The Last Seduction and the Shelf of Shame

seductWell, here’s a return to the Shelf of Shame, a series of posts in which I finally turn to a disc I bought but never watched (of which there are more than a few). This time around, its the neo-noir The Last Seduction, which I bought on Blu-ray back in 2015.

As a lover of film noir, its inevitable that any neo noir (a sub-genre which refers to films made after the traditionally accepted film noir period of the 1940s and 1950s, which share the noir sensibilities of those classic b&w thrillers like Double Indemnity, The Big Heat and Out of the Past) is usually right up my street, although inevitably neo-noir is a pretty wide-ranging term. An excellent example of neo-noir would be Lawrence Kasdan’s magnificent Body Heat from 1981.

I raise Body Heat as an example because its the film I thought of as I watched The Last Seduction– there is something so modern about each film’s femme fatale, in Body Heat‘s Kathleen Turner and The Last Seduction‘s Linda Fiorentino, who here portrays possibly one of films consummate screen bitches. Both films homage the noir of the past but also inform them with modern perspectives. I’m not sure those perspectives undermine anything, really they reinforce them in ways that the 1940s/1950s films could never get away with, whether it be the graphic sexuality of Body Heat or the sheer gender-baiting switchery of The Last Seduction. There was likely something quite revolutionary and scandalous  about The Last Seduction when it was released in 1994, because even now in 2020 it took me aback. 

To be clear, there is something quite astonishing regards Fiorentino’s performance, and something itself darkly noir about the fact that because the low-budget independent film was aired on HBO prior to that years Oscars, the actress was ineligible for Academy Award recognition (foreshadowing, oddly, recent concerns with films going straight to Netflix, etc). Fiorentino really is that good, an incandescent and fearless performance that burns the screen with its intensity. Basically, the central conceit of the film is that it switches what is traditionally accepted gender roles, Fiorentino’s Bridget Gregory cynically using and abusing her men as casually as Sean Connery’s Bond ever did in those 60s spy capers (which will likely inevitably lead with cautionary audience warnings on television airings anytime now). Bond was a bastard who casually used women, and Bridget is a bitch who casually uses her men, enabling her body as her keenest weapon and totally emasculating  poor small-town nice guy Mike Swale (Peter Berg).  “You’re my designated fuck” she tells him, clearly stating the depths of his value to her. Later he moans “I’m starting to feel like a…” “Sex object?” she finishes. Poor Mike. He’s doomed from the start.

I’m sure that plenty of essays and possibly books have been written about the female empowerment personified by Bridget in The Last Seduction, how she subverts traditional gender roles with an attitude which was ahead of its time even as late as 1994. Hell, I thought Sharon Stone’s Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct was a bitch- she’s got very little on Bridget other than a talent with an ice-pick.

So impressive is the actress in the film that its really quite remarkable that, as far as I can tell, Fiorentino’s career afterwards went down the tubes incredibly quickly- other than a turn in the first Men in Black movie, her list of screen roles is fairly ignominious, and she hasn’t acted in anything since 2009. Considering comparison, say, with Sharon Stone’s career, and that Fiorentino’s turn here remains one of the most iconic screen bitches/femme fatales in the history of Hollywood, that takes some doing. I gather she has upset too many people in Hollywood, perhaps suggesting that she’s far closer to the fiery character she played in The Last Seduction after all, or simply that maybe Sharon Stone was smarter playing the Hollywood game.

Maybe she stepped away from it, deciding she was better off away from movies and Hollywood. Who knows? Her career is almost like one of those “what-if?” movies that never happened but which excites film buff imaginations, and it lends The Last Seduction with an additional meta-story. In any case, in The Last Seduction, its always 1994, and Fiorentino the greatest bitch Hollywood ever had.

Advantageous proves disadvantaged

advJennifer Phang’s Advantageous is a cautionary sci-fi film set in the near future, taking current trends and extrapolating them into a narrative that seems both plausible and worrying, in just the same way as the Black Mirror series does, but what really springs to mind watching Advantageous is Andrew Niccol’s far superior Gattaca from 1997. 

I suppose you could describe the film as High Concept- it envisages a future of high population, the resulting pressure on resources, wealth and jobs and how this impacts ones position in society and self-worth. Advances in robotics and AI have left jobs scarce, and positions in schools, the quality education which facilitates  upwards mobility in society, also marginalised by resources and cost (there’s a neat wall-advert running in one scene that highlights subscription to a lottery for school places). Its all very interesting and intellectually plausible, in just the same way that Gattaca was when it examined genetics and eugenics in future society when science can shape ones place in that society if one only has the wealth.

Advantageous is the story of a single mother, Gwen (Jacqueline Kim) whose successful career as a spokeswoman for  a medical research company is brought to a halt when her bosses decide that she is simply too old to represent the company any longer. At once this crushes any hopes she has for her daughter, as without her salary Gwen will be unable to finance her daughters place in her new school, damning her to an uncertain future. The only lifeline offered to her by her clearly coldly manipulative boss Isa (Jennifer Ehle) is for Gwen to be a spokesperson and test subject for the companies latest initiative, in which customers who are either old or ill can have their consciousness placed into young fit bodies, presumably genetically engineered.  The technology is not quite the boon it claims it to be -one of Gwen’s other superiors, Fisher (James Urbaniak) warns Gwen off, admitting that it is deeply flawed and quite dangerous, but Gwen is backed into a corner as without her job and her salary she will presumably lose her apartment and her daughter will  fall out of the education system that her future depends upon. 

Where Advantageous comes unstuck is in its execution- the budget for this film was obviously very low and the film-makers struggled to realise its ambitions. With its fairly ideal vision of the future its hard to see the nightmare horror that Gwen is trying to avoid- where are the poor huddled disenfranchised masses without jobs, education or food? While we are told that the woes of the world are due to population and pressure on resources, we only see empty streets and few poor and disadvantaged people- everything we see is very idyllic and calm and pleasant, rather undermining the central premise. Richard Fleischer’s Soylent Green (1973) had a similar theme and while limited by its own budget it nonetheless portrayed population problems with far more success, depicting crowded streets and apartment buildings where the homeless majority sleep on the stairs and in corridors. The ills of its world are clear at all times, we witness it clearly. We don’t see any of this in Advantageous, and indeed the inferior quality of its CGI cityscapes prove so poor it probably could have done without them completely, the imagery pulling one out of the film whenever it segues to them- likewise the police drones that are shown in the sky are no doubt intended to suggest an intrusive authority and a possible police state run by AI technology but its all to little purpose as far as the narrative is concerned. While its perhaps commendable that the film doesn’t feel the need to explain everything -we see explosions suggesting a terrorist underclass rebelling against the status quo but it isn’t expanded upon- it really suffers when its only graphic scene of the ills of society is a cloaked, presumably starving girl sleeping in a flowerbed. Hardly a terrible dystopia.

Which is a pity because the cast are fine and the central storyline is involving, albeit undermined by awkward pacing and troublesome editing; the latter particularly an issue in an uneven last third in which the film pretty much falls apart just when it should be reaching for its intended emotional and intellectual finale (the film rather spluttering to a halt without any real resolution). 

Clearly there are allusions to ageism, and abuse of corporate power and its ability to sell deeply flawed technology to further its own wealth and position. The public are just consumers to be lied to and taken advantage of without any reproach from any authority, which has a familiar ring to it. The films narrative is clearly endeavouring to explore these subjects but its execution is really so deeply flawed its hopelessly spoiled. Gwen’s desperation and love for her daughter is clear and their bond is convincing with emotional resonance that goes nowhere, ultimately: it fizzles out in its last third without any tension. Its a real shame because Gattaca is one of my favourite films and timely, cautionary sci-fi films should be welcomed in a marketplace and genre dominated by superhero antics and empty-headed bubble-gum blockbusters. Sometimes films manage to succeed in spite of budgetary limitations but its inevitable that sometimes they are badly undermined by them, and sadly such is the case with Advantageous.

Advantageous is streaming on Netflix

 

This Peanut Butter Falcon Flies

peanutThis was truly delightful, I’ve got such a smile on my face just thinking back on it. The Peanut Butter Falcon is a lovely character-based drama that exudes so much warmth and human connection, its utterly enchanting. It reminded me of 1970s American dramas that really effected me when I was growing up, films like Thunderbolt & Lightfoot, which… well, that film itself might seem an odd comparison, but films back then had such a sense of… character, that almost sneaks up on you. I’m not at all referencing any specifics in plot but more how mundane, ordinary characters on the run are shown on a journey both physical and internal, traveling through the world and meeting all sorts of memorable characters and forming deep connections. So many films nowadays get lost in the extraordinary, exalting the spectacular, and forget the truth and depth of just old-fashioned character drama. You don’t need action or spectacle, just put two interesting characters together, put them on a journey and see what happens. Watch how they react to the world around them and how the world reacts to them.

Newcomer Zack Gottsagen absolutely blew me away in the central role of Zak, a young man with Down’s syndrome who seems destined for a horrible ‘existence’ lost in institutional care until his dream of a future in the world outside is set into reality by his fellow care-home ‘inmate’ Carl (a typically brilliant, effortless Bruce Dern) who abets Zak’s bid for freedom. Once outside, Zak encounters Tyler (a shockingly good, frankly, Shia LaBeouf), somebody else who is also on the run, Tyler having wronged the wrong white-trash fishermen thugs. Tyler, consumed by self-loathing over the death of his brother, takes Zak under his wing, and through his experiences with Zak finds some kind of emotional redemption: Tyler saves Zak, Zak saves Tyler- its beautiful, really.

Over a few days as they share an adventure traveling across a deeply evocative river-basin delta of rusty old boats and abandoned economic ruin, they drink whisky, catch fish, find God, and slowly become like brothers. As well as the thugs, they are also pursued by Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) a nursing home employee who feels responsible for Zak and is trying to get him back to the nursing home before the authorities get involved. Tyler and Zak eventually convince her to join them on their little odyssey and… well, that’s about as far as I’ll go regards the plot. This film isn’t really about the plot, I mean, its all fairly predictable- its really about the relationships, the bonds between them. You don’t care about how ridiculous it all really is. Its a magical little movie.

Watching so many movies, and so many of them being bad, it can leave one really jaded, but its so great that films like this just redeem ones faith in the artform, redeem ones love for films in  general. This ones wonderful, this one’s a keeper (well, I actually watched this on Netflix, but you what I mean- if this were a disc, it’d be in prime position on the shelf and returned to often). I really, really enjoyed it, this one was great. 

 

The Color Out of Space is so bright, you’ve got to wear shades

colorWell ain’t that weird, this one’s a tricky one- I actually quite liked Richard Stanley’s The Color Out of Space a wee teeny bit, but I’m hard pressed to explain why. Maybe its the fairly poor track record for films based on H P Lovecraft’s horror fiction; its highly likely that the best Lovecraft films are not actually based on any of his stories at all- thinking of Alien and Annihilation here- and its pretty clear that when film-makers try to bring actual HPL stories to the screen it never really ends well. Ironically, while HPL’s own prose is very serious and thoughtful archaically elegant, most films seem to swap tension for laughs, as if the tales are just so ridiculous you have to wink at the audience rather than yell “boo!” which is something that has endlessly irritated me, a trend set way back by 1985’s Re-Animator. If I had to name my favourite ‘proper’ Lovecraft film, it would probably be the late Stuart Gordon’s Dagon from 2001, and that was far from perfect. Or maybe the 2005 Call of Cthulhu produced by H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society, although I’d contend that was more a ‘fan film’ than a genuine full-fledged motion picture. What I’m saying is, as far as Lovecraft films are concerned, the bar’s set pretty low. 

Maybe if Guillermo del Toro had managed to shoot his At the Mountains of Madness film ten years ago, things would be much different. That film possibly ranks among the great films never made, one of those lingering ‘what-ifs’ that film buffs can wax lyrical over whilst sharing drinks on a cold and stormy night. By all accounts, that film might finally have been Lovecraft done right, with a huge budget, visionary director and a great cast. 

Lets get the elephant out of the room straight away- I’m no fan at all of Nicolas Cage and he is perfectly hideous in this. Although one can argue the slippery slope his career has been on has been a long and steep one (if Hollywood had a Mariana Trench, you’d find Nic halfway down it), in recent years particularly he has essentially become a parody of himself. Here in The Color Out of Space he is absolutely, horrifyingly, mind-bogglingly terrible- I’ve seen him phone in some nonsense before, but he seems to think he can justify his casting in this film by having a wild tantrum in the kitchen. Maybe there is some level of meta-horror here in his casting that escapes me, some level of terror that his performance graces this film with that elevates it to some other subconscious territory of horror – God knows when I think back upon his performance it evokes something of a shudder.  

Its clear that  The Color Out of Space suffers by being made after the fantastic Annihilation, a film that, sharing so many of the themes and ideas of Lovecraft’s original story,  visually pre-empted many of the visual flourishes that Richard Stanley uses here- the twisted, richly-coloured vegetation and strange alien creatures used to express the sense of unknowable, alien nature. Indeed some viewers could be forgiven, in fact, for mistakenly thinking its based on the same source material or is indeed a sequel, both films after all concerned with an alien rock falling to Earth and transforming the land around its crash site, and ultimately warping reality. The world within the Shimmer of Annihilation has a profound strangeness, of normality slipping into alien nightmare, and Stanley uses similar art direction to same effect with this film. But Alex Garland’s film is far, far superior, with a better cast and script, and Stanley of course sadly has to contend with dear Nic. In any case, with the nagging feel of the familiar hanging so obviously over Stanley’s film, it loses any sense of originality that might have otherwise excited attention. 

But all that being said, how bad Cage is and how much the film suffers in comparison to Alex Garland’s film, I have to admit I still found it worthwhile. Maybe it was just refreshing to see someone trying to make something decent while at the same time making a HPL film: its heart was in the right place, you know? You gotta love a trier, especially if you’re a fan of this Lovecraft stuff, as I am.

Yet again though, here’s a horror film that makes the unforgivable sin of not really being scary, but that’s something I can say of most horror films of late so its perhaps not fair to slap the film with that one. Perhaps its the limitations of the budget, or the cast (the lack of chemistry between Cage and his onscreen wife Theresa, played by Joely Richardson, is deplorable, albeit quite funny in their awkward romantic moments, which had me wondering if it was a clever reference to Lovecraft’s real-life antipathy towards women, as if Stanley was weaving some complex meta-story). One of my chief issues turned out to be that perennial favourite of HPL movies:  with it showing flower-child daughter Lavinia (Madeline Arthur) messing around with amateur black magic at the start, the film establishes a silly fairy-tale-like milieu from the start that undermines any attempt to make anything afterwards feel as real or involving as the events, of, say, Annihilation.  And that’s before the pattern of nuttiness that rolls in when Nic appears, leaving Stanley nowhere to go but a kookier colour Purple than even Prince could have ever imagined. This, in a film which I’ve praised for being a serious take on Lovecraft. If nothing else, that surely indicates how low the bar has fallen with all these Lovecraft adaptations.  

At the Lighthouse of Madness

lighthouseActually, just typing that title makes me think that a film of H P Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness might benefit by taking a similar approach to this film -black and white, obtuse to the point of impenetrable plot (if there even is one)- but I have to confess it just annoyed the hell out of me in this film. On the one hand, sure, I could admire the gritty, atmospheric b&w cinematography, the unnerving sound design, but as a piece of storytelling it just felt broken. 

Which was very disappointing, because I really enjoyed being intrigued and horrified  by Robert Eggers’ earlier film, The Witch, from 2015. The Lighthouse shared that film’s sense of dread and welcome tendency to undermine traditional horror tropes, but The Lighthouse just goes too far into delirium, frankly, as if Eggers just lost control and succumbed to his own temporary madness making it.

Or maybe I’m not giving the film sufficient credit for successfully delving into madness as the subject matter of a film. Sadly the irony is that it doesn’t really function as a film at all. Its perhaps more of a tone poem than a story, the plot being two lighthouse keepers on a New England island in the 1890s don’t really get along and promptly lose their shit. I mean that’s about it, really. Eggers throws in some vague references to scary mermaids and Lovecraftian Cthuloid horror but that’s one of the characters minds succumbing to the Lighthouse of Madness. I think I would have preferred it to be literal; you know, there really is something Lovecraftian going on at this strange, remote island on the edge of 19th century civilization. Its not that the madness of it all is actually anything wrong, its just that it robs the film of what might have been a genuinely chilling story. 

Maybe I was just in the mood for an old-fashioned horror tale rather than a cerebral art-house tale. Yes the two leads are really very good – I don’t think I’ve seen William Dafoe as good as this in many years, and Pattinson might actually turn out to be an intriguing Batman after all-  but I think their efforts are wasted in an ironically empty-headed and pointless film. Its frustrating because otherwise, it is such a brilliantly made period piece- the acting, art direction, atmosphere, dialogue all lending it a wonderfully convincing  sense of time and place, that if it really had genuine horrors under the surface (sic), it might have been a genuine horror classic and up there with The Wicker Man or The Blood on Satan’s Claw, frankly. 

Or maybe I just missed the point. I have this same issue with some of David Lynch’s films and others of that ilk, where being obtuse almost for the sake of it just strikes me as lazy and frustrating, undermining what should be ‘proper’ storytelling. I don’t mind ambiguity, but I do think it needs a proper framework.

Last night, on Halloween

returnMost film bloggers, for obvious reasons, spend October devoted to watching horror films- its inevitable really; timely at best, tiresome at worst, and I’ve done it myself in years past, to some extent. Not this year, though during the month I did watch one decidedly sub-par horror film (The Curse of la Llorana) that rather proved that there’s nothing quite as boring as a bad horror film, and that, God Knows, there are far too many of them. Besides, there is enough horror on the news every day without adding to it by watching horror movies. 

I’m finding -indeed, I just commented as much on someone else’s blog- that Covid is changing how I’m looking at things, that I’m suddenly looking through some strange prism, like how the world seems to change when reading a good Philip K Dick story, or H P Lovecraft. Its like watching a colour movie gradually fading into black and white.

So anyway, last night was Halloween, so it would have been rude not too finally succumb to the season by watching a horror film. Actually, I watched two, picking two of my favourites: John Carpenter’s classic The Thing, from 1982 -a very good year for movies-and for a change of pace (real-life schedulers please note) Dan O’Bannon’s delightfully irreverent zombie flick Return of the Living Dead, the unofficial sequel to George Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead

thing3The weird thing is that Covid is changing how we look at certain movies, because Carpenter’s The Thing, in the past accepted as a reflection of the Aids epidemic, inevitably now reflects the paranoia and unseen menace of  the Covid Pandemic. The enemy within, the spreading alien contagion, the betrayal of our own bodies. I won’t labour the point, but it did make watching the film this time around a different experience. Part of that is so much bullshit- its what we are seeing, not what the film was originally  intending, and the important thing is that its still a great film, but its a reminder that films never change, but we do, and the world around us. Naturally I was watching Arrows Blu-ray edition from a few years back and it looks quite beautiful (I actually thought it had come out last year, but was horrified to learn it came out back in 2017, yet again me being baffled by the passage of time) – I understand a 4K UHD edition is likely coming out next year, and have to wonder just how much it can improve upon Arrow’s disc, and wonder if I will be suckered into buying this damn film again. Its clearly Carpenter’s best film, and one of the best End of the World movies ever made. I understand they are making a remake/reboot, somehow with Carpenters blessing  (probably the cheque he gets handed to him, he loves easy money, bless him).

Return of the Living Dead, from 1984… crikey, I can still remember seeing this in the fleapit ABC cinema in town back in the day.  Its a cheap and nasty b-movie that revels in being silly, which is an angle even more brilliant now than back when it came out, mainly because of all the zombie stuff we’ve seen since, particularly The Walking Dead (Return should be aired immediately after every season finale of The Walking Dead, if only for a Reality Check). Zombies are a stupid idea; the central premise overwhelmingly daft, its amazing that people get suckered into taking it so seriously, when you really think about the ‘logic’ of it.

There’s a lovely moment in Return when the rain, infected by the ghastly chemicals that reanimate the dead, soaks into the soil of a cemetery (the ‘Resurrection Cemetery’, ‘natch) and the dead start to rise, and a skeleton promptly thrusts itself out of the wet earth, its jaw drops, and the soundtrack breaks into song “Do you wanna PARTY?!!” Its daft, irreverent, silly, hilarious. These zombies know how to rock, and they know how to party . “Send more Paramedics!” one of them gasps into a radio handset, and once that meat has been exhausted, another calls in “Send more Cops!” Its all about the brains, stupid. Considering its humour, the film is also surprisingly dark, its ending inevitable, rather echoing the dark inevitability of the conclusion of The Thing