Sunday, 17 April 2022

REVIEW: X

Year: 2022

Director: Ti West

Screenplay: Ti West

Starring: Mia Goth, Jenna Ortega, Martin Henderson, Brittany Snow, Owen Campbell, Stephen Ure, and Scott Mescudi.

Synopsis is here:

 

I’m not sure at what moment Ti West’s X got me once again frustrated at film awards. It was possibly around the point in which the film delivers a tender split-screen involving Britney Snow singing a cover of Landslide by Fleetwood Mac. It might be the moment when a character tugs at a light switch. The film suddenly cuts back to the aftermath of a violent attack. An almost innocuous moment that becomes the film's most effective jump scare. West has always been an exciting horror filmmaker. However, watching the filmmaker’s maturity grow as a craftsman within these small moments reminded me of how much film organisations do the dirty within areas of the genre. Do I expect Ti West to win an Oscar? Not at all. But watching West create such an entertaining provocation on a tighter budget and with less pretension than some of the more typical prestige movies Hollywood tries to inflict on us reminded me of just how much horror should get more kudos.

X riffs hard on Tobe Hooper’s gruelling 70s opus; The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Like its predecessor, this slasher tale of an amateur porno crew embarking on a doomed feature starts innocently enough. Aspiring Porn actress Maxine (Goth) and his producer boyfriend Wayne (Henderson), head up proceedings with fellow actors Bobby-Lynne (Snow) and Jackson Hole (Mescudi), Director RJ (Campbell) and girlfriend Lorraine (Ortega) in tow, as they gallivant off to a rural Texas homestead to film footage of their movie The Farmers Daughter. They arrive at their location, which is home to elderly couple Howard and Pearl (Ure and Goth again). The abrasive nature of the shotgun armed Howard does little to deter the gang from performing their visual carnality. However, the day’s antics stir something within Pearl. Which soon quickly morphs from sexual to murderous, with tragic consequences.

Ti West coming off the back of a few years of TV work has come back with a horror throwback that holds a compelling use of form. The filmmaker seems to be in his element. Playing with classic inspirations as he’s known to do.  The homages are evident. Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) is noted in both the dialogue and visually.  Maxine’s opening moments of preparation pay subtle homage to the mirrored finale of Paul Thomas Anderson’s porn drama Boogie Nights (1997). Albeit without the large penile appendage. The religious fervour peppered on old televisions holds shades of Michael Parks’ crazed priest in Kevin Smith’s Red State (2011) as well as the likes of noted, real-life televangelist Billy Graham. Such moments appear in the film’s neatly detailed 70s aesthetic as lived in aspects. It never feels that the nods are cheap.

X spends a good deal of time allowing its characters to be people. Let’s be honest, this is a 90-minute slasher movie, so we’re on the lookout for grand opera. But what the film does have is characters with valid intentions. The film’s cast is headed up by Mia Goth, whose dual role as both adult movie starlet Maxine, and elderly host Pearl, highlights the young actress’ incredibly versatile range. Never one to shy away from the sexual (2013s Nymphomaniac), strange (2016s A Cure for Wellness), and horrific (2018s Suspiria remake) Goth is remarkable here. Playing both titillating temptress and spiteful, murderous OAP with more nuance than one would expect. 

From repressed sound girl Lorraine (Ortega) whose curiosity about the sexual exploits she’s being shown shifts almost 180 degrees, to the rudimentary yet liberating sexual politics of porn stars Bobby-Lynne and Maxine who are more than happy to toast to the perverts who are paying their bills. The film is just as wry with its topical conversations about sex as it is with its sympathetic commentary of its rueful antagonists. West’s maturity has the director blending in modern tropes of sex positivism along with its scattered movie references to a more seamless effect. The film's overarching theme, however, involves ageing and regret. Howard and Pearl rue the fact that the passage of time has removed their youthful vigour. While the porno scooby gang has only angered up the blood. If only they could see that such frustrated desire will occur to them too.

West has been around the block for so long that fans are wise to his trademark approach to horror. Slowly placing block upon block of slow-burning dread tentatively on each other before everything collapses into chaos. The deliberate manner is reminiscent of West’s Satanic panic feature The House of the Devil (2009). Much like House, X takes its time presenting its characters, giving them time to breathe before the mayhem starts. What stands out is just how well everything is staged. Much like Hereditary director Ari Aster, West isn’t afraid to make the whole thing look beautiful. Delivering picturesque wide and overhead shots so pretty, they make you forget about the unnerving isolation of the surroundings. Backlit closeups and grim set pieces are equally well envisioned. And there’s never a feeling that a scare has taken an easy way out.

 All the scuzzy feel of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre can be felt in X. But with none of the cumbersome “gen-z” pandering made by the recent Texas Chainsaw Massacre sequel. X certainly enjoys touching on topical sexual politics of the present and playing Don’t Fear the Reaper in a slasher film is just one of the few obvious gestures that X decides to make. However, West directs X with the kind of care that is needed in the genre. Creating a horror film that folds in eroticism, voyeurism, and the ravages of time with a sensitivity that a lesser film would bypass.

There is always talk about whether the horror genre is in a period of boom or bust. With no awareness that for the most part, the genre is nearly always steady. However, what makes the horror of the current age interesting is its strength in variety. There’s a genuine feeling that the genre and its filmmakers aren’t resting their laurels on just one thing. There’s also a strong crop of filmmakers who have something to say about the world. Even when mining into nostalgia to do so. X displays West’s deft ability to take what’s come before him and invigorate it with modern freshness and energy from unexpected places. An effective shocker with something to say. X proudly makes its mark screaming at the top of its lungs. It deserves credit.


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Thursday, 14 April 2022

Review: Barbarians

Year: 2022

Director: Charles Dorfman

Screenplay: Charles Dorfman, Statten Roeg

Starring: Catalina Sandino Moreno, Tom Cullen, Iwan Rheon, Will Kemp

Synopsis is here

There’s an element of wickedness when a Barbarians is released a few weeks after news of the U. K’s cost of living reaching the lowest point in 50 years. Charles Dorfman’s home invasion thriller deals with a country home being purchased by a toxic real estate influencer, who looks set to pass everything on to his younger screenwriter brother and his artist girlfriend. Moments of some of the self-absorbed behaviour track well. Tom Cullen who plays Lucas, the laddish older brother has an obnoxiousness that slaps you in the face like a bad smell. Lobbing words like viral and engagement around like marketing hand grenades, even as he prepares to offload this dream home to his brother, he does so with some arsey hardball negotiation. In watching the earlier scenes, the unattainable nature of what’s occurring feels all too real.    

This is a distraction to what Barbarians wishes to talk about. Taking cues from earlier films such as Straw Dogs (1971), while leaning into the more recent ‘millennial dining thrillers’ such as The Invitation (2015), You’re Next (2011), Ready or Not (2019) and Silent Night (2021) Barbarians observes the often-touched themes of primal violence under the veneer of civilized culture. The film’s early segments have Adam and Lucas sitting down to dinner to seal the deal. Joining them are their attractive, Mediterranean significant others Eva (Catalina Sandino Moreno) and Chloe (Inès Spiridonov) respectively. Their inconsequential chatter about current affairs, soon turns hostile between the two brothers, before their meal is interrupted by some imposing large men wearing animal masks. As these films go.  

Toxic Masculinity is mentioned in so many internet articles, Twitter threads and Instagram stories, that it’s starting to feel like a buzzword. However, Barbarians is invested in exploring the topic. And does so efficiently if although slightly typically. Cullen’s Lucas is unattractively fuelled by his machoism and self-absorption from the start. It’s impressive how quickly his live social media person begins to grate. As does his alpha posturing in front of the other members of the party. He’s the kind of man you just want to punch in the face. Of course, he’s also the kind of man who invites that type of aggression. Iwan Rheon, who plays the watery-eyed subordinate brother; Adam (make note of the name) is in familiar territory here. Rheon came to fame as the withdrawn arsonist Simon in the E4 Superhero show Misfits. His personality was so introverted, that his chosen power became the ability to become invisible. His role here is not much of a stretch. Playing a docile “beta” to his louder brother, his subservience is so profound that he holds no ability to stand up to anyone. Later revelations quickly have the writer swiftly emasculated with a dismissive “good boy”. Establishing his lowly position on the totem pole.

While being a relatively predictable piece, Barbarians deals in its fair share of violence and melodrama with energy and style. It’s worth noting how Charles Dorfman is more than happy to have the middle section of his film have a rather minimal amount of dialogue, allowing the visuals to tell the story over dull, expository verbiage. The film may only be a simple update on themes of emasculation and home invasion. Yet it does everything with an assertive amount of confidence. It’s a genre piece that does the basics rather well. Sometimes. That’s all you need.    


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Thursday, 31 March 2022

Article: Dog Day Afternoon - Blind Watch of Dobermann


I’ve been trying to find something that would shake me out of semi-doom scrolling the socials as we enter yet another day of the Chris Rock/Will Smith Crap Joke/Stupid slap discourse that has been running since the Oscars played out on March 27. This first-time watch of Jan Kounen’s hyper-kinetic, heist actioner Dobermann was just the right thing to jolt me out of award season malaise and push me into babbling some paragraphs down on this semi disused blog. It shouldn’t take me third-party hot takes of some badly behaved actors to get me back on the blog horse. However, the fresh prince’s slap heard around the world once again reminded me of how so much of film culture is now dedicated to talking around films, but never about them. I’m sure I have my own opinions about the utter nonsense that occurred on Oscar night. But that’s far too wrapped up in my disdain for the Academy Awards themselves. I will note, however, with all the people of colour making clear gains with their wins, this was ruined by a moment of macho madness which screamed bad optics to many in the silent majority. If you think reading by reading this paragraph, you know how I feel about the whole shebang. Guess again. But thanks for helping my SEO gain marginal footfall to my lowly page.

Back to the reason for this post. Doberman. A 1997 crime flick that was recommended to me by my dear friend and Hustlers of Culture podcast co-host: Hugh David. I remember Hugh excitably telling me of this wild, French slice of madness almost 10 years ago. I purchased the out of print, Tartan Video DVD almost 5 years ago. Which highlights a point for me: If you passionately recommend a film to me, I usually put it on a list, and I do try and get around to watching it. Just don’t expect a reaction a week later.

Dobermann is a product of Dutch-born French film director Jan Kounen who is now possibly more known for his Shamanism than his films. After working in advertising and creating two critically acclaimed shorts, Kounen drummed up the clout to create this first feature. From the film's first frames in which a Dobermann saunters through a church graveyard, we are ensured that subtly is not found here.

A smattering of plot. The wild-haired Yann Lepentrec (Vincent Cassel) otherwise known as Doberman arranges a complex heist with his misfit friends and deaf girlfriend "Nat the Gipsy" (Monica Bellucci) which leads to a large manhunt by the Parisian police.  The hunt is led by Christini (Tchéky Karyo), a cop whose moral bankruptcy is as deep as a sandworm’s stomach on Arrakis. Once Christini catches a whiff of the gun-loving thief, chaos ensues, building up to a frenzied and brutal climax.

I thought Doberman would leave me shook up. My overall response was more muted than expected. It’s a film that certainly has its moments. Watching a stray Doberman run into the church and attack a criminal, leading him to throw the gun that he was holding into his crying son’s pram, is certainly a way to introduce the character of Dobermann. The film certainly enjoys trying to lob grenades of craziness into its atmosphere. Many scenes feel as if ripped out of an angry teenager’s graphic novel. Doberman excels in nailing a wild comic book style energy, despite not pushing the boat out in other needless things such as plot. I was taken aback by how lightweight the film felt overall. With the film’s eager dynamic action covering a rather ho-hum screenplay.

Perhaps with Dobermann appearing nearer the back end of the era which delivered us the birth of one Quintin Tarantino and a strain of post-modern crime flicks, the film found itself under unfortunate circumstances. Watching Doberman's dated opening titles, which features a CGI-suited dog who chomps cigars, and urinates on actors' credits all the while holding a magnum, it’s difficult not to shake off some of the film's try-hard attempts of transgression. Tarantino chopped up his narratives and made gangsters a bunch of lads who nattered about tipping waitresses and chomping burgers with Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994) respectively. Elsewhere, Michael Mann decided to go for all-out operatic. Pitting Al Pacino and Robert De Niro together in a long-anticipated showdown with Heat (1995). Doberman features a cameo from one Gasper Noe, one of the leading lights in the New French Extremity movement coined by Artforum critic James Quandt. Noe’s film I Stand Alone (1998) coming a year after Doberman, shows where boundaries began to get pushed. Doberman sits awkwardly in between the brash philosophies of the Americans and the aggressively nihilistic visions of directors like Gasper Noe. While Tarantino decides to cut the heist because it doesn’t matter., Doberman merely has all its characters yelling like nothing matters. But they have no interesting thematic provocations.



However, Doberman is about looking cool first and asking questions on morality much later. Best viewed as a cult curiosity, it’s the kind of lower-budgeted movie which makes use of its limited number of locations. The action sequences hold a frenzied momentum, while the film's triple-headed cast of Cassell, Bellucci, and Karyo gnaw wildly at what scenery exists. There’s a dark charm that inhabits much of the film's craft. From locking a grenade into a cop’s bike helmet while still wearing it, to a dance DJ blasting out tunes ecstatically while a full-blown gunfight is taking place beside him. Both Cassell and Bellucci enjoy themselves while being somewhat short-changed considering their talents. But it’s Karyo who fully revels in sadistic narcissism with his role of a rogue cop gone off the deep end. Like Gary Oldman’s Norman Stansfield in Leon (1994), he gets all the film's best character moments.

For the most part, Doberman serves itself well as a morbid sugar rush, which would be worth a new generation of hipster films to seek out, if they don’t mind the volume of homophobia exhibited by some of the characters. The film isn’t a crowning achievement for its well-known cast, but it’s not a bad late-night watch that would make an interesting double bill with Roger Avery’s Killing Zoe (1994) if you’re up for a little bloodshed.


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