The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard, 2012)

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The genre film’s genesis – indeed, its very ontology – is, by many standards, some of the clearest and most compelling evidence of the dialectical process at work. The western, the musical, the gangster, the romcom, the horror are all formed and established in a system of dialogues between studios and spectators, manifesting as individual films and as cinema attendance/ticket sales/reviews. And yet, what sounds like a system of refinery holds many elements of inherent vice. Consider the Nightmare On Elm Street series: what began as a genuinely scary film inspired sequels which established a franchise. Franchisement made Freddy Krueger a recognisable household name, even to children far too young to watch the movies, which consequently quickly established the need for Freddy to become and increasingly comedic and even cuddly character, reliant on one-liners, and an ever further far cry from the vengeful ghost of a child rapist, acting as the manifestation of genealogical trauma.

The Cabin in the Woods is, first and foremost, a thinly veiled metaphor for just how hard it is to make a good horror film in the 21st Century. The “sacrifice” that appears to be effectively a standard horror film has at its core a triangle of tension, whose points are adherence to the pre-established generic formula, freshness and adaptability to change, and plausibility. We notice quickly how, in order to present a narrative supposedly more “relatable” to us, the complexity of humanity is coercively voided in favour of one-dimensional archetypes through psychotropic chemistry that would turn Curt (Chris Hemsworth) an eloquent Sociology major who happens to be sporty into a testosterone-fuelled jock who refers to his own friends as “eggheads.” The reliance on the kids’ “free will” and “choosing” is consistently re-mentioned by the senior technicians, and yet their hand is forced in ever-increasingly implausible ways.

Indeed, several of the deaths are distinctly unsatisfactory – not least of all Curt’s crashing into an invisible forcefield – indeed, into the second half, the Director seems content simply to send a SWAT team to shoot Marty (Fran Kranz), just to get the job done. This is effectively the problem with the genre format, as revealed by Cabin formulae being demanded inevitably leads to desensitisation, which leads to shortcuts, which leads to the formulae not being adhered to, after all. We may consider again the “free choice” given to the kids through various items put in the basement to invoke unwittingly one horror or another, all of whom we later encounter in the second half of the film. Save for the “Zombie Redneck Torture Family,” which of the other monsters would have actually made any sense at all in a cabin in the woods? Certainly not the giant cobra, the murderous clown, the buzzsaw-wielding robot straight out of Chopping Mall… The necessity for adherence to tropes as part of the sacrifice paints the process into a corner of reasonable plausibility, with a tragically untapped well of potential, as represented by senior technician Hadley (Bradley Whitford)’s constant disappointment at never seeing a merman.

It was with a similar disappointment that I responded to Cabin the first time I saw it but, with each rewatch, I am further impressed by the extent to which it acts as film-as-film-criticism. A significant development on Scream which simply employs a character to straight-up tell an audience the “rules” of being in a horror film, Cabin manages to lambast them. What it provides instead is, arguably, not all that much, which is why seeing it as I did most recently as the first film in a movie marathon (immediately followed by You’re Next, Get Out, Kill List, The Babadook and It Follows) was such a perfect way to experience it. Ultimately, Cabin‘s status as horror critique first and horror film second means it can never be perfect; it is, however, a legitimate, engaging and deeply funny set-up for what I consider to be the horror golden age we are currently experiencing.

⭐⭐⭐⭐

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Pariah (Dee Rees, 2011)

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Every time the LGBT+ film festivals come around, I tend to give something of a groan. Sure, there’s the occasional Tangerine, the occasional Tropical Malady, but the grand majority are always mumblecore-esque coming-of-age romantic drama snoozefests. So, I hadn’t really be in much of a hurry to check out Pariah – a coming-of-age (semi)-romantic drama – any time soon.

Pariah‘s story assuredly does not take us anywhere new: the same largely-uninitiated protagonist finding her feet, the same outgoing best friend who’s more interwoven with the community but is on a lower rung of society, the same repressive, shouty mother, the same kid sister, the same creative outlet, the same supportive teacher etc. However, adherence to generic conventions only limits a film’s originality on the level of narrative; Pariah still manages to win on all other counts. Indeed, I would have described any other film with so much that we have seen so many times before as cliché; thus Pariah existing in my mind as simply “a bit tropey” is, frankly, a feat in and of itself.

Pariah‘s highest achievement is assuredly its deft creation of a believable universe, using Brooklyn’s geography as a referential chart for the emotional topography, traversed by so many characters that, even when some of the younger stars’ acting is a little – and, I do stress, a little – patchy in places, all the other formal elements of Pariah align to bolster the actors into a compelling and distinctly real performance. That said, on a wider level, I can’t help but feel somewhat irked by the film’s promotion of an already very much extant suspicion of bisexual/non-monosexual queer orientation.

Pariah is by no stretch of the imagination a game-changer, but its mixture of attractive cinematography, uniformly impressive performances, great soundtrack and, yes, elevation of a young Black queer experience helps it play the game awfully well.

 

****

Slow Action (Ben Rivers, 2010)

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Fascinating and deceptive, Slow Action is a pseudo-anthropological essay film that combines legitimate documentation with fiction direction and an entirely fantastical, almost completely separate, commentary, read by multiple voices.

Accordingly, Slow Action seems prefigured on a number of established ambiguities of fiction and reality, exotica and mundanity. There is arguably slightly too much of a cognitive dissonance between the images and commentary for the spectator to receive both simultaneously, thus they are in a certain competition which can be understood as indicative of a larger question relating to the white, western gaze and the rivalry between the Bazinian indexicality of the photographic / cinematographic image and the colonial and othering attitude that informs that image’s reception, time and again.

The competition between narrative and image may, however, be most often won by the image, on the basis that the very old-school narration technique of Slow Action is not read evocatively at all, but it is clearly modelled on a pre-Attenborough mode of pedagogy that certainly increases a sense of that colonial gaze, but arguably at the expense of reading much into the disjunct available. However, Slow Action, especially at 45min running time, should be able to hold your attention enough to get enjoyment out of a mixture of all its parts. Whether the whole is as great as them I leave to the individual spectator, but I’ve liked it both times I’ve seen it, especially as I’m currently re-reading Susan Sontag’s On Photography.

****

The Revenant (Alejandro G. Iñarritu, 2015)

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It is, of course, hard not to discuss The Revenant in terms of The Hateful Eight. Both were released the same day. I saw the latter on the Monday of this week, the former on the Friday. Both are set within the unforgiving snow territories of North America in the 1800s. Both are gaining a certain infamy for their respective degrees of brutality. Both encourage comparisons to earlier films.

However, whilst The Hateful Eight‘s relationship with cinephilia is what one must call, with an ever-deepening sigh, “postmodernism,” with its fairly cloying nods and winks to camera as it references exploitation, Western and horror films of varying obscurity to score geekdom points above all else, The Revenant‘s relationship with the wider world of cinema is of a traditional, subtler and considerably preferable sort.

Obviously, thematically, The Revenant‘s tale of a man more or less back from the dead, battling both the elements and nature red in tooth and claw, on a mission to avenge a lost loved one can be understood as something of a mixture of The CrowApocalypto, and All is Lost. Its magical realist relationship with its protagonist’s mortality in the context of First Nations territory conjures strong images of Dead Man. (There may also be comparisons to make to The Grey – having not seen The Grey, though, I wouldn’t know).

However, it is the formal elements of The Revenant that made the most impression on me as a cinephile. The roaming camera effect that effortlessly seems to document 360º action and follows characters – both lead and supporting – through water, fire, smoke and snow creates exactly the same sense of immersion within a fully extant universe that the late Aleksei German achieved so stunningly with Hard to Be a God. Meanwhile, the ever-so-slightly more fantastical elements of The Revenant, connecting existentialism, nature and spirituality in a way that exploits aestheticism without compromising humanity connects it to the oevre of Andrei Tarkovsky, by no means limited to Andrei Rublev and The Sacrifice, certainly with flourishes of Akira Kurosawa throughout. The combination of all these elements held František Vláčil’s Markéta Lazarová immovably in my mind throughout the grand majority of The Revenant. It perhaps goes without saying that the very immensity of this project’s approach seems wholly Herzogian.

Especially when we consider the usual Oscar-bait, the certain element of snobbishness that has criticised The Revenant – particularly DiCaprio’s performance in it – can be understood, even forgiven. No, contrary to what some may think, suffering does not equal acting. DiCaprio’s performance reveals considerably more than pain; instead, we see the rapid and necessity devolution of a man into beast to survive a wilderness for he was not made. Certainly, there are avenues down which one can take this to understand a message regarding just whose land the settings can be considered. Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio)’s ability to survive the ordeal is founded upon a boldness and bravery we cannot see in any way connected to his white maleness – instead, we see a variety of skills we can connect most easily to his interaction with (and marriage within) the Pawnee tribe, and a variety of instincts that don’t seem human at all. Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy)’s brand of survivalism seems to be the polar opposite: one based upon selfish cowardice. It is only the Pawnee and Arikara in the film whose ability to withstand such hardship feels inherently assured.

To be sure, the message of The Revenant is complicated and not without flaws. It admittedly does feel rather White Man’s Burden, throughout. The magical realism of the film being tied exclusively to the portrayal of First Nations people, who at the end of the film step in to perform a naratologically necessary act that white morality will not allow Glass to perform, is less than ideal. One cannot help but feel The Revenant would also have been served better by having Glass’ late Pawnee wife (Grace Dove)- even if she did have to remain within the bonds of memory – were able to do something other than act as a levitating source of support in troubling times, repeating the same monologue over and over again. On a more basic level – a complaint that seems to be a reoccurring theme – Tom Hardy’s accent whilst playing Fitzgerald could have been considerably more intelligible.

However, the lack of Fitzgerald’s intelligibility does add a certain 3-dimensionality to the role. I can say that, beyond Bronson, Bane or Ronnie Kray, there is a certain something in Hardy’s portrayal of Fitzgerald that makes this his scariest role. Perhaps it comes down to the relative absence of formalism in the portrayal. Though two of the three aforementioned roles were real people, it would be quite reasonable to suggest the performances were not. Caricatured accent aside, little scenery is chewed in Fitzgerald’s portrayal. We see an antagonist who is calculating, yes, but no more than he deems necessary for survival. He is a proletarian figure of world-weary cynicism who, when challenged on valuing money over his life, brilliantly responds “What life? Ain’t got no life. All I got’s a living.” Indeed, what is scariest about Fitzgerald is his position as an icon of how reasonable an executive decision burying a man alive, after having just killed his son, could in fact seem. It is impossible not to feel a degree of empathy and respect for every character in this film for their endurance in making it alive even to the opening credits, let alone beyond them. Between the harshness of nature, the sharpness of arrows, and the exploitation at the hands of the bourgeoisie, it is entirely reasonable to assume a different set of moral codes exist in the perception of The Revenant‘s characters.

So, assuredly, The Revenant‘s greatness does not lie in its originality. Rather, it lies in its honest-to-God attempt to lift up the blockbuster to a status to which audiences in 2016 never expect to see films on a Hollywood budget held. Hopefully, it may encourage audiences to seek out a Tarkovsky or a Viacil, but even if it doesn’t, I’m glad their money will have been spent on a truly cinematic experience local multiplexes have not been built to host in a long, long time. And, for that, I am gratified.

****

Drive (Nicolas Windig Refn, 2011)

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(Rewatch)

 

On second viewing, my thoughts are pretty much the same – in terms of nice little exploitation movies of the current era, Drive is pretty much king. It has that visual-narrative cinematic purity that has since been exaggerated upon to even greater, more epic success in Mad Max: Fury Road but I think Drive manages to create and re-create tension, beautifully paying off with just the right level of ultraviolence to make it an eye-watering, uncomfortable experience, but not too much that it stops being a stylish romp. My one complaint is that I wish there had been a little more driving! The chases are filmed fantastically and the film could easily have done with one more. Otherwise, a great, fun film that balances extreme playfulness with palpable tension and some great, Noé-esque brutalism in a way so few films manage.

****

Sea of Love (Harold Becker, 1989)

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A real pleasant surprise of an erotic thriller, Sea of Love boasts a great soundtrack (based around the brilliant song that gives the film its name, which keeps getting creepier, every time it’s played), a perfectly neo-noir ambiance of psychosexual urban paranoia, and a refreshingly nuanced portrayal of female dominance and openness to regularly re-negotiated roles of gender and sexuality that I’ve rarely seen in a mainstream film before or since. Seriously, speaking as a trans girl, seeing Pacino’s protagonist Frank respond to the question “would you ever go for a babe with a dick?” with “it really depends on her personality,” joke or not, was a really nice experience, however fleeting.

What carries this film is the performance – Pacino and Ellen Barkin have onscreen chemistry that is rarely matched in a modern thriller. The uneasy combination of absolute lust, possible love, and deep-rooted suspicion recalls Hitchcock at his finest. (Side-note: I’m still trying to work out if it holds some significance that Barkin’s character’s first name is Helen, whilst Pacino’s surname is Keller, or if it’s just a happy coincidence.) John Goodman as the humorous partner who manages, through the force of his own acting, never to be simply relegated to the role of “comic relief sidekick” helps balance the film and retain interest in the police-procedural element.

Though Sea of Love does lose a star for the rather unsatisfactorily ad hoc revelation/resolution to the serial killer plotline, the choice to end the film with a genuinely pretty touching scene regarding Frank and Helen’s relationship was absolutely the right choice and shows the extent to which the film-makers had their priorities in order. However, Sea of Love, however good, is not Twin Peaks and thus I do slightly resent it turning the murder-mystery plot into quite such a macguffin.

What makes Sea of Love so interesting is the fact that it takes a very formulaic premise – recently divorced detective, who is one bourbon on the rocks away from becoming a full blown alcoholic, falls in love with his prime suspect, big whoop – and holds it up to the magnifying glass. It refuses to let us consistently take Frank’s side: he drinks majorly to excess and, unlike many other noir/thriller protagonists, it affects him. Not just his social life, but his work, too: a number of times, he is shown accidentally breaking character whilst undercover, drink in hand. Also, it is revealed how his plan for catching the killer (putting out a lonely hearts ad matching those of the vics’ and then going on multiple dates a night, collecting fingerprints as he does so) actually potentially hurts many of the women who respond. However, he is not some simple idiot for entering a relationship with a potential serial killer; it seems entirely clear that he sees this as the legitimate personification of his addiction (obsession-compulsion at its most self-destructive) and of his mental state. He would rather potentially die at the hands of Helen than retire – maybe than live at all. At the same time, through Helen, the classic femme fatale figure is explored and given depth few films bother to add.

Seriously, for what could have been yet another run of the mill thriller, Sea of Loveturned out to be something really pretty special. I can’t wait to put it on as a double-bill with Cruising – or maybe even So I Married an Axe Murderer – sometime soon!

****

Black Coal, Thin Ice (Diao Yinan, 2014)

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A sombre, disquieting and anxiety-ridden neo-neo-noir located in northern China in 1999 and 2004, Black Coal, Thin Ice manages simultaneously and deftly to make the spectator both engaged in the narrative and desensitised to the content. I must admit, the trailer did make me assume I would be watching something considerably more akin to the South Korean I Saw the Devil in nature, but Black Coal, Thin Ice operates more as a police procedural in line with Danish TV series The Killing than anything more fast-paced. Much like The Killing, this film’s main concern is the people investigating and surrounding the crime, albeit with its cards considerably closer to its chest as far as emotions are concerned.

Whilst the acting is impeccable all-round, combined with the notable average shot length and depth of focus to feel highly reminiscent of Italian Neo-Realism, the biggest star of all in this film is the camerawork and lighting. The use of colours in this film is breathtakingly beautiful, managing somehow to combine the intensity of Nicolas Winding Refn’s signature look with the soft, warm glow of cinematographer Agnès Godard. The latter comparison strikes me as particularly relevant, given this films willingness to linger on small details on the floor or in the snow, contributing an atmosphere of the haptic visuality we have come to expect from Claire Denis’ later works (and, notably, collaborations with Godard) like Vendredi Soir. Most telling of all, though, is the strange dance scene near the very of Black Coal, Thin Ice that seems to be a strong and direct reference to the ending of Denis’ film Beau Travail with, in my opinion, similar metaphorical implications. For those of you who have seen neither film, I’ll say no more.

Black Coal, Thin Ice is perhaps too slow a burner, but one should be able to let go and accept the murder and murderer’s identity as something of a mcguffin in the face of a stylised, yet intensely realist, tale of a desperate last-ditch attempt at redemption on the part of an alcoholic cop in a bleak survivalist part of the world he barely understands.

****