Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Nocturnal Animals


For anyone with a serious redhead fetish, ‘Nocturnal Animals’ – which features no less a quartet of world-class beauties of said hair colour than Amy Adams, Isla Fisher, Ellie Bamber and India Menuez – might well prove their ‘Citizen Kane’. (It also stars Andrea Riseborough, an equally not-troubled-by-the-ugly stick redhead, but buries her under a brunette frightwig.) For anyone else … hmmm, well …

‘Nocturnal Animals’ is a Tom Ford film. I know this because the opening credits are ushered in by the authorial statement “a Tom Ford film”. As are the closing credits. Seriously, the moment the final shot fades to black, there it is: “a Tom Ford film”. But let’s get back to the opening credits for a moment. As they crawl towards their interminable conclusion, overlaying slow motion shots of morbidly obese people dancing naked in slo-mo – a series of images that has no bearing on what follows and is never revisited – the last three are “produced by Tom Ford”, “screenplay by Tom Ford” and “directed by Tom Ford”.

Tom Ford has obviously never heard of the traditional “written, produced and directed by” credit. Or he has, but rejects it in favour of stamping his name on his product as omnipresently as possible. Tom Ford is also a fashion designer, and it might be that his fixation with labels extends to his new career as a director. ‘Nocturnal Animals’ is his second film and it should probably be legislated that you don’t get to say “a Your Name film” on your films until you’ve directed at least half a dozen of them and genuinely proved yourself as an auteur.

But, for better or for worse, ‘Nocturnal Animals’ (one of the worst titles I’ve come across since Nick Willing’s ‘Photographing Fairies’ back in 1997) is a Tom Ford film, so let’s take a few paragraphs to discuss what it has to offer in all its Tom Fordy Tom Fordiness.

Art gallery owner Susan Morrow (Adams) is twenty years divorced from non-career-focused wannabe writer Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), trapped in a loveless second marriage to smooth bastard, philanderer and also-ran businessman Hutton (Armie Hammer) and a distant mother to Samantha (Menuez). Her life is perfectly ordered, sterile and about two steps away from total implosion. One day, she receives a proof copy of a novel Edward has had accepted for publication (it looks more like an amateurishly bound MS rather than a set of galleys or a bound uncorrected proof, but hey ho) and which is dedicated to her.

The novel tells the story of regular guy teacher Tony Hastings, his wife Laura and their daughter India and how their family vacation turns into a nightmare after an encounter with a bunch of rednecks. Minor spoiled: Laura and India are sexually assaulted and murdered while Tony, more through his captors’ stupidity than any proactive decision on his part, escapes. Dead inside, he partners with unorthodox lawman Bobby Andes to track down the perpetrators and take revenge.

As Susan reads, she imagines Edward as Tony, and drops in place surrogates for herself and Samantha as Laura and India (Fisher and Bamber respectively). Also, she imagines the story in vicious and uncompromising detail. Andes is played in this film-of-the-novel-within-a-film by Michael Shannon and he’s the absolute motherlovin’ best thing in ‘Nocturnal Animals’ by a wide margin. Everyone else seems stilted and ill at ease, even down to Riseborough and Michael Sheen turning in caricatures in bit parts. The hillbillies – portrayed grubbily by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Karl Glusman and Robert Aramayo – are no less clichéd.

I’ve read a broadsheet review which seriously tries to suggest that the filmed excerpts from the novel are comparable with Peckinpah. Bullshit! Peckinpah would have given the rednecks characters and rooted their motivation within a socio-economic framework, not to mention establishing a realistic dynamic as regards their interrelationships. But, y’know, Peckinpah could direct and that’s the difference.

Edward’s novel is about revenge, and in riffing on little details that force Susan to confront her memories, it is also an act of revenge in and of itself. As Susan’s carefully constructed rationales for her equally carefully constructed lifestyle begin to implode, she wanders through her gallery and is confronted by a painting she can’t even remember acquiring. Black paint on white canvas: the word “revenge”. At this point I wondered if Tom Ford was going to run round from behind the camera, flick a speck of non-existent dirt from his impeccable Tom Ford suit, point at the painting and enquire of the audience whether they were fully aware that this is a film about revenge. And then perhaps deliver a short lecture on how it’s also a film about how the hollow lives of upper-middle class entitled people who do each other emotional violence are thrown into sharp relief by the story of a life rendered hollow by an act of physical violence committed by the underclass.

Tom Ford’s obsession with the rednecks’ filthy lifestyles – right down to showing his audience a post-arse-wipe scrap of toilet paper (thanks, Tom) – is if anything more prurient than his love of lifestyle porn. Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography certainly emphasises this, exercising cool restraint as his camera prowls the art gallery or Susan’s clinically neat des res, then happily rubbing the viewer’s nose in degradation whenever the hillbillies are on screen. And can I say once again how fucking stereotypical these boys are? I half expected the end credits (“a Tom Ford film”) to refer to them as Bubba, JohnBoy and BillyBob Rapist.

‘Nocturnal Animals’ is undoubtedly well made. Thought went into every aspect of it. They way thought goes into films by Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke. And like those boys, for all the artfulness behind the enterprise, it’s difficult to shake the feeling that buttons are being pressed and controversy courted for its own sake. I’ve said before on these pages that von Trier and Haneke remind me of nine-year-olds who have just figured out that saying “fuck” in the playground gets a reaction and delight in proving that observation over and over again.

Tom Ford is playing from the same playbook – not to mention playing in the same sandbox – with ‘Nocturnal Animals’. He has a cast to die for, some incredibly talented collaborators behind the camera, none of which count for much in the face of his ego and what I can only suspect are a seething raft of issues that he’d be better off seeing a therapist about rather than inflicting on paying audiences.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Live By Night


In Raoul Walsh’s ‘The Roaring Twenties’, the trenches of the First World War are the cauldron in which loyalty, rivalry and criminality are forged. In Michael Curtiz’s ‘Angels with Dirty Faces’, a spiritual battle for the soul of the gangster is finally decided in an ambiguous closing scene. In Howard Hawks’s ‘Scarface’, the gangster is elevated to tragic hero, pursuing the attainment of the world entire at the cost of everything else.

Ben Affleck’s ‘Live By Night’ merges elements of all of these and more – surely it’s no coincidence that Dennis Lehane, on whose novel the film is based, picked the title for its evocation of Nicholas Ray’s hymn to the romanticism of the outlaw, ‘They Live By Night’ – as it strives to recreate the iconography of classic Warner Brothers gangster movies while engaging in a dialogue pertinent to a contemporary audience.

And to a certain degree the attempt is to Affleck’s credit. As the poet said: a man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for? However, in identifying Lehane’s fiction as a potent combination of propulsive genre narrative and intelligent social commentary – previously translated to the screen in fine style in Clint Eastwood’s ‘Mystic River’ and Affleck’s own directorial debut ‘Gone, Baby, Gone’, and to a slightly lesser degree in Martin Scorsese’s ‘Shutter Island’ – Affleck makes two crucial mistakes.

But we’ll come to those later. For now, take my hand and we’ll waltz through a plot synopsis. Irish-American twenty-something Joe Coughlin (Affleck) comes back from the war pissed off with taking orders and kowtowing to rank. He and some buddies carve out a minor living doing nickel and dime hold-ups until Irish mob boss Albert White (Robert Glenister) recruits him under pressure. Coughlin, not wanting to be a part of any particular gang or organisation, accepts in the spirit of self-preservation and because it puts him closer to White’s flapper girl moll Emma (Sienna Miller, aurally defiling the movie with the worst Irish accent), with whom he’s conducting an affair. Meanwhile, Italian mob boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) tries to persuade Coughlin to assassinate White. His options running out, Coughlin plans one last job to fund his absconsion with Emma. It goes tits up. Meanwhile, a vindictive Pescatore puts the word out to White about Coughlin’s dalliance with Emma. The only thing that saves him from death at White’s hands is the intervention of his police captain father (Brendan Gleeson, to whom Sienna Miller’s Irish accent owes an apology), and even then he still has to take a beating from Coughlin Snr’s cop buddies and do some jail time.

All of which would be enough material to fill a 90 minute feature and yet here is little more than an extended overture (one, moreover, that’s established and rushed through as inelegantly as a bull on steroids manoeuvring its way from the front entrance to the rear exit of an emporium dedicated to the crockery and figurines fashioned from the finest bone china). The main business of the story takes place post-prison sentence as Coughlin, grieving for Emma (presumed dead after her care plunges off a bridge) and burning for revenge against White, sells his soul to Pescatore and finds himself running the mobster’s rum smuggling operation in Tampa. Here, he partners up with Dion Bartolo (Chris Messina), muscles White’s crew out of the game, and reaches an agreement with police chief Figgis (Chris Cooper) whereby Coughlin and Bartolo restrict their dealings to specific socio-geographical locations and the cops turn a blind eye. While Coughlin establishes a profitable business relationship with rum distiller Estaban Suarez (Miguel), whose sister Graciela (Zoe Saldana) he romances, Figgis’s impressionable daughter Loretta (Elle Fanning) goes off to Hollywood to be a star but ends up addicted to heroin and forced to appear in skin flicks. When Figgis’s KKK-connected brother-in-law R.D. (Matthew Maher, stealing scenes like Rafferty stole jewels) takes against Coughlin on account of his relationship with the dusky-hued Graciela, Coughlin uses Loretta as leverage to convince Figgis to set R.D. up. Coughlin’s devious machinations are, however, not enough to avoid a full-scale conflagration between Klan and bootleggers.

There’s no doubt that this is the most effective part of the film, even if the pay-off is badly rushed, but again there’s material aplenty in this one plot strand for an entire feature. But Affleck isn’t done yet. With the Klan out of the way, the end of Prohibition looming and a fuckton of Pescatore’s profits sunk into a casino development, Coughlin then has to contend with Loretta’s post-rehab reappearance as a hellfire preacher (yes, Affleck casts the elfin Fanning as a hellfire preacher; yes, that decision works out exactly as you’d expect) and the cold-feet withdrawal of his legitimate business partners on account of the negative publicity Loretta’s anti-vice, anti-gambling, anti-everything-but-God campaign has stirred up. And if that’s not enough, Pescatore has plans to retire Coughlin, it turns out that Emma might not be dead after all, and White has one last hand to play.

Once again, enough material for a whole film is shoehorned into half an hour, with melodrama and cliché piling up against each other. A fantastically staged and edited hotel shoot-out restores some genre kudos to the proceedings, but an extended coda in three acts drags things out that bit longer.

I said earlier that there were two problems with the film. The first is Affleck the writer, the second Affleck the actor. While there’s no doubt that he’s totally engaged with the material as director, he doesn’t yet have the skill as a scriptwriter to translate Lehane into the cinematic medium; and as an actor, he doesn’t deliver the complexity Coughlin’s character calls for, nor does he have any chemistry with Miller or Saldana. (His asexual relationship with Anna McKendrick’s character in ‘The Accountant’ generates more frisson!)

‘Live By Night’ wants to be a sweeping old-fashioned epic but one that turns a contemporary eye to questions of race, religion, politics, loyalty, rivalry, compromise and even social justice (Graciela is driven by restoring dignity and honour to the underclass of her native Cuba). There would have been two ways to do justice to the book: focus on about a fifth of the existing narrative, truncating the timeline and focusing on character interaction (a la Curtis Hanson’s adaptation of James Ellroy’s ‘L.A. Confidential’), or as a TV mini-series of about five hours. Affleck simply tries to cram too much into his 128-minute running time. Paradoxically, this results not in a frenetic narrative but a plodding and sometimes tiresome one.

That said, there are still things to appreciate. Robert Richardson’s cinematography is a thing of beauty, conjuring some eyeball-searing images: a burning police car sinking into a steely-grey lake; a motorboat slowly cleaving the waters of a lake sheened with the pink/gold of a fireball sun sinking into the horizon; a nocturnal shoot-out in front of the skeletal frame of a half-built casino, laths of timber creating frames within frames within frames. There is also a cluster of fantastic performance – Cooper, Messina, Maher, Glenister, Girone – although this comes at the cost of there not being a single decent role for a woman in the whole thing.

“You get out of this world what you put into it,” Coughlin’s father warns him at one point, “but not always how you might expect.” Coughlin was always going to be blasé about this truism; he was always going to be a compromised protagonist. That the film is equally compromised is the real disappointment.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Antagony and alternatives

When I first took to this platform to create The Agitation of the Mind in 2007, one of the first of Blogger's extended film community to champion the endeavour was Tim Brayton. His blog was Antagony & Ecstasy and it quickly became one of my top three resources for intelligent, trenchant and - best of all - witty film criticism. And I've remained a regular visitor (if, to my shame, an infrequent commenter) ever since.

As of yesterday, Antagony & Ecstasy closed its doors. After Brexit and Trump's election, that might have been enough to give me the screaming heebie-jeebies and sending me sprinting for the nearest insane asylum. But fortunately western civilisation is only two-thirds destroyed and Tim is simply reinventing Antagony as part of a collaborative endeavour. His new project, Alternate Ending, debuts tomorrow. Go here to follow this new chapter. Update your link lists.

Good luck, Tim.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Sully


‘Sully’ is about many things: it’s about a cool-headed act of heroism executed under intense conditions and with no margin for error; it’s about how FAA investigators are basically witch-hunters but with corporate job titles; it’s about the different ways in which PTSD manifests; it’s about how a city claims heroes for itself; and most of all it’s about people doing their jobs.

Clint Eastwood’s direction acutely reflects this, to the point that even the villains of the piece – the soberly dressed men and women who do everything they can to prove an act of reckless endangerment on Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (Tom Hanks)’s part – are just doing their job in the same way that Sully and co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) were doing theirs, the Manhattan ferry operators who assist in getting the passengers ashore from the freezing waters of the Hudson were doing theirs, and the paramedics who tend to them were doing theirs.

There is very little in ‘Sully’ that isn’t about the minutiae of getting on with one’s job of work. Just as ‘Deepwater Horizon’ invested a sizeable chunk of its running time in explaining how an oil rig works and what the various people who work on it are individually responsible for, and only gets down to the big disaster movie set pieces once all the necessary exposition has been delivered, so ‘Sully’ spends more time with its eminently professional and quietly understated protagonists as they go about their day-to-day (albeit a day-to-day that involves smug people in suits trying to blame them for deep-sixing an aeroplane and never mind that they saved every single passenger) than it does in said plane when it finally puts down on the Hudson.

In fact, Eastwood almost teases the audience with several iterations of the water landing (as Sully coolly corrects an investigator who refers to it as a “crash”). We first see it as Sully’s nightmare in the immediate aftermath; then in part as Sully almost seems to doubt his own judgement during a conversation with his wife (an underused but still effective Laura Linney). It’s very late in the film before Eastwood shows the whole thing, and his aesthetic is austere and realistic. What many directors would stage as a cathartic, even rousing, set-piece is here a jolting and immersive piece of visceral filmmaking. Notwithstanding that everyone knows the outcome – everyone survived – Eastwood communicates the urgency of the forced landing, the against-the-clock necessity of getting everyone off the plane before it sank, and the hypothermia-inducing temperature of the river.

To reiterate: ‘Sully’ is a damned fine film when it concentrates on, and offers up an unsentimental hymn to, the importance of professionals doing their job and trusting their instincts. Its footing is less sure elsewhere, though. The vignettes that introduce a handful of the passengers are lazy to the point of stereotypical. A scene in a bar where an overly garrulous bartender and two drunks are so overwhelmed to meet Sully that their effusiveness embarrasses him is staged like a particularly unfunny outtake from ‘Cheers’. Two other nags: Eastwood’s commitment to an austere aesthetic bleeds the film of any visual distinction; and the editing is fussy and sometimes distracting.

What can’t be denied, though, is that ‘Sully’ communicates its key points simply and with clarity. Hanks and Eckhart do sterling work, both actors bringing lightly-worn gravitas to the roles, and playing off each other in a wry and ironic style. I’d even suggest that, in Tom Hanks’s refusal to make his characterisation of Chesley Sullenberger a performance, he gives the performance of his career.

Friday, January 06, 2017

Passengers


‘Passengers’ is the most amiable 12A rated film that ought to be a solid 18 rated exploitationer that I’ve seen in a long time. And there’s no way I can talk about it in a remotely useful way without flinging SPOILERS out left, right and centre.

Okay, I’m exaggerating: there’s only one spoiler that I need to fling out, and I’m not sure that it even constitutes that much of a spoiler, but let’s assume – and it’s a fairly safe and logical assumption – that most movie-goers base their movie-going on trailers and proceed from there.

The trailer for ‘Passengers’ has it that Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence are in suspended hibernation on a long-haul space flight only they wake up 90 years before the ship is due to make landfall (planetfall?) and all kind of shenanigans ensure including matey banter with Michael Sheen’s android barman, falling in lurve, and a desperate attempt at something or other when the ship goes tits up in the IT department and shuts down.

So far, so mainstream: soft sci-fi romantic drama starring to extremely attractive people. Let’s face, you could be of any sexual persuasion and abjectly loathe science-fiction and you’d probably still go and see ‘Passengers’ because Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence and you’d swing either way in that particular dynamic and say thank you afterwards.

But what the trailer doesn’t imply – what the trailer in fact goes to great lengths to keep off the radar – is that it’s only Pratt, playing a character whose name I had to look up on IMDb no less than an hour after watching the movie, that’s how fucking disinterested in characterisation the film is, who is awakened thirty years into a 120-year flight after his pod malfunctions and spends the first fifteen minutes or so of the film engaged in the following activities: trying to find out what happened and repair the fault; flipping out because he can’t; yakking it up with the bartender (who’s kind of like the bartender in ‘The Shining’ only he never “corrects” anyone); abusing the ship’s online entertainment system; and, after a year of solitude, getting so utterly drunk and depressed that he finds himself with only two choices: commit suicide or wake somebody up for companionship.

(You can see where this is going, can’t you?)

Credit where it’s due, Pratt’s character – let’s call him Hunky Mechanic Dude – opts for suicide as a first choice. Pussies out, though. Then he goes all “big moral debate” on the waking someone up thing, right down to interrogating the passenger manifest and accessing the records of his fellow passengers (information governance, anyone?), very quickly fixating on Jennifer Lawrence’s character, whose first name was Aurora because, y’know, stars and shit. So, after much browbeating and agonising – … oh, who the fuck am I kidding? – after about five seconds flat Hunky Mechanic Dude decides to reawaken the Hottest Blonde Chick On The Entire Fucking Spaceship. And then let her think that her pod malfunctioned the same way his did. And then dissuade her from engaging with a solution to the problem. And then allow a sexual relationship to develop between them.

Which pretty much turns Hunky Mechanic Dude into Skeazy Stalker Rapist-by-Default Dude. Not that Jon Spaihts’ screenplay doesn’t do its almost damnedest to rationalise HMD (a.k.a. SSR-b-D)’s behaviour. He reads Aurora’s file before waking her, discovers she’s a writer, samples some of her work and is impressed by her intelligence. (Nope: still a skeazy rapist-by-default.) Post-awakening, he “gives her space” before he makes his move. (Nope: see above.) When the fucked-up-IT-shit hits the fan, he embarks on a course of action that could end his life in order to save the lives of the 5000 or so other sleepers. (Nope: still a scumbag, albeit a fairly brave one.)

Oh, and regarding that saving-the-lives-of-everyone-else business? Said narrative arc is introduced immediately after the Aurora (understandably) wigs out big time about Hunky Mechanic Dude being Skeazy Stalker Rapist-by-Default Dude, and serves purely to get them back together. The way this boy-rapes-girl-by-default-girl-finds-out-boy-gets-girl-back obstacle is hurdled comes by way of a third individual reawakening after their pod malfunctions – in this case, a senior crew member who has access to various protocol levels (not to mention a tendency to dump exposition like a chemical company dumping waste) and who conveniently expires shortly after giving Weirdly Back On Romantic Hero Duties Dude all the information he needs to save the day.

After which How The Fuck Am I Supposed To Feel About This Dude Dude saves the day.

This is the truly weird thing about ‘Passengers’: you could take the entire film, cut out the bit where Chris Pratt is basically a skeazy stalker/rapist by default, drop in the briefest of scenes where Aurora’s pod malfunctions at the same time as his, and the rest of the film (absent, of course, the Aurora-finds-out scene) would play out exactly as written without imbalancing the film in any way, and actually giving us a romantic hero who would actually tick both of those boxes. Indeed, the raising-the-stakes finale would play better as the relationship would be genuinely and there would be infinitely more to lose for both protagonists.

Granted, there are plenty of other minor issues: Pratt’s character, as a lower grade passenger, can’t get a cappuccino or a full English in the automated breakfast bar, yet seems to have an open account at all of the ship’s restaurants and manages to rewire some circuitry so that he has access to the best quarters available; he’s a mechanic, but he wants to start a new life on a new planet so he can build a house (a mechanic is not an architect, builder, carpenter, plumber or electrician; try building a house without any of those guys); the way the ship creates its own gravity is scrupulously established then immediately forgotten about the moment the script needs to generate some tension.

On the plus side, the production design is a thing of beauty (the last time I wanted to live in a sci-fi environment was Tom Cruise and Andrea Riseborough’s cloud base in ‘Oblivion’), Sheen is terrific, the hour-forty-eight minute running time doesn’t outstay its welcome, and the leads are mighty attractive (even if both give awful performances). Everything considered, ‘Passengers’ emerges as watchable fare: it’s just weird to the point of perverse that it purposefully made the one narrative decision that robs of it of being the slick, enjoyable piece of escapism it unequivocally should have been.

Friday, December 23, 2016

WINTER OF DISCONTENT: Threads


Spoilers throughout. In the increasingly urgent series of public information broadcasts made by an ineffectual government as global events escalate towards nuclear war, the exhortation “stay at home” – backed up with threats that unoccupied houses will be seized by the government and rehousing refused to those moving elsewhere in the country – becomes a mantra of sorts. This is the key to ‘Threads’, Mick Jackson’s unforgettable TV movie on the horrors of nuclear war. Its first half focuses specifically on the domestic, with the momentous political events relayed through newspaper headlines and news bulletins. Barry Hines’s script sketches in a complex global scenario with astounding economy; other writers would have fashioned an entire feature from the material and not even given a thought to the ordinary folk whose lives are about to be devastated.

The second half savagely eradicates the concept of home as a safe place – a working class family perish because their fallout shelter is adequate; a middle class family survive longer because their house has a basement. Not that this prevents them from being murdered by looters. Later, a crowd gather outside the gated premises being used to store foodstuffs and demand entry; the leader of a team of armed guards advises them to go back to their homes; less than a minute later, he’s directing his men to fire tear gas at them. Later still, as society unravels – the title refers to the ties that both join together a society and leave it vulnerable to attack – a group of refugees plodding across a bleak landscape are strafed by a low-flying light aircraft from which an amplified voice barks at them to go home. Raised fingers and clenched fists are offered to the plane by way of response.


The concept of home infuses ‘Threads’ from the outset. Its nominal protagonists are Jimmy Kemp (Reece Dinsdale) and Ruth Beckett (Karen Meagher), whose respective parents – David Brierly and Rita May, and Henry Moxon and June Broughton – aren’t too impressed to learn of Ruth’s pregnancy and the couple’s intent to marry. Objections are strongest on the Beckett side as Mr and Mrs B are middle class and hoped for better for their only child than jack-the-lad joiner Jimmy. Parental disapproval, awkward in-law introductions, and Jimmy and Ruth’s attempt to make a home out of a dismal flat occupies the first 40 minutes or so of the film. Gradually, though, the various characters become aware of how serious things are becoming on the world stage. Jimmy admonishes a bartender for turning off a particularly portentous news update. Ruth suddenly bursts into tears whilst decorating the flat. Jimmy’s father does his best to improvise a bomb shelter from a mattress, a kitchen door removed from its hinges and a pile of rammel stacked on top of it, all the time fretting that he didn’t pay enough attention to the ‘Protect and Survive’ broadcasts.

Meanwhile, powers are devolved to local councils in the event of the worst case scenario. Sheffield (the city was still a major manufacturing hub when ‘Threads’ was made) city council supremo Clive Sutton (Harry Beety) packs his wife off to a safe haven – which turns out to be not so safe at all – and installs an emergency operations team in the city hall basement. Contingencies for post-nuclear survival and societal regeneration are the order of the day, but before any real progress can be made, tensions in the US, Russia and Iran collide and the opening salvos are fired in a conflict that escalates within hours to nuclear deployment.


Jackson’s portrayal of the effects on an everyday social grouping is devastating. The citizenry go from panic buying (a brief but effective scene has the manager of a small supermarket unrepentantly hike the prices of tinned goods) to outright panic. When the first strike hits, the initial response is disbelief. Shoppers stop dead in their tracks. A fireball hangs like something obscene between two civic buildings. “Jesus Christ, they’ve done it,” Jimmy gasps; “they’ve done it!” Two scatological moments capture the awful indignity of facing the unthinkable: a shopper in Sheffield town centre gazes wide-eyed at the horizon, barely aware that she’s pissing herself; Jimmy’s father blurts “Bloody hell!” as he hoists his trousers and stumbles out of the toilet.

I said earlier that Jimmy and Ruth were nominal protagonists. Jimmy definitely so as he exits the narrative at this point, caught in a desperate race to get back to Ruth. It’s the only moment in the film that’s even remotely melodramatic and it’s probable that Hines and Jackson included it to rob the audience of any semblance of a comfort zone. Jimmy has already been revealed as fundamentally less than a romantic hero (his best mate persuades him to be his wingman when a couple of girls in a pub give them the eye; Jimmy ends up shagging one of them in his car); now he’s written out of the narrative entirely, and shortly afterwards, Ruth leaves the confines of her parents’ basement; and after that all bets are off.


Ruth’s surreal progress (if that’s not too proactive a word) through a destroyed Sheffield and – eventually – further north is contrasted with the degeneration of Sutton’s command centre. He and his team are trapped underground after city hall is reduced to rubble. Supplies run low. Tensions increase. Tempers fray. The entombed basement becomes a microcosm of government as a whole, and to call Sutton and his councillors woefully unprepared is an understatement on an entirely new scale. Arrogance and entitlement ooze to the forefront: support services are refused to those “who are going to die anyway”, yet the councillors scream down the phone that rescue teams are too slow in assisting them.

Moral ugliness plays off against visceral ugliness. One of the looters responsible for the death of Ruth’s parents is gunned down. Militia – many of them minor officials with no military training or experience – are armed and given ad hoc powers of life and death. “We’re going to get shot by a traffic warden,” a protestor muses bitterly at one point. Hospitals, deprived of electricity and essential supplies, revert to nightmarish Victorian asylums, full of screaming patients, botched surgeries, blood splashes over the walls and viscera underfoot. But even this vision of healthcare is a comfort compared to the circumstances in which Ruth finally gives birth: in a filthy outhouse in an abandoned freeholding, a chained up and possibly rabid dog snarling and straining at its chain outside.

Money is replaced as a currency by food, which the government partitions out as a reward to “workers” (those fit enough for basic agricultural tasks) or withholds from the elderly or non-able-bodied as punishment for what is perceived as their social uselessness. Those at death’s door doss down in cemeteries. A pack of cigarettes is traded for a bottle of whisky. Insensation or death are the two best options.


As time passes and small semblances of social cohesion emerge – coal mining is resumed; there is some basic provision of electric – one senses that it’s too late: people have become feral; language has devolved; the threads that connect people are few and far between. The coda has Ruth’s daughter giving birth to her own child – a product of rape – only to be handed a stillborn bloody mess in a bundle of dirty rags. The film ends on a freeze-frame of her horror-struck face. She isn’t even allowed a howl of despair.

It’s grim. But we all knew that, right? ‘Threads’ has a reputation for sheer existential awfulness that makes Bergman’s trilogy on faith looked like a gag reel; that makes ‘The Night Porter’ look like ‘The Producers’; that makes Tarkovsky at his bleakest look like ‘The Wizard of Oz’. ‘Threads’ is grim, disturbing; brutal in its commitment to documentary realism. It even takes away from you the ability to comfortingly remind yourself that it’s just fiction. The clipped tones of the narrator are like a BBC newsreader giving you an update on the worst possible news report. The statistics and sociological facts that occasionally punctuate the narrative, tapped out onscreen like a telegraph, emphasize the documentary style. Thirty-two years on from traumatizing the seven million British TV viewers who constituted its original audience, ‘Threads’ has lost none of its power. Sure, the fashions and cultural touchstones may have changed, but it never feels like a time-capsule. Quite the opposite: it feels like a series of dispatches from the not-too-distant future.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

WINTER OF DISCONTENT: Big Bad Mama II


If Steve Carver’s ‘Big Bad Mama’ is an example of anti-narrative, semi-narrative or shit-we’d-better-pay-lip-service-to-narrative (depending on how eleventh hour the deadline and how frenetic the scriptwriter’s typing skills), then by comparison Jim Wynorski’s ‘Big Bad Mama II’ demonstrates the single-minded narrative focus, uncluttered by subplot, of Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Seven Samurai’.

The story, in all its streamlined glory, is thus: Wilma McClatchie (Angie Dickinson) and her husband Aaron (John Dresden) are working a dirt farm and raising their already very comely daughters, Billie Jean (Danielle Brisebois) and Polly (Julie McCullough), when –

But but but but but …

Wait a minute. Let me finish.


But in the first film –

Dagnabbit, boy, I said quit talkin’ and let me finish this here plot synopsis.

[sullen mumbling]

– when the sheriff and his boys, in the service of landowner and gubernatorial campaigner Morgan Crawford (Bruce Glover) come calling. Aaron doesn’t take too kindly to the foreclosure on the farm and in the ensuing gunplay he’s fatally wounded. Wilma swears revenge. Deciding that death is too good for Crawford, she decides to deep-six his political aspirations by kidnapping his son Jordan (Jeff Yagher) and using journalist Daryl Pearson (Robert Culp) to portray the lad as a willing participant in the McClatchie family’s fast-livin’, tyre-screechin’, tommy-gun-firin’ way of life. Smitten with Polly, Jordan is more than happy to go along with it.


That’s pretty much everything that happens in the 84-minute running time. To go into any more detail would be to give away a little too much about the siege that ends the film (and which includes a magnificently cheeky steal from ‘Foreign Correspondent’).

All right, then: get it off your chest.

But but but but but … in the first film Wilma ain’t got no husband, least not one that appears in the goshdarn movie, and she gets into a life of crime because of a bootlegger who’s kind of an uncle to her girls and one of them girls was a brunette in the first film and at the end it’s heavily implied that Wilma gets –

Whoa there! Keep it spoiler-free, boy.

But ain’t you gonna question them continuity errors, Mr Agitation, you bein’ the big-shot movie critic ‘n’ all? Or are you gonna let it slide on account of the fast cars, shoot-outs and boobies?

Boy, you know me well.

But now that the elephant has been revealed to the occupants of the room, let’s address the issue. ‘Big Bad Mama II’, made thirteen years after the original, exists in the same fictive space as the original due to the same actress playing the same protagonist, the dustbowl/depression era/setting being replicated, and Wilma having two daughters called Billie-Jean and Polly (even though Billie-Jean’s name is spelled differently in the credits to the Wynorski film: she’s Billy-Jean is Carver’s). But is it a sequel, prequel, reboot or the entirely original work of an auteur who only put up with the ‘II’ in the title because the producer insisted on it?


Well, it certainly acknowledges the original: carefully chosen clips from Carver’s film (i.e. not featuring Susan Sennet or Robbie Lee) are included in a mid-film montage sequence that depicts Wilma’s escalating crime spree. But it can’t be a prequel because Billie-Jean and Polly are depicted as, if anything, a year or two older than they were in the first film (speaking of which, Brisebois here plays the older sister to McCullough despite McCullough being four years her senior). And it can’t be a sequel since there isn’t a damned thing that makes sense continuity-wise if it is. And it’s a strange kind of reboot that hitches its wagon so explicitly to the original, right down to casting the same lead.

Whichever way you look at it, ‘Big Bad Mama II’ is odd. I mean, what in tarnation do you call a film that exists in the same fictive space as the original, needs a slightly different timeline in order to justify itself, and yet comes across in the final analysis as basically the edited highlights of its predecessor – a cinematic “greatest hits” package that requires the audience to do nothing more than stump up their hard-earned, put their brain in neutral and keep their mouths shut? What do you call a film like that?

Oh, yes – ‘The Force Awakens’.

So there you have it. ‘Big Bad Mama II’ is ‘The Force Awakens’ but with tommy guns and boobies and a notable absence of spaceships.