splinting with Christopher Lloyd (who, joy!, insists a character call him Doctor); but there’s less of an emphasis on sadistic cruelty. Instead the emphasis is on lingering on Eva Green’s tits long enough so that (to paraphrase David Mamet) half America could draw them from memory. Green should watch Angel Face to see an actual noir version of her character, because her constant nudity is at first unusual, then laughably stupid, before it becomes a game of stop-watch to see if she’s topless for more than 50% of her screen-time.

Miller has written two new stories for this film, ill-serving JGL whose character really has no plan, and whose entire storyline is basically pointless. And ‘new’ is a strong term, because, like the original, this is incredibly repetitive stuff. Chandler used to have Marlowe get worked over real good once a book, Miller seems to have his characters get worked over good once a chapter. The violence is rendered more abstract this time round by greater recourse to white silhouettes, but Miller’s addiction to ultra-violence as the solution to all of life’s problems remains intact. Boothe is terribly one-note as Roark, but he has nothing to work with – Chandler or Paretsky can be opened on any page to find a zinger, Miller’s dialogue is unremittingly clunky. Sin City was an event, but the visuals don’t dazzle, they just highlight the poverty of writing behind them.

Sin City 2 is a less sadistically violent but more gratuitously sexualised (Juno Temple I’m looking at you…) reprise of its predecessor. It passes the time, but caveat emptor.

2/5

August 13, 2014

The Expendables 3

Sylvester Stallone and his band of arthritic action heroes return for a surprisingly decent third instalment in this underwhelming franchise.

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Barney Ross (Stallone) and his mercenary crew; Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture, Terry Crews; use a helicopter to rescue long-imprisoned Expendable Doc (Wesley Snipes) from a prison train. Their CIA contact Drummer (Harrison Ford) then dispatches the team to Somalia to capture an arms-dealer, but faulty intelligence fails to identify the target as another former Expendable: the extremely dangerous Stonebanks (Mel Gibson). A broken Stallone recruits a new, much younger team – a tech specialist; Thorn (Glen Powell); some muscle; Mars (Victor Ortiz), Luna (Ronda Rousey); and a tactician Smilee (Kellan Lutz). They go up against Stonebanks in Eastern Europe with a foolproof plan. And then a shattered Stallone recruits demented Spaniard Galgo (Antonio Banderas) for another go round at Stonebanks… At this rate he may well need Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Yin (Jet Li) to selflessly help him out.

The Expendables franchise isn’t nearly as funny and knowing as it thinks it is. Its idea of meta-comedy is for actors to make obvious references to their lives and quote past roles without any jokes attached. Indeed its funniest meta-moments are unintentional, the obvious cutaways and wide-angles disguising creaking bones in fight scenes. As a PG-13 movie the CGI blood that bedevilled the last movie is mercifully absent, but instead we have the hilarity of people not being bisected by a steel wire on a fast-moving train in the opening sequence; whose cartoonish climax flags a problem for the whole film – outrageously bad CGI. If, per Nolan and Pfister, cinema is about capturing live-action on film, it makes no sense at all for an action film to stage an elaborate live-action build-up only for the pay-off to be a screensaver.

The outsize cast barely fits on the poster, so predictably most make no impression whatsoever; except MMA fighter Ronda Rousey whose face registers amusement or annoyance – and nothing else… Stallone’s screenplay has been worked over by Olympus Has Fallen scribes Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt, but they only manage to make Banderas a live-action Puss in Boots while failing to deliver any good quips. Kelsey Grammer as a fixer gives the impression of ad-libbing the funniest moments of his ‘putting the heist together’ scenes, as does Gibson whose charisma veritably leaps off the screen in this company. There is a quantum leap in directorial competence as Patrick Hughes (the brutal and atmospheric Red Hill) showily stages the extraction at an art gallery with some panache, but even he can’t save the over-extended warzone finale and its ludicrously motivated boss fight.

The Expendables 3 isn’t a genuinely good movie, but as the best instalment so far it legitimately makes this question seriously tantalising – what could this franchise be with Robert Rodriguez or Roland Emmerich onboard?

2.5/5

August 1, 2012

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part V

As the title suggests here are some short thoughts about the movies which aren’t quite substantial enough for each to merit an individual blog posting.

 

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The Enigma of Billy Ray

Some weeks back I made a cryptic reference to the enigma of Billy Ray. Who the hell is Billy Ray you might ask? Well, that’s kind of a hard question to answer actually, as he appears to be two entirely different people; hence the enigma. On the one hand you have the writer/director Billy Ray, and on the other you have the screenwriter for hire Billy Ray. Billy Ray as a screenwriter is someone who writes reasonably big movies, like The Hunger Games or State of Play. This is his stock in trade, films with big names attached or big expectations, but not necessarily huge blockbuster budgets. And quite often they’re riddled with problems, not least with multiple writers getting in each other’s way as in the case of Hart’s War or Suspect Zero. But even when left on his own in the writing room to grind out a screenplay, for something like say Flightplan, Ray is always competent, but rarely inspiring. But as writer/director Billy Ray has made two auteurishly distinctive films, Shattered Glass and Breach. Both films are based on real life events, the former his own original screenplay, and the latter a severe rewrite by him of an existing script which made it feel like his previous directorial outing. Both films are low key dramas that become quite devastating, both feature excellent performances from an impressive ensemble of actors, and both, somehow, feature wonderful lead performances from pretty boy actors that few other directors seem able to coax such subtle turns from, Hayden Christensen and Ryan Phillipe. I once suggested that Robert Rodriguez had a bubbly twin he kept locked in the basement who wrote the Spy Kids movies for him, but with Billy Ray I’m boggled. He is, simply, an enigma.

Sounds like Metric

Two years ago I was blown away by Scott Pilgrim Vs the World and wrote a blog offering 7 reasons to love Edgar Wright’s comic extravaganza. One of those reasons concerned the distinctive sound of The Clash at Demonhead, the band fronted by Scott’s ex-girlfriend Envy Adams, who so blew away all the other bands showcased that Scott’s band-mate was left muttering “That was devastating” after the gig. “I’m not suggesting it’s actually Metric but it’s pleasing that Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich in composing the music for the film gave some variety to the styles of the different bands we hear and noticeably varied their quality even down to having the only song played by Scott’s ex-girlfriend and her successful band be actually kind of awesome…” That was what I wrote then. I recently re-watched Scott Pilgrim for the first time and was overjoyed to find that it stands up as an inventive and hilarious comedy, and slightly embarrassed to find that the reason it sounded like Metric was because it is Metric! Metric with Emily Haines’ vocals replaced by Brie Larson’s to be sure but Metric performing their song ‘Black Sheep’ nonetheless. And they rock, devastatingly…

December 9, 2011

Violence at the Drive-In: Part II

Drive has inspired this provisional attempt at asking what different types of movie violence exist, how they can be categorised, and what meanings each might have.

“There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all” – Oscar Wilde

Wilde’s defence of the Aesthetes is never far behind any justification of excessive violence in cinema. As a defence it has only one drawback, it’s not remotely true. Art can be deeply immoral. I direct you to Triumph of the Will. Quite often film historians will rave about the innovation or dazzling techniques employed by its director Leni Riefenstahl, and then snap back into their conscious minds, realise just how far down a  particularly crooked garden path they’ve gone, and hastily backtrack with a “BUT of course it’s a terribly evil film….” Films do not exist in a vacuum. They’re part of our lived experience, and if we have any sense of right and wrong surely films are implicated in it in more than a three-act Hollywood good defeats evil structural sense.

I reviewed Paranoid Park for InDublin and was appalled at the bisection of an innocent security guard by its unlikeable hero that was the pivot of the film. But I was stunned to see one American critic summon the courage to dub that moment deeply immoral. We’ve been inured to think about screen violence only in terms of effect, technique, structure, but there are different types of violence and morality cannot always be parked at the door as Wilde would wish. A man getting his head stomped on by Ryan Gosling till bone-dust floats in front of the lens inhabits a different universe than a lengthy sword-fight between Basil Rathbone and Errol Flynn ending with Rathbone’s death. Cinematic violence can be divided into a number of types, and the most obvious type is spectacle. A swordfight is violent, a cowboy duel is violent, a shoot-out is violent, a suspenseful Spielberg action sequence is violent, the lobby scene in The Matrix is violent – but it is the violence of spectacle. Hugh Jackman said that his musical theatre training was helpful in preparing for boxing in Real Steel because fight choreography is just choreography. When action is spectacle, what you’re really watching and enjoying is the choreography.

“Art is art because it is not nature” – Oscar Wilde

Can violence that is not seeking to appeal to the audience’s admiration for good choreography ever truly be aesthetic? Drive depicts a woman’s head exploding from a shotgun blast in anatomically accurate detail. Scorsese realistically depicts the explosion of a body dropped from a roof when it hits the ground, spraying Leonardo DiCaprio with blood, in The Departed. Why do film-makers engaged in depicting violence which is not spectacle usually go for such extreme verisimilitude? For every Kill Bill touch of blood spurting 30 feet there’s multiple instances of something like a gangster being bashed in the head by a shovel in Miller’s Crossing or a gangster being bashed in the head by a baseball bat in The Untouchables. Wilde’s dictum, if taken seriously, implies that 1950s cowboys keeling over dead without any blood being spilled after being shot is more artistic than R rated violence, because it is so obviously not nature but rather an artistic convention. Spielberg at least acknowledged that he was going for extreme authenticity in Saving Private Ryan to traumatise the audience rather than for his usual purpose of using violence – scaring/entertaining them, we’ll label all such uses of violence as catharsis to make life easier. Violent film-makers though seem to enjoy rendering violence in extreme detail not for reasons of catharsis but because they just like depicting bloody violence.

Can violence detached from the spectacle of choreography ever be aesthetic and nothing else? I doubt it, given that we seemed to have reached a point in cinema history where violence must be very realistic (whether fully depicted or screened from view) or it defeats the verisimilitude of its context. A more important question is just why is violence so important to cinema? Raymond Chandler quipped that whenever he got stuck he simply wrote a guy with a gun walking into the room. I’ve hammered LOST before for exactly this sort of laziness in which violence is used as a cheat, a jump-leads to make a scene tense and raise the dramatic stakes without bothering to write escalating conflict, character based tension, or biting dialogue. But this idea allows us to provisionally divide violence into four categories: spectacle, catharsis, function, sadism – suffering is the key to noting the last as well as a certain monolithic quality of the film as violent film and nothing else. It is also the only one that raises moral qualms, as opposed to seething dissatisfaction at lazy writing and distaste at a high water-mark of violence becoming the norm for ignoble reasons of sheer functionality. The fight in the subway at the end of The Matrix is all about the spectacle of dazzling wire-assisted choreography. By contrast the fights in Batman Begins are a total blur in which Batman wins, because Nolan very deliberately shoots too close to the action so as to shift the focus away from the spectacle; it doesn’t matter how Batman beats people up, what matters is that he can beat people up – it’s a question of function and character, not of aesthetics and spectacle. Functional violence is now the grease on the wheels of the three-act structure in many instances. At the climaxes of films, as villains get their desserts, it often overlaps with catharsis.

Catharsis is obviously an ancient legitimisation for extreme violence, and indeed Incendies will probably be my film of the year because it used shocking violence to purge the emotions of its audience with pity and fear to such powerful effect that the entire cinema sat in a stunned Aristotelian silence for some minutes at the end of my screening before shuffling out feeling somewhat mind-blown. But there is a fine line between catharsis and sadism, even in the greatest works. Oedipus gouging out his own eyes when he discovers the truth of his actions is not the same as Titus Andronicus informing his enemy exactly what was in the pie she just ate. ‘Shakespeare was really violent too’ is therefore not a carte blanche excuse for grotesque violence, though it’s often used in defence of extreme screen violence. Yes, Shakespeare was a bloody nihilist in King Lear and Titus Andronicus; in performance everything in Lear can seem mere build up to Cornwall gouging out Gloucester’s eyes, while Titus is simply a catalogue of grand guignol horror from start to finish. But Shakespeare also wrote the frothy feather-light follies Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing where you’ll look in vain for any eye-gouging or cannibalism. Shakespeare had range with a capital R. The problem with Tarantino’s spawn is that they specialise in violence to a worryingly monolithic extent, and their violence often veers towards the Titus approach rather than Lear – audiences do not cry with pity and fear for what they have just witnessed and feel emotionally purged, they moan in revulsion and disgust at what they have just witnessed and feel emotionally contaminated.

“Just keep telling yourself, it’s only a movie” – Last House on the Left tagline

Sadism – the true differentiator. Violence as spectacle, function or catharsis doesn’t provoke the same shudder. Incendies was deeply shocking in its depiction of violence, but, crucially, it wasn’t shocking because of graphic depictions of that violence, but because of the connections between who was committing the acts and who they were victimising, on both an individual and societal basis. Sadism does not have that concern which elevates catharsis. It is concerned with depicting suffering for its own sake. Hostel auteur Eli Roth wants you to see a man lose two fingers on both hands as he breaks his bonds and then keep going in his quest to escape the deadly hostel, leaving his fingers behind him. I’ve written about Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Watchmen, noting that the theatrical cut showcased all the most obnoxious moments of his director’s cut: Big Figure cutting the arms off his henchman when Rorschach ties them to the cell-bars, 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 – ending her employability as a secretary? Why cut off a man’s arms with a power-saw and leave him to die in agony when Alan Moore’s script slashes his throat for an instant death? I said previously that Snyder was adding sadism to an already nasty story, but now I note he’s changing the category of violence – from function to sadism. He wants you to see people suffering, and that is a sensibility I find deeply troubling, not least because it seems to be shared at certain times by celebrated directors like Refn, the Coens, Tarantino, Scorsese, Burton, Haneke and Miike. I won’t say that what these film-makers do with violence at their worst moments is immoral, but it is deeply troubling, and it’s time to stop meekly accepting their cod-Wildean ersatz-Shakesperean defences and ask just why it is that they apparently get off so much on depicting violence in gory detail with an emphasis on suffering.

Drive didn’t perturb me because it was a film purely of sadistic violence; the first outbreaks of bloodletting are all about function and catharsis, while the ominous killing on the beach is violence as both spectacle and catharsis. No, it’s taken me a long time to fathom what lies behind my feeling that Drive really was a film of two parts; the first of which I loved, the second of which I despised. And this is it. A film makes a contract with the audience, and for me Drive broke that contract – I didn’t expect that sort of violence to develop from the first part of the movie, and I don’t appreciate being told I’ve seen equally graphic violence in films that signed a different contract and delivered the goods as agreed. Spielberg and Hitchcock are pranksters, asking you where the line is repeatedly, to establish it in their minds, and then crossing that line for fun. Robert Rodriguez, in Machete or Planet Terror, establishes his ground rules for schlocky violence in the opening minutes. Saying I shouldn’t attack Drive because I enjoyed Wanted ignores the different contracts that they proffered regarding the nature of the screen violence to expect, and is akin to this:

BORIS: A 0-0 draw. Great. What a riveting football match…
JOHNSON: What are you complaining about? Have you forgotten that 0-0 draw last week that had you enthralled?
BORIS: What, the one with the 2 disallowed goals, 3 sendings off, 4 shots off the crossbar, 5 off the post and 60 shots saved?
GODUNOV: The very one.
BORIS: (beat) I think that was a bit different. How many shots were there tonight?
JOHNSON: What, on target?
BORIS: No, at all.
GODUNOV: Um… None. It was 90 minutes of 22 men on their own goal-lines.
BORIS: Yeah, it was 0-0 and so was last week’s match, but this one was excruciating.

As Enda Kenny used to bellow (but not at Nicolas Winding Refn, though he’d stand hearing it) “Sign the Contract!”

Violence at the Drive-In: Part I

In 2005 I wrote a piece for the University Observer titled ‘Huh Huh, Cool’ criticising the reception of Sin City. I find myself in 2011 writing much the same piece again criticising the reception of Drive. But this time I want to get deeper into the question of cinematic violence by trying to categorise the various types and their meaning.

Sin City’s poster campaign displayed with great pride a quote from a review: “The coolest film of the year”. Sin City probably was the coolest film of the year, in the sense that it was definitely the most violent film of the year. It was also grotesque witless garbage but that wasn’t said as much. I decided to position the piece as a pre-empting of the three strident defences usually offered to smack down anyone like me who had the reactionary audacity to object to something like Sin City. The first defence, endlessly aired especially by Taranteenies, holds that the violence is stylised. Stylised violence, the argument goes, isn’t real violence and therefore can’t be condemned. This argument stems from defences of A Clockwork Orange. The problem with citing that film though is that it actually undermines the whole argument about stylised violence being acceptable violence. The violence in the novel was veiled by Anthony Burgess’s parodic and inventive use of language which brought us inside the mind of Alex to whom this kind of activity is fun: “And then I stomped real hard on his yarblockas and the good vino came running out horrorshow good O my brothers”.  “And then I kicked him in the guts till his blood came gushing out” doesn’t entice us into Alex’s world of ultra-violence quite so much. Sadly this literary effect is impossible to replicate onscreen using “stylised violence” because film is a visual medium. You see the blood. Veil the visuals and you can still hear the screams. Perhaps if you were to depict a silent shadow puppet play you might succeed.

“But Frank Miller wrote graphic novels! It’s just comic book violence, not to be taken seriously at all, just like a cartoon” goes the second defence, perhaps invoked after attempts at inserting shadow puppets have failed. Sadly Frank Miller isn’t exactly typical of what comic books actually were, and are, like. This argument presupposes that The Itchy and Scratchy Show is what cartoons were really like rather than Tom and Jerry. The ‘acceptable’ level of violence has vastly increased in the last few decades. Please remember that The A-Team got in trouble in the mid-1980s for violence. That’s right, all those shootouts where no one ever dies, and all the spectacular cars-spinning-in-the-air crashes that end with everyone crawling out unharmed were considered excessively violent. Jack Bauer would laugh at what The Equaliser considered extreme actions, while blockbusters, which are films largely aimed at children, have become ever more violent. I didn’t envy parents explaining to 6 years olds exactly what Obi-Wan did to Anakin at the end of Star Wars III. But the comic-book defence overlooks a huge contradiction. Supervillains are classic villains because they live on. Superman can’t just kill Lex Luthor after struggling with him for a few issues, and the Fantastic Four were never able to simply take out Dr Doom. Buffy is a paradigm in recent years of the patience that it takes to build a classic villain: the Big Bad confronts fights Buffy multiple times, each encounter raising the stakes until a final confrontation in the season finale sees a duel to the death. But film is an idiot medium. It uses violence as a short cut to neatly resolve implacable conflicts, inserting a finality comic-books proudly abjure. Hollywood still operates under the code of the Wild West. The villain nearly always has to die.

The third defence abandoned ideas of irony or context and settled for raising a hue and cry against censorship. “But violence is part of American life, why shouldn’t it be in films?” I judged Hollywood’s beloved defence for prolonging the ethics of Dodge City a fair point, but noted that lack of health insurance and illiteracy problems were also part of American life and with the exception of John Q there weren’t too many films being made about them. Even John Q resorted to the good old familiar violence of a hostage situation in order to slip a film about healthcare under the radar. If filmmakers were sincere in using this defence then they would make films about all facets of American life. I suggested that readers should hold their breath waiting for Tarantino to make a film where a crucial plot point hinged on an illiterate character not being able to read a note left for him and just trying to stumble along according to what he thinks is written down. Then I instructed them to breathe out. It’s been 6 years and Tarantino’s remarkable propensity for violence has still yet to be leavened with any other facet of American life. Tarantino just likes violence, as does Robert Rodriguez, as does Nicolas Winding Refn, and the utter conformity of what gets to be “cool” is astounding. Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Trainspotting, Scarface, A Clockwork Orange, all of them featuring ultra-violence if not Beethoven, are cool films and have popular posters sold to college students. Wasn’t coolness based on individuality once? If it achieved nothing else, I argued, Sin City would have done some good if it left people asking just why extreme violence, borderline pornography and drug use seemed to be the only denominations in the currency of cool.

Nobody asked those questions, and sure enough Drive’s poster featured a quote from a reviewer dubbing it the coolest movie of the year. Even more disturbing was that critics in Cannes gave an ovation to the infamous elevator scene in which a man’s head is kicked in until bone-dust rises up into the camera. The three defences I trashed in 2005 aren’t the only dams keeping violence at the heart of cinema, but my objections to Drive can’t be articulated merely by dismantling those defences again. I now want to examine cinematic violence – its uses, its varieties, and its meanings.

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