Tag Archives: film

Shelf Bite: Ex Machina

ex_machinaThere is nothing more human than the will to survive

‘Did you program her to flirt with me?’

Man’s fascination with playing God is a central concept to all those science fiction tales that force us to question our own place in the universe and the legacy we may leave behind. As with the seminal masterpiece, Blade Runner, where Ridley Scott built upon the visual details laid out by Fritz Lang and Moebius; Director, Alex Garland strips back the oppressed gloom yet still infuses the film’s narrative with a strong sense of philosophy, psychology and religious themes. The result is a near future with a similar, cynical undertone to Charlie Brooker’s series, Black Mirror – a pristine, product placed future that seems to be set next year rather than a far flung, dystopic conceit. Garland’s flawless script is about the trio of characters and their central conflict rather than a brash, Hollywood fair and closer in tone to a piece of theatre. The central drama is compelling and the special effects, as refined as they are, become almost invisible. Domhnall Gleeson’s naïve programmer contrasts Oscar Isaac’s nihilistic billionaire as he studies the interaction between his employee and A.I., Ava played by the beguiling, Alicia Vkander. With enough red herrings to keep any sci-phile on their toes, Ex Machina delivers a supreme vision of a future we are closer to than we realise.

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Shelf Bite: It Follows

movie-posters-twofive-04It doesn’t think. It doesn’t feel. It doesn’t give up

‘It could look like someone you know or it could be a stranger in a crowd. Whatever helps it get close to you.’

Another step into Carpenterville that explores the common tropes of 1980s slasher films in a unique and artful manner. Director, David Robert Mitchell infuses the camera with voyeuristic undertones that allows ‘it’ to perform; linger, creep and zoom in on our central character as she is ‘followed’ by an entity passed on through sex. With some genuinely disturbing visuals and, at times, misjudged acts of sexual (Freudian) violence the film builds enough tension to hold it’s audience until the final act looses it momentum. Maika Monroe, already beginning to build up a retro reputation from The Guest, delivers a sullen, paranoid performance that helps to highlight the separation and independency that teenagers begin to experience as they move away from their adolescence and the mistakes they make. The synth soundtrack and production design is both subtle and ‘in your face’ at times; much like the central theme. As with most films that involve teenagers; the characters remain oddly unsympathetic surrounded by distanced adults and yet, in highlighting those common moments of ‘don’t go there’, still manages to deliver a more than effective horror film.

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Spring

Spring_poster_goldposter_com_2-400x592Love is a Monster

‘I don’t think you’re ready for where this is going.’

Often, amongst the subpar horror fair of late, there are the hidden artefacts you stumble across that dare to deliver something different. As part of the current renaissance in intelligent, independent horror films that have the unhinged freedom to explore more metaphysical concepts there are the hidden gems built on the germ of an idea – the less tangible…the less obvious. Often deemed to have smaller audiences, the likes of Honeymoon and The Babadook have, at their core, something deeply personal shrouded in expressionistic brushstrokes that help to convey more thought provoking ideas. Although The Babadook descended into more of a cliché, Honeymoon managed to retain its serious, speculative approach and it is the same conviction that makes Spring one of the strongest horror films of 2015. It’s a sad state of affairs that such a masterpiece has zero marketing and is only released in the UK on DVD at the bargain bin price of £4.99.

With its more obvious tropes nested in the masterful tales of H.P. Lovecraft, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s second feature reminds us how a heady mix of romance can work wonders. Traditionally, these genres are not as removed from one another as we may think and have more than been taken advantage of in these Twihard years. Yet Spring manages to deliver a fresh and often beguiling approach with its meandering nature and stunning scenery swaying close to Richard Linklater’s conversational piece, Before Sunrise and therefore attempts to avoid the imagery we are all too familiar with.

After his mother passes away, a young bartender by the name of Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci) is left alone and angry with regret. When he prevents his friend from a potential glassing, a bar brawl ensues which results in the loss of his job. Before long his life is threatened by the hapless thug and the authorities begin their search. With nothing left to keep him rooted, Evan sets off for a random destination and ends up in Italy where he briefly meets up with a couple of cockney backpackers, secures a part time job and, amongst the wine and sunshine, meets the beautiful and alluring Louise (Nadia Hilker). As they begin to spend time with one another, it is soon clear that she hides a dark and terrifying secret that literally evolves throughout the course of the film.

Comparisons to Upstream Colour can also be noted; yet where Shane Carruth’s film deals with many ambiguous themes in a more speculative light, the visual language is just as arresting. Throughout the labyrinthine streets and swell of the sea, Benson and Moorhead take their time to explore character, which enables the viewer to accept the grotesque transformations Louise undertakes. In the moments the creature is seen it is disquieting, unsettling, shocking and disturbing – each transformation exploring the familiar while still retaining a fresh direction that helps to elevate its more primordial nature.

While Evan’s character deals with his estrangement from his homeland, it is during a key scene that reminds us of his unbridled love – in that no matter what happens to those closest to you, love knows no bounds; both emotionally and physically. In the opening moments of the film we understand Evan’s grief and relationship with his mother before he is cast adrift. As much as Louise is a myth, Evan is the truth behind how simple one man’s love can be.

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75 Years of Batman – Part II

org2

The earliest origin tale is depicted in Batman #1, Spring, 1940.

Origins

‘The idea of Batman starts with alienation and acceptance themes. It’s the idea of a kid orphaned by crime.’ Michael E. Uslan, Legends of the Dark Knight: The History of Batman

The privileged son of socialite parents witnesses their brutal murder in a cold dark alley. Traumatised by the horrific events the young Bruce Wayne vows vengeance and invests his wealth to hone mind, body and spirit in his quest for justice. Born out of darkness, as Batman he channels his own childhood fear in to a tempered discipline that aids him in his fight against crime.

Influenced as much by the popular culture of the time as the historic touchstones; Batman’s iconography and persona was also informed by newspaper strips showcasing pulp heroes, The Phantom, The Shadow, Dick Tracey and Doc Savage who lent their sense of high end adventure and secret identities, while classic literary characters such as Sherlock Holmes helped shape him in to ‘The World’s Greatest Detective’. The Golden Age of film presented glamour and dynamic storytelling with The Mark of Zorro (1920), and The Bat Whispers (1930) both of which reflected aristocratic heroes and double identities which left an iconic signature and symbol – other important details that helped shape Batman’s own personality. But it is within wider context and social issues of the time that have been a major, contributing influence on the birth of Batman.

Although the United States had already begun to witness a decline in their gross domestic products it was not until the infamous Wall Street Crash of October, 1929 that its severe effects began to have more visible repercussions. The result was not just a national epidemic but a major worldwide economic crash that marked the beginning of a decade of unemployment that painted a bleak picture of the 1930s. It was during these times that lost opportunities in personal advancement and loss of confidence in the system contributed to an increase in violent crime.

second-great-depression

A US newspaper from October 29th, 1929 presents a bleak picture of the beginning of a new decade.

Numerous factors played in to the politics of Depression era America such as high consumer debt and unregulated markets where unrealistic loans by banks drew many parallels to the recent crash of our times. All these major areas spiralled into a reduction in consumerism, lowered production, a fall in confidence and, for many, an increase in fear. To escape the austerity and overwhelming sense of dread and personal anxieties that could often be projected on the younger generation, children and adults alike turned to escapism. As well as the pulp literature of the time and the heyday of cinema; the birth of the first superhero in Action Comics #1 paved the way for a fresh, new art form the Americans could take ownership of.

After the huge success of Superman in 1938, the Editors of National Publications (later DC Comics) began to see the huge potential of the superhero and set their sights on commissioning like-minded creators to develop other characters. Although there are definitive examples of how the idea for Batman was sparked there has been much contention over the years about whether the original creator, Bob Kane came up with the concept all by himself. Early collaborator and writer, Bill Finger referred to how Kane’s idea resembled more of a ‘Birdman’ in his reddish Superman tights and domino mask, which was closer to Robin in origin. With stiff, impractical wings, this precursor to the bat-wing cape was suggested by Bob Kane after he had been inspired by Leonardo Da Vinci’s images of the ornithopter flying machine he had seen as a child.

As with the original creators of Superman, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster; both Bob Kane and Bill Finger were the children of Jewish immigrants who had settled in New York. Born Robert Kahn in 1915 his studies in art led to him working as a trainee animator at the Max Fleisher Studio in 1934 before entering the comic book field in 1936 where he worked freelance for editor, Jerry Iger’s comic book Wow, What a Magazine! Having known the Godfather of comic books, Will Eisner since school, Kane had now secured work the following year when Iger partnered with Eisner becoming one of the first ‘on demand’ publishers of the medium. Working exclusively through Eisner & Iger, Kane began to produce work for the three companies, Adventure ComicsDetective Comics and More Fun Comics, all of which would eventually merge in to DC Comics.

batman1

The cover of Batman #1, Spring, 1940 already depicts some significant developments. Aside from the addition of Robin the Boy Wonder, Batman displays a tinge of blue, the iconic gauntlets and a slightly less imposing appearance.

Born in 1914, Bill Finger moved from Colorado with his family to New York where he worked as a shoe salesman. His aspirations in writing led him to work for Bob Kane where he was employed as a ghost writer on numerous scripts which led to their initial meeting about ‘the Bat-Man’. Finger’s more informed approach as a writer had built on those important, iconic details that are still associated with Batman today. With Kane’s initial idea, he suggested the cowl, gauntlets and cape instead of wings and removed any distinct colour so he blended in to the night and, although certain personality traits can be linked to Bob Kane and Batman’s alter ego, the secret identity of Bruce Wayne was also created by Finger. Understanding the importance in a name and the resonance it can carry, Finger combined the Scottish patriot, Robert Bruce and another individual who would suggest a colonial reference to the American Revolution with soldier, Mad Anthony Wayne. However, due to Finger’s meticulous details, his research would often result in a slow approach to his work, which led to the Editor of the time, Whitney Ellsworth suggesting to Bob Kane that he should be replaced. During Finger’s absence, Gardner Fox contributed to the scripts that introduced some of Batman’s familiar arsenal such as his utility belt, Bat-Gyro/plane and Batarang. When Finger later returned he added the Batcave and Batmobile that have become synonymous with the world of Batman along with the introduction of Batman’s sidekick, Robin in Detective Comics #38. Although the Boy Wonder contradicted Batman’s motives and morals (essentially placing a child in danger!), Finger believed that his presence would help with a stronger narrative style and help stay in touch with the younger audience. Within the first year, Batman had become a huge, breakthrough success and, in the Spring of 1940, Batman #1 was released.

Without Bob Kane’s initial concept, it is questionable whether there would have ever been a Batman. The creative process of collaborating on a project that is suggested by and then owned by the original publishers can be one of heated debate, however, once an intellectual property becomes a multi-billion dollar franchise, subsequent creative players only help to contribute and own nothing. Bob Kane’s shrewdness and more business-like approach was in contrast to the ‘notoriously tardy’, Bill Finger and over the course of Batman’s first twenty-five years in print, it was a known fact that Bob Kane directed a number of ghost writers and ghost artists to ape his own style.

In 1965, Bob Kane discussed the creation of Batman in an open and heated letter to Batmania Editor, Biljo White where he rebukes a number articles that question whether he was soul creator. After presenting both the myth and the truth behind a number of details, Kane only suggests, Bill Finger was a contributing force on Batman right from the beginning. He wrote most of the great stories and was influential in setting the style and genre other writers would emulate … I made Batman a superhero-vigilante when I first created him. Bill turned him into a scientific detective.’ During this time, Kane’s name had disappeared from the comic book. Due to having signed away ownership of the character in exchange for a mandatory byline on all Batman comics, by the mid-1960s it was the writer and artists who were credited. After artist, Neal Adams had reinvented Batman with Dennis O’Neil in the late-1960s, Adams went on to champion original creators such as Siegel and Shuster which resulted in theirs and Kane’s original byline added once again to the credits. Finger’s recognition, however, was not received in the same light. Limited acknowledgement for his writing of Batman was a result of his contract as a writer and although credited for the creator of the Riddler, he only received his page rate with no further byline. In 1989, Kane would go on to admit:

‘In those days it was like, one artist and he had his name over it – the policy of DC in the comic books was, if you can’t write it, obtain other writers, but their names would never appear on the comic book in the finished version. So Bill never asked me for it and I never volunteered – I guess my ego at that time. And I felt badly, really, when he died’

The Joker's first appearance also in Batman #1.

Batman #1 was also the first appearance of the ‘Clown Prince of Crime’ – the Joker was credited as Jerry Robinson and Bob Kane’s design but acknowledged Bill Fingers writing contribution.

Artist Jerry Robinson, who was also was seen as a major contributor to the Batman mythos and often acknowledged as the creator of the Joker, criticised Kane for failing to share the credit and recalled Finger’s resentment, stating in a 2005 interview with The Comics Journal:

‘Bob made him more insecure, because while he slaved working on Batman, he wasn’t sharing in any of the glory or the money that Bob began to make…he should have credited Bill as co-creator, because I know; I was there. … That was one thing I would never forgive Bob for, was not to take care of Bill or recognize his vital role in the creation of Batman. As with Siegel and Shuster, it should have been the same, the same co-creator credit in the strip, writer and artist.’

Despite many of the disputes surrounding Batman it is clear that both his origins and the processes in which the original creators worked were vastly different to how comic books are produced today. Both Superman and Batman ushered in a fresh medium that had not been practiced before and therefore the legislations in place resulted in creators often losing properties, being discredited or naively signed over to their publishers. However, the origins of the character have as much resonance today as they ever have – a heroic character that fights for honour and the greater good during a time that has its own, deep-rooted issues. Batman endures because writers, artists and editors have not only continued to contribute to his world but, most importantly, have not forgotten that he functions as a man, not a superman and with that are the flaws we all carry.

To be continued in Part III: Mythology

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John Milius

milius-documentary-poster

Tales of a Hollywood Maverick

‘He doesn’t write for pussies and he doesn’t write for women. He writes for men. Because he’s a man.’ Sam Elliott

It’s easy to forget how many defining films, John Milius has been involved in. Epic, brutal and laced with high octane – his stories are of a brute force and calibre that has rarely been rivaled in the history of Hollywood. His films have, for better or worse, been a result of their zeitgeist – often disposable but more than memorable; underneath their hardened exterior their subject matter begs for you to scratch at the surface to see if there is a hidden subtext. There have been misfires – non so notable as his collaboration with Spielberg on 1941 – proving, for both film makers, that if you’re good at something then stick to it. If there is anything to take away from the best of his work, aside from a solid story, it is the immortal lines that have resonated onscreen – dialogue that has, at times, become more than infused in popular culture.

Despite his questionable politics (self-described right-wing extremist and ‘zen anarchist’), Milius is a filmmaker worth discussion and the soon to be released documentary will no doubt provoke and entertain. Much more than the quintessential American; the accomplished surfer was unable to join the Marines due to health issues and channelled his ferocious appetite for books towards writing films instead. Whether it is the disturbing reflection of humanity’s deepest and darkest recesses of the soul in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now; to hear Schwarzenegger crush his enemies and hear the lamentation of the women; or simply question our luck while we stare down the barrel of Clint Eastwood’s .44 Magnum – there is a realisation that Milius’ work is more prominent and resonant than you realise.

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Lawless

lawless-dvd-cover-97Fine moments lost…

‘It is not the violence that sets men apart, it is the distance that he is prepared to go.’ 

John Hillcoat and Nick Cave’s second feature together has all the hallmarks of a classic genre piece, yet is riddled with bullet holes. Hillcoat’s sparse trademark is more than reminiscent of The Proposition, however, Lawless suffers from underwhelming moments highlighted through a sheer lack of character development. Although there are reprisals in the narrative, it is only during the reliant intensity of the stronger scenes that we are reminded of what we are watching. This is a film that attempts to show stoic figures that have grown to accept their own myth – a beautiful and poetic device that is criminally underused in helping to breathe more life in to the central performances. It is this very notion and heart of the story that Cave’s script dusts over – opting for a style that seems to have been more heavily influenced other gangster films rather than immersing himself in the original source material.

Set during the final years of the prohibition in Depression-era Virginia, Lawless tells the story of the bootlegging Bondurant brothers as they run local deliveries and continue to make a profitable cut. It isn’t long until their illegal distillery business is threatened by the vile, amphibious Charles Rakes (Guy Pierce), a Special Deputy who attempts to bribe the brothers and take control of the local police force who have, up until now, turned a blind eye to their exploits. Jack Bondurant (Shia LeBoeuf) is the youngest of the siblings and struggles with his cowardice and insecurities under his older brothers’ no-nonsense attitude. Although it is LeBoeuf’s character that carries the narrative and shows a defining arc, it is Tom Hardy’s presence as Forrest that delivers the punches and often helps to elevate the dramatic tension. Eldest brother, Howard is practically a non-entity with little to define him next to Hardy’s effortless performance, whereas Garry Oldman’s role as local gangster, Floyd Banner, is nothing more than a cameo and serves very little to do with the plot. Love interests, Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska add a touch of glamour amongst the bullets and moonshine, signifying the little hope we have for these characters to survive this bleak tale.

As with all of Hillcoat’s films, Lawless succeeds in one thing; and that is to leave his audience raw and depleted. This is not the issue with the film – the issue is I need to care for more of the characters, especially when dealing with a true story. Somewhere there is a heart buried in Lawless and perhaps with repeat viewings there is more to remember other than its often brutal and violent nature.

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Bunraku

bunraku_xlgA silent mix of loud style and tradition

‘Great lessons are often found in defeat.’

There’s a lot to enjoy in Guy Moshe’s cocktail of East meets West – a criminally underrated film that utilizes digital production techniques to blend both pop cultural references with more than enough nods to the art house and early cinema. Part German expressionism, martial arts, video game, film noir, sci-fi, fantasy and comic book – it would be easy to label such a post modern mix of styles a pretentious affair. But where the visual layers unfold, the story follows a simple structure of heroic stereotypes and paper-thin plot which some will argue is its downfall.

In a world reminiscent of communist rule, guns have been outlawed and the sword is once again the way of the warrior. Nicola the Woodcutter (Ron Perlman) rules with an iron fist, accompanied by his femme fatale, Alexandra (Demi Moore), nine lethal assassins and his Red Gang that instill more than enough fear amongst the locals. While The Woodcutter’s right hand man, Killer no.2 (Kevin McKidd) taps dances his way through a barrage of assailants closer to a scene from West Side Story, our two protagonists, androgynous samurai, Yoshi (Gackt) and The Drifter (Josh Hartnett) clash in their quest to seek out the evil tyrant. Guided by the wisdom and intuition of The Bartender (Woody Harrelson), our two protagonists cast aside their differences and use combined skills to inspire the downtrodden citizens to forge an army of their own. Through set pieces closer to theatre and reminiscent of silent cinema, our heroes break bones and crack skulls as the screen literally cuts and folds like the pages of a pop-up book and graphic novel.

Closer in comparison to Stephen Chow (Kung-Fu Hustle) than Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City, Moshe’s myriad of influences are clearly worn on his sleeve. Here is a filmmaker opening his toy box and although certain ideas seem lost in the sandpit at times, the narrative moves along at just the right pace. It is here where Moshe uses his devices effectively to remind you of role play – the title, Bunraku – a form of Japanese theatre in which puppeteers, dressed in black and invisible to the audience, manipulate their characters, accompanied by a chanted narration and musical instruments – a perfect, one word summary, if ever there was one.

This isn’t a film about depth of story but more a film that allows the visuals to piece the narrative together – which is what all good films should do. Turn the sound off and this is a masterstroke and genuine return to tradition. In that respect, Bunraku works on the levels it was intended.

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The Black Beetle: No Way Out (1 of 4)

The Black Beetle: No Way Out (1 of 4)

Pulp hero pulls no punches

‘All I can think about is who got to them before I did while I should really be worrying about freefalling from an eighteen story building. Oh, well…’

Eisner Award-winning artist, Francesco Francavella’s creator owned title pulls no punches when it comes to introducing his pulp hero. The less educated are going to make inevitable comparisons to Batman but America’s classic pulp heroes were, as with most iconic characters, a result of their time. I have yet to read Garth Ennis’ rendition of The Shadow and latest series of The Spider – both cvintage pulp heroes that predate The Batman and the subsequent American mythos that followed – with these titles in mind, The Black Beetle is much more than a homage; dripping in lavish inks that capture the noir signatures as effortless as the narration. Colt City holds our eponymous hero in its bowels and during the first issue reveals very little of the cityscape, instead focusing on the set up as our super sleuth investigates an explosion that has killed a number of notorious criminals. The script delivers a delicious narration and sparse dialogue while the atmosphere and mood of the dark alleyways and streets are held together through superb use of layouts and splash pages that build towards a gripping climax centred around a prison. This is much more than a throwaway tale – there is a passion and thirst for the source material that shows a creator building a world around what he knows – and Francavella lives and breathes the smoke and bullets.

For more information visit Francesco Francavella’s official blog over at The Black Beetle.

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