Review: The Iron Rose (19730

I think I just found my new favourite movie.

In The Iron Rose, Jean Rollin takes a Bunuelian story of psychological entrapment and applies the rawest, most personal form of his aesthetic to create a heartbreaking masterpiece of youth and mortality.

Two unnamed young lovers – a sensitive tough guy and a winsome naïf – have a date in a cemetery. After making love in a crypt, they find themselves unable to leave the graveyard, and spend the night gradually coming apart.

Watching The Iron Rose feels voyeuristic. Something about this – the sincerity and the pain and the strangeness – feels so personal to Rollin, like he’s just placing his withering heart on the table for all to see. There’s no vampires here, no zombies, nothing overtly supernatural. It’s just two young idealists struggling to understand their place in a universe that existed long before them and will exist long after.

As they grow more and more frightened, the lovers begin to transform into their true selves. He exhibits cowardice, insecurity, a fear of death that shows itself in a flippant destruction of his surrounds. She becomes weary, accepting and welcoming of entrapment and darkness, wiser and scarier than her years should allow; her disappointment in him drives her to the dead. Is this what Rollin thinks of humanity? Is this what he thinks of life – simply a spiteful response to the inevitability of mortality?

In Rollin’s world, everyone is simply circling the grave, every action inextricably tied to their future sleep. Early on, we are shown a clown in full makeup attending to a grave. Rollin intercuts between a scene of sex and this clown, gradually showing his whole process. Beyond the initial confusion of his presence, the clown is never treated as a joke. He’s simply another force of ostensible joy being affected by the grave. The lovers may fuck in the cemetery in direct opposition to what lays below them, but they’re simply staving off time – no matter what, it’s all coming down.

Rollin’s contemplative approach reaches its peak here. Even at his most macabre – such as a make-out session on top of a pile of bones – he finds only regret and melancholy. When the male paramour reaches his nadir, Rollin shoots his pathetic destruction from afar, any sense of dread eclipsed by a gentle acceptance.

And yet, despite this fatalism, The Iron Rose is not a film without joy. Rollin’s obsession with the female form comes to a head in a fantasy, as the female lover walks naked upon a rocky stretch of beach (a stretch that Rollin seems to use often). She smiles, she laughs, she finds happiness in her peace. At the graveyard, too, there are times of surrealist comedy. Save for one, every other inhabitant we see is some kind of cartoonish creature – the clown, a caped man, a medieval hunchback – and the inherent strangeness of the lovers’ venue choice is played for dark comedy early on.

Jean Rollin seems obsessed with death, or at the very least, the mystery that comes right after. But he doesn’t seem scared. He just seems … done.

“They say that stars are the Gods sending us signals.”

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Review: Punisher War Zone (2008)

Shame this idiosyncratic, female-directed, action/horror superhero movie didn’t make money, because … well that sentence speaks for itself.

Director Lexi Alexander and Screenwriters Matt Holloway and Nick Santora understand that the Punisher and heroes of his ilk – tortured antiheroes with simple motives – should basically be grounding forces in a movie like this, not the central focus. So, instead, most of the film deals with the villains – Dominic West’s (impressively ugly) Jigsaw and his brother, Doug Hutchinson’s Looney Bin Jim, who have this delightful warm dynamic. My favourite scene in the film is where Looney Bin Jim tells his brother that he “won’t ever have to see [his] reflection again.” And then he throws his body into every mirror in a hotel lobby. That’s nuts, but it’s also really sweet.

Everyone is playing way big here (save, strangely, for Wayne Knight, who brings a lot of pathos into the corners), which is the right choice for Alexander’s brand of hyper-unreality. This is the perfect empty neon sleaze, all night time, all backlit, all blood-soaked alleyways. It’s all so wonderfully tacky – like the montage of our villains gathering up allies in front of a projected American Flag, perverting Patton, obviously, but also calling to mind Blow Out. Everyone is a cartoon, but they’re all extremely endearing cartoons – West and Hutchinson are so ridiculous and awful that they become loveable. When the Punisher starts picking people off (in various gory fashions), it’s kind of scary and kind of weighty, because he’s literally killing off the life that surrounds his solemn centre. This is a goofy film, but one that doesn’t quite lose its edge.

Review: Police Beat (2005)

“Your tree is dead, and if it’s not chopped down, it will continue to disturb and harm the living.”

Robinson Devor continues to convince me that the commercial failure of his sublime The Woman Chaser essentially robbed cinema of one of its great impressionists, pushing Devor deep into the underground where few can find him. His three features – this, the aforementioned Willeford adaptation, and his gorgeous zoophilia documentary Zoo – show an incredible ability to find the resolutely human in the absurd, something that brings depth to even his most esoteric outings.

Police Beat tells the story of Z, a West-African immigrant and rookie bicycle cop in Seattle, struggles to focus on the increasingly bizarre crimes he encounters due to his worry of his girlfriend’s infidelity.

This foundation allows Devor to craft an expressionistic tone poem that encapsulates the confusion of life. Police Beat is intimate and alien, it’s political and personal, violent and gentle. Z’s mind is fractured, and his world reflects that. His story, which takes place over seven days, spans across life and time, a fractured series of episodes of varying horror and hilarity, all belonging to a sense of otherness. The film pointedly takes place in the midst of the Bush presidency, and Z’s discomfort with his place in that United States – grateful for the chance to prosper but angry at policies that allow for such potential – manifests itself in his tenuous romantic relationship – loving but distant. Z is a moralistic, black and white force in a confusing world, and that friction seemingly affects his immediate reality. Men drown in piles of lilypads. A BDSM sexual encounter ends with a woman running naked through the park. A man walks into a house with the owner’s permission, walks upstairs and masturbates to birds, then leaves. There is no reason to this life, no consistency. But still, Z simply moves forward, unable or unwilling to confront his present for fear of his uncertain future. How do you comprehend the external when your internal is so confused?

All of this turmoil is captured in a gorgeous, stripped-back cerulean palette, reminiscent of Zulawski’s On the Silver Globe, though guided by Devor’s gentle, roaming camera. He shows us a raging monsoon but shoots it like a gentle rain.

A beautiful, profound, endlessly rewarding work.

“We’re going to learn the lindy dance.”

Review: Daguerrotype (2016)

“Death is an illusion.”

Essentially an old school gothic romance twisted by Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s inimitable restraint and gliding camera. Kurosawa’s camera occasionally moves like Bunuel’s once did, a sort of curious omnipresence – except, where Bunuel found joy awe in his imagery, Kurosawa only finds fear and regret. He trains you to search every inch of the frame for something horrible, something terrifying – and though you usually find nothing, his atmosphere morphs frustration into dread. You begin begging the film to show you something unwell.

Occasionally this patient approach tries my own, as Kurosawa loves to soak in banality for the sake of a tone that could be strengthened by a tightening. Sometimes, he has the opposite problem; in the few occasions Daguerrotype enacts its plot in active bursts, it moves too quickly, sliding over melodramatic developments haphazardly when a slower reveal would have worked better.

These faults fade away, however, when you allow the film to put you under its spell. Kurosawa knows that ghosts don’t have to be seen to haunt you, and that the absence of an image is often more powerful than the opposite. The final sequence, in particular, delivers information that the audience already knows, but Kurosawa cuts it with such heartbreaking quiet that it becomes poignant despite its inevitability. Not too long before that, the only true moment of outright horror juxtaposes terrifying stillness and reckless retreat such that my breath was lost, giving the audience exactly what they had been expecting the entire film but shooting it so sincerely that it nears corniness – instead, it finds profundity.

The camera keeps us alive. A picture, or a film, does not acknowledge the future, it only exists for itself. As soon as one acknowledges the end, it becomes true.

Review: Pusher (1996)

Took me about 20 minutes to settle into this, because it feels so removed from what has become Winding-Refn’s identifiable style. Pusher is mostly free of highly composed visual fetishism, instead consisting of high-flying handheld work, reminiscent of Sam Fuller’s Street of No Return in its free flowing whip pans.

Once I got over my initial confusion, however, I was able to see Pusher‘s place in the Refn canon. Like Bronson, Drive, and Only God Forgives, Pusher is concerned with self-destryctive masculinity and the ways criminality feeds this psychosis. Where his later films are obsessed with the big showdowns and explosions, however, Pusher is about the mundanity. It finds power by slowly, ever so slowly, turning the screw, one minuscule moment after another, shrug upon shrug gradually hurting its closed-off protagonist.

The Killing of a Banal Bookie, almost.

Shout out to a young Mads Mikkelsen, who spends most of his screen time bragging about his cock.

Review: Kong: Skull Island (2017)

There has never been a film with more sunsets than Kong: Skull Island. Jordan Vogt-Roberts’s revival of the classic movie monster staple doesn’t care what time it is – if something gnarly is going to happen, it’s going to happen in the silhouette of an enormous red sun. A giant ape, knocking down helicopters. A researcher, being torn apart by bird things. Tom Hiddleston, not really doing anything but looking good anyway.
This endless magic hour speaks to Kong’s greatest strength and weakness. Vogt-Roberts and his three credited screenwriters (including Nightcrawler’s Dan Gilroy, whose presence can be felt early on in the film’s light jabs at Washington) are willing to sacrifice everything – logic, character, narrative – in service of a stunning image or awesome moment. When that approach works, Kong is a sublime piece of popcorn entertainment, with enough wit and ape-smashing to send me into fits of giggles. When it doesn’t – which is about a third of the running time – we’re left with banal banter and plot for the sake of plot. But, my God, when that giant ape tears apart a giant octopus and eats it like sashimi, the boring parts fall away.
One of the Kong franchise’s great challenges comes from that fact that, like its brother Godzilla, it’s essentially a horror series. As such, the films have to have enough characters so that plenty can act as cannon fodder for the movies’ array of creatures without skimping on people that the audience can latch onto for the human story.
Unfortunately, this is where Kong: Skull Island drops the ball early and never picks it back up. While the opening act has fun pulling its eclectic cast together – including John Goodman’s “Hollow Earth” obsessive, Tom Hiddleston’s pretty-boy tracker, Brie Larson’s non-nonsense war photographer, and Samuel L. Jackson’s gung-ho sergeant – it never builds them as any more than sketches. By the mid-point of the film, I was only able to place the characters by their actor’s name. The cast fills in some of the holes of characterization with pure charisma, but, with the exception of Jackson and John C. Reilly as a crazed POW who crashed on the island in WWII, no one rises above the material.
For the most part, though, they don’t need to. One of the things that makes Kong such a distinctly modern monster movie is its fetishisation of Vietnam imagery. Taking cues from the recent nostalgia wave for 80s VHS neon, Vogt-Roberts and his writers take what was once the focal point of the American counterculture and turn it into a “fun” aesthetic. While that’s a bit disconcerting on the surface, the film plays it up to such ridiculous heights that it’s easy to get swept away in the endless Creedence Clearwater Revival hits, the badass flamethrowers, and the endless expanse of terrifying jungle. The ‘Nam nostalgia is, in fact, the driving force and central metaphor of the film, as Jackson’s military figure takes it upon himself to murder the big, misunderstood ape. “We didn’t lose the war, we abandoned it,” he says early on. Later, a Nixon bobble-head is the only thing that stays in focus as a helicopter crashes to the ground.
None of that really matters though, because the metaphor becomes muddled with the introduction of giant scary lizard things, and Jackson’s story only takes up half the film. The other half is some half-baked nonsense about building a boat and John C Reilly swinging a samurai sword.
Kong: Skull Island could have been tightened up, its cast could have been minimised, and two stories, could have combined. Ultimately, though, if you want to see King Kong use a boat propeller as brass knuckles against a giant skull lizard, you’ll probably let its flaws slide.

Review: The Evil Within (2017)

“A prohibition vault! A place where, back in the prohibition, when booze was illegal, people used to hide their booze!”

Oil-heir Andrew Getty’s self financed, 15 years in the making, posthumously debuting horror film is an endlessly fascinating, problematic, and overwritten past the point of absurdity into disconcertion. The Evil Within exists in the mind of a misanthropic obsessive whose worldview is so warped even his most banal thoughts become lodged deep in one’s psyche.

Of course, all of the power that comes with such a singularly strange piece of work arrives at the expense of what might usually be considered “good” filmmaking. Getty’s film moves around in clunky fits, no one speaks like a person, and the central premise is ethically questionable at best; Fred Koehler plays a mentally disable adult who is terrorised and gradually made to murder innocent people, all in the service of “getting smarter,” a plot which requires significant distaste and distress, even before the legitimately frightening horror sequences come into play. As the plot lurches forward in horrific bursts, we become witness to Getty’s obsession with puppetry and performance, ideas so woven into the film that (intentionally or not) every actor acts as if held by twitchy strings.

Wild, broken filmmaking at its most beguiling.

“Stinking in the basement is OK if you’ve got the right books.”