Tag Archives: 1970s

Kill List (2011)

9 Feb

Ben Wheatley first came to the public’s attention with online videos like ‘Cunning Stunt’, which went viral in short order. Wheatley quickly progressed to TV, directing ‘Modern Toss’, ‘The Wrong Door’ and the fifth series of ‘Ideal’. In between all this Wheatley also had time to direct his first feature, ‘Down Terrace’ (2009), a slow-burning thriller that is equal parts ‘Sexy Beast’ (2000) and ‘The Royle Family’, or a Shane Meadows crime saga. ‘Kill List’ takes a similar tack to ‘Down Terrace’, framing the action in a domestic setting, exploring themes of masculine identity, of battle-hardened men struggling to come to terms with the quotidian world.

‘Kill List’ tells the story of Jay (Neill Maskell) and Gal (Michael Smiley), two soldiers-turned-mercenaries who are still reeling from a botched job eight months prior. Jay and Gal are offered a new assignment by a shady group, requiring them to dispose of a series of seemingly unconnected targets. The realities of the job test the limits of Jay and Gal’s friendship as they and their loved ones are plunged into a morass of corruption and uncertainty.

There is a sombre efficiency to the – no pun intended – execution of ‘Kill List’ that perfectly fits its subject matter, an absence of irony that harks back to a time when crime films strove to deliver something more than empty thrills and knowing homage. There is a refreshing lack of flashy set pieces designed to outline the director’s technical prowess, occurring seemingly independent of the overall narrative and removing one from reality; the violence in ‘Kill List’ is integral to story and character progression and exists to underline the ugliness of taking a life.

Because ‘Kill List’ is violent. Very violent. Almost unbearably violent at times. But the overall effect, much like Alan Clarke’s ‘Elephant’ (1989), is to inure the viewer to what they see and make the actions of Jay and Gal seem run-of-the-mill, enabling us to see it with the same distance as they do. It is a bold approach; playing with our expectations and forcing us to examine our responses when the dust settles. There is also some elemental horror of early ‘70s vintage that delivers genuine tension and peril, a rare commodity in the Torture Porn epoch.

Smiley, best known as the mercurial bike courier Tyres in the cult ‘90s sitcom ‘Spaced, proves himself to be an accomplished dramatic actor; bringing ease, assurance and economy to his interplay with Maskell, who is a revelation as a man succumbing to his bestial impulses, for whom reality is grey and uninspiring after all he has seen and done. The film’s success hinges on the lingering tension between Jay and Gal, an enduring bond that is both sustained and undermined by their knowledge of each other, and it is brilliantly played out.

‘Kill List’ is at turns bleak, nihilistic and elegiac, examining with grisly clarity what soldiers do when they are rendered ‘extraneous’, when there are no more honourable battles left to fight and they are left to the harsh realities of the market. Wheatley succeeds in deconstructing two genres without recourse to the usual tropes, creating the most compelling British thriller for some time. There really is no telling where Wheatley will go next.


This is significant.


Barney’s Version (2010)

10 Jun

Paul Giamatti’s gradual ascension to the upper echelon of indie stardom is due in no small part to his ability to convincingly portray those at the lowest ebb:  from the hubristic filmmaker in ‘Storytelling’ (2001) to the failed writer in ‘Sideways’ (2004), Giamatti has turned in a litany of performances that run the gamut of failure, alienation and regret. Aided in no small part by a physiognomy that was made for tragedy, Giamatti’s normality has ironically become an asset in a business which places a premium on youth, beauty and exoticism.

Prior to embarking on this adaptation of Mordecai Richler’s novel director Richard J. Lewis and writer Michael Konyves had a less than stellar track record. Lewis has worked on TV since the late ‘80s, directing shows as diverse as ‘Superboy’ and ‘CSI’, while Konyves has a handful of TV movies to his credit. So the fact that they came together to produce a work of such distinction makes ‘Barney’s Version’ an even more tremendous achievement.

As its title implies, ‘Barney’s Version’ is an account of the life of Barney Panofsky (Giamatti), told entirely from his perspective. Barney is a sixty-five-year-old producer of ‘totally unnecessary’ TV who becomes the subject of a book by a police detective (Mark Addy), which accuses him of murdering his best friend, Boogie (Scott Speedman). The film flits between time frames, recounting Barney’s three marriages and shedding light on the circumstances surrounding Boogie’s death.

Much like ‘Confessions of a Dangerous Mind’ (2002), ‘Barney’s Version’ is a prime example of the unreliable storyteller at work, outlining the inherently subjective nature of biography. One can never be entirely sure if what we are witnessing is the mendacious testimony of a guilty man or an honest appraisal of events; whether these are the people as they really were or how Barney would prefer they are remembered. The memories occur at random, Proustian rushes stirred by external stimuli, using Barney recollecting them as a handy bridging device.

Lewis draws on a number of influences: the freeze frames, musical interludes, photo montages and slow motion bring Scorsese to mind, the kinetic camerawork is reminiscent of Lumet at his dynamic best, and the conversational scenes using New York as a backdrop are straight out of classic Allen. But this is not the kind of directorial karaoke from which certain ‘auteurs’ of renown have made their fortunes. Lewis doesn’t use these stylistic flourishes as crutches, but implements them at appropriate moments. Guy Dufaux’s cinematography creates a distinct ambiance for each temporal shift, Claude Pare’s production design authentically replicates each period depicted, and Konyves’ screenplay is brimming with ribald humour and caustic bòn móts – ‘She subscribes to the Economist but buys Vogue off the stand’ being one of the most memorable.

Giamatti delivers a barnstorming turn as the querulous, vindictive soul who seems out of place in the modern world. He does an outstanding job of lending pathos to this most ambiguous of protagonists; a philanderer and possibly a murderer, mining the insecurities of the autodidact, his hunched, lumbering gait and pinched diction articulating Barney’s woes. Dustin Hoffman is in rare form as Barney’s father, a charming, roguish ex-cop with a darkness and hurt lurking beneath the gregarious surface: it is Hoffman’s best performance since he stole the show in ‘Wag the Dog’ (1997). Giamatti and Hoffman are a joy to watch together; neither trying to upstage the other, both secure and generous enough to accurately chart the father/son dynamic. Barney’s wives are played to perfection by Rochelle Lefevre, Minnie Driver and Rosamund Pike; as his foul-mouthed, free-spirited first wife, garrulous, ambitious second wife and radiant, indulgent third wife respectively.

It would be a mistake to dismiss ‘Barney’s Version’ as a ‘Jewish film’, just as it would be to write off Spike Lee as a maker of ‘black films’: it may take place within a specific milieu, but it deals with a range of concerns that transcend cultural boundaries. ‘Barney’s Version’ is as much about platonic male love as Barney’s romantic travails: his relationship with Boogie is the most lasting and meaningful of his life, and he constantly searches for a woman who understands him on the same level. The film illustrates the futility of revenge, the most heinous form of mutually assured emotional destruction. The twelve years it took to bring ‘Barney’s Version’ to the screen were not wasted: this is a work whose quality will endure, and whose influence will only appreciate over time.

Giamatti, with the Golden Globe he won for his portrayal of Barney.

The Conversation (1974)

13 Jan

Before his epochal sequel to ‘The Godfather’ and setting off into the heart of darkness, Francis Ford Coppola had the financial clout to get this self-penned labour of love to the screen. Rewarding their New Hollywood wunderkinds for a string of monster hits, Paramount arranged a distribution deal with Coppola, William Friedkin and Peter Bogdanovich under the name ‘The Directors Company’ – which proved to be a disaster; read Peter Biskind’s book ‘Easy Riders, Raging Bulls’ for the full story.

Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is a guarded surveillance expert whose absorption in his work comes at the expense of his personal life; he is unable to have a proper relationship with his nominal girlfriend, Amy (Terri Garr), and lives alone in a sparsely decorated apartment. Caul is employed by the Director (Robert Duvall) to track two of his employees, Ann (Cindy Williams) and Mark (Frederic Forrest). In the course of what appears to be just another job, Caul unearths a murky plot with dire implications. He is faced with a moral quandary; to maintain a professional distance and hand over the tape of Ann and Mark’s conversation to the Director as scheduled, or heed his conscience and intervene.

The complexity of Coppola’s taut screenplay is brought to life by Bill Butler’s chilly, clinical photography; matching the austerity of Caul’s demeanour. David Shire’s plaintive, foreboding score is equally effective in this regard, its haunting piano spirals reverberating through the empty spaces that Caul haunts. Walter Murch’s dense, overlapping sound editing is put to splendid use in the scenes where Caul slowly assembles the tape, expertly mimicking the alchemy of his craft. Coppola’s direction has a focus and restraint that is absent from much of his subsequent work, his shot selections completely in keeping with the tenor of the piece. Caul is seldom seen in the foreground; a conscious decision is made to shoot him in an array of medium and longs shots, to underline his anonymity by submerging him in his surroundings – as well as remind us that we are voyeurs by choice, not profession.

Hackman is the film’s lynchpin, turning in a compelling, nuanced performance as far away from the foul-mouthed swagger of ‘Popeye’ Doyle as it’s possible to get; an important stage in his development that dispelled once and for all the nagging suspicion he was little more than a brawny everyman. While propagating the image of a coldly rational loner who ‘doesn’t know anything about human nature’, Caul is in fact an emotionally fraught, short-tempered, thin-skinned man beset by self-loathing, envy and guilt. Hackman perfectly captures this dichotomy, depicting the flawed, tortured Caul’s inner turmoil and transformation with a subtlety that is so often absent from the trite Hollywood third-act ‘epiphany’. ‘The Conversation’ features a glut of adept supporting performances from some of the finest character actors of their generation: John Cazale as the uncouth, lackadaisical Stan, Allan Garfield as Bernie, Caul’s cocksure, combative rival; typically accomplished turns from Coppola regulars Duvall and Forrest and even a brief appearance by a pre-Han Solo Harrison Ford as the Director’s arrogant underling.

Coppola’s fascination with Catholic ritual is in evidence throughout; but where those sacraments were used in ‘The Godfather’ as a trope to juxtapose virtuous words with murderous deeds, they are invoked in ‘The Conversation’ to grapple with notions of culpability and absolution. Caul’s outward piety is central to his self-perception; the last vestige of a humanity that has been stripped away by years of subservience to his career. He sees saving Ann and Mark from the nefarious designs of the Director as the ultimate act of expiation, the only thing that can atone for his past misdeeds, and sets about doing so with a recklessness that goes against his instincts. But as with every assignment he takes, he is only privy to one side of the story, lending an uncharacteristic degree of credence to what is captured in the recordings.

Metaphor abounds in ‘The Conversation’. The saxophone Caul plays on his own each evening hints at a side that is hidden from the exterior world; a more expansive, emotional self he has been forced to suppress in order to survive in his chosen field, a thwarted ambition he can never fully abandon. The empty warehouse where Caul works symbolises the single-minded, ascetic shell of an existence he leads; the bus where the lights begin to flicker then plunge him into darkness indicative of a life lived in the shadows. Caul’s intrinsic nature is defined in the scene where the Director’s underling leaves him alone in his office and he immediately makes for the telescope by the window; he is someone who is empowered by watching life from a comfortable distance.

‘The Conversation’ remains an enigmatic, uncompromising highlight of Coppola’s oeuvre; an enduring work of maturity and intricacy; as much a study of spiritual redemption as an exploration of post-Watergate paranoia in the vein of Alan J. Pakula. The film was conceived as the Watergate scandal was raging and released just months before Richard Nixon’s resignation. Of course, it is informed by this unfolding national infamy, but only in an abstract sense, embodying the feelings of cynicism and dread that characterized the Zeitgeist. We can only speculate what could have been if Coppola hadn’t squandered a fortune and succumbed to madness in the wilds of the Philippines shooting ‘Apocalypse Now’; he may have still had the means and the desire to produce films of this calibre on a regular basis.

Just another quiet night in for Harry Caul.

F.T.A. (1972)

5 Jan

Before she hawked cosmetics, became a workout queen or married a billionaire media mogul, Jane Fonda was ‘Hanoi Jane’, a Hollywood radical whose heated polemics against the Vietnam war made her a bête noire of the right and propelled her to the upper echelons of Richard Nixon’s ‘enemies’ list, joining Paul Newman, Barbra Streisand, Gregory Peck and Bill Cosby. She was branded a traitor for visiting Hanoi as the conflict’s endgame was unfolding, resulting in ‘F.T.A.’ being withdrawn from theatres after just a week.

Keen to escape the dynastic shadow of their famous name, the Fonda siblings actively engaged with the burgeoning counterculture and developed a social conscience which informed the work they did. Such flagrant partisanship was anathema to their venerable father, a small-l liberal who condemned his errant progeny for their extremism. The more they became associated with their activism, the more it was conflated with their onscreen personae.

‘F.T.A.’ – standing for Free the Army, or Fuck the Army – is probably the clearest expression of this synthesis. The film follows Fonda, Donald Sutherland et al. on a tour of military bases on the Pacific Rim, performing ‘political vaudeville’ for the dejected GIs fighting a protracted and increasingly unpopular war – sound familiar? Satirical skits and politically charged balladry from the likes of folk singer Len Chandler are interspersed with testimony from the ‘grunts’.

Depending on your political leanings, you’ll either find ‘F.T.A.’ an inspirational reminder of a time when dissidence was deemed the only moral recourse, or an infuriating example of privileged dilettantes jumping on the bandwagon and feigning solidarity with small sections of the military for career gain. Nevertheless, ‘F.T.A.’ is a valuable social document, capturing the disenchantment of those soldiers who believed the ‘red menace’ to be a flimsy pretext for an imperialist intervention, and that in their desire to escape poverty and/or serve their country, they had been exploited.

Much of the content of the show relates to the daily lives of the troops, which no doubt articulated their frustrations but obviously mitigates its impact and appeal to those on the outside looking in. Granted, these shows were never intended for a mass audience, but it does feel like listening to a string on in-jokes one isn’t privy to. Some of the most affecting moments in ‘F.T.A.’ are those involving the soldiers themselves, ranging from militant inner city blacks who feel a kinship with the Vietnamese to small-town Southern boys whose eyes have been opened by the grisly realities of war. The film would have been more coherent if it had focused on these interviews, rather than using them as a bridging device for the travelogue segments.

The trip to the US base in Okinawa provides a wider perspective for the political landscape in South-East Asia. Much like Vietnam, the strategically important island is a pawn in a wider struggle, passing from one sphere of influence to the next. The scenes in the Philippines are a powerful allegory for US economic imperialism, capturing slum dwellings in the shadow of a Coca-Cola hoarding and a totemic giant Coke bottle planted by the roadside. ‘F.T.A.’ is at its best when it is documenting the interaction between the bases and the life surrounding them.

Sutherland is a brooding, ornery presence, highlighting what a perfect fit he was for Hawkeye Pierce in ‘MASH’ (1970). Reciting passages from Dalton Trumbo’s classic anti-war novel ‘Johnny Got His Gun’ (1939) in his sonorous, lyrical timbre, Sutherland brings a sombre air to the merriment, lending gravitas to the revelry. One of the more paradoxical moments occurs when a group of hecklers interrupts Sutherland – it struck me as bizarre and left a sour taste that rather than engage these dissenting voices, they are swiftly ejected for presenting an opposing viewpoint.

‘F.T.A.’ has much to say about the double standards of the military hierarchy and how the prejudices and iniquities of wider society are writ large on the chain of command. There are tales of racist invective being used with impunity, female soldiers being told that they are there solely to provide entertainment for their male counterparts and officers living in conspicuous opulence. This polarity is a microcosm for the upheavals occurring at home, where opposition to the war dovetailed into class, racial and generational tension.

Whatever the intentions of those involved, the F.T.A. tour serves to remind us how timid and cosseted today’s young entertainers are, shying away from using their influence to stand up to injustice. After all, dissent is a bad career move.

Hanoi Jane in full revolutionary mode. Don't worry, she's a born-again Christian now.

The Molly Maguires (1970)

14 Nov

In the world of the movies, distinct cultural locales have historically been rendered with such staggering ineptitude by Hollywood that one has to wonder whether those responsible for recreating these milieus had ever set foot outside the confines of Burbank, California. With a few notable exceptions, they ended up coming across like a gaudy Vegas resort or theme park attraction, co-opting a few key cultural signifiers to present a cost-effective approximation of authenticity. Even with the advent of the runaway production, the blight that is CGI has served to restore this factitious veneer to everything from Ancient Rome to the depths of space. Though it was shot entirely on location, the makers of ‘The Molly Maguires’ kindly imbued their production with all the folksy charm one has come to expect from anything with a whiff of ‘Irishness’ about it, in case anyone were confused as to its provenance. But despite its lack of historical verisimilitude, ‘The Molly Maguires’ is a superior piece of entertainment that kicks against its limitations to address some serious issues.

It is 1876 and life is tough, to say the least, for the denizens of a Pennsylvania mining town. A society of militant coal miners known as the Order of Hibernians has begun committing acts of sabotage on collieries under the name the Molly Maguires, in an attempt to bring about better working conditions. Enter James McParlan, an ambitious police detective and fellow Irish immigrant who, under the auspices of the Pinkertons, must infiltrate the Molly Maguires and prevent the next attack. Working down the mines and seeing firsthand the gruelling conditions under which the miners work, McParlan begins to sympathise with the Hibernians’ cause and falls under the spell of its inspirational leader, Jack Kehoe (Sean Connery). McParlan must decide whether to hand over Kehoe and his associates to the Pinkertons and work his way up the career ladder, or follow his conscience and take up the cause of workers’ rights.

One of the standout moments of ‘The Molly Macquires’ is its bravura pre-title sequence – lasting fourteen minutes and completely without dialogue, it compares favourably to the way in which Sergio Leone used silence to establish tone in ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’. Unlike Leone, however, Ritt refuses to exult in beautified gore. Ritt brings a degree of reality to the film’s action sequences, an approach which forces the viewer to confront the consequences of conflict, something the merchants of stylised violence would recoil from. A deft and underrated director with an impressive body of work, Ritt could always be relied upon to provide assiduously composed shots packed with detail and subtle psychological pointers. The pace is deliberately slow, lingering on shots in a way that would terrify a less assured director – the average shot length is ten seconds. James Wong Howe’s cinematography captures the stifling atmosphere of this blighted landscape, breathing life into the autumnal palette of Eckley, Pennsylvania. Sadly, his good work is undermined by a production design that has a tendency to stray into cloying parody and an incongruous score from Henry Mancini, which adds unneeded grandiloquence to such a downbeat work.

Ritt was a master at getting the best out of his cast – evidenced by the fact that he directed thirteen actors to Academy nominations. Though ‘The Molly Maquires’ don’t quite live up to this pedigree, the two leads turn in performances that stand up surprisingly well to contemporary standards, unlike the majority of their best remembered roles. To me, Sean Connery has always been one of the great overrated British actors, an inert, one-tone performer whose legacy is being continued by the likes of Sean Bean and Clive Owen. But Connery’s lack of emotional dynamism is a perfect fit for the aloof Jack Kehoe, despite his conspicuously well-tanned frame – fresh from a golf course on the Bahamas, no doubt. Richard Harris, on the other hand, was always a captivating figure; few actors were, or are, as comfortable before the camera. He brings much needed credibility to the role of James McParlan, inhabiting the role in a way that goes beyond the brutal technicality and affectation of the Method, his dolorous eyes and beleaguered mien constantly dramatizing the character’s dilemma. Frank Finlay as Pinkerton officer Davis and Samantha Eggar as Mary Raines embody the forces pulling McParlan in opposing directions, with Davis encouraging McParlan to act in the interests of personal advancement and Raines exhorting him to accede to the dictates of his heart.

Beneath its mawkish exterior, ‘The Molly Maguires’ has some interesting points to make about the holy trinity of church, state and commerce that rules America. A telling moment is when McParlan, on seeing a wealthy industrialist called Gowan after a football game, comments that Gowan didn’t mind who won as he owns both teams, the game itself providing a metaphor for the way the system is rigged in favour of wealthy elites, a de facto class system. It is small moments like this that makes Walter Bernstein’s screenplay so interesting. ‘The Molly Maguires’ explores the dark side of America’s ‘land of opportunity’ mythology, positing that a life away from thankless toil is beyond the reach of most of its citizens, that the country’s prosperity is built on the backs of countless millions of anonymous drones. McParlan comments that he is ‘tired of looking up and wants to look down’, and it is this mood of duplicity that ultimately prevails. The film confounds expectations by refusing to wallow in phony heroism, notions of guilt and absolution being usurped by the idea that greed makes cowards of us all.

My moustache is better than yours!

American Gangster (2007)

17 Sep

Ridley Scott has turned his hand to a multitude of genres: Sci-Fi, Sword and Scandal Epic, Jingoistic War Film, Factually Dubious Historical Action Spectacular, Feministic Road Movie and whatever ‘Legend’ was supposed to be. Scott is a director with an unerring gift for taking the lacklustre and the hackneyed and swathing it in a carapace of lush, pulchritudinous visuals and dense, arresting backdrops.

‘American Gangster’ is his first foray into the world of the crime drama since the ludicrous ‘80s gloss-fest ‘Black Rain’. Does ‘American Gangster’ rectify this glaring rebuttal to his reputation as the ultimate genre director? In a manner, it does, ‘American Gangster’ is a perfectly proficient piece of film-making, but it isn’t without its faults.

‘American Gangster’ charts the rise of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), from local flunky in 1970s Harlem to international druglord and organized crime kingpin. Following the death of his mentor, ‘Bumpy’ Johnson (Clarence Williams III) Lucas vies for control of Harlem with a plethora of rivals – most notably Idris Elba as the cocksure Tango. Lucas begins smuggling a cheap and potent new strain of heroin out of Vietnam, bringing his family from the Carolina sticks to back him up. Parallel to this is the turning point in the life and career of Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) an ambitious detective and aspiring lawyer swimming in a cesspit of corruption. When he discovers a million dollars in cash in the trunk of a car, he is vilified for deciding to turn it in. After being outcast by his crooked brethren in the force and losing his partner to an overdose, Roberts is asked to head up his own unit, investigating the source of this new drug, named Blue Magic. The higher Lucas rises, the more he contravenes his own rule to remain inconspicuous, which brings him to the attention of the Special Narcotics Bureau, as well as some less upstanding sections of law enforcement.

Washington exudes his customary poise and charisma, solidifying his reputation as the most dependable leading man in Hollywood; it seems that there is no film he cannot elevate by his mere presence. Crowe turns in his best performance since ‘The Insider’, imbued with a focus and pathos missing from his more grandstanding, Oscar-coveting roles. Also of note are the performances of Josh Brolin as the unctuous Trupo – which bears favourable comparison to Nick Nolte’s hard-bitten turn in ‘Q&A’ – Chitewel Ejiofor as Frank’s guileless brother, Huey, Ruby Dee as the long-suffering Mama Lucas and fully paid-up member of the Wu Tang Clan, RZA, as Moses Jones.

But not even this profusion of talent can compensate for the feeling that ‘American Gangster’ has nothing at its centre. He may be a great technician, but Scott’s films are not renowned for their emotional depth. A Scorsese or a Lumet may have been able to endow the film with some heart, to unearth some truths in the midst of the chaos and carnage. Indeed, ‘American Gangster’ is at its best when it explores the socio-political factors behind the characters’ actions.

Lucas pursues an idiosyncratic variant of the American Dream; the determination, hard work and entrepreneurialism at the heart of its mythology. He is a portent of the coming decade, of corporate hegemony; Reaganomics incarnate. Roberts, on the other hand, is the honest man whose good intentions go unrewarded, beset at every turn by entreaties to fall in line and look the other way. Sadly, this is not explored in any great detail, taking a backseat to the usual cat-and-mouse template.

‘American Gangster’ draws on all manner of influences, from blaxploitation classics like ‘Superfly’ and ‘Black Caesar’ to New Hollywood gems like ‘Serpico’ and ‘The French Connection’. The problem is that, by invoking these films, it simply serves to remind us how great they are and how ‘American Gangster’ lacks the vivid grittiness, urgency and brutality of its progenitors, feeling more like a compilation of classic clips than a coherent whole.

Like anything Ridley Scott is involved in, it looks amazing, but its resplendence is part of its weakness, with the trademark ‘Scott sheen’ having a distancing effect, wrapping the characters in a layer of honey. Another shortcoming is Steve Zaillian’s screenplay, which does little to rectify some of the clichés that have bedevilled the genre: the violent, ruthless ganglord who is a devoted family man at heart, the obsessed cop whose personal life is falling apart around him, etc. While it at least resists the temptation to glorify the ugly realities of Lucas’s milieu or present a black-and-white morality, it treads a familiar path and it’s disheartening to see so many archetypes being perpetuated yet again.

A little more ‘artistic license’ could have benefited the denouement; the scenes between Washington and Crowe fall below expectation after so much build up. Strict verisimilitude is not always the preferred course. The end result is a sprawling endeavor with epic pretensions and a misplaced sense of importance for what is essentially a stylized, big budget B movie.

Denzel and Russell recreate their favourite scene from 'Heat'.

Horror Double Bill

16 Sep

The Host (2006)

When a toxic chemical from an American military base is dumped in the Han River, it creates a mutated behemoth that wreaks havoc on the unsuspecting citizens of Seoul. Gang-du is an ineffectual waster who works and lives in a food stand with his demanding daughter, Hyun-seo, and long-suffering father, Hee-bong. That’s about the full extent of the set up; the monster makes its first appearance fifteen minutes in, marauding through the streets and capturing Hyun-seo. Joined by his athletic sister, Nam-joo, and astringent brother, Nam-il, Gang-du vows to escape the quarantine the family has been placed under and find Hyun-seo.

Bong Joon-ho’s monster film is something of an oddity, at turns disturbing and whimsical. It quickly becomes apparent that this is far from a formulaic creature feature. Whatever the intention of the film-makers, ‘The Host’ is, no pun intended, a peculiar creature that works on any level you choose to take it. Is it a satire on genre convention, an allegory for US imperialism, a broadside against globalization, a parable on the dangers of environmental degradation, an attack on nuclear brinkmanship? Like most effective horror and sci-fi, it is sufficiently ambiguous to project all manner of metaphor and symbolism onto.

A slightly redundant subplot aside, ‘The Host’ features an engaging set of performances, stylish cinematography and snappy pacing. My chief complaint is with the monster itself, which appears too early and often and is more ‘Men in Black’ than ‘Cloverfield’. For me, it is always preferable to see the damage cause by the creature before unveiling the beast in the final reel.

The Descent (2005)

A lesson in how to shoot monsters on a budget could have been learned from British director Neil Marshall, whose ‘Dog Soldiers’ is a master class in using technical ingenuity to overcome financial constraints.

Marshall’s next entry into the ‘civilisation Vs barbarism’ canon is an equally effective genre piece. ‘The Descent’ takes the best elements of Craven, Raimi, Romero, Hooper et al. to produce a genuinely unsettling subterranean shocker, divesting itself of the flashy effects and ostentatious set pieces to put the viewer at the heart of the action.

The film begins with a jolt when lead character Sarah (Shauna McDonald) is involved in a car crash. On her recovery, Sarah joins a group of friends on a caving expedition. As the group descends into the uncharted bowels of the earth they disturb something primeval that they must do battle with to escape the caves alive.

The chaos and confusion that ensues is fantastically captured with kinetic camerawork and frenetic editing, the lack of visibility throughout is another effective tool in ramping up the tension. A cast comprising of smart, accomplished modern women is a concerted break from the usual retrograde portrayal of females in horror as imperilled scream queens there solely to boost the body count. It is also refreshing to see a film of this ilk where the group dynamic is sufficiently complex to make their fate actually mean something.

In the face of a slew of execrable remakes that have besmirched the name of horror, Neil Marshall brings a fresh perspective to a form that has become overly reliant on repetition and convention. ‘The Descent’ plays on elemental fears – the dark, confinement, nature itself – positing that manufactured adrenaline can never compete with genuine peril and terror. Much like its illustrious predecessors, it believes that, for all our modern trappings, we are essentially no different from the cave-dwelling creatures; we are a product of our environment, acting on instincts we are powerless to quell.

All things considered, it wasn't the best weekend.