Author Archives: Alex Good

Godzilla vs. Kong (2021)

*. I don’t see how I need to say much here that I haven’t already said in my notes on the previous MonsterVerse entries Kong: Skull Island and Godzilla: King of the Monsters. But here we go.
*. The two monster stars had clashed sixty years earlier in King Kong vs. Godzilla, and the inversion of names in this movie may reflect the continuing drawing power of the lizard, and perhaps the lessening cachet of the ape. But it might also indicate that in the battle for alpha supremacy (how sick I am of hearing this metaphor!), Godzilla kicks Kong’s ass not once but twice. Admittedly the first time Kong is dopey with drugs and has to fight part of the time underwater, but in the second clash it’s a pretty even fight and Kong still loses conclusively.
*. I won’t say much about the plot here, as it’s an irrelevance. The script is laughably bad — I really did laugh out loud on a couple of occasions — but is it any worse than the Toho Godzilla movies? Not a bit. In fact, it might be a bit better, depending on how you’re feeling. A Hollow Earth inside our own that may be an actual place or maybe just some alternate or parallel CGI dimension? Sure, why not. It’s just the Lost World. Or the New World from Monster Hunter. Same place, different town sign.
*. No, what this movie is about is giant monsters fighting, and it delivers. Also to its credit is the fact that it comes in at a surprisingly tight two hours. I was honestly expecting a three-hour, Avengers: Endgame load of overkill. But no. This is actually the shortest instalment in the MonsterVerse thus far.

*. I think it’s worth quoting director Adam Wingard on this matter: “A lot of the fans online were all asking me is this going to be a three-hour film? When it was announced that it was a little under two hours they immediately thought when is the director’s cut coming out? I like movies under two hours. I think if you do a movie over two hours, you better have a damn good reason for it to be that long. At the end of the day, if you’re going to make this movie into three hours, you’re not going to get an extra hour of monsters fighting. You’re going to get an extra hour of people talking about monsters.”
*. Thank goodness we didn’t get that! Even as it is there’s a surprising amount of unnecessary filler here. Characters are introduced with no particular function. Alexander Skarsgård shows up as a Hollow Earth scientist with a back story involving a brother who died failing to “breach the veil.” Why did we need to hear from this guy? Apex seems to have figured everything out already. Then the head of Apex has a daughter who turns out to be every bit as expendable as she seems, and Mechagodzilla (yes, he’s here too) has a pilot who doesn’t have much to say or do. And I wonder how much they paid Lance Reddick to show up as the head of Monarch and pronounce one line (“This is the day we feared . . .”).
*. Any script editor could have pruned all four of these characters and not lost a thing. And I’m even inclined to think they could have done without the cute little deaf girl Jia who is the Kong whisperer. She’s just here to look cute and/or concerned in cutaways. Do we need to have her telling Kong what to do? He’s not stupid.

*. I suppose Jia is just there to be someone kids can identify with. The same with the trio of conspiracy chasers who just sort of follow along without contributing anything to what’s going on. I suppose you could argue Josh unplugs Mechagodzilla at the end, but here I’d say that’s less than nothing because I would have liked it better if Godzilla and Kong had teamed up to take out Mechagodzilla on their own without any help.
*. Do you ever watch those Internet videos of cats and dogs watching cats and dogs on TV? Watching Godzilla vs. Kong I couldn’t help wondering what a gorilla would think of this movie. Would they be cheering for Kong? Or just annoyed at all the sound and fury? Well, I can only say that my own response fell somewhere between these two poles, and we’re not that far removed from our ape cousins.
*. A couple of quick notes on geography. (1) I had thought Skull Island a more remote location. In the opening credit montage we see it clearly marked on a map as just off the coast of Hawaii. (2) Could Apex have found a more in-the-way spot to locate their HQ than Hong Kong? Some place with a little lower population density maybe?
*. But like I say, it’s all about the fights. Godzilla and Kong duke it out on the ocean and then destroy Hong Kong. That’s it. That’s the movie. It’s a CGI epic, filled with the stuff that CGI does well: monsters and mass destruction. This part seemed top-notch to me. The rest of it is silly filler, but at least it isn’t overly dramatic or dull. I don’t think we needed the whole Hollow Earth mythology, and the business about Kong’s magic axe was way too much (especially since he’s not “King” Kong anymore), but you do get what you came for, as well as the promise of more.

Lady Macbeth (2016)

*. The story is an old one, originating in an 1865 novella by Nikola Leskov but with tentacles reaching even deeper. Katherine is less Lady Macbeth, climbing the social ladder only to be overtaken by conscience and events, than Medea, with a bit of Lady Chatterley and Madame Bovary thrown in. She is destructive female passion, overthrowing the traditional — yes, we can even use the word patriarchal here — order.
*. This time out (Leskov’s novella has been filmed several times, and made into an opera) we’re moving in a different direction. I mentioned in my notes on the 1962 film directed by Andrzej Wajda that Katrerina is larger than her fate. Which is to say there is something of the tragic hero to her. Not so this Katherine, played by Florence Pugh.
*. For one thing, as the message is made more determinedly feminist, she’s not a victim. For another, we’re no longer in the boonies of old Mother Russia but in an altogether more barbaric and backward place: the north of England. In Wajda’s movie the barren Katerina seeks fertility by chanting to a mare and rubbing its belly. In Wiliam Oldroyd’s telling she can’t get pregnant because her husband only masturbates as she stands in the corner. Get it? Her stepfather is also a much nastier piece of work, running the household a bit like a domestic Guantanamo and, thanks to the casting of black actors as the hired help, he’s not just a misogynist but a racist to boot.
*. Some of these changes seem intended to make the story more contemporary. Others only make a mess of things. Instead of a nephew showing up on their doorstep looking for his share of a business his family had invested in, Katherine and Sebastian (he’s the hired help, or stud) have to deal with an illegitimate child who apparently has some kind of claim to be adopted. I was really fuzzy on that part though and thought it didn’t make a lot of sense. I didn’t think an arrangement like that would fly in Victorian Britain.

*. In some ways it’s a film that’s a lot more obvious in its messaging. When the maid meets the stud in the forest he remarks of his dog that “the bitch gets restless if she’s tied up too long.” In case you missed the point, the maid responds “She was.” Ah-ha!
*. Luckily the rest of the film doesn’t content itself with pushing such a simplistic message. We suspect something is a little off when Katherine is basically raped by Sebastian . . . and she likes it! That doesn’t seem very progressive (or does it?). But the big change comes at the end, where Katherine reveals herself to be a boss bitch in the extreme, inverting the fates of the characters in the original story.
*. The point being? Better bad than dead. Much better, in fact. Morality and politics seem to have become separated in our time. Which is too bad for morality.
*. Well, at least there’s an honesty to such an approach. The problem here is not with the message but with the rather leaden presentation, which really blunts the impact of what should be the highlights. But then this Katherine is, finally, not a creature of passion like Medea but a calculating survivor. Pugh’s face is a composed mask, which makes it even more threatening. Many of her most dramatic actions are inaction, like not opening a door. She’s a negative force, mostly by being inert. She doesn’t even have to defend herself from the charge of murder. Instead she just denies it and the system takes care of the rest.
*. The way the film is shot reinforces this static quality. Pugh is often presented as something unmoveable, like a corseted statue, or flattened in a strong horizontal. The interiors have the appearance of Vermeers in their quality of moments that have been frozen in time. It’s a world that isn’t going to change, so one had best adapt to it.

Siberian Lady Macbeth (1962)

*. A Siberian Lady Macbeth? The source is an 1865 novella by Nikolai Leskov called Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. I don’t believe the Mtsensk District is anywhere near Siberia. I guess the title refers to Katerina and Sergei being packed off to Siberia at the end, though they never get there.
*. As for this movie, it was shot in Yugoslavia and directed by a Pole (Andrzej Wajda). The score borrows from Shostakovich’s opera, derived from the same source and later filmed by Petr Weigl. There was also a silent film version of the novella in 1927 and an updated English adaptation, Lady Macbeth, in 2016.
*. A popular story then, and I think for obvious reasons. And I don’t mean the Shakespeare tie-in. Despite the title there isn’t a strong connection to Macbeth. Katerina is cunning and murderous, but out of lust rather than social ambition. And Sergei is certainly no Macbeth. Instead of linking up with Macbeth then this is a dive into primordial urges and emotions, set in a bleak landscape with nowhere to hide from God or nosey neighbours.
*. It’s a stark story, but Wajda makes it even more raw. In the novella I believe the husband is buried in the cellar of the house. Here he’s thrown into the pig-yard. We see Sergei doing a bit of digging, but is he really burying his former boss? He’d have to dig pretty deep. I think he may just be feeding the corpse to the hogs.
*. I’ve often seen this described as noir, and I guess Katerina (Olivera Markovic) is a kind of femme fatale. But this strikes me as something earlier than noir, more like a kind of Naturalism in the vein of Zola or Dreiser. Those authors are at least its more obvious literary forebears.
*. I think it’s a wonderfully powerful and atmospheric movie, with two perfectly cast leads. You wonder what someone as beautiful as Markovic is doing in a crumby dustbowl village like this, and no doubt she’s wondering the same thing. Meanwhile, Ljuba Tadic is great as the seedy wimp who only gets to play the stud because he’s the tallest guy in town.
*. It does feel a bit stagey at times, but Wajda makes the village into a big stage and knows how to block out the action. I can’t judge the script, but the story is so elemental I hardly noticed the fact that I didn’t know the language. You don’t need subtitles for material like this. Katerina is still our contemporary, and her world doesn’t even feel that alien, especially for anyone anxious about our own slide into neo-feudalism.
*. If it doesn’t play as well today that may be due to the way we don’t care as much for archetypes in our fictions. But Katerina here is complicated. It’s hard to think of another role so dark that we can still find sympathetic. I think in the 2016 version they had to try harder to make this work, and finally went for something very different, an ironic twist to make us feel even worse. Here it’s more complicated. Katerina is larger than her fate.

Monster Hunter (2020)

*. With a title like that, you can be pretty sure what to expect. And if you were a fan of the video game (which I’d never heard of) you’d have an even clearer idea. As writer-director Paul W. S. Anderson, someone familiar with such transitions, puts it: “the movie is very much the video game put on screen.”
*. And finally, if you saw Anderson’s name, and that of his wife Milla Jovovich, your expectations would be set in stone. Now personally I think it’s kind of sweet that this couple have continued for so long now to churn out these massively expensive, brain-dead entertainments, beginning with Resident Evil (2002). Their partnership is testimony to the importance of finding a comfortable, mutual modus operandi and sticking to it. But you have to wonder if they ever think of this as a bit of a rut.
*. The plot is very video game. A bunch of Army Rangers led by Captain Artemis (Jovovich) and consisting of grunts with names like Marshall, Dash, Steeler, and Axe, are transported by way of magic portal to the MonsterVerse. Or, to give it its proper name here, the New World. A place full of monsters and not much else. In the New World Artemis meets up with a fellow named the Hunter (Tony Jaa) and together they fight monsters until Artemis can find a way to get back to this world. That’s it. That’s the whole plot. And since the Hunter doesn’t speak English they don’t even have to bother with much in the way of dialogue.
*. Given the lack of originality there’s not much to say here. Even the appearance of the monsters is taken from the game, and I can’t say they’re anything special. The dragon thing at the end is just another Rodan or Smaug, and as for the sand worms I prefer the originals from Dune or Tremors.

*. It didn’t take long before I started thinking how much better it would have been if they’d just played it from the start as a satire of such movies. After getting their collected asses kicked by the giant sand monster one of the soldiers breaks down in a Bill “Game over, man!” Paxton moment, saying “Oh my god, we’re going to die here.” Artemis immediately asks her how many magazines of ammo she has left. The soldier replies “What does that matter?” which is a very good question since they’ve just fired about 5,000 rounds at the monster to absolutely no effect. But Artemis isn’t having any of that shit. “It matters because we’re soldiers. And this is what we do: we fight. . . . You know, I don’t care what the hell that thing is. We do what we do best. We fight and we survive. No matter what the odds! You got it?”
*. That’s funny stuff. You have to imagine it as like the speech Robert Downey Jr. gives in Tropic Thunder. Or the one Samuel L. Jackson delivers in Deep Blue Sea just before getting chomped. Because immediately after this Artemis is snatched by another monster and nearly killed. Hilarious! She is rescued though, and the Rangers try to revive her by administering CPR. “Lack of pulse,” the one Ranger says. “Unacceptable!” the other roars back, “Try again!” At this point I was laughing hysterically. Why couldn’t it all have been this silly?
*. As it is, there are a few funny bit tossed out that gently play with expectations, not to mention Ron Perlman decked out like the lead singer from an ’80s hair-metal band. But there’s nothing like the comic treatment that I think it needed. Then again, Anderson wanted to make a movie for fans of the game, of which he was one, and they might have taken a satirical approach amiss.
*. No, what he figured the audience wanted was a video game. So he gave them just that. In return they stayed away, as the (admittedly pandemic) box office was disappointing. Leaving the end of this film, which is basically just “To be continued . . .”, still hanging. Will we see another? To be sure, but perhaps under a different franchise’s banner.

Gebo and the Shadow (2012)

*. I’ll confess that I wasn’t familiar with the work of Portuguese director Manoel de Oliviera before picking up this one. In fact, based only on the DVD case, I thought it was a horror film. It has a giant pair of hands hovering in the darkness over Michael Lonsdale’s face, which I thought signaled something scary going on.
*. It’s not a horror movie. And I really should have known of Oliviera seeing as he’d had a long, productive career. How long? This film, his last, was released when he was at the tender age of — are you ready for this? — 104. It’s based on a play dating back to 1923, which he might have remembered when it was first produced, as he was a young man at the time.
*. As a filmed play it at least wasn’t a difficult shoot for such an old man. Almost all of the action takes place in a single, small set, and is shot with long takes and a motionless camera, with most of the actors sitting down. So in that sense it’s not very demanding, either for Oliviera or the cast, who weren’t exactly kids and might have had trouble standing for long periods of time. In addition to Lonsdale there’s Claudia Cardinale and (in her penultimate film role) Jeanne Moreau. Ricardo Trêpa, Oliviera’s grandson and an actor in many of his films, is one of the younger faces.
*. The idea here is that an old couple (Lonsdale and Cardinale) live with their daughter-in-law Sofia (Leonor Silveira, another Oliviera favourite). Mama worries about her son João, who seems to have disappeared. Papa and Sofia know that João has turned to a life of crime, but don’t want to tell Cardinale because it would upset her. So they bury themselves in lives of routine drudgery without meaning or purpose. Then João shows up, steals some money, and Lonsdale takes the fall for him when the police come calling.
*. It’s interesting that the play continues on, with the father going to prison and taking to the life of crime, which helps explain the “shadow” of the title. I think this may refer to a kind of genetic predisposition or hereditary shame. But Oliviera left this part out, which has the effect of making Lonsdale a more Christ-like figure.
*. That’s it, and it’s not a lot. Nor is it a story that I think resonates much with a contemporary audience. The morality and family dynamic seem pre-modern, the house with its lamp a kind of cave dwelling. It’s also very talky in a stage manner, with characters often breaking into intensely personal and poetic speeches that lay their hearts bare. I doubt this was naturalistic even in the 1920s.
*. Having said all that, I did like the look of the movie. It has a weird unreality to it, as though the actors are performing in front of green screen, with little movement beyond what you’d expect from animatronic models. And even though the proceedings should be pretty dull I found myself fascinated by much of the talk. It’s weird how often the characters eavesdrop on each other, but at the same time nobody seems to be listening to anyone. And time has given it all a sepia-toned filter of the absurd.
*. So not a bad little movie, given that it isn’t at all what I was expecting. My one big complaint was with Sofia’s constant sniffling. This got really annoying and I don’t understand why it didn’t register when they were doing the sound mixing. It’s not just constant but excessively loud. I found myself screaming at her to blow her damn nose already. In domestic settings it’s always the little things that trigger us the most.

Possessor (2020)

*. To get the obvious out of the way, this is the second feature for director Brandon Cronenberg (coming eight years after his debut Antiviral), and comparisons to his father’s oeuvre are inevitable. I think Brandon was actually having fun with this. I mean, the main character’s name is Tasya Vos, which must have come out of one of his dad’s old notebooks. Throw in some artistic production elements (lab equipment, office furniture) that make for a really bizarre mix of design and technology, a mysterious quasi-medical institute up to no good, and a splash of body horror, and presto! you’re back in the early ’80s watching this on VHS.
*. Actually, the feel of the movie is deliberately retro, which may be another nod to Cronenberg’s classic horror period. I think the cars go back to the ’70s or even earlier, and even the high-tech, like the full-wall TV screens feel like an homage to the future that we saw in Fahrenheit 451.

*. The plot is simple on the surface and muddled in the details. Tasya (Andrea Riseborough) is a field agent for a neo-Murder Inc. organization. What happens is that likely candidates are kidnapped and a jack put in their skull that an agent then uses to enter their consciousness and control them. They (the agent) then kill the target the organization has been paid to assassinate and destroy the meat puppet just as they’re extracted from the host body. So the target is dead and the host commits suicide, meaning there are no loose ends to tidy up. Presumably even the skull jack is destroyed when the agent forces the host to stick a gun in its mouth and blow its brains out the back of its head.
*. As a premise I don’t think that’s anything special, though it’s not bad. Of course things get complicated as Tasya starts to come undone when she goes bodyhopping, culminating in a messy adventure when she jacks into Colin (Christopher Abbott), someone selected as the perfect candidate to kill Sean Bean, a jerky tech billionaire (I know, I know: there are no other kinds) with really poor home security (though this is Toronto, so he probably figured he was safe). Poor Colin. I guess he’s a bit of a heel, but we still end up feeling sorry for him.
*. The movie is built around a number of interlocking conflicts. There’s a conflict between Tasya and her controller, a cool lady named Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who is beginning to suspect Tasya’s loyalty to the corporation and suitability for purpose. Then there is the conflict between Tasya and Colin as they fight for control of his body. And finally there is the conflict within Tasya as she looks to either hold on to or jettison what’s left of her humanity.

*. The cast helps. I’ve always liked Jennifer Jason Leigh and miss not seeing her in more. Andrea Riseborough is often wasted, but she’s well cast here as she really does strung-out well and the juxtaposition of her slight frame and icy-killer personality is great. Christopher Abbott is also well cast, as he always looks vulnerable. Mia Wasikowska had no trouble handling him in Piercing, and he was supposed to be a killer in that movie.
*. While Abbott is fine, his character, Colin, is less so. He’s a cokehead toy-boy with zero back story, for starters. But after a while I started to think Cronenberg was intentionally making him out to be a bit of a comic figure to enlist our sympathy. Surely that’s the point of the vaping. Does anybody cool vape? And what on earth does his job consist of anyway? They don’t have software that can register the drapes in people’s homes? It seems absurd. And why does he have to wear those welder’s goggles?
*. Even the mask Tasya wears while jacked, while evoking something of the facehugger in Alien, has something silly about it. It’s like the face-mask that Colin pulls off Tasya in his dream/vision in being sinister and creepy but ridiculous at the same time. I think Cronenberg is aware of his balance and it’s one of the things I like about Possessor. It’s playful without being ironic or disarming.

*. I mentioned though that the story is muddled in the details. Why does Tasya insist on getting messy by stabbing or hacking or clubbing her victims to death instead of just shooting them? is she that much of a sadist or psychopath? Or is she just having a breakdown? Does Colin take the chip out? How does he even know about its presence? And why would Tasya still be in control of him then?
*. All of these questions climax in the film’s final conundrum, which is who is in control when Colin/Tasya pulls the trigger. I like that the movie is ambiguous here though, as the question of whether Tasya has agency or is conflicted or is just a pawn in Girder’s game is better left open. At first I was disappointed there wasn’t more of a twist, but I think the mystery we’re left with is rich enough.
*. Stylish, though I didn’t care much for the effects. There’s gore that plays with being over-the-top, in keeping with the rest of the movie’s sense of balancing horror and humour. I sort of wish this had been more inventive than just wading through floors covered in blood, and its artiness is maybe a bit much (the pattern of the blood in the final crime scene matching the wings of the butterfly), but it’s better to have too much of this than none at all.
*. A good movie that I had high hopes for and that didn’t disappoint. That’s something I don’t get to say very often. It does give the impression of a movie that Cronenberg might have thought about too much though, making it seem a bit overdetermined. It has that clinical, detached, even manipulative feel to it. But then, that’s the point it wants to make

City in Darkness (1939)

*. Coming after Charlie Chan at Treasure Island, widely regarded as the best of the Sidney Toler Charlie Chan movies, City in Darkness has to register as a big disappointment.
*. It’s a mess. I found the plot impossible to follow. Victor Sen Yung’s Jimmy Chan is missing, replaced by veteran series hand Harold Huber, who this time is playing the enthusiastic but bumbling godson of the Paris police chief. An indispensable figure in a Charlie Chan movie, it seems.
*. The setting is Paris on the eve of the Second World War, specifically during the days of the political crisis brought on by Germany’s annexation of Czechoslovakia. This context is, in turn, the only thing that makes the movie of any interest today.
*. An opening newsreel outlining rising tensions in Europe sets the scene. Paris is on high alert, having already put in place blackout precautions (giving the film its title, as well as a plot point near the end). I’m still not entirely sure what was going on, but I think the bad guys are smuggling weapons to the enemy. Or something. Which in turn means that killing them isn’t really a crime.
*. The twist here is that, in John Cork’s words, this is “a World War Two propaganda film before World War Two had broken out.” The movie was made before fighting started, though it only opened in November 1939, just after Germany invaded Poland. This makes the final lines in the movie prophetic, as everyone celebrates the parties getting together at Munich to discuss peace in our time and Charlie isn’t buying any part of it.
*. Germans weren’t quite the enemy yet in Charlie Chan at the Olympics, but there were plenty of misgivings on display in that film. Meanwhile, Sherlock Holmes wouldn’t start fighting Nazis until 1942’s Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror. So give Charlie some points for being quicker off the mark. Unfortunately, such a footnote is all this movie amounts to now.

Spiral (2021)

*. Subtitled From the Book of Saw. Please.
*. Well, if Saw isn’t a book at least it’s a franchise. According to Guinness the most successful horror franchise ever, which I’m guessing is based on box office. Spiral is officially the ninth instalment, and unlikely to be the last. Remember Saw: The Final Chapter? That was ten years ago. Then there’d been Jigsaw. And now we have this.
*. Is “this” even a Saw movie though? Some of the voices canvassed on the special features included with the DVD say no. Executive producer Oren Koules says “it’s a different movie but it’s under the same umbrella” while his fellow producer Mark Burg is more adamant: “Spiral is not a Saw movie.”
*. What they mean, I think, is that it’s set in the same universe, meaning the events of the previous movie have taken place, but it’s not a sequel or prequel or reboot. There’s no John Kramer, or for that matter Dr. Lawrence Gordon or Mark Hoffman or even Logan Nelson. There’s no Billy the Puppet, his place now taken by a doll called (by the filmmakers) Mr. Snuggles. There are no fancy transitions, and the colour scheme has been adjusted somewhat away from the usual blues and greens (though they’re still here) to something more sunburned.
*. That said, it is a Saw movie. It’s the same basic idea of a killer kidnapping people and sticking them in elaborate traps that they can only escape with their lives from by some act of self mutilation. There’s the “Hello Zepp” theme. There’s a pop montage at the end that throws a solution at us, though this time it isn’t nearly as convoluted a puzzle to solve as in the other movies, with their fragmented time schemes.
*. It’s always a tricky matter with a movie like this though because you have to give the audience what they expect and want, and something new and different at the same time. By this point I just don’t think there was any new direction for them to go with using the original template so they tried to add some new blood in other ways.
*. Perhaps the biggest change is the introduction of Chris Rock, whose interest in doing a Saw movie is what led to Spiral being made (director Darren Lynn Bousman was told “Chris Rock wants to do a Saw movie! Figure it out”). Apparently Rock envisioned something that was a cross between Se7en and 48 Hrs. I’m not sure that’s what he got. It’s only a discount Se7en at best and has none of the buddy-humour of 48 Hrs. In fact there are just a few snappy lines from Rock, and given that this is not a comedy they feel quite out of place.

*. Samuel L. “Do you wanna play games, motherfucker?” Jackson. Does he have the same agent as Bruce Willis now? Because I can’t understand why else his career has taken the recent direction it has. In any event, he’s here again playing the same stereotyped tough guy who drops f-bombs every other word and otherwise doesn’t seem to be that engaged in what’s going on.

*. The two main boxes to check for a Saw film are the quality of the kills/traps and the trickiness of the plot. Spiral fails at both. The kills are the usual chains and blades, with a couple of them qualifying as not so much disgusting (a given) as depressing. One victim has to save herself from having boiling wax waterboarded on her face (presumably suffocating her) by severing her spinal cord at the base of her neck. That just turned me right off. Mark Kermode considered this trap to be “obtuse,” which is a nice way of putting it. Then the final kill involves a slow exsanguination that I could have also lived without seeing. As the bodies piled up I just found myself wondering with each new abduction “Ah hell, what’s it going to be now?”
*. The twist isn’t interesting either. I thought it if not obvious than at least likely who the killer was right from the start. But according to Bousman (back after helming Saw II, III, and IV) the identity of the killer wasn’t the mystery so much as why he was doing it. I rolled my eyes at this. As if I could possibly care why he was doing any of this. And the fact that he’s a flat bore as a villain doesn’t help.
*. Maybe the question of why the killer was doing this was supposed to be making some kind of political point. That’s how Shirley Li, writing in The Atlantic, tried to read it. But I don’t make this out. The idea that the police are being punished for their transgressions struck me as just a convenient hook to hang things on. I don’t think there’s any message here.
*. In my notes on Jigsaw I mentioned in passing that I prefer the Final Destination movies to this franchise. Why did they stop making Final Destinations? On the whole they maintained a pretty high level of creativity, cleverness, and fun. It’s been a long time since I recognized any of those qualities in a Saw film.
*. Frankly, without the presence of Rock and Jackson, who are not great, I would have rated this one of the weakest and worst of the series. But even when those two are not at their best they still make Spiral watchable, at least barely. I think box office was good enough, given the pandemic having shut theatres down. And, for what it’s worth, audience ratings were much, much higher than the response from critics. Which means things may continue to spiral along, or circle the drain. Choose your own metaphor.

Throne of Blood (1957)

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*. Shakespeare isn’t known for his great original plots. He usually just borrowed some old (sometimes very old) stand-by or took an episode from a historical chronicle to dramatize. Among the few plays where he did come up with an original storyline (The Tempest was one), it’s not the story that stands out.
*. So when a director decides to “do” a Shakespearean play in another language, thus losing all the language and only keeping the plot, he’s playing from behind. He’s going to have to go big (meaning give the play a novel interpretive angle or a bold look) or else go home.
*. I think Akira Kurosawa pulls it off in this movie, in large part because he’s drawing on such an alien theatrical tradition. And while I can’t be sure, I think he’s made a movie that probably means something very different (though still meaningful) to Western and Eastern audiences alike.

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*. A literal translation of the Japanese title (so I’m told) is Spider Web Castle. Not as catchy, but it does introduce one of the main motifs of Kurosawa’s interpretation of Shakespeare: from the mist that conceals and reveals to the “labyrinth” of the forest, we feel we’re lost and caught in a trap.
*. In my notes on Rashomon I talked a bit about how the point of that movie was not that people experienced the same events differently, but that they were all lying, not least of all to themselves. Kurosawa saw the theme as being that “human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves.”

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*. This is the same point being made here. The Witch is surprised (or perhaps just disappointed, it’s hard to tell) that Washizu isn’t happy about having his good fortune told. “You humans. Never will I comprehend you. You are afraid of your desires — you try to hide them.” Washizu should embrace his fate, and not lie to himself about it. As the Witch tells him during their second meeting: “If you choose ambition, choose it honestly, with cruelty.”
*. The Witch is against hypocrisy. But hypocrisy, for Shakespeare, is what makes the world go ’round. All of it, after all, is a stage. Washizu and Asaji are players in both the old and the modern sense. They strut and fret their hour upon the stage and then disappear.

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*. This is especially interesting in relation to Asaji. She’s made up as a stage actress and is obviously performing for her husband (I don’t believe her for a second when she tells him she’s with child). The keynote of that performance is her surprisingly cool demeanour.
*. David Thomson says Asaji “fails to suggest the nagging sexual force that urges her husband on”. True, but different cultures find different things sexy. Asaji knows her gender role and she knows her man: she can play the yin to his yang, her quiet, unemotional cool against Washizu’s hyper-emotional, eye-rolling glowering.
*. Toshiru Mifune’s acting really carries a load here. Everyone else around him is far more composed, sedate. It’s not just Asaji but Miki as well. It’s even the sets, the interiors of which are quite minimal and theatrical. You need a passionate performance to play against so much blank canvas.

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*. At the end, the same temperature differential can be seen writ large inside the fort as Washizu screams and yells at his men, who listen in stony silence before reaching for their bows.
*. Yes, shooting real arrows at Mifune makes the finale seem even more impressive. But you have to wonder then if the soldiers in the fort are all such bad shots or if they’re trying to miss him. Sure he gets hit, but the arrows all cluster to one or the other side of him. Of course that was necessary to film it the way they did, but despite being “real” it doesn’t look entirely realistic.
*. I’ve seen Birnham Wood go to Dunsinane many times, on stage and screen, but I don’t think it’s ever been done better than it is here. Pauline Kael thought this one of the two great moments in the film. It helps that no human figures are seen, only the soft, shaggy tops of the trees undulating in the mist, looking like an evergreen amoeba coming to absorb the castle.
*. I’m not as fond of the opening and closing chorus. The effect is to present the movie as a legend, a ghost story, a tale of long ago. Compare the equally un-Shakespearean epilogue to Polanski’s Macbeth, where the effect is very different. Polanski underlines that this is not a unique story but one that will be repeated many times in ages hence.

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