Teasing Threads – The Pleasure of Forgotten Movies: Richard Loncraine’s ‘The Haunting of Julia’

Chris Palazzolo wonders why The Haunting of Julia, directed by Richard Loncraine, 1978, is a forgotten movie.

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I’m a lazy consumer of popular culture. It’s rare that I’ll read introductions to books or watch the special features of dvds. I like to take things straight off the shelves with the (probably self-serving) argument that if a book or a movie doesn’t contain everything it needs to be understood, but requires secondary sources to fill in gaps, then that’s a weakness in it. I am however ready to make inquiries into mysteriously neglected movies. I can’t think of anything more unloved than Richard Loncraine’s gothic masterpiece The Haunting of Julia (aka, Full Circle). By ‘inquiries’ what I mean is a cursory thumb flick through compilations of old reviews, or an idle google, and what I’ve found is that there’s very little written about this movie apart from a handful of dismissive reviews at the time of its release in 1978. I saw it originally on late night tv, under the title Full Circle, back in the 1980s. It’s only available on tv formatted vhs, and now an even more deteriorated looking upload on Youtube. It’s never been released on dvd so I’ve never seen this movie in its proper aspect ratio. I still associate it with enigmatic shots where sometimes only an actor’s hand can be seen while their disembodied voice comes from off-screen. The little I’ve gleaned from my ‘inquiries’ is that Loncraine became dangerously ill while making it (anorexia nervosa), and Mia Farrow, its star, hated working on it so much she completely disowned it. This film hasn’t just been forgotten, it’s been renounced.

For reasons that are partly superstitious I wouldn’t want to see this film in its ‘proper’ restored state. In fact I wonder if there ever was such a state. I think the vhs copy (the Youtube upload is just the vhs version, and it’s pretty dire) is its proper state. If the television formatting lopped off parts of shots then that was meant to happen. Its hideous beauty is in the butchery on its hide; as the evil in its imagery visits butchery upon a number of human hides, its own tormented condition is its punishment. I need to be careful when I think about this movie. My mind runs into its big molecular close-ups like water runs into blotting paper; the faces of Farrow, and Tom Conti and Kier Dullea; the ‘englishness’ of the faces of the supporting cast (repertory faces of middle class British television) loom in shots of gaseous volume. All of the spaces the human figures move through – rooms and stairways, streets and parks – are full of this gassy ambience. This makes the human figures, and their faces and their minds look like molecularising shadows, permanently on the point of dissolution; it spiritualises them. This sense is heightened by a soundtrack where almost all the incidental sounds are muted to the point of silence. The score is a sickly obsessive music-box theme which overlays everything with an air of unspeakable sorrow. All of these elements serve to electrify its horror set-pieces with supernatural malice.

The spirit world represented here is of the British spiritualist type. Like its dimensional sibling, British naturalism, it conceives of the spirit world as subject to ‘rational’ laws (which have nothing to do with Christian eschatology); laws of supernatural selection. The properly British posture towards these laws is contemplation and humble inquiry, but otherwise laissez-faire. The evil that resides in the house at the centre of the story serves the same function in the supernatural world as a funnel web serves in the natural – to snare prey. The old spiritualist warns Farrow to leave the house. But she doesn’t. There’s nothing more to be done for the poor girl; she’s too weakened by grief at the death of her daughter and the evil seeps into the open wound of her mourning like poison. The narrative’s sickly obsession on this poisoning however is Gothic, and the Gothic is Christian – a medieval Christianity of eternal damnation, of the sorrow of eternal damnation; a sorrow so abject it becomes Horror. But the Gothic (as a literary and artistic conceit) is also post-Christian. Its imagery of sickness, madness and death is of the aftermath of Christian belief. Eternal damnation still causes terror, but belief in the God that rationalises such punishment is no longer possible. It’s the supernatural world that dispenses punishments on the mortal, but in a morally arbitrary (natural selective) kind of way. These punishments are evil because they have no other purpose than the extermination of life. Evil is pure appetite and the meek is its no longer blessed prey.

 – Chris Palazzolo

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Teasing Threads is Chris Palazzolo, novelist and poet, editor at Regime Books in Perth, radio host on 6EBA FM North Perth, and was, until recently, manager of one of the last video shops in the world. His novel, Scene and Circles, is available from https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/449419

Teasing Threads – Three Classical Westerns: 3. John Ford’s ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’

The third and final of Chris Palazzolo’s little series Three Classical Westerns is The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, directed by John Ford, 1962

Image result for the man who shot liberty valance imagesJohn Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance gets a regular outing on Gem, which is interesting in itself because I’m old enough to remember when Australia only had three tv channels, 2, 7 and 9, and while Westerns were often played as weekend matinees, I don’t ever recall this one getting a run. Someone programming for Gem must really like this movie because it seems to get played every six months or so.

The two things I noticed about this movie when I first saw it (only a couple of years ago) were the date of its release, 1962, and its stagey and unrealistic look. 1962 was a time when revisionist westerns began to appear. Movies such as Ford’s The Searchers (1959) and Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country (1962) made verisimilitude to the gritty realities of 19th century American frontier life, and the expressionistic portrayal of a western ‘psychology’ (racism and misogyny) the benchmarks of value for the genre. The studio bound sets and flat lighting of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance gives it the look of a throwback to an earlier stage of the genre; a time when studios would release a western a week. John Ford’s own career begun in that era, so he knew how to knock ‘em up and churn ‘em out. But this is a late John Ford, so the style is not accidental. Neither the authentic recreation of life conditions of the old west, nor the inner lives of its characters is the purpose of this movie. This is because it is a parable of the beginnings of American democracy in which each of the characters signifies a principle of that democracy.

The obtuse style of the movie is like the smooth opaque surface of a nut. A nut is a protected seed. That seed is the pre-democratic society of a small Texan town which is both tyrannised and protected by the gun; the gun of the bandit Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), and the gun of the farmer Tom Donavan (John Wayne). These two gunslingers are the shiny hard shell of the nut – shiny, because everyone can see where the power lies – hard, because there’s no arguing with it; might is right and that’s that. The demos of the town is in proto form, all crammed together unable to move and flourish. There’s a town Marshall, but he’s a coward who won’t dare take on Valance; there’s a drunken newspaper man who doesn’t dare write articles about Valance, and then there’s the townspeople whose only protection from Valance is Donavan. But Donavan will only take on Valance if his own interests are affected. If, as a farmer, his interests usually align with those of the town then that’s lucky for the town, otherwise he won’t stick his neck out for nobody. In other words the protection Donavan offers is as arbitrary as the beatings Valance dishes out. If the whole thing is closed into a nut of lethal might an external force with the hardness of a hammer is needed to split it open and allow the seed of American democracy to germinate.

This hammer, paradoxically, is the newly arrived pacifist lawyer Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) who refuses to be cowed by Valance’s gun or respect Donavan’s gun. Stoddard’s naked willpower is the hammer. His crazy brave principles which includes refusing to defend himself means certain death until Donavan takes a step outside of his self-interest, kills Valance and spirals off into ruinous obscurity. Once the shell is broken all the elements of the demos – the law, the press, the legislature (Stoddard becomes a senator for Texas) – separate and grow. They start to constellate and flower, stabilising in that dynamic relativity we now know as representative democracy. Some of the loveliest scenes in the movie are the town hall rallies as newly emboldened citizens deliver their rambling pitch for the vote amid raucous bunting and vaudeville. The violence that marked the origin of this democracy becomes legend, separated from fact (everyone believes Stoddard shot Valance), while the question as to why Donavan stuck his neck out on that occasion remains the deepest private mystery for Stoddard. Whatever Donavan’s motive was (and to me it is obvious: Stoddard was the bravest man he ever met, he couldn’t bear to see him shot down in cold blood) his action marked the original separation of powers – an armed yeoman ceding to the democrat his place in the sun in order to serve as executioner from the shadows.

    – Chris Palazzolo

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Teasing Threads is Chris Palazzolo, novelist and poet, editor at Regime Books in Perth, radio host on 6EBA FM North Perth, and was, until recently, manager of one of the last video shops in the world. His novel, Scene and Circles, is available from https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/449419

Teasing Threads – Sundry Film and Literary Criticism: Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’

Chris Palazzolo is so charmed by Only Lovers Left Alive (directed by Jim Jarmusch, 2013) he’s written a little blurb for it.

 In the second decade of the 21st century, what city would you choose to live in if you were a vampire? Jim Jarmusch has the answer in Only Lovers Left Alive. Tangier and Detroit. Husband and wife vampires, Adam and Eve (Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton) are at the stage of their marriage (1000 years, give or take a century or two) where they don’t need to be together all the time, but can go and pursue their own interests at opposite ends of the earth fully trusting each other’s love and loyalty. Each has their favourite city which they choose to live in. Eve lives in Tangier, city of refuge on the southern Mediterranean for 2500 years, and in modern times, port of call and meeting place for generations of European, Middle Eastern, and American artists, intellectuals, poets and spies. There she lives the  life of an aristocratic ex-pat, collecting curios and hanging out with other vampire ex-pats like Elizabethan playwright and spy Christopher Marlowe (reports of his murder in 1593 were greatly exaggerated). Adam lives in the post-industrial ghost city of Detroit, home of the US car industry and Motown records. There, in a Rockefeller era three story house in a neighbourhood of abandoned houses, he is left alone to compose grunge dirges for independent record labels. He is effortlessly the best of his peers in that scene, because, of course he has no peers; he’s been composing funeral music since the 16th century (he even collaborated with Schubert) and the fuzzy guitars and industrial percussion of grunge music just happens to be to his taste.

Life for these vampires is fun. They are old enough to have learnt how to do everything perfectly and to know exactly what they want to do. They are not troubled by the doubts that afflict the mortal. The only necessity in their lives is a regular supply of quality blood, which has to be sourced from medical outlets because, in the 21st century killing people is just too much trouble. Should that supply be interrupted though, well, what choice do they have? In the meantime life is forever leisure, doing what you want to do, staying up all night, and sleeping all day. Naturally they become the philosophers, leaders of taste for mortals (zombies as they call humans) sensitive and patient enough to listen because they never shout. Best of all they can live wherever they want to, wherever they think real beauty and style survives. And beauty and style must always have a bit of suffering and neglect in it.

Jim Jarmusch is the poet of the regional city. Throughout his career his cool/dorky characters have struck their hip postures in once legendary small American cities, increasingly overshadowed by the relentless New York focus of US popular culture; cities like Memphis, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, St Louis and Detroit. His vampires are paragons of good taste. They would never be so vulgar as to settle in Los Angeles or New York, self-promoting, celebrity obsessed theme parks of mediated urbanity. Real beauty, real style, is quietly industrious; it doesn’t care whether you notice it or not, because it knows it’s the best and doesn’t have to loudly assert itself. This is the wisdom of the undead. They have long long pasts, but they are the future too.
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   – Chris Palazzolo

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Teasing Threads is Chris Palazzolo, novelist and poet, editor at Regime Books in Perth, radio host on 6EBA FM North Perth, and was, until recently, manager of one of the last video shops in the world. His novel, Scene and Circles, is available from https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/449419

Living up to Tradition: Perry Lam reviews ‘Heukseok Kids’

This film review is part of Rochford Street Review’s coverage of the 2017 Golden Koala Chinese Film Festival.

The opening film of the Golden Koala Chinese Film Festival Heukseok Kids is a clear message of the festival intentions of both showcasing new Chinese cinema as well as to present the works of up and coming directors.

Heukseok Kids tells the tale of Defu, a Chinese film student based in Seoul, after 8 years overseas, he is informed of his mother’s terminal illness and has to return home. When Defu returns home, he not only has to come to make amends with his dying mother, but also discover his role in his dysfunctional family as a husband and father.

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Arthouse features have a tendency to be extremely personal pieces of celluloid. Unlike commercial fare, the vision of the filmmaker takes priority over all commercial considerations, this is the case with Heukseok Kids, which is based on Chinese director Liu Defu (whom the character of Defu is named after) experiences living overseas in Korea as well as in his home country of Mainland China.

This personal quality permeates through all levels of the film, its screenplay, its performances and its cinematography. There is a sense of intimacy in the narrative, we are always close to Defu and his narrative transformation. The sequence in Korea features a confident, even more virile representation of Defu as a character, he is outgoing, engages in one night stands and cracks jokes with his food photography obsessed Korean friend. However, upon his return to China, all Dionysian traits are drained from his personality, as he comes face to face with, and at times fall short (due to his time abroad) of his responsibilities as a man in Chinese society. This Dionysian/Apollonian dichotomy is novel in its concept, and is an issue that is a rarely explored facet of Chinese cinema.

The film services extremely well as a character study of Defu but due to its prioritizing of its protagonist, it fails in developing its secondary characters, with most of them being reduced to caricatures that we know all too well. The bitter wife, the bum brother, the quiet and hapless father. The secondary characters serve more as shattered reflections of the protagonist than actual characters, every interaction with them only serves to inform us more on Defu, his past actions and their consequences than on the other characters themselves. This is not necessarily a bad thing, the narrative’s myopic focus on Defu actually paints a fascinating portrait of a man stuck in two cultures. A brilliant example of this is Defu and his wife’s discussion about their passionless marriage and his obligations as a husband and father, his wife carries much of the dialogue of this scene but it is Defu who gets the bulk of the character development, as he sits on the couch, too preoccupied texting his Korean buddies. He doesn’t care.

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The narrative does take a weaker turn, as it limps to its ending, as Defu becomes a more confused and conflicted character, so does the narrative. The first two acts are strong in its execution of theme and tone but it abruptly ends with nothing resolved. I do understand that a film does not need to answer all its audience’s questions but while the build-up is consistent on the first two acts, we do not see any pay off for all the character development that was invested in Defu and that may leave some people wanting.

The cinematography isn’t beautiful in the aesthetic sense of the word but brings a poetic elegance to the film. Great cinematography has always been misunderstood as ‘great looking images’ but these images may distract from the narrative. This is not the case with Heukseok Kids, as the cinematography, while at times ugly, serves the story first, it is realistic and borderline documentarian in its approach. The world of Heukseok Kids is a claustrophobic one, constant use of over the shoulder shots and tight mid shots imprison Defu into the frame. An even bigger marvel is witnessing how Liu Defu (The Director) manages to make wideshots look oppressive and contrainted, one of the most haunting images of the film comes in the form of Defu (The character) eating in the corner of a dark living room, with old photos of family members and ancestors hanging prominently on the walls behind him. The message is clear, Defu is failing to live up to tradition.

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Ray Argall, President of the Australian Director’s Guild presenting the Certificate of Selection to the director of Heukseok Kids, Liu Defu.

While the dysfunction of youth is a strong theme, the film offers a stronger examination of Chinese tradition. The male characters constantly fail constantly at being a ‘Chinese Man’, images and ideals that are set upon them whether through tradition or family. In a memorable scene, Defu’s daughter realizes that her father himself is also still a student, like her. Despite Defu being a father, as a student, he is unable to fully provide for his daughter, likewise to Defu’s brother, who in their father’s words, is a ‘loser’, more a hindrance than a provider to the family. On another note, the father daughter scene brings to fore Chinese society’s obsession with education and how this obsession has become a tradition, unchanged for generations, from father to daughter. Which adds an interesting crease to how we view tradition, if we don’t go against it, wouldn’t all our outcomes be the same?

At its source, Heukseok Kids is a film about questions. It questions the strict traditions of Chinese society, it questions its protagonist’s role in his life, most of all, it questions the importance of your obligations versus your aspirations. While it does not provide a solid answer nor a satisfying pay off, Heukseok Kids is nonetheless a strong debut from a talented young director and provides a thought provoking time at the movies, one to ponder over drinks with friends.

 

*** out of 5

A strong, if at times uneven meditation on the role of the man in contemporary Chinese society. Like the best of arthouse cinema, it is the questions they raise that are much more satisfying than the answers.

 

 

If you like this, you should watch:

Lost In Translation- All millennials should watch this movie. Beautifully written and acted film about loneliness and alienation in the big city.

Taxi Driver- Like how Heukseok Kids confront the idea of what a man is and should be in Chinese society, Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece does the same (and goes further) with American society.

Caché– Heukseok Kid’s narrative structure and visuals bears resemblance to Michael Haneke’s frustrating meditation on the scars of French colonialism. From its ‘drop  off’ third act to its realistic, if mundane visuals of everyday life.

 

 

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Perry Lam is an Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review. He is the director of  the documentary short film BLACK RAT  has been selected for numerous film festivals both in Sydney and overseas.  https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2016/02/02/welcome-perry-lam-rochford-street-review-associate-editor/

The Golden Koala Chinese Film Festival kicks off on 2nd of February 2017 and takes place at venues across Australia. For further information go to http://www.cff.org.au/.

Teasing Threads – Sundry Film and Literary Criticism: On going to see Robert Zemeckis’ ‘Allied’

Chris Palazzolo finally gets to go to the pictures!

It’s rare that I see movies at the cinema these days, which is odd because I live a twenty minute walk away from the Hoyts cinemas at the Carousel Shopping Centre. Never in my life have cinemas been so accessible to me. However a combination of curmugeonly middle age and the demands of young children means I just can’t be bothered making the time to see some portentious franchise that’s just going to bore me. If I’m going to go through the difficult logistical exercise of ensuring my house is orderly and kids are fed and ready for bed (thus taking the pressure off my wife who is a full-time accountant) so I can spare a couple of hours to myself, then the movie has to be worth it – it has to be grown-up, and it has to be original (the vagueness of these criteria should give the reader an indication of just how fussy I am).

The other night I went to see Robert Zemeckis’s WW2 melodrama Allied. I didn’t have high expectations of this movie, but then I knew very little about it because I generally don’t take much notice of reviews. Nonetheless as I walked to the shopping centre I felt those lovely belly flutters that I’ve always associated with going to see a movie. On entering the shopping centre at 9pm (session time 9.15) that excitement was compounded by an uncanny sense of anachronism, of being in a space so familiar to me (I’m at this shopping centre almost every day for groceries) but after most of it is closed. Only the concourse, and the cafes and restaurants in that concourse, that lead to the cinemas upstairs, is open. The dusk of all those closed shops presses on this fluorescent lit concourse as if the shopping centre is asleep and the twenty cinemas upstairs are its dreaming cortex.

I felt nervous as I bought my ticket. I can’t explain why, but to make the feeling more acute I bought a coffee. I waited outside the cinema while two bored young ushers swept the popcorn and coke cups from the seats and aisles. Only one other couple was waiting with me. Having worked in video shops for 15 years I can attest to the peculiar light the glamour of cinema sheds on the shabby commercial reality of its retail arms; it both heightens the shabbiness while at the same time thralling it with a charge of its glamour (more than a few times over those years I was stopped on the street by customers who recognised me without recognising me asking me if I was on television. ‘No, I’m the video shop guy,’ I’d inform them). I’m always conscious, particularly in these (now not so) new suburban cinema megaplexes of the creaking beams and boards under the worn red carpet of the entrance passage, the fading and grubby seats (which are still very comfy), and the stale smells of the day’s patrons. But I’m a still a sucker for that big screen. If the film is good I’ll think about nothing else for the next two hours.

Allied was great. Of course the historian in me picked out all sorts of errors – were the Germans area bombing British cities on the scale depicted in the movie at that stage of the war (1943)? I don’t think they were. Would Ultra (British Intelligence) have helped the French Resistance with a high profile assassination when they knew what German reprisals were like? I don’t think they would’ve. The cultural theorist in me wondered whether movies like this help us to remember the Second World War or contribute to its forgetting? Do they just hasten the process of turning Nazis into simulacra locked away permanently from our times by their loving recreation of Nazi iconography of the 1930s and 40s? And is it an ontological void that Baudrillard says opens up beneath the simulacra, because that which is simulated no longer exists, only its simulation exists? And that into this void steps some young Western intellectuals who now do Nazi salutes on the web as a kind of situationist political tool, because the reality of Nazism, the DNA of Nazism, slavery and extermination for all peoples who are not white Aryans, is itself just part of the simulation? I couldn’t answer these questions. I’m just a househusband who doesn’t know about any of these big things, except that I love a good weepie. I shed a tear at the end. Any film that can make me react like that is a great film.

 – Chris Palazzolo

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Teasing Threads is Chris Palazzolo, novelist and poet, editor at Regime Books in Perth, radio host on 6EBA FM North Perth, and was, until recently, manager of one of the last video shops in the world. His novel, Scene and Circles, is available from https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/449419

This Is The Review You Are Looking For: Perry Lam reviews ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’

Star Wars has always been reliant on formula, what started out as a fusion of old samurai movies and Joseph Campbell myth making eventually (and this depends on who you ask) transforms or degenerates into a grand family opera told through time, space and the occasional teasing of creepy incestuous romance. Through seven massive franchise films, Star Wars has, for better and for worse, enforced the standard of blockbuster filmmaking. The Original Trilogy trailblazed in terms of cinematic storytelling, Lucas wanted to create something to ‘inspire the young’ and fight the then ailing studio system. With his use of mythic archetypes and borrowing heavily on Akira Kurosawa’s cinematic technique, Lucas created a series of films that reinvented cinema as not an artform but as a form of casual entertainment.

What was trailblazing eventually became the beaten, established path. With the prequels Lucas turns the franchise into effects driven spectacles, throwing the script to the wind, proving that story does not really matter in the grander scheme of marketing, merchandising and commercial interests. The transition from Original to prequel trilogies is ironic, what started out as a Rebel Alliance, bring the cinematic arts to mass audiences became the Galactic Empire, a commercial brand whose sole motivation is total market domination. George Lucas became the studio he fought so hard against. He has become, the Galactic Empire.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Ph: Film Frame ©Lucasfilm LFL

With the sale to Disney, the films that are released thus far seem more interested in serving as a ‘Greatest Hits’ compilation for the franchise. Specifically, much of Disney’s cinematic and aesthetic style owes more to Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, than any other entry in the series. The emphasis on nostalgia, the use of desert locales, the ‘used future’ aesthetic and the narrowing down of lightsaber and Force users to two or less. These creative choices are all evident in The Force Awakens and in Rogue One. But as a film, Rogue One offers a few more surprises up its own sleeves.

Rogue One takes place between Episode 3 and Episode 4, with the Jedi wiped out, the Galactic Empire has risen to power, enforcing its tyranny across the galaxy. To further establish the Empire’s dominance, an ambitious Imperial Military Director, Orson Krennic leads the construction of the Death Star, a planet killing superweapon.

With the Death Star close to completion, it is up to a grizzled and war weary team of Rebel soldiers to steal the schematic plans of the superweapon, in order to find a way to defeat it and bring freedom back to the galaxy. Essentially, this is Death Star: The Origin Story.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Death Star Ph: Film Frame ©Lucasfilm LFL

One of the great surprises of Rogue One is its willingness to break the franchise’s rules. Firstly, the film takes the series out of the saga of the Skywalker family and into the greasy hands and mudcaked boots of the regular joes and janes of the Galaxy Far, Far Away. By removing the familial and religious ‘Good vs Evil’ dynamic, we are left with compelling and previously unexplored shades of grey to both sides of the Galactic Civil War. Characters do what it takes to turn the tide of the conflict, at any cost. There is no ‘hate leads to suffering’ philosophical musings here, the only hate is between both sides and the only suffering is what each side subject to the other.

Previous entries in the series dealt in absolutes, Rebels are the good guys and the Empire are the bad, yet Rogue One is bold enough to roster both sides with horrible, broken people who probably have problems sleeping at night. Our two protagonists are cut from this tattered, bloodsoaked cloth, the stoic Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), wakes up to one too many traumatic dreams of childhood abandonment, and the serious and but no less dashing Han Solo surrogate, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), not only shoots first but when we are first introduced to him, shoots people in the back too. Yavin 4 is as big a hive for scum and villainy as Mos Eisley Cantina.

Supporting characters are also filled out by intriguing and distinctly non Star Wars flavoured archetypes, adding new dimensions to the film and the overall mythos. The protocol droid K-2SO is a welcomed addition to the iconic line up of droids in the franchise, he is C3PO with the attitude of a scruffy-looking nerf herder, quipping and smart-assing his way through the narrative. K2 sets itself apart from the squeaky clean, kid appealing franchise icons that R2D2 and C3PO has become.

Substituted for that iconic droid duo, we are given a human alternative instead, in the form of the blind warrior monk Chirrut Emwe (Donnie Yen) and heavy weapons specialist Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen). While the gruff and no-nonsense Baze is badass in his own right, blowing away stormtroopers with his blaster rifle, it is Chirrut who wows the crowd with his intergalactic kung fu, constant sutra-like chanting, and that one joke related to his visual impairment. Yen’s Chirrut opens a new door for the Star Wars universe. Through him, we finally have an understanding of what The Force really means to the rest of the galaxy, it is a religion, to be accepted or rejected.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Felicity Jones) Ph: Film Frame ©Lucasfilm LFL

And I have not gone the villains themselves, the baddies aren’t exactly evil. As in the case with the lead villain, Director Orson Krennic. Played with snarly ambition by the great Ben Mendelsohn, Krennic is every middle management exec paranoid about his superiors taking credit for his own work, which in a twisted sense, makes him the most relatable character in the film. I would be pissed if someone takes credit for my work too.

Krennic may be the chief antagonist, but iconic villains in the form of Grand Moff Tarkin and Darth Vader do flank him in the narrative, though their appearance does at times weaken Krennic’s role as villainous authority and come across as fan service. It is justifiable though, as both have functions within the story. Grand Moff Tarkin’s appearance serves to highlight his role in Episode 4 and turns Krennic’s story arc into one of corporate and organizational infighting, this adds an interesting wrinkle to the Empire, who usually comes across as a faceless unit simply out to do the most evil thing possible.

Darth Vader, on the other hand, is something we REALLY need to talk about. While his appearance is brief, it re-establishes the character as one of the preeminent villains in film history. We always did hear either through the films or from other Star Wars media of Vader’s terrifying reputation, and skills in combat. But we have never actually seen him in action. Rogue One unleashes the Jedi formerly known as Anakin Skywalker and I’ll damn sure say it, he isn’t ‘just’ someone to be ‘feared, he isn’t ‘just intimidating’. This is Darth Vader in his absolute prime, he is genuinely terrifying. His single minute appearance transforms the film from a war movie into a slasher flick, as he mows down his opponents with supernatural ease and unchecked brutality. Anakin Skywalker is dead but Darth Vader is back.

As great as the characters are and as interesting as this new Star Wars universe is, the narrative does take a while to get going, to blame is the multiple set ups and character introductions. While they are absolutely necessary for the third act to function, there is also too much unnecessary traveling between planets that are redundant to the main plot. To be blunt, the main Death Star plans story arc does not actually get going until the end of the second act, much of the plot development in the first two is reserved to character establishment. That said, the greatness of the third act is because of the two acts that came before.

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You will notice the narrative and tonal shift of the finale. It is not much a gradual change as it is stepping off a cliff.  The finale is one of the best for a blockbuster in recent memory. A non-stop, all or nothing pitched battle between the Rebels and the Empire, winner takes all. It showcases the extraordinary difficulty that the Rebels have, when confronting the might of the Empire head to head. The battle scenes get ugly and unflinching as we are in the thick of it, storming the beachheads of Scarif with the ragtag Rebels, or accompanying Y-Wing bombers on their attack run, trying desperately to delay inevitable defeat against a superior opponent. It is more Apocalypse Now than Star Wars.

The final battle itself is a thing to behold, we have never seen the Rebels fight this hard. We read the opening crawl of Episode 4, we know this is their first major victory, we know spies managed to get their hands on the Death Star plans. What we do not know is how much of a cruel, relentless struggle this is. Culminating in an ending that, once you catch a glimpse of the back of the familiar curved white Rebel Soldier helmet and a nostalgic looking white starship corridor, it will make you wonder “Are they really going to do that?”. Yes, they did.

However, I do not agree that it is the darkest entry in the franchise, sure a lot of bad stuff happens and it is significantly darker for a Star Wars film but it is nowhere near the nihilism that was displayed in 2005’s Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Back then, your standard Star Wars protagonist could be a paranoid, selfish man who ends up murdering children, strangling his pregnant wife (who later dies in childbirth), and engaging his friend/mentor in a duel to the death that ends up with said protagonist having all his limbs chopped off before burning in a river of lava, and no one would bat an eyelid. Of course, you can’t do that now, its 2016.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Donnie Yen) Ph: Film Frame ©Lucasfilm LFL

With that said, blaster bolts still fly and the body count is racked up, as the characters you are invested in are forced into a desperate fight to the survive against wave after wave of Imperial troops. Much credit has to go to the writers Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, as well as director Gareth Edwards, for framing the Rebel cause as a courageous but ultimately hopeless one, with no reward other than a thermal detonator blast to the face.

Gareth Edwards is an inspired choice as director, having had previous experience playing around with the concept of scale in Monsters and Godzilla, we are now seeing the peaking of a young director. The Death Star looks monstrously grotesque in Rogue One, as Star Destroyers are dwarfed by the superweapon’s sheer mass. Edwards even manages to make establishing shots look cool. The opening shot of an Imperial transport vessel floating above the rings of a planet is gorgeous and novel in its approach to establishing locales.

The aesthetics of the film is perhaps its strongest point. Use of handheld cinematography accentuates the overall mise-en-scene, making us feel like we are right there with the rest of the Rogue One team. But it is the production design that gets to shine, the gritty ‘boots on the ground’ aesthetic is on full display here. Massive fallen statues of Jedi knights pepper the surface of the Jedi world of Jedha, Stormtroopers are no longer squeaky clean, their armor caked in grease and grit of countless skirmishes. These are details that are usually unnecessary but this meticulousness is what gives the film its deep immersion, a stand out sequence would be Jyn Erso’s escape from an Imperial prison transport on a miserable looking planet, this is the first time the Stormtroopers look bored and fed up with their jobs. And they got every reason to, even their dented and dirtied helmets tell their story before a single line of dialogue is uttered.

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The one aspect of the film that leaves us wanting however, is the generic score. Now, Star Wars is one of the most aurally defined fictional universes, but the score plays it too safe, relying on old motifs and the previous work of John Williams’ to define itself. Which clashes with the entire creative motivation of the film, with jaw dropping , previously unseen visuals of the Star Wars universe, including a scene where a Star Destroyer is literally chopped in half, it is disappointing that Michael Giacchino is unable to conjure up any orchestral magic to match the originality that permeates the rest of the film.

As a film reviewer, I would rather judge a film on its own merits but with Rogue One, its success lies with how it affects the film it chronologically precedes, Star Wars Episode 4: A New Hope. To judge this movie as a standalone does not appreciate what it has done, which is singlehandedly upping the ante and the importance of various plot points in the other films in the franchise. Bear in mind, this was supposed to be a ‘side story’ with no bearing on the events of the main saga. Yet Rogue One, with its compelling characters, intricate cinematography, production design and an absolute cracker of a third act, proves that being a side story does not mean you can’t be the main event.

 

 

**** and a half/5

One of the best films of the year and definitely the best blockbuster of 2016. With a great cast of characters, spellbinding production design and a killer final act, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story adds much needed originality and value into the events of Star Wars mythos, and in doing so surpasses most of the films it was supposed to play second fiddle to.

 

 

If you like this, you should watch:

Star Wars Episode 4: A New Hope- This should be first on your list after watching Rogue One, the blend is seamless and astonishing to behold, I cannot believe how both films work in storytelling so well.

Flashpoint- The plot may be thin but this film features Donnie Yen’s best choreographed fight scenes, and a viciously executed German suplex that has been emulated in Hollywood productions like Deadpool.

Monsters- Gareth Edwards low budget feature film debut. It is the epitome of sci fi indie filmmaking.

The Hidden Fortress- Akira Kurosawa is a tremendous influence on New Hollywood era filmmakers. And The Hidden Fortress is Star Wars’ greatest reference in terms of storytelling.

Teasing Threads – Sundry Film and Literary Criticism: Ruben Ostlund’s ‘Force Majeure’

Chris Palazzolo examines the genealogy of the cigarette in Force Majeure, directed by Ruben Ostlund, 2014

Image result for force majeure images The cigarette Johannes Bah Kuhnke smokes on the walk down the mountain road at the end of Ruben Ostlund’s Force Majeure would have to be one of the most well-earned in the history of cinema. This may seem like an exaggeration, especially when one considers the long relationship the cinema has had with the cigarette. From Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame lighting each other’s cigarettes in In A Lonely Place, to the ANZACs in Gallipoli sharing a last fag before running into a hail of Turkish lead, or the gitane the teenage collaborator splutters on as he turns the Jewish boy over to the German soldiers in Au revoir, les enfants, to the thousand packets that Robert De Niro smokes in Casino, the cigarette would have to be one of cinema’s most complex and mysterious motifs, comparable, in the amount of meaning it generates, to that of the gun. Just from these four examples I’ve chosen one can see the range of attributes it signifies – sophistication, mortality, villainy, and will. To say that the one smoked in Force Majeure is the most well-earned is definitely a bold claim. I will hold to it though because it has against it something that none of those other examples had against them – the hostility of contemporary ‘healthy living’ discourses, and the progressive ‘bricking up’ by the modern state all legal avenues for its consumption.

Force Majeure is about faultlines; glacial faults which open up a faultline in an apparently stable marriage. When a Swedish family, holidaying in the French Alps, think an avalanche is about to hit them, the husband panics and runs, leaving his wife and kids behind. The shock of the near miss and the husband’s apparent cowardice, causes a crisis in the family; the wife wonders whether she loves her husband anymore; the husband suffers crushing shame and the horrible prospect of loneliness, the kids worry that their parents are going to divorce. The psychodrama is like a series of continuing aftershocks as the husband and wife flail about in increasingly irresponsible attempts to overcome the awful ambivalence that’s opened up between them like a crevasse. By the end of the holiday a sort of reconciliation has taken place between them (though not the adventure of being in the mountains), and when the tourists are forced to walk part way down the mountain, the husband lights up the cigarette in question, much to the surprise of his children.

This cigarette, lit on the mountainside, signifies the origins of the faultline in the couple’s marriage. It does this in the same way that Rosebud signified the lost childhood of Charles Kane in Citizen Kane; that is as a thing that was present when the faultline-causing event happened, and whose disappearance after that event is in some sense causal. Semiotics would call this kind of sign an Index. An index is a sign that signifies its object by direct connection to it. The American philosopher Charles Peirce used the example of a weather vane which signifies wind direction by being blown by the wind. In Force Majeure the faultline in the marriage is something that was lost signified by one of those lost things appearing again now that the fault has opened up. The avalanche is the catalyst for opening the fault but the faultline was already there, and I think the inference can be made that the husband gave up smoking when he got married. This ‘little sacrifice’ came to signify all the rough edges of bachelorhood that were planed off in order for him to become the smooth family man he appears to be at the start of the film. A lingering dissatisfaction that lay latent during his marriage led him to forget his family at that split second of crisis. After all the bickering of the following days, the anguish, the joyless skiing, the discussions on the hero complex, and then an amazing third act in which the mountain has one more surprise to humble the mortals, the husband lights up his first cigarette since his bucks’ night. By redistributing snow on the side of a mountain, force majeure has redistributed power in a marriage.

 – Chris Palazzolo

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Teasing Threads is Chris Palazzolo, novelist and poet, editor at Regime Books in Perth, radio host on 6EBA FM North Perth, and was, until recently, manager of one of the last video shops in the world.

The official trailer for Force Majeure

Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing: Perry Lam reviews ‘Dr Strange’

Marvel’s dominance in the arena of blockbusters has allowed for the brand to introduce more obscure characters in their catalogue, characters that are otherwise ‘hard sells’ if introduced without the knowledge and universe building executed by the previous films. Without Iron Man, Dr Strange would have continued to languish in the brightly coloured pages of the comic books, suffering in his role of the ‘fan favourite’ character. Loved by the fans of the House of Marvel but ignored by everyone else.

Therefore, it is easy to see why Marvel has decided to go all out with Dr. Strange, with its attempts at high concept special effects, big name actors in an ensemble cast, Michael Giacchino on score, and a marketing budget the size of the GDP of small nation, this is the production ‘dream team’ of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. One area Marvel is still unwilling to spend big on though, is the traditionally ‘important’ role of director. And it shows, for all the stops that Marvel has pulled to ensure Dr. Strange’s quality, without a director with a creative voice, this movie ends up being a dream team with no interesting direction.

After a horrific car accident robs Dr Stephen Strange of his physical abilities as a neurosurgeon, he travels to Tibet to seek out a cure. As he trains in the ways of the mystic arts, he comes to terms with his purpose in life, not just as a doctor but also as a person.

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Everything about this film screams intense focus group meetings and obsessive market research, rather than a director’s artistic or creative choice. The Marvel Method works, the director is now a puppet, a messenger to dictate the whims of the executive board. Everything feels like a Marvel movie, from the opening pop track to ease the viewers into the character of Doctor Stephen Strange, to how the cinematography looks, and it does look like every other Marvel film out there (more on that later). Similar to other origin stories in the Marvel slate of films, this film has an extremely distinct pattern in its narrative. Hero is arrogant, hero loses everything, loses redeems himself and figures his role in a greater world. I could list several Marvel movies in this mold but to put it simply, and boldly, Marvel’s formula has not changed a day since Robert Downey Jr suited up in 2008’s Iron Man.

Nothing in the story particularly stand out, the characters do what they need to do to establish the story and nothing more. There is a pedestrian tone to the film, swap Dr Strange for Antman, or Iron Man and with a few minor, adjustments in terms of powers and villains, it is still the Same. Exact. Story. The hero’s journey is stretched to its maximum load bearing weight.

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There isn’t no attempt at relating the character to the audience, there is no reflection over Stephen Strange’s arrogant behaviour, he just is until he no longer isn’t. When he is humbled, it is not because he has learnt his lesson or his place. It is neither, he just behaves because that is how the script needs him to behave. The audience becomes a bystander instead of an active participant in the movie going experience, just watching events go by, unable to relate to the cosmic battles that unfold before our eyes.

Likewise to the rest of the characters, Mordo’s disillusionment does have an arc but it appears only at moments of convenience rather in moments of genuine narrative interest. Even Strange’s cape gets the laziest introduction ever, it chooses him without Strange even having to earn its use, the entire film is filled to the brim with all too convenient moments like these in order to generate plot momentum. A sudden attack by Mads Mikkelsen’s villainous Kaecilius is used to move the narrative, there is little that is in Strange’s control and as a character, he is guided from one action set piece to another with no agency of his own.

Considering that the cast is made up of phenomenal talent, it is a tragedy to see them go to waste in generic and rigid roles. The formulaic script hampers the performances, actors are burdened by the script rather than empowered by it.

Benedict Cumberbatch is up to the task of Dr. Stephen Strange but that is not saying much, he does not have a lot to work with in the first place. While the character is established adequately, characterization remains a problem. Cumberbatch mopes around for much of the film, relying on his awkwardness to generate some physical comedy and his stoic arrogance to emote. Beyond that, there isn’t an ambitious streak in his performance, he still is the Cumberbatch that fans are familiar with but non fans would not care for.  His chemistry with the rest of the cast is also wanting, Rachel McAdams is forced into the role of the love interest, achieving nothing with her screen time other than serve as comic relief and to build up Strange as a character, their interactions are forced ‘ping pong’ dialogue that attempts to highlight the charm of both but it fails, only reveal how choreographed and unnatural their performances are.

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Mordo fares better but not by much, he is a full on exposition machine, constantly informing the viewer about backstory, but Chiwetel Ejiofor infuses the character with a sense of world weariness and bitterness that allows the character to be the most memorable in the film, even if these moments are few and far between.

The Marvel Villain Syndrome strike again, as even the talented Mads Mikkelsen is unable to salvage a bland, badly written villain in Kaecilius. More caricature than character, Mikkelsen gives a stone faced performance with nothing to his backstory other than a few choice exposition by Mordo, the fatal flaw of too much telling and not much showing. Mikkelsen none the less tries his best to lift the material he is given but it is a case of too little too late.

This is an alarming trend in Marvel films. After 8 years of constant, intensive worldbuilding, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has yet to have an iconic, centerpiece villain that could hold a movie on his or her own. This lack of quality villains affects the quality of the overall film, as the hero literally has nothing to struggle against, Strange is fighting himself more than he is fighting Kaecilius. The navel-gazing protagonist approach clashes widely with the blockbuster narrative that Marvel is trying to sell with Dr. Strange and the end result is neither an intimate character piece nor an epic blockbuster. It just feels mechanical and generic.

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Audiences should all now be familiar with the Marvel ‘look’. Similar to the Marvel Comics’ ‘house style’ which is enforced on its comic artists, the cinematography is similar in style and execution with the other Marvel films. I understand the need to have a consistent look across the entire Marvel universe but this enforcement of visual style is starting to adversely affect the end product. Generic framing and the abuse of the mid shots turns the cinematography into unspectacularly visual monotony. The visual splendour of the scenes in the multiverse  is contrasted with drab, parking lot aesthetic of the real world scenes. You got to wonder though, if all these movies look alike, with similar narratives and storylines, offering nothing visually interesting, then what exactly are we paying to see?

Maybe the visual effects, which are spectacular, especially with Strange’s journeys to the multiverse, ethereal vistas and space gates that owe a debt to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It showcases a brilliant, vibrant universe that could have been explored. But we spend too little time there, with a weak narrative that is focused on boring ol’earth and lack of visual ambition in its cinematography, the visual effects are reduced to a spastic lightshow. Sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Speaking of sound, Marvel somehow manages to squeeze out the most generic score out of Michael Giacchino, one of the greatest score composers working today. There is nothing of note in the aural Marvel universe and rather than choose to break new ground, Dr. Strange only reinforces the Marvel house style of generic action and emotional themes. You won’t hum any musical themes as you walk out the theatre, though you probably wonder what’s next for the sequel. Maybe in terms of movie marketing, Marvel did something right by leaving out an iconic soundtrack.

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I do believe the lack of strong direction is responsible for the film’s weaknesses. Scott Derrickson is primarily known for low budget genre fare and he does not manage to get any of his stylistic signatures on this film at all. Derrickson’s direction comes across as mercenary-like, hired only to execution the board’s vision and that is all to it. There are no obvious artistic or creative considerations, no moments of strong cinematic interests. Once again, in the battle between Marvel Studios and ‘The Director’, Marvel gets their hands raised again, this is Marvel’s film more than it is Derrickson’s.

While the ensuing whitewashing controversy is overblown and is the least of the film’s problems, there is still much to be said about how the film ends up turning out. Tilda Swinton is a great actress and puts up a great portrayal of the Ancient One, that said, she offers nothing special to the role that any actor or actress of Asian descent could have similarly pulled off. Still, that would be stereotypical casting of the ‘Old Master’. This is a problematic character, as are the Dr. Strange mythos. Borne out of Orientalism and the west’s obsession with the ‘Far East’, Dr. Strange tries to be faithful to the comics while being as inoffensive as possible.

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Asian actors only serve as window dressing, hovering around the actors of western descent, never truly penetrating the narrative, they are part of the background, props and production design. Even Wong only serves to provide comic relief, while it is an admirably attempt to break Wong out of his offensive manservant role that he occupies in the comics, it is still messy in its execution. Unlike the comic relief characters of previous Marvel films, from War Machine to Drax the Destroyer, Wong is written to be unthreatening to anyone, we do not see him kick ass, instead he gets schooled by Dr. Strange when the latter steals books from the library. Can you see the same thing happening if it was Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mordo who was the librarian? No, there will be hell to pay if that happens and the outrage will be much bigger.

I do not believe that ‘social justice warriors’ are going to go after Marvel for this, but I do believe that Marvel missed the argument. Dr. Strange, with its hero’s journey and Far East window dressing, is reminiscent of every white saviour fantasy film that came before it, from Karate Kid to Last of the Mohicans to The Last Samurai.

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There is a lot going against Dr. Strange, weak direction and cinematography, generic score, mundane performances. However there is an old sports adage that states that ‘Offense wins you games but Defense wins you championships’. In the film industry, there is no bigger championship than reigning supreme at the box office. Instead of a director led offense of artistic daring, Marvel has proven that it is the defensive mentality of formulaic filmmaking, great branding and ambitious marketing that leads you to the title. For better or for worse, Marvel movies are now in a league of their own, every new entry, no matter the quality, only serves to reinforce their dominance. There is no doubt Dr. Strange will rule at the box office but it will also change the way filmmaking will be perceived as an artform and the roles within film production.

** Out of 5

Great actors, great visual effects are let down by a bad script, lacklustre direction, generic cinematography and weak soundtrack. The Marvel brand has bailed out its product for a quite a while now, the big question is, how much longer can it do that?

After Dr. Strange, you should watch:

Iron Man- The bible of which the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe is built on, every film that came after is slavishly influenced by this one.

Karate Kid- Probably the definitive movie in the ‘white saviour’ subgenre. This is 80s kitsch at its finest.

Inception- Visual effects weaved into an intricate, compelling plot. This is how CGI is supposed to be used.

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning- Scott Adkins, one of Kaecilius’ henchmen, is better known as an extremely talented direct-to-video action star. His greatest film and also one of the greatest direct to video films ever made, is Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning. The only way to describe it would be a Jackie Chan film by way of David Lynch. It has to be seen to be believed.

Valhalla Rising- Mads Mikkelsen plays a one eyed slave on a journey to Jerusalem. The term ‘cinematic experience’ has been bantered about too often but they are a fitting description to Nicolas Winding Refn’s films. Valhalla Rising is a brutal, unforgiving fever dream.

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Perry Lam is an Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review and a film and commercials director. He directed the documentary short film BLACK RAT,  which has been screened at over 10 film festivals and showcases and won 3 awards, including Best Documentary at Phoenix Comicon 2016.  His latest short film Hard Vision, is currently on its festival run. You can follow him on Instagram at: perrylam29

 https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2016/02/02/welcome-perry-lam-rochford-street-review-associate-editor/

Teasing Threads – Sundry Film and Literary Criticism: Woody Allen’s ‘You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger’

Chris Palazzolo loses his job and discovers SBS on Demand where he finds You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, directed by Woody Allen, 2010

With the closure of the last video store in the world, Network Video Roleystone, I find myself deprived of my regular supply of free dvds (I even got a bill from the debt collector, $44 in overdues – some thanks for 15 years working in video shops!) I’m now at the mercy of online streaming services such as YouTube and SBS On Demand. It is fun though looking up the SBS catalogue. In recent months I’ve caught up with the John Carpenter/Kurt Russel season, a beautifully cleaned up Scanners (I realise how dirty looking the dvd version was now), Cross of Iron, The Bicycle Thieves, even a Charlie Chaplin from 1921. The movie I’m going to comment on now is Woody Allen’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger. I actually saw this movie originally on dvd, but I notice SBS screened it this week so that seems like a good enough reason to comment. It’s the funniest movie I’ve seen in years.

Naomi Watts is the dissatisfied wife of an obscure American writer (Josh Brolin). Her and Brolin live in a very nice part of London because they’re being bankrolled by Watts’ mother (Gemma Jones) who is herself having a nervous breakdown because her husband (Anthony Hopkins), in a mid-life panic, has dumped her and run off with a prostitute half his age. Watts keeps her mother functioning by hiring a fake clairvoyant to tell her mother things she wants to hear (hence the title of the film). In the meantime, as their own marriage crumbles, her and Brolin each make disastrous attempts at extra-marital affairs, while Brolin, desperate to regain the recognition (and advances) he got early in his career, pinches the work of another writer who he thinks has been killed in a car accident. Nothing goes to plan. Each character (with the exception of the completely delusional mother) have a uniquely tailored fate awaiting them. It’s like a stacked deck of cards which, in perfect closure, comes up four Jokers in the final hand.

The writing for this ensemble is extremely tight, in fact there is so little give in its symmetries that it almost resembles a theorem. It’s as if some evil scientist, using narrative film as his crucible, is testing out reactions to combinations of certain personality types to demonstrate results he always knew were going to occur. The types are Woody Allen favourites – attractive, well-educated middle class westerners, undone by their own mendacities and sense of entitlement. The reactions are quite a thing to behold. They shed an unpleasant light not just on the principles but on everyone and everything around them – Watts’ boss (Antonio Banderas) trawling his female employees for the cheapest mistress; Brolin’s lover (Freida Pinto) so dumb she dumps her very promising fiancé to run off the with the older American writer who is in fact a fraud; Hopkins’ young wife (Lucy Punch) playing up with the gym boys after Hopkins has bankrupted himself keeping her in furs; the venerable London publishing house rejecting Brolin’s own work (because it’s about ‘intellectuals’) and publishing instead some prurient crap about a paedophile because that’s what’s marketable to the debased tabloid tastes of the British reading public.

This is comedy in the haute mode. It observes with aristocratic strictness all the rules of classical composition; cuts never occur unless they have to, camera movements and close-ups are rare, long takes and medium shots rule, and actors are expected to work (no hiding fluffed lines with flashy jump cuts and vulgar camera movements); serenity, good manners, and architectural balance all turned to a lofty and malicious wit. There is no wastage, no untied threads; every element of the composition comes together in the end with a completely satisfying (that is to say, completely cringeworthy) clap.

Schadenfreund is the schtick. The guilty pleasure we get watching people who resemble us doing stupid things and suffering spectacular humiliations that leave not a shred of dignity intact. The characters are not in any way profound; they are figments of our own social terrors. The pleasure is like that of a pagan ceremony; we watch the characters constructed like effigies out of ricks, we watch the match lit underneath them and each become a bush of flame.

– Chris Palazzolo

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Teasing Threads is Chris Palazzolo, novelist and poet, editor at Regime Books in Perth, radio host on 6EBA FM North Perth, and was, until recently, manager of one of the last video shops in the world.

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It Borders on Ruin Porn: Perry Lam reviews ‘Suicide Squad’

‘Bad vs Evil’ is the theme that David Ayer constantly reminds everyone in his interviews and comic convention appearances. This is true not just for Suicide Squad but of David Ayer’s directorial career. Ayer’s output functions as character examinations of bad people with badder intentions. In ‘Fury’, it is a bitter journey with a war weary tank crew in their struggle against the Nazis and in ‘End of Watch’, we are witnesses to a pair of cops running afoul of a Mexican cartel, with horrific consequences. However, with the shift to mainstream blockbuster filmmaking, Ayer’s penchant for delving into his protagonists’ psyche is put to its ultimate test in Suicide Squad.

Probably the most anarchic blockbuster release of the year, not only is Suicide Squad David Ayer’s blockbuster debut but Warner Bros. last ditch scramble to resuscitate their fledgling cinematic universe, their earlier effort, Batman v Superman only serves to disconnect the audience to the DC Comics brand. Not that it needs any resuscitation in my opinion, it is a fine piece of comic book myth forging but there is a popular consensus (that is slowly revising itself) that the film did not serve the audience. While Suicide Squad is more of a crowd pleaser that DC’s previous attempts at comic book adaptations, which often take the form of super serious, spandex clad social commentary, Suicide Squad does not close to being their best effort at mainstream entertainment.

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Clay Enos/ & © DC Comics Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) forms a motley crew of incarcerated super villains for a black ops mission, a ‘suicide squad’. Unwanted and expendable, the criminals have to learn to trust each other, as well as their leader, Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) and do it fast, as they are sent to battle an otherworldly threat in the form of the Enchantress, a former member of the squad that went rogue. At the same time, the psychotic criminal mastermind Joker (Jared Leto) lurks in the shadows, waiting for the right time to strike.

The strongest portion of the film is easily the first twenty minutes. Be in awe of a rip roaring, neon drenched primal scream of an introduction. Through rapid fire vignettes and flashbacks, explosive exposition and a rock and rumble soundtrack, each character’s motivations and personality are displayed in violent flamboyance. Deadshot! Harley Quinn! Captain Boomering! Killer Croc! El Diablo! Boom, boom, boom, boom. The vignettes turbocharge the narrative, giving the most amount of exposition with the shortest amount of time, achieving more storytelling that the next two acts of the film combined. The vignettes/flashbacks also creates the opportunity for cameos to serve a more important story purpose: How these super villains ended up in prison. A not-so-subtle hint, most of them fought the Bat and the Bat won.

Once the opening rush of accelerated adrenaline simmers down, the plot struggles with what it wants to be, going into several different directions at once. A hydra tearing itself apart. The story’s weakness isn’t that it is messy, it is pretty coherent. The problem is its indecisiveness. There are traces of Ayer’s confrontational and robust approach to character building, especially in scenes with character interaction. Deadshot and Rick Flag get to cross verbal swords on several occasions, debating the moral differences between an assassin and a soldier. El Diablo’s tragic origin story infuses an otherwise throwaway character with a strong sense of relatability. The characters also provide one of the best scenes in the film, the squad go barhopping in the midst of all the chaos, giving us a glimpse at the crazies behaving in the brief respite of normalcy. But these strong character work never truly enter the ring as the main event, serving only as supplement to the confusing main plot. Katana and Killer Croc are the biggest victims of this, the former only getting two scenes of character establishment while the latter has none.

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Clay Enos/ & © DC Comics Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

The lack of character development  is a consequence of the weakly established tone. The film is a mess tonally, after the Dirty Dozen-esque freakshow of an opening act, we take a sharp left to fantasy action movie territory. While simultaneously there is a psycho-thriller romance angle serving as a minor story arc for Harley Quinn and the Joker. It is three genres too many. The film works overtime to fulfil its story obligations and while it is coherent, the tone constantly shift between a supervillain examination piece to a fantasy, Hellboy-esque action picture to a toxic romance, the characters simply aren’t given a chance to establish themselves and if they do it once, there have to do it another two more times within those genre conventions, which they never do.

There is also the problem of protagonist and antagonist relations. I know it is a comic book movie but the Suicide Squad itself seems ill equipped to deal with a threat of this magnitude, the Enchantress is a supernatural, lovecraftian cosmic level threat. The Suicide Squad on the other hand are a black ops outfit rostered with killers, crazy people and a crocodile man. It feels like they got the wrong assignment. Who you gonna call? This mission is right up the Ghostbusters’ alley.

As bad as the second act is, it is nothing compared to the third act, when it assumes control, you will feel the nosedive. Firstly, all character nuances in the first two acts are forgotten, suddenly everyone is friends because they must battle a common threat. These are super villains we are talking about, crazy in their crimes and monstrous in their grandiosity, it is a stretch to even consider that all of them would suddenly work together for the greater good.

 

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Clay Enos/ & © DC Comics Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Secondly, the third act transforms (I don’t know if this is intentional or not) into a 1990s action movie. Remember the hilariously cheesy third acts of those 90s Jean Claude Van Damme movies, the ones which ends with a climatic kung fu fight scene to decide the fate of the universe and all its inhabitants? Of course not. But when Enchantress suddenly becomes a sword wielding kung fu master, this movie robs Van Damme clichés and gives a sharp jolt to refresh your memory. It makes no story sense whatsoever although I do admit, I loved that scene for utterly ironic reasons.

While lacking development, characters are still the best part of the movie. A testament to Ayer’s ability to create strong personalities, even against a script with this much tonal chaos. Viola Davis gives a committed and intimidating performance as Amanda Waller, the Suicide Squad’s creator. Davis’ is stoic for most of the film, uncompromising in dealing with the vicious band of criminals at her disposal, she is brutal authority personified. Though this leads to comedic moments, like watching Captain Boomerang’s ego shrink as Waller lays down the dubious benefits of volunteering for the squad. 10 years off three consecutive life sentences is all that was offered. Ouch.

Joel Kinnaman plays it straight and narrow for Rick Flag, there is not much to say about Flag, other than he is a soldier’s soldier. As the only non-costumed squad member, his only purpose is to serve as a voice of reason and sanity against the deranged point of views of his band of criminals.

Suicide Squad’s take on Harley Quinn does have some traces of the comic counterpart but make no mistake, this is Margot Robbie’s rendition and not a straight adaptation. Robbie owns the punk rock, tongue out rebellious aesthetic and due to the Joker’s lack of screen time, she manages to carry the bulk of the dramatic scenes that showcase the dark, poisonous relationship between her and the Clown Prince of Crime. It is ‘The Notebook’ for sociopaths.

Deadshot is the heart of the movie, or should I say, Will Smith is the heart of this movie and the film would not be the least bit interesting without him. Will Smith’s portrayal is wholly inaccurate to the comics but it does not matter, Will Smith is back! In a watchable movie! In Smith, Suicide Squad displays the fundamental difference between an actor and an actual HOLLYWOOD STAR. While everyone else is going full on method playing their roles, Will Smith is STILL Will Smith and that is all he needs to be. With his charisma tuned to gigawatt levels and his screen presence oozing out the frame, you will forgive and forget that he does not resemble Deadshot in the slightest. Smith’s magnetic allure gives a significant boost to Ayer’s character development; the face offs and dialogue exchanges with cast not only serves to develop Deadshot character but also creates interesting creases on the other characters as well, as they work off Smith’s force of personality.

SUICIDE SQUAD

Clay Enos/ & © DC Comics Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Against the current of modern superhero blockbusters, Will Smith’s Deadshot is an oddity. Smith himself belongs to a forgone era in Hollywood, a time when the actor is bigger than the role he plays, one of the last outlaws in a new world. Similar to his contemporaries, Cruise and Schwarzenegger, Smith has the ability to carry an entire movie on his back and in the case of Suicide Squad, he is able to make a bad script good, solely pulling it past the finishing line with his strength of character and line delivery.

As for the rest of the squad, they do not get beyond one or two scenes of development, so we barely know them. Jai Courtney is hilarious as Captain Boomerang but otherwise, he adds very little to the actual plot beyond a few funny one liners and being a literal narrative boomerang, leaving the squad for a while before reappearing in the next scene. El Diablo is probably the only minor squad member with an actual story arc, and props to Jay Hernandez for giving a tortured performance as the squad’s resident pyrokinetic and making the most out of his small role. As mentioned, Katana and Killer Croc fairs the worse, the former is utterly wasted despite having the most interesting backstory in the team and a confident performance by Karen Fukuhara, the film affords only two scenes that expand on her otherwise underwritten character. As for Killer Croc, he is just there. He does not do anything beyond standing around and acting tough.

Speaking of standing around and acting tough, Cara Delevingne is appalling as the Enchantress, the weakest link in the entire film. The script seems to treat the Enchantress as a throwaway villain, not giving her any great acts of villainy beyond turning a few extras into unimaginative Lovecraftian zombies, Delevingne’s portrayal only aggravates the already awful situation. It is all cheese and camp, she hangs around a beam of light, jutting and twitching her limbs in odd angles every few seconds. The villain is one of the most important pieces of a film, providing a counterpoint to the hero’s struggle. So it is shocking to see Suicide Squad completely misjudge this aspect of the production and botching it to the high heavens. It might not come a surprise, Ayer’s body of work does not feature compelling villains at all, he is great at deconstructing his heroes but rarely does he succeed in providing a villain you love to hate. In a film of ‘Bad vs Evil’, evil simply didn’t show up. It’s all bad.

SUICIDE SQUAD

Clay Enos/ & © DC Comics Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

In terms of cameos, every Joker embodies the problems of their time period. Heath Ledger’s was a critique of the terrorism and its single-minded pursuit to ‘watching the world burn’. Jared Leto’s does away with the dogmatic terrorist ideology and philosophical musings in favour of gold plated guns and neon lit sports cars. This is the Joker for the materialistic, success obsessed Instagram generation. Leto’s Joker performance is impressive, relying on his menacing snarl and  boisterous but gradual hyena laugh to unnerve and intimidate. He is the most comic accurate of the long line of Jokers and at times feel like he stepped out the pages of an Alex Ross painted comic book.

Yet due to his disappointing lack of screen time, the jury is still out on Leto’s ability to carry the villainy of an entire film. Also worth mentioning, personally, it feels like a total crime to have both the Joker AND FREAKIN’ BATMAN in the same movie and not let both of them go at it or at the very least, face off. One can argue that a confrontation of this magnitude will probably be better served in a solo Batman feature. Still looks like a wasted opportunity to me.

Technicals are what we come to expect from a DC movie adaptation, no one does production values like DC. The movie is gorgeous to look at, especially the prison that houses the squad, it is wonderfully photographed and by that I mean the prison looks decrepit. The same goes for Midway City, where the bulk of the plot takes place, it has shades of John Carpenter’s 1981 cult classic ‘ Escape from New York’, everything either appears destroyed or broken down, it borders on ruin porn. The production design of the film is spectacular across the board, with different prison cells highlighting each character’s personalities. It looks fittingly dreary and nihilistic. A serious house on serious earth.  The character designs retain the visual essence of each character while adding onto the tapestry. I dare say it, most of the costumes look better here than in the Suicide Squad comics, Deadshot’s crimson armor, Captain Boomerang’s tradie inspired ensemble and Katana’s clean but menacing uniform are all interesting additions to their character’s mythology.

The opening vignette and flashback sequences stand out the most visually, Katana’s flashback fight scene in exquisitely shot, a furious ballet in the rain. Eagle eyed comic book fans will also notice several references to iconic DC comic book covers in the flashbacks, including one legendary Alex Ross painting of Harley Quinn and the Joker. Much of the action is competently shot but also serves a reminder that there can be too much action in the movie, with the script force feeding one action scene after another, we lose the opportunity to immerse in the story world. Instead of an exhilarating experience, the action scenes grow tedious, and the audience end up waiting for the next volley of character building scenes so we can hear Captain Boomerang quip again.

SUICIDE SQUAD

Clay Enos/ & © DC Comics Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

In terms of soundtrack, DC has a reputation of producing the best soundtracks for their films, a reputation that continues with Suicide Squad. It is loud, eclectic and extravagant. The tracklist reads like a who’s who of the music industry. Kanye West. Skrillex. Eminem. With a bit of The Animals and Creedence Clearwater Revival thrown in for good measure. These music tracks work best in the character introductions, transforming each vignette into each squad member’s personal music video. Once again, the indecisive script rears its head, adversely affecting the music. The dazzling pop, rock and hip hop tracks evaporate within the first 40 minutes. As the Enchantress puts her plan into action, the rock and rolling is replaced by a generic action score by Steven Price. The score isn’t bad but it is nothing special, especially when compared to the vibrant aural assault in the opening act.

At their best, DC movies are known to provide societal critique with pop culture entertainment, like in the case of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy and Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman. At its worst, DC tries too hard to be ‘cool’ and we end up with Green Lantern. Suicide Squad is not that bad though, the best way to put it is, the film wants to be cool but in its attempt, it forgot what made it interesting in the first place.

This is not a bad movie but I cannot say it is a good one either, it is a movie that despite its best intentions, fall into a grey area of ‘I guess its okay’. Unlike the polarizing Batman v Superman, this film wants to please mainstream audiences, promising a lot of action and humor and less brooding and angst. I would surmise that is why didn’t succeed as well as it should have. The result, while mildly entertaining, never reaches its full potential as a fun time and also strays too far from the DC formula of pop culture creative statements.

 

** and a half / 5

An uneven rock opera. Interesting characters, great visuals and music are undone by a horrible third act, an appalling villain and a tonally confused script. Suicide Squad is a life lesson. It is proof that massive potential does not mean anything unless you fulfil it.

I also reviewed Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which I felt is one of the best films DC  and Warner Bros. has put out, the review is available here.

 

If you like this, go watch:

Street Fighter (1994)- Colourful, dumb and starring Kylie Minogue. Also includes a climatic fight to decide the fate of the world. This is Suicide Squad without the crazy people, although everyone still kind of acts crazy anyway.

Mean Girls (2004)- If you like all that inter-team bickering, this movie takes it to the next level. A definitive movie of the 2000s.

Fury (2014)- Ayer’s best to date. A harrowing, claustrophobic journey with a WWII tank crew in the waning days of the war.

Tokyo Tribes (2014)- Sion Sono’s manga adaptation is vibrant, eccentric 90 minute rap video, one of the coolest movies ever made.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice: The Ultimate Cut (2016)- If The Dark Knight Trilogy is the Old Testament of the DC Extended Universe, then Batman v Superman is the New. This movie encapsulates all the strengths and weaknesses of Warner Bros. fledging cinematic universe.

 

 

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Perry Lam is an Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review. He is the director of  the documentary short film BLACK RAT  has been selected for numerous film festivals both in Sydney and overseas.  https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2016/02/02/welcome-perry-lam-rochford-street-review-associate-editor/

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