February 1, 2013
Coming from a director whose filmography and talent suggest she is both switched on and aware, it’s hard to believe Kathryn Bigelow would claim, “the film doesn’t have an agenda, and it doesn’t judge.” (Kathryn Bigelow, The New York Times, December 17 2012) Her hope, one assumes, is to hide her gentle conservatism deep within the spectacle of quality filmmaking craft. But Bigelow wears her patriotism on her sleeve and in so doing can’t help but reveal her brand of just morality. Whilst this is absolutely her prerogative the trouble with it is the casualties are viewers and ethics. Manipulated by carefully constructed and well executed craft, viewers are implicated in post-9/11 moral hysteria. Whilst technically Zero Dark Thirty is a “good” film, it is not free of judgement and worse still, attempts to hide its agenda behind an unethical brand of gentle conservatism.
That most people feel uneasy watching Zero Dark Thirty goes some way towards confirming Bigelow’s claim that she is presenting events as they (for the most part) occurred. It could be argued too that her presentation is successful in its ability to make the viewer feel uncomfortable, potentially questioning their responses to the methods used to locate bin Laden. But even if this were true, it assumes hunting down another human with the intent to kill is an acceptable final outcome.
Jessica Chastain plays Maya, the highly intelligent, headstrong CIA operative determined to track down Osama bin Laden. Despite her strong will and hard-line, she flinches a little during an early torture scene in the film to signal her as the character for audience alignment. Later, after initial hostility towards both male and female colleagues to prove her work ethic above her humanity, Maya begins to soften and to allow working friendships to develop. This negates accusation against her character as being void of all humanity. The conflicting character developments then attempt to create power and empathy simultaneously but prove too much for Chastain who often comes across as soft where she ought to be sympathetic.
Framed now as a woman with great power, intelligent with a dash of empathy, Maya appeals to the viewer as moral compass. But she has no ethics, her decisions and behaviours are based on personal moral feelings, “A lot of my friends have died trying to do this – I believe I was spared so I could finish the job.”, and as such compromise the integrity of the viewers who are implicit in her political/personal/moral position.
In Washington, the many suited men advise their probable certainty of Maya’s intel being accurate, refusing to commit to their position, explaining, “We don’t deal in certainty, we deal in probability.” Maya assures the men and in so doing the audience that she is absolutely sure, “One hundred percent.” Bigelow justifies the invasion that follows. Sure, what follows is some of the best technically orchestrated filmmaking I’ve seen onscreen in years and as narrative thriller plays out with incredible tension, but preying on people’s sympathy for Western innocents killed during US and UK terrorist attacks, is a low card to draw to allow moral hysteria into the narrative where ethics ought to be present. Never once does the film allow an ethical position and never are the audience privileged to see the face of the Other.
Recently, the critical backlash against her earlier comments have forced Bigelow into honesty as her comments here reveal:
“On a practical and political level, it does seem illogical to me to make a case against torture by ignoring or denying the role it played in U.S. counter-terrorism policy and practices.
Bin Laden wasn’t defeated by superheroes zooming down from the sky; he was defeated by ordinary Americans who fought bravely even as they sometimes crossed moral lines, who labored greatly and intently, who gave all of themselves in both victory and defeat, in life and in death, for the defense of this nation.”
– Extract, Kathryn Bigelow, Los Angeles Times online, January 15 2013. Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.
Zero Dark Thirty is released in Australian cinemas Thursday January 31 2013.
February 4, 2011
Elements of visual and sound design including cinematography, editing, music and sound mix, whilst not necessarily always best used as compliments to the diegetic world (countless examples from Soviet Montage to underground experimenta and political found footage/ensemble films certainly support a counter-argument), it is most often the case that with Hollywood cinema these formal properties of a film act, albeit manipulatively, as a guide for audience reception (for more on this see Greg Smith’s chapter “The Mood Cue Approach to Filmic Emotion” in Film Structure and the Emotion System). And whilst I am not at all against cinema that pushes the boundaries of generic expectancy and indeed the formal economics of predictability that years of viewing have firmly impressed upon us (quite the contrary), I do find it difficult to appreciate the abrasive use of a film’s formal qualities when there is no apparent or at least positively affecting result in doing so. Danny Boyle has long been a director whose formal choices seem to me curious, if not superfluous, in this regard. His latest feature film, the much-anticipated 127 Hours (2010) is possibly the greatest example yet of how saturating formal technique is used to juxtapose the diegetic content of a film with disappointingly reductive results.
For a film about a man who gets stuck in a cave, his arm crushed under a firmly lodged boulder, it might seem a little odd that the opening credit sequence should show several images on a split screen where hoards of humans appear to heard themselves about like animals. Of course, this is a Hollywood film, so it isn’t long before these images are adequately explained as an insight into our protagonist’s view of the world. Aron Ralston (James Franco) is a man who prefers the company of the outdoors to others. Independent to the point of apparent neglect (he fails to tell anyone where it is that he’s going so that in the actual event something does happen to him, no one is able to even think about looking for him), Aron is as self-sufficient and individualist as they come. Suggesting with the split screen that our being surrounded by others does not necessarily forego fragmentation, Boyle sets up the film’s primary “message” and “concern” in a fairly standard and easily digestible manner.
After a few more establishing scenes where the stylistic choices add a sense of franticness to the film’s tonality, somewhat exploring human impact/interaction on/with natural spaces, our protagonist takes the inevitable plummet that will serve as the real life premise for the remainder of the film: with his arm crushed by a now firmly lodged boulder that came loose upon his free fall descent, Aron is condemned to the proverbial ‘127 hours’ where survival and solace seem unlikely. Unfortunately, where Boyle could easily have constructed the rest of the film as a tense, even terrifyingly sublime exploration of one man’s true isolation, the use of flashback, hallucination and overwrought visual and aural additives often detract from the true severity of the focal situation. An initial panic communicated to the audience after his fateful fall, where one genuinely thinks the rest of the film could well be James Franco screaming in agony for near on a hundred minutes (something that would undoubtedly have been more terrifying and visceral to watch), Boyle employs popular music and fast paced camera movement with far too short ASLs (average shot length) to even come close to adequately communicating a sense of prolonged pain.
Though occasional lines of dialogue reconfirm the idea that stillness is an illusion and that movement is constant; “Everything is moving all the time” and “Everything just comes together”; the film itself is not so fortunate so as to benefit from the illusion of stillness which, sadly, detracts from its overall tension. And whilst the most critical sequence in the film does show how style and sound can increase visceral affect, it does so in isolation as it is the one sequence that actually builds to crescendo. Certainly the majority of the time that Ralston is onscreen would have been communicably improved by a slow build in tension and a sense of suture style claustrophobia, akin to the likes of last year’s Buried (2010) which successfully managed such a feat by never expanding upon or leaving the confines of the diegetic world.
Ending with Ralston relenting that he does in fact “need help”, the film re-confirms the idea that we all need others and that connections between humans is an imperative to every individual’s survival. Moreover, Boyle takes it a bit too far when he then goes on to end the film by pointing specifically to Ralston’s now wife and kids as if familial life were some sort of epiphanic salvation. In terms of making a truly horrific life-threatening and, no doubt life-altering, event into a piece of entertaining filmic fare, Boyle has succeeded but in terms of communicating any sense of true gravity of the situation or even the fascinating and compelling temporal dimension to his experience which even operates as the film’s title, Boyle remains dismissive and reduces the scope and terror to a mere cavalcade of visual and aural superfluouity. It’s not so much the case that Boyle preferences style over substance, rather that his use of style operates as an overwhelming distraction from audience access to substance, an active choice that I find far less palatable.
Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.
February 2, 2011
The expectation that an audience will suspend disbelief and identify with an onscreen world and its characters is something I usually consider a fair request. But when the film in question itself suffers a crisis of identity, then the necessary contract between the filmmakers and the audience has been violated, and thus spectatorial alignment void. When access to an onscreen world is broken even if ‘moments’ are beautiful, the whole becomes fragmented and the experience abrasive for the viewer. Due to some terribly trite dialogue and a complete breakdown of generic and tonal consistency, Sanctum 3D (2010) is one such film that sadly fails to communicate with or suture in its audience.
Opening with an incredibly beautiful shot of a diver floating through an abyss of water the film offers first a notion of disembodiment. Reflecting well the content that will follow, Sanctum suggests already that the physical human body and its connectedness to other weighted objects or entities is not a given: constancy and attachment both psychological rather than physiological constructs. Cutting to a village in Papua New Guinea (although the film was actually shot in Australia on the Gold Coast), Sanctum briefly, and I dare say too flippantly, establishes its premise and characters: a diving expedition into a system of underwater caves soon becomes a fight for survival after storm waters flood and collapse the entrance, leaving a small group of individuals, ranging from veteran to first-time divers, with the challenge of working together for the grand prize of their lives.
Like many Australian productions before it, Sanctum is somewhat concerned with the relationship between human development and the persistence or resilience of the natural world. Illustrating this with ease, our most expert diver Frank (Richard Roxburgh) is sure to explain the wonder of the natural world by visual experience in the first instance; “Let me show you.” There is also the suggestion that the natural world is itself a force to be reckoned with and that human affinity with it is far from established, the “unknown” and compelling harsh beauty it presents formidable; “This cave’s not going to beat me.” Inauspicious as it is, the natural world is also posited as sublime; the overwhelming beauty and awe in which it inspires God-like. The unexplored areas our protagonists discover become the “sanctum” in question, and several sequences reference the bible, religious undertones resonating throughout, most notably towards the film’s end when our Christ-like Son of God performs a sort of baptism as he forgives his Father.
But even with these moments where subtext and visuals come together to achieve something worthy of serious and contemplative reflection upon issues pertaining to the human condition, the film constantly falls apart due to clumsy dialogue – dialogue that jars terribly with the visuals and abrasively halts any meditative aspects the film might otherwise champion. Moreover, its crisis of generic and tonal identity mean the films flits far too often and too disjointedly between being a serious drama, a tense horror/thriller and a light-hearted blockbuster action/adventure flick.
Forgiving its pitfalls proves difficult. Disruption in the natural flow of both the narrative and the visual story leave Sanctum a film with a great deal of promise and some truly magnificent moments but, most unfortunately, too confused for its own good.
Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.
January 20, 2011
Binary opposites are often used both visually and thematically in mainstream cinema to provide simple and stark contrast with disappointingly little examination of the grey area in between. Taking into account Jacques Derrida’s theorising that there are inherent hierarchies within these dichotomous pairings, there exists a more compelling standpoint from which to consider, not only the way in which the two might interact, but also how it is that they might then begin to break down. A dynamics of power, the interplay between the two is necessarily relational. As such, in even considering the hierarchical structure there exists the possibility that the relationship is organic and that the two might then traverse, confront and collide with one another in their struggle to appropriate the higher ground. This rather striking contemplation of binary opposites is what Darren Aronofsky’s psychological thriller Black Swan (2010) exemplarily explicates.
Natalie Portman gives her finest onscreen performance as Nina Sayers, a young ballerina who has, until now, always been a great technical dancer with incredible dedication and discipline. Straight-laced, and having lived a sheltered life at the hands of her controlling mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), Nina is also ambitious. Like any performer, she is driven by the desire to not only achieve but also to embody perfection. When long-standing prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder) is to be replaced – an inevitable fate for an aging ballerina – the company’s artistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassell) casts Nina in the leading role, but, not without hesitation. Although he believes she absolutely embodies the White Swan; elegant, innocent, graceful; he labels her “too frigid” to play the darker side of the Swan Queen, the Black Swan. As such, Nina is, from the outset, anxious about the role and determined to achieve something in self-discovery that will prove her skeptics wrong. When the equally beautiful and certainly as talented Lily (Mila Kunis) joins the ballet Nina becomes irrationally scared of being replaced (a symptom of her guilt felt in replacing Beth) and begins to project the manifestation of all her anxieties onto Lily; slowly, and then psychotically. Whilst in reality Lily poses little threat to Nina and if anything, offers only friendship and support, this is the first of many in Nina’s erratic and delusional interpretations of events.
Though it is certainly true that Aronofsky paints with broad strokes in terms of the motifs to indicate light and dark, rigid and free, it is a very detailed and accomplished contrast that is drawn. From the pastel pinks and delicate jewellery Nina wears, right down to how tightly she secures her bun, she is always shown as a picture of aspiring perfection. Conversely, Lily wears black, adorns herself with chunky bangles, bags and an iPod, and lets her hair down even in rehearsal. But it is not so simple as Nina being “good” and Lily being “bad”. Far from it, Lily is actually a beacon for what Nina must aspire to: a freer, more natural self. In fact, even with Nina’s sexual awakening and her performative journey blurring the lines between fantasy and reality, her taking on the role of the Black Swan is a positive, emancipatory experience. Finally freeing herself from the little girl who turns to mummy for every little thing and finally engaging in something of a life outside of her own discipline and rigidity, Nina’s partial submission to her binary opposite, though difficult and even traumatic, is both healthier and liberating.
For the viewer, as it is for Nina onscreen, the certainty of what is real and what is imaginary becomes increasingly indistinct. This lack of clarity is Aronofsky’s presentation of the grey area. As Nina allows chaos into her life the previous order begins to break down. However, it is not the case that she ever truly gives in to it and ultimately the rigid version of herself, driven to perfection, still reigns. She says early on in the film, before her encounter with the opposite, “I just wanna be perfect”. Dancing the White Swan she stumbles; dancing the Black Swan she flourishes. Returning to both her real self and the White Swan, reality is restored. Nina realises that the freedom she experienced from herself existed for only a moment onstage and that she is now, as she ever was, incarcerated in a prison she built for herself. Achieving, however fleeting, the culmination of two binary opposites working at so beautifully both against and with one another, Nina reached the summit of perfection: “I felt it. I’m perfect. It was perfect.”
The last note is bittersweet: perfection is reached through destruction. The break down of hierarchy within these binary opposites creates an internal implosion whereby union can only result in the annihilation of one. The White Swan, Nina’s troubled, ill self is tragically what persists and though she is content, having reached perfection, its resonant lesson is deafening: perfection is imperfect. An engaging and visceral presentation of thoughtful thematics, Black Swan is as ambitious, and as perfect, as its lead.
Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.
January 2, 2011
There’s something to be said for films that explain with their very title the entire premise of the film that follows (yet somehow still manage to provide misleading information regarding final narrative resolution). What is described as “a missile the size of the Chrysler building”, is a supposedly “unstoppable” runaway train. This is the beginning and the end of what constitutes “plot” in Tony Scott’s latest high-octane action/thriller Unstoppable (2010).
The opening credits combine atmospheric framing of large freight trains and slowed camera work to infer stilted time. Here, it is made clear that temporality in Unstoppable will be subject to both ellipsis and screen-time manipulation. This is probably the film’s most disappointing undoing. Trains, and “railway time”; being the literal vehicle through which the Victorians actually set social order with regard to standardising time across Britain; it is a great loss to see a film whose subject matter is primarily concerned with a race-against-the-clock premise, fail to make effective use of temporal tension. A “real-time”, or even just a better defined screen-time, explanation of the gathering momentum of the runaway train might have afforded the film with tighter, and therefore more gripping, parameters.
Whilst there is some indication that “age” and “time” are significant, illustrated through the contrasting of the “old timers” who work at the rail yard and the fresh out of training enthusiastic but wet behind the ears kids, the contrast fails to achieve much beyond a nod to existence. Similarly, a group of small school children about to enjoy a train journey scream out in unison, “What time is train time?!!” and yet, again, this is far as the inference goes. Ultimately, each time the film indicates or alludes to the importance of time it fails to operate as anything beyond acknowledgement. Subsequently, the film is very much lacking in interesting subtext and insofar as theoretical content is concerned, the film is entirely empty.
That said, there is definitely a superficial thread that is concerned with the way in which automated operating systems and corporate moguls pose a considerable danger to a physically laborious profession. This is well illustrated through juxtaposing incompetent characters against the proverbial old-timers whose years of experience and good old-fashioned know-how is the only thing that can possibly slow and stop the train. Under-appreciated and facing redundancy, the old-timers prove to be the backbone of the industry and, working with a new generation, they can apparently achieve astounding results.
Finally, it’s all a little too heartwarming and there are a couple of side narratives established to support the central characters’ back stories, but neither are engaging enough to warrant more than a mention here. Denzel Washington and Chris Pine do a decent job performing almost two-dimensional characters and Rosario Dawson deserves credit for remembering to act even in the moments where the film abandons tone. If you’re interested in trains, time or engineering this film will likely disappoint but, if you want to see a short, loud explosive journey with character depth and thematics as an optional sideline, then it absolutely reaches its planned destination.
Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.
December 7, 2010
Thanks to the wonderfully good people at Madman Entertainment I’ve got a pre-Christmas giveaway for readers of Liminal Vision. As regular visitors to this site will know, my interest in film is centred mainly around its ability to communicate theoretical, philosophical, psychoanalytical and/or ethical contemplations through visual content. And in a film about splicing together human and animal DNA, I’d say there’s more than just a little ethical questioning taking place, not to mention the one or two decidedly Freudian going-ons, and, of course, I do also happen to have something of a soft spot for wonderfully entertaining B-grade horror-schlock when it’s done just right. SO, to celebrate the December 15 DVD & Blu-ray release of Vincenzo Natali’s Splice (2009) I’ll be giving four lucky readers a Christmas gift of gloriously gory proportions!
“Two young, top of their game, and very much in love scientists, Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley), ignore the forbidding from their superiors and the “moral implications” of it all, and go ahead and splice together human and animal DNA. But motivated by more than just the science of the thing, the resultant spawn, Dren (Delphine Chaneac) becomes more like a deformed daughter to them than the subject of a scientific experiment, culminating in a whole lot more than they bargained for during her “coming of age” style awakening…. At its best a form of flattery for the likes of Peter Jackson and David Cronenberg in its comic gross-out moments … Splice (2009) is a successfully commercial, fun horror-schlock flick.”
To win one of 2 DVDs and 2 Blu-rays of this film please send an email naming your favourite David Cronenberg film to email@example.com with your full name and postal address and the word ‘Splice’ in the subject header – don’t forget to please also indicate whether you would prefer DVD or Blu-ray. Winners will be picked at random, at the author of this blog’s discretion and all decisions are final.
DVD Special features include; “The Making of Splice”, “The Director’s Playground” and an interview with acclaimed director Vincenzo Natali.
Splice will be available 15 December 2010 (on DVD $29.95RRP and Blu-ray $39.95RRP) through Madman Entertainment.
Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.
November 29, 2010
Apparently there is a panther roaming free in rural Victoria. It seems anomalous. But isn’t anomaly what the contemporary state of our country is built upon?
Writer/director Patrick Hughes’ first feature film Red Hill (2010) is all about the problematic existence of an introduced species in an Indigenous landscape. There have been reports of “phantom panthers” in Victoria, NSW and WA ever since the end of WWII when an unknown number of black panthers supposedly escaped into our enormous land mass. The panthers are supposedly further responsible for the disappearance and deaths of numerous domestic animals and livestock. In Red Hill the “phantom panther” operates in parallel to the white Europeans (now considered “Australians”) who have also been “introduced” to the land. Like the panther, they too are responsible for the disappearance and deaths of numerous Indigenous people and, also like the panther, have been held relatively unaccountable for their violent and destructive actions.
Primarily and thematically, Red Hill is a revenge thriller where a single physical embodiment of our country’s severely wronged Indigenous people comes back, very much like the Freudian “return of the repressed”. For Freud the repressed can never truly be destroyed and will always re-emerge, something we see clearly from one character’s inability to live with himself as the persistent memories of past events haunt his conscience/unconscious. Moreover, when the repressed returns for Freud it is distorted, almost unrecognisable, and our single physical embodiment of this returned repression, Jimmy Conway (Tommy Lewis), is physically disfigured (something that also operates as a literal historical scarring.) Considering Jimmy thusly provides at least a somewhat more preferable understanding as to why protagonist Shane Cooper (Ryan Kwanten) is entirely exempt from the rampage of revenge that ensues. Jimmy (as a symptom of the repressed) only takes his revenge on the men personally responsible for the rape and murder of his pregnant wife and his subsequent incarceration as it is their collective unconscious that recall him and his suffering in the first instance.
Whilst I don’t think anyone would argue that the white men gunned down in this film aren’t absolutely deserving of their ill fates, there might be some viewers who find the depiction of Jimmy to verge a little on the dangerous side insofar as he is less humanised than Cooper who, despite being an example of yet more useless white people rapidly breeding, appears to be the “hero” of the story. Cooper is characterised as the moral centre of the film and as such the audience is aligned with him as a primary point of identification. A police officer who has moved from the fast pace of city life to a small, quiet country town, he is both slightly inept as an officer – he misplaces his own firearm and is late on his first day of work; and more compassionate than his country folk – he shows ethical resistance to actually pulling the trigger on his gun when faced with a “criminal” hoping that perhaps other, more passive measures can be taken.
However, in characterising Jimmy as less humanist than Cooper I would suggest the film is further illustrating the continued prejudice and adversity our Indigenous people face in what is left of their own country. At the film’s end Jimmy is still held accountable for his actions by white man’s law. The incredible injustice of this inevitability really resonates as we come to realise that the only person for whom there will ever be a future in this country is the white man. Whilst this is not a particularly hopeful ending it is, dare I say, somewhat accurate.
Finally, a shot of the panther looking out onto the vast landscape it finds itself king of reminds us with bitterness that once a species is introduced it is almost impossible to eradicate and certainly its effect on the landscape is absolutely irreversible.
An engaging drama and an important commentary on the horrific history this country will always be haunted by, Red Hill is an impressive film for a first time filmmaker from whom I hope we will see a great deal more.
November 24, 2010
Whether or not the film takes too much artistic license with the exact events as they in real life took place, and in the absence of a definitive, unbiased interpretation of events, I have to say that I personally was fairly impressed by the admittedly left-leaning politics of Doug Liman’s latest thriller Fair Game (2010). But opinions regarding the true story of Valerie Plame Wilson aside, the greatest success of the film is the way in which it so seamlessly uses formal techniques to elucidate narrative content.
One of the greatest ways to ensure an audience buys the authenticity of a film is to use documentary or stock TV footage. This technique is especially successful when the footage is woven into the thematic fabric of the film and harmoniously matched with visual graphics (exemplarily explicated at the very end of the film where Liman cuts in graphic match from Naomi Watts’ performance to “real life” footage of Valerie Plame Wilson’s testimony in court.) In the opening titles for the film we are presented with news footage of George Bush and an aural mash-up of non-diegetic music from the Gorillaz layered on top of a spate of diegetic key words that alliterate and are accumulatively onomatopoeic; “scare”, “threat”, “substance”, “security”, “terrorist attacks”, “terrorist networks”. Set less than one month after September 11 and engaging in the media frenzy that followed these events, such formal techniques allow audience awareness from the outset; this film is interested in exposing the Bush administration as hysterical and fraudulent. Furthermore, the film is clearly and explicitly aligned with an anti-Iraq occupation political point of view.
In addition to the use of such footage, the drama itself is filmed in two distinctly different styles that play off one another to great effect. When we see Valerie (Naomi Watts) and her husband Joe Wilson (Sean Penn) at home or in a familial/social environment the camera work is static implying peaceful, steady and stable foundations. Conversely, when we see Valerie or Joe in governmental or field agent settings the camera work is often shaky and intrusive which is consciously interrogative implying a great deal of uncertainty and erraticism. This juxtaposition is used to both frame the Wilsons as “good” people of integrity and simultaneously cast doubt over the systems of power that employ them.
Selective use of famous quotations further ads to the communicable incredulity of certain US office holders and their role in the events that led to the West’s invasion of Iraq. From Saddam’s “I would rather kill my friends in error than let my enemies live” to the Bush administration’s “The responsibility of a country is not in the hands of a few” Liman is questioning the way in which the media present high-profile conflict to the public. In lieu of this it is clear that in presenting another perspective on Valerie Plame Wilson’s case, Liman is interested in visual media’s ability to communicate and manipulate viewers. Rousing and provocative in the first instance, Fair Game is a fascinatingly self-reflexive accusal of popular discourse in its ability to skew fact and create polemic.
Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.
November 8, 2010
With so much bumbling idiocy, lined with sweet but never saccharine polite social decorum, Wild Target (2010) is a decidedly “English” film. And yet, it’s a remake of a 1993 French comedy thriller, Cible emouvante. Far from the most exciting, inventive or even engaging cinema to hit the big screen, Wild Target is more of an exercise in old school English witticism than it is a superior comedy heist thriller. But more than anything else, Wild Target is testament to the fascinating fact that the English can’t help but make films that express their national identity – even if that expression is outdated and dangerously nostalgic.
Firstly, our protagonist is Bill Nighy, a man whose entire career is built upon a cornerstone of stiff-upper-lip English gentlemanliness. He plays a refined assassin; from an upper-middle class family, as well-educated as he is well-mannered, suave, discreet and with just enough reserve to be charming, Victor Maynard is the type of assassin you’d want if someone put a price on your head. He is, of course, “the best” and, in line with true English stoicism, he never lets emotion or altruism get in the way. That is, until he is hired to take out a beautiful, sassy young woman who is, by her very name, the epitome of the English Rose. The kind of girl who’d steal your sandwich whilst applying lipstick, Rose (Emily Blunt) is savvy and charming as the OTT scamster damsel in distress. For a well rounded comedy trio add to the mix some poor bystander kid, Ferguson (Rupert Grint), who unwittingly gets himself involved in a car park shoot out and only sides with our two unlikely heroes after making a judgement based on 1) class and 2) decorum; “I’m going to give the gun to him [Maynard], he’s got a tie on. And I didn’t shoot him so he’s not as pissed off with me.” With a humorous and dysfunctional family unit of sorts in place, peppered with Maynard’s overprotective over-English Mother (Eileen Atkins), a few East End thugs working for another upper crust villainous sort (Rupert Everett), a second rate smart-arse assassin (Martin Freeman) and a red morris mini a la The Italian Job (1969), you have yourself the makings of an awfully English film indeed.
But best of all, in order to escape the madness and mayhem of central London where crime and killing are as common as the lower classes, they leave the magnificent backdrop of alleyways and art galleries in favour of the good old rolling hills that so wonderfully characterise the English countryside. Finding solace in Maynard’s family home and its surrounding greenery, the three almost immediately sit down to a traditional roast dinner, complete with yorkshire puds. With their pursuers temporarily thrown off track, Maynard sets about training Ferguson in the art of assassination and, in the meanwhile, attempts to tame the proverbial shrew who, as a representative of a younger generation and its values, is desperate to escape the old fashioned values and serene isolation of rural England to return to the bright lights and constant thrill of big city life.
But there’s something wrong with this vision of both England and the English. Dangerously nostalgic for a picture of Englishness that ought by now, to have been abandoned many moons ago, Wild Target is nostalgic for old-time manners but brings with it old-time prejudices. Set in the present day it seems grossly out of place for there to be cheap jokes leveled at a social confusion between good English breeding and latent homosexual tendencies. It is also seems out of place for our “heroes” to be shown driving away from the “East End” when they were never in it; the majority of the film being shot in Central or West London. Filled with an overwhelming whitewash of the upper-middle classes, Wild Target seems to have taken a leaf out of the Richard Curtis book of Imaginary White London.
Verging on annoying and offensive rom-com territory Wild Target is strangely saved by its mediocrity and Englishisms that though misguided are more often than not at least a little endearing. Enough fun to sustain its run time but missing the mark when it comes to substance and intrigue, Wild Target is at once enjoyable and instantly forgettable.
Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.
October 12, 2010
One of the principle agreements between filmmaker and audience is that the audience will engage in disavowal for the duration of the film and subsequently involve in an active “suspension of disbelief.” The degree to which a viewer must suspend their disbelief is determined, within the confines of the viewing contract, by the parameters established at the outset of the film. The opening sequence for Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010) does this with aplomb. Opening onto a dark, wet night in Tokyo, hundreds of faceless humans cross a busy road; their faces protected from the elements by umbrellas. One solitary female stands still, without an umbrella, patiently waiting as the bullet-time raindrops continue to fall all around her. Giving the audience time to adjust to the tone and aesthetic of the film, she then violently turns and attacks a passer-by: she is infected. Before the film advances four years to the present day, the audience are told here everything they need to know in order to engage in the film world and to appropriately suspend their disbelief. 1) It’s a dark world. 2) There is a threat. 3) Everyone is hiding behind “Umbrella”; but they won’t save you.
Picking up where Resident Evil: Extinction (2007, the third in the film franchise) left off, Resident Evil: Afterlife begins with Alice clones (Milla Jovovich) fighting the evil Umbrella Corporation. After an almighty shoot-out and a fair spill of blood, Alice escapes the underground lair just before it implodes in a moment of unparalleled CGI spectacular. Having snuck onboard with her nemesis – and our suitably arrogant and self-serving “bad guy” for the duration – Albert Wesker (Shawn Roberts), Alice is stripped of her super strength and regenerative powers for which she appears to be surprisingly grateful in the wake of an apocalypse; “Thank you – for making me human again.” When their plane then crashes the two are somehow separated (explanation unnecessary due to the already entered into suspension of disbelief) and from here on in it’s back to the original premise and a one-woman show: Alice versus Evil.
Searching in desperation for true solace after hearing over an emergency broadcast offering sanctuary – “free from infection” – somewhere called Arcadia, Alice is determined to find her friends and other humans unaffected by the outbreak. Encountering the usual Benetton rainbow of potential survivors, the group includes; a black male (Boris Kodjoe), an Asian male (Norman Yeung), a non-specific Latino or Hispanic male (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) – and female (Kacey Barnfield), a likely but ambiguous Jewish male (Kim Coates), an old and weak miscellaneous white man (Fulvio Cecere) and the stock standard smouldering all-American white military male (Wentworth Miller) and hard-ass sexy, all-American, white woman (Ali Larter) one has, through an economics of predictability, come to expect. In addition to the type of banter and causal narrative anticipated in such an action/thriller/horror/sci-fi there is an amusing byline of sarcastic jokes made at Hollywood’s expense (although ultimately these serve as self-accreditation) and a nod towards an indeed more interesting exploration of an almost Foucauldian nature as the humans lock themselves in a prison to keep the infected, braindead masses out.
Aesthetically and aurally the film is a treat: if you want to see and experience the money you paid for admission, the good news is that with this film, you undoubtedly will. A fantastically relentless soundtrack from tomandandy accompanies excessive bullet-time cinematography and some fairly decent, if at times synthetic looking, 3D. With the addition of a giant “Axeman” who steps in for a showdown with fatal femme duo Alice and Claire (Larter), the film retains the pace, feel and aesthetic of a computer game. Certainly not the end – indeed, just another level – Resident Evil: Afterlife is high-octane of the highest order – and it seems level four has been set to “disavow”.