Update 2018 with Roeg’s passing: Slightly less taken with Walkabout’s politics this time out. As a critique of settler colonialism, it’s both vaguer and less eloquently abstract than Peter Weir’s wonderful Picnic at Hanging Rock, a truly poignant and critical take on a cloistered community corseted by their own haze of superiority and indifferent curiosity about other ways of life.
But I’m possibly more enamored this time of Walkabout’s metaphysical vision of sensory experience. Its vision of the conviction of colonial consciousness shuddering apart, of transfixed youths suddenly spellbound by the limits of their own minds, is problematic, but also intoxicating food for thought. And Roeg uses it to divine a film of internal ruptures and wanderings into the unknown, exploring the irregularity of human experience and the non-totality of any individual culture with frighteningly fractious editing and cinematography that veers from the acrid to the oneiric. Above all, he dares us to touch the jagged poetry of the world in disarray. It’s a flawed experience, and perhaps too nihilistic, but it boasts its own truly singular poetry, an elegiac and tragic meeting of minds that explores the fallout of cultural connection and clash.
Nicolas Roeg was not an Australian director, nor did he have much to do with Australia for the rest of his career. But, when he wished to explore the elusive mystery of human distance and find the frightful regions of human history and modernity in what would seem to be majestic from a distance, it is no surprise that he looked to Australia as his canvas. The always damaged mystery of the location is unspooled across the unforgiven lateral extension of a landscape leftover from history, stretching on forever into the regions of madness. Not knowing the history of the region, the fading crimson of the sun staring at the fleshy human form instills its own sweat and sickly grime on the viewer. The unforgiving chill of the forlorn landscape dotted with an abject tree or two every now and again gives off a wafting aroma of decay and empty space, selling the history of this location as an abstract space of eternal rupture, the kind ever-primed to refract social fissures and psychological shattering. Continue reading →
Thirty six years later, with the release of the grandly, boisterously cinematic carnival opera of Mad Max: Fury Road, it is difficult to peer back through the looking glass and glimpse the humble origins of the Mad Max fiction. It is difficult to remember that, for all its commercial and critical success, the 1979 release of Mad Max was nothing more than a budget of 400,000 dollars (a paltry sum then and now) and one of the great modern cinematic visualists doing everything they could together to disturb, provoke, and ultimately, to entertain and thrill. It is difficult to remember how intimately inhuman the original Mad Max is, how nonchalantly brutal and matter-of-factly nihilistic it is in its almost impressionist depiction of apocalypse and social malaise propped up by stunning, startling car chases of unquenchable viciousness. It is also difficult, in lieu of the great majesty of the second film in the series, Mad Max 2:the Road Warrior, to remember how effective the original grinding house classic of action entertainment is to this day. Continue reading →
Underwhelming audiences upon its release in 1985, George A Romero’s third Dead movie has in recent years undergone something of a critical revaluation, with some even wishfully proclaiming it a misunderstood masterpiece (a claim abetted by the fact that it is, by his own admission, Romero’s favorite among the series). Reticent yet more talkative than the previous Dead movies, this one perhaps fell afoul of audiences because, excepting the rather gnarly ending and a few select bits earlier on, Day eschews the expected blood-and-guts horror smorgasbord for a miasma of despondence and slowly-encroaching dread. Rebelling against the initial reception, many modern critics have claimed the film is a more deliberate, somber affair that has aged shockingly well due to its emphasis on philosophy and politics over outright gore. In all of this, how does the film stack up? Continue reading →
District 9 is not a nuanced film, nor is its metaphor. Filmed in the slums of Johannesburg, there’s an eerie, earthen verisimilitude to the film’s physicality that simultaneously lends South Africa a depressing gritty realism and expounds upon its alienized social distance. But it is very obviously a parable of human exclusion and prejudice, literalizing the alien in the “other” of race by fitting it into a sci-fi story about actual space travelers. Parable isn’t quite right though – the film is more a vague satire, not particularly pinpoint but workmanlike in its broad-based feeling. Nonetheless, sharp it is not. If it really wants to stake its claim as something more than a bit o’ fun with new filmic toys propping up the seams, it’s on less sure-footing.
If it’s not particularly smart, Blomkamp’s directorial debut at least gets points for attitude. There’s a loose docudrama snark to the film that evaporates before the end but sees the film at its best. In the early stages, we meet Wikus van de Merke (Sharlto Copley), a low-level bureaucrat given a patronage position examining the slums of Johannesburg, South Africa. Obviously, the real world implications insist upon themselves, but the film wastes no time in front-loading its futurist situation where an alien species has crash-landed on the city’s outskirts. Naturally, humanity does as humanity does and throws them into abject poverty backed by a sketchily defined system of cognitive stratification (one would hope the poorly defined nature of the oppression outside of the slum is an intentional commentary on sketchily-drawn racism, but it works more like Blomkamp just sort of dropped the ball on the broader political situation in this world). Soon enough, of course, Wikus is prey to his own catlike curiosity and finds himself changing to become…well, you see where this is going. Continue reading →
With the summer release of Jeff Mickle’s new film, Cold in July, set to prove him as a director of considerable skill who’s in it for the long haul, it seems appropriate to look back on his two previous, relatively unknown and under-appreciated films, truly strong efforts both and films any discerning horror fan can appreciate. 2010’s Stake Land and 2013’s We Are What We Are are scary films, but their horror comes not from shocks but slowly building dread (don’t worry, though, Mickle knows how to underline his composed filmmaking in blood-red strokes when necessary) . He doesn’t give us choppy quick cuts. He lingers, letting his characters define his horror and giving us a blood-curdling melancholy.
Stake Land is a post-apocalyptic vampire road-Western about a family of loners who come together to survive, while We Are What We Are is something of a psychological thriller about a cultish family that maintains religious practices long out of time, including a propensity for cannibalism. But they both share a crucial feeling, a sense of hopeless malaise that seeps out of the screen and permeates the environment. Above all, they’re weary films about the struggle to survive in a situation where survival may not be the best option. Continue reading →
This being the first review for the month of September during the “National Cinemas” project, and thus the first review in a month-long exploration of German cinema. It seemed only appropriate to go with the best film by Germany’s greatest living filmmaker.
Edited early 2016
When someone coined the term “Location, location, location”, I don’t think they had Herzog’s films in mind. Yet it’s an apt description for his filmmaking sensibility. As depicted by Herzog, location is a mindscape of pure emotional resonance. He spoke vividly, and still does, about the “ecstatic truth” of the movies, the idea that reality or logic matter not when a film speaks to the rawest emotions of human-kind. And in the Amazon, a place of wonder and desperation where civilization ends and the essences of humanity and the world play out with little mercy, Herzog found his ultimate test-case. Fascinated by it, he decided to do what any great madman would: make a film about it. Continue reading →
Update mid-2018: A delirious and truly tragic portrait of egomaniacal scientific rationalism, David Cronenberg’s The Fly still earns any and all comparisons to Shelley and all others who have traced the contours of modernity in the Dark Romantic tradition, from the summit of intoxication all the way to the pit of self-inflicted abjection.
David Cronenberg has made a career out of abstracting science fiction and horror even as he corrodes it through pure, grotesque, bodily flesh. He produces cautionary tales about humanity rooted in oppressive, caterwauling imagery, films that directly appeal to the unconscious rather than the rational. What his films lack in traditional narrative, they often make up for in a wild-eyed aura of bodily mutation and a dense shroud of omnipresent atmosphere that strangles us and arouses monstrous life in his world. Continue reading →
Australia’s great lost film, Wake in Fright, is a movie of untold wonders that might have been better left untold. Released in 1971, the film is mesmerizing but was nearly lost to the muck from whence it came, fitting considering its bleak, cynical worldview of perpetual loss and emptiness. It’s easy to see why it failed to find DVD or VHS distribution until the 2010s, nearly forty years after its release – this is about as far from a “feel-good” mainstream film as you’ll find. It’s not an easy film to sit through, the kind that not only depicts horrors of all variety but dares us to keep watching and then scares us for our own complicity in the activities it depicts. Wake in Fright marries realism to the land of nightmares as it gives us a vision of modern maleness and male-run civilization as a bandage stretched thin over past wounds still left to fester elsewhere in the world, forgotten by others. It’s a necessary film, an important social statement, but most people would probably rather not have to hear it. Wake in Fright is the purest form of lonely oblivion, an eternally mangled wail into the darkness of blinding light. It is cinematic ungodliness. Continue reading →