Neruda (Pablo Larraín, 2016)

I confess to knowing very little about either the films of Pablo Larraín nor the poetry or politics, of Pablo Neruda. I daresay a little more knowledge of either might have increased my engagement with and enjoyment of Neruda, one two biopics made by Larraín released in 2016. I saw Jackie earlier this year, and felt rather swept away by it, but I can’t really say the same in the case of Neruda, although it’s an interesting construction of an almost unbelievable character.

In the film Neruda we join the titular poet (Luis Gnecco) in 1948, as a senator for the Communist Party in Chile. The Chilean President González Videla (Alfredo Castro) outlaws Communism, and forces the decadent Neruda into hiding, along with his wife, artist Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán). Set on the case of keeping track of, but not necessarily capturing, Neruda is policeman Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal), who narrates the film. As the cat-and-mouse game ensues, the line between Neruda and Peluchonneau becomes thinner, the two men dependent upon each other for continued – or potential – infamy.

Much like Jackie, Neruda is not a traditional biopic, and instead takes a look at a brief snapshot of the subject’s life. While Jackie was particularly focused on a moment in the First Lady’s life, it was also particularly hazy and dream-like. That sense of dreaminess is manifest ten-fold in Neruda, with the year in the poet-politican’s life seeming more a fictional representation of what could have been than any attempt to reflect true, hard-and-fast facts. And for that I think the film is to be praised, in some ways, it is indeed enjoyably meandering. However, for the most part, I found my attention meandering too, and even thought the film has moments of humour, and moments of intrigue, it otherwise lacked any real engagement with its characters, for me. Now, whether that’s due to my complete ignorance in all things Neruda, I’m not sure, but considering Peluchonneau is a semi-fictionalised creation, I found his character to be much more engaging than that of Neruda (was that the point?).

The most interesting aspect of the film to me was by far its form, which boasts a degree of pleasing artifice befitting its narrative. The use of light is striking, with an abundance of heavy flaring and glare (and not in a JJ Abrams sort of way), stark backlighting is an important contributor to the film’s dream-like quality. Meanwhile, the use of obvious back-projection during driving scenes becomes increasingly pronounced as the film goes on, a subtle support to the film’s general unravelling and tangling of the two characters, particularly Peluchonneau.

For me this was a film more about Peluchonneau than it was about Neruda, but I’m not confident enough to say that that’s not in fact a reflection on Neruda himself. It feels like a film I should re-watch, now that I have an ever-so slightly better understand of who Neruda was. Before seeing the film I didn’t even know that he was a politician, never mind someone who was on the run from the government he was once a part of. The film certainly isn’t an accurate introduction to the man in terms of historical fact, and neither does it aim to be so, but it does give a sense of the character: a champagne socialist in the truest form, it seems. More than anything, though, the film seems to use Neruda as a means to meditate on reputation and on art, and in that sense it’s very successful.

Baahubali 2: The Conclusion (S. S. Rajamouli, 2017)

Consider this review to be from the perspective of a total newcomer to the franchise, the filmmaker, the stars and the industry. While Baahubali 2: The Conclusion is not the first big-budget Indian film I’ve ever seen, it’s been many years since I’ve seen any, and I’m almost certain I’ve never seen a South Indian production. Just to really underline my uninformed standpoint seeing this film, I’ve not even seen 2015’s Baahubali: The Beginning. Despite being a direct continuation of that film, Baahubali 2: The Conclusion was nevertheless relatively easy to follow, though no doubt there were narrative intricacies and details that flew right over my head at the time of watching.

So why am I even attempting to write this review? Because even with minimal context the film is supremely freakin’ awesome, that’s why. It’s quite possibly everything I ever wanted from a historical fantasy epic action film wonderfully melded with arch melodrama. There is not a single subtle thing about this film, and it’s all the more magnificent for that fact.

Continuing from the end of the first film, Kattappa (Sathyaraj) narrates the tale of how Amarendra Baahubali (Prabhas) has defeated a vast army and is in line to become king of Mahishmati, while his brother Bhallaladeva (Rana Dagubatti) will be his commander-in-chief, as declared by the Queen Mother Sivagami (Ramya Krishnan). Baahubali and loyal guard Kattapa journey throughout the kingdom to assess the state and feelings of the people, and on this journey, Baahubali meets and falls in love with Devasena (Anushka Shetty), princess of Kuntala kingdom. Back home, treacherous Bhallaladeva, and his father Bijjaladeva (Nasser) conspire to make Devasena the Queen Mother’s choice for Bhalladeva’s bride. Returning home with Devasena, Baahubali learns of this treachery and chooses his love for Devasena over the throne. So Bhallaladeva is made king, and from there the continued decline of Mahishmati kingdom is told, through to the fate of Devasena and Baahubali’s son, Mahendra Baahubali – to whom Kattappa is telling this tale. The final part of the film rejoins the characters from the first, who, 25 years later, have freed an imprisoned Devasena and descend on Mahishmati kingdom to reclaim the throne from the tyrannical Bhallaladeva.

Alright, that’s the very short version of the plot synopsis. There are intricacies upon betrayals upon twists upon ‘who’s this, now?’ moments a-plenty (moreso if you’ve not seen the first film, naturally). I didn’t find the film particularly hard to follow, despite my limited prior knowledge of the characters. Even had the plot been more difficult to follow, I’m not sure I’d have minded much, because the story is entirely arch-melodrama, and a catalyst for spectacular action scenes. This is a near-three hour film, and yet it flies by in what feels like barely two – admittedly, maybe the mid-way intermission helped with this. The action starts from the very beginning, almost immediately launching into a spectacular introductory scene for Amarendra, wherein he soothes a rampant elephant. From therein it seems like every action sequence out does the last, leading into a climactic battle sequence which completely ups the ante into almost unbelievably giddy heights – I must have been gasping and laughing my way through the last 30 minutes of the film.

The action is wonderfully testosterone-filled, and I think it’s been accurately described as a ‘pornography of masculinity’ by some writers. I think what, for me, saves it is how damn beefcake-y it all is. There’s an inherent element of camp to proceedings that makes the more problematic elements of the story seem less important. (I should note here I’ve read that there are far more problematic sequences in the first Baahubali, but having not seen that one I don’t really feel I can). There are female heroes in this film too, but primary amongst those, Devasena, is soon enough wooed by Amarendra and thus becomes a more traditional – if strong-willed – princess character. However, I think the women of the film (not that there are many) at least get to be important and strong in a non-warrior capacity too, even if they are ultimately subservient, under-mined or manipulated.

It’s not just the action in the film that’s over-played and spectacular, of course. One of my favourite things about the film was the amount of wind being blown through various characters’ hair, even in sequences clearly taking place indoors. Coupled with telenovela levels of dramatic turns to camera and wide-eyed shock, the film is nearly exhaustingly dramatic. This isn’t a Bollywood production, but that’s not to say that music doesn’t play a large role – there are two or three explicit song-and-dance numbers (which are great, particularly one semi-fantasy sequence on a swan-boat-aircraft…seriously), but the soundtrack throughout features chorus-style songs which narrate and comment on the plot. The music is big and bold, just like the film, and is quite a significant part of the overall impact.

The performances in the film are impressive, physically, and there’s a certain endearing quality to lead actor Prabhas, who doesn’t seem to really be able to act, aside from looking a bit like a puppy – and he’s really quite hench, obviously. Shetty is wonderful as both young and older Devasena, and Bhallaladeva is a great hammy villain – though Dagubatti doesn’t chew the scenery as much as Nasser as his father, who puts panto villains to shame. These players all inhabit what is naturally a very CGI world, but it’s convincing. The film features a delightful disclaimer that action featuring animals made use of CGI and puppets, and frankly I’d rather see slightly dodgy CGI animals than worry that real animals were put anywhere near such remarkable scenarios. While some of the digital work is shonky, and the wirework is not always the smoothest, the action nevertheless is breath-taking.

All in all, diving headfirst into Baahubali 2: The Conclusion was absolutely a decision I’m glad to have made, and I can only imagine how much more entertaining the film is in the franchise’s context. If you’re a fan of superhero cinema, martial arts epics, or just wildly entertaining films, then I strongly recommend seeking out Baahubali 2: The Conclusion when it’s available to you – though maybe give the first film a watch beforehand.

A brief response to ‘Post-Horror’

I’m as guilty as anyone for bemoaning the ‘same-old shit’ of certain subgenres of horror films. In fact, I’m fairly sure I’ve bemoaned such a thing on this very website (or at least in its previous, Brutal as Hell, guise). I’ve come to realise, however, that if there’s one thing more tiresome than yet another babe lost in the woods or frat boy tied to a chair, it’s the dismissal of the horror genre by people who seemingly know nothing about it except for examples they themselves deem to be exceptional. Many a term has been used, from well-established notions such as terror, or the Gothic, through to made-up crap like Deathwave – yeah, remember that?

Today, The Guardian critic Steve Rose has thrown another contender into the ring, suggesting that, in the wake of films such as It Comes At Night and A Ghost Story, “what could be emerging here is a new sub-genre. Let’s call it ‘post-horror’.”

You know what, Steve? Let’s not.

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The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)

Considering the calibre of the career that followed, it sometimes seems easy to overlook the sheer magnitude of Dario Argento’s game-changing debut as director. If Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much and Blood and Black Lace lay the ground-work, it’s Argento’s debut that knocks it out the park. Lifting the best of Bava and infusing it with his own, career-making penchant for beautifully staged acts of violence, Argento’s film is rounded off with a
powerful central performance from Tony Musante and a memorable Ennio Morricone score.

To describe, in short, the plot of The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, risks describing the plot of countless other films that have followed. A man witnesses an attack and, believing his memories to hold the key to a series of brutal murders, investigates. There’s the template, the prototype, the giallo-by-numbers outline that so many other films after would follow (including Argento’s own). Specifically, here, it’s struggling writer Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) who witnesses a seemingly brutal but non-fatal attack on a woman, Monica Ranieri (Eva Renzi), in an art gallery. Now a key witness to what might be an attempted murder by a serial killer, he’s restricted from travelling back to the USA with his girlfriend Julia (Suzy Kendall). Instead, as more women turn up dead, Sam finds himself drawn into the investigation as he desperately tries to recall a missing detail from that night.

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Review: The Shepherd (El Pastor) (2016)

Festival hit The Shepherd is a drama in the art-house mould that has received critical plaudits and yet has left me leaving quite cold. I suspect The Shepherd might make for a more interesting watch in a cinema setting, but watching it at home I mostly found myself very, very bored.

The titular shepherd, Anselmo (Miguel Martín) goes about his simple, daily routine of making breakfast for himself and his dog Pillo, tending to his sheep, visiting his local bar, and reading. He is visited by two property developers interested in the area, and they offer to buy up his land. Anselmo refuses, much to the annoyance of his neighbours who are willing to sell. And so an increasingly hostile stand-off begins, as greed turns seemingly normal men irrational, and Anselmo must decide how much intimidation he’ll take.

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Review: A Dark Song (2016)

There is some really wonderful horror cinema coming out of Ireland at the moment, and it’s so pleasing to see genre works getting support from its film board. From Isolation through Wake Wood, The Canal, Citadel and Without Name, the range of horror filmmaking coming from Ireland is truly impressive. I think easily my favourite of this recent wave of films from the Emerald Isle is, appropriately, the Irish-Welsh co-production A Dark Song, a searing feature debut from writer-director Liam Gavin. Taking what might be the ritualistic set-piece from a number of different sub-genres and expanding it to be the main focus of the film, A Dark Song is an incredible meditation on life, death, morality and human nature.

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Review: Free Fire (2016)

I don’t always get on much with Ben Wheatley’s films. Though I adore Sightseers, I found both Kill List and A Field in England underwhelming, and High Rise to be a mess, albeit an enjoyable one. Approaching Free Fire, then, I had an open mind but a sense of knowing what I might expect my own response to be, and it was indeed so. While I enjoyed the film well enough, it left me unsatisfied and wanting rather a lot more from it.

Free Fire is quick to establish its main players, and it does so effectively – a deal broker, Justine (Brie Larson) has organised a weapons deal between Irishman Chris (Cillian Murphy) and South African Vernon (Sharlto Copley). They’re assisted by loyal Frank (Michael Smiley) and suave Ord (Armie Hammer), while the muscle-for-hire, Stevo (Sam Riley) and Harry (Jack Reynor), are too hot-headed for their own good, leading to a tense deal heading southward, and what might then be the climax of another crime film becomes the main bulk of Free Fire: a shoot-out between all parties involved, where loyalties are tested as much as the human body’s resilience to bullet wounds.

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Review: Elle (2016)

 

Some mild spoilers within.

I had an interesting discussion about Paul Verhoeven’s Elle with a fellow member of the cinema audience recently, and the most striking thing to me that she said – more striking than her conclusion that film was definitely misogynist – was that when she chose to come to see it she knew that Isabelle Huppert wouldn’t be in anything that sick. Now, my favourite Isabelle Huppert role is in The Piano Teacher, so I must say I was expecting the exact opposite, I suspect, of my fellow movie-goer, and I was not disappointed in that regard. It seemed my fellow audience member had taken the film at its most superficial, and I suspect she’s never seen The Piano Teacher, either. There was a great deal of nuance and restraint to the sickness in Elle, and it is that which elevates it to a film which is hugely enjoyable – and yes, very funny – without incurring the wrath I usually have reserved for lazier attempts at rape-revenge films.

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Blu-ray Review: The Entity (1982)

The Entity is one of those wonderful films from the era of big-budget, mainstream horror filmmaking based on popular novels – following on from the venerable likes of The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby, through to Demon Seed and beyond. The film in synopsis sounds, now, like that kind of film that would struggle to get made in such a mainstream setting, or at least would result in a myriad of hot-takes before it even hits a big screen (probably from myself included). The film is inspired by the true story of Doris Bither, a woman who claimed to have been repeatedly assaulted and tormented by supernatural entities. In the film, Barbara Hershey plays hard-working single-mother Carla Moran, who is, one evening, raped in her home by an unseen assailant. The attacks continue, threatening her life and her sanity. When the doctors trying to help her insist on uncovering a rational explanation for what’s happening to her, Carla turns to parapsychologists she meets at a book shop. Finally finding support from people who believe her, Carla agrees to take part in a dangerous solution: luring and entrapping the entity.

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Short film review: Halfway House (2017)

Back in 2013, actor Leslie Simpson made a foray into filmmaking with his directorial debut, the atmospheric short film Grandpa. Simpson is back with another short, written and directed by him, and it’s a wonderful step-up for the multi-talented filmmaker. Here he takes the lead as Joseph, a seemingly normal man, living in a nice house with his wife Stazi (Phoebe Ashford). Something goes bump one night, and the next morning, things in the house have moved. Stazi’s sure there’s a rational explanation. The next time it happens, more things move, and the detectives (Anna Burgess and Nicholas Politis) are even more sceptical. Joseph and Stazi become increasingly concerned by the goings-on in their home, and have to take matters into their own hands.

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DVD Review: Elsa Fraulein SS (1977)

When an 80-minute film starts off with three whole minutes of grainy stock footage, you know you’re in for some sort of a treat. When it also includes the credit ‘Eurocine presente’ then you start to get a bit more of an idea of what kind of treat that’s going to be. And so, you’re a bit more forgiving of the bad cuts, bad editing, questionable acting and cheap costumes. Those minor details seem barely worth mentioning when considering a film that one shouldn’t really expect more of.

Elsa Fraulein SS is one of those many Naziploitation films that riffs off the Ilsa model – sadistic lady-Nazi tortures a variety of nubile ladies and grizzled Nazi-men. The exploitation of Ilsa as a pinnacle of the genre is evident in the title used here – Elsa Fraulein SS is otherwise also known as Captive Women 4 (4?!), Fraulein Devil and – surprise – Fraulein Kitty. This film’s other obvious influence is the wonderful Salon Kitty, only instead of a brothel in Berlin being used as a spy-den, the not nearly as professional spies are here based on a pleasure train, travelling all of Germany as reward for the Nazi’s greatest officers.

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Review: Raw (2016)

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Raw is this year’s The VVitch or It Follows – that tentpole horror film that gets a big Spring release here in the UK. It seems to be a nascent tradition, and it’ll be interesting to see whether a contender for next year’s equivalent emerges from the upcoming festival season, or if the past two or three years have just been an accidental distribution model. Having played pretty much all the major genre fests – under tight security, no less – and gaining significant traction with stories of fainting and puking at screenings, it’s fair to say that Raw finally arrives with a fair bit of baggage.

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