Murder On the Orient Express (Kenneth Branagh, 2017)

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It is perhaps only to be expected, considering the remarkable extent to which Murder On the Orient Express feels driven by product placement of one confectionery brand in particular, that its visual aesthetic at the level of mise-en-scène is 100% chocolate box. The entire film is The Polar Express, multiplied by the final shot in All That Heaven Allows. Accordingly, one expects the film to operate wholly on that level of the pleasure principle: a safe, comforting locked-room mystery, the culprit or culprits already known to the audience, who can thus sit back, relax and reminiscence with one another over which actor they saw previously and in what.

Accordingly, Murder On the Godiva Express‘ fascinating implementation of alternative camera techniques throws a spanner into the works of appeal-via-familiarity, in equal parts welcomely novel and unwelcomely jarring. The whole affair operates similarly in kind: I was grateful for several of the subtractions made to Christie’s original story, not least of all several of the unbelievable flubs made by suspects (one would hope that a princess, pretending to be a maid would indeed take more manipulation than “I hear you are a very good cook” before she lets slip “all my maids tell me so”), but sadly the film’s additions are less inspired. The insistence on adding aspects of action where absolutely none are required or truly justified soon become a chore, as, unfortunately, do many of the performances. Naturally, Judi Dench and Olivia Colman are effortless in evoking intense pathos, coming from a school that acknowledges the deepest human emotions will only respond to the most understated human performances; a memo missed by several other actors, including Lucy Boynton and Sergei Polunin, whose thankfully brief time onscreen is still absolute torture. It’s no secret that actors acting acting is no mean feat, but Godiva On the Godiva Express is defined by suspects pretending to be people they are not; indeed, this is true for most detective fiction.

Thankfully, all pretence eventually comes to an end, all masks slip off and Willem Dafoe, Michelle Pfeiffer et al are allowed in the final 15-20 minutes or so to come into their own. However, these are good actors with long careers who should have been able to impress me – a fan of almost all of them – long before the end. For this, I suppose I must blame both the direction and the editing, which – for a film which implies the Swiss watch precision of a Wes Anderson feature, it often has stilted pauses, not unlike a sitcom with the canned laughter removed.

Ultimately, Godiva On the Godiva Godiva has shifted from Agatha Christie’s meditation on the compromising of moral imperatives in search of higher justice in lower places, into an enjoyable enough mixture of inviting familiarity and uncomfortable blunders which resolves itself to a better extent than I would have expected, but too late to salvage the film into a higher rating.

 

**1/2

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A Nightmare On Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge (Jack Sholder, 1985)

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A Nightmare On Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge may not have much going for it at all, other than being perhaps the only ostensibly straight horror film gayer than The Lost Boys, but at least it has that, I suppose.

Indeed, sexuality is at the core of most responses to ANOES2. Long before the frankly annoying, bordering on genuinely offensive jokes about the Babadook and the new Pennywise being gay icons, people were already speculating on the perceived “fruitiness” of Freddy, particularly in relation to Jesse, the protagonist of ANOES2, sleepwalking away from his haplessly unfulfilled beard of a girlfriend to the bedroom of his boisterous classmate, and an encounter with his sadistic gym teacher in a leather bar. His gym teacher’s death includes being bound in a standing position and being nakedly towel-whipped, by the way.

However, any critical interpretation of
ANOES2 that reads Freddy as a homophobic portrayal of queer monstrosity (not that cinematic representations of queer monstrosity has ever been anything to which I’ve been remotely consistently opposed) is an oversimplification to the point of gross misrepresentation. The first ANOES reflected on traumatic neuroses of adolescence above all in relation to the sins-of-the-father (and, indeed, mother), commenting astutely to a level really only bested by IT on the parental negligence, if not total absence in one sense or another, integral to virtually every teen slasher ever made. ANOES2, by contrast, reflects the brutality of the closet for queer teens, trying to make it through high school.

In contrast to a great many horrors, in which the domesticated animals that suffer the most are typically pet cats, in this film we see the deaths – in fact, explosions, of birds and, later, fish. Animals that are caged, confined, one might suggest closeted. The death of Coach Schneider makes significant reference to BDSM at a time when it was almost exclusively associated with gay subculture, but decides to leave the gay bar, in favour of a high school changing room. By electing as a torture implement a wet towel over an actual whip, Freddy draws attention to the significant undertones of queer sexual frustration within so many horseplay and hazing rituals within male bonding contexts that always hole a volatile, violent potential. In such a way, a character who could have become a great confidante for the hero is instead the non-supernatural antagonist, until his death.

One of the most striking images from the original film was the phone receiver growing a tongue and freaking out not only the hero, Nancy, but everyone else in the audience. Similarly in ANOES2 Freddy’s tongue makes another appearance, flopping out of Jesse’s mouth as he makes out with Lisa. An exaggerated size, but also blue and flaccid, the tongue is no longer a simple phallic signifier of prurience, but of overcompensation. Freddy is absolutely throughout the film the manifestation of a deformed masculinity which, in the name of self-denial of genuine desires, acts out both destructively and self-destructively.

So, why am I only giving ANOES2 two and a half stars? Put most simply, it’s just not scary enough. Freddy’s apparent need for Jesse to kill for him in this film makes the entire process rather more mundane, and thus it doesn’t engage with nearly enough surrealism in the dream sequences, or blur the line between dream and reality to the same seamless extent as the first. If my interpretation of ANOES2 is correct, that Freddy’s power in this film stems first and foremost from the violent anguish of the closet, it stands to reason that his defeat should have been connected to a coming-out of one sort or another. Instead, Lisa kissing Freddy to turn him back into Jesse, freeing him from the clutches of evil via the assurance of heterosexual romance, is a significant let-down. Of course, the fact that he is revealed in the final sequence not to be defeated, after all, could imply a hammering-home of my interpretation but, considering ANOES‘ ending being stuck on at the last minute, contrary to Wes Craven’s wishes, to imply later sequels, it’s hard not to perceive ANOES2‘s in exactly the same way, rendering it largely worthless in terms of analysis.

ANOES2 is, ultimately, a less than successful horror in every aspect apart from its novel approach to representation of queer anxiety. This is, however, more than enough reason to watch it.

 

**1/2

La La Land (Damien Chazelle, 2016)

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I mean, let’s be clear: it is not necessary to hate La La Land in order to love Moonlight. It makes total sense that it was nominated in many categories throughout awards season, including the Oscars. Neither of those statements, however, speak to La La Land being a good film. It’s a fine film, eminently watchable once you get past the first couple of truly grating numbers, Ryan Gosling’s piano is impressive enough that we may forgive his singing, and it may have grabbed me at several moments, but it never once held me.

People are starting to find the postmodern genre flick, constantly referencing cult classics, increasingly obnoxious. Even I had to put my foot firmly down whilst watching The Hateful Eight, and I’ve given Tarantino pass after pass over the years. It surprises me, therefore, that La La Land‘s “love letter to Hollywood” schtick has been so celebrated. Considering its release during the Brexit/Trump era, I can’t help but think of the 1974 MGM musical compilation film That’s Entertainment! and its piteous tagline “Boy, do we need it now.” Certainly, there’s an affective seduction at the heart of La La Land but I do feel the need to stress the manipulative quality implicit in that observation. Tarantino’s own aesthetic at least allows for hidden gems: you will genuinely enjoy his films more if you do seek out the often semi-obscure B-movies being referenced with varying degrees of subtlety throughout. La La Land, on the other hand, makes unmistakeable-by-design nods towards exceptionally well-known and well-loved classics and yet never exploits their recognisability to the extent of entering into any depth of analysis.

Indeed, most cynically, Damien Chazelle & Co. seem to rely on the general audience’s lack of knowledge about either films or music, which brings us on to the question of jazz. Does La La Land have a racial problem with regard to jazz music and white saviourism? Undoubtedly it does. And yet, for my white, jazz loving money’s worth (which, admittedly, may not be worth much at all), it’s not something we need take all that seriously, because La La Land‘s relationship with jazz is so utterly surface-level, it doesn’t risk teaching anyone anything about it at all, either racist and incorrect, or gospel truth. Jazz is little more than the mcguffin for Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) to mansplain to Mia (Emma Stone) throughout the narrative. It could have been replaced with oldskool techno, heavy metal, opera, and the effect would have been precisely the same. It’s not, after all, like much of the score even has that much to do with jazz – certainly the type Sebastian is interested in – it really just, much like in Whiplash, acts as the catalyst for the extreme gender problem both films seem to reveal about their writer/director.

Jazz music is a serious white concern for serious white men who, for the sake of its continued existence, must not be distracted – let alone criticised – by any woman. Both films seemingly follow the logic of Foucault’s description of neoliberalism to the letter, stressing the need for ruthless micromanagement and the absolute discardability of personal relationships for the acquirement of human capital. Perhaps most interesting is Chazelle’s desire to have his cake and eat it too by also acknowledging the necessity for amoral situational adaptability in the quest for human capital (whether sustaining abuse in Whiplash or – at least temporarily – “selling out” in La La Land) whilst still romanticising the nature of integrity, left entirely abstract by the end of the film because being “principled” is more important as a general personality quirk is worth so much more to Chazelle than ever detailing what these principles are. It’s entirely reasonable for many people to state that, no, Keith (John Legend) is by no means a sell out; acid jazz etc etc is a generic tradition in its own right and has been since the 1980s – more or less the only thing Sebastian told us / Mia about jazz is that it has improvisation, and he clearly is allowed to improvise onstage with that band, too. If Sebastian truly is as horrified as he seems, the first time he sees The Messengers employing synthesizers in a jazz setting, he’s going to freak out when he learns about Herbie Hancock’s later work. Clearly, these concepts of “integrity” etc are decided by one person and one alone: Damien Chazelle. If you don’t agree with his worldview, your enjoyment of La La Land is instantly going to be limited.

“Integrity” and, indeed, “passion” are the codewords for – from the romantic perspective – that which allows you to “achieve your dreams” and – from the capitalist perspective – that which allows you the most easy access to human capital. “Integrity” and “passion” are codewords for individualism and whiteness. Despite the intersubjective, often democratic, nature of jazz performance, about which Sebastian speaks at length – the type of thing that allowed Thelonious Monk multiple times in concert to stop playing piano and just dance to the sound of his sidemen – Chazelle’s interpretation of jazz always has but one most important player and that player is always the protagonist. La La Land routinely made me think of Whiplash‘s ending, in which the protagonist, who has never once met the band before, high-jacks the entire performance for the sake of an alienating if impressive solo, after the more-or-less antagonist of the piece had moments before decided to ruin the show for all of them, just to humiliate him. The solipsistic – not to mention white – gall of that scene drives the whole of La La Land, no matter how much more subtly, and that strikes me as the crux of its white, capitalist cynicism.

Apparently, Chazelle’s desire when making La La Land was to “have something which had the magic of musicals, but also had the texture and the grit of real life.” So, just like Cabaret, Chicago, All That Jazz, New York New York, Rent… As I said, no matter how well put together this film is – and it certainly is – La La Land is a duplicitous exercise. It demands you praise its referential nature, whilst ignoring its unoriginality. It demands you praise its affect, whilst ignoring the working class / POC labour and genius upon which it depends. It demands you praise its romanticism, whilst ignoring its capitalism.

Huh, maybe it is a genuine love-letter to Hollywood and the music industry, after all…

**1/2

Cassette (Zack Taylor, 2016)

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Cassette, on its international quest to explore the cassette tape – and above all, the mix tape – its origins, its influences, its demise and its resurgence, absolutely has its heart in the right place. It manages to interview all the surviving inventors, it has the obligatory talking heads of Henry Rollins and Thurston Moore, not to mention live footage of presumably grateful Williamsburg hipster bands.

The problem is almost paradoxical: Cassette documents a great many people with a huge passion for the subject matter; something that does not appear to be particularly shared by the filmmakers, themselves. The film is consistently permeated by a largely impassive atmosphere which one can only assume is the reason behind its general lack of pursuit. Absolutely, a lot of people are consulted – we hear from DJ Ron G and others about the mixtape’s major influence on hip hop, we see Mike Watt discussing the impact it had on the garage band’s ability to get recordings out there, but we never really explore the impact on such movements and phenomena; all we get are some anecdotes as a camera scans over collections of tapes, or someone holds the cover up to the camera, the majority of the time, the lens is too unfocused to capture the titles or images, anyway.

When you think of all the eccentricities of cassette culture out there, all the crazy packagings noise and experimental artists like Aube, A Band, The Gerogerigegege, Merzbow and others have been involved with that isn’t mentioned at all, you really can’t help but feel a little cheated. Instead, we hear X number of people saying the exact same thing about the tape’s relevance to hip hop, X number of people saying the exact same thing about the tape’s relevance to punk, X number of people saying the exact same thing about how their tape-related manufacture/distribution/retail business hasn’t yet folded.

I absolutely agree with the sentiment that a documentary is not the same as an adult educational video, and there is no necessity to “learn” in the strictest sense anything from one. However, feeling like I’ve gained almost nothing phenomenologically has led me to the conclusion that, whilst nothing at all is particularly bad about Cassette it is the standardest of standard boilerplate kickstarter-funded pet project documentaries, without even really showing the “love” implicit in the term amateur. Shame, really.

**1/2

NekRomantik (Jörg Buttgereit, 1987)

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NekRomantik is a bewildering film – certainly one of the much better shot-on-video horrors out there, NekRomantik provides the viewer with a uniquely grim and grimy tour through a vast array of abject vices, not least of all sex with a particularly gooey corpse.

I say “not least of all,” rather than “most of all,” because it’s hard to say if it reallyis. Virtually no time at all after our protagonist procures the body is he dumped by his girlfriend, who takes the corpse with her. What certainly feels like the grand majority of the film then follows him, wandering in an aimless stupour of depression, killing on rare occasions, but generally bringing the mood totally down.

Thus, beyond variable acting and an undeniably contrived plot, NekRomantik gets such a ho-hum rating, largely on the basis of its utter Debbie Downer status. The poster implies a whirlwind of outrageously gross yet funny necro-eroticism and, on that front, NekRomantik pretty heavily fails to deliver. Thankfully, its sequel makes a much better job of mining out an ironically upbeat message and is thus more successful in the tongue-in-cheek satire so clearly intended.

 

**1/2

The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino, 2015)

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I hate agreeing with Mark Kermode. Especially on the subject of Tarantino. I find it an utter bore that people are so anxious to be iconoclasts that it’s become as cool as it is to say you hate Tarantino’s filmmaking in the same breath as denouncing The Beatles. No, neither of them are as good as the hype. Nothing is. That’s why it’s called hype.

That saidThe Hateful Eight is just too damn long. I mean, it really is so long. I’m saying this as someone who holds Sátántangó  and Dekalog in the highest regard. Appreciating and sometimes studying the films of Hungary, Poland, Russia, China, Romania and Japan to name a few has solidified in my esteem the ability of an extended average shot length to re-centre the spectator’s focus, away from any plotline froth to the humanity and, by extension, spiritual dignity of the characters, navigating unforgiving territory, both geographical and existential in nature. The length of The Hateful Eight can, for the most part, only be understood as representative of Tarantino’s vanity and self-assurance.

Indeed, though it certainly became apparent during the considerably more enjoyable Django Unchained, the mask of Tarantino started solidly to slip for me in Eight. I as aware going in that it would take at least half an hour for us even to arrive at the cabin, which sounded fine to me – I mean, it takes longer than that to get into space in Solaris or the Zone in Stalker; who needs a racing start, especially with that celebrated Tarantino dialogue? The Hateful Eight, apparently. Indeed, one of the problems with relying ever more on genre film archetypes in a historical setting is that the quotidian profundity that punctuated his slick crime thrillers, that later developed into genuinely heartfelt poignancy in Kill Bill: Vol 2 is little more than a nostalgic memory. Instead, as opposed the spectacular use of Ultra-Panavision 70 setting up a precedent for full use of cinema as a visual medium, Tarantino tells, rather than shows the narrative set-up with some of the clunkiest expositional dialogue I recall seeing outside of the ending of Vanilla Sky. “Do you know why they call him ‘The Hangman’?” Warren (Samuel L Jackson) asks Daisy (Jennifer Jason Leigh), as she is literally manacled to John Ruth aka “The Hangman.” He proceeds to mansplain to Ruth’s live bounty that Ruth doesn’t kill his bounties, before Ruth asks to see Warren’s “Lincoln Letter,” which he’s already seen. Near everybody knows each other, but they still have to introduce themselves to one another, for the sake of the audience, which seems utterly ridiculous when you know Tarantino’s going to throw in a narrator’s voice for ten seconds, like Jackson’s in Inglourious Basterds, you figure he could have quickly introduced the characters via narration or on-screen text and saved us at least twenty minutes. Gorgeous as the landscapes certainly are, the philosophy of tell-don’t-show (which is something of a consistent re-occurrence  throughout) is surely Tarantinto at his least cinematic.

We are saved, somewhat, by the time we reach the cabin and are afforded more characters. Tim Roth’s performance certainly tries to steal the show, but is afforded nowhere near enough screen time to do so. There is also the niggling feeling that Roth’s success in this film – or, at the very least, his character’s – is based largely upon a close modelling and channeling of the notable-by-absence Christoph Waltz. Eight establishes itself as something of a paranoid thriller, in which Ruth harasses everyone else in case they try to lay their hands on Daisy, his $10,000 bounty (something which might be aided by him not constantly telling everyone how much she’s worth), and develops into having the barest semblance of a locked-room mystery, and eventually devolves into an extended Mexican standoff. In many ways, The Hateful Eight is a remake of Tarantino’s own Michael Fassbender sequence from Basterds – which a vast number of people, myself not actually included in this case, complained was too long – turning it into a film the best part of three hours, which damn near everyone is saying is too long. I’m doing my best to keep this review spoiler-free, but I shall simply say: there is a gaping plot-hole surrounding the nationality of one character and the alleged racial prejudice of another, and the devolution from locked-room mystery to Mexican standoff is catalysed by a plot device I feel I can only describe in one word: cheating. Indeed, though the main issue with Eight is quite simply that it is a Western thriller with elements of mystery that is incredibly short on suspense. I don’t think I really felt any tension in the film until a considerable number of the characters were already dead. However, soon after the tension was established, it then became pretty clear nobody was fully sure how the film should end. “Very ploddingly” was apparently the answer.

Don’t get me wrong, there are flashes of brilliance in this film, and I do not regret watching it. It’s lovely to see Tim Roth and Michael Madsen return triumphantly to Tarantino’s fold, even if they are both criminally underused in favour of the fairly unlikeable Walton Goggins and increasingly pretty tiresome duo of Jackson and Russell. The dialogue is not all dreck, certainly past the expositional hurdles, and it really is pretty gorgeous. Oddly enough, it may well address racial issues better than Django, even though the number of people of colour has been significantly reduced from that film to this. However, there is a scene in Eight that relies on the white fear of the symbolic Black male body, within the context of sexual assault via coercion that made me desperately uncomfortable – speaking as someone who really doesn’t get uncomfortable in films easily. For sure, that was the point, but that it was Tarantino’s point, rather than another writer/director better qualified to make it is less than impressive. The bloody violence is enjoyable and the score does indeed scream “modern classic.” I didn’t hate this film; just, speaking as someone who still likes Tarantino, despite herself, I was left very disappointed.

**1/2