Sunday, May 31, 2015


There's a CaitlĂ­n R. Kiernan quote from The Drowning Girl that sums up this film's subject perfectly so I'll let it do the heavy lifting: “Hauntings are memes, especially pernicious thought contagions, social contagions that need no viral or bacterial host and are transmitted in a thousand different ways."

Kiernan goes on to say that one of those methods of transmission is art and if that's so then Kyoshi Kurosawa is probably responsible for more than a few hauntings. Cure has no jump scares whatsoever but it nonetheless conjures an undercurrent of dread by way of otherwise innocuous things: a repeated routine becomes unnerving when shot from a new set of angles, water creeping across the floor becomes unsettling when it begins to trace a connection from antagonist to victim and conversations are made uncalm when their expected rhythms are disrupted.

In comparison the brutal act of murder is often portrayed a rather banal manner. When it's shown at all it occurs in long shots (as, to be fair, most of the action does) which reduces the impact of gore, is over quickly and is perpetrated against victims who never get a chance to cry out or show obvious signs of distress. I'm not sure whether this is intended to make it feel like a natural, expected outcome of the events leading up to it or whether it's intended to make them more unsettling through perverse means, or both. Whichever it is Cure succeeds admirably.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Duel to the Death

Duel to the Death's title implies that it's going to be something of a long, frustrating march to the fireworks factory. The finale is indeed an impressive show-stopper of a fight which slowly builds to the bombastic spectacle of the combatants reshaping nature around them but the build-up is impressive too.

It begins with a meticulously edited scene in which ninjas hunt for a book. Searching library shelves doesn't sound exciting on the face of it but the camera - anxiously gliding along the shelves, searching just as restlessly and as athletically as the ninjas - sells the scene. Bold stylisation helps sell later scenes too. Duel to the Death makes a motif of characters striding or running towards distant cameras set at low angles; the fights are well choreographed and use wire-fu judiciously; and the production design features some truly unusual imagery (including men suspended from ropes in a geometric pattern and hang gliders stalking men on foot).

The film is equally attuned to its characters' warring passions. Personal pride, love, nationalism and honour are all set against one another. Furthermore all the characters are offered a measure of dignity. The film's sole female fighter gets a truly badass introduction (executing a particularly harsh but fitting bit of revenge) and a potentially unctuous scene in which she tries on clothing coded as feminine is defanged by focusing on her pleasure rather than indulging the audience. Her hands are shown in close-up sliding through silk sleeves (practically caressing them) and the last shot is of her smile as she combs out her hair.

All of the above does pay off spectacularly when Duel to the Death does culminate in its heroes dueling to the, well, you know what. Yet while the fight may thrillingly defy the laws of gravity its conclusion is also genuinely sobering.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Forty Thousand Horsemen

Forty Thousand Horsemen is very much an unapologetic propaganda film complete with embarrassing racism, cloying nationalism and an awful, condescending romance. It's appropriately scored almost entirely to the strains of the national anthem and Waltzing Matilda so if you don't appreciate either of those awful songs this film may present as something of a struggle.

There's an early scene to establish why Australians are fighting in the Ottoman Empire and the given reasons are class mobility and free speech. How those aims are achieved by participating in a European power struggle is never made clear. The Ottomans themselves are treated as worthy opponents who rightfully respect the fearsome yet laid back Australians. Meanwhile the Germans are mustache twirling villains - unsurprisingly given the film was released in 1940. Local civilians get the shortest end of the stick: they're presented as patsies just waiting to be fleeced by larrikin (a nicer word for arsehole) Australian soldiers.

The sets and battle scenes have clearly had a lot of money lavished on them but while director Charles Chauvel comes up with some stirring images - cavalry leaping over trenches is possibly the most exciting World War 1 combat has ever been - he fails to tell a sophisticated story with them. Instead they're reduced to a simple montage, the upshot of which is that the Australians won.

In the very broadest sense Chauvel is faithful to the historical record - unsurprisingly since his uncle played a crucial role in the battles portrayed. He does though, in the tradition of all good Australian propaganda, elide the role of British forces and he's not at all afraid to sacrifice truth on the alter of pulp storytelling. The highpoint of the film is easily a James Bond-like finale in which our ocker hero battles a dastardly German officer to prevent him from blowing up explosives that would kill everyone in Beersheba. Forty Thousand Horsemen is by no means a good film but at least it's not the torturous history lesson embodied by the likes of Smithy.