The Snowman (Tomas Alfredson, 2017)

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Now I truly know what Freud meant by the unheimlich. I sat there, watching Michael Fassbender, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Toby Jones, Chlöe Sevigny and other people I know I’ve seen before, and yet the only reasonable explanation for The Snowman is that it was made by an entire cast and crew who not only have never made a film before, but have never encountered the very hypothetical concept of film before.

There is something bold, daring and courageous in the way that The Snowman genuinely never puts a foot right in its two glacial hours of disappointment. The acting is stilted and disjointed. The editing is ugly as sin. The characters are underdeveloped, their motivations at no point satisfactorily justified – least of all the killer’s – with a horrendous “nine years earlier” subplot, starring Val Kilmer impersonating Mark Kermode impersonating The Godfather, whose character was murdered by the killer for “getting too close to the truth,” not that the subplot is characterised or detailed in any way whatsoever for us to see that. Honestly, why don’t we just have the opening titles, followed by a note that says “some murders happened, but Michael Fassbender put a stop to the eventually,” if the film believes so strongly in telling, rather than showing?

Speaking of showing, the one thing a spectator might be able to hope for, considering the trailers which gleefully advertise a severed head, is some gratuitous violence, leading one to see the film in the hope of some tasteless fun – sadly, no such luck there, either. The murders are few and far between, and mostly all but completely obscured.

The Snowman, by employing an almost entirely British cast, decided that it would present an entirely British-accented Norway which, combined with the truly dreadful sound editing, gives the impression of a film awkwardly dubbed à la an unintentionally self-parodic 70s martial arts flick, but that tragically results in J.K Simmons, forcing himself into a British bourgeois accent, about as comfortably as he would force himself into Maggie Cheung’s outfit in Irma Vep. I want to blame the director or the producer, but a film this horribly put together should have encouraged riotous levels of resistance from every actor, every grip, every caterer and intern onset. Everyone involved should be held collectively responsible. feel somehow responsible. I could have, should have done more to stop this train wreck and, for that, I am truly sorry.

 

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The Nice Guys (Shane Black, 2016)

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The Nice Guys is a genuinely enjoyable action comedy neo-noir which is tragically let down by the fact that the combination of director, cast, setting, premise and plot puts the films LA Confidential, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Boogie Nights and Inherent Vice so firmly in one’s head as to make them irremovable and, sadly, they are all much better and much more memorable films than The Nice Guys ever was going to be. There are some great moments and child actor Angourie Rice, playing the Penny to Gosling’s Inspector Gadget is in my opinion the film’s secret weapon in mixing comedy with charm, but held in particular against Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, its flaws do shine through. For one, The Nice Guys dwells for too long on the “buddy movie” angle, which inevitably blunts its neo-noir edge. This is a real shame, when the charming implausibility of the central conspiracy, if finessed and explored further might well have made this a real contender in this slowly expanding sub-sub(?)-genre. Instead, by spending too much time following the leads, despite the scene-stealing support, The Nice Guys comes across as a little too economically conscious as it sacrifices story for stars, thus leaving the impression that lightning very rarely strikes twice. It can hit reasonably close, though.

***

Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy, 2014)

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The “charming psychopath” trope is truly one of the tropiest out there, and yet we never really see it. Usually you can divide them between your Dexter Morgans – who are much less “charming” than they are “awkward,” a little bumbling, convincing all around that they are totally harmless anoraks, despite their ripped abs and blood on their shirt – and your Hannibal Lecters, whose definition of charm seems to be “hang your class privilege over absolutely everyone’s head and intimidate people into sucking up to you, even when you’ve killed people making less than minimum wage for being uncouth.” Nightcrawler‘s Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) finally, more than any other character I can recall, embodies the charming psychopath.

The main thing about them of course, is that the charm is studied, mimetic – forced, even – and, through its inorganic nature, will always eventually run its course for the people around the performer, much like a TV show that’s been on too long, relying on re-runs and unimpressive updates. (Did someone say The Simpsons?) Thus, whilst Gyllenhaal’s performance is absolutely stellar, it absolutely relies upon the support of the increasing unease on the faces of Rick (Riz Ahmed) and Nina (Rene Russo) to establish Lou’s relationship with the outside world.

Without a doubt, Nightcrawler‘s gritty sideways look the rubbernecking industry does owe something to Network but, frankly, I refuse to compare them: it’s uninspired and boring and there have been plenty of other journalistic satires over the years. What Nightcralwer does, to my mind pretty uniquely, is keep the narrative located almost entirely through Lou’s nocturnal eyes. This means – and praise God – none of those catatonically dull shots of people in diners asking the waitress to “turn it up,” or toast falling out of businessmen’s mouths at the breakfast table. Instead, Nightcrawler follows the stringer business as a business of the most objectivist: subjects are subjects of interests, human beings are human capital, even and especially in death.

I was, apparently mistakenly, under the impression before I watched it that Nightcrawler was based on the true story of Wallace Souza, a Brazilian anchor who ordered killings to ensure he could report on them before anyone else, including cops, could reach the crime scene. Thus, especially in the light of the film’s opening, in which Lou attacks, possibly kills, a security guard to steal scrap metal and a nice watch, I was waiting for his pursuits to escalate to straight-up committing murders. That his actions remain – arguably, and for the length of the film – just below that didn’t actually disappoint me; rather, it allowed Lou to be the icon of journalism bending the rules right up to breaking point, but not necessarily over it. That said, the ending and final image could have been a little more enigmatic.

As is the modern LA noir way, the film glows in the naturally unnatural lighting of the city, which – following Inherent Vice  arguably is becoming just as much cinematographer Robert Elswit’s signature as it is Nicolas Winding Refns’. However, just as Lou’s neoliberal loquaciousness stands in opposition to The Driver’s near-mute levels of laconism, the neon incandescence of Drive remains unchallenged by Nightcrawler, whose atmosphere still rests on the surrounding natural beauty, and all the human treachery hidden within. My – possibly only – complaint about Drive has always been that there just isn’t enough driving, which contributes to a slight skewing of the film’s climax. Nightcrawler successfully delivers the driving I felt Drive held out on me, which makes me desperately want to watch these two, back-to-back, at my earliest possible convenience.

I really wasn’t expecting to enjoy Nightcrawler quite as much as I did, and maybe a second viewing will lower my rating, but it’s left me a very satisfied customer today.

 

****1/2

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014)

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I first heard executive producer Elijah Wood mention “a black and white vampire film, shot entirely in Farsi called A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” in, I think, a promotional interview for Maniac like, two years ago. And then I somehow completely missed the opportunity to see it at the London Film Festival, like, one year ago. So the anticipation to seeing this film, as it slowly gathered more and more stellar reviews as it tried to get widespread distribution, was pretty intense. With such a build-up, it could only be absolute perfection or a total disappointment, right?

Well, not quite. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is good. But not great. It’s beautifully shot, with a really interesting mixture of Killer of Sheep-esque post-italian-neorealist aesthetics, gothic expressionist inflections and a considerably more modern Indiewood vibe. The soundtrack is great and it plays with the diegetic / non-diegetic binary in a way I’ve rarely seen happen. The horror element is sporadic but strong and the sound design is intense – most cinemas’ speakers have been really struggling to handle the bass. The only problem is the relatively 2-dimensional quality of most of the characters. The Girl announces at one point that she has “done many bad things,” but there is no real evidence for this – the promotions for this film say she “preys on men who disrespect women,” but then she goes and kills a rough sleeper for no reason whatsoever and traumatises a small boy who has done nothing wrong. However, despite these inconsistencies, it’s a fine film.

I do, despite disappointment I pretty much knew was coming, anticipate a second viewing. However, there is a strong chance that it might result in a lower rating.

 

***

While the City Sleeps (Fritz Lang, 1956)

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It’s just not fair. A combination of the stupendous Expressionist auteur Fritz Lang and a cast list this star-studded should not produce such a bland, baggy and boring press procedural as this!

Sure, the idea of taking a serial killer film noir premise and turning it on its head to devote the majority of the story line to the office politics of the members of the press trying to hunt down the killer is interesting… it’s just that this story isn’t at all interesting.

The killer’s sub-plot doesn’t fare much better as he has essentially no screen-time at all; we find out considerably less about him than the protagonist do, even though we have third-person omniscient on our side.

Most frustrating of all is that, if you macheted away all the bunk and searched the cutting room floor for some more time devoted to the Lipstick Killer, there may well be a reasonably enjoyable 72 minute b-movie hiding within all this twaddle, but I still doubt it would turn out to be worth the effort.

*1/2

Stranger On the Third Floor (Boris Ingster, 1940)

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One of the earliest examples of Noir, Stranger On the Third Floor is more than a collection of tropes still in the rough – the voice-over narration is used very effectively as a medium of psychological realism, reflecting paranoia in an unjust world; this gives way to a kaleidoscopic expressionist whirlwind of a dream sequence that rivals the much more famous Dalí-designed set-piece of Hitchcock’s Spellbound. I can’t help but be annoyed at the underuse of Peter Lorre, especially considering his hiring being based upon the force majeure of his performance in M, but he is still wonderful as a pitiable, even kindly, but very dangerous figure who may or may not be a figment of the protagonist’s imagination. Mixed in with some effective social critique regarding the treatment of the accused man in the courts, Stranger On the Third Floor is only really let down by an over-quick and much too upbeat ending, that so significantly jars with the rest of this nicely paced film about the relativism of justice in a sea of circumstantial evidence.

 

***1/2

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller, 2014)

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(Originally posted in now-defunct student e-zine FourFrame, under the title “Sin City: a Misogyny to Pass On”)

 

As a comic book fan, I am not without gratitude to Frank Miller. When Batman was starting to dwindle in 1986, it was Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns that spring-boarded a reinvigoration of and new respect for the character that cannot be over-stressed. Sadly, he is also very much known for using comics – and more recently films – as platforms for his own ugly socio-political ideology. Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is absolutely no exception.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For sets us in territory immediately familiar to watchers of the first film. Its multiple narrative structure shares characters between stories, in doing so making it difficult to follow for those who hadn’t seen the first film. The twisting chronology in fact made it rather difficult for me, someone who had. Frankly, I’m still not sure that a lot that happens in this sequel is physically possible, even within the limits of the Sin City universe: if Nancy (Jessica Alba)’s revenge narrative in this film is supposed to be set 4 years after the events of the first film, either Marv (Mickey Rourke)’s story from the first one must have spanned over four years or he has mysteriously come back to life after being sent to the electric chair… It usually helps when a film doesn’t distract me with such glaring narrative issues, and yet I had this thought stuck in my head for pretty much the whole 100 minutes. On perhaps a shallower note, I also refuse to acknowledge that back-alley plastic surgery would ever change Josh Brolin into Clive Owen. Plastic surgery has worked many a miracle, but as yet, it does not work magic.

Visually speaking, A Dame to Kill For is objectively impressive and, though I saw it in 2D, the depth of field was rich enough to make seeing it in 3D a worthwhile experience for someone who loves the film’s look. Personally, comic and noir fan as I am, I don’t care for the visuals of the Sin City franchise – the lack of rhyme and reason in terms of what gets colourized cheapens the effect whilst the digital sheen only detracts from the allegedly gritty ambiance: it becomes the rather telling embodiment of style over substance. I said it regarding the first film and I shall say it again now: frame-for-frame similarity with the source material is nothing to be proud of; this is a film, not a comic book, different media require different approaches.

The brief for: A Dame to Kill For was very clearly “like the first one, but more,” and certainly, the film strives to be more of everything: more violent, more sexual, and more black-and-white-film-with-random-things-colourized-for-no-discernible-reason. Whilst it certainly does achieve the third – very distractingly so – the most violent element of this film is its out-and-out misogyny. Granted, the original Sin Citywas hardly ever going to meet the approval of Molly Haskel, but its sexism was largely rooted in its constant “damsel in distress” tropes in the face of hyperbolised male chauvinism, and even the strongest of its female characters are viewed solely through an exaggerated male gaze. A Dame to Kill For moves away from traditionally sexist trivialisation of femininity to an abundant suspicion and hatred of it. Female characters are almost solely connected to images of manipulation and duplicity and, regularly, it seems only the female characters are the ones who will be punished for their dark ambition, regardless of it being a trait shared by literally everyone in the film. The most angering moment for me was in the final story, in which Nancy seems to symbolically shed her femininity in order to “man up” for her revenge plot by cutting her hair and then soon after cutting her face (the disfigurement of women is a common theme in the film). This would be bad enough, but it angers on yet another level as she then uses her new facial scars to manipulate Marv into doing most of the dirty work for her, anyway. In Miller’s mind, even the heroines are to be mistrusted by the heroes.

To give credit where credit’s due, the film is not let down by the performances – in particular the newcomers such as Eva Green and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are as good as one should expect of such fine actors. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s story (just like Jessica Alba’s) is completely new and takes direct cues from Casino Royale in working out how to make a poker game legitimately tense and atmospheric, though thankfully without the patronising narration explaining the rules. However, the notable absence of certain actors (Brittany Murphy and Michael Clarke Duncan both died between films, being respectively written out and replaced very capably with Dennis Haysbert) does make it apparent just how long it has been since the first Sin City film came out: nine years ago. I don’t remember anyone crying out for a sequel and, judging from how much it is currently struggling at the box office, it seems nobody was. At the end of the day, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For acts more as documentation for the steady increase of Frank Miller’s ultra-right-wing misogyny than any form of legitimate entertainment and, quite frankly, his article on Occupy Wall Street was more than enough documentation for me. Want to watch a noirish comic book movie? Watch Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns. Watch The Crow. Hell, watch The Shadow. At least the film that almost killed Alec Baldwin’s career understood the difference between showing guts and having guts.

*