The Vanishing (1988)

Last night I showed my parents Spoorloos (1988) or The Vanishing, a superb Dutch film that director George Sluizer later remade for Hollywood to much derision. If you’re going to see this movie, which you should, then you definitely see the original, no question. And, having said that, you should under no circumstances read anything about it beforehand (this piece exempted). Its ending is rightfully famous and the film works like a mountain climb; only at the summit do you get that unique perspective you’ve been working towards. Only then can you really see everything.

Simply put, the story concerns a Dutch couple – Saskia Wagter (Johanna Ter Steege) and Rex Hoffman (Gene Bervoets) – on a cycling trip in France. We get to know them, Saskia disappears, and Rex spends the rest of the film looking for the truth of what happened to her. It comes to dominate his life, and he is unable to maintain a ‘normal relationship’ because of it. At the same time, and this is revealed as the film is just starting so I don’t consider it a spoiler, we see Raymond Lemorne (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), the man who is responsible for the disappearance, and learn a great deal of his motivations and backstory.

As the two men circle each other and get closer to meeting, the suspense becomes well nigh unbearable. I will leave it there, and just call attention to the acting, which really rises to the occasion. My mother said of the ending, “well, that was pretty horrible”. My father? “The message is: don’t vacation in France”. 😉

The Films of Brandon Cronenberg: Antiviral (2012) and Possessor (2020)

With the advent of David Cronenberg’s return to body horror via Crimes of the Future, I thought it would be fun to have a look at his son Brandon’s two feature films, those being Antiviral (2012) and Possessor (2020). Both films could be described as sci-fi thrillers or even horror; both take place in a futuristic setting (and are shot in Toronto); both are violent and disturbing; both concern the body, identity, corporations, and espionage. If you’re thinking, hey, that sounds a lot like Cronenberg senior’s movies, you’d be right. Father and son tackle roughly the same themes and do so with a similar stylistic remove. In my opinion, Brandon’s first two films constitute a fascinating continuation of the aesthetic pioneered by dad. That said, this aesthetic is certainly different under the younger Cronenberg, I don’t mean to suggest a slavish imitation.

Antiviral is a satire of our celebrity-focused culture with a rather inspired twist: for the right price, you can be injected with a disease or infection hosted by the celebrity you have chosen. This means lots and lots of close-ups of needles piercing flesh. One of the companies offering this service is the Lucas Clinic, and they have an exclusive contract with superstar Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon); employee Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones) collects blood from the very ill Ms. Geist for the clinic, but secretly injects himself with it. Turns out he is a malady mule who sells such covert ‘product’ to a literal ‘meat market’ run by Arvid (my main man, Joe Pingue). Yes, this place sells celeb-steaks, spectacularly vile-looking meat slabs created in the lab from celebrity cells.

As you might expect, March becomes quite ill himself, and when Geist apparently dies, it’s a race against the clock for him to survive. Jones puts in a great loopy performance through Antiviral’s running time; he gets progressively sicker, becoming sweaty, disoriented, throwing up blood. It’s quite something. We also get excellent supporting turns from Sheila McCarthy and Malcolm McDowell. It’s that rare film that is willing to plunge forward where most would back away, and its visual audacity is stunning to behold.

Possessor, if anything, impressed me to a greater degree still. Cronenberg seems like he got the message that Antiviral didn’t go far enough, because the followup is even more visually over the top. The story concerns an alternate 2008 wherein assassins can possess a person at a distance, and then carry out an assassination using their body; the assassin here is Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) and the man she possesses is Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott). The targets include John Parse (Sean Bean), whose character undergoes one of the more severe assaults I’ve ever seen depicted onscreen. I was watching the uncut version, and boy, is it ever uncut!

Like Syd March in Antiviral, Tasya Vos here is a character undergoing massive personal transformation. She is losing touch with her core personality by spending time in the heads of other people, and has to constantly rehearse her own reactions and statements, even with her own family. When Tate begins fighting back against Vos’ control, it gets increasingly ugly, culminating in a bloodbath. Look for Jennifer Jason Leigh in an important guest role. 

The two films compliment each other very nicely and would make an excellent body horror double bill, providing the viewer is up to the experience. There’s lots of neat touches linking the films too, allowing for a drinking game with a difference: take a shot every time a character puts something in their mouth, for example. Both movies suggest Brandon Cronenberg has something of an oral fetish. Finally, let me say how proud I am to see my tax dollars going to help make Canadian cinema of this caliber (both films have government funding).

The Batman (2022)

Saw The Batman (2022) last night and did not care for it. As flawed as the Dark Knight series could be, at least it wasn’t boring. This begins as an extended riff on Seven, right down to the subway rumbling past the apartment window. That only gets doubled down upon once The Riddler is found; I couldn’t believe how much material here was cribbed from John Doe. They even read a disturbing diary entry, for Pete’s sake.

This seems to be the way cinema is going, by and large; Ouroboros eating its own tail, plots and characters recycled for a new generation that has no interest in what’s come before. I will allow that Colin Farrell disappeared into the role of The Penguin, and I didn’t know it was him until I read the cast list after watching. I also liked some of the car chases. Robert Pattinson takes a cue from Michael Keaton and lets his eyes do most of the work here, which is a wise move seeing as how he otherwise communicates in a low growl that is often incomprehensible.

The bit near the beginning with the bat signal scaring the crap out of criminals and then having those criminals stare into a dark doorframe in fear was effective, if a bit fascist. I’m trying to find positives here but that’s difficult, frankly. The score was the worst I’ve heard in some time: bombastic and constantly pushing every emotion we are supposed to feel. I do not look forward to any sequels.

X (2022)

May be an image of 4 people

I just don’t like Ti West’s horror films. They’re retreads of stuff we’ve seen, stylized for modern audiences. Still, I heard his latest X (2022) was a 70s slasher tribute combined with a porno shoot, and that was too tempting to pass up so I gave it a go. And holy moly, does it ever call back to films like Mother’s Day or Burnt Offerings or Eaten Alive (or most particularly The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). It’s like a DJ playing covers of songs you really enjoyed long ago; you’re reminded of the pleasure but without the ‘x factor’ (heh) that made it so fun to begin with.

It’s difficult to discuss a horror film without mentioning the villain(s), so SPOILERS ahead: the film crew are renting a cottage from an elderly couple living on a farm, and it is they who begin killing off the principals. This beggars belief, not only because these people are wizened and frail, but because West has made the strange decision to have these seniors played by younger actors with prosthetics. I guess this was supposed to cause the audience to reflect on something or other, but I just found it distracting and cheap looking.

So I think that’s it for Ti West and myself. There’s a germ of an interesting idea here about beauty, youth and aging, but it’s drowned out by mediocrity and the stink of easy plagiarism.

Addendum: I’ve just seen the trailer for the prequel to X (apparently shot at the same time), a period piece called Pearl, about the younger days of the lady with a mean streak. I guess at least this explains having Mia Goth play two roles. In fairness, she is the best thing about X, so a prequel starring her may be a good call.

No Blade of Grass (1970)

Jeepers. No Blade Of Grass (1970) was sold to me as an exceptionally bleak film, and it earns that unusual description with distinction. It’s directed by Cornel Wilde (who had made fave The Naked Prey a few years previous), and concerns the imminent end of the world as a result of man made pesticides and other human actions poisoning all manner of grasses. This is killing the animals who eat the grass, human populations in turn starve (and even turn to cannibalism). Governments gas their own citizens. It’s a really bad scene.

This is where the film starts, essentially. A family is escaping London just before its collapse, venturing to go north to a relative’s farm for safety. Along the way, they encounter dangers that will be familiar to anyone conversant in, say, The Walking Dead: namely, hordes of amoral people desperate to survive and given to accepting, or even perpetuating, horrific actions as a daily occurrence. 

Technically, there’s a lot of stock footage used, often environmental and atrocious in nature, to give us a wider sense of the world at large (sometimes shockingly so, as in an early scene that contrasts news footage of starving black children with white people ignoring it on the tv while they sit at tables piled high with expensive foods). I was reminded of Jacopetti and Prosperi in this, and in the tone as well, that being one of high moral condemnation in the voiceover and mise-en-scène mixed with low brow exploitation elements in the characters and their actions.

Oddly enough, 1970 gave us not one but two films featuring particularly harrowing sequences of a medical procedure involving a pregnant woman (one an abortion, one a stillbirth) – one film is No Blade Of Grass, and the other is End Of The Road. These sequences present the procedures as an extreme metaphor for man and nature, a sign something has gone terribly wrong in the relationship between the two, a terminus. The stillborn child in No Blade Of Grass is probably deformed, we imagine, another victim of the planet’s eco-destruction. It calls to mind the finale of another bleak British film, that being Threads.

So, you may be wondering, do I recommend watching No Blade Of Grass? If you like bizarre exploitation films, then for sure. If you like dystopian science fiction, you may be amazed by the prescience shown here. There’s a lot to admire, and though it’s often heavy handed, its message is just as timely if not more so than the time it was made. It never gets boring and it never goes for the easy out in terms of storyline. Realistic (for the most part) and uncompromising, this is a window into a world that could still be ours any time now.

Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022)

Multiverse adventures are all the rage now, and it’s not hard to see why: simply put, this world (or, extrapolating further, this universe) is really starting to lose some appeal, and it’s nice to imagine there are other versions of our reality in which, say, the planet isn’t heating up and humans aren’t looking like a failed experiment. Versions where we got things right, or more right than wrong; versions where we are progressing as a species or even, more modestly, as individuals.

In a media-saturated reality, multiverses have a different meaning than they might otherwise; they offer opportunities to evoke the whole of culture, literature, and cinema, not to mention employing the talents of bygone actors and reinvigorating staid intellectual properties. IPs that don’t have anything to do with each other might converge in a multiversal gumbo of elements. Of course, Billy The Kid Vs. Dracula shows us that kind of thing isn’t exactly new either. By my reckoning, the first story in which a multiverse might be operating would be Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843), with its Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come.

In any case, it’s a trend now and it’s probably going to get bigger and more all-pervasive in the next few years. One thing that might give the trend some real legs is Everything Everywhere All At Once (2021), a remarkable film from The Daniels that sets its sights rather higher than… Spider-Man: No Way Home, for example, and delivers one of the more entertaining and interesting hit movie experiences in recent memory.

It has recently become A24’s highest earner, and that means we should see a window for some original films to get approved for production in the next little while; it’s also seeing a wide market cinema rerelease on July 29. Normally, I wouldn’t concern myself with these commercial aspects, but as anyone who knows Hollywood history will tell you, such an approval window is a rare and precious thing, and in the past such opportunities have yielded fantastic cinema (I’m thinking here primarily of the 1970s). Basically, I hope we’ll see a glut of weird, uncommercial movies get made.

The story is original in more ways than one: an immigrant Chinese mother, Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) – who is overwhelmed in just about every possible way – learns of the multiverse through an alternate version of her husband, Waymond Wang (Ke Hyu Quan). It turns out Evelyn has a unique ability to defeat our multiverse villain Jobu Tupaki, who is also her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu). This leads to a scene in which an alternate version of her father (the great James Hong) gives Evelyn a boxcutter and instructs her to kill her bound daughter. About this point in the proceedings, I started freaking out. I mean I felt like I was going into a panic attack, and I had to pause the film to collect myself. This was powerful cinema. Such a reaction in me is exceedingly rare. I felt the film had approximated something of a psychotic experience, as well as serious depression.

It seems a little odd to contrast that with the general lightheartedness of what’s going on visually, but this ability to balance pathos with comedy, and to do so for well over two hours, is quite impressive, if a tad exhausting. The acting is excellent across the board: I’ve enjoyed Michelle Yeoh’s work for decades now, and I thought she showed amazing acting skills in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. But what she brings to EEAAO is of a different level again, and I hope she wins all sorts of awards for it. Keeping pace with her is Ke Hyu Quan all the way. In fact, Hsu and Wong also give great performances (as does Jamie Lee Curtis as the IRS agent auditing Evelyn). It’s a rare production where everyone seemed to bring their A game.

Everything Everywhere All At Once differs from superhero multiverse films in many ways, including its preoccupation on our human choices, their consequences, and the possibility of different outcomes – but mainly inasmuch as we’re presented, at least initially, with the opposite of a hero. Evelyn (in the film’s baseline universe) is the worst of all possible versions of herself. This is the source of her potential. Many Taoist references may be lost on Western audiences, but this film (and other recent examples like Turning Red) mark what is hopefully just the beginning of a more serious mainstream acquaintance with Chinese culture and religion.

There is also the family dynamic to consider, particularly Joy’s place in it, her queerness and how her mother deals or doesn’t deal with that, as exemplified by Evelyn’s insistence to her own elderly father that Joy and her white girlfriend are ‘just friends’. The religious elements and gender politics may go over some people’s heads, or under their radar, but those who can see them will themselves be seen, and that creates an exciting energy and regard for what is far more than the kind of multiverse where different actors can model varying outfits. This is a great movie for many reasons, and I’d like to see it again soon (hopefully on the big screen) and catch all the things I missed the first time through. Recommended to all, particularly if you like sci-fi, action, comedy, existentialism, or philosophy in general.

A Band Called France

Ever since John Westhaver of Birdman Sound turned me onto the band France a few months ago, I find there’s little else that seems to do it for me, musically. How to describe their sound? I’ve seen it visually depicted simply as WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO, which works surprisingly well; from my vantage point, it’s drone rock, but of an entirely different variety than most. Oddly enough to my ears, they are frequently described as folk, though I surmise this is primarily down to the fact that Yann Gourdon plays a hurdy gurdy (or vieille à roue), which is a traditional folk instrument.

No vocals, no solos, no progressions. Audiopile has a wonderful piece on the band’s Do Den Haag Church album that serves as a great introduction to the band:

“This recording is simply the cornerstone of European (mid tempo) medieval tribal rock (or kraut rock, if we must). This recording is by French trio called France. They consist of hurdy gurdy player Yann Gourdon, bass player Jérémie Sauvage (of Standard In-Fi Records) and drummer Mathieu Tilly. Their music has the same approach as the band Faust showed (or were navigated towards) when playing with Tony Conrad in 1972. The story goes, that when Conrad entered the jam space, he gave Faust one instruction only: “Pick a key, keep the same tempo, make no changes and stick with it for an hour or more.” Now look at this band, France. They do the same – but for 12 years already. Started in 2005 in city of Valence, not too far from Lyon or the French Alps, surrounded by miles of countryside. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons their sound is so rural, very unmodern, using some ways that were set in stone by German and British psychedelic rock, but decided to speak with uncommon language (hurdy gurdy), which might not be understood by many, but we grant if you will try to understand, you will soon be addict and slave to its sound. France is the sound of long forgotten voids from the past.“

It’s like a primitive rock throb with this incredible, constantly changing drone atop it, which displaces the (absent) guitar and, one might say, surpasses it in psychedelic effect. Or perhaps it’s apples and oranges. They’ve got me rethinking the whole enterprise of psychedelic music, and what’s entailed in making that freaky stuff. Despite the band’s longevity and a considerable discography, there is precious little information online about them, at least en anglais. Their website is minimal, to say the least. One of the few sources of information on France (and related bands) is a piece in The Quietus appearing in August of last year. From which:

“With luthier Joël Traunecker, and motorised ‘drone-box’ manufacturer Léo Maurel, [Yann Gourdon] has created a hurdy-gurdy with a motorised wheel… The performance space is enlisted as a fourth member; each France recording is of a live show, with the trio responding to the acoustics of the place. Their discography functions as “an archive of moments” according to Sauvage, although nothing could ever capture the deliciously disorientating, hallucinatory experience of being in the room while the band are in full flow.”

It is difficult to overstate just how different the approach to playing is from what one is used to. The music is liberating people from the normal pat expereince of seeing one song, taking a break before going into another, perhaps some banter, a strategic game on the part of the band of arranging your setlist to favour crowd reaction, encores, and so on. Essentially, France are ‘performing’ the same song every time they play. What changes is the venue and its acoustics, the walls, ceiling and floor, and the space in between them all.

I certainly haven’t heard all of their discography, but the following is a listing of my ‘top ten’, roughly in order of preference.

1. The first album I heard by the band was Meltdown of Planet Earth (2015), recorded live in Paris on June 12, 2014. Two sides making up an hour’s running time. This is still probably my fave of theirs and it is not unusual for me to listen to it twice in a row on commutes. I’d mainline this album if I could. The sound is rock & roll as compared to most of their catalogue, and the green album cover with three orangutangs seals the deal.

2. The aforementioned Do Den Haag Church (2014) slides in at number two, just behind the champion. This is the other France record I would suggest to anyone new to the band. The sound is absolutely fantastic. 43 and a half minutes make it a relatively accessible listen. Apparently there were about 30 people at this show.

3. Next up I’d have to go with Live à l’Ottfest (2016), a cassette which was also later released as OTT, a three-sided double LP. This is the longest performance I’ve yet heard at about 70 minutes, which alone is enough to recommend it. Forget about everything for over an hour and just absorb the sound. The only bummer here is a tune-up at the beginning from Gourdon, which, like Hendrix of old, kind of dulls the bite of the following tune somewhat.

4. Pau (2011) is a weird one, even in the context of France’s music. The mix is much heavier on the hurdy gurdy over the drum and bass, making the whole thing sound less like a rocking trio and more like an experimental drone ensemble. Just under 45 minuten. Unlike most France records where the band plays one uninterrupted set, this is broken up into two smaller sets (one per side). Drumbeat is unusual here too, sort of a ba-da-DUM loop going on.

5. Say hello to Metzoïde (2018). 52 minutes, though this clip is only half an hour. Came with a DVD. When you’re playing the same thing over and over, dynamics are a strange and mysterious force. Here they are more pronounced than normal, the drums in particular playing an unusual beat that snakes around the drone and builds a teetering stairwell to someplace beyond love or pain. Another great cover too.

6. Far Out Far West (2020) is a half hour, originally issued on a one-sided LP that played from the inside out. One comparison France sometimes gets is to the song “Sister Ray” by The Velvet Underground; this album sounds more like it than most.

From MOS2000 on Discogs:

What should I say about this release? “It sounds terrible!” is the first thing that comes to my mind. This judges only the audible sound, not the artistic performance of the musicians. Distorted and repetitive, noisy drone may not be everyones cup of tea anyway… But it is clearly a quite ambitional attempt to push the boundaries of what vinyl is capable of. The plan to cram the 33+ minutes on one side is clearly an artistical decision. The song should not be interrupted, the session must be provided in one piece.

That means you have to live with some technical downfalls implicated with vinyl production – low on bass, cut very tight, little separation or stereo effect. Then of course the inside-out cut – that is a way to provide some quality “at the end” of a long piece, when you can make use of the better physical conditions that are present in the outer groove – but then on the other hand you should provide some music that is not very demanding at the beginning (inside) and goes to crescendo at the end (outside). The song performed presents an ongoing drone with little to nearly no variation in dynamics or loudness. Inner and outer groove has to handle the same performance – the technical trick does not produce any real benefit (maybe my ears are to bad to admire it of course…).

Cover artwork is nice, holographic sticker is nice, one blank side looks cool – but music of this length and style should be presented on a medium where it can show its full sound spectrum. I think a download with a high quality sound version would have been a nice addition to this record.

So finally I take this thing as a statement of “Music should be on vinyl – no matter if it is too long!” – if I try to enjoy it – sonic wise – I have to tweak my system quite a bit. The sound is of very heavy “bandpassed” quality, which has a “deafening” effect from the moment it starts. Something to chew on for a while… 🙂

7. Speaking of single-sided LPs, Untitled (2010) is a beast, again clocking in at half an hour. Sporting a cannabis leaf stencil on the cover, this one sounds like an attack, a lock groove lancing of some bass and drums boil.

8. Recorded on a commune in rural France, October 2013. France à Tarnac (2014) is a banger, wild in atmosphere, 55 minuten.

9. Bizarro (2020). 33 minutes of Wedding Present cov- nah, just kidding, it’s France doing that drone thing again. Like many of their releases, Bizarro was issued as very limited quantity CDR. Each copy has its own hard-drawn-with-markers cover. Slow and heavy tempo.

10. Live à Metamórfosi (2017). I kind of forgot this one, it should actually be much higher in the list. Very well recorded, you can crank it and it’ll sing like angels. This is another one I’d play for any France novice, kinder and gentler on the ears than some. Short sides so it would be a good one to have on vinyl. Recorded live in Paris at STRN FEST (Olympic Café) on January 16th 2015.

And now, to wrap up, some live videos of France in action, starting with the last album listed.

The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea (1976)

Based on a short novel by Japanese enigma Yukio Mishima and transplanted to Dartmouth, Devonshire in England where it was shot, screenwriter-director Lewis John Carlino himself refers to this as an odd film. I would agree for a whole host of reasons, namely that it appears to be one thing (a torrid romance) while instead being something entirely different (a moral horror movie). It was Carlino‘s first feature film and is the first attempt to translate Mishima for Western film audiences; with all that considered, it’s amazing that so much went right for the production. Even the weather fully co-operated throughout the shoot. 

Weather aside, much of this success is certainly down to the crew, which Carlino credits producer Martin Poll as assembling: music by John (Johnny) Mandel; cinematography by Douglas Slocombe; editing by Anthony Gibbs. These were first-class professionals and Carlino is gracious with his praise for their steady assistance and ability. The cinematography in particular is absolutely first-rate, replete with many beautiful shots of the seas roiling and crashing against the shore, and of atmospheric Dartmouth and its surrounding countryside.

The story is fairly simple: a 13 year old boy named Jonathan (Jonathan Kahn) and his widowed mother Anne (Sarah Miles) live by the sea. She is desperately lonely and he is privy to this, along with a then-groundbreaking masturbation scene by Miles, through a hole in the wall between their rooms. The boy is certainly at an awkward stage, as they say, and pals around with a group of other lads his age who use numbers instead of names for ‘security reasons’ and who are led by a boy called “The Chief” (Earl Rhodes). 

This is the group’s little führer, a nasty sort studied in his sadistic tendencies and happy to lord his superior intelligence and confidence over the group. He reminded me of nothing so much as a budding Ian Brady, reading Sade and convincing himself this is the way the world works, desperate to involve others in his schemes and depravities. The Chief’s really quite an incredible character, especially for such a young actor to pull off. The first time I saw the film many years ago, this was probably my main takeaway.

When a sailor named Jim (Kris Kristofferson) enters his mother’s life, Johnathan is initially thrilled by what he sees of the couple through his peephole, and seems to be much in awe of Jim. He’s forming his ideas about life and is impressed not only by Jim’s “muscles and scars”, but with his romantic relationship with the sea – much to The Chief’s disgust. The Chief has convinced his gang that adults only use morality as a selfish tool, and the whole business of right and wrong is really a lie. 

He ties such thinking to several bouts of animal mutilation and killing with the boys, efforts to get at the ‘pure core of things’, sequences which are nauseating more in concept than execution. That is to say, this isn’t Cannibal Holocaust and no animals actually die onscreen. In the infamous cat dissection scene, close-ups of internal organs are overlaid with a pan across the boy’s staring faces. The implication is enough, and though I would hope this wouldn’t put someone off seeing the film, it’s certainly worth mentioning in case that’s too much for you.

One thing I think the book managed better than the film was the change in Jonathan’s attitude towards Jim once Jim resolves to marry his mother, and return no more to the sea. Jonathan decides Jim is a pernicious, impure influence and must be punished. Of course The Chief would go further still, and so a plan comes to fruition that results in perhaps the creepiest zoom-out ending shot I can think of (Kingdom of the Spiders had a good one too, come to think of it).

Death In Movies

(Originally published May 28, 2010; dead links excised)

The main thing about death in the movies versus death in real life is that death in movies is usually incredibly quick — take any longer than a minute or so to die once you’ve started and you’re taking far too long. On the other hand, death in films can’t be too quick (that is to say unannounced or instantaneous) or else no one has time to say or do anything except react to the death.

People who are shot or stabbed or upon whom some large rock falls or who stumble from a flaming airplane wreck or who are buggered by an outsize alien monster — all have time for a pithy line or two, something to resonate with viewers, before they close their eyes one last time and are silent. The exception to this is the person dying in a horror film or war film, someone whose death often needs no dialogue because it is by its visual nature entertaining enough without words.

If a character is dying of a disease on the other hand, they may spend much of the film dispensing wit and wisdom (if they’re not too busy telling jokes) or ‘just’ visibly suffering, something particularly difficult to depict onscreen. Regardless, before their curtain closes, they too will normally have ample time for some ultimate gesture or speech (or both). Everything in film is dictated by visual economics, and death is no different. 

If film puts limits on death in one way (duration), it also removes limits from death in other ways (notably circumstance but also finality). People die in films in ways that no real person has ever died or likely ever will die. People in films die making the grandest gestures and saying the most perfect things. Their deaths, which almost never come suddenly and unannounced, serve to bring dramas together, seal (or break) contracts and to move the plot forward. They look great dying and they sound great too. Film appears to transcend death itself and indeed will allow the viewer of a film to transcend death as they watch.

Like disturbing scenes, deaths in film have generated a great deal of lists on the internet: what were the best deaths? best kills? best falling deaths? best violent deaths? most sadistic? most gruesome? sexiest? and so on and so on. Perusing a few of these recently, I was surprised at how good many of these lists were. Better than I would have expected anyways, lots of good picks, excellent grounds for discussion for cine-morgue nerds.

A few things come to mind I didn’t see covered, a few deaths that seem stuck in my own cranium for whatever reason. Spoilers ahead, obviously.

1. Best Seller (1987). At the end of this flick, Cleve (James Woods) is an assassin breaking into the home of a former employer who now wants him dead. The security guards Cleve encounters are all-too-easily disposed of; finally, Cleve forces one of these guys to lie down on a bed and then starts berating him, his lousy skills, how easily he was caught out… The guy very nonchalantly says “enough with the insults, just do it” (or something like that) and Cleve shoots him.

2. License To Kill (1989). In this Bond film, JB flips a henchman onto a large open shelf unit full of live maggots, shuts the shelf (which presumably locks), quips “bon appetit” — and that’s the last we ever see of this poor sod. Was he in fact eaten alive by maggots? Would he have asphyxiated first? Perhaps gone mad? I couldn’t stop thinking about this mysterious henchman after the film was over; he could have lasted a week or more in there, possibly.

3. Ta paidia tou Diavolou / Island of Death (1975). There’s a whole lot of crazy deaths in this nutty Greek movie, but of these I would highlight the one where our happy protagonists Christopher and Celia nail a guy’s hands to the concrete patio beneath him and then force a can of white paint down his throat until he dead.

4. Ai no korîda / In the realm of the senses (1976). Kichizo falls in love with Sada and theirs is an obsessive affair, all-consuming and frenzied, with increasing forays into auto-erotic asphyxiation during which Sada strangles Kichizo while he is inside her. These sequences used a lot of red onscreen and something about the way it was shot managed to make me feel light-headed in the rep theatres I’d watch it in. When Kichizo finally dies onscreen, it’s almost too much to take.

5. The Asphalt Jungle (1950). Eh, call me a big softie if you will, but the ending of this great movie, wherein Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden) has been shot and he knows he’s looking at the end of everything and that he’s dying and now he just wants to get to the horse-farm of his dreams and he stops the car at that pretty field and opens the gate and he’s running through the field and then he falls down there and the horses come over and smell him… *sniff*

Thor: Love And Thunder (2022)

Saw Thor: Love and Thunder last night and, you know what – it was a pretty strange movie. Thoughts have I. Not sure how to talk about this without some spoilers, hopefully nothing major. This is going to read like I didn’t like the film, which isn’t true at all. I enjoyed it quite a bit, in fact. It’s just brought up a lot of stuff for me.

First of all, I have to be honest, Thor is probably my favourite superhero. That’s based on Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s comics version Thor (alias Dr. Donald Blake, a disabled physician who walks with a cane that transforms him into Thor when he strikes it on the ground), not that of Walter Simonson or anybody else. As far as the movie version, I really like Chris Hemsworth and I like that Thor keeps on changing and evolving as a character.

That said, his behaviour in the first half hour here is so at odds with what we know Thor is capable of, it kind of left a bad taste in my mouth. More dumb Thor jokes, in short. There’s a lot of that here. Hemsworth seems happy to play the Space Viking with no end in sight; Thor is the first MCU character to have four movies, and dare I say, it appears there will be more. I like his portrayal in the MCU very much overall, but I wish they’d cut back a bit on the funny. Bring on more Silver Age battles, bring on Crusher Creel!

Whether or not Taika Waititi returns as director for a third time in what would be a mind-boggling five movie series (!) will likely depend on how much money this film makes; his lighthearted style does gel well with the more wild material, but it would be nice to see someone new helming any future feature. Ideally, someone a bit more deft at navigating us betwixt nobleman and moron.

The MCU Thor is a fairly tragic character, all in all (as this film points out, everyone he loves dies), even though Hemsworth spends most of his time onscreen getting laughs. This is the crux of what makes Thor: Love and Thunder such an odd summer blockbuster: wildly varying tones, swinging for the rafters between comedy and drama, and not always successfully.

Natalie Portman returns as Jane Foster, now suffering from stage four cancer and, with the help of Mjolnir, she assumes the powers of Thor. I never liked Portman in these movies and I didn’t particularly enjoy her performance here. She always comes off like she has somewhere else she’d rather be. Seeing her lying in a hospital bed looking very near death is an unusual look for a superhero though, and I have to give the film credit for not soft-pedalling her character’s situation.

Aside from cancer, Christian Bale is the movie’s Big Bad, a guy named Gorr The God Butcher who goes around killing gods with a magic sword, as you do, essentially for their perceived hypocrisy. Bale is fantastic in the role and elevates the proceedings considerably, scaring children in a cage at one point with gleeful aplomb. I’ve heard rumours of a much longer cut of the film; hopefully if this is true, there’s more footage of Gorr, maybe even of some God Butchering?

I should mention Russell Crowe as Zeus. He was pretty memorable, and funny. I thought I knew going in why his character was in the film but I was mistaken, and that doesn’t happen very often. It’s a neat feeling.

So, really mixed feelings on this movie, and on the MCU overall lately, to be frank. I always enjoy the films as I’m watching them (and this was no exception) but increasingly they don’t stand up to any kind of scrutiny or repeat viewings. There doesn’t seem to be any sense of where the films are collectively headed, or what is driving events forward. There are internal logic flaws where once things were tight as a drum. I have high hopes for the future but the present feels kind of off to me.

Marvel’s Phase 4 has had a theme of inclusion: racial, gender based, and so forth; the furor and backlash against it has been gross and sad to see. There’s also a move to secure a future generation of superheroes. This has the effect of including younger viewers who imagine what It would be like if they had superpowers. Many seeds have been sown script-wise which should shortly bear creative fruit in the form of new characters like Ironheart, et al. I’ve got no problem with kids feeling included. It just makes sense when we’re talking about comic book movies after all. But…

At the finale of Love and Thunder, a group of children are blessed by Thor and literally fight back a large group of shadow monsters with blunt objects while he engages the villain. It feels like something important has been lost here. This must all be very satisfying if you are a ten year old, but it isn’t what I’m interested in.

Finally, this movie has four Guns’N’Roses songs in it and that’s about five too many. Why does that band continue to get a pass? Let’s hope we can get a decent Kraven The Hunter or Alpha Flight movie before Marvel loses any more steam.