The Thing(s) In The Lake: Discussing Larry Fessenden's latest off-beat horror opus

Scout Tafoya Larry Fessenden's first film was a Super 8 remake of Spielberg's Jaws which included a pretty accurate miniature representation of the vessel The Orca. It's half parody, half-tribute, all proof that Fessenden was someone who got the details right and has his own way of doing things. When he started making horror films they felt real, every inch of them. They were horrific long before the monster showed up because he got the details of anxiety and aggressive behavior just right. The real villain of his film Wendigo isn't the violent and nightmarish forest-dwelling spirit at all. On top of being a unique director, Larry's also a singular presence on camera and of course one of the best indie film producers who's ever lived, so naturally when he took a break from directing I was fine with it because he was using his time admirably. That said I was more than a little thrilled to hear he'd once again directed a horror film and the more I learned about it, the more it became clear that he was returning to that little homemade Jaws parody with a bigger budget and a real monster. And that would have been enough, but Fess' is too interesting a filmmaker to leave it at that.
The joys of his latest, Beneath, are tactile. You can see the monster and the characters really touch it. That was a satisfaction I thought long gone from mainstream horror: CGI means you can have any creature you can dream up attacking your characters, you just can't prove it's there. If all this film's budget went into the mutant in the lake, then it was money well spent. But that sense of reality, of being able to reach out and put your hand on everything is also in the character design. At the start these people are shades away from cardboard cutouts (this is on purpose) but as soon as the first victim's blood fills the boat, they become real people with wicked survival instincts. If getting off the boat means everyone else has to die, then that's how they're going to play it. But it takes goading before the characters who seem primed to be the 'villain' take matters into their own hands. And characters who seemed fated to be heroic slowly prove they're less than meets the eye. It's a sort of slow-burner waiting to see who's going to snap and do something out of self-preservation. Their dialogue also has that weird, half-improvised feel of nervous people trying to seem imposing. It's just weird enough to be totally believable. And of course the film's best joke is that the characters can see the shore the whole time and the monster is kind of cute if you look at it the right way. They're only trapped because they keep damning themselves. I loved its old fashioned approach to the monster and loved the completely contemporary approach to the human dynamic.
 What'd you make of it? Did you want them all dead or were you rooting for someone to make it back to shore?

Lucas Mangum 
I'm glad you brought up character. I liked the issues the characters had with each other because it definitely helped make the film so much more than just a mere monster movie. Fessenden showed real competence by not limiting the conflict to two or three characters. Each person has some kind of secret beef with the other people on the boat and the tension escalates perfectly. I'd say it demands patience from the viewer, but the fact that they were also being attacked by a monster kept things moving right along for those of us with short attention spans.
And what a monster it was! I got really excited the first time it appeared on screen. It definitely conjured that enthusiasm I had as a ten-year-old seeing the shark in Jaws for the first time, or the squid in Disney's 20,000 Leagues.
 Did you have any issues with the film?

Well, in hindsight they don't seem like issues and seem more like purposely thorny edges. For instance, the fact that the female character who we spend the most time with has slept with everyone on the boat (with one exception) would seem like misogyny, but it's clearly Fessenden turning up the cliches to 11. What got me in the end was the way the film treats her character in the final act - without spoiling anything, I was disappointed, even if it was essential to sort out the fate of another character. I guess my concern was whether there was a way to get to the ending he wanted without taking the approach he did (I apologize for the maddening vagueries, but I do want viewers going in with a clean slate). The treatment of women isn't misogyny so much as a general misanthropy, which while perhaps purposely directed at a generation that won't have been old enough to have made the mistakes they're accused of making, it works because of the parodic look at the genre, but also because there are so many ways for people to be vicious these days. One thing Fessenden rightly acknowledges is that everything gets filmed these days, whether through cameras or cell phones, which means no one can hide their behavior anymore. The lake serves as a nifty little metaphor for their forced exposure to each other. They have nowhere to swim to - they're stuck with the truth and the people it pits against them.
Beyond that I suppose I couldn't help feeling it was a deliberately slight affair (the patient attitude of the monster drains a little tension from the precedings, even if that's probably how it'd go down - more reality hemming in on tropes). Wendigo, Habit and Last Winter have real gravity to them that this wants. Perhaps it's the character sketching but it's hard to bet on anyone because they keep infuriating each other. I liked them all, which is rare, but didn't love anyone so my stake in the ending was minimized. But of course there's so much to latch onto here (it strikes me as a most European approach to horror writing) that it hardly matters that there could have been a little more. Next to Maniac, The ABCs of Death and American Mary this still emerges as among the most thoughtful genre films of the year and certainly among the best American horror films for quite awhile. As with Fessenden's other films, Beneath was certainly made with care.

All excellent points. My gripes: I felt like the Johnny character was handled poorly. We were led several different ways on what his fate would be, and without giving away too much, the way he ended up wasn't what I expected. Not in the 'pleasantly surprised' way either, more along the lines of feeling lied to by the screenplay. Also, I am a bit burned out on, without sounding too judgmental, films where everyone is a bad person. Of course, I fully acknowledge that it served this story well, but I wanted someone to root for. Night of the Living Dead explores the same concept of people's ugliness coming out in a crisis, but we still had Ben as our character to follow and identify with. Now the tension is handled so well and the film is so damn strange (in that wonderful Cabin Fever kind of way; it actually reminded me a lot of Eli Roth's debut), it was very easy for me to look past all of that. I think, and I can't believe we're already far enough into the year to consider this, but I think Beneath is gonna be on a lot of top ten lists this year. It will almost certainly make mine.

As far as horror, yeah...this'll be on that list. No question. Even if we got ten great horror films between now and then, I'd still include it because it does so much so differently and there's too much right for me to get totally down on the few missteps. (I agree about Johnny, by the way, even if I had to admire the gumption of the script for treating his arc that way. Not satisfying, but twistedly believable, like so much of the film).

Oh yes, I have to give it props for not being afraid to be its own thing. It doesn't fit comfortably with any of the stuff that's come out in the last 5-10 years, and in my eyes that's a triumph. I mean there are pieces here and there like it's partly a found footage film, and the characters are your naughty kids in the woods (if three-dimensional) but even so it fiercely stands out.

Essential Rhythms (for Nick Smerkanich)

The video below is at once an exploration of uncanny coincidence hidden in the rhtyhms of western music and dance and just a fun diversion for those of you who are fans of Fred & Ginger conversing through dance. It's also a gift to my friend Nick, who has long maintained that Fred Astaire is a better dancer than Gene Kelly, something I fight him on, mostly because I love having that argument with him. But I guess it's tough watching Fred divorced of his original music and still keeping time to argue that the man (and of course Ginger, too) had uncommon, timeless grace. This is a celebration of that grace.

Only Jod Forgives

I'll start with a confession - the bad reviews for Only God Forgives were a challenge I was hoping to overcome. They always are, in a way. This one was a little different of course. It's Nic Winding Refn, whose every movie I either strongly like (the Pusher films, Bleeder, Fear X) or outright love (Bronson, Valhalla Rising, Drive). Bad reviews like this were a taunt I was more than happy to rise to. Y'all hate it? Well I'm gonna be the only friend this film has. Foolishness, of course, but I'm only human - also, as you all must know by now, stubborn. So of course I dove in and realized that everyone was more or less right. If it's a failure, it's at least interesting, if it's a success, it's not by any traditional rubric. It's charms are in its tableaux, I'll give it that. Ryan Gosling sitting, bathed in neon, his mother, Kristen Scott-Thomas smoking, the walls leaking light on the backs and sides of heads, illuminating eyes, a woman disrobing and handing her dress over, a bunch of sleepy Thai cops watching karaoke as if waiting for a vision to arrive, a room full of women who will not open their eyes, as if dreaming to avoid knowing what goes on in front of them. As narrative it's got too little to offer and no catharsis worthy of the name. A detective kills Gosling's brother out of a sense of cosmic justice, then Gosling's mother wants revenge, which he's none too worried or thrilled about actually getting. It's got nowhere worth going and it's in no particularly hurry to get there.
The problem I think is that he refined the areas least interesting to even most of his fans. Refn let loose is a lot of director in a little space. Look at Fear X (if you're not scared by its legendary bad reviews). It was the first film to show off what we can now call the Refn style. The slow pans and dollies, the intense lighting in eternally dark corridors, the color-coating of locations based around their relative safety, the dream-like slow-mo, the patiently observing action from a safe distance behind the fourth wall. Many of the hallmarks he'd sharpen in Bronson, Valhalla, Drive and Only God Forgives start at Fear X: the carefully textured surfaces and walls, the doom-laden soundscapes, the lonely man protagonist fighting a world he can't control, the third act freakouts where another medium is used to showcase the inside of its hero's brain. Being both fair and a little cruel Fear X looks like Stanley Kubrick doing a tour of a David Lynch set, throwing John Turturro in front of spaces that would soon be occupied by the denizens of Lost Highway, Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive. Larry Smith, the last DP on a Kubrick film, became Refn's go-to camera man with Fear X, when he could afford him (its fiscal failure shook his security and made him go back underground in Denmark again), which meant that his films could for all intents and purposes, look like Kubrick's. A dream come true. The problem is the story doesn't support the stylistic 180 he pulled and there's nothing remotely satisfying about the ending - and I don't mean that in a Kafka's The Trial kinda way either. It sort of fizzles, like Refn remembered he had forgotten an ending long after they'd finished shooting.

Those problems are back in Only God Forgives, and if anything they're amplified because he doesn't even have a Hubert Selby Jr. screenplay to work from as he did on Fear X. All he's got are ideas he hadn't entirely thought through. The reason that Refn's previous three efforts in his chosen style work so well is that he's got something else to work with, or rather, against. Bronson is a remake of A Clockwork Orange, but based in fact. That's two different sources to work from; it was a matter of applying one to the other. For what it's worth, I think Bronson is the better film. Valhalla Rising is a viking adventure film. That's something real, something concrete, that he can look at with those laser-like eyes of his until he burns it into the shape he wants. Drive is an LA action film, so he just needed to hit all the beats and that's a job well done. That he made it one of the slickest, most penetrating looks at genre and the idea of a hero since the mid-80s is all the better. But the point is those films have stories built in. Only God Forgives is...what? Refn calls it Noir and mentions cowboys, but there's nothing here that you'd recognize as traditional. If it's noir, which template? There's no mystery and the revenge is half-hearted at best. Hardly Act of Violence. If it's a western the closest thing on tap is something like Johnny Guitar or Bad Day At Black Rock, but the same problem exists. Those films had through-lines - revenge. Gosling doesn't want revenge. We don't know what he wants. But he bums around, only partially committing to anything, and almost never for himself. And what exactly does the end mean? If the opening fantasy sequence is to be believed, he wants his own hands removed, making him even more passive and powerless, but that was before he knew about his dead brother...

Tempting though it is to start there, I haven't been able to successfully define it in light of what it's not (Western, noir, sci-fi, martial arts film, etc.). What are we left with, then? A hero caught between mammoth opposing forces he's equally in thrall to. A sort of mad glimpse into wonderland where Alice has no choice but to put up with Mad tea parties and foul mouthed red queens and a sword-wielding Jabberwocky? A sort of inverted riff on The Shining, perhaps, with the mother acting as the dormant madness in her son? A sequel to Drive? Nothing quite gels. On top of that there are technical problems. The editing can feel totally arbitrary. The sound design can go quickly from sublime (a scene of Gosling serenely watching the object of his lust and beating a man for disrespecting her) to unbearably cheesy (anytime the detective pulls his sword I cringe. The Shaw Brothers would have shaken their heads at those noises). And why mute one of the karaoke scenes if they're so important? Cliff Martinez's score work as often as it doesn't. And the worst of it: shooting on digital Larry Smith and Refn have found that peculiar mix of weightless action and ironic distance that so ruins Barry Lyndon, Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket for me. At their worst, these people don't seem real at all; they're like marionettes being dangled on a well-lit stage. It's the quickest way to draw me out of a film, even if I bet Refn was elated when he discovered he'd achieved the effect. Look for it when the detective nails a man to a sofa, then does a victory promenade. Or when Gosling fights the detective. He looks like a special effect. Or that mid-film gun fight? Hideous. It's like a video game. And that's without the troubling fear of women on display, but somehow that seems less offensive, because, perhaps sadly, I expect that in a film like this.
Here's why, even as I actively disliked so much about Only God Forgives, I look on it with fondness. Most films don't exist in grey areas anymore because there are no more grey areas. Talk to the right people and anything's a masterpiece, anything's a failure. Vastness of subjectivity has rendered taste-making moot. Even disasters like John Carter or Anonymous have people like me saying they're wounded masterpieces of the popular form. Nothing is ever a complete failure, unless it is (see: the works of Adam Sandler, auteur). But there's no argument there. The only argument is about shades of totality. But it appears that Only God Forgives is just too weird to be loved today. And furthermore I disagree with the good reviews. I think they're making apologies for crimes it wasn't charged with and so don't understand it any better than the haters. It quite clearly doesn't belong in this time. Years from now our kids will stumble on it and go "What the fuck was this about?" and they'll be beguiled because how could the star of The Notebook (aside: a lot of people have hammered Gosling for this performance. I disagree. This took fearlessness.) and The English Patient ever make a film with eye-gouging and the phrase "Cum Dumpster." I believe he tried when he made Bronson and Valhalla, but those were too good and interesting to work as purely underground films and furthermore he was building his confidence with each new frame. But here's he found the balance of the uncanny, the beautiful, the stupidly profane and the pointedly nonsensical. He was confident enough to fail on purpose. Nic Refn is ensuring that the future is as weird as the past was for him. If it doesn't make sense, well, good. It's for the next generation of thrill seekers to deal with. The hint is the dedication. He gave Drive to Alejandro Jodorowsky, but that was a success: he won best director at Cannes and I was sure they'd give him an Oscar nod. Can't lay that at the maker of El Topo's doorstep now can you? No, no, no. This is what you give to Jodorowsky. One more 'For Alejandro...' won't hurt his feelings, I dare say. He had to earn the man's company by making something unexplainably fucked up. A true midnight movie. Something that plays like a dare to each new audience member. And he's certainly done that. Hey, people once hated The Holy Mountain, right? Maybe one day they'll love this too. Or maybe not. (Oh hey, maybe it's a remake of Santa Sangre? The point is I'm happy it exists and I hope films like Only God Forgives will always exist. Life would be far less interesting without them. 

Below The Belt

Don't be fooled by the subject matter, by the shooting date in the mid 70s, or the release date in the early 80s. It predates Rocky, but missed the boat on being the first true proletariat, underdog sports film. Even in the midst of a decade rife with gritty human comedies like Fat City, The Landlord, Cockfighter and Peckinpah's one-two punch The Ballad of Cable Hogue and Junior Bonner, Below The Belt feels too honest. Information on the film is scarce and you'd be hard pressed to find a decent copy anywhere (DVD, streaming, illegally, whatever, it's basically gone). I saw the film late night on TCM in a double feature with Robert Aldrich's tough-as-nails swansong ...All The Marbles (aside: all the best films have ellipses). Both films are linked by their narratives about unappreciated female wrestlers. It's the shading that separates them. Aldrich's film is among its director's finest works and colours inside the lines with abandon. Peter Falk and his two hotheaded charges lie, cheat and steal their way to the top of a very small heap. It's a joy watching them squabble in and out of the ring. Below The Belt is a much more low-key match. And not that Marbles doesn't ring true, but Below The Belt has a sense of diving headfirst into the pathetic and bleeding from the impact; you can't, or wouldn't care to, make this up. It's too painful, but in that pain is a beautiful truth. It's as real as documentary and director Robert Fowler went out of his way to make it so. Real wrestling footage is mixed with the drama, the combatants seem to mean it and the pros play themselves. The lead characters navigate these elements with the kind of wide-eyed trepidation you'd expect them to. They'd be just like us if they weren't perfectly, bracingly themselves.
Regina Baff plays Rosa Rubinsky, a waitress at an all-purpose arena near somewhere near New York City. The night we join her a wrestling league has commandeered the space, but it's just another night for her. She still has to fend off the same leery regulars and their well-rehearsed come-ons. In fact one of them goes a little too far and Rosa responds in kind by kicking his ass gently enough to avoid being fired. She happens to do this in front of wrestling promoter Bobby Fox (John C. Becher) who offers her a job. She's flattered but only half-heartedly commits. Her shock-jock boyfriend is only too happy to remind her that she's been down this road before but no matter what fad she decides to get into she always winds up back at square one. One gets the feeling he was more supportive the first few times, when she tried out macrame and french cooking, but like everyone else in Rosa's life he's too exhausted to do much more than politely put up with her decision. Of course his apathy seals the deal and days later she's at a gym learning the ropes. A few bumps in the road later and she's on a bus to the midwest to try her hand at the big leagues. In the process of getting ready she makes an enemy of veteran ass-kicker Terrible Tommy (Jane O'Brien), who doesn't much like playing by the rules and regulations. If Tommy wants to eat Rosa alive, she's going to do it for real. Rosa's going to need more than can-do spirit to beat her. 

Now, let's talk about those bumps in the road for this is where the film excels. First though it's worth pointing out that Regina Baff could not be more suited to the part. She seems too alternately too big and too small for her body, she never knows what to do with her hands, and her adorably porcine nose constantly reminds her she isn't a traditionally good-looking woman, which puts a "yeah, I know" expression on her face for most of the film which codes her as the underdog before the script has a chance to. Fittingly, Rosa's romantic life is exceptionally awkward. She and her boyfriend are so clearly settling for each other from the minute you see them interacting. They communicate this just through the tenor of sighs, the fact that they sort of look past each other, and their posture. While training for inclusion in the league, Rosa meets and becomes good friends with an amateur wrestler named Lee who calls herself the The Beautiful Boomerang. Both have had serious troubles with men in the past and they seem like the right kind of weird to be great friends. Watching them train together, getting the hang of both the form and the showmanship involved in pro wrestling is a delight. Some of the film's biggest joys are watching them have fun getting used to stage combat. "Look mean!" says Annie McGreevy's Lee, almost breaking into laughter. Their laughter is the real thing. And reality, or more pointedly, 'realness' is so much a part of the narrative. Terrible Tommy fights hard, erasing the idea that wrestling is safe which is the opposite of the fun we see Fox's women having training with each other. Conversely Rosa's boyfriend is the first of many people to tell Rosa that they think wrestling's fake or staged. "No, It's not fake. It's magic. It's a show." She says with a frown and the ice around my heart melts. There's nothing fake about wrestling to her, and there's certainly nothing fake about Rosa.

One day Lee goes a little too far and suggests that they be more than friends. Here was where the movie had my full attention. Rosa loves this girl as a friend and it breaks her heart to have to turn down her advances, but she's clearly been fucked around too many times to ever be dishonest about her feelings again. Lee and Rosa want the best for each other and can't lie. There's real sadness watching Rosa first stop Lee's hand caressing her face (she's clearly never been hit on by a woman, let alone someone she's so close with) and then when she leaves both her home and her boyfriend behind when she heads out west. Below The Belt isn't at all about wrestling, of course, but I was wondering how it was going to sustain the mood minus this most interesting dynamic. The film finds its feet once we meet the other women under Bobby Fox's tutelage. The four women she joins up with come in (something like literally) every shape and size, and could have handily rounded out the cast of Desperate Living. They're all awesome characters but Shirley Stoler, looking a shade away from Divine, takes the cake as plus-sized, gun-toting Trish. When these girls take Rosa in we know she's in capable hands for the first time in quite a while. Below The Belt settles into a calmingly staccato groove observing these girls on the road, telling jokes, terrorizing gas station attendants and getting into wrecks. It's here that Rosa realizes she can take control of her life and start pursuing a man worth her time, someone who appreciates her, who is just as realistically observed and reserved a character as she is.

Robert Fowler never directed another movie and I don't know a thing about him except that if he'd kept going I have little doubt he'd have been as important a voice as Hal Ashby, Michael Ritchie or Bob Rafelson; he definitely had a more coherent vision than Dennis Hopper or Henry Jaglom. He ably captures a world that seems to demand to be anonymous, shining a spotlight on characters that other directors wouldn't touch. Even the women in Aldrich's film are striking blondes. It's only when the girls in Below The Belt put their costumes on that they become worthy of conventional attention, but we've known that all along. They become part of a show and resist the personalization Fowler has already dressed them in. They almost look wrong in their leotards and accessories. Wrestling is a sport of outsized heroes and villains and Fowler had to contend not only with that, but the disgraceful history of the culture of women wrestlers. Look at a movie like Racket Girls, which is propelled by a grotesque fetishization and possesses production values and a level of craft a step below pornography. It gives women's wrestling a bad name and it wasn't exactly the world cup to begin with. Fowler couldn't have picked a sport culture that interested American audiences less, despite it being among the most american phenomena I've ever seen. Not only does he make the sport work on its own terms, he was among the first filmmakers to make you root for a win in the big climactic match in New Hollywood grammar. He takes the same approach to his characters. He treats even the craziest, surliest side characters with the utmost respect. I haven't even mentioned the subplot about the domestic trouble facing Verne Vavoom (Sierra Pecheur) and her husband Joe, a fellow wrestler, which is splendidly tragic and gets one of the most amazing payoffs I've ever seen. The film would be worth it to hear Verne scream as her husband threatens to drive off without her. If what they have isn't love I don't know what is. Tellingly, his last words to her are "It's been real." They talk about home a fair amount, but the only definition they can come up with is that it's wherever they can be alone. Their love. That's real and the rest is fake. After that moment Rosa has to find out what's real for her.
In sheerly aesthetic terms there isn't a big shift between the world of waitressing and that of tossing people around a mat in front of hundreds of people. Unlike most films about wrestling, boxing or really any sport, the outfits and settings don't get progressively more glamorous. Fowler has to rely exclusively on the nuts and bolts of living the dream. Rosa has nothing but the roar of the crowd and a gut feeling to prove she's a winner and Fowler has to find inventive ways of rendering her slowly developing self-respect. You grow with her and if you want her to achieve her goal, it's got nothing to do with the thought of beating Terrible Tommy and everything to do with self-worth. Watching Rosa step into the ring by herself hours before the big fight, imagining the audience cheering for her in the empty arena, we know she's found herself. Below the Belt invites you into an ugly, harsh world (and boy oh boy it doesn't get uglier than the soundtrack to this film) and makes you appreciate what it means to be a beautiful person; nothing to do with the win and everything to do with how you feel about it.

Razorback - The Monster That Ate Monster Movies

I thought I'd try to write up each of the film in my best of the 80s list. I've already done John Carpenter's masterpiece, The Thing, so I'm moving onto Russell Mulcahy's Razorback. This is adapted and updated from an earlier piece I wrote about the film, which coincided with the release of Bait, a film Mulcahy wrote and produced. 

The story of Razorback, is far less important than the way it's told. With the help of a grizzled hunter named Jake Cullen, an american named Carl Winters scours a piece of Australian desert to avenge the death of his pregnant wife Beth after she's killed by a giant warthog. It's clear from the first seconds of Razorback that this is a superior film - something wilder, more angular and stylish than nearly anyone in the genre game was attempting at the time of its release. Interrupting the first few credits is the image and sound of a windmill working at impossible intensity. The image is a familiar one - no one would be shocked to learn of Mulcahy's pedigree shooting music videos. Indeed he sort of coined the form when he shot the piece for "Video Killed The Radio Star" by the Buggles. The windmill's sound is huge; deliberately overpowering. Then we see the outback, we know that's where we are because of the kangaroo in the foreground - we're less sure about the red skies that corrupt the rest of the frame. Not even The Road Warrior himself rode under skies this gorgeously oppressive. Then we pan behind the figure of Bill Kerr's soon-to-be-disgruntled hunter, Jake Cullen. The orange sky and the motion of the camera strongly suggest Apocalypse Now - the synth score does too. Moments later Kerr puts his grandson to bed and starts hearing the sounds. Grunting, squealing, but the music tells us there's menace in these otherwise innocuous sounds. He steps outside and the thing that drew his attention, the boar, breaks through his paremeter fence then tusks the man's leg, destroys his house and carries off his baby grandson into the night. The boar is obviously an effect, footage of a proper animal shot in perspective mixed with an unmoving prop shuttled through the set on wheels. This is deliberate. When they gave Steven Spielberg a shark that didn't work, he hid it. When they gave the same thing to Mulcahy, the young punk made its fakeness an asset, sending it hurtling through his set at top speeds. It's not real, clearly, but that doesn't stop it from destroying a house and eating a baby. The lighting and sound design sell it even as we're more than aware that it shouldn't work. Kerr's reaction helps in no small part. When he discovers his lost charge, he wanders into the yard and falls to his knees screaming in agony to the heavens when the titles eat the rest of the frame. Whatever else is true of the film, I can bet that you've never seen anything quite like this. This is the monster movie to end all monster movies and unsurprisingly the genre didn't recover from its rampage for many years.

The editing is relentless, somewhere between Eisenstein, Dawn of the Dead's apartment seige and Richard Lester. The compositions and camera movements reference seemingly every monster/horror film that had come before it, not to mention most major australian productions; Mulcahy's entre into the world of big budget filmmaking was by all means a hopeless assignment, so he takes down the likes of The Race For the Yankee Zephyr, Mad Max, Gallipoli Wake In Fright, Patrick, The Last Wave, The Survivor, Walkabout, Stone and Long Weekend while he was at it. It's an upstart move, saying in essence "You loved all this shit, so, I'm sorry, but you're just going to have to endure this movie." He also anticipated The Coca-Cola Kid, but I'd believe that was a coincidence if anyone told me otherwise. If the powers that be wanted him to play in the mud like Brian Trenchard-Smith and Rod Hardy, then he was going to outdo everyone in the game. All the visual cues you recognize from those movies? That's Mulcahy saying "Yes, everything you've ever been told about this bloody country is 100% true. Animals roam freely in our houses, homeless natives hang out nearby, we drink constantly, murder those we don't care for, hunt kangaroos, tell off-color jokes, drive Road Warrior trucks and those who can't afford them ride camels." As if that weren't enough, he was also going to take the various styles shown off in Next of Kin, Patrick and Picnic at Hanging Rock and outdo them all! No shot would be wasted, no lighting set-up half-assed, no sound cue unaltered. He was going to out-stylize Richard Franklin, Peter Weir, Colin Eggleston and George Miller in one go. 

And at the risk of deifying a man who has yet to live up to the promise of his debut, I say he more than achieves this feat. He may never have put all his energy to good use again but then how could anyone hope to recreate the success of a film like this? It shouldn't work (and as evinced by Highlander, it wouldn't under any other circumstances), as he appears to try literally every flourish and trick that he was ever taught, but it absolutely does. Frankly any gimmicky approach you tried but a straight-forward one could only elevate the material (is there a sillier premise for a horror film, even in Australia where no premise was too outlandish, than a giant pig eating people?) so when Mulcahy decides that every single object would have a big-ass stadium light illuminating it, that every single scene would contain something completely unreal and/or nightmarish, that every single character would be a stereotype that he was deconstructing as rapidly as he was building, he was making a judgment call - love or hate the film but you would never forget it once you saw it. Just look at his version of New York that we glimpse for seven seconds; it's the same city that Jonathan Demme would capture in Something Wild two years later: Outsized and silly. Who in their right mind would choose to show a black man with a ghetto blaster on a street corner rife with old-fashioned taxis instead of just the goddamn Empire state building? It's the most recognizable landmark in the world and it certainly would have been in keeping with his purposely-tourist's eye view of the outback - kangaroos, aborigines, drinking. But he was after caricature. And though much of the film is stereotypical in microcosm, he frames and presents them so that you aren't ever sure what you've just seen. "Was that a guy with a ghetto blaster? Was that a car hanging from a baobab tree?" His goal is to both toe the line of Australia as a hellhole as propagated by most accounts of the place in pop culture (not to mention shoe-horning wombats, pigs, camels and other animals into as many shots as possible) and then make it seem far, far worse. This film was his ticket out of the outback and he's never gone back (except, hilariously enough, to remake the nearly perfect, but geographically/culturally inaccurate On The Beach for TV with Armand Assante taking over for Gregory Peck). He's also never made a film as good.

Mulcahy is exclusively the reason the movie works as well as it does. Obviously the edit helps him greatly, but without his compositions, his bug-eyed imagery and the way he handles the creature, the film would simply not work. Despite being, like Ted Kotcheff before him, an expat, scriptwriter Everett De Roche was the Outback's answer to Dardano Sacchetti and had written a handful of the country's most beloved grindhouse films; there was almost nothing he didn't try at some point. Watching Mark Hartley's fantastic documentary Not Quite Hollywood! you could get the impression that unless Peter Weir was in town, De Roche was in some way responsible for any given Aussie horror film. That's not true, but I will say it's a damn good thing he got directors as game and skilled as Richard Franklin and Mulcahy because his insane ideas would have destroyed less capable and fearless hands. I'm not even sure that George Miller, no slouch, but with no distinct visual style from film to film, would have survived a De Roche genre exercise. In the B-picture game Franklin was Mulcahy's only serious stylistic competition until he made Psycho II and discovered his wacky sense of humour which put him in closer proximity to Philippe Mora and Trenchard-Smith. Watch Link sometime to see why he never quite made it to the big leagues. But between the breathtaking highs of Patrick and Road Games you can see a fantastic talent stealing bits of Hitchcock to craft taught, unnerving thrillers from laughable De Roche premises. Arch Nicholson, Mulcahy's second unit director, comes a close second with Fortress and Dark Age proving almost as grim and stunning as Razorback. Nicholson died shortly after completing Dark Age so we'll never know if he would prove capable of sustaining his vision. In that time and in the studio system everyone seemed to be clamouring to be part of, chances are slim. Mulcahy sure couldn't. But for one film he was king of the fucking world. Even if no one knew it. 

Understandably what producers seized on was Mulcahy's ability to capture mood and so a stream of truly horrible action films like the first two Highlander movies, The Shadow, Silent Trigger, Blue Ice, Ricochet, The Real McCoy, The Scorpion King: Rise of a Warrior and Resident Evil: Extinction, a film which utilized  none of his strengths, were in his future whenever he wasn't collecting money directing music videos and TV. Rarely has a director with such a thorough understanding of cinematic convention, not to mention technique, squandered his gifts quite so splendidly. Not until Greg Mclean would Australia see a talent as cunning and ferocious arrive sui generis to reinvent the possible in the midst of an over-saturated generic landscape whose well had run completely dry. Mclean's Wolf Creek had just as much as style and beauty as Razorback, despite being twice as bleak. His follow-up, Rogue, is the Eaten Alive to Wolf Creek's Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but it still gives me far more hope for Mclean's future than if he'd made Highlander. Rogue and Wolf Creek are just as knowing as Razorback and between them capture the earlier film's sensibility, but even Mclean doesn't have the Godardian sense of deconstruction and anarchy that Mulcahy favored. Razorback is a film completely alone in its use of popular style and convention; a horror film about horror films. The images and individual sequences are first-rate, unmatchable. The film's centrepiece is also its high-point: Carl's trek through the desert. The attack on petpak during the finale has been compared in the past to Alien, and I'd add Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Blood and Black Lace and Blade Runner to that and it certainly is both thrilling and mesmerizing. But the desert trek is Mulcahy painting with his camera. Every new tableau Carl wanders into is distinct from the last, some looking like the hyberborian wastes of Conan the Barbarian (by way of John Milius or Frank Frazetta), others like Salvador Dali. In one he wanders under a blaring red sun and just to his right is a crack in the earth that looks like the edge of a film strip. The peculiar fuzziness these shots acquire in VHS format makes them seem even stranger, like they were spliced in by accident. Their progression only makes them even more post-modern and strange: Winters passes a dead horse arranged like a scarecrow then walks for most of a day, then suddenly he's back at the horse. As he crafts shoes out of scraps of his clothing, the horse breaks out of the ground to attack him. When he runs away, it's back where we first saw it, except now its nodding and laughing at him like a jack-in-the-box. The film's best scare and one of its most indelible images is clear evidence that Razorback is about the genre as much as anything. After waking from his walkabout in Sarah Cameron's guest bed, he sees her sitting on the edge of the bed. He gingerly lifts one hand to tap her shoulder and when she turns around, her face is replaced with that of an angry looking pig, squealing maniacally. We've all seen this scare before. How many times did Freddie Kruger or some other bogeyman or demon hide behind something ordinary. This is Razorback's version of the bathroom mirror scare or of Jason Voorhees/Carrie White's dream sequence coups de grâce. Again, it shouldn't work: is anyone frightened on paper of a warthog? Well first of all it's some kind of grotesque halloween mask, exaggerated and covered in hair. Second of all, it's so sudden that it could have been anything and worked. Then you have a moment where you realize you were frightened by a pig. This is his game. He will get you afraid or repulsed by his monster if its the last thing he does. Killing Beth Winters the way he does is pretty genius. Suddenly there's the whole fucking thing staring at her just outside her car window. Then it yanks the door off and begins eating her feet. Like the rest of the film, it'd be preposterous if it weren't so horrifying. 

Now the plot mechanics, I suppose, can only be attributed to De Roche and the source novel he drew from (which...doesn't this sound like great literature?). But I'm going to give credit to Mulcahy for playing up the dynamics he does so well. Thanks to Jake Cullen's stoic single-minded pursuit of the beast, and Carl Winters' pregnant wife backstory, Razorback is both a pastiche/homage to Jaws, the film that started the mother nature's revenge film cycle once more and made it personal rather than epidemic, The White Buffalo, the most peculiar of Dino De Laurentiis' Moby Dick/Jaws riffs, and Orca, the Dino's Jaws rip-off that gave its antagonist not just a backstory but human emotions as well. Now the pig in Razorback's only real breaks from reality are its existence, its laying low between attacks and its only ever killing plot-specific characters; No Alex Kintner is sacrificed to this monster. He's not greedy. He just wants to set forth the chain of events that will lead to his demise. Fatalistic in a way that not even de Laurentiis' tragic orca whale managed. He doesn't have emotions and Mulcahy frames him like a phantom, almost like Michael Myers. The moments where we glimpse him in profile on the horizon are fucking priceless. His existence is never less than galling, but it's never played for laughs. If any other actor but Bill Kerr dropped to his knees and screamed to the heavens (three separate times, no fucking less), as action heroes always seem to, it wouldn't work, but Mulcahy knows that it will. Every convention is in play and delivered with a straight face - you accept it in literally every other situation, so why not a giant warthog? After all far more care went into this monster than anything in Frogs or Day of the Animals. This is fourth wall breaking of the highest order; so good that its seamless. And the pace makes it impossible to stop and ask questions. Everyone on screen buys it and so, too, do you by the end.

Favourite Genre Directors

In my effort to trump Andrew Sarris (Bazin rest him) as this country's preeminent list queen, I present my favourite directors of genre films. One needn't have worked exclusively in horror or westerns, but they need to have proved themselves capable of turning B-movie mill-grist into something at once personal and indelible. No one else performed the same magic when given a heist movie, an anti-western, a horror film or a revenge thriller. No one else had their eye for composition, their ear for dialogue, their nose for trouble. For better or worse, you know who's behind the camera. The list will probably evolve over time; this is a snapshot.

Barbara Peeters
Nicholas Ray
André De Toth
Byron Haskin
Stephanie Rothman
Jules Dassin
Sergio Martino
John Hough
Roy Ward Baker
Jacques Tourneur
Sam Fuller
Budd Boetticher
Fritz Lang
Michael Reeves
Michael Mann
John Carpenter
Walter Hill
Charles B. Pierce
William Friedkin
Robert Aldrich
Rian Johnson
Don Siegel
Monte Hellman
J.J. Abrams
Hiroshi Teshigahara
Jacques Becker
Joe Dante
Narciso Ibáñez Serrador
Joseph H. Lewis
Juan López Moctezuma
Teruo Ishii
Joe D'Amato
Robert Siodmak
Matt Cimber
Clint Eastwood
Ridley Scott
Takashi Miike
Jean-Pierre Melville
John Hillcoat
Seijun Suzuki
Kihachi Okamoto
Tobe Hooper
Joseph Losey
John Brahm
John Flynn
David Cronenberg
Jorge Grau
Sam Peckinpah
Dario Argento
Neil Marshall
Giulio Questi
Takeshi Kitano
Greg McLean
Nic Winding Refn
Kathryn Bigelow
Ti West
Jack Hill
E. Elias Merhige
Tomas Alfredson
Park Chan-Wook
Andrew Dominik
Ben Wheatley
John Dahl
Brian Trenchard-Smith
Oswaldo de Oliveira
Arch Nicholson
Ida Lupino

Aside: John Ford, John Huston, Guillermo Del Toro and Stanley Kubrick, all capable hands at genre films, seem somehow wrong on this list, despite being far above average in the game. So here they are as an appendix. This, I suppose, is a topic for further discussion.

Our Favourite Films of the 80s

Once again encouraged by someone else's bright idea (in this case Sam Fragoso at, I polled the staff and a few of our friends about their favourite films of the 1980s. When we did the 90s a few months back I included a list of some of the biggest, misunderstood disasters of that decade, but this list needs no such addendum. Here we embraced the failures as warmly, if not more so, as the classics. If you tallied up the votes, I think our top five would look like this, and I think it's pretty ok. 

Blue Velvet
The Shining
Hannah And Her Sisters
Die Hard

And our best directors (based on who had the most, diverse choices among us)
David Cronenberg
Woody Allen
Terry Gilliam
Martin Scorsese
John Carpenter
Wim Wenders
Jim Jarmusch

Without further ado, our individual ballots:

Sean Van Deuren
My Dinner With Andre
Hannah and Her Sisters
Le Rayon Vert
Mystery Train
The Meaning of Life
Paris, TX
After Hours
sex, lies, and videotape
The Shining

Fox Johnson 
The Empire Strikes Back
The Shining
This is Spinal Tap
Better Off Dead
Blade Runner
The Thing
Full Metal Jacket

Gifford Elliott
Clue: The Movie 
When Harry Met Sally
Le Rayon Vert
Hannah and Her Sisters
Die Hard
The Shining
Paris, TX
A Room With a View
Le Dernier Métro

Dan Khan
The King of Comedy
Die Hard
Blue Velvet
A Fish Called Wanda
Altered States
To Live and Die in L.A.
Hannah and Her Sisters
Fanny & Alexander

Noah Aust
Repo Man
Time Bandits
Blade Runner
Stranger than Paradise
The Adventures of Baron Münchausen
Stop Making Sense
Return to Oz
Crimes and Misdemeanors

Andrew Haskell
Monster Dog

Heavy Metal Parking Lot

Ernest Goes To Camp

Lucas Mangum
Hellraiser 2
Blue Velvet
Nightmare on Elm Street 3
Basket Case
The Toxic Avenger
Big Trouble in Little China
Howard the Duck
The Terminator

Honorable Mentions: Xtro, The Hidden, Robocop, Escape from New York, The Road Warrior

Tim Earle
Raiders of the Lost Ark
The Adventures of Baron Münchausen
Radio Days
Raising Arizona
Princess Bride
Die Hard
Broadcast News

Honorable mentions: Ghost Busters, Cutter's Way, This is Spinal Tap, Airplane!, Top Secret!

Beccah Ulm
The Shining
Little Shop of Horrors
sex, lies, and videotape 
Blue Velvet
The Fly
The Breakfast Club

honorable mentions: The Color Purple, The Accused, Dead Ringers, Fatal Attraction, Princess Bride, Scanners, Hairspray, Stand By Me

Scout Tafoya
Below The Belt
Blue Velvet
The Loveless
Au Revoir Les Enfants
The Thing
Betty Blue
Wings of Desire
Down By Law

Honorable mention: 
Distant Voices, Still Lives, Nostalghia, Heaven's Gate, Berlin Alexanderplatz, Near Dark, Repo Man, Hannah and Her Sisters, The Color of Money, Stop Making Sense, Aliens, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, Her Lover, Dead Ringers, The Fly, Ghosts...of the Civil Dead, UHF, Britannia Hospital

Noah Lyons
Blue Velvet
The Shining
The Last Temptation of Christ
Crimes & Misdemeanors
Wings of Desire
Blade Runner
Element of Crime

Approval Rating Down: Roland Emmerich at play

Approval ratings are tricky, as anyone in White House Down can tell you, and no one is more attuned to the elusive nature of public favor than Roland Emmerich. A teutonic Irwin Allen who couldn't blow up enough beloved iconography fast enough to satiate the American public's appetite, Emmerich stepped into the public's crosshairs with 1994's Stargate and hasn't moved yet. Since the success of his follow-up, Independence Day in 1996 he's tested the mettle of two-dimensional heroes against kaiju, the apocalypse, prehistoric animals and hilariously proactive global warming and in so doing raked in hundreds of millions world-wide.

Only heavy-hitters like James Cameron and Michael Bay offered him serious competition at the box office. And like Bay and Cameron, he has a host of virulent detractors. His name appears on dozens of worst director lists and his reviews have ranged from politely tolerant to violent. At Rotten Tomatoes his highest score is 62% for The Patriot and his lowest an 8% for 10,000 B.C. which is actually one of his least problematic films.

With the debate around Vulgar Auteurism running wild it's a bit of a shock that no one in the VA crowd has adopted him. After all he's killed the American president twice, he put Dolph Lundren and Jean-Claude Van Damme together on screen for the first time, used an American flag as a weapon and he destroys the world for pleasure every few years. It doesn't get much more vulgar than that. Yet he remains a critical orphan. Is this because critics don't like his movies or see nothing worth writing home about in his operas of sci-fi destruction?

After all, even fans of his early work must have looked at his most recent disaster (movie), 2012, and seen a director spinning his platinum rims. The script's conception of its characters felt 40 years behind the times ("Download my blog" says Woody Harrelson, playing the kind of cardboard hippie Quinn Martin might have written for Roy Thinnes or Buddy Ebsen to help out one week), its ethnic caricatures would be appalling if they had any conviction, and the all-CGI apocalypse felt lazy and inconsequential even for an action film in the Transformers age. Had he lost his touch? Or was he simply delivering what he thought the terrible screenplay deserved?

If 2012 was Emmerich at the end of his creative tether with nothing but the most limply regurgitated themes and performances emerging amidst the lazily rendered destruction, it was also the inevitable end to a period in his filmmaking. He chose Anonymous as a palette cleanser and karma caught up with him. The box office was the worst of his career and the reviews were typically brutal, but largely based on its ideas rather than anything concrete. Many people have historically found the suggestion of Shakespeare having a ghost-writer insulting and so didn't bother getting into the particulars of the director of Godzilla making a movie in which no buildings are torn down and millions aren't killed by a sea of 1s and 0s.

Anonymous signaled a major change for Emmerich in almost every way. Most impressively and importantly, he was among the first filmmakers to use the then-brand new camera the Arri Alexa, specifically in a period piece, so he was also among to discover what a classical filmmaker could do with newly pristine digital imagery. Some pointed out that Emmerich had a very precise, almost overbearing attention to detail in recreating London for his theatrical potboiler. To me this wasn't the work of a director obsessed with production design so much as the seizing of a new opportunity. In conversation about Michael Mann's Public Enemies, another digital opus by a filmmaker who matured on celluloid, Daniel Kasman hypothesized: "...surely Public Enemies was shot digitally so we could see what tommyguns really look, sound, and feel like." Anonymous' chief artistic aim was to apply that kind of newfound scrutiny to Elizabethan England and Shakespearian performance.

Emmerich spared no expense in recreating the dirt and dust on every inch of London. He and ace cinematographer Anna Foerster explored the muddy, diseased streets with a queasy immediacy, its camera in constant crooked motion as if on loan from Terry Gilliam. Though it isn't simply that they're faithful to how the streets and garments might have looked, it's more about finding the reality of the time and then relaying it as if made up of 24 oil paintings a second, the era's idealization of itself brought low. In other words, how someone used to theatre and art of the age would imagine a film of their lives to look.

The Alexa allowed every location to be lit by candle or torch without auxiliary help. If Terrence Malick's The New World showcased 65mm film's power to most beautifully and faithfully recreate the distant past, Anonymous picked up where celluloid left off. If Public Enemies is about conversing with brand new images of American legends on screen, one could watch Anonymous and feel they're seeing Queen Elizabeth or Shakespeare for the first time, even if the film never shows anything more than a few lines of any play at a time.

Emmerich avoids stylizing the performances the way that Laurence Olivier or Orson Welles did, partly because it's beyond his capabilities to do so and he's far too earnest, but also because he was more interested in utilizing rawness (pixels, data, "A popular hero as nothing but flesh in movement." to once more quote Kasman) to present an era: the honest lighting, the thorough production design, the interaction between the actors and the audience, the peculiar beauty and poignant ugliness of its performers. Shakespearian actors like Mark Rylance could perform as if to their favourite play's first audience, nestled in the narrative they believe about their creation. Anonymous takes great delight in bending the line between audience, actor, play and reality. In its own loud way, its investigation of the past using newly available definition shares a bloodline with Public Enemies, Aleksandr Sokurov's Russian Ark, Lars Von Trier's Dogville, Eric Rohmer's The Lady And The Duke and Lech Majewski's The Mill and The Cross.

That's not to say the plotting or editing was as radical or even as interesting as those films. Indeed in structure, editing and blocking, Anonymous is as old fashioned as technicolor. And this is why we need Emmerich, whether we want him or not. Digital was around for almost a decade before major studios bought into it. So while films like Thomas Vinterberg's The Celebration, Pedro Costa's In Vanda's Room, Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later... and Mann's Miami Vice began breaking ground and discovering new means of expression, most directors with studios writing their paychecks had to wait until it was safe to go in the water and thus lost many year's worth of getting comfortable in the form. By the time digital was fit for public consumption, it had evolved several generations and no longer resembled the wonderfully crude first wave. There were few people who truly understood what the newest cameras being designed meant for the state of cinema, and even fewer who could afford and know how to use them.

There are many people at the forefront of the workflow revolution - Boyle, David Fincher, Steven Soderbergh, Robert Rodriguez - and they've adapted with the times, becoming post-modernists and futurists thanks to what computerized non-linear editing allows them to do. When a director can edit a scene minutes after shooting it, that inevitably effects the way they shoot. The little details vanish, the bare essentials rise. It may seem like a small thing, but so few people ever walk from one room to another in English-language cinema.

As in the films of the Japanese new wave of the 1960, if Soderbergh or Boyle want you to experience something, you are in the thick of that scene. No set-up, no superfluous exposition. Just you and the actors getting to the bottom of it. Emmerich, whatever his failings, hasn't forgotten the rules of classical cinema, the importance of establishing bodies in a space with definitive boundaries. Look at the number of Die Hard knock-offs released this year? How many remembered that 90% of Die Hard takes place in the Nakatomi Plaza? How many have as keen an understanding of the space they occupy as White House Down, Emmerich's return to his expensively upholstered wheelhouse?

As exciting and important as it is to see what artists like Soderbergh, Boyle and Fincher can do with new technology, they're also free to invent their own narrative and editorial rules. Emmerich has to play by old rules because he never learned new ones. So what we see in White House Down is theory and practice coined by Soderbergh, Mann and Fincher applied (often unsuccessfully) to what might be the world's most popular artistic idiom - the big budget action film.

Emmerich can't or won't evolve and so has to reconcile a distinctly 90s skillset and attitude with still-evolving technology, so the shortcomings of both are plainly apparent. White House Down would be an ordinary action film, except that it sits squarely at the artform's crossroads. It wants to be part of a new cinematic mindset but understands the importance of establishing characters in their environs and quietly getting to know them before the explosions begin. It wants to be solid, clear and legible but it's written in ink that hasn't dried yet so the director keeps smudging what he's just written. The problems inherent in White House Down will be solved very soon because they need to be in order to rediscover classicism after the death of celluloid. Emmerich's films have become mine canaries.

Those problems include but aren't limited to: punches don't hit as hard as they used to, though this could simply be a failure of sound design, another issue. The Alexa, perfect for capturing motivated light in Anonymous or, say stylized low-light in something like Drive, overcompensates in ordinary electric lighting on a sunny day, giving everything a too-perfect sheen, highlighting the plasticity of everything in the movie. No longer bound by the substantiality of image, bodies move too quickly for their own good and Emmerich can't quite keep up with them; his actors often seem in danger of accidentally wriggling out of the frame. To combat this he resorts to too much slow-motion, which no longer works thanks to the high resolution and the flattening of planes. Slowing down the action feels like a denial of inevitable impact, a cheat, rather than a prolonging of an adrenaline rush. And, as in Brian De Palma's Mission: Impossible, another film obsessed with surveillance that attempts to bend the physical world, the interiors and exteriors don't always play well together; nothing kills momentum like an obvious green-screen.

As a test case for new theory on the old blockbuster model, White House Down has birth defects but Emmerich is too good at this to let a ludicrous screenplay and limitations he's only just discovering get in the way. On top of its showcasing new ground for the medium, it's also easily his most fun American movie since Independence Day.

What may end up making all the difference is that in Channing Tatum, he's finally found a hero that the American public cares about. Tatum has quietly become one of the country's most reliable box office draws in the last five years and until discovering him, Emmerich's major American releases have wanted badly for his kind of charisma. Gawky nebbishes like Jake Gylenhaal, Jeff Goldblum, James Spader, Matthew Broderick and John Cusack have either had to carry their respective films or await rescue from more traditional, less fun heroes. Tatum, meanwhile is someone many directors have availed themselves of to investigate motion in digital photography, like a 21st century Muybridge subject. He's all muscle yet capable of melting into a hip-roll at a moment's notice.

Soderbergh used him ably as a sleepy-eyed killer in Haywire and an angsty stripper in Magic Mike, putting his lithe physicality to work both rhythmically and arrhythmically. In White House Down, he's combined those characters in one body, a modest action star fluidly sashaying up to borders that the filmmakers can't cross. His sense of humour is wry and self-deprecating, lifting the film out of self-seriousness. He keeps his emotions close to his bullet-proof vest yet projects immense vulnerability; in other words doing the job of two Emmerich protagonists. He's one of the few action heroes who can threaten to cry and make you hurt for him in the back row. Few actors are more adept at playing the modern alpha male and Emmerich found him not a moment too soon. Of course there's a chance that even with someone as winning as Tatum in the lead, White House Down isn't going to win Emmerich the prestige he's been denied all his life, but it just might boost his approval rating.