Wednesday, April 30, 2008


Pray indulge me in a couple of paragraphs of name-dropping, tenuous connections and simpering fanboy subjectivity. Still with me? Good. Here goes:

I share a birthday - today - with Kirsten Dunst. I also share said birthday with Willie Nelson, Burt Young and the King of Sweden, but while Mr Nelson has cut some damn good records, Burt Young has fetched up in a Peckinpah movie ('The Killer Elite') and the King of Sweden is ... well ... the main royal dude in Volvo-Land, it's Ms Dunst I'm turning my attention to because, quickly frankly, she wins out in the cuteness and likeability stakes.

Now, in the interests of fairness, it has to be said I've never met Kirsten Dunst (nor have I ever met Messrs Nelson, Young or K of S), so it's an open field as to whom might prove the better drinking buddy or make that decisive shot in a game of doubles round the pool table. I'm basing my bias solely on the impression I get from Kirsten Dunst's onscreen persona. And - I say it again - it's purely subjective. A personal predilection. But when I watch Ms Dunst - in any movie (and how many actresses would I have sat through 'Bring It On' for?) - I get the same feeling, the same borderline adoration that, say, Audrey Tatou inspires in 'Amelie', or Amy Adams in 'Enchanted'.

This is something that my partner is likely to read, so I'd best curtail these musings before I'm summarily evicted to the doghouse, birthday or no birthday, and get to the business at hand:

'Elizabethtown'. Which is, in my humble opinion, Cameron Crowe's best film. At this point, I'm guessing the average response is going to be: Yeah whatever, you're only saying that because you fancy the leading lady. Take a cold shower, say five Hail Marys and watch 'Almost Famous' again. Good call. 'Almost Famous' is arguably Crowe's purest film: like 'Elizabethtown', it is free of the metaphysical pretensions of 'Vanilla Sky' and unburdened with the histrionics that marred 'Jerry Maguire' (even now, just thinking about Cuba Gooding Jnr jumping up and down bawling "Show me the money" makes me want to punch him).

'Elizabethtown', though ... the first time I saw it, it reminded me why I love movies.

The opening sees shoe designer Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) summarily dismissed after his bold new design for a sports shoe spectacularly fails, costing the company millions. $974 million, to be exact. "You can kind of round it off to a billion," CEO Phil DeVoss (Alec Baldwin) wryly opines. Depressed, dumped by trophy girlfriend Ellen (Jessica Biel), Drew is in a 'goodnight Vienna' kind of mood. In a sequence that's funnier that it has any right to be, he rigs up his exercise machine with a non-manufacturer-approved attachment: a gleaming, wickedly sharp kitchen knife. Only for the duct tape to give out and the knife fall off at the point of impact.

This is when Drew gets a phone call from his sister Heather (Judy Greer) informing him that their father has just died. Highly-strung Heather is freaking out and demands that Drew drop everything and come home to take charge of the arrangements ("you're the responsible one"). Drew takes a long-haul red-eye flight to Louisville, where his father was visiting family in the town of his birth. Drew's hyperactive mother (Susan Sarandon, in her best performance in years) gives him strict instructions to represent her side of the family and organise the cremation. She is also scathingly critical of the paternal side of the family.

So it is that Drew heads to Elizabethtown, not knowing what to expect. What he finds is a simpler way of life, a genuine sense of community and fraternity; what he learns is the true meaning of family.

On the flight, he meets quirky flight attendant Claire (Dunst at her most radiant). An unlikely friendship develops, then deepens, and Drew eventually realises that his life, far from being over, is just beginning. Their courtship is gently and lovingly sketched: the pivotal telephone conversation, played out against a backdrop of rowdy revellers who overrun the hotel Drew checks into; the drive through the night, just to meet for a few moments ("we peaked on the phone"); Claire accompanying Drew to choose his father's urn; that kiss.

'Elizabethtown' is film of many levels and many emotions: black comedy segues into Capraesque magical realism, family drama rubs shoulders with feel good romance, and the final act evolves into a freewheeling road movie.

Perhaps the most memorable set piece involves a performance of Lynyrd Skynyrd's 'Free Bird' and gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "and the band played on". Music, of course, has always been a hallmark of Crowe's film-making, and 'Elizabethtown' boasts the kind of soundtrack you'd expect. First time I saw the film, at Nottingham's Cineworld multiplex, I headed straight for Virgin afterwards and bought the CD. It's massaged the ears on many a car journey since.

Granted, 'Elizabethtown' slips into sentimentality on more than one occasion, and Crowe pulls a final reel steal from 'Amelie' that shouldn't have been necessary for a director of his calibre, but - ultimately - who cares? 'Elizabethtown' is a beautiful, life-affirming film, best seen with someone you care about.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

PERSONAL FAVES: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three

A comparison:

Tony Scott has made a lot of highly successful, glossy, superficial films ... and some notable ones, such as the sensuous and glossy vampire drama 'The Hunger', the energetic and profane (but still glossy) Tarantino-scripted 'True Romance', and the claustrophobically tense 'Crimson Tide', which isn't really glossy at all because it's set on a submarine and even Tony Scott would be hard pressed to make a submarine look glossy.

Joseph Sargent has made a bunch of stuff, predominantly for TV, that you've probably never heard of ... and 'The Taking of Pelham One Two Three'.
I mention this because Tony "more gloss than Dulux" Scott is currently remaking 'The Taking of Pelham One Two Three'*, a thriller about the hijacking of a New York subway train and the holding to ransom of its passengers. A few guesses about the remake:

It won't open with transit cop Zachery Garber grouchily escorting a group of Japanese visitors around the control centre, using their assumed lack of facility in the English language to be as sarcastic about his co-workers ("this is Lieutenant Petrone, on weekends he works for the Mafia") as he is about them ("this way, you monkeys"). This not being PC, like.

The hostages will actually have names, and not be bluntly referred to (and then only in the closing credits) as, variously, The Mother, The Hooker, The Pimp, The Old Man, The Alcoholic and The Homosexual. This not being PC, either.

The hijackers' ransom will be adjusted for inflation from the cool million demanded in the original.

The hijackers won't use colour-coded pseudonyms - Mr Blue, Mr Green, Mr Grey, Mr Brown - since this conceit is so ineffably associated in the popular movie-going consciousness with Tarantino's 'Reservoir Dogs', never mind that 'Pelham One Two Three' did it first.

I'll give Tony Scott the benefit of the doubt - the gloss of sarcasm earlier in this post notwithstanding - and wait till his 'Pelham' comes out (it's due next year) before I pontificate any further. For now, let's consider Joseph Sargent's 1974 original, adapted from the novel by John Godey - a film which has never quite achieved the status of classic, but which I think it richly deserves.

Opening with David Shire's poundingly unsubtle score - my partner, watching the film for the first time, wondered aloud whether she was in for a straight thriller or a spoof - Sargent wastes no time introducing his villains and establishing a milieu. This is New York in the 70s, as edgy and grimy as only American cinema of that decade could ever capture it. The subway is an unfriendly, offputting place; the people who travel it, a bustling amorphous mass. Into this environment - dressed similarly in long coats, hats, glasses and moustaches, carrying bulky parcels - come Mr Blue (Robert Shaw), Mr Green (Martin Balsam), Mr Grey (Hector Elizondo) and Mr Brown (Earl Hindman); the packages are opened; semi-automatic weapons appear; a pistol is pointed at the driver. Pelham One Two Three is taken.

Garber (Walter Matthau)'s comedy of embarrassments with the Japanese is soon eschewed in favour of incrementally ratched-up tension as Garber finds himself forced to liaise between the hijackers and the NYPD, themselves frantically awaiting approval from the Mayor's office to deliver the ransom. Mr Blue, coldly mercenary, stipulates an hour for delivery of the million, after which he promises to shoot one hostage per minute until his demands are met.

With the clock ticking and the Mayor (Lee Wallace) a bumbling incompetent, 'Pelham One Two Three' segues from hostage drama to race-against-time thriller. (This is one of the reasons I love the movie: it deftly avoids the inert, static nature of the hostage genre.) With approval - reluctantly - from City Hall to pay the ransom, Sargent then concentrates on the logistics of assembling one million dollars in used, non-sequentially numbered bank notes (as per Mr Blue's instructions) and the NYPD's attempt to transport it across town during wall-to-wall traffic. His attention to detail is as acute during these scenes as it was during the build-up to the hijack. Likewise the minutiae of the hijackers' plan to escape with the moolah.

And yet Sargent's attention to detail is never overly technical, nor does it slow things down. 'Pelham One Two Three' is a superbly paced film. Never mind that there aren't that many action scenes, the sheer sense of urgency propels the narrative. Performance-wise, an offbeat cast gels perfectly. Matthau brings just enough baggage from his more famous funnyman roles to make Garber a rumpled, sardonic, likeable character. Shaw is terse and no-nonsense as Blue. Balsam brings a nervous immediacy to the role of a former subway driver brought in by the hijackers for his technical knowledge. Elizondo commendably plays down what could have been an exercise in cliche as the almost obligatory loose cannon. Jerry Stiller (Ben's dad) is great value as the laconic Petrone.

Ultimately, there's just so much to like about 'Pelham One Two Three', not least the delightfully ironic coda wherein Garber and Petrone track down the remaining gang member. The final shot is priceless, and "Gesundheit" belongs in the pantheon of great last lines.

*Although I understand from IMDB that the title of Scott's version has been rendered 'The Taking of Pelham 123'. See what he did there?

Friday, April 25, 2008

In Bruges

"Two manky hookers and a racist midget. I'm outta here," opines Ken (Brendan Gleeson). "I'm coming with you," his friend and fellow hitman Ray (Colin Farrell) replies mournfully, their evening's misadventures yet another blow to Ray's already jaded opinion of Bruges.

It's to this history-heavy and nightlife-light Belgian town that Ken and Ray have been sent by their boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) after a bungled job. Ray, all bored sighs and mumbled disenchantment, is like a moody teenager. "If I'd grown up on a farm and was retarded, Bruges might impress me," he grumbles upon arrival, having barely seen anything of the place, "but I didn't, so it doesn't." He only brightens up when they come across a film crew shooting a pretentious dream sequence for an art-house movie. "They're filming midgets!" he exclaims delightedly, rushing off to watch.

Said midget, Jimmy (Jordan Prentice), prefers the epithet dwarf. Ray, however, isn't above demeaningly calling him Shorty when his coke-addled rant turns to the race question. Not that Ray isn't a walking xenophobe himself. He heaps abuse on Belgium in general and Bruges in particular, gleefully gets into a fight with an American (he twats the fellow with an almost cheery "that's for John Lennon, you fucking Yank cunt") and is visibly deflated when he discovers later that his antagonist is actually Canadian.

Or how about this exchange between Ken and Jimmy:

Ken: Are you American?
Jimmy: Yes, but please don't hold it against me.
Ken: I won't. Just try not say anything too loud or crass.

Martin McDonagh's debut film 'In Bruges' is essentially a two-hander for its first half, a post-Tarantino 'Odd Couple' with its contract killer heroes (I use the word 'heroes' loosely) bonding, bickering and bantering against a picture postcard backdrop, while Jimmy and on-set drug pusher Chloe (Clemence Poesy) weave in and out of their interactions. And it's very funny. McDonagh's script zings with hilarious and quotable lines, even if you wouldn't drop any of them in front of your mother. I can't remember a film since 'Sexy Beast' with so many instances of the 'c'-word.

Take the following conversation, the film having veered into darker territory with revelations about the nature of the bungled job and Harry's arrival in Bruges to take matters in hand. Ken stands up to his boss and offers him a few home truths:

Ken: Let's face it, Harry - you're a cunt. You've always been a cunt. The only thing that's gonna change is that you'll become an even bigger cunt. Maybe have some more cunt kids.
Harry: You retract that bit about my cunt fucking kids.
Ken: I retract that bit about your cunt fucking kids.
Harry: Insulting my fucking kids! That's going overboard, mate.
Ken: I retracted it, didn't I?

The 'Sexy Beast' comparison is apt, not just for the language but in the usually suave Fiennes's full-throttle performance as a dangerous mob boss, a la Ben Kingsley's in Jonathan Glazer's film. But whereas 'Sexy Beast' lost the plot after a rivetting first half, 'In Bruges' doesn't put a foot wrong, ramping up the tension and sense of danger once Harry puts in an appearance, but without sacrificing the surreal humour or losing sight of its characters' humanity.

This last is the ace up McDonagh's sleeve. You shouldn't really give a damn about any of these characters: Ken, Ray and Harry are killers by profession (Ray's blunder, revealed at a key moment, weighs heavily against him), Jimmy is a coked-up self-important bit part actor who parties with - well, Ken put it best - manky hookers, and Chloe deals drugs and wastes herself on a thuggish skinhead boyfriend. Shit, just typing that sentence is enough to make me appreciate just how heavy-handed and grim 'In Bruges' could have been in lesser hands.

However, Martin McDonagh, an acclaimed playwright set to garner the same kind of encomium in the film world, brings enough insight, intelligence and lightness of touch to the proceedings to make you care about the characters (even Harry is a man of principles who takes care not to endanger a pregnant woman), and - Peckinpah-esque ending notwithstanding - to make you laugh out loud. The performances are uniformly excellent, with Farrell proving a revelation.

'In Bruges' doesn't necessarily want to make me go to Bruges (at a guess, it wasn't endorsed by the Belgian Tourist Board) but I do want to go back to my local multiplex and see it again.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Host

‘The Host’ opens with a US military type browbeating a Korean serviceman into illegally dumping some chemicals into the Han River in Seoul. Cut to: two fisherman noticing a mutated aquatic life form. Cut to: someone committing suicide off a bridge over the Han, a hulking shape awaiting him under the churning surface of the dark water.

That’s all there is by way of prologue or provenance. Five minutes later, the beastie is on the rampage. Wonderfully-named director Joon-ho Bong pitches his first big set-piece in a fractured filmic middle ground between comedy and terror. The monster is part laughable, part grotesque. But it moves. Thundering out of the water, it charges along the riverbank; chaos ensues. When it dives back in, it takes with it a young girl. Her divided, dysfunctional family spend the rest of the film trying to get her back.

Sounds formulaic enough, but Bong takes the material, by degrees, into less expected territory. Farcical family squabbles are played out against a backdrop of military intervention, the monster’s “infected” victims herded brutally into quarantine. The government – its strings pulled by the US military – turn out to be as monstrous, and as threatening to the protagonists’ survival, as the beast itself. Perhaps more so.

The final stand-off against the monster comes after two hours of governmental deception, media hysteria and social betrayals on every level. The beast has become a metaphor for la bete humaine – the beast in man. The creature feature has become political.

Small quibbles: the film is a tad overlong; the effects in the explosive finale could have benefited from better CGI. But these are minor matters. Ultimately, ‘The Host’ is a damn good movie, playing fast and loose with genre conventions, pulling the rug gleefully out from under the audience as the broad humour of the first half morphs into political satire of the sharpest and darkest hue.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Bang! short film festival this weekend

This Saturday and Sunday, the Broadway Cinema in Nottingham is hosting a Bang!, a weekend-long festival of short films.

The event kicks off at 3pm on the 26th with the Young Filmmakers Matinee. The Broadway are trumpeting the inclusion of Cheryl Marshall’s Bafta-winner ‘United Polar Showtime Dancers’, but Tony Passarelli’s ‘Kid’s Talk’ could easily prove the star of the show.

Tickets are £2.50 from the Broadway box office. Here’s the link.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

PERSONAL FAVES: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Clint Eastwood's role as Rowdy Yates on the long-running western series 'Rawhide' made him a TV star.

It was Sergio Leone's 'Dollars' trilogy that made him a movie star.

'A Fistful of Dollars' established Eastwood's laconic, minimalistic big-screen persona ("get three coffins ready") and, building on his 'Rawhide' fanbase, inextricably linked him with the western. 'For a Few Dollars More' sealed the deal.

Then Leone made 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly'. Now don't get me wrong: Clint Eastwood is cool in 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly' (or 'Il Buono, Il Bruto, Il Cattivo' to quote its indigenous title). Let's go even further: Clint Eastwood is fucking iconic. Clint Eastwood has always been one of my favourite actors, and his career behind the camera has been equally impressive.

I just wanted to make that clear. I don't want any misunderstandings. The next paragraph should in no way be interpreted as dissing Clint Eastwood. Okay? Right; here goes:

Eli Wallach owns 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly'. He rules it. He defines it. Eli Wallach as Tuco, the splendidly amoral Mexican bandido, acts as a perfect foil to both Eastwood's Man With No Name* and Lee Van Cleef's Angel Eyes and steals the film from both of them. He also gets all the best dialogue**, as well as providing a masterclass on how to turn profanity into high art. For instance:

To No Name, riding him into town trussed to a saddle, to collect $2,000 in reward money: "You'll pay for this. I hope you end up in the graveyard, with the cholera and the rabies and the plague ... You filthy bastard. I hope your mother ends up in a two-dollar whorehouse."

On No Name entering the sheriff's office only to be replaced in Tuco's line of sight by the sheriff himself: "Who the hell is this? One bastard go in and another one come out."

To No Name, as he collects the reward money: "You know what you are? You're the son of a thousand fathers, every one of them a bastard like you. And your mother, it is better that we do not speak of her."

To a particularly locquacious would-be assassion: "If you need to shoot, shoot - don't talk."

Wallach's performance is bigger than life - in a good way. He attacks the role with relish, tearing into it, a whirling dervish on the screen, full-blooded and going for it big style. It's a performance completely suited to Leone's style of film-making. At his best (and 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly' is Leone's best, with 'Once Upon a Time in the West' coming a close second), Leone's filmic landscapes, his characters, their dialogue and conflicts are bigger than life. But never exaggerated. Hyper-real would be a better description.

The Man With No Name isn't just a gunslinger: he's the gunslinger - he draws so fast it's a blur; the shots from his pistol seem louder than explosions; every bullet finds its target. Angel Eyes isn't just a mercenary killer: he's demonically driven, knocking around women and shooting men and children in pursuit of the information that will take him closer to the location of a horde of buried loot.

And Tuco isn't just a bandido: he's a one-man testament to amorality - listen out for his list of crimes the first time No Name saves him from the hangman's noose. Or how about his self-justification during a debate with his brother, a man who turned to the church: "You think you're better than me. I tell you something: where we came from, if one did not want to die of poverty, one became a priest or a bandit. You chose your way, I chose mine. Mine was harder ... You became a priest because you are too much of a coward to do what I do."

'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly' - a film where the Ugly grungily fits the description, the Bad is even badder than bad, and the Good is only the good because (a) he's marginally less of a bastard than the other two, and (b) Clint Eastwood's playing him - is a melting pot of amorality, antagonism and naked greed. It's for no small reason that one of the highlights of Ennio Morricone's score (surely the most instantly recognisable soundtrack in cinema history) is titled 'The Ecstacy of Gold'. With all of which played out against a backdrop of the civil war, Leone fashioned a film that, despite its violence and cynicism, is perversely beautiful. The script is dime-store poetry not just writ large, but writ to fill cinemascope! The visuals go from extreme close-ups to panoramic vistas within the blink of an eye. The whole thing is, to quote Quentin Tarantino, "cinematically perfect".

Films of this genre helmed by Italian directors were often cheap knock-offs of popular American titles, and were generally referred to, part-affectionately part-mockingly, as spaghetti westerns or horse operas. Leone bucked the trend and fashioned both a film and a unique directorial style that would inspire generations of film-makers down the decades, and remains just as influential today. But maybe those terms aren't necessarily derogatory. Let's reclaim them. 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly' is a spaghetti western in that it's as rich and filling and spicy as the best Italian meal you've ever eaten; a horse opera in that its director was the Giuseppe Verdi of cinema, bold and brilliant and dramatic, the pistol shots of his final showdown ringing out like the Anvil Chorus.

*A bit of a misnomer: in the credits to 'A Fistful of Dollars' he's called Joe, in 'For a Few Dollars More' he's called Monco, while Tuco in 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly' gives him the nickname Blondie.

**Same deal with 'The Magnificent Seven', in which Wallach again plays a bandit - best line (justifying his wholesale theft and terrorisation of the peasant villagers) "If God had not meant them to be sheared, he would not have made them sheep." Ouch!

Friday, April 18, 2008

Thank You For Smoking

“Michael Jordan plays ball, Charles Manson kills people, I talk.”

This is how ‘Thank You For Smoking’ protagonist Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) rationalises his job. The points of reference are telling: like Jordan he’s a consummate professional, at the top of his game. Like Manson, he ‘enjoys’ a reputation as a mass-murderer – at least with the anti-smoking league who howl in protest at his lobbying tactics on behalf of the big tobacco companies. The self-deprecation of the “I talk” part of the statement emphasises the wry humour and affability that help get his less-than-socially-acceptable message across.

Naylor’s moral flexibility goes without saying. He socialises with similarly-employed spokespeople for alcohol and firearms – the MOD Squad, they call themselves (MOD an acronym for Merchants Of Death). When his ex-wife’s surgeon boyfriend castigates Naylor for not raising his son in a smoke-free environment, Naylor responds “I’m his father; you’re just fucking his mother.”

Does this make Naylor sound despicable? A callous cynic? Not so. He’s actually a pretty decent guy. Does the best job he can for his paymasters. Proves a good father to his son, despite his ex’s efforts to the contrary – the scenes between them are poignant and beautifully played. Written and directed by Jason Reitman, from Christopher Buckley’s novel, ‘Thank You For Smoking’ centres around a likeable man doing an ultimately risible job, that of presenting a negative message in a positive light. Even then, said message is more about freedom of choice than endorsement of product.

If all this sounds heavy and portentous, fear not. It’s funny as hell, sharply satirical, stylishly directed and brimming with whip-smart dialogue. The ensemble cast is to die for: Maria Bello as one of Naylor’s fellow lobbyists (her biggest coup: getting the Pope to endorse red wine), J.K. Simmonds as Naylor’s cut-throat boss, Rob Lowe as the most glib Hollywood executive this side of ‘The Player’, Robert Duvall as a Machiavellian tobacco baron, William H Macy as a bumbling senator and Katie Holmes as a scheming reporter out to expose our hero.

In the midst of this talent, Eckhart stands head and shoulders, delivering a career best performance. The phrase ‘lights up the screen’ would be a cheap gag in context of the film – except that it happens to be true.

Monday, April 14, 2008

"Ain't like it used to be" - the cinema of Sam Peckinpah

(Written for Film at 11’s American cinema blog-a-thon)

"I wasn't trying to make an epic. I was trying to tell a simple story about bad men in changing times."

That's how Sam Peckinpah described 'The Wild Bunch' (1969), his fourth film and arguably the fullest synthesis of his trademark themes and concerns. It begins with the titular outlaw gang, led by Pike Bishop (William Holden), executing a bank robbery disguised as soldiers. Bounty hunters, including Pike's former partner Deke Thornton (Robert Ryan) are lying in wait for them. Ryan has bargained his way out of jail and put his soul in hock to a railroad boss out to get the bunch.

Already the film is rich in compromised morality. The bunch shoot their way out, losing one of their members, and head for safety. When they come to divide their loot, they find that far from escaping with a hefty payroll they have risked their lives for a few sacks of washers.

Crossing the border into Mexico, they form an uneasy alliance with debauched revolutionary General Mapache (Emilio Fernandez), agreeing to rob an army train and deliver to him a cache of guns and ammunition. Things are complicated by the presence of Commander Frederick Muhr ("of the Imperial German Army"); the year is 1913, Europe on the brink of war and the shadow creeping across America. A way of life - the freedom of the frontiers - is already beginning to disappear. Mapache tootles around the hacienda courtyard that constitutes his personal fiefdom in a motor car. "Damned ugly thing," one of the bunch mutters, the very concept of a horseless carriage an affront to him. And here we have the key themes of Peckinpah's work:

*Times change, yet Peckinpah's heroes - men of a certain era, men of a certain mindset - would rather die than change with them.

*Technology encroaches, its results only ever destructive.

During the opening sequence of 'Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid' (1973), newly elected Sheriff Pat Garrett (James Coburn) rides into Old Fort Sumner and, pardon the pun, lays down the law to his former partner William H Bonney, aka Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson):

Garrett: Times are changin', Billy. You want it straight?
Billy: If that's what you're here for.
Garrett: The electorate want you gone. Out of the country.
Billy: Well, are they tellin' me or are they askin' me?
Garrett: I'm askin' you. But in five days I'm makin' you, when I take over as sheriff of the county.
Billy: Sheriff Pat Garrett! Sold out to the Santa Fe Ring. How does it feel?
Garrett: It feels like times have changed.
Billy: Times, maybe, but not me.

A scant four years separate 'The Wild Bunch' and 'Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid'. In many ways they tread the same path: both are elegiac despite their moments of violence; both mourn the passing of the Old West. The tone is different, though. There is a defiance to 'The Wild Bunch', never mind the almost nihilistic futility of the bunch's final stand. Early in the film, Pike dismisses the inevitability of the bunch being pitted against superior numbers: "I wouldn't have it any other way." The way he says it, you know he means it. By the end, he proves it. The bunch are finally outnumbered not just by Mapache's private army but, in a thematic sense, by history itself. Their world changes - globally.

In 'Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid', social and political upheavals are more localised - the former outlaw Garrett earns his appointment as sheriff by hunting down Billy the Kid; lawyers and landowners pull the strings behind the scenes - and the effect is, if anything, even more devastating. There is a weariness, almost a sense of defeat, in every frame. The closest Garrett comes to an act of defiance is to reject an offer of $500 for an outright assassination of the Kid, snarling, "You can take that five hundred dollars and shove it up your ass and set fire to it."

'Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid' isn't as redolent as other Peckinpah films in images of modernity creeping into the milieu of the western - unlike 'Ride the High Country' and 'The Ballad of Cable Hogue', both of which, like 'The Wild Bunch', feature cars: one almost runs down Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) in the former, the other proves a lot more damaging to Cable Hogue (Sam Robards) in the latter - but it spells out the death of the west just as poignantly, most notably in the slow, painful death of Sheriff Baker (Slim Pickens), gut shot and stumbling down to the river as the acoustic version of Bob Dylan's 'Knockin' on Heaven's Door' plays on the soundtrack.

In 'The Ballad of Cable Hogue' (1970), the eponymous prospector, betrayed by his partners and left to die in the desert (chalk up another recurring theme: the amount of characters who end up pitted against men they used to ride with, a bitter contravention of Pike's code of honour that "when you side with a man you stay with him and if you can't do that you're like some animal - you're finished"), finds water as if by a miracle and not only survives but, having negotiated the bureaucratic necessities of filing a claim on the land and acquiring financial backing, opens a way station between two towns on a main stagecoach route. His dreams of romance with local good-time girl Hildy (Stella Stevens) are ruined by his obsession with revenge; his prosperity is threatened by - yes! - the arrival of the horseless carriage.

A decade beforehand, Peckinpah's second film (and his first bona fide masterpiece) 'Ride the High Country' (1961) provided a virtual blueprint for the rest of his career. His weather-beaten protagonists Steve Judd and Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott) are men in their twilight years, suspicious of bankers and businessmen and not at all impressed by the callous live-fast-die-young ethos of the younger generation ('Ride the High Country' was made in 1961, remember: the youth-of-today analogy is pretty clear). For all that Westrum, trying to lure his upright friend into a robbey, is a study in compromised morality, Judd strives always to do the right thing, to remain true to a rigid code of honour.

Westrum: Partner, you know what's on the back of a poor man when he dies? The clothes of pride. And they're not a bit warmer to him dead than they were when he was alive. Is that all you want, Steve?
Judd: All I want is to enter my house justified.

All I want is to enter my house justified. What a line! See the film just once and that line will haunt you years later. With Peckinpah, who (mostly uncredited) rewrote whole tranches of the screenplays he optioned, the dialogue is just as incisive as the images. There's a beautifully resonant line in 'The Wild Bunch', spoken by one of the elders at gang member Angel's village, the bunch hiding out there after the robbery-gone-wrong. Observing two of Bishop's most hard-bitten heavies innocently larking around with a couple of the village girls, he comments, "In our hearts we all want to be children again, even the worst of us. Perhaps the worst most of all."

Or how about the line that old man Sykes (Edmond O'Brien) comes out with at the end? Reflecting on an uncertain future, the times having changed beyond anything he can hold out against, he says wearily, "It ain't like it used to be, but it'll do."

An epitaph for changing times, the old ways betrayed and shot down by modernity. A ten-word summation of Peckinpah's over-riding theme as an artist, as a film-maker and as a man.

Sunday, April 13, 2008


In the early 1930s, Tod Browning was on a roll. He'd scored a huge hit in 1925 with 'The Unholy Three', the tale of a trio of sideshow performers - a strongman, a midget and a ventriloquist - who leave the circus and apply their combined talents to criminal enterprises. His 1931 adaptation of 'Dracula' starring Bela Lugosi was just as popular. The same year he made the largely forgotten boxing picture 'Iron Man', then looked for a project that would combined the sensational and the macabre the way his most successful productions had.

It was Harry Earles, who'd played the felonious midget in 'The Unholy Three' (based on a novel by Clarence Aaron "Tod" Robbins), who brought to Browning's attention a short story by Robbins called 'Spurs', about a group of circus freaks wronged by their able-bodied fellow performers, who banded together to take revenge. Browning, himself a sideshow contortionist prior to his Hollywood career, seized upon the idea with zeal.

He assembled a cast of genuine sideshow freaks (I'm using the word 'freak' solely because that's the title of the film; there is no prejudice attached to it) including an hermaphrodite, a human torso, a bearded lady, microcephalics (or, to quote the script's sixty-years-before-the-idea-of-political-correctness description "pin-heads"), midgets and siamese twins. Apart from one scene at the end (I won't spoil it for you if you haven't seen the film), there's no special effects, no camera trickery, no it's-all-done-with-mirrors. No, siree. Browning keeps it real.

To say that the end result was controversial is putting it mildly. Half an hour was cut from the film (ie. a third of its 90 minute running time) by the studio following outraged reaction from preview audiences. In the UK, even in this truncated version, it was banned for thirty years. Ultimately, 'Freaks' did for Browning's career what 'Peeping Tom' did for Michael Powell's and he made only four other films before retiring from the business in 1939, leading a reclusive lifestyle until his death in 1962. Thankfully, the film itself has survived. It has outlasted censorship (although controversy remains) and has been rediscovered - and championed - by new generations of film-goers.

The plot is simple and pacy: glamorous trapeze artist Cleopatra (Ogla Baclanova) is part-amused-part-irritated by midget Hans (Harry Earles)'s crush on her, until she discovers that he's inherited a considerable fortune. In league with strongman Hercules (Henry Victor), Cleopatra encourages his attentions. They marry; Cleopatra and Hercules behave abusively towards the freaks during the wedding feast; Cleopatra tries to poison Hans on their wedding night.

Apart from a romantic subplot between animal trainer Venus (a radiant Leila Hyams) and laconic clown Phroso (Wallace Ford), 'Freaks' concentrates on the discovery of Cleopatra and Hercules's treachery and the grim retribution that follows. As a horror film, it's creepily effective. A scene of the freaks crawling through the mud under a circus waggon, closing in on their Cleopatra and Hercules - the human torso has a switchblade clamped between his teeth and a look on his face that suggests he isn't going to let the absence of hands stand in his way - is one of the most chilling and unforgettable images in cinema.

But Browning never lets 'Freaks' become just an exercise in grotesquerie. Hans' first act infatuation with Cleopatra is played out against a sequence of wryly observed and often quite charming vignettes which establish the freaks as fully rounded people in their own right. Many of his cast - such as the siamese twins (Daisy and Violet Hilton) and the human torso (Randian) - were already well-known vaudeville and sideshow acts in their own right. Browning cannily has them retain these personas for the film. He also structures scenes around the minutaie of their lives - the difficulty of romantic relationships for the twins; the human torso's cigarette lighting technique - that humanises and dignifies them. Sure, the freaks come on like badass mothers at the end - but that's only because supposedly normal people have crossed the boundary with them.

'Freaks' deserves a place on any list of great, favourite or classic movies. It's unique. A true one-off. It would never get made today, given the prevailing climate of political correctness. The bastions of PC would have us believe that 'Freaks' is exploitative because it trades on its characters' deformities, a perspective that completely misses the point. 'Freaks' surpasses their deformities; it lets them be the heroes.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

2001: A Space Odyssey

In 1948, Arthur C Clarke wrote a short story called 'The Sentinel' for a BBC competition. It didn't win. Wasn't even placed. Two decades later, Stanley Kubrick used it as the basis for '2001: A Space Odyssey'. Which pretty much makes the BBC competition adjudicator the literary equivalent of the man who turned down the Beatles.

Kubrick was introduced to Clarke's work by Roger Caras, the publicist on 'Dr Strangelove'. Kubrick was impressed by his novel 'Childhood's End', but director Abraham Polonsky had optioned it and was trying to secure backing for a script he'd written. Instead, Kubrick bought the rights to half a dozen short stories, whittling down their themes and ideas until he was left with 'The Sentinel' as the starting point for his quasi-mystical sci-fi epic.

John Baxter's book 'Stanley Kubrick: A Biography', while evincing a disdainful attitude towards SF and placing Clarke at "the front rank of second rate science fiction writers" (case for the defence: Clarke's nomination for the Nobel Prize for Literature), offers some intriguing insights into the gestation of Kubrick and Clarke's screenplay: Kubrick initially envisaged the film as a "mythological documentary" including interviews with scientists about the theory of interstellar travel and the possibility of extra-terrestrial life. Early drafts had the monolith projecting images and the Star Child detonating "a ring of atomic satellites orbiting the globe ... One representative of mankind ... would get the point and become the avatar of the new consciousness" ('Stanley Kubrick: A Biography', p. 209).

With a summary of the film running to more than 100 pages, and concerned that Clarke hadn't written for the screen before, Kubrick suggested Clarke tackle '2001' as a novel, from which their joint screenplay would then derive. That was in late 1964. Book and film didn't see light of day until mid-1968, with Clarke making endless revisions to his manuscript at Kubrick's behest, the director not approving the novel for publication until the film was virtually in cinemas and Clarke was heavily in debt.

Stanley Kubrick: not the easiest guy to work with.

Still, Clarke's fiction gained a new lease of life of courtesy of the film and he went on to write three more 'Odyssey' novels, with the second, '2010', also getting the big screen treatment (Peter Hyams' adaptation suffers from comparisons to its predecessor, but is considerably better than the general critical concensus would have it).

I watch '2001: A Space Odyssey' every couple of years or so; immerse myself in its soporific running time, soak up the leisurely sequences of space flight, beautifully played out to Herbert von Karajan's recording of Johann Strauss II's 'Blue Danube' waltz. Kubrick's talent for interweaving music and image is as effective here as it is in 'A Clockwork Orange': Richard Strauss's monumental 'Also Sprach Zarathustra', used three times, captures the film's aesthetic the way 'Ride of the Valkyries' does in 'Apocalypse Now'; Khachaturian's 'Gayane' suite emphasises the loneliness, the remoteness of deep space; and the mysterious aural conjurings of Gyorgy Ligeti hint at worlds beyond our own.

When he's not using music to take the film to whole new levels, Kubrick lets dialogue - what little of it there is - take a back seat to soundscapes either harsh (the screeching of the monkeys during the opening sequence) or repetitively pervasive (Dave Bowman [Keir Dullea]'s breathing hideously amplified in his space suit). Just as dialogue is dispensed with for the most part, Kubrick doesn't bother much with his cast. Dullea and Gary Lockwood are figuratively and thematically adrift as the film's real protagonist, the HAL 9000 computer (voiced by Douglas Rain), gets his fifteen minutes of fame ... or rather, his hour of infamy.

The 'Daisy Daisy' scene, as HAL gets the manual over-ride treatment, is one of the great moments in film history ("I'm afraid, Dave ... my mind is going"); the journey through the stargate revolutionised visual effects; the final twenty minutes are elegaic, poetic, baffling and pretentious in roughly equal measures.

I watch '2001: A Space Odyssey' every couple of years or so and I'm still no closer to deciding whether it's a profound, cerebral, philosophical work of art, or a self-indulgent, egotistical, intellectually hollow con job.

Either way, it's bloody good movie.

(in memoriam Sir Arthur C Clarke CBE, 16 December 1917 - 19 March 2008)

Thursday, April 10, 2008

In the interests of fairness ...

… here’s a link to the inevitable Pro-Uwe Boll petition. It currently stands at 1,526 signatures.

Meanwhile, back the Anti-Boll ranch, 159,245 people would like him never to step behind a camera again.


If you wanted to be glib, you could describe ‘Severance’ as ‘Dog Soldiers’-lite. Whereas Neil Marshall’s film had an army unit besieged by werewolves in a ramshackle farmhouse, Severance has a group of office wallahs on a team-building weekend (paint-balling, orienteering etc) holed up in a run-down lodge and defending themselves against a masked antagonist.

You could also point out similarities in theme and imagery to other notable horror films of the last decade: the isolationism and fractious inter-relationships of ‘Cabin Fever’ and ‘My Little Eye’, the Eastern European locale of ‘Hostel’ and its sequel. But Christopher Smith’s film - his second feature after ‘Creep’ and a major improvement on that piece of work - has more than one ace up its sleeve.

First of all, it achieves that rare quality for a horror-comedy: the horror is unsettling and the comedy is genuinely funny, and both exist cheek by jowl without the balance ever tipping too far on either side. Witness the brilliant scene where the characters discuss the history of the lodge: when one postulates it was a turn-of-the-century lunatic asylum, Smith throws in a hysterical sequence of flashbacks in true silent movie style, all title cards and b&w expressionism; this is superceded by an account of the out-of-control soldiers who were billeted there after massacring civilians, visually illustrated by grainy, jumpy footage that could have been culled from CNN. It’s a daring, slap-in-the-face juxtaposition and highly effective.

Secondly, Smith’s characters are not the interchangeable teenie victims or over-sexed twenty-somethings who normally populate this kind of fare; they’re low level management types who work for an arms manufacturer. This is Smith’s most brilliant conceit: the film takes on a darkly satirical coloration when you realise that the set pieces are expositions of the use of weapons. Indeed, the pay-off (intricately set-up in what seems like a confusing opening sequence) is a fabulous raised middle finger to the guns ‘n’ girls ethos of many an exploitation flick down the years.

Smith also flips the birdie to the prevailing political climate, holding the ‘war on terror’ mindset up to the cold light of satire. In keeping his villains masked (ie. faceless) and more or less devoid of identity or motive, he fashions an allegory for contemporary times. A fearless scene - so boldly done that you feel guilty for laughing - has an attempt to fight back go hideously wrong, a heat-seeking missile completely missing the bad guys and instead bringing down a passing jet liner.

‘Severance’ - like George A Romero’s ‘Land of the Dead’ - is a horror film with a political subtext. It’s gory, funny, cutting and clever. It also has balls.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Power to the people?

Uwe Boll is not a popular individual. (If the name means nothing to you, click here to peruse his credits.) Film-goers don’t like him because he makes bad movies. Gamers don’t like him because said bad movies are based on well-liked games.

An online petition is underway, calling for him to “stop directing, producing or taking any part in the creation of feature films”. Informed by an interviewer that 18,000 people had signed it, Boll declared that it would take at least a million signatures to convince him to retire from film-making.

As I write this, the petition stands at 88,091 signatures – in other words, 911,099 to go.

I should probably use this post to debate the morality of the public being allowed to call time on a director’s career … but then again, we’re talking about Uwe Boll. So I’ll just provide a link to the petition, let you come to your own decisions and leave it at that.

Monday, April 07, 2008

PERSONAL FAVES: The Incredibles

Right then: Pixar.

I was hesitant about 'Toy Story', held off from seeing it. My purist sensibilities were offended that they'd done the whole thing on a computer and were trying to pass it off as animation. Bunch of bull! Animation meant pencils, pens and paints a la Studio Ghibli or claymation a la Wallace and Gromit, and Tom Hanks and Tim Allen weren't bloody going to tell me otherwise!

Only when I finally watched 'Toy Story', I was pleasantly surprised: the script was whip-smart, the ... oh, all right then: animation ... was detailed and pleasing. In a word, it was fun. 'A Bug's Life' was a sterling follow-up, leaving no doubt that Pixar were investing as much in the script as they were in the visuals. 'Toy Story 2' raised the bar big time. Funnier, cleverer and altogether more impressive and its predecessor, we're talking 'The Godfather Part II' of animation. It was a hard act to follow, but 'Monsters, Inc.' came close, with only a sagging middle section (during which the main characters do little more than run interminably around the factory) letting it down. 'Finding Nemo' took Pixar's visual genius to new levels - the animation wasn't just good, it was textured - but the film was waterlogged by a schmaltzy narrative and characters that came off more irritating than amusing.

Then came 'The Incredibles'. And the gates of revelation stood open.

Written and directed by Brad Bird (let's just say he cut his teeth working on 'The Simpsons' and let that speak for itself), 'The Incredibles' is just so cool, so clever, so confident in its marriage of a 1950s comic book sensibility with a satirically contemporary worldview, that it's hard to know where to start. Not that I want to give too much away - 'The Incredibles' is one of those rare film-going treats that delivers a real sense of joy when you experience it for the first time. And, better still, repeated viewings just improve it.

The frenetic opening sequence sees muscular superhero Mr Incredible (voiced by Craig T Nelson) go about his daily business of chasing down bank robbers, rescuing helpless kittens, being nice to little old ladies, saving the suicidal and thwarting the plans of megalomaniacal villians - all before joining his bride-to-be Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) at the altar. Life is good. Until, that is, he finds himself the defendant in a lawsuit brought by the man he saved against his will. A precedent is set. Other superheroes are sued, subpeona'd and slagged off in the press. The goverment institutes an amnesty: all superheroes are relocated and given new - normal - identities; a fresh start in the everyday world. The condition is the non-use of their superpowers.

Fast forward a few years and Mr Incredible is working for an insurance company, hating himself for rejecting claims and pressured by his pompous jackass of a boss to reject even more claims. Elastigirl has remodelled herself as the archetypal house-proud housewife, but is having a hard time conditioning their children, Dash and Violet, to a conventional lifestyle where their powers - lightning-fast reflexes, invisibility and the ability to project forcefields - must be kept secret. The infant Zack hasn't yet manifested a talent - that particular revelation is reserved for the payoff.

So already we've had an inspired subversion of the DC/Marvel Comics superhero ethos (can you imagine Superman had up in court or the X-Men named in a damages suit?), a Dilbert-like depiction of office cubicle corporate culture, and - unsurprising given Bird's 'Simpsons' credentials - an hilarious, gleeful portrait of a dysfunctional family.

Then Mr Incredible is offered a secret mission by a mysterious benefactor and lure of the past proves too strong to withstand ...

Thus Bird moves 'The Incredibles' into its second act and an already brilliant film quite simply goes supernova. From the Bondian lair of Mr Incredible's embittered nemesis to the 'North by Northwest'-style residence of fashion-designer-to-superheroes Edna Mold (voiced by Bird himself!), allusions, homages and in-jokes abound. God knows if the kids who were in the audience when I first saw it at Nottingham's UGC cinema understood even a fraction of it, but I was delighted. Not only was it hog heaven for the film buff, but the plot was streamlined, the set-pieces taut and suspenseful, the structure intricate, the writing witty and intelligent, and the whole thing put together with eye-catching visual flair.

For me, 'The Incredibles' is quite simply perfect. There's not a wrong note, a duff line or a needless moment in it. Everything counts. The next Pixar production, 'Cars', was effortlessly entertaining - a good movie with a great ending - but it was hard to see how Pixar could possibly top 'The Incredibles'.

Then Brad Bird went and made 'Ratatouille' and did just that.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Diary of the Dead

As ‘Casino Royale’ proved, a simple and effective way to re-invent a franchise is to clear the decks of the earlier episodes and present the latest film as, essentially, the first. So it is that ‘Diary of the Dead’ comes across as ‘Night of the Living Dead’ for the YouTube generation.

‘Night’ has a cross-section of late sixties society trapped in a farmhouse, beset by internal tensions as well as the external threat (characters in the subsequent films have a context, an understanding of what the zombies are and how to combat them, that those in the original don’t).

‘Diary’ has the zombie outbreak witnessed, fled from and - most crucially - documented by film students and bloggers. This new generation, while they quickly demonstrate themselves just as ill-equipped to deal with the threat (perhaps less so, certainly compared to the pro-active protagonists of ‘Dawn of the Dead’), are nonetheless self-important enough to make themselves the heroes of their own movie. Quite literally. ‘Diary of the Dead’ starts with budding director Jason (Joshua Close) calling the shots on a student film, a piss-awful mummy movie, only to bicker with his actors because the whole thing looks laughable when it should be scary.

Moments later they're in a scary movie, like it or not.

It’s fitting that ‘Diary of the Dead’ was released so soon after ‘Cloverfield’, not least for the pleasure of forty-something J.J. Abrams and his cast of twenty-something trendies being shown up by sixty-seven year old Romero, with an even younger cast and just a fraction of the budget.

That ‘Diary of the Dead’ more or less succeeds where ‘Cloverfield’ fails - I say “more or less”, because ‘Diary’ still has flaws - is because it neatly avoids the problem that ‘Cloverfield’ was never going to get away from.

‘Cloverfield’ sets itself up as found footage from a camcorder wielded by some guy’s best mate who determinedly keeps hold of it - and keeps filming with it - even when his life’s in danger, his friends’ lives are in danger, the life of the girl he’s carrying a torch for is in danger and he could so be in with a chance just by junking the camera and putting his arm around her. Bridges collapse, suspension cables whipping lethally through the air ... military patrols come thundering through city streets, tooled up and trigger happy ... creepy, slimy, fast-moving creatures swarm above him in a dank tunnel ... and this guy, this guy who breezily announces a few minutes into the film that he's never used a camcorder before, keeps on filming like he’s Werner Herzog deep in the jungle and the monster’s Klaus Kinski.

Which is to say, the film wants to be realistic but calls for suspension of disbelief in virtually every scene. Come on, when the fucking monster requires a lesser suspension of disbelief, surely that tells you something!

‘Diary’ gets away with it because:

a) They’re film students. It’s egos-a-go-go. They’re convinced they’re going to be the next big thing. Of course they’ll keep on filming whatever the odds.

b) They have two cameras. Whomever is lensing at any one time captures the other. And vice versa. So the cameraman (or woman) remains a character, never just an eyepiece for the benefit of the audience.

c) ‘Diary’ doesn't pretend to be found footage, instead taking the form of a completed, edited and scored film (‘The Death of Death’). A terrific scene has the film-makers editing footage on the hoof, eagerly uploading it to the net (and why not – they’re getting a shitload of hits!).

There are a number of darkly funny moments, particularly a scene involving a mute Amish farmer who arms himself with dynamite and gives the zombies hell. And herein lies the problem. The material works best as jet-black satire. So when Romero tries to impose a sympathy-for-the-zombie moral at the end - or comment on the verisimilitude of image by clumsily restaging the mummy movie footage as an actual zombie attack – ‘Diary of the Dead’ becomes too evidently the work of its writer/director and not the student film of its characters.

Or, to put it meta-textually, it shocks you out of ‘The Death of Death’ and reminds you that you're actually watching ‘Diary of the Dead’, which reminds you in turn that both of them are just movies.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Land of the Dead

Throughout the first three films, small bastions of humanity have holed up in - respectively - rural/agricultural, materialist/consumerist and military/scientific environments, and been defeated, from within and without, in each case. Indeed, so welcome is the massacre of the testosterone-drenched foul-mouthed soldiers in ‘Day of the Dead’, that you almost find yourselves rooting for the zombies.

‘Land of the Dead’, Romero’s return to the series after a twenty year hiatus, not only develops the theme but takes it to a new level. Here, his besieged group of survivors become a microcosm of America itself. The setting is a Manhattan-like island, protected from the zombie-infested city and outlying townships by a river. At the centre of the island is a luxuriously appointed tower block overseen by the highfalutin Kaufman (Dennis Hopper). Those allowed into this self-contained paradise are those with money. Those without are forced to scratch out a living for themselves in the ghetto at the foot of the tower.

Amongst these lesser-fortunate individuals are Riley (Simon Baker) and Cholo (John Leguizamo), both employed as foot-soldiers by Kaufman. It’s their job to lead combat units into the mainland and bring back supplies. As the movie opens, Riley becomes increasingly sickened by Cholo’s macho heroics and obsession with black marketeering, by which he intends to buy himself into Kaufman’s enclave. Riley, meanwhile, yearns for somewhere open and free: it’s not zombies he wants to flee from, but other people.

As with the previous films, the survivors bring about their own downfall while the zombies gather outside. Only this time, the stakes are higher in both cases. Cholo absconds with Dead Reckoning, the heavily-armoured strike vehicle that Riley designed, threatening to launch on Kaufman’s tower block if his fiscal demands are not met. Kaufman doesn’t even have to respond with “We don’t negotiate with terrorists” in order to make the post-9/11 subtext clear.

In the meantime, the zombies get organised. Like the mall-dwellers in ‘Dawn of the Dead’, they have begun to remember where they used to go and what they used to do. Like Bub in ‘Day’, they figure out how to arm themselves. It’s when they take a quite literal leap and figure out how to cross the river that the human populace, no matter what their social or economic standing, have to pay the price.

Satirical, political, provocative, tense and edgy, ‘Land of the Dead’ provided what I thought at the time was a fine conclusion to the saga, the fact that Romero even elicited a degree of sympathy for the zombies proving how far the series had come.

Then he only bloody went and re-invented the saga …

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Day of the Dead

If ‘Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Dawn of the Dead’ share the same idea of a place of sanctuary as a prison for the self, their protagonists facing up as much to their own demons as to the horde of zombies massing outside, then the milieu of ‘Day of the Dead’ (1985) is even more claustrophobic.

The opening sequence is the only glimpse of daylight, of the outside world, that we get. A helicopter touches down in a deserted Florida township. An alligator crawls out of the First National Bank. Dollar bills blow uselessly along the street. Before the zombies even appear, we’re back in familiar Romero territory: a recognisable America, but one where all the tenets of societal familiarity are but empty symbols.

The helicopter crew, including pilot John (Terry Alexander) and research assistant Sarah (Lori Cardille), discover no survivors or supplies, and return to the underground facility that is their base. Ostensibly a scientific outpost where Dr Logan (Richard Liberty) is conducting neurological research on captured zombies, the medicos are outnumbered by a military contingent. The two factions are at loggerheads from the off, the military proving to be the macho, racist backwoodsmen of ‘Night’ and the rampaging bikers of ‘Dawn’ revisited - but with uniforms and better weaponry.

Logan, nicknamed Frankenstein by the soldiers, is attempting to condition the zombies, to return them to their erstwhile capacity for civilised behaviour. One zombie in particular, whom Logan calls Bub (after his father!), shows signs of human behaviour: he recognises a soldier’s uniform and salutes him; he strips down and reassembles an unloaded pistol; he leafs through a Stephen King novel; and - in a witty homage to ‘A Clockwork Orange’, listens to Beethoven’s 9th.

It’s when the military discover Logan’s secret - he is rewarding Bub by feeding him human flesh - that all hell breaks loose. Logan is killed and John severely beaten, his ability to fly a helicopter the only thing that saves him from an equally summary execution. In the meantime, the dead - as in the previous films - have amassed outside. Even as the military try to escape the compound, the dead flood in. The last twenty minutes of the film comprise Romero’s goriest work, an almost constant stream of dismemberment, beheadings and disembowelment.

After the satire of ‘Dawn’, this is a return to the nihilism of the first film. The military, far from containing the problem, just contribute to it. Science also fails - Logan’s almost-breakthrough comes at the sacrifice of his humanity and the cost of his life. Finally, it one of the helicopter crew, embittered against his colleagues, bullied by the soldiers, who suicidally gives the zombies their way in.

Even the seemingly redemptive ending, where the handful of survivors make it out by helicopter and fetch up on an idyllic and zombie-free island, is overshadowed. The zombies, in defeating the military, have begun to arm themselves, to use weapons. How long, Romero is asking, until they fully organise themselves? It is this question that he debates in ‘Land of the Dead’.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Dawn of the Dead

Substituting its predecessor’s rural locale for a large shopping mall, ‘Dawn of the Dead’ (1979) is the most darkly humorous of the series. Opening with scenes of chaos in a TV station which is remaining operable as long as possible to broadcast updates, it is evident from the start that the localised occurrences of ‘Night of the Living Dead’ are now a national phenomenon.

Two people, a production assistant and her helicopter pilot boyfriend, flee the studio. Joined by two members of a SWAT team, who run up against a group of zombies whilst battling a group of well-armed criminals (another indication of societal values breaking down), the foursome seek refuge in a shopping mall. The logic is clear: stuffed to the gills with material goods and foodstuff, it is the ideal, self-contained place to hole up.

Essentially, then, ‘Dawn’ shares the same scenario and internal dynamics as ‘Night’: much of its running time plays out within the confines of one specific setting (mall here as opposed to farmhouse), and most of its dramatic import derives from a group of thrown-together survivors trying to pull together but ultimately fragmenting while the zombies gather outside.

However, the scale is larger in ‘Dawn’; the action much better orchestrated. Arriving at the mall, the dead are already inside. They have to be taken care of. The entrances have to be secured and barricaded; delivery bays sealed off using trucks abandoned in the parking area. A gun shop is raided; gleeful hunt and kill expeditions ensue. Zombies dealt with, the next threat our increasingly fractious quartet are forced to contend with is an invasion by a biker gang (a corollary to the gun-toting hicks who kill Ben in ‘Night’).

This plethora of problems solved, the mid-section develops into an effective satire of materialism. A blockade established against the zombies, all they want in terms of necessities and luxuries alike theirs for the taking, they nonetheless lose little time in falling out and falling apart. Internal tensions are exacerbated; emotions run high. Eventually, the sheer numbers of their undead antagonists prove plentiful enough to force their way in.

By the end there are only two survivors. Returning to the roof they landed on and the helicopter that brought them there, they make their departure even though they know that fuel is low and their destination uncertain. For all that, the last shot of ‘Dawn’ is as funny as that of ‘Night’ is bitter: a shuffling parade of zombies riding up and down the department store escalators to the accompaniment of chintzy muzak. You don’t have to be a film student to see Romero’s point.

“When there is no more room in hell,” runs the film’s most oft-quoted line, “the dead will walk the earth.” Perhaps more apposite is this exchange:

“Why have they come here?”

“Instinct; memory. It’s what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.”

It’s a concept that links into ‘Day of the Land’ and provides a virtual mission statement for ‘Land of the Dead’.