Z is for Zulu, isn’t it? Well, yes, unless it’s Z for Zachariah instead. Modern American post-apocalypse films are always interesting in terms of how they imagine the cataclysm, and how they tend to envisage the survivors as replicating the lost world of the pioneers; but Z for Zachariah is rather underpowered. It doesn’t really explain the background to the radiation poisoning that has left very few (possibly only two or three) alive – nor how it is that a secluded valley can be unaffected (its own aquifer??). The upshot of this is that much of the action plays out in a house which (conveniently for the production designer) looks literally untouched by any change at all, spick and span and with fruit in bowls on the tables. This normality, in the particular context, deprives the film of a sense of reality and peril.
This is despite a strong cast – Margot Robbie as Ann, Chiwetel Ejiofor as John, the other survivor she comes across; and Chris Pine as Caleb, a later interloper. There’s little overt drama, and more of a sense that it’s intended as some kind of religious parable; it’s less about a nostalgia for American self-reliance and more about a new Eden. Anne is a believer, the film’s title refers to a children’s book of bible stories called A for Adam, which nestles up against one by Billy Graham; there’s grace before meals (one of them featuring a Thanksgiving turkey) but no questioning of what kind of God it might be who has wiped out all of the rest of creation; John gets drunk, like many a biblical character. There’s a plot-point over whether to dismantle the church Anne’s father built in order to use the wood for a water-wheel – the eventual deconstruction upending the Western trope of building churches in the frontier settlements.
The real focus, though, is whether this modern-day Adam and Eve will procreate; John is biding his time, and when Caleb arrives he tells her that he is content for the two white believers to go at it (while confessing that he might have killed Anne’s brother to put him out of his radioactive misery). The emotional triangle is schematic and unengaging, and Anne’s oscillation between the two men is not very credible; the dénouement is confected, unconvincing, and unnecessarily delphic – but at least the water-wheel can power the fridge and the American dreamhouse is complete. Director Craig Zobel’s previous feature, Compliance, though flawed was rather better than this; his new one, The Hunt, has had mixed reviews.
My quiz question last time was which Z-film features not only vicuña as extras, but also a bandit called Vicuña. Not Zulu, of course – wrong continent. Following my slating of Years and Years in my last blog, I hope that it is typical of me that I am scathing about a popular success while urging you to watch instead something much more obscure.
Zama is a rather haunting Argentinian period drama from Lucrecia Martel, in two distinct parts; throughout, though, it is fragmentary, episodic, almost dream-like (occasionally with snatches of dialogue repeated). The first part seems deliberately to escape an organising structure, much as the protagonist Zama (lugubrious Daniel Giménez Cacho) feels out of control as an administrative magistrate in 17th or 18th century colonial South America (apparently Asunción), with others telling him he’s about to ship out, or that he has nothing to lose; his noble mistress avoiding and traducing him, his local mistress unwilling to produce a clean shirt for him and then dying; and unable to engineer his own transfer. This sense is underpinned by fixed-camera shots, with people flitting in and out of them (Buñuel-like at times, with those random vicuña in the background; the bandit Vicuña is in the background of the narrative). Life in the ridiculous colonial outpost becomes increasingly chaotic, with cholera seemingly doing the rounds; Zama’s own house is rotting, eaten away from the inside.
When, by writing a damning report on his assistant’s secret novel, he does persuade the Governor to write to the King requesting his transfer, it emerges that nothing will happen about that for at least a year or two; and then, perhaps two years on, the second part begins – Zama volunteers to go on a mission to kill Vicuña, who then turns out to be disguised as one of the men in the scouting party; they are all captured by Indians and some are mutilated; they are released and then Zama is held captive by Vicuña; and finally Zama is seen on a hypnotic last canoe ride, to a soundtrack inspired by Django Reinhardt, having lost his hands for explaining to Vicuña’s gang that fabled coconuts full of jewels do not exist. It is as if the futility and frustration of the middle-ranking colonial existence is succeeded by the desire to do something, whatever that may be; and with that ending in spectacular disaster. He sees himself punished for denying the gang hope, whereas in the first part it was the hope of change that was torturing him.
Don’t worry, I can do mainstream too. In Zero Dark Thirty, as in The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow manages the action very efficiently, keeping up the tension over what is a long story and a long film and despite our knowing from the start what will happen at the end; she achieves this only partially through the focus on the driven central character (nicely done by Jessica Chastain).
In films like Django Unchained the atrocities of the baddies are over-emphasised to justify the slaughter righteously visited upon them; here, the exploits of al-Qaeda are treated like facts of life, as is the torture – which is presented as quite extreme yet routine, hardly problematized nor rationalised nor defended: as if everyone involved had seen Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, in which Colonel Mathieu makes it clear that no holds can be barred if the French are to be serious about retaining their colony. Obama’s discontinuation of extreme methods is another fact of life; that those methods appear to have produced some of the essential information, that the discontinuation may have prolonged the chase, that the final assassinations are still horrific in their nonchalance and collateral damage – all of this is not brooded on, particularly.
Bigelow assembles a strong cast of essentially supporting actors around Chastain; Jennifer Ehle (forever Calypso from The Camomile Lawn for some of us); James Gandolfini (voicing the CIA ‘clusterfuck’ in terms familiar from Burn After Reading and Fantastic Mr Fox); Joel Edgerton from Animal Kingdom; Harold Perrineau (Michael from Lost); Mark Strong; John Barrowman; and Chris Pratt from Parks And Recreation, among other things.
In that other crowd-pleaser Zodiac it’s 1969 and a serial killer on the loose in San Francisco – he’s not called Scorpio, as in Dirty Harry (a film which the principals here go to see), but Zodiac; and it’s not Clint Eastwood as the cop in pursuit but the improbably named Mark Buffalo and also journos Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr playing Bernstein and Woodward from All The President’s Men – and indeed in the latter stages Gyllenhaal has to rely on Ruffalo and other deep throats. Then he is lured into a Psycho-like basement in this tale which is full of film references, the killer possibly inspired by The Most Dangerous Game.
Following the timeline results in a deliberately patchy dramatization. Fincher builds the tension and the action well at the start, and then lets it peter along – just as the interest in the code (an early projection on to the screens) is intermittent and the case itself goes cold over the years. The loss of trails is seen in part as being because of due process – deliberately compared with the unconventional Dirty Harry, both in terms of police procedure and cinematic approach. Tension builds again to the first prime suspect, then ebbs, and is finally only semi-resolved. All of this technique has been admirably used more recently in the TV series Mindhunter, which Fincher co-executive-produced and seven episodes of which he directed himself.
The first victims we see are classically transgressing – having illicit sex in an American film, particularly for youngsters, is as dangerous as putting on a red shirt and joining a landing-party in a Star Trek episode. There’s good support from the likes of Philip Baker Hall and Brian Cox, here not the killer he is in Manhunter, but a TV personality whose appearance in Star Trek’s And The Children Shall Lead is explicitly referenced; there’s also a good soundtrack.
Zombieland isn’t bad either. The Capitol is in flames – yes, it’s another apocalypse, symbolised as so often by the degradation of iconic American landmarks, as zombies take over the whole of the US. The film is knowing, but jolly; quite witty; silly at times, but also funny, as the apparent sole survivor (Jesse Eisenberg’s nerdy, phobic introvert Columbus, with his survival rules like always looking in the back seats before getting in a car) meets joyfully lethal Woody Harrelson as Tallahassee, perennially hunting for Twinkies to eat and luring zombies to their fate with tunes from Deliverance. They form an uneasy, off-and-on alliance with scam girls Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), on the way to a rather limp finale in the amusement park.
It’s a pity that it ends in a rather misfiring way, because along the line there are many likeable elements: Columbus introducing himself as ‘I’m just a Sancho Panza kind of character’; Tallahassee reminiscing about his puppy, with Puppy Love on the soundtrack; a hilarious Monty Python-like interpolated Zombie Kill-of-the-Week by Sister Cynthia Knickerbocker (‘poor flat bastard’, as a piano falls on the victim from an upper storey); a nice destruction scene in the Indian store, with stands toppling like the library bookcases in The Mummy; and the visit to Bill Murray’s mansion, complete with Bill himself, looking so much like a zombie (‘I like to blend in’) that Columbus kills him.
By contrast there is just one bit of Zoolander that’s worth watching – the inspired sequence where Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson morph into 2001-style monkeys in their frustration at being unable to turn on an iMac. The rest is almost uniformly unfunny. There are so-so cameos from Jon Voight (unable to show that he’s happy to see his son because ‘I’m a coalminer, not a professional film or television actor’) and David Duchovny; and Wilson isn’t bad, as Hansel. But Will Ferrell is sub-Billy Eichner; and the main problem is Ben Stiller in the title role as the stupid model brainwashed into trying to kill the (racistly portrayed) Prime Minister of Malaysia, whose crusade on slave labour threatens the fashion industry. The narrative is that Zoolander is a vacuous poser, but what we get is Stiller posing vacuously and thinking that people will find him funny, presumably on the basis of past success. You see this with, say, Jerry Lewis and Bill Murray in Hollywood films of different eras. The passing of time, especially, shows that whatever was modishly popular once is not enduringly funny now – and certainly not the (repeated) blacking-up.
It is really not a high-spot of David Bowie’s film career: other points of vague interest are the petrol station conflagration that recalls The Birds; and the use of Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Relax –despite its being the trigger for the assassination attempt they never quite dare to include audibly its risqué lyric. But it’s never a good sign when a director includes most of his family and as many as possible of his famous friends.
And so to Zulu. Cy Endfield had made three very watchable films in the late 1950s with Stanley Baker (Hell Drivers, Sea Fury, and Jet Storm (which has off-colour jokes about black passengers being Zulus)), and they collaborate here again – co-producing, and with Endfield directing and Baker starring alongside ‘introducing’ Michael Caine (although he’d been around in TV and films for nearly ten years, and can be spotted uncredited in earlier films like Carve Her Name With Pride, Danger Within, and The Day the Earth Caught Fire).
Although foregrounded by the aftermath of the previous dramatic massacre at Isandlwana, things take a little while to get going here – as if the bigger budget and the foreign location somehow required a more stately approach than in the action films that had made Endfield’s name, such as it was (blacklisted, he used a number of pseudonyms). The first half is notable for a very lengthy, titillating travelogue sequence around a Zulu mass-marriage ceremony, attended by Swedish missionary Jack Hawkins and his rather more Swedish daughter Ulla Jacobsson (the virginal wife in Ingmar Bergman’s sex-comedy Smiles of a Summer Night) who then flee to Rorke’s Drift for a rather tiresome sub-plot about thou shalt not kill/drink, as the preparations for the siege slowly ratchet up.
But the second half is indeed all-action (with the exception of a few more bits of ponderous slow camera-tracking), and Endfield carries this off well. It’s not undermined by how for most casualties death is improbably instantaneous from gunshot or spear or bayonet, and it’s well-staged, with the hundreds of African extras, and in particular the hand-to-hand action within the compound and its buildings. The blue sky and the red coats make for a handsome film against the South African backdrop, and it builds to a twisty climax, with the dawn sing-off between the two sides (Men of Harlech inspiring the resistance to the final assault); the apparent survival, with the officers surrounded by bodies and feeling sickness and shame; and the return of yet more hordes, only to salute and not massacre them; and the roll-call of the eleven VCs.
The interaction between the two officers is well done, Chard (Baker) claiming superiority and organising himself and the hitherto rather amateurish platoon well (noticing his hand trembling as he first loads his gun, like Tom Hanks with his water-bottle on the landing-craft in Saving Private Ryan); Bromhead (Caine) eventually also getting stuck in, moving past his initial rather foppish sense of entitlement (and casual racism). They enliven the solid British support which comes from the likes of Nigel Green (Major Dalby from The Ipcress File of the next year, which cemented Caine as a star after his breakthrough here), James Booth, the recognisable Glynn Edwards, Paul Daneman, and hatchet-faced Bernard Bresslaw-lookalike Neil McCarthy; with a more specifically Welsh contingent (although in reality the troop was apparently not very) – alongside compatriot Baker we have Richard Davies (Mr Price from Please Sir!), and Richard Burton narrating. There’s also Gary Bond from Wake in Fright, Samuel Beckett’s favourite actor Patrick Magee as the surgeon, and Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who later became a senior politician, playing his own ancestor Cetewayo.
It’s always interesting to see how films of various eras dealt with the politics of the history, and to measure that against what we would expect nowadays: here there’s a light touch from Endfield, with the heroics tempered by that sickness and shame; with the sense that the Zulus (and some of the locals who fought on the British side) are brave, and not savages; and with the men’s questioning why British soldiers are there at all (and the Boer wondering about their motives at the strategic level).
And your quiz question is not ‘surely, having done Z, he’s finished now?’ but rather, given that I’m going on to numbers next: what exactly is the symbol of the US First Infantry Division?
By Jem Whiteley