Monday 15 February 2016

Monday Night Roundup #13

I've been busy at Apocalypse Later since my last Monday Night Roundup. I caught up with a couple of submissions, for a start.

One is a feature, Death in the Desert (2015), which stars Michael Madsen and the city of Las Vegas in a story based on the real murder of casino heir, Theodore ‘Ted’ Binion. It's a very different approach to a familiar story.

The other is a short, the latest from the Fatal Pictures combination of writer/director Richard Powell, producer Zach Green and star Robert Nolan. I loved Worm and Familiar and was delighted to find an Apocalypse Later quote about the latter on the Kickstarter page for this one. It's Heir (2015), 'a touching story of a father and son' which description has multiple meanings. Yes, this is a really creepy short, aided by the addition of Bill Oberst Jr in sparkling form.
I celebrated a couple of birthdays: Charlotte Rampling's 70th with a review of Nagisa Oshima's thought provoking surrealist feature, Max Mon Amour (1986), and James Spader's 56th with a look back at his last pre-fame film, the interesting thriller about twins, serial killing and an homage to Jack the Ripper, Jack's Back (1988).
I reviewed a couple of short educational films for my Weird Wednesdays project: the American bicycle safety film with monkeys, One Got Fat (1962), which my better half saw in class in first or second grade, and a chilling British take on why not to play on railway lines, The Finishing Line (1977), which was commissioned by British Transport Films and then withdrawn from circulation due to the ensuing controversy.
And I started a new project, in which I remember important people to the world of film on what would have been (or, in two instances, what hopefully will be) their one hundredth birthdays by reviewing one of their most interesting films. The first entry for this project is for the underrated Japanese director, Masaki Kobayashi. I picked a dark drama, The Inheritance (1962).

Here are brief reviews of some other features I watched this last week that won't end up reviewed on that site any time soon:

Cooties (2015)

Director: Jonathan Miliott & Cary Murnion
Stars: Elijah Wood, Rainn Wilson, Alison Pill, Jack McBrayer, Leigh Whannell, Nasim Pedrad, Ian Brennan and Jorge Garcia
Fifteen minutes into Valentine’s Day and I gave my better half cooties. Well, Cooties. It’s a 2014 comedy horror movie starring Elijah Wood from the Lord of the Rings movies. He looks younger here, even though it’s thirteen years since he first put on those hairy feet for Peter Jackson.

He’s Clint Hadson, a wannabe author who’s writing a horror novel about a possessed boat and a teacher about to substitute for Mrs Kenner at the school he used to attend as a kid: Fort Chicken Elementary, home of the Fighting Roosters. The town is well named, because it’s about to get subjected to a zombie-like outbreak caused by contaminated chicken. The film’s disgusting opening sequence starts off with a Happy Poultry Farms worker wringing the neck of a chicken and progresses all the way through the pink slime manufacturing process to a Fort Chicken Elementary schoolgirl biting into the chicken tender that it became.

That’s pretty much it for the sweep of the story, this hardly being a deep exploration of anything, but it introduces a fair set of characters for us to laugh at or with. Only Hadson and Lucy McCormick, a girl he went to school with and now works as the fourth grade teacher, are remotely normal, though neither really stays there for the whole film either. Well, the obnoxious kids are normal but not in the way we want. Cooper Roth does an amazing job, for instance, as a pissant little kid called Patriot, given to the world by God on 9/11 so he can grow up to be a marine and go kill all those towelheads. No, this isn’t remotely politically correct, thank goodness.
The crossing guard is a druggie who spends most of the film in his van. He’s as high as a kite because he eats all his mushrooms when the 5-O show up in response to the zombie outbreak. ‘Are you on shrooms too?’ he asks the giraffe in the passenger seat. The vice principal is a happy go lucky sort who has bouncy balls for chairs in his office. Or is that the principal’s office, given that he’s only temporarily in charge? We really don’t care. This isn’t about a school, not really. The reason teachers will like this film is because they can live vicariously through the staff bashing in the heads of their annoying students with fire extinguishers and dodgeball equipment. This is wish fulfilment fantasy relief for hassled teachers worldwide.

One staff member has a rape alarm and just loves to tell people why she wears it. She’s a religious freak who hates the state of Illinois because it won’t let her teach creationism or carry a gun in class. There’s Wade, the huge PE teacher who can’t land a single basket in the playground and manages to miss most of the initial massacre because he’s distracted. And there’s Doug, who gets most of the best lines of the film. He’s reading a book called How to Have a Normal Conversation when we first meet him, which is much needed. He’s the staff’s nominal scientist because he had a six inch iron spike lodged in his brain when he was a kid, so he naturally got to know all about that stuff.

Doug is played by Leigh Whannell, in a rather different role to the one we know him best as: the other guy in Saw, which franchise he created. Given that we have notable names like Elijah Wood, Rainn Wilson and Alison Pill, it’s somewhat odd to find myself focusing on an actor better known as a producer. Then again, Vice-Principal Simms is played by Ian Brennan, the creator of Glee, so maybe it’s a trend. Whannell shows a great sense of comedic timing as Doug, throwing out lines like, ‘Now I’m going to extract the brain’ or ‘I always wanted to have sex with a prostitute who was non-white’ at exactly the right moments. I’ve seen a lot of people who enjoyed Rainn Wilson as Wade, but he mostly left me dry. This movie is all about Doug for me.
The biggest problem the film has is that it forgets what it wants to be. It builds slowly with a focus on character development, as if it’s a drama, but with a neat touch of comedy. The humour grows quickly until we can’t fail to realise that this is very much a comedy first, a drama second and a horror flick a distant third. The first act is engaging, the second act is hilarious and the third act is... well, the third act is mostly just there.

All the invention of the early scenes fades away to become samy samy blah. The character development is either thrown away entirely or leaps forward as if we slept through half an hour and woke up to find out how things had changed. The kids, who are frankly awesome for at least half the film, start to make less and less sense. If this chicken virus destroys their brains, then how come they keep doing smarter things than the teachers they have under siege? The only good thing in the last third of the film is the ramping up of gratuitous violence and, as much fun as that is, it really can’t save the movie.

I applaud the film for being willing to tell such a controversial story in comedic form, casting a bunch of kids who know exactly how to be creepy little bastards and spinning a tale of horror violence out of the juvenile idea of cooties. At one point, a little girl who’s avoided the chicken plague, gives Hadson an imaginary cootie shot and it’s a surprisingly touching moment in a film mostly devoid of them. Oh, and I applaud the idea that the token black kid is the only one to survive. No spoiler there either. You aren’t going to watch this for a story anyway. You’re going to watch it because a bunch of kooky teachers get to bludgeon a bunch of kids to death in increasingly outrageous fashion and we get to laugh while they do it. On that front, it works like a dream. On any other front, it’ll impress and then disappoint, so don’t get too invested.

Action Jackson (1988)

Director: Craig R Baxley
Stars: Carl Weathers, Craig T Nelson, Vanity, Sharon Stone, Thomas F Wilson, Bill Duke, Robert Davi, Jack Thibeau, Roger Aaron Brown and Stan Foster
I can’t say that I’m a particular fan of Denise Matthews, the artist formerly known as Vanity, but given that 2016 in film is currently being defined by obituaries more than releases, I felt I should take the opportunity of her untimely death today to review the movie for which she was nominated for a Razzie as Worst Actress. It turns out to sum up her career rather well.
She first appears on a club stage singing a suggestive song in a suggestive outfit, appropriate because she found fame leading Prince’s girl group, Vanity 6, in hits like Nasty Girl. The number in the band’s name represents the collective number of breasts belonging to the trio and we get to see Vanity’s two relatively soon into her role here. She turns out to be both the mistress of the villain of the piece and a drug addict, shooting up what is presumably heroin. In real life, she became addicted to crack cocaine and overdosed in 1994, nearly dying of complete renal failure. Given three days to live, she was visited by Jesus who told her that he’d let her live if she gave up the persona of Vanity. She did so and survived, turning to the Lord in the process: getting clean, cutting all ties to show business and devoting her life to evangelism. That’s here too, as her character rescues Action Jackson at one point by pretending he’s an evangelist and we get a hilarious scene with Carl Weathers as a pretend preacher man.

Unfortunately she’s clearly not the best of the two up and coming female stars who were willing to get topless for the camera. The other one was Sharon Stone, still seeking stardom at this point, her eighties career going through the usual cycle of extra work (Stardust Memories), a horror movie (Deadly Blessing), wannabe blockbusters (King Solomon’s Mines and its sequel), embarrassing aims for fame (Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol) and action (Cold Steel, Above the Law and this film). How did I not know about Beyond the Stars, though? I should find that one. Total Recall was still two years away and Basic Instinct four, so she’s still at the point where she had to do a shower scene even though she was clearly better than that. She even gets a second topless scene as a corpse and, no, that doesn’t spoil much because she’s surprisingly underused and hardly in the film.
I wanted to mention the ladies first, as inconsequential as they are here, because it’s really a man’s film, a testosterone fuelled eighties action flick with all the component parts we might expect, so we can safely now forget about those ladies.

Of course, there are overblown action scenes and the film naturally opens with one. To the strains of the music of cliché, a man is taken down hard by what looks like the nearest heavy metal band to answer a casting call (one of these hitmen turns out to be the lead singer of Giuffria). Two swing in through the windows while the other two use the door, but they all pose while they blow their target through the gap the glass left to fall many storeys to his flaming death.
There’s also embarrassing music. Beyond Vanity’s songs, which are entirely capable but cheesy eighties R&B, the score is by both Herbie Hancock and Michael Kamen, who between them defined film music in that decade, and there are featured songs by Sister Sledge and the Pointer Sisters. I’m proud to say that by 1988 I was stagediving to Napalm Death so managed to avoid this stuff for the most part.

Perhaps the most successful aspect is the film’s sense of humour. I loved the first calm scene, for example. A young black hood called Albert Smith attempts to steal the purse of a huge black woman, played by a big stuntman in drag for no apparent reason, in the streets of Detroit. The lady doesn’t even let go of the bag and promptly beats him with it until the cops who are driving right next to him when it happens save him and take him downtown. They’re a refreshingly well adjusted multi-cultural pair, who scare the crap out of the kid by telling him stories about a bogeyman cop called Action Jackson, whom young Albert naturally runs into while trying to run out of the precinct, spilling coffee all over his desk. One line from Jackson and he faints. A few scenes later, a mere look through a set of offices is enough to make him faint again. And he shows up later in the film too. I loved this humour, something that modern takes on eighties action cinema, like The Expendables films, only mostly got right.
And of course there’s Carl Weathers. In fact, given that this film sprang out of an idea he had for a new blaxploitation movie while making Predator a year earlier, it features a bunch of his fellow cast members from that film. There’s police captain Bill Duke and drug dealer Sonny Landham who shows up late for a fight scene. I’m used to the blaxploitation of the seventies and hadn’t realised how many regular faces I would recognise here from a decade later.

The story plays fourth fiddle to the action, the humour and the faces, mostly because it’s a stunningly routine sort of story for this sort of film. Jackson is a dedicated cop but he ran up against a powerful man called Peter Dellaplane when he put his son in jail. Allegations of police brutality, which were probably true (‘You nearly tore that boy’s arm off,’ suggests the captain; ‘He had a spare!’ retorts Jackson) lost the cop his lieutenant’s stripes, his gun permit and his marriage. Now he runs into Dellaplane again, because the captain sends him to the Detroit Business League’s Man of the Year Award ceremony, to see if he can deal with Dellamore winning it. Of course it merely begins a plot in which Jackson discovers that his nemesis, an automobile industry executive, is killing off union bosses and so pursues him.

Carl Weathers is fine as Action Jackson, though he remains a little stonefaced at points, as if afraid to act, surprising given that he does fine throughout most of the film. Some of his best work is in early scenes where he pressures important people, like Dellaplane, while knowing that he can’t resort to the violence for which he’s known. His one liners are great and he gets plenty of them. ‘How do you like your ribs?’ he asks one bad guy as he turns a flamethrower on him. His action is fun, even though he doesn’t get to show off his remarkable physique until almost the end of the picture. One car chase in particular is quintessential eighties action flick fodder: chockablock full of outrageous leaps, crashes, explosions, gunfire, destruction and, of course, cheap plot conveniences. I loved it!
I can’t say I loved the film but it’s certainly a lot more enjoyable than it is good. I’d have happily tuned in for the sequel that never came, even if the Germans did pointlessly release 1990’s unrelated Dangerous Passion as Action Jackson 2. This is routine cheesy action comedy with a predictable plot that couldn’t be mistaken as being from any other decade but the eighties. But hey, that’s Craig T Nelson from Coach as the villain of the piece and he gets Sharon Stone for a wife and Vanity for a mistress. Really, that’s all we need to tune in. Carl Weathers as Jericho ‘Action’ Jackson and the whole modern blaxploitation concept is really just icing on the cake.

RIP Denise Matthews, formerly known as Vanity.

February Reviews at the Nameless Zine

I write book reviews for The Nameless Zine, an online zine run by the Western Science Fiction Association (WesternSFA), a non-profit fandom group based here in Arizona.

As the Nameless Zine follows a graphical indexing system, I also maintain my own text index of what I've written at my own website. You can find it here at the Reviews at the Nameless Zine page.

Reviews at the Nameless Zine post monthly on the 15th of each month and February's batch are now online. I reviewed between seven and nine books this month, depending on how you count:

A, B, C - Three Short Novels

This is a collection of three early novels by Samuel R Delany, a multi-award winning science fiction author who I've somehow never got round to before.

The Jewels of Aptor was his first novel to see print, written at nineteen and originally published in 1962, though this is the full version, with the fifteen percent cut for space restored.

It's science fantasy, setting up as a fantasy novel, with some characters congregating together in Leptar to end up on a quest together, working for a priestess and former personification of a goddess, to retrieve the jewels of the title from the island of Aptor and her daughter with them. It becomes more science fiction as it goes but remains fantasy throughout. It's interesting but not essential, important mostly as a debut.

The Ballad of Beta-2, however, overjoyed me. I adored this novel, originally published in 1965, and can easily see this becoming a long term favourite. It's the shortest of the three novels in the book, but it resonated with me.

It follows a graduate student in galactic anthropology on an assignment he doesn't want, to provide a historical analysis of the ballad of the title from primary sources, which means he has to visit the Star Folk, who live on generation starships that mostly got where they were going only to find that the rest of humanity jumped ahead when a hyperspace drive was invented. This book looks at how these folk changed during their journey of twelve generations and what they found on the way to change them even more. This may sound dry, but it's utterly engaging and as accessible as a Heinlein juvenile.

They Fly at Çiron, which was mostly written in the sixties but didn't see print until 1993, is the work of three decades and feels like it. It's enticing but somehow not quite right yet. It's accompanied by a couple of short stories set in the same world.

It's back to fantasy, with the blissfully peaceful town of the title (they don't understand what weapons even are) attacked by a passing army who conquer because they need to expand. It's a strange tale that follows a number of different characters on a number of different sides, as the experience builds them all in ways they couldn't expect. I liked it but was still thinking about The Ballad of Beta-2 even once it was done.

For more, visit my review at the Nameless Zine.

A Crucible of Souls

This novel, the first in the Sorcery Ascendant Sequence and Mitchell Hogan's first book, looked like a relentlessly generic fantasy and frankly didn't do much to dissuade me from that thought. It also feels like a five hundred page prologue, as we're set up strongly with Caldan, our lead character, and a host of others in support, as well as the the city of Anasoma and a little of the world it's part of, but the story we're waiting for starts s the book finishes.

That said, I thoroughly enjoyed it and devoured its five hundred pages in two sittings. If it's an Emperor with no clothes, he's a thoroughly engaging Emperor, drawn in exquisite detail and generating questions all over the place. This is a world of sorcery but we're not quite sure who the good guys are and what's going to come crashing in from outside the city. It's told in three strands, two of which meet halfway through the book and the third waits until the very end, setting us nicely up for chapter one, I mean book two.

I'm looking forward to finding out some of the answers, because none of them show up in this volume. Maybe the next one will explain to me why I enjoyed this one so much when nothing of grand importance really happens.

For more, visit my review at the Nameless Zine.

Press Start to Play

This is an anthology, edited by Daniel H Wilson and John Joseph Adams, which aims 'to recreate the feel of a video game in prose form.' It's a mixed bag, as anthologies tend to be but it's an interesting one with only a few stories worthy of exclusion. Sadly the first two are among the list of what shouldn't have made it, but persevere and you'll get to some real gems.

Early highlights for me include S R Mastrantone's Desert Walk and Charlie Jane Anders's Rat Catcher's Yellows, which brought my faith in the book back. The former uses videogames not just as a subject but as a way to explore obsession and it gradually slides from the banal to the surreal. It felt very true. The latter looks at games not as entertainment but as therapy and explores a fascinating relationship between two married women, one of whom has been neurologically damaged by the disease of the title and doesn't even recognise her wife. This story goes nowhere I expected and I adored it.

Recurrent themes include blurring the boundaries between games an real life, health and social issues and text adventures, an old genre that I remember well and which perhaps fits in story form better than any other.

The worst thing about anthologies is that they're almost never consistent and this is no exception though it's decent overall. The best thing about them is being able to discover a bunch of great writers that you've never heard of before. To me, that was Mastrantone, Holly Black and Hugh Howey, each of whom I'll be looking into now. I had heard of Anders but hadn't read her, so I'll be rectifying that too.

For more, visit my review at the Nameless Zine.

Three Parts Dead

Having been given the fourth volume in Max Gladstone's Craft Sequence to review, I thought I should work my way through the first three, especially as I'd bought them from the author at Phoenix Comicon last year.

I thoroughly enjoyed Three Parts Dead, which is a fantasy novel set in a world where gods are real, but they serve as channels for energy, receiving it through worship and expelling it in a number of physical ways, such as fire which generates the steam that runs the city of Alt Coulumb. When the fire god dies, as gods can be killed, the lawyers are summoned because the work of gods is bound by legal contracts. As those lawyers are also necromancers, they can resurrect if appropriate.

Mixing up fantasy, steampunk and legal action, this is original and fascinating. Gladstone's prose is glorious and far better than it ought to be for a debut novel. His characters are good too and his plotting is tight. It's hard to find anything bad to say about this book and I thoroughly look forward to following up with the second, third and fourth in the series.

For more, visit my review at the Nameless Zine.

Apollo the Brilliant One

A large format graphic novel skimpy on the page count, running under eighty pages, this is a cross between fun adventure and textbook for kids. It's clearly aimed for children in school, right down to the list of questions at the end to spur children to discuss what they've read.

It's the eighth in George O'Connor's Olympians series, each of which focuses on a different Greek God. Some former subjects show up here, such as Hera, Ares and Poseidon, so the books will build on each other, but this is Apollo's story and, to a lesser degree, that of his son, Asklepios.

I enjoyed the approach, which was to split Apollo's story into a set of short vignettes, each introduced by a different muse. It's a fun read too, written and illustrated well, but it's not exactly challenging. Kids ought to enjoy it very much but this isn't where the rest of us should go either for information or adventure. To be fair, we're not the audience, but hey.

For more, visit my review at the Nameless Zine.

The Land Leviathan

I reviewed Michael Moorcock's 1971 proto-steampunk novel, The Warlord of the Air, in January, and I'm following up this month with its 1974 sequel, The Land Leviathan, which returns Oswald Bastable, time traveller, to a new future, this an earlier one, having him move forward from 1902 to only 1904 but a different one to earlier.

This time out, he finds a world which had become utopian, with the various inventions of Manuel O'Bean, a child genius from Chile. However, the pace of technological change outstripped man's ability to cope with it and a War Between the Nations erupted on a scale more vast even than the ones we know from our own history. Biological weapons scorch the planet and much of the northern hemisphere is reduced to rubble. Into this vacuum moves the Black Attila, Cicero Hood, whose New Ashanti Empire expands across most of Africa, throughout Europe and is set to take North America too.

As before, this is told in the Victorian style, not only with its vintage prose but also its vintage philosophising, which is, of course, most of the point. It's even more thoughtful than the first book, playing with concepts like good and evil, war and peace, justice and injustice and so on. More real people show up, such as Gandhi, who runs the racially integrated Marxist Republic of Bantustan here, formerly known as South Africa.

For more, visit my review at the Nameless Zine. I also reviewed The Warlord of the Air.

The Polar Treasure

I've been reviewing a Doc Savage novel every month, working in the order of publication in the pulps rather than the Bantam paperbacks. This is the fourth book, The Polar Treasure, from June 1933, which shows a steady improvement for Lester Dent, writing, as always, as Kenneth Robeson.

It's a lost treasure story, triggered by a blind violinist who was on a liner chased into the Arctic during the Second World War and lost, along with fifty million dollars in diamonds and gold bullion. Unbeknownst to him, the map to the treasure was tattooed on the violinist's back with ink that can only be seen by X-rays. Now the two factions who want it have come to get it and only Doc Savage and his men stand in their way.

This is still relatively predictable, but it's handled well with believable twists and turns, more believable exotic locations and more to do for Doc's men. I enjoyed it as much as I did the previous episode, but it's a better book and it shows how much Dent was progressing with his new series.

For more, visit my review at the Nameless Zine. I also reviewed The Man of Bronze, The Land of Terror and Quest of the Spider.

Monday 1 February 2016

Monday Night Roundup #12

I've been busy at Apocalypse Later over the last couple of weeks:

I celebrated the birthday of Edgar Allan Poe by reviewing a lesser known adaptation of one of his short stories, Mystery of Marie Roget (1942).

I commemmorated the 130th anniversary of Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by reviewing four silent versions of the story, all called Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde: the 1912 version with James Cruze in both lead roles, the 1913 version with King Baggot, the famous 1920 feature version with John Barrymore establishing himself in no uncertain terms and the shorter 1920 version with Sheldon Lewis.

I also remembered Dan Haggerty by covering the two films he selected from his career for me to review for my Make It a Double project back in late 2014: Axe Giant: The Wrath of Paul Bunyan (2013), a classic tall tale reinvented as a slasher movie, and The Capture of Grizzly Adams (1982), the TV movie that wrapped up his run as his most famous character after a 1974 feature and a 1978 TV show.

Here are brief reviews of some other features I watched this last week that won't end up reviewed on that site any time soon:

Crime Spree (2003)

Director: Brad Mirman
Stars: Harvey Keitel, Gerard Depardieu, Johnny Hallyday, Renaud, Said Taghmaoui, Stephane Freiss, Albert Dray, Shawn Lawrence, Joanne Kelly, Richard Bohringer and Abe Vigoda
January 2016 has been a really tough month for film fans, with the loss of David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Angus Scrimm, Dan Haggerty and now Abe Vigoda, who at 94 has finally left us after decades of false news reports. He died on the 26th in his sleep.

I never saw him in his most famous role, as Det Sgt Phil Fish on the sitcom Barney Miller and its spinoff show, Fish, but I’ve seen him in films as varied as The Godfather, Cannonball Run II and Joe vs the Volcano. To remember him here at Apocalypse Later Now!, I pulled out a picture that I hadn’t seen but which looked like a whole bundle of fun, riffing comedically on his many serious gangster roles. It’s Crime Spree, a Canadian/British co-production from 2003 which pits a number of French legends against American gangsters. It turned out to be a really good choice, because I laughed aloud for a majority of the first half and some of the second.
The picture begins in French, with Gérard Depardieu and a couple of cronies trying to steal a painting from an art gallery in Paris. They fail because they’re utterly inept. While they did buy a flashlight, they neglected to buy batteries, so they use a cigarette lighter to help them see. Once they’ve cut out the painting from its frame on the wall, one crook gets burned by the lighter, which he throws across the room, setting the curtains on fire. He uses the rolled up painting to put out the flames. It’s ruined, of course.

Now, at this point we might expect a Pink Panther sort of story, but that’s not where we’re going. In fact, the boss’s henchman highlights that well by mixing up the Pink Panther with the Black Panthers. That’s not where we’re going either, but America is. The boss wants them to go to Chicago to steal jewellery from the bedroom safe in an empty house. Even these morons can’t get that wrong, but just in case, he sends his right hand man and they add a professional assassin and someone who used to live there and owes them money.

The team ends up as six people. Depardieu is Daniel Foray and his two partners in crime, Julien Labesse and Raymond Gayet, are played by Stéphane Freiss and Albert Dray. I didn’t recognise either, but both looked familiar and they make a great trio with their better known leader. The two professionals arrive in the legendary forms of two of France’s biggest rock stars: Johnny Hallyday, as Marcel Burot, and Renaud, as the killer, known only as Zéro. The final man is Sami Zerhouni, a young Algerian portrayed by Saïd Taghmaoui, who was César nominated for his role in La Haine and is now starring in a host of Hollywood films as varied as GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Conan the Barbarian and American Hustle. His arrival in this film is when the dialogue mostly switches from French to English.
While these half dozen French hoods are not equally inept, they’re all hilarious and the comedy in this script was priceless. I don’t recall the last time I laughed this much out loud at a movie. It works this well partly because of the situation comedy conjured up by writer Brad Mirman, who also directed, but also because of the supremely serious way in which all of them, but especially Hallyday and Renaud, do everything. I enjoyed the odd culture shock scenes, like when they go to a café and attempt to smoke and order wine (‘What kind of country is this?’ asks Zéro), but it’s the utterly serious way that they do utterly ludicrous things that works best. And, while we could have done with a lot more background on each of these characters to bring them to more effective life, how they conduct themselves is enough to make us laugh as they dig themselves into progressively deeper holes.

How deep a hole, I hear you ask. Well, over in Chicago is a mob guy called Frankie Zammeti. He’s tough enough that he has his men break his own brother Vinnie’s arm because he can’t pay back the $20,000 he lent him. Later, he has them send him flowers and a get well card, but he sticks to principle. Frankie is a big deal and he’s played by Harvey Keitel, who can play mouthy gangsters in his sleep. So when these French hoods show up at the address they’re given, find that it isn’t as empty as they were led to believe and tie up the occupant and break into his safe, it won’t be too surprising to discover that that’s Frankie Zammeti in his underwear that they’ve duct taped. Uhoh!
Anyone who laughed aloud at the idea of inept French crooks robbing Chicago gangster Harvey Keitel by mistake will absolutely adore the first half of this film and they may well stay with it as it starts to get a little more serious. The laughs never go away but they die down somewhat as we realise that nothing is as simple as it seems. Of course, nobody could be this unlucky; this botched robbery was a set up. But who’s setting up who? We have a large and capable cast who all have their part to play in this story that reminds of the work of Guy Ritchie, in its levels of complexity and number of characters, but doesn’t aim for the same sort of style. Let’s just say that these French fish out of water are soon on the run from the FBI, the Chicago mob, a local Latino gang (after they steal their getaway car while they’re busy robbing a convenience store) and the Chicago police department.

The cast are excellent. The French criminals aren’t given the background they deserve but the actors do their jobs and some get a good opportunity to grow throughout the film. Their boss, Laurent Bastaldi, is well cast too: the highly experienced Richard Bohringer does exactly what he needs to. This could have played out as an entirely French film without any of the additional complexity and it would still be great fun. However, we have a whole American side to the story too.

Keitel is exactly as you expect but thrown into surreal situations that impress; there’s a shootout in a bar that ends in a fantastic way, for instance. At least he got an establishing scene with his brother. He’s a major player but he’s not the boss; that role goes to Abe Vigoda as Angelo Giancarlo. He has a lot of fun here too and watching Keitel and Vigoda reprise what they do best while the script conjures up laughs around them is an absolute blast. This applies to their men too. One of the funniest sections is when the tied up and duct taped Zammeti rings Joey Two Tons with his nose and the latter thinks it’s a dirty phone call. The Frenchmen’s contact in Chicago is Sophie Nichols, in the form of Joanne Kelly, six years before she’d become Myka Bering on Warehouse 13. I love that show but I liked her better here, where she isn’t as stuck up. Shawn Lawrence also gets plenty to do as FBI Agent Pogue and he keeps evolving with the film too.
The story is massively complicated but it’s easy to keep up with what’s going on because it’s episodic; each reveal serves to explain one plot device and then set up the next one. There are some interesting shots: one uses split screen in an odd way with different pauses per section to highlight who’s talking in a conversation, while another has Hallyday and his men shoot their way through a series of rooms to get out of a hotel trap, all shot from above. I loved the pregnant pause in between records on the jukebox in the bar shootout scene too but that’s less original.

The downside is surely in the odd consistency of the film. It starts out as a comedy but ends as a drama; while the entire film is both, the laugh factor decreases consistently throughout the film and the serious side grows just as consistently. This makes us wonder if the hilarity of the first half was part of the actual plot rather than the film and, if we start to believe that, the occasional humour in the second half feels a lot more out of place. It also means that the first half is much faster paced than the second; we spend half a film building up complexity then the other half tying up all the many loose ends.
What I’d like to do is watch the film again now that I know where it goes, because I want to see if it’s just as funny with that foreknowledge or even funnier because I’m not trying to figure out where it’s going. I especially wonder about that second half, when the French hoods we know little about become the folk we’re totally rooting for. Early on, we don’t have much connection. ‘Why do you work with these morons?’ Bohringer asks Depardieu. ‘These morons are my friends,’ he replies and that’s about all we have then. Later on, we care because we’ve got to know them better. These morons become our friends too and so does the film.

Sure, it’s an odd picture in many ways. The pace isn’t remotely consistent. It’s an English language film with a lot of subtitled French dialogue. It changes from being a serious comedy to being a funny drama. The ensemble cast meas that some characters don’t get the opportunities they should and we deserve more background for many. But I like laughing out loud and this film got more of that from me than any I can remember in quite a while. I’ll definitely be showing it to other people for that reason alone.

Now, we’re almost into February. Hopefully Death can calm his scythe down a little and leave us some of our legends for a little bit longer.

RIP, Mr Vigoda.

The Revenant (2015)

Director: Alejandro G Iñárritu
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Forrest Goodluck, Duane Howard and Arthur Redcloud
It takes a director of the calibre of Alejandro González Iñárritu, the writer/director of Amores Perros, Babel and Birdman to create something as empty as this and make it rivetting, absorbing and emotional. The Revenant runs over two and a half hours, unfolds in a snowy wilderness shot in natural light and features very little dialogue, most of it from Tom Hardy, who mumbles his way through the film. We’re not even told where or when we are, though the future Dakotas in 1823, as Wikipedia tells us, is completely believable. We’re left to figure out quite a lot, though the story itself is a simple (but never easy) tale of revenge.

What we don’t get in story or dialogue, we get in cinematography, as a group of trappers, led by Captain Andrew Henry, try to escape an Indian attack with whatever they can take with them. This is the most gorgeous picture I’ve seen in a long while, courtesy of Emmanuel Lubezki, who won the last two Oscars awarded in this category, for Gravity and Birdman, and could easily make it three in a row with The Revenant, his eighth nomination. Nobody’s ever done that before and it would take something very special to beat him.

His camera roams, floats and turns but rarely cuts. Stephen Mirrione does a solid job as the film’s editor but he makes less cuts than I can remember seeing in a feature. There’s a shot where the camera follows the trappers onto a boat to leave, under fire from the tribe attacking them, then works back around to see the shore, now very differently populated. We’ve changed focus a few times and perspective a few more, with intricate choreography to make it all viable, but it’s all done in one single, utterly amazing shot. And this isn’t the only one. It’s one in a bundle of a dozen early on. It wouldn’t surprise me if my jaw wasn’t hanging open at this point. These early scenes are what cinema is for.
The trappers leave their haul in the safest location they can think of, so they can escape but return at a future point in time and hopefully recover it. We follow them for a while, but then the scene that will go down in cinematic legend comes along and things change completely. Hugh Glass, the party’s guide, is attacked by a grizzly bear who is protecting her cubs. This is an utterly brutal scene, once again shot in a single take, and it’s not an easy one to watch. The bear is CGI but Leonardo DiCaprio, who throws himself into this role like you wouldn’t believe, could have fought a real bear and it wouldn’t have been any more realistic.

Glass manages to kill the grizzly but is horribly mauled in the process and close to death. Realising that they can’t carry him back over the mountains to their home base at Fort Kiowa, Capt Henry promises a bonus to any volunteers who will stay with Glass until he dies and then give him a proper burial, before following the main party. And here’s where things really get interesting.

One of those volunteers is John Fitzgerald, who’s the Donald Trump of the party, in the sense that he says what everyone else is thinking but also goes much further to boot. Having previously survived a scalping attack which left the skin on his head disfigured, he’s already biased against Glass, who has a halfbreed Pawnee son called Hawk. He’s also selfish and unscrupulous enough to do whatever it takes to get ahead, so he takes the $100 bonus to stay with Glass and promptly tries to murder him, using witchfinder logic: blink if you want me to do it. When the dying man’s son interrupts him, he kills him in front of Glass’s eyes, an especially tough moment for a man of action who’s utterly unable to move. Then, with Indians closing in, Fitzgerald drags Glass into a makeshift grave and leaves him for dead.

However, with Glass too tough to die and now burning for revenge, the main thrust of the film begins: the march of the many, followed by the two, followed by the one, followed by a Native American tribe looking for the chief’s daughter, Powaqa, who has been stolen by trappers.
What Hugh Glass endures in this story would be hard to put into words yet retain the impact and I don’t want to spoil the film anyway. What Leonardo DiCaprio endures in this film as he plays Glass is just as mind-boggling. He’s said that ‘I can name 30 or 40 sequences that were some of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do.’ As with Iñárritu and Lubezki, it’s hard to imagine DiCaprio not picking up the Best Actor Oscar for this performance, especially as Academy Awards are often awarded politically and he’s been overlooked enough already, with five nominations for his acting but no wins so far. And, of course, he’s already won the Golden Globe for this role. What’s most amazing is that he hardly speaks, initially because he knows that silence is the best policy in hostile company and then because his dire condition prevents the very possibility.

As Fitzgerald, Tom Hardy is almost as good but in completely different ways. He actually reminds of Jesse Ventura here: the hunch, the headgear and the attitude. He gets most of the dialogue in the film, and I’d love to find out the percentage, but he’s rarely clear. I was annoyed initially as I missed lines, but then I realised that this approach fits the character well. Fitzgerald is a lazy soul who doesn’t care if anyone can understand him or not and we all get the point, even if we don’t hear the words.

These two would dominate the film, if not for Lubezki. Even with what he shows us early on, there were points where Iñárritu’s script calls for something else nigh on impossible to deliver and Lubezki promptly delivers. The entire film was shot on location, in harsh terrain, under snow and storm and cold. The lighting is almost never overt, the majority of the film lit naturally with campfires or odd glimpses of sunlight from over the horizon or through the trees. Light is a precious resource in this film for us, as it would have been for these trappers in real life. While we see characters up close often enough, there are many shots that are very long and wide to emphasize how small man really is in these surroundings. The trappers struggle against the land even more than they do the pursuing Indians, who are dangerous enough on their own.

There are others in support of DiCaprio and Hardy and they’re strong too, if with much less opportunity. Domnhall Gleeson, enjoying an insanely good year, with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Ex Machina and Brooklyn also to his credit in 2015, plays Capt Henry, a principled man who merely isn’t the outdoorsman that Glass and Fitzgerald are. Will Poulter is Jim Bridger, a young and idealistic trapper who volunteers to stay with Glass for nothing, only to fall foul of circumstance and Fitzgerald’s scheming. Both are solid but eventually become props for the two leads to use.
Seventeen year old Forrest Goodluck is quiet, moody and resonant as Hawk’s, Glass’s son, but he’s overwhelmed by the leads and doesn’t have the presence of the older Native Americans with screen time. Arthur Redcloud impresses as Hikuc, a philosophical Pawnee who Glass stumbles upon on the trail and who assists him in a number of ways. Duane Howard is a major presence in the film as Elk Dog, the chief of the Arikara, searching for his daughter. He gets few lines but clearly doesn’t need them, as his powerful final scene underlines. Melaw Nakehk’o is effective as Powaqa too. It’s great to see a Native American cast playing Native American characters.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about this film is that it’s a true story, or at least close to one. Some of these characters didn’t exist or had other names and some of the situations are conjured up for the film (or taken from the novel it was based on), but Hugh Glass was a real man and he was really mauled by a bear and left for dead by his comrades, only to survive alone in hostile country and struggle 200 miles back to Fort Kiowa even with a broken leg, exposed ribs and festering wounds. In real life, he set his own leg and used maggots on his wounds to avoid gangrene. Friendly Native Americans sewed a bear hide onto the skin of his back to cover his wounds. So, while Iñárritu and novelist Michael Punke gave him a little too much credit at points, there are others where they don’t give him enough.

There have been other film versions of this story. Richard Harris played Zachary Bass in 1971’s Man in the Wilderness and Dewitt Lee played Sam Glass in the 1975 western, Apache Blood. I’m interested in seeing both, especially the former, but surely neither will hold a candle to this one. The Revenant was nominated for twelve Oscars. In less than a month, we’ll find out how many it wins.