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A J. Black

Pop-culture writer/geek @cultural_convo. Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/ajblackwriter Podcast: @wemadethispod. 1st book coming 2019. Occasionally go outside.

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

Spider-Man: Homecoming is probably the cheekiest title Marvel have ever given one of their films, simply for the fact the subtitle is both literal and figurative. Spider-Man, probably Marvel’s most famous superhero alongside the Hulk, finally comes home with Jon Watts’ entry to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Sony Pictures have owned the rights to the character for many years and have made repeated attempts over the last fifteen to launch a franchise with our friendly neighbourhood web-slinger. The first time, under Sam Raimi’s direction, we had the original Spider-Man trilogy starring Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker. There he fell in love with Kirsten Dunst’s Mary-Jane Watson and battled the Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus and Venom (plus half a dozen more in the third film it seemed). Poor critical buzz partly put paid to a planned fourth Raimi Spider-Man film after 2008.

Then came the reboot. Out went Raimi, out went Maguire. In came upcoming star Andrew Garfield as Peter and Marc Webb, best known for the divisive (500) Days of Summer, behind the lens. Emma Stone joined as Gwen Stacy, the other well-known Peter Parker love interest, and this time he battled a new Green Goblin and, again, thanks to the power of sequelitis, half a dozen bad guys including Electro in the second film, which also Sony planned to use as a backdoor way of teeing-up a Sinister Six spin-off movie. Despite how the two leads impressed, the knives were again out critically and any chance of a trilogy died a swift death.

The famed Sony hack was the first indication they were hatching plans with Marvel to bring Peter Parker into the MCU. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 came out in 2014 and just two short years later, at the start of 2016, another rising star in Tom Holland popped up to portray the character in Captain America: Civil War. In a film rammed with established superheroes, within a story very much in the middle of an ongoing story arc eight years to that point in the making, Holland shone brightly immediately in his extended cameo. He *was* Spider-Man, and he was back where he always should have been.

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It Comes at Night (2017)

Touted as potentially the best horror movie of the year, It Comes at Night is selling itself short to be branded in such basic terms. Horrific it can be in places, but complexity is the deeper truth Trey Edward Shults’ second picture holds at its core.

On the week of the film’s release in the UK, there has been a controversial article in The Guardian discussing the supposed nature of a new sub-genre It Comes at Night falls into: post-horror. Simply defined, these are horror movies which move past the need to scare in the conventional sense, rather soaked in existential dread and drawing you into a themed, tense, slow-build narrative. Get Out, this year, is cited as the clearest example of ‘post-horror’, as is David Lowery’s upcoming A Ghost Story. The term, however, is a poor misnomer; as a good friend of mine aptly put it to me today, “horror is horror. End of”.

It Comes at Night is not a horror film, and to declare as much is by no means suggesting it shouldn’t be. Horror is one of the defining genres of cinema, indeed it has been ever since people first married sound to image and realised the capacity to scare, such as FW Murnau in the original Nosferatu in 1922. Ninety plus years on, horror is one of the most varied and lucrative genres of film in existence, a genre ripe for fascinating experimentation and thematic depth. You can do almost anything in horror, as the most skilled filmmakers often prove. Much like Jordan Peele’s aforementioned Get Out however, Shults gives us a varied fusion of several different genres.

Preaching to the Perverted (1997)

Like many films made during the 1990’s with the benefit of retro hindsight, there is something enormously of its time about Preaching to the Perverted, while at the same time managing to still strike a naughty chord twenty years on.

The 90’s were an unusual decade. It had freed itself of the capitalist Republicanism of the Reagan era in the US and the culturally divisive powerhouse of Thatcherism in the UK which dominated a 1980’s filled on the one hand with bright Coca Cola ads, synthetic pop music and post-modern hairstyles, and on the other the depressing reality of stark union action in workplaces, crippling unemployment and a social mobility gap ever widening. The 1990’s saw a triumphant return, at least politically, for a spell of liberal democracy; New Labour came to power under the Tony Blair cult of personality the same year Preaching to the Perverted arrived, while the biggest challenge to trouble Bill Clinton’s presidency came, literally, under his Oval Office desk.

A decade recovering from austerity yet retaining the capitalist homogeny of American pop culture, wedged between a decade to come of post-9/11 political terror and a gradual return to the right-wing technocracy of the 2010’s. In other words, in the 1990’s, we never knew we had it so good. The same could be applied sexually too. Consider the amount of erotic thrillers that troubled Hollywood that decade – from Sharon Stone uncrossing her legs in Basic Instinct, Madonna and all the candle wax in Body of Evidence, and that frankly weird one, Color of Night, most memorable for an aquatic glimpse of Bruce Willis’ junk. Sex was all over American cinema that decade in perhaps more direct, skin-baring ways than we’d ever seen before.

Preaching to the Perverted is not an erotic thriller but it is one concerned with that mix of liberal democracy and where politics sits in the landscape of kink. Stuart Urban’s film is almost punk in a post-punk landscape, primarily through its central character Tanya Cheex (Guinevere Turner) putting two fingers directly in the direction of the BBFC and an Establishment it seeks, through its story, to reject and rebel against at every turn. There is something of a knowing, satirical wink throughout, admittedly; it’s not as angry as it could have been, nor is it absurd. It’s probably as close as you could get to a John Waters movie in the UK, though, and by its very nature that makes it wilfully anti-establishmentarian.

Carnage (2017)

As mockumentaries go, Carnage may well be the first one to genuinely lampoon the culture of veganism while also making a very powerful, liberal prescient point.

Simon Amstell is a British stand-up comedian, probably best known as former host of popular BBC music panel show Never Mind the Buzzcocks. His first film as writer and director, Amstell doesn’t appear but provides near-constant narration as the omnipresent guide through a ‘future history’ where the vegan has inherited the Earth. Set in 2067, in a United Kingdom where the very idea of eating meat is an abhorrent abomination to an almost-utopian, youthful society, Amstell’s fake documentary tells the story of how we went from a savage, carnivorous culture to an enlightened, animal-loving species. If you’re laughing at the absurdity of this, that’s ok. That’s the intention.

And yet, Carnage is noticeably pro-vegan while being enormously capable of mocking the pretension of a following which, historically, has found itself tethered to the hippy, new age trail. Amstell, who wrote as well as directed this, is as keen to highlight the madness of being a meat-eater as well as enjoyably sending up the intense vegan legions who, in this future, are considered the norm. You may be surprised to hear Amstell, in doing so, utilises almost as much stock footage from a range of sources pre-2017 as he does future scenarios beyond the present day. It helps make his point.

Headshot (2016)

Headshot is a direct consequence of two distinct elements: the growing, exciting Indonesian film industry and the existence of The Raid and its even better sequel.

Exploding onto Western screens in 2011, The Raid: Redemption was both a career launching picture for star Iko Uwais and director Gareth Evans, but felt like an adrenaline-fuelled shot in the arm to a genre which, if not stale, perhaps needed the window opening. Evans and Uwais essentially trademarked the use on screen of Pencak Silat, a traditional Indonesian martial art which, according to Wikipedia, is “a full-body fighting form incorporating strikes, grappling and throwing in addition to weaponry.” In short, every part of the body is both susceptible to and used for, attack. This made The Raid a wanton fury of intense close-quarter combat sequences, packed into a tight, contained, building under siege story.

In continuing the narrative, after The Raid’s surprise hailing as a modern action classic by Western audiences excited for more, Evans with The Raid 2 switched gears to deliver what to many is considered ‘The Godfather of action movies’. Perhaps praise too high, but as with any great sequel it takes the composite blocks and builds on them, with shades of Michael Mann crime world complexity until Uwais is let completely off the chain for a barnstorming final succession of action sequences as his character Rama, quite literally, fights big boss after big boss in a video-game stylee. It’s as bravura as it is ridiculous, but both The Raid movies made their mark on modern action cinema and cemented Indonesia as a player to rival Hong Kong when it comes to slick, thrilling action pictures.

Don’t Breathe (2016)

A response to austerity, poverty and class, Don’t Breathe bludgeons the senses with a taut, brooding eighty five minutes of home invasion horror.

Not horror in the traditional sense of schlock and gore. Fede Alvarez, hot off the commercially successful Evil Dead remake, wanted to very specifically avoid blood, guts and copious claret spilling with Don’t Breathe and deal in suspense. The horror of suspense is a very different animal than the kind of horror Sam Raimi popularised in his original Evil Dead (taking nothing away from that seminal franchise). Indeed the biggest compliment you can give Don’t Breathe is that were Alfred Hitchcock alive today, he may at least have approved of Alvarez’s picture, even if it’s a cliched stretch to suggest he would have directed something similar himself.

Home invasion horror has become a sub-genre all of its own in recent years, much like found footage or ‘torture porn’ (is that still a thing?). As an entity its been around for decades, from George Romero’s legendary Night of the Living Dead (1968), or Straw Dogs (1971) which has resonated through cinema even to the point it dug its roots, remarkably, into the James Bond franchise.

The sub-genre has enjoyed a real renaissance in recent years, with films such as Michael Haneke’s profoundly disturbing Funny Games (1997) or his American remake ten years later, The Strangers (2008), The Purge (2013) which may have blossomed into a franchise all of its own but very much started as a claustrophobic home invasion thriller, or Knock Knock (2015), Eli Roth’s absurdist cautionary tale with a Shatner-esque hammy turn from Keanu Reeves. Lately, home invasion is everywhere.

The Childhood of a Leader (2015)

The Childhood of a Leader is a fascinating piece of cinema, especially given it’s not only a debut piece of work, but the debut piece of work from an actor best known for playing Alan Tracy in the execrable Jonathan Frakes’ Thunderbirds movie.

Brady Corbet’s film is about the birth of fascism. Not in a political sense of being a historical depiction of the rise of Adolf Hitler, but rather the human genesis of a fascist mind. It plays out in the form of a strange psychodrama, one with almost verite touches in its final moments, strange not just thanks to it’s unusual post-World War One setting but in how it pivots around the key developmental moments of a young boy.

Trying to describe the very premise of The Childhood of a Leader would be extraordinarily difficult, something Corbet was acutely aware of when he started writing the script; he at first pulled back on it, convinced thematically it was “too big” for a debut feature, but his wife Mona Fastvold encouraged him to continue and together they developed the screenplay.

Lights Out (2016)

Birthed from a short film that went viral, Lights Out has enjoyed a fascinating journey from YouTube curio to the launchpad of an unknown talent. The brainchild of Swedish writer/director David F. Sandberg, Lights Out is a deconstruction of mental illness wrapped around the trappings of, ostensibly, a B-movie spooky horror feature.

You wouldn’t have credited this as the direction following the original piece Sandberg directed for the Who’s There? short film competition (which he didn’t win). Made in 2013, with Sandberg’s muse and indeed wife Lotta Losten in the frame, Lights Out was a three-minute exercise in near silent, pared back terror. A simple premise; a woman on her way to bed, turning out the light in the hall, only to see the creeping visage of someone illuminated in shadow. Repeatedly turning the light on and off, she sees the same shadow looking at her until, finally, the mottled, decayed body of a straggly, naked woman is standing inches from her when the light goes off.

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Hard to describe, visceral to watch. There’s something primal about the fear that, intentionally or not, evokes the Weeping Angels from British TV series Doctor Who, creatures which of course moved closer to someone the more you blinked, the more you stopped fixing them into the stone creatures, Medusa-style, they were. It’s that terror of missing something, the terror of being invaded almost. The Lights Out short achieved that so brilliantly in such a short space of time, building to a climax where Losten hides under the bed covers as, in the darkness, she hears the invader creep into her bedroom before… well, that would be telling. It’s worth enjoying for the terrifying last shot alone.