Sunday, 5 July 2015

Mid-year autopsy

Examination of the year so far reveals mostly healthy tissue, with only a few signs of necrosis (Jurassic World was found to be tumorous, biopsy results: malignant).

Here's my 13 picks for best of the year so far (listed alphabetically):

Yann Demange's first feature is a tense, immersive and claustrophobic thriller that strikes a successful balance between white-knuckle action and serious politics. Set in Belfast during the most violent period of Northern Ireland's Troubles, '71 largely manages to avoid bias in its depiction of a conflict that many filmmakers still don't want to touch.

He's known as the writer of the uniformly excellent 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go and Dredd. Now, with his directorial debut (if you don't count his uncredited, allegedly extensive work on Dredd), Alex Garland has firmly established himself as the current master of intelligent, ultra-cool, visually cutting-edge sci-fi. Ex Machina is thought provoking, scary, gorgeous and adult. Garland is the sci-fi auteur to watch.

Gerard Johnstone's Housebound (another impressive first-timer) is a perfect horror comedy. Like Jackson, Raimi and Edgar Wright before him, Johnstone understands the elements that make the genre work: compelling characters with satisfying arcs, and the importance of genuinely horrific atmosphere and scares.

A delirious slice of violent, kitschy, pop nonsense that's just too much fun to write off. Matthew Vaughn's Kingsman is a reminder of the days when James Bond wasn't so dour, and is proof that 2010's Kick-Ass was no fluke. Vaughn simply knows how to translate the adolescent wish fulfilment of Mark Millar's comics into sheer cinematic entertainment.

George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road is a masterpiece of unhinged cinematic mayhem and unfettered artistic imagination. Amidst an endless parade of disastrous franchise revivals (the latest being the critically reviled Terminator: Genisys), Miller has shown that not only can you revive a decades old series, you can blow all previous entries out of the water. In terms of its design and visuals, Miller's insane post-apocalyptic vision is a game-changer and a shoe-in for best looking movie of the year. The practical action is bonkers, the characters well developed, and to top it off Fury Road is a hugely budgeted mainstream action blockbuster that passes the Bechdel test with flying colours.

The second outstanding horror comedy to come out New Zealand in a year (sorry Deathgasm, A for effort though). Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi's film succeeds because of the love and respect that it shows for vampire lore. From Stoker and Murnau to Browning and beyond, these guys know their vampires (or did their research anyway) and it shows. What We Do in the Shadows is hilarious, but it also has plenty of heart. It's sweet, romantic and just a little bit sad. Along with Jim Jarmusch's brilliant Only Lovers Left Alive, this vampire comedy proves that there's still life in the old bloodsuckers yet.

Sunday, 28 June 2015


Deep space, late 23rd Century:

For the sake of his bloated vanity, the ship's captain has just thrown away the lives of his entire crew (and a brand new Constitution Class Heavy Cruiser) in a military engagement so futile it made the Kobayashi Maru look winnable. His captain and fellow crewmen all dead, the sole survivor of this appalling catastrophe is a plucky young Starfleet ensign, fresh out of the Academy. He is adrift amongst the blasted wreckage of the ship, surrounded by the frozen, mangled corpses of the friends and comrades who served alongside him. Ice crystals glitter on their frigid, spilled entrails. Their torn, burnt faces will forever wear the screams and prayers of their anguished final moments. Glistening maroon sculptures of hardened boiled blood jut from gaping wounds, erupting from torsos that have violently burst open under explosive decompression.

The shit-stink in his nostrils is a constant reminder that he's fouled his EV suit. Distant echoing voices that aren't really there and a sudden migraine like an ice-knife into his brain make him painfully aware that the suit's oxygen supply is about to run out. His vision fails, he gasps convulsively for the last stale fumes of air.

No Academy simulation could prepare anyone for this reality, let alone a naive, youthful junior officer. Overwhelmed by the hopelessness of his situation and the combat horrors before him, he begins to weep. Uncontrollably. Sobbing for the light-year-distant family who he knows he will never see again.

Now, out of nowhere, a familiar and sickening feeling. The nauseating, excruciating pain of molecules slowly ripping apart. Starting like pins and needles in the bone marrow and building to a nerve shattering agony that consumes his entire body. Our valiant young ensign is being beamed aboard a nearby starship.


Hope evaporates as a Klingon transporter bay materialises before his eyes. He's been beamed aboard the very Bird-of-Prey that just obliterated his ship. The ensign takes in his dank surroundings: the deck is coated in an unidentifiable congealed paste; a pile of corpses lies against a bulkhead, the mutilated bodies of Orion slave girls who have been discarded there after being used up and murdered for the crew's pleasure. Directly in front of him the hatch of a filthy Head hangs open, a paunchy Klingon perched on the spiky, black toilet within. He wipes the shit from his ass with living Tribbles. They squirm and mewl pathetically as he tosses them into a wall-mounted incinerator.

The Klingon warrior finishes and rises to his full seven foot height. Grinning toothily, he walks over to an oil slicked contraption that looks like a miniature iron lung crossed with a studded S&M sex toy. Slowly, deliberately, he wheels the machine over to face the young human. After adjusting a few controls, it purrs and shudders to life, suddenly sprouting a multitude of evil-looking, gleaming instruments.

As the torture machine rips the helmet from his head, the Klingon's deep, wicked chortle fills his ears.

The ensign's terrified face is illuminated in a grid of green laser lines, the machine scanning the contours of his handsome features. The scan complete, the machine whirs into motion, a long, scimitar shaped scalpel abruptly springing forward. It neatly bisects the ensign from forehead to chin, then efficiently and precisely flays the skin from his face. It's done so quickly that our young hero registers only frozen shock on his new meat-face. It's only when the blood and lymph fluid bead to the surface of the raw, exposed muscle that the first screams come. The scalpel smoothly retracts and is instantly replaced by a long, thick-bored needle that noisily liposuctions the flesh and fatty tissue from his skull, its tip scraping and scratching at the cranium beneath. Next comes a segmented, chromed hose, snaking carefully into position in front of the hole where seconds before the young man had a nose. It sprays a fine mist of fluid onto his cleaned skull-front. Instantly, the bone begins to dissolve in a bubbling, fizzing, steamy mess.

As he starts to die, the ensign remembers that among its many life-support features the EV suit comes with a built-in music player. Using the controls on the back of his glove, he punches in the commands by feel. The sounds of classical early 21st Century powerviolence blast from his neck mounted speakers. It's Dallas, Texas' PAVEL CHEKOV. His favourite. The track is their ripping cover of INFEST's "Sick Machine". He feels alright. Soothed. If he still had lips, they would curl into a wry smile at the thought that this music is totally melting his face while his face is being literally melted. Even though the young ensign knows that the frantic shrieks he can hear in the background are his own, it doesn't matter anymore. It's OK, because the music makes him feel like everything in the cosmos is just as it should be...

Sunday, 21 June 2015


I fucked up and missed the opening 15 minutes of last Sunday's SFF screening of The Duke of Burgundy, my last movie at this year's fest. Chalk it up to a bad case of festivalitis: too many movies, too many 5:00 AM alarms for work.

No biggie, I loved what I saw and will be returning to this baroque and beautiful alternate reality as soon as it gets a theatrical release here. Peter Strickland's mysterious, forested world - populated solely by women, all of whom seem to have a BDSM fetish and an academic fascination with butterflies and moths - is seductive and intoxicating. It's a place that I couldn't stop thinking about after the credits had rolled.

Strickland has captured the look and feel of classic European erotic artsploitation so perfectly you could be forgiven for thinking that you're watching a forgotten, unearthed gem from that bygone era. But this isn't simply a case of immaculately copying the style of another era with no real substance to back it up. Strickland's script is strong and his direction assured, firmly establishing a hypnotic, druggy atmosphere, then patiently weaving a story that's intriguing, weird, hilarious and ultimately very sad.

Lead actresses Chiara D'Anna and Sidse Babett Knudsen shine as the film's two central characters, Evelyn and Cynthia. Both women have charisma to spare in challenging roles that demand a wide range: perfect comic timing, awkwardly stilted formality, lustful passion and heartrending melancholy.

Cinematographer Nic Knowland (whose credits include Strickland's Berberian Sound Studio and 1980's The Great Rock 'N' Roll Swindle) fills the movie with an impressive array of visual delights: trippy, spectral lens flares; moody, windswept woods; carefully composed interior shots that use mirrors and reflections to disorient the viewer; a prolonged psychedelic dream sequence that will take your breath away. Add to that Hungarian production designer Pater Sparrow's eye for meticulous detail, and we have a strong contender for best looking movie of the year.

The final piece of the puzzle that makes The Duke of Burgundy such a perfect cinematic throwback to the films of Franco, Fassbinder and Borowczyk is Cat's Eyes' sublime, ethereal score. Listen to a couple of tracks below (as well as a look at the film's opening title sequence).

Along with Benson and Moorhead's Spring, The Duke of Burgundy was the easy winner for me at this year's SFF. An instant classic and very highly recommended.

Friday, 19 June 2015

Suehiro Maruo

One of the most overposted artists of the last few years? Perhaps, but I don't care. There's always room for more Maruo...

Friday, 12 June 2015

Christopher Lee

Horror has lost its most charismatic villain.

His piercing gaze and commanding bass voice were only part of a stage presence that was monumentally iconic and eternally inimitable. 

In his early career he was the reigning king of B-movie horror, working with the likes of Terence Fisher, Antonio Margheriti, Mario Bava, Freddie Francis, Jess Franco, Vernon Sewell, Gordon Hessler, Billy Wilder, Roy Ward Baker, Robin Hardy, Gary Sherman and Philippe Mora.

Late in his life he enjoyed the resurgence of interest that he so rightfully deserved, appearing in a number of movies for some of genre cinema's greatest directors, including Joe Dante, Tim Burton, Peter Jackson, John Landis and Martin Scorsese. 

His genre credits are innumerable, but I'll most remember him for playing Frankenstein's monster, Count Dracula, the Mummy, Fu Manchu, Lord Summerisle, Scaramanga and Saruman the White.